The next day began much as the others had, with Jay coming in, helping me to eat breakfast, drink some tea and then drink some of the ghastly build-up drink. Then it was time for the loo. My exciting life was the envy of all.
I could get myself out of bed and into my wheelchair without help these days, I was such an elite athlete, and on good days I could just about wipe my own arse and get myself back in my chair. Still didn’t have the energy to propel the wheelchair across the two metres of carpet to the bathroom though.
There was a shower in the bathroom, but it wasn’t a wet room; I was a long way away from being able to get into the cubicle and have a really good scrub, and I felt dirty, soiled, grimy. Jay had to give me a wash every day, although I did as much as I could with the bits I could reach. Often a shave was beyond my strength, and I convinced myself the stubble made me look dangerous, rather than how it actually made me look, which was like I was auditioning to sell the Big Issue.
That morning I managed a lot for myself, taking the flannel out of Jay’s hand at one point as he started to rub it over my face.
‘I cahn duh ih, thahks.’
‘Right you are, mate. Sorry, wasn’t concentrating, I’m used to doing it with Cal.’
Yeah, Jay, that made me feel tons better. But maybe he had things on his mind.
‘Ha ha, no, everything’s working out OK so far. He’s still in bed, not that I’m surprised, he spends most of his life in bed.’
I could relate to that – maybe we had more in common than I realised.
‘Tahked tuh him yeht?’
‘No. Later today, maybe.’
Jay seemed reluctant, and I wondered how long he was going to put off having his serious conversation with Dec.
‘Dohnt lehv ih too lohng.’
‘Yeah yeah, don’t go on, already got Beth giving it all the ‘don’t put it off, it’ll spoil Christmas’ shit. Don’t need you nagging me too.’
It felt good to nag him, I didn’t have much opportunity to get my own back these days, but I shrugged and handed him the flannel.
‘You look like you’ve put on a bit of weight, mate.’
I looked up in pleased surprise.
‘Yeah, a bit. Still look like an anorexic scarecrow, but it’s good to see. You still planning to do Christmas dinner tomorrow?’
Having Christmas dinner at the table with everyone else had become the focus for me of the last week. I hadn’t been ‘out’ to the rest of the house since I’d been here, and now I could sit out in the chair for a little while, I really wanted to join in with the festivities, rather than hear it all going on while I listened from my room.
I’d told Beth my plan, and she’d initially demurred, saying I wasn’t strong enough, but I badgered her, told her how good it would be for me, promised to rest between now and then, eat what they put in front of me, drink my disgusting build-up drinks, be a good boy, and eventually she gave in. I had no idea how long I would last, maybe not beyond the turkey being carved, but making the effort was important to me.
‘Glad to hear it. Family Christmas, yeah?’
‘Mum’ll be here soon. She called last night, all in a dither about something or other, did we want her to come early.’
‘She had that thing at her friend’s, drinks thing, I said I’d go and get her if she wanted, but she chose the drink over us.’
‘Be prepared for a full on mothering assault.’
And I didn’t. Of all the people who fussed about and told me what to do, Mum was the one I was least resentful of. Not that I enjoyed it, but I knew how worried she was about me, and how traumatised she’d been by finding me half-dead on my bathroom floor. She didn’t come and see me every day, but three or four times a week she got the bus over, so she could sit and look and sigh.
‘You have been warned.’
I didn’t wake up until Mum came in to get me up and ask what I wanted for breakfast.
Dec was still asleep when I went downstairs, and he stayed asleep for hours. He always used to be asleep for hours, when he wasn’t doing training or playing in a rugby game, so although I was a bit disappointed he wasn’t playing with me, I wasn’t surprised.
After a while, Mum looked at the clock, tutted, and went up the stairs. I followed her, and she tapped on my bedroom door.
I must have fallen asleep for a while, because I woke up on my own, still up against the wall, with a stiff neck. It was light outside, and I could hear voices from downstairs. I should really get up. Before long, there was a tap on the door.
_Dec, are you awake in there?
_Just wondered if you want any breakfast? Only it’s getting on a bit.
‘What time is it?’
I couldn’t believe I had slept away my first morning here with them.
_Yeah, Cal’s right behind me here.
‘Sorry, yeah, I didn’t realise the time. I’ll get up now.’
_We need to do your dressings sometime today.
‘Yeah, sorry Beth, I meant to get up, I just went back to sleep.’
_Don’t worry, sweetheart. So, breakfast or not?
‘I’ll grab something quick in a minute shall I?’
_OK. Just so you know, James’s mum’s here.
‘Thanks for the warning, no wandering down in my boxers then.’
