82. From where you are

In which holding hands across a city occurs.

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Laura

Pulling up later outside Mum’s house, I took a deep breath and a moment to quickly take stock of what had happened to me since I last saw her. Last Saturday, it had been the usual round of not very exciting news, how’s your job, anything you need me to do, what have you got planned for next week, are you coming to church tomorrow, no probably not, both of us just touching base with each other and making sure we were both OK.

My whole world had changed in the last few days, and although I wasn’t going to hide anything from her, I certainly wasn’t going to tell her everything.

I let my breath out and got out of the car, waving to Mum who, as always, was looking out of her window as I walked to her front door.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Hello my love. You look nice today.’

‘Oh, do I? Thanks.’

‘I’ve put the kettle on. Tea?’

‘Thanks. I brought a cake.’

‘Lovely. What’s the occasion?’

‘No occasion, just fancied it.’

I sat in the living room, looking around me at the familiar things, feeling comfortable and at home. Mum had lived here since she married Dad, and although they’d redecorated plenty of times over the years, the same photos, ornaments and mementoes of my childhood had always been put back over the top of it. I was an only child, and each piece of pottery or Christmas decoration seemed to have been preserved as a treasured relic. Mum came in with two mugs of tea, two plates and a knife for the cake.

‘So, what have you been up to this week, LauraLou?’

I immediately thought of Matt calling me that, and smiled to myself.

‘Oh, you know, work stuff. I had to work on my day off, Anna was poorly.’

‘So you’ve been busy then?’

‘You could say that. Had a bit going on, been seeing someone.’

‘Seeing someone as in … boyfriend?’

‘Oh Mum! Just seeing him, getting to know him.’

‘Well what’s he like?’

‘Lovely, of course.’

‘Of course. Does he have a name?’

‘There aren’t many people who don’t.’

She tutted and shook her head.

‘It’s like getting blood from a stone. Alright, my love, what’s his name? And while I’m at it, what does he do, where does he live, who are his parents and what are his intentions towards you?’

I grinned at her. I wasn’t being deliberately evasive, but a part of me wanted to protect what I had with Matt, and telling people felt like I was losing some control of it.

‘His name’s Matt. He does something in IT, don’t really understand what it is exactly. He lives in Avondale. I have no idea who his parents are or what his intentions are. But he likes birds, so you’ll have something to talk about.’

‘Of the feathered variety I hope. So I’m going to meet him then?’

‘I expect so, if things go well.’

‘Well I’m very pleased, Laura. It’s been a while since you had a young man. I hope he’s a bit better than that long-haired ruffian you brought round last time.’

My last boyfriend had, indeed had long hair, but he had always been polite and even thoughtful towards my mum, who sometimes couldn’t see further than her prejudices.

‘Nick wasn’t a ruffian. He dug your flower bed over for you.’

‘Well I didn’t take to him.’

‘I suppose I didn’t either, that’s why we parted company.’

‘So when do I get to meet him?’

‘When you’re a bit less eager, and a bit less likely to be throwing names like ‘ruffian’ about. Slice of cake?’

And the subject was dropped, although not indefinitely. I chatted with Mum for an hour or so, caught up on all the gossip about her friends and neighbours, surreptitiously checked her house for signs of self-neglect, and managed to wheedle out of her the date for her fracture clinic appointment.

I shared Mum’s self-assessment that she would be given the all clear when she went to have her ankle checked; her mobility was much better, and she was much less reliant on the crutches she’d been given. She would probably be downgraded to a stick, and have the Beckham boot removed.

Matt

Eventually I slept, for a couple of hours, waking up when my alarm went off, which didn’t always happen. Sometimes Dec would be buzzing the door for ages, and I’d sleep on through it, so he had a key in case it went on too long, and which he only used if I was expecting him. He and Amy were the only ones who knew how much and how heavily I was sleeping; it would have been impossible to keep it from them when I stayed with them, but I had managed to get them to promise not to say anything to Beth or Mum. It’s not like they could have done anything, and it helped me to feel more in control of things, having at least one thing that Beth didn’t ask about.

But anyway, today I woke up when my alarm went off, which was half an hour before Dec was due to pick me up, and it enabled me to be coherent when Dec finally arrived, late as usual and with a mountain of litter on his passenger seat that I had to dislodge before I could sit in his car.

‘Yuh rehly ahr a mehsy bahstrd ahrnt yuh?’

I never stopped bugging him about the state of his car. It was supposed to be his pride and joy, bought with money left to him by his parents. You’d never think so, the terrible care he took of it.

When Dec first got the car, I believe he used to hand wash it every week, hoover it out, the lot. Nowadays it was lucky to see the inside of a car wash once a year, and there was so much accumulated shit in it that I was surprised they could ever actually get a baby seat in it. And it wouldn’t be long before they’d need two baby seats.

‘Fuck off. Just because you’re Mr OCD with your polished steering wheel and specialist glass cleaner.’

Well, alright, he had a point, and the fact that I still cleaned my car even though I hadn’t driven it for months may make me sound a tad obsessive, but I liked driving something that didn’t smell like the inside of a cheese factory, and you never knew when the ability not to mow down pedestrians was going to return; you needed to be prepared. Plus, I never let pass the opportunity to remind Dec that my previously perfect car was no longer perfect because of him.

‘Yeh, well, if my passehger seht wahnt soh stained, I woulhnt nehd tuh compehsaht by dohbl clehning everything else.’

This was a legacy from a rescue mission a couple of years ago, in which I’d had to collect a dripping wet Summers from the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and deposit him in the middle of the city. Bare-breasted madwomen were involved. Long story, ask Dec about Becca Davis and see how big a twitch you can elicit. My Italian leather passenger seat had never recovered.

‘Yeah, yeah. Anyway, we’re thinking of getting a new one.’

This was news. Big news.

‘Wha? A new cahr?’

‘Yeah. With another baby coming this is just too small.’

