116. Be my baby

In which things are begun and things are finished, and we learn the art of serenading.

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Matt

‘Hey Cory. Everything OK?’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know it’s your day off, but it’s all going tits up here.’

‘Tits up how?’

I’d left everything in perfect working order yesterday, so as to be able to have a rare match day off to celebrate my fortieth and Rosa’s first birthdays.

Dec and Amy’s fourth, and allegedly final, child had been born exactly a year ago, on my birthday. She had caused all sorts of drama, right from the start, with Amy suffering horrendous morning sickness, then seriously high blood pressure, then having a nightmare labour resulting in an emergency caesarean, before arriving a month early, on the afternoon of my thirty-ninth birthday, and spending the first two weeks of her life in an incubator, tubes erupting from nearly every orifice.

She was a bloody little fighter, though, with her shock of red hair and her indignant cries as she protested her lot in early life. It wasn’t until she was released from the hospital, and got some serious cuddles from her relieved parents and wider family, that she calmed down, as if she’d been yelling for that attention all this time, and finally people were giving her what she wanted, dammit.

Rosa always wanted cuddles, from everyone, possibly a throwback to her early experiences when they were few and far between, and one of my joys has been the tiny redhead clambering into my lap for a story, or just to sit sucking her thumb while she gazed spellbound at a DVD.

But anyway, so now she was one year old, and we were having a joint party, because turning forty makes you feel like being a big kid, and it was going to be a bit of a Scott free-for-all, naturally organised by Beth, except that now I was talking to Cory, it sounded very much like I wasn’t going to make it to my party.

This big ‘0’ birthday could not have been more different from my thirtieth, when nobody had really seemed to notice and when I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of interest. This time, well firstly there was the party, which yeah was mainly for the kids, but I was excited about it too. And then, I’d woken up this morning with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her hands on my balls, and she wasn’t trying to get me out of bed; she was trying to keep me in it so she could get into my pants. Awesome.

Unfortunately, before we could complete proceedings, the door handle rattled and Josh and Ella were there with cards they’d made and presents Lau had bought for them to give me, and we had a big family smush before breakfast, and I really hardly minded about not completing proceedings.

There had been texts from hilarious people all day, reminding me how ancient I now was, but the truth was, I didn’t feel it. I had felt older at thirty, probably due to being with a girlfriend who a) didn’t care that it was my birthday and b) was several years younger than me, so had no idea what a big deal an ‘0’ birthday was.

But now, loads of people were letting me know they knew it was a big deal, and I felt great about it. Hey, I had everything, didn’t I? Well, not everything, I wasn’t sitting on my private island, hopping on my private jet to my private skyscraper or some such shit, but I was pretty happy with life. Oh, except now it looked like there was a cloud on the horizon regarding the party. Fuck it.

‘The system’s crashed.’

‘Which bit?’

‘All of it.’

‘Oh shit.’

That meant serious, unmitigated, fuckety fuck fuck fuck disaster time. Full Titanic meets iceberg. With – I checked my watch – less than five hours until kick off, none of the ticketing systems would be working, which meant no new tickets could be sold, the bar code scanners wouldn’t recognise tickets or season tickets, the cash registers in the bars would be locked up, the scoreboard wouldn’t work, the player GPS would be down, and any number of similarly disastrous things that wouldn’t be happening.

‘Any idea why?’

‘Not yet, it just happened. Sorry, Matt, me and Jenna have tried, but nothing’s worked.’

‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’

‘Oh ha ha. Actually, yes. Can you think of anything else?’

‘I think I need to be there.’

‘But isn’t it your party?’

‘Yeah, Cory, but I think I’d rather have a job on Monday than be full of cake and fizzy pop tonight. I’ll be there in … give me half an hour so I can explain and escape.’

‘Beth, really sorry, major disaster @ work, will b late. Save me some jelly.’

‘Oh no, Matty. How late?’

‘Not sure, dep on size of iceberg.’

‘??’

‘Don’t count on me. Sorry.’

‘:(‘

*

‘Hello Malcolm, what can I do for you?’

‘Matt, I just wanted to thank you for your efforts today. I don’t think anyone noticed the glitches, but I appreciate you giving up your time and making sure the game went ahead.’

‘Oh, er, how did you know I was there?’

‘I don’t miss much when it comes to Raiders. You averted a fairly catastrophic situation for us – today was a sell out, and we would have had to postpone.’

‘Well it just took a bit of jiggery-pokery. Cory and Jenna had most of it covered.’

‘You are a very modest man. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed, or the fact you gave up a family celebration.’

‘Oh, well, thanks Malcolm.’

‘I’ll see you on Monday. Goodbye Matt.’

I’d missed the party. Not all of it, I’d made it back in time for the last of the pass the parcel, and to get a goody bag (Beth had made me a special one which included miniature whisky, some chocolate body paint and a condom – at least I hope that’s not what was in the ones she gave to all the kids), but I’d missed the jelly and ice-cream, the joint birthday cake, the musical statues, the murder in the dark and all of the squealing.

Josh and Ella were full of sugar and e-numbers, and were running about the hall Beth had hired like things possessed, along with all the other hyped up Coke-heads. The day was saved, for me, by Mum and April offering to have all of the kids, at Dec’s house, while Dec, Amy, Jay and Beth took Lau and me out to dinner. It was a more grown-up celebration than I had been planning, but it meant that Dec and Jay could be there. They hadn’t made it to the party either, because of the Raiders home game.

So in the end, it all worked out, as it tended to, and I got brownie points aplenty for being a) a work hero and b) chilled about it all. Oh, also, I let Lau get in my pants later as we’d been so rudely interrupted earlier. Result.

Cal

Ayesha Chaudhry. Quiet, unassuming, totally hot (not that I noticed of course), science project partner. When we were assigned partners, I didn’t give much thought to who I was going to get. They usually paired boys up with boys and girls up with girls, but there must have been an odd number, so Ayesha and I ended up growing plants in the dark together.

Matt

I got home one night, and Lau was waiting for me, like she wanted to say something. I thought about the date, and what it might be that she wanted to say, and I was excited, as I had been every month for the last year, since we’d stopped using contraception. I knew these things often took a while, and I wasn’t in any particular mad hurry to expand our family, but it was just … something to look forward to, in the fullness of time.

‘Hey gorgeous. You look stunning today.’

‘Thanks, flower.’

She was distracted, as if she hadn’t heard me.

‘What’s up, Lau?’

‘My period started.’

‘Oh.’

I was disappointed, but not crushed, there was always next month, or the next, ad infinitum.

‘Bugger. Well, we’ll just have to get cracking on this month’s instalment of The Baby-making Tales then.’

I hugged her, but she pulled away slightly.

‘Lau?’

‘I don’t think it’s good for us, living from month to month like this. It feels like a lot of pressure.’

I had tried so hard not to put any pressure on Lau, to try to let things happen naturally, no ovulation charts or rushing home because the temperature was just right, or getting stressed because we missed a chance, none of that bollocks. Just Matt and Lau having a good time, getting it on when we felt like it, see what happens. It had worked for me, maybe I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to whether it was working for Lau.

‘So are you saying … what? You want to stop trying?’

She shook her head.

‘No, of course not. I just … think we shouldn’t be expecting it to happen. It might not. I’m nearly forty, and you already are. Maybe it’s too old for another one, maybe it might not happen anyway.’

‘What are you talking about woman? We’re in the prime of life. You’re gorgeous, and so am I. We’ve got plenty of time to make the world’s most gorgeous babies, at least ten more.’

She looked at me, sadly, and stroked my face.

‘I hope so. I’m just saying we should be realistic about our chances.’

‘Lau, you’re giving up.’

Now I was crushed. It felt like she was saying never.

‘No I’m not, my love, I’m truly not. I still want it, so much, but I have to let it go, this hope, every month. It’s not doing me any good.’

‘Fuck, Lau, I didn’t think.’

Lau would let me get away with the occasional ‘fuck’, as long as a) the occasion demanded it and therefore it wasn’t gratuitous, b) the children weren’t within earshot and c) I didn’t go overboard in the cursing department. Obviously the occasion merited it this time, as yet again I’d been an insensitive bastard. It was easy for me: First, get my end away with as much regularity as I could muster, and I could muster pretty damn regularly. Second, wait for any ensuing offspring to appear.

It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that Lau might be going through a different emotional process. Every month it had been more like ‘oh well, let’s get trying again’ rather than sackcloth and ashes, and she’d managed to hide how she felt from me with startling aplomb.

‘It’s OK, it’s only really the last couple of months, I just don’t want us to spend the next however long with it being all we can think about. We need to live our lives with the children we’ve got, not spend it being sad about the ones we haven’t.’

How did she do it? I found myself wondering how she did it at least twice a week, when she just said exactly the right thing to make me see the sense in something.

‘You’re right, Lau. You always bloody well are. OK, from now on, it’s if it happens it happens, and if not, well, we already have the world’s most awesome family anyway, so fuck you fertility.’

‘So no more planning the colour of the nursery.’

Her mind-reading voodoo was starting to scare me now.

‘How did you know that?’

‘Saw you looking at colour charts on the iPad. And no more eyeing up Tottenham babygros in the online shop.’

Shit, the woman had spies everywhere. I almost looked around me for hidden cameras.

‘Guilty.’

‘Tell you what you can do, though.’

‘G and T, ice and a slice?’

‘Ooh, yeah, in a bit, but first, kiss your wife.’

‘Oh, gladly. I thought it was going to be something difficult and unpalatable.’

‘I might not have brushed my teeth.’

‘I’m feeling reckless, I’ll chance it.’

Cal

We started off a bit unsure of each other, got to know each other really quickly and ended up being great friends. I know what you’re thinking, that I hadn’t learned my lesson from before, from when Chrissie was my girl friend, then my girlfriend, and then my everything, then my nothing; but I had. I’d learned. I didn’t fancy Ayesha in the slightest. Her long, thick wavy hair, her deep brown eyes, her skin the colour of toffee, her full, dark lips, I didn’t notice any of it. We were just mates.

We talked, right from the start. About the project to start with, then she asked me about Katya, because she’d been bullied a bit by the Holy Trinity and was checking out whether I was in or out of their circle of influence. I was happy to report that I was so far out of the circle that I was practically a little square all on my own, and then she smiled at me from underneath her eyelashes, and that was that.

Matt

How did this happen? How did my tiny babies end up dressed in a school uniform, on their first day at St John’s Primary? I just stared at them both, until they giggled nervously.

‘Daddy, why are you looking at us?’

‘You just look awesome, Squeaks. You’re so grown up.’

Ella rolled her eyes, her favourite facial expression.

‘I’m five, Daddy. I’m not growed up until I’m ten.’

I hid a smile.

‘Oh, my mistake. I like your backpack, Joshy. What’s in it?’

Josh shrugged. ‘Mummy put things in.’

Ella tutted. ‘Your lunch is there, and a drink, and some pencils. I’ve got Barry Bear in mine, and you’ve got Buzz Lightyear in yours.’

Josh nodded, happily, always confident that someone else was going to sort his life out. It was an occupational hazard of living surrounded by so many Scott control freaks.

Lau called from the hallway.

‘Have you both got your shoes on?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Give Daddy a kiss, then, and come and get your coats on.’

Josh launched himself at me, small hands wrapping round my neck and a sloppy kiss splatting itself on my cheek. I ruffled his hair and hugged him to me. Ella hung back, not as demonstrative, then ran up and kissed me briefly in the same place as Josh, and ran out to Lau, wiping Josh’s slobber from her mouth as she did so.

‘Bye Matt. See you later.’

‘Bye, guys, have an awesome day.’

And then they were gone, and the house was silent, and it felt … eerie. Not that it hadn’t ever been silent before, but it hadn’t been empty before, kids out all day somewhere that wasn’t with Lau or me, or one of the family. It was going to be like this every day, although, obviously I wasn’t going to be here either, so Lau would be all on her own.

No new baby had been forthcoming, and we had admitted to ourselves and each other that a) it was unlikely now, and b) it was unwise given both our ages. The chances of any baby having some kind of disability got higher with every passing year, and although we would have loved any child of ours, it wasn’t something we actively sought. So we not only stopped trying, we started using contraception again, and that was done and dusted.

So Lau’s days were going to need filling with something. We were giving thought to what that might be, and she’d thought about working, not in the bastard MS service, as she’d given that job up for good a few years ago, but maybe some nursing bank work, or a few hours volunteering, or something. But for now, we were going to get the first day, week, month of school over, and make sure everything was OK for Josh and Ella.

I sat reading the paper and drinking tea until I heard the car come back, and Lau opened the front door. I looked up, to see how she was. I wasn’t surprised to see tears on her face, and I stood up and held my arms out. She fell into me and cried for a bit, then stopped, wiped her eyes and looked up and me.

‘Oh, I wasn’t going to do that. I’m so proud of them, they just toddled off, Ella saw Mary-Jane, and Josh joined in with some boys playing football, they hardly looked back. God, it’s quiet here, isn’t it.’

‘I was just thinking the same thing.’

I stroked her hair, and wiped her tears away.

‘They fill up this house. We should make the most of the silence, though.’

I raised my eyebrows suggestively.

‘Aren’t you going in to work?’

‘It’s my day off.’

‘Doesn’t usually stop you.’

Lau wasn’t being critical, just stating a fact. I couldn’t keep away from work, there was always some thorny problem I wasn’t happy until I’d solved, and I usually ended up at Raiders for a while, even on my days off.

‘It’s stopping me today. I want to spend the day with you, in our spookily quiet house, maybe making some noise of our own.’

‘Ooh, what did you have in mind? Turn the stereo up, bit of a party?’

‘Well, that could be part of it, if you like. Or, maybe –’

I pulled her to me again and kissed her, to leave her in no doubt about the sort of party I was suggesting.

‘– more that type of thing, with no one to ask why Mummy was shouting at Daddy in the night.’

‘God, noisy sex. I miss that.’

I nodded. ‘Me too. I bet we could be bloody noisy. I’ve got a decibel counter on my iPad, how about trying it out? First one to a hundred.’

‘OK, then, beach boy. Race you.’

Cal

I haven’t told you much about Baggo yet, have I? Maybe it’s time for him to have a starring role of his own. OK, so we’re seventeen. Baggo is still at school, just prior to jumping before he was pushed. He never really took his classes seriously, although he was a lot more brainy than he made out – Matty sussed that out once, when Baggo got the right answer to some quiz programme that was on the telly. We were all chatting, and the telly was just on in the background, we weren’t paying attention to it, and Baggo just said ‘quantum’, out of the blue, and none of us noticed except Matty, who said afterwards, ‘There’s more to your Baggo than meets the eye.’

But anyway, I keep getting sidetracked. So, we’re seventeen. Baggo is in more trouble at school than he knows what to do with – it’s coming from all sides. He’s not doing his coursework, he’s bunking off all the time, he’s giving the teachers lip, he keeps getting sent to the head teacher. His mum has been up there I don’t know how many times, but that doesn’t do much good because she hasn’t been able to tell him what to do since he was four, when his dad left.

Baggo had decided that Katie Rivers was the girl of his dreams. That was how Baggo did things. He didn’t just fancy someone, or slowly build a relationship out of a friendship, or any of the normal ways boys and girls got together. He went all out, total commitment, leading, usually, to total heartbreak. He would just come to school one day, usually a week or two after his last romantic escapade had hit the headlines, and declare that, in this case, ‘Katie Rivers is the one for me. I must have her in my arms, or preferably wrapped around my waist, by the end of the day.’

No amount of reminding him that Katie Rivers, or Lucy Fletcher, or Courtney Blenkinsop, you get the picture, had a boyfriend already who she seemed pretty into made any difference. It was as if he had tunnel vision, and could only focus on the object of his desire, whilst filtering out the unnecessarily inconvenient facts.

Sometimes it had worked for him. Courtney, for one, had ditched her boyfriend not long after Baggo began his chase, and they had four whole weeks of passion before he set fire to her mum’s coffee table by mistake, and the ardour cooled. But usually it led to tension, threats of beatings from the boyfriends, and me picking up the pieces.

By then, by the time we were seventeen, I was almost with Ayesha. I guess I’ll tell you that whole story later, because this is about Baggo, but it meant I was in a different place to him – I wasn’t experimenting, I was kind of settled, if you can ever be settled at seventeen, and I think Baggo felt I was a bit of calm at the centre of his storm. Or maybe he just liked Mum’s cake, and that’s why he was round at ours all the time. You could never tell with Baggo.

But anyway, back to Katie Rivers. Katie was the head girl at our school, and because these things have some kind of weird life of their own, she was going out with the head boy, Darren Stamp. They would sit and snog in the sixth form common room at break, do their French homework together in an empty classroom at lunchtimes, and be otherwise nauseatingly wrapped up in each other at most other hours of the day.

Why on earth Baggo set his sights on Katie I could not begin to guess at, but he has always relished a challenge, and maybe someone unattainable ticked the right boxes and pushed the right buttons. Perhaps it was the romantic equivalent of snowboarding down the North Face of the Eiger.

So on that day, when he made his declaration of his undying love for Katie Rivers, I groaned inwardly and got ready for a bumpy few weeks of trying to talk him out of it, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for an angry Darren Stamp, and at the same time attempting to keep him away from Katie as much as possible.

‘No, it’ll be alright, though. I’ve got a plan.’

‘Baggo, you’ve always got a plan. They’re always bloody terrible.’

‘They are not. My skateboard plan worked, my throw the shoe over the hedge plan worked, my –’

‘You nearly broke my leg with your skateboard, and you had to buy Cassandra a new pair of fuck-off expensive shoes. And she still didn’t go out with you.’

‘Well, OK, maybe not the shoe thing again, then. Right. Bugger it, I thought I was onto a winner. I’ve got a back up though. I’m learning the guitar.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since Michael got me one from his mate down the market.’

‘You can’t play the guitar.’

‘Dur, that’s why I’m learning. There’s this YouTube vid, I know two chords already.’

‘Which two?’

‘Er, A and, er, oh fuck it I can’t remember which letter it is. H? Is there an H?’

‘I don’t think so, Baggo. So this plan. Does it involve playing the guitar? Could be some time before it gets a run out.’

‘Fuck off. I’m gonna be great. I’m gonna serenade Katie. Tonight.’

I shook my head. Luckily I was at rugby training this evening, and would not have to witness or in any way be part of the humiliation.

‘You’ll come, right?’

‘Can’t mate. Training.’

‘Oh bollocks to your bloody training. Bloody rugby’s all you ever bloody think about. Oh, unless it’s football, or cricket or tennis or some other bloody knackering stupid-arse ooh-look-here’s-my-shiny-trophy sport shit. Ditch it, just this once. I need you, my plan won’t work without you.’

An excellent reason not to be a part of it, as far as I was concerned.

‘You don’t need me to make an idiot of yourself. Just turn up with your guitar and your one chord –’

‘Two.’

‘One of which you can’t even name, and no amount of help I could give you is going to change the outcome.’

‘I’m going to sing ‘All of Me’. I’ve got it nailed.’

If Baggo had one thing going for him, it was his voice. Not much about him was cherubic, but he had the voice of an angel. If he’d been able to resist looking up the music teacher’s skirt, he’d have been in the school choir, probably the next Charlotte Church by now. If he was going to impress Katie, then singing to her was the one thing that was likely to work – what was I thinking? It was a terrible plan. Nothing about it, apart from Baggo’s voice, was in any way a good idea. But a small part of me, the part that Baggo had nurtured all these years with his schemes and adventures, wanted to see if it worked. I was tempted. But rugby training was not ditchable. When your dad is the coach, he kind of notices when you’re not there, and when he knows your every movement because you live with him, and your mum is Beth Scott who has radar instead of a brain, you don’t stand a chance of having a lie believed. It was probably what had kept me out of all the trouble Baggo seemed intent on landing me in up until now.

‘What time?’

‘Eight thirty. It’ll be after the soaps and before I’m a Celebrity. It’s my window. I’ll be at her window in my window. Geddit?’

Baggo’s attempts at humour were best ignored. It only encouraged him otherwise.

‘How do you know she’ll be at home? She might be out with Darren somewhere – you remember Darren? Her boyfriend?’

‘No, he’s doing some Duke of Edinburgh thing, camping on the moors or something. He’s away all night. Come on, Cal, it’s my one chance.’

I weakened. He saw it.

‘All I need you to do is –’

‘Hang on, I haven’t said I will.’

‘But you will, though.’

‘Not until after training. Definitely not at eight thirty.’

How the bloody hell had that happened? I’d just found myself agreeing to help him out, without even knowing what he wanted me to do. Calum Scott, you should be ashamed of yourself.

‘Oh but –’

Baggo stopped himself as he realised he’d achieved a victory of sorts.

‘– OK, maybe later would be better. She might be in her nightie when she leans out of the window to listen.’

‘Ten. I can do ten. For half an hour, then you’re on your own.’

‘Awesome, mate. I just need someone to help me lift the amp out of Harry’s car.’

‘Er … amp?’

‘Yeah, you know, big speaker, and you plug a microphone in it and everyone can hear you.’

Oh sweet Jesus.

‘Baggo, you can’t do this with amplification. You’ll have the coppers round for disturbing the peace.’

‘She won’t hear me if I just warble away on my own. I need her to hear me. ‘All of me loves all of you, all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections.’ How could she not love it?’

‘You can’t.’

‘You said you would now. I’m borrowing Harry’s car and his mate’s amp. I’ll see you there at ten. Cheers mate.’

And there we had it. That’s how I ended up explaining to two very nice policemen why my mate Baggo was passed out in the Rivers’ front garden, with a screeching amplifier keeping the whole street awake and a car that was on the verge of catching fire.

This is how it happened.

I was a bit late, because I’d had to stay behind at training to talk to the backs coach about the game on Saturday. I’d hoped that when I got to Katie’s house, Baggo might have thought I wasn’t coming and gone home, but wasn’t really surprised when I saw his brother’s car outside, and walked over to it.

‘Caaal. Ohh maaate. You caaaame.’

My heart sank when I saw the state of him, and smelt the booze drifting out of the open car window.

‘Shit, Bags, you didn’t drive over like that, did you?’

‘Like wha?’

‘Pissed.’

‘M’not pissed. Jus hadda coupla shots. Cutch dourage. Dutch. Whaevs. Nah. Drank it whenni got here. Wan some? Oh. S’none lef. Soz.’

‘Maybe we should just go home.’

‘Wha? Nononononono. I’m gonna sing to my ladily lovey, my lovedy lalidy, to Katie. You’re gonna help me witha amp. S’in the back.’

He leaned forwards and pushed the button that released the boot catch, then he opened the car door. I hoped he might find it too difficult to get out of the front seat, but he poured himself onto his feet and pulled me with him to the boot, where he stood swaying and looking slightly puzzled.

Baggo wasn’t a huge drinker; I mean, we’d both experimented with the contents of our parents’ drinks cupboards, blagged cheap cider off Baggo’s brothers, and been to parties where everyone was off their faces on something or other, but it was only a kind of social thing, in that vomming all over your mate’s shoes is ever particularly sociable. It didn’t take much to get Baggo shit-faced, and he paid heavily the next day, and as a consequence he didn’t overindulge very often. I could only think that he was more nervous about that evening’s planned performance than he had let on.

‘Hmm. Oh. S’right. Amp.’

Light dawned, and Baggo lifted the boot lid, displaying the amp, an electric guitar, a microphone and a tangle of leads.

‘Baggo, I really think –’

He cut me off.

‘Nonono, m’gonna do this. No poopy partying from Callywally. Gonna win my girl. Gonna winna girl. Like a prize, like a prize girl. Help me lif this motherfucker.’

He started pulling the enormous amp towards him. If I didn’t help, he was going to hurt himself, so I helped. The amp wasn’t easy to manhandle out of the car, and despite our efforts it crashed to the ground, wobbled a bit, and then sat in the road. Baggo leaned back into the car and pulled out the guitar and cables.

‘Michael sez it’s one a these bastards. Dunno which one.’

He held the tangle out to me, as if I was going to know.

‘Don’t look at me, mate, I haven’t got a bloody clue about all this. And what are you going to plug it into? There’s no electricity out here.’

‘Ahahaha. Tha’s where you’re wrongobongowrongowrongobongo. Gonna ‘tach the amp t’the car battery witha jump lead.’

‘What?’

‘Yeah, Wheels showed me, you use a leetle teeny tiny clip. It’s here somewhere … oh! Gottit. Hello, leetle teeny tiny clip.’

He held up more leads, these ones with crocodile clips on the end.

‘You’re going to blow us both up.’

‘Nonono, s’all perfectily safe. You getta mic out, ana cable for the guitar, I’ll hook th’amp up.’

Baggo went to the front of the car and popped the bonnet catch. Sighing and shaking my head, having serious misgivings, I did what he had asked. I hoped the whole thing just wouldn’t work. I couldn’t imagine it working, but if I let myself I could imagine it not working in some pretty spectacular ways.

Baggo fiddled under the bonnet for a while, turned the car engine on, then came back with the other end of the leads, which he connected to the amp. He took the guitar from me and plugged a cable into it and then the amp, and flicked a switch. There was a hum, a tiny protest of feedback, and Baggo tried a strum. No noise came out of the amp, for which I was very grateful. Baggo wasn’t put off though. He lurched back to the boot, seeming less coordinated than before, and grabbed the microphone and another cable, plugging them both into the amp as well. He fiddled with some knobs, and then held the microphone out to me.

‘What? I’m not singing.’

‘Hahahaha, no bloody way, wanna win her not kill her. Wan you t’hold it, got no stand.’

The microphone was picking up his words, and I could hear them coming out of the speaker, albeit faintly. Baggo picked up the guitar and slung it over his shoulder, then beckoned me to follow him through the gate to the front garden.

Baggo stood a bit like a rock star, legs wide apart, swaying wildly, and gestured to me to hold the microphone in front of him. He grabbed hold of it with both hands and yelled into it.

‘Katie Rivers, this one’s for you.’

There was a squeal of feedback as the decibels reverberated around the neighbouring houses. Lights turned on along the street, and I felt more and more uncomfortable. A face appeared at an upstairs window, but it didn’t look like Katie. At least not to me. To Baggo, he had achieved his objective.

With a wink at me, he revved his arm up, placed his fingers on the fretboard, and slammed his other hand down on the strings. A ghastly noise exploded from the amp, I mean literally exploded (yep Matty, literally), with a bang and a flash, and the bang and flash were echoed back in the road, from the car. A screeching howl burst forth from the road, making me flinch and drop the microphone, as I covered my head with my hands. When I looked up again, Baggo was lying on his back on the grass.

‘Shit. Baggo? Jake?’

I sank down next to him, thinking he had been electrocuted, and frantically trying to remember my first aid. I shouldn’t touch him, should I? Get a dry stick or something, wear rubber boots, call an –

Baggo started to snore. He had passed out, not been knocked out. As relief washed over me, I became aware of people standing near me. One of those people was Katie Rivers, who did not look overjoyed to see either of us, and I presumed that the other people were Katie’s parents. They also were not overjoyed. And now Baggo was sleeping it off while I had to explain it all.

‘We’ve called the police.’

This was (I assumed) Katie’s father. He was a big bloke with a very stern expression.

Oh shit. I was really going to cop it now, and Baggo was just going to sleep through it.

‘Do we need to call an ambulance too?’

Katie’s mum.

Another loud snore from Baggo announced that an ambulance wouldn’t be necessary; I felt an apology of some description was in order.

‘Look, I’m really sorry, I tried to stop him, but he was determined –’

‘Just turn that racket off.’

I looked back towards the amp, which was still squawking to the street.

‘I’m not sure I know how to. Baggo hooked it all up.’

‘You’re disturbing the whole neighbourhood. Turn it off.’

I was panicking. I suppose if I’d just turned the car engine off, it would have all stopped, but I couldn’t think because of the noise, the embarrassment, and Katie’s dad clenching and unclenching his fists in front of me. To put the icing on the cake, a blue flashing light announced the arrival of the police. Now I was really panicking. I briefly registered that Katie had her phone out and was recording everything.

The police car stopped and two policemen got out. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood where I was while Katie’s dad went to meet them. I didn’t know where to look, so I looked at my shoes, finding the laces fascinating. I really didn’t want to be here, and a small part of me just wanted my mum. I pulled my phone out and sent a quick text.

‘Help. 14 Bigbury Avenue. Sorry.’

Usually the last person I’d contact if I was in trouble was Mum. She was very likely to go off on one, she was always saying Baggo was a bad influence on me, and I wouldn’t hear the end of it for days and days. But right now that seemed a small price to pay, because Mum was great in a crisis. I hoped she wouldn’t text me or call me for more information, as I doubted I’d be able to answer her. But even if she came, and came right away, I was going to have to deal with this myself for the time being.

The policemen walked into the garden with Mr Rivers, who gestured at me and at Baggo, still lying on his back, guitar on top of him, microphone to the side.

‘Good evening sir.’

This was addressed to me, and even I could hear the sarcasm in the ‘sir’. I just nodded and waited.

‘Having a bit of a party are we?’

‘No. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to turn it off.’

‘Constable Evans?’

