The weeks and months to come saw more of us coming to the same conclusion about Matty; that he was getting worse, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight off many more bouts of pneumonia. His MS never seemed to relent these days, and it took away more and more of his coordination and strength. He found it harder to use his computers, and even things like lifting a cup to drink coffee were hard sometimes.
There were lots of discussions about it, some including Matty, but most not, because he got so mad at us. So we talked to each other, none of us wanting to say the thing we were all dreading, that one day soon we were going to be without Matty. Then we all got a text from Lau.
‘Please be at Beth and Jay’s for six. Lau x‘
All of us who could be there, were, and Tom had set up Facetime for Iz, Gracie, Ella and Nico. I had no doubt I was one of the few who didn’t know what it was about, but I’d had to come straight from training, and hadn’t had a chance to ask anyone. I was the last to arrive, and everyone was sitting in Mum and Dad’s living room, looking like they weren’t having a fun time.
‘Hi Cal. Thanks for coming flower. Josh, budge up and let Cal sit down.’
‘It’s OK, Lau, I’m not a geriatric yet, I’ll go on the floor.’
I plopped down next to Chrissie, lifting Conor off her knee and giving him a big cuddle. Mum was holding Lily, who was asleep. Typical that the child who never slept was now sleeping like an angel.
‘That’s everyone, then, Laura. Tom, can everyone see everyone on the screen?’
‘Yeah, it’s all good. Whenever you’re ready, Lau.’
‘Thanks for doing that, flower. OK, well thanks all for coming. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and because of some of the things I’ve talked to some of you about, we’ve had this idea. Oh, it’s about Matt. It’s going to be hard for me to say, and I’ve left him on his own, so I’m just going to say it fast, and then I’m going to go home and let you all sort it out, I hope that’s OK.’
I didn’t have a clue what she was going to say, but it didn’t sound like anything good. I’d never seen Lau nervous; she was trembling, and Josh put a steadying hand on her arm as she spoke.
‘OK, here’s the thing. Matt’s slowly getting worse, and it’s getting to the point where we need to think about what we do, how we tell each other, when things get really bad. I don’t think I’m going to be able to call all of you and say it, I just don’t think I’ll be able to get the words out, when the time comes.’
‘Laura, you say as if Matty he is soon to be not with us?’
This was Nico, who hadn’t seen Matty face to face for a while, and who was Facetiming from Argentina. Lau turned and looked at the computer screen, which was split into three and showed Nico, Iz with Gracie, and Ella.
I glanced at Ella, who was looking scared, and at Iz, who had her arm round Gracie. Fuck, this was a hard conversation to be having. I looked around at everyone else. Dec looked like he wanted to be anywhere else, and Amy was holding his hand really tightly. Gran looked so, so sad. Mum was looking at Lau and I could almost feel the mental strength she was sending her. Dad was looking at his knees. Josh still had his hand on his mum’s arm and was nodding slightly. Charlie had actually put her phone away, and looked more thoughtful than was usual. Tom was fiddling with a computer lead, and Rosa looked like she might cry any minute. Chrissie put her hand on my shoulder and gripped it hard. Lau swallowed, and then answered Nico.
‘Well, I think it’s something we all need to think about. Every time he gets a cold, it’s really bad, and he gets weaker, and although we try really hard to keep him germ-free, we just never know. I’m sorry, Nico, we just don’t know how long he’s got. The stubborn git could go on for years, just to annoy me, but I think we need to be prepared.’
‘Laura, to hear this I am sorry.’
‘Thanks, flower, but I just need to get through this. We’ll talk later.’
Lau took a deep breath and carried on.
‘So anyway, this is hard enough, saying it now, but I want you all to know, to give you some warning, and Matt wants that too. He knows I’m here doing this, it was kind of his idea, well, ours. He’s called it The Chain. What it means is that when it’s obvious that he hasn’t … got much longer, only one person has to make one call to one person, who then calls another person, so none of us have to keep saying it. That’s part one, and then part two, when … it’s all over, the same thing. Oh God …’
Lau stopped and held her hand to her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut and breathing hard through her nose. Josh on one side of her and Dad on the other put their arms round her.
‘I’m OK. I’m just going to finish this then I’m going. I’m nearly done. So that’s it, two chains, two bits of information. I’d suggest the fewer words the better, I know some of you are going to find it hard to say anything at all.’
Lau looked at Dec as she said this.
‘So please, work out who calls who and what you say, so we all know where we are. Thanks for coming, you are all so good.’
She stood up, picked up her bag and left the room. Mum stood up, giving Lily back to Chrissie, and went to the door with her, but she came back after a moment and sat down. We all looked at her.
