13. A little bit stronger

In which Dec gives it his best shot, and we catch up with Matty and Cal.

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Dec

There weren’t many cars in the car park yet. There was no training on Mondays, but players came in for team and individual reviews of the weekend’s game. I scanned the players entrance, couldn’t see any reporters. Hopefully they had given up. Made my way to Stuart’s small office. The door was open, but I gave it a tap. He looked up from some papers on his desk. Smiled.

^Declan. Thanks for coming. Take a seat.

I sat down, apprehension gripping me.

^OK, let’s make a start.

He put away the papers, and got out another folder, which had my name written on it. I shifted nervously in my seat as he got out a sheet of paper and glanced at it.

^Right then, Declan. First thing to mention is that I’ve had a chat with Don and some of the other coaches, and we feel that it would be best if you joined the squad for training from now on.

I was surprised, and delighted.

‘But I thought I couldn’t train here …’

^Well, all other aspects of your suspension remain in place, especially while the club are trying to sort out your passport and visa. Did you bring your passports in today?

I handed them to him.

^Thanks. But if the aim of all of this is to see how things go with you back amongst us, well, you need to be back amongst us. Tomorrow, 8.30, rucks and mauls. Up for it?

‘Yeah!’

Qualms I may be feeling about seeing everyone again were buried under a surge of pleasure. This place was a part of me. It had felt like an amputation over the last few days, not being able to come here. It had its own character, depending on what day it was. Training days were businesslike, forming team bonds, developing skills. Match days were vibrant, full of noise and colour, slowly building to an excited climax at kick off. On the rare days when nothing was happening here, there was still a sense of anticipation. It never really seemed to sleep.

^OK, that’s great. Well, now, obviously you’re not going to be playing any games with us for a while, or using club facilities, so we need to make sure you’re keeping as fit as possible. You’ve been putting on weight the last month or so, and you need to get rid of it. As well as training here with the squad on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays, I want to go over a programme for you to complete on other days. You’ll have to find your own facilities. And start paying attention to what you eat. OK?

‘OK.’

^I’d also like you to come in every Monday morning to review your progress, see how it’s all going. You can come in after the match reviews are all done.

The programme he outlined was pretty standard. He double checked I understood everything, gave me a copy and sat back in his chair, giving me an appraising look.

^Declan, I’ll be honest with you. There are a lot of doubts upstairs that giving you this second chance is the right thing to do. There is also a lot of bad feeling towards you and the position you have put us in. Being docked significant points at this stage of the season would be fairly damaging to our chances of finishing top four. You’ve got a lot of work to do, not only on the training pitch, but also on your relationships with the rest of the squad, to prove you’re worth it. I hope you have the strength for the next few weeks. It’s going to be tough, but I believe you can do it. Work as hard as you can, and make the outcome about other people, other situations, things you can’t influence now, not about your performance. Give it your best shot?

‘OK.’

I made my way back out to the players entrance, head full of the meeting with Stuart. He was pretty straight-laced, no-nonsense, and I felt he was willing to give me a go. If the club had forced him into it, he gave no sign. I felt more positive than I had for a long time.

This morning I had thought my time as a Raiders player was almost at an end; I saw a chink of hope now. It could still all end, but for the time being I was still here. As long as I lived for now and didn’t think too far in the future, I could cope.

As I passed the media office, I heard my name called through the open door. Adrian Peters, head of media, was getting up from his desk and waved me in. He wanted me to talk to some reporters who were waiting by the players’ entrance, so they’d go away. It was the last thing I wanted to do after the other night, but ‘giving it my best shot’ probably included this.

Adrian reminded me of a few points from my recent media course – things they might ask, how to not answer a question, what I could and couldn’t say, basically ways to sell my soul for the good of Raiders. Fair enough.

.Oh, and they’ll want pictures, so let them take as many as they want. Don’t smile, though, they’ll make it look like you’re taking the piss.

He didn’t mention the picture in the Herald, but he didn’t have to. I needed to put right some of what I’d screwed up.

‘OK.’

.Thanks, Declan. Good luck.

I went through the door. It wasn’t a barrage of noise and light, there were four men standing there, looking bored, although they perked up when they saw it was me. At least someone was pleased to see me.

“Declan! Can we have a quote?

“Declan, have you spoken to Jay Scott?

“Anything you can tell us about the points decision?

“Have Raiders have overturned your suspension, then?

‘Hold on guys, one at a time.’

Tried to appear relaxed and unconcerned. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small group of people standing and watching. Glanced up. It was Ben Hearne, Michael Foster, Brett Deressie, Dan Hart and David Allsop, known to me in another life as Big, Mikey, Bonksy, Danno and DivDav. All looking very amused. Great, now I had to perform for them too.

I turned back to the reporters, two of who were also photographers. I had no idea where they were from, or if any of them were the same people who had put my picture in the paper last week, but I tried to follow Adrian’s advice, remembering some of the techniques they would use to make me say something unguarded. They tried to trip me up, but I thought I did pretty well, answering questions without giving much away.

They wanted photos afterwards – stand here, look up, give us a smile. I ignored it all and faced the cameras grimly, remembering the image Adrian wanted me to show. Eventually they’d had enough, got what they wanted, or realised they weren’t going to get any more, and they walked off.

I looked over at the group of lads who used to be my mates. They were lounging against a low wall, arms folded, smirking sardonically. Undecided as to what I should do, I nodded in their direction, took a step towards them.

They stood up and walked as a group through the players’ door. A well-aimed ‘wanker’ was hurled in my direction. I don’t know what I had expected, these were guys I had been best friends with, played with, trained with, spent down time with, helped home when we were all drunk, and I had spent a lot of the last few months distancing myself from them, lying to them and borrowing money off them that they seemed unlikely to get back any time soon. Giving it my best shot was going to be tough without them. Being here at all was going to be tough without them. I had no one to blame but myself, worthless piece of shit that I was.

Sighing, I set off across the car park, heading for the bus stop. I still needed to buy some food, which I could do at the supermarket on the way home. Hated shopping. But unless I learned how to cook vegetables in the next few hours, I was going to be very hungry. Maybe a few vegetables wouldn’t hurt – Beth had always looked after my nutrition, cooked the right things, balanced diet and all that; she knew what rugby players needed. Now I was fending for myself, and relying on my own woeful cooking ability, it was usually heating up a shepherd’s pie or chicken nuggets, and Stuart was right, it was affecting my body shape and my fitness. However, today was not going to be the day I addressed this.

The bus was empty, the car park was full, and the shop was heaving. I grabbed a basket and headed towards the ready meals. Picked up a couple of curries and some sweet and sour chicken, almost grabbed a few beers but remembered Don’s orders and settled for diet cola. Headed to the tills. There were huge queues everywhere. I aimed for the self-checkout, but it still looked like a long wait.

Drifted off into a supermarket trance, staring at nothing in particular, shuffling forwards as the line moved slowly on. I heard my name. Turned round. Two men behind me in the queue were looking at me. I raised my eyebrows at them. They looked away. My attention now directed behind me, I heard a few snatches of their conversation.

*… reserves player … visa … lose points … Scott …

I resisted the urge to turn round again, but the back of my neck prickled uncomfortably. Being part of Raiders meant I was occasionally recognised, but usually people just said hello or said they were Raiders fans, shook hands and walked away. Being the subject of a muttered conversation felt very awkward.

I paid for my stuff and walked out, glad to leave the crowds behind. I hadn’t got far before I felt a hand on my shoulder. Defensive, I shrugged it off, turned and faced the two men from the queue. Stood in a relaxed posture, not aggressive but not submissive either.

*You Declan Summers?

The shorter man thrust his head towards me.

‘Yes.’

*You tosser.

He folded his arms and waited for my response. I didn’t give him the satisfaction of one. Just looked at him.

*I’ve watched Raiders for fifteen years, since before they got promoted. Never known the like. They should have thrown you out on your arse.

His mouth was a contemptuous sneer. His taller, bulkier mate stood just behind him, arms at his side, fists clenched. If I wasn’t careful, it was going to turn nasty – not that I wasn’t more than capable of looking after myself in a fight, but it was the sort of trouble I had to avoid. I decided to let him have his say; most of the supporters would feel the same way he did, and didn’t even know the half of it. I waited again.

*You’re a disgrace.

Couldn’t argue with him there, had thought it myself many times over the last few days, weeks and months.

*Can’t believe they didn’t sack your sorry arse straight off, never mind all this pissing about with suspensions.

Again, no arguments from me. I stood my ground, however – a small spark of pride making me incapable of being submissive.

*Well I hope you’re fucking proud of yourself, you’ve cost us a place in the play-offs.

I was well aware of how any points deductions would affect the club and the people who worked and played for it. The knock on effect on the thousands of Raiders fans was also huge. I felt a need to answer him, but without getting myself punched. My heart was beating fast. I tried to keep my tone of voice even.

‘No, I’m not proud. I know what it might have cost everyone. I’m sorry.’

He seemed a bit taken aback that I hadn’t been defensive or confrontational. I wasn’t sure whether or not I had managed to defuse it.

*Why don’t you just piss off and do us all a favour?

‘OK.’

I turned and walked away, wondering if he and his mate were going to follow me. My senses felt the air behind me for signs of pursuit. My nerves were strung so tightly that if I had felt another hand on my shoulder I might have lashed out blindly. The short walk to the bus stop seemed to take hours, but when I reached it and turned around, there was no sign of the two men. My legs were shaking and my breath was quick and ragged, my heartbeat loud in my ears. I was going to have to get used to this type of confrontation. In a way, I was public property. Felt very alone.

When I got home, I knocked on Rose’s door. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of days and felt bad. There was no answer.

Upstairs in my flat, I put my shopping away, had some lunch and thought about what to do next. Nico would be picking me up later, but that left the afternoon to fill. Looked at the television, but couldn’t face another afternoon of quiz shows and antique programmes. I needed to do something to stop myself thinking. I had too many thoughts spinning in my head. Too many things I needed to do that I had no way of doing.

I made a start on the charity money. I had the details of the accounts I needed to pay into, and wrote some cheques from my savings account. It didn’t quite meet the promised amounts, but I had now done what I had promised Don I would do; I felt a bit better, having repaid at least some of my debts, although I wasn’t sure where the last few hundred pounds I owed the charities was going to come from. Ignoring this, I walked up to the post box and fulfilled one of my many obligations. The rest would be a bit harder to complete.

Back home, I was still restless. In the end, I cleaned the flat. It didn’t need doing, Rose had only sand-blasted it a few days ago. I never cleaned, hated housework, could hardly remember how to use the hoover. But it was physical, and stopped the spinning thoughts.

A couple of hours later, slightly warm and feeling very virtuous, I decided to call on Rose again. I had no idea if she had a job, or what else she did during the day when she wasn’t fixing up my life. About time I found out.

I went down the stairs and knocked on her door. She seemed delighted to see me, fussed about making tea, putting out a plate of biscuits, talking nineteen to the dozen the whole time about absolutely nothing. She didn’t mention any of my troubles, and neither did I. I was grateful; I’d spent too long thinking and I needed some light relief. I told her I had cleaned my flat, maybe expecting some sort of pat on the back.

:Whatever for? Didn’t we just give it a huge clean?

‘I know. It was a kind of a workout. Needed to burn off some energy. Besides, I found some bits you missed.’

:You never did, you cheeky monkey. Get away with you and drink your tea. Last time I tidy up for you, that is.

We bantered back and forth for a while, making our way through the tea and biscuits. Stuart would undoubtedly have disapproved, but company and talking was something I’d missed, and it felt important to join in with Rose and her need to feed me.

I asked her if she had a job, and she told me she worked part time as a receptionist in one of the big opticians in town. I could imagine her lording it over the front desk, knowing everyone’s business, dispensing advice with the contact lens solution, and I told her so. She gave me an appraising look.

:You know, you really seem quite chirpy. Good to see, love.

‘Yeah, I think I’m getting there. I’ve been a monumental dickhead – sorry – idiot and knocking myself out with vodka was utterly stupid, but in a way it might have helped a bit. I feel, kind of, can’t think of the word – does ‘purged’ sound right?

:You tell me, love.

‘Well, I know I’ve fucked up, upset a lot of people, done some bloody stupid things, I know that, and some of that might be fixable and some of it might not, and if not that will be bad and I’ll have to deal with it. But today, I feel like I’ve made a start.’

I told her about my meeting with Stuart and holding my own with the reporters, but also about the reaction of the lads afterwards.

:Oh I wouldn’t take too much notice. They’re just boys, aren’t they.

‘Yeah, same age as me, Rose.’

:Then you know what I mean. You all muck about taking the mick out of each other and not saying how you feel. They’ll come round, give them time.

‘Well I guess I’ll see tomorrow. It’s pretty obvious there are plenty of people out there with an opinion they’re not afraid to share.’

Rose was great at sugar-coating things, but I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as she was making it seem. I told her about the confrontation at the supermarket.

:You didn’t know them, then?

I shook my head.

:That’s out of order, that is, people should mind their own business and keep their opinions to themselves.

‘Just like you do, eh!’

:Watch it sonny, you’re not too big for a clout for your cheek. You know what I mean though. Much as I yap, I’d never have a go at someone I’d never met.

‘I guess people have an emotional attachment to a team they support. It can mean a lot if it’s something you’re really into. I know what it means to play. Raiders are a part of them, and I’ve hurt them through what I’ve done.’

Just another thing to add to the list of repayments I’d never be able to make.

‘Anyway, I’ll know more about what I’m up against tomorrow when I go to training.’

:Good luck, love. Ooh, you know what, I’ve been meaning to ask if you’d give me a hand with something?

‘No worries.’

:Well I’ve got this cabinet, it’s old and heavy, it’s full of stuff, and I can’t shift it. I want to move it to give me more space in my spare room. I think I need a strong young man. Can you think of anyone I could ask?

I laughed.

‘Yeah, I can think of someone. Come on, let’s go and have a look.’

Rose put me to work, firstly removing the various items of china, tea-towels, and other clutter, and then moving the cabinet into the tiny space she had allocated for it. It took some doing, and then we put all the stuff back. As we were finishing off, my phone pinged. At the same time, Rose’s entry buzzer went. On my phone was a text from Nico. Shit, Nico! I glanced at the time on my phone. 5.50. Shit.

Nico: =Where are you? I am outside. I try your buzzer.

At the same time, it was like some weird stereo, I heard Nico’s voice on the entry phone.

>I look for Declan Summers.

:And who are you?

>I am Nico.

Rose looked at me, eyebrows raised. I nodded, trying to send a text at the same time. Shit.

:He’s here, I’ll buzz you in.

I rushed to Rose’s front door.

‘Nico, I’m so sorry, I lost track of time.’

>Ha, is no worry, I just get here. My car is on lines, you are ready?

‘No, I haven’t got my kit together. Can you give me a minute?’

>OK, but hurry. What is traffic wardens like here?

‘No idea. Do you know, Rose?’

She had, predictably, had come out for a nose.

:Well –

‘Great, can you tell Nico while I go and grab my stuff?’

I dashed up the stairs, leaving her to it. A short while later I was back downstairs. Rose was saying something I didn’t catch to Nico, but stopped when I appeared.

:Alright love, enjoy the gym. Trying somewhere different are you?

‘Yeah, Nico’s sorted something.’

I edged towards the door, knowing that Rose could be difficult to escape from.

>Hey, Rose, you come too!

Nico flashed a cheeky smile at her.

:Oh get on with you. You’d have a shock if I said yes, now wouldn’t you. Have a nice time. Maybe, if you give me a bit of warning, I’ll drag out my Lycra when you go again. Then you’ll be sorry.

>Ha! I hope you do this, I enjoy. OK Declan, let’s see if I get a parking ticket.

In the car:

>Rose, she is nice lady. She talk weird, I don’t understand all.

‘She’s great. And very Welsh.’

>Huh. I think she tell me she worry about you.

‘Yeah, well Rose is a professional worrier stroke interferer.’

>Ha! You talk weird too. Rose, she say, I think, you owe money?

‘She what?

>She just talk. She –’

‘Fucking hell, Nico, that’s out of order!’.

I was instantly furious. Who the hell did she think she was? She hardly knew me, and she had only just met Nico. He could have been anyone. I had enough people knowing enough of my business, without Rose spreading the good news where she felt like it. She’d gone too far.

>I don’t think she mean to make you angry. She try to help.

‘That’s not the point. It’s up to me to tell people about my stuff, not her, and not when I’m not even there. Shit, sorry, that’s just made me so mad.’

>Huh. I see this. Forget I say. I forget too. OK?

‘Hm.’

Rose wasn’t getting off that lightly. I seethed in the passenger seat, unable to make any conversation or really reply to Nico’s attempts to chat.

When we reached the gym, Nico handled the receptionist with charm and an easy smile, booking us in for an immediate introductory session with a trainer who had been recommended to him. We found the changing rooms and got into our gear.

>What is this?

Nico was pointing at my shoulder. I looked down. There was an oval bruise about the size of a thumbprint, black with purple and yellow tinges, just above my collar bone. Luke’s friendly warning had obviously yielded results. I hadn’t noticed it before.

‘Don’t know. Probably did it when I was drunk.’

>Huh.

Nico looked round my shoulder to my back.

>There is more here.

I felt his finger touch four points in a row on my shoulder blade.

‘Don’t know what to tell you. I was pretty out of it.’

>Huh. You must be careful. And sober.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell him about Luke. Maybe I was embarrassed at the way I had capitulated, maybe I felt that Nico had already found out enough shaming information about me for tonight.

We went to meet Becky, who was going to set us up with a programme for our session. She was very friendly, easily charmed by Nico, did not seem to recognise me, was perfectly pleasant and professional, and we had a great hour or so. I managed to dissipate some of my anger towards Rose with the exertion I put into the exercise. I was going to confront her when I got back, but now I might be able to do it without losing my temper.

Nico and I made arrangements for more sessions; he seemed pretty pleased with the set up at the gym, and would continue to use it for extra training when he felt he needed it. I would go there on days when I wasn’t training at the club. I paid the fee, wincing at the cost and how much it would set back my plans to repay everyone, then Nico took me home. Quiet journey. I was pondering how to talk to Rose. Nico tried a few times to start a conversation, but gave up.

At my door:

>Be nice to her.

‘What?’

>You will be cross with Rose, yes?

‘Yes.’

>She is nice lady who care about you. Do not mess up.

Good advice, and having had a cathartic training session, advice I would try to take.

‘Thanks Nico. And thanks for the gym.’

>You are welcome. Next time I go, I call you.

‘Thanks.’

And so, on to Rose. I half expected her to open her front door when I came into the lobby, but she didn’t. Maybe she guessed what was coming, maybe she genuinely didn’t listen out for the comings and goings through the outer door, or maybe, and more likely, she hadn’t heard me come in. I knocked on her front door.

:Hello, love. Didn’t expect to see you again today.

‘No. Er, Rose, I need to talk to you about something.’

She frowned slightly.

:OK love, come in. Shall I put the kettle on?

‘No, it’s OK, thanks.’

We sat at the kitchen table. I didn’t take my hoody off. I fiddled with my fingers nervously. Nico’s words stayed with me. Rose had been great. She had cleaned up my vomit. She had listened to my troubles. She had taken a lot of shit from me. But she had overstepped the mark. I had come to rely on Rose an awful lot over the past week, but I hardly knew her. I was unsure of the right way to approach this; I needed to say it, but without upsetting her. Never been very good at this sort of thing. Rose waited.

‘OK, er, it’s just this. Nico said you told him about me owing money. I wish you hadn’t.’

:Oh love, I’m sorry. It’s just he asked how you were doing, and I’d been worrying about it, and it just came out.

‘Rose, I can’t have you blurting my stuff out to people. There are things about all this that the club don’t want going public. You never met Nico before, you don’t know what he might do, or who he might tell.’

:No, but you talked about him, and he seems a very nice young man.

‘Nico’s great, he’s solid, but he’s a smooth talker and people tell him stuff. That’s beside the point. I’m just asking you to please not talk about my business with anyone else, unless you’ve checked with me. You know a lot about me, stuff that other people don’t know. I can’t talk to you if I can’t trust you.’

Rose looked sad, but not inconsolable. I seemed to have hit the right note.

:OK love, I’m sorry, I’m a big blabbermouth. I hear what you’re saying.

‘Thanks. Just needed to say it. I really appreciate everything you’ve done, you know with helping me out, cleaning me up. I’d hate to offend you.’

:No love, you’re right, it’s your business. I’ll keep my nose out in future.

I searched her face for signs of indignation, but she seemed to have taken it very well.

‘Thanks, Rose. You’re great.’

:Hmph well don’t know about that. Cup of tea now?

‘No, best get home. Thanks anyway.’

The rest of the evening I spent in front of the small television, eating a ready meal and watching nothing on TV. I tried not to think about tomorrow’s training session and what it might bring, but it was at the back of my mind the whole time, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. In the end, I went to bed early.

Couldn’t sleep, my mind was full up with conversations, confrontations and speculations. The day’s events replayed themselves over and over, as I tried to make sense of my past, present and future. I must have dozed throughout the night, but when my phone bleeped to wake me up, I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all.

Cal

I should tell you about Nico – as I said before, Nico Tiago was a huge hero of mine for a long time, and is one of the all-time huge influences in my rugby career. I feel incredibly lucky, because not many people can say they’ve not only played on the same pitch as their childhood idol, but also had Sunday lunches with him and been on holiday with him. If I’m honest, I still have a lot of man-love for Nico, even if his son is taking advantage of my cousin. In a nice way, of course.

But back then, when I was little, well although my dad is one of rugby’s biggest names, I was only into football, for the longest time. Mum wouldn’t let me go to rugby games, because she thought it was too violent, so I didn’t really know what my dad did for a living – and he retired when I was two, so I don’t remember him playing at all. So apart from being somewhere Dad went to work, rugby wasn’t something I was aware of, but I loved football, and I loved Arsenal above all else, and if you’d asked me before I was six who my hero was, I would have said Theo Walcott.

I knew Nico as one of Dad’s friends, and it wasn’t until Dad and Dec took me to see Raiders as an after-Christmas treat that I caught the rugby bug, and got all starry-eyed about Raiders’ best player, Nico Tiago, who scored two tries that game, and pretty much every game I ever saw him play after that.

Nico looked out for Dec in that difficult time when Dec and Dad didn’t speak, and as a result he and Lis got hoovered up in the grand ‘Dec’s part of this family’ thing that went on later, so he was around loads more, and I loved it. It was almost as if Theo Walcott had announced he was going to be my uncle, with weekly visiting rights. I hung on every word Nico said, copied his accent, his bad English, tried to walk like him, the whole package. We’re still great mates, although living on opposite sides of the world can lend a bit of perspective to man-love, as can being married yourself, and knowing that his son is doing your cousin. Ha ha, only kidding, Basty. A bit.

Matt

So it took a long time to get to the bottom of it, what had happened. I’m not going to say days, or weeks, or months, because time didn’t seem to have any meaning in there. I couldn’t count the days because I couldn’t see a window to tell day from night, and if I asked them what day it was and they said Wednesday, well first I’d forget which day it had been yesterday, or last time I’d asked, and then I’d forget which Wednesday it was. So, yeah, a long time. But I got there, in the end. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I nearly died. Oh, I already said that. Sorry. I got ill again at home, but this time I didn’t call Mum. I can’t remember why, maybe it happened quickly or something, I just can’t remember. So anyway, Mum started to worry when she hadn’t heard from me for a couple of days, and some kind of motherly sixth sense kicked in and she tried phoning me, even phoning my mobile, which she never does. But to no avail, so she hopped on a bus, and used her newly acquired spare key to get in, and there I am all unconscious on the bathroom floor, the contents of the bathroom cabinet scattered around me, various bodily fluids having left me at some point, looking a bit the worse for wear – oh alright, Mum thought I’d already had it, I was barely breathing, pale as death, cold to the touch. Fuck knows how long I’d been there. She called an ambulance and they whisked me off here, pumped me full of medical shit and stuck me in intensive care, where it transpired I had pneumonia.

The doctors told her I was lucky she’d found me when she did, maybe a few more hours would have been too late. Even pumped full of medical shit and hooked up to enough electrical kit to power a small village, I wasn’t out of the woods, and I’d hovered there, would I make it or wouldn’t I, for a week or so. And then I’d woken up and put everyone’s mind at rest. But seeing the circles under Mum’s eyes, that hurt me, that I’d done that to her.

Dec

I dragged myself out of bed and into the shower. Needed to be fresh. Didn’t feel anything approaching fresh. Packed my Raiders training kit in a bag. It would be the first time I had worn it since the day I was suspended. It had been thoroughly Rosed, and there were no remnants of my alcoholic excesses. Still felt weird looking at it, as if it was a costume from another time. My boots were another matter. The leather had soaked up various liquids, and looked much the worse for wear, and the actual studs had been worn down – I must have walked home in them or something. They stank. I would have to get some more pretty soon, and I wrapped them in a plastic bag so they didn’t stink up my kit as well.

With a feeling in the pit of my stomach similar to starting the first day of term, I set off for the club. The buses were full with early morning workers, but nobody looked twice at me, and I felt happily anonymous. It was drizzling when I got off the bus, so I got pretty wet on the walk along the bypass.

I made my way through the players’ entrance to the changing rooms. There were already quite a few people in there; I could hear the chatter from down the corridor and my heart pounded as I approached the door.

12. Against the wind

In which Matty rallies somewhat, and we find out what’s bothering Dec.

Matt

I am with Carrie. We are having a picnic in a park, a rug beneath us, food and drink spread out on it. I stand up to go, and she looks at me, bright blue eyes begging me to stay. She takes my hand, pulling me towards her and I fall …

Dec

I lay for a long time, just looking at the ceiling. Concentrating on the bland whiteness. A cure for thinking. Eventually I had to get up. I was hungry and I needed a pee. Hard to believe that ordinary things like that could matter.

I heard my mobile ping in the pocket of yesterday’s discarded trousers. I got out of bed, picked up the phone and took it to the bathroom. Once I had peed, I checked the message.

Nico: =I come this morning, we train together. Gym 10.30.

Really didn’t feel like training. What time was it? Phone said 9.30. Could text back and put him off. Considered it. But this was Nico bloody Tiago.

A couple of years ago I had spent a large part of my teenage savings travelling up to Twickenham to see Nico Tiago play for Argentina against England. When he joined Raiders at the beginning of last season, it was unreal. I had trained beside him under Jay’s coaching, hardly believing my luck. Worthless piece of shit or not, you didn’t text Nico Tiago and make an excuse. Better get moving then.

Made a reasonable stab at organising myself. Toast and tea for breakfast. Showered. Shaved. Dressed appropriately. Remembered to take phone, keys and wallet with me. Kit bag. Set off down the stairs.

Rose was lying in wait; her door opened as I reached the entrance hall.

:It’s good to see you up, love. Just on your way out, are you?

‘I’m going to the gym.’

:Oh that sounds like a grand idea. Blow the cobwebs away.

‘Something like that. Has to be done.’

I fidgeted, wanting to be away, not wanting to be rude.

:Sleep alright?

‘So-so. Lot on my mind. Listen, Rose, I’m meeting someone at the gym, don’t want to be late. Really sorry. I’ll call in when I get back, yeah?’

:Right you are love. You can take the telly back with you.

‘Great, see you later’

The gym was where I thought it was, just down the road from the corner shop. I was a bit early, and Nico was nowhere in sight. I asked at the desk, but they hadn’t seen him. Waited ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Started to think he had been taking the piss. At ten past eleven I was just about to walk back home, when he sauntered in the door. His easy smile faded a bit when he saw the look on my face. He checked his watch.

>Sorry to be late. I am always.

He shrugged with a sheepish grin.

>Come, meet Luke.

We changed quickly in the changing room, and walked onto the gym floor. Nico waved to a tall blond man who was adjusting some weights.

>Lukey! Please come to meet Declan.

The blond man walked over slowly, looking less than thrilled at the prospect.

+Nico. Alright?

>I am good. This is Declan. He is my guest today. Can we talk about a programme for him?

+Could I just have a quick chat with you, Nico?

He looked pointedly at me. I moved away and stood watching from a distance. I had a feeling events of the last few days were about to cause more trouble.

As they talked, Luke looked at me several times. He didn’t look happy. Nico seemed unflustered. I remembered Nico saying that Luke used to be a trainer at Raiders, and began to understand his unhappiness. I walked over. Clearly heard the words:

+… lying little bastard …

And some of Nico’s reply:

>… give a chance …

‘Nico, I think I’m going to head off. No worries. Thanks for inviting me.

>No, Declan, you must stay. Lukey will help us.

Luke didn’t look like he had any intention of helping me, and was clenching his fists intimidatingly.

‘It’s OK, I understand. I wouldn’t want me here either if I was him. Thanks anyway.’

I turned and walked away. Nico’s raised voice echoed behind me.

>If you don’t train him, you don’t train me also. I go.

+Wait. Nico. OK, alright, I’ll give it a go.

>Thank you. Declan, come back. Please.

I turned round. Nico was beaming. Luke scowled, but did not protest when Nico beckoned me back.

Together we went over a programme of weights, treadmill, spin and rowing. Luke asked questions about my programme at the club, and what he suggested for the morning wasn’t that different. Nico and I worked together, not talking much. Luke adjusted speeds and weights and tensions from time to time. It was a good work out, and felt great to do something so physical after my days of inactivity.

We showered and changed quickly afterwards. Then, in the lobby:

>I need to eat. You come for lunch? There is great sushi bar. I fetch the car.

He jogged out of the door before I could reply. I waited. A hand on my shoulder, not gentle.

+A word.

I turned to see Luke, closer and more in my face than felt comfortable.

+I don’t want you in my gym, you little shit. I don’t want you hanging around with Nico either. Piss off now, before he gets back, or you’ll regret it.

He gripped my shoulder again. Squeezed. Very hard. Lost my bottle. Had no fight left. Turned and walked away. I guess sometimes you can be a worthless enough piece of shit that you text Nico Tiago and make an excuse.

I slipped in the front door as quietly as I could, not wanting Rose to hear and come out to chat. I promised myself I would pop down later. My quiet entry worked, and I made it to my flat undetected.

The work-out had energised me, but my encounter with Luke had brought home to me how difficult things were going to be for me now. I was going to meet people with similar feelings to him on a daily basis at the club, in the street, in the supermarket. I was going to have to get used to it.