_If you could avoid it; I don’t think she’s ever forgotten that incident.
I had met Jay’s mum many times on her visits to Jay and Beth. I used to sleep on Cal’s floor so she could use my room, but when Jay and Beth had the conservatory built, they used it as a guest room, so when she stayed I had forgotten she was there. I had met her at the bottom of the stairs, bleary with sleep, wearing only my boxers which I quickly realised from the shocked direction of her gaze were gaping rather revealingly. Jay hadn’t let me forget that one for some time.
‘Be down in a minute.’
I dressed quickly, spraying deodorant in lieu of a proper wash, as I’d got used to doing recently. I really hadn’t meant to sleep in for so long, but Cal’s night time visit had stopped me sleeping properly and I must have been catching up.
I went downstairs to wait for Dec in the kitchen. I’d been playing in Uncle Matty’s room, but I knew Dec would get his breakfast first, because he always did. Granny had come earlier, and she and Mum were doing cooking. The table was a bit messy, but there was room for my dinosaurs to make footprints in the flour while I waited for Dec.
Dec wasn’t long, and I stared when he came in. His hair was all short! Yesterday, his hair had been long, and like a girl, and now it was short and spiky. I hadn’t noticed when he was in bed, because it was dark. I looked at him now, as he talked to Mum and got his breakfast, but then he took his cup and his plate into Uncle Matty’s room, so I picked up my dinosaurs and followed him.
Downstairs, the kitchen was busy. Beth was peeling vegetables, Jay’s mum had an apron on and she was doing something with flour in a bowl. Could have been making pastry, I’d never been that knowledgeable about things that went on in the kitchen. Cal was sitting at the table, playing with dinosaurs. There was a radio on, playing a cheesy Christmas song. Oh yeah, it was Christmas Eve. I kept forgetting.
‘Hi Mrs Scott.’
#Declan. How are you?
It wasn’t a warm welcome. I sensed disapproval. Maybe I was being over-sensitive.
‘I’m good thanks. You?’
#I’m well, thank you.
‘It’s busy in here.’
_Lucky for you, you didn’t get up sooner, we’d have put you to work spud bashing.
‘Can I do anything now?’
_No, sweetheart, I was teasing. It would seem a bit strange to have you helping out voluntarily, not like old times at all. We’ve got it covered. Actually, though, tell you what you could do later, there are some things we need to do without a certain someone in attendance, and if you could go out with Cal for a bit after lunch that would be great.
‘Consider it done.’
_Kettle’s on, cup of tea? James is in with Matty.
‘I can do it. Anyone else?’
I made my tea and took it in to Matt’s room, only realising afterwards how easily I had lifted and poured everything. From the toys scattered on the floor, it looked like Cal had already been busy.
Jay helped me get dressed and was adjusting the bed when Dec walked in holding a mug. At least I assumed it was Dec. The long unkempt hair had disappeared, swallowed up overnight and replaced by a short, spiky haircut that had been messily arranged to hide the scar disappearing into his scalp. The nose was still obviously askew, and he needed to ditch the forlorn crop of straggly bum-fluff asap, but there was only so much a haircut could patch up.
He smiled at us.
Jay looked pointedly at his watch.
‘Well just about – bloody hell, where did all the girly hair go?’
‘Beth gave it a trim last night.’
Beth fancied herself as a bit of a hairdresser, and was always grabbing the scissors and snipping bits off Jay’s and Cal’s locks, whether they wanted it or not. To be fair, Cal had blond ringlets that would be the envy of many a fairy princess, and his hair needed a bit of taming now and then, but Jay had pretty standard mid-brown slightly wavy hair, and he put up with the fiddling with more patience than I would have given him credit for.
Beth had cut my hair shortly after coming out of hospital, as it had got so overgrown that it was either that or call in the dog groomers, but never again. Not that she did a bad job, really, but I’d got used to Becky, the girl who did my hair at Classy Cuts in Stafford city centre, and Beth twittered far too much, and didn’t ask about my holidays, and there was altogether too much fannying about and shit. Ugh. Anyway, she had managed to turn the kid into a half-decent looking human being rather than a two-legged afghan hound, so I suppose she deserved credit for that.
‘Much better. I see your sleeping habits haven’t changed much.’
‘Had a late night visit from Cal.’
‘Ah, let me guess, he persuaded you to let him get in your bed and you spent the rest of the night with no room while he slept like a log.’
‘Well you’ll know next time. We don’t let him in anymore.’
‘He said you – oh.’
It was entertaining to see the realisation cross Dec’s face that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the ‘my mum and dad let me’ trick.
