And I did move away and live my life. I loved my new job in Norwich, and I loved living in Nons’, or rather my, house, where I had all my memories of growing up alongside all my grown-up things.
William and I got on really well, but he was getting older, and eventually his daughters persuaded him to move back up north so they could stop worrying about him so much.
So. I’ll ease into it. Plans were afoot for the big moving day; Dec and Amy finally got the green light for moving into their house, and I took a day off to help them, because big burly men seemed inexplicably difficult to come by at a rugby club, or maybe there was some big training thing they all had to go to but Dec was given dispensation because he was moving. I wasn’t really paying attention while they were all discussing it, and I fell asleep in the middle of it. It wasn’t going to happen for a week anyway, and Sunday lunch at Jay and Beth’s always filled my belly and slowed me down. I woke up after a short time, and was not pleased to find the conversation hadn’t moved on.
‘Oh, back with us Matty. We were just saying, if you put some boxes in your car, Dec and Amy could hire a smaller van.’
‘Yeah, whaever.’ I noticed the slur instantly, tiny though it was. I tried to play it cool, see if anyone else was looking at me like they’d noticed too, without making it obvious I was looking. I seemed to have got away with it. It was just because I was tired. I was so knackered all the time with work being more than full-on since Jules left, I only felt half awake at any given moment recently. It would hardly be surprising if a word or two got slurred on its way out. I dismissed it, refused to acknowledge its presence.
‘What time are you going to be there?’
‘Come on Matty, keep up, on moving day.’
‘Oh I dohnt bloody knoh.’
Shit, there it was again. Or rather wasn’t. There was no way I was going to allow this to happen. I tried really hard, concentrated on speaking clearly, limiting the amount of words I was saying.
‘There’s ages yet.’
That was better. Three whole words, clear as a bell. I fixed Beth with my best ‘I’m not getting involved in this, ask me again when it’s nearer the time’ look, and kept pretty quiet for the rest of the afternoon. There were a few more times when my words weren’t as clear as I might have liked, I wasn’t sure if anyone else had noticed, but I saw Amy look at me a couple of times. I was fairly safe with Amy, who was a bit intimidated when I was in a ‘don’t mess with me’ mood.
I got home that afternoon and went straight to bed, sleeping right through until I had to get up to go to work. No. This was not happening. I convinced myself I was OK. I tried really hard not to slur my words, and I made it go away. Result. Whatever it was, I’d beaten it with determination. Probably just tiredness, as I’d thought. Or a virus.
The day of the big move came, with all the attendant fuss and bother on the part of Beth. Rose was having Charlie and Iz, I was meeting the van at Dec and Amy’s flat, and Beth was going straight to the new house once Cal was at school.
Of the three of us, Rose undoubtedly had the hardest task, as Iz and Charlie were each a handful on their own, and trouble was never far away when they were together. If anyone could handle them, though, it was Rose, and she was so pleased to be getting her hands on Charlie for a whole day, all to herself, that she might not even notice if Iz screamed the place down from the moment she got there.
I arrived at Dec and Amy’s flat shortly after the van, and took my turn carrying boxes down the two flights of stairs and filling my four wheel drive up with them. I drove the first load to the house, with Amy in the front seat. She was going to unlock the place, then stay behind to unpack and let Beth in.
‘Big day fuh the Suhmers-Wrights, then.’
Fuck, where had that come from? I’d been trying really hard. Amy glanced at me, frowning slightly.
‘Yeah. Exciting though. This last week, I’ve really noticed how cramped we are.’
‘They say babies tahk up more room than grohn ups.’
Shit, I was going to have to stop bloody talking.
‘Tell me about it. Charlie’s already got more clothes than me and Dec put together.’
I daren’t say anything else, and it created an awkward silence as we approached the road where they were going to live.
‘Oh, Beth’s here already. I’ll just go and let her in.’
Amy hopped out of the car, leaving me to open the boot and lift the boxes out. I managed the first two with no difficulty, but when I carried the third one over the threshold my arms gave way, and it fell from my grip to the floor with a crash.
I bent down to pick it up again, noticing that the label on the box said ‘Fragile’.
Beth’s voice floated from the living room, which was Unpacking Central for the day.
‘Yeah. Not sure abouh the crockery.’
Amy appeared in the hall and I looked at her ruefully.
‘Sorry, Amy, I’m a klutz. I’ll pay fuh anything I’ve broken.’
‘Oh don’t be daft, there’s nothing valuable. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Matt … are you alright?’
‘Yeah, I didn’t drop ih on my foot or anything. Noh harm done.’
I chose to deliberately misunderstand her, but she still put her hand on my arm and looked up at me, worried. Fuck. I really hoped she wasn’t going to say anything to Beth, or that would be my peace shattered for the foreseeable, but how could I ask her not to say anything without making a big deal out of it? And how can you make a big deal out of nothing? It was nothing, after all.
‘I’ll go back fuh the rest, then.’
I turned and hurried to the car before she could say anymore.
Later that day, once all their stuff had been moved from one place to the other, unpacked, vaguely sorted, and the beers were out, I could relax. I hadn’t dropped anything else, but I felt weird, a bit wobbly. I convinced myself I was coming down with something, and just needed to take it easy. Trouble was, there was no taking it easy at the moment, I was working way above my hours, I’d had to talk fast to get today off, and there was no sign of a let up in the next couple of weeks, as they still hadn’t filled Jules’s post.
As I was relaxing among the boxes, I was suddenly aware of glances and various people leaving the room (Amy and Beth) and me being on my own with Dec. He didn’t speak for a few minutes, just continued drinking his beer, surveying the packing crates as if he was doing a logistical analysis. Then he took a deep breath.
‘So, are you going to go to your GP, or are you just going to pretend it’s not happening for another week or so, until you can’t ignore it?’
Well, obviously, option two. It was my MO. Denial followed by dogged defence of said denial.
