And so, for the next few days, it felt like a part of me had been cut out. I mean, yeah, I know, right, get over it Matt, they hadn’t gone on a one way trip to Mars where communications were a shade rudimentary, they’d gone to another part of the same planet, where they even had such things as wireless internet, telephones, computers and other newfangled communications devices. However, for the first few days we didn’t hear from them at all, as they were getting settled in, finding their feet, finding where they’d packed their newfangled communications devices.
Beth had the world’s shortest text from Dec (G’day), which we took to mean he had arrived in Terra Australis but hadn’t yet mastered the language, and then nothing, until Thursday, when we all got the same text ‘Facetiming at Matt’s 6pm that’s 1 in the bloody am for us so be there.’
So we were there, me, Lau, Josh, Ella, Jay, Beth, Cal, Iz, Mum, Rose, Cal’s girlfriend Ayesha, we all piled into our living room and waited for the Facetime chime. I’d set the iPad up on a stand so I didn’t have to hold it at arm’s length, as my bastard arms wouldn’t have lasted. In the last few days I’d taken severe hits in the walking and talking department, and was glad to be squished on the sofa with everyone else so it wasn’t as apparent. I wasn’t going to be doing much chatting.
At ten past six, the Facetime tone sounded, Ella pressed ‘answer’, and they all appeared on the screen. For an instant it felt like we were all there together, and then the time delay kicked in and we remembered they were half a world away. Rose gasped and put her hand to her mouth, and couldn’t speak for the entire duration of the call, tears leaking from her eyes. The rest of us cheered, shouted, talked over each other, asked dumb questions that weren’t heard or were lost in the time delay.
The children were all so excited to see each other; Ella and Josh had been waiting for days to see their cousins and get a tour of their house, but they were disappointed that time, as the house wasn’t ready and they were all staying in some swanky hotel courtesy of Dec’s new rugby club.
‘Yeah, we’ve got a suite, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, jacuzzi –’
‘I’ve got to share with Gracie.’
Charlie was immensely put out at this terrible injustice.
‘Yeh beauhiful, buh Rosa has tuh put up wih Tom snoring.’
This caused much more hilarity than it warranted, and I suspected the joint effects of a twenty four hour flight, jet-lag and it being the early hours of the morning for them were reaping their rewards.
‘When will you be in your house, sweetheart?’
‘Hopefully end of next week, unless the hotel kicks us out first. We’ve already broken a chair and spilt blackcurrant on the cream carpet.’
‘I doubt Australia’s seen anything like you lot, mate. When do you start training?’
‘Monday. I’ll let you know how their coach compares, see what I have to do to get fifty bench presses.’
‘Ella, didn’t you want to ask Charlie something?’
‘Yes Mummy, but there are too many people.’
‘Wehl hahv our own Facetihm, Squeaks, at the wehkend, yeh?’
‘Leh us knoh a good tihm, Dec.’
And it rambled on, the story of the flight (they flew, they slept, when they woke up they were in Australia), how near the beach was (bloody near), how hot it was (bloody hot), how much they missed us all (bloody loads), how much we all missed them (even bloodier loads), arrangements for more, smaller, Skype and Facetimes as this really was a bit too chaotic, and then they were gone, and everyone started to go from ours as well.
I was worried about Rose, who hadn’t said one word, even when Dec had spoken to her directly. She’d only been able to smile and nod.
‘Can weh tahk yuh home, Rohs?’
‘Oh, no love, I brought your mam in my car.’
‘Ih’s a bih overwehlming ihnt it.’
She nodded, looking small and lost, and not at all like her bustly, larger than life self.
‘I knoh ih’s not the sahm, buh come an see us, any tihm.’
‘Yeah, Rose, please don’t stop coming to see us. We’re not quite as rowdy, but we do good cuddles.’
‘An bring cake. If yuh happen tuh hahv made any.’
Rose nodded again.
‘Well, thanks, I think I might be needing a few of those cuddles.’
‘Hehr, hahv one now.’
I stood up, rather unsteadily, and folded Rose up. Rose was pretty good at hugging; she was short and quite stout, but somehow seemed to envelop you, even though her arms can’t have reached all the way around.
While my head was down at her mouth level, she murmured in my ear.
‘I know you don’t like a lot of fuss, love, but if there’s anything I can do …’ ‘Thahks, Rose. Cake will beh fine.’
I winked at her, and she nodded. As she turned to go, Mum put her hand on my arm and just looked at me. She didn’t say anything, as she often didn’t, but it seemed I’d done something right in her eyes.
So the world turned, and we got used to nearly half our family being elsewhere, and sometimes it hardly seemed like they weren’t there, and sometimes it felt like they were at least on the other side of the Sun, but with the help of phones and computers, one of us talked to one of them nearly every day, possibly more than when they were up the road. The time difference meant I could indulge my occasional need for middle of the night arsing about without worrying about waking anyone up; by the time it was three in the morning here, it was mid-morning over there, and nobody minded.
And sometimes I needed it, to text him in the middle of the night. As things got worse, and I developed into more of a fucking cripple, I needed to just talk to someone who didn’t look at me with sympathy, and who I wasn’t trying to stay strong for.