‘Hush yuhr mouth. Wha will Betsy thihk?’

I was being facetious, but Dec changing his car was huge, and said a lot about how he had been able to come to terms with the deaths of his parents.

‘I know, it’s pretty major. But I think of it like this. Betsy isn’t them, is she?’

Oh, for the uninitiated, Betsy is what Dec called his car.

‘They left me money, and I spent it on something that means a lot, but if I sell her, then that’s like recycling the money and using it on something else, like passing it on.’

So, with that kind of twisted justification, it appeared that Dec hadn’t sorted out quite as much in his head as had seemed the case on first inspection. He was feeling guilty about selling his car, even though he needed a new one so he could transport his growing family. Nothing good ever came of naming a car. Plus, I always felt a bit glad, in a schadenfreude way, when I realised Dec wasn’t quite as sorted as he appeared.

‘Fahr enough. Wha yuh gona geh?’

‘Dunno. Something like yours might do the trick. Big boot space, that’s what we need.’

We talked cars all the way to Dec’s house, which was a novelty, as Dec had previously shown no interest at all in the subject, but now he was all ‘mpg’ and ‘cubic metres’ and ‘manual versus automatic’, and I enjoyed giving him the benefit of my not so vast experience, which seemed vast compared to his.

When we arrived, Charlie was having her tea, and sharing it with Amy in the form of loud protesting screams and puréed vegetable hand prints splattered across her t-shirt. They both looked a bit frazzled.

‘Heh Amy. Wan meh tuh tahk over?’

‘Oh Matt, would you? That would be completely brilliant. I’ve got loads to do. Are you sure?’

I was always sure. Not being the one who had to do it all the time, I loved being able to take my time over Charlie’s meals, making up games to entice her to eat, both of us getting in an utter state. I’d brought spare clothes for just this eventuality.

Now I’ve had my own babies, I realise how bloody annoying it is when someone comes in and a) enjoys doing the thing you’ve just been finding really stressful and b) your baby starts giggling and behaving instead of wriggling and screaming. But back then, I had no idea, and I just liked being Unca Matty, who Charlie stopped screaming for, so I could feel a bit smug.

Charlie’s dinner over, it smelt like it was time for a nappy change, which I was happy to do, but I wasn’t happy to lift her out of her high chair. Ever since nearly dropping her, I wouldn’t risk lifting her too high in the air, not until I was sure my arms weren’t going to give way. I was dropping things left right and centre at the moment, and I didn’t want one of those things to be my best friend’s baby.

‘Amy?’

She appeared at the door of the kitchen.

‘Yeah?’

‘Wehr all dohn hehr, buh she’s filled her nahpy.’

‘Oh Charlie. Thanks Matt, I’ll grab her from here.’

‘I cahn duh ih, if yuh put the mat on the flohr?’

‘Oh you star. Come in the living room, we can all chat then, I’m just doing some ironing.’

Amy picked Charlie up and I grabbed the changing mat and the baby bag. It made me feel useful and responsible, looking after her, changing her nappy, feeding her. Not much did that these days, and I would always love her for it, and love Dec and Amy for letting me.

Charlie’s nappy changed to everyone’s satisfaction, I needed to change my own clothes, which were covered in puréed pea and carrot. After I’d put on a fresh t-shirt, I sent a quick text to Lau. I’d been thinking about her all the time I was feeding and changing Charlie, and now I needed to feel more connected.

Laura

Just before four o’clock, I said goodbye so Mum could head off for round two of tea and cake with Margaret. On the drive back, I heard my phone ping with a text, but had to wait until I pulled up outside my house to read it.

It was from Kate:

‘May have averted world war 3 @ work on Mon. R not happy, but has vented & agreed not to scratch yr eyes out. How’s yr w/end w loverboy?’

‘Thx Kate. Sorry 2 ruin yr w/end. Mine’s had it’s ups n downs. CU Mon. Lau x’

a little later I had one from Matt:

‘Hey Lau. Can feel u holding my hand. Like it. Giving it a squeeze. Charlie says hi, she’s looking forward 2 meeting u. Told her all abt u. M xx’

‘Charlie sounds v advanced 4 6mths. Enjoy chatting w her. Tell her to watch out 4 bad Uncle Matt.’

‘Yr no fun. Me n C misbehavin 2getha!’

‘Miss u xx’

‘Miss u 2 xx’

I was getting the feeling that Matt liked using his technology as well as working with it, and I might be in for some long text conversations, but that was OK, it helped me feel connected to him. It felt like a long wait until I would see him again.

I filled the time with housework – washing, cleaning, changing the bed – and watching Saturday evening TV, then started a film I’d recorded last weekend but hadn’t watched because I’d worked on Wednesday and then my life had changed since.

Matt

The last couple of texts came while I was back downstairs, and exacted some comment from Dec.

‘I hope you’re going to spend at least some time looking after our daughter rather than running your social life from your bloody phone all night.’

It was a standing joke, with more than a grain of truth, that I spent most of my life on my phone in one way or another. Admittedly, since I had been off work, the texts and tweets had diminished somewhat; I felt awkward engaging in the same banter with work colleagues now I was ‘on the sick’ that I had when I was in the thick of it. Still, as I well knew, once you get a reputation, it’s hard to live it down. And I didn’t want to draw Dec’s attention to who I might be texting.

‘Noh, Ih’m jus gona leh Chahlie screhm while I meet the hehvy demahnds of Snapchat.’

‘Same as usual then.’

‘Oh stop it, hon. We’re very grateful, Matt. Dec, we’re going to have to get ready in a minute.’

Dec looked at the clock. They were due to go out at six, meeting some friends for drinks before going for a meal to celebrate Amy’s birthday, which was on Monday.

‘Yeah, I suppose. I’m not going to have to do much, am I, though? Just change my shirt, I thought.’

‘Oh, aren’t you going to spruce up a bit?’