‘Matt. Do us all a favour, and for once in your fucking life don’t make me drag it out of you. You know exactly what I mean, it’s all over your face. Amy said you dropped a box today –’
‘So? Has noh one ehver dropped a fucking box befohr?’
‘Listen to yourself. Anyone would think you’d had half a dozen beers, not half of one.’
I drained my bottle and held it up, defiantly.
‘I’m not saying it’s anything, shit, what the fuck do I know? All I’m saying is, go and see your GP. You’re working too hard, not sleeping, could be any fucking thing, and I hope, I really bloody hope, that it is. Just go and get it checked, yeah? For your peace of mind and ours.’
And so of course I went on the attack, it was the best form of defence, wasn’t it? Who said that? Some genius.
‘Oh, well, as long as you’re all bloody peaceful, that’s alright. Wouldn’t want Beth to lose any sleep worrying about me, or have to disturb your precious bloody infant with a text. Thanks for the beer, Dec, I’ll see myself out.’
I even managed to say that without a single unintelligible bollock, and then I stood up and walked out of the house to my car, half expecting to hear someone come after me, but it seemed like, this time, they were going to leave me to it. From the past, the infuriatingly prescient words of the great philosopher Declan Summers rang in my ears. ‘One day they’ll leave you alone more and more, you’ll have got your wish.’ It nearly stopped me, nearly turned me round to apologise, tell them how scared I was, ask for their help, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t admit to myself what I was scared of, so I drove off in a fury, fuck them, fuck them all.
And nothing stopped, work just got busier, and I was tired, so tired of it all, of the work, of pretending I was feeling OK, of being Matt the Lad, who didn’t exist any more. All I was doing was getting up, working, coming home, sometimes not even eating before going to bed, then getting up to do it all again, trying not to trip, trying not to stumble, trying to see everything clearly, trying not to fall apart. It was like those times in Stafford when Eyeti was so busy, but I was older now, it was harder, I was missing Jules and I was feeling wretched.
Of course, something was bound to happen. When you’re ignoring things that can’t be ignored, it usually takes some kind of event to bring you to your senses. As was becoming the norm, it was Charlie who did it.
Dec and Amy visited unannounced. They caught me off guard when I was expecting a pizza delivery, and I let them in. I hadn’t heard from anyone all week, not since Dec tried to talk to me on the day they moved.
I didn’t know what to make of it – maybe it was a new tactic to try and smoke me out, or tough love, or some such fucktardery. So when my buzzer sounded and it was Dec’s voice saying ‘Let us up you bastard, we’ve got beer and ice-cream and your pizza, and if you ever want to see it again you’ll open your fucking door. Oh, and Charlie really, really needs a change’, I pressed the door opener button.
‘How the fuck did yuh geh my pizza?’
‘Delivery boy believed us when we said we were you. Maybe it was the hefty tip we offered him – you’re going to have to be more generous next time.’
‘Ih’m not sharing, Ih’m bluhdy stahving.’
My speech was getting worse, people were starting to pick up on it at work, and I saw the look Dec gave me when he heard it, but he didn’t comment.
‘Fair enough, we’ve had our tea anyway. Can Ames use your bathroom to change this one?’
Amy disappeared with Charlie and a large bag of vital baby gear. Dec sat on the sofa and looked at me.
‘You know what.’
‘No. You know how this works. We’ve left you alone all week, thinking you might come to your fucking senses on your own, but it seems you need a kick up the arse this time. Just like every other time. You don’t get to be on your own. I know you’re up to your eyeballs at work, you’re fucking knackered, I can see that, but you look, I don’t know, there’s something else, and if I have to fucking well drag you to see your doctor myself I will. I mean it.’
‘Piss ohf. Ih’m a bihg boy now.’
‘Yeah, so grown up you storm out when I try to help you, and go all silent on us.’
I was running out of pithy epithets.
‘No. I’m staying right here until you promise me you’ll go and see someone. It might not be what you think it is. Beth says –’
‘Oh fuck Beth. Yuh’ve all behn talking abouh meh, hahvnt yuh?’
‘Yeah, mate, we have. We’re worried. About what’s going on with you, and how hard you’re working when you’re obviously not well, especially after the shitty time you’ve had recently. You’ve lost fucking tons of weight, not that you had a lot to lose. Look at this place.’
Dec gestured at the flat, which I had been unable to clear up for days, but still looked tidier than his kitchen.
‘You never leave it like this, washing up not done, teabags on the drainer. You’re not yourself. Bottom line, I’m staying right here, on your sofa, until you promise.’
‘Wha am I, threh? OK, I prohmis.’
I held my fingers up in the Scout salute, hoping to shut him the fuck up. I had never been a Scout.
‘Nah, don’t believe you.’
‘Wha? Fuck ohf. Piss ohf. Gona eat my pizza, ih’s gehting cold.’
I opened the box and shovelled half a slice into my mouth, even though I had no appetite.
‘Well at least you’re eating, that’s something.’
I had a mouthful of pizza; I hadn’t suddenly developed an even worse speech defect. Dec continued to sit and look at me, and I found it irritating beyond measure, but also strangely reassuring. Here we were, having our old conversation, the old battle. I knew it was going to be OK in the end, it was just a matter of how long I made him wait. I ate more of the pizza while he sat with his arms folded, watching with the hint of an amused smile on his face.
After a while, Amy came out of the bathroom with Charlie in her arms and a full nappy bag dangling from her finger.
‘Have you got anywhere I can put this, Matt?’
I gestured over to the kitchen. Amy walked towards me with Charlie, who looked at me in a very beguiling way.
‘Can you just grab her while I take it over?’
I couldn’t resist, could I? I wasn’t completely heartless, just annoyed and self-centred. I held my arms up, and as Amy handed her over, to my horror I felt my grip slip. Charlie started to slide out of my useless fingers, and it all seemed to happen in slow motion as she began to fall backwards, then Amy realised what was happening, dropped the nappy bag and lunged forwards to catch Charlie before she hit the floor. I stared, wide-eyed, at Charlie, who was quickly scooped up into Amy’s arms and held tight.
