Weeks, months and then years began to pass. We were settled together, and I never stopped loving being part of my family – both the life I had with Matt and the children, and the wider family I was part of. Dec and Amy still lived down the road, Dec having resisted all offers from other clubs to sign for them. They had four children now. Gracie was born six months after their wedding and they added Rosa a couple of years later. They’d had to extend their house and put a bedroom in the loft.
I’m getting desperate now, as I’m trying to avoid the next big item on the Matt Scott timeline, so I am going to chuck everything I can think of at you in an attempt to forestall it. Just snippets of things, maybe little conversations I remember, snatches of events, good times, bad times, it’s all coming your way, in a great big jumble. Pay attention, now.
Jay took over as Raiders’ head coach when Dom Barker was offered a job in the England set-up, and his future looked set. Nico had retired from playing and he, Lis and Basty moved back to Argentina where he took up a coaching position with the Argentina national side. He still had connections with Raiders, and visited England often to run training camps for the youth team, and when Argentina visited the UK for the autumn internationals.
‘Matt, I can’t possibly walk all the way up there carrying Josh.’
Lau was looking in consternation at the summit of the hill, all of a mile away, up a fairly gentle incline.
‘You won’t be carrying him, you’ll be wearing him, in the baby harness. He’ll love it. Have Ella, then, she doesn’t weigh as much.’
I was desperate to get out walking, because a) I’d really missed a bloody good hike, b) I was feeling so much better, I wanted to stretch my legs and stretch myself and see how far I could go, and c) I really wanted the babies to appreciate getting out for a bloody good hike from an early age.
‘I don’t think a pound or two is going to make much difference. Seriously, Matt, I know I won’t make it.’
Lau was looking determined. She really didn’t do a lot of physical exercise, rushing around looking after two small people all day notwithstanding, and walking up Devon’s finest hills was not something that floated her boat.
I sighed, realising fairly early on that I wasn’t going to persuade her, and it was best to cash in my chips while I still had some left. Then I had a relatively crazy idea.
‘OK, then, I’ll take them both.’
‘What? You can’t, the … it … you can’t carry them both.’
‘Not both at once, you daft bat, I’m not a complete lunatic. One at a time. You can sit here on the bench and natter to the other one.’
I really, really wanted to go up the hill. And maybe I’d enjoy it enough that I’d want to do it again straight afterwards. Lau looked at me like I actually was a complete lunatic.
‘You’re mad Matt Scott.’
‘Yeah, mad about you. Alright, then, which one of you lucky babies is coming up the hill with your old dad first?’
ɸ … like to reflect on how far you’ve come. When you first came to see me, you had difficulty recognising when you needed help. Now I’m asking you to recognise when you don’t need it. Declan, our last few sessions have really been a social catch up. Now, much as I enjoy hearing about your life, your rugby, your family and everything else that’s going on with you, I’m no longer providing any therapy. I can’t in all conscience continue to take your money. I think this should be our last session.
‘Fucking hell, Adam, are you breaking up with me?’
ɸIs that what it feels like?
‘Ha ha, very therapisty of you. Yeah, I suppose it does a bit. You really want to stop?’
ɸOK then, let me be a bit more ‘therapisty’. What do you feel you still need to work on with me?
‘… Well, I guess, there’s always a lot going on, it’s about coping with it all.
ɸHow do you cope at the moment?
‘I come and talk to you.’
ɸYou see me two or three times a year and tell me how great your life is. In-between, what do you do?
‘Well, I talk to Amy. Or Matt. Or Rose. Or Beth. Or Jay. Depends what it is, who’s around.’
ɸDeclan, you have an incredibly comprehensive support network. I can’t compete with it. You have developed robust coping strategies. You don’t need me. In fact, I think it would be detrimental for you to continue these sessions.
A long pause.
ɸWhat are you thinking?
‘I’m thinking you’re bloody right, you bastard.’
ɸAnd what are you feeling?
‘Kind of sad. Kind of scared. But kind of … free.’
‘… I don’t know, mate, women, they’re just unfathomable. Maybe it’s something to pick over with Adam next time you’re booked in. Another beer?’
Dec and I were having a boys night, in the guise of a baby sleepover. Tom and Charlie were both ensconced in our spare room, while Lau and Amy went on a hen night for one of the Raiders player’s wives. Dec had just been bemoaning getting told off for doing something he’d previously been told off for not doing, and I was sharing my relationship wisdom, which, as you can see, was vast.
‘Yeah, cheers. Actually … last time I saw Adam, he said I didn’t need to go back.’
‘Whoa! When was this? Bloody hell, Dec, you’ve been seeing him for, like, five hundred years.’
Dec nodded. ‘Yeah, I know. I asked if he was breaking up with me, and he said ‘is that what it feels like?’, the bastard.’
‘Ha ha, yeah that sounds like Adam.’
Oh shit. I’d never told anyone except Lau that I saw the same counsellor as Dec, on a semi-regular basis. Maybe Dec would think I meant that it sounded like the version of Adam that Dec portrayed …
‘Er, how would you know?’
… or maybe he’d jump straight to the truth.
I sighed. Dec knew nearly everything there was to know about me, I suppose this wouldn’t really matter, but there was a slight chance I could evade him with some of the truth.
‘I saw him once, after Jules.’
Dec narrowed his eyes, not about to let me get away with that.
