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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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?
: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?
: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?
: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?
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.’
Jay and Beth had bought me a microwave when I moved out, but I’d needed the money more.
: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…
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 …
…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.
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.
And I’d told her to fuck off. Again.
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.
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.
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.
: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.
: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.
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.
: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?
: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.
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.
-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.
-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.’
-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.
It was Nico Tiago. I stopped, surprised.
>I wait for you. I worry. You look horrible before.
>You look horrible still.
>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.
He opened the passenger door and gestured me round the car.
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.’
‘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.
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.
: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.
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…
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 …
…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.