Fuck, I’m back on the whinge thing, aren’t I. OK, positivity. It helps, much as I hate to admit it. After Dec and Amy had gone, things were bad for a while, maybe a week, but I got over it, and found that Dec had been right, the bastard. I had Lau and I had my kids, and they all helped me, well we helped each other. Being a family is so bloody awesome, it’s like having your own personal cheerleading squad, only without the short skirts and annoying chanting. Yeah, I missed Dec like I couldn’t have imagined, but it was dulled by having Lau, Josh and Ella there, and it became OK, because really, if I had them, I had everything.
Of course the fucking bastard was on the rampage, but it was contained to a fairly slow rampage. Bits and pieces of me fell away, and poor Lau had to pick up the bits and pieces that were left and help me to carry on, and sometimes it was bloody hard, like when my legs just went, and I had to dig out my walking pole in order not to fall over walking from the car park to the office. I felt so self-conscious on the morning Lau had to help me to the car that I nearly didn’t go in to work, but I was desperate to stay working as long as possible, and if I didn’t go in that day, it wasn’t going to be any better the day after, or the day after that, so in I went.
Raiders was, in some ways, the ideal place to be. There weren’t sympathetic looks and ‘poor you’; there was acknowledgement and disrespect and a nod at the stick with ‘planning a trip up Everest, Matt?’. There was nowhere to hide, but there was good humour and treating me like a normal person. It helped immensely, and I think being part of that environment was equal therapy to all the talking I did with Stefan and Adam.
I really missed those arsing about chats with the man from up the road, though. There were things I could say to Dec I couldn’t say to any other living being, whether I was married to them or paying them silly money to listen to me blathering on, and talking on the phone or via the internet just wasn’t the same. There was something about being in the same room, breathing the same air, belching the same dodgy curry, that enabled me to say things I would never say to anyone else.
The night of their flight, after the taxi had picked them up and we’d waved them off at midnight, we went to bed and Matt cried until morning.
Once Dec and Amy had gone, though, Matt rallied a bit, emotionally. He talked to me, and accepted help from everyone who was kind enough to offer it. He took all his sadness and buried it inside, deciding to make the most of what he had rather than raging against what he had been given.
I could always sense it, this sorrow, but he was dealing with it as best he was able, and I held him when he needed it, laughed with him when that was what was necessary, and let him see, always, how much I loved him and needed him.
That’s not to say it was always easy. There were days when I could see he was doing too much, that he was going to crash the next day, and he wouldn’t listen, and we argued. There were days when too many people made too much of a fuss over him, and he went off somewhere to get away from it all, and I had to go and find him, and we argued. There were days when I could see him wishing me, Ella and Josh weren’t there, so he didn’t have to care about us all and love us enough to stay with us, and eventually he’d snap at me or one of the children, and we argued.
The worst days were when he lost something else – another word he couldn’t say properly, another part of his vision that disappeared, the day he needed to take his walking pole into work to help him stay on his feet.
On those days, I lost him for a while. He was physically there, with us all, but he wouldn’t talk or look at us, he wouldn’t eat or move, until we went to bed, and then he’d hold onto me and sob, mourning it all.
Eventually, inevitably, his sexual functioning was affected, and although that, in a way, was the the biggest blow as it was the thing he’d been dreading the most, once it happened, he didn’t need to anticipate it any more He asked me constantly if he was going to get it all back. He knew I couldn’t answer, that no one could, but he also knew as well as I did that the more times he experienced a flare up, the more likely it was that he would remain affected afterwards in various ways, and the more frequently it was likely to happen in the future.
It was while Dec was away that I got the letter, and if he had been around I would have talked to him about it, and he would have made me see that I should just tell Lau, and I would have done, and none of this long tale of woe would have happened. I leave it to you to decide whether or not that is a good thing.
About a year after the Summers clan decamped to Australia, an envelope was delivered to me at Raiders, redirected from GreenScreen. There was a note and a flash-drive. From Julia. Holy shit. I had to read her name several times before I could quite believe it, but it was in her handwriting.
I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it.
It threw me. I had no idea what was on the flash-drive, and I really didn’t know if I wanted to find out. I hadn’t thought about Jules for a long, long time, and had years ago made my peace with how things ended with us. Now I felt it starting to churn me up again, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t know what to do.
Lau, who I would usually have been able to rely on to tell me the sensible thing to do, had always had a hang-up about Jules. Maybe she wouldn’t any more, not with two children and several years of happily-married behind us, but I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to talk to someone, but that someone was thousands of miles away, and I couldn’t find the words.
So I took the envelope home and put it in a box of old stuff from GreenScreen, intending to talk to Dec about it when he came home, assuming he did, or when I managed to work out how to address important issues over a delayed internet connection instead of arsing about like I didn’t have a care in the world.
I forgot all about it. At least I think I did. It was on my mind for a while, I suppose, wondering what was on the flash-drive, what Jules had written about me, but I wanted to do the right thing with it, and until I knew what that was, maybe I just blanked it from my mind. Really successfully, as it turned out.
Years and years later, it would only have been just over a year ago, maybe eighteen months, I was trying to sort some of my crap out, and I was going through old boxes. I nearly threw the whole box away, because it said ‘GreenScreen’ on it, and there was no reason to be keeping it, but for old times’ sake I took the lid off, and there was the envelope. Of course, I’d forgotten what it was, but the note jolted me when I looked at it, and I realised it was way too late to be telling Lau about it now. Maybe I should have just chucked the whole lot anyway, consigned it to history, let it go. But I like knowing shit. So I opened the flash-drive.
