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What’s it all about?

Meet Matt. He’s complicated. He’s obstinate. He’s sweary. Come with him and his friends on their journey through the ups and downs of life.

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120. Everybody hurts

In which a hiding place is found, and reparations are made.

Cal

I could hear Lau’s voice as she talked to Matty, but he didn’t seem to be replying. I wasn’t sure how long I should stay there waiting. I’d put my phone on silent, but I could feel it vibrating in my pocket. I didn’t want to look at my messages, because then I’d have to answer them, and I was pretty sure Matty wouldn’t want everyone knowing where he was. He particularly wouldn’t want Mum knowing where he was.

Laura

I walked over to him and sat beside him, the stone floor cold and hard against my bottom.

Matt

I heard footsteps walking over to me, and a rustle and a slight grunt as Lau sat down next to me. I still didn’t look up. If I just stayed here, like this, maybe she’d give up after a while, go home, leave me to it. Surely she would have had enough of me one of these days.

Laura

‘So this is where you got to. I thought it would have to be somewhere pretty special to drag me away from my Pilates class.’

No reply. I couldn’t see his face, could only read the stiff tension in the way he was sitting, hear his shallow breathing.

Matt

I tried my hardest, gave it a really good go, to ignore her and get back to my drifting, where I didn’t have to think of anything, where the world wasn’t one big fuck-up, where I could just float and nothing mattered. Didn’t work. The sense of Lau next to me, the scent of her, the sound of her breathing, it stopped me from going back. Didn’t stop me trying though.

Laura

I tried a different approach.

‘I can’t believe you never brought me here. Although it was a meeting place with an old flame, so fair enough, maybe you were being uncharacteristically diplomatic. It’s so quiet in here, you can’t hear the traffic at all, it’s like we’re in another world.’

Matt

Breezy chit-chat wasn’t going to do it. I had been more than half way to another place, and I wasn’t coming back easily, not just for a bit of gab about the weather, or old girlfriends, or whatever psychobollocks she was trying.

Laura

Still nothing. I sat for a while longer before trying again, feeling the cold from the flagstones seeping into my behind. Still all I could hear from Matt was his breathing; he wasn’t moving at all. If he had been sitting like that, his arms clamped over his head, his back hunched, for any length of time, his muscles would be cramping up, and he would be feeling very uncomfortable. However, if he was distressed enough, he might not even notice the physical discomfort. I tried some gentle cajoling.

‘Some people might say forty one, nearly forty two, is a bit old to be sulking like a teenager because a couple of things went wrong at school.’

Matt

Of all the things she could have said, calling me childish wasn’t what I was expecting. It riled me. Yeah, she’s very good at what she does, but at the time I hated it.

‘Some people should fuck off and mind their own business.’

I was shocked at the sound of my voice. It didn’t sound like me, rasping and raw as it was, and the words burst from me uninvited.

Laura

At long last, a response. Matt still had his head buried in his knees, as if he was in brace position on a plane, but speaking was a breakthrough.

‘Well, bad luck, I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

‘Leave me the fuck alone, Lau.’

I wanted her to go away. This place was just for me, I hadn’t come here so all and sundry could come and chat to me while I was doing this.

Laura

‘No, I’m staying.’

Especially now he was talking. Before he spoke, I was worried Matt had locked himself away somewhere I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t feel him, then. But now I knew he was coming back, slowly, from wherever it was he’d been.

‘You don’t have to talk to me, but I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

I started to imagine everyone else turning up one by one, each having their pop at me, trying to pull me out of it.

‘Who else did you bring? I heard Cal.’

Laura

This was even better. He was fighting me, getting riled up. He had looked like he was shutting down, but now he was thinking about the outside world, and although it seemed I might be in for a fight, I started to think things might not turn out so badly. At least today.

‘No one.’

Matt

Oh pull the other one, Lau.

‘Yeah, sure, I bet they’re all fucking lining up outside to come and have their fucking say.’

‘No one else knows we’re here. I needed Cal because I didn’t know exactly where this was. I asked him to wait, but I can ask him to go if you like.’

Well it would be something, I suppose.

‘Mm.’

Laura

I took that as a yes, and raised my voice so it would reach beyond the hedge.

‘Cal?’

He popped round the corner.

‘Yeah?’

‘I think we’ll be OK here. Can you let everyone know I’ve found Matt, but don’t tell them where we are. Oh, here –’

Cal

She tossed me her car keys, which considering I’d only passed my test a few months ago was very trusting.

Laura

‘– just in case, would you mind fetching Ella and Josh from school? They get out at three, take them to Amy’s. I’ll let you know if we need picking up.’

Cal

‘Sure thing. Oh, before I go –’

I decided to give Matty the benefit of some of my own brand of advice.

‘Matty, stop being such a fucking drama queen. So you dropped something and fucked a few words up. Get over it. Nobody’s fucking perfect. No reason to chuck your fucking laptop across the room.’

Matt

What? I hadn’t chucked my laptop, the fucking bastard had chucked my laptop. Shit, it was even worse than I thought, if everyone assumed I’d just thrown a complete wobbler.

‘Fuck off, Cal.’

Cal

Matty was still sitting in the same crunched up way, with his arms over his head, and he didn’t look up when he spoke, but Lau smiled at me and I winked at her before setting off for Lau’s car.

Matt

He fucked off, probably still smiling. Nothing much wiped the perma-grin off his face these days, since he stopped being the Cob-on Kid and hatched out into Mr Sunshine around his sixteenth birthday. Now he was seventeen, and loving life, with a Raiders career underway, a pretty girlfriend, oh he just had it all. I tried to hate him for it, but I couldn’t. He was Cal, he was my nephew, I could wish him no ill, even though he had it all to look forward to and I’d just had it all taken away.

Laura

There was a long silence. I sat and resisted touching Matt. I so wanted to, but he was tense and rigid, and emanating ‘hands off’ vibes, and I knew he wasn’t receptive to any type of touch just yet. I didn’t think I could cope with him shrugging me off, so I waited. I waited a long time. My bum went numb and my feet went to sleep. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate with calls or texts many times, but I didn’t look at it; I needed to focus on Matt.

Cal

I texted Mum and Dad to let them know Matty was OK, or at least that we knew where he was, and braced myself for Mum not leaving me alone for the rest of the afternoon. I left my phone on silent while I drove Lau’s car back home, because the sheer amount of pings and bleeps would have put me off and caused an accident. As it was, I could hardly concentrate for the amount of vibrating the bloody thing was doing.

Matt

I carried on sitting, wrapped up in myself, legs numb, back aching, with Lau sitting next to me. She wasn’t so close that she was touching me, and I hoped she didn’t, because I didn’t want her to, couldn’t handle it, her soft and comforting touch. I felt jagged and sharp, cut and broken, and I didn’t want to touch her while I was like this.

I thought again about what Cal had said, that I’d thrown the laptop. Of everything that had happened this morning, all the reasons I had to feel stupid, to know it was all over, this felt the most unfair. I hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, I hadn’t done any of it on purpose, but I just felt like whining ‘the bastard MS made me do it’.

‘Is that what they think?’

Laura

I was confused. It had been so long since either of us had spoken, I couldn’t remember what the last thing was that had been said.

‘Is what what who thinks?’

Matt

I was so used to Lau knowing what was going on in my head that it was weird when she couldn’t actually read my thoughts.

‘That I chucked my fucking laptop?’

Laura

‘Well, Jay and Cal both told me that’s what you did. Why, what happened?’

Better again. He was asking specifically about this morning, checking details. He could go there. There was another long silence.

Matt

I still could hardly think about it, let alone say any of it, and it took several breaths trying to start, knowing that if I did, that was it, no more floaty oblivion, just hard, cold, dealing with it. Finally, one more deep breath, and I took the leap.

‘Fucking spasm. I kept dropping the fucking remote, they were all laughing at me, so I went to use the arrow keys on the laptop, and my arm just fucking spasmed and sent ih flying.’

I still had my arms over my head, and as I said the words, it just brought it all back, all the humiliation from the morning, and I started crying. I hadn’t thought I had any more tears left, but there are always some of the salty bastards to get you, aren’t there.

Laura

Matt still had his arms over his head, and his head on his knees, and now he was crying. It tore at me, to see him like this, but crying was good. It was when he was silent and distant that I was most scared for him. I wasn’t immune to his tears, though, and a wave of sadness washed over me.

‘Oh, my love …’

It was time for some touching. I put my arm round his shoulders and felt him shuddering, trying to control his sobs.

Matt

I felt Lau’s arm go round my shoulder, and it was OK, she was soft and safe, and now I needed to be with her, I was done with doing it on my own, she was here, where she needed to be, as she’d known she would need to be, and I could do it now. I made a huge effort to stop blarting, but it just turned to shudders.

Laura

‘Don’t fight it Matt, flower. Let it go. Be sad about it. Have a good weep, you’ve had a shit day.’

And so he wept, while I did my best to hold him, one arm round his shoulders, the other round the front of him, across his knees, as he howled out his anger and pain, humiliation and sadness.

Matt

And so I did, I let it all go, all the shit from the shit day to end all shit days. The shit day that began all the way back in yesterday, when I admitted the fucking bastard had come back, had carried on into the early hours of this morning when my best mate had told me he was moving to the other side of the world, and had continued when I’d shown myself up in front of everyone at work and broken an expensive piece of equipment before running away like a small child. I had been trying to hold it all in, to stop it becoming part of the world, so that it couldn’t get to me, but it was too much, and now Lau was here it was just about alright to let it out.

Lau did her best to hold me, but we weren’t in the greatest position, and it was awkward. I didn’t want to move out of my safe corner; I was making all sorts of noises, and having Lau there wrapped around me while I did so made me feel protected.

Cal

When I pulled up outside our house, I checked the screen, and Mum had tried to call me twenty-seven times. I mean, come on. That’s insane. I’d already told her Matty was with Lau and was OK. I had hardly got out of the car when she was running down the path.

‘Cal! Why are you driving Laura’s car? Why aren’t they with you? Where are they?’

‘Chill, Mum. Lau’s with Matty. He’s not ready to talk to anyone else yet.’

‘What do you mean? Where are they?’

‘Somewhere no one will find them.’

Mum continued haranguing me as I walked up the path, and I realised I was going to have to work hard not to either strangle her or let it slip where they were. I changed tack, in an attempt to divert Mum’s worrying to something else.

‘Lau’s brakes need fixing. I’m going to ask Wheels if he’ll have a look.’

It didn’t work, just set Mum off about the car.

‘Why have you got Laura’s car? You’re not insured to drive it.’

‘Relax, Mum. Look, put the kettle on, make us a coffee or something. Lau wants me to fetch Josh and Ella in case she’s not back.’

‘Why won’t she be back? Where’s she going?’

‘She’s not going anywhere, that’s the point. Look, Mum, Matty’s in a bad way, in his head, he needs some time and a bit of space, and he needs Lau. She’s staying with him for now, until he gets over himself. Neither of them need you barging in being all ‘let’s do this my way’. Just let them sort it, alright?’

Mum stopped and looked at me

‘Is Matty really in a bad way?’

‘Yeah, it looked like it. He was all kind of hunched over, like he just wanted to disappear. Lau got him talking, though. I really think he just needs to be with her.’

‘I suppose you’re right. You can’t drive that car again, though.’

‘Course I can. Apart from the shit brakes, it’s a doddle.’

Lau still had the tiny Micra she’d had ever since I’d known her. She didn’t look after it very well – oh, it was immaculate inside and out, she was nearly as much of a neat freak as Matty, but she knew jack-shit about cars, and didn’t think it was worth bothering with all the regular checks that kept Matty’s car purring like a kitten. She thought using a dipstick was just something boys did to pass boy time, like watching football or reading comics. Matty used to get really frustrated about it, but he refused to do it for her, and as a result, her car was not in the best mechanical shape. As well as the brakes, it sounded like the timing was off, and there was a gravelly noise when you accelerated that needed looking at. I really spent way too much time at Baggo’s brother’s garage.

But Mum hadn’t been talking about my physical ability to drive the car, she’d been stressing about the insurance, or lack of it, and I took the opportunity she’d given me to draw her attention away from the fact that she didn’t know where Matty and Lau were.

‘You know that’s not what I meant, sweetheart. You can’t drive it without insurance, it’s illegal.’

‘Only if you have an accident or get stopped. That’s not going to happen.’

‘Cal, you can’t. I’ll go and fetch Josh and Ella.’

‘Haven’t you got your meeting thingy this afternoon?’

Thank goodness for Mum’s carefully filled in daily planner, with slots for everything any one of us might be doing on any given day, including Ayesh, but with Mum’s column the only one with any actual writing in it. I’d happened to glance at it this morning when I was looking for something to read while I ate my cereal.

‘Oh. Yes. Well Dad will have to go.’

‘He can’t, he’s got that press thing about Dec.’

‘Oh, so I suppose Dec can’t do it either.’

Mum was going to have to think again. What I didn’t tell her, what I wasn’t about to tell her, was that Lau had put me on her insurance while I was learning, God knows how much it must have cost her, but she’d take me out every so often for a practice when I got close to murdering Mum. It suited my purposes at that moment for Mum to be focussed more on solving that problem than beating me down until I confessed where Matty was.

‘Nope, just me. Is Ayesh home?’

‘Yes, she’s in her room doing some coursework.’

‘I’ll just go and say hi then.’

‘Maybe you should let her work.’

‘Yeah, after I’ve said hi.’

I was now a master at not letting Mum get her way. I did it with charm and a cheeky smile, and never ever just did what she told me. I always agreed that she was right, and then did what I wanted to do anyway, and she was powerless in the face of my skill. I tried to pass my wisdom on to Iz, but she seemed to prefer the screaming in Mum’s face method of getting her to change her mind, which didn’t work nearly so well and just stressed the whole household out.

Anyway, I knew where I was going to spend the next hour or two, and it was with my lovely girlfriend, whether Mum liked it or not.

Matt

After a while, just having Lau holding me wasn’t enough. I needed to connect with her. I lifted my head – it felt weird, after all this time bowed over, underneath my arms. The world felt too big, I could hear too much, feel too much, but I looked at Lau, into her sea blue green eyes, and knew she was there, in my world, in the world which was ending, but she was there with me. I gazed at her, and fell apart. I felt myself shatter against her as I clung on, feeling like this was the end, this was the finish of everything good, forever.

Laura

Somewhere in the middle of it, he lifted his head and looked at me, his face a mess of misery and dejection, and I wrapped him up in my arms as he fell apart, pouring it all out, breaking my heart to hear it.

Matt

She held me tight, and we ended up with our legs tangled up as we sat facing each other on the ground, her arms round me, me holding on to her so tightly.

It lasted a long time, me wailing all over Lau. I’d been arrogant for so long, thinking this was never going to come back, thinking life, the universe, whatever the fuck it was I thought I believed in, had good things in store for me. In one day, it had shown me its power to take away as well as to give, but it hadn’t taken Lau. She was there, holding me, and after a long time, I quietened down, my shudders diminished to the occasional quiver, I was breathing more or less evenly and my body loosened up. My shoulders ached, my back was shrieking, and my legs had started to cramp up. But I could feel it all. I was back.

Laura

A long time later, after the loud sobs had quietened, the shudders had diminished to the occasional shiver, and his breathing had calmed, and some of the tension had seeped away from his body, I pushed away from him slightly so I could see his face. I put a finger under his chin and lifted it, needing to see his eyes. The pain and sorrow in them almost undid me. Matt shook his head and looked away from me.

Matt

I almost didn’t want her to see, to see the wreck of a man I’d become in the last few hours, but her grip was firm. I looked at her, but the sympathy and understanding I saw were too much for me and I looked away.

‘I’ve fucked ih all up, Lau.’

My voice was broken, like the rest of my life.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Lost my job, made a total tit of myself, fucking laughing stock.’

It wasn’t all of it, but it was enough, somewhere to start.

‘Lost your job? How did you work that one out?’

Lau was great at thinking positively, but she hadn’t been there, she didn’t know what I must have looked like, talking unintelligible bollocks and throwing computers about the place.

‘They think I chucked a laptop. I was – I must have looked shit-faced. Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s thought I was pissed. Everyone was there.’

And someone had practically accused me of it, with the ‘vodka for breakfast’ comment. I knew how I came across when the fucking bastard was having its way with me.

‘Matt, of all the people I’ve talked to, and believe me I’ve talked to a lot of people today, everyone was just worried about you. They all know you’ve got MS don’t they?’

I didn’t know how many people knew. I’d been open about it at my interview, but that was a few years ago, and perhaps people had forgotten, the people who had known might have moved on. Cory and Jenna on my team knew I had some kind of unspecified ‘thing’.

‘Maybe. I’ve talked to a couple of people about ih. I guess Jay migh have told people about me, before I started working there. Doesn’t change anything, though, I made a complete arse of myself. They were all laughing at me, getting my words wrong, dropping shit, I felt so fucking stupid.’

‘Well, it was mean to laugh, but isn’t that what you lot all do? I’m sure it wasn’t meant to hurt you, they just didn’t realise.’

‘But Lau, they think I chucked a laptop, that’s like toys out of the pram time, tantrum city. I’m finished.’

‘OK, Matt, I’m going to repeat your nephew’s words, maybe without all the swearing. Stop being a drama queen. Wait until you’ve talked to someone, Jay or someone else from the club. You don’t have to do it today, or tomorrow, or this week even, I think you’ve earned a few days off, but you can explain then, if you need to, and I think you’ll find that they’ll be pretty understanding. I guess it’s possible you might come in for a bit of ribbing, but you’ve always been able to hold your own with them, you know more words than most of them put together for a start.’

I rested my forehead on Lau’s shoulder and breathed deeply. She always knew exactly what to say, how to put things in perspective, how to stop me catastrophising. I nodded against her, and felt her stroke my hair, thinking about everything she’d said. It seemed like maybe it was time to stop her worrying, because calm as she was outwardly, she would be a mass of panic and fretting underneath.

‘Lau.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you say ‘shit’ just now?’

Laura

I nearly laughed with the relief of it. He was teasing me.

‘Er, I might have.’

Matt

‘You said I’ve had a shit day.’

‘Well you have. Sometimes there’s only one word to describe things.’

‘Feels weird, hearing you swear.’

I didn’t feel like it, but I was trying to seem like cheery Matt, trying to pretend there was a possibility I could think about something light-hearted.

‘You have heard it before. I seem to remember using some choice language when the babies were being born.’

‘Special circumstances. Doesn’t count. Don’t do ih again.’

‘Well, that pretty much depends on you. Try not to have any more shit days.’

I looked up in mock outrage.

‘Lau!’

Laura

‘Totally up to you. Know what, my bum has completely gone to sleep, I need to stand up before my legs fall off.’

I saw the glimmer of a smile cross Matt’s face as I pulled away from him and got ready to stand up. I started to believe things had turned a corner.

Matt

I managed to force it, the tiniest hint of a smile, as she pulled away and got ready to stand. Lau’s bum was the answer to a lot of life’s problems.

‘Might need a massage, then.’

‘Great minds, flower.’

She stood up and held her hand out to me. It took me a while to get going, as I needed to unkink my aching back and shake some life into my own legs before I could even think of standing up, and then there were the pins and needles that surged down from my hips to my toes and were so bloody painful. I thought pins and needles were, like, little tickly things when you’d sat cross-legged for too long. Try folding yourself up for several hours and see how much it tickles.

I finally got my limbs into some kind of functional order, grasped Lau’s hand and stood, falling against her to be wrapped up again. In fact, we leaned against each other, both being a bit wobbly from our sitting on cold stone in early Spring. My hands wandered down to Lau’s backside, where they rested, in their accustomed place. It just felt right. I squeezed a bit, as she’d said she needed a massage. It was the least I could do.

‘Oh this is just so wrong in a graveyard.’

‘Just being helpful, Lau. You could return the favour, haven’t been able to feel my fucking arse for about two hours.’

Laura

I let my hands drift down to Matt’s bum cheeks and rubbed them vigorously. Oh things were always going to be alright as long as I could feel Matt Scott’s bum.

Matt

‘Whoa, gently there, Lau, don’t wana get too excited.’

‘Need to get the circulation going, don’t want those delightful buns to fall off.’

After that, we just stayed locked together, hands on each others bums. I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave this place, which for different reasons with different people had always felt like some kind of sanctuary. It felt like maybe, with Lau, just maybe I might be able to face it all, but there was going to be a lot of ‘it’ to face, a lot of talking, a lot of apologising, and I didn’t want to think about it for as long as I could get away with.

Laura

I could sense Matt’s unwillingness to leave this place and get back to the real world, but I also had a sense of ‘crisis over’. There was a fair amount of talking still to be done, firstly from me while I tried to persuade him to talk to everyone else who needed to know he was OK, and then to people at work, the people who had been at his presentation, and maybe later try and get him to contact the MS service.

Matt had kept up with Anna fairly regularly, until she left the team a couple of years ago, and he had declared himself unneedy of an MS nurse. I didn’t know anyone who worked there now; Anna had gone to work on a Neuro ward, Rachel had married Jed and gone travelling for a while before coming back and setting up an internet self-help book business with him, Kate had moved away in search of the perfect man and Patrick had retired. It was a good thing that nobody knew us, and Matt would just be another referral. If I could get him to ring them.

Cal

Ayesh turned out not to be nearly as interested in coursework as she was in snogging me, funnily enough, and we closed the curtains to the conservatory and enjoyed each other’s company, despite a couple of interruptions to turn away Mum’s offers of coffee and then cake, and then it was time for me to go and fetch Josh and Ella from school.

I tried calling Lau several times so I could ask her what she wanted me to do with her car once I’d dropped the kids off. I could leave it at their house, or take it back to the church. She didn’t answer, so I sent a text.

I’d picked my cousins up a couple of times, so the teachers knew who I was and didn’t report me as a child stealer. Josh and Ella were excitable, because I was unexpected, and they got to go home to Dec and Amy’s house, which was always exciting, being full as it was of uncontrollable Summers kids.

Dec and Amy had four children, and their house was always full of noise and chaos because Dec and Amy were so laid back. Dec loved being a dad so much – he’d been adopted when he was a baby, and his parents had died when he was thirteen, and all he wanted in life was to give all his kids the kind of childhood he never had after that, which meant lots of love and, it seemed, no saying no. Amy tried with the discipline, but she couldn’t say no to anyone either, and couldn’t be the bad guy, so Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa ruled the roost there.

They were all great kids, just a bit exhausting to be around. Dec was always being a horse or a piggy-back ride or a sword-fighter, and Amy was always making drinks and snacks or trying to read stories and have some calm time before bed.

I remembered Dec when I was little, how much time we’d spent together and what it had meant to me, and realised how much love he had to give his family. We had a different relationship now, because we were both older, but we were still as close as brothers, and I realised as I pulled up outside their house how much I was going to miss him and his crazy family while he was away.

Josh and Ella ran up the path and rang the doorbell, and disappeared inside. As I walked towards the door, my phone vibrated in my pocket, and I realised I hadn’t turned the ringer back on. Pulling it out, I saw from the screen that Mum was on the warpath again, with five texts sent since I’d left the house, demanding that I tell her where Matty and Lau were. I shook my head and decided to ignore Mum, but tried calling Lau again, and sent her another text telling her I’d picked the kids up and asking what she wanted me to do with her car. Then I put the phone back in my pocket.

‘Let me guess, your mum wants you to tell her where Matty’s hiding out?’

Amy had it spot on. I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Mum needs to realise that some people can solve their problems without her help.’

