81. Hold my hand

In which two people find that the morning after the night before is a happy place.

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Matt

I was lying on my front, as I usually was when I woke up, and after a few of the obligatory seconds of disorientation, I realised I wasn’t alone; there was a beautiful woman asleep beside me, her body turned away from me, her form vaguely outlined by the duvet and highlighted by the morning sun filtering in through the curtains.

I smiled to myself, stretched, needed to touch the beautiful woman, so I slipped my arm under the duvet and around her waist. As I did so, her whole body flinched, and she let out a little squeal. I remembered her being similarly startled that first night; it was possible she woke up even worse than I did.

Laura

I woke with a start as someone put their arm round my waist. I let out a scream and pulled away, only to have the arm tighten around me and pull me backwards towards them. I was in a strange room, light filtering through the curtains. As my head unravelled itself from sleep, a voice whispered in my ear, making me jump again.

Matt

‘Morning Lau. Yuhr bluhdy jumpy in bed, aren’t yuh?’

I felt her relax against me, then she turned over and I forgot about teasing her as she directed her blue/green/grey gaze at me. I reminded myself, as if I needed to, how lucky I was that Lau was who she was, and that she wanted to be here with me.

‘Yeah. Sorry. It always takes me a while to wake up, even at home. I didn’t know where I was. Or who you were.’

‘Still the same bluhdy fucked up cripple I was last nigh.’

It was important that I didn’t just pretend it hadn’t all happened. What Lau had done, said, for me last night was incredible. I needed to acknowledge it.

‘Let’s not start that again.’

She pulled me close.

‘I nehd tuh. I nehd tuh say this, ask this. Then noh more, prohmis.’

She sighed. Then nodded.

‘Lau, yuh know abouh this, bastahd MS, more than anyone I know. I’m pretty bad at the moment, buh I know ih could geh better, or worse, much worse. I can’t duh tha tuh yuh.’

Laura

‘Too bad. It’s done. I’m here now. We haven’t said forever, we haven’t even made plans for today. Let’s enjoy what we’ve got, what we are now. I’m not going anywhere, Matt, whether you want me to or not. Look, I’m going to be a bit nursey now, and then I’ll be back to me. Relationships are tricky for people with MS, but usually because of how things change when one person gets it; it changes the balance of things, the dynamics have to be sorted out, reorganised. When one person already has it and meets someone – well I’m guessing it’s already there, part of the whatever it is that has attracted them to each other. OK, Nurse Laura over and out. It might get tricky for us when you start to get better. But either way, you’re stuck with me. Holding hands, whatever. Besides, who better to have with you than a self-declared MS sexpert? You’d better get used to it, buster.’

Matt was silent for a while, holding my gaze. I gazed back, lost in the winter sea colour of his grey eyes.

Matt

It was a lot to take in. When Jules had told me she was going to take care of me if I got ill again, it blew my mind. This did the same, possibly more, because however much reading Jules had done about it, she couldn’t possibly have really known what she was letting herself in for. Lau knew, with certainty, all the permutations, all the possibilities. She also knew, now, from personal experience, what I was like. And she was still here, she was still going to do it. God. I had no words to respond. No, she was right, neither of us had said we were going to be together forever, but it felt like it. It felt like it didn’t need saying, especially after last night and all the drama.

So I picked up on something she’d just said, used it to distract myself, before I started getting all bloody emotional again.

‘Plans fuh today, then?’

Lau grinned, looking like she thought she’d won an argument. Maybe she had.

‘Well, I thought maybe you could make me some of your yummy scrambled egg, and then we could stay here for a long lazy morning, and then I’ve got to go and see my mum. I usually go and see her on Saturday afternoons. You can come if you like, see how much she loves how sweary you are.’

Oh God, no, not yet, not today. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and needed more sleep before I went over to Dec and Amy’s later.

‘Not suhr I’m up fuh meeting the mother jus yet. Will duh soon tho. I like a challenge.’

‘It will be epic. What about the rest, though? Breakfast in bed? Other stuff in bed?’

‘Yeh, ih’s a plan. Lau … thanks. Yuhr fucking A.’

‘A? What does that mean.’

‘Oh, er, Austrahlian abbrehviation fuh, er, awesome.’

‘You don’t sound too sure. You wouldn’t be making it up would you?’

‘Noh, I never bullshih.’

‘Hmm, we’ll see.’

I smiled as I felt as far from my despair of the previous night as it was possible to feel. Things were opening up in front of me, I could almost feel my life beginning to change, and it was all because of Lau.

Laura

‘How about you stop telling porkies and get going on my breakfast.’

He grinned, quickly kissed me on the lips and got out of bed. I watched him walk out of the bedroom, checking how steady he was on his feet; it seemed to have improved from last night, and his back view, with his small, tight buttocks wrapped in his sleeping shorts, made me hug myself with pleasure.

The clatter of pans and the smell of cooking and toast stopped me from going back to sleep, and a short while later I was rewarded with a tray complete with a plate of scrambled eggs, some buttered toast cut into triangles and a cafetière of coffee. I sat up, and Matt placed the tray across my legs.

‘Wow. This is the best breakfast I’ve had since …’

‘Yesterday?’
‘No, better than yesterday, it’s in bed. Always a winner. And proper coffee trumps teabags any day. Not that I’m complaining about yesterday, that was mighty fine too. Where’s yours?’

‘Jus coming, couldn’t fit ih all on the tray.’

He left the room and returned with his own tray, handing it to me while he got back into bed.

‘Very civilised. Oh my God, and delicious. What on earth do you put in your scrambled eggs?’

‘Family secret. I’ll take it to my grave.’

‘Oh. That’s disappointing.’

‘Ih’s paprika.’

‘Blimey, you gave that up quickly. You’d be useless under torture.’

‘I would if yuh were torturing meh. Yuhd only have to say yuh were disappointed, I’d spill the country’s secrets.’

‘That’s information worth knowing. Oh my God, this coffee’s incredible too. Is there anything you’re not amazing at?’

‘Well not tha I’m gona admit. You’ll have tuh find out foh yuhself.’

As we finished our breakfast, Matt’s phone started ringing. While he reached for it, I looked for mine, which wasn’t there, wasn’t anywhere, as I hadn’t brought it with me last night.

I didn’t know what the time was, so as Matt started talking I went in search of a clock. Eventually I found one on the DVD player. It said ten o’clock. Surely it was wrong. DVD clocks were notoriously always wrong, re-setting themselves, not being reset after power cuts – or maybe that was just me. Admittedly, Matt seemed like the sort of bloke who would have a permanently correct clock on his DVD player, but it couldn’t be ten. If it was ten, I was late calling my mum, and she’d be worried. I heard Matt finish his call in the bedroom and went back in.

‘Is it really ten o’clock?’

‘Yeh. Time fuh our other stuff in bed.’

He pulled the duvet aside and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. I hopped in and sat up next to him, as it occurred to me that most of the time we had spent together so far had been in bed, but not doing the activities you might have expected.

‘Can I ring my mum first? I usually call her before ten on a Saturday, but I’ve left my phone at home.’

‘Sure.’

He handed over his phone. I had to think for a minute about what her number was, it was so long since I’d actually dialled it. For good measure, I saved it onto Matt’s phone, as ‘Lau’s Mum’, noting with satisfaction that it nestled nicely underneath ‘Lau’ in his address book.

‘I thoht yuh were calling her, not putting yuhr entire bluhdy family on my phone.’
‘You never know when you might need to ring her, to explain why I haven’t called her, maybe because I was in bed with you for example.’

‘Oh, OK, shall I duh tha now? Give ih here.’

He snatched the phone from me and pressed call. I tried to get the phone back from him, but he held it away from me and I could hear it ringing. After the customary three rings, I heard her answer, and redoubled my efforts to get the phone back. I could hear her saying ‘Hello? Hello?’ and then ‘LauraLou, is that you?’

‘LauraLou? Ha ha!’

He finally handed the phone over, laughing.

‘Hi Mum, sorry, had a bit of a problem with the line, sorry I’m late calling, I stayed with a friend last night, and I left my phone at home.’

‘Oh, is that why I didn’t recognise the number? I was getting worried when you didn’t ring. I haven’t heard from you for a few days. Are you coming this afternoon?’

‘Yeah, I’ll be there. Anything you want me to bring?’

‘No, my love, I’ve been pretty good, I got to the shop yesterday, got a few things I needed. I’ve got another appointment at the fracture clinic, in a couple of weeks, I think they’ll give me the all clear.’

‘Oh that’s great. Let me know the date, I’ll come with you.’

‘No, no, Laura, I’ll go on my own. Don’t take a day off just for me.’

‘Well we’ll talk about it nearer the time, shall we?’

‘Alright my love. When did you say you’d be over? Only Margaret was asking if I wanted to go over for a cuppa later. We said about four.’

‘I’ll be there before then. See you later.’

‘Bye my love.’

I disconnected and handed the phone back to Matt.

‘Thanks. And thanks for freaking my elderly disabled mum out.’

He looked stricken.

‘Sorry, Lau, I didn’t think.’

‘I’m teasing. She’s only just sixty, and she’s only got a broken ankle. She fell off a stepladder a couple of months ago trying to put up a bird box in her garden.’

‘Oh, she likes birds? I can see a way in alrehdy. Big on birds, meh.’

‘Yeah, so I’ve heard.’

‘Especially ones wih interesting brehsts. Like, er, robins an suchlike.’

I raised an eyebrow.

‘Yeh, ‘specially like interesting brehsts.’

He looked pointedly at my chest, then laughingly back up at my face.

‘Actually, I duh goh birding sometimes. If yuh look ouh the window when I draw the curtains, there’s a bird feeder. I’ve got binoculars an shih, books on the shelf, yuh can check. Buh definitely like a good brehst.’

Matt

I made breakfast, went back to bed, Lau called her mum on my phone, then programmed her mum’s number in, and I would usually have got all arsey about that and felt trapped or violated or some such shit, but instead I felt pleased that Lau was starting to link her life to mine, even in small ways. And, of course, having Lau here, in my bed, was too good an opportunity to waste, now I was properly awake, and so I angled my body towards her, stroked her cheek and then ran my hand down her body, until I cupped her breast.

‘This one fehls like a rehly good one. Worth exploring.’

To my delight, her nipples were growing hard under her sleeping shirt. I hoped she was up for more of what we’d done last night, on her sofa.

Laura

My body was responding to his touch, nothing I could do about that, but I already had a strategy.

‘Be my guest.’

Matt

She lay on her back and stretched her arms over her head, enticingly.

‘Rehly? Whoa, Lau.’

I held her breast in my hand for a moment, then ran my thumb lightly over the fabric of her shirt, feeling her nipple peak even more, but I wanted to touch her skin to skin; so I slid my hand under her t-shirt, then pulled it all the way up so I could see her too, and lowered my head to take her in my mouth and suck, running my tongue over the nubbly mouthful. Lau arched her back and moaned. I licked my way across to her other breast, felt my way around it with my mouth, kissing, sucking, nibbling, teasing. Between us, we pulled her t-shirt completely off, and I marvelled again at her awesome body, so full, so inviting.

Lau was arching her back, giving me the best view, and I slid my hand downwards, down her side, across her waist, onto her belly, down further – then she put her hand on mine and stopped me. I pulled back and looked up into her face, wondering what I’d done. She was smiling, but shook her head.

‘Wha? Why not? Dohnt yuh like ih?’

I frowned.

Laura

‘Matt, I love it, no one’s ever made me feel like you do. But we’re doing this together. Last night, when you did what you did for me, was sensational. No one’s ever made me feel like that. But until I can do the same for you, or we can do something together, we’re only doing what we can both do.’

I’d come up with this last night, while I was lying next to Matt. I had had an awesome time, and Matt taking care of me the way he had was unbelievable, but it felt important that we started this off fairly, and this was the best way I could think of.

Matt

‘Buh I love ih, I loved yesterday, making yuh come, ih was soh fucking sexy.’

I didn’t get it; why didn’t she want it? I knew she’d enjoyed it – she’d virtually just said it was the best she’d ever had.

‘I know, me too, but it makes things lopsided, starts things off on an uneven footing. I’m not backing down on this, Matt. Equal, the same, or not at all.’

Oh my fucking God. When was this woman going to stop getting more bloody awesome? I stared at her, unable to comprehend how, what, why she would do that for me. It made total sense, although it was with some regret that I actually saw the sense it made and decided not to battle with her about it. She took the hand she’d stopped just below her belly button, and placed it back on her breast.

‘So, up here, fine, I can do that for you too, we can have a good play, get to know each other’s likes and dislikes, but no pressure on either of us. Just tingly and nice and oh my God, yes, that too.’

So she wasn’t saying nothing at all, was she, she was just saying no downbelows until my fucked-up downbelows stopped being fucked up, then both sets of downbelows were fair game. It was encouraging, even, like she was saying it would come back given time.

In the interim, I had pinched her nipple and started to suck the other one, but looked up to speak.

‘I cahnt believe how incredible yuh are, Lau. I soh, soh dohnt deserve yuh.’

‘Yeah, well, not many do. Anyway, buster, flip over, there’s some nipple action of my own I’d like to try.’

Laura

He sat up, but didn’t lie on his back as instructed.

‘Hold on, Lau. Tha’s twice yuh called meh buster. Is tha my new endearment? Yuh said yuh were gona think of one, buh I thoght ih was beahch boy.’

I thought about it. I tended to throw pet names about willy-nilly, but Matt seemed to want to know what I was going to call him.

‘Well … it could be ‘buster’, if you like it, but it’s more of a ‘don’t mess with me’ kind of name, isn’t it? If you don’t like ‘beach boy’, and you really don’t go for ‘flower’, well, could be baby – ‘

‘Noh, Nico calls Lis tha all the time, grates.’

‘– or darling –’

‘Fuck noh, not behn married fifty threh yehrs.’

‘– dude?’

‘Hmm, has a ring, buh weh dohn live in California, soh noh.’

‘Sweetheart?’
‘Noh, noh, noh, Beth calls everyone tha, if she thinks yuhr fahmly.’

I was running out of options.

‘Babe?’
‘Dec calls Amy babe all the bluhdy time. You wehr gona give meh a manly name tha made yuh grow bollocks.’

‘OK, er, mate?’

‘Ha ha, bluhdy hell, Lau, yuh sound lihk a builder.’

‘Well, beach boy, I think your family seem to have first dibs on all the best names. We might have to invent a new one.’

Matt

I suddenly wondered why I was pissing around. She’d already said it, the name I wanted to hear her call me.

‘Noh, tha’s it. Yuh jus said ih.’

‘Did I?’

‘Beach boy. I like ih behter than all the rehst. Lihked ih wehn yuh said ih the other day.’

‘Really? I thought it wasn’t manly enough.’

‘Noh, buh ih’s diffrehnt from anything ehlse. Yuh made ih up. Ih’s jus ours. An ih mahks meh sound lihk a surfer dude, tha’s cool.’

‘If that explains it to you, then let’s go with that. I’ll try not to overuse it, and I expect the odd ‘flower’ might slip through every now and then. OK, beach boy, let’s get this show on the road. On your back, please.’

I’ve never got tired of hearing it, her special name. She doesn’t use it that often, I get called ‘flower’ more often than I care to admit, and she uses her mum’s ‘my love’ quite a lot too, but ‘beach boy’ is just for me.

Laura

With a delighted smile, Matt lay on his back, put his hands behind his head and waited as I knelt beside him, bent my head down and started to kiss his chest, trailing my lips up his sternum and then to one side, flicking my tongue over his nipples then taking one into my mouth, sucking it hard while at the same time running my fingers over the other one and flicking it with my finger.

I felt his hands in my hair, stroking, massaging, touching my ears, running his finger down my jawline and back up my neck and down my shoulder and arm, as I teased his nipples into hardened little buds on his chest, and heard him moan softly. Then he suddenly gasped and grabbed my hair so tightly it hurt.

Matt

She did it, she made me moan, and then suddenly, it all headed south, and a shot of heat hit my dick, and I gasped, my legs lifting off the bed with a jerk.

Lau stopped and looked up, looking worried. I’d gripped her hair pretty tightly, and I loosened my hold. We locked eyes as I explained.

‘Tingly dick, tingly dick!’

Lau dropped her head forwards, relieved.

‘I thought I’d hurt you.’

‘Noh, yuh tingled meh. Still tingly. Mind if I have a fehl?’

It had already lasted longer than the tingle I’d felt last night, and I wondered if I could encourage it to stay, or even to grow into something else.

Laura

‘Feel free. I’ll just carry on shall I?’

I lowered my mouth to his nipple again, flattening my tongue on it and licking in broad strokes from one to the other, as I felt Matt’s hand travel to his boxers. I put my hand over the top of his, and felt him rub himself slowly, then stop. I pushed my fingers underneath his and laid my hand on the soft shape of his penis underneath the fabric of his boxers. I slowly stroked him, to and fro, a few times, then looked up at him. He shrugged.

Matt

The tingles died away as I felt Lau push her fingers under mine and touch my dick through the fabric of my shorts. She stroked a couple of times, but nothing happened, and I shrugged as she looked up at me. It seemed the rule about the downbelows was flexible.

‘Tingles hahv gone. Thanks, tho Lau. Yuhr so fucking hot, yuhr so gona mahk meh better. Cohm hehr.’

I gestured her back up to the pillow, so I could hold her, and we lay close together, as Lau stretched her face up, lips pursed, wanting a kiss. Well I was always going to be happy to oblige the dick-tingler with requests like that. After a good while of kissing, though, something kept occurring to me, and I had to ask.

‘Lau, can I ask yuh something?’

‘Not if it’s something hard, like algebra.’

‘Algebra’s easy, buh OK, noh equations befohr lunch. Something nuhrsy.’

‘Oh, OK. Go on then.’

‘If I’ve goh a tingly dick, does tha mean things are getting better?’

I couldn’t keep the hope out of my voice. The fucking bastard had been with me for too fucking bastard long, and I just wanted a sign that it might be fucking off some time soon. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t ever going to, but I so wanted it to. I knew I was ‘lucky’ in some respects, if you can even begin to call it that, but I mean in comparison to someone who’s got, oh I don’t know, terminal cancer or something, where it’s pretty much a downhill path. At least for me there was a chance, having got better before, that I might get some of the way back up there again. I just wanted a bit of hope.

Laura

I looked up at him, and saw the hope in his face.

‘Oh God, Matt, that’s a huge question. I can’t answer it. It might do, it might not do. OK, nursey response to a nursey question. You should get yourself signed up with the MS service, get yourself a worker who can help you answer your questions, or go to your GP. Or both.’

‘Wha duh yuh think ih is?’

‘I really, really can’t say. I’m sorry, flower. I can’t tell you something that gives you hope or dashes your hopes, and then be wrong. It’s not fair.’

Matt

I was disappointed. I wanted Lau to make things better, to say I was on the mend, and she was giving me what sounded like bullshit.

‘I’m only asking yuhr opinion. If yuh wanted hehp wih yuhr computer I’d give yuh my opinion.’

‘Maybe, but my computer hasn’t been staring at a pile of pills and a bottle of whisky half the night. OK, I won’t give an opinion. All I’ll say is let’s hope so. And go and get yourself checked out. And ring the MS service first thing on Monday and get signed up. Seriously, Matt, I think I’d rather have had algebra.’

It had dropped the mood a little bit. I should have been impressed that Lau wasn’t willing to give me false hope, but it felt like she had inside knowledge she wasn’t willing to share. I know, unfair of me. Still a git, eh?

Laura

Matt’s expression had clouded a little. I knew from experience how much hope people took from small events like tingles and twitches and good days, and how much the bad days when nothing worked properly knocked them back. I had learned to be non-committal until something was confirmed either way, and that needed a doctor as well as someone neutral to help with the fall-out.

It was hard to be that way with Matt; he wasn’t a patient, and I had a lot invested in his recovery or otherwise too. I had a vision of all the fine lines I was going to be walking if this thing with us was going to work out.

Matt

‘If I call the service, can I have yuh as my nuhrs?’

That might be a way round it. Cosy nursing sessions under the duvet would work very well.

Laura

‘No. Remember I talked about this with my boss? I can’t treat you. I can’t be involved with you professionally. I wouldn’t be able to attend any meetings or discussions about you. It would be Anna or Kate. Although Kate’s an OT.’

As Rachel would also be a non-starter. The cloud deepened in Matt’s expression.

Matt

Fuck it, I’d forgotten about all that. I began to see that if I wanted answers, I was going to have to go looking for them, and that what I’d just asked of Lau wasn’t on, wasn’t even approaching fair on her. Didn’t make me like it, though.

‘I hate talking to pehpl I dohnt know abouh this. Bad enough having tuh goh back tuh Adam.’

‘I know, flower, but you’ll get to know them really quickly, and you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them. Everyone says it about all of us, we’re all absolutely brilliant.’

‘An soh modest.’

I sighed as I made the concession.

‘OK Lau, I see yuhr point. I’d give yuh computer advice, buh if yuh nehded a major overhaul of yuhr computer system at work, I’d give yuh GreenScreen’s number. Fair enough.’

‘And if you ever need bandaging, or de-fibrillating, don’t hesitate to ask.’

‘An if I can hehp wih a good de-fragging jus leh meh know.’

Matt Scott, IT innuendo a speciality.

‘I know what de-fragging is.’

‘I bet yuh duh.’

The kidding about was making me feel better, so much better about everything.

‘Lau, this fehls soh good, being here wih yuh, after las nigh, yuh make meh soh hahpy. Thanks foh coming over and bullying meh.’

I folded her up in my arms, needing to feel her as close to me as possible, and we lay together for a while, just holding each other. It was like we’d got back on our mad journey, having made a stop at a crappy service station, but now having refuelled we were back on the bus for the mystery tour. Or some such metaphorical shit.

Laura

We lay snuggled together for a while, just holding each other. I realised I’d been holding on to some of the tension from the previous night, waiting to see if Matt still felt any of the anguish he’d shown, but it seemed like it might be OK to relax, and just start enjoying this again.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh, LauraLou.’

‘OK, only my mum calls me that. It’s not even a tease option.’

Matt looked delighted, and I suspected I was going to regret telling him not to tease me.

Matt

Oh brilliant! I loved being told not to do things, it gave me loads of tease options. She seemed to know she’d made an elementary error, and tried to look stern, but she couldn’t manage it.

Laura

‘Anyway, you know a couple of days ago, we said just holding hands for now, nothing more, just see how it goes.’

‘Yeh.’
‘And I remember you saying you want to say how you feel when you feel it, or something, and I know this might freak both of us out, and I did just say we haven’t said forever, but this feels like a bit more than holding hands and seeing where it’s going.’

There was silence from Matt’s end. I daren’t look at him, scared of what I might see flitting across his face. Eventually there was an intake of breath.

Matt

I was silent. Yeah, it did feel like more, I’d been thinking that since I met her, but then I’d had my meltdown and it had scared me, and I’d wondered if I ought to back off a bit, decrease the intensity. Hearing Lau say she wanted more made it all feel real again; I’d never, really, thought long term with a woman.

Mercy was never a keeper, and I’d cheated on her as soon as she gave off ‘settling down’ vibes, great bloke that I was. With Carrie, it was pretty much ‘well things are OK, let’s keep it how it is’; with Jules we were still ‘seeing how things went’ when I fucked it all up. But now, with Lau, I was suddenly starting to think huge words like ‘forever’, and, yeah, of course, I was freaked out.

‘I know. Yuhr righ, ih fucking frehks meh righ ouh, buh ih’s OK. I dohn even knoh wha I’m doin tomorrow, I’m such a fucking mess at the moment, buh I knoh I’m gona beh doin ih wih yuh. Cahnt imagine not hohding yuhr hand, rehly or in my mind. An yuh said las nigh yuh’d beh hohding my hand fuhever.’

It was true. Freaking or not, I needed to be with Lau. I couldn’t imagine, now, ever letting go of her hand.

Lau looked at me, stretched up and pulled my head down for a kiss. I wanted to stay there, doing that, all morning and beyond, but she pulled away, looking regretful.

Laura

I risked a look up at him. He was smiling, eyes sparkling, crinkling at the corners, along with his mouth. I stretched up and kissed him. He put his hands to my face and held my mouth against his, but I pulled away.

‘Sorry, I’ve got to get going, I’ve got to go to Mum’s this afternoon.’

‘Stay a bih. Goh from hehr.’

‘I can’t. I haven’t got any clothes with me. I think I’d have a hard time explaining why I turned up to hers in my manky sleeping shirt in the middle of the afternoon. I need a shower and stuff. I can come back later.’

‘When?’
‘She’s going out at four, so after then I guess.’

Matt

Oh fuck it, Dec was coming to fetch me at four; it had seemed like a great idea at the time, I could help out with Charlie while they got ready. Now it meant I wasn’t going to see Lau until tomorrow afternoon. I looked at Lau, frowning.

‘I’m going tuh Dec’s, they asked meh tuh look after Chahlie. I’m gona stay the nigh. Fuck. Wanted tuh beh wih yuh.’

‘Do you spend all your life looking after other people’s children?’
I laughed. It was true that I was a convenient babysitter, but never a reluctant one. If I didn’t look after Cal, Iz and Charlie so much, I’d be visiting them anyway, so I might as well make myself useful.

‘Sometimes. I love ih tho. Getting in practice foh one day. An they all love their Unca Matty, he’s a bih bad. Sweeties an stayin up laht, an over eighteen X-box. Not fuh Iz or Chahlie wih the X-box.’

I tried my best to corrupt them all, in various ways. No point being an uncle if you can’t misbehave.

I had a wicked uncle once – wicked in the disreputable, bit of a bad role model sense, rather than, well, you know, mwahahah evil. He was who I based my uncling on. He was my dad’s older brother, and I guess he was my best shot at a father figure, although I didn’t see him very often.

Uncle Jock. His name wasn’t really Jock, it was Robert – my middle name was for him – but he was Scottish, and us English do things like that to foreigners, to put them in their place. He used to visit a couple of times a year, with his wife, Auntie Pam (she wasn’t Scottish, so no xenophobic nickname for her, just her own English name, which was punishment enough in itself). I don’t remember much about Auntie Pam, but I do remember Uncle Jock, who was a large man with a bushy red beard – oh, this could be where some of my ‘memories’ of my dad come from. I know they looked fairly similar from photos.

Anyway, getting side-tracked in the middle of getting side-tracked. So, Uncle Jock always brought us a mountain of chocolate, some of which he would let Mum see and confiscate for later distribution, and some of which he would give us when she wasn’t looking, so we could hide it in our rooms and eat it all in one go and feel sick.

Uncle Jock would spend his time with us punching Jay on the arm and congratulating him on being big and strong, but also firing hard questions at me and congratulating me on being brainy. When he was visiting, it was the only time Jay and I ever played together. Jock would make us all go out in the garden to kick a football about and he’d use his own size to bully Jay off the ball, and pass to me so I could score. Jay didn’t really like playing football, but I think he was a bit intimidated, and couldn’t refuse, at least when he was younger.

Uncle Jock would also cajole Mum into letting me stay up late to watch usually forbidden TV.

‘Let the boy experience some life, Carol, you can’t keep him wrapped up forever.’

And I’d sit, delighted, eyes wide as comedies with swear words and, if I was really lucky, the occasional topless lady, corrupted me.

And when Mum was otherwise engaged, often cooking with Auntie Pam, he’d slip me a tenner and tell me to buy something useless. He had lots of ideas for useless purchases, all things Mum frowned on – comics, X-ray specs (not real ones, they would have cost more than a tenner and wouldn’t have been available in the joke shop section of Woolworths), football stickers, Mars bars; there was a long list.

He was pretty clear on his opinions of green vegetables as well, and I always got let off eating cabbage when Uncle Jock was at the dinner table.

‘For God’s sake, Carol, the boy eats well enough, don’t be forcing him to eat shit he doesn’t like.’

Oh, and he swore. Uncle Jock was ace.

So, all in all, my role model for fatherhood came from a man who used to visit a couple of times a year until I was about ten. It wasn’t until I was a real dad that it all became clear, the difference between being a dad and being an uncle.

