26. Get ready for this

In which Dec encounters recovery and remembering, and anticipates reunions.

Silence. Darkness. Faded to grey, sounds reappeared. Voices. Made no sense at first. Pains in both my arms. Mixed up with my dream. Someone was kicking me. I wasn’t sure where I was.

‘Fuck off, Big.’

>Hey Declan, you live. Stop moving, the lovely Suzanne try to take your blood pressure.

I opened my eyes. Two faces bent over me. Nico and a nurse. My brain attempted to make sense of it, but failed.

‘What?’

*Hello Declan. Just need to take your blood pressure. Both your arms are pretty knocked about, but I’m using your left so we can leave the operation site alone. Does it hurt?

‘Mm. Where’s Big?’

>What is big?

‘He was just here.’

>Only just me and Suzanne. You wake up from operation on your arm. You are confusing.

*I’ll give you some oxygen, that’ll help you think better.

The nurse put a mask over my face, and I felt a cold gas enter my lungs. A few breaths later, and things were a lot less foggy.

*That looks better, more colour in your cheeks. Blood pressure’s fine. Stay here for a bit, then we can take you back to your room. You’ll feel tired and want to sleep for a while, but try to get moving as soon as you can. Eat something too, and have a drink.

I felt the mattress move underneath me as the bed sat me up.

*Is your arm hurting? Do you need painkillers?

‘Mm, please.’

*Here you go, then, some meds for the pain and some water. Can you hold the cup?

My right arm was in a sling, so I tried to take it with my left hand, hooked my fingers in the handle, did my best, but spilt a lot, so the nurse got a straw and I managed to swallow the tablets.

I looked at Nico.

‘Thanks for coming.’

>Is no problem for me. I talk to the beautiful Suzanne while you sleep. She tell me your operation go very well, and now your arm is very good. I must call Rose and Lis to say you are awake. Suzanne, I use my phone?

*Not in here, sorry. Best go outside.

>OK. Declan, I must do this, I am not long.

‘No worries. Say hi.’

My throat was dry and I was really thirsty, and I managed to drink two mugs of water. This reawakened my appetite – it was getting on for a whole day since I last ate anything. My stomach growled.

*Hungry, are you?

I nodded.

*You can go back to your room when your friend gets back, they’ll bring you some dinner. You must be ravenous.

‘Starving.’

*The food in here is great, you’ll have a feast. Just need to take your temperature – pop the thermometer in your mouth for me.

Just as she took the thermometer out, Nico came back.

>Rose, she is very relieved. I think she worry all day. She want to visit, I say is OK.

‘Course.’

*You can take Declan to his room now, if you’re OK with the wheelchair. You’ll be able to use your mobile there if you want to.

>Thank you, Suzanne. Declan, I have to ring Don and Jaime to say you are OK, we can wait until we are in your room. Maybe you talk to them?

‘Sure.’

Once back in my room, Nico phoned Don and Jay and told them everything had gone well. I spoke briefly to both, but was still groggy and knew less than Nico, so didn’t have that much to say.

Just as I rang off from Jay, my dinner arrived. As Suzanne had predicted, it was a feast, and I ate the lot.

>You are hungry, my friend. Is good I have big lunch.

‘Sorry, I was starving. Nothing since midnight.’

>Ha, I know this.

Nico’s phone pinged. He looked at the screen.

>Ha, Lis say you must stand up, get blood to move. She boss you from my phone. You stand up now.

‘What?’

>You remember your list from Don, this is one thing. Suzanne she say also. You move to keep blood going, OK?

I grumbled a bit, as my large meal had made me feel sleepy, but swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. It was so much easier without the cast getting in the way, and without the constant pain of the broken collar bone. Even though my arm hurt, and was stiff and sore, and the scars themselves covered in dressings, I managed so much better, and it lifted my spirits.

‘How far should I go?’

>Ha, you ask me? OK … there is drink machine in the corridor, go there, get me coffee!

‘OK then.’

I set off out of the door, looked left, saw the coffee machine at the end of the corridor. Got all the way there, realised I had no money. Walked back. Nico was waiting with a huge grin on his face.

>Your head still not work right. You have no coins, eh?

‘Yeah, very funny. You can get your own fucking coffee.

:Well this must be Declan’s room, I can hear the language from the corridor.

‘Rose!’

:Hello, love, it’s good to see you up and about. Come here.

She folded me up in one of her huge hugs, being very careful of my right arm.

:Oh, love, that’s better. I’ve been so worried all day, soft aren’t I?

‘It’s nice to be worried about.’

As I said it, I realised how good it felt that someone was thinking about me, and how much pressure it took off me.

:I suppose so, love.

>Rose you have a chair. I go to get coffee from machine, as Declan fail. You want?

:Tea if they’ve got it, ta, love.

I sat on the edge of the bed and swung my legs back in.

:That looks so much better, love. That big cast just got in your way. Is it sore?

‘Lots of painkillers. Will be sore tomorrow.’

I could feel my energy slipping away; I was finding it hard to speak.

:Not long and you can have a shower, I imagine you’ll have to be careful of those dressings for a while. Maybe you can stick your arm out the shower curtain or something?

‘Mm.’

I was feeling very sleepy, couldn’t keep my eyes open. Tried to listen to Rose, but everything faded.

: … sure he’s going to be alright?

> … fine, is normal to sleep …

: … how long I should stay …

> … go home soon, he look out for the night …

: … night Nico, love. No, I won’t stay much longer …

: … night Declan, love, I’m going home, I’ll see you in the morning …

Woke up with a start a lot later. It was dark in the room, there was no sign of Rose or Nico. I assumed they had gone home. I had had more strange half-dreams about Big and someone else, wearing brown boots, who was stamping on my phone. I kept trying to make the other person become DivDav, but his face wouldn’t stay there. I seemed to wake up regularly, in a panic, then drop off to sleep only for the same thing to happen again.

By the time morning came, I was shattered, and my arm was starting to throb. A nurse came in before long and gave me some painkillers, which calmed my arm a bit.

I managed to doze without dreaming for a while before the doctor came to check on me, shone a light in my eyes, signed a form and said I could go home in the afternoon. I also had an early morning visit from Don, Pete the physio and one of the conditioning coaches. They wanted to check my arm and make some plans for my restart in the New Year. I hoped they didn’t expect me to remember any of the conversation, which mostly carried on over my head, and was a detailed discussion about muscle fibres and recovery rates. I think it was decided that my arm might need a week or two before the stitches were out, and then I would be back on the treadmill, getting fit again. That was fine by me; a large part of me couldn’t wait to get back to training and feel a proper part of Raiders once more.

-See you on the sixth, then, Declan.

‘Sixth. Right.’

£You might need to write it down, Don. He’s not going to remember his own name for a while. Better still, tell someone else.

‘Tell Rose.’

-Right you are. You’re doing well, son. Have a good Christmas.

‘Thanks. You too.’

I slept again, after a good breakfast, until Rose appeared.

:Alright, love? I’m glad you’re awake, hardly saw you yesterday before you were out of it. Had to go back home in the end. How did you sleep?

‘Not too good. Weird dreams, kept waking up.’

:So you’ve been knocked out on the table but kept awake half the night after, you poor love. How are you now?

‘Still tired.’

:Have a snooze then. I won’t tell. I brought some magazines, look. I’ll be here when you wake up.

So I did. My eyelids were drooping anyway, and I drifted off quickly.

Dreaming. Although it feels real. I was in the car park at Raiders, had my phone out to call Rose. It was dark, my head was down, looking at the screen on the phone, and I was heading over towards where DivDav’s car should have been, although neither he nor his car were anywhere to be seen.

I heard footsteps behind me. Turned, half expecting it to be DivDav. Caught sight of movement, then something hit the back of my head. Heard it smash. Glass cascaded around me. I staggered, stunned. Dropped my phone.

Felt blows, slashes, to my face. Bent forwards, hands over my head, trying to protect myself. More blows hit my body, and I fell to the ground. Feet all round me, kicking me, grinding bits of glass through my clothes and into my skin, stamping on my phone, stamping on my arm, sharp peaks of agony overtaking all my senses. Looked up, tried to see who it was.

Blond hair, tall … familiar. And then brown hair, tall, stocky, Big. They redoubled their efforts to kick the shit out of me. By looking up I’d left my face vulnerable, and I lay there helplessly as a brown boot headed towards my face, crashing into my nose with a blast of pain. Seeing stars didn’t begin to describe it, whole universes flashed in my head. I tried to cover my face again, but I was nearly unconscious and I couldn’t move my arms. More blasts of pain burst over me and I fell into the black.

:Declan. It’s alright, love, you’re dreaming. Come on, wake up, now. You’re OK, I’m here. Shush now.

Someone’s hand smoothing the hair away from my forehead. For a confused second, my heart soared.

‘Mum?’

:Oh love, it’s Rose. You’re OK, you were having a dream. Calling out, fighting you were. It’s alright now. You remember where you are?

I opened my eyes groggily as I crashed back to earth. The sun had made its way into my room and was shining on the floor. I tried to get my thoughts working. My heart was pounding, and I was panting like I’d been for a run. I pushed away the brief instant when I’d thought Mum was here, and made myself focus on what I’d been dreaming – no, not dreaming. Remembering. It was big. It was …

‘Big.’

:What’s that, love?

‘Not DivDav.’

:Sorry, you’ve lost me.

‘Not a dream. I remember. Being kicked. Not DivDav. It was Big and someone else, I knew him, but it wasn’t Dav. They hit me with a bottle.’

It started to bring it all back again, felt like I was there again. I closed my eyes.

‘Shit. Big. No way.’

:What do you mean, love? A big bottle?

Exasperated that I would have to explain myself, I sighed and tried to gather my thoughts into something comprehensible.

‘Big’s … he was my mate. It’s a nickname. His name’s Ben.’

I waited for the penny to drop.

:Ah, I see. And so this friend of yours has been hitting you with bottles in your dreams?

‘No, I told you, it wasn’t a dream. I remember it.

:Are you sure, love? You’re pretty dosed up at the moment, your mind can play all sort of tricks. You and Nico were certain it was this Dav fellow the other day.

‘It was real. Memory, not a dream. Can’t explain – I know the difference.’

:Well if you’re really convinced, we need to contact the police, but we’re not going to do it now, it can wait till you get home. Any idea when they’re letting you out?

‘This afternoon. You don’t have to wait.’

:Course I don’t love, but I’m going to, I hardly saw you yesterday before you dozed off again. You’ve gone a very funny colour, I think I’ll get a nurse.

‘No –’

But she had bustled off in search of someone. I tried not to go over my newly uncovered memories, but my brain was on a single track. Once again I was hit by the bottle, once again I saw my phone smashed, once again I looked up and saw Big and … who the fuck was it? I knew him … and once again the brown boot smashed into my face. In my head I lay on the ground in the car park, powerless to do anything about it.

Big. He’d been the only one who’d been nice to me, had gone out of his way to talk to me, been for a drink with me. What had that been all about? Surely he wasn’t the one who trashed my flat? He did know where I lived though, and as far as I knew, DivDav didn’t. He’d come to see me in hospital, twice. As I remembered this, and Big standing over me looking stunned when I’d fallen out of bed, I also remembered something he said when he visited with DivDav:

°Probably have to wait till his phone’s back in commission.

How had he known about my phone, unless he’d been there when it was broken? Hardly anyone knew. With a sinking heart, I started to put some of it together. His friendliness seemed the biggest sham now, designed to – what? – get information out of me? Keep me on the back foot? And once the outcome of the points deduction was known, that was it, payback. I remembered DI Johnson’s question about the ‘Payback’ text. Rose was right, I was going to have to contact the police as soon as I felt a bit more alert.

Rose returned with a nurse in tow.

:He’s just had a bit of a shock, that’s all, he lost his memory when he was attacked, and it’s all come back while he was asleep.

*Well let’s have a look then. Are you in any pain, Declan?

‘Bit of a headache, arm’s a bit sore.’

*Alright, then, let’s see what we can do.

She took my temperature, pulse and blood pressure. Offered me some more tablets.

‘I don’t want to go to sleep again.’

*Well, I can understand that, but these will make you a bit drowsy. You’ll doze on and off for a while. You are going to have someone with you when you go home, aren’t you?

:He’s staying at mine.

*Oh good, nice to have your mum looking after you, eh?

Neither of us contradicted her.

The rest of the morning and afternoon passed slowly, me trying and failing not to fall asleep, waking with a start every time my head dropped forwards, and Rose checking her watch every five minutes. I had another great meal at lunchtime, but shared it with Rose, who wasn’t included in the free fabulous food offer at the private hospital. I told her it wasn’t a patch on her cooking, but we both knew I wasn’t being completely honest.

I was finally given the all clear to leave, and we made our way to the car park, where Rose had parked as close to the main entrance as she could. My legs wobbled alarmingly, but I made it to the car. I was panting a bit by the time I got there, and I considered ruefully how much conditioning work I was going to have to do just to regain my fitness, let alone get back to a state in which I could play a game of rugby. Big and his mate had certainly had some payback in the form of the amount of my life they had taken from me.

Rose settled me in her comfy armchair, then left me in front of the TV while she made some tea. She shouted through from the kitchen.

:Nico’s going to ring later. He said he won’t visit as you’ll be tired, but he’ll come and see you tomorrow morning. Beth rang this morning, she’s going to call you later, I had a chat with little Calum too. He told me you’ve spoken to Santa about an – oh what was it – Optimax something –

‘Optimus Prime. It’s all sorted. Me and Santa know what we’re doing.’

:Oh that’s good, then, love. Wouldn’t do to disappoint him, he seems very keen.

‘Yeah. I know. Need to keep my promises. Can’t wait to see him, though.’

:I think he feels the same, from the amount of questions he asked about you. He’s very interested in your operation scars.

‘He loves gore. The bloodier the better.’

:Oh, typical six year old then.

Rose came in with two mugs of tea, gave me one and settled down on the sofa. We passed the evening companionably, although she did keep making me move around and do the exercises the hospital had suggested to avoid blood clots.

I went to bed early, finding it much easier to undress without the plaster cast and painful collar bone, although as the operation sites had begun to throb, I took some painkillers just before I settled down. I fell asleep really quickly, but was woken up a couple of times by the phone ringing in the hallway. From the muffled conversations I overheard, it was firstly Nico and then Beth. Rose told them both I had gone to bed, but would ring them tomorrow, and I slept on again.

Dreaming. I am flying, with Mum. She wants to show me things, tell me the names of things, talk to me, but I want to see everything, and fly on ahead. I turn round and she has gone. I fly everywhere, but I can’t find her.

I woke the next morning, with tears on my face and a heavy sadness in my chest. I didn’t think about Mum very often, it was too painful. I’d only been thirteen when she’d died with Dad in the accident, and my subsequent experiences in various foster homes hadn’t lent themselves to introspection or dealing in any helpful way with grief. It had been more about survival, which didn’t include any kind of a softer side. By the time I’d got to Jay and Beth, I had shut Mum and Dad away somewhere virtually inaccessible. If I didn’t think about them, I didn’t have to deal with the loss of them. I’d dreamed about Mum a few times in the past few weeks, and it had unlocked that place. I tried now to push my sorrow back there, but it wouldn’t quite fit, leaving a part of me feeling exposed and vulnerable.

It took me a while to get out of bed that day, feeling down physically and emotionally. Rose spent a lot of time trying to gee me up, but she was working really hard for little reward. Nico and Beth phoned back, but I couldn’t find the energy for long conversations. Rose asked if I wanted to phone DI Johnson, but that felt a long way from possible.

I also had a phone call from Adam, the psychologist Don wanted me to see in the New Year. I made an appointment, he said he would send a letter confirming it, and that was another thing sorted, but another reminder of how much I had to do to get better.

After nearly a day of trying to get a response out of me, Rose had had enough, and took matters into her own hands. She called Nico and asked him to come over.

:I think he needs some cheering up, hardly had a word out of him all day.

Nico arrived half an hour later, full of chatter and charm, and raised my spirits a bit. He told a funny story about trying to buy a present for Lis in town that morning, he teased Rose mercilessly about her need for tea, he made fun of the TV programmes that were on in the background, and it was impossible not to be a bit swept up in his performance. I caught myself smiling, despite myself, and Nico noticed too.

>Ha, this is better. You seem very sad today, Rose tell me.

‘Had stuff on my mind.’

>You must say this stuff, or we cannot help.

I was silent. They couldn’t have helped, whatever I said, and I wasn’t going to tell them what was on my mind. I could barely acknowledge it myself, and talking about it would release a whole lot of shit I wasn’t ready to face.

>Huh, you are stubborn. OK, is up to you.

:Are you worried about this business with your friend, love?

I shook my head, frowned at her, didn’t want both of them going on at me.

>What business?

Rose ignored my scowl.

:Declan thinks he’s remembered the assault. He thinks it was someone different to that Dav fellow you told the police about. I think he should call DI Johnson, but he’s not felt up to it today.

>Declan, you remember?

I was trying not to, but thinking about it now brought the flashbacks into my head; kicks and punches and slashes. I groaned and covered my face with my hands. Too much I was trying not to think about.

‘I remember being punched and kicked, glass smashing on my head. It was Big. Ben Hearne. And someone else – I think I know him, but it wasn’t DivDav.’

>Declan, you must tell the police.

‘Rose thinks it was a dream.’

:Well it did happen while you were asleep, love.

‘I know the difference.’

>OK, is importante. If you are sure, we tell the police the wrong name before. We must tell them.

‘I’m sure I remember.’

>Then I call, like last time.

Nico made the call, I was relieved to have it taken out of my hands. It was a short conversation.

>He say he come this evening to talk to you. I say yes. I stay or go, which you want.

‘Stay, please. When’s he coming?’

>Ha, I forget to ask. Rose, I am here all evening, feed me please!

:You’ve got a cheek on you. Alright, I’ll get cracking on tea.

>I call Lis to say I stay longer.

DI Johnson eventually arrived about eight thirty. He asked me to go over what I remembered, and was particularly interested in how I knew it was Big, and what I could recall of the other man. I described what I could remember: blond hair, brown boots, nondescript clothing. I couldn’t see how any of it could help, it was all too vague. He asked the question I had been expecting.

ϙWhat made you remember?

‘I woke up after a dream, and I just remembered.’

ϙHow can you be sure it wasn’t part of the dream?

‘Because it’s a memory. I can’t explain it any better. It’s like when I remembered Dav texting me on Saturday. I just know. I’ve remembered something else though, not something from my sleep. When I was in hospital the first time, Big and Dav came to see me. Big said something about my phone being out of commission. I don’t know how he would have known that unless he’d had something to do with smashing it.’

ϙInteresting. When you gave us David Allsop’s name we did some checking on his phone records, and he tried to contact you by text and phone on three occasions between twenty and thirty minutes after your phone was destroyed. Although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that he would have done this if he had known your phone was broken. You’re sure this other man wasn’t David Allsop?

‘I’m sure. Dav’s got dark brown hair, this man was blond, and could have been taller. I’m sure I know him from somewhere.’

>Do you know yet the anonymous numbers?

ϙWe’re still working on it. Lots of red tape. Thank you very much, Declan. We’ll be in touch. Can we get hold of you here over Christmas?

‘No, I’m away.’

I smiled to myself as I thought about going up to Jay and Beth’s.

‘Rose, have you got Jay’s number?’

Rose wrote out a number for DI Johnson, then showed him out.

>Huh. Ben Hearne. You are sure?

‘I’m sure.’

>Are you OK? He is your friend, he never hurt you in training, he seem OK.

‘I know. No, I’m not OK really. He’s kind of fucked up my life for the next few months. I thought he was a good mate, we went out for a drink when no one else would talk to me. Don’t know what to think about that now. Don’t feel like I can trust anyone.

>You know you can trust me and Rose and Jaime. Start with us. We look after you now. We are Three Musketeers. Four if you count Lis. No, six with Beth and Cal. We are Six Musketeers. Were there six? There should be six, what good is three?

:You do talk some nonsense, lad.

>Ha, I say what is in my head. Sometimes is much nonsense, sometimes is much clever. Is luck which one. I go now, Lis she make special dinner.

:But you’ve had your dinner.

>She don’t know this.

He winked at Rose and stood up to go.

>Declan, I hope you OK, I try to cheer you up, you are sad still, yes?

‘A bit, I’ll be OK. Thanks for coming.’

He left and it was just Rose and me again.

Matt

And so the days ticked on to Christmas. I was more aware of it than I might have been because Cal was so excited – he had an advent calendar in my room, as well as one elsewhere in the house, and he came in every morning to open the cardboard door and eat the chocolate and tell me how many sleeps until Santa.

He told me earnestly how he’d asked Dec about some Transformer toy, and how Dec was going to talk to Santa about it. I hoped Dec wasn’t just bullshitting, and wasn’t going to let Cal down. I tried to talk to Beth about getting some presents for Cal, but she just waved me away and said that Santa was bringing enough more than enough, and there wouldn’t be any names on anything, and to save my strength. I wasn’t quite sure what I was saving it for, as there didn’t seem to be a marathon or even a walk to the toilet in my immediate future, but it was the end of the subject.

I was, however, slowly, infinitesimally, feeling things get better. There were days when I could sit in the chair in my room for a few minutes – not many days, but it happened, and it was something I used to chart my progress. I could sometimes even get myself out of bed and into the chair myself, although these occasions were few and far between, and I couldn’t get myself back again.

There were also days when my lungs decided they were going to try to expel all the foul deposits left in their depths, and I would cough uncontrollably, and Jay and Beth would sit with me trying to help me get it under control as I choked, their fingers poised on the nine on the phone. Those days left me weak and feeble for a long time, exhausted with the effort and sore from the overused chest muscles. I tried not to notice the fear in their eyes when it happened, but it was hard not to, and I knew I wasn’t truly out of it yet, it could still take me. The upshot of all the coughing was that I was the proud recipient of a baby monitor. It was switched on whenever there was no one in the room with me, so at the slightest sign of dying, someone could be with me in an instant to stop me. Bastards. I hated the fucker, it just made me feel more like an infant. But it was another thing I put up with because, at the end of the day, they were terrified and they had given up everything so I could be here and not in some shitty care home.

Cal

I only had a few more days of school, and then it was the Christmas holidays. I couldn’t remember ever being more excited than I was that year. I spent a lot of time in Uncle Matty’s room, playing with my toys and talking to Uncle Matty, who seemed to be able to talk and play for longer, and slept less, than when he first came to live with us. Sometimes all four of us would be in there, and we’d watch Uncle Matty’s TV, and Mum, Dad and Uncle Matty would talk, or maybe Uncle Matty would be asleep, but we’d all still be there.

Like any good six-year-old, I was counting the days to Christmas, but I was also counting the days until Dec arrived, which was going to be two days before Christmas.

I had talked to Dec on the phone a lot, although Dec didn’t talk for long, and we didn’t make any plans about what we were going to do while he was here.

Mum said that we needed to see how Dec felt, and not try to make him do a lot of playing and games, but me and Dec had always done a lot of playing and games, and I wasn’t sure what Dec would do if we weren’t doing that. Mum said Dec had been sad, and hurt from his cuts and broken arm, and that we needed to give him loves like we did to Uncle Matty, but Dec wasn’t going to be asleep in his bed all day like Uncle Matty, and I was pretty sure he’d want to play football, or cars, or Jenga, or any of the things that we always did.

Dec

I spent the weekend focussing on doing the physio exercises Pete had given me, determined I was going to be as fit as I could when I returned to the club in January. I needed less and less help generally from Rose as my arm got used to its new operational status. My mood lifted as I did more for myself, I tried to concentrate on being busy rather than thinking, using Rose’s ‘don’t prod it’ theory, and managed to push things down far enough that I couldn’t feel them.

Lis visited a couple of times, Nico had an away Raiders game on Saturday, so I didn’t see much of him. Beth rang, I spoke to her and Jay and confirmed arrangements for Tuesday. That helped to cheer me up as much as anything. I was really looking forward to going up there, although Matt, Jay’s brother, was now living with them and very poorly, and Jay’s mum was going to be staying at the same time as me, and I was nervous about how everything was going to work out with us all. Couldn’t wait to see them all though, see them properly without being on medication, or in huge amounts of pain, or unable to talk without a six year old translator. Really needed to see how it was all going to work out.

On Monday, after a trip to my GP to have various stitches removed and to be told I no longer needed the sling, which I hadn’t been wearing much anyway, I borrowed a holdall from Rose, packed it with all the clothes Lisa had bought me, and put the presents I was taking up into another bag.

Now the stitches were out from my face and scalp, I could wash my hair. I still couldn’t have a shower, though, and had to ask Rose to help me using her shower hose over the bath so I could avoid soaking the dressings on my arm. It was such a relief to have clean hair, I almost didn’t mind Rose having to do it for me. It must have been washed when I was first admitted to hospital, to get the blood out, but I hadn’t been able to wash it since. It felt like another step towards recovering, getting back on my feet.

I hadn’t looked in the mirror much since I’d been out of hospital; seeing myself in the mirror on the ward had shaken me, and the odd glimpse out of the corner of my eye was all I’d been able to cope with. However, now the stitches were out, I risked an in-depth study, keeping it exploratory and fact-finding, and not thinking about how all the marks actually found their way onto my skin in the first place.

The bruises were still there, beginning to fade but still very noticeable, in every shade from deep green through canary yellow to dark browny purple; the stitches had been replaced by raised red lines which bracketed my face. I could still barely recognise myself.

I wondered how long the scars would last – I’d asked at the surgery when I had the stitches out, but they were non-committal, which I took to mean ‘a long time’. I really didn’t want to think of men in brown boots kicking me every time I looked at myself, so I was going to have to start covering all of those thoughts over with something else soon.

Matt

Two days before Christmas was the day set for Advent. Not the coming of the baby Jesus, but the coming of the juvenile rugby player. Dec was arriving that evening, and Cal rushed about excitedly all day, tidying his room up, drawing pictures, cleaning out his rabbit, so that everything would be ready. Because obviously the teenager wouldn’t have set foot through the door if the straw in the rabbit hutch wasn’t clean enough to see your face in. Fucksake.

Since they came back from Devon, Cal had talked a lot about Dec and his scars and bruises, seeming to find it all fascinating rather than horrifying, and I was looking forward to having a look for myself, nosy parker that I was. I knew Beth and Jay were nervous about him coming.

Jay felt that things hadn’t been properly sorted, and wanted to get to the bottom of everything. He wasn’t a fan of long conversations, but he seemed to have resigned himself to this particular one.

Beth just wanted everything to be lovely again. She’d been hurt more by Dec shutting himself off and not telling them about some pretty huge shit than she had about the actual huge shit, and wondered if things could ever be back the way they’d been.

It could be pretty handy, being a useless lump in a bed, who couldn’t talk much. People opened up, told you stuff. Of course, sometimes it meant you had to lie there while they fussed and went on at you as well, but the payoff was you sometimes got to hear the good shit, always provided you could a) remember it and b) not fall asleep at a crucial point.

Then Dec was here for Christmas. He was here for four days, and by the time he left, he’d changed things for me, and he was my mate, and part of my family. The End. What, you want details? My version of events? Blow-by-blow account? Oh alright then, if you insist.

Cal

So after what felt like years, it was at last the day that Dec was coming. I had tidied my room so that you could see the carpet and all my toys had been put away to leave room for Dec’s clothes and trainers and pants. I so wanted Dec to see my dinosaur bedroom; my old bedroom had Ben 10 curtains and blue walls, but my dinosaur bedroom was cool, and it was a big boy’s bedroom. And Dec hadn’t seen Percy, my rabbit, yet. Mum had never let me have a pet, because Tabitha, our cat wouldn’t like it. But Tabitha lived with Nico and Lis now, and I had Percy. Dec would love him.

Mum had a text from Lis to say that they were driving in Lis’s car, and that they should be at our house in a few hours. Mum had made some dinner, but we weren’t going to have it until Dec got here.

Dec

It was finally Tuesday, the day I was going to see Jay, Beth and Cal; the day, if it all went right, I was going to get my family back. Rose left in the morning, torn between wanting to be on her way to her sister’s and staying to fuss over me, but finally leaving me to it along with a long list of things I had to do and say, pots of jam to give to Beth, and a couple of her speciality huge hugs.

I wandered around restlessly, waiting for Lis to pick me up in the afternoon. I did some exercises, watched some of a Christmas film on TV, ate lunch, paced some more. Lis, of course, showed up dead on time.

The car journey was nearly as tortuous as the waiting had been. It should have taken about two and a half hours, but loads of other drivers seemed to be making an early Christmas getaway and the motorways were pretty busy. Being stuck in several traffic jams did nothing for my nerves. We got there in just over three and a half hours.

Cal

It got dark, and although I kept looking out of the window, I couldn’t see anything. Lots of cars went by, but I could only see their headlights, and none of them stopped. I took up a permanent position at the hall window, and pressed my face to the glass.

Finally, a car stopped outside, under the street-light, and a light went on inside the car. I saw Dec in the passenger seat, but he didn’t get out straight away. I jumped off the chair I’d been standing on and ran into the kitchen.

‘He’s here, Mummy, he’s here.’