‘She just texted me too, in case I was hiding them here. Not that they’d be getting much peace and quiet if I was – listen to that lot!’

The addition of Josh and Ella had added a few hundred decibels of noise to the squealing that was going on.

‘Do you want a cup of something, Cal?’

‘No, you’re OK. I should get the car back to Lau.’

‘Sure? Dec’s just had a delivery from his agent, there’s free hats and t-shirts all round.’

‘Ha ha, I think I’ll pass. So you’re really going to Australia?’

Amy’s eyes grew serious.

‘Yeah. I can hardly believe it. This time next month, we’ll be living in Perth.’

‘I’m gonna miss you guys.’

‘Yeah. Me too. Great opportunity, though.’

Amy’s eyes misted with tears.

‘Oh who am I kidding. I completely can’t believe I’m not going to see everyone every day. And now Matt’s … I’m dreading it, we’ll be so far away. Don’t tell Dec.’

‘Sure thing. You’ll be fine, though, Amy. We’ll Facetime and Skype all the time. Maybe come and visit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, you’d better get the car back to Lau.’

And so I was dismissed, presumably before I caused proper tears that Dec didn’t need to see, and I went back to the hedge room.

I found my way in, unsure what I was going to find, or even if Matty and Lau were still going to be there. They were still there, standing up, wrapped up in each other, hands on each other’s arses. They both had their eyes closed, and they looked like they were totally unaware of anything else that was going on apart from each other. I hoped it meant that Matty was feeling better, but I felt awkward just looking at them, so I coughed to let them know I was there.

Matt

I don’t know how long we stood there, arms round each other, but eventually there was a rustle from the hedge, and a cough.

Cal

‘Er, if you two have had enough of feeling each other up …’

Lau opened her eyes and turned towards me, but neither of them spoke.

‘Lau, do you ever answer your fucking phone? Just for future reference, in a family crisis it’s the done thing to, like, let people know you’re OK and not be all unreachable and shit. Goes for you too, Matty, just so you know.’

It seemed like it was time for a reality check, now that maybe the worst of the crisis was over and Matty was possibly back in the land of the living, although he still had his eyes closed. Lau looked at her phone and raised her eyebrows at the screen. I’d tried calling her God knew how many times, and I suspected Dec and Beth had also been trying all afternoon.

Laura

I automatically reached for the phone in my pocket and looked at the screen. Ten missed calls from Cal, similar quantities from Dec and Beth.

‘Sorry, flower. Are the children OK? Have you picked them up?’

A quick glance at the time on my phone showed it was half past three. I had been here with Matt for over three hours.

Cal

Well of course they were OK, that wasn’t the point. Kids are a big responsibility and they should both be a bit more aware.

‘Yeah, they’re with Amy. I only wanted you to know they were OK, Jesus, is it too much to ask that you have your phone on? What if the school had needed to contact you or something?’

Laura

‘Sorry, Cal.’ I smiled to myself at his grown up rebuke. ‘Won’t happen again.’

Cal

‘Fair enough. Have you had a fucking word with yourself, Matty?’

Matty opened his eyes and looked at me. He took a deep breath, and I saw a change come over him, from some kind of hopelessness to some kind of well, if not optimism, at least someone who knew where to look for their strength.

Matt

This was a good kid, he was caring, he’d brought Lau here to find me, he’d taken care of Josh and Ella while I visited the land of the hopeless and lost. He needed taking down a bloody peg or two.

‘What is it with bloody teenagers thinking they’re the boss of me? When Dec was about your age he thought he could give me fucking grief when he wanted to as well. Respect your elders, Calum Scott.’

Cal

It lifted my spirits, to hear him have a go at me. I knew he was going to be OK. He wasn’t yet, but he was going to be.

‘Oh, I see you have. Radical. Here’s your keys, Lau, your car’s right out the front. You need to get your brakes checked, they’re shit. I’m going to see Baggo, he just lives round the corner. Oh, Mum says ring her, like, half an hour ago. I’d do it soon, she’s on the warpath because I wouldn’t tell her where you are. It won’t be me fucking copping it, though, and she’ll start tearing the city apart soon. Oh, and Matty, they’ve rescheduled your presentation for next Friday.’

I threw Lau’s keys to her and turned round. They didn’t need me any more, so I waved and walked out.

Matt

He was such a good kid. Disrespectful cheek notwithstanding.

Laura

I raised my voice so he could hear me as he walked away.

‘Cal.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thank you, flower.’

‘Sure thing.’

I looked at Matt, who looked back. I could see some of the doubt seeping away, although there was still a lot of pain and hurt behind his eyes.

Matt

Lau turned her attention back to me, and I looked back at her. It felt better, maybe the world wasn’t ending today, maybe it was only beginning to end.

Laura

‘So, if they’ve rescheduled your presentation …’

‘Yeah, I get it Lau, I’m a fucking drama queen. We should get home, I think I’ve got some phoning to do.’

‘Thank God for that. I’ve been waiting for you to leave – I don’t think I can find my way out on my own.’

We drove home in silence, leaving Matt’s car in the street where he’d parked it. I was very conscious of the fragility of Matt’s emotions, and also of his usual defensive response to confrontations. I didn’t want to risk saying anything that would make him retreat back to that place he’d been when I found him; it hadn’t been a good place, and it had been hard for him to come back from it before. I touched his arm from time to time, but otherwise kept my eyes on the road and limited myself to sending mental strength.

We pulled up into our driveway and I took off my seatbelt.

‘I’ll just pop up the road and fetch Ella and Josh.’

Matt

‘I’ll come.’

It was like getting back on the pony, ripping off the plaster, any number of things that meant doing something painful to get it over with so it was done.

Laura

I gave him an appraising look. I hadn’t expected Matt to want to see anybody so soon.

‘Are you sure?’

Matt

I sighed. The wave of grief and pain had crashed over me and been dragged back with the tide. It had left a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam that needed clearing up.

‘Yeah. Need to stop being a tosser and face people, don’t I?’

That too.

‘You’re not a … actually I can’t think of the polite word for it. You’re not a tosser. You’ve had some fairly hefty life events to deal with in the last twenty four hours. If you want some time on your own, or at least just the four of us, I think that’s allowed.’

It was tempting, to just go indoors, hole up, hide from everyone, for a while. But it wasn’t going to help. And I needed to see Dec, to just … see him.

Laura

I took Matt’s hand and gave it a squeeze, wondering to myself if he realised how far he’d come since I first met him, when he wouldn’t even reply to texts because he thought people were interfering.

‘Come on, then, let’s fetch our children, and hope Dec hasn’t been giving them beer again.’

Matt

We walked up the road, hand in hand. As we stood outside Dec and Amy’s front porch, we could hear the excited noises being made by six children between the ages of three and seven. There was no such thing as chilling out in the Summers House of Fun.

‘Hmm. Sounds like sugar overload. Perhaps we should leave it and fetch them later.’

Lau grinned wickedly up at me and pretended to turn back for home.

‘Great plan, Lau, when they’ve had even more sugar, so they never get to sleep.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. OK, doorbell here we go.’

The noise that could be heard inside the house – squealing, running footsteps, unidentifiable musical noises – all increased as we saw a shape appear in the frosted glass. Dec opened the door, wearing a large hat with corks hanging off it, a child attached to each leg and one hanging on his back. Two more children were behind him, wearing smaller versions of the cork hats and carrying soft toys. Also in evidence were blue West Coast Speeders shirts.

‘Oh, Lau, hi –’

Dec saw me and his eyes widened.

‘Matt! Hey, mate. Great to see you guys. Sorry, we just opened a big box sent by my agent, lots of really naff Aussie stuff, we were giving it a try. Come in – no, let go of me, Tom, you too Ella, I need to let Matt and Lau in. Down you get Rosa.’

Dec slowly unravelled himself from the children so he could open the door wide enough to let us in, pulled the cork hat off and tossed it onto the banister post. As we went into the hall, Amy’s voice floated out of the kitchen.

‘Who is it, hon?’

‘Lau and Matt.’

‘Oh!’

Amy came into the hall, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

‘Oh Matt, how are you?’

I shrugged but didn’t answer, instead bending down to Rosa, who was tugging on my trousers and holding a furry koala up for my inspection. I picked her up and held her while she clung on, one arm round my neck.

‘Kala bear.’

‘Yeh, beautiful, g’day mate an all tha. Have you been playing Crocodile Dundee?’

Rosa shook her head, not understanding the cultural reference that was several decades before her time.

‘We play kalas an kangroos.’

‘Sounds just as good, Red. I like yuhr hat. Did the bottles fall off?’

I flicked a cork.

‘No bottles.’

‘Oh, bad luck.’

‘Rosa, why don’t you go with Ella and Josh and Tom and Gracie and find Charlie? She was looking for a puzzle, wasn’t she?’

All five children thought this was a superb idea, and set off screaming up the stairs in search of Charlie.

Dec looked at me, while I looked back, not sure where to start. There was an awkward silence.

‘Mate, if I’d had any idea, I wouldn’t have signed.’

What was this? Oh do me a favour Declan Summers.

‘Don’t be a fuckwit, why should ih have stopped you? You’re not responsible for my appallingly timed health lapses. Chance of a lifetime, mate, goh an see the world with your family, you’ll have a blast.’

If I said it quickly, I could almost mean it.

‘Yeah, whatever.’

Dec wasn’t convinced by my bluff, and waved off my response.

‘If you … Ames and me talked earlier, and if you need me to stay, I’ll cancel it all.’

I couldn’t have that. I knew he meant it, that was the worst thing, but if I even let him offer, it was going to undo me, I could feel it bubbling under, and I just wanted to do this, get out of it, in one piece.

‘You have to be out of your teeny tiny fucking little mind, Declan Charles Summers. You’re so bloody up yourself. Why the fuck should I need you? I’ve got Lau, I’ve got the whole extended Scott army to bloody nag me and make my life a fucking misery as and when they see fit. I never heard a bigger load of bollocks in my life.’

‘Yeah, right. Come here, then.’

Dec walked towards me and pulled me into a huge bear hug.

‘Thanks mate.’

I murmured into his ear, keeping a tight grip on my emotions.

‘Always’.

Dec’s whispered reply very nearly finished me off, but the moment was broken by the sound of a large herd of children galloping downstairs, and we had to get out of the way or risk a messy trampling.

Laura

As I shook my head at the two stubborn men who loved each other like brothers, probably more, but would never say it as if they meant it in a thousand years, Matt and Dec let go of each other and moved out of the way to avoid being mown down. The crowd of little people surged across the hall and into the living room, Charlie holding a DVD and trailing the smaller children in her wake, and I followed after them.

‘Josh, Ella, it’s time to go. Take your shirts and hats off and give them back to Dec.’

‘Oh, no, it’s OK Lau, they can keep them, you never know Matt might stop being too stingy to fork out for a sports package that shows Super 15 and they can watch me, cheer me on, wearing them. Maybe not the hats, might take someone’s eye out if they get excited when I score.’

‘What do you say?’

I looked at Josh and Ella with my eyebrows raised.

‘Thank you Dec.’

They were well drilled in politeness, but looked disappointed that it was time to go; they loved playing with their almost-cousins.

‘They’re completely welcome to stay, Lau, I’m just doing pizza. If you want some time on your own? Dec’ll bring them back in a bit.’

Matt

Lau glanced at me. Much as I wanted a cuddle with my kids, I really could do with some peace and quiet, and Josh and Ella after an hour or two with the Summerses was usually anything but. Lau didn’t need much of a look to know what I was thinking.

Laura

‘Thanks, flower. You’re an angel.’

Amy smiled and touched my arm.

‘Any time, you know that.’

I nodded again, almost overcome with sudden emotion. It wouldn’t be long before ‘any time’ wouldn’t be possible. A few weeks and they’d be gone.

Matt

Lau nodded, tears sparkling in her eyes. I decided to be brisk and sound more cheerful than I was feeling about what was facing me when I got home.

‘Right then, Lau, best get back and make the most of the silence to bloody ring people and start grovelling.’

‘Grovelling? What for, mate?’

‘For being a prize fucking loony, smashing the club’s newest laptop, and then running off into the night like a –’

‘Right, Matt, you need to stop this now. I don’t know what your fucked up brain is imagining people are thinking, but this morning’s over with, forgotten. No grovelling or apologising needed. We know the score, it’s done. End of.’

A lot of that was what I needed to hear; it cleared up a lot of things I’d been worrying about. But I still had to apologise, explain, make amends.

‘Maybe for you. I’ll need to explain myself to certain, oh I don’t know, brothers, and maybe the odd CEO who may be a bit curious as to why his head of IT couldn’t hold on to a small piece of plastic or say two words together without having a hissy fit.’

Dec opened his mouth to argue, but I stopped him.

‘No, Dec. Ih’s much appreciated, you making out ih doesn’t matter, and I know ih doesn’t to you, and I’m grateful, but I am going to have to spend most of this evening on the phone to various people, not least of all Beth who, if the vibration in my trouser pocket is anything to go by, is about to call out Search and Rescue.’

Dec nodded at me, tacitly agreeing to let it go.

‘OK, you know best, you bastard. But, just so you know, there’s not going to be any comeback from the lads, they’re totally cool.’

‘Yeah, like I can’t hold my own against the shit banter supplied by a bunch of muscle-headed rugby players.’

By now we were both grinning stupidly at each other, happy to be winding each other up instead of talking about serious shit. God I loved my family. Lau pulled on my arm to direct me to the door, and we left, with a kiss and hug from Amy and a promise from Dec that he wouldn’t drop Josh and Ella off too late.

As we walked up the road, I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen. I’d turned it back on in the car on the way home, but hadn’t looked at it. I could no longer avoid the calls and texts that were likely to have accrued on my silenced phone from a certain Mrs Beth Scott.

‘Holy crap, she’s persistent. She’s sent fifteen texts. Let’s see – squawk squawk squawk where are you, squawk squawk let me know you’re safe, squawk squawk squawk. Fifteen times. Bloody hell. I bet she’s sent you as many. Oh, and about a dozen voicemails.’

‘Maybe you should ring her.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve got my phone out now, might as well make contact with The Mothership.’

Laura

Matt was always going to ring Beth. He didn’t mind nearly as much as he tried to pretend he did about her fussing over him. Matt pressed the screen and held the phone to his ear.

Matt

‘Hey.’

‘Oh Matty. At last. I’ve been so worried. How are you, sweetheart?’

‘OK.’

‘Where were you? There have been people out everywhere looking for you, we nearly called the police.’

‘Didn’t Cal tell you?’

I knew he’d said he wouldn’t, but I also knew how persistent Beth could be, and how you ended up telling her shit you didn’t mean to.

‘No, all he’d say was that you were safe, and you were with Laura. So where were you?’

I hesitated. Once Beth knew, that was another place I wouldn’t be able to escape to if I ever needed to again. I let her know part of it.

‘I was over by Avondale, somewhere quiet.’

‘But were you alright, sweetheart? Jay and Cal said you left in a bit of a state.’ ‘No, I was pretty shit actually, but Lau was there, and I’m better.’

As I was talking, we’d got inside and I started to take off my tie, which Lau helped me with, and my jacket, and as I carried on talking, getting the full Beth treatment, Lau brought me a hoody and helped me put it on.

Laura

I looked down at myself and realised I was still wearing my gym clothes from this morning. I hadn’t even been wearing a jacket, but hadn’t noticed the cold. Now I felt chilly, and as Matt sat down on the sofa, I lit the gas fire in the living room, watching the flames leap and feeling warmer.

Matt

Beth was still going on.

‘Oh Matty, you’ve really been having symptoms for a couple of weeks? You should have said something.’

Oh like that was ever going to happen, Beth.

‘Yeah, well sometimes ih’s hard to admit things to yourself that you don’t want to be true. A bit like you and your cellulite.’

I had a quick smirk to myself as Beth started to squawk in earnest.

‘I do not have cellulite! I keep myself in good shape, I –’

It was amusing that even now, she sometimes couldn’t tell when I was just trying to shut her up.

‘Oh stop being outraged, Beth.’

‘Matty, James is here, can I pass you over?’

Might as well, I suppose. This was going to be one of the few conversations with Jay that was going to encompass work and home, and we were just going to have to embrace the weird.

‘Yeah, I think I need to talk to him.’

‘He was so worried about you, Matty.’

This was just the start, the beginning of all the apologising.

‘I know, I didn’t mean to worry anyone, just freaked out.’

‘Take care of yourself, sweetheart.’

‘OK.’

‘Stay in touch.’

‘Yeah, see you soon.’

The phone was handed to Jay.

‘Matty, you’re alive.’

‘Hey.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Bit better now.’

If I said it enough times, it might start being true.

‘You’ve been having symptoms again.’

‘Yeah, the fucking bastard’s back.’

‘How bad is it?’

‘Not bad at the moment, well, apart from this morning.’

‘So this morning was, what, a blip or something?’

‘Yeah, well, feel a bit of a dick, probably owe Raiders a laptop.’

In truth, although the shakes, the unintelligible bollocks, the vision, it had all gone away since my meltdown, I could feel it lurking. I didn’t know how much of it was going to come crashing back, but I was preparing myself for it.

‘Well don’t worry about the bloody laptop, Matty, but maybe you need to talk to Malcolm.’

‘I know, I’ll talk to him now.’

‘Do you want us to come over? Beth’s getting a lasagne out of the freezer.’

Dear God no, the last thing I bloody needed was a houseful of people twittering over me.

‘No, I don’t need you all to bloody pile over, Lau’s here, just need some space.’

‘Can Laura manage alright?’

I sighed. Jay was catching the Beth bug. It was inevitable, I suppose.

‘It’s OK, Jay.’

I looked up at Lau.

‘Jay wants to know if you’re alright looking after me, Lau. You won’t forget to change my nappy and give me my four hourly feed, will you?’

She rolled her eyes at me.

‘Yeah, she’s fine with it, as long as she doesn’t forget the Calpol.’

‘Piss off, Matty, we’re just concerned.’

‘Piss off yourself.’

‘We’ll come over tomorrow, though. Beth says no excuses.’

‘Yeah, see you tomorrow.’

‘Be strong, Matty. Stay positive.’

I disconnected and flopped back against the sofa. It was exhausting trying to convince people everything was OK really, nothing to worry about, when I just wanted to scream. Lau took my hand and gave me a sympathetic look. Having her here, knowing what was going on for me and understanding without words, was what was keeping me sane, stopping me from actually screaming.

‘Only another four thousand calls and I can relax.’

‘Do you have to do them all now?’

‘Yeah, need to get ih done. In a minute. First, I need to do this.’

I turned in my seat and reached for her, pulling her towards me and holding her tight against me, speaking into her ear.

‘Lau you are so fucking phenomenal, you’re all that’s keeping me going. I’d just jack ih all in if ih wasn’t for you.’

‘Good job I’m here then.’

‘Yeah. I just can’t bullshit you, can I, you know exactly how I am, I don’t even have to say ih.’

‘To be fair, flower, you are much better at talking than you used to be.’

‘Always been bloody good at talking, Lau. Not always so good at talking sense. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

‘Right, next on the list, the big boss.’

I scrolled down my address book and tapped his name.

‘Hello Malcolm, it’s Matt Scott here.’

‘Matt. How are you?’

‘Yeah, well, better thanks, I just wanted to apologise about this morning.’

And so it went on, call after call, to some of the people who’d been there this morning, people who’d been out looking for me, some of the people who’d left messages on my phone or Lau’s phone asking about me, other members of the family, Mum, Cory, who’d heard from afar about what had happened, and I said the same to all of them.

‘I’m fine now, just had a bit of a wobble. Sorry to worry you. Talk to you about it tomorrow.’

I had no idea who I was going to see tomorrow. I didn’t know if I was going to go into work or not, although it appeared I still had a job.

Laura

And Matt carried on, making his way through his list of missed calls and texts. I sat and held his hand, half listening to him talk, proud of how well he was showing a brave face to the world when what he really felt like doing was running to the darkest most hidden place he could find until it all went away.

Matt

Then I started in on the texts, people who needed to know I was OK, but didn’t need to speak to me. I just wanted everyone to know I was normal, I was Matt, and although I might not have seemed like Matt this morning, that was a one-off, and now I was back. It wasn’t how I felt, but it was how I needed to be. Except with Lau. I could be me with Lau, and that was the difference this time. I had her, and I wasn’t trying to fool the whole world that everything was normal, because there was a Lau shaped bit of it who knew how things really were. It mattered, a lot.

119. Runaway

In which avoidance is attempted, fleeing occurs, and a search is launched.

Cal

I was spending less time at school now, being in the Academy. I was required to do certain subjects, but the rest of the time I could count training as schooling, which suited me fine. This particular morning, training had been put on hold because Matty was giving a presentation about the new Traka GPS system, and everyone had to be there. I was getting my kit together at home, when Mum and Dad both came into my room, together, with really serious expressions on their faces. I thought someone must have died, and I sat down on the bed to await the bad news.

‘What?’

‘Dec called us early this morning, sweetheart.’

Oh shit, it was about Dec? What the fuck had happened?

‘Yeah, he’s signed for another club.’

‘He’s moving away, sweetheart.’

Oh, well that didn’t sound too drastic. I’d been half expecting it for a while, if I was honest. Dec wasn’t as young as he used to be, in rugby terms; he was no longer an automatic first choice in the first team, and if he didn’t try another club soon, he would have missed his chance. Dad was always going on at him about giving himself new challenges, and it looked like he’d finally taken the plunge before he got too ancient.

‘Cool. Where to?’

‘West Coast Speeders.’

It took me a few seconds to remember where Speeders played. Fucking Australia. That put things in a different light. Dec had been part of my family as long as I could remember. He’d moved in with us when I was two, and he was like my brother. I was really going to miss him if he was in Australia. Shit.

‘Oh. Not so cool, then. Are you guys OK?’

‘Your mum’s a bit upset.’

‘So were you, earlier, James. It’s a bit of a shock, sweetheart, that’s all.’

‘Who else knows?’

People were always pretty secretive about things like new contracts, and I didn’t want to go blurting it to the nearest reporter who was hanging around Raiders Stadium.

‘It’s going to be announced in a press release at nine. Your mum’s made a cake, there’s going to be a little presentation before Matty’s thing this morning.’

‘You’ve made a cake already? Bloody hell, Mum. Does Matty know?’

Dad nodded.

‘Dec was going straight round there after he called us. He spent all night on the phone to Australia, I don’t think he’s slept at all. I don’t know how Matty’s going to take it.’

‘If he even wakes up to talk to it’ll be a miracle.’

Matty was notorious for being hard to wake up. He’d sleep until noon every day if Lau didn’t use some pretty full-on techniques to rouse him.

‘True. We’ll find out later this morning I guess. You nearly ready? Want a lift?’

‘Sure.’

I didn’t often get a lift to work from Dad, especially now I’d passed my test and had my own car, and I inwardly raised my eyebrows at this unusual offer. I assumed Dad just wanted to chat more about Dec’s move without upsetting Mum, and I was right. He bent my ear all the way there about whether it was too soon for Dec to be leaving Raiders behind, like it wasn’t what Dad had been encouraging him to do for over ten years, and then hinted at people they had lined up to replace him but wouldn’t actually spill the beans about who it was, while suggesting there might be an England international who was interested. It really was beyond frustrating being Scotty’s son sometimes.

Matt

My presentation was scheduled for ten, which gave me a bit of time to go over it while drinking several cups of coffee, in an attempt not to fall asleep in the middle of it. I decided to check it over in the room where I was giving the presentation, so I knew everything was working. I had set it all up and gone through it once, when the door opened and most of the first team players trooped in.

