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.
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.
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 –’
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.
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.
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.
In the kitchen, Matt was standing with his back to me, leaning on the sink, shoulders heaving.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
‘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?’
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.
‘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.’
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.
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.’
Matt’s face lit up, then darkened.
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.
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.
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?’
Lord Above, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more … hang on to your jam sandwiches folks.
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.
‘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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
I woke up, arse hanging over the edge of the bed, to see Lau creeping out of the room.
‘Been squeezed out. See you tomorrow.’
I couldn’t bear the thought of this night, of all nights, without her.
‘There’s no room.’
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
‘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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
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.