‘Why are you all looking at me?’
‘Because you’re usually the one who organises who does what, Mum. You’ve been text-bossing us all about when we go to see Matty, this is just a step up from that.’
‘Maybe one day, Iz, I’ll just stop organising you all and you’ll have to do it for yourselves.’
‘Maybe one day, Mum. But you’re so gonna do this.’
Mum sighed. ‘Oh I suppose so.’
While Iz and Mum were distracting themselves with their bickering, the rest of us were looking at each other, different expressions of discomfort reflected on our faces.
For Lau to have done this, got us all together and said what she did, things with Matty must be really serious. It was time to unbury our heads from the sand and take a good look at what we needed to do. It was so like both of them to do this, give us time to face it, make a plan, spell it out for us, rather than it being a shock at the last minute. However, it was still a shock. I could see it most on Dec’s face; his eyes were wide, he had gone pale and his chest was moving fast as his breathing became shallower. I held Conor tightly to me and waited for Mum.
Mum closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath and then looked around at us all, including the four people on the computer screen.
‘Well. I suppose it’s down to me, then. James, can you get me some paper and a pen?’
Dad looked up, as if he’d been in another world.
‘Paper and pen, please, so I can write down what we decide, and then send it out to everyone.’
‘Oh. Where’s the paper?’
Dad wasn’t just being his usual unhelpful self. He wasn’t as obvious about his emotions as Dec, but he looked like someone had just hit him with a hard object, and he was having trouble focussing.
‘Try your office? The printer?’
‘Oh. Yeah. OK.’
Dad hauled himself to his feet and walked out of the room. We could hear him cross the hall and open the door to his office, then the door closed. We all sat in silence, waiting. This was eerie. We were never quiet, there was always noise and fighting and kidding about, but usually Matty was at the centre of it. Now he was at the centre of this weird silence.
Mum waited impatiently, jiggling a foot and tutting every few seconds. Eventually she lost the ability to wait any longer.
‘Cal, can you go and see what he’s doing in there? I only want a sheet of paper.’
I didn’t see why I had to go, she was as capable of going as me, but Mum always liked to be the one dishing out the orders, and this didn’t seem like the time to be arguing. I stood up, deposited Conor on the closest unoccupied knee, which happened to be Josh’s, and went to fetch Dad.
I could hear him from the hall. He was crying. Shit. I hadn’t seen my dad cry for years, and then it was because of Matty, when he was so ill back in Stafford. I hesitated for a few moments, unsure whether I should go in, but if I didn’t, Mum would send someone else, or worse, come herself, and Dad didn’t need that.
I opened the door to the office and walked over to the printer, doing my best not to notice Dad, who had startled when I entered and tried to wipe his eyes. I grabbed a few sheets of paper, and a pen from the desk, put my hand briefly on Dad’s shoulder as I passed, then shut the door behind me as I left the room.
It shook me up, knowing Dad wasn’t handling it. Dad handled everything the same way – without any drama. He hardly seemed to take in a lot of what went on, and did as Mum told him with varying levels of irritability and bewilderment.
I needed a few deep breaths before I went back into the living room and handed the pen and paper to Mum.
‘Where’s your dad?’
‘Give him a moment. He’ll be back in a bit.’
I hoped Mum would be able to read between the lines and give Dad space without making a big deal of it. She didn’t look pleased, but didn’t say anything else, just took the things I gave her.
‘Right then, so we just need to decide who’s going to tell who, and what we’re going to say. Obviously Laura will be the first, so who is going to be the one she calls?’
None of us wanted to be that person, so we all looked at our shoes, until Josh spoke.
‘Me. If she calls anyone, it should be me, shouldn’t it.’
Josh was only twenty-one. He was handling this with a dignity I would have expected from a much older person. To be honest, I would have expected Mum to volunteer to be the first, the one who got it all going, but she hadn’t. Maybe she had her own thoughts on the matter and was just waiting for the right people to come to the right conclusions. She looked at Josh tenderly.
‘Josh, sweetheart, this is hard, I know, but yes, I think your mum would like you to be the one she tells.’
Josh nodded and squared his shoulders. Maybe his chin quivered a little, but no one mentioned it. I saw him look at Ella, who was looking back from the computer screen. Ella was always off somewhere – this country, other countries, frequently not contactable – so if Lau wanted one of her children to be top of the list of people who she told when Matty was in trouble, then Josh was right, it was going to have to be him.
‘And I’ll tell Ells, if she’s somewhere with a signal.’
‘I’m not leaving the country now, Joshy. You’ll be able to get hold of me.’
