Christmas Night, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring … I know, wrong night, but whatever. I thought everyone had gone to bed. Jay had been in, sorted me out, monitor was on, lights were off, footsteps had trundled up the stairs. Usually I’d be out cold by now, but I felt pretty well rested, and was just enjoying lying down without actually being asleep. Then I heard something. I was pretty good at using my ears to work out what was going on in the rest of the house; it was one of the consequences of spending a lot of time on my own wondering who was where and what they were doing.
So I heard something. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, just a little noise. Then I heard it again – a sniff. My heart almost stopped as I wondered if someone had broken in. If someone came in here, there’s no way I could fight them off, I’d have to hope Jay would hear the struggle on the monitor and … there it was again. A kind of choked sniffy sob. Someone was crying, downstairs somewhere. Not a burglar then, unless it was one who was really regretful about breaking and entering. I was full of adrenaline, from imagining having to fend off an intruder, and for some fuckwitted reason, I decided to investigate.
I hadn’t walked anywhere on my own since I’d come out of hospital, so why I decided now, in the middle of the night, with no one around, was a good time to start, fuck only knows. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. So far, so good. I tottered over to the wall and used it to lean on so that I could make my way to the door, which I did without incident and found myself in the hall. Now I could clearly hear the sounds of crying, which were coming from the living room.
Using the wall as my crutch, I slowly put one foot in front of the other, wondering more and more as I progressed what in the kingdom of fuck I thought I was doing. Why hadn’t I just said ‘someone’s crying’ into the monitor? Jay would have been down like a shot, and I wouldn’t be here, half way across the hall, legs trembling like I’d run a marathon. But I was investigating. Not just curious about who was crying, because there honestly weren’t that many people it could be considering Mum, Cal, Jay and Beth had all gone to bed, but also about how far I could get.
Yeah, it was stupid, but there was someone in the living room who would surely hear if I needed them and, oh, here I was in the doorway now. Fuck, that had taken it out of me. I leaned against the door frame, panting, and looked at the shape lying curled up on the couch.
His whole body jolted as he heard my voice.
‘Fuck! You scared the shit out of me. What are you doing out of bed? How did you get here?’
All very good questions, but not the most important thing right now. I was going to fall over if I didn’t get some help pretty soon.
‘Cahn yuh hehp meh sit dohn?’
Dec jumped up and took my arm, supporting me to the nearest sofa.
I was breathing hard, but sitting down was better.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
I’d lost sight of that a little bit in the last couple of minutes of trying to remain upright, but thought back to what had brought me out into the big wide world in the first place.
‘Hehrd someohn crying. Investigahting. Whasup?’
‘Just feeling sorry for myself, completely unjustifiably. I didn’t realise you could get about by yourself.’
‘Meh neihther. Gahv ih a try. Diddit. Fehls guhd. Fucking knahkered now.’
‘You look it. Do you want me to get Jay?’
No no no, then there would be questions and fussing and ‘oh Matty’ and exasperated looks.
‘Fuck noh. Ih’ll be okay in a bih.’
Oh, and nice try at distracting me Dec.
‘Why yuh crying?
‘Not really important.’
It was bloody important enough for me to do this, like, hundred mile walk from my bed to here.
‘Huhmour meh, Ihm a crihpl.’
‘OK then. Jay wants to take me home on Sunday. It made me realise I’m never going to live with them again. I’m a fucking selfish bastard who doesn’t appreciate what I’ve got, what I nearly lost, and what I’ve been given back with bells on. Boo hoo, poor me. Humorous enough?’
Right, well, he had spilt. Now I had to do something about it.
‘Bluhdy hilarious. Dihd yuh think yuhd lihv wih them here fuhever now?’
I didn’t know if this was on the cards, whether it had been discussed, even.
‘No, I guess not.’
‘Dohn’t yuh have some bihg fuck off ruhgby carehr to get bahk tuh?’
‘Yeah, I suppose so.’
‘Think of ih lihk lehving hohm, then. Hahs to happen sohm tihm. Yuh dohnt always chuhs when. Things hahpen, things chahnge. Noh one lihvs wih thehr fahmly foh ahlways. Member wha Jay said at dinner? Declan Suhmers in my fahmly fuhever. Tha mehns wherever yuh are. Connehcted. No nehd to beh hehr.’
