16. Everything is broken

In which unexpected contact is made, which makes matters worse.

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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.

Author: 00dreams00

Human of several decades experience. Full time employment, part-time enjoyment. Searching for the fountain of youth in the sure knowledge that it will be full of beer cans and dog piss. Plan B is the fountain of age, which will be found next to a comfy chair with the TV remote in easy reach.

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