My mobile rang. Nico. Thought about ignoring it. Didn’t.

‘Nico, hi.’

>I get your text. What happen?

‘Yeah, sorry, I remembered I had an, er, appointment. Had to go. Sorry.’

>Huh. Luke, he say you change your mind and are allergic to fish.

‘Oh.’

>So which is true?

I paused, thrown.

>Or maybe Luke say something to you? This morning, he is a dick.

I took a deep breath, not believing I was about to blow off Nico Tiago.

‘He did make it clear that he didn’t think his gym was right for me. But to be honest I can see his point. I’m nobody’s ideal customer at the moment. I’m a fucking disgrace. Thanks for taking me this morning, but I think it’s best if you just leave me alone.’

>Oh you think is best.

He sounded amused.

>I decide what is best for me. Best for me is to train with you. We find another gym.

‘Nico, I really don’t –’

>Enough. I decide. I let you know when I find somewhere good. Bye.

He hung up.

Stuart Clarke called after lunch, asking me to go in early the next day to go over what he called a plan of action. He had sounded brisk and professional; I couldn’t hear anything else in his voice, no opinions leaking through. Didn’t know him all that well, but so far it felt OK.

Washed up some plates and mugs. Made a cup of tea. Ordinary tasks designed to keep me busy enough not to think. But in the end, in a flat devoid of television, computer or books, thinking was almost all there was.

So I plugged the headphones in my phone, put some music on and took stock. Counted my blessings. There weren’t many, and what there were, were not of my own making. Still, it was easier on the mind than the alternative.

Blessing number one: I was still just about connected to Raiders. Somehow I had managed that. It wouldn’t last, but for now I still had it.

Number two: People had helped me and been nice to me. Without Rose, I couldn’t imagine the state I would have been in yesterday when I finally woke up. Nico had been needlessly kind; he and his wife were friends with Jay and Beth, and I would have expected a different response from him. I didn’t deserve any of it, but they didn’t seem to see that.

Number three: I was fit and healthy, things that people always seemed to count in lists of blessings.

That was pretty much all I could think of. Didn’t take long. The other side of the coin, the messed up last few months of my fucked up, pathetic waste of a life, produced a longer list. Thinking about all the things I needed to sort out, to put right, would never be able to put right, took much longer. My mental list started chronologically.

Matt

I am sleeping. It could be night or it could be day. There are sounds. I do not know what all of them are, but one of them is Jay snoring. The other sounds could be machines – there is a bleep, and a tick, and a rasp, and something with air rushing through it. I thought I was sleeping, dreaming, but now, maybe, I am awake. I open my eyes and it is bright, too bright, and I close them again and I fall …

Dec

It all began when I crashed my car. Jay, Beth and Cal had gone on holiday in the summer. I was looking after the house and the cat while they were gone. The first night they were away, I had been coming home after an evening with the lads. I’d had a beer, only one, as I’d known I was giving Bonksy, Big and Danno a lift home. It was pretty late, the roads were empty.

As I drove along the bypass, on my way home after dropping the lads off, I lost control of my car. I still don’t know what happened, one minute I was driving, the next I was swerving, terrified, all over the road. They did all sorts of tests afterwards, couldn’t find anything on the road, couldn’t find anything wrong with the car, but couldn’t blame it on me.

As the car span out of control and veered off towards the ditch at the side of the road, I saw someone picked out in the headlights. Too late to avoid him, even if I had been able to. The car caught him on its way into the ditch, stopped with a jolt.

I sat there, stunned and shaking. My airbag had inflated, pinning me inside the car. I wasn’t hurt, but for a long time I couldn’t move or think, just sat there, gripping the steering wheel. Once I tried to move, to undo my seatbelt, I realised I was stuck, and I had to manoeuvre my phone out of my pocket to dial 999. They all arrived in a clamour of sirens and blue lights, got me out, found the man under the car, zipped him into a body bag and took him away. I was breathalysed, checked out, questioned, released. My car was taken away. I didn’t get it back.

By the time Jay and Beth came back from holiday, a couple of weeks later, my life had taken on a surreal edge where I couldn’t tell them about it. The police had finished with me, I didn’t claim on my insurance, and I just couldn’t tell them. I was full of guilt about the man who had died. I didn’t know anything about him. Couldn’t stop thinking about him. The crash replayed itself over and over in my head. Everything together was too much to cope with, and reduced me to a robot. I could only exist, anything else was too hard, too much to process.

I was already thinking of moving out when the man’s son came to see me. The inquest had been about a week before, and had been reported in a minor way in the local press. I’d used a police-recommended solicitor, it had all seemed fairly straightforward, and I’d managed to keep my whereabouts for the day from anyone who knew me.

Keeping everything from Beth and Jay was getting harder; Beth in particular always seemed to know when something was up with me, and she kept asking me what was wrong, pushing me to talk. Moving out seemed to be the only way to stop all the questions.

When he knocked on the door, it was the middle of the day. Jay was at the club, Beth was out somewhere with Cal. I had been sitting listlessly on the sofa, watching a movie channel on TV. I nearly didn’t answer the knock, but Beth was waiting for a delivery, so I went to the door. The man was tall and heavily built. He had short brown hair and a scraggy beard. He was wearing a Raiders shirt and baggy jeans. I could not guess at how old he was. Older than me.

|Hello Charlie

I was put instantly on the back foot and on the alert.

‘Sorry, what?’

|You are Charlie Collier, aren’t you?

‘Don’t know what you mean’

|Alright then Declan, if that’s the way you want it. I’d like to talk to you.

He stepped forwards. I blocked his way, held my hands out in front of me

‘Whoa, hold on –’

There was no way he was getting into the house. Lots of Raiders supporters knew where Jay lived, not many made a nuisance of themselves, but I didn’t know this bloke, and he intimidated me more than a little. He raised his voice.

|Well we could talk about it out here, Charlie, where anyone can overhear, but somewhere more private might be best. What do you think?

He moved forwards again. Torn between protecting Jay’s property and worrying about what he might be going to say, I decided to let him in, just to the hallway. Another shameful choice. Me first. I left the front door ajar, stood between him and the door to the lounge. Tried to appear unconcerned. Heart was pounding, wondering how he knew, what he was going to do.

‘What do you want?’

|Well, son, you’ve caused me a bit of trouble.

‘What?’

|You had an accident last month.

‘What do you mean?’

|Stop playing dumb, boy, you know what I mean.

His tone was aggressive and I shrank a bit.

|You drove your car into a ditch on the bypass. Hit an old man on the way. That was my old dad.

I reeled as if I’d been punched. I think I physically stepped backwards to keep my footing.

‘I – don’t know what to say. I didn’t know he had any family.’

|Yeah, well, we haven’t always got on. But recently, now, we got on better. He was right fond of my little girl. Jessie, she’s called.

I shook my head, confused, not sure why he was telling me this.

‘I’m sorry. I really am so sorry about your dad.’

Just saying those words brought back memories of someone saying exactly the same to me – the lorry driver who had killed my parents. It hadn’t helped me at all, and now it made me realise how my accident had affected someone else. The guilt I had begun to bury surfaced again, with extras.

|Well, that’s good of you. But sorry isn’t really enough, see.

‘What do you mean?’

|Well, my little Jessie she’s not well. She’s got cystic fibrosis, might not have long, little mite. My old dad, he wanted to do something for her, was going to give us the money for an extension to the house so’s she can have a nice room, convert the garage, with all the equipment and stuff she needs. Our house is real small, her room is pretty cramped. Well, now he’s dead, his money’s all tied up with solicitors, he didn’t change his will. Me and the missus, we can’t afford it on our own. We’ve promised Jessie, see, picked out colours and everything.

I was struggling to keep up with what he was telling me, and how it was relevant. I just kept nodding.

|So, what I’m coming to is, you say you’re sorry my old dad got in the way of your car, but my Jessie’s the one that suffers. You get to live here in Jay Scott’s posh house, nice and cosy, while my dad’s in the ground and little Jessie has to grow up, if she does grow up, in that dingy little room. I think, Charlie, that you owe us. You need to pay for what you did.

Now I understood. My insides turned to ice water.

‘But I don’t have any money, really. I can’t help you. I’m sorry, so sorry about your dad, and your daughter, but I haven’t got anything.’

|Is that so, Charlie? See, when I saw you at the inquest, it didn’t register at first. You looked familiar, but I couldn’t place you. Then I put two and two together. You looked just like the lad I’d watched playing for Raiders reserves a few months before. The more I looked, the more I thought you didn’t just look like him, you were him. Seen your face around the place, too. Asked around. Found out you lived here. Very nice. Raiders know you’re Charlie Collier? Jay Scott know you’re Australian? Anyone know you killed an old man?

I reeled again. Didn’t answer him.

|Thought not. Would have been all over the press, wouldn’t it. Now, it seems we can help each other out. I need a lot of money to help my little Jessie. You need someone to keep their mouth shut. Job done. Is there any way you could see that we could work this out?

My brain was working overtime.

‘How much do you need?’

A smile.

|Ah, see, we’re working together already. I’ve had a quote for ten grand.

‘What? I can’t get that sort of money. I told you, I haven’t got anything.’

|Maybe you should try. I’ll let you think about it. I’ll be in touch.

And he walked out of the front door and down the drive as I watched him go.

I stayed in my room that night, didn’t eat, didn’t talk to Jay, Beth, or Cal. Told them I had a headache. Thinking, thinking. I had no way of getting the money. Must have fallen asleep.

Woke in the early hours with a plan. The charity money. If I paid it back quickly enough, no one would know. Told myself it was borrowing, not stealing. Maybe if I sold a lot of my stuff, put most of my pay into it, I could do it, pay it back before anyone noticed. It could be worth the risk.

The man’s story had resonated with me. His manner had been intimidating, and he had threatened me, but I had believed him about his daughter. I thought his tone had softened when he talked about her. I did feel I owed him something for the death of his father. If I could do this, and no one found out, I might feel less of the crushing guilt I had been carrying with me since the accident. That was how I convinced myself, how all the real lies started.

He called round a few days later, again when I was alone in the house. He stayed on the doorstep.

|Hello Charlie. Had any thoughts about our talk?

‘I can get your money.’

He smiled briefly.

|That’s my boy.

‘But I can only get you this much. I can’t get you any more’

He put on a hurt expression.

|I don’t know what you’re suggesting, lad, I only need this one favour, that my old dad was going to help me out with. I’ll not come knocking again. When can you get it?

‘Tomorrow.’

|Bring it to The Bell, four o’clock, should be nice and empty. I’ll buy you a pint.

And so it had begun. I emptied the special account, put the cash in an old rucksack and gave my life away.

From there, it had been a downward spiral. I needed to get away from Jay’s house, scared the man would come back when Beth and Cal were around. I couldn’t tell them the reason I wanted to move out. I made up improbable excuses like wanting my independence, outright lies like starting a course to get a qualification for when I’d finished with rugby and needing to be closer to college, things we had discussed in a general way before, but had decided there was no rush. I sold everything I had that was worth anything, and moved into a small furnished flat as soon as I found one cheap enough. I put as much of my pay as I could back into the charity account and kept my fingers crossed that I could keep it quiet until I’d paid it all back.

It was much harder than I’d thought it would be, now I was paying rent on the flat and with all the bills, food and bus fares. I felt the sense of urgency, and I ended up borrowing money from all my friends, their friends and then people they barely knew. I borrowed from the bank, but they weren’t keen to lend me a lot as I had nothing. I told them it was for a new car. I was in a lot of debt, and people were beginning to chase me.

So I had already killed an old man, hidden it, stolen from a charity, lied about my passport, lied about everything else and borrowed more money than I knew how to pay back. Add to this my broken relationships with Jay, Raiders and all my friends, and my small list of blessings retreated to a dot on the horizon.

To top it all, it had all been for nothing. I had given it all away to some con man, in a completely pointless act. Fucking idiot. I couldn’t see a way out. People were beginning to seriously chase me for the money I owed them, I had had another sprinkling of texts reminding me how much I owed and when I had promised it. I was out of ideas, and pinned with inertia.

From beyond the front door, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I was expecting the ring on the bell, which came shortly afterwards. Rose, I predicted.

:Only me love.

A wry smile on my face, I got up and opened the door. She stood there with a small, old style large-backed portable television in her arms, and a carrier bag bulging with various cables and what looked like a digibox. She was out of breath and red in the face, so I took it all from her and beckoned her in.

‘Thanks for this, it looks great.’

:A bit old fashioned, and the vertical hold goes sometimes, but I think everything’s there that you need. Don’t ask me to set it up for you though. I just unplugged it all, that was complicated enough.

‘Cuppa?’

:If you’re having one, love. Enjoy the gym did you? Didn’t hear you come back.

While she parked herself on the couch, I shouted through from the kitchen, above the noise of the kettle.

‘It was OK. Don’t think they really wanted me there. Trainer is an ex-Raider. Not very friendly.’

:Oh don’t take no notice. People shouldn’t be so judgemental. Don’t know everything, do they.

‘I think he knew enough. Anyway, it was good to have a workout.’

:Sounds like it did you some good, love. Think you’ll go back?

‘Er, not there. Maybe somewhere else.’

:Well I wish I had your energy. I need a whiff just coming up your stairs. Glad I’ve got a ground floor flat, I am.

‘I hate staying still, really. Can’t believe how long I’ve sat around up here feeling sorry for myself.’

:Oh, love, you do sound a bit better.

I walked back to the living room carrying her tea.

‘Dunno about that, but I had a big think this afternoon. I think I’ve moped around long enough. I’m trying to think of ways to put things right. Some things, anyway. Not coming up with much.’

I told her about going through my texts and the increasingly insistent demands for repayment.

:Oh love, I can’t really help you much. I haven’t got any savings to speak of, my husband took it all when he left. And I don’t earn much from my little job –

I had to stop her.

‘Rose, Rose, the absolute last thing I’m doing is asking you for money! Fuck no! That’s how I got half way here in the first place. You’ve already helped me out more than enough. Thanks, though, you are bloody great.’

She blushed.

:Well, that’s alright then. But if you need anything else –

‘Yes, I know exactly where you are.’

I made a start on putting the television and digibox together. Even though I wasn’t great with technology either, it wasn’t complicated, and I sorted it fairly quickly. Rose, even though she professed to have no technical know-how, couldn’t resist giving her advice. I flipped the switch, and the screen lit up. The picture was a bit squashed, and the sound was tinny, but we sat and watched a late afternoon quiz show together, drinking tea and eating biscuits, chipping in with the odd answer and congratulating ourselves when we got one right. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much in ages.

Rose left, eliciting a promise that I would

:Pop in and see me, love, I’d like to hear how you’re getting on.

The afternoon rolled on towards evening, and it passed in a haze of brain-numbing television. Brain-numbing was good: tomorrow was Saturday. Match day. Raiders at home. Tonight, players in the match day squad would be getting an early night, other members of the squad would maybe go out for a meal with wives or girlfriends, some of the younger among us going to a club for a drink and a laugh. Those who needed to be up early for the under elevens training would be regretting it. It was part of my life, and I felt rudderless without it.

Usually there would be a flurry of texts making arrangements, re-making them, organising lifts, generally pissing about. We all had nicknames – mine had been Captain Sensible, as I was usually the one who sorted out taxis, reminded everyone we had training in the morning so should call it a night, gave lifts when I’d still had my car. I had only been peripherally involved in all that for the last few months, and nobody had called me Captain for a long time, but they were still my mates, we shared a bond through Raiders, and I missed them all. I was not looking forward to tomorrow. After more terrible Friday TV, I went to bed.

Dreaming. I am flying. So are Bonksy, Mikey, DivDav, Big and Danno. We all fly together, high above the pitch, throwing the ball to each other, laughing, spinning, looping the loop. Crazy patterns, beautiful lines, we are invincible.

Matt

Then I open my eyes again and it’s darker, easier. The sounds are all there, except Jay snoring, but I don’t think about the noises, as I’m in a strange room. I’m in a room that is all curtains, and I am in bed, although that shouldn’t be so surprising, as I’ve just woken up. Where am I? What’s going on? I was just fetching something wasn’t I?

‘… next time I ask, Cal, just tell me if you need to go, don’t wait until the last minute.’

The curtains are moved aside, and I can’t really see that well because it’s all blurry, but it looks like Beth. Beth stands there, holding the curtains apart so Cal can come in. I can tell it’s Cal because his blond curls are so shiny and bright. Beth hasn’t seen me yet, and I want to shout ‘over here’ but there’s something in my mouth and it’s stopping me talking, and anyway, she soon looks over at me and she gasps, lets go of the curtains – which fall on Cal so he has to fight with them – and rushes over.

‘Matty, oh Matty, sweetheart.’

And it seems like I might have missed something important, but trying to think about it is hard, and so I think I’ll just close my eyes, just for a second. And I fall …

Dec

I woke up near dawn and I was alone.

Couldn’t stand the thought of another day on my own in this flat going over what a mess I’d made of my life. Needed to get out, escape from it all, from my thoughts, my fuck-ups and particularly from Raiders match day. Spent a long time planning my route. Filled a backpack. Caught the early bus out of the city. Got off at a bus stop on a country lane. Walked all day. Didn’t think or feel anything except one foot in front of the other, left, right or straight on for twenty miles or so. Caught the bus home. Grabbed a takeaway. Ate it watching more brain mush. Avoided the news and sports reports. Went to bed. A good day.

No dreams.

Matt

And the next time I woke up, Mum was there too, and they all looked at me when I opened my eyes, but I couldn’t stay awake for long, even though there was a lot I wanted to ask them, which was very frustrating, and I resolved that next time I woke up I really would try hard to stay awake, as Mum would call me a lazybones and that was a laugh, as it was Jay who was the lazy sod, right down to his bones, and the thought made me chuckle.

‘What’s so funny Matty?’

‘Lahzh … bohns.’

Where had that come from? Not out of my mouth, surely. I spoke clearly, loved using words to make a point and take the piss, unless I’d had a few beers, then things sometimes got a bit less clear. But I didn’t remember having beers. Surely that would be the sort of thing you’d remember? It ought to be. Next time I had beer I’d definitely make a note somewhere, so I wouldn’t wake up wondering.

‘Matty? Jesus, did you actually hear me?’

‘Yehh … cohrhs.’

Again with the words. It must have been a hell of a party. Hope I enjoyed it. Hope I gave someone a good time. Oh, no, I wouldn’t have, because I’m with Carrie now, she’s my girl and – oh, no, too, too much, way too much remembering, fuck off all you remembery shit, let me go back to where it was just dark and fuzzy, when I was asleep or dead. Let me be dead again.

‘Matty, oh bloody hell, here.’

I felt something wipe my eyes, and opened them. It was so out of focus, everything was blurred, where the fuck were my glasses, but it looked like Jay, and it felt like he was wiping my eyes with a tissue. What the fuck? Get off Jay, I’m not four years old for fuck’s sake. I tried to move my head away, or grab his hand – it was worse than Mum licking her thumb and wiping dinner from the side of my mouth – but I couldn’t seem to move much at all.

Dec

Wanted to do the same on Sunday, but no buses to speak of. Oblivion was going to be harder to find. Muscles aching from yesterday’s walk. Ran the bath and lay back in the hot water. Watched the steam rising, concentrated on the lazy curls until the water cooled. Still needed to get outside. Walked the streets for a while, still fairly early, not many people about. Walked past a church that was open. Maybe I could do with some quiet contemplation.

Sat inside, watching the light change through the stained glass windows. Peaceful. Helped. People came in, sang, prayed, went away. Allowed my thoughts to wander over the various messes I’d got myself in. Tried to find someone else to blame. Kept coming back to me. Sat there a long time. No divine inspiration. Quite a bit of self-condemnation.

Took my phone out, plugged my headphones in and blocked the world out with music, scrolling through all the pictures I had stored. Reminders of better times – nights out, silly faces, Jay and Beth and Cal, holiday in Ibiza, my car, Cal riding a bike, celebrating a win in the changing room, a birthday cake. I lost myself in memories, living in the past feeling infinitely better than living in the present.

Eventually, a priest came and gently told me he needed to lock up, asking if I needed anything. I shook my head, smiled at him and left. On the way home, the phone pinged with a text.

Nico: =I hear about a gym. We go tomorrow. I check it, is OK for you. I pick you up 5.30. I will be late 😉

I acknowledged his text, then walked home, the winter light fading fast. Once behind my own front door, I thought about eating. Checked my supplies. Rose, in her enthusiasm for cream of chicken soup, had got me little else that I could cook. Potatoes, cabbage, other things that were very healthy, but needed peeling, chopping and otherwise preparing in a manner I could only guess at. I settled for chicken soup tonight. I would need to shop tomorrow.

Sunday night TV even worse than Saturday. Antiques, hymns, local programmes, reality dance shows. All very well when you’re taking the piss out of them with your friends, but no company when you’re on your own. Another early night.

Dreaming. I am flying. Just flying. All night long.

Matt

And after that, everything was real again, albeit in bits and pieces. Jay, Beth, Mum and Cal were here every day. Here was hospital. I’d nearly died. They didn’t tell me that straight off. All I could cope with to start with was they were all here, and here was hospital, and in the beginning they had to tell me that a lot of times, because I was tired, and I felt like shit, and I kept forgetting what they told me.

And I couldn’t bloody well speak. It was like my brain went in one direction, and my mouth went in the other, and I had no breath, so even when I managed to say some piece of unintelligible bollocks, I could only say it one unintelligibly bollocky word at a time, sometimes with pauses in the middle, if the word was a particularly long one, like ‘hello’.

Dec

Woke lying on my front with my arms stretched wide. Felt like I was still in the air for a time. Drifted. Wonderful. Small sounds slowly intruded on my tranquil floating – traffic outside, doors opening and closing in the hallway, voices, a police siren far away. Reality came in piece by piece and shattered it all. Everything came crashing back, one hit after another, knocking me down until I fell from the sky to the world.

My phone bleeped urgently, blasting away all traces of the spell. It was the alarm, telling me to get up, get dressed, get to the club to meet Stuart Clarke and start sorting my life out.

11. Pieces of the night

In which Matty continues to teeter perilously between one world and the next, and Dec continues to encounter setbacks.

Dec

Woke with a start. Daylight. Thumping head. Dry furry mouth. Body aching all over. Still wearing training kit. Still stinking. Still a worthless piece of shit. Stomach growled. I was hungry. Really hungry. Well, I could do something about that.

Sat up carefully and swung leaden, aching legs over the edge of the bed. Dizzy. Stood up. Wobbled to the kitchen. Found biscuits. Ate. Crumbs stuck to the inside of my mouth. Drank water. Lots of water. Hands shaking so much I nearly dropped the glass. Leaned against the sink, tap running fast, panting noisily. Life one piece at a time.

:Alright, love?

Startled, my whole body jolted. Wheeled round to face her, heart pounding.

‘What the fuck.

:Sorry, love, didn’t mean to make you jump. I did knock. Heard you moving about from downstairs. I still had your key. Just wanted to see how you are.

‘Give me the sodding key. Leave me the fuck alone.’

I was almost growling, but she handed me the key and patted me on the shoulder.

:Whatever it is, love, I’m sure it’ll be alright.

Anger welled up, rage from a thousand places.

‘What the fuck do you know? Who the fuck are you anyway? Get the fuck out. Just fuck off.

Moved towards her, fist raised, a reflex. She put her hands up defensively and backed away.

:Alright, I’m going. Sorry to have disturbed you, I’m sure.

Turned back to lean against the sink. Heard the door shut as she left. Eyes screwed shut against the light from the window. Stomach still growling with hunger. Turned round to the fridge. A sandwich, on a plate, covered with cling film. A handwritten note on the top: Protein is good for hangovers. Protein meant meat right? Mouth filled with saliva. So hungry, didn’t even wonder where the magic sandwich had come from. Tore the cling-film off. Smell of egg hit me like a punch. Bile rose into my mouth. Ran to the bathroom. Puked up digestives and water. Flashbacks. Recent memories of puking here, in the lounge, in the kitchen sink. Fun times. But … no memories of clearing up. Surely she hadn’t …

Rested my head on the toilet bowl, unable to think with the renewed pounding in my head blotting out everything. Mouth felt disgusting, bits of vomit clinging to my lips, regurgitated biscuit on my chin, mucus hanging from my nose, tears of humiliation running down my cheeks.

Stood up unsteadily. Turned on the tap. Drank. Rinsed my face. Without lifting my head too far, loaded my toothbrush. Got rid of the worst. Rinsed and spat. Flushed toilet. Again thinking – surely she hadn’t …

Leaned forwards, breathing hard, hands on knees. Stench of me, puke and piss and cheap vodka, no longer bearable. Stood upright slowly. Pulled off shirt, smearing old vomit over my face and through my hair. Pushed down tracksuit bottoms and boxers. Stickiness and smell confirmed I had pissed myself at some stage. From low to lowest. Stepped out of clothes. God Almighty I still had my studs on. Ruined now, covered in filth. Slipped boots and socks off. Turned on shower. Climbed slowly over the side of the bath. Stood under the hot cleansing stream. Remembered what I’d lost.

Wept.

I stood under the shower for a long time. The water had long ago removed at least the physical evidence of my self-induced coma. Thoughts and feelings were becoming a bit clearer. I considered getting more vodka, because forgetting had its upsides. But also its humiliating downsides. I was hollowed out, as if something had scoured away everything I had ever been.

I didn’t know who I was. Everything I had dreamed of, worked for, hoped for, asked for, was gone. I had tossed it away. The steam filled the bathroom, and I began to feel even more light headed. My stomach growled again. I needed to eat.

Finally leaving the limbo of the hot shower, I climbed out of the bath and wrapped a towel round my waist. Walked through the lounge. Able to take in more, it seemed clean and tidy. It was never clean and tidy. Where had all the bottles gone? When I woke up, there were bottles. A lot of bottles.

A sour smell. The couch. It smelt like I had smelt before my shower, would have been soaked with the same fluids. Couldn’t think about it. Went into the kitchen. Avoided the fridge and the egg sandwich which I had thrust back inside. Cupboards provided little beyond a sprouting potato and more digestives. I’d really seen enough of digestives, one way and another. I was going to have to go out. I hadn’t eaten since – what day was it today? I could not compute how long I had wallowed.

From the kitchen I spotted a newspaper sticking out of the letterbox. I walked over and pulled it out. It was the local paper, dated Thursday. Thursday? Surely yesterday was … Monday? Began to realise how much I must have drunk. And why I felt so wobbly. I hadn’t eaten for several days.

As I put the paper down, the back page headline screamed out “Summers Storm Rocks Raiders”. There was a picture of me, in my puke-stained training shirt, with two days growth on my chin, snarling at the camera. Lowest? Nowhere near yet.

Almost immobilised again, but my increasingly insistent hunger was taking priority. I threw the paper to the floor. Moving dazedly to the bedroom (which offered a similar fragrance to the couch) I pulled on some clothes and shoes.

Couldn’t find my wallet. Fumbled around in trouser pockets and found some loose change. Hopefully enough for a Pot Noodle or something. Keys, keys. Couldn’t find my keys. Keys, keys, come on where the fuck are you? Sorted through the rancid pile of clothes I’d left on the bathroom floor. Not there. In the bed? Not there. Down the back of the couch? Not there. Any more stinking shit-holes to search? Could I leave my door open while I went out? Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to get back in the main door. Nobody lets you in if they don’t know you.

Maybe that old lady from downstairs … oh fuck. I remembered swearing at her, I remembered … Jesus, did I raise my fist at her? Then I remembered hearing the hoover, and the clink of glass, and looked again at the tidy flat. Shit, must I screw up everything? Still, I was getting desperate now. Maybe she’d help me if I apologised. Didn’t she say something about having a key? No – she gave me the key. What did I do with it? Where was I when she gave it to me? Kitchen! And there it was by the sink. I held the key up like a trophy.

I left the flat as quickly as my unsteady legs would take me, feeling queasy with hunger and still fighting the hangover from a two day binge. As I reached the ground floor, a door opened. The woman from earlier came out, with a coat on. When she saw me she put her head down and began to walk past.

‘No wait, please, er, sorry don’t know your name.’

She stopped with her hand on the outside door handle. Looked at me. Assessed.

:Rose.

‘Hi. Um, I just, fuck, can I just ask, sorry, I was in a bit of a state before. Did you clean up my flat?’

I was trying my hardest to sound coherent, but it was a struggle.

:I did.

Her lips were pressed tightly together and disapproval knitted her brows in a furrow.

‘Well … thanks. I don’t know what to say. Sorry, I guess, that I shouted at you, and everything.

:You weren’t very pleasant.

‘Sorry. I’ve, er, been, er, not very well.’

:Yes I could see that

She continued to level her gaze at me. I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach made a loud gurgling noise.

‘I need to get some food.’

:I left you a sandwich.

‘Yeah, I know. Thanks. But it, er, made me sick. The smell. Anyway, I need something to eat so …’

I gestured at the door, which she was blocking. When I glanced back to her, she was looking horrified, holding her hand to her mouth.

:Oh love, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think. I always have an egg sandwich when I’ve had one too many, does the trick lovely.

Welsh. That was her accent – it was the ‘lovely’ that did it. Rose was very Welsh.

‘Yeah, well, I had more than one too many.’

:Yes you did, love. From the look of all the bottles, you’re lucky you didn’t give yourself alcohol poisoning. Or choke to death.

‘Or unlucky.’

I muttered it under my breath. Maybe that would have solved everything. Rose had heard me, though, and she focussed sharply on my face.

:What’s that, love?

Shook my head and looked away.

:Hmm. Well I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to make you feel worse.

‘Yeah, well, anyway I need to get to the shop, so …’

I waggled my hand at the door again.

:Look, why don’t I do you some soup?

‘What?’

:Well you’re hungry, my flat is just by here, I have a tin of cream of chicken and some crusty bread. Two ticks, that’s all it’d take.

My mouth filled with spit just hearing about it, and my stomach contracted shamelessly. But talking with a stranger not really on my agenda.

‘Oh no, you’re OK, I need to get, um, other stuff.’

:Oh come on with you.

And for a second time she took my arm and led me away.

:I see you’ve cleaned yourself up a bit. By, you were a sight. And a smell. You might have to throw that sofa away, love, if we can’t get everything out of it. Maybe your carpet too. Did you see the air freshener I left? Anti-bacterial. Should help with some of it. I used it when next door’s cat got shut in while I was work – now there’s a smell you don’t want hanging around: rampant tom cat. I had some words to say about that, I can tell you …

I realised I might not have to do much talking.