Dec

It was early evening, dark and cold as Lis pulled up outside the house, following my directions via a map on her phone. I had managed to get us lost once, but we had found our way again and now we were here. My pulse rate rose with anticipation. I was finally here, I would find out if it really was all OK, if we could be together again, if things could be mended, or … not. I was excited and terrified.

~Ready?

Deep breath. I looked at Lisa, who gave me a reassuring smile.

‘… Ready.’

25. One step forward

In which disappointment is encountered.

It was dark when I woke up. I wasn’t sure what had woken me, or what the time was. There was a tap on the door.

:Are you decent, love? I’ve got a cup of tea and some toast for you. Have it in bed. It’s seven o’clock.

‘I’m decent.’

:Alright, I’m putting the light on.

Rose walked into the room with a mug and a plate, flicking the light switch with her thumb. The light dazzled me for a few seconds.

:By, you don’t like hanging things up, do you love?

She stepped over my pile of clothes in the middle of the floor, and looked at the other clothes strewn over a chair and a chest of drawers.

‘Sorry, not very tidy.’

:I can see that, love. Doesn’t worry me, just don’t you trip on anything. Here you go. Sit up now, don’t dawdle, you’ve got a lot to do before Nico gets here.

‘He’ll be late.’

:He said eight sharp.

‘He was joking. He’s always late. Always. At least half an hour.’

:Best be ready, just in case.

I sighed. I had, after all, asked not to be allowed to go back to sleep. Sat up and took the mug from Rose. Managed to hold it in my left hand, it ached but was strong enough. She put the plate well within reach on the bedside table.

:There’s some of your painkillers here, in case you need them, love. When will you be back, do you think?

‘Don’t know. This afternoon? Might have to wait for Nico to give me a lift back. Don’t think I’m up to the bus just yet.

:I’m at work all day, just wondering if you want me to pop back at lunchtime? Do you some lunch?

‘No, don’t do that. I’ll get myself something, somewhere, no worries. I’ll see you later. Maybe you could come upstairs with me?’

:If that’s what you want, love. Finish your breakfast, I’ll be back to bother you in a minute.

With Rose’s frequent bothering, I managed to be ready by eight o’clock. I was extra sure to do everything I needed to for myself, as I was a bit worried she was going to offer to come and wash me if I seemed like I couldn’t manage. I did it all well enough, though, then had to wait forty minutes for Nico to arrive. Rose was on tenterhooks the whole time.

‘If you need to go, just go, don’t be late for work. I said he’d be late.’

:Well I’ll have to go soon.

‘Go then, I can leave the building fine on my own, what are you waiting for?’

:What if he doesn’t come? I’ll have to take you.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, Rose, just go to work. Go on.’

Eventually she went, and two minutes later Nico arrived.

>Here I am, eight sharp like you say. This mean nearly nine, yes? Ha!

‘You’re going to get a bollocking from Rose. She’s not good with late.’

>You tell her I am always, don’t you?

‘Couldn’t quite get her head round it. She thought you must have stood me up or something.’

>Poor Rose. She learns the ways of Nico. Are you ready?

‘I’ve been ready since ‘eight sharp’, thanks.’

>Ha, then we go.

We got to the club about nine o’clock. I wasn’t quite sure who I needed to see – Don would be overseeing training, and at least one of the docs would be there too in case he was needed. I went to the main office.

I’d forgotten I looked such a sight. The swelling on my face was really going down, but the bruises were coming out in spectacular combinations of purple, yellow and green. The stitches gave my whole face the air of a slasher movie, and the nose cover completed the look. The girls in the office looked at me with open mouths when I walked in. I caused a bit of a stir while they recognised me and sympathised and finally told me to go to the treatment room. I made my escape, eager to get away from the excessive mothering, but happy that things seemed more normal with them all.

The treatment room was near the changing rooms, and although I hadn’t really thought about how I would react if I met anyone I knew, fortunately the players were all out on the training ground, and I didn’t run into anyone.

I tapped on the treatment room door and went in. Lee Brady, one of the club doctors, was in the room, writing at a table. He looked up, doing the by now familiar double-take as he saw my face then realised who I was.

÷Dec. Shit, you’ve seen better days, mate. Have a seat. Don’s out at training, but he wanted me to let him know when you’re here. I’ll just text him.

He pressed a few keys on a mobile phone then looked up at me.

÷We’ve asked the hospital to email over your X-rays so we can have a look at your arm and collar bone. Do you mind if I have a quick prod?

I shook my head. Lee lifted up my right arm, watching my face to see when it hurt. It hurt pretty much straight away.

÷Do you happen to know the specifics of your arm breaks? This plastering is pretty over the top unless there’s some fairly heavy-duty damage under there.

‘No, sorry.’

÷No problem, we can wait for the X-rays, I’m expecting them in the next few minutes. I’m hoping we might be able to get away without the plaster – immobilising your arm for several weeks will mean you have to work harder and longer to build your strength back up. Might need to fix that collar bone though. How’s everything else? Your left hand looks badly bruised.

He had a look, took the bandage and splint off the little finger, then moved the other fingers backwards and forwards, and asked me to move my fingers on my own. The swelling had gone down a lot, and this morning I noticed I could do more with my hand than yesterday.

÷Hm, could’ve been worse, lucky to get away with just the pinky broken. That’s quite a footprint. Have you taken a photo?

‘Er, no. Not something I particularly want to remember.’

÷Not for the family album, you plonker, but for identifying who did it.

It hadn’t occurred to me.

‘Genius.’

÷Use your phone.

‘Can’t, it was smashed.’

÷Oh, OK. I’ll do it now, then. If you need it, you know where I am.

He took a few shots of my hand and saved them on his phone. The laptop on the table bleeped.

÷Here are your X-rays. Let’s have a look, now.

The door opened and Don came in, slightly breathless.

-Hello Declan, thanks for coming. Any news, Lee?

÷The X-rays have just arrived, I’m having a look now. Looks like a simple humerus, plus ulna and radius near the wrist, a bit more complicated. I can understand why they plastered, but I think screw and plate would give more mobility – I was just explaining to Declan about losing muscle bulk if you’re kept immobile. We need to fix the collar bone too, the ends aren’t together, it’ll set wrong.

-Thanks, Lee, that’s what we talked about yesterday, isn’t it? Declan, what we’re suggesting is that you have an operation as soon as possible to try and fix your arm. We want to get the plaster off and get you moving as soon as we can, fix up your collar bone, and then you’ll be able to train. You’ll be out for much longer if you keep the plaster on, and the collar bone might not heal properly. Lee and I have checked with the local private hospital and the surgeon we’ve used before, and they could fit you in next Tuesday. I know it’s close to Christmas, but you’d be out the next day.

I was silent. The day after Tuesday was Christmas Eve. There was no way I’d be able to travel. It was a big blow, beyond disappointment. I couldn’t quite believe my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal was being taken away, almost as soon as it had been given to me. I didn’t know what to say. I understood everything they’d said, and realised the strings they would have had to pull to get such an early date, especially at this time of year. But Christmas with them all … it was more than a holiday, it was a chance to put it right, to try to make things good again. I’d said ‘yes’, and now I was going to have to say ‘thanks but no thanks’.

-Is everything alright, son? I know it’s a lot to spring on you, but we really don’t want to hang around with breaks, there can be all sorts of complications.

‘I understand that. It’s just, er, this sounds stupid I know, is there any way it could be after Christmas?’

Don shook his head.

-The surgeon is away for a month – that’s too long to wait. I know you probably had plans, but this is important.

If I didn’t say it, they wouldn’t know. It still might not make any difference. I felt selfish and mean-spirited. But just had to say it.

‘I was … Jay’s asked me to go up there for Christmas.’

Don sighed. He looked briefly at Lee and then back at me.

-I can understand this is a bit of a blow for you then. I’m sorry. You do understand this is really important to your rehab and will get you back to playing more quickly?

‘Yeah. I know. Sorry, just disappointed.’

-The other thing to bear in mind is that you will need looking after for at least twenty four hours after you get home. I don’t know if you’re still planning to stay with Rose, will she be able to look after you?

So I was going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas too. The worthless piece of shit – the gift that just kept on giving.

‘I can ask.’

-I’m really sorry, Declan, if there was another way – I know how important this must have been to you.

I shrugged.

There was a brief pause. Another look passed between Don and Lee.

÷Are we going to …

-May be best in the circumstances. Declan, I don’t know if you remember when you were in hospital, I mentioned the possibility of using a psychologist to help you talk through some of your, er, issues?

I nodded reluctantly, still not keen on delving into my confusion with someone I didn’t know. Or even with someone I did know, come to that.

-He’s called Adam Palmer. Lee and I have been in touch with him and told him some of your story, just background stuff and some of your recent troubles. He thinks you might have some kind of post traumatic stress relating to your accident. He is a bit of an expert, and we’d like you to meet him in the New Year. Can I give him Rose’s number so he can contact you?

‘Yeah.’

Although it would need a whole team of psychologists to get to the bottom of my mixed up brain.

I wanted to get out of there, to get my head round this latest bit of bad news, but Don wanted to give me details of hospital dates and times and what I needed to bring and remember and how I would get there. I found it hard to concentrate – all I could think of was having my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal taken away so I could be in more pain and need more looking after. Don seemed to realise I was lacking some focus, and wrote it down for me.

-I’ll be in touch before Tuesday, but go home and rest up now. How are you getting home?

>Waiting for Nico.

-He might be some time, there’s a couple more hours of training to go yet.

I shrugged.

-Why don’t you wait in the corporate suite where you were on Saturday morning? It’s more comfortable than down here. We can get the TV put on, get you some coffee?

‘OK.’

I passed the time miserably. I was going to disappoint Cal yet again. He’d soon stop trusting me at all. I needed to contact Rose to ask if I could fuck up her plans too, and was keenly missing having a mobile phone.

I stood at the window and looked out. I could just about see the training pitch from the window; players were running about, throwing balls and practising moves. It reminded me how far away I was from spending time out there. Even when I was suspended I had spent time with everyone, but now I’d just be spending time in the gym, keeping fit, bulking up, working on weaknesses, with other injured players but not running with the ball, tackling, rucking – any of the stuff that made me feel alive.

By now all my aches, bruises and pains had begun to reassert themselves; I hadn’t brought my pain meds with me and I started to feel very sorry for myself.

One of the girls from the office brought me a coffee and some biscuits, dug out a paracetamol and stopped for a chat, but the time passed slowly. I had no idea when Nico would be able to take me home, and I began to wish I’d got the bus, or called a taxi, both of which would have been impossible as I would struggle to walk to the bus stop, and I had no cash.

I stared out of the window and wallowed a bit in self-pity. Eventually the door opened and Nico popped his head round.

>Hey, Declan, I go now. How are you? Don tell me about this operation. Is horrible timing.

I looked up at him, feeling wretched.

‘I promised Cal. I’ve got to tell him. Got to tell Rose too. She’s going to her sister’s.’

>Cal and Rose will understand. You visit Cal soon after Christmas, Rose she love looking after you, she don’t mind.

‘Cal’s six. All he knows is Christmas Day is the big one, and I wasn’t there on his birthday either. Fuck it, I’m a selfish bastard, after all this club has done for me, but I just got them all back and now it’s all fucked up again …’

>Come Declan, we go home. My home. Lis is there, she make us lunch, we talk, Lis she know what to say. Come.

He held his hand out and beckoned me out of the chair. I stood up and followed him out to his car, glad to put off telling everyone for a while longer.

I was silent on the journey to Nico’s house, wrapped up in my thoughts. For someone who hadn’t thought about Christmas a few days ago, I had pinned a lot of dreams on it this year. Nico didn’t talk either, I guess I was a bit of a dampener on conversation.

Lis was in the kitchen when we got there.

>Hey baby, I bring a guest. Put on a kettle, show him you make better tea than Rose.

~Dec? Wasn’t expecting you – oh you look good in those, like the cargos, much better than Nico’s trousers flapping round your knees. Hoody looks good too – what’s wrong?

>Don he say he want Dec to have operation on his arm on Tuesday. He can’t go to Jaime‘s for Christmas.

~Oh no, Dec, that’s terrible. Jay and Beth will be really disappointed. And Cal.

>Dec worry about Rose too, she go to Wales. Someone need to look after him when he come out afterwards. Maybe we can?

~Oh, yes, of course. What a great idea. There’s plenty of room here. That would solve one of your worries, yeah?

I was bowled over by their immediate kindness.

‘Are you sure?’

~Absolutely sure.

‘Thanks, that would be great.’

~And I’ll take you up to Stafford as soon as you’re fit after Christmas. They’ll understand, I know they will.

>He worry about Cal. He promise a – huh – what you call it? Optiprime? I write it somewhere …

‘Optimus Prime. It’s a toy. I promised Cal that Santa would bring him one on Christmas Day. I’ve broken so many promises to him, I really needed to keep this one.’

~Hm, well, I’m sure there’s something we can do. There’s plenty of time, we’ve still got over a week. Let’s have a coffee and a sandwich and sit down for now, yeah? Dec, I know this must be a huge disappointment, but I’m sure it’s for the best. Don does usually know what he’s doing when it comes to injuries. You’re upset now, but I bet in a couple of months, you’ll see it differently, especially if you’re playing again.

Lis was making complete sense, and some of it was getting through. Didn’t stop me feeling very sorry for myself though. Lis went to make coffee and Nico turned on the TV.

>Which DVD we watch? You like one with explodings?

‘Explodings sounds good.’

Some time later, having immersed myself in the action movie, I heard the phone ring. It was only on the edge of my consciousness, but Lisa came into the room with the handset.

~Sorry to interrupt you, but it’s Don for Dec. Turn the sound down, Nico.

She gave me the handset as Nico paused the film.

‘Hi. It’s Declan.’

-Hello there. I just wanted to check with you, I realised this morning what a setback the timing of this operation would be for you. There’s a possibility of an earlier time, there’s been a cancellation. Could you do it tomorrow afternoon?

‘Tomorrow? Yes. Yes, I can do that.’

My heart leapt with hope – after the disappointment of this morning, I could hardly believe it was being given back to me.

-It would make a big difference to you being able to travel sooner, would give you almost a week to recover, and we’d be able to get that arm fixed up all the more quickly. But for you I think the important thing is you should still be able to spend Christmas with Jay and his family.

‘Don, thank you. Really, thank you so much. You don’t know how much I appreciate it.’

-I think I’ve got an idea of what it means, to all of you. OK. You need to remember not to eat anything after midnight tonight. Get a good night’s rest, the surgery is scheduled for three. You need to be there by twelve so they can check you out, give you pre-meds – actually, given your recent ability to concentrate on information, could you pass me back to Lisa, I’ll ask her to write it down.

I handed the phone back to Lisa. She looked at me, puzzled at the big grin on my face, so I told her the latest news, then handed her the phone so she could take down the details.

Now my trip to Stafford was on again, there were some things I wanted to sort out – it suddenly felt like there was no time to lose. Nico was happy to search online for an Optimus Prime instead of watching the end of the film, and he persuaded me to let him drive me to the retail park on the way back to Rose’s so we could buy it.

I was elated now. I was finding it hard to control my moods, swinging from crashing through the floor to spiralling to the ceiling when I should have been able to deal with things better. In between times I was having difficulty concentrating. I tried to calm down, pushed thoughts of the operation right to the back of my mind and allowed myself a bit of happiness.

Lis had finished talking to Don, and had a list of things he wanted me to remember. She made me put it in my pocket to read later and show to Rose, and for once I wasn’t annoyed at the implication that I couldn’t look after myself. I was starting to realise that it could be a good thing when people wanted to help out. This was just as well, because Lis had more helping out lined up for me.

~Dec, please don’t think I’m interfering, but would you like me to get a present for you for Beth, or Jay?

‘Er … I hadn’t thought. Bollocks, I should really shouldn’t I?’

~Totally up to you, just wondered if you wanted any help. You blokes are rubbish at presents, on the whole.

>Is true, I still don’t shop yet. Poor Lis.

‘What should I get?’

I’d never really done a great deal for Christmas presents, but this year it felt different, like I wanted to make an effort. I was out of ideas, though.

~Well, why don’t you let me find something? I’ve got to go into town tomorrow, to buy my own Christmas present from Nico by the sounds of it. I’ll sort something. As long as you get Cal’s Transformer tonight, that’s the main thing.

I looked at Lisa gratefully and nodded my thanks.

>We must go back to Rose, she need to know about tomorrow. We ask if she is here for you when you go home on Thursday.

Nico was right. Having the operation tomorrow might mean I wasn’t going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas, but that depended on her plans.

‘Shit, didn’t think of that. Bloody hell, why is everything so fucking complicated?’

>Ha, is lucky we have Lis’s list to help us. We buy toys, then see Rose and drink more tea. Easy.

Rose had just got home when we got there, and was still taking her coat off.

:Hello, loves. Are you only just getting back now?

‘I went back to Nico’s this afternoon. Had a bit of a morning, to be honest.’

:Tell me about it while I put the kettle on. What did they say? How’s your arm?

I filled Rose in on the latest news about my operation, which surprised her but didn’t faze her at all, gave her the list of things Don wanted me to remember, and checked she would be alright about looking after me when I came back. Rose was working tomorrow, so Lis would take me in for the op, but there were things Rose wanted to sort immediately.

:You’ll need to pack a bag, won’t you?

‘Probably.’

:Pyjamas, toothbrush, that kind of thing?

‘Probably.’

Rose sighed and rolled her eyes in the face of my appalling lack of organisation.

:Alright, love, I’ll do your thinking for you, get your stuff together. Any news from the police on your bank card or any of the other business?

‘I haven’t been here all day, not unless they’ve left a message.’

:We’ll check the phone in a minute then. Do you still want to go upstairs, check your flat?

I’d put my flat to the back of my mind, but now Rose had mentioned it, I wanted to get it over with. If I was out of action from tomorrow, I wanted to go up there now to take stock. Didn’t want it hanging over me for another few days. I nodded.

:Coming, Nico?

>Huh, sure. Is clean now?

:Yes, love, they did it yesterday. Had to chuck most of it, I think it’s bare bones. Declan didn’t want to go up on his own.

>Huh, I understand. We go, then.

I followed Rose and Nico up the stairs and into my flat. It had only been a couple of days since I was last there, but it felt like a lifetime had passed. I let Rose open the door, and she and Nico walked in ahead of me. A bleachy waft floated up my nose.

:Hm, smells clean at any rate.

I hesitated in the doorway. This was harder than I’d expected. I looked past the door. The whole place was completely bare. The only furniture I’d had in the living room was the couch, the small table the television had been on and the phone table; they had all gone. The carpet had been taken up, leaving bare boards which looked like they’d been scrubbed or cleaned in some way. I hadn’t had any personal possessions to speak of, so I found it hard to say what I felt was missing, but something more than ‘stuff’ had gone. There was a small pile of mail on the floor by the door, and to shift the focus from the room, I sorted through it. Mostly junk, a couple of bills which I kept to pay later. I became aware that Rose and Nico were watching me.

‘What?’

:You alright, love? It’s a bit different, isn’t it.

‘Yeah, feels a bit weird, like it’s not my place. Better look in the other rooms I guess.’

I looked into the kitchen. The fridge and all the cupboards were open and completely empty.

‘What happened to all my food?’

:They smashed it all up, love, all your jars, tins opened and emptied, there was mess everywhere mixed with who knows what all over the place. Sorry love. It’s best not to know.

I wandered into the bedroom. Bed had been stripped, no mattress or carpet. Cupboards and drawers were open, nothing in them. It felt like I’d been burgled. For all I knew, I had. They had left me nothing in any case. I sat on the bare mattress, feeling shaken, until Rose and Nico came to find me. Nico sat next to me and put his arm round my shoulder.

>Declan, this is horrible. I think we go downstairs. Come back when there is carpet, you put things in your cupboards, and is yours again. There is no alma, no soul here, no Declan now. We bring your things when you are better, help then.

I nodded. I almost wished I hadn’t come up, but it was better to know, rather than keep wondering. I got up, and walked out, leaving Rose and Nico to follow and shut the door behind them.

Back in Rose’s flat, away from the reality of my own place and what had happened up there, who had done it, and what it meant, I managed to push it all down, away from me; far enough away that I couldn’t feel it any more I felt a bit better.

I focussed on what I needed to do for tomorrow. No food after midnight meant I had to eat well tonight, and make sure I drank enough to stay hydrated. Which meant water instead of tea, although Rose was going to take some persuading. I was looking forward to being able to shower, once the plaster was off and my arm worked a bit better. I felt very unclean, especially as I was a bit clumsy washing myself, and hadn’t done it properly for days; my hair felt greasy, as did the rest of me. Rose pottered about getting things together to put in a bag, in-between making a lasagne for tea. Nico chatted for a bit, then had to go.

>Lis, she see you tomorrow. Good luck, I call the hospital later to check all is good. I come to see you also.

I scrounged some wrapping paper from Rose and made a complete balls-up of trying to wrap Cal’s present. In the end, Rose took over and did it for me. It had taken a while, and a lot of people repeatedly telling me to stop being obstinate, but I was finally prepared to accept a little bit of help. I would have a lot of paying back to do when I could do more for myself.

Dinner eaten, bag packed, list of instructions gone over, Rose’s soaps watched, and a call made to Jay and Beth to tell them about my operation, I decided to go to bed and prepare for the next day by getting as much sleep as I could. I downed some painkillers, which I was pleased to note I hadn’t needed as much as the day before. Struggled out of my clothes and, for Rose’s sake, threw them on the chair instead of leaving them on the floor. Sat on the bed, turned the light off, manoeuvred myself under the duvet. I had only been with Rose for two nights, but it felt comfortable and familiar. Slept.

Dreaming. I am flying, soaring, feeling the best I have ever felt. I can go anywhere, see anyone I want, all over the world. I play rugby with the lads, I play football with Cal, I kiss girls, I swim, I laugh, I run, until a man in brown boots trips me up and I come tumbling down, head over heels, crashing all the way, ripping my face, breaking my arms. I lie helpless on the floor and see his boot coming towards me –

I woke in a cold sweat, disoriented, shaking, face and arms hurting. My nose was throbbing. I’d taken the nose-guard off yesterday after seeing Lee, and although the break wasn’t too bad, and had been reset, there was still a lot of swelling and bruising. I lay on my back, breathing heavily, trying to calm myself.

It was completely dark, very early in the morning. I heard a door open. There was a light tap on my door. Rose’s voice, barely above a whisper.

:You alright, love? Thought I heard a shout.

‘Had a dream. Come in.’

The door opened and Rose came in slowly.

:I won’t put the light on, but am I going to trip over anything?

‘No, nothing on the floor. You’re OK.’

She hesitated by the bed, then knelt down beside it.

:Worried about tomorrow?

‘Don’t think so, just had this dream, it was a really good one, flying, then it all went wrong and turned into someone kicking my face in.’

:Just a dream, love. Try to go back to sleep. It’s really early.

She pushed my hair back from my forehead, as she had done before, and again I was reminded of my mum. I calmed down a bit, my eyes started to droop, and I fell back to sleep while Rose was still kneeling by the bed. No more dreams, just floating in the black.

Rose woke me the next day, no tea and toast, just a glass of water. She sat on the edge of my bed while I drank, making sure I remembered the schedule for the day.

:I’ve put my mobile and work numbers in your bag. If anyone gets a chance to ring me after it’s all done, I’d be grateful. I’ll come and see you later, once I know you’re awake, although I’m getting a bit too used to visiting you in hospitals, love. Right, I need to get on, can’t be late.

She seemed reluctant to leave the room and spent a little time folding my clothes and straightening things up.

‘Thanks, Rose. Don’t be late for work.’

:No love, just fussing. I know you’ll be alright.

She gave me a weak smile and left the room. I wasn’t quite sure of the time, but Rose left for work at eight thirty, so I guessed at some time before eight. I didn’t want to fall back to sleep, so, sighing, I swung my legs over the side of the bed, ignoring the protests from various stabbing niggles, and sat up. I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, trying to gather my thoughts and pull together the energy to get washed and dressed.

I’d have to wait until Rose had finished in the bathroom, but chose some clothes from the pile Lis had bought. Decided to give jeans a go, I had enough time before I left to get the zip and buttons done up. Nice, easy, comfy t-shirt and hoody to go on top. Finally, Rose’s voice floated through the door.

:Bathroom’s free.

I stood up and started my day.

Rose seemed distracted. She told me the same things twice, she checked over and over again that I had her phone numbers. She kept finding things to do that delayed her leaving for work. In the end, I almost had to push her out of the door. She made a big deal of looking in her bag for her keys.

‘Rose, go to work, you’re already late. I’ll be fine, you’ve organised me thoroughly.’

:I know, love, I’m just a bit worried about you, that’s all.

‘Don’t worry, it’s routine, I’ll be back tomorrow, needing all sorts of TLC.’

:I know, love. Oh, look at me.

A few tears had started to leak out of her eyes. She dabbed them with a tissue. I gave her as good a hug as I could manage with my malfunctioning arms and kissed her on the cheek with my bruised lips.

‘Go on. Try not to think about it. Don’t get the sack because of me.’

:No, you’re right love.

She took a deep breath, put her tissue back in her pocket, patted me on the cheek and left.

That left the rest of the morning to keep myself occupied. I checked the list from Don, everything seemed taken care of. I flipped the TV on, but it was full of rubbish I didn’t want to watch. I really wasn’t very good at sitting still, despite having had enough practice in the past few days. I checked my bag again, even though I knew Rose had packed and re-packed it last night. I kept wandering into the kitchen in search of food, then remembering I couldn’t eat. I was getting pretty hungry, just needed to concentrate.

DI Johnson phoned. He had some news on my bank card, which had been found in a bin some miles away from the club. They had checked it, and it had been used to withdraw all the money from my account, which amounted to a few hundred pounds. He wondered how they had known my PIN number, but as this was on a piece of paper in my wallet it wouldn’t have required much of a criminal brain to work it out. There didn’t seem to be much news about DivDav, or at least nothing he would tell me.

ϙWe’re following up your information.

Was all he would say. So that was it. I officially had nothing. No stuff, no money, nothing to call my own. I started a small pity party in my honour, and then remembered that, actually, Nico and Lis had bought me a shitload of clothes to call my own, and yeah, maybe I didn’t have much in the way of possessions, but against all the odds, I had friends a kind of family and a job, and life was looking up. So I put away the ‘Poor Me’ balloons for another time.

A short time after my conversation with DI Johnson, the intercom buzzed. It was Lis.

~I know I’m early, thought you might want some company. Are you up and about?

It was good to see someone, and she had brought presents to wrap up for Jay, Beth and Rose. I hadn’t thought about Rose. Being a worthless piece of shit, I didn’t have much time to think about thanking the people who meant the most to me. I hadn’t even thought about Lis and Nico, and I tried to apologise for this, and for all the money Lis had spent on my behalf over the last few days. She silenced me with a look.

~Stop that. We’ve had this conversation. Now, here’s the paper, do you know where Rose keeps her scissors and sellotape?

We had a rummage in some drawers and managed to find both, then set about wrapping the presents. Lis had got some kind of posh bubble bath stuff for Beth and Rose, and a remote control car for Jay; they were in boxes, and would have been easy to wrap if I hadn’t had my own special wrapping in the shape of the cast. So, instead, my plaster cast acted as a sellotape dispenser, and I handed Lis the scissors when needed; that was as far as my contribution to this year’s Christmas presents went.

~OK, we’ll put these in your room ready to go on Tuesday. Leave Rose’s here on the table for when she gets back from work. Right, it’s still a bit early, but why don’t we get going? Might as well wait there as here.

It seemed reasonable, and I was starting to get nervous; doing something seemed better than not, for now. Lis picked up my bag and we went out to her car.

Once at the hospital, we found the department we needed and announced ourselves. Although we were a bit early, my room was apparently ready, and we were shown in. I had to get into a gown and into bed, which felt a bit weird, but there were lots of doctors who were going to come to see me, and things they needed to check and test, and premeds to administer in the next few hours, as well as having the plaster taken off my arm before the operation. Lis sat in a chair, flicking through a magazine; I was preoccupied, and couldn’t think of anything to say, and worried she would be bored sitting with me while I fidgeted.

‘You don’t have to stay. It’s going to be pretty boring.’

She looked at me.

~I don’t have to, but I’m going to. I’ve got plenty to do, I’ve brought my laptop, might do a bit of work if your conversation gets really dull. But I’m going to be here. Nico’s going to come later this afternoon, and he’ll be here when you wake up, yeah? Nobody’s going to leave you on your own.

I looked back at her, silently relieved.

‘Thanks. I don’t deserve what you and Nico have done for me.’

That got me another look, one I couldn’t hold. I turned my head away, towards the window, so I didn’t have to see her face as she spoke.

~All me and Nico have done is try to make sure you’re not alone. Everyone deserves that.

I couldn’t meet her gaze, and she changed the subject.

The afternoon passed with visits from the surgeon, the anaesthetist, nurses with meds, someone who took the plaster off my arm, and the tea trolley. It was a pretty spectacular tea trolley. By now I was really hungry, but had to pass it all up, although I saw Lis look longingly at the cakes.

‘Go on. Do it for me. I can’t.’

