It took Hayden about fifteen minutes to round up his menagerie and by that point, I was considering walking home. The three of them screamed and hit each other the whole 200 metres to the car and I watched in dismayed fascination at their behaviour and how calm Hayden was in their presence. When the eldest girl, Tammy, nearly ran out in front of a car, he grabbed her arm and pulled her back, giving her a quick tap on the head and telling her to be more careful.
As he loaded them into the back he gave me a shrug. "Their mother did a lot of coke while she was pregnant," he said as way of explanation and I blanched. Noticing my expression he said, "come on, I was just joking. They're hyperactive because they're tired. You don't have to look so scared."
I wanted to tell him that the very idea of children made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end; that they were dirty, smelly, inconvenient and rude but I decided against it. I had probably inadvertently insulted his kids enough in the past. Instead I slipped into the passenger seat, at which point Eric concluded that now would be a good idea to rain his little legs on the back of my chair.
I gritted my teeth as Hayden pulled out of the supermarket car park, concentrating on not losing my temper at the assault of a five year old who had now decided to throw tiny pieces of plastic over the top of my head and into the foot well.
"Hey," Hayden said suddenly. "I've got something to show you."
I watched warily as he fiddled with the stereo system and finding what he was looking for, gave me a quick glance.
And if you love me then why won't you use me?
If you hate me then why do you care?
You said that we would go the distance
Now you don't take me anywhere
I bite my tongue, but fuck your heart
And I can't stand, I can't stand you, baby
The voice floating through the speakers was unmistakeably Hayden's but much softer than his usual deep and resonant tones. It was entirely acoustic and laced with something that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
"In your professional opinion," Hayden said as he turned the volume down, "if you'd heard that at work, would you want to work with me?"
I watched his expression which was a mixture of curiosity and anxiety before he smoothed it over into a blank mask. Like he didn't care what I thought, like the first time I'd slammed his music. He was so transparent it was almost laughable.
"I really like it," I told him honestly and the relief that brightened his face almost made me laugh. It still amazed me that a man so intimidating, physically and emotionally, could be so affected by the opinion of someone like me. It still amazed me that he would want to impress me.
"Been writing a lot," he replied, his tongue flicking at his lower lip in a subconscious move. "It's been really therapeutic after...everything."
I almost told him that I wished I had an outlet like that, instead of getting drunk and behind the wheel of a car to temper my frustrations, but decided against it. We sat quietly for a while more, the only noise coming from the kids in the back arguing over who was going to play on the Nintendo when they got home. Hayden smiled faintly at their bickering as we drove and I realised that he must really like being a father.
Not that I had assumed he didn't but I couldn't really picture anyone my age actually wanting children. I bit my own lip, gnawing on it viciously. Did that mean I was immature? Was Amie right? Was I secretly a giant man-child with a fear of commitment who would never settle down? What if I was?
Even worse – what if I wasn't?
Visions of me washing the car on a Saturday afternoon, doing the school run, attending football games and helping with someone's homework all ran through my head and made me shiver. What if that was where I truly wanted to be in five years time? How would I know? I barely knew anything to start with.
"...so instead, Greg rents a studio for me at the weekends and I go down and – Jonah? Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I mumbled, shaking my head to get the pictures out of my brain.
"Daddddd," Eric whined from behind me, kicking my seat for emphasis. "I need a wee."
"We'll be home soon."
"I need one nowww."
"Well I'm sure Jonah wouldn't mind you using his bathroom...?"
I did mind. I minded very much.
"No!" exclaimed Eric. "I can't go there! I've never been there before! Dad, I need to go home."
I could tell that this argument was potentially never ending. Thankfully, Hayden seemed to sense the same thing.
"Do you mind?" he asked me. "He won't shut up if we don't go."
I slumped further into my seat, glancing nakedly at the clock on the dashboard. Hayden blushed and muttered a 'sorry' before he turned off the road that was headed to my house and back in the direction of his. I thought balefully of my ice cream that was dying to be eaten; now dripping condensation into the bags. At this rate, it'd be soup by the time we got back.
As we pulled up outside Hayden's house, a flash of déjà vu passed over me. All three of the children scrambled from their seats and shot towards the front door. Sighing, I got out of the car too.
"You could put the stuff in the freezer; it's probably a bit hot to leave them in the car too long."