I don’t know where the words were coming from, they just occurred to me and ended up coming out of my mouth. That was quite a lot of talking for me, and I started panting again. Dec looked like he was thinking about it, looking at his hands, then raising his eyes to stare at me.
‘Bloody hell, Matt.’
I bloody hoped so, because I was fast running out of energy for any more speeches.
‘Lots. How the fuck did you get so wise?’
‘Too much tihm tuh think, noht enough fucking vodka to forgeh ih all.’
‘I wouldn’t actually recommend the vodka method of forgetting, it has its drawbacks.’
Well that sounded interesting, hadn’t heard any hints of that one.
‘Souhds lihk a stohry. Mehbe tomohrow. Fuck, Ihm frehzing. Can yuh fetch whelchair? Noh suhr cahn walk back. Fuck.’
The cold had crept up on me unnoticed as I sat there thinking about my breathing. I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and had nothing on my feet, which were now so cold they were almost numb. Much as I hated the infernal wheeled machine, I wasn’t going to make it back to bed on my own.
Dec hurried to fetch the chair, helped me get into it and wheeled me back to my room. I leaned on him to help me out and back into bed, remembering his arms weren’t exactly in prime condition and so using my remaining strength to hoist myself onto the mattress. Now I needed to get warm, and I wasn’t going to have to be too finicky about asking for help. Come on, Matt, you asked him to tip your piss into the toilet yesterday. This is nothing.
‘Chehrs. Ohn mohr favohr? Hoht drink?’
‘Sure. Any requests?’
‘Dohn ‘spec I’ll geh whisky tohdy?’
Oh how I would have loved a whisky toddy, burny and soothing, to caress me down into unconsciousness. Never gonna happen.
‘Not even if I knew how to make one.’
‘Bahstrd. Tea then. Onna trahy lihk this mohning, ahl fahncy, mihk inna jug, sugar inna bohl, lacy doihly.’
‘How about in your cup, milk, two sugars, bit of a stir, lid on tightly if I’m feeling generous?’
Oh well, downgrade your whisky toddy dreams to warmish tea from a baby cup, then Matt.
‘Noh the sahm.’
‘All you’re bloody getting this time of night.’
As I headed towards the kitchen, I met Jay at the bottom of the stairs.
łWhat’s going on down here?
‘Just getting Matt a drink.’
łYou do know you’re both broadcasting over the monitor? Turn it off if you’re going to chat. Not really interested in your sordid late night tales.
‘Oops, sorry. Forgot about that. I think we were only talking about tea, though. Nothing particularly sordid.’
łThe night is young. Don’t forget to turn it off. And put it back on when you go to bed.
I vaguely heard voices as Dec left the room. Jay seemed to be complaining about something, and I hoped Dec wasn’t telling him I had just done the cripple equivalent of a trek up Kilimanjaro.
By the time Dec got back, turning off the monitor as he came in, I had started to shiver, and I couldn’t stop. Being under the duvet wasn’t noticeably warming me up. I was going to have to ask for more help. It doesn’t sound like much, but every time I had to ask for something it shaved a slice of self-respect from my soul.
‘Sohry, got really cohd. Cahn yuh plug lehtric blanket in?’
‘Sure, er, where is it?’
‘Lohng plug at the end, this sihd. Yeh, thas it. Thahks. Sohry tuh ahsk, cahn yuh hehp wih drink? Hohd ih foh meh? Hahnds shaking.’
Dec pulled the chair closer to the bed and held the cup for me to drink. I was shaking so much, the spout was getting nowhere near my mouth.
‘Should I get Jay?’
Dec looked worried, and maybe it wasn’t fair to put all this on him, but I knew I’d be OK and I really, really didn’t want Jay getting up to help and being all mardy and paternal on my arse.
‘Noh I’ll be OK once I wahm up. Feet lihk ice. Cahn yuh geh socks? Top drawhr.’
As Dec put the socks on my feet, I could feel the electric blanket starting to warm up, but I was still shivering.
‘You need to get this tea in you. Let’s have another try.’
I managed to get the spout in my mouth, and held on for dear life as I sucked the warm drink. Dec made it hotter than anyone else, obviously caring less about whether I scalded myself, the inconsiderate bastard, and it was what I needed. I finished the cup.
