87. Sticky drama

In which there is a sad event, there is a happy event, and then there is a proposition.

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Iz

Here’s another post-watershed viewing alert for all you sensitive folk. Don’t leave this page unattended in the presence of minors. Just saying. And I know there has been naughtiness that I haven’t warned you about, but Matty and Lau are always at it in some form or another, so it’s just the major bits. You’re on your own for the minor indiscretions.

Matt

It was a few weeks later, a Saturday morning, early, the sun barely up, when I woke to a familiar sensation. The significance escaped me at first, lost in the fog of waking up, but with a gasp I realised what it was. I had a hard-on. One hundred per cent completely and fully hard. It felt bloody awesome, and I needed to tell someone. Oh, someone in particular, not just throw open the window and shout to the first person unfortunate enough to be walking by; that’s the sort of behaviour that precedes a visit from the local constabulary. No, I mean Lau, as I am sure you will have surmised.

You had to be careful waking Lau up, because if you did anything too suddenly, you jolted her into instant attack mode, so you had to be gentle and slow. I didn’t feel like being gentle and slow, but I made myself slip my arm softly round her waist, concentrating on the softness of the skin I could feel beneath the bottom of her sleep shirt. Then I started with some soft kisses just where her neck met her shoulder. She liked that, it made her go ‘mm’, and her ‘mm’ was so fucking sexy.

I could feel her begin to wake up and push back against me, saying ‘hi’ with her body, and I started to feel for her breasts, pushing my hips into her. I so wanted to do something productive with this hard-on, but I was worried that if Lau didn’t get going soon, it would go away, like all the preceding tingles and semis had. I was sure Lau would be able to feel it, I was pushing myself right up against her.

Laura

I was woken from a deep sleep by an arm round my waist and kisses at the crease of my neck. This wasn’t unusual, and I’d got used enough to it that it no longer startled me into full wakefulness, but it felt early for Matt. It also felt more urgent than usual, his hands feeling for my breasts and his hips pushing into me – and there was a little bit extra.

‘Good morning.’

‘Heh Lau. I got a hard-on. Woohoo.’

I smiled to myself, incredibly pleased, but knowing I needed to be nursey. I turned over and faced him.

Matt

I immediately kissed her hard, my tongue pushing its way into her mouth, holding her face against mine, pushing myself against her belly. I was hard – did I mention that? – and I could feel her along me, and it was so, so fucking awesome.

Laura

Matt had been experiencing more and more tingles over the past weeks, often accompanied by movement, and I was hopeful it meant a return of function that may mean a diminishing of his MS symptoms. His mobility and speech had certainly improved slightly, but neither of us had mentioned it. I knew what this meant to him, but also knew I was going to have to be the one who was sensible. I didn’t feel like being sensible, I wanted this almost as much as he did. But sensible I was going to have to be.

‘Remember what we talked about?.’

I ran my hand down his body, and felt him tremble. He could hardly think, he wanted it so much.

Matt

Lau ran her hand down my body, and it made me quiver. I was strung so tight I could hardly think, and I certainly wasn’t going to be remembering anything we had talked about that might be about to deny me what I so wanted to do.

‘I want yuh, Lau. Fuck what we said. I’m rehdy.’

I looked at her imploringly, hoping she could see how much I needed it, and it would change her mind.

Laura

I’d known this would be difficult.

‘We’re going to take it slowly. Only what we can both do, remember?’

Matt

She was infuriating. I felt like I was going to burst all over us both, and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted … well, I wanted to be in her, I wanted all of her, all of it, everything I hadn’t had, hadn’t been able to do up until now.

‘Lau, I’ve goh a hard-on the size of Apollo thirteen. I can do fucking anythihg.’

‘Well, let’s start slowly.’

So that didn’t mean no, did it, it meant let’s start slowly and then do it. We’d get there. Oh but I was so impatient, it could disappear at any second. And I suppose that was the point. God I hated it when Lau was right.

Lau ran her hand over my arse and carried on down my thigh. I sighed, it felt so good, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I kissed her again, tongue thrusting deep into her mouth, trying to show her what I wanted to do, what I knew I could do. She pushed me over onto my back, kissing me back, moving her hands down my chest and – oh, she was actually going there.

I felt her hands on my swollen dick through the fabric of my boxers, and it felt so good. She ran her hand along my erection and I moaned into her, as I thrust against her hand and ohh, just that little movement caused a deluge of fizzing sparks to pour along me from the tip of my cock, down into my balls, where they bubbled, waiting.

Lau moved her hands away, and I let a disappointed sound escape from me, but it was only so she could pull my boxers down and look at me, in all my glory. And it was glorious. I’m not being immodest, I’m not commenting on size, or girth, or any of that, but just the fact of it, lying there, hard and, OK, I’m going to use the word throbbing because that’s how it felt, well that made it glorious.

Laura

We both stared down at his erection, Matt looking almost impossibly proud of himself.

‘Impressive, flower.’

Matt

Oh, you just never get tired of hearing your girl say that, do you.

‘Bluhdy awesome. Never thought I was going tuh feel tha again.’

‘I think it deserves something special.’

Lau stroked a finger along its length, as I closed my eyes and groaned.

‘Oh yeh, Lau. Dohnt stop.’

Everything was heightened; even the slightest touch was driving me wild, and Lau was giving it her all. She kissed me quickly on the lips, then started kissing down my throat, stopping at my nipples to suck and tease, then continuing her journey downwards, and I could finally see where this was going.

Oh, Lau, you are just the best.

She carried on, past my navel and finally got to the head of my dick, where she licked and kissed it gently, taking just the head into her mouth, holding the base with her fingers. She was not a novice, and I held my breath as her tongue and lips ignited even more of the sparking desire.

‘Oh my fucking God, Lau, you’ve dohn this before.’

‘Mmm.’

The vibration of her voice as she held me in her mouth sent a shock wave through me and I couldn’t help thrusting upwards, which made her gag. She pulled away briefly, coughing a bit.

‘Oh fuck, sohry Lau. That was bluhdy ace.’

Lau didn’t say anything, but repositioned herself and licked me from base to tip, looking me in the eye the whole time, then took me in her mouth again, tongue working over the surface, sucking, licking and teasing.

Then, to my extreme disappointment, I felt it all start to ebb, the sparks and fizzing subsided and flowed away, and I went soft. I groaned again, but this time in frustration. Lau didn’t stop, though, and I loved her for showing me that a hard-on wasn’t the be all and end all for her, that she could give me pleasure without it. But eventually I just wanted to hold her, and I put my fingers in her hair and tugged gently to bring her back up into my arms. Lau had been spot on; I wouldn’t have lasted long enough for what I wanted to do.

‘Yuh are bluhdy annoyingly righ most of the time, Lau. How did yuh knoh?’

‘State secret. Only me and MI5 are allowed to know.’

‘Really? I bet ih’d be easier to get ih out of Stella Rimington than you. Oh, buh Lau, I had a hard-on. A real live hard-on. You were sucking me off an everything. Whoa.’

I pulled her to me, and then felt the emotion welling up in me. I was safe with Lau, I could be myself, show her how I was feeling, and I felt like crying. Having a hard-on was huge (emotionally, I’m still not giving details about the physical), and I needed to let it out.

Laura

He pulled me into a tight hug. I felt his body convulse, as he started to cry, and I held him tightly, stroking his hair, kissing the bits I could reach, shushing him. This sounds cheesy, but I really did feel so privileged that he felt he could cry with me, that I was his safe place. After a while, it subsided, and he relaxed his hold on me, pulling his head back and looking into my eyes.

Matt

‘Sohry, Lau. I thought tha was never gona happen again. I’m so relieved. You know … I feel like … I’ve been a bit better the last couple of weeks. Have yuh noticed?’

I hadn’t mentioned it before; had been scared to, in case it was nothing, or I was misreading things. But she nodded.

‘I didn’t want to say anything. Have you talked to Anna about it?’

So it wasn’t just my imagination; I could dare to dream this nightmare might be coming to an end.

‘No, seeing her Monday, though. Migh tell her about my hard-on.’

It was a significant enough event to tell Anna, but even though there was this pact of silence between them all, it wasn’t information I was going to risk being discussed at Lau’s work. And really, I was just trying to wind Lau up.

‘If you feel you must.’

‘Ih’s very important.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Will I hahv any more any time soon?’

‘Who knows? Does it feel likely?’

‘Oh, I hate ih when yuh do tha reflecting back shit. OK, I’ll play ih your way. Ih feels to me like I’ve been getting more tingles and more movement, and now, finally, I’ve got the big one. Ih didn’t last long, buh, yeh, ih feels likely.’

‘Good.’

‘An now, Laura Louise Shoeman, ih’s time tuh fulfil my side of the bargain.’

‘What side of which bargain?’

‘The bargain tha says you only geh what I geh. An I just got one hell of a blow-job. On yuhr back.’

I had been waiting for weeks for a chance to do this again, but Lau had stuck to her ‘above the waist for both of us’ guns, in the main. Now, however, it seemed that she had been waiting as eagerly as I had, as she rolled onto her back and spread her legs.

‘Whoa, you’re ready, aren’t yuh.’

‘Like you wouldn’t believe. I remember the last one. This one had better be as awesome.’

And I guess that was the start of it, the big recovery. It took longer than before, and the bastard MS had lasted longer than before, even though I hadn’t had a life-threatening complication to create mischief with my ability to be a normal person. But once I started to get better, once it all began to piss off from whence it came, it was like it just rolled away, and every week I could do more. I could go a whole day without falling asleep, I could talk without people surreptitiously smelling my breath for hints of beer, I could get up the stairs to my flat without having to hold on to the rail for dear life and above all, the best thing, I could make love to Lau.

I don’t usually call it ‘making love’, it seems like a poncey metaphor for sex. But with Lau, although my increasingly frequent hard-ons hadn’t yet made it to shaggable timescales, we could do enough with each other that it really did feel like we were getting closer, showing each other how much we loved each other.

Oh, I know I seem like I’m completely obsessed with sex, as if I was, oh I don’t know, an unstoppable shag monster or something. I guess I did, do, think about it a lot, but at that time it was my marker for how much of a fucking cripple I was, and when I started getting it back, I felt like I was getting me back.

Lau had warned me that things might change between her and me, the balance of things might shift, when I started getting better, but she was so considerate, so thoughtful, so bloody stubborn, that it didn’t happen.

It wasn’t as if when we met she decided I needed taking care of; if she had, we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. She did, and does, take care of me, but I like to think I’ve done my share of taking care of her over the years, OK, maybe not equally, she is Lau, and she is remarkably fucking amazing, after all. But there was never an imbalance, at the start, that had to be redressed when I started needing less help, and so, to go back to my original point, when we were in bed together, or on the sofa, or the floor, or against the wall, it really felt like we were making love, like this thing between us was growing even deeper, even more incredible.

It wasn’t just having a working dick that improved. Being able to stay awake and functional for longer periods meant that I could start to do things I did before, and had been missing a lot.

I took Cal to see Raiders, which he was delighted about as it meant he no longer had to sit with the juniors, but could lord it over his mates by sitting in the family seats.

I started to feel like I might be able to handle work again, and contacted Phil to talk about the next step there.

I got out and about, not driving yet, not trusting my wayward nervous system; nearly running that bloke over on the zebra crossing had really put the wind up me, and I thought it might be a long time before I was willing to risk it. However, I tried a bit of non-strenuous hiking with Lau, which nearly killed her and proved to me that as unfit as I thought I had become with my enforced immobility, she really was at the nadir of fitness, despite being a healthy woman without a fucking bastard neurological disease. It cheered me up no end to see her red-faced and sweating after climbing a fairly moderate hill, and I decided we could embrace our fitness levels together. Lau wasn’t keen but agreed, only if I went with her to see Michael Buble.

It was a close thing, I nearly refused, but it was a one off and I made her promise no one would find out or it was deal off. She kept the promise until the day after, when she posted photos all over Facebook, and my shame was known. That meant several steeper hills for Lau, but she was unrepentant.

Lau and Mum were like co-conspirators. Lau would often come with me when I went to see Mum and not only because I needed her to drive me there; I was more than capable of getting the bus. She even went round without me, to do odd bits and pieces that she knew Mum couldn’t do so well herself but wouldn’t ask anyone, like some of the ironing that she noticed had got a bit out of hand, or taking a few bits of shopping that Mum had mentioned she hadn’t been able to get. They must have talked about me when I wasn’t there, because I would often be on the receiving end of the odd comment from Lau.

‘So tell me about your Star Wars collection, then.’

‘I don’t have a Star Wars collection.’

‘No, not now, but apparently you had an extensive one when you were younger, and used to polish the boxes once a week.’

This was said with an impish smile and a tilt of the head.

‘I did not pohlish the boxes.’

‘Really?’

‘Noh. I dusted the boxes.’

‘Ah. Huge difference. What happened to them all, though?’

Martin kicked them into tiny pieces, that’s what happened to them. I had stopped mourning them a long time ago.

‘Why, would yuh like me tuh rekindle my interest?’

‘Well of course that’s up to you. But I always wanted to know why you guys keep things in boxes. Aren’t they easier to play with out of the box?’

‘Lau, Lau, Lau. Yuh don’t know anything, do yuh? Yuh don’t play with Star Wars collectables. Yuh just … collect them.’

‘Why?’

‘Same way yuh collect shoes.’

‘I wear my shoes.’

‘Noh yuh don’t, not all of them. I’ve seen shoes in boxes in yuhr wardrobe you’ve never worn.’

This was a complete guess but, from the outraged look on her face, an accurate one.

‘You’ve been rifling through my wardrobe?’

‘Ha ha, noh Lau, but yuh jus told meh it’s true.’

‘Oh you.’

I got a cuff on the arm, and was starting to build up quite a collection of those, too. Lau was deliciously easy to tease; she always believed me when I said something the first time, and sometimes I could lead her down the garden path for quite a while before she cottoned on. The further I led her, the harder the cuff, and rightly so.

Although the rugby season was well underway, there was still the occasional full-on Sunday lunch at Jay and Beth’s when circumstances prevailed, and Lau and I were regulars whatever the guest list. When I was with Jules, I hadn’t always gone, and when I had, I’d often gone on my own, to a barrage of questions. I loved going with Lau, who got on with everyone, who everyone liked and, more importantly, now trusted.

To start with there had been a bit of an unspoken kind of trial period, where people were wondering if she was up to something untoward, or if I was being foolishly impetuous, but Lau won them over, and once she’d met everyone a few times, I think they could see that although it had been quick, it was real; that although we were still getting to know each other, there was something deep there.

It really felt like, although we had jumped into this mad thing that was Lau and Matt with both feet, declared deep feelings inconceivably early, and then got to know each other properly, that whatever we’d found out, whatever had been revealed, it wouldn’t have mattered.

That’s the thing with soulmates, it’s the recognition. And although I didn’t change my stance on supernatural, paranormal or religious experiences, I did notice my opinions towards things like ‘karma’ changing, and I was less likely to take the piss out of people who stated that ‘the universe’ knew what it was doing. Maybe I was starting to believe that; not that there was a supreme being with a plan for us all, I didn’t believe that, but that somehow, maybe it was Jung’s collective unconscious, things happened for a reason, that there is a person shaped hole inside all of us, and sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we meet the person who fits it.

That’s how it felt with Lau. She fitted the space inside me, and I fitted her space, and getting to know each other after that was just the icing on the cake, rather than the list of pros and cons that led to a decision. The decision had already been made, and we were just filling it out with details.

We were certainly very different, in outlook, personality and tastes. It didn’t cause arguments, although it caused teasing, because it just felt like more to explore about each other. If we’d been the same, we would have had less to talk about, but as it was, we hardly seemed to stop talking.

Laura

As the weeks went on, things steadily improved for Matt. His mobility and speech continued to get better, and his energy levels increased. He began to have more erections, which were more sustained, and although he was hard to hold back, he seemed to accept going slowly. He was better at saying when he was getting tired, too, and the aftermath of Sunday lunch was less of an ordeal. He started to talk about going back to work, and had an appointment with his firm’s occupational health advisers. I understood that his contract had always been flexible to take into account possible health fluctuations; he was really lucky, he would be able to slot back in as and when he was able to.

Matt and Mum got on like a house on fire. She even let the odd swear word pass without comment, especially if Matt was apologetic enough afterwards and made out he hardly ever used bad language. Mum wasn’t an idiot, and had would have had enough conversations with Carol by now to know what was what, but seemed to appreciate an effort was being made.

I loved being part of Matt’s family. The Sunday gatherings weren’t usually as full-on as that first one had been, and we didn’t always go, but I was beginning to feel like I belonged. Matt and I had also looked after all of the children together, at various times, and I loved being with them all. Bastien was tiny and cute, Charlie was just developing her own wilful personality, Iz was a bundle of energy demanding constant attention and entertainment, and Cal was a teenager-in-waiting, one minute whining and complaining, and the next playing silly games with us. We had been out several times with Dec and Amy. They were younger than Matt and me, but they were very easy company, and Amy and I had struck up a friendship.

Work had settled down a bit after the falling out with Rachel. We still didn’t really talk much, but she didn’t completely ignore me, and the team balance had righted itself. It was hard not to ask Anna what was going on with Matt. I knew he told me most of it, but also knew he needed to keep some things to himself, to have a part of him that was just his. I never pressed either of them for information, and knew that Matt would tell me the important stuff, and Anna wouldn’t tell me anything. Occasionally I’d come into the office and the conversation would stop dead, and I’d know that they’d been talking about Matt, either professionally or having a good gossip. It made me feel a bit outside of things, but it was a small price to pay.

Matt and I started to talk in very general terms about moving in together. I spent most of my evenings and nights at his flat, and hardly spent any time in my house, except to grab clothes every now and then. It seemed a bit of a waste, but part of me was reluctant to give up my house. It was the first house that was mine – or partly mine, mostly the bank’s – and I was attached to it; I had put down a deposit with money my dad left me after he died. But Matt and I were starting to feel permanent, and it was going to have to go eventually. His flat was much nicer, and it made sense. We hadn’t made any decisions, just floated the idea, and as neither of us had freaked out, it seemed like it was going to happen one day.

Matt

It wasn’t long before it became apparent that it would be more sensible to live together. We didn’t even talk about it, as in one of us bringing the subject up in some kind of momentous way, and I can’t remember which one of us dropped it into the conversation first, but it would go something like this:

‘I’m just popping home to get that CD.’

‘Bollocks, weh forgot. Sorry, meant tuh remind yuh.’

‘I need to pick up my post anyway.’

‘Don’t forget yuhr jumper.’

‘Oh yeah. God, it’ll be so much easier when we’re both in one place.’

Me: So not freaking out.

Or

‘I rehly like yuhr house, why don’t we come here more often?’

‘Because it’s easier for me to just flop at yours after work than drive back over here and worry about you getting home the next day. Your place is nicer, too.’

‘Buh you’re paying bills fuh shit you’re not using.’

‘Yeah, but it’s only the fridge-freezer really.’

‘Wha abouh water, an council tax, and mortgage? Be easier if we jus shared everything, all in one place.’

‘I know, flower. We should think about it, shouldn’t we.’

Me: Still not freaking out, and I’d been the one to bring it up.

But we didn’t get round to it, not for a while, and in the meantime, I recovered a lot, started walking and talking almost like a normal person, picked up babies without being worried I was going to drop them on their heads, and started staying up late. Sometimes it was ten thirty before I went to bed, and I could still give Lau a bloody good feel up before I went to sleep. I was a human miracle.

So summer became autumn, and I was well and truly on my feet. Still bloody knackered if I overdid it, but was getting better at judging it, and didn’t crash like I used to, just got weary and needed to sleep it off.

I’d been to talk to work’s Occupational Health woman, and we’d wondered about me going back after Christmas, a few hours a week only, to see how it went. It was a major boost to my confidence, as I’d been off work for eight months already, and needed to be earning my keep and paying my way.

I’d been to watch Raiders with Cal a few times, which was another thing that increased my self-esteem. Cal could be a pretty grouchy kid at times, but the look on his face when I offered to take him for the first time in months, how pleased he was, well it meant a lot to me.

One Saturday in November, I’d left Lau at my flat for the afternoon, as she had declined to come with us, being a complete sporting duffer; I caught the bus over to Jay’s place to collect Cal. I knew he liked it better when we parked in the official Raiders car park, where the players parked, where Jay could get us a pass to park, but until I was up to driving, it was the bus for us.

I quite liked going by bus, as we travelled with other supporters, and walked into the ground with other supporters, and had conversations with them without them knowing who we were, as if we were normal fans rather than family of Jay Scott, and I kind of wanted Cal to get that too, that although he enjoyed the privileged position of being son of the coach, there was a lot to be said for just enjoying watching as a civilian.

We’d been to the club shop to get a car sticker, bought pasties and chips once we got through the turnstiles, taken our seats, read the programme, watched the players warm up and joined in the cheering contest when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket.

Laura

Matt had taken Cal to the rugby and I was at Matt’s flat, thinking about making something for dinner, when my phone rang. It was Amy.

‘Hi flower.’

‘Lau, sorry, I’ve tried to get hold of Beth but her phone’s off. Is there any way you could have Charlie for a bit?’

She sounded upset.

‘Of course. What’s happened?’

‘My … dad’s … they’ve just …’ her words turned to sobs.

‘Oh Amy. I’ll be right there.’

I grabbed my bag and ran down to my car, driving across the city as fast as I could. I knew Amy had an uneasy relationship with her dad; he hadn’t approved of her and Dec not being married when they had Charlie, and had been less than impressed when they announced they were expecting another baby soon after she was born.

When I arrived outside Dec and Amy’s house, she was waiting at the door, coat on, car keys in hand. Her face was puffy and her eyes were red.

‘Oh Amy, what’s happened?’

‘Dad’s in hospital, he’s collapsed, they don’t think …’ she started to cry again.

‘Oh flower, you can’t drive like this. Let me take you. Is the car seat in your car?’

She nodded. I took the keys from her and got the seat out of the car, then quickly put it in mine while she got Charlie. Ten minutes or so later we were outside the hospital.

‘You go in, I’ll take Charlie to Matt’s. We’ve got some of her things there. Has she had her lunch?’

‘Yeah, she’s fed and changed. Lau, can you make sure Dec knows? He’ll come and pick her up later, after the game. Oh, and Beth, if you can get hold of her.’

‘Of course. Will you be OK on your own?’

She nodded, more tears rolling down her face.

‘Mum’s there, we’ll be OK. Thanks Lau.’

I took her hand briefly, then she got out and I drove away.

When I got to Matt’s flat with Charlie, I texted Dec, although I knew his phone would be off this close to the start of a game. I called Matt, unsure if he would hear the ringer.

Matt

I took my phone out, expecting to hit ‘decline’, but it was Lau. She wouldn’t be calling unless it was important, and a tiny shiver of worry went through me.

‘Heh, Lau. Changed your mind? Bet you wish you were here now.’

‘No. Matt, Amy’s dad’s in hospital. I’ve brought Charlie here.’

‘Shit. Is he OK?’

‘Well, no, he’s in hospital. Amy didn’t know much. She wanted me to tell Dec, and I’ve sent a text, but can you find him after the game? Charlie’s fine here, isn’t she, we’ve got loads of her stuff, nappies and things, from before.’

‘Yeh, you know where ih is, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I’ve found it all.’

‘Do you want me to come back?’

I knew she’d be perfectly alright on her own with Charlie, they always had a great time together, but it would be a few hours before I was home if I stayed until the end of the game, and she was going to be with someone else’s baby in someone else’s home.

Laura

Truthfully, I would have liked Matt to come back, but he loved taking Cal to watch the rugby, and I knew Cal would be upset to miss it, especially as they were already there.

‘No, I’ll be fine, Charlie’s no trouble. Don’t disappoint Cal, it’s the first time you’ve taken him for ages. I’ll ring Beth.’

Matt

I was relieved, as Cal really would not have enjoyed having to leave before kick-off, but it was going to be hard to concentrate on the game while I was worrying about Amy.

‘Thanks Lau. Let me know if yuh hear anything.’

‘OK. See you later.’

I disconnected and turned the ringer up to full volume. Cal was looking at me, scowling.

‘Why have we got to go?’

‘Weh haven’t mate, but I’m keeping an ear out for my phone. Amy’s dad’s not well an Lau’s got tuh look after Charlie.’

Cal’s face took on the appeased expression of someone who had been about to have a major strop but had heard good news at the last minute. He didn’t know Amy’s dad, and he was only just about to turn eleven, so he didn’t really care about the status of some stranger’s health.

‘So we’re staying here.’

He needed to double check I wasn’t going to whisk him away. I was fairly sure I wouldn’t have to.

‘Yeh, Cal. Lau wants us to find Dec after the game so weh can tell him. His phone’s off.’

That cheered Cal up. Usually I made him wait for the players to come up to the supporters’ bar, like everyone else had to, but if we were going to have to look for Dec straight after the game, it meant going past the stewards and the kudos that entailed.

Laura

I called Beth.

‘Hello Laura. How are you?’

‘Hi Beth. I don’t know if you’ve picked up Amy’s messages?’

‘No, I’ve only just turned my phone on, it’s been charging.’

‘She was trying to get hold of you. Her dad’s been taken into hospital. I’m looking after Charlie here at Matt’s. She just wanted you to know.’

‘Oh no, poor Amy. Is she OK?’

‘No, she was in a bit of a state. But her mum was there already, they can look after each other.’

‘What happened to her dad?’

‘She didn’t really know much, but he collapsed at home and she thought it didn’t sound good.’

‘Ohh.’ There was a silence. It wasn’t that long since Beth’s dad had died, and although she seemed fine in her own brisk Beth way, it would be natural if situations like this brought up strong emotions. I heard Beth take a breath and imagined her straightening herself up and shaking away whatever thoughts had momentarily frozen her. ‘I don’t suppose she’s been able to get hold of Dec.’

‘I’ve asked Matt to find him after the game.’

‘I’ll leave a message for James and get him to call me later. Bloody rugby – the whole world stops while it goes on. Thank you, sweetheart. Do you need any help with Charlie?’

I noticed the ‘bloody’ which was unusual for Beth and told me how upset she was, and the ‘sweetheart’, which was reserved for family, and felt a secret flush of pleasure.

‘No, I’m fine, we’ve got everything we need here. It’s only for a few hours.’

Matt

The game was exciting, as Raiders games usually were, but even more exciting was feeling my jeans fill with a swelling hard-on half way through the first half. I mean, inconvenient or what, but it felt awesome. I covered it up with the match programme and tried to think Anne Widecombe thoughts, but it didn’t go away until nearly the end of half time. It was the best one yet, and I was convinced that the next one would be the one that would kick-start Matt Scott Superstud into his new one-woman-only phase. Eventually it subsided and I could stop feeling so conspicuous, but I looked forward to being with Lau that evening so we could try to coax it back.

What with that and thinking about having to find Dec afterwards to impart some unhappy tidings, I wasn’t really concentrating on the match, but it went on without my full attention anyway.

The game ended, with a Raiders win by one point, and we headed off as soon as the final whistle went to find Dec, who would still be in the changing room having the team de-briefing. We made our way past several stewards and security people, most of them recognising Cal as Jay’s son, some of them recognising me as Jay’s brother, and were escorted to the door of the changing room by Bill, the Head Steward, who greeted Cal like a mate.

‘Cal! Haven’t seen you for ages. Still playing on the wing for the juniors?’

‘Yep.’

‘Scored any tries recently?’

‘I got one in training last week.’

‘Good lad. Right, I’ll just give them a knock, might take a while to answer, Mr Barker usually likes to have a bit of a chat after the game.’

He tapped on the door, and we waited.

‘I only knock once. They know I’m here, but you can’t interrupt Mr Barker. They’ll answer in good time.’

From what I knew of Don Barker, who I’d met a few times, the worst you’d get would be a raised eyebrow if you did interrupt, but sometimes that kind of low-key approach earned you more respect than a bollocking. It wasn’t long before the door was opened by one of the conditioning coaches.

‘Alright, Bill?’

‘These two gentlemen need to speak to Mr Summers.’

The coach looked at me blankly, then at Cal, and recognised him.

‘Oh, hey Cal. Shall I get your dad?’

I spoke before he could shut the door.

‘Actually, could yuh get Dec, please? Amy’s been trying to get hold of him, ih’s pretty urgent.’

I became more important to him as he realised I knew Dec, and Bill the security guard and Cal gave me added authority.

‘Oh, OK mate, I’ll get him.

The door closed, and Cal and I stood looking at Bill for a few moments before it opened again, to reveal Dec. He was already changed, was carrying his kit bag and was putting his phone in his pocket. He looked pale.

‘Hey Matt. Alright, Cal?’

‘Dec, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Amy’s been trying to get hold of yuh.’

‘Yeah, I know, Beth left messages, and I’ve just called. I’m going there now.’

‘How are things?’

‘Not sure. Better go, mate.’

I patted him on the shoulder and he started to walk off, then turned round and spoke as he walked backwards down the corridor.

‘Oh, Ames said Lau’s got Charlie at your place?’

I nodded.

‘I’ll come and get her later.’

‘OK. We can have her all nigh if you need ih.’

He nodded.

‘OK. Here’s the key in case you need any of her stuff.’

Dec pulled a key off his key ring and tossed it to me, and I was impressed with myself when I caught it.

‘Cheers mate. Appreciated.’

He turned and jogged away down the corridor.

The door opened again, and Jay stood there.

‘Hey Matty.’

Jay put his hand on Cal’s head and ruffled his hair.

‘Sorry tuh interrupt your debrief, buh I was supposed to tell Dec about Amy’s dad.’

‘Yeah, sorry, Beth left me about twenty messages on my phone, and also contacted everyone she could think of at the club. I’m surprised she didn’t get it announced over the tannoy – ‘Would Mr Declan Summers please report to the ticket office where he has an urgent message’, just as he was about to score or something.’

‘Yeh, we jus saw him. He looked a bit shocked.’

‘Thanks anyway, Matty. Cal, do you want to come home with me?’

He did, of course, because that meant spending time with the players that his mates didn’t. He was probably going to be allowed in the changing room now.

‘S’pose.’

But there was no way he was going to appear enthusiastic about it.

‘If you want to hang around, I’ll drop you home too, Matty.’

‘No, tha’s OK, I’ll get the bus. Lau’s looking after Charlie, I should make sure she’s alright.’

‘Thanks for bringing Cal today. What do you say, Cal?’

Cal rolled his eyes, hating to be reminded of his manners like a small child.

‘Thanks Matty.’

He mumbled as incoherently as he could get away with and didn’t look me in the eyes. Luckily I was a similarly ungrateful bastard in my turn, so knew that he appreciated it really.

‘Noh problem Cal. Chips an pasty on you nex time?’

He grinned, and his whole face changed, in that mercurial way that kids have from the age of ten to about, oh, thirty-five in my case.

I caught a bus from the stadium, frustrated by the length of the queue I had to wait in, and finally got home about six, having texted Lau to say I was on my way. It would be so much easier if I drove, things like emergencies would be a lot more manageable and I wouldn’t have to rely on the quirky bus routes that ran through the city. Maybe I should just do it; I hadn’t had a spasm for ages.

I opened the door to the flat and peered into the living room. Lau was sitting on the sofa, with Charlie asleep next to her.

‘Hey Lau. How’s ih been?’

‘Fine, she’s been asleep for the last hour or so. Any word from Amy?’

‘No. I managed to find Dec, but Beth had already called Jay and got him tuh pass the message on. He went straight there, he said he’ll come and geh Charlie as soon as he can. I said we can have her for the nigh if we need to. I’ve got their key, we can go and pick stuff up.’

‘Of course.’

‘Hey, beautiful, how’s the sleepy girl? Have you behaved fuh Lau?’

I bent over her, all tucked up on the sofa, and softly kissed her forehead. She stirred and moved her arms, but didn’t wake up. I looked at Lau and smiled.

‘She’s soh cute when she’s asleep.’

‘I know. Shame they have to wake up sometimes.’

It was what people always said, but I knew Lau loved kids and could entertain them endlessly.

‘You don’t mean tha.’

I wagged a finger at her, our mutual desire for children one of the unspoken constant connections between us.

‘No, I don’t.’

She grinned mischievously.

‘Do you want some dinner? Or did you have pasty and chips again?’

‘I had pasty an chips, kind of a ritual, buh how about dinner now? I’m starving.’

And I loved cooking for Lau, especially when she’d done something awesome for my mate.

‘OK, but I haven’t made anything.’

‘I’ll do some pasta. Chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms?’

As I suggested it, I started getting things together, ingredients from the fridge and the cupboards, pans, spoons.

‘Mm, sounds yummy. Oh, did they win?’

‘Wha?’

I’d nearly forgotten where I’d been.

‘Oh, Raiders, yeah. Dec scored a try, so Cal was pleased. He likes showing off tuh his mates. I was thinking about yuh all game.’

‘Yeah, right, and not thinking about thirty hefty blokes beating each other to pieces at all.’

I grinned at her.

‘No, jus you. Got another boner. Had to let ih go, though. Match programme not big enough to hide it.’

‘You’re on top form this week, flower.’

She was right. If we’d been counting, that would have been six. Not that we were counting. Maybe I was. Lau might have been. We didn’t have a chart or anything, though. That would just have been sad. Perhaps there was a kind of a chart in my head. Just a little one.

‘I know. Yuh never know, might come back later. Next time, Lau –’

I pointed at her, using the knife I was holding, but only in a gesticulating way, and not intended to threaten,

‘– I’m having my own way. No more of this waiting bollocks. Yuhr having a good Scottying, like ih or not.’

Lau raised her eyebrows at me, but didn’t say anything. I wondered if she thought it was time, too. To be honest, I wasn’t taking no for an answer any more. I’d been patient and sensible, listened to my body rather than just my libido, and I knew I was ready. Really ready, rather than just eager. Bloody eager, though. Bloody, bloody eager.

Laura

Being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I could wait any longer either. There was only so long I could be sensible and nursey before Lusty Lau took over.

Matt

Dinner didn’t take long to make, and just as we finished loading the dishwasher, Charlie woke up. Immediately after she started crying, the door buzzer went, and it was Dec, still looking pale, with added stressed and unhappy on top.

‘Hey mate. How’s it going?’

‘Ames’ dad died.’

He looked haunted, and I could only imagine the memories it was bringing back for him.

‘Oh no. Shit. Sorry. How is she?’

‘Broken. Just in bits. I hate seeing her like that. Hey Lau.’

He looked at Lau, and then at Charlie, who Lau was holding and trying to shush.

‘Hey lovely girl.’

Charlie’s tears stopped when Dec spoke to her, and she held out her arms to him. Dec took her and held her close, looking near to tears himself.

‘Poor Amy. Where is she now?’

‘I took her home, Diane’s going to stay with us for a bit.’

‘Bad luck, mate.’

I knew Dec didn’t think much of Amy’s mum, but they got on better than they used to.

‘Yeah, well, she’s a bit hard going sometimes, but she can’t go home at the moment. I might have to go over and clear up. Apparently he keeled over in the kitchen, hit his head, made a bit of a mess.’

‘We’ll help. Leh us know. Lau’s good with blood.’

It felt good to be able to offer to help someone out for a change.