‘Fuck, Amy, fuck, Ih’m soh sohry, my fingers …’
I looked at the offending digits as if they were going to explain to me what the fuck they thought they were playing at.
‘It’s OK, Matt, no harm done. You’re alright, aren’t you, lovely girl?’
She smiled at Charlie, safely nestled in her arms, but her face spoke of that moment of terror when something dreadful nearly happens to your child.
I carried on looking at Charlie, thinking about what had almost happened, what might happen again if I didn’t do something about my misbehaving nerves and muscles. I took a deep breath and glanced at Dec, who looked almost as scared and relieved as Amy. He hadn’t spoken, but was continuing to watch me with even more dogged determination, and didn’t need to say anything.
‘OK. Ih’ll go an seh the doctor. Yuh dohnt hahv tuh sleep on the sofa ahl night. Dohnt leh meh drop yuhr baby again. Fuck, Ih’m sohry, Ih’m soh sohry.’
They both breathed out a sigh of relief and looked at each other. Charlie was squirming in Amy’s arms, looking at me.
‘Do you still want a cuddle with Unca Matty, lovely girl? Go on then.’
Amy sat down beside me and passed Charlie over.
‘It’s OK, Matt, you can’t drop her from there. I think you need a good cuddle, and Charlie’s completely excellent at it.’
I stared at Amy in amazement as I wrapped my arms tightly round Charlie, and looked at Dec for confirmation. He looked equally happy for me to hold their daughter, only minutes after I’d nearly dropped her on the floor.
‘Fuck, yuh guys. Thahks.’
Dec and Amy stayed for a little while, until I showed obvious signs of being wiped out. I promised again that I’d go to the doctor, and that I’d text tomorrow with the time of my appointment. Not that Dec didn’t trust me, of course, but I didn’t have the best track record in doing what I was told, even following salutary lessons in listening to my mate. He agreed in turn not to report back to Beth, for the time being, and that he would leave that to me, as long as I agreed to tell him what was going on.
I flopped into bed almost as soon as they had gone, but found sleep elusive. I finally spiralled down into unconsciousness while trying to convince myself that I was overtired and had a virus, and everybody was just fussing too bloody much as per.
The next morning, just before I set off for work, I had a text from Dec.
‘Have u rung yet?’
‘Just abt 2. Stop nagging.’
‘Nope, not gonna stop. Ring now.’
It didn’t seem like I had much choice, so I called, told them it wasn’t urgent, because, well, it wasn’t like my leg was hanging off or I’d severed an artery or some such shit, I was just tired or had a virus or something. I got an appointment for a few days time, texted Dec, hoping that would stop the fussing. No such luck. Now I had constant reminders from him, at least twice a day, of the date and time of my appointment. It was as if he had nothing better to do than torment me via text message.
I steered clear of them all for the next few days and over the weekend, being so busy at work that I didn’t have time to think about it. Yeah, maybe I was keeping myself intentionally over-occupied. I have no idea what Dec said to keep Beth at bay, but it must have satisfied her because I didn’t hear from her once.
Then it was time for my appointment. I really couldn’t afford the time off work, but I’d managed to make it first thing, so I could go in to work afterwards and put in nearly a full day. I was so sure it was going to be tiredness or a virus. So sure. OK, terrified it wasn’t going to be that, but putting all my eggs in the tiredness and virus basket and not prepared to look at any other baskets, with or without eggs.
I sat in the waiting room, not able to concentrate on any of the magazines, on any of the games on my phone (which I always played despite all the fascist ‘do not use mobile phones’ notices), on anything except the clock, which ticked on towards my appointment time, then a few minutes after it, then well after it, until thirty minutes after my appointment time, my name was called. I was a wreck.
The doctor apologised for the wait, and I nodded but didn’t say anything. She asked what she could do for me, and I sat and looked at her and didn’t know where to start.
‘You haven’t been to see me for quite a while, have you?’
I shook my head. I never went to the doctor, had had little reason to since I registered when I first moved down to the city. I didn’t even know if this was my regular GP.
‘Is there something specific you’re worried about?’
I bit back a sarcastic retort. No, of course not, I just felt like taking time out of my busy schedule to arse about in her office. Instead of saying this, however, I nodded, trying to brace myself to say the words. I couldn’t force them out of my mouth, though. It could change everything.
The doctor looked at her computer screen. It was angled away from me so I couldn’t see what was on it. Probably just as well; ‘Serious Fuck Up’ was never pleasant reading. If it wasn’t there before, it would be after I left.
‘I see here that you have MS.’
‘Forgive me for playing guessing games, but you seem to be having trouble telling me how I can help you. You’ve had no symptoms for several years?’
I nodded again. I was barely holding on, ready to run as fast as my stuttering legs would take me.
‘Have any of the symptoms returned?’
I nodded, found my voice.
‘Buh Ih’m tihred, rehly busy at work, jus brohk up wih my girfriehd, I thihk ih’s strehs.’
She looked at me and nodded, not discounting my theory, but not confirming it either. She seemed relieved that I’d spoken, but would have been unable to miss the mess my mouth was making of words.
‘Maybe you could tell me some of your symptoms?’
‘Wehl, ha, spehking ihnt greht, Ih’m drohping shih … er …’
‘Any changes to your vision?’
Yeah, shit, everything was blurry. I’d been meaning to get my contact lenses checked out. I nodded. The doctor raised an eyebrow to encourage me to continue.
‘How about walking? Any trips, stumbles?’
‘Yeh. Buh Ih’m tihred.’
‘Of course. Tiredness can cause all of these things, but –’
I tried to forestall her. I had one last card left.
‘Couhd ih beh a virus?’
She nodded her head, considering.
‘It could be, but to be perfectly honest, Matt, it sounds to me like you’re having a flare-up of MS.’