‘Yeh, might hehp get warm. Thahks, Dec.’
He made another drink and brought it in.
‘Still want me to hold the cup?’
‘Yeh, fuck the mahn poihts.’
Man points, that fantasy league where doing arbitrarily manly or unmanly things gains or loses you points. I was currently languishing at the bottom of the relegation zone with zero points and a goal difference of minus three thousand.
‘This one’s got half a bottle of imaginary vodka in it. Should help you sleep.’
‘Chehrs then. Bohtoms up.’
I drank, trying my hardest to think of it as vodka.
‘Nehd a bluhdy guhd maginahtion for tha.’
‘Best I could do.’
‘God I mihs gehting rat-ahsed.’
The glass of wine at dinner earlier was the first taste of alcohol I’d had for more than two months. Beer, I so wanted beer. I had nowhere to escape to, and enough beer would easily lead me down the path to the secret tunnel, then under the fence to temporary freedom. Or a glass of scotch. Oh how I hankered for the days when I would get home after a hard day, pour myself a glass of the good stuff, golden and welcoming, and take the load off. It seemed light years away, and I had to make do with a tiny sip of red wine, which I didn’t even like, and didn’t even get me to the gate at the entrance of the path to the secret tunnel.
It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and reassure the kid.
‘Fehl behter. Wahmer. Thahks.’
‘Least I could do, following your rescue act earlier. Cripples Corner code of conduct.’
‘All fuh ohn?’
Or some such Musketeery shit.
‘Something like that.’
I could feel myself warming up, and as I did so my eyes started to close and I slept.
So there you go, we shared, we bonded, he went home – oh really? The whole nine yards? Slave driver
As Matt warmed up and he stopped shivering, his eyes drooped and closed. I wasn’t happy leaving him just yet, I was a bit worried he might have got too cold, so I moved the chair back and settled down, pulling my phone out of my pocket for another look. I found the contacts list and read through the familiar names that had been programmed in, presumably by Jay or Beth. I felt incredibly fortunate to have such a group of people to call on, people who looked out for me, who wanted me in their lives. My misery from before receded.
Matt’s advice had been spot on and had really helped me; I’d never had brothers or sisters, or even aunts, uncles or grandparents, and had never left home in the usual way, so never had that sense of connection across distance that families developed. Thinking of ‘family’ in those terms helped me see the bigger picture. Beth said I had grown up, but I probably needed to do a bit more growing and be a bit less self-obsessed.
I must have fallen asleep in the chair thinking about it all, as I woke up with a crick in my neck, when the phone clunked to the floor. I checked Matt hadn’t woken, and that his breathing was steady, then I turned on the monitor and crept upstairs.
My phone told me it was two thirty. I undressed in the bathroom and trod as gently as I could into Cal’s room and into bed. I slept almost immediately.
Dreaming. The faceless man with the brown boots has carried Cal away and is threatening to drop him off a cliff. Every time I approach, the brown-booted man dangles a screaming Cal further over the edge. I am powerless to rescue him. Finally, the brown-booted man looks away and I launch myself at him, flying faster than I ever have before. I grab Cal and throw him to Jay, who is waiting. The brown-booted man catches me by the arm and throws me off the cliff. I fall, spinning and tumbling, ripping my face, snapping my arms, and land at the bottom, broken, helpless. I watch as the brown boots land by my head. One of the boots pulls back and then speeds towards my face …
I fell asleep really quickly once I was in bed, but was woken up again by Dec’s dream voice.
‘Unh … no … mm … no, no, no … aah … AAAAAAHHH … AAAAAAAAH!’
The loud scream scared me a lot. It was too near, and too loud, and I wanted to get away from it, and I nearly fell down the ladder trying to get away from Dec, and the loud noise he was making. I ran across my room, and backed up against my cupboard, as Dec carried on making noises. I didn’t want to hear him do another scream, and I was nearly crying because I was scared, but the noises got louder, and Dec screamed again.
This time, he sat up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.
I didn’t giggle, because I was frightened, although if he’d said a swear, he might be awake. I thought I’d try to find out, and if he was still making monster sounds, I would run out of the room and get Dad.