I wondered just how long the toilet parade was going to last. I grabbed my shopping, feeling strange at the domesticity. I looked around at the neighbouring houses. If they looked out, would they think we'd all been shopping as a family? Did they think Hayden's kids were mine?
Feeling overly paranoid despite the darkening sky, I rushed inside, heading straight for the freezer. The flat smelt stale, like old cigarettes and something more pungent that I couldn't quite put a finger on. It was messier than the last time I'd been in – empty food wrappers and half empty (or full, depending on your philosophy) glasses.
Hayden knelt down beside me and grabbed a few containers out of the freezer, chucking them in the direction of the bin.
"You don't have to throw out your food," I muttered. Hayden shrugged and helped me unpack.
"Greg's been going on at me to eat better, so I could do with chucking some of it away." He held up a packet of turkey dinosaurs and shook his head. "Why does the great stuff always have to be bad for you?"
I slid aside a family sized pizza and tucked my ice cream into the cold. "Zee reckons it's a ploy by the government to give us all cancer and take all of our money. There's a correlation there somewhere, I think."
Hayden gave a rueful smile. "I liked Zee. Is he still with that guy?"
"Kitch?" I snorted. "Of course he is. They're soulmates apparently."
"That's sweet. It's nice when people have happy endings."
I grinned despite myself. "Is that a euphemism? Because if so, then I agree."
Hayden blushed and rolled his eyes. "You're so immature."
"Says the guy that eats turkey dinosaurs."
A soft shuffle of feet made me turn around. Tammy stood at the side of the breakfast bar, a thoughtful look on her face. She brushed straggly blonde hair out of her eyes as she scrutinised me carefully before finally looking at Hayden.
"Eric's been sick daddy. He told me to tell you it wasn't because he ate all of the chocolate buttons."
"Of course not," Hayden sighed and then glanced at me. "Sorry. You can borrow my phone to call a taxi if you like. You can borrow some money too, if you need it."
I almost laughed. "I can afford a taxi you know. I haven't lost my job, though I'm sure your uncle wouldn't mind firing me."
"Jeff would never fire you," Hayden said with surprising conviction. "He really likes you. I don't know why, but he does."
"You don't know why he likes me? I'll try not to be offended."
"Well you are a bit of a...I don't know. It doesn't mean I don't like you. I do. I just don't really know why."
"Wow, you're really boosting my confidence," I groaned. "If you like someone, it's not that hard to come up with reasons why."
"Not always," he argued. "Sometimes it's just a feeling you get."
"Well I could come up with plenty of reasons why I like you."
Hayden looked surprised, though slightly less so than I felt. I cursed myself, hoping he'd let it drop.
"What do you like about me?" His voice was soft and curious, not teasing like I had expected. I stared into the depths of the freezer wishing that one of his kids would interrupt and save me from my embarrassment.
"I don't know," I mumbled, putting my hand onto the cold surface to try and stop the heat rushing to my face. "I didn't mean anything specific."
"But that's literally what you just said. You said you could think of specific things you liked about me."
"You know what I don't like about you? You're pushy."
"I'm interested," he argued.
"You're digging for compliments."
"Nothing wrong with that. Everybody likes compliments."
I sighed, shifting my position from kneeling to sitting. "I don't know, I think you're...loyal."
"Like a dog?"
"You're exactly like a dog. Needy and desperate to please."
"That doesn't sound like a compliment."
"Fine! You're caring. I admire your dedication to the people you love. You admit when you've made mistakes – which, let's face it, is fairly often – and you put other people before yourself; except when you feel abandoned and then you're quite selfish."
A small smile graced Hayden's lips when I sneaked a look at him. "You sound like you spend a lot of time thinking about it."
"Not really," I grunted. "You're not hard to get a hold on."
"Do you want me to do you now?" he asked, adopting the same position on the floor. "Okay, so it's less of a feeling when I think about it. I quite like that you're a little bit selfish. But I can tell you always feel a little bit bad about it. You know you shouldn't feel that way, so it makes you guilty. When you try to fix things, you normally do it wrong, but it's the thought that counts. You're incredibly attached to the people you care about, you just have an odd way of showing it. You're not an outwardly emotional person, but I think you struggle with things as much as other people on the inside. It gives you the appearance of being cold, but I know you're not. You want the best for other people." He stopped and made sure I was looking at him. "Like me. I know why you did what you did with Orson at the hotel."
