20. Hope in front of me

In which Dec and Cal find out what happens when you bounce on the bed, and explanations are attempted.

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Dec

Noises, voices, pain, blurred, sleep, jumbled dreams. Dreamt Jay and Beth and Cal had been here.

Woke up suddenly. Sound of running water. Couldn’t open my eyes. Back hurt. Head hurt. Arms hurt. Legs hurt. Shifted position to continue inventory. Agony. May have screamed, or it may have been in my head. This was the worst fucking hangover I’d ever had. I thought I wasn’t supposed to drink? Why had I been drinking? Don was going to be so pissed off. I tried to open my eyes and look at where the sound of water was coming from, but my head started pounding and I groaned.

¬Oh hello. You’re back with us then. Just in time. I’m going to bathe your eyelids. Get some of this crusty stuff off. Might help you open your eyes. Lovely sunny day out there, shame for you to miss it.

Tried speaking, to whoever it was. She sounded friendly enough.

‘Phlwuthchst.’

Shit, what the fuck was wrong with my mouth? I could hardly speak, and when I tried, it hurt like a bitch.

¬I think you’ll need me to bathe your mouth too. Then you can tell us what you really think.

Whoever this was had the right idea. I needed to start talking, so I could ask some questions. If only I could think what the questions should be. Felt something warm and wet dabbing at my eyes. Stung like crazy. Whoa, this was the weirdest hangover ever. Winced. That hurt even more. What the fuck was happening to me? I tried to move my head away, felt a hand on my cheek, steadying me.

¬Sorry m’dear, won’t take long. Keep still.

Did as I was told, hoping things would become clearer in time. Images from before began to flutter into my head. Sounds, voices – Cal. Jay. Had I dreamed it? Or had Jay, Beth and Cal really all been here, with me?

‘Cckchll’

¬Wait a bit, m’dear, not quite there yet.

‘Vthhh’

¬I see we’re going to have some trouble with you. Bit of patience please.

‘Zshhay’

¬I know, I know, I’m going as fast as I can. OK, that’s your eyes done, have a bit of a go opening them. Slowly, it might hurt.

Again, did as I was told. Through a small opening, beyond the blur of my eyelashes, I saw a blonde woman peering into my face. She was wearing a white tunic. She was pretty. Her name was Michelle, and she was a nurse. It said so on her name badge. Jay’s voice drifted across my memory …

łAh mate, you’re in hospital.

Tried to remember more, but everything was jumbled up and confused. I was in hospital? Bit more than a hanger, then? Tried to remember what I’d been doing to end up here, but it was a blank. Wait, I saw Don yesterday, he told me I’ve still got my job – started to smile at that, but it hurt so much I stopped moving my mouth. The nurse was still looking at me.

¬Hello! Very good m’dear. Your eyes are still very swollen, so it’ll be a while before you can open them the whole way. But not bad for a first try. It should get a bit easier now we’ve got all the gunk off.

She smiled and turned back to a bowl on a trolley.

¬OK then, mouth next.

She dipped some cotton wool into water in the bowl and dabbed it across my lips. She was gentle, but it still stung a lot. What had happened to my mouth? And my eyes? Why did I need a nurse? I was still fuzzy, couldn’t work it out, I tried to think about it, but the stinging from whatever was on the cotton wool was too distracting. Some of the liquid dribbled between my lips. It tasted vile and it stung to buggery. The cotton wool came away red. The nurse discarded it and got another bit.

¬Alright there?

Couldn’t speak, so nodded as much as I could, which wasn’t much.

¬Goodo, let’s keep going then. Nearly finished.

Three more bits of cotton wool later, and she was done.

¬OK, that’s that. Have a bit of a move of your lips if you can, see how it feels. Couldn’t do it before we got rid of the crusty stuff, in case it split again.

Did as I was told. I was getting good at it. Tongue felt huge and furry. Lips very painful, bruised, split and swollen. It all felt very disconnected from my face.

¬Like a drink?

Fuck, yes! I was parched. A drink suddenly seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had.

‘Mm.’

¬Ok, then, let’s sit you up.

She pressed some button somewhere that made the bed sit up underneath me.

¬Start with water. Here you are.

She held out a plastic tumbler, with a straw in it.

¬Small sips, please.

Even though it hurt to suck, it was the most delicious drink ever. Felt it running across my swollen tongue and down my throat. Sipped and sipped until the glass was empty. She took it away from my mouth.

¬Try now – would you like to say a few words?

From between my filmy eyelids I saw her hold an invisible microphone up to my mouth. All my questions fought briefly for dominance, but it seemed I needed above all to know if what I remembered from last night was real. Had they all really been here or was it some kind of dream torture? Nothing was clear in my head, it was all scrambled. How the fuck was I going to ask?

‘Hee …’

Stopped in frustration. My mouth wasn’t making the right shapes to say the word.

¬No rush, take your time.

‘Hhshay.’

Bloody hell this was difficult.

‘Ghshay.’

Shook my head. Tried again.

‘Gshay.’

Better.

‘Shay.’

Best I was going to do.

‘Shay. Mm. Shay.’

After all that, she looked puzzled.

¬Alright, might take a bit of guess work, I’ll give it a go. Want me to say something? No. Ask me about something?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. Where am I, what am I doing here, isn’t that what they do in the films?

No response from me. I did want to know what I was doing here, but there was something more important I needed to know.

¬Sorry, flippant. OK, have another go.

It was worse than frustrating. Tried another tack.

‘Vsstrrs’

¬Ooh, visitors?

At last.

‘Mm.’

¬Well I’m glad we sorted that one out. You’ve had quite a few visitors since you came in yesterday. Want to know about that?

Sagged with relief. Now I was getting somewhere.

‘Mm.’

¬OK, let’s see, I wasn’t on when you were admitted, but when I got here you had a family with you.

That was it. Surely it must be them? Hope and caution battled in me. Don’t get carried away, it can’t be possible.

‘Mm. Mm.’

¬Hey, we got there, that didn’t take long. The mum and little boy left earlier on, but the dad stayed until we moved you in here, a couple of hours ago. What else did you want to know?

Tried to say where are they, but only ended up blowing bad breath over the bedclothes.

¬Wondering when they’re coming back?

Or if. But when would be better.

‘Mm.’

¬I’ll see if I can find out. Might be something on your file. Depends if they talked to the charge nurse before they left. Won’t be a tick.

She walked briskly out of the room. Left to myself, I sank into the pillow. Looked up through the gap in my eyelids to the ceiling. Couldn’t face thinking about whether they had really been here, or what it might mean if they had.

Started to catalogue the pain, trying to work out what the fuck had happened to me. I hurt pretty much everywhere. Face felt giant, and there seemed to be something stuck to my nose. Scalp hurt. Back shrieked. Couldn’t move my right arm. Glanced down. Plaster from knuckles to shoulder, sleeve cut off. Left arm, blackened hand peeking out of long sleeved pyjama top, sore and swollen. Metal splint on little finger. Tube from a drip on a stand by the side of the bed disappeared up my left sleeve. Tried to bend at the elbow. Stopped trying pretty quickly. Looked down at feet, humps under the bedclothes. Terrified I wouldn’t be able to move them. Tried an experimental toe-wiggle. Pain shot up my shins as I saw movement under the blankets. Moaned in pain and relief.

Checklist of body parts taken, but really none the wiser as to how I got here in this state, I looked beyond the bed. I was in a room on my own, bed, two chairs, a bedside cupboard with a vase of flowers. A card with a stegosaurus on it that said Hope Your Recovery is Dinomite. It was the sort of thing Cal might have chosen, but I couldn’t reach it to see who it was from. Painting of a tree screwed to the wall. A small window looking onto the side of a building. A patch of blue sky. In the corridor outside the door, footsteps, voices.

¬…that’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.

I looked at the door through the rapidly expanding slit in my vision, heart beating fast with expectancy. Thought my heart might burst with relief and joy when Cal ran into the room, followed by Beth and then Jay. Tried a smile, no idea what shape my lips made.

Cal

Because we were in a rush, we went out without me having my juice, and I asked a few times on the way if I could have a drink. Maybe I asked a lot of times. So when we got to the hospital and passed the shop near the door, Mum went in and got some purple squash that we could fill up with Dec’s water, and she picked up some pyjamas on the way to the till to pay. I hoped they weren’t for Dec, because it wasn’t a very exciting present, and I told Mum that Dec might like a Mars bar instead, so he could share it with me, but Mum said no. So I thought of something else.

‘I think Dec would like a magazine, Mummy.’

‘Oh, really, Cal? Any magazine in particular?’

‘This dinosaur one has got a toy of the front.’

‘Yes, I can see. How about you give Dec the magazine, but keep the toy?’

I could hardly believe my luck. I hadn’t even had to be that sneaky. And Dec would like the magazine; he talked to me about dinosaurs all the time. If I was really lucky, he’d say I could keep the magazine as well.

We walked along the corridors and up the stairs; there were loads of interesting things to see, like a lady on a big bed with wheels who had a plastic mask over her face, some people wearing all green running and shouting ‘get out of the way’, and someone in a wheelchair with a big bag on a pole like Dec had, only it was being wheeled along by the side of the chair. I didn’t have time to ask about one thing before I saw the next – it was a lot more exciting than Uncle Matty’s hospital.

And then we got to the place where Dec had been last night, but Dad took us round the corner, saying that Dec had gone into his own room early this morning, just before Dad had come back to go to sleep. We saw a nurse come out of a room, and Dad stopped her.

‘We’ve come to see Declan Summers. It’s not too early is it?’

The nurse looked at Dad with her head on one side.

‘Are you family?’

‘Ye … es.’

‘Oh, you were here last night, weren’t you. OK, that’s fine, then. He hasn’t been awake long, but I’ve just bathed his eyes and his mouth, he might even be able to talk to you.’

‘How is he?’

‘He was a bit disoriented, which is to be expected, and very battered and bruised, as I’m sure you know, but his CT scan showed nothing to worry about, and with a bit of luck he’ll be able to get back to normal.’

‘Oh James, that sounds great, doesn’t it. We’ve brought him his own pyjamas, I hope that’s OK.’

The nurse stepped towards the door she had just come out of, and opened it.

‘That’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.’

I ran in the room, wanting to see what Dec looked like this morning, and keen to show him the dinosaur magazine. Dec was sitting up in his bed, and although his eyes were swollen almost shut with bruises, they were open, and he was looking at me. His mouth moved, and I thought he might be trying to smile.

‘You’re in a different room please can I have some purple squash?’

‘Cal! Sorry Dec, he’s been saying he’s thirsty all the way here. We got you some blackcurrant squash, by the way, hope you don’t mind sharing. And some pyjamas. You don’t have to share those.’

Mum bent down and kissed Dec on the cheek while I stood at the side of the bed and looked at him. Then Mum made me a purple squash and I sat on the chair and drank it all in one go, waiting to see what would happen next.

Dec

Beth bent down and kissed me on the cheek. Bloody hell it hurt, but no way was I going to show it. Would have hugged her if either of my arms could have moved. She opened the bottle, poured some into a glass, filled it with water from a jug on the top of the cupboard, and handed it to Cal. He drank in big, noisy gulps, and started to wipe his mouth on the back of his hand when he’d finished, before he caught Beth’s eye and took the tissue she held out to him, as she looked at me and spoke.

_The nurse said you were talking.

‘Mm.’

_Although not long speeches yet I see.

She was being bright and breezy, but her eyes were wary. Jay was hanging back, looking tired, a guarded look in his eyes, tense and ill-at-ease. But it was so, so unbelievably good to see them. I felt like they could be dream people, about to disappear in insubstantial wisps. Still no idea what had happened to make them be here.

‘Gutuhsyu.’

A pause while Beth tried to translate.

_Sorry, Dec, you’re going to have to try again. Haven’t got my ‘I’ve been hit by a truck’ head on yet.

Had I been hit by a truck? The state of my body said yes. Memories from yesterday were vague and fragmented. No idea how I’d ended up here in this state, and as my brain started to wake up a bit, I was starting to worry.

Cal

I wasn’t sure why Mum thought Dec had been hit by a truck, when even I remembered he’d been hit by a bad man, but I was as good at understanding Dec as I was at understanding Uncle Matty, so I told her what he had said.

‘He said, ‘good to see you’. I heared him.’

Mum looked at Dec as if she didn’t think I could possibly have got it right, but Dec confirmed it.

‘Mm.’

Just to make it clear that I knew what I was talking about, I told them what that meant, as well.

‘That means yes.’

Dec

_It’s good to see you too, Dec. But not like this, so…

She waved her hand vaguely over the bed, and with horror I saw tears fill her eyes. Jay came over and put his arm round her protectively.

Cal, saviour of us all:

\do you like your dinosaur card?

‘Mm. Fm yu?’

\of course it’s from me. Stegosauruses are the best ones. I choosed it from the shop downstairs. It says ‘Dinomite’ but it’s spelled wrong on purpose so it looks like dinosaur. Mummy buyed it. And a Mars bar but I ate it. And some flowers, the nurse put them in a pot. We got you some squash today because I was thirsty. And a dinosaur magazine. Do you want to see it?

‘Mm. Luvtuh.’

\you can’t have the toy on the front, but you can see the picture of the triceratops in the middle, it’s awwwwesome.

Without warning, he launched himself onto the end of the bed, bouncing the mattress. There was such a protest of pain from every part of my body I couldn’t help myself shouting out:

Fuck!

Cal

I stopped dead, mid-crawl. Dec was not allowed to swear when I was nearby, and he had just shouted the baddest word I knew, very loud. He didn’t even look sorry, he just looked like he was breathing fast, and trying not to say it again. Mum didn’t even tell him off.

‘That was a very big swear.’

I wasn’t sure why no one had said anything; this should have earned Dec at least an ‘honestly Dec’, but Mum didn’t even look cross.

‘Yes, sweetheart, I understood that one. I think Dec means that he would like you to get off his bed and stop bouncing.

‘Mm.’

It seemed that Dec being hit by bad men changed quite a lot of things.

‘Let’s pull this chair next to the bed, you can sit here and show him your magazine. OK Dec?’

‘Grut.’

‘That means great.

‘Yes, Cal.’

I sat on the chair and held the magazine up so Dec could see. I couldn’t really tell if he was looking, because his eyes were nearly shut, but his head was pointed towards the pages and he did little nods every now and then as I turned over the pages. It wasn’t quite the same, because usually Dec would have been talking to me, and telling me stories about the pictures, making up names like ‘Terence the Pterodactyl’ and ‘Howard the Hadrosaur’ to make me laugh, but this time I did all the talking, because it hurt Dec to speak.

Dec

He flicked over a few pages, explaining what all the pictures were of, just like he would have done all those months ago when everything was normal and they still cared and I wasn’t in a hospital bed hardly able to move.

I was still trying to work it all out, looking from Cal to Beth to Jay, when I heard voices outside, one raised in protest, one stating intent.

¬You can’t go in, he’s already got three visitors, you’ll have to wait for someone to come out. There’s a chair here, look. I’m sure they won’t be long.

:Look, love, I’ve come all the way from across town, on my day off, on the bus, and you’re not stopping me. I’ll sort it out in there, you don’t have to worry.

‘Rz.’

Cal looked up at me, puzzled. The door opened.

¬You can’t just –

But she could, and she did. The nurse hovered at the door, looking at me. I tried to nod that it was OK, as Rose bustled forwards. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, and for the second time that day I saw eyes fill with tears. No more crying over me, please. Couldn’t take it.

:Oh love, look at you.

She came over to hug me. Didn’t think I would survive one of Rose’s envelopings.

‘Nnuh.’

Cal

As Mum stepped forwards, hands out ready to stop her, I realised why Dec didn’t want the cuddle. He didn’t want to do a big swear to this lady.

‘That means no.’

The lady stepped back, and looked at me, Mum and Dad.

‘Rz. Hh.’

Rose looked at Dec again, her mouth open a little bit.

‘Sry. Hrts.’

I thought she might not know what Dec was saying, so I told her what he meant.

‘Dec can’t talk properly. He said he’s sorry it hurts. He means if you cuddle him he might cry, or say a big swear. I jumped on his bed and he said a very big swear.’

The lady looked at me and smiled.

‘Well thank you young man, I see you speak Declanese. He says a lot of big swears, he seems to quite enjoy it. It might not have been your fault, love.’

I grinned at the lady. I liked that she called Dec’s way of talking ‘Declanese’.

Dec

‘Rz. Shay. Vth.’

I tried to direct her gaze with my eyes, but she probably couldn’t see much of them underneath my swollen eyelids. She looked at Cal, already trusting him to know what I was saying.

\I don’t know what Rz means. Jay is my Daddy and Beth is my Mummy.

Light dawned in Rose’s eyes and she glanced quickly at both of them, then back at Cal.

:I can help you there. I think Rz must be me. I’m Rose.

She looked at me, eyes shining; she looked as happy as I felt.

:Oh Declan, they’re here, love.

She turned to face Jay and Beth.

:You’re Declan’s family, aren’t you. I didn’t know you’d … you must have … didn’t know you were here. Oh, there’s grand now. He’s told me lots about you all.

\what did he tell you about me?

Rose turned back to Cal.

:Well, let’s see now. You must be Calum. Declan says you really like dinosaurs. You’re very good at football and your team is … er … Arsenal?

\who’s my favourite player?

Cal was relishing his role as official examiner.

:Oh, er …

Seeing mild panic behind Rose’s eyes, I ventured

‘Thuh Wct.’

:No chance, love, but thanks for trying. Sorry, love, I expect he told me, but I’m not much good at footballers.

\what did he say about Mummy and Daddy?

łThat’s enough, Cal.

It was the first time Jay had spoken since he came into the room. Rose spoke to Cal, but directed her words at Jay.

:He’s alright, love. I’ll tell you, shall I? Declan told me your mam and dad were like the best family he could ever have wanted. He told me he did some wrong things, and wishes he hadn’t because losing his family has made him so sad and it’s made a lot of trouble for everyone, and meant he couldn’t see you and your mam and dad any more. He also told me that your mam makes really good roast potatoes, better than mine he says, although I find that hard to believe, and your dad drives too fast, which I think Declan quite likes.

Cal

Dec really had told Rose everything about us. Dad really did drive fast, and Mum really did cook roast potatoes. I didn’t even know who Rose was, I’d never seen her before, but I wondered if Rose was Dec’s mum, although I thought he didn’t have a mum. Before I could ask, Rose started talking again. She talked a lot. She wanted to know what had happened to Dec, but Mum wasn’t just going to tell her without permission from Dec.

‘If that’s OK with Dec.’

Mum looked at Dec, checking. I don’t think she knew who Rose was either.

‘Mm. Rzs gd frnd’

‘He said Rose is a good friend.’

‘Thank you sweetheart, I think Dec’s getting a bit easier to understand. OK, well, lovely to meet you Rose. Actually, Nico told us a lot about you, how you’ve looked after Dec. Thanks for what you said. It means a lot to James and me.’

So she did know who Rose was. I would have to ask later if she was Dec’s mum.

‘As for what’s happened, well, Cal, why don’t we go and get you a slushie, and Rose and Daddy and Dec can have a talk?’

I was torn between wanting a slushie, and maybe other things if I asked enough times, and wanting to stay and find out what Dad said to Rose.

‘But they won’t understand Dec if I’m not here.’

‘I think they’ll be OK. Green or blue slushie?’

Dec

He skipped out of the room with Beth.

\green. And can I have Monster Munch…

Cal’s list of requests faded into the distance. Jay and Rose talked while I lay back and let them. I didn’t know how I had ended up here, most of it was very hazy, a lot of it was missing. Now I’d had a chance to think, I could remember everything up to leaving the little office to go to the press conference, then there were fragments, shards I didn’t really want to explore as they mostly held pain.

A sudden recollection of lying helplessly on the ground watching a boot approach my face. Maybe not a truck then.

I tried to focus while Jay told Rose about finding me in the car park at Raiders Stadium, half underneath a car. He had only called at the club to drop off some paperwork on his way back up the motorway, and had nearly tripped over me. He hadn’t recognised me, so bloody and battered was my face. He had to talk to the police before they would let him drive back, and it wasn’t until they asked him if he knew me, that he realised. They had come to the hospital straight away, Jay had sat with me all night, Beth and Cal staying with Nico and Lisa.

łThey moved him to this room late last night, or more like early this morning – only a couple of hours ago, actually. Apparently the police thought it might be a good idea. Think it might be some kind of payback for the – I don’t know how much you know –

He looked over at me.

‘Rz kns vrythng.’

łOK then, payback for the points Raiders lost because of the passport thing. Lots of angry people, but nobody knows who did it.

:Well I’m glad you were here, love, I’d have hated to think of him being alone.

łI think Dec’s had quite a few visitors, not that he’d remember many of them, he’s been pretty much out of it since he came in. Massive dose of painkillers, as well as the bangs to the head. The doctor said he might not remember much about any of it. He woke up for a short time last night, but they whacked more meds in and he was out for the count again. Not surprised he’s been lazing around half the morning.

:He is a bit of a lazy sod.

‘Pss ff’

:Well that came out loud and clear, love. So, what’s the damage? I can obviously see his face, don’t know if you’ve seen yourself yet, love, you’re a bit of a sight. Plenty of time for that, now. And a broken arm. Anything more serious?

łI don’t know if I can remember the full list. He seems to have been hit over the head with a bottle, they had to pick glass out of his cuts before they stitched them. He was unconscious for a while, but they didn’t think any permanent damage, though how would they ever tell, eh Dec? Some of the cuts were fairly deep, looks like a glassing, but nothing major severed. And nothing internal that they could find. But they’re being careful. He’s been punched and kicked, probably while on the ground. Lots of bruises, lots of stitches, you can see all that. Broken collar bone – might need an operation on that. Thought he might have a broken jaw, but just badly bruised. Broken nose – that can only improve his looks. Can’t look at his eyes properly yet, but they think just bruising and swelling. Broken little finger, looks like someone stamped on his hand, you can see the footprint, look…

They both inspected the damage. I could only concentrate on two pieces of information. I had been beaten up, or kicked, or something. And Jay, Beth and Cal were here. They were all here, and talking to me and looking like they cared about me and might not want me to fuck off and die. It felt fragile, though, as if it might shatter any second and leave me back where I’d been.

ł… kind of tube in for his pee at the moment – he’s been pretty heavily medicated and they couldn’t get him to the loo. Bit undignified, eh, Dec?

So that was what that weird sensation had been. Hadn’t been able to explore due to two non-functioning hands.

łHe’s been pretty lucky. Could have been a lot worse.

Not sure my pains agreed with him.

:Especially if you hadn’t found him. Oh, love. Who did this to you?

She shuffled her chair closer to the bed and tried to find a part of me to touch that wouldn’t hurt. She failed, but it was OK. I had no answer to her question.

:I don’t know what to say, love. After everything that’s happened to you. It’s so unfair.

łBloody good job he plays rugby. He’s fit and strong. He’ll heal quickly. Seen worse than this after a collision with a loose-head, eh Dec? He’ll be back in training in a few weeks.

Rose laughed.

łI’m serious! He won’t be allowed to sit around feeling sorry for himself. He’ll be back in training soon as his breaks have healed. Maybe before.

Rose harrumphed a bit and the set of her jaw told me what she thought of that.

:Well we’ll see now, I s’pose, won’t we.

There was a brief pause. Rose looked determinedly at Jay, who looked back with an amused expression on his face. Rose changed tack.

:Now, look here. Declan knows I’m an interfering old busybody –

‘Struh.’

:No, don’t you try and deny it, love. Anyway, what I want to know is, you being here with your family, is everything put right now with the two of you?

There was a weighty silence. I hardly dared breathe, although I continued to do so noisily through my swollen nose. Jay looked down at his hands. Then at Rose. Then at me. I shut my eyes completely. Would have shut my ears if I could have. Really didn’t know if I could take his answer. He took a deep breath. Blew it out. I felt like everything was balancing on what Jay said now.

łAlright then. I don’t know if this is the right time or place, Dec, but I think I need to say this. You really messed up. You pissed all over me and Beth, you pissed all over Raiders. We couldn’t understand it. Still don’t think I really get it. I thought we were finished, you and me. Well, you know, I said it all before.

The searing pain of being dismissed by Jay in the car park cut through me again. I almost gasped at the memory.

łCouldn’t even say your name, didn’t talk about it, I was so angry about everything, what you’d done, what you’d lied about. When Cal rang you that time, I was so mad at him, he stopped asking me about you too. God knows what that did to the poor little sod. Jesus, what a mess. Anyway, then you found Cal when he ran away, and, I dunno, it changed something. Started talking to Beth, we started talking about you, still thoroughly pissed off, but wondering why you’d done it all … thinking up reasons, maybe it was this, maybe that, maybe if we’d said … whatever. Then Friday we came to stay with Nico and Lis, and Nico came back and told us what a state you were in; he thought you were close to doing something daft to yourself.

Had I been? Friday night was a bit of a blur. I’d been in a state, no doubt about that, but the details weren’t easy to grasp onto.

łHe rang some psychiatrist he knows to talk about you, I think he nearly got someone to come and have a look at you. I was worried about you, for the first time in a long time. It felt weird. Beth and I talked all night, trying to decide how we were feeling. Didn’t reach any conclusions. Then something like this happens, and, shit, I dunno … turns out, we still care after all. Can’t ignore that. You’ve been a prick. But there it is. I think family stays family, in the end. Or something like that.

Wait, was Jay saying, actually saying out loud, that I was part of his family? It had never been actually said before, hadn’t needed to be before everything went tits up.

łWhat Rose just said about you telling her we’re your family, and you thought you’d lost us, that’s helped. We felt like you’d thrown all that back in our faces, didn’t want us or need us any more, so knowing you think of us as family too is really important. Dec, I really don’t understand what’s been going on with you the last few months. But I think I want to, need to. Probably need some kind of bloody deep and meaningful as soon as I can understand what the fuck you’re saying, mate.

Couldn’t speak. Even if my mouth had been working, my throat had closed with emotion. Tears leaked excruciatingly out of my eyes and stung various parts of my face on their way down. Rose patted my arm gently. The balance had tipped; it felt like things with Jay might be starting to be OK.

:I’m very glad to hear it, love. Now, what I want to know-

Cal

Mum held her hand out, and the slushie won.

‘Green. And can I have Monster Munch and another Mars Bar? And can we see if they’ve got a Lego magazine?’

Mum laughed. ‘Slow down, Cal. We’ll get the slushie first, shall we, and see how it goes.’

All the way to the shop, I asked Mum questions about Dec. Now it was OK to talk about him, there was a lot I wanted to say.

‘Why can’t Dec talk properly?’

‘You saw his mouth, sweetheart, it’s very swollen and it must hurt a lot. Remember when you shut your finger in the door and it swelled up and wouldn’t bend?’

I nodded. My finger had gone purple and blue and doubled in size. And it had hurt. A lot.

‘That’s what’s happened with Dec’s mouth. It will get better, he’ll get more used to speaking with swollen lips, and the swelling will go down.’

‘Is the bag with water in it for Dec to drink through his arm?’

‘That’s right, clever boy, do you remember from the one Uncle Matty had? Dec hasn’t been able to drink for himself, or have anything to eat, so they put special water in the bag so he doesn’t get hungry or thirsty. There’s a bag under the covers to take Dec’s wee away too, so he doesn’t have to get up to go to the loo.’

I remembered Uncle Matty’s wee bag; I had been very interested in that as well. Why didn’t everyone have one? It would save all sorts of complications. I was so interested that I asked more questions, even though I knew the answers.

‘Does his wee bag come out of his arm?’

‘No, there’s a tube coming out of his willy.’

Oh. Suddenly I remembered why everyone didn’t have one. Time for another question.

‘Mummy are we cross with Dec?’

‘Oh Cal. I know this is confusing for you. Alright, let’s see if I can explain. Dec did some things that made me and Daddy cross and disappointed. We’re still trying to understand why he did them, but I think Daddy and me feel more like helping Dec than being cross with him at the moment. He looks like he could do with some help, doesn’t he?’

‘Will he have to share my room?’

‘What?’

‘When he lives in our house.’

Mum walked on for a bit, not saying anything.

‘Let’s just wait for him to get better first, Cal. Look, there’s the shop. Go and ask for your slushie.’

I ran over to the counter and asked. Mum paid, and then thought it might be good to get some snacks for the journey home. I, of course, had lots of helpful suggestions, and Mum soon had a full basket.

I had been sipping my slushie through the straw while I waited for Mum to pay, and the ice had numbed my lips. I thought about when my finger hurt, and then about Dec’s mouth, and it made me wonder …

‘Mummy, does Dec’s mouth hurt?’

‘I expect so, sweetheart.’

‘If he had some slushie, would it make it stop hurting?’

Mum stopped and looked at me.

‘What a brilliant idea! Would you like to share your slushie with him?’

I’d been thinking more along the lines of getting him his own, but Mum was big on sharing, and I nodded my reluctant agreement.

‘Can we go and give it to him?’

‘Just let me finish paying, sweetheart, then we’ll hurry back.’

I had a few slurps of slushie before leaving the shop, just in case Dec drank the lot, and then we started back to Dec’s room, me holding the cardboard cup with one hand and Mum’s hand with the other.

Dec

What Rose wanted to know was interrupted by the door opening and Nico striding in, closely followed by Nurse Michelle and Lisa.

>Ha, you see, you say four people, but only there is two. And one of them is Rose, she is very small and quiet, she is no trouble. I am trouble if I don’t get in this room – but, ha, I am in. Thank you Michelle, you are very helping.

Lisa was watching from the rear, with a half resigned, half amused look on her face.

~I’m so sorry, he’s always like this. We’ll be quick, and quiet, promise.

Michelle gave Nico a look that was a mixture of scowl and flirty smile.