One copper gestured to the other one, who went to the car and, presumably, turned the engine off, while we all watched him. The squealing stopped, mercifully, but now I noticed that the air was full of the smell of electrical burning. Wisps of smoke seemed to be coming from under the bonnet.

Constable Evans came back into the garden.

‘Can I take your name sir?’

‘Calum Scott.’

‘And your friend’s name?’

‘Jake Bagwell. Look, if I can just wake him up, we’ll just go, and –’

‘Your friend makes a habit of falling asleep in people’s front gardens does he?’

‘No, he, er …’

… was underage, and who knew where he’d got the booze from.

‘… er, he fell over when the amp blew.’

‘And does he require medical assistance?’

‘No, he’ll be fine.’

If the smile on his sleeping face was anything to go by, he was already fine, as he cuddled his guitar to his chest.

‘Mr Rivers, sir, has any damage been done to your property?’

‘Well, no, but this pair of hooligans have disturbed the whole street with their rumpus.’

I nearly laughed; I hadn’t heard the word rumpus used in all seriousness before. I controlled myself and tried to look contrite – I needed to get Baggo and me out of this with as little fuss as possible.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Rivers. We’ll pack all this up and go. Sorry for disturbing you. It won’t happen again.’

It was my best smarmy adult-pleasing voice, and it nearly worked, until Baggo started to wake up, and was noisily sick on the grass. A look of extreme distaste came over Mr Rivers’ face, and his wife muttered something about ‘undesirables’ just loud enough for me to hear.

‘Get off my property now, or I’ll have you charged with trespassing.’

He sounded deadly serious, and the policemen looked like they were serious too, so I knelt by Baggo and tried to pull him to his feet; he resisted, shrugging me off with a loud expletive.

‘Bags, we’ve got to go. The coppers are here.’

‘Wha? Nonono, gotta singta Katie – oh! She’s here. Kaaatie, baaaby. Gotta song forya. All of me loves all of you…’

Despite Baggo’s drunken state, his voice was in remarkable shape. Sadly, it didn’t impress the object of his desire as much as he hoped, and she span round and went inside, slamming the front door behind her.

‘Kaaatie, come ba’, gotta finisha song.’

‘Bags, come on.’

I put as much urgency as I could into my voice, but Baggo was having none of it. I saw Mr Rivers move towards the policemen, and knew I had to do something drastic to stop things getting any worse, but couldn’t think of a single thing. Then the cavalry arrived.

Mum’s little red car pulled up outside, not in a hurry, not in a squeal of brakes, just as if she was calling round for a cuppa. She got out of the car, adjusted her scarf, slung her bag over her shoulder and smiled brightly at us all.

‘Hello Jennifer, Gary. Just picking up Cal – oh, and Jake. Are you ready, Cal?’

Boy was I ready. I started to walk towards the car, but it wasn’t going to be as easy as that. Of course it wasn’t. This was one of Baggo’s schemes, and now Mum was involved too. It didn’t get much less easy.

‘Hang on, he can’t just go. He’s caused a lot of upset here.’

Mr Rivers moved to block the gate, stopping Mum getting in and me getting out. Baggo was still looking forlornly at the front door, and I thought it wouldn’t be long before he either started singing or puking again. I tried another tug on his arm, still to no avail.

‘Oh. Cal, what’s been going on?’

Mum would without a doubt have sussed out most of it within seconds of arriving. She never missed a thing, and would have clocked the amp, the car with leads attached, Baggo’s unsober state and the guitar and come to her own, most likely correct, conclusion.

‘Baggo wanted to sing to Katie.’

‘I see. And you thought this was a good idea because ..?’

‘I didn’t. I tried to stop him.’

‘Mm hmm. Jake, go and get in my car.’

‘Hang on …’

Mr Rivers still wasn’t happy for us to just leave. He probably wanted us to get a telling off from the police.

‘Sir, I think if we can just clear the property and ensure the items and vehicle will be removed, we’ll be on our way.’

There was nothing more for the police to do. We hadn’t broken the law, and they had some innocent teenagers to arrest for sitting in a bus stop or something. They moved towards Mr Rivers, and he reluctantly stepped aside from the gate. As they passed me, the one called Constable Evans stopped and looked at me.

‘Make sure you clear this up, son. Don’t want to have to come back and talk to you about criminal damage.’

‘OK.’

I didn’t know if he meant the amp, cables and car, or the vomit. They didn’t wait to see if I did as I was told, but got in their patrol car and drove away. Jake was still looking at Mum, as if he was trying to work out what she was doing there. He looked like he was trying to work out what he was doing there, as he swayed on his feet, still gripping the guitar.

‘Missis Scoh. Wha ya doin ere?’

‘Get in the car, Jake. I’m taking you home.’

Baggo’s face fell.

‘Ohnonono, not hoooome. S’only me an Mum, an she’s fallen out with Aunty Marion, an she’s all wearing black an cryin an shit. C’n I come back with you? Have ya got cake?’

Baggo’s mum got depressed on a regular basis. Baggo usually coped with it with the help of his aunt, but sometimes looking after his Mum in one of her dark phases got too much, and if he was on his own … well I had a sudden flash of insight into his reason for both going after Katie, and drinking so much just prior.

A similar thing seemed to have occurred to Mum, and her face softened. She put a hand on Baggo’s back and pushed him towards the car, gesturing to me to follow him. I took Baggo’s arm and tugged him to the road, while Mum stayed back and talked in a low voice to Katie Rivers’ mum and dad. I don’t know what she said, whether she told them everything she knew about Baggo’s life, but there was a lot of nodding of heads while I was attempting to get Baggo in the passenger seat of Mum’s car, and by the time she walked up the path towards us, the Riverses had smiled and patted Mum on the shoulder, and all had departed friends. At least that’s what it looked like.

Meanwhile, Baggo was in the front seat of Mum’s car, with the window wound down in case of barfing. I started to open the back door, but Mum stopped me.

‘You need to sort out this mess.’

She pointed to the amp, the guitar and the car. Surely she didn’t mean I had to sort it? It wasn’t my mess, it was totally and utterly Baggo’s fault. I stared at Mum.

‘I can’t do it, not on my own.’

Mum looked at the car and the amp, and seemed to realise that I would need help.

‘Get Dec to come and help you lift it then. Maybe Matty to help with the car.’

‘It’s late.’

‘It’s not eleven yet. They’ll both still be up. Just call them Cal.’

And so my shame was complete. Not only had I been humiliated in front of the head girl and her parents (and by the way, the video was doing the rounds at school for weeks), but now I had to admit to my part in the whole thing to Dec and Matty. I was never, ever going to live this down.

Of course, they both came straight over when I asked them, and Dec helped me lift the amp back into the car, and Matty helped me start the bloody thing and drove it back over to Wheels’ house, where I had to explain to him why his battery was knackered without making him mad at Baggo. I make it sound like it was easy, like I didn’t have the piss taken out of me the whole time they were helping – ‘Oh Cal, give us a tune while we’re working’, ‘What’s your favourite karaoke, Cal? Is it ‘I Like Driving in my Car?’, yeah it was hilarious.

And when I finally got home, Baggo was still there, being fed cake and black coffee by Mum, and he was more sober, but a bit tearful, which wasn’t completely unheard of, he didn’t have it easy really, and he apologised over and over again.

‘Oh mate, I’m so sorry, I’ve fucked up your evening, we could have been in deep shit with those coppers, I’m such a dick, if it hadn’t been for your mum –’

‘You should be more worried about the shit you’re going to be in with Wheels.’

‘Oh fuck. You didn’t tell him about his car?’

‘I told him he might need a new battery and you’re going to pay for it. I didn’t tell him exactly what you did. I thought he knew what you were doing?’

‘Well only in theory. I kind of asked how you might hook up an amp to a car battery, like if you wanted to. Didn’t tell him I was actually going to.’

‘Jesus Baggo…’

‘I know mate, I know, I’m a twat, you should get shot of me while you can.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jake. Cal’s your friend.’

This was a lot different from what Mum said to me when Baggo wasn’t there. I was always being advised to hang out with him less. But once Mum was in Florence Nightingale mode, she was on your side and that was that.

‘Aw, Mrs Scott, the best mate a bloke could have. Thanks for helping me. I should get going.’

‘Have more coffee first, then James will drop you home.’

‘I can walk, it’s no trouble.’

It was about five miles to Baggo’s house from ours.

‘Coffee first.’

And so Baggo was sobered up, and invited to stay the night, but he was worried about his mum, so he went home in the end, and it wasn’t the last time things got too much for him and he acted the fool to distract himself, not by a long way, but it was the first time Mum really got it, why he was like he was, and she got off his case after that. Well, as much as Mum ever got off anyone’s case, I suppose.

Things have often been that way with me and Baggo: him having mad ideas, going totally all out to do something off the planet, me chasing along after him, trying to achieve some damage limitation, but getting dragged into the middle of something wild (off the top of my head, I remember ‘borrowing’ his neighbour’s German Shepherd to impress some girl then having to leave it tied to a lamp post when the Facebook search and offers of reward got too intense; jumping off the footbridge into the river after his school bag, which he had tossed there in a moment of madness and regretted whilst it was still in mid-air; flooding his bathroom doing a ‘science experiment’ involving plasticine, bubble bath and bicarbonate of soda. The list could go on and on).

It wasn’t always Baggo getting into unwanted situations, though. Sometimes it was me – I owe him a lot for getting me out of trouble with the Holy Trinity, for a start. And despite the trouble we got into, we were always there for each other. A lot of people wouldn’t touch Baggo with a barge pole, but they don’t know how loyal he is, what he’d do for anyone he calls a mate. They just see the headlines and assume. But anyway, he’s been a great mate, still is.

Matt

Do you remember when I was trying really hard not to think some things were meant to be? Well, I’d given up not thinking it, and my non-scientific conclusion was currently that some things are just destined, somehow. Meant by the universe at large, unstoppable.

When the next thing, this big thing in Matt Scott’s timeline, happened, I also came to the conclusion that some things are meant not to be, and much as you want them, when they don’t happen, you look back and see why they didn’t. How, even if you think they would make your life better, you see, later, what a calamity it would have been, how much harder it would have made an already hard time. If we’d had another baby …

83. Pencil full of lead

In which practicalities are faced, appointments are made, and shopping is scrutinised.

Laura

I’d set the alarm on my phone to chime quietly, so I woke up slowly, not at first recognising the room, but gradually, with a smile, remembering I was in Matt’s bedroom. I turned over gently, to see Matt still asleep, facing me, on his side, mouth slightly open. I got out of bed as quietly as I could and went into the bathroom to shower. Matt’s shower was impressive, with several different pulse settings, and I luxuriated in the hot water.

Matt

Maybe it was the vast amount of catch-up sleep I’d managed to get the previous day, but I actually woke up at about seven thirty the next morning. I could hear the shower going, and for a split second I thought I must have left it running last night, and then I remembered what had actually happened last night, and that I’d fallen asleep with Lau in my arms, so it must be her in the shower. And that, quite probably, meant that she was naked, and I so had to see that.

I sat up, swung my legs out of bed, tested their ability to not crumple under me, which seemed pleasingly robust today, took my clothes off and went in search of naked Lau.

I stood in the doorway of the bathroom, not caring about the steam leaking out into the living room, and watched her for a few minutes. My shower was pretty good; it had a pulsing head, really strong stream, and I had a range of deluxe shower foams arranged along a glass shelf. Lau was making full use of it all, and had her eyes shut to stop the shampoo from getting in her eyes.

Oh, I could see her because it was a wet room, hence no shower cubicle. All the better to see you with my dear. I made my way over to her and stood behind her, having a brief debate with myself about what I planned to do next. I knew she freaked at the slightest unexpected touch, but she was irresistible, and I didn’t argue it for long. It went something like ‘I want to touch her’ ‘you’ll scare her’ ‘yeah but that’ll be funny’. Argument won.

Laura

I was just rinsing my hair, eyes closed against the shampoo and water, when a hand snaked around my waist. I screamed and span round. Matt stood there, hands in the air. He had absolutely no clothes on. None at all.

‘Sohry Lau. Couldn’t bear the thought of yuh in here on yuhr own. Dihnt mean tuh make yuh jump. Bluhdy hilarious tho.’

I spat water and soap bubbles out of my mouth, then sagged against the wall of the shower, as I tried to surreptitiously glance at the fully revealed glory of Matt Scott. And oh boy was it glorious. I mean he. Was he glorious.

Matt

Lau sagged against the wall of the shower. Then she noticed I was as naked as her, and yeah, she couldn’t resist a downwards glance at my tackle, or a little grin to herself at what she saw.

‘You scared me to death. Have you not got by now that I startle easily?’

‘Sohry.’

I really wasn’t sorry at all, and neither of us were thinking about me making her jump any more, but it’s the thought that counts, at least that’s what my mum always says. She probably didn’t mean it to apply to this specific situation; maybe I’ll ask her one day.

Laura

He didn’t really look very sorry, but he was completely naked, and so was I. It was the first time I’d seen him with no clothes on, and he didn’t disappoint; his body was slender but not skinny, his legs well muscled, and all other bits and pieces looked pretty damn good to me. In fact, I had to have a stern word with myself about my ‘only what we can both do’ promise to stop myself doing something completely shameless. Although he’d made me squeal and swallow shampoo, it seemed like a bit of a waste to be cross with him, and I hated waste, so I peeled myself off the wall and pulled him into the stream, where the water fell down on us as we kissed good morning.

His body felt so good wet; he was lean and hard, and his bum was particularly squeezable as I pulled him towards me. His hands found my breasts, and he pinched my nipples as I ran my hands up and down his back. As he moved his mouth down to my breasts – something he seemed to really like doing, and no, I’m not complaining – I arched my back and pressed them against his lips, moving my hands down without thinking, below his waist and then lower, stroking my way down to his balls.

Matt

I felt her hands move downwards, below my waist, along my cock, and was just about to regretfully remind her of the ‘both together’ clause, when she cupped my balls and a flood of fizzing surged under her fingers, then my dick twitched and I gasped as I froze.

‘Lau, yuh made ih twitch! An ih goh a bih bigger!’

We both looked down, to where it was indeed a little bit larger, and standing out from my body a bit.

‘Just ignore it.’

Ignore my first attempt at a hard-on for months?

‘Wha? Cahnt ignore my dick.’

‘Don’t focus on it, let what happens happen, we’ll just carry on. It’s not important.’

‘Ih fucking well is impohtant. Tha’s more movement than I’ve had foh months.’

I knew what she was trying to say, but it was too much of a significant event for me to just pretend it wasn’t happening.

‘And if you try to force it, you’ll chase it away. Just do what you were doing before, and I’ll do what I was doing before, and we’ll see. You can’t rush it, you’ll make it worse.’

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, nodded, and bent down to Lau’s breasts again, but all I could feel, all I could think about was Lau’s hands on me, cupping my balls, stroking my dick, as the sensation dribbled away. She took her hand away after a while, gently pushed me away from her chest, and kissed me, tenderly.

‘I’ve got to get ready for work. Sorry flower.’

‘S’okay. S’all gone now anyway.’

‘Seriously, Matt, if it comes back it will be a bit at a time, not all at once. Be patient.’

I nodded, disappointed; I really wasn’t very good at being sensible and patient, and although I knew she was right, everything she said was right, I just wanted it all back, right now, none of this farting around with a bit here and a bit there. I wanted a great big hard-on so I could … well, Lau had better watch out once I had a great big hard-on, that’s all I was saying. Lau turned the water off, and I pulled her to me for a hug.

‘I love seeing yuh naked. Yuhr fucking awesome.’

Laura

‘So are you. Nice, very nice, bum. Turn round a minute.’

He turned round, and I leaned down and kissed each bum cheek. I was getting to be very very fond of his bum, with it’s two perfect round buttocks which were just the right size for grabbing as I pulled him towards me.

Matt

I was getting that she liked my arse, and it was flattering, me being a skinny git who didn’t really have much at all in the way of muscular attributes. I turned round, and Lau leaned down and kissed each bum cheek. I loved that she always seemed to do exactly what she wanted to with me, and it was often something that took me by surprise.

‘Lau, yuhr a bih wanton ahrnt yuh?’

‘Just a little something for me to take to work with me.’

She wrapped herself in a towel and wound another one round her head, and I started to dry myself too.

I’d been thinking about some of the things Lau had said, in the time we’d been apart yesterday. I knew she couldn’t be my personal nurse, and I was getting that I maybe needed some proper answers to some of the questions I’d asked her. Beth would have been astounded at my next question; it was something she’d been trying to get me to do for months. But Beth wasn’t The One, so she’d missed a trick. I tried to make it sound casual, and not like I was breaking the habit of a lifetime.

‘Soh, if I was goin tuh, say, call some kind of service fuh some hehp, or some such shih, wha would I duh?’

If Lau realised how much of a break from tradition this was for me, she didn’t show it.

Laura

I tried not to show my delight and relief; Matt would benefit so much from some input from the team I worked for.

‘Have you still got the card I gave you last week at the church hall?’

Matt

To be honest, I couldn’t remember her giving me a card, but if she had, it would still be in my trousers from Wednesday. Oh bollocks, laundry.

‘Er … think I migh have washed ih.’

‘OK, well in case you did I’ll write the number down before I go. You need to call and – hm, you’ll have to give your name. It might be best if you ask for Anna. If Rachel answers, she might not be very nice. She should be professional, but there’s not always any telling with her. So ask for Anna – I’ll write that down too – and tell her you want to refer yourself, she’ll take details and there you’ll be, fully signed up for the city’s finest MS service.’

‘Yuhr sure I cahnt have yuh?’

She’d been pretty clear, but there seemed no harm in double checking, just in case there had been some major change in the rules she’d neglected to inform me about.

‘Yeah, I’m sure. I’m not going to be able to talk to them about you at all, even if they want to use my sex expertise.’

‘Shih, Lau, ih’s all a bit of a minefield, ihnt ih. Anyway, haven’t definitely decided tuh call, ih’s jus in case.’

No, I didn’t want to pin myself down to definitely calling, because there would be all sorts of questions if I didn’t, so best to just make it like I might do, I might not, depends.

Laura

‘OK.’

I kissed him on the cheek – the one on his face this time – and left him to dry himself in the bathroom, as I went in search of a plug for my hairdryer.

While I was drying my hair and dressing for work, I thought about what might actually happen if Matt called the service. It would cause a fair amount of comment, and although I would try to stay out of it as much as possible, all the conjecture and questions would be uncomfortable.

Then I remembered with a start and a groan that I’d forgotten to call Patrick as I’d planned to, to tell him what had gone on with Rachel on Friday. I picked my phone up from the bedside table and put it in my bag. I’d have to call from my car; it would be too awkward to have that conversation about Matt in Matt’s home.

Matt

I wrapped a towel round my waist and wandered in to watch her. I was still watching when she’d finished drying her hair.

‘What?’

‘Yuhr fucking gorgeous, Ih’m lovin yuh in yuhr uniform. Reminds meh of the first time I saw yuh.’

‘The first time you saw me, I was giving a very useful talk on sex, which you apparently enjoyed very much, and shouldn’t have been noticing my uniform.’

‘Ha ha. I only came to talk tuh yuh because I fancied yuh. Hardly listened tuh a word of yuhr talk, too busy watching yuhr tits jiggling in yuhr tunic.’

This was mostly true. I hadn’t really been concentrating on the content of Lau’s talk, more on the content of the woman giving the talk. Call me shallow, you won’t be the first.

‘They were not jiggling.’

‘They bluhdy were. Every time yuh pressed yuhr button tuh change the slide, jiggle jiggle. Drove meh wild. An all the other blokes there, I ‘spect.’

‘Really. Well I’ll have to remember to wear more supportive underwear next time then. Can I grab some toast?’

‘Yeh, course.’

Then I remembered my manners.

‘Duh yuh wan meh tuh make scrambled eggs? Or bacon?’

‘No, you go back to bed, it’s early for you. I’ll bring you something in – cup of tea?’

‘Hey, I geh breakfast in bed. Life of Riley. Thanks, Lau.’

Oh this was so cool. I hadn’t had breakfast made for me since – oh, yesterday, when Dec made me a cup of tea and some toast, but it wasn’t quite the same, especially as it had gone cold by the time I woke up. I lay down on the duvet, and just closed my eyes while I listened to Lau rummaging in my cupboards, clinking spoons against mugs and humming to herself. It felt so homely, so natural. I shut my eyes for a minute …

Laura

When I got back to the bedroom, Matt was asleep on his side, on top of the duvet. I folded the rest of the duvet over the top of him, kissed him gently on the cheek, left the tea and toast on the bedside table and ate mine in the living room before quickly scribbling the MS service number and Anna’s name on a piece of paper, then quietly leaving, pulling the door gently shut behind me.

In my car, I got my phone out and pressed Patrick’s name. He might already be at work, could be on his way, or may not have left yet. I should have called him before now, to avoid him being confronted with a situation when he arrived.

‘Hello Laura. Everything alright?’

‘Hi Patrick. Er, not sure. I meant to call you over the weekend, but things were a bit hectic. I’m not sure if Rachel’s called you …’

‘No. Is Rachel alright?’

‘Well, do you remember in supervision I was talking about a hypothetical situation?’

‘Yes.’

Patrick sounded concerned, and was probably wondering what I was about to tell him.

‘Well, the hypothetical person I was asking about is actually real, I know, big surprise. He’s someone Rachel knows from the past who upset her quite badly, and she found out on Friday that I’ve been seeing him, and I think, well I won’t really know until I get in this morning, but I don’t think she’s speaking to me. It’s upset things, she’ll want people to take sides, it will make things awkward for us all. I’m sorry. I just wanted you to know.’

I heard Patrick take a deep breath.

‘OK, Laura, well, it does sound a bit complicated. You girls have had your fallings out before though, haven’t you, you always seem to work it out.’

‘Yeah, but this feels a bit more serious. And, just to make things more complicated, Matt might be going to call the service to register with us. Obviously I can’t be his named worker, and Rachel wouldn’t be the ideal candidate, so that’s going to be tricky too.’

‘Hmm. Alright. Well, thanks for letting me know, Laura. I’m just about to set off for the office. I think we need to have a talk when I get in, just so we can be clear about the rules, the law and the guidelines, so we all know where we stand.’

‘Thanks Patrick. Sorry.’

‘OK, Laura, see you in a little while.’

We disconnected and I started the car.

Pulling up in the car park outside the office, I saw Kate, Anna and Patrick were already in, but Rachel’s car wasn’t there yet. A bit relieved, I walked up to the door and into the office. Kate and Anna looked up, Anna smiling, Kate raising her eyebrows.

‘Morning.’

‘Hello Lau. Thanks for the on-call on Saturday. Lifesaver.’

‘No problem. How did the dinner with the girlfriend go?’

‘Oh, I was just telling Kate, she’s a lovely girl, but took a bit of getting used to. Piercings, tattoos, pink and green hair, a bit intimidating, but we ended up talking about knitting, of all things.’

‘Good weekend, Lau?’

‘Yes thanks.’

I tried to leave it at that, but Kate was having none of it.

‘What, no gory details? You haven’t had gory details to spill for ages, out with it.’

‘I think maybe this isn’t the time or place.’

‘Rach isn’t coming in today, if that’s what you’re worried about.’

I actually felt my shoulders lift as if a weight had been taken off them.

‘Oh really?’

‘No, she’s called in sick. Well it is a kind of sick I suppose.’

‘Did you talk to her much over the weekend?’

‘Yeah, a fair bit. Went through the whole range of mad as hell, sad as hell, resigned as hell, then back to mad, she’s just in a bit of a state. I think she’s possibly coming round to the idea, but couldn’t face it this morning. I’ll go and see her after work. A few glasses of wine might help.’

‘I’m sorry, Kate, you’ve been landed with her. Is there anything I can do?’

‘Apart from dumping Matt Scott back in the bloody swamp he emerged from? No, Lau. I think your reduced contact policy is the best one really, let her cool off.’

‘Do you think she will cool off?’

‘Who knows, it’s Rach, she’s never been predictable. Does Matt even remember her? Have you even talked about her?’

‘We’ve talked about her, I don’t think he remembers her.’

‘Nice. You’re sure he’s the one for you, Lau?’

‘Yes. He’s changed.’

‘Yeah, he bloody well has. He’s got MS now. Bloody tosser.’

‘Steady on, Kate, you’re talking about Lau’s boyfriend.’

‘It’s OK, Anna. Kate’s entitled to her opinion.’

So much for not getting embroiled, I’d been here three minutes, and I was already in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation, and Rachel wasn’t even here.

‘Is Patrick in his office?’

‘Yes, he was here before us.’

‘I’ll take him a cup of tea. Anyone else want one?’

I wasted a bit of time fiddling with the kettle and teabags, and then couldn’t put it off any longer. I picked up Patrick’s mug and tapped on his door.

‘Come in – oh hello Laura. Is that for me? Thank you. Have a seat.’

I sat down, holding my own mug with both hands, nervously tapping my thumb on the handle.

‘I’m sorry Patrick. It’s already causing difficulties.’

‘Alright, Laura, I think we need to establish a few things, before we get into what’s causing difficulties. Firstly, this man – what’s his name? I can’t keep referring to him as ‘this man’.’

‘Matt.’

‘Oh – oh!’

I saw light dawn on Patrick’s face, as he realised exactly who we were talking about. He didn’t get that involved in our gossip sessions, but had been around long enough that he had been unable to escape a few Rachellings in his time.

‘Ah, I’m beginning to see things a bit more clearly. Alright, it doesn’t really change things that much though. When you first met Matt, you knew he had MS, but he wasn’t officially registered with the service, and wasn’t seeing any of you – I mean therapeutically.’

He gestured out towards the office, encompassing me, Kate, Anna and Rachel.

‘Well, I guess so. I’ve known who he was for ages, seen him around, but I’d never spoken to him before last Wednesday, and I didn’t know he had MS until then either, and no, he’s not registered with us or seeing any of us professionally yet, although he may call to refer himself. We talked about it this morning.’

‘So you haven’t begun a relationship with someone you knew was a patient. So, officially, according to law, you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s almost the same as if you were in a relationship with someone who subsequently developed MS. There’s only the one service in the city, he doesn’t have any choice if he wants help, so all we need to do is make sure that we give him, should he require it, as professional a service as we would give anyone else. You can’t be his named worker, and it sounds like Rachel wouldn’t be a good idea either, so Anna or Kate will have to fight for the honours. You can’t be involved in any clinical meetings or discussions about him, or look at his notes, or talk to him as a member of the service. Obviously any conversations you have with him in your private time are your own, but they can’t be official advice.’

‘I understand that. I’ve told him all that.’

‘Good. It sounds like you’ve got a good understanding of it. The other side of it, the possible upset that it may have caused between you and Rachel, will just have to be resolved between you and Rachel, as if it was any other person without MS who you were in dispute about. I hope it doesn’t affect the smooth running of the service, I expect you both to be mature and professional enough to sort out your differences. If anything else crops up, we’ll just have to deal with it at the time.’

‘Thanks, Patrick.’

I was incredibly grateful. I hadn’t given it much time or thought over the weekend, but had been worrying all the way over in the car about the implications for me and my job. I hoped that things now might be a bit smoother, if I kept a low profile and kept out of Rachel’s way.

The rest of the morning was filled with visits and preparations for a support group meeting in the afternoon, and Matt wasn’t mentioned again.

Matt

… and then Lau was naked, running towards me across a field, and I was just staring at her, and my eyes felt like they could swallow her whole, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up, Lau had gone, and my breakfast was cold next to me. I looked at my watch; it was nearly ten o’clock.

I resisted the urge to turn over and go back to sleep; I was sleeping my life away at the moment, and I needed to take control of it. Thinking that made me think of what I needed to do to take that control, who I might need to talk to, and I remembered Lau saying she was going to write down a number for me. I picked up the cold tea and toast and took it into the kitchen while looking to see if she’d left me a note. There it was, on the table:

Hey Beach Boy

Here is a number you might find useful – 555222. If you decide to call, ask for Anna Lovell.

Thanks for dinner last night and the shower this morning. You are multi-talented, and I’m hoping to find more skills to explore in the days to come.

Holding your hand until I see you later. I’ll come by after work, hope that’s OK.

See you soon

Lau xx

I read and re-read it, smiling to myself about being multi-talented. I hadn’t even felt singly-talented for a long time, and it was a boost to my confidence.

I still hadn’t decided about phoning the bastard MS service, and to postpone making a decision, I did some online shopping. I never went to the supermarket, even when I wasn’t a fucking cripple, and once my energy and mobility deserted me, I realised what a sensible lifestyle choice that was. I could sit in front of my computer, at my leisure, drinking a cup of coffee, adding things as they occurred to me, not getting side-tracked by lots of shit I didn’t need, not getting irritated by the length of the queues or other people’s screaming kids, not being frustrated by the absence of the one thing I really wanted to get, not getting half way home and remembering three more things I’d meant to put on the list. The only down side I could think of was sometimes having ‘out of stock’ items replaced, but the way I saw it, that just gave an added frisson of the unexpected to the whole procedure, Russian roulette with yogurt, so to speak. I didn’t know why everyone didn’t do it, especially as someone else lugged the whole lot of it up two flights of stairs for me. I even got a delivery slot for that afternoon, which meant I would have fully stocked cupboards for the rest of the week.

