‘Hey Lau, is Josh there? I just wanted to wish him luck for his game.’
‘He’s getting ready. I’ll go and chivvy. Have a word with Matt for a bit.’
I handed the iPad over to Matt, who put it on its stand. I could hear the conversation as I went up the stairs.
‘Hi Matty. I can’t believe I’m missing Josh’s first game for the under fourteens.’
‘Noh, meh neither.’
‘What, you’re not going?’
‘Not up tuh ih. Legs arsing abouh.’
‘But haven’t you got a like wheelchair?’
‘I’ve goh an ahtual whelchair, buh I’hm not gona goh an see Josh play wrapped up lihk an old man.’
‘Oh. So you’re going to miss your son’s only ever first game for the under fourteens because you’re too proud. What does Josh think?’
‘Hahvnt told him yet.’
I missed the next part of the conversation, as I opened the door to Josh’s bedroom and was confronted with a blizzard of clothes that seemed to settle around me.
‘Josh, what on earth are you doing? We’ve got to go soon. Iz is on Facetime, she wants to wish you luck.’
‘I can’t find my shorts.’
‘I’m not surprised, I doubt you’ll be able to find anything else. Have you emptied every single drawer onto the floor?’
‘Mum, I need my bloody shorts.’
‘Joshua James Scott, there is no need for language like that. Your shorts are in the airing cupboard. Go and find Dad, he’s talking to Iz.’
Josh stomped out and I heard him go down the stairs. He must have inherited his stomping ability from me, as he was great at it. I looked at the clothes scattered around the room and sighed; I’d tidy it up while Josh was out. I spotted his rugby shirt buried under a coat and a jumper, and fished it out, then walked down the hall to the airing cupboard where I picked out the shorts. I could hear voices from downstairs, and laughter. I hoped Iz had managed to talk Matt into coming with us, but wasn’t holding my breath.
This was a new chapter in Matt’s MS. He’d had a wheelchair before, when he was so ill the first time, before I knew him, but he’d got rid of it when his symptoms all but disappeared for several years. In the last month, his walking had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t walk more than a few steps on his own, and after a lot of badgering on my part, he had agreed to buy a wheelchair. He had yet to use it – it had sat accusingly under the stairs, gathering coats and shopping bags, and he stayed in rather than going out and having to use it.
I really understood how he felt; when he could get about, after a fashion, by just leaning on my arm, he could feel that people might not notice. If he was in a wheelchair, it made him conspicuous, and people would make sympathetic noises and ask what was wrong, and every time he had to explain it would feel like a tiny knife in his heart. I’d hoped the thought of missing Josh’s important rugby game would override his pride, but had been unable to persuade him.
I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Josh and Matt were sitting at the table talking to Iz. I handed Josh his shirt and shorts.
‘Ooh, Joshy, is that your new kit?’
He nodded at Iz’s face in the iPad.
‘Yeah. It’s new this year, it’s got stripes down the side, it’s really cool.’
‘Let’s have a look, then, hold it up.’
Josh unfolded the shirt and held it up against himself.
‘Whoa, that’s totally awesome. You’ll have to take some pictures, Matty, or a vid or something. I need to see all Joshy’s tries.’
‘Yeh, all tehn.’
‘Daad, I’m not going to score ten tries.’
‘Wha kind of defehtist attituhd is tha? I wan at lehst tehn tries, an yuh should kick the conversions too.’
‘Gareth Jenkins does the kicking.’
‘See, thehr yuh goh again.’
‘Just do your best, flower. Dad will be proud of you whatever you do.’
‘You know tha, dohnt yuh Hippo. Nihn tries will beh fine.’
‘Anyway, guys, I’ve got to go, lunch date.’
‘Really, Iz? Does Harry know?’
Iz rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, Lau. It’s a study date. We’ve got a test and some of the guys are getting together to like swot.’
‘That’s alright then. I’ll stop being a boring old fart now and leave you to your date.’
‘OK. Good luck, then, Joshy, wish I was there.’
‘When are you coming back?’
‘Don’t know if I’ll make it this term, but defo for Christmas.’
‘But that’s ages.’
‘It’ll fly by. Facetime me whenever you want. If I don’t answer I’m snogging someone. Bye Matty, enjoy the game, bye Lau.’
We all said goodbye and waved, and the connection was broken.
I looked at Matt, who looked back defiantly, daring me to say anything. Josh hadn’t known his dad wasn’t planning on being there, so rather than spoil things, I raised an eyebrow and blew him a kiss.
‘Right Josh, go and pack your kit. Your boots are in the cupboard, socks – oh they’ll be somewhere on your bedroom floor. Put everything else in your bag before you look for them, otherwise you’ll lose it all again.’
He turned and ran out of the room before I could boss him about any more. I turned to Matt.
‘I’m glad you’re coming.’
‘Yeh. Well. Iz is even mohr of a bossy cow than yuh sometimes.’
