I opened the car door and got out.
~You go in, I’ll bring your bags, yeah?
I walked towards the front door, which suddenly opened and ejected a small heat-seeking missile, in the form of Calum James Scott.
\dec you’ve came it’s nearly dinner I’m having fish fingers you’re having spaghetti bognose you can see my rabbit he’s called Percy he’s in the garden.
He wrapped his arms round my legs. I had to stifle a sob and blink hard to stop tears running down my face.
‘Hey Cal, oh it’s great to see you, mate. Spaghetti bognose, eh? Sounds delicious. I’ll have to meet Percy a bit later.’
I ruffled his hair, took a deep breath to compose myself, then knelt down to give him a big hug. Cal wrapped his arms round my neck and dropped his voice to a whisper.
\did you say to Santa about Optimus Prime?
I whispered back. ‘It’s all sorted.’
I was so happy to see Dec that I grinned at him, and he grinned back, and everything that had seemed wrong suddenly seemed right. My world was alright again. Dec was here, he had talked to Santa, and it was Christmas Eve tomorrow.
‘Come on in Cal, you haven’t got your coat on, and neither has Dec.’
Mum called from the doorway. I didn’t have any shoes on either, but she didn’t mention that, and I followed Dec up the path and into the house.
Beth was standing in the doorway. I unpeeled Cal and walked up to her. She opened her arms and folded me in a huge hug. This time I couldn’t stop the tears, and we both cried. Maybe it wasn’t just ‘welcome’ – could I dare to believe it might be ‘welcome home’?
Dec gave Mum a big cuddle, and he cried, and so did Mum. I’d never seen Dec cry before, except in hospital when he was feeling hurt, and I remembered Mum saying Dec was sad, so I didn’t look too much, at least not at Dec crying. Dec’s face was very interesting, though, as it still had bruises on it, his nose looked bent in the middle, and some red lines with cuts in them down each side where the train tracks had been before.
_It’s great to see you, Dec. You’re looking so much better, now those stitches are out. I’m so glad you could make it up here. Oh, Lis, let James get that, is there any more stuff from the car?
Jay appeared at the door.
łHey mate, great to see you. You’re looking better.
Another big hug, I tried manfully not to shed any more tears, but failed. Despite all the crying, it was starting to feel like it might be alright.
łWe’ll catch up in a minute, Dec, let me just help Lis with your bags. I’m assuming you’re using your piss-poor arms as an excuse to leave the heavy lifting to a girl.
I shrugged, grinning, trying to wipe my eyes.
łYeah, yeah, go and wait in the kitchen, Beth’s got the kettle on.
It was so strange going through the front door. It was their home and not mine. This moment made me realise how much a part of their family I had become when I lived with them. Feeling a little detached, I followed Cal into the kitchen, where Beth and Lis were in full flow.
_ … welcome to stay tonight, James’s mum isn’t coming till tomorrow.
~Oh, I’d really love to, but Nico’s invited half the squad for Christmas dinner. I’m going to need all of tomorrow to get myself sorted. I’ll stay for something to eat, though. And I want the grand tour, your kitchen is lovely …
I followed Dec, Mum and Lis into the kitchen, where Mum made a cup of tea and put the spaghetti and my fish fingers on for dinner. I had another good look at Dec’s face. He looked more like Dec and less like a monster than the last time I’d seen him. In fact, I couldn’t exactly remember what he’d looked like then, but now I had loads of questions to ask him. Mum and Lis were talking about the kitchen, and Dec didn’t look at me, so I couldn’t ask straight away.
So he was here, at last. Not that I’d been particularly anticipating it, but the rest of the household seemed to have been abuzz for days, with lots of hoovering, discussions about meals and last minute phone calls to be had, arranging final details and gradually getting more hyperactive.
Apparently some sort of operation had nearly fucked up the whole plan, and someone had broken into Dec’s flat while he was in hospital (that felt familiar) but it was all sorted now, and a few minutes ago I’d heard Cal shouting ‘he’s here Mummy, he’s here’, and the front door opened, and there were excited voices, and a few silences where there could have been tears, but who was I to judge – the salty bastards seemed to leak out of my eyes every five minutes too. Then the voices went away, and I could hear them indistinctly from the kitchen. I strained my ears, but could hear no more than the faint murmur of voices. No one thought to come and tell me how it was going, but then my lot in life as a fucking cripple was to lie still and wait to be told what was happening.