‘It’s only the Twisted Toad then that Moroccan place, it’s not that bloody posh.’

‘Yeah, hon, but Jude was talking about going to a club after.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Not sure I’m up to clubbing, babe.’

‘Oh Dec. We haven’t been clubbing for ages.’

‘Maybe we’re a bit past it.’

I felt the need to jump in at that point.

‘Yeh, twenty-threh an twenty-fohr, yuhr bohth bluhdy ancient. Jus goh fuh ih, Dec. It’s ohnly Amy’s twehnty-third birthday once, dohnt waste ih.’

Amy looked gratefully at me, while Dec looked more grumpily in my direction.

‘An doh ih gracefully, maht. Smihle.’

Dec got a lot of his mock grumpiness from Jay, who had a similar attitude to having to do anything that put him out, but unlike Jay, Dec could be called on it and cajoled into enjoying himself a bit.

‘Oh alright. I’ll change my shirt and put my new chinos on. How’s that?’

He knew it didn’t cut the mustard, as he was grinning at Amy, waiting for her to respond. He got his reward.

‘No! You need a shower, hon, wash your hair, good scrub up.’

‘But we can’t both desert Matt, that would be rude, babe.’

‘Dohnt wohry about meh an Charlie. Weh’ll beh doin cool stuhf. Wehr’s tha feely book?’

Dec shot me a dark look, but fetched the book, and a plastic box of other toys Charlie liked, then picked his daughter up and sat her on my knee.

‘You be good for Unca Matty. Mummy and me will just be upstairs.’

‘Yeh, beauhiful, an then thehr gona lehv yuh ahl alohn wih meh whihl they goh ouh an hahv a greht tihm. Shahl weh tehl them tuh stop fuhsing an goh an geh rehdy?’

Charlie was looking at me, listening to what I was saying, focussing on the eye contact I was giving her. She giggled and reached out a chubby little hand to touch my chin as I spoke to her, and I looked at the pair of them.

‘Seh? Yuhr daughter says buhger ohf an get rehdy.’

‘She said no such thing. Beth would have my guts for a tennis racquet if her first word was bugger.’

‘Yeh, well, behter watch yuhr stehp then.’

While Dec and Amy were getting ready, Charlie and I were playing lots of baby games. She was getting really interesting nowadays, not just a screaming shit-monster, albeit a very cute screaming shit-monster. She loved it when you talked to her and listened while she babbled, and would reward you with lots of smiles and eye contact.

Charlie loved her feely book, too, and we spent a long time chatting about the various merits of ‘crinkly’ versus ‘fluffy’. ‘Crinkly’ seemed to be extremely amusing, causing high pitched shrieks, whereas ‘fluffy’ was endlessly fascinating and needed lots of patting and stroking, until we remembered that there was ‘crinkly’ and turned back to have another squeal at the crinkliness. God I loved that girl.

Dec was, predictably, ready way before Amy, who, in the way of women, felt the need to completely overhaul her entire appearance for a group of friends who had seen her in all states of play. I had no idea why they did it; I much preferred a face that wasn’t painted to within an inch of its life, but most of them seemed to need the full works plastered on to feel anything approaching ready to go out.

‘Wanna beer, Matt?’

‘Noh, behter not. Nehd tuh beh able tuh wake up if Chahlie cries.’

‘Oh, fair enough. Fuck, what a sacrifice, thanks mate.’

‘Ha ha. Wohth ih. She wohnt, thogh, she usuahly slehps righ throgh, dohnt she?’

‘Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. You’ve got our numbers if not, feel perfectly free to call after, oh, let’s say eleven, when attempts will be made to persuade me to go to a fucking club.’

‘Jus goh, Dec. Yuh’ll lohv ih when yuhr thehr, yuh gruhmpy old git. Ih’s fuh Amy, mehmber?’

‘Yeah yeah. I suppose. Might be a late night, though, sure it’s OK?’

‘Yeh, ih’ll beh fine.’

The only thing I was worried about was if I needed to lift Charlie but her cot had a fold down side and there was a padded mat on the floor, and I was going to make sure we were both upstairs before Dec and Amy left. I hated feeling anxious and unsure around Charlie, but if I did anything to harm her, I would never forgive myself.

Finally, the obligatory half an hour late, Amy declared herself ready, looked divine, and Dec took Charlie up to her room, where she and I got started on some serious wind down towards bed time action.

‘Bye bye, lovely girl.’

‘Thanks, Matt, you’re completely brilliant. Bye bye Charlie, be good for Unca Matty.’

They both stood in the doorway, looking at their daughter; it was touching, how hard they found it to leave her. Another pang of what I couldn’t imagine myself having tugged me somewhere deep inside.

‘See yuh. Dohnt make a loh of noihs when yuh cohm hohm pissed.’

Blowing kisses, they left and Charlie and I listened to their footsteps going down the stairs. I distracted her from the sound of the door closing and the car starting by blowing huge raspberries in her direction, but she still seemed to realise her mummy and daddy had gone, as her face clouded and I wondered if she was going to cry.

Grabbing the nearest thing to hand, which was Gigi the Giraffe, I performed a pantomime, complete with songs and ‘oh no he didn’t’s, which thankfully diverted her attention. I had put Charlie to bed loads of times, she was used to having me around, and after a short while, she settled down to watch me make an idiot of myself.

I sent some more texts to Lau, photos of me and Charlie and Gigi, letting her know what we were doing, letting her know I was thinking about her, holding her hand, missing her. Charlie and I did a lot of chatting, both of us talking our own version of unintelligible bollocks, then we played the ‘let’s tidy up your bedroom’ game, and had a laugh putting all her toys in various boxes, pressing all the buttons on all the toys, making all the lights flash, cuddling all the teddies, until it was all put away. Then it was story time, and after a while it was quiet, the curtains were shut, I was talking in a low voice, and even my eyes were starting to droop.