‘Actually, mate, that’d be great. Wasn’t looking forward to being there on my own. I was going to go over tomorrow morning, get some things for Diane. Thanks. Oh fuck.’

I saw Dec’s face crumple, and he sat down suddenly as tears rolled down his face.

‘Sorry, I don’t know why it’s upset me so much. I should be over all this by now, it just brings it all back. I didn’t even like Jack, he was a wanker who made Ames’ life a misery. She’s so cut up though. Sorry, Charlie-girl, shouldn’t talk about your grampa like that.’

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Things like this were always going to affect Dec, I imagined. Losing both your parents when you’re thirteen isn’t something you are ever likely to forget, or get over, or recover from, even though Dec was just about as sorted a bloke as you could hope to meet. There were always going to be times like this when it felt so close to what happened to him that it tore at him again. And when something hurts the woman you love, it hurts you too. I sat next to Dec and put an arm round his shoulders.

‘Ah mate, ih’s always gona be there for you. Shit like this will always bring stuff back. Look at us – four people, only one dad between us. Life’s a bitch. Make the mos of him, beautiful.’

I unhooked my arm from around Dec and stroked Charlie’s forehead. Dec straightened, nodded and took a deep breath.

‘Got to pull myself together, can’t do this in front of Ames. Thanks mate. Are you sure you’re both OK for tomorrow morning?’

Lau and I both nodded.

‘Probably the earlier the better. Ten OK?’

‘Fine. We’ll meet you there.’

It would be a miracle if Dec managed to get out of the house before eleven, let alone across the city by ten, but I suppose this could be deemed to be an exceptional circumstance. Dec stood up, hoisting Charlie onto his shoulder and wiping his eyes.

‘Come on then lovely girl, let’s go and cheer Mummy up. Bye Matt, bye Lau.’

I saw him to the door, closed it behind him and turned to Lau, noticing as I did so how sad she looked, and I remembered her dad with a mental kick to myself. Possibly the last thing she needed to be doing was clearing up after Jack Wright, especially considering everything I had just been thinking about past events never really leaving you.

‘Oh, Lau. I didn’t think about your dad. Are yuh OK?’

She nodded, and I saw that she was upset, but she’d managed to put it away in that place she had where she could put shit like this. It was something to do with her work; she had to detach herself from everyone’s sadness so she could do her job without breaking down every five minutes, and she got good support at work to help her deal with it. She was pretty up front about confronting her own shit, and I knew if she felt she needed to talk about it she would do, either with me or someone else she could confide in.

Laura

I was obviously upset for Amy, and seeing Dec lose it a bit was emotional, but I dealt with difficult emotions every day at work, and had learned how to portion parts of me off so it didn’t affect me too much.

‘It is very similar to what happened with Dad, but I’m OK.’

Matt joined me on the sofa, putting an arm over my shoulder and pulling me close.

Matt

‘Will you be alright tuh go tomorrow morning? I can go on my own if you want.’

‘No, it’ll be fine. I think Dec will need people there, if only so we can strong arm him out of the room if it gets too much for him.’

‘Ha ha, I’d like to see tha. I think it’d take more than me an you tuh beat Dec in a fight. You haven’t seen him on a rugby pitch, have you. He’s an animal.’

‘You haven’t seen me in a fight, either. It could be a close thing.’

Thinking about it, I wasn’t sure who I would back in a fight between Dec and Lau. It would depend how much chocolate was at stake, and what the rules were about high tackles.

‘Now I’m scared. Don’t you an Dec gang up on meh, now. I’m just a fucking cripple.’

‘Matt …’

Lau sounded exasperated. I couldn’t get her to see why I called myself a fucking cripple, because I couldn’t explain it properly to myself. It was something to do with calling it as I saw it, something to do with getting my retaliation in first, something to do with wanting people to correct me, something to do with me and Dec all those years ago when he was a bloody nutter too, and maybe lots of other somethings I couldn’t define. Lau constantly tried to stop me doing it, especially now I was getting better. She thought it stopped me thinking of myself as normal, but it was just something I did, and until I felt ‘better’, whatever that felt like, I wasn’t going to stop.

Laura

I couldn’t stop him referring to himself as a cripple, even though he was getting better. He’d told me it was a kind of self-deprecating nickname he and Dec had come up with the first time he was ill, with Dec being labelled a nutter on account of emotional difficulties he was having, but I thought it just carried on the thought that he wasn’t ‘normal’, whether it was a joke or not.

Matt

‘OK, OK, I’m jus a skinny streak of nothing. Better?’

Although sometimes I was going to compromise.

‘Better, and truer. But a skinny streak of nothing with a lovely bum.’

‘Ooh, Lau. Know wha, for that, you can have a feel.’

I stood up and waggled said lovely bum in her face. Before I knew it, she grabbed me and bit me on the arse, through my trousers. I gasped as I felt my dick swell.

‘Lau – you did ih.’

I turned round and proudly showed her the bulge in my jeans.

‘It’s Scotty time. Come on.’

Iz

Just a quick warning. You know the score by now.

Matt

There was to be no hanging around, this needed doing, and it needed doing now. I grabbed Lau’s hand and pulled her to her feet, pausing only to guide her hand to the bulge, just so she could feel how hard it was. Yeah, I was pretty pleased with it.

‘Tha’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.’

‘It’d better not.’

Whoa, so she was as up for it as I was, which just made me harder. I pulled her with me to the bedroom and started pulling her clothes off, hardly pausing to kiss her, heading straight for her breasts with my mouth. I really only had one goal, but I didn’t want to appear impolite. Lau pulled my shirt off and undid my belt, letting my trousers drop to the floor. My dick was tenting the front of my boxers, and I pushed it urgently against her.

‘I’m not gona last long, Lau. I mean, yeah, I am, but not before I pop.’

I was going to come as soon as a very low threshold was reached, and I wanted to be inside her when I did. Lau pulled my mouth onto hers with one hand and pushed my boxers down with the other, then cupped my arse cheeks in both hands, using them to pull me against her. I pushed her knickers down her thighs and turned her to the bed, pushing her onto her back, possibly none too gently. Lau reached up and pulled me down on top of her, kissing any part of my body that passed her mouth. My hands were everywhere, grabbing, stroking, gripping, but I had only one destination.

I pulled her knickers off completely and pushed her legs apart, kneeling between them, gripping my dick in one hand and guiding it into her. Ohh how easily I glided in, how agonisingly, excruciatingly, exquisitely she slid against me, fuck how I wanted this woman, wanted to claim her, wanted to be the best she’d ever had. Lau moaned, a sound that seemed borne of almost as much longing as I felt in me.

‘Fuck me, you’re so wet, Lau.’

‘I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Ohh that’s amazing.’

I couldn’t wait any longer, and started to thrust, feeling the slippery friction as I pushed all the way into her, hard and fast, the velvet smooth of her setting fire to the hard planes of me as if I were doused in petrol; there was to be no going slowly, this was destined to be a short, fast journey.

I was grunting with the effort, and groaning with need and longing, and I could feel the finish line approaching fast as my balls started to fizz. Lau clenched me from inside, and it felt like my cock doubled in size, too, and I shouted out again, even as I felt her wrap her legs round my back, pulling me further and deeper into her. I sped up, until my world was a blur of my dick moving against the inside of Lau, the sliding, the quivering, the slap of me against her, the rise and fall of us, the in and out, and I was shouting but I didn’t know what I was saying.

‘Fuck, Lau, yeah, tha, unh, yeah, yeah, ohh, fuck, fuck, cuh, I’m, ple – oh Lau, angel!’

And then suddenly I was there. It all exploded from my balls up through the base of my cock to the very end, and I thrust up into Lau as far as I could, and stayed there while paradise erupted around me. I remained motionless, pushed up on my hands, eyes closed, a roar in my ears which could have been the blood in my veins, the shout from my throat or the universe coming back into alignment, while I emptied myself into her, each shudder causing shock-waves through my world.

Then I opened my eyes, and looked down at Lau in wonder at this woman who had given it back to me, and in the most spectacular way. I had had orgasms before, many times, but nothing and no one on this earth had made me feel like that, like I was connected to a power supply.

A smile started to creep across my face, my arms gave way, and I collapsed on top of her, heart beating wildly, trying to catch my breath, and then kissed her from neck to mouth, then rolled onto my side as I slipped out of her, still twitching a bit, pulling Lau with me so we were face to face.

While I got my breath back, I stroked her hair and looked into her eyes, trying to tell her silently how fucking amazing that had been. I couldn’t think of any words that would even begin to do justice to it, but eventually I stopped panting and spoke.

‘Lau, that was better than I ever imagined. Oh my fucking God, it’s been so fucking long. Ohh … yuh are awesome. Fucking awesome. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’

I resumed my frantic kissing of any part of Lau that was close enough, then pulled her tightly to me, overcome with the emotion of it all. My head was buried in her neck, and my tears trickled down my face and across her throat. Lau pushed me gently away from her and wiped my eyes with her fingers.

‘Hey, Matt, it’s OK. This is good, isn’t it?’

I nodded. ‘I know. I just can’t believe ih, there was a time I thought ih wasn’t gona fucking happen. I can’t even think how long ih’s been.’

‘Well, it must be getting on for a year. That’s a long time, especially for someone as … er … experienced as you.’

As straight talking as Lau was, she never really knew how to refer to my Matt the Lad days. She meant, I suppose, that considering how much sex I’d had, it must have felt like a long wait, and yeah, readers, you will know how true that is. However, I wanted her to know that it wasn’t just the having of the sex that was so hugely important, it was who I was having it with.

‘Noh, Lau, you know what, for the last couple of months it’s been about you. I mean, yeah, getting ih up’s important to me, I’m a bloody bloke aren’t I, but I’ve so wanted to do that with you. So fucking much.’

And then it occurred to me, how focussed I’d been just on me and what I needed, no change there then.

‘Oh fuck, and it’s gone again, and I didn’t even wait for you, I just went in all guns blazing, Matt has to get his end away and –’

‘Stop it, Matt. It was fine, it was great, there’s going to be plenty of time to do it all again and take it slower. Feeling you inside me, how much of you I could feel, it was – I’ve never – just wow. I’ve waited a long time for that too. It was worth it.’

If I’d believed in angels, I would have outed Lau as one in disguise. I wondered if she had any idea how much better she made me feel.

‘Really?’

‘Really. God, do you know how much I love you?’

‘I bloody hope ih’s as much as I love you.’

‘At least as much. Might be a bit more.’

‘Doubt ih’s more, not possible. Not gona leh you beat me.’

‘Too bad. I believe I win.’

‘How d’you work that out?’

‘I am the ref. You said the ref is always right.’

‘Tha’s in rugby. Sometimes football. Who made yuh the bloody love ref?’

‘Self-appointed. I’ve taken all the exams, passed all the tests. The certificate’s on its way.’

‘Can’t we call ih a draw? I don’t wana think I migh be lacking in the love department.’

‘Well … alright. Ref judges a draw is achieved. Love all.’

‘Ha ha. Good score. Know wha, Lau, just because my hard-on’s gone dohnt mean you miss out.’

I stroked a nipple, which rather pleasingly immediately stood to attention.

‘See, there’s plenty more ways of getting a good Scottying.’

‘I do see that. Care to show me more?’

I showed her more with my tongue, lips and fingers, for some time, until it all reached a very satisfactory conclusion.

Laura

Afterwards, lying in the gentle glow of heat and love, in his arms, kissing softly and touching gently, Matt suddenly propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at me.

‘Lau, move in with me. Or I’ll move in with yuh. Or we’ll get somewhere together. It’s bloody stupid having two places. You belong with me. Let’s do ih.’

I smiled up at him. Yes, it was time.

‘OK. Let’s.’

79. Night moves

In which there is a coming together, er, so to speak.

Laura

Feeling better from having heard his voice, but with my head still all over the place, I disconnected and went back into the office. Anna and Kate watched me without speaking as I sat back down at my desk. I no longer felt like making a cup of tea, and just sat in front of the computer, staring at it without seeing it. After a while, I heard the kettle go, and Anna placed a mug in front of me. I looked up at her.

‘Thanks, An.’

She pulled a chair over and sat next to me.

‘How did all this happen, Lau?’

I ran my hands over my face.

‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s been a bit mad. After the LMS day, he waited afterwards while I was packing up and said he needed to talk, about, you know, having MS, and so we went to a café and talked. He unloaded some stuff, I held his hand, we had a moment. Then he realised he’d lost his wallet, so we were going back to my car to see if it was there when he kind of half collapsed, needed me to manhandle him, the nearest place was my house.’

‘You took him into your bloody house?’

Kate had pulled up a chair, and was looking eager for information.

‘He could hardly stand up, he was semi-conscious. I was practically carrying him. I couldn’t have got him into my car, and I didn’t know where he lived.’

‘Oh Lau, after everything we said on that Lone Working course.’

‘I know, An, I know. But I didn’t have a choice.’

‘Know those big white vans, noisy buggers, flashing blue lights, good at giving ill people lifts?’

‘I wasn’t going to call an ambulance, Kate. He was just tired. He slept it off for a couple of hours, I contacted his family, let them know where he was.’

‘You should have told me, Lau. Was he there when you rang me?’

I nodded. Kate rolled her eyes with exasperation.

‘What if he’d tried something on?’

‘Kate, he was asleep. I was perfectly safe.’

‘So when did everything … happen … between you, then?’

‘Nothing’s happened. We’ve just held hands. Kissed a bit.’

It didn’t sound much, given the monumental emotions I was feeling and the amount of upset I had already caused, but I was trying to downplay it, so it didn’t sound so bad.

‘So it’s not too late, you can still bloody well stop it.’

‘I’m not going to stop it. It’s … amazing.’

‘Ah love, you sound besotted.’

‘Yeah, well, she would be. Isn’t that how the bloody man operates? Gets you hooked then drops you.’

‘It’s not like that.’

‘How do you know? You’ve only known him five bloody minutes.’

‘I feel like I’ve known him forever.’

‘Oh Jesus, you’ve got it bad. Lau, have you even thought about Rach? You saw her just now. This will destroy her.’

‘Of course I’ve thought about her. I’ve thought about everything – Rach, working here, him having MS – I know it’s completely crazy. But nothing has ever felt so right. He feels the same as I do.’

Kate snorted.

‘Yeah, I bet he does. Got his own personal MS advisor with benefits. Don’t expect he’s had much luck with the ladies since he got it.’

‘Come on now, Kate, I think we need to give Lau a break. She hasn’t done this on purpose, there are some things you just have no control over. Feelings is one.’

Anna turned to me.

‘Just promise me you’re being a bit sensible, Lau.’

I nodded.

‘A bit.’

I didn’t add that if Matt had been ‘fully functional’ as he’d put it, all sense would have gone out the window, and there would have been a bit more to the story so far than I had told them just now.

‘What are you going to do about Rach?’

I sighed as I looked at Kate.

‘I don’t know. She needs time to cool off. I’ll try ringing her or texting later.’

‘Don’t leave it too long, you know how she gets. Don’t end up on her blacklist.’

I nodded.

‘I suspect I’m already at the top of that. I’ll try though.’

Anna stood up and put an arm round my shoulder.

‘It’s not that we’re not happy for you, Lau. It’s been a while since you had someone. I know you can’t always choose these things. We’re just worried about the who and the how fast.’

I looked up at her. Anna was older than the rest of us, married with nearly grown up children. She was a bit like our mum and always mixed a sympathetic ear with a dose of common sense.

‘I know. Thanks, An. God, what a day. Know what, let me take those last three cases, including that one Rach was going to do. Then we can finish up and I can go home.’

We finished inputting all the information onto the computer, washed up the mugs and started to lock up for the weekend.

‘Who’s helpline on call?’

‘Me.’

That was Anna.

‘Hope it’s not too busy, I’ve got Harry’s new girlfriend coming for tea on Saturday.’

‘You should be OK, Mrs Ramsden’s up country visiting her family, she won’t have an emergency until middle of next week when she’s missing her grandchildren. I’ll be on emergency Rachel Telford call though.’

Kate sounded resigned, and looked at me with a shake of the head.

‘Seeing him this weekend?’

‘Yes.’

She tutted and sighed.

‘Oh well, have a nice time. Think of me answering the phone at all hours to a dribbling wreck.’

‘Sorry, Kate.’

She waved her hand dismissively and walked to her car.

‘See you Monday, Lau.’

‘Bye, An. Have a good one with the girlfriend. Hand the on call over to me if you need to.’

‘Don’t be daft. Enjoy yourself.’

‘Thanks.’

Matt

So the afternoon had gone, and I had to get across the city to Lau’s, using buses I hadn’t used before, carrying the cheesecake we didn’t eat last night (and to be honest wasn’t all that appetising, but Lau bought it, so it seemed special) and my Amelie DVD, and picking up some beer and chocolates from the shop on the way to the bus stop. It was about the maximum weight I was going to be able to carry without dropping the lot.

Laura

We got in our cars. Anna drove off while I stayed sitting for a while, trying to sort through how things might change here. Rachel was going to be upset, hurt and angry, and want people to take sides. It was likely to affect our whole team and make life very uncomfortable for me, for I didn’t know how long. I was going to have to call Patrick over the weekend to tell him, and catch the fall-out from that too.

Bolstering myself with the thought of a whole weekend free to do what I wanted without anyone judging me, and with Matt if we chose to be together, I started the engine and drove home.

I’d been trying to compose a text to Rachel in my head as I drove. When I got in, I sat down and tapped it out. I wanted to contact her, even though I was pretty sure she wouldn’t answer.

‘I’m so sorry, Rach. Sorry for what I’m doing, and sorry for not telling you. You know where I am if you want to talk. Lau x’

It wasn’t great literature, but I thought it said both ‘sorry’ and ‘I’m not going to stop seeing him’ without being quite so blunt, while at the same time being as conciliatory as I could.

Once the text was sent, I relaxed a little and got changed. It was only a DVD and a takeaway, and I wanted to feel comfortable, so I just put on a pair of jeans and a loose top, with, just in case, sexy pink underwear with coloured bra straps that showed at the wide neck of my top. I was as capable as the next woman of being a floozy.

So, dressed to mildly maim if not to kill, I went in search of the DVD I was going to suggest. If Matt was bringing Amelie, I was going to dig out Bruce Willis, so we could see dead people. Eventually I located the DVD and rooted out some takeaway menus. I found a few bottles of beer I had kicking around in the fridge, but had no idea if they were good ones or even if beer had a sell-by date. If they weren’t acceptable, I could pop to the offy. Finally, as ready as I could be, I sat and waited for Matt.

Matt

The buses were a nightmare, with long waits between the two changes, and the last stop was a fair way from Lau’s house. It took me almost two hours. Lau hadn’t been specific about a time, but I’d wanted to get there soon after she got home; I’d really missed her, more than it should have been possible to miss someone I had only just met. As I walked up the path to her front door, though, all the stress from the journey melted away and left me with a tingle of anticipation. I rang the doorbell.

Laura

The trouble with saying something vague like ‘anytime after five’, is that you have to be ready for five, but the person could literally arrive anytime between five o’clock and the end of the world, and not consider themselves rude in any way. It got to six, and I started to wonder, firstly if he was coming at all, and then secondly, whether I should text or call to see when or if he was planning to arrive.

After my illogical panic the last time he was here, I tried to dismiss the first thought, and tied myself up in knots with the second one. I’d seen how much it bothered him when people checked up on him, so it was never really a goer, but what if he’d fallen over or something? I began to understand why his family kept in such regular contact, but managed to stop myself from picking up my phone.

I pottered about some more, plumping already chubby cushions, putting some music on, turning the DVD player on, then off again in case we wanted to talk first, then on again because did it really matter if the DVD player was on while we were talking? I thought about how much preparation Matt had put into yesterday evening, i.e. sleeping all afternoon, and tried not to worry so much.

Finally, eventually, at last, at half past six, the doorbell went. I ran up the stairs faster than was really sensible for someone as unfit as me, and flung the door wide. There he was, silly grin plastered to his face, big grey eyes all crinkled up in his smile. Gorgeous, he was just gorgeous.

Matt

A smile split my face as I saw her. It felt like I hadn’t seen her for weeks, and now I was home. Lau was panting and a bit red in the face, although she was smiling too.

‘Hey Lau, yuh behn runnin?’

‘Only up the stairs. Not very fit.’

‘Nehd tuh come hikin wih meh. Few hills soon sort yuh ouh.’

Laura

Ignoring that as an unlikely occurrence, I held the door wide and he stepped inside, dropping the bag he’d brought as I closed the door and catching me up in a hug. The hug rapidly became his hands in my hair, my arms round his neck, our mouths devouring each other with lips and tongues and licks and kisses until he was as breathless as me and we pulled apart, panting.

Matt

I found it incredible that a) we’d only known each other a couple of days and b) we were both so hungry for each other’s company.

‘Shih, I nehded tha.’

I hadn’t realised how much. It was like a lifeboat to a drowning man, and I suddenly felt buoyant.

Laura

I smiled widely at him, unable to tear my eyes from his face, the anxiety of the last hour and a half gone in an instant. Matt picked up the bag he’d dropped, and handed it to me.

‘Behr, cheesecake, chocolates, DVD. Chocolates for yuh, buh only if yuh share. Cheesecake migh have goh bih squashed on the bus.’

‘You came on the bus?’

‘Yeh. Dohnt drive at the moment. Spasms. Nehly ran someone over. Too scary.’

Matt

Although admitting this wasn’t easy, it was great to be able to say it without having to explain what spasms were, or why they happened, to just know that Lau knew the what and the why, and I didn’t have to spend the next half an hour listening to someone going all ‘oh that’s terrible, I had no idea’.

No, Lau was matter of fact about it, like she was about everything, and she just treated it like she did everything else – the unintelligible bollocks, the exhaustion, the fucked-up downbelows – like it was merely something that was part of me, not something that she had to pick to pieces ad infinitum. Realising this was another revelation, maybe two revelations.

Revelation a) it was possible to treat someone with a fucking bastard neurological condition as if they were a normal person. Revelation b) all of those things – the unintelligibles, the tiredness, the downbelows – were part of me. Holy shit, that was a big revelation and not one I could assimilate right at that moment.

How did you do it, Lau? How did you manage to not see me as just another one of your fucking cripples? Because I swear from the moment we met, you didn’t see it, the fucking bastard, or rather you saw past it or through it or some such shit, and yeah, of course it was there, it’s not like you ignored it or pretended or anything, but it was like it didn’t matter, because you saw me. No one else could do that. To everyone else I was poor Matt, who’d been taken over by this thing, but it was never like that with you, was it. You just saw me.

Anyway, where was I? Blah di blah, snog, bag of stuff, chat about the bus, mention the spasms – oh yeah.

‘Oh. You should have said, we could have done this at yours.’

Yeah, I’d thought about that, but, tortuous bus journey aside, getting out was good.

‘Noh, ih’s fine. Good tuh geh ouh. Not sure how late at nigh the buses goh, tho, soh can I stay?’

I knew it was cheeky, but I also knew it would be OK. All part of the plan.

‘Ooh, what a good ploy to get between my sheets.’

I loved that I was transparent, and that she didn’t mind, and that I’d known she wouldn’t mind.

‘Inspired, I thoht.’

I had plenty more of those sorts of inspirations up my sleeves.

‘Well, as you’ve brought me, let’s see …’

Lau looked into the bag.

‘… a weird French DVD, yesterday’s smushed up cheesecake and … oh my God my favourite chocolates … OK, you can stay.’

The chocolates had been a lucky guess, mostly inspired by the paltry selection available at the corner shop on the way to the bus stop. Fortunately, Lau didn’t have sophisticated cocoa tastes.

‘Ih’s not hard tuh geh into yuhr bed is it?’

‘No, chocolate will do it every time.’

‘Nohted.’

‘Come on down.’

She led the way down the stairs, into the living room and gestured to the sofa.

‘Nah.’

‘What do you mean, ‘nah’?’

I was about to try my luck again. I wasn’t bothered about watching a DVD, mine or hers, but I was bothered about how we were going to be arranged while we did it.

‘Wrong sofa tuh TV configuration. Nehd tuh beh able tuh lie down wih yuh. Nehd tuh move ih.’

Laura

‘What? You want to move my furniture?’

Apart from the bare-faced cheek of it, which should have made me cross, but actually made me laugh, I was imagining the horrors that lurked beneath the sofa, un-vacuumed.

‘Yeh. Feng shui’s all wrong. Sofa should beh facing east.’

‘Oh, do you know about feng shui?’

It didn’t seem like a Matt Scott sort of thing, but he’d constantly surprised me since the day before yesterday. Matt laughed and stroked my cheek.

‘I know fuck all abouh feng bluhdy shui. Lau, you’re soh easy tuh wind up. Jus wanted tuh curl up wih yuh tuh watch DVD, so we can touch a bih an whatever weh fehl like withouh, yuh know, having tuh ask or move too much. An withouh getting a stiff neck watching sideways.’

Curling up on the sofa, touching, and watching Bruce Willis sounded pretty amazing.

‘Oh. Fair enough. But you might have to avert your gaze from the dust bunnies that have perished underneath the sofa. There’s been a bit of a massacre.’

‘OK. Dead bunnies not noticed by meh. I migh have tuh geh yuhr hoover ouh later.’

‘Be my guest.’

We moved the sofa to Matt’s satisfaction, and he sat down while I put the cheesecake and beer in the fridge.

‘Do you want one of these now?’

‘Noh, too warm.’

‘I’ve got some beer already in the fridge, don’t know if it’s your cup of tea.’

Matt

‘Hope ih’s nothing lihk teh. Give ih a shot.’

She came back with drinks, a gin and tonic for her and a bottle of something, er, I want to say Hungarian, for me. I took a mouthful; it was fairly nasty.

‘Ih’s nice an cold.’

‘Is that all that you can say about it?’

‘Er, tastes lihk piss?’

Laura

I laughed. I didn’t know much about beer, and those bottles had been at the back of my fridge since I last had the girls round – beer was Kate’s tipple.

Matt

Lau laughed, not offended in the least. She didn’t seem like a beer drinker, and I wondered how long it had sat in her fridge. Maybe since her last boyfriend – fuck, I needed to find out about that. Or rather, didn’t ever want to find out, didn’t like the thought of her with anyone else. Or maybe it was a brother. Yeah, that’d be it. Brother. Brothers drink beer all the time, in my experience. Lau interrupted my frantic self-reassurance.

‘OK, well you’ll have to wait for yours to cool down then. Or join me in a G and T.’

‘Noh, this’ll do. Wha we eatin?’

Lau handed me a pile of menus, but none of them really hit the spot. I guess I wasn’t that hungry, not for food. I was hungry for time with Lau, couldn’t wait to get my hands on her, and food was just going to get in the way. Lau seemed like a woman who enjoyed her three meals a day, though. Maybe a quicker way would be to go out, if there was anywhere close by – like the coffee shop round the corner. Ideal.

‘How late is Meahn Beahn open?’

‘Until nine, but they don’t deliver either.’

‘Noh, buh they’re so close yuh could almost geh them tuh throw yuhr dinner onto the bluhdy plate. Weh could go there – eat ouh?’

‘If that’s what you want. They haven’t got a huge selection, it’s mostly salads.’

‘Salad is good. Tryin tuh beh healthy.’

And trying to get eating over with as quickly as possible. Serve yourself salad bar five minutes walk away did it for me.

‘OK, then, let’s do it. Now, or in a bit?’

‘In a bih. Leh’s try ouh the new sofa position.’

We got comfortable, me semi-reclining, Lau leaning back against me. I folded my arms round her, leaned down, pushed her hair aside with my mouth and kissed her in that sweet spot just below her ear. I’d learned yesterday just what that did to her, and I’d learned well, as she breathed out a sigh.

Laura

As his breath sighed across my earlobe, all the magical tingles came to life and started partying down below.

‘You can move my furniture anytime.’

‘Doin ih foh yuh?’

‘Very … er … comfortable.’

I sighed and snuggled down against him.

‘I’m not squashing you am I?’

Matt

‘Dohn mind a bih of squashing in the righ places.’

And she was finding all the right places.

‘Then carry on. Do you want to start a DVD, or wait till we’ve eaten?’

I didn’t care, I’d got what I wanted, for now, making a start on the plan.

‘Dohn mind. Happy jus doin this, tuh be honest. Buh ih’s yuhr date nigh, yuh choose.’

‘Oh, this is a date, is it? I’d have dressed up a bit if I’d known.’

‘Yuh look lovely, Lau, yuhr soh beauhiful.’

Laura

Hearing him murmur that in my ear set my pulse racing, especially as he pulled my hair away from my face and stroked his fingertips down the side of my neck.

Matt

It was true, she was beautiful. She was only wearing jeans, and some kind of loose fitting top, but she looked awesome, particularly as I could see her lacy pink bra straps at the wide neck of her top. The bra straps were encouraging, as they were extremely noticeable, extremely sexy and extremely different from the black cotton she had worn before. They spoke to me. They said ‘Come and explore me’. They said ‘I wouldn’t be averse to you seeing more of me’. They said ‘If you think I’m hot, wait till you see what’s underneath me’. They were speaking my language.

‘Well, thanks, but you should see me when I really make an effort. Shall we go in a bit? They run out of homity pie if you leave it too late.’

Oh yeah, food. Focus, Matt, don’t get distracted by talking bra straps.

Laura

I don’t know why food seemed so important – maybe I just wanted to get it over with, so it didn’t get in the way of … anything … later. I was very happy as things were, however, so we stayed cuddled up for a while, then my hunger got the better of me, and I cajoled a slightly reluctant Matt – who seemed happy to loll on the sofa drinking beer for the rest of the evening despite having been the one who suggested going out – to walk down the road.

Going into Mean Bean felt strange; I hadn’t been back since I was there with Matt last time, and that was officially work. Now it was definitely for pleasure. I waved at Bridget and we took seats in a booth. Matt looked at the menu while I had a look at the specials. He seemed fidgety and kept sighing and tutting. Eventually I asked him what the matter was.

‘Jus not rehly hungry. I’d rather be back at yuhrs on yuhr sofa. Buh s’okay. Sohry, I’ll have wha yuh have. Can’t decide.’

‘How about we take it away? Then you can eat it later if you want to.’

He grinned, boyishly happy that his problem had been solved.

‘Soh resourceful. Thanks, Lau. Sure s’okay?’

‘It’s fine. We’ve managed to be outside for, ooh, about ten minutes, that’s enough for anyone.’

We went to the counter and ordered, taking a bag full of salads and pie home. I put some on a plate when we got back, Matt deciding to wait for a while.

‘Which DVD, yours or mine?’

‘Yuhrs. I won’t beh watching ih anyway, I’ll beh otherwise engaged.’

‘Really? Doing what?’

‘Wait an see.’

Matt took up his semi-reclining position on the sofa, then beckoned me over.

‘I think I need to sit up properly to eat this, it’ll go everywhere.’

‘Huhry up, then, gehting lonely.’

I ate a few mouthfuls of salad and a bite of homity pie, which was proper tasty but not what I was hungry for right at that moment. I put my plate on the floor and shuffled into position, grabbing the remote control. I’d eaten enough to stop my stomach rumbling, and now I wanted to get back to the good stuff. Which didn’t really include Mr Bruce Willis, but the whole point was a DVD night, so I decided to play along.

Matt

Lau had filled a plate with salad and homity pie from Mean Bean, but I didn’t want any, couldn’t contemplate eating. Lau only ate a few mouthfuls before, it seemed, she could resist me no longer and turned in to snuggle back against me.

‘Yuh dihnt eat much.’

‘Other things to do. I can go back to it, the joy of salad is it doesn’t get cold.’

‘Wha things?’

‘Oh I’m sure you’ll think of something.’

‘Something like …’

It felt like it was time to get going on the plan. I’m sure by now you’re thinking there’s some elaborate scheme afoot, full of complexities and intrigue. No, just wanted to get in her knickers. It was looking good, though.

‘Hold on, just going to press play. OK, Brucie, do your stuff. You had an idea?’

Well, more of a plan, but …

‘Yeh. Hope Brucie’s not watching.’

‘No, he’s too busy being dead.’

‘Wha? Brucie’s a dead pehpl? Yuh spoilt the whole film now. Definitely noh poin watching. OK, I was jus gona see … if … this …’

I stroked lightly down her neck to the top of her shoulders and touched one of the bra straps.

‘… is as sexy as it looks.’

I noticed her shiver slightly under my touch, and heard her gasp as I pulled the top to one side slightly, pushing my finger between the strap and her smooth skin, then ran my finger along the inside of her neckline, touching the curve of her breast. I was hardly breathing, it was such a huge moment. I could do this in my sleep, had done so countless times, but it felt as if it had never meant so much, there had certainly never been as much riding on my moves as on me being able to turn Lau on. I wanted us to click, I wanted to show her how I could make her feel, I wanted to show her how I felt about her.

Laura

I nearly forgot to breathe. He didn’t explore down any further inside my bra, but pulled his hand out of my top and gently cupped my breast outside the fabric, leaving his hand resting there and leaning over to kiss my neck.

In my position leaning up against him, I couldn’t reach much but I ran my hands along his outer thigh to his knee to an accompanying sigh. Matt’s hands began another little journey inside my top, this time pulling the neck down as low as he could to get a look at my bra.

Matt

I was ready for any sign that Lau was anything less than willing, but all I could feel was her melting into me, tiny hitches in her breathing, her eyes fluttering closed, the smile spreading from the corners of her mouth.

It was so sexy, being able to touch her, think completely about what I could do for her, without having to worry about what was happening for me (which was still a big fat nothing and barring a miracle was likely to stay that way for the foreseeable).

I started another foray inside her top, this time pulling the neck down as low as I could to get a look at her bra. It was lacy, made of something translucent, bright pink, with flowers embroidered here and there. It was definitely a bra that had been designed to be seen, not just to support.

‘Looks awesome, Lau. Thought yuh dihnt dress up tonigh?’

‘Not on the outside.’

‘Did yuh wear this foh meh?’

‘Yeah.’

As she said it, I felt it. A little spark, a fizz, in my fucked-up downbelows. It was the first time I’d felt anything down there for months, and I gasped and wrapped my arms round her tightly, kissing her hard where her neck met her shoulder. Maybe, just maybe, this was that unlikely miracle, and she was going to make me better.

‘What was that for?’

‘Jus goh a tingle in my dick. Not had any tingles fuh soh bluhdy long. Thanks Lau.’

Laura

Tingles were great, I was getting plenty, and I wanted to congratulate him. I reached my hand back behind me and stroked the back of his neck as well as I could.

On the screen, Bruce Willis was being murdered. Off screen, something was coming to life.

Iz

Right then folks, here is a huge bit of parental guidance. Matty is about to do some very naughty things to Lau, and if you are at all squeamish about what your more mature relations might have got up to, then skip ahead a bit. Don’t mind me, I’ve had to read it in all its minute detail, thanks Lau, but I wouldn’t want any of the rest of you to have to unless you want to. Scarred for life doesn’t even cover it.

