And then, there they were again, those sounds, tormented. I couldn’t help turning to look at Dec, sitting in the chair, whole body moving from side to side, mouth contorted.
‘Ungh … mm … no, no … wai … no … mm … mm … no … can’t … ungh … no … NO!
Dec’s eyes snapped wide open, but he wasn’t seeing anything for a few seconds, at least not anything that was really there. His breathing was rapid, and there was a sheen of sweat on his face.
He deserved better than this, but …
‘Shuh the fuck uhp.’
I woke up in the familiar sweat, heart pounding, breathing hard. I remembered not to sit up, so I wouldn’t bang my head. Realised I was already sitting up. I wasn’t in Cal’s room, I was in the chair in Matt’s room.
I looked up. Matt was looking back at me.
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Hope I wasn’t screaming.’
}Noh, moahns and nohs …
I was going to have to be nice to the little bastard, wasn’t I. I sighed.
‘ … yuh OK?’
‘Yeah, I’ll calm down in a minute. You OK?’
I had to think about this. I hadn’t been, I had been in a pit of despair, on my own, having a good wallow, drowning in the inky blackness. But now, maybe …
‘Duhno. Yuhr a fucking bahstrd.’
‘Goh tuh behd.’
Maybe now he’d been asleep and had his nightmare, he’d see sense.
‘Because I’m staying here.’
Yeah, I get that, you keep saying.
‘Well, I did say before, you shouldn’t be on your own when you’re feeling this shit. You might think it’s what you want, but what you really want is to push away anyone who might show they care about you.’
Well that was a bloody annoying assessment, being as it was very nearly spot on. Who did he think he was?
‘Wha the fuck do yuh knoh? Yuhr not meh.’
‘I know, mate, I’m not saying I am. But I think we’re pretty similar when it comes to needing help.’
Ah, needing help. That old chestnut. Yeah, not very good at that. How did this kid know all about this shit? Oh, and here were the bloody tears again, welling in my eyes, I was going to have to do some fast talking to stop them overflowing. I tipped my head back to try and make them drain away. But Dec had come close to the truth and deserved an answer.
‘Haht hahving tuh ahsk. Fucking haht ih. Fucking haht all this.’
‘I know that. Everyone knows that. It’s why they all fuss around all the time, asking if you want this or that, are you OK, too hot, too cold, all so you don’t have to fucking ask for yourself.’
What the ..? It bloody well made sense.
‘Hahnt thoht of ih lihk tha.’
‘I know it’s bloody infuriating when they fuss, you feel powerless, or something. It’s easier on your own, you think, only me to worry about, you’re in control, not them. So you scare people off when you’re feeling shit, so they leave you alone and you don’t have to worry about them. Believe me, I’ve done it – I came this close to making sure Jay and Beth never wanted to see me again. And you’re on your way to it working with them too. I saw how quickly Beth shooed us all out when you turned on the silent treatment. And they both told me to leave you alone when you’re ‘like this’. Before long you’ll be ‘like this’ more and more of the time, and they’ll leave you alone more and more. They won’t want Cal to play in here, either. Happy days, you’ll have got your wish and you’ll be completely on your own. Maybe you should think carefully about whether it really is what you want.’
I sounded more confident about my theory than I felt; everything I had just said had only occurred to me that afternoon, as I considered Matt’s self-imposed solitary confinement. It made sense to me, but from Matt there was more lengthy silence. Then an intake of breath.
Fucking hell. He was bloody right. Not that I was going to just come out and say that.
I took a deep, ragged breath and ran a hand over my face. I didn’t know how he’d done it, but he had me talking now.
‘Gohd, it’s soh fucking hard.’
‘Well, you can have a good wallow in self-pity. But it gets harder to drag yourself up from your wallowing, and sometimes it just feels easier to stay down there. So that’s why I’m staying here with you. I was in a bad place not so long ago, and if I hadn’t had someone to hold on to while I was there, I might never have got out. I’m here so you’ve got something to hold on to, if you want it.’
How did he know this shit? It was like he was inside my head. I thought about him staying with me all evening, sitting in the armchair, being here, giving me something to hold on to. And it had worked. I hadn’t been able to get as far into the black hole as I wanted to, because he’d been there, dangling that bloody rope, making me hold on to it. I turned my head to look at him.
‘Who did yuh hahv?’
Ah, that would be one of the many girls, then.
