48. She’s lost control

In which things escalate rather quickly.

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Matt

I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Jules for weeks. She was even less approachable than usual, and our teams were focussed on entirely different projects.

Then Phil stuck his managerial oar in and asked my team to take over one of her team’s accounts. Julia’s team were getting behind, and my team had just finished a project, so had a bit of time to give, and Phil decided to mix things up. This was unheard of – taking another team’s account was tantamount to throwing down a leather gauntlet and suggesting pistols at dawn. Jules was going to have a shit fit. I tried to dissuade Phil, but he kept quoting stats and deadlines at me, and in the end he just pulled rank, and I had no choice.

Julia

I never used my personal mobile phone when I was at work; I didn’t want any part of my private life interfering with my well constructed work cocoon. But that day I had forgotten to switch it off, as I sometimes did if I’d been charging it, and heard it announce a text in my bag. Tutting to myself, I reached for the phone to turn it to silent, and caught sight of the text on the screen. I saw the name ‘Nons’ and despite my rules, had to look. It was a typically bald informational statement from my mother.

‘Hello JuJu darling. Sorry to inform you Nons died yesterday. Just about to board. Will ring you tonight at 7pm.’

No ‘love Mum’, no ‘hope you’re OK’, but I would have been astounded if there had been. I stared at the message in disbelief. Nons. My aunt. She’d brought me up while my parents gallivanted round the world. She was my home, my rock. No. Appalled at myself, I felt tears well up in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. My lips trembled. No.

Matt

I procrastinated like mad, and didn’t talk to Jules about the account for a while, trying several different ways to introduce the subject, and then I walked past her office, looked in and saw her crying. Shit. Jules, Julia Marran, the fucking Ice Queen, was bloody crying. Phil must have gone off-piste, as he tended to sometimes, and told her. I did not do women crying, due to the previously mentioned fuckwittedness that came out of my mouth on such occasions. But this felt like partly my fault, so I took a deep breath.

‘Everything alright?’

Julia

Matt Scott’s voice filtered through my distress. Shit, he was the last person I wanted to see me like this.

‘Jules?’

I looked up to see him closing the door behind him, reaching for some tissues out of a box on my desk, handing them to me, crouching next to my chair with concern on his face.

‘It’s Julia.’

Matt

Shit, I’d forgotten about that, it had just slipped out. I looked down for a second.

‘Sorry. Julia. You just look like a Jules to me. What the fuck’s the matter?’

She avoided my eyes, sniffing back the tears, blinking hard and shaking her head.

Julia

I tried to pull myself together, sniffing back the tears, thinking of other things. I didn’t trust myself to speak for a while, so I just shook my head and remained silent. I needed to think – I wanted to call my mother, but I couldn’t do that at work, I had my own rules about using my personal mobile at work, and besides, I didn’t want to be overheard. Before I could even start to decide what to do, Matt spoke again.

Matt

‘Is it Phil? Has he said something about the Cullen report?’

She looked at me then, frowning.

‘No, what about the Cullen report?’

Oh bollocks. She wasn’t upset about that. Well not yet, anyway.

‘Oh, er, shit, well nothing then. Fuck. Had to open my big mouth.’

Julia’s demeanour changed, as if she’d completely forgotten she’d been upset just moments before. She wasn’t going to let it go.

Julia

His faux pas was actually helping me focus back on work and stop my tears. I was going to have to do something about my mother’s text soon, contact her, but right now I was at work, and Matt Scott was in my office having seen me crying. And he’d said something about a project my team was working on.

‘What about the Cullen report?’

I pushed my chair away from him, and he stood up, putting his hands out in front of him in a conciliatory gesture.

Matt

Maybe I should have just told her then, but I was a bigger coward than I realised, and I didn’t want a big confrontation, so I just tried to bullshit my way out of it.

‘Look, forget I said anything, sorry Jule – er – Julia, you looked upset and I just thought … just forget it. Shit.’

I turned round and walked out of the office, closing the door behind me.

Julia

I couldn’t leave it like that; if I did, I was going to have to deal with the news I’d just received, so I wiped my face and went in search of Phil, the manager of all the teams, who informed me that Matt’s team was going to be taking responsibility for the Cullen report, despite the weeks of work my team had already put into it. He wouldn’t listen to my arguments and told me to hand over all the research and data we had immediately.

I was furious. I rarely showed my emotions in the office (hence The Ice Queen), but today everybody knew I was seriously pissed off. I slammed my door shut and started gathering the information together with loud bangs and the odd shouted insult. It helped enormously in enabling me to direct my emotions at the files I was throwing into a box rather than at the more troubling other things that were filling my head.

Matt

Well, of course, she went to Phil and got the whole story, and she had the predicted shit fit, shut herself in her office and started chucking things around, swearing loudly. Phil, the bastard, I really don’t know what he was up to, he must have had some kind of death wish on my behalf, but he insisted I went and got all the files from her. Everyone could hear her doing violence to things, and I thought it was particularly unfair to be made to interrupt, but there we had it. I was a minion when all was said and done.

I tapped softly on the door, in the partial hope that she wouldn’t hear. She didn’t answer, but I knew I wasn’t really going to get away with that one, so I tapped louder. Still no answer, so I just opened the door. I tried to look as apologetic as I could, but I was under no illusions that I was in for an earful.

Julia

‘Piss off. You’ve done enough for today.’

He had the decency to hang his head and look embarrassed.

‘Sorry, Julia. Really, I’m sorry, I thought you must know, shit, what a fucking balls-up. Phil wanted me to come and get the stuff, but it can wait.’

‘No, take it, it’s all right here.’

I took the box of papers and thrust it into his arms, pushing him back out of the door as I did so, then I turned round, grabbed my bag and my coat and walked out of the office, not sure where I was going or whether I would be back before the end of the day. As I stamped down the stairs, trying hard not to cry before I got well away from the building, I heard a voice shouting my name.

Matt

She just looked so upset, more upset than I thought could be accounted for by Phil’s shenanigans, and much as I hated crying women, I felt a bit responsible, so I dumped the box on a desk and followed her.

‘Julia, wait.’

If I concentrated really hard, I would remember not to call her Jules.

She didn’t wait. She hurried down the stairs and disappeared through the outer door, so I ran after her, catching up with her just before she crossed the road. I grabbed her arm and pulled her round to face me, more roughly than I meant to because I wanted to make sure she didn’t get away. She angrily pulled her arm out of my grip.

‘What the fuck do you want?’

She was nearly spitting she was so annoyed.

‘Just to see if you’re OK. I feel terrible.’

‘Well I’m not OK. And I’m glad you feel terrible. Just leave me alone.’

Well, she’d done it now. She’d invoked the ‘leave me alone I’m feeling shit’ code, and I was powerless to do anything else. I smiled, probably very irritatingly.

Julia

Something seemed to click behind his eyes and a tiny smile flickered at the corner of his mouth, then disappeared.

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘No, I won’t leave you alone. When you feel as shit as this, you shouldn’t be on your own.’

It sounded almost as if he was reciting the words, and I was astounded to see a grin spread across his face.

‘Come on.’

‘What?’

‘Come with me, I want to show you a secret.’

He grabbed my hand and started to pull me down the street. I was by now completely flummoxed. All thoughts of how I should be behaving and with whom had vanished completely, and having someone telling me what to do was, for the moment, very welcome. I could regain some control in a while, once I had first regained some composure.

Matt

I didn’t think she’d come with me, but she put up less of a fight than I’d imagined she would. At first I thought she was dragging her feet on purpose, and then I realised she was wearing heels, and couldn’t keep up with the pace I’d set. So I slowed down, and she became more compliant, following me quietly.

‘Sorry. We’re nearly there.’

‘Where?’

‘Wait and see.’

I so wanted to see the look on her face when we got there, she was going to be so surprised, it was going to take her mind off whatever it was that had upset her, it was also going to take her mind off the Cullen report, and so I kept a tight hold on her hand and led her through the gates of the churchyard.

Julia

The smug look on his face nearly had me marching back up the street, but Matt had a firm grip on my hand, and in a few more steps he led me through the gates of the churchyard and started picking his way between the gravestones. My heels were struggling with the long grass, so I stopped to take them off.

‘Watch out for the dog shit.’

I sighed.

‘No, you watch out for the dog shit. This is your bloody mystery tour. Any canine faeces I find on the bottom of my feet, I will wipe off on your shirt.’

‘Fair enough. Shit, you’re a hard woman.’

‘Ice Queen, remember.’

‘Yeah. Fuck. Anyway, here we are.’

Matt

When she took her shoes off to, presumably, prevent her from sinking into the grass surrounding the gravestones, I thought it was safe to let go of her hand, and she followed me, grumbling about getting dog shit on her feet, until we had crossed the grass and were standing in front of a tall box hedge which boundaried one edge of the cemetery. She stood and looked at it, unimpressed.

‘It’s a hedge.’

‘No kidding, not much gets past you does it, bugger I thought you’d be more impressed with a bit of greenery…’

As I was speaking, I backed away from her, and then found what I was looking for. This was my pièce de resistance; when Cal had shown me a few months ago I had been stunned, and I’d been dying to try it out on someone else. I stopped talking and took a step to my right, entering the hidden outside anteroom that held a couple of gravestones and a stone bench. She wouldn’t have a clue what had just happened; it would have looked like I’d disappeared.

Julia

As Matt was speaking, he was walking backwards away from me, and as he stopped talking he took a step to his right and – disappeared. Just vanished from sight, as if he’d stepped into the hedge. I stood with my mouth open.

‘Matt?’

Nothing, just the sound of the traffic from the street and leaves rustling in the breeze. I walked along the hedge trying to find the spot where he had disappeared, but it seemed to be continuous. It wasn’t until I was on my way back that I saw it, a cunningly hidden alcove grown into the hedge that was only visible from certain angles. I still might have missed it if I hadn’t seen the toe of Matt’s trainer peeping out at the very bottom edge. I would have loved to have paid him back with a similar joke, but I really wasn’t in the mood, and as I stopped being quite so flustered by the events of the afternoon so far, I was beginning to return to my work persona. The best I could do was spoil his surprise, so I walked into the alcove as nonchalantly as I could manage.

Matt

I’m not quite sure how Cal found out about this hidden room in the graveyard, although if Cal knew about it, then every other person in the city did. Certainly, judging from the amount of discarded shit – empty cans, fag ends, chip wrappers – littering the floor, plenty of people used it, but I had come here quite a few times with Cal, and we’d always been the only ones. We’d sit here and eat crisps and read comics, then go to the park and kick a ball about – see, I wasn’t always a bastard arsehole excellent no-strings lay; sometimes I was cool Uncle Matty. It brought a sense of perspective to life.

But anyway, now I’d shown the trick to Jules, and I really wanted to see what she was doing, but I had to stay where I was. I contented myself with standing at the entrance so I could see her face when she finally found it – I knew she’d work it out, she was smart, but for now, I wanted to enjoy … oh. She walked in as if she’d known it was there all the time, looking as underwhelmed as it was possible to look.

Julia

‘So where’s this big secret then?’

It was worth it for the crestfallen look on his face; it only lasted a second, but I knew I’d taken the wind out of his sails. He still flashed a quick grin and spread his arms wide, introducing me to a small enclosure about three metres square. There was a stone bench along one edge and two neat gravestones along the opposite edge announcing themselves memorials to John and Roberta Chartham who departed this earth 1776 and 1790 respectively. Matt sat on the bench and patted the seat next to him, so I sat, bending down to slip my shoes back on.

Matt

It pretty much took the wind out of my sails, but she was here now, all mine for a short time, I hoped. I flashed her a quick grin and spread my arms in welcome, then sat on the bench and patted the seat next to me. Still surprisingly compliant, she sat down.

‘Welcome to my lunchtime hideaway. I know you all think I go to The Anchor to get shit-faced, but in reality I come here and ponder the nature of the universe in general and the nature of Margie Feller’s boobs in particular – i.e. silicon or real – with a chicken mayo on brown, a packet of Walkers’ salt and vinegar, and a can of Fanta. Any visible shit-facedness upon my return is purely an act designed to distract.’

She raised a sceptical eyebrow.

‘And the beery breath?’

‘Oh come on, that was one fucking time, Phil gave me a bollocking, and anyway I was entertaining a sodding prospective client. What was I supposed to do, drink mineral water?’

Her eyebrow stayed raised.

‘Really? Fucking mineral water? Beside the point. So what do you think?’

I gestured around the hidden alcove.

‘It’s my secret. Nobody else knows about it.’

I tapped the side of my nose and winked, playing it up for all I was worth.

‘How did you find out about it?’

‘My nephew showed me.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nine.’

‘Particularly good at keeping secrets is he?’

‘A bit shit actually – wait, are you trying to say I might not be the only one he’s told? Bloody hell, the little scamp, all this time I thought the empty bottles and fag ends must be his, I nearly told his mum, are you saying they could have been just … anybody’s?’

I held the back of my hand dramatically to my forehead.

‘I feel betrayed.’

I was starting to enjoy myself, almost forgetting that Julia had been upset, twice, and was here because I’d dragged her here.

Julia

Without thinking, I told him something I shouldn’t have.

‘Real.’

‘What?’

‘A secret for a secret. Margie Feller’s boobs. Completely real.’

Matt

Well I hadn’t expected that – either the telling of the fact, or the fact itself. I’d been trying to find out about Margie’s awesome boobs for some time, and people either didn’t know or were sworn to secrecy. I’d not had a chance to investigate for myself, as Margie was married and not interested in extra-marital boob feeling sessions, but in my own mind I had plumped, if you’ll forgive the expression, for fake, because they couldn’t possibly be real. Now I knew. Awesome.

‘Fuuucking hell.’ Oh, but … ‘How do you know? Have you, you know, like, felt them?’

My fascination for the subject temporarily distracted me, and Julia saw something in my expression that brought her back to herself somewhat. She closed down the part of her that had started to share stuff with me, and I couldn’t blame her.

Julia

His expression of totally prurient lecherousness reminded me who I was talking to. I wasn’t just having a chat with a normal person, I was discussing the private matters of a colleague with another colleague whose morals were, to put it bluntly, suspect. I needed to backtrack.

‘No, only one secret traded at a time. And that one’s not for sale. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.’

He sensed the shift.

‘Aw Jules – fuck, sorry, sorry, Julia, it’s just you look so much like a Jules to me – you’ve gone all Ice Queen on me. I thought we were getting somewhere.’

‘Where precisely did you think we were getting?’

‘Well somewhere we could have a laugh, forget you think I’m an uncontrollable shag monster, forget I think you have a ten foot pole lodged in your arse, take your mind off your woes, call a truce?’

I was confused.

‘A truce?’

‘Yeah, you know, cease hostilities, wave a white flag, stop hating each other for, oh I don’t know, perhaps we could make it to half a bloody hour?’

‘Do you hate me?’

For some reason it seemed important that he didn’t.

Matt

Oh bloody hell, I hadn’t really meant that, it was a, I don’t know, metaphor or something.

‘Fuck. No, I didn’t mean that, I said ‘hating each other’ didn’t I. I suppose I meant fighting with each other. Haven’t we been doing that since we both started at GreenScreen: rival teams, rival contracts, all designed to up the stakes and get the most out of both of us?’

She stared at me, and I realised with horror that she hadn’t known. Phil was open with me about pitting our teams against each other to increase competitiveness and up productivity; it had never occurred to me that Julia wasn’t in on it. Oh shit and now she looked like she was going to bloody well cry again. All this had been to stop her crying in the first place, and I’d just made her do it again. Nice one, Matt.

Julia

I stared at him. How naïve had I been? It had never occurred to me, and I felt absolutely stupid. Unbelievably, I felt tears prickle at the corners of my eyes for the second time that day. I’d been sucked into one huge game, a game that Matt was playing and winning, because he knew all the rules, while I wasn’t even aware I was a competitor.

‘Oh shit, Julia, fuck, I’m sorry, fuck, no, don’t do that, here –’

He handed me a rather used looking tissue from his pocket

Matt

‘–sorry, it’s not that fresh. Fuck, I’m such a dickwad. I thought everyone knew how it was? No, no, no, please don’t, I don’t do women crying, oh fuck, come here.’

I put my arm round her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands and started sobbing. This didn’t noticeably diminish the crying, so I put my other arm round the front of her and held her while she cried. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard, holding Julia Marran while she cried her eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

Julia

I felt his arm go round my shoulder as I buried my face in my hands and started sobbing. The news about Nons had just caught up with me, and the fresh revelations from Matt had tipped me over the edge. I wasn’t an emotionally expressive person, and crying made me feel sick, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt Matt’s other arm go round the front of me and he made some attempt to hold me while I wept. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard being held by Matt Scott while I cried my eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

After a while I snivelled myself to a standstill, and stayed hunched over, my face in my hands, feeling awkward and bilious. Matt released his hold, then tried to get me to look up by pushing my chin up and pulling on my hands. I shook my head.

‘Come on Jules, we both know you’re going to look a complete nightmare, all blotchy and dribbly and gloopy and shit, I won’t be shocked. You’ll make your back ache if you sit hunched over like that.’

He pulled on my hands again, and this time I let go, but kept my eyes shut as he gently pulled me so I was sitting back against the seat. I took several deep, shuddering breaths.

‘There you go, that’s better. Hmm, not as bad as I was expecting. Bloody expensive waterproof mascara? You’re worth it!’

I heard him chuckle to himself at his little joke. I opened my eyes and gave him the full Ice Queen special.

‘Hey, you’re back with us, your majesty.’

Matt was turned towards me on the seat, apparently not affected by the icy blast coming from my eyes.

‘Want to tell me? I mean, if all that was just about Phil’s little office politics games and my fucking cack-handed foot-in-mouth explanation, then my heartfelt apologies and by all means keep the tissue –’

‘You really are a self-centred prick aren’t you.’

‘–but if there was something else, I know I’m a self-centred prick, but for the next little while I’m your self-centred prick and I can listen in a way that only self-centred pricks can.’

I took a deep breath.

‘It’s personal.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t mix work and personal.’

‘OK.’

‘What?’

‘Well, I couldn’t help but notice, we’re not at work, and you’ve just been blarting your fucking eyes out all over my shirt sleeve.’

He held up his arm which was damp around the elbow.

‘So, I’m thinking maybe this isn’t work, which makes it kinda personal, which means, spill.’

‘I’m not about to tell you my personal business.’

‘I disagree. I think you are about to, and I will tell you why.’

This was the very type of annoying light banter that usually frustrated the hell out of me at work, as it wasted so much time. However, I had to admit I was currently finding it diverting. I huffed a breath out and crossed my arms over my chest as I waited for the inevitable nonsense.

‘OK. Firstly, I am the soul of discretion. Ah ah, before you give me that ‘fuck off Matt Scott you are the most indiscreet fuckweasel anyone knows’ look, let me just advise you that I have never, ever kissed and told. There has been lots of kissing and lots of telling, and although I will admit to a lot, but not all, of the kissing, I have never done any of the telling. Think back. Where did any of those wild stories originate? The ladies in question or their cohorts? Yes. Me? No. Exactly. I rest my case. Your secret, sordid or otherwise, is safe with me. I’d rather it was a bit sordid, though, to be honest, just to make it worth my while.’

I turned my head away and studied the hedge, hoping his chattering would carry on long enough for my eyes to calm down so I could leave.

‘Secondly, I am a seriously stubborn fucking bastard. I’ve won competitions in it. I never give up. I’m pretty good at getting people to talk to me, even when they have no intention of it. Persistence is my middle name. Had a better ring to it than Robert, so I changed it.’

I turned my head back to look at him.

‘Your middle name is Robert?’

‘Was. Is now Persistence. Suits me, don’t you think?’

I tutted, rolled my eyes and turned back to my perusal of the hedge.

‘Thirdly, and this is the killer, the deal-breaker. If you talk to me I’ll tell you something about me that no-one else at GreenScreen knows – oh apart from Phil, and he knows everything about everyone anyway. If I divulge your secret to any living soul, you have my permission to spread the goss to the waiting ears of Lexi on reception, who will have informed the entire staff team before you’ve even got up the stairs, and the news will greet you, complete with Lexi’s imaginative embellishments, as you walk in the door.’

Intriguing as this was, I had no interest in acquiring personal information about Matt. Much as he seemed to enjoy the machinations of office affairs, I tried to keep myself out of them as much as possible. I was getting a bit tired of his assumption that I had some deep dark secret though.

‘It’s nothing, alright? I just got some bad news. I don’t usually have my phone on, but I picked up a text by mistake and now I wish I hadn’t.’

Matt seemed nonplussed for a second; maybe he thought he was going to have more of a battle with me, maybe he was so caught up in his game that he forgot I had a part to play too. More likely: he was astounded at the thought of not having one’s phone switched on and in one’s hand at all times. He recovered quickly, leaning back on the seat with a smug grin.

‘There you go, that wasn’t so hard was it. And the bad news was ..?’

‘None of your damn business.’

‘Oh Jules, don’t stop now, we were just getting started –’

‘Leave it, Matt, I’m not going to tell you. And stop calling me Jules. Only my friends call me that, and –’

And Nons. Not my immediate family. My family, my mother, father and two sisters, called me JuJu, which I hated. Everyone I loved called me Jules. I didn’t want this self-important – what had he called himself? – uncontrollable shag monster calling me Jules when Nons was never again going to call my name up the stairs in the morning to the smell of frying bacon, or say ‘Hello Jules how’s my favourite niece’ when she rang, or look disappointed and say ‘oh well Jules, there’s still time for you’ when I’d told another potential husband (in her eyes) to take a hike.

It was all too much. I didn’t want to be here with this man who was being far too understanding, far too nice. I wanted him to be the annoying cocky dickhead he usually was so I could rage at him and storm off, and be on my own, which was after all what I had asked for in the first place. I wanted Nons. I wanted her here so much. She was the only one who could possibly help me, and she was the only one who wouldn’t be able to. I almost felt my heart break. Without warning, the tears came again. Large sobs almost stopped me breathing. I couldn’t do this here, with Matt Scott.

I got up and stumbled towards the exit from the arbour. Except I didn’t, because I couldn’t find the way. Blinded by tears and disoriented by distress, I bumped into the side of the hedge twice, scratched my hands trying to scrabble my way out, and then gave up with a howl, slumping to the floor, curling up and giving in to it, no longer caring who was there to witness it. Nons was gone. I’d never felt so alone. Nothing else mattered.

Matt

Jules just fell on the floor and started sobbing, curled in a ball, racked with these horrible noises that sounded like an alien was trying to break out of her throat.

And she just kept saying ‘non’. I couldn’t work it out. It was like she was French or something. Maybe she was, she had a bit of an exotic look about her sometimes, and ‘Marran’, wasn’t that French for chestnut or some such bollocks?

But anyway, whether you do women crying or not, you don’t let someone just lie there on the floor in serious distress without trying to help them in some way. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I sat next to her and stroked her hair and tried to think of comforting things to say that were a bit more meaningful than ‘shh’ and ‘there there’, but didn’t really come up with much.

After what felt a very long time, but when women are crying it always feels like bloody ages to me, she stopped.

Julia

However upset you are, it is impossible to cry forever, although it is possible to cry for a very long time. Long enough to almost forget where you are and who you’re with, until you come back to yourself a little bit and feel a hand stroking your hair away from your face, and hear their voice saying nonsense designed to make you feel better. Then you realise where you are, what’s just happened and, finally, who it is who is stroking your hair.

I sat up and tried to organise myself. My face was puffy and tear-stained. I had a headache and felt sick. I was really thirsty. I tried to run my hands through my hair, but it was tangled and there were bits of leaf and twig stuck in it. I rummaged in my bag for a comb and a mirror. I did anything and everything to avoid looking at Matt, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, watching quietly.

‘I think you need some antiseptic.’

Now he’d spoken, it wasn’t as easy to ignore him. I didn’t have to look at him though.

‘What?’

I continued to paw through my bag, no longer sure what I was looking for.

‘Your hands.’

He took my right hand and turned it palm upwards. I gasped at the bloody mess of scratches.

‘How did I …’

‘You scratched them on the hedge. What the fuck were you trying to do? The exit is over there.’

He pointed to the opposite side of the enclosure. I felt too stupid to even answer him.

‘Come on, Julia, come home with me.’

‘What?’

More stupidity. This man certainly had the ability to make me feel several IQ points below par.

‘I live a couple of streets away. I can clean you up, you need to put some plasters on it or something.’

‘No … I can –’

‘No, you can’t, whatever you were going to argue with me about. You can’t drive like that, you can’t do anything or go anywhere until you’re patched up. I told you I’m a stubborn fucking bastard. I will win this. Give in now and save yourself some time and effort.’

So I did give in. It was all too much, being here in this hidden place, after everything that had happened so far today. My hands hurt, my head hurt, my brain hurt, and I just did what I was told. It would be over soon, then I could go home and be on my own and everything would all be alright after that, but until then I would just do what I was told.

Matt

As I saw it, her choices were go back to work and face tons of questions about how she’d scratched her hands and why she looked like shit, or come back to mine where I could patch her up and lend her my bathroom so she could get the leaves out of her hair, and she could do what she wanted from there. She hardly argued when I suggested it. She stood up and followed me, silently, all the way to my flat.

Julia

I followed Matt out of the strange secret place, across the graveyard, down the street, along a few more streets, and then into an apartment building. I walked behind him up the stairs and he let me through his front door. We didn’t exchange a single word the whole time. Then I looked up at where I was and –

‘Wow!’

The view from his window was spectacular. The glass almost filled one wall, and it overlooked the river. Beyond were rolling hills, with the city in-between His apartment was stunning too – there was an open plan living and kitchen area, with a couple of doors to, presumably, bedroom and bathroom It was a modern and surprisingly minimally and tidily decorated space. I would have imagined empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and a few back issues of Nuts magazine spread around, but the place was spotless. Even a framed Star Wars poster seemed in keeping, and blended with everything else.

Matt

My flat was my pride and joy. I got it cut price via some unfortunate soul foreclosing on their mortgage and me being in the right place at the right time – poor them, lucky me. I fucking loved it. It was big and light and modern, and had the most impressive view over the river, across the city to the moors. It changed constantly, with the weather, the light and the time of day, and I never got bored of looking out of the window. The kitchen and lounge were in one large room separated by a counter, and I had put a small dining table next to the window. I had a huge squishy sofa, a couple of armchairs and a large TV with a couple of games consoles.

Julia hadn’t spoken since we left the graveyard, but when she saw the view she said, ‘Wow’ and looked around her in surprise. She was the first person who’d ever been up here who wasn’t family, or for whom the flat hadn’t been especially prepared for a lad’s night. No woman who wasn’t a member of my family had ever been here; I always went to ‘her place’. This was my sanctuary, somewhere I didn’t have to pretend, the odd night of watching football with the guys in a sea of beer bottles and takeaway containers notwithstanding.

Julia

‘Great view, eh?’

I nodded, trying to align the image I had of Matt Scott with the light, airy, tasteful apartment. It wasn’t computing. I continued to look out of the window, peripherally aware of Matt going through one of the doors and rummaging sounds emerging. His voice floated back to me.

‘Have a seat, just trying to find my first aid kit.’

I turned and looked into the room, and headed towards a plum coloured sofa. I sank into the generous cushions as the rummaging sounds continued.

‘Fuck it, I know I put it in here – oh. Bloody hell, Dec, can’t you ever put things back where you fucking well found them?’

This last was uttered sotto voce. The rummaging continued briefly and then stopped. Matt emerged, with a green and white box tucked under his arm. God, he even had a proper first aid kit. It was like he was changing into someone I no longer recognised.

‘Trust a mate with your fucking stuff, it could end up anywhere. Had to patch up my nephew the other day, game of footy got out of hand, kit got put back in the wrong place.’

Matt

I got Julia to sit on the sofa while I found the first aid box, then sat next to her.

‘Hold out your hands.’

Julia

I turned them palm up and rested them on my knees, and Matt proceeded to tip antiseptic onto a cotton wool pad. The smell made my eyes smart.

Matt

‘I think I’m supposed to tell you this is going to sting, but you will already know that. Pretend you’re on some live reality TV show and please, do not swear.’

I started to clean her scratches with antiseptic. She hardly spoke, and I was a bit worried about how she was just letting me tell her what to do; it didn’t seem like her at all.

Julia

I watched dispassionately as the cotton wool headed towards my right palm. I remained dispassionate until the moment the cotton wool actually touched my right palm.

‘Ah!’

With a sharp intake of breath, I pulled my hand away, knocking the cotton wool out of Matt’s hand. The sting brought more tears to my eyes. Matt bent down to retrieve the cotton wool from the floor, then took my hand in his, holding it firmly.

‘I said it was going to fucking sting. Get a grip, woman.’

He glanced up at my face, and saw a couple of tears dribble their way down my cheeks.

‘Oh Jules, sorry.’

He reached up and brushed the droplets away with the tip of his forefinger.

‘Be a brave little soldier, for me, OK?’

‘Patronising bastard.’

My voice sounded raw and broken; apart from a ‘wow’ and an ‘ah’ I hadn’t spoken since all the crying in the graveyard.

‘That’s better, that’s my Ice Queen.’

I glared at him, daring him to say one more condescending word. He laughed, and bent his head over my palm.

‘Alright then, let’s do it your way. This is going to fucking hurt, right? Swear all the fuck you want, but keep still.’

He was right, it did fucking hurt, both hands, but I stayed still as ordered while he wiped and wadded and bandaged and plastered. My right hand only needed a couple of plasters, but the scratches on my left hand were long and awkwardly positioned, and he bandaged it up. He did a really professional looking job, and I was impressed despite myself.

Matt

I wiped her scratches and provided bandages and plasters; Beth would have been proud.

‘It pays to have a nurse in the family, lots of First Aid lessons.’

Julia

He gestured at an array of photographs on top of a bookshelf. Several people smiled down at me, but I had no idea which one was the nurse responsible for my neat bandages.

‘Right, that’s you done. Can I get you a drink?’

I was really thirsty, but just wanted to be gone. I’d had enough of this shitty day, with its nasty surprises and its surreal weirdness and its king-sized dollop of Matt Scott. I shook my head and started to rummage in my bag for my car keys.

‘No, I’d better go. Thanks for this.’

I held up my hands. Matt opened his mouth to speak, as though he was going to try to persuade me to stay, but held back and nodded instead. He was probably as exhausted as I was with the whole situation and wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. I stood up, picked up my bag and coat, wincing at the pull on my scratches, and walked to the door. He held it open for me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder as I passed in front of him.

Matt

Just as she was stepping through the doorway, I remembered how she’d kept saying ‘non’ when she was sobbing on the ground, and without thinking, it just came out.

‘I didn’t know you were French.’

‘What?’

‘Aren’t you French?’

It must have been delayed fuckwittedness from the earlier weeping.

‘No. What do you mean?’

The look on her face told me instantly that I was indeed making a complete arse of myself. It should have stopped me, but some outside force seemed to have taken over my mouth, and I found myself continuing.