I took my time selecting my shopping and getting myself together. Beth texted while I was using my laptop; she texted every morning, give or take, and following Lau’s advice I’d been answering her instead of ignoring her. Her texts had become less insistent and more chatty, and much as I hated to admit it, it seemed there was an element of concern and worry behind it, rather than a need to boss people about. Or rather than solely a need to boss people about.

‘Hi Matty. Hope yr having a gd morning. We had flood in utility room waiting 4 plumber. Massive clean up going on and no water for tea :(‘

‘Oh no. Can I help?’

‘No thx, sweetheart. All under control. J was mopping b4 work tho ha ha.’

‘If u need cuppa tho, Avondale awaits.’

‘Ooh, actually, thx. Choc milk 4 Iz?’

‘Always got choc milk 4 blondie.’

‘Be there once plumber arrives :)’

I rarely invited Beth over, although she invited herself on many occasions and for many reasons. I was feeling benevolent, but realised I was going to have to stop grinning from ear to ear and be at least a bit grumpy, or she would guess something was up and I would get no peace. At least Iz would be a buffer, and the fact they were invited should stave off most of the nosy questions.

Beth arrived about twelve, and I provided lunch as well as tea. While we ate our sandwiches, the shopping arrived, and Beth couldn’t resist commenting.

‘That’s a lot of groceries, Matty.’

Shit, I’d forgotten that I’d ordered tons as I’d planned on cooking lots of fancy meals for Lau.

‘Yeh, I wahs ruhning low on ehverything. Fahncied sohm dihferent stuff too.’

Oh bloody hell, she was even having a rummage in the bags.

‘Heh, kehp yuhr nose ouh.’

‘Why do you need three different sorts of oil? Gosh, isn’t this truffle oil really expensive?’

‘Wehl, dihferent dishes nehd dihferent flavohrs, buh mihnd yuhr own. Yuh’ll fihnd the condohms if yuh dig any dehper.’

That stopped her. It was probably the thought of Iz asking ‘what’s comdoms Mummy’ rather than actually coming across any, but it was an effective deterrent, and I moved the bags into the kitchen for later disembowelling and redistribution. I’d inadvertently moved the subject onto somewhere else I didn’t really want to go, though.

Beth was looking at me with sympathy. Bugger, what had I said now?

‘You didn’t really buy condoms, did you Matty?’

Oh shit no. It was like talking about sex with your sister.

‘Noh, Beth, I wahs tryin tuh stop yuh prihcing up ahl my shopping.’

I gave her my best ‘back off or you’ll regret it’ stare, but she was unstoppable.

‘Has anything … come back … down there?’

She kept her eyes fixed on my face, but her meaning encompassed anything from the waist down. She only knew about my lack of action because it had happened last time, and because I was in the same house, and Jay had to wash me for a while, and, well, I suppose you can’t stop a man telling his wife shit.

When the fucking bastard returned this time, Beth had asked about it, as if it was an acceptable topic of conversation, and I had told her in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going to discuss it with her, but she kept on and I ended up getting emotional and yelling, ‘Fuh fuck’s sahk, no, my dick migh as wehl hahv fucking wehl drohped off fuh all I can tehl ih’s thehr. Satisfihd? I nehver wan tuh tahk abouh this again.’ and with Iz and Cal in the next room, I guess she must have been satisfied, because she hadn’t asked after that. Until now. I wondered if she even remembered me yelling before, because I was getting near the point when I was going to be yelling again, Iz in close proximity or not, if she didn’t back off.

However, we were saved by the bell. Beth’s phone rang, it was the plumber needing a decision that required Beth’s immediate physical presence, and she beat a hasty retreat, promising, or was it threatening, to call me tomorrow.

I sank down on the sofa and considered why Beth pushed so many of my buttons. Maybe I should have been grateful that she was prepared to talk to me about things no one else would. It’s not like the world is full of places you can go for advice about sexual dysfunction because of a fucking bastard disease – your mates down the pub would look embarrassed and change the subject to the footy; your work colleagues would look at you like you’d grown two heads and you’d be reported for sexual harassment; your brother – well, your brother didn’t do deep and meaningfuls, left that to his interfering wife, and your kind of brother or mate or whatever, well he would have had a go, but was currently in the midst of fathering a brood of mini-mes, and would have been clueless. So if I’d wanted to talk to anyone, Beth would have been my best bet.

Maybe it was because she never gave up, maybe I felt it was like a competition – the more she pushed, the more I dug my heels in, and so when I finally told her something, it felt like I’d lost and she’d won, rather than just a sharing of information, or communication between two family members. So maybe it was more to do with me than with her; she certainly didn’t do it out of anything other than concern and caring, and no one else seemed to have the same issues with her that I did.

Does this sound like I’m beginning to cut her some slack, understand her, be more sharing? Ha, fuck off. No way. But thinking about it did make me realise that I needed to talk to someone. Lau wouldn’t do it, not in a detached nursey way, and I wondered if that was what I needed; someone who understood, but wasn’t emotionally involved. If only there was some kind of, oh I don’t know, specialist service for people with fucking bastard diseases, where you could go for a chat with someone who knew their shit – oh, hang on, what’s this note in Lau’s handwriting, with a number and a name …

Before I could talk myself out of it, I had dialled the number.

Laura

Close to lunchtime the phone rang. Kate was nearest to the phone, so she picked it up.

‘MS Service, Kate Fuller’

Matt

I nearly bottled it, nearly hung up, but I took a deep breath and ploughed on regardless.

‘Cahn I spehk tuh, er, Anna Lovell, plehs?’

My heart was pounding. I wondered if Lau was anywhere nearby.

Laura

‘Er …’

Kate shot a quick look at Anna.

‘… can I say who’s calling?’

Matt

‘Maht Scoht.’

‘Oh.’

She sounded surprised. Well, I guess they all knew about me, though I wasn’t sure how many people worked with Lau, or who exactly she had told.

‘Can I say what it’s about?’

‘Wan tuh refehr mysehf.’

Is that what you did? Referred yourself? No idea.

‘Well I can do that.’

Oh, no, Lau said this Anna woman.

‘Er, behn told tuh ask fuh Anna.’

The voice on the other end sounded a bit pissed off.

‘OK, fine, I’ll see if she’s free.’

The phone went to ‘on hold’ bleeps for a short time, and I nearly bottled it again, but now they knew who I was, and hanging up would be embarrassing, especially for Lau.

Laura

Kate put the phone on hold.

‘An, some wanker called Matt Scott wants to refer himself. Apparently I’m not good enough and only you will do.’

I kept my eyes glued to my computer screen, trying not to listen, but it was impossible not to.

‘Alright, Kate, I’ll take it. Is there a referral form there?’

Anna passed by my chair on the way to the phone and rested her hand briefly on my shoulder.

Matt

Just as I had convinced myself that a few moments of embarrassment for Lau would be better than torturing myself by going through my life history with a stranger, another voice came on the line.

‘This is Anna, I understand you want to refer yourself.’

And we were off. I had to give details, but not as many as I was fearing, just basics like date of birth, GP, full name. We agreed an appointment, she would come here to meet me, we didn’t mention Lau, and it was all over, I was officially a fucking cripple with my name on a computer and everything. It might make it worthwhile if there was a badge and a certificate too.

Laura

Neither Kate nor I did any work while Anna was talking to Matt, but neither did we look at each other. She asked all the questions we always asked, but was giving no clue about the replies she was getting, being as non-committal and professional as any of us would have been with anyone else. I was dying to know what he was saying, but I wouldn’t ever know unless he told me. When Anna had finished, and made an appointment to see him, Kate immediately jumped in.

‘So? What did he say?’

Anna looked at me, aware of what she may or may not be allowed to reveal.

‘An can’t discuss Matt with me in the room.’

‘What? But you must know it all already, Lau. That’s bloody ridiculous.’

‘Kate, Lau can’t be party to any professional discussions about Matt without his express permission.’

‘I wasn’t asking for a professional discussion, just a bloody good gossip.’

‘It’s alright, I’ll go and get the sandwiches. Talk all you want while I’m gone.’

I was relieved to be away from the office. It would hopefully get better as we all got used to it, but I could see me doing the sandwich run regularly for the foreseeable future, and volunteering for lots of visits and other tasks that would take me out and about. My phone pinged as I was getting into the car.

Matt

We disconnected, and I felt both elated and terrified. Lau would be pleased, I was sure. Beth would be ecstatic, but I wasn’t necessarily going to tell her, maybe just slip it in the conversation sometime – ‘oh yeah, my MS nurse said …’, maybe with a few more fuckings and bastards, and see how she reacted.

I texted Lau, to see if she had been there, and to see if the news had flown around the office. OK, maybe I was enjoying a tiny bit of celebrity status.

‘I did it. Were you there? Am I causing a stir?’

‘Yes I was there. Yes u r centre of attention. Good sleep?’

‘Awesome. Dreamed of u naked. Yum ;)’

‘What u up 2 2day?’

‘Online shopping, then wait 4 delivery, I lead an exciting life.’

‘Can I come over after work?’

‘Do u need 2 ask? Fuck yeah!’

‘Gr8. Just off to get sarnies. Talk l8r. Lau xx’

‘Check yr bag. Put sarnies in 4 u.’

‘When?’

‘Made them last night, put in this morning.’

‘Oh u! Got to get everyone else’s tho. Or did u make them for us all? =)’

‘Oh bollox. No, just u. Hope u like it anyway.’

‘Thanks my beach boy xx’

Laura

I got out of the car and checked the bag in the boot. I found an oblong parcel, wrapped in tin foil, with an ice pack attached to it with an elastic band, tucked at the bottom below yesterday’s clothes. There was a note tucked under the elastic band:

Hey Lau, hope you like chicken salad. Happy munching. M x

I smiled fondly to myself, reading the note several times, liking Matt’s curly writing, then got back in the driver’s seat and went to the supermarket.

Matt

So now I’d done it, I was on a roll. I phoned my GP and made an appointment to see her later in the week, and while I was at it, I called Adam. I know, right?

‘Adam Palmer.’

‘Heh. I dohnt knoh if yuh remehmber meh, buh –’

‘Hi Matt, yes of course.’

‘Wha?’

Was he bloody psychic or something?

‘Sorry, your name came up on caller ID.’

Oh. Dur, Matt.

‘What can I do for you?’

‘Cahn I mahk an appoihtmeht tuh see yuh?’

I wasn’t going to go into details, but he’d be able to hear from my unintelligible bollocks that I wasn’t the same as I’d been last time I’d seen him.

‘Of course. When were you thinking?’

He didn’t mention it, though, just gave me a list of dates, as if people he’d had one session with months ago rang him up all the time, speaking like they’d been on the Jägerbombs, and asking to see him again. Maybe they did, for all I know, but it helped me to not feel conspicuously mad.

So that was three things I’d done today that I felt self-righteous about, and I thought I deserved a beer. I didn’t usually drink in the middle of the day, in fact I didn’t drink much alcohol at all at that time, because it just increased my fatigue, and I was already sleeping more than I’d ever slept before, but a beer, cold and hoppy, sliding down my throat, after all that talking to people on the phone had made me hoarse – aah, that hit the spot.

Laura

Returning with sandwiches for Anna, Kate and Patrick, it seemed a change was in the air. Kate appeared less confrontational, and although we didn’t specifically mention Matt or Rachel or any of the issues that had got between us in the morning, she didn’t jump on every opportunity to have a go at me. She went out for a breath of fresh air after eating her sandwich, and Anna turned to me.

‘How’re you doing, Lau? All this must be a bit hard for you, love.’

‘I suppose it is, kind of, but I have to say, An, I’m having such a great time with Matt, it seems worth it.’

‘Well that’s great. Has he really changed? I’ve heard some wild things about him.’

‘I think he has. I don’t think it’s just the MS calming him down, he seems really – what’s the word – repentant about some of the things he’s done, not that they were really, like, evil or anything, but I guess he has been pretty inconsiderate and thoughtless. I think he was trying to change, even before he had his relapse, from what he says. Oh An, I really care about him, it’s happened so fast.’

‘I can see that, love. There’s no point telling you to be careful, you’re way beyond that, you’re as bad as Harry with Poppy, he’s smitten too.’

‘Poppy? Oh, the girlfriend. Knitting, eh?’

‘Yes, she apparently does bombs or something.’

‘Bombs?’

‘Oh I can’t remember what it’s called, where people cover things with wool and knitted things overnight – buses and lamp posts and things.’

‘Oh, yarn-bombing. They had some in the city centre the other week – I wonder if that was her?’

‘Well, it seems a bit daft, but more harmless than some of the things she could get up to I suppose. She does flash mobs as well.’

‘Ooh get you, An, with your ‘down wiv der kids’ lingo and knowing about yarn-bombing and flash mobs and stuff.’

‘Well, it’s kids keep you young, I suppose.’

‘Yeah. She didn’t persuade you to get a tattoo or a piercing, though?’

‘Ha ha, no, but I think I might have talked her into knitting Harry a jumper for Christmas. Yarn bomb him, rather than a tree, seems more useful.’

My phone pinged with a text. I glanced at the phone, which was lying face up on the desk next to me.

‘Just made appt w my GP. How many brownie pts do I get?’

I smiled to myself. I suspected Matt didn’t usually respond well to being advised what to do, and was feeling a bit self-satisfied with his fairly quick response to my prodding. Anna noticed my smile.

‘Matt?’

I nodded. ‘He made me a sandwich and put it in my bag, with an ice pack attached to it and a note.’

‘Oh that’s sweet.’

‘I know. I would never have thought Matt Scott would be sweet. It’s almost like he’s a different person to the git I used to get annoyed with at parties and in clubs. He’s a good, no, a great cook, he’s tidier than me, he’s thoughtful, sensitive and kind of vulnerable. He’s just so different than I thought he was.’

‘You haven’t known him long, though, have you. And he’s ill at the moment. OK, mum moment, I can’t help myself. You will be careful, won’t you.’

I nodded, but it didn’t mean anything. I was so far beyond careful, my heart was so fully given to Matt, if he chose to, he could stop my pulse. Anna rolled her eyes at me and shook her head.

‘OK, back to work. Do you want to share a lift to the support group? I think Gloria’s making her fruit cake.’

‘No, I’ll take my car, I’m going straight off afterwards.’

‘Matt-ward bound?’

I shrugged and smiled.

My phone pinged on the way to the support group, and when I arrived I checked the screen.

‘So none? 549?’

‘What?’

‘Brownie points. U didn’t reply.’

‘I was busy. Can’t always reply straight away. Be patient! 2. Minus 1 for impatience :)’

‘Soz, didn’t think. Thinking like a foul mouthed layabout not a Baptist working girl xx’

‘:) Going 2b busy, phone on silent. Don’t expect replies. Cu l8r. Lau xx’

Matt

I had got complacent about being off work, and used to having people I could reach for chat and contact when I wanted it. None of my family had what you would call conventional jobs – Beth: Housewife and mother. Full time and more, but always available on the end of the phone. Jay: Rugby coach. Full time, lots of weird hours, but often lazing around at home in the afternoons. Mum: Retired. Nothing better to do than make cakes and drink tea, obvs. Dec: Rugby player. Lots of running around and early morning training sessions, but, like Jay, a lot of lazing around at home in the afternoons. It was called ‘recovery’ or some such shit. Amy: Housewife and mother. Charlie was more than a full-time job, and she had another one on the way, but again, always there for tea and gossip if necessary. Nico and Lis: Always there for a square meal, a laugh, a chat. My work colleagues, who I wasn’t in touch with as much as I used to be, were always texting, tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking, Snapchatting, WhatsApping; we worked in IT, it would have been a disciplinary offence not to.

So it was weird to know someone who couldn’t do that, whose job involved doing things where the phone had to be turned off. I mean, yeah, at the start Jules had been all ‘I don’t do texting’, but I soon won her over, and although she never texted from work, we were pretty much in contact the whole time whenever we were apart. I wanted that with Lau, I missed her, but was going to have to get used to the fact that she did a grown up job where ringtones and text pings weren’t acceptable. I was even more reliant on our ‘holding hands’ pact.

When Lau came home (I was already thinking of my home as her home, and I was constantly reminding myself that we’d been together less than a week) that evening, I greeted her as if I hadn’t seen her for months. It nearly felt like it.

‘Ooh, hello, miss me did you?’ she managed between breathtaking kisses.

‘Yuh hahv noh idea.’

‘I think you might have just given me one. How tired are you?’

I liked her thinking.

‘Not tihred at ahl. Wana wear meh ouh?’

‘Maybe. What’s for tea?’

‘Sohted. Cohtage pie in the ohven.’

I was nothing if not a forward planner when it came to getting Lau into bed, or whatever venue she chose for the execution of her idea.

‘Oh I like that. So we could, potentially, do a lot more of, say, this –’

She reached behind me and pulled me to her using my arse as leverage, and gave me a cheeky kiss, licking my nose on the way out.

‘– maybe somewhere more comfortable …’

‘Wha, lihk the behdrohm?’

‘Genius! How long till dinner?’

‘Ih’ll turn ih down a bih, kehp ih warm, couhd beh hours.’

And so a delicious time was had, discovering more about each other, how we kissed, how we touched, what made her sigh, what blew my mind. In-between, we were talking, getting to know each other. It was weird that it wasn’t weird, being so close physically to someone you hardly knew. It was just as if I’d always known her, and the things I found out about her didn’t feel new, just kind of confirmation of how it had always been.

If you’d asked me six months ago what I thought about the idea of soulmates, I’d have spouted off some condescending shit about how there isn’t some kind of grand plan for the universe, that destiny and fate are just bullshit, but now, with Lau, I couldn’t deny that I felt that we were designed for each other, that we fitted, that we were ‘meant to be’. Even though she really liked Boyzone.

‘Seriohsly, Lau? Ronan Kehting?’

‘He is a genius, writing songs for those other boys to sing, all those harmonies, don’t you think?’

‘Noh. Gihv meh a prohper songwriter, who writes prohper muhsic and cahn play an instruhment.’

‘Like?’

‘Anyohn who ihnt five prehty boys sat on stools. Muse. Sparklehorse. Bears Den.’

‘You’re a music snob. Oh, just like you’re a food snob.’

‘Wha? I am not.’

‘Yep, you are. You look down on boy bands because they’re popular, not because they don’t write their own stuff, because some of them do. And Ronan Keating plays the piano, I’ll have you know. And you look down on fast food, like burgers and pizza, because lots of people like them, not because it’s not tasty.’

‘Oh Lau, Lau, Lau. Places lihk Pizza Plahce serve shih tuh the mahses. Ih’s tohtal crap, I haht ih cos ih’s evil, not cos ih’s popular.’

‘Hm. Well, alright, then, maybe fast food and music not the same, but you are still a snob.’

‘Not abouh everything.’

‘No?’

‘Lihk my girhls in unifohm.’

‘True. You are a bit of a chav in that respect. Hey, Matt Scott the chav, who’d have thought?’

And so it went on, between kisses and touches, the teasing, the exploring, the getting-to-know-youing. We had time for dinner, even though the cottage pie had dried out a little by the time we got to it, and we cleared up together afterwards as if we’d always done that, loading the dishwasher, wiping the table, as if we were dancing it.

Ha ha, that just shows how soppy I was feeling, that clearing away the dinner things felt like a dance, and a sexy one at that. But soon after, it was back to bed, for more getting-to-know-youing, where I found out that Lau had always lived here, in this city, had done her nurse training here, had learned to drive here, had hardly ever left the county, let alone the country, and had only been abroad on holiday a handful of times, and that was counting a couple of hen weekends in Marbella and Ibiza that she couldn’t really remember.

Most of what we talked about that night was the little things – the bands, the films, the TV, the books, the minutiae. There was bigger shit to get off our chests; I’d told her about Jules and Carrie, briefly, but they were large contributors to what made me tick, and I wanted her to know about them, even felt like I could tell her about Carrie, all about her, like I’d never told anyone.

And I knew nothing about Lau’s past. I wanted to know about her men, to see how I measured up – oh, of course, it terrified me. Comparing myself to Martin had been a constant thing when I was with Carrie, and Jules had had a whole string of posh rich blokes who had wanted to marry her, and who were still her friends, and now I was a fucking cripple, so I wasn’t sure I was going to come out with that many man points in any battle of the exes, but in the same way that Jules and Carrie were a big part of who I was, so I wanted to know Lau’s defining moments, who had loved her and who had hurt her. Hopefully I wouldn’t be familiar with any of them, so I wouldn’t be tempted to go and beat the shit out of them for a) touching her and b) being stupid enough to let her go.

But exes and all that bollocks felt like it was for another day, and tonight was for more touching, more kissing, more holding. I had to check with her that it was OK; I was having the time of my life, malfunctioning man-parts notwithstanding, and I still couldn’t quite believe that she felt the same for me as I did for her.

‘Lau, ahr yuh suhr?’

‘Sure about what?’

‘Abouh this. I’m soh intuh yuh, jus cahnt quite beliehv ih’s truh.’

‘Do you think I just randomly go to bed with men I’m not completely and utterly into?’

Well, I suppose she had a point, maybe it was a bit like calling her a floozy.

‘Noh, buh –’

‘No. Exactly. I don’t understand it either, but yeah, I’m totally into you.’

‘Soh Ih’m not sohm random mahn?’

‘You’re so far from random. You feel very … specific. Is that the opposite of random?’

‘Yeh, spohs soh. Yuh dohnt jus fehl sohry fuh meh then?’

She tutted and rolled her eyes. I knew how needy I was being, but couldn’t help it.

‘Do you think I just randomly go to bed with men I feel sorry for then?’

‘Spohs not.’

‘Give me some credit, Matt. OK, maybe someone’s needing an ego boost. Here’s what I’m thinking, just so you’re sure, just so you know, and you can ask as many times as you like, the answer will be the same. You know, I feel like you’ve changed my life. You are so, so gorgeous, I’ve never known eyes like yours, you’re funny, gentle, kind, and have the cutest bum I’ve ever seen. Maybe your taste in music needs some work, but otherwise, ten out of ten, big tick, see me after class for some extra homework.’

I laughed at the last bit, feeling a bit guilty that I’d needed to hear her say what preceded it.

‘Wha kind of hohmwork? Science? I lihk science.’

‘I suppose you could consider it science. Biology, definitely. Biology’s a bit of a specialism of mine.’

‘Yuhr a nuhrse.’

‘Yeah, but not that kind of biology. More like … certain areas of anatomy, for example. Physiological reactions, maybe. Here, let me demonstrate.’

And with that, she dived into my boxers and, with a flourish, produced another hefty tingle.

‘Whoa, Lau! Holy fuck, if yuh kehp doin tha, Ih’ll beh back tuh nohmal in noh tihm.’

I followed her hands with mine, trying to coax the tingle into something more, but it remained elusive.

We carried on chasing tingles, mine and hers, for some time. I had a few more, and I know Lau had several too. Ultimately, though, sleep claimed me, and Lau got another early night. Or did to my knowledge. For all I know, she got up again as soon as I hit the black, and belly danced around the living room until midnight. Although I hope she would have woken me up to see that.

78. Found out about you

In which a relationship encounters conflict and hostility.

Matt

Over dinner we talked a bit, although looking back it was mostly me talking about me, needing to let her know things about me, how and why I’d been Matt the Lad, seeing Adam and why I hadn’t gone back. I wanted to talk to her all night, but I didn’t think I’d last that long, and she said she had to go back home. I was really disappointed that she wasn’t staying, I’d looked forward to another night like last night, with lots of holding and touching and getting to know each other.

‘It’s Friday tomorrow. We can do it then.’

‘Yeh, a date. We should go ouh first, like all the young dudes. Or sit an watch rubbish on the telly, like all the old dudes.’

I knew which I was more likely to be capable of, but I was happy to show willing.

‘How about a compromise and staying in to watch a DVD with some beers and G and Ts, like all the thirty-something dudes?’

I laughed, relieved that I wasn’t going to have to a) think of an excuse not to go out or stay out late or b) try to stay conscious while going out or staying out late.

‘I like ih. Behr, good. DVD, good. Lau, good. Wha’s not tuh like? Hahvnt yuh got Nehflix tho?’

‘No, I haven’t quite got into the techy TV stuff. Why have you?’

‘Yeh, cohrse, tech is my johb.’

‘Oh yeah. Well you’ll have to settle for my very untechy lifestyle for now, buster. Happy with that?’

‘Yeh.’

It was all fitting in with my plan, too, which was developing more form as the evening progressed, and the electric connection between us got stronger.

When we’d finished eating, Lau helped me clear up, and I could feel my energy draining away. I held on extra tight to the wine glasses, feeling like I was about to drop something or trip over or some such shit.

Laura

We finished up the curry, and I helped Matt clear the plates and load the dishwasher. To me, he looked a bit tired, and was seeming less coordinated than he had been earlier.

‘How about going to bed?’

My offer was purely noble, wondering if he could do with a lie-down, and I wasn’t thinking of him fondling my bum in any way. He raised an eyebrow.

Matt

I looked at Lau and raised an eyebrow, wondering exactly what she was proposing. Anything more than, well, nothing, just was not, sadly, going to happen tonight.

‘Well you did mention it earlier, you said you wanted to cuddle up and talk.’

Oh my God, this woman was just the knees of the fucking bees. She seemed to know what I was thinking.

‘Yeh. Sounds like the kind of greht idea I migh have had.’

I wanted her to be absolutely clear, though, about what I was and wasn’t able to offer.

‘Lau, yuh know I can’t … we can’t … fuck ih, yuh did the talk on sex, yuh know wha I mean.’

Laura

I’d heard what he’d said the previous night, and I knew he was anxious about what my expectations were. There was no way I was going to try to rush him into anything that he wasn’t ready for. I was scarcely ready myself, although I wouldn’t have said no to anything that had been offered. The fact was, Matt was having difficulty with his sexual functioning, and I knew, probably better than most, how low-key my responses needed to be.

‘Matt, we’re taking this slowly. Cuddle up and talk means cuddle up and talk. There’s no pressure to do anything else, ever. It’s enough for me. Talking means more to me, actually; I really want to get to know you. We’re so doing things a weird way round. Shall we?’

Matt

She stood up and held her hand out to me, and I took it and stood with her, thanking the gods of perfect women as I did so.

‘Thanks Lau. Yuhr fucking awesome.’

We undressed and got into bed, with minimum fuss, two people who had only known each other for just over twenty four hours but who were already comfortable enough with each other that they could just hop into bed for a chat and a cuddle. Lau was just wearing her underwear, and I was just wearing my boxers and t-shirt, and it was so fucking sexy but so fucking … friendly.

Laura

I turned onto my side and Matt turned to face me. We kissed first, softly and gently, causing little fizzing sparks to travel from my lips down to my fingertips and well beyond. It was delicious, knowing that it wasn’t going to go any further; it was almost better, just allowing myself to be filled up with fizzing desire. Almost. Then we lay and looked at each other, not really knowing where to start.

‘OK, so getting to know each other. Favourite colour?’

‘Navy an white.’

‘That’s two.’

‘Tottenham colours.’

‘Football?’

‘Yeh. Yuhrs?’

‘Don’t do football really.’

‘Noh, colour.’

‘Oh. Purple.’

‘Hearts?’

‘No, just the colour.’

‘Noh, Heart of Midlothian, footy tehm, play in purple.’

‘Oh. Maybe we can accept that I don’t really know or care much about football. Sorry, it seems to mean a lot to you, but that’s just how it is.’

‘Cahnt blame a blohk fuh trying. One day I’ll hahv a decent chat wih a woman abouh footy.’

‘Dream on.’

‘Ha ha, yeh. Childhood crush?’

‘George Smallwood. You?’

‘Lily Knight. Snog him?’

‘No, he was way older than me, never knew I existed, I was, like, ten and he was, I don’t know, eighteen or something. He lived a few doors up from me. You and Lily?’

‘Yeh, we pashed a bih. Roun the back of the portakabin at break. Then she wen off wih Harry Thomas one lunch and tha was tha.’

‘Oh, she broke your heart.’

‘Noh, snogged Lucy Carpenter two minutes later.’

‘I see your early sexual exploits may have set a pattern. Favourite film?’

‘Tha yuh’d have heard of? Amelie.’

Well that was a bit of an assumption.

‘What do you mean, that I’ve have heard of? I’m pretty cultured, me.’

‘OK then, MicMacs.’

Hm, correct assumption as it turned out.

‘Oh, OK, Amelie it is then. Good film. Mine’s The Sixth Sense. Saw it three times at the cinema, and have it on DVD.’

‘Stihl surprised at the ending?’

‘No, but you watch it differently. It’s kind of a ghostly love story. I thought Amelie had a bit of a twist, myself, I kept expecting her to get knocked off her bike at the end.’

‘Noh, never gona happen. Fihrst kiss?

‘Damian Wetherly.’

‘Ooh, quick ahnswer. Mehmorable thehn.’

‘For it’s sloppy grossness, yes. Surely you remember your first kiss?’

‘Lily’

‘What, you kissed your first crush? Lucky you.’

Matt shrugged modestly.

‘Did you lose your virginity to her too?’