It was the least I could do after she had spent the afternoon with me; she didn’t take much persuading.

~Oh alright, if I’m doing it for you.

She chose a piece of chocolate fudge cake and ‘wow’ed her way through it.

~That was awesome. Please have lots more operations, Dec. I will gladly sit with you through all of them.

Just before three o’clock, I was asked to sign a consent form. Then I was asked to get on a trolley, ready to be wheeled down to the operating theatre. Lis took my hand, and kissed me on the cheek. I suddenly felt scared and alone, and tears pricked my eyes.

~You’ll be fine, Dec. Nico will be here when you wake up. In fact, he’ll probably wake you up early with his chattering. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine, yeah? You will.

She let go of my hand and the porter took the trolley away down the corridor. I watched the ceiling go past. Entered the theatre, a white room with a large operating table in the middle. Was moved from the trolley to the table. Covered with paper sheet. The surgeon and anaesthetist were both there, gowned up, only their eyes showing. The mask was put over my face, I counted backwards from a hundred, all the way down to ninety eight and knew no more.

Dreaming. Someone is shouting and punching me. I fall to the floor. Big is kicking my arm, hard. A brown boot hurtles towards my face.

24. Bruised but not broken

In which Dec gets used to a life where he needs help.

Dec

I woke up to the sound of a phone ringing. I couldn’t work out where I was for a moment, and the flying sensation from my dream lingered. It was not completely dark in the room, but still felt pretty early. Then the ringing stopped and Rose’s voice filtered through the remainder of my dream, as I remembered I was in Rose’s spare room.

:Hello? … speaking … who is this? … yes, we did … I’m sorry, I can’t say where he is at the moment. Would you like to leave a message, I’ll make sure he gets it.

Rose, my bouncer. I smiled, started to stretch, forgetting exactly what I was stretching until needles of pain ran up my arms, down my back and gathered in my collar bone. I yelped. Rose rushed in.

:What is it, love?

‘I’m OK. Forgot I had broken bones. Aah. Fuck. Sorry. Someone for me on the phone?’

:Your boss, that Mr Barker. As far as I could tell. He wants you to call him this morning. I’ve got to go to work now. I’ll ring you later. Don’t forget to ring him, and ring that policeman too. Promise me, love.

‘Promise.’

:I thought I’d let you sleep this morning – do you want some breakfast before I go?

‘No, thanks, I’ll be fine.

:Anything else you need?

I was finding it hard to ask, but swallowed my pride.

‘Could you get me some of my pills? Everything’s bloody hurting.’

:Alright, love.

Rose fetched the pills and a glass of water and waited while I took them.

:Anything else you need?

‘No thanks. Go to work. See you later.’

I settled back in the bed as she left the room, and heard the door shut behind her. I wasn’t an early morning person, but felt rested, despite having flown round the world in my dreams. Thought about getting up and facing the day. Fell asleep immediately.

Woken up by the intercom. Opened my eyes groggily. Fuck it, needed to get up to answer the door. Arms and legs wouldn’t coordinate, got tangled in the duvet. Nearly fell trying to stand up. All my aches and pains woke up together and held me up even more. The buzzer sounded again, more insistently. Deep breaths. They’d have to wait while I sorted myself out. Slowed down. Got organised. Stood up carefully. Made my way out of the room to the intercom, which was buzzing again.

‘Hello.’

~Dec, it’s Lis. The password is ‘underpants’.

‘What?’

~Sorry, just joking. You sound really sleepy. Have you just woken up?

‘Yeah.’

~Sorry to get you out of bed. It is quite late, though. Can I come in?

‘Yeah, course.’

I pushed the button to open the outside door, and went to open the front door. After some juggling between the fingers poking out of the plaster on my right hand, and my swollen left hand, I managed to get it open. Lis came in, carrying several shopping bags. She looked at my dishevelled appearance.

~I’m guessing you haven’t phoned any of the people you were supposed to phone this morning? Didn’t Nico ring to remind you? Honestly, he’s so brainless.

I tried to drag my own brain into some form of activity. Who was I supposed to phone?

‘Er …’

Lis tutted and rolled her eyes.

~I’ve been given strict instructions, from Rose, so you know I have to do as I’m told, that you should have phoned DI Johnson before eleven. Also, you’re supposed to ring Don this morning.

She looked at her watch.

~It is now eleven twelve.

I groaned.

‘Shit. I just went back to sleep. Shit.’

I stood in a stupor, not knowing which way to go first.

~OK, don’t panic, first thing to do is sit down before you collapse. Living room, yeah?

I followed her in.

~Right, now, you might have missed the police guy, or he might still be around. Are you up to trying right now? You still seem half asleep to me. I can ring and explain if you like? See if there’s another time later, yeah?

That sounded like a good plan, one that involved me doing no talking to any policeman, and got me off the hook for a short while.

‘Kay.’

Lis made the call. She spoke for a few minutes, then hung up.

~OK, you missed DI Johnson, he’s in a meeting till later, but his secretary said he wants to visit you this afternoon. OK?

‘Kay.’

~Right, next job on Rose’s list, make sure you’ve had some breakfast. Unless you ate in your sleep, I’m assuming that’s currently a no. Let’s go and see what’s in the kitchen, yeah?

I followed her out.

~Well let’s see if you know where things are. What are you having?

‘Toast, tea.’

~Off you go then, I’m sure you’re more than capable of boiling a kettle and burning some bread. Anything you can’t manage, let me know. Don’t get butter on your cast, yeah? I won’t stand here and watch, I’ll sort out the clothes I got, show them to you while you’re eating. I’m quite pleased with myself, I have to say. Nico’s pretty set in his ways as far as clothes are concerned, I enjoyed having a free hand.

From the amount of bags she’d brought in with her, Lisa had bought up the city centre. I tried not to think about what she might have bought, or how much she might have spent, and focussed on trying to get my faulty arms to make my breakfast.

I boiled the kettle with no problem – there was already enough water in it and I didn’t need to run the tap or lift the lid, or do anything else I would struggle with. Tea bag – easy. Pouring the kettle, however, took some coordination, and I slopped water over the counter.

‘Fuck.’

Teaspoon was a little more fiddly. Four pint cartons of milk also proved to be hard to handle with a damaged left hand, and a fair amount of milk joined the water on the counter and dripped down onto the floor.

‘Fuck.’

Squashed the bread a bit getting it into the toaster, and failed to butter it in any recognisable way.

‘Fuck it.’

I couldn’t hold the knife properly in my left hand, and my right arm being encased in plaster meant I couldn’t move it properly. It dawned on me that I was going to have to get used, for the time being, to asking for help. It also dawned on me that there were easier things to have for breakfast. Tomorrow I would try cereal.

‘Fuck it. Lis?’

~Yep.

‘Can you help me?’

She came into the kitchen, saw the mess I’d made of the counter and the toast, took the knife out of my hand and sorted it out.

~Hm, so that’s what all the ‘fuck‘s were about. Being on your own’s not going to be so easy, is it, as long as you’re plastered up. Not so annoyed to have visitors calling in now, yeah?

She rubbed my shoulder and smiled.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

I smiled back.

~Okay, eat your breakfast, I’ll talk you through the Declan Summers winter collection. Ooh, I like that, the Summers Winter Collection. Maybe you should take up modelling – um, once your face is a bit more presentable.

I sat at the kitchen table, dropping bits of toast and spilling my tea with my left hand, while Lis wiped up my spills and then brought my clothes in.

She had gone completely over the top. I could have done with one pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts, one hoody, a few pairs of pants and socks. That’s what washing machines were for. Lisa had bought jeans, chinos, cargo pants, T-shirts, shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, sweaters, a coat, countless pairs of pants and socks and a pair of trainers, although I didn’t remember telling her my size. She’d even got some pyjama bottoms.

‘What have you done? This is way too much.’

~Don’t worry, I wanted to give you a choice, I can take things back if they don’t fit. Do you like it?

‘It looks great, I can’t try it all on though.’

I gestured to my plaster cast.

~Hm, hadn’t thought of that. Don’t want to rip anything. Tell you what, keep it all, try it on whenever, if it’s not right then, we’ll try to take it back, yeah?

‘It must have cost you a fortune.’

~Oh, don’t worry, I got it on Nico’s credit card. He won’t mind.

‘You already lent me all that money, I haven’t even started to pay it back yet. It’s way too much.’

Lis sighed and rolled her eyes.

~You know what, Dec, it actually isn’t. You have no clothes. You sold almost everything you own to pay back the charities, you owed your soul to your friends and the rest of the world, and then some bastards came and took everything else you had in the most offensive way I can imagine. You actually deserve to have some nice things. We can afford it. Let us do this, yeah?

I sat looking at the table. Humbled, undeserving. Worthless piece of shit. A few tears welled up, spilled over, plopped on my plate. I really needed to stop doing this. Lis knelt beside me and put her hand over mine.

~Look, Dec, it’s all very well you being this big independent I-don’t-need-help kind of guy. Very macho. Man points galore. Extra testosterone and everything. But you actually do need help, just at the moment. It’s OK to ask. It’s OK to take it when it’s offered. It’s … just OK, yeah? We help because we care about you. I hope you care enough about us to let us.

She ruffled my hair and stood up.

~OK, lecture over. Right, what else did Rose tell me I had to do? Oh yes, make sure you call Don. This morning. Well, you’ve got about five minutes left before it’s officially afternoon, yeah? You’d better get on it. Can I leave you to it? You won’t go back to bed?

I sniffed and wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘No, I’m OK. I’ll get the phone – oh bollocks, I haven’t got any numbers.’

~Rose said the number is by the phone, she left you a note, and there’s also a list of other numbers – me, Nico, her, Jay and Beth, Don, DI Johnson.

‘Thanks.’

Lis brought the phone and the note into the kitchen.

~Off you go, then, before you get into trouble. Are you OK for something for lunch? I think Rose might have left you a sandwich – oh yeah, in the fridge here. Looks tasty. Nico’s going to call in after training, whenever that may be, once he first remembers and, second, stops chatting for thirty seconds. Later this afternoon I would guess. Call me if you need me, yeah? Anything else you need before I go?

‘No, thanks. Really, thanks, Lis.’

~No trouble, see you soon. Don’t get that plaster wet – no washing up.

‘Not likely.’

~No showers.

‘Sadly, also not likely.’

She walked out, closing the front door behind her.

I looked at the phone and the list of numbers. Dialled Don. He wanted me to go in to see the club medics that afternoon, but I didn’t know what time the police were coming so he asked me to go in first thing in the morning. I’d have to swallow a bit more of my pride and ask Rose or Nico for a lift. Another thing occurred to me, and I filled him in briefly – apart from what I was wearing on Saturday, my spare training kit had been in my flat, along with my studs, club hoodies, everything I was supposed to wear to official events, all ruined. Don was silent for quite a while.

-I’m sorry to hear that, son. That really is out of order. Are you alright? Is there anything I can do?

‘I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Just haven’t got any official gear.’

-Well that’s easily sorted. Come tomorrow in your civvies and we’ll get you another load to take away. The basics at least … Declan, you do know I’m here for anything you need, to talk, any kind of help. I’m starting to realise just how tough a time you’ve had lately. Please let me know if you’re finding things difficult. I’d like to help if I can – it’s not just about rugby.

I didn’t know who Don had been talking to – Nico, Jay, even Rose for all I knew, but someone must have been filling in the blanks about my recent history. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it; I liked my privacy and my independence. Yeah, and look where they’d got me.

‘Thanks very much. See you tomorrow?’

-Sure. Oh, one more thing, I tried to contact you on your mobile, but there was some problem with it. Have you got it turned on?

‘Er, no, it’s with the police. It was trashed on Saturday. Don’t think it’ll be working anytime soon. Ever again, actually, looking at it.

-Oh, I didn’t realise. You’ve been through a lot one way and another, haven’t you. OK, is it alright to contact you on this number then?

‘Yeah, sure.’

-Great. Tomorrow, then.

I was feeling drained, and contemplated going back to bed, but knew that would be frowned on by several people. I also didn’t want to have to rush for the door when DI Johnson arrived, so on balance decided to stay awake.

I looked at the clothes Lisa had bought. It was all really good stuff, she had been very good at choosing. Clean clothes appealed just then, and I wanted to put some on, although without having a shower I wasn’t going to do them justice. How long would it be until I could get clean? Decided that was a thought for another time. I’d have to stink for now, and hope none of the clothes needed returning. I chose a baggy t-shirt and zip-up hoody, some tie-waist cargo pants and some necessary underwear, took them into the bedroom and struggled into it all.

The right sleeve of the hoody was rather tight over the cast, and getting the cargos on was difficult – pulling trousers up one-handed with hardly any working fingers was really tricky. But each time I did it, it got easier. That was something I wasn’t about to ask for help with, however many lectures I got.

Despite only just having had my breakfast, I was hungry by the time I got dressed. I took the sandwich from the fridge, not egg thankfully, but a very satisfying beef and salad on a half-baguette. Rose obviously knew me better now, and it was just what I wanted.

Now I was dressed and had some underpants on, for the first time in what felt like ages, I started to feel a bit more normal. I went into the living room and flicked the TV on. There really wasn’t much on in the middle of the day, and Rose only had basic channels. I settled for a quiz show and let it wash over me.

Being there was going to take a bit of getting used to. My flat upstairs wasn’t the most homely of places, but I had got used to its bareness and its smell. This place was very definitely Rose’s, with her ornaments, cushions, slightly twee pictures and penchant for pine air freshener. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel I belonged either. I was almost tempted to go upstairs, just to have a look at exactly what kind of a state it was all in, but knew I wouldn’t handle it very well. Best wait until it was all cleaned up; I’d go up then.

The quiz show became a chat show became an antiques show. I got bored and turned it off. I made another attempt at a cup of tea – more difficult this time, as I had to put water in the kettle. I couldn’t hold it under the tap at all, and was very pleased with myself for finding a bottle of water in the fridge which I managed to pour into the kettle using both hands. I’d have to make sure I asked someone to fill the bottle up for tomorrow, and get some milk put in a smaller jug. Or stick to glasses of water.

I heard some footsteps, voices and banging from overhead, and remembered the cleaners were there dealing with my flat. I hadn’t realised how much could be heard from down here, some of the noises seemed to be in the same room. What had Rose heard from down here? I hadn’t had a music system or a TV up there, and I’d pretty much kept to myself, but I’d been miserable a lot of the time, spent more than a few nights crying myself to sleep when I was really low. She’d never said anything, but maybe I was beginning to understand why Rose was looking out for me.

To take my mind off it all, I tried to work out what the cleaners were doing: hoovering was easy, but some of the other noises sounded like full on DIY rather than any cleaning I’d ever done.

Once the noises from overhead had stopped, I found myself sitting staring into space. I finally had room in my head to drift – there were no demands on me, nobody talking to me, and nothing I had to think about.

The intercom shattered the quiet that had settled on the flat. My heart rate rose slightly – I had downgraded my personal security alert status a little, but I was still half-expecting ‘someone’ to have found out where I was staying. I picked up the handset, slightly nervous.

‘Hello.’

>Declan, let me in. Is Nico.

Unless it was a really good impersonator, I recognised Nico’s voice, so I pressed the button, and went to open the front door. Still tricky turning the lock, but managed it after some fiddling.

‘Hey.’

>Ha, you have been dressed by Lis. Very nice. She try to dress me, but I say no. She tell me she buy many clothes on my card. Is OK. She enjoy shopping always. You are OK today?

‘Getting there.’

>Ha, you say this to us all. How you really feel?

I sighed. People were starting to get to know me too well, and my usual strategies were failing.

‘Hurting everywhere, fed up with not being able to use my hands, fed up with people telling me what to do, tired, pissed off, a bit scared. Satisfied?’

>Much better. I want that you say this, is not good to not say. I am sorry you feel this. I am happy I am here to help.

Nico waved a DVD in the air.

>We watch me! I find more DVDs – Rose has DVD player?

‘I guess so, it might be a bit ancient, is that it there?’

Nico bent down to the TV stand and put the disc in a slot while I turned the TV back on. It took some time to find the DVD channel, but we got there in the end, and the game started playing.

>We need beer. Rose she has beer?

‘Er, no, and I’m on strong pain meds, so no go, and also Don said not, plus it’s the middle of the afternoon. We’ll have to do without.’

>Ha, but Rose has tea, I know this. I make tea. I am not English, but I learn things about tea. You will like.

Nico was lifting my spirits – I guess this was on his list from Rose. He was very good at it. While he was in the kitchen, the intercom buzzed again. I answered it.

‘Hello.’

ϙMr Summers?

I didn’t recognise the voice, and my heart lurched. Had he found me?

‘Who is this?’

ϙDI Johnson, are you expecting me?

‘Oh, yeah, OK.’

Trying to get myself under control, I pressed the button and struggled with the lock again.

>I make tea for the policeman. They always drink tea.

DI Johnson stepped inside, looking slightly ill-at-ease. I showed him into the living room, where he perched on the edge of Rose’s comfy armchair. Nico came in and handed us a mug of tea each, and turned off the DVD.

ϙOh, ah, thank you. I’m DI Johnson, and you are?

>Nico Tiago.

ϙAh, yes, good, good, I was hoping to speak to you anyway, are you able to stay?

>Yes, I stay with Declan.

He sat at the other end of the sofa.

ϙGood, thank you. OK, Declan, firstly I wanted to verify some information we received from Mr Tiago yesterday regarding a wallet and a name he gave us.

‘OK. I’m pretty sure my wallet was in my bag at the club with the keys to my flat. I obviously wasn’t the one who looked through my bag, Nico did that. He didn’t find my wallet.’

ϙCan you confirm that Mr Tiago?

>Yes, I look in Declan’s bag, I look in his pockets, take everything out. Is all covered in piss and shit. His keys and his wallet are not in there. I look well.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Nico had had to trawl through filth to search for my keys. Another debt of gratitude owed.

ϙWhat happened to the bag?

>I throw it away.

ϙHm that’s unfortunate. There could have been fingerprints.

>Huh, I don’t think of this. It smelled bad, I wanted it to be gone.

ϙWell not to worry, maybe we can retrieve it. Declan, can you think of anywhere else you may have left your keys or wallet?

‘Sorry, it’s all still really difficult to remember, Saturday afternoon is all jumbled up. I can remember getting changed in the office, but I can’t specifically remember putting my keys and wallet in the bag. But I would have done, because that’s what I always do, in my jeans pocket.’

ϙOK. Thank you. Now, the name that you have given, David Allsop, where does this come from?

>It come from him being the one who do this to Declan.

DI Johnson looked at me, ignoring Nico.

‘It … seems … possible’

ϙDeclan, you seem less sure than Mr Tiago?

‘He’s a mate. I can’t quite believe it.’

>He do it before. Declan, be honest about this, or I will say.

‘OK, alright.’

I looked down at my hands. Thought about what he had taken away from me, how he had made me feel.

‘Several weeks ago, he was part of a group of players who gave me a hard time in training. Really hard, physical stuff. He also pissed on my clothes twice, in the changing room. But we made it up, shook hands. We were going for a drink after the Chieftains game –’

ϙWait, you had arranged to meet Mr Allsop on Saturday evening?

I had to rewind what I’d said in my head, it had just come out of my mouth without me thinking about it.

‘… yeah … I’d forgotten till just now. He texted me on Saturday afternoon.’

ϙWhere were you going to meet?

‘In the car park … shit.’

I started to shake. It suddenly seemed so obvious.

‘He wanted to meet by his car. He always parks over the other side, out of the way. Fuck, I was so stupid. I just totally believed him. He even came to see me in hospital – yesterday morning. He apologised for how he’d been, it was – I just – believed him.’

I thought about it all, how he’d fooled me, even coming to the hospital to – what? – check out what I remembered? Had I missed something important when we’d talked earlier? I looked at Nico. He was looking back at me with some concern.

>Declan, you look not well. You are temblando.

He looked at the policeman.

>We must do this now? Declan he only come from hospital yesterday.

ϙI can see it’s upsetting to you. You’re being very helpful. If you feel we could continue, I won’t be much longer.

I felt sick, a bit light-headed. But this needed doing. I nodded.

ϙIn fact, we have managed to piece together some of the data from your phone. It’s not complete, as the phone was pretty well destroyed, but there are some records we could retrieve. You did receive texts from Mr Allsop on Saturday afternoon, but the content was irretrievable. We were able to retrieve more messages from longer ago, and will be able to get more, with your permission, from your service provider. We were particularly interested in a couple which were anonymous, and seemed a little threatening.

That didn’t surprise me. I hadn’t read everything that had been sent my way in the last few months, but a lot of it had been from people who weren’t my biggest admirers.

‘I’ve had a lot of texts from people who don’t like me much. Pissed off nearly everybody over the past few months.’

ϙI understand that. These two were ‘caller withheld’, and seemed more directly threatening than the others – we have been through them in some detail. One said ‘Payback’, and the other began ‘Watch your back …’ The first one was sent on the same day that, I believe, your suspension by your club made the news. The second was sent on the day of the points hearing, after the announcement. We have software that might be able to decrypt the senders’ numbers, but we are having some trouble with it. Do you remember either of these messages, or have any idea who they were from?

‘No, sorry. I’ve had hundreds of texts that I deleted before I even read them. Not happy reading.’

ϙWell, no problem, we’ll keep going with the software. You understand that while we will investigate your allegations about Mr Allsop, there were no witnesses to your assault, the alleged theft of the keys and wallet or the events perpetrated in your flat. If you remember anything else that could help, please contact me. I think I’ll leave it there. I’ll be in touch.

He stood up, held his hand out, realised I couldn’t shake it properly and patted me on the shoulder instead. Nico showed him out, then came back into the living room.

>Well done. Very well done. Is not easy to say about a friend. You still look horrible. You don’t drink your tea. Neither does the policeman. I make some more.

‘I can’t believe I forgot he texted me. It’s so clear now.’

>You remember more things?

‘No, not really. I’ve been trying so hard to, but that just popped in when he asked me about it.’

>Huh. Maybe this is the answer, not to try.

‘Yeah, maybe. Bloody hell, Nico, you went through my bag!’

>Sorry, my friend. Rose, she want your keys. I try to help.

‘No, I mean … that must have been … I can’t believe you would do that for me.’

>Ha, is not problem. I wash hands good. Now, we think of something other. Tea and DVD? Maybe you remember again how great I play?

Nico was great at changing the mood, taking the stress out of it all, and I gladly took his bait.

‘Maybe I’ll remember again how modest you are.’

>This also.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Nico’s DVD, eating Rose’s biscuits and messing about. He managed to completely take my mind off everything that was worrying me, and I felt a small part of myself start to relax. The afternoon wore on, and Nico looked at his watch.

>Huh. I must go home to my beautiful wife. She miss me. Rose will be home soon. Is there something you need?

I remembered my conversation with Don about getting to the stadium early tomorrow morning, and my lecture from Lisa this morning about asking for help.

‘Actually, a favour?’

>Ha! I think this never happen before. Please ask, my friend.

‘Well, how early are you going to be at the club tomorrow?’

>I am there to train at eight thirty.

‘Could you pick me up? Don wants me to get there early to see the docs.’

>Is not too early for you? You are very late today – Lis, she tell me, no secrets!

‘I’ll make sure I’m ready. Rose will make sure I’m ready.’

>Then I am here. Eight sharp. Ha, you know I am late.

‘Can I ask something else? Another favour.’

>Ha, two in one day, increible! You have big bang on the head.

‘Cal’s asked for an Optimus Prime for Christmas. No way I can get one.’

>What is Opti – what is this?

‘It’s a toy, a Transformer. Long story, I promised it a long time ago.’

>Huh, OK, I write it, Lis, she help. Is done.

I spelt the words, and Nico wrote them down.

‘Thanks Nico.’

>Is pleasure. Be careful of yourself, my friend. See you tomorrow. No, don’t come to door, I let myself out.

He waved and walked out. As the front door opened, I heard Rose’s voice.

:Oh hello, love. Just off are you? Not staying for a cuppa?

>Oh, Rose, I am sad to miss your wonderful tea, but I must go home to kiss my wife. I am here tomorrow morning to fetch Declan – he need to wake early, you can help?

:Of course, love. What time?

>I am here eight sharp. I never late. Right, Declan?

‘Hardly ever.’

:I’ll make sure he’s ready. Bye then, love, see you tomorrow.

I heard the front door close, and Rose came into the living room.

:How are you, love?

‘Getting there.’

Rose gave me a look, and I knew I was going to have to change my stock phrase, as it had definitely been rumbled.

:I know that, love, but how’s your day been? Did you manage to phone everyone?

I told Rose about the visit from DI Johnson, my phone call with Don, and Lisa and Nico’s visits. It had been a pretty busy day, once I’d got out of bed.

‘And I think the cleaners have been upstairs, I could hear them moving around. You can hear pretty much everything that goes on up there, can’t you?’

:You can, love. Just remember that, next time you have a wild party.

‘Doubt that’ll be for a while.’

:And of course you’d invite me anyway. Right, what shall we have for tea?

The rest of the evening passed pleasantly with eating, TV, showing Rose my new clothes and a phone call from Beth, asking how I was and discussing dates and times for my visit. Tony the landlord also called round to say the cleaners had finished, and that my flat was clean once again, although there were no carpets. These would be replaced in the next few weeks.

:You’ll just have to stay here till they’re done, love.

I could have gone straight up to have a look, but I decided not to right away, feeling weird about seeing the flat again. However, I didn’t have a toothbrush or any washing stuff, and didn’t know what had been kept and what had been thrown away.

:You should have said, love. I forgot you can’t shower with your cast. Washing’s going to be a bit tricky too, isn’t it. Have you managed to wipe your bum alright?

‘Fuck, Rose! Yes I have thanks, just about. Not that it’s any of your bloody business.’

:Sorry, love, but if you don’t ask you don’t know. If you want a wash, I’ve got a flannel and soap you can use, you’ll just have to try your best with that. I might have a new toothbrush somewhere too, let’s have a look.

She managed to find everything in a cupboard in the bathroom. I’d need to be up fairly early tomorrow to make myself even slightly presentable.

‘What time do you get up?’

:Usually about seven, love. Do you want me to wake you up?

‘Yeah. Thanks. Might need a few goes.’

:Hm, you don’t like waking up much do you? Don’t worry, I won’t let you sleep in. Off to bed now are you?

‘Yeah.’

:Need some of your pills, do you?

‘Yeah, thanks.’

Rose helped me with my painkillers, before I went into my room and struggled out of my clothes. I couldn’t be bothered to struggle into pyjama bottoms, so just wore my boxers. Easier all round, less to struggle out of all over again tomorrow. Reaching for the bedside lamp was difficult, so I turned it off before I got into bed, and climbed under the duvet in the dark. I slept almost immediately.

Dreaming. I am being chased by faceless men in brown boots. I find a safe place on a hill, but they surround me and are closing in. I can’t fly, something is stopping me, but everyone who loves me can, and they swoop down from the sky to stand around me, holding hands in a circle, making sure the men in brown boots can’t reach me.

23. Dream a little dream

In which boundaries are established, an invitation is made and considered, and dreams of brown boots begin in earnest.

Dec

:Feels good to be outside, eh, love?

‘Great. Where’s your car?’

:I had to park quite a way away, but you wait here and I’ll come and pick you up. Here’s a bench, look. I won’t be long.

I thought about insisting on going with her, but I was flagging and my legs had begun to ache. The constant jogging of my collar bone wasn’t helping either. Decided for once not to be needlessly stubborn. I sat on the bench, closed my eyes and waited.

Footsteps and voices all around me. The sound of the entrance doors swishing open and closed. Cars pulling up and pulling away. The occasional ringtone. Sun on my face and breeze in my hair. Relative freedom. Let my mind drift while I waited. Started to relax. Felt my shoulders untense, hadn’t realised how tight I’d been holding myself, since Rose told me about first my bag and then my flat. Concentrated on unwinding everything, mind and body. It felt like I needed several weeks rather than a few minutes, but it was a start. Had only scratched the surface when I felt a hand on my arm, and heard Rose’s voice.

:Declan, love, you asleep?

I opened my eyes.

‘Relaxing.’

:Oh is that what you call it. Come on love, here’s the car. You sure you’ll be able to get in alright? I’m a bit worried about that plaster cast –

‘Give it a try.’

I stood up, wandered over to Rose’s car and slowly got in. It was quite a tight squeeze, even though the seat was all the way back. My right arm, in its unbending cast, threatened to get in the way of the handbrake and Rose’s gear changes.

:Don’t worry, I’ll work round you.

She was trying to sound cheerful, but Rose wasn’t a confident driver and I could see she was a bit worried. I shifted as far to the left in my seat as I could and tried to hold my arm on my lap. Rose had to put my seat belt on for me.

:It’s not really that far, won’t take long.

Sounding like she was trying to convince herself, she started the engine and we set off. She drove very slowly, taking great care with all the gear changes. The flats were over on the other side of the city, but the traffic was fairly light. Rose didn’t say a word to me, she was concentrating so hard on driving, hands gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles were white, teeth chewing on her bottom lip.