Cal

When we got to the ground, the place was buzzing with Dec’s news. The man himself hadn’t arrived yet, but Dad had brought Mum’s cake and handed it over to the catering department, who were putting it on a platter. Billy Kipi, the team captain, was going to do a short speech, in recognition of the long time Dec had been with Raiders, before Matty did his GPS thing, and we were going to sing a rude version of an Australian folk song. We were just waiting for Dec to arrive and be brought up by his mate, Bonksy aka Brett Deressie, who had been at the club as long as Dec, but was now a forwards coach.

Matt

I looked at the clock, surprised to see it was only twenty to ten. The players weren’t known for their fondness of presentations, and usually outdid themselves in their excuses to avoid them at all costs, so for them all to be here early was a bit strange.

‘Hi Matt – you’re not on till ten, are you?’

It was Billy Kipi, the team captain. I looked up.

‘No, yuh have twenty whohl minutes tuh learn where the little pocket in yuhr shirt is for the GPS. Then thehr’s a test.’

Fuck, no. I couldn’t be doing the unintelligible bollocks, not now. Billy frowned, then realised I was joking about the test, and his face cleared. Maybe he hadn’t noticed the unintelligible bollocks.

‘Ha ha. We didn’t think anyone would be in here yet, we’re just doing this thing for Summs. Do you mind?’

As he spoke, and I shook my head, one of the admin staff brought in a huge covered platter and put it on the table in front of me. Oh fuck, there was going to be some kind of speech or something, and I was going to have to sit through it, when all I wanted to do was not think about it. I looked around for Dec, but he wasn’t in the room yet, although Cal was sitting at the back, and he smiled at me.

Cal

We were all waiting in the conference room. I took a seat at the back and watched the preparations for Dec’s surprise taking shape. Matty was already there, setting up his computer, but he looked a bit off. He looked like he hadn’t slept, he was pale and sweaty, and he kept pushing his hands through his hair, which made it stick out, and made him look a bit mad. When he walked over to the projector, he looked like he was limping, and when he talked to Billy about the cake and speech, it sounded a bit like he was slurring his words.

I couldn’t think what was wrong with him, and I could hardly believe it, but he looked drunk. Either that or he was ill. If he wasn’t ill, he was shit-faced and that wasn’t good, not at before ten in the morning. It seemed more likely that he was shit-faced, because Matty didn’t really get ill, and he did like his beer, but I’d never known him be anything less than professional at work, and I was really surprised. I wondered if Dec’s news had made him hit the Scotch.

Matty didn’t look too happy that there was going to be fucking about with a cake and stuff, but he didn’t really have a choice. He caught my eye, and I gave him a smile to, I don’t know, reassure him or something. He seemed like he needed reassuring, which was worrying, because Matty was as self-assured as they came.

Matt

I’d just bent my head back down to the laptop when there was a big cheer. I looked up to see Dec being led into the room by Brett Deressie, also known as Bonksy. As they came in, the players all started singing Waltzing Matilda, although quite a few of the words had been changed, and not to ones that Lau or Beth would have approved of. Dec was pulled over to the table, and the top was whisked off the platter to reveal a large cake in the shape of Australia, complete with a flag and a tiny rugby player in a West Coast Speeders shirt on the west coast. Dec caught my eye and looked at me apologetically, but I shook my head at him and grinned, and he returned to the general hilarity.

Cal

I saw Dec look at Matty apologetically, but Matty shook his head and grinned, as if it was OK by him, and the hilarity continued, but as soon as no one was looking at Matty, he stopped smiling. There was a lot of banter, mostly about different ways of sodomising kangaroos, and Billy did a short speech which took the piss out of Dec while saying what a great bloke he was and how much he’d be missed. Dec seemed pretty chuffed with all the fuss, but eventually it all had to calm down and we had to remember we were there for Matty’s presentation.

Matt

The banter was thick in the air, but I just tried to ignore it all as I got the laptop ready. It was a new laptop, the latest model, specifically designed for Raiders to be able to cope with instant updates from the new GPS system. I hadn’t used it for a presentation, and wanted to familiarise myself with it before I started, but I couldn’t concentrate properly.

Then, about five minutes before I was due to begin, my left leg started trembling violently. Fuck, fuck, fuck, this was turning into a complete balls-up. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stand, but I pressed my thighs together and pushed down on my knees with my hands, which had worked in the past and seemed to stop the shaking.

I looked up, and saw the room was full. The players were all there, Jay and the other coaches had taken their seats, the CEO was approaching the table, and it seemed I was about to be ‘on’. I took as many deep breaths as I could and prayed to the universe that I would get through this without making an arse of myself.

Cal

Matty had been working for Raiders for several years, it was quite a family affair these days. He was in charge of anything to do with IT, although I was never completely sure of his job title. He was a rock star with anything remotely connected to computers or tech of any sort – if it was broken, he knew how to fix it; if it was old, he knew the best upgrade; if it was new, he knew how to work it. Raiders had been using GPS for training and match stats for ages, but there was a new system on the market that was being used by some of the Southern Hemisphere sides, and Matty and his team had been researching it with a view to it being introduced at Raiders next season. This presentation was the result of almost a year of work, and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted it to be eclipsed by Dec’s ‘I’m moving to Australia’ news.

While Matty made his final preparations, looking ill-at-ease, unwell and uncomfortable, which was so unlike the usually chilled and sociable Matty as to be remarkable, the CEO made his way to the front to introduce him.

Matt

Malcolm turned to face the room, cleared his throat, waited for the hush that was his due, and started speaking.

‘Good morning all. Thanks for coming. I’m very excited about this presentation. The new GPS system is groundbreaking state of the art technology, and Raiders are the first club in the country to use it. When Matt’s team went to look at it in development, their reports suggested that it would give us the edge over other teams, and now it’s here, I believe they’re right. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical details, that’s Matt’s job, but I’m hoping that by the time he’s finished telling you about it, you’ll be as convinced as I am that this technology will help Raiders to retain their place at the forefront of British rugby. Matt.’

So no pressure there, then. Shit. My hands were trembling now, but I couldn’t tell if it was from nerves or, well, my nerves. I stood up and leaned my hip against the table, to forestall any further shaking and give me some support. The computer and projector were already on, and the slide show had been loaded onto its title page. Everything was as ready as it could be. I kept telling myself it was fine, I’d done hundreds of presentations before, I knew the GPS system inside out, I could do it in my sleep. I practically was asleep, that was the problem. I took a deep breath and launched in.

Cal

I couldn’t see that well from the back of the room, but it seemed like Matty’s leg was shaking, and his hands certainly were, as if he was really nervous. Matty never got nervous about presentations, he had all the information in his head and he could just say it, like it was nothing to talk to a roomful of people. Not today, though. He looked like he wished he could disappear, and I wondered again about whether he’d had a drink or two. Then I saw him take a deep breath as he started. His voice was quiet and hesitant.

Matt

‘Heh everyohn. This is the new Traka stysem, er, system. Sohry, wrong teeth in this morning.’

Shit. I was going to have to arse my way through this after all. I picked up the remote control for the laptop and clicked onto the next slide, which was a video of the Traka in use.

Cal

This was bad. In front of the CEO and everything, and Matty seemed more than half-cut. He wasn’t just getting his words muddled, he was slurring and stuttering like he’d had a liquid breakfast, but surely he wouldn’t have. I glanced over at Dad, who was looking like thunder. The same thing must have occurred to him.

Matt

As I started to speak again, the remote slipped out of my hand onto the floor. I stared at it angrily. I didn’t need it for a while, but I was going to have to bend down and pick it up, and my legs had started shaking again.

‘This video shows how sohm of the teams in the Southern Hesi … Hephi … Hemisphehr –’

‘Are you sure it’s just your teeth, Matt? Too much vodka for brekkie maybe?’

Cal

This got a huge laugh, and it seemed to take the pressure off as we all waited for one of Matty’s sarcastic comebacks, but he didn’t say anything, just bent down and picked up the remote, which fell straight out of his hands again.

Matt

I could think of no witty comeback, for the first time in my life. I bent down and picked up the remote, which fell straight out of my hands again, fortunately onto the table this time.

‘Out of the top fihv tehms in Super Fifteen, fohr use Tra … ka.’

Oh what the fuck now? My mouth just froze up in the middle of a word. I wasn’t going to get through this if things didn’t improve quickly. Sweat was running down my face, and I could feel myself going red as I got more flustered.

Cal

Matty looked terrible, getting paler by the second, sweat was running down his face, and then his cheeks started going red on top of his pallor, as he got more worked up.

Matt

I picked up the remote again, but as I tried to change the slide, it evaded my grasp once more. There were a few chuckles, but I daren’t look at anyone to see what they were thinking, in case I met the eyes of Dec or Jay.

Cal

A few people laughed, but not as many as before, as it was becoming more obvious there was something really wrong here. I felt really bad for him, to be showing himself up like this in front of a roomful of people would be mortifying, and Matty looked like he was doing anything he could to avoid looking at anyone.

Matt

I decided to ditch the remote. It was too small and fiddly anyway, and the arrow keys on the laptop would be more reliable. I reached for the computer, and my fingers had just touched it when a huge spasm flung my arm to the side.

Cal

All of a sudden he whacked the laptop with a huge shove and sent it flying across the room, where it smashed against a wall and fell to the floor with a flash and a puff of smoke. The room went still, while Matty looked at the laptop with an anguished expression on his face.

Matt

There was a stunned silence, and it was the final straw for me.

‘Fuck it, I can’t do this.’

I said it to myself, and it was true. I needed to stop, to get out of there, this was as fucked up as I was going to allow it to get, if indeed it could get any more fucked up, which seemed doubtful, and I headed for the door and then ran as quickly as my bastard legs would carry me, out of the building and into the car park, where I started my car and drove away.

Cal

He didn’t say it very loud, but the room had gone so silent, we all heard it. As he finished speaking, he turned and stumbled, limping, out of the room, and we all sat and looked first at each other, and then at Dad, who was talking in a low voice to Malcolm Howard, the CEO.

In the silence, I suddenly put things together. I’d been a lot younger when Matty was ill before, but, yeah, of course, there had been the difficulty speaking, the trouble walking and the coordination problems. Fuck – had his MS come back? It all made sense. I looked over at Dad to see what he was going to do.

Dad looked shocked, then angry, then blanked his expression as he realised everyone was looking at him, and Malcolm was the first to react.

‘OK, everyone, er, I think we’ll come back to this another time. I think, er, Jay, it’s back to the morning’s training, maybe, er, half an hour break?’

Dad nodded, but didn’t speak, and Malcolm got up to herd everyone out of the room. Dec had sat next to him and was talking quietly but intently to him, and I went over to join in.

‘… come back. He didn’t look right this morning, and maybe, if I think about it, it’s been coming the last couple of weeks.’

‘Shit. We need to find him.’

I needed to know whether they were both thinking the same as I was.

‘Is Matty ill again?’

Dad looked up.

‘Probably. Shit, we need to find him. Cal, can you check the car park? We should call Laura, see if she’s seen him.’

‘She’ll be at Pilates. Ames usually goes with her, but she cancelled this morning because of all the fuss.’

‘I’ll leave a message then …’

Matt

Maybe it wasn’t the most advisable thing to do, to drive at speed across the city when my limbs had started acting under their own volition, but I just needed to escape, to put as much distance between me and that nightmare back there as I could. For the first part of the journey, tears misted my eyes, and then I realised it wasn’t just the tears; my vision had blurred with the fucking bastard too. It really is a miracle I didn’t kill someone.

Cal

Dad’s voice faded behind me as I ran out to the car park to see if Matty’s car was there. It had been there this morning, as Dad had parked next to it, but it was gone now. I didn’t like to think of Matty driving anywhere in the state he was in, and I decided to call Lau, even though it was likely several other people had already called her. Her phone went to voicemail, so I left a message.

I didn’t want to panic her, but I didn’t want her to think there was nothing to worry about, either. Then I went back to the conference room to tell Dad and Dec that Matty’s car had gone. Dad had been to Matty’s office, but he wasn’t there, and he couldn’t find him anywhere else in the building.

‘Shit. I have no idea where he’s gone. I’d better tell Beth.’

He sent a quick text to Mum, then looked at me.

‘You don’t have any idea where he’d be, do you?’

‘Me? No. I would have said with Lau somewhere, but if he’s not with her I’m stuck.’

Since Matty met Lau, and had a whirlwind romance complete with a wedding and twins within a year of meeting her, he had been a lot calmer, a lot more sorted. He told everyone she made him feel safe, and you could see it about him, that Lau was Matty’s safe place. I really hoped he was with her somewhere, because I worried what kind of a state he’d be in if he couldn’t even go to Lau.

‘I’ll try Ames again, maybe she can pop down the road and see if he’s gone home.’

‘Good plan. Beth might call round there too.’

‘Do we need to alert … anyone?’

Dec sounded like he was clutching at straws.

‘Like?’

‘Police, hospitals …’

‘It’s not like he’s missing, he’s not been gone long enough. And I really don’t want to think about hospitals. Shit, he shouldn’t have been driving. I think we’ll just wait to hear from Laura. I’ll go and get her out of her class if I don’t hear soon.’

Someone brought coffee for us, and as we sipped and worried about Matty, Dad had a text from Mum, and Dec had a text from Amy, both saying Matty wasn’t at home and no one they knew had seen him.

Matt

I came to my senses after a while, at least the senses that told me to stop driving before I had an accident. I looked around at where I was, peering through the fog and double images for landmarks, and saw I wasn’t far from Avondale, where I used to live.

I pulled over and parked in the street, but stayed gripping the steering wheel, sucking air in through my nose, tears leaking out of my eyes, seeing nothing except my whole world ending.

This fucking bastard disease, it took everything from you, either little by little, pretending it had gone away and then coming back, or in huge explosive occurrences like this morning. I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Raiders, I couldn’t face any of them after that debacle.

I didn’t want to be there, snivelling in my car, I wanted to be somewhere quiet, where curious people weren’t peering in the window. I thought about going home, but Lau would be there, and I couldn’t face her either, not now. As I thought about her, my phone started ringing. It was Jay’s ringtone. Oh fuck, none of them were going to leave me the fuck alone now. I turned my phone off. Fuck them all.

As I wondered where I could go, my eyes found the spire of St Saviours church. I thought about going in, it would be quiet, and cool, but I didn’t want to talk to any bloody nosy vicar or old lady doing the flowers. Then I remembered the hideaway, the room in the hedge, the place that Cal had showed me, and I had showed Jules. As if it was calling to me, I got out of the car and practically felt my way over to the church, legs hardly working, tears still forcing their way out of my eyes.

I must have looked a sight, but fortunately I couldn’t see any pitying, or indeed terrified, glances. I found the gates to St Saviours, and stumbled through the long grass in the cemetery until I came to the box hedge. It had been a few years since I was here last, but even without being able to see clearly, I found my way in.

Laura

Before my class I’d sent Matt a good luck text for his presentation, and I checked my phone after the class to see if he’d replied. There were several missed calls and voicemail messages from everyone but Matt. I listened to the messages with growing alarm and dread.

Dec: ‘Lau, it’s Dec, give me a ring as soon as you get this.’

Amy: ‘Hey Lau, I know you’re in Pilates at the moment, but can you ring someone about Matt? Jay or Dec or someone.’

Cal: ‘Lau, do you know where Matty is? We’re trying to find him. He was well weird this morning.’

Jay: ‘Hey Laura, don’t want to worry you, but Matty’s had a bit of a meltdown this morning, he’s gone off somewhere. Call me.’

Beth: ‘Oh Laura, is everything alright? James told me about Matty’s presentation, do you know where he is? I’ve tried his mobile and your home number, I might try popping over.’

Heart pounding, I called Jay.

‘Laura, thank God, I was about to come in and pull you out of your class.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘Matty’s having symptoms again, isn’t he?’

I thought about my promise to Matt that we would keep it quiet for now.

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because he was doing a presentation this morning, and he could hardly talk, he was dropping stuff, he had to lean on the table to stop himself falling over. In the end he chucked his laptop across the room and stormed out.’

I was appalled. When he left for work, he’d been talking fine, no problems with walking. I shouldn’t have let him go to work, with the news from Dec this morning, the tiny amount of sleep he’d got, and the return of the MS, I should have known he would react badly. Now he’d gone off somewhere, upset, embarrassed and hurting, and I needed to find him.

‘What? Where did he go?’

‘No one knows. Have you heard from him?’

‘No. Did he drive?’

‘He must have done, his car’s gone. Jesus, Laura, how long has he been getting worse?’

I sighed. It sounded like the cat was out of the bag whatever I said.

‘I’ve noticed small signs for the last couple of weeks, but I didn’t say anything to him. He dropped a glass last night and got really upset. We’re pretty sure it’s back. But he wasn’t too bad when he left this morning, you wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t know him.’

‘Jesus. Do you have any idea where he is?’

‘Not unless he went home. Beth said she tried to call him, but I doubt he’d answer her. If she went round, he’d ignore the doorbell too.’

‘Shit. I need to talk to him. He’s going to be feeling fucking awful.’

‘I don’t expect he’ll want to talk to anyone. I’ll go straight home and see if he’s there.’

‘Ring me when you know.’

Cal

He disconnected and looked at us. His side of the conversation had confirmed what we now all thought, that his MS was back, and Dad didn’t need to say it.

‘She’s going home, she’s going to ring, but I doubt he’ll be there. Dec, didn’t you say when he had his meltdown about Julia, he just drove round and round?’

‘Yeah, but that was years ago. Who knows what he’ll do now.’

‘I really hope he’s not driving.’

‘Well short of hunting him down on the roads, there’s not much we can do. We’re going to have to start training soon, and hope there’s some news when we’ve finished.’

Dad looked like the last thing he wanted to do was run a training session, and I wondered if he was going to get one of the other coaches to do it instead, but he squared his shoulders, got up and went to call everyone to the training pitch. He was trying some damage limitation for Matty; if he didn’t make a big deal out of it, and everything was OK, Matty wouldn’t have to answer so many questions. Although I thought it was unlikely that Matty was going to get away totally unscathed.

When Matty got ill the first time, he was living in Stafford, so none of us were around to see how he was, until he was suddenly lying in a hospital bed with tubes coming in and out of everywhere. I saw how he was after he came home, and how long it took him to get better, but I suppose I never really linked it to the second time he got ill, because he wasn’t in hospital, he was just Matty who got tired and couldn’t walk properly, and whose talking went a bit funny. I’d still go round to his flat, although he didn’t have the energy to play football in the park, but we’d play FIFA on his PlayStation instead, so I suppose I didn’t really notice. I was twelve, and a self-obsessed pre-teenager, so the only way it really affected me was that Matty didn’t take me to see Raiders, and I had to sit with the juniors more often, which made me really grouchy.

Matty was always pretty good at making out he was normal, so I wasn’t surprised that this time he’d managed to hide any symptoms from everyone. It was his bad luck that everything had gone wrong at once in front of a room full of people. He would hate that, and I hated to think about how he would be feeling now, knowing that everyone he worked with knew there was something up with him.

Matt

It was as if someone had switched off the noise. Not just the noise of the city traffic, which was somehow dulled, but all the noise from the last twenty four hours or so. This was where I needed to be, where no one would find me, where no one would come, where there was nothing but stone and hedge and the only people there were long dead. I walked over to the bench and sat down, looking for a while at the graves of John Chartham and Roberta Chartham.

I’d Googled them once, out of curiosity, and found out John had been the vicar here at St Saviours, and Roberta was his wife. There wasn’t much more information available, but it made them a bit more human. I found myself addressing them.

‘Hey guys. Sorry to interrupt your peace. Just need to get away for a bit. Hope you don’t mind.’

I realised I sounded like a lunatic, talking to dead people, so I stopped.

I felt strangely exposed sitting on the bench, and looked round the enclosure for somewhere more concealed. There really wasn’t anywhere else, unless I got under the bench, and that wasn’t going to work. I was feeling vulnerable, and wanted to screw myself up into a ball and hide, so I got up and wedged myself into the corner, pulling my knees up to my chin and folding my arms over my head. By wrapping myself up like this, it felt like I could hold on to me, stop everything I was from flying away.

I didn’t think about what had happened. I couldn’t. I did everything I could not to think about it. Every time a word or an action slipped into my head I pushed it away, hard. I told a lot of thoughts to fuck off while I sat there in a ball, and it would work for a while, then I’d get a glimpse of the remote control falling to the floor, or Dec’s face this morning, or Lau would float across my mind, and I’d have to tell them all to fuck off all over again.

I spent I don’t know how long doing that, trying to empty my mind of everything, as if I could really send it all away just by telling it to go. I was out of strategies; I knew if I thought about it, let any of it in, faced any of it, then it would be bad, I would lose myself. I had no other option, apart from sitting here trying not to think, trying to purge my mind of anything that might make any demands on me.

I passed a long time sitting like that. My legs might start to go numb, but that was good, because the less of me there was that could feel, the better. I got cold, but I didn’t care about that either, because cold was a different kind of numb, and if I could focus on being cold, I could ignore everything else.

I don’t know how long I sat there, trying to be nothing and no one to anyone, trying to make myself so small that I’d disappear, part of me wishing I was long dead like John and Roberta, part of me wishing I had never been born, the rest of me choosing not to examine who I was or what I might become.

Laura

I disconnected from Jay, grabbed my bags and hurried out to the car park, calling Matt as I went. I didn’t expect him to answer, but at least he would know I’d tried. As I expected, the call went to his voicemail.

‘Hey whoever you are. This is Matt, or Matty or Uncle Matty or Daddy or Matthew or Mr Scott or Sexy Bum if that’s you, Lau. Leave me a message if it’s either really important or outrageously rude. Catch ya laters taters.’

The voicemail beeped at me.

‘Matt, it’s me, everyone’s really worried about you, please let me know where you are. I won’t tell anyone, and I’ll leave you alone if you want me to, but I need to know you’re alright. Please, Matt.’

I sent a text, saying the same thing, as an extra measure, and also left a message on the home phone answer machine.

I drove across the city faster than I usually did, putting my foot down through orange lights, breaking the speed limit. Jay had really worried me; Matt would have hated appearing any less than a hundred per cent in front of all those people, and I didn’t know what he would have done. I needed to find him. My phone rang several times while I was on the way home, but glances at the screen showed it wasn’t Matt, so I ignored it. I pulled up outside the house and ran to the door, fumbling with my key in my haste to get inside. I threw the door open.

‘Matt!’

I called up the stairs, looked in the kitchen, living room and dining room, then ran up the stairs and looked in every room up there too. I went into the garden and checked the shed. I felt he was going to be holed up somewhere, in a state, but I couldn’t think where he would have gone. I checked everywhere again, but he hadn’t magically appeared since the last time. I ran up the road to see Amy.

‘Oh Lau, have you found him?’

I shook my head. ‘He hasn’t been here, has he?’

‘No. Come in for a bit.’

‘Oh, no thanks, Amy, I’d rather be at home, in case he comes back.’

I looked back down the road, as if I was going to see his car coming round the corner.

‘OK, Lau. Let me know when you find him.’

‘I will.’

Once back home, I called everyone I could think of, starting with his mum and getting gradually more desperate as nobody I called had seen him. I racked my brains, trying to think of anyone else he might have felt safe with, or any hidey-hole he might have – that was it! The words ‘hidey-hole’ floated around my brain for a few moments before they registered, then I was suddenly certain.