It came out as a pathetic whimper. It took me back to that time up in Stafford, when a different doctor told me the same news. I felt as if I’d left my body for a moment, could feel the universe shift around me as I floated, directionless, amongst the black holes and supernovas. Then I came back, and the doctor was still talking, but I didn’t hear a word. It was all over. I’d had a few years when I’d managed to fool myself into thinking I’d defeated it, but it had been there all the time, waiting for its chance. The fucking bastard.
I took my cues from the doctor. She stood up, held her hand out, it was obviously time to go, to stop clogging up her already over-running surgery.
I stumbled outside, and couldn’t remember where I’d parked the car. I couldn’t see it, and couldn’t think, so I just started to walk, as best I could, heading fuck knows where. After a long while, stumbling half-blindly along the streets, getting caught in a heavy rain shower, I recognised where I was; my feet had led me here, of course they had. Here was where I would be OK, here was where I could stop and get sorted. Here was Declan Summers.
I rang the bell. There was a short wait, barely long enough for me to consider walking away, before Dec’s tall frame was outlined in the frosted glass at the front door. He was still wearing his muddy training gear; he must have just got home.
I’d just got back after a tough session, and was looking forward to a hot bath, after all morning on the training ground in the pouring rain. Having a bath again, after all our time in the flat with only a shower, was still a bit of a treat, and I had a really long soak planned, with a special bath-time playlist sorted on my MP3 player. I was so keen I’d come straight home without showering at the club.
Amy and Charlie were out, and I was just heading up the stairs when the doorbell rang. I stopped in mid-stride, extremely reluctant to go back and answer the door to what, at this time of day, was likely to be someone trying to sell me something, but as usual unable to ignore the doorbell. I sighed, turned round and went to the door, where a familiar shape was outlined in the frosted glass. I pulled the door open.
}Cah I come in?
‘Course, is everything OK?’
He stepped over the threshold without answering and stood, wild-eyed and wary, in the hallway, hands shoved in his pockets, not meeting my eyes. He looked like he’d been out in the rain – his hair was wet, and his clothes were damp. I wondered where he’d been.
I was sure he could see ‘everything’ wasn’t ‘OK’. It was unlikely, given his badgering for the past few days, that he’d forgotten I was going to see the doctor today, but he seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I stepped over the threshold without answering and stood in the hallway, hands shoved in my pockets, looking at the floor. My clothes were still damp from the downpour, and I felt dishevelled and unsettled.
No, Dec, my life is falling apart. Help me.
‘Noh, bih early for me.’
‘Really? Since when?’
‘Since I fucking saih so.’
I couldn’t be doing with banter, not now. Don’t fucking tease, me Dec. Help me.
I noticed the slur in his speech, which seemed a bit worse since I last saw him, and remembered that today was his appointment with the doctor.
‘OK then. Come and sit down and tell me what’s bothering you.’
He followed me into the lounge and sat perched on the edge of the sofa, clasping and unclasping his fingers, looking preoccupied and uncomfortable. I decided to let him talk in his own time. If the silence went on too long, I’d have to rethink my strategy. He didn’t speak for a long while, taking lots of deep breaths, seeming several times to be on the point of starting, then stopping himself. I was pretty sure I knew what he was here to say, but I wanted him to tell me without me dragging it out of him. He would give me more information if he didn’t think he had lost something by giving it; however, he was obviously finding it hard to say, and I was about to ask him what was up …
I followed him into the lounge and sat down on the sofa, perching on the edge, not wanting to leave a wet patch from my rain-soaked jeans, still feeling ready to run. I watched myself clasping and unclasping my fingers, as if they didn’t belong to me. Dec didn’t say anything else, just sat and waited. I tried to say it, several times. It was almost as hard as trying to speak in the doctor’s surgery. I had to make myself say it. If I didn’t it was only going to get worse. Worse would be very bad.
Oh come on, Dec. You know as well as I do. Don’t make me fucking say it. But he just looked at me, and I was going to have to.
‘Bastard MS. Ih’s fucking come back. Ih’ve jus been tuh my GP like you saih. She saih ih’s a flare up. I’m fucked.’
And as a few stray thoughts started to filter into my head, I felt like I truly was fucked. It was all ending, back to square one, beyond square one. I had no safety net, no other options, apart from falling all the way to the bottom of the pit in the middle of Fucksville, UK.
‘Shit, Matt, no way, I’m really sorry.’
‘Dohnt need your fucking pity.’
Anger was simmering down there, now.
‘I’m not giving you pity, for fuck’s sake. You know me better than that. What else did she say?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Once she saih ih’s back, I couhnt listen any more. Dihnt hear what she saih. Wha’s fucking poin? S’all over now.’
‘That’s bullshit for a start. What do you think is all over?’
Dec was being particularly stupid today. He must know what I’d been dreading, he’d seen what I was like before, when I lost it all last time, he’d been in the same place at the start.
‘Nohmal life. Back to having my ahrs wiped. No behr, no sex, no fucking say in anything.’
‘Need your arse wiping right now, do you? Happy to oblige.’
How dare he make a joke about it?
I nearly got up and left, but I had nowhere else to go. I needed him.
‘Matt, I know it must be a huge shock, after all this time, but aren’t you being a bit dramatic?’
Oh, so now I was a drama queen.
‘Wha the fuck do you know abou ih?’
‘Absolutely nothing, I freely admit, but I have read some stuff and surely there are lots of different ways this can go, not just the worst possible way. Last time, you had pneumonia and that was what really fucked you up, wasn’t it?’
I was silent for a while. I covered my face with my hands, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, almost sobbing. If Dec had read stuff, he’d done more than I had, for years. I’d read a bit in the beginning, but it scared the shit out of me to find out what could happen, so like everything else to do with this fucking bastard disease, I’d just buried it. Yeah, I knew that things could go several ways, but wasn’t it bound to be the worst way? Wasn’t it?