Then Uncle Jock stopped coming, and in the way of a child I didn’t really think about it, until years later when I asked Mum, and she looked sad and said he had dementia and had to go into a care home because Auntie Pam couldn’t look after him any more. He died when I was at Uni, and because I was in the middle of exams, I couldn’t go to his funeral. I wish he’d known what a big influence he had on my life.

But anyway, back to Lau, who has just learned that Unca Matty is a bit bad.

‘Why am I not surprised. You’re going to be a terrible father.’

No I wasn’t, I knew exactly how I was going to be.

‘Ih’ll beh a cool dad. Mohr like a mate, never tell them off, noh bedtime, noh eatin broccoli.’

I was still imagining operating the Uncle Jock model of parenting. Lau looked dubious, but let me hang on to my fantasy. I bet you’re laughing your head off now, Lau.

‘Good luck with that. Anyway, I need to get going. I’ll see you tomorrow, then?’

I frowned again; it seemed like a long time to wait, and I hoped I would last until the aftermath of Sunday lunch, which usually wiped me out.

‘I hope soh. Ih’s roast dinner at Jay an Beth’s. I dohnt geh up till laht, or I geh tuh tired, and Ih’ll be at Dec’s so we’ll goh from there. Can I call yuh?’

‘Course you can. I’ll be holding your hand until then.’

Laura

I swung my legs out of bed, and gathered up my jeans, pulling them on as Matt got up and stood behind me, putting his arms round me and kissing my neck. I stood up and leaned into him, resting my head back against his shoulder, then turned into his arms, folding mine round his neck and planting a large wet kiss on his mouth.

Before he could delay me with more kissing, touching and other villainous activities, I stepped back and out of the bedroom, trying to find my car keys. I had no idea where I’d left them last night, and tried to remember where I’d gone first. The table. There they were, still on top of the tablecloth. I picked them up, noticing as I did so that the pills and whisky from the night before had been cleared away, and then I made my way to the door. Matt leaned on the door frame of the bedroom and watched me go, a sad smile on his face. I blew him a kiss.

‘See yuh Lau. I’ll call yuh, or text or something. Prohbly both. Say hi tuh yuhr mum from meh.’

‘I will. I’ll tell her exactly what we’ve been up to this morning, she’ll be very interested, and have all sorts of advice.’

‘Rehly?’

‘No! Remember the strict Baptist? That was Mum. Her advice would involve quite a lot of burning in hell. I might mention you in passing, not make a big deal, get her used to the idea. Anyway, enjoy corrupting Charlie tonight, don’t keep her up too late.’

‘I’ll miss yuh.’

‘I’ll miss you too. Like you wouldn’t believe.’

‘Cohm here.’

‘No. I’m going. You’re a bad man, I’d never get away.’

‘Fuck ih, yuh saw through my plan.’

‘I’m going now, before you tempt me any more.’

‘Yuh keep saying tha, yuhr not gone yet.’

I was finding it incredibly hard to open the door and actually leave. It was only when Matt started to move towards me that I realised I had to go now or not at all, and I opened the door, waved, and shut it behind me, hurrying down the stairs and out into the car park.

This time when I looked up, I saw Matt standing at one of the windows. He raised a hand to me and I waved back, before getting in my car and driving away.

Matt

It took me a while to drift off to sleep once I’d gone to bed; my body felt rested, even after the travails of last night, and I kept thinking about Lau – her smile, her voice, her body, the way she pulled her mouth to one side when she was thinking, the way she just knew what to say, the way our bodies fitted together, the way she was Lau.

I was going to find it hard not to mention her to Dec, but I didn’t want to go public just yet. There would be questions and ‘oh Matt, don’t you think …’ and ‘isn’t it a bit …’ and ‘but what about …’ and I didn’t want to have to examine all of it right now. I wanted to enjoy it, this little haven, this little oasis, of something good in the middle of all the crapola that had gone on since Jules left.

I was going to tell all of them, and soon; I’d learned my lesson from moving in with Jules that it never helped matters to deliberately keep big shit from them all. But just a few days, that’s what I promised myself, to hug it to me and savour it, before everyone started questioning whether it was the right thing for me, like I had no say, like it wasn’t, er, actually my life, thanks.

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.

73. A dream of you and me

In which a meeting has an unexpected outcome.

Laura

It didn’t take long to get to my road, and we talked about nothing much – possibly the weather, or the one-way system, nothing memorable. Despite the slur to his speech, I liked the sound of Matt’s voice, his northern, or was it Midlands, accent making the words sound rich and soft. Oh hark at me. I just liked the way he spoke; it wasn’t what I had expected.

I found a parking space outside my house, a minor miracle after five o’clock on a weekday, and told Matt to wait in the car while I took the trolley inside.

‘Sohry, fehl I should beh hehping or sohmthing.’

‘Don’t be daft, it’ll only take a second or two.’

As I opened the front door my phone pinged again in my bag. I took it out and read the five short text messages from Kate.

‘Not THE Matt Scott?’

‘Lau? Spill. Can I tell Rach?’

‘Lau don’t ignore me’

‘I swear if u don’t answer I’m coming down there’

‘Last chance’

I hit reply and sent a message

‘God give a girl a chance to drive home. Yes that Matt Scott. Needs 2 talk. Best not tell Rach yet eh?’

I sent the text and put the phone back in my bag. It rang almost straight away. I pulled it out, but put it back and turned the ringer off when I saw it was Kate calling. She’d have to wait until I was back home properly for a chat.

Matt

She trotted back to the car and opened the door for me, offering her hand, but I’d already lost enough man points with the not helping, and decided to struggle out by pulling up on the car door instead. I saw how she was looking at me, Beth looked at me that way most days, and I gave her a rueful smile at my own stubbornness.

‘Are you OK to walk there? It’s only just round the corner.’

‘Yeh, s’fine. Fehl a bih of a twat now, noh sure wha Ihm gohna say.’

This was true. Now I’d semi-conned her into some kind of pseudo counselling session, I would have to deliver the goods. I had bolstered myself for this when I made my plan, but that was when it was a theory, a working hypothesis. Now I was going to have to give her something real, and I wasn’t relishing it.

I felt her put her hand on my arm as we walked, and wondered if she had any idea how much she made my pulse race. She suddenly stopped in her tracks.

Laura

I put a reassuring hand on his arm as we walked, more comfortable in my nurse guise than my giddy teenager guise. Thinking this suddenly made me realise I was still wearing my nurse’s uniform, and I stopped in my tracks.

‘Oh dammit, I need to get changed. Sorry, Matt, I forgot I was still wearing this.’

I indicated my tunic.

Matt

‘Noh a problem foh meh, I kinda lihk ih.’

I looked at the way she was filling out the tunic, which was spectacular.

Laura

His eyes swept over me appraisingly, making me feel hot and tingly.

‘Yes, but I’m not supposed to wear it out in public. Stay here, there’s a cardy in the car, I can put that over the top.’

I left Matt standing on the pavement while I made the quick dash to and from the car to pick up my big baggy cardigan.

Matt

She ran back to the car, opened the boot and pulled out a large woollen thing that covered up the tunic and all the curves that went with it. I made a disappointed face.

‘Shame.’

Laura

Matt made a disappointed mouth as I covered up the top. Thank God for baggy cardies; they made you feel sexless and frumpy, which was what I needed if I was going to be able to ignore the unsettling things that being with Matt was beginning to make me feel.

‘Cheeky! Uniforms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be you know. Most of them are itchy and don’t fit properly.’

‘Yuhrs seems tuh fit OK.’

He looked me up and down again, which despite the cardigan continued to unsettle me.

‘You’ll get me struck off with talk like that. Right, Mean Bean, mochaccinos on the NHS.’

And as a note to self, any more flirty banter on my employer’s time strictly off the agenda.

Matt

Oh, promising, she’d started with the flirty banter. Backed off pretty quickly, but it had been there. Very, very promising, Matt.

‘Ih’s a dehl. Wha I pay my taxes foh.’

‘Quite right. Here we are then.’

We can’t have walked more than a minute or two.

‘Bluhdy hell, yuh weren’t joking abouh roun the corner.’

‘It’s my downfall, I can nip out for breakfast in my PJs and slippers, get back before the alarm clock’s finished ringing.’

This was going better than I’d imagined. She was sounding relaxed, letting bits of personal information slip out. We reached Mean Bean, managed to secure the last booth and Laura went to buy the coffee, despite my protestations. She insisted that some bizarre NHS rule meant she could claim two coffees on expenses, but not one. It’s no wonder the country’s health service is in such a state.

While she was ordering, I thought I’d better try to let Beth know I was going to make my own way home. She would doubtless be wondering where I was; she would not have believed in a million years that I would have stayed at the church hall all day. But my phone couldn’t pick up a signal, whichever way I held it, and when Laura came back I was holding it up as high as I could, exasperated that the one time I try to do what they all nag me about, I’m prevented by a blackspot.

Laura

As I made my way back to the booth with the mochaccinos I saw Matt was holding his phone up in the air, looking at the screen in annoyance.

‘Problems?’

‘Noh fucking signal.’

‘It’s a bit flaky in here sometimes.’

‘Shih. Shuhd’ve called someone.’

‘Oh.’

I looked at my phone which was also displaying a ‘Searching…’ message where the bars should have been.

‘Sorry, mine too. Do you need to go in search of a signal?’

Matt sighed and shook his head.

‘Noh, fuck ih, leh em wohry foh bih. Noh a fucking bahby.’

He looked up and wiped his frown away with a crinkly smile.

Matt

I looked up at her and smiled. No point taking my frustration out on her, that wasn’t going to get me even close to where I wanted to be.

‘Bluhdy fahmly. Luhv em. They fucking kill meh.’

Laura tilted her head sympathetically.

‘Just worried I expect.’

‘Yeh.’

And a bunch of nosy, interfering –

‘When were you diagnosed?’

She cut across my familiar internal diatribe and silenced me. Shit. I had almost forgotten I was there on the pretext of talking about the bastard MS, and her direct question had taken me by surprise. I couldn’t speak for a short while, but Laura just sipped her coffee, waiting for me to answer. She seemed so chilled that in the end, I found the words. It wasn’t really such a big deal, was it?

Laura

There was a long silence. I realised I had been direct but I usually found that small talk increased people’s nerves and made it harder to find an opening into the things they really wanted to talk about. Matt had said he wanted to talk about things he found it hard to talk to his family about, so I wasn’t here for a natter about last night’s telly. I sipped my coffee while I waited for Matt to answer.

‘Five yehrs or so.’

I was really surprised. There had never been any indication, not that I’d ever spoken to him, but I prided myself on my radar and Matt had got under mine. I’d never even heard a whisper that Matt could have MS.

‘Really? I assumed it was more recent.’

Matt

‘Yeh, this tihm. Behn in remission. Thoht I’d goh away with ih. Nehly forgot I had ih. Fucker came bahk, cohpl months ago. Bastahd.’

That was the most I’d talked about it to anyone for a long time. Thinking about it made me angry, and I looked away.

Laura

‘That must have been hard.’

I had managed to slip into full nursey counselling techniques now, making statements, reflecting back, but Matt had looked away and seemed to be closing down.

Matt

‘Yeh.’

Yeah, it had been hard, and talking about it now was almost as hard. I felt myself closing down, stopping the words.

Laura

I tried to think of something I knew about him to keep him talking, and remembered seeing him with Beth this morning.

‘But your family are being supportive?’

Matt

I couldn’t prevent a snort. I had the most bloody annoyingly supportive, there-for-you family a man could wish not to have.

‘Fuck yeh. Always bluhdy ringing, texting, popping roun. Cahnt geh a second tuh mysehf tuh duh wha they all think I’m gona duh.’

Fuck, hadn’t meant to say that.

Laura

‘What do they think you’re going to do?’

Matt looked down at the foam on top of his coffee and didn’t meet my eyes.

Matt

What was the saying? In for a penny, in for a pound? I hoped Laura was up for a pound of sharing. I’d never said what I was about to say to anyone, but I felt like I knew her, like it would be safe to say it. I can’t explain how.

‘Well, yuh knoh. Pills or rope or I dunnoh, carving knihf. Buh prohbly be pihls. An a bohtle or two of Jahk Dahniels. Wha a way tuh goh, shih-faced tuh the end.’

Laura

‘So you have thought about it?’

I’d be amazed if he hadn’t considered it at some point. But I thought the way he was talking about it meant he was less likely to do anything serious about it at the moment.

He kept his eyes on the table as he answered.

Matt

Fuck, I hoped she wasn’t going to have to alert the Suicide Squad or something. I looked down as I answered. It was too big a thing to risk looking at her as I said it. I didn’t want to see pity, or contempt, or anything that said ‘oh you poor man’.

‘Yeh. Buh turns ouh I’m too bloody sehfish fuh tha even.’

I risked looking up at her, to see what she thought about that one. My traitor eyes swam with tears. Shit. I wasn’t going to fucking well cry.

Laura

He looked up at me and I was surprised to see his big grey eyes glistening. Was he about to cry?

‘Selfish?’

‘Yeh. Dihnt want the kids tuh remehber me as a fucking loser.’

‘Oh – you’ve got children?’

That was a new one but I went with it, and it seemed to distract him enough that the threatening tears disappeared.

Matt

Ha, that was better, that was funny in a darkly ironic way.

‘Noh. Fuck noh! Oh, whole other lohng saga righ thehr when yuhv goh a week or two. Noh, my niece, nephew and – oh fuck ih my fahmly’s so complicated. Anyway. Other pehpl’s kids.’

Explaining things like this always took at least twice as long because of my bloody family and their convoluted links.

Laura wrinkled her nose as she pondered it all. She looked adorable.

Laura

He looked at me, seeming to be willing me to understand. I tried to sum it up.

‘OK, got it, I think. You may have had some suicidal thoughts but you haven’t acted on them because you’re worried about what other people’s children will think of you when you’re dead.’

More reflecting and reframing. Sometimes it helped to be blunt; I usually judged it right.

Matt

Whoa, she knew how to summarise. Adorable or not, it felt like being hit with a blunt instrument.

‘Holy fuck.’

I looked at the table again. This was taking a turn I hadn’t expected, and we were getting into territory I had never explored with myself, let alone someone I had only just met. If you know me at all, you know if I even approach the truth about anything, I start fucking about so it doesn’t get too serious and real. This felt very serious and real, and we’d only just started talking. Lau, you are so good. Then, and still. What would I have ever done without you to make me see what I’m hiding from?

Laura

Matt bowed his head. I suspected he hadn’t fully admitted it to himself before, preferring to couch it in euphemisms and even jokes. After confronting him in such a direct way, he needed some reassurance.

I reached over and put my hand over his, to be startled by an electric jolt that travelled from my fingertips to my very core. It took me right out of my safe professional counselling zone and straight into teenager with the popular boy zone.

Matt

Laura reached over and took my hand, presumably to comfort me, but it felt, instead, like she’d wired me into the mains. Touching her hand hurled a bolt of human lightning right through me. I almost felt my hair stand on end. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t have felt it, and I looked up from the table and into her eyes, where I saw, I just knew, that she had felt the same thing. It wasn’t just a mild flirty attraction, she was, certainly at that moment, affected as deeply by me as I was by her. It shook me out of my dark reveries. I held onto her hand, tightly, as I saw her force herself back to our conversation.

Laura

Matt looked up into my eyes; I don’t know what he saw there but his eyes widened slightly as I struggled to get a grip on myself. I forced my thoughts back to what he’d just said, and away from our clasped hands. Had he just felt that too? I heard a catch in his breath, and we looked at each other, startled, for a few seconds, before I remembered myself.

‘Matt. The last thing you are is selfish. It sounds like your family are keeping you going one way and another. Don’t ever think its selfish to love them. They need that from you.’

Matt

‘Not rehly. Thehrs plenty – ‘

My phone rang, interrupting the moment, and I had to let go of Laura’s hand to answer it.

‘Signal mus beh bahk. Shuhd geh this’.

It was Dec. They would have been taking it in turns to call while the rest got in touch with Scotland Yard to put out the sniffer dogs – and indeed a whole host of missed calls and texts popped up as I answered.

‘Heh.’

‘Where the fuck are you?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘That’s not exactly answering my question.’

No, dear Declan, that was the intention.

‘Having cohfee.’

‘Oh. Would it have hurt you to call Beth? She’s been going bat-shit.’

‘Sohry noh signal.’

‘Oh. Are you going round there later?’

‘Noh, going hohm after.’

‘Oh. Do you need a lift? I can come and get you.’

I had no idea how I was going to get home. Maybe a taxi, or chance the buses. No way I was going to rely on any of the family.

‘Noh thahks.’

‘You’re sure you don’t need anything, talk, … anything?’

‘Noh, jus nehd sohm fucking space.’

‘You know you don’t have to be on your own –’

It was the assumption that I was on my own that riled me up this time. They all thought they knew me, who I’d be likely to be with, who my friends were. I blasted back at him.

‘Noh, Dec, dohn start wih tha fucking shih yuh noh I’ll talk tuh yuh if I need tuh.’

‘Alright, mate, take it easy, you know how this works, we care about you, alright?’

‘OK.’

‘Don’t be a stubborn fucking bastard all your life.’

‘OK.’

I had no intention of doing what he told me, but the less I said, the less he would go on.

‘I’m going to call Beth and tell her you’re OK.’

‘Whahever, yuh’ll all talk abouh meh anyway.’

It sounded whiny and childish, but I was mostly in a whiny childish place these days.

‘Yeah, mate, like we’ve got nothing better to talk about than your feeble antics. Here, have a word with Charlie, she’s been wanting to chat to you all day.’

‘Oh yuh bastahd … Heh, beauhiful how’s yuh day behn? Tell Unca Matty all abouh ih even tho yuh cahnt talk yet.’

There was an indistinct burble and a giggle, then Dec came back on the line.

‘She’s laughing at you, you ridiculous old git.’

‘Yeh I heard her. Dead cuhte.’

‘Has that put a smile back on your wrinkled old face?’

‘Yeh I’m smihling yuh bastahd. Piss ohf now. Busy.’

‘OK. See you soon, mate.’

‘See yuh.’

I put my phone down and looked apologetically at Lau.

‘Sohry. If I dohn report my exac movements they call the FBI, an SWAT teams play havoc wih yuhr social lihf.’

She didn’t seem too worried about me taking personal calls on her NHS time.

Laura

‘No problem. Family?’

I realised I was being a bit nosy, but wanted to keep him talking.

Matt

‘Yeh. Well noh. Well soht of. Sohry.’

Oh shit, I was going to have to go through the ins and outs of it all wasn’t I.

‘Dec. Bes mate, bruhther, auhnty, stuhborn fucking interfering bastahd all in one. Goh a lihtl girl. Lohv her tuh bihs – hehr, look.’

I picked my phone up, found a picture of Charlie and turned the screen to face her. I’d got so used to Jules looking bored at family pictures that I was surprised and delighted when I saw Lau’s expression soften.

Laura

He picked his phone up and scrolled through his photos then turned the screen to face me. A dark haired baby with enormous blue eyes chuckled out at me. I felt a familiar pang and pushed it back down where it came from, as I always did when confronted with other people’s beautiful children.

‘Oh Matt, she’s gorgeous. How old?’

‘Six months. ‘

‘And she’s your niece?’

‘Well soht of. Dec’s kind of – bollocks I’m sure yuh dohn wan tuh know my bluhdy fahmly history.’

‘Try me. I’m a bit of a nosy cow.’

It was all too true that I loved finding out about people, I’d chat to anyone, anywhere. But it was also true that I felt the intensity of both the things we had been talking about, and that weird electric jolt; getting Matt to talk about something safe and familiar would make things feel easier.

Matt

Well it beat talking about the fucking bastard, so …

‘Oh fuck ih, why noh? Buh if I see yuh yawn, tha’s ih, dohble espresso on meh an straigh home wih yuh.’

Thing is, I just didn’t think I was boring her, even though I was boring myself a bit; Laura looked keen to hear about it.

‘Ha ha, it’s a deal. Come on, then, let’s have it.’

I had a quick think about what I was going to say, and it occurred to me that although Jay and Dec were my family, they were celebrities here in this city, and the whole story wasn’t common knowledge. Dec may well be open house in the family as far as talking about his shit was concerned, but he made sure he kept his private life to himself when it came to the general public.

‘Migh noh beh much tuh tehl rehly. My bruhther … thehr was this kid … bollocks, noh sure wha I cahn say. This is confidential, righ? Lihk a priest or sohmthing?’

‘Er, well, not exactly like a priest, there are certain things I’m not allowed to keep to myself – abuse, that kind of thing.’

I felt a stab of panic – no no no, how did I give her that impression?

‘Fuck! Noh! Shih, I jus mehnt a loh of ih’s noh my stohry, yuh cahnt tehl pehpl.’

Laura

‘Oh, OK, no problem then. My lips are sealed, as long as I’m not breaking the law. But I’ll let you know if there’s anything I need to pass on to the FBI.’

I winked at him, and he relaxed a bit. I was enjoying getting to know Matt Scott; it felt like something had started when we touched hands, and I wanted to keep him there with me as long as possible. Oh God, Laura Shoeman, did you just flipping wink at Matt Scott? Good grief.

Matt

She winked, oh it was so sexy, and I reduced panic stations to acceptable levels. I tried for a short version of it all, most of it what people knew about, nothing that I could see that Dec or Jay would be unhappy about.

‘Righ then. Whehr tuh start. OK – goh ih. Yehrs ago, prohbly abouh eigh or sohmthing, my bruhther gahv a room tuh this kid on a ruhgby scholarship. Jus a room foh few wehks. Threh yehrs laher he’s stihl thehr, part of the furniture, evryohn’s happy. Then sohm big shih goes down wih them, abouh the tihm I geh told Ihv goh … this.’

I gestured down at myself, to indicate the fucking bastard.

‘Then geh pneumonia. Sohm huge shih hits sohm fucking enormous fan down hehr, big bust up wih kid. Jay lehvs ih all behin an comes tuh Stafford tuh look after meh. I’ve nehly pegged ih in the mehntime. Kid – well ih’s a bih complicated, but lohng an shoht – kid an Jay mahk up, they all realise he wahs part of the fahmly all along, big Chrismus reunion. I wahs thehr, jus ouh of hospital, still trying noh to peg ih. Dec decides if he’s part of the fahmly tha mehns meh too, an starts interfering as if he’s bluhdy Beth or someone. Hahnt goh ohf my case since, fucking bastahd.’

I shrugged.

‘Tha’s ih rehly. Dec’s fahmly buh I dohn know wha tuh cahl him. Noh a bruhther, mohr than a friehnd, he’s hehped meh ouh of sohm deep shih. I’ve hehped him ouh of sohm deep shih tuh. Nehd each other.’

Dec would laugh his socks off if he heard me telling it like that, like it was no big deal, like I didn’t mind him helping me, like I didn’t hate needing him, like I didn’t go out of my way to make it difficult. But he didn’t hear, would never hear, me saying how much he meant to me, not in so many words, so that was OK.

I saw Lau breathe in, as she thought about what I’d said. She looked like she knew exactly who I was talking about, and was considering what to say next.

Laura

I took a deep breath. It was impossible not to recognise the people in Matt’s story. I didn’t pay much attention to sport on the whole, but you couldn’t live in this rugby-mad city and not be aware of Raiders and some of its principal characters. Jay Scott and Declan Summers were names most people knew, and, yes, it would have been four or five years ago when all that trouble hit the headlines and Declan Summers came through A&E while I was doing a bank shift, unconscious, his face beaten to a pulp. Matt was looking at me, waiting for some kind of response.

‘Well, it doesn’t sound that complicated really. As long as it works, for all of you, that’s the important thing.’

That wasn’t the response he needed.

Matt

Yeah, but that wasn’t that reassuring. I needed to know she wasn’t going to go blabbing about how the newest fucking bastard MS recruit was part of the whole Scott-Summers saga. I didn’t want to end up as centre spread in the Mail on Sunday’s ‘Rugby Hero’s Crippled Brother Misery Ooh and While We’re At It His Fuck-up of a Family‘ feature, and I was pretty sure Jay wouldn’t want it either.

‘Yeh, buh yuh know who I’m tahking abouh? Yuh wohn say anything?’

‘Matt, I’m not sure who you think I’m going to tell or what you think I’m going to tell them, but no, it’s your business and your family’s business. Thank you for telling me, though.’

My phone pinged, and I looked at the screen to see a text from Rose. It was one of many I’d ignored since I’d been in the cafe with Laura. The jungle drums must have been working overtime for Rose to get involved, and she must have been really wound up by Beth to have texted, as it took Rose about an hour to find the full stop on the keypad. I predicted that next on the list would be Mum, and I’d have the set.

I wanted to explain to Lau how bloody annoying they all were, never leaving me the fuck alone, always assuming something dire had happened if they couldn’t get hold of me for three minutes.

‘Tha’s Rose now. She’s Dec’s – oh bollocks, see, this is wehr – Rose kind of came wih Dec, she’s noh related to him either buh she thinks she’s his muhm. So dohs he. Dec, he’s noh rehly goh anyohn, he shuhd beh all alohn in the world, buh he jus pulls pehpl to him. He’ll never beh alohn.’

That was more than I should have said, but Lau was bloody good at just sitting there listening, and she made me want to talk. I quickly started a sarky reply back to Rose, but tried to maintain eye contact with Lau so as not to appear too rude. Just rude enough, I suppose.

Laura

He started replying to the text as I spoke, flicking his eyes up to mine to show me he was listening.

‘Do you feel alone?’

Matt’s fingers stopped in mid-text as I finished asking the question. His head remained down, looking at his phone, and I couldn’t see his face, but I saw him tremble slightly and then two tears fell onto the table. I reached out and took his hand again, steeling myself against the surge of heat. It was there, but I was prepared for it and I could ignore it and be distant and professional.

Matt pulled his hand away roughly, reached into his pocket and pulled out a tissue, then wiped his eyes. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and looked me in the eye, anger on his face.

Matt

I stopped in mid-text as she asked the question. Fuck, she’d managed to get to the very heart of me with four words, and it flooded over me. Before, I’d been on my own out of choice, going it alone, Matt the Lad, playing around, no ties required thanks very much. Now, although it was my fault Jules was gone, it wasn’t my choice and yeah, although I had started to get over her, had come to terms with some of it, and I tried really hard not to beat myself up about it – well I still missed her, or the Jules shaped hole where she had been, the togetherness, the closeness, and I did feel alone. I pushed people away because I was scared to depend on them, and being away from work and all the camaraderie I shared with my team just compounded things.

My eyes misted over, shit shit shit, and I couldn’t see the screen on the phone. Before I could stop them, two tears plopped onto the table, the bastards. I felt Laura take my hand again, but although the electricity was still there, it still took me aback, it made me angry; angry that she’d called me on feeling lonely, when I wasn’t prepared to admit that, not to myself, and certainly not to her. Shit, I’d only just met her, who did she think she was? She was as bad as all the rest of them.

I pulled my hand away from hers, found a tissue and scrubbed my face dry. Then I looked her in the eyes, in those angel’s eyes, those eyes that I wanted to be mine, and I nearly let her off, but it was still there, the anger, covering up the loneliness, and the shame about the loneliness, and I couldn’t just let it go, couldn’t just let her get away with making me cry in front of her. I took a deep breath, then vented.

‘Fuck yuh, clever medical pehpl. Thihk yuh know evrything. Yuh know fuck all abouh meh.’

I expected an equally angry reaction, maybe for her to pick up her bag and leave. I fixed my eyes on my phone, trying to finish my text to Rose, so I could appear unconcerned when she walked out.

Laura

If Matt had been speaking in code, which he was in a way, he would have been saying ‘Yes I feel alone, but I feel bad about feeling alone when my family love me so much, and I really wish you hadn’t pointed this out to me and made me cry, thank you very much.’ Maybe there would have been a bit more swearing. But he wasn’t ready for me to be telling him how he was feeling, so I stayed quiet for a while, sipping my drink, as he finished his text. He hadn’t got up and walked out, so something was keeping him there.