It was from a long time ago, something he’d told me about him and Julia. Now I just needed to remember where it was. I had a feeling it was near Matt’s old flat, and there was something about a graveyard, but the details eluded me. He couldn’t have mentioned it more than a couple of times; maybe if I went over there, I could try to find it. St Saviour’s church had a graveyard, I could have a look around. I grabbed the keys, feeling hopelessly desperate, and got in the car.

Cal

The training session was mercifully short, as Matty’s presentation was supposed to have taken up half of the allotted session, so after an hour, we found ourselves with some free time. I sent Lau a text.

Laura

‘Any news on where he’s hiding?’

And that did it, another piece of the memory slotted into place. I called him straight away.

Cal

I didn’t have any expectations of an answer – Lau would be doing her nut with worry, and probably had texts coming out of her ears asking if she’d seen Matty, but I wanted her to know I was thinking about her. I was surprised when she called me straight back.

‘Lau. Any news?’

‘I’ve had an idea. Do you remember a hideaway, in a hedge, in a graveyard somewhere? I think you showed Matt once.’

It took me completely by surprise. I hadn’t thought of the hedge room since I was little. I hissed out a breath.

‘How the fuck did you know about that? Jesus, I barely remember it myself.’

Laura

Cal, seventeen now, had picked up enough bad language from his father and his uncles to be swearing like a sailor well before he was a teenager. He had been careful around his family until his mid-teens, and then, much to Beth’s dismay, he’d joined the ranks of Scott men who couldn’t get more than a couple of sentences out without adding a profanity of some sort. Right now, though, bad language was the least of my worries.

‘Can you remember where it is?’

Cal

‘Yeah, it’s in that church near where you and Matty used to live. We’d go there when I went to his flat, he’d pretend he couldn’t remember how to get in so I’d show him again, then we’d sit and drink Fanta and eat crisps.’

‘Can I come and pick you up? Will you show me?’

‘Yeah, sure thing. Why do you think he’s there?’

‘I just think he’s gone somewhere where he can be alone, where no one else goes.’

‘Well, no one apart from all the druggies and winos.’

‘You’re not making me feel any better. Where are you?’

‘Still at the club, just finished training.’

‘I’ll see you in ten minutes.’

I doubted it would be ten minutes. Lau was a really slow driver, and sometimes took let’s be kind and call it the scenic route, because she was too busy singing along with the radio rather than concentrating on where she was going. I sat on the steps outside the Stadium and waited for her, thinking about the hedge room, and how I’d shown it to Matty all those years ago.

I must have been about nine or so, and I spent a lot of time with Matty. I’d go to his flat, and we’d eat pizza and play football in the park, and I’d tell him about school, which was a bit crap at the time. I was being bullied, about all sorts of things, not least of which was my hair.

My hair is the stupidest, most excruciatingly embarrassing hair a boy could ever have nightmares about. It’s blond, which isn’t so bad, but it’s curly, and when I say curly, I mean the sort of tight ringlets that a Jane Austen heroine would swoon over. I mean, get real. Mum loved it, and would never let me have it cut, so I had to put up with all the smart-arses at school calling me a girl, tugging my hair when they got a chance and generally making my life a misery.

As soon as I could, I got it all cut off, buzz cut all over, Baggo’s brother Troops did it with his Army clippers. Mum shouted, and cried, and went round to shout at Troops, but having short hair made my life so much easier. Troops would cut it every two weeks so it didn’t grow the curls back, even though it was pretty scary with him holding the clippers in one hand and a beer can or a cigarette in the other. Mum realised I was serious after a while, and gave me my own clippers for Christmas, and I’ve never looked back. But back then, I had to do as I was told, and I’d offload to Matty about how crap it was.

It didn’t help that my dad was a local celebrity, or rather a national celebrity who happened to live locally, so that made me a target as well. I was always accused of being up myself because I had a famous dad, of being teachers pet because I had a famous dad, of the PE teacher being in love with me because I had a famous dad. It sucked. It’s a wonder it didn’t put me off a career in rugby before it began.

Of course, I couldn’t tell Mum any of this, because she’d have been off up the school in a flash, giving the head teacher a bollocking and getting all the bullies in trouble, which would have just made things worse, so I told Matty, and he helped me think about bullies and why they did what they did, and how he was a bit nerdy at school and so he was bullied and what he did about it, and although none of it stopped the bullying, it made me feel better, like it wasn’t my fault.

So where was I? Oh yeah, the hedge room. Baggo was the one who had told me about the hedge room. He lived not far from St Saviours church, which was also not far from Matty’s flat. I don’t know how Baggo knew, maybe one of his brothers told him, but he blew my mind one day by showing me how to look like you had disappeared into the hedge. I just had to try it out on Matty, and I blew his mind too, and then, every chance we got Matty would take me to the graveyard at St Saviours, and act like he’d forgotten how to get into the hedge room, so I’d show him, and then we’d sit there and eat and drink stuff that Mum disapproved of while we chatted about my uninspiring school life.

Eventually, I grew a pair, around the same time as I started being serious about the Raiders junior section, and the bullies melted away in the face of a little bit of muscle and a more assertive attitude, and Matty and I didn’t go to the hedge room any more I didn’t realise until I read Matty’s story that he’d used it for more nefarious purposes in his lunch hour, and it’s hardly surprising that once he broke up with Julia we stopped going there altogether.

To be honest, I didn’t see much of Matty while he was with Julia, because he stopped coming over as much, and didn’t ask me round to his as much. Julia was a bit … erm I’m struggling to put it nicely. She was pretty and everything, and played with Iz and talked to me, but it always felt like she couldn’t wait to leave, and a lot of the time Matty would come by himself, and it was like he couldn’t wait to leave to be with her. He was really cut up when they split, but I don’t think any of the rest of us were, except being sad for him, obviously.

Anyway, I hadn’t thought about the hedge room for years, but now Lau had mentioned it, it seemed perfect, the only place he would have gone, away from anyone and everyone, almost part of a different time, a different life.

Laura

And so, another breakneck trip across the city later, Cal hopped into my car and we crossed the city again.

Cal

To my amazement, Lau turned up just over ten minutes after she’d called. I got in the car and immediately wished I hadn’t, as she was driving like a woman possessed, accelerating through orange lights, muttering under her breath when she had to stop at red ones, generally behaving like a crazy person. I suppose I could understand it, but I feared for my life a little bit.

‘Jesus, Lau, slow down you’re going to fucking kill us.’

‘Sorry, Cal, I’m really worried about him. Were you there this morning?’

I didn’t tell Lau I’d thought Matty was drunk, or that some of the other guys thought that too. She knew what was going on, and didn’t need extra things to worry about.

‘Yeah. I thought he wasn’t right when I first saw him, he looked like shit, he was, like, his legs were shaking when he stood up, and he got all flustered setting up, then he kept tripping over his words, and was trying to be all cool about it, making jokes about not having his teeth in and shit, and then he dropped the remote for the laptop a couple of times. The lads were giving him a bit of stick to start with, you know what he’s like, any opportunity for a bit of banter, gives as good as he gets normally, but it seemed like it was really bothering him, and then he dropped the remote again, and he went for his laptop and just shoved it across the table. It went right across the room and smashed into the wall. He was like ‘Fuck it, I can’t do this’ and walked out. We all just looked at each other. Dad was white as a sheet, at first I thought he was pissed off, but I think he was, like, shocked. He sent me after him, but I couldn’t find him. Is Matty ill again?’

‘Yeah, Cal, I think he is. And this news about Dec going to Australia might have tipped him over.’

‘Yeah, that’s major, about Dec. I never thought he’d leave, he’s been here forever. I can’t remember when he wasn’t, like, just here, like I’ve always known him. He’s like my brother, really.’

‘It’s going to be weird without them, isn’t it.’

‘Yeah. But we’ll have Skype and Facetime, as long as we make Tom do it and not Dec, he’s fucking shit with technology. And he won’t be away forever, it’s only for a year at the moment. I can’t see him staying over there, can you? Rose would have something to bloody say about it, for a start.’

I hadn’t really had time to get my head round Dec leaving, not with Matty going all weird, but as I was talking, trying to sound reassuring for Lau more than anything, I realised that it might be as OK as I was making it sound.

Laura

I wondered if Cal would have a word with Matt, if we ever found him, as his practical seventeen-year-old common sense might get through to him.

‘You’re having a very calming effect on me, Cal.’

Cal

‘Ha ha, am I? I don’t suppose I do big dramas.’

This was at least true of other people’s dramas, which I seemed to be able to be fairly chilled about. My own dramas were another matter.

‘Oh, look there’s the church – there’s a parking space just up there, I think it’s pay and display.’

I fed the machine a few coins while Lau parked, then led her through the gates of the graveyard and across the grass, up to a tall green hedge.

Matt

As time passed, I felt myself becoming part of the weird little outdoor room, as if I wanted to disappear into it so much, it was starting to absorb me. It was the most peculiar feeling, and I just let it happen, bit by bit, me flowing away into the stone. The curious part of me wondered what would happen to me when I’d finished flowing. Would just my clothes be left? Would I have gone –

Cal

‘It’s here somewhere. I can’t remember exactly where.’

I started to walk along the hedge, looking for the entrance. It was really well hidden, and you had to know just where to look.

Matt

Cal’s voice brought me back to the present with a start. My whole body tensed as the first thing from the outside world permeated my thoughts for what felt like half a lifetime.

‘Are you sure, Cal? It just looks like a hedge, there’s no –’

That was Lau. I mentally shook myself as I realised they’d found me. No, I didn’t want to be found, I wanted to go back to flowing, it was peaceful, it was nice. But I was to have no peace, no gentle flowing, not right now, as I heard the unmistakeable sounds of footsteps coming in to the enclosure.

Cal

Lau gasped as I disappeared, and I grinned to myself, even though this wasn’t a laughing matter. It seems it never got old, showing people the old trick.

Laura

One minute he was there, and the next he was gone, as if he’d been eaten by the foliage. I stood for a moment, mouth open, then started to run towards where Cal had been.

Cal

I looked around as I walked in, and immediately saw the crumpled shape of Matty, squashed in the corner of the hedge room, sitting on the floor, his suit all dirty, knees up to his chin, arms clasped tightly over his head, looking like he was not having a great time. He needed Lau.

‘Bingo.’

I raised my voice to call to Lau, and to let Matty know we’d found him. I had no idea whether he would be happy about that or not, but if anyone could get through to him, it was Lau. I stepped out of the hedge and gestured to her to go in.

Matt

Cal’s voice was near, but I didn’t look up. Then I heard him again, more distant, and realised he must have stepped out.

‘He’s here. Think you need to go and talk to him.’

Laura

I sagged with relief.

‘Thanks Cal. You’ve been amazing.’

Matt

The sound of Lau’s voice cut through the fog that had enveloped me, it was like a beacon. I didn’t want a beacon, I wanted the fog. I could drift in the fog.

Cal

‘Do you want me to stay?’

Lau nodded. ‘Would you mind, for a bit? Just until I know what’s what.’

‘Sure thing. I’ll be out here – oh, this is how you get in, look.’

I showed her the way, and Lau walked through, as I made myself comfortable, sort of, on the edge of a gravestone.

Laura

He pointed to a bit of the hedge that looked like any other bit of the hedge until you stepped close to it, when it became a well disguised gap in the hedge. I walked through, and into a small peaceful enclosure with a stone floor, a stone bench and two gravestones. And Matthew Robert Scott sitting on the floor in the corner, suit crumpled and dirty, knees up to his chest, arms over his head, trying to shut the world out.

118. State of shock

In which an old enemy returns, and bad news is imparted.

Matt

So here it is. Josh and Ella were five, they were happy at school, they were growing by the day, and learning so much stuff it was hard to keep up with them sometimes. I was loving life. I had my family, my job, friends, house, car, it was all going according to plan. Maybe that was one of the warning signs; nothing ever just pootles along merrily forever, does it. Sometimes it all crashes around you.

Looking back, I’d been ignoring it for a couple of weeks at least, probably longer. I’d fall asleep after dinner, a few of my words were slurred, but this wasn’t going to happen, it fucking well wasn’t going to come back, it had left me alone for nearly five years, and so I just worked hard, put it to the back of my mind, wished it away, and it seemed to go, and I wondered if I’d been imagining it.

Then it started creeping back, the odd unintelligible bit of bollocks, the occasional stumble, once I couldn’t get my arm to lift a cup into the dishwasher. My legs would tremble at odd times, sitting, standing or walking. I still ignored it. Because ignoring things makes them go away, doesn’t it.

Laura

One afternoon, school run completed, and Matt home from work, I was in the living room with Josh and Ella, waiting for Matt to bring us all a drink. Ella was lying on the floor colouring a picture; Josh was playing with his cars, pushing them up and down the sofa, having made a village on the cushions.

Matt

I was making everyone a drink – tea for Lau, blackcurrant squash for the kids, beer for me – and listening to their noises. Josh was playing cars, making engine sounds and beeps. Ella was colouring, and asking Lau which colour went with purple. I picked up the glass to pour my beer into, and as the liquid reached the top of the glass, my arm started to quiver. I tried to hold on, but my arm gave an almighty spasm, my hand let go, and glass and bottle fell to the floor. It was as if it had got pissed off with me ignoring it, and was making sure I knew it was back. Because it was, it was back. It was fucking back.

As the glass smashed on the floor and I stared at the burst of beer and froth that splattered the tiles and the units, it just slammed into me, and kept on pounding me. It was all my brain could compute.

‘Fuck off you fucking –’

Laura

I hissed a sharp intake of breath as Matt dropped the c-bomb. Sweary as he was, it was one of the few words I’d rarely heard him say. I felt my heart pinch with worry as Ella looked up from her drawing.

‘Daddy said a swear.’

Josh continued brrmming his cars along the sofa, shaking his head.

‘Really, Daddy.’

I smiled to hear my usual rebuke repeated. Matt didn’t swear as much as he used to, at least not within earshot of Josh and Ella, but a fair amount of cursing still went on, and the kids were always keen to join in the nagging. At least they hadn’t asked what it meant.

‘Alright in there?’

There was no reply. Sighing, I got to my feet and walked through the house.

Matt

I turned round to lean on the sink, breath heaving in my chest. This was the end, if it was back; the end of my normal life. How was I going to carry on now?

I heard Lau call out, but couldn’t answer her, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, all I could do was stare into the sink as hot tears flowed down my face and dropped into the washing up bowl.

Laura

In the kitchen, Matt was standing with his back to me, leaning on the sink, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh Matt.’

I picked my way through the explosion of glass and beer that had spread across the floor, until I could stand behind him and fold myself round him.

Matt

I felt her behind me, putting her arms round my waist and resting her face on my shoulder, and I span round, into her arms, crushing her to me, needing her to be there, my safe place. I tried to speak, to tell her, but it came out in shudders and sobs.

‘Ih’s back … the fucking … bastard’s … back. I thought … ih … had … gone.’

Laura

I’d been dreading something like this for a couple of weeks; I’d noticed small signs – a slight slur in the speech, stumbles and trips, difficulty focussing on the pictures the twins brought back from school, the fear in his eyes.

‘I know, flower.’

Although both of us knew it never really went, just lay in wait.

Matt

Of course she knew. She always knew everything. She’d been waiting for me to know.

‘Daddy, why are you crying?’

Oh shit, the kids were at the door. Lau turned round as I took deep breaths and tried to dry my eyes. Josh and Ella were standing in the doorway, eyes wide at the sight of their blarting father and the puddle of glass and beer spread across the kitchen floor. I tried a kind of smile, while Lau spoke to them.

Laura

‘Don’t come in, kids, there’s broken glass. Daddy’s sad because he dropped his beer.’

The immediately practical Ella rolled her eyes.

‘But Daddy you can get another one in the fridge. Mummy can clean up the floor.’

Josh stayed silent, always the one to soak everything up first and ask questions later.

‘I know, Squeaks, I’m just getting a cloth. Shoo, now, Daddy will bring your squash in a minute.’

Reluctant to leave the scene of impressive carnage, Ella and Josh lingered for a moment, eyeing the tempting puddle, until I waved my hands at them to urge them away. As they trotted off I turned back to Matt, lifting my hand to his face and wiping away a stray tear. I needed to show him I wasn’t just making light of it, to reassure him quickly, but was aware of the likelihood of small ears listening beyond the kitchen.

‘In it together, yeah?’

Matt

I put my hand over hers, then moved my lips to her palm, kissing it gently. If there was anyone I wanted with me while my world was ending, it was Lau. Always Lau.

‘Don’t know what I’d do without you, Lau. You don’t deserve this.’

My voice was ragged, whispering.

Laura

‘Matthew Robert Scott, I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life. When I signed on the dotted line, I knew exactly what I deserved, and it was you. It was always you, it will always be you. Now, a bit less nonsense and a bit more making blackcurrant squash to give to your gasping children while I clean up the floor. It needed a good mop anyway. And try not to track beery footprints through the house.’

Matt

I pulled her towards me while she was still talking, while she was still being practical and making it better, and we held each other tightly, as our bodies spoke of sorrow and pain and hard times to come, things that we couldn’t say while the children were within earshot.

‘Love you Lau.’

‘Love you too.’

So I made squash for the kids, and for the rest of the evening, until they went to bed, I was just Daddy, same old Daddy, who’d had a bit of a hissy fit when he spilt his beer, but came back in with the blackcurrant joking and smiling like it hadn’t happened. That was on the outside. On the inside I was folding into myself, how the fuck was I going to tell them, how the fuck were they going to understand their Daddy was going to become a fucking cripple who couldn’t walk, talk, pick them up, play football with them, reliably hit the right key on the computer … shit.

It all started hitting me, as Lau was upstairs with them and I sat on the sofa staring at nothing. This was worse, so much worse than before. I had two children who relied on me, not only to put food on their table, but to be their Daddy, and all the things that entailed. It wasn’t only going to be me who lost everything, it was going to be them too. I shrank into myself, trying to hide from it all.

Lau came back downstairs after tucking them in and reading them a story, and we sat curled up on the sofa, TV on, us silent. I knew she’d want to discuss it, and I nearly started a couple of times, but I didn’t even know where to begin.

Laura

After the children had gone to bed, we sat curled up on the sofa, a film on the TV that neither of us were watching, Matt’s arm round me as I lay against his chest. I heard him breathe in a couple of times as if he was going to say something, but he let the breath out without speaking.

‘Want to talk about it?’

Matt sighed. ‘No, not really. Ih’s not going to change anything, is ih. Can’t face ih just now. Need time.’

‘OK, whatever you need.’

I knew Matt well enough by now to know when to push him to talk and when he really did need the space he always asked for whether he needed it or not. At this moment there was a lot of thinking going on for him, now it was out in the open, and when he’d done that, I would push if I needed to. It wasn’t lost on me that I was experiencing MS from the other side, the side where – unlike at work – you couldn’t just detach from the pain and hurt of people, the side where you were in the middle of it all and there was no let up, no nine to five, no lunch break

‘Are you watching this?’

‘No, not really. Do you want to watch something else?’

‘No, I was thinking about going to bed.’

‘It’s still early.’

‘I didn’t necessarily mean to sleep.’

‘Oh.’

Matt’s face lit up, then darkened.

Matt

I looked at her expression, her come to bed eyes, and for a second she had me fooled. Then I knew what she was doing.

‘I don’t need a pity fuck, thanks.’

I realised straight away I’d offended her, that she’d been genuine. God, I was already retreating behind lashing out at the people I loved.

Laura

I tried not to be offended; he was feeling vulnerable and hitting out. Matt wasn’t the only one who maybe needed the reassurance that physical closeness always brought us, and it hadn’t been an offer, it had been a suggestion.

‘You don’t know me at all if you think there’s anything pitying in trying to get you into bed. You’re the hotty with the great bum that all my friends are jealous of, I just thought that rather than sitting here vegging in front of a crappy film neither of us are watching, we could maybe explore said bum in more comfort. Maybe explore my bum too. I found a muscle the other day.’

‘You did not!’

To my relief, Matt took the line I’d dangled; the opportunity to tease me.

Matt

She had a saucy smile, and she was throwing me a life-line. I caught it and clung on for dear life.

‘You have no muscles in your arse, that’s why it’s so lush.’

‘I’m telling you I found a muscle. It’s all those squats and lunges at the gym. Will says –’

Lau was doing really well at the gym. She didn’t need to do any of it, not for me, but she was getting fitter for her, and losing some of the curves she found most vexing.

‘Oh Will says, your uhmayzing personal trainer who gets to perv on you in your gym top. What does Willy-boy say?’

‘I’m not going to tell you now, I don’t think you’ll take Willy-boy seriously.’

She feigned a pout.

‘Does he say you’ve got a fantastic arse?’

‘No, but he –’

‘Then he’s an idiot. Come on, let’s go and see just where this imaginary bum muscle is.’

I grabbed her hand, losing myself in the moment, in the Matt and Lau of it, while I could. I pulled her out of her seat, and she ran past me up the stairs, as I followed, trying to tickle her newly toned arse.

I spent some considerable time looking for Lau’s bum muscle, using various inventive search methods, before pronouncing it invisible to the naked eye.

‘But hey, Lau, I bet you’ve hidden it somewhere else. Is it … here?’

Iz

Lord Above, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more … hang on to your jam sandwiches folks.

Matt

I conducted a thorough investigation of her mouth with my tongue and lips that left us both breathless and flushed.

‘Well, Lau, there is a pretty good muscle in there, but it’s not the one I’m looking for. How about here?’

I kissed my way down her throat and had a good hunt around her breasts with my mouth and fingers. Lau tangled her fingers in my hair and moaned. How could I have thought this was out of pity? She was enjoying herself as much as I was.

‘Nope, no sign of a muscle in there either. Just have to keep on looking.’

Holding her gaze, I let my hand drift lower, brushing her belly button before settling between her legs. Lau twitched as I found her most sensitive spot, and she grasped my shoulders as I moved myself downwards and followed my fingers with my mouth. It was her favourite, and never failed to light her up; I grinned against her as it worked again.

My fingers probed lower and deeper, until they were in her, and I started to thrust. Lau clenched around me, inside her.

‘Whoa, there it is, that’s the muscle I was looking for. Naughty Willy-boy if he’s been working on this one!’

I knelt between her legs, continuing to thrust into her with my fingers, watching Lau writhe, building the heat as I gazed down at her. God she was awesome, and I wanted her so much.

‘Ready, Lau?’

‘Yeah, oh God, yeah.’

‘Work that body. Here we go.’

I slipped my fingers out and guided my hard-on into her. As I filled her, pushed into her, felt the familiar sensation, allowed it to blow my mind again, as it did every time, I started to thrust, slowly and rhythmically, so I could feel every part of her sliding and sparking against every part of me.

At first I propped myself up on my arms, so just our hips were touching, then her mouth was so appealing, I bent down and kissed her, wrapping her up in my arms as she folded her legs round my back and drew me deeper into her. My thrusts became more urgent and we both started to cry out before remembering the children and dropping the volume, but we stayed locked together, bodies slipping against each other, breathing hard, moaning our pleasure, and then coming, and coming and coming, plunging deep into each other, exploding with the release.

I clung on to Lau for a long time afterwards, wanting, needing to be as close to her as I could. After a while, it was overwhelming, the whole mess, and it started coming out, first in gulps, then shudders. I tried not to let go, but there was too much of it, and before long I was quivering against her, sobbing. Lau soothed me, stroking my back, kissing my hair, whispering nonsense to me, until I calmed down. I still held on as if I was drowning.