‘Once. After Julia. Yeah, and …’
He raised his eyebrows, inviting me to elucidate further, or he would have if he’d known what elucidate meant.
‘Oh alright, I saw him once, after Jules, you know that, you practically tied me up and dragged me there. Then I didn’t go again. Then, when I met Lau, there was … shit that went on, and I realised I needed to talk to someone, try to unfuck my head.’
‘It’s not important.’
Dec looked at me for a long time, trying to decide if this was true. There wasn’t a lot of shit that had gone on with me that Dec didn’t know about, but since Lau I hadn’t needed to trouble him so frequently. Maybe he felt left out. Even so, I wasn’t about to start spilling the potential shit that could have gone on that night when Lau drove across the city in the wee small hours to save me from myself
‘So is your head unfucked now?’
I snorted. ‘Dec, my head is so far from being unfucked it’s practically on its back in the local knocking shop, but it did the trick at the time and it continues to do the trick at regular intervals.’
‘Shit, Matt. I had no idea. You are bloody good at keeping secrets.’
He looked both awestruck, and a bit hurt.
‘I know. Maybe I should have said something, but …’
‘Yeah, it’s just for you. I get it. Sometimes I wished there were a few people in the world who didn’t know I was having therapy.’
He bloody understood, like he always did.
‘Only Lau knows. Well, and Adam, obviously.’
‘Don’t worry, mate, I won’t say anything. Beth won’t find out from me.’
‘Ha ha, you cut right to the chase, don’t you.’
‘To be honest, I had missed your little late night text messages, your code for ‘call me I need to talk’. I thought it was because of Lau.’
‘Well, a lot of it is. I can talk to her about nearly everything. But I suppose there are some things that fuck with your head that you just can’t say to your wife without it fucking with her head as well, by which I mean past relationships, and Adam is bloody good. Hey, if you miss me that much, I can always set my phone to text you in the middle of the night. Don’t call me though, you’ll wake up Lau and the kids.’
‘Ha ha, you’ve changed Matt. I’m not sure I like this sorted, responsible you.’
‘How dare you. The last person to call me responsible got a wedgie and a Chinese burn.’
Chrissie. Chrissie Coulson. New girl. Sat next to me in English on her first day, and we just hit it off. I mean, I wasn’t great at girls. I never knew what to say, but somehow we just clicked. She had come from London, saw my Arsenal pencil case, and told me she used to live really close to the Emirates Stadium, and had a season ticket last year. Well you just can’t go wrong with a girl who likes your team, can you? And she smiled like a rock star, with a wide mouth full of straight white teeth. Right from the start, Chrissie’s smile made me feel shiny inside. After that we discovered common ground in music, films and TV, and life got pretty bright.
I suppose Baggo took a bit of a back seat, because Chrissie and I spent loads of time together. As friends. Just friends. I mean, Baggo was with us some of the time as well, because we were just friends. He and Chrissie seemed to like each other well enough, we’d do stuff (by which I mean hang around the shopping centre) together, sometimes we’d all get together with some of Chrissie’s friends (hang around the chip shop), but quite often we’d hang out at her place, where we were allowed to watch TV in the playroom without her parents being there. Sometimes, her little brother wasn’t even in the room. But we were just friends, so it was all fine.
It was Dec who first called me on it. Yeah like old man Declan Summers knew anything about girls (was how I saw it at the time), but everyone was round at ours for Sunday lunch, Dec was avoiding peeling potatoes by being thrashed by me at BattleStations, and he just decided to stick his oar in.
‘So, Cal. Chrissie seems nice, mate.’
‘What’s the deal?’
‘There’s no deal. She’s a mate.’
We went back to playing for a bit.
‘What sort of mate?’
‘Eh? A mate mate. Like a friend.’
‘Uh huh. So not, like, a mate you might, I don’t know, kiss and stuff?’
We were having this conversation without looking at each other, because it’s easier not to look when you’re talking about this kind of shit. Of course, it’s easier not to talk about it at all, but with my family that is hardly ever allowed to happen.
‘What? Piss off.’
I got away with swearing in front of Dec, because he did it so much he couldn’t say anything to me.
‘So, if Chrissie were to, say, want to hold your hand, or slow dance, or something, you’d – what – say don’t be stupid, we’re mates? If she tried to kiss you, you’d push her away?’
Suddenly, Chrissie holding my hand or trying to kiss me was all I could think of, and it made me go bright red. I concentrated on hitting the buttons on the controller and blowing up the enemy.
‘All I’m saying, mate, is I’ve been there. I don’t know if you remember when Amy and me got together?’
He left a gap for me to answer but I just shrugged. The truth was I could remember a time before Amy was Dec’s girlfriend, and I could obviously remember her being his girlfriend because she still was, or rather was his wife. But I was a bit hazy on the details of how it had happened. Didn’t think I was ever going to have to answer a quiz on it.
‘Well, I wasn’t that much older than you, I suppose, not when I first met her, and we were friends for ages, she was going out with someone else to start with, then she wasn’t – oh fuck, sorry mate.’
Dec had stopped focussing on the game, and had just let us both get shot by a sniper. It didn’t stop him from talking, though.
‘Anyway, once she stopped going out with Dav, that should have been my chance, but I was too scared of blowing what we had, which was pretty awesome. It was bloody months before we both told each other how we felt, and we both wished we’d done it loads sooner, all that time we wasted. But just think, you could have what you’ve got with Chrissie, great mates and everything, and you could be kissing her. All I’m saying is, don’t miss your chance to have something amazing. Mates is great, I know that, but –’
‘OK, I get it, stop going on.’