‘Another coffee?’

He looked up from his phone, surprised, expecting me to have taken offence at his words.

Matt

The mildness of her tone of voice took me by surprise, and I looked up, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t used to people just accepting it when I went off on one. That was the whole point of going off on one, that it was a bit unacceptable; how else was I supposed to get people to stop bloody going on?

‘Oh, er …’

‘It’s just, I’m going to have my dinner here, they do a great salad selection, I can get you something while I order if you like.’

It was as if I hadn’t just sworn at her, almost as if she was going to give me space to think about what I was going to do next, and I felt my anger cooling. If she went up to order more coffee, I could finish my text and get myself together a bit, and maybe we could start again. And maybe I could try a kind of apology too.

Laura

It was mainly a diversion; Matt obviously felt uncomfortable expressing his emotions in public. He could get himself together while I went up to the counter, and decide if he was staying or going.

Matt

‘OK then, another ohn of these. Buh leh meh pay. Ohnly fair. NHS buys me cohfee, I buy NHS cohfee. Mehbe jus yuh, noh the whole NHS. Cahnt run tuh threh million cohfees.’

I started to feel in my pocket for my wallet, but it wasn’t there. I felt in the other pocket, not there either.

‘Fuck! I’ve lohs my wallet.’

I looked all around the table and underneath it, felt in my pockets again, but it wasn’t anywhere on or near my person. The thought of having to cancel all my cards on top of the seriously long day I’d had was making me panic.

‘Shih! Fuck!’

Laura

‘OK, don’t freak, maybe it fell out in my car. Do you want to go back and have a look?’

The panic receded a little from his face in the light of a possible explanation, but he stood up immediately and nodded.

Matt

Oh, please let it be in her car. I clung to it as the most likely explanation. If I was lucky, she might offer to take me home too. I was getting more tired by the minute, and didn’t fancy trying to get a taxi, or the worse alternative, calling Dec. I stood up and nodded.

‘Sohry, wahs goin tuh buy yuh dihner. Sohry I wahs rude jus now.’

It sounded like I was apologising because she could help me out, rather than because I was sorry, but I was so worried about my wallet, I didn’t really care. She waved it all away anyway, like she was used to people telling her to fuck off. Maybe she was; if she was as blunt with all her patients as she was with me, I expect it happened all the time.

Laura

I waved his apologies away. I was so used to people telling me to fuck off when I hit the nail on the head, it hardly registered any more I didn’t really like swearing, something to do with my upbringing, but I didn’t take it personally and Matt seemed to use that particular form of release more than most people.

I collected my bag from under the table and waved to Bridget behind the counter as we left. Mean Bean stayed open until nine, so I could go back for my tea later, once I’d helped Matt find his wallet. As we left the coffee shop, though, Matt stumbled against me, nearly knocking me over. I righted myself, then put my hand out to steady him as he lurched again.

‘Matt? Do you need to go back inside?’

He pulled himself upright and ran his hands over his pale face, taking deep breaths.

‘Fuck. Noh, jus need tuh geh hohm. I geh tired. Busy day. Fuck.’

As we set off along the pavement, Matt started to crumple again, and I hastily grabbed his arm and placed it over my shoulder. His pace became slower and slower, and his weight over my shoulder increased until I was almost carrying him by the time we got to my house. I decided I would do both of us an injury if I tried to get him in my car, and he didn’t look like he was in a fit state to tell me where he lived.

Thinking on my feet, the only real option was to try to get him into my house. Struggling under his weight more with every step, aware of curious glances from people walking past but beating them back with a furious scowl, I made it to the front door. I propped Matt against me while I hooked my keys out of my bag, then tried to persuade him over the threshold. He was barely awake.

‘Come on Matt, you need to lift your feet up over this step.’

‘Mmn … hosh … bo …’

I tapped his right leg, which lifted up and over the front step and into the hall way. One more leg to go. He mumbled some more nonsense as I bent down to try and position his left leg. I suddenly felt a hand on my bum and stood up quickly, feeling it fall away.

‘Hm nihs ahrs.’

A quick look at his face showed his eyes closed. Great, he was feeling me up in his sleep – obviously a skilled practitioner. Bending down a bit more carefully I tapped and tugged on his left leg until he moved that into the house as well, then I placed his arm across my shoulder again.

My house was an upside-down house; my bedroom was on the ground floor, and you had to go downstairs to the kitchen and living room. The novelty wore off very quickly. But it meant I wasn’t going to be able to get Matt into the lounge unless I tossed him down the stairs. He was going to have to go on my bed.

‘Come on, lovey, just a few more steps and we can both have a rest.’

I pulled on the arm slung across my shoulder, tugged on his waist and kicked at his shoes and ankles until he started to move his legs. It was painfully slow progress, but we made it eventually, and I sat him down on the edge of the bed. Using some unorthodox handling manoeuvres I shoved Matt into a roughly horizontal position and made sure he had a pillow under his head, then sank to the floor, panting and cursing my woeful fitness levels.

As I got my breath back, Matt’s phone rang and it occurred to me that, as it looked like he might be here for a while, I should really let someone know where he was. I thought about answering his phone, but apart from not wanting to rummage in his pockets, I had no way of knowing if the person calling him was someone he would want me to inform of his whereabouts. I didn’t really want to announce to some random insurance salesman that I had Matt Scott asleep on my bed, or indeed to some ex-girlfriend, or current girlfriend. The idea of Matt having a current girlfriend unnerved me a bit, and I was beginning to wish I’d made some different choices when Matt started to slow down.

Vital signs! Nurse Laura suddenly remembered to do some physical checks to make sure Matt was actually alright and not in need of medical assistance. I checked his pulse and breathing; they both seemed fine, and I remembered the sphygmomanometer, which is a show-offy name for a blood pressure measurer, on the counter in the kitchen waiting to be taken to the office. I would be able to check his blood pressure too.

I fetched the bag, wound the band round Matt’s arm, and began pumping it up. As the pressure increased, Matt roused a bit and tried to brush the sensation away.

‘Fuck ohf.’

‘Nearly done.’

I couldn’t help a bit of bright and breezy nursey reassurance, it was ingrained in me.

Once the blood pressure was done, with no apparent problems, Matt didn’t stir, and I went back to pondering how to contact someone about him.

I wondered if Beth Scott would be my best bet. It was unlikely their home number would be listed, with her husband being a coach at Raiders, but I thought I knew which school her son went to and was pretty sure he was in the same class as my friend’s nephew, Jake. It was a bit of a long shot, but I tried Marian, and asked her to call her sister and see if she could get a number for me.

While I waited, I went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea, feeling very weird about the man asleep on my bed upstairs, and even weirder about how twitchy and flustered it was making me. I couldn’t decide whether to go and wait with him or not; I finished my tea while I thought about it, then decided that he might not know where he was when he woke up, so I should really be there to explain.

I grabbed a magazine and made myself comfortable in the armchair in the corner of the room; it wasn’t anything to do with being able to watch him while he slept, it was purely practical. He had lovely long eyelashes that curled onto his cheeks. Totally coincidental.

While I was in the middle of an article about the latest Hollywood break-ups, the silence was shattered by a loud ping from my phone. A glance at the screen announced a text from Kate – oh dammit, I’d forgotten to text to say I was back safely. I quickly checked that Matt hadn’t woken – he hadn’t even twitched – and glanced at the time. It was six fifty, and I’d told her I’d be in touch by half six. Kate would be really worried.

‘RU OK?’

‘Yeh soz forgot 2 txt. Home now’

‘Wot no details?’

‘Ring u l8r xx’

I hoped that would satisfy her for the time being; there was going to be an awkward phone call with a lot of explaining and a lot of apologising later on.

A short while later Marian called back with a long story about how she’d managed to track down Beth Scott’s phone number. After I’d listened to her tale and thanked her many times, I dialled the number.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi, is that Beth?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hi Beth, you might not remember me, my name’s Laura Shoeman –’

‘Laura! We worked together on Belton Ward a long time ago didn’t we?’

I was amazed at her memory.

‘Yes –’

‘Didn’t I see you at the Living with MS session this morning?’

‘Yes.’

‘How lovely to hear from you. How are you?’

‘I’m good thanks. I’m actually ringing about your brother-in-law.’

‘Matty?’

A note of concern came into her voice.

‘Is he alright?’

‘Yes, he’s fine, nothing to worry about, I just thought someone should know where he is. He’s with me at home at the moment, we were having a chat in a café after the MS day today, and he got really tired, went down like a sack of potatoes, and I live just round the corner, and well, he’s asleep right now –’

‘Oh! I’ll be right there, where are you?’

The last thing I wanted, I was surprised to find, was someone to come and take him away. I wanted to be here when he woke up, so he could be all grateful and … what? Laura Shoeman, what on earth is going on?

‘No, no, I don’t think there’s any need for that, I’ve checked him over, his stats are all OK, he’s just tired himself out. Once he wakes up he’ll be fine. It’s just he was telling me about his family and how much you all worry, and I thought if you were trying to get hold of him …’

‘Oh Laura thank you. I’m sure he won’t thank you when he wakes up, he doesn’t like people fussing over him, but that’s so lovely of you. Are you sure he’s OK? You don’t want us to come and get him?’

‘No, no, I think it’s all under control.’

I felt very far from under control myself, but I meant the situation. Yes, the situation. That was completely under control. Completely.

‘Well please ring if you need us.’

‘I will. Thanks.’

‘Thank you Laura.’

Matt continued sleeping and I went back to my magazine, tearing my eyes away from him, until my phone rang again a short time later.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi Laura. It’s Jay Scott here, Matt’s brother.’

‘Oh! Hello.’

Well this was a turn up for the books. It’s not every day a local sporting hero calls you up on your personal mobile number. I kept my cool rather well, I thought.

‘I heard you’ve got my big lump of a brother lying around cluttering up the place, and wondered if you needed a few strong lads to come and shift him for you?’

Well, much as the image of Jay Scott and his team trooping into my bedroom was the stuff of fantasies, the thought of the sort of language I might be subjected to from Matt should he wake up during the process decided me against it.

‘Oh, no, Jay, thanks, I think he’s better sleeping it off. It wouldn’t be a good idea to move him while he’s still asleep, he might wake up and try to fight it. And once he does wake up he’ll be fine on his own, I’m sure.’

‘Are you positive? Matty’s done this before, worn himself out, and he can be asleep for bloody hours.’

‘It’s not a problem. He’s no trouble.’

I felt like I was discussing a dog I was looking after. I had to admit, just to myself, to a tingle of … something … that made me a bit thrilled to be the one looking after Matt Scott, who certainly was no dog.

‘OK, then, but seriously, if you change your mind, I can send the boys round.’

‘Good to know, thanks.’

None of my text bleeps or conversations seemed to have disturbed Matt, so I stayed where I was, just totally coincidentally watching his face. For any signs of movement or waking or medical distress, obviously.

After a while, though, there were things I had to do. I had finished my magazine, and had no form of entertainment in my bedroom other than watching Matt sleep. Attractive as that prospect was, I was going to have to ring Kate soon, or she would drive over and start banging on my door. I didn’t want to leave Matt to wake up on his own, but also didn’t want him to wake up and hear me discussing him with Kate, who wasn’t his biggest fan.

I decided to leave Matt a brief note explaining where he was and where I was, and let him sort himself out if he came to while I was out of the room. With any luck, he’d still be asleep when I’d finished with Kate.

I walked downstairs, picked up the phone from the handset at the bottom of the steps and dialled Kate.

‘Lau, about bloody time, I’ve not had any tea yet, I’ve been waiting for you to bloody ring me and tell me everything.’

‘Sorry Kate, I’ve only just sat down myself.’ I lied.

‘So are you telling me the Matt Scott has got MS?’

‘It appears so.’

‘Bloody hell! There are some, not a million miles away from the MS Service, who may be heard to say ‘serves him damn well right’, although they wouldn’t be me as that is a thought unworthy of a health professional.’

I decided to be prim and a bit patronising.

‘Yes it is unworthy, Kate. I wouldn’t wish MS on my worst enemy. Nobody deserves it.’

‘Oh stop being so bloody sanctimonious Lau. You know what I mean. I don’t know the bloke personally, but he’s made poor Rach’s life a bloody misery for nearly two years. And countless other poor women who –’

‘Who probably knew his reputation, knew what they were getting themselves into and thought they could change him. It takes two, Kate.’

She sputtered down the phone at me, as stunned by my defence of the Evil Git Matt Scott as I was.

‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You’ve sat through as many of Rach’s drunken sob sessions as I have.’

‘I know, and all I’m saying is it was a long time ago, it was one night, get over it. Although I might be a bit nicer to her face about it.’

Kate was silent for a moment. I wondered how annoyed she was with me. We had a ‘girls stick together’ vibe in the team, and I was breaking out of the mould. Why exactly are you breaking out of the mould, Laura Shoeman? Didn’t these girls pick you up after all your friends deserted you in the wake of Bryan the Smackhead, and don’t they deserve a little more loyalty and a little less … whatever it was I was doing?

‘Know what, Lau, you’re right. I mean, he is a bastard and everything, but it was a long time ago. Maybe she should get over it. Or get some help if she can’t. Set up a Matt Scott’s Castoffs support group or something.’

Phew, so she thought it was a good idea too. Maybe I was being fair and just, instead of inexplicably defending the man who had caused Rach so much heartache.

‘Ha ha, good idea. I hear there’d be lots of potential recruits.’

I was relieved that Kate had seen my side. The four of us worked closely and got on really well together, and the occasional fall-out we’d had in the past made things tricky for a while until we’d worked things out.

‘So, you’ve still got some gossing to do, lady. Tell me all. How did you come across him? Did he ring the helpline or something?’

‘No – didn’t you see him at the LMS day?’

‘No! Was he there? Bloody hell, Lau, I never saw him before, you should have pointed at him and said in a loud voice ‘that’s the scumbag who broke our Rachel’s heart’. All the regulars would have duffed him up in a second. Gloria would have hit him with her handbag, he’d have never got up again.’

Kate hadn’t joined the MS team until after Rachel’s one-night-stand disaster, so she had never seen Matt in action. However, the amount of informal counselling sessions we had all given Rach since meant she was an honorary member of the ‘We Hate Matt Scott’ club, and I knew I was going to have to play along, even though it felt strange, and I wanted to defend him.

‘Ha ha, that would have been worth it. He came in late, sat right at the back near the door.’

‘Oh – was he talking to you at lunchtime?’

‘Yes. He liked ‘the sex bit’ apparently.’

Kate tutted. ‘Dickhead.’

‘I know.’

‘Bloody good looking dickhead though.’

‘I know.’

‘I thought to myself, aye aye, Lau’s in there, I thought, especially when I saw him waiting for you after. But I didn’t know he was a bloody dickhead then. Bad luck, Lau.’

‘Mm.’

Was ‘mm’ non-committal enough?

‘So anyway, how did you end up in bloody Mean Bean with him? That’s like, two seconds from your house isn’t it? You’re sure he wasn’t trying it on?’

‘Oh, well, he came back after everyone had gone, asked if we could go for a coffee. He wanted to talk.’

‘I bet he did. Did he mean a coffee or … a coffee?’

I could imagine Kate waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

‘He meant a coffee and a chat about MS, as advertised on the helpline leaflet.’

Prim Laura had re-entered the building.

‘Alright Miss Prissy Pants, you can’t blame me for wondering, it’s not like he hasn’t got a bloody reputation or anything.’

‘Anyway, he’s got a lot on his plate, he opened up a bit, cried a bit –’

‘You made him cry! Oh Rach’s gonna love this.’

‘Kate, you can’t, that’s really unfair on him.’

‘Oh bollocks Lau, you almost sound like you feel sorry for him.’

‘It’s my job to feel sorry for him.’

‘It’s your job to act like you feel sorry for him. Your private opinions outside of NHS time are for your personal use. OK, OK, I’ll hold fire on calling Rach for a bit. So. He had a plateful, he opened, he cried. Then?’

‘Then …’

I wasn’t about to tell Kate that Matt was asleep upstairs. That would lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

‘… then he got tired and we left. Bit boring in the end.’

It was so close to the truth, it really wasn’t a lie. I never lied. I had just told Kate the truth; I’d missed a few bits out, that was all.

‘Yeah, anti-climax or what. So, is he signed up? Do we need to vet the attendance list at the next clinic or have bouncers at the support groups when Rach is on? Bloody hell, it’s a good job she didn’t cover for An today, there would have been bloodshed.’

‘No, he’s not signed up to anything, he’s still coming to terms with it all I think. He doesn’t seem like much of a joiner-inner.’

‘I could have bloody told you that. Wanker.’

‘OK, Kate, tone it down a bit. This is a man with MS we’re talking about, he may well use our services in the future. You should have a bit more respect.’

Kate had pushed too many buttons – buttons she couldn’t have possibly known she was pushing, buttons I was a bit surprised to find were there to be pushed – and she’d then sworn just a bit too much as well. In retaliation, I’d used my full hoity-toity one-pay-grade-above-her authority and then regretted it.

‘I’m sorry Kate, that was uncalled for. It’s been a long day, when all I’d planned to do was paint my toenails. Sorry flower, ignore me. Just need a bath and a glass of something extremely alcoholic. Go and get your tea, I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘OK Lau, no probs. Sure you’re OK?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Go and have a bloody long soak and pour yourself something industrial strength.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, maybe I’ll try some of that purple stuff Nick left behind. Night, Kate.’

‘Night, Lau.’

Sending Kate off to have her tea reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything yet either, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to make it back to Mean Bean before they closed. I rummaged in the freezer for something quick and microwaveable. All I could find was a lentil casserole, which didn’t fill me with joyful anticipation but would at least fill me with proteiny goodness; probably a fair amount of gas too unless I was lucky.

I shoved the container in the microwave and ate it while it was too hot, burning my tongue. While I ate and sucked cooling air into my mouth, I texted Anna to find out how she was feeling. She replied that she felt a bit better, and might try to make it in tomorrow or the next day.

As I was disposing of the casserole container and rinsing the fork (oh the joys of microwave meals), I heard a noise from overhead. I froze for a moment, instantly imagining axe-wielding intruders – one of the disadvantages of an upside down house was being on constant high alert due to the front door being so far away – then I remembered Matt. While I was eating, I’d been thinking about something I wanted to add to my LMS presentation, and I’d forgotten who was lying on my bed for a moment. He must have woken up.

72. At last

In which eyes meet across a crowded room.

Laura

The last person I expected or needed in my bed after a long, hard day telling people with multiple sclerosis how to go about ‘Living with Multiple Sclerosis’ was Matthew Robert Scott.

I knew him by reputation, had been ignored (along with most of the other women my age, hair colour and, indeed, build) by him at parties in favour of the current barely-out-of-her-teens, blondie-blonde, stick-thin hotty, had heard about his love ’em and leave ’em antics across the city, including a tale from one of my younger patients, and knew about his recent fall from grace a week after moving in with the Ice Queen, Julia Marran.

What I didn’t know, before Anna called and changed my life, was that Matthew Robert Scott had multiple sclerosis.

It was a rainy day in spring when I woke up with a jolt as my phone rang. I grabbed it from the bedside table and looked at the screen. Anna. Damn. She was going to ask me to cover for her; there went my lazy day off. I put on my best sympathetic friend voice.

‘Hi flower, still no better?’

A hacking cough bounced off my eardrum.

‘Doh, I cad hardly breathe.’

‘Oh poor you. You stay in bed, I’ll do the LMS day. Do you want me to ring Patrick?’

‘Oh would yuh?’ Sniff. ‘Yuh’re ad aygel.’ Hack, cough.

And so, instead of a relaxing day spent painting my toenails, doing my laundry, catching up with the film I’d recorded at the weekend and making, and quite possibly eating most of, a large batch of chocolate chip cookies, all I had to look forward to was a busy day in a church hall, loading and unloading the car, setting up computers, projectors and flip-charts, putting out chairs and, oh, the bit I actually enjoyed: talking to people.

I didn’t really mind; we were a team and helped each other out all the time. Anna had covered for me at short notice a few weeks ago when my mum fell off her stepladder, we had all rallied round for each other many times.

There were five of us in the MS service – Patrick was the doctor, two nurses (Anna and me), Rachel was a Physio, and Kate was an Occupational Therapist. We did a lot of support group work, as well as visiting people at home who were in more or less advanced stages of the disease, and seeing people at outpatient appointments.

This ‘Living with Multiple Sclerosis’ day was something we’d developed a couple of years ago, and was popular with the local groups. We’d done it so often now that it was well rehearsed, and we could get to the nitty gritty for people without being sidetracked by nervousness, or derailed by problems with technology. If the computer packed up, we did it from memory.

Knowing the session so well meant I could drift and watch the people in the hall while Patrick was doing his introductions. I liked seeing who was there, whether there were any familiar faces, people I’d met at home or in the clinics; it gave me a feel for how the day was going to go.

On that day, the chairs were about two thirds full; not a bad crowd, good mix of older and younger, newbies and old hands, people with MS and people who cared for people with MS. As my eyes wandered over the people sitting there listening to Patrick introduce us all, I caught sight of some movement at the door. A tall, sandy-haired man came in, slowly and hesitantly, followed by a woman who seemed to be herding him into the room. As I paid closer attention, I recognised them both and was puzzled at what they were doing here, together.

Matt

There she was. In my memory, it’s as if a beam of sunlight shone through one of the windows and illuminated her, but that’s ridiculous and it didn’t happen; it was bloody raining, the sunbeams are only in my mind. I stood in the doorway, looking at her, with Beth right behind me trying to block my exit. I don’t suppose it lasted more than a few seconds, but I felt my world shift on its axis. It was her. I didn’t know what that meant, except it was deep, profound. I’d found her. I didn’t even know I’d been looking, but it was as if I recognised her, this woman I’d been trying to find my entire life, and my whole being went ‘oh there she is’.

I felt Beth prodding me from behind.

‘Go on, then Matty, go in, have a look.’

I found myself stepping into the hall, where the thing had begun already, then taking another step, then another. Beth was right up my arse trying her hardest to push me further in, and in the end, it pissed me right off, and I turned round and whispered to her.

‘Stohp fucking shoving, Beth.’

‘Well are you going in or not?’

‘Ih’s alrehdy stahted.’

‘That doesn’t matter, you’re here now. Sit at the back here look.’

I couldn’t tell her I was going to stay, that nothing but nothing on this earth was going to make me leave now I’d found her; I had a front to maintain.

‘Ih’m not stahying.’

‘Just sit down for a minute. Wait for the rain to stop. Come on, we’re disturbing everyone.’

Beth shooed me in front of her and I turned round and glared at her, but went towards the chairs, picking one close to the door at the back of the room. Beth sat next to me and put her hand on my arm, as if she was my bloody minder or something, but I ignored Beth so I could look at her, the one I’d found.

Laura

The woman was Beth Scott. She had been a nurse a long time ago, before she had her children, and we’d worked together briefly on the Neurology ward at the hospital. The man was Matt Scott – of course! Scott. They must be related, somehow.

There seemed to be a heated, though whispered, argument going on between them, which caused a few heads near them to turn. It was quickly over and resulted in both of them sitting down on chairs on the back row, as close to the door as it was possible to be. Beth had her hand on Matt’s arm, almost as if she was holding him there. Matt had his arms folded, his legs crossed and a thunderous look on his face.

I wondered what they were doing here. Maybe they knew someone who had MS – surely it wasn’t one of them who had it? I hadn’t seen either of their names on any of our lists, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. As I was wondering, Patrick introduced me and it was my turn to speak to the group, so I stopped thinking about them.

Matt

The bloke who seemed to be in charge was introducing everyone, but I’d missed her name with coming in late and arguing with Beth, and I was too far away to read her name badge with my fucking cripple eyes. After a couple of minutes of saying who everyone was, and telling everyone what time lunch was, where the toilets were, and what to do if there was a fire, he looked over at her, the one I’d found, and told us that Laura was going to talk to us about a topic many of us found difficult: Sex.

She got up, Laura, as I rolled her name around in my head, and she pointed her remote control at the projector, beginning her presentation.

Bearing in mind my recent past, I should have been listening to the talk to find out why I was having no luck in the trouser department, and what I could do about it, but I hardly heard a word she said. I just looked at her. I couldn’t work it out, why I felt like I’d come home, like she was the missing part of my jigsaw, like she was the clockwork that made me tick, oh God, how had it happened? I so didn’t believe in all that soulmate shit, in love at first sight, in karma, kismet, none of that, but here I was, heart beating faster than it had beat for a long time, looking at the woman who I knew I was going to be with for the rest of my life.

I know, it sounds completely mad loony crazy, it does to me now, when I think about it, how it was then. And she hadn’t even looked at me – oh, I think she might have glanced my way when I first came in, but most people had looked at me, however briefly, because I was late and made so much fuss trying to argue quietly with Beth – but she had given no sign that she realised she’d been found by me.

So I sat and stared at Laura, totally justifiably as she was giving a talk. I drank her in, her shoulder length not quite blonde hair, her ever-present smile, her eyes, which frustrated me because I couldn’t quite make out their colour, her curves which pushed gently at the nurse’s tunic she wore and undulated as she pointed the remote every couple of minutes. She was Laura. She was perfect.

I barely heard Beth whisper to me that she was going to go, and to let her know if I needed picking up later. It should have been my opportunity to leave without being hassled about it, but I wasn’t going anywhere.

The perfect woman, Laura, finished her talk, and another nurse did a quiz, but I didn’t pay any attention to it. It wasn’t so easy to stare, now, but I looked over at Laura as often as I could. I was sure she was going to look up, see me gazing at her, walk over and … what? Our eyes would meet, followed quickly by our hands, our lips and tongues – oh for fuck’s sake, it was all going Mills and Boon in my head. Get a grip, Matt.

And then it was lunch time. Another opportunity to slip away – Beth wouldn’t have expected me to last even this long without her there policing my every move, and staying for the whole morning would hopefully win me a few days grace from being plagued about shit. But I didn’t take it.

I wanted to go and talk to Laura, but there was a steady stream of people who were asking her questions while she ate her sandwiches, and I didn’t fancy getting in a queue. Finally, she was on her own and I seized my opportunity. I’d edged gradually closer, moving to seats further forwards, feeling like a teenager as I awaited my moment. As the last person finished talking to her and walked away, I stood up and sauntered over as casually as I could manage. I hoped she couldn’t tell how fast my heart was beating, or how tongue-tied I felt. Ha, it would be hard to distinguish tongue-tiedness from the usual unintelligible bollocks, so I was probably safe.

Close up, I was amazed there weren’t sparks coming off me, she was so gorgeous. Her hair, which had looked almost blonde from the back of the hall, was a kind of honey colour which reflected the light in a myriad shades of gold and bronze; her eyes were – well, I’ve never been able to pin a colour on Lau’s eyes. She calls them grey-blue, but to me they’ve always mysteriously reflected her moods and her surroundings. On that day, they changed from blue to green to grey and back to blue as I talked to her. I was entranced; she was a fair bit shorter than me, not surprising as I am quite tall, and I estimated the top of her head would be nicely in kissing distance when I held her tight. She wasn’t skinny (Lau, you were and are perfect, despite your obsession with your shape and size), but she wasn’t fat, and the swell of her body inside her uniform did all sorts of things to my imagination. And this was all before I even said a word to her.

Naturally I tried all my best Matt the Lad moves; it was the only way I knew how to be, really, and I was so far out of my comfort zone in this place, that I needed something familiar to fall back on.

Laura

When I next had a chance to look up, Beth had gone, leaving a sullen looking Matt on his own on the back row. I forgot about him until he approached me in the lunch break.

Matt

‘Heh.’

Yeah, a slow start, but I didn’t want to scare her off by declaring my undying right away.

‘Hello, I’m Laura.’

‘Matt. Jus wahted tuh say thahks.’