‘Ha ha, noh Lau, weh wehr only ten. Buh Damiahn …’

‘God no. Steven Rasmussen. First boyfriend. Sixteen. My parents’ bed, while they were at a wedding.’

Matt was quiet for a moment, and it almost felt like he was finding the thought of me having sex with someone else difficult to process.

‘How about you?’

‘Bes maht’s girfriehd.’

‘No!’

Although I could well believe it, having heard some of the stories about Matt.

‘What, when you were at school or something?’

‘Noh, Uni.’

It took a second or two to work it out.

‘What, you didn’t have sex until you were – what – eighteen?’

Matt nodded.

‘Nehly nihnteen.’

‘Blimey. I’m surprised.’

‘Hihden depths, Lau.’

Well that was becoming apparent. There was a lot more to find out about this man, and I was looking forward to doing a bit of digging. Matt had his next question ready, however.

‘Favourite position?’

‘For yoga?’

I did, of course, know exactly what he meant.

‘Sex.’

I knew that.

‘I’m not sure. It depends on lots of things.’

‘Cohm on Lau, everyone’s goh a favourite. Good Baptist girl like yuh, I beh ih’s missionary.’

‘Cowgirl.’

‘Holy fuck. Whoo. Yuh duh like tuh beh in charge.’

‘You’d better believe it. Yours?’

‘Wish I could show yuh.’

He looked so sad, I immediately needed to make him feel better.

‘Oh Matt, there’s all the time in the world. Actually, I’m going to change mine. At the moment, my favourite sexual position is face to face, having a chat. You’re giving me everything I need right now.’

‘Lau …’

Matt’s eyes had filled with tears.

‘It’s really important to you, isn’t it, flower.’

He nodded, unable to speak.

‘You’ll get there, just don’t put pressure on yourself. Enjoy the other bits as well.’

He nodded again.

‘Ih’s jus such a big part of meh, wha I’ve been the last few yehrs. Now ih’s gone, ih’s … I can’t explain.’

Enough people had told me what it was like, that I had the words.

‘It’s like you’ve lost an arm, or the ability to walk. It affects every part of your life, all the time, sometimes you can’t think about anything else except not being able to have sex.’

He looked at me with something approaching awe.

‘Yuh understand!’

‘Not really. I know the words, what people have told me, what I’ve read. I can’t possibly really understand, it hasn’t happened to me.’

Matt

We started off slow, with colours, interests, all that shit, and worked up to more intimate comparisons.

Favourite colours: Matt – navy and white – Spurs, keep up.

Lau – purple (not football related).

Football: Matt – yes, very much so.

Lau – not so much.

Films: Matt – arty French nonsense.

Lau – sentimental tosh not that I was judging her taste in films in any way.

Childhood crushes: Matt – Lily.

Lau – some git called George.

First kisses: Matt – Lily.

Lau – Damian the Dick (not her nickname, it was applied by me).

Virginity lost: Matt – Cindy.

Lau – Steven something German and too much information it made me feel weird.

Favourite Positions: Matt – didn’t get to answer.

Lau – cowgirl! Fuck, she was a goer. As soon I was back in working order, we were going to have some bloody fun!

And then I got a bit maudlin about not being able to show her my favourite position, and she changed her mind, and said her favourite was face to face, having a chat, and it made me cry because it was so bloody thoughtful, the cow.

And then she blew my mind by telling me exactly how it felt, this fucking bastard MS and what it had done to my sex drive – as if I’d lost an arm or the ability to walk, and that sometimes it was all I could think about, not being able to do it – and I knew, if I hadn’t before, that she was always going to get me. Not just because I had the bastard MS and she knew a lot about the bastard MS, but because on some deep level, although we were so different in the things we liked and didn’t like, we were the same where it mattered, in understanding how we worked, what made us tick.

‘Will ih … will I geh ih back?’

I had to ask. I’d stopped myself from talking to Lau like she was a nurse, an expert in the thing I had, but this was so big for me that I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know.

Laura

It was what everyone asked, whether it was their sexual function or their ability to walk in a straight line, and it was what I could never answer. The truth was that it would probably come and go, and then it would take longer to come back after it had gone, and then one day it might not come back at all. But I wasn’t going to be saying that right at this moment.

‘No one can promise that. With most people, yes, it comes back. There’s a big psychological element too. Wanting it too much can play as big a part as the physical side of it. And that is the end of Laura Shoeman’s sexual counselling session. That will be one hundred pounds, please, I take personal cheques and cash. Further appointments should be booked through my personal assistant.’

I needed to stop being Nurse Laura. I was here with this gorgeous man, who I kept forgetting had the very disease I spent my working life dealing with, and I wanted to get to know him. I knew there was so much more to him than MS, and I wanted to stop him fixating on it, and tell me about his life.

Matt

She had managed to tell me to step away from the medical questions and make me laugh, at the same time.

‘Ha ha. Lau, yuhr greht, even if yuhr prices ahr a bih stehp. I wan yuh tuh know abouh meh.’

Laura

‘OK, get spilling then.’

I said this with a smile, but inside I was a little worried – was he going to tell me everything? We could be here some time.

Matt

‘Well, OK, buh first, I wan tuh tell yuh abouh yuh. I wan yuh tuh know tha when I first saw yuh, yesterday, the second I saw yuh, I was like, whoa. Ih was profound. I jus knew it was yuh. I wahnt gona stay, Beth talked meh into goin, buh I only agreed tuh put my head roun the door, then I was gona goh, buh I saw yuh an couldn’t stay away. I made ih up abouh wanting tuh talk.’

Lau pretended to be astounded.

‘Then when we were at Meahn Beahn, yuh touched my hand an, whoa, like electric shock. Ih’s like I’ve been looking foh yuh all my life. Whatever I’d behn doing, whoever I’d behn with, I’d have had to stop it to beh wih yuh.’

I was still finding it hard to believe, but it was true. If I’d been with Carrie, or Jules, or if I’d been on my way to the other side of the world, it would all have stopped so I could be here with Lau.

Laura

He looked like he could hardly believe what he was saying, but I believed it, because I felt it. It hadn’t been as instant for me, but it felt like it was now as deep. I felt like I could reach out and touch it, this thing that was binding us together.

‘You know what, that’s what it’s like for me too. Not exactly when I first saw you, all I was thinking was ‘blimey, isn’t that Matt Scott?’, but then I couldn’t stop looking at you, and yeah, I felt the same in Mean Bean, it was like a jolt when we touched. I’m still getting it. I can’t quite take it in, but I love it.’

Matt

Every time she said it, said that she’d felt the same things, I got a bit closer to believing that it was going to happen, was happening right now, but there was still shit she needed to know. It was all very well me thinking that nothing would stop me being with her, that she could tell me anything and it wouldn’t make any difference, but she didn’t necessarily have the same point of view.

‘OK, tha’s greht, I’m glad we fehl the same. I wan tuh tell yuh abouh Jules. I keep almost saying stuff, then goin ‘yuh can’t say tha, Lau wouldn’t understand’ but I think maybe yuh would. We were together foh abouh nine months. I ruined her lihf. She’s the reason I’m like I am now, I mehn trying tuh beh honest an shih.’

Laura

I had been dying to know about Julia, but now he was talking about her, I felt a bit shy about it. Their relationship, or its ending, had obviously affected Matt a lot, and part of me felt ridiculously threatened by what they must have had. I put on what I hoped was an interested and not at all a jealous cow expression.

‘What was she like?’

Matt

‘Bih like meh.’

I’d answered before I really thought about it, but it was partly true.

‘Really?’

Lau frowned, as if she knew different, and again I wondered how much she knew from other people.

Laura

Not from what I’d heard, but I didn’t know her.

‘Only tha she hid herself too. I hide behind Matt the Lad, she hid behind being The Ice Queen. She was warm an funny, but scared and insecure. Weh ended up being too dihferent, we wanted dihferent things, or rather jus the one dihferent thing, buh because I was tuh busy hiding, I hid wha I wanted from myself. I wan a fahmly, rehly wan ih, member I said yesterday?’

I nodded, feeling again the thrill of being invited to join Matt in the journey that led to children. Was that what he’d said? It felt like it. But we’d only known each other a day. God, this was completely insane.

‘She dihnt want children. At all. Ever. Noh compromise. I told her I did a week after weh moved in together.’

‘Oh Matt.’

I could only imagine how devastating that had been for both of them. I knew how much I wanted children, and if the opposite had happened to me, if someone I was committed to had told me it was never going to happen, it would have been the end.

Matt

She looked so sad, it was as if she felt it, how much it had hurt both of us.

‘I dihnt know. Ih was when Chahlie was born, I saw them all together, goh this surge of … lohs of things – jehlousy, recognition, felt ahl protehtive, I jus wanted ih, wha they had. I knew that day ih was gona end wih me an Jules, ih would either go on fuh a while, both pretending ih was OK, then ripping us apart, or ih could rip us apart there an then. Tha’s wha happened. She smashed the place up, picked up her stuff, I never saw her again, apart from one of the mos fucking awful wehks at work Ih’v ever had. The worst thing was, she had this thing, she said she dihnt believe in love, said ih was made up by pehpl. So I’d tell her I dihnt love her, like ih was gona make her fehl better. Buh I did, I so did, I even pretended tha. I told her in the end, wrote a letter, buh way tuh late. So tha’s why now, if I feel ih, I say ih. I try tuh be honest abouh wha I want, wha I’m feeling, first tuh myself and then tuh other pehpl. I’m getting there, buh still a bluhdy mardy git sometimes. Cahnt always dehl wih pehpl caring.’

Laura

‘Do you still love her?’

I needed to know, not that I thought it would make any difference to me, but you need to know these things rather than wondering. Matt’s story was so sad, he obviously still felt very guilty about what had happened, and I wanted to know how he felt now. He’d said, incredibly, unbelievably, that when he saw me – me – only yesterday, he would have finished it anyway. That took a lot of getting my head round, and I just wanted to know how things stood with him and Julia.

Matt

Well that was a bloody awkward question. I knew Lau had seen Jules’ photo, and would have seen me flicking past her pictures on my phone. I could have just said no, but I wanted to start as I intended to go on, and that meant being as honest as I could. I took a deep breath and sighed it out.

‘I think part of meh will always love her. Part of meh still loves Carrie, or how she was tuh staht wih. Buh foh meh ih’s abouh putting ih away, moving on.’

Laura

It was a truly honest reply. He wasn’t trying to soften anything for me; he was just telling me his truth. I reached up and stroked his hair. He put his hand over mine, then pulled it to his mouth and gently kissed my knuckles, looking into my eyes as he did so.

Matt

She seemed OK with this big splurge of information, and I wanted her to know I was grateful.

‘Soh, wha tha means is I tell yuh wha I’m feeling when I feel ih. Try noh tuh hide or be scared of ih. Migh not always manage ih. Migh beh a bih intense foh yuh.’

I really wanted to start this that way, facing up to everything as it happened, not letting my need to keep things to myself, or to do things on my own, or for bloody man points, stop me from being open about shit. I really wanted it. I was at least going to try.

‘Honesty is the best way. I’m pretty up front, usually. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but everyone knows where they are.’

‘OK, then, leh’s start now. Ih’m amazed an fucking terrified. I feel like I’ve found something I dihnt know I was looking foh, buh always needed. I dihnt think I believed in love at first sigh.’

Oh shit, what the fuck was I saying? I said I was being open, not bloody blurting out ridiculousness. Extreme backtracking was in order.

‘Not sayin I love yuh, migh be a bih soon, buh dohnt know how tuh describe wha I’m fehlin.’

I wondered if I’d got away with it. Lau didn’t seem fazed, she was just looking at me the same way she had been all evening, her direct gaze seeming to find a connecting link with my soul. However, this was the closest I had come for a long time to telling someone I loved them. It would, in a way, have been easy to say, as I was feeling such strong emotions for Lau, but saying it now would have been foolhardy, and I wasn’t sure, not yet.

Laura

My heart was pounding. Despite his backtracking, Matt had practically said he loved me. It was mad, crazy, absolutely the most bonkers thing, but so thrilling and so fast. How can you feel like that for someone you’ve just met, who you barely know? But it was true, mad as it was; I felt exactly the same. Sensible Nurse Laura decided to talk for me, though.

‘There’s no rush to say anything we can’t take back later. Let’s just see how it goes. The ‘L’ word is huge. The other ‘L’ word is a bit less scary.’

Matt

I waited for her to tell me which other ‘L’ word she had chosen. I could think of a few I could try – lick, lap, lips …

‘Like.’

‘Oh. Yeh. And lust. Lohs of lust foh yuh, Lau. I like lusting after Lau a loh. Yuhr turn: Matt makes me …’

I tried to reduce the intensity a bit, to back us both away from what I had nearly declared so rashly, and I waggled my eyebrows, indicating she should finish the sentence.

‘Oh. OK … Matt makes me mad with … er … magnetism …’

‘Magnetism? Tha’s best yuh can come up wih?’

‘I thought it was a fair shot for being put totally on the spot.’

‘How abouh manly masculinity?’

‘If you like.’

‘Manly Matt likes Lusty Lau a loh.’

‘And Lusty Lau … er … must have Manly Matt.’

‘Yuhr rubbish at this.’

‘Oi! My name is much easier to rhyme with.’

‘Not rhyming, alliterating.’

‘OK, clever clogs. You just had some lucky words.’

‘Leh’s call ih a draw. Lau …’

I looked into her eyes. She looked back. I loved messing about with her, batting words to and fro, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There was a plan to be following.

‘I rehly wana kiss yuh.’

‘OK. What’s stopping you?’

‘Not much. Buh not often behn in bed wih a woman, an snogged an tha’s ih.’

‘We managed OK yesterday, didn’t we?’

‘Yeh, buh yuh wanted more, an I frehked.’

This, us, being together but not being able to be properly together, was going to get weird – or should that be weirder – if we didn’t talk about it.

‘I didn’t notice you freaking, I noticed you asking me to stop and me stopping. Isn’t that what everyone does? Matt, I’ll say it as often as you need me to, we’re taking it slowly here. Maybe some things are going way way fast, but that’s fine because other things can go way way slow. Slow is fine, slow is good, slow is damn good, we can get to know each other, talk about things, work stuff out before we worry about sex. We’re doing everything else the wrong way round, why not that too?’

God, she was awesome. She was just so calm and down to earth about it all, like it was completely normal for her to spend two nights in a row in bed with a fucking cripple with fucked-up downbelows, kissing and feeling each other up and nothing more, no more fucking anything for the foreseeable.

Laura

He carried on looking into my eyes. If he didn’t kiss me soon, I was going to take matters into my own hands.

‘Lau, yuhr fucking amazing.’

I shrugged modestly, relishing the compliment.

Matt

‘Knoh wha, though, I’m bluhdy knackered.’

I laughed.

‘Cahnt believe I’m saying tha, wha’s time? Shih, not even eigh yet. Quick snog then sleep foh me, yuh gona stay?’

‘I can’t stay the night, I haven’t brought anything with me.’

‘Stay foh bih? Jus cuddle.’

I was still pushing, trying to get her to stay. I wondered whether, if she fell asleep, she’d end up staying the night anyway. I didn’t care if she slept in her undies – was extremely unambivalent to the idea actually – and I could rustle up a spare toothbrush if necessary.

From the living room, Beth’s text tone sounded. I sighed. I’d managed to forget, for a couple of hours, that I was the personal property of Beth Scott due to being short-sighted enough to have awarded her health coordinator status. I was bloody irritated that she’d reminded me.

‘Wha now? They’ve made ih since this afternoon withouh checking up on meh.’

‘Just answer them, Matt.’

I sighed again, closed my eyes, almost too tired to bother, then opened them, gave Lau a quick kiss on the lips and tottered into the living room to retrieve my phone.

Laura

I watched him walk unsteadily to the living room, retrieve his phone, and come back to bed.

‘You’re really tired, aren’t you.’

He looked at me ruefully and nodded.

‘Even if I was fuhly functional, wouldn’t hahv the energy tonigh. Iz does foh meh, an had a long day yesterday. Wih lohs of excitement.’

He winked at me, then bent his head to his phone to read his text.

Matt

‘Oh, ha ha, apparently Iz told Beth she was going tuh live wih me so she can hahv pizza and ice crehm foh lunch every day.’

Excellent. My afternoon’s work was yielding fruit. That would teach Beth. Oh, no, that’s right, it wouldn’t, but that didn’t stop me gloating about my small and extremely time-limited victory.

‘So she’s not checking up on you, then, just checking in.’

Oh alright, you win, Lau. You always did.

‘OK, yuhr righ, I did hear wha yuh said yesterday, Ih’v been texting back more today. Maybe ih’s worked.’

‘Bossy Nurse Laura strikes again.’

She raised a brow at me, impishly

‘Yeh. Cohm here before yuhr head gehs too big tuh snog.’

Laura

We moved towards each other and our lips met with the increasingly familiar jolt of electricity. We held each other tightly and moved slowly and lingeringly in each other’s mouths, hands roaming over each other’s bodies. I felt Matt’s hands slide down my back and settle on my bum, where he stroked me over the top of my knickers. I followed suit and moved my hands along his side, unable to resist slipping my hand under the waistband of his boxers, where it came to rest on his bum cheek. It was very firm and was crying out for a squeeze, so I squeezed.

Matt

‘Holy fuck, Lau, yuhr killing me.’

‘Sorry, shall I stop?’

‘Fuck noh. Loving ih. Yuhv goh greht hands.’

We held each other, touching, kissing, looking deep into each other’s eyes, until I was unable to stop the blackness of sleep claiming me. It drifted in from the corners of my vision and took me away while I was stroking Lau’s soft hair and feeling her lips tasting mine.

I hope you’ve noticed. I hope you’ve been paying attention to what I have been doing and what I haven’t been doing. There has been a lot of groping and feeling up that Matt and Lau have been doing, and I expect you assume that all parts have been fair game, but if you think about it, no, not all parts. I have been saving myself. We have been going faster than a speeding bullet the last couple of days, but I kind of knew that there were some places I needed to save until later to explore.

Part of it was my plan, and part of it was it just felt right. No cupping was had, by either of us, just stroking of arses, deep kisses. We could have knocked ourselves out, gone everywhere, but it was as if we were balancing the insane speed we were going at emotionally with going slow slow slow in the physical reconnaissance mission. Without Lau telling me, or me having to ask, I knew it was too soon to be touching the bits enclosed in her sensible black bra and pants. Maybe the simple nature of her underwear was sending a message in itself. I didn’t know when she’d be ready, but I knew I’d know. I had never been so in tune with anyone in my life.

Laura

We snuggled together for a while longer, touching, kissing a bit – and oh, his kisses were just as thrilling and tantalising and delicious as they had been the first time – until I felt Matt’s movements slow and stop, his body relax. I spent a long time looking at his face – his eyes were shut, his mouth slightly open, and I heard his breathing deepen. I waited a while, until he’d had the chance to fall properly asleep, then disentangled myself gently and climbed out of bed, grabbing my dress and uniform as I crept out of the room, pulling the door shut behind me. I dressed quickly, then, on a whim, found a bit of paper and wrote a note.

I left it on my pillow, then I let myself quietly out of the flat and drove home, smiling to myself the whole way.

I went to bed early myself. I’d had a tiring twenty four hours or so, and some solid sleep felt like a really good idea. Matt had other ideas, though.

Matt

I woke up and I was alone. It felt wrong, more wrong than sleeping alone had ever felt before. It was the dead of night, and Lau was gone and I missed her. Then I saw the note she’d left, sitting on her pillow, where her head had rested, facing me, just a few hours ago.

Hope you slept well, you look so cute when you’re asleep.

Thanks for a lovely evening,

looking forward to tomorrow’s 30-something DVD night.

My place?

Text me.

Lusty Lau xx

Something that had been blinking at the edge of my consciousness came into view as I read the note. I had no idea how old Lau was. I hadn’t even thought about it. She’d written ’30-something DVD night’, so I assumed she was in her thirties, and yeah I guess I knew she wasn’t like eighteen or some such shit. She certainly wasn’t older than me, but she had a kind of, oh I don’t know, can I call it an ‘ageless quality’ and not sound like a complete arse? Probably not. I guess I mean it didn’t matter. She could have been eighteen or twenty eight or thirty eight or forty eight or more maybe (OK I’m being generous to myself, perhaps), and she would still have been Lau, still the one I’d been looking for. It wasn’t important, but it was … relevant. To the whole having a family thing. I hoped it would become clearer without me having any awkward conversations, and I dismissed it from my mind for now.

So anyway, I was missing Lau, like crazy. I reached for my phone. She’d said text her, although she probably didn’t mean text her in the middle of the night, but you couldn’t be too careful, wouldn’t want to piss her off by mistake.

Laura

A ping from my phone woke me up in the middle of the night. I reached for it blearily, in my disoriented state thinking it was the alarm. The time said three twenty. There was a text.

‘Yr not here 😦 miss u. Thx 4 note.’

Matt

There was a bit of a pause, and I nearly drifted back to sleep. Then she answered.

‘U shld b asleep. Need ur strength 4 2moro = film nite.’

‘U said txt u.’

‘Didn’t mean immediately.’

‘Oh. Shld b more specific w yr bossiness ;)’

‘Will remember 🙂 Go 2 sleep now. Specific enough?’

‘Yeh. Night Lau x’

‘Night x’

‘Sleep tight.’

‘Thx. U2.’

‘Don’t let bedbugs etc.’

‘Go 2 sleep.’

‘Can’t. Miss u.’

‘Me 2 but need sleep. Night. Still holding hands, if it helps.’

‘Yeh. Helps 🙂 xx’

And so I floated back to sleep, holding her hand in my thoughts.

I dreamed that night. I hardly ever dream, or if I do I don’t remember them, but that night I dreamed I was riding a horse along a beach, looking for something. Just as I found it, I woke up. I felt more awake and alert than I had for a long time, and I checked the time. I was amazed to find that it was only just gone quarter past seven.

Lau. My next thought was Lau. She would be getting ready for her day. I grabbed my phone and started texting, thinking that she wouldn’t have much opportunity once she got to work.

Laura

And so another day dawned, at seven seventeen, with the insistent alarm tone of my phone pulling me out of a dream in which I was following a horse along a beach. There was more to it than that, but it skittered away as dreams do and I’d forgotten it before I’d swung my legs out of bed. As I pulled my dressing gown on, my phone pinged. Text from Matt.

‘Hey Lau, u up?’

‘Yes. Just.’

‘We didn’t have dessert.’

‘Oh yeah. Never mind. Bring 2nite?’

‘Cool. Wot time?’

‘I’ll b home after five. NE time after then :)’

‘Wot DVD?’

‘Bring one? One each. If we last that long. DVD nite can b 2 nites. Or 3.’

‘gr8. Cu l8r. M xx’

‘cu xx’

And so, happily set up for the day, I showered, dressed, had breakfast and left for work. Anna was back, her cold on the mend, and when I got in Kate was filling her in on developments with her patients while she’d been off.

‘Hi Lau, thanks for doing the LMS day, I owe you one.’

‘No problem, An, it was a good day.’

With a sudden shiver, I realised that if Anna hadn’t been off sick, I wouldn’t have met Matt. I wouldn’t be in the middle of this thrilling swirl of excitement and emotion. The things that hinge on the common cold virus.

‘Hey, yeah, An, you’ll never guess who came along as a newbie.’

Still not wanting to discuss it, I scowled at Kate, who deliberately didn’t look at me.

‘No, who?’

‘Matt Scott.’

‘What, Rach’s Matt?’

‘Well, Rach’s and half the bloody women in the city’s Matt, yeah.’

‘He’s been diagnosed?’

Kate turned to me, questioning eyebrows raised.

‘Don’t look at me, I just had a quick chat with him afterwards.’

This earned an exasperated snort from Kate.

‘How’s Rach taken it?’

‘Pretty bloody philosophically, actually. She said yesterday he wasn’t a superhero and it was time to move on.’

‘Wow. Might be the best thing that’s ever happened to her, well since ‘that night’.’

Matt

So that was my evening sorted, and the plan was taking shape nicely. Now for the rest of the day. I was feeling great, and getting up early would enable me to organise things so I wasn’t dashing about. I lay in bed for a while, enjoying feeling clear-headed. I sent Lau another text and then I fell asleep, and woke up near lunchtime, feeling muzzy.

Laura

I busied myself boiling the kettle and putting teabags in mugs, trying not to get involved in the conversation. I heard my phone ping in my bag. Another text from Matt.

‘Holding hands xx’

‘:) xx’

Kate noticed me texting.

‘Your mum up and about early, is she?’

It was a sad reflection of my recent lack of romantic success that the person who was most likely to be texting me this early in the morning was my mother, but I smiled ambiguously and let her think what she wanted to.

‘Have a chilled evening yesterday?’

‘Yeah, great, had a takeaway, wine, went to bed early.’

It was all true; leaving stuff out like where and who with, and not mentioning the odd head massage and going to bed with a handsome man again wasn’t like really lying.

‘Sounds like just what you needed, Lau, you weren’t really here yesterday afternoon.’

‘Yeah, I think it was. Oh, hi Rach. Tea?’

The morning went on, all of us either on visits or catching up with writing notes on the computer. Lunchtime came and went with the usual sandwich run, and then we had a referral meeting to set up our schedule for the next week. There was always a steady flow of new referrals to the service, and we each had responsibility for a fairly large caseload.

Matt

I picked up my phone and saw several texts from various people.

Lau: ‘:) xx’

Dec: ‘Alright, m8? Hope u still on 4 Charlie sitting/sleepover Sat :)’

Beth: ‘How r u 2day?’

‘Hi Matty. There’s an all-ability walking group in Telton. Interested?’

‘Emailed u article abt MS and diet.’

‘Don’t forget Amy’s birthday.’

Mum had called but not left a message, as she never did, and Beth must have recruited Jay into the ‘let’s all bug Matty, I’m obviously not annoying him enough on my own’ campaign, as there was a voicemail from him.

‘Hi Matty, er, just, er, wondered if you could, er – oh alright, Beth, just let me do it. Give Beth a call, or something, mate, she’s giving me a ton of bloody grief, you’ll save my ears. Wha –’

I tried not to be exasperated. They all knew I slept hard and never heard my phone if I was really gone. Lau’s words kept coming back to me, and I pinged off a few texts:

‘Hey. Yep, looking 4ward 2 keeping Charlie up l8 on Sat ;)’

‘Beth. I am alive. Was there something u needed? No 2 cripples walking gp, thx tho. Diet? Donuts n beer do it 4 me. CU Sun.’

‘Hey Jay. Tell Beth hv already got Amy’s present. Hope u hv 2.’

Then I called Mum back. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have allowed herself to be drafted into Beth’s circle of bothering, as she was usually pretty good unless it was a real emergency, so there was something specific she wanted to talk to me about.

‘Heh Muhm.’

‘Matthew, dear. I tried to call you earlier.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Ahr yuh OK?’

‘Yes, dear, but I was wondering if you could help me out with something?’

Mum, bless her heart, always tried her hardest to think of ways to make me feel useful. She knew I was pretty fucked in the limbs department, and my usual handyman abilities were out the window at the moment, so it was often something like a cryptic crossword clue, or she was writing a letter to someone and wanted another word for ‘nice’. She didn’t think I knew what she was doing, or maybe she did and we just played the game of not letting on that I knew she knew I knew, because it was out of kindness, and it worked, in a weird kind of way. It’s always good to be needed, even if it’s only for the answer to seven across.

‘Wha yuh nehd?’

‘Well I was talking to someone at the gardening club the other day, and we were discussing sauces.’

This time it was cooking. Well, I was pretty into cooking, so fair enough.

‘Uh huh.’

‘Well, we were having a slight disagreement about the ingredients of béarnaise sauce. I said that béarnaise had shallots and tarragon, but someone else said that was hollandaise. I was sure you’d know.’

‘Top of the clahs, Muhm. The sauhce is the sahm, buh diffrehnt grehdy yuhms.’

‘Different what, dear?’

I laughed. ‘Iz’s new wohd. Ingrehdiehts. I lihk hers behter.’

‘Ha ha, me too. So what’s in hollandaise? I just want to make sure I get it right next week.’

‘Lehmon juhs an cahenne. Goh geh ’em.’

‘I will. Thank you, dear. How are you?’

Mum was allowed to ask because a) she always talked about something else first and b) she was my mum. I didn’t always tell her the truth, because you don’t always tell your mum everything, but today I was taking advice from a particularly lovely expert in my specific fucking bastard neurological disorder, and I told her the truth. Oh, not about the lovely expert, I wasn’t spilling everything just yet, come on, do you know me at all?

‘Bih wihped. Hahd busy cohple of days. Ohnly jus wohk up.’

‘Oh, you had that day at the church hall, didn’t you. Beth said you stayed for the whole thing.’

Bloody Beth, see, this was why I was so reluctant to do things, go anywhere, talk about anything, because it got endlessly discussed with everyone whether you wanted it or not. I felt like I was public property, and it really pissed me off, and then I stopped talking to anyone about anything. Like with Mum, now. I expect she’d been part of the whole ‘where’s Matty, let’s all panic until we know he’s tucked up in his own bed’ malarkey, even though she hadn’t texted or called herself, but I wasn’t going there right now, and I just closed off.