He sounded so horrified, it was almost amusing.
‘She’s this woman, lives downstairs. Decided she was going to look after me, I had no choice one way or the other. I’d be in the shit well and truly now if it wasn’t for her. I should send her up here, she’d soon sort you out.’
Dec’s lady friends notwithstanding, there was other stuff on my mind.
‘Yohr going bahk on Suhndy.’
I looked at Matt. His face was a picture of hopelessness and desolation, and I had a feeling this was at the heart of everything for him at the moment. Thought about why that might be. It wasn’t me he was sad about, it was what I was going back to.
As I said it, I realised that it was this that had set me off. Not only was I jealous of his return to his life, to his resumption of normality, but I was going to bloody well miss him. How had that happened? He was Jay’s family, not mine. He was only nineteen, I was thirty. We shouldn’t have anything in common, should we? He was just this moody teenager, wasn’t he? No bond of friendship should have developed, should it? But it had, maybe because I’d lost all my friends and was a bit needy when someone talked to me like I was a normal person, but it was there, this thing, and I felt hopeless and desolate at the thought of being without it.
‘Yeah, all good things come to an end.’
He was being flippant about it, but I hadn’t done wallowing, not quite yet.
‘Ihm going nohwehr.’
‘You’re getting there, just slowly. Take it easy mate, what’s the rush?’
I wanted him to know, how he’d affected me.
‘Ihv sehn yuh, yuhv got behter since yuhv behn hehr. Yuhr face looks behter, yuhr hahpy. Jus in a few days. I wan tha. Jus wan my lihf bahk.’
I wanted to say it again, ‘it’s not fair’, but I was in danger of forgetting which of us was the teenager here, so I didn’t.
‘You’ll get it. It doesn’t seem like something you’re going to be able to rush, but it’ll come.’
He seemed to have all the answers, everything made sense.
‘Wha if ih duhnt? Cahnt spehd the rest of my days hahving my ahrs wiped by my brohther.’
‘Matt, I know, believe me, that pride is important. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. But speaking as someone who might just be peeking out of the end of a tunnel of dark shit, pride is pretty useless if you’re stuck on your own in that dark shit without a helping hand to pull you out. Let them help. It’s much less exhausting than fighting it all the time.’
That was rich, coming from him. In the short time I’d known him, I’d found out that half of his problems had come from not asking for help. We were more alike than either of us would admit.
‘Tha’s wha yuh duh, issit?’
‘Fuck no, I spend all my energy trying to do things on my own, then when someone finally insists on helping, I spend more energy fighting them off, but then I am a head case.’
At least he was self-aware.
‘And bluhdy hypocriht.’
‘Pretty much. Just giving you the benefit of my vast experience of fending off people who care too fucking much for their own good.’
He’d opened up the floodgates, and talking felt good, now, so I carried on.
‘Cahnt face being lihk this fuhever, nehding soh much hehp.’
‘Who says it’s forever? You’re getting better, aren’t you?’
‘Fehls soh slow. Bahstrd MS might cohm back any tihm, then Ihm rehly screwed.’
‘Mate, you’ve got to stay positive. Think about what you’ve achieved – like going out today.’
I snorted. People went out every day without getting a ‘You Have Been Amazing!‘ medal, sponsored by Patronised-Cripples-R-Us.
‘Yeh, big fucking dehl, Ih wahs allohed ouh wih twenty layers of clohths. Hahd to fucking beg to get ih. Cuhdn’t even puhl my fucking trohsers up mysehf. And I stohd up tuh kick a bahl. Woofuckinghoo.’
‘When was the last time you went out?’
‘Cahnt member. Noh since hospital.’
‘So, isn’t that a big achievement? I mean, it might not get you signed for Man United –
No, no, wasn’t having that.
‘My tehm. Spuhrs. Wouhnt play foh fucking Man U if yuh paihd meh.’
‘OK, my apologies, well, assuming that the Tottenham scouts were down the park this morning, they just possibly might not have been impressed enough with your penalty effort to sign you up immediately, but it’s huge for you where you are at the moment. I think you might be looking too big, too soon.’
That was part of it, but not all.
‘Dohn nehd big, jus nehd nohmal. Sohmtimes fehl threh years old, noh allohed ouh, noh allohed tuh drink, noh allohed tuh fucking move, fucking bahby monitor foh fuck’s sahk.’