He pulled himself along the floor so we were sitting side by side. He leant further back so he was resting against the cabinets and I automatically moved to the same position.
"When you came round drunk that night, I was a complete mess. I'd even decided to forgive you for what I thought you'd done. Orson and I started arguing pretty much the second you left. I told him that I thought you'd done what I would've done in the same situation. Selfish, but not unforgiveable. Then he told me what had actually happened. That he'd threatened you unless you left me. I don't know why I found it so surprising because that'd exactly what he'd always been like. He'd brought round so much heroin – I think he might have wanted me to OD. That would have been perfect for him. He could have saved my life and then I'd have owed him. It's amazing how easy it is to see when I'm thinking straight. But at the time, it's like he has power over me in ways that I can't even explain. He made me believe for so long that I was always wrong, about everything. Even after he admitted what he'd done, he tried to get me to believe you were still the one who messed everything up."
He stopped and smiled at me sadly. "If I were a better person, I would have seen straight through all the bullshit from the beginning. I don't even know where to start with how fucked up I was. I slept with him hoping that you would be hurt. Because then you'd know how I felt. But when I saw you crying, I felt like such a useless person. I thought I wanted you to feel what I felt, but I didn't, not really. Seeing you in pain just hurt me more."
"It wasn't entirely your fault," I said after a minute of silence. "I felt powerless to stop him, when really, I could have just told the truth and none of it would have mattered. You'd have believed me. I should have had more faith in you."
"Maybe," he acquiesced. "It takes a long time to break a hold like that, like the one he had on me. Even after all those years, he still knew exactly what to say."
"He's not here now though," I said.
"He left after our argument. He'll be back though; he doesn't know how to live without trying to ruin me."
"And what will you say when he comes back?"
Hayden turned his head to mine. A rush of warmth spread across my chest and down into my stomach, like I'd taken a shot of whiskey. It felt strangely relaxing.
"I'll tell him I never want to see his ugly fucking face again."
I snorted with laughter at the simple statement that seemed to break the conversation's intensity.
"I could say a lot of things about Orson," I admitted, "but ugly he is not."
Hayden's lips twisted in disgust. "Oh please. He looks like he'd melt if you left him in the sun too long."
I laughed. "He's conventionally very attractive."
"That's boring. Like, conventionally functional. It works, but there's no personality to it. I prefer something more to look at than a pretty face."
"Yeah, I suppose. Reminds me a bit of Amie." I grinned sadistically. "Hey, you know they'd make quite a good couple..."
"Oh God," Hayden moaned in between laughter. "You're deranged."
"Two conventionally attractive and morally questionable Barbie dolls, together forever. And I'll find someone who doesn't mind my face and likes my personality."
Hayden's laughter died down as he gazed at me. "I like your face. I even like your personality."
"Thanks," I replied. "I think that was a compliment." My voice was too quiet to be casual as Hayden continued to stare me down.
"It was," he whispered, even quieter as he leaned in. My eyes drifted along the sharp curve of his cheekbones to the glinting silver nestled in his lip. His tongue darted out quickly to wet them and I found myself mirroring the gesture before closing the gap between us.
Hayden immediately sought out my hand and laced our fingers together as he kissed me, heated and insistent. I felt dizzy and warm, heat rushing from my chest and blossoming across my stomach and further, making an involuntary moan escape my mouth and into his. My mind was only on one track – Hayden, Hayden, Hayden, and his seemed to be focused solely on devouring me from the outside in, like he was trying to breathe in my soul.
His lips were still as soft as I remembered but with a firmness behind them entirely unique to him. He pushed his tongue gently against my mouth and I met it with my own, hungrily kissing him, my free hand cupping his stubbled jaw and trying to pull him closer. We stayed like that for what felt like an eternity, my fingers stroking the rough skin on his face as we kissed. His hand held mine, thumb ghosting over my knuckles softly, making me shiver.
"Daddy, there's someone at the door."
The voice came from the edge of the kitchen and I pulled away reflexively, all the blood and heat in my body rushing to my face. Hayden turned towards his daughter as I scrambled to my feet, feeling self conscious and hot even though we'd been sat beside the open freezer door. Looking at the freezer, I swore and pulled out the food I'd put in.