Sitting at her kitchen table, chatter floated over me. Didn’t need to reply very often; single words were, thankfully, enough.

:So, how old are you love?

‘Nineteen.’

:Oh, same as my sister’s boy. They’re up in Pontypool. South Wales. Don’t see him much, he’s that age, aunties aren’t very cool are they? From round here are you?

‘No.’

:I’ve lived here fifteen years next February. Came down with my job and my husband. Worked for the gas company. In sales. He left and I stayed. Feels like home now. Like it here do you?

‘S’ok.’

And so she talked on as she heated the soup and cut the bread. Couldn’t focus on her words, the smell of the food was all I could think about, nausea and hunger battling for dominance. Finally it was ready and she placed the bowl in front of me, a spoon into my hand.

:Eat slow now, love. Small spoonfuls. No repeat performances, please.

I nodded. It was hard to go slowly, I was so hungry. The hot liquid slid down my throat and lined my stomach. The bread (:chew it all, love, you’ll choke) was crusty and soft and filling. She tidied and washed up while I ate, talking the whole time. No idea what she said. I finished the bowlful and sat up. Started to feel – what? Normal? Very, very far from normal. But my stomach was full, the waves of nausea were receding and my head throbbed a little less.

‘Thanks, er, Rose.’

:Hit the spot did it?

‘Yeah, very good.’

Really hoped she wasn’t expecting me to stay. I had reached the limits of small talk tolerance. But really didn’t want to offend her again.

:Tidy. Now, I want you to make a list of things I can get you from the shop.

‘What? No, honestly, this was fine. Great. Thanks. I’ll sort something out.’

Wasn’t sure why she was bothering, I’d been pretty awful to her. The soup had been great, I was starting to feel much better, and really just wanted to be left alone now.

:No arguments, love. You need supplies. You’re not in a state to go out. And those noisy buggers from yesterday might still be hanging about.

Hadn’t occurred to me, but I remembered the headline and photo in this morning’s paper.

‘I think they got what they wanted.’

:Hmm. Still, I want you to let me do this for you. It’s no trouble, I’m going for myself anyway.

‘Can’t find my wallet. This is all I’ve got.’

I held out the handful of coins I’d found earlier.

:Oh, that’s in a drawer, love, with your keys and your mobile phone. I found them on the floor last night. Put them away safe.

Sensed defeat. Didn’t have the energy to fight her right now.

‘I’ll go and get you some money then.’

:No rush, love. When I get back is fine. I know where you live.

She settled at the table, satisfied that she’d won the argument.

:Now, I think more soup and bread, easy and hearty, and fruit, keep up your vitamin C. Something for the microwave?

‘Haven’t got one.’

:No microwave?

Jay and Beth had bought me a microwave when I moved out, but I’d needed the money more.

‘Sold it.’

:Oh, alright then, love. Hmm, jacket potatoes then, nice and easy, just stick them in the oven. Bit of butter …

Automatic: ‘I can’t have butter.’

:Oh, you allergic?

‘No, I’m not allowed –’

Sudden realisation that no one would care any more if my highly formulated diet plan was ignored. New loss. Every situation, every conversation, mined with reminders. All started to crowd in on me again. Still couldn’t face the specifics, but lying on top of it all was a silent scream – it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone.

Rose carried on obliviously, organising a shopping list, filling in the gaps my silence created. A hand on my shoulder brought me back to now.

:Come on love, back to your own place. I won’t be long. And I’ll make sure I ring the bell this time.

She steered me through her front door to the stairs.

Back in my flat, tiredness overtook me again. Rose’s continual talking had propped me up, but with nothing to focus on, a full stomach and the continued, if muted, nausea and headache, I felt heavy and lethargic. Still didn’t want to think. Too much I didn’t want to think about. Sleep was appealing. Ignoring the sour odour from my bed, I lay down.

Dreaming. Flying over houses. Seeing Jay’s house, I fly down and in through a window. I watch us all making Sunday lunch. I’m teasing Cal, Jay is teasing us both and Beth is laughing. We eat together and play football in the garden afterwards. I fly down and help Cal score a goal. We go inside and sit down just as the doorbell…

Matt

It is dark. I can hear voices, but I cannot see anything. Mum seems to be talking to Beth. I do not know where I am, whether I am standing or lying, asleep or awake, alive or dead, and I fall …

Dec

…rang. I tried to cling on to the wisps of the dream, but it was gone. All of it. As if it had died. I curled up on the bed, wrapped in misery. Bell rang again. And again. Scythed through my insides.

Fuck. Off.’

Letterbox pushed open.

:Only me love. I’ve got your bits and pieces. I can just leave the bag here, but there’s things need to go in the fridge. Don’t leave it too long, it’ll go off.

Shit. I owed her money.

‘Wait’.

And I’d told her to fuck off. Again.

‘Sorry.’

Jumped off the bed, ignoring protesting head and aching limbs. Tripped over pile of clothes. Stumbled to the door and flung it open. She was just disappearing round the corner on the stairs.

‘Wait!’

Footsteps returned upwards and then she appeared round the corner.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. I was asleep. I’m so sorry.’

:Don’t worry, love. I didn’t take it personally. You still look asleep, if I’m honest. Anything else I can do?’

She reached the door, picked up the bag of shopping and gave it to me.

‘No, no, this is great. Lifesaver. Really.’

The gratitude was wearing me out.

:You know, love, I’m a bit of an interfering old bat, but you don’t seem right to me. Been on a hell of a bender, you’re all over the place, shouting and cursing, bunch of hooligans hanging around till all hours. None of my business I know. But do you need any help? Is there anything I can do? Tell me to wind my neck in if you like, and I will. Just asking because, well, you have to ask don’t you.

Still a worthless piece of shit. Didn’t deserve this. Tried to say ‘I’m fine’. Choked on the words. Lips trembled. Tears welled.

:Oh love, come on now. Why don’t you just tell me? I know I yap on a bit, but I stop and listen sometimes. Might do you good to talk about it.

Say it and it’s real. No way. Suddenly her attention was elsewhere.

:Hold on, is that you?

She bent down and picked up the paper I had thrown down earlier.

:This is you! Oh! You’re that lad from the rugby club aren’t you … oh! You poor love …

She stepped over to me and put her arms round me. I stiffened. Then felt myself crumple. Dropped the bag of shopping. She was short and stout, much shorter than me, but she somehow enfolded me. It seemed so long since anyone had cared how I felt. Beyond my control now to prevent it pouring out. Heaving sobs. Streams of hot tears. Choked incoherent half-words. Leaned on her and wept it all. Emptied myself. She talked the whole time

:There love. It’s alright. Shush now. You poor love. It’s alright. Shush now. There now. There now.

Weeping petered out into shudders. Stood back from her, head in hands. Embarrassed. Wiped face on sleeve. She patted my arm.

:Alright now, love. It’s alright.

I looked at her. Her face was wet too, and she fished in a pocket for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes

:By, you needed that didn’t you, love?

A shrug. A deep breath. A nod.

:Is your mam nearby?

Shook my head.

:Can you ring her?

Old, old sadness. Pushed it back down where it came from, with an effort, so I could say it without feeling it.

‘No … she’s dead.’

:Oh love, I’m so sorry. How about your dad.

‘Same.’

Her eyes filled up again.

:Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?

Made a quick mental list of people I had alienated deliberately and incidentally over the past days, weeks and months.

‘No.’

:Oh love, you must be so lonely. Now look, you can’t go on like this. You don’t look well. Your flat stinks, to be frank, and, well, you haven’t got much stuff have you? Haven’t most of you lads got playstations and computers and the like? You haven’t even got a telly.

‘Sold it.’

:Alright … whatever you say … but you can’t stay here on your own with no one to talk to. This trouble you’re in with the rugby club – I honestly can’t say I know much about it, just saw a bit on the local news when I was waiting for my programme. Isn’t there anyone there?

Felt rather than remembered Don’s words hitting me like a hammer. Remembered Jay’s we’re done.

‘Doubt it.’

Needed not to follow this line of conversation. Not ready to explore reality yet.

‘I can’t talk about it. Please don’t ask.’

:Alright love. But at least let’s make your flat a bit more liveable. Where’s that air freshener?

And she bustled off, spraying pine freshness over the couch, putting the shopping away in the kitchen, calling me into the bedroom to make me strip the bed and put my clothes in the washing machine, tidying and cleaning as she went. There wasn’t much to clean, most it of had gone to eBay, before I sold my laptop.

As Rose made a start on scrubbing the oven, I noticed a pile of mail on the table by the front door. Mostly junk mail, but one white envelope with a Raiders logo in the corner was hard to miss. I opened it slowly and read the contents

‘No, no, no, fuck no.’

:Everything alright love?

‘Today’s Thursday, right?’

:All day, love.

‘Shit. Fuck.’

:You do like a good swear don’t you. What’s the matter, love?

‘I should have been at the club yesterday. Meeting with the coach.’

:Well there’s not much you can do about missing it. Phone and explain. They’ll understand I’m sure.

‘Rose, I really am in a shitload of trouble. I can’t just not turn up when they tell me to. Especially if it’s because I was wasted.’

:Well it’s happened now. The longer you leave it, the worse it’ll be. Just ring. What have you got to lose?

She had a point.

‘Have you moved my phone?

:It’s in the drawer, with your keys, love.

I retrieved my mobile from the drawer where Rose had put it. There wasn’t much charge left. I ignored the alerts to a whole stack of missed calls and texts.

‘Thanks, but I actually meant the land-line Should be on the table here.’

Rose pointed at the wall next to the kitchen door, where there was a large dent, and scratches in the plaster.

:See that hole?

‘Yeah.’

:What was left of your telephone was in little bits underneath that hole, along with your answering machine. I threw it away. Don’t know if you threw it, kicked it, stamped on it or what, but there wasn’t enough left of it to do you much good.

Didn’t know what to say to that. No memory of it. So that left my mobile, and the hope that neither the battery nor the credit ran out before I’d finished the call.

The phone call was painful for all concerned. I knew the girls in the office pretty well, had tried my chat-up techniques out on a couple of them a few times, sometimes dropped in close to coffee time for a freebie. They obviously knew all about me, and were distant and professional. It hurt. I was put on hold while my message was relayed to Don.

*Mr Barker would like you to come in this afternoon.

‘Yeah, what time?’

*Four o’clock would suit him.

‘I’ll be there.’

It was early afternoon now. The buses to that side of town were sporadic and I’d have to walk the last bit along the dual carriageway. I needed to make myself presentable quite quickly.

:Well done love, see that was easier than you thought.

‘They were polite.’

:Well that’s good, isn’t it?

‘We used to have a laugh.’

:Oh, well, not so good then. You need a shave. And another shower wouldn’t go amiss. Have you got clean clothes?

And so Rose carried on organising me. Still a worthless piece of shit. But it seemed like someone might be willing to help me clean the pan when I’d flushed it all away.

I sat on the bus and tried not to think. This would be the ceremonial end of my Raiders career, which had been put out of its misery yesterday. I shied away from it. I dreaded and welcomed it. I didn’t deserve to keep it. And there was my passport and visa not to think about too. Don’s words, ‘implications for remaining in this country’, had shocked me at the time, but with everything else that had been said on Monday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend them, or even give them much attention until now. I couldn’t deal with it.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

I walked along the dual carriageway in a kind of trance. Up the hill to the club car park.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

Started to cross the car park to the players entrance. Became aware of someone walking across from me. It was Jay. The bombardment of questions from outside my front door last night surfaced, with “Anything to say about Jay Scott’s resignation? stopping my footsteps.

If Jay saw me, he ignored me and carried on walking towards his car. I called out to him. He didn’t look up. I ran towards him, needed to talk to him.

‘Jay. Please. I didn’t know – I found out – you’re not really going?’

He got into his car as if he hadn’t heard me, not even glancing in my direction.

‘I’m so sorry. I can’t believe how much I’ve fucked everything up.’

He shut the door, started the engine, put on his seat belt and drove away, all with a determinedly grim expression on his face. As I watched the car, the brake lights went on and then the reversing lights. The car came back towards me. When it drew level, the front window came down. Jay glanced at me, then turned to face forwards. He took a deep breath and began to speak, his voice getting louder as he became more angry.

łYou really are a fucking self-centred little prick. I don’t give a shit about you or your fucking miserable apologies. Not everything is about you. The world doesn’t fucking revolve around you. People don’t live or die because of you. Oh no, sorry, sometimes people do die because of you don’t they. Fuck you. The sun doesn’t shine out of your fucking arse any more. No one gives a shit about you, no one here, no one anywhere. Just fuck off Declan. Or Charlie. Or whatever fucking lying bastard name you’ve chosen today. You make me sick. Just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t talk to us, don’t call us. Go on, fuck off. Fuck off and die for all I care.

He revved the engine and the car roared away.

His words froze me. Could hardly breathe. We really were done. Slumped to the ground and leaned against a car. Completely numb. No thoughts. No tears. Not even any feelings. It all crashed around me.

>Please I need to get to my car.

Looked up, tried to focus. Nico Tiago. With an effort, pushed myself to my feet. Moved aside. He glanced at me before opening the driver’s door. Recognition. A closer look.

>Declan. You look like you see a ghost. Many ghosts. You are alright?

Nodded. He waited.

‘Appointment with Don.’

>Huh. OK. Good luck.

I started to walk across the car park. Feet of lead. From behind me:

>Wait. Don’t go in players’ entrance. There are reporters. They annoy everyone. We all use delivery door.

Changed direction. Got to Don’s office without meeting anyone else. Knocked.

-Yep.

Opened the door.

-Declan. Come on in. Take a seat.

Closed the door and sat down. Waited. Head still full of the bite of Jay’s words. Don breathed in deeply.

-We’ve been trying to get hold of you since Tuesday morning.

Forced myself back to now.

‘I know. Sorry. I’ve been, er, ill.’

Don glanced at something on his desk, and then looked back to me.

-Declan, we’re aware that this must all be very difficult for you. But we need to figure out a lot of things. We need to stay in contact with you. You need to answer your phone when we call you.

Flashback image of hurling my ringing phone across the lounge; stamping on it until the noise stopped. Memory returned, at least of that particular event.

‘My land-line’s broken.’

-Then you need to keep your mobile with you. OK?

My mobile had been in my pocket all the time, but I hadn’t been in any fit state to answer it. Now wasn’t the time to say that.

‘OK. Sorry.’

-Alright. In any case, you’re here now. I just wanted to talk to you about what’s been happening. We need to keep communicating. Don’t go out of contact again.

I nodded.

-Declan, when we spoke on Monday, it was quite an emotional time for us all. I want to update you on some things. It’s not all bad news. But it’s not all good, either. Firstly, I want to talk about the Community Project money. You said you were almost able to pay back the money you took. Can you explain?

‘I’ve been saving up, wages, sold my stuff, borrowed, anything. It’s taken longer than I thought. I’ve got most of it. About a thousand short. It’s in a bank account.’

The full extent of the amount I’d borrowed, who I’d borrowed it from and how long it was going to take me to pay it all back made my blood run cold, but that was for another day.

-I’ve been asking around. Over the past couple of months, you haven’t made yourself very popular here, you’ve borrowed a lot of money. Frankly, with the potential consequences of your passport, you’re even less popular right now. But nonetheless, we have decided that if you hand over the money you have, to the charities it was destined for, we won’t press charges. To be honest, I thought your borrowing was to add to what you took, not to try to replace it, and it makes a difference, knowing your motives. To my knowledge, your actions in this respect have not reached the press, so we should be able to keep it as an internal matter. This club prides itself on its community and charity links, and if this becomes general knowledge, it will damage our reputation. It is only for this reason we are not taking the matter further; if it becomes public, we may have to rethink.

I gaped. I had not expected anything other than a visit from the police. It was more, much more than I deserved.

‘That’s … I … thank you.’

-This isn’t a let off. Your conduct has been gravely unprofessional and risked the reputation of Raiders. But we felt we had to take into account your conduct prior to this incident, and your attempts to make good. Another development of this particular saga is that we have done some investigating and it appears that the man who died in your accident didn’t have any children.

‘Whoa – what?’

My jaw dropped and I just stared at Don with my mouth open.

-Did you actually check any of his story before handing over the money?

My brain was rapidly scrambling.

‘I … no. I … just … he seemed to know all about it. I was … fuck … I’m a fucking idiot.’

I carried on berating myself silently. Don had a grim look on his face.

-Well I think your chances of recovering any money from him are non-existent, so in effect you have given away ten thousand pounds of your own money to a complete stranger.

Fucking, fucking idiot.

To say I hope you’ve learned your lesson would be very much an understatement. As a club we are going to draw a line under this, but obviously you still have some way to go to make things right. However, the other issues we discussed when we last met continue to be concerning. Concealing criminal proceedings, giving us an invalid passport, and taking the money in the first place are matters of grave concern to me. You have made some serious errors of judgement and have not used the support network available to you through the club to communicate with us about what’s been going on with you. I’m afraid we are not looking very favourably at this. Missing your appointment yesterday was an extra consideration.

Don glanced to his desk again. Following his glance this time I saw the local paper folded on his desk, ‘Summers Storm Rocks Raiders’ headline uppermost. Hidden underneath, the telling photo of me in all my glory. Don was well aware of why I had been out of contact.

-I think it may be difficult, for Raiders and for you, for us to work together in the future. You have severely damaged your relationship with the club. You should know that we are considering terminating your contract. For the time being you will remain suspended, for the time being on full pay, but will meet regularly with Stuart Clarke, who is taking over as backs coach. You are aware that Jay is leaving us?

A miserable nod. Thought again about Jay venting his disgust at me from his car.

-I think you should be aware that if Jay were staying, you would not be returning in any capacity. Stuart is going out on a limb to make sure we all have the chance to make something work with you. We will see how things have progressed in a few weeks and review it then. We want to try to re-establish some kind of trust in you; you are a promising young player and until recent events we had been very happy with your progress. But we are not willing to risk the wider club for your sake. So you have a lot of hard work to do, and I think it will be an uphill struggle. You have alienated a great many of the players, coaching staff and people working throughout the club, and it may not be possible to get to a point where we think it will work. A lot of it depends on your attitude and the amount of work you put in. But it will ultimately be a club decision. In the meantime, you need to keep fit. The conditioning team have drawn up a training programme for you. You will not be able to use the club gym, or any of your club memberships to affiliated facilities. In fact all your privileges as a Raiders player are suspended. You will not come to Raiders premises unless specifically invited by me or Stuart.

Another glance at the newspaper. He picked it up and turned the back page to face me.

-This type of image is not acceptable in a Raiders shirt. It is not acceptable from a Raiders player. I want you to lay off the alcohol. Completely. Do you understand all this?

‘I think so. I mean, yeah. I understand. I’m sorry.’

My head was spinning. I had thought everyone would feel the same as Jay, had truly expected to be dismissed. It wasn’t far from it, maybe only a few more weeks until it happened, but there was a tiny glimmer of hope. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Wasn’t sure I could even remember it all.

-It’s a lot to take in, I know. I will get a letter sent to you outlining the main points of our discussion today, and a copy of your training schedule. I also want to talk through your visa situation. We have looked into your passports. It appears that you would qualify for dual nationality, but that your British passport was not correctly registered. It still means that Raiders are likely to be punished for having you on our books as a British citizen, especially having played in that game last season. But I think it can be sorted out so you don’t need a visa. You just need to sign some forms and give us both your passports. Our legal guys are doing the rest. Declan, you were this close to potentially being deported. I hope you appreciate how serious this is.

I nodded. I had never really paid much attention to my passports, or the legal significance of which one I used. I thought of myself as Australian. I knew there were complicated rules about foreign players, but it never occurred to me that any of them applied to me. I had been extremely naïve, and very lucky. It made me feel sick to think how close I may have come to being sent back to Australia, where I knew nobody.

‘Thank you. I … I know I’ve caused a huge amount of trouble. It’s generous of the club to help me out. It’s more than I deserve.’

Don nodded.

-There is just one other thing.

He leaned back and steepled his hands under his chin.

-Jay is aware we are meeting today, and has asked me to pass on to you a request that you do not try to see him or contact him or his family.

His words stung me. The realisation that I had lost, no, thrown away what Jay and his family had given me caused me physical pain. If he didn’t want me to contact them, I wouldn’t. But I could hardly believe I wasn’t going to be able to see them or talk to them again. It wasn’t just Jay, but Beth, and Cal … it was unbearable. Don was still speaking, and I dragged my attention back to him with an effort.

-Jay’s last day with us is tomorrow. Declan, of all the outcomes of your actions, the rift you have caused between you and Jay is the one I think you will regret the most. I personally feel that the amount of trouble you find yourself in stems from not going to Jay, or someone else from the club, from the start. This might all be behind you by now if you had. You would both have had the support you need. And we may still have had our backs coach. You have burned many bridges in the last few months. I hope this isn’t the one that proves most catastrophic.

He took a deep breath and sat up.

-OK. I think that’s enough for now. Go home and sort yourself out. Turn your phone on.

He stood up and indicated the door.

It was getting dark by the time I crossed the car park. There were a few cars left, but most people would be gone by now. As I passed a red Honda, a window wound down.

>Hey, Declan.

It was Nico Tiago. I stopped, surprised.

>I wait for you. I worry. You look horrible before.

‘I’m OK.’

>You look horrible still.

‘Hangover.’

>Ha! I understand. Meeting Don with hangover is never good. I do this before. He always know!

I smiled grimly, pretty sure that none of Nico Tiago’s hangovers had been plastered over the back pages of the local paper.

>You want a lift home?

‘Oh, no, you’re OK, I’m getting the bus.’

>I am quicker. Get in.

‘But –’

He opened the passenger door and gestured me round the car.

‘OK, thanks’.

Something else a worthless piece of shit like me didn’t deserve. Added it to the tab. As we pulled away, he asked

>How was the meeting?

I thought back over the twists and turns. It had been a bit of a roller coaster. Hadn’t sorted through it all properly yet.

‘Had its moments. Not all bad. Not much good.’

>You stay here?

‘Suspended. On some kind of probation.’

>Probation?

‘Er, have to behave myself, work hard, still might have fucked it all up in the end.’

>Huh. There is hope for you then.

‘I guess. I’m pretty lucky to still have my job, for now, and not be on the next plane to the other side of the world.’

>Don send you away?

‘You know I fucked up my passport? It’s complicated. I could have been deported, let alone all the grief I’ve caused Raiders.’

It started to dawn on me how close I had been. I couldn’t think about it. Pushed it away.

>Declan, this sound bad. Is OK now? I know passport is important, rules for playing are hard to understand.

‘I think it’s sorted.’

>Good. Where you live?

I gave him directions.

>Oh is near my gym. I do extra training in the week, they have a great trainer there, he used to work for Raiders. Do you go there?

‘No. But I … guess I might have to.’

I told him about the fitness conditions of my suspension.

>I take you sometime. You come as my guest, I introduce to you Luke.

His offer was unbelievably kind. I struggled to accept it. I didn’t deserve anyone’s help. I deserved to fuck off and die.

‘Thanks’ was all I could manage.

>Great. I let you know. I turn off here?

The rest of the journey was taken up with lefts and rights and mini-roundabouts. As we pulled up outside:

>See you soon.

As I opened the passenger door:

>Hey Declan, be careful of yourself.

I nodded and walked to the front door as he drove away. Paused before putting the key in the lock. Turned and walked down the road to the park.

Sat on a bench in the dark, allowing myself to think. The aches, pains and fog from the vodka were fading, and I could feel some coherence returning. I felt anonymous in the dark. It was good to disappear.

Seeing Jay, feeling the full force of his anger, had brought home to me just how much I had thrown away. I’d cost him his job, one way or another, and I had to accept it was over with me and his family. They were gone, I had no one again. I had done it to myself.

I had thought everything else would be gone by now, but there was just that tiny bit of hope. I was still clinging on to being part of Raiders, just barely. I could feel a cliff-side facing me. I would have to swallow a lot of pride and face a lot of scorn if I was going to climb it. And I still might get thrown from the top, even if I made it up there. I sat for a while longer. Then I went home to start climbing.

Back in my flat, I plugged my mobile into the charger (also in the drawer, put there by Rose). Avoided all the messages for now, but would have to go through them eventually to clear some space. Sat on the couch – there was a lingering hint of the excesses of the past few days, but Rose must have emptied about five cans of air freshener onto it, as it predominantly smelt strongly of pine.

The doorbell went. Through the letterbox:

:It’s Rose. I heard you come in. How did it go?

‘Do you want to come in?’

:Ooh I would, love, but not if you’re busy.

I opened the door. She bustled into the room, looking about her, probably trying to find things to tidy up. She sat on the sofa. It was a bit cosy for two relative strangers, so I sat on the floor.

:Cuppa wouldn’t go amiss, mind.

‘Yeah, sure, coming up.’

I got up off the floor, noting as I did so how much easier moving around had become in the last couple of hours. The pounding headache had reduced to a dull throb that mingled with the shame, guilt and misery. I pushed it all down and tried not to feel any of it.

Rose chatted away as I made the tea, telling me about some run in with a neighbour, filling the spaces with fluff and meaninglessness and wonderful irrelevance. I felt my mood lifting a little bit. It was almost imperceptible, but I had spent so long on my own, having to keep my thoughts to myself, looking after myself, overthinking everything, that having Rose’s talk as a buffer sheltered me from the intensity of it all. I handed her the tea.

:So how did it go, then? I hope you don’t mind, I read that bit in the paper about you. Not a good photo, love, and you don’t really come off that well in the rest of it I must say. Don’t put much store by everything I read in the papers, but you really do seem to be in a heap of it.

And easy as that it was several steps backwards. Mood crashed. Climbing the cliff was going to be a slow process.

‘I haven’t read the paper, but I should think most of it was true.’

:By, you must have been through it in the past few months then, love.

‘All my own fault really.’

:Was there nobody who could help you?

‘My mates all play for Raiders. I couldn’t tell them, the club would have found out.’

:What about one of the older ones? I always used to tell my nephew to tell a teacher if he was in trouble.

‘Same thing. I had to keep it to myself.’

:I’m sure you had your reasons. Seems a shame, though, young lad like you with all this on your shoulders. No family around?

‘Not really, not now.’

Jay, Beth and Cal had become my family, and I’d blown that one out of the water. My eyes suddenly stung with tears. I hadn’t seen Cal for weeks. He was like a little brother, annoying, cheeky, wisdom of a five year old, we had fun times. After today with Jay, I knew it was unlikely I would ever see him again.

:What is it love?

I wiped my eyes.

‘Sorry Rose, I can’t keep crying all over you. Not good for my man points.’

:Don’t you worry about that, got broad shoulders I have. Want to tell me, love?

And, surprising myself, I did. I told her about how I’d arrived in the city three years ago, on a rugby scholarship. I was sixteen then, so one of the conditions was that I lived with a family to start with. Jay had volunteered; as new backs coach, he had told me he felt he was well placed to oversee the development of a potential Raiders centre.

It had been a rocky start. I wasn’t used to doing as I was told, having been in and out of different foster homes after my parents died when I was thirteen. I was pretty awful to begin with, if I’m honest; bad language, outbursts, hanging out with all sorts of weird people to get a reaction, wagging school on a regular basis. Jay and Beth were solid, though, always seemed to know how to handle my moods, tempers and rudeness. They seemed to understand me, and treated me as part of their family. I should have moved on after a few weeks, found something more permanent, but I liked it there, I liked them, and it just never happened.

As we trusted each other more, I calmed down a bit and began to enjoy being part of all that. Calum – Cal – was two when I arrived, now five, and he felt like the little brother I’d never had. Jay and I messed about like mates sometimes, but I knew where I stood with him, and he didn’t take any shit from me. Beth kept me in line with the odd word or disappointed look if I was getting out of hand, but she was great to talk to, for advice, chats, gossip about the rest of the team. I think I was a bit of a project for her; she liked a challenge.

Jay gave me no preferential treatment at the club, never gave my mates reason to shout ‘unfair’, never treated me any differently at work from anyone else. Same bollockings when I’d messed up, same praise when I’d done well. He was Scotty at work and Jay at home.

I became pretty settled. I’d progressed through the scholarship to the academy and was possibly on the verge of breaking into the first team. Life had been good.

‘And then I fucked it all up. Sorry. I know I swear a lot. Just comes out.’

:Don’t worry love, a good swear can help sometimes.

Rose had listened without interrupting through the story, which was a minor miracle. She had obviously been bursting with questions though.

:But where did it, I mean how … it sounds like such a lovely home … what did you –

‘Are you trying to ask exactly how I fucked it all up?’

:Yes, love, I suppose I am. But if it’s hard for you to talk about, you don’t have to.

I thought about it. Found a way.

‘OK, I’ll give you the short version, but I don’t think I can do details, it’s too hard.’

:Alright love, no nosy questions, I promise.

‘OK … I had a car accident. A man died. There was an inquest. Couldn’t tell anyone. Used the wrong passport as ID, which will affect Raiders, and could have got me kicked out of the country. Stole money to help the son – no – the person I thought was the son of the man who died. Couldn’t tell anyone. Moved out so I didn’t have to face telling Jay and Beth. Avoided everyone I know by telling them I’m doing a college course that keeps me busy. Told so many lies to so many people. I saw Jay today. He told me to fuck off and die. He’s leaving Raiders because of me, I don’t know where he’s going. I’ll probably never see them again.’

I pushed it down far enough that I managed to say it without getting emotional, but it still hurt pretty badly.

:Oh, love.

A silence. Rose had promised not to ask questions, but was likely to have hundreds.

:You know, I don’t even know your real name. The paper said you’re Declan, but also Charlie. Which one are you?

‘Well, I’ve been Declan for a while now. I was Charlie before. It’s what my parents called me. That’s why the passport stuff is so bloody complicated. Don’t really know who the fuck I am now.

:What does everyone call you?

‘Bloody troublemaker probably. Declan is fine.’

:Alright, then, love. So, Declan, I want to know how your meeting with your boss went today.

‘Oh … so-so. Not lost my job yet, but likely will in a few weeks. Suspended, got to work hard on trying to get them to trust me again to have a chance.’

:Well, to me that says it’s not all doom and gloom then, if they didn’t give you your marching orders this afternoon.

‘No. I was expecting them to, really, but they’ve been pretty fair. Amazingly fair. Really helpful with sorting out my passport. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.’