‘Tahks after Beth. Never shuhs the fuck up. Geh the bluhdy machine in the car then, befohr I change my mihnd. Thehrs a bluhdy tartan blahnket sohmwehr, jus tuh finish the look.’
‘No there isn’t. I could find you a My Little Pony one, if you really want wrapping up.’
I walked over to where Matt was sitting, stood behind him and wrapped my arms round him.
‘I love you.’
‘I should thihk soh too.’
He bent his head and kissed my arm.
‘Come on, yuh nehd tuh geh Josh moving or he’ll beh distracted by something on the floor.’
‘What’s on the floor is his entire wardrobe. He was looking for his shorts. Now he’s looking for his socks. Hmm, maybe I’d better go and help him.’
‘Goh Josh, goh on, goh goh goh YEAAAH! WHOOO! Whatta try. Did yuh see tha Lau?’
Matt was on his feet, arms in the air, huge smile crinkling his eyes and mouth.
‘I saw it. Is that like a goal?’
‘Yuhr bluhdy useless, Lau. Yeh, lihk a goal, only not becohs a goal’s in footbahl. Oh shih, gona hahv tuh sit down again.’
Matt had gone pale, and sat down hard in his wheelchair, but it didn’t wipe the grin off his face.
‘Glad Matty went 2 watch. He wld hv missed Joshy’s first try.’
‘Yeh, me 2. Did u get pics? M sent a while a ago.’
‘Yeh, gr8! So proud of Joshy.’
‘Us 2. Thx 4 talking M round.’
‘He needed kick up the Rs. Glad 2 deliver. Gota go, clubbing beckons. Iz xx’
‘Who yuh texting?’
‘Iz. Catching up about the game.’
‘Did she geh the pics?’
‘Yeah, she’s a proud cousin.’
‘Not sayin I tol yuh soh or some such shih.’
‘Daft sod. I’m glad you were there to see it.’
There was no baby news from Cal and Ayesh, so we just went on as normal. We did the necessary things, but didn’t get stressed at the lack of results, because it was still early days and we were still getting used to the idea of even trying. No one knew we were trying, because we weren’t ‘trying’, we were just not not trying, so no one asked us about it; it was like a secret, which was exciting but also meant the pressure was off.
‘Oh but Mum, everyone’s going, and they’re all sleeping over. I’ll be the only one being picked up by, like, my parents. Charlie’s staying.’
‘Charlie’s older than you.’
I sighed with exasperation – Ella planned her confrontations, she always had an answer which was several steps ahead of my response, she knew what I would say and what she needed to reply in order to back me into a corner. It was impressive and infuriating.
‘Ella, who’re Chahlie an Tom’s mum an dad?’
I sat back and let Matt take over the argument. He was much better at it than me – he thought quicker, and his answers were less predictable.
‘Amy and Dec, but –’
‘An who’re yuhr mum and dad?’
‘Well dur, Mum and you, but –’
‘So what Chahlie an Tom are allowed tuh do, not really the point, would yuh agree?’
Ella was silent, not knowing whether agreeing or disagreeing was the best option, or whether it was time to wail ‘it’s not fair‘; Matt did this so much better than I did.
‘Hm. Soh, there ahr gona beh boys at this party?’
‘Dad, it’s a party. Tom’s going, like I said. Some other boys in his class. And girls too.’
‘An Maisie’s parents ahr gona be whehr?’
‘They’re like totally cool, they’re going out.’
‘An so yuhr asking us if yuh can be in a house full of rampaging teenagers, one of who is Charlie Summers, withouh adult supervision, overnigh?’
‘Yeah, but Dad –’
‘Why isn’t yuhr brother going?’
‘Oh he’s not interested, he’s so boring, all he like thinks about is rugby.’
‘Hm. An soh when I asked him earlier, did he a) say he wasn’t interested or b) say he didn’t want to be in a house full of rampaging teenagers withouh adult supervision becohs the very thought terrifies him?’
‘Actually, Dad, he said c) not my thing. I heard you ask him.’
‘Which is the same as b).’
‘Or the same as a).’
‘Ooh, yuhr good, buh yuhr not gona win this, Squeaks, I was school debating champ.’
‘Yeah, when you were young. You’re old now, and crippled.’
‘Ih’s OK, Lau, Ihv got this.’
Matt sounded calm, but Ella’s comment had stung him, as it was designed to.
‘Ella, first rule of debating, an listen carefully as yuhv got yuhr first debate in, wha, thirty minutes. When the other tehm resorts tuh insults, yuh know they’ve lost, an yuh know they know ih. Second rule of debating, know when yuhr having a debate an when yuhr not. This isn’t a debate, this is meh an yuhr mum saying yuh can goh tuh the party, buh we’re coming tuh fetch yuh at – when did weh say, Lau?’
‘We’re coming tuh fetch yuh at eleven, an tha’s the end of ih.’