‘Yeah, you’ve been Cal-ed. You’re out of practice, mate.’
Dec laughed. ‘I guess I am a bit. Hi Matt.’
The hint of banter that had begun yesterday felt like it needed a boost.
‘Mohning – ahftenohn?’ I raised an eyebrow.
Dec grinned and took the baton.
‘Yeah, whatever. Don’t you start, I thought us cripples were sticking together.’
I grinned too, enjoying myself.
‘Fuck right back off.’
His grin widened, and it was so great to hear someone telling me to fuck off, even if it was a joke; everyone was nice to me, even when I was being an annoying git, even Jay, who took less of my shit than most.
‘That’s what I like to see, a bit of Cripples Corner team spirit. Keep the morale up, boys. Oh, hi Cal.’
None of us had seen Cal sidle into the room, eyes wide at the amount of forbidden words that had just been uttered in the house.
It was just as well it was me and not Mum who had been listening from the hallway. She would have said ‘honestly’ to all of them. I giggled to myself, and Dad looked round and saw me.
‘Daddy, you just –’
‘Shh, I know, won’t happen again. Let’s have a look at this Lego here, shall we?’
I loved it when Dad played with me, he was really good at building things and remembered how to make a spaceship without reading the structions. I had a really good game going, so we both knelt on the floor and started building while Dec talked to Uncle Matty.
I looked up at Dec, who was biting his lip and looked pensive.
‘He’s in trohbl now. Cal alwahs tells.’
‘We probably are too, then.’
‘Noh, crihpls privileges.’
It felt like I had an ally. Like a naughty school friend who, with a bit of encouragement, might help me put itching powder on the teacher’s chair or switch the sugar for salt. It felt good, kind of like things didn’t always have to be so bloody serious any more.
Jay looked up from Cal’s cars.
‘Guys, you’re not helping. ‘
I laughed, but something went the wrong way, and fuck fuck fuck I started to cough, and then I couldn’t stop, and I was choking, gasping for breath, unable to suck enough into my lungs before the next cough tried to force itself out. Jay was instantly by my side, and I distantly heard Dec and Cal leave pretty sharpish.
łShit. Dec, can you take Cal for some squash in the kitchen? I just need to help Matty a minute.
I herded Cal out, the coughing and gasping sounding behind us. The kitchen was full of noise and activity. Something was steaming on the hob, the radio was still on, and something was being done with – I’d been right – pastry. Beth looked up.
\i’m having some squash.
‘Jay’s helping Matt – he’s having a bit of a cough.’
_Ohh, does he need any help?
‘He didn’t say.’
_I’d better go and see.
She washed her hands and hurried out.
‘OK, Cal, where’s the squash?’
\that cupboard. I want purple.
‘You’d like purple, please, is that what you said?’
I poured out the squash, filled up the glass and gave it to Cal, who sat at the table to drink it.
‘Can I get you anything, Mrs Scott? I might do another cup of tea.’
#Actually that would be nice. It’s been a busy morning so far.
I made the tea and put a mug in front of her, again feeling pretty pleased with how well I was managing with lifting the kettle and pouring the large milk bottle.
‘What’s that you’re making?’
#Mince pies. I brought some with me but we thought we’d do a few more. Matthew really likes them, it’s a good way of bulking him up a bit.
_Beth’s mince pies are great – er, I’m sure yours are too.
There was an awkward pause.
#You look like you’ve been in the wars. Jameson said you were in a fight?
I sensed more disapproval.
‘Well, no, not a fight exactly, I was on the wrong end of a kicking. Didn’t know much about it till I woke up in hospital.’
#You’re still recovering are you?
‘Yeah, had to have an operation, but it’s all going to plan I think.’
#Jameson and Beth were pleased you could come for Christmas.
It seemed obvious but unspoken, however, that she wasn’t that pleased.
‘It’s great to see them, and Cal. I’ve really missed them.’
#They’ve had a hard time over the last few months.
‘I know. I regret everything I’ve done that’s made it harder for them.’
I was very aware of Cal’s small ears listening while he played with his dinosaurs.
#You won’t upset them again, will you?
Granny wasn’t being very friendly to Dec. Granny was better than Mum and Dad at not saying things she didn’t want me to hear, but I’d heard her call Dec ‘that boy’ a few times, and she hadn’t looked very pleased when I’d told her Dec was coming for Christmas. Now she was using her ‘telling off’ voice, although Dec didn’t look like he thought he was being told off, at least not like he used to when Mum did it.