Julia

This a propos of nothing remark left me completely flummoxed. It didn’t seem to be a joke, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

‘In the graveyard, you were all curled up on the floor, bit of a soggy puddle, and you kept saying ‘non’. Thought you must be French. Sorry, forget it.’

‘Nons.’

Dammit, hadn’t meant to say it out loud, just saying her name summoned the sobs again. I needed to get out of there.

Matt

She said it again, and now I was confused.

‘Yeah, that’s it – Jules, you really don’t look OK, will you please come and sit down and have a drink or something?’

Julia

Something snapped. I felt it go, in my brain, as the last ‘Jules’ broke the dam.

Matt

And then, if I thought she’d gone ape-shit before, back in the office, well that was nothing. This was something else, suddenly she was a berserker, like a red mist descended or something. She turned to face me, her eyes going dark with anger, her fists balled up. The force of her glare made me take a step backwards.

‘It’s JULIA you FUCKING ARSEHOLE. You think you can waltz around doing or saying what the FUCK you want because you’ve got a FUCKING cheeky grin and you know where to shove your dick. I’ve asked you to call me JULIA, you TOSSER, is it really that FUCKING hard to remember? And no I’m not fucking FRENCH. Nons is a name, a fucking NAME, it’s a name … Nons is her … was her … unh …’

She took a step towards me, and then another one, and she started trying to hit me, her fists still balled up, scrumpling the bandages. She was a lot shorter than me, and slight, so none of it really hurt me, but she was a hay-maker, and I needed to try to contain her, and I was a bit worried she was going to try to scratch my eyes out, so I used my height to gather her up, pin her arms to her side and just hold her there until she calmed down.

Julia

And then coherence, if you could call it that, slipped away and although I vaguely remember lurching towards Matt, fists raised, and maybe he held my wrists, possibly to prevent me scratching his eyes out, and then there might have been some strong arms around me, pinning my arms to my sides while I may have yelled and screamed and thrashed, I don’t really remember any of it until suddenly there I was, wrapped up in Matt Scott’s arms, face against his chest, breathing in little shudders as he stroked my hair.

Matt

It took a long time, and she yelled and screamed and thrashed and cried, but I just held her, wrapping her up, as she slowly, slowly calmed down, and I felt it all gradually leave her, and we were standing there, her face against my chest, as she breathed in little shudders and I stroked her hair and I accidentally kissed the top of her head, didn’t mean to, just did it. I felt her stir against me.

Julia

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head?’

Jesus, my voice sounded even worse than before. My throat was ragged and sore. I had a raging thirst.

Matt

Her voice sounded ragged and broken. And a bit pissed off.

‘Yeah. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Oh. OK. Sure. Anything else you want me not to do?’

It was best to be clear about these things. Standing there with her in my arms, in the aftermath of a storm of emotion, there were all sorts of things I might do that she wouldn’t want me to. Really didn’t want to have her trying to bash me again. In any case, she didn’t answer, so I assumed I was alright to carry on stroking her hair, at the very least. We were kind of rocking, folded up in each other, almost lulling each other to sleep. It felt unreal. And very nice.

Julia

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. It felt good to be held, as if someone could take it all away. But the one doing the holding – that was another matter. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about that. He carried on stroking my hair.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

He was almost lulling me to sleep, gently rocking me on my feet as we stood there, me folded up in him.

‘I’m sorry I called you Jules.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Not sure I deserved to have the crap beaten out of me though.’

‘Mm.’

I was sure he had deserved it. He’d certainly had something coming to him, couldn’t focus on the whats or the whys just now. I carried on almost sleeping, being held up by a pair of strong arms.

Matt

I’d got the apology out of the way, but now I wanted to find out what it was all about.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Who’s Nons?’

She answered in a kind of dazed voice, head still buried in my chest.

Julia

I was so sleepy, I could just say it now and it didn’t matter.

‘My aunt. She died.’

Matt

‘Ohh. Fuck, Julia, I’m sorry.’

It all made sense now. Why would I have ever thought she was upset about some nonsense at work? She never got upset about work stuff. But somebody dying, that was huge. I felt terrible about it, about how inconsiderate I must have been, so I dropped a consoling kiss onto the top of her head.

Julia

I felt a familiar sensation. It roused me enough to ask about it.

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head again?’

‘I believe I did.’

‘After I asked you not to?’

‘Sorry. It seemed like the thing to do.’

More soft swaying, almost like we were dancing, but slower and more gentle. I felt soothed.

Matt

I just wanted to make her feel better, I swear, but you can probably see where this is going. And then I became aware of my hard-on, which had popped up at the most bloody inconvenient time. I needed to alert her to my arousal status without scaring her off completely.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘This is bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Maybe a bit too bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm … what?’

‘I don’t just want to kiss the top of your head.’

‘What?’

She lifted her head away from my chest and looked up at me, then looked down.

‘Fuck, Julia, I think we need to stop this before I kiss something I’ll regret.’

And I really meant it, I really did want to stop, because she was in a state, and I didn’t want to be that kind of arsehole, not with her, not while she was like this, all upset and emotional.

But then she reached up and put her hand round my neck, pulling my face down to hers. Fuck it, I even managed to resist for a second or two, and then Matt the Lad kicked in, like some kind of reflex, and my mouth met hers, and I couldn’t stop.

Julia

To his credit, he resisted for a brief moment, and then his lips were on mine, and his hands were in my hair, and my hands were under his shirt, and his tongue was slipping over and around mine, and somehow he was standing in front of me without his shirt and I was running my hands down his chest and then he was slipping my bra off my shoulders …

Matt

… our hands were everywhere, ripping off clothes, exploring urgently. Our tongues and lips pressed and tangled and tasted …

Julia

… and then nipples were sucked and our hands were lower, much lower, and more clothes were coming off and then there was nothing between us but air, and then, and then there was no air between us …

Matt

… and before I could think about it, we were naked, our bodies pressed against each other, and I lifted her up and laid her on the sofa, and she pulled me towards her and our bodies joined and I thrust and pounded and it was hard and fast and explosive and …

Julia

… and we were kissing and licking and sucking and fucking, hard and fast and noisily and urgently and then, and then …

Matt

Oh fuck.

Julia

Oh Jesus.

47. Someone like you

In which there is an explanation, a recovery, and a missed opportunity.

Dec

It felt so good to be out of my wet clothes and in the shower. I let the hot water run over me for a while, then got out and wrapped a towel round my waist, enjoying the sensation as I dried off and felt clean and warm.

Amy was waiting in bed, sitting up, pyjamas on. I stood in the doorway and looked at her. I wasn’t relishing the explaining I was going to have to begin in a minute, and just wanted to keep looking at her while she didn’t know everything, while she wasn’t angry or upset or disappointed.

)Hey you, feel better?

‘Much. Love a shower. Not a cold, rainy one though, not nearly so enjoyable.’

)Come and tell me all about it.

She pulled my half of the duvet aside and patted the sheet. I finished drying myself, pulled on a pair of boxers and got in next to her, unable to delay any longer. I put my arm round her and looked at her, hesitating.

)What’s the matter, hon?

‘This is hard. I’ve been so stupid. I don’t want to fuck things up between us again, but I don’t want to hide anything from you.’

)Well, if it helps, I already know you gave Becca Davis a lift which ended in her being half naked in your car, although not which half or how it … er … happened. Although the lovely Becca texted me earlier to describe in some detail what she would like me to think you and her got up to.

‘Oh, babe … I’m such a fucking idiot. Almost as soon as she got in the car I realised what I’d done, but she wouldn’t get out and it just kept getting worse and worse. I didn’t, I didn’t do any of it.’

)I know, hon.

‘What?’

)I know. Didn’t you hear me at the restaurant? I said I trust you. I don’t trust Becca Davis further than I could throw her, but I trust you. Remember you said I had to decide if I believe her? Well, she’s a lying cow, so why would I?

‘Ames … I don’t know what to say. You’re fucking amazing.’

)I still want to know all the gory details. Maybe without all the beating yourself up about what an idiot you’ve been. Let’s just take that for granted, yeah?

‘Ha ha, OK babe, fair enough. Well …’

I told her absolutely everything, and she took it all really well, until I told her about getting aroused when Becca touched me. She swallowed hard at that point, tried to continue smiling up at me, but had to look away and blink a lot.

‘You know it doesn’t mean anything, right? Right, babe?’

)Actually, doesn’t it mean a bit of you wanted her?

‘Only the fucking testosterone-driven uncontrollable too-bloody-male-to-think-straight part. She was waving her tits in my face, I’d have had to be, I don’t know, not a man, to be able to have any say in the whole process. All the other parts of me were thinking about you, how gorgeous you are, how much I love you – Amy, I honestly with all my heart swear that no thinking, feeling part of me wanted any part of Becca fucking Davis. My dick has a mind of its own sometimes, you know that, but I don’t have to do what it says, and I definitely didn’t want to do anything about it with Becca fucking Davis. Honestly, babe. Please don’t focus on this. I wasn’t sure whether to tell you, I knew you’d be upset, but I just didn’t want to hide any of it.

)Did you ever consider it? For just a second?

‘Shit, no, Amy. No! Fuck no. She’s got nothing I want, even with it on a plate and staring me in the face. I only want you. I wish I knew what to say so you could believe me.

)Sorry. It’s just … that was one of the things she said in her text, and you just said you didn’t do any of it, and now … well, you did.

‘But she’s just twisting it. Shit, Amy, fuck, she’s a vicious cow. I didn’t lay one finger on her, oh, apart from to take her hand off my leg, and to push her away when she tried to snog me – OK, so maybe I laid a couple of fingers on her.’

Amy continued to look down and I cursed Becca fucking Davis and her mad bitch scheming.

‘Ames, we didn’t snog. She tried, I shoved her away – oh, that was another thing in her text, wasn’t it?’

Amy nodded.

‘Shit. Bloody fucking cow. Ames, I didn’t want to touch her, I didn’t even want to look at her. I feel so stupid for letting her get me there in the first place so she could carry on doing this to you. Please, Amy, please believe me, you’re all I was thinking of, you’re all I ever want.’

I was close to tears now, it felt like I’d never to be able to convince her. Amy was quiet for a while, looking down, her hair covering her face so I couldn’t see her expression

) … OK, I just needed to know. I’ll just have to do a bit more trusting won’t I?

She took a deep breath, looked up, smiled and squared her shoulders.

)So what happened next?

I wrapped my arms around her, so relieved, knowing the effort she’d made to believe me. I pulled her closer to me, kissed her hair.

‘Where had I got up to? Oh yeah, my bloody uncontrollable dick. OK, so, after she tried to shove her tongue down my throat, which was pretty gross by the way, I basically told her she was sad and pathetic, needed to grow up and stop playing schoolgirl games, and to put her shirt on and fuck off out of our lives, and then I got out of the car and started walking. I bet that’s when she sent you the text, she did yell after me that she was going to, she tried everything to get me to stay with her.’

)I’m glad you didn’t.

‘Yeah, me too. I really, really did not enjoy getting soaked right through to my boxers, the rain was trickling down my back into some very uncomfortable places, and I feel like my feet are never going to recover, my shoes have rubbed everywhere. But it was still better than spending any more time with that mad fucking bitch.’

)So how far did you get before Matt found you?

‘Fuck, I don’t know. It felt like miles, but it was dark and raining and I was miserable and thinking about you with your parents, having them being all ‘I told you that boy was no good’, it felt like the longest walk of my life. Shit, I’m going to have to go and get the car, it’s not locked or anything, fuck knows what state she’s left it in. Shit, my fucking car.’

)Dec, do you think you can possibly wait until the morning to go and get the car? It’s late and I think what we’re talking about here is more important.

I swallowed my concern for my car. It meant a lot to me; I had bought it with money left to me by my parents, and it was in some ways irreplaceable. But not compared to Amy.

‘Yeah, it can wait.’

)So Matt found you where?

‘Oh babe, I don’t have a fucking clue where I was. She’d sent me all over the place. I only know I was walking back into the city. I’d got to some houses, just where the street lights started. Probably just as well, he might have run me over if I’d still been in the lane, my suit’s dark, so is my shirt, I didn’t think about whether cars would be able to see me. Matt’s was the only one I saw in all that time. Shit, Amy, I’m so glad you rang him. I would have had another hour or so in the rain without him. How did you work it out, where I was?’

)Well, when you rang to say you were, how did you put it, in a situation, I was really worried, especially when we got cut off and then I couldn’t get hold of you. I didn’t know your charge had run out, I thought, well, this is really silly I guess, but I remembered when you were beaten up and your phone was smashed. I completely couldn’t get it out of my head. I tried Jay and Beth, but they didn’t answer, so I tried Matt, and he really was so calm and knew just what to do. He knew Jay was home, so he went round, he called me from there, he’d called Bonksy, got a bit of a garbled story, but we worked out between us what must have happened. I told him whereabouts Becca used to live and he just went off to find you. The miracle is he hadn’t had anything to drink.

‘Yeah, that is actually a bit of a miracle for Matt at that time on a Saturday night.’

)Apparently he was just heading out to a club when I rang him.

‘Oh, so he hadn’t even started drinking yet.’

)Maybe. I didn’t ask. The other miracle is that he managed to find his way around in the dark, and actually found you. He’d never been out that way before. He must have a sat nav for a brain. He phoned me as soon as he spotted you. I was so relieved.

‘I bet your mum and dad were just loving all this.’

)Yeah, you can imagine – ‘Amy, do you not think you should order your main course now’. I was like, yeah Mum, once I’ve found out whether Dec is lying in a pool of blood somewhere or not, then I’ll completely have the sea bass with a side salad. God, they just didn’t get it at all. I’m not their most popular daughter right now, I should think.

‘You’re all they’ve got, they should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. I should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. Ames, I can’t believe how well you’ve taken all this. Walking down that road in the rain, all I could think was ‘That’s it, I’ve blown it, after everything we’ve talked about’, and call myself a fucking idiot over and over.

)But that’s kind of it, hon, isn’t it? We’ve done all that talking, and Beth and Jay have been completely amazing, and we’re stronger now. It’s not about me trusting you. I do. It’s not about you trusting me, either. It’s about us trusting in us. We know what we’ve got and we know how to keep it. We’re strong together – we beat Becca Davis! We’re awesome.

I looked at her with pride, admiration and so much love. She said we were strong, but she was stronger than me by a mile.

‘I love you so much, Ames. Will you marry me?’

)Always, hon. You’re going to have to stop asking one day.

‘Never, babe.’

o0o

}Fucking hell, Summers, it’s the middle of the bloody night. Even I was asleep. Alone, sadly, not that you asked, even though it was your shenanigans that ruined my night.

‘Sorry, Matt. I’m just worried about my car. I couldn’t lock it because she was still in it, and I don’t know where it is because I was fucking lost. I really don’t want anything to happen to it. Ames wanted me to wait until tomorrow, but I’ve just been lying awake worrying about it.’

A sigh.

}I’ll be there shortly. Make sure you have a bloody enormous strong coffee ready for me when I arrive.

‘Thanks, I really appreciate it.’

}Yeah, yeah.

o0o

}How far up here was it?

‘I don’t know. It felt like I was driving for miles, there wasn’t anywhere to turn round – oh, there it is … oh fuck.’

}Dec, I don’t think you’re going to be able to drive it home. Shit, what the fuck’s she done?

We pulled up behind my car, which was still in the gateway, all the doors open, all the lights on, all the stuffing ripped out of the seats, deep scratches along the paintwork and all four tyres flat. I sat, numb, and looked at it in Matt’s headlights.

}Come on, let’s inspect the damage.

‘I’m not sure I want to look any closer.’

}We need to see what she’s done, take some pictures, then we need to make it secure so nobody else who fancies a steering wheel or spark plug can help themselves.

‘I can’t take any pictures, I left my phone at home drying out.’

}I’ve got mine. And I’ve got a digital camera in the glove box for just such emergencies.

‘Well aren’t you prepared.’

}Yeah, you’re welcome. Come on, let’s get it over with.

I reluctantly got out of Matt’s car and approached mine. It looked worse the closer I got. As well as the damage to the car, all the contents of the inside of the car and the boot were scattered on the ground outside. There were CDs, tissues, my Raiders kit and suit, magazines, a picnic rug and road maps. They had all been broken, ripped, stamped on and otherwise destroyed. Everything, inside and out, was soaked with rainwater. The words ‘FUCK YOU’ were scratched into the roof.

}Fucking hell, Dec, you really pissed her off, didn’t you.

‘Looks like it. Fuck.’

I stood and stared, not sure quite what to do. Matt took his phone out and took several photos of the inside and outside of the car by the light of his headlights. Then he took some more with the digital camera.

}Well, that’s a record of it, I suggest picking all this shit up and putting it in the car – oh. Er … is this your club suit? Can you get another one?

‘Don’t know, they had a special tailor in to make them all up. I’m supposed to wear it after home games. Don’t expect they’ll want me to wear it like that. Shit, two suits ruined in one evening.’

Matt and I started picking things up and piling them in the boot. Then I turned the lights off – they weren’t very bright, as if the battery was nearly dead – and shut and locked the doors.

‘I guess I’ll have to call a garage tomorrow to get it towed. Do you think I’ll be able to get it repaired on the insurance?’

}Depends on your policy, they usually try to wriggle out of paying up for anything. I doubt you’ll get any admissions out of the lady in question, either, so it could take ages to sort out. You might have to suck it up and sort it yourself. Sorry, Dec, I know your car means a lot to you.

‘Yeah, well, it’s just a heap of metal and plastic, really, isn’t it?’

}Oh, mate, I know you don’t really mean that, you fucking nancy, but nice try. Summers is awarded five man points for putting on a brave face. You’ll get it fixed up, mate, it’ll be good as new. Which considering the fucking appalling way you’ve looked after it can only be a good thing. At least your swanky-arse sponsorship deal will help pay for it. Come on, let’s go back, there’s an outside chance I could actually manage an hour’s sleep tonight before your next drama unfolds.

o0o

Dec: =Msg fm last night’s reject. UR fucking wanker. Have 2 say I agree. No more favours.

Bonksy: =Wot u mean? Was problem? Thought all sorted with Scotty’s brother.

Dec: =*sigh*

Bonksy: =Wot?

o0o

‘Hey Beth.’

_Hi Dec. How do you fancy a fortnight in the South of France?

‘What?’

_James has just been offered this villa practically on the beach for a fortnight in June. It’s enormous, big enough for all of us. We’re going to take Cal out of school, Matty’s coming, Carol’s coming, Nico and Lis too, I thought we could ask Rose, and if you and Amy would like to come it would be a complete family holiday …

‘Whoa, sounds fucking awesome. We might have to cancel our month on the private yacht, or reschedule the visit of the Prince of Monaco, but as long as Ames is OK with it … fuck yeah!’

_You didn’t have anything else planned, did you?

‘Ha ha, Beth, very funny, you know I don’t do plans.’

_No, but Amy is a bit more organised. She hasn’t booked something you’ve forgotten about?

‘Shit, I’d better check, that would be the kind of sneaky thing she’d go and do. I’ll text her now.’

o0o

Dec: =Can we go south of France, 2 weeks in June with Beth n Jay n every1? Please canwecanwecanwe? xx

Amy: =What? Really? Sounds completely amazing!

Dec: =Really! We’re not booked 2 do anything?

Amy: =Not unless u booked it – oh, what am I thinking? 😉 xx

o0o

‘Hey Ames, sorry got held up at Carol’s, she needs some stuff taking to the tip. Just had a thought. It’s your birthday on Saturday isn’t it, shall we go out somewhere, have a meal or something?’

)A meal? Yeah, OK, that’d be … nice, I guess.

‘Great, I’ll book somewhere. Only the best for you, babe. See you soon. Love you.’

_Great performance, sweetheart. Do you think she suspects?

‘No, she sounded really pissed off and disappointed at my usual thoughtlessness and lack of foresight. I hope she doesn’t get too upset, I’ll have to spill.’

_Dec, you can’t! You’ve got to stay strong. It’s only a couple of days. Have you got that playlist finished yet?

‘Yeah, well I have now Matt helped me set it up. I’ve been sneaking out of bed after she’s gone to sleep to finish it off, all her favourites, things she used to go clubbing to, stuff from when she was a kid. I’ve been so devious getting it all out of her.’

_Well done, sweetheart.

‘Well, not really, it wasn’t that hard. You’ve done all the hard work. The hardest bit for me has been all the lying.

_They’re only tiny fibs, sweetheart. For a good cause.

‘I know, I know. It’s not easy though. Thanks so much, Beth, you’ve been fucking magnificent. You should go into business as a party planner or something.’

o0o

)Thanks hon, I’ve had the best day and night and morning ever. I’ll say a proper thank you later.

‘Well it was really all Beth, and Rose and Carol did the food. I can’t claim credit for anything except the playlist.’

)Actually, I think the playlist was my favourite bit. And besides, I don’t think Beth would appreciate how completely grateful I’m going to be. She might be a bit surprised if I tried to thank her the same way.

‘Oh? Oh! Well in that case, I accept your heartfelt gratitude and await my reward. Mm, come here for a quick preview?

o0o

Amy: =Just got results *drum roll* got a DISTINCTION!!!!! WOOOOOHOOOO!!!

Dec: =UR fucking AWESOME! Love u so much xxxxxxxx :)))))

Julia

Is there such a thing as the perfect mate? Not the love of your life, not your soul-mate, not any of those sentimental romantic lies ultimately designed to sell wedding venues and valentines cards. No, the perfect mate. Someone who so perfectly complements you physically, sexually, socially, attitudinally, intellectually that it’s just ridiculous not to, well, mate with them. In both the sexual and the ‘partners in (but not necessarily for) life’ sense.

Well of course there is no such thing, but I thought I’d got close with Matt Scott. Apart from his over-affectionate, over-interested, over-populated family, he was, eventually, perfect for me. I was perfect for him. We were perfect together, theoretically speaking. Obviously, nobody’s actually perfect, and I was well aware of Matt’s flaws, as aware as he was of mine. And yet, it should have been the perfect match…

We both started working for GreenScreen at about the same time, and although he seemed serious enough about his work, his immature stalking of all the superficial, blonde, gel-nailed business school graduates meant I wanted little to do with him in the first year of our employment.

Eventually he ran out of playmates, as word of his standard modus operandi filtered down to the bottom feeders and dried up the ready supply. So he set his sights on bigger challenges and, according to office gossip, started dating women who might actually be able to hold a conversation with him about something more than the latest issue of OK magazine – word had it he had cleaned up his act a little, and although still a Lothario who would bed you, then drop you at the merest sniff of commitment, he would at least pay for dinner before trying to stick his hand down your bra.

Matt

It was kind of a no-no to interfere in another team’s projects, but when the boss asks you to do something, you don’t really have a choice. So when Phil asked me to have a look at the weakpoint analysis on the Duffenheim project that Jules’ team was handling, I had a go. I took the print-out, wandered over to her office and leaned on the door frame, watching her for a bit.

Jules was hot. She was … I can only describe her as petite, really, although when she was fired up you forgot how small she was. She had short dark hair that curled round her ears, and brown eyes that went almost black when she was angry. Which she was, with me, at first, quite a lot of the time.

So anyway, I stood watching her for a bit, wondering how long it would take her to realise I was standing there, arms crossed, my best get-your-coat-you’ve pulled smile on my face. Eventually she looked up, and I jumped in before she could send me packing.

‘You need me.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Oh, you won’t have to beg for it, Jules. Unless that’s what floats your boat.’

I was going to enjoy myself, because I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her very often, and I wanted to see if she blushed. I had a whole arsenal (although as a Tottenham supporter it pains me to admit that) of flirty banter at my disposal.

Julia

‘It’s Julia. What are you talking about?’

He was quickly becoming irritating. I wasn’t about to respond to his innuendo, and I had work to do. His smirk widened, however, and he straightened up, running a hand through his thick, short, sandy hair, leaving a lot of it standing out at crazy angles.

Matt

Oh this was great, I already had a way to wind her up, and it was completely unintentional. In my mind, she was always Jules, it had just come out. I widened my smile, straightened up, and ran a hand through my hair.

‘See, the thing is, Jules …’

I paused, leaving a gap for her to correct me again, but she stayed silent and I inwardly applauded her self control.

‘…aha, I see I only get one warning, nice. Makes things interesting. OK, the thing is, Phil thinks you need me to help you with your Dufflebag project –’

Yeah, it was pretty childish, getting the name of the project amusingly wrong. Didn’t I mention I was immature?

Julia

‘Duffenheim. No.’

He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling not unattractively. He had big grey eyes. I’m not sure why I noticed.

‘He said you’d say no. I, er, don’t think it’s a request actually. I’ve fixed your problem with the weakpoint analysis. Here.’

He handed me a sheet of paper with graphs printed on it. I put it on my desk without looking at it.

Matt

She spoke without looking at me, eyes fixed on her computer screen.

‘Tell Phil we’re working on a solution. Thanks for the offer, though.’

‘Come on Jul – ia.’

Calling her Jules had had an unexpected effect, so I tried it again, mixing it up a bit to keep her on her toes. But this time she didn’t answer, just started tapping the keyboard. She was good; this required the full Matt Scott treatment.

‘Just look at the bloody graphs, woman. Just one tiny little look, what’s it going to hurt? Then you can say thank you very much Matt you really are so brainy what can I possibly do to repay you and I can say oh I don’t know maybe dinner at eight my treat and a club afterwards and you can pretend you don’t really want to but you can let me persuade you because I really am so brainy and actually quite charming and handsome too in a kind of skinny but rugged way and –’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, alright.’

Julia

Just to stop him talking, I reached over to the piece of paper he’d given me and had a look at the graphs. It didn’t take me long to see they were brilliant, and Matt had managed to save my team hours of work. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of letting him know that, though, because he shouldn’t have done it in the first place, so I studied the page as if I had seen several glaring errors.

Matt

What? She was going to come out with me? Just like that? She was – oh. She meant she was going to look at the print-out. She picked it up and looked at it, and if I hadn’t been looking at her really intently, I would have missed the split second when her eyes widened a fraction and she was impressed. But I did see it, and then I saw her rearrange her features so she appeared unaffected by what was clearly going to save her team hours of work, and I nearly laughed out loud. Instead, I channelled my amusement into more sport for me.

‘So this is where you say thank you very much Matt, you really are so brainy, et cetera, dinner, club, your place –’

She looked up and tried to throw ice daggers from her eyes, but I let them all bounce off me. It took more than a look to intimidate me, and I melted them with my solar smile. I wasn’t going to thaw the Ice Queen all in one go, but I might sneak in a bit of a defrosting if she let her guard down.

‘Meet you at The Long Legged Frog at eight. I’ve booked the table.’

I hadn’t done any such thing, but it was going to annoy the shit out of her to think I’d been confident enough to do so, and that I’d planned this whole thing. I turned and walked away, hands in my pockets, without another word.

Julia

Matt turned and walked away, hands in his pockets, leaving me annoyed and discomfited. He was arrogant enough that he might have booked a table in anticipation of winning some imaginary contest, but I suspected it was a bluff.

Matt

And that should have left me with a dilemma, because tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t easy to come by, but I decided that, as she was really unlikely to turn up anyway, I’d just go down there, wait around for half an hour outside just in case, then bugger off home. If she did turn up, I’d confess, and maybe she’d let me take her somewhere else, or maybe she wouldn’t. But when I got there, I thought I’d check, and they bloody well had a table for two, so I sat and waited.

Julia

I can’t explain why I went to The Long Legged Frog that evening. Maybe part of me wanted to see if he really had booked a table. I certainly hadn’t planned on going inside, just peering through the window with my hood up, seeing if I could spot Matt, then I was going to walk away. But I couldn’t see properly through the windows, which were covered in some kind of streamers for a birthday party, and although I thought I could see someone near the back of the restaurant who looked like him, I wasn’t sure.

Matt

I waited for my self-allotted half an hour, picked something from the menu that I was going to ask them to do up as a takeaway, and was just about to order it, when I saw a hooded figure looking through the window. Not Death or anything so sinister – I’d always imagined Death as a tall bloke in a cape, carrying a pointy farming implement, but this was just a short-arse woman wearing a coat with a hood.

There was a birthday party going on at the table in the window, and it wasn’t easy to see, but I thought it was her. I had no idea if she’d seen me, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so I got up and went to the door, where there was Julia Marran, looking as indecisive as I had ever seen her, one foot on the threshold.

‘Well what the fuck are you waiting for? You’re already half an hour late, I was about to order takeaway.’

She had a weird kind of frightened rabbit look in her eyes, and I wondered if I’d just scared her away, so I made sure I was smiling as I said it, and gestured her inside before she could change her mind.

Julia

I looked up into Matt’s wide grey eyes, which were crinkling at the corners to take the bite out of his words. I took in his casual but well-chosen clothes, his deliberately rumpled appearance; there might be worse ways to spend an evening, especially if he was paying. Tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t readily available, because the food was excellent; Matt’s confidence levels were obviously way higher than I had given him credit for if he really had booked before our earlier conversation.

Matt

As I led her to the table, part of me was wide-eyed with surprise. Holy fuck! Julia Marran had come on a date with me. She’d actually turned up. I mean, yeah, albeit looking like it wasn’t the place she most wanted to be in the world, but still. I wondered briefly whether I was going to get into her pants, and then brushed the thought away as unworthy.

Julia Marran wasn’t the kind of woman who you dallied with in any way, shape or form. You didn’t shag Julia Marran once, and then leave in the middle of the night while she was still asleep.

If I was lucky, Julia Marran would stay for the main course and I’d get home without my ego taking too much of a bruising. It was new territory for me, and although part of me resisted the novelty, another part of me was excited at the departure from the old familiar ways.

Let me be very clear – at this point, I was still an excellent no-strings lay. It was just that Jules was way classier than any of the women I usually took up with, and away from work there was something … vulnerable about her that grabbed me by my lapels and said ‘be gentle’.

Julia

The evening went much better than I would have anticipated. Matt was surprisingly good company; he had a quick wit and a keen intellect, which he usually hid under lots of laddish banter about beer and football; he had a degree in systems technology (a better one than mine although only just); was well-read and appreciated good literature even if he didn’t enjoy the same books as me; he liked the same arts films that I did, and generally surprised me with his ability to talk in an informed way about lots of different subjects. He even made me laugh a few times. He didn’t offer much personal information, but then neither did I, and our conversation was doing fine without needing to bother about family histories.

Matt swore a lot, his speech was peppered with variations on a theme of ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ and ‘bollocks’, not that it worried me, as I wasn’t averse to the odd curse when appropriate, but it was noticeable. To start with I thought he was trying to impress me or irritate me but I realised after a while that, just as I blocked it out, so he didn’t really notice he was doing it.

Matt

So, we talked. We actually bloody well talked. Books, films, art, we had a lot in common. We had similar degrees, although mine was a bit better than hers – score – and the evening flew by. I had expected her to be distant and unapproachable, but Julia was different away from work. I wasn’t sure if she realised how far her act had slipped; I saw a bit of the real her, and I liked it.

