122. Far away

In which a family is separated by half a world for a while.

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Matt

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?’

‘Yes, Daddy.’

‘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.

Laura

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.

Matt

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.

Dear Matt

I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it.

Julia

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.

Iz

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.

Matt

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.

o0o

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.

Lau: OK.

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.

o0o

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.

‘Rain.’

I was shivering too much to say more than a syllable at a time.

‘Shit, you’re fucking soaked.’

‘Mm.’

‘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?’

‘Cold.’

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.

‘Heh.’

‘Matt, Jenna said you were out in the rain.’

‘Yeh.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Phy … si … o.’

‘Are you shivering?’

‘Mm.’

‘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.’

‘Not laughing.’

‘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?’

Laura

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.

Matt

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.

Cal

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.’

‘Which is?’

‘Big bluh squahr, white S. Mohron.’

‘Yep, got it, oh, it’s ringing. Is it supposed to do that?’

‘G’day mates!’

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.

Laura

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?’

‘Patiehce, LauraLou.’

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.

Cal

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.

Laura

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.’

‘Matt.’

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?’

I nodded.

‘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.

Cal

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.

The Philpotts Letters – 9

Days disappear and my world keeps on changing, I feel you here and it keeps me sane (Dream Theater)

Days disappear and my world keeps on changing, I feel you here and it keeps me sane (Dream Theater)(although strictly speaking it should be Dream Theatre, but hey, they’re American, maybe they’ve suffered enough)

Dear Awesome Children

Well this is a doozy. Really wasn’t expecting this one, at all. You know how sometimes, something is just there, but you so don’t want it to be that you kid yourself that you’ve completely forgotten about it, as if forgetting about it means it’s not there, and possibly never existed? Maybe I’m not making any sense.

So, I’ve got this thing, this fucking enormous bloody huge thing, in my head, or my nerves, or just somewhere in my body, and it’s always going to fucking well be here and I hate it, I just hate it so fucking much, that even though it’s fucked me up twice in my life already, I decided to ignore it when it went away last time, as if that would ensure it never came back.

It’s not even like it’s something physically there, like a tumour, that I could have cut out or, I don’t know, shrunk with fatal doses of radiation or some such shit. No, this fucker lurks around, waiting until you’ve got complacent, then it comes back and takes your legs from under you. Literally.

Now, I find it hard, even after all this time, to name my old nemesis. I call it the fucking bastard. But its real name is multiple sclerosis, and it really is the fuckingest of bastardy bastards because it visits for a while, then it buggers off, but it always takes a little souvenir with it, like your ability to say ‘it’, or some of the strength in your right knee, or a bit of your vision.

Anyway, I’m sure if you’ve lived with me for any length of time, which by the time you get to read this, if I ever deem it appropriate, you will have, you’ll know all about the fucking bastard. You’ll probably know more than me, because I am bloody great at not thinking about it, not finding out about it, not wanting to know.

This is very unlike me, because I want to know about everything. I am always looking up words I don’t know when I read, or Googling things that catch my interest, and I research the fuck out of everything before I make any major decisions. But this, this is different. I feel like it knows me from the inside out, and I do not want to get any more acquainted than I already am. It scares me bloody shitless, it’s as if I’m being stalked from inside my own body.

Anyhow, though, cathartic as these ramblings are, they’re not really getting to the point – the point of all the freaking. The point is you guys.

See, the fucking bastard is back. It made its entrance pretty spectacularly this time, and it nearly broke me. Thank God for your mum – she sorted me out, as she always does, and as long as I have her to hold on to, I’ll be alright, you know, in relative terms.

And if it was just me and your mum, I’d be OK, I think. I’d have nothing to freak about (but I probably still would, just for old times sake). However, there is the two of you (or should that be ‘are the two of you’? A bit shaky on the old grammar) and I’m just thinking about how this is going to affect you, what it’s going to mean to you to have a fucking cripple as a dad.

I mean, all the things I might not be able to do in years to come – Father of the Bride speech at your wedding, Ella. My unintelligible bollocks could well fuck that up. Playing football in the park with you, Josh. Possibly a bit closer on the event horizon than Ella’s wedding, I grant you. You both having to explain to your friends, and maybe their parents, what’s wrong with me. I want to protect you from all that, from everything, from people thinking I’m shit-faced, and you being embarrassed to be seen with me (I mean more embarrassed than just because I’m your dad, because, obvs, being seen with your dad anyway is, like, sooooo embarrassing – do you like the way I’m channelling future teenage you guys, even though you’re only five, and still think I’m cool?).

If there were anything I could do to shield you from this, I would. I can’t think of a single fucking thing. Well, I did think of one thing, but it would have done for me, and your mum didn’t even let me consider it. I could have left you, so you could get on with it without me. I offered, you know, nobly, but your mum just got pissed off with me, for which I was mightily grateful and not a little relieved. But sometimes I just wonder if it wouldn’t be better for all of you if I was just … not here.

But then, I lived all my life without my dad, and I can’t say that did me much good, so maybe it’s better for you to have a fucking cripple rather than nothing.

I love you guys. You are my life, and I will do everything in my power (which is currently akin to an almost discharged triple A battery) to be the best dad I can be. At the moment, it doesn’t feel like my best will be anywhere near good enough.

Yours in the fucking bastard

Dad xxx

121. Like it’s over

In which old friends tread a well worn path, and a dreaded event has to be faced.

Laura

Matt had finally called everyone who had tried to contact him, reassuring them, thanking them, sounding normal, convincing himself as much as them that there was nothing to worry about.

As he started texting, I thought about how much he needed it, to be normal, and how much he was going to fight what was likely to happen to him in the weeks ahead. I mentally prepared myself for a trying time. I’d spent most of the day worrying about Matt, chasing after him, reassuring him, holding him. With the return of his MS, and with both of us having to get used to Dec and Amy moving away, we were going to have to look after each other. It couldn’t just be down to me. I felt my lips tremble as I faced the enormity of it all.

Matt

As I looked at Lau, to reassure myself she was here, this paragon of all that was my rock, I saw a tear slide down her cheek, and her lips did that wobbly trying not to cry thing.

‘Fuck, Lau. Hey, baby, don’t, no, no.’

I couldn’t cope with Lau breaking down, not now. Admittedly I’d been pretty much ignoring her since we got in, intent on my self-flagellation by iPhone. She needed some TLC too, her day had been almost as shit as mine. Oh come on Matt, it could easily have been twice as shit, you’re not the only person to be affected by your little dramas.

I reached inside me to the place where the rest of my strength was. I found some somewhere, enough to reach out to her, be there for her.

‘Oh you’ve been so fucking awesome today. Here –’

I reached up and wiped the tear away, as Lau sniffed and blinked, trying to stop herself. She needed to know I was with her, ready to face it. Even if I wasn’t.

‘– I’ve finished texting now, at least the important ones. We need to chat properly, don’t we.’

Laura

‘Really?’

Matt never volunteered to talk, he always needed to be cajoled or tricked into it.

Matt

I could see how surprised she was. I never volunteered to talk, she nearly always had to bully or trick me into it.

‘Yeah. Oh, I really, really don’t feel like ih, but we need to get things straight, don’t we. I can’t have you carrying me, you’ll break.’

She’d done enough carrying today to last me a lifetime.

Laura

‘And you’re too heavy. Maybe I need a crane.’

I smiled weakly at him, pleased I wasn’t going to have to explain this to him. He’d changed a lot from the uncertain, self-centred man I’d met, to someone who looked outside himself and knew what to do to support the people he loved.

Matt

It was a pretty feeble joke, and she smiled apologetically in recognition of the fact.

‘Yeah, so practical and literal Lau, you know what I mean. Today, well, it made me realise, as if I didn’t already, how much I need you. And if I rely that much on you, you need someone to rely on too. Now, hopefully that will be me, but the way things are going, I don’t know if I’m going to be much sodding use to you in a few – what – weeks, months. We need to talk about what we’re going to do. Shit, I fucking hate asking for help, but maybe we need to, see what the combined forces of Scott UK, now incorporating our Australian division, can do. Fuck it, I still can’t believe they’re going to the other side of the fucking world.’

It burned through me again as I said it, but not saying it wasn’t going to make it not happen.

‘Matt, I love that you want to talk about this, but I think maybe we both just need to digest it all a bit first. You’ve been great just now, phoning everyone, telling them you’re OK, putting everything right. But you’re not OK, it’s not all right. Yeah, asking for help is important, but I think the first thing we need to do is just be together, see how it all works out for a few days. Yesterday, we realised your MS is back. Today, Dec told you he’s moving to Australia, which is big, upsetting news, and it’s affected you enough that you messed up your presentation. We need to get our heads round it before we make any decisions.’

She was, as usual, spot on. My head hadn’t caught up with everything yet, it wasn’t the time to be doing ‘let’s talk about the future’. I was hardly likely to be thinking straight, if recent events were anything to got by.

‘I was trying to have my sensible head on, kind of going ‘what does Matt usually hate doing but everyone badgers him until he does it’, and I thought if we ask right now, all that hassle will be one less thing.’

‘I know, my love, and I’m so proud of you for thinking that. We will, we can decide that now. No ignoring phone calls, no saying ‘no thanks’ when we should bite people’s hands off if they offer, no getting stressed about how it might look if one of us can’t do something on our own. Decision made. But I think, for tonight, we can just be Matt and Lau, and Ella and Josh, family time. You need an early night, maybe a warm bath and a cuddle from your adoring family. Tomorrow we can make plans. Tonight is for us.’

Oh she did it, every time. I’d thought I was going to be comforting her, but her tears were dry now, and she was just making everything OK, for tonight. There would be fall out, I was likely to be a pain in the arse about many things, but right now, that was top drawer.

‘Sounds fucking perfect, Lau.’

‘What would be even more perfect, is if you stopped swearing before the children get back. I know today’s been, well, stressful probably fails to describe it, but …’

And I loved that even though I was a fucking lunatic, and in a fragile state, or some such shit, she still had a go at me about the important things.

‘I know. Sorry. Matt Scott’s default position, lots of obscenity. Point taken.’

‘What do you want to do now?’

I looked at her, wanting to let her know truthfully how deep in it all I still was.

‘Honestly? Find somewhere dark and quiet and drink myself into oblivion.’

‘Would it help?’

I knew she was saying it would be OK, if that was what I wanted to do, just for tonight, but I sighed. A big part of me thought it would help a lot, right now, to just forget it all in a whisky-induced stupor. But there was always the waking up. That was worse.

‘No, I suppose not. This is hard, Lau. It was hard last time, but I kind of felt like, I dunno, I deserved it or something, with what happened with Jules and how I was before, all the playing the field shi – er stuff I used to do. This time, I don’t know what I’ve done.’

Lau frowned and shook her head.

‘You know it doesn’t work like that, it’s not a punishment, it’s a neurological condition. It doesn’t sit in your brain judging you.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I know that, really, logically, but I keep thinking, what did I do to make it come back? I haven’t been stressed, I’ve been happy, work, family, life in general, all good. Before, breaking up with Jules, well OK, maybe not a punishment, but a trigger. First time, I was seriously stressed at work. This time, all hunky dory. I just don’t get it.’

‘You know there’s no one cause, don’t you.’

We’d had similar discussions, many times. I needed a reason, an answer, something to point to and say ‘if I hadn’t done that’, or ‘if that had been different’, but there just wasn’t the luxury of being able to blame something or someone.

‘Yeah, I suppose so. Just looking for something to make sense of it.’

‘That’s a waste of energy. You’re better off making sense of where you’re heading, rather than where you’ve been. Lau’s Life Lessons.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, you’ve got a thousand of those, haven’t you. Where are you heading, Lau?’

‘Not sure, but I’m going there with this amazing man, who’s just faced up to two of his biggest fears, and has the most lovely little bum a girl could ever wish for. He makes me feel safe and loved and as long as he’s with me, I don’t care where I go.’

I pulled a doe-eyed face at her.

‘Aw, Lau, you are so soppy.’

‘I know.’

‘I love it.’

‘I know.’

‘I love you.’

‘I know.’

‘You’re a bit of a know-all.’

‘I know.’

‘I think I just saw Dec walk past with the kids.’

‘I know.’

Laura

The four of us spent the rest of the evening snuggled up on the sofa together, in front of the fire, wrapped up in a couple of blankets. We put DVDs on for the children, but none of us really watched them. Ella and Josh told us excitedly about how Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa were going to live in Australia with Dec and Amy, and they were going to have kangaroos in their garden and could we go and see them in the holidays.

A bit of gentle probing revealed that they didn’t really have any idea how far away Australia was, so we looked on a map, and decided that it was quite a long way to go for a game of football, but that we could use Daddy’s computer to talk to everyone really often.

‘Daddy, can we talk to them on your computer now?’

‘They’re only just up the road now, Squeaks. And you’ve only just seen them.’

‘Yes, but you need to check if it works.’

‘Well, I suppose you have a point. She gets it from you, Lau, being right all the time. Very irritating. Alright, bring my iPad. If we squish in close they’ll be able to see us all. I doubt they’ll all fit on the screen. Dec probably hasn’t got his turned on anyway. OK, Squeaks, you press this button and that tries to call Dec’s iPad, or his phone.’

She pushed the screen where Matt showed her. There was a short pause, and a ringing tone, and we looked at the picture of us all looking back at us all. Then the picture changed and Dec’s face appeared.

‘Oh, hey guys, haven’t done this for ages. Whoa, you look comfy.’

‘Dec, we’re practising for when you’re in Australia, so we can play football on the computer.’

‘Ha ha, no Squeaks, we can only talk. But yeah, mate, bit of a practice seemed in order.’

‘Great to see you all. Here, if I just go into the living room we can squeeze a few more Summerses into the picture – look, here’s Ames, and Tom and Gracie. Rosa’s in bed, and Charlie’s – babe, where’s Charlie?’

The picture wobbled as Dec walked through his house and forgot what he was doing while he talked to Amy. We heard Amy’s voice, but could only see Dec’s feet.

‘She’s doing some sticking for school tomorrow.’

‘Dec, mate, great feet, but we’d rather see something more interesting.’

‘Oh, fuck, sorry.’

The picture wobbled again and we could see Tom, Gracie and Amy sitting on their sofa.

‘Wave, guys.’

‘Who are we waving at, hon?’

‘Matt, Lau, Josh and Ella. They’re practising their Facetiming. Hey, I’m gonna sit down here, so I can get in the shot.’

The screen blurred and wobbled again, and when it settled down we could see a view of the living room.

‘You need to change the view, mate.’

‘What?’

‘Picture of a camera with a circular arrow in ih. Press it.’

‘Oh.’

The image changed, and we saw Dec sitting with his family.

‘Oh cool.’

‘Daddy, I think Dec needs some practice too.’

‘Yeah, Josh, I think so. Tom will sort him out, won’t you, Tom.’

Tom nodded, and looked back seriously.

‘OK, guys, just a test run, all went well, Roger over and out. Press that button, Squeaks.’

She touched the screen again, and we disconnected.

‘Daddy, who is Roger?’

‘Ha ha, it’s not a person, it means OK.’

‘Why does Roger mean OK?’

‘Er, do you know, I’m not sure. Maybe Mummy knows, she seems to know everything, usually.’

‘Mummy, why does Roger mean OK?’

I wrinkled my nose at Matt, not grateful to have been put on the spot. I doubted Matt didn’t know; he knew all sorts of useless facts like this.

‘Isn’t it something to do with pilots in the war?’

‘See, I said she’d know. Hey, let’s look it up.’

Matt Googled the term and Ella and Josh snuggled in closer as Matt set off on one of his internet surfing sprees. They loved watching as Matt got sidetracked, looking up videos on YouTube, finding pictures of things, looking on forums and in chat-rooms, and I watched the three of them, entranced at the effect the children had on Matt. I had no sense that he was having to pretend to them, that he was struggling to be happy with them. If anyone was going to help him through the months and probably years to come, it was going to be his son and daughter.

Matt

The day’s events caught up with Lau and me not long after the kids had gone to bed. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and we both stumbled up the stairs yawning.

Infuriatingly, once I was in bed, sleep wouldn’t come. Lau was dead to the world, but I just lay on my back, trying not to go over it all. Finally, I’d had enough, and I grabbed my phone and headed downstairs. I knew what I needed, who I needed to talk to, and just hoped it wasn’t too late.

‘Up for some arsing about?’

There was no reply, and I assumed Dec either had his phone on silent, or was asleep and just didn’t hear the text. He’d had a pretty full-on day too.

I flicked the TV on, with the sound muted, random images shifting over my eyes as I tried to make myself think of nothing. I didn’t hear the tapping at first, or at least it didn’t permeate my consciousness. Then my attention shifted, and I was aware of a light scratching on the window. It could have been a branch on one of the rose bushes, but it seemed too regular.

I got up and peered out from behind the curtain, nearly staggering backwards as Dec’s face confronted me just inches from my own, with only a pane of glass between us. He pointed to the front door, and I quickly opened it to let him in.

‘Holy shit, Summers, yuh could have let me know ih was you. You scared the bloody bejesus out of me.’

‘Sorry, mate. Just thought of you here in the dark sending secret ‘help me’ text messages, and before I knew what I was doing, I’d pulled on my trainers and here I was.’

I had a closer look at Dec’s attire; he was indeed wearing an old sleeping shirt, some pyjama bottoms, and trainers without socks.

‘Usually a phone call suffihces.’

‘Special circs, mate.’

I didn’t need to ask what they were.

‘Any chance of a drink?’

‘I think the occasion couhd warrant a beer. Or I could do yuh a nice camomile tea if yuh –’

‘Fuck off with your namby pamby tea shit. Bottle of your finest cold ones will be just great.’

He followed me into the kitchen and watched as I opened two bottles of beer, and took the one I offered him. We stayed there, both of us leaning against the counter, not speaking for a while, sipping out of the bottles.

‘Well go on then.’

Dec looked at me, head tilted.

‘Wha?’

Although I knew what, and had been trying to think how I was going to put any of it into words.

‘You text me in the middle of the night, as if it’s five years ago, like when this all happened last time, and you needed to talk. Or maybe it’s, shit, ten years ago and you needed rescuing from some party, or you needed me to help you find your fucking trousers. We’re not at a party, and you seem to have your fucking trousers. So spill.’

I looked at him, wondering how it was possible to have so much history with someone, to have someone know you so completely well, without actually being related to them, married to them, or indeed having any romantic feelings towards them at all.

‘I dunno Dec, I’m soh fucking tired of spilling. I’ve been spilling most of the day, since Lau came and got me, and the more I spill, the worse ih gets. Ih’s all just spinning round in my head. Maybe I shouldn’t have texted yuh. I just wanted something to feel the same, like something in this fucked up baboon’s arse of a day hadn’t changed, unlike the rest of life as we know ih. I just wanted to text yuh, and yuh to know what ih meant, and now here yuh are, and yuh do. You can sod off home again, if yuh want.’

Dec looked at me, one eyebrow raised, tapping the neck of his beer bottle against his cheek.

‘Hmm. Matt is saying he doesn’t want to chat, and is trying to get rid of me. Well isn’t that sounding bloody familiar.’

‘Fuck off. I’m serious, I really don’t think I can do any mohr bloody talking. Not tonight. I’ve got nothing left.’

Dec fixed me with a level gaze.

‘OK, have it your way. How about, though, I do some talking. You don’t have to say anything, just listen. You can doze off if you like, but I’m still going to say it.’

‘Say wha?’

‘Well, I’m going to start by apologising. I know this shit with me signing for Speeders couldn’t have happened on a worse day for you.’

I didn’t want to let him go there, feeling guilty about it.

‘Noh, Dec, don’t say tha –’

‘Ah ah, you weren’t going to talk, remember? That means not speaking. Shutting your bloody gob for once.’

He wasn’t going to let me get away with interjections of any sort, it seemed.

‘OK, let’s start at the beginning. Me and you, we’ve helped each other out, at different times, in different ways, more often than I can count. You like to think you’re all ‘I don’t need anyone’, but you’re not a loner, and you’ve always needed people more than you’ll ever admit. You’ve got Lau now, we all know that, but before Lau, you had me, and you had Jay and Beth if only you’d have let them be there.’

I was scowling at him now. I didn’t text him so he could come over here and tell me how things were. I texted him so … I actually didn’t have a clue. But he was here, and it felt like maybe he was going to say shit I needed to hear, so I pinned back my ears and listened to my mate telling it like it was. Doesn’t mean I had to enjoy it.

‘Yeah, you can take that bloody look off your face, you know what you’re like. But anyway, I know you’ve always had my back, and I’ve always had yours, and it’s meant a lot to me, because you didn’t have to be my mate, just because Jay and Beth made me part of their family. And now I’m going off for a bit, and it’s been one of the hardest things, knowing you’re not going to be just down the road, ready with a beer, or help with the laptop, or a sarcastic comment, or just to arse about with, because I’m going to be leaving you behind, and just when things have got really shit for you.’

‘Dec, stop. Please.’

I didn’t know if I could just listen to this. Today had already been too full of emotion, and any more was likely to be too much.

‘No. Matt, I didn’t come here intending to blurt out all this shit. But now I’m doing it, I’m bloody well doing it. Maybe it’ll upset you, maybe it’ll upset me, I don’t give a fuck. It’s about time we bloody well grew up and faced shit, isn’t it? You’re my best mate, and I’m sorry I’m flying to the other side of the world, not just for you, but for me. I’m going to bloody well miss you. But I’ll be back, I promise you that. And if you ever need me, need me to be here, then you just text me in the middle of the bloody night, and I’ll be on the next plane.’

‘Or maybe weh could just Skype, ih’s a damn sight cheaper.’

‘Ha! Oh you bastard, don’t make me laugh, I’m being all serious here.’

‘Yeh, too much serious now. Oh come here yuh silly arse, give meh a man hug and be done with it. Tha’s wha yuh really came round for, isn’t ih.’

Dec put his beer bottle down, as did I, and we hugged, briefly and fiercely.

‘You got me there, I’ve been thinking about doing that all day.’

‘I bet yuh have, can’t beat one of Matt Scott’s masculine cuhdles. They’re sought after all over the cihty.’

‘Ha, tell me about it mate. Do you remember that woman, oh what was her name … Alexis? She wouldn’t stop bloody hugging you. You brought her to Beth and Jay’s one Sunday, and every five minutes it was ‘oh Matt, your family’s so funny’ cuddle cuddle ‘oh Matt, thank you for inviting me here’ hug hug ‘oh Matt, will you really give me a lift home’ grope grope. Iz nearly scratched her eyes out.’

‘God, I had sohm near disasters, didn’t I.’

‘You had some full-on actual living nightmare fucking disasters, mate. Nothing near about them. How many times did I have to fetch you from that house near the railway bridge? I still can’t work out how you didn’t know that’s where you were going, every fucking time.’

‘Housemates. Pulled a different one each time. Didn’t ask the address, just got in the taxi. They were all fucking crazy bitches. One of them had this dog, and she’d dress it up like Michael Jackson and video it wagging it’s tail along to Beat It.’

‘Well you can’t say you haven’t lived a bit, can you?’

‘I guess not. Thanks mate. I know you’ve put up with a lot of shit from me, more than I deserve.’

Dec sighed again. ‘It’s not about deserving, I learned that a long time ago. Shit happens, life happens, and you make the most of what you’ve got to help you through it. And if what you’ve got is an iPhone and a mate on the other end of it, that’s what you use.’

‘Yeah, well, works both ways.’

‘I know, mate. Know what, I’m going to need you on the end of that iPhone a lot the next year or so.’

‘Count on it.’

There was a short silence while we chugged more beer.

‘Sorry about the cake.’

‘Wha?’

‘The bloody Australia cake this morning. It just seemed like it was the last thing you would have wanted.’

I waved him away. It certainly hadn’t helped, but it had only been a tiny bit of it all.

‘I hope yuh saved me a piece. Where did ih come from?’

‘Where do you think? Beth made it.’

‘Wha? She only had fohr hours max. How the fuck … oh I jus bloody give up with that woman. She has superpowers beyond our ken.’

‘You’ve only just noticed that? You do know she has some kind of sonar instead of ears? She can hear every bloody thing everybody says, everywhere. It’s how she knows shit.’

‘Ah. I always wondered. So she’s listening tuh us now?’