:Well I think that’s encouraging. Having a reasonable boss is important – I remember when I worked in Ponty for a solicitors, ooh now there was a boss you wouldn’t want. He had me working all hours …

And she was off again. Rose seemed to have a knack for sensing when I had reached my limits in a conversation, and could immediately launch into a lengthy story behind which I could hide and drift away. She didn’t seem to expect me to contribute to this, just to appear to be listening politely, for which I was very grateful. I hid and drifted.

: … so anyway, eventually I told him where to stick his plastic yucca plant, and walked out. Can you imagine?

‘Yes, Rose, I can imagine.’

:Now, I’ve bent your ear long enough, love. I’ll wash this cup up and be out of your hair.

‘No need, I can wash it up. I’m really feeling a lot better.’

I took the cup from her and took it into the kitchen. She was by the front door when I came out. I needed to say it.

‘Rose, before you go, can I just say, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’ve been great and I am very grateful. I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused you the last couple of days, how rude I was to you, I don’t know why you’ve helped me, I don’t deserve it.’

:Oh love, don’t ever say that. We should all help each other, it’s not about deserving. But you’re welcome. I like looking after people, I’m good at it. Which reminds me, I’m bringing you a telly tomorrow.

‘What?’

:Well I can’t have you sitting here staring at that big dent in the wall all day. You need something to look at, even if it’s only Countdown. I’ve got a spare in my guest room. You can borrow that.

I laughed – first time I had done that for a while.

‘Go home Rose. You’re fucking amazing.’

I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and shut the door behind her.

As I was closing the door, my phone beeped. It reminded me of all the texts and messages I needed to sort through. Not a prospect I relished. But the longer I left it the worse it would be – that cliff I’d imagined rose up above me, getting taller all the time, and the only way to make it look any less intimidating was to climb up it.

Steeling myself, also realising I couldn’t miss any more calls from Raiders, I unplugged the phone from the charger and took it to the sofa. Started with the texts. I had too many to deal with one by one, so I deleted all the spam and numbers only, then checked the names on the rest. Many from mates from the club. Many of them people I owed money to. Checked a couple. Not complimentary.

Big: =Thanks 4 losing Scotty 4 us. Twat.

Mikey: =Wot u finking? Cheers 4 pts deduction.

DivDav: =Fuck off, wanker. Don’t call me.

Danno: =Where’s my £500? U said this week.

Hurtful. Not unexpected. The younger players at the club were a tight knit group, with girlfriends included. There were messages from some of the girls too, which seemed to be fishing for more information in the guise of sympathy.

Cara: =Hope u ok. Wanna talk?

Sarah: =RUOK? Call me 2 chat.

Katie: =UOK hun? Need my money back soon. Txt me.

After scanning a few and sensing a theme I deleted all of those ones. I had borrowed money from most of my mates, and could understand how they must be feeling. Just didn’t want to read it all.

There were some texts from senior players who had my number, most asking me to get in touch with Don. There had obviously been a concerted effort to contact me. Some of them had added their thoughts on my actions. Not pleasant reading. Read it all anyway. One text from an anonymous number caught my eye before I deleted it.

No number: =Payback.

After the texts, I went through my voice-mails A few from some of my mates on Monday evening, trying to find me, after seeing me having my heart-to-heart in the changing room with Jay earlier in the day. A few from them all again, early on Tuesday morning having found out what had been going on and having a go at me. Easy to delete, but not before their anger and hurt filtered through. Several messages on Tuesday morning from various Admin staff, then more senior office staff and eventually Don sounding extremely angry and telling me to:

-Get your arse to the club right now.

Don rarely (for an ex-rugby player) swore, and even more rarely lost his temper. I realised anew how lucky I had been to keep my job. I went through the messages and texts systematically, trying to distance myself from the anger in them all.

Saved one of them till last. Voicemail from Monday afternoon. From Beth. Hardly dared play it. Finger hovered over the delete button for a long time. She deserved her say. Pressed play.

From long ago and far away:

_Dec, please can you ring me? I can’t get hold of James. He’s left me a message, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he sounds really upset. I’m worried. I think he said something about you, but I couldn’t really hear him. I’m really worried. Please ring me, sweetheart. Do you know where he is? What’s happened? I’m so worried. Please ring me and let me know you’re both alright.

Took a long time to process that one. It was from a time before she knew I’d fucked it all up, when she still cared. Played it again, to hear her voice, talking to me as if I was only across town and not across a chasm. Played it again. And again. And cried. And listened again. So, so wanted to call her, both of them. I missed them, so much. Worthless, worthless piece of shit.

There’s only so long you can huddle in the dark on a couch that stinks of pine, feeling sorry for yourself, before it occurs to you that you’d be better off in bed.

Hauled myself off the sofa and into the bedroom, stripped my clothes off and got under the duvet. Sleep didn’t come. Too many swirls and tangents inhabiting my mind. Things I should and shouldn’t have said or done. Damning myself for every one of the mistakes I had made that had led me here. Imagining, torturing myself with ways it could have been different.

Underneath it all, Beth’s voice from last night:

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

And Jay’s:

łFuck off and die for all I care.

Curled myself into a ball and sobbed my wretchedness into the pillow. Must have fallen asleep eventually.

Dreaming. I am flying. Flying over a beach in Australia. There is a family on a picnic rug. Mum, Dad and me. I wave at my smaller self, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly off over the sea. Fly and fly, high as the wind. After a long time, another beach, another country. Another picnic rug. Jay, Beth and Cal. I wave at Cal, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly down onto the beach to join them. We all build sandcastles with Cal, then lie down on the rug, looking up at the sky. The sun gets in my eyes and…

Matt

I am running. Running across fields, running along beaches, running up hills, running through streets. Ahead is a cliff, but I do not stop running, I run towards it, to the edge, where I jump high in the air, and I fall …

Dec

…woke me up. I hadn’t pulled the curtains last night, and the sun was shining on my pillow. Shut my eyes again, hoping to find traces of the dream behind my eyelids. It was long gone, leaving me bare and raw The desolation settled somewhere under my ribcage.

10. Changes

In which we hear from Dec for the first time, while we wait for news of Matty

Cal

I’ve always fancied writing something. I used to love doing stories when I was younger, but when I started playing rugby, that just took over everything, and I let it slide. Now I’ve been to Uni doing my physio training, I’ve written loads, but it’s mostly been about muscle groups and postural management, and I think this might make my brain think in a different way.

I loved reading everything from Matty, Lau and Dec, it made me realise that however much you think you know about something, you don’t know the whole story until you get everyone’s point of view.

Anyway, it’s about time I stopped putting it off, and just got on with writing it.

So maybe I’m not going to do it straight, at least not right away. I’m going to start with the person who’s responsible for this, for me wanting to write some kind of retro diary.

Matty.

I didn’t see much of Matty when I was really little, and then he was suddenly there, all the time, although he was mostly in bed. I was only five or six, and I remember us – that’s me, Mum and Dad – just moving house one day. We went up to stay with Granny, and then moved into our own house, because Matty was in hospital and although I don’t really remember details, and maybe my memory is coloured by knowing now what it was all about, there were a lot of quiet conversations, and I saw my dad cry for the first time ever, and I had to be really good and quiet and not make a fuss about wanting to watch Mythbusters, because Mythbusters wasn’t on Granny’s telly.

I didn’t know, then, that Matty nearly died, and I didn’t know, then, that Dad had told Dec to fuck off and die and not to contact us. All I knew was we were living somewhere else, somewhere far away from my school and my friends, and far away from Dec, and I was going to a new school, and we were going to the hospital every day to see Uncle Matty, who didn’t look like Uncle Matty, but was all thin and pale and asleep with tubes up his nose and wires from machines in him and a tube for his wee to run down into a bag.

I was quite interested in the tubes and wires, but I wasn’t allowed to touch them, and I’d sit there, sometimes with Mum, sometimes with Dad, sometimes with Granny, sometimes with all of them, and it was pretty boring, watching Uncle Matty sleeping, but I wasn’t allowed to play, or talk loudly, and had to make do with looking at magazines that I would persuade Mum to buy me from the shop near the entrance. Sometimes they were about dinosaurs, and sometimes they only had football ones.

Matt

I am on a swing. My legs are moving to and fro underneath me and someone is behind me, pushing me. As I go to and fro, up and down, the trees blur with the movement. I twist round to see who is pushing me and I fall …

Dec

łWhat the fuck is this?

Jay stood over me, holding the letter. Sitting on the changing room floor, head bowed, back against the wall, I couldn’t meet his eyes. Shook my head. Had no words. He held his hand out towards me, and I glanced at the newspaper cutting he was holding, with a sinking heart.

łIs it true, then?

I nodded, misery crashing over me.

łJesus, Dec. I don’t fucking believe it. Why didn’t you tell me?

I shook my head again, pinched the bridge of my nose, took a deep breath.

‘Couldn’t say it. Too hard.’

He slid down the wall and sat next to me. I could feel how tense and angry he was, and I tried to explain.

‘I thought, when it was in the paper, the club would find out and that would be it.’

A deep shuddering sigh. It didn’t make any sense, I knew that. Still looking at the floor, I felt the burn of his gaze.

łBut this was what –

He looked at the date on the newspaper clipping that he held

ł – back in the summer. And it’s not even about you.

His confusion and disappointment were there to hear.

‘They used my other name. When nothing happened, I convinced myself it was OK.’

łOther name? Jesus. Does Don know?

Shook my head. Nobody knew, I’d been sure of it. That was the point of all this.

łYou’ve got to tell him.

It was the only thing left, now it was out there. Heavy heart, heavy limbs, heavy head. I could hardly lift my eyes to his. It would be the end.

‘I can’t.’

It was paralysing. Reflexes moved my knees up to my chest, head down to meet them, arms folded over my head. I just wanted the world to go away.

A commotion outside, laughter. The door burst open. A group of lads, excited, banter, pushing. Jay looked up.

łPiss off for a bit would you?

They looked from him to me, smiles disappearing, turned and trooped out. Laughter started again, fading away. Jay got up and stood over me, hands on his hips.

łIt’s not a choice. He’s going to know. You need to fucking man up.

He walked away, the slam of the door juddering through me.

Alone with my thoughts. No better than sharing them. Sat until my back started to ache. Eventually forced to move by the prospect of returning laughers. Walking felt strange, disconnected. No aim, no destination. Stepped outside. He’d waited.

łCome on.

‘What?’ a whisper.

łDon’s office. Now.

No more words were exchanged, but I followed. Banter boys across the field, shouting, threw a ball between them. I was just there, I thought, that was me, now it’s gone, no longer mine. No more thoughts, just a sludge of despair. We reached the office. He knocked.

-Yep.

Jay motioned to me to open the door, so I did. Don looked at me, then behind me. A small frown appeared above his eyes at what I assumed was a gesture behind me from Jay.

-Come on in, Declan.

There was more unspoken communication between them. Jay thrust the photocopied pages at me, placed his hand between my shoulder blades and pushed me forwards. He was not in the room when the door shut behind me.

-What’s the problem?

I gave him the papers. He looked at them. I looked at the floor, felt I was melting into it; past, present, future all congealed here. Don read carefully, and several times, his brows furrowed.

-Is this about you, somehow?

He held up the newspaper clipping. Head still down, I nodded. The slightest of movements.

-Look at me. This person named here, Charlie Collier. Who is that?

Deep breath.

‘Me’.

-And how can you be Charlie Collier when you’re Declan Summers?

I could barely frame a reply, but this needed saying. It had to be explained so it could all be over. I told him about being adopted; the passport mix up that was never properly sorted out; changing my name.

-OK, so when the club asked you for your passport you showed us a false one because …?

‘Didn’t think. Didn’t think of it as false, just have two names, two passports.’

-But Declan Summers is not your name on a valid British passport?

I shook my head, although I had never really been sure about how it all worked.

-Are you a British citizen?

‘Don’t know. It’s complicated.

-Do you realise that the club will get into serious trouble if you have played as an Australian when we already had our quota of foreign players on the pitch? When you came on as a replacement last season? You’ve been here for – what – more than three years now … this could be very serious.

Head dropped again. A nod. I was tumbling into a black hole, my nightmares coming true. Don sighed and sat back in his chair.

-You really are in a lot of bother.

He picked up the letter.

-Do you know who sent this?

‘No.’

-But it’s true?

A nod.

-Look at me Declan.

With an effort I lifted my head. A spinning sensation.

-I was already going to talk to you today about something else that has come to light. I thought that was what you were here for. But this is also very serious. I have to take it upstairs. Wait here.

Left to my thoughts again. He obviously knew about the money, too. Legs wobbled. Sank onto a chair. Some time passed. A knock. Door opened. One of the senior players peered in. Nico Tiago. Argentine winger. Another of my heroes soon to dismiss me as a wasted memory.

>Don, he is not here? Ha, no, I see not, but he is back soon?

I honestly didn’t know. I shrugged.

>I have my match review now. Um. I wait?

I shrugged again, rude. What did it matter now. He sat down.

>Hey, you play for reserves last week. Is great game, very close. You play well.

This conversation should have been a lifetime highlight. I couldn’t begin to speak. Another shrug.

>Hey man, you OK?

Couldn’t even muster a shrug.

>Huh. Maybe I come back later. Tell Don I am here OK?

An almost imperceptible nod from me. No eye contact.

>OK then.

He left with a sigh of exasperation. Beyond the door, a muffled conversation.

>Jaime.

łNico.

> Your golden boy he is in there. He OK?

łDoubt it. Major fuck up.

>Huh! What he do?

łKilled someone.

>Ha! Good one. Tell me later.

The door opened.

łWhere’s Don?

‘Went out.’

łLook mate, you can ditch the attitude. I’m so fucking pissed off with you, you’re walking a really fine line.

His anger enabled me, like sympathy could not have. I stood up and faced him.

‘Go on then.’

Squaring up, hoping I could make him punch me, it was what I deserved.

łDon’t tempt me you little shit. Do you realise just what you might have pissed away? You fucking stupid –

-OK, keep it down, can we have a bit of calm?

Don walked in and took his seat behind the small desk.

-Jay, can you stay for a bit?

A pause, a sigh, then a nod. We both sat down.

-Right then. I need to clarify some of this. Jay, you have read this letter and the article?

Jay nodded curtly.

-Declan has confirmed that it is all correct. I have just spoken to the chief exec. It’s already bad enough, you have kept a lot of information from us. But there is something else that we would like you to explain, Declan.

Knew what was coming. Thought I’d have more time to put it right. Too late now.

-Some months ago, when you were part of the Youth Team Community Charity project, you were responsible for a large sum of money.

Jay turned to look at me.

-We’ve recently been contacted by one of the intended recipients of the donations. They never received it. We checked with the other recipients. Same thing. What happened to that money, Declan?

So hard. It had been the only thing to do then. Now it was destroying me.

-Can I suggest that maybe you took it?

Sharp intake of breath from Jay. A whisper.

łJesus, Dec.

Head in my hands, as if hiding would make it go away.

‘Yeah.’

łDec, what the fuck?

Turning to Don.

łHow much? Don?

-About ten thousand pounds.

łJesus. Jesus Christ. You bloody, fucking –

-OK Jay, there is still a lot we need to talk about. You can both discuss it afterwards. Declan, can you explain what you did with this money?

Too hard. Too many months of hiding, pretence and deceit to remember it right.

-You really are going to have to talk to me. I’m not going to sit here guessing all afternoon.

Tried to get the words in the right order.

‘I gave it to someone. They needed it.’

-What exactly do you mean?

‘They … came to the door. Said … it … was their dad. Needed what he … would have given them.

-Who was this?

‘His son.’

-Declan, you’re not making any sense. Someone came and asked you for money that their dad would have given them, and you just handed over the charity money?

‘Mm.’

As simple and as complicated as that.

-Tell me exactly who you gave the money to.

Annoyance and exasperation telling in his usually measured tones.

‘The son, his son, the man who –

The word nearly stuck in my throat.

‘– died.’

A silence, during which I shrivelled inside myself.

-I see.

łWell I bloody don’t. What the fuck are you talking about?

‘He needed it.’

It had seemed so clear then; now everything was hazy in my mind. I’d avoided thinking about it for so long.

-Declan, you seem to be in some doubt about this; that money was not yours to give away.

‘He was angry. Told me I had to pay.’

Don rubbed his hands over his face.

-Look, Declan, I appreciate that this is difficult for you. But there are rules about distributing money collected for charity. You have broken them. You’ve broken the law. Do you understand?

‘I was paying it back – I’ve nearly got it all.’

-You seem to think you can break rules how and when you want to. That’s not how it works. I need to know who has this money.

‘Don’t know his name.’

Don stared at me, then shook his head.

-How did you say you met him?

‘Came to the house.’

-When was this?

‘Don’t remember exactly. In the summer. After the inquest.’

łHang on – whose house are you talking about?

‘Yours.’

An exhalation of exasperation.

łYou never said a word. About any of this. Jesus.

-Declan, I need you to tell me how to contact this man.

Didn’t know. Couldn’t say.

-Son, you’re already up to your eyes with the passport business, you really need to –

łPassport? Dec, what the fuck is going on here? This is all getting a bit fucking much.

Don gave Jay the short version of how my passport had fucked things up even more. Jay became visibly more furious, glancing at me occasionally, cheeks reddening, shoulders tensing.

łYou really had us all fooled didn’t you. Jesus. No more pissing about. You’re going to tell us, right now, who exactly this man is and how exactly we can get the money back.

Looked at him helplessly.

‘I only met him a couple of times. I don’t know his name. I suppose his last name is the same as his dad’s.’

łSo, I can’t get this all straight. He comes to the house. He asks for money. You think ‘Oh, I’ve got ten thousand quid sitting upstairs in a shoebox, I’ll give him that’. You don’t even ask his name. I don’t get it. Tell me.

‘I killed his dad!’

If I said it in a rush without thinking about it, it was less painful, but it still ripped the scars wide open and the guilt poured in.

His dad was going to give him money for an extension to his house for his daughter. She’s sick. He said I had to pay for what I did. He scared me. And he was right. I did have to pay. I am paying. I’m paying it back. I’m nearly there.’

Just a few more weeks and I might have done it. Selling everything I owned, all the begging and borrowing from friends, acquaintances and then people I hardly knew, might have been worth it.

-That is really beside the point. It wasn’t your money to give away. Bloody hell this is complicated. OK, another question. There was no court case, so obviously nobody thinks you deliberately killed this man’s father. It mentions a verdict here?

‘Misadventure.’

-Which means?

‘No one knows what the fuck happened.’

-So what’s your version?

‘I crashed my car and a man died.’

And left my life splattered in the ditch with his.

-The newspaper tells me that much. Were you drunk?

‘I’d had a beer. Wasn’t drunk.’

-Was it your fault?

Ah, well, there was the question, but I couldn’t answer it.

‘I don’t know.’

A snort from Jay. He was staring stonily out of the window, which looked onto the pitch and new grandstand. The sun was beginning to set above it and a few seagulls flew lazily overhead. Field of dreams.

-So this letter we’ve received today, with the newspaper clipping, might it be from this same man? Making you pay another way?

Shrugged. Everything was ending. Didn’t matter who or why.

-You say you don’t know how to contact this man. How did you pay him? Surely you didn’t have the cash in the house?

Shook my head.

‘Special account for the charity. I was going to transfer it.’

łYeah, we all thought how responsible you were. Do him good, taking charge. That turned out well.

-So you took it out in cash?

Nodded.

-What did you do with it?

‘Met him in a pub. Handed it over.’

łClassy.

Jay’s jaw was clenched. Emanating anger.

-And have you had any contact with him since then?

Shook my head. Don sighed.

-Well I guess at least we have a possible last name and a location. We’ll have to see if that’s enough.

There was a pause. Don leaned forwards.

-OK. This is what’s going to happen.

I held my breath, braced myself for the blow.

-You are suspended as of now. You will not play or train with us until further notice. You have seriously compromised the club, and could cost us greatly, both financially and in terms of our league position. We need to look at your visa status and assess your legal situation, both with us and, I have to say, the implications for remaining in this country. We will have to inform the RFU straight away, but they will not look favourably on us, as it won’t be the first time the club has had passport irregularities. Your suspension is temporary for now while we look into this further, but we will take whatever action we think is necessary, which could well include dismissing you. We are going to have to go public with all of this immediately. Our media people can try some damage limitation, but once it’s out there, there’s no telling how big it will get. With a lot of luck it will stay local, a bit of TV, in the local papers, but the supporters’ forum will go mental with it and who knows after that. If you leave us, nobody else may want you.

I didn’t know if he meant no one as in no other team, or the world in general, but either way I was screwed. On my own again.

-You have behaved extremely foolishly. You have kept important information from us, and abused the trust of everyone here. You have stolen from the club. I don’t know if we could ever rely on you again. The trust Jay and his family have placed in you is a different matter, and I am going to leave you with him now to have his say. I’m so disappointed in the way you’ve behaved, Declan, you had such a promising future with us.

Don left the room, closing the door firmly behind him. Jay sat staring at the setting sun. His fists were clenched and his lips were pressed together so tightly they had gone white.

łI just don’t know where to start. Jesus, I don’t need this right now. You’re a complete fucking liar aren’t you? All of this shit, all this time, it’s like I don’t even know you. And he came to the house? He knows where we live. Jesus. He could be a nutcase.

‘I moved out so that –’

łYou didn’t tell us. You lied about it. The other stuff, the passport, accident, money, that’s bad enough. Jesus, bad enough. But you lied to me and Beth. I can’t believe it, all that time. You didn’t say a fucking word. Fucking arsehole.

‘I’m sorry.’

łNot nearly good enough. You can forget ever coming back here. I never want to see you again. Fuck you. Whoever you are. You’re finished, you’ve screwed your whole life up. Say goodbye to Raiders. Say goodbye to all of this –

He waved his hand at the view out of the window.

ł – anywhere.

He stood up suddenly, took a step towards me, stood over me. I waited for him to hit me – it wouldn’t be the first time someone had taken out their frustration with me on me, although Jay never had, it was unthinkable, and for the last three years I’d relaxed and almost forgotten what it was like to feel like I deserved it.

Jay’s fists were balled up and he was breathing heavily. I had no defence, didn’t want any, welcomed the punishment. His muscles twitched, he took two deep breaths.

łYou and me, we’re done.

He strode to the door, flung it open and walked down the corridor taking my dreams with him. I sat for a long time, Jay’s words sinking in heavily. I’d known he’d be upset, angry, disappointed; I’d expected a confrontation if he ever found out about it. I never thought he’d be done with me – it was worse than if he’d punched me. Hadn’t considered the full implications. The consequences now facing me were huge and I couldn’t bear it.

Matt

I am in a crowded room, a bar, and I need to get some water. I try to push through all the people, but every time a gap appears, it is filled by someone else, and I am being pushed backwards. I try to shove through again, and am overpowered, overbalanced, and I fall …

Dec

I do not know how I got home. I do not remember much of the following forty eight hours. There was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. There was a ringing phone. There was a ringing doorbell. I drank and slept and woke and drank and slept. Then I ran out of vodka, and as time passed I just woke.

Head was a solid throb of pain. Smelt vomit and piss. Lying face down on the floor. When I could move, I turned over. Nausea and pain took hold for a while, could feel nothing but spinning and churning. Opening my eyes renewed the assault. Sat up. Very, very slowly. More pain, more spinning, more churning. Still wearing my training kit, splattered with sick down the front.

Looked around; empty beer and vodka bottles, the remnants of a smashed phone beneath a dent in the plaster. Many unwelcome feelings in my gut – including aching hunger. All muscles unremittingly sore. Avoided remembering as long as possible. Couldn’t be helped, in the end. Waves, torrents, floods of it all. Shame, remorse, self-pity flowing through me, taking any last shreds of self-respect with them.

In small stages I moved from the floor to the couch. It stank as badly as me. Needed to change my clothes, but could not gather the strength. Seemed like late evening. Flat was almost in darkness, lit only by the dim orange street lamps outside. Sat for a long time. Doing nothing meant feeling nothing. I didn’t really exist. Floated outside my fucked up miserable life. Kept it up as long as I could, then the smell from my clothes and increasing growls of hunger forced me to move, get to my feet.

Trod on an empty bottle. The throbbing that tore through my head when I nearly fell made me turn on a lamp. Falling over would be worse than the light. As soon as I put the light on, the doorbell started to ring. Cried out with the pain of it, like needles deep in my skull. Fell back onto the couch. As an accompaniment to the doorbell, there was shouting, through the letterbox.

“Declan? Or is it Charlie? How are you feeling? Can we have a comment? How does it feel to be kicked out of the team?

and on and on, all the time ringing the bell.

Hands over my ears. It barely dulled the sound. The choice between enduring the noise or moving to stop it immobilised me for some time. It didn’t let up. Eventually I stood, and moved on unsteady legs to the door.

As soon as I opened the door, the flash of a camera went off. A stab of agony between my eyes blinded me. An onslaught of voices. Too many words. Too loud. Tried to shut the door, but it was held open. Sagged against the doorpost, eyes closed. Words slowly resolved themselves. The same ones that had been fired through the letterbox. Found my voice, although it was husky and broken.

‘Please leave me alone. I have nothing to say.’

More flashes. More words, catching my attention with

“Anything to say about Jay Scott’s resignation?

Through the jumble, that one got through. I gaped.

“Any comment? You were aware of it?

Shook my head, as much to clear it as to answer the question. Hit me like a body blow. Legs buckled.

‘Seriously, fuck off and leave me alone’.

Little strength left, used it all to shut the door on them. Floor broke my fall. Lay there, numb. Shouted questions continued, even a flash through the letterbox. Eventually, quiet. Thoughts returned. Worthless, worthless piece of shit. Can’t keep other people out of my misery.

Mobile pinged. Had probably pinged many times. Didn’t care. But, still lying on the floor, reached for the phone in my pocket. Scrolled down to Jay’s name. Stared at it. For a long time. Pressed call. It went straight to voicemail. Pressed home number. It rang for a long time, then it was answered.

‘Beth?’

_Yes.

‘It’s Dec.’

A long silence.

‘Please Beth, can I just talk to Jay?’

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

She rang off. So I’d fucked it up with Beth too. I couldn’t take it in. She always picked me up, dusted me down and helped me out. Talked Jay round when I’d done something to piss him off. If Beth was done with me as well, I really had lost it all.

Too much. Sobs welled up and forced their way out. Big, lurching, body shuddering breaths. Loud, painful, face-soaking unstoppable tears. Curled into a ball on the floor and poured my anguish into the carpet.

Sudden awareness. A key in the lock above me. Door started to open, hit my foot and stopped.

:Hello?

Adrenaline pumped, mobilising me. Flipped up on my feet, swaying slightly, trying to keep the nausea down and ignore the pounding pain behind my eyes. Faced the opening door. A woman, older, short and stout.

‘What the fuck …’

:Sorry, love, I tried knocking, don’t think you heard. The old lady who lived here before you gave me a key. I’ve been meaning to give it back since you moved in. I’m in the flat below you. Heard you from downstairs just now, you sounded a bit upset. Thought I’d come and check. Everything alright?

She walked in. Sniffed. Looked at the vomit on my shirt and from there to the debris littering the rest of the flat.

:Rough night, love?

‘What?’

I couldn’t understand who she was, what she was doing here. She had an accent – couldn’t work out where from right now, didn’t really give a shit to be honest.

:Well I had to call the police to get rid of those buggers in the hallway. Making a right nuisance of themselves they were, don’t know how they got in, I s’pose they blagged it. Been hanging around outside on and off for a couple of days. Anyway, they’ve gone now. Here to see you by the looks of it, love.

Couldn’t face more talking. Didn’t want this woman here. Didn’t have the energy to make her go away.

:You look terrible.

‘Hangover.’

:Yes, well, I guessed that, from the smell of you and all the empties. Now, I’m good at looking after people, love. Why don’t you have a lie down and I’ll tidy up a bit?

‘No. I’m OK. Please, just piss off.’

Just want to be alone. Please.

:Oh go on, I know the flat from when I looked after Ada. Won’t take me a minute.

Pulled on my arm. Tugged me in the direction of the bedroom. I lay down. Distant sounds of clinking glass. Hoover. Slept.

Dreaming. Flying above the pitch, playing, huge crowd. I can fly. I can win it because I can fly. They pass me the ball and I fly over the line.

Matt

I am playing soldiers with Jay. He is in command and he sends me to hide up a tree. While I am up the tree, I lose my grip on the branch and I fall

9. Ain’t no sunshine

In which things go from bad to worse for Matty.

Matt

When you’re sleeping in a conservatory, however good the blinds are, there is a lot of light available to come in, and in the middle of summer that light wakes up very early and wants everyone to join the breakfast club. I could pretty much sleep through anything, but Carrie always woke up with the birds: early in summer, later in winter. And she didn’t like being awake on her own.

I woke to the feeling of an arm round my waist and fingers in my hair. I smiled to myself. It had only been one night, a couple of hours really, but I’d missed it, holding her until we woke up.

‘What is it with you and my hair? You can’t leave it alone.’

‘It’s always sticking up all over the place when you wake up. I like smoothing it down.’

‘What time is it?’

‘About five.’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, C, please let me go back to sleep, it’s unnatural to be awake in the middle of the night.’

‘Look around you, Matt, open your ears. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and that doesn’t happen in the middle of the night, however grumpy you are about it.’

Sighing, but not too hard, having a feeling there might be some make-up sex on the cards, I turned over. It was pretty bright in the conservatory, and Carrie’s blue eyes were lit up like sapphires.

‘Whoa. Do you know how breathtaking your eyes are?’

‘Why don’t you tell me?’

She carried on stroking my hair.

‘Your eyes are the colour of a cloudless summer sky.’

She kissed me on the lips, lightly.

‘Your eyes sparkle like the most brilliant diamonds.’

She kissed me again, pressing her mouth harder against mine.

‘I could swim in your eyes, they are like deep pools of pure ocean.’

Another kiss, this time prolonged and with a tongue flicking along my top lip.

‘I am enamoured of the way your eyes change colour when you’re impassioned – when you’re arguing or angry or just about to come.’

The next kiss took me by surprise with its ferocity.

Carrie forced my mouth open with her tongue and thrust it inside my mouth, pressing her body against mine at the same time. I heard and felt her moan into me.

