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Hard Tail

By:J.L. Merrow

Chapter One


The bell above the shop door tinkled, and Matt Berridge fell into my life.

Literally.

I'd been staring at that glass door, willing someone to come in and stave off the killing boredom before I stuck a bicycle spoke through my neck out of sheer bloody ennui. So when a broad-shouldered, shaggy-headed lad in mirror sunglasses loped into view, I was all eyes. He wore lived-in jeans and a purple Weird Fish T-shirt, with a battered biker jacket over the top. He looked like he'd just got back from a festival somewhere. At least, he looked like I imagined a guy who'd just been to a festival might look. I'd never been to a festival. Too busy with exams and work and getting married to a girl I didn't love.

When he pushed open the door, I barely had time to mentally punch the air-and then he was gone, well-shaped arse over tit.

I'd swear it was nothing but his own feet he tripped over. With a soft cry of "Argh-shit!" he sprawled into the shop on his hands and knees. I didn't realise who he was at first-I just hurried out from behind the counter to help the poor sod up. But when he looked up from under that dark mop of hair, it was obvious. At least, if you had the inside information I did. The sunglasses, which I now noticed were scratched, hung from one ear, and there was a massive, purple bruise around his right eye, which was swollen and half-closed. I winced when I saw it, then hoped like hell he hadn't noticed.

"Hi," I said as he staggered to his feet, holding on to my arm. "I'm Tim."

"Oh, right-you're Jay's brother? Good to meet you." He smiled lopsidedly, adding dimples to the freckles already sprinkled on his lightly tanned face. I could easily imagine him as a beach bum somewhere like California, although given the South Coast accent with a hint of a West Country burr, I was guessing Cornwall was probably nearer the mark. "Sorry about that. I'm a total klutz, ask anyone. I'm Matt."

"I guessed." I gestured to the black eye-and then cursed myself for being so tactless. Obviously he was self-conscious about the bruising, or he wouldn't be wearing shades. "I mean, Jay said you'd, er, had an accident. Sorry."

"Oh, yeah. That." He suddenly flashed a blinding grin. He had perfect teeth, except for one on the top left that was endearingly broken. "You don't look like him. Jay, I mean."

If I had a pound for everyone who's ever reminded me that there is one good-looking guy in the family, and I'm not him …  I'd still be pissed off about it. "Well, that's the wonders of genetics for you," I said, trying not to overdo the fatalism and come off like a self-loathing loser. "Some kids get the looks. Some get the brains. Me, I got the knobbly knees and the tendency towards early greying." 

He peered at me, his good eye narrowed nearly as much as his swollen one, and laughed. "You're not greying!"

"No, but I will be. I take after my dad, and he went grey before he was thirty."

"Yeah? How old are you now?" Matt asked. It was a bit of a weird effect, the cheeky grin on the battered face, but I couldn't help smiling along with him.

"Twenty-eight," I admitted.

"Looks like you've got two years to live it up, then," Matt said, folding up his sunglasses and shoving them in his jacket pocket, adding another scratch with the zip along the way. "Wait-you're married, aren't you? That's what Jay said."

"He did?" Jay talked about me? I wondered what else he'd said. "Um. We're actually not together anymore. Kate and me, I mean."

"Shit." Matt hung his head. "Sorry. Put my foot in it again. I'm always doing that."

"Don't worry," I said quickly. "It's fine-I mean, obviously, it's …  Um. We'd grown apart," I finished lamely, trying to reassure him it wasn't as bad as it sounded.

"Oh. Right!" Just like a light switch, the smile was on again. "Right, well, I'd better get to work. Anything new come in?"

I looked at my watch. "Not in the fifteen minutes we've been open, no."

"Right! I'll get out the back, then." And just like that, he was gone.

***

I'd never have thought a broken leg would turn out to be the most important event in my life. For a start, it wasn't even my leg.

But it still managed to be responsible for moving me from London to Totton. It's all right; you're allowed not to have heard of Totton. It's just a small town near Southampton, out past the Western Docks and across the Redbridge Causeway, over the very tip of Southampton Water. If you keep driving on through, which most people do, in another ten minutes you'll reach the New Forest, home to a million pubs and ponies. It's about as far from London as you can get, philosophically speaking, although it only takes an hour or so on the M3. Particularly if you're bombing down the motorway like a bat out of hell because you've just heard your big brother's in hospital.

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