The arsing about was just what I needed. We always ended up talking complete bollocks, going off on beer-fuelled flights of fancy, taking a walk on the stupid side of life, then strolling back round to reality.

‘Yeah, I expect so. Hi Beth.’

Dec waved in the vague direction of their house.

‘Fuck, she can’t bloody see us, can she?’

‘I think so. It’s the only way to explain how she knew I let those left over roasties go mouldy in the fridge and had to throw them out.’

‘Yuh let Beth’s roasties go mouldy? Yuh are so not worthy of receiving them in a doggy bag.’

‘Bloody hell I’m going to miss Beth’s roasties. I wonder if you can get them couriered over to Perth?’

‘I bet yuh could. They might have lost some of their crispiness, mind yuh.’

‘God, they’re so fucking crispy. Oh shit.’

‘What?’

‘I’m going to have to call Speeders, tell them I’ve changed my mind.’

‘Becahse of Beth’s roasties?’

‘Yeah. I’ll send some to them, then they’ll understand.’

‘Or … I could jus eat them for yuh. Double portions. I’ll describe the experience fuhly, even Skype me eating them.’

‘Fuck off, you know that would just be torture. And you’d be the size of a bloody bus.’

‘Doubt ih. They’ll soon all be force feeding me to stop me getting too skinny.’

Dec’s grin faded.

‘Ah don’t say that, mate. It won’t come to that.’

‘Yuh can’t say that. Ih might. Might need every last potato by the time ihs done with me.’

I was desperately trying to cling on the mood I seemed to have killed, but it was drifting away, and Dec just looked at me, sadly.

‘Do you remember before, when you stayed with us?’

I nodded.

‘I’m glad you don’t need that now. I’m glad you’ve got Lau, and your kids. They’ll make the difference this time, mate.’

I looked down at my feet for a second, before glancing up.

‘I wish I didn’t have to do ih tuh them, though. They shouldn’t have to put up with a fucking cripple of a dad. Lau shouldn’t have tuh be the one who wipes my arse.’

‘I bet you Lau’s wiped more arses than you’ve had that fancy cheese on toast you like to call croque monsieur. I’m pretty sure she’s quite attached to your arse, too.’

‘Yeh, which is why she shouldn’t have tuh fucking wipe ih.’

The thought of it was making me angry, and ashamed.

‘Well you’ll just have to carry on wiping your own then, won’t you. Hey, you do realise that with your little tantrum this morning, you became both the family fucking cripple and family bloody nutter at the same time? Impressive.’

I shrugged. ‘Well with yuh leaving the country, I needed to make sure the title was in good hands. Don’t want just anyone walking off with the Scott Bluhdy Nutter championship.’

‘True. Look after it well, keep it warm for me.’

‘Mate, I’ll be posting ih to yuh before yuh’ve been out there a month. Yuh do know there are bloody enormous spiders in Australia.’

Yeah, Dec, the big rufty tufty rugby player, had an arachnid phobia.

‘Shit. I totally forgot the bloody enormous spiders. You don’t get them on rugby pitches, though, do you?’

‘I’m pretty suhr I saw this programme on Discovery that was about this spider that hides in the boot lockers at –’

‘Shit, shit, shut the fuck up. I know you’re only fucking about, but I can’t even think about it. Shit, I’m going to have to read up about the bloody spiders.’

‘Some of them ahr as big as yuhr hand.’

‘Yeah, I remember from when I was a kid. Fuck, one of my mates, he got in his dad’s car, in the front seat, and pulled the sun visor down, and this bloody enormous fucking monster spider landed in his lap. I was in the back seat. I beat him out of the car by a good two seconds. Fuck. Stop talking about it. Seriously. Or I’ll have to start remembering things you might rather forget, like screaming like a tiny girl at the hanging dead people in Sixth Sense –’

‘OK, yuh can never tell Lau about that –’

‘Or when you shut your dick in the toilet lid –’

‘I was pihsed.’

‘As a fart, although pissing would have been more sensible. Or when you –’

‘OK I get ih. No more eight legged terror tales.’

‘Finally.’

Dec drained his beer and put the bottle down.

‘I should get back. I told Ames I was going for a run.’

‘Yuh did not.’

‘You’re right. Ames was already out for a run. I left Charlie in charge.’

‘Shit, is that the sound of sirens I hear? Bloody hell, Dec, Australia’s not gona know what’s hit ih with yuhr mob. Charlie’ll be Prime Minister this time next year.’

‘Great. Then I can get her to ban spiders. Right, can’t stand here chatting, got some shut-eye to be having.’

Dec started to walk out to the hall, and I followed. As he reached the door, he put his hand on my shoulder, and stood looking at me for a few seconds, then opened the door and went home. God I was going to miss him.

Cal

And I guess that’s where it started for Matty, the beginning of the end, although it took a long time to end, but what he always called his bastard MS really was a huge bastard. It took him bit by bit, not only destroying his ability to walk and talk but taking his self-respect. Matty hated being dependent on anyone, although he would admit to needing Lau. It tore him up to even need to use his walking pole, and so when he eventually needed a wheelchair, or when he ended up in hospital all those times with pneumonia, you could see how much it got to him.

But I’m jumping ahead. This isn’t about Matty, I’ve already said that, although Matty was a huge, important part of my life. There are other things I’ve already missed out, maybe I’ll remember them and go back, maybe I’ll just get on with it now I’m here, seventeen years old, my girlfriend living in the same house, me on the brink of a career as a professional rugby player, my family just about to split apart for a few years while Dec follows his dream in Australia.

Laura

The weeks leading up to Dec and Amy leaving went too quickly. They put their house up for rent, and tenants were due to move in a few days after they left. Their flights were booked, accommodation the other end sorted, and a party organised by Beth. As the day approached, everyone seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for it to be over, the thing we were all dreading.

Matt had gone back to work, well supported by Raiders. His symptoms had continued to slowly reappear, but with no dramatic episodes like the one on the morning of his presentation. He contacted the MS service with no prompting from me, and made an appointment to see a counsellor – he had stopped going a year or two ago, but realised he needed to keep himself mentally well if he was going to cope with everything that life had suddenly thrown at him. Had he finally grown up? Ha ha, don’t be silly, this was Matt, and he was responding as he usually did, which was after a crisis, when he had no other choice. The thought of a grown up Matt is proper terrifying …

Matt

Those next few weeks were hard, for me. I mean they were bloody hard for Dec and Amy too, with all the arrangements they had to make, all the phone calls, trying to sort out accommodation from thousands of miles away, plane tickets, packing up their stuff, all that, yeah, I know it was tough and busy for them all. But for the ones who weren’t going, it was like some form of torture.

We couldn’t just be sad, we all put on this show of talking excitedly about the new house, the new club, looking at pictures of Perth on the internet, hearing them talk about schools; it just reminded us that it wouldn’t be four doors down, it wouldn’t be Raiders, it wouldn’t be here, it wouldn’t be St John’s Primary.

Beth, of course, threw a huge party, invited most of Devon, hangovers abounded for days afterwards. The house went up for rent, and tenants were sorted, most of their stuff went into storage, and cases were packed. They had organised nearly everything at the other end, booked flights, and then it was just waiting.

It was better when we weren’t just waiting. When stuff was going on, I could use it to divert me from the fucking bastard, which was making itself more and more evident as the days and weeks passed. I went back to work, Raiders were great, we agreed a way of working round as much of it as we could, while I was still able. I really didn’t want to go off sick, but I knew I might have to, I couldn’t risk anything going wrong because I was too stubborn to recognise my changing limits. And as the time came for Dec and his family to leave a Summers shaped hole in our lives, the fucking bastard upped its game, made me stagger and stumble, frequently had me spouting unintelligible bollocks, fucked with my vision.

To everyone’s surprise, including mine to some degree, I contacted the bastard MS service and got myself a new bastard MS nurse. It wasn’t Anna, who had moved on to something else; in fact, none of Lau’s old cronies still worked there, and that helped, that I was just Matthew Robert Scott, 42 year old male, who was having a flare-up of the bastard MS, no drama about it, and the nurse was a bloke called Stefan, he was about my age, and he was great.

I also saw Adam more regularly. I was still a fuck up, and things weren’t looking like getting unfucked any time soon, with the newest adventures. I wanted to make sure I was as good as I could be, mostly for Lau. I didn’t want her to shoulder all my shit, I wanted her to know I was talking about things, and that she didn’t always have to guess what I was feeling.

Laura

Dec and Amy’s going away party was enormous. Beth seemed to have invited most of the city, and had hired a huge warehouse on one of the industrial estates. It was an occasional business for Beth, now, and she had a lot of contacts in catering, lighting, DJing and everything else she needed, so the family was no longer needed to help out.

The enormous space was decorated in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ style, with palms and various different areas, although without the need to eat live insects, and Dec and Amy had a good send off.

We also had a marginally quieter family get-together, full of squealing children and one of Beth’s roast dinners. Matt’s mood was strange throughout. He told me later that he just wanted it to be over, for them to be gone, so he could get on with it, and then felt terrible about wishing they were gone.

Matt

And then the day dawned, the day we’d all been dreading, when Declan Summers and his tribe went away.

It was a Saturday, but even so, Beth was doing Sunday dinner, one of her roasts. Everyone was invited, and everyone was going. Everyone in the family, I mean. Everyone in the world had already been to the going away party to end all going away parties earlier in the week, this was just us, and I just wanted it to be over. Is that selfish? Just wanting all the goodbyeing to be done, them to be gone, so this awful waiting would be finished with?

Nobody else seemed to feel the same; everyone else seemed to be treasuring the days, hours, seconds, minutes, as if they were precious, and they were, I suppose, but they seemed pointless. All I could think of now, every time we were with Dec and his family, was that in three days, then two, then one, then nineteen hours, then fifteen, oh you get the picture, they wouldn’t be here. I don’t think I have ever dreaded an event more than midnight that night, when they would all be getting in a taxi and driving away, flying away from us for who knows how long.

It had been bad enough when the removals people came and took all their stuff to go into storage. Seeing their life packed up in boxes and crammed into the back of two lorries suddenly brought it home. They lived out of suitcases for a few days, camping out in the empty rooms and eating with us or Jay and Beth. The children were almost uncontrollably excited, and Dec and Amy were buzzing with arrangements and the thought of their new life. It was hard to pretend to be glad for them. Or rather, it was hard not to let my own sadness at their leaving tarnish any good wishes I might have for them.

I didn’t feel like smiling, I didn’t feel like playing along with the excitement and the planning, and I didn’t feel like telling them how great it was going to be. But I did all those things, ad infinitum or so it seemed, until finally it was the last day, and we were having Sunday lunch on Saturday, because the taxi was coming at midnight and they would be gone tomorrow. And I couldn’t do it any more I’d done too much smiling, excitement and planning, and to my shame, I spent that last day withdrawn and miserable.

I suppose none of us were too chatty; it seemed to have dawned on us that this big thing was actually happening, that six members of our family were leaving at once, and the gap they would leave would be huge, bigger than just their physical absence.

Beth tried her best, bringing out the board games when we all seemed to be sitting staring at each other, and we gave it a go, but long before anyone would usually have thought about going home, we all remembered things we were going to have to be doing that required us to be elsewhere.

As Beth saw us all start to get things together and call the children to order, she couldn’t help having one last tug on the heartstrings. Even though there had been speeches and toasts galore, cards and presents, hugs, kisses and handshakes, she wanted to hold on to it all for just a bit longer. I could understand it, I suppose.

‘Before everyone goes, can we just do this thing I thought of?’

We all looked at each other, resigned to doing what Beth wanted, recognising she was clinging on, trying to make a moment, trying to draw it out as long as she could. No one was about to deny her, but no one answered enthusiastically. Instead, we all just settled back in our seats and looked at her.

‘Well, I’ve got the iPad here, and I thought we could all just record either a wish or a memory of Dec or Amy or the children, and then maybe Matty, you could put it on a disk or save it or email it to us all.’

‘Suhr.’

That earned me a grateful smile that I really didn’t feel I deserved, as Beth aimed the iPad at me.

‘Whoa, noh way, Ih’m not stahting.’

It appeared nobody wanted to start, so Beth had to make the first stab herself. Cal did the filming honours, as Beth fixed her too-bright smile at the screen and started.

‘Well, my wish for you all is to have such a great time in Australia, to make lovely friends and do lovely things, and then to come home soon and tell us all about it and never go away again.’

‘Ha ha, Beth. We’ll do our best with the first bit, and definitely manage the second, for fuck’s sake, the amount of times I’ve told people, we’re coming back, we’re not going forever.’

‘Well that’s one wish that will come true, then, sweetheart, won’t it. Maybe I should have wished for one swear free day while I was on a roll.’

‘The phrase ‘in yuhr drehms’ springs tuh mind.’

‘Thank you Matty. Maybe you’d like to go now?’

I sighed. I supposed we were all stuck there now until we’d done as we were told, and I might as well get it over with.

‘Goh on then. Rehdy Cal?’

He pointed the iPad at me.

‘Yuh did say a memohry, righ Beth? Dec, I’m jus mehmbering yuhr face when Charlie hid yuhr car keys, then put them on the kitchen table after yuhd turned the place upsihd down.’

‘What? But that was only a week ago – what? Charlie put them there? I spent hours looking for them, I was late for that lunch thing. Oh you bastard, I might have known you’d had something to do with it –’

‘Yeh, the look was prehty similar tuh tha. Did yuh geh tha, Cal?’

Cal nodded.

‘That’s not quite what I had in mind, Matty.’

‘Oh, I thoht I got tuh choose my ohn mehmry.’

That silenced Beth.

‘Cahn I hahv a wish too?’

She looked sceptical, like she was regretting starting the whole business, and I relented.

‘A serious one?’

A nod, still suspicious.

‘OK. Dec, Amy, Suhmers trihbe, I wish yuh wehrnt going. Buh I hope ih’s not long befohr wehr back hehr being bohsed by Beth an fighting over the guhd seats. It wohnt beh the sahm when yuh cahn watch TV withouh an elbow in the nuts or a faceful of hair. Bon voyage.’

And so I started it off, and everyone added their bit, most more heartfelt and wistful than mine, and then it sparked off a kind of general reminiscing, where everyone was going ‘oh, and do you remember …’, and I looked at Cal and he was still recording it all, so I decided I would edit it all together, all the stilted sentimental shit, and the animated real shit.

And then finally it really was time for us all to go home. Dec and Amy’s four needed to have a nap, as they were going to be awake at midnight, and it didn’t feel right for us all to be there without them, so we all dribbled away.

Dec and Amy took Rose home, Rose who had hardly said a word all day, and looked pale and drawn. Lau had already decided we were going to adopt her while the Summerses were overseas, but I wasn’t sure Rose wanted adopting. She just wanted Dec and Amy and the kids not to go, and seemed to be having a harder time facing up to the reality of it than even I was.

We gave Mum a lift home. Mum wasn’t usually particularly chatty, but today she nattered in the back of the car to Josh and Ella, asking them about school, playing pretend games with Ella’s teddy, looking at Josh’s Action Man. As we dropped her off, she spoke very deliberately to the children.

‘Ella, you need to be extra good this week.’

‘Why Granny?’

‘Well, you and Joshua, really dear. Because your Mummy and Daddy are going to be sad that Declan and Amy have gone away, and I think they might need lots of cuddles. Isn’t that right, Matthew?’

I turned and looked at her, shaking my head slightly at her perceptiveness.

‘Yeh, Muhm. Althogh I always lihk cuhdles from Ella an Josh.’

‘But Granny, we’re going to Skype them or Facetime them tomorrow, so Charlie can show us her room.’

‘I know, dear, but it won’t be the same. Don’t forget now, lots of cuddles.’

Ella rolled her eyes and tutted, and Josh just looked at her, but they both said ‘OK Granny.’

‘I’ll call you tomorrow, dears.’

‘Thahks, Muhm.’

We got home, unloaded the children and set about as much displacement activity as we could think of, trying not to think of the family four doors down getting ready to leave. We went to the park and played cricket, came home and had a junk food picnic, watched a DVD with lots of songs to sing along to, let Josh and Ella stay up later than usual, had a bit of an iPad tour of the universe, and then the kids’ eyes were actually drooping, so we put them to bed. We had discussed letting them stay up to wave them all off with us, but in the end letting nature take its course was the best way, and reduced the amount of pleading and begging we needed to negotiate.

There were still a couple of hours to kill, and I was debating with myself the wisdom of staying up merely in order to wave at them as they departed. We’d already said our goodbyes, had the hugs, the quivery bottom lips, the meaningful looks, it felt like dragging the agony out.

‘I dunno, Lau, I migh not watch. I’m bluhdy wiped.’

‘What? We’ve got to send them off. We promised Beth.’

‘Well weh can fib, cahnt weh? Wha’s she gona say? How did ih goh? We jus say ‘oh they got in the taxi an drove off an we waved’.’

‘Are you really tired? Maybe you should get some sleep then, flower.’

Oh she was good. She knew that if she used the fucking bastard as my excuse, there’s no way on this earth I would go to bed. She also knew, somehow, that just suggesting I should go to bed and miss it made me not want to miss it. As she said it, I imagined going to bed and lying there in the dark knowing that in two hours, then ninety minutes, then fifty minutes, and counting, I was going to hear a taxi pull up. I was wiped, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep. You know when you’re going on holiday, and you have to leave at stupid o’clock for the airport, and you’re all excited because you’re going on holiday and you know you should catch some zzzs but you can’t possibly? This was like that only the complete opposite. As if I was going on holiday to the worst possible destination imaginable, and was guaranteed to have the shittest time ever.

I sighed. ‘No, I’ll stay up now. Fancy a game of Scrabble?’

‘Er … OK. I haven’t improved much since the last time you thrashed me, though.’

Lau was absolutely pants at Scrabble. She couldn’t spell for toffee, for a start, in fact she couldn’t even spell toffee, and she had never got the hang of using all the triple word scores where available; it was so easy to beat her that it wasn’t enjoyable playing, much as I enjoyed trouncing my opponents in all competitive activities. She also wasn’t that fond of my victory-fuelled celebrations, which were possibly slightly over the top, and it had therefore been a while since we’d got the board out.

‘Noh prohblem. I migh let yuh win tuhnight.’

‘Oi. I don’t need a pity victory, thanks. When I win, it will be through my own skill and perseverance.’

‘Alrighty then. Prepare tuh beh vanquished.’

As it turned out, I won. Big surprise. It passed the time, gave us something to think about other than the big event looming at the witching hour. My fingers were a bit shit at picking up the tiles, bastard MS and all, and I could feel myself getting tired, but now I’d definitely decided, or rather let myself be persuaded, that I was staying up, I was bloody well staying up.

‘What now, then? I think most of the games have pieces missing. I’ll play you at BattleStations if you like.’

‘Bluhdy hell, Lau, yuh mus beh desperate.’

Lau never played computer games, and had a serious disapproval of all war-based media.

‘Maybe I feel a bit like killing things.’

I looked at her, frowning.

‘How come?’

‘Same reason as you, tonight. A bit of stress relief. Come on, fire up the X-box, I’ll be the A Team.’

Maybe I should have explored it a bit more with her, but Lau was always so sorted, she always told me if she was feeling out of sorts, and what she needed to help her, and I guess she had just done that. Death and mayhem on a global scale was what she needed.

Half an hour later, and I had to surrender. There was only so much ‘die you evil git, die’ I could cope with hearing from my pacifist wife without it becoming too weird. She was pretty rubbish as well, and got us both killed more times than I care to recount, even though we were playing on team mode, and I was trying to cover her.

‘Stop, Lau. Tha’s it. Over the top fuh the last tihm.’

‘Oh. One more go?’

‘Noh. I dohnt think weh can get much deader.’

‘Fair enough. I’m going to finish off that bottle of wine. Fancy a beer?’

I looked at the clock. Eleven thirty. If that didn’t call for a beer, I don’t know what did.

‘Nice ohn.’

Lau came back in with our drinks, and we sat sipping in silence for a while. Then Lau put her glass down and took my beer out of my hands, placing it on the table next to her wine.

‘Kiss me.’

I never needed telling twice, and I gave her a tender kiss on the lips.

‘No, kiss me properly Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘Are yuh complaining abou my technique?’

‘No, there’s nothing wrong with your technique, it’s pretty damn perfect. I’d just like you to be a bit more … forceful.’

‘Rehly. Yuh hussy.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s nearly midnight, and I’d like to get to twelve on a wave of snogging rather than wrapped in a curtain of silence and regrets.’

‘Tha’s almost poehtry, Lau.’

‘I know. Stop flapping your tongue and stick it in my mouth.’

OK, so sometimes I did need telling twice, but then I got it. I stuck my tongue in her mouth, and honestly didn’t notice the passing of the next twenty minutes or so.

It wasn’t until Lau pushed me away, and I realised she wasn’t play-fighting, she was really pushing me away, that I stopped.

‘Taxi. I can hear it. Come on.’

My heart gave a great lurch, and I nearly didn’t make it to my feet. Lau held her hand out, and I clung on as she hauled me up from the sofa. She tried to smooth my hair down, but hers said ‘we’ve been sucking each other’s faces’ as much as mine and it wasn’t worth doing anything about.

We left the front door open and walked out onto the pavement. The big black cab was waiting, engine running, outside Dec and Amy’s house. Their front door was open, spilling light from the porch onto the drive, and as we watched, Dec came out carrying a sleeping Rosa, Amy followed herding Tom and Gracie, and Charlie brought up the rear, carrying a backpack. Dec and Amy put the children in the cab, then went back for several enormous suitcases.

As the last case was loaded into the boot, Dec turned and looked down the road. We hadn’t told them we were going to wave them off, but he’d had a last look anyway, as I’d thought he might, and he saw us there, arms round each other, watching. He held his hand up, and we made the same gesture back. Amy saw him looking, saw us, and went to stand by Dec, arm round his waist. We stood and looked at each other for a long moment, no words necessary, just great friends saying ‘farewell’ but not goodbye, hopefully not goodbye, and sending all kinds of unsayable things through the medium of it being dark and midnight. Then Dec gave Amy a squeeze, nodded at us, and they got in the taxi.

As the cab pulled away, I felt it all welling up in me. They were really gone. Tomorrow, when I woke up, they just weren’t going to be there. At that moment, my heart felt full of emptiness.

We watched the rear lights of the taxi until they reached the end of the road and turned out into the traffic, and then Lau pulled on my waist to bring me in. As she moved off, I realised I had been leaning on her more than I’d known, and maybe the bastard MS was upping its game. This just increased my desolation, and I felt a sob bubble up in my throat.

‘Come on, my love, let’s get in and go to bed.’

‘Hold meh, Lau.’

‘Yeah, flower, when we’re inside.’

She tugged me again, and I followed, in part because I would have fallen over without her supporting me.

Once we got inside, she carried on tugging until we were upstairs, and she practically threw me onto the bed. I stripped down to my boxers, as she pulled her sleeping shirt on, barely able to see through the tears that were brimming in my eyes.

‘Come here, then.’

She lay down and flung her arm wide, inviting me into her safety and comfort. I dived in.

I’m not ashamed to say that I cried for most of the night. Poor Lau hardly got any sleep, as I spilled it all out on her. I needed to, I needed to mourn their going, to admit to myself that a) they’d gone and b) it broke my heart. I knew I wasn’t going to be sad about it forever, I’d probably be a lot cheerier tomorrow, but that night I grieved as if they weren’t coming back. Lau cried too, but mostly she held me and comforted me and made me remember that the world wasn’t ending, it just felt that way temporarily.

120. Everybody hurts

In which a hiding place is found, and reparations are made.

Cal

I could hear Lau’s voice as she talked to Matty, but he didn’t seem to be replying. I wasn’t sure how long I should stay there waiting. I’d put my phone on silent, but I could feel it vibrating in my pocket. I didn’t want to look at my messages, because then I’d have to answer them, and I was pretty sure Matty wouldn’t want everyone knowing where he was. He particularly wouldn’t want Mum knowing where he was.

Laura

I walked over to him and sat beside him, the stone floor cold and hard against my bottom.

Matt

I heard footsteps walking over to me, and a rustle and a slight grunt as Lau sat down next to me. I still didn’t look up. If I just stayed here, like this, maybe she’d give up after a while, go home, leave me to it. Surely she would have had enough of me one of these days.

Laura

‘So this is where you got to. I thought it would have to be somewhere pretty special to drag me away from my Pilates class.’