He’d been the only one who asked if I wanted help, if I wanted this or that, as if I had a choice in the matter. I wondered if he knew what a difference it made.
‘They worry about you. They feel as out of control as you do. I don’t think they realise how you feel. You should tell them.’
No, no, not going there. There will be no telling Jay or Beth how I’m feeling about shit.
‘Cahnt. They gahv up evrything foh meh. Jus wish ih was diffreht.’
‘It won’t change unless you do something about it.’
So I went on the attack again, because doing something about it was hard, and making Dec feel guilty and distracting him was easy.
‘Why duh yuh care? Yuhr going back tuh yuhr nohmal lihf, behr an sehx, all tha, big rugby carehr, fucking golden boy.’
‘It’s not quite as simple as that, and I’m a long way from being anyone’s fucking golden boy, but yeah, with a lot of work, I hope I’ll get some of it back. Why do I care? Well, didn’t Jay say I was part of his family? Doesn’t that include you? Didn’t you call me aunty or something? And quite a big part of me would swap everything back there to stay here with them.’
That hadn’t worked quite as well as I’d hoped. There was still a way to put him off, though.
‘Yuh dohn need to care bouh me, yuh hahdly knoh meh.’
I recognised this tactic, the one where he tried to push me away, stop me caring about him, so he could go back to feeling sorry for himself, wrapping himself up in a cocoon of self-pity.
‘Don’t try that shit on me, mate, I know all the tricks. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people I’ve had to fob off, push away, let down, and generally piss right off to get my lonely quiet life – I’m a bit of an expert. You don’t get rid of me that easily. In fact you don’t really get rid of me at all. And you’ve only got yourself to blame.’
Now I was confused. He was leaving soon. Then I’d get rid of him, like it or not.
‘Wha yuh mean?’
‘Well, last night, when, by the way, you struggled into the living room and nearly froze your balls off just because I was having a hard time, anyway, you said to me that I’m connected to this family even if I’m not here. It made a bit of an impact, both what you said and you coming all that way to say it. And I’m throwing it back at you. Even when I’m not here, you’re not going to be able to get rid of me. That connection is going to be there. If you’re having a bad day, I’ll be here; if you do something amazing, like wipe your own arse, I’ll be here. I might not hear about it till afterwards, but it doesn’t stop the connection. As if there’s a webcam in your head or something.’
Holy shit. My ‘family always connected’ speech coming back to bite me. Or make perfect sense, one or the other.
‘Fuck, thas a scahry thoht. Speciahly if Ihm wihping my ahrs.’
‘Yeah, maybe an image too far.’
OK, and now I got it. It had taken nearly all night, but he’d done it. I bowed to his superior obstinacy in the face of a serious challenger.
‘I geh the point. Fucking bahstrd. Shih, yuh can tahk fuh bluhdy England. Got a fucking ahnswer foh ehvrything. Ihm fucking exhosted. Goh tuh behd.’
Not this again. Didn’t he get it? He’d won, he’d pulled me out of the pit, I was going to be OK.
‘Shih, Dec, yuh cahnt stay hehr all night.’
‘Yuh rehly ahr an infuhriatingly stuhborn fucking bahstrd.’
Well alright then, to the victor the prize.
‘ … Thahks tho. Mehns a loh, ahtually.’
And it did. It meant a lot that not only had he stayed with me in the face of some pretty hard core rudeness, he’d seen how things were with me, known how to fix them, and done it. He hadn’t had to, he could have just gone to bed and had his nightmares in Jay’s office and not given me a thought, but he’d cared enough that, when he thought he could make a difference, he’d tried. And that really did mean a lot.
‘Remihn meh how ohl yuh ahr?’
‘Nineteen. Nearly twenty. Why?’
‘Fuck meh. Bluhdy bossy fuh tehnager. Yuh knoh Ihv got more than ten yehrs on yuh? Shouhnt beh taking this shih. Bluhdy upstaht.’
The little sod didn’t even talk like a bloody teenager. It was if something had sucked all the ‘like’, ‘totally’ and ‘random’ out of him, and it made him seem more like an equal. Not that he wasn’t my equal, more than my equal with me being a fucking cripple and us both being human in any case. Being a bit older gave me no rights to claim superiority of any kind. Maybe I mean he seemed … more adult? Older? Oh I don’t fucking know, he was just easy to bloody well talk to, alright?