Lord of all the fuckeries. It really was a whole story, about Jules and me, in her words, and I couldn’t stop reading it. It didn’t make me feel nostalgic, but it explained a lot, and if ever I’d wanted closure, it gave me that. Not that she was fine about everything, because I think it really did fuck her up, but that what happened was for the best, for both of us, in the end.
And bloody hell, she was good at writing sex. A bit too good, maybe. I wondered if she’d tried to publish any of it anywhere, online erotica sites or something, and that was why she’d sent it to me, but that seemed so un-Jules that I couldn’t imagine it.
Well here Matty and I have to disagree. Julia wrote a lot of sex, but it wasn’t good, in my opinion. It was descriptive, in that it was mechanical, he did this then I did this, then we shouted a lot, but it wasn’t exactly emotional. You have to be a good writer to write good erotica, and Julia’s was … meh. Just as well she had a day job. Just as well Matty and Lau did as well. Let’s just say none of them are likely to be signed up for Saucy Stories Weekly. Should there happen to be such a publication.
Jules’ story churned up a lot of feelings that I didn’t immediately know what to do with. I thought about telling Lau, I thought about talking to Dec, but I didn’t think anyone would really understand it, how reading it had made me feel, and so just to show that I occasionally listened to what people told me, and because Adam wasn’t an annoyingly perceptive family member, I fell back on one of his staple strategies. Write it down. And so it started.
I thought it would be short, like Jules’ story was, but I have taken a very long and circuitous route to get from ‘a’ (the beginning) to ‘b’ (the end), and although I have had to hide things from people and do this when nobody knew, the whole process of telling my life as I’ve seen it has been therapeutic. I feel like I’ve managed to put things in order, sort them out, know what I feel about things, about people, about events, if only in my own head. Believe me, that is no mean achievement.
The main thing I learned throughout all of this is that if I had to make all those choices again, the one I would choose without question and despite anything else is Lau. There are lots of other things I would change, but not Lau – none of it would be worth it without Lau.
I managed to hold on to my deal with Lau to take help where it was offered, and allowed the family to stick their collective beaks in, by calling, visiting, babysitting, driving me places, offering ‘helpful’ advice and generally fussing about. I hope it wasn’t just taking on my part; as long as I was able, I did my share of helping too, with homework, sorting out people’s computer problems, being available for a sarcastic put down at any time of the day or night.
The old libido finally went, of course, and that was a bit of a black day, when I realised it had been quite a while since I’d got that excited, and that it was going to be bloody months before I was any use to Lau in the marital equipment department. I pestered her endlessly about how long it would be before we could exercise our conjugal rights again, although I knew, if previous instances were anything to go by, that I had to be patient. The conversation would go something like:
The scene: Matt and Lau’s bedroom. Some heavy petting has just taken place.
Matt: Sohry Lau.
Lau: What for?
Matt: Yuh knoh. Tha I canht finish the job.
Lau: (Either tuts or sighs heavily) You are the most ridiculous man. Nothing unfinished about that for me.
Matt: I dohnt get why yuh wohnt let meh, I dohnt see the poin in both of us bein frustrahted.
Lau: Well, it’s kind of like a solidarity thing.
Matt: But tha’s bohlocks. Yuh cahnt fehl wha I feel, so ih duhnt hehp yuh understahd. Last tihm, maybeh, ih was awesohm tha yuh did tha, but now, ih feels lihk, if I was an amputeh, would yuh cut yuhr leg off too?
Lau: No, of course not –
Matt: Exactly. Soh let meh. Let meh, plehs, Lau. It’d beh greht if at least one of us cahm sometihm in the next yehr or two.
Lau: No. Thanks, flower, but I’m not going to be persuaded. It will make it all the more enjoyable when it’s both of us together. It’s like saving up for a holiday, or waiting for a birthday. Makes the wait worthwhile, and we can have fun together while we’re waiting.
Matt: How lohng ahr weh gona hahv tuh wait?
Lau: Precisely three hundred and fifty seven hours.
Matt: Whoa, tha’s only two wehks.
Lau: Or maybe more. Or maybe less.
Matt: Yuh fohgot I cahn duh mental arithmehtic, dihnt yuh.
Lau: Maybe a bit.
Matt: Yuh wehr trying tuh beh sarcastic wehrnt yuh.
Lau: Maybe a bit.
Matt: Lehv ih tuh the expehrts.
Matt: I bluhdy lohv yuh, Lau.
Lau: Good. Shut up and go to sleep now.
Matt: Another snog fihrst.
Lau: Oh go on then.
Mostly Lau kept me together, or I kept myself together so I didn’t affect us all, but sometimes it was too much. Sometimes, if Beth was being a pain, or something new had stopped working, or I had just had enough of people, I’d go off and hide for a bit.
To start with, it was the hideaway at St Saviours, but Lau always looked there first, so I took to finding other inaccessible spots – there was a taxi driver who often took me to the top of Whitman’s Hill, where there was an old shepherd’s hut that I sat in; I’d catch the bus to a small village and sit in a tea shop all afternoon staring at the horse-brasses until the last bus took me back again; I’d let myself into Raiders Stadium and sit at the back of the terrace, until the time I set the burglar alarm off and four police cars screeched up. But I didn’t do it very often. It gave me space, and Lau understood, and let me do it, as long as I came back after a bit.
And then, as if the bastard MS hadn’t taken enough from me, it teamed up with its old ally pneumonia, and they decided to have another go at kicking the shit out of me.