No reply. I couldn’t see his face, could only read the stiff tension in the way he was sitting, hear his shallow breathing.

Matt

I tried my hardest, gave it a really good go, to ignore her and get back to my drifting, where I didn’t have to think of anything, where the world wasn’t one big fuck-up, where I could just float and nothing mattered. Didn’t work. The sense of Lau next to me, the scent of her, the sound of her breathing, it stopped me from going back. Didn’t stop me trying though.

Laura

I tried a different approach.

‘I can’t believe you never brought me here. Although it was a meeting place with an old flame, so fair enough, maybe you were being uncharacteristically diplomatic. It’s so quiet in here, you can’t hear the traffic at all, it’s like we’re in another world.’

Matt

Breezy chit-chat wasn’t going to do it. I had been more than half way to another place, and I wasn’t coming back easily, not just for a bit of gab about the weather, or old girlfriends, or whatever psychobollocks she was trying.

Laura

Still nothing. I sat for a while longer before trying again, feeling the cold from the flagstones seeping into my behind. Still all I could hear from Matt was his breathing; he wasn’t moving at all. If he had been sitting like that, his arms clamped over his head, his back hunched, for any length of time, his muscles would be cramping up, and he would be feeling very uncomfortable. However, if he was distressed enough, he might not even notice the physical discomfort. I tried some gentle cajoling.

‘Some people might say forty one, nearly forty two, is a bit old to be sulking like a teenager because a couple of things went wrong at school.’

Matt

Of all the things she could have said, calling me childish wasn’t what I was expecting. It riled me. Yeah, she’s very good at what she does, but at the time I hated it.

‘Some people should fuck off and mind their own business.’

I was shocked at the sound of my voice. It didn’t sound like me, rasping and raw as it was, and the words burst from me uninvited.

Laura

At long last, a response. Matt still had his head buried in his knees, as if he was in brace position on a plane, but speaking was a breakthrough.

‘Well, bad luck, I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

‘Leave me the fuck alone, Lau.’

I wanted her to go away. This place was just for me, I hadn’t come here so all and sundry could come and chat to me while I was doing this.

Laura

‘No, I’m staying.’

Especially now he was talking. Before he spoke, I was worried Matt had locked himself away somewhere I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t feel him, then. But now I knew he was coming back, slowly, from wherever it was he’d been.

‘You don’t have to talk to me, but I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

I started to imagine everyone else turning up one by one, each having their pop at me, trying to pull me out of it.

‘Who else did you bring? I heard Cal.’

Laura

This was even better. He was fighting me, getting riled up. He had looked like he was shutting down, but now he was thinking about the outside world, and although it seemed I might be in for a fight, I started to think things might not turn out so badly. At least today.

‘No one.’

Matt

Oh pull the other one, Lau.

‘Yeah, sure, I bet they’re all fucking lining up outside to come and have their fucking say.’

‘No one else knows we’re here. I needed Cal because I didn’t know exactly where this was. I asked him to wait, but I can ask him to go if you like.’

Well it would be something, I suppose.

‘Mm.’

Laura

I took that as a yes, and raised my voice so it would reach beyond the hedge.

‘Cal?’

He popped round the corner.

‘Yeah?’

‘I think we’ll be OK here. Can you let everyone know I’ve found Matt, but don’t tell them where we are. Oh, here –’

Cal

She tossed me her car keys, which considering I’d only passed my test a few months ago was very trusting.

Laura

‘– just in case, would you mind fetching Ella and Josh from school? They get out at three, take them to Amy’s. I’ll let you know if we need picking up.’

Cal

‘Sure thing. Oh, before I go –’

I decided to give Matty the benefit of some of my own brand of advice.

‘Matty, stop being such a fucking drama queen. So you dropped something and fucked a few words up. Get over it. Nobody’s fucking perfect. No reason to chuck your fucking laptop across the room.’

Matt

What? I hadn’t chucked my laptop, the fucking bastard had chucked my laptop. Shit, it was even worse than I thought, if everyone assumed I’d just thrown a complete wobbler.

‘Fuck off, Cal.’

Cal

Matty was still sitting in the same crunched up way, with his arms over his head, and he didn’t look up when he spoke, but Lau smiled at me and I winked at her before setting off for Lau’s car.

Matt

He fucked off, probably still smiling. Nothing much wiped the perma-grin off his face these days, since he stopped being the Cob-on Kid and hatched out into Mr Sunshine around his sixteenth birthday. Now he was seventeen, and loving life, with a Raiders career underway, a pretty girlfriend, oh he just had it all. I tried to hate him for it, but I couldn’t. He was Cal, he was my nephew, I could wish him no ill, even though he had it all to look forward to and I’d just had it all taken away.

Laura

There was a long silence. I sat and resisted touching Matt. I so wanted to, but he was tense and rigid, and emanating ‘hands off’ vibes, and I knew he wasn’t receptive to any type of touch just yet. I didn’t think I could cope with him shrugging me off, so I waited. I waited a long time. My bum went numb and my feet went to sleep. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate with calls or texts many times, but I didn’t look at it; I needed to focus on Matt.

Cal

I texted Mum and Dad to let them know Matty was OK, or at least that we knew where he was, and braced myself for Mum not leaving me alone for the rest of the afternoon. I left my phone on silent while I drove Lau’s car back home, because the sheer amount of pings and bleeps would have put me off and caused an accident. As it was, I could hardly concentrate for the amount of vibrating the bloody thing was doing.

Matt

I carried on sitting, wrapped up in myself, legs numb, back aching, with Lau sitting next to me. She wasn’t so close that she was touching me, and I hoped she didn’t, because I didn’t want her to, couldn’t handle it, her soft and comforting touch. I felt jagged and sharp, cut and broken, and I didn’t want to touch her while I was like this.

I thought again about what Cal had said, that I’d thrown the laptop. Of everything that had happened this morning, all the reasons I had to feel stupid, to know it was all over, this felt the most unfair. I hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, I hadn’t done any of it on purpose, but I just felt like whining ‘the bastard MS made me do it’.

‘Is that what they think?’

Laura

I was confused. It had been so long since either of us had spoken, I couldn’t remember what the last thing was that had been said.

‘Is what what who thinks?’

Matt

I was so used to Lau knowing what was going on in my head that it was weird when she couldn’t actually read my thoughts.

‘That I chucked my fucking laptop?’

Laura

‘Well, Jay and Cal both told me that’s what you did. Why, what happened?’

Better again. He was asking specifically about this morning, checking details. He could go there. There was another long silence.

Matt

I still could hardly think about it, let alone say any of it, and it took several breaths trying to start, knowing that if I did, that was it, no more floaty oblivion, just hard, cold, dealing with it. Finally, one more deep breath, and I took the leap.

‘Fucking spasm. I kept dropping the fucking remote, they were all laughing at me, so I went to use the arrow keys on the laptop, and my arm just fucking spasmed and sent ih flying.’

I still had my arms over my head, and as I said the words, it just brought it all back, all the humiliation from the morning, and I started crying. I hadn’t thought I had any more tears left, but there are always some of the salty bastards to get you, aren’t there.

Laura

Matt still had his arms over his head, and his head on his knees, and now he was crying. It tore at me, to see him like this, but crying was good. It was when he was silent and distant that I was most scared for him. I wasn’t immune to his tears, though, and a wave of sadness washed over me.

‘Oh, my love …’

It was time for some touching. I put my arm round his shoulders and felt him shuddering, trying to control his sobs.

Matt

I felt Lau’s arm go round my shoulder, and it was OK, she was soft and safe, and now I needed to be with her, I was done with doing it on my own, she was here, where she needed to be, as she’d known she would need to be, and I could do it now. I made a huge effort to stop blarting, but it just turned to shudders.

Laura

‘Don’t fight it Matt, flower. Let it go. Be sad about it. Have a good weep, you’ve had a shit day.’

And so he wept, while I did my best to hold him, one arm round his shoulders, the other round the front of him, across his knees, as he howled out his anger and pain, humiliation and sadness.

Matt

And so I did, I let it all go, all the shit from the shit day to end all shit days. The shit day that began all the way back in yesterday, when I admitted the fucking bastard had come back, had carried on into the early hours of this morning when my best mate had told me he was moving to the other side of the world, and had continued when I’d shown myself up in front of everyone at work and broken an expensive piece of equipment before running away like a small child. I had been trying to hold it all in, to stop it becoming part of the world, so that it couldn’t get to me, but it was too much, and now Lau was here it was just about alright to let it out.

Lau did her best to hold me, but we weren’t in the greatest position, and it was awkward. I didn’t want to move out of my safe corner; I was making all sorts of noises, and having Lau there wrapped around me while I did so made me feel protected.

Cal

When I pulled up outside our house, I checked the screen, and Mum had tried to call me twenty-seven times. I mean, come on. That’s insane. I’d already told her Matty was with Lau and was OK. I had hardly got out of the car when she was running down the path.

‘Cal! Why are you driving Laura’s car? Why aren’t they with you? Where are they?’

‘Chill, Mum. Lau’s with Matty. He’s not ready to talk to anyone else yet.’

‘What do you mean? Where are they?’

‘Somewhere no one will find them.’

Mum continued haranguing me as I walked up the path, and I realised I was going to have to work hard not to either strangle her or let it slip where they were. I changed tack, in an attempt to divert Mum’s worrying to something else.

‘Lau’s brakes need fixing. I’m going to ask Wheels if he’ll have a look.’

It didn’t work, just set Mum off about the car.

‘Why have you got Laura’s car? You’re not insured to drive it.’

‘Relax, Mum. Look, put the kettle on, make us a coffee or something. Lau wants me to fetch Josh and Ella in case she’s not back.’

‘Why won’t she be back? Where’s she going?’

‘She’s not going anywhere, that’s the point. Look, Mum, Matty’s in a bad way, in his head, he needs some time and a bit of space, and he needs Lau. She’s staying with him for now, until he gets over himself. Neither of them need you barging in being all ‘let’s do this my way’. Just let them sort it, alright?’

Mum stopped and looked at me

‘Is Matty really in a bad way?’

‘Yeah, it looked like it. He was all kind of hunched over, like he just wanted to disappear. Lau got him talking, though. I really think he just needs to be with her.’

‘I suppose you’re right. You can’t drive that car again, though.’

‘Course I can. Apart from the shit brakes, it’s a doddle.’

Lau still had the tiny Micra she’d had ever since I’d known her. She didn’t look after it very well – oh, it was immaculate inside and out, she was nearly as much of a neat freak as Matty, but she knew jack-shit about cars, and didn’t think it was worth bothering with all the regular checks that kept Matty’s car purring like a kitten. She thought using a dipstick was just something boys did to pass boy time, like watching football or reading comics. Matty used to get really frustrated about it, but he refused to do it for her, and as a result, her car was not in the best mechanical shape. As well as the brakes, it sounded like the timing was off, and there was a gravelly noise when you accelerated that needed looking at. I really spent way too much time at Baggo’s brother’s garage.

But Mum hadn’t been talking about my physical ability to drive the car, she’d been stressing about the insurance, or lack of it, and I took the opportunity she’d given me to draw her attention away from the fact that she didn’t know where Matty and Lau were.

‘You know that’s not what I meant, sweetheart. You can’t drive it without insurance, it’s illegal.’

‘Only if you have an accident or get stopped. That’s not going to happen.’

‘Cal, you can’t. I’ll go and fetch Josh and Ella.’

‘Haven’t you got your meeting thingy this afternoon?’

Thank goodness for Mum’s carefully filled in daily planner, with slots for everything any one of us might be doing on any given day, including Ayesh, but with Mum’s column the only one with any actual writing in it. I’d happened to glance at it this morning when I was looking for something to read while I ate my cereal.

‘Oh. Yes. Well Dad will have to go.’

‘He can’t, he’s got that press thing about Dec.’

‘Oh, so I suppose Dec can’t do it either.’

Mum was going to have to think again. What I didn’t tell her, what I wasn’t about to tell her, was that Lau had put me on her insurance while I was learning, God knows how much it must have cost her, but she’d take me out every so often for a practice when I got close to murdering Mum. It suited my purposes at that moment for Mum to be focussed more on solving that problem than beating me down until I confessed where Matty was.

‘Nope, just me. Is Ayesh home?’

‘Yes, she’s in her room doing some coursework.’

‘I’ll just go and say hi then.’

‘Maybe you should let her work.’

‘Yeah, after I’ve said hi.’

I was now a master at not letting Mum get her way. I did it with charm and a cheeky smile, and never ever just did what she told me. I always agreed that she was right, and then did what I wanted to do anyway, and she was powerless in the face of my skill. I tried to pass my wisdom on to Iz, but she seemed to prefer the screaming in Mum’s face method of getting her to change her mind, which didn’t work nearly so well and just stressed the whole household out.

Anyway, I knew where I was going to spend the next hour or two, and it was with my lovely girlfriend, whether Mum liked it or not.

Matt

After a while, just having Lau holding me wasn’t enough. I needed to connect with her. I lifted my head – it felt weird, after all this time bowed over, underneath my arms. The world felt too big, I could hear too much, feel too much, but I looked at Lau, into her sea blue green eyes, and knew she was there, in my world, in the world which was ending, but she was there with me. I gazed at her, and fell apart. I felt myself shatter against her as I clung on, feeling like this was the end, this was the finish of everything good, forever.

Laura

Somewhere in the middle of it, he lifted his head and looked at me, his face a mess of misery and dejection, and I wrapped him up in my arms as he fell apart, pouring it all out, breaking my heart to hear it.

Matt

She held me tight, and we ended up with our legs tangled up as we sat facing each other on the ground, her arms round me, me holding on to her so tightly.

It lasted a long time, me wailing all over Lau. I’d been arrogant for so long, thinking this was never going to come back, thinking life, the universe, whatever the fuck it was I thought I believed in, had good things in store for me. In one day, it had shown me its power to take away as well as to give, but it hadn’t taken Lau. She was there, holding me, and after a long time, I quietened down, my shudders diminished to the occasional quiver, I was breathing more or less evenly and my body loosened up. My shoulders ached, my back was shrieking, and my legs had started to cramp up. But I could feel it all. I was back.

Laura

A long time later, after the loud sobs had quietened, the shudders had diminished to the occasional shiver, and his breathing had calmed, and some of the tension had seeped away from his body, I pushed away from him slightly so I could see his face. I put a finger under his chin and lifted it, needing to see his eyes. The pain and sorrow in them almost undid me. Matt shook his head and looked away from me.

Matt

I almost didn’t want her to see, to see the wreck of a man I’d become in the last few hours, but her grip was firm. I looked at her, but the sympathy and understanding I saw were too much for me and I looked away.

‘I’ve fucked ih all up, Lau.’

My voice was broken, like the rest of my life.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Lost my job, made a total tit of myself, fucking laughing stock.’

It wasn’t all of it, but it was enough, somewhere to start.

‘Lost your job? How did you work that one out?’

Lau was great at thinking positively, but she hadn’t been there, she didn’t know what I must have looked like, talking unintelligible bollocks and throwing computers about the place.

‘They think I chucked a laptop. I was – I must have looked shit-faced. Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s thought I was pissed. Everyone was there.’

And someone had practically accused me of it, with the ‘vodka for breakfast’ comment. I knew how I came across when the fucking bastard was having its way with me.

‘Matt, of all the people I’ve talked to, and believe me I’ve talked to a lot of people today, everyone was just worried about you. They all know you’ve got MS don’t they?’

I didn’t know how many people knew. I’d been open about it at my interview, but that was a few years ago, and perhaps people had forgotten, the people who had known might have moved on. Cory and Jenna on my team knew I had some kind of unspecified ‘thing’.

‘Maybe. I’ve talked to a couple of people about ih. I guess Jay migh have told people about me, before I started working there. Doesn’t change anything, though, I made a complete arse of myself. They were all laughing at me, getting my words wrong, dropping shit, I felt so fucking stupid.’

‘Well, it was mean to laugh, but isn’t that what you lot all do? I’m sure it wasn’t meant to hurt you, they just didn’t realise.’

‘But Lau, they think I chucked a laptop, that’s like toys out of the pram time, tantrum city. I’m finished.’

‘OK, Matt, I’m going to repeat your nephew’s words, maybe without all the swearing. Stop being a drama queen. Wait until you’ve talked to someone, Jay or someone else from the club. You don’t have to do it today, or tomorrow, or this week even, I think you’ve earned a few days off, but you can explain then, if you need to, and I think you’ll find that they’ll be pretty understanding. I guess it’s possible you might come in for a bit of ribbing, but you’ve always been able to hold your own with them, you know more words than most of them put together for a start.’

I rested my forehead on Lau’s shoulder and breathed deeply. She always knew exactly what to say, how to put things in perspective, how to stop me catastrophising. I nodded against her, and felt her stroke my hair, thinking about everything she’d said. It seemed like maybe it was time to stop her worrying, because calm as she was outwardly, she would be a mass of panic and fretting underneath.

‘Lau.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you say ‘shit’ just now?’

Laura

I nearly laughed with the relief of it. He was teasing me.

‘Er, I might have.’

Matt

‘You said I’ve had a shit day.’

‘Well you have. Sometimes there’s only one word to describe things.’

‘Feels weird, hearing you swear.’

I didn’t feel like it, but I was trying to seem like cheery Matt, trying to pretend there was a possibility I could think about something light-hearted.

‘You have heard it before. I seem to remember using some choice language when the babies were being born.’

‘Special circumstances. Doesn’t count. Don’t do ih again.’

‘Well, that pretty much depends on you. Try not to have any more shit days.’

I looked up in mock outrage.

‘Lau!’

Laura

‘Totally up to you. Know what, my bum has completely gone to sleep, I need to stand up before my legs fall off.’

I saw the glimmer of a smile cross Matt’s face as I pulled away from him and got ready to stand up. I started to believe things had turned a corner.

Matt

I managed to force it, the tiniest hint of a smile, as she pulled away and got ready to stand. Lau’s bum was the answer to a lot of life’s problems.

‘Might need a massage, then.’

‘Great minds, flower.’

She stood up and held her hand out to me. It took me a while to get going, as I needed to unkink my aching back and shake some life into my own legs before I could even think of standing up, and then there were the pins and needles that surged down from my hips to my toes and were so bloody painful. I thought pins and needles were, like, little tickly things when you’d sat cross-legged for too long. Try folding yourself up for several hours and see how much it tickles.

I finally got my limbs into some kind of functional order, grasped Lau’s hand and stood, falling against her to be wrapped up again. In fact, we leaned against each other, both being a bit wobbly from our sitting on cold stone in early Spring. My hands wandered down to Lau’s backside, where they rested, in their accustomed place. It just felt right. I squeezed a bit, as she’d said she needed a massage. It was the least I could do.

‘Oh this is just so wrong in a graveyard.’

‘Just being helpful, Lau. You could return the favour, haven’t been able to feel my fucking arse for about two hours.’

Laura

I let my hands drift down to Matt’s bum cheeks and rubbed them vigorously. Oh things were always going to be alright as long as I could feel Matt Scott’s bum.

Matt

‘Whoa, gently there, Lau, don’t wana get too excited.’

‘Need to get the circulation going, don’t want those delightful buns to fall off.’

After that, we just stayed locked together, hands on each others bums. I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave this place, which for different reasons with different people had always felt like some kind of sanctuary. It felt like maybe, with Lau, just maybe I might be able to face it all, but there was going to be a lot of ‘it’ to face, a lot of talking, a lot of apologising, and I didn’t want to think about it for as long as I could get away with.

Laura

I could sense Matt’s unwillingness to leave this place and get back to the real world, but I also had a sense of ‘crisis over’. There was a fair amount of talking still to be done, firstly from me while I tried to persuade him to talk to everyone else who needed to know he was OK, and then to people at work, the people who had been at his presentation, and maybe later try and get him to contact the MS service.

Matt had kept up with Anna fairly regularly, until she left the team a couple of years ago, and he had declared himself unneedy of an MS nurse. I didn’t know anyone who worked there now; Anna had gone to work on a Neuro ward, Rachel had married Jed and gone travelling for a while before coming back and setting up an internet self-help book business with him, Kate had moved away in search of the perfect man and Patrick had retired. It was a good thing that nobody knew us, and Matt would just be another referral. If I could get him to ring them.

Cal

Ayesh turned out not to be nearly as interested in coursework as she was in snogging me, funnily enough, and we closed the curtains to the conservatory and enjoyed each other’s company, despite a couple of interruptions to turn away Mum’s offers of coffee and then cake, and then it was time for me to go and fetch Josh and Ella from school.

I tried calling Lau several times so I could ask her what she wanted me to do with her car once I’d dropped the kids off. I could leave it at their house, or take it back to the church. She didn’t answer, so I sent a text.

I’d picked my cousins up a couple of times, so the teachers knew who I was and didn’t report me as a child stealer. Josh and Ella were excitable, because I was unexpected, and they got to go home to Dec and Amy’s house, which was always exciting, being full as it was of uncontrollable Summers kids.

Dec and Amy had four children, and their house was always full of noise and chaos because Dec and Amy were so laid back. Dec loved being a dad so much – he’d been adopted when he was a baby, and his parents had died when he was thirteen, and all he wanted in life was to give all his kids the kind of childhood he never had after that, which meant lots of love and, it seemed, no saying no. Amy tried with the discipline, but she couldn’t say no to anyone either, and couldn’t be the bad guy, so Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa ruled the roost there.

They were all great kids, just a bit exhausting to be around. Dec was always being a horse or a piggy-back ride or a sword-fighter, and Amy was always making drinks and snacks or trying to read stories and have some calm time before bed.

I remembered Dec when I was little, how much time we’d spent together and what it had meant to me, and realised how much love he had to give his family. We had a different relationship now, because we were both older, but we were still as close as brothers, and I realised as I pulled up outside their house how much I was going to miss him and his crazy family while he was away.

Josh and Ella ran up the path and rang the doorbell, and disappeared inside. As I walked towards the door, my phone vibrated in my pocket, and I realised I hadn’t turned the ringer back on. Pulling it out, I saw from the screen that Mum was on the warpath again, with five texts sent since I’d left the house, demanding that I tell her where Matty and Lau were. I shook my head and decided to ignore Mum, but tried calling Lau again, and sent her another text telling her I’d picked the kids up and asking what she wanted me to do with her car. Then I put the phone back in my pocket.

‘Let me guess, your mum wants you to tell her where Matty’s hiding out?’

Amy had it spot on. I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Mum needs to realise that some people can solve their problems without her help.’

‘She just texted me too, in case I was hiding them here. Not that they’d be getting much peace and quiet if I was – listen to that lot!’

The addition of Josh and Ella had added a few hundred decibels of noise to the squealing that was going on.

‘Do you want a cup of something, Cal?’

‘No, you’re OK. I should get the car back to Lau.’

‘Sure? Dec’s just had a delivery from his agent, there’s free hats and t-shirts all round.’

‘Ha ha, I think I’ll pass. So you’re really going to Australia?’

Amy’s eyes grew serious.

‘Yeah. I can hardly believe it. This time next month, we’ll be living in Perth.’

‘I’m gonna miss you guys.’

‘Yeah. Me too. Great opportunity, though.’

Amy’s eyes misted with tears.

‘Oh who am I kidding. I completely can’t believe I’m not going to see everyone every day. And now Matt’s … I’m dreading it, we’ll be so far away. Don’t tell Dec.’

‘Sure thing. You’ll be fine, though, Amy. We’ll Facetime and Skype all the time. Maybe come and visit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, you’d better get the car back to Lau.’

And so I was dismissed, presumably before I caused proper tears that Dec didn’t need to see, and I went back to the hedge room.

I found my way in, unsure what I was going to find, or even if Matty and Lau were still going to be there. They were still there, standing up, wrapped up in each other, hands on each other’s arses. They both had their eyes closed, and they looked like they were totally unaware of anything else that was going on apart from each other. I hoped it meant that Matty was feeling better, but I felt awkward just looking at them, so I coughed to let them know I was there.

Matt

I don’t know how long we stood there, arms round each other, but eventually there was a rustle from the hedge, and a cough.

Cal

‘Er, if you two have had enough of feeling each other up …’

Lau opened her eyes and turned towards me, but neither of them spoke.

‘Lau, do you ever answer your fucking phone? Just for future reference, in a family crisis it’s the done thing to, like, let people know you’re OK and not be all unreachable and shit. Goes for you too, Matty, just so you know.’