‘No worries. Sorry, Cal. I just had to say something.’
‘OK. Just watch what you’re doing here, I don’t want to get shot again.’
And although I was short with Dec, I thought about what he’d said, although obviously later, after we’d finished exploding things. It was only him and Matty who would talk about girls with me. Mum always told me I was too young, Dad got embarrassed and changed the subject, and I was grateful to Dec for bringing the subject up. The truth was, I was scared of what I felt for Chrissie, and didn’t know if she felt the same. I wanted to still see her every day, and if I made a move I might mess all that up, the easy way we were together. But increasingly, if I didn’t do something soon, I was going to start feeling awkward with her anyway.
For a while I remained torn between keeping things the same and feeling increasingly that I wanted more, and trying for more with the risk of ruining everything.
Inevitably, it was a bit of Baggo recklessness that ignited the spark.
The three of us had been out to see a film. It was Chrissie’s birthday, and we went to Pizza Express for something to eat afterwards, where I was going to give her the present I’d bought her.
We ordered, and sipped our Cokes as we waited for the pizzas to arrive, and that was the ideal time to give her the gift I’d had in my pocket all evening.
‘Happy Birthday Chrissie.’
‘Oh wow, Cal. Thanks. Can I open it now?’
‘Unless you want to play table tennis with it.’
That was Baggo’s cue for some arsing about.
‘Great plan. It’s just the right size.’
He took the small parcel from Chrissie and used his hand as a bat to bounce it across the table. I tried to grab it back, but Baggo was quicker, and he snatched it away before Chrissie or I could. He held it up to his ear, shook it, prodded it, pretended to peel the sellotape off a bit, then started really peeling the sellotape off. It was a step too far.
‘Just stop pissing about Baggo, and give it back to Chrissie.’
Something in my tone must have sunk in, because he did as he was told for once, and Chrissie opened the parcel. It was a ring box, but no, not what you’re thinking, because we were only fourteen for Christ’s sake. I’d got her a friendship ring, one of those things with clasped hands and a crown thing on the top, I think it’s Irish or something. It was gold, and I’d saved up for ages to be able to afford it.
So Chrissie opened the box, and her face told me I’d got it just right. I was pretty confident I had, because she’d talked about a friend of hers who had something similar, which she thought was cute.
‘Oh Cal, it’s beautiful. I love it. Thank you so much.’
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Baggo watched, but didn’t say anything. In hindsight, he felt left out of our friendship, even though I still hung out with him. Chrissie and I just had so much in common, though, had so many in-jokes about things Baggo wasn’t interested in. We didn’t do it on purpose, and we didn’t want to exclude him, but we were young, and maybe it just kind of happened that way.
So later, after the pizza, we were walking to the bus stop, when Baggo asked to look at the ring. Chrissie held her hand out so he could see.
‘Can I try it on?’
‘It won’t fit your bloody sausage fingers, Bags.’
‘It might fit my pinky. Come on, Chrissie, give us a go. Cal’s never bought me a friendship ring. I want to show him what it would look like so he can put it on my Christmas list.’
Rolling her eyes, Chrissie took the ring off and handed it over. Baggo squeezed the ring onto his little finger and held it out for us to admire.
‘Yeah you’re a babe, Bags, let’s get you to the nearest nail bar. Give it back now.’
‘I like it. Can I wear it till the bus comes?’
‘No, give it back now. You’re bending it.’
‘No I’m not.’
‘Please can I have it back, Jake?’
He started to pull the ring off his finger, but it wouldn’t go past his knuckle. Who would have predicted it would get stuck?
‘Shit, I can’t get it off.’
‘I can’t, it bloody hurts. I need some butter.’
‘Yeah, it makes it all slippery then it’ll come off.’
‘Haven’t got any butter on me, Bags. Have you?’
‘I’ve got some hand cream.’
‘Oh, yeah, same diff, that should do it.’
Chrissie fished out the lotion from her bag and Baggo smeared it around the ring. I was getting more wound up by the minute, as it felt like he was ruining my birthday present, first by pushing it onto his fat clammy fingers, and then by smearing oily shit all over it.
‘Give it a try now, Baggo.’
He pulled at the ring; I could see the effort in his face. At first I didn’t think it was going to shift, and was imagining him going to school with it on Monday, and telling everyone I’d bought him a ring. I wouldn’t have put it past him. Then, with one last effort, he pulled really hard on his finger, and the ring came free – then sailed through the air, and bounced on the pavement twice, before rolling off the curb. As if in slow motion as we all watched, it fell onto a drain cover before rolling through the bars and into the dark drain.
‘Baggo, you moron. I knew something like this would happen.’
‘Sorry, sorry. We can get it back, all we need is –’
‘Just piss off. Your bus is coming, look.’
‘But we need to –’
‘Get on the bus. Piss off.’
I was really, really narked. Not just because it was an expensive ring, but because he’d ruined it all. Chrissie had had my ring on her finger for a maximum of an hour, and now it was down a drain. I didn’t want to be anywhere near Baggo right then.
As the bus approached, Baggo waited indecisively, but must have seen something in my face that told him he’d be better off scarpering. He got on the bus, and I turned away, towards the problem of rescuing the ring.