When we’d finished our meal, done the coffee, and the waiters were starting to hover as time ticked on, I paid the bill as I’d promised and we left. I couldn’t resist another go, though; it had worked so well before.

‘So where are we going now?’

I knew she had no intention of going anywhere else, but my spiel back in the office had been dinner, club, your place.

‘I’m going home.’

‘Oh great, your place then. Skip the club. Fuckably good plan. Where do you live?’

I was pushing for all I was worth. Maybe I stood a chance, maybe I didn’t. Don’t ask, don’t get.

Julia

I couldn’t work out if he was joking, serious or pushing his luck, and decided some clarification was in order.

‘Just so we’re clear, Matt, I’m going home, to my home, on my own, without you. Thank you for dinner, and thank you for the weakpoint analysis. I think we’re even now.’

Matt

And it was Return of the Ice Queen. I mimed stabbing myself in the heart as if with an icicle, and staggered back against a wall for added effect.

‘But Jules, we were getting on so well.’

We had been getting on well, and part of me was disappointed to be dismissed so summarily. I pushed my bottom lip out in a sulk.

‘It’s Julia. I will admit I’ve had a better evening than I was expecting.’

‘Ouch.’

‘You’re really quite pleasant company. It’s a shame you’ve let your reputation hide your intelligence.’

‘Double ouch. You really tell it how you see it don’t you. I can see it’s going to be a bit of a bloody challenge getting into your knickers.’

I realised my mistake as soon as I said it. I hadn’t even thought about the flirty banter while we were inside, but the second I mentioned her knickers, the shutters went up and I lost her. She rolled her eyes, and walked off. I felt the need to rescue something; the need for this not to be finished just yet. I hurried after her and pulled her gently by the arm.

Julia

I started to walk in the direction of my car, a little disappointed that he had been unable to refrain from making at least one sexual remark. I felt his hand on my arm.

‘Hey. No goodbye?’

His hand turned me slightly towards him, and without warning he leaned forwards and kissed me on the mouth. His hand came up to cup my cheek as he tilted my face up towards him. I thought about pushing him away, but to be honest I had heard tales of Matt Scott’s kisses and I wanted to find out how true they were. Albeit without letting his tongue anywhere near mine.

Matt

I turned her slightly towards me, quickly leaned forwards and kissed her, tilting her face up to mine with my hand. And she let me. Well, after a fashion she let me. She didn’t wrap her arms round me, or touch me in any way, but she just stood there while I bombarded her with my best tongue and lip action. Or the best I could manage with someone who wouldn’t open her mouth.

I ran my tongue along the edges of her lips and probed her locked down teeth looking for a way in. I sucked her bottom lip gently into my mouth and nibbled on it, running my tongue over it and then trying again to force my way into her mouth. I got frustrated and mashed both lips against hers, then gave her the smallest of pecks all the way around her mouth, then tried again with my tongue. It was like she had lockjaw or something, and I suddenly found it really, really funny, standing there trying my best, while Julia just stood there letting me, having no intention of actually giving anything back.

Julia

Matt’s lips were soft and warm, and his tongue was insistent and surprisingly inventive. He made a very good attempt, and I was tempted to give in and experience the full version of a Matt Scott kiss, but I felt him hum or cough or something, and suddenly realised he was laughing, with his mouth still pressed to mine. I pulled my head back and looked into his smiling eyes as he continued to laugh.

‘Something’s amusing you?’

Matt

‘You know your nickname’s The Ice Queen, right?’

I was sure she must do, despite each new batch of juniors thinking they’d made it up. I might have helped them along a bit.

‘That’s supposed to be a secret. The juniors all think I’ll stab them with an ice pick if I find out that’s what they call me.’

‘Well I was just thinking, you’re so hard to give a good Frenching to, I think your new nickname should be The No-Dice Queen. Shit, Julia, anyone’d think my tongue carried the plague the way your barricades are rammed home.’

‘For all I know it does, from what I hear you’re not that particular where you put it. Thanks for the meal, Matt, see you at work tomorrow.’

Julia

I walked off again, surprising myself by feeling a little disappointed that he didn’t come after me again. I heard a quiet ‘Bye Jules’ as my footsteps took me to my car.

Matt

Wow, that stung. I knew what tales were out there about me, and I knew Julia would have heard most of them, in passing if not directly, but to be confronted with that brief but damning assessment of me, and hearing the distaste with which she said it, brought me up sharp and stopped my games instantly.

Julia walked off along the street, as I stood there, chastened. I managed a subdued, ‘Bye Jules’ as she went.

Julia

Back in the sanctuary of my flat, I sank down onto the sofa with a glass of wine and reflected on the evening. When I’d woken up that morning, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who told me that by the end of the day I would have survived a meal and a kiss with Matt Scott.

Although I had my impulsive side, most of the things I did were considered, and I was very careful to maintain strict control over how I revealed myself at work. My Ice Queen persona had been painstakingly developed by me to keep colleagues at a distance and remain efficient within my team. Workplace complications tended to have an impact on getting the job done and I did not welcome diversionary intimacies of any sort. I had a full and satisfying social life which was completely separate from work; I was a different person when I was spending time with my friends, who would have recognised The Ice Queen as little as anyone from GreenScreen would have recognised Jules. I smiled wryly to myself as I thought about Matt trying to get away with calling me that. It was one of the ways I was able to retain my distance at work. Only people who got close to me called me Jules, and he wasn’t going to be one of those. I was going to have to be careful not to make too much of an issue of it, though, as he was the sort of guy who would carry on to get a reaction.

Anyway, I was hardly going to come across him again after tonight; his brief involvement in the Duffenheim project was over, he’d had his fun and failed in his quest. He would have moved on to the next more willing victim by tomorrow. Or even tonight. I was surprised to find that thought gave me a bit of a pang of … what? Regret? Ridiculous. I finished my wine, washed up the glass and went to bed.

Matt

And I suppose that’s when I started seriously evaluating my life, with all the wine, women and song (possibly reworked into beer, birds and bad karaoke if you want to be honest and slightly insulting) needing a long hard look. I’d started to slow down, put the brakes on a bit, already, but Jules throwing back some of the things she’d doubtless heard about me, and the way she said it, made me realise what some people, people whose opinions I valued, might actually believe about me. I let a lot of the bollocks stand, because it suited me, and a lot of other bollocks just became hard-wired into the myth. But I never had anything nasty or infectious. After Carrie convinced the population of Stafford that I had, I made doubly sure I was always protected, and I got myself thoroughly and regularly checked. I’d heard the stories of the nasties you could get if you let Matt Scott near you, but I knew where they’d originated from, thank you Petra, and I did my best to squash them. Obviously my best squashing hadn’t been enough.

Ironically, what people thought about the state of my sexual health and morals wasn’t a million miles from the heap of shite that Carrie led everyone to believe about me up in Stafford. The difference this time was that it was largely my own doing.

So now it was all coming home to roost. I was getting tired of being fun-boy Matt, and sometimes I was lonely, despite the surprising closeness I still maintained with my family. I wouldn’t say I was looking for someone, or if I was, I was not in any way prepared to admit it to myself. But I began to see that this state of affairs couldn’t last, had maybe had its time, and I changed. Oh, I was still Matt the Lad, the chat was still there, I still partied, snogged, groped, but that final bit, that back to your place, fumble with the underwear, ooh yeah, cheers love, that went – or at least saw a drastic cut in occurrences.

And I would look at Jules sometimes, and kick myself, because she was an echo of what might have been. I could have chased her, I could have convinced her, I could have won her over, if things had been different. But she thought I was the worse kind of sleazeball, and she wasn’t far wrong, and that was the end of that.

Julia

Much as I expected, if I thought about it at all, I didn’t see a lot of Matt at work after that. I presented his graphs to my team, we acknowledged the man-hours they had saved us, and I didn’t really think about him. It wasn’t until Nons died several weeks later that I even spoke to him again.

46. She said

In which Dec finds himself in a sticky situation.

Dec

I couldn’t see Amy’s car as I pulled into the parking bay. The flat was ominously quiet and dark as I opened the door.

‘Ames?’

No reply. Fuck. Why had I let myself get so caught up with Cal’s project? Thinking about Perth had brought back some great childhood memories, talking about my dog, my friends, places I used to go. Talking about it like it was part of Cal’s school work helped me to think about it without focussing on my parents and all the sadness that brought. I’d enjoyed myself so much, I’d lost track of time, and suddenly it was late. Too late. I saw a note on the coffee table.

Tired of waiting. It’s always something isn’t it. Gone to Jude’s. Don’t wait up, won’t be back. A

What the fuck did that mean? Was she … had she … how long was she going for? Beginning to panic, I tried calling her. Maybe I could fix some of this over the phone. It went straight to voicemail. I hated leaving messages, but made an attempt.

‘Ames, I’m so sorry. I know I keep fucking up. Please don’t stay out, please come back and talk to me. I can’t bear this, not talking, knowing I’ve upset you and not sorting it out. I feel so far away from you. Please come back. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. I love you. I love you so much.’

I hung up before I started to cry. It felt like things were broken between us, and I didn’t know how to mend it. Couldn’t bear to think about where it might end if I didn’t. The thought of losing her nearly sent me back to that dark place where I’d been when my parents died, and when I’d lost Jay and Beth. I was just about holding on. I sent Amy a text as well, then made myself a cup of tea and scooped some of the takeaway curry I’d brought home onto a plate. I sat staring at it all for a long time while it went cold, unable to decide if I should go to Jude’s to find Amy, or whether I’d just make things worse. If they could be any worse. My phone rang. For a second I thought it might be Amy, but it wasn’t her ringtone. The tone and the screen announced Beth.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, were you supposed to be spending time with Amy tonight?

‘Yeah.’

_Cal just told me, he said didn’t think you were going to stay as long as you did. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t realise. You should have said, I’d never have let him keep you here so long if I’d known. Is everything OK?

I took a deep breath, tried not to cry, failed.

_Oh Dec, what’s happened? Tell me, sweetheart.

‘She’s not here, she’s gone to Jude’s. I think I’ve fucked it all up. Shit, I’m so fucking stupid. She left this note saying she’s not coming back, I don’t know what she means, she’s not answering her phone, I don’t know what to do. I think she might have … left. I can’t lose her, I just can’t, I love her –’

_Dec, listen to me, you haven’t lost her, she’s just angry. James and I went through something similar when he was still playing. Rugby is a pretty full on career, it can swallow you, and there are always lots of lovely ladies who’d like to have a bit of your man, given half a chance. You both have to be pretty strong, in yourself and together.’

Beth’s reassuring words were helping to calm me down a bit, but I was still on the verge of panic.

‘You’ll get through this, I’m sure, you just need some time together, talk, tell each other how you’re feeling. It’ll be the end of the season soon, you’ll have the summer to wind down, get some normality back. Actually, thinking about it, James and I would have a blip of some sort at the end of every season, it’s all bound up with stress and expectations. It wasn’t until he stopped playing and started coaching that things changed. This is your first real season with all that pressure, isn’t it. It can be hard, you just have to work at it.

‘How did you fix it?’

_Well I think things tended to fix themselves, once the season was out of the way and we could spend time catching up with each other. Eventually I realised what was going on and just accepted it. We talked about it too, so we’d both recognise what was going on. That’s so important, sweetheart.

‘It’s a bit difficult when you’re not even in the same fucking building.’

_Yes, that is a bit of an added problem. Can I maybe suggest that the next time Cal asks you to do something when you’ve already got something important on, you just say no?

‘I can’t say no to Cal, I can’t let him down.’

_I know, sweetheart, you’re so lovely to him, but it’s OK sometimes. He’ll understand, he won’t stop asking. Make sure you talk to Amy, Dec. Even if you have to stay in for the next week to make sure you see her.

‘It’s hard –’

_I know. Do whatever it takes. She loves you. You both want it to work. So make it work. You just –

I didn’t hear the rest, as I heard a key in the door.

‘Ames?’

I rushed to the door, disconnecting from Beth as it opened, so relieved she’d come back. She looked at me with big, sad eyes, as I took in the large holdall she had with her.

‘Fucking hell, Amy, were you really moving out?’

)I don’t know. I’ve been completely miserable the last few days. I was going to stay the night at Jude’s and see how I felt.

My legs felt weak. I was terrified I was going to do or say something that would make her change her mind and leave again.

‘But you came back …’

)I got your voicemail and your text. It made a difference. Oh Dec, I don’t want to leave, but I can’t bear this uncertainty. I can’t bear it if every time you’re late or have to go somewhere last minute, or go out without telling me where you’re going, I think you’re with her.

‘Amy, what the fuck? I was with Cal. I know I was longer than I should have been, and I’m so sorry I asked you to be here and then I wasn’t, but who did you think I was with?’

Although I didn’t need to ask. She looked at me, pain in her eyes.

)God she’s a conniving cow, she’s got between us without even lifting a finger.

‘Shit, you thought I was with Becca fucking Davis? Fuck, Amy, you really thought I was with her?’

)I don’t know what to think. It all feels like it used to at school, all the mind games and then the inevitable conversation – ‘Sorry Amy, but Bec’s more fun than you. Let’s just be friends.’

I tried to hold on to what Beth had told me, that Amy was feeling insecure. It was hard. It hurt that she could believe I would cheat on her.

‘Do you think I’ve been lying to you?’

)No …

‘Well what then? It sounds like you think every time you don’t know where I am, I’m with Becca fucking Davis.’

)Dec, I’ve hardly seen you for weeks. I never know where you are these days. I thought when we moved in together we’d see each other all the time, but it’s not like that, it’s like we never bother making time for each other any more And you slept on the sofa again last night. It’s like you can’t bear to be with me, like you don’t want me any more She keeps texting me, telling me things you said or did, making it sound like you were with her. Now she’s on the scene, it feels like it’s only a matter of time and she’ll have you –

She started to cry and dropped her bag to put her hands over her face. We were still by the front door; she hadn’t even closed it behind her.

‘Oh Ames, this has just all got a bit out of control. Come here, babe.’

I pulled her into my arms and held her close, unable to stop my own tears. I couldn’t bear her being so sad. I couldn’t bear being so sad myself. After a while we both sniffed to a halt, stood back and looked at each other.

‘This is shit, Amy, how have we let this happen? We need to sort it out.’

She nodded. I pushed the front door shut, as if that would somehow keep her here, and took her by the hand to lead her into the living room. We sat together on the sofa.

‘OK, there’s lots I need to say, I’ve been a fucking thoughtless dickhead and taken you for granted and I need to apologise, but before any of that I just need to be absolutely sure that you know and believe that I love you, and only you, forever. Do you believe me?’

She looked up at me, nodded.

‘Do you love me?’

)Yes, of course. But that’s –

‘Hold on, there’s something else that goes with that, that I need to know you believe. I haven’t spent one second with Becca fucking Davis since she was in the bar after the game. She can throw herself at me all day long for all I care, I’ll never take any notice of her, she’ll make herself look like a fucking idiot for trying. I only want you, I’ve only ever wanted you, I’m not interested in anyone else, just you. I’m sure she would like you to believe something different. You can only believe one of us. If you believe her, she’s won, got what she wanted – I don’t mean me, she’ll never have me, I mean power. That’s what all this is about, she’s a bully and likes to take power away from people. Do you believe me?’

Another nod, less certain.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry I’ve caused all this. It’s just been so manic recently, I’ve stopped keeping in touch with you.’

I glanced at Amy’s note on the table: It’s always something isn’t it.

‘I know I’m always getting caught up, side-tracked, late back.’

)Well I am getting a bit fed up of hearing ‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time’. Dec, I really love that you’re always helping people out, I really love how sociable you are, but I’m here too, I need you too. Like, last Sunday after the under elevens game, you went off to cut Carol’s grass and you were gone all day because Matt came round while you were there and you ‘lost track of time’. I thought we were going to talk then, but we never got more than a few minutes, and it’s been days now. There’s only so often I’m willing to wait in all day on the off-chance you’re going to actually turn up when you say you will. It’s not fair.

I thought about it, how often that happened, how I just expected her to be here when I’d finished talking or helping out or having another beer. It happened a lot.

‘I’m so sorry, Ames. I’m treating you like shit, like you don’t matter. You matter the most to me in the world. You’d really think after everything that’s happened to me, I’d realise when I was taking the people I love for granted. You’re so precious to me, I should remember it every day. If I’d been in tune with you a bit more, I wouldn’t have even thought about giving Becca Davis your number, I’m such a fucking dick.’

)Why did you?

I hung my head, embarrassed.

‘This is pretty lame. It felt awkward not to, she was pretty insistent. I was saving my own face. I’m so sorry, babe. I honestly thought she was an old friend, or rather to be more honest, wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying, and chose to believe she was an old friend. I’m so sorry.’

Amy glanced at me, then looked down, shoulders hunched.

)When she rang me, while I was out with Cara and everyone, I could hardly believe it. She was just the same as she was at school, I knew she was up to something. I’d seen her after Raiders games a few times, hadn’t spoken to her, didn’t know if she still recognised me, she obviously saw us together and decided to try her old tricks.

‘But all they are is tricks. If we’d been a bit more in touch with each other, it would never have gone so far. We’ve both been so busy, I think I need to let you know what’s going on with me more, maybe do a bit less, make sure I have time for us to be together. And once the season’s finished and your exam’s over, we’ll have lots more time. Oh Ames, I’ve missed you. I feel like there’s been more than distance between us sometimes. I’ve hated sleeping on the fucking sofa.’

)Why did you, then? I didn’t ask you to.

‘Well, actually, you did the first night, you might not remember, you were pretty wasted. Fair enough, you were bloody furious with me. But after that, it felt like we were kind of avoiding each other, and then we felt so far apart it was a bit weird to be in bed with you. I wanted you so much but, well, that wasn’t going to happen, so I just put myself out of harm’s way.’

)But I asked you not to last night.

‘I know babe, I wish I’d talked to you about it. I didn’t want to come back until we’d sorted things out. I wanted to talk, but I fell asleep before you got back. I didn’t hear you come in.’

)It just made me feel even more like you didn’t want me.

Amy looked so unhappy and I felt so bad. I tentatively put my arm round her shoulders, and felt her relax a little as she rested her head against me.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry. I just can’t move for fucking up at the moment. I want you. I need you. I love you. I love you so much. I should say it all the time, so you never feel like this again. I’ve taken you for granted, I’ve got previous, I should know by now that I have to work at things, talk about things, keep things out in the open. Me and you, we’re the most important things to each other. We can do without anything else, jobs, homes, cars, all that shit, but we can’t do without each other. We need to be strong together. We are still together, aren’t we? Are we OK?’

)If you’re sure you still want me –

How had I let things slip so far that she could doubt it?

‘Amy, I love you, I want you, I need you. I always will. We want each other, don’t we? I know I’ve already asked you this, but will you marry me?’

Amy choked back a sob with a half smile, and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes.

)Of course, hon. Oh Dec, I love you. I’ve been so unhappy, I think I convinced myself Becca would win, like she always did, and I couldn’t see any other end to it. You must think I don’t trust you. I do, it just all got tangled up with her. It’s what she does.

‘Maybe I need to have a bit of a word with her –’

)No, hon, just leave it, she feeds off it. Tell you what we can do though, next home game I’ll hang around afterwards, we can have the biggest snog the Raiders Bar has ever seen, tongues and everything. That might just do it.

And suddenly there it was, over. I sagged with relief as I felt Amy melt against me, and the tension between us evaporated.

‘I like the sound of that. Can I feel you up too?’

)Don’t push your luck.

I pulled her closer and folded her up in my arms, so glad we’d managed to sort things. I could see Amy’s holdall still in the hall, and it made my blood run cold to think how close I might have been to losing her.

)Oh, you know what, thinking about that weekend while I remember, I saw Mum and Dad a couple of days ago. They’re going on a cruise in a few weeks, three months round the world, it’s to celebrate Dad’s retirement.

‘Bloody hell, lucky them. That’s great.’

I genuinely meant this, as they would be out of the country and out of Amy’s business for a quarter of the year.

)It means they won’t be here for my birthday, so they want to have a special meal before they go. They want you to come too.

‘Really? They want me to come?’

)Well, OK, I said I wouldn’t go unless you were invited too. It’s almost the same. They’ve booked that fancy place near Cathedral Park, Fishers or whatever it’s called. It’s for a week on Saturday, I know you’ve got a game, I said it would have to be later so you have time to do all your post-match stuff, so they booked it for nine. Sorry, hon, I really want you to be there, hope you don’t mind.

I was more than happy to celebrate Amy’s birthday early with her parents if it meant that, firstly, they would be out of the country for three months, and, secondly, I wouldn’t have to invite them to her surprise party, so they wouldn’t be there all night disapproving of her having fun.

‘No worries. Sounds perfect. Now, did you mention some snogging? I think we need to get practising so we’re word perfect on the night. Come here, you gorgeous woman. I’ve fucking missed you. Let me show you how much.’

o0o

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

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Declan Summers @summs12 5 May

This is my last tweet. I have deleted the rest. Twitter didn’t amaze me, it saddened me. Deleting my account.

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o0o

Dec: =Good luck babe. U’ll smash it. See you l8r, tell me how gr8 u were. Luv u 2 bits xxx

Amy: =Thx hon, sooooooo nervous. Luv u 2 xxx

o0o

_Hi Dec, just ringing to see how Amy got on with her exam.

‘She’s not back yet, they all went out for a drink afterwards, I’m not expecting her until much later. She thinks it went OK though, sounded pretty confident actually.’

_Oh that’s great, I’m so pleased. So, if Amy’s not there, is it a good time to do some surprise party plotting?

‘Great idea. Over the phone, or do you want to come round?’

_Oh, I can’t, James is out, no babysitter. You could come to ours?

‘No, I’d better stay here in case Amy comes back early or needs me to give her a lift or something, she’s expecting me to be here.

_Sounds like someone’s learned a lesson or two.

‘Yeah, the hard way. As usual, it takes a fucking crisis, but I get there in the end. Phone it is then …

o0o

– … young player of the season is … Declan Summers. Well done, Declan, come and get your trophy – oh, er, when you’re ready. Declan? Well, it certainly looks like Declan’s young lady is eager to congratulate him on his award … er, right … ahem … ah, thank you, yes, here you are, congratulations. Phew, Declan, you’ve made me blush. That doesn’t happen very often. And now on to the award for …

o0o

Amy had gone home to change, ready to be picked up by her parents. I still had some photos with sponsors to finish up, some handshaking with various corporate people and a bit of mingling with any remaining supporters before I could get out of my Raiders suit, into my ‘dinner with Amy’s parents’ suit, and head off to the restaurant.

The whole day had been spectacular, starting with Raiders winning the semi-final of the play-offs, courtesy of a last minute try from one Declan Summers, followed by my award for young player of the season, and then by signing a new personal sponsorship deal that considerably increased my income for the next two years.

The well-rehearsed and very enjoyable kiss with Amy as my award was announced seemed to have seen off any lingering doubts in Becca Davis’ mind that her scheming was going to work, as she left the room with a face like thunder during the presentation.

I finally finished the photos and the handshakes and headed to the bar, where a few people were still listening to the band as it played its last couple of numbers. Jay and Nico were leaning on the bar, watching the sports channel on subtitles. I went over and stood next to them.

>Hey Declan, you want a beer?

‘No thanks, Nico, I’m off out soon.’

I nodded at the TV screen.

‘Did Arsenal win?’

>Yes, they win. Cal’s Theo Walcott score a goal, he is happy now. Both his teams win, but only one of his best players score. Your try must make up for this, is only second best. Tottenham, they lose. Matty is not happy, yes?

‘Probably not, he’ll get over it, I expect he’ll find some understanding woman to console him later.’

łHey, that’s my little brother you’re telling the truth about. You’ve escaped the media circus at last, then. Seeing spots before your eyes?

‘Ha ha, yeah a bit. That flash was really bright, and my jaw’s aching from all the fake smiling.’

łJust think of that lovely money, that’ll make it a real smile. Well done, mate, you’ve earned it.

‘Thanks. I think I might head off in a minute, can’t be late for Amy’s parents.’

łOh yeah, the dreaded meal. Just think of it as a free dinner followed by three whole months of not having to think about them. See – now that looks like a real smile, mate. Just a word of advice, though. Don’t try the snogging display on them. Might not go down well.

>Ha, yes, this is some kissing we are seeing. We think we watch movie awards, not rugby awards.

I grinned.

łDid it do the trick?

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

łNo, mate, course you don’t. Oh, did Brett find you?

‘Brett? Oh, Bonksy. No, was he looking for me?’

łYeah, just now, said he needed a favour. Dec, I’ve been meaning to ask for ages, why ‘Bonksy’? What does it actually mean?

‘Fucked if I can remember, it was so long ago, from Academy days. I was Captain Sensible for a while, that’s just fucking hilarious!’

łYou did have a bit of an earnest quality about you back then. Seem to have shaken it off pretty well now. Oh, here’s Brett, I’ll leave you to it. See you soon, mate, have a good evening if at all possible.

Jay clapped me on the shoulder and turned back to the TV as Bonksy approached.

]Hey Summs, I’m glad I caught you, I wondered if you could do me a favour?

‘If I can. I’m just on my way to dinner with Amy’s parents, big posh restaurant, I can’t be late.’

]Oh, nice one. Is it in town by any chance?

‘Er, yes, why?’

]Great, then it won’t take you any time at all, it’s on the way.

‘What exactly do you want me to do?’

]Well I’ve got myself in a bit of a bind, see there was this girl earlier, and I liked her and everything, and I kind of said I’d give her a lift home, but now I’ve been getting on really well with this other girl, and so giving the first one a lift home not really an option, but seems a bit rude to leave her in the lurch, and all the buses have gone now. She lives, oh I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly where, but it’s not far, practically on your way. Please, mate, you’d be doing me a real favour.

I hesitated, not wanting to complicate my evening by unnecessary Bonksy diversions. It didn’t sound like much, though, just taking someone somewhere I was already on the way to, maybe having to listen to her complaining about what a dick Bonksy was. I looked at my watch. Plenty of time to get changed, do Bonksy’s dirty work and still not be late for the restaurant. I sighed. Bonksy and I hadn’t seen much of each other since Amy and I moved in together; it felt kind of good to be helping him out of his scrapes again.

‘OK. As long as it’s on the way. You’ve told her you’re not taking her home, haven’t you?’

]Well, no, I was kind of hoping …

‘Oh fucking hell, Bonksy. Oh alright then. For old times’ sake.

]Thanks mate, I owe you one.

‘You owe me several actually, at the last count, not that I am of course.’

I was speaking to Bonksy’s disappearing back, but he turned at the door.

]Oh, she’s waiting out the front by the programme kiosk. Cheers mate.

He walked out before I could ask her name or what she looked like. I quickly changed into my posh suit. By the time I was ready, there was hardly anyone left in the club. I headed out to the front of the stadium, kit bag in one hand and Raiders suit in its cover over the other shoulder. It had started to rain. There was someone waiting by the programme kiosk, hunched against the increasingly heavy drizzle. She had her back to me.

‘Hey there, are you waiting for Brett – shit.’

As she turned round, I recognised her. Becca Davis. Fuck.

ϸYeah – oh, hi Declan. Did Brett get held up?

I was completely at a loss for a few seconds.

‘Er, yeah, actually, he’s, er, not going to be able to take you home. Says he’s sorry.’

ϸOh. Had a better offer did he?

Fuck it, I had no reason to spare her feelings.

‘Something like that.’

I turned round and started to walk towards my car, fuck whatever I’d promised Bonksy.

ϸWait, Declan, is there any way you can give me a lift? It’s pissing down now, I haven’t got my coat and there aren’t any more buses from here. I can’t walk far, I’ve got a bad ankle.

I shouted back, over my shoulder:

‘Phone a taxi.’

ϸI’ve got no cash. Please, Declan, it’ll only take you a few minutes.

I had absolutely no reason to do anything for her, apart from my inexplicable inability not to help people out. In the end my pathetically overactive conscience got the better of me.

‘I’m heading into town. I’ll drop you off somewhere if it’s on my way.’

ϸOh you’re a star. I’m just off the bypass.

She trotted over to the car in high heels, no apparent sign of any bad ankle. I got the first twinge of misgiving. I put my suit in the boot while she got in the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on, then I got in myself. I started driving, determined to get her out of the car as quickly and with as little conversation as possible.

‘Where am I dropping you?’

ϸYou look nice, going somewhere special?

I looked directly ahead and not at her, her too-short skirt and her too-tight shirt.

‘Yeah. So whereabouts am I dropping you?’

ϸOh it’s not far, just past the retail park. I’ll say when. Going out with Amy are you?

I didn’t answer; Amy was not the topic of any conversation I was going to have with this woman. It didn’t stop her for long.

ϸWhy did you close your Twitter account? It wasn’t because of me, was it?

I didn’t answer.

ϸShame, it was fun keeping in touch. Are you on Facebook?

‘No. Is it much further?’

ϸJust a bit, we haven’t gone past the retail park yet. Don’t be so keen to get rid of me.

She was silent for a while, but kept wriggling in her seat, her skirt creeping further up her thighs as she did so.

ϸThat was quite a performance you put on in the bar.

‘What?’

ϸYou and Amy. All the tongues and roving hands. Very impressive.

‘Piss off, Becca. You know nothing about me and Amy.’

I bit my lip, annoyed that she had riled me into responding.

ϸI know enough to see you were trying to impress someone – maybe hoping to show someone what you’re made of?

‘OK, that’s it, I’ve had enough of your tiresome bullshit. You can get out now. Fuck off.’

I stopped the car. She turned in her seat and faced me, leaning forwards.

ϸMake me.

I sat in silence, clenching the steering wheel as it dawned on me just how much trouble I might have got myself into. I watched the windscreen wipers clear the screen a couple of times. Got out of the car, into the rain, and called Amy.

)Hey hon, are you on your way?

‘Ames, I really can’t believe I’m about to say this. I’m so sorry, babe. I’m in a bit of a situation. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you, I need you to trust me.’

)OK … Are you –

Silence.

‘Amy?’

I looked at the screen. It had gone blank. I pressed the power button several times, but nothing happened. Out of charge or just given up the ghost, it didn’t really matter. It had sealed my fate.

‘Fuck it. Fucking useless piece of fucking junk.’

I shoved the redundant phone back in my pocket and got back in the car, out of the rain.

‘What exactly are you trying to achieve?’

Becca settled back in the seat, crossed her legs and ran her hands through her hair.

ϸKeeping dry for starters. Mm, comfy seats, nice and warm, ooh look, it reclines. Join me?

‘I’m just going to go where I was going, you can stay in the car or get out–’

ϸThink I’ll stay. I’d really like to see the look on Amy’s face when you get back to the car after your night out and I’m in the front seat, looking a bit rumpled and like I just might have had a fucking good time with the driver. I might even cry a bit – Oh Declan, you’ve been ages, I thought you weren’t coming back – oh … Amy’s with you …

She made her face crumple and a tear rolled down her cheek.