I looked around me as she drove, noticing all the lights and sparkle. Was it nearly Christmas? I thought back to the weekend and counted forwards to what the date must be today. Hadn’t really been paying attention. Must only be ten days or so to go. Hadn’t given it a thought, I’d been so preoccupied with everything else that had been going on. Christmas seemed largely irrelevant just at the moment, but the rest of the world obviously didn’t share my opinion.

We finally pulled up outside Rose’s garage. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, got out of the car, and came round to open my door.

:Alright, love, here we are then. Let’s go in and have a cuppa and a bit of cake.

‘Thanks a lot, Rose.’

:Get on with you, always got tea and cake on the go.

‘I mean for everything. Really, thanks.’

:Well, remember our deal, as long as you want it, I’ll stick my oar in. Still a deal?

‘Deal.’

As we reached Rose’s front door, I glanced up the staircase, and of course it was noticed.

:I’ll go and check on how things are going in a minute, get you settled first. Don’t go up yourself, love. Try not to think about it.

Rose led me inside and into the lounge, where she made me sit in her comfy armchair. Bringing me a cup of tea and a large piece of fruit cake, she headed off to check on my flat, as I sipped carefully and ate slowly.

Rose came back, accompanied by Tony, the landlord. He told me the police had finished in my flat, had taken some samples and photos, but they wanted to talk to me. He didn’t paint a pretty picture of the inside of my flat, it seemed like virtually everything I had up there had been ruined, and I was doubly glad I had already agreed to stay with Rose.

Tony had arranged a cleaning firm for the next day, and started to talk about costs and insurance, before Rose gave him a stern look, but I couldn’t blame him for bringing up the subject.

‘Kay, thanks, let me know.’

*It’s all locked up again now, I’ve had the locks changed – here’s your new keys, for both of you. The cleaning firm will get the keys off me, I’ll let you know when it’s all done.

‘Thanks.’

:Thanks, Tony, thanks for sorting it all out for Declan – he’s not really in a fit state to do it himself.

*No problem, let me know if there’s any hassle tomorrow.

Rose showed him to the door, then came back, looked at me and sat down on her sofa.

:Right, love, I think we need a list of things to do.

‘Really? What things?’

:Well, getting you some new clothes for a start. We also need to let people know where you are, organise some people to sit with you while I’m at work –

‘What? No, don’t need that.’

:I can’t go off to work tomorrow and leave you here on your own.

‘You bloody can, I’m OK.’

:I’m out all day, love. I took today off so I could be around, but I can’t get tomorrow off.

‘I’m fine. physios said.’

:They said you can walk. Don’t see you doing much else for yourself for a while. Come on, love, humour me, I won’t relax if I’m worrying about you.

‘Don’t need babysitting.’

:No, alright, fair enough, how about someone popping in just to check? Have a chat? I know Nico wants to, he’s asked me to ring him.

I sighed, I wasn’t going to completely win; I could foresee lots of compromising in my future.

‘OK, visits is fine. No sitters.’

Rose sat back, satisfied, and I had a sense that she had haggled me down to where she had wanted me in the first place.

Cal

Then, before tea, Mum got the phone and let me press the button to call Rose. I gave the phone to Mum, because she wanted to talk to Rose first.

Mum talked to Rose about how Dec was, and said a lot of ‘oh no, that’s terrible’ and ‘oh poor love, how is he’, and I was worried for a little while that Dec was too hurt or too sad to talk to us, but soon Mum stopped saying ‘oh no’, and looked at me.

Dec

I couldn’t hear much of what Rose said, as her phone was in the hallway, but from her lowered voice I assumed she was talking to someone about me. I realised this was something else I would get lots of in the near future. After a while Rose came back into the room holding the handset.

:Want to talk to Beth?

I smiled broadly and put my hand out for the phone. It still felt incredible that she wanted to talk to me.

‘Hi Beth.’

_Dec, lovely to hear your voice. You sound much better. How are you, sweetheart?

‘Getting there.’

_Rose tells me you’ve had some more trouble. Are you OK?

‘Getting there.’

_Alright, then, I’ll stop fussing. There’s someone here would like to ask you something. Are you OK to talk to Cal?

‘Great.’

Cal

Mum held the phone out to me.

‘Come on Cal, Dec’s ready now.’

She whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t forget what we said,’

I whispered back: ‘I know, Mummy.’

Then I took the phone and forgot everything we’d practised.

‘Dec, can you talk now?’

Dec

‘I can talk better, yeah. Thanks for helping me out when I was in hospital.’

\can you come and live with us on Christmas?

‘Oh … er … ‘

I was completely thrown. Was Cal asking me to spend Christmas with them? I had not thought beyond this afternoon. Planning for a major event in – what? – a week or so was far out of my reach. Had assumed I would be here at Rose’s for, hmm, a couple of weeks? Did that include Christmas? But if they were asking me to go there to stay, if they wanted me there, in their home … what if they were asking me to live with them again …

Cal

I’d expected Dec to be really pleased and excited, but he stopped talking altogether. He could talk again, and although his voice still sounded a bit funny, everyone would be able to know what he was saying, so I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t talking.

‘Mummy he’s being quiet.’

‘Er, yeah, sorry Cal, just thinking. Don’t know if I can answer you just yet. Can I talk to Mummy?’

‘Mummy – talk to Dec.’

I handed the phone to Mum, hoping that I hadn’t somehow messed things up. What I’d said wasn’t what we practised, and maybe I’d done it so wrong that Dec would say no. I hadn’t considered Dec saying no until now, and I clung on to Mum while she talked, feeling worried.

Dec

_Hi Dec, sorry, sweetheart, that was a bit different than we rehearsed. I shouldn’t think you’ve had a chance to think about Christmas yet.

‘Not really. Is it next week?’

_A week on Thursday. You are a bit out of it, aren’t you? I just had a quick chat with Rose. We really want to see you, but we’re not going to be able to make it down there for a while. But if you think you’ll be fit enough, and if you’d like to come up, we’d love to have you here for Christmas. Cal would absolutely love it. He’s talked about you non-stop since we left you yesterday.

Cal

This was true. I’d asked all sorts of questions about where Dec had been, what he’d been doing, why he’d been gone, but none of them had really been answered. The only things Mum and Dad would talk about were how long it was going to take Dec to get better, and all the things I wanted to know about his cuts and bruises, and things at the hospital, like the wee bag and the water bag. Still, it was a lot better than not being allowed to talk about Dec at all.

Dec

‘James and I would love it too. James really wants a good talk. We’ve all missed you, sweetheart.’

So it was just for Christmas. I was immediately overwhelmed with conflicting feelings – disappointment that it was just for Christmas, and not forever; relief that I wasn’t going to have to think about whether I stayed here or moved to where they were; joy that they wanted me to spend time with them. Tears welled up and spilled down my face, taking me by surprise. I had the phone in one hand and couldn’t bend my other arm, so couldn’t wipe my eyes. I sniffed.

‘I … er … don’t know what to say.’

What I wanted to say was ‘yes, yes, fuck yes’, but I looked over at Rose, who was turning the pages of a magazine, pretending she wasn’t listening intently. I really didn’t want to upset her, didn’t know what plans she’d made, after she’d been good enough to give me a room in her home. Bloody hell, being looked after was hard work.

_Well there’s plenty of time, have a think and let us know, OK?’

Cal

I suddenly remembered my Transformer dilemma and tugged on Mum’s arm.

‘Yes, alright Cal. Dec, are you OK for another word with Cal?’

She handed the phone over again.

‘Dec, I haven’t got a Optimus Prime yet.’

‘Really? Did you put it in your letter to Santa?’

‘No, because you were going to get it on my birthday, and then you didn’t get it on my birthday, and I didn’t put it in Santa’s letter because I don’t want two Optimus Primes.’

‘Oh, OK … well … sorry for the confusion. Me and Santa will sort it out. OK?’

‘Kay. Bye.’

Dec

I laughed at his abruptness. Beth came back on the line; she was laughing too.

_I don’t know what he likes more – your promises of Transformers or your cool scars. I’m a bit worried he’s going to get into a fight so he can look more like you.

‘Shit, Beth, don’t say that.’

_As long as he doesn’t start swearing like you, he’ll be OK.

‘Sorry.’

_Honestly, you and James are as bad as each other. Maybe you’re a bit worse than James. I suppose it’s up to me to keep Cal on the straight and narrow.

‘You are good at it.’

_No help from you! Anyway, let us know what you think about Christmas, sweetheart. No rush, short notice is fine. Want a quick word with James?

‘Yeah.’

The more I talked to them, the more real it felt. It was filtering into my brain that I might not have lost them forever after all.

łHey mate.

‘Hey.’

łHow’s it going?

‘Getting there.’

łYeah, and really, how’s it going.

I paused. This was an opportunity to put right some of the things that had caused this mess in the first place. Not bottling things up, saying how I was really feeling, being honest, asking for help. Not easy. Deep breath.

‘Still pretty shit. I’m a bit of a wreck. And my flat was broken into, everything trashed.’

łJesus, Dec, I didn’t know. That’s all you need. You’re staying with Rose, though?

‘Yeah, she’s been bloody great.’

I looked over at Rose and grinned at her. ‘Bit bossy, but I can take it.’

łShe’s more than a match for you, mate. How’s all your aches and pains?

‘Getting there. Honest. Better than yesterday.’

łYou sound much better – well I can understand you for a start. Nico said you fell out of bed?

‘Bloody hell, can’t do anything round here. Yeah, but no damage. Pulled a few stitches. Big bruise on my arse. Fucking hurt. Felt a bit of a twat. No more.’

łOK, glad to hear it. Be strong, mate, stay positive. See you soon.

There was a catch in Jay’s voice that I really didn’t want to investigate.

‘Hope so. Bye.’

I put the phone down and rested my head back against the chair, blowing my cheeks out. Looked over at Rose, who put down the magazine she hadn’t been reading and looked at me.

‘They want me to go up for Christmas.’

I couldn’t read Rose’s expression.

:What do you want to do?

Well that was the question. I hadn’t given Christmas a thought, but now I was remembering the last three Christmases, which I had spent with Jay, Beth and Cal. They had put to rest the ghosts of several miserable festive seasons in various foster homes, and to be part of their Christmas now would mean a lot – to be with them at all, but especially for Christmas. It was just the thing to help me get over the seemingly constant stream of bad things that had happened to me in the last few days.

On the other hand, I couldn’t bear to let Rose down. I didn’t know what she was expecting or wanted. Before yesterday, she hadn’t been planning a house-guest, and would have been organising something else, somewhere else, for weeks.

‘Kind of depends on you.’

:Don’t be daft, love. Don’t worry about me. The only thing I will say is, it’s a long way to Stafford, are you up to the journey?

I ignored the last part, apart from briefly wondering just how far away Stafford was.

‘What were you planning, before me?’

:That’s not important, love. Just do what makes you happy.

‘For fuck’s sake, Rose … sorry … what I mean is, if I wasn’t here, what would you be doing for Christmas? Please tell me.’

:Well, as you asked so nicely, in the end, I was going to go to my sister’s, same as every year.

‘Looking forward to it or not?’

Rose hesitated, as if trying to decide whether her answer would sway my decision.

:We get on really well, you know that, and I love seeing Gethin, he’s about the same age as you, did I tell you?

‘Might have mentioned it.’ A few zillion times.

:But if you need me here, I’ll stay. I can see them any time.

Finally, I knew what I needed to.

‘No, I think I’ll go. Sort something out to get there, get the train or something. Where exactly is Stafford?’

:I can take you, drop you off on the way.

‘Rose, you get nervous driving out of the garage. No fucking way you’re taking me. I doubt it’s ‘on the way’ to Pontypool.

:Cheek, I’m a good driver, very careful.

‘Whatever you say. But you’re not taking me. End of.’

Rose gave me a look that suggested I hadn’t heard the last of this conversation, but stood up and said she was going to start some dinner. I felt exhausted at the thought of all the battles I was going to have with Rose over the next few days. I closed my eyes, and must have dozed off, as I suddenly felt a shake on my shoulder.

:Come on love, tea’s ready.

‘What, already?’

:You’ve been asleep. Not as tough as you thought, eh? Want it here on your lap, or at the table in the kitchen?

‘Table.’

Cal

I heard Dad talk to Dec for a little while, and then Mum and Dad were talking to each other. I thought about listening outside the room again, but I just wanted to know if Dec was coming for Christmas, so I went straight in.

‘When is Dec coming?’

‘He hasn’t decided yet, sweetheart. I think we surprised him. He might not be able to come.’

‘Oh, but, I want him to.’

‘I know, Cal, but Dec’s got to make his own mind up. He’ll let us know, when he’s thought about it.’

‘When will he?’

‘I don’t know. Try not to think about it, until we hear from him.’

I tried really hard not to think about it, but it’s difficult not to think about something you’re trying really hard not to think about, especially if it’s something you’re excited about, and something to do with Christmas, which isn’t far away. I really wanted to be with Dec again, so we could play, and tell jokes, and watch Arsenal, and read stories, and do mouth and bottom burps, like we always did.

Dec

Half way through the meal, the phone rang again. Rose answered, and took the call in the lounge. I was getting a bit annoyed at her tendency to discuss me first out of earshot – nothing had happened to me that I didn’t know about, and I knew she thought she was considering my feelings, but nonetheless it was irritating. Decided to wander into the lounge, with my plate balanced precariously in my left hand, to have a listen.

: … talk to the police, they’ve taken samples – oh hello love. Everything alright?

‘Apart from being talked about behind my back, yeah.’

Rose gave me a steely look.

:It’s Nico. Perhaps you’d like to talk to him?

‘Thanks.’

I put my plate down and took the handset from her.

‘Hey.’

>Declan, you are not nice to Rose. She worry about you, and we talk last night while you are not here. She tell me about your flat just now. I worry. The one who take your key, and piss in your bag, he is the same, I know it. You know who do it before.

I was silent. I had my suspicions, but naming DivDav out loud was not something I could do easily. He was a mate, and if he wasn’t, he had made a fool of me.

>Declan, you are there?

‘Yeah. I … I’m not sure. We don’t know for definite. I don’t think he would –’

>He do it before, you know this.

‘I just saw him this morning, we made up, shook hands, we were OK.’

>You must tell the police. They will find out.

‘Maybe. Not tonight.’

>Huh. OK. Soon though.

‘Kay.’

>And be nice to Rose, she try hard for you.

‘I know.’

>Lis want to see you, she like a man with stitches. We come tonight?

‘I guess, if you can get past Rose.’

>Rose love to see me. Lis love to see Rose. You love to see us both. Good. We are there soon.

Having been thoroughly Nicoed, I finished my plateful and took it back into the kitchen, where Rose was clearing away the tea table.

‘Sorry, Rose, just getting a bit fed up of being talked about when I’m out of the room. I don’t mind if you talk to people about me, just like to know what you’re saying, that’s all.’

:I know, love, sorry too, just trying to spare your feelings with going over it all again. I should have remembered from before how you are with being talked about.

‘Nico and Lis are coming over.’

Rose’s face lit up.

:Oh, that’s grand. When are they coming?

‘I think they’re on their way.’

Her face fell.

:Better do some tidying up, then.

I looked around at the spotless kitchen.

‘Why?’

:Got to look nice for visitors.

‘OK, give me a duster.’

:Cheeky, doesn’t need dusting.

‘Hoover then.’

:Or hoovering.

I looked at her. She looked back. I think I won that one.

:Alright then. You go back and sit down, I’ll get a nice packet of biscuits and put the kettle on.

I let her get on with fussing in the kitchen, went back to the living room, flicked the TV on for some early evening meaninglessness. Sat with my eyes closed, letting it wash over me until I suddenly heard my name.

*… Summers. Police are investigating an assault at the Raiders stadium on Saturday night. It is understood that the young player, who is at the centre of Raiders’ points deduction scandal, was attacked after Saturday’s victory over Chieftains, and has spent the weekend in hospital. His injuries are reported to be serious but not life-threatening. No further details are known at this time.

They showed an old photo of me, from the haircut I was about seventeen. It brought it all home. I still had no memory of Saturday evening, apart from the little flashes that presented themselves at odd times when I stretched my stitches or moved too quickly and set off a twinge.

I had actually been beaten up. Someone had wanted to physically hurt me and had done me some pretty major damage. And then, as if that message wasn’t enough someone had come to my home and trashed that too. I shied away from the thought that ‘someone’ might be a person or people I knew, as it was terrifying. It suddenly occurred to me that Rose could be at risk if ‘someone’ knew I was staying with her.

‘Rose!’

She came hurrying into the room.

:What’s the matter, love?

‘Don’t let anyone in, be really careful. Lock your doors, front and back.’

:What are you talking about, love?

‘It’s not safe. I don’t know if they know I’m here.’

:Are you feeling alright, love? You’re not making any sense.

I knew I wasn’t, I was trying to explain but feeling a sense of urgency, and it was all getting jumbled up. Deep breaths.

‘OK. Sorry. Whoever did this –’

I gestured at myself

‘– and my flat, it could be the same person. They must know me, know where I live, and if they know I’m staying here who knows what else they might try. I don’t want you to let anyone in, even if they say they’re a friend.’

:Oh, love, you’re safe here, no one gets past my front door. I assume Nico is on the guest list?

I conceded that point.

‘But no one else. Not until I know who did it. And don’t just buzz people in until you know who they are. And don’t tell them I’m here, even if they sound like they know. And you need to sort out your back door, it’s too easy to get over the wall. Keep it locked, and you need a bolt or something.’

:Alright, then.’

Rose looked amused, then frowned.

‘But do you think someone you know might have done all this? You should tell the police if you’ve remembered anything.

‘Not sure, don’t want to be wrong.’

:Oh love, you’ve got to say something.

‘I know. Tomorrow?’

She sat down beside me and patted my hand.

:It’s a funny old time for you, isn’t it love? I think you’re coping really well with everything. You’ve had quite a few ups and downs over the last few days, you need time just to sort through it. I think some peace and quiet here, then some time with your family at Christmas is just what you need.

The door entry buzzer went.

:Well, I don’t think we’ll be starting the peace and quiet until after Nico has been …’

‘Check it’s him, don’t let him in till you’re sure.’

:Alright, love …

I could hear her on the intercom in the hallway.

:Who is this? … What are you here for? … No, just checking … Alright, love, come in.

She went to open her front door. I wasn’t sure Rose’s security measures would be up to much, and it continued to gnaw away at me. Voices from the hallway.

>What happens, Rose, why these questions?

:Sorry, love, Declan is having some kind of panic about safety. Wants to make sure nobody gets in who might … oh I don’t know, you’d better ask him yourself.

She showed Nico and Lisa into the living room. I shuffled up on the sofa to make room. Lisa bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

~You’re looking lots better.

I smiled at her.

‘Thanks. Getting there.’

~Sounding it too. Just as well, seeing as Cal’s not here to translate.

>What is this security nonsense?

‘Not nonsense, don’t want Rose to get hurt. Just need to check people before letting them in.’

>There is only one person you need to check. You know this.

:No, Nico. I can’t be sure. I’m not talking about this now. OK?

~OK Dec.

Lisa sat next to me and took my hand. She reached up to Nico and pulled him down next to her.

~Let’s not get stressed, yeah? We’ve come to see Dec and help him feel better, not start going on at him. Rose, did you say the kettle was on?

:Yes, love, there’s some chocolate biscuits too.

~I’ll come and give you a hand. Nico, behave yourself.

>Ha, always, baby.

He gave her a cheeky grin. Rose and Lisa left the room. I turned the TV off, and I could hear their voices in the kitchen as they got to know each other.

>Sorry, man. You know I worry. We promise Jaime we look after you. I forget you don’t like to be looked after. You are problem.

‘I worry too, about Rose.’

>I know this. She is strong, I think. Very clever. Cares very much. She – oh, she bring tea and biscuits. Tremendo!

We sat and chatted, or rather Rose, Nico and Lis chatted while I mostly listened. Even though my speech was back to normal, talking was still painful, my mouth was bruised and the stitches pulled. I was feeling tired, and there was something emotional there too. When I’d been battered and bruised as a result of playing, it was like battle scars. But this, these marks that had been deliberately put there by someone, well there was nothing glorious about it at all. I had felt similar things when I’d been battered in the training sessions after my suspension – the bruises themselves were physically insignificant, but psychologically they were hard to overcome. This was worse – someone had meant to do me a serious injury. I couldn’t think about it, but I couldn’t ignore it either, and it put me on edge.

Rose was still conscious of my earlier tantrum about being talked about, and checked with me with her eyes before saying anything. I gave her a nod, and she told Nico and Lis about my lack of anything to wear.

~So you haven’t got any other clothes than what you’ve got on?

I shook my head.

~Well I think we need to get onto that first thing tomorrow. I’m not working, I’ll go and get you some stuff, yeah? Tell me your sizes, which shops you like, maybe we can have a look on the internet – Rose have you got a computer?

:Sorry, love, not up with all this technology. All I can do to work my mobile phone.

Lis got her phone out, but couldn’t get a signal.

~Oh, OK, know what, I’ll just pop home and get my laptop. Then make a list. Soon have you sorted.

Lisa stood up, put her hand out to Nico for the car keys, and left. As the door closed behind her, I had a sudden thought.

‘Wallet.’

:What, love?

‘Never got my wallet back. Would have been in my bag with the keys. Shit.’

>OK, Declan, now you must tell police. You must report stolen money. If they have your cards, you must do something.

‘Can’t pay for clothes.’

Nico let out an exasperated sigh.

>We pay. You don’t worry about clothes. But you must do this. Rose, you have a number for police?

Rose looked from me to Nico, battling with herself about what to do.

:Wasn’t it DI Johnson, love? He gave you his card, I put it in my bag somewhere …

She started rifling through her cavernous handbag, sorting through various pockets and bits of paper. Finally, she held a business card up. I found myself with my own battle – angry at the powerlessness that I was feeling, but relief that it might be sorted, and I might regain control over this part of the whole situation. At the moment everything felt out of my grasp and I hated it. I put my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes. Rose patted my shoulder.

:Alright, love, it’s for the best. Get it over with, if we can.

‘Mm.’

I had no more fight left; they could do what they wanted to. Rose handed the card to Nico.

:Here it is. Try this one, love. He’s the one who spoke to Declan yesterday.

>OK, I call now?

Nico looked at me, eyebrows raised. I looked at him and shrugged.

>Ha, is a Declan ‘yes’, I think. OK …

He dialled the number. Waited.

>Hello, my name is Nicolàs Tiago … yes … is me … I call about Declan Summers. I have information you should know … about both … I think we know who do this to Declan … we also think he take Declan’s wallet and keys … his name is David Allsop, he is player with Raiders.

I found it hard to listen to, tried to drift away, but Nico’s voice pulled me back.

>He do this before, not the beating, but the piss on the clothes. He in trouble at Raiders for treating Declan bad … what? … yes, he is here, he is not well, he is just from hospital. I phone for him … OK, I ask, I don’t think he talk tonight.

Nico looked at me.

>This policeman he want to talk to you, OK?

I looked back at him. I supposed I was going to have to do it sometime, but I was exhausted, my brain felt fuzzy, and all I could do was look at Nico and shake my head.

:Maybe tomorrow, love. I’ll get Declan to ring.

Rose, my guardian angel. Nico spoke into the phone again.

>I think not tonight, but he call you tomorrow … OK … yes … before eleven … OK … what you do now? We worry about him finding Declan again … OK … yes … OK … thank you.

He hung up. Breathed out.

>They talk to you tomorrow, can do nothing until then. He say if we worry, we call them again.

:Alright love, well you got that off your chest. I think we need to cancel Declan’s bank cards too – can you remember which ones you had in your wallet, love?

‘Only got one now. Not much in it.’

:Still, better safe than sorry. Which bank are you with?

I told her, and let her ring them for me. I was starting to feel sorry for myself again, very tired, a bit out of control, sad and confused about DivDav. The bank wouldn’t talk to Rose, hard as she tried to make them, so I sighed, took the phone. Gave them what details I could remember. They cancelled everything. I put the phone down on the arm of the sofa and flopped backwards.

‘Fucking knackered now.’

:I bet you are love. Banks always tire me out. Such a palaver.

>You do well. Now is less worry.

The intercom buzzer sounded, making me jump. Rose got up to answer it, as panic stabbed through me.

‘Don’t let them in if you don’t know them.’

:Relax, love, it’ll only be Lisa.

I was incredibly jumpy, and energy reserves on empty weren’t helping. Lis ran the gauntlet of Rose’s questioning, exaggerated for my benefit, then plonked herself down next to me and opened her laptop.

~I guess you haven’t got broadband, Rose, so I brought my dongle.

:If you say so, love, haven’t got a clue what that means, I’ll let you get on with it. More tea for anyone?

No one had much of a choice. Constant tea was the price you paid for visiting Rose. I wasn’t really up for online shopping, but I needed clothing pretty urgently. Especially pants and socks. Not that sure I wanted to discuss my underwear requirements with Lis, but didn’t have much choice – it was her or Rose.

‘Don’t have any money.’

>Declan just find out his wallet is gone from Saturday. We call the police and his bank, but I say we buy his clothes.

~Oh Dec, of course – oh my God, do you think it was the same –

>I know it is the same one. I tell the policeman.

~Sorry, Dec. He was a friend of yours, wasn’t he? Must be tough.

‘Mm.’

A look passed between Lis and Nico.

~Well, anyway, let’s not worry about that just now. We’ll have a look at a few bits, I’ll go and get them tomorrow and you can be best dressed of the year again. What’s first on the list?

‘Pants.’

~Oh Lord! OK, well I guess we don’t need to look at those, just tell me what you prefer and what size. I’ll believe you.

She winked at me. I gave her the information.

‘Socks. Size 11.’

~OK, another easy one.

‘T shirt, hoody, jeans. That’s it.’

~Alright, where do you usually shop?

‘Anywhere. Not fussy. Nothing fancy.’

>Ha, I think Declan shop in Primark for cheap but don’t want to say.

‘Primark is fine.’

~I think we can do a bit better than that for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll call it an early Christmas present, yeah? Ah – no arguing. It’s not cool to argue about Christmas presents.

Lis carried on talking about sizes and colours, showing me different pictures, I lost interest, becoming rapidly exhausted. Rose reappeared with more tea and biscuits.

:Did you know Declan’s going to Jay and Beth’s for Christmas?

~No! I knew they were going to ask. Oh Dec, that’s great news. What did Beth say?

‘Er, haven’t told them yet.’

~Well what are you bloody waiting for?

‘Need to sort transport, might not be possible.’

:I told you I’d take you.

‘And I told you it’s too fucking far.’

I couldn’t help snapping at Rose; I was tired of arguing about everything. As Rose and I stared each other down, this particular one felt like it could rumble on for some time; however, Lisa rolled her eyes at us and got involved.

~I’ll take you. I really want to see their new place, it’s a great excuse.

Rose and I looked at Lis, both trying to hide our relief.

>Ha, I laugh at you, Declan and Rose. So stubborn. You want to say yes, but you don’t say. I say for you. Yes, Lis will take Declan to Jaime‘s. Now, Declan, you phone to Beth and make her happy.

‘Are you sure, Lis?’

~Very sure. I can take you any time after Tuesday lunchtime. Let me know, yeah?

I gave her a huge smile, grateful and relieved.

‘Thank you. Very much.’

She smiled back. I reached for the phone again, but I didn’t know any numbers without my mobile.

‘Does anyone know their number?’

~It’s here, look.

Lisa showed me from her phone’s address book. I dialled, clumsily. Using my left hand to do everything was getting to be really annoying.

Cal

We had tea, and I played with my fire engine for a while, in Uncle Matty’s room. I heard the phone ringing, but no one picked it up to stop it ringing.

‘Yuh gona geh tha?’

I looked up at Uncle Matty. I loved answering the phone, but I wasn’t supposed to unless Mum or Dad were there. But if Uncle Matty had told me to, that was bound to be OK. So I ran into the living room, picked up the handset and pressed the button.

‘Hello who is it?’

‘Hi Cal, it’s Dec.’

He must be phoning to say if he was coming for Christmas. I was suddenly scared he would say no, and I didn’t want him to say no to me, so I said the first thing that came into my head.

‘Dec, I ate three fish fingers.’

‘That’s great. Well done, mate. Fish is good for you. Is your mum there?’

I put the phone on the table and went to get Mum, who was in the kitchen.

‘Mummy, Dec wants to talk to you.’

‘Is he on the phone? Did you answer it again? Cal, what did we say about that?’

She walked and told me off at the same time, until she reached the phone.

‘Hello? Dec? … everything alright sweetheart? …’

I was hanging around, trying to see if I could work out what Dec was saying by what Mum was saying.

‘Ohh, great. That’s great. Really great.’

Well it sounded like it was good, but Mum looked like she might be crying, so I was really confused.

‘Sorry, Dec. I’m really pleased. I thought you were going to say no. I’m so pleased. Oh, sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re coming. It’ll be great to put an end to this crappy year in a good way … ‘

As I stared at Mum, who had said an almost bad word, which she never did, and watched her wipe her eyes, Dad came in and put his arm round her, asking her about it without using words, but using his eyes and his eyebrows. Mum put her hand over the phone so Dec couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I could.

‘No, I’m okay, James, it’s Dec. He said yes, he’s coming for Christmas.’