"I'll call a taxi," I mumbled and almost stumbled into the lounge. Grabbing the house phone, I sank into the sofa and stared at the handset. I didn't even know the number for the local taxi firm. Hayden had his daughter settled onto his hip as he went to get the door, rubbing his face where my hand had been. I blushed some more. The heat was bound to be a permanent feature by the time I left.
I stared at Hayden's broad back, his grey t-shirt stretched impossibly tight against him. The sight made me swallow thickly. Why did he do that to me?
Low voices drifted from the entryway as I sat with the phone clasped in my hands and my shopping sat at my feet. After a few moments, Hayden stepped back and allowed a short, curly haired boy into the room.
"Zee?" I suddenly felt exposed, like he knew what I had just been doing and would immediately tell Sophie...
The feeling of warmth turned to one of dread as Zee made a quick survey of the flat.
"Did your mother never teach you how to use a vacuum?" He aimed the question at Hayden who shrugged and grinned guiltily.
"You wonder what's the point after three kids, they only mess it up after."
"Fair point," Zee smiled back and looked on with fondness at Tammy hanging from Hayden's side. "She's beautiful. Did she get her looks from her mother?"
Hayden laughed and ruffled the blonde hair. I felt sick as I watched them joke back and forth. What was my problem? Two seconds in Hayden's company and I'd forgotten that I was in a relationship.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, my voice catching. "How did you even know I was here?"
"I guessed," he smirked. "It was the first place I thought of actually and voila, here you are."
"How intuitive." My throat felt dry. I struggled to stay present as I ran through a million different scenarios of what I was supposed to do now. Fuck.
"So anyway, I am here for a reason. You know the flat?"
I anchored my thoughts. "What about the flat?"
"Well you know how it's usually quite dry?"
Puzzled, I stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"Well, historically, for the time we've lived there, it's always been...dry."
"Zee, if you don't tell me what you've done..."
"Okay, so it's not so dry anymore. I went to run a bath before you got back and then Kitch called and we were on the phone and...long story short, you're going to have to find somewhere else to stay for a bit while they fix the damage. Don't worry!" He held his hands up defensively as I moved towards him. "All the electrics are fine, nothing's really ruined. The floor might collapse so they told us we couldn't stay. And we've lost our deposit"
"For fucks sake," I growled, pushing him backwards. "How the fuck did you flood the flat?"
"I told you, I left the bath running."
I groaned in frustration and anger.
"It's cool though right? I'm gonna go stay at Kitch's and I figured you could stay with your girlfriend, though now you're here..."
Hayden's narrowed eyes fixated on me. I felt like the ground was going to give out beneath my legs and send me plummeting down to Hell where I so clearly belonged.
Zee watched us both, nibbling his fingernails. I stood fixed in place by Hayden's accusatory glare but almost as soon as it came, it drained from his face like water.
"Doesn't matter." His voice was strained and I felt another stab in my gut. Why was I such an awful human being? What the fuck was wrong with me?
"I'll find a hotel and stay there until it's sorted." I looked towards Hayden but not directly at him. "Could you get me the number for a taxi?"
"You can stay here," he sighed. "The kids are going back to their mums tonight so it'll be quieter. I spend most of my evenings at the studio so I won't bother you."
His generosity wasn't warranted and I fiddled with the phone. "It would be better to get a hotel."
"Jonah, there's no way you can get a hotel that's near enough to work, you hate public transport and I know you would rather be jobless than spend £50 on taxi fares every day. Just take the couch until your flat is sorted."
He didn't let me argue further. He disappeared into the bedroom with Tammy and shut the door. Zee avoided my eyes as I tossed the phone onto the couch and went about putting my shopping away again. He drifted over to me and leant against the worktop, keeping his voice low.
"Could you not stay at Sophie's?"
"She lives with her parents."
He nodded. "Are you mad at me for mentioning her?"
I gave a heavy sigh. "No, I'm mad at myself for being such a fucking dick."
"I'm going to guess that you guys..."
"We kissed," I said, with a little more force than I intended.
"That's...complicated," Zee offered. "Do you...still like him then?"
"I..." I couldn't even think about that. I still had to decide what I was going to do about Sophie.
"I like Hayden," Zee smiled and gave me what I assumed to be a reassuring pat on the back. "And maybe I'm biased but I think he's good for you."
"I don't want your relationship advice right now," I admitted. "To be honest, I just want to get drunk and forget about today."
What had I done?