It seemed like it was time for a reality check, now that maybe the worst of the crisis was over and Matty was possibly back in the land of the living, although he still had his eyes closed. Lau looked at her phone and raised her eyebrows at the screen. I’d tried calling her God knew how many times, and I suspected Dec and Beth had also been trying all afternoon.

Laura

I automatically reached for the phone in my pocket and looked at the screen. Ten missed calls from Cal, similar quantities from Dec and Beth.

‘Sorry, flower. Are the children OK? Have you picked them up?’

A quick glance at the time on my phone showed it was half past three. I had been here with Matt for over three hours.

Cal

Well of course they were OK, that wasn’t the point. Kids are a big responsibility and they should both be a bit more aware.

‘Yeah, they’re with Amy. I only wanted you to know they were OK, Jesus, is it too much to ask that you have your phone on? What if the school had needed to contact you or something?’

Laura

‘Sorry, Cal.’ I smiled to myself at his grown up rebuke. ‘Won’t happen again.’

Cal

‘Fair enough. Have you had a fucking word with yourself, Matty?’

Matty opened his eyes and looked at me. He took a deep breath, and I saw a change come over him, from some kind of hopelessness to some kind of well, if not optimism, at least someone who knew where to look for their strength.

Matt

This was a good kid, he was caring, he’d brought Lau here to find me, he’d taken care of Josh and Ella while I visited the land of the hopeless and lost. He needed taking down a bloody peg or two.

‘What is it with bloody teenagers thinking they’re the boss of me? When Dec was about your age he thought he could give me fucking grief when he wanted to as well. Respect your elders, Calum Scott.’

Cal

It lifted my spirits, to hear him have a go at me. I knew he was going to be OK. He wasn’t yet, but he was going to be.

‘Oh, I see you have. Radical. Here’s your keys, Lau, your car’s right out the front. You need to get your brakes checked, they’re shit. I’m going to see Baggo, he just lives round the corner. Oh, Mum says ring her, like, half an hour ago. I’d do it soon, she’s on the warpath because I wouldn’t tell her where you are. It won’t be me fucking copping it, though, and she’ll start tearing the city apart soon. Oh, and Matty, they’ve rescheduled your presentation for next Friday.’

I threw Lau’s keys to her and turned round. They didn’t need me any more, so I waved and walked out.

Matt

He was such a good kid. Disrespectful cheek notwithstanding.

Laura

I raised my voice so he could hear me as he walked away.

‘Cal.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thank you, flower.’

‘Sure thing.’

I looked at Matt, who looked back. I could see some of the doubt seeping away, although there was still a lot of pain and hurt behind his eyes.

Matt

Lau turned her attention back to me, and I looked back at her. It felt better, maybe the world wasn’t ending today, maybe it was only beginning to end.

Laura

‘So, if they’ve rescheduled your presentation …’

‘Yeah, I get it Lau, I’m a fucking drama queen. We should get home, I think I’ve got some phoning to do.’

‘Thank God for that. I’ve been waiting for you to leave – I don’t think I can find my way out on my own.’

We drove home in silence, leaving Matt’s car in the street where he’d parked it. I was very conscious of the fragility of Matt’s emotions, and also of his usual defensive response to confrontations. I didn’t want to risk saying anything that would make him retreat back to that place he’d been when I found him; it hadn’t been a good place, and it had been hard for him to come back from it before. I touched his arm from time to time, but otherwise kept my eyes on the road and limited myself to sending mental strength.

We pulled up into our driveway and I took off my seatbelt.

‘I’ll just pop up the road and fetch Ella and Josh.’

Matt

‘I’ll come.’

It was like getting back on the pony, ripping off the plaster, any number of things that meant doing something painful to get it over with so it was done.

Laura

I gave him an appraising look. I hadn’t expected Matt to want to see anybody so soon.

‘Are you sure?’

Matt

I sighed. The wave of grief and pain had crashed over me and been dragged back with the tide. It had left a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam that needed clearing up.

‘Yeah. Need to stop being a tosser and face people, don’t I?’

That too.

‘You’re not a … actually I can’t think of the polite word for it. You’re not a tosser. You’ve had some fairly hefty life events to deal with in the last twenty four hours. If you want some time on your own, or at least just the four of us, I think that’s allowed.’

It was tempting, to just go indoors, hole up, hide from everyone, for a while. But it wasn’t going to help. And I needed to see Dec, to just … see him.

Laura

I took Matt’s hand and gave it a squeeze, wondering to myself if he realised how far he’d come since I first met him, when he wouldn’t even reply to texts because he thought people were interfering.

‘Come on, then, let’s fetch our children, and hope Dec hasn’t been giving them beer again.’

Matt

We walked up the road, hand in hand. As we stood outside Dec and Amy’s front porch, we could hear the excited noises being made by six children between the ages of three and seven. There was no such thing as chilling out in the Summers House of Fun.

‘Hmm. Sounds like sugar overload. Perhaps we should leave it and fetch them later.’

Lau grinned wickedly up at me and pretended to turn back for home.

‘Great plan, Lau, when they’ve had even more sugar, so they never get to sleep.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. OK, doorbell here we go.’

The noise that could be heard inside the house – squealing, running footsteps, unidentifiable musical noises – all increased as we saw a shape appear in the frosted glass. Dec opened the door, wearing a large hat with corks hanging off it, a child attached to each leg and one hanging on his back. Two more children were behind him, wearing smaller versions of the cork hats and carrying soft toys. Also in evidence were blue West Coast Speeders shirts.

‘Oh, Lau, hi –’

Dec saw me and his eyes widened.

‘Matt! Hey, mate. Great to see you guys. Sorry, we just opened a big box sent by my agent, lots of really naff Aussie stuff, we were giving it a try. Come in – no, let go of me, Tom, you too Ella, I need to let Matt and Lau in. Down you get Rosa.’

Dec slowly unravelled himself from the children so he could open the door wide enough to let us in, pulled the cork hat off and tossed it onto the banister post. As we went into the hall, Amy’s voice floated out of the kitchen.

‘Who is it, hon?’

‘Lau and Matt.’

‘Oh!’

Amy came into the hall, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

‘Oh Matt, how are you?’

I shrugged but didn’t answer, instead bending down to Rosa, who was tugging on my trousers and holding a furry koala up for my inspection. I picked her up and held her while she clung on, one arm round my neck.

‘Kala bear.’

‘Yeh, beautiful, g’day mate an all tha. Have you been playing Crocodile Dundee?’

Rosa shook her head, not understanding the cultural reference that was several decades before her time.

‘We play kalas an kangroos.’

‘Sounds just as good, Red. I like yuhr hat. Did the bottles fall off?’

I flicked a cork.

‘No bottles.’

‘Oh, bad luck.’

‘Rosa, why don’t you go with Ella and Josh and Tom and Gracie and find Charlie? She was looking for a puzzle, wasn’t she?’

All five children thought this was a superb idea, and set off screaming up the stairs in search of Charlie.

Dec looked at me, while I looked back, not sure where to start. There was an awkward silence.

‘Mate, if I’d had any idea, I wouldn’t have signed.’

What was this? Oh do me a favour Declan Summers.

‘Don’t be a fuckwit, why should ih have stopped you? You’re not responsible for my appallingly timed health lapses. Chance of a lifetime, mate, goh an see the world with your family, you’ll have a blast.’

If I said it quickly, I could almost mean it.

‘Yeah, whatever.’

Dec wasn’t convinced by my bluff, and waved off my response.

‘If you … Ames and me talked earlier, and if you need me to stay, I’ll cancel it all.’

I couldn’t have that. I knew he meant it, that was the worst thing, but if I even let him offer, it was going to undo me, I could feel it bubbling under, and I just wanted to do this, get out of it, in one piece.

‘You have to be out of your teeny tiny fucking little mind, Declan Charles Summers. You’re so bloody up yourself. Why the fuck should I need you? I’ve got Lau, I’ve got the whole extended Scott army to bloody nag me and make my life a fucking misery as and when they see fit. I never heard a bigger load of bollocks in my life.’

‘Yeah, right. Come here, then.’

Dec walked towards me and pulled me into a huge bear hug.

‘Thanks mate.’

I murmured into his ear, keeping a tight grip on my emotions.

‘Always’.

Dec’s whispered reply very nearly finished me off, but the moment was broken by the sound of a large herd of children galloping downstairs, and we had to get out of the way or risk a messy trampling.

Laura

As I shook my head at the two stubborn men who loved each other like brothers, probably more, but would never say it as if they meant it in a thousand years, Matt and Dec let go of each other and moved out of the way to avoid being mown down. The crowd of little people surged across the hall and into the living room, Charlie holding a DVD and trailing the smaller children in her wake, and I followed after them.

‘Josh, Ella, it’s time to go. Take your shirts and hats off and give them back to Dec.’

‘Oh, no, it’s OK Lau, they can keep them, you never know Matt might stop being too stingy to fork out for a sports package that shows Super 15 and they can watch me, cheer me on, wearing them. Maybe not the hats, might take someone’s eye out if they get excited when I score.’

‘What do you say?’

I looked at Josh and Ella with my eyebrows raised.

‘Thank you Dec.’

They were well drilled in politeness, but looked disappointed that it was time to go; they loved playing with their almost-cousins.

‘They’re completely welcome to stay, Lau, I’m just doing pizza. If you want some time on your own? Dec’ll bring them back in a bit.’

Matt

Lau glanced at me. Much as I wanted a cuddle with my kids, I really could do with some peace and quiet, and Josh and Ella after an hour or two with the Summerses was usually anything but. Lau didn’t need much of a look to know what I was thinking.

Laura

‘Thanks, flower. You’re an angel.’

Amy smiled and touched my arm.

‘Any time, you know that.’

I nodded again, almost overcome with sudden emotion. It wouldn’t be long before ‘any time’ wouldn’t be possible. A few weeks and they’d be gone.

Matt

Lau nodded, tears sparkling in her eyes. I decided to be brisk and sound more cheerful than I was feeling about what was facing me when I got home.

‘Right then, Lau, best get back and make the most of the silence to bloody ring people and start grovelling.’

‘Grovelling? What for, mate?’

‘For being a prize fucking loony, smashing the club’s newest laptop, and then running off into the night like a –’

‘Right, Matt, you need to stop this now. I don’t know what your fucked up brain is imagining people are thinking, but this morning’s over with, forgotten. No grovelling or apologising needed. We know the score, it’s done. End of.’

A lot of that was what I needed to hear; it cleared up a lot of things I’d been worrying about. But I still had to apologise, explain, make amends.

‘Maybe for you. I’ll need to explain myself to certain, oh I don’t know, brothers, and maybe the odd CEO who may be a bit curious as to why his head of IT couldn’t hold on to a small piece of plastic or say two words together without having a hissy fit.’

Dec opened his mouth to argue, but I stopped him.

‘No, Dec. Ih’s much appreciated, you making out ih doesn’t matter, and I know ih doesn’t to you, and I’m grateful, but I am going to have to spend most of this evening on the phone to various people, not least of all Beth who, if the vibration in my trouser pocket is anything to go by, is about to call out Search and Rescue.’

Dec nodded at me, tacitly agreeing to let it go.

‘OK, you know best, you bastard. But, just so you know, there’s not going to be any comeback from the lads, they’re totally cool.’

‘Yeah, like I can’t hold my own against the shit banter supplied by a bunch of muscle-headed rugby players.’

By now we were both grinning stupidly at each other, happy to be winding each other up instead of talking about serious shit. God I loved my family. Lau pulled on my arm to direct me to the door, and we left, with a kiss and hug from Amy and a promise from Dec that he wouldn’t drop Josh and Ella off too late.

As we walked up the road, I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen. I’d turned it back on in the car on the way home, but hadn’t looked at it. I could no longer avoid the calls and texts that were likely to have accrued on my silenced phone from a certain Mrs Beth Scott.

‘Holy crap, she’s persistent. She’s sent fifteen texts. Let’s see – squawk squawk squawk where are you, squawk squawk let me know you’re safe, squawk squawk squawk. Fifteen times. Bloody hell. I bet she’s sent you as many. Oh, and about a dozen voicemails.’

‘Maybe you should ring her.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve got my phone out now, might as well make contact with The Mothership.’

Laura

Matt was always going to ring Beth. He didn’t mind nearly as much as he tried to pretend he did about her fussing over him. Matt pressed the screen and held the phone to his ear.

Matt

‘Hey.’

‘Oh Matty. At last. I’ve been so worried. How are you, sweetheart?’

‘OK.’

‘Where were you? There have been people out everywhere looking for you, we nearly called the police.’

‘Didn’t Cal tell you?’

I knew he’d said he wouldn’t, but I also knew how persistent Beth could be, and how you ended up telling her shit you didn’t mean to.

‘No, all he’d say was that you were safe, and you were with Laura. So where were you?’

I hesitated. Once Beth knew, that was another place I wouldn’t be able to escape to if I ever needed to again. I let her know part of it.

‘I was over by Avondale, somewhere quiet.’

‘But were you alright, sweetheart? Jay and Cal said you left in a bit of a state.’ ‘No, I was pretty shit actually, but Lau was there, and I’m better.’

As I was talking, we’d got inside and I started to take off my tie, which Lau helped me with, and my jacket, and as I carried on talking, getting the full Beth treatment, Lau brought me a hoody and helped me put it on.

Laura

I looked down at myself and realised I was still wearing my gym clothes from this morning. I hadn’t even been wearing a jacket, but hadn’t noticed the cold. Now I felt chilly, and as Matt sat down on the sofa, I lit the gas fire in the living room, watching the flames leap and feeling warmer.

Matt

Beth was still going on.

‘Oh Matty, you’ve really been having symptoms for a couple of weeks? You should have said something.’

Oh like that was ever going to happen, Beth.

‘Yeah, well sometimes ih’s hard to admit things to yourself that you don’t want to be true. A bit like you and your cellulite.’

I had a quick smirk to myself as Beth started to squawk in earnest.

‘I do not have cellulite! I keep myself in good shape, I –’

It was amusing that even now, she sometimes couldn’t tell when I was just trying to shut her up.

‘Oh stop being outraged, Beth.’

‘Matty, James is here, can I pass you over?’

Might as well, I suppose. This was going to be one of the few conversations with Jay that was going to encompass work and home, and we were just going to have to embrace the weird.

‘Yeah, I think I need to talk to him.’

‘He was so worried about you, Matty.’

This was just the start, the beginning of all the apologising.

‘I know, I didn’t mean to worry anyone, just freaked out.’

‘Take care of yourself, sweetheart.’

‘OK.’

‘Stay in touch.’

‘Yeah, see you soon.’

The phone was handed to Jay.

‘Matty, you’re alive.’

‘Hey.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Bit better now.’

If I said it enough times, it might start being true.

‘You’ve been having symptoms again.’

‘Yeah, the fucking bastard’s back.’

‘How bad is it?’

‘Not bad at the moment, well, apart from this morning.’

‘So this morning was, what, a blip or something?’

‘Yeah, well, feel a bit of a dick, probably owe Raiders a laptop.’

In truth, although the shakes, the unintelligible bollocks, the vision, it had all gone away since my meltdown, I could feel it lurking. I didn’t know how much of it was going to come crashing back, but I was preparing myself for it.

‘Well don’t worry about the bloody laptop, Matty, but maybe you need to talk to Malcolm.’

‘I know, I’ll talk to him now.’

‘Do you want us to come over? Beth’s getting a lasagne out of the freezer.’

Dear God no, the last thing I bloody needed was a houseful of people twittering over me.

‘No, I don’t need you all to bloody pile over, Lau’s here, just need some space.’

‘Can Laura manage alright?’

I sighed. Jay was catching the Beth bug. It was inevitable, I suppose.

‘It’s OK, Jay.’

I looked up at Lau.

‘Jay wants to know if you’re alright looking after me, Lau. You won’t forget to change my nappy and give me my four hourly feed, will you?’

She rolled her eyes at me.

‘Yeah, she’s fine with it, as long as she doesn’t forget the Calpol.’

‘Piss off, Matty, we’re just concerned.’

‘Piss off yourself.’

‘We’ll come over tomorrow, though. Beth says no excuses.’

‘Yeah, see you tomorrow.’

‘Be strong, Matty. Stay positive.’

I disconnected and flopped back against the sofa. It was exhausting trying to convince people everything was OK really, nothing to worry about, when I just wanted to scream. Lau took my hand and gave me a sympathetic look. Having her here, knowing what was going on for me and understanding without words, was what was keeping me sane, stopping me from actually screaming.

‘Only another four thousand calls and I can relax.’

‘Do you have to do them all now?’

‘Yeah, need to get ih done. In a minute. First, I need to do this.’

I turned in my seat and reached for her, pulling her towards me and holding her tight against me, speaking into her ear.

‘Lau you are so fucking phenomenal, you’re all that’s keeping me going. I’d just jack ih all in if ih wasn’t for you.’

‘Good job I’m here then.’

‘Yeah. I just can’t bullshit you, can I, you know exactly how I am, I don’t even have to say ih.’

‘To be fair, flower, you are much better at talking than you used to be.’

‘Always been bloody good at talking, Lau. Not always so good at talking sense. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

‘Right, next on the list, the big boss.’

I scrolled down my address book and tapped his name.

‘Hello Malcolm, it’s Matt Scott here.’

‘Matt. How are you?’

‘Yeah, well, better thanks, I just wanted to apologise about this morning.’

And so it went on, call after call, to some of the people who’d been there this morning, people who’d been out looking for me, some of the people who’d left messages on my phone or Lau’s phone asking about me, other members of the family, Mum, Cory, who’d heard from afar about what had happened, and I said the same to all of them.

‘I’m fine now, just had a bit of a wobble. Sorry to worry you. Talk to you about it tomorrow.’

I had no idea who I was going to see tomorrow. I didn’t know if I was going to go into work or not, although it appeared I still had a job.

Laura

And Matt carried on, making his way through his list of missed calls and texts. I sat and held his hand, half listening to him talk, proud of how well he was showing a brave face to the world when what he really felt like doing was running to the darkest most hidden place he could find until it all went away.

Matt

Then I started in on the texts, people who needed to know I was OK, but didn’t need to speak to me. I just wanted everyone to know I was normal, I was Matt, and although I might not have seemed like Matt this morning, that was a one-off, and now I was back. It wasn’t how I felt, but it was how I needed to be. Except with Lau. I could be me with Lau, and that was the difference this time. I had her, and I wasn’t trying to fool the whole world that everything was normal, because there was a Lau shaped bit of it who knew how things really were. It mattered, a lot.

119. Runaway

In which avoidance is attempted, fleeing occurs, and a search is launched.

Cal

I was spending less time at school now, being in the Academy. I was required to do certain subjects, but the rest of the time I could count training as schooling, which suited me fine. This particular morning, training had been put on hold because Matty was giving a presentation about the new Traka GPS system, and everyone had to be there. I was getting my kit together at home, when Mum and Dad both came into my room, together, with really serious expressions on their faces. I thought someone must have died, and I sat down on the bed to await the bad news.

‘What?’

‘Dec called us early this morning, sweetheart.’

Oh shit, it was about Dec? What the fuck had happened?

‘Yeah, he’s signed for another club.’

‘He’s moving away, sweetheart.’

Oh, well that didn’t sound too drastic. I’d been half expecting it for a while, if I was honest. Dec wasn’t as young as he used to be, in rugby terms; he was no longer an automatic first choice in the first team, and if he didn’t try another club soon, he would have missed his chance. Dad was always going on at him about giving himself new challenges, and it looked like he’d finally taken the plunge before he got too ancient.

‘Cool. Where to?’

‘West Coast Speeders.’

It took me a few seconds to remember where Speeders played. Fucking Australia. That put things in a different light. Dec had been part of my family as long as I could remember. He’d moved in with us when I was two, and he was like my brother. I was really going to miss him if he was in Australia. Shit.

‘Oh. Not so cool, then. Are you guys OK?’

‘Your mum’s a bit upset.’

‘So were you, earlier, James. It’s a bit of a shock, sweetheart, that’s all.’

‘Who else knows?’

People were always pretty secretive about things like new contracts, and I didn’t want to go blurting it to the nearest reporter who was hanging around Raiders Stadium.

‘It’s going to be announced in a press release at nine. Your mum’s made a cake, there’s going to be a little presentation before Matty’s thing this morning.’

‘You’ve made a cake already? Bloody hell, Mum. Does Matty know?’

Dad nodded.

‘Dec was going straight round there after he called us. He spent all night on the phone to Australia, I don’t think he’s slept at all. I don’t know how Matty’s going to take it.’

‘If he even wakes up to talk to it’ll be a miracle.’

Matty was notorious for being hard to wake up. He’d sleep until noon every day if Lau didn’t use some pretty full-on techniques to rouse him.

‘True. We’ll find out later this morning I guess. You nearly ready? Want a lift?’

‘Sure.’

I didn’t often get a lift to work from Dad, especially now I’d passed my test and had my own car, and I inwardly raised my eyebrows at this unusual offer. I assumed Dad just wanted to chat more about Dec’s move without upsetting Mum, and I was right. He bent my ear all the way there about whether it was too soon for Dec to be leaving Raiders behind, like it wasn’t what Dad had been encouraging him to do for over ten years, and then hinted at people they had lined up to replace him but wouldn’t actually spill the beans about who it was, while suggesting there might be an England international who was interested. It really was beyond frustrating being Scotty’s son sometimes.

Matt

My presentation was scheduled for ten, which gave me a bit of time to go over it while drinking several cups of coffee, in an attempt not to fall asleep in the middle of it. I decided to check it over in the room where I was giving the presentation, so I knew everything was working. I had set it all up and gone through it once, when the door opened and most of the first team players trooped in.

Cal

When we got to the ground, the place was buzzing with Dec’s news. The man himself hadn’t arrived yet, but Dad had brought Mum’s cake and handed it over to the catering department, who were putting it on a platter. Billy Kipi, the team captain, was going to do a short speech, in recognition of the long time Dec had been with Raiders, before Matty did his GPS thing, and we were going to sing a rude version of an Australian folk song. We were just waiting for Dec to arrive and be brought up by his mate, Bonksy aka Brett Deressie, who had been at the club as long as Dec, but was now a forwards coach.

Matt

I looked at the clock, surprised to see it was only twenty to ten. The players weren’t known for their fondness of presentations, and usually outdid themselves in their excuses to avoid them at all costs, so for them all to be here early was a bit strange.

‘Hi Matt – you’re not on till ten, are you?’

It was Billy Kipi, the team captain. I looked up.

‘No, yuh have twenty whohl minutes tuh learn where the little pocket in yuhr shirt is for the GPS. Then thehr’s a test.’

Fuck, no. I couldn’t be doing the unintelligible bollocks, not now. Billy frowned, then realised I was joking about the test, and his face cleared. Maybe he hadn’t noticed the unintelligible bollocks.

‘Ha ha. We didn’t think anyone would be in here yet, we’re just doing this thing for Summs. Do you mind?’

As he spoke, and I shook my head, one of the admin staff brought in a huge covered platter and put it on the table in front of me. Oh fuck, there was going to be some kind of speech or something, and I was going to have to sit through it, when all I wanted to do was not think about it. I looked around for Dec, but he wasn’t in the room yet, although Cal was sitting at the back, and he smiled at me.

Cal

We were all waiting in the conference room. I took a seat at the back and watched the preparations for Dec’s surprise taking shape. Matty was already there, setting up his computer, but he looked a bit off. He looked like he hadn’t slept, he was pale and sweaty, and he kept pushing his hands through his hair, which made it stick out, and made him look a bit mad. When he walked over to the projector, he looked like he was limping, and when he talked to Billy about the cake and speech, it sounded a bit like he was slurring his words.

I couldn’t think what was wrong with him, and I could hardly believe it, but he looked drunk. Either that or he was ill. If he wasn’t ill, he was shit-faced and that wasn’t good, not at before ten in the morning. It seemed more likely that he was shit-faced, because Matty didn’t really get ill, and he did like his beer, but I’d never known him be anything less than professional at work, and I was really surprised. I wondered if Dec’s news had made him hit the Scotch.

Matty didn’t look too happy that there was going to be fucking about with a cake and stuff, but he didn’t really have a choice. He caught my eye, and I gave him a smile to, I don’t know, reassure him or something. He seemed like he needed reassuring, which was worrying, because Matty was as self-assured as they came.