Matt

I wondered if she knew how momentous this was, how much I’d dreaded never feeling anything there again. The tingles disappeared almost as soon as they had arrived, but rather than hanker after them, I sat back with a sigh, and started running my fingers through her hair, rubbing her scalp in small circles. Then, still rubbing her head with one hand, I moved the other down to her breast, still over the top of her shirt, where I continued with the same circular motions. Wanting to feel her skin, I moved my hand under her top and then up, to the fabric of her bra, rubbing my fingers lightly over her nipple. It went hard straight away, and I knew she was feeling it, and I was going to give her as much pleasure as I was capable of, as much as she would let me. Nipples aside, though, she wasn’t letting me know how she was feeling. I needed to hear from her before I went any further.

Laura

I was trying really hard not to react, as I didn’t want to freak him out again, but the sensation was overwhelmingly erotic, and I had started to throb in all the places where throbbing was required. I hardly dared to move, because if I did, I was going to jump on him, and that would ruin it, because it was breathtakingly sensual.

‘Is this OK, Lau?’

I bent my head up to try and look him in the eye.

‘Are you kidding me? It’s amazing. I’m on fire.’

‘Yuhr not saying anything.’

‘I can hardly speak.’

Matt

That was alright then. Speechless with desire was fine.

‘Want mohr?’

Laura

‘Just go slowly, there’s no hurry.’

Although my body was trying to have a serious argument with that statement.

Matt

She was being considerate of me, now, of my fucked-up downbelows, letting me know she could wait. Oh but this so wasn’t going to be about me. At least not in the usual way. I was going to get off on getting Lau off.

‘I’m happy wih my tingle. I wan to duh something foh yuh. Take yuh top off?’

Laura

Oh God, oh God, he wanted to undress me. He pulled at the bottom of my shirt and lifted it over my head as I sat forwards, lifted my arms up and just let him. Laura Shoeman you are such a tart.

Matt

‘Turn roun.’

I wanted to see her, all of her. The view from above was pretty awesome, she had a great cleavage, and her bosom heaved prettily as she breathed, but I suspected she would be stupendous from the front.

Laura

I swivelled to face him, so I was kneeling between his legs, and he looked at me, first at my breasts, enclosed in the pink see-through bra, then at my face, as if trying to gauge something. He’d seen me in my underwear twice already, but this wasn’t my boring black cotton, this was my date night see-through pink lace. He could definitely see my nipples. I didn’t care; in fact, I was enjoying the look on his face a lot.

Matt

OK, when I said it wasn’t going to be about me, I didn’t mean I wasn’t going to enjoy any of it. Oh she was breath-taking. Her pink bra with the embroidered flowers contained her full breasts, and I could see the buds of swollen nipples peeking from beneath the petals. I could feel my eyes going wide as I looked at her, but Lau didn’t seem self-conscious at all, just watched me looking at her, her mouth slightly open.

So, plan going well thus far. I had wondered how far I could go – I knew how far I wanted to take it, but didn’t want to be too pushy. However, Lau didn’t seem at all hesitant or unsure, and seeing her kneeling there, looking at me, I knew I was going to try for all the way, the big O. I knew what I was doing when it came to coming, although I had been out of practice for a while.

I leaned forwards and slowly pushed Lau backwards, so she was lying on her back and I was kneeling between her legs. I bent down to the flowery bra and put my mouth over her nipple, sucking and nibbling the hard nub through the lace. Lau moaned softly and held my face to her by winding her fingers in my hair. Holy fuck she was sexy.

Laura

Oh God, I felt like I was ablaze all over, with special ultra-flaming hotspots. His tongue found its way inside my bra, and he pulled the cups down below my breasts so my nipples were exposed, like actually out in the open, and then he began a twin assault with tongue and fingers that sent shooting stars from my chest to my groin. I thought I was going to explode with pleasure.

Matt

I was expecting, or maybe just hoping for, more tingles, but they didn’t arrive, so I just continued. This really, really, wasn’t about me, although I was enjoying myself immensely.

I pushed my tongue inside her bra, and pulled the cups down to expose her nipples. They were pink and perky and very happy to see me, and just begging to be touched; I bent my head again, and took one into my mouth, the other between my fingers. She felt so good, so soft, and the flesh of her breast quivered enticingly with every movement.

‘Oh my God you’re good at this.’

I looked up at her, smiling. She must have known I’d done it before.

‘Lohs of practice. Hahnt yuh heard?’

Laura

And that was just it; I had heard. I knew just how experienced he was, yet here I was, Laura Shoeman, being undressed by Matt Scott. It felt unreal, almost as if I was dreaming. All those times I’d seen him copping off with women here, there and everywhere, had I been secretly wishing it was me? I mean so secretly that I didn’t even tell myself, obviously, because if you’d asked me more than a couple of days ago, I would have denied that Matt Scott was my type, whatever that may have meant. I didn’t have a ‘type’, unless ‘feckless loser’ was a type. No time to think about it now, things were happening rather quickly …

At the same time as Matt’s hand travelled down towards my jeans, which he opened expertly with one hand, exposing my matching pink see through pants, he started kissing his way down my abdomen, sucking my belly-button and licking all the way to the top of the my pants. He looked up at my face every so often, checking I was OK. I was more than OK, I was in ecstasy.

Matt

I opened her jeans with one hand, impressed at my coordination, which didn’t seem to have deserted me in my time of need, yay.

Lau was wearing pink lacy see-through knickers that matched her bra, and as I reached her belly-button with my tongue, I noticed the dark, trimmed triangle that was clearly visible. I was approaching my destination, and was hoping I could get Lau to hers in good time. I looked up at her face again, checking it was still OK, that she was fine with me being here, touching her here. The look on her face told me she was more than fine, and I sent my tongue on a mission to complete the journey.

I pushed the lacy knickers down slightly and ran my tongue along the top of her mound, as she moved slowly beneath me, then I pushed her knickers back up and continued licking over the fabric. I stopped briefly to push her jeans down her thighs, giving me more room to manoeuvre, leaned forwards and found her swollen and ready. As I pushed the tip of my tongue over her, then sucked through the sheer fabric, Lau moaned and wriggled against me, pushing her hips up against my tongue. I smiled into her, and began kissing my way back up to her breasts, feeling behind her to try and undo her bra strap. I couldn’t manage it, as she was lying on her back, so she sat up for me, as I pulled her to me and unhooked her, pulling the straps down her arms and the bra completely off, revealing her naked breasts.

Laura

He pulled me to him, kissing my mouth thoroughly as he put his arms around my back, unhooking me easily, then slowly pulled the straps down my arms, revealing me, completely topless.

He stared at me as if he’d never seen a pair of breasts in his life before.

Matt

I had to stop and stare. Fuuuuck she was beautiful. I already knew she was the most beautiful, most desirable woman I’d ever seen, that we were destined to be together, but I was destined to be with this woman, who had the face and body of an angel. I was bowled over.

‘Lau, you’re fucking gorgeous.’

She smiled self-deprecatingly and wiggled her chest so her breasts jiggled; I had to close my eyes for a second, the sight was overwhelming. They didn’t stay closed for long, though; too much to see.

Laura

Well tart doesn’t even begin to describe it, Laura Shoeman. Oh but I was so loving it, how he made me feel, as if I was the first woman he’d ever enjoyed, as if he was discovering all this for the first time. Sex had, for me, previously been fairly perfunctory with an expectation that it was my job to make sure the guy had a good time. Matt was totally focussed on me, for whatever reason, and it was unbelievably hot.

‘Holy, holy fuck, I migh jus die now, hahpy man.’

Matt bent his head down to my breasts and sucked as much of each of them into his mouth as he could while I arched my back under the touch of his tongue and lips.

Matt

After a while, I remembered that this wasn’t about me, although Lau did seem to be enjoying herself regardless, and I pushed her onto her back again, restarting my journey downwards.

Laura

He reached his destination with his hands first, and slipped his fingers below the fabric of my pants – oh sweet Lord, Matt Scott was officially in my pants. I should be going ‘who the hell do you think you are’ and ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing’, but instead I was going ‘ooh’ and ‘mmm’ and ‘oh God’ and ‘yes’ – then he began to pull my jeans and underwear off. I lifted my bum up to make it easier, and as soon as he had dropped my clothes on the floor, he clamped his mouth over me, kissing and sucking, using teeth and tongue, igniting me. Oh my God, he knew where everything was, and not only that, he knew just what to do with it!

I arched my back, wanting his mouth as tight against me as I could get it so I could get the most out of this. I’d heard Matt Scott was an expert lover, but that usually meant wham, bam, thank you ma’am, let’s go again, not putting just the right amount of pressure in just the right place for just the right length of time until wowzers. His tongue licked in broad strokes from back to front, which then became narrower and narrower until he was using just the tip to explore and excite me. I felt his tongue enter me, searching for the sensitive spots, and his fingers danced over me as I squirmed and moaned. I could feel him smiling into me as I pushed my pelvis against his face, trying to feel more of him in me, wanting more, wanting him all.

Matt

I lifted my mouth away and moved my fingers into position, knowing I was going to make her come like this, she was ready, she wanted it. I pushed my middle finger up inside her, feeling the welcoming heat and moisture wrap itself around me. As I felt my way, I sent a second finger inside her, increasing Lau’s movements and moaning.

Laura

Once he was certain of his geography, he began to push harder, finding the places that made me buck and groan, thrusting into me as I pushed against him, feeling myself flowing towards a climax.

Matt

I started to push harder, finding the spots that made her buck against me, and then, as I found the right places, I started to thrust hard and fast with one hand, stroking backwards and forwards with the other, as I felt her building, the tension in her climbing, until she was on the edge.

Laura

He suddenly replaced the fingers which were sending me skywards with his mouth, and the tip of his tongue flicked backwards and forwards a few times, sending ripples of longing to gather and wait until, as he thrust harder and faster with his fingers, I felt myself stiffen as the pressure built higher and higher, and then I exploded in wave after wave of rapturous pulses.

‘Oh my God, Matt, oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.’

He licked and stroked me for a while as the sensation swam around me, making me dizzy, then ebbed away; then he slowly made his way up my body until he was lying almost on top of me, to kiss me on the mouth. I responded as best I could, but was in no state to think of anything but the most spectacular orgasm I had ever had. It was mind-blowing; I was still having aftershocks. From the start, there had been that connection fizzing and buzzing between us, but that … just Wow! I had never felt like that before with anyone. I really got it now. Thirty-four years old and I finally found out what all the fuss was about.

Matt

I continued licking and stroking her for a while, feeling very pleased with myself as she quietened, as the pulsing slowed; then I slowly kissed my way back up her body until we were face to face, so I could kiss her mouth. She tasted fucking incredible, and I wanted her to taste herself too. She lay, panting, and kissed me gently back.

‘Enjoyed tha then?’

She nodded.

‘Any feedback?’

Never let it be said I’m not needy. I require constant praise and reassurance about my sexual performance, and I’m not afraid to ask for it. Lau shook her head in answer.

‘Thumbs up or down?’

I got a double thumbs up. I was getting that I’d taken her breath away. Result.

‘Thanks foh the tingle, Lau.’

She found her voice.

‘Blimey, if I get that for a tingle, what will I get when you get a full-on stiffy?’

‘Well ih’ll beh worth the wait. Oh look, Brucie’s still dead.’

‘Isn’t there something I could do for you?’

I shook my head. ‘Noh, I wish sohmthing was goin on, buh Ih’ll have tuh settle fuh getting ohf on Bruhce.’

‘Ha ha. You’re so lovely.’

Lau was glowing, and I have to admit to a bit of a satisfied inner warmth too. I won’t say I’d never looked after the woman exclusively, because I wasn’t a total self-centred bastard with Carrie or with Jules, but there had always been that little bit that asked when I was going to get mine. But I wasn’t going to tonight, dick-tingle notwithstanding, and that had been awesomely erotic, so sexy. I’d executed my plan with one hundred per cent success.

Laura

He sat up, handed me my top and renewed his reclined position at the other end of the sofa, looking like a kid with a lollipop. I sat up slowly, still reeling from it all, pulling my top on and collecting my pants and jeans from the floor, collecting myself, pulling my clothes on. Matt beckoned me over to him again, and I resumed my position against him and sighed contentedly as he pulled my hair away from my neck and resumed the gentle stroking he’d been doing before.

Was this really happening? Had I just had the most awesome oral sex from a man who, a few days ago, if I’d thought of him at all, I would have wanted to slap, but now thought about almost constantly with a soppy smile?

Matt

She sighed against me as I continued to stroke her hair, her arms, her cheek, anything I could touch. I felt so connected to her, although, yeah, she was practically lying on top of me, so that was fairly easy.

‘Hahpy?’
She nodded drowsily, and I wondered if it was too early to suggest going to bed. Then my phone pinged with Beth’s tone.

‘Hi Matty. How’s your day been? Have you had dinner yet? Lasagne if you’re interested, J can fetch you.’

‘No thanks, just eaten.’ Yeah, it was rude and I was the only one who got the joke, but it made me smile. ‘Good day, caught up with housework :%’

I felt Lau’s raised eyebrow.

‘Yeh, OK, wise one, they lehv meh alone if I reply. Noh need tuh look soh smug.’

‘How can you see what I’m looking like? You can only see the top of my head.’
‘Top of yuhr head looks bluhdy smug.’

I bent down and kissed her on the top of said smug-looking head, then folded my arms round her. We lay quietly together, while Bruce Willis wrestled with dead people. I wasn’t at all interested in his struggles, but was extremely happy he’d given me an excuse to be here with this fabulous woman.

There was another ping, but it wasn’t from my phone. Lau carried on nuzzling her cheek against my hand. I wasn’t complaining, but felt I needed to point out the injustice of the situation.

‘One rule fuh me, then?’

‘What?’
‘You dohnt have tuh answer yuhr texts?’

‘Oh. I thought it was yours.’

Lau pulled her phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen. I glanced at it over her shoulder, and caught the first few words.

‘Keep your sorrys. How could you Lau?’

Oh bugger, this didn’t look too good.

Laura

‘Stay away from me. I don’t want to talk to you if I can help it.’

‘Oh damn.’

‘Wha?’
‘Remember the stuff that hit the fan earlier? At work?’

Matt

I’d been so caught up, first in the bus journey over, and then in Lau, that it had slipped my mind.

‘Shih, Lau, I completely forgot. I mehnt tuh ask. Are yuh OK?’

‘Well, that was Rachel, the one who sent you the text. Could be friendship over.’

No, surely not. Hadn’t Lau said it was years ago?

‘Shih, Lau. Why ‘xacly? Is ih because of meh?’

She went quiet, and I didn’t know what to think, whether she was blaming me, or trying to spare me, or what.

Laura

I thought for a moment, wondering if it was because of Matt, or me, or Matt and me, or whether in the end it was because of Rachel.

‘Lau?’
‘I think it’s complicated. Apparently you and Rach had a one night stand some time ago – probably getting on for two years. She … it meant more to her than it did to you, and she hasn’t properly ever got over it. I knew what this – us – would do to her, so I guess I’ve chosen you over her. She’s going to be pretty upset and angry. I’m not sure if it’s mendable.’

Matt

She was speaking quietly, as if she was trying hard not to let it be a drama, but this was a friend of hers, someone she saw every day. It felt somewhat unreal for this … thing … that must have happened years ago could be causing so much grief now.

‘Buh – shih, Lau, I haven’t – I’ve only been wih Jules fuh – it must have been bluhdy ages ago. Even befohr Jules, I was trying tuh clean up my act, not beh such a bastahd, noh mohr one-nighers. I know ih’s not up tuh meh tuh say, buh shouldn’t she beh gehting a life?’

It really wasn’t up to me to say, I knew that, but I felt a sudden surge of panic, that after all this time, of deciding what I needed to do to put things right, my past was still popping up with this kind of shit to fuck with people’s lives.

Laura

‘Well, that’s what we’ve all tried to tell her, but you never know what’s going to mess you up, do you? I think she had a major crush on you before you slept with her, and in her mind it was the start of something big, so when she never heard from you, and the next time you saw her you blanked her like you didn’t know her, she was crushed.’

It felt a bit unreal to talk about it, the thing that Rachel had talked about so many times, with the person on the other end of it sitting here with me. Matt was silent. So quiet and still that I turned round to look at his face, which had gone white.

64. You’ve got to hide your love away

In which people say they love each other without using words.

Matt

I crashed into bed only when I could no longer keep my eyes open. I thought I’d lie awake ruminating, but I must have tired myself out with it all, because I was suddenly aware of my phone trilling at me. It wouldn’t usually have woken me up, not much did, but the sound was the FaceTime alert, and it must have permeated my slumber as significant. I grabbed the phone off the bedside table and saw Jules’ name. Even in my mid-sleep fog, I knew it was important.

‘Hey you.’

As her face appeared on my pillow and I tried to work out what she wanted to say, I aimed for casual, trying to make it seem as if the rest of my life didn’t depend on the next few minutes.

‘Hello.’

‘You OK?’

‘Yes.’

And it seemed as if I was going to have to drag it out of her.

‘Is there a reason you’ve called me at …’

I checked the time

‘… What The Fuck o’clock?’

‘Yes.’

Jules could be beyond frustrating sometimes, and now she was answering my questions with less than the bare minimum of information, and I couldn’t help feeling irritated.

‘Oh good, because I really wouldn’t want to just be lying here asking random questions. As long as there’s a fucking reason, that’s bloody fine.’

‘I already am.’

This floored me. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? My brain was wrapped in sleep and the previous day’s circular thinking, and I couldn’t work it out.

‘Already are what?’

‘Living with you.’

‘Oh.’

I couldn’t tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing, and was still wary about putting another foot wrong.

‘Meaning …’

‘Meaning, I’ve been here all day, thinking, and I eventually realised that even apart from all my stuff being at your place, this isn’t my home any more. I feel more at home over there, with you. I already am living with you, just maybe neither of us realised it. Until today.’

Oh thank you all that is holy and good, she’s OK with it. Somehow, it’s been pulled back from the jaws of disaster, and I can breathe.

‘So you’re not going to dump me for having the temerity to suggest a slightly longer term relationship?’

Just checking. Always good to check and double check you’re not going to be dumped.

‘No.’

I felt myself untense, which unleashed a diatribe borne of relief.

‘Thank fuck for that. Oh Jules, I thought I’d fucking blown it. Shit, I’ve been thinking about you all day, wondering if I should call or text. I shouldn’t have just blurted it, it just kind of occurred to me, and next thing I knew I was saying it, and I should have been as fucking freaked as you, but like you said, it had already happened, and that’s not quite as fucking terrifying as planning it, in some weird way, so as soon as I saw your face I realised I’d fucked up, but I couldn’t unsay it, and then –’

‘Matt, stop.’

I stopped.

‘You’re burbling.’

‘Sorry, I’m just so fucking relieved.’

‘I get that.’

‘Are you OK, though? You’re not like ‘oh well all my stuff’s there I suppose I’m going to have to’, even though you don’t really want to, are you?’

‘Do you even know me at all? Does that sound like the sort of thing I’d say?’

‘Ha ha, no, I suppose not, I’m just having my own little insecure moment – well, I’ve been having them all day, I suppose. I knew you needed to go off and have a think, but not knowing what you were thinking was bloody awful. I kept going ‘she’ll be OK’ and then ‘no, she’ll dump you’ and then ‘you should call’ and then ‘don’t be a twat, that’s the last thing she wants’.’

‘Well now you know what I want. I want to live with you.’

‘Holy fuck, Jules, this is huge. Both of us, making some bloody enormous commitment. Fuucking hell.’

I widened my eyes at her as it sunk in. I’d never asked anyone to move in before. With Carrie, it was half an assumption on my part, and half a reluctant ‘oh well if I must, my house is being sold and I haven’t got a choice’ on her part, and so this really was the biggest thing I’d ever done – we’d ever done. Jules had never shared a home with anyone, at least not a romantic partner. It really was commitment city for us.

‘But we’re not, really, are we. It’s still like it was in the beginning, in a way, we’re still finding out how it works, seeing how it goes. I think I’m going to give the flat up, though.’

Ha ha, Jules, yeah, let’s just keep this little fantasy going a bit longer. No, of course, it’s no big deal, you move in here and give your flat up and change both of our lives, and it’s just business as usual really. And I went along with it, because that’s how I wanted it to be as well.

‘Whoa, blow my fucking mind why don’t you.’

‘Yes, well, it makes sense, but we’re going to have to sit down and do it all properly, splitting bills and everything.’

I put on a mock serious expression. This was just Jules being Jules, making sure she knew how things were going to be.

‘Yes, of course, how wise and sensible, it’s a good job we’re not hopeless romantics.’

‘It’s a bit late at night to talk about the specifics, maybe we can do it tomorrow, after work, when we get home.’

‘I like the sound of that – ‘when we get home’. You’re not putting up any bloody girly fairy lights or furry cushions or shit, though.’

Jules wasn’t the only one who could call the shots about how it was going to be. I saw her suppress a smile.

‘Maybe that could be a point of negotiation.’

‘Nope, not negotiable. If I’d thought you were the fairy light and cushion type of woman, I’d never have asked.’

This was partially true. I knew Jules’ tastes, they were similar to mine, and it was another reason I’d been able to speak without thinking yesterday morning.

‘Maybe I’ve hidden my penchant for twinkling illuminations and plush furnishings from you all this time.’

‘You’d better bloody not have, you’re in for a big disappointment if you think my – our – place is having a womanly makeover.’

I paused to grin.

‘Jules, come home. Now?’

We both smiled at those words.

‘No, it’s way too late. I don’t expect you want to sleep.’

‘Fuck no, I want to celebrate.’

I was completely awake, now, and I wanted my girl here at home, in our bed, party for two.

‘Well that’s all very well for you, with your cushy part time job where you can roll up any time of the morning, or indeed afternoon, but I need to be in early, and I need my sleep.’

‘Please?’

‘This might be the last night I get to spend in my comfy bed.’

‘There’s not much of the night left. Wait, are you saying my bed’s not comfy?’

Although it was true that I slept better in Jules’ bed, even though we were hardly ever there. Not that I was going to admit it.

‘Not as comfy as mine.’

‘Bloody cheek. My bed’s the best.’

‘Well we’ll just have to agree to differ.’

‘Maybe … we won’t. How about, as a kind of ‘welcome Jules’ present, we buy a new bed? A bloody huge one with a telly that slides out of the end, and built in speakers, and a massaging mattress and –’

I was even willing to go shopping with her. I was a hopeless case.

‘Actually, a new bed that we’ve both chosen does sound like a good idea. I think we might have to compromise on some of the added extras.’

‘You’re not even here yet and you’re making me compromise. Might have to reassess … nah, you’re still fucking worth it. OK, here’s another compromise, just so you know I can. Come home, Jules, and sleep. I promise. I’ve got a hard-on the size of the Empire State Building, but I’ll ignore it for you, and let you snore away.’

It was the most magnanimous of gestures, as far as I was concerned. I might have to forego the party for two, but there would be plenty of other opportunities, and if it got her over here tonight, it would be worth it. I just wanted to hold her.

‘I do not snore.’

‘You bloody do snore. Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was down earlier complaining about it.’

‘If Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was complaining about noises from the bedroom, I doubt it was just me she would have been hearing.’

‘Well, there is that.’

‘So I can really just go to sleep?’

‘Yeah. Promise. Thinking about Anne Widdecombe as we speak.’

‘Alright then.’

‘Woohoo.’

I may have fist-pumped in the manner of a small boy.

‘See you in a bit.’

I opened the door to the bedroom, then got back into bed, so that when Jules arrived I could watch her coming through the front door, coming home, for the first time.

Julia

I disconnected, grabbed my car keys and my bag and drove across the city to Matt’s – or rather our – apartment. It was very early in the morning, and it all felt a bit unreal. As I pulled up outside and stopped the car, I took several deep breaths, and then made my way inside. Matt was waiting in bed, the bedroom door open and soft light spilling out into the living room; the rest of the flat was in darkness. I shut the door and called out.

‘Hi honey I’m home.’

‘What bloody time of night do you call this? Your dinner’s in the dog.’

I reached the bedroom and leaned on the door frame looking at Matt as he lay in bed, hands behind his head.

‘We haven’t got a dog.’

‘Oh yeah. Jules, we should get a dog.’

‘No dogs.’

‘But I’ve already given him a name. Frederick Ponsonby Smythe the Third.’

‘No dogs.’

‘Poor Frederick will be heartbroken. He’s a cockapoo.’

‘No dogs. Also, while we’re at it, no cats, birds, rodents or anything else that needs feeding or shits indiscriminately. Except you, of course. You can stay.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

He pulled the duvet back and patted the sheet.

‘Come on then, first night in your new place, big moment. Excited?’

‘I’m managing to control myself.’

Although I admit my heart was beating a little faster than usual. I walked over to the bed and felt under the pillow for my t-shirt, then laughed softly to myself.

‘It’s all making sense. I keep my old tshit here, I’ve brought half my books over, I even found myself wondering where to put one of my pictures the other day. How did we not realise?’

‘Which picture? It had better not be a bloody kitten.’

I pulled off my clothes and put my sleeping shirt on, while Matt watched appreciatively, then I got in to bed. He put his arm round me and I tucked myself in close to him.

‘Starry Starry Night. Van Gogh.’

‘I bloody love that painting. He painted it from his room in the loony bin.’

‘I know. I know practically everything there is to know about it. I’ve had the print for years.’

‘Where were you going to put it?’

‘On the wall.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, good move, otherwise we’d be stepping on it and shit.’

‘In here? Above the chest of drawers.’

He looked over at the spot and considered.

‘Yeah. I think it’d look great. Bring it over, we’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. See, I’m not territorial or anything, this is totally our place, together. You weren’t thinking of moving anything or changing anything else in any way whatsoever though, were you?’

‘Weell, I thought we might have to paint the walls purple. It’s kind of a deal-breaker.’

‘Right then. Out you go, you’re no longer welcome. It’ll just be me and Frederick from now on.’

He pulled me into his arms and folded me up. I felt his erection nudging me.

‘Anne didn’t work her magic this time then?’

Matt

‘Ha ha, well, she did at the time, and then you showed up and shook your tits at me, and all Anne’s hard work went down the drain. It’s not a problem. You go to sleep. Look, putting the light out.’

And my intentions were honourable, but you know how it is, you’ve got a gorgeous woman lying next to you, old tshit and no fuking pants, and you’re too excited to sleep. And even though you’ve promised, and she’s tired, well, she’s fucking hot, and you’re trying to ignore your hard-on, but you just can’t help wondering if she’s as tired as she says she is. So I gave her a goodnight kiss, and I suppose it was a bit more than a peck on the cheek, seeing as it was a snog on the lips, and there was tongue action.

Julia

‘That’s not noticeably helping me get to sleep.’

‘Sorry. I’ll behave.’

I lay in his arms and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.

Matt

And I tried, I really did. I tried for at least a minute.

‘Jules …’

‘Yes.’

‘How sleepy are you?’

‘Pretty sleepy.’

She did sound tired. And it had been a full on day for both of us. And she had to get up earlier than I did. I should just stop, be a gent, behave myself like I’d promised.

‘Oh. OK.’

But it was so fucking hard, when I was … so fucking hard.

Julia

I waited some more.

‘Jules …’

‘Mm.’

‘You’re not asleep yet, then?’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Are you nearly?’

‘Well I might be, if I didn’t keep getting asked if I was asleep yet.’

I smiled to myself, knowing I was going to give in eventually. I waited a little bit longer.

Matt

No, she was right, I was being annoying, and I was also breaking my promise, which just wasn’t right on our first night of cohabitation. But she was so gorgeous, and I wanted her so much.

‘Jules …’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’

She pushed me onto my back and straddled me, and I got my way. I’m pretty sure she didn’t mind, really, if what happened after that was any kind of measure …

Julia

‘Welcome home, Jules.’

‘Can I get some sleep now?’

‘By all means.’

‘Thanks.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘I think Mrs Bartlett might be glad of some sleep too.’

‘I aim to please.’

‘Goodnight Matt.’

‘Goodnight Jules. Goodnight Mrs Bartlett.’

Matt

And there we were, a week later, all moved in and living together. To say things had happened quickly was a bit of an understatement; I certainly got to see Jules in decisive mode. She had given notice on her flat and negotiated a quick release from her tenancy by the end of the next day, and organised removals and storage for all her stuff. We took the day off to move her in on the Friday, naturally being banned by Jules from telling anyone at work what we were doing, so I had to fend Lexi off from curiosity killed the receptionist overload (‘So are you going away for the weekend together?’ ‘Yeah, kind of.’ ‘Kind of? How’s that?’ ‘Kind of a mystery tour.’ ‘What?’ ‘Tell you later.’). We didn’t tell anyone, actually, be they work, family, friends, anyone. I wanted to see how long it would take Beth’s spidey-sense to work it out, and liked having something of mine that wasn’t constantly being examined and picked apart by the rest of the family. It felt good having Jules all to myself, at least for a while, and I know she was more than happy with things that way.

Ever practical, the first thing Jules wanted to do was divvy up the bills, so while she was working things out I took a hammer to the bedroom wall and put up a hook for her Van Gogh print. It looked great there. It said ‘this is Jules’ bedroom too’, and I liked it a lot.

Julia

The next few days were a mad whirl of arrangements and organisation. I contacted my landlord to give notice on my flat, and he had a new tenant lined up twenty-four hours later. He agreed to waive my month’s rent if I could move out by the weekend, so Matt and I had to decide which items of my furniture we wanted to have at his place, and which ones I was going to, firstly, store and then eventually move up to Norfolk. I still hadn’t decided what to do with Nons’ house; renting it out was a possibility, but until I decided, I could keep my things there.

Matt and I took the day off on the Friday, hired a van, and spent the day shifting furniture and boxes from my flat to the storage place and his flat. We had decided not to tell anyone about me moving in, not to make a big deal about it. Matt warned me that if Beth found out – ‘or rather when she finds out, she always finds shit out’ – she would want to throw a party or at the very least have a big meal together ‘to welcome me to the family’, and we didn’t want that. We hoped we could just take it slowly and get used to it in our own time; Dec and Amy’s baby was due in a week or so, and that would deflect the focus from us – we hoped we might then be able to drop it into a conversation so no one noticed.

We sorted out practicalities like rent and food – Matt owned his apartment, so we agreed I would pay half his mortgage as rent, and we decided to stick to our current shopping arrangements. This meant that Matt would continue to shop online, and I would go out to choose my own food when I felt like it. We could always change things later. I brought my Starry Starry Night picture over as part of my van load, and Matt put up a picture hook for it. We lay in bed and looked at it on that Friday night.

‘Perfect.’

‘You’re pretty handy with a hammer.’

‘I know. I have many hidden talents.’

‘You know what would look even better in here?’

Matt looked at me suspiciously.

‘No, what?’

‘A bright pink furry duvet. And some multi-coloured fairy lights kind of draped around the –’

Matt cut me off with a hefty kiss, which had the dual impact of shutting me up and leaving me breathless.

‘Or, maybe, I’ve seen these lovely cushions in a catalogue, they’d look –’

Another kiss stopped me from continuing, this time coupled with his hand travelling under my shirt and pinching my nipple fairly hard.

‘Are you liking my ideas then? How about, Margie was telling me about this wallpaper you can get that’s got tiny kittens all over it, it sounds so –’

He flipped me onto my back and pinned my wrists above my head with both hands, nudged my legs apart with his knee and laid his whole weight on top of me. It nearly suffocated me, but he didn’t stay like that for long.

Lifting his torso from mine, Matt bent his head down and sealed my mouth with his, biting and sucking at my lips and tongue fiercely. He started to thrust against me, not inside me yet, but rubbing hard along me, setting me on fire. He lifted his mouth from mine and raised an eyebrow when I didn’t speak, then briefly supported himself on one arm as he reached down to position himself to enter me. That achieved, he clamped his mouth over mine again and began to pound into me. I wrapped my legs around his back, wanting more, wanting him to thrust harder and faster, our tongues tangling with each other’s, my hands still pinned above my head, him in me and me around him, both grunting with exertion and groaning with pleasure, as we raced each other to our mutual detonation. I felt him stiffen, and clenched him tightly.

‘Oh fuck, Jules, fuck yeah, fuck, fuck, ahhh, oh fuuuck, unhh.’

I felt him shudder into me once, twice and then a final time, and then I felt my own fireworks start as he continued to move in me, using his fingers on my clitoris to pull all the tingling throbbing from all over my body to that one place in my centre, and then ignite it in a swirl of sensation and light that flooded through me and took me with it on a wave of delirium.

I lay for some time, unable to think, hardly able to catch my breath, arms flung wide, Matt lying half on top of me, panting, both of us slippery with sweat. Eventually, I could move and I wriggled out from under Matt, who rolled over and pulled me to him, kissing me tenderly.

‘Well, fuck me, I hope that’s taught you not to go all girly on me.’

‘Oh, was I offending your masculinity? Is that why you were so, so manly and domineering?’

‘There’s only so much girl shit I can take before my testosterone takes over. Let that be a warning to you.’

‘Or a lesson in how to get it rough if I want it.’

‘Fuck yeah, that too. But if you want it rough, you seriously only have to ask.’

‘Sometimes it’s more fun not to have to.’

‘Julia Marran, you are one deviously wicked woman.’

He wrapped me up in his arms and we drifted off to sleep together.

Matt

We settled into life together almost immediately. I had expected Jules to have a little wobble, maybe try to exert her independence in some way, but nothing really changed apart from waking up together every morning and going to bed together every night, and that was awesome, more than awesome.

Sleeping with Jules had always been great, but being in this new phase of us brought an intensity to the bedroom that I hadn’t anticipated. We still pretty much did our own thing at other times, going in, staying out, doing stuff together and apart, and at the end of the first week we knew it felt great, like things were really working, why hadn’t we done it before?

Julia

And things were great that first week. I really enjoyed living within walking distance of work, and surprised myself by feeling totally at ease calling Matt’s place home. We were easy with each other, too, not noticeably changing our routine – Matt went out to watch football in the pub, I read my book when Matt was there and when he wasn’t, we both cooked meals, and we went out to dinner once. I was feeling settled and happy.

Matt

It was a Saturday, Jules had been living with me for a week and a day, and she had gone shopping before I’d got up. There was a Raiders home game that day, and I was taking Cal, as I had started to do regularly since he first asked me a few months ago. I was sitting watching a football preview programme on TV when my phone rang with Dec’s ringtone.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Hey. Amy’s in labour.’

I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Despite all the scoffing Jules and I had done about the whole baby thing, it was still my best mate who was about to become a dad. It was a big moment.

‘Holy shit. Are you on your way to hospital then?’

‘No, I don’t think they’ll want us there yet. I’m not going to be playing today, though, Don’s let me pull out of the squad.’

‘Bugger. Oh well, I’m sure there’s someone as good if not better waiting in the wings.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

He sounded a bit worried – once you lost your place in the team, it could be hard to get it back, but babies tended not to care much about that when they decided to make their arrivals. Just ask Lau how convenient her labour was.

‘Don’t worry, mate, I hear Raiders are looking for ball boys. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’

‘Piss off. Are you taking Cal?’

‘Yeah, heading off to pick him up in a bit. Hope it all goes well your end – let me know, yeah?’

‘Yeah, although if it’s a middle of the night job, we won’t be telling anyone until morning. Boss’s orders.’

By which I assumed he meant Amy and not Beth, although you couldn’t always tell.