First, I needed to see exactly what I was dealing with. I got my phone out, turned the torch on, and shone it down the drain. I had no idea what was in drains. Was it water? Was it stuff from toilets? I had no clue. Now, having had the full lecture from Mum, I know that drains are to drain excess water, dur, hence the name, and so the fact that I could see the ring shining on top of some manky looking black sludgy stuff was very lucky, as if it had been raining, the ring would have been washed away. But then, I didn’t know that the sludgy stuff was mostly leaves, with maybe a hint of dog piss, but not the full sewage horror I was imagining.
Chrissie was hovering behind me, trying to see what I could see.
‘Is it there?’
‘Yeah, but it’s quite far down. I don’t know if I can reach. I’ll have to get this cover off.’
The drain cover looked pretty grimed in, but I gave it a tug and scraped some of the dirt off with my fingers. It began to loosen, and Chrissie joined in as I pulled the grating as hard as I could. It suddenly came free with a sucking noise, and I fell over backwards with the force.
‘Chrissie, can you look out for cars? I don’t really want anyone running over my head while I’m doing this.’
Chrissie looked worried, but nodded. I lay down on the pavement and dropped my arm down into the drain, stretching my fingers as far as they would go, but I couldn’t reach the bottom. I was going to need something to extend my fingers. I shone the torch down onto my hand, and it was frustratingly close, it would only need a centimetre or two more.
‘I need a hook or something.’
We both looked around us, but there were no handy hook-selling shops in visual range. Chrissie rummaged in her bag, and found a pen and a hair tie, but we couldn’t think of a way to use them. Then Chrissie gasped.
She pulled her t-shirt up and to my astonishment started fiddling with her bra. It was white with pink flowers on it. Focus Cal. Not on that. Before long, all became clear, sadly. Chrissie had removed a bit of wire about ten centimetres long from somewhere in the bra. Bras had wire in them? Jesus.
I decided to play it cool, as if I had expected one of us to be able to dismantle our underwear to solve an inconvenient difficulty, and held my hand out for the wire. I made a hook at one end and bent the other end round my forefinger, then gave Chrissie my phone so she could shine the light down the hole.
The first attempt saw me pick the ring up, only to have it fall off as I tried to snatch it up too fast because a car was coming. It was further away now, so I had to adjust the wire and the hook and lie with my face practically down the drain. Not much light could get in from the torch, and I was working almost blind. I managed to get the ring on the hook again, but I had had to sacrifice some of the wire holding it onto my finger, and to my immense frustration, I felt the whole thing slip off just as I got the hook under the ring. That meant Chrissie had to find some more wire, which meant another glimpse of her bra, but no more chances. This wire had to stay on my finger. I thought about the hair tie.
‘I think we should tie this to my finger so it doesn’t drop off again. Can we use your hair thing?’
We stood, close together, while Chrissie tied the hook to my finger. I was very conscious of her breath ruffling over my hands, and wisps of hair being blown into my face, but I forced myself to concentrate on the job in hand – oh, ha ha. I wish I’d meant to put that.
With the hook secured as tightly as possible, I went in for another fishing session. I really didn’t want to drop the ring again, or push it further away, because I stood no chance of getting it then. Slowly, so slowly, I slipped the hook under the ring, being careful not to dislodge it. When the hook was in place, as perfectly as I could judge it, I started to pull back, agonisingly slowly, but having learned my lessons from rushing the previous two attempts. The gold ring dangled from the makeshift hook, glimmering in the light from my phone. I inched myself back from the edge of the drain, holding my breath and trying not to jog my arm, until, with an exhalation of relief, the hook and the ring were over the side of the drain, and on the ground.
Chrissie scooped up the ring in a tissue, cleaned it and put it back on her finger, and we sat and looked at each other. She held her hand out to me so I could see the ring.
‘There. Back where it belongs.’
I took her hand, to hold it still, and with a jolt realised it was the first time I’d ever touched her hand. Actually, the first time I’d ever intentionally touched her at all. It made me go all prickly, and I didn’t know where to look. Then I realised my hands were all shitty from the inside of the drain, and I dropped her fingers.
Chrissie took hold of my hand again and I looked at her. Her eyes were sparkling, as much as I could see of them in the orange light from the street lamps, and her mouth was making half smiling shapes, as if she was happy but unsure how to show it.
‘But I’m minging.’
We looked at each other for the longest time, and then Chrissie moved her head towards me very slightly, and it was all the encouragement I needed. I closed the distance between us, and our lips touched.
Now, I won’t say I’d never kissed a girl before, because that would be a downright lie. There had been girls, in the spirit of being a boy, and it being the done thing to have a bit of a snog here and there, just to see how it felt and all that, but there had been nothing serious, just a bit kind of experimental, a bit kind of mushy, a bit kind of wondering what all the fuss was about.
But the moment my lips touched Chrissie’s mouth, my whole being exploded. It was like the spark that set the haystack on fire, it whooshed right through me and lit me up. I couldn’t get enough of her, I delved into her mouth, suddenly realising what my lips and my tongue were made for, and feeling her come to the same conclusion, as her tongue probed me too. She wrapped her arms round my waist, and I put my arms round her, somewhat awkwardly, as I didn’t want to get drain-crap on her top. We fitted together just right. We came up for air and sat looking at each other, by the side of the road, almost in a state of shock.
‘So, er, that was cool.’
‘So, er, we’re, are we, er …’
‘Yeah. We are.’