Matt

I’d just bent my head back down to the laptop when there was a big cheer. I looked up to see Dec being led into the room by Brett Deressie, also known as Bonksy. As they came in, the players all started singing Waltzing Matilda, although quite a few of the words had been changed, and not to ones that Lau or Beth would have approved of. Dec was pulled over to the table, and the top was whisked off the platter to reveal a large cake in the shape of Australia, complete with a flag and a tiny rugby player in a West Coast Speeders shirt on the west coast. Dec caught my eye and looked at me apologetically, but I shook my head at him and grinned, and he returned to the general hilarity.

Cal

I saw Dec look at Matty apologetically, but Matty shook his head and grinned, as if it was OK by him, and the hilarity continued, but as soon as no one was looking at Matty, he stopped smiling. There was a lot of banter, mostly about different ways of sodomising kangaroos, and Billy did a short speech which took the piss out of Dec while saying what a great bloke he was and how much he’d be missed. Dec seemed pretty chuffed with all the fuss, but eventually it all had to calm down and we had to remember we were there for Matty’s presentation.

Matt

The banter was thick in the air, but I just tried to ignore it all as I got the laptop ready. It was a new laptop, the latest model, specifically designed for Raiders to be able to cope with instant updates from the new GPS system. I hadn’t used it for a presentation, and wanted to familiarise myself with it before I started, but I couldn’t concentrate properly.

Then, about five minutes before I was due to begin, my left leg started trembling violently. Fuck, fuck, fuck, this was turning into a complete balls-up. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stand, but I pressed my thighs together and pushed down on my knees with my hands, which had worked in the past and seemed to stop the shaking.

I looked up, and saw the room was full. The players were all there, Jay and the other coaches had taken their seats, the CEO was approaching the table, and it seemed I was about to be ‘on’. I took as many deep breaths as I could and prayed to the universe that I would get through this without making an arse of myself.

Cal

Matty had been working for Raiders for several years, it was quite a family affair these days. He was in charge of anything to do with IT, although I was never completely sure of his job title. He was a rock star with anything remotely connected to computers or tech of any sort – if it was broken, he knew how to fix it; if it was old, he knew the best upgrade; if it was new, he knew how to work it. Raiders had been using GPS for training and match stats for ages, but there was a new system on the market that was being used by some of the Southern Hemisphere sides, and Matty and his team had been researching it with a view to it being introduced at Raiders next season. This presentation was the result of almost a year of work, and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted it to be eclipsed by Dec’s ‘I’m moving to Australia’ news.

While Matty made his final preparations, looking ill-at-ease, unwell and uncomfortable, which was so unlike the usually chilled and sociable Matty as to be remarkable, the CEO made his way to the front to introduce him.

Matt

Malcolm turned to face the room, cleared his throat, waited for the hush that was his due, and started speaking.

‘Good morning all. Thanks for coming. I’m very excited about this presentation. The new GPS system is groundbreaking state of the art technology, and Raiders are the first club in the country to use it. When Matt’s team went to look at it in development, their reports suggested that it would give us the edge over other teams, and now it’s here, I believe they’re right. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical details, that’s Matt’s job, but I’m hoping that by the time he’s finished telling you about it, you’ll be as convinced as I am that this technology will help Raiders to retain their place at the forefront of British rugby. Matt.’

So no pressure there, then. Shit. My hands were trembling now, but I couldn’t tell if it was from nerves or, well, my nerves. I stood up and leaned my hip against the table, to forestall any further shaking and give me some support. The computer and projector were already on, and the slide show had been loaded onto its title page. Everything was as ready as it could be. I kept telling myself it was fine, I’d done hundreds of presentations before, I knew the GPS system inside out, I could do it in my sleep. I practically was asleep, that was the problem. I took a deep breath and launched in.

Cal

I couldn’t see that well from the back of the room, but it seemed like Matty’s leg was shaking, and his hands certainly were, as if he was really nervous. Matty never got nervous about presentations, he had all the information in his head and he could just say it, like it was nothing to talk to a roomful of people. Not today, though. He looked like he wished he could disappear, and I wondered again about whether he’d had a drink or two. Then I saw him take a deep breath as he started. His voice was quiet and hesitant.

Matt

‘Heh everyohn. This is the new Traka stysem, er, system. Sohry, wrong teeth in this morning.’

Shit. I was going to have to arse my way through this after all. I picked up the remote control for the laptop and clicked onto the next slide, which was a video of the Traka in use.

Cal

This was bad. In front of the CEO and everything, and Matty seemed more than half-cut. He wasn’t just getting his words muddled, he was slurring and stuttering like he’d had a liquid breakfast, but surely he wouldn’t have. I glanced over at Dad, who was looking like thunder. The same thing must have occurred to him.

Matt

As I started to speak again, the remote slipped out of my hand onto the floor. I stared at it angrily. I didn’t need it for a while, but I was going to have to bend down and pick it up, and my legs had started shaking again.

‘This video shows how sohm of the teams in the Southern Hesi … Hephi … Hemisphehr –’

‘Are you sure it’s just your teeth, Matt? Too much vodka for brekkie maybe?’

Cal

This got a huge laugh, and it seemed to take the pressure off as we all waited for one of Matty’s sarcastic comebacks, but he didn’t say anything, just bent down and picked up the remote, which fell straight out of his hands again.

Matt

I could think of no witty comeback, for the first time in my life. I bent down and picked up the remote, which fell straight out of my hands again, fortunately onto the table this time.

‘Out of the top fihv tehms in Super Fifteen, fohr use Tra … ka.’

Oh what the fuck now? My mouth just froze up in the middle of a word. I wasn’t going to get through this if things didn’t improve quickly. Sweat was running down my face, and I could feel myself going red as I got more flustered.

Cal

Matty looked terrible, getting paler by the second, sweat was running down his face, and then his cheeks started going red on top of his pallor, as he got more worked up.

Matt

I picked up the remote again, but as I tried to change the slide, it evaded my grasp once more. There were a few chuckles, but I daren’t look at anyone to see what they were thinking, in case I met the eyes of Dec or Jay.

Cal

A few people laughed, but not as many as before, as it was becoming more obvious there was something really wrong here. I felt really bad for him, to be showing himself up like this in front of a roomful of people would be mortifying, and Matty looked like he was doing anything he could to avoid looking at anyone.

Matt

I decided to ditch the remote. It was too small and fiddly anyway, and the arrow keys on the laptop would be more reliable. I reached for the computer, and my fingers had just touched it when a huge spasm flung my arm to the side.

Cal

All of a sudden he whacked the laptop with a huge shove and sent it flying across the room, where it smashed against a wall and fell to the floor with a flash and a puff of smoke. The room went still, while Matty looked at the laptop with an anguished expression on his face.

Matt

There was a stunned silence, and it was the final straw for me.

‘Fuck it, I can’t do this.’

I said it to myself, and it was true. I needed to stop, to get out of there, this was as fucked up as I was going to allow it to get, if indeed it could get any more fucked up, which seemed doubtful, and I headed for the door and then ran as quickly as my bastard legs would carry me, out of the building and into the car park, where I started my car and drove away.

Cal

He didn’t say it very loud, but the room had gone so silent, we all heard it. As he finished speaking, he turned and stumbled, limping, out of the room, and we all sat and looked first at each other, and then at Dad, who was talking in a low voice to Malcolm Howard, the CEO.

In the silence, I suddenly put things together. I’d been a lot younger when Matty was ill before, but, yeah, of course, there had been the difficulty speaking, the trouble walking and the coordination problems. Fuck – had his MS come back? It all made sense. I looked over at Dad to see what he was going to do.

Dad looked shocked, then angry, then blanked his expression as he realised everyone was looking at him, and Malcolm was the first to react.

‘OK, everyone, er, I think we’ll come back to this another time. I think, er, Jay, it’s back to the morning’s training, maybe, er, half an hour break?’

Dad nodded, but didn’t speak, and Malcolm got up to herd everyone out of the room. Dec had sat next to him and was talking quietly but intently to him, and I went over to join in.

‘… come back. He didn’t look right this morning, and maybe, if I think about it, it’s been coming the last couple of weeks.’

‘Shit. We need to find him.’

I needed to know whether they were both thinking the same as I was.

‘Is Matty ill again?’

Dad looked up.

‘Probably. Shit, we need to find him. Cal, can you check the car park? We should call Laura, see if she’s seen him.’

‘She’ll be at Pilates. Ames usually goes with her, but she cancelled this morning because of all the fuss.’

‘I’ll leave a message then …’

Matt

Maybe it wasn’t the most advisable thing to do, to drive at speed across the city when my limbs had started acting under their own volition, but I just needed to escape, to put as much distance between me and that nightmare back there as I could. For the first part of the journey, tears misted my eyes, and then I realised it wasn’t just the tears; my vision had blurred with the fucking bastard too. It really is a miracle I didn’t kill someone.

Cal

Dad’s voice faded behind me as I ran out to the car park to see if Matty’s car was there. It had been there this morning, as Dad had parked next to it, but it was gone now. I didn’t like to think of Matty driving anywhere in the state he was in, and I decided to call Lau, even though it was likely several other people had already called her. Her phone went to voicemail, so I left a message.

I didn’t want to panic her, but I didn’t want her to think there was nothing to worry about, either. Then I went back to the conference room to tell Dad and Dec that Matty’s car had gone. Dad had been to Matty’s office, but he wasn’t there, and he couldn’t find him anywhere else in the building.

‘Shit. I have no idea where he’s gone. I’d better tell Beth.’

He sent a quick text to Mum, then looked at me.

‘You don’t have any idea where he’d be, do you?’

‘Me? No. I would have said with Lau somewhere, but if he’s not with her I’m stuck.’

Since Matty met Lau, and had a whirlwind romance complete with a wedding and twins within a year of meeting her, he had been a lot calmer, a lot more sorted. He told everyone she made him feel safe, and you could see it about him, that Lau was Matty’s safe place. I really hoped he was with her somewhere, because I worried what kind of a state he’d be in if he couldn’t even go to Lau.

‘I’ll try Ames again, maybe she can pop down the road and see if he’s gone home.’

‘Good plan. Beth might call round there too.’

‘Do we need to alert … anyone?’

Dec sounded like he was clutching at straws.

‘Like?’

‘Police, hospitals …’

‘It’s not like he’s missing, he’s not been gone long enough. And I really don’t want to think about hospitals. Shit, he shouldn’t have been driving. I think we’ll just wait to hear from Laura. I’ll go and get her out of her class if I don’t hear soon.’

Someone brought coffee for us, and as we sipped and worried about Matty, Dad had a text from Mum, and Dec had a text from Amy, both saying Matty wasn’t at home and no one they knew had seen him.

Matt

I came to my senses after a while, at least the senses that told me to stop driving before I had an accident. I looked around at where I was, peering through the fog and double images for landmarks, and saw I wasn’t far from Avondale, where I used to live.

I pulled over and parked in the street, but stayed gripping the steering wheel, sucking air in through my nose, tears leaking out of my eyes, seeing nothing except my whole world ending.

This fucking bastard disease, it took everything from you, either little by little, pretending it had gone away and then coming back, or in huge explosive occurrences like this morning. I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Raiders, I couldn’t face any of them after that debacle.

I didn’t want to be there, snivelling in my car, I wanted to be somewhere quiet, where curious people weren’t peering in the window. I thought about going home, but Lau would be there, and I couldn’t face her either, not now. As I thought about her, my phone started ringing. It was Jay’s ringtone. Oh fuck, none of them were going to leave me the fuck alone now. I turned my phone off. Fuck them all.

As I wondered where I could go, my eyes found the spire of St Saviours church. I thought about going in, it would be quiet, and cool, but I didn’t want to talk to any bloody nosy vicar or old lady doing the flowers. Then I remembered the hideaway, the room in the hedge, the place that Cal had showed me, and I had showed Jules. As if it was calling to me, I got out of the car and practically felt my way over to the church, legs hardly working, tears still forcing their way out of my eyes.

I must have looked a sight, but fortunately I couldn’t see any pitying, or indeed terrified, glances. I found the gates to St Saviours, and stumbled through the long grass in the cemetery until I came to the box hedge. It had been a few years since I was here last, but even without being able to see clearly, I found my way in.

Laura

Before my class I’d sent Matt a good luck text for his presentation, and I checked my phone after the class to see if he’d replied. There were several missed calls and voicemail messages from everyone but Matt. I listened to the messages with growing alarm and dread.

Dec: ‘Lau, it’s Dec, give me a ring as soon as you get this.’

Amy: ‘Hey Lau, I know you’re in Pilates at the moment, but can you ring someone about Matt? Jay or Dec or someone.’

Cal: ‘Lau, do you know where Matty is? We’re trying to find him. He was well weird this morning.’

Jay: ‘Hey Laura, don’t want to worry you, but Matty’s had a bit of a meltdown this morning, he’s gone off somewhere. Call me.’

Beth: ‘Oh Laura, is everything alright? James told me about Matty’s presentation, do you know where he is? I’ve tried his mobile and your home number, I might try popping over.’

Heart pounding, I called Jay.

‘Laura, thank God, I was about to come in and pull you out of your class.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘Matty’s having symptoms again, isn’t he?’

I thought about my promise to Matt that we would keep it quiet for now.

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because he was doing a presentation this morning, and he could hardly talk, he was dropping stuff, he had to lean on the table to stop himself falling over. In the end he chucked his laptop across the room and stormed out.’

I was appalled. When he left for work, he’d been talking fine, no problems with walking. I shouldn’t have let him go to work, with the news from Dec this morning, the tiny amount of sleep he’d got, and the return of the MS, I should have known he would react badly. Now he’d gone off somewhere, upset, embarrassed and hurting, and I needed to find him.

‘What? Where did he go?’

‘No one knows. Have you heard from him?’

‘No. Did he drive?’

‘He must have done, his car’s gone. Jesus, Laura, how long has he been getting worse?’

I sighed. It sounded like the cat was out of the bag whatever I said.

‘I’ve noticed small signs for the last couple of weeks, but I didn’t say anything to him. He dropped a glass last night and got really upset. We’re pretty sure it’s back. But he wasn’t too bad when he left this morning, you wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t know him.’

‘Jesus. Do you have any idea where he is?’

‘Not unless he went home. Beth said she tried to call him, but I doubt he’d answer her. If she went round, he’d ignore the doorbell too.’

‘Shit. I need to talk to him. He’s going to be feeling fucking awful.’

‘I don’t expect he’ll want to talk to anyone. I’ll go straight home and see if he’s there.’

‘Ring me when you know.’

Cal

He disconnected and looked at us. His side of the conversation had confirmed what we now all thought, that his MS was back, and Dad didn’t need to say it.

‘She’s going home, she’s going to ring, but I doubt he’ll be there. Dec, didn’t you say when he had his meltdown about Julia, he just drove round and round?’

‘Yeah, but that was years ago. Who knows what he’ll do now.’

‘I really hope he’s not driving.’

‘Well short of hunting him down on the roads, there’s not much we can do. We’re going to have to start training soon, and hope there’s some news when we’ve finished.’

Dad looked like the last thing he wanted to do was run a training session, and I wondered if he was going to get one of the other coaches to do it instead, but he squared his shoulders, got up and went to call everyone to the training pitch. He was trying some damage limitation for Matty; if he didn’t make a big deal out of it, and everything was OK, Matty wouldn’t have to answer so many questions. Although I thought it was unlikely that Matty was going to get away totally unscathed.

When Matty got ill the first time, he was living in Stafford, so none of us were around to see how he was, until he was suddenly lying in a hospital bed with tubes coming in and out of everywhere. I saw how he was after he came home, and how long it took him to get better, but I suppose I never really linked it to the second time he got ill, because he wasn’t in hospital, he was just Matty who got tired and couldn’t walk properly, and whose talking went a bit funny. I’d still go round to his flat, although he didn’t have the energy to play football in the park, but we’d play FIFA on his PlayStation instead, so I suppose I didn’t really notice. I was twelve, and a self-obsessed pre-teenager, so the only way it really affected me was that Matty didn’t take me to see Raiders, and I had to sit with the juniors more often, which made me really grouchy.

Matty was always pretty good at making out he was normal, so I wasn’t surprised that this time he’d managed to hide any symptoms from everyone. It was his bad luck that everything had gone wrong at once in front of a room full of people. He would hate that, and I hated to think about how he would be feeling now, knowing that everyone he worked with knew there was something up with him.

Matt

It was as if someone had switched off the noise. Not just the noise of the city traffic, which was somehow dulled, but all the noise from the last twenty four hours or so. This was where I needed to be, where no one would find me, where no one would come, where there was nothing but stone and hedge and the only people there were long dead. I walked over to the bench and sat down, looking for a while at the graves of John Chartham and Roberta Chartham.

I’d Googled them once, out of curiosity, and found out John had been the vicar here at St Saviours, and Roberta was his wife. There wasn’t much more information available, but it made them a bit more human. I found myself addressing them.

‘Hey guys. Sorry to interrupt your peace. Just need to get away for a bit. Hope you don’t mind.’

I realised I sounded like a lunatic, talking to dead people, so I stopped.

I felt strangely exposed sitting on the bench, and looked round the enclosure for somewhere more concealed. There really wasn’t anywhere else, unless I got under the bench, and that wasn’t going to work. I was feeling vulnerable, and wanted to screw myself up into a ball and hide, so I got up and wedged myself into the corner, pulling my knees up to my chin and folding my arms over my head. By wrapping myself up like this, it felt like I could hold on to me, stop everything I was from flying away.

I didn’t think about what had happened. I couldn’t. I did everything I could not to think about it. Every time a word or an action slipped into my head I pushed it away, hard. I told a lot of thoughts to fuck off while I sat there in a ball, and it would work for a while, then I’d get a glimpse of the remote control falling to the floor, or Dec’s face this morning, or Lau would float across my mind, and I’d have to tell them all to fuck off all over again.

I spent I don’t know how long doing that, trying to empty my mind of everything, as if I could really send it all away just by telling it to go. I was out of strategies; I knew if I thought about it, let any of it in, faced any of it, then it would be bad, I would lose myself. I had no other option, apart from sitting here trying not to think, trying to purge my mind of anything that might make any demands on me.

I passed a long time sitting like that. My legs might start to go numb, but that was good, because the less of me there was that could feel, the better. I got cold, but I didn’t care about that either, because cold was a different kind of numb, and if I could focus on being cold, I could ignore everything else.

I don’t know how long I sat there, trying to be nothing and no one to anyone, trying to make myself so small that I’d disappear, part of me wishing I was long dead like John and Roberta, part of me wishing I had never been born, the rest of me choosing not to examine who I was or what I might become.

Laura

I disconnected from Jay, grabbed my bags and hurried out to the car park, calling Matt as I went. I didn’t expect him to answer, but at least he would know I’d tried. As I expected, the call went to his voicemail.

‘Hey whoever you are. This is Matt, or Matty or Uncle Matty or Daddy or Matthew or Mr Scott or Sexy Bum if that’s you, Lau. Leave me a message if it’s either really important or outrageously rude. Catch ya laters taters.’

The voicemail beeped at me.

‘Matt, it’s me, everyone’s really worried about you, please let me know where you are. I won’t tell anyone, and I’ll leave you alone if you want me to, but I need to know you’re alright. Please, Matt.’

I sent a text, saying the same thing, as an extra measure, and also left a message on the home phone answer machine.

I drove across the city faster than I usually did, putting my foot down through orange lights, breaking the speed limit. Jay had really worried me; Matt would have hated appearing any less than a hundred per cent in front of all those people, and I didn’t know what he would have done. I needed to find him. My phone rang several times while I was on the way home, but glances at the screen showed it wasn’t Matt, so I ignored it. I pulled up outside the house and ran to the door, fumbling with my key in my haste to get inside. I threw the door open.

‘Matt!’

I called up the stairs, looked in the kitchen, living room and dining room, then ran up the stairs and looked in every room up there too. I went into the garden and checked the shed. I felt he was going to be holed up somewhere, in a state, but I couldn’t think where he would have gone. I checked everywhere again, but he hadn’t magically appeared since the last time. I ran up the road to see Amy.

‘Oh Lau, have you found him?’

I shook my head. ‘He hasn’t been here, has he?’

‘No. Come in for a bit.’

‘Oh, no thanks, Amy, I’d rather be at home, in case he comes back.’

I looked back down the road, as if I was going to see his car coming round the corner.

‘OK, Lau. Let me know when you find him.’

‘I will.’

Once back home, I called everyone I could think of, starting with his mum and getting gradually more desperate as nobody I called had seen him. I racked my brains, trying to think of anyone else he might have felt safe with, or any hidey-hole he might have – that was it! The words ‘hidey-hole’ floated around my brain for a few moments before they registered, then I was suddenly certain.

It was from a long time ago, something he’d told me about him and Julia. Now I just needed to remember where it was. I had a feeling it was near Matt’s old flat, and there was something about a graveyard, but the details eluded me. He couldn’t have mentioned it more than a couple of times; maybe if I went over there, I could try to find it. St Saviour’s church had a graveyard, I could have a look around. I grabbed the keys, feeling hopelessly desperate, and got in the car.

Cal

The training session was mercifully short, as Matty’s presentation was supposed to have taken up half of the allotted session, so after an hour, we found ourselves with some free time. I sent Lau a text.

Laura

‘Any news on where he’s hiding?’

And that did it, another piece of the memory slotted into place. I called him straight away.

Cal

I didn’t have any expectations of an answer – Lau would be doing her nut with worry, and probably had texts coming out of her ears asking if she’d seen Matty, but I wanted her to know I was thinking about her. I was surprised when she called me straight back.

‘Lau. Any news?’

‘I’ve had an idea. Do you remember a hideaway, in a hedge, in a graveyard somewhere? I think you showed Matt once.’

It took me completely by surprise. I hadn’t thought of the hedge room since I was little. I hissed out a breath.

‘How the fuck did you know about that? Jesus, I barely remember it myself.’

Laura

Cal, seventeen now, had picked up enough bad language from his father and his uncles to be swearing like a sailor well before he was a teenager. He had been careful around his family until his mid-teens, and then, much to Beth’s dismay, he’d joined the ranks of Scott men who couldn’t get more than a couple of sentences out without adding a profanity of some sort. Right now, though, bad language was the least of my worries.

‘Can you remember where it is?’

Cal

‘Yeah, it’s in that church near where you and Matty used to live. We’d go there when I went to his flat, he’d pretend he couldn’t remember how to get in so I’d show him again, then we’d sit and drink Fanta and eat crisps.’

‘Can I come and pick you up? Will you show me?’

‘Yeah, sure thing. Why do you think he’s there?’

‘I just think he’s gone somewhere where he can be alone, where no one else goes.’

‘Well, no one apart from all the druggies and winos.’

‘You’re not making me feel any better. Where are you?’

‘Still at the club, just finished training.’

‘I’ll see you in ten minutes.’

I doubted it would be ten minutes. Lau was a really slow driver, and sometimes took let’s be kind and call it the scenic route, because she was too busy singing along with the radio rather than concentrating on where she was going. I sat on the steps outside the Stadium and waited for her, thinking about the hedge room, and how I’d shown it to Matty all those years ago.

I must have been about nine or so, and I spent a lot of time with Matty. I’d go to his flat, and we’d eat pizza and play football in the park, and I’d tell him about school, which was a bit crap at the time. I was being bullied, about all sorts of things, not least of which was my hair.

My hair is the stupidest, most excruciatingly embarrassing hair a boy could ever have nightmares about. It’s blond, which isn’t so bad, but it’s curly, and when I say curly, I mean the sort of tight ringlets that a Jane Austen heroine would swoon over. I mean, get real. Mum loved it, and would never let me have it cut, so I had to put up with all the smart-arses at school calling me a girl, tugging my hair when they got a chance and generally making my life a misery.

As soon as I could, I got it all cut off, buzz cut all over, Baggo’s brother Troops did it with his Army clippers. Mum shouted, and cried, and went round to shout at Troops, but having short hair made my life so much easier. Troops would cut it every two weeks so it didn’t grow the curls back, even though it was pretty scary with him holding the clippers in one hand and a beer can or a cigarette in the other. Mum realised I was serious after a while, and gave me my own clippers for Christmas, and I’ve never looked back. But back then, I had to do as I was told, and I’d offload to Matty about how crap it was.