‘If your incredible eyes were a painting, they would be the Mona Lisa, because they are full of emotion, but also full of mystery, and no money could buy their beauty.’

Carrie launched herself at me, pushing me onto my back, straddling me, grinding her hips into mine. I was taken aback at first, and could feel my swollen elbow protesting a little at the rough treatment, but quickly got over myself and relaxed into the moment.

I stretched my hands out, tucking them under Carrie’s short top, and tugged it upwards, reaching for her breasts. She arched her back, moving teasingly away from my fingers, but pulled her shirt over her head at the same time and I lay there and stared at her, pinned by her thighs. She slowly bent forwards again, strands of hair tickling my chest and face, and I reached for her breasts again, pushing them together and rubbing my thumbs over her nipples, feeling them pucker and grow hard under my touch.

Iz

Now, you may be wondering why there is no PG rating on this bit, and I admit I nearly gave it one fnah fnah, but my big bro was on hand to make sure that, this time, it wasn’t needed. You’ll see.

Matt

Carrie bent lower and placed her lips on mine, crushing into me, her tongue on a search for buried treasure. She rubbed her crotch against mine, so hard that I could feel her wetness soaking into my boxers. I could feel every movement of her slowly undulating dance along the length of my erection, as she fizzed and bubbled into my core. I reached up to her knickers and hooked my thumbs into the waistband, starting to edge them down …

‘Uncle Matty why are you fighting with Carrie.’

Shit.’ I pushed Carrie to the side and pulled the duvet back on top of us. ‘How long have you been standing there, Cal?’

‘I don’t know. Have you stopped fighting?’

I looked at Carrie, my sincerest apology in my eyes. She seemed more amused than anything, but these days I was never sure how she was going to react to anything.

‘Yeah, you interrupted us. We were having a really good fight until you came along. You should knock before you go into someone’s bedroom.’

‘But this isn’t your bedroom, it’s the concertree.’

Despite my annoyance, I smiled at his mispronunciation.

‘While we’re here, it’s our bedroom, and you should knock.’

And I was going to make sure Beth showed me how to lock the bloody door from the inside before tonight. Cal came further into the room and stood by the bed.

‘Mummy and Daddy don’t say I should knock.’

‘Don’t they? Do they lock their door?’

‘Yes, but I try the handle and they let me in. Dec doesn’t say I should knock.’

‘Is Dec ever awake when you go in his room?’

‘No, he’s always asleep.’

And I rest my case, your honour. Lock, pronto, before small children are blinded by sights they shouldn’t be seeing for at least another decade.

‘Uncle Matty, can you get my breakfast?’

‘Cal, it’s really early in the morning. Maybe you should just go back to bed.’

‘But I want some Weeties.’

‘Well go and jiggle Daddy’s door handle then.’

‘But he says go back to bed.’

‘Yeah, like I just did. Go on. I’ll get you some Weeties later, when we’ve all had a bit more sleep.’

‘But I want to play with someone.’

I bit back the ‘so do I’ that Cal could only interpret as an invitation without a lot of explanation, and tried being parental.

‘Sorry, Cal it’s too early. You’ll have plenty of people to play with at school, won’t you?’

‘It’s Romans today.’

‘What?’

‘We’re learning about Romans. We’ve got to take a sword and wear clothes like Romans.’

I was beginning to despair of ever escaping from Cal’s never-ending chatter, and was only vaguely aware of Carrie pulling on her shirt under the duvet.

‘That’s great, Cal, tell me all about it when you get home, but –’

‘Come on Cal. I’ll get your Weeties, then you can go back to bed until Mummy and Daddy get up.’

And she let Cal lead her out of the room and into the house, where she was gone for a few minutes before returning, a smug smile on her face. She closed the door and did something with the handle.

‘That should sort it.’

‘What?’

‘I locked the door. He won’t be doing that again in a hurry. Bloody hellfire, Matt, he nearly scared me to death.’

‘Me too. I hope he didn’t see too muhch.’

‘If he’d been a few minutes later, he’d have seen everything.’

‘Oh really? What, like this?’

I pulled her onto the bed and pulled her shirt over her head.

‘I think he already saw that. I meant this.’

She reached under the duvet, feeling her way to my boxers, pushed the duvet aside and pulled my boxers down.

‘Hm, glad to see you’re still interested.’

‘Always, always interested, C.’

‘Care to prove it?’

‘Yep.’

And I believe I did, over the course of the next little while, prove it rather well, particularly if Carrie’s muted yet enthusiastic utterances were a measure of my success.

The next few days were a strange mixture of light and shade. I think I was trying too hard to recapture the week we’d spent in Devon before, and although we had tender moments, we also annoyed each other and bickered. I was worried about Carrie. Something seemed to have changed in her, some kind of inner drive had left her, something I couldn’t put my finger on. She tried her best, joined in, chatted, had fun, but there was a forcedness about it that I sensed.

One afternoon, when Cal had appropriated Carrie to play outside with him, I was helping Beth make a salad for tea. In the middle of chopping some celery, she put her knife down and looked at me with her direct gaze. I braced myself for some interference.

‘How are you Matty?’

Not quite what I’d expected. Maybe she was taking the scenic route.

‘I’m fine. Great.’

‘So what’s this limp about then?’

‘What limp?’

‘You’re kind of dragging your right foot when you walk.’

What was this now? I did not drag my foot, I walked perfectly fine.

‘I am not.’

‘Have you tripped over more than usual recently?’

Wait, what was this? I mean, yeah, I’d fallen over when I arrived, but my elbow was fine now, just a bit of a bruise, nothing to go all Nurse Beth over.

‘Yeah, actually, a bit, but I’ve been tired. I had an insanely busy time at work a few weeks ago, doing silly hours seven days a week, and I just got exhausted. I’ve been a bit off colour since, but it’s getting better.’

‘Is it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Any double vision or anything?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve been tired.’

‘Dropped anything? Difficulty speaking?’

‘Beth, what in the name of fuckery are you getting at?’

She was freaking me out by knowing things I hadn’t told anyone, even Carrie about, like my vision, and the speaking, which was really only the very occasional, extremely slight slur of the odd word. Because I was tired.

‘I think you should see your GP about it.’

Now I was scared. Beth obviously had an hypothesis, she’d worked in some full on places when she was a nurse.

‘Why? What do you think I’ve got?’

‘I just think you should get yourself checked out. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself properly. If you have exhausted yourself, or got run down, maybe you should find out how to stop it happening again. How have you been sleeping?’

Ha, well there was something she didn’t have on me.

‘Like the dead. Better than usual, more than usual. Carrie has to use all sorts of interesting methods to wake me up.’

Beth nodded to herself.

‘Will you go to your GP? For me?’

I rolled my eyes. ‘OK, if ih will shut you up, fine.’

‘Promise, Matty?’

‘I promise faithfully.’ I raised three fingers in the Scout sign. ‘Dib dib dib.’

‘Thank you.’

And that was the end of it, for the time being. Beth didn’t mention it again, and I certainly didn’t, but when I paid attention to the way I was walking, it did seem different. I was a bit uncoordinated too. The double vision came and went. I pushed it to the back of my mind for the rest of our time in Devon, and when we got home I forgot about making an appointment.

*

It was about a week later. We’d been home since Thursday, had enjoyed a long weekend, visited Mum and caught her up with Jay’s family gossip, and I’d been back at work a couple of days, when I got a text from Beth.

‘Any news from GP?’

Oh the appointment I was going to make. I’d forgotten all about it. On purpose.

‘No, haven’t been yet.’

‘When is appt?’

‘Not made one.’

If she was determined to nag, I was going to make her work hard for it.

‘U promised.’

Yes I had. Oh well, Matt, just do it and she’ll stop.

‘Doing it now.’

I called the surgery.

‘Tues 5.30 OK? Back off now xx’

‘Call me Tues then.’

‘Yes, mum.’

*

I got back in my car at the GP surgery, feeling like my legs were no longer attached to my body. I looked at the information leaflet in my hand like it was going to bite me, which in a way it already had. ‘Multiple Sclerosis’ it said. What the fuck? Oh, my GP didn’t say I had it, she just said she would refer me to a neurologist to get it checked out, but as soon as I told her about the tiredness, the vision, the talking, the dropping things and the tripping, something clicked behind her eyes, and her expression became serious. She said other stuff, but I didn’t hear her, couldn’t listen, as all I could think to myself was ‘fuck no, fuck no, fuck no, that’s a really serious thing, it’s really fucking huge, I’m just tired, tell Beth I’m just tired, don’t tell her I’ve got this fucking huge thing in me, in my head, because I’m just tired, that’s all.’

I don’t know how I got home, parked the car, made it up the stairs, put the key in the lock. There must be some kind of super-autopilot in the brain for situations when life deals its major showers of shit. I opened the door and stood there, swaying. Carrie was sitting on the sofa.

‘Hey babe.’

‘What did you call me?’

‘Er … babe.’

‘You never called me that before.’

She used to call him babe. I didn’t want her to think I was like him at all, ever.

‘Sorry. Won’t happen again if it gets that kind of response. What’s the matter with you? Have you been drinking?’

This struck me as amusing, because I’d been so far from drinking, but now it seemed like a very good idea indeed, so I laughed, but had to stop because it came out almost like a sob.

‘No. I’ve been to the doctor’s. But I could use a beer or two.’

‘Matt, come and sit down, you look a bit weird, and a bit wobbly. Why did you go to the doctor’s.’

Best tell the truth.

‘Because Beth made me.’

Yep, that was the truth.

‘What? When?’

‘I promised her.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’m feeling tihred and shit. Dropping stuff. Can’t see sometimes.’

‘But isn’t that because you are tired? It isn’t long since you had all that work on, you weren’t getting much sleep, it’s not surprising it’s taken you a while to get back to normal.’

‘That’s what I told the doctor, but she gave me this.’

I handed Carrie the leaflet. It was bent and creased from me screwing it up, ready to throw it away, but changing my mind at the last minute. Carrie read the title, and I saw fear in her eyes for a split second, and then all expression was wiped from her face.

‘Multiple Sclerosis? I don’t really know what that is. Is it some kind of cancer?’

‘No, C. I don’t really know what the fuck it is either, but it’s something to do with nerves, and if I’ve fucking got it, I’m going to end up in a fucking wheelchair.’

‘Oh Matt. Come and sit down.’

I didn’t want to go and sit down. I wanted her to come to me, for once. I wanted this to be on my terms, for once. I needed some control, for once. I was tired of always being the one who gave in, who always gave up control, who never got my way. Right now, I needed it, needed to be the needy one.

‘Can’t you come here? I’m freaking out, C.’

She stood up and walked over, took my cheeks in her hands and looked into my eyes.

‘It’ll be OK, Matt.’

That was it, the full extent of the comfort she was able to offer. It was only because I grabbed her and put my arms round her and started shaking, trying so, so hard not to cry, that she held me. I didn’t know where she’d gone, my Carrie, my C, the girl I’d do anything for, who I’d thought would do anything for me; she was so far away that she wouldn’t even hug me when I told her I had this fucking huge thing in my head, and it hurt me, it hurt me more than anything. It felt like my C had gone somewhere, without me.

Inevitably, Beth interrupted our moment. I recognised her ringtone, chuntering away in my pocket. I wanted to ignore it, but Carrie chose to use it to break our embrace.

‘You should answer that, you know you’ll get no peace until you talk to her.’

She reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, pressing the screen and answering for me.

‘Hi Beth. He’s just here.’

She handed me the phone and went back to the sofa.

I put the phone to my ear and walked to the bedroom, closing the door behind me. I sunk to the bed.

‘Hey.’

‘Hi Matty, just wondering what the GP said.’

‘You know what she fucking said, don’t you.’

‘Would you like to tell me?’

‘Wha’s the point?’

‘Matty, please tell me what your doctor said.’

‘She said blah blah here’s a leaflet, blah blah neurologist, blah blah fucking blah. That’s about as much as I could take in with the headline news on the fucking leaflet screaming at me.’

‘What headline news?’

‘Why do you want me to say it? You already know.’

‘I wonder if maybe you’re having trouble admitting it to yourself.’

‘Piss off Beth, I don’t need your pop psychology right now.’

‘What do you need, then, sweetheart?’

‘I need –’ I didn’t know what I needed. Things I wasn’t getting. I needed my girl to be here with me, feeling this with me, not sitting on the fucking sofa watching the fucking TV, for a start, ‘– I need you to leave me the fuck alone and stop fucking telling me what to do, is what I need.’

‘Alright Matty. I’m sorry you’re so upset. You know I’m here if you need anything, anything at all. Please call me, anytime.’

I disconnected without saying goodbye, rolled over onto the bed and lay staring at the curtains. I lay there for a long time, watching the room grow dark, listening to the small signs of life going on in the living room. My mind had switched itself off; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel. I was numb from the top of my head down. So I just lay and watched the darkness come.

Eventually I felt Carrie come in, undress and get into bed. I was still lying on top of the duvet, but I felt her arm go round my waist, and then she hitched herself closer until she was moulded to me, her front to my back, and then I couldn’t take it any more and I turned over with a sob and reached for her and clung to her like a drowning man clinging to a life-raft. I could feel it leaking air, knew it wasn’t going to keep me afloat for long, but it was going to keep me going for tonight, and so I held on.

When I woke up the next day, it was to my phone ringing. Carrie was gone, it was day, it felt late. I grabbed the phone, checking the time as I checked the caller. It was ten o’clock, and it was work calling to find out why I had missed my nine thirty. I told them I’d overslept as I’d been ill the night before, and wasn’t going to make it in, then asked them to cancel my appointments for the rest of the week. I still felt numb, but I needed to make a plan, I couldn’t deal with being in this state of knowing but not knowing. I didn’t want to go there, didn’t even want to say the name of the bloody thing, but somehow I needed to put my life back together. I really couldn’t remember much that the doctor had told me, and I didn’t know how to rectify that. Maybe Beth … I remembered bits of last night’s conversation with Beth. I had been pretty rude to her and I doubted she’d be that willing to help me. As if summoned, my phone pinged with a text. It was Beth. Thank fuck for interfering sisters-in-law who don’t take your strops either literally or personally.

‘Hi Matty. How r u this morning?’

‘Shit. Thanks for asking tho.’

So she was still speaking to me. This is where I needed to apologise. Come on Matt, it’s only a text, it’s not admissible in court.

‘Sorry abt last nite.’

‘No problem. Any time u need someone to curse at ;)’

‘Can I call u now?’

‘To curse?’

‘To talk.’

‘Of course.’

‘Hey.’

‘Oh Matty.’

‘Yeah, don’t Beth. You asked what I needed. I need businesslike. I need sensible.’

‘OK, sweetheart. Businesslike and sensible it is. What else do you need.’

‘I can’t remember what the doctor said yesterday, apart from I might have …’

I really couldn’t make myself say the words. Something froze them in my throat, nearly choking me.

‘That it might be something serious, and she gave meh a leaflet.’

‘Matty, did she say Multiple Sclerosis?’

‘Mm.’

‘OK. Can you remember anything else she said?’

‘Only that she needed me to see a neurologist to get it checked out, but I can’t remember if she said how that happens, or how long, or what they do there. I need to know, Beth, it’s sending me crazy, knowing but not knowing. How can I find out?’

‘Did you say you had a leaflet?’

‘Yeah, I don’t know where I’ve put it.’

‘Well the easiest way is to go back to your GP, then, get another one, and at the same time ask her to repeat what she said.’

‘I won’t be able to get an appointment for a few days, they’re always booked to the hilt. I need to know soon, before I go mad.’

‘OK, well see how soon you can get in, and in the mean time, I can tell you in general terms what happens, but it might not apply up there, so you can’t take it as gospel. I used to work on a Neurology ward, but some of this might be a bit out of date. Usually your GP will refer to a neurologist, you won’t have to do it yourself. You’ll be sent an appointment, in a few weeks time, and you’ll have a consultation. They’ll check your symptoms, but that doesn’t diagnose you. You sometimes have an MRI, and that can be conclusive, or it might not. Sometimes you have to have another relapse before they can diagnose you, sometimes with another MRI.’

‘Beth, are you telling me it might be months before I know for sure? I’m going have this hanging over me for months?’

‘I’m sorry sweetheart, but it might be. It could be longer. Brains are difficult things to get a true picture of. But it could be sooner. Have you told Carrie?’

‘Yeah.’

‘How did she take it?’

Like I’d told her I had an ingrowing toenail, which I should pretty much stop whining about.

‘Oh, pretty well. She’s gone off …’ who the fuck knows where ‘… to work this morning, I won’t see her till later.’

‘At least you’ve got each other, Matty. You’ve supported her so much in the past, I bet she’ll be pleased to be able to repay you a bit.’

‘Yeah. So. Thanks for that, Beth. I’ll make another appointment with the doc, and wait to see if I get to see a neurologist any time soon.’

‘Take someone with you to the GP, so they can listen if you get upset again. Take Carrie. One of you can write things down, and you can take a list of questions.’

‘I think I shouhd be taking you.’

‘Oh, that’s a brilliant idea, Matty, couldn’t you have your phone on and do that FaceTime thing you do with Cal?’

‘Genius, why didn’t I think of that?’

‘Because you’re not me, who always thinks of everything.’

‘Thanks for always thinking of everything Beth.’

‘You’re welcome, sweetheart. Call me any time, day or night. Bye, Matty.’

She disconnected and I realised I felt better. Still shit, but slightly more positive about the shit, thinking there were things I could be doing. I called the surgery, made a fuss and got an appointment for the next day. I texted Beth to make sure she would be around with Jay’s iPhone for a FaceTime. I had a shower, I got dressed. I cleared up the flat.

I was always amazed at how much mess Carrie could cause in the few hours I was at work. There were plates and cups scattered around, books open on their fronts with the pages bent, a half eaten packet of biscuits spilling crumbs on the floor, the remote control for the TV in danger of slipping down the side of the sofa, the sofa throws skewed and crumpled, two pairs of trainers in the middle of the floor. I tidied it all up, put the dishwasher on and opened the lid of the bin to put some half-eaten toast inside.

The bin was full, and on top was the leaflet shouting ‘Multiple Sclerosis’ at me. I hadn’t put it there. Carrie, who never tidied up, never threw stuff away, had deliberately put important information about my health in the bin with the banana skins and teabags. I picked the leaflet out and unfurled it on the counter, trying to smooth out the creases so it wouldn’t dry stuck together and I would stand a chance of being able to read between the tea stains later.

I texted her.

‘Where r u?’

‘With friends.’

‘Come home? Need 2 talk.’

‘Rnt u @ work?’

‘Took day off. Can u come?’

‘Can’t right now. Soon as I can. Everything OK?’

‘No.’

‘OK, be there asap.’

I sat and waited. I waited for two hours. What was going on? It was like Carrie was a different person, like over the last few weeks she’d undergone some kind of personality transformation. I couldn’t believe she could stay out for two hours after I’d asked her to come home and said I wasn’t OK, when the previous night I’d announced I might have a life-changing disease.

Eventually I heard the door open and Carrie peered in as if she was expecting a large animal to jump out at her. Her eyes rested on me, sitting on the sofa, and she didn’t seem much more pleased to see me than she would have a snarling tiger.

‘Hey babe.’

Again with the babe.

‘Please don’t call me tha.’

‘OK, chill. Is everything alright?’

‘No, C, I don’t think it is. Come and sit, down? Please?’

‘OK.’

She spent a fair amount of time faffing about putting her bag down, taking her jacket off, fiddling with her hair, before she finally came over and sat down next to me. I noticed she sat as far away from me as our tiny sofa would allow. I remembered not so long ago, when its tinyness had meant we were always crammed up against each other, and that was always a good thing.

‘Where have you been?’

‘With friends.’

I didn’t want this to be one of those conversations that ended in Carrie screaming ‘don’t you trust me’ at me, as seemed to have happened a few too many times recently, so I let that one go, as she obviously wasn’t going to elaborate.

‘Why did you take so long to get here?’

‘I was helping someone out, I couldn’t leave in the middle of it.’

‘I needed you.’

‘The world doesn’t always revolve around you Matt.’

I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that, in fact, this particular world never revolved around me, but I chose not to mention it at this point.

‘Anyway, I’m here now.’

‘Why did you throw my leaflet away?’

‘Tell me you didn’t make me come home to ask me that.

‘I didn’t make you come home, I asked you. I said I needed to talk to you, I said I wasn’t OK. And yeh, it’s one of the things I want to talk to you about.’

‘What else, then?’

‘You haven’t answered the first one yet.’

‘What, about the leaflet? It was on the floor, all screwed up, I thought it was rubbish.’

It felt like a lie; she hadn’t been that bothered about all the other things she’d left on the floor that she could have thrown away. It was the first time I had ever been aware of her lying to me.

‘It’s an important leaflet about the …’ the words were hard to say, but I fought against my compulsion to prevaricate, ‘… condition I might have, with information I’m going to find helpful as I try to work out what the fuck to do about it.’

‘Why are you talking to me like I’m a child? I know what a leaflet is.’

I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere. Sitting here looking at her as she bullshitted her way through whatever it was that was going on for her was breaking me. I didn’t have the strength to pull it out of her at that moment; I needed to get to the heart of things for me.

‘C, the next few weeks and months are going to be pretty difficult for me. I can’t do it on my own.’

And there it was again, that flash of fear, covered immediately by the poker face, the one that was giving nothing away.

‘I know Matt. I’ll be here for you. I am here for you. Whatever you need.’

‘I just need you.’

‘I know. I just said, I’ll be here. We’ve got all our friends too –’

‘I don’t want any of them to know, not yet, it’s not definite, until I’ve had tests and things.’

‘Oh, well there you go then, it’ll be alright, won’t it. You’ll be fine, Matt.’

I sighed. It was just how she’d been last night, in some sort of denial.

‘C, I won’t beh fine. I’m already not fine. I need to see another doctor, but I know there’s something wrong.’

I couldn’t believe I was having to talk her into this. I would be happier flying along with her on her fantastic journey, but it couldn’t happen. And maybe I’d had my moments of having my head in the sand, and perhaps I should allow her a few too, but I couldn’t, I needed her with me.

‘Until you know for definite, you should stay positive. Don’t think yourself into something bad.’

I admitted defeat to myself. Maybe what Carrie needed was time. She was obviously more freaked out than I was, she didn’t deal well with bad news, needed me to help her see the plans A, B and C, and when I was all at sea, she had no anchor. So perhaps once I got my head round things a little, I could help us plan our way through it.

‘Yeah, you’re right. Think positive. Always a good plan.’

She beamed. ‘See? Feeling better already, I bet. Have you done any lunch? I’m starving.’

*

I struggled my way to the weekend. At times, I almost forgot I might have a ‘deteriorating neurological condition’, as the leaflet I’d managed to read a paragraph of before I could read no more put it. At other times it was all I could think about, paralysing me as I imagined my possible future as a wheelchair-bound dribbling shell of a man, old before my time and object of pity, as the leaflet probably hadn’t put it, but I couldn’t look at it to find out.

I didn’t see much of Carrie, who was busy with classes most evenings, and spent her days being out ‘helping friends’ in some mysterious way that she was never happy to discuss but I assumed might involve a lot of sitting round complaining about what bastards men were. I never questioned Carrie too closely about where she was, never asked if I could go with her, never wanted to be that man who controlled her movements, so a lot of the time I had no idea where she was or what she was doing, and had made my peace with the freedom it gave Carrie, but it also meant that Carrie was becoming a closed book to me.

So I didn’t have a chance to talk to her much about anything, let alone something huge like this, and I kept it to myself, telling myself it was until I knew for sure, then we’d have a night in, do a lot of talking, sort something out. I got an appointment with a neurologist, only a week away, which I was surprised at.

I attended the appointment and was referred for an MRI. It was explained that while the MRI might confirm the presence of the dreaded disease, it also might not, and it could then be a while before a definitive diagnosis could be made. In the meantime, my traitorous body continued its underhanded mission by tripping me over, making me drop things, slurring my words and blurring my vision.

Finally, I’d had my MRI, and the GP had contacted me to say the results were in. She wouldn’t tell me over the phone, not a yes or no, not a hint. I had to drive all the way over there. I asked Carrie to come, and she said she would, but when it was time to leave, she wasn’t there, and I had to go without her.

*

So that was it. I had multiple sclerosis. MS. No shadow of a doubt. I sat and felt myself disappearing from the small room where my doctor had just removed all hope I was ever going to have a normal life again. I felt the edges of me blur, as my being expanded and floated off, coming apart.

‘Matt. Matt. Here, have some water.’

I came back together in a rush, and felt dizzy and sick. I took the glass, but my hand was shaking so much I couldn’t drink, and I put it down before I dropped it.

‘Is there anyone with you, in the waiting room?’

‘No. My girlfriend was … she couhn’t come.’

‘You didn’t drive here, did you?’

I nodded.

‘Is there someone who can come and get you? Maybe your girlfriend, if you explained?’

‘She doesn’t drive.’

It was part of Carrie. She didn’t drive, because Martin hadn’t let her learn, so he could keep her there, yadiyadiya, but the doctor didn’t need to know that.

‘Friends? Family?’

None of them, even Mum, knew what was going on with me; I didn’t want to involve them in the uncertainty, felt it would be better to say once I knew.

‘I don’t think you should drive, Matt. Have you got enough money for a taxi?’

I wondered, for a brief moment, what she would do if I said no. Would she rummage in her purse for a twenty? Would she call for an ambulance? Would she lend me one of those little mobility scooters?

‘Yeah. I’ll do that.’

‘You’re not going to be on your own at home are you?’

‘Only until she gets back.’

Although who knew when that was going to be these days.

‘Take care of yourself Matt. I’m sorry it’s not better news. Come and see me again in a couple of months, so we can give you a check up.’

Half way home in the taxi, I changed my mind. I didn’t need to be at home in my flat, on my own, trying not to be miserable, wondering what time my girlfriend was going to be home. I needed my mum. I had tried to shield her from this, but she was going to know sooner or later, and now I was certain, there was little point putting it off. And I so needed her, I so, so needed her.

As I pulled up outside her house, the house where I’d grown up and which she had kept pretty much the same since Jay and I were little, uPVC double glazing and the odd coat of paint aside, I knew I’d done the right thing. On the way, in the back of the taxi, I’d texted Carrie.

‘Sorry u couldn’t make it. Turns out I have got it.’

I left it at that. She hadn’t even called or texted to say she wasn’t coming to the GP with me, and for the first time I wondered how I was going to break up with her. Not if, not should I, but how. The thought shocked me to my core. I recoiled from it. Carrie was my girl, the love of my life, my heart, my soul. I didn’t think I could physically do it, say the words, write the note, send the text. Whatever had gone wrong between the two of us, I just had to fix it. But at least here, in the place I called home when all else failed, I would find acceptance and love and a safe place to show my feelings, if it came to that.

‘Matthew! Come in, dear. Would you like some tea? The kettle’s on.’

The kettle was always on here, it must have been hardwired to the front doorbell or something. I think, if the world was ending in five seconds, Mum would still greet anyone with a cheery, ‘Hello dear, come in, the kettle’s on, let’s go and wait in the kitchen.’

‘Hi Mum.’

‘It’s lovely to see you, dear, you haven’t been round for a while.’

It wasn’t a criticism. Mum never complained if I didn’t go and see her, although I tried to call in on my way home from work at least once a week. It was a question. I hadn’t been to see her recently because Mum always knew when something was up, and I always ended up telling her what it was, and I hadn’t wanted to tell her about this, not until I was sure. So I’d texted and had short phone calls, but that had been it for the past few weeks.

‘No, sorry, had a lot on.’

We made it to the kitchen where, indeed, the kettle was on, the lid of the teapot was off, and it looked like a ‘nice cup of tea’ was on the go.

‘You look a bit peaky, dear.’

‘Do I? Yeah, well, not at my best jus at the moment.’

She waited. She had learned, over the years, when she had to ask, and when it was best to wait and let me do things in my own time. It was bloody irritating to have someone know you so well, but I bloody loved her for it too.

I’d tried different ways of telling her, on the way here, but all of them involved using the words, or the initials, same initials as me in a triumph of irony; I was still having trouble spitting it out. So I just handed over the leaflet, the new one the doctor had just given me. Mum looked at it, and the green words that told her, and a deep sadness filled her face.

‘Oh Matthew.’

She was the only one, the only person in this world, I would let get away with sympathy. Those two words were all it took to bring me to my knees. I literally fell forwards with the effort of not breaking down. She was beside me, her arms round me, pulling me towards her, folding me up, taking me to that safe place, my own safe-house, where for a few minutes it was alright, nothing mattered, because my mum was going to make it better.

I didn’t cry. I was feeling too emotional, and I knew if I started, I had too much bottled up, and I might not stop. So I held on to my mum and stuffed it all back down, taking strength from her. I took some ragged deep breaths, and looked up at her.

‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be so daft, Matthew. Go and sit down, I’ll bring the tea through.’

I stood up, and had to help Mum up, who didn’t spend much time on the floor these days. I offered to carry the tea in, but she showed me a new trolley with wheels that she’d got.

‘Beth told me about them, and I went to that little disability shop in town, and ordered one. It’s been such a help.’

Beth had been busy organising the Stafford branch of the Scott family, it seemed. I wondered if she’d said anything to Mum about me; it seemed possible. She was always telling me when Mum seemed a bit off colour.

‘Did Beth tell you about me?’

Mum looked at me, surprised.

‘No dear. Did she know?’

‘She was the one who made me go to the doctor’s, weeks ago, after we were down there.’

‘No, she hasn’t mentioned it.’

Well bloody hell, Beth could keep shit to herself without being asked. Miracles happened.

‘Go and sit down, dear, I want to show you how this works.’

I sat on the sofa, and watched as Mum came in with a teapot, two cups and a packet of biscuits on her trolley. I gave her a round of applause.

‘That looks really useful. I might be borrowing ih soon.’

The sadness crossed Mum’s face again.

‘Oh Matthew, tell me what it means, I don’t know much about all this multiple sclerosis. It’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it?’

‘You can just say the initials. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.’

‘How long have you known? You said Beth talked to you about it when you were in Devon?’

‘She noticed I was walking funny, asked me some questions, bullied me into getting it checked out. The doctor, I think she knew straight away, but I’ve had to arse about with a different doctor and an MRI scan.’

‘So when did you actually know?’

‘I’ve just come from the doctor’s.’

‘What, just now?’

I nodded.