ϸI … I thought after what we did … you said she didn’t mean anything to you, how could you do this …

She sat back and looked me boldly in the eye. She was a bloody good actress, I had to give her that. I could imagine it working on Amy, after everything else that had worked. I thought of a few choice names to call her, but tried to keep a lid on my rising temper. I needed to concentrate if I was going to get out of this.

‘What do you want?’

ϸOh, nothing you’re likely to give me, you haven’t got the balls, much as you want it.

‘There’s absolutely nothing I want from you, apart from getting the fuck out of my car.’

ϸNo, I didn’t think you’d actually admit it. You can’t tell me wet fish Amy Wright is actually satisfying you, though?

As I ignored her attempt to diss Amy, Becca hitched her skirt up a bit higher, undid a button on her shirt and licked her lips. It was so obvious, it was almost funny. Maybe it might have worked on someone else, someone who was unhappy, or unsure, or just fancied what she was offering. It didn’t work on me.

‘What do you want, Becca? Maybe you think I can’t sit here all night fending off your pathetic shit, but I’ve had worse all nighters, and I’ve always won in the end.’

Perhaps she realised I was serious, as she seemed to sag a little bit, and dropped her head.

ϸOh alright, sod it, you’re really not worth all this. All I actually want is for you to take me home, right to my door, so I don’t have to walk there in the rain. And you can tell that cock Deressie from me, he’s a fucking wanker.

The fight seemed to have gone out of her. I could hardly believe I’d got off so lightly. I might not have needed to call Amy at all. I started the car.

‘Fine. Which way?’

ϸNext left.

She gave me some directions which seemed to lead into, then out of, the housing estate. After a while, I was totally turned around, had no idea where I was. It took me a while to realise we were heading out of the city, and then suddenly we were on a country road.

‘Where the fuck are we?’

I’d totally fallen for it. I’d just told myself what a good actress she was, and then I’d let her fool me into driving her all the way out here, some dark lane, in the middle of the countryside.

ϸOh, whoops, must have made a mistake. Are we lost?

The road was narrow and there wasn’t anywhere to turn round. I drove for some time, looking frantically for a gateway or something so I could head back the way I’d come. Finally, in the headlights up ahead, just as I was considering reversing all the way back down the road, I saw the entrance to a field where the road widened and I would have my chance. I pulled in, and the car stalled. I tried to start it again, but the engine just kept turning over without catching. I looked at the dashboard. The petrol gauge was blinking on empty, as it had been since yesterday, but I’d forgotten about it. I banged the steering wheel in frustration.

‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, a million fucking fucks.’

ϸIs that a request? Not sure I can manage a million, definitely one or two, three at a push, if you’re really good …

‘Just piss off.’

I took my phone out to dial before I remembered it had died too.

‘Shit.’

If I’d thought I was in trouble before, I’d had no idea how bad things could get. Becca stretched in the seat beside me and looked at me with wide, delighted eyes.

ϸOh Declan, it almost seems like you might have planned this. What kind of a girl do you take me for?

She took her seatbelt off. Then unbuttoned her shirt and took that off too. I stared at her for a second and then turned and faced resolutely forwards, thinking ‘shit shit shit’.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

ϸWell it seems a shame not to make the most of the situation. It’s going to be a while before anyone comes to help us down this road. We may as well enjoy the wait. I can make it very enjoyable, look …

She reached behind her, undid her bra and took that off too. I tried to ignore how naked she was, but was finding it a bit difficult.

‘Have you got a phone?’

ϸYes, but I’m not sure I’m ready to call for help just yet. Maybe in a little while I might need to …

She leaned over, stretched her hand out and started stroking my thigh. In spite of myself, and to my shame, I felt myself responding. I forced myself to think about Amy and not what was going on in my pants.

‘Becca, just stop there. I don’t know what you think I’m going to do with you out here in the rain in the middle of fuck knows where, but it is not going to happen. Not here, not anywhere.’

ϸYour hard-on tells me different.

‘My hard-on tells you I’m thinking about Amy.’

It was mostly true, although I was finding the close proximity of Becca’s nipples shamefully distracting. I picked her hand up from my thigh and put it in her lap – I really needed to get out of there.

Becca suddenly leaned towards me, grabbed my head and kissed me, thrusting her tongue deep into my mouth and her naked breasts against me. Horrified, I pushed her away as hard as I could, and, wiping my mouth, tried to find the door handle.

‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. Do you think you’re sexy or appealing or something? You’re just sad and pathetic. I’m going to get back to the city so I can carry on with my evening.’

At last, I found the door handle and shoved the door open, almost falling out of the car in my haste to be gone, away from this terrifying crazy woman who was making me feel things I definitely did not want ever to be feeling.

ϸI’m sure Amy would appreciate a text from me telling her not to worry …

Becca’s voice followed me out of the car. I sighed as I stood up. I’d had enough. I was already in deep enough shit, I was going to have to tell Amy everything anyway, nothing Becca Davis could do now was going to make it any worse.

‘Do what the fuck you want. You’re just a silly girl who’s never grown up. You think you’re still at school. Welcome to the real world, where grown ups don’t get sucked in to your childish shit. I suggest you put your shirt on and call a taxi. Good luck with your sad little life, just stay the fuck out of mine.

I hunched my shoulders against the pouring rain, and started to walk back down the road, cursing myself the whole way for the fucking gullible idiot I was, ignoring Becca’s shouts to wait, come back, she’d phone for help, then her yells that she was texting Amy right now and telling her how hard she’d made me, finally some loud sobs mixed in with most of the names I’d already called myself since leaving the club earlier. As her voice faded behind me, I trudged on through the rain, feeling bleak and stupid.

The downpour was a very effective cold shower, but I still felt guilty about how I’d responded to Becca’s touch. It was purely physical, no reasoning or emotional part of me was even slightly attracted to her, but I’d surely blown it with Amy now.

We’d been in such a good place since we’d sorted everything out. We’d been to see Jay and Beth and talked to them for a long time about how they managed to make things work when Jay was playing. Since then, we’d worked hard on communicating with each other, but I knew Amy still felt insecure about the amount of female attention that often came my way, and now this farce with Becca was just going to blow it all wide open again. And in front of her parents, who didn’t like me anyway. I hoped against hope that Becca was bluffing about texting Amy, but it seemed like the sort of thing she would do, so I prepared myself to face the fallout from that too.

The lights of the city grew slowly closer as I carried on walking. I was soaked right through to my skin, my suit was ruined, and my shoes squelched. It felt like hours later when I eventually reached the outskirts of the city, and the first street lights.

A car came towards me, and I thought about flagging it down, but realised no one was going to give me a lift in this muddy, saturated state. It was probably a taxi for Becca anyway. The car stopped behind me. I ignored it and kept on walking. The car reversed and the window wound down.

}So do you want a lift, or shall I leave you to enjoy your stroll in the deluge?

I stopped and looked properly at the car. Blinked the rain out of my eyes and tried to make sense of it.

‘Matt? What the fuck are you doing here?’

}Do you want me to tell you before or after you get in out of the rain and start ruining my Italian leather seats?

I opened the door and got in. He turned the heater up full, but my teeth still chattered.

}Fuck me, you’re absolutely drenched. I should have brought a towel. Or a dehumidifier. Or one of those fucking industrial suction pumps. Shit, Dec, you’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ve been all over looking for you.

‘What? How did you know?’

}Well I don’t know much, I have to say. You can fill me in on the way. Amy rang me, all in a panic, said you were supposed to be at Fishers with her parents, but you’d rung her saying there was a problem, then got cut off.

‘My fucking phone died.’

}Ah. Anyway, I didn’t know where you were, but doing a bit of detective work via Jay, then your mate Brett, we worked out you may have got waylaid by the charming @bouncybec.

‘Shit, does Amy know?’

}Well, none of us know anything for definite. It was Becca, then?

‘Yeah. Fuck, I’m such a dick. I couldn’t have been more fucking stupid if I’d tried.’

}You took the words out of my mouth. Dec, what possessed you to give the woman a lift? I don’t even know her, and I’d avoid her like the plague, and you know I’m not that fussy.

‘Well I didn’t know it was her when Bonksy asked me to do him a favour. Then I felt sorry for her.’

Matt gaped at me.

}You felt sorry for her?

‘For about two seconds. The wrong two seconds. I’m just too much of a sucker for a fucking sob story. Before I had a chance to think about it, she was in the car and I was screwed. Almost literally. My car’s way back up that road, I ran out of petrol. The last I saw of Becca fucking Davis she was in the passenger seat with her tits out trying her hardest to get me to shag her.’

}Tempted?

Fuck off Matt! No! Shit, what the fuck do you think of me?’

}OK, OK, sorry, just asking the question that Amy will no doubt ask you. I hope you’re similarly vehement in your denial when she does.

‘What time is it?’

}Ten twenty six, according to the cunningly placed dashboard clock right in front of your eyes.

‘Shit. And thanks for the fucking sarcasm, just what I need. Is Amy still at Fishers?’

}She said she was going to stay there and have the meal with her parents, apparently they’re not particularly understanding of your foibles and didn’t look too kindly on having their celebrations interrupted with any concerns over your well-being. Do you want to go straight there, or go home and get dry?

I sighed. I was wet, and cold, and I really didn’t want to face Amy and have to explain everything that had happened, in front of her parents, but it was what I had to do.

‘Straight there, please. Thanks Matt. Thanks for coming to look for me. How the fuck did you know I’d be here?’

Matt put the car in gear and drove away while he started to explain.

}Apparently Becca lives around here somewhere. Amy gave me a rough idea of her address, we couldn’t think of anywhere else you might have been persuaded to take her. I just drove around in a widening circle, luckily I came across you before too many hours had passed.

‘Thanks, it means a lot.’

I was still soaking wet and cold when Matt pulled up outside the restaurant. With a heavy heart I got out and waved him off. He’d offered to wait, but I didn’t know how long I’d be or what was going to happen inside, so I said I’d get a taxi, and hoped they’d accept sodden banknotes, as well as sodden customers.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I walked in. The maître d’ looked me up and down and started to turn me away.

‘I’m with the Wright party. Sorry, got caught in the rain.’

*Oh, certainly sir, but I think they’ve just about finished.

‘That’s fine. Are they upstairs?’

*Yes sir.

I walked slowly up the stairs, very aware of the squelching from my shoes, the wet, muddy footprints I was leaving behind me and the water steadily dripping from my clothes.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Amy and her parents sitting at the only occupied table. There were coffee cups and wine glasses ready to be collected. It didn’t look like a particularly happy gathering. Amy looked up, saw me, got straight out of her seat, and came over to me. I saw her think about hugging me, and think better of it, but wasn’t sure if it was because I was so wet, or because she was upset. She gave me a big smile, which helped me be a bit more sure, and touched my cheek, which helped even more.

)Dec, you made it. Come and sit down.

This was so different from the reception I was expecting that it threw me, and I stayed where I was for a second or two. Then I walked over to the table.

‘Hi Mrs Wright, Mr Wright.’

Their reception was more predictable, and was silent and icy. They barely looked at me to acknowledge my presence. I decided to ignore them back and just spoke to Amy.

‘Ames, I don’t think I can sit down like this, I’m absolutely soaked, I’ll ruin the chair. I’ve had to ditch the car and walk for miles in the rain. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday meal.’

)Well, you did let me know you were going to be late, and you did ask me to trust you, so I did. Is everything OK?

I glanced at Amy’s parents, who were listening intently to our conversation, disapproval etched on their faces.

‘Apart from having to leave my car miles up a country lane with no petrol and a half naked fucking mad woman in it, and then being nearly drowned trying to get back here, yeah, I think everything’s OK. Have you had a good evening?’

)Apart from having to coordinate the rescue of my unbelievably naive fiancé from the clutches of a – half naked mad woman, you say? Yeah, it’s been good, thanks.

‘Are we OK?’

She looked at me, her big blue eyes shining. She didn’t look like she was pretending in front of her parents, and I began to hope that maybe things weren’t as screwed as I’d imagined.

)Yeah, hon. Thank God for Matt, but yeah. We’re OK.

She stood up and before I could stop her she put her arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

)You really are very, very wet.

‘I know.’

)So am I, now.

‘I know.’

)So are you going to put your arms round me or what?

‘I’m finding it hard to resist, but they are also very, very wet.’

)Just get on with it.

I did as I was told, put my arms round her, and buried my face in her hair for good measure, feeling happy and relieved.

)Mm, lovely, now I’m completely soaked too. I think I need to go home. Mum, Dad, thanks for a lovely meal, I’ve had a completely lovely time. Sorry I was on the phone so much. I think Dec and I are going to shoot off now, we both need to get out of these wet things, and we’ve got some catching up to do. Have a great trip, if I don’t see you before.

She kissed them both, I didn’t, and then we left.

45. Love shoulda brought you home

In which there may be trouble in paradise.

Cal

Then term started and I went back to my old school. I’d only missed Mrs Barnfield’s year, so it didn’t matter, because Mrs Barnfield was shouty, and this year was Mr Taylor, who told jokes and knew how to draw cartoons. And I was going to surprise Jake.

On the first day of school, I got out of bed as soon as Mum woke me up, and I put my school uniform on with a growing sense of excitement. My school was really near, and Mum and I always walked there, although Dec had walked me a few times when I first went, before Mrs Barnfield’s class. Today was different from how it used to be, because we had Iz with us. Mum was pushing her buggy, and some other mums were very interested, and we all walked to school together.

I kept a look out for Jake all the way, because sometimes he walked along the same path, but sometimes his mum or his brother drove him. I didn’t see Jake, but I did see Thomas Dabbs and Carly Binker, and we said hello, as if it was just yesterday we’d been in the same class. Mum talked to their mums as we walked, and explained a bit about moving away and then moving back, and said about Uncle Matty, but not about Dec, and they talked a lot about Iz, and Thomas and Carly and I smiled at each other. Thomas had a badge on his coat that said ‘7 Today!’, so it must be his birthday, and I wondered if he was having a party, and if I’d missed the invitation because no one knew I was back at school.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you having a party?’

‘Yes, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

A Dinosaurland party? I so had to wangle myself an invite.

‘Who’s going?’

‘Billy, Artie, Rhys and Joe.’

Thomas’s mum must have heard what we were saying.

‘Artie’s mum just texted me, Thomas, Artie’s not very well, so he can’t come. Oh, Cal, maybe you’d like to go?’

Well was that lucky or what? I looked up at Mum, hoping she wasn’t going to think of an excuse. I didn’t know Thomas that well, but we had played football in the playground sometimes, and Jake and I had swapped Pokémon cards with him a few times.

‘What do you say, Cal? Thank you, Sue, that sounds lovely. You like Dinosaurland, don’t you Cal?’

Well I’m sure I would if I’d ever been – so far I’d only seen the car park. But if this was what being back at my school was like, things were looking pretty good. I nodded and smiled more broadly at Thomas.

By the time we got to my school, I still hadn’t seen Jake, but there were loads of children in the playground. Jake was often one of the last to get to school, sometimes after the bell had gone, and Mum always made sure I was there early, so I wasn’t surprised not to see him. I stayed with Thomas and we went to get a ball from Mrs Nugent, who was playground teacher that morning.

After we’d been playing football for a while, and a few more people had joined in, I heard my name being shouted.

‘Cal!’

I heard running footsteps, and I turned round. Jake was running towards me, his school bag open, pens and paper flying out of it. He had the biggest smile on his face, and he was running so fast I thought he wasn’t going to stop, and he’d bang into me. But he stopped just as he reached me, and we stood grinning at each other. If we’d been grown-ups we might have had a cuddle, but we were six, and so we just got on with playing football, after saying hello in our own way:

‘Are you back for good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Cool. You can sit next to me. Let’s play football.’

And that was all it needed to click into place. It looked like Ewan Donohue had been Jake’s friend while I was away, but Ewan was really friends with Daniel Bosworth, and they didn’t like football, so I slotted back in nicely.

Before that first day was over, Jake had got in trouble with Mr Taylor for talking while we were supposed to be doing sums, and then he got in trouble for not having a pen, because all his pens had fallen out in the playground when he ran over to see me, and then he got in trouble for tipping his chair back until it fell over.

Matt

A few weeks before Christmas, I got a job. GreenScreen were a small IT consultancy firm looking to expand, and they felt similar to Eyeti. I sent them my CV, got an interview and got the job. Simple as that. They were aware, or rather, the manager was aware, that I was recovering from the bastard MS, and agreed to part time hours, with flexibility should I need it in the future, and also agreed not to share my health status with anyone else. My reference from Eyeti must have been good enough to convince him I was worth the risk. Even on part time hours, I was earning enough to buy a flat, having a pretty healthy savings account, and by then Iz really needed her own room – not that anyone was saying it, but I knew. So just before Christmas, I moved out, moved in and started my new life proper, without a spouted cup, a baby monitor or a wheelchair in sight.

That’s not to say Beth didn’t still feel the need to call me all the time to check I was OK, but I let her get on with it, and I went round there loads, because Beth’s Sunday roasts were legendary, and OK, because I missed them, alright? And just after Christmas, Mum moved down. She couldn’t stay away from Iz, and was spending more time visiting than she was living in her own home, so she sold that big old house of memories, and got a much smaller place, with a spare room for the odd sleepover, but which was a lot more manageable for someone who doesn’t get about as well as they used to.

Cal

Having Jake nearby, getting in trouble, made everything seem right. I hated getting in trouble, but Jake never seemed to care, and to me he appeared brave and fearless. He’d had some pretty wild schemes, like climbing the tree in the playground to see if we could see his house, even though there was a fence round the tree; or trying to sneak into the office at break to set the bell off; or mixing up people’s lunch boxes so they got the wrong sandwiches. I hardly ever did any of these things, because I was too scared of what Mum would say, and usually if I didn’t do it, Jake wouldn’t either, but sometimes he’d just go ahead anyway, and I’d be the lookout, like in a film.

Dec

SIX MONTHS AFTER IZ IS BORN

>Hey Declan.

‘Hi Nico. Are you and Lis around one day this week – I’d like to take you out to dinner.’

>Ha, we are around for taking out to dinners, for sure. Is a reason?

‘It’s my last payment on your loan. I want to say thanks.’

>Oh! Huh. I don’t realise this. Yeah, sure. I know we are busy tomorrow but Wednesday is good. Where we go?

‘Well, I thought about that new place near the cinema, it’s supposed to be really good.’

>Ha, and expensive. You need another loan to pay!

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll try and get us a table.’

>Thank you, Declan, we like this. Is no need, but we like to eat fancy dinner and not pay.

Matt

Julia started at GreenScreen at the same time as me, having been part of the same recruitment drive, and I noticed her straight away, who wouldn’t, she was bloody gorgeous, and she was really upfront, didn’t bullshit anyone about anything, and I really liked that. Really liked it. But she always had this air of ‘touch me not’ about her, and to start with, in my newly found ‘I can have anyone’ state of mind, I didn’t want to get turned down. So l left her to her own devices, and played around with the temps, the admin staff, the business grads, each one adding another layer of veneer.

Cal

I know Mum despaired of my friendship with Baggo. His older brothers meant he was much more worldly wise than me, and his mum worked a lot, so he was often at home with just one or other of his brothers to look after him. They weren’t what you would call disciplinarians, and mostly just wanted Jake to be quiet and keep out of their way, so he did what he liked until his mum came home. Mum never let me go there to play if Jake’s mum was out, not after the time we got our own tea, which consisted of crisps, Jaffa cakes, ice cream and nearly a whole two litre bottle of cola between us, and I was sick in the car on the way home, and again on the drive when we got home, and again in the kitchen on my way to the toilet to be sick again.

Matt

I fucked around like nobody’s business, sometimes a different woman every week, sometimes more than one every week. I got myself a bit of a reputation – some of it was deserved, as I was a bit of a bastard, I see that now, and some of it a whole sack of shit that people made up about me. But I suppose that’s the price of a reputation, that it gets added to and gets out of your control.

Cal

There was never a dull moment with Baggo around. He was always in trouble for something, but it didn’t stop him trying anything, always seeing what excitement could be got from any situation. He wasn’t bad – he didn’t do shoplifting or glue-sniffing or get into fights or anything – he just couldn’t bear to be bored, and would do things to spice up dull times.

I think we complement each other, even now. Nowadays, I’m the settled family man, he’s the rogueish bachelor, different woman every time I see him; when we were seven, he was always wanting to do things that would get him in trouble, and I was always trying to persuade him not to for fear of being in the same trouble. If we hadn’t been friends, I might have been less adventurous, and Baggo might have been more reckless. I shudder to think.

Matt

So, yeah, I’d go to clubs, and parties, and I’d home in on the younger, faker ones, and, yes, I know how this sounds, I was such a tosser back then, but as I said, I was angry and hurting, and felt like I was owed something, and it was payback in a way, but I’d try to make sure the ones I chose weren’t the ones who were going to go all weepy and clingy when I left without cuddling them shortly afterwards, but sometimes I got that wrong, and she’d seemed all young and fake, but I broke her heart.

But I suppose I didn’t much care, back then. I was making my reputation as Matt Scott, party animal, and I can’t say why, I wouldn’t say I’m a particular looker – I’ve always seen a skinny nerd looking out of the mirror at me – but I was a bit of a prize. I sound like such an arrogant arsehole, even now, even to myself, but for a while, in certain undiscerning circles, if you ended up with Matt Scott, that was it, top of the tree, job done.

I can’t believe that Lau was there at some of those parties, in some of those clubs. I can’t believe that I might have walked right past her and not known her, I just can’t believe I didn’t notice her; how could I ever have not noticed her? I’m surprised she even spoke to me when I finally … but anyway, I’m getting all out of sequence. This is the Jules part of my story, or it will be in a bit if you’re patient.

Cal

I can’t remember exactly when everyone started calling Jake ‘Baggo’. It was definitely before we went to big school. His brothers both had nicknames: Michael was ‘Troops’ because he’d been in the Army, and Harry was ‘Wheels’ because he had loads of cars that he was always doing up.

Baggo was a lot younger than his brothers, who both still lived at home. We would sneak into their rooms when they were out and look at their stuff, and Baggo often found things that blew my mind, like magazines with ladies in with no clothes on, and cigarettes, and funny things on their computers with swears on them. Sometimes one of his brothers would come home while we were still in his room, and Baggo would get shouted at, and I’d try to make myself look invisible, but Baggo would just stand there grinning, and the shouting would stop, and he’d get a punch on the shoulder, but not hard, and he’d be let off, and we’d scuttle out and giggle.

Actually, thinking about it, Baggo’s brothers were often the reason we got in trouble, however indirectly. Sometimes it was because one of us repeated something we’d heard, or Jake brought something that belonged to them to school, like a lighter, or playing cards with naked ladies on them, or, once, a chocolate brownie that made us giggle a lot when we shared it at lunch. Usually the contraband would be discovered because Baggo couldn’t help showing off about it, and a teacher would push their way through the crowd that had gathered, and confiscate the penknife, copy of Playboy or firework, and then he’d be in trouble not only with the school and his mum, but with whichever brother he’d ‘borrowed’ the item from as well.

I’m not sure how I remained so uncorrupted. I love Baggo, he’s the best mate a bloke could have, and although I’ve done a fair amount of bailing him out, once literally when he got so rat-arsed that he didn’t realise the bloke he was bad-mouthing for getting in his way outside a club was a copper, well Baggo has been there for me plenty of times too. I can really talk to him, the way I can’t talk to anyone else. He’s a lad, the laddest of lads, and I wouldn’t trust any female member of my family with him for five minutes, but he gets me, and I get him, and we have talked, long into the night sometimes, about deep shit.

Dec

The Rugby Paper

Quick’s Q&A

John Quick shoots quick-fire questions at one of the rugby world’s up and coming young players. This week: Declan Summers, Raiders.

JQ: Declan, how’s the season going so far?

DS: It’s been fantastic so far, both for me and Raiders. Top of the Premiership at this stage is amazing, and to have played in so many games is awesome for me personally.

JQ: You had a tricky time a couple of years back, when problems with your passport caused Raiders to be deducted points and miss out on a top four spot. Have you been able to put that behind you?

DS: I had some fantastic support from the club and from my family then. It was a tough time, but I got the help I needed. The Raiders supporters have been immense, I owe them a lot. I’m not sure it will ever be completely behind me; I learned a lot of life lessons that still help me today.

JQ: Such as?

DS: Well, it’s important to talk to people about how you’re feeling, it’s important to keep your club informed about what’s going on with you personally. Everything you do affects someone else, and affects how you play. You can’t do things on your own. You need to stay mentally strong too.

JQ: It was well publicised that Jay Scott left Raiders when the news broke of your suspension. How did you greet his return as assistant coach?

DS: It was great news. Scotty is an excellent coach, Raiders really missed him while he was away. The whole squad benefits from his expertise and coaching style.

JQ: Your suspension meant you couldn’t play for Raiders until the beginning of last season. How did you cope with that?

DS: The club made sure I was involved with training and coaching to maintain my skills and fitness as part of the squad. Not playing for Raiders was hard, once I was fit again, but I was recovering from injuries until the April, so I wouldn’t have played until nearly the end of the season anyway. Being dual registered with Trojans was a fantastic opportunity to regain some match fitness, and being part of their push for promotion was hugely exciting.

JQ: The autumn internationals aren’t far away, and the squads are due to be announced soon. How would it feel to be included for the Wallabies?

DS: To play for Australia would be immense, it’s a bit of a dream of mine, but I have no illusions – it’s a tough squad to get into, and I’m based in England. I’m still young, and there’s plenty of time for that. I’d be over the moon to get the call though.

JQ: Some pundits are comparing you to a young Brian O’Driscoll. Do comparisons like that affect your game?

DS: No, I just play how I play, there’s no point thinking about it. It’s flattering to read, but I haven’t consciously modelled myself on any one player. I try to incorporate the things I admire about lots of great players into my game.

JQ: Who are your rugby heroes?

DS: There are so many. Nico Tiago is someone I’ve always looked up to, as a player and a person, although he’ll get even more big-headed if I tell him that. All the big names you might think – Hill, Fofana, Shoemark, Roberts, certainly O’Driscoll. You can learn from anyone, you just have to watch their game and pick things up.

JQ: We hear you have had something in your personal life to celebrate recently. Care to share?

DS: (Laughs) How the [expletive deleted] did you know that? Hardly anyone knows! Yes, I just got engaged to Amy. I guess we’re going to have to tell her parents now!

JQ: Congratulations Declan, and good luck for the rest of the season.

DS: Thanks.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Rugby Paper.

RadarRaider: Here’s a link to the Quick Q&A in today’s TRP. Summers has had some stick on here over the last year or so, I hold my hands up, I didn’t think Raiders should have kept him on, felt pretty let down by the whole business. He sounds like he’s learned his lesson and tried to make up for it. He’s certainly played well enough so far this season to earn his place – seems to have stepped up a notch since all the trouble. If we’d lost him to Trojans, that could have come back to bite us with them doing so well in the Prem this year. Just saying, maybe he’s served his time and some of us lot should cut him some slack.

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Totally agree RR. Don and the club obviously gave it some serious consideration, Summers seemed apologetic enough at the time, and that court case around the assault can’t have helped him. He was only a kid, must have been tough. Accept and move on. I’ve met him a couple of times in the bar after a game, always very pleasant, takes time to talk, take photos, autographs. Can’t deny he always gives his all for Raiders on and off the pitch, he’s involved in coaching the youth team and you always see him in the photos of the community and charity stuff. We wouldn’t still be top if it wasn’t for his tackle on Tupovi at Warriors last week.

YoHoHo: Still don’t think he should even be playing for Raiders. Yes, he’s made a contribution, but look what he lost us. We’d have been top four that season if he hadn’t cost us those ten points. Who knows, could have been Champions the way we were playing. We only just scraped into the HC. There are plenty of other centres out there, plenty of others coming up from the Academy. Not sure his face fits.

Cap’nBirdseye: Sorry, but served his time, cut him some slack? Not on your life. Wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Might do if he wasn’t though.

RadarRaider: Always nice to see people forgiving and forgetting(!). I suppose no one here has ever done anything they wish they hadn’t and tried to make amends? I personally think Summers’ contribution at the end of last season and beginning of this shows his commitment to the club. Hope he doesn’t move on at the end of this season – his contract’s up. Wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction of some of the supporters decided him. Can’t believe some people still boo when his name is read out on match days.

Matt

So, I started at GreenScreen, and Julia was there, but we were in different teams, and there was this kind of rivalry going on, which Phil, the manager, liked to play on, because it helped with morale and helped to get the work done better, quicker, happier. So I hardly spoke to Julia, because she kept herself to herself, and her team to her team, and she had this kind of frigid – no that’s unfair – she had this kind of cold and detached manner, which made some of the juniors call her the Ice Queen.

I was the opposite, I was Matt the Lad, I did football with the guys, I saw the girls at the weekends in clubs, I flirted, I bed-hopped like a baddun, I’d had most of the business grads, I was nothing if not a team player.

As time went on and it became harder to actually find anyone at work who I hadn’t slept with at one time or another, I did slow down a bit, and there were some who lasted a few weeks, a month even, as I realised that I was going to run out of available women before too long.

But they’d always have to go, in the end, because she’d start thinking we had ‘something special’, just because I’d taken her round to Jay’s, or held her hand, or talked about plans for mid-week. I didn’t want something special, I wanted to be an excellent no-strings lay, I wanted those cracks covered up so well that I forgot they were there.

Dec

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Declan Summers renews contract

RadarRaider: At last! Can’t believe it took so long for them to agree terms. Surely Summs is first name on the list. Great news. Only a year, though, obviously everyone keeping their options open. Looks like we’ll all be biting our nails again next season.

Raiderette: Woohoo! Have been waiting for this news for weeks. I heard he was talking to Warriors, but they’ve got Elliott and Trancher, can’t see him being first choice ahead of England internationals.

WestStandRaider: What a relief, well done Declan. Don’t know where we’d have been without him this season. His tackling has been immense, don’t know if anyone’s got the stats, he hasn’t missed many, he’s our top try scorer and he’s an animal in defence. He links up really well with Boydy too.

YoHoHo: Reckon we could do better. Wasn’t Astley available from Royals? Don seems to back away from big signings. Reckon Jay Scott still has a lot to do with team selection when it comes to Summers.

WestStandRaider: Yohoho, I can’t believe you’re still on this track. Yes, we all know there’s some kind of family connection with Scotty and Summs, it happens all over the place, remember Pete and Justin Farley at TomCats? Bill Witton and Jack Gooding for England? They’re professional enough not to let it matter. Don would never let it get in the way of team selection or team performance. Summs has done well enough this season to put to bed all this nonsense. He’s in the team because he’s good enough.