Charlie had had a long day, having been at Jay and Beth’s for the afternoon, being dressed up by Iz, and she looked ready for bed, so I stood up and placed her in her cot, but didn’t fold the side up, just sat by the cot, still talking in a low voice.

‘Heh, beauhiful, yuhr gona beh a good girl an goh tuh slehp fuh Unca Matty, yeh? Hehr’s Gigi, gihv her a cuhdl.’

Eventually, Charlie’s eyes closed, and I sat and watched her sleeping for a bit, before pulling up the cot-side and creeping out of the room, switching the baby monitor on as I went.

I went downstairs to make myself a drink, but carried it straight back up; I was knackered, and although it wasn’t yet eight thirty, I needed to go to bed. I texted Lau goodnight, and on a whim, as I really wanted to see her face before I sunk into the depths of sleep, I asked if I could Skype her.

Laura

Matt texted throughout the evening, sending me pictures of him and Charlie, as well as a running commentary on what they were up to. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and sent me a goodnight text at about eight thirty.

‘Feel 100 yrs old, but going 2 bed. Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright, u’ll b the death of me. Might make her put me 2 bed, she can stay up an watch MOTD.’

‘MOTD?’

‘Match of the Day. Don’t wanna miss Spurs, but seriously drooping.’

‘Record it.’

‘Genius. Do u have Skype? Or FaceTime (Apple only).’

‘Have Skype, no Apple tho.’

‘Fancy a quick Skype b4 bed? Need 2 sort out yr lack of Apple =O’

‘OK, will take me a while to fire up laptop.’

‘What’s yr Skype name?’

We exchanged details and I set it all up on the laptop, then waited for him. The ping came after a short while, and I pressed the button. The screen filled with his face, on his side, lying down in bed. I filled from bottom to top with wanting to be with him.

‘Hey Lau. I can only see the bottom of yuhr chin. Ih’s a sexy chin, buh I’d rather see yuhr face.’

I tilted the screen so it showed a rather unflatteringly lit shot of me.

‘Not sure I like this, I look like a washed out egg head with several chins.’

‘Yuh look bluhdy gorgeous.’

‘Aw thanks, flower. It’s good to see you. It sounds like you’ve had a good time with Charlie.’

‘Yeh, she kehps meh busy. We had a good tidy – Dec’s the pits at getting stuff ouh and never putting ih away. Amy’s given up. Made a game of ih, done in noh time.’

‘Did she go to bed alright?’

‘Yeh, she was tihred too. I think they spent the day wih Jay an Beth, Iz is a ball of energy, loves Chahlie, buh treats her like one of her dolls, dressing up an shih.’

‘Are you OK?’

‘Yeh, jus tihred. Yuh bluhdy exhaust meh, Lau. I love ih, buh maybe keep the early morning buzzer blasts tuh a minimum?’

‘Only if you behave yourself.’

I was glad we were acknowledging last night, even if it was indirectly. It felt important not to just pretend it hadn’t happened.

‘OK, fair enough. Fallin aslehp here, Lau. Gona have tuh say nigh nigh.’

His eyes were drooping as he spoke.

‘Night night, beach boy. Call me tomorrow if you want to see me.’

‘Always wana see yuh. Nigh.’

He blew a kiss towards me, then the screen went blank. I sat for a while looking at the black screen, feeling soppy and wistful, then roused myself and went to empty the washing machine.

Matt

It was so great to see her on the screen of my phone. It felt like a lifetime had passed, and already I hated those times when I got on with something and she slipped my mind for a few minutes. We didn’t make any specific arrangements to meet the next day, but I knew we would. I knew we were going to be meeting every day for the foreseeable, and with that thought, I slept.

Laura

I heard my phone ping while I was hanging things on the airer and rushed into the living room, hoping it was another text from Matt, but it was from Kate.

‘No problem. Hope u OK. Kate’s advice line open 2 all-comers. X’

Her text reminded me that Anna was on call, and I decided to check she didn’t need relieving while her son’s girlfriend was there.

‘Hi Anna, how’s on-call going? Need 2 divert 2 me? At a loose end, happy to.’

‘Oh you’re an angel. It’s been a bit busy here, and had a couple of calls. Can I divert until later? You can send it back at eleven. Thanks! Xx’

I finished hanging up my laundry, and then sat back in front of the TV, not getting too engrossed in anything in case I had any calls. There were a couple, but nothing too urgent, and I just gave some general advice and pointed them in the direction of their GP. It helped to fill the time, and before too long I was yawning and trying to stay awake until eleven when I could hand back to Anna.

As I watched the TV, the opening credits for Match of the Day came on, and I found myself watching for possibly the first time ever, just to see if Spurs had won or not. I didn’t even like football, so it was purely as a way of connecting to Matt. Shaking my head at myself, I kept one eye on the score while diverting the helpline back to Anna, and sending a text to her about who she’d missed while I’d taken over. Spurs won, beating Aston Villa with a last minute penalty. I found myself inexplicably delighted. Laura Shoeman, you really have got it bad, you poor besotted girl.

Unable to keep my eyes open any longer I dragged myself upstairs, undressed and got into bed.

I woke the next morning, expecting to feel an arm round my waist, then feeling disoriented when I realised I was alone. That really freaked me out. I was used to being disoriented when sleeping in other people’s houses, and the first night with Matt had shown that I could be just as freaked out if things had changed in my own bedroom, but now I missed Matt so much I was freaking out if he wasn’t there. It was time to acknowledge that I was one hundred per cent in love with him. I felt the realisation bloom in me, making me smile and frown, and filling me with equal measures of panic and excitement. I couldn’t tell him; it was too soon, and he didn’t deal well with pressure and commitment, despite all the things we’d said to each other. I would have to be careful it didn’t just come out of my mouth and mess things up.