I didn’t want Dec to be told off, so I thought of something I could ask Granny, even though I knew the answer.
‘Granny where is your bed?’
I knew exactly where Granny’s bed was; it was in the spare room, where it always was.
Jay’s mum held my gaze while she answered Cal. I looked back at her and nodded. It was an acknowledgement and a promise.
‘It’s in the spare room, dear.’
Granny didn’t look at me while she answered, she was looking at Dec, as if she was saying one thing to him with her eyes and another thing to me with her mouth. Dec nodded, as if he was agreeing with her, and then she looked at me.
‘Will Santa know you’re here and not at home?’
‘Yes, dear, he knows where everyone is. He knows Declan’s here too.’
Granny always called people by their full names. She called me Calum, and Dad Jameson, and Dec Declan and Uncle Matty Matthew.
‘Dec probably told him – he can talk to Santa.’
I’d spotted an opportunity to put Dec in Granny’s good books. She couldn’t be cross with someone who could talk to Santa – it could make a big difference to how many presents you got.
Dec shrugged. I suppose it wasn’t polite to boast about it, although Granny didn’t look as impressed as I’d thought she would.
I shrugged with a modest smile.
#Oh, well that’s alright then. Calum, what are you having for your lunch? How about some beans on toast?
\kay. Can Dec share my beans?
‘How about I make it, eh, Cal? Remember woossy beans?’
‘Woossy beans! Can we have woossy beans?’
Woossy beans was my and Dec’s favourite thing when he was looking after me. It was beans on toast with woosser sauce in it, and we both said it was the finest lunch. Mum had tried to make it, but it never tasted the same as when Dec did it.
‘I’ll check in the cupboard – any idea where Worcester sauce might be, Mrs Scott?’
Then, while I was struggling to pull in the tiniest amount of useful breath and largely failing, Beth came in, and started rubbing my back while Jay filled a bowl with hot water and menthol, and put it under my nose. None of it ever worked, the coughing had always stopped on its own eventually, but just having them there calmed me, because when it happened, it felt like I was going to die, that I would never catch my breath again, that my insides were trying to hurl themselves out via my windpipe. But Beth knew how to offer soothing, comforting words, and whether they needed to call someone, and Jay – well, Jay was pretty useless, really, but he’d never leave until it was all over and he knew I was OK. Part of me wondered if he was waiting for an opportunity to chuck me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift so he could show off his strength, but that hadn’t been necessary so far and I was damned if I was going to give him the satisfaction – and then it stopped.
I gradually got more and more air inside me and the need to manually haul each breath in subsided; an extreme lethargy swept over me and took me down and I was asleep before they’d laid me down and put the duvet over me.
Granny opened the cupboards and tried to find the woosser sauce, but she still wasn’t having much luck when Mum came back in. Granny stopped looking so she could ask Mum how Uncle Matty was. I thought it was obvious that Uncle Matty was alright, otherwise Mum wouldn’t have come back in the kitchen, but I didn’t say this out loud.
Mum told Granny that Uncle Matty was asleep now, and asked what she was looking for in the cupboards.
‘Worcester sauce. For Cal’s lunch.’
Mum looked like she was going to say I didn’t like woosser sauce, then she thought about it, and I saw her remember that I only liked it in beans.
‘Ohh, woossy beans! You haven’t had that for ages, Cal.’
‘Dec’s making it for me.’
‘Are you sure you can manage, Dec?’
‘I’ll give it a go. Everything’s working much better now. I may need a hand to spread the butter, oh and possibly to open the tin.’
I kept forgetting that Dec had hurt arms. I could see he had a hurt face, but his arms seemed the same as normal until he couldn’t break apart the small Lego, or he couldn’t lean down on them for as long as he usually did.
We made the woossy beans on toast together, Cal and I ate it, then we got ready to go out. Beth had suggested the local garden centre, which was just down the road, and had lots of Christmas decorations, lights, and most importantly a Santa’s Grotto.
_You might not get in, but it’s worth a shot. Don’t promise Cal, though, in case it doesn’t happen.
It showed how much of Beth’s trust I had lost that she felt she needed to tell me how to be around Cal. It was a reminder of how much I had to do to prove myself to them.
_Can you ring me when you’re on your way back, give us a bit of warning?
‘Haven’t got a phone.’
_Oh, of course not, sorry, we haven’t – no, I forgot. Take mine, the number’s under ‘Home’.
Beth sounded like she had started to say something and then changed her mind. She had probably remembered what happened to my phone and was being considerate.