And that was the beginning of Chrissie and Cal. In some ways, nothing really changed with us, because we already hung out together all the time. But, oh yeah, everything changed. We were hyper-aware of each other, all the time. The slightest brush of her arm against mine set off a chain reaction that would end in a snog-fest. To start with it was just kissing, and the odd feeling up of bits and pieces, but we were teenagers, and hormones were rampaging, and eventually the inevitable happened. I won’t go into details, come on people, there might be kids reading this, what kind of an example would I be setting? But we were careful, we used a condom, and I can almost hear Mum squawking, but yes, we were both underage. Chrissie was my first, and I was hers, and it meant a lot. At the time, and later. So that made it all much, much harder.
It lasted a blissful year, and then she broke my heart.
Chrissie’s ringtone sounded on my phone early one Saturday morning, waking me up. I groaned. Chrissie was always up and about way earlier than me, and she liked to get going and doing things, rather than lazing about, but even so, seven on a Saturday morning was pushing it.
‘It’s seven o’clock.’
I knew it was stating the bleeding obvious, but I was tired and grumpy. Usually Chrissie would bounce back with a ‘come on, it’s sunny, let’s go to the beach’ or something, but for a second or two I didn’t hear anything. Then I heard a sniff, and a half word, and then there was crying.
‘Shit, babe. Chrissie, what is it, where are you?’
I’d jumped out of bed and pulled my jeans on with one hand, and was rummaging around for a cleanish t-shirt when she finally spoke.
‘Can you meet me?’
‘I’m on my way. Are you hurt?’
‘No. I just need to see you.’
‘Tell me what’s wrong.’
‘When I see you.’
I pulled on yesterday’s t-shirt and ran out of the house, sprinting all the way to the park. Chrissie was sitting on a swing, facing away from me, her shoulders hunched. I ran over to her, relieved that she didn’t appear to be injured or dead, but worried about what I was going to find when I could actually see her face.
When I say she didn’t appear to be injured, that was before I saw the wounded expression in her eyes. As I ran into her field of vision, she looked up, and there was some kind of pain there that I could almost feel. I pulled her up from the swing and hugged her close.
‘What? What is it?’
‘Dad’s got a job in Carlisle. We’re moving away. In two weeks.’
It was as if I’d been shot through the heart.
‘No. What? No.’
‘They’ve known for weeks. For weeks. And they only just told me, this morning. Over breakfast, like it’s something interesting in the paper.’
‘Fuck. You can’t go, Chrissie. Stay here. Stay with us. You can’t go.’
Chrissie shook her head.
‘I tried all that. I’ve got to go.’
‘But … you can’t.’
‘I haven’t got any choice.’
‘They can’t make you.’
‘Aren’t you even going to fight it?’
‘What do you think I was doing before I called you? I’ve spent the last, like, hour screaming and yelling at them. If you want to have a go, be my guest, good luck. This always happens. My bloody dad’s bloody job, this is the longest we’ve stayed anywhere, and I thought we might, like, stay this time, and now I’ve got you and … it’s NOT FAIR!’
Chrissie broke down, sobbing, in my arms. I didn’t know what to do. I was as upset as she was, felt as powerless as she did, but I just held her while she cried, trying hard not to cry myself. Chrissie was my world. We did everything together. How could her parents just move away like it was nothing, like their daughter didn’t matter, like we didn’t matter?
‘We’ll think of something.’
‘There isn’t anything, Cal. We’re going and that’s that.’
‘Come back to mine. Mum will think of something. She always thinks of something.’
Chrissie looked up at me, dubiously but hopefully.
‘Yeah. Come on. We might even get a bacon roll.’
Chrissie half laughed and cuffed my arm.
‘Do you ever stop thinking about having a feed?’
When we got back home, Mum was predictably in the middle of making breakfast.
‘Cal – have you been out already? Hi Chrissie.’
‘Yeah, early morning walk.’
‘Really, sweetheart? It’s only eight o’clock – oh Chrissie, whatever’s the matter?’
It never took Mum long to cotton on to how someone was feeling.
‘Her dad’s got a new job and they’re making her move away.’
Mum’s eyes widened and she turned away from the cooker, turning the gas off from under the frying pan.
‘Oh. Oh you poor things. Sit down, I’ll make you a bacon roll.’
I looked at Chrissie and saw the ghost of a smile as my prediction came true, but it was swiftly replaced by the misery she was full of.
‘Thing is, Mum, we were wondering what we can do about it.’
‘How do you mean, sweetheart?’
‘Well, Chrissie could stay here, couldn’t she?’
If the suggestion came from Mum, surely Chrissie’s parents would see reason. Then Chrissie wouldn’t have to change schools in the middle of GCSEs or anything, it made perfect sense. Mum was frowning, though. Frowns weren’t a good sign.
‘Oh Cal. Where would we put her? Sorry, Chrissie, but we haven’t got any room, and I’m sure your parents want you to be with them.’
I wasn’t about to be fobbed off. There were other options.
‘She can have my bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa. Or in the conservatory.’
‘You can’t do that long term, sweetheart. And I don’t think Heather and Vince would be that happy about the two of you living in the same house.’
‘What about Matty and Lau, then? They’ve got a spare room.’
‘Cal, you can’t ask them to take on a teenager they hardly know. The twins are hard work.’
‘They do know Chrissie, they met her when – .’