Lau was waiting, to see if I was going to say anything. This time I was.

‘I don’t wana lose this.’

‘Oh my love.’

I knew she wouldn’t say ‘you won’t’, because I had last time, and indeed the time before, and Lau never made empty promises.

‘Don’t mourn it before it’s gone. Make the most of it while it’s here.’

I sniffed and wiped my eyes.

‘Oh you’re right, you bloody cow, you always know what to say. Anyone would think you used to be a nurse or something.’

‘Still am a nurse, thanks.’

Lau was always very firm about the fact that even though she wasn’t working, she had trained as a nurse, and a nurse was what she would stay, come what may.

‘Yeah, OK, fair enough. Oh Lau, I’m sorry.’

I let go of her and rolled onto my back, with my arm over my face. Lau snuggled into my side with an arm over my chest.

‘What are you sorry about?’

‘All this. Fucking bastard MS, me fucking freaking, you having to be all ‘one step at a time’ when you just want to freak yourself. You know … Lau, you know you don’t have to stay, no one would blame you, least of all me, if you took the kids and went.’

It was something that had occurred to me as I thought about how it was going to affect them all. Surely it would be easier for them all if they could just get on with things without having to bother about me?

Lau pushed me away from her angrily, and her eyes were flashing fire.

‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere, and neither are Josh and Ella. You can stop this ‘poor me’ nonsense right now. Just for the record, as you seem to have forgotten, I love you. When I met you, you were having a flare-up of MS, so if I was going to bail out because of that, then would have been the time. How dare you think I care about you so little that I run, and take our children with me, at the first sign of something untoward? What sort of a person do you think I am?’

I closed my eyes, didn’t speak for a moment.

‘Sorry, Lau, didn’t think of it like that. Trying to be selfless.’

‘Yeah, I seem to remember you trying that before one time, and we nearly didn’t get together in the first place as a result, in fact, you nearly – well who knows what you might have done that night. The point is, there is no ‘selfless’ when it comes to our family, we are all together, we help each other and love each other and support each other, and need each other. If you even think of going it alone, that’s selfish, not selfless. We all need you. God, you are proper infuriating.’

I couldn’t look at her. My eyes were spilling tears again; I just didn’t deserve it, this love, this loyalty, when all I was going to be able to offer them, soon, was pain and unhappiness. Lau folded me up in her arms again, and I squeezed her tightly against me as I cried again. I could feel her strength pouring into me, and part of me felt selfish for taking it, but God how I needed it, how I needed her comfort, as she stroked my back and made soft noises in my ear. It all subsided after a time, but Lau carried on holding me, and we lay in the darkness and breathed together.

Just as I was starting to drift into the black, the door handle rattled. We didn’t have a lock on the door, but the twins had taken to visiting in the early hours, so we had put a chair in front of the door, so we at least had some warning. We must have woken them up.

Laura

‘Mummy.’

It was Ella. It usually was, and she would be closely followed by Josh, who didn’t like being left on his own in the room they still shared.

‘Go back to bed, Squeaks.’

Matt

Lau was stricter than me about letting them in, and at the moment was protecting me. I suddenly wanted them all here, our family together.

‘Can’t they come in, Lau? Four way cuddle would be great right now.’

Laura

I sighed. It sent all sorts of mixed messages, but sometimes other things were more important. I got out of bed and moved the chair. Ella stood outside the door, holding her teddy. As predicted, Josh was at her shoulder. Both were looking up at me with big sleepy eyes.

‘Come on then. No noise or giggling, now.’

I tried to be strict, but it was a treat to have us all snuggled up together. We’d all be tired tomorrow, but it wasn’t tomorrow yet, it was now. Ella and Josh trotted into the bedroom and jumped into the bed as Matt held the duvet open for them – there was just enough room for us all, Josh and Ella on the inside, Matt and me on the outside.

Matt

By the time the kids had rolled over a few times and spread out, one of us would be off to the guest room, usually Lau, but before that happened, we all smushed together, me starting a bit of tickling because Lau loved trying to make us stop and behave, and then kisses and cuddles before going to sleep. I folded them both up, one after the other, with big hugs. Josh, as usual, submitted willingly, but Ella would only stand it for a short while.

‘You’re squeezing me Daddy.’

Laura

Our children were so different; Ella always took the lead, asked questions, said what she wanted, did what she wanted, threw a tantrum when she didn’t get what she wanted, using pester-power and volume to see her needs were met. Josh was happier to follow, riding on his sister’s coat tails, picking up the crumbs she left behind. When Josh made a fuss, you knew it was really important.

I wondered how they would react to the return of Matt’s MS, and started to think about what we might say to them. There had been some really good children’s resources around when I worked in the MS team; I’d give them a ring and see if I could beg some freebies.

Eventually we settled down, and Matt, Josh and Ella fell asleep while I listened to the sound of their breathing. I dozed off eventually, but woke later, teetering on the edge of the bed, with Ella curled against my back, her knees digging into my kidneys; it was usually me who ended up in the spare room. Stifling a resigned sigh, I rolled out of bed and walked round the bed.

Matt

I woke up, arse hanging over the edge of the bed, to see Lau creeping out of the room.

‘Lau?’

‘Been squeezed out. See you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t go.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of this night, of all nights, without her.

‘There’s no room.’

‘Wait, then.’

She waited by the bed as I climbed out, disentangling myself from Josh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Coming with you.’

‘We won’t both fit in the spare bed.’

‘Yeah we will. You and your muscly arse, me a skinny streak of nothing, plenty of room. Come on, we’ll wake them up if we stand here chatting.’

I couldn’t see her clearly, but I recognised the shape of her rolling her eyes at me as I followed her to the door.

Laura

We would have been better off taking Josh and Ella’s beds, but I knew Matt wanted to wrap himself up in me tonight, so we headed off to the spare room.

I woke early, cramped, neck stiff, shoved up against the wall. Matt was lying on his front, half hanging off the side of the single bed, head turned towards me, mouth open. His hair stuck out at wild angles, and I reached out and smoothed it, as I did most mornings.

I heard a noise from our room; it was Matt’s phone. It was set to go off every two minutes when he got a text, unless he read it. I decided to fetch it before it pinged again, to avoid waking Ella and Josh early, if possible. I carefully sat up and rearranged the duvet around Matt, before shuffling to the end of the bed and hopping off. Although I was trying to be quiet, I probably could have jumped up and down on the mattress without waking him, but it was a habit from being around the children.

The screen on Matt’s phone was lit up on his bedside table. I glanced at Ella and Josh, but they were dead to the world, Ella’s arm flung out across Josh’s chest. I looked down at the phone – it was a short text from Dec. I quickly carried the phone into the spare room before it pinged again.

It wasn’t unusual for Dec and Matt to text each other at all sorts of times of the day and night, sometimes it was a bit of a competition to see who could annoy the other the most, but something about this one made me try to wake Matt.

I tried shaking him gently, not wanting him to fall out of bed from his precarious perch. I tried speaking into his ear. I tried pinching him. The most I got was a mumbled curse and a move to a more comfortable position, away from the edge of the bed, as he rolled onto his back. As a last resort, I kissed him, using the full force of my tongue and lips to try and rouse him, tweaking his nipples as I did so.

Matt

I woke with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her fingers tweaking my nipple. This was more like it, a proper wake-up call. Oh, but she pulled away as I started kissing her back. She shoved my phone in front of my face, but I didn’t understand.

‘Wha? No, c’mere, keep snogging.’

‘You’ve got a text from Dec.’

‘Wha? He can piss off, ih’s only –’

I took the phone and looked at the time.

‘– shit, Lau, ih’s only bloody five o’clock.’

‘Yeah, but I think you need to read it.’

I still wasn’t quite awake, and I ran a hand through my hair as I tried to gather my thoughts. I looked blearily at the phone, and clicked on the message.

‘Shit.’

‘What does he say?’

‘RU awake, need 2 talk. Urgent.’

‘Ring him then.’

No, no, no, I couldn’t cope with any more drama, not today, I needed time to get my head around things. I combed my hair with my fingers again, then lay down, holding my arm out for Lau to get back in beside me. She climbed in and cuddled up, as I hit ‘call’.

‘Hey, ih’s me.’

‘Hey mate. You’re awake, then?’

‘Well I am now, what’s the big emergency?’

I was hoping that maybe it was something relatively innocuous, like Amy was poorly and we needed to look after the kids while he was at training, although why he was calling this bloody early in the morning I had no idea.

‘Can I come over? I’m … I’ve got … I just need to tell you something.’

What the fuck? I didn’t like the sound of this.

‘Oh, well, I guess, yeah.’

‘Coffee would be good.’

‘OK, I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘Five minutes?’

‘Yeah, see you in a bit.’

Oh I didn’t like this at all. Dec wasn’t fucking about or anything. It was something pretty huge. I turned to Lau.

‘He’s coming round.’

‘Why?’

‘Said he needed to tell me something. Shit, ih sounds big, Lau.’

I heard the tremble in my voice. I knew what Lau’s response would be – don’t worry about it until you know for sure – but all sorts of possibilities were flooding into my mind, each one worse than the last. And on top of it all was me; me and the fucking bastard.

‘I don’t want him to know about … me, not just yet.’

‘OK, flower, but … he’ll notice eventually.’

‘Yeah. But not today. Please.’

‘Sure, of course, it’s totally up to you. I’ll go and put the kettle on, while you find some pyjama bottoms or something.’

Laura

I grabbed my dressing gown from our bedroom, and went quickly downstairs, as I heard a light tap on the door. I let Dec in, looking at him quizzically. He looked nervous, which was unlike him; he was usually laid back about everything.

‘Go through, flower.’

I gestured to the living room.

‘I’m just making a drink. Tea or coffee?’

‘Thanks, Lau, coffee would be great, it’s early for me.’

‘It’s early for all of us.’

‘Yeah, I know, sorry.’

‘Matt’s on his way down, just getting decent.’

‘Oh, good, wouldn’t want any indecency from Matt, not before breakfast anyway.’

Matt

Lau went downstairs to let Dec in while I found some trousers. I heard a light tap on the door, then Dec and Lau’s voices, then Lau went back into the kitchen. I sat upstairs, on the bed, for as long as I could, knowing I was avoiding whatever it was, knowing it would surely be better to know than to imagine. Finally, I made my way downstairs and into the living room, where Dec was waiting.

I kept telling myself it might not be anything bad. Last time I’d convinced myself it was, and they were getting married. Dec didn’t always consider the effect of how he did things on other people, yeah, who was I to judge. I should just wait.

But as I went into the living room and saw the look on Dec’s face, saw him look ill-at-ease, fiddling with his fingers, hardly able to meet my eyes, I knew. At least, I knew it wasn’t good.

Lau brought some coffee in, and then turned to go, but I wanted her here, needed her here while he told me whatever it was. I felt for her hand and looked up at her, begging her to stay with my eyes.

‘Stay, Lau.’

Lau looked at Dec, to check it was OK with him. He nodded back at her.

‘Yeah, Lau, you should hear this too.’

She sat next to me and squeezed my hand, trying to keep me calm. Dec looked down for a while, taking a few deep breaths. It was almost more than I could stand, waiting for him to spit it out.

‘Please, Dec, get on with ih, I’m imagining all sorts of terrible shit, put me out of my fucking misery.’

Dec looked up and met my eyes.

‘I’ve signed for West Coast Speeders.’

A jolt went through me, I felt it lift me out of my seat slightly. I’d been pretty sure he was going to tell me he’d signed for another club, had steeled myself for it, was expecting him to be on his way to London, maybe TomCats or Warriors, one of the big clubs. West Coast Speeders were in Australia. He was moving to the other side of the fucking world. I couldn’t speak, just looked at him. Dec filled the silence with more information, but I could hardly take it in. I was numb.

Laura

I felt the shock go through Matt. He didn’t say anything, just looked back at Dec. Dec couldn’t possibly know the hammer blow he had just dealt Matt, with his MS symptoms returning – how much Matt would have relied on having Dec around.

Matt

‘It’s going to be announced at nine this morning, I wanted you to know before you went to work, or you heard it on the fucking telly or something.’

I still just stared at him, it was Lau who spoke.

Laura

Still nothing from Matt, although I had a question.

‘Where are West Coast wotsits?’

I’d vaguely heard of the team, but didn’t think they were in the league that Raiders played in.

Matt

Oh, Lau wouldn’t know, she knew fuck all about rugby anyway, let alone which continent teams played on.

‘Australia. Perth. It’s where I lived when I was little.’

‘Australia? Oh Dec.’

Laura

I squeezed Matt’s hand with all my might, as my eyes filled with tears. Amy and Dec were our best friends, our children played together and fought together, in and out of each other’s houses all the time. I couldn’t imagine our lives without them just up the road.

Matt

I looked at Lau, and saw tears in her eyes. It wasn’t just me this was going to affect. Amy was Lau’s friend, their kids were in and out of our house all the time, what would Beth and Jay think? What about Rose? Considering the impact this news would have on people who weren’t me made me slightly less self-obsessed, made me think of something to say. Dec was sitting there looking miserable and tense, when this was great for him, an incredible opportunity.

‘Didn’t you support Speeders when you were a kid?’

I tried to keep my tone light, but I heard the catch in my voice. At least I wasn’t spouting unintelligible bollocks.

Dec looked relieved that I had spoken, and that I was acting normal.

‘Yeah. I used to train with them as well, before I moved to England, with their juniors. It’s like my last chance, I’m getting older and don’t always make the first team here any more. If I don’t go now, they might not ask again, and it’s like a childhood dream kind of thing. And there’s a small chance, if I’m playing in Oz, that I could get the call from the Wallabies.’

‘That’s great for you, mate. Fucking brilliant.’

With a huge effort, I managed a smile for him. He was my mate, almost my brother, and if I couldn’t fake a bit of happiness on his behalf, I wasn’t really worth much. A few more tears spilled down Lau’s face.

Laura

I saw the effort Matt made to be happy for his friend, his brother, and was so proud of him, but I couldn’t match his faked composure, or stop a few tears spilling down my face.

‘We’ll miss you.’

Matt

She said it for me, for all of us.

‘I know, Lau. I can’t really believe we’re going to be moving away. I’ve lived here, in this city for, well it feels like my whole life. Everything I know is here. It’s scaring the shit out of me, and we’ll miss you guys too, but it won’t be forever. I’ve only got two or three more years left of playing before I’m too knackered, and I’m only signing for a year to start with.’

‘When are you going, mate?’

‘At the end of the season. May, sometime, depending on what Raiders get up to in the league. I might be able to fit a couple of games in over there before their season finishes.’

Shit, that was really soon. I wasn’t going to have any time to take it in, get used to it. Shit. I squeezed Lau’s hand so tightly I saw her wince, and loosened my hold slightly.

‘Holy fuck, that’s only a few weeks – why so soon?’

‘Well their season’s already started over there. I’m going to get stuck right in as soon as I arrive, but I’ve got to finish up here with Raiders first.’

‘I assume you’ve told Jay.’

‘Yeah, I just rang him. I’ve only just sorted it out – time difference and all that. Been on the phone to agents and admin people all bloody night, now I’ve got to go in for training. Gonna take a bit of stick, I should think.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Oh, you know Jay, not at his best for early morning calls. But he was OK. It was Beth who was in floods. Oh shit, this is going to be so hard, telling everyone. I should go, I’ve got to call a few people, then go round to see Rose on my way to training. Really, really not looking forward to that one.’

If I thought I wasn’t handling it well, I only had to think of Rose to put things in perspective. Rose had no family of her own, apart from a sister and nephew in Wales, and Dec, Amy and their children were like her own children and grandchildren. She was going to be destroyed.

Dec stood up to go, and Lau went out with him. I gave him as good a smile as I could muster, but it was a pretty feeble effort. As soon as he left the room, I dropped my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes, the news pounding through me, threatening to overpower me. The fucking bastard was back, and Dec wasn’t going to be here. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fucking fair.

Laura

I showed Dec to the door. He looked at me and lowered his voice.

‘Is he OK?’

‘Yeah, we’re both just surprised. And sad for us. Great for you, though, flower. Exciting.’

‘He just seems a bit …’

Dec’s words trailed off and he shrugged. I knew he meant more than just being upset. He would have noticed the same things I had over the past week or so, but I decided to play innocent.

‘He’ll be fine, once we get used to it. One of Beth’s huge parties will sort things.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, oh fuck, she’s going to throw a humdinger isn’t she. Take care, Lau.’

‘You too. Have a good day.’

Matt

Lau came back in and tried to take my hand, but I just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to touch anyone, be with anyone, just needed time to process it all, put it somewhere it didn’t all hurt so fucking much. Maybe tomorrow I’d laugh at myself for being such a melodramatic wanktard, but today it was a pain deep in my gut, and I needed to be there in the middle of it, sore, bruised and miserable. I pulled away from Lau, curled my knees up to my chest and turned away from her.

‘Just wana be on my own for a bit.’

To her credit, she didn’t try to get me to talk, or even try to stay with me.

‘OK, then. Here, put this round you so you don’t get cold.’

I hardly noticed while she put the throw from the back of the sofa over me, and left the room.

I spent the next couple of hours hovering over the pit of despair, the same one that had tried to drag me into it before, when Dec had climbed in and pulled me out. Except now he couldn’t, because he was the reason I was here, and I couldn’t let him know how devastated I was, I couldn’t tell him I needed him here like I needed all of them here, that him fucking off to another continent was the worst news I’d ever heard. Because he had his own life, and he deserved it, he’d worked hard for it, and fuck knows he’d spent enough time in the past propping me up and being there for me. I wasn’t about to make him feel guilty about going and making the most of life while he had the opportunity.

So I hovered there, on the edge, nearly falling in, the darkness beckoning, and then it crossed my mind, just floated in there, what I was supposed to be doing today. I’d managed to toss everything else out to make room for my enormous bout of self-pity, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be giving a presentation this morning. People were relying on me. Maybe I’d been considering taking the day off to bury myself under the duvet, I hadn’t really thought about it coherently, but with a plummeting heart, I realised I was going to have to get myself into some kind of shape, slap on some smart clothes and a professional attitude, and tell a room full of people about shit that right at that moment I couldn’t have cared less about.

It was almost more than I could bear, and I seriously considered calling in sick, but there was no one else who could do it, and it had taken ages to sort out this date so everyone who needed to be there was there. I was going to have to pull myself together and do it. Maybe working would distract me.

I looked at the time. Gone seven, so Lau would be up soon, ready to start chivvying Ella and Josh. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to disperse both my tiredness and the churning that was going on inside my head. Things needed doing, the day needed to start, so I got up and went into the kitchen to make some breakfast.

Laura

Ella woke me up, holding my phone, which was bleeping insistently, to my ear. It was seven eighteen and the alarm had been going for a minute.

‘Mummy wake up your phone is making me cross.’

I took the phone and turned it off.

‘Sorry, Squeaks, I forgot it was in there. There, all better.’

‘Where’s Daddy?’

‘Oh, I think he’s … downstairs already. Shall we go and find him?’

Ella nodded and took my hand as I got out of bed and made for the stairs.

‘Is Josh still asleep?’

I peered into our bedroom as I passed, and could make out Josh’s sleeping form. He was clutching Ella’s teddy.

‘Yes, he was saying things last night.’

Josh often sleep-talked. He slept more deeply than Ella, who could wake at the slightest sound, and she often reported the weird things her brother chattered about in the night.

We went downstairs together; I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the living room, how Matt would be, but when Ella and I opened the door, he wasn’t there, and the throw had been folded up and returned to the back of the sofa. I heard noises from the kitchen.

‘Hey, Squeaks, if we’re lucky Daddy’s making breakfast. Do you want Weeties?’

Ella considered, her morning breakfast choices being the first of many things she weighed up seriously before continuing her morning routine.

‘Coco Pops.’

‘OK, I’ll tell Daddy.’

Ella continued into the living room, and I made my way into the kitchen, where Matt was busy making his breakfast. I looked at his face; he looked terrible, dark circles under his eyes, pale and drawn.

Matt

Lau came in on her own, Ella having gone into the living room to turn the TV on. I carried on making tea and toast, putting more bread in the toaster for Lau and getting the Coco Pops out for Ella. It all felt automatic, like it wasn’t really me doing it. I felt dreadful, only half alive. Lau came over and looked at me, studying my face.

Laura

‘Matt, you look awful. Maybe you shouldn’t go to work today.’

‘I’ve got to, I’m doing a presentation about the new GPS, to everyone, players, coaches, admin, the whole bloody club.’

‘Can’t Cory or Jenna do it?’

‘Cory’s on a course and Jenna’s on holiday.’

‘Oh. Are you sure you can do it?’

‘Yeah, Lau, I’ve not got a bloody choice. I’m just tired, I didn’t sleep after Dec went, and not much before. I’ve been wiped before, I’ll be OK.’

‘Here, let me do that, then.’

I took the kettle out of his hand, noticing the shake as he held it.

‘Ella’s up, Josh is still fast asleep, whole bed to himself.’

‘Go Hippo, sleep hard.’

Matt tried a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

‘We’ll talk later, flower.’

Matt

I closed my eyes briefly, unable to face the thought of all the talking, fussing, I was going to have to endure once they all got wind of it. Then I nodded and took Ella’s cereal to her.

I dragged myself through getting ready. None of it seemed real, it was all overlaid with a sense of being outside my own life looking in, wishing so hard things were different that I was almost detaching myself from reality.

I was ready about the same time as Josh and Ella. I usually took them to school on my way to work, and today was no different. Lau had got them ready, and she gave them their sandwich boxes as I stood by the door.

Lau come over and straightened my tie, giving me a kiss as she did so. There was a lot we weren’t saying to each other, not only because the children were right there, but because we both knew I wasn’t going to talk about it yet.

‘Must be an important presentation, for you to get all togged up in your posh.’

‘Important enough. The CEO’s gona be there, not exactly one where I can wear my cargo shorts and ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt.’

‘You look lovely, you should dress up more often. Not just for work.’

She gave me a meaningful look and I did my best to flash her a smile

‘Noted. See you later, Lau. Kiss your mum, kids.’

Lau bent down to Josh, who gave her a big cuddle and a kiss, and to Ella, who pecked her on the cheek, eager to get going and see her friends. If I could just focus on this, the ordinary stuff, I’d be OK. Ordinary was fine; it was big, huge, life-changing shit that was hard. I chatted to them both in the car and saw them into the playground, then continued my journey to work, where it became a bit more difficult to feel ordinary.

Laura

I waved them all off and went to pack my gym bag. I usually went with Amy, as we had a Pilates class together later on in the morning, but she had texted to say that with all the events of last night, she wasn’t going.

117. Swimming lesson

In which friends become more, and then deja vu is experienced.

Cal

All the time I was friends with Ayesh, I had Dec’s voice going on at me in my mind, from when he talked to me about Chrissie – ‘so if she wanted to hold your hand … or kiss you, you’d push her away?’. And I was pretty sure the answer was yes. I’d push her away, because I loved being friends with Ayesh and I didn’t want it to change. In fact, I did push her away, not physically, but I never let any of the closeness creep in to our friendship that had got in there with me and Chrissie. I hung out with Baggo much more. Ayesh didn’t really get Baggo, and didn’t really like hanging out with him, so I was a bit split, but it made it easier to be with both of them. I wasn’t torn when I was with both of them together as to whether I was being the Cal who was with Baggo or the Cal who was with Ayesh, because I could be myself with both of them.