She gave me some money, just in case we got in to see Santa, which I really didn’t want, but I hadn’t got my new bank card yet, so I still had no cash. Not that there was anything in my bank account any more. So I had to accept Beth’s money. We walked along the path, Cal holding tightly onto my hand, chattering all the way.
We spent a long time at the garden centre looking at all the sparkle. There were loads of people there, and it was bustling and noisy. There was a long queue for Santa, so I asked Cal if he wanted to wait, it looked like at least forty-five minutes to me. He was keen, with conditions.
\can I have a slushie?
After lunch, which was the best woossy beans I’d ever had, Dec took me to the garden centre, which was just down the road. There were lots of Christmas trees and fairy lights, and a giant reindeer made out of sticks, and the most ginormous tree, even more ginormous than ours. Dec and I walked around looking at everything, and then we saw Santa’s Grotto, and I wanted to see Santa. Because it was Christmas Eve, there were lots of people, and lots of other children wanted to see Santa, so there was a line, and Dec said it would be a long time to wait, but he would buy me a slushie and wait with me.
While we waited, we started a story. It was one of our stories like we used to do on Sunday afternoons when it was raining, and I wanted to go to the park but the swings would be all wet. How it worked was, we had to make everything we saw go in the story. There was a lot to see while we were waiting in the line for Santa; when we first stood in the line, we were near a giant animaltronic Santa, which wasn’t as good as the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex was going to be at Dinosaurland, because the Santa was just waving his arm and turning his head, but he was the first thing to go in our story, because I started. We decided that Santa needed a sleigh, so we looked around to see something that he would be able to use. At first we didn’t see anything, and then Dec said:
‘Oh, you know what, Cal, I bet Santa’s sleigh is like a Transformer. I bet it kind of looks like one thing most of the year, and then on Christmas Eve, when he needs it, he presses a button, and it turns into his sleigh.’
This sounded like the best thing about Christmas I’d ever heard.
‘Yeah, I bet Santa’s sleigh is a dinosaur the rest of the year.’
‘I bet it is. I bet it’s a dinosaur made out of … er …’
Dec looked around, trying to find something like the rules of the story said.
‘Out of shovels, which stick up for spines on his back, and big hammers for his feet …’
‘And his eyes are torches, and when he changes into the sleigh, his eyes are the headlights.’
‘Good thinking Batman. And if it’s really snowy, he can use the shovels to dig a path.’
We carried on thinking about the story all the way in the line to Santa, and I had a really happy feeling inside, because I was with Dec and we were doing things like we used to, and it didn’t seem like we waited a long time at all before we were at the front, and a bit of me was disappointed because we were going to have to stop our story, and I knew that stories like that were never as good when you started them again, but most of me really wanted to see Santa so I could check about the things on my list.
I knew that this Santa wasn’t the real Santa, he would be one of his helpers just dressed up like Santa, but he would know what was on the list I sent him, and he would probably know Dec as well.
Cal was so creative and he sparked my imagination; I’d missed being with him loads, and was really enjoying getting reacquainted. We were soon at the front of the queue, Cal by now very excited. When it was his turn, he ran over to Santa and jumped up onto his knee.
*Hello young man, what’s your name?
\calum. Are you really Santa, or a helper?
*Well, I’m real and a helper. The real real Santa is coming tonight with your toys.
\did Dec ask him about Optimus Prime?
‘You know I did Cal, it’s all sorted.’
*Yes, I believe it’s all on the list?
Santa looked at me, did a slight double take presumably at my scars and bruises. I nodded.
\what about a Arsenal shirt?
Another look from Santa. I shrugged. Optimus Prime was as far as my Santa knowledge went.
*You’ll have to wait and see. It’s nice to have surprises, isn’t it?
I nearly said that it’s only nice if you get what you want and not if you don’t, but I was trying to be good and not mind too much if I didn’t have an Arsenal shirt because some children in Africa don’t even know Arsenal.
Cal continued to grill Santa.
\will Dec get a stocking?
Another shrug from me. An exasperated look from Santa behind his beard and glasses.
I asked if Dec would have a stocking, because he didn’t used to, but I didn’t know if this year was different, because it felt a bit different, and Santa said he would if he’d been good boy. I wasn’t sure if Dec had been a good boy, with him stealing and lying and making Mum and Dad cross, so I didn’t say anything else, and thought I might share some of my toys with Dec if he’d been too bad to have any of his own.