‘No Cal. Sweetheart, I know this is hard, and you haven’t had much time to get used to it, but –’
I couldn’t believe it. Mum wasn’t going to help us. For the first time I could remember, Mum wasn’t going to try to fix things. Why did she choose now not to interfere in something? I looked at Chrissie, and saw the hopelessness on her face.
‘Thanks for nothing, then. Maybe I’ll just move to Carlisle with Chrissie.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Cal.’
‘I’m not the one being fucking ridiculous.’
Mum sucked a sharp breath in as I swore. I tried really hard not to at home, I knew Mum hated it, but I was angry, hurt and out of my mind with not knowing what to do. I thought she’d help us, I’d told Chrissie she’d help us, practically promised it, and now she’d made me look like an idiot, and I also didn’t know how I was going to stop this thing from happening.
‘Fuck you, then. We’ll sort something out. Come on, Chrissie, we’re obviously not going to get anywhere here.’
I took Chrissie’s hand and pulled her with me towards the front door. Dad was just coming downstairs, rubbing his head and yawning.
‘What’s all the yelling about?’
‘Go to hell.’
I opened the front door, dragged Chrissie through it and slammed it behind us. I nearly cried, but I never cried, and I didn’t want Chrissie to see me anyway. So I swore instead, loudly and within earshot of anyone both indoors and outdoors.
‘Fuck. I can’t fucking believe it. Who the fuck does she think she is? Fuck her, fuck the fucking lot of them.’
‘I mean, shit, it’s like, she thinks I’m just gonna take this, just roll over, fucking screw her.’
‘Know what? Fuck all of them. I’m gonna fucking well –’
Chrissie took my face in her hands and made me look at her.
‘Stop saying ‘fuck’ for five seconds and listen.’
‘Sorry babe, I’m just so fucking pissed off –’
‘I know. You need to listen. I don’t, I really don’t, think there’s anything either of us can do.’
‘No, there must be, there’ll be something.’
‘I can’t think of a single thing. Even if your mum had said yes, she’s right, my mum and dad would never let me live here.’
‘But Matty –’
‘I don’t want to live with your uncle. I mean, they’re great, but I don’t know them. I think …’
She hunched her shoulders and sighed out a long, deep breath. Then she looked away from me.
‘… we’ve just got to accept it.’
‘But … that means … you’ll leave.’
I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I hadn’t considered the future, being a teenager, but if I had, it would have had Chrissie in it, both of us just doing what we were doing, kissing, talking, cheering on Arsenal. If she left, all I could see in my future was a Chrissie-shaped hole where she should have been.
Chrissie looked back at me, her eyes filled with tears.
‘I know. But maybe instead of the next two weeks fighting with our parents, we should spend the next two weeks together, make it the best two weeks ever, do everything, go everywhere, give each other something to remember us by.’
‘Yeah, like I’m going to forget you.’
Chrissie looked down.
‘Maybe we’ll just have to.’
‘No! Never. We can text, and Facetime, I can come and see you at weekends, you can come here.’
‘Cal, do you even know where Carlisle is?’
I shook my head. I had a vague idea it was in Wales somewhere, maybe near Cardiff? That didn’t seem too bad.
‘It’s right up north, further than Liverpool, practically in Scotland. It would take you all weekend just to get there and back.’
The reality took a little while to get through, and then I realised just how far away she was going to be. I felt myself slump in defeat.
‘So is that it, then? We just finish?’
I was seriously confused. I was still angry and upset, and about a zillion other emotions I couldn’t identify, but I didn’t understand why Chrissie seemed so resigned. I forgot, then, that she’d moved from place to place all her life with her dad’s job (which was something to do with the MoD), and was used to it. All I knew was that I was going to lose her.
‘I don’t think we have any choice. Oh fuck my dad’s job.’
And then she started crying again, and so I hugged her and stroked her hair and thought about what was going to happen to us. Then I realised how little say I had in any of it, how little say either of us had in any of it, and maybe I should have raged and got people to take notice of how angry I was about the whole thing, but I turned that inside, and decided that, yeah, Chrissie was right. If we only had two weeks left, they were going to be the best two weeks we’d ever had.
And they were. It was the Easter holidays, so no school, and we spent every minute together. That meant sleepovers, which had previously not been allowed but now suddenly were (although I had to endure ‘the chat’ from Dad, which was excruciatingly embarrassing for both of us), going to the cinema and snogging through the film, sitting in the park snogging, standing in the bus shelter snogging, a bit of snogging outside the chip shop … I’m sure you get the picture. Part of me hoped that with the increased closeness we both felt, Chrissie would find it impossible to leave. I couldn’t imagine her leaving, not being there, here with me. But I was trying not to imagine it, and so just concentrated on Chrissie. I hardly noticed anyone else for that fortnight, and then it was suddenly the night before, and the next day she’d be gone.
I was in her room, and she was putting all her stuff in boxes and all her clothes in suitcases. It was finally here, our last night, and although I didn’t want reminding, here she was packing, while I watched. As her room stopped being her room and started being an empty bedroom, it became real. She was going. Tomorrow. I thought my heart might stop beating, it felt so heavy.
I spent the night there, cuddled up with her in her single bed, although officially I was sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. Neither of us slept, we just kissed and touched all night, neither of us saying anything about what tomorrow would mean, because we didn’t need to.