‘Did she?’

Mum sensed my withdrawal, as she changed the subject.

‘So are you going to Sunday lunch?’

‘Yeh. Staying at Dec an Amy’s Satuhday nigh, lohking after Chahlie while thehr ouh fuh Amy’s birthday. Goin wih them Suhnday mohning.’

I wondered about taking Lau along with me, but I wanted her to myself for a bit longer before I subjected her to the madness of a full-on Scott interrogation. Maybe another time.

Mum, sensing that I’d been annoyed by Beth talking about me to all and sundry, wrapped things up before I could take any further umbrage.

‘Alright, well I’ll see you on Sunday, then. Rose is bringing me.’

‘OK, Muhm, seh yuh thehn.’

I pottered about, getting myself some lunch, changing my bed, doing laundry, all things that should have been so mundane, but all things that sapped my strength, and I had to do slowly and efficiently to conserve my energy. Half way through the afternoon, I sent Lau a text.

Can’t wait 2 cu l8r. Amelie n cheesecake. Mm. Xx.

There wasn’t an immediate reply, and I got on with something else, then I heard the ping and picked up my phone.

Laura

Half way through the afternoon, it was my turn to make the tea. I heard my phone ping on my desk, but didn’t think much of it until I heard Rachel’s voice.

‘Lau … you’ve got a text from Matt?

‘What?’

She was holding my phone up, with the screen clearly showing his name. I never blushed, but I felt my face begin to heat up.

‘Why’s Matt texting you? Is it Matt Matt, as in newly diagnosed with MS and while we’re at it serial woman dumper Matt?’

She looked at the screen. Anna and Kate looked on wide-eyed.

‘Oh my God! You’re seeing him later? What the fuck Lau? He’s texted you kisses.’

I couldn’t make my mouth say any words. I stood there, kettle in my hand, trying to find a single thing to say that would explain it without lying my head off. I could have lied my head off, I might even have made it sound convincing, but eventually Rachel was going to know. And I never lied, but I felt like I had spent the last couple of days at work half-lying. Maybe it was better for all of us that she knew now, when it was new, and I hadn’t been deceiving everyone for ages. My face went hot – it wasn’t embarrassment, it was shame, my half-truths and deceit catching up with me. Trying to ignore my reddened cheeks, I had a stab at it.

‘I’m sorry, Rach, maybe I should have said something, but it’s early days –’

‘Lau!’

This was Kate.

‘You’re not serious, you’re seeing Matt bloody Scott? Oh that is just wrong on so many levels.’

Rachel had turned as red as me, and I saw her expression darken.

‘Well I think I’ll just reply, shall I?’

She started to tap on my phone. I dropped the kettle back onto the table in my haste to get the phone back from Rachel, but she gave it a final triumphant tap and threw it on my desk before picking up her bag and marching out of the office. Kate and Anna continued to look at me, open mouthed.

‘What? It’s not like it’s illegal.’

I lifted my chin defiantly.

‘Bloody hell, Lau, no wonder you didn’t want us all asking about him. What are you thinking? Apart from all the grief he’s given Rach, who is your friend in case you need reminding, he’s a wanker of the first order and, just to top it all, he’s got bloody MS. Could you be seeing a more inappropriate person?’

I held her gaze, determined not to be ashamed. What Matt and I were starting to have wasn’t shameful, I’d checked it out with Patrick, it was just that things were awkward while Rachel was getting used to it.

Then I had a bit of a reality check. I’d known how upset Rachel was going to be, and I’d gone ahead anyway, not really caring. Now things were going to be really tricky here, I had lost a good friend, and, yes, Kate was right, it was a pretty inappropriate relationship. As I was thinking all this, my phone rang. I walked over to where Rachel had thrown it. The screen announced that Matt was calling. I answered, then walked outside.

Matt

I was more than a bit surprised by Lau’s response.

‘Get lost you cocking ballache.’

What? Something had gone badly wrong. Either I had done something to upset her, although what the fuck it could have been I had no clue, or someone had told her something about me, or maybe someone had taken her phone, maybe she’d been mugged, or – I needed to stop catastrophising and call her. I frantically hit call and waited for what seemed like a million rings before it was answered.

‘Hello.’

So she hadn’t lost her phone. It must have been directed at me, then. She didn’t sound that pleased to hear from me. Fuck, what had I done?

‘Lau? Wha’s wrong?’

Laura

Wow, it was as if he was psychic. How could he have possibly known what had just happened? He couldn’t. What did he mean, then?

‘Er …’

Matt

She sounded hesitant and a bit confused.

‘Why did yuh call me a cocking ballache?’

Laura

‘Oh.’

Oh great. Rach had really landed me in it.

‘I didn’t. That was Rachel. Sorry, a whole lot of something smelly just hit the fan here. She saw your text, wasn’t happy, sent you a reply.’

Matt

Oh, the friend. Well that explained things a bit, but sounded bad from Lau’s point of view.

‘Oh fuck. Are yuh OK?’

Laura

Matt seemed to be taking it well. At least he didn’t think it was me who’d sent him an insulting message.

‘Been better. It was bound to happen eventually. I’d have liked a bit more time to prepare, but whatever. Better out than in, as they say.’

I tried to put a smile in my voice, but felt close to tears and took a deep shuddering breath.

Matt

She sounded like she was putting on a brave face and I so wished I could see her, hold her, make it alright.

‘Are yuh nearly finished foh the day?’

‘Hour or so more.’

Oh bloody hell, I needed to get going, if I was going to get all the buses I needed to cross the city to Lau’s house. I tried to sound as reassuring as I knew how to, before I disconnected and set off.

‘Hang in there. Hohding hands till I see yuh.’

‘Thanks. Need it. Better go.’

‘Bye Lau.’

I sent her some virtual strength through our still mentally clasped hands, not that it was likely to make any difference, but was the best I could manage.

70. Shake it out

In which there is an interlude while hard truths are avoided.

Julia

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as just collecting my things; there was still work. But Matt took a few weeks off, making it easier for me to cope with, and when I knew he was coming back I took some time off and went up to Norfolk, to sort out the house, finally able to bear to get rid of some of Nons’ things to make room for mine.

Matt

If pushed, I would say that my week in Egypt had helped me clear my head and get a bit of perspective. Maybe it had helped me distance myself from the disastrous way things had ended with Jules. I was still devastated, guilty, sad beyond words at how everything had happened, and I still didn’t know how I was going to face her at work, but I managed to go back to my flat. It was hard, but Beth’s friend’s husband had done a great job on the walls, had managed to match the paint, had even filled in and painted over the hole left where Jules had ripped her ‘Starry Starry Night’ picture off the wall, and Beth and Rose had done a great job on the cleaning. Apart from a faint smell of paint, and empty cupboards where my plates used to be, you would never have known Jules had lost it there, because of me, only a couple of weeks ago.

I still had over a week left of leave from work, and I spent a lot of time visiting Dec, Amy and Charlie. Their house move was on hold for a few weeks while the landlord had some repairs done; they didn’t seem too worried, as Charlie was only tiny, but their flat was totally full of stuff – clothes, jumbo packs of nappies, a stroller, the cot – and they would be so much better off with more space.

While I was away from work, I texted a few people to try to find out how Jules was, while attempting to remain discreet. As far as I was aware, no one knew Jules had moved in with me. I hadn’t told them, and I highly doubted Jules would have either, but they were bound to know something was up. The office had got used to us being together, although they’d stopped gossiping about it, as we gave them nothing to gossip about. We’d always been professional, and Jules’ rules had meant we never let home and work overlap.

I found out from Lexi that Jules was at work but acting ‘a bit weird, well more weird than usual, no offence’, and she asked me directly what was going on ‘with you two lovebirds’. I wanted to respect Jules’ privacy, but didn’t know if I could just pretend everything was the same, even to spare her feelings. As soon as I got back, it was going to be obvious that it wasn’t the same, anyway, so I just sent her a vague holding text, ‘Tell you when I see you’, which suggested there was something to tell, without saying mind your own business, which would have just inflamed her curiosity.

A couple of days before I was due return to work, I had another text from Lexi telling me that Jules was taking three weeks off ‘so it’s safe to come back’. It seemed that people had been coming to their own conclusions anyway. I suppose it did all seem pretty obvious, and GreenScreen was a hotbed of gossip, speculation and rumour mongering. It would have been surprising if they hadn’t worked out a version of events.

Going back to work was tiring. Being there, with constant reminders of Jules, even though she was absent herself, was tough. Everyone was openly curious about what had happened, although I tried to give them as little information as possible. There was no way I was telling anyone about my ‘I need a family’ revelation, or any details about what had gone on when Jules found out. But Lexi, in particular, was persistent. She never let it drop, and in an unguarded moment I let it slip that Jules had moved in a week before moving out again.

It was all I divulged, and I was mortified that I had, but once it was out, it was out, and it was around the office in about five minutes. I was even more careful after that, and no further information escaped. But it was wearing me out. I had a lot of work to catch up on after my holiday, and with Jules away, I had to pick up some of her team’s projects too. I found myself sleeping a lot when I was at home.

When I’d been back a couple of weeks, Phil asked to see me. I sat in his office and watched as he fiddled with papers and seemed to be doing anything rather than coming to the point.

‘OK, er, thanks for popping in Matt. Er …’

There was more fiddling, and it was making me nervous.

‘Is there a problem?’

‘No, no, not as such, it’s … I don’t know how … have you been in contact with Julia?’

I wondered if he was going to ask me to call her, to talk about a project that seemed to be going off the rails without her here. I really didn’t want to, she had asked me not to contact her, she wouldn’t want to talk to me about anything, and I could think of half a dozen other people who would be better candidates for an ear-bashing from Jules about slacking.

‘No. I haven’t spoken to her for a few weeks. She doesn’t want to talk to me.’

I thought I might be able to pre-empt his request.

‘Ah. Right. Then this might be a bit of a … er … surprise to you. Julia is leaving us. She’s coming back the week after next, for a week, and then she’s moving on.’

‘Holy fuck.’

In all the different ways this played out in my mind, it had never entered my head that she would leave. Jules was so good at not letting anything affect her when she was here, I’d just imagined having an awkward couple of weeks, maybe months, while we both got our heads round it, and then back to business as usual. But if she was leaving, then I was never going to see her again.

‘Where’s she going?’

‘She’s got another job, in Norwich, I believe.’

So not the other end of the world, but far enough away that we would never run into each other, and convenient for the house she inherited from her aunt. I found myself truly wishing her well, but crushed at the realisation of how soon she would be gone, completely gone from me.

I nodded at Phil, unable to speak.

‘I know this is an insensitive question right now, Matt, but will you be able to stand in temporarily on some of her team’s projects? There’s no way we can recruit to her position at such short notice, and Kyle will need some help with the Anderson project, maybe a couple of others.’

‘Yeah, no problem.’

I said the words, nodded, but wasn’t taking any of it in. My head was full of Jules. She was going to be gone. After all we’d shared I’d pushed her far enough that she wanted to go away, and I wasn’t going to be part of her world any more. She didn’t let many people in; I was one of the few who knew what she was really like, how warm and funny and giving she could be. And I’d blown it, chosen something that didn’t even exist, might never even exist, over what we’d had, over loving her.

‘Matt?’

I came back to myself, to see Phil looking at me with some concern.

‘Yeah, sorry. On it.’

I stuck a copy of a smile on my face, stood up and walked out. It was near lunchtime, and I kept going, through the office, down the stairs, out the door and along the street. I didn’t realise where I was heading until I ended up turning in through the gate of the cemetery, and my feet carried me the rest of the way, to the hidden anteroom in St Saviours churchyard.

It looked like someone had had a tidy up – there was no litter, no bottles, no dead leaves. I sat on the stone bench, feeling desperately lonely and deserted, all the worse for knowing I had brought it all on myself. If I had been more honest with myself, let alone Jules, from the start, things could have been so different.

I’d got used to pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and when the truth was inconvenient, I had ignored it. I didn’t want to love someone, not after Carrie. If I’d admitted my feelings earlier, maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe it wouldn’t. But it would have stopped this seemingly endless sense of regret, this constant dwelling on what could have been, and, now Jules was moving away, feeling this sadness, this hole, this empty part of me.

I sat for a long time, longer than I should have taken for lunch. It was tempting to stay there, where it was quiet and undemanding, and I could pretend it was just an ordinary lunch hour, and any minute Jules was going to come in and not eat a chicken sandwich.

I knew I wasn’t dealing well with all of it; I thought about talking to someone – Dec, Beth – but I still pretty much kept my issues to myself unless they were dragged out of me, and calling someone to talk would have seemed like a major thing. So in the end I took a lot of deep breaths, I squared my shoulders, I pushed aside all thoughts that weren’t directly associated with GreenScreen, and I went back.

I got through the rest of the day, virtually on auto-pilot, I went home and I slept. It had really taken it out of me. I fell asleep on the sofa, woke up briefly in the dark, and felt my way to bed, where I stripped to my boxers before falling straight to sleep again. I was still exhausted the next morning, but dragged myself to work, and focussed on the job, or, as it now turned out, jobs in hand.

As the rest of the week passed, I was aware of plans being made for Jules’ leaving. The arrangements didn’t involve a ‘do’ of any sort, as it was thought she wouldn’t want that. I wanted to tell them that although she would have said she didn’t want it, she would have secretly been so chuffed to have been asked, that they thought enough of her to organise something, but it was no longer any of my business, and everyone avoided asking me about it. I signed the card, put a tenner in the collection, and that was my contribution, as if I was just another colleague.

Then it was the weekend, and respite from it all, but if I stayed at home I was just going to spend my time dreading the next week, when Jules was back but there wouldn’t be enough time to make things right, or even make things less wrong, before she was gone for good. So I spent a lot of time with the family.

I went to see Mum, dug her garden, chatted about her neighbours and the scandalous price of decent tea bags and ate her frankly bloody marvellous fruit cake. I took Cal to watch Raiders, and we hung around afterwards like real supporters, as Cal liked to do, as if he couldn’t see the players whenever he wanted to. I played on the X-box with him afterwards, and then contrived to drink enough beers with Jay that I couldn’t drive home, and so needed to make use of the sofa-bed in the conservatory. Then Sunday dawned, I woke up late, late enough that there was no point going home before lunch, so I stayed and read the Sunday papers and played with Iz, until Dec and Amy showed up with Charlie, and it was time to play the game of avoiding peeling potatoes by any means necessary.

Outwardly I was OK – cheerful, arsing about, sarky comments by the shedload – but it was only covering up the turmoil I was feeling inside. I thought I’d got away with it, but Dec, who was turning into Mr Perceptive, cornered me as I was clearing away some of Iz’s dolls, ready for round two with an imaginary tea party that Iz was laying out in the conservatory. Dec sat on the couch as I knelt on the floor.

‘Want to tell me what’s up?’

‘What? Fuck off, nothing’s up.’

He looked at me and sighed.

‘OK, then, have it your way, but I’m turning my phone off tonight, so I won’t be answering any bloody three am ‘just arsing about but really, help me’ texts.’

I stopped what I was doing and looked at him.

‘You never turn your phone off.’

‘I do as of tonight, Amy’s orders. Charlie’s been woken up too many times by random texts and calls. We’ve decided to be out of radio contact from ten till seven, every night. Give ourselves a chance of some sleep.’

‘What if someone needs to get hold of you?’

By which, of course, I meant me.

‘We’ve got a landline for emergencies. Do you think you might need an emergency phone call?’

He knew I would never outright ring and ask to talk, and he also knew I needed to talk, and his expression was challenging.

‘You bastard.’

‘If you like. Or you could just spill, save us all some to-ing and fro-ing. Seriously, Matt, I know that look on your face. Has something else happened with Julia?’

How did he do it? Dec was not the most in tune person, he drifted through life missing hints and clues and downright obvious statements left, right and centre, but when it came to me he seemed to be inside my head. It was bloody infuriating. I gave in, put the last of Iz’s dolls in the toy box and sat back on my haunches.

‘She’s leaving, got another job, in Norwich.’

‘Shit. Harsh.’

‘Yeah. I haven’t seen her since the day after we split – first I was on holiday, and she’s been off work since I came back. She’s back next week, for one week, then she’s gone. Just fucking gone.’

Dec gave me a sympathetic grimace.

‘Have you spoken to her?’

‘No, not since I let her into the flat that day. She texted me and told me not to contact her. Shit, I thought I’d get a chance to, I don’t know, say sorry properly or something.’

‘You still might.’

‘Not at work. She does this thing at GreenScreen, kind of Ice Queen, total professional, nothing else. I’d be surprised if she even speaks to me, let alone allows me to have a cosy chat in the tea break. I just wish … oh fuck it, wishing for things is so fucking pointless.’

I got up and plonked myself on the couch next to Dec, running my hands through my hair.

‘What do you wish?’

He sounded so like Adam, I almost laughed, but I decided to answer.

‘For shit I can’t change, because I wish that things happened differently, that things happened in a different order, that I realised things sooner than I did.’

‘What things?’

‘There really is no point going over it all, it’s sending me fucking loopy.’

I wasn’t going to get into it, this wasn’t the time or indeed the place, with too many other people within earshot.

‘So are you thinking about it all the time, all this stuff you wish was different?’

‘Yeah. I’m not sleeping, not properly, and I’m so knackered. It all just whirls around.’

‘Have you thought of any other ways of saying it all to her? I mean, it won’t change anything, but if you could at least get some of it out, it might stop the whirling.’

I wondered if this was another of Dec’s shrink techniques. He might not make a bad counsellor, once his running around like a lunatic bashing grown men days were over.

‘I started writing her a letter, while I was away, but she’s told me not to contact her, and I want to respect that.’

‘Yeah, admirable, but if it’s just once, and if you’re not going to see her ever again, isn’t it worth chancing it? It can’t make anything worse, and she has the choice whether she reads it or not. I bet she would, it’s not like a text, that you can just delete without reading when you see who it’s from, it’s a letter, a real thing, I bet she wouldn’t be able to resist reading it, then she’s chosen to, and you haven’t made her.’

His logic kind of made sense, or maybe I just wanted it to.

‘Unca Matty, I need you to come.’

Iz announced her readiness for the next stage of perfect uncling. I sighed, smiled at her and stood up. Dec slapped my behind and stood up too.

‘You know the number if you need an emergency call.’

‘Yeah, unlikely. Thanks for listening to an old bloke rambling on.’

I followed Iz into the conservatory, which had ceased being my bedroom and was now tea-party central for several teddies, Cal’s old Transformer toys, and me.

Eventually, Sunday lunch, afternoon tea, and helping with bath-time and bed-time were all over with, and I couldn’t put off going back to my flat any longer without getting the third degree from Beth as well.

When I got back, I pulled my phone out and looked at the letter I’d begun to Jules when I was in Egypt. I revised it, and then wrote it out by hand, before slipping it into my work bag, so I could decide what to do with it later in the week. Just the process of writing it helped. I bloody hate it when Summers is right, it’s very annoying, but I did sleep better.

And so began the last week. On the Monday, Jules was already there when I arrived, as had happened every day of our working lives. I worked part time, and used it to get as much sleep as I could, whereas Jules was an early riser and liked being in first, before anyone else.

When I came through the door, I could feel everyone looking at me, waiting to see what I was going to say or do when I saw her in her office. I didn’t say or do anything except walk over to where my team sat, dish out the coffees I usually brought with me and start the day with my usual banter.

I don’t think anyone knew how hard it was for me to do that; I was dying inside, and the smile on my face felt like it was made of glass, ready to shatter. Jules and I didn’t even look at each other that day, but there were things I needed to talk to her about later in the week, some of the projects I was going to be dealing with, and I had to grasp the nettle or mettle or whatever the fuck it was you grasped. She was cold, distant, looked me in the eye and answered my questions. In my turn, I stuck to business, but I was trying to say sorry with my eyes, although I made sure there were always other people around when I talked to her, so she didn’t feel under pressure. We got through it, somehow. Everyone watched us, all the time, waiting for something juicy to happen, but I am pleased to report that we both handled ourselves with dignity.

Julia

By the time I got back to work, I had given my notice, and there was only one week when Matt and I were both there together. It was difficult, all eyes were on us, and if I hadn’t already been leaving, it would have pushed me to go. But it’s fair to say we both bore it with dignity. We had to talk, but spoke only about work, although I could see in Matt’s eyes that he wanted to say more. I didn’t give him the opportunity to be alone with me, and had told him by text some time ago that I didn’t want him to contact me, a request he had honoured.

Matt

On the last day, I gave the letter to Lexi, and asked her to give it to Jules when she left. There was a cake and a present planned for after lunch, and I managed to make an appointment with a client so I didn’t have to be there, as I didn’t think I would be able to handle seeing her go. I’d never know if she read my letter or not, and that was hard, but I was slowly making my peace with it.

Julia

When my last day came, I was touched to find a gift and card had been organised, and Margie had made a cake. Matt was absent from the presentation, but had signed the card – You’ll be fucking awesome in all you do. Mattand I found my eyes drawn to the short sentence and signature more often than they should have been.

With a sigh of relief, I walked down the stairs at the end of my last day, finishing a little earlier than I normally would, but desperate to leave and put it all behind me. As I walked past the reception desk, Lexi stopped me.

‘Julia, there’s a letter for you.’

‘Oh. Can you give it to Phil? He’s going to deal with all my correspondence.’

She shook her head.

‘It’s personal.’

She held it out and with a lurch to my heart I recognised Matt’s handwriting. I took it, unsure what to do with it.

‘Good luck, Julia.’

‘Thank you.’

I walked out to my car, carrying gift, card and remains of the cake, and holding the letter like it was a grenade. Putting all the other items in the boot, I sat in the driver’s seat, holding the envelope, trying to decide whether to read it or not. Despite my intention to put up my emotional barricades, I didn’t know how I was going to react to whatever it was that Matt wanted to say in a letter. In the end, my curiosity got the better of me.

Dear Julia

I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, I wouldn’t blame you if you tossed it unopened into the nearest litter bin, or set fire to it.

I know you asked me not to contact you, but I just couldn’t let you leave without trying to say I’m sorry. That probably doesn’t mean very much, I know I hurt you really badly. The last few weeks have been among the worst of my life, thinking about what I did to you, both how it all started and how it all ended.

I want to thank you for what you have meant to me over the past months. I have spent a lot of time examining my motives, my actions and my feelings. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear about it, but I’ve finally realised I’ve been kidding myself about a lot of things. I’m sorry I didn’t realise what I wanted before it was too late and we got hurt. I’m also sorry I told you so often that I didn’t love you. It’s not true. I love you. I have for a long time. I know you don’t believe in love, but I do; I was hiding it from myself. I seem to be pretty bloody good at that. I don’t know if you can ever forgive me for how it ended with us. I’m not asking you to, and I know I won’t ever know if you have. Or haven’t. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself.

I keep dreaming about you. I’m holding you. Then I wake up, and I’m not holding you and it’s bad and I’ve nearly called you, not that you’d answer, and I’ve so wanted to say let’s forget it, what I said back then, please come home. But even if I said it and you agreed and you came back, it would be wrong and in time that difference between us would tear us apart again. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry the timing was so fucking appalling. I’m sorry I’m not who you thought I was.

I want to wish you happiness, I want to wish you peace and I want to wish you the fucking amazing life you deserve.

I won’t contact you again, I’ll leave you alone and try to get on.

Goodbye Jules, I miss you.

Matt x

It took me a long time to compose myself after reading that. A small part of me read his words and wanted to run and find him and kiss him and hold him and feel his arms round me and tell him that I loved him too, and it was alright, we could find a way. But it was never going to happen. Too much of me would have to change and admit to things I was never going to admit to. So I folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope and stuffed it in the glove box, where I hoped I could forget about it and move away and live my life.

Matt

And then she was gone.

And I admit, I went home after work that day, and I curled on up my bed and cried. I hadn’t cried, not since that nightmare day when I’d fucked it all up and Jules had thrown things at me and I’d blarted all over Summers several times.

But this was a mourning. It was over, ended, finished, and although I recognised I’d been waiting until it was done to pick up and carry on, it was still done and I was still devastated.

I spent the weekend being miserable, feeling hollowed and dulled, and ignoring all texts and calls from Dec, Beth, Mum and even Jay, until the bastard Summers came round and wouldn’t stop buzzing my door.

It’s bloody annoying having such a loud door buzzer, one that you can’t turn off. Just as you’re getting up a good head of steam on some serious self-pity, there it goes, and again, and again. So eventually I let him in, just to stop him calling Social Services on my arse.

And, yeah, of course it helped to have someone there listening while I poured it all out, of course it did, but I didn’t want to need it, alright? I didn’t want to fucking need it.

Dec

‘Fuck it.’

)Oh hon, at least that will be the last time you’ll ever trip over the stroller.

‘Yeah, can’t say I’m going to miss that little joy. Is there anything else I need to do before the van arrives? Have we got time for a coffee?’

)Do you know what, I think we’ve actually done everything on the list. Completely unbelievable. Coffee sounds great, then I’ll go and drop Charlie off with Rose.

‘Make sure you get her to sign something promising to give her back.’

)Ha ha, yes, good idea. Not sure I’m going to be able to leave her there, actually.

‘You’ll be fine, Ames, it’s only for a few hours, you’re going back for feeds.’

)Yeah, you make it sound easy, but I remember you putting up a bit of a fight the first time you had to leave her.

‘True. You can do it, though, think of the alternative – me unpacking all the boxes and organising the cupboards myself. You’d never find anything again, especially the things I’d break and have to hide somewhere.’

)There is that, I suppose. Alright, you’ve almost convinced me. But if I don’t come back, you might need to send in the big guns and get Matt to haul me out.

‘Yeah, a large dollop of sarcasm will do the trick pretty quickly. Although he’s just as likely to get sidetracked by Charlie.’

)Do you think Matt’s OK to help today?

‘Yeah … why? Don’t you?’

)Well he’s just seemed a bit tired lately – he dozed off after lunch last Sunday, didn’t he? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do that. And he was slurring his words as well – I thought he’d had a bit to drink, but thinking back I don’t think he’d had anything.

‘Shit. I didn’t notice. Have you said anything to Beth?’

)No, I wouldn’t dare. He’d completely go nuts if I did, wouldn’t he?

‘Yeah, probably. Maybe I’ll have a word with him. Might just be tired, like you say, he has been working pretty much round the clock recently.’

)Oh, is that the van? No coffee then, hon. See you later. Give Daddy a kiss, Charlie.

Matt

The next bit is hard, too, so there will now follow a bit of fucking about while I procrastinate once more to avoid telling it.

The kids. Let me tell you about the kids. They’re all grown up now, Cal’s even got a couple of his own – how the bloody hell did that happen? But anyway, they’re all bloody awesome kids. I won’t tell you about Josh and Ella, because that’s for later, but Cal, Iz, Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa. Jay and Beth’s kids, and Dec and Amy’s kids. My nephews and nieces and whatever the fuck else they are. I was Unca Matty to them all, then just Matty.

Cal – I never knew Cal that well when he was really little. I only got to know him when I lived with them in Stafford, when he used to spend hours playing in my room, and when I was awake, I’d chat with him about his games, and he’d sometimes chat back, and sometimes tell me to shut the fuck up because he was concentrating (not literally, he didn’t start to swear in earnest until he was a teenager. You can imagine how delighted Beth was, and how much grief I used to get). He was always fairly serious about life when he was that age, six or so. He’d want to know the ins and outs of everything, asked me questions nobody else would ask about why I didn’t get out of bed, why my words came out funny, why I looked like a skellington. Beth used to try to shush him when he got too probing, but I’d always answer him, and sometimes it was a good way of telling them shit without actually saying it directly to them.

It was the best thing about being ill, getting to know Cal. I’d been pretty crap at being with kids before, never really knew quite where to pitch things, used too many words or sounded patronising, but when you can hardly talk, you just say the simple stuff, and it turns out that works. Kids don’t need to be talked down to, they can understand some pretty hard concepts, I just needed to stop wrapping it up in all the unnecessary bollocks, and there we were. Me and Cal, getting each other. Who’d have thought. Didn’t hurt that at heart I will always be six years old too.

When Cal got a bit older, he could be a mardy git, a teenager before his time, so we had something in common there too. We did have some fun, between the sulks, on the X-box, playing football, arsing about together, while I tried to make him laugh. Sometimes he’d tell me stuff; he was having a hard time at school, being bullied or some such shit, and having been a geeky nerd at school, I could relate to a lot of it. I was also a safer bet than his mum and dad, because I wasn’t going to immediately march down to the school and demand something was done about it. When he started playing rugby, though, he found his self-confidence, and stopped being so miserable, scared the bullies off, became Captain Sunshine. He really is one of the cheeriest bastards I know, takes after Dec, who I suppose is like a brother to him. Hardly anything seems to get him down – well, there was that bollocks with Ayesha and Chrissie, but that was a long time ago and he got over it pretty quickly.