Ironically, I had started to feel like maybe the fucking bastard was fucking off – I had less trouble with the unintelligible bollocks, didn’t need to use the walking pole everywhere, could see a bit better. Admittedly, I’d had a bit of trouble swallowing, and a few drinks ended up going the wrong way. Maybe that was what did it, perhaps that’s how fluid got on my lungs, or maybe I had some kind of bug anyway, or maybe it was radiation from the bloody big screen. Never let it be said I don’t share the blame around for my misfortunes.
It was autumn. I’d been a fucking cripple for six months so far, and I’d had to change things at Raiders to take account of it. This involved reducing my hours and doing more from home, but sometimes shit happened that required me to be at the ground. Why does technology always throw a hissy fit when there just isn’t time to spend on putting it right?
It was a Friday afternoon, and the routine pre-match test of pretty much everything had shown up a glitch on the big screen. The sound wouldn’t sync with the visuals, the team sheet wouldn’t load properly, and something was wrong with the direct feed, causing pixellating and flickering. It wasn’t going to stop the match going ahead, but it needed fixing fast.
I did as much as I could from home, talking Jenna through some of the diagnostics, but eventually I realised I was going to have to go in and try the hands-on approach. Lau drove me over, and sat having coffee with the girls in the office while I wrestled with the glitch gremlins.
After an hour or so of trying everything, we thought we’d come up with a) a problem and b) a solution, which is always a handy way round to do things, and I headed out to the middle of the pitch, to check that everything was working, syncing and holding its own. I didn’t even realise I hadn’t taken my walking pole with me until I got out into the centre, and felt pretty chuffed with myself when it occurred to me that I was standing, supported by nothing, and hadn’t fallen flat on my arse. Things were looking up. I gave Jenna, who was in the media suite at the top of the grandstand, a thumbs up, and she fired up the screen.
The sky had gone dark, and the screen shone out against the black clouds, a video of Raiders’ most recent victory playing against the dramatic backdrop of lowering cumulo-nimbus. We tried a few adverts, the team sheet, the Twitter feed, it all seemed to be working, and I breathed a sigh of satisfaction just as the first fat rain drops plopped on my head.
Shit. It hadn’t occurred to me that as well as providing a great backdrop for the screen, the dark clouds might be holding some serious weather, which now seemed set to dump itself on me. I started to head off to the relative shelter of the dug outs, but without my stick it was slow going. Hurrying was a thing of the past, and before I’d got very far the clouds burst with a dramatic clap of thunder, kind of like you get in films but never seems to happen in real life. Maybe it only happens when something momentous is occurring, which I guess it was, not that I realised it at the time.
Before I was a quarter of the way to the dug outs, I was drenched right through, and bone-chillingly cold. By the time I got to the side of the pitch, there was little point sheltering in the dug outs, and I carried on down the tunnel and into the depths of the stadium.
I was freezing, teeth chattering like a set of wind-up joke dentures, and my clothes were dripping. The players weren’t training, so the changing rooms were locked and the heating wasn’t on. I blundered around trying to find somewhere appropriate to get warm and dry, but it took me a while, and I was shivering uncontrollably by the time I found the physio room, where a couple of players were having some treatment.
‘Matt! What the hell happened to you?’
Pete Dawson, one of the physios, looked up from the massage he was giving.
I was shivering too much to say more than a syllable at a time.
‘Shit, you’re fucking soaked.’
‘Here, I’ll get you a towel.’
He left his position by the table to grab a towel from a pile, and tossed one to me. I dried my hair, but my clothes were still dripping, and I needed to get out of them. Pete noticed my shivering.
‘Are you OK Matt?’
My phone rang, and I pulled it out of my pocket, wincing at how wet it was. Lau’s photo smiled out at me from the screen.
‘Matt, Jenna said you were out in the rain.’
‘Where are you?’
‘Phy … si … o.’
‘Are you shivering?’
‘Oh God. I’m coming down there.’
‘Noh – ‘
But it was too late, she’d disconnected.
I sat on a small chair, clutching the towel, my sodden clothes making a puddle on the floor, while the two physios continued their treatment, throwing curious glances my way from time to time. After a while, there was a light tap on the door, and Lau stuck her head round.
‘Oh Matt. You need to get out of those things.’
She threw a frown in Pete’s direction, presumably for allowing me to sit in my saturated state, but this was a rugby club, nobody worried about a bit of rain.
Lau held out my walking pole, which she must have collected on the way. I took it, but was shaking too much to get to my feet, and she had to help me up.
Together we struggled out to the car, the cloudburst now over and the sun shining as if butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth, even though it obviously would, because, well, it was the sun, and butter would melt within several million miles of its mouth. I tried to worry about getting the car seats wet, but to be honest I just wanted to get home, dry and warm.
Lau fixed me up with a warm bath, some comfy jammies and a whisky toddy, and I spent the evening curled up under a blanket on the sofa, still shivering, feeling sorry for myself, but sure I’d be right as, oh the irony, rain the next day.
I wasn’t right as rain, but I managed to go to work to double-check the screen, feeling gradually worse as the day wore on. Over the next few days, it turned into a cold, with a cough which wouldn’t go, and my temperature kept spiking. Lau kept on at me about going to the doctor, as the cough got worse, I was struggling for breath, I was finding it harder not only to go into work, but to do things from home. But I wouldn’t, I didn’t want to, accept it, what it might mean, and in my usual fashion I thought that if I didn’t accept it, it would go away. That tactic had not worked once for me in my entire life, but it didn’t stop me employing it every single time something happened to me that I didn’t like.