‘OK mate, well good luck, keep me posted.’

Julia

The next Saturday, I called Evie in the morning and arranged to go and see her for lunch the next day. Matt and I were going to go bed shopping in the morning, but that left the afternoon free. He often went to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, whether he was invited or not, and I decided not to go with him mainly because baby speculation was reaching fever pitch but also because I didn’t want to run the risk of them all finding out about our new living arrangements.

Matt was taking Cal to watch the rugby that afternoon, and he never got up very early on a Saturday if he didn’t have to, so I took myself off into town to do some shopping. Matt hated shopping, made all his purchases on line, whether it was food, clothes, birthday presents or anything else, and there was no chance he was going to come with me, especially as he was going to be devoting a chunk of his Sunday morning to looking at beds.

I took my time in town, had lunch, and got back just before Matt had to set off to collect Cal. As I walked in the door, he was finishing a phone call.

Matt

As I spoke, the door opened and Jules came in, carrying several shopping bags. She kissed me on the forehead and dumped the bags on one end of the sofa before flopping down next to me.

‘What babe?’

Attention back on my phone, I heard Amy’s voice in the background, possibly an exclamation of pain.

‘OK, right there. Sorry, Matt. Needed. Catch you later.’

‘Yeah, love to Amy, see you soon mate. Bye.’

I looked at Jules as she raised an eyebrow at me in query.

‘Amy’s gone into labour.’

Julia

‘Oh. That’s early, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I think it is a bit. Dec’s had to pull out of the game today, Cal’ll be disappointed.’

‘Oh well, at least it will all be over with soon, everyone will know if it’s a boy or a girl, what the mysterious name is going to be, and all the constant conjecturing can stop.’

‘Yeah.’

I looked hard at Matt, he seemed a bit off, but nothing I could put my finger on.

‘Are you alright?’

He seemed to rouse himself, gave me a big grin and stood up.

‘Yeah. I guess it’s just a pretty big day for the Scott family, even if the main protagonists aren’t Scotts. I think you might be disappointed if you think they’re all going to shut the fuck up now, though. Beth still talks constantly about Cal and Iz, isn’t that what mothers do?’

‘I wouldn’t know. My mother doesn’t talk constantly about me, I’m quite sure.’

I hadn’t even heard from my mother for over two months, and that was only a short text informing me that ‘Dubai far too hot. Off to Moscow.’

Matt looked at me sympathetically.

‘Well my mum’s stopped bragging about me and Jay now she’s got grandchildren. Maybe it’s an age thing.’

‘Maybe.’

‘I’d better get going. Good shop? I see you needed many more items of clothing. Any pants?’

‘I did buy some underwear. Stop rifling, I’ll show you later.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise. You won’t be disappointed.’

‘Crotchless?’

‘Not if you paid me. Wait and see.’

He pouted, but gave me a hug and kiss and left to fetch Cal.

Matt

I really did feel a bit weird about it, as if something momentous was happening. Well, I suppose it was, but it wasn’t happening to me, and I didn’t really care greatly for babies in general, much as I was excited for Dec and Amy in particular. In fact, I was a bit resentful that I was likely to see less of them, as always happened with new parents and exhaustion and shit. Piles of shit, actually. So I wasn’t quite sure what I was feeling, and it didn’t fit with what I should be feeling, what I thought I’d feel, so I basically just ignored it. Jules seemed to notice and asked if I was alright, but I grinned at her and told her everything was fine. Then I went to watch Raiders with Cal, and didn’t think any more about my bloody incomprehensible feelings.

When I dropped Cal back at Jay’s, Beth was predictably in full-blown anticipatory overdose. She asked three times if I’d heard from Dec, although she knew full well he’d call her first, or at the latest second, after Rose. And he had contacted her a while ago anyway, to say Amy had gone into the maternity unit, and things were going well, but not to expect anything for a while. It was almost as if Beth hadn’t had children of her own, and wanted it all to happen immediately.

‘Beth, calm down.’

We were standing in the kitchen, where I’d made her a camomile tea in an attempt to stop her having a stroke, which I thought might put a bit of a dampener on the day. Telling her twice before to calm down hadn’t had a noticeable effect, but I was enjoying being the one who was telling her what to do for a change. I hardly ever saw Beth flustered.

‘I am calm.’

‘You are so far from calm. You know they’ll be fine, right?’

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s just hard not knowing what’s going on. I did offer to go with them, but they said no.’

‘Ha ha, I’m not surprised, if this is what you’re like. Amy needs organised professionals, not family members going all hyper.’

‘I’ve worked on maternity wards.’

‘Yeah, a million years ago. It’s nothing personal.’

‘Oh I know that, really. I just can’t wait to meet him. Or her. I know they know if it’s a boy or a girl, I don’t know why they wouldn’t say.’

‘Beth, believe me when I tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that keeping a secret from you is so bloody hard, it’s worth seeing the look on your face just to keep going, in the face of all your probing.’

‘I don’t probe.’

‘You bloody do, you can’t help yourself. I’m just saying, sometimes we all like keeping things to ourselves that you don’t know about.’

Shit, if Beth had been on her game, she would have sniffed out Jules and I living together in a heartbeat after that. But it went right over her head in a haze of baby, and I decided to escape before I gave too much away. A quick game on the X-box with Cal, and I was off home to Jules. The thought of Jules waiting at home, our home, still made me smile.

Julia

I spent the afternoon trying on my new clothes and reading a book. I was really engrossed in the novel, and didn’t realise the time until I looked up and it was starting to get dark. I put some lights on, and was just starting to wonder where Matt was, and whether I needed to start some dinner, when I heard his key in the lock, and he walked in. He looked tired, but gave me a big crinkly smile, sat down next to me on the sofa and hugged me.

‘Hello. Good game?’

‘Yeah, really good. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. You have loads of men, and they chuck the ball to each other and chase each other, and then one of them gets caught, and they all pile on top of him. I think they might be trying to squash him. And one of the ones in the pile gets the ball and runs really fast until one of the others catches him and then they all pile on top of him too. It’s great fun. There’s fighting and everything, but it’s all part of the game, so nobody really minds.’

‘Hmm, sounds delightful. Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah, had a pasty and chips with Cal at the stadium. Have you?’

‘How on earth do you stay so skinny? No, not yet, I was just thinking about it. Might just have a sandwich if you’re not having anything.’

‘I’ll do you something.’

‘Oh, no, there’s no need –’

‘Let me, Jules, I’d like to, I’ve deserted you all afternoon.’

‘Alright then, but I don’t feel deserted. I’ve had a nice quiet time, me and the apartment getting to know each other. We’ve had some thoughts about beds.’

‘Oh you’ve both been plotting, have you? Tell me while you eat. Pasta?’

‘Perfect.’

He got up and walked over to the kitchen, getting out a pan and filling it with water.

‘Sorry I’m a bit late back, I stayed at Jay’s for a bit. Still no news from babyland, but I think Amy’s gone into hospital now.’

‘Excitement in overdrive?’

‘Yeah, kind of. For Beth and Jay it’s almost like being grandparents. Weird. I escaped, me and Cal played on the X-box. I let him win.’

‘Oh, you lost to Cal?’

‘No, I let him win.’

‘Oh. One day you really must explain the difference.’

‘Jules, you wouldn’t know one end of a controller from the other. Cal would beat the pants off you. And that’s my job.’

‘Ha ha. Shall I open a bottle of wine?’

‘If you want some. I’m going to have a beer or several. I’ve been very good all afternoon, avoided temptation because I was in charge of a minor and then I was driving. Now I’m letting my hair down – by all means join me with your namby-pamby wine.’

Although Matt’s bantering tone was light, I was sensing something slightly strange from him, the same slight weirdness I felt this morning. There was no point pushing it with him, he would withdraw and get defensive if I asked him what was wrong. He’d tell me soon enough if he didn’t sort it out, or at least I hoped he would. He busied himself making my dinner, and I put my head back in my book. It wasn’t long before the pasta was cooked and Matt brought it over with a glass of wine.

‘What, no table service?’

‘Didn’t seem much point just for you. Besides, I can sit beside you and do this.’

He bent down and kissed my neck, then nibbled my earlobe. It sent tingles of desire racing down to my core, but I concentrated on eating.

‘Mm, this is really good.’

‘I have to agree. Very tasty indeed.’

He licked my neck and gently kissed the curve of my jaw. He planted a few more tender kisses along my jaw until he reached the corner of my lips.

‘Hey, you should have made enough for two if you wanted some.’

‘I love it when you pretend you’re not interested.’

‘I am interested – in my dinner. You just made it for me, I’m eating it. And drinking my wine.’

I took a mouthful.

‘I’ve been thinking about you all afternoon, wondering about your new undies.’

‘Have you really? Not at all diverted by large men trying to squash each other then? I’m wearing them now.’

‘Really? Whoa.’

Matt pulled my top slightly to the side so he could see the lacy edge of my bra.

‘All looks bloody good so far. Peep-hole?’

‘No. What is it with you and holes in underwear? The whole point of underwear is to contain things, not to let them out.’

‘Ah, that’s my Jules, practical to the last.’

He bent down and kissed my breast where it disappeared into the lace of the bra. I felt a flicker of his tongue as he slid it behind the fabric. I ate another couple of mouthfuls, knowing that I wouldn’t get to finish my meal. Soon Matt would be driving me wild and my resistance would be over.

‘Matching knickers?’

Sighing, I put the plate down on the floor.

‘Yes.’

‘Yum. Bikinis?’

‘No.’

He put a hand on my thigh and slid it up a little way, to the hem of my skirt.

‘Shorts?’

‘No.’

‘French?’

‘No.’

With each answer, his hand crept further up my thigh, pulling the hem of the skirt with it. His fingers brushed the inside of my leg, until I was sure he would be able to feel my wetness.

‘Pantaloons?’

I laughed. ‘No.’

His hand crept higher and then stopped, just about at the point where he thought he would be able to feel the edge of my pants.

‘No fuking pants?’

He looked a bit confused.

‘No. Keep going.’

He pushed his hand up further, until finally his fingers encountered what they were searching for and he started to explore the fabric.

‘Oh my … Jules … thong?’

I nodded.

‘Holy shitmenot. Were there no other pants available in the whole of the city? I thought thongs were for when there was no other pants option.’

‘I thought you might like them. They’re particularly uncomfortable, so maybe the quicker you have a look and get them off me, the better.’

‘You got them for me?’

I nodded again. He grinned.

‘I don’t deserve you.’

‘No, you don’t. You bugger off all afternoon leaving me to read my book in peace, and then you cook me dinner when you come home even though you’ve had yours, you bastard, and then you rip my clothes off and –’

‘I haven’t ripped your clothes off.’

‘Are you waiting for permission?’

Our last night together was pretty incredible. We were totally immersed in each other, responding to each other without needing to talk, seeming to know when to slow down, when to speed up, when to kiss tenderly, when to fuck hard, who should be on top, when to use fingers, when to use tongues, when to stop, when to start again. It was the early hours before we finally went to sleep, utterly exhausted and completely satisfied, Matt curled up against my back, holding me tightly against him.

Matt

When I got back, I made a quick bite of pasta for Jules, and then we got lost in exploring her new underwear, and all the fun that brought to the bedroom. For a full description of all the frolics, see her account. She tells it well. It was our last time, the last fucking amazing time we were together, before …

54. Down with love

In which a seduction is interrupted, and mutual opinions are shared.

Julia

A short drive later, I stood in front of the array of doorbells at the entrance to Matt’s apartment, clutching a bunch of tulips I’d inexplicably picked up at the supermarket that afternoon,. None of the buttons had his name on and despite having been there twice before, I didn’t know the number of his flat. I had another look down the list of names and finally the initials MRS caught my eye. Didn’t he tell me his middle name was Robert? I pressed the button. If it wasn’t him, I could always ask for help.

‘Yup.’

Well it sounded like him.

‘Matt?’

‘Hey you. Come on up.’

The door clicked open and my heart rate rose as I made my way up the stairs. As I reached the top, wondering which way to turn, a door opened and Matt appeared in the doorway. He leaned on the door frame and looked at me.

‘Whoa, Jules, you are fucking hot.’

‘It doesn’t say ‘evil seducer’ on your doorbell, how do people know it’s you?’

‘Oh, I had to take it off, the queue got too long. Come in.’

Matt stepped aside, grinning, and held his hand out to me. I took it and he led me inside, closed the door and leaned down to kiss me lightly on the lips.

‘Do you realise this is the first time I’ve been here when I haven’t been an emotional wreck?’

‘Are you feeling OK?’

I nodded as he led me over to the sofa and we sat down. I realised I was still holding the tulips.

‘Here – I wanted to bring you something.’

‘Aw thanks Jules. I’m not sure anyone’s ever bought me flowers before. I’ll go and sort them out in a minute. But first, there’s something else I need to do.’

He took the flowers and put them on a low table, then leaned in towards me and kissed my lips again. His mouth was soft and gentle but insistent and I felt my cheeks flushing and desire rising through me. I kissed back, taking it as slowly and gently as he was, in no rush and enjoying the sensations his mouth was eliciting. I felt the flicker of his tongue along my top lip and responded with my own licks, opening my mouth to invite him in. His tongue was mobile and athletic and it searched out all the sensitive areas of my mouth, and our mouths explored each other sensuously. I put my arms round his neck and pulled his face against mine, feeling his hands in my hair holding my head still while he thrust deeper into my mouth with his tongue. My body felt ablaze with desire, I moaned and arched my back, pushing my breasts into his chest. He wrapped his arms round me and crushed me against him, moaning himself in turn. Then a shrill beeping startled us and we parted breathlessly, looking stunned into each others eyes.

‘Fuck it, that’s the oven timer. I’ll have to turn it off, it goes on for hours. Sorry.’

He stood up, running a finger down my cheek, picked up the flowers and headed to the kitchen area. I watched as he turned dials on the oven and filled a vase for the tulips. Another buzzer suddenly sounded. It came from the door. Matt turned towards it and swore.

‘Fuck it. It’s probably someone wanting me to let them in to another flat. They’ll move on if I don’t answer.’

It buzzed again, more insistently.

‘Whoever it is can piss right off.’

Then Matt’s mobile and land-line rang at the same time.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake. Sorry Julia.’

He answered his mobile and the land-line stopped ringing.

‘Fuck off Jay I’m busy … oh sorry Cal … oh … well is your mum there? Yeah let me have a word … hi Beth … well yeah I am but I’ve … oh alright if she’s desperate but I’ve got someone here for dinner, it’s just about ready. You can’t stay … OK buzz again I’ll let you in.’

He disconnected, walked to the door, and pressed the button when the buzzer sounded again.

‘Fuck. Sorry, there’s going to be a bit of a family invasion. My niece needs a pee, apparently, although why she has to come here fuck alone knows. They won’t stay.’

I was dismayed, and felt hugely self-conscious.

‘Should I wait in the bedroom or something?’

Matt laughed.

‘Don’t be bloody ridiculous woman. It’s only my brother, he doesn’t bite. They’ll be here for, like, seconds.’

There was a knock on the door. Matt opened it and extravagantly bowed them all in – a tall man with short dark wavy hair, a woman with a curly honey coloured bob, a grumpy looking boy with short blond hair and a small girl with masses of blonde curls who ran over to Matt and held her arms up to him. He picked her up.

‘Hey blondie. I hear you need to use my facilities?’

She looked at him seriously.

‘Go wee wee.’

‘OK. Go with Mummy. Quickly now.’

He put her down and looked at the woman, who took her by the hand and led her into the bathroom. There was an awkward pause while Matt pointedly didn’t introduce me, and the man and the boy wondered what to say. We could hear chatter from behind the bathroom door. The man cracked first.

‘Sorry to interrupt your evening, mate.’

‘Yeah. Why is my toilet the only one available?’

‘We were at the Pizza Place just down the road. Iz wouldn’t go in their one, she’s frightened of the picture on the wall or something. Beth thought you weren’t doing anything tonight, we didn’t think you’d mind.’

‘Yeah, well, turns out I have a life after all.’

‘So it would seem. I’m Jay, by the way. Matt’s big inconvenient brother.’

He directed this at me with a version of Matt’s crinkly smile, and then gestured at the blond boy.

‘This is Cal.’

I felt a bit sorry for Jay, as he was on the receiving end of a glower from Matt.

‘Hello. I’m Julia. Hi Cal, I like your Superman t-shirt.’

The boy shot me a shy smile that transformed his face. He had grey eyes like Matt’s and for an instant I could see the family resemblance. He looked up at Jay.

‘Dad …’

‘Oh yeah. Cal was wondering if he could borrow that X-box game you were telling him about.’

Matt sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

‘I’m not sure where it is Cal. I’ll look for it later and drop it round yeah?’

Cal nodded glumly. We heard the toilet flush and everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief until we remembered the hand washing and prepared for a bit of a longer wait. Jay cracked again.

‘Something smells good. ‘

‘Yeah that’ll be our dinner. I need to sort it out before its ruined.’

‘Sorry mate, we’ll be out of your hair as soon as Iz has finished.’

On cue the bathroom door opened and the little girl ran over to Matt again. He hoisted her up and kissed her on the cheek before putting her gently down again.

‘All done then?’

‘Yes. Thank you, sweetheart. Sorry to interrupt. I’m Beth, this is Iz.’

Again directed at me.

‘Hello, I’m Julia.’

‘OK then everyone, we’re just about to eat and you’re all so not invited. Goodbye, thanks for coming I will email a list of local public conveniences for your future reference needs.’

As Matt was speaking he was trying to herd them all towards the door. He succeeded with everyone except Iz who stood looking at me, twirling a yellow curl with a finger.

‘I Iz.’

‘I know. I’m Julia.’

‘Come on Isobel Flora Scott. Time to go.’

Matt picked her up and handed her to Jay who was waiting at the door.

‘Thanks mate. Sorry again to barge in. Don’t forget the game for Cal yeah?’

‘Yeah, I won’t forget, now get lost, please, before I ask you less politely.’

Jay grinned.

‘Oh mate, I could get offended, I’m sure Julia wouldn’t mind us staying for a –’

Matt closed the door in Jay’s laughing face, then turned and faced me.

‘I’m so sorry. If I didn’t know better I’d think my hilarious fuckwit of a brother had planned that. Right I’m turning both the phones off and ignoring the door from now on.’

He sat back down on the sofa and put his arm round me.

‘Where were we?’

‘I think dinner was ready.’

‘Oh fuck, it was. Are you hungry?’

He bent down and brushed my lips with his.

‘Actually, I am. My stomach’s rumbling. It does smell good.’

‘OK then. We’ve got all night, we can go slow and eat first. And I have spent ages cooking it, I suppose it shouldn’t go to waste.’

He kissed me again, this time sliding his tongue fleetingly between my lips. My insides turned to jelly at the same time as they gave out a huge gurgle. Matt pulled back, laughing.

‘Well I guess that told me. OK, I’m going to get dinner – I’ve done something light so we don’t get indigestion, hope you like salmon.’

I nodded.

‘Great. I’ve just got to do the pasta and hope everything else isn’t overdone thanks to my bloody brother and his weak bladdered children.’

I watched as Matt busied himself in the kitchen. Cooking wasn’t something I would have imagined he was proficient in but I’d had plenty of other preconceptions overturned recently, and he seemed to know what he was doing.

‘Is there anything I can do? Set the table or something?’

‘No, it’s all sorted.’

He indicated a small table in the corner by the window that I hadn’t noticed. It was laid for dinner, complete with tablecloth, vase of flowers and candle.

‘Maybe light the candle?’

He tossed me a long cylindrical lighter.

‘As it seems you still want the full seduction package.’

I caught the lighter and lit the candle, standing at the window to admire the city lights spread out before me. I felt Matt come up behind me. His arms circled my waist and he bent down and brushed his lips along my neck below my ear.

‘Fuck, you’re hot.’

It was a breathy whisper into my ear and it set off a swirl of tingles and spiralling sparks down my spine to the centre of me, which then continued their throbbing way down to settle between my legs. I sighed, leaned my head back against him, and reached up behind me to place my hand on the back of his neck, feeling his thick hair between my fingers.

‘How long till the pasta’s done?’

‘About five minutes.’

He moved his hands from around my waist, sliding them up until they cupped my breasts. He rubbed his thumbs over my nipples, making them stand proud, and causing a wave of throbbing to surge down within me.

‘Fucking hell, Jules – first no fuking pants, now no fuking bra. Are you trying to kill me?’

‘It wasn’t my intention, and would put a bit of a dampener on the evening. Just seemed like less bother in the long run.’

‘And fucking sexy as hell.’

Matt pushed his body against me and I could feel the nudge of his erection.

‘Fuck, Julia, I want you so much.’

It was another breathy moan into my ear, as he moved one hand down towards my belly and pulled me tightly into him while he started to press himself slowly against me. He suddenly span me round and pulled me into him again, his hands either side of my face holding me in place for a deep penetrating kiss. My hands went to the back of his neck and pulled him down hard to me, matching the passion and energy of his tongue with mine. I pressed myself up against him, feeling my nipples harden against his chest as we kissed and touched each other. His hands started to roam up and down my back and then I felt them slide downwards over the curve of my buttocks. In my turn I slid my hands down his arms, feeling the taut lean muscles there, then ran one hand down past the waistband of his trousers to cup his bum cheek. It was small, firm and squeezable, so I squeezed it. My other hand had just started an exploration round to the front of his trousers when the oven timer went off again. We both froze. Matt groaned in annoyance.

‘Fuck the sodding pasta. Bollocks. How hungry are you?’

The naked desire in his eyes almost swayed me but I was really hungry.

‘Pretty ravenous. I’ve hardly eaten since lunchtime yesterday.’

Matt nodded.

‘OK, I can do this. Right. Drain pasta. Adjust massive hard-on. Not necessarily in that order. Jules, you are going to be the death of me.’

Matt hobbled to the kitchen, where he crashed some pans unnecessarily loudly. I stood and watched him until he felt my gaze on him and turned to look back at me.

‘What?’

‘Nothing. Just admiring the view.’

‘You …’ He waved a pasta strainer at me. ‘… have hidden depths of wicked. You are so going to pay for making me wait.’

‘I thought you were planning a long seduction? Isn’t that what all this is in aid of?’

‘I know, I know. You’re just bloody irresistible. My good intentions have crumbled.’

‘Uncontrollable shag monster?’

‘Not yet, but you are sorely trying my willpower.’

‘Good things come to he who waits.’

‘Not if he who waits explodes before getting to the thing he’s been waiting for.’

I laughed. Truth be told, I could almost have foregone dinner to get to where we had been heading, but only almost. I was so hungry, I felt light-headed, and I wanted to be in as full control of my faculties as was possible.

Matt finally finished in the kitchen, and carried two steaming plates over to the table. We sat down, and started to eat. The food was unbelievably good. He had made salmon with linguine in a red pepper sauce, and it was delicious. I tried to eat slowly, to savour it, but I was so hungry I wolfed it down.

‘God, Matt, this is wonderful. I’m so glad we didn’t skip it.’

‘You do seem to be enjoying it. You’ve got sauce on your chin – here.’

He reached over and wiped my chin with his finger, then put his finger to his lips and sucked slowly, a twinkle in his eye. As a rejoinder to his clichéd gesture, I slowly licked my lips, all the way round. His eyes crinkled and he took my hand, leaving me one to hold my fork. He held my fingers and gently stroked them, sending little waves of pleasure running through me. We didn’t talk much during the meal, but held each other’s gaze for long periods. As soon as we had finished, Matt cleared the plates. I thought we might start where we had left off, but he went to a table and slotted his phone into a dock, then turned it on. Soft music filled the flat.

‘I’m back in seduction mode. I feel like dancing. Would you do me the honour?’

He stood in the middle of the floor and held his hand out to me. I stood up and walked over to him, and he held me close, while we swayed to the music. It reminded me of when we had stood here, like this, that first time in his flat, when he had just held me close and comforted me and I’d felt safe.

His arm round me, and my hand held close to his chest, felt right and I snuggled close to him as the music flowed over us and around us and pulled us together. After a while, he tilted my chin up with his finger and leaned down to kiss me softly on the lips. I put my arms round his neck and clung on while his arms went round my waist and pulled me tightly against him so I could feel his hardness growing. I moaned into his mouth and he pushed his tongue forcefully into mine, parting my lips and thrusting deep inside. I felt as well as heard him groan, the noise vibrating in my mouth, shooting shudders of longing deep down inside me. He suddenly pulled away. I made a small noise of disappointment. He held the sides of my face.

‘I think that’s enough bloody seducing. Yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

I smiled up at him.

‘Come on then. Uncontrollable shag monster it is.’

Iz

OK, peeps, there now follows a parental guidance type warning. I don’t really remember Julia, so I can’t say whether I would have expected this of her or not, but she pulls no punches as far as describing sex with Matty. Matty tried it a bit with the Carrie story, but that was nothing, so I didn’t even bother with the PG rating. I don’t know how Lau managed to read this, let alone put it out there for the rest of us, but in the spirit of not changing too much I’ve left it in. So don’t say you haven’t been warned, alright? I don’t want any complaints like ‘Oh Iz, I was reading this out loud to Lil as a bedtime story and before I knew it I’d scarred her for life’, alright? You have been warned.

Julia

He grabbed my hand and pulled me with him, dragging me in his wake as he made his way to the bedroom. I barely had time to notice the soft lighting and the petals spread on the bed before his hands were on me, pulling the top of my dress down to expose my breasts. He bent his head to my nipples and pulled them into his mouth as I pulled his shirt out of his trousers, unbuttoned it and pushed it down his arms. He was sucking my nipples into hardened peaks, and it was driving me wild. I fumbled with his belt, eventually undoing it, but was thwarted by the buttons and zip, which I couldn’t reach while Matt continued his one-man assault on my chest. Eventually he finished suckling my breasts, and began a long lick between them up past the hollow of my throat, along the bottom of my chin to my mouth where his tongue thrust into me again. Now able to reach, but not to see, I renewed my efforts to undo his trousers. He realised what I was doing and pushed my hands out of the way to do it for me, his trousers finally dropping to the floor with a thud.

My hands found what they were looking for – a large bulge in the front of his boxers. He groaned, as I held his penis and squeezed it through the fabric of his boxers, and then we both just lost control. I wanted him in me so much, I pulled his boxers down, pulled my dress up and pulled him on top of me. He shoved my pants to the side and thrust my legs apart, pausing for a second to glance at what was revealed. I reached for him and held on with both hands, guiding him into me, then felt him push away. I looked at him, confused.

‘Hold on, just a second.’

He reached over to a drawer by the bed, and got out a condom, in its wrapper.

‘OK, here we go then.’

‘But I’m on the pill.’

Matt looked at me.

‘And you said you were clean. So am I. We don’t need it.’

‘Seriously, Jules?’

I nodded.

‘Holy fuck.’

He leaned in again and pushed into me almost immediately, hard and fast, and it was so, so good. I arched my back to meet him and we pushed and pummelled into each other, feeling the shock-waves surging through us as we became one, racing to the destination we’d been heading for all night. As I felt my climax begin to build, I started to cry out, wanting more but not wanting it to end. Matt started to shout; we were both saying unintelligible things and making loud noises.

‘Oh fuck, Jules, fuck, ahh, unh.’

‘Yes, yes, ohh God yes.’

As his thrusts increased their pace, the sensation within me crescendoed and much as I wanted it to last, I suddenly felt an explosion that overwhelmed my senses, and my whole body pulsated with my orgasm. I vaguely heard Matt shouting my name, and I felt him thrust up into me in three hard, shuddering pushes, and then he collapsed on top of me, panting hard, a huge smile on his face.

After a while, Matt’s weight was crushing me, and I pushed him over onto his side, where he pulled me close to him and we kissed each other gently. I looked into his face, and he was still smiling.

‘Fuuuucking hell, Jules, that was so worth the wait. You are so fucking hot.’

‘Mm.’

‘Yeah, Matt, you’re pretty fucking hot yourself, I really bloody well enjoyed that.’

‘Mm.’

‘Actually I’d quite like to have another go, as I can see you’re still quite excited down there.’

‘Mm – what?’

Matt looked down at himself, where he was still erect.

‘Really?’

‘Fuck yeah. Any chance?’

‘Well, maybe if I can get the rest of my clothes off …’ He helped me wriggle out of my dress and pants. ‘… and with the right encouragement …’

‘What, you mean like this …’

He kissed me on the lips, parting them with his tongue and flicking gently but insistently inside, then moving from my mouth, kissing his way down my chin, along the side of my jaw to my neck and from there to my collarbone and onto the curve of my breast, where he kissed and licked and sucked until my nipple found its way into his mouth, and he suckled me with his mouth while his fingertips drew circles round my other nipple, and flicked it and pinched it, causing little throbs and shots of heat and tingling rush from all over my body to gather, fizzing, between my legs.

‘Yes, that is doing the trick quite nicely.’

Matt continued to lick and suck, but started to trail his tongue down my body, past my navel to the top of my curls. He took as much of me into his mouth as he could, and licked and kissed and slurped until I was nearly begging him to fuck me. I groaned loudly and reached for his hair, to hold him to me. The exquisite fizzing continued and grew as Matt’s tongue explored all of me, flickering inside gently, then more forcefully, and his fingers moved over my clitoris, bringing peaks of pleasure bubbling towards his fingers. I could finally take no more.

‘Fuck me. Please Matt.’

He looked up at me, juices from both of us running down his chin, and grinned.

‘Thought you’d never ask. Fuck, you taste bloody good, though. Here –’

Before I could stop him, he had clamped his mouth to mine, and I was tasting myself as he ran his tongue round my mouth and sucked my lips into his. It was surprisingly erotic, tasting myself on him, and I moaned again, feeling the noise vibrate through his jaw.

I felt his penis nudge at me, and I opened my legs wider. He pushed up, still kissing me but holding himself above me with his arms. I felt downwards and guided him into me, this time feeling him slowly pushing in and filling me up. I gasped with the sensation, he felt so completely part of me; I surrounded him. I squeezed him from the inside, eliciting a low moan.

‘Fuck yeah, more please.’

I squeezed again, and he began to slowly push, withdrawing and pushing back in slowly enough that the feeling of him sliding in and out gave me goose-bumps. Propping himself on one arm, his other hand found my clitoris and started describing lazy circles around it, then flicked it and rubbed it, creating ripples of pleasure inside me. I wrapped my legs round his back and pulled him into me as deep as he would go, and he started to thrust faster and deeper, becoming more vocal as he increased his speed.

‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, yeah, yeah, ohh, unhh.’

His sounds spurred me on and I lifted my hips to meet his, moving my fingers to my clitoris when he needed his arm for support again. We moved together and moaned together, kissing each other deeply and passionately, tongues moving inside as we moved inside and against each other. I felt him swell, and my climax built correspondingly, just as he let out a loud shout and shuddered inside me, one, two, three times, sighing my name. I clamped my legs around him and felt myself splinter against him as I fell away from the world, saying his name and invoking several deities as I did so.

Matt

The next day, though, all noble thoughts went out of the window, and in true Jules fashion, we made an appointment for me to seduce her. And seduce her I did, and whoa, it was fucking amazing.

Julia

I came to, wrapped up in Matt’s arms, my face buried in his chest. I looked up at him to find him smiling his crinkly smile, one eyebrow raised.

‘Don’t tell me you want to go again?’

‘No. Not yet anyway.’

Yet? Jesus.

‘That was wonderful.’

‘I know. Hell of a story for the team tomorrow morning.’

In a panic I looked up at him, to see him laughing at me.

‘You’re so fucking easy to tease, Jules.’

I slapped his arm lightly.

‘Know what, you’ve been letting me get away with calling you Jules for fucking ages. Have I earned it now?’

I put on my most serious expression.

‘Actually, Matt, I think you’ve got a bit of a way to go before you have that right. I’ve been hearing things from my friends, I still don’t know who you’re going to tell, or even if you’re going to stick around now you’ve got what you wanted.’

There was a short silence while Matt processed this, a frown deepening above his eyes.

‘You still don’t trust me.’

He sounded so hurt, I gave in more quickly than I had intended to.

‘You’re so fucking easy to tease, Matt.’

I saw it dawn on him, and then the relief that followed.

‘You bloody cow. OK, you got me, I should remember you’re the Ice Queen. But look, just in case even part of that was true, I kept these –’

He put his hand under his pillow and pulled out a small scrap of black material.

‘– to remind me how it feels to get carried away and become an uncontrollable shag monster.’

I looked at the material in his hand, and with a start recognised it as the torn underwear I had stuffed under a cushion when I had been dressing to leave that first time.

‘Why have you got my pants under your pillow?’

‘Well, I suppose it might look a bit weird.’

I nodded.

‘I’m not a stalker or anything. It’s just … I was so … so fucking ashamed after that time with you, when you were so upset but I just couldn’t stop myself. When I found these under the cushion, after you’d gone, and remembered what I’d done, how out of control I’d been, so much that I ripped these off you, well it shocked me. I don’t want to ever do that to anyone again, unless we both know what we’re doing. I was scared of what I’d become, what I could go on becoming, how little I’d cared about how you were feeling. I put them here to remind me. It’s not what it looks like. I don’t sniff them before I go to sleep or anything.’

‘Oh, you don’t have a knicker fetish then.’

‘Well … maybe a little one. Let’s be generous and call it a special interest. I’m just as interested in no fuking pants, especially when it’s you not wearing them. I even extend my special interest to all underwear, when you’re the one not wearing it.’

‘You are a bit of a perv, aren’t you.’

‘Can’t deny it. Problem?’

‘I suppose at least I know where I stand.’

‘Standing is a bit exhausting, maybe next time.’

‘Oh you’re very sure there’s going to be a next time.’

‘Oh come on Jules, that was fucking awesome. Whatever your friends have told you about me, it’s got to be worth doing that again.’

By now I was lying in Matt’s arms, our legs tangled up, our bodies touching and our faces close to each other.

‘Well, I did get a version of the Petra story. I’m glad you told me about that before Evie did.’

‘Fuck. I suppose there are more things you ought to know aren’t true. I thought they were amusing at the time, but shit, when someone you care about might actually believe them, they’re a bit less fucking hilarious. What have you heard?’

I put on my best sanctimonious voice.

‘I try not to listen to salacious office gossip that doesn’t concern me.’

‘Mm hm, and what have you heard, while you were trying so bloody hard not to listen?’

‘I’m sure you know it all – you were the star performer in it, after all.’

‘Jules, I’m being serious now. I know there’s a lot of shit said about me, I’ve encouraged a lot of it, and I know what’s true and what isn’t, but you don’t. I’ve got a reputation, and some of it’s deserved and I’m not proud of it. But some of the other crap, like the STDs, I don’t want you thinking stuff like that about me, I mean, yeah, I’ve been an inconsiderate bastard, a bit of a ‘taker’, as you called me, but I’d never knowingly fuck around if I had something nasty. So if you’ve heard that, which you very well could have before I told you, there might be other things you’ve heard, and you might wonder about them, because some of them will be true. Christ, I sound like some big-headed pumped up stud wanker – ooh what you must have heard about me – I really am not like that. Not really. I’ve been an inconsiderate twat, and enjoyed the infamy a bit too much. So, if there’s anything you’re wondering about, tell me, and I’ll tell you if it’s true.’