And it was when rugby was really starting to take off for me. I’d loved playing since I was little, once I realised I loved it best out of all the sports I played, and once Dad realised I was up for it. I joined the juniors and played my way through the age groups, always loving it, never thinking I was going to be doing it for a living, even though most of the important male role models in my life (Dad, Dec, Nico) did it for a living. I guess they never made me feel it was the only thing I could do, and I had Matty to make me see there was more to life than running around a field after a ball. But when I was sixteen, I had to make a decision, whether rugby was going to be a hobby or something I wanted to take seriously.

Dad hadn’t had to have many ‘chats’ with me, he left most of that kind of stuff to Mum, backing it up with ‘yeah, what she said’ kind of noises when directed to, but this was something Mum steered well clear of. If she had her say, she’d ban me from going anywhere near a rugby pitch for the rest of my life, as she worried every time I played, or even trained, that some dire accident was going to happen. So she kept out of all discussions concerning my rugby future in an attempt to, uncharacteristically, let me make my own mind up, and it was left to Dad to broach the subject.

Dad had this ability to be Dad at home and Scotty the Coach at work, whoever he was with. He managed it with Dec and Nico, and most impressively he managed it with me.

When I was in the lower age groups, he was just a distant figure who would come down and watch every so often, but he never behaved any differently to me than he did to any of the other kids. I didn’t get any favours, I didn’t get to be cheeky to him or any of the other coaches and get away with it, and I didn’t get picked because I was Jay Scott’s son even though I was often accused of it.

So it wasn’t surprising that Dad chose to have the ‘chat’ about my rugby future the same way he had it with all the other sixteen-year-olds who were either being told they could make it or they couldn’t and what did they want to do about it. It was a trip to the top floor of the stadium to Jay Scott’s office to find out.

I waited outside the office with most of my team mates. We’d all been given appointments for after that night’s training session, and were waiting nervously, fidgeting and taking the piss out of each other as one by one we were called in to the office. Some came out with wide smiles and bits of paper, having been offered an academy contract, some didn’t meet anyone’s eyes and hurried past with their gaze fixed on the floor, having been told their future wasn’t with Raiders. I was last, and as I waited, trying not to think about what Dad was going to say, I could hear his voice as he told Brendan Hardy that he’d done a great job this season, but they were only keeping so many on the books into the next age group, and he was sorry but …

Of course, I couldn’t hear all that, just Dad’s voice going up and down and the odd syllable from Brendan, but when Brendan came out and didn’t look at me, but instead rushed past wiping his eyes, well it was pretty obvious. I wondered how Dad would feel if he had to say that to me? It wouldn’t stop me wanting to play rugby, but not doing it at Raiders would be hard. And over the past few weeks, I’d been thinking more and more about trying for a career as a rugby player, about how I didn’t really want to do anything else, and the coaches all seemed to think I was good enough, and I’d got my hopes up. But now it was make or break time. I took a deep breath and stood up when Dad’s door opened.

‘Come on in Cal.’

I walked into his office as if I’d never been there before. Dad sat behind his desk and I sat on the chair in front of it, fiddling nervously with the bottom of my t-shirt, my heart pounding. It was as if Dad wasn’t really Dad, like he had this kind of costume on, and was playing the part of Scotty the Coach.

Maybe that’s what he did, how he managed it, to be two different people, to be the confident media savvy bloke who did the post-match interviews when Dom Barker was otherwise engaged, who did the half-time team talks, who was the same bloke who was Dad, who stretched semi-comatose on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon, avoiding emptying the dishwasher while Mum chattered on at him. Whatever, he was in full Scotty the Coach mode right now, and it was making me very, very nervous.

‘OK Cal, you know why you’re here. It’s time to think about the next step for you. We’ve had to let a few lads go who weren’t quite right for Raiders.’

Oh God, oh God, he was going to ditch me. I was going to have to go and join some lower league junior team, or play for the school or something. I nodded and looked at my hands, trying to make my face look unconcerned.

‘All the coaches from your age group have had input into this decision, it’s not me who decides who we keep on.’

Shit, they all think I’m crap, then, and Dad’s just the lucky one who gets to tell me. Could this be any more awkward?

‘The jump up to the next level is a hard one, and only the lads we think have what it takes to work hard and improve will be asked to come back next season in the academy.’

Yeah, yeah, I get it, I didn’t make the grade. Just get it over with.

‘So I’m really pleased to tell you that we’re asking you to join the academy. Well done, Cal.’

‘What?’

‘Well done. You just need to sign here. You need one of your parents to sign too – oh, that would be me. Job done.’

‘What?’

‘I’m not sure what you don’t understand. You’re in the academy.’

He finally cracked a grin and let ‘Dad’ shine through Scotty the Coach, and he looked, though I say so myself, bloody proud.

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously. Why, what did you think I was going to say?’

‘That I wasn’t going to be kept on, that I wasn’t good enough.’

‘Honestly Cal, do you not listen to anything your coaches tell you? I hope you pay a bit more attention next season. Mac and Bob think you’ve got the makings of a first team winger in a few years time, if you work hard.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. Well done, mate.’

‘Thanks, Dad.’

‘That’s Scotty to you.’

‘Sorry Coach.’

So in the end, it wasn’t so much a chat with Dad as a fait accompli, no discussion required. Dad knew I loved playing, and now I knew I was good enough for the next level, so any discussion would have been pointless, and would probably have gone ‘Want to be in the academy?’ ‘Fuck yeah’.

And so my immediate future was set. I was going to eat, sleep and breathe rugby for the next twenty years of my life, and it all started then. I trained hard, I played hard, I did everything they asked me to, and with schoolwork and exams and family and friends, I hardly had a moment to stop and think about anything.

Laura

Josh and Ella grew, walked, talked, went to nursery, went to school, and my days were suddenly empty. I wandered around our silent house while they were all out, and started to think about working again. I’d given up my job in the MS service a few years ago, knowing I wasn’t going to go back, and was thinking about general nursing, maybe some bank work.

Cal

I saw Ayesh and Baggo when I could, they were my life support, keeping my feet on the ground, making sure I got away from rugby at least sometimes, giving me healthy doses of reality.

Ayesh would make me see sense about joining in with some of Baggo’s madder adventures, and Baggo would try to make me see what was happening with me and Ayesh.

‘So have you shagged her yet?’

‘We’re not like that, we’re mates.’

‘You know she wants to, right?’

‘She doesn’t. We’re mates.’

And so I’d ask Ayesh, and it was always the same answer.

‘We’re friends, Cal. You don’t want to spoil that, do you?’

‘Do you think it would spoil it?’

‘Do you?’

‘Maybe. Aren’t we great as we are? Best mates?’

And we’d just carry on as we were. It wasn’t until one Christmas that either of us realised just what we had, and just what we were on the brink of losing.

Christmas was always a great time for our family. When I was little, I loved it because of Santa and all the presents, and there was that one Christmas when Dec came back that seemed more special than the others, and kind of set the tone for the rest after that.

We had some incredible Christmases, mostly due to Mum’s love of party planning; they were always full of food, presents and people, with tons of kids squealing, laughing and inevitably crying. Sometimes it was just family – there were more than enough of us to fill the house on our own – but sometimes she’d invite other random people like the old lady up the road who lived alone, or Baggo and his mum.

I can only remember one year when Christmas wasn’t at our house, well two if you count that year in Stafford, but the other year was when Mum let Amy and Lau do it at their houses. She told everyone she wanted a rest, and maybe that was the truth, maybe she wanted to show Lau and Amy that she could graciously hand over the reins, but she couldn’t leave it alone. She was over there all the time making mince pies, giving suggestions about gravy and shit, and she spent the next day whingeing about how she would have done it differently, so she never let it happen again.

There were a couple of strange Christmases when Dec and his gang were in Australia, and it didn’t feel right, which was weird if you think about it logically, because Dec isn’t even a blood relation, but he’s so part of the family that nothing felt right when he wasn’t around.

But the Christmas before that, it was a full-on Scott family festive fun day, and I was looking forward to it. Not that I was going to get much time to enjoy it – rugby training didn’t stop just because the rest of the country ground to a halt. We got Christmas day off, and then we were up and training the next day, ready for playing at the weekend.

I was pretty wrapped up in myself and my busy life, but even so I was getting definite vibes from Ayesh that all was not going to be well with her that Christmas. Her family were from India, and her dad was going back for a couple of months, and her mum didn’t seem too happy about it, and Ayesh spent a lot of time round at mine to get away from the atmosphere. She got on really well with my mum, so it didn’t matter that much to Ayesh whether I was there or not, and I’d often come in after an evening training session or a gaming session with Baggo and find the two of them wiping their eyes at some girls crap on the TV.

Then Ayesh texted me one day.

Things just got worse. Mum going to India. I’ve got to stay and look after Pav and Indi.

Pav and Indi were Ayesh’s brother and sister, twelve and fifteen, and if Ayesh’s mum was going at the same time as her dad, it would be in a couple of days and they would be gone over Christmas. I couldn’t imagine doing it, looking after Iz for an evening was bad enough.

No! Harsh 😦

Fancy doing something reckless while I’m still free?

Hell yeah, what you fancy?

There was a pause, presumably while she thought of something.

Meet me outside school. Bring a towel.

A towel? School? I was intrigued, and I did as I was told without questions. Ayesh was never reckless, and I found myself thrilled by the possibilities of what she was going to do.

Twenty minutes later, in the fading afternoon light, we were inside the school grounds and Ayesh was breaking into the swimming pool.

‘Er, Ayesh, you do know we’re going to set the alarms off?’

‘No we’re not, I know the code.’

‘You what?’

‘Briony Morgan’s dad’s the caretaker. She knows the code. She gets in all the time.’

‘Fucking hell. Are you sure about this?’

‘Completely sure. You did bring your towel, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah, but I didn’t bring any trunks.’

‘You won’t need them.’

‘I won’t?’

‘Nope.’

She gave me a saucy look over her shoulder as she opened the door and punched the code into the alarm system. As I headed off to the boys’ changing rooms, she caught my arm and pulled me straight to the pool.

‘I said you wouldn’t need trunks. Everything we need is here. It’s going to be cold, though, they don’t heat it in the holidays. And we can’t put the lights on, someone will see.’

‘So we’re going swimming, in the cold, in the dark?’

‘You catch on quickly. Come on.’

She led the way to the far side of the pool and put her towel on a bench. There were no windows in the pool building, and it was nearly dark, so I couldn’t see that well, but it seemed that she started to take her clothes off. She didn’t stop at her underwear. I stared.

‘Come on, Cal. Or are you going swimming in your clothes? You’ll be a bit cold afterwards.’

‘Er … we’re skinny dipping?’

‘Yep.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘Come on.’

And she turned away and dived into the pool, coming up for air gasping and shrieking.

‘God it’s freezing. Come and warm me up.’

Feeling decidedly weird, but grateful for the gloom, I took my clothes off and stood with my hands covering my privates. Ayesh laughed.

‘Cal, it’s too dark to see anything, and once you’re in the water I definitely won’t be able to see. Just get over yourself.’

Oh what the hell. I took a run up and jumped, limbs flailing, shouting my head off and landed in the water with a huge splash. It wasn’t as cold as I’d expected … and then it was as cold as I’d expected … and then it was freezing my nuts off fuck Jesus how bloody cold is this … and then Ayesh was wrapping her body round mine, and she felt warm against the chill and I put my arms round her and held her close and oh my God.

Everything I’d denied to myself, for well over a year, was just shoved aside as I felt myself against her, warm skin pressed against me. The cold didn’t matter, I hardly noticed it now. What I noticed, all I noticed was Ayesh, her long black hair fanning out in the water around us, tickling us; Ayesh, her soft body pressed against mine; Ayesh, her breath hitting my chin in quick bursts; Ayesh, her eyes looking into mine; Ayesh, her naked breasts pressed into me, her nipples hard little points digging into my chest. We were both very still. I could hear the ripples from my splash lapping against the side of the pool, and then fade away. I could hear the drip drip drip from somewhere on the ceiling to somewhere down the other end of the pool. I could hear our breathing, which was fast and shallow.

‘Race you.’

With a suddenness that was almost painful, Ayesh pulled away and started swimming for the other end of the pool. I was paralysed for a split second, but soon raced after her and just beat her to the end, turning to her as we stretched our fingers out to touch the side. I could hardly see her face, it was so dark, but she was laughing, and I was grinning. The only light was the glow from the emergency exit lights, and Ayesh’s eyes looked like dark pools, which I could dive into and never surface from. She reached out to my face and stroked a finger down my cheek, and I shivered, but it wasn’t with cold. I caught her fingers in my hand, and held them to my face.

‘Ayesh …’

‘Don’t say anything.’

‘But …’

‘Shh.’

I moved towards her and gathered her up in my arms. We were both getting colder, and it wasn’t very sensible to stay in the water much longer. Without saying anything, I started to move towards the steps at the side of the pool. Just before we got out, I pulled her close into me and bent my head so my mouth touched hers. She lifted her head up so her lips met mine, and we disappeared into a deep, passionate kiss. Her hands were in my hair and my arms were round her, pulling her close. Despite the cold, I felt myself responding to my desire and … ah, see, I promised I wasn’t going to do porn. So I won’t. It wouldn’t be fair on Ayesh, Chrissie or anyone who isn’t a complete perv or under the age of consent who may be reading this.

I think we can all see where this is heading, though. Baggo was, of course, right. Ayesh had a thing for me, and I had a thing for her, and it took her being pissed off with her mum and dad to get things going. We both nearly caught pneumonia by the pool that evening, but I would like to report that Ayesh wasn’t completely reckless. We were safe, if you get my drift, and our clothes and towels were dry. Warming up together later in my room was bloody nice, even if we were constantly being interrupted by Mum with cups of hot chocolate and plates of mince pies, because in the way of Mum, she had sussed out the instant we walked in the front door that things had changed between us, and leaving us alone together in my room might not be the safe bet it used to be.

After that, I got a bolt and borrowed Matty’s drill to fix it to the inside of my door, so I could have some privacy. We were seventeen, it’s not like it was an unusual occurrence, and I did actually talk to Mum about it, believe it or not. As is Mum’s way, she asked me outright what was going on.

‘Are you sleeping with Ayesha, sweetheart?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You are being careful, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, we never do it near the edge of a cliff or on top of the gas oven.’

‘Don’t be facetious. You know what I mean.’

‘Yeah, Mum. Stop fussing. I’m a big boy now, Dad gave me the chat years ago.’

‘You know you can talk to me, don’t you.’

‘Yeah, Mum. Although I should think Ayesh talks to you more than I do.’

‘I like her very much, I hope she will still talk to me.’

‘Don’t see why she wouldn’t. You can both moan about me now.’

‘That’s true, sweetheart. Maybe I can recruit her in my campaign to get you to put your pants in the linen basket.’

‘Oh no. I’m doomed.’

‘I think it’s lovely, Cal. I just worry.’

‘I know, Mum. You don’t need to.’

‘But I still will.’

‘OK.’

So that Christmas was Ayesh and my first Christmas together. Of course, once Mum found out that Ayesh was going to be on her own with her brother and sister, they were all invited over to ours, three more people weren’t going to be that noticeable amongst the crowd, which was pretty huge that year. While Ayesh kept a sisterly eye on Pav and Indi, I managed to hold her hand nearly all day, except when she was helping Mum with one of the many jobs she volunteered to do.

With Ayesh tied up looking after Pav and Indi, I didn’t get to see as much of her for a while as I wanted to. I had training most nights, and she had to crack the whip over chores and homework, as well as doing her own coursework, and I began to look forward to her parents’ return so we could spend more time together, even if I doubted her parents would be as accepting of the intimacy of our relationship as mine were.

And then, in the most awful deja vu scenario I could have imagined, it all went horribly wrong.

It was the day before Mr and Mrs Chaudhry were due home. I was at Ayesh’s house, helping her tidy up, hoping to win a few brownie points before the shit hit the fan about us. The Chaudhrys were happy to have me as a friend-in-law, but nobody non-Indian was going to be good enough for their daughter. While Ayesh and I were scrubbing the kitchen sink, her phone went. I could only hear one side of the conversation, but seeing the expression that crept over her face as she spoke sent a shiver down my spine. I put the cloth down and put my arm around Ayesh as she was talking.

‘Hey Mum … yeah, we’re just having a last tidy. Cal’s helping out … oh. Well when … what? … no … no you can’t do that … no … no … Mum …’

Ayesh looked at the screen on her phone as if it had just bitten her, which I suppose it had it a way.

‘Ayesh?’

She shook her head, but wouldn’t look at me. With horror, I saw tears start to fall from her eyes.

‘Ayesh! What? What did she say?’

I held her close and stroked her hair, then tried to get her to look up, but she just squeezed me tight and wouldn’t look at me. She started to speak, but so quietly I had to put my ear next to her mouth to hear.

‘They’re staying in India. They want us to go out there to live.’

I stared at her as the implications slammed into me. Not again. I’d found Ayesh, and her parents were moving her away from me and taking her with them.

‘No …’

‘They can’t do it. I won’t go.’

Everything came hurtling back from the past, all the pain and sadness with Chrissie, and the futile plans and ultimately meaningless promises we’d made, and it stopped me dead. I didn’t know what to say or do, I was frozen, arms round Ayesh, not feeling anything, the panic blocking everything.

‘Cal … what are we going to do?’

I shook my head.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Say something.’

‘What do you want me to say? They’re your parents. Do you even have a choice?’

‘What? You think I should just go?’

‘I don’t know. Fucking hell, Ayesh, I can’t deal with this.’

And to my shame, I walked out and left her, my head full of nothing except noise, having been catapulted back two years or more to when this happened before. Even if I’d been able to think clearly, I wouldn’t have been able to see any other outcome, but I wasn’t allowing myself to see any outcome at all.

Eventually, I wandered in a big circle and ended up at home. I opened the front door and stood in the hallway, not able to decide where to go.

‘Cal, is that you? Cal?’

Mum came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

‘I thought I heard you – what’s the matter?’

I shook my head, not even able to say the words.

‘Is it Ayesha?’

I nodded.

‘What? Sweetheart, what’s happened? Is she hurt?’

Shook my head.

‘Leaving.’

‘What? Leaving where?’

‘India.’

‘Oh Cal. Come and sit down, sweetheart. Tell me, please.’

And so, over the next hour, Mum dragged it out of me monosyllable by monosyllable, as much as I knew. She had all sorts of questions that I had no answers for, and bit by bit, as I started to feel again, I realised that leaving Ayesh to deal with the bombshell on her own was just about the shittiest thing I could have done.

‘I need to go back.’

‘Yes, you do, I’ll take you if you like, you can practise your driving, but before you do, maybe you need a plan.’

‘I can’t think of anything. Nothing worked before with Chrissie.’

‘Yes, well, I’ve been thinking about that. I feel bad about not helping you more when all that was going on. You’re older now, and, well, I’d have to talk to your dad about it, but maybe Ayesha could stay here? We could make the conservatory quite cosy, or –’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Well, we’d have to run it past your dad, but –’

‘Mum, you’re a legend. But what if her parents won’t let her stay?’

‘I don’t think they have a choice. Once she’s over sixteen, she can leave home if she wants to. She’s a British citizen, isn’t she?’

‘Yeah, she was born here, but her parents are Indian.’

‘Then it would be legal. Complicated, but legal.’

My spirits were soaring. Mum had come to the rescue, turned things round. I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and hugged her.

‘Can we go then?’

Mum laughed.

‘Don’t forget I need to talk to your dad.’

‘Yeah, but he’s a pushover. He does whatever you say.’

‘Not always.’

‘Yes always. Name one time you haven’t got your own way.’

There was a telling silence.

‘Thought so. It’s a foregone conclusion. Come on.’

‘Oh Cal, you sounded just like you used to when you wanted us to go out and play football with you.’

I ignored the attempt to make me feel like a six-year-old, as I didn’t have time for all the nostalgia and getting out of photo albums. Instead, I stood up and walked out of the room, picking up the car keys from the hook as I did so.

‘I’ll drive by myself if you don’t hurry up.’

Mum shifted herself, and we drove over. I just had time to send a quick text before we set off.

Sorry. Shouldn’t have walked out. Coming back. Have a plan.

As I pulled up outside the house, Mum and I had a brief discussion about whether she should come in or not. She knew more about the law and stuff than me, but I didn’t want Mum to freak Ayesh out by trying to take over, so in the end she agreed to stay outside in the car in case she was needed.

I rang the doorbell and stood waiting in the cold. After a long time, and two more rings on the bell, the door opened. Ayesha looked terrible. She’d been crying, her eyes were rimmed with red and all her make-up had run. I pulled her to me in a hug and held her tight while she cried again. Once she had sniffled to a halt, we went in and shut the door, heading to the living room.

‘My mum’s got an idea.’

‘It won’t work.’

‘You don’t know what it is.’

‘I haven’t got a choice, like you said.’

‘You have. Just listen.’

I gave her the bare bones of Mum’s plan.

‘I can’t just stay here, they won’t let me.’

‘They can’t stop you. They’re over there. They’d have to come back here to get you, and you still wouldn’t have to go.’

‘But what about Pav and Indi?’

I wanted to say that’s their problem, but it sounded harsh, and not likely to make Ayesh listen to me. I so wanted Ayesh to see my side. I’d just got together with her, I couldn’t lose her, not like I lost Chrissie. It just wasn’t going to happen.

‘Well, maybe you can talk to them about Pav and Indi. Have you got relatives they could stay with?’

‘There’s no way they’d let them stay here. I’ve got to go with them, they can’t fly to India on their own.’

I got the sense that there were more obstacles in the way than just the obvious ones. I wanted Ayesh to stay because I loved her, but she loved her parents and her brother and sister, and I wasn’t quite so self-involved that I didn’t see it wasn’t as easy a choice for her, or one she could make quickly.

‘Ayesh, look, I freaked out earlier when your mum rang. It reminded me of Chrissie, and I couldn’t see another way. I don’t want to lose you, and I think there is a way not to. But it kind of depends on you. There is a way for you to stay, if you want to.’

And then I said the hardest thing I’d ever said, and tried to make it sound like it was nothing.

‘If you want to go to India, you should go. Shit, they’re your parents, I wouldn’t blame you, I don’t know what I’d choose if it was my family. But if you don’t, if you want to stay, I’ll help you. Mum will help you.’

Ayesh just looked at me, tears in her eyes, pain on her face.

‘When do they want you to go?’

‘A week.’

‘Shit.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I love you.’

‘Oh Cal. I love you too. God this is hard.’

I squeezed her hand. What I wanted to say was ‘don’t go, I love you, I’ll die without you’ but I knew it would be too much pressure. What Ayesh needed was time and space and not to feel rushed to make a decision. I wanted to put my case, but if I kept pressing her, she wouldn’t be able to think and she’d choose in anger or frustration or some other emotion that would cause trouble later. I just had to trust I was doing the right thing.

‘Do you want me to go?’

Ayesh nodded. ‘I’ll call you later, though, yeah?’

‘Yeah, or text, whatever. Anytime, you know that.’

‘Thanks, Cal.’

I nodded, gave her a big squeeze, and went back outside to Mum.

‘Well?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Do you want me to talk to her?’

‘Not right now. She needs time to herself. It’s a pretty big ask, choose me or choose her family.’

Mum looked at me for a long time.

‘Calum Scott, you are growing up. Have grown up, actually. I’m very proud of you.’

I shrugged, started the car and drove off.

I couldn’t concentrate all evening. I was thinking about Ayesh, wondering what she was thinking about, wondering if she had decided, if she was talking to her mum, whether she’d told her brother and sister, what was she going to do. I was swinging wildly from hope to despair – she’d choose me, she’d choose them; stay in England, move to India; boyfriend, family.