¬Well alright then, but really quick, the police want to see him, and then I think he needs some peace and quiet.

>Thank you. You are beautiful.

He blew her a kiss. The force of nature that was Nico Tiago. Michelle raised her eyebrows at Lisa and shut the door on her way out. Nico turned to his audience and bowed. Jay gave him a slow handclap, Rose sat and looked at him, mouth slightly agape, until he gave her a huge hug.

>Ah Rose, I am so happy you are here, you get my message. I worry you not know about Declan. This is Lis, my beautiful wife, I tell her all about you. I think you like her.

Lisa and Rose smiled at each other. I was keeping a low profile, trying to get my emotions under control, not succeeding. Nico turned to me, and the fun went out of his face. Lisa was looking at me with horror, a hand over her mouth. I looked away to avoid the inevitable eyes filling with tears. Nico put an arm round her.

>OK baby? I tell you he look bad. Declan, how are you? You look not so horrible as last night, but horrible still. Who did this?

‘Ownno.’

łDec’s needing translations from Cal at the moment, Nico. But I don’t think he knows who did it.

Jay raised his eyebrows at me.

‘Mm.’

łWe can work out the yeses. So I guess we can talk by process of elimination. Oh, and he can say ‘fuck’ and ‘piss off’ pretty clearly. Funny that. And other things are getting clearer slowly, but it’s still a fairly limited vocabulary.

On cue, my mini-interpreter burst into the room, carrying a large cardboard cup with a straw.

Cal

As we got close to Dec’s room, I started to run, eager to see Dec again and make him talk better. I ignored Mum telling me to walk, or failing that to hold on tight to the cup, and pushed the door to the room open.

‘Dec, drink some slushie. It’s icy. Your voice will come back. Will it go green in your wee? Can I see your wee bag?’

‘Cal! Dec’s wee is private. Sorry, Dec, he’s just so curious about everything.’

Disappointingly, this meant I wouldn’t get to see Dec’s wee bag, or any green slushie wee, so I took the cup to him and put the straw in his mouth. Mum fussed about a bit, and then everyone decided that Dec needed a spoon instead of a straw, but in the end Dec got mouthfuls of slushie, and managed to talk better, although I was right and he had the whole cup to himself.

Dec

Cal shoved the drink under my nose, the straw sticking painfully into a sore area above my lip.

_Careful Cal, look, hold the straw like this so Dec can sip. Sorry, Dec, we had this idea that the ice would soothe your throat and might make it easier for you to talk. You don’t have to.

‘Sskay.’

>I think it work already, Declan talk!

Cal noticed Nico for the first time.

\nico, Dec can talk but only I can understand him.

>I know this, Cal. But I like your way to help Declan to talk.

\i already helped him once. I jumped on the bed and made him say a really bad swear.

>Ha! I would like to try this. You show me how, maybe later. I am bigger than you, maybe he say even badder swears.

While Cal’s eyes grew round at the thought of badder swears than ‘fuck’, Beth had positioned the straw so I could sip the slushie. Although sucking hurt the muscles in my face and pulled painfully on my lips, it was worth it for the combined pleasure and relief of fluorescent green ice slipping over my tongue and down my throat. I could feel it taming the fire in my throat, most of which was thirst. I closed my eyes and moaned with relief.

~Dec, would a spoon be easier? You’ll get more in that way, yeah?

Brilliant idea. I looked gratefully at Lisa.

‘Mmmm.’

:I’ll go and sort it out.

Rose hurried off to commandeer a spoon. I could already feel the small amount of ice I had swallowed trickling soothingly down my throat.

‘Thks Chll.’

\dec said thanks Cal.

He informed his watching public.

>Cal you are small genius. You do very well for Declan.

Rose soon returned with a spoon to try.

:I thought a metal one might hurt your mouth love, so they found this plastic one, it’s not that big though. You don’t look like you can feed yourself with that arm and that hand. Can you put up with me feeding you?

Of all the recent indignities, this one was pretty easy to bear.

‘Mm.’

Rose sat by the bed and spooned the ice into me. I was very conscious of everyone watching, but the eyes on me were the ones I loved best in the world, so it was OK. The slushie was like magic. The pain and swelling in my throat reduced considerably. There was a similar effect on my lips too.

:How’s that now, love?

‘Mm … muhch bhetter’

Not bad for a first post-ice attempt. It still hurt to talk, and I wasn’t going to be making any speeches anytime soon, but it was a great start.

‘Thuhnks. Luv yuh uhll.’

A bit briefer and more sentimental than it would have been had I had my voice back properly, but the message was there. Rose, Beth and Lisa all teared up again, I really was going to have to have words about that, when I had access to more of them.

łI think it’s fair to say we all feel the same way, Dec. Fuck knows what you’ve done to deserve it. Sorry Cal. Dec’s a bad influence on me.

Jay ruffled Cal’s hair, pulled him in closer and kissed him on the top of his head.

łDec, I’m really sorry, we’re going to have to go. I … don’t know if you know … Matty’s really poorly. He’s got multiple sclerosis and pneumonia, and he’s … he nearly … he’s had a really bad time over the last couple of months.

Matt was Jay’s brother. He lived in the Midlands, near Jay’s mum.

‘Nah way. Suhry.’

łHe’s one of the main reasons I left Raiders. I need to look after him. I … I was …

Jay started to choke up. Beth held his hand.

_Dec, we’ve both said some things to you we regret. We were very angry and upset, and it was a bad time for us. I think that’s behind us now. James has been struggling with what to do for a while, since before things … well … changed between us. We felt it would be difficult to be with Matty while we still felt responsible for you. When everything happened with you, it seemed to make the decision easier. We didn’t realise how much you’d been struggling too, until Nico and Lis told us, and I’m so sorry if some of that was down to us, sweetheart.

Beth came over and kissed me on the forehead. I was almost speechless but just managed a lame

‘S’okay.’

_But we’ve got to get back home. James’s mum’s been with Matty since Friday afternoon, and we should’ve been back last night, so we’ve got to get going. So sorry, Dec, we’ll be back to see you soon. Take care, sweetheart.

Jay gave me a very gentle punch on the shoulder.

łI’ll be in touch for that deep and meaningful. We’ll sort things out properly, yeah? Be strong, stay positive. Cal, say goodbye to Dec.

Cal came to the side of the bed. He looked at me for a while, considering.

\you can have my dinosaur magazine, and you can have the toy on the front.

‘Thnks uh lo. Read ih layher.’

And then, having hugged Nico, Lisa and Rose, they were gone.

Cal

It was so fast, I’d only just got used to being there, and I hadn’t even told him about my fire engine or asked when we could go to Dinosaurland. But now we were allowed to talk about Dec, I hoped I would be able to do both of those soon.

In the car on the way home, Mum and Dad were quiet, to start with. Dad started to say something a few times, and then Mum would shake her head, Dad would look in the mirror and see me, and stop talking. So I thought if I closed my eyes they would think I was asleep, and say interesting things, probably about Dec. And it worked.

‘What did you say while we were in the shop?’

‘How do you know I said anything?’

‘Everything was different when we got back. It felt like you’d cleared the air.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure the air’s completely clear, just yet. I told him we need a bloody good talk, soon as. But I said how it had been, and how it changed after yesterday, or after Friday, actually. You know what, I think we might get there. Jesus, Beth, how did that happen?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m glad, though. After everything Nico said, and all the talking we did on Friday night, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get past everything else, but this has just … oh …’

There were a few sniffles, and it sounded like Mum was crying.

‘Oh James, I was so scared last night. I’ve been so angry with him, but I never wanted anything to happen to him.’

‘I know. That’s kind of what I told him, that it doesn’t matter any more what he did, because we’re family.’

‘Oh James, really?’

‘It’s true, isn’t it? I didn’t realise until yesterday, when I thought he might … When you think you might lose someone, you find out what’s important. How did the little bastard get himself in here?’

I opened one eye a crack, wondering where Dad meant, and if Dec had got in the car somehow, but I saw Dad put his hand on his chest, so he meant in his heart.

‘I don’t know, but I feel the same. We’re going to have to keep in touch with him. Oh! I didn’t get Rose’s number. I was going to call her later.’

‘Nico’ll have it. She’s something else, isn’t she?’

‘She seems to care a lot about him. I’m glad he’s had someone to look out for him. God, when I think about how lonely he must have been …’

‘Yeah, well, he brought a lot of it on himself.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘I’m just being honest. He fucked up, Beth. We’ve got a way to go yet before I’m Mr Forgiveness.’

‘But you just said –’

‘I said he was family and what he did doesn’t matter. I know. But before I can just forget it, I need to understand it. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll call him tomorrow, or as soon as we can, start talking to him.’

‘Cal was happy to see him.’

‘Yeah, they’ve always been great mates.’

‘He asked when Dec was going to live with us.’

‘Shit.’

One of the good things about pretending to be asleep was that Dad was allowed to do swears and I could hear him.

‘We should make sure they talk too. Cal’s really missed him.’

‘Yeah. Oh it’s all such a bloody mess, isn’t it.’

‘Maybe, maybe not any more – James could you slow down a bit? I’m feeling a bit icky.’

‘Still? That’s all weekend, Beth. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?’

‘No.’

‘No what?’

‘No, I’m not sure I’m not coming down with something.’

‘Huh?’

‘It’s not just this weekend. I’ve been feeling sick all week, especially around coffee.’

‘Really? Coffee used to make you sick when … oh holy shit.’

‘I know. I’m going to get a test tomorrow.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. That would be fantastic.’

‘Well, let’s not count our chickens, or any other baby animals, it could still be a bug or something.’

‘Yeah, yeah, course. Holy shit.

I hadn’t understood much of what Mum and Dad had been talking about, although I wondered if we might be getting a chicken to lay eggs and keep Percy company, but the amount of bad swears that Dad didn’t get told off about forced my eyes open in surprise, and Dad saw me in the mirror. This stopped the conversation, and Mum turned music on for the rest of the way home.

19. Bless the broken road

In which a huge event has lasting ramifications for Dec, Cal is excited by all the blue lights, and Matty has a disappointment.

Cal

The next day, Dad had to go to work, Nico had to go to rugby, and I had to go shopping with Mum and Lis, and then Mum, Dad and me were going home.

I was glad when the shopping was over, and we could go back to Lis and Nico’s and have some pizza before we got in the car. Looking out for Dec had made me tired, and I hadn’t seen him anywhere. Mum had bought me a big fire engine that had blue flashing lights and real siren noises, and the ladder and the hose really worked, and I was looking forward to getting home so I could show Uncle Matty and play with it properly.

Dec

I stood smiling at the view from the window, soaking it all up. This place, this beautiful place, felt more like my home than anywhere. And I still belonged. I hadn’t really appreciated how much I had missed being a proper part of it, or how much I had been dreading being separated from it.

I was now full of energy and hopped from foot to foot. Remembered some of what Don had said about eating and drinking – there was a vending machine in the corridor so I bought a sports drink and a grain bar. Tried not to drop crumbs on the swanky chairs.

My phone buzzed in my pocket; it had been on silent.

Nico: =We are called in for special meeting before the game. Any news?

Me: =Don’t know abt meeting, but I’m staying. NOT SACKED!

Nico: =Great news 🙂

I needed to phone Rose. She would be worrying all day if I didn’t let her know. I was just scrolling through my contacts when there was a knock at the door. Stuart came in, smiled. I hurriedly put my phone back in my pocket.

^How are you feeling now?

‘Much better. Sorry, I was a bit out of it earlier.’

^We could see that. I’m sorry this has been such a stressful time for you. Hopefully things will get better for you now. Are you up to this meeting?

‘I’ll give it a go. Am I going to have to say much?’

^Adrian and Don are the ones to ask about that. You know where the media room is?

I nodded.

^OK, best get going.

‘Stuart, I can’t remember much of what I said before. Probably most of it didn’t make much sense. But thank you for this. I can’t believe it.’

^You played a huge part in this decision. It wasn’t taken lightly. Lots of people had lots of opinions, but your actions spoke very well for you. Be proud of yourself. Go on, get to your meeting.

The meeting about the press conference mainly focussed on what information Don wanted to give out and what he wanted to avoid giving out. Don wanted it to be clear that although I was remaining at the club, I was still being sanctioned by way of suspension for the part I had played in Raiders being docked ten points.

-People need someone to blame, someone to be getting punished. Declan, you’re our fall guy. We need to highlight how unhappy we are with how you handled things, so people don’t complain about you getting off lightly. I want you to be contrite and apologetic.

Adrian nodded in agreement.

.They’ll try and get an emotional reaction out of you, they might have some personal information, or use something from the past they’ve dug up, so be prepared for some questions maybe about your car accident, or maybe about how you presented yourself to the press when they took that photo of you that got in the Herald.

‘OK.’

Don didn’t want to discuss in detail the terms of my suspension, or how individual team members had reacted to the yesterday’s events. He wanted to highlight any positive consequences, like coaching the youth team and linking with Trojans, who were a Championship side in the next county. We discussed ways of deflecting unwanted questions and answering them with something we wanted to say. We went over and over the strategies. This was just as well, as I needed to focus. My mood had flipped from devastation to delight in a very short space of time, and everything felt scrambled. Adrian typed up a list for me, so I could review it while the game was on.

I was going to have to sit it out until after the match in an unused office. It was nowhere near as plush as the hospitality suite, and had no windows, but there was a TV where I could watch the game. It would be the first time I had watched any rugby for weeks – I hadn’t been able to face it on TV, and had not been allowed at the ground on match days. I hadn’t even been keeping up with scores and league positions until the last couple of days, when I needed to know how the points deductions were going to affect everything. Now I had been let back in, I was really excited to be a part of it all again.

Don wrapped up our meeting.

-OK, then, I’ve got the pre-match to attend to now. Declan, make yourself scarce. Change into your kit before the press conference. We’ll come and get you. It’ll be shortly after the game finishes. See you then.

I sat in the office for a long time waiting for the game to start. The catering staff had provided lunch, the same as the players were having together pre-match. Full of protein and energy. I was really hungry and ate it all. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had much of an appetite. Couldn’t believe how much difference this morning had made to how I felt. I had been under this cloud for weeks and now it was suddenly lifted. I felt lighter, straighter, less substantial, as if I could float away.

There wasn’t much to do in the office, and I should have been bored to tears, but I still had a lot of information and emotion to process. While I tried to get my head around things, I turned the TV on, flicking through the channels, looking for the sports channel where the Raiders game was being shown. There was a rugby preview programme on, so I stopped to watch that for a bit. They mentioned today’s game, the points deduction and how it affected league positions. Yesterday, I wouldn’t have been able to watch it; today, I sat through it. Uncomfortable viewing but bearable. I was amazed at the change in me.

I took my phone out – I needed to tell Rose. I had turned the ringer off by mistake when I put it back in my pocket and I had missed a couple of calls from her. Listened to the voice-mails:

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just seeing if there’s any news yet. Don’t worry about ringing back, unless you want to.

and

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just checking up on you. I’ve got to go to work this afternoon, but I’ll call you again when I get home. I’ll be out later, have my phone off I expect. Hope everything’s alright, love.

No point calling her now, she’d be at work. I’d do it later.

The afternoon’s build up to the game passed slowly. I imagined the gradually increasing crowd – people who liked to get there early, have a few beers, chat with their mates, get their favourite spot on the terraces, people who maybe had seated tickets who didn’t need to get there so early, all the kids getting excited, Raiders shirts, Raiders hats, Raiders flags, noise, activity, excitement.

Being stuck down here was weird; I could sense the atmosphere that would be mounting beyond the room I was in. The team would already be there, having a final team talk and any last minute physio or other treatment. They would be able to hear the crowd from the changing rooms, gradually getting louder until just before kick-off when it would reach a crescendo and the stadium announcer would whip them all up with a cheering contest. They were the best supporters, made a lot of noise, followed the team around all over the country and all over Europe. I had really let them down. It was time I repaid them however I could.

Finally it was kick-off time. I had sat through almost an hour of speculation pre-match on the sports channel, realising how little the pundits actually knew, and how much they could spin out the smallest piece of incorrect information. According to them, I was born in Australia, moved to England to join Raiders and had played for Australia under sixteens. They also said the discrepancy in my passport had been found in a routine check. They’d either got their facts completely wrong, or made it up, or it was misinformation given out by Raiders’ media office.

And then it was game time. I muted the sound on the TV for a few moments, and could hear the crowd beyond the room. It sent a tingle down my spine. They seemed to be getting behind the team even more following yesterday’s setback. I settled down to watch the team – my team.

Raiders won convincingly. Nico scored two tries. They played superbly – moves flowing, passes connecting, running, rucking, scrumming, tackling, everything was clicking. It was just the response Don would have wanted. Now the game was over, it was time for a few interviews with key players and the coaches, and then it would be the press conference.

My phone buzzed. A text

DivDav: =Good news 4 u mate. Fancy beer later?

Me: =Wld b gr8. r u @ club?

DivDav: =No but cld pick u up. Car park, 7? Usual spot.

DivDav liked to pretend he had a personal parking spot for his old Fiat. In reality it was the furthest reaches of the car park, where there was always a space.

Me: =OK, gr8.

I was more than a little touched. DivDav had given me a hard time when I was first suspended. But since paying him back the money I had borrowed, he had been more friendly. I hoped this might be another step towards healing my broken friendships.

I had just changed into my Raiders gear when a knock on the door signalled my call to the press conference. My heart beat faster as I made my way to the media room, which had been set up with microphones on a table in front of some chairs where the journalists were already sitting. More journalists than I had imagined; it was a bit intimidating.

Don led the way to the table and we both sat down behind the mics. Adrian stood, directing which journalists should ask a question. They started with the match, and Don answered the questions with his usual steady diplomacy, praising the team and the result and complimenting the opposition. They quickly moved on to the points deduction, and Don fielded all their questions with ease. He was very used to this. They addressed me a few times, asking about my suspension and how I felt about yesterday’s decision. I followed the strategy we had worked out, and seemed to get away with it. Don made a big deal out of me coaching the youth team and registering with Trojans. That seemed to go down well. There were some more testing questions.

“Has the club taken into account the death of a man in a car accident involving Mr Summers?

Don took that one.

-That is not a club matter, and has been dealt with through the proper channels.

“Declan have you any comment to make about this local newspaper report?

I was shown the back page headline from several weeks ago with my unflattering picture and description of my unkempt, drunken state.

‘I’m not proud of my actions then. It didn’t reflect well on me or Raiders, and I have given the club an assurance that it won’t happen again. The reputation of Raiders is very important to me, and I will do everything I can to ensure I don’t tarnish it again.’

“How do you feel about being responsible for Jay Scott leaving Raiders and quitting rugby?

This one threw me – I sat with my mouth open. Quitting rugby? I had not heard that version. Don took one look at my shocked expression and jumped in.

-Jay Scott’s decision to leave Raiders was a personal one, and not something Declan is qualified or permitted to discuss. I don’t know where you guys get your information from, but Jay has not ‘quit rugby’ to my knowledge.

“But he has left Raiders and not gone to a position with another club?

-That is something you would need to discuss with Jay.

A few more questions around changed priorities for the season, what might happen with my contract beyond the end of the season, all deflected. It seemed to be a big game to all of them.

And finally it was over.

-Well done, Declan. Thank you for that, I’m glad to see you’ve regained your powers of concentration. Why don’t you go and join the players in the bar?

‘Really?’

-Your suspension only covers playing; everything else is back on. Go and enjoy it. Just remember what we’ve said here this afternoon.

Almost on a cloud, I walked to the main bar, where players met with supporters and sometimes opposing players after the game. I could not have imagined this outcome to the day while I was preparing for it this morning. It was difficult to even remember clearly how I had felt when I woke up that morning – it seemed like a different life, or a long time ago. I had been in a dark place, and now it seemed like I’d been given a light.

Despite my happiness, I was apprehensive about going into the bar; Nico and Big aside, I hadn’t socialised with anyone for a long time. There would be loads of people there, whose reactions I couldn’t predict, and it could be uncomfortable. I also hadn’t drunk any alcohol since my vodka bender. Might be better to give the beer a miss tonight, especially as Don hadn’t said it was OK.

I slipped through the door into the bar. I felt like there was a bright spotlight shining on me, but in reality I was just another bloke walking into a bar. No one noticed. I was immediately aware of the less than celebratory mood, despite the win, and had to adjust mine to compensate. No one was going to be cheering my news, and I needed to show everyone I knew what I had cost Raiders. I realised with renewed respect for his people management why Don had suggested I come here.

>Declan!

Nico’s greeting ensured everyone in the bar now knew I was there. Many eyes turned towards me. Nico strode over and shook my hand warmly.

>Great news that you stay with us.

In a quieter voice:

>You are OK? I am very worried about you last night.

‘I’m good. Great, actually. Yesterday seems a bit unreal. Actually, today seems a bit unreal.’

>You look better. We talk later, OK? Come, have a drink.

He led me over to the bar, where there was a group of players and supporters watching a replay of the afternoon’s game on a large TV screen. It appeared to be about half way through the second half. Nico didn’t make a big fuss, just handed me a bottle of water.

>For clear head, yes?

I nodded and leaned on the bar watching the screen. I was getting some sidelong glances which I tried to return with a smile.

The replay of the match over, the pundits returned to the theme of the points deduction and what it would mean for Raiders. More glances slid my way. I started to feel very uncomfortable, but didn’t know what to do; whether to say something now, or wait to be confronted.

I was saved by the press conference. They showed some of it on the programme, some clips of me being apologetic and contrite, and some bits of Don outlining how I was going to help Raiders out while I remained suspended. When the programme had finished, the man standing next to me, a supporter, turned to me and said:

*Fair play to you son, you’ve owned up to it and taken the punishment. Losing so many points is a bit of a bugger, but not much anyone can do about it now. Just have to get on with it. Best of luck.

He held out his hand, and I shook it gratefully. A few people seemed to relax at this. Not everyone was so generous. I noticed several people directing dark looks at me, although Big came over, gave my shoulder a squeeze.

°Great to have you back, Captain. Fancy going out later?

‘Oh mate, that would be great, but Dav is picking me up. Do you know where he is?’

I looked around, expecting to see Dav somewhere around.

°I expect he’s off drowning his sorrows somewhere.

‘Sorrows?’

°Yeah, he didn’t get his contract extended. Found out yesterday. And Amy dumped him last week. He’s being a bit of a dick about it. Still, maybe he’s feeling better. Get together later this week then?

‘Love to.’

Cal

We got in the car to go back, and then Dad remembered he had to go to his old work to pick something up, so we stopped off at Raiders Stadium. I’d been here lots of times to Dad’s work, where he had an office that smelt like sweaty people, but I had never seen a rugby game. I liked football, and although Dad and I watched rugby on TV sometimes, I didn’t understand the rules at all, and it just seemed silly to pick the ball up and run, rather than kicking it to each other.

Dec

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Glanced at the screen. Rose. Shit. I was going to have to ring her, she’d be worried out of her mind. Couldn’t do it here though. Looked at the time. Nearly seven. Time to go and meet DivDav. I’d ring Rose back when I got outside.

I walked out into the dark car park, looking for DivDav. I couldn’t see his car over the far side, but began to walk over that way as I got my phone out to call Rose.

Dreaming. Not flying. Playing. Running on the pitch, muscles stretching, catching, tackle after tackle, passing, scoring, happy.

Cal

Dad stopped the car in the car park, and I looked up at the bright lights, shining in rooms a few floors up, lighting up people who were sitting at tables and standing talking to each other.

‘Can I come with you Daddy?’

‘No, Cal, I won’t be a minute, I’m not stopping.

‘Stay here with me, Cal, we can have some of these Maltesers.’

Mum and I watched Dad walk towards the building.

Dec

Then afterwards with Jay, Beth and Cal. Laughing, talking, arguing, playing, happy. Jay is talking.

łWhat the fuck … hey, mate, you OK?

Must still be dreaming. Why is my bed so hard? Why does everything hurt so much? Why is Jay shouting?

łJesus. Shit. Jesus.

Cal

Then, just as I was about to remind Mum about the Maltesers, we saw Dad bend down and look back at us, waving frantically. Mum wound the window down; Dad was shouting.

‘Call an ambulance.’

Mum got out of the car, phone in hand, to try to see what Dad was looking at.

‘What is it, James?’

‘Dial 999. There’s a bloke here. He’s covered in blood. He’s in a bad way.’

I tried to get out of the car, being quite interested in lots of blood, but Mum stopped me, standing in front of the door so I couldn’t see. I heard her talking to her phone.

‘Ambulance … Raiders Stadium car park … my husband has just found a man covered in blood lying on the ground … I don’t know, I’ll ask.’

She shouted to Dad.

‘James, is he breathing?’

Dec

Not dreaming, then. Lots of pain. Loads of it, crashing around, banging into every bit of me. Vaguely remembered a lot of banging and crashing. Tried to stop remembering and carry on dreaming. Jay carried on shouting.

Cal

Dad shouted back.

Yeah, he’s breathing. Almost unconscious though. His eyes are fluttering and he’s mumbling.’

Mum told the person on the phone what Dad said, then Dad shouted back to her.

‘How long will they be? Jesus, there’s blood everywhere.’

Mum folded her phone up and called to Dad.

‘They said five minutes. I’m coming over, James, I can do something to help –’

Mum knew about putting plasters on and wiping cuts with TCP. She would be good with a man with blood on him, and I would be able to go with her and see it too.

‘No Beth, stay with Cal – he can’t see this.’

Dec

Beth and Cal were here? Tried to open my eyes. Wanted to see them. Hurt.

łStay still, mate, the ambulance is coming.

Drifted off somewhere quiet and soft.

Cal

Mum knew that if she went over to where Dad was, I’d follow her, so she was stuck at the car with me while Dad waited for the ambulance. We both looked out of the window at Dad as he knelt down, although we couldn’t see the man. Mum kept tutting and looking at her watch, and I watched the entrance into the car park to see the blue lights when the ambulance came. It came very quickly, and we watched as the ambulance people put the man on a stretcher and then into the back of the ambulance. I couldn’t really see the man, because it was dark, and he was wrapped up in a blanket, which was disappointing, but I hoped Dad would tell us all about it.

Some police cars had come too, and policemen were talking to Dad. I saw him running his hand through his hair a few times, and shaking his head, then looking up at the lit up rooms and nodding. Then, finally, he came back to the car so we could find out what had happened.

‘Well?’

Mum got out of the car to meet Dad as he walked back to us.

‘We’ve got to stay, the police want to talk to me.’

‘But we can’t, we’ve got to get back for Matty.’

‘I know, I said that, but they want me to give a statement, as I was the only one who found him, and you’ve got to stay because you called the ambulance.’

‘Oh this is ridiculous. Who did you talk to?’

Dad pointed to one of the policemen, and Mum walked quickly over to him. Dad opened the back door of the car for me and I got out, and we stood and looked at Mum arguing with the policeman. Mum was good at arguing, and usually won, like in cafes when the cake was dry, or taking clothes back to shops, but she didn’t win against the policeman, although she seemed to be trying her very best. She walked slowly back to us, looking really cross.

‘No luck?’

‘No, I can’t believe it, they honestly didn’t care that your disabled mother is going to have to get your disabled brother in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, undressed, dressed in pyjamas and settled for the night. We’ve got to wait here.’

‘I’ll call the agency, see if they’ve got anyone short notice. You’re right, Mum can’t do it, but they might have someone. Come on, we can wait inside, they’ve taken over one of the corporate suites as an incident room.’

Dad got his phone out and started talking about Uncle Matty as we walked across the car park and into the Stadium. We went up some stairs, and then found ourselves in a room with a window overlooking the pitch, although I couldn’t see much because the floodlights weren’t on. There were two policemen, who were using computers, but they didn’t take much notice of us, even though Mum said who we were.

We sat on a sofa, and Dad went to get us drinks and crisps from the bar. He was gone a long time, and Mum looked at her watch a few more times. She got her phone out and talked to Granny, but didn’t say anything different from the things Dad had said to her when he told her about the person who was coming to put Uncle Matty to bed.

Dad came back after a while and gave me a can of Fanta, and Mum a glass of wine.

‘Sorry, I got held up in the bar, everyone wanted to talk to me, I was trying not to make a drama of it. Do we know when they’re going to talk to us here?’

‘No, I don’t know what’s taking so long.’

We waited for a long time; I’d finished my Fanta and the crisps that Dad had brought, and Mum was trying to play some games with me, but she wasn’t concentrating very well because of waiting for the policeman to talk to her.

Finally, one of the policeman looked up from his computer and came over to us.

‘Mr Scott?’

‘Yes. This is my wife, Beth.’

‘Mrs Scott. Thank you for staying. We just want to ask a few questions, as you found the victim. I’m Detective Constable Simmonds.’

‘Are you going to take long? We need to get back home, and we’ve got a long drive.’

‘We’ll be as quick as we can, sir. Is your little boy alright here with us? Detective Peterson could look after him …’

‘No, you’ll be fine, won’t you sweetheart.’

I nodded, hardly able to believe I was going to be allowed to stay while the policeman talked to Mum and Dad.

‘Alright then. First, can we just check some of the details you gave us when you called us, Mrs Scott …’

There was a lot of talking about all the things I already knew, about how Dad found the man, and Mum called the ambulance, and why we were in the car park, and lots of things that weren’t very interesting. I started to feel sleepy, and snuggled in to Mum, who put her arm round me.

I was half asleep, not really listening to the grown up voices talking, but in that weird half-dreaming way, I seemed to suddenly be listening, as if part of me knew that I needed to be paying attention before I knew what was being said.

‘… long have you know the victim?’

‘What? I don’t know him.’

‘Oh, maybe I’ve misunderstood, sir. I thought you were a coach here?’