Matt

I often got pretty wasted, liking the beer maybe a bit too much for my own good. Mr Summers was usually the one whose number was top of my contacts list and who, even in my most drunken of stupors, I knew how to call. He rescued me many, many times when he should have been tucked up in bed either saving his strength for running around a rugby pitch like a lunatic, or ravishing his girlfriend. But more frequently than he should have been happy with, the early hours of Sunday morning would find him woken up by an incoherent call.

‘Hey maaaaate. You know I fuuuucking looove you right?’

‘Matt, it’s two fucking thirty. Where the fuck are you?’

‘Dunno. Just been kicked offa bloody train. Bastards. Kicked me offabloodytrain they did.’

‘What train?’

‘Dunno. Oh, I’ll ask ‘snice man. Hey mate, where issis? … He says Brissle.’

‘Oh fucking hell, Matt. What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in fucking Bristol?’

‘Dunno. Can’t ‘member. Think I wuz … wuz I gonna go Stafford? Dunno.’

‘Why the fuck were you going to Stafford?’

‘Dunno. Oh! Wassit a bet? Might be a bet. Might have lost. Oh fuck it, can’t ‘member.’

‘Why did you get kicked off the train?’

‘Los my wallet. Dint havva ticket. No cash, ana bit pissed.’

A silence. A sigh.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Brissle. Man said. Jus tol you.’

‘There are two stations in Bristol. Parkway or Temple Meads?’

‘Wha the fuck? Dunno.’

‘Are there any signs anywhere?’

‘Wha? Wha signs?’

‘Bloody enormous ones saying the name of the fucking station.’

‘Dunno. Everthin’s fuckin blurry.’

Another sigh, longer and louder.

‘OK. Stay where you are. Have you got that, Matt? Don’t move from the station, I’ll come and get you, but it’ll take me at least an hour and a bit, longer if you’re not at the first station I try. Don’t move, yeah?’

‘Oh maaate. You’re bloody brilliant, you are. Bes mate a bloke could have. I bloody looooove you, I do.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Just stay put.’

That was the sort of thing that Declan Charles Summers put up with from me, for more years than I had a right to expect. To my knowledge, his saintly girlfriend never voiced a word of complaint, or if she did I never got to hear about it, and although there were a few times when I did my share of helping him out of tricky situations, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for that time when I seemed to be pressing the self-destruct button on a regular basis.

Dec

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

1 0 2

TWEETS FOLLOWING FOLLOWERS

Tweets

Declan Summers @summs12 1 Apr

Hello World. I’ve given in and joined Twitter. It’s not an April Fool. #amazeme

#whichbuttonsdoipressagain

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 1 Apr

Welcome to Twitter, Declan. #raidersfamily #enjoytheride #pushmybuttons

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 1 Apr

About bleeding time. Follow me. #notneedy #maybealittlebit

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Matt

But back to GreenScreen and how it all happened with Jules. It hadn’t occurred to me until it was too late, having my rep and all, that someone like Julia wouldn’t want to be with someone like I was trying to be.

I realised after we’d both been there a few months that we were both playing a role to some extent. I wasn’t nearly as much of a lad as I made out, but it made things easier in my team to make a big thing of the weekend, to party as hard as they did, to be one of them.

Julia wasn’t nearly as icy as she wanted everyone to think she was, but she did a good job of pretending, too, and most people didn’t see through it.

But anyway, a lot of my reputation was deserved, and I’d seen the look on Julia’s face when she heard tales of my exploits being bandied around as fact on a Monday morning, although half of it was complete bollocks. I was sure that if I’d ever been in with a chance with her, I’d pretty much burnt my bridges.

So I carried on with the shagging around, left a string of broken hearts in my wake, get me the big ‘I Am’, what a self-absorbed fucking gobshite wanker I was. Maybe it was payback, revenge, whatever you’d like to call it for dealing with what happened with Carrie. But those women didn’t deserve to be treated like shit. They didn’t deserve me using them to teach someone a lesson who wasn’t even in the same classroom. And after a while, this began to occur to me, and I started to think about what I was doing, and wondering who the fuck I thought I was, and I took a long hard look at myself and had a huge laugh at the douche canoe who was looking back. This was a slow process; I was enjoying myself, I can’t deny it, and despite my growing misgivings, I didn’t want to stop.

While all of that was going on, all the partying, all the working, all the feeling fucking normal for the first time in what felt like a very long time, I was still doing all the family stuff, seeing Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, watching the kids grow up, enjoying being cool Uncle Matty, who dished out chocolate, allowed inappropriate TV programmes and said bad swears when Mummy and Daddy weren’t looking.

I kept an eye on Mum, and I suppose she kept an eye on me too. Dec and I continued our mismatched friendship, he remaining the more mature of us by a whisker, and by dint of having a proper grown-up relationship. He asked Amy to marry him about a year after they got together in Jay’s kitchen, but no wedding plans were forthcoming, despite Beth and Rose’s best persuasive efforts.

Dec

_Hi Dec, tell me if I’m interfering, but have you got anything organised for Amy’s twenty first?

‘What? No! It’s not for ages yet.’

_Well, theoretically, but if you’re going to book anything, I don’t know, a weekend away for example, it’s in the middle of summer and things get full up pretty far in advance. I didn’t know if you were planning a party or anything, venues get pretty busy in the summer too.

‘Oh fuck. I’m so bloody useless, you know what I’m like. I hadn’t given it a thought.’

_I thought you might not have, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, prepared.

‘What should I do? If I’d thought about it at all, I would have gone ‘quick trip to the jewellery shop and a slap up meal’. Do I need to think bigger, then?’

_Ha ha, no clues from me, you need to work it out for yourself. I’m happy to help with the details, but it’ll mean so much more if you’ve thought of it on your own.

‘Beth! You can’t just drop this on me and leave me to it. I’ll only cock it all up. You did such an amazing job with my party … please?’

_Give it a go, sweetheart, you’ll do better than you think.

Matt

Oh, Rose! How could I forget about Rose? Dec had mentioned her that Christmas, as the person he’d held on to when he was in his own dark pit, but I didn’t actually meet her until I moved down here. Dec and Rose were kind of a package, now. Dec’s parents died when he was pretty young, and when he fell out with Jay and Beth, Rose kind of filled the gap and helped him through some tough times.

Dec didn’t really do relationships in the same way us normal people did, at least not family relationships. There was no name for what he had with Jay and Beth, and in the same way there was no name for what he had with Rose. The easiest way to describe it is she was like a mother to him, and she did mother him, but it was more than that. Your mum doesn’t choose you, she’s stuck with you because she’s your mum. With Dec and Rose, there was an unspoken recognition that they had chosen each other somehow, and although he hadn’t needed her in that way for a long time, they still needed each other.

So Rose was absorbed into the family too, and having the same interfering gene as Beth, she meddled in everyone’s lives, much as your annoying aunty might do. She put up with teasing and grumbling, and downright rudeness from me when she got too free with her advice about how to keep a woman, but she was a permanent fixture. And she was really good friends with Mum. They were polar opposites in outlook, personality and experience, but they both loved cooking, and they both adored their families, which overlapped in some convoluted way, and they spent a lot of time together.

Dec

RE: Booking enquiry

THE ORCHARD orchard@webserver.com

To: Declan Summers

Hi Declan

Thanks for your enquiry regarding a weekend booking in August. I’m really sorry, but we’re fully booked for the whole of August. If we can help in the future, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards

Sean

SEAN TIBBS

Reservations Manager

o0o

*Good afternoon, Bay Tree Hotel, how may I help you?

‘Oh, hi, can I speak to someone about hiring your function room?’

*Certainly, sir, did you have a date in mind?

‘First weekend in August, preferably the Saturday.’

*One moment, let me check our diary, but I know that is a very busy time …… … I’m sorry sir, as I thought, we’re fully booked throughout August. Is there another date we could offer you?

‘No, that’s OK. Thanks anyway.’

*… sorry, no vacancies …

*… full on that date …

*… no availability …

*… full …

*… sorry …

*… fully booked …

Matt

Right, where was I? Oh yeah. Dec and Amy. So they were engaged, but nothing more was forthcoming, and they moved in together, into a tiny flat, and they continued to be sickeningly inseparable There were a few blips along the way, I suppose, like Dec nearly fucking it all up by being an insensitive bastard, and then nearly compounding the fucking up of it all by getting himself semi-kidnapped by some certifiable stalker woman when he should have been having dinner with Amy and her stick-up-their-arses parents, but I suppose these are the things that life and love are made of – fuck knows I haven’t made things easy for Lau over the years, and the fact she’s stuck with me continues to astound, amaze and humble me. It always comes back to Lau, doesn’t it. It always will.

Dec

Matt: =Have u checked ur Twitter account lately?

Dec: =No. Don’t use much. Why?

Matt: =@bouncybec getting a bit saucy. Do u know her?

Dec: =Don’t think so.

Matt: =Might b nothing. Keep an i.

Matt

But, digressing again, I still haven’t got to Jules, have I? So, I’d been at GreenScreen for a couple of years or so, enjoying life, feeling great, all thoughts of the bastard MS well to the back of my mind. Work was going well, life was going well, I had my reputation, which didn’t hurt in a lot of ways, but I knew what was real and what was bullshit.

I suppose I’d kind of started to wonder if there was more to life than going out partying every weekend, getting hammered and having to extricate myself from another unfamiliar bed in the small hours. Maybe it had run its course. I was thirty-three, and it was starting to occur to me that it might be time to grow up. I had no idea what this meant, just that occasionally, in the dead of night, as I was gathering my underwear off the floor, it all felt a bit … immature.

So I backed off, went out less, didn’t try so hard to pull, gave myself a break, got a bit of breathing space, time to think. Plan A had been going pretty well so far, maybe it was time to start thinking about the next phase, where I could look for a different job, away from this city, away from the South West even.

Dec

Declan Summers @summs12 15 Apr

Great result against TomCats – thanks to all the Raiders supporters. 16th man

as usual. #idratherbearaiderthanapuss

Reply to @summs12

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 great game today Declan #nothingwrongwithpusses 😉

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_____________________________________________________________________

Declan Summers @summs12 19 Apr

Looking forward to some down time. Training has broken me. #tired #bathplease

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 Mmm bath sounds nice. #wishiwasabarofsoap

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 20 Apr

@summs12 Had that bath yet? #imagining

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 21 Apr

@summs12 make sure you scrub behind your ears.

#getridofunwantedgrime

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Matt

And all this time, Jules and I were working in parallel at GreenScreen, hardly talking to each other except in the context of work, and I’d look at her sometimes and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been such a dick, and if I’d taken the time to get to know her, but she had this, like, shell around her, and it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get through.

Dec

‘Hey babe, sorry, I’m still at the club, I got caught up, lost track of time.’

)What a surprise. Cara’s picking me up any minute. I won’t see you till later, then, if you’re still awake.

‘No worries, I’ll wait up. Haven’t seen you properly for ages and I actually need to kiss you quite a lot. Hey, I met someone who knows you. Becca Davis?

)Oh.

‘She said you were at school together.’

)Yes, we were.

‘She’d like to catch up, can I give her your mobile number?’

)Actually … I’d rather you – dammit, that’s Cara. I’ll tell you later, hon. Got to go. Love you.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Player of the Season

EastStandRaider: It’s that time of year again, get voting here for your player of the season.

RadarRaider: Only one in it for me, Miles Abrahams has been outstanding in the front row. Our scrum has been rock solid.

YoHoHo: Got to be one of the backs, the amount of superb tries we’ve scored. My choice would be Crofty, he’s creative, quick and can tackle well, and Nico Tiago has done a great job out on the wing yet again, always knows when to go looking for the ball.

Foxyraider: I’m pretty sure Declan Summers will be the ladies’ choice. He’s played really well and is a bit of a babe. What a combination.

YoHoHo: Good to see it’s someone’s ability and commitment that counts with some people. Summers is lucky he’s still here. Fail to see how he gets picked so much.

Foxyraider: I guess we’ll see when the results of the vote come out. A well-turned bum goes a long way in my book.

o0o

Dec: =Help! Tried everywhere u suggested. All booked. Considering dirty w/end in Blackpool. In caravan. Told u I was useless :((

Beth: =Don’t panic. Not useless just left a bit late. Other options. Had idea. Come round later, kettle on.

o0o

_So what do you think?

‘I think it sounds fucking awesome. Better than any of the lame-arse stuff I’ve managed to come up with and not even be able to book. Beth, you are a lifesaver. But really, are we really allowed to put a marquee up on the beach?’

_My friend Trish knows a man from the Council and all you need is a permit. It’s easily sorted. We’ll only really need to use it if it rains, and it’s somewhere to put the food, maybe have a sleepover if it’s warm enough? If we have it right down the end near Usley Point we won’t need to worry about noise or anything, and it’s easier to make sure we don’t get uninvited guests. We can use James’s four by four to take the food and drink down there, it’s ideal.

‘Awesome. A sleepover on the beach would be amazing – she’d love it. And you’re sure you and Rose are OK doing the food?’

_I’m sure, and Carol will help as well. I talked to Rose this morning. Her very words were ‘don’t you dare try asking some tinpot catering firm to do it, love’. She was deadly serious, I feared for my life if I contradicted her.

‘Ha ha, she takes her cooking very seriously.’

_She takes you and Amy very seriously, too, sweetheart.

‘I guess so. I bet she’s started planning a menu already. Probably already made a zillion – oh, what the fuck are those round things with prawns in?’

_Vol au vents?

‘Yeah. Those. She’ll have made a zillion. Actually, we might need to buy several new freezers, she’ll have made a ton of stuff by the weekend.’

_Now, the main thing is we need to make sure we keep it a secret, so don’t tell Cal, or Amy will know five minutes later. I’ll leave it as long as possible to tell James, but once he knows, he’s a bit of a loose cannon, he can never remember what he’s allowed to say. Think you can avoid telling Amy?

‘That won’t be difficult at the moment, haven’t clapped eyes on her for days, we’ve hardly been in at the same time, seems like for weeks.’

_Oh. Everything OK, sweetheart?

‘It’s just … I’ve been really busy, with coaching the under elevens, and all the end of season stuff, play-offs, away games, stuff at the club after home games, and when I’m home she’s out doing Pilates or with her friends or studying for her exam.’

_You sound a bit fed up. Is that all it is, just not seeing much of each other?

A silence.

_Dec?

‘Well I suppose I was a bit of a twat on Saturday. She asked me not to do something but it was awkward, so I did it anyway. Maybe we’ve been sort of keeping out of each other’s way a bit since then … sleeping on the sofa, that kind of thing.’

_That actually sounds a bit serious, sweetheart. What happened?

‘Oh, it was just so fucking stupid, I was so fucking stupid. There was this girl, Becca Davis, she was talking to me after the Warriors game, in the bar. She mentioned that she knew Ames from school, and asked if she could have Ames’ mobile number so they could catch up. A bit later I called Ames and asked, but she was just going out, and she said no, or kind of started to, but there wasn’t time to talk about it. Anyway, later on Becca asked for her number again, and I didn’t know what to say. Ames hadn’t quite said no, she hadn’t given me a reason, and I thought, or maybe I convinced myself, it was because she was in a rush to go out, or she was pissed off with me for being late again, or didn’t want a long phone conversation with an old school friend just then. So …’

_Oh Dec, tell me you didn’t give her the number.

‘… so I gave her the number. So later on I’m at home waiting up for Amy, and she phones me, so angry, I’ve never known her like that. She swore at me, a lot, wasn’t really making much sense, but I kind of realised I’d fucked up. She didn’t come home till really late, she’d had a lot to drink and wasn’t really in a state to talk about it, but still in a rage, and she yelled at me and told me to sleep on the sofa. Next day, she was still pretty pissed off, but we managed to grab five minutes in the same room, and she tells me Becca Davis made her life a misery at school, bullied her, used to make a point of stealing her boyfriends. Last person on earth she wanted to get a call from on a girls night out.

_Oh, Dec.

‘It gets worse.’

_Oh sweetheart …

‘I opened a Twitter account a few weeks ago, Matt was badgering me, and so were some of the guys at Raiders. I’ve only posted a couple of things, just Raiders stuff. Becca Davis has been replying, a bit, I dunno, flirty or suggestive or something – I honestly didn’t realise it was her at the time. She’d told Ames, who had a look, and got really upset. I didn’t respond to any of it, but now …’

_Now Amy’s worried Becca Davis is going to steal you as well. Oh Dec. You need to sort it out. It’s easy for things like this to take on a life of their own and get out of hand. Avoid Becca if you can.

‘Well that’s part of the problem. She comes to the Raiders games, she’s always in the bar afterwards, I have to be polite and corporate, I can’t even ignore her or blank her, I can only try to palm her off onto someone else. She’s a bit persistent. Beth, I love Amy, I love her so much, I don’t want anyone else, but I can’t make her understand, I haven’t looked twice at Becca fucking Davis, I don’t even want anything to bloody do with her now I know how mean she was to Ames.’

_Sweetheart, Amy’s feeling insecure. I know she had a hard time at school, it really knocked her confidence. You know better than most of us that what happens to us when we’re younger affects how we feel about things later on; it’s not logical or rational. You might have to make a pretty big gesture to help her see you don’t want Becca. It might be awkward and uncomfortable for you, but I think you’ll have to just do it.

‘Like what?’

_Sorry, sweetheart, I can’t help you out this time. It really needs to come from you.

o0o

HEY AMES – FEEL LIKE I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU PROPERLY FOR DAYS. MISS YOU BABE. HOPING YOU’RE AROUND TONIGHT SO WE CAN TALK. I KNOW I’VE BEEN A MONUMENTAL DICKHEAD AND YOU’RE UPSET WITH ME. I’LL COOK DINNER IF YOU LIKE. LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

D XXX

Dec – Sorry hon, some people from the course are getting together tonight to go over our exam questions. I really want to go, I’m getting nervous. Tomorrow? Talking would be good. Love you. Axxx PS don’t cook! PPS Please don’t sleep on the couch tonight x

TOMORROW IT IS. D X

PS TAKEAWAY THEN?

o0o

\dec, Mum says you’re from Australia.

‘Yeah, Cal, I lived there when I was little.

\we’ve got to do some writing at school about Australia. Mum says you can help me.

‘Oh, no worries, if I can. What have you got to write about?

\i’ve got to choose a part of Australia and find out things about it. Did you have a kangaroo?

‘Ha ha, no, you can’t have kangaroos as pets. I had a dog called Woofster.’

\Was he a dingo?

‘No mate, you can’t have dingoes as pets either. Woofster was a cross between a Labrador and an Australian cattle dog.

\where did you live?

‘In Perth. It’s on the west coast. I don’t really know much about any other bits of Australia. Where are you going to do your project about?’

\if I write about Perth will you help me?

‘Course I will. When do you have to write it by?’

\tomorrow.

Tomorrow? That doesn’t leave us much time, mate. Oh, and Cal, I’ve got to spend some time with Amy tonight, it’s really important. I can come round now, but I can’t stay long. I’ll help you as much as I can.

o0o

Amy: =Where ru? Thought we were going 2 talk.

Dec: =Fuck, sorry babe, helping Cal with homework. Got delayed. Nearly done. Back soon. xxx

44. Dance little sister

In which we meet Isobel, and Matty finds his Plan D.

Matt

Not long after we got in the fun bus and started the drive down the hill and back to the Land of Signal, I heard Jay’s ringtone on my phone.

‘Hey. Any news?’

‘Hi Matty. Yeah, we’ve got a daughter.’

‘Woohoo.’

There was clapping and cheering from everyone on the bus, as they knew I was waiting for news, and I’d given them a thumbs up.

‘Is evhryone OK?’

‘Yeah, mate, everyone’s perfect. Any chance you can get over here? Dec’s bringing Cal.’

‘Yeh, on my way home now. Wha’s she called?’

‘Isobel Flora.’

‘Great. Look forward tuh meeting her. Well done, mate.’

‘See you soon, Matty.’

The fun bus driver agreed to drop me off at the hospital rather than at home, and I met up with Dec, Amy and Cal in the car park.

Cal

And then I finally had my baby sister. I had been looking forward to it for ages, because I didn’t know she was going to be a sister, she still might be a brother, and even if the baby was a sister, Mum had said that girls sometimes like football, and so I thought she might go in goal for me. She could be a bit little, but I would score more goals that way. I was still hoping for a brother, but a sister wouldn’t be too bad.

So when Mum told me Dec and Amy were coming to our house because she and Dad were going to hospital to have a baby, I was pleased that at last I could stop waiting, and I would be a big brother, which was very important. It was a very long day of waiting, because Mum and Dad went away in the morning, and me and Dec and Amy did lots of things all day, like going to the beach, and flying my kite, and eating sandwiches, and playing football, and eating chocolate, before Dec said that Mum had had the baby, and it was a sister, and we were going to go and see her in the hospital.

Dec

We bundled Cal into the car and set off. At the hospital entrance, we met Matt, who had just been dropped off by his friends.

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

}I know, Cal, I’m coming to meet her, like you.

\dec forgot to ask her name.

}Oh, good job one of us has got half a brain then. Her name’s Isobel Flora Scott.

\will she be able to play football with me?

}Maybe in a few years, but at the moment she’s really tiny. Leh’s go and see her.

Cal

Dec didn’t know what my sister’s name was, because he forgot to ask, but he said we would find out when we got there, because Dad couldn’t use his phone in the hospital. When we got there, Uncle Matty was in the car park too, because he’d been walking on a hill, and his friends had brought him in a minibus to see my sister. Uncle Matty knew my sister’s name, which was Isobel Flora, but he said it would be years before she would play football with me. Years! No one had said anything about it being years. I thought it might be a few weeks, maybe, until she got big enough to stand up, but I didn’t think I could wait years for someone to go in goal.

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

}Loved it. I’m bloody knackered now, but it was just what I needed. I’ve really missed getting out like that. I just took it slow, like everyone else, and enjoyed the views. Have you been up the top there? You can see righ over the river to the sea. There are deer and birds and everything.

‘Sounds like a great day, did you some good.’

}Yeah, thanks for talking me into sticking with it.

‘Pleasure. We had a good day on the beach, didn’t we Cal?’

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

‘Cal, we didn’t kiss all day long, we did loads of cool things at the beach.’

}Probably quite a loh of kissing though, eh Cal?

Cal nodded.

\dec said he will sleep under my bed tonight and make dream noises.

}Did he? What have you done to deserve that?

‘Apparently my mad night noises are much sought after. Amy and Cal were fighting over them earlier.’

}Takes all sorts I suppose. Having experienced your utter insanity when you’re dreaming, I would say they’re bloody welcome to it. Are you still doing tha, then?

‘Apparently so. Worth reporting to Adam I guess.’

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

We checked where Beth and Jay were, and found the room. Beth was sitting up in bed, looking sweaty, tired and lovely, holding the tiniest person I had ever seen. Amy and I hovered by the door as Cal and Matt went in, unsure how many of us were allowed in at a time. Matt kissed Beth and hugged Jay, then sat in one of the chairs by the bed.

Cal

We got to the room where Mum and Dad were with my sister, and Mum was in a bed, holding a lot of blankets. I wondered where my sister was, and then the blankets moved and I saw a little tiny finger, and then Mum tilted the blankets and there was a face in there, and it didn’t look like a girl or a boy, just like a little face.

‘Hey, Cal, hop up on my lap and have a look at your sister.’

Uncle Matty was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and he was holding his arms out to me, so I climbed onto his lap to have a closer look. The face in the blankets still didn’t look anything like I had thought it would – girls have long hair and sometimes hair grips, and boys have short hair but I couldn’t see any hair because it was covered by the blanket. I needed to be doubly sure.

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

‘Yes, sweetheart, she is. She loves her big brother. Do you want to give her a kiss?’

The little face suddenly moved, and I could see her hair, which was blonde like mine, and she screwed her face up and opened her mouth and wriggled her hands, and suddenly I saw that she was a really, really, little girl, and I was her big brother, and I was going to have to look after her like big brothers do, so I would tell Archie Shepherd off if he was mean to her, and I might share my sweets if I had enough and she had run out, and I’d let her play cars with me as long as she didn’t mind having the second best ones. I did want to give her a kiss, because that’s what Mums and Dads and big brothers did to little sisters.

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

I got on the bed and kissed her, and her cheek was all soft, and her eyes were open and she looked at me, then I climbed off and stood next to Mum, looking at my sister.

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

Beth stroked the baby’s hair and looked at Matt.

_Would you like a cuddle?

}Well I’d have thought you’d be a bit tired, giving birth and all, but if you’re sure you’re up to it …

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

Matt stood up and took the tiny baby from Beth. He jiggled her and made cooing noises, and she opened her eyes and looked into his. His own eyes filled with tears. He kissed her on the cheek and gave her back to Beth, wiping his eyes.

}Fuck, didn’t see tha coming. Anyone got a tissue?

_Matty, did that really have to be your first word to her?

}Sorry, Beth. I guess she’ll just have to get used to cool Uncle Matty. It’s not like she can understand me yet.

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

}Well when someone’s getting told off for saying ‘fuck’, it’s usually your fault.

łWhy are you both loitering by the door? You’re making the place look untidy. Come in.

Amy and I moved further into the room. I was a bit in awe of the tiny bundle in Beth’s arms. I had no close up experience of babies, and this was all very new and quite scary.

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

łAbout the size of a rugby ball, you can carry one of those well enough.

_Er, excuse me, there is nothing about my daughter that remotely resembles a rugby ball. You won’t try to score a try with her will you, Dec? Amy, why don’t you show him how to do it?

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

Amy took Isobel from Beth, and sat in one of the chairs, rocking her and talking nonsense. I looked on in wonder. Amy’s eyes were shining, and she looked over at me, making my heart melt. She looked beautiful. Jay was grinning at me.

łWatch out, Dec, I think Amy’s getting ideas.

Amy gave him a look. Perhaps I should have felt panicked or trapped or something, but I just felt awestruck.

)Maybe one day.

She looked at me. I nodded, smiling, wondering for the first time what it would be like to have a family of my own, and liking the idea of it. Way in the future, obviously.

)Come on Dec, have a cuddle, she’s so amazing. Look, sit here and I’ll pass her over. You won’t drop her. Just remember to support her head. Yeah, that’s it. Hey, there she is.

I sat with Isobel in my arms. She was as light as air, but she was the weightiest thing I had ever carried. Her features were miniaturised, and the smallest hand I had ever seen poked out of the blanket she was wrapped in. I was filled with an emotion I couldn’t identify, which was mixed up with family and tenderness and love. She was the closest I was ever going to get to having a sister; I felt very protective.

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

I felt tears spill out of my eyes. I risked a look at Matt, who laughed and shrugged.

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

Amy put her hand on the back of my neck and stroked my hair.

Cal

Uncle Matty and Amy and Dec all cuddled my sister, and Uncle Matty even did a swear, although Mum told him off. Then I remembered that there had been a shop on the way in, and that shops in hospitals had sweets and drinks and other interesting things.

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

I knew there was, but it was a way of talking about it first.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

Mum usually knew things like where the shops were, so now I was going to have to be less sneaky, or she wouldn’t know what I wanted.

‘I would like a slushie and a dinosaur magazine.’

‘I think I saw a shop on the way in, do you want to come with me, Cal? Let’s see what we can find.’

I turned and looked at Amy. This was good, because Mum didn’t look like she was going to get out of bed to come to the shop with me, even though it was the middle of the day.

Dec

Amy took Cal’s hand and they went off together. Beth looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

_She’s very good with children.

łShe has a lot of practice with Dec. Things are obviously going very well with you two.

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

}According to Cal they spent all day at the beach sucking each other’s faces.

‘On come on, you know Cal’s exaggerating. One or two kisses. Maybe three. And we were watching him the whole time. The whole time. Eyes open and everything.’

_Well I think it’s lovely. After all the months of wondering if you were ever going to sort it out, I’m really pleased. She’s lovely. She’s good for you. It’s lovely to see you so happy, sweetheart.

Isobel chose that moment to wake up and start bawling at the top of her voice. I was still holding her, and the noise and wriggling panicked me a bit. I looked at Beth, wondering what to do.

_It’s alright Dec, she’s hungry. Jay, can you pass her over? Er, you two can leave if you like I’m about to feed her. Or stay, it’s up to you.

As Beth started to unbutton her shirt, it dawned on me what she meant. I blushed, stood up and left the room, closely followed by Matt. We found a row of chairs in the corridor.

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

}I kind of remember when Cal was born. I dihnt see him for a while, couldn’t get away from work; he wasn’t so small and delicate by the time I saw him. I remember needing to leave the room on many occasions on account of feeding, though. Got very familiar with the kitchen. Did a loh of washing up.

‘Really?’

}Fuck, no. They’ll be a while in there, it can take bloody ages. I should go home, have a shower, fall asleep in my dinner. How long are you staying here?

‘We could go too, not sure if we should take Cal or leave him here, don’t want to tire Beth out. Not sure I can go in and ask at the moment though.’

}We’ll send Amy in when she gets back with Cal.

‘Good plan. So, you had a good hike – think you’ll go again?’

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

}Yeah, it’s all local people with the bastard MS, they take it nice and easy, and everyone understands what everyone needs. If I get a bih fitter, who knows I might move on to something else, but this suits me at the moment. They’re a really good bunch, we had a laugh. I thought they’d all be older, but there were a few around my age –

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

}Fuck off, you half-grown knob-cheeser. Anyway, we’ve arranged to go out for a drink next week. I need to meet some people down here, get out more, this is a really good start.

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

}Oh no, that’s just a Scott family tradition. Me, you and Mum. Fuck the rest.

I laughed, as Cal’s voice sounded along the corridor.

Cal

So I went to the shop with Amy, and she let me choose a slushie and, best of all, a Transformer magazine, which had a poster of Optimus Prime in it for my bedroom wall. I asked Amy a lot of things that I thought of while we were walking there and back; some of them I already knew the answers to because Mum had told me, like how my sister had got out of Mum’s tummy, but I wanted to see if Amy knew, and she didn’t know as well as Mum because she kept saying ‘er’ and mixing her words up; and some were things I wanted to know the answer to, like how long it would be before she could play football, and Amy didn’t really know that either, because baby horses could walk right away, so why couldn’t baby sisters?

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

)Well, when babies are born, not all their muscles work yet. They have to spend a long time doing baby exercises like standing and crawling to get themselves strong enough to walk.

\but when baby horses are born their legs work straight away.

)Well, yes, that’s right … it’s just different for people and horses.

\why?

Matt and I grinned at Amy, while she looked pleadingly at us.

‘Need some help?’

)Cal has so many questions. I can’t answer them all. He wanted to know when Isobel would be playing football with him.

}Diversionary tactics are required. Cal, wha’s in your magazine?

\there wasn’t a dinosaur one, so I got a Transformer one. Look, Optimus Prime is on the front.

Matt raised his eyebrows at a grateful Amy, as Cal opened the magazine and started showing him pictures.

‘Ames, Beth is feeding Isobel at the moment, we were wondering if you could go in and ask whether she wants us to take Cal home for some tea, or whether he’s staying here with her and Jay?’