One of my proudest moments, he must have been about ten or so, was when Cal asked me to take him to watch Raiders. I’d never been, I’d never seen Raiders play, never seen Jay or Dec play, and I thought I never would. It was a bit of a thing of mine, I liked saying ‘oh, I’ve never been’ when people said it must have been great watching Jay Scott play and then seeing their disbelieving faces. Rugby isn’t everything, despite some people’s opinions to the contrary. But when Cal asked me to go with him, and yeah, I know it was mainly because he didn’t want to sit with the juniors, but I was so, so unbelievably chuffed that I said yes, and thus started my own love affair with Raiders. It is weird watching members of your own family run around a pitch getting severely clattered. It makes you very protective, and brings out the supporter in you. ‘Bash the bastard’ became my war cry, and I suppose Cal joined in, and it was our thing. Just at the games, as Beth would have gone ape-shit on my arse if she’d known.

But that was just about topped by Cal asking me to be godfather to Conor, his first child. I’m not a great one for religion, and I don’t suppose Cal’s ever thought about it in his life, so me standing up there and promising all sorts of religious shit didn’t really mean much from that point of view, but what it did mean was that for as long as I had breath in my body, which, yeah, might not be that long now, but anyway, I was going to be looking out for Cal’s first born, being Unca Matty to him, arsing about, loving him. I guess I’m Great Unca Matty to Conor, and now Lily, which makes me sound bloody ancient. I hope I can be great. I’m doing my best.

Iz – well, Iz was a heartbreaker from the day she was born. Jay and Beth had wanted another baby for years, but it just looked like it wasn’t going to happen, and they didn’t want to do anything radical. They were settling for just having Cal, and were happy with that, when Iz popped up out of the blue. I’ve done some calculating, and I believe conception must have occurred when they were in Stafford looking after me, so I would like to claim some credit. Mm, maybe I don’t really want to examine that too closely. But anyway, she arrived with a fanfare when we were all living here, in the city, and she knocked our socks off then and ever since.

With her blonde ringlets, much better suited to a girl than a boy, and Cal hated his with such a vengeance that as soon as he was old enough he had his hair cut so short you couldn’t tell, but Iz … now she’s older, she has her hair really long, and you can see people looking at her wherever she goes. It helps that she has always been fairy princess gorgeous (ha ha, I know you hate that Iz, but if you want to be a tomboy, the ringlets have to go), big grey eyes framed by an elfin face, and the confidence that eluded Cal when he was younger.

Iz always knew exactly what she wanted, and didn’t shy away from asking for, nay demanding, it, often using her big eyes as a battering ram. She had the boys in her pocket while she was still at junior school, and once she got older, she had her pick of the best. Unfortunately she never seemed to choose the best. She had a weak spot for the underdog, and always went for the losers, the ones who didn’t know how to treat her, and because she was a caring girl, she always stayed with them longer than was good for her because she couldn’t bear to break their hearts. In the end, though, she’s found herself a great bloke, and although I hate him because he keeps her away from us (not as a prisoner, but by dint of them living in Manchester), I think the world of him because he makes her happy.

Iz says she doesn’t want kids, and I know she believes it now, and maybe she won’t change her mind, but she’d be an awesome mum.

Charlie – Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright (although Dec and Amy ditched the hyphen Wright when they got married) was always going to blaze a trail through the world. She punched her way into my life when she was only hours old, and she never stopped grabbing what she wanted with both hands. She was indulged when she was little, being surrounded by family who loved her, and brought up by parents who were so laid back they were almost horizontal. She also had to compete with Iz, and the screaming matches when they were younger could have shattered crystal. Charlie always, but always got her own way. I could certainly never say no to her, even when I said no to the same things when asked by my own children.

Charlie still hasn’t worked out what she wants from life, she flits from job to job, course to course, man to man, loving it all then hating it all, nothing in-between She leads the tribe of Summerses by the nose, calling them all to family meetings, telling them what to buy her for Christmas, deciding where they’re all going on holiday and who she’s going to get to pay for her to go. She is a force of nature, and long may she continue.

Tom – with a sister like Charlie, Tom had no real choice but to be chilled. He’s only a year younger, but he’s always taken a back seat and let everything happen around him. He takes after his dad in that respect. Apart from the rugby. Tom could have been a good rugby player, and he did do some training with Raiders juniors, but he didn’t have the drive to stick with it, it wasn’t what he loved, and to Amy’s great relief, he gave it up. To my joy, what he did have the drive to stick with was computers.

Nowadays most kids are pretty into computers, but on a superficial level, knowing how to do shit, running rings round the parental controls, all that. But Tom wanted to know the ins and outs, the nitty gritty, and we’ve spent many an afternoon with our heads bent over a bit of computer code, or dismantling the innards of a broken laptop, talking our own special language. Tom’s the reason why I’m pretty sure you’ll get to read all this, Lau, because I’m sending you a message, and I know you’ll go straight to him, and he’ll know what to do. Without Tom, I would feel bad, or rather worse than I do, about leaving Dec with our business. Tom is more than equipped to take over from me. He’s got the nous, the brains and he’s been carrying me more than a bit for the last few months anyway. Thanks, Tom, you’re fucking amazing.

Gracie – Dec and Amy thought she was the last of the gang. She’s lived up to her name, breaking the rule of the inappropriate virtuous nomenclature; even when she was little she could disarm you with her poise. She did ballet, and still enjoys dancing, although she never considered it as anything more than a hobby.

Through everything that’s happened to me over the years, Gracie is the one who has been able to make me feel special with a short text, or a picture of R2D2 when she was little, or just popping in for a cuppa and a cookie. When she comes round with her bag from the bakery, even when I’m at my most stubborn and not eating for anyone, I’ll share a mouthful of oatmeal and raisin cookie with her, because I can’t bear to see her big blue eyes look so sad when I don’t. She is sailing through Uni, and will succeed in her gentle, determined way at everything she does.

Rosa – Rosa, Rosa, Rosa. My Red. The last of the gang, the unexpected one. She doesn’t look like any of them – Charlie and Gracie have dark wavy hair and big blue eyes like Amy, and Tom looks like Dec with his straight light brown hair and his permanent smile. But Rosa surprised everyone with her Titian hair and green eyes; no one knows where it came from, although Dec doesn’t know anything about his birth family, so it could be from anywhere.

She is mercurial, one minute softly spoken and shy, and the next a firecracker. She changes her opinions daily, but can argue either side of a debate with ease. She has some humdingers with Ella, who likes to think she can win most arguments but gets taken down a peg or two by Rosa from time to time.

Rosa loves maths, and we’ve had some great nerd-offs, chucking equations and theorems at each other until I have to feign tiredness to avoid defeat, but she’s also got this creative side, and the jewellery she makes is exquisite.

Rosa was named for Rose, who was like a granny to all of Dec and Amy’s children. I have never seen Rose prouder than the day Dec and Amy announced what the new baby was going to be called if it was a girl, and although Rose loved all of Dec’s children as if they really were her own grandchildren, I think she had a hidden soft spot for her namesake.

All of the Summers kids are awesome. I often forget they’re not really my family – I mean, they are really my family, what I mean is they’re not my blood. I guess sometimes water is as thick as blood.

Bastien is Nico and Lis’s boy, and as much one of the cousins as any of them. He’s quiet, unlike either his mother or his father, and often sits and watches the madness going on with his big brown eyes. He’s pretty laconic, but has a little bit of fiery Latin temper if you push him too far, which it amuses us all to try at regular intervals. I think he would make a fine son-in-law for someone. I will leave it at that.

When all the kids are together, it is impossible to do anything but sit and watch as they show us what the next generation is going to be like, what they already are like.

Between them, they have already set the world on fire in their chosen fields, and there’s plenty more to come. I am so bloody proud of the lot of them, I love them all, and I know they love me, and if I could spare them the pain of what’s coming, I would.

But I’m supposed to be arsing about, not getting all wistful and shit. How else can I put off the hard bit, what happened in-between Jules and Lau? Because it’s nearly time for you, Lau, and that’s the bit I’m looking forward to telling because it’s happy, it’s sexy and it’s awesome. But for now, just a bit more arsing about, if you don’t mind, because I don’t want to say it just yet, how it came back.

Maybe a quick comparison – Carrie, Jules and Lau. Could you bear it Lau? You come out best, in all categories, you know you do. Let me show you:

Eyes: Carrie’s were bright blue, you always felt like you were skating on top of them, they gave nothing away. Jules’s eyes were brown and equally unfathomable until you got to know her, then you could see them twinkle when she was teasing, you could see them darken when she was annoyed, and you could tell when she was hurting. Lau’s eyes are always changing, from blue to green to grey, depending on the light, the temperature, how she’s feeling, what she’s doing. You could just watch Lau’s eyes all day, and they would tell you all about her, what she was thinking, what she was up to, without needing to talk to her. I could have written poetry about Lau’s eyes. Why did I never write poetry to your bloody gorgeous eyes, Lau? Probably because it would have gone something like ‘Lau your eyes of blue and green/Are the best I’ve ever seen’ and you would have laughed, and you deserve better.

Driving skills: Just to throw you off. I bet you thought I was going to go for ‘body’ or ‘tits’ or some such laddish shit, didn’t you. Nope. Carrie’s driving skills were non-existent, having never taken her test or even sat behind the wheel of a car. She couldn’t even ride a bike. Jules could drive, and she was bloody good as you would expect of anything Jules did, but she took it very seriously, holding on tight to the steering wheel until her knuckles went white, not allowing anyone (i.e. me) to talk to her unless she’d asked which turning to take, not really liking the CD player or radio on, but putting up with it so I could hear the footy scores, and not jump out of the car through boredom. Lau, well, I suppose she’s not a perfect driver (sorry, Lau, but you are female, it has to be said, ouch no, stop bloody bashing me woman), but we’ve always had a laugh and a sing whenever she’s driven us anywhere. Lau kind of feels her way in traffic, rather than ever absolutely knowing where she’s going. She takes lots of wrong turns, sometimes because she’s too busy singing along to the radio to pay attention, but uses them as opportunities to visit parts of the world she’s never been to before. Every new journey is a mystery tour – not regular journeys, I don’t mean she gets lost on the way to the shop, or to Jay’s or some such shit, but when she’s going somewhere new. Never used a sat nav. Proud of her for that.

Caring: Carrie didn’t give a shit. Jules gave a shit, found it hard to say, but offered to look after me if needed, which must have taken a lot of courage and was awesome. Lau gives so much more than a shit. She has given and given to me over the years, for bloody little reward, and she never stops. Every night, before we go to sleep, she holds me tight and touches me everywhere – oh, that sounds more pervy than I meant, she’s letting me know she’s there for me, she’s trying to find out how I am without asking me because she knows it bloody winds me up to be asked all the time. She knows, has known from the start, how to say things I won’t let other people get away with, how to get me to talk, how to get me to let her help me. My wife is fucking awesome.

Dress sense: Yeah, what do I know about it? But going to comment anyway, so fuck you. Carrie was a fan of the tight vest tops and jogging bottoms. It was fucking hot at the time, but on reflection a bit tarty and a bit chavvy. Jules always dressed very classically, muted colours mostly except for one or two surprising exceptions that said more about her character than the rest of her black and grey and taupe wardrobe. Lau has a whole mish-mash of colours and styles. She never wears anything dull, and is always buying cheap crap, not because she’s saving money, particularly, but because she knows she’ll be hating it in a few months, so it doesn’t need to last, or wash well. She’s got some awesome dresses that show off her delightful assets very well, but she’s not a great one for cleavage or tight tops, unfortunately. You should see her in stockings though, and nothing else. You’re never going to get the chance, if you know what’s good for you, that’s just for me, but whoa, Lau. I’m sure you know just what the very thought of that is doing to me.

Arguing: Well all three of them could argue for bloody Team GB, but to compare … Carrie didn’t like being argued with, got all defensive, didn’t like being disagreed with, got all moody and huffy, as if you’d dealt her a personal insult. Now, most will be aware that I like a good barney as much as the next man, but I stopped arguing with Carrie, let her think she was right even when she was ridiculously wrong, just to keep the peace. Not an ideal situation, I can see now, but so much of that situation was very far from ideal. Jules? Jules always but always knew her facts before even entering into such a commitment as an argument, so spats with her were more like debates, throwing information at each other until it became apparent who was correct. She was a bloody challenge to fight with, but it never really got heated, because you were either right or wrong. Look, Matt, here’s the research explaining just why you shouldn’t add salt to the water when you’re boiling an egg. Infuriating, if only because I hate to be proved wrong. Lau. Lau, I don’t know if you have ever properly researched anything in your life, other than Googling ‘Cutest Kitten Videos’ or some such tweeness, so you don’t use facts in an argument, which gives me wiggle room, and you don’t go all sulky and uncommunicative when I say you’re wrong, you laugh at me and use your bloody logic. Oh, not normal logic, which is similar if not the same as facts, really, but Lau Logic. I like to think I can debate my way out of most situations, put forward some telling points, add a bit of wordsmithery and leave the opponent begging for mercy. But you have this way of letting me have my fun, leading me on down the path of believing I’ve won, and then just going ‘that’s all well and good, but the way I see it …’ and of course, the way you see it is the sensible way, the way everyone should see it, you’ve called me on my bullshit again, and I am helpless in the face of it, and I have been Laued once more.

See, Lau? You win bloody hands down at everything. You are fucking awesome.

OK, then, I suppose I can’t put it off any longer.

Jules was gone, and the next chapter in my life was hard, and I nearly found it too tough, too difficult. But I’ll tell you anyway.

55. No one knows

In which things are discovered.

Matt

To start with, we took it slowly and saw each other a couple of times a week, did things together at weekends, like hikes and films. Jules relaxed the more she got to know me, the more she trusted me, and she stopped being so dependent on her rules.

She had let me call her Jules fairly early on, and I met a lot of her friends, who also called her Jules, and I realised then why she always looked like a Jules to me; because that’s who she really was. She met Dec and Amy, briefly, in a shop, she met Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, briefly, on a flying visit to my flat, and she met my mum, briefly, when I called in on the way somewhere and made her get out and come into the house. But I sensed her reluctance to spend a lot of time with my family, how being with people briefly was good for her, and I just saw them on my own. It didn’t stop them asking about her. I had let her name slip a couple of times, and Beth wouldn’t leave it alone:

‘I’d love to meet Julia properly, when are you bringing her over for lunch?’

‘When are you next seeing Julia?’

‘What does Julia think about that, then?’

It nearly drove me away, but I’d got used to Beth over the years, and I managed to ignore it.

Then two things happened at almost the same time, which changed things in different ways. Firstly, everyone at GreenScreen found out about Jules and me. Secondly, Amy got pregnant. The two events were in no way connected, but the impacts of both were felt for quite a while.

Julia

We’d had a particularly difficult day; the client had suddenly changed his mind about what he wanted, but wasn’t prepared to shift on the deadline, so we had pulled out all the stops to try and turn things round. The teams had worked really hard to deliver their part of the bargain, and it was down to Matt and me to pull it all together in order to present a draft of something coherent the next day. As people left one by one, emailing or giving us their work as they did so, Matt and I strove to put it all in order and make a presentation.

It was late as the last person left the office, and I was tired. My eyes were sore from looking at a computer screen all day, and my back ached from sitting in one position. I sat back in my chair and stretched, giving a big groan as I did so. Matt looked up.

‘It’s been a bloody long day.’

‘I’ve had enough. Have we nearly finished?’

‘Nearly. I’ve just got to put Dave’s bit in and add a bit of blurb, and I think we’re done. Another twenty minutes, I reckon.’

‘Great. I don’t care if I never see another spreadsheet as long as I live.’

I rolled my shoulders, trying to get rid of the kinks.

‘Need some help with that?’

I looked up at him, frowning. It was a big breaking of the rules.

‘Oh come on, Jules, we’re the only ones here, it’s way after hours. I do a great shoulder rub.’

It was so appealing. I sat still and let him walk round behind me to start massaging my shoulders; as the knots unwound, it was like being in heaven. Of course, we couldn’t stick to just a shoulder rub, and before long I felt him lean down and kiss my neck, and then nibble my earlobe, and then my chair span round, and he pulled me to my feet and we were kissing, long and hard and –

‘Oh good, there’s still someone – oh my God!’

We sprang apart as Lexi walked in. She stopped with her hand over her mouth and a delighted, mischievous look in her eyes as she saw us.

‘Sorry. I think I left my – oh, there it is.’

She walked over to a desk and picked up a bag from beside it. And without another word, she turned and walked out. I looked at Matt, wide-eyed with alarm.

‘OK, you need to make a quick decision. I can run after her, ask her not to say anything, and she won’t, but she’ll hint and insinuate until everyone thinks they know without actually knowing, and it’ll go on for ever until one of us cracks. Or we can let her go, she’ll tell everyone, but it’ll be faster and we can deal with the fall-out. Quick, I won’t be able to catch her soon.’

I was paralysed for a few seconds. Neither option was appealing. But the long tortuous version seemed worse than the immediate version.

‘Let her go. Shit. See, this is why we had our rules. Bloody hell, Matt.’

‘Sorry.’

‘It’s as much my fault. I didn’t exactly try to stop you.’

‘You know it’s going to be all over the office tomorrow, before we even get in. She’ll have texted everyone – probably doing it now.’

‘I know. Shit.’

‘Come here.’

He held his arms open, and I let myself be folded up. There seemed little point in not.

‘You know what would be the best thing to do?’

‘Please tell me there’s a best thing.’

‘Yeah. Act as if nothing’s happened. Keep things exactly the same. Play by the same rules. Make them doubt it. We can say what we want if anyone asks – you’re as good as me at diverting attention and not answering tricky questions. Damage limitation. We just need to be more careful. I’ll keep my shoulder rubs to myself in future, at least until we’ve left the building. Fuck it, I’m sorry Julia. I know this is your worst nightmare.’

As ever, in his arms I felt safe and comforted, and it seemed less of a catastrophe than I would have imagined.

‘Well, it’s happened now. I suppose sometimes anticipating something is worse than the reality. Can we go? If we come in early tomorrow, we can still finish this before it’s due.’

‘You go, you look wiped. I’ll just tie it all up, it won’t take long, then we don’t have to come in early at all. Are we still OK for your place?’

I nodded.

‘Don’t cook, though, Jules, we’ll order takeaway or something. Let’s just have a relaxing evening, bottle of wine or something, finish off your shoulder rub. Properly, no snogging. Well not until I’ve finished, and then only if you feel like it. Yeah?’

‘It sounds heavenly. Are you sure you don’t mind finishing up here?’

‘It’s fine. I’ll text you when I’m on my way.’

‘OK, thanks.’

I picked up my bag and coat, and walked back to Matt, cupping his cheek in my hand. He took my hand and held my fingers against his lips.

‘It’ll be OK.’

I gave him an unconvinced smile and went home.

I’d managed to shower and change by the time Matt arrived, as well as looking out several takeaway menus from places that delivered locally. We ordered, and while we were waiting, Matt walked up to the Whistling Panhandler to get a bottle of wine. He arrived back with an expensive bottle of Zinfandel and several bottles of beer at the same time as the delivery boy, and we ate hungrily and drank needily. We hardly spoke until we’d finished, the music I’d put on filling the silence comfortably.

‘That feels a whole lot better,’ he said as we finished, ‘It felt like today was never going to fucking end.’

‘It almost has ended, I’ll be in bed soon.’

‘I still haven’t given you your shoulder rub. Hey, want one in the bath?’

‘I’ve already had a shower.’

‘I wasn’t suggesting you needed a good hose down, I thought it might be more relaxing. Bubbles, candles, me rubbing your shoulders … doing anything for you?’

‘It sounds amazing, but what about you?’

‘Are you kidding me? I get to perv on your boobs while giving said shoulder rub. It’s a win-win all rounder.’

He got up and headed to the bathroom.

‘You find some candles, I’ll fill her up.’

A while later, I was blissed out, floating in the semi-darkened room while Matt finished his massage. The music still floated through from the lounge, and I was half dozing. I’d been expecting Matt to start nuzzling my neck or touching me somewhere other than my shoulders, but he was true to his word and he managed to totally relax me.

‘How’s that, then, madam?’

‘Oh, have you finished?’

‘Fraid so. My fingers are getting cramp, and if you get much more sleepy you’re going to slip under the bubbles and drown.’

‘Wouldn’t you save me?’

‘I’d try, naturally, but I’d have to touch some pretty intimate areas, and I’m not sure either of us could cope with that tonight.’

‘Maybe it would be worth it to not drown though.’

‘Hm, not sure. A promise is a promise. I said no snogging, and I feel I should stick to my bargain.’

‘So … even if I started to slip under the water and was about to breathe my last, you would feel constrained by your honour …’

I slipped my shoulders under the water.

‘… and just sit and watch?’

‘Well my honour is very important to me. It’s a tough one.’

‘Oh. Well, fair enough I suppose.’

I slipped further into the water, my mouth covered by bubbles.

‘Of course, you can never say what you’ll do in any given situation until it happens, maybe my honour would be overridden by other considerations.’

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and slipped completely under the water, smiling to myself as I immediately felt Matt’s hands grip my waist and half push, half pull me up. I wiped the water from my eyes, and grinned up into his face, surprised to see him unsmiling and looking relieved.

‘Fuck, Julia, I thought it was going to be funny, but that completely freaked me out. You’re so slippery, I thought I was going to drop you. Shit. Sorry. Spoilt the moment. We’ve kind of made a mess of the bathroom too.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the mop, won’t take long.’

‘Sorry. I was trying for relaxing repartee, ended up making you work.’

‘I said don’t worry – it won’t take long to clear up. Can you hand me my bathrobe?’

He took the robe from the back of the door and held it up while I took the plug out and stood up.

‘Wow. You are so fucking hot. It seems a shame to cover you up.’

‘I’m not mopping naked, this isn’t some dodgy porn set. Oh, you’re soaked. Do you want me to dry your clothes?’

‘And what would I wear in the meantime? It’s not like I’m the one who’s comfortable sitting around in no fuking pants.’

‘No, of course not, how silly of me. Well, how about you throw your things in the dryer, and go and wait for me in bed?’

‘Whoa! What kind of boy do you take me for?’

He affected a look of outrage, which was muted somewhat by the eagerness with which he started taking his clothes off.

‘The kind of boy who would like to have a bit of a shoulder rub himself and maybe cuddle up with a girl he just called fucking hot, while his clothes are drying.’

‘Oh, well, maybe I am that kind of boy. Sounds perfect.’

I quickly dried my hair, then went to fetch the mop while Matt put his clothes in the dryer. A few minutes later, as I was tipping water down the sink, I heard him call out from the bedroom.

‘Where’s this fucking hot girl I ordered for my shoulder rub? She’s late.’

‘If she’s not there in half an hour, you get her free.’

‘Wow, that’s a bloody good deal. What’s her normal rate?’

‘Part exchange. Shoulder rub for a sexual act of her choice.’

‘Hmm … and why would I want to get out of paying that, exactly?’

‘She’s pretty demanding. You might not be able to cope.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that. Hope she’s here before half an hour’s up, then.’

‘Oh, here she is.’

I stood in the doorway of the bedroom and admired Matt, who was stretched out naked on the bed, hands behind his head, grinning at me.

‘Turn over then.’

‘Not sure I want to.’

‘It’s a bit hard to give you a shoulder rub if you’re lying on your shoulders.’

‘While this is true, I’m intrigued by the prospect of payment up front.’

‘No, those aren’t the terms. Service provision first, and then payment is accepted.’

‘OK. Are you going to keep the robe on?’

He pouted a little bit.

‘You’ll have your head in the pillow, what do you care?’

‘Just helps, that’s all.’

‘To relax?’

‘Maybe not exactly relax …’

‘Thought not. You turn over, let me sort things out this end.’

He flipped himself onto his front, while I slipped the bathrobe off as I straddled his back, and then smiled as his muffled voice reached me.

‘Did you just take it off?’

‘Never you mind.’

‘You’re completely naked up there, aren’t you.’

‘Just keep your mind on relaxing.’

‘It’s hard thinking about relaxing, knowing what you’ve got sitting on you – oh fuck that’s good.’

I carried on massaging his shoulders, not answering him, and his comments slowly dropped away to be replaced by soft moans as I felt the tension leave him. He had been as wound up as me by our busy day, and it felt good to help take some of it away from him. When I thought he might drop off to sleep if I carried on, I stopped and gently slipped off his back, lying down next to him and pulling the duvet over us.

‘You are so fucking amazing.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I bloody love you.’

‘No you don’t.’

‘No, I don’t. You are fucking amazing though. Have you given any thought to your payment?’

‘Well, actually, what I would like is a … well, I’m not sure if I can say it, it’s pretty radical. You might not have heard of it.’

He laughed, and propped himself up on an elbow.

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Well, alright then, but if you’re shocked, you’ve only got yourself to blame.’

‘Spit it out, Jules, I’m pretty unshockable.’

‘Have you ever spooned before?’

‘Ha ha. That is pretty rad, Jules. You will never, I’m sure, have heard any tales of Matt Scott spooning a woman, not from anyone. Not for a long, long time. Sounds great, you’ll have to remind me how it goes.’

‘Well, I lie on my side like this.’

I turned over.

‘And you lie behind me – that’s right – and put your arms round me and kind of pull me towards you so we fit each other – hey, that’s it. Kerching. Payment accepted.’

‘Are you sure that’s all you want?’

‘I’m too exhausted for anything else. Shall we just do this until your clothes are dry?’

I felt him nod, and then he kissed my hair. It was warm and soft and peaceful, and his arms around me felt right. I felt myself drifting – warm, safe and happy.

Dec

I was dreaming – a vague, mixed up, dream spattered with faces, noises, places. I gradually woke up, until I was back, in bed. It was dark, cold. Amy wasn’t beside me, the sheets on her side were cool. I heard a sound, saw a light from under the bedroom door. The sound again. A sob. Amy.

Instantly alert, I jumped out of bed and headed towards the sound of crying, which was coming from the bathroom.

‘Ames?’

I tapped on the bathroom door. The sniffing stopped.

)Yeah?

‘What’s the matter?’

A short silence.

)Nothing, just having a pee.

Her voice sounded thick. There was more sniffing. Another muffled, choked sob. My stomach contracted in fear.

‘Come on, babe, I can hear you.’

I tried the door handle. Locked.

‘Let me in?’

Silence. A sniff.

‘Please, Ames, you’re scaring me.’

After a long time, the lock turned, the door opened. Amy looked up at me with reddened eyes, runny nose, hair all over the place.

‘Oh, babe, what the fuck …?’

I gathered her into my arms as she crumpled, crying hard, onto my chest. I held her tightly, stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head, waiting for her to be able to speak. Worried out of my mind, but trying to stay calm for her.

‘It’s OK, shh, I’m here, shh.’

Amy’s tears slowly subsided but she clung on to me, eyes closed. I gently held her away from me, tilted her chin up and waited until she opened her beautiful blue eyes. The tears in them nearly broke my heart.

‘Tell me, babe.’

Without saying anything, she turned round and picked something up from the toilet cistern. Showed it to me. It was a white plastic stick; there were some pink lines on it in a little window. I frowned, taking a moment to recognise what she was showing me.

‘What’s this …’

And then I realised.

Shit! Amy, are you pregnant?’

She nodded miserably, unable to look me in the eye, as more tears ran down her face. My heart lurched, my stomach flipped, my mind whirled.

‘Fuuucking hell.’

I pulled her into my arms again, as a huge grin spread across my face.

‘Fucking, fucking hell.’

Amy’s crying intensified.

‘How fucking amazing is this? It’s … Amy, this is … it’s just fucking amazing.’

She stopped crying, looked up at me. Saw my smile.

)Really?

‘Fuck, yes. Why are you so upset, babe? Aren’t you happy about it?’

)Well it’s not what we planned. We said wait a few years, get married first, settle down, both be a bit older.

‘Fuck that, it’s happened now. Somehow. One of us slipped up – me, you, some guy in a condom factory somewhere. Don’t really care who. Oh – not the guy in the condom factory – remember a few weeks ago? Our amazing day? I think we were a bit forgetful in the condom department.’

Amy nodded, but the worry was still plain on her face.

)But we said we were too young. We made that list of things we want to do first …

‘Know what? Lets tear it up. New list. Number one: Have a bloody baby fucking immediately. Ames – shit – we’re going to have a baby. This is just fucking awesome.

)Really?

‘Really. Really, really. So. Fucking. Awesome.’

)Oh Dec, I was scared. I didn’t know what you’d say.

‘Why, babe? We’ve talked about it haven’t we? It’s what we both want, just maybe a bit sooner. Sooner is good too.

)I just didn’t want you to say it’s too soon, that we’d have to … I’d have to … do something about it.

‘What? No, babe, never. You didn’t really think that did you? We’re in this together, joint decisions. Besides, it’s what I want. Isn’t it what you want?

Amy flashed me a wide smile, full of relief.

)Yeah, it really is. Oh, hon, I’m just … it’s all mixed up with Mum and Dad. They’re not going to be happy at all. I’m scared about what they’ll say.

‘We’ll handle them together. They can’t make us do anything, babe. We’re grown ups, have been for a long time, despite how they treat you. Is that all you’re worried about? How long have you been worrying? How long have you known?’

)For definite? About ten minutes. I only just did the test. But I’ve been sick every morning for about two weeks, and I’m a week late, it’s been on my mind. But Dec, what about … there’s no room here. And what if you – we – move to London or something?