‘Was. I left a couple of months ago.’

‘But am I right in thinking Mr Summers has been here for several years?’

‘… er … what?’

‘My apologies, I thought you had been made aware, the victim is Mr Declan Summers. I believe he is a Raiders player.’

There was a long silence. I sat up and looked at Dad, who was looking at the policeman, with his mouth open. I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought the policeman was saying that Dec was the person who Dad had found on the ground in the car park. But surely Dad would have known it was Dec? He was only not talking to him, he wasn’t not seeing him.

‘Mummy, is Dec –’

‘Shh Cal. James – was that Dec? Could it have been?’

‘Shit. I don’t know, he was, his face was – bloody hell Beth, no one could have recognised him.’

Dad turned to the policeman.

‘Are you for real? That bloke, the one with his face mashed in, was Declan Summers?’

‘I’m sorry sir, but yes. Can you tell me how long you’ve known him?’

Mum and Dad sat very still. Mum’s arm was round me, but I saw her other hand holding Dad’s hand tightly. They didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then Mum kind of shook herself.

‘Just over three years. But we haven’t really seen him, not properly, for a few months.’

‘Do you know … have you heard … how is he?’

‘We haven’t got any news from the hospital. You’re not family? Because someone suggested there was a family connection.’

Mum let out a deep sigh.

‘Dec lived with us, like part of our family. He doesn’t have anyone else. I suppose you could say we’re the only family he’s got. James, we need to go and see him.’

She looked at the policeman.

‘Will they let us see him?’

‘They usually say family only.’

‘He doesn’t have family, not blood relatives. His parents died when he was thirteen, he was in care before he came to us. He’s going to be there on his own.’

‘You make a good case, Mrs Scott, but you’re better off talking to the hospital. I think we’re finished here, you can go now, see if they’ll let you in.’

‘Is he … how bad is he?’

‘I’m really, sorry, I don’t know. I’d suggest going to the hospital to see what you can find out.’

‘Yeah, come on Beth. You must know someone up there who can smuggle us in.’

Mum looked at Dad, and gave him half a smile, but also looked like she was going to cry.

‘Really? You don’t mind going?’

‘That bloody boy is going to be the death of me, but no, I think we both need to be there, don’t we?’

‘I can call Lis, see if Cal can go back there –’

‘I want to see Dec.’

A long look passed between Mum and Dad.

‘Sweetheart, Dec has been badly hurt. We don’t know how he is, yet. I don’t know if you can see him.’

‘I want to. I don’t mind his blood. I’ve seen Dec’s blood before, when he chopped his thumb.’

‘This is a bit different, mate.’

‘But I want to see him.’

‘Maybe it would be easier for now if he just comes with us, James. I’ll find out what’s what and we can take it from there.’

And so I was allowed to go with them to the hospital. I had to wait for a long time with Dad while Mum talked to people about how Dec was and whether we could see him. I wasn’t sure how to feel, because it sounded like Dec was more hurt than just needing a plaster, and I couldn’t imagine what that really meant. But I just felt that now, all of a sudden, the thing that had been there that had made Dad get that cross, tight look on his face had gone – in fact it had been gone since this morning, and I wanted to see Dec and talk to him. And I was a bit fascinated with the promise of all the blood as well.

After sitting on plastic chairs for ages and ages, Mum came back and sat next to Dad. I thought if I looked sleepy and leaned against Dad, they would be more likely to say things than if I looked interested, so that’s what I did, and that’s what happened.

‘So …?’

‘He’s alive.’

Dad let out a huge breath, as if it had been possible that Dec hadn’t been alive.

‘Jesus. How bad is it, then?’

‘Bad enough. Multiple fractures, he’s having a CT scan to check his brain.’

‘Shit. Shit.’

‘James.’

I suspected a look came my way, but I’d closed my eyes, so I could hear better.

‘Can we see him?’

‘After his scan. They’re admitting him, but he’ll be sedated, he’ll be out of it for several hours. They don’t expect him to wake up until tomorrow.’

‘I want to stay.’

‘I know. I had a look to see who’s on the ward he’s going to, and I know the Nurse in Charge. I’m pretty sure I can talk us in there, but maybe I should take Cal to Lis’s first.’

I opened my eyes quickly and sat up, because at this point being asleep would only get me carried out to the car.

‘I want to see Dec.’

They both looked quickly down at me, as if they’d forgotten I was there for a moment. Dad shrugged at Mum, and I held my breath, hoping they wouldn’t say no.

‘If one of us takes him back to Nico’s, and Dec wakes up, we’ll be sorry we missed it.’

‘I know, but I’m not sure Cal should be seeing … whatever he might see.’

‘I shouldn’t think it’ll be any worse than imagining it. I know I’m imagining some pretty horrific things, and I saw him at the time. He’ll have been cleaned up, won’t he?’

‘Yes, but still … oh I suppose you’re right. OK, Cal, you can stay with us for a little while, but you have to promise to be quiet and still, and when we say it’s time to go, no arguing. Otherwise I’ll take you straight back to Lis and she’ll put you to bed.’

‘Kay Mummy.’

I started practising being quiet and still right away, so they could see how good I was at it, and didn’t feel the need to take me back to Nico’s house. Another benefit of this was they forgot to talk quietly, and I found out more things, like that Dec had been hit by someone, with a bottle, and he had got glass in his cuts, and then he had fallen on the ground, and someone had kicked him. It hurts when someone kicks you, because Jake and me kicked each other once at break-time, just to see, and we both got bruises. I wondered if Dec would have bruises on his shins, like me and Jake.

After a while, Mum decided that we might be more comfortable waiting in the family room, near where Dec was going to be taken, so we went up some stairs, then Mum talked to a nurse, who showed us to a small room with some chairs and a table in it. There were toys in the corner, so I played with them while Mum and Dad sat together, not saying much, although Dad talked on his phone to Nico and some other people.

A little while later, a nurse came to get us, and said that Dec was in a bed, and that we could sit with him if we wanted to. Mum stood up and said she would go and have a look, and decide if I could go too. I went and sat next to Dad, who put his arm round me.

‘I want to see Dec, Daddy.’

‘I know, mate. But he might be a bit too gruesome just now, maybe a bit too poorly. Mummy will know if it’s OK.’

‘Will he be scary like in Monsters Inc?’

‘Ha, could be even worse, Cal. We don’t know yet. He wasn’t too pretty when I found him.’

‘But Dec isn’t pretty, he’s a boy.’

‘Yeah I know, mate. There are a few girls who might disagree with you as far as Dec’s concerned, but I know what you mean. I meant that … Cal, Dec’s not just had an accident, he’s … he’s been hit, by a bad man who wanted to hurt him, and did a good job of it.’

‘What bad man?’

‘We don’t know. The police are trying to find out.’

‘Is it because Dec did stealing and lying?’

‘Er … Jesus, Cal. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see what Dec remembers if … er … when he wakes up.’

‘Can I tell him about my fire engine?’

‘Yeah, course you can, mate, tell him anything you like. But he’ll be asleep, he might not remember what you tell him.’

I was quiet for a while, trying to remember all the things I’d wanted to tell Dec but couldn’t before, like my new school, my rabbit and the gap where my tooth came out. Then Mum came back and stood in the doorway. Dad looked up.

‘Well?’

‘He’s asleep, or unconscious, he’s had a load of meds to knock him out. He’s due some more in an hour or so, there’s a small chance he might wake up then.’

‘Really? That’s great. What’s the … er … damage?’

Dad waved his hand around his face.

‘Oh James, his face is one huge bruise, and he’s got stitches all over the place, one lot is really close to his eye. If I didn’t know it was Dec, I wouldn’t have recognised him.’

Mum looked like she might cry, and Dad stood up and cuddled her.

‘Hey, hey, shh, it’s OK, we’re here now. What about Cal? He’s really keen to see him. I’ve told him Dec’s been hit by a bad man. He asked if he looks like something out of Monsters Inc.’

Mum looked over at me and smiled.

‘Well, he’s a little bit like a monster, sweetheart, but not as bad as Henry J. Waternoose.’

Dad looked confused; he never paid attention to people’s names in films.

‘So, are we all going then?’

‘Yeah, I think so. Cal, remember, quiet and still. Dec’s not the only poorly person here. And we’re not going to stay long.’

‘I’m staying until I know he’s OK.’

‘Alright, James, but me and Cal will have to go home and get some sleep soon.’

‘Let’s see how it goes.’

‘OK.’

Mum held her hand out to me, and I jumped off the chair and over to her. We walked along a corridor, and then through a door, where there were lots of curtains in the middle of the room, like there had been in the hospital where Uncle Matty was.

‘Jesus, if I never see the inside of one of these places again it’ll be too bloody soon.’

Mum led us over to one of the curtains and pulled it aside. There was a bed and two chairs and a table with a jug of water on it. In the bed was a man. Well, in the bed was Dec, but he didn’t look like Dec, at least not at first, or even second, glance. I had to go up really close to him to find anything that let me know he really was Dec.

He was lying very still, on his back, and he had a big cast on one of his arms from his shoulder to his fingers. I knew it was a cast because Sophie Evans had one last year when she fell out of the tree, but it wasn’t as big as this cast. His other arm had bandages on it. There was also a big thing on his nose that covered a lot of his face. The rest of him, or what I could see, was coloured black and purple, and was either swollen or had lines of what looked like tiny railway track along it. I wanted to ask what it was, but I had to be quiet and still, so I just looked. His eyes were puffed shut, and his mouth looked too big for his face.

He still didn’t look like Dec, and I wondered how they knew it was, so I turned and looked at Mum and Dad to see how they knew, but Dad was staring with a kind of surprised and scared look on his face, and Mum looked like she was trying not to cry again, and I knew that it was Dec, because they knew it was.

Mum and Dad sat in the chairs, and I sat on Mum’s lap and looked at Dec, in awe of all the bruises and swelling. I had expected there to be lots of blood, but there wasn’t any, which was a bit disappointing, although there were lots of other things to see – too many things, in fact, and eventually I couldn’t stay quiet any longer; I had to ask something.

‘What are those?’

I pointed at the train tracks.

‘They’re stitches, sweetheart.’

‘What are they for?’

‘Well, when people have bad cuts, sometimes it tears their skin apart, and the doctors have to sew it back together.’

‘Dec’s been sewed?’

‘Yes, sweetheart.’

‘With a needle?’

‘Yes. And special cotton.’

‘Will he have holes in his face forever?’

‘No, his skin will grow back together, the stitches just hold everything in place while it’s growing. Are you OK, sweetheart, looking at Dec?’

I nodded. I still couldn’t quite see Dec in the battered features of the man on the bed, but I didn’t feel sad or scared or any of the things Mum seemed to think I was going to feel.

There were lots of things to look at, all over the place; on the way in, I had seen other people’s beds with cards all round them, and some people with TVs. Dec didn’t have a TV, or any cards, although he did have a tall pole with a bag of water on it that seemed to go into his arm. I supposed that if he was asleep, he couldn’t drink water, but it would have made more sense for the water to go into his mouth rather than his arm. Then I remembered Uncle Matty having a bag like this when he was first in hospital, before he woke up, and Mum telling me it was a way to give people food and medicine if they were too asleep to eat or take tablets.

After the initial thrill, it got a bit boring sitting and watching Dec sleep, and I wanted to do something. I thought about the cards I’d seen round the other people’s beds.

‘Mummy can I make Dec a card to say get well?’

‘Of course, sweetheart. As soon as we get home, we’ll find your pens and you can draw something great for Dec.’

‘No, I mean now. Then he can see it when he wakes up.’

‘Oh Cal, there isn’t any paper here or anything. It’s a lovely idea though.’

‘I bet there’s a shop downstairs, Beth. They’re bound to sell cards. Fancy a little walk?’

‘Not particularly, why, do you?’

‘Could use a coffee, or I’ll fall asleep if I’m not careful.’

‘And your legs have dropped off, have they?’

‘No, I just thought –’

‘Yeah, the same as you always think. Oh alright. I’ll go and see what they’ve got. Would you like something to drink, Cal?’

‘Yes please Mummy.’

Mum was gone for a long time, and Dad closed his eyes and then fell asleep in the chair. I wasn’t tired, not even a bit, and now Dad was asleep, I knew I was the one who had to watch out for Dec waking up. I stared hard at him, and watched for signs of movement.

Dec

Woke up somewhere noisy and full of pain. Couldn’t open my eyes. Hurt. Everything hurt. Groaned.

\daddy.

The little boy’s voice sounded just like Cal.

łMmph.

The little boy was more insistent.

\daddy! Wake up.

Just like Cal.

łWha … shit … sorry Cal, nodded off.

Head felt fuzzy, but that sounded like Jay. Must still be dreaming.

\dec went ‘nnn’ and he moved. Daddy, you sweared.

The scrape of a chair. A hand on my arm. Felt real. Real enough to bloody hurt.

łDec, it’s Jay.

What? How? Where? Too many thoughts. Tried a smile. Bad idea. Mouth too big. Lips stuck together. Pain. Groaned. Tried to open my eyes. Eyelids too big. Stuck together. Pain. Brief tiny glimpse of the ceiling. Shouldn’t I be worried about all this? Too much to think about, let it go. Groaned.

\you’ve got a big swelled up face. It’s all purple. It looks funny.

He was close to me, I could feel his breath on my cheek. I tried to turn towards him, to see if it really was Cal. No good. Groaned.

łCal! Come here. What did we say? You can stay if you’re quiet and still. Otherwise Mummy will take you back to Lis’s. Dec, can you hear me?

I could, but saying so was proving difficult. In the end, managed

‘Mm.’

It was them, I was sure. How were they here? How the glorious fuck were they here? I didn’t even know where here was.

łAh mate, you’re in hospital. How are you feeling? Sorry, bloody stupid question, considering the state of you. Do you know what happened?

Had no idea. Couldn’t get a single thought together, apart from ‘Jay and Cal are here’. The slightest shake of my head.

łYou’ve had a bit of a bashing. We found you in the car park, blood and glass everywhere. The police want to talk to you – can you manage that?

Another small head shake. All this moving and thinking was exhausting.

łOK no problem. They can wait. Just take it easy for now.

\does it hurt?

łCal, ssh.

‘Mm.’

\dec said mm. That’s yes. He heared me.

Wanted to keep him talking, but my mouth wouldn’t work properly.

‘Mm.’

He was delighted.

\he did it again!

łOK, Cal, that’s enough. When Mummy gets back you’re off to Lis’s.

\but I want to stay. I want to tell Dec –

_Cal. Sit down here – look I got you a slushie. It’s got a bendy straw.

Beth was here too. They were all here. Couldn’t smile, mouth wouldn’t work, but felt a huge smile spreading somewhere inside me.

łHe’s awake. Not very talkative. No change there.

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart …

Felt a hand on my cheek. Tried not to wince. Tried not to groan. Tried not to cry. Failed. Started to drift in and out. Things put in my mouth. Things wiped on my face. Things poked here and there. People said my name, lots of people.

_Dec, I’m going to go now, Cal needs …

>Declan … mierda, Jaime, he look horrible …

łDec, the nurse is just …

-Declan? No, looks like he’s still out …

łDec, sorry, need to go, I’ll be back …

Matt

When I woke up it was dark, and I could hear Mum talking. Jay and Beth must have come back while I was asleep; it was only a matter of time before Jay came in and the humiliations could start again. I was going to ask him if I could have Sally instead, at least in the mornings. It would be a relief to both of us.

Sure enough, the door opened and light from the hall crept into the room along with – oh – Mum. She put the lamp on by the bed and sat in the chair, looking serious.

‘Matthew, that was Jameson on the phone.’

On the phone? Where was he then? Oh fuck, they hadn’t been in an accident had they? A sudden unwanted image of twisted metal and spatters of blood forced its way into my head, because ever since I got a cold and nearly died, I had a tendency to over-dramatise.

‘They’re going to have to stay down in Devon overnight. There’s been a … well, that boy Declan’s got himself put in hospital, some sort of fight, he’s in a bad way, and Jameson says he needs to stay there until he wakes up. He’s arranged another carer for tonight, and said he’ll be here in plenty of time for you tomorrow.’

Sorry as I was to hear Dec had been in some kind of bust-up where he’d come off worst, I was massively relieved that nothing had happened to Jay, Beth or Cal, and smiled to myself at the thought of Sally coming back later.

‘Ohkay.’

Mum seemed to breathe her own sigh of relief, happy I wasn’t kicking up a stink, as was my wont now I was feeling brighter and getting more bolshy about things.

‘Thoht he wahn’t tahking tuh Dec.’

‘So did I. It seems this altercation, whatever it was, has made him think again.’

‘Guhd thehn.’

‘Hm.’

Mum didn’t seem so sure.

‘How are you, dear?’

‘Shih.’

Troubled teenagers or not, I had still had the remains of my life torn apart by Carrie.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. You were asleep when I made dinner. Are you hungry at all?’

‘Noh.’

‘You didn’t eat lunch.’

‘Soh?’

‘So you should try to eat something.’

‘Wha fuh? Soh I dohnt geh ill? Toh laht.’

‘Matthew, don’t, please.’

I tried to spare her this, I really did, the times when it just all seemed too much and I felt like it wasn’t worth it any more, but sometimes she just went on too much, they all did, telling me what I should do for the good of my health, fussing over me. None of it mattered, none of it, in the end, if someone you love can rip your heart out and give it to the bastard you hate, then go and take everything you own while you’re dying across the other side of town.

‘Lehv meh alohn, Muhm.’

‘Don’t you want –’

‘Plehs.’

‘Matthew, if you –’

‘Pihs ohf Muhm.’

I never swore at Mum. I swore near her a lot, but never at her. It had the desired effect, as she got up without another word and walked to the door. Then she turned in the doorway.

‘Apparently the agency chap will be here at nine thirty.’

‘Chahp?’

‘Yes, Jameson thought you’d be more comfortable with a man, so he’s booked this chap Ian tonight.’

I sulked my way through efficient Ian’s clammy hands and non-existent banter. He tried talking about the weather, the traffic and the plans for the new leisure centre, but as all of these things were happening outside of my life and were being talked about by him, I had no interest. His fascinating topics of conversation dried up in the face of my lack of replying and he just got on with his job, only checking with me occasionally about which pyjamas I wore and where I wanted my drink left. I just about deigned to answer him, then closed my eyes as soon as he put me back into bed. He could assume I was asleep if he wanted to. I soon drifted off anyway, and didn’t hear him leave.

Cal

Dec didn’t say any more, even ‘nnn’, and nurses started coming over and we kept having to go back to the family room while the nurses did things. Mum showed me two cards she’d bought, one with a dinosaur on it, and one with a flower on it. Of course I chose the dinosaur, and wrote in it with my best writing. She’d also bought a Mars Bar, which I ate, and some flowers for Dec, although I thought he’d probably rather have the Mars Bar. But I wasn’t going to say so. After two times of going backwards and forwards between Dec’s bed and the family room, Mum decided she was going to take me back to go to sleep while Dad stayed.

‘I think he’s going to be OK, James, at least, you know, in general. You don’t need to stay.’

‘I’m staying until I know for sure.’

‘OK.’

‘I can’t leave him like this.’

‘It’s OK. I know. Come back for a bit of sleep, though?’

‘Yeah.’

Mum went and told Dec we were going, even though he was asleep and couldn’t hear her, then we went back to Nico’s. I don’t remember anything until the next morning, so I suppose I must have fallen asleep in the car, and Mum must have carried me out and put me to bed.

I woke up in my room in Nico’s house, when Mum came in.

‘Wake up, sleepyhead.’

I remembered why I was there, and not at home in my dinosaur room.

‘Are we going to see Dec again?’

‘We’re just going to pop in, and then we’re going home. Hurry up and get dressed, sweetheart.’

I hurried up and got dressed, eager to see if Dec’s face still looked purple and big, but Dad still wasn’t ready when Mum had finished clearing my breakfast things away. Nico and Lis were still in bed too, and I expected Dad to be in trouble for dawdling like he usually was, but when he came into the kitchen, yawning, Mum just smiled at him and gave him a cup of coffee.

‘Thanks, Beth, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘There’s plenty more where that came from. You’re going to need it if you’re going to insist on driving back on two hours’ sleep.’

‘Less than two, I don’t think I shut my eyes for more than five minutes.’

‘Oh James. Why don’t you go back to bed? Cal and I can check on Dec and pick you up in a bit.’

‘No, I want to see him.’

‘But you know he’s going to be OK.’

‘Yeah, I know what they told me last night, but it’s more than that. If he’s awake at all, I … I just want to see how he is. Not how he is like his bangs and scrapes; how he is with us.’

Mum tutted and rolled her eyes.

‘Only a rugby player would call that face bangs and scrapes, but I know what you mean. Things have changed quite a bit since Friday, haven’t they.’

I listened to all this without understanding much of it. I thought, maybe, from how they were talking about Dec, that they might have stopped being cross about him stealing and lying. But you could never tell with grown-ups; sometimes they seemed one way, and just changed their minds. So I thought I’d wait, rather than asking right away, because I didn’t want to do anything to stop them taking me to see Dec.

18. A change is gonna come

In which comings and goings lead to revelations and alterations.

Dec

Nico and Rose stepped outside into the yard to have a whispered conversation about me. I could hear snatches.

>… really worry … not well

: … worst I’ve seen …

> … call someone … my number

Once Nico had gone back over Rose’s wall, Rose continued to fuss about with bowls and washing up and some fancy dessert she’d concocted instead of apple pie. She didn’t talk much, but patted my shoulder or ruffled my hair every time she walked past. I was still sitting with my head in my hands, living second by second, and her tenderness was comforting.

After a time:

:It’s not very comfy sitting here, is it love. Let’s go and watch some rubbish on the telly.

Rose took me by the elbow, manoeuvred me into the lounge and sat me in her squishy armchair. I sat and stared at the screen, taking nothing in. The evening passed in one second intervals. No past, no future. No idea of the time. My head was full of buzzing – I couldn’t think clearly enough about anything to plan ahead, even for the next few minutes.

:I think you’re going to stay here tonight, love. I can’t see you in that empty flat of yours. The bed’s made up in the spare room. Ready to turn in?

She took my elbow again and led me to the spare room.

‘Don’t worry about brushing your teeth, love, you can sort yourself out tomorrow. Sleep in your clothes, or undies or whatever you want, don’t have any spares I’m afraid. Not much call for them these days. I’ll wake you up tomorrow so’s you’re ready in plenty of time.

She folded back the duvet and left the room. I remained standing for some time, inertia taking over. Eventually I felt my body start to tire and I lay down on the bed. Turned the light off, and spent a lot of seconds in the dark, no idea how many, just one after the other. Must have slept.

Dreaming. I am flying. I am playing. Dad and Jay and Nico are on my team. Mum, Beth, Cal and Rose are watching. We are playing the champions. I fly above the pitch and watch my team pushing back the opponents time after time. I fly down and run with them. We pass to each other, we run, we dominate, we score, we win. The crowd goes wild. I can hear Cal cheering.

Cal

We got a very big Christmas tree for the living room, which took up a whole corner opposite where the TV was, and a smaller one for Uncle Matty so it didn’t get in the way when Mum and Dad were helping him.

I got to put all the decorations on, and I chose lots of things I’d made, and some of my favourites. Mum said the tree in the living room was a family tree, because it had things I’d made on it, and things Dad had given mum, like a big red heart with bells on, and things Mum had made for Dad, and the star on the top was one Granny had bought when it was my first Christmas. I also chose a snowman that Dec and I had made last year, but didn’t get to put on the tree. Mum saw me choose it but didn’t say anything, and didn’t stop me putting it on, even though she knew Dec had made it, and I wondered if things were going to be right again, but I also know she didn’t tell Dad who had helped me make the snowman, even though she talked about all the other decorations, so that made me think again about whether things would ever be right.

I loved having Uncle Matty living with us. Although to start with, he was asleep most of the time, I was allowed to play in his room, and often made roads for my cars, or battle grounds for my other toys, on the floor near his bed. Mostly Uncle Matty would lie there with his eyes closed, and he would breathe like he was rattling, but sometimes he would be awake, and he would join in a bit.

‘Heh Cal, whohs winning?’

‘It’s not a race or a war, it’s just a game.’

‘Oh, my bahd. Wha’s Pihkachu up tuh then?’

‘He’s a policeman.’

‘Cohrs heh is.’

‘And this is his police helicopter, and he is spying on all the bad people, and when he sees them doing something very bad he rests them and they have to be in prison.’

‘Soh they hahv a rehst in prison.’

‘Yes, but when they get out, they just do something bad again, and get rested again.’

‘Sohnds cushy.’

And then he’d fall asleep again, and when he woke up I’d be doing something else, but he’d still talk to me about it, and I liked him being interested.

Uncle Matty liked birds, and knew all the different ones who came and pecked food from the bird feeder in the garden. Mum had put the bird feeder up specially for Uncle Matty, and even though it was winter, there was always lots of flapping and pecking. Sometimes I sat on the bed and we’d watch together, and I started to recognise some of them. There was a bird book in Uncle Matty’s room, and we’d look them up together sometimes.

Matt

There seemed to be some news about the wayward teenager when I’d been there – home, I guess – just under a week. Jay and Beth had gone off to Devon, I didn’t catch the reason, just that they’d be gone overnight, leaving me with Mum and a ‘carer’, whose name I also didn’t catch, but who was going to come in to do the Jay shifts last thing on Friday night and first thing on Saturday morning. I hated the idea, had resisted it like mad, saying I could do it myself, even though I knew I could do no such thing.

For the last two days I’d been able to stand on my own – for ten whole seconds, before my knees went and I had to lie down for a couple of hours. I hated being dependent on other people so much.

But anyway, while Jay, Beth and Cal were away, Mum sat with me a lot and we chatted, after a fashion. I asked her if she knew what was going on with the teenager.

‘Declan?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Oh, there’s been some kerfuffle, some kind of falling out.’

‘Bouh wha?’

‘I don’t really know the full story, dear, maybe you’d better ask Jameson.’

I looked at her, hoping my expression would say ‘yeah right’ so I didn’t have to. It must have got some of the way there, because she sighed.

‘He deceived them rather badly about some things he’d been up to, some kind of car accident where someone died that they knew nothing about, and some kind of thing where some charity money went missing. I think there was something about a fake passport as well. Jameson was very upset and he and Beth feel very let down that he didn’t come to them, and they had to find out from someone else. Jameson doesn’t want any more to do with him.’

‘Shih. Mus beh hahd fuh thehm.’

‘It has been, Matthew, but maybe it’s for the best that they’ve moved away from it all, up here, to make a fresh start.’

That reminded me why they’d done just that, and I went off on a little self-pitying road trip of guilt for a while. Mum’s voice brought me back.

‘Of course, he did find Calum when he ran away.’

‘Wha?’

No one ever told me anything anymore, in case I got more ill. I felt it was pretty impossible to get much more ill than I was, and wished people would keep me in the loop a bit more. If I was going to peg it, I’d rather I was in full possession of any available facts, just so I was prepared. Information was always going to come in handy, even in the afterlife, should there prove to be one. Which I doubted. But if I wanted to find out shit, I needed to stop getting sidetracked and listen when people were talking, like Mum, now.

‘While you were in hospital, Jameson and Beth went to the city and stayed in a hotel.’

‘Noht the Scoht Suihte?’

‘The what, dear?’

I shook my head, not having the energy to explain.

‘Well, Calum took it into his head to run away. He took Jameson’s phone and some money, and somehow made it onto a bus and to a theme park. There was a police search, but they couldn’t find him, Beth kept calling me, she was frantic. Anyway, Declan went off on his own search, despite Beth telling him not to, and he found him at the park, safe and well, told Beth where he was, then ran off when they arrived.’

‘Buh Cahl wahs OK?’

‘Yes dear, he didn’t even know he’d caused a fuss, although he got a big sit-down lecture about going off without telling anyone. He said he’d left a clue – he’d drawn a bus with dinosaurs on the side, but no one had thought it might mean anything. He’s a bright button, that one, it’ll get him into trouble some day.’

And then it was time for carer Sally to put me to bed. She was a large-ish woman about ten years younger than my mum, who laughed her way through my bedtime routine, ignoring the fact she was taking my clothes off and putting my pyjamas on, and believe it or not, I looked forward to her visiting the next day.

Eight o’clock was bloody early for me to be in bed, but it was the only slot the agency had available, and I was so knackered I easily fell asleep. That seemed to be all I did these days – wake up for a bit, maybe a cup of tea or a bit of food, have a brief chat with someone, or maybe listen to them fussing about whether I was warm enough or had eaten enough or had taken my pills, then fall asleep while they were talking and wake up hours later with someone different sitting next to me fussing about the same things, maybe in a different order, just to spice things up a bit.

Cal played in my room a lot, and I loved him being there, brrrming his cars or playing cops and robbers with his teddies. It made me feel normal, that a six year old kid wanted to be in my room with me, and not like some outcast with a nasty disease who needed to be locked away. I know they didn’t mean it, and it couldn’t be helped, I couldn’t join in with them, I couldn’t get about on my own, but it made me feel useless and hopeless sometimes, to hear them going about their lives outside my door, while I lay there and slept mine away.

Sally came back the next morning, saw me naked again, only this time she had to wipe my bum, a la Jay. She laughed her way through that too, and I wondered if I could ask for her to visit every day. I’d thought it would be more embarrassing having a stranger do that for me, but it wasn’t. Having Jay do it, who saw me every day, and was my brother, was infinitely worse. I asked her about it, and she said she’d be more than happy if the agency could fit it in, but she thought I’d be doing it on my own soon, so not to worry. That cheered me up loads. I recognised that I’d made a lot of progress since being admitted to hospital. It’s not hard to see progress from ‘nearly dead’ to ‘mostly alive’. But any progress I was making here seemed so slow. I tried to look back to what I’d been like in hospital, but it was all jumbled and I couldn’t get a clear picture in my head. It was heartening to hear someone say they thought I’d be better soon than I was now.