A very small voice. Shit. Cal. Pulled myself together.
‘Sorry, Cal, I’m OK. Did I scare you?’
The light went on and Jay came in. Cal was standing on the other side of the room, backed up against his toy cupboard, eyes wide.
I heard the door open, and the light went on, and Dad came in. I had to screw my eyes up because of the light, and I felt Dad pick me up and cuddle me, smoothing my hair. It made me feel better, that it was light, and my dad was holding me tight, and I stopped feeling so scared.
I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Looked at Jay, who was looking back at me as he rubbed Cal’s back.
‘Sorry. Sorry Cal. I think I’ll go and sleep on the couch.’
I grabbed the duvet and a pillow and went downstairs to the living room, where the Christmas tree looked sad, trying to sparkle in the dark. I wrapped myself up in the duvet and tried to get comfortable. The dream was still floating around my head, and I felt terrible about the fright I’d given Cal.
Dad kissed my head and leaned back so he could look at me.
‘Are you OK, Cal?’
‘Yes. I was scared when Dec screamed.’
‘I know. He made a bit of a racket, didn’t he. He was probably having a bad dream. Are you going to be alright to go back to sleep?’
I nodded, and Dad took me over to my bed and tucked the duvet round me, telling me I was a big brave boy. He turned the light off, but stayed by the bed, stroking my hair and looking at me. Every so often I felt my breath shudder, but then my eyes closed, and I was asleep.
After a while, the door to the lounge opened and Jay came in. He sat on the end of the sofa, in the dark, and ran his hands through his hair.
łJesus, Dec. You scared the shit out of him. And me. What the fuck were you dreaming about?
‘This man with brown boots. I get flashbacks to getting kicked in the face. It really happened, I can remember the boots. Every dream ends with it, but what happens before changes. I can feel it all again as if it’s really happening. I can’t do anything about it. I’m so sorry I scared Cal.’
Jay shrugged, but whether that meant it didn’t matter, or that Cal was OK, or that he just didn’t know what to do about it, wasn’t clear.
łSo who’s the man in brown boots? Is he the other guy you can’t remember?
‘Fuck knows. Could be. I just wish it would stop. I’ll sleep down here till I go back.’
łJust tonight, yeah? We can make you up a bed in my office tomorrow. Sorry, mate, Cal was really freaked out.
‘Is he OK now?’
łYeah, I think so, he’s gone back to sleep. Don’t really want it to happen again though.
‘I know, it’s fine. I’ll be OK down here.’
łSleep well, then mate. Seriously.
I turned over as he left the room and shut my eyes. I couldn’t sleep, though; there was too much adrenaline pumping through me. I dozed on and off, until I finally slept, some time after six according to the clock on the DVD player.
While I was having my Weeties the next morning, Dad said we were going to go to the park and play football once Dec was awake. Dec had slept in the living room, and the door was still shut, and Dad said I couldn’t go in until he was awake. But I didn’t know if he was awake unless I went in. I opened the door a little bit and peeked round a few times, but Dec always had his eyes shut. Then, finally, I looked in and his eyes were open.
It was light when I woke up again. The DVD clock said nine thirty. I sat up, stretched, feeling the pull on my right arm and noticing it was moving much more freely. The bruising on my left hand had faded considerably – it wasn’t obviously a footprint any more – and my little finger seemed to be almost back to normal size. On the minus side, my back was aching from my half a night on the sofa. The door opened slowly and Cal peeked round.
\he’s awake I can go in now.
He dashed in and jumped on top of me. I lifted my arms out of harm’s way and got a knee in the stomach for my trouble.
‘Gently, mate, I’ve only just woken up. How are you this morning?’
\when can we go and play football? Daddy said when you wake up. You’re awake now, can we go? You’ve been asleep for hours. Did you do any more screams?
‘I don’t think so. Sorry I scared you last night Cal.’
\i wasn’t scared.
‘Oh, OK, well sorry I woke you up, then, was it a bit loud?’
\yes, it was. I think Optimus Prime was scared.
Cal looked at me with big, serious eyes, and I realised I needed to play along with his pretence.
Dad had said I was a big brave boy, and now that it was light, Dec’s screams didn’t seem so bad, and the scared feeling was difficult to remember. I’d gone to sleep with Optimus Prime beside my pillow, and Dec’s screams would have made him a little bit afraid.