)Why couldn’t you ask?

‘Well, Beth’s feeding, I’m not sure I’d know where to look.’

)Oh for God’s sake, it’s only boobs. It’s not like you’ve never seen any before.

‘Yeah, but it’s Beth, it feels weird … please?’

Amy rolled her eyes, but went into the room, taking Cal with her.

}Only boobs? She is aware you’re male, right?

‘Yes, well aware, thanks. I just don’t get girls sometimes … most of the time … ever, in fact.’

}Well that’s something we have in common – with the rest of the men in the world. Let’s just agree that girls aren’t actually human, but a different species. Makes ih easier to stomach, somehow.

A familiar voice floated towards us. Nico. Lis was with him.

>Ha, is Declan and Matty. Why you sit outside?

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

‘Well it feels … kind of wrong to be there.’

>No, is natural, is beautiful. We go in, Lis?

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

They went into the room, and Nico’s loud voice and laugh drifted back out to us through the door.

‘Are we the biggest sexist pigs going, or is he just being Nico?’

}I’m on your side, mate, no one’s getting me in there till it’s all over. Beth’s like my sister. Only she’s not. Ew. Too weird. Besides, with Nico in there it’s like ten extra people have turned up, there wohnt be room for any more egos.

Cal

When I got back to Mum, she was feeding Isobel. She wasn’t giving her ice cream or chips, though. She was letting my sister suck her booby. She told me there was special Mummies milk in there, just how little sisters like it, and that she was too young for chips at the moment. I felt quite pleased that I was going to be able to eat chips and not have to suck Mum’s booby for my dinner.

Nico and Lis were in the room too, and they had brought me a present, which was a book about tractors, because I really liked tractors. I liked getting presents for having a little sister, and some of the things I got later, from people like Granny and Aunty Lou, were Woody from Toy Story and a T-shirt with ‘World’s Best Big Brother’ on it.

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

)OK, the decision is that, apart from you two being complete wimps, Cal is coming back with us for some tea and then bath and bed.

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

)I know sweetie, but your mum’s tired and she needs to go to sleep in a bit.

\but Nico and Lis are still there

)They’re not staying long, and Daddy will be home soon too. Mummy’s staying here tonight, then Daddy will fetch her and Isobel home tomorrow so she can live with you all. How about we make a welcome home banner for her when we get back?

Cal considered the offer. He liked spending time with Amy almost as much as I did, but obviously for very different reasons.

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

With Cal placated, we got back to Jay and Beth’s house. Amy and Cal made a banner, I cobbled together an extremely unhealthy dinner of chicken nuggets, beans and oven chips while Matt had a shower, then Matt grumbled about the dinner and made some pasta which met his higher-than-mine taste standards. Then we all collapsed in front of the TV. Being a Sunday, there wasn’t much on, so Cal persuaded us all to start watching one of his DVDs.

‘Just the first bit, then it’s time for a bath.’

\oh, but the best bit is after the first bit.

I hid a smile at his delaying tactics; Cal hadn’t got any keener on going to bed, and I steeled myself to be firm with him.

‘Then you can watch the rest tomorrow when you get up.’

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

‘I know, mate, you never do, but you like it once you get there. Have you still got your submarine? We could have a water battle.’

Bribery always went a long way towards persuading Cal, and now he was torn with indecision between battling bath time and battling me with water and submarines and various other toys. I won.

\kay. How long can I watch for?

‘Thirty minutes. We’re all watching the timer on the DVD.’

)Actually, Dec, if we’ve got half an hour, would you mind taking me home?

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

‘Cal, are you sure you still want me to stay tonight?’

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

‘OK, I’ll have to go and pick up my PJs then. I’ll try to be back before thirty minutes, OK, then we’ll have our water battle … er … bath.’

As I drove Amy back to her parents’ house, we passed the spot where I had crashed my car last summer. I drove past it nearly every day, but it still made my stomach churn and my heart beat faster. Amy noticed me looking, and she put her hand on my arm.

)Remember what Adam said – every time it gets a tiny bit easier. You only notice after lots of tiny bits.

‘I know. It’s true, looking back it’s easier now than the first time. Still makes me feel weird, though.’

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

)Well, today turned out a bit different to what we were expecting.

‘Thanks for helping out with Cal. He loves you.’

)He’s great. I really like being with him.

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

)Oh, she’s completely adorable. Have you ever held a baby before?

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

)Not bad, but I think you need lots more practice.

‘We’ll just have to volunteer for lots of babysitting then.’

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

I pulled up outside the house. It was hard to say goodbye, even overnight; Amy had been virtually living with me for the past few weeks. We’d spent some time early on at Amy’s house, but several calculated appearances at Amy’s bedroom door by her mum, interrupting various stages of undress, meant we spent most of our time at mine. Amy had a delightful chest, and I liked uncovering it and looking at it a lot, and Amy’s parents made it quite clear that this, and other related activities they had walked in on, were frowned on ‘under my roof’, so we moved it all to under my roof, where it definitely was not frowned on, and in fact was actively encouraged by both of us. Other than going to work, we’d been together the whole time; this would be our first night apart for a quite a while. We kissed long and lingeringly in the car.

)I’ll phone you later.

‘I’ll text you when I’ve finished Cal’s bath.’

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

)I’d better get out, you’ll be late back for Cal.

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

‘I just saw your dad look out of the window.’

)I’d better go then, see you tomorrow.

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

It was worse than the ‘you hang up’ ‘no you hang up’ game, as the kissing and close bodily contact were a big deterrent to moving. I hadn’t realised how long we’d lingered until my phone rang in my pocket. I fished it out. Matt.

‘Hey, Matt.’

}Where the fuck are you? This DVD has nearly finished, and it’s way past time for Cal’s bath. Do you want me to do it? Cal won’t go up until you geh back.

Amy opened the car door, stroked my cheek and got out. I looked longingly after her as she walked up the path to the front door, where she turned, waved and blew me a kiss before rearranging her dishevelled hair and disappearing inside.

‘Sorry, I got held up. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’

}Stop licking her tonsils and feeling her up for two seconds, deliver her back to the bosom of her family and get your overexcited arse back here. This is several levels of taking the pissery.

‘Sorry, be right with you. Starting the car now.’

I pulled my seatbelt on and drove off. As I pulled up outside the house, I realised I’d forgotten to fetch any washing stuff or clothes to sleep in; I’d just have to make do with what I could find. I opened the front door to the sounds of splashing and squeals from upstairs; Matt had obviously managed to persuade Cal into the bath and started the water battle. I ran up, rolled up my sleeves and joined in, and by the time we’d finished, the bathroom was dripping. I fetched a mop and bucket, and tried to pass it to Matt.

}Fuck off, you’re the one who was late back, you get to clear it up. I get to dry off, dry Cal’s hair, read him a story, nice and quiet and relaxed, in the dark, while you make sure all the water disappears before Jay gehs back.

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

Jay arrived back home as I was tipping the bucket down the sink. He looked tired, but also elated, proud and very pleased with himself.

łHey, Dec, didn’t expect you to still be here. Jesus, you’re soaking – what the hell have you been doing?

‘Er, just a bit of playtime to encourage Cal into the bath. He wants me to stay the night in the bottom bunk.’

łWell aren’t you a glutton for punishment. Thanks for helping out today, we really appreciate it. Where is Cal?

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

I towelled my hair dry, took one of Jay’s t-shirts from the laundry cupboard and sat on a towel on the sofa in my damp boxers, having put my jeans in the tumble dryer. I texted Amy, then flicked through the TV channels, listening to Jay, Matt and Cal’s voices upstairs. Matt came down a few minutes later, giving my boxers a sideways glance.

}Ugh. For fuck’s sake put ih away, Summers. Where are your trousers?

‘They got soaked. I put them in the dryer.’

}Well borrow some of mine, or Jay’s. I don’t really want to stare at that all night. Thinking about Amy by any chance?

He left the room, then came back and threw a pair of baggy sweatpants in my direction.

}Here, have Jay’s decorating sweaties. Haven’t seen active service for some years, and lots of handy splodges already, so one or two more won’t show if you really can’t control yourself.

I pulled them on and rearranged myself to be a little less obvious.

}That’s better. Bit of modesty goes a long way. Can’t you even manage one night without her?

I was actually missing Amy more than I’d thought I would; I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and whether her mum and dad would be giving her a hard time.

‘Piss off, I’m here, aren’t I? Is Cal settled yet?

}All sorted, although he’s currently putting in a request for a story from you as well, in a vain attempt to put off going to sleep even longer.

‘He’s the master.’

}He certainly is. Jay’s just about goh it covered. He’s telling him about his baby sister, good as any story.

‘She is pretty amazing.’

}Never thought you’d be that appreciative of babies.

‘Neither did I, but it feels different when it’s family.’

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

‘Ha ha, no. You did hear her say ‘maybe one day’, not ‘I need to make a baby with you, right here, right now’?’

}I suppose so. Tha could have been awkward. You’re being very chilled about the whole thing.

‘I just know, after all the effort of me and Amy getting together, nothing’s going to fuck it up. It took us long enough to get here, I’m happy to enjoy the ride, wherever it goes.’

}Fuck, yes, the longest will they, won’t they saga in the history of mankind.

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

}I goh the headlines, even if you yourself were strikingly reticent on the matter. Dec loves Amy, Amy loves Dec, what will it take to get them to say it? Worse than some bloody soap. I have to claim some credit, I must say, for my forthright words at the barbecue.

‘Piss off, I was going to say something anyway.’

}Yeah, like fuck you were. ‘Oh she’s just a mate’ you told me, as you pined away pathetically in a dark corner of the garden.

‘OK, maybe I did need a little nudge.’

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

}Bollocks would you, you’d still be pissing about now. Instead of hours of snogging and groping in the car jus now, you’d have been chastely dropping her off at home, promising to text her, staring miserably after her as she disappeared inside the forbidden fortress. And you’d have been back in time to give Cal his bath. I’ve given you all these extra weeks of bliss, as well as severely inconveniencing myself and getting half drowned into the bargain. I accept your grateful thahks.

I rolled my eyes. Decided to shift the focus of the conversation.

‘What about you, anyone worth looking twice at in the hiking group?’

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

}Well, there is this one girl, she’s a bit younger than me.

‘So not exactly a girl, but not in her sixties yet?’

}Fuck off you impudent urchin. We chatted quite a lot today. Seems really nice. Good arse. We got on pretty well. A few of us are going for a drink next week, she’ll be there. You can wipe that look off your face. I’m not looking for anything serious, I’m only jus getting better. I don’t know if getting involved with someone else with the bastard MS is the best idea. Actually, not sure ‘getting involved’ with someone is what I want at all. I just need to get my own bit of normal, start having some fun again.

łDid I hear someone mention fun? What’s the story?

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

}Piss off, Dec. No, just going out for a drink with some people next week. Goh to start somewhere.

łDrink sounds good – shall we have a practice now? I’ve got beers in. A toast to … oh, I don’t know, fatherhood? Family? Something less corny?

‘Love.’

łI said less corny, Dec. We all know you’re loved up, pretty hard to miss. Especially right this minute – Jesus, are they my sweatpants? Fuck, I may never be able to wear them again.

He went to get the beers. Came back looking thoughtful.

łYou know what, I am going to make a toast to love. Not just the full on snoggy type that Dec’s so fond of, but all of it. I feel pretty loved up myself today. I’ve got this fantastic daughter, courtesy of my incredible wife, I’ve spent time with my brilliant family and amazing friends and just watched my awesome son go to sleep. And you two are here helping me celebrate. Life just doesn’t get any better. To love.

We clinked our bottles together.

A few hours and many beers later I stumbled up the stairs, undressed quickly in the bathroom and climbed under the duvet in Cal’s bottom bunk as quietly as I could. I was asleep almost before I was lying down.

Dreaming. I am flying. High above the world. I can see it all, the people and patterns that make up my life. It is beautiful. It is amazing. It is awesome. It is love.

I woke up in the dark, disoriented. Someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

\you said a big swear. Can I come in with you?

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

I pulled the duvet back and he jumped in, immediately filling the available space while I shuffled back against the wall. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

Having a sister wasn’t that great, really, although everyone kept saying ‘Do you love your little sister?’ to me, and I had to say yes, because I didn’t think I would be allowed to say no. But she cried a lot, and woke me up at night sometimes, and Mum was busy feeding her and changing her nappies, although she sometimes let me help with the nappies so I could look at the poo. So I was quite glad when it was the start of school, and time to surprise Jake.

Not long after Isobel was born, everyone started calling her Iz. It was a lot easier to say, and it was like a nickname, so I liked it.

Matt

I couldn’t remember much about when Cal was born; I really wasn’t into babies back then, and I suppose you could say I wasn’t now, but having lived with Jay and Beth throughout the whole deal with cravings, hormonal rants, swelling belly, ooh feel it kicking no thanks I’d rather not, I felt a lot closer to this one.

When Cal had arrived, I didn’t rush down to see the new-born first born, and contented myself with emailed and texted pictures, which looked much like any other Churchill-a-like baby I’d ever seen. I visited with Mum several weeks later (it was her third visit) and dutifully held him and jiggled him a bit, but the amount of time I spent in a different room while Beth breastfed him hardly seemed worth the hassle. Not that Beth sent me out, you understand, but … well … you know, the whole boob thing. Yeah, I know, really not PC of me, really bad form, but that’s how it was. Didn’t want to see Beth’s boobs, really didn’t want to be thinking about them in any way either, so spent a lot of time in the kitchen honing my cooking skills and consequently getting brownie points from the new parents.

But this one was different. I felt like I knew this one a bit before it arrived. They didn’t want to know if it was a boy or a girl, they wanted it to be a surprise. I never understood why people did that, it’s not like it’s Secret Santa or something, it’s a baby, a tiny person, and surely if you can get to know it in any small way before it comes, that’s better than knowing jack-shit about it until it pops out. But hey, it wasn’t my baby, and it was up to them, so until Jay rang me I didn’t know if I had a niece or another nephew. And I’d been expecting to be a bit uninterested, like I had with Cal at first, until I’d got to know the little tyke in the last year or so, but as soon as I clapped eyes on Isobel Flora Scott, as soon as I held her, I was won. She had my heart. I mean, yeah, she looked as much like Winston as her brother had, but when I held her I actually cried, bloody huge tears and everything, she was so small and fragile, and I just wanted to protect her. Dec cried as well, we were still pretty much competing for the play-off position in the blub club league tables, but we both scarpered as soon as Beth started unbuttoning her top, and in the corridor we stayed until we managed to persuade Amy to go and get Cal so we could go home.

So Isobel, who pretty soon got shortened to Iz, would need a bedroom before too long. She was going in with Jay and Beth for a few months, and although there was talk of rejigging things and maybe using Jay’s office, I knew my days were numbered. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with the end of my stay chez Scott being nigh, because it meant I was getting better, and by the end of September, I’d got a reference from Eyeti, a pretty bloody good one, too, and had hawked my wares around a few different IT companies in the city.

I’d upped my game in other ways too. Remember Imogen, from the hiking group? Yeah, well, she helped me prove I still had it. Now, I’m not proud of this, not now, but at the time it was pretty major for me. Imogen and I got on well, the hiking group went out a couple of times and then I saw Imogen just the two of us once or twice. OK, twice. And she definitely had that look in her eye, and things were definitely happening for me that said ‘Thunderbirds are go’. And she was a bit of a safety net, because if things didn’t go quite right, she had the bastard MS too, and she’d understand. But things did go right, very right indeed, and it was a great relief to know that everything worked, and I think we both had a good time, I mean I know I did, and she seemed to, but there was no way I was getting into anything, not with the huge hole in my chest where Carrie had ripped my heart out, so it was with regret that I finished things with Imogen before they could develop, and she was upset, and so then I couldn’t go hiking with them anymore.

But that was OK too, because I joined a normal person’s hiking group, got lucky there too, with Alice and Maya, although not together, you understand, then left that group as well, then just went for a walk when I felt like it, on my own, without feeling the need to surround myself with people. So you can see how my career as an excellent no-strings lay was resurrected in this city. It didn’t take me long to begin it, and it was fun, and it was reassuring, and it laid down a wafer thin veneer over my fractured life, a veneer that got thicker with every woman, with every ego-boosting response to my moves.

Yeah, I used a lot of people to make me feel better, I was an arrogant bastard, and I regret it, now. But at the time I was hurting, I was angry and I needed reassurance that I could still do it, and that was my justification for a long time – not in those exact words of course; if I thought about it at all, I’d say I was looking for some fun after a shit year, and that seemed like vindication enough.

That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t as good at fooling myself as I’d like to think; a couple of times it all came crashing down on me, and the pit opened up invitingly beneath me as the cracks in the veneer opened a little and the pain seeped through. When Iz was tiny, I felt in the way and useless, and looking back maybe I was just being an attention-seeking git, but I succumbed to the dark once or twice. It was really unfair of me, but I just went to bed and lay there with the curtains closed until somebody noticed. Which didn’t take long, because new mother or not, Beth Scott never missed anything. She didn’t have the time or energy to devote to my misguided angst-ins, but Dec did, and he extricated his tongue from Amy’s mouth long enough to come round and sit with me, annoying me until I gave in. He even held my hand, which was above and beyond, and has never been mentioned by either of us until now. It wasn’t just support and being there that he offered, he was pretty forthright about how selfish I was being with a new baby in the house, and I came to my senses, such as they were, and shoved my self-pity as far down as it would go, which was pretty far, and filled the pit up with as much blonde tits action as I could muster.

I tore up the plans. No more plans for Matt, they’d got me precisely nowhere. Whereas I’d got into the way of having a plan a, b and c, now my only plan was plan d. D for debauchery.

43. Life gets better

In which the lovebirds fly home, before we get caught up with happenings and a baby arrives.

Matt

Cal had been pestering all of us to play football with him, but it was hot, and he wasn’t getting any takers. We’d sent him in to the kitchen to ask Dec, who’d stopped snogging Amy for long enough to say he’d be out soon, and after a wait that had Cal jiggling with impatience, they came out into the garden, holding hands, flushed, looking shell-shocked and blissed out. Jay followed them and came back to sit with Nico and me, where we proceeded to take the piss.

Cal

Dad was gone for a few minutes, and then Dec and Amy came out, and they were holding each other’s hands like they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They gave some cakes to Mum, and then started talking to her. I needed to get over there before anything else happened to stop me playing football.

‘Can you play football with me now?’

Dec

I hauled my attention to Cal.

‘Yeah, course. Why don’t you see if Matt wants to play too?’

\he said he wants to watch you.

‘Did he.’

I glanced over to where Matt was sitting, flanked by Nico and Jay. As I flicked a V at them above Cal’s head, they collapsed with laughter.

‘Just me and you then, mate. You’ve got the ball? I guess I’ll be in goal.’

Amy stayed with Beth; I could see the two of them cosying up in a couple of deckchairs for a girls’ gossip, as Lis made her way over to join in. I walked over to Cal’s inflatable goal and installed myself between the posts. My gaze wandered over to Amy …

Cal

Dec walked over to the goal, and shooed everyone out of the way so I could take penalties without them being in the way. I put the ball down on the spot and ran up, kicked it hard, and scored. I should have been pleased, but Dec wasn’t even looking at the ball, he was looking at Amy.

Dad, Nico and Uncle Matty all laughed again, and I realised they were laughing at Dec, but not quite why. It wasn’t funny – he needed to concentrate on what he was doing, or it would be too easy and he might as well not be in goal.

‘Come on then, Cal, try again.’

I lined up another shot, and scored again, but I shouldn’t have done because I didn’t kick the ball very hard, and it went almost straight at Dec. He wasn’t looking. Again. I was cross.

Dec

\dec, you’re not even watching.

‘No, sorry Cal. I’m watching now. Take another shot, give it a Theo Walcott smash.’

Cal

I put the ball on the spot again, and took a run up, making sure Dec was looking this time. It wasn’t a very good shot, and Dec only saved it because it hit his knee. I was cross again, but because I needed to try harder. Dec threw the ball back to me.

‘Here you are, have another kick.’

Dec threw me the ball, and I placed it on the spot, but as I kicked it, I noticed Dec was looking at Amy again, and it made me scuff the ball. It was another not very good kick, and the ball wobbled slowly up to Dec, and then past him into the goal while he was looking the other way. I felt like saying ‘honestly Dec’ like Mum would have done, because I wasn’t enjoying this at all.

Dec

As I threw the ball in Cal’s direction, my glance slid over once more to Amy, who was laughing at something Lis had said, and twirling a strand of her dark, wavy hair round her finger. The ball rolled slowly past my foot as I stared, spellbound.

\dec why do you keep looking at Amy? You’re not looking at the ball.

I didn’t need to look at Matt, Jay and Nico to know they had heard Cal’s question.

}Yeah, keep your eye on the ball, Dec.

łConcentrate, now.

>Hey guys, be fair, is hard for Declan to concentrate when his brain is full of kisses.

łIs that it, Dec, is it your brain that’s full of kisses? You seemed to have a lot of them on the tip of your tongue, among other things, a minute ago.

Matt

It was bloody hilarious watching Dec attempting to concentrate on being in goal for Cal, while every ten seconds or so, his eyes would sidle over to where Amy was sitting talking to Beth and Lis. Cal would score, which he usually enjoyed, but not if you were being too obvious about letting the ball in. Jay, Nico and I ribbed Dec mercilessly, until he gave up.

Cal

Dec looked at me, picked the ball out of the back of the net, threw it to me, and started to walk to where Dad was sitting with Nico and Uncle Matty.

‘Sorry, Cal, I think I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. I’m sure Uncle Matty will play with you, he seems full of himself today.’

Dec

‘Hilarious, guys. Matt, you’re up in goal.’

}Oh no, I’m sure that wouldn’t be good for me, you know, the stress of moving in, fucking cripple and all that. I definitely need to take ih easy. Jay?

łNo way.

>I go in goal for Cal. I don’t get distracted by beautiful womens.

łThat’ll be a first then.

>I overcome it for Cal.

Cal

I stood with the ball tucked under my arm, trying to look as cross as I could. I had been waiting all day for someone to play football with me, and it had lasted for four kicks, and it had been rubbish. Dec was talking to the others, and I thought they would just laugh and drink beer, but Nico got up and walked over, ruffled my hair and stood in the goal. I stood on the spot and looked at him, hardly able to believe that Nico was going to be my goalie.

‘Why you wait, Cal? I am ready to be your goal saver.’

‘It’s called the goalkeeper.’

‘Ha, I know this. You want to try a goal? Maybe I save, maybe I keep.’

I put the ball on the spot and kicked it. Nico dived, but couldn’t save my brilliant shot. That’s how it was supposed to work. I did lots more brilliant shots, and Nico hardly saved any, except some that hit him when he was diving the wrong way.

Dec

}Your talk with Amy went well then.

‘Didn’t do that much talking, actually.’

}So I gather. Feel better?

‘Feel fucking awesome.’

łSeriously, Dec, why did it take you so long?

‘I don’t know, now. Don’t know why I didn’t do it weeks ago.’

łNeither do I, would have saved us all a lot of sighing and mournful looks.

‘Piss off, I wasn’t that bad. It’s bloody terrifying if you think there’s half a chance she’ll say no.’

łI think you were the only one who thought there was any remote part of half a chance she was going to say no. The pair of you have been pretty bloody amusing, being all best-friendy with each other, but all the sidelong glances and, Jesus, talking about her all day long to anyone who would listen. I don’t suppose that’s going to stop anytime soon.

}I think it can only get worse now. We’ll just have to live with ih. Get our glazed expressions on. Going in goal for Cal seems quite an attractive proposition for the foreseeable when Dec’s around.

I locked eyes with Amy again across the garden and a big smile spread across my face. She walked over and sat next to me, nudging her way under my arm, and I pulled her close to me. She was soft and warm and lovely and my heart nearly stopped every time I looked at her.

Matt

Inevitably the eyes of the two young lovers locked while Dec was sitting with us, and Amy drifted over, sitting next to him and snuggling in under his arm. She looked completely comfortable there; Dec looked like the cat that got the cream.

Dec

)Hey you.

‘Hey you. Do you know Matt?’

)No. Hi Matt, it’s lovely to meet you at last. I’ve heard a lot about you.

}None of it puts me in a good ligh, I imagine.

)That’d be telling.

}Whereas I, on the other hand, have heard practically nothing about you from the horse’s mouth – the horse being Dec in this scenario – and have had to rely on gossip and hearsay for my information.

Amy looked up at me. I shrugged. I hadn’t told anyone how I felt about Amy, because there had been nothing to tell. Or, maybe I had been too scared to admit there was something. In any case, I hadn’t said anything to Matt, who hadn’t been around to ask awkward questions, and I had avoided any awkward questions from anyone who was around.

‘Not sure I can trust Matt with sensitive information. He’s a bit of a smart-arse.’

}Would have been nice to be trusted with any type of information. Still, I can see why you’d want to keep her to yourself.

)Am I sensitive information then, Dec?

‘Extremely sensitive. Handle with utmost care.’

Matt

He introduced Amy to me, and she seemed very nice, which I know is damning with faint praise, but that’s how she seemed, as she gazed, stupefied, into Dec’s equally infatuated face.

It was bound to happen sooner rather than later, and sure enough before more than a minute had passed, Dec stroked her cheek, looked at me defiantly, and bent down and kissed her.

‘For fuck’s sake, geh a room guys.’

It seemed like the thing to say.

Only not here. Definitely out of bounds.’

A worried look had crossed Jay’s face, as if he thought they might commandeer the master bedroom given half a chance.

Dec

I leaned down and whispered in her ear.

‘Not a bad idea? More privacy, less running commentary.’

I held her gaze as she looked up into my eyes, an impish glint in her expression and a fetching blush on her cheeks. She knew what I was suggesting, and she wanted it. A quick raise of the eyebrows, a slight nod. We stood up, grinning.

Matt

‘Where are yuh off to?’

‘Well it was your suggestion, you work it out. Just going to say goodbye to Beth.’

I almost applauded his fast work. Admittedly, it had taken six months of pining, but now he was off to get his end away in an afternoon.

‘Fuck me, you don’t hang about once you get your arse into gear, do you. Amy, I hope you know wha you’re doing, Dec isn’t usually this decisive. He’ll be another hour going ‘ooh, shall I put my coat on or just carry it’. Will almost definitely be blubbing before the end of the day, though.’

Dec

Yeah, Matt thought he knew me so well, he was such a … actually he was pretty spot on. I was useless at making my mind up, sometimes, and it wasn’t unheard of for me to have leaky eyes at times, mostly back around Christmas when it was all going on, but I wasn’t indecisive about this. This was a no-brainer. And it looked like Amy had my back anyway.

Matt

I expected Amy to blush and look embarrassed, but she looked me in the eye.

‘I completely know what I’m doing, thank you. In fact, given what I know about you, Matt, I think I could safely tell you to fuck off?’

Oh, she was going to be alright, this one. She was going to able to handle Dec with no problem.

‘Dec, I like her.’

‘You should feel honoured, Amy never swears.’

That surprised me, because it sounded like she was born to it, but I took him at his word and further upgraded my first impression of Amy.

‘Ah, Summers exerts his dastardly influence already. Fuck off too, the pair of you.’

Jay, conscious of Cal’s ears listening a short distance away and Beth’s disapproving glance from across the garden, had his head in his hands.

Guys, you’ll get me in serious shit with Beth.’

Even better, then. I still tried to corrupt Cal and annoy Beth at every opportunity.

I watched Dec and Amy hurry across the lawn, and suddenly remembered something from our Christmas ‘I wish I was normal’ conversations. Beer and sex. We’d both got the beer side of things well under control, and now it looked like at least one of us was going to be getting the sex part ticked off too.

‘Dec!’

He turned and I raised my beer bottle to him.

‘Here’s to normal.’

He knew exactly what I meant.

Dec

I laughed, remembering our ‘beer and sex’ definition of normal life, grabbed Amy’s hand and we ran giggling to her car.

)Your place or your place?

‘Ha ha. I suppose your parents are home?’

)Yeah.

‘My place it is.’

Amy put the key in the ignition.

‘Amy, wait.’

She turned her entrancing eyes on me.

‘Just wanted to do this.’

I leaned over and kissed her deeply.

)Mm. Is that a warm up?

‘You bet. There’s lots more where that came from. How fast can you drive?’

)Within the speed limit, mister.

‘Get moving then, woman, we’ve wasted enough time already.’

Amy started the car. We got moving. Hadn’t really stopped since.

Cal

After that day, I hardly saw Dec without Amy. I didn’t mind, because Amy was nice, and she played with me, she even went in goal sometimes, and it was almost as good as having two Decs. But for a while after that day, nobody saw Dec very much at all, and if anyone asked where he was, someone would say ‘Amy’, like that explained everything, but it wasn’t like before, when he went away and everyone was cross and no one talked about it, because I was allowed to phone him on Dad’s phone, and he came round for Sunday lunch. So everything was still alright.

Matt

Nobody saw much of Dec and Amy after that. They were inseparable, intertwined, as one. It lasted a long time, as long as I’ve lasted and will still be lasting after I’m out of the picture, which won’t be long now I suspect. Dec and Amy, romance of the century. They were meant to be, star-cross’d lovers, perfect partners, fated. Fuck, I was jealous.

Not that I wished him anything but happiness, it was good to see after all of his travails, Dec getting what he wanted, getting better, getting sorted, getting laid. But I was having my own crisis in the nether regions department; a crisis of self-belief and a crisis of confidence. Whether it was Carrie, or the bastard MS, or some twisted mixture of the two which had taken it all away, stolen my sexual mojo, I suppose I’ll never know, but it went away, and it was gone for a long time, with nary a twitch nor a tingle to let me know I was male after all, not some kind of unfortunate eunuch.

Dec

Remembering it now made me smile. I kissed the top of Amy’s head again, then turned onto my side, pulling her arm round me, feeling her soft body moulding itself to mine. Life was pretty good.

Jay, Beth and Cal had moved back to the city a couple of months ago when Jay took the job as Raiders’ assistant coach. It was something he had begun discussing the day we went to watch the Raiders game after Christmas.

Matt had moved down just before the barbecue – he’d been well enough to stay at the house in Stafford and oversee the move from that end. Carol had stayed in the Midlands, but was considering moving down too. Matt’s health had vastly improved. He had recovered almost completely from the pneumonia that had debilitated him so much and had not had a flare up of MS since. He was beginning to think about working again, and getting a place of his own in the city, although he was living with Jay and Beth at least for the next few months.