She had a very direct gaze, and it jolted me so close up. I wondered if she’d seen the twitch I felt my body make – oh, but she would be used to fucking cripples twitching all over the place, us all having a neurological disease and all. I couldn’t believe she was just being, well, normal, while I was having to hold on to the inside of my pockets to prevent myself from throwing my arms around her.

Laura

His accent sounded a bit northern, and had the familiar slur of someone whose facial muscles weren’t firing on all cylinders. Oh. My. God. Matt Scott was the one with MS! It did a weird thing to my brain, I’m sure there’s a name for it, where you have one way of thinking going on (Matt Scott is not a man deserving of my time or sympathy) versus something that makes that way of thinking impossible (people with MS are deserving of both my time and my sympathy, and in fact it is my job to give them both). I felt things start to shift in my head, and paid more attention to the man in front of me.

Close up, I was surprised to find myself noticing that he was startlingly handsome – I’d seen him across a fair few rooms in my time, but couldn’t remember him ever being in touching distance. I felt a bit of a thrill go through me – kind of a ‘phwoar’ moment, mixed with a bit of starstruck. Get a grip Laura Shoeman, it’s Matt Scott. He’s a git, you know that.

For those of you who are wondering, yes, even though it was a few years ago now, I was a bit old for the clubs and parties where I’d had the dubious pleasure of watching Matt Scott work the room. Thanks for reminding me. Rachel, however, is younger than me, and after one of my romances limped to a halt like all the others, she had taken me under her wing in an attempt to – how did she put it – ‘get you back out there, Lau’. I’d gone along with it for a while, trying to ‘get back out there’, as the alternative seemed to be online dating which terrified me, but the whole club and party scene was exhausting and, finally, boring.

But here was Matt Scott Party Animal, standing in front of me, and I could, actually, see what all the fuss was about. Oh, he’d said something. Was it ‘thanks’?

‘Oh, you’re welcome. All of it so far, or any bit in particular?’

He had a very direct gaze, and it was solemnly focussed on me as he spoke.

Matt

‘Maihly the sex bih.’

I wondered if she’d blush; I loved a good blush. But she didn’t even blink.

Laura

If he’d been trying to embarrass me, he was barking up the wrong tree, as the reason I did ‘the sex bit’ was because I was incredibly hard to embarrass. I didn’t blush, squirm or have any other outward signs of inner turmoil, and indeed was pretty comfortable talking to most people about most things. Tutting inwardly, and reminding myself sternly to ignore those rather lovely eyes, because here was a man with MS, I remained professional.

‘Oh, thanks, it is a bit of a specialism of mine.’

He raised an eyebrow.

Matt

She was talking my language.

‘Rehly?’

‘Really. Certificates and everything. I haven’t seen you here before. Do you belong to the support group?’

Oh, she wanted to talk about the fucking bastard, not about me. A bit of swearing was in order, then, and a bit more Matt the Lad.

Laura

A look of irritation skated across his face; I hadn’t played along with his game and now I was talking shop.

‘Fuck noh. Had tuh beh frogmarched hehr tuhday. Noh offehce. Ih’s betteh than I thoht. ‘Speciahly the sex bih.’

He tried a wink. It fell on stony ground – I had the upper hand in that I knew of Matt Scott and how he operated around women, and he had no idea we’d ever drifted in and out of the same circles. I was starting to get my head round the conflict in my brain regarding Matt Scott having MS and beginning to think straight again.

Matt

I even winked, I was so desperate. Nothing doing; she just looked at me and nodded.

Laura

‘Is sex a particular worry for you?’ I asked, innocently.

Jackpot. He actually blushed. It might not make up for what he did to Rach, but seeing him even slightly uncomfortable was a small victory

Matt

I actually felt myself go red, how had she turned this around on me? I quickly recovered my composure. I wasn’t going to be embarrassed into shuffling away with my head down.

‘Noh. Not a wohry. Mohr an ihterest.’

I tried a flirty smile, but these days I could never be sure what weird shapes my mouth was going to make, and from the irritated glance that flitted across her face, I might not have been completely successful.

Laura

He managed another lascivious leer, which was impressive given the probable current state of his facial nerves.

‘Are you in a relationship at the moment?’

I had intended to embarrass him some more, in the guise of a simple question, but immediately regretted it as I remembered the break up with the Ice Queen as told to me gleefully by Rach, one of Matt’s one night stands. I felt a twinge of guilt, though, as a shadow rolled over his face.

Matt

Fuck, she got to the point, didn’t she. Last thing I wanted to do was talk to her about Jules.

‘Noh. Wahs tho. Mehsy. Receht. Sohry, not yuhr wohry. Anyway, jus wahted tuh say thahks.’

I started to turn away, not quite admitting defeat, but maybe admitting that she wasn’t in the same place as I was right now, and I was going to have to put in some hard work – harder than Matt the Lad was capable of – when she said my name.

Laura

He turned away, but something made me call out to him, to keep him there a bit longer. His eyes were … just stunning, and I wanted to look at them some more, to see if that sadness in them disappeared.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh?’

‘Do you have people you can talk you?’

He seemed to find this amusing, as a lopsided grin appeared.

Matt

Oh, if only I didn’t. I grimaced at her.

‘Yeh, plehty of chat, thahks. My fahmly – greht at chat. Nehver fucking lehv yuh alohn wen yuh wahn it.’

‘Well, sometimes wanting to be left alone and needing to be left alone are two different things.’

I couldn’t help laughing, it was what Dec said all the time when he was bugging the living shit out of me.

‘Yeh, tehl meh abouh ih.’

She held out a business card with the NHS logo and a phone number on it.

‘Just in case you need someone who’s not family. Are you staying for the afternoon?’

‘Wha’s on? Mohr sex?’

I couldn’t resist it, I really wanted to see that blush, but it still wasn’t forthcoming, and she rolled her eyes impatiently, as if making jokes about sex was the most immature thing someone could do. Maybe she had a point. OK, Matt the Lad not noticeably working, maybe I should award him early retirement and try a different approach. Giving up not an option.

Laura

I rolled my eyes. Incredibly attractive or not, he had a reputation as sex mad, and he was doing nothing to show he didn’t deserve it. Wow, did I just call Matt Scott incredibly attractive? Laura Shoeman, it’s been too long since you had a man, you’ve seen a pair of pretty eyes, and now you’re letting your hormones run away with you. I pulled myself together and answered him.

‘No, you’ve had your thrills for today. I think we’ve got a care agency after lunch …’

This met with a scowl.

Matt

Oh great, just what I need, find out who I can pay to wipe my arse in the future.

Laura

‘… and then Peter – he’s great, he’s an ex-rugby player – he’s going to talk to us about his experiences with MS.’

The scowl was replaced with a more interested look.

Matt

Oh, that sounded more promising.

‘Pehter who?’

‘Peter Jones. He used to play for Raiders.’

‘Noh way. I knoh him, or my bruhther dohs. I dihnt knoh he had …’

The fucking bastard MS. I still couldn’t say it, after all these years. Especially after all these years.

Laura

Matt left the sentence hanging in a way that told me more about how he was dealing with his MS than words could have. He couldn’t even say it.

‘Really? Does your brother play rugby?’

Matt

You are kidding me. I loved it when people didn’t know Jay.

‘Used tuh. Cohches now. Jay Scott.’

Laura

‘Ohh.’

Several pennies dropped at once.

‘You’re Beth’s brother-in-law?’

I should have made the connections before.

Matt

Oh, well that didn’t last long. Most people knew who Jay was, seems she was no different, although at least she didn’t say ‘you’re Jay’s brother’. Can’t have everything I suppose.

‘Yeh. Yuh knoh her?’

‘Worked with her a long time ago. I saw you come in with her this morning. Is she the one who frogmarched you here?’

I nodded. ‘Yeh. She’s bluhdy bossy.’

‘Most of us nurses are, we have to keep the doctors in line.’

Laura was at least now sounding friendly and chatty, but as she spoke, I saw the guy who had introduced the morning approaching, and it seemed like our conversation was over.

Laura

I said this to tease Patrick, who was approaching to gather the troops for the afternoon session.

‘It’s been great to chat, Matt. I hope you can stay this afternoon, and maybe we’ll see you at something else?’

I found myself desperate to give him another event he could attend. A small part of me, that I was trying hard to ignore, really wanted to make sure I’d see him again. I handed him a flyer advertising MS Society Local Socials. He glanced at it briefly, smiled his thanks and stuffed it in his pocket with the contact card, where I suspected it would stay, then walked back to his seat, leaving me trying to sort through a whole load of weird feelings.

Matt

She handed me a flyer which had the title ‘MS Society Local Socials’. I barely glanced at it, smiled and stuffed it in my pocket, where I intended it to stay until I found somewhere to dispose of it unobtrusively. Laura or no Laura, I wasn’t going to be attending any further fucking bastard all-mates-together gatherings.

I sat back down as the afternoon session began, part of me laughing at myself. I was only there for Laura, I wasn’t interested in hearing about care agencies and I wasn’t really that interested in listening to one of Jay’s old team mates tell me what a fucking cripple he was these days either, although I had met him a couple of times and he seemed like a decent bloke.

Now I had spoken to Laura, a little speck of realism had begun to creep in to my overactive imagination. What I felt about her hadn’t diminished in the slightest – that imaginary sunbeam was still shining on her – but I was willing to concede that she might possibly not feel the same. All that meant was that I was going to have to work harder to convince her.

I’d had a quick look at her left hand while we were talking, and there was no wedding ring. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a bloke lurking about somewhere, but that was a small obstacle to overcome. This was The One. I was meant to be with her, that was all there was to it.

As I sat and failed to listen to the woman from the care agency tell us all the different ways her staff could help us wipe our arses, I devised the beginnings of a plan, one that didn’t involve Matt the Lad, and might involve me talking about my fucking bastard MS seriously for once, possibly without saying ‘bastard’ or even ‘fucking’. It was in a good cause, and I was prepared to make the sacrifice.

Laura

I found myself feeling glad he hadn’t left at lunchtime, and then tried to put him from my mind as the afternoon went on, although as it turned out, it wasn’t as easy as that. I’d heard the talks from the care agency and Peter many times before, and although the questions at the end were always interesting and different, it was easy for my mind to wander during the presentations themselves.

I kept finding myself stealing glances in Matt’s direction. He really was a very attractive man in, I would guess, his mid-thirties. He was tall and lean, not particularly muscular but wiry, with short, thick, sandy hair that stuck out a bit wildly when he pushed his hand through it, which he did often. His face was dominated by his big grey eyes, which kind of crinkled round the edges, as if he laughed a lot. But there was something about him that didn’t quite match the story his eyes were trying to tell me. I kept thinking about the sadness I thought I had sensed from him.

Matt had a reputation as a bed hopper, but that had been a while ago, and I hadn’t heard any outraged stories about him or even come across him anywhere for what must have been well over a year. Regardless of Rachel’s glee at his recent break-up, it would have been hard on him, and a recent diagnosis would have made things more difficult. I wondered whether it had happened before or after he was diagnosed.

I shook my head and tried to get him out of my mind, but my eyes kept sliding to the back of the room where Matt was sitting, and eventually he noticed.

Matt

As I was plotting, I was looking vaguely in the direction of the arse-wiping agency woman, but became aware of Laura’s eyes on me. Hiding a delighted smile, I tried to watch her without looking directly at her, and I could see her head turning towards mine every so often. After a while of this game, I turned and looked at her, making sure I caught her eye. Laura immediately looked away, but I didn’t, so the next time she looked, I was looking straight at her.

Laura

I looked away, guilty that I’d been caught, and resolved to sit up straight and concentrate on Peter, but before too long my eyes glided that way again. Matt was looking directly back at me, seemingly trying not to smirk.

Matt

She looked really embarrassed, like I’d caught her doing something wicked, and looked away again, this time focussing so hard on Peter Jones’s presentation that she could have bored holes in the screen with her stare. She still hadn’t blushed, but I’d caught her checking me out, and it thrilled me. My plans received a boost of confidence.

Laura

I immediately turned my head back to the projector screen where, with a huge amount of willpower, I managed to remain locked in concentration until the end of the presentation, trying not to give away how flustered I was.

What was wrong with me? Perving on a punter was strictly unprofessional, although to be fair if you managed to do it without being spotted who was going to know. I had been spotted, though. Now I needed to stop being Ridiculous Laura and start being Sensible Professional Laura. With a massive mental effort I put my best nursey smile on, as the day finished, and started to help Patrick and Kate pack up.

Matt

So here was my plan:

a) Act casual.

b) Don’t stare.

c) Don’t go all gung-ho.

d) Ditch laddish banter.

e) Go and talk to Peter Jones afterwards. Possible brownie points for being interested, continuation of a) above.

f) Leave at the end…

g) … but wait outside and either …

h1) talk to her when she comes out or preferably

h2) wait until everyone else has gone and go back in to talk to her.

i) Ask if we could go for a coffee to talk about shit.

j) Go for a coffee and talk about shit.

It felt almost foolproof, especially given the looks she’d been throwing my way earlier. I’d got pretty good at reading signals during my Matt the Lad days; I could at least tell at a hundred paces if someone was interested or not. Laura was definitely giving off ‘interested’ vibes, whether she knew it or not, and it bolstered my confidence.

I put phase one of the plan into action immediately, and concentrated only on what Peter was saying, or rather looked as if I was concentrating. I still wasn’t that keen on hearing my potential fate from someone who was further along the line of crippledom than me, and so I just put on an interested expression and didn’t look in Laura’s direction for the rest of the afternoon.

I was pretty good at faking interest as it was one of my favourite ways to wind Beth up. I’d look at her all the time she was explaining about the latest exercises or diet, and then she’d go ‘so what do you think, Matty?’ and I’d blink and say ‘what? Sorry I was thinking about football/Star Wars/online shopping’, and it infuriated her. Obviously I wasn’t trying to infuriate Laura, but the technique had its merits.

As soon as Peter had finished, I stood up and went over to him, introducing myself as Jay’s brother, even though I would usually avoid this at all costs. He rather gratifyingly remembered me and asked how my IT work was going, and we chatted a bit about our families and jobs, and nothing about the bastard MS, which was a relief.

We finished our conversation, shook hands and walked out together, and the next phase of the plan was underway.

Laura

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Matt and Peter shaking hands, and then saw them leave together. I’d managed to get through the rest of the afternoon without breaking the RCN code of conduct, for which I was extremely thankful, but now Matt had gone, and I felt a little pang. Oh how ridiculous. It was Matt Scott, gittiest git in the whole of Gitdom. Yeah, maybe he had been flirting a bit, but that’s what he does. He probably can’t help himself. He broke Rach’s heart. Laura Shoeman, pull yourself together. You need a nice relaxing evening with Ben Affleck and a few G and Ts, and you’ll feel better. Obviously a Ben Affleck film, not the actual Ben Affleck.

Matt

I waited by the gate until I saw the doctor and the other nurse go to their cars. Result – Laura was still inside. I went back and found her trying to pack away the projector and laptop and making a bit of a hash of the cables.

I tried to saunter over to her, but the fucked up nerves in my legs weren’t making a very good job of it, and I saw her notice me hobbling. I ignored it as best I could and was gratified to see her gaze quickly move from my legs to my face, where it rested with a smile.

Laura

Patrick and Kate had somewhere else to be, so I was the last to leave, and I had the box of information leaflets to sort out as well as the laptop and projector to untangle and put away. I was struggling with the various cables when I heard the door go and looked up, expecting it to be Kate or Patrick coming back for something they’d left behind. With a skip to my heart, I saw Matt Scott walking across the room. As my view was now not blocked by rows of chairs, I was able to see his unsteady gait, but I was concentrating more on the cocky smile on his face, which crinkled his eyes and mouth into very pleasing shapes. I felt my pulse speed up a bit. Good heavens, what on earth was wrong with me?

‘Hello again. Matt, isn’t it?’

Yes, I was trying to be clever and nonchalant. Shame on me.

Matt

Oh this was priceless, she was trying to play games, like she didn’t remember my name. Great, though, I was always going to win that one.

‘Yeh, Laura, ih’s Matt.’

I stressed her name to let her know I was on to her, but smiled to let her also know games were fine by me.

Laura

He stressed my name just enough to let me know he was on to me. If I did blushing, I would have gone pink.

‘Is everything alright?

Matt

The most delightful little concerned frown appeared between her eyebrows, along with raised eyebrows.

‘Yeh, jus wondered if yuh fancied coffee somwehr?’

So this was when I played my first hand. The invitation.

Laura

‘Oh, er …’

Now what did I do? He wasn’t officially a patient, but maybe I was crossing some line somewhere; I was all flustered, and not just about remaining professional.

Matt

She was flustered. Still not blushing – what did a bloke have to do get a pink cheek out of this woman? – but definitely off guard.

‘Yuh saih if I nehd tuh tahk wihouh fahmly?’

Second hand played, make it sound like a strictly business proposition, nurse to patient kind of thing.

Laura nodded.

‘Wehl ahtually tha’d be greht. Cahnt tehl them ehvrything, shih I cahnt say. Migh hehp.’

I saw her realise what I wanted her to think I meant.

Laura

Light dawned. Laura Shoeman, you are such a twit. When were you ever the kind of woman Matt Scott asked out for coffee?

‘Oh, so you mean like a professional chat type of thing.’

So a bit disappointing, but much firmer ground here, that was bound to be alright.

Matt

She was relieved. A coffee with a stranger was probably breaking about a thousand codes of conduct or some such shit.

‘Yeh. Wha, yuh think I wahs ahsking yuh ouh?’

Yeah, Laura, silly you, fancy thinking Matt Scott would have been asking out the most awesome woman he’s ever met in an attempt to show her he’s her soulmate, her kismet, all the shit he doesn’t believe in. Imagine the temerity.

She laughed, a bit forced – was that a tiny flicker of disappointment? Let’s say it was, it spurred me on.

Laura

I forced a light laugh, and tried not to acknowledge the disturbing twinge of disappointment.

‘No, of course not. Alright then, I suppose we did finish a bit early today, we could call it part of the session, but I need to get these things out to the car first.’

I gestured to the laptop, projector and box of leaflets.

Matt

‘Leh me put thehs away.’

I took the cables out of her hands and started wrapping them up. It never hurt to look capable and orderly, especially when your central nervous system was shot to shit; I sent a little prayer to the gods of shot-to-shit nervous systems that just this once my fingers would behave themselves.

‘Trus meh, Ih’m an IT professional. Cahnt carry shih tho, prohbly drop ih.’

I considered this fair warning, in case she wanted me to help her lug the projector and laptop to her car, and also showing the gods of shot-to-shit nervous systems that I wasn’t taking them for granted. Fortunately, nurses these days are more careful of their backs than they used to be.

Laura

‘That’s OK, we’ve got a trolley. No carrying allowed. Thank you, though.’

I smiled at him and was rewarded with a crinkly eyed grin in return. My insides went a little bit squiffy. God, why did I feel like a damn teenager who was daring to talk to the popular boy?

Matt

Laura smiled at me, and a part of my insides turned molten. She had the most stunning smile, and I felt my mouth respond in kind. My heart was racing and my cheeks felt flushed, as if I was trying to chat up the popular girl.

I finished coiling up the cables and pushed them into the bags with the laptop and projector. Score one to gods of dysfunctional body parts. Laura looked impressed. Some people are easily pleased, but if cables do it for the girl of my dreams, then thank fuck for cables.

Laura

I was impressed at his neatness.

‘Wow, how do you do that? I can never make it all fit.’

Matt

‘Degreh in IT. Special class in cables.’

For the uninitiated, there are no classes in cables in IT school. Laura seemed unsure.

Laura

I wasn’t sure if he was joking, knowing next to nothing about what may or may not be taught on an IT degree course.

‘Really?’

Matt

‘Ha ha, fuck noh, Lau, yuhr easy tuh wind up.’

I’d called her Lau, partly as it was easier for me to say, but partly because it felt right, like I was already her friend. Now I’d done it, I couldn’t conceive of ever calling her anything else. It felt right in my mouth, and it felt right in my heart. She didn’t correct me, so I assumed it was OK.

Laura

I found myself liking the way he shortened my name, the same as my friends did. It made me feel comfortable with him, with his teasing. I suddenly suspected that was part of his ability to charm women, to know what made us feel relaxed, and told myself to get a grip and be careful. Just because he had MS didn’t mean he wasn’t a predatory pig.

It was a timely reminder, and I shook myself out of the infatuated fan-girl thing I seemed to have going on. Giving myself a stiff mental talking to, I wheeled the trolley out of the hall, and locked up after us.

This was a professional thing. I was an MS nurse, and this man had MS and had asked for my help, and I was going to help him. There. That was that sorted.

‘Where were you thinking of going? There isn’t much around here really.’

Matt

I had, naturally, given some thought to the venue in which to ‘have coffee’, while I was supposed to be listening to people telling me about wiping arses. As we walked out of the hall and Laura locked up, I put my idea to her.

‘Duh yuh knoh Mean Bean? Bes mochaccino in town.’

And it had those intimate little booth-type tables that were ideal for spilling your soul to the perfect woman.

I saw a few different things pass across her face. She was keen, but a bit of reserve held her back. Her eyes were telling me she was interested, but maybe there was a bit of the uniform – that fucking hot uniform – that was stopping her being herself, that was making her keep her distance.

Laura

Mean Bean was not close to the church hall, but it was just round the corner from where I lived. They did really good coffee, and had some of the booth type tables where we could potentially have a more private conversation. I could drop the car off first, although that would mean Matt knew where I lived – not number one on the safe working practices guidelines. Oh what the hell. I’d text Kate first to let her know, and if she didn’t hear from me by six thirty she could send the divers to retrieve my body from the canal.

‘Yeah I do, I love it there. Actually it would do me a favour, I could drop this lot at home first and we could walk, it’s not far. I’ve just got to send a quick text, let people know where I’m going to be. Do you want to get in the front?’

I opened the car and put the trolley in the boot as Matt got into the front seat.

Matt

We reached her car, and she unlocked it, allowing me to cram myself into the tiny passenger seat as she loaded up, wishing I was less of a fucking cripple and more able to help her out as she loaded the boot. Still, I was going to find out where she lived, which was near Mean Bean. Double result.

Laura

I got my phone out and sent a text to Kate.

‘Meeting punter in Mean Bean in a few. Txt u 6.30 when home. L x’

I got in the driver’s seat as my phone pinged. I glanced at the screen. A text from Kate.

‘Which punter? Just in case K x’

I hesitated. Matt wasn’t an official patient, and Kate was aware of his brief but lasting effect on Rachel. I wasn’t sure I should be informing the world in this way of Matt’s MS status, but safety first. It was drummed into us.

‘Matt Scott. Be discreet x’

As I drove away, the phone pinged again, but I didn’t get a chance to look at it. It pinged several times on the way, but obviously I couldn’t look while I was driving, and I didn’t have to think that hard to guess who it was or what they’d be frantically asking.

Matt

She sent a text before getting in the car, and got a reply before she started the engine. I wondered who and what she’d told about where we were going. Not many people who knew me knew about the bastard MS, and I hoped that some kind of confidentiality was attached to … oh for fuck’s sake, Matt, what does it matter? You’re obviously a fucking cripple, does it matter if people know why? There’s no shame. That was the first time I’d thought that, ever in my life. That there was no shame in having the bastard MS. Fuck.

71. Hopeless wanderer

In which the worst is faced, and help is sought.

Julia

And I did move away and live my life. I loved my new job in Norwich, and I loved living in Nons’, or rather my, house, where I had all my memories of growing up alongside all my grown-up things.

William and I got on really well, but he was getting older, and eventually his daughters persuaded him to move back up north so they could stop worrying about him so much.

Matt

So. I’ll ease into it. Plans were afoot for the big moving day; Dec and Amy finally got the green light for moving into their house, and I took a day off to help them, because big burly men seemed inexplicably difficult to come by at a rugby club, or maybe there was some big training thing they all had to go to but Dec was given dispensation because he was moving. I wasn’t really paying attention while they were all discussing it, and I fell asleep in the middle of it. It wasn’t going to happen for a week anyway, and Sunday lunch at Jay and Beth’s always filled my belly and slowed me down. I woke up after a short time, and was not pleased to find the conversation hadn’t moved on.

‘Oh, back with us Matty. We were just saying, if you put some boxes in your car, Dec and Amy could hire a smaller van.’

‘Yeah, whaever.’ I noticed the slur instantly, tiny though it was. I tried to play it cool, see if anyone else was looking at me like they’d noticed too, without making it obvious I was looking. I seemed to have got away with it. It was just because I was tired. I was so knackered all the time with work being more than full-on since Jules left, I only felt half awake at any given moment recently. It would hardly be surprising if a word or two got slurred on its way out. I dismissed it, refused to acknowledge its presence.

‘What time are you going to be there?’

‘When?’

‘Come on Matty, keep up, on moving day.’

‘Oh I dohnt bloody knoh.’

Shit, there it was again. Or rather wasn’t. There was no way I was going to allow this to happen. I tried really hard, concentrated on speaking clearly, limiting the amount of words I was saying.

‘There’s ages yet.’

That was better. Three whole words, clear as a bell. I fixed Beth with my best ‘I’m not getting involved in this, ask me again when it’s nearer the time’ look, and kept pretty quiet for the rest of the afternoon. There were a few more times when my words weren’t as clear as I might have liked, I wasn’t sure if anyone else had noticed, but I saw Amy look at me a couple of times. I was fairly safe with Amy, who was a bit intimidated when I was in a ‘don’t mess with me’ mood.

I got home that afternoon and went straight to bed, sleeping right through until I had to get up to go to work. No. This was not happening. I convinced myself I was OK. I tried really hard not to slur my words, and I made it go away. Result. Whatever it was, I’d beaten it with determination. Probably just tiredness, as I’d thought. Or a virus.

The day of the big move came, with all the attendant fuss and bother on the part of Beth. Rose was having Charlie and Iz, I was meeting the van at Dec and Amy’s flat, and Beth was going straight to the new house once Cal was at school.

Of the three of us, Rose undoubtedly had the hardest task, as Iz and Charlie were each a handful on their own, and trouble was never far away when they were together. If anyone could handle them, though, it was Rose, and she was so pleased to be getting her hands on Charlie for a whole day, all to herself, that she might not even notice if Iz screamed the place down from the moment she got there.

I arrived at Dec and Amy’s flat shortly after the van, and took my turn carrying boxes down the two flights of stairs and filling my four wheel drive up with them. I drove the first load to the house, with Amy in the front seat. She was going to unlock the place, then stay behind to unpack and let Beth in.

‘Big day fuh the Suhmers-Wrights, then.’

Fuck, where had that come from? I’d been trying really hard. Amy glanced at me, frowning slightly.

‘Yeah. Exciting though. This last week, I’ve really noticed how cramped we are.’

‘They say babies tahk up more room than grohn ups.’

Shit, I was going to have to stop bloody talking.

‘Tell me about it. Charlie’s already got more clothes than me and Dec put together.’

I daren’t say anything else, and it created an awkward silence as we approached the road where they were going to live.

‘Oh, Beth’s here already. I’ll just go and let her in.’

Amy hopped out of the car, leaving me to open the boot and lift the boxes out. I managed the first two with no difficulty, but when I carried the third one over the threshold my arms gave way, and it fell from my grip to the floor with a crash.

‘Fuck.’

I bent down to pick it up again, noticing that the label on the box said ‘Fragile’.

‘Alright, Matty?’

Beth’s voice floated from the living room, which was Unpacking Central for the day.

‘Yeah. Not sure abouh the crockery.’

Amy appeared in the hall and I looked at her ruefully.

‘Sorry, Amy, I’m a klutz. I’ll pay fuh anything I’ve broken.’

‘Oh don’t be daft, there’s nothing valuable. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Matt … are you alright?’

‘Yeah, I didn’t drop ih on my foot or anything. Noh harm done.’

I chose to deliberately misunderstand her, but she still put her hand on my arm and looked up at me, worried. Fuck. I really hoped she wasn’t going to say anything to Beth, or that would be my peace shattered for the foreseeable, but how could I ask her not to say anything without making a big deal out of it? And how can you make a big deal out of nothing? It was nothing, after all.