Cal

A couple of weeks before Christmas, me, Mum and Dad went back down to the city. We weren’t staying in a hotel this time, we stayed with Nico and Lis, and I was told so many times that the door would be locked at night, and I wasn’t to go anywhere without asking, that I got really bored of being told.

I liked being with Nico and Lis, because Nico made me laugh and said words like incryeeble and importanty, which sounded like words I might say but a bit cooler, and Lis always had sweets in a big tin that she let me eat when Mum wasn’t looking. She was cheeky to Dad as well, and I liked that too.

I hadn’t talked to Dec since I saw him at Dinosaurland, and although I had talked to Mum about him a bit, Dad still went all cross when I said his name. Mum said that Dec had decided to live away from us, but she didn’t really know why, and yes, he had done some bad things, but sometimes doing bad things doesn’t mean you’re a bad man. I tried to ask if we could see Dec, or if he was going to come and see us, but Mum just said

‘No Cal.’

and wouldn’t answer when I asked if that meant no never, or no not today. She looked sad and shook her head, though, and I thought she might not be as cross with him as Dad was.

Since I saw Dec at Dinosaurland, I’d stopped being worried about if he was a bad man or not. He had seemed exactly the same, and wasn’t mean or nasty to me, and my shock at him telling me he had stolen and lied faded over time.

When we went back to the city, I wondered if we might bump into Dec somewhere, and maybe he would ask us round for a cup of tea (or purple squash in my case), and things would be better. I made my mind up to keep a look out for him, just in case.

We were only going to stay with Nico and Lis overnight, then Dad was doing work on Saturday, Nico was playing rugby and Mum and Lis were shopping. Which meant I was shopping too, because I wasn’t allowed to go with Dad. I hated shopping, because they never went in interesting shops with toys and cool trainers, they always went in ladies’ shops, and sat drinking coffee and talking about hoovering, but I decided to use it as an opportunity to look out for Dec. I didn’t think I’d see him in the ladies’ shops, but there was a chance he might be walking around, or looking at the toys like he used to with me.

When we arrived at Nico and Lis’s house, Nico was out, and Lis said dinner was nearly ready, so she phoned Nico to make him come home. I was really hungry, and could smell dinner, which I hoped was chicken nuggets. Mum and Dad and Lis talked about grown up things like how many cars were on the road on the journey, but never about how many were blue or red, like I’d been counting, and then Nico came back. He seemed a bit different from normal Nico, and just stood in the doorway of the living room looking at Dad. Lis walked over to him and put a hand on his arm.

‘Nico, not now.’

‘No, Lis, I say this.’

Lis sighed. ‘Alright then, but maybe not right here.’

She looked back at me, and again at Nico, who huffed at bit.

‘Alright, baby. Jaime, Beth, there are things I must say, please. Lis will stay with Cal.’

‘What things?’

Dad looked wary.

‘Things I must say where small ears don’t hear.’

Nico meant me. People always thought I didn’t understand that I had the smallest ears, and that they didn’t want me to hear what they were saying.

‘About what?’

‘I think you know about what. Or about who.’

Dad shook his head and looked angry. He had his ‘talking about Dec’ face on.

‘Not interested, Nico.’

‘I say it here, if you don’t come.’

‘Nico…’

‘OK, then, I say. I just leave Declan, he is not right, he is crying much, too much, we worry he don’t stop. He blame himself for too much, we worry we don’t leave him on his own, we worry what he do, if he want to live, I worry about him very much –’

‘OK Nico, I think maybe this is something we should talk about somewhere else.’

Mum pulled Dad to his feet and out of the room with Nico, shutting the door behind them. Lis got out her tin of sweets and offered them to me. I took one, a green triangle, and unwrapped it slowly while I thought.

‘Why is Dec crying?’

‘Well he’s been sad for quite a long time.’

‘What about?’

‘It’s hard to explain, and maybe you need to ask Dec, yeah?’

‘I’m not allowed to talk to Dec.’

‘I know Cal. It’s hard for you all, isn’t it. Hey, while Nico’s talking to Mummy and Daddy, why don’t we play Pokemon on Nico’s PlayStation?’

What I really wanted to do was find out more about Dec, maybe go and listen to what Nico was saying in the kitchen, or wherever he’d gone with Mum and Dad, but I sensed I wasn’t going to be allowed out of the room until they’d finished talking, and so I nodded.

Lis and I were engrossed in our game, and had made quite a dent in the tin of sweets, when Nico came back into the room. Lis looked up.

‘Hey. All done?’

‘Yes, we finish talking. Jaime and Beth stay in the kitchen and wait for their dinner. Is ready, baby?’

‘Yeah, it’s ready, although Cal’s chicken nuggets might be a bit hard by now. How do you feel about rubbery nuggets, Cal?’

‘I don’t think I would like rubbery nuggets.’

‘No, I can’t say I blame you. Let’s go and see.’

To the best of my memory, the nuggets were a bit hard and a darker brown than I liked, but Mum and Dad were weird, and so I didn’t say anything. Mum and Dad hardly spoke, and kept looking at each other as they picked at their dinner. Nico and Lis talked to me, and we played ‘I went to the shop and in my basket I put’ for ages.

Our cat, Tabitha, came through the cat flap while we were eating, and she jumped up on my lap. Lis and Nico were looking after Tabs while we weren’t living at home, and I had almost forgotten about her, but I was really happy to see her. She rubbed her face along mine, and purred as I stroked her. Mum looked really happy to see her too, but Dad didn’t; he always called her ‘that damn cat’ when she did things like scratch the sofa and be sick and bring in mice with their heads bitten off, but he never called her ‘that nice cat’ when she purred, and sat on your lap to make you warm, and played with her ball.

Mum gave me a bath in Lis and Nico’s bathroom before I went to bed, and I tried to ask her about Dec, but she wouldn’t answer properly either.

‘Mummy, why was Dec crying?’

‘I don’t know, Cal, I wasn’t there.’

‘Lis said he’s sad.’

‘Well, I suppose so.’

‘What’s he sad about?’

‘We’ll have to ask him’

Can we ask him?’

‘Oh sweetheart, I don’t know. Let’s see if this boat can get from one end of the bath to the other …’

And I really was none the wiser.

Dec

Woke to an insistent buzzing, but it might have been in my head. It was dark. Couldn’t work out where I was. Who I was. Lay listening to the buzzing. More sounds, a door, footsteps, the buzzing stopped. A voice.

:You had better be the bloody Queen at this time of night.

Indistinct tinny reply.

:Don’t know what you mean. Are you a reporter?

More tinniness.

:You lot can all just bugger off, or I’ll call the police.

Silence. Thoughts swirled round. Pieced themselves together from fragments, one by one. Remembered. Sleep shattered, I lay and looked at the darkness. Second by second.

Many seconds later there was a tap on the door.

:You awake love?

‘Mm.’

:Time you were up and about. Kettle’s on.

I felt empty. Lethargy and apathy were overwhelming me. More seconds of staring. Another knock.

:Come on, love. Time to get up.

The door opened. Rose came in and crouched by the bed.

:How are you this morning? Get any sleep?

‘Bit.’

:Well that’s good. Come on then, off that bed. I don’t want to have to resort to a cold flannel.

Deep breath. Tried to move.

‘Rose.’

:Yes love.

‘Can you talk to me?’

:What about, love?

‘Anything.’

:Alright then … did I tell you about my sister’s lad and …

Off she went. Stories, news, recipes, gossip, nonsense, while I clung to her words and hauled myself back into the world.

Even one second at a time was hard, to start with. Lost concentration a lot. Rose punctuated her chatter with reminders.

:You alright in there? Don’t forget to turn the shower off, love.

:Eat your toast, love.

:I think you need to run a comb through that hair.

It got better as time went on and I could focus for longer. Rose stopped having to remind me to put one foot in front of the other, and I coped on my own. I had to get clean clothes and my Raiders kit from my flat, but one foot in front of the other was all I could handle. Didn’t think about anything, did the stairs one at a time, got my stuff together and went back down to Rose’s flat. One step, one second, one minute at a time.

Rose was in a dither when I got back.

:Listen, love, we’re going to have to be a bit clever with these reporter buggers. I’ve seen people looking over the wall, they might be round the back. They’ve been bothering everyone coming in and out too. What I’m going to do is go out and talk to them, make up some stuff. That’ll get them all round the front, hopefully. You go over the wall, here’s my keys, my car’s in the second garage from the end. Wait in the car for me. I’ll take you up the club.

It took a while for my brain to catch up, and I stood looking at Rose for a few seconds.

‘You’ve got a car?’

:Just a little runabout. Don’t use it much. Did you get all that?

I tried to remember what Rose had said. It seemed important. Today was important, wasn’t it. I had to do today, then I could stop, stop it all.

‘… Wall … garage … car.’

:Well done, love. Ready? I’ll pop out now. You go when it seems clear.

She pulled on a coat and left the flat, while I shook myself and tried to get ready to act. I peered out of the kitchen from behind the curtain. Saw the tops of two heads a bit further along, which hurried away after a couple of minutes. Jumped over the wall and ran to the garages. Fumbled with Rose’s key, opened the garage door, pulled it down almost shut behind me and got into Rose’s tiny Nissan in the dark. Shut my eyes.

Everything felt surreal. I was functioning completely on autopilot, only really able to cope with the next task. It would have to be my strategy now. Next job – wait for Rose. Waited. Second by second.

The sound of the garage door opening made me jump. I squinted in the daylight. Rose got into the driver’s seat, started the car, pulled out of the garage, got out to close the door, got back in. She was smiling, hugely pleased with herself.

:I can’t believe it worked! They fell for it. I told them a pack of lies, how they were sending a big fancy car for you in a few minutes, what a waste of money, how I’d seen you in the hallway and you’d be out any minute. I let them take pictures like I was enjoying the limelight, gave them a false name, then I walked off and let them wait. I feel like a spy, I do. You alright love?

‘Holding on. Thanks.’

:Right then, how do I get to this rugby club of yours?

I focussed on the lefts, rights and straight ons. Rose was not a confident driver and needed a lot of warning before she needed to make a turn. She didn’t talk much, except to clarify a direction, and seemed relieved when we arrived in the car park.

:Where’s the best place to drop you off, love?

I scanned ahead, checking for reporters. Didn’t see any.

‘Over there, players’ entrance.’

As we pulled up close to the door:

:Good luck, love. I’ll be thinking about you all day. Let me know when you can.

I nodded. My heart rate had shot up, my one second at a time strategy under serious threat as reality banged on the door and I could no longer push away what I was facing. I opened the car door almost in a dream. Turned back to Rose. One more thing I had to do.

‘Thanks for everything.’

She had tears in her eyes.

:You’re welcome love. Take care.

I got out, shut the door and watched her drive away. It felt like a goodbye. After today, nothing would be … the same. Turned to the players’ door. It was now open, and Adrian Peters was standing there.

.Hi Declan. Just checking you’re OK out here. We had some gentlemen of the press hanging about earlier, had to be quite firm. Seems all quiet now, though. Come on through.

I followed him into the building.

.I think Don wants to see you first, then we’ll all get together about this afternoon’s press conference. See you later.

I made my way, one foot in front of the other, to Don’s office. His door was open and he sat looking at his computer screen. I tapped on the door, heart racing, hardly breathing. He looked up.

-Declan. Thanks for coming. I’ll just ask Stuart to join us.

He pressed a button on the phone.

-Could you come up for a few minutes?

Put the phone down. Looked at me. Awkward silence.

-Any trouble getting here this morning?

‘No.’

-Good.

He looked more closely at my face.

-Are you alright? You look a bit … spaced out.

‘I’m OK.’

I tried to sit up and look normal, although spaced out is exactly how I felt. My heart was pounding, I felt sick and my head was buzzing again. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say except ‘for fuck’s sake get this over with’. The words kept going round and round my head, and I had to keep stopping myself from saying them. Don shuffled some papers on his desk and looked as awkward as I felt.

-Sorry to keep you waiting, it must be – ah, Stuart. Come on in, shut the door, would you?

Stuart came in, shut the door and sat next to me. He looked at me and nodded.

I had a strange sensation of floating away from myself, separating myself from reality. Nothing really mattered now, I knew what was going to happen, no nerves any more The floating Declan watched dispassionately. The real Declan was cocooned somewhere, not feeling a thing. Don was speaking. I drifted in and out, the odd word attracting my attention, but the buzzing drowned out most of what was said. It didn’t matter, anyway. It was all finishing now.

-… difficult time … you … the club … points … massive impact … suspend … playing … finish … Stuart …

Stuart was speaking now; neither Declan really listened, just looked out of the window, waiting for them to stop so it would be over.

^… hard decision … impressed … strong … weighed up … senior players … chance … sorry … tough …

So there it was. All finished now. Floating Declan disappeared and left me on my own. Don and Stuart were looking at me expectantly.

‘Er…’

I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say or do, but I couldn’t go just yet. Still just a little bit more to do.

-Declan, are you alright? Did you hear what Stuart and I just said?

‘Yeah, yeah, sorry, just taking it in. I’ll … shall I clear out my stuff and go after the press conference?

Don and Stuart looked at each other.

-OK, I think we need to start again. I need you to listen. I know this is difficult, but I don’t think we had your full attention. I’m not sure you’re quite yourself. Listen to me and focus.

Don was right, it was difficult. Focussing I could do, listening I could do, but both at once … that was a bit of a struggle.

-We’re keeping you on. Stuart feels you’ve worked hard enough in training and on rebuilding relationships with the other players to warrant a second chance. Do you understand so far?

It was the words ‘second chance‘ that got through, repeated from the past by Rose – :you have to take them when you get them. The buzzing in my head stopped as I tried to make my mashed brain compute what Don was saying.

‘You’re … not letting me go?’

A smile played briefly on Don’s face.

-No. I can’t deny that you have made some serious errors of judgement, but we feel there is still a place for you here. Some of the senior players have spoken on your behalf and we also feel that the commitment, resilience and character you have shown through some hard times have been impressive.

I could hardly hear what he was saying, the blood was pounding so loudly in my ears. Don was still speaking.

-… remain informally suspended for the rest of the season, you won’t be able to play for us, but we’ll reinstate your Raiders privileges so you can continue to train and otherwise be a part of the team. We want you to be involved with the youth coaching too, and have arranged dual registration with Trojans so you can get some game time if they can use you –

My head was spinning wildly and I felt faint. It was all going too fast. It should be finished by now, over, so I could stop, but Don was saying … what was he saying? A tiny spark of hope, the last I’d allowed to hide down there somewhere, suddenly flared into life.

‘Stop. Please, sorry, just stop a minute. I … don’t get it. I’m … staying?’

Don sighed. He looked at me appraisingly.

-You are having trouble retaining this, aren’t you. I thought you didn’t look quite with it when you came in. OK. Words of few syllables. You are staying. You are still suspended until the end of the season. You are now dual registered with Trojans. Got that so far?

‘I … yes! Fuck! Sorry … sorry … I just … don’t believe it.’

Don looked at Stuart.

-I think that was more the reaction we were expecting?

Stuart laughed.

^Declan, you have shown a remarkable ability to overcome difficult circumstances. Added to this, you are a very talented young player with good levels of strength and fitness, and we feel you are too good a prospect to let go.

I was completely overwhelmed. Physically, mentally, all my senses. I lost all ability to speak or put any coherent thought or action together. Sat staring at the grandstand out of the window. My mind was trying to process the new information. One fact got through the log-jam. I was staying! It was wonderful, amazing, incomprehensible, glorious, what had a worthless piece of shit like me done to deserve it?

More words broke through.

-… Declan! I’m a bit worried about your ability to concentrate. I know this has been tough on you, maybe I hadn’t quite realised how much. I think you need somewhere quiet to have a think. We need to talk through the press conference with Adrian soon, but I think I’m going to suggest that before that, you have a sit down – maybe one of the hospitality suites? They won’t be used for another couple of hours. We’ll come and find you when we need you. You need to be coherent and follow what’s going on. Eat something and drink something. You need to be sharp. Understand?

I nodded. Followed Stuart out of the room and upstairs to one of the plush suites overlooking the pitch. I sat in a soft armchair and stared out of the window. Brain fog gradually melted away and I began to really understand what had happened. I had been given the most enormous second chance. I had spent so much of the last twenty four hours believing that all this would be gone by now, that rearranging it all in my head was proving difficult. I hadn’t lost it all. I’d thrown a hell of a lot away, but I still had Raiders. Don was right, it was going to take a lot of getting my head around.

I suddenly smiled broadly. Couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt really happy. The good feeling spread through me like a flame. I stood up, threw my arms wide and shouted:

Yes!

I felt dizzy with it. I knew I had been very lucky, it would have been a very close decision, whether I stayed or not, had more people to thank than I would ever know. But I was here and I was staying. Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable!

Matt

So Mum and I had another day of lazily chatting about nothing. We watched birds flitting on and off the feeder; I had started to tell the difference between them and wanted to know what they were. I knew some of them – sparrow, blue-tit, blackbird – but wanted to know the rest.

‘Muhm, nehd my iPahd.’

It was the first time I’d felt strong enough to look at a screen of any sort. Even the TV in my room was too much to concentrate on.

‘What, dear?’

‘Frohm the flah. Wahn tuh knoh wha thehs birhds are.’

‘Oh. Oh Matthew.’

Mum was looking very agitated, and wouldn’t meet my eyes.

‘We didn’t know how to tell you.’

‘Wha?’

‘It’s been emptied.’

‘Wha has?’

I had some vague idea that someone had wiped my iPad. Well no problem, it’s easy to just download it all again, you just –

‘Your flat.’

‘Wha?’

‘Oh Matthew, I’m so sorry, dear. Jameson and Beth went over there to get you some things, I gave them my key, and everything was gone. All your furniture, fridge, cooker, there was no iPad, no computer, no TV, your clothes were in a heap on the bedroom floor.’

I looked at her incredulously.

‘Brehk in?’

‘No dear. Whoever did it had a key.’

Her meaning was plain.

‘Cahrie.’

Something broke in me. I hadn’t thought there was anything left to break, but I’d obviously been saving a last tiny piece, cradling it against the hurt. Now it was shattered too. I’d wondered if Carrie had thought about me, known how ill I’d been, tried to visit me maybe, once she realised I’d nearly died. I hadn’t had the balls to ask, because to hear that she hadn’t would have stripped away that last little rag which covered what remained of my hope that it had all been some kind of übermisunderstanding. Now this news had done exactly the same job. Carrie cared less than nothing about me, and now I knew that for sure.

‘We think so, but it’s hard to prove.’

‘Dihnt she lehv anythihg?’

‘The sofa.’

The sodding rancid sofa, that I didn’t even want in the first place.

‘Hohly fuck Muhm.’

Mum took my hand and held it very tightly as tears leaked their way treacherously out of my eyes.

‘Whehr’s my phohn?’

I was going to call her, find her somehow, she couldn’t do this to me.

‘If it was in the flat, dear, it’s gone too. I’m so sorry.’

‘Fuck. Fucking bihtch.’

‘I wholeheartedly agree, Matthew. She has been the subject of quite a few late night swearing sessions of my own, believe me.’

I hadn’t given my phone a thought until now, an indication of how ill I actually was, but suddenly, without it, I was lost, adrift. I couldn’t contact anyone, not the friends who hadn’t replied to my texts, not work, not my GP, not the best Indian takeaway in Stafford, not Carrie to scream at her, nobody. She’d taken my life when she took my phone, and she would have known that, and it obviously had made no difference whatsoever. Even if it wasn’t her who actually took everything away, she was the one who’d let them in, or given them a key. I’d thought I’d be able to forgive Carrie if I ever got the chance, but this, this last indignity, this insult, while I lay nearly dying in hospital, it shifted something inside me, and the last spark of love I’d had for her winked out to be replaced by something hard and cold and ugly that needing saving for another day.

Without my phone, none of my friends would know what had happened, I couldn’t call them. Maybe Carrie hadn’t cared enough to wonder how I was in the days after she pulled my world down around me, but surely my friends would have tried to phone, would have found out where I was, somehow? I hadn’t told any of them about the bastard MS, still couldn’t find the words, had shut myself away a bit, and I hadn’t had the energy to think about it before I was confronted with it now, but there had been no contact, from anyone. Jay and Beth had been in touch with work, and there had been a card from them and some flowers, but nothing from anyone else.

It was like Carrie had taken my whole life, not just my stuff. Stuff didn’t matter, you could get new stuff, but people mattered, and … I started to wonder what she’d told them to make them stay away. I’d tried to call people before I got ill the first time, and nobody had picked up. What if she told them I’d left her, I’d been the one in the wrong? It was too much. I needed to let it go, let it float away for now. It was still tethered to me, I could feel it tugging, but I couldn’t bear to look at it.

I didn’t speak for most of the rest of that day. I told Mum to go away, I just wanted to be on my own to think about what she’d told me. I couldn’t blame them all, not really, for keeping it from me. Apart from anything, I wouldn’t have remembered if they’d told me, and it wasn’t something that would have been easy to say once, let alone twice or three times while I battled my way through the fog in hospital.

I drifted off to sleep in the afternoon, head full of my flat, my things, my nothing of a life.

17. No world for tomorrow

In which Cal takes matters into his own hands, and Dec feels the weight of responsibility.

Dec

The next few days were really tough. Things at the club had been improving, and I had started to fool myself into believing that everything was on the up. This reminder of what I had truly thrown away knocked me back a long way. I dragged myself through training sessions, then dragged myself home where I ate and slept. I couldn’t focus on anything else, my mind was full of the mess I’d made.

Cal

At the end of that week, Mum and Dad picked me up from school, but instead of going home, we set off down the motorway, back to the city. Dad had some work things to do, and Mum wanted to see people like Lis and Nico, and Trish, and we were going to stay in a hotel. I liked staying in hotels, because they had little bottles of shampoo, and I liked having different ones from different places, like the hotel in Portugal where we were on holiday in the summer.

As I sat in the back of the car, between counting red cars and singing car songs, I started to think about how I was going to be closer to both Dec and Dinosaurland, and I wondered if I was going to have a chance to do anything about my birthday plan. I had only turned six a few days ago, and although it wouldn’t be on my birthday, it might be close enough to feel like it was. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do it, but I knew I would have to take my chance when I saw it. When I had talked to Dec, I hadn’t realised that Mum and Dad were unlikely to help me, but now I did, which made it difficult as I was going to have to do it on my own, but I was six now, and a big boy. My mind whirred with thinking.

We got to the hotel, and took our bags up to our room, or rather rooms – Mum and Dad had their room with their big bed, and I had a little room to myself which was joined to theirs by a door. We unpacked our things, and went to see Nico and Lis.

When we came back, it was late, and I was tired, but I tried to stay awake as long as possible. I wanted to see where Dad put his phone, and where Mum put the birthday money Nico and Lis had given me. Once I knew, I went to bed without a fuss, and went to sleep, determined to wake up early.

When I woke up, I got out of bed as quietly as I could and opened my door to see if Mum and Dad were still asleep. I could tell Dad was asleep, because he was snoring, and Mum had her eyes closed too. Usually, she woke up as soon as she heard a sound, so I knew I had to be super quiet.

I slipped back into my room and pulled my clothes on from yesterday, then I very, very quietly picked up Dad’s phone from the table, and took the ten pounds out of the envelope that had my birthday card in it. It wasn’t stealing, because it was my money. I made very sure that nobody would think I was stealing, and if I hadn’t had my birthday money, I would have made do without any. The birthday money was only so I could buy a stegosaurus and a triceratops.

I knew I should tell Mum and Dad where I was going, but it was a birthday surprise, and so I left them a clue. I’d seen the buses go past the hotel entrance, and sometimes they stopped at the bus stop just outside, and some of the buses said ‘Dinosaurland’ in lights on the front. I didn’t just want to write ‘I’m going to Dinosaurland with Dec’, because it was more fun to leave a clue and then they could work it out, and by the time they’d worked it out, we’d be there, and we could all have a nice time together.

So I drew a map where ‘X’ marked the spot, and a picture of a bus, and I drew the big tyrannosaurus rex from Dinosaurland on the side of it, and me in one of the windows, waving, and I left it on the table where Dad’s phone had been. I wasn’t stealing Dad’s phone, I was just borrowing it.

I slipped out of the door and made sure it didn’t make a sound when it closed – I could hardly believe I’d done all that without waking Mum and Dad up, but here I was, going out of the main door of the hotel, crossing the car park and waiting at the bus stop.

I had walked behind a man and a lady, and another man and lady had come out of the door behind me. I think when I was waiting at the bus stop, they all thought I was with the others, because the bus driver didn’t ask how old I was, or ask me to pay, or where my mummy was or anything. The two lots of men and ladies sat with a seat between them, so I sat in the middle and looked out of the window, waiting to see Dinosaurland. Just as I saw it, and wondered how to get the bus driver to stop, the man in front of me pushed a button, a bell rang, and the bus slowed down. The man and lady stood up to get off, and I followed them.

Once I was off the bus, I ran into the Dinosaurland car park, where I stopped suddenly, wondering what to do now.

I had Dad’s phone, but if they woke up and wondered where I was, they would call me, so I looked to see if it was turned on. Dad usually left it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ at night, which meant that no one could call him, but I could still play games. It looked like that was how it was now.

I didn’t want to call anyone just yet, it felt too soon. I knew Dec didn’t get up very early, and Dinosaurland looked shut for now, so there was no point everyone getting here right now. Dec and Dad would both be grumpy if I made them wake up on a Saturday morning. It was cold, though, and I hoped the people would come and open up Dinosaurland soon. Maybe they would let me in so I could wait in the warm.

Dec

The weekend came, a home Raiders game, the need to escape and avoid. I was packing a bag for a hike when my phone rang. Looked at the screen. Beth. Apprehensive, I answered.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, have you heard from Cal?

A frantic desperation in her voice.

‘No. Why, what’s happened?’

_He’s disappeared. We’re down here in the city, in a hotel. He’s gone. We woke up and he was … gone.

As Beth started to cry, an icy sliver of panic slipped down my ribcage.

‘Have you called the police?’

_Of course we have. They’re here now. Dec, he rang you before. He’s taken James’s phone, but it’s turned off. And he’s taken some money, we think.

More tears. Through them:

_If he contacts you, you will call me won’t you?

‘Oh, Beth, of course. Can I do anything, is there a search?’

_There is, but no, there’s nothing you can do. Let me know, if he calls you, won’t you.

She disconnected.

Heart pounding, I grabbed keys and wallet, stuffed my phone in my pocket. Whatever Beth had said, there was no way I could just get on with my day. I was going to look for him.

My thoughts weren’t very formed, but on the way to the bus stop I made a vague plan of going to their old house, trying some familiar places. The bus took an age to arrive. I was about to start walking when it trundled along. The journey to the old house was painfully slow. I scanned every child I saw from the bus, heart missing a beat each time I saw a small blond boy.

I got off at the stop nearest to the house. I hadn’t been here for months, and walking up the road felt strange. There was a police car outside the house. The police were obviously thinking along the same lines as me. No point looking further there.

I thought about the places Cal would have gone on his own early in the morning, decided to try the play-park round the corner. It was empty. I didn’t know where Jay and Beth had stayed – probably the big hotel near Raiders Stadium. It wasn’t far away. Maybe Cal had gone to his old school, or to a friend’s house – I began to realise how difficult it was going to be to second guess him, and how much better the police were going to be at it than me. But I couldn’t just give up and go home, knowing that Cal was out there somewhere on his own.

I decided to change tack and head further away. People would already have looked in the obvious places. I shied away from the thought that he might not be on his own, that someone might have taken him somehow. I caught a bus heading to the big retail park. There was a large Toys R Us which Cal had been to with me. It was as good a place as any.

On the bus, lost in thought and anxiety, I nearly missed it. A large sign with an angry Tyrannosaurus Rex in full roar, underneath a scarlet header declaring DINOSAURLAND: Dream Big!

‘Stop! Please, stop.’

I stood up, rushed to the front of the bus and pounded on the bell, scoring some irate glances from several other passengers. The bus driver was apologetic.

*Sorry, mate, can’t let you off between stops.

‘How far till the next one?’

*Just up the road by the garage, look.

I couldn’t sit back down. The couple of hundred metres dragged by. As soon as the bus stopped and opened its doors, I jumped off and ran as fast as I could back to the theme park. It was still early, wouldn’t be open yet.

I sprinted into the empty car park, scouting ahead for small boys. Nothing at the entrance. The barriers to the park beyond were closed and locked, so he couldn’t be inside. Maybe I was wrong. I’d been so positive when I’d seen the sign. It was only a few days since his birthday; our plans would still be fresh in his mind. I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner.

Cal

While I was waiting to call Dec, I went behind a wooden shelter, so no one could see me. I didn’t want to have to talk to a stranger, or anyone to find me before I could make the plan happen. I sat on the ground behind the shelter, because the wind wasn’t blowing so hard there, and I started playing Angry Birds on the phone. Dad’s headphones were still plugged in, and it always sounded better with headphones, so I put those in too.

Dec

I slowed to a walk and looked around me. There were a few kiosks which were shut up, and an empty wooden shelter. I tried a shout.

‘Cal!’

Nothing. Was I wrong? I was immobilised with indecision – should I stay here and wait in case he turned up, or carry on with my plan to go to the retail park? I was just about to turn and walk back to the bus stop when I caught a glimpse of movement from near the ground behind the wooden shelter. Blond curls caught by the breeze.

I shouted out with relief and ran over to the shelter. Peered round the edge. He was sitting on the ground playing a game on the phone. Headphones in. He hadn’t heard me. I crouched down next to him, touched him lightly on the shoulder.