Matt was silent for a while. He put his hands over his face, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, on the verge of sobs. He spoke through his fingers.
}Ih’s all jus like ih was before. Cahnt talk properly, dropping shit all over the place, tripping over nothing, cahnt see properly.
He looked up at the ceiling, blinking away tears.
This was so hard, to face this, admit it was true, and tell people. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to stop the tears that were filling my eyes from spilling down my face. If I started crying, it was going to be ugly.
‘Fuck ih, Dec, I dohnt think I can go back there. I cahnt fucking do it.’
‘Ih’s not like I have a fucking choice.’
Did he think I could just, like, decide what happened next?
I meant that he didn’t have to go down the route of it being a disaster; that there were other ways of looking at things, but I saw from the look on his face that this was too new, that he could only see the negatives at the moment. To be honest, I would have to do some thinking to come up with positives for him right at this moment, as well.
‘Have you told Beth?’
As I said it, I realised that Matt wouldn’t see that as a positive. The strength and support I got from talking things over with my family felt to Matt like restriction and interference. He looked at me, horrified.
Beth was the furthest person from my thoughts. I would never get any respite from thinking about it all if I said anything to her.
‘Fuck no! Cahnt cope wih all tha fussing and … oh shit … they’ll try to drag me back there to live wohnt they … shit, wha a cocking cluhsterfuck.’
When it happened before, and they came up to Stafford, and got a house especially for me, yeah, I appreciated it, they saved me, it was awesome. But now, going back there, it was like imagining some kind of twisted torture where you have to relive your worst humiliations over and over again.
Jay and I never talked about when he’d had to wipe my arse. It wasn’t even something we joked about. It was there, it had happened, it had been necessary, I was grateful. End of.
I thought of a way to make telling Beth a good thing. Now I just had to convince Matt.
‘Beth knows a lot about this kind of stuff, she can help you keep yourself as well as possible. She could help you. Maybe she can go back to the GP with you so at least someone listens to what you’re being told. There must be stuff you can do to make sure things don’t get any worse.’
I hadn’t thought about Beth actually helping me. Hadn’t been able to think beyond how much she was going to take over. Perhaps if she had a focus for her interference, being like a health coordinator or some such shit, she wouldn’t be so bloody unbearable.
More silence as Matt considered. Although he was frequently irritated with Beth’s need to solve everyone’s problems, this might just be a way to let both of them help each other.
It was as much as he was likely to concede, and he would make up his own mind.
}You wohnt tell them, will you?
I sighed; this was Matt’s mantra.
I knew exactly what he was thinking. I always asked this, ‘don’t tell them I a) got so shit-faced I got on a train to Stafford without any money, or b) needed rescuing when Lauren Miller’s brother was looking for me with a baseball bat, or c) lost my car keys at four in the morning and needed the spare from my flat’. It helped me stay in control of it all. It was hard for him, though, when he was always so open about everything.
‘No, but you should. I don’t like keeping this important shit from them, and neither does Amy.’
I’d thought ‘don’t tell them’ meant everyone.
‘Fuck, dohnt tell Amy.’
‘Maybe I won’t tell her everything, but I don’t keep stuff from her, you know that. You tell me, you run the risk of me telling Amy. Otherwise I end up watching what I say, and it gets bloody close to lying to her. I won’t do that, even for you, mate.’
I’d temporarily forgotten about Dec’s open mouth policy when it came to Amy. They apparently had no secrets, bloody annoying lovey-dovey couple that they were.
Matt was silent, still not meeting my eyes.
‘Have you been back to see Adam?’
Well that was a bit out of left field. He hadn’t ever asked me about him, and all I had was a half-truthful excuse.
‘No, behn too busy.’
The look on his face wound me up, although he was just looking at me and nodding.
‘Fuck off, I hahv.’
I put all the wounded injustice in my voice that I could muster, as I had been insanely busy recently, and even if I had made another appointment to see Adam, I wouldn’t have been able to keep it.
‘I said OK, you’re the one who’s getting all defensive.’
More silence. Matt had never told me about his appointment with Adam, and I had never asked him, and I wondered if he’d even gone in the first place.
I chose not to answer, as Dec seemed to be seeing through everything I said.
‘How many times did you go in the end?’
He really didn’t have the right to ask. He’d helped me make the initial appointment, I’d been, I’d talked, the end.
‘Look, jus piss off, Dec, I dihnt come here to geh the fucking third degree abouh my attendance at personal appoihtmehts.’
‘Why did you come here, then?’
That threw me. I was about to get into a debate about Adam, which was a great distraction technique, but Dec had just taken a turning off the path.
‘Well, you’re just getting pissed off with everything I say, I don’t think you want to talk. What do you need?’
As he said it, I realised it was true. I didn’t want to talk; talking would solve nothing, change nothing. What I wanted was what Dec always offered. ‘You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit.’ I couldn’t ask him, though. That wasn’t how it worked, even now, when I was desperate. I looked at him, willing him to get it, what I wanted, what I needed, even though they’d just moved in here, they had a tiny baby, the last thing they needed was –
Matt finally met my eyes. I’d worked it out. He wanted something but couldn’t ask. I thought about what he’d needed in the past, what had helped him. You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit. Well that was easy to solve.
‘Do you want to stay here for a few days? While you get used to it? No third degree, no fussing, just here if you need us, so you’re not on your own.’
He held my gaze as his chin quivered and tears filled his eyes. He nodded.
Thank fuck for understanding friends like Declan Summers. I stared at him in relief as I felt my chin shaking with the effort of not crying, and the salty bastards filled my eyes in any case. I nodded my thanks, unable to speak without breaking down completely.
‘But I will have to tell Amy. I can ask her not to say anything to Beth and Jay for a bit, but I really think you should tell them before they have to ask us why you’re here.’
I nodded again. Telling Beth and Jay would be child’s play after this. I was sure they already knew most of it anyway, it wasn’t like Beth ever missed a single sodding thing.