‘I’ll go back fuh the rest, then.’

I turned and hurried to the car before she could say anymore.

Later that day, once all their stuff had been moved from one place to the other, unpacked, vaguely sorted, and the beers were out, I could relax. I hadn’t dropped anything else, but I felt weird, a bit wobbly. I convinced myself I was coming down with something, and just needed to take it easy. Trouble was, there was no taking it easy at the moment, I was working way above my hours, I’d had to talk fast to get today off, and there was no sign of a let up in the next couple of weeks, as they still hadn’t filled Jules’s post.

As I was relaxing among the boxes, I was suddenly aware of glances and various people leaving the room (Amy and Beth) and me being on my own with Dec. He didn’t speak for a few minutes, just continued drinking his beer, surveying the packing crates as if he was doing a logistical analysis. Then he took a deep breath.

‘So, are you going to go to your GP, or are you just going to pretend it’s not happening for another week or so, until you can’t ignore it?’

‘What?’

Well, obviously, option two. It was my MO. Denial followed by dogged defence of said denial.

‘Matt. Do us all a favour, and for once in your fucking life don’t make me drag it out of you. You know exactly what I mean, it’s all over your face. Amy said you dropped a box today –’

‘So? Has noh one ehver dropped a fucking box befohr?’

‘Listen to yourself. Anyone would think you’d had half a dozen beers, not half of one.’

I drained my bottle and held it up, defiantly.

‘Whole one.’

‘I’m not saying it’s anything, shit, what the fuck do I know? All I’m saying is, go and see your GP. You’re working too hard, not sleeping, could be any fucking thing, and I hope, I really bloody hope, that it is. Just go and get it checked, yeah? For your peace of mind and ours.’

And so of course I went on the attack, it was the best form of defence, wasn’t it? Who said that? Some genius.

‘Oh, well, as long as you’re all bloody peaceful, that’s alright. Wouldn’t want Beth to lose any sleep worrying about me, or have to disturb your precious bloody infant with a text. Thanks for the beer, Dec, I’ll see myself out.’

I even managed to say that without a single unintelligible bollock, and then I stood up and walked out of the house to my car, half expecting to hear someone come after me, but it seemed like, this time, they were going to leave me to it. From the past, the infuriatingly prescient words of the great philosopher Declan Summers rang in my ears. ‘One day they’ll leave you alone more and more, you’ll have got your wish.’ It nearly stopped me, nearly turned me round to apologise, tell them how scared I was, ask for their help, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t admit to myself what I was scared of, so I drove off in a fury, fuck them, fuck them all.

And nothing stopped, work just got busier, and I was tired, so tired of it all, of the work, of pretending I was feeling OK, of being Matt the Lad, who didn’t exist any more. All I was doing was getting up, working, coming home, sometimes not even eating before going to bed, then getting up to do it all again, trying not to trip, trying not to stumble, trying to see everything clearly, trying not to fall apart. It was like those times in Stafford when Eyeti was so busy, but I was older now, it was harder, I was missing Jules and I was feeling wretched.

Of course, something was bound to happen. When you’re ignoring things that can’t be ignored, it usually takes some kind of event to bring you to your senses. As was becoming the norm, it was Charlie who did it.

Dec and Amy visited unannounced. They caught me off guard when I was expecting a pizza delivery, and I let them in. I hadn’t heard from anyone all week, not since Dec tried to talk to me on the day they moved.

I didn’t know what to make of it – maybe it was a new tactic to try and smoke me out, or tough love, or some such fucktardery. So when my buzzer sounded and it was Dec’s voice saying ‘Let us up you bastard, we’ve got beer and ice-cream and your pizza, and if you ever want to see it again you’ll open your fucking door. Oh, and Charlie really, really needs a change’, I pressed the door opener button.

‘How the fuck did yuh geh my pizza?’

‘Delivery boy believed us when we said we were you. Maybe it was the hefty tip we offered him – you’re going to have to be more generous next time.’

‘Ih’m not sharing, Ih’m bluhdy stahving.’

My speech was getting worse, people were starting to pick up on it at work, and I saw the look Dec gave me when he heard it, but he didn’t comment.

‘Fair enough, we’ve had our tea anyway. Can Ames use your bathroom to change this one?’

‘Suhr.’

Amy disappeared with Charlie and a large bag of vital baby gear. Dec sat on the sofa and looked at me.

‘Wha?’

‘You know what.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

‘No. You know how this works. We’ve left you alone all week, thinking you might come to your fucking senses on your own, but it seems you need a kick up the arse this time. Just like every other time. You don’t get to be on your own. I know you’re up to your eyeballs at work, you’re fucking knackered, I can see that, but you look, I don’t know, there’s something else, and if I have to fucking well drag you to see your doctor myself I will. I mean it.’

‘Piss ohf. Ih’m a bihg boy now.’

‘Yeah, so grown up you storm out when I try to help you, and go all silent on us.’

‘Piss ohf.’

I was running out of pithy epithets.

‘No. I’m staying right here until you promise me you’ll go and see someone. It might not be what you think it is. Beth says –’

‘Oh fuck Beth. Yuh’ve all behn talking abouh meh, hahvnt yuh?’

‘Yeah, mate, we have. We’re worried. About what’s going on with you, and how hard you’re working when you’re obviously not well, especially after the shitty time you’ve had recently. You’ve lost fucking tons of weight, not that you had a lot to lose. Look at this place.’

Dec gestured at the flat, which I had been unable to clear up for days, but still looked tidier than his kitchen.

‘You never leave it like this, washing up not done, teabags on the drainer. You’re not yourself. Bottom line, I’m staying right here, on your sofa, until you promise.’

‘Wha am I, threh? OK, I prohmis.’

I held my fingers up in the Scout salute, hoping to shut him the fuck up. I had never been a Scout.

‘Nah, don’t believe you.’

‘Wha? Fuck ohf. Piss ohf. Gona eat my pizza, ih’s gehting cold.’

I opened the box and shovelled half a slice into my mouth, even though I had no appetite.

‘Well at least you’re eating, that’s something.’

‘Phmpf hff.’

I had a mouthful of pizza; I hadn’t suddenly developed an even worse speech defect. Dec continued to sit and look at me, and I found it irritating beyond measure, but also strangely reassuring. Here we were, having our old conversation, the old battle. I knew it was going to be OK in the end, it was just a matter of how long I made him wait. I ate more of the pizza while he sat with his arms folded, watching with the hint of an amused smile on his face.

After a while, Amy came out of the bathroom with Charlie in her arms and a full nappy bag dangling from her finger.

‘Have you got anywhere I can put this, Matt?’

‘Bin.’

I gestured over to the kitchen. Amy walked towards me with Charlie, who looked at me in a very beguiling way.

‘Can you just grab her while I take it over?’

I couldn’t resist, could I? I wasn’t completely heartless, just annoyed and self-centred. I held my arms up, and as Amy handed her over, to my horror I felt my grip slip. Charlie started to slide out of my useless fingers, and it all seemed to happen in slow motion as she began to fall backwards, then Amy realised what was happening, dropped the nappy bag and lunged forwards to catch Charlie before she hit the floor. I stared, wide-eyed, at Charlie, who was quickly scooped up into Amy’s arms and held tight.

‘Fuck, Amy, fuck, Ih’m soh sohry, my fingers …’

I looked at the offending digits as if they were going to explain to me what the fuck they thought they were playing at.

‘It’s OK, Matt, no harm done. You’re alright, aren’t you, lovely girl?’

She smiled at Charlie, safely nestled in her arms, but her face spoke of that moment of terror when something dreadful nearly happens to your child.

I carried on looking at Charlie, thinking about what had almost happened, what might happen again if I didn’t do something about my misbehaving nerves and muscles. I took a deep breath and glanced at Dec, who looked almost as scared and relieved as Amy. He hadn’t spoken, but was continuing to watch me with even more dogged determination, and didn’t need to say anything.

‘OK. Ih’ll go an seh the doctor. Yuh dohnt hahv tuh sleep on the sofa ahl night. Dohnt leh meh drop yuhr baby again. Fuck, Ih’m sohry, Ih’m soh sohry.’

They both breathed out a sigh of relief and looked at each other. Charlie was squirming in Amy’s arms, looking at me.

‘Do you still want a cuddle with Unca Matty, lovely girl? Go on then.’

‘Wha? Noh!’

Amy sat down beside me and passed Charlie over.

‘It’s OK, Matt, you can’t drop her from there. I think you need a good cuddle, and Charlie’s completely excellent at it.’

I stared at Amy in amazement as I wrapped my arms tightly round Charlie, and looked at Dec for confirmation. He looked equally happy for me to hold their daughter, only minutes after I’d nearly dropped her on the floor.

‘Fuck, yuh guys. Thahks.’

Dec and Amy stayed for a little while, until I showed obvious signs of being wiped out. I promised again that I’d go to the doctor, and that I’d text tomorrow with the time of my appointment. Not that Dec didn’t trust me, of course, but I didn’t have the best track record in doing what I was told, even following salutary lessons in listening to my mate. He agreed in turn not to report back to Beth, for the time being, and that he would leave that to me, as long as I agreed to tell him what was going on.

I flopped into bed almost as soon as they had gone, but found sleep elusive. I finally spiralled down into unconsciousness while trying to convince myself that I was overtired and had a virus, and everybody was just fussing too bloody much as per.

The next morning, just before I set off for work, I had a text from Dec.

‘Have u rung yet?’

‘Just abt 2. Stop nagging.’

‘Nope, not gonna stop. Ring now.’

It didn’t seem like I had much choice, so I called, told them it wasn’t urgent, because, well, it wasn’t like my leg was hanging off or I’d severed an artery or some such shit, I was just tired or had a virus or something. I got an appointment for a few days time, texted Dec, hoping that would stop the fussing. No such luck. Now I had constant reminders from him, at least twice a day, of the date and time of my appointment. It was as if he had nothing better to do than torment me via text message.

I steered clear of them all for the next few days and over the weekend, being so busy at work that I didn’t have time to think about it. Yeah, maybe I was keeping myself intentionally over-occupied. I have no idea what Dec said to keep Beth at bay, but it must have satisfied her because I didn’t hear from her once.

Then it was time for my appointment. I really couldn’t afford the time off work, but I’d managed to make it first thing, so I could go in to work afterwards and put in nearly a full day. I was so sure it was going to be tiredness or a virus. So sure. OK, terrified it wasn’t going to be that, but putting all my eggs in the tiredness and virus basket and not prepared to look at any other baskets, with or without eggs.

I sat in the waiting room, not able to concentrate on any of the magazines, on any of the games on my phone (which I always played despite all the fascist ‘do not use mobile phones’ notices), on anything except the clock, which ticked on towards my appointment time, then a few minutes after it, then well after it, until thirty minutes after my appointment time, my name was called. I was a wreck.

The doctor apologised for the wait, and I nodded but didn’t say anything. She asked what she could do for me, and I sat and looked at her and didn’t know where to start.

‘You haven’t been to see me for quite a while, have you?’

I shook my head. I never went to the doctor, had had little reason to since I registered when I first moved down to the city. I didn’t even know if this was my regular GP.

‘Is there something specific you’re worried about?’

I bit back a sarcastic retort. No, of course not, I just felt like taking time out of my busy schedule to arse about in her office. Instead of saying this, however, I nodded, trying to brace myself to say the words. I couldn’t force them out of my mouth, though. It could change everything.

The doctor looked at her computer screen. It was angled away from me so I couldn’t see what was on it. Probably just as well; ‘Serious Fuck Up’ was never pleasant reading. If it wasn’t there before, it would be after I left.

‘I see here that you have MS.’

I nodded.

‘Forgive me for playing guessing games, but you seem to be having trouble telling me how I can help you. You’ve had no symptoms for several years?’

I nodded again. I was barely holding on, ready to run as fast as my stuttering legs would take me.

‘Have any of the symptoms returned?’

I nodded, found my voice.

‘Buh Ih’m tihred, rehly busy at work, jus brohk up wih my girfriehd, I thihk ih’s strehs.’

She looked at me and nodded, not discounting my theory, but not confirming it either. She seemed relieved that I’d spoken, but would have been unable to miss the mess my mouth was making of words.

‘Maybe you could tell me some of your symptoms?’

‘Wehl, ha, spehking ihnt greht, Ih’m drohping shih … er …’

‘Any changes to your vision?’

Yeah, shit, everything was blurry. I’d been meaning to get my contact lenses checked out. I nodded. The doctor raised an eyebrow to encourage me to continue.

‘Dohbl sohmtimes.’

‘How about walking? Any trips, stumbles?’

‘Yeh. Buh Ih’m tihred.’

‘Of course. Tiredness can cause all of these things, but –’

I tried to forestall her. I had one last card left.

‘Couhd ih beh a virus?’

She nodded her head, considering.

‘It could be, but to be perfectly honest, Matt, it sounds to me like you’re having a flare-up of MS.’

‘Noh.’

It came out as a pathetic whimper. It took me back to that time up in Stafford, when a different doctor told me the same news. I felt as if I’d left my body for a moment, could feel the universe shift around me as I floated, directionless, amongst the black holes and supernovas. Then I came back, and the doctor was still talking, but I didn’t hear a word. It was all over. I’d had a few years when I’d managed to fool myself into thinking I’d defeated it, but it had been there all the time, waiting for its chance. The fucking bastard.

I took my cues from the doctor. She stood up, held her hand out, it was obviously time to go, to stop clogging up her already over-running surgery.

I stumbled outside, and couldn’t remember where I’d parked the car. I couldn’t see it, and couldn’t think, so I just started to walk, as best I could, heading fuck knows where. After a long while, stumbling half-blindly along the streets, getting caught in a heavy rain shower, I recognised where I was; my feet had led me here, of course they had. Here was where I would be OK, here was where I could stop and get sorted. Here was Declan Summers.

I rang the bell. There was a short wait, barely long enough for me to consider walking away, before Dec’s tall frame was outlined in the frosted glass at the front door. He was still wearing his muddy training gear; he must have just got home.

Dec

I’d just got back after a tough session, and was looking forward to a hot bath, after all morning on the training ground in the pouring rain. Having a bath again, after all our time in the flat with only a shower, was still a bit of a treat, and I had a really long soak planned, with a special bath-time playlist sorted on my MP3 player. I was so keen I’d come straight home without showering at the club.

Amy and Charlie were out, and I was just heading up the stairs when the doorbell rang. I stopped in mid-stride, extremely reluctant to go back and answer the door to what, at this time of day, was likely to be someone trying to sell me something, but as usual unable to ignore the doorbell. I sighed, turned round and went to the door, where a familiar shape was outlined in the frosted glass. I pulled the door open.

‘Matt, hi.’

}Cah I come in?

‘Course, is everything OK?’

He stepped over the threshold without answering and stood, wild-eyed and wary, in the hallway, hands shoved in his pockets, not meeting my eyes. He looked like he’d been out in the rain – his hair was wet, and his clothes were damp. I wondered where he’d been.

Matt

I was sure he could see ‘everything’ wasn’t ‘OK’. It was unlikely, given his badgering for the past few days, that he’d forgotten I was going to see the doctor today, but he seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I stepped over the threshold without answering and stood in the hallway, hands shoved in my pockets, looking at the floor. My clothes were still damp from the downpour, and I felt dishevelled and unsettled.

‘Beer?’

No, Dec, my life is falling apart. Help me.

‘Noh, bih early for me.’

‘Really? Since when?’

‘Since I fucking saih so.’

I couldn’t be doing with banter, not now. Don’t fucking tease, me Dec. Help me.

Dec

I noticed the slur in his speech, which seemed a bit worse since I last saw him, and remembered that today was his appointment with the doctor.

‘OK then. Come and sit down and tell me what’s bothering you.’

He followed me into the lounge and sat perched on the edge of the sofa, clasping and unclasping his fingers, looking preoccupied and uncomfortable. I decided to let him talk in his own time. If the silence went on too long, I’d have to rethink my strategy. He didn’t speak for a long while, taking lots of deep breaths, seeming several times to be on the point of starting, then stopping himself. I was pretty sure I knew what he was here to say, but I wanted him to tell me without me dragging it out of him. He would give me more information if he didn’t think he had lost something by giving it; however, he was obviously finding it hard to say, and I was about to ask him what was up …

Matt

I followed him into the lounge and sat down on the sofa, perching on the edge, not wanting to leave a wet patch from my rain-soaked jeans, still feeling ready to run. I watched myself clasping and unclasping my fingers, as if they didn’t belong to me. Dec didn’t say anything else, just sat and waited. I tried to say it, several times. It was almost as hard as trying to speak in the doctor’s surgery. I had to make myself say it. If I didn’t it was only going to get worse. Worse would be very bad.

‘Ih’s back.’

‘What?’

Oh come on, Dec. You know as well as I do. Don’t make me fucking say it. But he just looked at me, and I was going to have to.

‘Bastard MS. Ih’s fucking come back. Ih’ve jus been tuh my GP like you saih. She saih ih’s a flare up. I’m fucked.’

And as a few stray thoughts started to filter into my head, I felt like I truly was fucked. It was all ending, back to square one, beyond square one. I had no safety net, no other options, apart from falling all the way to the bottom of the pit in the middle of Fucksville, UK.

‘Shit, Matt, no way, I’m really sorry.’

‘Dohnt need your fucking pity.’

Anger was simmering down there, now.

‘I’m not giving you pity, for fuck’s sake. You know me better than that. What else did she say?’

‘Dohnt knoh.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Once she saih ih’s back, I couhnt listen any more. Dihnt hear what she saih. Wha’s fucking poin? S’all over now.’

‘That’s bullshit for a start. What do you think is all over?’

Dec was being particularly stupid today. He must know what I’d been dreading, he’d seen what I was like before, when I lost it all last time, he’d been in the same place at the start.

‘Nohmal life. Back to having my ahrs wiped. No behr, no sex, no fucking say in anything.’

‘Need your arse wiping right now, do you? Happy to oblige.’

How dare he make a joke about it?

‘Fuck off.’

I nearly got up and left, but I had nowhere else to go. I needed him.

‘Matt, I know it must be a huge shock, after all this time, but aren’t you being a bit dramatic?’

Oh, so now I was a drama queen.

‘Wha the fuck do you know abou ih?’

‘Absolutely nothing, I freely admit, but I have read some stuff and surely there are lots of different ways this can go, not just the worst possible way. Last time, you had pneumonia and that was what really fucked you up, wasn’t it?’

I was silent for a while. I covered my face with my hands, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, almost sobbing. If Dec had read stuff, he’d done more than I had, for years. I’d read a bit in the beginning, but it scared the shit out of me to find out what could happen, so like everything else to do with this fucking bastard disease, I’d just buried it. Yeah, I knew that things could go several ways, but wasn’t it bound to be the worst way? Wasn’t it?

Dec

Matt was silent for a while. He put his hands over his face, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, on the verge of sobs. He spoke through his fingers.

}Ih’s all jus like ih was before. Cahnt talk properly, dropping shit all over the place, tripping over nothing, cahnt see properly.

He looked up at the ceiling, blinking away tears.

Matt

This was so hard, to face this, admit it was true, and tell people. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to stop the tears that were filling my eyes from spilling down my face. If I started crying, it was going to be ugly.

‘Fuck ih, Dec, I dohnt think I can go back there. I cahnt fucking do it.’

‘Then don’t.’

‘Ih’s not like I have a fucking choice.’

Did he think I could just, like, decide what happened next?

Dec

I meant that he didn’t have to go down the route of it being a disaster; that there were other ways of looking at things, but I saw from the look on his face that this was too new, that he could only see the negatives at the moment. To be honest, I would have to do some thinking to come up with positives for him right at this moment, as well.

‘Have you told Beth?’

As I said it, I realised that Matt wouldn’t see that as a positive. The strength and support I got from talking things over with my family felt to Matt like restriction and interference. He looked at me, horrified.

Matt

Beth was the furthest person from my thoughts. I would never get any respite from thinking about it all if I said anything to her.

‘Fuck no! Cahnt cope wih all tha fussing and … oh shit … they’ll try to drag me back there to live wohnt they … shit, wha a cocking cluhsterfuck.’

When it happened before, and they came up to Stafford, and got a house especially for me, yeah, I appreciated it, they saved me, it was awesome. But now, going back there, it was like imagining some kind of twisted torture where you have to relive your worst humiliations over and over again.

Jay and I never talked about when he’d had to wipe my arse. It wasn’t even something we joked about. It was there, it had happened, it had been necessary, I was grateful. End of.

Dec

I thought of a way to make telling Beth a good thing. Now I just had to convince Matt.

‘Beth knows a lot about this kind of stuff, she can help you keep yourself as well as possible. She could help you. Maybe she can go back to the GP with you so at least someone listens to what you’re being told. There must be stuff you can do to make sure things don’t get any worse.’

Matt

I hadn’t thought about Beth actually helping me. Hadn’t been able to think beyond how much she was going to take over. Perhaps if she had a focus for her interference, being like a health coordinator or some such shit, she wouldn’t be so bloody unbearable.

Dec

More silence as Matt considered. Although he was frequently irritated with Beth’s need to solve everyone’s problems, this might just be a way to let both of them help each other.

}Maybe.

It was as much as he was likely to concede, and he would make up his own mind.

}You wohnt tell them, will you?

I sighed; this was Matt’s mantra.

Matt

I knew exactly what he was thinking. I always asked this, ‘don’t tell them I a) got so shit-faced I got on a train to Stafford without any money, or b) needed rescuing when Lauren Miller’s brother was looking for me with a baseball bat, or c) lost my car keys at four in the morning and needed the spare from my flat’. It helped me stay in control of it all. It was hard for him, though, when he was always so open about everything.

‘No, but you should. I don’t like keeping this important shit from them, and neither does Amy.’

I’d thought ‘don’t tell them’ meant everyone.

‘Fuck, dohnt tell Amy.’

‘Maybe I won’t tell her everything, but I don’t keep stuff from her, you know that. You tell me, you run the risk of me telling Amy. Otherwise I end up watching what I say, and it gets bloody close to lying to her. I won’t do that, even for you, mate.’

I’d temporarily forgotten about Dec’s open mouth policy when it came to Amy. They apparently had no secrets, bloody annoying lovey-dovey couple that they were.

Dec

Matt was silent, still not meeting my eyes.

‘Have you been back to see Adam?’

Matt

Well that was a bit out of left field. He hadn’t ever asked me about him, and all I had was a half-truthful excuse.

‘No, behn too busy.’

‘OK.’

The look on his face wound me up, although he was just looking at me and nodding.

‘Fuck off, I hahv.’

I put all the wounded injustice in my voice that I could muster, as I had been insanely busy recently, and even if I had made another appointment to see Adam, I wouldn’t have been able to keep it.

Dec

‘I said OK, you’re the one who’s getting all defensive.’

More silence. Matt had never told me about his appointment with Adam, and I had never asked him, and I wondered if he’d even gone in the first place.

Matt

I chose not to answer, as Dec seemed to be seeing through everything I said.

‘How many times did you go in the end?’

He really didn’t have the right to ask. He’d helped me make the initial appointment, I’d been, I’d talked, the end.

‘Look, jus piss off, Dec, I dihnt come here to geh the fucking third degree abouh my attendance at personal appoihtmehts.’

‘Why did you come here, then?’

That threw me. I was about to get into a debate about Adam, which was a great distraction technique, but Dec had just taken a turning off the path.

‘Wha?’

‘Well, you’re just getting pissed off with everything I say, I don’t think you want to talk. What do you need?’

As he said it, I realised it was true. I didn’t want to talk; talking would solve nothing, change nothing. What I wanted was what Dec always offered. ‘You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit.’ I couldn’t ask him, though. That wasn’t how it worked, even now, when I was desperate. I looked at him, willing him to get it, what I wanted, what I needed, even though they’d just moved in here, they had a tiny baby, the last thing they needed was –

Dec

Matt finally met my eyes. I’d worked it out. He wanted something but couldn’t ask. I thought about what he’d needed in the past, what had helped him. You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit. Well that was easy to solve.

‘Do you want to stay here for a few days? While you get used to it? No third degree, no fussing, just here if you need us, so you’re not on your own.’

He held my gaze as his chin quivered and tears filled his eyes. He nodded.

Matt

Thank fuck for understanding friends like Declan Summers. I stared at him in relief as I felt my chin shaking with the effort of not crying, and the salty bastards filled my eyes in any case. I nodded my thanks, unable to speak without breaking down completely.

‘But I will have to tell Amy. I can ask her not to say anything to Beth and Jay for a bit, but I really think you should tell them before they have to ask us why you’re here.’

I nodded again. Telling Beth and Jay would be child’s play after this. I was sure they already knew most of it anyway, it wasn’t like Beth ever missed a single sodding thing.

‘And you’ll have to help me clear the spare room, it’s full of shit we haven’t sorted from moving.’

It would keep me busy, stop me thinking, and it was welcome, more than welcome. I knew I needed to stay somewhere, be away from my flat, for a while, but if I’d gone to Jay and Beth’s, that would have felt like back to square one, being looked after because of the fucking bastard, and all the shit that entailed the first time. Helping Dec clear out their spare room seemed like a very small price to pay for me to retain that tiny bit of control over it all. Not that I was going to sound grateful about it, a moan would be expected, and I hated to disappoint.

‘Ih bluhdy knew Ih’d end up doing tha.’

‘Want to make a start now?’

‘Ih suppohs so –’

There was the sound of a key in the front door, and Amy’s voice as she came into the hall. I hurriedly wiped my eyes and sat up straighter, trying to look vaguely cheerful for them.

Dec’s face was a picture as he anticipated seeing them both. If I hadn’t been such a fuck-up I would have been jealous of the love I saw there for both of them, something I’d failed to find so far in my fucked up existence.

‘Here we are then Charlie, let’s see if Daddy’s home yet. Daddy? You home?’

‘In here, lovely girl, Unca Matty’s here too.’

‘Ooh Charlie, your favourite uncle’s come for some cuddles.’

I could hear Amy getting Charlie out of her stroller, and taking off coats and hats. Dec stood up as Amy came in carrying Charlie, and he folded them both up in hugs with kisses.

‘Hey babe. Hey lovely girl.’

‘Hey hon. God, you’re completely covered in mud. Good morning?’

‘Bloody wet morning. You?’

‘We managed to keep fairly dry, met Mum in a café in town, had a bit of a walk in the park after the downpour. Hi Matt – oh, did you get caught in the rain too?’

She looked at me, taking in my less than salubrious appearance.

‘Matt’s going to stay for a few days.’

‘Oh, OK, er …’

Amy looked unsure, and I didn’t know if it was because she didn’t want me lying around in her spare room indefinitely, or if there was something else, like me having a perfectly good place to live of my own, or being the careless arse who dropped her children. If Amy objected, I was stuffed.

‘We were just going to make some space in the spare room.’

And then Amy looked relieved, and the look had been because she’d wondered where I was going to sleep.

‘Oh, great! Thanks Matt.’

Dec

Amy gave me the slightest frown (‘what’s going on?’) which I replied to with the slightest raising of my eyebrows (‘something big, tell you later’). It didn’t go unnoticed.

Matt

She smiled at me, and gave Dec the slightest querying frown which he replied to with the slightest ‘later’ raising of his eyebrows. Guys, I’m right here.

‘Yeah, before your eyeballs fall ouh wih trying to commuhicate non-verbally – Amy, I hope ih’s OK for me to stay, I knoh you’ve only jus moved in. My fucking bastard MS has come bahk and Ih’m noh really dealing …’

‘Oh Matt …’

She looked so sad and sympathetic, she nearly had the tears starting again. I needed to be offhand.

‘Yeh, well, c’est la fucking vie.’

‘Stay as long as you need. I’m glad we’ve got space for you now, or rather will have once you’ve kindly cleared out the spare room.’

I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve friends and family like this. Amy was completely cool with an unexpected visitor just after they’d moved in to their new house with their new baby.

Dec

I looked at Amy with love and pride. She was completely unfazed by all this.