The silence from the back of the car bored holes into the back of our heads. We were on our way to Ella’s first debating team meet. She had just been picked, the youngest one in the team, and we were so proud of her. It was typical of Ella to bring up a contentious issue just as she was about to do something important; she almost seemed to thrive on having added stress.
Matt’s phone pinged.
‘Beth says gohd luhck.’
Ella decided to launch another attack.
‘If I had my own phone, she could text me herself.’
‘Ha ha, Squeaks, yuh rehly wana start this just as we’re parking, yuhr hilarious. Yuhv lost two phones since the summer, yuhr getting a smartphone fuh yuhr birthday, an soh noh more phones until July.’
‘It’s so unfair.’
Apparently it was now time to wail.
‘I know. The whole world hates yuh, starting with meh an yuhr mum, an yuh can’t do anything right, an yuh never get anything yuh rehly rehly want, an yuhr gona run away tuh China an tha’ll jus show us all. Glad weh sorted tha. Got yuhr folder?’
Ella could not have sounded more grumpy. Matt let it wash over him.
‘Right then, leh’s geh going an watch a new generation of Scotts ignite the debating wohld.’
Matt got to his feet to applaud Ella, pulling me up too so I could support him as he stood. His mobility had improved enough that he could walk from the car to the hall by leaning on me, but he did still need someone to lean on. His applause lasted longer than was strictly necessary, but he managed not to cheer or whoop, as promised.
Ella’s rebuttal to the main topic, that ‘Parents should not purchase war toys for their children’, had been well thought out and well argued, and she had shown no sign of nerves. A long time ago I’d given presentations on topics I knew a lot about, but this kind of speed argument was new to me, and I would have been terrified. Matt and I sat down, and he turned to me.
‘Tha was bluhdy outstahding.’
‘She was really good, but I can’t believe she thinks guns for boys are a good idea.’
‘Ha ha, Lau, ih’s a debate. She doesn’t hahv tuh believe wha she’s arguing, ih’s about how convincing she is an how she uses wha she knows.’
‘Oh. It’s very confusing, almost as bad as rugby. Do you think either of my children are ever going to take up activities I actually understand?’
‘Soh, Ella, yuhr mum thinks yuhr a bloodthirsty warmonger. Discuss.’
‘Oh Muum, we had to say that, that’s what debating is all about, trying to convince the judges you’ve got a better argument.’
‘Yes, so your father explained. I’m not really going to stand much of a chance at home, am I, especially when you both gang up on me.’
‘Not a hohp, Lau.’
‘Except … I’m the mum, and what I say goes, whether I understand the arguments or not.’
‘Damn, she’s got us, Squeaks. She found the loophole. Wehr toast.’
I snuggled up to Matt, who put his arms round me and held me tight. I felt a tension in him.
‘Everything OK, flower?’
He sighed. ‘Our babies are growing up. Scahred.’
‘Of not being able tuh control them, keep them safe. Being too old an crihpled.’
I knew Ella’s comment had hurt him; I pulled him tighter.
‘The older they get, the less able we’ll be to control them. And the more they’ll use anything they can to get a reaction. Ella’s smart mouth is going to get her in trouble one day soon. Takes after her dad. You might have to get used to fending off hurtful remarks from your own daughter.’
‘I don’t say hurtful things.’
‘No, but you and Dec have both bandied the word ‘cripple’ about, and I don’t think she really meant to hurt you, just score points. You do a fair amount of that, too.’
‘I s’pohs. Was a bih of a knife through the heart, tho.’
‘I know. It’s like when she told me I was too old to wear my purple dress.’
‘Wha, the short one that shows off yuhr tits?’
‘Er, it’s a bit low cut, maybe.’
‘Yeh. Never too old fuh tha one, Lau.’
‘Well, it still hurts when Ella says it. And she knows it, so she says it more.’
‘Yeh. Oh fuck ih, Lau, I wish I was a prohper dad.’
‘What on earth do you mean? You are a proper dad, you’re a great dad.’
‘I cahnt duh ih all. Wha other dads duh. They cahnt rely on meh, tuh take them places, fetch them if they nehd ih, tuh, I dunno, goh in the loft an fetch the Christmas decs, tuh goh on bike rides …’
He tailed off, a long list of the things he couldn’t always do clogging up his thoughts.
‘Whose dad can do everything? You’re great, and I mean awesomely great, at the things you can do. You’ve taught Ella about debating – she uses words like, oh, like they’re tools or something, ties me up in knots. You watch Josh playing rugby, he tries extra hard when you’re there, he’s so proud. You earn money for all of us so we can live here and eat and go on holiday. You do all that, and so much more, even though you sometimes send me in the loft for the tinsel. Come on, my love, stop this nonsense. Ella and Josh wouldn’t swap you for any other dad.’
‘Except maybe Dec, then Ella could goh tuh her party.’