And then Santa said I could choose a present for today, from his lucky dip sack. There were lots of presents to choose from, but because they were all wrapped up, I couldn’t tell what they were. I looked at them, trying to decide whether I wanted the biggest, the smallest, or one that looked interesting. In the end I saw one that wasn’t big, or small, or flat and square like a colouring book, but was lumpy and hard when I squished it. I tore the paper off, and it was a dinosaur, but not one that I knew. It had its mouth open, and pointy white teeth, and a button that made its eyes flash red and a roar come out of its mouth. I showed Dec, who smiled at Santa, and made me say thank you.
Beth was just clearing away wrapping paper and sellotape when we arrived back. Cal didn’t notice, he was so intent on showing off his dinosaur.
\look what Santa gived me.
_Ooh, didn’t you do well. Did you have a nice time with Dec?
\we did a story about a dinosaur Transformer who was made of shovels and turned into Santa’s sleigh.
_Well it’s original. You’ll have to tell us that one, Dec, in case we’re asked for it again in the near future.
\can I show Uncle Matty my dinosaur?
_No, sweetheart, Uncle Matty’s still asleep. Play with Dec in the living room for now.
She looked at me to check.
‘Yeah, come on Cal, didn’t I see Jenga in your room?
\yes … but I’ve got Whirly Racers too.
‘Whirly Racers it is, go and fetch it.’
He ran out of the room to fetch his game.
I shrugged, smiled and followed Cal. As I walked out I heard
_See? He’s so good with him.
#I do see that. He reminded Calum of his manners earlier. They seem very fond of each other.
We spent a lot of time racing small cars on the living room floor. Cal gave me the worst cars, so he won most of the time. He seemed very pleased with himself, whether because of his victories or his strategy I wasn’t sure. Half way through the afternoon, Beth came in with a bag.
_We need to do your dressings, Dec. Cal, go and sit with granny for a bit. She’s in the kitchen.
\oh but I want to watch.
Beth looked at me.
‘It’s fine, I don’t think it’s too gruesome.’
_Alright, then, stay for now but you go when I say, OK?
I took my shirt off and Beth started to unwind the bandages that held the dressings in place, looking like she knew what she was doing – of course! She’d been a nurse, many years ago before she had Cal.
‘You’re good at this.’
_Don’t sound so surprised, it was my job.
‘I know, I just remembered.’
_It’s one of the things that made it easier to decide to look after Matty. I’ve seen it all before, I know how to do things, some idea about medication, when to call a doctor, all that stuff.
She carried on taking the dressings off, cleaning the scars with some fluid and cotton wool.
_These look pretty good, the stitches have nearly gone, there’s no swelling, no leakage. I think this could be your last dressing, Dec.
Cal had been watching intently, looking slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more blood.
\where does the sewing go?
_They’re special stitches that melt away after a while, so Dec doesn’t have to get the doctor to take them out. Is that what happened with the stitches in your face, Dec?
‘No, they took those out, and the ones in my back and legs. I had it done on Monday.’
Beth started putting new dressings on, and wound new bandages round them to hold them in place.
\mummy, can I have a bandage?
Mum never let me have plasters unless I really had a cut, but this time she looked at me and smiled.
‘How about a little tiny one on your finger?’
I held out my finger and Mum tied a bandage on the end of it. I held it up so Dec could see.
‘I can be in Cripples Corner now.’
I thought it would be alright to say it now I had a bandage. I was wrong.
Dec tried not to laugh, but Mum got cross.
‘Cal, remember what I said about not repeating everything Daddy says?’
‘But Dec and Uncle Matty say it too. It sounds funny.’
And it really wasn’t fair that everyone else was allowed to say it and I wasn’t.
‘Yes, I know, sweetheart, but it’s not, it’s not a nice word.’
‘Is it a swear?’
‘No, not a swear, but something I don’t want to hear you saying.’
‘Sorry, Cal, my fault mate. Let’s agree not to say it, if it upsets Mummy, yeah?’
That was a bit annoying. I wished I hadn’t said anything, because now nobody was allowed to say it.
‘Thanks, Dec. Right, I think that’s you all done.’
‘Nice job. Very professional. Good, eh, Cal? Bandage brothers, that’s what they’ll call us.’
‘Yeah, bandage brothers.’
I loved the name. And it sparked something off in my mind that Mum and Dad had talked about a while ago, about choosing a brother. If I could choose anyone for my brother, I’d choose Dec.
‘Dec, are you my new brother?’
Dec looked confused. Maybe I’d got it wrong. But Dec didn’t have a mummy and daddy, I was pretty sure of it, and if Mum and Dad wanted to give a me new brother, it just made sense to have Dec – he already did all the things brothers were supposed to do, like playing with me, and wrestling with me, and knowing which was a stegosaurus and which was a triceratops. And we already knew him. Then I saw Mum look at me and shake her head.