‘Anything?’

‘Anything. I will undoubtedly have heard it.’

‘Six times in one night with Kate Parling?’

‘Ha! If only. More like six hours of her chattering. I can’t even remember if we did it or not, all I can remember is her wittering on.’

‘In the Ladies at Brass with Shelly Stevens, while her boyfriend was queuing at the bar.’

‘Er, not quite in the Ladies. Found an unlocked storeroom next to the Ladies. Rest of it’s true. Not my proudest moment. Especially as he bought me a drink too. And thanked me for looking after Shelly while he’d been gone.’

‘Are any of these your proudest moments? I hope not. Told Jane Griffin you loved her and then shagged her best friend.’

‘Complete lie. I have never told any woman I loved them … well, not since … not in this city anyway.’

‘Threesome in a camper van with Sarah Dell and Becky Carter.’

‘Fuck me, I so wish that was bloody true. No, one woman at a time’s enough for me, I’m not good at multi-tasking. Sarah and Becky probably had their own thing going in a camper van though. I may have been a smokescreen.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, stick with me kid, you’ll get all the best goss.’

‘Made Jen Anderson have an abortion.’

‘Fuck no! I never even slept with her, I just tongued her at a party and she got all clingy so I ditched her for … fucked if I can remember who, actually.’

‘Got off with a disabled woman and dumped her.’

Matt gasped, his eyes went wide, then something akin to shame crossed his face. He looked away from me and swallowed.

‘Shit. That is, actually, horribly true. There were extenuating circumstances, I wasn’t exactly well myself … but yeah, I was that bastard. Jules, you get the drift. There’s a lot of shit out there. I can’t say I don’t deserve it, I’ve dicked about for too long, in more ways than one. I think I’ve come to my senses. If you’re interested in excuses, there might be some deep psychological reason. I was hurt pretty badly just before I moved down here, just when I got ill, and when I started getting better, I don’t know, was it revenge, or just didn’t give a shit, wanted to have some no-strings fun, and it all just got out of hand. I’m still not a great one for strings, but I think I’ve just started to see things from the other person’s point of view. I’ve been pretty lucky. I could have got and given all sorts of horrible infections. I could have got some woman pregnant. Shit, it doesn’t really bear thinking about. None of it covers me in glory, or really recommends me to you, I know that, you’d be entitled at any point now or in the future just to say ‘sod you, mate, you’re a tosser of the first order, I’m off’ and I wouldn’t blame you. All I can say is I’ve seen the error of my ways. I can’t change what I’ve done, but I am trying really hard to be different. Maybe more like I used to be before.’

‘What did you have?’

‘What?’

‘You said you were ill. It must have been pretty serious if your brother had to look after you.’

Matt was silent. I felt him close himself off from me as he shut his eyes and breathed deeply. I watched his face as he struggled with himself over whether to tell me, or maybe it was how much to tell me. When he pulled me towards him and wrapped me up in his arms, I thought he wasn’t going to tell me, that he was going to distract us both by kissing me, and that was fine. Then he pulled back and looked into my eyes, rolled over onto his back and put his arm round me. I couldn’t see his face.

‘No one knows this. Except Phil. You remember the secret I was going to tell you, in the hidey hole?’

I nodded.

‘I bottled it, when I told you I had a crush on you. That was, is, true, but it wasn’t what I was going to tell you. Shit, Julia, no one else knows.’

I reached up and stroked his cheek.

‘It’s alright, you don’t have to tell me. But if you do, I won’t tell anyone. I’m sorry, I just thought as you’d mentioned it a couple of times that you were alright with it.’

He laughed bitterly.

‘Yeah, I suppose I am alright with it in a kind of Matt Scott let’s pretend it’s not happening kind of way. OK, Jules. Here’s the thing. Here’s the fucking thing. I’ve got this fucking bastard thing called fucking bastard MS.’

‘What? But that’s – God, I was going to say that’s really serious. I’m sure you’re aware of that.’

‘It’s even more serious when you also get pneumonia that nearly kills you. It was a bloody long time before I was back on my feet.’

‘But you’re … you seem fine. I thought MS was one of those things where you end up in a wheelchair.’

‘It can be. Or it can go away and never come back, if you’re fucking lucky, or it can come and go all your life, slowly chipping away at you. So far, I’m in the fucking lucky category.’

‘I would never have known.’

‘I keep myself fit. It doesn’t make any sodding difference, I’m quite sure, but it helps me to think I’m doing something to keep it at bay.’

‘But – did she leave you knowing you had it?’

‘How do you know she left me?’

‘You said someone hurt you when you got ill, I was just assuming.’

‘Oh. Well, yeah. Holy crap, Julia, I never talk about this shit.’

‘Then don’t. It’s fine. You don’t owe me any explanations.’

‘Well, thanks. But I think maybe I owe you a bit of truth after all the shit you’ve heard about me. I’ll tell you as much as I can, some of it’s just too hard.’

‘Alright.’

‘She was called Carrie. We’d been together for about eighteen months. We’d just moved in together when I started dropping things, tripping over, my vision went all blurry. I thought I was just tired, I had a pretty full-on job, and I was exhausted most of the time. But my sister-in-law, Beth, she was here earlier, she’s a nurse, and after I came down to see them one time, she badgered me to go to the doctor’s, and that’s when it all hit the fan. Anyway, work were pretty understanding, they let me cut my hours back, but Carrie couldn’t get her head round it at all. We had so many arguments. We’d never really argued before, but she just kept asking what was going to happen, how we were going to pay for everything. I was still trying to get to grips with it all myself, and I didn’t have any answers. In the end she left me for her ex-boyfriend. She couldn’t cope with being the bad one who left a fucking cripple for someone else, so she told everyone I’d fucked around and had fucking HIV. I didn’t know what she’d told them at the time, so all my friends stopped calling me, just like that. They didn’t answer when I rang. I couldn’t understand it. Then I got the flu, and next thing I know I wake up in hospital, family gathered round the bed, practically having the last fucking rites. Apparently my mum had been trying to ring me, and was worried when she couldn’t get a reply, so risked the wrath of Matt, who does not take kindly to people fussing over him, and came over to see if I was OK. I was passed out on the bathroom floor, severely dehydrated and apparently minutes from death. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but Mum was told if she’d left it another few hours, it might have been too late. Anyway, back to the lovely Carrie; while I was out of it in hospital, she took the opportunity to clear the flat of all my worldly goods. She left me the pile-of-crud sofa and her Robbie Williams poster. It was great to wake up to that, really made my fucking life worth living.’

‘Oh Matt.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had a lot of that, it’s one of the reasons I don’t tell people. I don’t do sympathy – giving or getting really. I’d rather arse about, pretend it’s not happening.’

‘That’s not true. You’re kind and understanding. You’ve been great to me the last couple of weeks.’

Matt was silent, and shook his head. I reached for his hand and held it tightly.

‘So are you saying that this Matt the Lad persona is some kind of payback for what happened to you? Or proving some kind of point?’

‘It’s the nearest I can come to an explanation. I don’t really analyse it. Or didn’t, until I – we – did what we did the other week, and I had to make myself think about the whys so I could stop it happening again. Jules, please, please don’t let this bastard MS stuff change how you think about me, don’t pity me, I couldn’t fucking bear it.’

‘Alright. But I don’t see any need for pity, you seem fit and well and have a cushy part time job where you can come and go as you please. I almost feel jealous.’

‘Hey, that’s a new one, feeling jealous of the fucking cripple. Like it.’

‘Have you ever heard from her?’

‘Carrie? Yeah, once, a few months after I got out of hospital. I was staying at Jay’s, I don’t know how she got the number. She rang me, wanting her share of the deposit on the flat we’d rented. While I was in hospital, Jay and Beth had dealt with all that, sorted it out so she was responsible for everything including the mess I’d left in the bathroom the day I collapsed. She didn’t even ask how I was, she just wanted to have a go at me for leaving it all to her, and to try and get money out of me. I’d just started to get better, it set me back a way. In the end Beth took the phone off me and gave her a right fucking earful. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing from her since.’

‘Did you love her?’

‘Yeah, I did, she rocked my world, but how can I say that, really, because the person I loved wasn’t who she was. She was this shallow, superficial person who bailed at the first hint of trouble, and I don’t think she can ever have loved me. I don’t think I’ll ever let myself feel that way about anyone again.’

‘It’s overrated.’

‘What?’

‘Love. It’s a societal construct that is used for other people’s gain, to put pressure on us to conform, be the same as everyone else, and ultimately spend our hard earned cash buying into all the hoopla that goes with it. Wedding dresses, teddy bears carrying love hearts, Valentine’s Day, all the rest of it.’

‘Bloody hell, Julia, that’s a bit harsh.’

‘It’s how I feel.’

‘So no love for you either?’

‘No.’

‘We could be made for each other.’

I laughed.

‘How ironic.’

‘Well, if not love, how about round three? Or is it four? Do we count the other day?’

‘We don’t have to count at all. I think maybe I should go soon.’

‘What? You’re bailing on me? You’re not staying the night?’

‘Well, another thing I’ve heard about Matt Scott is that he never, ever stays the night. I wouldn’t like to kick you out of your own flat, so it’s only fair that I’m the one to go.’

‘That is actually true. I’ve never stayed the night, even with those who lasted longer than one night. But you’re setting a bit of a precedent, as you’re the first to make it up here. Many have tried but all have failed.’

‘You’ve seriously never had another woman in your flat?’

‘No. It doesn’t really fit my image. It gives too much away about me. Fuck, I’m as much of a bloody control freak as you are, aren’t I?’

‘I think that would be hard to achieve. Don’t we all have a few things we need to control?’

‘Maybe. I guess we’ll find out as we go. Assuming we are still going somewhere after all this.’

‘I seem to remember when we first started all this madness, we mentioned a clean slate. We’ve both got history, but maybe each time you start with someone new, it’s different, so you have to try to disregard it to some extent.’

Matt

And I told her. I told her about the bastard MS, and how I’d nearly died, and all that shit. I’d never actually told anyone before. I mean, yeah, there were people who knew, people who had been through it with me, family, and I’d mumbled my way through some kind of an explanation at work in Stafford. But I’d never actually told anyone, face to face; even Phil only knew because I’d said Eyeti could tell him.

Julia

He turned onto his side and looked at me.

‘What’s your history? You know more about me, real or imagined, than most people get to know about anyone in a year, let alone a couple of weeks. What’s the Julia Marran story?’

He propped himself up on his elbow and brushed my hair back from my face. I thought for a moment, wondering how much to share. I was always careful with personal information, but Matt had revealed so much, I felt I needed to reciprocate.

‘There’s not much to tell, really. I don’t have quite as impressive a back catalogue as you.’

‘Come on, Jules. Spill. You didn’t get that fucking good without a fair amount of practice.’

‘Would you like a list, or comparative data –’

‘I’d like you to stop procrastinating and tell me your sordid secrets.’

‘Alright. Well, my first boyfriend, when I was thirteen –’

‘A bit more recent. You really don’t like parting with your bloody info do you?’

‘No, I suppose not. Alright.’

I took a deep breath.

‘I’ve had a few longish relationships, no one you’d know, I ended them all when it looked like a proposal was on the cards. That’s it, really. Nothing for a while, I’ve been too busy at work.’

‘OK, so … nothing even the slightest bit sordid?’

I shook my head.

‘I’m disappointed. We may have to rectify that pretty soon. Every girl needs a sordid secret.’

Without warning, he flipped me onto my back and held my wrists above my head with one hand.

‘Bit of bondage?’

I wriggled to escape his grip, but he shifted his weight so his chest was pinning mine. He clamped his lips to my lips, forcing his tongue into my mouth and pushing his mouth hard against me. I tried to speak, and he pulled back a little, eyebrows raised, lips pursed.

‘Sorry, was there something you wanted to share?’

‘Alright. Been there, done that. Daniel. About two years ago. Didn’t do it for me.’

‘Daniel or bondage?’

‘Both, in the end.’

‘Poor Dan. OK, this is more like it, though. How about …’

He released my wrists and slid off me, then made circles of his fingers and thumbs and placed them over my nipples.

‘… dressing up. Peep-hole bra, crotchless knickers, suspenders – fuck, need to think about cleaning the toilet for a few seconds. Although I could just do this instead …’

He removed his fingers and thumbs and replaced them with his mouth, sucking my nipple into tingling peaks of sensation, smiling when I gasped.

‘Thomas used be into cosplay. He got a bit obsessed though, and when he gave me a PVC police woman’s uniform for my birthday, it was time to say good bye oh my God.’

This last was as he gently bit one nipple and pinched the other, sending fizzing electricity racing to my core.

‘So no go for Tom either. You have high standards. I’m guessing this is a no, but …’

He pulled me onto my side and ran his hand down from my waist over the swell of my buttocks and then lightly touched in between them. I pulled away and turned onto my back.

‘Not there, then.’

‘No. That’s for outgoing, not incoming. Peter wanted to, but I was quite clear on the matter. Have you ever?’

Matt looked sheepish.

‘There’s not much I haven’t attempted in the last few years to be honest. So Pete got the heave-ho too. Are you a straight missionary girl, then?’

‘Not always.’

‘Ooh, on top?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘From behind?’

‘Yes, Alexander was actually very good at that.’

‘You are fucking kidding me, you have not been fucked from behind by someone called Alec fucking xander. He wouldn’t have it in him.’

I held his gaze and raised an eyebrow.

‘Oh, so now there’s a challenge. Yeah, I will be better than dear old Alec.’

He grabbed my waist and turned me over. I didn’t resist much, and allowed him to lift my hips into the air.

‘Whoa, Jules, you have a fucking magnificent arse.’

Placing a hand on each hip, he bent his head down and pushed his face between my legs. I felt him start to kiss and lick me, and it sent fiery arrows of desire racing around my body.

‘You taste so fucking good.’

He spoke into me, and the buzzing of his voice ignited me. I grabbed handfuls of sheet and pushed myself back against his face. I felt him chuckle, and then his tongue lapped my clitoris and I nearly exploded. He pulled back a bit.

‘Ah ah, not yet. Wait for me.’

He straightened up behind me and I felt him position himself and then slowly push in. I groaned as he called out.

‘Fuuuucking hell, Jules. Whoo. Awesome.’

He pushed as far as he could go, and then bent forwards over me, reaching round underneath to rub my clitoris with his fingertips. I clenched my inner muscles and heard him moan in my ear.

‘Yeah, Jules, I fucking love it when you do that.’

He started to thrust, pulling out slowly and pushing back in so I could feel every movement inside me, then becoming more insistent. I pushed back into him, and his fingers on my clitoris quickly brought me to the edge of a throbbing climax.

‘Matt, I’m going to come.’

‘Fuck, me too. Here we go …’

And he sped up his thrusting and stroking, and shouted out my name as we disappeared into each other in a whirl of throbbing, tingling sparks and waves.

I collapsed on my front, Matt’s weight on top of me. We were both panting, and Matt’s breath was tickling in my ear. Just as I was starting to struggle for breath, he rolled away and lay on his back, an arm flung over his face, which sported a huge grin. I rolled over onto my back and pulled the sheet over me, smiling myself. We turned our heads and looked at each other.

‘Was that better than dear old Alec?’

‘It would be impolite to compare.’

‘Oh come on, Jules. You know that was fucking awesome. I must have beaten Alec fucking xander.’

‘You’re very needy, aren’t you.’

‘I’m not good at much. This is my area of expertise, there’s a lot at stake.’

‘Aah, poor Matt’s feeling insecure. Well, Alexander really was rather good, he did a little wiggly thing that drove me wild –’

‘I can do wiggly things, I just didn’t want to show you all my moves at once. Come on, roll over, I’ll show you my wiggly thing –’

‘No, I can’t do any more tonight, I need to be able to walk tomorrow.’

‘You’re killing me Jules.’

‘… you were better though.’

He looked at me with a delighted smile and raised both arms in celebration.

‘Yes! He shoots, he scores. I fucking love you, Julia Marran.’

He was laughing as he said it, not meaning it for a second.

‘Well that’s as maybe, but I should be going.’

He turned towards me and put an arm over my torso.

‘No, please don’t. I want to – fuck, there’s so much I want to do. I want to –’

‘I can’t do any more. I’m not an uncontrollable shag monster, unlike some.’

‘I didn’t mean that, I’m fucking knackered too, really, I meant hold you, talk to you – we haven’t even had dessert yet.’

‘Did you make it or buy it?’

‘Made it.’

‘What is it?’

‘Raspberry pavlova.’

‘Hmm. That was a lucky choice. It’s my favourite.’

‘So you’ll stay for dessert?’

‘Alright.’

‘Where do you want it – at the table or licked off my arse?’

‘Well, delightful as your arse is, the table would be more hygienic.’

‘But nowhere near as much fun. Did you just call my arse delightful?’

‘It might have slipped out.’

‘So tell me, Julia, what exactly it is that you find delightful about the arse of Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘I thought you changed your middle name to Persistence.’

‘You’ve got an annoyingly good memory.’

‘So I’m told, usually by people who don’t want to be reminded of things they’ve fibbed about. I’m still not eating pavlova off your arse.’

‘Oh alright, I haven’t got the energy to fucking argue.’

He pulled his hand away from my torso and pushed himself up on an elbow.

‘Table it is. Naked?’

‘No.’

‘Hardly worth it, then.’

‘I’m beginning to think you’re making excuses because you don’t think your raspberry pavlova’s up to much.’

‘Oh you are bloody evil. You know I can’t resist a challenge. I bet Alec never made you a pavlova, or Dan. Or Tom. Pete might have done, to try to persuade you to take it up the arse … hey, if it’s really good, would you –’

‘No. Not even if it’s the best pavlova I’ve ever had.’

He sat up, grinning, and reached for his shirt which was crumpled on the floor. Then, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he bent down for his boxers, picked up my dress and flung it to me.

‘Seems a shame to cover up that awesome body, but if it’s the only way to get you to stay for dessert …’

I pulled the dress over my head and looked up to see him dangling my pants from one finger. I put my head to one side as if considering.

‘Is no fuking bra and no fuking pants a good compromise?’

He dropped the pants on the floor.

‘It’s almost fuking better. Come on then.’

He held his hand out and I shuffled across the bed to take it. As I stood up, he folded me up in his arms, kissing my neck, my throat and eventually my lips.

‘I’m glad we got the sex out of the way, then. Fuck, I never want to bloody well do that again as long as I live.’

‘Yes, it was a useful exercise in self-restraint.’

‘You are fucking awesome.’

‘I like you too.’

‘Dessert?’

‘If you don’t dish it up soon, I’m going to go and get something from the Pizza Place that I believe is just up the road.’

‘OK, go and sit down then. It’s just in the fridge.’

I sat at the table and watched Matt moving around the kitchen in his boxer shorts and undone shirt, amazed at how comfortable I felt with him, and how much I had enjoyed this evening. The sex had been outstandingly good, but because we’d talked as well, I felt close to Matt, closer than I would have imagined possible. I didn’t believe in love, but I had started to like him an awful lot.

Matt brought two dishes of pavlova to the table. He sat down and poured us a glass of wine each. We clinked glasses. He loaded a spoon and then held it out for me; I collected the mouthful and savoured it. It was very good.

‘Wow. Where on earth did you learn to cook?’

‘My mum. My dad died when I was really little, and she brought me and Jay up on her own. I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen.’

‘So is your brother a good cook as well?’

Matt seemed to find this hilarious.

‘Fuck no, Jay could burn water, even has once or twice. He was always more interested in playing football with his friends. He’d sit in the corner scowling if he wasn’t allowed out.’

‘What does he do?’

‘Jay?’

I nodded.

‘You haven’t heard of Jay Scott?’

I shook my head, and was rewarded with a delighted expression on Matt’s face.

‘Fucking hell, I’ve been waiting years to hear someone say that in this fucking city. Julia, you’ve made my day. Quite apart from the frankly superb sexual intercourse we have just engaged in, you also have no fucking clue who my brother is.’

I was puzzled, I hadn’t recognised Jay earlier, neither had I got a vibe from him that he was anyone particularly important or expected me to recognise him.

‘Who is he then?’

‘He’s a rugby player, or rather was, played for England. He’s a coach now, assistant coach of Raiders. Every time I tell someone he’s my brother, it’s like ‘oh you’re Jay Scott’s brother, what’s he like? I had a huge crush on him when he played for Raiders’. You’ve really never heard of him?’

Oh. Sport. I shook my head.

‘I don’t watch sport, there isn’t a single one I have any time for.’

‘Oh, and just as I was starting to think you were perfect.’

‘Well nobody is, but this pavlova comes pretty close. It’s so good. How did you get the meringue just right?’

‘Took a couple of goes. You need the right oven temperature. You have to not mind wasting eggs.’

I started giggling.

‘What?’

‘Sorry. It’s just, of all the things I would have thought I’d be doing, if I’d ever imagined myself having an evening of unbridled passion with you, which until a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have … well the last thing I would have imagined would be getting advice on the perfect meringue.’

Matt laughed.

‘I’m full of surprises. And pretty predictable in many other ways.’

‘So … now we have actually got the sex out of the way, in a pretty spectacular fashion, now what? I don’t mean I want to plan the next six months down to the last detail, but … can we at least say if we want to carry on?’

‘Ha ha, Jules, yeah, like I’m going to let you out of my fucking grasp now. I need more of this, I want to see you, lots.’

‘Well you’ll see me every day at work.’

‘I’ll see the Ice Queen at work. That’s not you. Think you can keep it up? Even when you’re thinking about everything we just did?’

‘You’ll be amazed. I’ll be so cool tomorrow, you’ll doubt you ever had your face buried in my bum.’

Despite my words, just the memory of Matt licking me from behind sent shivers down there, and I wondered how well I would be able to keep my composure.

‘Well maybe I’ll need a reminder pretty soon, then. How about we arrange a time for me to bury my face in your bum again, later this week? And maybe do some other stuff together? I go for a hike most weekends. Fancy joining me? You said you had boots and a backpack.’

‘That sounds wonderful. I haven’t been for a proper walk for ages. And I’m not doing anything on Friday. Maybe I could cook for you?’

‘A home cooked meal and a good face burying. Can’t be beat. Oh, er, I assume your place means, er, your bed?’

‘Let’s see how we feel. Maybe we won’t want to.’

‘No, you’re right, after tonight, the very thought disgusts me.’

He took my hand and held it on the table, linking fingers.

‘Thanks for all this, Jules. I’m sorry my bloody family freaked you out, but I think we recovered well.’

‘They seem very nice.’

It felt like the thing to say.

‘They’re great, but they’re a bunch of interfering bastards, and that includes Dec who you met last week. I’m not going to be telling them everything about us, I want to keep you to myself as long as I can. And once Rose knows about you, God help you, she’ll have you whisked down the bridal shop for a fitting before you can say ‘I don’t’.’

‘Rose?’

‘Oh, just wait and see, there’s really no explaining it all.’

I was quite happy with that, being largely uninterested in other people’s families. But Matt’s seemed to be a big part of his life, and I was going to have to get used to being a bit more involved with people I hadn’t chosen to spend time with.

Matt

Jules and I talked and talked, that first time. She told me she didn’t believe in love, that it was something society made up to make them feel better about having sex, or some such shit. And I let myself be caught up in that, thinking, well, if she thinks that, it’s ideal, isn’t it, because there’s going to be no pressure on me to say I love her, it’s the exact opposite of what she wants to hear – she even told me that she’d broken up with all her previous boyfriends because she’d thought they were going to propose.

So with my need not to commit to anyone, and Jules’ disbelief in the whole true love thing, it was a match made in heaven, although neither of us believed in heaven either.

Julia

As the next few weeks passed, we met outside of work, we went for walks, we saw a film, we talked, we worked together, neither of us changing noticeably, and it settled into as much of a pattern as a relationship with Matt was ever likely to. I even met his mother, briefly, on the way to a hike on the moors. She seemed nice – quiet and unassuming, didn’t ask me what my intentions were towards her son.

Matt and I both had plenty of time apart, I caught up with my friends, made arrangements to go back to Norfolk to try to sort more stuff out up there, spent time on my own. Things were going pretty well, nothing rocked the boat.

And then GreenScreen took on a major client who had an urgent deadline, and Phil decided the only way to manage it was to combine my team with Matt’s for a while. I was uneasy. I was able to keep my Ice Queen act up while I only saw him in passing, but as the two team leaders we were going to be spending a lot more time together, in the full glare of the rest of the office. I wasn’t sure how well I was going to be able to hold it together.

It started out well. Matt was as good as me at playing a role for his team. Although we ran things very differently, our teams gelled well, and things went smoothly. Matt and I worked out a strategy to manage things between us. We agreed never to talk about work when we were together outside of work, and when we were together at work, we didn’t allude to our relationship, even with a look or a gesture. We even had meetings, just the two of us, where it was strictly business, we talked about the projects and interacted in the same way we would have before, the only possible difference being there was less venom behind my words and less needle behind his. And then we’d leave the office, and sometimes we’d go our separate ways, but sometimes we’d meet up and talk, or walk, or eat, or watch a film, or have wildly enjoyable sex.

And then it all changed.

48. She’s lost control

In which things escalate rather quickly.

Matt

I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Jules for weeks. She was even less approachable than usual, and our teams were focussed on entirely different projects.

Then Phil stuck his managerial oar in and asked my team to take over one of her team’s accounts. Julia’s team were getting behind, and my team had just finished a project, so had a bit of time to give, and Phil decided to mix things up. This was unheard of – taking another team’s account was tantamount to throwing down a leather gauntlet and suggesting pistols at dawn. Jules was going to have a shit fit. I tried to dissuade Phil, but he kept quoting stats and deadlines at me, and in the end he just pulled rank, and I had no choice.

Julia

I never used my personal mobile phone when I was at work; I didn’t want any part of my private life interfering with my well constructed work cocoon. But that day I had forgotten to switch it off, as I sometimes did if I’d been charging it, and heard it announce a text in my bag. Tutting to myself, I reached for the phone to turn it to silent, and caught sight of the text on the screen. I saw the name ‘Nons’ and despite my rules, had to look. It was a typically bald informational statement from my mother.

‘Hello JuJu darling. Sorry to inform you Nons died yesterday. Just about to board. Will ring you tonight at 7pm.’

No ‘love Mum’, no ‘hope you’re OK’, but I would have been astounded if there had been. I stared at the message in disbelief. Nons. My aunt. She’d brought me up while my parents gallivanted round the world. She was my home, my rock. No. Appalled at myself, I felt tears well up in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. My lips trembled. No.

Matt

I procrastinated like mad, and didn’t talk to Jules about the account for a while, trying several different ways to introduce the subject, and then I walked past her office, looked in and saw her crying. Shit. Jules, Julia Marran, the fucking Ice Queen, was bloody crying. Phil must have gone off-piste, as he tended to sometimes, and told her. I did not do women crying, due to the previously mentioned fuckwittedness that came out of my mouth on such occasions. But this felt like partly my fault, so I took a deep breath.

‘Everything alright?’

Julia

Matt Scott’s voice filtered through my distress. Shit, he was the last person I wanted to see me like this.

‘Jules?’

I looked up to see him closing the door behind him, reaching for some tissues out of a box on my desk, handing them to me, crouching next to my chair with concern on his face.

‘It’s Julia.’

Matt

Shit, I’d forgotten about that, it had just slipped out. I looked down for a second.

‘Sorry. Julia. You just look like a Jules to me. What the fuck’s the matter?’

She avoided my eyes, sniffing back the tears, blinking hard and shaking her head.

Julia

I tried to pull myself together, sniffing back the tears, thinking of other things. I didn’t trust myself to speak for a while, so I just shook my head and remained silent. I needed to think – I wanted to call my mother, but I couldn’t do that at work, I had my own rules about using my personal mobile at work, and besides, I didn’t want to be overheard. Before I could even start to decide what to do, Matt spoke again.

Matt

‘Is it Phil? Has he said something about the Cullen report?’

She looked at me then, frowning.

‘No, what about the Cullen report?’

Oh bollocks. She wasn’t upset about that. Well not yet, anyway.

‘Oh, er, shit, well nothing then. Fuck. Had to open my big mouth.’

Julia’s demeanour changed, as if she’d completely forgotten she’d been upset just moments before. She wasn’t going to let it go.

Julia

His faux pas was actually helping me focus back on work and stop my tears. I was going to have to do something about my mother’s text soon, contact her, but right now I was at work, and Matt Scott was in my office having seen me crying. And he’d said something about a project my team was working on.

‘What about the Cullen report?’

I pushed my chair away from him, and he stood up, putting his hands out in front of him in a conciliatory gesture.

Matt

Maybe I should have just told her then, but I was a bigger coward than I realised, and I didn’t want a big confrontation, so I just tried to bullshit my way out of it.

‘Look, forget I said anything, sorry Jule – er – Julia, you looked upset and I just thought … just forget it. Shit.’

I turned round and walked out of the office, closing the door behind me.

Julia

I couldn’t leave it like that; if I did, I was going to have to deal with the news I’d just received, so I wiped my face and went in search of Phil, the manager of all the teams, who informed me that Matt’s team was going to be taking responsibility for the Cullen report, despite the weeks of work my team had already put into it. He wouldn’t listen to my arguments and told me to hand over all the research and data we had immediately.

I was furious. I rarely showed my emotions in the office (hence The Ice Queen), but today everybody knew I was seriously pissed off. I slammed my door shut and started gathering the information together with loud bangs and the odd shouted insult. It helped enormously in enabling me to direct my emotions at the files I was throwing into a box rather than at the more troubling other things that were filling my head.

Matt

Well, of course, she went to Phil and got the whole story, and she had the predicted shit fit, shut herself in her office and started chucking things around, swearing loudly. Phil, the bastard, I really don’t know what he was up to, he must have had some kind of death wish on my behalf, but he insisted I went and got all the files from her. Everyone could hear her doing violence to things, and I thought it was particularly unfair to be made to interrupt, but there we had it. I was a minion when all was said and done.

I tapped softly on the door, in the partial hope that she wouldn’t hear. She didn’t answer, but I knew I wasn’t really going to get away with that one, so I tapped louder. Still no answer, so I just opened the door. I tried to look as apologetic as I could, but I was under no illusions that I was in for an earful.

Julia

‘Piss off. You’ve done enough for today.’

He had the decency to hang his head and look embarrassed.

‘Sorry, Julia. Really, I’m sorry, I thought you must know, shit, what a fucking balls-up. Phil wanted me to come and get the stuff, but it can wait.’

‘No, take it, it’s all right here.’

I took the box of papers and thrust it into his arms, pushing him back out of the door as I did so, then I turned round, grabbed my bag and my coat and walked out of the office, not sure where I was going or whether I would be back before the end of the day. As I stamped down the stairs, trying hard not to cry before I got well away from the building, I heard a voice shouting my name.

Matt

She just looked so upset, more upset than I thought could be accounted for by Phil’s shenanigans, and much as I hated crying women, I felt a bit responsible, so I dumped the box on a desk and followed her.

‘Julia, wait.’

If I concentrated really hard, I would remember not to call her Jules.

She didn’t wait. She hurried down the stairs and disappeared through the outer door, so I ran after her, catching up with her just before she crossed the road. I grabbed her arm and pulled her round to face me, more roughly than I meant to because I wanted to make sure she didn’t get away. She angrily pulled her arm out of my grip.

‘What the fuck do you want?’

She was nearly spitting she was so annoyed.

‘Just to see if you’re OK. I feel terrible.’

‘Well I’m not OK. And I’m glad you feel terrible. Just leave me alone.’

Well, she’d done it now. She’d invoked the ‘leave me alone I’m feeling shit’ code, and I was powerless to do anything else. I smiled, probably very irritatingly.

Julia

Something seemed to click behind his eyes and a tiny smile flickered at the corner of his mouth, then disappeared.

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘No, I won’t leave you alone. When you feel as shit as this, you shouldn’t be on your own.’

It sounded almost as if he was reciting the words, and I was astounded to see a grin spread across his face.

‘Come on.’

‘What?’

‘Come with me, I want to show you a secret.’

He grabbed my hand and started to pull me down the street. I was by now completely flummoxed. All thoughts of how I should be behaving and with whom had vanished completely, and having someone telling me what to do was, for the moment, very welcome. I could regain some control in a while, once I had first regained some composure.

Matt

I didn’t think she’d come with me, but she put up less of a fight than I’d imagined she would. At first I thought she was dragging her feet on purpose, and then I realised she was wearing heels, and couldn’t keep up with the pace I’d set. So I slowed down, and she became more compliant, following me quietly.

‘Sorry. We’re nearly there.’

‘Where?’

‘Wait and see.’

I so wanted to see the look on her face when we got there, she was going to be so surprised, it was going to take her mind off whatever it was that had upset her, it was also going to take her mind off the Cullen report, and so I kept a tight hold on her hand and led her through the gates of the churchyard.

Julia

The smug look on his face nearly had me marching back up the street, but Matt had a firm grip on my hand, and in a few more steps he led me through the gates of the churchyard and started picking his way between the gravestones. My heels were struggling with the long grass, so I stopped to take them off.

‘Watch out for the dog shit.’

I sighed.

‘No, you watch out for the dog shit. This is your bloody mystery tour. Any canine faeces I find on the bottom of my feet, I will wipe off on your shirt.’

‘Fair enough. Shit, you’re a hard woman.’

‘Ice Queen, remember.’

‘Yeah. Fuck. Anyway, here we are.’

Matt

When she took her shoes off to, presumably, prevent her from sinking into the grass surrounding the gravestones, I thought it was safe to let go of her hand, and she followed me, grumbling about getting dog shit on her feet, until we had crossed the grass and were standing in front of a tall box hedge which boundaried one edge of the cemetery. She stood and looked at it, unimpressed.

‘It’s a hedge.’

‘No kidding, not much gets past you does it, bugger I thought you’d be more impressed with a bit of greenery…’

As I was speaking, I backed away from her, and then found what I was looking for. This was my pièce de resistance; when Cal had shown me a few months ago I had been stunned, and I’d been dying to try it out on someone else. I stopped talking and took a step to my right, entering the hidden outside anteroom that held a couple of gravestones and a stone bench. She wouldn’t have a clue what had just happened; it would have looked like I’d disappeared.

Julia

As Matt was speaking, he was walking backwards away from me, and as he stopped talking he took a step to his right and – disappeared. Just vanished from sight, as if he’d stepped into the hedge. I stood with my mouth open.

‘Matt?’

Nothing, just the sound of the traffic from the street and leaves rustling in the breeze. I walked along the hedge trying to find the spot where he had disappeared, but it seemed to be continuous. It wasn’t until I was on my way back that I saw it, a cunningly hidden alcove grown into the hedge that was only visible from certain angles. I still might have missed it if I hadn’t seen the toe of Matt’s trainer peeping out at the very bottom edge. I would have loved to have paid him back with a similar joke, but I really wasn’t in the mood, and as I stopped being quite so flustered by the events of the afternoon so far, I was beginning to return to my work persona. The best I could do was spoil his surprise, so I walked into the alcove as nonchalantly as I could manage.