‘Come on, Ames, we’ve got months to worry about how much space we’ve got here – nine, right? Jay and Beth had Iz in with them for ages, didn’t they? Seriously, it’s not a problem. As for re-signing for Raiders or thinking about some of the other offers, well this is just something extra to think about. Listen, do we really want to talk about this in the toilet, or shall I make a cup of tea and we can go back to bed?’

)A cup of tea sounds completely amazing, hon.

Amy wiped her eyes, looking at herself in the mirror.

)God, I’m a sight.

She ran her fingers through her hair. My heart filled with love and desire as I looked at her.

‘Ames, you’re fucking gorgeous. Never more beautiful.’

I put my arms round her and kissed her on the mouth. She reached up and twined her fingers in my hair, kissing back.

‘Steady, babe, it’s that kind of wanton behaviour that got us here in the first place. Mind you, I guess you’re not going to get any more pregnant, are you …’

I scooped her up and carried her in my arms, back to bed, her arms round my neck, kissing as we went. The cup of tea went on hold for a while.

It was still dark later, with Amy curled up asleep beside me. I couldn’t sleep, it was all going round in my mind. Overwhelming, awesome news. Trying to get my head round it. I was taken aback by how thrilled and excited I was.

Amy and I had talked about wanting children, we were both really keen, but it had been one of those ‘in the future’ things like pensions and a steady job. Now it was a reality, I knew how much I wanted it – a family of my own.

I lay there and luxuriated in the feeling. No idea of the time. Checked my phone on the bedside table. Three fifteen. Got out of bed and headed into the kitchen to make the cup of tea I’d promised a while ago. Carried the two mugs back to the bedroom. Amy stirred as I got back into bed.

)What time is it?

‘Bloody early. Half three-ish.’

)I love this time of the morning. It feels like you’re the only ones in the world.

‘Yeah, then you remember you’ve got to be up for training in a few hours and so you shouldn’t be drinking shit with caffeine in it. Ames, I want to tell someone, I can’t keep this to myself, I’m going to burst. I don’t know how you kept it quiet for so long.’

)Well, I wasn’t sure, really. Not till tonight. I was kind of trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

‘Oh babe, you’re sure you’re OK about it?’

)Yeah, hon, now I know you’re OK about it too, I’m completely happy. Who do you want to tell?

‘I feel like announcing it on the news. I’m going to be a dad! That’s huge! You’re going to be a mum.’

I put my hand on her stomach.

‘Fuck, there’s a tiny, tiny person in there!’

I bent over and put my ear against her belly.

‘Nope, can’t hear anything, obviously having a snooze.’

I turned my head and spoke into Amy’s belly button.

‘Hey, wake up in there, it’s your dad – whoa, fuck! I’m gonna be a dad. Whoa.’

It just kept hitting me, as the reality gradually broke through.

‘I would like to solemnly announce – no, fuck it, shout from the rooftops – that Declan Summers and Amy Wright are going to be parents. In sole charge of a tiny person. But I want to tell Jay and Beth. And Matt. And Rose – oh Rose is going to flip. And your parents, obviously.’

)Well obviously. They’ll be just delighted. Especially as we’ve missed out the getting married first bit.

‘Fuck them. If they can’t be as ecstatic as us, that’s their loss. I’m going to ring Jay now.’

)Dec, you can’t, it’s the middle of the night. You’ll wake them all up.

‘This is big news. I can’t wait.’

)You can’t!

Amy tried to take the phone out of my hand, but I’d already called up their home number on the screen. I held the phone high above my head and pressed ‘call’ with my thumb. Amy admitted defeat with a sigh and lay back down. The phone rang a few times. A sleepy voice.

łJay Scott.

‘Jay, it’s Dec.’

łJesus, Dec, what time is it?

‘About three thirty. Sorry it’s so early.’

łFuck, what’s happened?

‘Nothing – well, nothing bad. I’m going to be a dad.’

There was a long silence.

łWhat?

‘Me and Ames are having a baby.’

A shorter pause.

łFuck me, Dec, that’s … bloody astounding.

‘I know.’

łYou couldn’t have waited until a reasonable hour to tell me?

‘No, I don’t think I could.’

łFair enough. Mind if I go back to sleep now?

‘Be my guest.’

łYou’re too kind. Give Amy a kiss from me.

He hung up.

)I told you it was too early.

‘I know, he wasn’t really awake I don’t think. He might not even remember when he wakes up. This is from him.’

I gave Amy a lingering kiss.

)Wow, that was from Jay? Remind me to thank him.

‘OK, not all of it’s from Jay. I may have given it a bit of an upgrade.’

My phone rang. Beth’s mobile.

‘Hi.’

A high pitched squeal made me wince and hold the phone away from my ear.

‘Beth? Is that you? Or is your burglar alarm going off?’

_Dec, what fantastic news. I’m so excited. When did you find out? When’s it due? How’s Amy? Oh sweetheart, you’re going to be such a good dad.

‘Thanks, it’s pretty immense news. We’ve only just found out, a couple of hours ago. Ames is fine, do you want to talk to her?’

I passed the phone over, realising I was going to have to get to grips with the kind of information everybody wanted to know when hearing news about babies. Amy chattered excitedly with Beth. They got on really well, Amy was another member of the family now. As she talked to Beth, I thought about how my life was going to change in the next year. I was going to be responsible for another person, a tiny person who would be totally dependent on me and Amy for everything. It was pretty immense. Awe-inspiring. Overwhelming.

I sensed a change in Amy, looked at her expression. She had gone pale. She handed me the phone and ran to the bathroom.

‘Sorry, Beth, I think this is my first run in with morning sickness. I need to go and help Amy.’

_Just be thankful you don’t experience it first hand. Take care of her, Dec, lovely news, we’ll talk later.

I followed Amy into the bathroom, where she was bent over the toilet, heaving. I held her hair away from her face, rubbed her back, and guiltily loved every minute of it. All new territory, all new and exciting. Once she had stopped throwing up, Amy shooed me out to freshen herself up. I wandered back to bed, still too excited to think about sleeping. Training was going to be a dead loss today. I wanted to tell someone else, but there was no one who I could comfortably call at four o’clock. Not call, no, but text …

Me: =UR going 2b an aunty.

I sent it. If he was sensible, he’d have his phone on silent or turned off or something. Matt wasn’t known for being sensible.

Julia

I woke with a start to a shrill sound. Matt stirred against me.

‘Wha … th … fu …’

‘Is that your phone?’

‘Yeah … sorry. Meant to put it on silent. What time is it?’

He reached over to the bedside table and grabbed his phone.

‘It’s gone four! What? What the fuck is he texting me at this bloody time of night for?’

This last was said to himself. He typed a few words onto his phone, then another tone shattered the peace.

Dec

Matt:=Wtf ru on about? Do u no wot tim it is?

Me: =Me & Amy having baby. Gonna b a Dad. Holy fuck!! It’s 4:12. In the morning.

Julia

Fuuuucking hell. Oh my God, I don’t fucking believe it. Ha ha, shit.’

He typed again.

Dec

Matt:=It seems they’ll let any riff raff father children these days. Awesome 🙂 Luv 2 Amy. Bak 2 sleep now. Xx

The next person on the list was Rose, but I couldn’t do this to her over the phone or by text, and not at this time of the morning. I’d have to wait until later.

Nico and Lis. Tried to figure out the time difference. Nico had signed for the top side in Buenos Aires at the the end of last season, breaking the hearts of many Raiders fans. He and Lis had moved to Argentina a few months ago. They felt a long way away, even though they kept in touch. Buenos Aires was several hours behind the UK. It was too late to call. Probably too early to text. Fuck it, I was excited. Did it anyway.

Me: =Hey Nico. Sorry it’s early. Just found out Amy’s pregnant. Wanted you to know. Dec

There was no reply, he probably had his phone off, or hadn’t even heard the alert.

Julia

‘Sorry, Jules. Sorry, I fell asleep, I didn’t mean to. I’ll grab my things from the dryer.’

‘Don’t be silly. Stay.’

We had never yet stayed the night with each other, it seemed like a big step, but it also seemed silly for him to drive home for a couple of hours’ sleep.

‘Who is your text from?’

‘Dec. Do you remember meeting him at the farm place?’

I nodded.

‘He’s … wow, he’s going to be a dad. Him and Amy are having a baby. Bloody hell.’

‘Couldn’t he have told you later, when it wasn’t the middle of the night?’

‘Dec’s pretty immediate. He thinks it, he does it, or says it. Shit, I can’t get my head round it, he’s only – actually he’s absolutely bloody old enough. He’s just a lot younger than me, I forget he’s grown up sometimes. Mind you, sometimes I forget I’m grown up.’

‘I think we all forget you’re grown up at times.’

‘Sorry he woke you up. We might have slept right through if he hadn’t texted.’

He started to get out of bed. I held onto his hand.

‘Come on, Jules, I need to get my clothes.’

‘Are you really going?’

‘Yeah, I’ll just keep you awake if I stay. I don’t feel sleepy any more. We need at least one of us to have a functioning brain cell tomorrow, busy day, plus Lexi will be making mischief.’

I’d managed to forget about events at GreenScreen, safe and warm in Matt’s embrace, but now he’d reminded me about them, and I felt the relaxation slip away.

‘Don’t go yet.’

‘I’ll just get dressed, then I’ll come back and say goodbye.’

He hopped out of bed and I watched his naked back as he walked to the kitchen. He pulled his clothes out of the dryer and slipped them on, then came back to the bedroom, where he lay down next to me again.

‘Goodnight.’

He brushed my hair away from my face, cupped my cheek in his hand and kissed me gently. I put my arms round his neck and pulled him against me, not really understanding why I was so desperate for him to stay.

‘Hey, Jules, are you OK?’

I didn’t have a coherent response for him, so I just nodded.

‘Get some sleep, yeah?’

I nodded again.

‘Thanks for the spooning. Awesome.’

He kissed me again, lightly, stroked my hair and left. My flat felt empty without him, and it took me a long time to go back to sleep.

Dec

Amy climbed back into bed. I wrapped her up in a cuddle, stroked her hair.

‘How are you feeling?’

)Ugh, I hate being sick. I’m OK, once it’s passed it’s fine. Thanks for helping, hon. I think I’m going to take today off work.

‘What? Amy Wright pulling a sickie?’

)No! It’s not a sickie, I’m wiped out, I’ve been up half the night. Just one day, to slob around and feel better. Then I’ll have to get my strength up to visit Mum and Dad.

‘Sounds like a sickie to me – oh babe I’m kidding, you look really tired, you shouldn’t go in, you need to feel better. We’ll go to see your mum and dad later on this afternoon after your dad’s home from work, but only if you’re up to it.’

)Are you sure?

‘Yep, we need to get it over with. I’d hate them to find out from someone else.’

)Someone else like who – who else have you told while I’ve been in the bathroom?

‘Er, just Matt and Nico. Texted them. And I’m going to tell Rose later. Sorry, babe, I’m just too excited.’

)Oh God, is everyone at the club going to know too?

‘I don’t know if I can help myself. Do you want me to not say anything?’

)No, I guess not. I love that you’re so happy about it. It’s just that usually people have a few weeks to get used to the idea, wait to see there’s nothing wrong, then let everyone know.

‘Oh Ames, I’m sorry, I didn’t think. I just got carried away.’

)Well, let’s keep on getting carried away then. I love you, hon.

‘I bloody love you too. You’re amazing, wonderful, gorgeous and, fuck me, I can hardly believe it, the mother of my child. You couldn’t be more perfect if you tried.’

Amy snuggled into my arms.

)I think you need to try to go back to sleep. You’ll have to be up soon. Unless you fancy pulling a sickie yourself, spend the day with me?

‘I don’t think I’d get away with that one, especially now I’ve told Jay. I’ll be back after I’ve seen Rose, we’ll have some time before we go to your parents.’

Amy sighed.

)I suppose I wasn’t serious, I don’t think I’ve ever known any of you mad rugby players take a day off sick, even with legs hanging off and eyes missing. A bit of girly puking is completely not going to get much sympathy. We should try and sleep though.

‘OK, I’ll try.’

I held her tightly and shut my eyes. Amy fell asleep really quickly, I felt her relax and heard her breathing become steadier. I felt the slight twitches she always did when she was first falling asleep, and then she was still, breathing quietly, growing our baby inside her.

A blaring tone on my phone woke me up some time later. Nico.

>Declan?

‘Nico! Did you get my text?

>I get it. This is great news, yes?

‘Yeah, amazing.’

>Ha, good, I not sure from your words if you are happy. Lis and me, we are very happy. Amy is OK?

‘Amy is amazing.’

I looked into her eyes as I said it. She had woken up when the phone rang.

>Lis she has women’s questions about baby things. You OK to speak to her?

‘Sure, I’d love to speak to her. Thanks for ringing, Nico.’

>Be careful of yourselves. Here is Lis.

~Hey Dec. How exciting is this?

‘Hi Lis. What time is it there, it must be the middle of the night.’

~Pretty much. So you’re going to be a dad, yeah?

‘Yeah, unbelievable, eh?’

~It is pretty unbelievable. Surely you’re under age?

‘Ha ha.’

~How’s Amy?

‘She’s great, tired at the moment, she’s been up all night.’

~When’s it due?

‘Sorry, Lis, I don’t know, we literally only found out a few hours ago. I haven’t got my head round it yet.’

~You’re a useless lump, Declan Summers. Is Amy awake? I might get more sense out of her.

I looked at Amy and shook the phone at her, raising my eyebrows. She nodded.

‘Yeah, I’ll pass you over, you can talk baby details with someone more qualified.’

~Great to talk to you, Dec. Congratulations.

‘Thanks, Lis. Take care.’

I passed the phone to Amy, and glanced at the clock. Eight fifteen. Fuck! I was going to be late for training.

‘Fuck it!’

I jumped out of bed, gathering up my kit, grabbing a towel and stuffing it into my bag. I picked up a cereal bar and a bottle of water from the kitchen, then went back to the bedroom to wait by Amy, who was still talking to Lis. She looked up at me questioningly.

‘Sorry, babe, I need my phone.’

)Oh, OK. Sorry, Lis, Dec’s late for training. He needs to take his phone with him. Great to talk to you, I’ll ring soon or text or something.

She handed the phone back.

‘Sorry, Lis, gotta go, I don’t want to be filling Nico’s boots in the late-for-training chart.’

~I think his place at the top of the chart is pretty safe. Keep in touch, yeah? We miss you.

‘Bye Lis, miss you too.’

I bent over and kissed Amy quickly, then headed for the door.

‘Sorry, babe. Gotta go. Have a good lazy day. I’ll call you later.’

)Wait, come here.

I walked back to the bed. Amy reached up and pulled my face down to hers, planting a big wet kiss on my mouth.

)That’s better. Much more satisfactory. Now you can go.

‘Not fair. I just want to do this all day now.’

I sat on the bed, cupped her face in my hands and gave her another kiss, then wrapped my arms round her and gave her a huge squeeze.

)Don’t be late, hon.

‘Already am.’

)Jay’ll give you stick.

‘Don’t give a shit. I can take anything Scotty dishes out.’

)You’re squeezing a bit tight.

‘Oh OK, better let go then.’

I relaxed my grip, and Amy lay back down, wrapping herself back up in the duvet.

)Shame you don’t have time to get me breakfast in bed.

‘Yeah, shame, better be off then. Love you.’

)I thought that might speed you on your way. Love you.

I finally made it out of the flat, seriously tempted to make some excuse to spend the day with Amy. I couldn’t come up with anything that would sound remotely plausible and resigned myself to having to wait until later in the afternoon to see her again. I got in the car and drove to the club in a bit of a trance. Happiness floated around me in a cloud. I parked, grabbed my bag and ran to the changing room, which was empty by the time I got there. Changed as quickly as I could, ran to the training ground, where rucks and mauls were already in session. Sprinted onto the artificial surface.

łMr Summers, how nice of you to join us.

‘Sorry I’m late.’

łYou will be. Twice round the pitch, fifty bench presses if you’d be so kind.

‘What? Fuck off.’

łPardon?

‘Er, what luck, off … I go.’

I set off, and hardly had time to draw breath until the end of the session. Rucks and mauls was always punishing, and the extras hadn’t helped. It was tiring, it was cold, it was raining, but none of it could dampen my spirits as I headed for the showers with the rest of the squad. I suddenly remembered I hadn’t contacted Rose. Grabbed my phone before I went into the shower, sent a quick text.

Me: =Hi Rose. Can u meet 4 late lunch? 2.30 Luigi’s. Have news. Dec.

I hit the showers and the hot water revitalised my aching body. There was the usual banter from the lads, I came in for a ribbing due to my late arrival:

*Hey Summs, more bench presses for you tomorrow if you can’t haul yourself away from the lovely Amy.

*Reckon it was bench pressing Amy that made him late.

‘Fuck off, I overslept.’

*Hm, wonder why?

Kissing noises followed.

‘Actually, I didn’t get much sleep, neither of us did.’

*I knew it! You young studs are so fucking horny.

‘Amy’s having a baby.’

That shut them up. For about two seconds.

*Wahey, Deccy, get in there.

*Top performance, Summs.

*Hit the spot with that one then.

This was accompanied by backslapping, head-rubbing, arse patting, hand-shaking, jeering, cat-calling and all the other bantering paraphernalia of a room full of testosterone fuelled rugby players. I would have laid down my life for those guys, and I let them have their fun, grinning from ear to ear, as I dried myself off and got changed for the gym – I could put in an hour or so before it was time to meet Rose. Checked my phone, she had texted back.

Rose: =ok see you then

I was joined in the gym by Bonksy. Of the group of us who had been together in the Academy, DivDav had moved to another club when he was let go by Raiders; Big had obviously been out of the picture since he went to prison, no one knew where he was now; Mikey had hit the big time with Warriors, a big London club and was on the verge of breaking into the England side, and Danno had had to quit rugby after breaking his leg in a reserves game. Bonksy and I were the only ones left from that time a few years ago, and we were still mates. I started up the treadmill next to his, and set it for a short run. He had his headphones in, but took them out when he saw me.

]Congratulations, mate.

‘Cheers.’

]Shit, a baby, that’s pretty huge.

‘I know.’

]Aren’t you shit-scared?

‘Actually, no. I should be, shouldn’t I? Maybe I will be when I’ve thought about it. At the moment, I’m just fucking blown away.’

]Don’t ask me to babysit, will you?

‘Ha ha, don’t worry, mate, we’ll have plenty of doting aunties for all that. Strictly boys only for us!’

‘Yeah, you won’t be able to get rid of Rose now. Say hi to her for me.’

‘No worries. If I can get a word in.’

Bonksy laughed and put his headphones back in. I completed my run, showered again, and set off to meet Rose.

51. Kiss me

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

Julia

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

I sent a quick text to Evie.

‘Hi Ev, I survived unbedded.’

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

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

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

‘Hope all goes well. xx’

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘How do you know I won’t reply?’

‘U never do.’

‘Oh, you must be right then.’

‘Usually am.’

‘Big head.’

‘Jus sayin.’

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

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

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

‘Please? 2nd chance?’

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

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

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

‘Julia?’

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

‘UR a hard woman.’

One more go.

‘OK u win. Cu in 24 hrs. M x’

Julia

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

‘Why the Whistling Panhandler anyway? WTF?’

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t even thought about it.

‘Have you been?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shot him a look of gratitude.

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

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

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

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

‘Waiting for a call, are you?’

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

‘Someone special?’

‘Er …’

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

‘… kind of. It’s all quite new.’

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

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

‘No, been busy at work, no time.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘An old t-shirt. Pants.’

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

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

‘Noooo. U can’t! UR killing me.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Goodbye cruel world blubble blup blip blup blubble …’

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

Matt

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

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

Julia

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

‘Morning pet. Sleep alright?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘Sorry, Beth, I need to get this.’

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

‘Julia?’

‘Hello.’

‘Is everything alright?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, OK, thanks.’

Julia

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

‘When will you be back?’

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

Matt

‘Call me?’

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

‘I’ll see how I am, I’ll be tired.’

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

Julia

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

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

There was a brief silence.

Matt

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

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

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

‘Girlfriend?’

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

It was true enough for me to say it convincingly.

‘Does she need an invite for next Sunday?’

‘No thanks.’

‘We like to meet your friends, sweetheart.’

‘Back off, Beth.’

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

‘What’s this? New woman, Matty?’

I sighed and rolled my eyes.

‘No. Just someone from work.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

‘Yes, pet.’

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

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

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

Matt

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

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

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

William shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

Matt

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

Julia

‘I’m home now. See you tomorrow.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

‘Goodnight. M x’

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

Julia

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

‘Goodnight. Thank you. Julia’

Matt

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

Julia

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

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

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

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

‘You can’t have known I would come.’

Matt

‘You can’t resist me.’

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

‘I wanted to talk to you.’

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

‘No thank you.’

‘Your loss.’

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

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

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

‘That’s a heavy sound. You OK?’

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

‘Julia?’

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

‘Tell me?’

Julia

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

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

Matt

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

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

‘Is all this –’

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

‘– too much at the moment?’

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

Julia

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘Can I see you tonight?’

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

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

‘Tomorrow?’

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

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

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

But she had an answer for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘Yeah, I did.’

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

‘Have you changed your mind?’

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

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

He was silent for a while.

Matt

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

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

48. She’s lost control

In which things escalate rather quickly.

Matt

I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Jules for weeks. She was even less approachable than usual, and our teams were focussed on entirely different projects.

Then Phil stuck his managerial oar in and asked my team to take over one of her team’s accounts. Julia’s team were getting behind, and my team had just finished a project, so had a bit of time to give, and Phil decided to mix things up. This was unheard of – taking another team’s account was tantamount to throwing down a leather gauntlet and suggesting pistols at dawn. Jules was going to have a shit fit. I tried to dissuade Phil, but he kept quoting stats and deadlines at me, and in the end he just pulled rank, and I had no choice.

Julia

I never used my personal mobile phone when I was at work; I didn’t want any part of my private life interfering with my well constructed work cocoon. But that day I had forgotten to switch it off, as I sometimes did if I’d been charging it, and heard it announce a text in my bag. Tutting to myself, I reached for the phone to turn it to silent, and caught sight of the text on the screen. I saw the name ‘Nons’ and despite my rules, had to look. It was a typically bald informational statement from my mother.

‘Hello JuJu darling. Sorry to inform you Nons died yesterday. Just about to board. Will ring you tonight at 7pm.’

No ‘love Mum’, no ‘hope you’re OK’, but I would have been astounded if there had been. I stared at the message in disbelief. Nons. My aunt. She’d brought me up while my parents gallivanted round the world. She was my home, my rock. No. Appalled at myself, I felt tears well up in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. My lips trembled. No.

Matt

I procrastinated like mad, and didn’t talk to Jules about the account for a while, trying several different ways to introduce the subject, and then I walked past her office, looked in and saw her crying. Shit. Jules, Julia Marran, the fucking Ice Queen, was bloody crying. Phil must have gone off-piste, as he tended to sometimes, and told her. I did not do women crying, due to the previously mentioned fuckwittedness that came out of my mouth on such occasions. But this felt like partly my fault, so I took a deep breath.

‘Everything alright?’

Julia

Matt Scott’s voice filtered through my distress. Shit, he was the last person I wanted to see me like this.

‘Jules?’

I looked up to see him closing the door behind him, reaching for some tissues out of a box on my desk, handing them to me, crouching next to my chair with concern on his face.

‘It’s Julia.’

Matt

Shit, I’d forgotten about that, it had just slipped out. I looked down for a second.

‘Sorry. Julia. You just look like a Jules to me. What the fuck’s the matter?’

She avoided my eyes, sniffing back the tears, blinking hard and shaking her head.

Julia

I tried to pull myself together, sniffing back the tears, thinking of other things. I didn’t trust myself to speak for a while, so I just shook my head and remained silent. I needed to think – I wanted to call my mother, but I couldn’t do that at work, I had my own rules about using my personal mobile at work, and besides, I didn’t want to be overheard. Before I could even start to decide what to do, Matt spoke again.

Matt

‘Is it Phil? Has he said something about the Cullen report?’

She looked at me then, frowning.

‘No, what about the Cullen report?’

Oh bollocks. She wasn’t upset about that. Well not yet, anyway.

‘Oh, er, shit, well nothing then. Fuck. Had to open my big mouth.’

Julia’s demeanour changed, as if she’d completely forgotten she’d been upset just moments before. She wasn’t going to let it go.

Julia

His faux pas was actually helping me focus back on work and stop my tears. I was going to have to do something about my mother’s text soon, contact her, but right now I was at work, and Matt Scott was in my office having seen me crying. And he’d said something about a project my team was working on.

‘What about the Cullen report?’

I pushed my chair away from him, and he stood up, putting his hands out in front of him in a conciliatory gesture.

Matt

Maybe I should have just told her then, but I was a bigger coward than I realised, and I didn’t want a big confrontation, so I just tried to bullshit my way out of it.

‘Look, forget I said anything, sorry Jule – er – Julia, you looked upset and I just thought … just forget it. Shit.’

I turned round and walked out of the office, closing the door behind me.

Julia

I couldn’t leave it like that; if I did, I was going to have to deal with the news I’d just received, so I wiped my face and went in search of Phil, the manager of all the teams, who informed me that Matt’s team was going to be taking responsibility for the Cullen report, despite the weeks of work my team had already put into it. He wouldn’t listen to my arguments and told me to hand over all the research and data we had immediately.

I was furious. I rarely showed my emotions in the office (hence The Ice Queen), but today everybody knew I was seriously pissed off. I slammed my door shut and started gathering the information together with loud bangs and the odd shouted insult. It helped enormously in enabling me to direct my emotions at the files I was throwing into a box rather than at the more troubling other things that were filling my head.

Matt

Well, of course, she went to Phil and got the whole story, and she had the predicted shit fit, shut herself in her office and started chucking things around, swearing loudly. Phil, the bastard, I really don’t know what he was up to, he must have had some kind of death wish on my behalf, but he insisted I went and got all the files from her. Everyone could hear her doing violence to things, and I thought it was particularly unfair to be made to interrupt, but there we had it. I was a minion when all was said and done.

I tapped softly on the door, in the partial hope that she wouldn’t hear. She didn’t answer, but I knew I wasn’t really going to get away with that one, so I tapped louder. Still no answer, so I just opened the door. I tried to look as apologetic as I could, but I was under no illusions that I was in for an earful.

Julia

‘Piss off. You’ve done enough for today.’

He had the decency to hang his head and look embarrassed.

‘Sorry, Julia. Really, I’m sorry, I thought you must know, shit, what a fucking balls-up. Phil wanted me to come and get the stuff, but it can wait.’

‘No, take it, it’s all right here.’

I took the box of papers and thrust it into his arms, pushing him back out of the door as I did so, then I turned round, grabbed my bag and my coat and walked out of the office, not sure where I was going or whether I would be back before the end of the day. As I stamped down the stairs, trying hard not to cry before I got well away from the building, I heard a voice shouting my name.

Matt

She just looked so upset, more upset than I thought could be accounted for by Phil’s shenanigans, and much as I hated crying women, I felt a bit responsible, so I dumped the box on a desk and followed her.

‘Julia, wait.’

If I concentrated really hard, I would remember not to call her Jules.

She didn’t wait. She hurried down the stairs and disappeared through the outer door, so I ran after her, catching up with her just before she crossed the road. I grabbed her arm and pulled her round to face me, more roughly than I meant to because I wanted to make sure she didn’t get away. She angrily pulled her arm out of my grip.

‘What the fuck do you want?’

She was nearly spitting she was so annoyed.

‘Just to see if you’re OK. I feel terrible.’

‘Well I’m not OK. And I’m glad you feel terrible. Just leave me alone.’

Well, she’d done it now. She’d invoked the ‘leave me alone I’m feeling shit’ code, and I was powerless to do anything else. I smiled, probably very irritatingly.

Julia

Something seemed to click behind his eyes and a tiny smile flickered at the corner of his mouth, then disappeared.

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘No, I won’t leave you alone. When you feel as shit as this, you shouldn’t be on your own.’

It sounded almost as if he was reciting the words, and I was astounded to see a grin spread across his face.

‘Come on.’

‘What?’

‘Come with me, I want to show you a secret.’

He grabbed my hand and started to pull me down the street. I was by now completely flummoxed. All thoughts of how I should be behaving and with whom had vanished completely, and having someone telling me what to do was, for the moment, very welcome. I could regain some control in a while, once I had first regained some composure.

Matt

I didn’t think she’d come with me, but she put up less of a fight than I’d imagined she would. At first I thought she was dragging her feet on purpose, and then I realised she was wearing heels, and couldn’t keep up with the pace I’d set. So I slowed down, and she became more compliant, following me quietly.

‘Sorry. We’re nearly there.’

‘Where?’

‘Wait and see.’

I so wanted to see the look on her face when we got there, she was going to be so surprised, it was going to take her mind off whatever it was that had upset her, it was also going to take her mind off the Cullen report, and so I kept a tight hold on her hand and led her through the gates of the churchyard.