)Know what, Charlie? I think Unca Matty needs an extra special cuddle right now, here we go – oh, ew, with any luck, he’ll offer to change your stinky nappy too.

Matt

She handed Charlie over, wrinkling her nose and laughing. The stench of baby shit was unavoidable.

‘You know wha, I jus migh. Hello, beauhiful, whoa, yeh, you do stink. Thahks, both of you, you are both fucking awesome.’

I stayed with them for three weeks. I tried going back to work, although not that day because it was all too much. The next day I went in to GreenScreen, but with all the parts of me that were beginning to malfunction, I really wasn’t up to it. Of course I didn’t see that for myself, and it took Amy, when I came back and crashed on their sofa, slept through the evening, past dinner, almost impossible to wake up, to tell me I couldn’t carry on like it. And because she was Amy, and never voiced an opinion, or interfered or nagged like all the rest of them, because she was kind and sweet but had a look on her face I’d never seen before, like she was going to have a real go at arguing with me even though she hated arguing, I had a look at myself, and how hard I was trying to push myself, and I wondered what the point was.

‘Matt … Matt.’

‘Ungh … wha?’

‘It’s nearly ten o’clock. I’m sorry to wake you up, but you’ve missed dinner, and you’ve missed Charlie’s story, and I just think … look, I know this isn’t any of my business, and we said we weren’t going to go on at you, but you completely can’t keep doing this to yourself.’

‘Do wha?’

Amy gave me an assessing look, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get away with my usual slightly aggressive bullshit.

‘What do you remember after you got back from work?’

A telling silence.

‘Yeah, that’s because you’ve been practically unconscious since you got in. I tried to wake you up for dinner, Charlie was screaming the place down earlier, but you hardly opened your eyes. Do you do this every night?’

Another silence while I tried hard not to tell Amy to fuck off.

‘Matt, you can’t go on like this. You need to look after yourself. Dec’s just microwaving your dinner, because you’ve got to eat.’

‘Noh, I’m –’

‘I don’t care if you’re hungry or not. You’re going to eat it, and you’re going to eat your dinner every day, and you need to think about how you’re going to stay awake to eat it, and that might mean not going to work for a while, because work isn’t worth it, if that’s all you’re doing, if you never eat, if you’re either at work or you’re dead to the world. You can’t keep doing it to yourself.’

I was ill, I was just beginning to accept it. If I wasn’t going to crash and burn, I needed to stop. There was no point being here at Dec and Amy’s, trying to get my head round it all, if I was too tired to do anything but sleep. Amy was right, and although I didn’t like it, I eventually saw it and did something about it.

So I called Beth the next day and asked her to come to the see the doctor with me, and I told her on the way why we were going, and I was impressed that she hadn’t asked, that she just did as I requested, and when I told her, she just nodded, didn’t say ‘Oh Matty’ or go all bloody soppy. I told her I was hoping she would do my listening for me, and she did, and she was bloody brilliant. She knew the questions to ask, the things not to say to me, and at the end of the appointment at least one of us was clued up as to what the fuck to do next. It wasn’t me.

While I’m at it, I would like it to be noted for the official Matthew Robert Scott record, that Beth Scott is one fucking incredible woman, my life would be poorer without her in it, and I fucking love her. It is not something I am likely to be repeating to her face, so if someone would make sure she knows, that would be bloody ace.

I was signed off work, for long enough that I wasn’t going to have to worry about what was happening there; by the time I got back, it would have been someone else’s responsibility for a while.

So I sat around on my arse in Dec and Amy’s house, trying to be helpful, cooking the odd dinner, mending odd bits of stuff, doing odd bits of DIY that Dec was never going to get round to in a month of B&Q Sundays, smashing up the odd glass-topped coffee table by way of having a spasm with a hammer, dropping unimportant shit every now and then but not babies as I was always very careful not to hold Charlie anywhere she could fall from a great height, talking the odd bit of unintelligible bollocks, tripping over the odd non-existent obstacle.

The fucking bastard MS enveloped me, sapping my energy, making it difficult to predict how I was going to feel from day to day, but being there with Dec and Amy helped, I couldn’t have done it without them. They were just normal, they didn’t treat me like a fucking cripple, they let me do shit like cooking and cleaning, they talked to me like a normal person, they let me cuddle their baby and be Unca Matty again. I’ve never been one for showing my gratitude, and I don’t think they ever really knew how much of my sanity they saved by just letting me be there, not alone, part of their little family for a few weeks.

Eventually, of course, I had to go home. The bastard MS was taking its time fucking off, but Dec had been right, it had been the pneumonia that had done for me last time, and it was bad this time, bad enough with all the things I couldn’t do and had to sodding well ask for help with, like carrying more than one shopping bag – the amount of times I popped out to the local shop for milk, got sidetracked with other shit, and then couldn’t carry it all home. Well, OK, only twice actually, after that I stopped doing it and stuck to my mental list, but it was embarrassing enough those two times to have to have Dec come and get me like some bloody OAP. So it was bad enough, but because I’d managed to avoid nearly dying of pneumonia, it wasn’t as bad as last time.

And there was the nearly killing someone. I had got in my car and was driving to Jay’s for dinner. Someone started to cross the zebra crossing on the High Street, and just as I approached and was slowing down, my leg spasmed, my foot hit the accelerator and the car jerked forward uncontrollably. The man jumped back, a terrified look on his face, as my car kangarooed past him, and I could see him shaking his fist at me in the rear view mirror, but was too humiliated to stop and check he was OK. I shouldn’t have been driving with the state of my vision anyway, but this finished it for me. I turned round and went home and sat, shaking, in my flat before calling Jay to come and get me, and deciding that was it for driving for the time-being.

Once I left the sanctuary of the Summerses and went home, though, Beth’s instincts, let’s be generous and call them her nurturing instincts, kicked in, and she didn’t give me much peace. It was as if, while I was at Dec and Amy’s she knew I was OK, but once I was on my own she didn’t trust me to look after myself. If she wasn’t texting or calling, she was popping round, having a good snoop, making sure the food in my fridge wasn’t past its sell-by date, making sure I didn’t need one of those grabber sticks to reach the top of the bookcase, making sure I was still breathing.

She had a point, I suppose. I was really low; there was still all the shit with Jules I hadn’t dealt with properly, and the state I was in physically left me mentally broken. I spent a lot of time on my own, ruminating, and I suppose I could have stayed with Dec for longer, but I’ve always needed to do things myself, and they needed to have time to themselves as well without bumping into some fucking cripple at every turn.

Beth asked me directly if I was thinking of doing ‘anything silly’, and didn’t find it amusing when I replied ‘what, like drive a clown car in oversized lime green shoes’.

The truth was, I had considered it, the ‘something silly’. It didn’t feel silly, it felt like a completely rational thing to think about. If this was going to be my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I didn’t want to be obliged to put up with all this shit, all this misery, all this everyone feeling they had a right to know what I was up to every fucking second of every fucking day, all this feeling like I deserved it for the bastard I’d been in the past. There would certainly be a fair few people who would not shed a tear if I shuffled off, and it was hard being me, a lot of the time.

I didn’t like myself very much, didn’t like how my life seemed to have turned out, didn’t like the ever-lengthening list of people I had pissed off or fucked up one way or another. But when it came to it, the practicalities, the realities of doing something irreversible, I wouldn’t, couldn’t do it. I loved everyone too much, knew too well what it would do to any or all of them if I took matters into my own hands. It would have taken a braver, more callous or more unbalanced soul than I to do that. Didn’t stop me thinking about it, though, and wondering …

So, things didn’t noticeably improve for a while. I slept a lot, I stumbled through my life, I put up with texts and calls from everyone all day, ignoring as many as I could, replying facetiously to some. I was signed off work again, for longer. I wondered if I would ever return, or if that was the end at GreenScreen, whether they would want me back, or I would even feel I could face everyone again.

Dec

I woke from a jumbled, instantly forgettable dream to the familiar sound of retching – no, that wasn’t right, I hadn’t heard that sound since … I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom, where Amy was bent over the toilet.

‘Ames? Are you feeling OK?’

She looked up at me, an unreadable expression on her face.

)I think you might need to get used to this again.

‘What? You’re not – how can that happen so soon?’

)I’m so sorry hon, I didn’t think it could either. I haven’t done a test yet, but I’m pretty sure.

A brief pause for more retching. I knelt next to her and lifted her hair away from her face, rubbing her back and kissing her shoulders, the familiar moves, a growing sense of excitement.

‘You’re just fucking amazing. I love you so much. This is awesome.’

She looked at me, exhausted, dark circles under her eyes. She was beautiful.

)Really, hon?

‘Why not? Like two for the price of one, instant enormous family, works for me.’

She stood up, washed her face and ran the toothbrush over her teeth. For once, I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face.

‘Are you OK about it?’

)Oh Dec, yes, I’m really happy, I’m glad you are too. It’s just a bit of a shock, it’s taken me completely by surprise, and I’m so tired, the thought of doing it all again, now we’ve got Charlie, it’s a bit overwhelming. Hold me?

I pulled her into my arms, where she had a bit of a weep.

‘We can do it, babe, you and me together. We’ll be awesome.’

I kissed the top of her head, stroked her hair and held her close. After a while she stopped sniffing and looked up at me.

)Shouldn’t you be calling Jay and waking them all up about now? It’s gone three thirty.

‘Ha ha, do you want me to?’

)I don’t think it would be appreciated. It feels different this time, doesn’t it? Less thrilling, maybe.

‘I’m just as thrilled, babe. Maybe a bit more aware of how bloody grumpy Jay gets when you ring him in the middle of the night. It’s just that we’ve done it before, know what to expect, it’s not all new. I might text Matt, just to keep him on his toes.’

)He probably needs his sleep more than Jay at the moment.

‘He’ll live. Come on, let’s go back to bed, I can text him from there.’

Matt

Not long after I went back to my flat following my stay at Dec and Amy’s, there was a text in the middle of the night. Fuck knows how it managed to wake me up, but there it was. Summers has always been an inconsiderate bastard with his breaking news.

This is yr early morning yr going 2b an uncle call.

Oh, I really did not need some kind of possibly pissed pissing about. I needed to be asleep, surely he knew that?

Wot? Already am. Didn’t need a fucking 4am reminder, thx.

Should have said ‘again’.

This took me a while to work out, dragging my consciousness out of the depths of ‘un’ as I just had. Then I got it. Oh holy shitbabies, they were having another one. Charlie was how old? A few months? Jesus. Talk about rubbing it in. But I couldn’t be bitter and jealous, I could only really feel happy for them, and maybe wonder how they were going to manage two such young kids. Oh the irony, future me.

Wot? Really? Fuck me. Fast workers. Awesome. Xx

Dec

Nico: =say hi to Bastien Tiago -pic-

Dec: =Hi Bastien. Charlie says come round 2 play. Amy says ‘Aww cute’. He is awesome :)) Lis OK?

Nico: =Lis is wonderful, you come today?

Dec: =Yeah! This afternoon.

Matt

So that was some good news from Summers in the middle of all the shittiness, and for a short time it diverted attention away from me, for which I was grateful. And not long after that, Nico and Lis had baby Bastien, and all was joy and happiness once again, and I smiled and cuddled him and said how cute he was, weren’t his little fingers and toes just so tiny, and they were, and he was lovely, but it just wasn’t sodding well fair that every other bugger in the world had kids, even people who didn’t want them, and I couldn’t. Even if I’d had someone to have kids with, it is doubtful I would have been capable of fathering one at that time. So I sucked it up, professed my (genuine) happiness to the new parents, and sat on my misery.

Beth took her role as Matty’s Health Coordinator very seriously, and despite having another mini-Dec to think about, was always trying to get me to sign up with the city’s bastard MS service, or go to this or that local event, or tell me about this book or that You Tube video she knew about. I usually told her to butt out, refused to take any details of anything that was going on, blanked it all.

I didn’t want to be part of a whole group of other fucking cripples; I’d done that when I first moved down. Part of me was a bit scared of who I might bump into, more people I’d pissed off or fucked up; another part of me was scared of who might not be around anymore and what that might predict for my future, but most of me was scared of admitting that I had this big fucking thing, that other people had it who might be worse than me, and I might end up like them.

So Beth kept trying, she never gave up despite my apparent lack of interest, my seeming apathy and my actual rudeness when she gave me information. And one day, she was going on so much about some How to Have The Bastard MS day or some such bollocks, I’d really had enough, I couldn’t take any more nagging.

‘How about if I drive you there? You wouldn’t have to worry about the buses then.’

‘I dohnt wohry abou fucking buses.’

‘You know what I mean, Matty. You’re always saying how much you hate the buses. How about I pick you up, about ten?’

‘Ih’s a bih early fuh meh.’

‘Get a good night’s sleep then, go to bed extra early. Is ten o’clock really that early, just once?’

I stayed silent, not wanting to commit myself.

‘How about it, Matty?’

Beth was sensing hesitation on my part, and was moving in for the kill.

‘Ih’ll beh a bunch of do-gooders sat in a cihrcle on plahstic chairs sharing wih the group.’

‘I’m sure it won’t. These Living with MS days are supposed to be very good. But if you like, you can just pop your head round the door for a quick look, and if there are any scary people sitting on any terrifying plastic chairs, you can leave, I’ll take you home, and we’ll never mention the subject again.’

I ignored Beth’s amateur attempt at sarcasm.

‘Rehly? If I goh, I can look roun the dohr and go home?’

‘If you don’t like what you see.’

‘An yuh’ll shut the fuck uhp abou ih?’

‘If you’ve checked it out properly and you don’t like the look of it.’

Beth was starting to realise what an out she’d given me in her eagerness to persuade me. I was a clever bastard, wasn’t I?

‘OK. Dehl.’

And that’s how I ended up at the church hall that day. I nearly chickened out, nearly didn’t let Beth get me in the car, nearly didn’t get out of the car when we got there, nearly didn’t open the door to the hall, but the thought of being able to hold Beth to the never mentioning it again was too good to miss, and after all, I was only going to put my head round the door and then go home.

So I got in the car, Beth drove me to the church hall, I got out of the car, I took a step inside the door, and –


69. Various methods of escape

In which there is a reunion.

Matt

So I sat on the beach and read. I don’t know what I read, it didn’t really matter. I got from one end to another of several iBooks, hardly taking any of it in, trying to make my peace in my mind with what had happened. It kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t change any of it; nothing I did, said or thought now would change what I’d done, said or thought in the past. I’d well and truly fucked things up, and the only thing to do was accept that and move past it. Trouble is, it wasn’t that easy, except in the most theoretical of ways. It was as if my life had been trundling along in its groove, and suddenly there was a derailment, and I had no idea how to get it back on track.

So sitting and pseudo-reading was all I did, and at least my body relaxed, if my mind couldn’t. Was it wise to be alone with my thoughts right now? I knew a few people who would have said no, but one of them was preoccupied with being a new father, one of them had been permitted to help and had noticeably stopped giving unwanted opinions as a result, and one of them was my mum.

I hadn’t spoken to Mum since the whole Jules thing blew up in my face. The last time I’d seen her was at the hospital with the rest of the family on the day Charlie was born, but I hadn’t spoken to her properly then. God, that seemed such a long time ago, but it was less than a week. I’d texted her to say I was going away, not having the inner strength for a call or a visit, and I’d given Beth dispensation to fill her in while I was gone. I knew she wouldn’t contact me, but would worry about me, and guilt made me call her after I had been away a few days, costing me an arm and a leg and quite possibly a vital bodily organ such as a spleen, or a gall bladder.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Matthew! Where are you?’

‘Egypt.’

‘You sound so close.’

‘Nope, thousands of miles away.’

‘How are you dear? Beth told me about your troubles. I’m sorry things went badly for you.’

‘I’ll be OK. I just needed to get away, to try to work it all out. Sorry I didn’t tell you, it all happened a bit quickly.’

‘Not to worry, dear. Are you taking care of yourself? Eating enough, getting enough sleep, all the other things mothers are supposed to worry about?’

‘Yeah, Mum. The food’s great. Sleep, meh, who needs it. Not for want of trying.’

Mum sensibly changed tack, quite possibly realising she had as much information about my health as she was likely to receive.

‘Beth said Andrew’s joining you?’

‘Yeah, he’s coming on Saturday. I’m keeping his sun-lounger warm till then.’

‘Oh well that’s good, at least you won’t be on your own. It’s been a while since you saw him, hasn’t it?’

‘Yeah, years, since he buggered off to save Africa.’

‘Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing him again. Maybe he’ll look after you.’

I couldn’t do anything more to reassure her than I was; I could hear the worry in her voice.

‘I’ll be OK, Mum. I’ll be back in a week or so, I’ll come and see you. I’ll bring you a plaster pyramid, or a papyrus with your name in hieroglyphs.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

Mum always appreciated any gift as if it were priceless, however much or little thought had gone into it – her old house had been packed to the rafters with things Jay and I had made or bought for her when we were younger – but I knew the thing she’d most appreciate would be to see me. Especially if the alternative was some crappy tourist tat. I’d save that for Jay.

‘No one will be able to say I didn’t think of you while I was out here.’

‘You’re a good boy.’

‘Yeah, well, that remains to be seen. I’ll see you when I get back.’

‘We’ll have a good talk. Goodbye, Matthew.’

‘Bye, Mum.’

It was a brief conversation, and I’d told her nothing, but I knew that me being in contact would put her mind at ease. I’m sure they were all worried about me spiralling down into my friendly neighbourhood black pit of despond while I was out here, but that wasn’t where I was headed. I wanted to try and sort myself out, work out what had happened and how to make sure it never happened again. Part of that meant digging deep into my psyche to ascertain just what it was that I wanted out of life.

OMFG what a whiny git I am. Was. Still am, I suppose, as here I am years later still going on about it all. The truth is, Lau, I want you to know it all. I never told you absolutely everything, and some things you just don’t say to your gorgeous wife – things like, you know, being with other women and shit. And you’re so cool about everything, I know you would have just listened and then said something bloody awesome, but shit, look how long it’s taken me to get this far in The Ballad of Matthew Scott. And now I just don’t have the time or the breath to say it all, so I hope one day you find this; I’m going to be a bit creative about leaving clues, so one day, after, you’ll find this and you’ll know everything. Ha, and you won’t be able to argue or ask me any of your bloody annoyingly penetrating questions. So there. See how grown up and mature I am. I love you, by the way. Always will. Holding hands forever.

So where was I? Oh yeah. Beach in Egypt. Fucking awesome, or it should have been. I suppose it was the ideal place to try to sort my life out, and I did do a lot of thinking. Hardly noticed the beach, probably would have been cheaper to turn the lights on and the radiators up in Jay’s conservatory. But I guess there’s something about being ‘away’ that can help when you’re thinking about serious shit.

I contemplated work, and whether I was going to be able to go back, with Jules there. I knew we would both be professional, that wasn’t the problem, but I also knew how stressed it would make her, and, yeah, how stressed it would make me. But I wasn’t in any state to go job hunting, and so I was going to have to go back and see how it was, try to keep Lexi’s inquisitiveness to a minimum, try to make things work at work.

I contemplated my life in the city that now felt like home to me. All the same objections applied to an immediate decision, but maybe it was time to think about moving away, trying some of the exciting jobs I’d thought about when I was younger, leaving Matt the Lad behind and starting over. Again. It was an option that both excited and terrified me in equal measure, and one I didn’t come to any conclusions about.

And then I contemplated the big thing, the one that had caused all this in the first place, the reason I was sitting here on a beach in northern Africa turning myself inside out. The thing that had lurked unexamined inside me for fuck knows how long. The thing that had destroyed Jules and me.

Family. My suddenly discovered need to have a family of my own, not just one that involved me being an uncle or a brother. Mum, Dad, kids. House, garden, car. Small unit of people. Possibly a dog, to make up the numbers.

I’d tried to convince myself, a few times, that it was just a weird moment, that it was an aberration, but I failed to make myself believe it. Once uncovered, the need had settled over me like a blanket, and no amount of denial or self-delusion was going to make it go away. It was what everyone did – not that I only wanted what everyone else had, that’s not what it was all about, but now I knew I wanted it, the unfairness of everyone else having it sliced into me. Even Nico and Lis were expecting a baby – they’d announced both this, and the fact that they were coming back to England in time for the birth, on the same day that Charlie was born. It was all working out for everyone else, but I couldn’t have it, or at least that’s how it felt.

Dec had sent a few texts, with pictures of Charlie, documenting the tiny amount of sleep he and Amy were achieving, but obviously so proud of her and his new status as a parent. I knew with every pang of envy that it was what I wanted, but at this moment it was unachievable.

Just thinking about the ramifications made my head spin – I was nearly thirty-five. The practicalities were that available women were becoming fewer and further between. Available women who didn’t already have children were even fewer and further. I didn’t think I wanted someone else’s children, I didn’t even think I wanted ‘someone else’. This thing had blown my world apart, and I wasn’t going to take second best just because there was some kind of hypothetical clock ticking in the background. And my heart was breaking, I could feel it heavy and dysfunctional in my chest – being with someone else was not something I could even imagine. It was another thing I couldn’t solve, would drive myself mad thinking about too much, so I parked it, along with all the other things, and tried to read my book and wait for Andrew, while the sun shone and the waves crashed and life went on.

I thought that when Andrew got there, things would carry on pretty much as they had been – beach, book, beer – but with someone to share the short walk to the bar. But Andrew had changed. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen him for several years, and until our recently rekindled contact I had thought of him as a devoted churchgoer. Even before that, he was a settled family man, seemingly happy to stay with the insurance company he’d worked for until he retired or keeled over from a heart attack like all good managers should if they worked hard enough. The last time I’d seen him which was about a year before he left for Africa, he’d been a fairly unprepossessing man, hair starting to thin, paunch starting to develop, middle age starting to approach. He wasn’t even thirty, but he’d had that air about him of resigned contentment; Cindy’s makeover was long-forgotten.

I nearly missed him when I went to meet him at the airport, because I didn’t recognise him. The hair was gone, I mean virtually all gone, shaved so close to his head that to all intents and purposes he was completely bald. He’d lost weight. He was wearing stylish clothes, and reflective sunglasses, and my gaze slid over him as he dropped his bags and walked up to me, arms held wide, a big smile on his face. I almost looked behind me to see who this dude was greeting, then he shoved his sunglasses up onto his hairless head and I recognised his eyes.

‘Matthew Scott come here and give me a bloody great man cuddle you bastard.’

I did as I was told, and saw over my shoulder several people turning their heads to look as he practically lifted me off me feet with a big roar.

‘God, Matt, you haven’t changed a bit.’

‘Whereas you, Andrew, have changed most of your bits. Looking good, you dog.’

We grinned at each other and hugged again.

‘Oh mate, it’s great to see you. It’s been too long. Here, give me a bag, the car’s this way. I hired it for the week, so we can go see dead Pharaohs or some such shit.’

‘Really? You’re here for the archaeology?’

‘Well not exclusively, but I thought we could give some of it a try.’

‘You’re the boss. Thought we could try the nightlife, though.’

‘Yeah, sure, if you want. This place is club city, according to the PR.’

‘What, you haven’t sussed them out yet?’

‘No, I’ve been chilling.’

I was getting the feeling that Andrew wasn’t just here to offer me a shoulder to cry on, which was fair enough, and I mentally adjusted my expectations as we walked to the car.

‘Well we need to get you out there, my boy. Back on the pony, or whatever the fuck the term is.’

‘Ha, I don’t think so, mate. I’ll be your wing-man, if you need one, but I really don’t need any complications right now.’

‘Who said anything about complications? No strings, that’s the way to go.’

‘Yeah, been there, trying not to go back there again.’

‘OK, whatever, mate. We can talk about it later, yeah? What car have you hired?’

‘Oh, nothing fancy, they drive like maniacs out here – I didn’t want any scratches.’

‘You haven’t changed at all, have you, still bloody meticulous as hell.’

I was reeling a little from how different Andrew was; I kept stealing glances at him, trying to get used to what he looked like, and to the unfamiliar feeling of being the boring one at the party. I hadn’t felt like that since I was at school. I hoped I would be able to keep Matt the Lad in retirement, but it looked like Andrew the Lad was in full employment and possibly recruiting help. Quite a few female eyes slid his way as we walked; it wasn’t his looks, it was his ‘look’. The way he was dressed, the way he carried himself, the way he looked back. I recognised it, as it had been me until a year or so ago. It said ‘notice me’. It said ‘give me a try, I’ll make it worth your while’. It said ‘hello ladies’. It might as well have said ‘get your coat, love, you’ve pulled’. Sighing internally, and realising that Andrew had his journey as much as I had mine, I unlocked the car and got in.

Andrew spent half of the short trip to the hotel checking his reflection in the mirror, wiping off microscopic specks of dirt, turning his head this way and that. I hoped I wasn’t going to have to tell him he was being a dickhead too early in the week.

We got back to the hotel, where we changed into shorts for the beach, and headed out, picking up drinks along the way. As we settled onto the sun loungers, I got a reassuring glimpse of the Andrew Distock I knew of old.

‘I heard this at work the other day: x squared asks x cubed if it believes in God. X cubed says ‘Well I do believe in higher powers’. Ba ding cha.’

‘Don’t tell me David Dibley still works for Eyeti. He was hawking that one around when I first started there.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Never heard it before. I forgot you know some of the old stagers there.’

‘Is Celia still on reception?’

‘Yeah, good old Ceel. Has covered for many a hangover for me.’

‘Always has a paracetamol.’

‘And a disappointed shake of the head. It’s like she’s your mum or something.’

‘How’s it going at Eyeti?’

‘Great, love it. Got you to thank, though, mate. You’re fondly regarded, even now. They’re all sad you don’t keep in touch.’

‘I do Twitter and Facebook.’

‘Not the same, though. You should come up, we could have a reunion.’

The thought of it made my blood run cold. Not that it wouldn’t have been great to see everyone, but imagining going back to Stafford, where part of my life had ended, where all those people knew all that shit, all those lies, about me – I was never going to do it. The place I was born was now dead to me, and I put Andrew off.

‘Yeah, well, needed to leave it all behind when I moved away.’

‘What exactly happened? You never told me the whole story; I know there was a woman, and you got ill.’

Maybe it was time to talk. It was the main reason I’d dragged Andrew all the way out here, after all. I swallowed hard and gave it a shot.

‘Well, the short version is I got dumped on from a great height by the girl of my dreams when she went back to her psychotwat of an ex-boyfriend, I nearly died of pneumonia, she took all my stuff while I was in hospital, and told all our friends I’d slept with her when I knew I had HIV.’

‘Fuck, Matt, you’ve got HIV?’

I rolled my eyes.

‘No. She told everyone I had. A few weeks after she left, I got ill and ended up on a drip. She didn’t even call to see how I was, she just cleared the flat out and told everyone a load of shitcrankery.’

Talking about it wasn’t helping. It was stirring everything up, making me feel all the anger, the hurt, the shame. I didn’t want to talk about Carrie, I realised. It was a long time ago, and the deeper she stayed buried the better.

‘Shit, mate. Sounds like you’re well rid. Is she still in Stafford?’

‘I have no idea. I don’t want to know anything about her. Can we talk about something else?’

‘Sure. Oh, I ran into someone who knows you. Mercy Carter.’

Oh bloody hell. More blasts from the past to bring it all back.

‘Really? I bet she had a lot of nice things to say about me. Where did you meet her?’

‘Club. Only last week, actually. I mentioned I was coming out here, must have said your name, she gave me a funny look and told me you left her on top of a hill when some woman called you. Must have been some woman, Merce is a babe.’

‘She deserved better than she got from me.’

‘Nah, don’t think like that. You take your chances, don’t you.’

‘I used to think so. It feels like it’s all coming home to roost at the moment.’

‘You and Jules?’

‘Yeah.’

Finally. Well, I say finally, Andrew had only just got here, but I’d been waiting for him to come for days, so I could talk to him about this.

‘What happened, then? Another woman?’

‘No, nothing like that.’

‘Was she playing away?’