Cal

I had been playing for a while, and was nearly at my best ever score, when I felt a touch on my shoulder. It made me jump, and I looked up fearfully at the person crouching by me, ready to run away if it was a bad man.

Dec

Cal looked up, startled. Relaxed when he saw it was me. Took the headphones out. Smiled up at me. I did my best to hide my relief and anxiety, and smiled back at him.

Cal

It was Dec. How had he known to come? He must have known we were in the city, and realised we could do our birthday plan too. I had to admit it was pretty clever of him.

‘Hey Cal. Here you are. What’s this all about then?’

I didn’t quite know what he meant, but he was here, and it made me happy to see him, so I smiled.

‘You camed. I didn’t even phone you yet. I’m playing Angry Birds.’

‘Cal, I’m going to ring your mum. She’s very worried about where you are.’

That seemed sensible. I didn’t want to worry Mum, but I had left them a clue, so she would know where I was. Then we could go and see the dinosaurs. I couldn’t wait to tell Mum and Dad how clever and grown up I had been, but I really wanted to start my birthday treat.

‘OK, then we can go in to Dinosaurland.’

‘Well, it’s not open yet, let’s wait in the shelter for a bit. It’s wet here on the ground.’

I hadn’t noticed the damp seeping into my trousers, but as Dec mentioned it I felt the wetness on my bottom. I stood up as Dec took his phone out, but didn’t want to go in the shelter; I wanted to go into the park.

‘But you said…’

Dec wasn’t listening to me, as he spoke into his phone, guiding me to the seat with his free hand and sitting down next to me.

Dec

_Dec?

The mixture of hope and terror in her voice nearly did for me.

‘He’s at Dinosaurland.’

_You found him? Oh my God! Is he alright?

‘He’s fine.’

_Oh my God! James, Dec found him. He’s at Din –

The phone went dead and I assumed they were on their way.

‘Cal, it’s great to see you. But you shouldn’t ever go anywhere without telling your mum and dad.’

Cal

That felt really not fair. I had told them, I’d drawn the picture and the X marks the spot.

‘I know that, I drawed a map. It was a clue. They were asleep so I drawed a bus. It had dinosaurs on the side. I got on it with another mummy and daddy. I’ve got my birthday money so I can buy a stegosaurus. I borrowed Daddy’s phone so I can talk to you and we can do my birthday plan.’

I expected Dec to be impressed, but he just nodded and carried on looking at me. The wind gusted into the shelter, and I shivered. Dec took his hoody off and put it round my shoulders, but it was a big boy’s hoody, and it felt ginormous.

‘It’s too big.’

I started to shrug it off my shoulders, but Dec held on to it by putting his arm round me.

‘Yes, but you’re cold. Keep it on.’

I snuggled up beside Dec, feeling like everything was going to plan, and things might be getting back to normal. We often sat like this watching football, making up stories, playing games, and it felt like something that had gone away had come back. Dec didn’t feel like a bad man, like someone who had stolen and lied; he just felt like Dec, like he had always been. Maybe he hadn’t really stolen – maybe he’d just borrowed, like I’d done with Dad’s phone this morning. Maybe it didn’t really matter. I didn’t understand the word ‘forgiveness’ back then, but whatever it was I felt, it changed things back for me, from being scared of the Dec I thought he might have become, to welcoming back the Dec I remembered, who I hadn’t seen for ages, and who I loved. I didn’t want to sit there forever, though, I wanted to see the dinosaurs.

Dec

He sat close and nestled under my arm. How many times had we sat together like this, reading stories, making up games, watching football on TV? He was like my brother, and it tore at my heart.

\when will it be open?

‘Not for a while yet. The person with the key will have to come and unlock all the dinosaurs, and feed them too. They eat a lot. Need their porridge.

I carried on like this, talking nonsense, trying not to let Cal see how relieved I was he was safe, or how much I wanted to cry at seeing him again.

Cal

This felt more like it. Dec was making up stories that seemed just likely enough to be real, so we could carry on talking.

I grinned at him.

‘Dinosaurs don’t eat porridge.’

‘They might do here. It’d be special porridge that’d fill them right up and stop them eating people …’

Dec and I carried on talking, about the dinosaurs, about Arsenal and Theo Walcott, about what flavour ice cream was my favourite, even though he knew it was double chocolate chip, until a car came into the car park, going very fast.

Dec

There was a squeal of tyres at the entrance. Jay’s car raced into the car park and braked in front of the shelter in a shower of gravel.

Cal

When I looked up, I saw it was Dad’s car; Dad was driving and Mum was next to him. Dad always drove really fast, and the car stopped outside the shelter with a squeal of brakes, and lots of stones sprayed out from the tyres. Mum got out of the car and rushed over to us in the shelter. Dec stood up as Mum hugged me really tightly, and she was crying.

Why was she crying? I was fine, I was with Dec, my plan had worked, and everything was going to be OK. I looked over at Dad, who had just got out of the car. He didn’t look at Dec, and had that cross look on his face that he’d had for ages, every time anyone had said Dec’s name. Dad didn’t say anything, just walked over and picked me up, cuddling Mum with one arm as he held me against him.

Dec

Jay glanced at me. Looked away. I got the message. He walked over and picked up Cal, holding him in one arm with the other round Beth.

Cal

I began to get the feeling that things weren’t quite going as I had hoped they would when Dec picked up his hoody, which had dropped onto the floor when I stood up, and walked away.

‘Dec …’

Mum called after him and he turned round.

‘Thank you.’

Dec looked like he was going to say something, then he looked at Dad and seemed to change his mind.

Dec

I opened my mouth to speak, desperate to talk to them. Looked at Jay. He was staring ahead, not meeting my eyes, a grim look on his face. The dismissal was plain. I nodded and walked on. Desolate. I’d thought I’d never see them again, but seeing them like this, so close but so far away, was worse, unbearable.

Cal

No, this was spoiling everything. Dec couldn’t go now.

‘Where’s Dec going? The key person will be here soon to feed them porridge and I’m going to have ice cream and then we’re going to go in and see the dinosaurs …’

Dec

I couldn’t take any more, couldn’t bear to hear what they said to him, started to run as fast as I could and didn’t stop until I had no breath left.

Cal

As I spoke, I saw Dec run away, really fast, and I realised my plan had failed.

Maybe it would be OK if Mum and Dad came to Dinosaurland with me instead, even if they didn’t know about the stegosaurus and Ice Cream Factory.

Mum had stopped crying, and was looking at me with a sad look on her face.

‘Cal, what on earth … how did you … oh my baby, I’m so glad we found you.’

She started crying again, and Dad squeezed us both tighter. He spoke for the first time since he’d got out of the car.

‘Cal, mate, you know you shouldn’t just go off on your own, don’t you?’

And so it started, the long talk about how I always had to make sure Mum and Dad knew exactly where I was, all the time, no excuses, no maps or clues, just making sure they were both awake and that I told them with words, and never just went off and did things on my own, however clever and grown up I thought I was being. They didn’t just say it once, they said it about a million times that day. Just when I thought they’d stopped, they would say it again.

And I had to talk to a policeman, which should have been exciting but was pretty boring, because as well as asking me over and over again about how I got out of the hotel and how I got onto the bus, he just said the same things Mum and Dad had said, only he kept calling me ‘sunny’.

And I didn’t get to go to Dinosaurland after all; as soon as I’d talked to the policeman, we all got in Dad’s car and went home.

Dec

Days passed. The renewed pain and loss settled somewhere inside me, became part of me, like the rest of it. I trained, ate, slept, talked to Rose.

Rose saved me in the end. She had experienced major tragedies in her life – to my shame, things I had only been marginally aware of in my self-absorption. She couldn’t have children of her own, had tried many times before being told it would never happen, and told me how the hurt had never gone away.

:You just learn to stop prodding it, love. You never lose it, but you can live your life around it. Find ways not to think about it.

So that’s what I did. Pushed it down deep with all the other stuff I never let myself examine, and I didn’t look at it, think about it or prod it. It was better. I drifted along, worked hard, carried on finding ways not to think. Went hiking, went to the gym, kept myself physically exhausted. It helped to keep it all at bay. But it wasn’t any sort of a life.

Cal

Mum and Dad hardly let me out of their sight for ages after that. They walked me right into school, and were there by the school door when it was home time, and for ages, Mum wouldn’t let me go to play with any of my new friends unless she was there too, talking to another mum. But because of Uncle Matty, Mum didn’t have as much time to come out with me, or to have people over to play, so I had to spend a lot of time playing on my own.

While Uncle Matty was still in hospital, but had woken up, we stopped living with Granny and started living in our new house. I had a special dinosaur bedroom, which had dinosaur wallpaper, dinosaur duvets and lots of shelves for my dinosaur models. It also had bunk beds, so I could have friends to sleep over, but because of Mum needing to look after Uncle Matty, I hadn’t had friends over yet.

Uncle Matty was going to come and live with us when he got better enough, and he had his own room downstairs with his own shower and toilet behind a door. He didn’t have dinosaur wallpaper, even though I thought it might make him feel better when he came home and said he could borrow some of my models.

By the time Uncle Matty came home, it was nearly Christmas. Or rather, it was the end of November, and I was getting excited. Dad had said we could have a real tree, and I wanted a tree in all the rooms, but in the end Dad said Uncle Matty could have a tree in his room too, and that would have to be enough, and we went to choose them.

Dec

The day of the hearing about my visa and passport was looming. I didn’t have to go, Raiders were the ones answering the questions, but I was aware of a rising tension at the club.

Raiders were currently fifth in the league, in sight of a top four place. A major points deduction would make fourth place and the play-offs realistically out of reach, and everyone was on edge. A lot of hard work down the drain if it was a big deduction. A huge fine for the club in any case. Lots on my shoulders. Felt its weight growing as time passed. Spent a lot of time, despite trying hard not to, thinking ‘what if’ and going through the permutations. Fruitless, pointless activity but my brain did it anyway.

The date was set for the Friday of that week. It took forever to arrive, and came too soon at the same time. I woke up very early that morning, head full of potentials, likelihoods and probabilities.

There would be lots of people gathering at the club to use the gym, and then wait for news from the hearing in London, which was expected around lunchtime. It was not a training day, so I wasn’t allowed at the stadium. I felt very alone and separated from something that had such a huge effect on me and the people I spent most of my life with.

I couldn’t settle at home. Not having a computer, or access to any kind of internet meant I had no reliable way of getting information.

Nico had said he would text as soon as he heard anything. He had as much to lose as anyone – top flight rugby, teams getting into finals and winning trophies are some of the things that get players noticed and into international sides.

Since I had paid back all of the money I owed, there had been an easing of the exclusion and retaliation I had experienced. People had started to talk to me again, involve me in plans, suggest I might be playing again soon. A big points penalty from the RFU would be likely to put me back to square one, or worse.

I was very aware, from my original talk with Don and my continued meetings with Stuart that, although they were satisfied with the effort I had put in to making things right and remaining fit, if there was a big points loss, it might not be enough for me.

I found myself unable to face that possibility. If I lost Raiders, or even worse couldn’t play anywhere, I was scared about what it would do to me. I would have pissed away absolutely everything that had ever mattered to me, and I didn’t know how I was going to begin to rebuild my broken life.

Despite myself I had begun to hope, over the last few weeks, that things were working out. Today, I would find out whether that hope was groundless and I veered from minute to minute between wild hope and crashing despair.

I needed to find some way of following the news. The television that Rose had given me was, while much appreciated, a little bit crap, and had no twenty-four hour news station or any red button facilities. It was unlikely that the hearing would be in the headlines anyway – it mattered greatly to players and supporters of Raiders, but not very much to anyone else. I needed somewhere I could sit and obsessively check news updates on my phone.

I made my way into the city, found a café with free Wi-Fi, and parked myself in the corner with a coffee. I did a search for sports news websites, then began checking. The hearing didn’t start until ten o’clock; it wasn’t even nine yet. I realised I was being a bit mad. Couldn’t help myself. So much was riding on this.

The café was pretty busy to start with, people picking up coffee on their way to work. It emptied by nine-thirty, and then there was another wave at about ten o’clock of women with pushchairs. I was fairly anonymous, wearing hoody and baseball cap, head down, focussed on my phone.

Nonetheless I gradually became aware that I was being observed. A member of staff behind the bar kept looking over between customers. I looked her in the eye and smiled. She looked away. But looked back when my gaze was elsewhere. Eventually she came over to clear away my empty coffee cup.

*Anything else you need?

The usual line to let you know you need to buy another drink if you’re planning on staying.

‘I’ll come and get another coffee in a minute’

*Oh, I’ll bring it over. What would you like?

‘OK, thanks, another latte please.’

When she brought the coffee over she looked as if she was trying to make a decision. By the time she got to the table she had made it.

*Are you Declan Summers?

Now wary, having had a few more unpleasant confrontations since my experience at the supermarket, I nodded.

*It’s the hearing today, isn’t it? Sorry, I’m a huge Raiders fan, me and my boyfriend go to all the games. Really nervous about it.

‘Me too.’

*I’ll bet. Poor you. Can’t be much fun, waiting.

‘Not much fun for everyone else, either. It affects a lot of people.’

I had an increased awareness of just how many people were potentially waiting on a group of other people to decide how my actions would affect their future. I apologised as sincerely as I could whenever anyone confronted me.

‘Sorry.’

*Oh, no, don’t worry. Stupid rule. Raiders should have checked more thoroughly. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, you’d think they’d be more careful. I don’t blame you.’

This was an incredibly generous viewpoint. Most Raiders supporters I’d come across were more eager to lay the blame squarely at my feet, and I couldn’t argue with that.

*Are you meeting up with them all later, wait it out together?

‘No, I’m still suspended. Not allowed at the club except to train.’

*Oh, that seems harsh. How will you find out?

‘Well that’s what I’m doing here, using your Wi-Fi, checking the news. Someone’s hopefully texting me too.’

*Oh, good idea. I won’t find out till I have my lunch later, if they’ve announced anything.

‘I don’t think we’ll know anything till later. I’m just getting ready.’

*Oh, OK, I don’t suppose you could keep me posted if you hear anything? I’ll keep you supplied with latte!

‘No worries.’

*Oh, that’d be great. Thanks.

Smiling, she walked back behind the counter.

A quick check of the various websites showed no news, a limited amount of old speculation. I went round them all again, then logged onto the supporters’ forum.

I’d never paid much attention to the fan site; other players sometimes talked about the opinions flying about on it, how did they know this, how they’d got that completely wrong, how dare they say something else. It seemed to me that they were entitled to their opinions, and if it was going to upset you, you were better off not looking. But today I looked.

There was a huge thread about the hearing (Likely Outcome Today), several smaller ones about various aspects (Here We Go Again; League Position; Foreign Player Rules) and one specifically about me (Summers: Should He Stay or Should He Go). Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have looked at any of them, but I was desperate for any type of information.

Afterwards, I wished I hadn’t read them. Most people were convinced that Raiders were in for a heavy punishment, that it was all my fault and that I shouldn’t still be playing rugby, let alone for Raiders. Even though a part of me agreed with them, it wasn’t enjoyable reading. The large percentage of people who were incredibly angry, and their unfavourable comments about me, made me feel even worse than I already did. I tried telling myself it was just people’s opinions, they didn’t know anything, they contradicted themselves and each other, but a lot of it really hit home and made me feel more guilty and nervous about the outcome.

By lunchtime, I had become really bored with reading the same news reports over and over again, but my adrenaline was pumping and my heart rate had increased immensely. I felt a bit spaced out, as if nothing was real. The café had filled up with people, and it was noisy and hot. The girl behind the counter had disappeared, I assumed she had gone on her lunch break.

Then there was a sudden flurry of news activity – no direct announcement, but the headlines and stories all changed to say it was imminent. My stress levels went into overdrive. When I got a text I thought my heart would stop.

Nico: =Bad news. 10 pts lost. Call you later 😦

Fuck. Ten points. That took us down from fifth to eighth, and well out of range of top four. It even took us close to the clubs battling relegation. Fuck. Fuck.

The other media sites I had tagged all started pinging notifications, confirming what Nico had texted, and announcing a fifty thousand pound fine. I struggled to take in how big the punishment was.

That was it, I saw no way now of keeping my job at Raiders. It was over.

I put my hands over my face and breathed deeply, trying to take it in. I felt sick, faint, unreal. I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looked up. The girl from the counter.

*Any news?

I couldn’t say it. My face must have told her.

*Oh no! What is it?

‘I’ve got to go.’

As she started to speak, I suddenly couldn’t breathe, needed to get out. I jumped to my feet, pushed past the girl and stumbled out onto the street. People surged around me. I felt like everyone was looking at me. I was rooted to the spot.

*Are you OK?

The girl had followed me out.

*You look a bit shocked. Come back in and sit down. I’ll get you some water.

I stumbled away from her, not knowing where I was going, walking, couldn’t face talking, needed to be alone, dreaded being alone. Too much, too big, too overwhelming. My head was full of noise and I zoned out.

I ended up sitting on a bench in a park by the cathedral. No memory of how I got there or how long I’d sat there, staring ahead. It was getting dark. My phone pinged in my pocket. I pulled it out and looked at the screen – I had missed texts, calls and voice-mails Dreading them, I checked them all.

Nico: =Hope you OK. Where are you?

Big: =Bugger. Call me, let’s get trashed.

Surprisingly:

DivDav: =Bad news, bad luck. Hope u ok.

The rest, a mixture of people I didn’t know well or people who had got hold of my number from somewhere, not so sympathetic. A lot of abuse from supporters. Some senior players saying their piece. All completely understandable, all making me completely miserable.

No number:=Watch your back, fucking arse-wipe

There were two voice-mails I had to check.

One from Don:

-Declan, I’m sure you’ve heard the outcome of the hearing. It’s not good. Please can you call me as soon as you get this message.

One from Stuart:

^Hello Declan, just in case you haven’t heard, it’s not good news, the board docked us ten points and a fairly hefty fine. Don wants to talk to you as soon as possible. Please ring him. If you need someone to talk to, give me a bell.

Deep breaths, tried to get my thoughts together so I could ring Don. Dialled the number.

-Don Barker.

‘It’s Declan.’

-Declan, hello. Thanks for ringing back. I assume you have heard the news about the points.

‘Yes.’

Thought about apologising, but it seemed a bit late and a bit irrelevant.

-There’s going to be a press conference tomorrow after the game. I want you to be there. I also want you to come to the ground tomorrow for a media briefing. We need to make sure we finish this off right. OK?

‘OK.’

-Come to the ground at ten. We’ll run through some things with Adrian. Kick off is at three, you’ll need to make yourself scarce somewhere while the build up and match are going on, I want to make sure the media doesn’t get hold of you before the press conference. Don’t talk to anyone who might be a reporter. Bring your Raiders training kit, but don’t wear it to the ground. Got all that?

‘I think so.’

-See you tomorrow.

Sent some texts.

To Nico

Me: =In town. OK. Sorry for everything.

To Big

Me: =Sounds good sometime, could do with a night out. Will call. Thanks. Sorry for everything.

To DivDav

Me: =Thanks mate. Sorry for everything.

Deleted all the other texts and messages. Sat, dejected and alone, head in hands, for a long time. Tomorrow. Don was going to finish things off tomorrow. Phone rang. Looked at the screen, expecting another load of abuse, but it was Rose.

‘Rose?’

:Oh there you are love. Sorry to ring you, I’m not checking up – well, alright, I suppose I am. I’ve just seen the local news. I forgot it was today, you never said. Are you alright?

‘Not really.’

:Where are you? I’ve just been upstairs, but you didn’t answer your door. Are you out?

‘Cathedral Park.’

:What are you doing out there? It’s freezing. Are you with someone?

‘No.’

:Oh love, come home. I’ve got a stew on. Apple pie for afters.

Rose, with her food and her common sense and her love. She was just what I needed. In a kind of trance I started to make my way back, focussing on Rose like some sort of homing device. Waited at the bus stop, got on a bus. My phone rang several times, but I ignored the calls until I recognised Rose’s name on the screen.

:Those reporter buggers are back, love. I sent them packing, but they’re waiting out the front. You need to come in the back.

‘The back?’

:Well, I’ve had a bit of a think, and if you go round by the garages you should be able to get over the wall into my yard. It’s dark, no one will see you.

‘Thanks for the warning.’

The phone rang again almost as soon as Rose had rung off. Nico.

>Hey Declan. How are you? You are still in town?

‘No. Going home.’

>Huh. OK. We worry, Lis and me. How you feel?

‘Bit of a daze. Got to meet Don tomorrow. That’ll be it, over.’

>You sound not so good. Come round, Lis cook something amazing. We talk.

‘Thanks, Nico, but I’m going to Rose’s for tea.’

I suddenly felt humbled by the people who, despite everything I’d done and the consequences, still wanted to help me. Worthless piece of shit.

>Huh. Hey, I think I come to you. I like to see Rose again.

I took a moment to compute this. Nico was a law unto himself, believed that what he wanted was right, and usually got his way. He had been great over the last few weeks, and talking to him about the day’s events would be welcome. I was sure Rose wouldn’t mind an extra person to fuss over, especially if he was a charming Argentinian rugby player. However:

‘She’s just told me there are reporters outside. I’m going to have to climb over her wall at the back. You won’t be able to get past without them recognising you.’

He only paused for a second.

>I get in same as you. Where I go?

I told him where he would need to park and how to find Rose’s wall. Then I rang Rose and told her. As I suspected, she was delighted. She had a soft spot for Nico that had more than a little to do with his charm and Latin good looks, and she twittered her delight when I told her, instantly changing the menu to incorporate fancier ingredients.

‘He’s not coming to judge your cooking.’

:I know. I’m a silly old woman. Just want things to be nice, don’t I. I hope he doesn’t ruin his clothes getting over the wall.

By the time I’d finished the call I had reached my stop. I could see my building from down the street and the small group of people waiting near the door. Felt another surge of gratitude towards Rose for her thoughtfulness as I ducked down the street towards the garages.

Getting over the wall was just too easy, though. Needed attention. She was looking out for me from the kitchen, and opened the door when she saw me. She gave me a huge hug and then held me at arms length to study my face.

:Oh love, you’ve got the world on your shoulders, haven’t you?

I crumpled a bit, a few tears, nodded. Wiped my eyes.

‘I think … that’s it … over. I’ve got to go to the club tomorrow. They’re going to tell me I’m finished.’

:Well, you don’t know that, now do you? Why not just wait and see?

‘I talked to Don. I can’t cost them this much and stay on. I’ve always known that, really. Tried not to think about it …’

Saying it, finally admitting it to myself, felt like pulling my heart out of my chest and throwing it on the floor. I stood and looked at Rose, unable to move or speak, feeling the final drops of hope seep out of me, leaving me completely empty.

:Oh love. I still think until you know for definite, you’ve got a chance. Anyway, kettle’s just boiled, come and sit down. Oh look – here’s your friend.

Nico landed lightly in the yard.

>Easy! Hello Rose, is good to see you again.

He walked into the kitchen and kissed her on the cheek. She didn’t quite know where to put herself, and I saw her blush.

>Declan.

He gave me a quick hug.

>Good to see you also.

He turned to Rose.

>Lis and me, she is my wife, we are very glad you look after him. He think too much, get mad with himself, we worry.

:Oh I know, love. I worry too. He often needs a boot up the backside …

While they carried on discussing me as if I wasn’t there, I made some tea. Concentrated on pouring the water into the mugs, milk into the tea, stirring. Thinking about anything else felt unsafe, very shaky ground. Handed the mugs to Rose and Nico.

:Thanks, love. I could have done that.

Now without a task, I needed to occupy my mind and my hands with something that would stop the shudders I could feel building, and would fill the emptiness inside me. Started clearing the table and putting things in the sink to wash up.

:What are you doing, love?

‘Just need to …’

:Leave it now, I’ll do it after tea.

I ignored her and carried on, filling the bowl, focussing on the bubbles, wiping plates. Rose took the cloth out of my hand. Took my arm. Led me to a chair at the table. Knelt beside me.

:I think you need to sit down and tell us about it. Pretending it’s not happening isn’t going to help. We’re here. Just tell us, love.

I tried. Started saying words, but hadn’t realised how close the misery was. It bubbled up and overtook me. All of it, from way back. Everything I’d lost – Mum and Dad, Jay, Beth and Cal, my friends. And now I was going to lose Raiders, rugby – everything I had left would be gone. Months of this going round my head. I hadn’t realised how much hope I’d allowed myself. Now I’d stripped myself of everything that defined me, everything that had ever mattered to me. I had nothing, was no one.

Covering my head with my arms, I slumped forwards onto the table. Huge sobs broke free. I could hardly breathe, drowning in sorrow and self-loathing. This was just too, too hard. I didn’t know how I was going to go on.

I felt Rose put an arm round me, say something. Couldn’t take in words. Could only keep repeating to myself what I’d done, who I’d hurt, what a worthless piece of shit I was. Over and over, until eventually, after a long time, I had no breath left for any of it or any tears left. Even that felt like a betrayal – I should weep forever for what I’d done.

I stayed face down on the table as, some time later, the shuddering sobs subsided, leaving me scraped raw from the inside. Rose was still talking, nonsense, comforting words. I couldn’t move, completely weighed down. Couldn’t open my eyes, the world was too bright and real.

:Tell me love.

It was an effort to speak, and my throat was sore.

‘Gone.’

:What’s gone?

‘Everything.’

:Oh love, don’t say that. Don’t give up.

‘Nothing left.’

>What you mean? You have Rose and you have me. Best team a man could want. Rose is beauty and I am brain. Ha, and beauty also.

And how long before I piss that away too? I really was not worth the effort.

‘Don’t fucking bother. Not worth it.’

:Declan, love, please don’t say that.

>I tell you before, I decide for myself. I say yes, you are worth it.

‘Please don’t. Just … don’t.’

I had no more left. Just wanted them to leave me alone and stop loving me. It was too much. So much more than I deserved. I’d only take it and fuck up their lives too.

>Declan, you worry me. I never see you like this.

:Come on, love, I know you blame yourself for a lot of things, but it’s never as bad as it seems. Things have been better for you the last couple of weeks, haven’t they?

To Nico:

:He’s been pretty low at times, but we’ve talked it out. He takes too much blame for things, tries to put everything right. Sometimes you just have to accept things have happened and move on.

>I see this with Declan. He let people treat him bad because he think he deserve it. They don’t have this right, but he don’t stand up to it. He deserve better than he thinks.

:No argument from me. I think we need to convince this one.

She gave me a squeeze with the arm that was still round my shoulders.

:Come on love, think of the good things. You’ve got me and Nico here. You’ve built bridges with a lot of your friends.

>You work really hard the last few weeks. You impress Stuey. You are good player. You are strong, in your body and in your head. You are determined – I say a pig head, but I be nice.

:You’ve done so much to put the things right that you did wrong. You paid back all that money, took a lot of abuse, stayed away from people you love when they asked you. You could have made it easier, but you did it the hard way, because you thought it was right.

>I think, my friend, you need to think about what you do next.

There was a silence, as if they were holding their breath, waiting for me to answer. I had nothing.

>Well, you don’t ask, but what you do next is get ready to go to the club tomorrow. You have to finish this, know for once and for ever. You owe to them to be there as they have asked. Do this for them. Don’t think what about me. Do tomorrow for them and then do the next day for us. Rose and me, we will be here. And after. We will be here. Always we will be here for you, Declan.

Some of his words sank in. He was right. I had to do this, I owed it to Raiders to turn up and hear what they wanted to say to me, then face people and say whatever they wanted me to say. The fallout from my shit could wait until afterwards. This dark emptiness would wait another day, then it could have me. I shifted in my seat, propped myself up on my elbows, head in hands.

‘OK.’

Another big squeeze from Rose. A sigh of relief.

:Good lad. One day at a time, you can manage it then. One hour at a time, or one minute if that’s all you can take. Don’t think about the next one until this one’s out the way. Don’t look back or forwards. You can do it, love.

It felt like a very tall order. I thought about the next minute. Managed to lift my head up and look at them. My face was hot and puffy, my eyes swollen and I expect I was not a pretty sight.

‘I’ll try.’

:You don’t have to do it on your own, love. We’ll help you with anything you need. First thing I think we all need is something to eat.

>Ha! I agree. I smell, is wonderful.

I could sense their relief, but couldn’t feel it in me. Rose had shown me the way to cope with the next minute, hour, day, but I could hardly bring myself to face the next second. I had no appetite, and played listlessly with the bowl of stew Rose dished up for me.

>Rose, this is good. You cook very good. You should meet Lis, she like you for sure.

:I’d love to meet her. Bring her over sometime.

>I will, we –

Nico’s phone rang.

>Hey baby … no I still with Declan … oh, mierda, is today? I forget, sorry … I don’t know if I should stay here, Declan he has hard time … no, no, oh I see what you say … you are right, OK, I come soon. But I tell them how this is … no, I know, but is very bad. I say, and they know … is my fault then, they don’t blame you … no, baby, I need to do this. I see you soon. Bye baby.

He hung up, looked down at the table, squared his shoulders.

>I really sorry, I forget … we have visitors. Lis needs me home. I feel horrible.

:Don’t worry, love, we’ll be fine. You go on.

>You are certain?

:Yes love.

>Declan I call you tomorrow, OK?

‘OK.’

I managed a tiny smile. It hardly reached my lips, let alone my soul.

16. Everything is broken

In which unexpected contact is made, which makes matters worse.

Cal

I remember when we were still living at Granny’s, Mum and Dad weren’t talking to or about Dec, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be talking to him either, and my birthday was coming up, and I had been starting to worry about how Dec and I were going to be able to do our plan.