‘I’m sure you looked after him, though. So, football, eh? Are you going in goal?’
‘No, I’m too little. I score goals, like Theo Walcott.’
It had been a while since I’d played football with Dec, but surely he hadn’t forgotten that I was always Theo Walcott, who was the striker and not the goalie?
‘Of course. Well, let me have some breakfast and get dressed, and see if Daddy’s ready, then we can go.’
Oh no, not more waiting. I was always waiting for people to finish doing boring things so I could do something exciting, and people never hurried.
‘Why can’t we go now?’
‘Well, because I’m not dressed yet for a start.’
And I’d left my clothes upstairs, with Jay’s mum only a few steps away from another gaping boxers incident.
‘And I need some breakfast. Have you had yours?’
\yes, I had Coco Pops.
‘Well I haven’t had mine. I bet you wouldn’t play football without having your Coco Pops first.’
He thought about this, unwilling to concede anything.
\but you’ll be hours.
‘I won’t, promise. Especially if you run upstairs and bring down my jeans and my t-shirt so I can get dressed.’
He ran out of the room and I could hear him run upstairs, then thunder down again. He gave me my clothes, and I slipped into them under the duvet, unwilling to even risk giving Carol another unwanted flash of my boxers and beyond.
‘OK, now breakfast.’
Cal stuck to me like glue, apparently not trusting I wasn’t going to backtrack on my promise to be quick. Jay, Beth and Carol were in the kitchen, sitting at the table, Jay and Beth still in dressing gowns.
_Hi Dec. How are you this morning?
‘Good thanks. I was just thinking how much better my arm feels. And look at my hand, the bruises have almost gone.’
I showed her.
_It is looking better. Any more dreams?
‘No. Sorry if I woke you up.’
_I think you woke us all up. You were having quite a rough time by the sounds of it.
#What were you dreaming about, dear?
‘It’s kind of this recurring thing, flashbacks to being kicked in the face, and other stuff. And there’s this man wearing brown boots. I’ve been dreaming about him since I got beaten up. It’s been worse since I had my op and remembered who one of them was. I think this other man must be on my mind somehow.
#That’s understandable, dear. It must be terrifying to keep reliving it. You shouldn’t worry about waking us up, we can go back to sleep easily enough. Are you getting any help for it?
Carol’s sympathy and understanding were touching, and a bit of a turnaround from the reception she’d given me a couple of days ago.
‘Hopefully, seeing a psychologist soon.’
#That’s something, then.
Beside me, there was a big sigh from Cal, who was losing patience with the big amount of talk and the small amount of breakfast that was going on.
\dec, are you going to have your Coco Pops?
‘Maybe I won’t have Coco Pops, I think I’ll have some toast and a cup of tea, leave you some Coco Pops for tomorrow. I’ll be as quick as I can. It doesn’t look like Daddy’s quite ready yet.’
I raised my eyebrows at Jay.
łWaiting for you, mate. No point rushing around getting ready for footy if the goalie lets us down.
‘I’m not going in goal.’
łLast up gets no choice.
‘If I land on my arm and knacker it, Don’ll have your guts.’
łOh fu … lip you’re right. No goalie then.
‘You could always do it.’
łDon’t think so.
\daddy come on. Get dressed so we can play football.
łAlright, Cal. Why don’t you go and play with your cars while you’re waiting? Uncle Matty’s awake, he could do with some company.
Cal left the room with a scowl.
łDo us another cup of tea, Beth?
_You could always get it yourself.
łWouldn’t taste as good as yours.
_Jameson Lucas Scott you are a terrible man. Dec, cup of tea? Carol?
I made some toast while Beth boiled the kettle.
_I’ve done one for Matty. Do you want to take it in, Dec? Here’s the tray, just like he likes it. I couldn’t find any doilies, hope he’s not too disappointed.
‘Ha ha, sorry if we woke you up last night. I keep forgetting about the monitor.’
I put my tea and toast on the tray and took it in to Matt’s room, where Cal was already absorbed in his cars and roads.
}Ih’s the maid. Luhvly.
‘How are you this morning?’
}Good. Tohstie. Blanket on ahl night. Noh hypothehmia. Yuh dihnt tell Jay?