‘No. It’s … complicated. Or simple, maybe. My mate had a kid, and I realised I want a family too. Every girl’s dream, right? Captain No Commitment suddenly wants a baby. Except Jules doesn’t. Ever. We didn’t stand a chance after that.’

‘Shit. Harsh. I must say I wouldn’t have seen it coming either, you’ve never seemed particularly family oriented.’

‘It surprised me too. I spent a lot of time convincing myself it was something else – I don’t know, cold feet about moving in together, or overload of baby hormones or some such shit.’

‘What, you moved in with her?’

I’d forgotten that Andrew didn’t know, that no one knew apart from my family.

‘Well technically she moved in with me, but yeah. She’d only been there a week when it all went tits up.’

‘God, Matt. Bit of a turn up for the books for you, isn’t it?’

‘I’ve been trying to clean up my act, be a bit more responsible.’

‘Don’t see the point. You’re only young once.’

‘But I think that’s part of it. I don’t feel young any more. I feel like I’ve been fucking about my entire life, disregarding people’s feelings, and now I’ve worked out what I want, but I’ve still hurt someone I care about.’

Andrew’s expression changed briefly, and some kind of sadness clouded his eyes. Then he hid it and offered to go and fetch more beer.

So that was the subject broached. Andrew hadn’t seemed particularly keen on soul-baring, but he had only just arrived, and maybe we would settle into our old routine of addressing issues through kidding around. My phone pinged with a text just as Andrew returned with the drinks, and I opened up yet another picture of Charlie.

‘Day seven in the Summers-Wright household of no sleep. She certainly can yell.’

Dec had sent it to everyone; he’d probably forgotten that texting me in Egypt would cost me almost as much as it cost him, but I didn’t really begrudge him it, and must have had a daft grin on my face, as Andrew remarked on it.

‘What’s got you all soppy?’

I showed him the picture of Charlie.

‘Jeez, you have got it bad, haven’t you. I remember when Rebecca was that tiny, she was a squealing mound of puke and shitty nappies. Not the most enjoyable time.’

‘Have you managed to see Rebecca since you got back?’

The same cloud I’d seen before creased his forehead.

‘No. Karen won’t talk to me. If I went over there, I don’t think she’d let me see her. It’s killing me, it’s not even like I can talk to her or Skype or anything.’

‘She can’t do that, you’ve got a right to see her.’

‘There’s nothing I can do from home. Until she comes back to the UK, I’m stuck.’

‘Do you think she will?’

‘I don’t bloody know. She’s got me by the bloody short and curlies now we’re divorced. I should have thought it through, but I just felt so fucking guilty I gave her everything she wanted. Anyway, not here to dwell on things that can’t be changed. I was chatting to a couple of girls at the bar, they’re going to a club tonight. Up for it?’

Well I wasn’t, not really, but I made an effort for Andrew, as he was obviously very up for it, and had flown to another continent because I had asked him to. After an hour or so more on the beach, we went back to the hotel for dinner, then downed a few more beers before heading out to the club Andrew had heard about.

It was a revelation, watching him go to work in the sea of dancing women, and I had a disorienting sensation of seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. Andrew did things exactly as I had, honed in on the same type of woman, used the same moves. He left me behind fairly swiftly after arriving, and I sat at the bar and watched his progress. A couple of women came up to me and tried to chat, but I rebuffed them as gently as I could. The whole thing was leaving me cold; I couldn’t believe I’d behaved like this only a year or so ago. Most of the women here were at least ten years younger than Andrew and me, and it felt, well, if not wrong, then slightly creepy. Andrew, with his shaved head, looked somewhat ageless, though, and he had no difficulty finding several dance/drink/smooch partners throughout the night. Eventually he came over, young skinny blonde hanging on his arm.

‘Not joining in Matt?’

‘Just watching tonight.’

‘You’re missing out mate. Me and Jody here are heading off, but Jody’s friend Layla … that’s her in the neon pink bikini top… thinks you’re cute.’

‘Oh. Well, thank your friend, Jody, but if you’re going, I’ll go back too.’

‘No, mate, stay, don’t leave on our account.’

‘I’m a bit tired, bed sounds good.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

Jody giggled.

I stumbled back to the hotel on my own, having left Andrew and Jody behind when they got engrossed in snogging against a wall. I’d had a bit more to drink than I’d intended, but I was happily pissed, not out of my skull, and although it was late, or early, depending on your point of view, I was too drunk to sleep just yet. I pulled my phone out and sent Dec a text, my judgement impaired enough that I didn’t think about waking him, Amy or Charlie up.

‘Hope Charlie’s keepin u on yr toes.’

It didn’t take long for a reply to wing its way expensively back.

‘Thanks 4 that. Just got 2 sleep.’

‘Turn yr fone off then.’

‘Will do now. U OK?’

‘Yeh. Bit pissed. Been 2 club w mate. Weird. Feeling my age.’

‘U should b more careful. Clubbing 4 da youth only. Need 2 talk? Awake now. Again.’

And I did. I suddenly missed home, the ease with which I could connect with people who knew me and cared about me. I called Dec’s name up on the screen and pressed.

‘Hey. This must be costing you a fortune.’

‘Yeah. Too pissed to care.’

‘So you’ve been clubbing, then.’

‘If you can call it that. More like standing at the bar drinking overpriced watered down beer watching my mate work the room, feeling slightly nauseated.’

‘Not much fun then.’

‘Something of an eye-opener, actually. I’ve been a dick in the past, and now I can see Andrew’s being a dick, I’m not sure whether I should tell him.’

‘Would you have listened if someone had told you?’

‘Good point. Not sure I want to spend a week trying not to pick up women, though. Andrew’s pretty full on.’

‘Would it hurt? It’s not like you’re …’

There was a pause while Dec tried to find a diplomatic way to say Jules had dumped me and I was now available.

‘Yeah, I know I’m technically single, but I came out here to get my head straight. I don’t think a shagathon is going to achieve that.’

‘Fair enough. How’s it been going, the getting your head straight?’

‘Well I was kind of hoping Andrew would be helping me out, but it hasn’t worked out like that so far. I’m expecting life, the universe and everything conversations with a bloke who’s only interested in the closest pair of decent tits. Oh maybe I do just need to chill. When the fuck did I turn into Mid-life Crisis Angst Man?’

‘About the time you made an important decision about what you wanted from your mid-life? It’s got to be a lot to get your head around, you’re not going to sort yourself out in a few days, are you. Give yourself a fucking break; you’re there for a holiday with your mate. Enjoy yourself, don’t overthink shit, don’t sit there punishing yourself for shit, but if you don’t want to do what he’s doing, then don’t.’

‘I suppose. Is it selfish to just want things to be how I want them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You asked. I didn’t say I think there’s anything wrong with being selfish, especially now. You’ve had a fucking nightmare of a week. Take some time to do all the guilt, all the regrets, get pissed, cry if you want, get it all out of your system. Then you’ll have a clearer head to help you decide what you want to do next.’

‘Where does all this wise shit of yours come from? You don’t fancy jetting out here for a few days do you?’

‘Nope, too busy getting no sleep, wiping baby puke off my shoulder and emptying the nappy bin.’

‘Sounds awesome. Seriously though, you sound like you’re enjoying yourself just a little bit.’

‘I am, mate. Charlie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, to us. She’s bloody amazing. Oh, bit of news for you. We’ve found a house.’

‘Dec, sorry to break it to you, but there are houses bloody everywhere. They’re not exactly camouflaged. I can see one or two out of my hotel window. ‘

‘Ha ha. We’re going to move.’

‘Bloody great news. Buying or renting?’

‘Renting to start with, but I think the landlord might sell. Three bedrooms, big garden, Ames loves the kitchen. Fuck, I sound like a bloody grown-up.’

‘Again, sorry to break it to you, mate, but you’ve got a job and a missis and a kid. You’re so a grown-up. Whereas I have only one out of three, and will remain ungrown-up for quite some time the way things are going. Email me the details, yeah?’

‘OK, will do. Or Ames will, not quite sure how to do it.’

‘Oh bloody hell, Dec, you’re bloody hopeless.’

In the background I heard a shrill cry.

‘Bollocks. I’ve woken her up. I’m going to be in the shit now. Better go, Matt, don’t forget, pity party then head space.’

‘Cheers, mate, I fucking love you, man.’

‘Yeah, you’re pissed, have another think about that in the morning.’

As we disconnected and I lay on my bed watching the ceiling gently spinning, waiting to start feeling tired, I thought about the conversation I’d just had with Dec, and suddenly wanted to be at home. I was missing all the excitement with Charlie, I was missing just being there with everyone who I knew so well, and who cared about me, and I was here with Andrew, who was different from how he used to be, and I didn’t want to spend my week here getting to know him. I wanted it to be like it was before, which was bloody stupid; I wasn’t like I was before, and it was about time I started looking forward rather than backwards. If I was missing home so much, I should just change my flight and go back. Before I made a decision, I fell asleep.

I woke up slowly, the dull thump of a hangover beating a slow, steady rhythm behind my eyes. It was light, and late, and I’d missed breakfast, although I wasn’t sure I could have faced it anyway. I usually drank lots of water before sleeping if I’d been on the beer, but with my late night chat with Dec, I’d forgotten, and I was paying now.

Squinting against the sun coming through the uncovered windows, I turned onto my back and waited for the churning to stop. I was still in last night’s clothes, my mouth felt furry and my tongue thick, and I needed to freshen up. Much as I didn’t want to get up and have a shower, a shower was what I needed.

I hauled myself off the bed, breathing in wafts of body odour and stale beer, and stumbled hesitantly to the bathroom, running my hands through my hair. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away to avoid the gaze of the scruffy, pale eighty year old man who seemed to be looking back at me.

A shower invigorated me somewhat, and after I had dried off and dressed, I checked my phone, wondering if Andrew was up and about, or if he was trying to disentangle himself from Jody. There were no messages, so I sent him one.

‘U up yet?’

While I waited for a reply, I thought about my half-made decision to go home early. And I saw what a selfish bastard it would make me, to ask Andrew out here for a week then piss off home because I was a bit homesick and things weren’t going as I’d hoped. It was only a week, wasn’t it, and I hadn’t seen Andrew for years. If I was truly serious about getting my act together and treating people with more respect, I could sodding well start now. I took a paracetamol, straightened my shoulders and waited for Andrew to text me back.

While I waited, I went in search of breakfast. I had missed it in the hotel, but found a small café that served reasonable coffee and baklava, which was as good a breakfast as any. Dec texted half way through.

‘How’s the head?’

‘Getting better. How’s the baby puke?’

‘None so far today. Result. Talked 2 yr mate?’

‘Not yet. Do not disturb on his door.’

‘Enjoy the peace then. Charlie says hi.’

‘Send Charlie my heartfelt greetings. Can’t wait 2 c her. Missing out.’

‘Will send u pics.’

‘Gr8. Thx.’

Dec immediately sent several photos of Charlie, with and without her parents. They all looked so happy and right together, and I guiltily felt another stab of envy. I’d thrown away everything I had with Jules for this, but who knew if I would ever have it? Was it worth it? Couldn’t I have just this once made a decision that was about someone else and not all about me? Isn’t that what you did for people you loved?

And as I thought it, I realised it. I loved Jules. I had tried so hard not to, I’d played along with her ‘no such thing as love’ spiel, I’d told her I didn’t love her as a joke, as well as in all seriousness, so many times. I’d told myself I was never going there again, after Carrie, determined no one was going to get past my defences. None of it was true. I was well and truly in love with her, and I’d tossed it away because of something I wanted. Maybe I would have made the same decision if I’d realised earlier, I’d never know now, but Jules had deserved to know that, and it was unlikely I was going to get the opportunity to tell her. Even wanting to tell her was the act of a selfish bastard. Shit. Fuck. This was going to seriously do my head in. Just as I was reaching a peak of silently berating myself, my phone pinged. It was a text from Andrew.

‘Sorry. L8 nite. Where r u?’

I texted the name of the cafe, and waited for him to arrive. While I waited, I opened a writing app on my phone, and started a letter to Jules. When I’d seen the psychologist, he’d suggested it as a way of organising my thoughts. I didn’t have to send it, but he said it was a way of putting things away that I was getting stuck on.

Thinking about Adam made me remember I had an appointment with him next week sometime that I needed to cancel. Being on holiday was as good an excuse as any, and I quickly rang him. Being on holiday was also a good excuse not to hang about on the phone to make another appointment, and I told him I’d call when I got back, although I had no intention of doing so.

Andrew turned up just as I was disconnecting from Adam. He seemed to have lost a bit of his bounce, which I put down to a late night and lots of cocktails.

‘Hey. Alright?’

He shrugged and sat down.

‘Hanger? I had a monster this morning.’

‘No, not really. Didn’t have a good night.’

‘Oh? It looked like it was going well from where I was standing.’

‘Yeah, well, turns out Jody was underage.’

‘Shit. Did you find out before, or …’

‘Yeah, before, thank Christ. Something she said rang bells, and I counted back, and she couldn’t possibly be twenty like she said.’

‘Fuck, Andrew, even twenty makes you almost old enough –’

‘Yeah, yeah, spare me the sermon. In a few years that might be Rebecca with some dirty old man drooling all over her. I hope he does the decent thing like I did. Shit, I’ve come down to earth a bit this morning.’

He put his elbows on the table and leaned his face into his palms, then looked up, running a hand over his shiny head.

‘I got an email from Rebecca last night. Karen let her use her allocation to contact me. Christ, Matt, I miss them so much. What am I fucking about with all this shit for?’

‘I thought it was over with you and Karen.’

‘It is, our marriage is, because it was what she wanted. I destroyed it when I slept with someone else. But … oh I don’t know, I’m so fucked up. When we did the religion thing, it really changed her. She was so fired up, so passionate about it all, and that was exciting, it was a shot in the arm for us, and that’s what I got swept up in, but for her it changed from passion to almost obsession, and it changed her. She changed too much, for me. I still love who she was, before, but maybe not who she became, after. God didn’t do us many favours, really, the bastard. She’s still Rebecca’s mother, and I miss Rebecca so much. I’m on the same continent – why did I come here on holiday? I should have flown on a bit further and started pounding on their door, trying to see them. But Karen wouldn’t want to see me, I’ve gone back to my heathen ways. It’s such a fucking mess.’

‘You could still get a flight out, couldn’t you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t think I should just turn up unannounced. And if I reply to Rebecca’s email, they might not get it for months.’

‘Do they really not have phones or anything?’

‘Well there is one in the main office, and field workers have basic ones for safety.’

‘Couldn’t you get a message to her?’

‘Not reliably. Maybe I should start making some plans, though. If I email back with a date, say in three or four months time, email the main office and ask them to pass it on, then I can get my shit together and get out there, try and sort some of it out.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know you wanted me out here to cheer you up, and I’ve just dumped a major downer on you.’

‘Cheer me up? I wanted you out here so we could talk, you bloody goon. Is that what all this party animal shit has been about?’

‘Maybe a bit. I have been going over the top recently, back home. Changed my image, liked the response it got, didn’t know when to stop. Acting like a bloody thirty-something adolescent.’

‘Been there, mate. Catches up with you in the end, one way or another.’

‘I guess so. It’s just been … after the last year, finding a way to feel good about myself has been addictive. I’ve always been a bit of a geek, a bit of a Melvin, but with the stress of breaking up with Karen, I lost weight, and needed to buy new clothes, and – do you remember at Uni, being made over by Cindy?’

I nodded. ‘Hard to forget.’

I chose not to remind Andrew that I’d slept with his girlfriend moments after being made over by her myself.

‘Well I remembered how that felt, what a boost it gave me, and I had another go, and it bloody well worked. I had half the admin team at Eyeti swooning.’

‘Half? There are only three, aren’t there?’

‘Yeah, well, technically, you’ve got me there. But you know what I mean. It’s heady. Especially when you feel a bit past it, and your wife doesn’t want you anymore.’

‘Or especially when you’ve just recovered from a shitty disease and moved to a new city. I know exactly where you’re coming from. Mate, you haven’t done anything wrong. Fuck, who would I be to judge anyway, I’ve been doing the same shit since I moved away from Stafford. But I’ve had enough now, it’s affecting people I care about, and I’m trying not to be such a bastard.’

We continued comparing ageing bastard notes for a long time. Our experiences were so different, but our behaviour so similar, that we helped each other work a lot of it out. We had both been responding to major setbacks; mine were being ill and being dumped, his were leaving his wife and daughter in a country thousands of miles away. We had both needed to feel a) important and b) in control. We had both gone about it in the same way, and had come to the same conclusion, that using people to feel better about yourself wasn’t really a satisfactory method of dealing with your shit.

Andrew decided that he would try to contact Karen while he was here, just in case there was any chance he could fly on before going back to Stafford.

I decided to finish my letter to Jules; I still didn’t know if I was going to send it to her or not, but a lot of it was an apology, and I wanted to give her that at least.

So eventually I got what I wanted, after a bit of a false start. Andrew was different; his experiences over the past few years had changed him, as I suppose mine had changed me. But in the end I felt as at ease with him as I had through school, Uni and beyond, and we spent the next few days either on the beach or wandering around various nearby tourist spots, chilling, chatting, arsing about when the mood took us.

We were watching the sunset, having a couple of beers, when Andrew’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and frowned, but answered.

‘Andrew Distock … oh, hey … yeah … really? … yeah, I could be there tomorrow, I’m in Egypt at the moment … on holiday, with Matt … ha ha, no, nothing like that, we’re a couple of pensioners really … yeah, I’ll get on it now, book a flight, I’ll let you know … no, don’t worry, I’ll hire a car or something … I really want to see her too, I’ve missed you both. Are you sure it’s OK? … great. Thanks, Karen. It means a lot … I know … we’ll talk, yeah? … no, I know, I’m not expecting anything, I just want to see Rebecca … OK. Well, hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow then … yeah, will do … bye.’

He disconnected and looked at me, fear and excitement mingling on his face.

‘Did you get that?’

‘Yeah, you’re deserting me.’

I put on a pout.

‘Too bloody right. You’re a miserable git, I’ve had a rubbish time and I’ll be glad to see the back of you.’

He raised an eyebrow and grinned, to show that what he actually meant was ‘I’m sorry I’m running out on you’.

‘Sod off back to your bloody family, then, you inconsiderate bastard.’

I grinned back to show him I was pleased for him – bloke speak for ‘I’m really glad you’ve sorted your life out a bit, and I’m happy for you but will miss your company’.

So the next morning I drove Andrew to the airport and waved him off to start a new page in his life-story. Then I drove back and kicked my heels at the resort, wondering what to do next. I started another book, but it didn’t grab my attention, and I found my mind wandering as I read and re-read the same few pages. I was thinking about the same few things, going over them, and in the end I decided to ditch the book and just write a list, as if I was going shopping for ingredients for a scrumptious ‘Matt’s Perfect Life’ cake.

My list included: Leave the past and all its shit behind, and stop letting it influence me in the here and now.

Make peace with Jules, if at all possible.

Be the best uncle I can be to the awesome children already in my life.

Be a sensible, mature grown up.

Be nice to my awesome family.

Find the perfect woman.

Have perfect children.

Get real about the last three, Matt, no make that four.

Well, it was a bit of a fantasy list. You have to have something to aim for, don’t you?

And then Dec bombarded me with tons of pictures and video of Charlie, and it made me really homesick. So I changed my flight, managed to wangle a refund on my room, and flew home early.

68. Lean on me

In which help is sought, and a sudden plan is made.

Dec

It seemed like I was having some success with distracting Matt, until his phone rang. He picked it up from the counter and looked at the screen. From the mixture of hope and sorrow on his face, I guessed it was Julia.

He talked to her for a short time, sounding calm and detached but looking more and more upset, at one point finding the cut along his cheekbone with his fingers. Then, just as he asked Julia if she was OK, she hung up on him.

‘Hello? Fuck.’

He looked at me miserably.

}She wants to come and get her stuff, clothes, everything. She hasn’t got her keys, having used them as target practice, so I’ve got to let her in. Shit, we only just moved it all in last weekend, I can’t believe it. Fuck it, I’m going to have to cancel the order for that fucking bed. Here, Dec –

He handed me the mountainous sandwich.

}– I’ve lost my appetite. Oh, and double fuck, I’m going to have to clean the fucking place up before she gets there.

‘Why?’

}Because there’s broken stuff all over the place, it’s a fucking mess.

‘Well, she threw it, I don’t see why you have to go rushing back to clear it all up to make it look tidy. Fuck her, let her see the mess she made. What time is she coming?’

}She said before work, so before nine.

‘Well you won’t have time then, you’re coming with me when I fetch Amy and Charlie, to get your car, so you’ll probably get there when she does. Oh, you’re staying here tonight, by the way, did I not mention?’

}I think you neglected to, but I was hoping. Thanks mate. Your couch is much appreciated. For sleeping purposes, soul-baring purposes and avoiding being the fuck at home on my own purposes. Thanks. Really, Dec, thanks.

He looked at me, I saw his face wobble, and he started to cry again. He looked lost and alone. Matt didn’t really do outward displays of emotion, but I reached towards him and hugged him. He clung on, sobbing hard. I ‘ssh’ed him and ‘it’s OK’ed him for a long time, until he ran out of tears and breath, and it all subsided. He stepped back, putting his hands over his face, breathing heavily. Rubbed his eyes. Looked up, embarrassed.

‘Sorry mate, I’m behaving like a fucking lunatic. Took me by surprise. It just creeps up on me. This morning I was living with her, now I’m not. I’m really going to miss her. Shit, what a fucking mess. I don’t want to feel like this, I can’t fucking handle it.’

He looked like he might start crying again, but walked away, into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Leaned forwards, head in his hands. I sat next to him, waiting. After a while he looked up.

}Know what? I think … maybe I should give your head-shrink bloke a try. Do you think he could help me sort my fucking life out?

‘Yeah, I do, but you’ve got to think it too. No point going just because I tell you to.’

}When have I ever done anything just because you sodding well told me to?

‘OK then.’

I took out my phone and dialled a number.

ɸAdam Palmer.

‘Adam, hi, it’s Declan Summers –’

Matt spluttered into the beer he had just lifted to his mouth.

}Fuck, Dec, I didn’t mean now.

‘– sorry it’s a bit late on a Sunday.’

ɸHello Declan. No problem. What can I do for you?

‘Well, I just wondered if you’d be able to fit in a friend of mine for an appointment?’

ɸOf course, if I can, how soon are you thinking?

‘As soon as possible, really.’

ɸOK, let’s have a look … well it might be a bit short notice, but I’ve had a cancellation. Do you think your friend would be able to come tomorrow?

‘I think he would. He’s actually here, can you talk to him?’

ɸThat sounds like a good idea. What’s his name?

‘Matt. Matthew Scott.’

If Adam recognised his name from our sessions, he didn’t show it.

ɸAlright, put him on.

‘Thanks Adam, much appreciated.’

I handed my phone over. Matt looked very uncomfortable, but reluctantly took the phone, holding it by his fingertips, as if it was hot.

}Hello … yeah … Matt, only my mum calls me Matthew … yeah … well I could … yeah, I’m free then … no, I don’t … no, don’t worry, I’ll ask Dec. He’ll probably bloody tie me up and drive me there himself, he’s so bloody keen … no, no, I – I think I need to … yeah … do I have to bring anything or do anything? … OK. Thanks very much. Yeah. See you tomorrow.

He handed me back the phone.

}I’m not getting much opportunity to change my mind at the moment, am I?

‘Not about to risk giving you the chance to. Honestly, Matt, it’ll be fine. You don’t know him, he doesn’t know you, you can tell him anything, everything, he’ll never tell another soul. It’s liberating. It’ll help. In the meantime, I think we need a diversion. Fancy putting a cot together?’

}Er, what?

‘Well, I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, we bought it weeks ago, it’s flat-pack. I guess with Charlie coming home tomorrow it’s about time I did it. Give me a hand? You’ll save me a bollocking from Amy.’

Matt rolled his eyes, and the hint of a smile caught the corner of his mouth. It seemed my diversion had worked – he could be all holier-than-thou about my lack of organisation, then he could help me with the cot, both of which would take his mind off the fact that he had just made an appointment to see a counsellor.

}You are fucking priceless. Your daughter comes home tomorrow morning, and you haven’t even got her anywhere to sleep yet.

‘Give me a break, she wasn’t due for another few days, I thought I had plenty of time.’

}Where exactly are you going to put this cot when you’ve, or rather we’ve, or more likely I’ve, built it? This isn’t quite Buckingham Palace is it.

‘She’ll have to be in our bedroom. We’ve been looking at houses and stuff, but there just hasn’t been time to get anything sorted.’

Matt looked at me and shook his head, enjoying feeling superior.

}Well we can at least give the poor neglected child a place to sleep. You get the screwdriver, I’ll get the beers. No arguments about sugar and shit, it’s a well known fact that beer helps you read flat-pack instructions.

As he predicted, Matt ended up doing most of the work. I was pretty useless at DIY, and had to hunt for the only screwdriver I possessed before I found it at the back of a drawer. Matt read the instructions and put everything together, while I handed him screws and bits of wood – sometimes they were even the right screws and bits of wood. We got through more beer, finished Matt’s monster sandwich and microwaved some popcorn.

Jay called me.

‘Hey.’

łJust checking on Matty. Is he OK?

‘Getting there. We’re building a cot.’

Matt looked at me.

‘OK, he’s building, I’m watching and supplying refreshments.’

łJust wondering if me or Beth need to be around tomorrow?

‘Can’t hurt, keep in touch. Here, talk to him.’

I handed my phone over.

}Hey … been better … yeah, she called, wants to pick her stuff up tomorrow … yeah, it is a bit … yeah, I’m staying here tonight, on Dec’s bloody uncomfortable sofa … yeah, I’ll be around, I’ll call, or you can call if you want – oh, I’ll have my phone off for an hour or so in the afternoon, so don’t go alerting the fucking coastguard if I don’t answer … I know, I know … I don’t know, I’ll have to see what it’s like being there … thanks, I might. Your sofa is marginally more comfortable anyway, with the added bonus of no day old infants screaming their heads off all night … yeah, thanks … OK, love back to her. Speak tomorrow.

He handed the phone back.

}Don’t think I’m going to be telling Jay about seeing Adam.

‘OK. Understood.’

}Thanks. OK, I think this is just about finished. Would you like to screw in the last screw, just so you can say you helped?

‘Hey, I helped. I supplied you with beer, I microwaved popcorn, I handed you stuff. You couldn’t have done it without me.’

}I would have been finished half an hour ago without you giving me dowels instead of bolts.

‘Fuck off.’

}You fuck off. Your next job is clearing all this shit up, where’s your hoover?

‘Oh bollocks to that, it’s too late.’

}Dec, in case you’ve forgotten, you are bringing your tiny baby home tomorrow. Now, Charlie won’t notice if the place looks like a war zone, but Amy certainly will and to avoid the maritals, I suggest a bit of an effort is made. You need to clean the kitchen up too.

I looked around. The floor was covered in sawdust, cardboard packaging, plastic packets and beer bottles. There was a fair amount of popcorn down there too. Clearing up was the last thing I wanted to start doing right now, but I imagined Amy’s face if she walked in to it tomorrow morning. Went and fetched the hoover.

‘I’m not sure I know how to work it. What do all these brushes and things do? Where’s the switch?’

}Dec, what precisely do you do with yourself all day when you’re not hurling a rugby ball around?

I shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

}I think Amy’s going to have her work cut out getting you to be a new man, you’re worse than Jay – ah, I’ve just realised who your domestic role model was in your formative years. Right, I’ll sort the kitchen, you get rid of all this lot and hoover the floor.

It didn’t take too long to sort everything out. When we had finished, I carried the cot into the bedroom and spent some time trying to find the right spot for it. I was sure Amy would move it tomorrow anyway, but I needed to do it myself to start with. Then I got a couple of blankets out of a cupboard, grabbed Amy’s pillows off the bed, took it all into the living room and put it on the sofa.

‘Hope you’re not too uncomfortable.’