I got bored listening to them talking about the kitchen, and if I looked at Dec’s face much longer I would ask him something, and Mum would be cross because I was supposed to remember about Dec being sad. So I went into Uncle Matty’s room, where I had a road set up for my cars. Uncle Matty was awake, and sitting up in his bed which could sit him up or lie him down using electric buttons. He smiled at me as I sat on the floor and started driving the cars and lorries around.
Cal surprised me by coming in after a little while and resuming the game he’d been playing on the floor with his cars.
‘Dec’s hehr, thehn.’
‘Guhd tuh seh hihm?’
‘Yes but he’s talking to Mummy and Lis about the kitchen.’
I smiled. I’d rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. Now I knew what was going on, I didn’t feel so left out. Dec could keep his cosy chat about the (for all I knew) solid oak cupboards and (did I give a shit as I’d never seen them) granite worktops as far as I was concerned.
Uncle Matty smiled again, looking as if he knew what I meant, and would rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. He watched me for a little while, then asked if he could join in. I sometimes let Uncle Matty join in by suggesting where my cars could go. As long as he understood what the game was, he was usually pretty good at suggesting, and didn’t mind if I did something different instead. Sometimes I used Uncle Matty’s bed as a ski-jump, and he would hold his duvet up so the cars could roll down it and fly off the end of his bed. But I wasn’t playing ski-jumps today.
‘Kay. This game is about roadworks. The green lorry is doing traffic lights, and the yellow car is the men with the drill, and all these cars are going to be in a traffic jam.’
‘Goht ih. Is thehr a skycohpter?’
‘There could be, in case it gets on the news.’
Uncle Matty understood the importance of helicopters, and always tried his best to get them into my games.
I sat at the kitchen table and let their chatter wash over me. Cal had disappeared, my novelty value being short-lived. Beth put a mug of tea in front of me and ruffled my hair. I looked up at her and smiled.
_Your hair’s got really long.
‘I know, it feels a bit of a mess.’
_Do you want me to sort it out?
‘Oh, that would be great. You are pretty handy with a pair of scissors, aren’t you.’
_We’ll do it later.
‘It doesn’t feel real.’
_What, your hair?
‘No, being here. Can’t quite believe it.’
Beth sat down next to me and took my hand.
_It’s been a bit of a time for all of us, hasn’t it. The last few months have been … eventful I suppose we could call it … but I’m so glad you here, sweetheart. I wondered how it would be, but … it feels right. Are you OK?
I’d welled up again. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve.
‘Sorry, keep doing this. Just ignore me.’
~It’s true, he’s a pretty big wooss these days.
Lis grinned and winked at me. Jay came in with a bag of presents he’d brought in from the car, checking Cal wasn’t in the room.
łDidn’t know what to do with these, I presume they’re from Santa? Where’s the stash, Beth?
_I’ll take them.
Jay looked over at me.
łBloody hell, are you off again? Come on, let’s go and say hi to Matty, you and him will make a right pair.
He gestured to me to follow him and led me across the hall to a downstairs room. Cal was in there, floor covered in Lego and Transformer toys. There was a Christmas tree in the corner, and some coloured paper chains at Cal’s height across the wall. A door was half open, through which I could see the edge of a toilet and the corner of a shower. By the window, in a hospital-type bed, Matt was half sat up, thin and pale. He looked terrible; I hardly recognised him.
A short while later, I heard Jay’s voice, and footsteps crossed the hall. Jay came in, followed by a long-haired lanky man who I wouldn’t have recognised as Dec if I hadn’t had a big clue, he being the only person who wasn’t Jay or Cal or me in the room. His face was discoloured with just-beginning-to-fade bruises of varying spectacular colours; there were two red scars running down either side of his face, raised and angry looking, one of which tracked a line perilously close to his eye; his nose looked as if it had been on a journey to the other side of his face when the wind changed; and his hair – this boy needed a hair cut. Some of it had been cut or shaved away where one of the scars ran up into his hairline, and the rest of it was overgrown and a complete mess. His lower face was covered in unshaven stubble as well. Injuries aside, I wouldn’t have known him. I knew how important it could be not to instantly comment on how terrible someone looks, so I just held out my hand.