‘But Mummy, you said I might be having a new brother –’
‘Cal! I also said it was a secret.’
Well now I was really confused. If I could choose Dec as my brother, surely he’d have to know the secret too? I decided not to say anything else about it, because it just seemed to get me into trouble, even when it all made perfect sense.
I was a bit slow, but got there in the end.
She sighed and rolled her eyes.
_Yes, well now you know. But Carol doesn’t know yet, it’s very early days. I should have known big-mouth here would spill the beans, he heard me and James talking and worked it out. I suppose we’ll have to tell her now. God, she’ll never forgive me for you knowing before her.
‘Knowing what? Never heard a word. Congratulations for nothing, by the way. Wow.’
She gave me a big, tired smile, patted me on her perfectly executed bandages, and left me to more Whirly Racing with Cal. I wondered briefly whether Beth’s news would change anything, but it was just one more thing I had no control over, and things had already changed beyond recognition anyway, so I hardly thought about it again.
So now Dec and I knew a secret together, and that felt better. Mum smiled at us, and then left us to get on with more Whirly Races.
Uncle Matty was asleep all the afternoon, and Dad was in his room, watching in case he coughed again or got more poorly, so Dec and I played and talked and fed Percy and made up more stories. The stories were mostly about Christmas, because Christmas was tomorrow, and I couldn’t think about much else.
At dinner time, Dad came out of Uncle Matty’s room, and Granny went in instead. They could have put the speaker on to hear for coughing, but when Uncle Matty had coughed a lot, they were all worried about him, and wanted to be near him, and wanted him to be in the quiet, so I couldn’t play in there.
The afternoon wore on, grew dark and became Christmas Eve proper. Cal got more and more excited, talking nineteen to the dozen about Santa, stockings and presents. Jay, who had been sitting with a sleeping Matt most of the afternoon, emerged for dinner looking tired. His mum went to sit in while Jay ate. Beth rubbed his shoulder.
_How’s he doing?
łStill sleeping it off. He’ll be OK, I think. He’s got some of the colour back in his cheeks. He wants to join in tomorrow so much, he needs to rest up. Jesus, Beth, I hate it when that happens. He can’t get his breath, you can just see it sucking his strength, right before your eyes.
_I know, it’s horrible. You were great.
łSorry, Dec, we’ve left you with Cal all day.
‘I’ve had a great time. Been exploring my inner six-year-old.’
_Oh, James, just to warn you, Cal told Dec our news.
łOur news? Oh. Shit.
Cal, wisely, didn’t comment on this particular swear and carried on eating his dinner as if butter wouldn’t melt. Jay put his face in his hands and breathed in deeply.
łWe’re going to have to tell Mum, now, aren’t we. And then your mum, and oh God, everyone. So much for keeping it quiet.
_Can’t be helped. Nice Christmas present?
łYeah, think positive.
He kissed her on the cheek, looked at me and winked.
Mum told Dad that I’d let Dec know the secret – Dad said a swear, but Mum didn’t say ‘James honestly’, and Dad winked at Dec, so I thought it might be OK. Dad said they’d have to tell Granny, so it wouldn’t be a secret for much longer, and I was glad because sometimes it was hard to remember not to say things until I’d said them and it was too late.
Then Dad did the list at me, the one about going to bed. He did the list because I would sometimes try to do lots of other things before I went to bed, and the list meant I couldn’t, I could only do what was on the list.
‘So, Cal, after dinner it’s bath, PJs, story, bed. No arguing, no slow-coaching. OK?’
There wasn’t much room for slow-coaching if Dad followed the list, but I could at least take a long time over eating my dinner, and see if I could hear Mum and Dad saying anything interesting to Dec.
‘James, me and your mum are going to sit with Matty once Cal’s in bed. You and Dec could use the living room …’
‘Well, I know you wanted to have a talk with Dec.’
łOh, our deep and meaningful. Jesus. Sorry, Dec, not very subtle. Up for it?
It was one of the things I’d been dreading since arriving. Sorting things out with Jay was going to be painful, and bring up a lot of things I’d prefer remained buried, and a part of me worried that I’d fucked some things up so much they couldn’t be sorted or explained or forgiven. But it needed doing, and avoiding it wouldn’t make it any easier later on.
\daddy, what’s deep pan meanyful? Is it pizza?
Jay laughed out loud.
łNo Cal, it’s not pizza. I kind of wish it was.
_Daddy means him and Dec are going to talk for a while after you’ve gone to bed.
\can’t I stay and listen?
_No, sweetheart, you need to go to bed and sleep so Santa can bring your presents.