Looking back, I could hardly believe it was more than a year since it had all started with a skid and a swerve on the bypass. The months since Christmas had flown by – I had a small operation to repair the tear in a ligament in my shoulder –which had turned out not to be as bad as I had feared – and had then commenced my rehab with a vengeance. It was hard work, lots of repetitious movements and mind-numbingly boring gym stuff designed to strengthen everything around injured parts, and make me stronger and fitter than before I got injured. There were a few other players in rehab, and we worked together as team-mates to overcome the tedium. After a couple of months I was able to join in light training, which progressed to full training with both Raiders and Trojans, and at the end of April, almost four months after the assault, I was on the bench for Trojans, my first game in all that time. I came on for ten minutes; it was the most exhausting ten minutes of my life, I was shattered afterwards, but the glow from playing again more than made up for it, and I scored a try to put the icing on the cake. Jay and Cal had come down to watch, Cal wearing his Raiders shirt with ‘TIAGO’ on the back. He now worshipped Nico, as people tended to, and as well as showing an unhealthy interest in my bad language, he sometimes tried to copy Nico’s unique style of grammar. Beth despaired almost as much either way.

Luke Woods and Ben Hearne had gone to court charged with assaulting me and causing criminal damage to my property. They had been found guilty and were currently in prison for longer than I’d imagined. It was only because Raiders had shown me more generosity than anyone could have expected that his plan to destroy me hadn’t worked. His first aim was to break me financially, which he had nearly achieved. Then he wanted to ruin my reputation through revealing my use of an invalid passport and hiding the accident. Lastly, he expected all of the above to lose me my job, as payback for what he considered a personal slight against his former employers and the team he still supported. All he really achieved was Jay leaving, as well as getting himself and his nephew put in prison. I was still coming to terms with all of this, one of the many things Adam, my psychologist was helping me with.

Seeing Adam had been one of the best things I had ever done. He saw things very clearly, and didn’t let me give him any bullshit. I guess that’s his job. He told me I had been suffering from a post traumatic stress disorder following my accident, but that it was exacerbated by unresolved issues around the death of my parents. In plain English, my head was already messed up when I crashed my car, but the crash just made everything worse.

Adam’s forthright manner was just what I needed – he helped me to open up and tell him things I’d never told anyone, and am never likely to, about my experiences in care. He helped me work out what I really felt, and to start letting people into my life more. He also helped me prepare for playing again. He understood the psychology of sport, and knew how important it is to be mentally strong. I was still very much a work in progress, but I had progressed and was able to look back at how I was a year ago as if it was another life, another me, a different person.

Amy kissed my shoulder and tightened her arm around me, pulling me closer. I turned over towards her, took her face in my hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She kissed me back. Time stood still then, while we loved each other. Afterwards, breathless:

‘That has to be one of my favourite things to do, ever. You are fucking amazing, Ames.’

)Not as amazing as you.

‘Much more amazing than me. Hard to believe, I know. But there it is.’

)You could up your amazingness by giving me breakfast in bed.

‘What, you need more? Wasn’t that enough for you, babe?’

I kissed her, only half joking and more than willing to start again.

)Ha ha, I mean real food. Toast and jam, cup of coffee please thank you I completely love you please thank you.

‘So unfair, you know I can’t resist those eyes when they plead.’

)They do come in very useful.

‘Wait here then.’

)Not going anywhere, otherwise it wouldn’t be breakfast in bed.

I got out of bed, pulled my jeans on and headed down to the kitchen. I was living in lodgings provided by the club, a shared house for some of the younger Raiders players – Bonksy, Danno and Mikey all lived there too.

I had tried to move back to my flat a few weeks after Christmas, but it had been too much, the bareness of it just reminded me constantly of what had gone on up there, both with Luke and Big, and the state I had been in for most of the time I had spent there.

Rose had offered me her spare room on a more permanent basis, but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted. Nico and Lis offered too, but that didn’t feel right either. Jay and Beth were still living in Stafford, and hadn’t told anyone about Jay trying for the assistant coach job, but even if they had been in the city, I’m not sure it would have been right to move back in with them.

When Jay had suggested the shared house as somewhere I could have my independence and privacy but not be on my own, I had realised that it was what I wanted. I still saw Rose a lot – in fact she was unofficial second mum to all of us living there. She regularly brought cakes and provided a shoulder to cry on for anyone who wanted it.

Rose was thinking about taking in a lodger herself, maybe linking in with some of the fostering agencies in the city. I could foresee her future full of young lads with enough troubles to keep her happily mothering for the time being. I went to see her every few days, just to check her lodgers weren’t taking advantage, and to be plied with tea and cake. Everyone got together with Jay, Beth and Cal, Matt, and Nico and Lis for one of Beth’s special roasts, available most Sundays, and it seemed like the family was getting bigger and bigger. Not that Beth or Jay seemed to mind.

Matt

I won’t go into the sordid details of how I explored things to try and regain a tiny sense of something down there, but in the end, by the time I’d moved in with Jay and Beth in Devon, I’d felt stirrings with some relief. I was scared, though. Scared that it would never be the same, scared to even try. Not just of sex, but of something like Carrie happening to me again. I was scared that if I ever gave myself to someone in the same way, I was going to end up in the same deep well I’d spent the last fuck knows how long clawing my way out of.

Of course, I mentioned this to no one. It’s not the sort of thing you can bring up over dinner or text to your mate or even, really admit to yourself. So I went on with everything else. Plan A seemed to be going well, which was to live with Jay until I got well enough to a) get a job and b) find a place of my own. I knew that the bastard MS could, theoretically, come back anytime and fuck up the whole plan A, so plan B was that there would always be a place for me with Jay and Beth, but I was determined, so, so determined that I would never need it, that plan B would remain merely a plan.

The better I felt, the more I convinced myself that I was going to be one of those few lucky, lucky people for whom the bastard MS came and went and sodded so far off I never saw hide nor hair of it again. And if it did come back, it was going to be when I was an old man, and it wouldn’t matter. So I took it, the getting better, and enjoyed it, and started to live again.

I even found someone who could cut my hair like Becky from Classy Cuts. As soon as I could get out, I’d had Beth take me to the salon, ignoring all protests that she could do it and save me some time and money. Some things you just have to do a certain way, and this was one of my little obsessions. Moving down here, well, one of the things I was obsessing about in a slight way was who I would get to cut my hair. It was as if I was a girl or something, but you can’t help what keeps you awake at night. Not that it did, of course. Well not much.

Anyway, I asked Becky, the last time I went to Classy Cuts, if she knew anywhere nearby to Jay and Beth’s new-old house that she could recommend, and she amazed me by having a cousin who owned a salon in a town a few miles away from the city. It was perfect, I gave it a try, and if anything Becky’s cousin Janine cut my hair even better than Becky. And I will now stop sounding like an utter girly wanker about my hair, it’s just, some things are important, alright?

Beth bombarded me with information about local bastard MS groups and their activities. I really didn’t want to be part of a Sunshine Variety Coach crowd, all packed off to the panto in the fun bus, but there was a walking group that caught my eye. It wasn’t something I planned to be part of long term; once I really regained my strength and knew what I was capable of, I would be off on my own, but as a first time thing, going with a group of people who would be sensitive to sudden tiredness, and difficulty climbing over stiles, seemed like a good way to re-introduce myself to hiking with a bit of a safety net. So I packed a bag one morning, got picked up in the fun bus, and off we went.

Except, of course, this was the morning Beth decided to give birth. Oh I suppose she didn’t really choose to do it just to annoy me, but as soon as I saw the ‘missed call’ messages on my phone, it felt inevitable. I should have known. I’d agreed to look after Cal when it all happened. I was the obvious choice, I was always there, Cal and I got on great, I babysat all the time.

Dec

I was in the middle of buttering Amy’s toast when my phone rang in my pocket. Jay.

‘Hey.’

łDec, you’re needed as baby backup.

‘What?’

łBeth’s having the baby, Matty’s gone off on this hike thing, he won’t get back here in time. You said you’d do it if he couldn’t, come and stay with Cal?

‘Oh, right, fuck, didn’t know what you meant for a bit. Wow, Jay.’

Beth had been pregnant for what seemed like forever. I’d almost forgotten there would be a baby at the end of it.

‘Yeah, we’ll be right over. Five minutes, ten tops. It’s OK if Amy comes too, isn’t it?’

łWell as you’re a bit of a buy one get one free offer at the moment, I wouldn’t expect you to be able to come without her. Course, it’s fine, mate. Just hurry.

I left everything in the kitchen, ran up the stairs, burst into the room.

‘Get dressed, we’ve got to go.’

Amy sat up, alarmed.

)Why? What’s happened?

‘Beth’s having the baby, Matt’s gone out, we’ve got to go and stay with Cal.’

)Oh, that’s completely amazing. Can you throw me my top?

We dressed really quickly, no time for breakfast, showers or cleaning teeth. Rushed downstairs, got in my car and drove off.

Driving was another thing Adam had helped me with. I had managed to slowly face getting back behind the steering wheel with his help, and now could barely remember the terror I had felt last Christmas in Beth’s car.

After some pushing from Jay and Beth, who knew how much it meant to me, I had contacted the police about my car, and was surprised and delighted to find they still had it. It needed a lot of fixing up after all the time in the police yard, dented and crumpled from the crash and exposed to the elements, but this was the car I had bought with the small amount of money I had inherited from my parents on my eighteenth birthday. It meant a lot to get it back, and even more to get back behind the wheel without completely freaking out.

I drove quickly to Jay and Beth’s house, pulling up outside less than fifteen minutes after Jay’s call. They saw us arrive, and were outside and into their own car before we’d reached the front door. Jay wound down the window.

łCal’s in the garden, playing football. Help yourselves to anything. Thanks, guys.

_Thanks sweetheart, see you both later.

łWe’ll ring you. OK, let’s go have a baby!

Jay drove off, even faster than usual, tyres squealing as they raced away. We went through the house to the garden.

‘Hey, Cal, practising your dribbling?’

\yes but I need a goalie.

‘Will I do?’

\yes but I need someone to tackle me.

‘Well I can’t do both. Can Amy do it?’

Cal considered.

\girls aren’t very good at football.

)I’m pretty good, Cal. I’m not sure you’d be able to beat me. Give it a go?

This sparked Cal’s competitive streak, and he couldn’t resist showing Amy how good he was. A few minutes into our game, my phone rang. Matt.

‘Sorry, Cal, got to talk to Uncle Matty. Hey, Matt.’

I walked off into the house.

}I’ve been trying to call Jay and Beth, I missed a call, their phones are off.

‘They’ve gone to the hospital. The baby’s on it’s way.’

}Farty bumfucks. I knew this would happen when I’m in the middle of sodding nowhere. Arse.

‘Don’t stress, Amy and I are here with Cal. I don’t expect anything will happen for hours, from what I gather. Enjoy your walk.’

}I could try and geh one of the guys to bring me back.

‘It’s up to you, but I don’t think there’s any need. I’ll ring if there’s any news.’

}There might not be a signal. Shit, I don’t know what to do.

‘Well you could rush back, spoil your day and just be sat waiting for hours – days maybe. Why don’t you enjoy the walk like you planned? We might take Cal to the beach later. No point sitting around waiting.’

}I hate it when you’re right. I’m jus pissed off with myself, I promised them I’d be there for them and now I’m out here enjoying the scenery while you get dragged over there.

‘We’re more than happy to be here. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to babysit soon – two for the price of one, now.’

}You’re righ, I’m being a twat. Thanks Dec. Ring me if you hear anything.

‘No worries. See you later.’

Matt

Dec was so laid back about it all, and didn’t seem to mind having his day disrupted, although he was still spending it with Amy, so I guess he wasn’t missing much except a few more hours in bed. So I continued, feeling guilty, but not wanting to make someone else miss it by getting them to take me home.

Dec

I wandered back into the garden, where Cal had installed Amy in front of the small inflatable goal. I watched for a moment, loving how she was so willing to play with him.

‘Cal, Amy and I are going to have some breakfast. Have you had yours yet?’

\i had some Golden Crunch, but I’m hungry again.

‘What are you hungry for?’

\monster Munch.

‘OK, I’ll get your Monster Munch while I make us some breakfast. Would you like to go to the beach in a bit?’

My run and the gym were out the window now, but there was no reason at least one of my plans couldn’t still go ahead.

\can I take my kite?

‘That’s a great idea. We’ll take a picnic as well, and your football.’

)I’ll make some sandwiches.

‘Thanks, babe.’

I paused to kiss Amy. Couldn’t pause too long with Cal’s eyes on us.

‘OK, Cal, find your kite, I’m just going to do some toast and coffee for me and Amy.’

Cal ran out of the kitchen, and I grabbed Amy for a longer kiss. We weren’t quick enough to beat Cal, who came back with his kite in record time.

\dec why do you always kiss Amy?

‘Well, I really like her a lot, and she’s my girlfriend.’

\does it hurt?

‘No, Cal, it’s very nice.’

\i don’t want a girlfriend if I have to kiss her.

We both laughed.

)You’d be surprised, Cal. Just wait and see.

The disgusted look on his face showed how much he doubted this.

\when can we go?

‘After we’ve had breakfast. Here’s your Monster Munch, and some purple squash.’

Amy made the sandwiches and packed a bag with food and drink, while I made the breakfast. With Cal’s chivvying we ate quickly and were soon ready to set off.

Matt

The hike was great. It was more healing than anything else I had experienced over the past few months – the sun was out, I saw wildlife, and identified birds. I talked to lots of different people, from all walks of life, all of whom had one version or another of the bastard MS. I particularly chatted with Imogen, who was a little younger than me, had curly red hair and green eyes, and a mouth that turned up at the corners so it looked like she was always smiling. She had a great arse, too, which I noticed when I walked behind her. I definitely felt some stirrings down below, which further helped the healing process.

Imogen and I talked a bit about the bastard MS, shared stories, but talked mostly about nothing much, having a laugh with everyone, joining in the general chit chat and lighthearted banter. I hadn’t intended to join this group in any way, but they talked about all going out for a drink later in the week, and I missed it, being part of a ‘crowd’, and I thought it would be a no-pressure way to see Imogen again and continue exploring the stirrings, so I said I’d go too.

Dec

It was still fairly early and the beach wasn’t yet too full. We managed to fly Cal’s kite, paddle in the sea, collect shells, build sandcastles, race each other, play football, eat lunch, eat ice cream, build a trench to hold back the incoming tide and get loads of sand in our shorts before Cal’s energy wore us out. We headed back as the afternoon passed and the beach filled up.

\dec, will Mummy and Daddy be there when we get back?

‘No, Cal, they’re at the hospital. Mummy’s having the baby.’

\when will they be at home?

‘I don’t really know. It can take a long time to have a baby.’

\will I have to be in bed on my own?

‘No, mate, Amy and I will stay with you until your mum and dad or Uncle Matty come home. You won’t be on your own.’

\where is Uncle Matty?

‘He went out for a hike with his friends. He’ll be back later.’

\dec, can you stay with me tonight?

‘Uncle Matty will be there.’

\but can you stay as well? Underneath? Like at Christmas and your birthday?

Although I’d stayed with them loads of times since my birthday, I’d been in the spare room, just so I could get some sleep. Once I was back in training, I couldn’t cope with a full weekend of sleepless nights, much as I loved being with Cal. I looked over at Amy, checking with her.

)It’s OK, I should spend some time at home, I suppose. Been getting a bit of grief lately.

‘Alright then, if you really want me to, Cal, I guess I can this once. As long as you don’t wake me up in the middle of the night wanting to get in with me.’

\dec, do you still make noises and do bad swears in the night?

Amy laughed.

)I think I’ve spotted Cal’s hidden agenda. He’s missed your mad night noises.

‘Do I still have mad night noises?’

)Oh yes.

\dec goes ‘mm mm’ and ‘no’ and sometimes he says bad words beginning with ‘fuh’.

)I know he does, Cal. And sometimes he goes ‘mm yeah’ too. He’s pretty noisy to spend a night with. Are you sure he won’t keep you awake?

To my knowledge, I hadn’t had a nightmare since Luke and Big were found guilty. The faceless brown-booted man and the boot coming towards my face had disappeared as soon as I recognised Luke after the Raiders game, replaced with a few jumbled dreams where I was being chased, which left me disoriented and apprehensive afterwards. These also disappeared after the police caught the man with the scraggy beard who had been in the van that day.

He turned out to be Big’s other uncle. The whole thing had been thought up by Luke Woods, who had been present by chance at the inquest following my car crash, and had been the one who had recognised me. Luke had sensed an opportunity to profit from the information, and used his indignation as a former Raiders employee to justify his actions. He had enlisted his nephew, Big, and his brother, Paul, in his scheme.

Big had been ideally placed within the club to keep an eye on me and at the same time deflect any potential suspicion by pretending to be my friend; we had been friends before, but Big had not been able to get over the things I’d done and joined in willingly with Luke’s plans.

The police had routinely interviewed other members of Luke Woods’ family and had come across Paul, matching the description I had given them, and who didn’t give up much resistance in the end. After he had been dealt with, and the short-lived media frenzy surrounding it all had died away, my dreams settled down and I had thought I slept soundly. Now it was apparent that wasn’t the case.

‘I didn’t know. Sorry if I’ve kept you awake, babe.’

)No, silly, it’s cute. You don’t have nightmares any more though, do you?

‘No, not that I remember. There’s obviously something bizarre going on in here though.’

I tapped my head.

)Well, Cal, I think it’s only fair that if Dec keeps you awake with his mad dream noises, you can wake him up and get in with him.

‘Thanks a lot, there goes my night’s sleep.’

Amy laughed.

)Works for me.

She gave me a saucy look and changed the subject. I thought back to several very enjoyable middle-of-the-night encounters with Amy, and silently thanked my crazy brain.

We had been back a couple of hours, and had just started to think about what to do for dinner, when my phone rang. Jay.

‘Jay, any news?’

łYeah, mate, we’ve got a daughter. She’s fantastic.

‘Oh wow, congratulations. Everything OK, Beth alright?’

łEverything’s perfect. She’s perfect. Beth’s perfect. Can you bring Cal over?

‘Yeah, course. Now?’

łYeah.

‘Have you rung Matt?’

łNot yet, I’ll do it now.

42. You can’t hurry love

In which a move is proposed, agreed and undertaken, and love is requited.

Matt

It was April, I was getting out and about myself now, using buses and embracing the Stafford public transport system. Despite being constantly on the alert for glimpses of Carrie and Martin, I was feeling so much better that I had begun to overcome my apprehension. For a while it had taken me back to the time when Carrie was in the safe house and I’d seen Martin in every tall muscular man who rounded the corner, but I hadn’t had any near misses – real or imagined – since that time in the supermarket, and I gradually felt more confident about going out on my own. I’d even been thinking about going back to work, although how they’d feel about an employee who would be incapable of turning up until two in the afternoon, and would then only be able to do half an hour’s hard graft before collapsing on the desk in a stupor was anyone’s guess. I’d only been thinking about it. And my sick pay ran out soon; I’d have to start doing something to pay my way.

But anyway, Springtime in Stafford, birds are singing, daffs are blooming, sunshine and showers, all that shit. I’d got the bus into town after lunch, taking advantage of the good weather until, true to form, a sudden downpour had hit. I hadn’t taken a coat, and didn’t fancy a drenching, so I ducked into a Starbucks to wait it out. A coffee and a sit down, ace combination for waiting.

As I was walking to a vacant table with my full fat latte and chocolate muffin (hey, I’m the skinny one who’s trying to put on weight, it was medicinal), I caught sight of Simon, a mate of mine and Carrie’s, or maybe ex-mate, who was trying really hard to avoid eye contact. I hadn’t come across anyone from my former life in any of my previous sorties into civilisation, and I suddenly wanted some answers.

Ignoring his very loud body language, I plopped into the seat opposite him and played innocent for all I was worth.

‘Heh Si, haven’t seen yuh fuh ages.’

He looked up, dark expression on his face.

‘No. Time I was going.’

He stood up, but I grabbed his sleeve and didn’t let go.

‘Wha did she tell yuh?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

He tried to shake me off, but I’d anticipated that, and clung on. Unless he wanted to draw attention to himself, or take his jacket off and leave me holding it, he was staying for a little while at least.

‘She told yuh all some shih abou meh didn’t she. When she left, I tried tuh call yuh, all of yuh, an no one answered. I’ve behn rehly ill, I had no one.’

No one apart from my bloody awesome family, but that didn’t sound quite as dramatic, so I left that bit out.

‘Maybe you didn’t deserve anyone.’

‘Wha? She lef meh fuh her bastard ex, I had –’ I still couldn’t say it, ‘– I was rehly ill, an she lef meh.’

‘Maybe you should have thought of that before you messed around. Maybe if you’d been honest with us, we would have been more sympathetic.’

‘Wha? She told yuh I fucking messed around? I never did.’

‘Oh, so this illness you’ve had, it’s nothing to do with fucking around so much you managed to get HIV? Keeping something like that from your girlfriend is pretty shitty, Matt.’

‘Wha the fuck? Tha’s bollocks.’

I stared at him, not quite able to compute what he was telling me, how he could have got it so wrong, so turned on its head.

‘Yeah right. We all got your text.’

‘Yeh, saying she’d lef meh, asking yuh tuh hehp meh.’

Si shook his head, contempt writ large on his face.

‘The other text, after Carrie had told us all what was going on, saying it was true and – God, I can hardly believe you had the balls – asking to meet up so you could apologise.’

I let go of his sleeve in surprise. I had no idea what he was talking about, and then I remembered that Carrie had taken my phone from the flat. She must have sent them all a text from me – I started to explain, but I’d let go of Si, and he was away and out of the door in his haste to escape from me, the evil bastard who fucked about and put his girlfriend at risk of HIV.

I nearly followed him, but he’d gone, and lurching after him with my fucked up legs while shouting unintelligible bollocks really wasn’t going to help. Instead, I sat at the table, head in my hands, latte going cold, muffin untouched, thinking about what Si had told me. Carrie had left me, when I was just developing a fucking huge disease, then she had told our friends I’d left her, and then she’d told them I’d had a different fucking huge disease, but one that I’d caught by being so evil that no one would want to have anything to do with me.

Later, years later, I worked out why she’d done it, but at that moment, it just hurt, so overwhelmingly, that I couldn’t begin to think about it. I’d thought I’d put it all away somewhere it couldn’t touch me, but that ripped it all wide open again and poured salt all over it and it was bad.

A month or so before, it would have put me back in bed, curtains shut, Declan Summers going on at me from the loudspeaker until I caved, but not now. Now I took it and shoved it away, and it made me decide to sod the fucking lot of them. If they all really, truly believed that pile of shit, they had never really known me. If not even one of them had called me to check it, they weren’t worth me mourning them. I was worth more than that, I deserved better.

I did, however, need to check whether the rumour had got as far as work. Some of my ex-friends had known people I worked with. I asked Beth for help. She was livid about what Carrie had done, and threatened all sorts of reprisals, including suing her for slander, but I was calm enough about it outwardly to convince her all I wanted was to check that people at work knew the truth.

I’d asked my managers to keep the bastard MS quiet, but now I guessed it wouldn’t hurt if more people knew the truth. Beth agreed to talk to Eyeti for me, as I didn’t think I could have the conversation myself where I said ‘you know the rumours going round about me that I’ve got HIV? Well …’. She called them, sorted it out, and went even further up in my estimation.

If you’d told me, a year ago, I’d be living in the same house with Beth without doing her a serious injury, I would have laughed in your face. Yeah she was bossy, yeah she always thought she knew best, yeah she went on and on sometimes. But she was also organised, she was kind, and when all’s said and done she was pregnant, and you can’t go around doing pregnant women serious injuries.

After that, going out seemed like a lottery. Was I going to see someone I knew, never mind Carrie, and was I going to react calmly and explain everything, or was I going to go completely over the top and look like a total mentalist? It started to get to me so much that I went out less. I didn’t know what to do. I was on the lookout every time I went into town, whether it was on my own or with Beth or Jay, and it was stressing me.

April came and went, and I was getting better, tons better, and feeling trapped in the house. I loved walking – hiking – but didn’t have the energy for a long walk yet, and wasn’t getting my hit of being outside, feeling the air and hearing nature.

I started to wonder if I should stay here, in Stafford, but where else was I going to go? Maybe in 6 months, a year or so, I might be able to get a place of my own, but I was still literally finding my feet – OK, not literally, you got me, I knew where my feet were all the time, at the bottom of my legs – finding how much I could do, and I still relied a lot on having Jay and Beth around. More than I cared to admit, really.

I was nowhere near fit enough to go back to work, but I started to wonder what would happen when I was, when I could do more for myself, live by myself, support myself. Would Jay and Beth vanish back from whence they came? Or was Stafford their home now? And if it was, how could I leave? It all kept spinning round my head, until the day Beth asked if I wanted to go to town with her and Cal after school.

‘Noh thanks.’

‘Come on Matty, you haven’t been out for ages. Cal would love it, he really likes being out with you.’

‘Maybe another tihm. Dohnt feel up tuh ih.’

Beth got that look on her face, that one that said ‘something’s up, Matty and I’m going to get to the bottom of it’. I braced myself.

‘Matty, you’ve been avoiding going out for a while. What’s it all about?’

‘Noh I hahvnt.’

‘When was the last time you came out with us, let alone went on your own?’

I couldn’t remember. I didn’t answer, but just shrugged, as if it wasn’t important. I should have known Beth wouldn’t be so easily put off.

‘Are you worried about running into someone you know?’

I shrugged again; she could read into it what she would.

‘You can’t live your life like that, Matty.’

‘I dohnt hahv any choice.’

‘Of course you do. I know it’s hard for you, but if you –’

‘Yuh hahv no idea wha ih’s like, knowing evryohn yuh know, maybe the whole fucking town, thinks I’m an evil bahstrd who’d slehp wih my girfriehnd when I thoht I had HIV.’

‘You can’t lock yourself away for ever. People will never know the truth if you do.’

‘Pehpl dohnt want tuh know the truth. Si showed meh tha.’

‘That was one person, sweetheart.’

‘An where are the rehst? They all think the sahm. I dohnt think I can stay hehr.’

I hadn’t meant to say it, but now it was out there, and I stared at Beth, guiltily.

‘Sohry. I dihnt mean tuh say tha. Where the fuck else am I gona goh?’

Beth was giving me a funny look, something I couldn’t interpret.

‘Well, maybe you’re right, though. Maybe a change of scene would be the best thing for you.’

‘Wha? Buh I cahnt, I cahnt goh anywhere.’

‘Leave it with me, Matty, just trust me for a bit. Come out with me and Cal, though, I’ll protect you from anyone who might give you grief. I’ve got support tights and I’m not afraid to use them.’

And so, intrigued and a little apprehensive, I went out with them, just to a coffee shop, where I knew no one but couldn’t help looking up every time someone came in the door.

Later that evening, once I’d loaded the dishwasher after dinner and made coffee for us all, because now I could totally nail difficult shit like that, a look was exchanged between Jay and Beth, and a subject was launched into.

‘Matty, what we were talking about this afternoon, about, er, staying here.’

‘Yeh?’

Oh fuck, they were going to kick me out and move away somewhere, now I was getting better. That was it, end of Jay’s grand gesture. I knew he’d been frustrated with the disjointed bits of work he’d managed to get up here, and it had crossed my mind that eventually he might want to do something more permanent. What was I going to do? I might have to go and live at Mum’s, but she couldn’t look after me if I got ill again –

Beth broke into my escalating thoughts.

‘We’ve got something we’d like to talk to you about.’

‘Ohkay.’

‘James has been talking to Raiders, about the possibility of going back there, when you’re feeling better.’

‘Ohkay.’

‘Yeah, mate, it’s only a possibility, and I’d never go if you needed me, or thought you might need me, I’ll always be here for you. You know that, don’t you?’

I nodded, unable to see past the fact that Jay wanted to move back down to Devon, and I was holding him back. I couldn’t hold him back, wouldn’t allow it to happen, he might not get another chance, having resigned from them once.

‘Ih’ll beh OK, I can lihv wih Mum.’

‘Oh don’t be so daft, mate, that’s not what I meant. Beth told me what she thought was going on with you, that you feel like everyone here thinks some kind of bullshit about you, and you’re not going out because of it.’

I looked from him to Beth, feeling a little betrayed by Beth, but I guess it wasn’t like I’d asked her to keep it to herself.

‘Matty, James and I, we’ll be here for you, forever if you need us. We’re not looking for a way to get out of that, we love being here with you.’

I waited for the but. And here it came.

‘But we think we might have a solution.’

I lifted my head at that. I’d been expecting ‘but this is important to James’, or ‘but you know how much rugby means to James’ or some such shit.

‘Yeah, mate, we wondered, and it’s totally up to you, you don’t have to say now, but think about it, but we wondered if … how you’d feel about moving back down to Devon with us? There’s plenty of space, you could have Dec’s old room, we could still keep an eye on you as long as you needed it, which won’t be for much longer. It might be a fresh start, somewhere you don’t keep bumping into your old life at every turn.’

‘Ruhning away?’

‘No, mate. Starting over. But I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to persuade you. If you’d rather stay here and give it a go, just say, and that’s what we’ll do.’

‘Yuh should goh, whatever.’

‘Not gonna happen, mate. Our priority is you. If you’d rather stay here, maybe start getting out and about again, we’ll stay together.’

I was touched beyond words. Obviously, there was no way on this earth I was going to let them stay here and pass up an opportunity like that, but Jay seemed totally genuine. I didn’t know what to say.

‘Cahn I think abouh ih?’

‘Of course, Matty. James doesn’t have to give them an answer right away, he’s been talking to them for a long time, they’ve been trying to persuade him to come back next season.’

‘Yuh guys … I dohnt knoh if I cahn ever say how much wha yuhv dohn mehns tuh meh.’

‘You don’t need to mate. I can see it in your eyes every time you look adoringly at me.’

‘Piss ohf, I dohnt fucking well adore yuh, never hahv.’

‘Your eyes tell me different. See, you’re doing it now.’

‘Fuck ohf, Jay.’

‘Oh you two, are you ever going to be able to say something nice to each other without spoiling it?’

‘Doubt it, Beth.’

‘Noh.’

And so I thought about it. And there were lots of objections, some of which had already been aired, and some of which were purely down to my pride, and some of which were Mum. Mum needed someone to keep an eye on her, more than ever. I was torn between staying and getting better so I could look after her if she needed it, staying and being a burden on her if I got worse again, and going and leaving her on her own.

Mum had friends, but they weren’t me, they weren’t family, and she’d got used to having Jay, Beth and Cal around. She’d miss them. I couldn’t decide.

Escaping to Devon, starting again, leaving all the shit behind that I’d found here, that really appealed. If there had been no other considerations, that would have been what I would have chosen. And if I stayed, then Jay was missing out on a job he loved, again, for me. Everywhere I looked, there where rocks and hard places.

Then Mum came to see me. Jay and Beth were out with Cal, and she knew it, and she turned up just as I was making myself a coffee.

‘Hey, Mum. Yuh must have heard the kehtle.’

‘Yes, dear, I have a sixth sense where cups of tea are concerned.’

‘Just done some coffee if yuh fancy ih?’

‘Oh well, if that’s what you’ve done, that will be fine.’

I rolled my eyes at her martyred tone.

‘Cup of tea it is then. One of these days I’ll geh you drinking espresso.’