‘And you’ll have to help me clear the spare room, it’s full of shit we haven’t sorted from moving.’
It would keep me busy, stop me thinking, and it was welcome, more than welcome. I knew I needed to stay somewhere, be away from my flat, for a while, but if I’d gone to Jay and Beth’s, that would have felt like back to square one, being looked after because of the fucking bastard, and all the shit that entailed the first time. Helping Dec clear out their spare room seemed like a very small price to pay for me to retain that tiny bit of control over it all. Not that I was going to sound grateful about it, a moan would be expected, and I hated to disappoint.
‘Ih bluhdy knew Ih’d end up doing tha.’
‘Want to make a start now?’
‘Ih suppohs so –’
There was the sound of a key in the front door, and Amy’s voice as she came into the hall. I hurriedly wiped my eyes and sat up straighter, trying to look vaguely cheerful for them.
Dec’s face was a picture as he anticipated seeing them both. If I hadn’t been such a fuck-up I would have been jealous of the love I saw there for both of them, something I’d failed to find so far in my fucked up existence.
‘Here we are then Charlie, let’s see if Daddy’s home yet. Daddy? You home?’
‘In here, lovely girl, Unca Matty’s here too.’
‘Ooh Charlie, your favourite uncle’s come for some cuddles.’
I could hear Amy getting Charlie out of her stroller, and taking off coats and hats. Dec stood up as Amy came in carrying Charlie, and he folded them both up in hugs with kisses.
‘Hey babe. Hey lovely girl.’
‘Hey hon. God, you’re completely covered in mud. Good morning?’
‘Bloody wet morning. You?’
‘We managed to keep fairly dry, met Mum in a café in town, had a bit of a walk in the park after the downpour. Hi Matt – oh, did you get caught in the rain too?’
She looked at me, taking in my less than salubrious appearance.
‘Matt’s going to stay for a few days.’
‘Oh, OK, er …’
Amy looked unsure, and I didn’t know if it was because she didn’t want me lying around in her spare room indefinitely, or if there was something else, like me having a perfectly good place to live of my own, or being the careless arse who dropped her children. If Amy objected, I was stuffed.
‘We were just going to make some space in the spare room.’
And then Amy looked relieved, and the look had been because she’d wondered where I was going to sleep.
‘Oh, great! Thanks Matt.’
Amy gave me the slightest frown (‘what’s going on?’) which I replied to with the slightest raising of my eyebrows (‘something big, tell you later’). It didn’t go unnoticed.
She smiled at me, and gave Dec the slightest querying frown which he replied to with the slightest ‘later’ raising of his eyebrows. Guys, I’m right here.
‘Yeah, before your eyeballs fall ouh wih trying to commuhicate non-verbally – Amy, I hope ih’s OK for me to stay, I knoh you’ve only jus moved in. My fucking bastard MS has come bahk and Ih’m noh really dealing …’
‘Oh Matt …’
She looked so sad and sympathetic, she nearly had the tears starting again. I needed to be offhand.
‘Yeh, well, c’est la fucking vie.’
‘Stay as long as you need. I’m glad we’ve got space for you now, or rather will have once you’ve kindly cleared out the spare room.’
I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve friends and family like this. Amy was completely cool with an unexpected visitor just after they’d moved in to their new house with their new baby.
I looked at Amy with love and pride. She was completely unfazed by all this.
)Know what, Charlie? I think Unca Matty needs an extra special cuddle right now, here we go – oh, ew, with any luck, he’ll offer to change your stinky nappy too.
She handed Charlie over, wrinkling her nose and laughing. The stench of baby shit was unavoidable.
‘You know wha, I jus migh. Hello, beauhiful, whoa, yeh, you do stink. Thahks, both of you, you are both fucking awesome.’
I stayed with them for three weeks. I tried going back to work, although not that day because it was all too much. The next day I went in to GreenScreen, but with all the parts of me that were beginning to malfunction, I really wasn’t up to it. Of course I didn’t see that for myself, and it took Amy, when I came back and crashed on their sofa, slept through the evening, past dinner, almost impossible to wake up, to tell me I couldn’t carry on like it. And because she was Amy, and never voiced an opinion, or interfered or nagged like all the rest of them, because she was kind and sweet but had a look on her face I’d never seen before, like she was going to have a real go at arguing with me even though she hated arguing, I had a look at myself, and how hard I was trying to push myself, and I wondered what the point was.
‘Matt … Matt.’
‘Ungh … wha?’
‘It’s nearly ten o’clock. I’m sorry to wake you up, but you’ve missed dinner, and you’ve missed Charlie’s story, and I just think … look, I know this isn’t any of my business, and we said we weren’t going to go on at you, but you completely can’t keep doing this to yourself.’
Amy gave me an assessing look, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get away with my usual slightly aggressive bullshit.
‘What do you remember after you got back from work?’
A telling silence.
‘Yeah, that’s because you’ve been practically unconscious since you got in. I tried to wake you up for dinner, Charlie was screaming the place down earlier, but you hardly opened your eyes. Do you do this every night?’
Another silence while I tried hard not to tell Amy to fuck off.
‘Matt, you can’t go on like this. You need to look after yourself. Dec’s just microwaving your dinner, because you’ve got to eat.’
‘Noh, I’m –’
‘I don’t care if you’re hungry or not. You’re going to eat it, and you’re going to eat your dinner every day, and you need to think about how you’re going to stay awake to eat it, and that might mean not going to work for a while, because work isn’t worth it, if that’s all you’re doing, if you never eat, if you’re either at work or you’re dead to the world. You can’t keep doing it to yourself.’
I was ill, I was just beginning to accept it. If I wasn’t going to crash and burn, I needed to stop. There was no point being here at Dec and Amy’s, trying to get my head round it all, if I was too tired to do anything but sleep. Amy was right, and although I didn’t like it, I eventually saw it and did something about it.