I tried my usual X-box distraction techniques, but even blowing up zombies didn’t help, and I got eaten more times than I ever had in my life. Matty would have been mortified, I was nearly as bad as Dec.

As if thinking about him had summoned him, I heard Dec’s voice downstairs. I had no doubt Mum would be filling him in on the latest drama, and expected to hear footsteps coming up the stairs before long. I wasn’t wrong, and paused my game as I heard the tap on the door.

‘Yeah.’

The door opened, and Dec came in carrying two cups of tea.

‘Hey mate, your mum sent me up with these.’

‘And a shit load of advice, I’m sure.’

‘She’s worried, mate.’

‘I know. So am I. She told you about Ayesh, then?’

‘Yeah. Bummer. What do you think she’ll do?’

‘I wish I had a fucking clue. It’s doing my bloody nut, one minute I can’t imagine how she could leave, and the next minute I’m waving her off at the airport.’

‘Does it feel like last time?’

‘With Chrissie? Yeah. That’s the worst thing. It feels just the same, I feel just as powerless.’

‘You’re not gonna go all Cob-on Kid, though, are you?’

‘I bloody hope not. The thought of you camping out in my bedroom spouting shit is enough to put me right off that one.’

‘That’s what I told your mum, but she’s worried about how you’ll be if Ayesha leaves. I said you’re not like that any more’

‘No, I’m not. But I don’t know how I’ll be until it happens. I’d been with Chrissie a year, I’ve only been with Ayesh a few weeks, but it feels … I don’t know what I’d do without her.’

‘Oh mate.’

Dec punched me lightly on the shoulder.

‘You know we’re here for you, me and Ames, anything you need.’

‘Yeah. Thanks.’

‘Need any help with the zombies?’

‘Go on then, you can’t do any worse than me tonight. Maybe I could use some help.’

‘Good thinking Batman. Which buttons do I press again?’

And so the great zombie massacre began. I’d been wrong to assume that Dec couldn’t make things any worse, and we were both annihilated more times than I care to remember, but it passed the time before Dec had to go and I had to try and get some sleep.

I was lying in bed, everything still spinning around, Mum having given up trying to make me forget about it with food and drink a few hours before. I wasn’t expecting to hear from Ayesh, and I didn’t want to put pressure on her by contacting her too soon, but I was starting to wonder if I should just send an ‘I love you’ text to let her know I was there for her. Or would that be too much? Maybe I should just leave it until tomorrow. But surely she wouldn’t be asleep, like I wasn’t. I picked my phone up about twenty times to send a text, but put it down again twenty times. I even hallucinated hearing it ring, but when I picked it up, the screen was dark.

I heard Mum’s voice from her room, but didn’t know who she was talking to and couldn’t hear what she was saying. After a while, I heard her bedroom door open, and then there was a knock on my door. I turned my lamp on.

‘Yeah.’

The door opened, and Mum came in, wearing her dressing gown.

‘I didn’t think you’d be asleep, sweetheart. I’ve got some news for you.’

I sat up as Mum sat on the edge of the bed. I hadn’t been asleep, but I wasn’t fully awake either, and I just waited for what she was going to tell me.

‘Gita Chaudhry has just called me.’

‘At four in the morning?’

‘I think it’s later over there. She’s been talking to Ayesha, and wanted to check things out with me, check we’d be OK to have Ayesha staying with us –’

‘What? She’s going to let her stay? Ayesh wants to stay?’

Mum’s smile confirmed it, and as my heart leapt, my phone pinged with a text.

OMG call me A x

‘It’s Ayesh. I’ve got to call her.’

‘Of course. Don’t be chatting too late.’

I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Thanks Mum. You’re awesome.’

‘So I’m told. Night, sweetheart.’

Mum closed the door and I hit the Facetime button on my phone. Ayesh’s face was lit up in my screen.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hey.’

‘So you’re staying then?’

She nodded.

‘Awesome. So we’re gonna be, like, living together, like an old married couple?’

‘Ha, not quite. What did your mum tell you?’

‘Not much, just she spoke to your mum.’

‘Well my mum has made a lot of rules, like we’re not allowed to be in the same room alone, and we’re only allowed to hold hands when other family members are present, and no kissing in the house, and –’

‘Seriously? She’s having a laugh. Once you’re here she won’t know what we’re doing.’

‘Totally, but your mum’s agreed, and she’ll know.’

‘Mum’s a walkover. She can’t stop us either. I bet she just said OK to keep the peace.’

‘Don’t be so sure, Cal. She changed when we got together. She’s not going to be so happy about us sharing a room. We might have to be good for a bit, until everyone gets used to it.’

I huffed, before realising that it was sensible, and also realising that none of that mattered, because Ayesh was going to be here and not half way across the world in another country and lost to me. Happiness filled me up, and I looked at Ayesh in my phone with an idiotic grin on my face.

And so that was how Ayesh became part of the family, another addition to the Scotts. I won’t say it was easy, at least not at first, because she missed her mum and dad and brother and sister, and she was sad about being apart from them, and sometimes she just shut herself in her room, which was the conservatory, and didn’t want to talk to me. But with Mum’s help I gave her time and space, and she felt better eventually, and she had Mum to help her as well, and it just worked out, and felt natural. There were rules we had to follow, some of which made sense, and some of which seemed ridiculous at the time (but make sense now I’ve got my own kids, who aren’t old enough yet, but will be one day), and there were some arguments, but mostly Ayesh just fitted in as if she’d always been there. I mean, not that it wasn’t thrilling to have your girlfriend living in the same house as you, but sometimes she got to see the bad as well as the good, and sometimes she took your Mum’s side against you, and that wasn’t so enjoyable. I guess that was balanced out by her sneaking into my room sometimes for some naked action, and that bolt came in extra handy, especially as Iz was always hanging around either wanting to hero-worship Ayesha, or get me into trouble.

So by the time next Spring came, we were all used to Ayesh being there, and the next drama in the Scott family had nothing to do with me, or my school or my love life.

The Philpotts Letters – 8

Think for yourself ‘cos I won’t be there with you (The Beatles)

Think for yourself ‘cos I won’t be there with you (The Beatles)

Hey guys!

Yeah, freaking again, wouldn’t you know it. What is it this time, Dad? I hear you ask. Well, I’ve just realised (albeit belatedly) that now you’re at school, you are subject to influences beyond my control; that you might learn things I haven’t taught you, and that I might not even agree with. Not that your teachers aren’t fine and dandy, but your friends, and their bloody parents – what I’m getting at is this.

Before you started school, even though you had playgroup and all that, I kind of knew what you were thinking, because it was mostly what I was thinking, or what your mum was thinking. You’d even use it against us if you were feeling particularly clever.

But now, you could come out with anything, any old racist or sexist shit, like today, when you, Joshua James Scott, told me that you didn’t have to clear your plate away after dinner because that’s what mummies are for. Or the other week, Ella Elizabeth Scott, when you told me that Kyle’s daddy couldn’t get a job because of all the sticks. You meant Poles, and I’m glad you didn’t really know what you were saying.

Both of you were just repeating what you’d heard, but it’s fucking scary, because now you’re out there, in the world, all sorts of bastards are going to be filling your heads with all sorts of shit, and I’m not going to be there to help you sort out what’s shit and what isn’t. I’m going to have to trust that you are good people who can work it out for yourselves.

And that’s the crux of it, really, isn’t it. What being a dad is all about. Knowing when to let go and when to hold on tight. If I make you think like me, I’m as much a bastard as Kyle’s daddy who blames people from another country for him being unemployed, in front of his kids. God, it’s so bloody hard being a dad sometimes. It’s fucking awesome too, but wow it’s bloody mindblowing at times.

Your parentally challenged father

Dad xxx

116. Be my baby

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

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 …

115. Find another fool

In which a scam is deployed, but help is at hand.

Matt

There are ten seconds to go. The crowd start counting down, and as the number gets to zero, the ball is kicked into the stand, and they go wild, we go wild, celebrating another Raiders title. Cal is leaping up and down, yelling, then he hugs me, then he remembers himself and lets go, and after a brief shake of his head, what was he thinking, carries on leaping.

We are at Twickenham, and the season has just finished in the best possible way. As the players do their lap of honour with the trophy, they stop in front of the area where friends and family are gathered, and point to us. Dec gives us a thumbs up, and Jay waves.

The celebration afterwards is like nothing I have ever experienced. I am so thrilled to have been asked to join them in their hotel, where it all starts, having dispatched Cal off with Beth and Iz. I used to think I could hold my drink, but these guys are on another level, with the shackles off at the end of a hard season, and they’re pumped up with adrenaline and victory. They leave me behind before even half the night is over, but I have been part of it, I am part of the team that won the League.

Laura

I hadn’t gone back to work in the end. There always seemed to be too much to do, and Matt’s job at Raiders paid well enough to support us. We talked about having another baby, and stopped using birth control, but it never happened. I decided not to let it be a big deal; we had our family, and the thought of being that tired again was a bit daunting, so we decided if it happened, it happened, but as time went on, it felt like it wasn’t going to, and that was OK. Or rather, we made it OK.

Matt

To Nico, Lis and Bastien

Wishing you all the best as you depart, once again, for Buenos Aires. You will always be welcome at number 47, as long as you don’t mind sharing a room with, well, each other.

We’ve had some great times, haven’t we? Nico, don’t forget to turn up on time on your first day, just to put them off the scent. Lis, make sure you find the nearest Prada, even if it’s in Brazil. Bastien, look after your mamá y papá, and make sure they Skype us all the time because we’ll miss you all loads.

With all our love, kisses and huge big squishy Scott cuddles,

Matt, Lau, Josh and Ella

xxxx

Cal

And then it got complicated. Girls are complicated, aren’t they? You can’t just mess about with them, they take everything so seriously, and they take things seriously that you didn’t even know you’d done. It’s like there’s a code in everything you do. Holding hands means one thing, playing with her hair means something else, kissing means something else, and you have to be really careful or you’ve said something binding to one of them without even opening your mouth, and before you know it, one of them has laid claim to you, and is fighting all the others off whether you like it or not.

That’s what happened. I thought I had it all under control. Or rather, I didn’t think there was anything that needed to be under any sort of control. I was using the Baggo method of girling; go full tilt for what’s in front of you. I was more successful than Baggo by a long way, possibly because I didn’t employ any methods that required singing or throwing shoes, and possibly because I was slightly more respectable on account of my dad being Raiders coach and Baggo’s mum being on the tills at the local supermarket. I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying school is harsh and you’re judged by things that are out of your power a lot of the time.

So anyway, there I was, post-Chrissie, kind of girl-hating but showing it by hanging round with girls and snogging them. I guess the ‘hating’ part of it was I didn’t really care who I snogged, or where, or when, and it could easily be the best friend of the one I’d just finished snogging five minutes ago, in the kitchen of the same party. I suppose, looking back, I was easy fodder for Katya and her cronies.

If I thought about it at all, I thought I was being mean and moody and uncaring and rather cool about the whole thing. Although it occurred to me that someone could get hurt, I wasn’t particularly bothered, as it would ‘serve her right’, whether her was the girl in question, or some random other girl who just happened to be living hundreds of miles away and had broken my heart. What didn’t occur to me was that the person who could get hurt would be me.

Katya. Katya, Milly and Florence. The Holy Trinity. Even Baggo stayed away from them, and Baggo was attracted to trouble like iron filings to a magnet. But the end of that summer term, I was on the lookout for trouble, the worse the better, and I went looking for Katya. We circled around each other a bit, keeping our distance while making it clear we were both interested. I wasn’t averse to the idea of Milly or Florence either, and signals were made and read between all of us.

There was a pool party, at Florence’s house. Her parents were away, and her older brother was having a party, and had said Florence could invite some friends. Her brother was theoretically responsible, being twenty-one, with a job and a car and everything, but it turned out that once he’d had half a bottle of his dad’s Scotch, he gave a bit less of a shit about what happened at his party, and a bit more of a shit about getting into the pants of the hot girl his mate had brought along. Cue unrestricted alcohol and other substances, half-naked teenagers and a swimming pool. I’m sure I don’t need to fill in the gaps.

Mum went ape-shit afterwards, when she found out, but it was too late by then, and the damage had been done. I mean literal damage – the living room needed a new carpet, the pool had to be drained, cleaned and re-filled and I don’t think the automatic garage door ever worked the same again – but also the lasting effects. A couple of kids ended up in A and E with alcohol poisoning, someone had to have their stomach pumped after overdosing on something they found in the bathroom cabinet, and one guy broke his wrist tripping over Florence’s brother doing it with his mate’s girl on the patio. I got away physically unscathed, apart from the hanger to end all hangers (ha ha, until the next time), but I had lost large chunks of my memory of the party, and Katya used this to her advantage.

She told me we’d had sex, and that she might be pregnant, and I didn’t know what to do. My memories were fractured, and I could recall being with her, hands roaming, tongue delving, underwear and more (or less) on display, but I couldn’t remember anything else. Katya kept calling me, saying she was going to tell her mum, and I had to tell her what to do. Then she came round to my house, but I got Mum to say I wasn’t in, although I then had to fend off questions about who she was and why I was asking Mum to lie for me.

Florence and Milly got involved, and suggested I’d been with them at the party as well, and I was well on the road to full-blown panic. There was no one else who had been there who could help fill in the gaps – everyone who was there had been as out of their skulls as me, and could barely remember what they had been doing, let alone keeping tabs on my actions.

Mum took to listening outside my door when I was on the phone. She had asked me directly several times what was going on, but I was evasive and just blew up at her if she asked too much, and so she was trying to find out in her own way.

Now I’ve got kids of my own, I can completely understand how worried she was about me – I’d broken up with Chrissie, I’d started hanging around with all these different girls, I’d been to some out-of-control booze and pills party that had resulted in five people being hospitalised, and now I was having secret conversations with people at all hours of the night and day. I can understand it now. Not then. Then, finding Mum hanging around outside my door with all sorts of invented excuses made me madder and madder.

I even called Matty about it. I knew he’d had escapades in the past, he’d brought enough different women round to Sunday lunch before he met Lau that I knew he’d been around a bit, and although I wasn’t going to tell him exactly what kind of a situation I found myself in, I hoped he might be cool enough to understand and just have a chat.

When I heard a noise outside my door as I was talking to Katya one afternoon, telling her for the millionth time that I didn’t know what to do, I was sure it was Mum. I pulled the door open and was not surprised to find her standing there with a pile of my underpants. I was enraged.

‘Mum, will you just fuck off. I’m having a private conversation.’

‘There’s no need for language like that, Cal, I’m just bringing your clean washing.’

‘Yeah right.’

I snatched the underwear from her and threw it on my bed.

‘Just leave me the fuck alone.’

‘Don’t speak to me like that.’

‘Stop spying on me then.’

I pushed past her and ran downstairs, aware that she was following me. I still had my phone in my hand, and I put it to my ear.

‘Katya, I’ll call you back.’

I turned round to face Mum, and she was so close behind me that she ran into me.

‘Mum, just f … go away.’

‘Cal, I’m not spying, I was just –’

‘Save it, you never give me a bloody moment’s peace, I can see why everyone calls you a meddling bitch.’

I hadn’t meant to be so harsh, and I knew from her expression I’d hurt her. It was Mum’s thing, to be caring and to let our teasing and our insults about it roll off her, and just carry on caring anyway, and to throw it in her face wasn’t the most loving thing her son could do. In my defence, I was in the middle of a crisis, and needed some space. I hope none of my children ever makes me feel like I made my mum look at that moment.

Mum backed away, holding her hands palm up as if to fend me off, and I turned round and stalked out to the toilet in the utility room. I sat down, breathing hard, trying to ignore the voice in my head that told me I’d just gone too far with Mum. I looked at my phone, thought about calling Katya back, or answering one of the several texts from her, Florence or Milly that had popped up since I’d last looked. They really were undertaking a concerted campaign to give me as little peace as my mum seemed to want to give me.

I decided to ignore them all and FaceTime Matty. I couldn’t tell him everything, in case it got back to Mum. If I’d called Dec, Mum would have found out everything before I’d finished talking, but Matty liked not telling Mum things, so as long as I was careful not to say too much, maybe I could get things off my chest, and do a bit of arsing about with him, and just forget about things for a few minutes. I called him up, but the tone rang for ages, and I thought he might be out, or driving or something.

Matt

I barely made it to my iPad in time to stop the FaceTime alert and catch Cal. We’d only just got in from taking the children to a birthday party, Lau had confiscated my phone, and I’d heard the tone as we came through the door, arms laden with goody bags and balloons.

‘Hey Cal – whoa, are you in the loo?’

Cal

Matty used to FaceTime me from the loo all the time when I was younger, me being eight and Matty mostly acting like an eight year old. He had been known to show me the, er, products of his time in there too. But that was a while ago, and we’d both matured a bit since then.

‘Yeah. Sorry, but Mum was doing my fucking nut and it’s the only place I can talk.’

Matt

‘Careful, mate, Ella and Josh are around, and so is Lau.’

I hated telling Cal off for saying ‘fuck’, but he’d get an ear-bashing from Lau if I didn’t at least get him to tone it down.

Cal

Matty was pretty cool about me swearing; it would be hard for him to be anything else, as he’d taught me most of the words I knew, and helped me practice them when I was younger. Lau was not cool about it, and he wouldn’t be on my side if I got him in the shit with Lau.

‘What’s your mum been up to, then?’

‘She’s been, like, listening at my door to my, like, private conversations.’

I said it extra loud, just in case Mum had followed me and was standing outside the door with more pairs of pants.

Matt

I was sure the emphasis was for the benefit of any ears flapping outside the bathroom.

‘Oh, bummer. With whom?’

Cal gave me a look that may as well have used words to say ‘none of your business’. It was his own teenagery version of shorthand.

Cal

Yeah right, Matty, like I’m going to tell you so you can just pass it on up the chain of command. I gave Matty a look that I hoped said just that without me having to bother.

‘It’s like she thinks she owns me, just because she paid for my bloody phone, she thinks she owns the bloody words I say on it and who I bloody say them to.’

Matt

Some of the bloodying filtered through to Lau, and she called out from the kitchen.

‘Is that Calum Scott using all sorts of inappropriate language within earshot of the children?’

Cal

Matty winced at me, and I rolled my eyes back at him as if worrying about swearing was just so tiresome. But I did try to control myself.

‘So, OK then, let’s think about this. Your mum isn’t usually a snoop, is she?’

‘You’re always calling her an interfering cow.’

Matt

Oh how your words come back to bite you.

‘Yeah, but kind of in a messing about way.’

Mostly. Except when she was being an interfering cow.

‘So what makes you think she’s been listening to you on the phone?’

Cal

‘Well I heard something outside my door while I was talking to Kat – er, my friend, and so I went and opened it, and she was just, like, standing there, with my pants and stuff in her, like, hand.’

‘Hmm, OK, so the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning. How about we delve deeper and postulate other possibilities?’

That was typical Matty. He always ponced about using long words instead of just getting to the point, he thought he was being clever, but I sometimes had no clue what he was going on about. And sometimes, like now, I knew what he was going on about, but I didn’t feel like doing word games with him.

‘What?’

‘Just play along, Cal.’

‘You’re, like, well weird, Matty.’

‘I know. It makes me who I am. So, your mum had your pants in her hand.’

‘Yeah. It was just an excuse.’

‘Hmm. Or, maybe, had she been doing some laundry earlier?’

‘I don’t bloody know, do I?’

By the sounds of it, Matty was getting ready to defend Mum, or at least come up with an excuse for her, and I was starting to regret calling him. Maybe Dec would have been a better bet?

Matt

Cal was getting frustrated with my interrogation methods, and was regretting calling me as it seemed I might be siding with his mother.

‘OK, then, here’s my hypothesis, not that yours isn’t perfectly valid, but we need to cover all the angles, wouldn’t you agree? Good. How about, your mum had finished doing the washing, your clothes were dry and she was bringing them up to you. She was about to, I don’t know, knock on the door, or maybe open it without knocking as has been known, but heard you talking and realised you were on the phone, possibly having a private conversation. She wasn’t quite sure what to do, and while she was deciding, you opened the door. Now, I’m not saying that’s what happened, maybe your scenario is the truth of it, but you’ll never know unless you talk to her.’

Cal

I should have known. Adults always stick together, like even if they’re totally in the wrong, just because they’re both adults they’ll take each other’s side against me, and they’ll always suggest talking. It was almost as if Matty had never tried talking to Mum about anything and been steamrollered by her. I wasn’t having it.

‘I’m not fucking talking to …’

I suddenly realised I’d said ‘fuck’, and tried to back-pedal.

‘Oh, sorry, Matty. I’m not talking to her. She always has to be right.’

Matt

Yeah, didn’t I know it. Holy shit this was hard, trying not to back Cal against Beth, but knowing how infuriating she could be.

Cal


Matty nodded like he knew what I meant, but before he could answer, Lau’s face appeared next to his, and I knew I was sunk. Lau was great, you could talk to her about anything, but in some ways she was worse than Mum, because she was always right. I mean, Mum liked to think she was always right, and let you know how right she thought she was, but Lau went about things a bit differently, probably all those years of practice sneaking her rightness up on Matty, and before you knew it, there was no other way of looking at things other than how Lau had just said it. I didn’t want that to happen to me, not now.

‘Hey Cal.’

‘Alright, Lau. I’m gonna go, Matty, she’ll find me in here soon.’

‘Before you go, flower –’

Matt

Lau looked like she was about to spout some words of wisdom, and I sat back and awaited enlightenment.

Cal

Oh bollocks, I wasn’t going to escape.

‘– your mum doesn’t want to know the ins and outs of your love life –’

‘What? What’s she said?’

My anger started to swell again, as I thought about Mum gossiping about what she thought she knew about what she thought she’d heard.

‘Nothing, Cal, but I remember when I was your age, I was always talking to boys in my room, and it drove my mum wild, not because she wanted to know whether I was talking to one boy or another, but because she was worried I was taking drugs. Parents are always worried their children are taking drugs. Now, I’m not saying you have to do this, it’s totally up to you, but if you are maybe a bit more open about things, if you’ve got a girlfriend, or friends who are girls, and maybe you sometimes want some uninterrupted time to talk to them, then if you tell her that, she’s not going to worry so much that you’re on your phone to your drug dealer.’

‘Unless you are on the phone to your drug dealer. Then you’d best not say anything, right Lau?’

Matt

Cal smirked, and Lau gave me a look that should have made me burst into flames. Luckily I was almost Lau-proof and got away with merely a mild singeing.

Cal

Ha ha Matty, thanks for that, it gave me an out, and with a sigh of relief, I realised that Mum had got it completely wrong. Maybe she thought there was girl stuff in there somewhere, but mainly, probably due to some of the illegal substances that had been on offer at the party, she thought I was doing drugs. I wasn’t. I was just starting to get seriously into playing rugby, and anything like that would have put paid to it before I even started. Girl or no girl, there was no way I was going down that road.

I smirked at Matty’s comment, and Lau turned her full ‘you’re toast’ look on him. It was time to beat a hasty retreat and go ‘talk to Mum’.

‘Mm. OK Lau. Gotta go now.’

I disconnected and opened the door, unsurprised to find Mum fiddling with more laundry at the other end of the utility room.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Hello sweetheart.’

‘Sorry for what I said.’

‘It wasn’t very nice.’

‘I know. Sorry. You were stressing me out.’