‘Can you imagine Dec being Ella’s dad? He wouldn’t last five minutes. She’d have his credit card, survive on a diet of Doritos and Coke, and still charge him for babysitting, which she’d subcontract to Tom for less and make a huge profit. You know exactly how to handle her, when to encourage her to think for herself and when to impose limits. She’s just like you, you know that, don’t you?’
Matt considered for a moment.
‘Never thoht abou ih like tha. Who’s Josh like, then? He’s not bluhdy bossy like yuh.’
‘No, but he’s more single-minded than Ella. He focusses on one thing at a time, but Ella is all over the place, flitting from one interesting thing to the next, fingers in all the pies. Josh has to finish one thing, and think about it, and decide if he likes it, before he moves on to the next thing. Once he’s made his mind up, you can’t change it. Ella has about fifteen different opinions at once, I can’t keep up with them.’
Matt was looking at me wide-eyed.
‘Shih, Lau, how duh yuh know them soh well? Yuhr righ, buh I never stopped an thoht abou ih. Should pay mohr attention.’
‘Well I guess it doesn’t always pay to overanalyse things, and it isn’t as black and white as that, they’re their own people too – Ella has my, well let’s call it desire to organise people –’
‘She’s a bohsy cow.’
‘– and Josh would rather go it alone than ask for help, which I could say comes from you. But, Matt, never say you’re not a proper dad. They love you, none of us could do without you.’
It was after a Raiders home game. I was in the bar afterwards, as the players always were, meeting the supporters, chatting, being sociable. I was checking my watch to see if it was time to get off yet, when a voice in my ear took me back nearly ten years and froze me to my seat.
‘What’s a girl have to do to get a Fanta round here?’
I didn’t recognise the voice straight away, but something about it rocketed straight to my soul and started an explosion in my heart. I looked round to see who had spoken, but some deep down, long ago part of me knew before my eyes met hers who it would be. Chrissie.
I sat dumbly for what felt like hours, just looking at her. Then she smiled that rock star smile, and I smiled back, and she threw her arms round my neck and kissed my ear.
I could not believe my eyes. She looked just the same, but completely different. Obviously. The last time I saw her we were fifteen, now we were getting on for twenty five. Her hair was different (although mine was the same buzz cut it would always be), her face had got more … adult, as I suppose mine had, and her body was incredible. So sue me for noticing.
‘Chrissie. I can’t believe it. What the fuck are you doing here?’
‘I’ve just moved back. I’ve noticed you’ve become some kind of tosspot local celebrity, so I thought I’d come and see what all the fuss was about. You’re quite good, aren’t you.’
I shrugged semi-modestly. I’d scored two tries that afternoon, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself, if I’m honest.
‘You’ve moved back? With your family?’
‘No, on my own. God, it’s so good to see you.’
All of the broken-hearted fifteen-year-old misery raised its head at that point. It was good to see her too, but it wasn’t like we’d parted on good terms. She’d torn me apart, and she must have known. I felt my smile fade.
‘Cal, I know it was a long time ago, but I’m sorry about how things ended with us.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
‘If it helps, I was really cut up.’
‘No, it doesn’t, not really. So was I.’
‘I had to see a therapist.’
Oh. That trumped my Cob-on Kid holiday somewhat.
‘Look, I don’t know if this is the right place to do this, but I’d love to catch up with you, what you’ve been up to in the last ten years or so, apart from becoming a rugby superstar. Can I buy you a drink?’
‘I hear Fanta is the in drink with girls these days.’
Chrissie laughed, and it was a sound that I remembered so well, a sound that set off memories and feelings I thought I’d got rid of when she left. Her laugh, God what I wouldn’t do to make her laugh back then. It always made me feel happy.
And she turned to the bartender and ordered two Fantas. With straws.
We sat on the bar stools and sipped our orange drinks, as I stole glances at Chrissie. Chrissie, who was beautiful and just the same but oh so different. Chrissie, who seemed to have reached inside me and woken something up that not only had I not realised was sleeping, but that I would have sworn I’d thrown out with the rubbish years ago.
We laughed, a lot, something I seemed to have forgotten how to do. Not that Ayesh and I didn’t laugh, but well, it wasn’t like this. Chrissie and I chatted for ages, just about daft things, some of it what we used to do back then, some of it about our lives now. I told her about Ayesh, and she remembered her from school. She said she’d broken up with someone she nearly got engaged to, and the way she described it was so similar to what happened to me when I didn’t propose at Christmas that I felt more connections. Then we wandered off onto the subject of Arsenal, who we both still loved and I could do the big star thing about, because I’d actually met Theo Walcott, even though I could hardly talk to him for being starstruck, but Chrissie went one better because in her job, which was a buyer for some big corporate thing, she’d been invited to a VIP box at the Emirates, and afterwards she’d met the whole team, so ner.