We played for a bit, then Uncle Matty got quiet, which meant he had gone to sleep and left me to play on my own. After a while, I heard Dad and Dec coming into the room. I looked up, and Uncle Matty was awake again. He lifted his hand and held it out to Dec.
I decided to stay as quiet as possible, in case anyone said anything interesting before they remembered I was there. It was also highly likely, with Dad, Dec and Uncle Matty in the same room, that I would hear some swears, possibly bad ones.
‘Hey, sorry to see you so poorly.’
He obviously had no such compunction, the rude, thoughtless little git, although he clasped my hand warmly and gave me a smile that wasn’t full of pity or sympathy, so he got some points there.
‘Fehl mush behter, shuhldv sehn meh befohr.’
I suddenly realised where Cal had got his translation skills from when I was in hospital; Matt was having difficulty speaking clearly.
I looked up, because Dec needed to understand what Uncle Matty meant. Uncle Matty could talk a lot better than before, but he sometimes didn’t explain things very well.
‘Uncle Matty looked like a skellington, but now he’s like a vampire but not with sharp teeth.’
I hadn’t been aware I was being assessed using the Supernatural Being scale of symptoms, but his report was accurate.
‘Struh. Aihming fuh zombeh.’
This made everyone smile, which was always good, smiling was always good, it fended off the fussing for another few minutes. Supernatural Assessor Cal hadn’t quite finished giving his report, though.
‘Uncle Matty, you can’t be a zombie, because their arms fall off. You could be a werewolf because they are people half the time –’
And obviously, I was people at least half the time these days.
‘– or you could be … Daddy, what’s next after a werewolf?’
‘You’ve got me there, Cal, you’re the expert in the undead. I’m sure you’ll think of something for Uncle Matty to aspire to.’
Matt’s breathing was terrible. Laboured and rasping, he found it hard to get the breath to speak, and his words had a tendency to die away on a gasp. I tried to remember what Jay had said was wrong with him, and couldn’t. Whatever it was, it put my self-absorbed woes into perspective.
And then my body’s battery chose that moment to start blinking the red ‘recharge now’ light, and my eyes started to droop. Jay noticed; he always noticed.
Dad looked at Uncle Matty, then frowned. Uncle Matty’s eyes were starting to close. Sometimes he was only awake for a really short time.
‘Come on Cal, pack up your toys in the box, Uncle Matty’s getting tired.’
Uncle Matty opened his eyes a little bit.
I never wanted to send Cal away, because then I’d be all alone in the dark, so I roused myself.
‘No, sohkay, Cal can stahy.’
‘OK then, ten more minutes, Cal, then it’s time for dinner. Dec, I’ve put your stuff up in Cal’s room, you’re on the bottom bunk.’
Cal had a working hypothesis on this too.
I wanted Dec to know why he was in my room and not in Dad’s office. I was sure he’d agree it was the best way.
‘Sleeping underneath is best for people who can’t move properly. I’m on the top, because I can climb the ladder. Why can’t you climb the ladder?’
‘Well, I hadn’t thought about ladders, but you’re right, my arms hurt and pulling myself up a ladder might be difficult. Good thinking, Batman.’
I knew he’d think so, and he called me Batman, like he used to when I’d had a good idea, and it made me smile. I’d spent a lot of time considering whether Dec should go on the top or bottom bed, and although the top bed was the best, and it was where I slept, I was also being kind to Dec and his hurting arms.
Cal and Dec grinned goofily at each other, as if this was some kind of secret code, and Jay started to leave the room, indicating that Dec should follow him.
‘Yeah, and it’s just in case you feel the need to reach out for some chocolate in the night. Top bunk’s a bit far to fall for someone in your state. Come on, I’ll show you. You staying with Uncle Matty, then, Cal?’
Oh, the chocolate thing. It was something to do with the teenager reaching for some of the brown stuff when he was in hospital and falling out of bed as a consequence, the ninny. Cal nodded, although he didn’t seem to know what Jay was talking about, and returned to his cars. As Jay and Dec left to go upstairs, I could hear Dec talk to Jay.