So, I was coughing, struggling to breathe, dragging myself through every day feeling like shit, like worse than shit, honestly believing that the next day I would wake up and feel better.
But after a few days, I woke up to a feeling I hadn’t had for a long time, that I instantly recognised. It was the same head-pounding fuzziness, the same catch in my breath, the same oh shit not this again that I’d felt all those years ago when I’d ended up more than half dead on my bathroom floor. I fought it, I tried to deny it, but when Lau came upstairs and took my temperature, she called the doctor straight away, ignoring my protests. As the fever swept over me, I started hallucinating, weird living shapes growing out of the walls, giant octopuses swimming on the ceiling, purple witches flying in and out of the windows.
I didn’t really know much about the next couple of weeks, but when I was feeling a bit less like I’d been tripping on LSD, I found myself in hospital. I hadn’t nearly died, not quite, but when I finally woke up, and they were all there with the same looks on their faces, only this time I’d put the same look on Lau’s face too, I had to have a long hard look at how I coped with illness.
After a thousand years too long, I got better enough that they let me home and Dec stopped texting me once an hour asking if he needed to come back.
‘No, I’ll let u know when my funeral is.’
‘Not funny mate.’
‘It’s called gallows humour.’
‘Still not funny.’
‘I’m having a wicker coffin with purple satin lining.’
‘And family of baby bunnies 2 drop daisies on casket at the graveside.’
‘Yeah txt me again when u’ve stopped this bloody nonsense.’
‘Plus free bar on Jay.’
‘When’s this funeral again?’
Matt was in hospital for nearly three weeks while they pumped anti-biotics into him, semi-conscious for half of the time, irritated and desperate to get out for the other half.
It was a big wake-up call for him, though, bringing back as it did memories of that time when he nearly died. Jay sat by his bedside looking drawn and worried, the same memories on his mind as well. It was a great relief to everyone when Matt finally came home, and chastened as he was he agreed that he would look after himself better in future.
The damage had been done, though, and each time he relapsed in the coming years, he had to be really careful not to get a cold, as his chest just couldn’t cope with it. We never talked about it, but I knew that was what would finish him. Sometimes I wished I didn’t know so much about MS, hadn’t seen so many people experience what my family and I were going through.
Josh and Ella took it all in their stride – Matt was just Daddy, and sometimes he could run about and play football with them and drive them to parties and tickle them, and sometimes he didn’t have the energy to lift the remote control to the TV or walk to the loo without help or eat his breakfast. As they grew older, they understood more, and I could see it cross their minds that one day, Matt might not be there.
Ella coped with this by finding out as much about MS as she could – on the internet, in books, talking to people from the MS support group Matt attended when I nagged him enough – so she could make up her own mind about what she thought was going to happen to her dad; she asked us questions as well. Josh never really talked about it with Matt or me, but Ella told me he talked to her sometimes, and sometimes she’d ask me a question he had asked her that her extensive research hadn’t managed to find an answer to.
Family events came and went, sometimes Matt was fit for them and sometimes he wasn’t.
Oh God, here I am again, going over it all, the details, moaning on about it, when what I should be doing is just telling you the great bits. Because now there’s not time to do it all, to go over all the details of just how fucking amazing my life has been; there’s only time to tell you how, if I had known when the fucking bastard first reared its oh so fugly head that I would be doing battle with it for nigh on thirty years, and that its partner in crime, pneumonia, would come to claim me in the end, I would not have made it this far.
If I had known all that, I would have imagined my life as the shittest life it is possible to contemplate. But that hasn’t happened. I mean, yeah, I’ve hated having this fucking bastard thing, that takes my strength, stops me speaking, chains me to my bed, makes me rely on people to do shit for me. I’ve really fucking hated it. But that isn’t all my life has been.
My fucking amazing life has seen me married to this woman who – words fail me when I try to describe what Lau has meant to me. And they fail me when I think about Ella and Josh. Parents always think their kids are the best, but my kids actually are. I can claim no credit for them topping the league table of awesomeness. Lau can claim a lot of credit, but most of it they’ve managed on their own. From an early age they had to put up with their dad being unreliable in the physicality department, having to take things like going swimming or for bike rides with me when they could, being sullen and uncommunicative when things had seemed to be going well for me but suddenly got hijacked by some sudden recurrence of the fucking bastard and its evil ways.
So I’m going to stop whining on about my lot. I’ve had this fucking bastard thing, and it’s shit, and that’s that. I really, really want the people I love to know how I feel about them, and so rather than waste any more of what little time there may be left, I’m going to tell you all how I feel about you, because I’m never going to say it to your face without arsing around. Unless you’re Lau, in which case you know I love you forever, right? You should do, I say it enough.
I’m hoping that maybe some of you might put some other good bits into your own story. I’ve rambled on, and on, and on, for bloody pages, and I hope that maybe one or two of you might think ‘well bloody hell, he’s gone on ad infinitum about snogging Lau, but he’s totally ignored that time when I drove across the city to help him choose curtains. Know what, I’m going to bloody well write my own version, see how he likes that’. I think you should. It’s been cathartic, it’s been nostalgic, it’s been revelatory.