‘No. Did you?’
}Noh. Cal sahys yuhr plahying football?
‘Soon as Jay gets dressed.’
‘Sure, if you think you’re up to it. Jay might make you go in goal, though.’
}Juhs wanna geh ouh. Stand up foh meh?
‘Sure thing. CC’s code of conduct’
I glanced at Cal.
‘Orders from Beth. No more inappropriate words for people who … er … have trouble getting around, at least in presence of … er … minors.’
Matt processed that for a moment.
}Oh. She got yuh under the thumb.
‘Pretty much do what I’m told where Beth’s concerned.’
}Wihs man. I wouhd tuh if I wahnt a crihpl.
I rolled my eyes and took a sip of my tea.
‘Want help with yours?’
Matt shook his head.
}Gihv a try on my ohn.
I handed him the cup. He held it with two hands and sipped the tea from the spout.
}Wha I wouhnt gihv to hahv a nohmal cup.
‘Doesn’t seem much to ask.’
}Toh mahny spihls. Toh much lectric. Mahks meh fehl lihk a bahby tho.
‘Something to work towards then.’
}Chuhs my bahtles?
‘Something like that. When I was having a hard time, not so long ago, it really helped to not look too far ahead. One day at a time, one hour, one minute, however much I could cope with. One second sometimes. Stopped me going completely mad.’
}Mm, only pahtially succehsful Ih’d say.
Jay came in holding his coat.
łOK Cal, I’m ready to go. Pack your road up.
\oh daddy, can’t I leave it up?
łNo, mate it’s in the way if Uncle Matty needs the loo while we’re out.
Matt was looking at me intently, and I got the message.
‘Can Matt come with us for a bit of footie?’
łYeah, good one mate.
‘No, really, just so he can get out for a bit?’
Jay was silent for a moment, looking at Matt, considering.
}Going mad stuhk in hehr. Fehl rehly good today.
łI dunno, Matty, it’s cold out.
}Plehs, Jay, gimme a brehk.
‘Warm clothes, gloves, scarf, flask of coffee?’
Jay was torn. Then he made a decision.
łOK, we’ll wrap you up like a Michelin man. But one shiver or cough and you’re straight back, and no more trips out till summer. And it might not get past Mum and Beth before we even get there.
Matt smiled widely and did a fist pump.
łOK. Cal, you need to clear your road up super-fast – we need to get Uncle Matty’s wheelchair out. Dec, you find as many layers as you can, top and bottom, thick socks, start piling them on. In the drawer there, and here in the cupboard. I’ll make up a flask and explain to the ladies. If I don’t come back, you’ll know it hasn’t gone well – start planning my funeral. And yours, Dec, for suggesting it. Matty, you’re sure you’re up to it?
łGreat job, Cal. When you’ve finished, go and find your football, and the little rugby ball, and get your coat, shoes, scarf and hat. Dec, when you’ve finished with Matty, make sure Cal’s got all his gear on.
I knew this side of Jay from when he coached at Raiders. He would have a plan, and then he would start issuing instructions to get it accomplished. He was efficient and organised. It was like working with him again, and very different from domestic Jay, who was haphazard and a bit lazy.
I pulled t-shirts, hoodies and jumpers out of the drawers, and found a pair of thermal longjohns, some jeans and some baggy tracksuit bottoms in the cupboard. I held up the longjohns, grinning.
‘Nice. Planning on going to the Arctic?’
}Noh, just tuh the fucking pahk. Dohnt nehd all this.
‘I disagree. You nearly got hypothermia last night just coming to the living room.’
} … fair poiht. OK, pihl ih on.
Matt took off his t-shirt and held his hand out for the first layer. As he put it on I couldn’t help noticing how thin he was; his ribs were showing through his skin, and I could see his collar bones, which stood out prominently. It occurred to me why he’d got so cold last night; he had no energy reserves in his body. It would explain why he got so tired as well.
Matt covered himself up with a long sleeved tight fitting top, and then put on another t-shirt, a thin zip-up hoody, a thicker hoody and a woollen jumper. The trousers were a bit more problematic. Matt could stand, but had difficulty bending down to pull anything up. He looked at me with a resigned expression.