‘Shit, Jay, he looks awful. I can’t remember what you said was wrong with him.’
‘Well, talk to him about it while you’re here, but …’
And I slept, before I got to hear what Jay was telling people was ‘wrong with him’.
I turned back to my road. Uncle Matty’s eyes were closed, so I played on my own; Mum and Lis were upstairs, talking about curtains or duvets, and I wouldn’t be able to talk to Dec about dinosaurs until later.
łHe’s got multiple sclerosis. It affects your nerves so you lose coordination and strength in your muscles. But the reason he looks so awful is he’s had pneumonia. He was in hospital for quite a while, only been out a few weeks. It was less than fifty fifty for him at one point. Much less, actually. If Mum hadn’t found him … Cal’s right, he looked like a skeleton. He’s got a long way to go yet. MS is a funny one, comes and goes, leaves you worse than you were, but no one can predict it. Pneumonia is pretty common and can be … well, really serious.
‘Fuck, I’m sorry. He’s a good bloke.’
łYeah. Anyway, before you initiate me into your blub club, I’ll show you Cal’s room and you can decide whether the dinosaur wallpaper is going to give you nightmares, or whether you’d rather have a camp bed in my office. Although I should warn you that Cal has been looking forward to you sleeping in the bottom bunk for days.
Beth and Lis were also upstairs, Lis exclaiming over various items of furniture and décor. We met up in Cal’s room, which seemed to be a mini version of Dinosaurland. Wallpaper, bedding, models on the shelves, he had the lot.
_Think you can sleep in here, sweetheart?
‘Only in the bottom bunk. Nice and dark, can’t see all the teeth.’
łLucky you’ve got piss-poor arms, then. No ladders for you.
~Oh, Beth, that reminds me, Dec’s dressings need changing tomorrow. Rose sent along all the stuff and some instructions, can I show you? Is it in your bag, here, Dec?
‘I think so. Rose packed it all.’
~Let’s have a look, shall I show you downstairs?
Lis left with Beth. There was a pause.
łSo how is your arm now?
Jay gave me a look, and I gave in, realising that sometimes I had to give more than the basic amount of information.
‘No, I mean it. After the operation it was so much better. My collar bone was really hurting before, the plaster kept dragging on it, and I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t move my arm or my fingers. It bloody hurts now, but I can bend my elbow and hold things. I can feel it getting better. Slow progress though, frustrating. I just want to get back to training again.’
łGlad to hear it. When will that be? You must have seen Pete and Steve by now. And I’m sure Don has his opinions.
‘Yeah, they want me to go in on the sixth.’
łThat’s great. You’ll really start to feel a difference once they get their hands on you. Stay positive, mate.
łHey, sounds like dinner might be ready. Let’s go get spaghetti bognose.
Before long, dinner was ready. The grown-ups were having spaghetti bognose (it was what I called it once, and after that, it was spaghetti bognose forever), and I was having fish fingers, which was my current favourite dinner of all time.
I sat next to Dec, and felt happy that we were all there again, at the table, like we used to be. I looked at Dec a lot, because although I was happy he was there, and everything felt right again, his face looked wrong, with all the bruises and cuts, and I couldn’t help being interested, even though Mum was trying to tell me to stop looking without saying it. In the end, I had to say something.
‘You know your skins were held together with sewing when you looked like a Frankystein?’
I’d seen pictures in my Mega Monsters book, and Dec’s train tracks had looked just like Frankenstein’s monster. Mum started to say shh, but I knew Dec would answer me, because he always answered me, even when I asked him about poo.
‘It’s OK. Yes, I remember.’
‘But the sewing isn’t there now, so how are your skins still together? Will they come unstuck when you eat something big?’
Mum had explained it back when Dec was first in hospital, but I couldn’t quite believe that Dec had let a doctor do sewing on his face. Needles were sharp, Mum was always telling me to mind out when she sewed buttons on my school shirt, and surely it would hurt more to have your face sewed than to have a cut on it.
‘I hope not! My skin has grown back together now, so the doctor took the stitches out and it will stay together all by itself.’