But I haven’t really got time for any more of it. Time seems to have caught up with me, finally. I’ve been running for a long time, keeping ahead of it, just, but I think now I might have let it get too close; it’s time to stop this. It’s just too tiring, and there are things I’d rather do with my last days than type.
Dec moving to Australia was maybe the biggest thing that happened back then. Matty having a flare up of MS and then getting pneumonia – well I guess it was big at the time, but over the years it became a bit commonplace, it happened more regularly, Matty would either be well or he wouldn’t, nobody made too much of a big deal either way, not to his face. But at least he was around, you could go and see him and take the piss out of him and have the piss taken out of you, whether he could actually say ‘piss’ or whether it came out all garbled. Dec wasn’t there. None of us realised how much we’d miss him, all of them. We thought that Facetiming and Skyping and calling and emailing and texting would keep us in touch enough that we’d hardly notice it, but we all noticed, a lot.
It was things like Dec missing my Raiders debut. It wasn’t televised, so he couldn’t even actually see it, and it was some ridiculous time of the day or night over there, so he wasn’t part of it. Everyone else was there, even though it was the coldest night of the year, even Gran came along, one of the few times she came to watch rugby. I came on as a replacement for the last twenty minutes, and even though I knew he wasn’t going to be there, the first person I looked for in the bar afterwards was Dec. We Skyped later and I relived all twenty minutes for him, tackle by tackle, pass by pass, but it wasn’t the same.
And the birthdays. All of them had birthdays while they were out there, obviously, and Amy had her thirtieth. There would have been meals and parties, but we had to do it all sat in front of a computer instead of elbowing each other for room round the table, we had to listen to them telling us about getting together with their new friends and people they called their ‘second family’, which made us all just a bit sad and jealous, although we tried to remember that it was great they were getting on well and having a good time.
Dec and his family were away for nearly three years. They missed my eighteenth birthday and both the swanky party Mum put on and the one she didn’t know about with my friends and several cases of beer. Actually, Dad didn’t know about that one either, as it was in the middle of the rugby season and we would have been skinned alive. They missed me and Ayesh announcing at a Sunday lunch that Ayesh was officially moving out of the conservatory and in to my room and the look on Mum’s face. They missed Gran and Rose gradually getting older, especially Rose who missed them so much she seemed to shrivel a bit more every day they were gone.
They nearly missed Dad’s fiftieth birthday, and they nearly missed me and Ayesh properly moving in together, not just shacking up in the same room. But they were home just in time.
With Dec’s typical inability to plan more than an hour ahead, we only had a few days notice of the exact date they were coming home. We obviously knew they were coming back, because Dec had signed for Raiders again, and there had been a wild celebration when he called us and told us. None of us had been sure whether he would really come back to England, and if he did, Dad was the only one who knew whether Raiders would offer him a contract, but he was saying nothing. It was our regular weekly Skype session, the one everyone tried to make if at all possible, when he told us.
‘Right Matty, is it all set up?’
‘Yeh, Jay, I hahv done this ohnce or twice befohre, ahtually.’
‘OK then, why can’t we see them?’
Dad seemed more eager than usual to get going with the Skyping. Usually he just sat nursing a beer while everyone chattered around him.
‘Er, mehbe becohs yuh dihnt call them yet?’
‘Oh yeah. How do I do that again?’
‘Oh fuh fucks sahk. Clihk the Skype icon.’
‘Big bluh squahr, white S. Mohron.’
‘Yep, got it, oh, it’s ringing. Is it supposed to do that?’
Dec appeared, with Amy sitting next to him and Tom and Gracie hanging over the back of the sofa.
‘Hey mate! Great to see you.’
Dad certainly was seeming very jovial. I noticed Mum looking at him appraisingly.
‘Hello all of you. Not a full house, sweetheart?’
Mum always wanted to see all of them, every time, and if she couldn’t she wanted to know exactly where they all were, so she could talk about it to them like she was there.
‘No, Charlie’s at a party and Rosa’s got the lurgy. She’s in bed.’
‘Oh no, poor Rosa. Just a cold?’
‘Yeah, she’ll be right soon as.’
Dec’s speech, which had always verged on the Australian-sounding at times, had tipped over into full Aussie mode within months of him arriving in Perth.
‘How’s things, then?’
Again with Dad asking questions and sounding interested. Mum definitely knew something was up. She probably guessed what it was as well, but Dec didn’t give her a chance to say.
‘Well we’ve got some news, don’t know how you’re fixed in a few weeks, but we’re coming home.’
The living room practically exploded with squeals and yells, while Dad sat back and looked suspiciously calm about it all. Mum had tears in her eyes, and Rose sat there with her mouth open, unable to speak. She hadn’t done much speaking since they left anyway, but now she was just dumbfounded.
‘James, did you know about this?’
Dad looked at Mum and shrugged.
‘I’d say he did, Beth. I’ve signed for Raiders, just for a year.’
Mum punched Dad on the arm, pretty hard.
‘How could you not say?’
‘You know what it’s like, Beth, I’m not allowed.’
‘You bastard. You could have given me a hint.’
Now all of us shut up, as Mum swearing was something that just didn’t happen, ever. Dad was in serious shit now.
‘Sorry, Beth, I didn’t think.’
This was Dad’s catchphrase when he was in trouble with Mum. ‘I didn’t think’ wasn’t going to do him much good later, from the look on Mum’s face as she turned back to the computer screen.
‘So, if you’re back in a few weeks, you’ll be able to come to James’s party?’