Matt

I’m not quite sure how Cal found out about this hidden room in the graveyard, although if Cal knew about it, then every other person in the city did. Certainly, judging from the amount of discarded shit – empty cans, fag ends, chip wrappers – littering the floor, plenty of people used it, but I had come here quite a few times with Cal, and we’d always been the only ones. We’d sit here and eat crisps and read comics, then go to the park and kick a ball about – see, I wasn’t always a bastard arsehole excellent no-strings lay; sometimes I was cool Uncle Matty. It brought a sense of perspective to life.

But anyway, now I’d shown the trick to Jules, and I really wanted to see what she was doing, but I had to stay where I was. I contented myself with standing at the entrance so I could see her face when she finally found it – I knew she’d work it out, she was smart, but for now, I wanted to enjoy … oh. She walked in as if she’d known it was there all the time, looking as underwhelmed as it was possible to look.

Julia

‘So where’s this big secret then?’

It was worth it for the crestfallen look on his face; it only lasted a second, but I knew I’d taken the wind out of his sails. He still flashed a quick grin and spread his arms wide, introducing me to a small enclosure about three metres square. There was a stone bench along one edge and two neat gravestones along the opposite edge announcing themselves memorials to John and Roberta Chartham who departed this earth 1776 and 1790 respectively. Matt sat on the bench and patted the seat next to him, so I sat, bending down to slip my shoes back on.

Matt

It pretty much took the wind out of my sails, but she was here now, all mine for a short time, I hoped. I flashed her a quick grin and spread my arms in welcome, then sat on the bench and patted the seat next to me. Still surprisingly compliant, she sat down.

‘Welcome to my lunchtime hideaway. I know you all think I go to The Anchor to get shit-faced, but in reality I come here and ponder the nature of the universe in general and the nature of Margie Feller’s boobs in particular – i.e. silicon or real – with a chicken mayo on brown, a packet of Walkers’ salt and vinegar, and a can of Fanta. Any visible shit-facedness upon my return is purely an act designed to distract.’

She raised a sceptical eyebrow.

‘And the beery breath?’

‘Oh come on, that was one fucking time, Phil gave me a bollocking, and anyway I was entertaining a sodding prospective client. What was I supposed to do, drink mineral water?’

Her eyebrow stayed raised.

‘Really? Fucking mineral water? Beside the point. So what do you think?’

I gestured around the hidden alcove.

‘It’s my secret. Nobody else knows about it.’

I tapped the side of my nose and winked, playing it up for all I was worth.

‘How did you find out about it?’

‘My nephew showed me.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nine.’

‘Particularly good at keeping secrets is he?’

‘A bit shit actually – wait, are you trying to say I might not be the only one he’s told? Bloody hell, the little scamp, all this time I thought the empty bottles and fag ends must be his, I nearly told his mum, are you saying they could have been just … anybody’s?’

I held the back of my hand dramatically to my forehead.

‘I feel betrayed.’

I was starting to enjoy myself, almost forgetting that Julia had been upset, twice, and was here because I’d dragged her here.

Julia

Without thinking, I told him something I shouldn’t have.

‘Real.’

‘What?’

‘A secret for a secret. Margie Feller’s boobs. Completely real.’

Matt

Well I hadn’t expected that – either the telling of the fact, or the fact itself. I’d been trying to find out about Margie’s awesome boobs for some time, and people either didn’t know or were sworn to secrecy. I’d not had a chance to investigate for myself, as Margie was married and not interested in extra-marital boob feeling sessions, but in my own mind I had plumped, if you’ll forgive the expression, for fake, because they couldn’t possibly be real. Now I knew. Awesome.

‘Fuuucking hell.’ Oh, but … ‘How do you know? Have you, you know, like, felt them?’

My fascination for the subject temporarily distracted me, and Julia saw something in my expression that brought her back to herself somewhat. She closed down the part of her that had started to share stuff with me, and I couldn’t blame her.

Julia

His expression of totally prurient lecherousness reminded me who I was talking to. I wasn’t just having a chat with a normal person, I was discussing the private matters of a colleague with another colleague whose morals were, to put it bluntly, suspect. I needed to backtrack.

‘No, only one secret traded at a time. And that one’s not for sale. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.’

He sensed the shift.

‘Aw Jules – fuck, sorry, sorry, Julia, it’s just you look so much like a Jules to me – you’ve gone all Ice Queen on me. I thought we were getting somewhere.’

‘Where precisely did you think we were getting?’

‘Well somewhere we could have a laugh, forget you think I’m an uncontrollable shag monster, forget I think you have a ten foot pole lodged in your arse, take your mind off your woes, call a truce?’

I was confused.

‘A truce?’

‘Yeah, you know, cease hostilities, wave a white flag, stop hating each other for, oh I don’t know, perhaps we could make it to half a bloody hour?’

‘Do you hate me?’

For some reason it seemed important that he didn’t.

Matt

Oh bloody hell, I hadn’t really meant that, it was a, I don’t know, metaphor or something.

‘Fuck. No, I didn’t mean that, I said ‘hating each other’ didn’t I. I suppose I meant fighting with each other. Haven’t we been doing that since we both started at GreenScreen: rival teams, rival contracts, all designed to up the stakes and get the most out of both of us?’

She stared at me, and I realised with horror that she hadn’t known. Phil was open with me about pitting our teams against each other to increase competitiveness and up productivity; it had never occurred to me that Julia wasn’t in on it. Oh shit and now she looked like she was going to bloody well cry again. All this had been to stop her crying in the first place, and I’d just made her do it again. Nice one, Matt.

Julia

I stared at him. How naïve had I been? It had never occurred to me, and I felt absolutely stupid. Unbelievably, I felt tears prickle at the corners of my eyes for the second time that day. I’d been sucked into one huge game, a game that Matt was playing and winning, because he knew all the rules, while I wasn’t even aware I was a competitor.

‘Oh shit, Julia, fuck, I’m sorry, fuck, no, don’t do that, here –’

He handed me a rather used looking tissue from his pocket

Matt

‘–sorry, it’s not that fresh. Fuck, I’m such a dickwad. I thought everyone knew how it was? No, no, no, please don’t, I don’t do women crying, oh fuck, come here.’

I put my arm round her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands and started sobbing. This didn’t noticeably diminish the crying, so I put my other arm round the front of her and held her while she cried. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard, holding Julia Marran while she cried her eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

Julia

I felt his arm go round my shoulder as I buried my face in my hands and started sobbing. The news about Nons had just caught up with me, and the fresh revelations from Matt had tipped me over the edge. I wasn’t an emotionally expressive person, and crying made me feel sick, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt Matt’s other arm go round the front of me and he made some attempt to hold me while I wept. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard being held by Matt Scott while I cried my eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

After a while I snivelled myself to a standstill, and stayed hunched over, my face in my hands, feeling awkward and bilious. Matt released his hold, then tried to get me to look up by pushing my chin up and pulling on my hands. I shook my head.

‘Come on Jules, we both know you’re going to look a complete nightmare, all blotchy and dribbly and gloopy and shit, I won’t be shocked. You’ll make your back ache if you sit hunched over like that.’

He pulled on my hands again, and this time I let go, but kept my eyes shut as he gently pulled me so I was sitting back against the seat. I took several deep, shuddering breaths.

‘There you go, that’s better. Hmm, not as bad as I was expecting. Bloody expensive waterproof mascara? You’re worth it!’

I heard him chuckle to himself at his little joke. I opened my eyes and gave him the full Ice Queen special.

‘Hey, you’re back with us, your majesty.’

Matt was turned towards me on the seat, apparently not affected by the icy blast coming from my eyes.

‘Want to tell me? I mean, if all that was just about Phil’s little office politics games and my fucking cack-handed foot-in-mouth explanation, then my heartfelt apologies and by all means keep the tissue –’

‘You really are a self-centred prick aren’t you.’

‘–but if there was something else, I know I’m a self-centred prick, but for the next little while I’m your self-centred prick and I can listen in a way that only self-centred pricks can.’

I took a deep breath.

‘It’s personal.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t mix work and personal.’

‘OK.’

‘What?’

‘Well, I couldn’t help but notice, we’re not at work, and you’ve just been blarting your fucking eyes out all over my shirt sleeve.’

He held up his arm which was damp around the elbow.

‘So, I’m thinking maybe this isn’t work, which makes it kinda personal, which means, spill.’

‘I’m not about to tell you my personal business.’

‘I disagree. I think you are about to, and I will tell you why.’

This was the very type of annoying light banter that usually frustrated the hell out of me at work, as it wasted so much time. However, I had to admit I was currently finding it diverting. I huffed a breath out and crossed my arms over my chest as I waited for the inevitable nonsense.

‘OK. Firstly, I am the soul of discretion. Ah ah, before you give me that ‘fuck off Matt Scott you are the most indiscreet fuckweasel anyone knows’ look, let me just advise you that I have never, ever kissed and told. There has been lots of kissing and lots of telling, and although I will admit to a lot, but not all, of the kissing, I have never done any of the telling. Think back. Where did any of those wild stories originate? The ladies in question or their cohorts? Yes. Me? No. Exactly. I rest my case. Your secret, sordid or otherwise, is safe with me. I’d rather it was a bit sordid, though, to be honest, just to make it worth my while.’

I turned my head away and studied the hedge, hoping his chattering would carry on long enough for my eyes to calm down so I could leave.

‘Secondly, I am a seriously stubborn fucking bastard. I’ve won competitions in it. I never give up. I’m pretty good at getting people to talk to me, even when they have no intention of it. Persistence is my middle name. Had a better ring to it than Robert, so I changed it.’

I turned my head back to look at him.

‘Your middle name is Robert?’

‘Was. Is now Persistence. Suits me, don’t you think?’

I tutted, rolled my eyes and turned back to my perusal of the hedge.

‘Thirdly, and this is the killer, the deal-breaker. If you talk to me I’ll tell you something about me that no-one else at GreenScreen knows – oh apart from Phil, and he knows everything about everyone anyway. If I divulge your secret to any living soul, you have my permission to spread the goss to the waiting ears of Lexi on reception, who will have informed the entire staff team before you’ve even got up the stairs, and the news will greet you, complete with Lexi’s imaginative embellishments, as you walk in the door.’

Intriguing as this was, I had no interest in acquiring personal information about Matt. Much as he seemed to enjoy the machinations of office affairs, I tried to keep myself out of them as much as possible. I was getting a bit tired of his assumption that I had some deep dark secret though.

‘It’s nothing, alright? I just got some bad news. I don’t usually have my phone on, but I picked up a text by mistake and now I wish I hadn’t.’

Matt seemed nonplussed for a second; maybe he thought he was going to have more of a battle with me, maybe he was so caught up in his game that he forgot I had a part to play too. More likely: he was astounded at the thought of not having one’s phone switched on and in one’s hand at all times. He recovered quickly, leaning back on the seat with a smug grin.

‘There you go, that wasn’t so hard was it. And the bad news was ..?’

‘None of your damn business.’

‘Oh Jules, don’t stop now, we were just getting started –’

‘Leave it, Matt, I’m not going to tell you. And stop calling me Jules. Only my friends call me that, and –’

And Nons. Not my immediate family. My family, my mother, father and two sisters, called me JuJu, which I hated. Everyone I loved called me Jules. I didn’t want this self-important – what had he called himself? – uncontrollable shag monster calling me Jules when Nons was never again going to call my name up the stairs in the morning to the smell of frying bacon, or say ‘Hello Jules how’s my favourite niece’ when she rang, or look disappointed and say ‘oh well Jules, there’s still time for you’ when I’d told another potential husband (in her eyes) to take a hike.

It was all too much. I didn’t want to be here with this man who was being far too understanding, far too nice. I wanted him to be the annoying cocky dickhead he usually was so I could rage at him and storm off, and be on my own, which was after all what I had asked for in the first place. I wanted Nons. I wanted her here so much. She was the only one who could possibly help me, and she was the only one who wouldn’t be able to. I almost felt my heart break. Without warning, the tears came again. Large sobs almost stopped me breathing. I couldn’t do this here, with Matt Scott.

I got up and stumbled towards the exit from the arbour. Except I didn’t, because I couldn’t find the way. Blinded by tears and disoriented by distress, I bumped into the side of the hedge twice, scratched my hands trying to scrabble my way out, and then gave up with a howl, slumping to the floor, curling up and giving in to it, no longer caring who was there to witness it. Nons was gone. I’d never felt so alone. Nothing else mattered.

Matt

Jules just fell on the floor and started sobbing, curled in a ball, racked with these horrible noises that sounded like an alien was trying to break out of her throat.

And she just kept saying ‘non’. I couldn’t work it out. It was like she was French or something. Maybe she was, she had a bit of an exotic look about her sometimes, and ‘Marran’, wasn’t that French for chestnut or some such bollocks?

But anyway, whether you do women crying or not, you don’t let someone just lie there on the floor in serious distress without trying to help them in some way. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I sat next to her and stroked her hair and tried to think of comforting things to say that were a bit more meaningful than ‘shh’ and ‘there there’, but didn’t really come up with much.

After what felt a very long time, but when women are crying it always feels like bloody ages to me, she stopped.

Julia

However upset you are, it is impossible to cry forever, although it is possible to cry for a very long time. Long enough to almost forget where you are and who you’re with, until you come back to yourself a little bit and feel a hand stroking your hair away from your face, and hear their voice saying nonsense designed to make you feel better. Then you realise where you are, what’s just happened and, finally, who it is who is stroking your hair.

I sat up and tried to organise myself. My face was puffy and tear-stained. I had a headache and felt sick. I was really thirsty. I tried to run my hands through my hair, but it was tangled and there were bits of leaf and twig stuck in it. I rummaged in my bag for a comb and a mirror. I did anything and everything to avoid looking at Matt, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, watching quietly.

‘I think you need some antiseptic.’

Now he’d spoken, it wasn’t as easy to ignore him. I didn’t have to look at him though.

‘What?’

I continued to paw through my bag, no longer sure what I was looking for.

‘Your hands.’

He took my right hand and turned it palm upwards. I gasped at the bloody mess of scratches.

‘How did I …’

‘You scratched them on the hedge. What the fuck were you trying to do? The exit is over there.’

He pointed to the opposite side of the enclosure. I felt too stupid to even answer him.

‘Come on, Julia, come home with me.’

‘What?’

More stupidity. This man certainly had the ability to make me feel several IQ points below par.

‘I live a couple of streets away. I can clean you up, you need to put some plasters on it or something.’

‘No … I can –’

‘No, you can’t, whatever you were going to argue with me about. You can’t drive like that, you can’t do anything or go anywhere until you’re patched up. I told you I’m a stubborn fucking bastard. I will win this. Give in now and save yourself some time and effort.’

So I did give in. It was all too much, being here in this hidden place, after everything that had happened so far today. My hands hurt, my head hurt, my brain hurt, and I just did what I was told. It would be over soon, then I could go home and be on my own and everything would all be alright after that, but until then I would just do what I was told.

Matt

As I saw it, her choices were go back to work and face tons of questions about how she’d scratched her hands and why she looked like shit, or come back to mine where I could patch her up and lend her my bathroom so she could get the leaves out of her hair, and she could do what she wanted from there. She hardly argued when I suggested it. She stood up and followed me, silently, all the way to my flat.

Julia

I followed Matt out of the strange secret place, across the graveyard, down the street, along a few more streets, and then into an apartment building. I walked behind him up the stairs and he let me through his front door. We didn’t exchange a single word the whole time. Then I looked up at where I was and –

‘Wow!’

The view from his window was spectacular. The glass almost filled one wall, and it overlooked the river. Beyond were rolling hills, with the city in-between His apartment was stunning too – there was an open plan living and kitchen area, with a couple of doors to, presumably, bedroom and bathroom It was a modern and surprisingly minimally and tidily decorated space. I would have imagined empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and a few back issues of Nuts magazine spread around, but the place was spotless. Even a framed Star Wars poster seemed in keeping, and blended with everything else.

Matt

My flat was my pride and joy. I got it cut price via some unfortunate soul foreclosing on their mortgage and me being in the right place at the right time – poor them, lucky me. I fucking loved it. It was big and light and modern, and had the most impressive view over the river, across the city to the moors. It changed constantly, with the weather, the light and the time of day, and I never got bored of looking out of the window. The kitchen and lounge were in one large room separated by a counter, and I had put a small dining table next to the window. I had a huge squishy sofa, a couple of armchairs and a large TV with a couple of games consoles.

Julia hadn’t spoken since we left the graveyard, but when she saw the view she said, ‘Wow’ and looked around her in surprise. She was the first person who’d ever been up here who wasn’t family, or for whom the flat hadn’t been especially prepared for a lad’s night. No woman who wasn’t a member of my family had ever been here; I always went to ‘her place’. This was my sanctuary, somewhere I didn’t have to pretend, the odd night of watching football with the guys in a sea of beer bottles and takeaway containers notwithstanding.

Julia

‘Great view, eh?’

I nodded, trying to align the image I had of Matt Scott with the light, airy, tasteful apartment. It wasn’t computing. I continued to look out of the window, peripherally aware of Matt going through one of the doors and rummaging sounds emerging. His voice floated back to me.

‘Have a seat, just trying to find my first aid kit.’

I turned and looked into the room, and headed towards a plum coloured sofa. I sank into the generous cushions as the rummaging sounds continued.

‘Fuck it, I know I put it in here – oh. Bloody hell, Dec, can’t you ever put things back where you fucking well found them?’

This last was uttered sotto voce. The rummaging continued briefly and then stopped. Matt emerged, with a green and white box tucked under his arm. God, he even had a proper first aid kit. It was like he was changing into someone I no longer recognised.

‘Trust a mate with your fucking stuff, it could end up anywhere. Had to patch up my nephew the other day, game of footy got out of hand, kit got put back in the wrong place.’

Matt

I got Julia to sit on the sofa while I found the first aid box, then sat next to her.

‘Hold out your hands.’

Julia

I turned them palm up and rested them on my knees, and Matt proceeded to tip antiseptic onto a cotton wool pad. The smell made my eyes smart.

Matt

‘I think I’m supposed to tell you this is going to sting, but you will already know that. Pretend you’re on some live reality TV show and please, do not swear.’

I started to clean her scratches with antiseptic. She hardly spoke, and I was a bit worried about how she was just letting me tell her what to do; it didn’t seem like her at all.

Julia

I watched dispassionately as the cotton wool headed towards my right palm. I remained dispassionate until the moment the cotton wool actually touched my right palm.

‘Ah!’

With a sharp intake of breath, I pulled my hand away, knocking the cotton wool out of Matt’s hand. The sting brought more tears to my eyes. Matt bent down to retrieve the cotton wool from the floor, then took my hand in his, holding it firmly.

‘I said it was going to fucking sting. Get a grip, woman.’

He glanced up at my face, and saw a couple of tears dribble their way down my cheeks.

‘Oh Jules, sorry.’

He reached up and brushed the droplets away with the tip of his forefinger.

‘Be a brave little soldier, for me, OK?’

‘Patronising bastard.’

My voice sounded raw and broken; apart from a ‘wow’ and an ‘ah’ I hadn’t spoken since all the crying in the graveyard.

‘That’s better, that’s my Ice Queen.’

I glared at him, daring him to say one more condescending word. He laughed, and bent his head over my palm.

‘Alright then, let’s do it your way. This is going to fucking hurt, right? Swear all the fuck you want, but keep still.’

He was right, it did fucking hurt, both hands, but I stayed still as ordered while he wiped and wadded and bandaged and plastered. My right hand only needed a couple of plasters, but the scratches on my left hand were long and awkwardly positioned, and he bandaged it up. He did a really professional looking job, and I was impressed despite myself.

Matt

I wiped her scratches and provided bandages and plasters; Beth would have been proud.

‘It pays to have a nurse in the family, lots of First Aid lessons.’

Julia

He gestured at an array of photographs on top of a bookshelf. Several people smiled down at me, but I had no idea which one was the nurse responsible for my neat bandages.

‘Right, that’s you done. Can I get you a drink?’

I was really thirsty, but just wanted to be gone. I’d had enough of this shitty day, with its nasty surprises and its surreal weirdness and its king-sized dollop of Matt Scott. I shook my head and started to rummage in my bag for my car keys.

‘No, I’d better go. Thanks for this.’

I held up my hands. Matt opened his mouth to speak, as though he was going to try to persuade me to stay, but held back and nodded instead. He was probably as exhausted as I was with the whole situation and wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. I stood up, picked up my bag and coat, wincing at the pull on my scratches, and walked to the door. He held it open for me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder as I passed in front of him.

Matt

Just as she was stepping through the doorway, I remembered how she’d kept saying ‘non’ when she was sobbing on the ground, and without thinking, it just came out.

‘I didn’t know you were French.’

‘What?’

‘Aren’t you French?’

It must have been delayed fuckwittedness from the earlier weeping.

‘No. What do you mean?’

The look on her face told me instantly that I was indeed making a complete arse of myself. It should have stopped me, but some outside force seemed to have taken over my mouth, and I found myself continuing.

Julia

This a propos of nothing remark left me completely flummoxed. It didn’t seem to be a joke, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

‘In the graveyard, you were all curled up on the floor, bit of a soggy puddle, and you kept saying ‘non’. Thought you must be French. Sorry, forget it.’

‘Nons.’

Dammit, hadn’t meant to say it out loud, just saying her name summoned the sobs again. I needed to get out of there.

Matt

She said it again, and now I was confused.

‘Yeah, that’s it – Jules, you really don’t look OK, will you please come and sit down and have a drink or something?’

Julia

Something snapped. I felt it go, in my brain, as the last ‘Jules’ broke the dam.

Matt

And then, if I thought she’d gone ape-shit before, back in the office, well that was nothing. This was something else, suddenly she was a berserker, like a red mist descended or something. She turned to face me, her eyes going dark with anger, her fists balled up. The force of her glare made me take a step backwards.

‘It’s JULIA you FUCKING ARSEHOLE. You think you can waltz around doing or saying what the FUCK you want because you’ve got a FUCKING cheeky grin and you know where to shove your dick. I’ve asked you to call me JULIA, you TOSSER, is it really that FUCKING hard to remember? And no I’m not fucking FRENCH. Nons is a name, a fucking NAME, it’s a name … Nons is her … was her … unh …’

She took a step towards me, and then another one, and she started trying to hit me, her fists still balled up, scrumpling the bandages. She was a lot shorter than me, and slight, so none of it really hurt me, but she was a hay-maker, and I needed to try to contain her, and I was a bit worried she was going to try to scratch my eyes out, so I used my height to gather her up, pin her arms to her side and just hold her there until she calmed down.

Julia

And then coherence, if you could call it that, slipped away and although I vaguely remember lurching towards Matt, fists raised, and maybe he held my wrists, possibly to prevent me scratching his eyes out, and then there might have been some strong arms around me, pinning my arms to my sides while I may have yelled and screamed and thrashed, I don’t really remember any of it until suddenly there I was, wrapped up in Matt Scott’s arms, face against his chest, breathing in little shudders as he stroked my hair.

Matt

It took a long time, and she yelled and screamed and thrashed and cried, but I just held her, wrapping her up, as she slowly, slowly calmed down, and I felt it all gradually leave her, and we were standing there, her face against my chest, as she breathed in little shudders and I stroked her hair and I accidentally kissed the top of her head, didn’t mean to, just did it. I felt her stir against me.

Julia

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head?’

Jesus, my voice sounded even worse than before. My throat was ragged and sore. I had a raging thirst.

Matt

Her voice sounded ragged and broken. And a bit pissed off.

‘Yeah. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Oh. OK. Sure. Anything else you want me not to do?’

It was best to be clear about these things. Standing there with her in my arms, in the aftermath of a storm of emotion, there were all sorts of things I might do that she wouldn’t want me to. Really didn’t want to have her trying to bash me again. In any case, she didn’t answer, so I assumed I was alright to carry on stroking her hair, at the very least. We were kind of rocking, folded up in each other, almost lulling each other to sleep. It felt unreal. And very nice.

Julia

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. It felt good to be held, as if someone could take it all away. But the one doing the holding – that was another matter. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about that. He carried on stroking my hair.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

He was almost lulling me to sleep, gently rocking me on my feet as we stood there, me folded up in him.

‘I’m sorry I called you Jules.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Not sure I deserved to have the crap beaten out of me though.’

‘Mm.’

I was sure he had deserved it. He’d certainly had something coming to him, couldn’t focus on the whats or the whys just now. I carried on almost sleeping, being held up by a pair of strong arms.

Matt

I’d got the apology out of the way, but now I wanted to find out what it was all about.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Who’s Nons?’

She answered in a kind of dazed voice, head still buried in my chest.

Julia

I was so sleepy, I could just say it now and it didn’t matter.

‘My aunt. She died.’

Matt

‘Ohh. Fuck, Julia, I’m sorry.’

It all made sense now. Why would I have ever thought she was upset about some nonsense at work? She never got upset about work stuff. But somebody dying, that was huge. I felt terrible about it, about how inconsiderate I must have been, so I dropped a consoling kiss onto the top of her head.

Julia

I felt a familiar sensation. It roused me enough to ask about it.

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head again?’

‘I believe I did.’

‘After I asked you not to?’

‘Sorry. It seemed like the thing to do.’

More soft swaying, almost like we were dancing, but slower and more gentle. I felt soothed.

Matt

I just wanted to make her feel better, I swear, but you can probably see where this is going. And then I became aware of my hard-on, which had popped up at the most bloody inconvenient time. I needed to alert her to my arousal status without scaring her off completely.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘This is bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Maybe a bit too bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm … what?’

‘I don’t just want to kiss the top of your head.’

‘What?’

She lifted her head away from my chest and looked up at me, then looked down.

‘Fuck, Julia, I think we need to stop this before I kiss something I’ll regret.’

And I really meant it, I really did want to stop, because she was in a state, and I didn’t want to be that kind of arsehole, not with her, not while she was like this, all upset and emotional.

But then she reached up and put her hand round my neck, pulling my face down to hers. Fuck it, I even managed to resist for a second or two, and then Matt the Lad kicked in, like some kind of reflex, and my mouth met hers, and I couldn’t stop.

Julia

To his credit, he resisted for a brief moment, and then his lips were on mine, and his hands were in my hair, and my hands were under his shirt, and his tongue was slipping over and around mine, and somehow he was standing in front of me without his shirt and I was running my hands down his chest and then he was slipping my bra off my shoulders …

Matt

… our hands were everywhere, ripping off clothes, exploring urgently. Our tongues and lips pressed and tangled and tasted …

Julia

… and then nipples were sucked and our hands were lower, much lower, and more clothes were coming off and then there was nothing between us but air, and then, and then there was no air between us …

Matt

… and before I could think about it, we were naked, our bodies pressed against each other, and I lifted her up and laid her on the sofa, and she pulled me towards her and our bodies joined and I thrust and pounded and it was hard and fast and explosive and …

Julia

… and we were kissing and licking and sucking and fucking, hard and fast and noisily and urgently and then, and then …

Matt

Oh fuck.

Julia

Oh Jesus.

32. You can’t always get what you want

In which Dec has dreams and nightmares, Matty has dinner and gets brave, and Cal finds his favourite joke.

Iz

At this point, it is worth mentioning that I realise Christmas is being related in a lot of detail. The thing is that all three versions of that Christmas – Dec’s, Matty’s and Cal’s – give pretty much chapter and verse of what happened over those few days, and it’s because that Christmas was so important. Cal says he can remember so much of it, even though he was only six, and Dec goes all misty eyed when you mention it. I expect if you quizzed them really hard, neither of them would actually admit to being able to remember the specific conversations, and Lau is pretty sure Matty used a fair amount of artistic license in his retelling. But Cal and Dec both say they can remember how it felt, how it was the sense of everything coming back together that made it special, and maybe beyond that, of our family becoming something more than the sum of its parts. So please bear with this retelling.

Dec

Cal went back into Matt’s room and played with some of his toys in there, while I sat and watched from the chair next to the bed. Matt was still asleep. My disturbed night and early morning started to catch up with me, and I found myself dozing too.

Dreaming. I am running, trying to fly but can’t get off the ground. The man in brown boots is chasing me, and I keep looking behind me, trying to see his face, but I can’t quite make it out. He is gaining on me. Just as I manage to launch myself upwards into the air, he catches my ankle and sends me spinning to the ground. Blows from fists and feet hit me, and I lie helplessly as his brown boot moves in slow motion towards my face …

Cal

So, all the presents were opened, and Mum and Granny were making dinner, Dad was watching TV and drinking beer, and Dec and I were in Uncle Matty’s room. I was playing on the floor, and Dec had started off watching me from the chair, but then had fallen asleep. Suddenly, he made a noise.

‘Unh’

Matt

The next thing I know I’m pulled out of my comfy darkness.

‘Mm … ungh … no … no …’

I opened my eyes to see Dec sitting in the chair, apparently asleep but looking like it wasn’t a pleasant experience. He was twitching and murmuring. Cal had looked up from his toys, and wandered over to stand next to me, looking interestedly at Dec. He glanced at me.

‘Dec does mms and nos when he’s asleep. Sometimes he does a big swear.’

I wasn’t sure what to do. Wasn’t there something bad about waking people up from nightmares? Maybe Cal shouldn’t be in here. I was caught in indecision as Dec’s murmurings got louder, and he kicked out with a foot.

‘No … no … wana … ungh … aah … no … NO!’

And with that, my dilemma was solved, as Dec’s eyes opened. He looked dazedly at us for a moment, then collected himself, gripped the arms of the chair, levered himself upright.

Cal

I went to stand in front of Dec, interested to see what he looked like when he was having a bad dream. When he did it in the night, it was dark, and I couldn’t see his face. Dec’s eyes opened, and he looked like he thought he was somewhere else, then looked at me and Uncle Matty. I didn’t know if he knew if he’d been talking. I was disappointed he didn’t do any swears.

‘You shouted.’

‘Yuh ohkay? Mahking noises.’

‘Oh God.’

Dec rubbed his face with his hands.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to doze off. I was dreaming.’

What’s going on in here?’

Dad must have heard Dec shout. I hadn’t said anything about Dec’s bad dreams, because once it was the daytime, I’d forgotten about them.

‘Dec was dreaming. He makes noises.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had some weird dreams. Not sure it’s good for Cal, I’ve woken him up a couple of times’

Dreams about what?’

‘Oh –’

Dec looked at me, and I knew I wasn’t going to get to hear what the bad dreams were about.

‘– people chasing me, flashbacks to … recent events.’

Jesus. How long for?’

‘Pretty much since it happened, it’s been worse since the op. Don’t know if the anaesthetic messed me up a bit. First time it’s happened during the day, though. Sorry, Matt, did I wake you up?’

Matt

I made as light of it as I could, just in case Jay felt like using the fact I’d had a somniloquist to contend with against my ability to eat dinner at the table with the normal people.

‘Noh, was entertaihing. Meh and Cal enjohyed the shoh.’

It had certainly been true of Cal, who had watched with unconcealed captivation.

Cal

Uncle Matty didn’t seem to mind; he seemed as interested as I was.

‘Maybe I should sleep on the sofa tonight.’

I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Let’s see how it goes. Cal, were you scared when Dec shouted?’

I wouldn’t have said yes, even if I had been, because I didn’t want Dec to sleep on the sofa instead of underneath me.

‘No, he makes lots of noises. I waked him up, he said I could.’

There you go, then, mate. Seems OK for the time being. Bloody head-case. OK, guys, I think lunch is nearly ready. Matty, are you still up for joining us?’

Uncle Matty was going to sit at the table with us for Christmas dinner. It would be the first time he had been out of bed to anywhere else in the house apart from his room, and I could tell he was excited about it. He was smiling, and his eyes were wide and sparkly.

Dec

As we crossed the hall, the smell of dinner wafted out of the kitchen, and I remembered Beth had asked me to set the table.

‘I’ll be right there, Cal, just need to talk to Mummy.’

I popped my head round the kitchen door. The table was already set. Beth and Jay’s mum were busy with steaming pans and pouring things and sizzling things.

‘Sorry, Beth, I fell asleep. This all smells amazing.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s all done now.

‘Anything I can do?’

_Has James checked with Matty about dinner?

‘Yeah, they’re getting sorted now.’

_Oh good. See, Carol? James wouldn’t let him if he didn’t think he was up to it. We’ll keep an eye on him. OK, Dec, no I don’t think there’s anything. Maybe keep Cal occupied while we’re waiting?

‘On it’.

Cal and I played for a while. The clattering continued in the kitchen, and then the door opened and Beth called out

_Dinner’s ready.

‘Come on, Cal, let’s go and get some Christmas dinner.

\can I take Optimus Prime?

‘I guess so.’

\and my stegosaurus book?

‘I think just one thing.’

He chose the Transformer and we went into the kitchen. The table was magnificent, a huge turkey in the middle and bowls of hot vegetables and roast potatoes, jugs of gravy, stuff I didn’t recognise, all around it.

‘Wow. Good work, Beth, Mrs Scott.’

#Thank you Declan. You know, why don’t you call me Carol?

‘OK, thanks.’

I looked at her, surprised, and she gave me half a smile. Cal climbed into his seat and plonked Optimus Prime onto the table. He had a sideways glance at Beth to check it was OK. She raised her eyebrows at him, but didn’t say anything.

\dec can you sit next to me?

I looked at Beth.

‘Don’t know, mate, we’d better see what your mum wants to do.’

_Well there’s a space for Matty here, everywhere else is up for grabs.

\next to me, next to me. Granny, can you sit the other side? You can play with Optimus Prime.

#Thank you, Calum. I’m honoured.

As we both sat down in our appointed places, the door opened and Matt and Jay came in. Matt was in a wheelchair, which Jay pushed up to the space at the table. Matt was smiling broadly.

}Whoa, awsohm.

_Glad you could join us, sweetheart. James, sit next to Matty so you can help him.

}Noh, gihv a try mysehf.

Beth bent down and kissed his cheek. Carol was looking at him, close to tears. Jay was opening a bottle of wine.

łAnyone for a drop of red?

}Yeh. Lahge glahs.

łNo booze with your meds, mate.

}Ohn glahs? It’s Chrihsmus.

Jay looked at Beth.

łOne glass?

She considered it.

_Maybe one, but a small one, and with dinner, don’t slurp it all at once.

}Cohm on, gahging! Lahge glahs eahsier tuh hohd.

Beth rolled her eyes.

_OK, large glass with a small amount in it. On a full stomach only, and a glass of water for your raging thirst. That’s the rule.

}Ohkay nuhrsy.

łAnyone else? Mum?

#Lovely, dear, yes please.

łDec?

‘OK.’

Although I thought I might have to take it slowly, after my reaction to the beer last night.

łCal?

\daddy! I don’t have wine. I’ve got juice, look.

łSorry, my mistake. Jay? Yes please, big glass, don’t mind if I do. Merry Christmas everyone. Here’s to family.

He raised his glass.

}Behth? Yuh fuhgot hehr.

_Oh, no, it’s OK, Matty, I’ll just have water for now. Family.

She raised her glass and we all did the same. Magical moment for me. Laid to rest a lot of ghosts. Beyond my self-absorbed happiness, I became aware of glances going on round the table.

}Spihl, Behth. Wahter foh Chrihsmus dinner? Buhlshih. Oops, sohry.

_Honestly, Matty, I’m going to ban Dec from your room.

‘Why am I getting the blame?’