It was a shame that I wasn’t going to see Dec’s face split open when he ate a big mouthful of bognose, but I still had more questions.
‘But how did your skins come apart?’
Fuck, how do you explain a glassing to a six year old? I looked at Beth and Jay. Jay shrugged, a look of amusement on his face. Beth looked on warily. They had always let me explain myself to Cal – there had been a fair amount of explaining at times, things like hangovers, girlfriends, speeding tickets – but Beth always kept an eye and rescued me if I was struggling too much.
‘Well, you remember when I was in hospital and I had bruises and cuts and things?’
\yes, some bad men hit you.
I silently thanked whoever had explained things so simply to Cal.
‘Well, when they hit me, my face got cut and the doctor had to sew me up so my dinner wouldn’t come out of my cheeks. That would have been a bit of a pain.
\it would be awesome.
‘Not if you’re trying to drink a slushie, you’d dribble quite a lot, most of it would fall out.’
He considered this, nodding.
\did it hurt?
‘What, the cuts or the stitches?’
\when they sewed you.
‘Well, I was asleep when they did it, so it didn’t hurt me at the time. But it was sore afterwards.
\do your lines hurt?
łHe means your scars. They are still quite impressively sore looking.
I ran my finger along the line running down the side of my face, which made it tingle and sting.
‘Well, maybe a bit when I touch them. It hurts when I use my razor.’
Dec had a lot of whiskers on his face, and it looked like he hadn’t used his razor for a long time. Dad thought so too.
‘So that’s the reason for the designer stubble. Thought you were trying a new look, to combat the girly hair.’
Dec had really long hair now, and it did look like a girl’s hair. He could probably even put it in a pony tail, like Jake’s brother did, but I was glad he didn’t.
‘OK, Cal, let Dec eat the rest of his dinner now, before his cheek falls open and his bognose falls on your plate.’
Dad was teasing. I knew now that there was, sadly, no chance of Dec’s cheek coming apart either now, or at future dinners.
_Well done, Dec, I’d forgotten how good you are at answering Cal’s questions.
It was Cal who was making it all normal. He was chatting to me like he always had, asking me the same searching questions, treating me like I was just Dec who’d been away for a bit, but was back now, rather than Dec who’d fucked everything up and nearly lost it all. Beth was threatening more tears, especially when Lis gave her hand a squeeze. Jay saved the day with:
łMore vomit cheese anyone? Parmesan to the uninitiated. Cal, more vomit on your fish fingers?
łHey, if it gets him eating it I’ll call it anything. I’ll call it a pile of sh … er … sheep sh…oes, eh Cal?
\daddy, you nearly sweared.
łNo I didn’t, sheep shoes is nowhere near a swear. You’ll have to keep an eye on Dec, though, he could swear at any moment. More sheep shoes anyone?
Beth’s teary moment passed, and chaotic order was restored to the dinner table.
Dad made a joke about the cheese being vomit cheese, which meant it smelt like sick, because it did, and then he pretended to do a swear, but turned it from a word beginning with ‘sh’ into ‘sheep shoes’ and he made me laugh, and Dec was smiling, and everything felt like it was alright, even though Mum had nearly cried and Lis had to hold her hand.
I really hoped people were going to stop crying or nearly crying soon, because everything stopped while they were doing it or nearly doing it, and I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, or get down from the table.
Lis left soon after dinner, facing a long drive back home. She asked when I wanted picking up. It wasn’t something I’d thought about, as I had been focussed entirely on getting here.
łIt’s OK, Lis, I’ll bring him back. We can take our time here, see how it goes, how long it takes Dec to get bored of us, and you don’t have to drive all that way again.
‘I can get a train, or a bus.’
łYeah, OK, Dec, we’ll drop you off at the nearest bus stop with that heavy bag you can’t carry, and you can make your own way back. Sorted, Lis, OK?
‘Just trying to be helpful.’
I grinned at Jay, enjoying the amicable bickering.
łNoted. I’m taking you back, end of.
Lis went home, and Dec came into Uncle Matty’s room to help me play with Lego, although he couldn’t do fiddly bits because of his fingers being hurt.