Dec didn’t answer, and in the silence I nearly fell asleep. I wanted to keep things going for a bit, and thought I was up for more conversation now.
‘Heh, fahncy cuhp o teh?’
‘Yeah, you making?’
‘Noh. Crihpl, ‘member?’
‘Any bloody excuse. My turn again, then, is it?’
‘Thahks Auhnty Dec. Jus ahsking foh hehp lihk a guhd boy. Mehbe yuh couhd empty my pihs bohtle too, knoh hoh much yuh lohv hehping.’
I came back with the tea, and Matt wordlessly handed me the plastic bottle filled with golden liquid. His was smiling challengingly, but I took the bottle without comment and went into the bathroom to deal with it like before. It was a very small thing to do for someone, but I recognised that for Matt is was a big ask, and thought of a way of joking with him about it to make it feel better, while I was washing it out. When I got back into the room, though, Matt was fast asleep his cup of tea going cold, the third undrunk cup he’d been given that night. I sat in the chair sipping mine and thought over everything we’d said, about what made life normal for me, and what might make it normal for Matt. Beer and sex, all that. It had been a long time for me too, and last night’s beers with Jay had shown me I wasn’t quite up to speed yet. It would have been a long time for Matt as well – little things that added up to feeling normal. I eventually fell into a dreamless sleep.
And that really is it. Oh, well, there was more bonding, and he talked to Jay, Beth and Mum and told them not to let me get away with the ‘I vont to be alone’ shit, that I was fed up being treated like a child, and that they needed to wait until I asked for help before barging in and giving it, and things were different. But that’s how it all began.
When I woke up next morning, the sun was trying to shine through the curtains, and my back was protesting a night spent sitting in a chair. Matt was still asleep. I could hear voices from the direction of the kitchen. I got up, picked up the plates and cups from last night, and headed towards the voices. Jay and Cal were there, Jay was making tea and Cal was eating cereal.
‘Stick another teabag in?’
łHey Dec, how did it go last night?
‘OK I think. He’s still asleep, but he seemed better last night. We had a talk.’
łReally? I’d love to know how you pulled that one off.
‘I was just there. It’s what he needs – someone more determined than him to be there, to keep him going.’
łHow come you know this and we don’t?
‘Well, I’ve been there, where he is, lost it all, no hope. You push people away, don’t think you deserve it. Becomes true if you let it go too far.’
Jay stared at me.
łBloody hell, Dec. I never thought. Jesus. He’s always so adamant, leave me alone and all that.
‘You have to ignore him. He won’t like it, but you have to want it more. Battle of wills.’
łIt really worked?
‘In the end. Told him a few home truths, his and mine. He didn’t like it, he was pretty pissed off, but I wore him down eventually. I can be pretty persistent.’
I stretched, trying to get the kinks out of my spine.
łYou didn’t sit in that chair all night, did you?
‘Yeah, my back’s killing me.’
łJesus, Dec, you really are a headcase. Go and get some proper sleep.
‘No, I’ll be OK. Just need to move around a bit.’
Jay handed me a cup of tea.
‘Thanks. Could you do one for Matt, too? In a proper mug?
He looked at me, eyebrows raised.
‘You need to stop babying him, it makes him feel even more crap.’
łJesus, Dec. You’re full of advice this morning. When did you stop being a teenager and start being an agony aunt?
‘Just think about it.’
łOK. Here’s his tea. Proper mug as requested. You’ll presumably be washing the duvet and fixing the bloody expensive electric bed if he spills it.
I walked back into Matt’s room with both cups of tea. He was still asleep, or seemed to be.
The next day, Uncle Matty’s door was open, and Uncle Matty wasn’t quiet and sad any more, so I went in and played. It was Dec’s last day before he went back, and I still couldn’t understand why he wasn’t going to stay with us. He could sleep underneath me, I wouldn’t mind if he screamed every night. I just didn’t want him to go.
\dec can you help me build a road?
‘Course, mate. What are we going to use?’
\these black Legos are the sides, and these green ones are trees.
I knelt down on the floor, and started to sort out the blocks.
}Heh, it’s Auhnty Dec.
I looked up to see Matt looking back.
‘I fear I may have started a nickname I would rather not have.’
}Thas poiht of nicknahms. Cup oh teh? Er, plehs?
‘That’s yours on the table.’
He looked over at it.
}Wha noh spouht?
I stood up and handed it to him.