_Well it’s only since you arrived that the swear count has increased. Last night I had it loud and clear over the monitor thank you very much.

Matt and I exchanged a look, part guilt, part amusement.

}Behside the poihn. Wahter?

Beth rolled her eyes, looked at Jay and took his hand. Carol had a sharp intake of breath and put her hand over her mouth, eyes shining.

}Say ih, befohr Mum blohs a gahsket.

_OK, well, as you seem to have guessed, we’re having another baby. Early days, long way to go, not due until the summer. But yes, that’s why I’m drinking water.

Jay put his arm round her and kissed her on the forehead, then smiled back at us all.

}Greht news.

#Oh Beth, I’m so pleased for you.

Suddenly realised I had to pretend I didn’t already know.

‘Congratulations.’

_We were going to tell you today anyway. Cal found out, and he’s not good with secrets, so sooner rather than later seemed best.

#You must be thrilled, after all this time.

_Pretty thrilled, yeah. Tired though.

#Oh, and you’ve just done all this.

She gestured to the table.

#I wish I’d known.

_Carol, I’m fine, just tired. You know what it’s like. Dec’s been a great help, spending so much time with Cal. Thanks for my lie-in this morning, sweetheart, it was a life-saver.

‘Glad to help.’

}Ahny chahce of eahting behfor next Chrihsmus?

_Sorry, Matty, let’s get stuck in. But it was you who wanted to stop and chat about why I’m drinking water.

The meal was amazing. Everyone was in high spirits. Jay and Carol were fuelled by wine, Cal was fuelled by Christmas, Beth was fuelled by some kind of inner fire, Matt and I were fuelled, for different reasons, just by being there. We all sat for a long time afterwards, telling awful cracker jokes, wearing silly hats, talking. Cal got bored with the grown-up chat, and had disappeared to play some more.

łOK, another toast. Fill your glasses.

Matt pushed his forwards.

łYou’ve had your quota. Water or juice now, mate.

}Fucking spoihlsport.

#Matthew. Really. I’m beginning to think Beth was right.

}Sohry Muhm. Dec’s rehlehsed my ihner swehrer.

#I don’t think it needed much releasing, dear.

łDec?

‘No more for me, I’ll be asleep.’

łHere you go then, Mum, finish it up. Anyway. Now I’m a bit pissed, there’s something I want to say, just so it’s said and everyone knows and there are no more misunderstandings. We had a toast to family before. I just want you all to know that my family includes Declan Summers. And all who sail in her. Forever. Whatever he gets up to, whether I like it or not. Just so it’s official. Right, Dec? Oh bloody hell, pass him the bloody tissues, he’s bloody off again.

I looked at Beth through my tears, and she smiled back at me. This felt very close to the ‘real parents’ thing I’d wanted when I was much younger. When I was in foster care I’d had ridiculous dreams about a ‘forever family’, but Jay had just given me that, almost ceremonially, despite the large quantity of wine he’d drunk, and my heart was bursting.

Matt reached across the table and clasped my hand.

}Wehcom bro, or cuz, or auhnty, or whaever.

Carol didn’t quite know what to do with the information, and just patted me on the shoulder.

}Jay, sohry, thihnk Ih behter go back to bed. Toh much good nehws. Noht enough wihn.

łOK, mate, let’s go.

Jay wheeled Matt out of the kitchen.

Matt

And so I’d made it to Christmas dinner and beyond. In my wheelchair, admittedly, in case Jay needed to whisk me back for some emergency fussing in the middle of pouring the brandy butter, but I was there. I got to see parts of the house I had only previously visited in my wildest dreams, starting with a trek across the hallway, taking in a glimpse of the living room on the way, and then the whole huge family kitchen complete with fuck-off ebloodynormous table laden with enough festive fare to feed a moderately sized army. I even fed myself, although I had to insist on that. I lasted for all of it and more, to the crap cracker jokes, the paper hats slipping forgotten to the floor, the slightly drunken laughter (although that was really just Jay and Mum).

I had been ‘allowed’ one small glass of wine, despite my loud protests and well-reasoned arguments. Dec didn’t seem to be drinking much, and Beth – well Beth was on the water on account of being pregnant.

Whoa. Hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d known they’d wanted another kid from hints dropped by Mum, but Cal was six, and it seemed to be taking long enough that who knew if it was going to happen. Mum nearly burst with happiness, right there at the table. Not only was she going to be a granny again, but her little boy had made it to dinner. I’d like to think it was the latter that made her happiest, but who am I kidding, grandchildren win hands down every time. I could have single-handedly flown to Mars and come back with proof of life up there, and Jay and Beth would still have trumped me with the ‘having a baby’ card. Not bitter. Not really. Just how it was.

Oh, and apparently, as if a baby wasn’t enough, we had another new member of the Scott family to welcome. Jay had made a pissed toast, after Cal had left the table to play with more toys, saying that Dec was now officially part of his family, forever, and although Jay kind of looked defiantly at me and Mum while he said it as if he expected us to argue with him, really it wasn’t a problem. I don’t know why they hadn’t just adopted him when he was young enough, to be honest, but this seemed like the same kind of thing, although less official, and I was cool with it, not that I had any say. I looked at Mum, who had been less than happy at having to share Christmas with ‘that boy’, as she’d called him, just to me, but she was patting his shoulder and smiling, so it looked like he’d won her over as well.

And that was kind of it for Christmas. Dec stayed a couple more days, then he went back to Devon and that was that. What? Oh, you don’t really want to know about all that shit with the ‘leave me alone’ and the bonding do you? Oh for fuck’s sake, alright, if it will shut you up.

Cal

So Mum and Dad told everyone the secret, and it wasn’t that Dec was going to be my brother. They were going to get a baby, but not until the summer, which was ages away, and they didn’t know if it would be a brother or a sister. But everyone was happy and drank wine, and pulled crackers and wore the hats and gave me all the toys out of the crackers, then told each other the jokes from the crackers, and there were some really funny ones, like ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick.’ That’s funny because you think the answer is going to be something like Marmite, or poo, which are brown and sticky. But it means something that is stick-y, which is what a stick is. It was my favourite joke for ages. My second favourite joke was ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they aargh.’ That’s funny because aargh is what pirates say, but it sounds like you’ve said ‘because they are’ only in a pirate way.

I got bored after a while, because everyone was talking about boring things like how to make gravy, and I was allowed to get down to play, although Mum said I couldn’t eat any chocolate until later.

I heard them all still talking and laughing in the kitchen, and I felt happy inside. When Uncle Matty was in hospital and we came to live with Granny, there was a lot of talking but not much laughing, and the talking was all serious and I couldn’t join in. Then Uncle Matty woke up, and Dad smiled like he hadn’t done for ages, and things got brighter, and then Uncle Matty came out of hospital, and there were still serious talks, but it seemed better, apart from not being able to talk about Dec.

Now, things seemed better than back to normal. Dec was here, and Uncle Matty was here, and everyone in the house was happy. It felt like a long time since everyone in the house was happy.

Dec

#Well, what a lovely meal, dear. It all went very well, I think. I’m so pleased Matthew stayed for so long and did so much for himself. He’ll be tired now, I should think.

I had managed to wipe my eyes.

‘Best. Roasties. Ever.’

_Don’t let Rose hear you say that.

‘Oh, she knows!’

_Have you spoken to her today?

‘No, I was going to try my phone out, haven’t had a chance.’

_Don’t leave it too long.

‘I’ll do it this afternoon.’

#Beth, dear, why don’t you go and have a sit down? Declan and I will clear the table and make a start on the washing up, won’t we Declan?

‘Yeah, no worries. Go and put your feet up.’

_Oh you angels, thank you.

And then it was just me and Carol. I didn’t know her that well; although she had visited Jay and Beth plenty of times when I had lived with them, I had tended to keep out of the way, be polite if we came across each other (gaping boxers incident aside) and do my own thing. She stood up and started collecting plates into a pile. I noticed that she struggled to lift more than a couple at a time, and remembered Jay saying she had arthritis.

‘Here, let me do that.’

I piled all the plates on top of each other, then realised that I was going to find it a bit hard to lift them too, with a bruised hand and healing arm. I looked at her.

‘Bitten off more than I can chew, I think. Sorry, trying to be chivalrous.’

#It’s very sweet of you, dear. We’re a couple of old crocks, really, aren’t we. Maybe you should initiate me into your Cripples Corner.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

‘I’m not sure you’d appreciate the bad language, it’s a bit of a rule.’

#I don’t really mind the language, dear, I’ve got used to it over the years with Jameson and Matthew. You need to be careful with young Calum though, he idolises his dad and his uncle – and you. He’ll do what you do.

‘I know, I’m trying. Matt and Jay are wicked though.’

#Tell me something I don’t know, dear. Right, how are we going to do this? One plate at a time?

It was slow progress, but we managed to cram most of it into the dishwasher. There were a few pans we optimistically decided to leave for Jay, as I didn’t want to get my dressings wet in the washing up bowl, and Carol thought they’d be too heavy for her. And we thought he deserved it. She may have been disinhibited by quite a large amount of wine, but Carol was OK.

#I think that’s enough for now. I’m going to put my feet up with Beth.

‘Fancy some coffee?’

#That sounds lovely, dear. I’ll leave that with you.

I boiled the kettle, found a cafetière and some fresh coffee and made a pot. Put it all on a tray with cream and sugar and even put some mince pies on a plate. Felt very pleased with myself. I took the tray into the living room, where Beth and Carol were both asleep in front of the TV. I moved on to Matt’s room, where Cal was building a road for his cars out of Lego blocks. Matt was asleep in bed, and Jay was asleep in the chair. Christmas afternoons everywhere always seemed to turn out the same – only the kids awake. A bit deflated, I took the tray back into the living room, poured myself a cup of coffee and took it back into Matt’s room.

‘Need any help, Cal?’

\no, I don’t need help, but you can play with my cars.

‘That’d be great. Which ones can I have?’

I knelt down and engrossed myself in the tiny world Cal had created. He had a huge imagination and was fully absorbed in his game. The room grew dark, and I put the lamp on so we could see what we were doing. Jay woke with a groan and a stretch.

łWhat time is it? Jesus, it’s dark already. How long have I been asleep?

‘Several weeks have passed.’

łHa ha. Have I missed the washing up?

‘You know you have, you planned it that way.’

łVery true, just checking I don’t need to doze off again. Where is everyone?

‘Well four of us are in here. Your mum and Beth were asleep in the living room last time I checked.’

łBetter go and see if there’s anything I need to be doing.

He ran his hands through his hair.

łDamn, I was going to get us out for a walk this afternoon. Bit dark now.

‘We can do it tomorrow. How about a game of football – is there a park?’

łGreat idea. How about it Cal? You and me versus Dec and Granny?

\i don’t think Dec will win if Granny’s on his side.

łI don’t think Granny will win if Dec’s on her side. Especially if she leaves the free kicks to him. I’d better go and see what Beth is up to with Mum, could have all sorts of plans involving me doing stuff I’d rather not do, if I’m not careful.

‘There’s some pans soaking in the kitchen could do with washing up.’

łYeah, right.

Jay shot me a look and padded out of the room, shaking his head.

I carried on playing with Cal and his cars for a while. I became aware of a ringing sound, quite faint.

‘Is that a phone? Can you hear it Cal?’

\it’s from there.

He pointed to the corner of the room where I’d been sitting that morning. There was the box with my new phone in it. It was ringing. I leapt over to the box and tried to open it, unearthing packaging, small plastic bags, earphones, and a charger before the phone finally tumbled into my hand. It had stopped ringing. I looked at the screen: Missed Call. Rose. Fuck. I’d forgotten about calling her.

‘Cal, I need to phone Rose. Back in a minute.’

I went into the kitchen, which seemed to be the only downstairs room not full of sleeping people. I looked at the phone, trying to work out how to dial a number or access the address book. It was different from my last phone and a much more recent model. While I was in the middle of pushing buttons and scrolling through menus, the screen flashed up with Rose’s name, and an option to answer or decline. I pressed answer.

‘Hi Rose! Sorry, I didn’t get to the phone in time just now. Happy Christmas. How are you?’

:Hello, love, oh it’s grand to talk to you. I’m grand. Just thought I’d ring on your new phone. Was it a nice surprise?

‘Yeah. A bit overwhelmed, to tell you the truth.’

:Well, Happy Christmas, love. Have you had a good day?

‘I’ve had the best day. It’s been amazing. Started a bit early, with Cal waking up before three, but it’s been pretty special. Thanks for the present, by the way, it’ll be great in a few days when I get these dressings off.’

:Oh, you’re welcome love, and thank you for the smellies, dead posh they are. I think you might have had a bit of help choosing?

‘Yeah, Lisa did it all really. Otherwise you’d have had an old potato, wrapped in a bit of cling film. I might have washed the potato first – you deserve the best.’

:Oh love, you sound really happy. I don’t think I’ve heard you happy before, not properly. It’s doing you good being there.

‘It really is, I can’t quite believe it still. I feel a bit all over the place. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.’

:When’s that love?

‘Not sure, Jay’s going to bring me back, don’t know when yet. I’ll let you know.’

:Alright, love. See you soon then. Love to Jay and Beth and little Calum.

‘Cheers Rose, bye.’

I pressed ‘end call’ and put the phone in my pocket as Cal wandered into the kitchen.

\can you help me make a Dalek?

‘I’ll have a go. Have you got instructions, or is this just kind of free-hand?

\it’s in the box.

‘OK, bring it in, we can do it on the table here.

Cal skipped off to get the box as the phone in my pocket pinged. I pulled it out. Text.

Nico: =I just check you still alive. Happy Christmas 🙂 from Nico & Lis x

Me: =Just abt 2 build Dalek. Very much alive. Thanks v much 4 laptop 🙂 talk ltr. Dec.

I did feel back in the land of the living, amazing what a difference a phone made. I had felt completely out of touch for the last couple of weeks. Cal returned with a large box full of complicated small pieces and a very detailed several-page booklet of instructions. We emptied the pieces onto the table and sorted them into piles, then started making the model. Cal lost focus easily, but I needed him to manage the fiddly bits, my fingers still tripping over themselves at times.

‘Why don’t you go and get a book or something so you’ve got something to do while I’m working out what goes where?’

\i want to help you.

‘OK, it’s up to you, but this might take a long time. There might be some boring bits for you.’

Some time later we had finally finished. Cal just about kept his concentration, although he was fidgeting a lot by the time we put the finishing touches to the model. The rest of the house was still quiet, and I could feel myself drooping a bit too.

‘Why don’t we go and show your dad?’

\kay. Then what can we do?

‘Well …’

I looked at the clock in the kitchen. Well past time for people to be awake and helping me entertain Cal.

‘Let’s go and see if Daddy wants to play a game with you.’

I followed Cal into the living room, where Carol, Jay and Beth were all asleep on the sofas. I mean, seriously? I know we’d all been up early, I knew that better than any of them, but this was verging on the ridiculous. I looked on as Cal launched himself onto Jay’s lap.

\daddy, what can I do now? We made a Dalek, look. Can we play my football game?

Jay’s eyes had snapped open as soon as Cal kneed him in the balls, and he tried hard to focus on the model Cal was holding in front of his face.

łAh, Jesus. Sorry, Cal, agh, what? Uh. Great, er, Dalek. Jesus, mind what you’re doing there. Jesus.

Beth stirred beside him.

_Was I asleep? What time is it?

She looked at the clock.

_God, it’s really late. I should get some tea or something.

She got up and headed for the kitchen.

\daddy, what can I do?

Jay was still trying to get his breath back. He caught my eye.

łI don’t suppose ..?

Nope, wasn’t having that, however grateful I was to be part of the family.

‘I’ve been the only one awake with Cal all afternoon.’

łFair enough. OK, Cal, let’s see what we can do. Fancy helping Mummy get some tea?

\no, I want to play a game.

I laughed.

‘Suck it up, Daddy. No getting out of it.’

Jay glanced over at Carol, who was still asleep. No assistance there, either.

łI guess all that wine is taking its toll. OK, Cal, let’s have a look then …

I left the room to avoid being sucked into Cal’s game. Much as I had enjoyed being with him, he was a tiring bundle of energy, I’d got out of the habit of being with him, and I felt drained. I went into the kitchen, where Beth was starting to wash up the pans Carol and I had left.

‘Oh, we left those for Jay.’

_You’d have been waiting a long time, then! It’s OK, there’s not much. Thanks for doing the rest, great help.

‘No worries. Anything else I can do?’

_No, sweetheart, I’m just going to finish this and put some tea on the table, people can help themselves. Won’t take a minute. Thanks for being with Cal this afternoon. You must be exhausted.

‘Yeah, a bit. He kept me busy. Loved it, though.’

_You’ve always been so good with him, the two of you with your heads together, cooking up some mischief or other. He’s missed you. We all have.

‘Same here. Don’t start me off again.’

_Thanks for coming up, Dec, it’s been like old times. Well, not that old I suppose. Feels like a long time ago though. You’ve grown up a lot – I keep forgetting how young you are.

I felt slightly miffed at being considered young. I was in my last few weeks of being a teenager.

‘Twenty next month.’

_Sorry, sweetheart, twenty sounds really young to me! You’ve had a lot to cope with in the past few months, when you add it all up. James told me a lot of what you told him last night. I’m sorry we weren’t there for you.

‘Fuck, Beth, you’ve got nothing to apologise for. You and Jay had your own shit going on. I did some appallingly stupid things and made some bloody mind-blowing decisions, I just made it harder for you. Looking back, I can’t quite understand myself. I made myself a really deep hole, and I’d still be in it if it hadn’t been for Rose. And Nico.’

_Rose is so lovely. She really cares about you.

‘I know.’

_Nico and Lis care about you too. I’m glad you’ve got them all.

‘Yeah, me too.’

_I’m glad you’ve got us as well.

‘Thanks, Beth. I feel very lucky.’

_You’re not the only one. We were all pretty close to losing each other, weren’t we? Come here.

She held her arms open, and hugged me. Predictably, tears were shed on both sides. She patted my back and let go.

_Well I’ve got my hormones as an excuse. What’s yours?

‘Bloody head case, according to Jay.’

_You’re seeing someone though, aren’t you, sweetheart?

‘Got an appointment in the New Year.’

_I think it might help, don’t you? Just sorting through stuff in general, let alone all the recent stuff. You’ve had quite a tough start in life.

‘I’ll give it a go. Don’s orders anyway, so not much choice.’

_He usually knows what he’s doing.

‘Yeah. Anyway, I might go and check on Matt.’

_Is that code for taking a nap? It’s nice and quiet in there, I can keep Cal in the living room.

I grinned at her.

‘I’ll see how it goes.’

Matt’s room was completely dark. I switched on the Christmas tree lights, and looked over at Matt. His eyes were closed and his breathing regular. I sat in the chair by his bed and took the phone out of my pocket, thinking I would try to get to grips with it. The first thing I pressed caused a loud trilling. Matt stirred and opened his eyes.

‘Shit, sorry, mate, didn’t mean to wake you up.’

}Dark.

‘Happens at night.’

}Whas tihm?

‘About six thirty.’

}Bolluhks. Haht bluhdy slehping soh much.

‘No different from everyone else today. Me and Cal have been holding the fort since after lunch, everyone else crashed. Came in here for a bit of peace and quiet. So stop your bloody chatter.’

}Pihs off. How’s yuh phone?

‘I’m just trying it out. It’s different from my old one, trying to work out where everything is.’

}Hahv a lohk?

I handed it to him.

}Had ohn lihk this. Prehty easy. Hehr’s yuh contahts, yuh cahl or text from hehr. This foh intehnet. Sehtings foh Wi-Fi – uhs Jay’s while yuhr hehr, I’ll lohg yuh on. Thehr yuh goh. Easy.

He handed it back.

‘Well I know where to come for a quick tutorial. Thanks.’

}Hahv my uhses.

‘Everyone’s good at something.’

Carol appeared in the doorway.

#I think Beth’s put some tea on the table. Do either of you want anything?

}Noh Ihm stuhfed. Cup of teh tho?

#Right you are, dear. Declan?

‘Cup of tea sounds great. No food just yet, though, thanks. I’m stuffed too.’

Carol left to fill our order.

}Muhm’s wahmed up tuh yuh a bih.

‘Yeah, seems to have. I can understand why she was a bit off to start with, me walking in looking like a I’d lost a cage fight, having caused Jay and Beth no end of grief.’

}Yuh must hahv chahmed her.

‘I think several large glasses of wine helped, then we bonded over the dishwasher.’

}Bluhdy ahrslicker.

‘She’s alright, your mum.’

}I knoh. Juhs jeluhs couhnt hehp wash uhp.

‘Really?’

}Fuck noh. Only rehson Ihm in behd, tuh avoid the dishes.

‘Ha ha, seems to be working. Keep it up.’

Carol came back in with two mugs of tea, one in Matt’s spouted cup.

#Are you alright with this dear? Do you want me or Declan to help you?

}Yuh, Muhm. Sohry Dec, mahn poihts.

‘Understood. I’ll leave you to it.’

I stood up.

‘Oh, by the way, your mum’s the newest member of Cripple’s Corner. She’s up for the dirty songs and the swearing.’

Matt spluttered into his tea as I left the room.

The rest of the evening passed in a lazy, dozy haze. Cal, who had effectively been awake since three o’clock that morning, went to bed at seven with hardly any protest. I read him a really short story and Beth tucked him in, still wearing his Arsenal shirt, which he refused to take off. He apparently fell asleep while Beth was still talking to him.

The TV was on, taking away the need for conversation, and my mind drifted contentedly. Carol was still sitting in with Matt, Jay and Beth were cosied up on one sofa, I was stretched out on the other. The phone rang, shattering the peace. Jay had a brief conversation with Beth’s mum, then handed the phone over to Beth, mouthing ‘tell her’. Beth rolled her eyes and nodded, taking the phone into the kitchen.

Jay picked up the TV remote and managed to find a repeat of a rugby international on a sports channel. We watched it for a while, occasionally commenting on some aspect of the play, or a refereeing decision. Jay suddenly sat up and looked at me.

łI’ve just had a bloody brilliant idea.

‘OK.’

łAren’t Raiders at home on Sunday?

I thought about it, a bit surprised that Raiders had been so far from my mind. If these people were my family, then Raiders were my home, and I’d just recently been granted access back there too. Before my mind could go wandering down too many guilty paths, I answered Jay.

‘Yeah. Against Warriors.’

łWhy don’t we go? I can take you home – we could bring Cal, that’d give Beth a break, he’d love it. Three birds with one stone.

I hadn’t thought about going back. I had settled back into life with Jay and Beth so quickly that, for the moment, it hadn’t occurred to me it wasn’t going to last. I felt like someone had poured cold water on me.

‘Isn’t it a sell out?’

łI reckon I could swing some tickets. I’ll talk to Don, I need to ring him anyway. What do you think?

‘Yeah, great.’

He looked so excited by his plan that I joined in, even though I felt rather churned up about it.

łI’ll talk to Beth once she’s off the phone. I can get Matty up in the morning, she should be alright for a day, I can come back after so I’m not away overnight. I’ll ring Don first thing.

‘It’s Boxing Day.’

łIt’s the Friday before a Sunday game, they’ll be training. It’s only ex-players like me and injured nancies like you that get Boxing Day off.

‘Oh yeah.’

łAre you OK? You’re a bit quiet. Is it a bad idea?

‘No, it’s a great idea. I’d love to watch Raiders with you and Cal. Just hadn’t given going home much thought. Been in a bit of a bubble since I got here, and I think it just popped.’

łJesus, sorry, mate. Maybe it was a bit insensitive of me. We can leave it if you want. Stay a bit longer?

I thought about it, but in the end, whether I went back in a few days or a few weeks, it was going to feel the same.

‘No, it sounds good if you can swing it. I haven’t seen a home game for a long time. Should get back to Rose, I guess, or even go back to my flat.’

I wasn’t relishing that one, but it would have to happen eventually – I couldn’t impose on Rose for much longer, now I was getting fitter.

łOK, if you’re sure. You know you can stay as long as you like, come back whenever you like, don’t you?

‘Thanks.’

Jay settled back down to watch the game, a satisfied look on his face, although I could no longer concentrate on the TV now as thoughts from pre-Christmas crept in.

I wondered if I would see DivDav or Big at the game. Needed to think about how I would handle that. I had no idea if the police had approached either of them about my allegations. Fuck, fuck, fuck, all the complications I had managed to forget over the last forty-eight hours came crashing back and I started to feel really gloomy.

The game finished and Beth came back in to say she was going to bed.

łIs your Mum excited?

_You bet. I talked to both my sisters too. Rachel’s already planning what to knit. Lou wants to visit for New Year. I tried to put her off, don’t know if it worked.

łBugger. Oh well, can’t be helped. You’d like to see her, wouldn’t you.

_Course.

łI’ll manage then. If I get pissed enough she might not annoy me at all. I’ll be up after I’ve sorted Matty – me and Dec have had an idea about Sunday …

They waved goodnight, then I heard Beth go upstairs while Jay went in to Matt to check he was alright for the night. I stayed on the sofa, still feeling sorry for myself. The sports channel was now showing football, previewing the Boxing Day games. I turned the sound down and let it drift over me.

I tried to be positive. I’d had a great couple of days, and I was here for another two. Jay, Beth and Cal had welcomed me back into their family with open arms, permanently and unreservedly. Despite everything I’d done, the mess I’d made of everything over the last few months, I hadn’t lost them. It was more than I deserved. And yet, it wasn’t ever going to be the same as it had been. It was going to be visits and weekends, and once I was playing again, I would hardly see them during the season.

This seemed like another loss on top of everything. It welled up in me, starting somewhere below my ribs and then spreading up into my throat. I curled on the sofa and cried, trying to be as quiet as possible. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, but couldn’t stop the tears, giving myself over to a good dose of self-pity.

11. Pieces of the night

In which Matty continues to teeter perilously between one world and the next, and Dec continues to encounter setbacks.

Dec

Woke with a start. Daylight. Thumping head. Dry furry mouth. Body aching all over. Still wearing training kit. Still stinking. Still a worthless piece of shit. Stomach growled. I was hungry. Really hungry. Well, I could do something about that.

Sat up carefully and swung leaden, aching legs over the edge of the bed. Dizzy. Stood up. Wobbled to the kitchen. Found biscuits. Ate. Crumbs stuck to the inside of my mouth. Drank water. Lots of water. Hands shaking so much I nearly dropped the glass. Leaned against the sink, tap running fast, panting noisily. Life one piece at a time.

:Alright, love?

Startled, my whole body jolted. Wheeled round to face her, heart pounding.

‘What the fuck.

:Sorry, love, didn’t mean to make you jump. I did knock. Heard you moving about from downstairs. I still had your key. Just wanted to see how you are.

‘Give me the sodding key. Leave me the fuck alone.’

I was almost growling, but she handed me the key and patted me on the shoulder.

:Whatever it is, love, I’m sure it’ll be alright.

Anger welled up, rage from a thousand places.

‘What the fuck do you know? Who the fuck are you anyway? Get the fuck out. Just fuck off.

Moved towards her, fist raised, a reflex. She put her hands up defensively and backed away.

:Alright, I’m going. Sorry to have disturbed you, I’m sure.

Turned back to lean against the sink. Heard the door shut as she left. Eyes screwed shut against the light from the window. Stomach still growling with hunger. Turned round to the fridge. A sandwich, on a plate, covered with cling film. A handwritten note on the top: Protein is good for hangovers. Protein meant meat right? Mouth filled with saliva. So hungry, didn’t even wonder where the magic sandwich had come from. Tore the cling-film off. Smell of egg hit me like a punch. Bile rose into my mouth. Ran to the bathroom. Puked up digestives and water. Flashbacks. Recent memories of puking here, in the lounge, in the kitchen sink. Fun times. But … no memories of clearing up. Surely she hadn’t …

Rested my head on the toilet bowl, unable to think with the renewed pounding in my head blotting out everything. Mouth felt disgusting, bits of vomit clinging to my lips, regurgitated biscuit on my chin, mucus hanging from my nose, tears of humiliation running down my cheeks.

Stood up unsteadily. Turned on the tap. Drank. Rinsed my face. Without lifting my head too far, loaded my toothbrush. Got rid of the worst. Rinsed and spat. Flushed toilet. Again thinking – surely she hadn’t …

Leaned forwards, breathing hard, hands on knees. Stench of me, puke and piss and cheap vodka, no longer bearable. Stood upright slowly. Pulled off shirt, smearing old vomit over my face and through my hair. Pushed down tracksuit bottoms and boxers. Stickiness and smell confirmed I had pissed myself at some stage. From low to lowest. Stepped out of clothes. God Almighty I still had my studs on. Ruined now, covered in filth. Slipped boots and socks off. Turned on shower. Climbed slowly over the side of the bath. Stood under the hot cleansing stream. Remembered what I’d lost.

Wept.

I stood under the shower for a long time. The water had long ago removed at least the physical evidence of my self-induced coma. Thoughts and feelings were becoming a bit clearer. I considered getting more vodka, because forgetting had its upsides. But also its humiliating downsides. I was hollowed out, as if something had scoured away everything I had ever been.

I didn’t know who I was. Everything I had dreamed of, worked for, hoped for, asked for, was gone. I had tossed it away. The steam filled the bathroom, and I began to feel even more light headed. My stomach growled again. I needed to eat.

Finally leaving the limbo of the hot shower, I climbed out of the bath and wrapped a towel round my waist. Walked through the lounge. Able to take in more, it seemed clean and tidy. It was never clean and tidy. Where had all the bottles gone? When I woke up, there were bottles. A lot of bottles.

A sour smell. The couch. It smelt like I had smelt before my shower, would have been soaked with the same fluids. Couldn’t think about it. Went into the kitchen. Avoided the fridge and the egg sandwich which I had thrust back inside. Cupboards provided little beyond a sprouting potato and more digestives. I’d really seen enough of digestives, one way and another. I was going to have to go out. I hadn’t eaten since – what day was it today? I could not compute how long I had wallowed.

From the kitchen I spotted a newspaper sticking out of the letterbox. I walked over and pulled it out. It was the local paper, dated Thursday. Thursday? Surely yesterday was … Monday? Began to realise how much I must have drunk. And why I felt so wobbly. I hadn’t eaten for several days.

As I put the paper down, the back page headline screamed out “Summers Storm Rocks Raiders”. There was a picture of me, in my puke-stained training shirt, with two days growth on my chin, snarling at the camera. Lowest? Nowhere near yet.

Almost immobilised again, but my increasingly insistent hunger was taking priority. I threw the paper to the floor. Moving dazedly to the bedroom (which offered a similar fragrance to the couch) I pulled on some clothes and shoes.

Couldn’t find my wallet. Fumbled around in trouser pockets and found some loose change. Hopefully enough for a Pot Noodle or something. Keys, keys. Couldn’t find my keys. Keys, keys, come on where the fuck are you? Sorted through the rancid pile of clothes I’d left on the bathroom floor. Not there. In the bed? Not there. Down the back of the couch? Not there. Any more stinking shit-holes to search? Could I leave my door open while I went out? Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to get back in the main door. Nobody lets you in if they don’t know you.

Maybe that old lady from downstairs … oh fuck. I remembered swearing at her, I remembered … Jesus, did I raise my fist at her? Then I remembered hearing the hoover, and the clink of glass, and looked again at the tidy flat. Shit, must I screw up everything? Still, I was getting desperate now. Maybe she’d help me if I apologised. Didn’t she say something about having a key? No – she gave me the key. What did I do with it? Where was I when she gave it to me? Kitchen! And there it was by the sink. I held the key up like a trophy.

I left the flat as quickly as my unsteady legs would take me, feeling queasy with hunger and still fighting the hangover from a two day binge. As I reached the ground floor, a door opened. The woman from earlier came out, with a coat on. When she saw me she put her head down and began to walk past.

‘No wait, please, er, sorry don’t know your name.’

She stopped with her hand on the outside door handle. Looked at me. Assessed.

:Rose.

‘Hi. Um, I just, fuck, can I just ask, sorry, I was in a bit of a state before. Did you clean up my flat?’

I was trying my hardest to sound coherent, but it was a struggle.

:I did.

Her lips were pressed tightly together and disapproval knitted her brows in a furrow.

‘Well … thanks. I don’t know what to say. Sorry, I guess, that I shouted at you, and everything.

:You weren’t very pleasant.

‘Sorry. I’ve, er, been, er, not very well.’

:Yes I could see that

She continued to level her gaze at me. I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach made a loud gurgling noise.

‘I need to get some food.’

:I left you a sandwich.

‘Yeah, I know. Thanks. But it, er, made me sick. The smell. Anyway, I need something to eat so …’

I gestured at the door, which she was blocking. When I glanced back to her, she was looking horrified, holding her hand to her mouth.

:Oh love, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think. I always have an egg sandwich when I’ve had one too many, does the trick lovely.

Welsh. That was her accent – it was the ‘lovely’ that did it. Rose was very Welsh.

‘Yeah, well, I had more than one too many.’

:Yes you did, love. From the look of all the bottles, you’re lucky you didn’t give yourself alcohol poisoning. Or choke to death.

‘Or unlucky.’

I muttered it under my breath. Maybe that would have solved everything. Rose had heard me, though, and she focussed sharply on my face.

:What’s that, love?

Shook my head and looked away.

:Hmm. Well I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to make you feel worse.

‘Yeah, well, anyway I need to get to the shop, so …’

I waggled my hand at the door again.

:Look, why don’t I do you some soup?

‘What?’

:Well you’re hungry, my flat is just by here, I have a tin of cream of chicken and some crusty bread. Two ticks, that’s all it’d take.

My mouth filled with spit just hearing about it, and my stomach contracted shamelessly. But talking with a stranger not really on my agenda.

‘Oh no, you’re OK, I need to get, um, other stuff.’

:Oh come on with you.

And for a second time she took my arm and led me away.

:I see you’ve cleaned yourself up a bit. By, you were a sight. And a smell. You might have to throw that sofa away, love, if we can’t get everything out of it. Maybe your carpet too. Did you see the air freshener I left? Anti-bacterial. Should help with some of it. I used it when next door’s cat got shut in while I was work – now there’s a smell you don’t want hanging around: rampant tom cat. I had some words to say about that, I can tell you …

I realised I might not have to do much talking.

Sitting at her kitchen table, chatter floated over me. Didn’t need to reply very often; single words were, thankfully, enough.

:So, how old are you love?

‘Nineteen.’

:Oh, same as my sister’s boy. They’re up in Pontypool. South Wales. Don’t see him much, he’s that age, aunties aren’t very cool are they? From round here are you?

‘No.’

:I’ve lived here fifteen years next February. Came down with my job and my husband. Worked for the gas company. In sales. He left and I stayed. Feels like home now. Like it here do you?

‘S’ok.’

And so she talked on as she heated the soup and cut the bread. Couldn’t focus on her words, the smell of the food was all I could think about, nausea and hunger battling for dominance. Finally it was ready and she placed the bowl in front of me, a spoon into my hand.

:Eat slow now, love. Small spoonfuls. No repeat performances, please.