And then, at eight o’clock the next day, the lorry came and everything was loaded into it, and Chrissie’s mum and dad and little brother got into their car, and it was time to say goodbye. I didn’t know how. How do you do something that all of you is crying out for you not to do? We looked at each other for a long moment before I put my arms round her and held her tight. She cried, but I remained dry-eyed, and we didn’t let go of each other until Chrissie’s dad got out of the car and put his hand on her shoulder.
‘Come on, love, it’s time to go.’
I tried to hold her tighter, but she pulled away and looked up at me, tears overflowing from her eyes, and running down red and puffy cheeks. She let her dad lead her to the car, where he opened the back door for her. She sat on the back seat, staring out of the window, but I don’t know if she could see me through her tears as the car pulled away.
I didn’t wave, or mouth ‘I love you’, or give her a comforting smile, I just watched, unable to feel anything, as Chrissie Coulson disappeared out of my life. Then I went home and went to bed.
Three days later, I was still in bed. A blackness had settled over me like a heavy blanket, and I couldn’t move. Not that I was allowed to lie in the dark in peace; if you know my mum at all you’ll know that leaving anyone in peace is never part of her plan. Every five minutes she was in my room bringing cups of tea or biscuits (which I didn’t touch), or opening the curtains (I shut them again as soon as she left the room), or sitting on the edge of my bed and telling me it would stop hurting one day and I’d feel better (I pulled the duvet over my head, which muffled her voice but didn’t completely block it).
I was so used to Mum going on that I had built up an immunity. There are some who find her fussing a bit much to cope with, but if you’ve had it all your life you learn how to tune it out. Eventually Mum realised she wasn’t getting through, and she called Dec.
Dec had this thing he did, particularly with Matty from when they were younger and both a bit the worse for wear from various physical and emotional stuff they were going through, where he’d say ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’. And he’d bug Matty all day long, or Matty would get on his case all night, until whoever was being bugged would crack, and they’d sort it all out. So he thought he’d try it with me.
On day three of me being in bed with the curtains drawn, Dec came and sat on the floor by my bed, with his phone for company and some magazines, and proceeded to annoy the crap out of me.
‘So is this your life now, Cal? Lying in bed competing for the biggest teenage sulk of the year?’
‘No. I know it feels like the end of the world, mate, but you need to get up and do things to try and forget about it.’
How on earth was I going to forget about it? Chrissie not being there was throbbing in my blood. She hadn’t even texted, or called, or emailed. She’d promised she would, as soon as she got there. We were going to Facetime, but it had been three days, three whole days of waiting for her, and there was nothing. I’d even given in and texted her yesterday (RU OK? Did u get there OK?) but still nothing. Part of me was scared there had been an accident on the way up, the whole family wiped out, no one to ever tell me what had happened, but most of me was full of fury and darkness.
I turned away from Dec and buried my face under my duvet, taking my phone with me so I could keep on checking it every three seconds. It didn’t stop him.
‘Just so you know, I’m going to be here talking your arse off until you stop this. I don’t have anywhere to be, and I can keep going for a very long time.’
‘It’s all your fault.’
‘How do you work that out?’
‘You told me to go for it, stop just being friends.’
‘Yeah, and wasn’t it great, wasn’t it worth it?’
Not right now it wasn’t. Nothing was worth having your insides pulled out and run over by a juggernaut. Dec always saw the positive in everything, nothing ever seemed to get him down, and sometimes, especially now, it was unbelievably irritating. Just as I was about to launch a verbal grenade at him, the sound I had wanted to hear most in the world for the last seventy-two hours trilled in front of my face, as my phone lit up with Chrissie’s picture and a text popped up.
‘I can’t do this. It’s 2 hard. Need 2 say goodbye. Sorry.‘
What? What did she mean? We’d said, we’d promised, we’d be texting and Facetiming and calling all the time, it would be like we were only down the road, like always, and in the summer we were going to visit for holidays, but now … goodbye? What was that about?
‘Where have u been? Was worried.‘
‘Needed 2 think. Sorry, am not going 2 reply to txts or calls. Too hard. Miss u 2 much. Need 2 start again. Sorry.‘
‘No. Need 2 talk 2 u. Miss u 2.‘
She couldn’t mean it. We’d agreed, made all our plans so it wouldn’t be so hard, and it could still work. Her parents must have something to do with it, maybe they’d taken her phone off her and it was them texting … yeah I was pretty desperately trying to think of reasons for it not to be true, that Chrissie was dumping me from hundreds of miles away, by text. Of course, I tried calling again, but her phone went straight to voicemail, and I sent hundreds of texts.
‘Pls talk 2 me.‘
‘Don’t do this, please. I need 2 talk 2 you.‘
‘I can’t live without u.‘
The texts were getting increasingly dramatic as I ramped up my attempts to get Chrissie to talk to me, but the longer it went on, the more I understood that she was serious and I’d seen her for the last time. For all I knew – and as I thought about it, it seemed more and more likely – she never meant us to stay together, had always meant to finish it like this, but had just played along to avoid the arguments and the begging. And all the time, while my already pulverised heart was being thoroughly stomped on once more, Dec was sitting on my bedroom floor, droning on. I don’t know why he and Matty thought it was such a foolproof way of dragging someone out of a pit of despair – all I wanted to do was strangle him with the bedsheets.
In an attempt to shut him up and get him to see what I was dealing with, I scrolled my text conversation back to the few texts sent by Chrissie and then shoved the phone under Dec’s nose so he could see exactly what she had said. Let’s see him try to make something positive out of that.