So I called Beth the next day and asked her to come to the see the doctor with me, and I told her on the way why we were going, and I was impressed that she hadn’t asked, that she just did as I requested, and when I told her, she just nodded, didn’t say ‘Oh Matty’ or go all bloody soppy. I told her I was hoping she would do my listening for me, and she did, and she was bloody brilliant. She knew the questions to ask, the things not to say to me, and at the end of the appointment at least one of us was clued up as to what the fuck to do next. It wasn’t me.
While I’m at it, I would like it to be noted for the official Matthew Robert Scott record, that Beth Scott is one fucking incredible woman, my life would be poorer without her in it, and I fucking love her. It is not something I am likely to be repeating to her face, so if someone would make sure she knows, that would be bloody ace.
I was signed off work, for long enough that I wasn’t going to have to worry about what was happening there; by the time I got back, it would have been someone else’s responsibility for a while.
So I sat around on my arse in Dec and Amy’s house, trying to be helpful, cooking the odd dinner, mending odd bits of stuff, doing odd bits of DIY that Dec was never going to get round to in a month of B&Q Sundays, smashing up the odd glass-topped coffee table by way of having a spasm with a hammer, dropping unimportant shit every now and then but not babies as I was always very careful not to hold Charlie anywhere she could fall from a great height, talking the odd bit of unintelligible bollocks, tripping over the odd non-existent obstacle.
The fucking bastard MS enveloped me, sapping my energy, making it difficult to predict how I was going to feel from day to day, but being there with Dec and Amy helped, I couldn’t have done it without them. They were just normal, they didn’t treat me like a fucking cripple, they let me do shit like cooking and cleaning, they talked to me like a normal person, they let me cuddle their baby and be Unca Matty again. I’ve never been one for showing my gratitude, and I don’t think they ever really knew how much of my sanity they saved by just letting me be there, not alone, part of their little family for a few weeks.
Eventually, of course, I had to go home. The bastard MS was taking its time fucking off, but Dec had been right, it had been the pneumonia that had done for me last time, and it was bad this time, bad enough with all the things I couldn’t do and had to sodding well ask for help with, like carrying more than one shopping bag – the amount of times I popped out to the local shop for milk, got sidetracked with other shit, and then couldn’t carry it all home. Well, OK, only twice actually, after that I stopped doing it and stuck to my mental list, but it was embarrassing enough those two times to have to have Dec come and get me like some bloody OAP. So it was bad enough, but because I’d managed to avoid nearly dying of pneumonia, it wasn’t as bad as last time.
And there was the nearly killing someone. I had got in my car and was driving to Jay’s for dinner. Someone started to cross the zebra crossing on the High Street, and just as I approached and was slowing down, my leg spasmed, my foot hit the accelerator and the car jerked forward uncontrollably. The man jumped back, a terrified look on his face, as my car kangarooed past him, and I could see him shaking his fist at me in the rear view mirror, but was too humiliated to stop and check he was OK. I shouldn’t have been driving with the state of my vision anyway, but this finished it for me. I turned round and went home and sat, shaking, in my flat before calling Jay to come and get me, and deciding that was it for driving for the time-being.
Once I left the sanctuary of the Summerses and went home, though, Beth’s instincts, let’s be generous and call them her nurturing instincts, kicked in, and she didn’t give me much peace. It was as if, while I was at Dec and Amy’s she knew I was OK, but once I was on my own she didn’t trust me to look after myself. If she wasn’t texting or calling, she was popping round, having a good snoop, making sure the food in my fridge wasn’t past its sell-by date, making sure I didn’t need one of those grabber sticks to reach the top of the bookcase, making sure I was still breathing.
She had a point, I suppose. I was really low; there was still all the shit with Jules I hadn’t dealt with properly, and the state I was in physically left me mentally broken. I spent a lot of time on my own, ruminating, and I suppose I could have stayed with Dec for longer, but I’ve always needed to do things myself, and they needed to have time to themselves as well without bumping into some fucking cripple at every turn.
Beth asked me directly if I was thinking of doing ‘anything silly’, and didn’t find it amusing when I replied ‘what, like drive a clown car in oversized lime green shoes’.
The truth was, I had considered it, the ‘something silly’. It didn’t feel silly, it felt like a completely rational thing to think about. If this was going to be my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I didn’t want to be obliged to put up with all this shit, all this misery, all this everyone feeling they had a right to know what I was up to every fucking second of every fucking day, all this feeling like I deserved it for the bastard I’d been in the past. There would certainly be a fair few people who would not shed a tear if I shuffled off, and it was hard being me, a lot of the time.
I didn’t like myself very much, didn’t like how my life seemed to have turned out, didn’t like the ever-lengthening list of people I had pissed off or fucked up one way or another. But when it came to it, the practicalities, the realities of doing something irreversible, I wouldn’t, couldn’t do it. I loved everyone too much, knew too well what it would do to any or all of them if I took matters into my own hands. It would have taken a braver, more callous or more unbalanced soul than I to do that. Didn’t stop me thinking about it, though, and wondering …
So, things didn’t noticeably improve for a while. I slept a lot, I stumbled through my life, I put up with texts and calls from everyone all day, ignoring as many as I could, replying facetiously to some. I was signed off work again, for longer. I wondered if I would ever return, or if that was the end at GreenScreen, whether they would want me back, or I would even feel I could face everyone again.
I woke from a jumbled, instantly forgettable dream to the familiar sound of retching – no, that wasn’t right, I hadn’t heard that sound since … I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom, where Amy was bent over the toilet.
‘Ames? Are you feeling OK?’
She looked up at me, an unreadable expression on her face.
)I think you might need to get used to this again.
‘What? You’re not – how can that happen so soon?’
)I’m so sorry hon, I didn’t think it could either. I haven’t done a test yet, but I’m pretty sure.