I nodded. It was hard to go slowly, I was so hungry. The hot liquid slid down my throat and lined my stomach. The bread (:chew it all, love, you’ll choke) was crusty and soft and filling. She tidied and washed up while I ate, talking the whole time. No idea what she said. I finished the bowlful and sat up. Started to feel – what? Normal? Very, very far from normal. But my stomach was full, the waves of nausea were receding and my head throbbed a little less.

‘Thanks, er, Rose.’

:Hit the spot did it?

‘Yeah, very good.’

Really hoped she wasn’t expecting me to stay. I had reached the limits of small talk tolerance. But really didn’t want to offend her again.

:Tidy. Now, I want you to make a list of things I can get you from the shop.

‘What? No, honestly, this was fine. Great. Thanks. I’ll sort something out.’

Wasn’t sure why she was bothering, I’d been pretty awful to her. The soup had been great, I was starting to feel much better, and really just wanted to be left alone now.

:No arguments, love. You need supplies. You’re not in a state to go out. And those noisy buggers from yesterday might still be hanging about.

Hadn’t occurred to me, but I remembered the headline and photo in this morning’s paper.

‘I think they got what they wanted.’

:Hmm. Still, I want you to let me do this for you. It’s no trouble, I’m going for myself anyway.

‘Can’t find my wallet. This is all I’ve got.’

I held out the handful of coins I’d found earlier.

:Oh, that’s in a drawer, love, with your keys and your mobile phone. I found them on the floor last night. Put them away safe.

Sensed defeat. Didn’t have the energy to fight her right now.

‘I’ll go and get you some money then.’

:No rush, love. When I get back is fine. I know where you live.

She settled at the table, satisfied that she’d won the argument.

:Now, I think more soup and bread, easy and hearty, and fruit, keep up your vitamin C. Something for the microwave?

‘Haven’t got one.’

:No microwave?

Jay and Beth had bought me a microwave when I moved out, but I’d needed the money more.

‘Sold it.’

:Oh, alright then, love. Hmm, jacket potatoes then, nice and easy, just stick them in the oven. Bit of butter …

Automatic: ‘I can’t have butter.’

:Oh, you allergic?

‘No, I’m not allowed –’

Sudden realisation that no one would care any more if my highly formulated diet plan was ignored. New loss. Every situation, every conversation, mined with reminders. All started to crowd in on me again. Still couldn’t face the specifics, but lying on top of it all was a silent scream – it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone.

Rose carried on obliviously, organising a shopping list, filling in the gaps my silence created. A hand on my shoulder brought me back to now.

:Come on love, back to your own place. I won’t be long. And I’ll make sure I ring the bell this time.

She steered me through her front door to the stairs.

Back in my flat, tiredness overtook me again. Rose’s continual talking had propped me up, but with nothing to focus on, a full stomach and the continued, if muted, nausea and headache, I felt heavy and lethargic. Still didn’t want to think. Too much I didn’t want to think about. Sleep was appealing. Ignoring the sour odour from my bed, I lay down.

Dreaming. Flying over houses. Seeing Jay’s house, I fly down and in through a window. I watch us all making Sunday lunch. I’m teasing Cal, Jay is teasing us both and Beth is laughing. We eat together and play football in the garden afterwards. I fly down and help Cal score a goal. We go inside and sit down just as the doorbell…

Matt

It is dark. I can hear voices, but I cannot see anything. Mum seems to be talking to Beth. I do not know where I am, whether I am standing or lying, asleep or awake, alive or dead, and I fall …

Dec

…rang. I tried to cling on to the wisps of the dream, but it was gone. All of it. As if it had died. I curled up on the bed, wrapped in misery. Bell rang again. And again. Scythed through my insides.

Fuck. Off.’

Letterbox pushed open.

:Only me love. I’ve got your bits and pieces. I can just leave the bag here, but there’s things need to go in the fridge. Don’t leave it too long, it’ll go off.

Shit. I owed her money.

‘Wait’.

And I’d told her to fuck off. Again.

‘Sorry.’

Jumped off the bed, ignoring protesting head and aching limbs. Tripped over pile of clothes. Stumbled to the door and flung it open. She was just disappearing round the corner on the stairs.

‘Wait!’

Footsteps returned upwards and then she appeared round the corner.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. I was asleep. I’m so sorry.’

:Don’t worry, love. I didn’t take it personally. You still look asleep, if I’m honest. Anything else I can do?’

She reached the door, picked up the bag of shopping and gave it to me.

‘No, no, this is great. Lifesaver. Really.’

The gratitude was wearing me out.

:You know, love, I’m a bit of an interfering old bat, but you don’t seem right to me. Been on a hell of a bender, you’re all over the place, shouting and cursing, bunch of hooligans hanging around till all hours. None of my business I know. But do you need any help? Is there anything I can do? Tell me to wind my neck in if you like, and I will. Just asking because, well, you have to ask don’t you.

Still a worthless piece of shit. Didn’t deserve this. Tried to say ‘I’m fine’. Choked on the words. Lips trembled. Tears welled.

:Oh love, come on now. Why don’t you just tell me? I know I yap on a bit, but I stop and listen sometimes. Might do you good to talk about it.

Say it and it’s real. No way. Suddenly her attention was elsewhere.

:Hold on, is that you?

She bent down and picked up the paper I had thrown down earlier.

:This is you! Oh! You’re that lad from the rugby club aren’t you … oh! You poor love …

She stepped over to me and put her arms round me. I stiffened. Then felt myself crumple. Dropped the bag of shopping. She was short and stout, much shorter than me, but she somehow enfolded me. It seemed so long since anyone had cared how I felt. Beyond my control now to prevent it pouring out. Heaving sobs. Streams of hot tears. Choked incoherent half-words. Leaned on her and wept it all. Emptied myself. She talked the whole time

:There love. It’s alright. Shush now. You poor love. It’s alright. Shush now. There now. There now.

Weeping petered out into shudders. Stood back from her, head in hands. Embarrassed. Wiped face on sleeve. She patted my arm.

:Alright now, love. It’s alright.

I looked at her. Her face was wet too, and she fished in a pocket for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes

:By, you needed that didn’t you, love?

A shrug. A deep breath. A nod.

:Is your mam nearby?

Shook my head.

:Can you ring her?

Old, old sadness. Pushed it back down where it came from, with an effort, so I could say it without feeling it.

‘No … she’s dead.’

:Oh love, I’m so sorry. How about your dad.

‘Same.’

Her eyes filled up again.

:Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?

Made a quick mental list of people I had alienated deliberately and incidentally over the past days, weeks and months.

‘No.’

:Oh love, you must be so lonely. Now look, you can’t go on like this. You don’t look well. Your flat stinks, to be frank, and, well, you haven’t got much stuff have you? Haven’t most of you lads got playstations and computers and the like? You haven’t even got a telly.

‘Sold it.’

:Alright … whatever you say … but you can’t stay here on your own with no one to talk to. This trouble you’re in with the rugby club – I honestly can’t say I know much about it, just saw a bit on the local news when I was waiting for my programme. Isn’t there anyone there?

Felt rather than remembered Don’s words hitting me like a hammer. Remembered Jay’s we’re done.

‘Doubt it.’

Needed not to follow this line of conversation. Not ready to explore reality yet.

‘I can’t talk about it. Please don’t ask.’

:Alright love. But at least let’s make your flat a bit more liveable. Where’s that air freshener?

And she bustled off, spraying pine freshness over the couch, putting the shopping away in the kitchen, calling me into the bedroom to make me strip the bed and put my clothes in the washing machine, tidying and cleaning as she went. There wasn’t much to clean, most it of had gone to eBay, before I sold my laptop.

As Rose made a start on scrubbing the oven, I noticed a pile of mail on the table by the front door. Mostly junk mail, but one white envelope with a Raiders logo in the corner was hard to miss. I opened it slowly and read the contents

‘No, no, no, fuck no.’

:Everything alright love?

‘Today’s Thursday, right?’

:All day, love.

‘Shit. Fuck.’

:You do like a good swear don’t you. What’s the matter, love?

‘I should have been at the club yesterday. Meeting with the coach.’

:Well there’s not much you can do about missing it. Phone and explain. They’ll understand I’m sure.

‘Rose, I really am in a shitload of trouble. I can’t just not turn up when they tell me to. Especially if it’s because I was wasted.’

:Well it’s happened now. The longer you leave it, the worse it’ll be. Just ring. What have you got to lose?

She had a point.

‘Have you moved my phone?

:It’s in the drawer, with your keys, love.

I retrieved my mobile from the drawer where Rose had put it. There wasn’t much charge left. I ignored the alerts to a whole stack of missed calls and texts.

‘Thanks, but I actually meant the land-line Should be on the table here.’

Rose pointed at the wall next to the kitchen door, where there was a large dent, and scratches in the plaster.

:See that hole?

‘Yeah.’

:What was left of your telephone was in little bits underneath that hole, along with your answering machine. I threw it away. Don’t know if you threw it, kicked it, stamped on it or what, but there wasn’t enough left of it to do you much good.

Didn’t know what to say to that. No memory of it. So that left my mobile, and the hope that neither the battery nor the credit ran out before I’d finished the call.

The phone call was painful for all concerned. I knew the girls in the office pretty well, had tried my chat-up techniques out on a couple of them a few times, sometimes dropped in close to coffee time for a freebie. They obviously knew all about me, and were distant and professional. It hurt. I was put on hold while my message was relayed to Don.

*Mr Barker would like you to come in this afternoon.

‘Yeah, what time?’

*Four o’clock would suit him.

‘I’ll be there.’

It was early afternoon now. The buses to that side of town were sporadic and I’d have to walk the last bit along the dual carriageway. I needed to make myself presentable quite quickly.

:Well done love, see that was easier than you thought.

‘They were polite.’

:Well that’s good, isn’t it?

‘We used to have a laugh.’

:Oh, well, not so good then. You need a shave. And another shower wouldn’t go amiss. Have you got clean clothes?

And so Rose carried on organising me. Still a worthless piece of shit. But it seemed like someone might be willing to help me clean the pan when I’d flushed it all away.

I sat on the bus and tried not to think. This would be the ceremonial end of my Raiders career, which had been put out of its misery yesterday. I shied away from it. I dreaded and welcomed it. I didn’t deserve to keep it. And there was my passport and visa not to think about too. Don’s words, ‘implications for remaining in this country’, had shocked me at the time, but with everything else that had been said on Monday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend them, or even give them much attention until now. I couldn’t deal with it.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

I walked along the dual carriageway in a kind of trance. Up the hill to the club car park.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

Started to cross the car park to the players entrance. Became aware of someone walking across from me. It was Jay. The bombardment of questions from outside my front door last night surfaced, with “Anything to say about Jay Scott’s resignation? stopping my footsteps.

If Jay saw me, he ignored me and carried on walking towards his car. I called out to him. He didn’t look up. I ran towards him, needed to talk to him.

‘Jay. Please. I didn’t know – I found out – you’re not really going?’

He got into his car as if he hadn’t heard me, not even glancing in my direction.

‘I’m so sorry. I can’t believe how much I’ve fucked everything up.’

He shut the door, started the engine, put on his seat belt and drove away, all with a determinedly grim expression on his face. As I watched the car, the brake lights went on and then the reversing lights. The car came back towards me. When it drew level, the front window came down. Jay glanced at me, then turned to face forwards. He took a deep breath and began to speak, his voice getting louder as he became more angry.

łYou really are a fucking self-centred little prick. I don’t give a shit about you or your fucking miserable apologies. Not everything is about you. The world doesn’t fucking revolve around you. People don’t live or die because of you. Oh no, sorry, sometimes people do die because of you don’t they. Fuck you. The sun doesn’t shine out of your fucking arse any more. No one gives a shit about you, no one here, no one anywhere. Just fuck off Declan. Or Charlie. Or whatever fucking lying bastard name you’ve chosen today. You make me sick. Just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t talk to us, don’t call us. Go on, fuck off. Fuck off and die for all I care.

He revved the engine and the car roared away.

His words froze me. Could hardly breathe. We really were done. Slumped to the ground and leaned against a car. Completely numb. No thoughts. No tears. Not even any feelings. It all crashed around me.

>Please I need to get to my car.

Looked up, tried to focus. Nico Tiago. With an effort, pushed myself to my feet. Moved aside. He glanced at me before opening the driver’s door. Recognition. A closer look.

>Declan. You look like you see a ghost. Many ghosts. You are alright?

Nodded. He waited.

‘Appointment with Don.’

>Huh. OK. Good luck.

I started to walk across the car park. Feet of lead. From behind me:

>Wait. Don’t go in players’ entrance. There are reporters. They annoy everyone. We all use delivery door.

Changed direction. Got to Don’s office without meeting anyone else. Knocked.

-Yep.

Opened the door.

-Declan. Come on in. Take a seat.

Closed the door and sat down. Waited. Head still full of the bite of Jay’s words. Don breathed in deeply.

-We’ve been trying to get hold of you since Tuesday morning.

Forced myself back to now.

‘I know. Sorry. I’ve been, er, ill.’

Don glanced at something on his desk, and then looked back to me.

-Declan, we’re aware that this must all be very difficult for you. But we need to figure out a lot of things. We need to stay in contact with you. You need to answer your phone when we call you.

Flashback image of hurling my ringing phone across the lounge; stamping on it until the noise stopped. Memory returned, at least of that particular event.

‘My land-line’s broken.’

-Then you need to keep your mobile with you. OK?

My mobile had been in my pocket all the time, but I hadn’t been in any fit state to answer it. Now wasn’t the time to say that.

‘OK. Sorry.’

-Alright. In any case, you’re here now. I just wanted to talk to you about what’s been happening. We need to keep communicating. Don’t go out of contact again.

I nodded.

-Declan, when we spoke on Monday, it was quite an emotional time for us all. I want to update you on some things. It’s not all bad news. But it’s not all good, either. Firstly, I want to talk about the Community Project money. You said you were almost able to pay back the money you took. Can you explain?

‘I’ve been saving up, wages, sold my stuff, borrowed, anything. It’s taken longer than I thought. I’ve got most of it. About a thousand short. It’s in a bank account.’

The full extent of the amount I’d borrowed, who I’d borrowed it from and how long it was going to take me to pay it all back made my blood run cold, but that was for another day.

-I’ve been asking around. Over the past couple of months, you haven’t made yourself very popular here, you’ve borrowed a lot of money. Frankly, with the potential consequences of your passport, you’re even less popular right now. But nonetheless, we have decided that if you hand over the money you have, to the charities it was destined for, we won’t press charges. To be honest, I thought your borrowing was to add to what you took, not to try to replace it, and it makes a difference, knowing your motives. To my knowledge, your actions in this respect have not reached the press, so we should be able to keep it as an internal matter. This club prides itself on its community and charity links, and if this becomes general knowledge, it will damage our reputation. It is only for this reason we are not taking the matter further; if it becomes public, we may have to rethink.

I gaped. I had not expected anything other than a visit from the police. It was more, much more than I deserved.

‘That’s … I … thank you.’

-This isn’t a let off. Your conduct has been gravely unprofessional and risked the reputation of Raiders. But we felt we had to take into account your conduct prior to this incident, and your attempts to make good. Another development of this particular saga is that we have done some investigating and it appears that the man who died in your accident didn’t have any children.

‘Whoa – what?’

My jaw dropped and I just stared at Don with my mouth open.

-Did you actually check any of his story before handing over the money?

My brain was rapidly scrambling.

‘I … no. I … just … he seemed to know all about it. I was … fuck … I’m a fucking idiot.’

I carried on berating myself silently. Don had a grim look on his face.

-Well I think your chances of recovering any money from him are non-existent, so in effect you have given away ten thousand pounds of your own money to a complete stranger.

Fucking, fucking idiot.

To say I hope you’ve learned your lesson would be very much an understatement. As a club we are going to draw a line under this, but obviously you still have some way to go to make things right. However, the other issues we discussed when we last met continue to be concerning. Concealing criminal proceedings, giving us an invalid passport, and taking the money in the first place are matters of grave concern to me. You have made some serious errors of judgement and have not used the support network available to you through the club to communicate with us about what’s been going on with you. I’m afraid we are not looking very favourably at this. Missing your appointment yesterday was an extra consideration.

Don glanced to his desk again. Following his glance this time I saw the local paper folded on his desk, ‘Summers Storm Rocks Raiders’ headline uppermost. Hidden underneath, the telling photo of me in all my glory. Don was well aware of why I had been out of contact.

-I think it may be difficult, for Raiders and for you, for us to work together in the future. You have severely damaged your relationship with the club. You should know that we are considering terminating your contract. For the time being you will remain suspended, for the time being on full pay, but will meet regularly with Stuart Clarke, who is taking over as backs coach. You are aware that Jay is leaving us?

A miserable nod. Thought again about Jay venting his disgust at me from his car.

-I think you should be aware that if Jay were staying, you would not be returning in any capacity. Stuart is going out on a limb to make sure we all have the chance to make something work with you. We will see how things have progressed in a few weeks and review it then. We want to try to re-establish some kind of trust in you; you are a promising young player and until recent events we had been very happy with your progress. But we are not willing to risk the wider club for your sake. So you have a lot of hard work to do, and I think it will be an uphill struggle. You have alienated a great many of the players, coaching staff and people working throughout the club, and it may not be possible to get to a point where we think it will work. A lot of it depends on your attitude and the amount of work you put in. But it will ultimately be a club decision. In the meantime, you need to keep fit. The conditioning team have drawn up a training programme for you. You will not be able to use the club gym, or any of your club memberships to affiliated facilities. In fact all your privileges as a Raiders player are suspended. You will not come to Raiders premises unless specifically invited by me or Stuart.

Another glance at the newspaper. He picked it up and turned the back page to face me.

-This type of image is not acceptable in a Raiders shirt. It is not acceptable from a Raiders player. I want you to lay off the alcohol. Completely. Do you understand all this?

‘I think so. I mean, yeah. I understand. I’m sorry.’

My head was spinning. I had thought everyone would feel the same as Jay, had truly expected to be dismissed. It wasn’t far from it, maybe only a few more weeks until it happened, but there was a tiny glimmer of hope. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Wasn’t sure I could even remember it all.

-It’s a lot to take in, I know. I will get a letter sent to you outlining the main points of our discussion today, and a copy of your training schedule. I also want to talk through your visa situation. We have looked into your passports. It appears that you would qualify for dual nationality, but that your British passport was not correctly registered. It still means that Raiders are likely to be punished for having you on our books as a British citizen, especially having played in that game last season. But I think it can be sorted out so you don’t need a visa. You just need to sign some forms and give us both your passports. Our legal guys are doing the rest. Declan, you were this close to potentially being deported. I hope you appreciate how serious this is.

I nodded. I had never really paid much attention to my passports, or the legal significance of which one I used. I thought of myself as Australian. I knew there were complicated rules about foreign players, but it never occurred to me that any of them applied to me. I had been extremely naïve, and very lucky. It made me feel sick to think how close I may have come to being sent back to Australia, where I knew nobody.

‘Thank you. I … I know I’ve caused a huge amount of trouble. It’s generous of the club to help me out. It’s more than I deserve.’

Don nodded.

-There is just one other thing.

He leaned back and steepled his hands under his chin.

-Jay is aware we are meeting today, and has asked me to pass on to you a request that you do not try to see him or contact him or his family.

His words stung me. The realisation that I had lost, no, thrown away what Jay and his family had given me caused me physical pain. If he didn’t want me to contact them, I wouldn’t. But I could hardly believe I wasn’t going to be able to see them or talk to them again. It wasn’t just Jay, but Beth, and Cal … it was unbearable. Don was still speaking, and I dragged my attention back to him with an effort.

-Jay’s last day with us is tomorrow. Declan, of all the outcomes of your actions, the rift you have caused between you and Jay is the one I think you will regret the most. I personally feel that the amount of trouble you find yourself in stems from not going to Jay, or someone else from the club, from the start. This might all be behind you by now if you had. You would both have had the support you need. And we may still have had our backs coach. You have burned many bridges in the last few months. I hope this isn’t the one that proves most catastrophic.

He took a deep breath and sat up.

-OK. I think that’s enough for now. Go home and sort yourself out. Turn your phone on.

He stood up and indicated the door.

It was getting dark by the time I crossed the car park. There were a few cars left, but most people would be gone by now. As I passed a red Honda, a window wound down.

>Hey, Declan.

It was Nico Tiago. I stopped, surprised.

>I wait for you. I worry. You look horrible before.

‘I’m OK.’

>You look horrible still.

‘Hangover.’

>Ha! I understand. Meeting Don with hangover is never good. I do this before. He always know!

I smiled grimly, pretty sure that none of Nico Tiago’s hangovers had been plastered over the back pages of the local paper.

>You want a lift home?

‘Oh, no, you’re OK, I’m getting the bus.’

>I am quicker. Get in.

‘But –’

He opened the passenger door and gestured me round the car.

‘OK, thanks’.

Something else a worthless piece of shit like me didn’t deserve. Added it to the tab. As we pulled away, he asked

>How was the meeting?

I thought back over the twists and turns. It had been a bit of a roller coaster. Hadn’t sorted through it all properly yet.

‘Had its moments. Not all bad. Not much good.’

>You stay here?

‘Suspended. On some kind of probation.’

>Probation?

‘Er, have to behave myself, work hard, still might have fucked it all up in the end.’

>Huh. There is hope for you then.

‘I guess. I’m pretty lucky to still have my job, for now, and not be on the next plane to the other side of the world.’

>Don send you away?

‘You know I fucked up my passport? It’s complicated. I could have been deported, let alone all the grief I’ve caused Raiders.’

It started to dawn on me how close I had been. I couldn’t think about it. Pushed it away.

>Declan, this sound bad. Is OK now? I know passport is important, rules for playing are hard to understand.

‘I think it’s sorted.’

>Good. Where you live?

I gave him directions.

>Oh is near my gym. I do extra training in the week, they have a great trainer there, he used to work for Raiders. Do you go there?

‘No. But I … guess I might have to.’

I told him about the fitness conditions of my suspension.

>I take you sometime. You come as my guest, I introduce to you Luke.

His offer was unbelievably kind. I struggled to accept it. I didn’t deserve anyone’s help. I deserved to fuck off and die.

‘Thanks’ was all I could manage.

>Great. I let you know. I turn off here?

The rest of the journey was taken up with lefts and rights and mini-roundabouts. As we pulled up outside:

>See you soon.

As I opened the passenger door:

>Hey Declan, be careful of yourself.

I nodded and walked to the front door as he drove away. Paused before putting the key in the lock. Turned and walked down the road to the park.

Sat on a bench in the dark, allowing myself to think. The aches, pains and fog from the vodka were fading, and I could feel some coherence returning. I felt anonymous in the dark. It was good to disappear.

Seeing Jay, feeling the full force of his anger, had brought home to me just how much I had thrown away. I’d cost him his job, one way or another, and I had to accept it was over with me and his family. They were gone, I had no one again. I had done it to myself.

I had thought everything else would be gone by now, but there was just that tiny bit of hope. I was still clinging on to being part of Raiders, just barely. I could feel a cliff-side facing me. I would have to swallow a lot of pride and face a lot of scorn if I was going to climb it. And I still might get thrown from the top, even if I made it up there. I sat for a while longer. Then I went home to start climbing.

Back in my flat, I plugged my mobile into the charger (also in the drawer, put there by Rose). Avoided all the messages for now, but would have to go through them eventually to clear some space. Sat on the couch – there was a lingering hint of the excesses of the past few days, but Rose must have emptied about five cans of air freshener onto it, as it predominantly smelt strongly of pine.

The doorbell went. Through the letterbox:

:It’s Rose. I heard you come in. How did it go?

‘Do you want to come in?’

:Ooh I would, love, but not if you’re busy.

I opened the door. She bustled into the room, looking about her, probably trying to find things to tidy up. She sat on the sofa. It was a bit cosy for two relative strangers, so I sat on the floor.

:Cuppa wouldn’t go amiss, mind.

‘Yeah, sure, coming up.’

I got up off the floor, noting as I did so how much easier moving around had become in the last couple of hours. The pounding headache had reduced to a dull throb that mingled with the shame, guilt and misery. I pushed it all down and tried not to feel any of it.

Rose chatted away as I made the tea, telling me about some run in with a neighbour, filling the spaces with fluff and meaninglessness and wonderful irrelevance. I felt my mood lifting a little bit. It was almost imperceptible, but I had spent so long on my own, having to keep my thoughts to myself, looking after myself, overthinking everything, that having Rose’s talk as a buffer sheltered me from the intensity of it all. I handed her the tea.

:So how did it go, then? I hope you don’t mind, I read that bit in the paper about you. Not a good photo, love, and you don’t really come off that well in the rest of it I must say. Don’t put much store by everything I read in the papers, but you really do seem to be in a heap of it.

And easy as that it was several steps backwards. Mood crashed. Climbing the cliff was going to be a slow process.

‘I haven’t read the paper, but I should think most of it was true.’

:By, you must have been through it in the past few months then, love.

‘All my own fault really.’

:Was there nobody who could help you?

‘My mates all play for Raiders. I couldn’t tell them, the club would have found out.’

:What about one of the older ones? I always used to tell my nephew to tell a teacher if he was in trouble.

‘Same thing. I had to keep it to myself.’

:I’m sure you had your reasons. Seems a shame, though, young lad like you with all this on your shoulders. No family around?

‘Not really, not now.’

Jay, Beth and Cal had become my family, and I’d blown that one out of the water. My eyes suddenly stung with tears. I hadn’t seen Cal for weeks. He was like a little brother, annoying, cheeky, wisdom of a five year old, we had fun times. After today with Jay, I knew it was unlikely I would ever see him again.

:What is it love?

I wiped my eyes.

‘Sorry Rose, I can’t keep crying all over you. Not good for my man points.’

:Don’t you worry about that, got broad shoulders I have. Want to tell me, love?

And, surprising myself, I did. I told her about how I’d arrived in the city three years ago, on a rugby scholarship. I was sixteen then, so one of the conditions was that I lived with a family to start with. Jay had volunteered; as new backs coach, he had told me he felt he was well placed to oversee the development of a potential Raiders centre.

It had been a rocky start. I wasn’t used to doing as I was told, having been in and out of different foster homes after my parents died when I was thirteen. I was pretty awful to begin with, if I’m honest; bad language, outbursts, hanging out with all sorts of weird people to get a reaction, wagging school on a regular basis. Jay and Beth were solid, though, always seemed to know how to handle my moods, tempers and rudeness. They seemed to understand me, and treated me as part of their family. I should have moved on after a few weeks, found something more permanent, but I liked it there, I liked them, and it just never happened.

As we trusted each other more, I calmed down a bit and began to enjoy being part of all that. Calum – Cal – was two when I arrived, now five, and he felt like the little brother I’d never had. Jay and I messed about like mates sometimes, but I knew where I stood with him, and he didn’t take any shit from me. Beth kept me in line with the odd word or disappointed look if I was getting out of hand, but she was great to talk to, for advice, chats, gossip about the rest of the team. I think I was a bit of a project for her; she liked a challenge.

Jay gave me no preferential treatment at the club, never gave my mates reason to shout ‘unfair’, never treated me any differently at work from anyone else. Same bollockings when I’d messed up, same praise when I’d done well. He was Scotty at work and Jay at home.

I became pretty settled. I’d progressed through the scholarship to the academy and was possibly on the verge of breaking into the first team. Life had been good.

‘And then I fucked it all up. Sorry. I know I swear a lot. Just comes out.’

:Don’t worry love, a good swear can help sometimes.

Rose had listened without interrupting through the story, which was a minor miracle. She had obviously been bursting with questions though.

:But where did it, I mean how … it sounds like such a lovely home … what did you –

‘Are you trying to ask exactly how I fucked it all up?’

:Yes, love, I suppose I am. But if it’s hard for you to talk about, you don’t have to.

I thought about it. Found a way.

‘OK, I’ll give you the short version, but I don’t think I can do details, it’s too hard.’

:Alright love, no nosy questions, I promise.

‘OK … I had a car accident. A man died. There was an inquest. Couldn’t tell anyone. Used the wrong passport as ID, which will affect Raiders, and could have got me kicked out of the country. Stole money to help the son – no – the person I thought was the son of the man who died. Couldn’t tell anyone. Moved out so I didn’t have to face telling Jay and Beth. Avoided everyone I know by telling them I’m doing a college course that keeps me busy. Told so many lies to so many people. I saw Jay today. He told me to fuck off and die. He’s leaving Raiders because of me, I don’t know where he’s going. I’ll probably never see them again.’

I pushed it down far enough that I managed to say it without getting emotional, but it still hurt pretty badly.

:Oh, love.

A silence. Rose had promised not to ask questions, but was likely to have hundreds.

:You know, I don’t even know your real name. The paper said you’re Declan, but also Charlie. Which one are you?

‘Well, I’ve been Declan for a while now. I was Charlie before. It’s what my parents called me. That’s why the passport stuff is so bloody complicated. Don’t really know who the fuck I am now.

:What does everyone call you?

‘Bloody troublemaker probably. Declan is fine.’

:Alright, then, love. So, Declan, I want to know how your meeting with your boss went today.

‘Oh … so-so. Not lost my job yet, but likely will in a few weeks. Suspended, got to work hard on trying to get them to trust me again to have a chance.’

:Well, to me that says it’s not all doom and gloom then, if they didn’t give you your marching orders this afternoon.

‘No. I was expecting them to, really, but they’ve been pretty fair. Amazingly fair. Really helpful with sorting out my passport. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.’

:Well I think that’s encouraging. Having a reasonable boss is important – I remember when I worked in Ponty for a solicitors, ooh now there was a boss you wouldn’t want. He had me working all hours …

And she was off again. Rose seemed to have a knack for sensing when I had reached my limits in a conversation, and could immediately launch into a lengthy story behind which I could hide and drift away. She didn’t seem to expect me to contribute to this, just to appear to be listening politely, for which I was very grateful. I hid and drifted.

: … so anyway, eventually I told him where to stick his plastic yucca plant, and walked out. Can you imagine?

‘Yes, Rose, I can imagine.’

:Now, I’ve bent your ear long enough, love. I’ll wash this cup up and be out of your hair.

‘No need, I can wash it up. I’m really feeling a lot better.’

I took the cup from her and took it into the kitchen. She was by the front door when I came out. I needed to say it.

‘Rose, before you go, can I just say, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’ve been great and I am very grateful. I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused you the last couple of days, how rude I was to you, I don’t know why you’ve helped me, I don’t deserve it.’

:Oh love, don’t ever say that. We should all help each other, it’s not about deserving. But you’re welcome. I like looking after people, I’m good at it. Which reminds me, I’m bringing you a telly tomorrow.

‘What?’

:Well I can’t have you sitting here staring at that big dent in the wall all day. You need something to look at, even if it’s only Countdown. I’ve got a spare in my guest room. You can borrow that.

I laughed – first time I had done that for a while.

‘Go home Rose. You’re fucking amazing.’

I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and shut the door behind her.

As I was closing the door, my phone beeped. It reminded me of all the texts and messages I needed to sort through. Not a prospect I relished. But the longer I left it the worse it would be – that cliff I’d imagined rose up above me, getting taller all the time, and the only way to make it look any less intimidating was to climb up it.

Steeling myself, also realising I couldn’t miss any more calls from Raiders, I unplugged the phone from the charger and took it to the sofa. Started with the texts. I had too many to deal with one by one, so I deleted all the spam and numbers only, then checked the names on the rest. Many from mates from the club. Many of them people I owed money to. Checked a couple. Not complimentary.

Big: =Thanks 4 losing Scotty 4 us. Twat.

Mikey: =Wot u finking? Cheers 4 pts deduction.

DivDav: =Fuck off, wanker. Don’t call me.

Danno: =Where’s my £500? U said this week.

Hurtful. Not unexpected. The younger players at the club were a tight knit group, with girlfriends included. There were messages from some of the girls too, which seemed to be fishing for more information in the guise of sympathy.

Cara: =Hope u ok. Wanna talk?

Sarah: =RUOK? Call me 2 chat.

Katie: =UOK hun? Need my money back soon. Txt me.

After scanning a few and sensing a theme I deleted all of those ones. I had borrowed money from most of my mates, and could understand how they must be feeling. Just didn’t want to read it all.

There were some texts from senior players who had my number, most asking me to get in touch with Don. There had obviously been a concerted effort to contact me. Some of them had added their thoughts on my actions. Not pleasant reading. Read it all anyway. One text from an anonymous number caught my eye before I deleted it.

No number: =Payback.

After the texts, I went through my voice-mails A few from some of my mates on Monday evening, trying to find me, after seeing me having my heart-to-heart in the changing room with Jay earlier in the day. A few from them all again, early on Tuesday morning having found out what had been going on and having a go at me. Easy to delete, but not before their anger and hurt filtered through. Several messages on Tuesday morning from various Admin staff, then more senior office staff and eventually Don sounding extremely angry and telling me to:

-Get your arse to the club right now.

Don rarely (for an ex-rugby player) swore, and even more rarely lost his temper. I realised anew how lucky I had been to keep my job. I went through the messages and texts systematically, trying to distance myself from the anger in them all.

Saved one of them till last. Voicemail from Monday afternoon. From Beth. Hardly dared play it. Finger hovered over the delete button for a long time. She deserved her say. Pressed play.

From long ago and far away:

_Dec, please can you ring me? I can’t get hold of James. He’s left me a message, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he sounds really upset. I’m worried. I think he said something about you, but I couldn’t really hear him. I’m really worried. Please ring me, sweetheart. Do you know where he is? What’s happened? I’m so worried. Please ring me and let me know you’re both alright.

Took a long time to process that one. It was from a time before she knew I’d fucked it all up, when she still cared. Played it again, to hear her voice, talking to me as if I was only across town and not across a chasm. Played it again. And again. And cried. And listened again. So, so wanted to call her, both of them. I missed them, so much. Worthless, worthless piece of shit.

There’s only so long you can huddle in the dark on a couch that stinks of pine, feeling sorry for yourself, before it occurs to you that you’d be better off in bed.

Hauled myself off the sofa and into the bedroom, stripped my clothes off and got under the duvet. Sleep didn’t come. Too many swirls and tangents inhabiting my mind. Things I should and shouldn’t have said or done. Damning myself for every one of the mistakes I had made that had led me here. Imagining, torturing myself with ways it could have been different.

Underneath it all, Beth’s voice from last night:

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

And Jay’s:

łFuck off and die for all I care.

Curled myself into a ball and sobbed my wretchedness into the pillow. Must have fallen asleep eventually.

Dreaming. I am flying. Flying over a beach in Australia. There is a family on a picnic rug. Mum, Dad and me. I wave at my smaller self, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly off over the sea. Fly and fly, high as the wind. After a long time, another beach, another country. Another picnic rug. Jay, Beth and Cal. I wave at Cal, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly down onto the beach to join them. We all build sandcastles with Cal, then lie down on the rug, looking up at the sky. The sun gets in my eyes and…

Matt

I am running. Running across fields, running along beaches, running up hills, running through streets. Ahead is a cliff, but I do not stop running, I run towards it, to the edge, where I jump high in the air, and I fall …

Dec

…woke me up. I hadn’t pulled the curtains last night, and the sun was shining on my pillow. Shut my eyes again, hoping to find traces of the dream behind my eyelids. It was long gone, leaving me bare and raw The desolation settled somewhere under my ribcage.