Uncle Matty was asleep, so I had Dec all to myself, like I used to, and Dec was as good as he used to be at playing with Lego, although after a while he said he was getting sore on the floor and was going to talk to Uncle Matty. I nearly said Uncle Matty was asleep, but I looked up, and he wasn’t, he was looking at us, so I stayed quiet.
I listened while Dec and Uncle Matty talked, although it wasn’t very interesting, but you never knew when grown-ups were going to forget you were there and say something, especially Dec, who wasn’t really a grown-up, and Uncle Matty, who was a grown-up because he was very old like Dad, but said a lot of things that made Mum go ‘Matty, honestly’.
I woke up a bit later, to find Cal and Dec playing with the cars on the floor of my room. I watched, undetected, for a while, part of me marvelling at how unselfconscious Dec was, kneeling on the floor, making ‘neenaa’ noises and handing Cal various bits of Lego, just being in Cal’s imaginary world. Another part of me was envious of the ease with which he was able, even with an apparently broken arm and some serious lacerations, to move around on the floor. I wouldn’t even be able to get onto the floor unless I rolled off the bed and fell on my arse, and I wished I had some of Dec’s apparent power for fast healing. Dec turned round after a while, and saw me watching.
‘Know what, Cal, I’m getting a bit sore kneeling down here on the floor, I’m going to sit in this chair for a bit and talk to Matt. Let me know if you want me to find anything else.’
He stood up, stretched and plonked himself in the armchair by my bed, looking at me for a while as if unsure where to start. Then, like everyone did, he started with me being ill.
I didn’t know Matt that well, and all I could really think of to talk about was his health. Not inspiring, but everyone has to start somewhere.
‘Sorry you’ve been so poorly. Not much fun.’
I suppose it was as good a place as any when it was all you really knew about someone, but part of me wanted to shout ‘I’ve had a fucking life, a fucking job, a fucking flat of my own, I love hiking, and Spurs, and reading books about maths, and there’s more to me than being fucking ill’ but I didn’t, mostly because it would have taken me about an hour and I would have fallen asleep before I got to the end.
‘Noh. Better than I wahs tho.’
In the end, I took Dec’s conversation starter for what it was. I hadn’t had anyone new to talk to since Sally, and even if I had to talk about being ill, I might be able to do it in a different way.
‘Jay said you had it really bad a while ago.’
‘I knoh they all thoht I wouldn’t mahk it. Dohnt member much. How bouh yuh?’
Dec having problems of his own gave me something to reflect back, someone else’s story to find out, and I thought I’d have a go at delving a bit into the recent travails of the adolescent. Except I realised with a sudden shift in my perception that he wasn’t anymore. He was nineteen, and he was different. The last time I’d seen him, he had been open and talkative, and that was still there, but there was a reserve. He was quieter, more subdued. He seemed older than nineteen. Maybe with everything that had happened to him in the last few months, he needed someone to talk to as much as I needed not to talk about me?
‘Getting there. It’s been a shit year – sorry Cal, pretend you didn’t hear that. But now I feel like things are getting better.’
He even noticed when he swore these days. Didn’t seem stop him, but at least he noticed.
‘Good for yuh. Yuhr face sahys dihfrent tho. Yuhv had a hard tihm, Jay said.’
I hated people talking about me behind my back, but I wanted Dec to know that I had heard a lot of his story.
‘I’ve got good friends, they’ve helped me a lot.’
A pang of envy shot through me, and I covered it up with a truism.
‘Simpohtant to hahv pehpl yuh lohv and lohv yuh.’
Jay came in with two cups of coffee. One of them was in the plastic beaker, and I cringed inwardly at what it would look like to Dec when Jay had to help me drink.
‘Good to see some bonding going on in Cripples Corner. Here you go, freshly made. Can you hold that OK Dec?’
So it wasn’t just me who was being fussed over. Interesting. Dec didn’t seem to mind, and just smiled at Jay as he carefully took the hot mug.
‘There’s a mat here on the table. Matty, here’s yours, do you want to sit up a bit?’
Well I was going to find it hard to drink lying down, wasn’t I.