It didn’t help that my dad was a local celebrity, or rather a national celebrity who happened to live locally, so that made me a target as well. I was always accused of being up myself because I had a famous dad, of being teachers pet because I had a famous dad, of the PE teacher being in love with me because I had a famous dad. It sucked. It’s a wonder it didn’t put me off a career in rugby before it began.

Of course, I couldn’t tell Mum any of this, because she’d have been off up the school in a flash, giving the head teacher a bollocking and getting all the bullies in trouble, which would have just made things worse, so I told Matty, and he helped me think about bullies and why they did what they did, and how he was a bit nerdy at school and so he was bullied and what he did about it, and although none of it stopped the bullying, it made me feel better, like it wasn’t my fault.

So where was I? Oh yeah, the hedge room. Baggo was the one who had told me about the hedge room. He lived not far from St Saviours church, which was also not far from Matty’s flat. I don’t know how Baggo knew, maybe one of his brothers told him, but he blew my mind one day by showing me how to look like you had disappeared into the hedge. I just had to try it out on Matty, and I blew his mind too, and then, every chance we got Matty would take me to the graveyard at St Saviours, and act like he’d forgotten how to get into the hedge room, so I’d show him, and then we’d sit there and eat and drink stuff that Mum disapproved of while we chatted about my uninspiring school life.

Eventually, I grew a pair, around the same time as I started being serious about the Raiders junior section, and the bullies melted away in the face of a little bit of muscle and a more assertive attitude, and Matty and I didn’t go to the hedge room any more I didn’t realise until I read Matty’s story that he’d used it for more nefarious purposes in his lunch hour, and it’s hardly surprising that once he broke up with Julia we stopped going there altogether.

To be honest, I didn’t see much of Matty while he was with Julia, because he stopped coming over as much, and didn’t ask me round to his as much. Julia was a bit … erm I’m struggling to put it nicely. She was pretty and everything, and played with Iz and talked to me, but it always felt like she couldn’t wait to leave, and a lot of the time Matty would come by himself, and it was like he couldn’t wait to leave to be with her. He was really cut up when they split, but I don’t think any of the rest of us were, except being sad for him, obviously.

Anyway, I hadn’t thought about the hedge room for years, but now Lau had mentioned it, it seemed perfect, the only place he would have gone, away from anyone and everyone, almost part of a different time, a different life.

Laura

And so, another breakneck trip across the city later, Cal hopped into my car and we crossed the city again.

Cal

To my amazement, Lau turned up just over ten minutes after she’d called. I got in the car and immediately wished I hadn’t, as she was driving like a woman possessed, accelerating through orange lights, muttering under her breath when she had to stop at red ones, generally behaving like a crazy person. I suppose I could understand it, but I feared for my life a little bit.

‘Jesus, Lau, slow down you’re going to fucking kill us.’

‘Sorry, Cal, I’m really worried about him. Were you there this morning?’

I didn’t tell Lau I’d thought Matty was drunk, or that some of the other guys thought that too. She knew what was going on, and didn’t need extra things to worry about.

‘Yeah. I thought he wasn’t right when I first saw him, he looked like shit, he was, like, his legs were shaking when he stood up, and he got all flustered setting up, then he kept tripping over his words, and was trying to be all cool about it, making jokes about not having his teeth in and shit, and then he dropped the remote for the laptop a couple of times. The lads were giving him a bit of stick to start with, you know what he’s like, any opportunity for a bit of banter, gives as good as he gets normally, but it seemed like it was really bothering him, and then he dropped the remote again, and he went for his laptop and just shoved it across the table. It went right across the room and smashed into the wall. He was like ‘Fuck it, I can’t do this’ and walked out. We all just looked at each other. Dad was white as a sheet, at first I thought he was pissed off, but I think he was, like, shocked. He sent me after him, but I couldn’t find him. Is Matty ill again?’

‘Yeah, Cal, I think he is. And this news about Dec going to Australia might have tipped him over.’

‘Yeah, that’s major, about Dec. I never thought he’d leave, he’s been here forever. I can’t remember when he wasn’t, like, just here, like I’ve always known him. He’s like my brother, really.’

‘It’s going to be weird without them, isn’t it.’

‘Yeah. But we’ll have Skype and Facetime, as long as we make Tom do it and not Dec, he’s fucking shit with technology. And he won’t be away forever, it’s only for a year at the moment. I can’t see him staying over there, can you? Rose would have something to bloody say about it, for a start.’

I hadn’t really had time to get my head round Dec leaving, not with Matty going all weird, but as I was talking, trying to sound reassuring for Lau more than anything, I realised that it might be as OK as I was making it sound.

Laura

I wondered if Cal would have a word with Matt, if we ever found him, as his practical seventeen-year-old common sense might get through to him.

‘You’re having a very calming effect on me, Cal.’

Cal

‘Ha ha, am I? I don’t suppose I do big dramas.’

This was at least true of other people’s dramas, which I seemed to be able to be fairly chilled about. My own dramas were another matter.

‘Oh, look there’s the church – there’s a parking space just up there, I think it’s pay and display.’

I fed the machine a few coins while Lau parked, then led her through the gates of the graveyard and across the grass, up to a tall green hedge.

Matt

As time passed, I felt myself becoming part of the weird little outdoor room, as if I wanted to disappear into it so much, it was starting to absorb me. It was the most peculiar feeling, and I just let it happen, bit by bit, me flowing away into the stone. The curious part of me wondered what would happen to me when I’d finished flowing. Would just my clothes be left? Would I have gone –

Cal

‘It’s here somewhere. I can’t remember exactly where.’

I started to walk along the hedge, looking for the entrance. It was really well hidden, and you had to know just where to look.

Matt

Cal’s voice brought me back to the present with a start. My whole body tensed as the first thing from the outside world permeated my thoughts for what felt like half a lifetime.

‘Are you sure, Cal? It just looks like a hedge, there’s no –’

That was Lau. I mentally shook myself as I realised they’d found me. No, I didn’t want to be found, I wanted to go back to flowing, it was peaceful, it was nice. But I was to have no peace, no gentle flowing, not right now, as I heard the unmistakeable sounds of footsteps coming in to the enclosure.

Cal

Lau gasped as I disappeared, and I grinned to myself, even though this wasn’t a laughing matter. It seems it never got old, showing people the old trick.

Laura

One minute he was there, and the next he was gone, as if he’d been eaten by the foliage. I stood for a moment, mouth open, then started to run towards where Cal had been.

Cal

I looked around as I walked in, and immediately saw the crumpled shape of Matty, squashed in the corner of the hedge room, sitting on the floor, his suit all dirty, knees up to his chin, arms clasped tightly over his head, looking like he was not having a great time. He needed Lau.

‘Bingo.’

I raised my voice to call to Lau, and to let Matty know we’d found him. I had no idea whether he would be happy about that or not, but if anyone could get through to him, it was Lau. I stepped out of the hedge and gestured to her to go in.

Matt

Cal’s voice was near, but I didn’t look up. Then I heard him again, more distant, and realised he must have stepped out.

‘He’s here. Think you need to go and talk to him.’

Laura

I sagged with relief.

‘Thanks Cal. You’ve been amazing.’

Matt

The sound of Lau’s voice cut through the fog that had enveloped me, it was like a beacon. I didn’t want a beacon, I wanted the fog. I could drift in the fog.

Cal

‘Do you want me to stay?’

Lau nodded. ‘Would you mind, for a bit? Just until I know what’s what.’

‘Sure thing. I’ll be out here – oh, this is how you get in, look.’

I showed her the way, and Lau walked through, as I made myself comfortable, sort of, on the edge of a gravestone.

Laura

He pointed to a bit of the hedge that looked like any other bit of the hedge until you stepped close to it, when it became a well disguised gap in the hedge. I walked through, and into a small peaceful enclosure with a stone floor, a stone bench and two gravestones. And Matthew Robert Scott sitting on the floor in the corner, suit crumpled and dirty, knees up to his chest, arms over his head, trying to shut the world out.

118. State of shock

In which an old enemy returns, and bad news is imparted.

Matt

So here it is. Josh and Ella were five, they were happy at school, they were growing by the day, and learning so much stuff it was hard to keep up with them sometimes. I was loving life. I had my family, my job, friends, house, car, it was all going according to plan. Maybe that was one of the warning signs; nothing ever just pootles along merrily forever, does it. Sometimes it all crashes around you.

Looking back, I’d been ignoring it for a couple of weeks at least, probably longer. I’d fall asleep after dinner, a few of my words were slurred, but this wasn’t going to happen, it fucking well wasn’t going to come back, it had left me alone for nearly five years, and so I just worked hard, put it to the back of my mind, wished it away, and it seemed to go, and I wondered if I’d been imagining it.

Then it started creeping back, the odd unintelligible bit of bollocks, the occasional stumble, once I couldn’t get my arm to lift a cup into the dishwasher. My legs would tremble at odd times, sitting, standing or walking. I still ignored it. Because ignoring things makes them go away, doesn’t it.

Laura

One afternoon, school run completed, and Matt home from work, I was in the living room with Josh and Ella, waiting for Matt to bring us all a drink. Ella was lying on the floor colouring a picture; Josh was playing with his cars, pushing them up and down the sofa, having made a village on the cushions.

Matt

I was making everyone a drink – tea for Lau, blackcurrant squash for the kids, beer for me – and listening to their noises. Josh was playing cars, making engine sounds and beeps. Ella was colouring, and asking Lau which colour went with purple. I picked up the glass to pour my beer into, and as the liquid reached the top of the glass, my arm started to quiver. I tried to hold on, but my arm gave an almighty spasm, my hand let go, and glass and bottle fell to the floor. It was as if it had got pissed off with me ignoring it, and was making sure I knew it was back. Because it was, it was back. It was fucking back.

As the glass smashed on the floor and I stared at the burst of beer and froth that splattered the tiles and the units, it just slammed into me, and kept on pounding me. It was all my brain could compute.

‘Fuck off you fucking –’

Laura

I hissed a sharp intake of breath as Matt dropped the c-bomb. Sweary as he was, it was one of the few words I’d rarely heard him say. I felt my heart pinch with worry as Ella looked up from her drawing.

‘Daddy said a swear.’

Josh continued brrmming his cars along the sofa, shaking his head.

‘Really, Daddy.’

I smiled to hear my usual rebuke repeated. Matt didn’t swear as much as he used to, at least not within earshot of Josh and Ella, but a fair amount of cursing still went on, and the kids were always keen to join in the nagging. At least they hadn’t asked what it meant.

‘Alright in there?’

There was no reply. Sighing, I got to my feet and walked through the house.

Matt

I turned round to lean on the sink, breath heaving in my chest. This was the end, if it was back; the end of my normal life. How was I going to carry on now?

I heard Lau call out, but couldn’t answer her, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, all I could do was stare into the sink as hot tears flowed down my face and dropped into the washing up bowl.

Laura

In the kitchen, Matt was standing with his back to me, leaning on the sink, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh Matt.’

I picked my way through the explosion of glass and beer that had spread across the floor, until I could stand behind him and fold myself round him.

Matt

I felt her behind me, putting her arms round my waist and resting her face on my shoulder, and I span round, into her arms, crushing her to me, needing her to be there, my safe place. I tried to speak, to tell her, but it came out in shudders and sobs.

‘Ih’s back … the fucking … bastard’s … back. I thought … ih … had … gone.’

Laura

I’d been dreading something like this for a couple of weeks; I’d noticed small signs – a slight slur in the speech, stumbles and trips, difficulty focussing on the pictures the twins brought back from school, the fear in his eyes.

‘I know, flower.’

Although both of us knew it never really went, just lay in wait.

Matt

Of course she knew. She always knew everything. She’d been waiting for me to know.

‘Daddy, why are you crying?’

Oh shit, the kids were at the door. Lau turned round as I took deep breaths and tried to dry my eyes. Josh and Ella were standing in the doorway, eyes wide at the sight of their blarting father and the puddle of glass and beer spread across the kitchen floor. I tried a kind of smile, while Lau spoke to them.

Laura

‘Don’t come in, kids, there’s broken glass. Daddy’s sad because he dropped his beer.’

The immediately practical Ella rolled her eyes.

‘But Daddy you can get another one in the fridge. Mummy can clean up the floor.’

Josh stayed silent, always the one to soak everything up first and ask questions later.

‘I know, Squeaks, I’m just getting a cloth. Shoo, now, Daddy will bring your squash in a minute.’

Reluctant to leave the scene of impressive carnage, Ella and Josh lingered for a moment, eyeing the tempting puddle, until I waved my hands at them to urge them away. As they trotted off I turned back to Matt, lifting my hand to his face and wiping away a stray tear. I needed to show him I wasn’t just making light of it, to reassure him quickly, but was aware of the likelihood of small ears listening beyond the kitchen.

‘In it together, yeah?’

Matt

I put my hand over hers, then moved my lips to her palm, kissing it gently. If there was anyone I wanted with me while my world was ending, it was Lau. Always Lau.

‘Don’t know what I’d do without you, Lau. You don’t deserve this.’

My voice was ragged, whispering.

Laura

‘Matthew Robert Scott, I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life. When I signed on the dotted line, I knew exactly what I deserved, and it was you. It was always you, it will always be you. Now, a bit less nonsense and a bit more making blackcurrant squash to give to your gasping children while I clean up the floor. It needed a good mop anyway. And try not to track beery footprints through the house.’

Matt

I pulled her towards me while she was still talking, while she was still being practical and making it better, and we held each other tightly, as our bodies spoke of sorrow and pain and hard times to come, things that we couldn’t say while the children were within earshot.

‘Love you Lau.’

‘Love you too.’

So I made squash for the kids, and for the rest of the evening, until they went to bed, I was just Daddy, same old Daddy, who’d had a bit of a hissy fit when he spilt his beer, but came back in with the blackcurrant joking and smiling like it hadn’t happened. That was on the outside. On the inside I was folding into myself, how the fuck was I going to tell them, how the fuck were they going to understand their Daddy was going to become a fucking cripple who couldn’t walk, talk, pick them up, play football with them, reliably hit the right key on the computer … shit.

It all started hitting me, as Lau was upstairs with them and I sat on the sofa staring at nothing. This was worse, so much worse than before. I had two children who relied on me, not only to put food on their table, but to be their Daddy, and all the things that entailed. It wasn’t only going to be me who lost everything, it was going to be them too. I shrank into myself, trying to hide from it all.

Lau came back downstairs after tucking them in and reading them a story, and we sat curled up on the sofa, TV on, us silent. I knew she’d want to discuss it, and I nearly started a couple of times, but I didn’t even know where to begin.

Laura

After the children had gone to bed, we sat curled up on the sofa, a film on the TV that neither of us were watching, Matt’s arm round me as I lay against his chest. I heard him breathe in a couple of times as if he was going to say something, but he let the breath out without speaking.

‘Want to talk about it?’

Matt sighed. ‘No, not really. Ih’s not going to change anything, is ih. Can’t face ih just now. Need time.’

‘OK, whatever you need.’

I knew Matt well enough by now to know when to push him to talk and when he really did need the space he always asked for whether he needed it or not. At this moment there was a lot of thinking going on for him, now it was out in the open, and when he’d done that, I would push if I needed to. It wasn’t lost on me that I was experiencing MS from the other side, the side where – unlike at work – you couldn’t just detach from the pain and hurt of people, the side where you were in the middle of it all and there was no let up, no nine to five, no lunch break

‘Are you watching this?’

‘No, not really. Do you want to watch something else?’

‘No, I was thinking about going to bed.’

‘It’s still early.’

‘I didn’t necessarily mean to sleep.’

‘Oh.’

Matt’s face lit up, then darkened.

Matt

I looked at her expression, her come to bed eyes, and for a second she had me fooled. Then I knew what she was doing.

‘I don’t need a pity fuck, thanks.’

I realised straight away I’d offended her, that she’d been genuine. God, I was already retreating behind lashing out at the people I loved.

Laura

I tried not to be offended; he was feeling vulnerable and hitting out. Matt wasn’t the only one who maybe needed the reassurance that physical closeness always brought us, and it hadn’t been an offer, it had been a suggestion.

‘You don’t know me at all if you think there’s anything pitying in trying to get you into bed. You’re the hotty with the great bum that all my friends are jealous of, I just thought that rather than sitting here vegging in front of a crappy film neither of us are watching, we could maybe explore said bum in more comfort. Maybe explore my bum too. I found a muscle the other day.’

‘You did not!’

To my relief, Matt took the line I’d dangled; the opportunity to tease me.

Matt

She had a saucy smile, and she was throwing me a life-line. I caught it and clung on for dear life.

‘You have no muscles in your arse, that’s why it’s so lush.’

‘I’m telling you I found a muscle. It’s all those squats and lunges at the gym. Will says –’

Lau was doing really well at the gym. She didn’t need to do any of it, not for me, but she was getting fitter for her, and losing some of the curves she found most vexing.

‘Oh Will says, your uhmayzing personal trainer who gets to perv on you in your gym top. What does Willy-boy say?’

‘I’m not going to tell you now, I don’t think you’ll take Willy-boy seriously.’

She feigned a pout.

‘Does he say you’ve got a fantastic arse?’

‘No, but he –’

‘Then he’s an idiot. Come on, let’s go and see just where this imaginary bum muscle is.’

I grabbed her hand, losing myself in the moment, in the Matt and Lau of it, while I could. I pulled her out of her seat, and she ran past me up the stairs, as I followed, trying to tickle her newly toned arse.

I spent some considerable time looking for Lau’s bum muscle, using various inventive search methods, before pronouncing it invisible to the naked eye.

‘But hey, Lau, I bet you’ve hidden it somewhere else. Is it … here?’

Iz

Lord Above, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more … hang on to your jam sandwiches folks.

Matt

I conducted a thorough investigation of her mouth with my tongue and lips that left us both breathless and flushed.

‘Well, Lau, there is a pretty good muscle in there, but it’s not the one I’m looking for. How about here?’

I kissed my way down her throat and had a good hunt around her breasts with my mouth and fingers. Lau tangled her fingers in my hair and moaned. How could I have thought this was out of pity? She was enjoying herself as much as I was.

‘Nope, no sign of a muscle in there either. Just have to keep on looking.’

Holding her gaze, I let my hand drift lower, brushing her belly button before settling between her legs. Lau twitched as I found her most sensitive spot, and she grasped my shoulders as I moved myself downwards and followed my fingers with my mouth. It was her favourite, and never failed to light her up; I grinned against her as it worked again.

My fingers probed lower and deeper, until they were in her, and I started to thrust. Lau clenched around me, inside her.

‘Whoa, there it is, that’s the muscle I was looking for. Naughty Willy-boy if he’s been working on this one!’

I knelt between her legs, continuing to thrust into her with my fingers, watching Lau writhe, building the heat as I gazed down at her. God she was awesome, and I wanted her so much.

‘Ready, Lau?’

‘Yeah, oh God, yeah.’

‘Work that body. Here we go.’

I slipped my fingers out and guided my hard-on into her. As I filled her, pushed into her, felt the familiar sensation, allowed it to blow my mind again, as it did every time, I started to thrust, slowly and rhythmically, so I could feel every part of her sliding and sparking against every part of me.

At first I propped myself up on my arms, so just our hips were touching, then her mouth was so appealing, I bent down and kissed her, wrapping her up in my arms as she folded her legs round my back and drew me deeper into her. My thrusts became more urgent and we both started to cry out before remembering the children and dropping the volume, but we stayed locked together, bodies slipping against each other, breathing hard, moaning our pleasure, and then coming, and coming and coming, plunging deep into each other, exploding with the release.

I clung on to Lau for a long time afterwards, wanting, needing to be as close to her as I could. After a while, it was overwhelming, the whole mess, and it started coming out, first in gulps, then shudders. I tried not to let go, but there was too much of it, and before long I was quivering against her, sobbing. Lau soothed me, stroking my back, kissing my hair, whispering nonsense to me, until I calmed down. I still held on as if I was drowning.

Lau was waiting, to see if I was going to say anything. This time I was.

‘I don’t wana lose this.’

‘Oh my love.’

I knew she wouldn’t say ‘you won’t’, because I had last time, and indeed the time before, and Lau never made empty promises.

‘Don’t mourn it before it’s gone. Make the most of it while it’s here.’

I sniffed and wiped my eyes.

‘Oh you’re right, you bloody cow, you always know what to say. Anyone would think you used to be a nurse or something.’

‘Still am a nurse, thanks.’

Lau was always very firm about the fact that even though she wasn’t working, she had trained as a nurse, and a nurse was what she would stay, come what may.

‘Yeah, OK, fair enough. Oh Lau, I’m sorry.’

I let go of her and rolled onto my back, with my arm over my face. Lau snuggled into my side with an arm over my chest.

‘What are you sorry about?’

‘All this. Fucking bastard MS, me fucking freaking, you having to be all ‘one step at a time’ when you just want to freak yourself. You know … Lau, you know you don’t have to stay, no one would blame you, least of all me, if you took the kids and went.’

It was something that had occurred to me as I thought about how it was going to affect them all. Surely it would be easier for them all if they could just get on with things without having to bother about me?

Lau pushed me away from her angrily, and her eyes were flashing fire.

‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere, and neither are Josh and Ella. You can stop this ‘poor me’ nonsense right now. Just for the record, as you seem to have forgotten, I love you. When I met you, you were having a flare-up of MS, so if I was going to bail out because of that, then would have been the time. How dare you think I care about you so little that I run, and take our children with me, at the first sign of something untoward? What sort of a person do you think I am?’

I closed my eyes, didn’t speak for a moment.

‘Sorry, Lau, didn’t think of it like that. Trying to be selfless.’

‘Yeah, I seem to remember you trying that before one time, and we nearly didn’t get together in the first place as a result, in fact, you nearly – well who knows what you might have done that night. The point is, there is no ‘selfless’ when it comes to our family, we are all together, we help each other and love each other and support each other, and need each other. If you even think of going it alone, that’s selfish, not selfless. We all need you. God, you are proper infuriating.’

I couldn’t look at her. My eyes were spilling tears again; I just didn’t deserve it, this love, this loyalty, when all I was going to be able to offer them, soon, was pain and unhappiness. Lau folded me up in her arms again, and I squeezed her tightly against me as I cried again. I could feel her strength pouring into me, and part of me felt selfish for taking it, but God how I needed it, how I needed her comfort, as she stroked my back and made soft noises in my ear. It all subsided after a time, but Lau carried on holding me, and we lay in the darkness and breathed together.

Just as I was starting to drift into the black, the door handle rattled. We didn’t have a lock on the door, but the twins had taken to visiting in the early hours, so we had put a chair in front of the door, so we at least had some warning. We must have woken them up.

Laura

‘Mummy.’

It was Ella. It usually was, and she would be closely followed by Josh, who didn’t like being left on his own in the room they still shared.

‘Go back to bed, Squeaks.’

Matt

Lau was stricter than me about letting them in, and at the moment was protecting me. I suddenly wanted them all here, our family together.

‘Can’t they come in, Lau? Four way cuddle would be great right now.’

Laura

I sighed. It sent all sorts of mixed messages, but sometimes other things were more important. I got out of bed and moved the chair. Ella stood outside the door, holding her teddy. As predicted, Josh was at her shoulder. Both were looking up at me with big sleepy eyes.

‘Come on then. No noise or giggling, now.’

I tried to be strict, but it was a treat to have us all snuggled up together. We’d all be tired tomorrow, but it wasn’t tomorrow yet, it was now. Ella and Josh trotted into the bedroom and jumped into the bed as Matt held the duvet open for them – there was just enough room for us all, Josh and Ella on the inside, Matt and me on the outside.

Matt

By the time the kids had rolled over a few times and spread out, one of us would be off to the guest room, usually Lau, but before that happened, we all smushed together, me starting a bit of tickling because Lau loved trying to make us stop and behave, and then kisses and cuddles before going to sleep. I folded them both up, one after the other, with big hugs. Josh, as usual, submitted willingly, but Ella would only stand it for a short while.

‘You’re squeezing me Daddy.’

Laura

Our children were so different; Ella always took the lead, asked questions, said what she wanted, did what she wanted, threw a tantrum when she didn’t get what she wanted, using pester-power and volume to see her needs were met. Josh was happier to follow, riding on his sister’s coat tails, picking up the crumbs she left behind. When Josh made a fuss, you knew it was really important.