He read what was on the screen, then looked up at me with an expression of sadness.
‘Oh mate, I’m sorry. You must feel like shit.’
‘Yeah, shit enough that I actually do want to be on my own.’
‘Not gonna happen, mate. Am I annoying you?’
‘Good. It’s working, then.’
I huffed and turned back over to face the wall. I was in a bind. If I stayed here I would have Dec going on at me, and if I got up I’d have Mum going on at me, and if I went out, I’d have to face the world. And I’d have to go to school. I don’t know what Mum had told school, but she would have had to have told them something.
Anyhow, the easiest thing was to just stay where I was, trying not to listen to Sunny Summers spreading joy and harmony to all. Mum came in and brought tea and cake, and when she was back again a few minutes later, I nearly blew my top and told her to fuck off, but I couldn’t summon the energy. She didn’t have more cake and tea, though. She had a visitor.
‘Cal, sweetheart, Jake’s here to see you.’
Baggo was the last thing I needed. He would never understand how this felt, he’d never had a serious girlfriend, he just went from crush to crush, largely dependent on the amount of cleavage he could spot on any given day, and they all turned him down anyway. I’d just tell him to piss –
‘Hey mate. Your mum said you’re not feeling so great, so I thought I’d come round and cheer you up.’
I had no answer for him, just stared at him, challenging him to start cheering if that was what he’d come for.
‘I’ll leave you to it for a bit.’
Well hallelujah, at least Dec was going to leave me alone. Maybe Baggo’s visit wasn’t all unwanted.
‘Seriously, Cal. You haven’t been to school because of Chrissie?’
‘Nice one, how did you pull it? I’d never have thought your mum would go for that.’
He gave me a wicked grin, and I nearly returned it until I remembered I was miserable.
‘Are you going to have to be in Psych Class then?’
Psych Class was the politically incorrect name we gave to the bunch of weirdos and losers (as we thought of them then before we grew up and realised we’d bullied the shit out of some kids who had real problems) who needed extra tutoring.
‘No, I’m not a psycho, you tosser.’
‘Oh. What’s all the curtains closed and in bed being a miserable arse in the middle of the afternoon about then.’
‘Chrissie just fucking left.’
‘I know. I miss her.’
‘You miss her?’
‘Yeah, she was cool. We were talking about her at lunch today, about both of you, how you’re kind of the Brangelina of our year. We even came up with a name for you: Chril. Not quite the same ring to it, though. Have you heard from her?’
‘Yeah. Just now, actually. Here.’
I showed Baggo the texts. I couldn’t make my mouth say the words.
‘Bugger, mate. Harsh, yeah?’
‘So this is, like, it for you now? Rest of your life in bed in the dark being a moody git?’
‘Sod off, Baggo.’
‘Sure. Shall we make this a regular thing, me coming round after school so you can catch me up on your day of lying in the dark, and I can tell you about Nikki Smithson’s hair catching on fire, and Mr Hurst going ape-shit at 5b.’
‘Mr Hurst’s always going ape-shit at someone.’
‘Yeah, but it won’t be you any more, not if you’re here. You’ll have to live it through me. I expect Hursty’ll be going ape-shit at me a few more times before I’m done, especially when he finds the little present I left in his desk.’
And you know what, whether Baggo meant it or not, and I like to believe he did, he started to cajole me out of the dark funk I’d been in. He made me see there was life beyond what I’d lost, and made me remember that I had other friends and I had a life, and maybe just maybe I should get over myself and get back to that life. Without Chrissie it was going to be hard, and there would be adjustments, but for now, he was making me smile.
I sat up.
‘Fancy a burger?’
‘But your mum’s just asked me to stay to tea. She’s doing lasagne. I bloody love her lasagne.’
So did I, actually. Maybe if Baggo was there, Mum wouldn’t go on. I could just go downstairs as if nothing had happened, and it would just be back to normal.
I did go downstairs, and Mum pounced on me and cuddled me like I was three years old.
‘Get off, Mum. Baggo said you’re doing lasagne.’
I made it sound like that was what had got me out of bed. No point going over it all, really, was there.
‘Yes, sweetheart. Are you staying, Jake?’
‘Wouldn’t miss it, Mrs S.’
‘No thanks, got to get back to Ames and the bubs or she’ll kill me.’
I narrowed my eyes and looked at Dec.
‘I thought you were going to be here as long as it took?’
‘Yeah, mate, but it didn’t take that long in the end, did it?’
And with that bit of logic, he slapped me on the back and left.
And I’d like to say that was the end of it, that after that day I got over it and got over myself and life went back to normal, but it didn’t. I mean, yeah, I went back to school, and me and Baggo arsed around much as we used to, and GCSE coursework was done (by me, not so much by Baggo). But it took a long time for my heart to get back to normal, and I’m not sure it did, not completely. Chrissie was my first love, my first kiss, my first everything, and now, suddenly, unfairly, she wasn’t there.
I dealt with it by being a bit of a lad with the girls. I’d snog anything in a skirt, and there was no more ‘just friends’ with Cal Scott. If he talked to you, there was going to be lip action, and maybe more. I had a few on the go at once, not that they didn’t know about each other, because we all saw each other at school all the time, but I wasn’t going to be a one-girl boy any more I was going to play around, see what I could get. I’d show them, I’d show her.