A brief pause for more retching. I knelt next to her and lifted her hair away from her face, rubbing her back and kissing her shoulders, the familiar moves, a growing sense of excitement.
‘You’re just fucking amazing. I love you so much. This is awesome.’
She looked at me, exhausted, dark circles under her eyes. She was beautiful.
‘Why not? Like two for the price of one, instant enormous family, works for me.’
She stood up, washed her face and ran the toothbrush over her teeth. For once, I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face.
‘Are you OK about it?’
)Oh Dec, yes, I’m really happy, I’m glad you are too. It’s just a bit of a shock, it’s taken me completely by surprise, and I’m so tired, the thought of doing it all again, now we’ve got Charlie, it’s a bit overwhelming. Hold me?
I pulled her into my arms, where she had a bit of a weep.
‘We can do it, babe, you and me together. We’ll be awesome.’
I kissed the top of her head, stroked her hair and held her close. After a while she stopped sniffing and looked up at me.
)Shouldn’t you be calling Jay and waking them all up about now? It’s gone three thirty.
‘Ha ha, do you want me to?’
)I don’t think it would be appreciated. It feels different this time, doesn’t it? Less thrilling, maybe.
‘I’m just as thrilled, babe. Maybe a bit more aware of how bloody grumpy Jay gets when you ring him in the middle of the night. It’s just that we’ve done it before, know what to expect, it’s not all new. I might text Matt, just to keep him on his toes.’
)He probably needs his sleep more than Jay at the moment.
‘He’ll live. Come on, let’s go back to bed, I can text him from there.’
Not long after I went back to my flat following my stay at Dec and Amy’s, there was a text in the middle of the night. Fuck knows how it managed to wake me up, but there it was. Summers has always been an inconsiderate bastard with his breaking news.
‘This is yr early morning yr going 2b an uncle call.‘
Oh, I really did not need some kind of possibly pissed pissing about. I needed to be asleep, surely he knew that?
‘Wot? Already am. Didn’t need a fucking 4am reminder, thx.‘
‘Should have said ‘again’.‘
This took me a while to work out, dragging my consciousness out of the depths of ‘un’ as I just had. Then I got it. Oh holy shitbabies, they were having another one. Charlie was how old? A few months? Jesus. Talk about rubbing it in. But I couldn’t be bitter and jealous, I could only really feel happy for them, and maybe wonder how they were going to manage two such young kids. Oh the irony, future me.
‘Wot? Really? Fuck me. Fast workers. Awesome. Xx‘
Nico: =say hi to Bastien Tiago -pic-
Dec: =Hi Bastien. Charlie says come round 2 play. Amy says ‘Aww cute’. He is awesome :)) Lis OK?
Nico: =Lis is wonderful, you come today?
Dec: =Yeah! This afternoon.
So that was some good news from Summers in the middle of all the shittiness, and for a short time it diverted attention away from me, for which I was grateful. And not long after that, Nico and Lis had baby Bastien, and all was joy and happiness once again, and I smiled and cuddled him and said how cute he was, weren’t his little fingers and toes just so tiny, and they were, and he was lovely, but it just wasn’t sodding well fair that every other bugger in the world had kids, even people who didn’t want them, and I couldn’t. Even if I’d had someone to have kids with, it is doubtful I would have been capable of fathering one at that time. So I sucked it up, professed my (genuine) happiness to the new parents, and sat on my misery.
Beth took her role as Matty’s Health Coordinator very seriously, and despite having another mini-Dec to think about, was always trying to get me to sign up with the city’s bastard MS service, or go to this or that local event, or tell me about this book or that You Tube video she knew about. I usually told her to butt out, refused to take any details of anything that was going on, blanked it all.
I didn’t want to be part of a whole group of other fucking cripples; I’d done that when I first moved down. Part of me was a bit scared of who I might bump into, more people I’d pissed off or fucked up; another part of me was scared of who might not be around anymore and what that might predict for my future, but most of me was scared of admitting that I had this big fucking thing, that other people had it who might be worse than me, and I might end up like them.
So Beth kept trying, she never gave up despite my apparent lack of interest, my seeming apathy and my actual rudeness when she gave me information. And one day, she was going on so much about some How to Have The Bastard MS day or some such bollocks, I’d really had enough, I couldn’t take any more nagging.
‘How about if I drive you there? You wouldn’t have to worry about the buses then.’
‘I dohnt wohry abou fucking buses.’
‘You know what I mean, Matty. You’re always saying how much you hate the buses. How about I pick you up, about ten?’
‘Ih’s a bih early fuh meh.’
‘Get a good night’s sleep then, go to bed extra early. Is ten o’clock really that early, just once?’
I stayed silent, not wanting to commit myself.
‘How about it, Matty?’
Beth was sensing hesitation on my part, and was moving in for the kill.
‘Ih’ll beh a bunch of do-gooders sat in a cihrcle on plahstic chairs sharing wih the group.’
‘I’m sure it won’t. These Living with MS days are supposed to be very good. But if you like, you can just pop your head round the door for a quick look, and if there are any scary people sitting on any terrifying plastic chairs, you can leave, I’ll take you home, and we’ll never mention the subject again.’
I ignored Beth’s amateur attempt at sarcasm.
‘Rehly? If I goh, I can look roun the dohr and go home?’
‘If you don’t like what you see.’
‘An yuh’ll shut the fuck uhp abou ih?’
‘If you’ve checked it out properly and you don’t like the look of it.’
Beth was starting to realise what an out she’d given me in her eagerness to persuade me. I was a clever bastard, wasn’t I?
And that’s how I ended up at the church hall that day. I nearly chickened out, nearly didn’t let Beth get me in the car, nearly didn’t get out of the car when we got there, nearly didn’t open the door to the hall, but the thought of being able to hold Beth to the never mentioning it again was too good to miss, and after all, I was only going to put my head round the door and then go home.
So I got in the car, Beth drove me to the church hall, I got out of the car, I took a step inside the door, and –