Jay pressed a button on the remote control that moved the bed into a sitting position. Dec sat in the chair, sipping coffee, pretending not to watch while Jay held my cup for me. Jay seemed to become aware of the awkwardness and thought of something to say.
‘Lis says hi, and it’s a shame you were too busy snoring to appreciate having a hot girl in your bedroom.’
I liked Lis, a lot. She was straight up, no nonsense, dirty laugh, heart of gold. And hot, she wasn’t wrong about that. She’d driven Dec up this afternoon, and I’d been asleep when she left. I was sorry to have missed her.
As witty comebacks go, it wasn’t top notch, but I was getting tired.
‘Dec been entertaining you with his exploits?’
Jay seemed to find it a lot easier talking about Dec’s troubles than he did mine. Maybe they were both part of that world, the physical world, the rugby world, where having your face smashed up was all in a day’s work, and you just got to your feet and carried on. I wanted him to acknowledge that I was trying to get to my feet, it was just taking a bit longer.
‘Exchange war stohries.’
‘You’ve both got plenty of those.’
Cal, who had seemed absorbed in his game, but always had his ears open, especially when you forgot about him, joined in.
I’d liked the sound of Cripples Corner when Dad said it, and couldn’t wait to say it out loud; it would sound funny. Until I got the chance, I was listening out for when I could join in with what they were saying.
At that moment I loved the little six-year-old listening device, who had just dropped Dec right in it, even though he’d dropped him on the wrong person.
‘Oh, cheers Cal, I thought you were on my side.’
I tried for a bit of solidarity.
‘Swehrs allohed in Crihpls Cohner.’
Jay seemed agreeable.
‘Fair enough, no argument from me.’
This was going well. It felt like we were all boys together, and I wanted to be the same as them all.
‘Can I do a swear?’
It was worth a try, but Dad wasn’t falling for it.
Jay belatedly realised that he should perhaps have taken a different tack and tried to backpedal.
‘No. Just grown-ups. And just sometimes, when we can’t help it. Do you want any more of this, Matty?’
I decided to used the new loophole. Wait till Beth heard about it, she was going to go ape-shit. And then I could tell her she’d gone ape-shit and there was nothing she could do about it, because I totally owned Cripples Corner.
‘Noh thahks. Toh fucking tihred.’
I grinned at Cal, who was looking at me with something approaching awe, which made me grin even more, because we both knew I was about to embark on a major campaign of flouting of the ‘no swearing in the house’ rule.
Uncle Matty smiled at me. He was still hard to understand sometimes, especially when he was tired, but we could always understand his swears. I looked at him in awe. If Mum heard him he would be in lots of trouble, even though he was poorly.
Jay tried some damage limitation.
‘You’re taking advantage now. OK, let’s leave you to it. Come on Cal, pack your stuff away, do you want to put Uncle Matty’s bed down?’
Dad tried to be strict, but he was nowhere near as good as Mum. He tried to frown, but couldn’t help smiling at the corners of his mouth, because he thought it was funny too. And he wasn’t really cross, because he asked if I wanted to put Uncle Matty’s bed down. I loved putting Uncle Matty’s bed down. In fact, I loved moving the bed all over the place. It went up and down so it could be high or low, and it bent in the middle so it could make Uncle Matty sit up, and a bit at the end bent so that his legs went up. I played with it a lot, and Uncle Matty let me put him in any way I could think of, although I hadn’t managed to make it roll him onto the floor yet.
Cal always wanted to put my bed down, it was all anyone could do to stop him playing with the controls while I was lying in the damn thing. Sometimes I let him, to see what weird and wonderful positions he could make me lie, sit and almost stand in. Jay handed Cal the remote and he lowered the bed to almost flat, judging it correctly almost to within a degree, so my chest was tilted enough to drain, but I was still in a good position to sleep. He’d had a lot of practice and was a quick learner.
‘Turn the lamp off as well. Good boy. Night Matty.’
Jay flicked the monitor on without comment and walked out, after brushing a hand over my forehead. Sometimes the smallest of gestures affected me the most deeply, and I hoped the darkness hid the tears starting to run from the corners of my eyes.
‘Night Matt. See you tomorrow.’
Then Dec was gone too, as was I shortly afterwards, dragged off to the land of nod by the sleep elves.