‘Well shouldn’t you be at home, with Carrie?’

I looked down. Yeah, I should be at home with Carrie.

‘She’s out. I thought I’d come here for a bit of tea and sympathy.’

A frown dented her forehead briefly.

‘Oh. Well of course, dear, where else would you go?’

‘To be honest, I’m not coping very well with it all, I could use …’ someone to tell me what to do, my life’s turned to shit, I feel like I’m falling into a deep dark hole, ‘… a big cup of tea and lots of chocolate biscuits.’

Mum, as ever, was just great. She didn’t push it, she didn’t badger me for details, she asked a few questions, made a few suggestions, and before I knew it, I had a plan, at least for today; a mental list of things I needed to sort. I hadn’t told her, even hinted, at the fuck-up of a relationship that was waiting for me when I got home, but we talked about work, about life in general, and she got me to face things, little by little. Oh, I was still in shock, I still would have torn my right arm off if someone had offered me my old life back in exchange for it, but things, immediate things, seemed a bit more manageable.

On the way back to fetch my car from the surgery, in another taxi, I called work and arranged to see my manager in the morning. I called the number on the back of the leaflet and made an appointment to see someone called Maggie. I called Carrie’s mobile and the flat, but her mobile went to voicemail and there was no reply at the flat.

Pulling up in the street outside, I could see a light on in our living room. Carrie must be home. I locked the car and hurried up the stairs. Despite my brief flirtation with ending things, the thought of seeing her gave me a little thrill of anticipation, as it always did. My footsteps slowed as I reached the front door, and I wondered what kind of mood she was going to be in. It seemed hard to predict these days. I put my key in the lock and opened the door, and I heard the TV go off as I walked in.

Carrie was sitting on the sofa, watching me come in. I put my keys on the tiny dining table and sat on one of the chairs.

‘Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick.’

‘At my mum’s. You couhd have called.’

‘So could you.’

‘I needed someone to talk to. It’s been a bit of a fucking nightmare of a day.’

What with the having it officially confirmed that I have a life-destroying neurological condition just this afternoon.

‘I came back when I got your text.’

‘I didn’t know that. I tried to ring just now, there was no answer on your mobile, or here.’

‘I didn’t want to answer the phone, in case you rang and I was talking to someone else.’

The Mobius logic of that tied my brain into knots, and I couldn’t sort it out. And she still wasn’t saying it, ‘how are you, what do you need, how can I be here for you’.

‘So I went to the doctor’s on my own.’

‘How did it go?’

‘You said you got my text.’

‘Yeah.’

‘That’s how it went.’

I was finding it hard to contain my growing rage. She seemed so indifferent to it all, to this fucking huge, life-altering thing that was happening inside me. I would have taken sympathy, even pity, I was that desperate for something that told me she cared.

‘So what happens now?’

‘What happens? My nerves gradually shrivel up and I end up needing someone to wipe my arse and shovel food in me. Or maybe nothing. Haven’t worked it all out yet.’

I thought she flinched, when I said I’d need someone to wipe my arse. I had no idea if it was true, I’d barely been able to face the potential implications myself. I was lashing out with the worst case I could imagine, in the hope of making her react.

‘I meant what do we do?’

I don’t know, Carrie, you tell me. I can’t work this out on my own, you have to give me something to work with.

‘What do you think we should do?’

She didn’t answer, just shook her head, and looked at the clock.

‘I’ve got to go, my class starts in half an hour.’

‘Please dohnt go.’

I need you, I need you, I need you.

‘I’ve got to, I can’t cancel this late.’

‘Say you’re ill. No one wants a class where teacher’s got the runs. Say that.’

‘I can’t, I’d be letting all those people down.’

You’d be letting me down. Don’t I come first, just this once?

‘Please?’

‘I can’t. I’ll be back later, we’ll talk then.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I’m sorry I’ve been a bit …’ she waved her hand around vaguely, ‘… about all this, it’s been a lot to take in. Talk later, really talk, yeah?’

She walked over to me, ruffled my hair and kissed me on the cheek, and I watched as she walked out and shut the door behind her.

I clung on to her last few words, allowing them to wipe out the disinterest she’d shown since I got home. It would have been a lot for her handle. If we could just talk, really talk, like she’d promised, we could work it out, find where things had gone wrong, put them right, get back to how things were, being together, there for each other. Even as I convinced myself, part of me held back, not believing. Part of me was still wondering how or when, not if, I was going to break up with her.

I texted Beth as I made myself some dinner, not really feeling like a conversation with her.

‘MRI results say yes :(‘

‘Oh Matty. Do u want 2 talk?’

‘No thx.’

‘R u OK?’

‘Not really. Saw mum b4. Sorted a few things.’

‘R u with Carrie?’

‘No, home alone making pasta. She’ll b back l8r.’

‘U no where I am.’

‘Thx.’

I ate my pasta, although I had no appetite and it felt like ashes in my mouth. Carrie came home, and we talked, really talked, more than I could remember us talking for a long time. We went to bed and she held me, and I told her how scared I was, how uncertain the future was, how much I hoped nothing much would change, but how terrified I was that everything would change. She held me in her arms, and smoothed my hair, and rubbed my back, and told me she’d been scared too, of the same things, and how she wasn’t good at bad news, but she wanted to help me, she was going to be there, always. And I relaxed. I felt safe, finally, knowing that we could do this together, me and Carrie, whatever happened we’d be together.

The next day when I woke up, she was gone. But that was OK, because she was often gone, she was busy, she had work, she had friends, she had people she helped. She’d left a note on her pillow:

Hey!

Out, but back later. Keep smiling!

C xx

It was more than she’d done before, and the note bolstered me through my day. I put it in my pocket, and smiled every time I touched it, as I got my keys or felt for change.

I saw my manager mid-morning, giving him brief details, gritting my teeth to say the words. Firstly, I asked him to keep my condition confidential from everyone at work, while I got my head round it. Then we agreed that I would reduce my hours, temporarily, so that there was no chance that over-tiredness would make things worse. To start with, I would halve my hours, doing fewer, shorter days, and we would review it in a month. I wasn’t sure I was keen on halving my pay, but I had saved a lot by Carrie not allowing me to spend it; it was a big enough cushion for contingencies.

And I suddenly saw how I could make things better between Carrie and me. I could do what she’d asked me to, all those weeks ago. I could live on less. It should have occurred to me before, that rather than getting another job, I could just work less in the one I had.

It solved so much, I came home with a lighter heart and cooked Carrie’s favourite meal, ready for when she came home. I couldn’t believe the difference it had made, firstly knowing the stress of work was diminished, and secondly knowing I had a way to fix things with Carrie. Despite the black cloud of the future, I felt like I was bathed in sunshine the whole afternoon.

Carrie came home earlier than I expected, and looked surprised at the evidence of cooking.

‘Hey C. I’ve made your favourite.’

‘Spag bol with a twist?’

‘Spag bol wih a twist.’

‘What’s today’s twist?’

‘You know I never tell. You’ve got to guess.’

‘When’s it ready?’

‘Whenever you are, bol’s all done, just need to put the spag on.’

‘OK, quick shower, and I’ll be there.’

I put the pasta in the boiling water and set the table, jigging a bit to the music that was playing on the iPod.

‘You seem happy.’

I turned to Carrie, who was leaning on the door frame watching me, damp hair curling on her shoulders.

‘I’ve been in to work.’

‘Ah, surrounded by computers again, your natural habitat.’

‘Ha ha, no I didn’t do any work, I went to see my boss.’

I loaded two plates and set them down on the table. Carrie walked over and sat down.

‘What about?’

‘About me being ill.’

‘You’re not ill.’

I looked back at her, astounded.

‘Did you not hear anything I said yesterday?’

She rolled her eyes.

‘Yeah, of course, I get it, you’ve got this thing, but it’s not making you ill right now, is it? You’ve just cooked dinner, you’re chatting away to me. I don’t mean it’s not serious, but all I meant is, take the good days, don’t wish them away saying you’re ill.’

‘Hmm.’

I kind of got what she was saying, but it got in the way of what I was trying to tell her.

‘Anyway, do you remember when we were at Jay and Beth’s, and we had that argument about me earning less and being a traffic warden or some such shit?’

‘Yeah. You’re not going to be a traffic warden are you?’

‘No. But I am going to reduce my hours. As of next week, I’m going part time, half-time actually. You’re right, I don’t really need all the money I earn, it’ll do me good to find out how I manage on a budget. You might even earn more than me in the next few weeks.’

Carrie had stopped eating and put her fork down.

‘But how will we pay for everything?’

‘Wha?’

‘We both need to be earning money, there’s rent, there’s bills, what if we can’t cover it?’

‘But I thought this was what you wanted?’

I was really confused. I’d thought this was going to make her happy, but the look on her face was the opposite of happy. She looked like the world was ending.

‘C, we’ll be fine, I’m not giving up work completely, I’m just trying this out to see if it makes things better for me. I thought it might make things better for us, too. We’ll have more time to be together. I can come and help you in the day.’

I reached out and clasped her hand, linking fingers, trying very hard to ignore the look of panic that crossed her face before she covered it up.

‘We’ve been on different planets the last few weeks, I thought this might make us a bit closer.’

‘Yeah, maybe.’

She didn’t sound convinced, but did at least try a bright smile and go back to eating her dinner.

‘I can’t work it out.’

‘What?’

‘The twist.’

‘Oh. It’s a flavour.’

‘I thought it tasted a bit weird.’

‘Weird good, or weird take this shit away from me and feed it to my mortal enemy?’

‘Just weird.’

She shrugged.

‘Are you giving up? Already?’

Carrie never gave up with the spag bol twist game, even if it came to ransacking the cupboards for the strange things I snuck into it. I spent ages preparing spag bol with a twist night, it was one of my favourite nights, but it didn’t feel reciprocated right now.

‘I don’t know what it is.’

‘Star anise.’

Suddenly, I couldn’t be bothered either, what was the point of a stupid cooking guessing game when we were trying to sort our lives out? When I was trying really hard to find a reason not to think about breaking up with her?

‘Never heard of it.’

‘Ih’s a spice. Shaped like a star.’

‘Oh. Cool. Maybe not again, though?’

‘Noted.’

It kind of put a dampener on the rest of the evening, and we both sat in front of the TV, lost in our own thoughts.

*

The next few weeks, then months went on in a similar vein, with Carrie blowing hot and cold, me trying to get my head round being seriously ill while not feeling much different, both of us treading on eggshells, which was making both of us irritable. We had more arguments than we had ever had before, mostly about paying the bills. It seemed that having less, ‘fitting into our means’, hadn’t been the answer after all, although not spending so much time at work was really helping me, despite finding it hard to come home when I’d done my allotted hours.

I made and cancelled several appointments with Maggie from some support service, never quite summoning the bottle to go and talk to a stranger about it all.

I still saw Mum, she was still a rock. I’d like to say we looked after each other, but at that time she was the one holding me up, offering suggestions and insightful comments. She’d had arthritis for so long, it was a part of her for me, and I was so self-absorbed I wouldn’t have noticed if one of her arms was missing.

About this time, Mum told me Jay and Beth had been having some trouble with Dec, he had moved out and they were worried about him. I didn’t have much time to think about it, if I’m honest, being wrapped up as I was in my own worries. Besides, how old was he now? He must be approaching twenty, surely it wasn’t that strange for someone his age to want a place of his own, somewhere he could be himself with his mates. I assumed Beth was feeling abandoned, assumed she’d get over it, didn’t give it much more thought, and went back to thinking about myself.

I had come back from Mum’s one evening at the beginning of October. I’d had dinner there, as Carrie said she was going to be out for the evening, so didn’t expect her to be there when I got back.

I’d got more and more used to spending my evenings on my own, asleep by the time Carrie got home. But I didn’t expect, when I opened the door to the flat, the certain knowledge, the shiver down my spine, that told me she’d gone. She wasn’t just out, she wasn’t there any more.

I don’t believe in psychic phenomena (even your imaginary psychic granny, Lau), or premonitions, anything like that, total bunkum, but it sliced through me even as I was trying to dismiss it as an open window or some such shit. I felt the blood drain from my face, and as I reached the table and saw the note, my legs buckled under me and I sank into a chair.

Hey Matt

I’m sorry to do this to you like this, but I’m leaving. It’s nothing you’ve done, it’s me. I’m going to live with Martin. He’s changed and he still loves me and I still love him.

Please don’t look for me, you won’t find me.

I wish you all the best, and hope you are better soon.

C

I stared at the note, read it and re-read it, hoping to find the bit where it became clear it was a joke. If it was a joke, it was in really poor taste, and not something we were going to be laughing about any time soon.

I grabbed my phone and dialled her mobile number, but it wouldn’t connect, so I tried again several times, the automated message telling me that the number I had called was currently unavailable getting more and more irksome. Then I saw it, her phone on the table. She’d taken everything else, but left that; the phone hadn’t even rung and a quick check showed that it no longer connected to a network. She had truly left me unable to contact her.

It began to force its way through that it was real. She’d really gone back to that fucking madman, the one who had caused all this in the first place, the one who had fucked our lives up so we never really stood a chance.

My girl was gone. She’d been leaving for months, and I’d chosen to ignore it, but now it made perfect sense. The mysterious friends she’d been helping out – they were him. How could she? After all this time, after all that therapy, after all that … us. How could she do the one thing that would break my heart into more pieces than I could count?

I felt as if I’d been smashed to pulp. My world narrowed to the note on the table, to the tears pricking at the corner of my eyes, and then I stopped holding any of it back. I’d stopped myself from crying for months, so that it wouldn’t be true, how sad I was about everything, so I could be happy for her and tell everyone else, yeah, I’m doing fine, bit under the weather. But now, now there was no point stopping myself.

I put my face in my hands and let it all out, my anguish, my pain, there was no one to see, no one to hear, and I could give vent to how I truly felt, which was as if Carrie Mitcham had cut the living heart out of me with a rusty fish knife and fed it, laughing, to a mangy dog.

I had never experienced such misery; it was palpable, as if I could reach out and touch it. It hovered blackly above me and pressed down on me, as I sobbed and gasped my way into it, embracing it as my new friend.

Eventually, I must have made my way into the bedroom, because I woke up, in the dark, shivering and miserable, the pillow damp, and a throat that felt as if I’d swallowed crushed glass. My friend the black misery was still with me, he wasn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable, but a few coherent thoughts were able to sneak past his defences.

Carrie had said don’t try to find her, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. If I could talk to her, maybe I could make her see sense – oh I said coherent thoughts, didn’t I? Actually it was more like clutching at the thinnest of straws with the thickest of winter mittens. But anyway, I checked the time. It was the middle of the night, too late to be calling anyone, but first thing in the morning I was going to get on to all our friends, all the people we hadn’t seen in ages as going out was too expensive, and we couldn’t go over for dinner as there wasn’t room to have them back here, all that, but surely they were still our friends? They’d understand, wouldn’t they? And if they had heard from her, they would tell me, so I had to at least try.

I undressed and got into bed, trying not to think about Carrie’s side of the wardrobe, but in the end I couldn’t think about anything else, and I turned the lamp on and got up, flinging the door wide open. It was another knife to my empty chest cavity. Nothing there. All her shoes, clothes, everything. Same with her drawers, and while I was at it and full of the fun of stabbing my soul to the death, I checked out the bathroom for her toiletries and the living room, behind the sofa, for her yoga class stuff. All gone. All telling me she wasn’t coming back. None of it giving me any answers. I wandered miserably back to bed and spent the rest of the night alternately crying and staring into the blackness, holding my pillow as if it was her until it got light outside.

My throat was still sore the next morning, my head pounded, my body ached and my eyes were puffy. I had a raging thirst, and drank a pint of water in one go, before calling all our friends. Every single one went to voicemail. I couldn’t believe it, or understand it. Even Simon, who was surgically attached to his phone and always answered it, even in the middle of a conversation with someone else. So I texted, but that yielded no replies, either. I checked my phone to see if there was something wrong with it. There wasn’t, not that I could find.

As the morning wore on and I waited for text messages that never came, I started to feel decidedly ropey. I thought about my sore throat and headache, which I had put down to my bout of self-pity, but now wondered if I was getting a cold. I dosed myself up with paracetamol and cups of lemon and ginger tea and wrapped myself in one of the throws from the sofa, feeling shivery, and going hot and cold.

Suddenly I woke up and looked at the clock, and I’d been asleep for three hours. I stumbled to bed and wrapped myself in the duvet, promising myself I would do something more productive when I’d stopped feeling like shit. It wasn’t a work day, but if I was still like this tomorrow, there was no way I could go in. I drifted in and out of sleep all day and all night, waking at odd times, needing to drink, needing to pee, then falling back into bed to shiver and go hot and cold.

When I finally woke up properly it was to hear the phone ringing in the lounge, my mobile phone, where I’d left it. I got up too quickly, convinced it was going to be Carrie, not noticing it wasn’t her ringtone, and I crashed headlong into the wardrobe as I stumbled, my feet not taking me where I needed them to. I sat on the floor, stunned, trying to gather my thoughts, whimpering as the phone stopped ringing. The silence at least calmed me down a bit, and I got up slowly, head still spinning, and fumbled my way to the living room, supporting myself on the walls as I went.

I picked up my phone from the sofa, where I’d left it after texting everyone yesterday. The screen showed three texts, which for a moment I thought might be from the friends I’d sent messages to the previous morning, but all turned out to be from work, as was the recent missed call. Fuck – I should have been at work today. I called back and falteringly explained I was feeling lousy, backed up by a gravelly voice, and said that I would be back when I felt better. It was only a cold, I would be better in a few days, I was sure.

But I wasn’t. I got worse. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t do anything, I could hardly feed myself, and in the end, hating myself, I called Mum and asked her to come and look after me for the day. She came over willingly, even though it was a long trip on the bus since she stopped driving. I waited up for her so I could let her in.

‘Matthew, you look terrible.’

‘Better than I fehl, then.’

‘Oh, dear, go to bed, I’ll make some soup.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Did I say you were? Soup will do you good and you need get some nutrition in you. I’ll just put this in the fridge?’

I noticed she’d brought a bag of shopping, which was just as well, as soup made from the ingredients I had available would have been made from water and powdered mustard or some such shit.

I pointed her in the direction of the kitchen, and went back to bed, where screwed up tissues littered the bed and the floor. Some time later, I felt a cool cloth on my forehead, and opened my eyes to see Mum sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at me with concern.

‘Well that’s the soup on, I’m just letting it cook a bit, then we’re good to go. Where’s Carrie?’

‘Oh …’

God, no one knew, did they? She’d left me and gone back to him, and then I’d got this shitty whatever it was that was mashing my brain, filling me with snot and phlegm and confusion, and I hadn’t been able to think further than ‘bleurgh’ for days.

‘Is this anything to do with it?’

She held up the note, the one that had been on the table since I found it, that I would have cleared away if I’d thought about it, before anyone came round and actually saw the thing that had torn me into a thousand bits with a thousand razor sharp teeth. I stared at it. Seeing it again, the thing that had caused all this pain I was feeling, made my guts clench and my stomach heave.

I sat up, pushed Mum out of the way and stumbled to the toilet, where I puked up the not very full contents of my stomach. As I knelt, head leaning on the bowl, panting, sobbing, I heard Mum come in, and felt her hand rub my back.

‘You poor boy. Come on, up with you. Go and sit in the lounge. I need to change your bed.’

‘Wha? No you don’t.’

‘Matthew, you need clean sheets. It smells in there, and clean sheets always feel better. Wipe your mouth, now, clean your teeth and go and wrap yourself up on your sofa. I won’t be long.’

I did as I was told, lacking the energy to argue, and sat half-dozing on the sofa, smelling the soup cooking, which was making me feel undeniable stirrings of hunger. How long was it since I ate anything? What day was it?

I could hear Mum rummaging around, trying to find clean bed linen, and couldn’t summon the strength to call out and tell her where it was. There weren’t many places to look, anyway.

After a while she came back in, looking a little flushed from the fight with the duvet, and sat next to me.

‘When did she go?’

I had lost track of time, and had no way of measuring how long it had been.

‘When I came home from yours. I found it waiting for me.’

‘Oh Matthew. I have to say, I find it a particularly cruel thing for her to do.’

‘Yeah, well.’

Couldn’t go there, couldn’t do that, assassinate her character, not yet, I still loved her. If she walked back in now and said she’d got it wrong, she was back, was I cooking tea? I’d do it.

‘Had you been having problems for long?’

I snorted, which made me cough.

‘Since weh met, apparently.’

‘That’s not what I meant, dear. You were so happy, weren’t you, before, well, I’d say before her organisation closed down.’

Yeah, maybe that had been the death knell. I couldn’t think clearly enough to analyse it all now. Maybe if she’d never bumped into him that time outside the Co-op … but maybe it would have happened sooner or later anyway, maybe he’d been watching out for her, maybe she’d looked out for him. Maybe she’d already met him again then, and it was another lie. I couldn’t go through it all, my head hurt.

‘She’s gone, Mum. That’s all.’

‘I know. I know. I’m sorry, and I’m sorry that you’re trying to deal with it all while you’re feeling like this.’

‘S’just a cohd.’

‘It’s a bad one, though, look at you. I think I’ll stay here tonight and make sure you eat and drink enough. Have you been keeping up your fluids?’

No.

‘Yeah.’

‘Well we’ll see, won’t we, dear. Oh Matthew, we’ll get you well. You’ll be back on your feet in a few days and telling me to stop fussing over you.’

‘Yeah.’

‘And maybe you’ll swear just a bit, so I know you’re still alive.’

‘Yeah, I fu –’ I was racked by a fit of coughing that took the words out of my mouth.

‘Why don’t you leave the swearing for a while, then, dear, it’s obviously too much for you just at the moment.’

I smiled weakly at her smug face and flopped back against the sofa.

Mum stayed that night, sitting on the sofa with a blanket over her knees, from what I could gather, but she had to go home the next night to get some sleep. I gave her the spare key so she could get in again without me having to get up, and she came for two more days, feeding me soup, filling my fridge and clearing away my tissues.

My cold dried up, I got my appetite and my strength back, and my head got clearer. This wasn’t a good thing, as the car crash that was me and Carrie was now there for the examining, and feeling lousy was replaced with feeling more miserable than I’d ever felt in my life.

I went back to work, but couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts of Carrie permeated my every waking moment. Where was she now? What was she doing with him? If I went to the school on a Thursday, would she be there? I might have tried it if I’d been up to doing anything except go to work and come home. I still barely had the energy to do that, and on top of everything my coordination had got worse, leading to more tripping, more dropping shit, more blurred vision and more slurred words.

A week or so after going back to work, I woke up on my day off with a pounding head and the same fuzzy feeling that had enveloped me when I had my cold. I headed to the bathroom cabinet for a thermometer and some paracetamol, wanting to head another cold off at the pass. I was dizzy and sweaty, the thermometer told me I had a temperature, and before long I was lying in bed shivering, not knowing what time of day or night it was. There seemed to be no cold, but a cough racked my body, and once I started I couldn’t stop.

I made one foray to the kitchen to fill a jug of water and grab an apple, before I was engulfed by sweats, delusions, hallucinations and nightmares. I can vaguely remember tottering into the bathroom, eyes screwed up against the sun streaming through the window, in search of something. I don’t think it was anything sensible, I think I was looking for a sword to fight a dragon or some such bollocks. That’s the last I remember, the end of life as I knew it, when everything changed and swirled and coalesced and evaporated.

8. Morning has broken

In which we see Matty and Carrie through Christmas, a birthday, a move and a holiday.

Matt

Christmas was amazing. A-ma-zing. With extra emphasis on the amazing. It snowed. I mean, not a surprise in December in New York, but it made everything like a fairy tale, like all the films you ever saw. And the hotel – whoa! It wasn’t one of the top hotels, not even close, but it beat the one we’d stayed at in Devon into a cocked hat. It was close to Central Park, there was a spa, everything was laid on.

I so enjoyed watching Carrie experience it all, her wide eyes as she found something new, or it snowed again, or we saw the lights on Fifth Avenue. We went everywhere together, explored it all together: the shops, the parks, the flea markets, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, restaurants, cafés, delis, Tiffany’s, shows, museums, art galleries, yellow cabs. It was a theme park ride through a fantasy world.

On Christmas Eve we exchanged presents at midnight, like in the movies. We’d both been devious and snuck back to get each other things we’d seen together – I got Carrie an Art Deco necklace, sparkling with rhinestones, that I’d seen her eyeing at a flea market. A quick ‘trip to the loo’ while we were at a coffee shop round the corner secured its purchase. She got me a signed, boxed C3PIO that I’d seen in a comic shop. I had no idea she’d even seen me notice it, or when she’d managed to buy it. It more than replaced the one that had been broken into pieces by Martin when he trashed my flat, and it got the thanks it deserved, for several hours into the night. On Christmas Day itself we had dinner in the hotel and went for a walk in Central Park afterwards, coming back a couple of hours later for hot chocolate and … well … sex. We had a lot of that. Not so much that we missed out on seeing other interesting sights, but let’s just say, we didn’t get much sleep.

On our last day, we shopped again, finding presents to take back for friends and family, filling the spare suitcase we’d brought with stuff for us as well as stuff for the people we cared about.

And then we were back in the real world. Carrie had a bit of a dip, things didn’t feel so great for her. Her yoga and massage sessions were due to finish at the end of January, her house was being sold and she and the other women who shared it were set to leave at the end of March. It all felt a bit desperate for her. The organisation had put her in touch with other services that might be able to support her, but I was having trouble convincing her to stick with them, and she cancelled a lot of appointments with new support workers, saying that she didn’t have the energy to start all over again, telling it all again to someone else, reliving it for them.

We did at least start to look for another flat, somewhere we could share together. We spent several weekends doing the rounds of places I’d found on the internet or in the local paper, but although I liked quite a few of them, Carrie declared all them too expensive, and said we didn’t need anywhere as big as the ones I was looking at. I disagreed, knowing that I needed my space, more than a bedroom and a table in the living area, somewhere I could do my work or escape if I needed to, but she wouldn’t budge on it and I reluctantly down-scaled the properties I highlighted.

At last she was happy enough with one place, a tiny one-bedroom flat with a small living area divided from the kitchen area by a counter. It wasn’t far from where she used to live with Martin, and I worried that we might run into him. Carrie laughed at this and said he’d moved away, although she didn’t say how she knew. But the place was cheap enough to satisfy her, and she wouldn’t agree to any other places we looked at.

The flat itself was in need of some work, as it was dreary and dark, but I managed to get Carrie enthusiastic about decorating, and convinced the landlord that he needed to update the bathroom suite and kitchen cupboards before we moved in. The date was set for the end of April, which meant Carrie would have to live with me for a few weeks after her house was sold, but I made it sound more like a holiday, and she agreed.

This gave me an idea, and I asked her how she felt about a proper holiday, with Jay and Beth, once we’d moved in and got the place sorted. I hadn’t seen them for ages, not that this was unusual, and really wanted to give Cal the Jurassic Park toys I’d bought for him from New York. She actually looked happy with the idea. I hadn’t seen her look happy since Christmas, and wondered whether being stuck in Stafford was getting her down as much as anything else.

So I called Beth and arranged a few days at the beginning of June, just before they went on holiday themselves. Beth told us we could stay with them this time, as they’d had a conservatory built, and put a sofa-bed in there, so it doubled up as a guest room; we were no longer in danger of Jay-overload in the Scott Suite.

But that was in the future, and first we had to move in to our new flat, start our new life together, and even before that I had a really busy time at work.

Things at Eyeti had stepped up again. Work was flooding in, and we didn’t have enough staff to do it all. Over the years, I’d taken on a more senior position there, managing teams of people and dealing directly with important customers, and a lot of the shortfall fell on my shoulders. A couple of colleagues went sick, and it meant for a couple of nightmare weeks, just as Carrie moved out of her house and in with me, I was working eighteen hour days, coming home and doing more work while I shovelled food in my mouth, taking the laptop to bed and working for another couple of hours, then getting up a few hours later and doing it all again.

The place was a state – Carrie wasn’t a great one for housework, and I hated a mess, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to clear up. I wasn’t there for Carrie, I knew it, I kept apologising to her, but she kept telling me it was OK, she was going for coffee with a lot of her friends and they were supporting each other. She actually seemed more upbeat than she had for a while, and when I had a moment to think about it, I wondered if the dread of it all going was worse than the fact of it being gone.

After the mad rush at work had ended, and things subsided to merely hectic, I was exhausted, more tired than I knew it was possible to be. I dragged myself through a normal work day, and slept until the afternoon at weekends, despite Carrie’s attempts to rouse me. I was too tired for sex, and even if I hadn’t been, my libido certainly was; despite her best efforts, not a creature was stirring.

Then, a few weeks after that, I started getting double vision at odd times. I thought it might be my contact lenses, so I got those checked out, but there wasn’t a problem. I was still very tired, so put it down to that, and tried to look after myself a bit better.

A few weeks after that, I dropped a cup of camomile tea in Carrie’s lap when the mug slipped out of my hand as I was giving it to her. Luckily, I didn’t scald her, but we were both a bit shocked. When I dropped a glass of beer in a pan of curry, ruining the curry, the beer, and the glass, I wondered if I needed to get some help with de-stressing, and Carrie gave me some wonderful Reiki massages, which helped untense my shoulders, and untense our sex life, but didn’t noticeably improve my coordination, as I tripped over nothing and wrenched my shoulder against the sofa a few days after dropping the glass in the curry.

I really was exhausted, and looked forward to a few weeks off, when we would be moving, decorating our flat and then going down to Devon.

Moving day came, we gave in the keys to my flat and picked up the keys to our flat, and moved in. I’d had to get rid of a lot of my furniture, as it was too big, but we’d kept my bed and the small round dining table and two chairs. We needed a new sofa, but Carrie didn’t want to get a brand new one. She said one of her friends was selling their old two-seater, and it would do for the living area. We went and had a look, I wrinkled my nose at it a bit, possibly because it had belonged to someone else, with children and a dog, before, but Carrie said she loved it, convinced me we could clean it up, drape it with throws and it would look great with our intended colour scheme. So we got it, and picked it up the day after we moved in.

As we manhandled the sofa up the stairs and into the lounge, my heart nosedived at the sight of our flat – small, dark, horrible wallpaper, small lumpy sofa, view of the street from the window, harsh fluorescent light overhead in the kitchen area. I tried to see what it would look like when we’d finished with it, but really couldn’t just at that moment, and concentrated on looking at Carrie instead, who was looking excited and lovely.