}Jus fucking do ih. Goh minus ten thouhsand mahn poihts anyway.
I pulled up the longjohns, jeans and finally the tracksuit bottoms.
‘Shall I tuck the bottom shirt in somewhere? Don’t want a draught.’
‘Piss off, just remember who got you this gig in the first place.’
}My etehnal gratituhd.
‘I should think so.’
I tucked as many of the top layers as I could in the tracksuit bottoms, remembering how it had felt for me not so long ago to not be able to dress myself, trying not to think about how embarrassed Matt might be.
‘Right, socks and shoes. Where are they?’
}Socks top drawhr. Shohs – dohno. Hahnt wohn any since I goh hehr.
‘OK, I’ll have a look around. Cal, well done clearing up your road. Go and find your coat and stuff now, yeah?’
\is Uncle Matty coming with us?
‘Yeah. Good, eh?’
\yes but can we go soon?
‘Yeah, go and get your coat and stuff – er – shoes, hat, gloves, scarf. Oh and Daddy said get a football and a rugby ball?’
He toddled off, but I had no idea if he was going where he was supposed to. Jay came back in.
łI think I convinced them. Not that happy about it though. They’re going to come along so they can fuss over you.
Matt pulled a face.
łDon’t worry, I’ll put Mum in goal and Beth can ref. That’ll keep them out of trouble.
łYou look about ready – what are you looking for, Dec?
łUse my hiking boots, in the porch. Matty’s same size as me. Right, we need your coat, and I’ll get you a scarf, gloves, hat. Back in a minute.
I went and fetched the hiking boots from the hall, and put them on over the thick socks from the drawer. Matt was sitting on the edge of the bed.
‘Do you want to get in your chair?’
}Wait foh coht. Only hahv to stand up agahn.
‘Good point. Is this all really worth it?’
}Yeh. Nehd to goh ouh. Chohs bahtle.
Jay came back with a coat, scarf, gloves and hat.
łDec, you’ve got nothing on your feet, and you need more than a t-shirt. I’ll do this, you go and sort yourself out. Where’s Cal?
‘Getting his stuff together.’
łCan you check on him?
I ran upstairs to Cal’s room, grabbed my trainers and socks. Cal wasn’t up there. I put my socks and trainers on and went to the pegs in the hall to get my coat. Cal’s coat was still hanging up, along with his scarf and hat, so I grabbed them and went in search of him. He was in the living room, having been sidetracked by a dinosaur game.
‘Cal! I thought you wanted to go out. Here’s your coat. Put it on.
I helped him into it, and the scarf and hat.
‘Where are your shoes?’
I went back to the hallway, found a pair of wellies with a pair of socks screwed up in them. Took them back to Cal.
‘Where’s your football?’
I ran upstairs to his bedroom, and after a brief search found the football and rugby ball nestling together under the bed. Came back downstairs, just as Jay was wheeling Matt out of his bedroom. I could hardly see him under all the layers, but his eyes were shining.
łWhere’s Beth and Mum?
_We’re here, just need to get my coat – Matty, is that you under all that? No danger of frostbite then.
}Bluhdy douht ih, hard to geh frohsbite and heatstrohk ah sahm tihm. Ihm bluhdy boihling.
‘In the living room putting his wellies on.’
Beth went to fetch him, while Carol got her coat. Finally, we were all ready to go out. I handed Cal the football, and held onto the small rugby ball. Span it all the way to the park, enjoying being able to use both hands without too much discomfort.
And so I had to wait and wait while Dec got dressed, then had breakfast, then talked to Uncle Matty, then Uncle Matty wanted to come and play football, so he had to get dressed as well, and then Mum and Granny wouldn’t let Uncle Matty come unless they came with a flask of coffee, and then Dec had to find my wellies and coat and hat and scarf and a football and a rugby ball, and then at last we were ready to go.
Uncle Matty was in his wheelchair, which Dad pushed. He was wearing lots and lots of clothes, because Dad was worried about how cold it was, and Uncle Matty hadn’t been outside since before it was winter, and he had been very poorly. Uncle Matty counted, and he had three pairs of trousers, five jumpers, a coat, gloves, a woolly hat and a scarf on. He grumbled a lot about having to wear it all, but he was smiling, and he looked happy to be going to the park.