Months before, when Dec was still living with us and everything was OK, we had decided that we would go to Dinosaurland, and have a great time with ice cream and all sorts of other exciting treats, on my birthday. It was just going to be me and him, and I had been looking forward to it ever since – seeing the days pass that meant that my birthday was getting closer. But Dec hadn’t told me how it was going to happen now I wasn’t in our house any more, and I didn’t know how to check, and it was my birthday tomorrow, and I wanted to know how I was going to get to Dinosaurland.

Then Mum and Dad went to visit Uncle Matty in the hospital, leaving me with Granny, and when she fell asleep in front of the TV, I had to amuse myself. I decided to draw a picture for Uncle Matty – there were already loads of my pictures all round his bed in the hospital, because all I was allowed to do when I went there was colour quietly, but I felt he needed another velociraptor for his collection – and I took my felt pens and paper to the dining room table. And there it was, Dad’s phone. Just sitting on the table, practically saying ‘Use me’.

I forgot all about the picture, and picked up the phone. Dad would let me play games on it, and I knew his code even though he thought I didn’t, but I’d never made a call on it before. I quickly checked on Granny, who was still asleep, and put in the code to unlock the phone. I remembered it because the numbers spelled a word, which was T-W-A-T, and I remembered the word because it sounded funny when I heard Dad telling Mum. Once I had opened the phone, I looked at all the pictures, to see if I could tell which one to press to call Dec. It wasn’t that obvious, but right at the bottom was a green button with a white picture on it, and I spelled the word ‘Phone’ out to myself. This must be it. I pressed the picture.

A list of names filled the screen, and when I touched the list with my finger, it moved down. I couldn’t see Dec’s name, so I moved the list down and down, and eventually I saw it. I could spell Dec’s name, and there it was. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that if I touched the name, it would call Dec’s phone, so I tried it. A picture of Dec flashed up, the one where he was standing next to his car, and I put the phone to my ear, to see if I could hear Dec talking. I could hardly believe I’d done it, but I could hear the ‘brr brr’ of Dec’s phone ringing. Except I knew it wouldn’t be going ‘brr brr’ where Dec was, because when people called Dec, his phone sang a loud big-boy song. But all I could hear was ‘brr brr’, and then I heard someone’s voice.

Dec

‘Jay?’

A short silence. A child’s voice.

Cal

That was Dad’s name, but it didn’t sound like Dec saying it, not quite. I knew what you were supposed to say when you called people, because I listened when Mum and Dad and Granny did it, and Mum let me answer the phone sometimes, if she was there too.

‘Hello?’

‘Cal?’

The voice still didn’t sound right, so I thought I’d better ask.

‘I want to talk to Dec.’

Dec

Head spinning, heart pounding

‘It is me, Cal. Er …’

Knees went, sat down on the floor, back against the wall.

Cal

I wasn’t sure, but decided to believe him.

‘You sound funny.’

‘Do I? Is this better?’

He made a voice that sounded like when he read me stories, and then I knew it was Dec and I was happy.

Dec

Light headed with pleasure at hearing his voice and then his giggle.

\that’s the Gruffalo. I want to talk to Dec.

‘Granted.’

Changed to normal voice.

‘Cal, what’s up? Does your dad know you’re ringing me?’

Cal

He’d gone back to his proper voice, and I recognised it then. I didn’t want to tell a lie about Dad knowing, so I told Dec bits of the truth.

‘Mummy and Daddy are out. Daddy forgot his phone. I know how to use it, he lets me.’

‘Who’s looking after you?’

‘Granny. She’s asleep.’

Dec

A five year old’s scorn for such a lightweight.

‘Cal, I really don’t think you should be ringing me. Your mum and dad wouldn’t like it.’

Cal

Dec sounded like he might be about to tell me off, and say I had to tell Granny or Dad, or do something else that would get me told off by someone else, so I said the thing that was important before I could be stopped.

‘It’s my birthday tomorrow.’

Dec

‘Shit.’

How could I have forgotten?

‘Sorry, Cal. Shouldn’t swear.’

Cal

I knew Dec had just said a bad word, he said it all the time, and Mum always told him off, but then he’d say it again later, as if he hadn’t been told off. I giggled again, because I felt happy talking to Dec, and everything was going to be alright now, and I could remind him about the birthday plan.

‘Daddy says that word and Mummy says ‘James honestly’. You’re taking me to Dinosaurland and then to have a Ice Cream Factory and then buy me a Transformer. Can I have a Optimus Prime?’

Dec

The absolute confidence that promises will be kept. Promises from another lifetime.

‘Yeah, we made some good plans for your birthday, didn’t we.’

Of all the unforgivable things I’d done and said recently, this was, without exception, the one that burned me the deepest. Fuck, fuck, fuck you Declan Summers.

‘Cal, I’m so sorry. I’m not going to be able to do any of that.’

Silence. Then, in a very small voice:

Cal

I couldn’t believe it. We’d planned it, everything, how we were going to go in Dec’s car, and he was going to pick me up from school, and how we were going to see the fossils first, and leave the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex until last – he’d promised me. And now he was being just like a grown up and saying no.

‘Why?’

‘Well for one thing, you live a long way away now –’

Oh, well that was alright then. He was worrying about not being able to pick me up from school in his car – he wouldn’t know where my school was, and maybe we’d have to do different plans for things like that now I was living at Granny’s. I’d thought about it, and knew how to make things work.

‘I know that.’

Dec

The self-assured berating voice of a small child who feels patronised; I could picture him rolling his eyes impatiently.

\daddy can bring me in his car.

He would have a satisfied look on his face – he’d worked it all out. But from the little Nico and Lisa had said, they were a long way away, and there was no chance Jay was going to bring him to see me.

‘Oh Cal, your dad’s not going to bring you all the way down here.’

Cal

‘He will. It’s my birthday treat. I will ask him.’

I was always allowed one special treat on my birthday. Mum and Dad hadn’t asked me yet what I wanted, and I usually said pizza or burger, but this year I was going to ask Dad to take me to our house so Dec and me could go to Dinosaurland.

Dec

This was going to be tough. I didn’t know how much Cal knew, what Jay and Beth would have told him. Didn’t want to lie. Didn’t want him to know the truth. Had to choose. Deep breath.

‘Look, Cal, your mum and dad are very cross with me. They don’t want to see me, and they don’t want you to see me.’

Cal

Although I’d been aware of a bad feeling between Dec and my parents, and Granny talking about ‘that boy’ with a cross face, I didn’t know what Dec had done. He got in trouble with Mum quite a lot, mostly for saying bad words. Maybe that’s what had happened.

‘Why are they cross with you? Did you do a really big swear?’

Dec

He lowered his voice to a whisper.

\i know a bad word that starts with fuh …

I nearly laughed. Beth was always telling me off about my language. If Cal knew a bad word that started with fuh, he had without a doubt learned it from me. I hardly noticed I was doing it half the time. If only all I had done was a really big swear.

‘No, mate. I did worse things.’

Cal

I couldn’t think of what worse things Dec could mean. He had been in trouble with Mum before, about not doing the washing up, and leaving his pants in the bathroom, but neither of these seemed as bad as saying words beginning with ‘fuh’.

I heard Dec take a deep breath before he spoke.

Dec

‘I stole. And I lied.’

And a man died and I betrayed their trust and tossed my life with them down the toilet. And probably a fair bit of theirs too. But I just couldn’t say any of that to him, however true it was. There was more silence on the other end. I could hear him breathing, the distant sounds of a television.

Cal

The words seemed to hit my ears and fall straight into my heart, squeezing it painfully. Stealing and lying were really bad. I couldn’t believe Dec had done either of those things, they were things really bad people did, and I couldn’t understand how Dec could be a really bad person. I could hardly breathe, trying to cling on to the Dec I knew and not let this new Dec, who did really bad things, and made Mum and Dad cross with him, come into my world. Maybe, if it was something he had done just to me, I could say it was OK, and we could forget about it.

‘Did you steal and lie at me?’

I really didn’t want him to have done, and the thought of it made me feel small and hurt.

Dec

Of all the people I would have protected from the fallout of my screw-ups, Cal would have topped the list. I hadn’t even managed that. Fuck it, Declan Summers, you fucking worthless piece of fucking shit. Face up to it.

‘No mate, I didn’t steal from you or lie to you, I would never do that. But I took some money from some good people, and I lied to your mum and dad about it, and about some other things too. It upset them a lot, and they don’t want to be around me any more’

I felt the choke in my throat, tears on my cheeks.

Cal

Dec’s voice got funny again, and I started to feel funny too. It felt like part of my world had fallen away and left a hole, something I could fall through if I wasn’t careful; I didn’t know what I might find on the other side, and it was terrifying.

‘I’m so sorry about your birthday, Cal. I’m sure you’ll have a great day –’

No, no, I just wanted to say it was alright, I didn’t mind about the stealing and the lying, we could still do my birthday things, we’d planned it.

‘But you said you’d take me to Dinosaurland, you said we –’

I heard a noise from the lounge, and then Granny’s voice.

Dec

In the background:

#Calum, who are you talking to?

The line went dead.

Cal

I pressed the off button on the phone and dropped it on the table, so Granny wouldn’t know what I’d been doing. There was too much whirling around in my head – Dec had made Mum and Dad cross, and now they didn’t want him to live with them. Dec had stolen and lied. I wasn’t going to have my Dinosaurland birthday.

I couldn’t say any of it to Granny, and I should have picked up my pens and told her I was making up a story to myself, but I was frozen there, and I just started to cry.

I was still crying when Mum and Dad got home, not long afterwards, but wouldn’t tell Granny why. She had managed to get me onto her knee, and was cuddling me, but I was inconsolable.

So there I was, a sobbing puddle of cry-baby, dreading Mum and Dad getting home, because there would be questions, and Mum wouldn’t give up until she’d made me say what had happened, and then I’d be in trouble, which just made me cry harder.

By now, Granny had seen Dad’s phone on the table, and had asked me about it, but I had refused to answer. Granny had no idea how to work a phone, she still has limited capabilities if I’m honest, so she had no way of knowing how to tell if I had called anyone or just managed to access something scary on YouTube, so she just held me while I cried.

Eventually the door opened and Mum and Dad walked in, Mum rushing straight over to me and sitting next to Granny on the sofa. I wouldn’t tell Mum anything either, but Granny told her.

‘Jameson left his phone behind.’

‘What? But why is he so – oh. Cal, what have you done with Daddy’s phone?’

Mum is usually pretty quick off the mark, but at this stage, she was thinking I’d broken it or something. Dire consequences were always threatened if I ever used Dad’s phone without asking, in case anything happened to it. Dad headed off to the dining room, and came back with the phone in his hand, looking puzzled.

‘It’s fine.’

He knelt down in front of me and held the phone out towards me, which made me cry harder.

‘Hey, Cal, mate, what’s all this about? Did you play with my phone while we were out?’

Through my snivels I managed a nod. Maybe if they thought I was crying about that, I would get away with it.

‘Oh Cal, sweetheart, that’s nothing to get so upset about. You know Daddy doesn’t mind you playing his games, we just like you to ask first … what?’

Mum looked up at Granny, and I risked a peek to see what was going on. Granny was shaking her head.

‘I don’t think it was a game, dear. I heard Calum talking to someone.’

Mum gave me a hard look.

‘Cal? Were you talking to someone on the phone?’

I looked back, unable to nod or say anything. If I told her who I’d been talking to, I’d have to tell her what he told me, and it was just too big and bad for me to say. Dad was pressing buttons on the phone. He turned the screen to face Mum, and there was Dec’s name and a little picture of him standing next to his car.

‘Last number dialled.’

‘Oh no. Cal, did you call Dec?’

I managed the slightest nod.

What?

Dad’s yell made me jump, and I stiffened, looking up at him with wide eyes.

‘You phoned Dec?’

Dad spat his name out, as if it was a nasty taste. And he was still yelling. Dad never yelled, except when he was watching sport and his team scored. Or nearly scored. Or should have scored but didn’t. But now he was yelling at me.

‘How many times, Cal? How many times have I told you not to touch my phone?’

I cringed into Mum, trembling with guilt and shame, and paralysed with fear. I was starting to realise I had done something really bad. Maybe if Dec had done lying and stealing, Dad thought I had too. Maybe he was cross enough that he thought I was like Dec too.

‘Don’t you EVER touch my phone again. I don’t want you talking to him. I don’t want you to even say his name.’

‘James, that’s ENOUGH. You’re terrifying him.’

Mum pulled me really close and put both her arms round me, making ‘shh’ noises at me and kissing my head.

‘He’s got to learn, Beth.’

‘What, that his Daddy’s a big scary man? Look what you’ve done to him.’

Dad didn’t say anything, and I daren’t look at him, but I felt him plonk onto the sofa beside me and Mum. Mum carried on shushing me, and stroking my hair, and then she talked to me.

‘What did Dec say? What did he say that made you cry, sweetheart? Oh come here.’

She pulled me onto her lap and held her arms tightly round me, murmuring into my ear.

‘It’s alright, Cal, you’re not in trouble, just tell us.’

Mum stroked my hair and kissed my cheeks, and whispered ‘shh’ over and over, rocking me against her. I started to calm down, and my tears dried up, turning to occasional snivels.

Dec

I sat, head bowed, breathing hard, shuddering, trying not to sob, feeling sick and cold. I sat up and banged the back of my head hard against the wall. The pain felt like some kind of retribution, so I did it again. Screamed out my disgust with myself in a howl which tore at my throat.

Sat in the dark, hating myself. Realised I was going to have to let them know he’d called me, whether or not they wanted to hear from me. Texted them both, but Jay would be likely to delete any messages from me without reading them.

Me: =Cal rang me. Thought you should know. Dec.

Cal

Then Mum and Dad’s phones both pinged at once. Dad looked at his and gave a snort, showing the screen to Mum. I glanced at it, and saw Dec’s name. Mum pulled her phone out of her bag, looked at it and nodded at Dad.

‘He didn’t have to do that.’

‘What? It’s the bloody least he could do. What the fuck did he say?’

‘James, honestly.’

‘Sorry, Beth, but he’s obviously said something to upset Cal. What did he say, mate?’

I stared up at my dad, who was looking really angry, and the thought of having done something that made him so cross he stopped speaking to me as well, that he might even make me leave the house, made me cry again.

‘James, calm down, you’re not helping. Daddy’s not cross with you, sweetheart. Can you remember what Dec said?’

I shook my head, taking this as a get out. It didn’t calm me down at all, though, and all the other things were still swirling round, not least of which was that it was my birthday tomorrow, and I’d thought I was going to Dinosaurland with Dec, but it looked like I wasn’t now, and maybe I was going to be in trouble instead, and I’d made Dad cross, which was what Dec had done, and they didn’t want to speak with him or live with him.

Mum just held me tighter as my sobs ramped up again. Dad stood up and started pacing around, while Granny went into the kitchen to make some tea. Granny was always making tea. Dad sat down next to me, where Granny had been sitting, running his hands through his hair like he always did when he didn’t know what else to do.

‘I’m going to call him, find out what the … what on earth is going on. You don’t think he told him what he … that little shit.’

‘I’ll do it, James. You won’t be able to keep your temper.’

‘No, I bloody won’t. Whatever he said, it’s done this to my son, and he needs to know he can’t just go round blurting out whatever he likes, to whoever he likes, without thinking about the fucking consequences.’

‘James, honestly, just watch your language. I agree, but we’re not going to find out anything if you go in all guns blazing, you’ll just shout at him.’

Dad was quiet for a bit, then he gave in.

‘Oh alright. You ring him, then.’

‘In a bit. I think Cal needs a good cuddle, maybe some rice pudding and a story, before getting his PJs on. Maybe if Mummy and Daddy are really good, and behave ourselves, Cal might tell us what happened without us needing to ask Dec. Oh sweetheart …’

This last had started me off again, and Mum was occupied with calming me down, and with preventing Dad from phoning Dec, for a while.

Eventually, I stopped the theatrics, realising that nothing bad was going to happen immediately, but not wanting to risk Mum and Dad being cross with me in any way. I did everything they told me, even went to bed the minute they told me, without trying to drag it out like I usually did. I never wanted to make Dad cross with me like that again, and that meant being good, as good as I could, and doing as I was told, all the time.

Mum came upstairs with me, to the room that used to be Uncle Matty’s and still had all his chess trophies and computer books on the shelves, and smelt a bit dusty. The best thing about Uncle Matty’s room was the giant model of a space rocket that Uncle Matty made when he was a boy.

But that night I wasn’t interested in rockets, I just got into bed and pulled the duvet up to my chin. Mum sat on the edge of the bed, stroking my hair away from my forehead and smiling at me. She snuggled up and got my book out, and read a bit of it to me. I started to feel sleepy, and Mum stopped reading.

‘You know you can tell me anything, Cal. I won’t be cross. You’ll be doing a good thing.’

I didn’t answer her, just closed my eyes as if I had gone to sleep. I heard her sigh, then felt the mattress bounce as she stood up, and heard the door squeak open and shut as she left. I lay in the dark for a long time, thinking about Dec stealing things and lying to Mum and Dad.

Dec

Continued sitting and hating. Some time later, my phone rang. Beth. Clicked ‘answer’.

‘Hey.’

_What did you say to Cal?

‘He wanted me to take him to Dinosaurland for his birthday.’

_He’s very upset. I can’t get anything out of him. What did you tell him?

‘I’m sorry, Beth, I tried to fob him off, but I had to tell him what I did.’

_You what?

‘Not everything, no details. I can’t lie any more’

_Pity you didn’t think of that before. Don’t talk to him again.

‘But –’

She’d hung up. Sat and hated myself some more. I’d rarely been on the wrong side of an angry Beth. It was horrible, and worse that it was completely justified. All the wounds that had begun to scab over broke open, and I detested myself.

Cal

Somewhere in the darkness my thoughts turned into dreams, and I can still remember the terrifying image of Dec as a grotesque pantomime villain, cackling evilly and stealing all my toys, putting them in a sack and running away with them.

I woke up with Mum’s cool hand on my forehead and her soothing voice trying to wipe it all away, but I was freaked out, and I clung to her for a long time as I tried to forget the horrible dream.

‘What were you dreaming, sweetheart?’

‘There was … it was … Dec was … my cars … and then …’

It was no good, I couldn’t even make words, and trying to describe it was like trying to draw the wind. Mum just held me close and rocked me, until I quietened down and my eyes started to droop, then she lay me back against the pillow, kissed my forehead and said goodnight.

Dec

There was a tap at the door. Through the letterbox:

:Declan, love? I thought I heard something earlier. Been trying to decide whether to come up. Everything alright?

‘No.’

:What’s up? Do you want to let me in?

I slowly got to my feet, opened the door for her, let her in.

:You’re all in the dark. Shall I put the light on?

‘No.’

I sat against the wall again. Rose eased herself down beside me. Took my hand.

:What is it love?

It all felt so freshly broken, like that first day when Jay said we’re done. As I started to speak, the words came out in shudders.

‘Cal … rang me. It’s … his birthday … tomorrow. We’d … made plans. I’d forgotten.’

:Oh love, that’s a tough one. What did you tell him?

‘The truth, that I’m a … lying … thieving … scumbag and his parents don’t want … him anywhere … near me, so his … birthday’s fucked.’

:I hope you were a bit gentler than that!’

‘A bit. I didn’t want … to lie to him. Beth rang … and asked what I said, she said Cal was … upset, she was … so angry …’

:That must have been hard.

‘It just feels like … I’ve done it all over again. I miss … them so much. I can’t … bear that I’ve done this … to them, that I keep … doing this to them. I fucking hate myself.’

:Don’t ever say that.

‘It’s true. They’re all … better off without me. I’m a worthless … piece of shit.’

:You’re not. You’re kind and caring and you love your family. It’s hard when it goes wrong. But don’t ever say you’re worthless.

Rose sat with me the whole night, holding my hand and holding my soul. I cried quite a bit. I beat myself up a lot. She stayed through it all.

Cal

The next morning, it was my birthday, but everything still felt weird, as if something had turned the world upside down, but no one had noticed yet. Mum and Dad came into my room before it was time to get up, and gave me some presents, but I didn’t feel excited like I should have done. I wanted to be at Dinosaurland with Dec.

Just because it was my birthday didn’t mean I could miss school, though. I went through the motions of breakfast, getting washed, getting dressed; being really careful not to do anything to annoy Mum or Dad, just in case. Then I did it, I dropped my sandwich box as I was putting it in my school bag, and the lid came off, scattering bread and cheese across the hall carpet, and bursting the yogurt pot in a spray of strawberry across the floor and up the wall.

I looked at it, horrified. I’d been so careful, and now I’d done it. Mum was going to shout, and Dad would hear, and they’d both be cross, and then I’d have to go and live somewhere else. I was frozen to the spot, a huge scream welling up in me.

‘Oh Cal, honestly.’

Mum knelt down beside me and started to pick up bits of my lunch, shaking strawberry yogurt off the bag of crisps and putting the juice carton to one side.

‘James, can you get a cloth? Put this in the bin, sweetheart.’

She held out the sandwiches and the yogurt pot, then looked at me as I didn’t move.

‘Cal? What’s the matter?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘I know that, sweetheart. We’ll soon have it cleared up, come on, take these to the bin.’

I continued to look at her, and she tutted and frowned.

‘Cal, come on, we’re going to be late. James can you bring me a cloth?’

There it was, that cross tone to her voice. Now I was in trouble.

Dad wandered in to the hall, still in his dressing gown, and looked at the mess.

‘Jesus, what’s happened here?’

‘Cal’s dropped his lunch box. Didn’t you hear me ask you to get a cloth?’

‘Oops, butterfingers, mate. Granny’s going to love you, getting yogurt all over her carpet.’

‘James, the cloth.’

‘Alright Beth. Jesus.’

Dad stomped off to the kitchen while I continued to stand where I was. I heard myself whimper. Mum looked at me.

‘Cal?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘No, I know, sweetheart.’

She had a closer look at me, dropped the sandwich and yogurt pot she was still holding out to me, and held both my hands in hers. They were sticky from the yogurt, and I wanted to pull my fingers away, but I didn’t want to make things worse.

‘Cal, it’s only your lunch. I can make you another box up.’

‘Don’t be cross, Mummy’

‘I’m not cross, it was an accident.’

‘You said we’ll be late.’

‘Well, perhaps we will, but that doesn’t really matter, sweetheart.’

‘Is Daddy cross?’

‘I don’t expect he’s enjoying having to find a cloth, but no, he won’t be cross. What’s all this about?’

I didn’t have an answer; if I told her what I was worried about, it might annoy her – talking about Dec always seemed to make Mum or Dad annoyed these days – and I didn’t know what might happen then. Maybe they’d think I was on his side, and not want to speak to me either. The thought of it brought tears to my eyes and then they ran down my cheeks.

‘Oh Cal. Come here, sweetheart.’

Mum pulled me towards her and cuddled me.

‘Is this about last night? Your phone call?’

I was silent.

‘I talked to Dec and he told me what he said.’

What? She’d talked to Dec? But they weren’t speaking to him. Dad had called him a bad word.

‘He shouldn’t have said that to you, it wasn’t fair. You shouldn’t worry about it, it’s grown up stuff.’

It was there again, the crossness in her voice. It made me tremble. Mum felt it and stroked my hair. Dad came back with a cloth in his hand.

‘Here.’

Mum looked up at Dad, who was holding the cloth out to her.

‘Well you can see where the mess is.’

‘What, you want me to clear it up?’

‘I’ve got my hands a bit full at the moment.’

Now they were being cross with each other, and it was all my fault. Everything was going wrong, and it was all because of me.

‘What’s the matter with Cal?’

‘He’s just upset.’

‘Jesus, it’s only yogurt. Come on Cal, get over it, mate. You need to get to school.’

‘James, just … don’t push it.’

‘What?’

‘Please will you clean the yogurt up? Cal and I need to make another lunch box. Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum put me on my feet, stood up, took my hand and walked me into the kitchen, leaving Dad to wipe up the spill. She started making another cheese sandwich, and got a juice and a yogurt out of the fridge.

‘Can you find me another lunch box, sweetheart?’

After a while, when I hadn’t moved, she stopped what she was doing and turned round.

‘Cal, we need a lunch box … oh, sweetheart, please will you tell me what’s wrong?’

‘Are you cross with me?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Are you cross with Daddy?’

‘No, Cal.’

‘Are you cross with Dec?’

‘Well … yes, Daddy and I are both cross with Dec, but it’s not because of anything you’ve done.’

‘I phoned him.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, and maybe you shouldn’t have without asking, but we’re not cross about it, not with you.’

It was as good a reassurance as I was going to get, and I fetched the lunch box as I’d been asked to. Mum seemed to relax as I started to move and do as I was told again. Dad came in with the yogurty cloth and pretended to wipe my nose with it, and it seemed like it was all OK.

I went to school, being as good as I knew how, and it was just as well I was far away from Jake Bagwell, because he’d have got me into trouble in the first five minutes, and that would have been a disaster.

Back at home, I carried on trying really hard to be good, until Mum noticed, when I said no to a chocolate biscuit. Chocolate was bad for you, and biscuits made you drop crumbs, and I was being good.

‘Are you feeling alright, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Chocolate biscuits are your favourite, I got them just for you, a birthday treat while we wait for Daddy to get back.’

When Dad got back we were going to go to Pizza Place. They hadn’t asked me what I wanted for my birthday treat, so I hadn’t been able to ask them to take me to Dinosaurland.

‘But they’re bad for me.’

‘Since when did that bother you, Cal?’

‘I’m being good.’

‘Well, that’s lovely, sweetheart, but why?’

‘I don’t want you to be cross.’

‘I’m not cross. Have you done something you think will make me cross?’

I shook my head.

‘Well then, what I think is, I’d rather you were just you, than trying so hard to be good that you don’t even eat chocolate biscuits on your birthday. Everyone should have chocolate biscuits on their birthday.’

She held the plate out to me and I took one. I didn’t need much persuading when it came to chocolate biscuits.

We waited and waited for Dad, who had been visiting Uncle Matty, and Mum kept looking at the clock and sighing, and Granny kept saying,

‘Has he not texted, dear?’

Even though we would have all heard Mum’s phone.

Finally, Dad came home. Mum stood up as soon as he opened the door, and picked up her bag.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Sorry, the traffic was a bloody nightmare. Some accident blocking the bypass, diversions everywhere.’

‘Did you remember we’re going out?’

‘Oh shit, I forgot. I would have texted.’

‘Honestly James, please mind your language. Come on, we’re all starving.’

This wasn’t quite true, as we’d all had one or two more chocolate biscuits.

‘What right now? Can’t I even change first?’

‘It will be past Cal’s bed time if we leave it any longer.’

There it was again, the crossness in their voices. What would happen if Mum and Dad got cross with each other? Would they have to live in different houses, like Jake’s mum and dad? The thought crossed my mind like an electric shock. I was desperate for them to not be angry with each other.

‘I don’t mind.’

They both looked at me.

‘What’s that, sweetheart?’

‘I don’t mind to not go to Pizza Place.’

‘Don’t be daft, Cal, it’s your birthday. Daddy just wants to get changed, he’ll be super quick and then we’ll go.’

‘Yeah, mate, I’m just going now. Quick change of clothes, cup of tea, read of the paper, check my emails, and we’re off.’

‘James, you don’t have time …’

Kidding, Beth. Jesus.’

‘Well if you just got on with it, rather than messing about, we could leave sooner.’

‘If you let me go, rather than chuntering on about it, we’d already be there.’

‘NO!’

I yelled as loudly as I could, and they all looked at me. I wasn’t going to let this happen. They couldn’t be cross with each other and stop speaking and go and live in different houses. And then I thought I might get in trouble for yelling at them, and I started crying. Mum and Dad were both staring at me; Dad knelt in front of me and put his hands on my cheeks.

‘Hey, mate, what’s this all about?’

‘Don’t … be … cross … with Mummy.’

‘I’m not, mate. Beth?’

‘Cal, we’re not cross with each other, not really, come on, sweetheart, you’ve been worried about us being cross ever since last night. What’s it all about?’

‘I … want … I don’t … want … you … I’m … good … I want … you … to speak … to me … don’t … make … me … live … somewhere … else … I’m good …’

It all came out in a jumble of tears and sobs, but somehow Granny got the gist.

‘Beth, dear, I think Calum is worried that if he makes you angry, you’ll stop speaking to him, and maybe send him away, like he may think has happened in another situation.’

‘But we didn’t – Cal, is Granny right?’

I nodded against her chest. Mum pulled me tightly to her.

‘Oh Cal. That will never happen. Listen to me. We love you, me and Daddy, and nothing you can do will make us send you away, ever. Oh my poor baby, it’s your birthday, and you’ve been worrying about this all this time.’

Dad was silent, and I risked a look up at him. He looked furious, and was clenching his fists by his side, but when he saw me looking at him, his face softened and he smiled at me.

‘Yeah, mate, Jesus, it’s not you we’re mad at. Maybe we’ve been a bit generally mad about stuff, but it’s not you. Hey –’

He sat next to Mum and ruffled my hair.

‘– you know, we wouldn’t send you away, or stop speaking to you, even if you said I had a big ugly nose, or that Mummy’s bottom looks enormous in her favourite trousers.’

I giggled at Dad’s jokes, and it made it feel better, like maybe they couldn’t get cross enough with me for it to destroy my world if they could joke about it. I still wanted to know about Dec, but I was so relieved that it looked like I still had a home, that I decided not to upset things again so soon by asking. I might try not to say anything about Dec for a long time.

My tears had stopped, and I clung on to Mum, while Dad looked at me with a mixture of worry and smiles. Granny had found a tissue and handed it to Mum, who wiped my face free of tears and snot.

‘Do you still want to go to Pizza Place, sweetheart? It’s still your birthday.’