I put my arms in the air like footballers do when they score a goal, as Dad took the phone from Mum. He was smiling, but his voice was wobbly too.

What have you been saying to make my wife cry? … I’m yanking your chain, mate. We’re really pleased. Talk later, yeah?’

Dad pressed the off button, and looked at Mum, and they both smiled at each other, and smiled at me.

‘Dec’s coming to stay with us for Christmas.’

I put both arms in the air again, as if I was Theo Walcott.

‘Yessss!’

‘I think you might need to tidy your room before Dec gets here, or we might never find any of your things again.’

I suppose there’s a downside to everything. Having to tidy my room was the downside to Dec coming for Christmas. But he was coming, we were going to be able to do all the things we hadn’t done for ages, and it was all going to be alright.

Dec

I hung up. Wiped my eyes.

‘That went well. Everybody cried.’

:Oh, love, tears are good sometimes.

Rose appeared to be wiping her eyes too, in fact Nico was the only one who wasn’t. He was smiling his enormous smile.

>You do good thing. You mend it with you and Jaime. This is big. Very good. Baby, I think we go now. Declan, he look very tired. He has big day today, and more tomorrow.

~Yeah, of course. Dec, is it OK if I pop in tomorrow morning to drop off your clothes, check you’ve eaten breakfast and generally fuss about annoyingly?

‘I suppose.’

>I come also, after training.

‘No need.’

>I know this. I want to steal Rose’s biscuits when she not here.

They stood up, Lis kissed me on the cheek, Nico gave Rose a hug, then Rose saw them to the front door.

>I call to remind him to talk to the policeman. Call us if you worry, or the police if you really worry. OK?

:Thanks you two.

~You’re welcome. We’re all in it together. He’s a toughie, but he needs us more than he’ll admit. Right, Dec? I’m sure you’re listening.

They said their goodbyes, and Rose shut the door behind them, making a big thing of putting the chain on, for my benefit. She came into the living room, picked up cups and plates, tidied up in the kitchen, plumped some cushions.

:You look done in, love. I know it’s early but why don’t you go to bed? You know where your room is. Get some sleep, recharge your batteries.

It sounded like the best idea anyone had had for a long time. I could hardly pull myself off the sofa, as moving made all my aches and pains protest together. I remembered the medication I had brought home from the hospital. Now was a good time to take some, get some solid sleep.

I padded into the kitchen, got the bottle of pills. Asked Rose to open the bottle, took some with a slurp of cold tea, said goodnight and went to bed. Rose had put my pyjamas from the hospital in the wash, and I had no underwear, so got into bed in my clothes. Slept.

Dreaming. Chased by faceless men in brown boots. Can’t fly, can only run, looking over my shoulder. They nearly catch up with me, then I trip –

– woke with a start, in a sweat, in darkness, heart racing, panting. The details of the dream faded, but the panic stayed for a long time. Eventually my pulse calmed, my breathing slowed, and I drifted off again.

Dreaming. This time I can fly. I fly around the world looking for a man in brown boots. There are too many. None of them are the one I am looking for. After a long time flying, I see him. He is a long way away. He isn’t looking. Doesn’t see me coming until I am almost there. He turns round, but just before I see his face, he disappears.

22. Hold on we’re going home

In which Cal uses a fire engine as a listening device, and Dec discovers that bad news hasn’t finished with him yet.

Cal

Once we got back, I showed Uncle Matty my fire engine, and made a road in his room so I could put out lots of fires. I did a lot of listening while I was playing – Uncle Matty’s room was good for being able to hear when Mum or Dad were on the phone, and sometimes I could just kind of go and hang about outside the room they were in, and sometimes I would hear things, and even understand what they were about.

So when I heard Mum talking to Rose, I drove my fire engine into the hall and wheeled it up and down outside the living room where Mum and Dad were both sitting on the couch. The phone was on speaker, so they could both hear, and although I didn’t understand everything, it seemed like Rose had been helping Dec, and that Dec had been sad, and had missed Mum and Dad and me. Rose asked if we were going to go and visit Dec again, and I held my breath so I could hear what they said.

‘Oh Rose, I don’t think we can at the moment. Matty’s got to be our priority, he needs both of us here. This weekend was too hard on James’s mum.’

‘Oh, well, I’m sure he’ll understand, love. He’s that happy that you came to see him, though.’

‘I know. Do you know when they’re likely to let him go home?’

‘He’s hoping for tomorrow.’

Tomorrow?

‘He had a little walk, and his physios think he’ll be OK. He’s coming back to me for a little while.’

‘Oh, well, that sounds great. Are you OK with that?’

‘Yes, love, I’m looking forward to it, actually. I’m good at looking after people.’

‘Rose, we won’t be able to get down there for a while, but we might ask Dec up here for Christmas, if he’s well enough.’

I nearly jumped up and cheered when Dad said this, but I stayed quietly on the floor in the hall.

‘Oh love, that would be tidy. I’d been wondering what to do – I was going to go to my sister’s, she’s in Wales, but I was going to cancel, go in the New Year when he’s more settled.’

‘Well we don’t want to mess you about, we haven’t decided for definite. And he might not want to come.’

I heard Rose snort.

‘I don’t think that’s very likely, do you, love? Just let me know.’

‘Thanks, Rose. You’ve been amazing. Please keep in touch; I know Dec’s not likely to tell us how he’s really feeling, he likes his independence, so it would be great if you could let us know what’s what.’

‘Of course, love. As soon as I know what’s going on, I’ll give you a call. I’m going back to see him tomorrow morning anyway. You take care, loves, and remember I’m on the end of the phone.’

‘Thanks, Rose.’

‘Yes, thanks Rose, for everything.’

‘Bye, love.’

I stayed outside the room with my fire engine, because Mum and Dad were talking to each other now.

‘That feels better.’

‘I know. Where did he find her?’

‘Nico says she lives downstairs, but I don’t know how Dec knows her apart from that. She’s a weight off my mind, though, James. Matty was alright this weekend, but I really don’t want to leave him again until he’s stronger.’

‘No. He was a right grumpy git about the bloke from the agency, had a go at me for cancelling the woman.’

‘Yeah, Carol said he got on really well with Sally, but hardly looked at Ian. Maybe we should have talked to him about it.’

‘We didn’t get much of a chance, did we.’

‘I suppose not. So, I did the test.’

I wondered what test Mum had done. I had spelling tests at school, but Mum knew all her spellings, and was good at sums as well. And I’d been with her all day; we’d been to the supermarket, and Boots, and then we’d had sandwiches for lunch, then Mum had done some washing while I played in Uncle Matty’s room, then we’d made some fairy cakes, and then Dad had come back from watching his rugby team and we’d had dinner, and then it was now, and she hadn’t done anything that looked like it was a test.

‘And …?’

There was a silence, and I couldn’t tell what was going on, but Dad suddenly gasped.

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh my God, Beth. Oh my God. Fanbloodytastic.’

There was more silence, and what sounded like kissing.

‘We can’t say anything, though, not for a while. It’s not far along. Oh but James, I can’t help being excited. I’ve wanted this for so long.’

We’ve wanted this. Neither of us wanted Cal to be an only child. I’ve always seen him with a brother or sister.’

I was rooted to the spot, trying really hard to make sense of what they were saying. It sounded like happy things, things that they were both pleased about, and I wanted to be pleased and happy too. I didn’t want to let them know I’d been listening, but I couldn’t stay out of the room any longer. I pushed my fire engine up to the doorway and rolled it through into the living room.

Mum and Dad were cuddling on the sofa, and they turned towards me as I came in. I made some fire engine noises for added effect.

‘Cal! Where did you come from, sweetheart?’

‘From Uncle Matty’s room. Can I choose?’

‘What do you want to choose, mate?’

‘Can I choose a brother or a sister? I want a brother, so he can play football with me.’

Mum and Dad looked at each other, and then at me.

‘Cal, did you hear what Daddy and me just said?’

‘Yes, about me having a brother or a sister. Daniel Glover is having a sister, but I want a brother.’

‘OK, come here a minute, sweetheart.’

Mum held her arms out to me, and I got up and went over to her, to be scooped up onto her lap. She held me tightly and talked into my ear. Not quietly like she was whispering, but like she really wanted me to listen.

‘Cal, this is very important. Daddy and I might be having a brother, or a sister, for you, but it’s a secret. It’s Top Secret, like Spy Kids. You can’t tell anyone, not Granny, not Uncle Matty, not anyone. Do you think you can keep a secret for a little while? Until we know for sure? Just for a few weeks?’

I nodded. Having a brother would be exciting, and it would be hard not to tell, especially if I could beat Daniel Glover’s sister with a brother, but as long as I didn’t have to keep the secret forever, I would probably be able to do it.

I was a little hazy on how you got brothers, but Owen Little’s brother, who was ten and knew a lot, said that sometimes people chose brothers and sisters, it was called dopted or something. Maybe Mum and Dad were going to choose a brother for me, in which case I was glad I’d said I wanted a brother, so they knew.

‘Good boy.’

‘Yeah, nice one mate.’

Dad put his hand up so I could high five him, and then he snuggled up so he was cuddling me and Mum at the same time. I felt very happy, being snuggly with them both, and then I remembered the other thing I’d heard that had made me happy. But if I said I’d heard it, they’d know I’d been listening for quite a long time, so I said it as if I’d just had an idea.

‘Mummy, how will Santa know where Dec’s house is?’

‘Well, Santa knows where everyone’s house is.’

‘Yes, but what if he thinks Dec’s house is here, and brings his presents here?’

‘Well, that would be terrible, sweetheart, but Santa doesn’t make mistakes like that.’

‘But what if he does?’

‘Hmm. It sounds like you might have a plan.’

‘Yes. If Dec is here on Christmas, then Santa will know where to bring his presents.’

I felt Mum and Dad look at each other over the top of my head. Then I felt Dad shrug.

‘Would you like Dec to be here for Christmas, mate?’

‘Yes.’

I couldn’t believe how well my plan had worked. They’d totally fallen for it. I was so sneaky.

‘He can sleep in Daddy’s office, I suppose.’

‘Oh, but I want him to sleep under me, in my bottom bed.’

Mum laughed. ‘You have given this some thought, haven’t you. Are you sure, Cal? Dec is messy, and he goes to bed quite late, and –’

‘I’m sure, Mummy.’

‘Alright then. Would you like to ask him when we talk to him?’

‘When?’

‘I’m not sure, it will have to be when he gets home.’

‘But that might be tomorrow.’

Oh. I’d given it away now. Mum laughed again and squeezed me tight.

‘Oh Cal. You’re my best little spy. Come on, sweetheart, it’s time for bed. Let’s go and get your PJs on.’

Dec

The day wore on, the light faded and I started to doze. Weird half-dreams mingling with semi-wakefulness gave me a strange feeling of floating. People came in, asked me questions, I assume I replied, faces came and went, felt my pulse, took my temperature, gave me pills, gave me dinner.

In one particularly bizarre lucid dream, Big stared down at me. I opened my eyes fully, a bit shaken, but he wasn’t there, and the room was now completely dark. I could see a light from the door, which wasn’t quite shut. Couldn’t hear any sounds, even distant voices or footsteps. I felt very alone, and a bit freaked out. Still a bit spacey. Very much wanted to talk to someone, anyone, just to feel a bit more real. Thought about getting out of bed. Pete had said I needed to practise walking, and I hadn’t even stood up since the physios left. Thought some more about getting out of bed. My experiences of the afternoon made me cautious, but I wanted company more. There must be someone around somewhere. And I really needed to pee.

I began the process of getting out of bed. Found the remote control by feel, and checked the bed was as low as it would go. Sat the mattress up. Swung my legs over the side, so much easier than last time I tried. Feet touched the floor. Result. Tried to find a lamp, as it really was dark, but hadn’t noticed where it was or where to switch it on. Braced knees and thighs. Tentatively leaned my left arm on the cupboard. Deep breath. Stood up. Swayed gently in the dark. Stayed upright. Remembered Pete’s instructions: left, right, left, right. Started with my left leg, easy. Made it to the door and out into the corridor. Looked both ways. Some kind of front desk to my left. Shuffled along to it. Nobody there.

‘Hello?’

Nothing. Looked for a bell or buzzer or something. Nothing easily identifiable. Looked up and down the corridor. Where was everyone? Saw a sign saying ‘Toilet’. Well that was a start.

Made it inside, lifted the lid, aimed – tricky using semi-working left hand – peed. Stung a bit, the result of pulling on the tube earlier. No blood. Another result.

Heard voices. Someone was around, somewhere. Shuffled to the door. Looked out into the corridor. A couple of nurses standing near my door looking concerned. They noticed me and looked relieved. One of them hurried over to me.

*Declan! We wondered where you’d got to.

‘Needed a pee.’

*You managed on your own OK?

‘Yeah, no worries.’

I sounded more confident than I felt.

*Well that’s great. Is there anything you need?

‘Wha time issit?’

She checked an upside down watch on her tunic.

*Two thirty, give or take.

‘In the morning?’

*Yes, lovey, it’s the middle of the night. Bit disoriented?

‘Been ‘sleep a lot.’

*It’s been a funny old day for you by all accounts. Maybe back to bed and sleep properly, start again tomorrow?

‘OK. Felt weird on my own.’

*I’m not surprised. Would you like some company for a bit? Till you drop off?

‘Please.’

She walked back with me, watched as I manoeuvred myself back into bed, then sat in the chair.

*Do you want to chat, or sleep?

‘Sleep if I can.’

*OK lovey, I’ll stay for a bit, happy to talk if you feel like it.

‘Thanks.’

I felt a lot more concrete with someone with me, less insubstantial. I was also very pleased with myself for making it to the toilet on my own. Eyelids soon drooped and I slept properly.

Dreaming. I am flying. Trying to catch someone, just out of my reach. They are wearing brown boots. Nearly catch up with them …

…woke up. The patch of sky I could see through the window was blue, and it seemed to be sunny. I could hear noises from beyond the door; voices, clatters, some kind of cleaning machine. I had no idea what time it was, but the world was obviously awake. So were my stomach and my bladder.

After last night’s success, I decided I would take another trip down the corridor. Repeated the moves that had got me out of bed and on my feet the night before. Incredible that something so simple, that I usually did without thinking every day of my life, could make me so cautious and (when successful) so proud of myself.

Wandered out of the room and down the corridor to the toilet. While I peed, I noticed a mirror above the sink. Hadn’t actually seen the face that had launched a thousand tears yet. About time I gave it a look.

With some nervousness, I shuffled over to the mirror. I kept my eyes down, then slowly raised them. I had expected some bruising and swelling, but I hadn’t expected something out of a horror film. I hardly recognised any of my features. My eyes were swallowed up in a mess of puffy purple. The rest of my face was swollen and reddened or bruised. There was a big graze on my forehead. There was a large plastic guard taped over my nose, which seemed twice its normal size. There was a long row of stitches reaching from my scalp down by the side of my right eye to my cheek. The hair had been shaved away around the beginning of the scar, highlighting its vividness. There was a shorter row of stitches above my top lip, and another row touched the left corner of my mouth. My lips were distended and discoloured. The bruising extended in patches around my neck into the collar of my shirt.

It was pretty shocking. I wasn’t surprised Beth, Rose and Lisa had cried; I was close to tears myself. I leaned on the sink with my left hand, feeling sick. I realised for the first time what had happened to me, and how lucky I had been. I knew there were more stitches elsewhere – I had seen some on my legs, and knew I had pulled some in my back when I fell yesterday. I also had broken bones. I could have lost an eye, or had a fractured skull, or bled to death. Someone had wanted to do that to me. My legs wobbled, and I had to lean heavily on the sink. There was a knock on the door.

¬Declan, are you in there?

It was a well-timed Nurse Michelle.

‘Yeah.’

¬Are you OK?

‘Not sure.’

¬Shall I come in?

‘Yeah.’

I heard the sound of the lock, the door opened, and she came in. I started to sag at the sink.

¬What’s up, feeling a bit wobbly?

‘Yeah. Jus saw myself. Bit of a mess, aren’t I?’

¬Oh, I didn’t realise. Had nobody showed you a mirror? Bit of a shock, I expect. Here, come and sit on the loo for a bit.

She helped me over, shut the lid and supported me while I lowered myself down. I leaned forwards, breathing heavily.

¬Better?

‘Mm.’

¬Good job I came looking for you. A couple of your friends have popped in, your bed was empty, Sheila told me you came for a wander up here last night, so I thought I’d come and find you. What shall I tell them?

‘Who issit?’

¬Two lads about your age, what did they say their names were? Ben and David, I think.

Big and DivDav? I vaguely remembered Big being around at some point yesterday after I fell off the bed. Hadn’t seen DivDav for quite a while, unless he’d cropped up in the missing hours of Saturday. Didn’t feel too presentable, and now I knew what I looked like, I was self-conscious.

¬I’ve told them the physios are coming up soon, so they can’t have long, if that’s any help. Are they good friends?

I shrugged. It was difficult to evaluate my friendships in light of everything that had happened recently.

¬I can get them to come back another time if you like.

No, I wanted to see them. Things wouldn’t get back to normal until I began facing everything. Had to start somewhere.

‘No, s’okay.’

¬How are you feeling? Need a few more minutes?

I nodded.

¬Alright then. I’ll let them in to your room, you sit there for a bit till you feel like wandering down. I’ll be at the desk – give me a shout if you need me.

She left the bathroom and I heard the lock turn from outside. A few deep breaths; nausea started to subside. Stood up. Avoided looking in the mirror again. Opened the door and walked down the corridor, catching Michelle’s eye at the desk and giving her a left-handed thumbs up.

The door to my room was open, and I could hear voices I recognised. I got to the door and walked in. Big and DivDav were sitting in the two chairs by the bed. They stopped talking and stood up when I entered the room.

%Holy shit! Sorry, Captain, Big said you were … but I didn’t realise … holy shit. What the fuck … what happened?

‘Can’t ‘member.’

I walked to the bed and sat down on it. Big and DivDav sat back down on the chairs.

°Still no luck with your memory?

‘Not yet. Thanks for coming.’

%No problem, mate. I feel terrible, you were out there because of me, weren’t you?

‘Can’t ‘member.’

%Oh, course. How are you feeling?

‘Better than yessday.’

°Well that’s good I suppose. It all looks pretty painful.

This stilted conversation was almost as painful.

‘Been fucking agony, actually. Bit better now. Jus saw my face. Could get a part in Evil fucking Dead. Got physio inna minute.’

This felt like the most words I had uttered in one go for a long time, but it made me feel more normal to talk to them like I usually would, rather than exchanging polite sympathies.

%Yeah, that nurse said, we won’t stay, mate, just wanted to see how you are. And, er, I wanted to apologise for how I was, you know, before. Would have done on Saturday night, but … you know. I was well pissed off, tried phoning, texting, went into the club to find you. Missed all the fuss with the ambulance and that.

I didn’t really know what Dav was talking about, the jumble from Saturday afternoon and evening still not resolving itself. Decided to focus on his apology.

‘No worries. Thanks. Means a lot.’

%Er, don’t know if you know, Raiders aren’t keeping me on.

It rang a vague bell, but I shook my head, surprised and sad for Dav.

‘Nah mate. Sorry.’

%Yeah, well, I had a feeling. Think I kind of took it out on you when things started going your way again, you know, being allowed back to training and that. Felt unfair. I was a bit of a knob. Sorry.

°Come on, Dav, we all played our part. Doesn’t look like Cap holds a grudge.

Wasn’t sure if that was true; DivDav had been particularly instrumental in making a lot of the last few weeks truly miserable. But his apology couldn’t have been easy, I was still pretty much a worthless piece of shit after all, they were calling me Captain again, and I decided I had no room in me for grudges.

‘Nah mate. S’okay. Been a knob too.’

°Know what, when you’re more up to it, we should get everyone together for a night out. Or in. Get fucking wasted.

‘Great idea.’

%Yeah, great. When are you out of here?

‘Hope today.’

%Give you a bell, then.

°Probably have to wait till his phone’s back in commission.

‘Keep in touch, then.’

°Will do. Dav, we’d better go, that nurse’ll be on the warpath if we stay too long.

They stood up. I did too, just took a little longer. There was some awkwardness while we decided how to say goodbye – couldn’t shake hands, hugs cost too many man points, in the end both gave me a light punch on the shoulder.

%Take care of yourself, mate.

°See you soon.

I watched them leave. Noticed that DivDav was wearing brown desert boots.

The physios must have been waiting outside, as they knocked on the door immediately. I sat back down on the edge of the bed. They went through virtually the same routine that Pete and Janie had the day before, and came to the same conclusion.

*You’re a bit stiff, that’s just the bruises, but nothing that time and moving around won’t see to. I think you’re good to go. We’ll leave you to make your arrangements. Nice to meet you.

And quick as that they were gone. I was elated, but unsure what to do next. I couldn’t contact anyone as my phone was in small pieces in some police station. Decided a chat with Nurse Michelle was on the cards. I wandered down the corridor to where she was sitting in front of a computer. She told me I could go as soon as I’d been checked by a doctor and got a supply of painkillers, then she helped me out by finding Rose’s number, and dialling it for me, as my fingers were still having trouble working difficult things like buttons on phones.

:Hello?

‘S’Declan.’

:Oh hello love! I wondered if I might hear from you this morning. Have you seen the physio?

‘Yeah, I can go home.’

:Oh love, that’s grand. Any idea when?

‘Got to sort meds and see doc.’

:OK love, I’ll be there as soon as I can, will you be able to get in my car?

‘Find a way. Thanks Rose.’

:You’re welcome love. Won’t be long.

She disconnected, and I imagined her rushing about tidying up, straightening cushions, making sure everything was just so for her guest, who wouldn’t notice any of it. Smiled to myself.

¬All sorted then m’dear?

‘On her way. Might have to wait for me.’

¬I don’t think she’ll mind. She seems very fond of you. Relative is she?

‘No, good friend.’

¬Lucky you. OK, I’ll sort out all the official stuff, you go back to your room and I’ll sort some breakfast for you too. Oh look, here’s another one of your friends.

I turned round. Nico was walking down the corridor, smiling widely.

>Declan, I see you are well and charming the nurses – ha, is beautiful Michelle. Hello. Declan, this is better than yesterday. You look good. No, you look horrible still, but from yesterday you look good. Every day you are better, by next week you will be number one handsome man, or maybe number two. I am still number one.

Nico’s self-confidence was, as ever, unshakeable.

‘Going home.’

>Today?

‘Yeah.’

>This is good news. I hear you fall yesterday, I worry.

‘I’m OK.’

>I see this. You talk much better, you walk, increible. I go to match reviews, I can not stay, but I am happy to see this. You call me later?

‘No phone.’

>Huh. You go home to your flat?

‘Rose’s.’

>Huh, is good. I call her later and talk to you. Declan, I am so happy to see you so better. I see you soon.

He gave me a quick hug and walked back down the corridor, not before blowing a kiss to Michelle.

¬He really is something else. Is he always so full on?

‘Pretty much.’

¬OK, m’dear, back to your room with you, breakfast is on its way, you wait for Rose. What do you want me to tell visitors? Is it OK for them to come in?

‘S’kay.’

¬Right then, off you go.

No other visitors were forthcoming, hardly surprising as they would all be on their way to the club for the Monday morning analysis of Saturday’s match. That would be why Big and Dav had been so early.

I ate my breakfast as well as I could with my mangled left hand. Scrambled egg and toast, not too difficult. Rose arrived just as I was finishing a mug of tea, holding it precariously with a couple of fingers in my left hand.

:Oh love, you look heaps better. Still a bit of a sight, but there’s a spark about you now. I was so worried yesterday. Have you been for another walk like you were told to?

‘Went to the loo. Twice.’

:There’s grand, love, how did you manage? Not with the loo, thanks, but with the walking.

‘Good.’

:And your talking’s much better. No need for little Calum to tell us what you’re saying. Such a difference from yesterday. You really are made of strong stuff, aren’t you love.

I thought about my wobble when faced with my reflection. Not much strong stuff on display there.

‘Saw my face.’

:Oh love, hadn’t you seen yourself before?

I shook my head.

:Bit of a shock I expect.

I nodded.

:Well, it probably looks worse than it is. Wait till the stitches are out, and the swelling goes down. You’ll be fine. Might have some scars to tell a story about – girls like a bit of a story, especially if it makes you look tough but vulnerable. Right, love, what’s going on with this doctor? Do I need to go and hurry him up?

‘Yeah.’

So off she went to cause some trouble on my behalf. I sat back against the pillows and listened to her voice drifting down the corridor. Occasionally I could hear Michelle try to get a word in, but mostly Rose was talking. Felt a bit sorry for the medical staff, they didn’t really stand a chance. Not sorry enough to do anything about it, because Rose was making sure I was going the fuck home. After a while there was silence. Footsteps. Rose returned. She had a glint in her eye.

:By, those doctors are slippery devils. Trying to say they had a clinic or something. He’ll be here in ten minutes. Or there’ll be trouble.

‘Thanks.’

:Have you got anything you need to pack up? What happened to your clothes?

‘Don’t know.’

:Honest, what are they thinking, sending you home without clothes? You can’t go home in your pyjamas, love.

‘Bloody well will though.’

:I’m going to find out. And what about all your stuff – keys, phone, what happened to all that?

‘Don’t know.’

:Right, wait here, love.

As if I was going anywhere, but I did start to wonder what had happened to everything, although I knew about my phone, more or less. Couldn’t remember if I’d had my keys with me or not. Bit of a problem if not, couldn’t get into my flat for clothes or anything. Suspected the clothes I was wearing on Saturday, my Raiders training kit, had been ruined, probably cut off and severely bled onto at the very least. I’d had a kit bag, which I’d put the clothes I’d worn to the ground in. My keys must be in there; I always put them in my pocket. Couldn’t remember where I’d left the bag. The holes in my memory weren’t being filled in, except in tiny flashes at odd times, and it was very frustrating.

Rose came back after a while. She had little news.

:Apparently everything you came in with would be in this cupboard, apart from your clothes, which they had to throw away, shoes too. Let’s have a look in here.

She opened the cupboard door. There was nothing inside apart from a pack of wipes and Cal’s dinosaur magazine, which had been soaked in the falling out of bed event yesterday, and whose pages were stuck together.

:Well that settles that. No keys, no phone – oh, that policeman had your phone, didn’t he. One mystery solved then. Any ideas where your keys are?

I shrugged.

‘Could be at the club. Had kit bag. Don’t know where.’

:Hmm, maybe we could call someone? Have you got the club number, or what about Nico, maybe he could look?

‘Numbers were on phone.’

:Oh you youngsters, nobody remembers things these days, rely too much on bits of kit to do the remembering, you do. OK, let’s think. How did you remember my number this morning?

‘Nurses had it.’

:OK then, love, let’s see if they’ve got anyone else’s then.

Off she went again, on another mission.

Not having my phone was going to be a real pain. I stored all my contacts there, I don’t think I’d ever written anyone’s details down. I was going to be seriously out of touch while I got everything sorted.

Rose came back looking pleased with herself.

:I got hold of Nico. He gave me his number the other day, I forgot it would be on my phone. He’s going to look for your bag after his meeting. If he finds it, at least you’ll have some clothes, even if your keys aren’t there. I’m going to ring the landlord, ask if they can get you a spare. We’ll get you sorted, love, now all we need is for that doctor to turn up. Let’s see if we can grab a cuppa while we’re waiting.

Off she went again, in search of tea. I was starting to get a bit fidgety. Never had been very good at just waiting. Now I was feeling more alert, I just wanted to go. I’d walk naked to Rose’s car if that was the only way to do it, didn’t really care if I had to go barefoot in my pyjamas.

Rose came back after a while, two mugs of tea balanced in one hand, holding her phone to her ear in the other. I was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to be using her phone in here, but wasn’t about to tell her.

:I see, well, we’ll sort something out, don’t worry … no, no, love, sounds like you’re best off throwing it away … thanks for looking, can’t have been very nice … alright, love, talk to you later.

She hung up. Looked at me. Put the mugs on top of the cabinet.

‘Well, love, you’ve got some good friends and some rotten enemies. That was Nico. He found your bag, it was in an office, but some disgusting pig had used it as a toilet. No keys. He’s throwing it all away. Who’d do that to you, love?

DivDav for a start, he’d done something similar before, to my clothes at any rate. I thought we’d made up this morning, now I didn’t quite know how to take his apology. I kept silent and shrugged, hiding my dismay.

:Right then, I need to contact the landlord and get you another key. We need to get you some clothes so you can leave here decent. And some shoes. I’ll ring him now, maybe he’ll let me in to fetch you something. Has that doctor been by yet?

‘No.’

:Right, something else to chase up then.

The morning wore on with one frustrating delay after another. Rose managed to contact Tony, the landlord, who, after talking to me, agreed to go with Rose to pick up some clothes and trainers from my flat. The doctor visited me, and signed off on my discharge, but only once the pharmacy had made up my prescription for painkillers. Apparently the pharmacy were very busy and would get to my prescription when they could.