Julia

The smug look on his face nearly had me marching back up the street, but Matt had a firm grip on my hand, and in a few more steps he led me through the gates of the churchyard and started picking his way between the gravestones. My heels were struggling with the long grass, so I stopped to take them off.

‘Watch out for the dog shit.’

I sighed.

‘No, you watch out for the dog shit. This is your bloody mystery tour. Any canine faeces I find on the bottom of my feet, I will wipe off on your shirt.’

‘Fair enough. Shit, you’re a hard woman.’

‘Ice Queen, remember.’

‘Yeah. Fuck. Anyway, here we are.’

Matt

When she took her shoes off to, presumably, prevent her from sinking into the grass surrounding the gravestones, I thought it was safe to let go of her hand, and she followed me, grumbling about getting dog shit on her feet, until we had crossed the grass and were standing in front of a tall box hedge which boundaried one edge of the cemetery. She stood and looked at it, unimpressed.

‘It’s a hedge.’

‘No kidding, not much gets past you does it, bugger I thought you’d be more impressed with a bit of greenery…’

As I was speaking, I backed away from her, and then found what I was looking for. This was my pièce de resistance; when Cal had shown me a few months ago I had been stunned, and I’d been dying to try it out on someone else. I stopped talking and took a step to my right, entering the hidden outside anteroom that held a couple of gravestones and a stone bench. She wouldn’t have a clue what had just happened; it would have looked like I’d disappeared.

Julia

As Matt was speaking, he was walking backwards away from me, and as he stopped talking he took a step to his right and – disappeared. Just vanished from sight, as if he’d stepped into the hedge. I stood with my mouth open.

‘Matt?’

Nothing, just the sound of the traffic from the street and leaves rustling in the breeze. I walked along the hedge trying to find the spot where he had disappeared, but it seemed to be continuous. It wasn’t until I was on my way back that I saw it, a cunningly hidden alcove grown into the hedge that was only visible from certain angles. I still might have missed it if I hadn’t seen the toe of Matt’s trainer peeping out at the very bottom edge. I would have loved to have paid him back with a similar joke, but I really wasn’t in the mood, and as I stopped being quite so flustered by the events of the afternoon so far, I was beginning to return to my work persona. The best I could do was spoil his surprise, so I walked into the alcove as nonchalantly as I could manage.

Matt

I’m not quite sure how Cal found out about this hidden room in the graveyard, although if Cal knew about it, then every other person in the city did. Certainly, judging from the amount of discarded shit – empty cans, fag ends, chip wrappers – littering the floor, plenty of people used it, but I had come here quite a few times with Cal, and we’d always been the only ones. We’d sit here and eat crisps and read comics, then go to the park and kick a ball about – see, I wasn’t always a bastard arsehole excellent no-strings lay; sometimes I was cool Uncle Matty. It brought a sense of perspective to life.

But anyway, now I’d shown the trick to Jules, and I really wanted to see what she was doing, but I had to stay where I was. I contented myself with standing at the entrance so I could see her face when she finally found it – I knew she’d work it out, she was smart, but for now, I wanted to enjoy … oh. She walked in as if she’d known it was there all the time, looking as underwhelmed as it was possible to look.

Julia

‘So where’s this big secret then?’

It was worth it for the crestfallen look on his face; it only lasted a second, but I knew I’d taken the wind out of his sails. He still flashed a quick grin and spread his arms wide, introducing me to a small enclosure about three metres square. There was a stone bench along one edge and two neat gravestones along the opposite edge announcing themselves memorials to John and Roberta Chartham who departed this earth 1776 and 1790 respectively. Matt sat on the bench and patted the seat next to him, so I sat, bending down to slip my shoes back on.

Matt

It pretty much took the wind out of my sails, but she was here now, all mine for a short time, I hoped. I flashed her a quick grin and spread my arms in welcome, then sat on the bench and patted the seat next to me. Still surprisingly compliant, she sat down.

‘Welcome to my lunchtime hideaway. I know you all think I go to The Anchor to get shit-faced, but in reality I come here and ponder the nature of the universe in general and the nature of Margie Feller’s boobs in particular – i.e. silicon or real – with a chicken mayo on brown, a packet of Walkers’ salt and vinegar, and a can of Fanta. Any visible shit-facedness upon my return is purely an act designed to distract.’

She raised a sceptical eyebrow.

‘And the beery breath?’

‘Oh come on, that was one fucking time, Phil gave me a bollocking, and anyway I was entertaining a sodding prospective client. What was I supposed to do, drink mineral water?’

Her eyebrow stayed raised.

‘Really? Fucking mineral water? Beside the point. So what do you think?’

I gestured around the hidden alcove.

‘It’s my secret. Nobody else knows about it.’

I tapped the side of my nose and winked, playing it up for all I was worth.

‘How did you find out about it?’

‘My nephew showed me.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nine.’

‘Particularly good at keeping secrets is he?’

‘A bit shit actually – wait, are you trying to say I might not be the only one he’s told? Bloody hell, the little scamp, all this time I thought the empty bottles and fag ends must be his, I nearly told his mum, are you saying they could have been just … anybody’s?’

I held the back of my hand dramatically to my forehead.

‘I feel betrayed.’

I was starting to enjoy myself, almost forgetting that Julia had been upset, twice, and was here because I’d dragged her here.

Julia

Without thinking, I told him something I shouldn’t have.

‘Real.’

‘What?’

‘A secret for a secret. Margie Feller’s boobs. Completely real.’

Matt

Well I hadn’t expected that – either the telling of the fact, or the fact itself. I’d been trying to find out about Margie’s awesome boobs for some time, and people either didn’t know or were sworn to secrecy. I’d not had a chance to investigate for myself, as Margie was married and not interested in extra-marital boob feeling sessions, but in my own mind I had plumped, if you’ll forgive the expression, for fake, because they couldn’t possibly be real. Now I knew. Awesome.

‘Fuuucking hell.’ Oh, but … ‘How do you know? Have you, you know, like, felt them?’

My fascination for the subject temporarily distracted me, and Julia saw something in my expression that brought her back to herself somewhat. She closed down the part of her that had started to share stuff with me, and I couldn’t blame her.

Julia

His expression of totally prurient lecherousness reminded me who I was talking to. I wasn’t just having a chat with a normal person, I was discussing the private matters of a colleague with another colleague whose morals were, to put it bluntly, suspect. I needed to backtrack.

‘No, only one secret traded at a time. And that one’s not for sale. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.’

He sensed the shift.

‘Aw Jules – fuck, sorry, sorry, Julia, it’s just you look so much like a Jules to me – you’ve gone all Ice Queen on me. I thought we were getting somewhere.’

‘Where precisely did you think we were getting?’

‘Well somewhere we could have a laugh, forget you think I’m an uncontrollable shag monster, forget I think you have a ten foot pole lodged in your arse, take your mind off your woes, call a truce?’

I was confused.

‘A truce?’

‘Yeah, you know, cease hostilities, wave a white flag, stop hating each other for, oh I don’t know, perhaps we could make it to half a bloody hour?’

‘Do you hate me?’

For some reason it seemed important that he didn’t.

Matt

Oh bloody hell, I hadn’t really meant that, it was a, I don’t know, metaphor or something.

‘Fuck. No, I didn’t mean that, I said ‘hating each other’ didn’t I. I suppose I meant fighting with each other. Haven’t we been doing that since we both started at GreenScreen: rival teams, rival contracts, all designed to up the stakes and get the most out of both of us?’

She stared at me, and I realised with horror that she hadn’t known. Phil was open with me about pitting our teams against each other to increase competitiveness and up productivity; it had never occurred to me that Julia wasn’t in on it. Oh shit and now she looked like she was going to bloody well cry again. All this had been to stop her crying in the first place, and I’d just made her do it again. Nice one, Matt.

Julia

I stared at him. How naïve had I been? It had never occurred to me, and I felt absolutely stupid. Unbelievably, I felt tears prickle at the corners of my eyes for the second time that day. I’d been sucked into one huge game, a game that Matt was playing and winning, because he knew all the rules, while I wasn’t even aware I was a competitor.

‘Oh shit, Julia, fuck, I’m sorry, fuck, no, don’t do that, here –’

He handed me a rather used looking tissue from his pocket

Matt

‘–sorry, it’s not that fresh. Fuck, I’m such a dickwad. I thought everyone knew how it was? No, no, no, please don’t, I don’t do women crying, oh fuck, come here.’

I put my arm round her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands and started sobbing. This didn’t noticeably diminish the crying, so I put my other arm round the front of her and held her while she cried. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard, holding Julia Marran while she cried her eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

Julia

I felt his arm go round my shoulder as I buried my face in my hands and started sobbing. The news about Nons had just caught up with me, and the fresh revelations from Matt had tipped me over the edge. I wasn’t an emotionally expressive person, and crying made me feel sick, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt Matt’s other arm go round the front of me and he made some attempt to hold me while I wept. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard being held by Matt Scott while I cried my eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

After a while I snivelled myself to a standstill, and stayed hunched over, my face in my hands, feeling awkward and bilious. Matt released his hold, then tried to get me to look up by pushing my chin up and pulling on my hands. I shook my head.

‘Come on Jules, we both know you’re going to look a complete nightmare, all blotchy and dribbly and gloopy and shit, I won’t be shocked. You’ll make your back ache if you sit hunched over like that.’

He pulled on my hands again, and this time I let go, but kept my eyes shut as he gently pulled me so I was sitting back against the seat. I took several deep, shuddering breaths.

‘There you go, that’s better. Hmm, not as bad as I was expecting. Bloody expensive waterproof mascara? You’re worth it!’

I heard him chuckle to himself at his little joke. I opened my eyes and gave him the full Ice Queen special.

‘Hey, you’re back with us, your majesty.’

Matt was turned towards me on the seat, apparently not affected by the icy blast coming from my eyes.

‘Want to tell me? I mean, if all that was just about Phil’s little office politics games and my fucking cack-handed foot-in-mouth explanation, then my heartfelt apologies and by all means keep the tissue –’

‘You really are a self-centred prick aren’t you.’

‘–but if there was something else, I know I’m a self-centred prick, but for the next little while I’m your self-centred prick and I can listen in a way that only self-centred pricks can.’

I took a deep breath.

‘It’s personal.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t mix work and personal.’

‘OK.’

‘What?’

‘Well, I couldn’t help but notice, we’re not at work, and you’ve just been blarting your fucking eyes out all over my shirt sleeve.’

He held up his arm which was damp around the elbow.

‘So, I’m thinking maybe this isn’t work, which makes it kinda personal, which means, spill.’

‘I’m not about to tell you my personal business.’

‘I disagree. I think you are about to, and I will tell you why.’

This was the very type of annoying light banter that usually frustrated the hell out of me at work, as it wasted so much time. However, I had to admit I was currently finding it diverting. I huffed a breath out and crossed my arms over my chest as I waited for the inevitable nonsense.

‘OK. Firstly, I am the soul of discretion. Ah ah, before you give me that ‘fuck off Matt Scott you are the most indiscreet fuckweasel anyone knows’ look, let me just advise you that I have never, ever kissed and told. There has been lots of kissing and lots of telling, and although I will admit to a lot, but not all, of the kissing, I have never done any of the telling. Think back. Where did any of those wild stories originate? The ladies in question or their cohorts? Yes. Me? No. Exactly. I rest my case. Your secret, sordid or otherwise, is safe with me. I’d rather it was a bit sordid, though, to be honest, just to make it worth my while.’

I turned my head away and studied the hedge, hoping his chattering would carry on long enough for my eyes to calm down so I could leave.

‘Secondly, I am a seriously stubborn fucking bastard. I’ve won competitions in it. I never give up. I’m pretty good at getting people to talk to me, even when they have no intention of it. Persistence is my middle name. Had a better ring to it than Robert, so I changed it.’

I turned my head back to look at him.

‘Your middle name is Robert?’

‘Was. Is now Persistence. Suits me, don’t you think?’

I tutted, rolled my eyes and turned back to my perusal of the hedge.

‘Thirdly, and this is the killer, the deal-breaker. If you talk to me I’ll tell you something about me that no-one else at GreenScreen knows – oh apart from Phil, and he knows everything about everyone anyway. If I divulge your secret to any living soul, you have my permission to spread the goss to the waiting ears of Lexi on reception, who will have informed the entire staff team before you’ve even got up the stairs, and the news will greet you, complete with Lexi’s imaginative embellishments, as you walk in the door.’

Intriguing as this was, I had no interest in acquiring personal information about Matt. Much as he seemed to enjoy the machinations of office affairs, I tried to keep myself out of them as much as possible. I was getting a bit tired of his assumption that I had some deep dark secret though.

‘It’s nothing, alright? I just got some bad news. I don’t usually have my phone on, but I picked up a text by mistake and now I wish I hadn’t.’

Matt seemed nonplussed for a second; maybe he thought he was going to have more of a battle with me, maybe he was so caught up in his game that he forgot I had a part to play too. More likely: he was astounded at the thought of not having one’s phone switched on and in one’s hand at all times. He recovered quickly, leaning back on the seat with a smug grin.

‘There you go, that wasn’t so hard was it. And the bad news was ..?’

‘None of your damn business.’

‘Oh Jules, don’t stop now, we were just getting started –’

‘Leave it, Matt, I’m not going to tell you. And stop calling me Jules. Only my friends call me that, and –’

And Nons. Not my immediate family. My family, my mother, father and two sisters, called me JuJu, which I hated. Everyone I loved called me Jules. I didn’t want this self-important – what had he called himself? – uncontrollable shag monster calling me Jules when Nons was never again going to call my name up the stairs in the morning to the smell of frying bacon, or say ‘Hello Jules how’s my favourite niece’ when she rang, or look disappointed and say ‘oh well Jules, there’s still time for you’ when I’d told another potential husband (in her eyes) to take a hike.

It was all too much. I didn’t want to be here with this man who was being far too understanding, far too nice. I wanted him to be the annoying cocky dickhead he usually was so I could rage at him and storm off, and be on my own, which was after all what I had asked for in the first place. I wanted Nons. I wanted her here so much. She was the only one who could possibly help me, and she was the only one who wouldn’t be able to. I almost felt my heart break. Without warning, the tears came again. Large sobs almost stopped me breathing. I couldn’t do this here, with Matt Scott.

I got up and stumbled towards the exit from the arbour. Except I didn’t, because I couldn’t find the way. Blinded by tears and disoriented by distress, I bumped into the side of the hedge twice, scratched my hands trying to scrabble my way out, and then gave up with a howl, slumping to the floor, curling up and giving in to it, no longer caring who was there to witness it. Nons was gone. I’d never felt so alone. Nothing else mattered.

Matt

Jules just fell on the floor and started sobbing, curled in a ball, racked with these horrible noises that sounded like an alien was trying to break out of her throat.

And she just kept saying ‘non’. I couldn’t work it out. It was like she was French or something. Maybe she was, she had a bit of an exotic look about her sometimes, and ‘Marran’, wasn’t that French for chestnut or some such bollocks?

But anyway, whether you do women crying or not, you don’t let someone just lie there on the floor in serious distress without trying to help them in some way. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I sat next to her and stroked her hair and tried to think of comforting things to say that were a bit more meaningful than ‘shh’ and ‘there there’, but didn’t really come up with much.

After what felt a very long time, but when women are crying it always feels like bloody ages to me, she stopped.

Julia

However upset you are, it is impossible to cry forever, although it is possible to cry for a very long time. Long enough to almost forget where you are and who you’re with, until you come back to yourself a little bit and feel a hand stroking your hair away from your face, and hear their voice saying nonsense designed to make you feel better. Then you realise where you are, what’s just happened and, finally, who it is who is stroking your hair.

I sat up and tried to organise myself. My face was puffy and tear-stained. I had a headache and felt sick. I was really thirsty. I tried to run my hands through my hair, but it was tangled and there were bits of leaf and twig stuck in it. I rummaged in my bag for a comb and a mirror. I did anything and everything to avoid looking at Matt, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, watching quietly.

‘I think you need some antiseptic.’

Now he’d spoken, it wasn’t as easy to ignore him. I didn’t have to look at him though.

‘What?’

I continued to paw through my bag, no longer sure what I was looking for.

‘Your hands.’

He took my right hand and turned it palm upwards. I gasped at the bloody mess of scratches.

‘How did I …’

‘You scratched them on the hedge. What the fuck were you trying to do? The exit is over there.’

He pointed to the opposite side of the enclosure. I felt too stupid to even answer him.

‘Come on, Julia, come home with me.’

‘What?’

More stupidity. This man certainly had the ability to make me feel several IQ points below par.

‘I live a couple of streets away. I can clean you up, you need to put some plasters on it or something.’

‘No … I can –’

‘No, you can’t, whatever you were going to argue with me about. You can’t drive like that, you can’t do anything or go anywhere until you’re patched up. I told you I’m a stubborn fucking bastard. I will win this. Give in now and save yourself some time and effort.’

So I did give in. It was all too much, being here in this hidden place, after everything that had happened so far today. My hands hurt, my head hurt, my brain hurt, and I just did what I was told. It would be over soon, then I could go home and be on my own and everything would all be alright after that, but until then I would just do what I was told.

Matt

As I saw it, her choices were go back to work and face tons of questions about how she’d scratched her hands and why she looked like shit, or come back to mine where I could patch her up and lend her my bathroom so she could get the leaves out of her hair, and she could do what she wanted from there. She hardly argued when I suggested it. She stood up and followed me, silently, all the way to my flat.

Julia

I followed Matt out of the strange secret place, across the graveyard, down the street, along a few more streets, and then into an apartment building. I walked behind him up the stairs and he let me through his front door. We didn’t exchange a single word the whole time. Then I looked up at where I was and –

‘Wow!’

The view from his window was spectacular. The glass almost filled one wall, and it overlooked the river. Beyond were rolling hills, with the city in-between His apartment was stunning too – there was an open plan living and kitchen area, with a couple of doors to, presumably, bedroom and bathroom It was a modern and surprisingly minimally and tidily decorated space. I would have imagined empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and a few back issues of Nuts magazine spread around, but the place was spotless. Even a framed Star Wars poster seemed in keeping, and blended with everything else.

Matt

My flat was my pride and joy. I got it cut price via some unfortunate soul foreclosing on their mortgage and me being in the right place at the right time – poor them, lucky me. I fucking loved it. It was big and light and modern, and had the most impressive view over the river, across the city to the moors. It changed constantly, with the weather, the light and the time of day, and I never got bored of looking out of the window. The kitchen and lounge were in one large room separated by a counter, and I had put a small dining table next to the window. I had a huge squishy sofa, a couple of armchairs and a large TV with a couple of games consoles.

Julia hadn’t spoken since we left the graveyard, but when she saw the view she said, ‘Wow’ and looked around her in surprise. She was the first person who’d ever been up here who wasn’t family, or for whom the flat hadn’t been especially prepared for a lad’s night. No woman who wasn’t a member of my family had ever been here; I always went to ‘her place’. This was my sanctuary, somewhere I didn’t have to pretend, the odd night of watching football with the guys in a sea of beer bottles and takeaway containers notwithstanding.

Julia

‘Great view, eh?’

I nodded, trying to align the image I had of Matt Scott with the light, airy, tasteful apartment. It wasn’t computing. I continued to look out of the window, peripherally aware of Matt going through one of the doors and rummaging sounds emerging. His voice floated back to me.

‘Have a seat, just trying to find my first aid kit.’

I turned and looked into the room, and headed towards a plum coloured sofa. I sank into the generous cushions as the rummaging sounds continued.

‘Fuck it, I know I put it in here – oh. Bloody hell, Dec, can’t you ever put things back where you fucking well found them?’

This last was uttered sotto voce. The rummaging continued briefly and then stopped. Matt emerged, with a green and white box tucked under his arm. God, he even had a proper first aid kit. It was like he was changing into someone I no longer recognised.

‘Trust a mate with your fucking stuff, it could end up anywhere. Had to patch up my nephew the other day, game of footy got out of hand, kit got put back in the wrong place.’

Matt

I got Julia to sit on the sofa while I found the first aid box, then sat next to her.

‘Hold out your hands.’

Julia

I turned them palm up and rested them on my knees, and Matt proceeded to tip antiseptic onto a cotton wool pad. The smell made my eyes smart.

Matt

‘I think I’m supposed to tell you this is going to sting, but you will already know that. Pretend you’re on some live reality TV show and please, do not swear.’

I started to clean her scratches with antiseptic. She hardly spoke, and I was a bit worried about how she was just letting me tell her what to do; it didn’t seem like her at all.

Julia

I watched dispassionately as the cotton wool headed towards my right palm. I remained dispassionate until the moment the cotton wool actually touched my right palm.

‘Ah!’

With a sharp intake of breath, I pulled my hand away, knocking the cotton wool out of Matt’s hand. The sting brought more tears to my eyes. Matt bent down to retrieve the cotton wool from the floor, then took my hand in his, holding it firmly.

‘I said it was going to fucking sting. Get a grip, woman.’

He glanced up at my face, and saw a couple of tears dribble their way down my cheeks.

‘Oh Jules, sorry.’

He reached up and brushed the droplets away with the tip of his forefinger.

‘Be a brave little soldier, for me, OK?’

‘Patronising bastard.’

My voice sounded raw and broken; apart from a ‘wow’ and an ‘ah’ I hadn’t spoken since all the crying in the graveyard.

‘That’s better, that’s my Ice Queen.’

I glared at him, daring him to say one more condescending word. He laughed, and bent his head over my palm.

‘Alright then, let’s do it your way. This is going to fucking hurt, right? Swear all the fuck you want, but keep still.’

He was right, it did fucking hurt, both hands, but I stayed still as ordered while he wiped and wadded and bandaged and plastered. My right hand only needed a couple of plasters, but the scratches on my left hand were long and awkwardly positioned, and he bandaged it up. He did a really professional looking job, and I was impressed despite myself.

Matt

I wiped her scratches and provided bandages and plasters; Beth would have been proud.

‘It pays to have a nurse in the family, lots of First Aid lessons.’

Julia

He gestured at an array of photographs on top of a bookshelf. Several people smiled down at me, but I had no idea which one was the nurse responsible for my neat bandages.

‘Right, that’s you done. Can I get you a drink?’

I was really thirsty, but just wanted to be gone. I’d had enough of this shitty day, with its nasty surprises and its surreal weirdness and its king-sized dollop of Matt Scott. I shook my head and started to rummage in my bag for my car keys.

‘No, I’d better go. Thanks for this.’

I held up my hands. Matt opened his mouth to speak, as though he was going to try to persuade me to stay, but held back and nodded instead. He was probably as exhausted as I was with the whole situation and wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. I stood up, picked up my bag and coat, wincing at the pull on my scratches, and walked to the door. He held it open for me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder as I passed in front of him.

Matt

Just as she was stepping through the doorway, I remembered how she’d kept saying ‘non’ when she was sobbing on the ground, and without thinking, it just came out.

‘I didn’t know you were French.’

‘What?’

‘Aren’t you French?’

It must have been delayed fuckwittedness from the earlier weeping.

‘No. What do you mean?’

The look on her face told me instantly that I was indeed making a complete arse of myself. It should have stopped me, but some outside force seemed to have taken over my mouth, and I found myself continuing.

Julia

This a propos of nothing remark left me completely flummoxed. It didn’t seem to be a joke, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

‘In the graveyard, you were all curled up on the floor, bit of a soggy puddle, and you kept saying ‘non’. Thought you must be French. Sorry, forget it.’

‘Nons.’

Dammit, hadn’t meant to say it out loud, just saying her name summoned the sobs again. I needed to get out of there.

Matt

She said it again, and now I was confused.

‘Yeah, that’s it – Jules, you really don’t look OK, will you please come and sit down and have a drink or something?’

Julia

Something snapped. I felt it go, in my brain, as the last ‘Jules’ broke the dam.

Matt

And then, if I thought she’d gone ape-shit before, back in the office, well that was nothing. This was something else, suddenly she was a berserker, like a red mist descended or something. She turned to face me, her eyes going dark with anger, her fists balled up. The force of her glare made me take a step backwards.

‘It’s JULIA you FUCKING ARSEHOLE. You think you can waltz around doing or saying what the FUCK you want because you’ve got a FUCKING cheeky grin and you know where to shove your dick. I’ve asked you to call me JULIA, you TOSSER, is it really that FUCKING hard to remember? And no I’m not fucking FRENCH. Nons is a name, a fucking NAME, it’s a name … Nons is her … was her … unh …’

She took a step towards me, and then another one, and she started trying to hit me, her fists still balled up, scrumpling the bandages. She was a lot shorter than me, and slight, so none of it really hurt me, but she was a hay-maker, and I needed to try to contain her, and I was a bit worried she was going to try to scratch my eyes out, so I used my height to gather her up, pin her arms to her side and just hold her there until she calmed down.

Julia

And then coherence, if you could call it that, slipped away and although I vaguely remember lurching towards Matt, fists raised, and maybe he held my wrists, possibly to prevent me scratching his eyes out, and then there might have been some strong arms around me, pinning my arms to my sides while I may have yelled and screamed and thrashed, I don’t really remember any of it until suddenly there I was, wrapped up in Matt Scott’s arms, face against his chest, breathing in little shudders as he stroked my hair.

Matt

It took a long time, and she yelled and screamed and thrashed and cried, but I just held her, wrapping her up, as she slowly, slowly calmed down, and I felt it all gradually leave her, and we were standing there, her face against my chest, as she breathed in little shudders and I stroked her hair and I accidentally kissed the top of her head, didn’t mean to, just did it. I felt her stir against me.

Julia

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head?’

Jesus, my voice sounded even worse than before. My throat was ragged and sore. I had a raging thirst.

Matt

Her voice sounded ragged and broken. And a bit pissed off.

‘Yeah. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Oh. OK. Sure. Anything else you want me not to do?’

It was best to be clear about these things. Standing there with her in my arms, in the aftermath of a storm of emotion, there were all sorts of things I might do that she wouldn’t want me to. Really didn’t want to have her trying to bash me again. In any case, she didn’t answer, so I assumed I was alright to carry on stroking her hair, at the very least. We were kind of rocking, folded up in each other, almost lulling each other to sleep. It felt unreal. And very nice.

Julia

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. It felt good to be held, as if someone could take it all away. But the one doing the holding – that was another matter. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about that. He carried on stroking my hair.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

He was almost lulling me to sleep, gently rocking me on my feet as we stood there, me folded up in him.

‘I’m sorry I called you Jules.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Not sure I deserved to have the crap beaten out of me though.’

‘Mm.’

I was sure he had deserved it. He’d certainly had something coming to him, couldn’t focus on the whats or the whys just now. I carried on almost sleeping, being held up by a pair of strong arms.

Matt

I’d got the apology out of the way, but now I wanted to find out what it was all about.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Who’s Nons?’

She answered in a kind of dazed voice, head still buried in my chest.

Julia

I was so sleepy, I could just say it now and it didn’t matter.

‘My aunt. She died.’

Matt

‘Ohh. Fuck, Julia, I’m sorry.’

It all made sense now. Why would I have ever thought she was upset about some nonsense at work? She never got upset about work stuff. But somebody dying, that was huge. I felt terrible about it, about how inconsiderate I must have been, so I dropped a consoling kiss onto the top of her head.

Julia

I felt a familiar sensation. It roused me enough to ask about it.

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head again?’

‘I believe I did.’

‘After I asked you not to?’

‘Sorry. It seemed like the thing to do.’

More soft swaying, almost like we were dancing, but slower and more gentle. I felt soothed.

Matt

I just wanted to make her feel better, I swear, but you can probably see where this is going. And then I became aware of my hard-on, which had popped up at the most bloody inconvenient time. I needed to alert her to my arousal status without scaring her off completely.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘This is bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Maybe a bit too bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm … what?’

‘I don’t just want to kiss the top of your head.’

‘What?’

She lifted her head away from my chest and looked up at me, then looked down.

‘Fuck, Julia, I think we need to stop this before I kiss something I’ll regret.’

And I really meant it, I really did want to stop, because she was in a state, and I didn’t want to be that kind of arsehole, not with her, not while she was like this, all upset and emotional.

But then she reached up and put her hand round my neck, pulling my face down to hers. Fuck it, I even managed to resist for a second or two, and then Matt the Lad kicked in, like some kind of reflex, and my mouth met hers, and I couldn’t stop.

Julia

To his credit, he resisted for a brief moment, and then his lips were on mine, and his hands were in my hair, and my hands were under his shirt, and his tongue was slipping over and around mine, and somehow he was standing in front of me without his shirt and I was running my hands down his chest and then he was slipping my bra off my shoulders …

Matt

… our hands were everywhere, ripping off clothes, exploring urgently. Our tongues and lips pressed and tangled and tasted …

Julia

… and then nipples were sucked and our hands were lower, much lower, and more clothes were coming off and then there was nothing between us but air, and then, and then there was no air between us …

Matt

… and before I could think about it, we were naked, our bodies pressed against each other, and I lifted her up and laid her on the sofa, and she pulled me towards her and our bodies joined and I thrust and pounded and it was hard and fast and explosive and …

Julia

… and we were kissing and licking and sucking and fucking, hard and fast and noisily and urgently and then, and then …

Matt

Oh fuck.

Julia

Oh Jesus.