I didn’t think he would be up yet so, despite really wanting to text or ring him, I got up and got on with things: I went to the supermarket and stocked up, I read the Sunday paper, even looking at the sports page to see if they said anything about Spurs, and I spent a bit of time tidying up my small courtyard garden.

Matt

I was asleep for bloody ages. I didn’t stir when Dec and Amy came home, apparently in the small hours. I don’t think Charlie woke up while I was asleep – I’d left my door open and had the baby monitor in with me as well, and although I slept heavily, I was usually alert to cries.

Whatever, when I finally woke up, it was nearly noon. There was a cold cup of tea and plate of toast on the bedside table, and I could hear voices from downstairs. My stomach was growling with hunger, but I wanted to text Lau before I did anything.

‘Morning Lau. Sleep well? I just got up, how laaaaazeeee is that?’

She replied gratifyingly quickly.

‘Very laaazeee. I have been shopping, informed myself of the day’s news n now gardening. Feeling virtuous ;)’

‘U haven’t got a garden.’

‘Hey! It’s tiny, but it’s gardeny. I have bird feeders 2.’

‘Glad 2 hear it. Imagining u bending over n digging. Phwoar :)’

‘I’m wearing shorts ;)’

‘Whoa. Nearly got a tingle just thinking about it. Gotta go soon, txt u l8r. Holding hands :)’

I tottered downstairs, yawning and rubbing my eyes and trying to wipe dried dribble off my cheek. One of the disadvantages of sleeping like the living dead was that you tended to wake up with all kinds of dried bodily fluids stuck to you. I wasn’t always a pleasant sight in the morning.

‘Evening.’

Of course, it would have been unlike Dec to let me get away with waking up so late, fucking cripple or no fucking cripple.

‘Piss ohf. Good tihm las nigh?’

‘Yeah, actually. We went to Sahara after dinner, had a blast. Bit of a hanger, but I’ll live.’

I felt a tiny twinge of envy, although it didn’t last long. It had been a long time since I’d set foot in a club, but part of the reason for that had been that I’d been trying to change my ways, another part was that I had been with Jules, who didn’t do clubbing, and another part was I really was getting too old for it. My envy was only fleeting, and it was because Dec had done something I couldn’t do at the moment, for whatever reason.

‘Guhd job Amy’s not drihnking thehn.’

‘Yeah, there are advantages to the three am puking sessions, I suppose. We hadn’t even got to bed before this morning’s one. Didn’t you hear? Ames is pretty fucking spectacular when she’s vomming.’

‘Noh, dihnt hehr a thing.’

‘That was a bloody long lie-in then.’

I had slept for about fifteen hours, but Dec didn’t need to necessarily know that.

‘Yeh, hahd a busy wehk. Nehd my strength fuh Beth.’

‘You’re in her good books, now you’ve been on that MS day thing, especially as you stayed. Maybe she’ll just chat about football today?’

‘Ha ha, oh I fucking wihsh. Noh, now she thinks she’s succehded, she’ll just kehp on.’

‘Seriously, though, mate, it must have been good for you to stay.’

Dec hardly ever made me talk about the bastard MS, and he wasn’t really making me now, and if it hadn’t been that I’d stayed for Lau, and only Lau, I would have answered him truthfully. But no, wasn’t going there just yet.

‘I cahn mahk my ohn decisions, thahks. An Pehter Jones was doin a tahk at the ehnd.’

‘What, Peter Jones who played for Raiders?’

‘Yeh.’

Nice diversion, Matt, smoothly handled. I congratulated myself.

‘What was he talking about?’

‘Hahving the bastard MS.’

‘What? Fuck. I had no idea. He was still playing when I first got here, it was his last season.’

We chatted a bit about Peter, which moved the focus away from me nicely, and then Amy and Charlie appeared, Amy looking understandably tired and Charlie looking cute in a flowery dress with matching headband. The headband was not destined to remain on her head for the duration of the walk from the house to the car, but the thought was there.

Sunday lunch went as Sunday lunch usually did. I didn’t always go, as sometimes I was just so wiped I couldn’t face it, but I enjoyed being part of it, especially when everyone was there (everyone being Jay, Beth, Iz and Cal; Dec, Amy and Charlie; Mum; Rose; Nico, Lis and now Bastien, and me), and now the rugby season was approaching, there would be fewer total attendance Sunday lunches, as half the family would be involved in travel back from away games, Sunday games and just general rugby busyness. So this was one of the last ones with guaranteed Scotts, Summerses and Tiagos before the season began. Sometimes during the season it was only Beth, Mum, the kids and me (so, you know, only five), but Beth would still make mounds of roast potatoes which would be hoovered up by the sporting menfolk on their return.

For now, though, dinner and the ensuing afternoon was predictably chaotic, with everyone using most of the available downstairs space to spread out, talk, play, eat and circulate.

I hadn’t seen Mum for a couple of weeks, and although I texted or phoned her most days, I’d been so preoccupied recently that I hadn’t been in touch since our brief chat on Thursday. She had looked relieved to see me, and then quickly covered it up with a smile, and a quick kiss and a hug. I felt her watching me while we ate, and knew she was waiting for an opportunity to talk to me without other people overhearing. I gave in to her silent scrutiny and found her an opening.

‘Heh Muhm, Beth said she’s mahking a vegetahble pahtch fuh Cal an Iz. Wana check ih ouh?’

Mum looked assessingly at me and I pulled a face at her. She knew what I was doing.

‘Yes, she told me. Let’s go and see, dear. I think it’s only been marked out at the moment though.’

‘Ih’m suhr yuh’ll wana hahv a quick chehk, geh the lohdown.’

‘Yes, that would be nice. I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days.’

The Enigma Machine had nothing on us. We walked through the conservatory and over to the bit of garden that had been pegged out with short stakes and string, and it looked like Jay was in for a day of digging before too long.

‘Wha yuh thihk, thehn? Guhd position?’