So, thanks to some fancy talking from the kid and some pleading from me, I actually left the house. They were all going to sod off to the park and leave me with Mum, but I wasn’t having that. Last night I walked across the bloody hall to the living room, even if they didn’t know it because neither Dec nor I had told them, and if they were going out, this newly expanded family I seemed to be part of, I was going too.
The park wasn’t far, just beyond the garden centre. There were a few other people there, but nobody using the football pitch. Cal threw the ball on to the pitch and ran after it, dribbling it up to the goal and scoring.
\can someone go in goal?
Jay looked at me. I held up my bandaged arm and shook my head. He admitted defeat and trudged off to stand between the posts.
\dec will you be on my team?
‘Course. Team Cal, yeah?’
\Mummy and Granny can be on the other team and Uncle Matty is referee.
_I don’t think Granny or me are actually going to be playing, Cal. We’ll just watch, and drink some of this coffee.
Beth held up the flask and started to open it while Cal reassessed his options.
\dec you can be the other team and try to score past Daddy. I will tackle you.
I knew how this worked: I had to let Cal get the ball off me so he could have a shot at goal. Jay was supposed to let it in, but he was so competitive he couldn’t always bring himself to. I dribbled the ball up to the six yard box, and slowed as Cal ran up to me, letting him kick the ball away from my feet.
\and Walcott steals the ball from Dec, he shoots –
Cal kicked the ball hard but not very accurately at the goal. Jay graciously dived over the top of it and let it in.
\walcott scores. The goalie had no chance. One nil to Arsenal.
We carried on like this for some time, sometimes Jay would let the ball in, mostly he would save it, and he got pretty muddy from diving around in the goalmouth. Beth, Carol and Matt cheered every goal. After Cal had scored a lot of goals, and Jay had saved a few more, Beth shouted over to us.
_Matty wants a go, take a penalty.
\for my team?
_If you want.
\yes. Here’s the spot, Uncle Matty.
Beth wheeled Matt over to the penalty spot. I expected him to kick it from his chair, but he stood up, shakily, and beckoned me over.
}Need yuh tuh lean on. Stahd still.
Cal placed the ball on the penalty spot. Matt stood with one arm across my shoulders and swung back with his right leg, connecting well with the ball. It headed for the bottom corner of the goal, but at the last second Jay just got a hand to it.
łNo favours, mate. Better luck next time.
As Matt sat back down in the wheelchair, he was panting.
}Noh hohding bahk nex tihm. Yuhr tohst.
He had a huge smile on his face.
}Thihk I shouhd goh back now.
‘OK, let’s go.’
}Noh, s’okay. Mum and Beth can do it. Stay wih Cal. Thahks, Dec. Fucking awesohm.
Beth wheeled Matt away, with Carol in attendance.
We cheered Cal scoring goals, which he did through a combination of luck and generosity on the part of Dec and Jay. I even stood up and took a penalty myself, although my bastard goalie brother couldn’t bring himself to let me actually score. I was astounded at my physical prowess.
I got a bit tired, alright I was completely wiped, and my feet were bloody freezing, so I decided to go back before I was dragged back.,
Jay picked up the ball and walked over, trying in vain to wipe some of the mud from his clothes. He was pretty much covered from head to foot.
łLast time I’m ever being goalie. Hey, Cal, what about a bit of throwing?
He picked up the rugby ball and tossed it to me. It was much smaller than I was used to, but it was Cal sized. We threw the ball between us for a bit, and it felt great, even with the small ball and on the muddy park pitch. I had really missed being outside with a ball, being physical.
I could feel how far my fitness had slipped in the time – was it less than two weeks? – since I had ended up in hospital, and now I was moving about again, I really wanted to get back to training.
I threw the ball to Cal, who threw it back. As I caught it, I had an urge to go on a run with it, so I tucked the ball into my arm and set off down the field, intent on crossing the goal line as if I was scoring a try under the posts. It felt really good to stretch my legs, as unused muscles in my calves and thighs came back to life.
I heard Jay pounding after me, didn’t think he’d be able to catch me, or even that he’d be trying, so it came as a huge shock when I felt him grab my waist and pull me down. I fell awkwardly, onto my right shoulder, and everything in my right arm protested.