‘Give it a try. But if you spill it, I’m in the shit with Jay.’
}Might hahv tuh spihl a lihtl bit, jus tuh see tha.
He held the mug in both hands and took a couple of gulps.
}Mm, tahsts behter in prohpr cup.
He drank the rest and put the mug on the table.
‘Thanks for not spilling, much appreciated.’
}Thahks fuh las nigh. Mehnt a loh.
‘Any time, mate.’
\dec, are you going to help me?
‘Course, Cal, what was I doing? Oh yeah, black bits.’
I knelt back down to the Lego and engrossed myself in Cal’s game. Beth and Carol came in to say good morning to Matt, but Jay remained absent. Beyond the room, after a while, I could hear them talking, the sound of plates and cups being loaded into the dishwasher, music from the radio.
Cal’s road soon stretched from one end of the room to the other, and branched off towards the door. He filled it with vehicles of all descriptions, including a spaceship and a giant tortoise on wheels. This was apparently a police car. Cal’s other toys populated the streets and committed crimes that allowed the tortoise police car to race around arresting them. Optimus Prime was the chief of police who decided whether they merited jail, freedom or Transformer justice in the form of a laser blast. Most of my characters were laser blasted.
I looked up.
}Jay hahnt behn in this mohning. Nehd a … er .. the loo.
I felt a pang of guilt, and wondered if Jay had taken what I had said this morning the wrong way.
‘Do you want me to get him?’
I knew Uncle Matty wanted to do a poo because he could wee in a bottle that he had in bed with him. I wasn’t allowed to ask about it, because Uncle Matty didn’t like talking about it, but sometimes I saw the lump under the duvet where the bottle was, and knew Uncle Matty was doing a wee.
I wandered out to the kitchen, where I could hear Jay’s voice. As I opened the kitchen door, he stopped talking. Beth and Carol were sat at the table as well, and they looked liked they had been having an intense discussion.
‘Matt’s wondering if you could help him with the loo?’
łI was just on my way. We’ve been talking about it, actually.
łWell, no, not specifically the loo, more what you said about not babying him. You think we should let him do more for himself?
I was uncomfortable in the role of ‘expert on Matt’, and frowned as I tried to put into words what I thought Matt needed from them.
‘Well, that was what I meant, but it’s not really my place to say. You guys are the ones who look after him, I’m sure it’s not easy, I wasn’t criticising. It was just something he said, how he feels like a child. I was thinking how it feels to need help to eat and drink, and have people decide everything for you, like when I was in hospital, and afterwards. You feel helpless, stupid almost. I can see from your side how you want to make sure he’s OK, so you do things for him. Maybe just remember he can ask if he needs help?
łBut isn’t that the opposite of what you’ve just said about ignoring him when he tells us to leave him alone?
I thought about it, the contradictions of those in need.
‘I’m not an expert, I only know how it feels for me. Something huge like feeling hopeless, I guess you step in, but feeling normal, it’s about little things, like which cup you use. He can say if he’s feeling wobbly and needs a cup with a spout. If he doesn’t say and he spills it, it’s his responsibility. When his tea is always in his plastic cup, it says you expect him to not be able to do it. Put it in a normal cup, and the message is he’s normal. At least when it comes to drinking tea. He did ask if you would help him now, though.’
łOK then, let’s see how this works. Matty has to ask for help, should be interesting. Brave new world.
He left the kitchen and headed for Matt’s room.
After Dad had been in and helped Uncle Matty in the bathroom, he looked out of the window.
‘Know what, Matty, the sun’s shining, we should get you out again. Fancy it?’
‘Right, let’s get your layers on then. Cal, go and get your coat and your wellies.’
When I came back with my things, Dad had started putting all Uncle Matty’s clothes on again, and he helped me with my wellies while Uncle Matty put his jumpers on.
Jay came in that very morning, after his little chat with the kid, and just sat there, while I struggled through getting myself up, determined I wasn’t going to ask unless I fell forwards into a sink full of water. And I did it, and it felt great. We were both so excited afterwards that we decided to go out again, and Jay helped me pile on the contents of my wardrobe, and later on decided it would be a regular occurrence. My head was almost spinning with the speed of it; after months of torpor, I could feel things moving, shifting, getting better, and that Christmas was the turning point. I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to show Dec what it had meant to me.
I didn’t have to wait long, as it turned out. But, shh, spoilers.