We decorated our arses off, and at the end of a week our combined efforts, along with the new kitchen units and bathroom suite, and new spotlights in the kitchen, made me a lot happier with our new place. It said ‘Carrie and Matt live here’, it said ‘in your face dingy flat, we’ve made you awesome’. All except the Robbie Williams poster, which Carrie produced from nowhere and insisted on hanging above the TV. There wasn’t much I would refuse that girl, but this sorely tested the limits.

‘Seriously? I’ve never even heard you listen to a Robbie Williams song.’

‘It’s not about his singing, I just like him.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since I was little.’

‘Can’t it go in the loo?’

‘No, it’ll get all damp and wrinkly.’

‘Some would say there are worse things that could happen to Robbie.’

‘It’s staying.’

So the bloody thing stayed, but I used it as ammunition every time I wanted my way about something. I’d look consideringly at Robbie’s strutting form and then back at Carrie, and she’d realise what a sacrifice I’d made for her and give me whatever I wanted. Oh, no, that was in my dreams, and in reality it was the other way round. But underneath, I didn’t mind. I loved my girl, and I was with her, and I’d have lived in a mine shaft, or on a dung heap if she’d asked me to.

A couple of weeks after we’d moved in, Carrie came home after I’d got back from work. I was getting frustrated with the small amount of space available in which to work in the kitchen, had tried to chop an onion with a chopping board overhanging the edge of the counter, the whole lot had gone flying, and I’d cut my finger on the knife as I stupidly tried to catch it. Carrie saw the blood-stained kitchen roll and hurried over.

‘What have you done?’

‘Cut myself.’

‘Oh, is that what all the blood is? You’re very clumsy lately.’

‘This wasn’t clumsy, this was too much chopping board, too little space.’

‘Did you chop your finger, then?’

‘No, not exactly.’

‘What, then?’

‘Tried to catch the knife.’

‘What? Why?’

‘So … it didn’t fall on the floor and I’d have to pick it up and wash it.’

‘Yeah, I can see it’s saved you loads of time. Come here. Have you washed it?’

‘No, it’s still on the floor.’

‘Have you washed your finger, not the knife.’

‘Oh. No. Trying to stop the blood.’

‘Wash it first, then first aid it. Where are the plasters?’

‘Where did we put them?’

‘I can’t remember. I’ll look in the bathroom. You wash that.’

She walked off to the bathroom while I ran the cold tap, and shouted back to me, or rather talked a bit louder than normal, because it really wasn’t very far away and I could have heard her if she’d whispered.

‘You’ll never guess who I just bumped into.’

‘Osvaldo Ardiles.’

‘Who?’

I heard sounds of rummaging, as she looked for the first aid box in the bathroom cupboard.

‘Tottenham player of renown in days of yore.’

‘Oh. Why would you say that?’

The rummaging intensified.

‘You said I’d never guess, so I had to at least give it a go. Challenge accepted. Bishop Desmond Tutu.’

‘No. How long are you going to go on for?’

The rummaging stopped, and I imagined her standing there, frowning slightly, looking around her as she spoke.

‘How many more guesses have I got?’

‘Not many, I’m getting bored.’

‘Last one then. Er …’

‘Martin.’

His name froze my thoughts, my words, and my body. She came out of the bathroom with the first aid box in her hand and walked over to me, seemingly oblivious to my paralysis.

‘I’ll look for some big ones shall I?’

‘Where?’

‘In the plaster box.’

‘No, where did you see him?’

‘Outside the Co-op. I turned round and almost ran into him.’

‘Shit, C, are you OK?’

‘Yeah.’

She sounded unconcerned, whereas I had enough concern for both of us, and most of it was causing a logjam in my brain, making it hard to say words.

‘But wha … did … does … have … fucking hell.’

That was better, swearing always relieved the pressure a bit.

‘I thought you said he moved away.’

‘He did, but he came back. He got his old job back, apparently, cleaned himself up, got some help, ditched the steroids. He seemed … different.’

‘You didn’t talk to him did you?’

‘Well … yeah. Not for long.’

‘What, like he’s a normal person or something? He’s a maniac. He nearly held you prisoner. He made your life a fucking misery.’

‘Have you stopped bleeding yet?’

‘What?’

I looked down at my finger as if I’d only just remembered about it.

‘Nearly. Why did you talk to him? He could have done anything.’

Carrie motioned me to hold out my finger, while she wrapped a large plaster round the cut.

‘There. That was a close call, but I think you’ll live. I told you, he seemed different. He asked how I was, he was fine, he’s started doing his car racing again.’

What? She’d chatted to Martin about his fucking car racing? His obsession with car racing used to drive her nuts, especially as he used to make her go and sit in all weathers watching beaten up bangers growling round and round a dirt track. And now she just casually mentioned it as if it was a good thing, like she cared about it.

‘Did you tell him about us?’

‘Yeah. Of course. He says hi.’

‘I bet he did. You didn’t tell him where we live, did you?’

‘No, of course not, but I was coming out of the Co-op with a bag of shopping, it was obvious I live around here somewhere.’

‘Shit C, I can’t believe you’re being so bloody calm about this. You know what he’s capable of. If he wants you he’ll come and get you, and there’s not much either of us can do to stop him.’

‘Stop being so dramatic. He’s different. He doesn’t seem so psyched up. He said he’s seeing someone.’

‘What, a girlfriend?’

Well that would make things easier.

‘No, a counsellor.’

Oh. Well he was a fucking psychotwat, so it seemed like the least he could do.

‘He’s getting help, he said he’s trying to change things.’

‘It sounds like you had quite a chat.’

‘Yeah, well, I suppose we caught up a bit.’

Something in her voice, her expression, made me ask.

‘You’re not going to see him again, are you?’

Carrie laughed. I didn’t know what it meant – that I was ridiculous to even think it, that I was ridiculous to think she wouldn’t, that I was just ridiculous. It was as if all that fear, all that looking out for his shape to come looming out of alleyways, all that checking up and down the street before opening the door, that meant nothing to Carrie now.

‘No, not unless we run into each other in front of the Co-op again. You know it’s over, it’s been over for a long time.’

‘What if I run into him in front of the Co-op? He might not be so happy to chat with me.’

Not after I’d kicked him in the bollocks and broken both his arms, anyway.

‘Well you’ll have to deal with that if it happens, won’t you. I don’t think you need to worry too much, I don’t think he lives close by.’

‘I can’t believe it.’

‘Don’t worry about it, Matt, it was a one-off.’

‘We’ve only just moved in and already it’s an undesirable neighbourhood.’

‘Stop it. You’re making too much of this. If anyone should be freaking out, it should be me.’

I stopped my retort in its tracks, the one that said ‘you weren’t the one who had his door kicked off its hinges and his life broken into pieces’, because maybe she wasn’t, not physically, but emotionally, yeah he’d done all that to her, and the scars were still healing, and if she really, really was OK with seeing him, then maybe I needed to be OK with it too. Perhaps it was part of the process.

‘Sorry.’

I opened my arms and pulled her in for a hug.

‘You’re not getting blood on my top, are you?’

‘Nope.’

I had no idea.

‘Are you even looking to check?’

‘Mm hmm.’

I wasn’t.

Carrie pulled away and held my finger up for inspection.

‘Look, it’s leaking through the plaster. I’m going to have to soak this now.’

And she stomped off into the bedroom to change her shirt, leaving me to carrying on clearing up bits of half-chopped onion from the floor, and get on with cooking dinner.

*

Somewhere in the busyness that was moving out and moving in and decorating and everything else, I turned thirty. Bloody thirty. I should have had a fuck-off monster of a party to mourn the passing of my twenties, to leave me with the hangover to end all hangovers, and ensure I never forgot that I had, indeed, turned bloody thirty. But it was kind of ignored, we were up to our eyes in paint and packing crates, Carrie didn’t seem that bothered, we sort of agreed to do something later, in the summer, when we could have a barbecue in the park or something, and the day passed without much comment.

I got an insulting card from Jay, who had at least remembered, and seemed to have chosen the card himself judging from the insensitivity of it (a huge 30 on the front and some not so witty allusion to being old and wrinkly inside); it is possible I was being oversensitive. I called round to Mum’s and she’d made a cake with candles (although not thirty candles), and painted me a picture of Potter Hill, one of my favourite places. I appreciated the thought as well as the effort that had gone into it – Mum’s arthritis made it difficult for her to paint or draw these days, and although her skill hadn’t deteriorated, it took her a lot longer to finish something – but I knew Carrie wouldn’t want it up in the flat.

Mum knew me pretty well, and was usually spot on with presents, and if my walls were my own, I would have displayed it, but the poster of Robbie Williams and three mass-produced canvasses of large red flowers were all Carrie would consider putting on the wall. I knew this, because I’d tried with various items reflecting my own personal taste – a Star Wars promo poster, a framed Matisse print, a series of cartoons by a local artist – but all of it was deemed ‘not fitting in’ with whatever ambience our cluttered shoe box of a flat gave out. Robbie and flowers it was, then, and my stuff remained in Mum’s loft for … later.

So, I was thirty, and it was as if the whole world had just shrugged and continued on its way. I told Carrie not to do anything special, secretly hoping she’d push the boat out a little bit, but she gave me a card and a kiss, and then some hot sex, and that was my lot. What a whiny git I am, but hey. You’re only thirty once, right? Thank fuck, it’s bad enough once, but still.

*

A week or so after Carrie ran into Martin, we drove down to Devon. We’d both settled into life in the flat. I was slowly getting used to us living so on top of each other, and Carrie seemed more relaxed in general. She’d picked up a little more work, courtesy of some cards in the local newsagent, and some word of mouth business from people who had belonged to WO and although she was worrying about the impending summer holidays, which meant that her evening classes would finish for three months, the school had at least asked her back for the next school year in September. She was determined to pay half of everything, but I was as determined to find ways that meant she had money to spend on herself when she wanted to.

As we neared the city where Jay lived, I found myself feeling surprisingly happy about seeing them all again. Jay and I spoke to each other every so often, Beth more frequently and even Cal now Facetimed me occasionally, having worked out faster than his technophobe father what all the buttons on the iPhone were actually for, so we kept in touch, and Beth and Cal had come to stay for a weekend a few months previously, but I suppose when it comes to it, nothing beats physically being with someone to reconnect.

We pulled up outside the large house at the end of the cul-de-sac and I opened the car door.

‘How long are we staying again?’

‘I didn’t really say, they’re open to anything. A few days. Up to a week if we want to, I’ve taken next week off.’

‘Not that long.’

‘OK, we’ll see how ih goes.’

I understood her reluctance, she’d felt it when we were here last time, but she’d relaxed and enjoyed it. I opened her door and helped her out, then got our bags out of the boot.

‘We’ve got a bit more with us than last time. I think you had a toothbrush and a thong, and I had a pair of boxers.’

Reminding her about last time seemed to pull her face into a frown, and no response was forthcoming. I walked down the path, carrying both bags, Carrie some way behind me. The door opened as I approached, and Cal shot out, running towards me.

As I watched him, my feet tripped over themselves, and I started to fall, twisting as I did so to avoid falling on Cal. I landed on my elbow, and the jolt went right up my arm and through my shoulder.

‘Aaah. Shit. Shit.’

I heard a giggle.

‘You felled over Uncle Matty.’

Trust a five year old to state the bleeding obvious. He’d tell me I dropped the bags next.

‘And you did a swear.’

Or that I’d sworn.

‘Cal, get out of the way. Matty, are you alright?’

I looked up. Three faces peered down at me: Beth, Cal and Carrie. Beth bent down and touched my forehead, took my pulse, looking with concern into my face.

‘Matty?’

‘Urm … yeah. Bashed my arm up a bit. Bashed my manly pride up a bit more, though.’

‘Did you hit your head at all?’

‘No.’

‘Can you sit up? Let me have a look at that arm.’

I sat up, and Carrie crouched down beside me. I gave her the best ‘I’m alright’ smile I could muster.

‘You OK?’

I nodded at Carrie, unsure if I actually was.

Beth felt my elbow, which looked red and had started to swell, and she made me move my arm in different directions and wiggle my fingers. All seemed present and correct. And painful.

‘Maybe you should go to A and E.’

‘What? Do you think I’ve broken it?’

It hurt like buggery, but it didn’t feel broken.

‘No, I don’t think so, but maybe you should get it checked out.’

‘No, I’m not spending my first eight hours here stuck on a plastic chair in the emergency department, only to be sent home with an aspirin and told not to waste their time. Have you got a bag of frozen peas?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then that’ll do me. Help me up, C?’

I held my hand out to her and she pulled me up. I gathered one of the bags, and then looked at her as she made no move to pick up the other bag.

‘You’re going to have to take the other one.’

She picked it up without a word and followed us into the house.

When we got inside, Beth fussed about with ice packs and a sling and got me some ibuprofen.

‘It’ll help with the swelling.’

I saw Carrie frown. She didn’t approve of unnatural pain medication, but I was more than happy to down the pills if it meant me being more comfortable, and if Carrie wanted to give me some kind of natural … healing remedy … later, then I would take my medicine like a good boy. Everybody’s happy.

In the aftermath of Matt the Klutz, we sat on the sofas and drank tea, telling Beth about New York, showing pictures on the iPad, the sling holding the ice packs on my throbbing elbow.

‘It all sounds wonderful. I’d love to go to the Met.’

‘It was awesome, we didn’t have time to see ih all though. Maybe we’ll go back one day.’

I looked at Carrie, who was looking back at me and nodding. She seemed to have cheered up a bit, and I hoped it was just anticipation anxiety that had caused her apparent moodiness earlier.

‘Oh, we brought you something back, Beth.’

‘Did you? How lovely.’

‘You too Cal.’

‘What, Uncle Matty?’

‘We brought you a present from New York. C, could you go and get them? I don’t think I’m going to be bending this arm for a bit.’

And I was going to enjoy milking it for today, at least.

Beth waited until she had left the room before beginning her quick-fire interrogation.

‘How are things going? You said the women’s organisation folded?’

‘Yeah. She took it hard, but she’s getting there.’

‘Is she still getting help?’

‘After a fashion. Some other agency took over, but she’s not keen really – oh great, thanks C. Here, Beth, this is something for you, Happy Christmas, sorry it’s late, and here, Cal is yours. Don’t eat it all at once.’

‘Is it chocolate?’

Cal delved eagerly into the bag and pulled out the dinosaur set. His eyes grew round as he took in the toys.

‘But I can’t eat these.’

‘Best not to even try mate. They’re for playing with.’

‘But you said –’

‘Your Uncle Matty says some stupid things, sometimes, Cal. He thinks he’s funny.’

I looked at Carrie, a bit hurt.

‘Hey, I am funny. Maybe that one missed the mark a bit. Maybe Beth likes her scarf enough to eat?’

Beth had put the scarf on immediately. She was a scarfy person, and this one had stood out in the shop as right up her street. She was smiling, so I seemed to have got it right.

‘The bag says Tiffany’s.’

‘Yup.’

‘Really, Matty?’

‘Really.’

‘It’s gorgeous. Thank you. I mean, it would be gorgeous anyway, but it’s gorgeous.’

‘Jay will look gorgeous in his present too.’

‘What did you get him?’

‘Wait an see.’

‘Spoilsport.’

We continued with the pictures, moving on to the before and after of our flat. Beth’s face was a picture as she tried to find positive things to say about the before shots, calling it ‘cosy’ and ‘intimate’ for all she was worth, but her expression brightened throughout the decorating process, the pictures of me and Carrie with paint splodges on our faces and in our hair, to us proudly standing in front of the newly painted walls and be-throwed sofa, the fresh kitchen and the small but, yeah, definitely cosy and intimate bathroom.

‘Oh, you two have done such a good job. I hope your landlord appreciates it, and doesn’t charge you more rent.’

‘Well, that was the deal for the kitchen and bathroom units. We decorate, he supplies, rent stays the same.’

‘Hang on a minute, Matty. Above the TV – is that Robbie Williams?’

I believe I may have blushed with shame.

‘Miss Mitcham, would you care to field this one?’

‘Yeah, Beth, it’s Matt’s. He pestered me day and night, until I gave in. He plays Take That all day long, it drives me mad, but he won’t listen to me. That’s why I wanted to come down here, to get some peace. Please don’t make me go back.’

‘Ha ha. I always suspected Matty had some guilty pleasures, but nothing this twisted.’

‘When you two have quite finished, my tea cup is empty and I believe I am incapable of pouring a kettle, with my right arm being in a sling and all.’

‘Well then one of us must dash to the kitchen to see to your every whim, oh Master. Do you want another one, Carrie?’

‘I’ll have some more water. I’ll bring the cups through.’

I could hear them chatting in the kitchen, and had no doubt that Beth would have launched into her questions about Women’s Org. Carrie didn’t run screaming back into the lounge, though, so whatever it was they were talking about, it was going OK.

I heard the front door open, and slam shut, and a few moments later Dec came into the lounge. Rather than nodding and leaving, as he had always done before, he sat on the sofa.

‘Hi Matt. What happened to you?’

I reeled for a second; there were almost more words in those two sentences than he had ever spoken to me in total before.

‘Fell over just now and bashed my arm.’

‘Bummer. How did you manage that?’

Thinking about it, I couldn’t quite remember how I had fallen.

‘Dunno. Must have tripped.’

‘Looks painful. Good to see you again.’

‘You too. How are things?’

I had no idea what things I meant, but I was confident he’d be able to come up with some if he felt like it, given his newly discovered gift for communicating. Lo and behold, he did indeed find some things.

‘Great, thanks. I love the off-season, I can sleep in, eat shit, get pissed, and no one minds. At least not till I go back for pre-season and get a bollocking.’

‘Dec, you sweared in the house.’

‘Oh yeah.’

It only just seemed to have occurred to him. Beth’s rules obviously well-heeded then.

‘Hey, Cal, what have you got there, mate? Dinosaurs? Whoa, where did these come from?’

He plopped down onto the floor, where Cal was playing with the toys.

‘Uncle Matty went to Jurassic Park in America.’

‘Ha ha, not quite, that would have been great. I went to New York.’

Dec looked up. ‘Awesome. Cal, did you tell Uncle Matty about the new Dinosaurland that’s opening soon?’

‘No. Uncle Matty, there’s a going to be a Dinosaurland and Dec’s going to take me for my birthday and we’re going to buy a stegosaurus.’

‘Hey, Cal, that sounds great. I migh have to gatecrash your party.’

‘No, I don’t want a party, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

Carrie’s advice about simplifying what I said when talking to Cal came floating back from the past.

‘Yeah, sorry, that’s what I meant. I meant I’d like to come too.’

‘No, it’s just for me and Dec.’

Dec shrugged apologetically.

‘What can I say? I’m prime six-year old birthday material.’

‘Congratulations.’

Carrie and Beth came back in with more drinks.

‘Oh Dec, you’re back. Did you get milk?’

Dec looked up from the dinosaurs.

‘No, was I supposed to?’

‘Oh honestly, I asked you when you went out this morning, you used it nearly all up on your huge bowl of cereal. Can you pop out and get some, sweetheart? I’ve just used the last in Matty’s tea.’

‘No worries.’

He jumped up from the floor in the way that only teenagers can, and left the room, the slam of the front door resounding afterwards in a familiar way.

‘Doesn’t leave the house any more quietly than he used to, then.’

‘No. Doesn’t listen any more closely than he used to either.’

I heard a car start in the drive, and looked out of the window to see a Mini Cooper reverse out and onto the road.

‘Bloody hell, is that his car?’

‘Matty, honestly.’

I chose not to spill the beans on Dec’s earlier far worse profanities, as it would sound suspiciously like churlishness.

‘Sorry. But is it?’

‘Yes. He got some money from a trust fund when he was eighteen, left by his parents, and he spent most of it on his car. He loves it, washes it every weekend, keeps it clean. It’s his pride and joy.’

‘He seems different than when we were here last.’

‘He’s a lovely boy, on the whole. He’s grown up a lot.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nineteen.’

‘Think he’ll stay here?’

‘There aren’t any other plans at the moment. We have talked about if he wants to move out, how we could help him, but it’s all working at the moment, we’re quite happy, he’s quite happy, he’s much more responsible. He’s looking after the place when we go to Portugal next week.’

‘Not one for wild parties then?’

‘He’s been to a few in his time, but we’ve said not here, and we trust him when he says he won’t.’

‘Brave.’

‘I don’t think so.’

A very maternal look came over Beth’s face, one that told me I shouldn’t go on with my implied criticism of their golden boy, so I took the hint and dropped it.

Jay came in a while later and pretended to hate his ‘I heart NY’ t-shirt, but wore it all night, belying his protests. We ate dinner, chatting about nothing much, then watched one of Cal’s DVDs for a bit before he went to bed, Dec going up with him to read him a story before lights out.

‘He’s pretty good with Cal.’

‘They’re the best of friends.’

‘You’ve done a good job.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Hey, I had something to do with it.’

‘Yeah Jay, no one’s suggesting you didn’t. Both of you have been awesome.’

‘That’s better. Sometimes it feels like people only notice what Beth does around here.’

‘Isn’t that because Beth’s the only one who does anything?’

‘Piss off, Matty.’

That night, lying on the sofa bed in the conservatory, blinds closed, lights out, it felt a bit like we were in our own tent. We could hear noises from the garden, the breeze in the trees, an owl. I held Carrie close and murmured in her ear.

‘Are you OK? You’ve been quiet since we got here.’

‘Yeah. It’s just made me think, that’s all. It seems like such a long time ago we were last here.’

‘Well it’s a year and a half or so.’

‘Yeah, but so much has happened. It feels really different, doesn’t it? I mean, last time we were in the hotel, we could do what we wanted, this time it’s just a bit more … in your face maybe.’

‘Did Beth say something? When you were in the kitchen?’

‘No. Well, yeah, she did, but she only asked how I was doing without WO, wondered if she wanted me to put her in touch with her social worker friend. But if we’re staying here, it’s not going to be as relaxing, is it? I’ll never know when she’s going to ask me something personal. We won’t be able to be as … free as we were last time, either.’

‘I can talk to her, tell her to back off.’

‘Would she listen?’

‘Probably not.’

‘Then what’s the point?’

‘Well, we don’t have to beh here every minute, either. There are beaches to explore and hills to climb and restaurants to eat in. I’m sure Beth’s got a daily menu planned to the last carrot, but I’d quite like to put a spanner in her works and go off-piste a bit. Without them. Suit ourselves.’

Carrie seemed to perk up a little bit.

‘But we can’t go anywhere too fancy, can we.’

‘Why not? We’re on holiday. I’ve got holiday money, I’m more than happy to spend it on treating you than on jumbo boxes of fudge for the office on the way home.’

‘No.’

Carrie wriggled a little bit so there was more distance between us.

‘Are we still doing this, then, C? I’ve got money, I earn a good wage, but you won’t let me spend it. We don’t go out, we don’t go on holiday, we don’t buy nice stuff for the flat, we have to make do so you can afford it. It’s nonsense.’

‘It’s not nonsense. How can you say it’s nonsense? You know how important it is to me.’

‘Yeah, I do, believe me, I understand all your reasons. But do you understand that I would like to buy nice things for you, buy you presents, take you places, see you smile instead of seeing you worry. Sometimes I feel like I might as well get a job as a traffic warden for all the good being a manager at Eyeti does me. It’d be less stressful.’

‘Why don’t you then?’

‘What?’

‘Why do you stay there if it causes you so much stress? Those two weeks when you worked so hard, was it really worth it?’

‘Yeah, in the end it was, although it was shit at the time, and I know it was shit for you too. I stay there because I enjoy it. And it pays well. And they know I do a good job. It’s not just one thing.’

‘I’m just saying, if you think you’ve got too much money, maybe you need to do a job with less stress, maybe earn the same as me, so we can fit into our means a bit.’

‘Fit into our means? What’s that when it’s at home?’ I was about to call bullshit on her – it sounded like an excuse, although excusing what, I couldn’t work out.

‘We’ve got a smaller flat in a less fancy area, you’ve apparently got more money than you know what to do with, so why don’t you think smaller?’

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Was she really so far up in cloud cuckoo land that she thought we’d survive if we were both earning the same as her?

‘You’re having a laugh. You don’t really want me to give up my job, do you? And do what? I’m not qualified to do anything else. And I don’t want to do anything else, previous comments about traffic wardens notwithstanding.’

‘I just don’t feel equal to you, that’s all. You’re always there to pick up the pieces with your credit card, we don’t have the same worries, the same fears as each other.’

‘Do you think things would be better if we both worried about how we were going to pay this month’s rent, or stressed about whether we should get value marge or posh buttery spread?’

‘I’m not saying it would be better, I’m saying it would be more equal. And now you’ve mentioned it, it doesn’t feel right when you do the shopping and you get all this fancy stuff, and when I do it just get the essentials, and then you go to the farm shop and get extra.’

I was bewildered at the size of this sudden gulf that seemed to have opened between us.

‘So, can I just be clear. You want me to get a job that pays much much less, so I can experience what it’s like to not have enough money to pay the rent. If I can’t manage that, you want me to never buy you anything, never pay for anything, never bail you out if you need it. And on top of all that, you want me to live on flour, milk and eggs and very little else, even though I do all the cooking, I love cooking, I know what makes a good ingredient and it isn’t ‘value’ crap.’

‘You make it sound unreasonable.’

I groaned with frustration.

‘C, it bloody well is unreasonable. You can’t ask that of me, ih’s not fair. I don’t know how to say this without rubbing your nose in it, but I earn more money than you, a lot more. I know how important your financial independence is to you, I never want to take that away from you. But I really don’t see how me making do with less is going to help us, I really don’t.’

‘So you won’t even consider any of it?’

I sighed. I wasn’t sure there was any of it I could seriously consider without laughing.

‘Well, there’s no way I’m giving up my job, let’s get that out of the way. I like buying you things, things that make you smile, but if you’re saying it makes you unhappy, maybe I can do it less often. And maybe I can cut back on the fancy food, and promise not to top up when you do the shopping. This is a seriously bizarre conversation to be having in my brother’s conservatory in the middle of the night. That’s the best I can offer.’

‘OK.’

‘Good. Let’s go to sleep.’

I turned on my side, away from Carrie, hurt and confused. I felt like I had made a huge compromise already when we took the flat, and lots more small compromises had added up – the sofa, the paint, not going out for meals so often – make that ever. None of it was important compared to being with Carrie, but it chipped away little by little at my happiness.

It was the first time since PCC 1.2.4 completed that I hadn’t hugged her and kissed her goodnight. I didn’t sleep for a long time, wondering if she was going to put her arm round me, or say something else. All of it was spinning round my mind. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, it felt like there was something, but maybe it was me, maybe I really was being insensitive and controlling. I slept fitfully all night, then, as is often the way, crashed into a deep slumber shortly before dawn.

7. Girl on fire

In which Matty and Carrie get reacquainted and we find out how they get on.

Matt

The next few weeks were sweet torture. Carrie and I saw each other several times a week, continuing our programme of graduated access to each other, me feeling a little like a teenager trying to get to first base.

By the end of the second week we had been to restaurants, the cinema, a play, a wine bar, a lido (where, yes, I’d hoped Carrie would wear the bikini from Devon, but she’d covered up with shorts and a vest top. Still had great legs though), tenpin bowling, Stafford Castle. We held hands everywhere, conveying zingy electric messages through the touch of our fingers, the rub of a thumb over a knuckle, skin on skin at the palms of our hands.

As I got into my car after saying goodbye at the castle (which didn’t feel right, leaving her to make her own way home, but there we had it), I heard her call my name. I got out of the car, and she was standing there, next to me, slightly breathless as if she’d been running.

‘Can we do the next bit? I can’t just say goodbye anymore.’

And she launched herself at me and into my arms, and the next half an hour was lost with her there, gripping me, face against my chest while I held her and smelt her hair and stroked her back and wanted more, so much more. The feel of her held tightly against me was going to have to last until the next time I saw her, so I stopped wanting what I couldn’t have and concentrated on feeling what I could.

Almost a week later, I picked her up from a car park in the town centre and we drove to a pub where a band I liked was playing. It fulfilled all the criteria of being a public place – noisy, lots of people – but the atmosphere was intimate, and people tended to mind their own business in a pub more than they did in some of the other places we’d been to. We got there early enough to claim a table in the corner and order some food, and we held hands and looked at each other as we chatted about nothing much. All the serious conversation was going on in the unsaid of our eyes.

Much as the waiting was driving me crazy, I had to admit that getting to know each other like this had been incredibly intense. We’d spent so much time talking, and exploring different things to do, which we would never have done if we’d spent the same amount of time involved in the sorts of activities I wanted to be involved in.

As Carrie told me more about her time in the refuge, I realised how damaged she’d been by her time with Martin, how much she covered it up with brashness, and how much she still relied on help from the WO to continue sorting herself out. It no longer seemed like an effort to do things her way, although there were times when my will-power was sorely tested, like this evening, when she looked so beautiful and was looking at me with those bright blue eyes, wondering what I was thinking.

‘I want to kiss you.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what I was thinking, C. You were wondering.’

‘Bloody hellfire, Matt, how do you know that?’

‘Could see it on your face, you’re an open book to me.’

‘Go on then.’

‘What?’

‘Kiss me.’

‘What?’

‘Thought you could read me like a book. You seem a little bit unclear about it right now.’

‘But … C, I’m not saying no, but here? I might not be able to stop if I start.’

‘You will. You’re not a machine on auto. You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option here, is it?’

‘Er …’

I was a bit unsure what question I was supposed to be answering, all of my concentration having been scattered by the thought that I was going to kiss her, kiss my girl, at last.

‘So, anytime you’re ready.’

‘C …’

I leaned towards her and stroked her cheek, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked down into her eyes, which were sparkling mischievously up at me.

‘So that’s a yes, I take it.’

‘No, it’s a fuck yes. Stop talking now, you’re going to need your mouth for other things.’