Dad was having a monster fiftieth birthday party, organised by Mum, with half the country invited. Dec or no Dec, it was going ahead on the day it had been planned.
‘Oh Beth, I completely forgot about Jay’s birthday. We were hoping you could fetch us from the airport, but you might be in the middle of party stuff.’
‘Don’t be daft Amy. Of course we’ll be there.’
And so it was all organised, the mass convoy because we all wanted to be there to see them come back rather than one of us driving a minibus to fetch them.
Matt and I hadn’t even bothered to go to bed, although we’d sent Ella and Josh up at the usual time. We were both too excited to sleep ourselves, though. Tonight, or rather at two in the morning tomorrow, we were all setting off to the airport – the four of us in our car, Jay, Beth and Iz in their car and Cal and his girlfriend Ayesha in theirs – to bring Dec, Amy, Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa back home.
There had been great excitement earlier in the week, when a removal lorry had arrived and deposited a lot of their belongings back in their house from storage. There was a container load on its way from Australia as well.
They had been away for two and a half years, Dec having signed for two more seasons after the first one. We’d kept in touch, Skyping or Facetiming at least once a week, but Matt and I hadn’t managed to visit. Jay and Beth had been out there once, over a year ago, and Dec had come back briefly when he got a surprise call up to the Australian national squad that played in the UK in the autumn internationals.
Dec, at the grand age of thirty-three, was approaching the twilight of his rugby career, and had re-signed for Raiders for a year while he considered his options. He had taken some coaching exams while he was in Australia, and was considering moving in that direction, which might take them away from the city again. But for now, what was important was that they were coming home.
The sensible thing would have been to hire a large people carrier and one of us to drive to the airport, to collect them all and their luggage, but we all wanted to be there when they got off the plane. Even Rose offered to drive, but looked relieved when everyone told her she’d be more useful making sure breakfast was ready at their old house. The Summers family were likely to be tired after a long flight, but they weren’t going to get away without a grand reintroduction to the Scott family. And we were all piling up there, with enough seats and boot space between us to carry them back with us.
Matt and I sat watching a DVD, drinking coffee and fidgeting, waiting for it to be time to wake the children up and get in the car. Matt checked the time on his phone every five minutes, which would have been irritating if I hadn’t been checking the clock every three.
It was strange being out of touch with them. The last couple of weeks, in particular, had been a flurry of preparations, calls, Skypes, texts, all times of the day and night as things occurred to people and plans were made, but now they had been out of contact for nearly twenty four hours as they made their way across the world.
‘I’m just not used to not getting texts from him, Lau.’
As often happened, Matt seemed to have tapped into my thoughts.
‘I know. It’s not like I text Amy that much, or I didn’t think I did, but a few times today I’ve seen something or read something, and thought it would make her laugh, and I’ve pressed the message button, and then remembered, but I can tell her in person in – less than seven hours.’
We smiled at each other, eyes sparkling.
‘Did yuh hear Josh Facetiming Tom earlier?’
‘Yeah, he made me laugh, he told Tom he was glad he was coming back because he’d missed playing in the long grass.’
‘That garden’s not going to know wha’s hit ih.’
‘Ha ha. The full force of the Summers clan. Tomorrow, Matt – they’re going to be here tomorrow, we can just pop up the road and see them.’
‘Yeah, well, some of us can’t pop as quickly as we used to, but ih’s a bloody sight nearer than Perth. We won’t have tuh think about wha time ih is there, it’ll be the same as ih is here.’
‘Josh and Ella can go there after school, we can have them all here after school –’
‘Oh, I thought we were saying things we were looking forward to.’
‘You love it, Rosa on your knee telling you secrets, pretending not to notice Tom and Josh tying your shoelaces together, Charlie and Ella on the dance-mat –’
‘Hours afterwards wihping the sticky fingerprints ohf the telly an picking bihs of Cheesy Wotsit out of my hair. Ih’s a bloody good job weh didn’t have any more, we’d need bouncers.’
‘Who says we’re not having any more? There’s always a chance.’
We had finally stopped actively trying for another baby about five years ago, when it just got too much, the monthly disappointment, and we realised how much greater the chance of having a baby with some kind of abnormality was as we were getting older. Although we had started using contraception again, a part of me wasn’t prepared to give up and I still felt, even at the age of forty-three, that it wasn’t too late if nature decided to play ball with us and we wanted to take a shot.
‘Yeah, fading fast, Lau. Even if I wasn’t a dog’s breakfast down there, we’re getting on a bih, our equipment’s not wha it was.’
‘Speak for yourself. My equipment still happens to be spick and span, thanks.’
‘Spick and span, eh? Which particular Enid Blyton book are yuh out of, then?’
‘Five Check Out Their Equipment. It’s one of the lesser known classics, banned for its graphic sexual content. Dick’s equipment was always in perfect working order. Timmy the dog, well, sadly he’d had the chop early on, and as for – oh, who was the girl who wanted to be a boy?’
‘Couldn’t tell yuh, but I think I see where this is goin. Naughty Enid, then, who’d have thoht.’
‘Yeah. We should check the children’s bookshelves, just in case a contraband copy has slipped through.’
‘I hear black mahket Blyton is much soght after in the plahground.’
I looked at the clock again and put on my whiniest back-seat-of-the-car voice.
‘Oh isn’t it time to go yet?’
Matt put on a voice that sounded uncannily like my mother.
‘Another coffee? Stop us falling asleep on the way?’