When I noticed that she was wearing the ring I gave her for her birthday a long time ago, it was inevitable, or it felt so, that we would go back to her new place, just for a look, and a drink of something stronger than Fanta, and once we were there, and alone, it was hard to deny the feelings that were fizzing between us, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t think about Ayesh once while I was there, because it all just seemed to fall into place. We hugged first, and then the rest just … happened – the same familiar movements, smells and sounds bringing the same responses from both of us, as if we were doing a dance we’d learned a long time ago. People say ‘one thing led to another’, don’t they, and it’s such a cliché, but it really happens, it happened to us, that doing the one thing triggered the next thing, and the next and the next.
So I didn’t think about Ayesh when I hugged Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I kissed Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I slept with Chrissie. I didn’t think about Ayesh until I had to go home to her, and it all rushed up to me, what I’d done, what I’d become, because with Chrissie, it was inevitable, and it was incredible. As if we’d never left each other, but not as if we were fifteen. No, not like that at all.
I slipped home in the early hours of Sunday morning, knowing Ayesh would be asleep. She was used to me coming home late after a game, because I’d often be out with the lads, celebrating if we’d won or commiserating if we’d lost. She didn’t come to many games, and more often than not she’d go and see Mum when I was playing, so they could jointly take each other’s mind off the fact that I was doing something that could potentially result in serious injury.
I couldn’t get into the same bed as her knowing what I’d just done, so I crawled into the spare bed and lay awake all night thinking about what a skanky bastard I was and cursing my cowardliness.
I didn’t sleep at all, and got up as soon as it started to get light to sit in the kitchen with a cup of tea. I hadn’t resolved anything in the night, but a few things had occurred to me. Ayesh and I were trying to have a baby. She might already be pregnant, and if she was, what did that mean for our future? Before today, I would have said that as soon as we found out, I would ask her to marry me, and that would be the rest of our lives. Now, I felt like I’d found a part of me that had been lost a long time ago. Chrissie made me feel like the real me. But I’d only just met her again, after all these years, and I loved Ayesh. God I was a mess. This whole thing was a mess. My life had gone from ordinary to spectacularly complicated in one short sentence breathed into my ear by someone I hadn’t seen for over a decade.
Before Ayesh got up, I went out for a run, taking my phone with me. I’d had it on silent in the night, but Chrissie had texted.
‘God Cal I’m so sorry I feel like an utter homewrecker.‘
I shouldn’t have answered, I know I shouldn’t, but Chrissie wasn’t the one in the wrong, she wasn’t the one in the relationship, and she didn’t deserve the blame.
‘Don’t beat yourself up. Took 2.‘
‘Thx, but feel bad.‘
And again, I should have left it, but again I didn’t.
‘Was gr8 2 cu, just went 2 far.‘
‘It was gr8. Seeing u I mean. Forgot what it was like.‘
‘It was like it always was.‘
Which I hoped she could take any way she chose, and hopefully might think I thought it was a bit juvenile, and not like it was something I’d been hankering after.
‘I missed you. All this time.‘
Oh shit. So now I really had to stop it, before she wanted to meet up again. I had to just cut her off.
No Cal, you big fat loser, what the fuck are you doing? You need to just say it straight. Think of Ayesh.
‘Want to meet up?
Come on, this is your chance. Just say no and be done with it.
What did I say, a while back? I’d do anything in my power not to make that girl sad. That’s what I said. What a lying fucking scumbag. The only possible outcome of any of this was making Ayesh sad, but I couldn’t stop myself. I literally could not stop. I’m sure Matty would have had something to say about that if I’d said those words to him, because he always went off on one about misuse of the word ‘literally’, but where Chrissie was concerned, I did not seem to have control either of my mind or my actions.
Maybe, to justify it, I told myself I was just getting Chrissie out of my system, seeing her again to purge all the heartache from long ago, that as soon as I felt it had run its course I’d stop seeing her and go back to how I was. I’m sure I spouted all sorts of fucking lies to myself, to justify it.
I saw Chrissie again, and then again, and again. She was like a drug; the more I had the more I wanted. She was like she was before, only more – more beautiful, more funny, more sexy, more grown up, and it, what we had together was more as well – more intense, more overwhelming, more adult.
We didn’t sleep together again; but everything else we did – talking, laughing, listening to music, driving around in my car visiting some of our old haunts – it was as much of a betrayal. Oh and we kissed. A fair bit.
I hardly saw Ayesh, I couldn’t risk sleeping with her, and I needed to know whether or not she was pregnant. She usually took a test once a month, but not always, and it was around the time she would, but I couldn’t mention it to her without her thinking I was more bothered than I should have been. I’d always been laid back about it, because there was no rush, right? No pressure, babe. But now the pressure was on, and it was on me, because it meant something, but something terrible, if Ayesh was having our baby.
And just to make it worse, Lau found out. I mean, it could have been truly worse and Ayesh, or even Mum could have been the one to spot me, but Lau was bad enough.