Cal

And then, with one thing and another, I didn’t really think about having a brother for a long time, because it was nearly Christmas, and I had written a list, but I needed to sort out Optimus Prime. I had wanted to put him on my list to Santa, but Dec had said he would get me one for my birthday, before it all went wrong. If I put Optimus Prime on my list to Santa, and then Dec remembered and gave me a late birthday present, I would have two, and I would rather have a Grimlock and an Optimus Prime than two Optimus Primes. I needed to talk to Dec so I could sort it out.

The next day, Mum had texts and phone calls all day from Rose, who told her that Dec was coming out of hospital and going to live with Rose for a while. We were going to call Dec and I was going to ask him to come to live with us for Christmas, and I would be able to ask him about Santa.

Mum made me practise what I was going to say, even though I didn’t need to practise to talk to Dec. She said because he’d been in hospital, and had been sad, we had to be careful with him, and so I practised like she told me.

Dec

More waiting. Lunchtime came. Cheese sandwiches. Chewing seemed to be back on the agenda. Rose reappeared, quite a long time after I’d expected her back. She looked worried.

:Sorry I’ve been so long, love. Bit of a problem with your flat. The door was open when we got there, it’s all a bit of a mess. Same thing that’s happened with your bag. Smelt foul. All over your clothes, bed, sofa, everything. They smashed stuff up, your plates and food and that, your telly too. About the only thing in your flat worth breaking. Tony’s called the police, and he’s staying till they arrive, then he’s going to call someone out to clean it all up. Are you sure your keys were in your bag?

‘Can’t really remember. In my jeans pocket?’

:Then probably the person who did your bag got your keys and let themselves in. I don’t know, love, I just don’t understand it. Anyway, I’ve called in at the supermarket and got you some clothes. Had to guess your size, might be a bit big, but better that than too small. Not the trendiest either.

She waved a carrier bag in my direction.

‘Shit, Rose, my flat?’

My brain had just caught up with what she had said.

:Oh, I’m sorry, love, shouldn’t have just blurted it out.

‘All my stuff?’

She sat by the bed and took my hand.

:Sorry love, all over your clothes, there just wasn’t anything I could bring.

‘Got nothing left … nothing.’

I almost couldn’t breathe, just the latest in a long line of indignities and insults. I was starting to think that even if I was a worthless piece of shit, I still didn’t deserve all this. Whenever things started to get a bit better, something new would come along and take it all away again. I could barely get my head round what must have gone on in my flat while I wasn’t there, that someone would just go in and …

:Oh, love, I never thought of it like that. We’ll get you new stuff. Better than this stuff, I’ll go out later.

‘Not the point. My home, my fucking stuff. And your fucking stuff. Your telly. Too much.’

I was angry, furious. Felt completely powerless to do anything about it.

:I’m sorry love, so sorry. It’ll all be cleaned up soon, once the police have finished. And I don’t want you worrying about my telly, it was really old. Here, put these things on, see if they fit, I’ve got trainers too, look –

I was breathing heavily, trying hard to keep my anger under control. Didn’t want to think about Rose’s bag of clothes. Wanted to smash things. Didn’t want Rose in the line of fire. Didn’t think I should really smash things in a hospital either. Several deep breaths later, just about pushed it far enough down. Rose was looking at me with concern.

:This has really upset you, hasn’t it, love.

‘Yeah. Fucking bastards.’

:Well, I think that’s what they wanted, to get under your skin. Don’t let them win. I can see how angry it’s made you, try to put that somewhere and use it later. Deal with this, focus on getting home with me, use being angry to fuel something else, getting better, working on getting fit again. I know it’s hard, you want to punch someone I expect. It’s not fair, not after everything that’s happened to you. Just use it, don’t let it use you.

‘Fuck. Fuck! You’re right. Sorry. Wise old Rose. Fucking, fucking hell.’

A few more deep breaths. A few more fucks. Still wanted to smash things, deep down somewhere, but much less likely to do it right now.

:Less of the ‘old’, you. And I’ll let you off the language in the circumstances. Good job little Calum’s not here, he wouldn’t believe his ears.

A tap on the door. Nurse Michelle.

¬Everything alright in here? Mind keeping the noise down a bit? I know you’re feeling better but we’ve got other sick people here and everything.

:Sorry, love, Declan’s just had a bit of a shock. Think he’s OK now.

‘Sorry.’

¬Well, OK, just as long as everything’s alright. We’ve just had word from the pharmacy, they’re sending your meds up, it’s all OK for you to leave, whenever you want.

:Oh that’s grand. I think we’re almost set, you just need to get changed. Alright now, love?

‘Kay.’

She put the bag of clothes on the bed.

:I’ll wait outside, come and get me.

I got changed as quickly as I could; my plastered right arm gave me some difficulty, both getting my pyjama shirt off and the new one on. Pulling trousers up was tricky too, although thankfully Rose had chosen tracksuit bottoms with no zip or buttons. She had neglected to get underpants, something I was quite pleased about as the thought of her pondering boxers versus briefs, and exactly what she thought my size was, was somewhere I didn’t really want to visit. No socks either, but the trainers were a good enough fit and had Velcro fastenings, although it was hard to bend down to reach, and my fingers didn’t grip very well.

After a struggle, a lot of pain and a ‘fuck’ or two, I was finally ready – sweating, a bit dishevelled and in need of a good scrubbing in many areas, but ready to go. I picked up the pyjamas and put them in the bag. It was amazing how difficult simple actions like that were with only a few working fingers, and two arms that didn’t really bend properly. Refused to get frustrated. Managed it in the end. Left the room and found Rose in the corridor.

:Here you are, I was just about to send a search party. Having trouble, love?

‘A bit. Diddit though.’

:Well done, love. You show ’em. Let’s go then.

So we did, picking up the pills from Michelle on the desk as we went. Slow progress, but I walked all the way to the outside on my own. Lots of looks from people, some sideways glances, some open-mouthed staring. I suppose I was a bit of a sight with my bruises, stitches and swollen face, but I stared everyone down from behind my puffy eyelids. Rose fussed and twittered, telling me every ten seconds to

:Be careful, love.

:Mind the door, love.

:Don’t go so fast, love, you might trip over.

:Are you sure you don’t want a wheelchair, love?

:Watch that little boy, love …

I let her get on with it, mostly ignored her, concentrating on one foot in front of the other and not banging into anything. The main entrance seemed miles away, but it arrived eventually. I sped up as I approached, couldn’t wait for the outside. It felt like I had been here for weeks, instead of less than forty eight hours. Finally through the doors, I stopped and breathed in fresh air.

21. The consequences of falling

In which Dec tries to find his feet and Matty tries to find stuff out.

Dec

Nurse Michelle popped her head round the door.

¬Sorry to break up the party, the police are quite anxious to have a word with Declan. I’m going to have to ask you to leave. You can visit again this afternoon if you want to.

:Any idea how long he’s going to be in here, love?

¬Well, we’ll ask the physios to have a go at standing him, and if he can stand up on his own and walk unaided, it could be later on tomorrow or the day after. We need to get the catheter out and make sure he can get to the loo on his own. Might try that today, even, it’s not good to have it in too long. He’s had several bangs to the head which need an eye for the next twenty four hours in any case. Is there anyone at home to look after him?

>He live on his own.

:I live downstairs. He won’t be on his own.

¬Well that’s great, should speed it all up if there’s going to be someone around when he goes home. I’m going to send the policeman in now. Declan, do you want anyone with you?

‘Ruhz.’

:Of course, love, as if I’m going anywhere!

>I guess that mean we are not wanted. We will be back, Declan. Be careful with yourself.

~Bye Dec. Chin up – oh, but mind the stitches. See you soon, yeah?

And so it was just Rose and me. She gently took my injured hand and gave it the tiniest squeeze.

‘Thnks Ruhz. Yohr graat.’

:Oh love, I was worried when I didn’t hear from you all day yesterday. I wondered if it had all gone like you thought it would, and you’d gone off doing something silly. I was so relieved when I saw you on the news. When you didn’t come back, I thought you must have gone out celebrating. Ah love, look at you. I can’t believe someone would do this to you.

‘Dint I call yuh?’

I’d certainly meant to, but couldn’t remember doing it.

:No, love. I left you a couple of messages.

‘Sohry.’

:Oh love, don’t worry about it, I’m just glad you’ve still got your job. I hope all this –

She indicated my battered body.

: – doesn’t affect things with your club.

Hadn’t considered that. Put it to the back of my mind as something to worry about later. Had enough going on just now. Rose brushed my hair back from my forehead. I had a sudden memory from my childhood of my mum doing exactly the same when I was ill or upset. It was a bit overwhelming.

:What about your visitors, though, love, your Jay and Beth and little Calum, I was that pleased for you. How about that?

Now they were gone it all felt unreal again, and I could easily have doubted they had been here, if it wasn’t for the dinosaur magazine lying on top of the cupboard by the bed.

‘Cahn bliehve ih. Hahpy.’

:I’m happy for you, love, they seem lovely, obviously care a lot about you. Did Jay say he stayed here all night with you?

‘Thihnk so. Wahs ouh of ih. Noh hehr when I wohk up.’

:I expect he had to go and get a bit of sleep, or a bit of breakfast. I’m glad I met them.

A knock on the door.

¬Declan, this is DI Johnson. He just wants to ask a few questions. Are you up to it m’dear?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. DI Johnson, Declan’s speech is not that clear due to his facial injuries. He is also on a lot of pain medication. Don’t tire him out, please.

ϙUnderstood. Hello there. OK if I sit down?

He took a notebook out of his pocket, and began asking me about the previous evening. I wasn’t much help. Barely being able to talk aside, I couldn’t remember leaving the club, and nothing of the attack, except the boot coming towards me. It was difficult for me to take in exactly what had happened to me, let alone remembering. Everything from late afternoon and evening was foggy, vague and jumbled. I remembered watching the game, and bits and pieces of the press conference but everything after that was a blur.

DI Johnson picked up a plastic bag he had placed on a chair when he came in. It was a mess of broken bits, the remains of a mobile phone.

ϙDoes this look familiar?

‘Fhone?’

ϙIs it yours?

He held the bag closer to my face. There wasn’t much left, I really couldn’t tell; my phone was pretty nondescript, just black, no fancy cover. If it had been smashed, it could well look like this bag of bits.

‘Duhnuh.’

ϙOK. No problem, it is rather mangled. Can you tell us your number? We might be able to check, if there’s enough left of it.

I couldn’t remember the number, but Rose had it on her phone, and she told him.

ϙWas anyone expecting you to be out in the car park at that time? It would have been sometime around seven o’clock, that’s when you were seen leaving the bar.

I kept telling him, it was all a haze. I suppose he had to ask, but it wasn’t jogging my memory at all.

‘Duhnuh.’

ϙCan’t remember any arrangements with anyone?

‘Nuh.’

He asked a few more details: people I could remember talking to, phone calls or texts I could remember. I really struggled to recall anything useful.

ϙAnyone you can think of who may have wanted to hurt you?

Only about ten thousand Raiders fans.

‘Nuh.’

ϙOK, I’ll leave it there. I may come back if anything turns up on the phone. And if you remember anything else at all, however small, please contact me. Here’s my card.

‘Kay.’

I was pretty exhausted. It had been wonderful – amazing – to see everyone, but I was seriously flagging now. I closed my eyes and drifted away.

Dreaming. I am standing surrounded by people, everyone I know and care about. They start to walk away, in different directions. I can fly. I fly above them and watch them go. The higher I fly, the easier it is to watch everyone at the same time.

Matt

True to his word, Jay was back early enough the next morning that he could sort me out. I wasn’t any more pleasant to him than I had been to Ian, although Jay wasn’t as prepared to put up with it.

‘What the fuck’s the matter with you, Matty? You’re not making this easy, you know.’

‘Sohry if meh bein ihl is suhch an incohvehience.’

‘You know I didn’t mean that. You can help a bit, is all I meant. Try pushing with your arms, at least.’

‘Why dih yuh cahcel Sahly?’

‘What?’

‘Yehsday, sohm blohk cahm.’

‘What, the agency?’

He took my silence as a yes.

‘I didn’t cancel her, I didn’t ask for her, I thought you’d prefer a bloke to wash your bits and pieces.’

‘He wahs shih.’

‘Sorry, mate. I didn’t know you had a preference, although maybe I should have guessed you’d rather have a woman’s hands on your balls.’

‘Fuck. Ohf.’

He’d hit a nerve, unintentionally. There had been absolutely no stirrings from my balls or any other part of my male anatomy since … I couldn’t really remember. Since Carrie left me, certainly. I’d expected to be at least mildly turned on when Sally washed me, but there had been nothing, and it felt wrong.

‘What is it then? I’m not quite sure what I’ve done.’

You’ve just walked all over me without even asking me, is what you’ve done, you’ve just assumed I don’t have an opinion, or rather you’ve guessed what that opinion is, and now you’ve just second guessed it. But I didn’t have the strength, the breath or the courage to say it all.

‘Wanted Sahly.’

It sounded petulant, even to me.

‘Sorry, mate, I’ll remember next time, but I don’t think we’ll need to use them again, we’re not planning on going away again any time soon. Oh, Beth went shopping and got you something, should make life a bit easier for you.’

He went out of the room, and came back in with a cup. It was made of plastic and had a lid with a spout. It looked like something you gave a two year old to drink juice out of. I looked at it with disgust

‘Wha the fuck’s tha?’

‘So you don’t spill so much tea. We’re going to have to buy a new bed if you drop much more.’

‘No Tohtenham ohns left?’

I was actually close to tears, but tried to make light of it, as if having a football team’s logo emblazoned on a baby cup would somehow make it more manly. All the hope that Sally had given me for a quick recovery dribbled away.

‘Ha ha, I don’t think so. Maybe we can get you a sticker, if you’re a good boy.’

And that was the root of it, really, the fact that Jay could joke about me being a child and getting a sticker, when I actually felt like a child, like everyone made decisions around me but not with me. He still thought I was his little brother. Well, I was still his little brother, but I wasn’t still twelve, he wasn’t still the boss of me. Oh, that sounded like I was still twelve.

Then, as always happened, I reminded myself that he had given up his job, his fucking job, and uprooted his family from Devon to come and live in shitty Stafford, although admittedly the nice part, so he could look after me. And I kept my thoughts to myself and drank out of the cup, because it was the least I could do not to spill tea on the bed and break it.

Dec

I came to, gradually, later. Rose was asleep in the armchair by my bed. Did a quick check of my moving parts. Seemed slightly easier, although trying to move set up a chorus of protests from various areas. My mouth felt more a part of me, and I could open my eyes further, although my head was pounding. Couldn’t move my right arm, which was plastered all the way up and ended in the stabbing, tearing pain of a broken collar bone. Tried the left arm. Managed to move it, but my hand was swollen and bruised, and the little finger had a splint and bandage on it, so wiggling any of my fingers was difficult and painful. My elbow bent a bit more than it had this morning. Tried moving my head from side to side. That hurt a lot, and sent shooting pains down my neck, shoulders and back. Moved toes, feet and legs. It hurt, and they were stiff, but everything seemed to work. It also tugged on the tube for my pee, which felt really weird. I wasn’t quite sure what it was or how it was attached, but I decided I wanted it removed as soon as possible.

Thought I might try getting out of bed. I was already in a semi-sitting position, propped up with pillows and the mattress, which had been raised at an angle. I tried sitting more upright, so I would be able to swing my legs over the side. It was slow, painful progress. Every tiny movement set off sharp digs, pulls and stabs from stitches, bruises, broken bones. It was almost like being beaten up all over again.

I had just about pulled myself up into a more upright position when Rose woke up with a start. She looked disoriented for a few seconds, then looked over at me. Frowned.

:What on earth are you up to, love?

‘Wanna gerrup.’

:Whatever for?

‘Neeto gerrouof here.’

:No arguments from me there, love, but if you fall flat on that big ugly broken nose of yours, you’ll be staying for several more days at least, and that’s a fact. You’re woozy on painkillers, only have half a working arm, and who knows if your legs will even stand you up properly. Wait for a nurse to get here, at least, so you can have some proper supervision. Please, Declan. I can see you’re about to argue with me and do it your own way. I don’t think I could bear it if you hurt yourself again. Please.

Unable to go against her pleading, I flopped back on the pillows. That hurt too.

‘Ahsk nuhrse foh meh?’

Rose paused, considering.

:Alright, I’ll go and find someone. Promise me you won’t try it while I’m out the room.

‘Prohmis.’

While she was gone, I tried limbering up by moving as many bits of me as I could. If I got used to how much pain there was going to be before I actually did anything, I might be able to push through it. I had done it in games and in training before, not to this extent, but knew that I had the capacity to ignore pain to achieve a goal. After a while, Rose returned.

:They’ll come and help you in a bit, I think they’re dishing out pills at the moment. Think you can wait?

I sighed.

‘Kay.’

:Anything you want? There’s a little shop downstairs, sells papers, drinks, everything. You missed lunch, they brought something then took it away again.

‘Whatime issit?’

:Half past two.

I had been asleep for several hours. I was really thirsty.

‘Drink.’

:OK, love. Anything particular?

‘Vodka Redbull.’

I tried a cheeky grin.

:In your dreams. Anything doable?

‘Joos. Apple.’

:Right you are, love, I’ll be back in a tick.

Rose hurried out, and I drifted into a doze again. Before I could sleep too deeply, there was a knock on the door. Nurse Michelle. Seemingly the front of house for the Summers function.

¬You have a visitor, if you’re up to it.

‘Who?’

She turned round to someone behind her.

¬What’s your name please?

-Don Barker.

¬Declan?

‘Kay.’

My pulse rate had shot up; I suddenly remembered Rose’s throwaway comment about my newly restored status at the club being affected by my injuries. Thought about feigning sleep, but that was only postponing it, and he already knew I was awake. Don walked in and sat on the chair by the bed.

-Hello Declan. You actually look better than you did last night, although that’s not saying much. How are you?

‘Pruhty shit. Yuh wuhr hehr?’

-I came as soon as Jay rang me last night. You were out for the count though. Do you have any idea who did this?

‘Nuh.’

-Have you spoken to the police?

‘Yuh. Noh much tuh tell. Cahn member.’

-Oh, well, maybe something will come back, these things can take time. Would you –

The door opened, and Rose came back in carrying a bag that seemed full of more than just apple juice. She stopped when she saw Don, who stood up and held out his hand in greeting. Rose ignored it.

-Hello, Don Barker.

:Rose. Who are you?

-I’m Declan’s boss.

Don paused so Rose could tell him who she was. She was returning no such favour. There was a silence. I caved.

‘Ruhz is guhd fruhnd. Joos?’

:Oh, yes, love, here you go.

She emptied the slushie cup, and poured some juice into it. Put the straw in the cup. Held it up to my mouth. I sipped. Heaven.

:Got a few more bits in case you’re hungry. Can’t go missing your lunch. So, Mr Barker, is Declan keeping his job?

I spluttered.

‘Ruhz! Bluhdy hell!’

Don laughed.

-You’re quite direct aren’t you! Fair enough. Yes, Declan will be keeping his job. We’ve got a place for him, all the rehab he’ll need, we’ll keep our end of the bargain if he keeps his.

I sank back with relief. Rose patted my hand.

:Well you wouldn’t have asked, would you love? Best get things out in the open, I say.

Don looked like something had just occurred to him.

-Are you the lady who lives in Declan’s building?

Rose looked wary.

:Yes.

-Ah, I’ve heard a lot about you from Nico. He credits you with keeping Declan together, helping him through the last few weeks, making sure he turned things round so he could stay at Raiders.

:I didn’t have much to do with it –

‘Bolluhks. Cuhdn’t huv dun it wuthout yuh.’

:Well, we’ve helped each other over the past few weeks I suppose. Declan is a lovely lad, he’s been a bit sad and mixed up. Needs someone who understands.

-Well, I think you could be right there. Declan, I’ve spoken at length to Nico and Jay, who are both very worried about you, not just because of this attack, but your state of mind. I’m glad you seem to have mended some bridges with Jay. As part of your rehab, we’d like you to make contact with a psychologist who helps out at the club from time to time. I think there are lots of issues you could sort out that might prevent anything similar happening again.

Rose looked at me.

:Oh love that sounds grand. Someone proper to talk to, get it all off your chest.

‘Got yuh.’

Talking about all my shit to a stranger was the last thing I wanted to be doing.

:I know, love, but I can only do mam chat. Doesn’t solve much. Not like a professional. You can still chat to me, I can still stick my oar in. Why don’t you do this as well?

I really didn’t like the thought of a psychologist, but I wasn’t being given much of a choice.

‘Kay.’

Rose wasn’t finished sticking her oar in today.

:This rehab you mentioned. Do you have physios?

-Yes, the club have several physios, we’ll devise the best prog –

:Are they available today?

-Er… it’s their day off … why do you ask?

:Well, Declan can’t go home until a physio says he can stand up without falling flat on his face. Any chance yours could come down and give him the once over? Might speed things up a bit.

Don laughed again.

-It hadn’t occurred to me. Is he up to going home so soon?

:I think he wants to try, if he can, right love?

‘Yeh. Need tuh gerrouof here.

-OK then, I’ll see if I can contact someone. I’ll have to go outside to use my phone. Back in a minute.

Don shut the door behind him as I left, and I turned to look at Rose.

‘Ruhz, yuhr tehrible.’

:Sticking up for you, that’s all. You’d still be here next Christmas if we did things your way.

‘Thahnks.’

:You’re welcome, love.

Rose showed me the contents of her carrier bag. She seemed to have brought every type of junk food the shop could possibly have sold. Sandwiches, crisps, a nutty energy bar, a pork pie, chocolate. I couldn’t remember the last time I ate – was it lunchtime yesterday? What day was today?

‘Ruhz, what day issit?’

:Sunday, love.

‘Seehms long tihm ago.’

:What does love?

‘Yessday.’

:Well a lot’s happened, hasn’t it. Who’d have thought yesterday morning, when you could hardly speak for thinking it was the end of the world, that you’d have your job back and your family back? How are you now, love? I mean, in yourself. It’s obvious the outside of you’s not up to much at the moment, but when I dropped you off yesterday morning, I was that worried. Now, you seem different, like, I don’t know, a weight’s lifted off.

‘Yeah. Behter.’

I didn’t really have the right words to explain the difference between yesterday morning and now. I’d been falling apart, but somehow, despite everything that had happened, I had been glued back together by keeping my job and finding my family.

: I’m glad to hear it. You’ve been beaten black and blue into the bargain, mind, you’re bound to be feeling a bit out of it. All those knocks to the head aren’t helping either. Oh, love, I wish you could remember what happened. What if they have another go?

‘Lethem try.’

:Well the state you’re in, they’d have no trouble finishing the job, so ten out of ten for bravery, but nothing for common sense. Anyway, what do you fancy out of this lot?

I looked at the pile of food Rose had bought. Didn’t think I’d be able to manage most of it – chewing was a bit beyond me right now, crisps would lacerate and rub salt in too many wounds, nuts too crunchy –

‘Choclut plehs.’

Rose broke off a square and put it in my mouth. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was. As the chocolate melted on my tongue, my mouth filled with saliva, and I became aware of how empty my stomach was. It let out a rumble. Rose gave me a look.

:When did you last eat?

‘Carn member. Lunch yessday?’

:Oh love, what do these people do all day in here? You need sustenance. Try some of this other stuff.

‘Too hard. Carn chew.’

Rose looked stricken.

:I’m sorry, love, I didn’t think. Crisps, what am I like? Right, I’m going to find some proper food if I have to raid the kitchens myself. Assuming these places still have kitchens. Be back in a tick.

And she was off again.

Matt

Jay was sitting in the chair by the bed later, doing some paperwork on his knee as I dozed.

‘Soh wha’s stohry wih the adolehscent?’

Jay looked up, frowning slightly.

‘Dec?’

‘Yeh. Muhm said bihg rihft, then yehsday ahl behter?’

‘Well I suppose that’s a very short way of saying it.’

‘Spihl?’

He sighed. ‘Really? Could take a while.’

It was something of a novelty, Jay having more than five words to say to me at a time, and I wanted to encourage it while it was on offer.

‘Sehm tuh hahv tihm on my hahnds befohr I ruhsh off tuh my nehxt appoihment. Kehp trahk if I nohd ohf, thogh.’

‘OK then. Weren’t we just off to Portugal last time you were down?’

I nodded.

‘Jesus, where do I start? A lot of it we didn’t know till later, but I’ll do my best. Everything was going great, Dec had turned into a good kid, did what he was told, worked hard. Then when we came back from holiday, he was like a different person, he sulked in his room, didn’t talk, ate his meals at different times to us.’

I thought back to how Dec had been last time I saw him, how open he was, how different from the sullen uncommunicative teenager I’d always seen before.

‘Wha was ih?’

Jay told me the long, involved tale of Dec’s indiscretions, misdemeanours and misfortunes, which included some kind of fraud, some kind of theft and some kind of accidental death. Above all, it involved Dec not telling anyone about any of it.

‘I didn’t find out about any of this until, well it all came out on the same day, about an hour after Mum called me and told me she’d found you on the floor of your bathroom.’

‘Shih.’

‘Yeah, well, it wasn’t the best day. By then, he’d moved out, been gone a couple of months, and we hardly saw him, or spoke to him, so the last thing I needed was being landed with all his shit when I just wanted to get up here and see what was going on with you. I was seriously angry, and I told him we were done with him. Then I handed in my notice at Raiders and we were off.’

I’d had no idea how traumatic it had been, and swore again to give Jay an easier time about everything. It would probably last half an hour, but at least I’d sworn it.

‘Buh wha now?’

‘Well, in-between there was a lot of other shit. Do you know Nico?’

I shrugged, not being able to summon the thinking power to trawl through Jay’s rugby-mates contact list.

‘He’s one of the Raiders players. Him and his wife – oh, you know Lis?’

‘Yuhr ex?’

‘Yeah, Jesus, don’t blurt that out in front of Beth though, it doesn’t get mentioned. Anyway, Nico and Lis decided to take Dec under their wing a bit. They told us, but we didn’t want to know, didn’t want to be involved. And Cal got hold of my phone and called Dec while we were out visiting you one time, and I tore him off a strip and probably caused him some kind of emotional trauma. And Cal ran away from the hotel when we were back down in Devon.’

‘Muhm said.’

‘Did she tell you Dec found him?’

I nodded.

‘So it’s been a bit of an action-packed few months, all told.’

‘Sohry.’

Jay’s eyes softened, and he reached over and ruffled my hair.

‘Don’t be yampy Matty, sometimes you have to do what you have to do.’

‘Buh Muhm said ih’s ahl hahpy now.’

I was getting tired, taking all this in, but I wanted to hear the end. I wanted something else to focus on apart from my bloody woes.

‘I wouldn’t say happy exactly, but yeah, something’s happened that’s changed things. Dec was – he’s been beaten up, glassed and kicked in the car park at Raiders. I found him.’

‘Hohly shih.’

‘Yeah. I didn’t know it was him though, just tripped over this bloke, looked down, shitloads of blood, like splattered up the side of a car and running across the ground. This bloke, Jesus, his face was just blood, glass all over the place, his clothes were all cut; you could see gashes through them. He was kind of mumbling, but he stopped after a bit. I got Beth to call an ambulance, and had to stay with him while it came, but then we were still going to come back up here. The police wouldn’t let me go, though, until they’d talked to me, and they kept me bloody ages. Cal was getting seriously bored, we were waiting in one of the suites at Raiders with nothing to do. Then they finally came and talked to us, and asked if I knew the victim. I said I didn’t recognise him, but neither would his mother, so they asked if I knew Declan Summers, and then it twigged. The bloke I’d found on the ground, with his face smashed in, was Dec. Jesus, I was nearly sick. I’m sorry, mate, but I just needed to go to the hospital and make sure he was OK.’

‘Sohkay. Fuck.’

‘Yeah, you could say that. It was weird, though. The night before last, sorry, I’m not telling this very well, God, was it only Friday? Well, Raiders got docked a ton of points because of the passport thing. We were staying with Nico and Lis, and I had a feeling Dec’s name would get a mention, I mean, it was his passport all the fuss was about. I’d said to Beth, beforehand, you’re sure they’re not going to want to talk about Dec, because Lis had been making these ‘maybe you don’t know the whole story’ noises, and I didn’t want to know.

That seemed about right. Jay was never one for facing a confrontation head on.

‘Nico was out when we got there on Friday evening, but when he came back he said he knew we didn’t want to hear it, but Dec was seriously disturbed, like mentally unwell, like the points thing had unhinged him somehow. It worried me, hearing that, and me and Beth talked into the small hours about whether we’d made a mistake cutting him out like we had. Cal really missed him, and so did we, I guess. Anyway, I went to the hospital as soon as I found out, and he was lying there, face all swollen and bruised, stitches everywhere you looked, they broke his fucking arm in three places, nearly broke his jaw.’

Jay’s own jaw tightened as he spoke, and I could see how much it had affected him, how much it was still affecting him to tell the tale.

‘He was medicated up to his eyeballs, so he was virtually unconscious, but I just wanted to be there when he woke up, so he had someone with him. But it took a long time, and while I was sat there waiting, I just realised that we were OK now. We’d been in this bad place, but things were OK. It might take a bit of talking, but we’d get there, things could get back to how they’d been.’