‘Yeh, that’d beh great. I’ll need to keep awake up the motorway, keep yuh company.’
I was going to be driving, as Matt was recovering from his latest flare up of MS and still not confident of either his braking or his steering. The more severe symptoms hadn’t lasted as long, but had returned about eighteen months after the previous relapse had ended. As his mobility improved and the slur in his speech became less pronounced, Matt’s mood lifted and his confidence returned, and things were going pretty well for him at the moment. Raiders had been very accommodating, and had allowed him to reduce and increase his hours as his condition worsened and improved, and work from home when he needed to. They recognised that Matt worked hard, loved his job, and was very good at it, and they didn’t want to lose his expertise.
Finally it was time to wake the children up and get in the car. Ella and Josh hardly woke up before they were asleep again, and Matt nodded off soon after we got on the motorway, despite all the coffee.
I was following Jay, who was under strict instructions to drive slowly enough for me to keep up, but Beth must have fallen asleep as the speed gradually crept up.
We stayed in convoy on the motorway until Mum fell asleep and was no longer saying ‘slow down and wait for everyone James’ every ten seconds, then Dad put his foot down and sprinted away. Lau didn’t drive fast, and left to her own devices could have ended up in Inverness rather than Heathrow, after a tour of Britain and a nice sing, so I stayed with her, me and Ayesh singing to my iPod under the starry skies.
I dropped back, not willing to go as fast as Jay, and his large four by four sped off ahead. Cal was behind me, and he stayed with me. I knew the way anyway, and I didn’t need to follow Jay to know where I needed to go – I always got where I was going in the end. Maybe I sometimes took a bit longer, but there were always interesting things to see on the journey. We were going to get there in plenty of time, the plane wouldn’t be landing for hours, but we wanted to be sure we were all there when it did.
Getting the sleepy occupants out of our car when we arrived wasn’t an easy task. Matt didn’t get any easier to wake up, and Ella and Josh had been asleep the whole way. I was fighting a losing battle, getting one awake only for the others to fall asleep again. In the end Cal and Ayesha woke up Josh and Ella and persuaded them out of the car while I pinched and shook Matt awake.
‘Mmph … no … too early.’
‘Matt, we’re here, at Heathrow.’
‘Wha? Ih’s … day off … go ‘way.’
I pinched the back of his hand, and that got his attention, just as I was about to resort to the kissing method. His eyes opened blearily and looked at me, then he rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair.
‘Are weh hehr? I dinht sleep the whohl way, did I?’
‘Shih, Lau, why did yuh let meh? I was gona keep yuh awake, sing yuh songs and set yuh a quihz. It was a bloody amahzing quihz.’
‘Well, you’ve never tried to wake you up when you’re fast asleep, but it’s hard enough when your hands aren’t full of steering wheel, so I had no chance, really. Come on, everyone’s waiting for us.’
We sat and drank more coffee while we waited, watching the skies lighten through the windows, and the flight numbers appear and disappear on the boards.
Finally the Arrivals board announced that their flight had landed, and we headed off to the gate to wait for them. None of us could stop smiling. It had been too bloody long. Mum and Dad had been out to Australia once to see them, but nobody else had made it, and to have them in touching distance again was going to be awesome.
Mum leaned on the barrier, unable to stop jiggling with impatience. She hated not being in control of things, and the whole lot of them had been out of contact for more than twenty-four hours while they were on their way. We just had to wait until we saw them come round the corner, but Mum wasn’t one of life’s waiters. Ella and Josh were finding it hard, too, and Lau kept finding things to take their mind off it, like little snacks she’d brought, or giving them little quizzes. Matty was usually the quiz-master, but he was distracted today. He’d really missed Dec, more than he would ever admit, and he was jiggling with his eyes fixed on the corner almost as much as Mum was.
It was Charlie we heard first. She was the most raucous Summers, and it was her ‘come on, Rosa, don’t be so slow‘ that we heard first. We recognised it, even though there was an Australian accent to it, as it was so bossy. And I looked at Dad, and Mum looked at Lau, and Matty straightened up, and then we heard Amy, and then Dec laughed, and then they were all there, taking up the whole corridor, and then they saw us and they were running towards us and we met at the barrier, hugging and kissing and smiling and laughing and suddenly noticing how different they all were with their sun-bleached hair and how the hell had the kids all got so tall but how really the same they all were and how great it was to see them again, how truly great, and how much we’d missed them, but now they were back, and we were all together again.
I think I get it now, what holds our bloody enormous sprawl of a family together. Declan Summers. If it wasn’t for him, we’d just be a normal family, mum, dad, two kids, we’d see Gran every so often, we’d see Matty every so often, it would be, you know, a good family but that would be it. Dec is kind of a magnet. Without him, we sort of start drifting away from each other, just slightly. He pulls us all towards the centre, without even realising he’s doing it. I think it started when we nearly went our separate ways, back when I was little and he was a teenager. He realised, at the same time that Mum and Dad realised, that he was part of our family, and he was so relieved not to have lost it all, that he’s always clung on extra tight to us all, so tight that it attracts other people who would have otherwise been on the fringes too, like Nico. It’s become the norm that anyone who’s attached to any of us gets pulled in to ‘the family’, and rather than it feeling too big, or overwhelming, it just gets bigger and noisier and better.
When Dec was in Australia, we were a little bit lost without him, and when he came back, it was like something immediately clicked back into place.