‘Yeah, we’ll completely have to start Pilates again, now that Josie’s back from maternity leave. I’ve really noticed a difference since I stopped going.’
Amy and I were in a coffee shop in the city centre, our usual Wednesday morning haunt since we’d stopped going to our classes. It wasn’t strengthening our core, but we decided it was good for our souls and that was nearly as worthy.
‘As long as we can still come here for a chat afterwards.’
‘Yeah, course Lau. No pain, no gain. No painful stretching, no calorific drinks. Unless the trainer’s on maternity leave, then it completely doesn’t count.’
Amy grinned impishly at me.
‘Too right. Or we could do something more worthwhile with our time. I’ve been thinking about doing some voluntary work, maybe get a part time job or something.’
I sighed. ‘No, not really. I can’t tie myself to anything in case Matt needs me. But sometimes I miss being useful to other people.’
‘Yeah, it would be nice to be someone else other than ‘Mum’ I suppose. But I don’t think I could even summon up the energy to apply for a job, let alone actually do one.’
‘You’ve got four full-time jobs, flower. You deserve a medal just for not murdering them all in their beds.’
‘Ha ha. Did you hear about Charlie’s latest?’
I’d been sneaking around for about two weeks, snatching time in the evening here, a lunch there, trying not to be gone from Ayesh so long that she wondered where I was spending all my time, but not to be at home for long enough that a night of passion was on the cards. I’ve never been a liar, don’t have the stomach for it, and every lie I told Ayesh made me feel physically sick, but I was still telling myself I was just working through it with Chrissie, and once I was done, it would stop and Ayesh really didn’t need to be hurt by knowing. Dickhead.
The usual pattern was that I’d say goodbye to Chrissie and not make plans to see her again, part of me hoping that would be the last time, telling myself I couldn’t do it again, that I wouldn’t answer her texts, and I definitely wouldn’t be sending her any messages. Then before even twenty-four hours had passed, one or other of us would text to say ‘thanks for today‘ and we’d arrange to meet another time. Soon.
So when Chrissie texted just as I was finishing training for the day and asked if we could meet in the city centre, right now, it was a bit unusual, but I was available, Ayesh was at work, and an afternoon fix of Chrissie sounded great.
Meeting in a coffee shop could be considered a bit risky for someone cheating on their girlfriend, but in my fucked up head I wasn’t cheating, I was purging, and the thought didn’t cross my mind. All that crossed my mind was seeing Chrissie again.
The coffee shop was busy, and Chrissie was waiting for me when I got there. She looked so beautiful that my heart swelled and I walked over to her and kissed her, so passionately it took both of us by surprise.
As Amy launched into an account of her oldest daughter’s most recent escapade, I caught sight of a familiar figure walking in through the door. It was Cal, and I was just about to raise my hand and wave, when he stopped by a table where a young blonde woman was sitting. He bent down and kissed the woman, pretty passionately, on the mouth before sitting down opposite her.
‘Is there something exciting happening behind me? You’ve been staring over my shoulder. Your mouth’s open.’
I closed my mouth and dragged my attention back to Amy.
‘Sorry, flower. I just saw Cal.’
Amy turned round.
‘I can’t see him.’
‘He’s got his back to us; he’s with that blonde woman. Stop staring. He just snogged her.’
‘What? No. He must just know her, it must have been a hello kiss.’
‘Yeah, a ‘hello tonsils, may I introduce you to my tongue’ kiss. It was a snog. He hasn’t broken up with Ayesha, has he?’
Amy frowned. ‘No. We were only there at the weekend, it all seemed good, although you never really know do you. Who is she then?’
Amy risked another quick look behind her.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Does he know we’re here?’
‘I don’t think so, it’s a bit dark all the way back here, and I didn’t catch his eye.’
‘You don’t think he’s … I can hardly say it … messing about? It doesn’t seem like Cal. I thought he was completely crazy about Ayesha. I’m sure he told Dec he was going to propose at Christmas, but then nothing happened and I forgot. What are we going to do? I’ve got to go in a minute, I’ve got the dentist.’
‘What do you mean what are we going to do?’
‘Well we can’t just walk past them.’
‘Why on earth not, Amy? He’s meeting her in a public place, whatever he’s doing, it must be public.’
‘But what if he sees us?’
‘We’ll just say hi. It’s up to him what he says or does after that. It’s none of our business really.’
I held Chrissie’s gaze as I sat down opposite her.
‘Well hello to you too.’
‘Yeah, must have missed you or something.’
‘Mm. Cal, thanks for coming. I need to talk to you.’
That didn’t sound good. Things that sounded good never started with ‘I need to talk to you’. I reached for Chrissie’s hand, needing something to steady myself. Her fingers were soft and cool, and I couldn’t help stroking her knuckles with my thumb.