‘Yes, Beth asked me about where to put it. I think here gets enough sun, but not in the middle of the day, so it should be ideal. How have you been, dear? I haven’t heard from you for a while.’

Mum would have heard about some of my exploits, the main one being needing to be hauled up the street and ending up asleep in someone else’s bed. I really should have talked to her properly afterwards, but my thoughts had been elsewhere and I hadn’t thought to say anything during our brief conversation on Thursday.

‘Sohry, Muhm. Hahd a busy wehk. Shouhd hahv rung or texted. I spohs yuh hehrd abou meh on Wednesday?’

‘Beth mentioned something, and there was a little bit of a kerfuffle when no one could get hold of you on Wednesday afternoon.’

‘Yeh, thoght soh. Jus overdid ih. Not slehping wehl, got up early, long day. Not payin attenhtion tuh the signs sayin ‘yuhr fucking tihred Matt, goh hohm, this way tuh yuhr behd’. Spehnt las few days catchin uhp.’

I hated keeping stuff from Mum, and I knew that if I asked her to, she wouldn’t say anything, and I was very tempted to tell Mum about Lau, it was hard not to, but I stopped myself.

‘Sohry I dihnt tell yuh, I knoh yuh wohry.’

‘Oh don’t be silly, Matthew. You don’t have to call me every five minutes to report on your whereabouts.’

Yeah I did, just to stop that look appearing at the corners of her eyes. It was far more effective than all of Beth’s constant contact.

‘Are you … alright? There haven’t been any changes with you?’

I couldn’t stop myself grinning, tried to rein it in, she noticed, I saw her noticing, saw her stop herself asking. OK then, let’s do this.

‘Yuh cahnt say anything. Prohmis.’

‘Of course. Cross my heart. You know I love a secret, dear.’

‘Not Beth, noh one.’

She especially liked keeping secrets from Beth. It was hard, as Beth used some kind of virtual sniffer dog to find hidden information, but it wouldn’t be for long and we could do it, I was sure. Mum’s eyes lit up at the thought of knowing something Beth didn’t.

‘You have my word, and now my undivided attention.’

‘OK.’

I took a breath while I tried to find the words to explain Lau.

‘I met sohmone. Sohmone amazing.’

Mum tried valiantly to keep some of the things she was feeling from showing on her face, but I saw concern mingled with the pleased smile, and a brief frown which was chased away by raised eyebrows.

‘A girl, dear?’

I nodded.

‘You sound happy about it.’

There was some hesitation in her voice, but I was going to ignore any negativity. I was happy, I was over the moon, and I knew they would all worry about how I would cope, what it would do to me, if I was ready, whether I was setting myself up to be hurt again, but right now, I was happier than I could ever remember being, and if that wasn’t good for me, I didn’t know what was.

‘Yeh, Ih’m hahpy. Yuh’ll lihk her Muhm, rehly. She’s not lihk Jules, or any of the ohthers.’

Mum had tried her best with Jules, but it’s hard to get on with someone who is determined not to let you in. Mum had not really had a chance to get to know any of the others she’d met, as they’d been shipped off pretty soon after, but she had made it known, subtly, that she didn’t think they were ‘my type’, whatever the fuck that was.

‘I’m sure I will, dear, I’d like to meet someone who’s put that smile back on your face. It’s been missing for quite a while.’

‘Heh, I smihl.’

I spent half my life smiling when I felt like I was dying inside.

‘Yes dear, I know. You do it very well. You know you won’t be able to keep this from Beth for long? She can sense a secret from a great distance, and when a relationship is involved, she’s even more perceptive.’

‘I knoh. Jus nehd a few days tuh mysehf.’

‘Alright then, dear. It’s between us, I won’t say anything.’

‘Thahks Muhm.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Laura. Lau.’

Just saying her name widened my grin and brought a warm, fuzzy feeling to my insides.

‘You’ve gone all soppy, Matthew. I’ll have to get the details from you another time – it looks like we’ve got company.’

Mum had noticed Beth and Iz making for us across the lawn; Beth had worked out that Mum and I were talking about something other than the vegetable patch, and wanted in. She was using Iz as an excuse, but we stopped our conversation and changed the subject well before she was within earshot. She’d know soon enough, then Mum could look all smug and be all like ‘oh, didn’t you know?’ and Beth would be fuming. Little revenges, that’s what matters.

OK, I know it seems like I’m spending forever on this bit, telling you the ins and outs of a duck’s arse about how Lau and I got together, telling you shit you might already know, but be warned, I’m going to be here for a while. I’m in no hurry to leave here, where it all began, where I was happy, where Lau was new.

Oh shit, that sounds like it all went pear-shaped, no no no. It’s just that it’s so great, reliving it all, I want to stay for a while; wallow in it all; have a bath in Lau’s freshness and vitality; remember how exciting it was. So be prepared. Matt and Lau: The Early Days is destined to go on for some time.

Aaaanyway, the afternoon ticked on, and as usually happened I started to flag well before anyone thought about going home, and as I was a stubborn fucker who didn’t like a fuss (what? You’d noticed? How shrewd of you), I just willed myself to stay awake and on my feet, or at least upright on a sofa, until Dec and Amy eventually thought they should go home and take me with them.

I texted Lau to say come round, but not until after I’d had a rest (which in Matt’s special code was crashing unconscious in bed for at least a couple of hours), and she was going to wait for my text.

Fortunately, I’d had a long sleep the previous night, and this was one of the Sundays I managed to make it up the stairs unassisted. Dec had learned the hard way (i.e. by me going off on one, at length, in the back seat of his car) not to ask me if I needed help, but that didn’t stop him waiting to see how I managed to walk from the car to the entrance door, and if I looked dodgy on my feet, he’d just come and lend a shoulder. The bastard. I tried my hardest never to look dodgy on my feet, but it was way out of my control, and often, after I got back from Jay and Beth’s, I’d already used up most of my energy reserves.