‘Soh is heh cohming tuh lihv up hehr?’

‘Oh fuck knows, Matty, I highly doubt it. We haven’t even talked to him properly, he can hardly speak his face is such a mess. He’s so Raiders, I doubt he’d give it up, and I don’t think he should if things work out for him. Haven’t really got the room, either, although I could always do without my office I suppose. We might ask him up for Christmas, though, if he’s well enough, see how things go.’

I looked at the Christmas tree sparkling in the corner of the room, lights flashing. Cal had been so excited about it being December that he’d apparently wanted a tree in every room as soon as they moved in, but had had to compromise with one in the living room and one in my room.

I hadn’t given Christmas much thought. It was going to be a weird time. Last year I’d been in New York with Carrie, and the world was mine. This year the world had kicked my arse, and it owned me instead. One teenager more or less wouldn’t make much difference to me in life’s grand scheme.

‘Greht.’

‘You won’t have to see much of him, if he comes.’

‘S’fihn.’

Dec

The square of chocolate had melted and slipped smoothly down my throat, but had hardly touched my awakened hunger. I looked longingly at the opened bar that Rose had left on the top of the cupboard. Surely if I was really careful, and did it really slowly, I could just twist round and reach it? My bruised hand wasn’t working great, but I only needed to break a bit off. It wouldn’t take much. Surely.

I inched my legs to the side of the bed. If I could get my legs over the side, the momentum would lift me up into a sitting position on the side of the bed, wouldn’t it? Little by little I moved my left leg nearer to the edge of the mattress. My heel eventually hung over the edge. I moved my right leg next to it. Shoved the left foot with the right and both feet were dangling in space, pulling painfully on all sorts of aches and pains. Feeling the twist in my spine, I braced myself with my left elbow, which didn’t seem to want to bend completely, and gave an almighty heave to push both legs over the side. The combined push of my arm and my legs did indeed manage to sit me up over the side of the bed, but it hurt a lot.

Breathing heavily, and waiting for the throbbing to subside, I sat wondering if a bite of chocolate was worth it. Couldn’t see any way back now. My feet didn’t reach the floor, and there was no way I would be able to get my legs back onto the bed. The bed seemed to be some kind of automatic high-low thing; it was at its highest setting and the controls were nowhere to be seen. The gap between my feet and the floor was only a few inches, but it felt insurmountable, as although my legs were the least injured part of me, I wasn’t sure of them.

Rather than plunging into the relatively unknown, I decided to edge my way along the bed until I was close enough to reach the chocolate. This was more easily thought than done, as I only had one arm to brace myself with, and at the end of that was a bruised hand with a broken finger. The other arm was heavy with plaster, and with every movement I felt the ends of my collar bone scraping together, and the thump of my pounding headache . So, slow progress.

Finally I thought I was close enough to try reaching. I was going to have to stretch forwards and sideways, and possibly twist my hips to the left a little bit.

I’m not sure what happened. I was doing it all really carefully, but all of a sudden my arse was in mid-air, followed shortly by the rest of me, and I was on my way to the floor.

I tried to grab hold of the bed to save myself, but only succeeded in catching my fingers in the sheet and painfully wrenching my right shoulder. My head hit the cupboard, which rocked, and sent the vase of flowers to the floor, where it smashed next to me, closely followed by Cal’s bottle of blackcurrant, the jug of water and the carton of apple juice. The stand with the drip hanging from it started to wobble.

As I hit the floor, everything that had been cut, scraped, broken, bruised or otherwise damaged, protested this new mistreatment. All at once, in a huge burst of pain. I shrieked. The drip stand fell on top of me and the tube was pulled from my arm. Something had happened to the pee bag, which had been strapped to my leg, and it was leaking piss all over me and the floor; something unmentionable seemed to have happened to the tube. I couldn’t move.

I started to cry – big, baby, shocked, hurt tears. Too much to handle. I half expected someone to come running, but no one came. Couldn’t shout. Couldn’t reach the alarm call button. Could only hope Rose would be back soon. Lay there, getting cold, feeling water, blackcurrant, apple juice and piss soaking into my pyjamas. Sniffed back tears.

In time, to my great relief, the door opened. I was in the wrong position to see who it was, but I didn’t care.

°Shit!

A pair of feet wearing brown Chukkas was right by my head. I looked up the legs and beyond, and saw Big. He stood looking at me with a stunned expression.

‘Help.’

°Shit, Captain, I’ll go and get someone.

He ran out of the room and returned quickly with a couple of nurses. They positioned themselves beside me, exclaiming, picking bits of broken vase off my face, standing the drip back up, checking me over. Apart from the indignity of the piss, and the entire situation, I didn’t seem to have sustained further damage.

°Anything I can do?

Big moved close to me again, and something about the combination of his boots and the broken glass caused a flashback.

I was on the ground in the car park again, seeing a brown booted foot coming towards my face.

Back on the floor in the hospital, I flinched away from the nurses, and tried to curl into a ball, crying out in agony as everything hurt all over again. For a short time every stab of pain felt like a punch or kick.

*Hey, hey, steady now, Declan, it’s OK, take it easy. You’re OK. Can you tell us what happened?

*Maybe you’d better come back to see your friend later?

°Sure thing. OK.

I heard the door close.

*Where’s this blood coming from? I thought it was all blackcurrant, but he’s bleeding here, look, and here. The cannula has come out and I think he’s pulled some stitches. And I think he’s pulled on the catheter tube. We’d better get the doctor to check him over before we try and move him.

One of them left. Rose chose this moment to make her re-entrance.

:Oh my – what’s happened? Declan?

‘Rohz, sohry.’

She bent down, pushing the nurse, who was trying to check my pulse, out of the way.

:What have you done?

‘Wanted choclat. Sohry.’

:I told you I was going to find you something. You promised me you wouldn’t try on your own.

‘Sohry.’

:What’s he done to himself? Where’s all this blood coming from?

Rose sounded panicked.

*It’s not blood, it’s Ribena. We’re going to get the doctor to have a look. It doesn’t look like he’s made anything any worse, apart from pulling a few stitches, and a bit of a problem with the catheter. That’s going to hurt for a bit. Declan, I’m going to try to sit you up. You need to get out of these wet things before it ruins your plaster cast. Can you help at all?

I could barely lift my shoulders off the ground, but I did that and felt her arms go underneath, slowly levering me onto her knees, and from there, bit by bit, into a sitting position, leaning back against her. In another lifetime I would have been embarrassed or maybe even enjoyed it but didn’t have the energy for either, and it was so painful.

*Okay, any chance you could lean forwards and support yourself?

Gave it a go. Managed it.

*Great stuff. Right, lets get that top off. Er, are you his mum?

:No love, just a friend.

*Maybe you’d like to wait outside?

:Hm. Well just until he’s changed, then I’m coming back in. OK Declan?

‘Kay.’

The nurse took off my top and wiped me down with some disposable cloths that seemed to be kept in the bedside cupboard.

*Have you got any fresh pyjamas? Let’s have a look – oh, here.

I’d forgotten about the ones that Beth had brought earlier. The nurse pulled the clean shirt over my head, handling the plastered arm with skill and tying the hem of it out of the way of my soaking bottoms.

*Hmm, changing your lower half is going to be a bit more tricky, don’t really want to do that on the floor with all this glass and liquid. We need to get you back on the bed, it’ll need more than just me, and we need to have a bit of a clear up. I’ll get your friend to come and wait while I get someone to help me.

Rose came back in, and knelt down beside me.

‘Mind yohr clothes.’

:Don’t you worry about me. It’s you we need to worry about, love.

She started to pick up the larger bits of glass and put them in an empty carrier bag.

:What are we going to do with you? I’d say your stubborn streak is going to get you into trouble, but it already has so many times it’s not really worth saying. Bet you gave yourself a bit of shock, love. Were you trying to stand up?

‘Noh. Fell off bed. Too high. Cuhdn’t reach’

:So did you even get the chocolate in the end?

‘Noh.’

I started to laugh, an edge of hysteria.

:And look, here it is.

Rose picked up the chocolate bar from somewhere on the floor. It dripped purpley yellow droplets.

:I’d guess you don’t want any of it now?

This also struck me as very funny, and I laughed again. It was very close to weeping. I got myself under control with an effort.

The nurses returned, with a white-coated doctor in tow. He had a quick look in my swollen eyes, checked some reflexes, prodded, poked, asked a few questions, restitched the busted stitches, gave me the all clear, and got the nurses to remove the catheter tube completely, with Rose asked to briefly leave the room again while they did so.

*You’ll have another large bruise on your gluteus maximus – that’s your backside – to add to your collection, but I don’t think you’ve broken anything else.

*So lets have a go at getting you back into bed. We could use a hoist, but how about having a go using those legs? Oh! The glass has been cleared up.

:I did the big bits, but there’ll still be some slivers in the water there. Careful where you’re kneeling –

The door opened again. Don.

*You can’t come in, sir.

-What’s going on?

*Please wait outside.

:Declan’s had a bit of a tumble. I’ll fill you in.

Rose left with Don. The nurses had a discussion about the best way to get me off the floor. They didn’t seem too confident, and were starting to err on the side of a hoist. Didn’t fancy that.

‘Lemme try, plehs.’

*It’s not as simple as that. We don’t want you falling again. You were lucky just now, but you’ve got plenty of injuries as it is –

The door opened.

-Can I have a word? I’ve got two of my physios on the way. They don’t know Declan’s had a fall, but maybe they could help get him back into bed and have a look at his mobility at the same time? Two birds with one stone? They’re literally on their way, should be here any time.

The nurses looked at each other over the top of my head. One shrugged, the other nodded.

*What do you think, Declan? Can you wait a few minutes? We can get a towel for you to sit on.

‘Kay.’

Undignified doesn’t even begin to describe the wait for Pete and Janie, the Raiders physios, to arrive. Sat on a folded up towel, in a purple puddle of piss, while people cleared up around me, cold, feeling very foolish, hurting everywhere, while Rose and Don attempted small talk with the nurse who remained with me, was not an experience I would rush to repeat.

I huddled as small as I could, feeling conspicuous, helpless and stupid. I was sure I was more mobile than everyone was making out, but their protective instincts were in full flight, and I wasn’t allowed to move. I almost wished I’d agreed to the hoist, although I wasn’t quite sure what it was and suspected it would involve me dangling in mid-air somehow.

When Pete and Janie finally arrived, I nearly wept with relief, and was incredibly grateful for their no-nonsense attitude. Don filled them in with the latest developments. They knelt beside me and gave me the once over, carefully moving all my joints to check range of movement, ignoring what they were kneeling in and my soaking pyjama bottoms.

$Blimey, Declan, you look like you’ve been in a fight with the front row. Just stretch your arm out to here … great.

£Can you bend your left knee? Good … and your right one … great. OK, what I suggest is using your quads and knees, which seem in fairly good shape compared to the rest of you, to try standing. We’ll be behind you supporting – you’ve got some tender areas on your back, we’ll do our best but it might hurt a bit.

‘Skay.’

£Good lad. OK then …

Working together, they supported me and guided me slowly to my feet. I could do most of it myself, ignored the pain, wobbled a bit and was glad of their arms holding me steady. The audience of Rose, Don and the nurse made me self-conscious, but I tried to put it out of my mind so I could concentrate on walking. After the initial burst of pain from falling, I had started to feel more physically with-it, and was determined to show them all I could do it.

$Well done, Dec. OK, would someone like to get rid of that towel and mop up the rest of this water? Not a good idea for any of us to slip just now.

The nurse had the mop and bucket ready, and made short work of the remaining mess. She also dried it off with the towel and some paper sheets she had brought from somewhere.

£OK Declan, we’re going to let go just for a few seconds and see how you manage standing unsupported. Ready?

‘Kay.’

£After three …

I stood, unsupported, like I’d been sure I would be able to. Felt great. A bit wobbly, but managed it all on my own, ignoring all the pain as an irrelevant annoyance. Result.

£OK Declan, great stuff, we’re still here. We’re going to try a little walk. Up for that?

‘Kay.’

£This is the easy bit. We’ll have you doing weights in a week or so, you’ll wish you’d stayed in bed …

Pete and Janie supported me again as I took a few steps, then slowly let go. I felt like a complete novice, as if I’d never walked before. This time yesterday I hadn’t given a thought to how my legs worked, now it was taking all my concentration. I started walking. One foot in front of the other. Bloody hurt, didn’t care. I could walk. I could go home. I wobbled to the door. Turned round on my own. Wobbled back to the bed, where the nurse had put another towel. Sat down. Looked at everyone watching me. Grinned a stupid grin.

‘Diddit.’

Got a round of applause. Felt ridiculously proud of myself. The nurse looked at Pete and Janie.

*So what’s the verdict? He has to stay in tonight, but how about tomorrow?

£Well I don’t know about you, Janie, but I think he just needs a bit of practice and he’ll be fine. With all these other injuries, it’s going to take a bit of adjusting, but Declan’s strong, and he can compensate. Keep on trying, Dec, you’ll get your balance and start to feel what you can do and what you can’t. Just watch that right arm, it might throw you off. And, listen to me, do not push yourself too hard.

Janie nodded her agreement.

$If you can get your own physios to sign off first thing tomorrow, I think going home would do him the world of good.

‘Bluhdy right.’

:Oh love, that’s great.

$I’ll email them when I get back, and ring them first thing.

*OK, we need to change Declan’s pyjama bottoms. Everyone out, now.

Once everyone had gone, the nurse changed my pyjama bottoms and gave me a quick wash. She was young and pretty, and this time I quite enjoyed it. She helped me get back into bed, and I managed most of it myself, maybe leaning on her a little more than was strictly necessary. She showed me how to use the controls to lift the bed up and down, and change the position of the mattress, explaining that it was on the high setting earlier to make it easier to care for me on the bed. Now I was obviously more mobile and independent, I could stay down low and get in and out as I wanted.

*I don’t think we’ll put the catheter back in –

‘Yay.’

*– but you’ll need to get to the loo yourself. If you need any help, press the button here. If you see any blood in your pee, let us know straight away. Alright, all done here I think. Shall I send your friends back in?

‘Plehs.’

Rose sat down, pulling her chair next to the bed.

:Your boss and those physios have gone. They said they’re going to email and talk to the hospital physios first thing. I don’t know, they seemed to think you’ll be up and about in no time.

‘Bluhdy will.’

:Oh love, have you seen yourself?

‘No.’

:You’re covered in bruises, plaster casts, stitches. You need to take it easy.

‘Need tuh get moving.’

:That’s what they said. You rugby players are a tough lot, although some might call it stupid.

‘Both.’

She tutted and shook her head.

:Listen, love, I’ve been having a think. Rather than going home to your flat, with the stairs and being on your own and that, how about starting off with me in my spare room? I’d keep an eye on you, keep you out of trouble, make sure –

‘Yes plehs.’

It sounded like the best thing anyone had ever suggested. I really wanted to get out of this bed, out of this room, go home, but to be honest, my flat didn’t feel like home. There was no one there, nothing there, and I’d spent far too much of my time there being in a dark place. Staying with Rose might just help me to get properly back on my feet, in more ways than one.

:Oh love, that’s grand. I thought you were going to argue –

My stomach gave out a large rumble.

:Oh my – I totally forgot your soup! I put it down somewhere when I came in, seeing you on the floor was a bit of a shock. Do you know there’s no kitchen here? One of the nurses gave me her tin of soup, she was going to microwave it for her tea. Lovely girl, she was. Where did I put it, now?

She looked around and located the bowl on the windowsill.

:Stone cold, not that I’m surprised. Shall I heat it up again?

‘Mm, plehs.’

She hurried off again. I lay back and closed my eyes, the day’s events so far had drained me. I had no idea of the time, it must be late afternoon. Drifted for a while before Rose returned with a steaming bowl.

:It’s cream of chicken, would you believe, do you remember that day when you had it with me? Want me to feed it to you?

‘No thanks, I’ll try.’

:OK love, here’s that plastic spoon we used for your slushie. I’ll just give it a rinse.

Eating with my left hand would have been a bit of a challenge under normal circumstances, but the swelling together with a splinted little finger added an extra dimension of difficulty. I spilled a lot down my chin and on the bedclothes. Rose was on mopping stand by and soon put a towel down my front to catch the drips.

:Well I think this will need a bit of practice, love. Maybe we should avoid soup for a while. How is it?

‘Dlishus.’

I finished the bowl, lay back on the pillows and sighed. I had a lot going round my head, today seemed to have lasted forever. Needed some head space.

‘Rose, goh home.’

:No, love, you’re alright, I’ll stay as long as you need me.

‘Plehs, go home.’

She opened her mouth to argue, thought twice, closed her mouth and nodded to herself.

:Well maybe I could be getting on with a few things. You’ll be alright?

‘Fine.’

:Shall I come back tomorrow? You’ll need someone to fetch you home.

‘Plehs.’

:You look done in. Shall I ask them to stop visitors for now?

‘Plehs.’

:Alright, then, love, I’ll leave you to it. Behave yourself. Call me when there’s any news about going home.

She squeezed my arm and left the room. I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. Today had been a crazy day, preceded by two equally crazy days. Starting with the build up to and aftermath of the points deduction on Friday, through the ups and downs of what I could remember of Saturday, I had woken up in hospital today, with some fairly serious injuries. I had learned to talk. Jay, Beth and Cal had visited me; we were going to be OK. I had been visited by the police. I had nearly wrecked my chances of a recovery by falling out of bed. I had learned to walk. I had some pretty amazing people looking out for me. My head was swimming. Nearly forgot I was a worthless piece of shit. Nearly.

By far the most significant item on that list was the visit from Jay, Beth and Cal. I knew I still had a long way to go with them, things were still tentative and fragile, and Jay’s news about Matt made me feel even worse about the way I had behaved, but to know they still cared about me was enormous. I spent a long time dwelling on that. Smiled a lot.

A few less welcome thoughts intruded, including my flashbacks while on the floor. Up until then I hadn’t remembered anything about what happened in the car park, but now bits and pieces kept popping into my head. Nothing substantial, and nothing I would have any confidence in telling anyone. Just flashes – images which set off corresponding pains all over my body. The brown boot heading towards my face continued to haunt me, and this in particular started a hearty throb in my broken nose.

I had time to start to wonder who had attacked me. There was a pretty long list of people who would be justified in holding a grudge – Raiders fans, people I had hassled for loans, players whose careers and prospects I had damaged with the points deduction – but I couldn’t come up with anyone I knew personally who I thought would beat me up, slash my face, break my bones. Who even knew if it was connected? I had no memory of it, and nobody seemed to have witnessed it. Maybe I got into an argument or a fight in the car park about something totally random. Saturday had been a pretty full on day, it wouldn’t have taken much to push my buttons – although it had been years since I’d felt the need to throw my fists around to make a point. I tried to force my memory but it remained stubbornly blank.

20. Hope in front of me

In which Dec and Cal find out what happens when you bounce on the bed, and explanations are attempted.

Dec

Noises, voices, pain, blurred, sleep, jumbled dreams. Dreamt Jay and Beth and Cal had been here.

Woke up suddenly. Sound of running water. Couldn’t open my eyes. Back hurt. Head hurt. Arms hurt. Legs hurt. Shifted position to continue inventory. Agony. May have screamed, or it may have been in my head. This was the worst fucking hangover I’d ever had. I thought I wasn’t supposed to drink? Why had I been drinking? Don was going to be so pissed off. I tried to open my eyes and look at where the sound of water was coming from, but my head started pounding and I groaned.

¬Oh hello. You’re back with us then. Just in time. I’m going to bathe your eyelids. Get some of this crusty stuff off. Might help you open your eyes. Lovely sunny day out there, shame for you to miss it.

Tried speaking, to whoever it was. She sounded friendly enough.

‘Phlwuthchst.’

Shit, what the fuck was wrong with my mouth? I could hardly speak, and when I tried, it hurt like a bitch.

¬I think you’ll need me to bathe your mouth too. Then you can tell us what you really think.

Whoever this was had the right idea. I needed to start talking, so I could ask some questions. If only I could think what the questions should be. Felt something warm and wet dabbing at my eyes. Stung like crazy. Whoa, this was the weirdest hangover ever. Winced. That hurt even more. What the fuck was happening to me? I tried to move my head away, felt a hand on my cheek, steadying me.

¬Sorry m’dear, won’t take long. Keep still.

Did as I was told, hoping things would become clearer in time. Images from before began to flutter into my head. Sounds, voices – Cal. Jay. Had I dreamed it? Or had Jay, Beth and Cal really all been here, with me?

‘Cckchll’

¬Wait a bit, m’dear, not quite there yet.

‘Vthhh’

¬I see we’re going to have some trouble with you. Bit of patience please.

‘Zshhay’

¬I know, I know, I’m going as fast as I can. OK, that’s your eyes done, have a bit of a go opening them. Slowly, it might hurt.

Again, did as I was told. Through a small opening, beyond the blur of my eyelashes, I saw a blonde woman peering into my face. She was wearing a white tunic. She was pretty. Her name was Michelle, and she was a nurse. It said so on her name badge. Jay’s voice drifted across my memory …

łAh mate, you’re in hospital.

Tried to remember more, but everything was jumbled up and confused. I was in hospital? Bit more than a hanger, then? Tried to remember what I’d been doing to end up here, but it was a blank. Wait, I saw Don yesterday, he told me I’ve still got my job – started to smile at that, but it hurt so much I stopped moving my mouth. The nurse was still looking at me.

¬Hello! Very good m’dear. Your eyes are still very swollen, so it’ll be a while before you can open them the whole way. But not bad for a first try. It should get a bit easier now we’ve got all the gunk off.

She smiled and turned back to a bowl on a trolley.

¬OK then, mouth next.

She dipped some cotton wool into water in the bowl and dabbed it across my lips. She was gentle, but it still stung a lot. What had happened to my mouth? And my eyes? Why did I need a nurse? I was still fuzzy, couldn’t work it out, I tried to think about it, but the stinging from whatever was on the cotton wool was too distracting. Some of the liquid dribbled between my lips. It tasted vile and it stung to buggery. The cotton wool came away red. The nurse discarded it and got another bit.

¬Alright there?

Couldn’t speak, so nodded as much as I could, which wasn’t much.

¬Goodo, let’s keep going then. Nearly finished.

Three more bits of cotton wool later, and she was done.

¬OK, that’s that. Have a bit of a move of your lips if you can, see how it feels. Couldn’t do it before we got rid of the crusty stuff, in case it split again.

Did as I was told. I was getting good at it. Tongue felt huge and furry. Lips very painful, bruised, split and swollen. It all felt very disconnected from my face.

¬Like a drink?

Fuck, yes! I was parched. A drink suddenly seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had.

‘Mm.’

¬Ok, then, let’s sit you up.

She pressed some button somewhere that made the bed sit up underneath me.

¬Start with water. Here you are.

She held out a plastic tumbler, with a straw in it.

¬Small sips, please.

Even though it hurt to suck, it was the most delicious drink ever. Felt it running across my swollen tongue and down my throat. Sipped and sipped until the glass was empty. She took it away from my mouth.

¬Try now – would you like to say a few words?

From between my filmy eyelids I saw her hold an invisible microphone up to my mouth. All my questions fought briefly for dominance, but it seemed I needed above all to know if what I remembered from last night was real. Had they all really been here or was it some kind of dream torture? Nothing was clear in my head, it was all scrambled. How the fuck was I going to ask?

‘Hee …’

Stopped in frustration. My mouth wasn’t making the right shapes to say the word.

¬No rush, take your time.

‘Hhshay.’

Bloody hell this was difficult.

‘Ghshay.’

Shook my head. Tried again.

‘Gshay.’

Better.

‘Shay.’

Best I was going to do.

‘Shay. Mm. Shay.’

After all that, she looked puzzled.

¬Alright, might take a bit of guess work, I’ll give it a go. Want me to say something? No. Ask me about something?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. Where am I, what am I doing here, isn’t that what they do in the films?

No response from me. I did want to know what I was doing here, but there was something more important I needed to know.

¬Sorry, flippant. OK, have another go.

It was worse than frustrating. Tried another tack.

‘Vsstrrs’

¬Ooh, visitors?

At last.

‘Mm.’

¬Well I’m glad we sorted that one out. You’ve had quite a few visitors since you came in yesterday. Want to know about that?

Sagged with relief. Now I was getting somewhere.

‘Mm.’

¬OK, let’s see, I wasn’t on when you were admitted, but when I got here you had a family with you.

That was it. Surely it must be them? Hope and caution battled in me. Don’t get carried away, it can’t be possible.

‘Mm. Mm.’

¬Hey, we got there, that didn’t take long. The mum and little boy left earlier on, but the dad stayed until we moved you in here, a couple of hours ago. What else did you want to know?

Tried to say where are they, but only ended up blowing bad breath over the bedclothes.

¬Wondering when they’re coming back?

Or if. But when would be better.

‘Mm.’

¬I’ll see if I can find out. Might be something on your file. Depends if they talked to the charge nurse before they left. Won’t be a tick.

She walked briskly out of the room. Left to myself, I sank into the pillow. Looked up through the gap in my eyelids to the ceiling. Couldn’t face thinking about whether they had really been here, or what it might mean if they had.

Started to catalogue the pain, trying to work out what the fuck had happened to me. I hurt pretty much everywhere. Face felt giant, and there seemed to be something stuck to my nose. Scalp hurt. Back shrieked. Couldn’t move my right arm. Glanced down. Plaster from knuckles to shoulder, sleeve cut off. Left arm, blackened hand peeking out of long sleeved pyjama top, sore and swollen. Metal splint on little finger. Tube from a drip on a stand by the side of the bed disappeared up my left sleeve. Tried to bend at the elbow. Stopped trying pretty quickly. Looked down at feet, humps under the bedclothes. Terrified I wouldn’t be able to move them. Tried an experimental toe-wiggle. Pain shot up my shins as I saw movement under the blankets. Moaned in pain and relief.

Checklist of body parts taken, but really none the wiser as to how I got here in this state, I looked beyond the bed. I was in a room on my own, bed, two chairs, a bedside cupboard with a vase of flowers. A card with a stegosaurus on it that said Hope Your Recovery is Dinomite. It was the sort of thing Cal might have chosen, but I couldn’t reach it to see who it was from. Painting of a tree screwed to the wall. A small window looking onto the side of a building. A patch of blue sky. In the corridor outside the door, footsteps, voices.

¬…that’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.

I looked at the door through the rapidly expanding slit in my vision, heart beating fast with expectancy. Thought my heart might burst with relief and joy when Cal ran into the room, followed by Beth and then Jay. Tried a smile, no idea what shape my lips made.

Cal

Because we were in a rush, we went out without me having my juice, and I asked a few times on the way if I could have a drink. Maybe I asked a lot of times. So when we got to the hospital and passed the shop near the door, Mum went in and got some purple squash that we could fill up with Dec’s water, and she picked up some pyjamas on the way to the till to pay. I hoped they weren’t for Dec, because it wasn’t a very exciting present, and I told Mum that Dec might like a Mars bar instead, so he could share it with me, but Mum said no. So I thought of something else.

‘I think Dec would like a magazine, Mummy.’

‘Oh, really, Cal? Any magazine in particular?’

‘This dinosaur one has got a toy of the front.’

‘Yes, I can see. How about you give Dec the magazine, but keep the toy?’

I could hardly believe my luck. I hadn’t even had to be that sneaky. And Dec would like the magazine; he talked to me about dinosaurs all the time. If I was really lucky, he’d say I could keep the magazine as well.

We walked along the corridors and up the stairs; there were loads of interesting things to see, like a lady on a big bed with wheels who had a plastic mask over her face, some people wearing all green running and shouting ‘get out of the way’, and someone in a wheelchair with a big bag on a pole like Dec had, only it was being wheeled along by the side of the chair. I didn’t have time to ask about one thing before I saw the next – it was a lot more exciting than Uncle Matty’s hospital.

And then we got to the place where Dec had been last night, but Dad took us round the corner, saying that Dec had gone into his own room early this morning, just before Dad had come back to go to sleep. We saw a nurse come out of a room, and Dad stopped her.

‘We’ve come to see Declan Summers. It’s not too early is it?’

The nurse looked at Dad with her head on one side.

‘Are you family?’

‘Ye … es.’

‘Oh, you were here last night, weren’t you. OK, that’s fine, then. He hasn’t been awake long, but I’ve just bathed his eyes and his mouth, he might even be able to talk to you.’

‘How is he?’

‘He was a bit disoriented, which is to be expected, and very battered and bruised, as I’m sure you know, but his CT scan showed nothing to worry about, and with a bit of luck he’ll be able to get back to normal.’

‘Oh James, that sounds great, doesn’t it. We’ve brought him his own pyjamas, I hope that’s OK.’

The nurse stepped towards the door she had just come out of, and opened it.

‘That’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.’

I ran in the room, wanting to see what Dec looked like this morning, and keen to show him the dinosaur magazine. Dec was sitting up in his bed, and although his eyes were swollen almost shut with bruises, they were open, and he was looking at me. His mouth moved, and I thought he might be trying to smile.

‘You’re in a different room please can I have some purple squash?’