‘Cal, I know you’ve had a hard time the last few months, if you’d just –’

‘I’m not on drugs.’

‘What?’

‘I’m not doing drugs, not any sort. Lau said that’s what you think.’

The look on her face was priceless. Firstly, she couldn’t believe I’d volunteered information without her prising it out of me with a crowbar. Secondly, I’d talked to Lau about it rather than her. Thirdly, Lau’s techniques had worked better than hers. She quickly got a grip on herself, though.

‘Oh sweetheart. I have been worried. You know what your dad would do, don’t you?’

Yeah, I’d seen Dad in full ‘Just Say No’ mode. He’d kicked kids out of the under sixteens for smoking pot, and out of the under eighteens for worse. He was Mr Zero Tolerance. It would have been a good way to rebel and teach him a lesson, but I cared a lot about playing rugby, and even I realised that it would be the height of stupidity to ruin something I cared about just to prove a point. Plus, you know, my body was a temple and all that.

‘Yeah, I know. I’m not.’

‘What is it then, sweetheart? You’re so secretive, I just worry.’

‘I’ve got a right to private conversations.’

‘I know sweetheart, but you will tell me if there’s anything wrong, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, Mum. Back off now.’

‘OK, Cal.’

She stroked my cheek and turned back to her laundry, and I could see the worry still written on her face.

Matt

Cal disconnected and I leaned back into the sofa.

‘That could have gone better.’

‘Lau, really, drugs?’

‘Most kids come into contact with them at an early age don’t they? Weren’t they all round your school at his age? I know Beth is worried about it, not specifically with Cal, but in general. And he went to a dodgy party not long ago, where some kids ended up having their stomachs pumped.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘You know Cal’s got three girls on the go, don’t you?’

‘What? No way! Go Cal.’

‘Yeah, I’m sure that’s why he called you, for your helpful advice in all things girl related. From what Beth says, two of them are trouble and the other one is a nightmare, and Cal is being twisted round three little fingers.’

‘How does she know that?’

‘Oh, she listens at his door.’

Cal

So I hadn’t really solved anything. The Holy Trinity still weren’t giving me a second’s peace; there were calls, texts and emails all day and night, telling me what Florence’s brother was going to do to me, asking what I was going to do, how I was going to help Katya. I couldn’t cope with it, I didn’t know what she expected me to do. It’s not like either of us were old enough to get married, I didn’t know a thing about babies, apart from the ones in the family, and they spent most of their time eating and shitting. I just wanted to be able to avoid it, so I avoided Katya as much as I could, which meant not going out of the house except to go to school, and staying in the study rooms when I was there.

Baggo saved me. I hadn’t seen much of him since the party, which he hadn’t been invited to, and had been too busy trying not to get caught up in Katya since then to contact him much.

He came round one evening, with a new X-box game.

‘Hey Cal. Fancy giving this a go?’

Well it was better than fending off texts and calls all evening. I put my phone under my pillow and we started playing.

After a while, there had been a ridiculous number of bleeps and pings from my phone, and even the usually unobservant Baggo noticed.

‘What’s with your phone? Is it broken?’

‘No, it’s just texts and shit.’

‘Don’t you need to look at them?’

‘Nah, it’s not important.’

‘How do you know unless you look?’

Baggo got up and retrieved my phone from under the pillow, even as I tried to wrestle it out of his hand. He managed to keep it away from me as he looked at the screen.

‘Katya’s texted you ten times? Four from Florence and six from Milly. Holy shit, Cal, are you doing all of them? The entire Holy Trinity?’

‘Don’t be a twat.’

‘No? Looks like it from here. What does the lovely Katya have to say for herself?’

‘Piss off, Bags, give it here.’

I made another grab for my phone before he could see some of the texts, which would tell him for sure what was going on, but Baggo was taller than me, and held it above his head while he scrolled through the messages, his eyes growing wider and wider.

‘You’ve got her pregnant? Holy fucking shit, Cal. What are you going to do?’

I slumped down on the bed, relieved that someone else knew, but not sure Baggo was the ideal candidate for helping me out of the mess of eternal childcare and paternity payments that was all I could see of my future if I allowed myself to think about it.

‘I don’t know. She’s not giving me any time to sort it out, she’s got Florence’s brother on my case, and her mum’s going to get the CPA round here, and –’

‘Wait, wait wait wait, you’re sure she defo is, aren’t you. You’ve like, seen the test, the stick with the pee, and her mum’s called your mum and it’s all being sorted out? Isn’t it?’

I looked back at him, dumbfounded.

‘Well, no, I, she just texted me a few days after the party, and said we’d done it, and, well, what was up, and what was I going to do, and I haven’t had a minute since then to – why, do you think she might not be?’

A huge bubble of hope was swelling inside me, and I was trying to be so careful not to pop it.

‘I’m not saying that, all I’m saying is, let’s just think about it, right? Bit of perspective, yeah?’

Another five texts had pinged away while we’d been talking. Baggo looked at the screen.

‘Are they all like this? Like, what are you going to do, you’re in so much trouble, my brother’s gonna have your guts?’

‘Mostly.’

‘As often as this? All day and night?’

I nodded.

‘I think you’re being played, my son. But let’s think about it. Did you actually, like, do it with Katya?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know? Cal, with Katya Marenski there is no room for doubt. I’ve heard she’s, er, quite obvious about it.’

‘I was pissed. Really fucking wasted, we’d been doing shots all night. I can remember bits, I had my hand in her knickers, I might not have had my jeans on, it’s all just a jumble.’

‘Shit. OK, but on the positive side, if you were that pissed, it’s unlikely isn’t it?’

‘I don’t know, Bags. Matty says he used to get stinking rat-arsed but could still get it up at the end of the night.’

‘Your bloody uncle was a legend in his own lunchtime, but that’s not helping us at the moment. OK, let’s think some more. I think that if you were going to do it with Katya Marenski, and you remembered having your hand in her knickers, you’d remember something more, er, memorable, like putting something else in something else, if you get my drift?’

‘I don’t remember fucking her, if that’s what you’re being all shy about saying.’

‘Yeah. That’s my point, really. That if the fumbles were memorable enough to make it through the vodka shots, then the big one would defo stay in there.’

‘Maybe. It was a wild night, though, there’s a lot I can’t remember, like how I got home.’

‘Oh that’s easy, me and Wheels took you.’

‘What?’

‘Yeah, you texted me. Don’t you remember?’

‘No. Really?’

Baggo hadn’t mentioned this in the two weeks since the party. It was typical of him to be someone’s rescuer and not expect any thanks or even a mention of it afterwards.

‘Yeah. I’ve still got the text here, look.’

He scrolled down his phone and showed me the screen. The time-stamp was 3:04am.

Bsgsssss cn u cpmr nwwde hel00op thers mblunce god ifellbad

As texts go, I had sent easier ones to understand.

‘Jesus, that doesn’t even mean anything to me. How the fuck did you work out what it meant?’

‘Well I didn’t, but Wheels was staying at ours, and I was a bit worried, so I woke him up, and –’

‘You woke him up? I bet he was chuffed at three in the morning.’

‘Yeah, well, he’d only just got in himself, he hadn’t been in bed long, anyway, I knew where you were, and I talked him into it.’

Baggo could talk nearly anyone into nearly anything, except girls into his pants. He had the confidence to say anything and the cheek to sound like he meant it, and the air of expectation that had people agreeing to things before they even realised they’d said yes. He was the only person who had ever been able to handle my mum in full flow, even though part of that was because she felt sorry for him, and I expect that years of dealing with his brothers had seen him honing his skills on them.

‘So you brought me home?’

‘We took you back to ours first, didn’t want to have you waking up your mum and dad in the state you were in. Then when you were a bit less vommy and singy we took you home, snuck you in up the stairs and everything. It was like an SAS operation.’

I was a bit taken aback. It was as if I’d lived a bit of life without actually being present in it, and it felt weird.

‘Yeah, so you were pretty shit-faced. I’m surprised you could even text as well as you did. But I’d be more surprised if you could have got it up with Katya. She wasn’t anywhere around when we found you, anyway, none of them were. And her methods are interesting now.’

‘Methods?’

‘Yeah, like, not giving you a moment to yourself to actually like THINK FOR FUCK’S SAKE CAL!’

He yelled at me, and made me jump, then sat there shaking his head as if something was completely obvious.

‘So, for the last, what, two weeks, she’s had you tied up in knots, wondering what to do, and she hasn’t even shown you a test, or had her dad down here, like, banging your front door down, and Florence’s brother hasn’t actually, like, showed up?’

‘Well, no.’

‘Of course he hasn’t. He’s too busy paying his parents back for the damage he caused and answering awkward questions about how three kids ended up in A and E off their faces on coke to worry about his sister’s annoying mate whining about being knocked up. You. Fucking. Idiot. Apart from anything else, Katya’s practically got a repeat prescription for the morning after pill. It’s not like she doesn’t know how to look after herself. They’ve been playing games with you. You need to call her bluff.’

‘What?’

‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’

And that was one of the times when I was bloody grateful for Baggo’s ability to hatch a mad scheme. The more I thought about it, the more I ignored the never-ending texts and calls, the more I considered the content of all of the communications, the more I realised Baggo’s theory could well be correct. And maybe what we were planning might cause unnecessary stress to Katya, but they’d made my life a misery for nearly two weeks, and I wanted it to stop.

First there was the text:

OK, what do you want? I’ll do anything.

This produced the desired effect of a list of demands, which I immediately agreed to. They were ludicrous demands, but my contract was not legally binding.

Then there was the email, which was sent to Katya, Florence, Milly and a handful of their girl gang who I was sure would be in on it too, as well as real-looking but actually fake email adresses for Mum, Dad, her mum and her dad. We hoped they put the wind up Katya enough that she wouldn’t check too closely. The email said:

Dear Katya and Everyone

By now you will all know that I am the father of Katya’s baby. I have been shirking my responsibility for nearly two weeks, but have now faced up to it and am going to do my duty by Katya. Once we are both sixteen, I will marry her and we can live at my mum and dad’s until we leave school and can afford our own place.

I would like to invite you all to a meeting to discuss how Katya and I are going to support our baby. [I named a time and a place.]

I know you will all be happy for us, and look forward as much as I do to this new addition.

Cal Scott”

It was a risk, because if Katya showed it to anyone like my mum, or her mum, it would get blown sky high and I would be up shit creek, but our hope was that it wouldn’t get that far.

I hit send on the email, and Baggo and I sat and played on the X-box while we listened to the silence on my phone as the texts stopped. After about fifteen minutes my phone rang. Katya.

‘Hello Katya.’

‘What the fuck have you done, you dickhead? You’ve told my mum, and your mum.’

‘But I thought that was what you wanted. You wanted all those things, the dress and the watch, I thought it was for our new life together, so our baby has nice things around it –’

‘You spaz, there is no baby. But now our parents think there is and they are going to to ape-shit. My dad might actually kill me, and then he’ll come and kill you.’

I high-fived Baggo as I spoke. It had worked.

‘What? There’s no baby?’

I tried to put a suitable amount of hurt confusion into my voice.

‘No, you dick, there never was.’

‘Katya, are you telling me you lied about us doing it, just so you could get stuff like a dress and a watch?’

‘So? Your dad’s rich, he can well afford it.’

‘That … that’s really cruel. And now I’ve told everyone. There’s going to be a lot of explaining to do.’

‘Everyone will think I’m, like, a total slag.’

‘Oh that’s terrible. Maybe I’d feel worse about it if it wasn’t so true. Bye Katya. Check the email addresses.’

I’d recorded the whole thing so she couldn’t go back on it and use my email against me, but I didn’t actually want her telling her mum, who would be bound to tell my mum and things might come to light that would be best remaining in the dark.

I felt a huge weight slip from my shoulders, and knew that I had more to be grateful to Baggo for than just coming to get me when I texted him from a party he hadn’t been invited to.

‘You, Jacob Bagwell, are a sodding genius.’

‘Aw shucks. She had it bloody coming. She throws her weight around way too much.’

‘Thanks, though.’

‘Pleasure. Are you done now?’

‘Done what?’

‘Taking out your angst on girlkind?’

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

‘Yeah you do. Since Chrissie left, you’ve been this, like, moody git; you go from one girl to another, spreading the hate. This was an accident waiting to happen. It’s like you don’t care. You’ve always cared, it’s one of your least appealing traits, that you’ve never just been one for copping a quick feel when you could make them a hot chocolate or do their, like, bloody ironing or something. I blame your bloody family, bunch of caring tosser blokes like your uncle and your whatever you call him, Dec, always running about making sure their women are warm or comfortable or whatever. It sets a bad example, and you’ve always been like that, but since Chrissie, you’re more like … you’re more like me. You don’t wanna be like me.’

‘What are you on? I’m nothing like you. I have way more success.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Huh?’

‘You’re much more popular with the ladies than I am. You should treat them better. Don’t let this kind of Katya thing happen again. Forget her, she’s trouble.’

‘Leave her to you, you mean?’

‘If you like. I’ll take her off your hands, make her forget all about you.’

It was just posturing and banter now, and I appreciated what Baggo was doing for me. I heard what he said, too. He was right, I’d got a bit lost in my sadness and anger over Chrissie, and I knew deep down that the way I’d been wasn’t really how I wanted to be.

The next day at school was interesting, as Katya, Florence and Milly all pretended they didn’t know me and didn’t care who I was, while I got on with my school work without having to check my phone every two minutes. Baggo seemed determined to be my guardian angel, or maybe he’d suddenly decided he had a thing for the Holy Trinity after all, as he went all out to bag one of them for himself. He nearly succeeded, managing to secure a date with Milly who then stood him up.

It was the end of Callous Cal, and to be honest, I was glad to see the back of him. I didn’t really have the heart for it; Baggo was right, I was much better at making hot chocolate than breaking hearts, although I will not admit to ever doing anyone’s ironing, least of all my own. Trouble was, I didn’t have anyone to make hot chocolate for except my mum. I supposed she would have to do for now.

Matt

‘Hey gorgeous woman. I’ve got some free cuddles, if you’re interested.’

‘Hi flower. Yeah, always interested in free stuff.’

‘Come here then, you’re going to have to work for your freebies.’

I wrapped Lau up in my arms and kissed her. I had news.

‘What?’

‘Oh for pity’s sake, Lau, I didn’t even get half way through the door.’

‘Stop moaning about how well I know you, and just tell me.’

I sighed, she was no fun at all, oh except when she was being very fun indeed, but right now, when I wanted to string it out a bit, tease her, nope, no enjoyment to be had there in any way.

‘OK then, you clever cow, but I might charge you for the cuddle now.’

‘Hm. What’s your price?’

‘A snog with tongues, an arse grope and a nipple pinch.’

‘Blimey, your cuddles don’t come cheap.’

She got going on the arse groping, and I hoped the rest would shortly follow. The kids were having an afternoon out with Mum and April, and we had a good hour before they came back.

‘No, the whole Matt Scott package comes in pretty expensive these days. With a ten per cent price hike as of today.’

Lau looked at me, confused.

‘What do you mean? Ten per cent of snog with tongues would be …’

‘No you daft bat. Bloody hell, I thought I just called you a clever cow. I said the ‘whole Matt Scott package’, as in my net worth, as in Raiders just gave me a ten per cent pay rise. Although, obviously, ten per cent of snog with tongues is nibbled earlobes.’

Lau’s eyes widened in surprise and delight, and not just about the prospect of nibbling my earlobes. Raiders already paid me pretty well, and there were bonuses attached which helped, as I worked hard and met my targets, and now Raiders had won the League again, they were able to dish out pay rises. We had been managing before, but Lau had been thinking about going back to work to make things easier. Now she wouldn’t have to. She did a little dance, and hugged me tightly.

‘Oh, flower, that’s great. Have you got to work longer hours, though?’

‘No, same hours. Lau, this means you can stay put, not go back, if you don’t want to.’

‘Well it does, but I’m still not sure. The kids will be going to school in a couple of years, and I don’t know what I’d do with myself. Maybe we should be earning a bit of a cushion.’

‘Do you want to go back to work?’

I knew the answer. She’d thought she’d miss it when she left to have the babies, but her maternity leave had been stretched as thin as she could stretch it, and then she took unpaid leave, and now she admitted she didn’t really want to return. I also knew she felt guilty about not earning money, but I had the answer to that one all ready.

‘I feel like I should.’

‘And who would look after Josh and Ella?’

‘Well, Mum would, maybe one day a week. Beth has offered. And there’s this really good nursery near the airport.’

‘So you’d go to work so we could pay someone to look after them while you’re at work?’

She shrugged.

‘It’s crazy Lau, if you don’t really want to. Look, we’ve always said in it together, haven’t’ we? Doesn’t that mean we share everything? Like, we take it in turns to empty the dishwasher, or you use my razor to shave your legs and I don’t complain when it shreds my face the next day, or you spend all day looking after our kids and we share the money I earn.’

‘Yeah, I know, flower. It just … something doesn’t feel right about actually saying ‘I’m giving up working’. Like I’m a scrounger or something.’

I understood where she was coming from. Lau had a strong work ethic, and didn’t like doing nothing, or feeling like she was doing nothing when she was actually running around like a blue arsed fly keeping us all together. I was about to play my trump card.

‘But how about if there was something to keep you busy once Ella and Josh go to school?’

She looked at me, a slight frown on her face as she wondered what the fuck I was going to suggest.

‘Like?’

‘Like, oh I don’t know –’

I bent down and kissed her, gently, pushing her hair away from her face and running my hand down her side to her fine arse.

‘– how about another baby?’

She pushed away from me slightly, so she could look in my eyes and see if I meant it. I so meant it.

‘Oh Matt.’

Cal

I was still nursing my own broken heart, and once the summer holidays came round, I just wanted to shut myself away and forget everything, but we were going on one of our enormous family holidays. It was part two of something similar we’d done a few years previously, and maybe a continuation of something that had begun before that, a few years after we moved back down to the city. That first time, there hadn’t been so many of us. We’d gone to France: Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Dec and Amy, Gran, Rose, Nico and Lis, and Matty. Which made eleven of us. Then, years later, Matty and Dad fell out about something, and when they made it up, they decided to go to France again, only this time ‘everyone’ was Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Matty and Lau with Josh and Ella, Dec and Amy with Charlie, Tom and Gracie on the way, Nico, Lis and Basty, Granny, Rose, Diane and April. Nineteen and a half people. It’s hard to believe our family had almost doubled in just a few years.

By the time we did it again, though, that summer when we went to Spain and I was trying to forget Chrissie, a few had dropped off. Diane and April had decided that much as they loved cuddling grandchildren, the rest of us were too raucous to be around for too long. Nico, Lis and Basty couldn’t make it either, so it was just Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Matty and Lau with Josh and Ella, Dec and Amy with Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa, Gran and Rose. ‘Only’ sixteen of us.

I would like to say I tried my hardest to get in the holiday mood, that I joined in with games and trips and helped with the little kids, but in truth I shut myself away in my room with my phone and my Nintendo and my ‘doom and gloom music’, as Rose used to call it, and gave everyone a hard time. Not that I was allowed to dwell in any way, not with the self-styled comedy duo that was Matt Scott and Declan Summers to tease and cajole me into coming out of my room (they pretended to be filming a documentary about an elusive animal, they did a whole circus act in my room, they sat and told ‘knock knock’ jokes, until I gave in and left the room for dinner, just to make them stop). But I was in pain, and I didn’t know what to do about it, and no one seemed to notice.

I hadn’t heard from Chrissie in all this time, but I’d been hanging on to the belief that she’d cave and text or call in the summer, maybe come down to see me, and things could go back to how they were. The longer the summer went on and she didn’t contact me, the more I had to face it, that she wasn’t going to, that we really were over. I missed her more than ever.

Slowly, though, once I’d accepted it, I started to get over it. I had a bit of a reputation, inside the family, of being a grumpy little git, not only at that time, but beforehand. I suppose I did whinge quite a lot, but I really, really hated being the oldest of a whole bunch of little kids. Not only the oldest by a year or two, like Iz was, but oldest by six or seven years. Just as I was getting to be what I thought was ‘grown up’, I was lumbered at any family get together with all these little dweebs who just wanted to ruin all my stuff. I was always being made to let them go on my X-box, or play with my iPod, or worse, play their games.

Perhaps, if I’m absolutely honest, I was envious of them as a group. They all got on so well together, and even though I was hurting from Chrissie that time in Spain, I couldn’t hack the thought of being used as a free childminder, expected to build sandcastles and give piggy backs while the ‘real’ grown ups sat on the beach and read books.

Matt

‘Hey Unca Matty. Newsflash from the Summers house.’

‘Well don’t keep me in suspenders, man.’

‘Baby no. 4 on the way.’

‘No shit! Congrats, I think! U moving to a mansion?’

‘LOL no but extension on the cards. Come over ltr 2 cele?’

‘Def. BBQ?’

‘No, A’s puking @ cooking meat.’

‘Bugger. Celery?’

‘LOL. Pizza. No pepperoni tho.’

‘We’ll b there. ❤ 2 Amy x’

Cal

Some of it got better as I got over Chrissie. Some of it got better as I got older, and realised my family, all of it, was pretty great. A lot of it was helped by a few well-chosen words from Dec, one evening when he asked me over for pizza.

Amy had gone out, and he called up and invited me over for a ‘boys night in’, which also included Matty and Nico. I was really chuffed, feeling part of the gang for once. There was a bit of teasing, mostly about me not being old enough to drink beer, although Matty had been giving me beer since I was really young, but as they all teased each other about other stuff, I didn’t mind. You didn’t stand a chance in our family if you minded being teased, although I didn’t always let on how little I really minded.

We’d been there a while, watching a DVD, eating pizza, drinking coke. The DVD finished, Matty and Nico took some pizza boxes and beer bottles out to the kitchen, and Dec turned to me.

‘It’s great having you here, mate, thanks for coming.’

I looked at him, surprised.

‘Sure thing. Good pizza.’

‘Great to see you smile, mate.’

‘What do you mean? I smile all the time.’

‘Not all the time, eh? Maybe you feel a bit grumpy, more often than not.’

I shrugged, the teenager’s stock response to being confronted.

‘All I’m saying, Cal, is look like you’re fucking enjoying things a bit more, and maybe we can do things like this more often, just the boys.’

It resonated with advice Rose had given me in Spain, but I really didn’t like being told how to feel, especially when it felt like I was being offered a bribe.

‘What, you mean grin for my pizza?’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I just meant you’re great to be around, a good mate, and I’ve had a laugh this evening. We can do it again sometime, if you like.’

‘As long as I’m a cheery bastard?’

‘Well, it wouldn’t hurt, would it? I know it’s not easy with all the kids, you being the oldest. Just wondered if you fancied being the youngest every now and then, with us old tossers?’

I gave him an honest smile then, not one that had been bought. He’d got it. Fuck knows how, but Dec, who had never had any brothers or sisters, younger or older, got how it was for me, and knew how to make at least some of it better. Somehow, just knowing that was another part of the jigsaw slotting into place

Another piece was that I went on rugby camps when I got back from Spain, started doing more training in the week, as well as my schoolwork, immersed myself in brain work and muscle work, and decided that there was more to life than girls. More to life than one particular girl, at any rate. I was still a bloke, and girls still turned my head to some degree, but they were low on my priority list. I think that’s how Ayesha got in under my radar. I didn’t notice she was a girl, not at first.

That sounds terrible. Sorry, Ayesh. You are the womanliest of women, and were the girliest of girls, I just wasn’t in that place where I wanted to notice. That’s what I think I meant.