}Cheers, mate. I’ll be fine, won’t sleep much anyway.

‘Well I’m fucking wiped. I haven’t slept, apart from the odd doze in a chair, since yesterday morning. Hope you don’t mind, I’m going to bed. Stay up as long as you want, watch TV, eat stuff, drink stuff, steal the silverware, whatever you want. You know where I am if you need me – just wake me up if you need anything, talk, whatever. I won’t mind. Thanks for helping me with the cot and everything.’

}Least I could do. Thanks for … all this, again. Seriously don’t know where I’d be without you. You’re a good mate. The best.

‘Time you went to bed, mate, you’re getting slushy. Doesn’t suit you.’

}Fuck off, then you bloody nutter.

‘That’s better. See you tomorrow.’

Matt

Dec took me back to their flat, patched me up with some beer, and got me to talk about it. After several attempts, I managed to talk to Jules, but she wouldn’t tell me where she was and hung up on me. I cried. I talked. Jules called me back and said she wanted to fetch her stuff from the flat the next day. She was so cold about it, wouldn’t talk to me about anything except what she needed to do. It’s not like she seemed like a different person, I knew she could do this, turn the Ice Queen on and off, but she hadn’t directed it at me for a long time, and it hurt a lot.

As I talked to Dec and my ability to think slowly returned, I understood what I’d done to Jules. In a way, it was exactly what Carrie had done to me. I’d let Jules think I was someone, that we were the same, wanted the same things. And then, without warning, I’d as good as told her I was someone different, that I was choosing a different life over her, a life she couldn’t understand and assumed I would never want. I hadn’t left Jules for an ex, but I could imagine she felt as betrayed by me right now as I had all those years ago when Carrie tore me to pieces.

It suddenly seemed like my time with Jules had been book-ended by me being a bastard. That first day, in my flat, when I just took her, carelessly, thoughtlessly; that was bastard thing number one. Then I tried to change, wanted to make sure it never happened again, and it didn’t, not in that way, but it didn’t stop bastard thing number two, when if I’d exercised a little self-reflection, I might have been able to prevent Jules from being hurt, or at least as hurt as she had been. Two selfish acts, enclosing nearly a year of whatever you want to call it – love? Togetherness? Even now, after all this time with Lau, I don’t quite know how to categorise what we had. At the time, all I could think about was what I’d done to Jules, how much I’d hurt her and how much I was going to miss her.

Jay called me, ostensibly to give me his standard ‘be strong, stay positive’ advice, then Dec gave me a bed for the night, or rather his lumpy sofa; going home wasn’t an option, I just couldn’t face it, but hadn’t known how to ask. Usually I wouldn’t have had any such scruples, fuck knows I’d had to sleep on their couch enough times when I’d been shit-faced in the past, but given that Dec had been up for nearly two days straight with Amy and Charlie, I had just enough about me to realise that I might be at the very least a bit of an inconvenience. Dec insisted, however, and we spent the rest of the evening putting a cot together and drinking beer. Or rather, I did both of those, and Dec sat on the floor handing me the wrong screws and trying not to fall asleep.

Dec

I grabbed my phone and went into the bedroom, just about awake enough to strip off my clothes and fall into bed. I wanted to text Amy before I fell asleep – I had felt an insistent tug at my heart throughout the evening, as if I was connected to them by invisible string, and I just wanted some contact.

Me: =Hey babe ru still awake?

Amy: =Yeh, Charlie’s having supper.

Me: =Can I call u?

Amy: =Pleeeeease xx.

I pressed ‘call’. From the living room, I heard voices and laughter coming from the TV.

‘Hey gorgeous. I missed you.’

)We missed you too. Although we did have quite a long sleep after you’d gone.

‘That’s great, babe, you must be shattered.’

)So must you. How’s Matt?

‘He’s in a bit of a state. He’s going to stay here tonight, doesn’t want to go home. Julia’s collecting her stuff tomorrow. He’ll find that pretty tough I think, he’s got to let her in. Oh – that’s how he got that cut under his eye, she threw the keys at him.

)Really? She did it on purpose?

‘Not sure. But it sounded like she lost it big time. He’s tried calling her, but she won’t talk to him. He’s pretty cut up, so I tried to take his mind off it. We did some flat-pack therapy, he put the cot together for us and I plied him with drink.’

)Oh, I’m so glad you’ve done the cot, I remembered about that this afternoon. How does it look?

‘Pretty good. Better than if I’d done it. It’s right here next to the bed, waiting for its important occupant. How is she?’

)She’s amazing. The most beautiful baby girl ever. Don’t forget the stroller car seat thingy tomorrow, will you?

‘I’ll try not to. It’s by the door. I’ll be there about half eight, OK?’

)Can’t wait to come home, hon. I love you.

‘I love you too. Will you marry me?’

)You know I will.

‘Just checking … I’m falling asleep here, babe, I’d better go. See you tomorrow.’

)Bye hon. Sleep well.

I ended the call, then opened the video file and watched the clip of Amy and Charlie until my eyes closed and I slept.

Dreaming. I am with Mum and Dad, we are flying above the world. I show them everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been, everyone I’ve loved since they’ve been gone. I show them Amy and Charlie. They love it all.

… woke up in the dark, the sound of breathing close to my face. Sat up, felt something brush my face.

‘Fuck!’

}Dec, are you OK? You were making your weird noises, but it sounded like you were crying. I couldn’t tell if you were awake or not.

I leaned over and put the light on. Matt was standing uncertainly by the bed. I touched my face; it was wet.

‘What the fuck are you doing there in the dark?’

}Sorry, mate, I didn’t want to put the light on and wake you up. Are you OK?

I sat up, took a deep breath, ran my hands over my face. Rubbed it away.

‘Yeah, I’m OK. I was having a dream. I was showing Charlie to Mum and Dad.’

Matt sat on the edge of the bed and gave me a sympathetic grimace.

}It must be hard, them not being around, especially today.

‘Yeah, I still miss them, and I still get sad when I think about them. I wish they were here, but if they were, I’d have a different life, so what’s the fucking point in wishing, doesn’t change anything.’

}Do you know what, they’d be so proud of you, and of Charlie. Major achievement.

‘Yeah, she is. My finest to date. Sorry I woke you up.’

}Wasn’t asleep. Fuck, you make some weird noises, don’t know how Amy puts up with it.

‘She used to think it was cute. I think she’s a bit less charmed now. Not much I can do about it really.’

}You don’t still have nightmares do you?

‘Fuck no, at least if I do I don’t remember them. No, that all stopped way back, once everything was sorted. Just keep everyone else awake now. Poor Ames, between me and Charlie she’s going to have zero sleep for, like, ever.’

I ran my hands over my face again.

‘I need to get back to sleep, early start. Sorry, Matt. How are you doing?’

}Just doing lots of thinking. Can’t sleep, stuff going round and round – should’ves, wish I’ds, fuck I’m such an idiots. Not productive. Hope your man can sort me out.

‘Just going to the appointment’s a start. Try to get some sleep, mate.’

}Will do.

He closed the door on his way out. I clicked on a photo of Charlie on my phone, and fell asleep gazing at her.

Deep, dreamless sleep.

Matt

I got little sleep, but it was nothing to do with Dec’s incredibly uncomfortable couch. I’d already called Phil and told him I wouldn’t be in to work the next day, but I had to be up and about early so I could let Jules in to my flat to pick up her stuff, as she’d left her keys in my flat together with a chunk of my face. I wasn’t looking forward to it; she’d asked me not to hang around, but the thought of going back afterwards and seeing space where her things had been filled me with dread.

I was a wreck. I got through the night by watching all the crap they put on TV in the dead of night – repeats of comedy shows, twenty four hour news channels, documentaries with little basis in fact and a lot of basis in hysteria – and going over everything that had happened today, and everything that was going to happen tomorrow.

As well as Jules extricating her life from mine, I had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to see Dec’s psychologist. Not only agreed, but actually made an appointment, for the following afternoon. I couldn’t see a way out of it now, without the combined forces of the Scotts descending on my arse, and so I was worrying about that too.

So, all in all, not a great night. I dozed a bit, and at one point I thought I heard crying coming from Dec’s room. I tapped on his door and went into his room, but he was asleep, obviously having one of his mad sleep moments. As I was about to leave, he woke up, and he was OK, I think he’d been dreaming about his parents. Hardly surprising that day of all days; I don’t think they were ever far from his mind, and I know he felt their absence more now he was a father. I headed back to the sofa and the TV, but by the time Dec stirred in the morning, I hadn’t managed any proper sleep.

Julia

Evie’s friend Julian’s brother was called Henry. He picked me up in his van at eight thirty; I’d told Matt I was going to be there before work, but not that I’d taken the morning off, so he should be expecting me. The door to the lobby had been wedged open, so Henry and I climbed the stairs and I rang the doorbell to the apartment, feeling strange and unreal, not looking forward to seeing Matt again, or to sorting through the things I had there. There was no answer. I rang again, longer. Still no answer. Angry, I pulled my phone out of my bag and called Matt’s number. There was no reply. I didn’t know what to do. Henry had given up a morning of his time to help me, and now we couldn’t even get in. I apologised to him, as my phone started to ring. It was Matt.

‘Sorry, I’m just in the car park. I stayed at Dec’s last night. I’m just coming.’

I tried to dampen my anger, but I was too wound up. By the time he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and apologetically let us in, throwing a curious glance at Henry, I could hardly speak, and didn’t trust myself not to say or do something I would regret. Matt was true to his word, and once he had opened the door, he disappeared back down the stairs. I had barely been able to glance at him, but my quick inspection told me he looked awful – pale, dishevelled, with red-rimmed eyes. I suspected I didn’t look much better.

Entering the apartment, we were greeted by the aftermath of my rampage the day before. I had almost forgotten breaking all the crockery, and smashing the coffee cup against the wall. The reminder shocked me, and looking at Henry’s face, it shocked him too. I decided not to refer to it, but I was shaken at the state of the place. Matt always kept it neat and tidy, and to see it scattered with broken bits of china and glass felt wrong. It seemed like a metaphor.

I pointed out a couple of things that Henry could carry down to the van, and while he did that, I put all my clothes in the two suitcases I had borrowed from Evie. I emptied my side of the wardrobe, my shelves in the cupboards and my space in the drawers, amazed at how much of myself I had scattered around. The last thing I took was my old t-shirt, the one that I kept under the pillow on the bed, although doing so nearly brought me to my knees. When I had folded it up and put it there yesterday morning, I’d had no idea what the rest of the day would bring, no idea that today I would be coming back to pick everything up and leave for the last time. I sat on the edge of the bed, holding the t-shirt to my face, trying to fight back tears that I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to keep it, I knew I was never going to wear it again, but I put it in the suitcase and shut the top, to deal with later. Henry and I finished loading the van, took my things to the storage unit, and that was that. Done. Finished.

Matt

Dec drove me to the hospital to collect my car, and I drove back home, a bit later than I’d intended. Jules was already there, waiting, angry, and she rang me before I got back to find out where I was, which can’t have improved her mood. I wondered about trying to talk to her, but when I arrived she had a bodyguard with her, some bloke who I didn’t know, and a discussion of any sort was never going to happen.

I sat in my car while they loaded a van, telling myself to drive off so I didn’t have to watch, but unable make myself start the car and leave. Every bag and box they put in the back of the van felt like a physical blow. When they’d finished, they drove away, and it had ended; I sat in my car, but couldn’t bring myself to go back inside. I felt indescribably sad, and my flat already looked like shit, with all the broken stuff everywhere, and now it would be empty of Jules. So I just sat, looking up at the window, as if I expected her to look out and wave at me, or beckon me up. In the end, I called Beth. You can see how desperate I was.

‘Hi Matty. How are you?’

She knew about Jules – I’d talked to Jay the previous night.

‘Been better. Need … um … a bit of a hand with something.’

‘What can I help you with, sweetheart?’

That was the thing about Beth. I gave her a lot of shit; if it had been her asking me, after a lifetime of railing against the offers and the fussing, I wouldn’t have been able to resist some kind of sarky comment. But Beth just gave.

‘I can’t go back.’

There was a short pause while she worked out what I meant. That was the other thing about Beth, she had some kind of intuitive instinct that meant it wasn’t always necessary to go into long explanations. Of course, sometimes she made you go the long way round in the name of expressing yourself, but she was usually several steps ahead of you.

‘Oh Matty, I’ve been thinking about you all morning. Do you want to come over? Stay tonight?’

‘Yeah. Thanks, that’d be great later, but my flat’s a fucking mess. I need to get it cleaned up so I can stop thinking about it.’

And there was the problem. I needed to clean it all up, but I couldn’t go back to clean it all up, and I couldn’t ask someone else to clean it all up for me.

‘Well I think I know the answer to that one. You come and look after Iz, she’s been asking when her favourite uncle is going to come and feed her pizza and chocolate ice cream, and I’ll go and get Rose and we’ll clean up your flat for you.’

‘I can’t ask you to do that.’

I was humbled by her generosity.

‘Of course you can’t, but I’ve offered. You can argue with me if you like, Matty, I know you love a good stand-off when we try to help you, but you wouldn’t have rung me if you didn’t want me to do something for you, would you?’

Well she had me there, and I was mightily relieved, and had nothing left in me that would be able to stand up to an argument.

‘OK.’

‘Come over now, sweetheart. I’ll put the kettle on, I’ve just made a cake. We’ll sort you out.’

‘Thanks.’

‘See you in a minute.’

And thus it was that I spent the first morning of my life without Jules playing dollies with Iz, being dressed as a fairy complete with wings and wand, and eating ice cream until I felt sick. As therapy went, Iz was pretty awesome.

Beth returned just before I had to leave for my appointment with Adam Palmer, Dec’s shrink bloke, and I gratefully realised I hadn’t had time to worry about it. I briefly considered calling it off, but with Dec knowing I was supposed to be going, I decided to suck it up, just one time. No one said I had to go back again, did they? And only Dec knew I was going, I was fairly confident he wouldn’t tell anyone, as long as he thought I’d actually go, so I was pretty safe. Just the once, then.

I pulled up outside the terraced Victorian house, thinking how unlike a psychologist’s – what were they? Offices? Clinics? – place of work it seemed. I had imagined some kind of hospital type building, but this seemed like someone’s house; there was no plaque on the door, or anything to separate it from the other houses in the street. I walked up the path and rang the bell.

There was a short wait, which seemed longer as all of me was poised to run, and I kept repeating to myself ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’, which was ridiculous as a) if I was going to cry, this was surely the place to do it and b) there were no obvious man points on offer, so blarting was a safe activity.

Then the door opened, revealing a normal looking bloke, about my age, casually dressed. He didn’t look particularly scary, not scary enough to be causing my heart to beat as fast as it was. The urge to run away increased, but I managed to stand my ground.

‘Hi. Matt?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Adam. Come on in.’

Adam showed me into what was obviously his house, which had been adapted to incorporate a small waiting room and a consulting room. I sat in an armchair, not a couch to be seen, and looked at him, waiting to be told what to do. The silence stretched a little uncomfortably, and I wondered if I was supposed to start, but he took a little breath in, and began to speak.

‘So what brings you here, then, Matt?’

I bit back a facetious reply like ‘my four wheel drive and a tank of diesel’. I had, after all, asked Dec to set me up with an appointment. I was going to have to watch my sarcasm levels. I aimed for vague honesty with a large dollop of avoidance.

‘I’m not sure, now. It seemed like a good idea last night.’

‘What was going on for you last night?’

‘I was a blubbering wreck all over Dec’s couch.’

As I said it, my ‘don’t cry’ mantra stopped working, my bottom lip trembled and tears started sliding down my face. No, fuck, no. Well reasoned excuses notwithstanding, I didn’t do crying in front of anyone. Well hardly anyone. Not these days. Not that I’d let anyone know about. If you ignore yesterday, when yeah, Declan Summers had copped a load of it. I grabbed a tissue from the discreetly placed box and rubbed at my eyes.

‘Shit. Sorry.’

I breathed hard and tried to stop myself. This was a bloody nightmare. I nearly got up and walked out there and then.

‘It’s OK. Take your time. Just tell me what you want to. There’s some water here if you need it.’

Adam pointed to a jug and glasses on a table, then sat back in his chair, hands in his lap, ankles crossed. I got my tear ducts and my breathing under control, then glanced at Adam, embarrassed.

‘Sorry. You must think I’m a fucking nutter.’

‘Not at all. Take a moment, tell me more when you’re ready.’

I took a few more deep breaths.

‘Am I supposed to tell you about my childhood now?’

I saw him suppress a smile. Not completely without humour then.

‘Would you find it helpful?’

‘Fuck no, if I start there we’ll still be here at bloody midnight. It’s right now I’m having trouble with.’

‘Let’s start with right now, then. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.’

And I did. I just told him everything, vomited words over him, he hardly had to say anything for about twenty minutes. It was as if it was coming out of me without me thinking about it; my head had been full of all the guilt and grief of the the last twenty-four hours, and now it had found a way to empty it out. I was almost able to sit back and listen to myself talk. It wasn’t particularly coherent; I got the order muddled, I went back and added things, I came out with lots of suppositions and justifications for what had happened, and when I finally ground to a halt, I felt as if some of it had left me. Adam asked a few questions, made some reassuring noises, I got through the rest of the appointment without losing it again. Job done.

I felt like I’d survived an interrogation. Then Adam asked if I wanted to make another appointment, and I said yes before even thinking about it. I didn’t want another bloody appointment, this one had been hard enough, but I couldn’t change my mind without looking like a right tosser, so I got my phone out and dutifully programmed it in, planning to call and cancel before the day came. We stood up, shook hands, and I left, having to stop myself running to my car and speeding away.

Instead, once I had walked to my car, I sat in the driver’s seat, gripped the steering wheel and let out a huge breath. I couldn’t believe Dec had done this for years, seeing Adam every week to start with. Going over everything, even though it had felt a bit cathartic, was not something I was going to be repeating on a weekly basis for the foreseeable. Adam had helped me get my head a bit straighter, maybe, but only a bit. He couldn’t change what I’d done to Jules, though, or the fuck up I’d made of my life so far. No amount of talking was going to change the past. And if I felt like unburdening, I could think of cheaper ways than going to a head-shrink Dec didn’t charge by the hour, and now he had a newborn, he was going to be up at the ridiculous hours I usually kept. Nope, I was definitely going to cancel that appointment.

I drove back to Jay’s, still not wanting to face the flat. I didn’t know how far Beth and Rose had got, but there were bound to be some reminders of the breakages. I’d asked Beth to bring some clothes back with her, and was hoping to stay for a couple of nights on their sofa-bed.

When I lived here, after I moved down from Stafford, I had the room that Cal now occupied, and when Iz was first born she slept in Jay and Beth’s room. Their house was bloody enormous, but it only had three bedrooms, a potential fourth upstairs being Beth’s dressing room, and one downstairs being used for Jay’s office. So it was a sofa-bed in the conservatory for me, at least for tonight, while I tried to sort my head out without telling Beth absolutely bloody everything, which was going to be a challenge.

When I got there, Cal was home from school and I escaped and lost myself in the X-box with him for an hour before dinner. While we ate, Beth filled me in on her exploits at my flat with Rose.

They had cleared away all the broken bits without incident, and had cleaned the carpet and walls, for which I was more grateful than I knew how to express. Beth was worried about the gouges in the walls, and the coffee stain had proved stubborn to remove. She talked about it so matter-of-factly, as if she went and cleared up after smash-fest break-ups every day. She even knew someone who would be able to fill the holes and repaint.

‘He’s my friend Trish’s husband, he does odd jobs here and there. Shall I phone him, sweetheart? Or would you rather do it yourself?’

What I wanted was every trace removed before I went back there, so I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and just get on with life in Matt Scott’s bachelor pad. But that would mean staying here for who knew how long.

‘Won’t that take ages to organise?’

‘Not necessarily. I’ll ring Trish and ask, shall I?’

She did so, but Mike wasn’t going to be able to do anything for a few days. I didn’t want to be here for days, I wouldn’t be able to relax, I’d have Beth on at me the whole time and I might be tempted to murder her, which wouldn’t noticeably improve things.

I needed to get away. I had some leave due from work; I’d hardly had a holiday for the last two years. If I took a few weeks off, then maybe when I got back to work, things would be better there with Jules. I couldn’t imagine going to work right now, how I would even get through an hour there let alone a day, a week?

Lost in my thoughts, I forgot that Beth was waiting for me to decide whether to ask Mike to fill and repaint.

‘Matty?’

‘What? Oh, sorry. Yeah, tell him go for it. I think I’m going to go away for a while.’

‘Really, sweetheart? Oh, that might be just what you need. Where are you going to go?’

‘Not sure. Only just thought about it. Beach. Books. Quiet. That kind of thing.’

‘Sounds lovely. I don’t suppose you want some stowaways?’

‘No thanks. Just me.’

Although another idea had just popped into existence. As soon as dinner was over, I got my phone out and texted Andrew.

‘How busy r u next cpl wks?’

‘Flat out. Y?’

‘Can u wangle time off? Immediate effect?’

‘Maybe. Again, y?’

‘Need 2 get away. Sun, sea, sitting.’

‘Wot no other S words? Boring. U OK?’

‘Been better. Up 4 it?’

‘In theory. Ring u l8r.’

While I was waiting for Andrew to call me, I checked out last minute holidays, and found something in Egypt that would fit the bill. Thinking about going away took my mind off everything, and I Googled flights and accommodation until I had a comprehensive list of comparisons. I didn’t need Andrew to come with me; I didn’t need anyone to come with me, but company would be better.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since his email. He knew about Jules, although not the latest episode, of course, and we’d said so many times that we should get together soon. I hadn’t wanted to go up to Stafford; that chapter of my life was closed, and things had been pretty full on down here with Jules, and we just hadn’t arranged anything.

The more I thought about going away, the better an idea it seemed. When Andrew called me back, I had a plethora of travel facts to bombard him with, should he prove receptive to the idea of an impromptu pity party in the name of Scott.

I made my bed up in the conservatory and closeted myself away for the evening, pleading tiredness, although I felt I didn’t really need an excuse today for being unsociable. I closed the curtains to shut out family life, and locked the door to prevent incursions of the blonde variety in the form of Iz.

There was a TV in the conservatory, and I had my phone and iPad for entertainment, but I was impatient for Andrew to get back to me, and I couldn’t settle to anything. My mind kept drifting over the last two days, how everything had changed, what I could have said or done differently, what Jules might be doing now. None of it made me feel any better, most of it made me feel more guilty, and all of it drew me pretty close to the edge of the dark pit I used to frequent. This afternoon’s session with Adam notwithstanding, I was lower than I’d been for a long time.

I lay on my back on the sofa-bed, staring at the ceiling while drivel occurred on the TV. I’d thought I’d changed, I’d thought my potential for fucking up people’s lives had reduced, but I obviously still had it in me. When was I ever going to grow up and be responsible? To think things through? Was I always going to be reacting to things, taking what I could get along the way, or was I ever going to think about things, consider consequences?

The trouble was, I couldn’t imagine it. I hated the thought of being a proper grown up with responsibilities and duties, and yet here was the result of it all. Another spectacularly failed relationship, more upheaval and upset, another person I cared about who was no longer part of my life. Although I railed against the restrictions of adulthood, there was no denying that the thought of it sometimes seemed comforting and safe, and if I wanted a family, I needed to be a grown-up. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head – what I wanted, and all the things that would need to change in order for me to even have a chance of any of it happening.

My phone interrupted my contemplations. They weren’t getting me anywhere anyway, and it was Andrew.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Mr Scott. So are you going to let me in on this sudden interest in travel?’

‘Yeah, I just need to get away, could do with some company, wondered if you were up for it. Egypt looks good this time of year.’

‘So I believe. Why the rush?’

‘Jules and I just imploded.’

‘Oh mate. I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘When were you thinking?’

‘Well, there are some deals on the net, I could go tomorrow, but you said you were flat out.’

Tomorrow? You’re fucking kidding, right?’

‘Not fucking kidding.’

‘Oh mate, I’d love to, but there’s just no way. I could … maybe … do this weekend, possibly, if I do some fast talking.’

I had anticipated this, and had a plan.

‘How about if I go out first, and you come later? I don’t know how long you’ve got, but I’ve got a lot of leave coming, and I could easily do two weeks, maybe more. Come for a week, at the weekend.’

Andrew was silent for a moment, considering.

‘It sounds doable. I haven’t taken any time since I started here, it’s been pretty full on.’

And so, a while later, there we were booked up. I was going to fly out tomorrow evening, and Andrew would join me on the Saturday, then I would stay on for a couple of days after he left. We organised accommodation and flights on the internet while we spoke, and then I called Phil at home to tell him I needed to take some leave starting tomorrow. He wasn’t keen, as my team were in the middle of a couple of tricky projects, but I told him I was either taking leave or going off sick. Phil must have heard from Jules, as he made some comment about business and pleasure and never the twain, but begrudgingly gave me the time off.

Now I needed to organise packing. I still didn’t want to go back to the flat, so I had two choices. Maybe three. I could a) go shopping tomorrow and buy everything I needed, despite having everything I needed in my flat, b) get everything I needed out there, despite having everything I needed in my flat, c) ask Beth to get everything I needed from my flat. Well, I hated shopping, whether it was at home or abroad, and so that left me with just the one option. I checked the time, hoping they would still be up, and steeled myself.

‘Hello Matty, we were just off to bed. Is there anything you need? The kettle’s just boiled, there’s some of that pie in the fridge …’

‘I’m after a favour.’

‘Oh.’ Beth sat up straighter. ‘What do you need sweetheart?’

‘I’m going away tomorrow. I’ve just booked a couple of weeks in Egypt.’

‘Jesus, Matty. Tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Time I visited the Sphinx. Thing is, I wondered if I could ask … I need a suitcase and clothes and toiletries and shit.’

As usual, it didn’t take long for Beth to catch up.

‘Oh of course, sweetheart. Have you got a list?’

‘Not yet. Working on it.’

‘Hang on, what?’

Jay, however, always took longer. He didn’t really pay attention anyway, and I suppose I didn’t help by being deliberately obtuse in my communication sometimes.

‘Oh James, use your brain. I’ll go and fetch Matty’s things for him tomorrow. You’ll have to let me know where everything is, Matty. What time’s your flight?’

I seemed to have pressed Beth’s organisational buttons, rather than her inquisitive buttons, as she was more focussed on the doing than the asking. Maybe she was being considerate of my fragile state, or maybe she was happy as long as I was asking for her assistance for a change.

‘Nine in the evening.’

‘Oh, there’s plenty of time then. Are you driving to the airport?’

OK, so there were still things I hadn’t thought of, brain having turned to sludge with recent events or some such shit.

‘Er, I suppose so.’

‘Why don’t you get the train, sweetheart? It’s much more relaxing.’

‘No it’s not, it’s a bloody nightmare, lugging all your bags through London. I’ll drive, I’ll go and sort parking now.’

‘James, you could take him.’

‘No, Beth, it’s fine. I’ll drive.’

‘I can’t anyway, Beth, I’ve got Colts training.’

So Beth had to be content with merely packing me a suitcase, finding my passport and waving me off. As I drove away, I felt my heart lifting a bit, glad to be getting away from everything. It didn’t stop it all whirling round inside me, but I knew now that I was going to get some peace to think, some company to mull things over, and some warm weather to combat the dreary January we were having. I had books on my iPad, and I intended doing absolutely nothing besides sitting on the beach reading until Andrew arrived in a few days’ time. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it guilt-free, because all the time I was wondering what Jules was doing, and whether she was ever going to stop hating me.

I couldn’t bear the thought of her hating me; even when we were just managing rival teams and I was being an annoying prick, I don’t think she hated me. Yeah, she didn’t think much of me, that’s true, and we needled each other from time to time, but she didn’t hate me. Now, I wasn’t sure. I had never been hated, to my knowledge, although the contempt some of my so-called friends from Stafford had shown may have come close, and to think that someone I’d been so close to might be feeling so strongly towards me burned me.