‘Oh no, Matthew, it’s far too strong, gives me the heeby jeebies.’

‘Cake?’

‘Beth’s?’

‘Lemohn drizzle.’

‘How can I resist?’

So we sat in the kitchen, and chatted about this and that, and I wondered when she was going to get to the point, as there was so obviously a point.

‘… and apparently it’s not that much more expensive than the jumbo packs.’

‘Yeh. Fascinating, Mum. Why are yuh hehr?’

She affected a puzzled expression.

‘I came to see you, dear.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Why?’

She started to dissemble again, but realised she was onto a loser.

‘I’m alright on my own, you know.’

‘Wha?’

‘I don’t need you to be here to look after me.’

Oh. She knew about it all then, and she’d worked it out, and now she was being noble and self-sacrificing. Well that was my job, and no one was going to take it away from me.

‘Dohn knoh wha yuh mean. If I stay ih’ll beh because I wan tuh.’

‘Matthew, you are one of the most obstinate people I know, and also one of the people I know best. I know you think I need you, I know you’ve stayed here because of me, when you could have been off seeing the world, and I know that being here, now, is too hard for you. I’ve had a good think; you’ve been a good boy, and I don’t know what I would have done without you over the last few years. But now it’s time for you to do what’s right for you. Go with Jameson, and build another life for yourself. I’ve talked to them about it, about how I’ll manage without you all, and I think I’ll be alright. And who knows, maybe in the end I’ll come down to Devon too. I’d like to try it here on my own, though, first. Just to see if I can do it. I’ve got some good friends here, who I’d be reluctant to leave behind, I’ve got my book club and my gardening club, but with Beth having the baby, I might not be able to resist being close to you all. Please don’t stay here for me, Matthew. You’ve done it once, and now I think Stafford has had more than it deserves of you. If you want to go with Jameson, I will be fine, in fact I’ll be better knowing you’re somewhere you can put everything behind you. It will put my mind at rest.’

‘Mum …’

I honestly had no words. She even almost managed to make it sound like I was doing her a favour. She was right, though, that it felt like it would be too hard to stay. She was giving me a way out, one that hardly made me feel guilty, although she was my mum, so I did feel guilty.

‘Please, Matthew, promise me that if you stay, it will only be because you want to, for you.’

If I’d thought like that, I wouldn’t even be here now. I’d be in another country, having another life. But if I didn’t promise, it would be like admitting that I’d only be staying for her. And if I did promise, I’d have to stick to it. Bloody mothers, they always got you in the end.

‘Promihs.’

‘Thank you.’

So she had me. She knew I didn’t want to stay, so if I stayed it would only be for her, and I’d have lied to her and broken my promise. I was a big boy now, and more than capable of breaking a promise if I thought it was important enough, but Mum had got to me with her ‘giving it a go on my own’ speech, and had almost convinced me with her ‘who knows, maybe I’ll come too’ thing as well. I’d almost made my mind up.

What finally decided me was a phone call from Eyeti. I was still on the payroll, although, having been off sick for almost two thirds of the year, was no longer being paid anything. If I left, I’d have to hand in my notice, and that was a pretty huge thing for me. But I had a call from Frank, who was the CEO, which sounds very grand, but he was CEO of a fairly small company and he was very approachable. I thought he was going to want to talk about when, or if, I was coming back to work. I was so far away from being able to consider working, that the thought of that conversation almost ended it before it had begun, but he wanted to tell me something.

He’d been contacted by a friend who worked in a big Systems Analysis company, with branches in Singapore and Hong Kong, and they were looking to recruit staff. Frank’s friend had asked if he knew of anyone with suitable experience and qualifications, and Frank thought of me. Even though I was off sick, he still wanted to give me the opportunity to at least consider it. I considered it for all of a second and a half, as even remembering the lock code on my iPad was beyond me sometimes, and reluctantly turned it down, but something about the offer made me think that maybe I wasn’t all washed up, maybe there was more to life than shitty Stafford and what it had to offer.

Maybe if I went to Devon with Jay, I could get myself together and find something down there, where the air was clearer, the beach was only ten miles away, and I’d be with my family, who wanted me to be with them. I could come back and visit Mum, I could try my hardest to persuade her to move down too, everything could be new. People still wanted me, people on the other side of world. I could work towards it, one step at a time. It was a plan. I was always happier when I had a plan, and I hadn’t had one for a long time. Sold, to the man with the funny walk and the unintelligible bollocky words.

Cal

It was nearly the summer holidays, and Mum picked me up from school one day in the car, instead of walking. She said we were going to Pizza Place, and I asked if Owen Little could come, but she said no, just us, but when we got there, Dad was there too.

We had a pepperoni with pineapple and mushrooms, because I like pepperoni, Mum likes pineapple and Dad likes mushrooms, and Mum let me have a large coke and said I could have an ice cream bowl afterwards. It was like it was my birthday, but my birthday wasn’t until November, and it wasn’t Mum’s or Dad’s birthday either.

After we’d finished our pizza and ice cream, Dad kind of punched me on the shoulder; not hard, but like he was just pretending.

‘Cal, we’ve got something to tell you.’

I wondered if they were going to tell me if I was having a brother or a sister, but I kept quiet, because I didn’t want to guess the surprise.

‘Sweetheart, Daddy’s got a new job, back where we used to live, and we’re all going to go back there to our old house.’

I looked at them both, as I thought about what they’d said. We were moving away? Away from my school? Away from our house? Away from Granny? Away from Uncle Matty? Where would Uncle Matty live? A lot of questions fought to be asked, and I couldn’t think fast enough to ask them before the next question popped into my head.

‘What do you think, mate?’

Finally one thing burst out.

‘But what about the parade?’

At my school, there was going to be a parade at the end of term, and I was going to be an elf, because my class was being Lord of the Rings. Mum had made my costume, it had pointy ears and a bow and arrow, and I had been looking forward to it all term. If we went back to the city, I wouldn’t be able to do it, and someone else would get to be an elf, and Miss Bradshaw said I would be the best elf because of my blond hair, and it would be nice to finally have something good about my hair, even though Mum wanted to put plaits in it like Legolas.

‘You can still do the parade, sweetheart. We won’t be moving until the summer holidays.’

Oh. Well that was alright, then. When we moved before, it was on the day after Mum told me, and I didn’t have time to make sure all of my things were in my backpack, and I lost my Furby and some of my Lego.

‘Where will Uncle Matty live?’

‘With us – he’s coming too.’

‘Will Granny live with us?’

‘No, she’s staying here, so she can still see her friends and go to her gardening club.’

‘Will Dec live with us?’

‘No, Dec has got his own house to live in, but we’ll be able to see him a lot more often. That’ll be good, won’t it.’

It did sound good, at least being able to see more of Dec. But I was going to have to leave my school and my friends behind, and Owen Little had just let me join his Pokemon club, and Miss Bradshaw had just said I was good at being tidy. I hadn’t been good at being tidy at my other school, because Jake had always … Jake! I’d be able to see Jake again!

‘Will I go to my old school?’

‘Yes, mate, Mummy’s sorted it all out, you can go back after the summer holidays.’

‘Mummy, can you phone Jake’s mummy and tell her?’

Mum and Dad looked at each other, but didn’t look as happy as I was about seeing Jake again.

‘Let’s see, Cal. We could always leave it as a surprise.’

That did sound good, I would love to see Jake’s face when I walked in on the first day of school. Maybe a surprise would be alright. I didn’t agree or disagree, though, in case I changed my mind later.

For now, it was time to start thinking about what I could get out of it. I liked my dinosaur bedroom, but maybe a change would be good.

‘Can I have a Pokémon bedroom?’

‘I kept your Ben10 curtains, sweetheart. I thought we could put up some posters.’

Ben10 was for babies. I was six.

‘But Pokémon is cool. Jonny Basset has got a Pikachu duvet, and his aunty painted his walls, and he’s got cushions and baseball boots and –’

‘Cal, your mum’s got enough to worry about without thinking about painting Pokemons on your bedroom wall. We’ll make sure it looks nice, mate, but let’s just wait a bit, use your old curtains for now, or we can take your dinosaur ones with us. Then later in the year, maybe we can think about making your room look really good.’

Dad was using his ‘no arguing’ voice, and Mum patted his arm like she was agreeing with him, so it didn’t seem like I was going to have much of a choice. I decided a change of subject was needed. There were still lots of questions to be answered.

‘Is the baby going to have a room?’

I had counted the rooms in our old house, and when Dec lived there too, there were enough bedrooms for one each. If Dec wasn’t living there, but Uncle Matty was, that still meant one each, but if the baby needed a room too, I was worried I was going to have to share, like Daniel Glover did. His baby sister was always crying and keeping Daniel awake, and he wasn’t allowed to play in his room sometimes. I didn’t think I would like that.

‘Probably not at first, sweetheart. The baby will be very little to start with, and Daddy and I will have a cot in our room, like we did when you were a baby.’

‘But I’m big now, and I’ve got my own room.’

‘Yeah, mate, but it’ll be a while before your brother or sister is big enough to have a room of their own. You don’t need to worry.’

‘But where will they go? There aren’t any rooms left.’

‘Maybe we’ll put Uncle Matty out in the shed. He likes spiders.’

I wasn’t sure if Dad was joking. The shed was pretty cool, but there wasn’t much room because the lawnmower was in there and tins of paint and spades and bags of earth for the garden. If Uncle Matty went in there, he’d want it to look a bit more tidy.

‘Can Percy come with us?’

‘Yes of course, sweetheart. We wouldn’t dream of leaving Percy behind. He’ll like it in our old house, I’m sure.’

‘Will Tabitha come too?’

‘I don’t know, Cal. Tabitha is pretty comfortable with Nico and Lis, and she’s quite old. Maybe we should let her stay there.’

I couldn’t think of any more questions for the time being, so I got on with scraping the last little bit of ice cream from my bowl. It would be a bit annoying to leave my new school behind, because I’d just got used to the way everyone talked funny and said things like ‘he’s got a cob on’ instead of ‘he’s cross’, and how the dinner ladies called me a duck when they could see I was a boy, but mostly it would be awesome to go back to my old school and see all my old friends there.

Dec

łDec, I’ve got some news for you, before you see it in the papers.

‘OK, you’ve got my attention.’

łI’m coming back to Raiders. Assistant Coach. Start next season. We’re going to move back in a couple of months.

‘Holy shit! Jay, that’s fucking awesome!’

Cal

Because it was nearly the summer holidays, Dec had finished playing rugby until the autumn. He came up to see us sometimes, but even though he wasn’t doing rugby, he was busy doing other things, like going out and dancing. Then he had to do training so his legs were strong when he started playing rugby again, so he couldn’t come and see us much then either. I was glad we were going back to the city, so we could see Dec whenever we wanted to. I would be able to see Nico too, and most of all I would be able to play with Jake. The closer it got to us moving, the more excited I got about seeing Jake again. I didn’t know if I could wait until school started in September. I wanted Mum to take me to his house, so we could play on his brother’s X-box and swap Pokemon cards and listen outside his other brother’s door while he said swears on his phone.

Matt

So I said goodbye to Stafford. I literally said goodbye to it, did a tour of all the places that had meant something to me.

I went into Eyeti, once I’d given my notice, and took a huge tray of doughnuts, and told them what was wrong with me, although I used lots of ‘bastard’s and ‘fucking’s when I said it, and I got lots of sympathy, which was hard to take, and a couple of weeks later, Frank came round with a card and a present, which was a signed photo of the Tottenham team that his nephew had managed to get, and I was touched, and it was an ending.

I went to Stafford Rangers FC, where I had spent many a frozen Saturday afternoon watching some entertaining football – they weren’t Spurs by a mile, and it wasn’t the Premier League by much more than a mile, but they were my home team, and although I didn’t watch them play that time, I went to the social club and had a beer, and it was an ending.

I walked up to the highest point I could find and looked down on the town, and felt both big and small at the same time, and it was an ending.

I also did a tour of all the places that had meant something to Carrie and me, or at least to me. I’m not really sure why I did it, apart from needing some sort of ending to that, too. I went back to the Pizza Place where we’d met after she’d left the safe house; I sat outside our old flat, looking up at the window; I went to the pub where we’d seen the band, and wandered round the beer garden; I went to the castle; I went to the school on a Thursday night and sat in the car park; I went to the Lebanese café where I’d seen her crying.

I didn’t think why I was doing it at the time. Maybe I was trying to come across her, so I could have an ending that way. Maybe I was trying to prove that I could do it, that even if I found her there, in any of those places, I could cope, she no longer had any power over me. But she wasn’t there, in spirit or in reality. Other people were there, making their own memories, and that was a different kind of ending for me. It made me realise there was less than nothing in that town for me any longer and it made me glad, really glad I was going.

Dec

Beth: =Change of plan. Can u come up 2moro? James booked van for wrong day. Might as well go day early. Need yr muscles. Thx. Xx

Cal

Not long after the end of term, after the triumph that was the Lord of the Rings parade where everyone said what a good elf I had been, it was time to move out of our new house and back into our old one.

Mum’s tummy was really big, so she couldn’t move anything herself, but she did lots of telling, and Dad did lots of putting his hands in his hair, because sometimes Mum made him do something exactly the opposite of what he’d just done, like when he took all of the plates out of the cupboard and put them in a box, but then Mum said we’d need them for our tea, and why had Dad just put them in a box, and Dad said because you told me to.

I went to Granny’s a lot while Mum and Dad were packing things up, so I didn’t get packed in a box myself. Uncle Matty helped, because he was better enough, but he couldn’t lift heavy things, like Mum couldn’t, so Dec came and helped on the day we moved, even though the lorry had special men for lifting things. I wasn’t allowed to stay and watch the men put things in the lorry, because I might get in the way, but I watched the beginning, and then Dad came and got me from Granny’s when the lorry was ready to go, and we followed the lorry all the way to our old house, which was our new house.

Matt

Jay, Beth and Cal moved out at the beginning of June. Beth was seven months pregnant by then, and unable to do any of the lifting, although she was more than capable of telling everyone else what to lift and where to lift it to. I did what I could, but mainly stuck to my allotted task of making drinks for everyone and cleaning up after everyone had gone.

I stayed with Mum for a couple of weeks afterwards, partly out of guilt and partly because there were a few things Jay and Beth needed tying up which I could do for them. Dec had been up to lend his muscle for the moving vans, and thinking back to how he had been at Christmas, he was a different person. Apart from the scars on his face, which might never completely fade, he had recovered physically from his kickings, and he seemed more confident. Jay teased him mercilessly about some girl he was apparently hung up on, but when I asked him about her later, he was unforthcoming.

Dec

Beth: =Barbecue 18th 5pm. Bring anyone – Danno? Mikey? Amy?? 🙂 xx

Cal

Our new house, which was our old house, felt a bit strange at first, because I knew other people had lived there, and there was pen on the wall of my bedroom, and my bed was my bunk beds, which I hadn’t had before, but once Mum had put my dinosaur curtains up, and I’d got all my toys out, it felt like my room again.

Dec came to see us a lot, and sometimes he had his friend Amy with him. Amy wasn’t his girlfriend, because they didn’t kiss each other or hold hands, but they talked to each other about music and about things they did with other friends who I didn’t know. I liked Amy because she gave me a dinosaur badge and knew about cool trainers with flashing lights on the back.

I went to Dec’s new house too. He didn’t live at Rose’s house any more, and he didn’t live over Rose either. He lived in a house with some other big boys who all did rugby too, and he had his own room. I liked going there, because it was always noisy and messy, and there was a PlayStation and an X-box and a really, really big TV, and nobody put their clothes away.

Dec

I woke up slowly, the sun through the curtains alerting me to the promise of the day ahead. Lots to do – first, a run, then the gym, then I’d promised Amy we’d go to the beach. She stirred beside me, turned over and opened her big blue eyes.

‘Hey gorgeous.’

)Mm. Morning. What time is it?

‘Still early.’

)Good.

She moved in closer, into the crook of my arm, put one arm across me and closed her eyes, drifting back to sleep. I kissed the top of her head, breathing in the smell of her hair. This was all pretty new and amazing.

We had finally got together properly a few weeks ago, after months of being friends, good friends, great friends, more than friends, then both afraid to ruin it by saying what we felt. We had hung out together a lot, phoned and texted each other all the time. We talked to each other about almost everything, knew each other really well, we had just been reluctant to risk taking the next step.

Part of the hesitation, for me, had been DivDav. He wasn’t around any more; he’d moved to another club soon after Raiders told him they weren’t renewing his contract. I’d tried to contact him so I could apologise to him, but he never replied to any of my calls or messages and eventually I had to accept that there were some fuck-ups that just stayed fucked. Amy had broken things off with Dav partly because of me and I felt awkward bringing it up; I didn’t know if Amy felt the same, as it was one of the few things we never seemed to talk about.

Amy had been instrumental in helping me rebuild my friendships with some of my other mates, people like Danno, Mikey and Bonksy. She was relentless in persuading me to come along to meals, clubs, cinema trips, any event where everyone was together, and she overcame the remaining tension between us all. Eventually things just got better.

A few weeks after they moved back to the city, Jay and Beth had a house re-warming barbecue, and we both went. Matt caught me watching her as she helped Beth carry plates to the table, and followed my gaze.

Matt

So, PCC 1.2.4 having ended with complete system failure and irretrievable data, I moved down myself at the beginning of July, and once we’d all settled in, Beth threw a ‘welcome back’ barbecue. This was where I finally got to clap my eyes on Amy Wright, and see the effect she had had on Declan Summers.

Cal

It was a very hot day, and I was excited, because Nico was coming, and Dec was coming, and I wanted to play football with them in my new goal. Mum didn’t have time to play with me because she’d been cooking things for ever, and she made me put forks on the table, and then I had to wash my hands and change my shirt. I wanted to wear my Arsenal shirt, or my Raiders shirt, but Mum said that wasn’t smart enough, so I had to wear my school shirt, which was hot and itched, and I had to have sun cream on my face and arms which smelt funny.

People started ringing the doorbell at twelve o’clock, so I went into the garden with my football, hoping that someone would come soon who would go in goal. Mum had told me not to ask people, because they would want to eat burgers and hot dogs first, but I could ask later when everyone had eaten pudding. Pudding seemed like a long time away, so I had to make do with kicking the ball into the goal myself.

Uncle Matty was sitting on a bench in the shade, and he had a glass of beer. I went and sat next to him, because sometimes he would let me have a sip of beer if Mum wasn’t looking. It was my bad luck that Mum was out in the garden the whole time, and Uncle Matty didn’t have a chance to give me beer.

‘Heh Cal, no takers fuh footy yet?’

‘No, but I think Dec will be here soon.’

‘Let’s hohp so. I think yuhr pitch is gona be full of people sohn anyway.’

We looked over to my goal, and while I’d been away from it, lots of people had gone and stood there with drinks, talking to each other. I knew Mum wouldn’t like it if I asked them to move, so I stayed where I was. I wished Mum had asked some of my friends to this barbecue. She was still holding on to her ‘let’s surprise everyone at school’ thing, and hadn’t let me ask Jake over, or asked any of my friends’ mums to the barbecue. I was going to be really bored if all people did all afternoon was drink wine and beer and eat burgers. I looked at Uncle Matty, who was looking at me with one eyebrow up and one down, like I wished I could do.

‘My Playstahtion’s on. I wohnt tell if yuh don’t.’

He winked at me. Uncle Matty was cool.

I slipped inside while Mum was talking to another lady, and ran up the stairs. True to his word, Uncle Matty had left his PlayStation on, although he hadn’t put his war game on. He’d left it on Lego Star Wars, and the controller was sitting on his bed. I started playing.

Some time later, there was a tap on the door.

‘Hey Cal.’

I paused the game, looked up, saw Dec and smiled.

‘Dec, I got twenty three super Legos.’

‘Awesome, mate. Do you need a partner?’

Dec was useless at PlayStation Uncle Matty beat everyone, but Dec lost to everyone, even me, even Dad, who wasn’t very good either. If Dec was my partner, my high scores would take a bit of a bashing.

‘No, it’s just for one player.’

‘OK, cool. We’ll play football later, shall we? When it’s a bit cooler, and everyone’s sitting down?’

I nodded and turned back to the game as Dec left the room.

Matt

Beth, despite now being only a few weeks away from giving birth, had been working for days to prepare food and get the house and garden sorted out, so it was ready for all the people she had invited – half of the city, by the sounds of it, including Raiders players, friends of hers from her nursing days and various random other people I didn’t know.

I had been sitting on a wooden bench, drinking a beer, watching Dec watching a girl. I was talking to him, trying to get a conversation going, but every time he looked like he was listening to me, the girl would walk out of the kitchen door carrying a plate of burgers or a bottle of mayonnaise, and his attention would slide over to her. She was slender and pretty, with long dark hair and big blue eyes. Attractive enough, but she only looked about eighteen. I guess that was just the right age for Dec. The look in his eyes as he followed her every move was very entertaining, and although I’d pretended not to notice him looking, eventually I couldn’t resist it any longer.

‘Aha, a pretty lady. Someone special, by any chance?’

Jay had told me all about Dec’s crush. It had been going on for months, since just after Christmas. He’d spent over half the year pining over her, and although she seemed to reciprocate the pining, neither of them had seemed able to make the first move. He’d never mentioned her to me, other than in ‘oh a bunch of us went to the cinema’ type terms, and until I saw him this afternoon, I hadn’t realised just how bad he’d got it.

‘That’s Amy. She’s just a mate.’

‘Oh tha’s the mysterious Amy. Seeing someone, is she?’

Because really, Dec, it’s about time you made your move.

‘No.’

‘What in the name of fuck are you waiting for then? They don’t grow tha hot on trees, or wait around forever while you grow a pair.’

And if you don’t get on with it, some other bloke might start hanging round, and then you’d really have something to look all piney about.

‘She’s a really good mate.’

Ha ha. Here’s the other one, give it a jiggle and hear the tinkling.

‘Then tha’s a really good reason to tell her how you feel.’

‘Yeah? How exactly do I feel, if you’re so fucking smart?’

You’re really asking me? I’ve had more women than you’ve had hot dinners, and I know, yeah, as well as that, I know how it feels, so get ready for the plain truth, kid.

‘Oh, I don’t know, like she’s part of you, like she’s your reason for living, like she lights up your world. All those bloody awful clichés tha suddenly mean something when you’re in lurve.

And I knew what it looked like, too. And he was, I could see it.

‘I’m not –’

He stopped himself. He so was. Pitiful.

‘Yeah, you are. Well done, Summers, you worked it out. Plus it’s written all over your puppy dog eyes. Why don’t you fuck off and do something about it?’

He just needed a little nudge, that’s all. I was surprised Beth hadn’t done any nudging, it was what she excelled at, but maybe she had other things on her mind, or was taking a baby break from interfering. Dec suddenly took a deep breath and stood up, a determined look on his face.

‘Alright then, you know what, I bloody well will.’

‘Wha, now? Holy shit, Dec.’

Take a bow, Matthew Robert Scott, you have just single-handedly made sure the course of true love ever did run smooth. I know, misquote of the century, completely changing the meaning of the Bard’s poetry with a single absent ‘n’, but what the hell.

Dec

Before I could bottle it, I walked over to Amy, took the plates from her, put them down on the table.

‘Can I have a word?’

She looked up at me, frowning slightly.

)Are you OK?

‘Yeah. Come with me a minute.’

With my heart beating very fast, I took her hand and led her inside, to the kitchen.

‘There’s something I want to say.’

)OK.

She looked up at me with her big blue eyes. They made my heart beat even faster. Deep breath.

‘OK … right … er … you know how … um … when I … we … I mean … would you … oh fuck it, I’m really fucking this up. Why don’t I just show you?’

Without giving myself time to think about what I was doing, I took her face in my hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She didn’t respond immediately, and I started to draw back, mortified and embarrassed. Then she reached up and twined her fingers in my hair, pulled my face down to hers and started kissing me back. Relieved beyond belief, stomach doing flip-flops, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close as we lost ourselves in each other. After a long time, we stepped back, staring at each other in amazement.

‘Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to do that?’

)About as long as I’ve wanted you to?

‘Has anyone ever told you you’re fucking amazing?

)Not in so many words.

‘Oh Amy, you’re so fucking amazing.’

I leaned towards her, pulled her to me, and we started again.

łWell it’s about bloody time, you pair.

We sprang apart as if we’d been electrocuted. Jay stood in the doorway, carrying a tray of sausages, grinning widely.

łWe were all beginning to despair of you two ever getting your act together. Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. Just need to get some barbecue sauce for these. Behind you, Dec, if you wouldn’t mind.

I reached for the sauce and handed it to him.

łThanks. As you were.

Jay walked out, whistling, and we heard him announce:

łKitchen’s out of bounds, Dec and Amy having a snogfest.

Matt

Jay introduced me to Nico, and we all sat drinking beer in the sun, while Jay occasionally got up to flip burgers or do some other of Beth’s bidding. Once, he went inside for a bowl of barbecue sauce and came out with a huge grin on his face, announcing to the gathered crowd that Dec and Amy had been found in a compromising position in the kitchen.

There were cheers and wolf-whistles, the tale of unrequited love seeming to have reached a few people. Jay came and sat back down, shaking his head.

‘Happy ending, then?’

‘Dunno about happy, Matty, but if he puts his tongue any further down her throat he’ll be able to share her breakfast.’

Jaime, this is good. Declan loves Amy a long time.’

Nico seemed to be some kind of Latino hopeless romantic.

‘Yeah, Nico, I know. Not sure how hygienic it is to have it all happening in my kitchen, though.’

Cal

A while later, the door opened again. It was Mum, and she didn’t look happy.

‘Cal, you can’t just come in and play with Uncle Matty’s things.’

‘He said I could.’

‘Come outside, sweetheart. The burgers are ready.’

‘Oh, but I’ve nearly finished the level.’

‘Now, Cal.’

Mum’s no arguing voice was harder to ignore than Dad’s, and she used it a lot. I paused the game and turned the TV off, so it looked like I’d turned the game off but I might be able to go back to it later, then I followed Mum down the stairs. Mum took a long time going downstairs at the moment, because her tummy was very big, and she had to go slowly, and I wished she had let me go first so I could run down and get outside, but I had to wait behind her.

When we got out into the garden, there were still loads of people standing in front of my goal, so I went over to where Uncle Matty and Nico were sitting, to see if they were doing any swears, or talking about things I wasn’t supposed to hear.

‘Ha, is Cal, the best Raiders supporter.’

I smiled at Nico, still a bit star-struck.

‘How did yuh get on wih the Plahstation, mate?’

‘I got to level fourteen.’

‘Whoa, you’re beating meh then.’

Uncle Matty turned to Nico.

‘Cal’s got sohm serious gaming fingers.’

‘I like this, Cal. You must come to me and play me on my X-box.’

‘Have you got Lego Star Wars?’

‘No, I don’t have this, but I have some good games.’

Nico listed his games, most of which I knew from when I’d stayed with Nico and Lis before, and most of which Mum wouldn’t let me play if she knew.

‘When can I come and play on your X-box?’

‘Whenever you like, we make a day soon, huh?’

‘Can you play football with me now?’

‘I think we wait until there is room, huh? This is what your Mama say.’

Mum had obviously got to Nico, and probably Uncle Matty too.

‘Yuh should ask Dec. I bet he’d clear a space for you.’

‘This is a good thought, Matty. Yes, Cal, you must ask Declan.’

There was a look that passed between Nico and Uncle Matty that I didn’t understand, and they were smiling, almost laughing, as if it was a joke, but before I could ask what they meant, Mum called over to me.

‘Cal, sweetheart, can you go and ask Dec to bring some bread rolls for me? He’s in the kitchen, the rolls are in one of the cupboards.’

Nico and Uncle Matty thought this was funny, but I didn’t understand why, although it didn’t feel like they were laughing at me. They had been drinking beer, and Uncle Matty often thought things were funny when he’d drunk beer, so I didn’t say anything to them, just went inside and …

… stood in the doorway of the kitchen, watching Dec and Amy doing grown-up kissing, for a really, really long time. Like she was his girlfriend. They were all squished together, and their mouths were making sucky noises, and they didn’t notice I was there for ages. Then I saw Dec’s eyes flicker sideways, and he saw me, and he stepped back from Amy. They both had red faces, and Dec wiped his mouth with the back of his hand like Mum used to tell him off for.

I remembered what I was supposed to be doing there.

‘Mummy says can you bring more bread rolls. She says they’re in the cupboard.

‘Sure, mate.’

Dec reached up and took down a bag of rolls and gave it to me. I nearly told him that he was supposed to bring them out, but I didn’t think that would get me anywhere, as I didn’t have an excuse not to take them out myself.

Dec turned back to Amy, but I remembered I had something else to ask him.

‘Can you come and play football with me?’

‘In a bit, Cal, I’m busy at the moment.’

Dec didn’t even look at me while he was talking, he was looking at Amy, but he wasn’t busy, he wasn’t doing anything except twirling Amy’s hair on his finger.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Er, talking to Amy. Can’t Matt or Nico play with you?’

‘They said ask you.’

Dec said a swear beginning with ‘ba’ but really quietly so I could hardly hear it.

‘OK mate, I’ll be out in a minute. Go and give the rolls to Mummy and find your football.’

I ran outside, smiling, because Dec had promised, and now I was going to be able to play football like I’d been waiting to do all day. I gave the rolls to Mum, and then I waited, and waited. And waited. And waited and waited. I went back and asked Uncle Matty and Nico again, but they said they were waiting for Dec so they could watch him.

In the end, I went over to Dad, who was talking to some people, and tugged on his shirt.

‘Hey, mate.’

‘Daddy, Dec said he’d play football, but he’s not.’

‘Oh, I see. Is he still in the kitchen with Amy?’

‘Yes. He’s doing kissing with her.’

‘Jesus, how much of that did you see? Never mind, I don’t want to know. I’ll go and get him, shall I?’

This was very helpful, because Dec was more likely to listen to Dad than to me.

Dec

łCome on Dec, time to meet your public. Cal’s desperate for a game of football and we need our kitchen back. You’re seriously leading Amy astray in here.

)We should really go back outside. I said I’d help Beth, she’s been on her feet all day.

‘I guess she could do with taking the weight off.’

łTake these out with you, then.

He handed me two plates of cupcakes.

łGo on, get out of here. Spread the love.

Jay whacked my behind with a tea towel as Amy took one of the plates from me. Holding hands tightly, we walked together to the table where Beth was busy arranging desserts, looking hot and flustered and struggling to reach around her large stomach.

_Oh, thanks you two.

She gave us a cheeky grin.

_Well done, I’m so pleased!

Amy and I looked at each other, half embarrassed, half delighted. I felt lighter than air and couldn’t stop smiling. Couldn’t stop touching Amy – her soft hair, her beautiful face, my arm round her slender shoulders. She was staring into my eyes as if she might forget what I looked like, an expression of happy bewilderment on her face that I suspect was mirrored on mine. We were the same but everything was different.