‘I don’t think we should be doing this … whatever it is we’re doing. I feel dreadful about your girlfriend. I think this should be the last time we see each other.’
I was horrified. Chrissie was doing the thing I should have had the balls to do nearly two weeks ago, after I slept with her – no, before I slept with her – and here she was being the one thinking about Ayesh. I was the worst kind of arsehole, wasn’t I. But still I wasn’t going to let her go. At the moment, it seemed like I never knew how I was going to feel, or what I was going to say until it came out of my mouth.
‘Chrissie, no. I can’t stop seeing you. I want to carry on.’
‘Are you going to leave Ayesha?’
Oh what a bloody cliché. Chrissie didn’t know about the potential baby, and I wasn’t about to tell her, because that would make her run away at supersonic speed. Still, she raised an eyebrow at the tired old excuse I’d just trotted out.
‘Cal, I can’t be this person. I feel … so amazing when I’m with you, but when you’re not with me, I think about you being with her, and I feel angry because you’re not with me, but then I feel guilty because I shouldn’t feel like this about someone else’s boyfriend.’
‘How do you feel?’
‘Oh come on Cal, we’ve both said it, it’s like the last ten years never happened, like I never moved away, like we’ve picked up where we left off. Do you want me to say it? OK then. I love you.’
Shit. Shit. Double and triple shit. She wasn’t supposed to say she loved me, now I was going to have to think seriously about what my feelings for her were, and how they were different to what I felt for Ayesh. Shit shit shit with an added bit of oh holy fuck for good measure.
Despite saying it was none of my business, I’d always been a nosy cow, and I risked another look at Cal and the mystery woman. They were now holding hands across the table, and looked to be having an intense conversation.
‘They’re holding hands.’
‘Oh no. Do you think we should say something? Not now, but later, let him know we saw him?’
‘No, we should go, so you don’t miss your dentist appointment. We’ll just walk by and he’ll know we’ve seen, and if he wants to say anything that’s up to him, but otherwise we should butt out. I just can’t help looking though. I wonder who she is.’
I shook my head, trying to maintain an open mind. Cal was an adult, and entitled to his privacy. Yeah right, Laura Scott, you so wanted to know the juicy details.
‘Are you ready?’
Amy and I picked up our bags and made our way to the door, passing by the table where Cal was sitting, still clasping the hand of the blonde woman. He looked up as we walked past his table.
I was just about to attempt some kind of an answer, when I felt the people walking past our table staring at me. Thinking it might be a Raiders fan after a selfie or an autograph, I looked up to give them the ‘can’t you see I’m busy, I deserve a private life’ brush off, straight into the eyes of Laura Scott and Amy Summers. Oh holy fucking shit no. I let go of Chrissie’s hand as if it had burnt me.
‘Oh, hey Lau. Hey Amy. Er …’
I glanced at Chrissie, who was looking up at Amy and Lau as well. She probably remembered both of them from before, but neither of them seemed to know who Chrissie was, and she didn’t say a word to them. Her expression was neutral as she waited for me make the next move, but it was Lau who spoke first.
His glance flickered to the woman sitting opposite him, who was looking up at us as well. She looked slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
‘Hi Cal. You caught us. We were just having hot chocolate with caramel syrup. Don’t tell Matt, he still thinks we go to Pilates on a Wednesday.’
‘Oh, ha ha, no, your secret’s safe with me.’
Lau looked at Chrissie, and I knew she hadn’t missed the irony of my stupid comment. As if Lau and Amy sneaking a drink in Starbucks was in any way the same as me being with someone who wasn’t Ayesh.
I looked pointedly at his companion – if we were going to be talking about secrets, he had a pretty big one sat across the table from him.
Then they walked out, leaving me with burning red cheeks and a head full of ‘oh shit’.
‘Was that Lau and Amy?’
I nodded, still struck dumb with panic.
‘They didn’t recognise me, I guess. Probably just as well.’
I found my voice.
‘Shit, Chrissie. This is terrible.’
‘No, Cal, maybe it’s for the best. Maybe we should just finish it now, stop all this before it goes too far, you can tell them it’s nothing and mean it, and get on with your life.’
I hung my head. She was right, in that ending it was what we should do. But she wasn’t right about anything else.
‘I can’t, Chrissie. I can’t finish it. It’s already too late for me to just get on with my life, now you’re here.’
‘What does that mean?’
I sighed. ‘I’m not sure I know. Fuck it, I know this is really unfair on you. It’s unfair on Ayesh, but I’m trying to get my head around a lot of shit. Maybe we should … not stop seeing each other, but give each other a rest, for a few days, is that fair? No, it’s not, of course it’s not, but can I ask that? I’ll sort my head out and text you, next week?’
Chrissie looked unsure, but nodded.
‘Don’t leave it too long.’
I stood up to go, Chrissie staying in her seat, but looking up at me with her green eyes. I ran a finger down her cheek and held her gaze, hoping she could see something in my face apart from what a two-timing cheating bastard I was, then I left.
