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.
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.’
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.
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.
‘Oh, there’s been some kerfuffle, some kind of falling out.’
‘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.’
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.
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
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.’
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
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?
: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?
: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?
: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.
‘Can you talk to me?’
:What about, love?
: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?
He looked more closely at my face.
-Are you alright? You look a bit … spaced out.
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.
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?
^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:
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!
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.
‘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.’
‘It’s been emptied.’
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 –
‘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.
‘No dear. Whoever did it had a key.’
Her meaning was plain.
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 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.