I wondered how they would react to the return of Matt’s MS, and started to think about what we might say to them. There had been some really good children’s resources around when I worked in the MS team; I’d give them a ring and see if I could beg some freebies.

Eventually we settled down, and Matt, Josh and Ella fell asleep while I listened to the sound of their breathing. I dozed off eventually, but woke later, teetering on the edge of the bed, with Ella curled against my back, her knees digging into my kidneys; it was usually me who ended up in the spare room. Stifling a resigned sigh, I rolled out of bed and walked round the bed.

Matt

I woke up, arse hanging over the edge of the bed, to see Lau creeping out of the room.

‘Lau?’

‘Been squeezed out. See you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t go.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of this night, of all nights, without her.

‘There’s no room.’

‘Wait, then.’

She waited by the bed as I climbed out, disentangling myself from Josh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Coming with you.’

‘We won’t both fit in the spare bed.’

‘Yeah we will. You and your muscly arse, me a skinny streak of nothing, plenty of room. Come on, we’ll wake them up if we stand here chatting.’

I couldn’t see her clearly, but I recognised the shape of her rolling her eyes at me as I followed her to the door.

Laura

We would have been better off taking Josh and Ella’s beds, but I knew Matt wanted to wrap himself up in me tonight, so we headed off to the spare room.

I woke early, cramped, neck stiff, shoved up against the wall. Matt was lying on his front, half hanging off the side of the single bed, head turned towards me, mouth open. His hair stuck out at wild angles, and I reached out and smoothed it, as I did most mornings.

I heard a noise from our room; it was Matt’s phone. It was set to go off every two minutes when he got a text, unless he read it. I decided to fetch it before it pinged again, to avoid waking Ella and Josh early, if possible. I carefully sat up and rearranged the duvet around Matt, before shuffling to the end of the bed and hopping off. Although I was trying to be quiet, I probably could have jumped up and down on the mattress without waking him, but it was a habit from being around the children.

The screen on Matt’s phone was lit up on his bedside table. I glanced at Ella and Josh, but they were dead to the world, Ella’s arm flung out across Josh’s chest. I looked down at the phone – it was a short text from Dec. I quickly carried the phone into the spare room before it pinged again.

It wasn’t unusual for Dec and Matt to text each other at all sorts of times of the day and night, sometimes it was a bit of a competition to see who could annoy the other the most, but something about this one made me try to wake Matt.

I tried shaking him gently, not wanting him to fall out of bed from his precarious perch. I tried speaking into his ear. I tried pinching him. The most I got was a mumbled curse and a move to a more comfortable position, away from the edge of the bed, as he rolled onto his back. As a last resort, I kissed him, using the full force of my tongue and lips to try and rouse him, tweaking his nipples as I did so.

Matt

I woke with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her fingers tweaking my nipple. This was more like it, a proper wake-up call. Oh, but she pulled away as I started kissing her back. She shoved my phone in front of my face, but I didn’t understand.

‘Wha? No, c’mere, keep snogging.’

‘You’ve got a text from Dec.’

‘Wha? He can piss off, ih’s only –’

I took the phone and looked at the time.

‘– shit, Lau, ih’s only bloody five o’clock.’

‘Yeah, but I think you need to read it.’

I still wasn’t quite awake, and I ran a hand through my hair as I tried to gather my thoughts. I looked blearily at the phone, and clicked on the message.

‘Shit.’

‘What does he say?’

‘RU awake, need 2 talk. Urgent.’

‘Ring him then.’

No, no, no, I couldn’t cope with any more drama, not today, I needed time to get my head around things. I combed my hair with my fingers again, then lay down, holding my arm out for Lau to get back in beside me. She climbed in and cuddled up, as I hit ‘call’.

‘Hey, ih’s me.’

‘Hey mate. You’re awake, then?’

‘Well I am now, what’s the big emergency?’

I was hoping that maybe it was something relatively innocuous, like Amy was poorly and we needed to look after the kids while he was at training, although why he was calling this bloody early in the morning I had no idea.

‘Can I come over? I’m … I’ve got … I just need to tell you something.’

What the fuck? I didn’t like the sound of this.

‘Oh, well, I guess, yeah.’

‘Coffee would be good.’

‘OK, I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘Five minutes?’

‘Yeah, see you in a bit.’

Oh I didn’t like this at all. Dec wasn’t fucking about or anything. It was something pretty huge. I turned to Lau.

‘He’s coming round.’

‘Why?’

‘Said he needed to tell me something. Shit, ih sounds big, Lau.’

I heard the tremble in my voice. I knew what Lau’s response would be – don’t worry about it until you know for sure – but all sorts of possibilities were flooding into my mind, each one worse than the last. And on top of it all was me; me and the fucking bastard.

‘I don’t want him to know about … me, not just yet.’

‘OK, flower, but … he’ll notice eventually.’

‘Yeah. But not today. Please.’

‘Sure, of course, it’s totally up to you. I’ll go and put the kettle on, while you find some pyjama bottoms or something.’

Laura

I grabbed my dressing gown from our bedroom, and went quickly downstairs, as I heard a light tap on the door. I let Dec in, looking at him quizzically. He looked nervous, which was unlike him; he was usually laid back about everything.

‘Go through, flower.’

I gestured to the living room.

‘I’m just making a drink. Tea or coffee?’

‘Thanks, Lau, coffee would be great, it’s early for me.’

‘It’s early for all of us.’

‘Yeah, I know, sorry.’

‘Matt’s on his way down, just getting decent.’

‘Oh, good, wouldn’t want any indecency from Matt, not before breakfast anyway.’

Matt

Lau went downstairs to let Dec in while I found some trousers. I heard a light tap on the door, then Dec and Lau’s voices, then Lau went back into the kitchen. I sat upstairs, on the bed, for as long as I could, knowing I was avoiding whatever it was, knowing it would surely be better to know than to imagine. Finally, I made my way downstairs and into the living room, where Dec was waiting.

I kept telling myself it might not be anything bad. Last time I’d convinced myself it was, and they were getting married. Dec didn’t always consider the effect of how he did things on other people, yeah, who was I to judge. I should just wait.

But as I went into the living room and saw the look on Dec’s face, saw him look ill-at-ease, fiddling with his fingers, hardly able to meet my eyes, I knew. At least, I knew it wasn’t good.

Lau brought some coffee in, and then turned to go, but I wanted her here, needed her here while he told me whatever it was. I felt for her hand and looked up at her, begging her to stay with my eyes.

‘Stay, Lau.’

Lau looked at Dec, to check it was OK with him. He nodded back at her.

‘Yeah, Lau, you should hear this too.’

She sat next to me and squeezed my hand, trying to keep me calm. Dec looked down for a while, taking a few deep breaths. It was almost more than I could stand, waiting for him to spit it out.

‘Please, Dec, get on with ih, I’m imagining all sorts of terrible shit, put me out of my fucking misery.’

Dec looked up and met my eyes.

‘I’ve signed for West Coast Speeders.’

A jolt went through me, I felt it lift me out of my seat slightly. I’d been pretty sure he was going to tell me he’d signed for another club, had steeled myself for it, was expecting him to be on his way to London, maybe TomCats or Warriors, one of the big clubs. West Coast Speeders were in Australia. He was moving to the other side of the fucking world. I couldn’t speak, just looked at him. Dec filled the silence with more information, but I could hardly take it in. I was numb.

Laura

I felt the shock go through Matt. He didn’t say anything, just looked back at Dec. Dec couldn’t possibly know the hammer blow he had just dealt Matt, with his MS symptoms returning – how much Matt would have relied on having Dec around.

Matt

‘It’s going to be announced at nine this morning, I wanted you to know before you went to work, or you heard it on the fucking telly or something.’

I still just stared at him, it was Lau who spoke.

Laura

Still nothing from Matt, although I had a question.

‘Where are West Coast wotsits?’

I’d vaguely heard of the team, but didn’t think they were in the league that Raiders played in.

Matt

Oh, Lau wouldn’t know, she knew fuck all about rugby anyway, let alone which continent teams played on.

‘Australia. Perth. It’s where I lived when I was little.’

‘Australia? Oh Dec.’

Laura

I squeezed Matt’s hand with all my might, as my eyes filled with tears. Amy and Dec were our best friends, our children played together and fought together, in and out of each other’s houses all the time. I couldn’t imagine our lives without them just up the road.

Matt

I looked at Lau, and saw tears in her eyes. It wasn’t just me this was going to affect. Amy was Lau’s friend, their kids were in and out of our house all the time, what would Beth and Jay think? What about Rose? Considering the impact this news would have on people who weren’t me made me slightly less self-obsessed, made me think of something to say. Dec was sitting there looking miserable and tense, when this was great for him, an incredible opportunity.

‘Didn’t you support Speeders when you were a kid?’

I tried to keep my tone light, but I heard the catch in my voice. At least I wasn’t spouting unintelligible bollocks.

Dec looked relieved that I had spoken, and that I was acting normal.

‘Yeah. I used to train with them as well, before I moved to England, with their juniors. It’s like my last chance, I’m getting older and don’t always make the first team here any more. If I don’t go now, they might not ask again, and it’s like a childhood dream kind of thing. And there’s a small chance, if I’m playing in Oz, that I could get the call from the Wallabies.’

‘That’s great for you, mate. Fucking brilliant.’

With a huge effort, I managed a smile for him. He was my mate, almost my brother, and if I couldn’t fake a bit of happiness on his behalf, I wasn’t really worth much. A few more tears spilled down Lau’s face.

Laura

I saw the effort Matt made to be happy for his friend, his brother, and was so proud of him, but I couldn’t match his faked composure, or stop a few tears spilling down my face.

‘We’ll miss you.’

Matt

She said it for me, for all of us.

‘I know, Lau. I can’t really believe we’re going to be moving away. I’ve lived here, in this city for, well it feels like my whole life. Everything I know is here. It’s scaring the shit out of me, and we’ll miss you guys too, but it won’t be forever. I’ve only got two or three more years left of playing before I’m too knackered, and I’m only signing for a year to start with.’

‘When are you going, mate?’

‘At the end of the season. May, sometime, depending on what Raiders get up to in the league. I might be able to fit a couple of games in over there before their season finishes.’

Shit, that was really soon. I wasn’t going to have any time to take it in, get used to it. Shit. I squeezed Lau’s hand so tightly I saw her wince, and loosened my hold slightly.

‘Holy fuck, that’s only a few weeks – why so soon?’

‘Well their season’s already started over there. I’m going to get stuck right in as soon as I arrive, but I’ve got to finish up here with Raiders first.’

‘I assume you’ve told Jay.’

‘Yeah, I just rang him. I’ve only just sorted it out – time difference and all that. Been on the phone to agents and admin people all bloody night, now I’ve got to go in for training. Gonna take a bit of stick, I should think.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Oh, you know Jay, not at his best for early morning calls. But he was OK. It was Beth who was in floods. Oh shit, this is going to be so hard, telling everyone. I should go, I’ve got to call a few people, then go round to see Rose on my way to training. Really, really not looking forward to that one.’

If I thought I wasn’t handling it well, I only had to think of Rose to put things in perspective. Rose had no family of her own, apart from a sister and nephew in Wales, and Dec, Amy and their children were like her own children and grandchildren. She was going to be destroyed.

Dec stood up to go, and Lau went out with him. I gave him as good a smile as I could muster, but it was a pretty feeble effort. As soon as he left the room, I dropped my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes, the news pounding through me, threatening to overpower me. The fucking bastard was back, and Dec wasn’t going to be here. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fucking fair.

Laura

I showed Dec to the door. He looked at me and lowered his voice.

‘Is he OK?’

‘Yeah, we’re both just surprised. And sad for us. Great for you, though, flower. Exciting.’

‘He just seems a bit …’

Dec’s words trailed off and he shrugged. I knew he meant more than just being upset. He would have noticed the same things I had over the past week or so, but I decided to play innocent.

‘He’ll be fine, once we get used to it. One of Beth’s huge parties will sort things.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, oh fuck, she’s going to throw a humdinger isn’t she. Take care, Lau.’

‘You too. Have a good day.’

Matt

Lau came back in and tried to take my hand, but I just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to touch anyone, be with anyone, just needed time to process it all, put it somewhere it didn’t all hurt so fucking much. Maybe tomorrow I’d laugh at myself for being such a melodramatic wanktard, but today it was a pain deep in my gut, and I needed to be there in the middle of it, sore, bruised and miserable. I pulled away from Lau, curled my knees up to my chest and turned away from her.

‘Just wana be on my own for a bit.’

To her credit, she didn’t try to get me to talk, or even try to stay with me.

‘OK, then. Here, put this round you so you don’t get cold.’

I hardly noticed while she put the throw from the back of the sofa over me, and left the room.

I spent the next couple of hours hovering over the pit of despair, the same one that had tried to drag me into it before, when Dec had climbed in and pulled me out. Except now he couldn’t, because he was the reason I was here, and I couldn’t let him know how devastated I was, I couldn’t tell him I needed him here like I needed all of them here, that him fucking off to another continent was the worst news I’d ever heard. Because he had his own life, and he deserved it, he’d worked hard for it, and fuck knows he’d spent enough time in the past propping me up and being there for me. I wasn’t about to make him feel guilty about going and making the most of life while he had the opportunity.

So I hovered there, on the edge, nearly falling in, the darkness beckoning, and then it crossed my mind, just floated in there, what I was supposed to be doing today. I’d managed to toss everything else out to make room for my enormous bout of self-pity, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be giving a presentation this morning. People were relying on me. Maybe I’d been considering taking the day off to bury myself under the duvet, I hadn’t really thought about it coherently, but with a plummeting heart, I realised I was going to have to get myself into some kind of shape, slap on some smart clothes and a professional attitude, and tell a room full of people about shit that right at that moment I couldn’t have cared less about.

It was almost more than I could bear, and I seriously considered calling in sick, but there was no one else who could do it, and it had taken ages to sort out this date so everyone who needed to be there was there. I was going to have to pull myself together and do it. Maybe working would distract me.

I looked at the time. Gone seven, so Lau would be up soon, ready to start chivvying Ella and Josh. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to disperse both my tiredness and the churning that was going on inside my head. Things needed doing, the day needed to start, so I got up and went into the kitchen to make some breakfast.

Laura

Ella woke me up, holding my phone, which was bleeping insistently, to my ear. It was seven eighteen and the alarm had been going for a minute.

‘Mummy wake up your phone is making me cross.’

I took the phone and turned it off.

‘Sorry, Squeaks, I forgot it was in there. There, all better.’

‘Where’s Daddy?’

‘Oh, I think he’s … downstairs already. Shall we go and find him?’

Ella nodded and took my hand as I got out of bed and made for the stairs.

‘Is Josh still asleep?’

I peered into our bedroom as I passed, and could make out Josh’s sleeping form. He was clutching Ella’s teddy.

‘Yes, he was saying things last night.’

Josh often sleep-talked. He slept more deeply than Ella, who could wake at the slightest sound, and she often reported the weird things her brother chattered about in the night.

We went downstairs together; I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the living room, how Matt would be, but when Ella and I opened the door, he wasn’t there, and the throw had been folded up and returned to the back of the sofa. I heard noises from the kitchen.

‘Hey, Squeaks, if we’re lucky Daddy’s making breakfast. Do you want Weeties?’

Ella considered, her morning breakfast choices being the first of many things she weighed up seriously before continuing her morning routine.

‘Coco Pops.’

‘OK, I’ll tell Daddy.’

Ella continued into the living room, and I made my way into the kitchen, where Matt was busy making his breakfast. I looked at his face; he looked terrible, dark circles under his eyes, pale and drawn.

Matt

Lau came in on her own, Ella having gone into the living room to turn the TV on. I carried on making tea and toast, putting more bread in the toaster for Lau and getting the Coco Pops out for Ella. It all felt automatic, like it wasn’t really me doing it. I felt dreadful, only half alive. Lau came over and looked at me, studying my face.

Laura

‘Matt, you look awful. Maybe you shouldn’t go to work today.’

‘I’ve got to, I’m doing a presentation about the new GPS, to everyone, players, coaches, admin, the whole bloody club.’

‘Can’t Cory or Jenna do it?’

‘Cory’s on a course and Jenna’s on holiday.’

‘Oh. Are you sure you can do it?’

‘Yeah, Lau, I’ve not got a bloody choice. I’m just tired, I didn’t sleep after Dec went, and not much before. I’ve been wiped before, I’ll be OK.’

‘Here, let me do that, then.’

I took the kettle out of his hand, noticing the shake as he held it.

‘Ella’s up, Josh is still fast asleep, whole bed to himself.’

‘Go Hippo, sleep hard.’

Matt tried a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

‘We’ll talk later, flower.’

Matt

I closed my eyes briefly, unable to face the thought of all the talking, fussing, I was going to have to endure once they all got wind of it. Then I nodded and took Ella’s cereal to her.

I dragged myself through getting ready. None of it seemed real, it was all overlaid with a sense of being outside my own life looking in, wishing so hard things were different that I was almost detaching myself from reality.

I was ready about the same time as Josh and Ella. I usually took them to school on my way to work, and today was no different. Lau had got them ready, and she gave them their sandwich boxes as I stood by the door.

Lau come over and straightened my tie, giving me a kiss as she did so. There was a lot we weren’t saying to each other, not only because the children were right there, but because we both knew I wasn’t going to talk about it yet.

‘Must be an important presentation, for you to get all togged up in your posh.’

‘Important enough. The CEO’s gona be there, not exactly one where I can wear my cargo shorts and ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt.’

‘You look lovely, you should dress up more often. Not just for work.’

She gave me a meaningful look and I did my best to flash her a smile

‘Noted. See you later, Lau. Kiss your mum, kids.’

Lau bent down to Josh, who gave her a big cuddle and a kiss, and to Ella, who pecked her on the cheek, eager to get going and see her friends. If I could just focus on this, the ordinary stuff, I’d be OK. Ordinary was fine; it was big, huge, life-changing shit that was hard. I chatted to them both in the car and saw them into the playground, then continued my journey to work, where it became a bit more difficult to feel ordinary.

Laura

I waved them all off and went to pack my gym bag. I usually went with Amy, as we had a Pilates class together later on in the morning, but she had texted to say that with all the events of last night, she wasn’t going.

117. Swimming lesson

In which friends become more, and then deja vu is experienced.

Cal

All the time I was friends with Ayesh, I had Dec’s voice going on at me in my mind, from when he talked to me about Chrissie – ‘so if she wanted to hold your hand … or kiss you, you’d push her away?’. And I was pretty sure the answer was yes. I’d push her away, because I loved being friends with Ayesh and I didn’t want it to change. In fact, I did push her away, not physically, but I never let any of the closeness creep in to our friendship that had got in there with me and Chrissie. I hung out with Baggo much more. Ayesh didn’t really get Baggo, and didn’t really like hanging out with him, so I was a bit split, but it made it easier to be with both of them. I wasn’t torn when I was with both of them together as to whether I was being the Cal who was with Baggo or the Cal who was with Ayesh, because I could be myself with both of them.

And it was when rugby was really starting to take off for me. I’d loved playing since I was little, once I realised I loved it best out of all the sports I played, and once Dad realised I was up for it. I joined the juniors and played my way through the age groups, always loving it, never thinking I was going to be doing it for a living, even though most of the important male role models in my life (Dad, Dec, Nico) did it for a living. I guess they never made me feel it was the only thing I could do, and I had Matty to make me see there was more to life than running around a field after a ball. But when I was sixteen, I had to make a decision, whether rugby was going to be a hobby or something I wanted to take seriously.

Dad hadn’t had to have many ‘chats’ with me, he left most of that kind of stuff to Mum, backing it up with ‘yeah, what she said’ kind of noises when directed to, but this was something Mum steered well clear of. If she had her say, she’d ban me from going anywhere near a rugby pitch for the rest of my life, as she worried every time I played, or even trained, that some dire accident was going to happen. So she kept out of all discussions concerning my rugby future in an attempt to, uncharacteristically, let me make my own mind up, and it was left to Dad to broach the subject.

Dad had this ability to be Dad at home and Scotty the Coach at work, whoever he was with. He managed it with Dec and Nico, and most impressively he managed it with me.

When I was in the lower age groups, he was just a distant figure who would come down and watch every so often, but he never behaved any differently to me than he did to any of the other kids. I didn’t get any favours, I didn’t get to be cheeky to him or any of the other coaches and get away with it, and I didn’t get picked because I was Jay Scott’s son even though I was often accused of it.

So it wasn’t surprising that Dad chose to have the ‘chat’ about my rugby future the same way he had it with all the other sixteen-year-olds who were either being told they could make it or they couldn’t and what did they want to do about it. It was a trip to the top floor of the stadium to Jay Scott’s office to find out.

I waited outside the office with most of my team mates. We’d all been given appointments for after that night’s training session, and were waiting nervously, fidgeting and taking the piss out of each other as one by one we were called in to the office. Some came out with wide smiles and bits of paper, having been offered an academy contract, some didn’t meet anyone’s eyes and hurried past with their gaze fixed on the floor, having been told their future wasn’t with Raiders. I was last, and as I waited, trying not to think about what Dad was going to say, I could hear his voice as he told Brendan Hardy that he’d done a great job this season, but they were only keeping so many on the books into the next age group, and he was sorry but …

Of course, I couldn’t hear all that, just Dad’s voice going up and down and the odd syllable from Brendan, but when Brendan came out and didn’t look at me, but instead rushed past wiping his eyes, well it was pretty obvious. I wondered how Dad would feel if he had to say that to me? It wouldn’t stop me wanting to play rugby, but not doing it at Raiders would be hard. And over the past few weeks, I’d been thinking more and more about trying for a career as a rugby player, about how I didn’t really want to do anything else, and the coaches all seemed to think I was good enough, and I’d got my hopes up. But now it was make or break time. I took a deep breath and stood up when Dad’s door opened.

‘Come on in Cal.’

I walked into his office as if I’d never been there before. Dad sat behind his desk and I sat on the chair in front of it, fiddling nervously with the bottom of my t-shirt, my heart pounding. It was as if Dad wasn’t really Dad, like he had this kind of costume on, and was playing the part of Scotty the Coach.

Maybe that’s what he did, how he managed it, to be two different people, to be the confident media savvy bloke who did the post-match interviews when Dom Barker was otherwise engaged, who did the half-time team talks, who was the same bloke who was Dad, who stretched semi-comatose on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon, avoiding emptying the dishwasher while Mum chattered on at him. Whatever, he was in full Scotty the Coach mode right now, and it was making me very, very nervous.

‘OK Cal, you know why you’re here. It’s time to think about the next step for you. We’ve had to let a few lads go who weren’t quite right for Raiders.’

Oh God, oh God, he was going to ditch me. I was going to have to go and join some lower league junior team, or play for the school or something. I nodded and looked at my hands, trying to make my face look unconcerned.

‘All the coaches from your age group have had input into this decision, it’s not me who decides who we keep on.’

Shit, they all think I’m crap, then, and Dad’s just the lucky one who gets to tell me. Could this be any more awkward?

‘The jump up to the next level is a hard one, and only the lads we think have what it takes to work hard and improve will be asked to come back next season in the academy.’

Yeah, yeah, I get it, I didn’t make the grade. Just get it over with.

‘So I’m really pleased to tell you that we’re asking you to join the academy. Well done, Cal.’

‘What?’

‘Well done. You just need to sign here. You need one of your parents to sign too – oh, that would be me. Job done.’

‘What?’

‘I’m not sure what you don’t understand. You’re in the academy.’

He finally cracked a grin and let ‘Dad’ shine through Scotty the Coach, and he looked, though I say so myself, bloody proud.

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously. Why, what did you think I was going to say?’

‘That I wasn’t going to be kept on, that I wasn’t good enough.’

‘Honestly Cal, do you not listen to anything your coaches tell you? I hope you pay a bit more attention next season. Mac and Bob think you’ve got the makings of a first team winger in a few years time, if you work hard.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. Well done, mate.’

‘Thanks, Dad.’

‘That’s Scotty to you.’

‘Sorry Coach.’

So in the end, it wasn’t so much a chat with Dad as a fait accompli, no discussion required. Dad knew I loved playing, and now I knew I was good enough for the next level, so any discussion would have been pointless, and would probably have gone ‘Want to be in the academy?’ ‘Fuck yeah’.