I drove home on autopilot, unable to get the encounter with Lau and Amy out of my head. What if they told Ayesh? What if they told Mum? Mum was more scary, because she would truly kill me. Ayesh was already part of the family, it would be like I’d cheated on Mum as well.
As soon as I got home, I got my phone out and made a call.
‘Lau, it’s not what you think.’
Which was true, as long as what she thought was that it was just a perfectly innocent skinny latte with an old friend.
I considered pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I’d been thinking about him all the way home, and I’d always thought being up front was better than playing games.
‘Well, what I think is you’ve spent time in a coffee shop with a woman who you kissed pretty thoroughly and then spent some time holding hands and having a deep conversation with.’
‘Yeah. Cal, it really isn’t any of my business, I was surprised to see you … like that, I suppose. I thought you and Ayesha were happy.’
I sighed. ‘Yeah. It’s bloody complicated.’
Why were the only words I could use to describe this pitiful situation ones that were trotted out in the worst chick flicks?
‘It usually is, flower. Do you want to talk about it?’
Another sigh. ‘Not really. Trying to get my head round some shit.’
‘Up to you, you know where I am.’
‘I know. You won’t tell Ayesh? I know it’s not fair to ask.’
‘OK, here’s the deal, it’s the same deal I have with any of you,’
Here, I was including Iz, Charlie, and Gracie, all of who had used Matt and me for parent-free confessionals, about topics ranging from boys to bras to bullying.
‘I won’t tell her anything unless she asks me a direct question, or unless someone is going to get hurt by me not telling her. Sometimes it’s a fine line, I will use my judgement, and I’m not prepared to argue with anyone about that.’
Lau and Matty were unofficial agony aunt and uncle to most of the family, usually Dec’s kids, with a bit of Iz thrown in for good behaviour. They never promised not to tell secrets, but to my knowledge they never had, and Lau had strict rules about what she was prepared to keep to herself, which may have stopped a few confession sessions, but not many, because Lau’s advice was always top drawer.
‘OK. Fair enough. I nearly talked to Matty last week, but I didn’t know where to start, and I don’t always like to bother him.’
I’d picked up the phone several times to call or Facetime Matty, but he got tired too much these days, and the times I wanted to talk were usually the middle of the night.
‘What? Matt would be horrified to hear you say that. You’re never a bother, Cal. You know Matt’s got all the time in the world for you. Give him a call. Or pop and see him, us, whenever. Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off.’
‘Thanks, Lau. Might take you up on it.’
‘Take care, Cal.’
Lau always made people feel better. I disconnected and sat stewing over what the fuck I was going to do. Not coming to any conclusions, and it being close to the time Ayesh would be home, I went out. There weren’t many places I could go where my preoccupation wouldn’t be noticeable and commented on, so I took the car and sat in a dark corner of the empty car park at Raiders Stadium, until it was late.
‘Soh he didn’t tell you what’s going on?’
‘No, he just said it was complicated. Poor Cal. I hate to think of him having problems with Ayesh, they’re so good together.’
‘Yeah, but they’ve been together foh a long time, starting when they were both still pretty young. Sometimes you just change too much when you get older.’
‘Unless you’re Dec and Amy.’
‘Yeah, except then. Maybe tha’s why he hasn’t gone tuh Dec, tho.’
‘Do you think he’ll talk to us?’
‘I don’t know, Lau, depends wha ih is. Hope so, ih’s shit trying to keep stuff tuh yourself.’
‘You should know.’
Ayesh was in bed when I got home. She’d left me a note hoping I was OK, and saying she’d left some chilli in the microwave if I was hungry. I hadn’t even checked my phone while I was out, but she had texted several times, the last two sounding worried. God I was a nasty piece of fucking shit, sitting on my own thinking only about myself, when Ayesh was worried about me.
I got undressed and slid into bed, next to Ayesh, who stirred when I got in.
‘Are you OK, huns?’
‘Yeah babe. Sorry, my phone ran out of charge while I was at Baggo’s. I didn’t realise till I got home just now.’
And so the lies continued. Every time, it broke a piece of me off and crushed it.
Ayesh pulled me into her and draped her arm over me, then fell asleep again, while I lay there staring into the darkness, hating myself for what I was doing to this wonderful woman.
After several hours of beating myself up, I couldn’t take it any more I was close to losing it, so I got up and into my car, and drove across the city, tears filling my eyes as I drove. When I got there, I lost my nerve. It was late, really late, the house was in darkness, and no one would be awake. It was too much, having come all this way only to realise I was going to have to go home again, and I couldn’t stop the sobs that welled up in me, the end result of several hours of giving myself grief and being unable to think of a way out of this, or at least a way that had a satisfactory outcome for everyone (i.e. me, I suppose, if I’m honest). Then I remembered ‘Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off’ and I pressed the name on my phone.