I leaned down and showed her all the different gentle ways I could kiss her on the lips. I brushed lightly over her mouth with mine, barely touching her, and felt her shiver, as I also felt the hairs on my arm stand on end. I gently pressed my lips against hers – once at each corner and then in the middle. I nibbled, I licked, I sucked, I did it all with our mouths chastely closed, with one hand on her shoulder and one hand cupping her cheek. I could hear her little moans and sighs, so quiet that I was the only one close enough to hear them, which told me she wasn’t immune to my techniques, and so, emboldened, I pushed against her lips with my tongue and gave a little moan myself as they opened to let me in. I stayed gentle, exploring her tongue, teeth and lips, pushing her back with my tongue when she tried to be more forceful. I was going to prove, to us both, that I could control myself. Just as Carrie wrapped her arms around my neck to pull me deeper into her, I broke away and grinned at her.

‘You’re right. I can stop.’

‘You bastard.’

‘So it’s been said.’

‘You are the master. The Snogmaster. The Snogfather. That was one of, no, the most amazing kiss I’ve ever had.’

‘Thank you. I have to say, I quite enjoyed it myself. Oh look, here come the band. Pay attention now. The bass player used to be in Inspiral Carpets.’

‘Who?’

‘Oh C, you have a lot yet to learn from the Snogfather.’

I sat, a little smugly, holding Carrie’s hand, through the first set, enjoying the music, the atmosphere and the company of the beautiful woman sitting next to me. I got us drinks just before the band had a break, and at the start of the second set, I felt a tug on my hand. I leaned down so Carrie could yell loud enough in my ear that I could hear her over the music.

‘Do you want to go outside?’

I looked at her, not sure I’d understood.

‘Outside?’

Carrie nodded.

‘What for?’

‘Need another lesson.’

‘What?’

I was being particularly obtuse; maybe the loud music had scrambled my brain cells.

‘Want to kiss you again.’

‘Oh.’

I stood up so fast the table rocked and slopped beer and water across the table top. Ignoring this, I held my hand out to Carrie, grinning like a fool, and she took it. I pulled Carrie through the packed bar to the door, and looked for somewhere discreet, neither of us caring that we had just lost our table.

There was a beer garden, with a love-seat, and it was dark; everyone was inside watching the band. We made for the seat, but didn’t get as far as sitting down; Carrie pulled my arm when we were half way across the garden, and as I turned round, she wrapped her arms round my neck, and pulled my face down to hers, and we were gone, blown away, lost in each other, as our mouths rediscovered each other, lips whispered and kissed, tongues tasted, teeth nibbled.

I held her close, so close she felt like a part of me, and I felt myself swell as I wanted to be closer, as close as it was possible to be, and her body told me she wanted it too, but it wasn’t right, not here, even if no one was looking and no one interrupted us, this couldn’t be a frantic, thoughtless thing, not after all the care and detail we’d put into getting here slowly. So we kissed and kissed, and stroked, touched, caressed, feeling the longing, but letting it linger there between us, unassuaged.

Carrie shivered, and I pulled away from her, holding her a little apart from me.

‘Are you cold?’

‘A bit.’

‘Didn’t you bring a coat?’

‘No, I thought we were going to be inside all night. So did you.’

She was right, I hadn’t brought any extra clothing, knowing it was going to be hot and sweaty in the crowded pub on a late summer’s evening.

‘Do you want to go back in?’

‘No. I want to go home with you.’

My head was still spinning from the kissing, and I had to double check.

‘To my place? But …’

‘Yeah. To your place. To do this, at last.’

‘But …’

‘Yeah, you keep saying but, but I don’t hear a good reason why not.’

‘How about we only just passed the kissing and feeling each other up milestones, both in the same evening, and isn’t anything else somewhat ahead of schedule?’

‘Yeah, well, here’s what I think. This was about control, making sure I had it, and now I think we both get it, what it was all about, and the next step, it shouldn’t be about being controlled, it should be about being wild and happy, and it’s what I want, right now, and it feels right, so for this part of it all, please can we go to your place and please will you … can we be together?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘Yes.’

‘Bloody hellfire, is the world going to end tomorrow then?’

Now it was my turn to be confused.

‘What?’

‘You answered a direct question with a yes.’

‘I was saving time, but if you want me to prattle on –’

‘No, I want you to get your arse in your car and drive me to your place and shag me senseless, Matt. Got it?’

‘Got it.’

‘OK then. I’ve just got to send a text, so no one calls the police if I’m not back.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously.’

The pub wasn’t far outside of Stafford, but it was across the other side of town from where I lived. I drove like a maniac trying to get back as quickly as possible, coordination and clear thinking further hampered by Carrie’s hand on my thigh for the entire journey. As we pulled up in my street, Carrie looked around at where we were.

‘Is this near that street where the Polish shop and that new juice bar are?’

‘Yeah, as well as several charity shops of distinction.’

Carrie started laughing.

‘What?’

I searched my last utterance, but could find nothing even unintentionally amusing.

‘I live this close.’

She held her thumb and forefinger together.

‘No fucking way.’

‘I go to the shop, all the time, for milk and stuff. We’re always running out.’

‘Me too. Why have I never seen you in there?’

‘You’re probably at work. I usually go in the morning, before my first class.’

‘How far away – oh, sorry, you don’t have to say.’

‘No, no, it’s fine. This is Jeffries Street, isn’t it?’

I nodded.

‘Which is your flat?’

I pointed it out.

‘I knew it would be one of the big posh houses. I’m in the next street. You can probably see the house from yours, let’s go and find out.’

‘Wait – are you saying all this time, we’ve been meeting up here, there and everywhere, you could have just come round and saved me a fortune in diesel?’

‘Well of course I could, but I didn’t know that then, and the rendezvous have been part of the fun, haven’t they?’

Carrie hopped out of the car and waited impatiently for me on the pavement. She ran up the road as soon as I’d locked the car and waited for me by the front door as I walked more slowly up the street, enjoying the sight of her jiggling on the spot in her haste to get inside.

‘Eager to get in my pants, Miss Mitcham?’

‘You bet, Mr Scott, as are you, despite all your playing it cool. But first I want to see if I can see my room from your flat. Come on, open the door. Ground floor? First floor?’

‘Top floor, loft conversion.’

‘Ohh, I know which one is yours then. There’s only one loft conversion on your side of the street. Race you up the stairs.’

Inconsiderate of any other tenants who might have had an early night, we thundered up the stairs, giggling, stopping frequently to kiss, tease, then chase each other again. By the time we reached my door, we were both out of breath, rosy-cheeked and pumped full of adrenaline, endorphins and pheromones – a chemical explosion waiting to happen.

Carrie stood with her back against my front door and looked up at me, chest heaving pleasingly, her gaze burning me. I rested a hand either side of her and bent down to taste her mouth again. She ducked under my arm and grabbed my keys from my pocket before I had time to realise what she was doing, and shook them at me. I grabbed her round the waist and pushed her back against the door, pushing my hands up beneath her shirt and moaning at the feel of her skin, which was so soft and warm. I felt her arms go round my neck as I bent my mouth to her lips, then nuzzled and nibbled my way round to her earlobes, down the side of her neck and downwards to the collar of her shirt, where glimpses of cleavage had been driving me wild all night. Carrie kissed my ear as I found my way inside her shirt with my tongue, and the electrifying tingle that shot to my already hard dick gave me a jolt of pure ecstasy.

‘Let’s go inside first, do this properly.’

Her soft whisper, millimeters away from my ear, sent another jolt down below, and it was all I could do to stay on my feet. Carrie shook the keys again and gave them to me so I could unlock the door.

Once inside, lamps lit, she wanted to explore the place, look out of the window, find her house, but it was dark, and she was never going to be able to see it. And we had other things to be doing.

‘C … are you trying to put me off?’

‘No.’

‘Well come here then. You can have the tour tomorrow, or later. I want you, so much.’

l held my hand out to her. She stood by the window, biting her bottom lip, irresolute.

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know. I was just thinking, how funny, what if they can see me, then I thought I’m going to have to tell someone, explain all this –’

‘What? You have to report back on us?’

‘No, I don’t have to, but it’s all part of my therapy, the help I’m getting. Maybe I’ve let myself get caught up in things a bit tonight.’

I tried to swallow my disappointment, be there for her. It was difficult with a hard-on the size of the Blackpool Tower, but I tried.

‘OK, then, let’s just have a drink, watch some TV, go to bed. You can have the spare room if you like. I don’t, ever, want to make you do something you don’t want to do. I love you too much for that.’

Shit, bollocks, holy mother of all that was now completely fucked up. Carrie’s eyes went wide at the same time as I pushed my hand over my mouth in a futile attempt to stuff the words back inside.

‘What did you say?’

‘Can we just pretend I didn’t?’

‘How is that going to help?’

‘It will help me feel like less of an idiot.’

‘I can think of a better way to do that.’

And she walked over to me, pulled my face down to hers and kissed me with a passion that even overtook that of the last hour or two, and that was saying something.

‘Feeling less of an idiot?’

‘Er, yeah, but a little more confused. I thought it would be a bad thing to say it, that it would complicate things for you. I think maybe we’ve done enough off-roading around the rules for tonight, my head might explode.’

‘It’s never a bad thing to tell someone you love them, what girl doesn’t want to hear that from a handsome man? You are awesome, Matt. Thank you for understanding me. Did you mean it about your spare room?’

‘Regretfully, I did. Although I would understand if you now want to make the long journey home.’ I gestured out of the window. ‘There might be a gap in the fence you could crawl through or something, to reduce your journey time.’

‘No, I want to stay here. I might tear my tights on the fence. And I want you to cook me breakfast. You keep telling me what a great cook you are, and you’re so going to prove it tomorrow.’

‘I have never said I’m a great cook. I’ve said I enjoy cooking, and talked about meals I may have enjoyed preparing in the past –’

‘So you’re getting your excuses in early, are you?’

‘Oh you evil cow, is that a challenge, then? Stupendous breakfast tomorrow morning chez Scott or I’m a big fat liar?’

‘If you like.’

‘Just wait then, prepare to be stupefied.’

‘It’d had better be good now.’

‘You have no idea.’

Carrie walked over to the sofa and plonked herself down on it, her face showing approval at the softness of the cushions. She patted the seat next to her and I walked over and sat down, unsure now what to do with my arms. I risked putting one round her shoulder, reasoning that she would tell me if she didn’t want it there, in which case I would move it. She sighed and nestled into me, which made it worth the risk, as it presented the top of her head to me and enabled me to drop a kiss on her hair and pull her closer, so she put her arm round my middle and rested her head on my chest.

‘Sorry Matt. I feel like the worst kind of cock-tease.’

‘Well if that’s what you were doing, then you are. But you didn’t do it on purpose, so it’s OK. My cock will understand, in a while, although it may not speak to me for a few days, until I apologise and buy it flowers.’

‘Ha ha, I love the way you never just say ‘that’s OK’, or ‘don’t worry about it’, you always come out with some long string of nonsense that says the same thing but takes about an hour more.’

‘I like that you love something about me.’

‘I’m not saying it back, not yet, not just because you said it.’

‘OK. Sounds … reasonable.’

‘When I say it, and let’s be clear, I will one day, it will be because I want to and I truly feel it.’

I could almost see tiny sparks coming from her eyes, and wasn’t quite sure where all the fire was coming from. I’d been stupid to let her know how I felt, and had no expectations that she would say it back.

‘OK. I’m just a little bit scared of you right now. I wasn’t trying to make you say it back, I was hoping we could just ignore it a little bit, like it’s not such a big deal.’

‘Martin used to make me say it to him.’

‘What? How?’

We hadn’t talked much about Martin, about her life with him. It was one of those things where I wanted to know, but knowing made my blood boil with a need for vengeance, and Carrie seemed uncomfortable talking about it, so we didn’t, really.

‘Sometimes he’d just go on and on, until I said it. All day and night, waking me up in the early hours. Sometimes I tried not to because maybe by the end I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t want to lie, but he’d just keep asking, saying it to me over and over, until he was yelling it in my face. Sometimes he’d tell me I couldn’t possibly love him because otherwise I wouldn’t have, I don’t know, looked at that bloke on the telly like that, or taken the last bit of milk, or something equally stupid, and it would start again, with him telling me I didn’t love him, until I just said I did to stop it. God Matt, I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want him here in this room with us.’

I pulled her close and kissed her hair, and realised completely why telling me she loved me, if she ever did, had to be something that she did in her own time, in her own way and under her control. And I resolved never to let those three little words out of my mouth again, until she’d told me first.

We sat not speaking for a while after that. I reached for the remote control on the iPod dock, turned some music on, and the soft tones of my ‘After Dark’ playlist filled the silence. I looked down at Carrie after a few minutes, and her eyes were closed. I stroked her hair back from her face and said her name, but she didn’t stir, and I sat there, happy, while she slept, her arm round me and her head on my chest.

I woke up with my head lolling back against the sofa, my arms empty, the room silent. It was after three in the morning. Had Carrie gone home? I got up, ran my hands through my hair to try to dispel the post-sleep disorientation that usually fogged my brain, and went to the door of the spare room, which was closed. I opened it as quietly as I could and peeked in, feeling a wash of relief as I saw the top of a blonde head on the pillow. I resisted the strong urge to go over and kiss her awake, and took myself off to my own room. I took my clothes off, put on my sleeping shirt and shorts, and lay down, but sleep evaded me. All of the parts of my body that had earlier been flooded with hormones, awaiting some jiggy action, seemed not to have got the message that there would be no jiggying tonight, hence their services were not required. I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling and tried not to think about the woman sleeping next door, and how much I’d wanted to curl up beside her, pull her towards me and – but I was trying not to think about it. Sometime near dawn, I must have fallen asleep.

It was light when I opened my eyes. Very light. The sun was shining through my pale blue curtains, insisting that it was late, and I should be out there enjoying its golden beams, not wasting the morning snoozing. I hated the sun telling me what to do, the interfering bastard, so I tried to close my eyes again, but my attention was taken by a hand on my stomach. A hand that didn’t belong to me. I reviewed the latest information from my sense of touch, which told me that as well as a hand on my stomach, there was a fair amount of someone else’s body touching a fair amount of mine, pretty close behind me, as well as the arm belonging to the hand, draped over my waist.

I smiled, fatuously, and stretched, happily, and put my hand over the one on my stomach, before turning over to find Carrie, looking at me with her bright blue eyes, a crooked smile on her mouth.

‘Hey gorgeous.’

‘Hey. So, if I don’t get my stupendous breakfast in ten minutes, you’re a big fat liar.’

‘Bollocks, I forgot. Why have I only got ten minutes?’

‘Because it’s ten to twelve, and twelve is when morning officially ends.’

‘Can I get an extension? I’d really, really rather explore what you’re doing here in my bed.’

‘There’ll be time for exploring later.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I need some breakfast. I’ve been up since eight o’clock, which is pretty late for me. I’ve done my stretches and meditation, I’ve tried to read some of your hard sums books, I’ve watched some drivel on the telly, and I’ve finally watched you snore for half an hour –’

‘I do not snore.’

‘– and now I’m hungry and bored, and I need some breakfast in the next nine minutes, or I’m running up and down this street calling you a big fat liar.’

‘Right then.’

I jumped out of bed, possibly more quickly than I ever had before. I put the kettle on in the kitchen, I found eggs, butter and ham in the fridge, and put bread in the toaster. I poured boiling water into a pan and proceeded to kick the arse out of breakfast in six and a half minutes, clad only in my boxer shorts.

Carrie sat at the small table, watching me, but I refused to let her distract me. In a brief respite from stirring and watching, I poured a glass of orange juice, held the carton up to her, but she shook her head, so I held up a bottle of water, which got a nod and took them over to the table with cutlery.

I assembled two plates of stupendous breakfast in just over six and a half minutes, and delivered them to the table as the clock on the DVD turned from 11.59 to 12.00. Carrie looked at me with a gratifyingly impressed, and I would like to think amazed, look on her face. I noticed she was wearing one of my t-shirts, and a pair of my boxers, and she looked a hell of a lot sexier in them than I did.

I sat down opposite Carrie, waiting for her to start eating. She picked up her knife and fork.

‘What is this?’

‘Eggs Benedict.’

‘Won’t Benedict want them back?’

‘He’s willing to sacrifice them for your amazement. Eat up before it gets cold.’

I still hadn’t picked up my knife and fork; I wanted to see what her face said when she tasted it; I was nothing if not a needy cook. Carrie cut a bite of egg, ham and toast smothered in sauce and put it in her mouth. I watched in fascination as her eyes grew round and she looked at me, speaking with her mouth full.

‘Bloohy hehfigh Mah.’ She swallowed. ‘This is out of this world. You’re not a chef, are you?’

‘Nope, IT nerd. But thanks.’

And with that, I picked up my knife and fork and tucked in too. To be brutally honest, it wasn’t my best work, but with the limited time and pressure to perform, I thought I hadn’t done a bad job. Carrie didn’t speak until she’d finished, then pushed her plate away from her and leaned back in her chair.

‘That was totally stupendous. I thought you were just going to pour me a bowl of posh muesli or something, but … wow.’

‘So I’m safe from you running up and down the street calling me a big fat liar, then?’

‘Well, alright, although I was looking forward to that a lot. I’m too full now, though. That’ll have to do me for lunch as well. I don’t usually have much for breakfast, maybe an apple, but I think you might have converted me. Breakfast is my new official favourite meal of the day.’

I finished my eggs too, and picked our plates up, storing everything in the dishwasher and starting to fill the bowl for the pans.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Washing up.’

‘What now?’

‘Well, I hate washing up.’

‘Hm, and this is supposed to make sense in some weird way, is it?’

‘Well, yeah. Most stuff goes in the dishwasher, but anything that needs doing I do right away so I can’t see it looking at me from across the room when I’m watching TV. It’s one of the disadvantages of having a kitchen/lounge/diner.’

‘You’re weird. I hate washing up too, so I just leave it for days until I have no choice.’

‘Really? Days? How can you stand it?’

‘Don’t think about it. Easy. Why are we talking about washing up?’

‘You started it.’

‘I asked why you were doing it. I thought we might have better things to do.’

I looked round at her. She was playing with the hem of her – my – t-shirt and looking back at me through her eyelashes.

‘But last night you said –’

‘I know what I said. But you were so cool about it, and I’ve been thinking, properly thinking all morning, while you were snoring your head off –’

‘I don’t snore.’

‘– and I just want to be with you properly, like I wanted it last night, really, but freaked out a bit. I’m sorry I’m changing my mind every five minutes, it must be really annoying.’

‘As long as you eventually change it to coming to bed with me, right now, I completely forgive you.’

‘What, in your Marigolds?’

‘If that’s your thing.’

‘Not my thing.’

‘Then consider them gone.’

I pulled the rubber gloves off and tossed them over my shoulder, then pulled her up from her chair and tugged her with me to my bedroom.

To say that good sex was had by all would be an understatement. To say that great sex was had by all – ditto. Even to insinuate that only mind-blowingly hot sex and multiple orgasms were achieved several times by all participants would be a gross misrepresentation of the far more universe-shattering truth behind it all, but it would be fair to say that all participants were more than happy with the end results, which were all participants lying, unable to move, panting, big smiles on their faces, looking at each other in wonder and amazement, in the middle of the bed, with bedclothes and undergarments scattered around them.

*

And so it began, PCC 1.2.4. We’d got there, back to where we were in Devon, no more sex rules, no more worrying about how to touch, whether to kiss, wanting this, not allowed that. It was all there, all available, and it was truly worth waiting for.

There were other things that Carrie was still working on with the support of the WO, that she would continue to need their support with for some time. She stayed in the house at the back of mine for the time being; it was something she needed to do, and I had learned that delayed gratification could be better than instant gratification where Carrie and our relationship were concerned.

Carrie’s jobs helped her feel independent, and so did being able to afford where she lived. If she moved in with me, she couldn’t afford half the rent on the flat, although I told her that I was happy paying it all, and it stopped her from making that step, being scared of entering another relationship where she was reliant on someone else for a roof over her head. I could see her point and understand her fears. It wasn’t like she lived miles away, and she stayed over all the time anyway, so it was almost as if she lived there.

I took her to meet my mum, finally, after lots of nagging from both of them. They seemed to like each other, but I didn’t get them both together very often as Carrie seemed reluctant after the first visit. I finally asked Carrie about her own mum, as it was someone she never talked about, although I knew she lived in Stafford somewhere.

‘She’s gone, now.’

‘Gone … you mean, dead?’

‘For all I know, but that’s not what I meant. I meant, when I went into the shelter, one of the things was trying to sort out what the pressure points were in my life. My mum’s a drunk, but she’s never stuck with any treatment, any programme, she’ll do it for a few months, then something clicks and she’s back on the booze. She’d rather buy rotgut vodka than pay her electricity bill, so she was always asking for money, and I did my best, but I didn’t have much, and it frustrated the hell out of me that she wouldn’t stick with the help she got. Then when I met Martin he kind of took over, used to deal with her phone calls, sometimes he’d tell her where to go, sometimes he’d go and pay her bills, I don’t know why he did it, maybe so I’d have to stay with him. But it was a weight off my mind, and I didn’t think about it too much. But anyway, when I started looking at pressure points, my mum was one of them. Without Martin, I didn’t have the money to help her out when she asked for it, and while I was in the shelter I couldn’t check up on her, and she’s a mean bitch and I kind of hate her, even though she’s my mum, so one of the things they helped me do was refer her to a drugs and alcohol team once and for all, tell them I was not in a position to offer her any support for the foreseeable future, and leave it to them and her to deal with.’

‘Holy shit, C.’

‘Does it sound harsh?’

I couldn’t imagine ever leaving my mum to fend for herself, whatever she’d done, but I also couldn’t imagine her doing anything that would make me want to.

‘Yeah, a bit.’

‘Maybe you’ve never had to think about it with your mum, but a part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t have to do it anymore, all the effort for so little reward. She never hugged me, never once told me she loved me, that I can remember, my whole life. Once my Dad sodded off to wherever, she turned to me to meet her needs, but she wouldn’t have noticed me otherwise.’

‘C, I never realised. It sounds grim.’

‘It was grim. I’ve done it now, I’m free of her, I can’t think about it any other way. I’m not going to look her up, or think about her if I can help it. She had her chances, I’ve given her too many, and she blew them all.’

It took me a while to assimilate that, how coldly she’d been able to cut her mother out of her life. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for her, but I still couldn’t see myself doing it.

But both of us were constantly reassessing each other in the light of things we found out about each other, and we changed and grew in each other’s eyes. Our life, separate but together, became normal for us and before I knew it, nearly a year had passed. Bloody hell, I’d been in a relationship for over a year, and still wasn’t showing any signs of expiring by overdosing on commitment.

We’d made some good friends, some of them women Carrie had known from the shelter and their partners, some of them friends of mine who hadn’t been too happy to introduce excellent no-strings lay Matt to their wives and girlfriends, but seemed more at ease with obviously besotted Matt and his lovely girlfriend Carrie. We carved a life for ourselves, in this town, and for the first time since I realised I was going to have to stay to keep an eye on Mum, I was truly happy I had.

*

I was in the kitchen, making tea, waiting for Carrie to come round after one of her evening classes, when I heard the key in the door. Although Carrie didn’t live there, she had her own key, and knew she was always, always welcome. I turned to greet her, the words dying on my lips as I saw her expression, her pale face, eyes big and haunted. I was by her side before she could close the door.

‘What? What’s happened?’

‘They’ve pulled the funding for Women’s Org Stafford.’

‘Who have?’

‘Oh I don’t know, the government, someone. They’re closing the house and the drop-in centre, the safe-houses are going. I’m going to lose my jobs.’

‘Holy shit, that’s beyond terrible.’

I pulled her to me and held her. I felt her trembling, and I wrapped her up in my arms to try and make her feel safe.

‘What am I going to do without them, Matt?’

‘You’ll be OK. You’re so strong now, you’re more help to them than they are to you.’

‘Where am I going to work?’

‘There’ll be other places that need yoga and massage. Don’t worry about it tonight, we’ll have a look tomorrow, have a think, see what we can come up with.’

It was the way I did things – strategise, plan, plan B, plan C. Carrie was different, more chaotic. When people gave her solutions, she tore them apart and said why it would never work; she needed answers before she started; she catastrophised; she panicked.

Carrie disentangled herself from me and walked over to the sofa. I went to the hob to stir a saucepan that was in danger of bubbling over.

‘I can’t wait until tomorrow. I barely held it together at the school tonight, I can’t do another class with this over my head.’

‘Call in sick tomorrow then, if you can’t cope with the classes. I’ll take the day off too, we’ll sort it out.’

‘I can’t do that, it’ll be obvious.’

‘What, that a huge blow like this has affected your ability to do your job, which you might not have much longer? Yeah, that’ll be obvious, but also completely understandable.’

‘I can’t.’

Once she said no, there was no persuading her, so I didn’t bother arguing and changed tack.

‘Is there someone you can call? Talk about it, what your options are?’

‘There are no options. There is no money, that’s it. Gone.’

And here we were, where we often ended up, going round in circles. I tried to think of someone else she could call, someone not connected with the organisation, who might have a chance of talking her down, but couldn’t come up with anyone she would be open with. Then I thought of …

‘Beth. Call Beth.’

I could hardly believe I was suggesting it, I was opening us both up for a world of interfering sister-in-lawing, but Beth had said a long time ago she had a friend for every occasion, or some such shit, and although we hadn’t been down to see them since that week in Devon, I knew she would come through in some way, if she could.

‘No, I’m not calling your brother’s busybody wife, who I haven’t seen for over a year, to tell her I’ve just lost everything.’

‘Beth’s not a busybody.’

Oh she so was a busybody, but admitting that wasn’t helping my cause.

‘She’d love to help you if she can. She’s great at listening.’

‘Yeah, when she’s not talking. Don’t you remember how much she went on when we were there?’

‘Er, I remember her helping you get in touch with WO and by default getting you the help you needed.’

And yeah, I remembered her going on, but that also wasn’t helping my cause.

‘And look where it’s got me. I might as well not have bothered, I’m worse off than before, at least I didn’t know how things could be before.’

‘But C, I know I might be at risk of blowing my own trumpet here, but WO surely isn’t the only important thing in your life? What about me? You’ve got me, you’ll always have me. So they close the house – live here. Don’t pay rent until you can afford it. I’ll ask at work, a couple of people there would be interested in a yoga class, I can –’

‘Don’t you dare try to take over. That’s just what he did.’

She was looking at me as if she’d just found a slug on her lettuce.

‘What?’

‘I won’t live with someone who thinks they can keep hold of me by paying for everything.’

‘What the fuck? You know that’s not what I said. C, sometime you’re just going to have to accept an offer of help from me as what it is, no ulterior motive, just because, fuck it, I’m going to say it, because I love you.’

It had been a year, and I was still waiting to hear her say it, but this felt like time to remind her that I could do things, did do things for her, not just for me. Maybe a small part of me wanted to remind her that she’d once said she would say it to me one day.

‘I know you want to be independent, and you are, you’ve shown everyone you can be, and I’m so proud of you for getting there. But independent doesn’t mean doing absolutely every sodding thing on your own. Everyone needs other people sometimes. Like …’

I searched my memory for something from my life I could compare to this. Not much sprang to mind until I remembered my old flat.

‘… when my door got kicked down in my old place. If I was completely independent, not needing anyone, I would have slept in the corridor, wouldn’t I, or spent a miserable month in the Travelodge, but I went to my mum’s, because I knew it would make me feel better and she’d want to help. I needed her. It’s OK to need people, it’s perfectly OK, everyone needs people sometimes, it makes us feel good too.’

Carrie was quiet, then, curled up on the sofa, TV remote in her hand, flicking through the channels, lost in her own world while I finished making tea. She didn’t speak until we’d nearly finished eating.

‘Don’t you think Beth would be a bit sniffy if I just called her out of the blue and asked for help?’

‘I can’t imagine Beth ever being sniffy. Give her a go.’

She nodded, but didn’t say anything else until I was clearing away the plates.

‘If I moved in with you …’

She had really been doing some thinking while she was flicking through cartoons and infomercials.

‘Yeah?’

‘Would it have to be here?

‘Well, no, I suppose not. Don’t you like it here?’

‘Yeah, I do, but it’s yours. I’d feel better if it was ours. Maybe something a bit cheaper, so I could at least pay as much as I can afford.’

‘OK. Plan.’

‘I don’t know when the house is going, it might not be for a while yet. I’d like to stay there as long as possible.’

‘Of course, it gives us longer to look for somewhere.’

‘Matt …’

‘Mm?’

‘I’m sorry I said, you know, about wanting to keep me here by paying for things. I was in a state. It wasn’t very nice of me.’

‘It’s OK. I understand, you bloody irritating lady.’

‘Dinner was awesome.’

‘Thank you. And for dessert …’

This was my big surprise, I’d been anticipating it all day, but the last hour had, I’d thought, scotched it for now.

‘Oh, no, I couldn’t eat anything else. I might just have a bath and go to bed.’

‘Did I say it was food? Just wait two seconds to have your bath.’

I went to the fridge, took out a plate with a silver coloured cover over it, and deposited it on the table in front of her.

‘I thought it wasn’t food.’

I exaggerated an exasperated sigh and stood with a hand on my hip.

‘Lift the lid.’

She did as she was told, which was a minor miracle, and looked puzzled at the envelope lying on the plate. She picked it up, opened it and her mouth fell open as she saw the plane tickets and hotel reservation.

‘New York? Really? When did you do this?’

Then her face fell.

‘I can’t afford it.’

‘You don’t have to – no, don’t get your knickers in a twist again. Listen. This is a thank you from a client, a big rich client who thinks I did a good enough job for him that I deserve to take my beautiful girlfriend to New York for Christmas –’

‘Christmas?’

‘Yeah, didn’t you see the dates? Seven days, from the twenty first of December.’

‘Oh Matt!’

Her eyes were shining and for a little while all of the bad was chased from her mind.

‘Really, someone gave you this?’

‘Yep, and spending money too.’

That was a little white lie, but I knew she would insist on going halves if I didn’t say it. It didn’t seem particularly evil of me, and it was making her smile, so it must have been a good thing to do.

Every day for the next week, I silently thanked Mr Sato for his generosity; without Christmas to look forward to, I don’t know how Carrie would have got through the next couple of months, as the WO slowly dismantled around her, tearing her carefully built life apart.

I tried to show her that I could be as big a part of her life, could keep her as safe, if in different ways, but I was treading a fine line, I felt, between caring and smothering, and didn’t want to be accused again of being like Martin. It made me realise that there was still some distance between us, some space, a gap, a need, that I couldn’t yet fill. She still held back, still didn’t say she loved me. I accepted it, held her, loved her and helped her plan for our future without WO.