I nodded.

‘Right then. James, are you going to get changed?’

‘No, I can go like this. It’s not like the Place has a dress code.’

‘OK. Are you ready, Carol?’

‘Oh, no, I won’t come, dear. I’ve got some of that leftover pasta bake. You three go and have a lovely time.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mum, we’re all going.’

Dad looked at me as he talked to Granny.

‘Er, that is, it’s your choice, of course, but we’d like you to join us.’

Mum laughed. ‘Oh James, we can’t go round walking on eggshells in case Cal thinks we’re upset with each other. Cal, you know that sometimes people just get a bit upset about things, but it doesn’t last, like when Jake broke your Action Man, and you were annoyed with him, but the next day you were playing with him like nothing had happened.’

I thought about it. It didn’t seem quite the same, but it would do for now. And I was going to get pizza and ice cream, which cheered me up quite a bit.

And so after my day or so of weirdness, things were better. But there was still this underlying wobbly feeling, like there was something underneath that wasn’t right. It was to do with Dec, and with not doing our plan, and with him seeming different now I knew he’d lied and stolen, and with him not living with us any more. I wanted things to be back to normal, but until Dec was here, they wouldn’t be. I didn’t know what to do about it, and I didn’t really think about it, it was just something that I felt.

When I thought enough time had gone by, I tried to ask about Dec, to find out what exactly he’d done, what he’d stolen, what he’d lied about, but neither Mum nor Dad would talk about it, and Granny said she didn’t know.

And then I got my chance.

15. More than one way home

In which Dec swallows a bit of pride and takes some advice, Matty goes home and Cal carries on with the intros.

Dec

Waking up from that dream of togetherness was hard. A fog of sadness settled over me as I got ready to go to training. Knowing you’ve stuffed up your friendships fairly irretrievably is one thing. Facing up to it and carrying on, seeing the same people every day who used to be your mates, is another. I wasn’t sure how I was going to carry on without them all. I guess it was part of my ‘best shot’ to give it a try. Took some deep breaths, left the flat.

The morning was a continuation of the day before. I hadn’t really expected anything else. Stuart’s words seemed to have made little difference. The only real change was we were practising plays, kicks and set pieces rather than rucks and mauls. The tackles came in as hard, there were as many digs and gouges, although they were more careful not to make them obvious to the coaches. At the end of it all I was exhausted, both from the strength of the punishment I had been receiving and from the effort of keeping a lid on my temper. As we walked off the field, Big walked beside me and briefly put his arm round my shoulder.

°Chin up.

He walked off ahead. I felt another hand on my shoulder. Looked behind me. Nico.

>OK?

I nodded. He looked at me, shook his head and trotted in front. I dragged my aching body into the changing room, the last to return. Arriving at my peg, I discovered my towel, clothes and trainers were wet. It wasn’t water. There seemed little point in showering.

I wasn’t officially supposed to wear my Raiders training kit outside of the training ground, so I turned my sweaty shirt and shorts inside out to hide the logo, and stuffed the rest in my bag, not oblivious to sniggers from various parts of the room, and resigned myself to a smelly journey home.

When I arrived in the lobby, I could hear sounds coming from Rose’s flat, but I couldn’t stop until I’d sorted out my clothes and myself. I dumped the lot in the bath and showered, hoping the water would get rid of the worst of it before I put it in the machine. New bruises and scrapes had appeared on top of yesterday’s; I also had a black eye and one of my fingers was swelling from being bent backwards. Much as I was determined to ride it out, I wasn’t sure how long my body would last.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage at the gym on my non-training days. I would have to rely on Becky to help me through it. I slumped against the wall and turned the spray on me. When the water ran cold, I climbed over the side of the bath, squeezed out my clothes and towel and bundled them into the washing machine. I was so tired, my body ached so much, I lay face down on the bed and slept.

When I woke up, it was starting to get dark. The wintry kind of ‘hasn’t really been light all day and now it’s getting gloomy’ twilight. I didn’t seem to have changed position all afternoon – checking my phone I saw I had been asleep for nearly two hours. I had a huge crick in my neck. My back, legs and arms protested every movement. I ignored my body, got off the bed and ran a bath. Sitting in the warm water soothed the aches a little.

I was aware of the daily likelihood of time passing, me doing nothing but training and recovering. This was my foreseeable future. More than a little daunting. No complaints, really.

Feeling somewhat more mobile, I went downstairs and tried Rose again. I could hear her TV through the door, but she didn’t answer my knock. I called through the letterbox.

‘Rose, it’s Declan. Are you in? Put the kettle on.’

The TV went off. There was silence for what felt like a long time. At last, I heard the chain slip back, and the door opened.

:Hello, love. Alright?

‘Not so bad. Few aches and bumps, from training. Could do with a cup of tea and a chat if there’s any going.’

Rose hesitated, seeming reluctant to let me past the front door.

:I don’t know if that’s a good idea, really.

I was taken aback. Belatedly, I wondered if she had company – just because I was a Billy-no-mates didn’t mean Rose never spoke to anyone else. Or maybe she wasn’t feeling well?

‘Oh. Are you OK?’

:I’m fine, love. It’s just, after what you said the other day, I think I should keep out of your business and let you get on with things like you asked.

Oh, no no no, she’d misunderstood something I’d said and thought I didn’t want to talk to her. I frantically searched my memory for exactly what I had said when I last spoke to Rose. I thought it had gone so well, I’d even congratulated myself on being diplomatic and calm and saying what I thought without upsetting her. How had I managed to fuck this up too? I was horrified.

‘Rose, no, fuck, no, whatever you thought I was saying, I wasn’t saying that. I was pissed off with you for talking to Nico, because I felt, feel, ashamed of the mess I’ve got myself into. Nico has been so good to me, I was embarrassed. Maybe it came out the wrong way. No way did I want to upset you or want you to stay away. I thought you were OK with it. I’m so sorry. Shit, I’m such a fucking dick.’

Rose looked at me for a few seconds.

:Well maybe I’m just a silly old woman too sensitive for my own good. Perhaps we do need a cuppa, sort it all out?

‘That would be great. I’m so sorry …’

She stood aside to let me in, and I apologised all the way down the hallway. Rose had been one of the few bright spots in the past couple of weeks; I couldn’t bear the thought of adding her to the list of people who didn’t want anything to do with me.

:Right then, let’s get the kettle on. First off, love, stop saying sorry, it’s getting a bit annoying. Shall we agree we’re both sorry and leave it at that?

‘Agreed.’

I smiled with relief and sat down at the table.

:Second off, well, I’m not very good at criticism, I suppose. I can dish it out, but it’s hard to hear. Took it a bit personal, what you said. You were right, I can be interfering, and I don’t always know when to stop yapping. I’ll remember in future. Don’t want to feel like I have for the last few days, like I’d messed it all up for you.

‘Rose, you haven’t messed anything up for me. OK, then, my turn, third off, I’m a stubborn bastard and I’m not very good at accepting help. I’ll remember that people like helping and maybe swallow my pride a bit, yeah? And, obviously, I’ll remember not to criticise you at all, ever again, about anything.’

:Sarky so and so. You, stubborn? Never. Here’s your tea.

‘Hm. Could do with more milk, and maybe leave the teabag in longer next time.’

Rose cuffed me lightly on the back of the head.

:Get away with you. I think, as a fourth off, I’m going to ask you to tell me if I cross the line again. I might not like it, but it won’t hurt me to hear it, and I’ll try not to let it upset me.

‘Alright then. And fifthly and lastly because I’ll lose count, give me a slap immediately, if I upset you at all. I’d rather that and know what I’ve done, than find out like this.’

:Done. Oh love, I’m glad we’ve sorted that out. I’ve been miserable, wondering what you’ve been up to. How’s it all been going? Have you been back to your club? What’s happened to your face?

I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

‘Fuck, Rose, I thought I’d cocked it all up with you too.’

I told Rose the story of the last couple of days, the pain and humiliation of training, the glimmers of light with Big and Amy, the meal with Nico, and his offer. Rose’s face lit up when I mentioned that, but she managed to rearrange the smug look into a neutral smile.

‘I haven’t decided about it yet. It’s a shitload of money to lend someone you don’t know very well. I don’t think I can accept it. I shouldn’t have people making it easy for me, I should be doing it the hard way.’

:Oh love, that’s just nonsense. Why don’t you think you deserve help? You’ve got yourself in a right state by not asking for help, it’s about time some things went right for you, isn’t it?

‘Lisa said something similar last night. But Rose, I’ve ruined so many things, so many friendships. It’s like I shouldn’t be allowed to start again with new people, when I haven’t mended things with everyone else yet.’

:Don’t be so hard on yourself, love. Friendships don’t often break, just get bent out of shape a bit. Ones that don’t last probably wouldn’t have anyway.

I thought about Jay and Beth and seriously doubted her.

:Can I give you some advice? Just this once, then never again. Well, alright, until something else occurs to me that I can’t help saying.

I nodded.

:Take this money from your friend. For two reasons: people like to help. Turning him down will make him feel bad. Plus, being able to pay all your friends the money you’ve borrowed will make them think a lot better of you. It’ll make your life a lot easier, you can start thinking about other things, get on with it a bit.

She made total sense but I was struggling with doing anything to make my life easier. Wading through contempt, pain and humiliation seemed a suitable punishment for the mess I’d made of everything. I remembered my deal with Rose, though, and thought about how I might go about swallowing my pride. It wouldn’t be easy.

‘It’s just hard. I’ve done everything on my own since the accident, for months now. Feels like forever. I’m not used to people helping me. Letting people in is difficult. Scary, I guess.’

:I know, love. But letting people in is the only way out sometimes.

Rose could be many things: interfering, talkative, annoying. Today she was wise.

‘But it’s not just that. It feels like I’m giving up on them, like I should stick with everyone and how it is now, because that’s how it is, what I’ve chosen. If I let other people help, start again, I’m leaving them behind – oh I don’t know, I’m not explaining it very well.

:It’s alright, love, I get the drift. I want to make one thing very clear to you. Yes, you have done some things you’re not proud of, and hate yourself for it. But you’re getting punished enough. Look at you, black and blue, miserable, feeling like you’ve lost all your friends, don’t own anything worth spitting on. I don’t really understand why you wouldn’t want to change that for the better, and hearing you say you don’t deserve it breaks my heart, it does. You’re a good lad, you care about people and you try to do the right thing. What you deserve is a reward for that, not this punishment that never seems to end.

It was hard to hear, harder to believe. I was silent.

:Come on, now, love, drink up, I’ll put the kettle on again.

Tea – Rose’s answer to all of life’s awkward silences. I smiled and handed her my mug.

‘Rose, can I tell you everything?’

:What do you mean, love?

‘Well, you know a lot of it, but kind of in bits and pieces. I’ve had a go at you for speaking out of turn, but maybe if I’d told you everything in the right order, without crying or puking or swearing at you or whatever, things might have been different.

Rose tried to hide her eagerness and failed spectacularly.

:If you’d like to, love.

‘OK then.’

While Rose made more tea, I started with my adoption as a baby by Australian parents. I had never known my birth parents, or known anything about them, or wanted to, apart from the facts that they were English, and they hadn’t left me because they’d died. It was enough that they hadn’t wanted me, I didn’t need to know the reasons. The couple who adopted me had always been Mum and Dad to me. We emigrated to England when I was nine, Dad having got a job over here.

As Rose and I drank, I told her about when I was thirteen, and my parents were killed in a car accident. I had no family in this country, and Mum and Dad’s family in Australia were too old or uninterested to look after me. I was put into foster care while they tried to figure out what to do with me. Three years later I was still in care when I was offered the scholarship to Raiders. I had gone pretty wild and learned to fend for myself.

I told Rose how moving in with Jay and Beth had eventually settled me – didn’t go into details, she already knew a lot of that anyway, what they’d meant to me.

Moved on to my more recent history: the accident, inquest, passport, demand for money, stealing the charity money, borrowing from everyone, Jay’s reaction when he found it all out. It was a grim little tale.

Rose listened almost without comment, the occasional:

:Oh, love.

When I had finished she sat back in her chair and looked at me.

:Oh, love, listening to all that just breaks my heart. You’ve had a lot to cope with, and you’re so young. A lot of second chances that haven’t worked out. You’ve lost three families. I can see why you think you have to do everything on your own, feeling out of control is scary, but just remember: there’s no limit to second chances. You don’t have a quota, you just have to take them when you get them.

She looked at me assessingly.

:You know, love, I think we could help each other out. I don’t think I’ve told you this, but I couldn’t have kids. It was one of the reasons I split up with my husband. As well as him being a two-timing bastard, of course. Anyway, one of the ways I deal with not having children of my own is mothering other people. Also known as interfering, or taking care of people if you’re being kind. I’m thinking you need a bit of mothering at the moment, someone to take care of you, look out for you. I like doing it, makes me feel needed. How about it? You come to me when you need a mam, a bit of support, a chat. I’ll cook you soup, kick you up the backside if needed, or make myself scarce, whichever seems best.

I looked over at her. I had only known Rose for a short while, but she had barged her way into my life and found a place in my heart I hadn’t known was there.

‘Do you know what, Rose, you’re fucking amazing.’ I managed eventually.

:It’s a deal, then?

‘Deal.’

I stood up and gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Rose had managed to make me feel better about myself than I had in many weeks. I owed her a lot.

A couple of cups of tea later, I was starting to flag. I was aware of tomorrow’s training session approaching, and needed to get some restorative sleep. I said goodbye to Rose and made my way upstairs.

Nico: =I just find out what they do. I don’t like. I talk to Stuey tomorrow. Tell me you OK.

Me: =I’m OK. Thanks.

Quick meal, showered, collapsed into bed.

Dreaming. I am flying, with Mum. She holds my hand and leads me across the sky, telling me the names of the stars.

Matt

And so, one day, they brought me home. There was a long debate about an ambulance, but they’d bought me a wheelchair, and I’d had a few goes in it, being pushed up and down the corridors like a sodding old man, and I thought I could manage the journey to their house, which was all of ten minutes away, so it was left to Jay and Beth. Mum was thankfully absent, as I think her twittering, on top of Beth’s fussing, would have literally driven me over the edge into true insanity, and I don’t use the word literally lightly. As it was I had to rely on Jay more than I’d thought I would, and by the time we got to the new house, he had to lift me bodily out of the car and into the accursed wheelchair, then again into the brand new state of the art up and down electric bed they’d put in the downstairs room that was to be my home for the foreseeable.

I lay in my new room, exhausted, looking out of the window into the garden. There was a rabbit hutch and a bird feeder, and a big swing, and it seemed I would finally have something to look at again.

Cal

So, just carrying on my intros, but maybe a bit out of sequence: My sister, Iz, came along when I was six, and turned my world upside down. I think I expected her to be an instant playmate, and didn’t realise she was going to need to bulk up a bit before she could stand in goal for my penalty shoot-outs, so after all the build up waiting for her to arrive, she was a bit of a loud, smelly anti-climax. Sorry, Iz, love you heaps, but you didn’t half have stinky shit when you were a baby.

Iz and I have the same hair. It’s yellow and very curly. I mean, blond ringlets, who gives that to a boy? I bloody hate my bloody hair, but on Iz, well, if ever hair was meant to be on a girl, it is this hair. I keep mine so short, you can hardly ever tell it’s curly, and I’ve managed to destroy nearly all of the photos Mum has of me when she cruelly made me grow it, but Iz has cultivated this mane of blonde curliness that has men falling at her feet. Even when she was little, or rather especially when she was little, everyone wanted to touch her hair, and old ladies would give her sweets (it nearly persuaded me to grow mine, but not quite). Iz would always make a bee-line for the men, who couldn’t resist picking her up and cuddling her, giving her all the attention, and she loved it, lapped it up, got away with murder and late bedtimes by looking up from underneath her eyelashes and tossing her curls. If only I could say it made her a spoilt brat, and maybe it did a bit back then, but Iz is the best sister, the kindest woman, the most beautiful person, now. Back then, I gave her a thoroughly deserved hard time, and teased her as much as the League of Older Brothers expects, naturally.

Dec

Day dawned and with it a hefty dose of reality. Still sore from yesterday, and sad from dreaming about Mum, I had to kick-start myself into some semblance of liveliness.

I was very glad it was the last Raiders session of the week. Tomorrow I would be able to relax in the civility of the gym. Today, I remembered to pack spare clothes that I intended to leave in the car park. Tried not to drag my feet from the bus stop to the stadium, but it was hard to hurry towards what was waiting for me.

It was more of the same. Bruises on bruises, bone-crunching tackles, stamps, prods, I sucked it all up. At the end of the session, I lay on the turf, eyes closed, panting, head spinning, unable to move. I felt something wet hit my chest. Looked down, a gobbet of phlegm nestled in the middle of my shirt. Looked up, DivDav jogging away.

>Hey! David Allsop! Come here.

Struggling, I sat up.

‘No, Nico.’

DivDav sauntered back to where Nico stood.

>I see what you do. You don’t do again.

DivDav shrugged.

%Whatever.

>I mean it. You lay off Declan, or it is trouble for you.

DivDav shrugged again and walked away. Nico crouched down to where I sat, panting.

>Declan, this cannot be. You must speak to Stuey, or Don or someone.

‘No.’

He stood up and held out a hand. I took it and pulled myself to my feet, then bent over with my hands on my knees and puked up some bile onto the grass.

>Declan, I really worry.

‘It’ll be OK. It’s not that bad.’

>Huh. I don’t believe you. You can’t take this every day, is too much.

‘I’ll be OK, you go.’

He stood by me for a couple of minutes, then walked off with an exasperated sigh. I stayed bent over for a few more minutes while I got my breath back, then slowly made my way to the changing rooms, where someone with a huge imagination had pissed on my clothes again. I bundled them up and went out into the car park where I had stowed my bag behind a wall.

Checking there was no one around, I quickly slipped my shorts off and trousers on, and put a hoody on over my shirt. Making my way across the car park, I heard my name shouted behind me. Recognising DivDav’s voice, I kept on walking. He didn’t pursue me, but shouted out:

%Fuck off Summers. Don’t go running to your new sugar daddy every time it gets rough. Take it like a man, if you can remember how.

I kept my head down and walked away, hard as it was to do. I longed to confront him, but apart from being in no physical state to do so, I didn’t think the club would look sympathetically on it; it was also probably just what he wanted.

I was waiting at the bus stop, having just missed a bus, when Nico’s red Honda pulled up. He leaned over and opened the passenger door.

>Get in. I take you home.

I was actually relieved. I hadn’t been looking forward to standing at the bus stop in the cold for another twenty minutes, and then the bumpy bus journey back, stiffening up all the way. I got in.

‘Thanks, appreciate it.’

>Ha, I expect you to argue. You must feel very bad.

‘Bad enough, I guess.’

>I talk to Stuey. He will talk to people again. I talk to David also. Tell him what I think. He is coward.

‘Bet that went down well.’

>Declan, he piss on your things.

‘Oh. Mystery pisser solved, then.’

>He think is funny. I tell him grow up.

‘Cheers, Nico, probably just made things a zillion times worse, but thanks for trying.’

>How can it be worse? You are beaten up every day, they ruin your clothes, spit on you … and you take it. You don’t get angry. You don’t fight. You don’t stand up for yourself. You let them. I don’t understand.

‘They deserve to have their say however they want.’

>No. Not like this. Is not right. You need to take my money. You pay people back, this stops.

I was silent for a short while. It really would make things a lot easier, take away some of the worries that kept me awake at night. I fought an internal battle with myself, feeling ashamed that I needed to accept help but relieved that help had been offered. Weeks of punishing training sessions stretched out in front of me, with no let up and everybody hating me. Hating myself instead, I took the easy way.

‘OK.’

A pause. Nico slowed the car and looked over at me.

>You say OK?

‘I said OK.’

>Ha! I think I have to beat you up myself to make you say yes. Good for you, Declan. Is great. This make it better for you.

‘I had a long chat with Rose last night. She gave me some good advice. I would be very grateful to take you up on your offer.’

>Ha, Rose, she is something, huh? I hope you are nice to her.

‘I try my best. But I will pay you back, and I will pay you back quickly.’

Nico dropped me off outside the flats, and I slowly made my way up to mine. I ran a bath, undressed, inspected the damage and eased myself into the hot water. Cuts stung, muscles stiffened, bruises developed, I drifted in an unthinking sea of exhaustion and pain.

I must have fallen asleep, as I woke with a start in cold dirty water, to the sound of the door entry buzzer. Thrashing around, I slipped trying to get out of the bath and banged my elbow on the tap.

‘Shit shit shit.’

I grabbed a towel and headed for the intercom. It buzzed again. I picked up.

>Hey, is Nico.

‘Oh, OK, come on in. It’s up the stairs, number six.’

Pressed the button to open the front door, surprised. Realised I had no clothes on. Quickly dried myself and pulled on some vaguely clean clothes, just as Nico rang my doorbell.

‘Hi, er, come in.’

>I come to find out your bank numbers. You tell me, I do this quick.

He held up his phone.

‘Er, OK, bloody hell, Nico. You didn’t have to come by specially.’

>But now I am here. Lis, she say do it, go, Declan he will pretend to forget. Do it before Declan change his mind. She very bossy.

He looked around, frowning.

>You don’t have much things.

‘Sold most of my stuff.’

>Huh. You sure do. Come, where is your numbers?

I rummaged in the pile of bills and junk mail collecting in a drawer in the kitchen, and found a bank statement. I handed it over to Nico and he called his bank while I looked out of the window as if I wasn’t listening. He transferred a large sum of money into my bank account, as if it was it was every day that he gave thousands of pounds to someone who had recently stolen a similar amount from a charity. It made me feel ashamed, that he could have so much faith in me.

When he was done, and had disconnected from the call, I turned to thank him.

>Now you pay back everyone, is finished. Good, huh?

‘I guess I’ll have to wait a few days while it goes through, but yes, good. Thanks so much. I really don’t know what to say. Say thanks to Lisa.’

>You thank her yourself. She say come to dinner again. Ha, I think she want to watch my try, you are excuse.

‘I want to set up some kind of repayment.’

>Is no hurry.

‘I’ll pay you back every month, is a cheque OK?’

>However you like. Is no problem.

‘For fuck’s sake, Nico, I want to do this properly. I need to pay you back the same way I wanted to pay everyone else back.’

>OK, Declan, I see this bother you. We talk about it tonight.

Cal

Uncle Matty got better enough to come home, but only after more days and days of sitting watching him, though he was a bit more interesting now, because he’d talk, even if he was hard to understand. I knew what he was saying better than anyone else, and I could tell people what he’d said.

So when Uncle Matty was better enough to get out of bed and be pushed in his wheelchair, he came to live with us in our new house. He had his own room downstairs, with his own shower and toilet too, and I was allowed to play in his room, and talk loudly if I wanted to, unless Uncle Matty was having a bad day, which meant when he was feeling too sad to play with me and so no one talked to him, and he just wanted the door shut all the time.

But mostly, I played in his room, and he was either asleep, which was a lot, or he talked to me and asked me about my games, and about Mum and Dad and Granny.

It was weird at first, spending so much time with Uncle Matty, because I’d only really seen him a few times before he came to live with us. He had come to visit us with a lady a couple of times; I remember him giving me some Jurassic Park toys – I think that was the same time I walked in on them early in the morning. Whoops. I said no porn, and I meant it, but whoa, Matty, way to nearly blind a small child.

But anyhow, Uncle Matty living with us meant I got to know him, and as he got better, and he could play with me and go out with me, I got to like him a lot. He never treated me like I was a kid, even though, obviously, I was. If I asked him a question, he’d think about it seriously and then tell me the truth in a way that made me trust him not to hide things from me, but I knew he didn’t always tell Mum and Dad everything I said. I suppose a lot of that was because he hated everyone knowing everything about him. And he knew loads about space and dinosaurs and trains, and when he read me things from my books, he always added things that he knew about, like wondering how big a Tyrannosaurus Rex was if it was stood next to our house, or whether Thomas the Tank Engine would beat the train from Stafford to Stoke, or if the moon would be bright enough to sail a boat by.

Matt

For a while, the transition tired me out so much that I slept far, far more than I woke, but I soon got into a pattern, where Jay would come in first thing in the morning and put me on the toilet. I mean physically put me there. I could no more walk than I could fly, at first, and he had to manhandle me out of bed and into the wheelchair, push me to the small en-suite bathroom and then manhandle me onto the pan. The first couple of days, he carried me from the bed. It was beyond humiliating. And before you ask, no I couldn’t wipe my own arse, not to begin with, so yeah, he had to do that too. But he always tried to take my mind off it by talking about something completely a propos of nothing while he was doing it, and although I expect it was the least favourite time of the day, for either of us, he helped me through it. He always told me to ‘be strong and stay positive’, it was like Jay’s thing to say when he ran out of idle chatter (which happened frequently) and he wanted to appear supportive and inspirational. I tried, but being strong is hard at times when opening your eyes feels like you’ve lifted a tonne, and staying positive presumes at least a measure of being positive already.

I was thin, so thin. I’d always been a skinny runt, but I could feel my ribs, see them when they changed my shirt, and could feel the very sockets of my hip bones. It was hardly surprising Jay had been able to carry me; the few times I looked in the mirror, I saw a skull looking out at me. Cal thought I looked like a ‘skellington’, and also thought this was really cool, but I saw the worry in everyone’s eyes when I didn’t finish my meals, and tried as hard as I could to fatten myself up. It didn’t have a noticeable effect; I’d always been able to eat vast amounts of food and not put weight on, and so now I had no appetite, I obviously wasn’t putting enough fuel into my greedy metabolism, and apart from anything else it meant I was always cold. So I had to drink build-up drinks, which looked foul and tasted worse. But I tried to do it without complaining, because it made them feel better, and took some of the terror away from behind their eyes.

Cal

We moved back to Devon not long after Uncle Matty was really better, but he came with us, and I guess that was the start of this big family thing we’ve got going on. It was more complicated than that, because a lot of it was to do with Dec, but although Matty being ill was terrible, and him nearly dying was more terrible, I think if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be this remarkable group of people who are The Scotts, even though half of us aren’t even called Scott.

I’m realising that telling you about each person at a time is going to get confusing, because I can’t talk about Matty back then without talking about Mum and Dad, or Dec, and I’ll end up repeating myself. So I think that’s how I’m going to do this. I’m going to do a bit of When Cal Was Little with all the main people in my story (except, obviously, the people I didn’t know back then), and then I’m going to bundle it all together and tell it like it was with everyone. Maybe I’ll change my mind half way through, I’m told that’s what I do, so don’t hold me to anything.

I’m going to tell you about Dec next. I was really little when Dec came to live with us, and I don’t remember it. I remember him, because it’s difficult not to remember a lanky, loud-mouthed, rude, sulky big boy, who should have scared me to death, and who should have considered himself far too cool to hang out with a two year old, but didn’t.

I remember Dec reading me bedtime stories, playing football with me, walking me to school, sitting on the edge of my bed when I was poorly, playing with my cars and my models, picking me up and carrying me on his shoulders; all the things you could wish a big brother would do. I also remember him with some very scary friends, who all wore black and had funny coloured hair, and I remember him swearing a lot. Not that it’s hard to remember the swearing, because he still does that, so it’s a constant reminder.

Dec and Matty, they are both responsible for my occasional lapses when it comes to the odd f-word, and I blame them all the time. Much good it does me.

So, Dec was there from the beginning, or that’s how it felt, and we were mates, or brothers, or something, it’s getting complicated again, because it’s not something that has a name. He was only supposed to be with us a short while, Dad says a few weeks, Mum says longer, but Dad never pays attention properly, so I’m more of a mind to believe Mum. But anyway, he lived with us for three years, and I never thought much about it, it was just normal. Of course, there aren’t many families that have random teenagers who appear and stay, without some sort of formalities, but that’s what happened with Dec. I think Mum and Dad thought about, I don’t know, fostering or adopting or something, but in the end time went on, and Dec was eighteen, and it was too late.

And maybe if they had, maybe all the rest wouldn’t have happened, maybe Dec would have felt more secure or something, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. I was only five at the time, so I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, but Dec was just, all of a sudden, different; he stayed in his room and didn’t play with me or read me stories, and then he left. He put all his things in bin bags and took them away, and didn’t say goodbye, so I didn’t know if he was coming back or not, and Mum and Dad wouldn’t answer when I asked where he was, at least not any answer that meant anything, even though I asked a lot, and then we moved up to Stafford, and Dec wasn’t there any more, and it all felt weird.

I think I’m going to tell you more about all that later, so that’s enough of Dec for now.

Granny always seemed to be around in those early days, despite the fact that she lived up there and we lived down here. We never saw much of Matty, even though they both lived in Stafford, but Granny was always visiting. She’d bring chocolate, which so wasn’t the only reason I looked forward to her coming (oh it so was), and she’d talk to me about little boy things like Lego and dinosaurs really seriously, as if she cared about them as much as I did. She gave the best granny cuddles too, and most importantly would sometimes stick up for me against Mum if I wanted to watch cartoons.

Dec

The next couple of weeks saw a big decrease in the amount of damage I was taking in training. I paid back all my friends, their friends and the acquaintances I had borrowed from, and this immediately changed the atmosphere on my part. People talked to me, involved me in their conversations, Big even came out for a drink with me. That was a great night. Nothing crazy, I didn’t even have a beer, but just chatting with a mate about football, films, girls, nothing serious, it was almost therapeutic.

