17. No world for tomorrow

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

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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.

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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