And so my immediate future was set. I was going to eat, sleep and breathe rugby for the next twenty years of my life, and it all started then. I trained hard, I played hard, I did everything they asked me to, and with schoolwork and exams and family and friends, I hardly had a moment to stop and think about anything.

Laura

Josh and Ella grew, walked, talked, went to nursery, went to school, and my days were suddenly empty. I wandered around our silent house while they were all out, and started to think about working again. I’d given up my job in the MS service a few years ago, knowing I wasn’t going to go back, and was thinking about general nursing, maybe some bank work.

Cal

I saw Ayesh and Baggo when I could, they were my life support, keeping my feet on the ground, making sure I got away from rugby at least sometimes, giving me healthy doses of reality.

Ayesh would make me see sense about joining in with some of Baggo’s madder adventures, and Baggo would try to make me see what was happening with me and Ayesh.

‘So have you shagged her yet?’

‘We’re not like that, we’re mates.’

‘You know she wants to, right?’

‘She doesn’t. We’re mates.’

And so I’d ask Ayesh, and it was always the same answer.

‘We’re friends, Cal. You don’t want to spoil that, do you?’

‘Do you think it would spoil it?’

‘Do you?’

‘Maybe. Aren’t we great as we are? Best mates?’

And we’d just carry on as we were. It wasn’t until one Christmas that either of us realised just what we had, and just what we were on the brink of losing.

Christmas was always a great time for our family. When I was little, I loved it because of Santa and all the presents, and there was that one Christmas when Dec came back that seemed more special than the others, and kind of set the tone for the rest after that.

We had some incredible Christmases, mostly due to Mum’s love of party planning; they were always full of food, presents and people, with tons of kids squealing, laughing and inevitably crying. Sometimes it was just family – there were more than enough of us to fill the house on our own – but sometimes she’d invite other random people like the old lady up the road who lived alone, or Baggo and his mum.

I can only remember one year when Christmas wasn’t at our house, well two if you count that year in Stafford, but the other year was when Mum let Amy and Lau do it at their houses. She told everyone she wanted a rest, and maybe that was the truth, maybe she wanted to show Lau and Amy that she could graciously hand over the reins, but she couldn’t leave it alone. She was over there all the time making mince pies, giving suggestions about gravy and shit, and she spent the next day whingeing about how she would have done it differently, so she never let it happen again.

There were a couple of strange Christmases when Dec and his gang were in Australia, and it didn’t feel right, which was weird if you think about it logically, because Dec isn’t even a blood relation, but he’s so part of the family that nothing felt right when he wasn’t around.

But the Christmas before that, it was a full-on Scott family festive fun day, and I was looking forward to it. Not that I was going to get much time to enjoy it – rugby training didn’t stop just because the rest of the country ground to a halt. We got Christmas day off, and then we were up and training the next day, ready for playing at the weekend.

I was pretty wrapped up in myself and my busy life, but even so I was getting definite vibes from Ayesh that all was not going to be well with her that Christmas. Her family were from India, and her dad was going back for a couple of months, and her mum didn’t seem too happy about it, and Ayesh spent a lot of time round at mine to get away from the atmosphere. She got on really well with my mum, so it didn’t matter that much to Ayesh whether I was there or not, and I’d often come in after an evening training session or a gaming session with Baggo and find the two of them wiping their eyes at some girls crap on the TV.

Then Ayesh texted me one day.

Things just got worse. Mum going to India. I’ve got to stay and look after Pav and Indi.

Pav and Indi were Ayesh’s brother and sister, twelve and fifteen, and if Ayesh’s mum was going at the same time as her dad, it would be in a couple of days and they would be gone over Christmas. I couldn’t imagine doing it, looking after Iz for an evening was bad enough.

No! Harsh 😦

Fancy doing something reckless while I’m still free?

Hell yeah, what you fancy?

There was a pause, presumably while she thought of something.

Meet me outside school. Bring a towel.

A towel? School? I was intrigued, and I did as I was told without questions. Ayesh was never reckless, and I found myself thrilled by the possibilities of what she was going to do.

Twenty minutes later, in the fading afternoon light, we were inside the school grounds and Ayesh was breaking into the swimming pool.

‘Er, Ayesh, you do know we’re going to set the alarms off?’

‘No we’re not, I know the code.’

‘You what?’

‘Briony Morgan’s dad’s the caretaker. She knows the code. She gets in all the time.’

‘Fucking hell. Are you sure about this?’

‘Completely sure. You did bring your towel, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah, but I didn’t bring any trunks.’

‘You won’t need them.’

‘I won’t?’

‘Nope.’

She gave me a saucy look over her shoulder as she opened the door and punched the code into the alarm system. As I headed off to the boys’ changing rooms, she caught my arm and pulled me straight to the pool.

‘I said you wouldn’t need trunks. Everything we need is here. It’s going to be cold, though, they don’t heat it in the holidays. And we can’t put the lights on, someone will see.’

‘So we’re going swimming, in the cold, in the dark?’

‘You catch on quickly. Come on.’

She led the way to the far side of the pool and put her towel on a bench. There were no windows in the pool building, and it was nearly dark, so I couldn’t see that well, but it seemed that she started to take her clothes off. She didn’t stop at her underwear. I stared.

‘Come on, Cal. Or are you going swimming in your clothes? You’ll be a bit cold afterwards.’

‘Er … we’re skinny dipping?’

‘Yep.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘Come on.’

And she turned away and dived into the pool, coming up for air gasping and shrieking.

‘God it’s freezing. Come and warm me up.’

Feeling decidedly weird, but grateful for the gloom, I took my clothes off and stood with my hands covering my privates. Ayesh laughed.

‘Cal, it’s too dark to see anything, and once you’re in the water I definitely won’t be able to see. Just get over yourself.’

Oh what the hell. I took a run up and jumped, limbs flailing, shouting my head off and landed in the water with a huge splash. It wasn’t as cold as I’d expected … and then it was as cold as I’d expected … and then it was freezing my nuts off fuck Jesus how bloody cold is this … and then Ayesh was wrapping her body round mine, and she felt warm against the chill and I put my arms round her and held her close and oh my God.

Everything I’d denied to myself, for well over a year, was just shoved aside as I felt myself against her, warm skin pressed against me. The cold didn’t matter, I hardly noticed it now. What I noticed, all I noticed was Ayesh, her long black hair fanning out in the water around us, tickling us; Ayesh, her soft body pressed against mine; Ayesh, her breath hitting my chin in quick bursts; Ayesh, her eyes looking into mine; Ayesh, her naked breasts pressed into me, her nipples hard little points digging into my chest. We were both very still. I could hear the ripples from my splash lapping against the side of the pool, and then fade away. I could hear the drip drip drip from somewhere on the ceiling to somewhere down the other end of the pool. I could hear our breathing, which was fast and shallow.

‘Race you.’

With a suddenness that was almost painful, Ayesh pulled away and started swimming for the other end of the pool. I was paralysed for a split second, but soon raced after her and just beat her to the end, turning to her as we stretched our fingers out to touch the side. I could hardly see her face, it was so dark, but she was laughing, and I was grinning. The only light was the glow from the emergency exit lights, and Ayesh’s eyes looked like dark pools, which I could dive into and never surface from. She reached out to my face and stroked a finger down my cheek, and I shivered, but it wasn’t with cold. I caught her fingers in my hand, and held them to my face.

‘Ayesh …’

‘Don’t say anything.’

‘But …’

‘Shh.’

I moved towards her and gathered her up in my arms. We were both getting colder, and it wasn’t very sensible to stay in the water much longer. Without saying anything, I started to move towards the steps at the side of the pool. Just before we got out, I pulled her close into me and bent my head so my mouth touched hers. She lifted her head up so her lips met mine, and we disappeared into a deep, passionate kiss. Her hands were in my hair and my arms were round her, pulling her close. Despite the cold, I felt myself responding to my desire and … ah, see, I promised I wasn’t going to do porn. So I won’t. It wouldn’t be fair on Ayesh, Chrissie or anyone who isn’t a complete perv or under the age of consent who may be reading this.

I think we can all see where this is heading, though. Baggo was, of course, right. Ayesh had a thing for me, and I had a thing for her, and it took her being pissed off with her mum and dad to get things going. We both nearly caught pneumonia by the pool that evening, but I would like to report that Ayesh wasn’t completely reckless. We were safe, if you get my drift, and our clothes and towels were dry. Warming up together later in my room was bloody nice, even if we were constantly being interrupted by Mum with cups of hot chocolate and plates of mince pies, because in the way of Mum, she had sussed out the instant we walked in the front door that things had changed between us, and leaving us alone together in my room might not be the safe bet it used to be.

After that, I got a bolt and borrowed Matty’s drill to fix it to the inside of my door, so I could have some privacy. We were seventeen, it’s not like it was an unusual occurrence, and I did actually talk to Mum about it, believe it or not. As is Mum’s way, she asked me outright what was going on.

‘Are you sleeping with Ayesha, sweetheart?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You are being careful, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, we never do it near the edge of a cliff or on top of the gas oven.’

‘Don’t be facetious. You know what I mean.’

‘Yeah, Mum. Stop fussing. I’m a big boy now, Dad gave me the chat years ago.’

‘You know you can talk to me, don’t you.’

‘Yeah, Mum. Although I should think Ayesh talks to you more than I do.’

‘I like her very much, I hope she will still talk to me.’

‘Don’t see why she wouldn’t. You can both moan about me now.’

‘That’s true, sweetheart. Maybe I can recruit her in my campaign to get you to put your pants in the linen basket.’

‘Oh no. I’m doomed.’

‘I think it’s lovely, Cal. I just worry.’

‘I know, Mum. You don’t need to.’

‘But I still will.’

‘OK.’

So that Christmas was Ayesh and my first Christmas together. Of course, once Mum found out that Ayesh was going to be on her own with her brother and sister, they were all invited over to ours, three more people weren’t going to be that noticeable amongst the crowd, which was pretty huge that year. While Ayesh kept a sisterly eye on Pav and Indi, I managed to hold her hand nearly all day, except when she was helping Mum with one of the many jobs she volunteered to do.

With Ayesh tied up looking after Pav and Indi, I didn’t get to see as much of her for a while as I wanted to. I had training most nights, and she had to crack the whip over chores and homework, as well as doing her own coursework, and I began to look forward to her parents’ return so we could spend more time together, even if I doubted her parents would be as accepting of the intimacy of our relationship as mine were.

And then, in the most awful deja vu scenario I could have imagined, it all went horribly wrong.

It was the day before Mr and Mrs Chaudhry were due home. I was at Ayesh’s house, helping her tidy up, hoping to win a few brownie points before the shit hit the fan about us. The Chaudhrys were happy to have me as a friend-in-law, but nobody non-Indian was going to be good enough for their daughter. While Ayesh and I were scrubbing the kitchen sink, her phone went. I could only hear one side of the conversation, but seeing the expression that crept over her face as she spoke sent a shiver down my spine. I put the cloth down and put my arm around Ayesh as she was talking.

‘Hey Mum … yeah, we’re just having a last tidy. Cal’s helping out … oh. Well when … what? … no … no you can’t do that … no … no … Mum …’

Ayesh looked at the screen on her phone as if it had just bitten her, which I suppose it had it a way.

‘Ayesh?’

She shook her head, but wouldn’t look at me. With horror, I saw tears start to fall from her eyes.

‘Ayesh! What? What did she say?’

I held her close and stroked her hair, then tried to get her to look up, but she just squeezed me tight and wouldn’t look at me. She started to speak, but so quietly I had to put my ear next to her mouth to hear.

‘They’re staying in India. They want us to go out there to live.’

I stared at her as the implications slammed into me. Not again. I’d found Ayesh, and her parents were moving her away from me and taking her with them.

‘No …’

‘They can’t do it. I won’t go.’

Everything came hurtling back from the past, all the pain and sadness with Chrissie, and the futile plans and ultimately meaningless promises we’d made, and it stopped me dead. I didn’t know what to say or do, I was frozen, arms round Ayesh, not feeling anything, the panic blocking everything.

‘Cal … what are we going to do?’

I shook my head.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Say something.’

‘What do you want me to say? They’re your parents. Do you even have a choice?’

‘What? You think I should just go?’

‘I don’t know. Fucking hell, Ayesh, I can’t deal with this.’

And to my shame, I walked out and left her, my head full of nothing except noise, having been catapulted back two years or more to when this happened before. Even if I’d been able to think clearly, I wouldn’t have been able to see any other outcome, but I wasn’t allowing myself to see any outcome at all.

Eventually, I wandered in a big circle and ended up at home. I opened the front door and stood in the hallway, not able to decide where to go.

‘Cal, is that you? Cal?’

Mum came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

‘I thought I heard you – what’s the matter?’

I shook my head, not even able to say the words.

‘Is it Ayesha?’

I nodded.

‘What? Sweetheart, what’s happened? Is she hurt?’

Shook my head.

‘Leaving.’

‘What? Leaving where?’

‘India.’

‘Oh Cal. Come and sit down, sweetheart. Tell me, please.’

And so, over the next hour, Mum dragged it out of me monosyllable by monosyllable, as much as I knew. She had all sorts of questions that I had no answers for, and bit by bit, as I started to feel again, I realised that leaving Ayesh to deal with the bombshell on her own was just about the shittiest thing I could have done.

‘I need to go back.’

‘Yes, you do, I’ll take you if you like, you can practise your driving, but before you do, maybe you need a plan.’

‘I can’t think of anything. Nothing worked before with Chrissie.’

‘Yes, well, I’ve been thinking about that. I feel bad about not helping you more when all that was going on. You’re older now, and, well, I’d have to talk to your dad about it, but maybe Ayesha could stay here? We could make the conservatory quite cosy, or –’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Well, we’d have to run it past your dad, but –’

‘Mum, you’re a legend. But what if her parents won’t let her stay?’

‘I don’t think they have a choice. Once she’s over sixteen, she can leave home if she wants to. She’s a British citizen, isn’t she?’

‘Yeah, she was born here, but her parents are Indian.’

‘Then it would be legal. Complicated, but legal.’

My spirits were soaring. Mum had come to the rescue, turned things round. I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and hugged her.

‘Can we go then?’

Mum laughed.

‘Don’t forget I need to talk to your dad.’

‘Yeah, but he’s a pushover. He does whatever you say.’

‘Not always.’

‘Yes always. Name one time you haven’t got your own way.’

There was a telling silence.

‘Thought so. It’s a foregone conclusion. Come on.’

‘Oh Cal, you sounded just like you used to when you wanted us to go out and play football with you.’

I ignored the attempt to make me feel like a six-year-old, as I didn’t have time for all the nostalgia and getting out of photo albums. Instead, I stood up and walked out of the room, picking up the car keys from the hook as I did so.

‘I’ll drive by myself if you don’t hurry up.’

Mum shifted herself, and we drove over. I just had time to send a quick text before we set off.

Sorry. Shouldn’t have walked out. Coming back. Have a plan.

As I pulled up outside the house, Mum and I had a brief discussion about whether she should come in or not. She knew more about the law and stuff than me, but I didn’t want Mum to freak Ayesh out by trying to take over, so in the end she agreed to stay outside in the car in case she was needed.

I rang the doorbell and stood waiting in the cold. After a long time, and two more rings on the bell, the door opened. Ayesha looked terrible. She’d been crying, her eyes were rimmed with red and all her make-up had run. I pulled her to me in a hug and held her tight while she cried again. Once she had sniffled to a halt, we went in and shut the door, heading to the living room.

‘My mum’s got an idea.’

‘It won’t work.’

‘You don’t know what it is.’

‘I haven’t got a choice, like you said.’

‘You have. Just listen.’

I gave her the bare bones of Mum’s plan.

‘I can’t just stay here, they won’t let me.’

‘They can’t stop you. They’re over there. They’d have to come back here to get you, and you still wouldn’t have to go.’

‘But what about Pav and Indi?’

I wanted to say that’s their problem, but it sounded harsh, and not likely to make Ayesh listen to me. I so wanted Ayesh to see my side. I’d just got together with her, I couldn’t lose her, not like I lost Chrissie. It just wasn’t going to happen.

‘Well, maybe you can talk to them about Pav and Indi. Have you got relatives they could stay with?’

‘There’s no way they’d let them stay here. I’ve got to go with them, they can’t fly to India on their own.’

I got the sense that there were more obstacles in the way than just the obvious ones. I wanted Ayesh to stay because I loved her, but she loved her parents and her brother and sister, and I wasn’t quite so self-involved that I didn’t see it wasn’t as easy a choice for her, or one she could make quickly.

‘Ayesh, look, I freaked out earlier when your mum rang. It reminded me of Chrissie, and I couldn’t see another way. I don’t want to lose you, and I think there is a way not to. But it kind of depends on you. There is a way for you to stay, if you want to.’

And then I said the hardest thing I’d ever said, and tried to make it sound like it was nothing.

‘If you want to go to India, you should go. Shit, they’re your parents, I wouldn’t blame you, I don’t know what I’d choose if it was my family. But if you don’t, if you want to stay, I’ll help you. Mum will help you.’

Ayesh just looked at me, tears in her eyes, pain on her face.

‘When do they want you to go?’

‘A week.’

‘Shit.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I love you.’

‘Oh Cal. I love you too. God this is hard.’

I squeezed her hand. What I wanted to say was ‘don’t go, I love you, I’ll die without you’ but I knew it would be too much pressure. What Ayesh needed was time and space and not to feel rushed to make a decision. I wanted to put my case, but if I kept pressing her, she wouldn’t be able to think and she’d choose in anger or frustration or some other emotion that would cause trouble later. I just had to trust I was doing the right thing.

‘Do you want me to go?’

Ayesh nodded. ‘I’ll call you later, though, yeah?’

‘Yeah, or text, whatever. Anytime, you know that.’

‘Thanks, Cal.’

I nodded, gave her a big squeeze, and went back outside to Mum.

‘Well?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Do you want me to talk to her?’

‘Not right now. She needs time to herself. It’s a pretty big ask, choose me or choose her family.’

Mum looked at me for a long time.

‘Calum Scott, you are growing up. Have grown up, actually. I’m very proud of you.’

I shrugged, started the car and drove off.

I couldn’t concentrate all evening. I was thinking about Ayesh, wondering what she was thinking about, wondering if she had decided, if she was talking to her mum, whether she’d told her brother and sister, what was she going to do. I was swinging wildly from hope to despair – she’d choose me, she’d choose them; stay in England, move to India; boyfriend, family.

I tried my usual X-box distraction techniques, but even blowing up zombies didn’t help, and I got eaten more times than I ever had in my life. Matty would have been mortified, I was nearly as bad as Dec.

As if thinking about him had summoned him, I heard Dec’s voice downstairs. I had no doubt Mum would be filling him in on the latest drama, and expected to hear footsteps coming up the stairs before long. I wasn’t wrong, and paused my game as I heard the tap on the door.

‘Yeah.’

The door opened, and Dec came in carrying two cups of tea.

‘Hey mate, your mum sent me up with these.’

‘And a shit load of advice, I’m sure.’

‘She’s worried, mate.’

‘I know. So am I. She told you about Ayesh, then?’

‘Yeah. Bummer. What do you think she’ll do?’

‘I wish I had a fucking clue. It’s doing my bloody nut, one minute I can’t imagine how she could leave, and the next minute I’m waving her off at the airport.’

‘Does it feel like last time?’

‘With Chrissie? Yeah. That’s the worst thing. It feels just the same, I feel just as powerless.’

‘You’re not gonna go all Cob-on Kid, though, are you?’

‘I bloody hope not. The thought of you camping out in my bedroom spouting shit is enough to put me right off that one.’

‘That’s what I told your mum, but she’s worried about how you’ll be if Ayesha leaves. I said you’re not like that any more’

‘No, I’m not. But I don’t know how I’ll be until it happens. I’d been with Chrissie a year, I’ve only been with Ayesh a few weeks, but it feels … I don’t know what I’d do without her.’

‘Oh mate.’

Dec punched me lightly on the shoulder.

‘You know we’re here for you, me and Ames, anything you need.’

‘Yeah. Thanks.’

‘Need any help with the zombies?’

‘Go on then, you can’t do any worse than me tonight. Maybe I could use some help.’

‘Good thinking Batman. Which buttons do I press again?’

And so the great zombie massacre began. I’d been wrong to assume that Dec couldn’t make things any worse, and we were both annihilated more times than I care to remember, but it passed the time before Dec had to go and I had to try and get some sleep.

I was lying in bed, everything still spinning around, Mum having given up trying to make me forget about it with food and drink a few hours before. I wasn’t expecting to hear from Ayesh, and I didn’t want to put pressure on her by contacting her too soon, but I was starting to wonder if I should just send an ‘I love you’ text to let her know I was there for her. Or would that be too much? Maybe I should just leave it until tomorrow. But surely she wouldn’t be asleep, like I wasn’t. I picked my phone up about twenty times to send a text, but put it down again twenty times. I even hallucinated hearing it ring, but when I picked it up, the screen was dark.

I heard Mum’s voice from her room, but didn’t know who she was talking to and couldn’t hear what she was saying. After a while, I heard her bedroom door open, and then there was a knock on my door. I turned my lamp on.

‘Yeah.’

The door opened, and Mum came in, wearing her dressing gown.

‘I didn’t think you’d be asleep, sweetheart. I’ve got some news for you.’

I sat up as Mum sat on the edge of the bed. I hadn’t been asleep, but I wasn’t fully awake either, and I just waited for what she was going to tell me.

‘Gita Chaudhry has just called me.’

‘At four in the morning?’

‘I think it’s later over there. She’s been talking to Ayesha, and wanted to check things out with me, check we’d be OK to have Ayesha staying with us –’

‘What? She’s going to let her stay? Ayesh wants to stay?’

Mum’s smile confirmed it, and as my heart leapt, my phone pinged with a text.

OMG call me A x

‘It’s Ayesh. I’ve got to call her.’

‘Of course. Don’t be chatting too late.’

I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Thanks Mum. You’re awesome.’

‘So I’m told. Night, sweetheart.’

Mum closed the door and I hit the Facetime button on my phone. Ayesh’s face was lit up in my screen.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hey.’

‘So you’re staying then?’

She nodded.

‘Awesome. So we’re gonna be, like, living together, like an old married couple?’

‘Ha, not quite. What did your mum tell you?’

‘Not much, just she spoke to your mum.’

‘Well my mum has made a lot of rules, like we’re not allowed to be in the same room alone, and we’re only allowed to hold hands when other family members are present, and no kissing in the house, and –’

‘Seriously? She’s having a laugh. Once you’re here she won’t know what we’re doing.’

‘Totally, but your mum’s agreed, and she’ll know.’

‘Mum’s a walkover. She can’t stop us either. I bet she just said OK to keep the peace.’

‘Don’t be so sure, Cal. She changed when we got together. She’s not going to be so happy about us sharing a room. We might have to be good for a bit, until everyone gets used to it.’

I huffed, before realising that it was sensible, and also realising that none of that mattered, because Ayesh was going to be here and not half way across the world in another country and lost to me. Happiness filled me up, and I looked at Ayesh in my phone with an idiotic grin on my face.

And so that was how Ayesh became part of the family, another addition to the Scotts. I won’t say it was easy, at least not at first, because she missed her mum and dad and brother and sister, and she was sad about being apart from them, and sometimes she just shut herself in her room, which was the conservatory, and didn’t want to talk to me. But with Mum’s help I gave her time and space, and she felt better eventually, and she had Mum to help her as well, and it just worked out, and felt natural. There were rules we had to follow, some of which made sense, and some of which seemed ridiculous at the time (but make sense now I’ve got my own kids, who aren’t old enough yet, but will be one day), and there were some arguments, but mostly Ayesh just fitted in as if she’d always been there. I mean, not that it wasn’t thrilling to have your girlfriend living in the same house as you, but sometimes she got to see the bad as well as the good, and sometimes she took your Mum’s side against you, and that wasn’t so enjoyable. I guess that was balanced out by her sneaking into my room sometimes for some naked action, and that bolt came in extra handy, especially as Iz was always hanging around either wanting to hero-worship Ayesha, or get me into trouble.

So by the time next Spring came, we were all used to Ayesh being there, and the next drama in the Scott family had nothing to do with me, or my school or my love life.