I made an agreement with Nico and Lisa to pay them as much as I could afford every month. It wouldn’t leave me with much, but they didn’t know that, and the quicker I paid it back, the better I would feel. It was going to take me a long time, I’d still be paying them this time next year. I was even more grateful to them, realising this, as it would have taken me an equally long time to pay back everyone I had borrowed from, and they wouldn’t have been so understanding.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. There were still people waiting on the result of the visa and passport episode who were less than charitable towards me. At best they ignored me, at worst they still gave me physical reminders of their annoyance at every opportunity. There was no more pissing on my clothes. DivDav seemed surprised and pleased when I paid him back the money I owed him, and shook my hand.

%No hard feelings, mate.

We hadn’t spoken much since, and I hadn’t hung out with them all, but there was a little progress. Nico and Rose had been right, paying back the money had made a big difference.

Now I wasn’t taking so much physicality, I was feeling the benefit of training. Checking in with Stuart every week, he said he was pleased with my fitness and willingness.

Although Raiders’ legal people had sorted my passport and visa – I now officially had dual nationality, wasn’t going to be deported, and didn’t need a work permit to continue playing – the hearing about it all was coming up. It would all be over one way or the other pretty soon.

I was going to the gym on most of the days when I wasn’t training, and also doing a lot of walking, out in the fresh air, trying to clear my head. Lots of time to think, trying to make sense of how I’d got here, trying to put it all somewhere it didn’t hurt me as much. Still a worthless piece of shit, really.

I was missing playing a lot. I had played regularly for the reserves, and although we never got a huge crowd, being part of that experience was what it was all about for me. Now I wasn’t even allowed to go the stadium to watch games, and felt disconnected from it all.

I missed Jay, Beth and Cal so much, I knew there would always be a huge hole in my life where they had been. Beat myself up about them every single day.

Rose helped, a lot. She chatted when I needed chat, listened when I talked, gave advice whether I wanted it or not, and seemed to know when to leave me alone. Nico continued to look out for me, I went to dinner with him and Lisa a couple of times. I had a lot to be thankful for.

Cal

And Baggo. I’ve already mentioned him, but Baggo was my mate from the instant we met, in the playground, on the first day of school. He knocked me over as he was running away from Maisie Cunningham, who was trying to kiss him, and he gave me a Pokemon card to say sorry, and I gave him a plastic triceratops to say thanks, and there we were, mates, united against unwanted kissing from girls. Which is ironic, as later we were united for the very much wanted kissing from girls. Any girls.

Baggo and me have played together, worked together, prowled together, hurt together, laughed together and cried together, although it’s doubtful that either of us would admit to the crying. He was always the confident, naughty one, and I like to think I was a steadying influence on him, although to be honest if my mum had been anyone other than Beth Scott, things could have turned out very differently. When we suddenly left to go to Stafford, Baggo was the one I missed the most; when we returned, seeing him again was my most anticipated event.

Is that enough scene-setting? There are other people in my story, but they come in later, and I’d like to get on with this, see if I can do it in a way that makes sense.

So, I’ve kind of made a start, I’ve explained a bit about Dec and a bit about Matty, or what I can remember or have been told from when I was young.

The Dec/Matty thing is kind of tied together, because it all happened at the same time, and although I know it was all hugely upsetting for everyone at the time, I think things would have been very different for us all now if it hadn’t happened.

I suppose, in my six-year-old world, I was oblivious to a lot of it, because I think you just accept more when you’re younger, but maybe the major stuff stuck.

Dec

I had just got back from the gym one Sunday night when my mobile buzzed in my pocket. Reached for it, glanced at the name on the screen. A lurch beneath my ribs. Jay Scott.

14. Help me hold on

In which Dec gets an invitation, and we hear more snippets from Matty and Cal.

Dec

It was only just over a week since I was here last, joining in the same banter and conversation as everyone else; it felt like a million years ago. I slipped in through the open door and found a spot in the corner. Nobody seemed to notice, there wasn’t a sudden hush as I walked in. But there wasn’t a chorus of greetings either.

I changed next to Alex Bidworth – Bids – one of the older members of the academy. We nodded at each other but did not exchange any words. One by one we all made our way to the training pitch. I followed Bids. The person behind me, who I didn’t see or turn around to acknowledge, spent the short walk kicking the backs of my heels. Decided that ignorance was, if not bliss, then at least the best policy.

The training session consisted of rucks and mauls, trying different patterns, practising distribution, banging heads and most other parts with each other. A lot. I came in for a lot of punishment. I was kneed in the back, kicked on the elbow, slapped, poked, head-butted, strong-armed, you name it. I took some fairly massive hits, which left me reeling. I took it all without comment. I would have a lot of bruises tomorrow, but if that’s how the players chose to express their feelings with me, I had no right to complain. I was, after all, the worthless piece of shit who would be screwing up their season if Raiders lost out on a top four league position. It hurt, physically and emotionally, but I deserved it.

It was a fairly brutal session. The academy and senior players trained together, and some of the senior forwards packed a meaty punch. It was always punishing, but today I got extras.

Finally, near the end of the morning, I was on the end of a massive no arms tackle from Miles Abrahams, nineteen stone tight-head prop. I literally saw stars. Dropped, felled, to the ground.

The world disintegrated into a confused whirl of darkness, light and noise for a few seconds. I tried to get to my feet, but couldn’t get my limbs to work together. The medics, who always sat on the side-lines for training, were above me administering cold packs and icy water to various areas in an attempt to revive me a bit.

^Okay, let’s stop there for a minute.

Stuart called the players to him. I made an effort to sit up, then get up. I was pushed back down, more cold stuff applied. Fingers waved in front of my eyes. Asked to count. Managed that. Shook my head a few times to try and get rid of the fuzziness. Faces peered in my eyes. Hands helped me to my feet. Stood, swaying. Couldn’t quite remember how to walk. Stuart looked over at the medics and raised his eyebrows in a question. They nodded.

^Declan go and get changed.

‘I’m OK.’

^Just go.

I turned slowly and made my way dazedly towards the changing room. As I left I heard Stuart’s voice:

^Right, I think you’ve all made your point. That’s enough. Someone is going to get seriously hurt. It stops now …

The club doctor followed me, asked me to do a few more concussion tests, let me go.

I stood under the hot shower in the changing room, feeling lucidity and coordination return. Assessed the damage. There weren’t many parts of my body that weren’t reddening in preparation for bruises. I felt as if I had been run over by a fleet of trucks, each one adding it’s own slap to the ear or poke in the ribs. My neck and back were going to be particularly sore in the near future, but I was going to have to get used to it. I stayed in the shower until I heard everyone return, then changed while they showered.

My clothes were still damp from the morning rain; I should try and remember to bring spare clothes tomorrow. When I was going to have to do this all again. The banter and chat from the shower excluded me, and I left quickly, feeling the pain from that as much as the physical punishment.

The bus ride home stiffened me up. By the time I got back to my flat, I could barely walk up the stairs. I ran a bath, climbed laboriously over the side, and sat there for about an hour, topping up the hot water. I was so exhausted and battered I couldn’t think. This was good, even if the pain wasn’t. Floated along on steam and nothingness until I felt I could rouse myself enough to make it back over the side of the bath.

Started to get hungry; nothing like a bit of physical exertion to stimulate the appetite. Phone pinged. Several messages, a couple from people I could face getting messages from.

Nico: =Hope you OK. Tough session.

Big:

(I was a bit apprehensive about this one, I hadn’t been contacted by any of my mates for several days. Checked it anyway. He had a right to a say.)

=Guys out of order today. Stuey bollocking shld sort. Cu 2moro.

I was really, overwhelmingly touched. It felt like a major olive branch. I texted back my thanks.

DivDav: =Same again tomorrow, wanker.

No olive branch there. Fair enough. A voicemail message from Stuart:

^Well done this morning, tough one. I’ve had a word, but don’t expect an easy ride. Same time tomorrow.

The afternoon drifted by in a haze of avoidance. Didn’t want to sit for too long; muscles would stiffen, brain would work overtime. I wandered around the local shops, hood pulled up, avoiding eye contact, looking like a shoplifter. Ambled to the park, sat on a bench watching leaves blowing around. As I was about to get up, my phone rang. Nico.

>Declan, how you do?

‘Hurting.’

>Huh. No surprise. This morning is hard on you. Is serious?

‘I don’t think so.’

>Is good. Listen, my friend, there is something I want to ask you. Can you come to us tonight, we talk, I ask? Lis will cook. She make chicken balti. She cook very good.

Unexpected. Welcome. Undeserved. This attention from Nico was something I would have dreamed about a year ago. Now I felt like I was – what? A sponger? A free-loader? Something like that. Still, an invitation from a hero was what it was, even if accepting it made me a selfish worthless piece of shit.

‘I’d love to.’

>You know our house?

He gave directions. Easy bus ride. Arranged a time. Hung up. Started to walk out of the park. The phone rang again. The screen announced Amy Wright. I was puzzled.

Amy was DivDav’s girlfriend. I knew her pretty well, we’d all hung out together a lot. Dav and I had both fancied Amy, but he had made a determined play for her and got his woman, and I’d backed off. I hadn’t spoken to any of the girls in our group since everything had started to go wrong. Apart from the texts a week or so ago, there had been nothing. This was going to be another of those unpredictable calls. I hesitated, then answered.

‘Amy?’

)Hi Dec. I just wanted to find out how you are. David told me what went on in training this morning. It sounded really mean. Are you OK?

I was surprised and humbled.

‘Yeah, I’m OK thanks. Great to hear from you.’

)Yeah, well, I’ve told David it’s completely not on, and I’m going to tell the others as well. They’ve got to give you a chance. I’m sure there were reasons for everything. They should just talk to you, sort it out, instead of all this macho boy stuff.

Didn’t need this sympathy. Needed to hear the same condemnation I was giving myself.

‘Really, Amy, it’s OK. It wasn’t too bad. Nothing I didn’t have coming. Just a couple of bruises.’

Huge body covering bruises.

‘Thanks so much for ringing, but I’m OK.’

)Oh, well, alright then. Just wanted to make sure. You’ll be alright?

‘I’m fine.’

)OK then. See you around.

Tears sprang to my eyes. It was almost harder to face understanding and sympathy than rage and exclusion. But both were pretty hard.

Wiped my eyes, and continued walking back to the local shops. Picked up some wine to take with me to Nico’s. Still couldn’t quite believe I was going to have dinner with Nico Tiago and his new wife. I put thoughts of what he wanted to ask me to the back of my mind, and concentrated, as I walked home, on what I was going to wear. Not much choice; I had sold all my good stuff, and only really had a couple of t-shirts, hoodies and a pair of jeans left. They could all do with a wash, but they would have to do. Knocked on Rose’s door. Thought I heard the TV through the door, but there was no reply.

Showered, changed and made my way to the bus stop, walking more slowly than usual on account of my aching body. Had to wait in the rain for a bus, and then make my way in more rain for the short walk to Nico’s house. Rang the doorbell. Nico answered, smiling. I handed over the wine and stepped over the threshold, unwilling to go further as I was dripping water onto the carpet.

>You are on time – is good. Oh, but you are very wet.

‘It’s pissing down out there. I came by bus.’

Nico called out behind him as he beckoned me inside.

>Lis, baby, Declan is very wet.

~Well get him a towel or something, and some spare clothes if he needs them.

Lisa came out to meet me. We had met before, she was a good friend of Beth’s, and she had been to the house many times when I was there.

~Hi Dec. Great you could come. Oh, look at you, you’re soaking. Nico will get you some dry stuff and put your things in the dryer, yeah? ‘Scuse me, got to get back to the chicken.

Nico went upstairs, leaving me trickling slowly in the hallway. He reappeared shortly with an armful of items and a big towel. He seemed quite amused.

>Ha! I don’t know if this is OK. You are tall, I am not. You have no choice though. You will scare Lis to sit in your skin. You can change in here.

He showed me into the downstairs loo. I dried off and changed, leaving my socks and trainers next to the radiator. Nico’s clothes were too short, and a bit tight. I had already been feeling a little awkward, and this compounded the feeling. I bundled up my wet things and opened the door. Nico laughed and pointed at my bare ankles.

>Ha! You look like your cat die.

‘What?’

>Your flags are half down – up – what is it?

‘Half mast?’

I had no idea what Nico was talking about, but he seemed pleased with himself.

>Ha, yes! This is English words, yes? Is not a good look for you. I take these to the drier.

He picked up my clothes and disappeared with them into the kitchen. From beyond the door, I heard him.

>How I work the dryer?

~You’ll have to spin them first, they’ll never dry if you put them in like that.

>Huh. How I spin?

~Oh give them here. Watch this for a minute. Don’t let it boil.

>If it boil, what I do?

~Oh for God’s sake, Nico, you really are hopeless. I know you do it on purpose. Go and see to Dec, yeah? I bet you just left him standing in the hall, didn’t you. No, here, I’ll do it.

Nico reappeared, smiling.

>She love me really, I think! Come in here, sit down. I open this.

He gestured to the wine bottle in his hand. I followed him into the spacious lounge, and sat down.

>You want?

He held up the bottle.

‘Er, no I’d better not. Don was pretty clear about no alcohol. And my last experience wasn’t too positive. Better do as I’m told, I think.

>Huh – oh I remember you say hangover. Big one?

‘Fucking enormous. Lots of vodka. Lost two days. Scared myself a bit.’

>You look better now. You look horrible on that day.

‘I was pretty horrible. It all seems like a bit of a bad dream. Learned my lesson though. That one, at any rate.’

>Well, I have wine. Ha, Don don’t tell me not, so is OK.

He opened the bottle and poured a glass.

>I see you have good bruises from the morning already.

He gestured to my face, where my cheek and chin had taken some obvious hits. I shrugged.

‘It was a tough session.’

>I think people are too tough. I say to them. They can hurt you.

‘I think that was the intention. Fair enough. I expected it. Nico, thanks, really, but, fuck, you don’t have to stick up for me. You’ll get yourself dragged into all this, you’re really better off out of it.’

>Hey, I already tell you I decide what is better for me. I think tomorrow is not so hard for you.

I had no answer to that. Didn’t want to think too much about tomorrow.

>I check on chicken. We are late – big surprise, huh?

Nico sprang up and left the room. I heard his and Lisa’s voices as they had an indistinct conversation in the kitchen. I looked around. The room was large and subtly decorated. There wasn’t much in the way of ornaments or pictures, but a framed Argentina shirt was hung over the fireplace. I went over to have a look. It had been signed by members of both teams. There was a small metal plaque with an inscription – ‘England v Argentina – Twickenham’ – and the date, which was just over two years ago. It was the game I’d been to .

The lounge door opened.

>We are ready soon.

‘I was at this match.’

>You were? It is special for me, to play against England, and it is my fiftieth cap. You were there?

‘I saved up for weeks.’

I could still remember my excitement, I talked about it for days before and even longer afterwards.

‘You were great. I can still remember your try. Right by where I was sitting. It was fucking awesome. Amazing take, brilliant run, fantastic dive.’

>You make me blush. To score that try was increible. I don’t believe it that you were there! I have a DVD here …

The door opened again.

~It’s on the table, come and get it – oh sorry, I’ve interrupted rugby talk. Well, all the more reason to come and eat now, yeah? It’ll go cold if I let you two get started.

We followed Lisa into the kitchen, where there was a large table. The balti smelt good, and there were plates of naan bread, a large bowl of rice, poppadoms and a dish of mango chutney.

‘This looks amazing.’

~Thanks. Sit down, help yourself. Nico, did you open that bottle? Oh, you’ve got yourself a glass, and mine is ..?

Chuckling, Nico went back into the lounge to retrieve the bottle.

~Your clothes should be dry soon. Sorry Nico’s don’t really fit you, you’re a lot taller than him. Haven’t you got a coat?

It had been a good one, and I’d sold it on eBay for thirty quid.

‘No, I lost it.’

~Bad luck!

Nico came back, filled a wine glass for Lisa, and we sat down to the meal. It was delicious; Lisa was a really good cook. Conversation was fairly standard, the weather, the buses, the chicken balti and various recipes for cooking it (which Lisa insisted on giving me and I had no intention of ever using), and their wedding, which had only been a few months ago.

There were quite a lot of wedding photos around. It had been a big occasion, some of the players had gone to the main event, the whole squad had all been invited to the evening party, but I had been too self-absorbed to attend.

Nico and Lisa had met at a club function, shortly after Nico arrived at Raiders. Lisa owned a sports equipment business that had sponsored some of the Raiders players in the past. Her company was looking to expand its media profile, and when Nico arrived they made a deal and fell in love. That, at least, was their potted version of their history.

I wondered when Nico was going to ask me what he had brought me there to ask. Eventually a look was exchanged between them, and Nico took a deep breath.

>Declan, we talk, Lis and me. I know yesterday I tell you I forget, but I can’t. I ask people at the club. You borrow a lot. People, they are against you for this. We want to lend you money to pay them back.

I looked down at my plate. My appetite had fled and I felt shame burn my cheeks. Without looking up:

‘No.’

>Why not?

‘Because I’m in the fucking mess I’m in because of borrowing money. If I borrow more, it just makes it all so much worse. I have to do this, sort it out, myself.’

>Huh. How about you think of it as those adverts, those what is it ‘consolidate your debts’ on TV. Then you don’t piss off lots of people, you only have one to worry about. That one is me. You don’t piss off me, or Lis will be mad. Your friends they like you again and things they are easier for you.

He made it sound very tempting, too easy. It should be hard. It had to be hard. Shook my head.

‘No.’

~Dec, how are you managing paying back all the money you owe?

‘Getting there.’

~Getting there as in you’ve nearly done it, or as in you’ve made a start and now you don’t know how you’re going to finish it?

I was silent. She’d pretty much nailed it.

~Can I just ask, you said the mess you are in is because of borrowing money, yeah? I know a bit about what’s been going on with you. Could it also be that you didn’t ask for help when you needed it, and that has been a big part of it too? All we’re saying is we’d like to help, and we’d like you to not be too bloody-minded to think about saying yes. Have a think about it, yeah?

I was humbled. Could not believe that there were such good people. Could not believe that such good people would waste their time, effort and money on me. They needed to know the truth about me, what a worthless piece of shit I was. I looked up.

‘Lisa, do you really know what’s been going on? Why I’ve borrowed so much money? What I did?’

Lisa gave me an appraising look.

~We got some edited highlights from Jay. It all seems like a bit of a nightmare.

>I know Jaime is mad, I see him yell at you in his car. Maybe he not very fair to you.

I tried to remember what Jay knew and what he might not. His version wouldn’t do me any favours, but then I didn’t really deserve any.

‘Why do you still want to help me? I …’

It was hard to say it.

‘… stole charity money. A lot of money.’

>We know this. Jaime, he is angry, we think maybe he not tell us all, about why you do it. You are not a bad person, we know this.

~You don’t have to tell us why you did it. But we know enough to think you didn’t do it for yourself or to hurt anyone. It doesn’t make any difference to us offering. We know how much it was. We want to help you make things better, yeah?

I looked at both of them in amazement.

~Really, Dec, don’t say no through some sense of pride or shame or stubbornness. You know, sometimes people do stupid things when they’re desperate. We want to make sure you don’t go to a loan shark or start dealing drugs or selling your body or something.

‘What the …’

~I’m kidding! Well, about selling your body anyway. You’re too scrawny to get much for it. Declan, if it can help at all … well, please just think about it, yeah?

I looked down at my plate again, unable to meet their eyes. It was true I was getting more desperate, and my methods of solving my financial problems had so far not been either logical or successful. Thinking about it wasn’t agreeing, and it bought me some time to work out how to turn them down without offending them.

‘OK. I’ll think about it.’

Thinking also didn’t cost anybody anything, and it would stop them going on about it. A big smile from Nico. Lisa took my hand and gave it a squeeze.

>Good decision. You let me know when you say yes!

From the hall, I heard the phone ring. Lisa started to get up.

>Let the machine pick up. What is dessert?

~You were supposed to get dessert.

>Huh. Sorry, baby, I forget. What else we have?

~Nico …

While they bickered back and forwards my attention was caught by the answering machine. With a lurch to my gut, I recognised the voice. It was Beth.

_Hi Lis, just got your message. We’re fine, staying with Carol till we find somewhere. It’s a bit of a squeeze. Cal loves it, she spoils him all day. Matty’s very poorly, James is in a bit of a state. Call me later.

Lisa must have realised too late that I had heard the message. She put her hand to her mouth and looked at me, concern creasing her brow. The blood had drained from my face. It was hard to hear Beth’s voice again. I swallowed. My mouth felt dry, and my heart was racing.

Sitting on my own all day, I could push things to the back of my mind. I was suddenly confronted with exactly what I had thrown away. It opened a hurt place in me that I had begun to close off. Jay and Beth would have been the very people I would have turned to for help, in any other situation than the one I’d got myself into. I’d chucked it away. My hands were trembling.

>You look horrible. Here, have some water.

Nico poured some into a glass.

~Sorry, Declan. That was harsh for you.

>You don’t speak to them before they leave?

I shook my head, remembering what they’d both said the last time either of them spoke to me.

~Declan, Beth is my friend. I know how much you’ve meant to her and I think I can see how much they mean to you. This has been hard on you all, yeah? Maybe if you give them time.

I shook my head.

‘I’ve fucked too much up, I don’t think there’s any coming back from it. They both want me to stay away from them. Jay and I are done. He said so.’

~Well people say all sorts of things, yeah? You never know. They are both very hurt at the moment. They’ve got a lot on their minds.

‘Mm.’

>Hey, you know Lis used to go out with Jaime?

I looked up, surprised. And, despite myself, interested.

~Nico, I don’t think –

>Yeah, long time ago. He is much older than her, he is still a player here. She work in the office. She dump him though. She know she will find a much, much better man. Much more handsome and charming. And more young.

He sat back, smugly. Lisa batted him on the arm.

~Big head. It’s true, though, from my dim and distant past. Jay and Beth have been great friends. Don’t give up on them, yeah?

Easy enough to say. It wasn’t down to me. Too much had happened, too much said, or rather unsaid. Couldn’t see a road back.

There was a clatter at the back door. A small tabby cat pushed its way through the cat flap, sniffed the air and made straight for me, twining itself round my legs and mewing. I glanced down, then looked more closely.

‘Is this Tabitha?’

Beth’s elderly cat. She had ignored me for most of the time I lived with Jay and Beth, except when it was up to me to feed her.

~Yes! We’re looking after her until they get settled. I forgot you’d know her. Looks like she remembers you.

The cat jumped on my lap and head-butted my nose. She reminded me again of things I’d had, and lost.

‘Probably remembering all the good times at her food bowl.’

~She does like a feed. She’s on a diet though – got a bit podgy in her old age.

‘Poor Tabs, I don’t expect a diet’s going down very well.’

~She’d be a bit more annoyed, and a bit thinner, if Nico didn’t keep giving her leftovers. I keep telling him she’s not a dog, and she needs to lose weight. He’s just a sucker for a pretty face.

>Is true. Is why you so fat.

~Right, you’re washing up, mister.

Seeing Tabitha, along with hearing Beth’s voice, had brought back lots of memories. I couldn’t stop them crowding in. I was overwhelmed with sadness, and I suddenly needed to know about them.

‘Where have they gone? I don’t even know where the fuck they are.’

A look passed between Nico and Lisa.

~Dec, I’m sorry, this is really difficult. Jay and Beth, well they were very clear, they don’t want you to know any details about anything, and they don’t want you to contact them. We can’t really tell you anything without breaking promises, I hope you understand. They’ve gone … away. They’re not local. That’s all I can say, sorry.

It was another blow, coming hot on the heels of the flood of memories. I felt a million miles away from them all in my head, but hadn’t really thought about them literally being somewhere else. I felt my cheeks begin to burn, and tears begin to prickle at the corner of my eyes. Frantically tried to blink them away.

‘It’s OK. Sorry, unfair of me.’

A short, awkward pause.

>Hey, I know, why don’t we watch the DVD of my amazing try, while Lis gets dessert?

It was as good a diversion as any. Lisa tutted and rolled her eyes.

~So this means I get dessert, and clear up, and fill the dishwasher, while you sit on your arses and watch rugby, yeah?

>Of course not, baby. You can fill the dishwasher tomorrow.

Nico got a clout for that one.

‘I’ll help.’

~Don’t be daft, go and watch your game. Your clothes should be dry, I’ll bring them through.

‘Thanks, Lisa. Great meal.’

We passed the rest of the evening watching the game, replaying Nico’s try several times so he could bask in adulation. We tried to spot me in the crowd, but it was impossible.

I walked home, having missed the last bus, but not wanting to tell Nico, who wanted to drive me. The rain had stopped, but it had turned cold, and my socks and trainers were still damp. It was fairly late by the time I got back. I listened at Rose’s door for signs of life, but couldn’t hear anything; I’d have to call on her tomorrow.

Back in my flat, I got undressed and flopped, tired, into bed. My bangs and scrapes were going to hurt tomorrow, but for now I was ready to sleep deeply.

Dreaming. Flying. High above the city. Looking down at a group of people in the park. Everyone is there – Mikey, Bonksy, DivDav, Big, Danno and the girls, Amy, Sarah, Katie, and Cara. They are sitting on the grass, having a laugh. I circle round, then fly down lower. I wave at them. They all wave back, and beckon me down. As my feet touch the ground, they all run away, laughing. I give chase – I can fly faster than them. I get in front of them, they all gather round, smiling, laughing, pleased to see me, taking my hand, taking me with them.

Cal

I suppose I should say a bit about Mum and Dad, they were fairly influential in my early years. Mum gets some bad press from Matty, although I know she knows he loved her really, and I suppose she can be a bit full on when she’s worried about you, which is most of the time, for most of us, but she’s this wonderfully big-hearted person, and she genuinely cares about everyone she meets. Maybe she has the urge to help too much for her own good, and could do with reining in the need to visit old ladies she meets at the bus stop with casseroles and stuff, and to realise she can’t fix all the problems in the world single-handedly, but I doubt it will ever happen, and she’ll carry on trying to make things better one person at a time.

Anyway, when I was little, before Iz came along, it was just me, Mum and Dad, or mostly Mum, because Dad would be at work. Who can really remember their parents at that age? I’d love to say we had a great time, and I’m sure we did, Christmases were awesome, there was always lots of food, lots of laughter, we did things together. I turned out alright, I think, so it must have been fine. Sorry, Mum, that doesn’t seem like much of a compliment – you are amazing, and I wish I could be more specific about your amazingness. I think maybe I’ll remember more when I get to the next bit.

The same is true of Dad. Obviously, I now know that Jay Scott is forever linked with England and Raiders (I saw the Scott Suite at the big hotel before they redecorated – Jesus, Dad, how did your head not get too big to get out of the door?), and I have been asked so many times, by journalists, supporters, even other players, ‘what was it like growing up with Jay Scott?’, and I have a bit of a chuckle to myself before I say ‘oh, you know, he was my role model’, because he really was my role model, but not in the way they want to think. My dad always got away with doing as little as possible at home, by using his charm and the twinkle in his eye to get round Mum, or by pretending to be asleep.

That’s not to say he was a lazy bastard who never lifted a finger, although he was a lazy bastard who never lifted a finger, but we’d do things as a family, he’d play with me endlessly, do all the Dad things you expect dads to do. Neither he nor Mum ever raised their voice when it wasn’t deserved, as far as I can remember, and when I think about being a kid, it feels like I was safe and loved.

Dad liked being outdoors and being active rather than being indoors and being productive, so we’d often go to the park and kick a ball around when it looked like Mum might be about to find a job for him to do, and I hate to admit that I have inherited the same dislike for housework and handy-manning, much to Chrissie’s disgust. Sorry babe.

Matt

And the next mystery – the ever-present Jay, Beth and Cal. Every day, one or all of them would be there with Mum. Why were they up here and not down in Devon being all busy with rugby as per?

It took a while longer to get to the reasons for this one, mainly because they were so evasive, and when you’re bloody exhausted and saying two words together feels like climbing a mountain, evasiveness works, so it wasn’t until I was quite a lot better that I found out that Jay had given up his job. For me. To come up here and look after me for the foreseeable. Well, that filled me with pride and gratitude and love and shit, but it also filled me with guilt, that Jay had given up the job he’d loved for me, that finally there was something more important than his bloody rugby, and it turns out it’s me. I’d never have asked that of him, I didn’t think I’d ever have done that for him, but I suppose who knows.

But now he was here, and he’d got this big house with a downstairs bedroom so I could go and live with them while I got better (although no one actually said what would happen if I didn’t get better), and they’d got Cal in a new school, and so it was all going to be lovely, and that should make everything alright. But they didn’t say what had happened to the golden-boy rugby protégé, where he was in all this, and they didn’t say why they weren’t talking about me going home, to my flat. I had to wait until a lot later, until I actually got out of there, before they told me either of those little nuggets.

So I stayed in hospital and got stronger, although not strong, and I was a bit easier to understand, although not easy. Cal was best at understanding me; he seemed to have some kind of universal translator in his head that picked up any of the unintelligible bollocky shit my mouth was trying to come out with and reworked it into proper words in two seconds flat. Maybe he was closer in age to a time when unintelligible bollocks was all that he could say as well, but the best conversations I had were when Cal was around. There’s a lot to be said for being six, can’t recommend it highly enough.

And although I got better bit by bit, it was slow bit by slow bit, because my body had the bastard MS coursing through it, and it had joined forces with its new chum pneumonia, and between them they were frolicking hand in hand through my energy levels, my concentration and my strength, gleefully kicking the shit out of all of it as they went.

And there were days when I didn’t want any of it, when having them there, reminding me what they’d given up for me, was too much, days when I remembered too much of my life before, with Carrie, and what she’d ripped from me with a scrap of paper and a few words. And on those days I wouldn’t even look at them; I’d turn away from them, close my eyes, tell them to leave me the fuck alone, even if Cal was there to hear the ‘fuck’, and although on the outside I was blank, on the inside I was screaming at the unfairness of it all and wishing I’d died when I had the chance.