łCal, remember the list – bath, PJs, story, bed. No deep pan meanyful on the list.
Dad reminded me about the list, which didn’t have listening to talking, or pizza, on it anywhere, worse luck.
Cal prolonged finishing his dinner longer than I thought humanly possible – he really was an expert in avoiding going to bed. When he finally conceded that he had finished, Jay took him upstairs for a bath.
After dinner, Dad took me for a bath, and we put loads of bubbles in it and played with my submarine for ages. Dad put bubbles on my head like white hair, and put some on his chin, like a Santa beard, and it was funny.
When the water started to get cold, I got out of the bath and dried in the towel, then got my Christmas PJs on, the ones with snowflakes and Christmas trees. I’d worn them every weekend since the beginning of December, and now it was Christmas Eve, so it was definitely a good time to wear them.
Beth and I sat in the living room, watching a soppy Christmas film on TV. It might have been Love Actually, I obviously had no interest in such slushy nonsense. Jay’s mum was still sitting with Matt. In a break from the romantic traumas of Hugh Grant, I decided to check about my role on Christmas Day.
‘What’s the drill for tomorrow?’
_Not sure there’s a drill, sweetheart, we’ll just see how it goes. A lot depends on Matty. We were going to do some presents in his room, and he really wants to get up for dinner, but after today I don’t know if he’ll be up to it. He hasn’t been out of bed properly for a couple of days, so we’ll have to see. I hate to leave him out of things, but he gets so tired, we have to judge it at the time.
_It can be hard to make the call, he’s very stubborn, and doesn’t like to give in, so we just have to keep an eye on him. His colour changes when he’s had enough, so does his breathing.
‘Is he going to be OK?’
_Oh, Dec, nobody really knows. The combination of pneumonia and MS is a bit of an unknown quantity. He’s better than he was, but it’s slow progress. Something like today could be a setback, or he could wake up tomorrow full of beans.
‘It’s a bit shit, isn’t it.’
_Yes, sweetheart, it is a bit shit. Anyway, are you ready for your early morning Santa call?
‘How early is that likely to be?’
_Well, I don’t know if you remember last year, but if that’s anything to go by, it will be about three o’clock the first time, and you’ll be able to tell him firmly to go back to sleep. Second time, and if you’re lucky he’ll make it to four, he’ll be more persuasive. He definitely can’t open his stocking until five – he can come into our room to do that. It’s hanging by his bed – there’s a duplicate full stocking, James is going to change it over before we go to bed. Under no circumstances let him persuade you that he is allowed to come downstairs and open any presents under the tree. Carol and Matty will kill you if they miss anything.
‘So I’m going to have a sleepless night pretty much from three then?’
_Yep. OK with that?
Bath time over, Cal bounced into the living room carrying another large book. This one was about space. He was about to take a giant leap onto the sofa next to me.
łMind Dec’s arm.
He clambered carefully on instead, still managing to bash my bandaged arm with the huge book. I lifted my arm up and put it round him.
\man on the Moon.
łRight, I’m listening this time, you two. One chapter only.
Cal had chosen well, it was a really long chapter, with lots of pictures to talk about apart from the writing, and we made it last a good long time. When we reached the end of the last page, I glanced up at Jay, who was watching me in amusement.
The chapter about Man on the Moon was really long, and had lots of pictures to talk about. Dec read slowly, and we looked at some of the pictures twice, but Dad was listening this time, and when Dec got to the end of the chapter, we both looked up. Dad was looking back at us.
‘You may well check me out, I have read this chapter many times, and I know that is the end of it. Bed now, Cal.’
‘Ohh, Daddy –’
‘What’s next on the list after story?’
‘Have you had your story?’
‘So what’s next?’
‘Bed. But –’
‘No buts. Just bed. Come on, I’ll carry you up if you like.’
That was the problem with the list. You couldn’t argue with it, it was just a list.
Dad stood up and I jumped up so he would catch me. He held me upside down so Mum could kiss me night night, and I said night to Dec, then Dad carried me upstairs.
My stocking was lying on the top of my bed, and I climbed the ladder and hung the stocking on the end of the bed, almost hugging myself with excitement, because when I woke up tomorrow, Santa would have been, and the stocking would be full of shapes that squished and rustled, and I would have new toys.
Beth looked over at me once Cal was safely out of earshot.
_So far, so good. I’m expecting a few false starts. Right, I’ll vacate the room and leave you and James to it.
She stood up, left the room and closed the door. I flicked the TV off, and sat nervously, feeling like I was waiting for a job interview or an exam.