Today, however, I just made it up the stairs and through the front door without assistance, but was dragging my feet so badly across the living room to the bedroom that I thought I might trip. I arrived at the bed with a second or two to spare to slip my shoes off, and then I was out of it.

I woke up about six, got myself sorted, then texted Lau to say come over. I’d told her I was going to cook her dinner, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me this time. I had a whole freezer full of sauces I’d made a while ago, and it was an easy task to prepare some chicken, vegetables and rice to go with it all.

Laura

Matt texted the all clear just after half past six. I’d already packed a bag with sleeping clothes, toiletries and my work clothes for the next day, making the massive assumption that I was going to be staying the night without even thinking twice about it.

I hopped in the car and was there by seven, pressing MRS and being buzzed in without a greeting. Matt’s front door was open, and delicious smells were wafting out of it. I walked in quietly and put my bag down gently inside the door. Matt had his back to me, and was standing at the hob, stirring. I crept up behind him, just about to scare him by pinching his bum.

Matt

I let Lau in when she buzzed, left the front door ajar, and went back to stirring the dinner at the hob. I had my back to the door, but my splashback tiles were shiny black, and by watching the reflection when I heard her come in, I saw her put her bag down and try to sneak up on me.

Oh she wasn’t serious; even if I hadn’t seen her, she did not have the silent capabilities necessary for sneaking. I could hear the rustling of her clothes, and her breathing, even over the bubbling of the sauce in the pan. She was just reaching out towards my bum, when I spoke.

‘Hey Lau.’

She squealed and jumped back, holding a hand against her chest.

‘How did you know I was there?’

‘Wha, apart from yuh making a noise lihk a herd of elephants?’

‘Cheek! I was using my Ray Mears bush skills, you can’t possibly have heard me.’

‘OK, Lau, if yuh say soh. Buh ever heard of reflehtive suhfaces?’

I pointed to the tiles, and she looked embarrassed, which made me feel a little guilty, but not so much that I was going to stop teasing her.

‘Oh.’

‘Surely Mearsy teaches yuh tuh knoh yuhr environment?’

‘OK, lesson learned. Never sneak up on Matt.’

‘Yuh behter believe ih. Oh Lau …’

I propped the spoon on the side of the pan, turned and folded her up in my arms.

‘I mihsed yuh.’

It felt so good to be holding her again, it had been too long – more than twenty-four hours, in fact.

‘Mm, missed you too. Did you have a good time with your brother?’

‘Yeh, buh was thinking abouh yuh all the tihm. Nehly told them abouh yuh.’

It had been harder than I’d thought, not saying anything to anyone but Mum, and Lau’s name hadn’t been far from the tip of my tongue the whole afternoon.

‘Why didn’t you?’

‘Dohnt like them knowing everything about meh.’

‘Why not?’

I sighed. I suppose Lau needed to know the kind of fucked up thought processes that made me tick.

‘Need tuh keep something fuh meh jus fuh now. When I was ill las time, I – they – Jay gave up his job an moved tuh Stafford, goh a house wih enough room fuh meh, I moved in from hospital. They were greht, buh when yuh cahnt even squehz one ouh wihouh a fahmly mehting abouh cohlour an fucking consistency, yuh nehd yuhr privacy.’

Lau nodded as if she understood.

‘Fair enough. I told Mum about you.’

‘Did yuh? Wha she say?’

‘Hoped you weren’t a ruffian.’

I was many things a mother might find objectionable, but I didn’t think ‘ruffian’ fitted the bill.

‘Wha yuh tell her?’

‘That you’re a foul mouthed layabout with an excellent oral sex technique, but not a ruffian.’

Ooh, I liked it, that she could tease me back a bit. And of course I liked it that she thought I had an excellent oral sex technique.

‘Ha ha. Thanks. Wouldn’t wan tuh beh yuhr bih of rough. The rest is true. When duh I get tuh meet her?’

‘Really?’

I nodded, surprised at my eagerness to meet Lau’s mum. I wasn’t a great one for meeting the parents, couldn’t actually remember ever having done it before, but I wanted to know everything about Lau, and she seemed to spend a lot of time with her mum, so it was a no-brainer.

‘She wanted to know the same thing. I see her most Saturdays. Next weekend?’

I had the briefest little freak to myself. Holy shit, I was going to meet Lau’s bloody mum next weekend. Meeting the mum – that’s like huge, major shit, it’s like dust off the glad-rags, it’s like discuss the china pattern, it’s like tuxedo or morning suit … then I got over myself. It’s like meeting someone’s mum, Matt. Like you were just thinking, before you freaked.

‘OK. An yuhr coming tuh Jay an Beth’s on Sunday. My muhm’ll beh thehr too.’

It was going to happen, and it gave me a deadline. I’d have to tell them all before next weekend; it would stop me putting it off.

Laura

I looked up at him. He had a determined look on his face, rather than one that said ‘I really want to do this’, but I could see he was making an effort.

‘Wow.’

Matt

Lau looked like she knew what a big thing that would be for me.

‘I know. I fehl a bih like I’m on a speeding train, an ih’s thrilling an everything, buh I’m shih-scared. Buh ih’s OK cos I’ve goh yuh. We can beh shih-scared together.’

‘We can.’

Lau agreed amicably, not seeming shit-scared in the slightest.

‘This smells lush, what is it?’

She pointed to the pan, which I needed to get back to, to stop it burning.

‘Thai grehn curry.’

‘Have you made it since you got home?’

She looked so impressed, I wished I’d made it from scratch, but I came clean.

‘Yeh, dohnt take long, made a batch of sauce an froze ih las wehk.’

‘I am in awe of your domestic skills.’

Oh well, if she was still impressed, then it was a double result.

‘I’ve brought pudding though, I’ve been busy in the kitchen too.’

She fetched a plastic box full of chocolate chip cookies. I was glad she had some cooking skills – maybe she was a baker rather than a chef, in which case we would complement each other nicely.