‘Cal! Sorry Dec, he’s been saying he’s thirsty all the way here. We got you some blackcurrant squash, by the way, hope you don’t mind sharing. And some pyjamas. You don’t have to share those.’

Mum bent down and kissed Dec on the cheek while I stood at the side of the bed and looked at him. Then Mum made me a purple squash and I sat on the chair and drank it all in one go, waiting to see what would happen next.

Dec

Beth bent down and kissed me on the cheek. Bloody hell it hurt, but no way was I going to show it. Would have hugged her if either of my arms could have moved. She opened the bottle, poured some into a glass, filled it with water from a jug on the top of the cupboard, and handed it to Cal. He drank in big, noisy gulps, and started to wipe his mouth on the back of his hand when he’d finished, before he caught Beth’s eye and took the tissue she held out to him, as she looked at me and spoke.

_The nurse said you were talking.

‘Mm.’

_Although not long speeches yet I see.

She was being bright and breezy, but her eyes were wary. Jay was hanging back, looking tired, a guarded look in his eyes, tense and ill-at-ease. But it was so, so unbelievably good to see them. I felt like they could be dream people, about to disappear in insubstantial wisps. Still no idea what had happened to make them be here.

‘Gutuhsyu.’

A pause while Beth tried to translate.

_Sorry, Dec, you’re going to have to try again. Haven’t got my ‘I’ve been hit by a truck’ head on yet.

Had I been hit by a truck? The state of my body said yes. Memories from yesterday were vague and fragmented. No idea how I’d ended up here in this state, and as my brain started to wake up a bit, I was starting to worry.

Cal

I wasn’t sure why Mum thought Dec had been hit by a truck, when even I remembered he’d been hit by a bad man, but I was as good at understanding Dec as I was at understanding Uncle Matty, so I told her what he had said.

‘He said, ‘good to see you’. I heared him.’

Mum looked at Dec as if she didn’t think I could possibly have got it right, but Dec confirmed it.

‘Mm.’

Just to make it clear that I knew what I was talking about, I told them what that meant, as well.

‘That means yes.’

Dec

_It’s good to see you too, Dec. But not like this, so…

She waved her hand vaguely over the bed, and with horror I saw tears fill her eyes. Jay came over and put his arm round her protectively.

Cal, saviour of us all:

\do you like your dinosaur card?

‘Mm. Fm yu?’

\of course it’s from me. Stegosauruses are the best ones. I choosed it from the shop downstairs. It says ‘Dinomite’ but it’s spelled wrong on purpose so it looks like dinosaur. Mummy buyed it. And a Mars bar but I ate it. And some flowers, the nurse put them in a pot. We got you some squash today because I was thirsty. And a dinosaur magazine. Do you want to see it?

‘Mm. Luvtuh.’

\you can’t have the toy on the front, but you can see the picture of the triceratops in the middle, it’s awwwwesome.

Without warning, he launched himself onto the end of the bed, bouncing the mattress. There was such a protest of pain from every part of my body I couldn’t help myself shouting out:

Fuck!

Cal

I stopped dead, mid-crawl. Dec was not allowed to swear when I was nearby, and he had just shouted the baddest word I knew, very loud. He didn’t even look sorry, he just looked like he was breathing fast, and trying not to say it again. Mum didn’t even tell him off.

‘That was a very big swear.’

I wasn’t sure why no one had said anything; this should have earned Dec at least an ‘honestly Dec’, but Mum didn’t even look cross.

‘Yes, sweetheart, I understood that one. I think Dec means that he would like you to get off his bed and stop bouncing.

‘Mm.’

It seemed that Dec being hit by bad men changed quite a lot of things.

‘Let’s pull this chair next to the bed, you can sit here and show him your magazine. OK Dec?’

‘Grut.’

‘That means great.

‘Yes, Cal.’

I sat on the chair and held the magazine up so Dec could see. I couldn’t really tell if he was looking, because his eyes were nearly shut, but his head was pointed towards the pages and he did little nods every now and then as I turned over the pages. It wasn’t quite the same, because usually Dec would have been talking to me, and telling me stories about the pictures, making up names like ‘Terence the Pterodactyl’ and ‘Howard the Hadrosaur’ to make me laugh, but this time I did all the talking, because it hurt Dec to speak.

Dec

He flicked over a few pages, explaining what all the pictures were of, just like he would have done all those months ago when everything was normal and they still cared and I wasn’t in a hospital bed hardly able to move.

I was still trying to work it all out, looking from Cal to Beth to Jay, when I heard voices outside, one raised in protest, one stating intent.

¬You can’t go in, he’s already got three visitors, you’ll have to wait for someone to come out. There’s a chair here, look. I’m sure they won’t be long.

:Look, love, I’ve come all the way from across town, on my day off, on the bus, and you’re not stopping me. I’ll sort it out in there, you don’t have to worry.

‘Rz.’

Cal looked up at me, puzzled. The door opened.

¬You can’t just –

But she could, and she did. The nurse hovered at the door, looking at me. I tried to nod that it was OK, as Rose bustled forwards. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, and for the second time that day I saw eyes fill with tears. No more crying over me, please. Couldn’t take it.

:Oh love, look at you.

She came over to hug me. Didn’t think I would survive one of Rose’s envelopings.

‘Nnuh.’

Cal

As Mum stepped forwards, hands out ready to stop her, I realised why Dec didn’t want the cuddle. He didn’t want to do a big swear to this lady.

‘That means no.’

The lady stepped back, and looked at me, Mum and Dad.

‘Rz. Hh.’

Rose looked at Dec again, her mouth open a little bit.

‘Sry. Hrts.’

I thought she might not know what Dec was saying, so I told her what he meant.

‘Dec can’t talk properly. He said he’s sorry it hurts. He means if you cuddle him he might cry, or say a big swear. I jumped on his bed and he said a very big swear.’

The lady looked at me and smiled.

‘Well thank you young man, I see you speak Declanese. He says a lot of big swears, he seems to quite enjoy it. It might not have been your fault, love.’

I grinned at the lady. I liked that she called Dec’s way of talking ‘Declanese’.

Dec

‘Rz. Shay. Vth.’

I tried to direct her gaze with my eyes, but she probably couldn’t see much of them underneath my swollen eyelids. She looked at Cal, already trusting him to know what I was saying.

\I don’t know what Rz means. Jay is my Daddy and Beth is my Mummy.

Light dawned in Rose’s eyes and she glanced quickly at both of them, then back at Cal.

:I can help you there. I think Rz must be me. I’m Rose.

She looked at me, eyes shining; she looked as happy as I felt.

:Oh Declan, they’re here, love.

She turned to face Jay and Beth.

:You’re Declan’s family, aren’t you. I didn’t know you’d … you must have … didn’t know you were here. Oh, there’s grand now. He’s told me lots about you all.

\what did he tell you about me?

Rose turned back to Cal.

:Well, let’s see now. You must be Calum. Declan says you really like dinosaurs. You’re very good at football and your team is … er … Arsenal?

\who’s my favourite player?

Cal was relishing his role as official examiner.

:Oh, er …

Seeing mild panic behind Rose’s eyes, I ventured

‘Thuh Wct.’

:No chance, love, but thanks for trying. Sorry, love, I expect he told me, but I’m not much good at footballers.

\what did he say about Mummy and Daddy?

łThat’s enough, Cal.

It was the first time Jay had spoken since he came into the room. Rose spoke to Cal, but directed her words at Jay.

:He’s alright, love. I’ll tell you, shall I? Declan told me your mam and dad were like the best family he could ever have wanted. He told me he did some wrong things, and wishes he hadn’t because losing his family has made him so sad and it’s made a lot of trouble for everyone, and meant he couldn’t see you and your mam and dad any more. He also told me that your mam makes really good roast potatoes, better than mine he says, although I find that hard to believe, and your dad drives too fast, which I think Declan quite likes.

Cal

Dec really had told Rose everything about us. Dad really did drive fast, and Mum really did cook roast potatoes. I didn’t even know who Rose was, I’d never seen her before, but I wondered if Rose was Dec’s mum, although I thought he didn’t have a mum. Before I could ask, Rose started talking again. She talked a lot. She wanted to know what had happened to Dec, but Mum wasn’t just going to tell her without permission from Dec.

‘If that’s OK with Dec.’

Mum looked at Dec, checking. I don’t think she knew who Rose was either.

‘Mm. Rzs gd frnd’

‘He said Rose is a good friend.’

‘Thank you sweetheart, I think Dec’s getting a bit easier to understand. OK, well, lovely to meet you Rose. Actually, Nico told us a lot about you, how you’ve looked after Dec. Thanks for what you said. It means a lot to James and me.’

So she did know who Rose was. I would have to ask later if she was Dec’s mum.

‘As for what’s happened, well, Cal, why don’t we go and get you a slushie, and Rose and Daddy and Dec can have a talk?’

I was torn between wanting a slushie, and maybe other things if I asked enough times, and wanting to stay and find out what Dad said to Rose.

‘But they won’t understand Dec if I’m not here.’

‘I think they’ll be OK. Green or blue slushie?’

Dec

He skipped out of the room with Beth.

\green. And can I have Monster Munch…

Cal’s list of requests faded into the distance. Jay and Rose talked while I lay back and let them. I didn’t know how I had ended up here, most of it was very hazy, a lot of it was missing. Now I’d had a chance to think, I could remember everything up to leaving the little office to go to the press conference, then there were fragments, shards I didn’t really want to explore as they mostly held pain.

A sudden recollection of lying helplessly on the ground watching a boot approach my face. Maybe not a truck then.

I tried to focus while Jay told Rose about finding me in the car park at Raiders Stadium, half underneath a car. He had only called at the club to drop off some paperwork on his way back up the motorway, and had nearly tripped over me. He hadn’t recognised me, so bloody and battered was my face. He had to talk to the police before they would let him drive back, and it wasn’t until they asked him if he knew me, that he realised. They had come to the hospital straight away, Jay had sat with me all night, Beth and Cal staying with Nico and Lisa.

łThey moved him to this room late last night, or more like early this morning – only a couple of hours ago, actually. Apparently the police thought it might be a good idea. Think it might be some kind of payback for the – I don’t know how much you know –

He looked over at me.

‘Rz kns vrythng.’

łOK then, payback for the points Raiders lost because of the passport thing. Lots of angry people, but nobody knows who did it.

:Well I’m glad you were here, love, I’d have hated to think of him being alone.

łI think Dec’s had quite a few visitors, not that he’d remember many of them, he’s been pretty much out of it since he came in. Massive dose of painkillers, as well as the bangs to the head. The doctor said he might not remember much about any of it. He woke up for a short time last night, but they whacked more meds in and he was out for the count again. Not surprised he’s been lazing around half the morning.

:He is a bit of a lazy sod.

‘Pss ff’

:Well that came out loud and clear, love. So, what’s the damage? I can obviously see his face, don’t know if you’ve seen yourself yet, love, you’re a bit of a sight. Plenty of time for that, now. And a broken arm. Anything more serious?

łI don’t know if I can remember the full list. He seems to have been hit over the head with a bottle, they had to pick glass out of his cuts before they stitched them. He was unconscious for a while, but they didn’t think any permanent damage, though how would they ever tell, eh Dec? Some of the cuts were fairly deep, looks like a glassing, but nothing major severed. And nothing internal that they could find. But they’re being careful. He’s been punched and kicked, probably while on the ground. Lots of bruises, lots of stitches, you can see all that. Broken collar bone – might need an operation on that. Thought he might have a broken jaw, but just badly bruised. Broken nose – that can only improve his looks. Can’t look at his eyes properly yet, but they think just bruising and swelling. Broken little finger, looks like someone stamped on his hand, you can see the footprint, look…

They both inspected the damage. I could only concentrate on two pieces of information. I had been beaten up, or kicked, or something. And Jay, Beth and Cal were here. They were all here, and talking to me and looking like they cared about me and might not want me to fuck off and die. It felt fragile, though, as if it might shatter any second and leave me back where I’d been.

ł… kind of tube in for his pee at the moment – he’s been pretty heavily medicated and they couldn’t get him to the loo. Bit undignified, eh, Dec?

So that was what that weird sensation had been. Hadn’t been able to explore due to two non-functioning hands.

łHe’s been pretty lucky. Could have been a lot worse.

Not sure my pains agreed with him.

:Especially if you hadn’t found him. Oh, love. Who did this to you?

She shuffled her chair closer to the bed and tried to find a part of me to touch that wouldn’t hurt. She failed, but it was OK. I had no answer to her question.

:I don’t know what to say, love. After everything that’s happened to you. It’s so unfair.

łBloody good job he plays rugby. He’s fit and strong. He’ll heal quickly. Seen worse than this after a collision with a loose-head, eh Dec? He’ll be back in training in a few weeks.

Rose laughed.

łI’m serious! He won’t be allowed to sit around feeling sorry for himself. He’ll be back in training soon as his breaks have healed. Maybe before.

Rose harrumphed a bit and the set of her jaw told me what she thought of that.

:Well we’ll see now, I s’pose, won’t we.

There was a brief pause. Rose looked determinedly at Jay, who looked back with an amused expression on his face. Rose changed tack.

:Now, look here. Declan knows I’m an interfering old busybody –

‘Struh.’

:No, don’t you try and deny it, love. Anyway, what I want to know is, you being here with your family, is everything put right now with the two of you?

There was a weighty silence. I hardly dared breathe, although I continued to do so noisily through my swollen nose. Jay looked down at his hands. Then at Rose. Then at me. I shut my eyes completely. Would have shut my ears if I could have. Really didn’t know if I could take his answer. He took a deep breath. Blew it out. I felt like everything was balancing on what Jay said now.

łAlright then. I don’t know if this is the right time or place, Dec, but I think I need to say this. You really messed up. You pissed all over me and Beth, you pissed all over Raiders. We couldn’t understand it. Still don’t think I really get it. I thought we were finished, you and me. Well, you know, I said it all before.

The searing pain of being dismissed by Jay in the car park cut through me again. I almost gasped at the memory.

łCouldn’t even say your name, didn’t talk about it, I was so angry about everything, what you’d done, what you’d lied about. When Cal rang you that time, I was so mad at him, he stopped asking me about you too. God knows what that did to the poor little sod. Jesus, what a mess. Anyway, then you found Cal when he ran away, and, I dunno, it changed something. Started talking to Beth, we started talking about you, still thoroughly pissed off, but wondering why you’d done it all … thinking up reasons, maybe it was this, maybe that, maybe if we’d said … whatever. Then Friday we came to stay with Nico and Lis, and Nico came back and told us what a state you were in; he thought you were close to doing something daft to yourself.

Had I been? Friday night was a bit of a blur. I’d been in a state, no doubt about that, but the details weren’t easy to grasp onto.

łHe rang some psychiatrist he knows to talk about you, I think he nearly got someone to come and have a look at you. I was worried about you, for the first time in a long time. It felt weird. Beth and I talked all night, trying to decide how we were feeling. Didn’t reach any conclusions. Then something like this happens, and, shit, I dunno … turns out, we still care after all. Can’t ignore that. You’ve been a prick. But there it is. I think family stays family, in the end. Or something like that.

Wait, was Jay saying, actually saying out loud, that I was part of his family? It had never been actually said before, hadn’t needed to be before everything went tits up.

łWhat Rose just said about you telling her we’re your family, and you thought you’d lost us, that’s helped. We felt like you’d thrown all that back in our faces, didn’t want us or need us any more, so knowing you think of us as family too is really important. Dec, I really don’t understand what’s been going on with you the last few months. But I think I want to, need to. Probably need some kind of bloody deep and meaningful as soon as I can understand what the fuck you’re saying, mate.

Couldn’t speak. Even if my mouth had been working, my throat had closed with emotion. Tears leaked excruciatingly out of my eyes and stung various parts of my face on their way down. Rose patted my arm gently. The balance had tipped; it felt like things with Jay might be starting to be OK.

:I’m very glad to hear it, love. Now, what I want to know-

Cal

Mum held her hand out, and the slushie won.

‘Green. And can I have Monster Munch and another Mars Bar? And can we see if they’ve got a Lego magazine?’

Mum laughed. ‘Slow down, Cal. We’ll get the slushie first, shall we, and see how it goes.’

All the way to the shop, I asked Mum questions about Dec. Now it was OK to talk about him, there was a lot I wanted to say.

‘Why can’t Dec talk properly?’

‘You saw his mouth, sweetheart, it’s very swollen and it must hurt a lot. Remember when you shut your finger in the door and it swelled up and wouldn’t bend?’

I nodded. My finger had gone purple and blue and doubled in size. And it had hurt. A lot.

‘That’s what’s happened with Dec’s mouth. It will get better, he’ll get more used to speaking with swollen lips, and the swelling will go down.’

‘Is the bag with water in it for Dec to drink through his arm?’

‘That’s right, clever boy, do you remember from the one Uncle Matty had? Dec hasn’t been able to drink for himself, or have anything to eat, so they put special water in the bag so he doesn’t get hungry or thirsty. There’s a bag under the covers to take Dec’s wee away too, so he doesn’t have to get up to go to the loo.’

I remembered Uncle Matty’s wee bag; I had been very interested in that as well. Why didn’t everyone have one? It would save all sorts of complications. I was so interested that I asked more questions, even though I knew the answers.

‘Does his wee bag come out of his arm?’

‘No, there’s a tube coming out of his willy.’

Oh. Suddenly I remembered why everyone didn’t have one. Time for another question.

‘Mummy are we cross with Dec?’

‘Oh Cal. I know this is confusing for you. Alright, let’s see if I can explain. Dec did some things that made me and Daddy cross and disappointed. We’re still trying to understand why he did them, but I think Daddy and me feel more like helping Dec than being cross with him at the moment. He looks like he could do with some help, doesn’t he?’

‘Will he have to share my room?’

‘What?’

‘When he lives in our house.’

Mum walked on for a bit, not saying anything.

‘Let’s just wait for him to get better first, Cal. Look, there’s the shop. Go and ask for your slushie.’

I ran over to the counter and asked. Mum paid, and then thought it might be good to get some snacks for the journey home. I, of course, had lots of helpful suggestions, and Mum soon had a full basket.

I had been sipping my slushie through the straw while I waited for Mum to pay, and the ice had numbed my lips. I thought about when my finger hurt, and then about Dec’s mouth, and it made me wonder …

‘Mummy, does Dec’s mouth hurt?’

‘I expect so, sweetheart.’

‘If he had some slushie, would it make it stop hurting?’

Mum stopped and looked at me.

‘What a brilliant idea! Would you like to share your slushie with him?’

I’d been thinking more along the lines of getting him his own, but Mum was big on sharing, and I nodded my reluctant agreement.

‘Can we go and give it to him?’

‘Just let me finish paying, sweetheart, then we’ll hurry back.’

I had a few slurps of slushie before leaving the shop, just in case Dec drank the lot, and then we started back to Dec’s room, me holding the cardboard cup with one hand and Mum’s hand with the other.

Dec

What Rose wanted to know was interrupted by the door opening and Nico striding in, closely followed by Nurse Michelle and Lisa.

>Ha, you see, you say four people, but only there is two. And one of them is Rose, she is very small and quiet, she is no trouble. I am trouble if I don’t get in this room – but, ha, I am in. Thank you Michelle, you are very helping.

Lisa was watching from the rear, with a half resigned, half amused look on her face.

~I’m so sorry, he’s always like this. We’ll be quick, and quiet, promise.

Michelle gave Nico a look that was a mixture of scowl and flirty smile.

¬Well alright then, but really quick, the police want to see him, and then I think he needs some peace and quiet.

>Thank you. You are beautiful.

He blew her a kiss. The force of nature that was Nico Tiago. Michelle raised her eyebrows at Lisa and shut the door on her way out. Nico turned to his audience and bowed. Jay gave him a slow handclap, Rose sat and looked at him, mouth slightly agape, until he gave her a huge hug.

>Ah Rose, I am so happy you are here, you get my message. I worry you not know about Declan. This is Lis, my beautiful wife, I tell her all about you. I think you like her.

Lisa and Rose smiled at each other. I was keeping a low profile, trying to get my emotions under control, not succeeding. Nico turned to me, and the fun went out of his face. Lisa was looking at me with horror, a hand over her mouth. I looked away to avoid the inevitable eyes filling with tears. Nico put an arm round her.

>OK baby? I tell you he look bad. Declan, how are you? You look not so horrible as last night, but horrible still. Who did this?

‘Ownno.’

łDec’s needing translations from Cal at the moment, Nico. But I don’t think he knows who did it.

Jay raised his eyebrows at me.

‘Mm.’

łWe can work out the yeses. So I guess we can talk by process of elimination. Oh, and he can say ‘fuck’ and ‘piss off’ pretty clearly. Funny that. And other things are getting clearer slowly, but it’s still a fairly limited vocabulary.

On cue, my mini-interpreter burst into the room, carrying a large cardboard cup with a straw.

Cal

As we got close to Dec’s room, I started to run, eager to see Dec again and make him talk better. I ignored Mum telling me to walk, or failing that to hold on tight to the cup, and pushed the door to the room open.

‘Dec, drink some slushie. It’s icy. Your voice will come back. Will it go green in your wee? Can I see your wee bag?’

‘Cal! Dec’s wee is private. Sorry, Dec, he’s just so curious about everything.’

Disappointingly, this meant I wouldn’t get to see Dec’s wee bag, or any green slushie wee, so I took the cup to him and put the straw in his mouth. Mum fussed about a bit, and then everyone decided that Dec needed a spoon instead of a straw, but in the end Dec got mouthfuls of slushie, and managed to talk better, although I was right and he had the whole cup to himself.

Dec

Cal shoved the drink under my nose, the straw sticking painfully into a sore area above my lip.

_Careful Cal, look, hold the straw like this so Dec can sip. Sorry, Dec, we had this idea that the ice would soothe your throat and might make it easier for you to talk. You don’t have to.

‘Sskay.’

>I think it work already, Declan talk!

Cal noticed Nico for the first time.

\nico, Dec can talk but only I can understand him.

>I know this, Cal. But I like your way to help Declan to talk.

\i already helped him once. I jumped on the bed and made him say a really bad swear.

>Ha! I would like to try this. You show me how, maybe later. I am bigger than you, maybe he say even badder swears.

While Cal’s eyes grew round at the thought of badder swears than ‘fuck’, Beth had positioned the straw so I could sip the slushie. Although sucking hurt the muscles in my face and pulled painfully on my lips, it was worth it for the combined pleasure and relief of fluorescent green ice slipping over my tongue and down my throat. I could feel it taming the fire in my throat, most of which was thirst. I closed my eyes and moaned with relief.

~Dec, would a spoon be easier? You’ll get more in that way, yeah?

Brilliant idea. I looked gratefully at Lisa.

‘Mmmm.’

:I’ll go and sort it out.

Rose hurried off to commandeer a spoon. I could already feel the small amount of ice I had swallowed trickling soothingly down my throat.

‘Thks Chll.’

\dec said thanks Cal.

He informed his watching public.

>Cal you are small genius. You do very well for Declan.

Rose soon returned with a spoon to try.

:I thought a metal one might hurt your mouth love, so they found this plastic one, it’s not that big though. You don’t look like you can feed yourself with that arm and that hand. Can you put up with me feeding you?

Of all the recent indignities, this one was pretty easy to bear.

‘Mm.’

Rose sat by the bed and spooned the ice into me. I was very conscious of everyone watching, but the eyes on me were the ones I loved best in the world, so it was OK. The slushie was like magic. The pain and swelling in my throat reduced considerably. There was a similar effect on my lips too.

:How’s that now, love?

‘Mm … muhch bhetter’

Not bad for a first post-ice attempt. It still hurt to talk, and I wasn’t going to be making any speeches anytime soon, but it was a great start.

‘Thuhnks. Luv yuh uhll.’

A bit briefer and more sentimental than it would have been had I had my voice back properly, but the message was there. Rose, Beth and Lisa all teared up again, I really was going to have to have words about that, when I had access to more of them.

łI think it’s fair to say we all feel the same way, Dec. Fuck knows what you’ve done to deserve it. Sorry Cal. Dec’s a bad influence on me.

Jay ruffled Cal’s hair, pulled him in closer and kissed him on the top of his head.

łDec, I’m really sorry, we’re going to have to go. I … don’t know if you know … Matty’s really poorly. He’s got multiple sclerosis and pneumonia, and he’s … he nearly … he’s had a really bad time over the last couple of months.

Matt was Jay’s brother. He lived in the Midlands, near Jay’s mum.

‘Nah way. Suhry.’

łHe’s one of the main reasons I left Raiders. I need to look after him. I … I was …

Jay started to choke up. Beth held his hand.

_Dec, we’ve both said some things to you we regret. We were very angry and upset, and it was a bad time for us. I think that’s behind us now. James has been struggling with what to do for a while, since before things … well … changed between us. We felt it would be difficult to be with Matty while we still felt responsible for you. When everything happened with you, it seemed to make the decision easier. We didn’t realise how much you’d been struggling too, until Nico and Lis told us, and I’m so sorry if some of that was down to us, sweetheart.

Beth came over and kissed me on the forehead. I was almost speechless but just managed a lame

‘S’okay.’

_But we’ve got to get back home. James’s mum’s been with Matty since Friday afternoon, and we should’ve been back last night, so we’ve got to get going. So sorry, Dec, we’ll be back to see you soon. Take care, sweetheart.

Jay gave me a very gentle punch on the shoulder.

łI’ll be in touch for that deep and meaningful. We’ll sort things out properly, yeah? Be strong, stay positive. Cal, say goodbye to Dec.

Cal came to the side of the bed. He looked at me for a while, considering.

\you can have my dinosaur magazine, and you can have the toy on the front.

‘Thnks uh lo. Read ih layher.’

And then, having hugged Nico, Lisa and Rose, they were gone.

Cal

It was so fast, I’d only just got used to being there, and I hadn’t even told him about my fire engine or asked when we could go to Dinosaurland. But now we were allowed to talk about Dec, I hoped I would be able to do both of those soon.

In the car on the way home, Mum and Dad were quiet, to start with. Dad started to say something a few times, and then Mum would shake her head, Dad would look in the mirror and see me, and stop talking. So I thought if I closed my eyes they would think I was asleep, and say interesting things, probably about Dec. And it worked.

‘What did you say while we were in the shop?’

‘How do you know I said anything?’

‘Everything was different when we got back. It felt like you’d cleared the air.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure the air’s completely clear, just yet. I told him we need a bloody good talk, soon as. But I said how it had been, and how it changed after yesterday, or after Friday, actually. You know what, I think we might get there. Jesus, Beth, how did that happen?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m glad, though. After everything Nico said, and all the talking we did on Friday night, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get past everything else, but this has just … oh …’

There were a few sniffles, and it sounded like Mum was crying.

‘Oh James, I was so scared last night. I’ve been so angry with him, but I never wanted anything to happen to him.’

‘I know. That’s kind of what I told him, that it doesn’t matter any more what he did, because we’re family.’

‘Oh James, really?’

‘It’s true, isn’t it? I didn’t realise until yesterday, when I thought he might … When you think you might lose someone, you find out what’s important. How did the little bastard get himself in here?’

I opened one eye a crack, wondering where Dad meant, and if Dec had got in the car somehow, but I saw Dad put his hand on his chest, so he meant in his heart.

‘I don’t know, but I feel the same. We’re going to have to keep in touch with him. Oh! I didn’t get Rose’s number. I was going to call her later.’

‘Nico’ll have it. She’s something else, isn’t she?’

‘She seems to care a lot about him. I’m glad he’s had someone to look out for him. God, when I think about how lonely he must have been …’

‘Yeah, well, he brought a lot of it on himself.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘I’m just being honest. He fucked up, Beth. We’ve got a way to go yet before I’m Mr Forgiveness.’

‘But you just said –’

‘I said he was family and what he did doesn’t matter. I know. But before I can just forget it, I need to understand it. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll call him tomorrow, or as soon as we can, start talking to him.’

‘Cal was happy to see him.’

‘Yeah, they’ve always been great mates.’

‘He asked when Dec was going to live with us.’

‘Shit.’

One of the good things about pretending to be asleep was that Dad was allowed to do swears and I could hear him.

‘We should make sure they talk too. Cal’s really missed him.’

‘Yeah. Oh it’s all such a bloody mess, isn’t it.’

‘Maybe, maybe not any more – James could you slow down a bit? I’m feeling a bit icky.’

‘Still? That’s all weekend, Beth. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?’

‘No.’

‘No what?’

‘No, I’m not sure I’m not coming down with something.’

‘Huh?’

‘It’s not just this weekend. I’ve been feeling sick all week, especially around coffee.’

‘Really? Coffee used to make you sick when … oh holy shit.’

‘I know. I’m going to get a test tomorrow.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. That would be fantastic.’

‘Well, let’s not count our chickens, or any other baby animals, it could still be a bug or something.’

‘Yeah, yeah, course. Holy shit.

I hadn’t understood much of what Mum and Dad had been talking about, although I wondered if we might be getting a chicken to lay eggs and keep Percy company, but the amount of bad swears that Dad didn’t get told off about forced my eyes open in surprise, and Dad saw me in the mirror. This stopped the conversation, and Mum turned music on for the rest of the way home.