‘I haven’t taste tested them yet, so we might need a back up.’

‘Goh ice cream. They smell lush too.’

I grinned at Lau as I repeated her very Devon adjective.

‘Sorted then. How long till it’s ready?’

‘Not long. Rice is nehly done, quihk salad, ih’s there. Go an sit down. Or stay here an grope my bum, either way.’

I knew which one I preferred, and it seemed Lau did too, as she stood close behind me, so close I could feel her breath on my neck, sending goosebumps up into my scalp.

‘Mm, second option is good for me.’

‘Meh too. Jus dohnt geh in the way of meh stirring.’

‘No, I’ll be behind you. Just here. Concentrate on what you’re doing.’

I tried my best to concentrate, but it was bloody hard with Lau feeling my arse up. She was giggling as she did it, too, which made her jiggle against me, and again I cursed the fucking bastard for not allowing me to respond. Although, if I had, we wouldn’t have had any dinner for quite a while.

The meal eaten, with just enough beer and gin and tonic drunk to make us happily content, Lau declared me a fine cook and all round ace gent. Oh alright, what she actually said was, ‘Blimey, you make a good curry.’ And so I had to point out that it wasn’t a curry like you’d get from the Taj Mahal on the High Street, but a Thai Green Curry, like they make in Thailand, and she called me pedantic, but said it was still flipping tasty, and I teased her about not being able to swear except when I scared her by whispering, or by going off on one in the middle of the night, and she said she had been scared, and then it all got a bit serious for a bit while we thought about how I’d been, only two nights ago, but then I thought about how I was now, how different I felt, how different she made me feel, and I just grinned at her, and she grinned back, and we knew, I think both of us knew, that it was going to be OK, I wasn’t going back there, as long as we were always holding hands.

But, of course, the fucking bastard couldn’t just let me be happy and have a normal evening. I got really tired, in spite of my earlier sleep, and by about half past eight I was just wiped. I didn’t want to stay up until I crashed, but I wanted to spend some time with Lau, holding her to me, like I’d been thinking of doing all day. I looked ruefully at the clock.

‘Sohry, Lau, I’m gona have tuh goh tuh bed. Yuh can stay up, come in later. Goh DVDs, books, computer –’

‘Can’t I come to bed with you?’

Oh yes, angel mine, always.

‘Thoht ih’d beh bih early fuh yuh?’

‘I’ve brought a book, I’m perfectly happy reading in bed, unless the light will disturb you.’

‘Noh, I can sleep through anything. Yuh sure? Ih’d love tuh have yuh wih meh.’

She gave me a big smile.

‘Perfect. I’ll just clean my teeth. It’s like a proper sleepover. Minus the squealing girls and smuggled cider.’

I thought of the sleepovers I’d had, which consisted of: me, Andrew and Jonathan Woodgrove; the Star Wars trilogy; a family bag of tortilla chips; a large bottle of Tesco cola.

‘Yuhr sleepovers sound much more exciting than mine.’

‘No squealing girls?’

‘Noh, jus smelly boys talking abouh squealing girls. An thinking abouh them. Ohnly increhsed the smelliness.’

‘Ew. I’m so glad I’m a girl.’

‘Meh too. See yuh in bed.’

I cleaned my teeth first, then gave the bathroom over to Lau. I lay waiting for her, determined to stay awake until she’d got undressed and got into bed, at the very least. Hopefully longer. She came back in and started to undress.

‘Glad I dihnt miss this by bein aslehp.’

‘You’re very easily pleased, aren’t you.’

‘Are yuh kidding? Ih’s lihk having my own personal strip tehse. Yuhr soh fucking sexy.’

‘OK, well here goes, I’m putting my old sleeping shirt on …’

And in order to do that she had to take off her shirt and her bra.

‘… and a fresh pair of pants.’

Which necessitated the removal of the current pants. I watched it all, breathlessly.

‘Da da da …’

She sung the opening bars of The Stripper and wiggled about a bit as she changed. She was taking the mickey, but she was so unbelievably sexy, and I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anyone. Bloody, fucking, bollocking, arsing bastard MS.

‘Cohm here, yuh bluhdy siren.’

‘Siren? That’s a new one. Not been called a siren before.’

I couldn’t understand why. She had been singing her song, calling my ship to wreck on her rocks, for days.

‘Jus shut the fuck up an geh over hehr.’

She walked slowly over to the bed, made a big deal of very slowly and deliberately turning the duvet down and plumping the pillows before getting in, making me wait. I grabbed her as soon as her backside hit the mattress, which made her squeal, and pulled her to me.

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘I thought you needed your sleep.’

‘How am I supposed tuh slehp wih yuh dancing naked roun my bluhdy bedroom?’

‘I wasn’t dancing, I was just getting changed. I think you should close your eyes and count sheep.’

She put as much ‘prim’ in her voice as she could muster.

‘Fuck tha. Need tuh duh some serious groping fihrst.’

‘Well don’t blame me if you’re knackered tomorrow.’

Oh, I wasn’t going to be doing any blaming, if I got my way now. I might be recovering, but I’d be doing it blissfully. We moved into each other’s arms and spent a glorious time kissing, touching, feeling, being with each other.

Eventually, I felt my wakefulness slipping away, and I couldn’t fight it any longer, even to stay up with Lau. I fell asleep, leaning against her, holding her, feeling her with me as I plummeted into the dark.

Laura

I could feel Matt’s energy leaving him, as his body sagged more heavily against mine, and before long he was asleep, leaning against me, arm over me, legs tangled with mine. I couldn’t move, but didn’t need to, finding my own entertainment watching him sleep and stroking his thick unruly hair away from his face. After a while I dozed too, waking up briefly as Matt turned over onto his back, releasing me. I turned the lamp off and lay back down, trying to remind myself not to freak out when I woke up in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sensations in the morning.