‘Maybe one of you would call me, or text me?’
Mum looked from Josh to Ella. This was obviously where she felt she fitted in.
‘I will, Beth. But Ells, you can call Nana April, yeah?’
April wasn’t there, I didn’t know why.
As Ella nodded at Josh, Dad walked back in and took his seat on the sofa. His eyes were red and the hair around his face was wet, as if he’d splashed his face. He locked eyes with Mum, and they had a momentary silent conversation which ended with him shaking his head very slightly.
‘James, we’ve just sorted the first bit out. Josh is going to call Ella and me. I’ll call you, you can call –’
‘But you’ve got to –’
‘No, Beth. I can’t.’
‘No. I won’t physically be able to do it.’
They had a brief stare-off, which to my astonishment ended with Mum dropping her eyes and nodding at the sheet of paper in her lap.
‘Alright, then. I’ll call Dec. Dec, you can –’
‘I can’t either, Beth. Shit, do you have any idea how fucking hard it’s going to be to make that call? I won’t be able to get a single fucking word out.’
Mum’s lips went thin and tight, like they always did when she wasn’t getting her own way.
‘Yes, Dec, I do have an idea how hard it’s going to be. That’s why we’re doing this, so Laura doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone, so Josh doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone. We’re doing it for them, and to make it just a little easier for everyone.’
‘Hon, just call me. Or text me. We’ll think of one word. You’ll probably be with me anyway, then you won’t have to call anyone.’
Ever the peacekeeper, Amy was stroking the back of Dec’s neck and holding his hand tightly. Her softly spoken words seemed to soothe him, and he swallowed a couple of times, then nodded once.
The rest of the chain was decided, along with our code word, which was Tottenham. It made us smile to think of Matty having the last word in that way, and it was also a word that would be extremely unlikely to be said or texted, on its own, by mistake.
Usually when we all got together, there was food and laughter, but as soon as we’d sorted everything out, including the second chain, which included more people to tell and how to do it, we couldn’t stay there feeling miserable about Matty and we went home.
Chrissie put Lily to bed as soon as we got in, and I got Conor into his PJs and read him a story, waiting for Chrissie to come down so she could say goodnight to him.
‘Hey little man, you’re lovely and ready for bed tonight. Daddy’s done a great job with you.’
Conor lifted his arms to Chrissie and she hoisted him up, holding him close and looking at me over his shoulder.
‘Are you OK, Cal?’
I shrugged. It had been an emotional evening, and it was going to take a while to sort through it all.
‘Not sure. I’m not ready for Matty to be this close.’
‘We don’t really know how close he is.’
‘Pretty close, if Lau’s making arrangements.’
‘They’re just being organised.’
‘Yeah, maybe. I can’t imagine it, though … you know, after.’
‘We’ll all help each other. Wasn’t Josh amazing?’
‘Yeah, he’s pretty grown up. Must take after Lau, because Matty’s still seven years old at heart. That’s why he finds all this so hard, his body letting him down, not getting his own way any more’
‘Lau’s got a young soul too. You know what she told me? It must have only been a few months ago, Matt was having a good day, they locked the doors, turned off their phones –’
‘Let me stop you before you scar me for life – again – with the goings on at number forty seven. Jesus, ill or not, Matty’s fifty-six for fuck’s sake.’
‘So? That doesn’t mean anything. I hope we’re still going strong when we’re that age, and older. It was in the garden, by the way. On the swing chair. All the neighbours were out.’
‘Chrissie! Stop! Put Conor to bed or something.’
I put both my hands over my ears and started to ‘la la la’ loudly. Conor, who had been drowsing on Chrissie’s shoulder, roused briefly and looked at me with those solemn two-year-old eyes, as if to say ‘I’ll never understand grown ups’. Then he closed his eyes again, as Chrissie carried him up the stairs. I could hear her chuckling and humming to Conor as she put him into bed.
Later that night, although Chrissie had kidded me out of feeling low about Matty, I hadn’t been able to get Lau out of my mind. What she and Matty had done for us was pretty amazing, when I thought about it; to make sure we all knew exactly what to do when we needed to, no dithering, just all follow the plan, and to make us think about it, face what was going to happen sooner or later. It had taken a lot of courage.
I looked at the time. Late-ish, but Lau would still be up. No idea about Matty – he seemed to spend half his life asleep these days, but that often meant he kept weird hours.
‘Hi Lau. U OK?‘
‘So-so flower. Weird evening. Thx 4 asking.‘
‘Need 2 talk?‘
‘Not right now. Might call u tmrw. Matt says hi.‘
From that, I gathered that Lau could do with offloading to someone, but Matt was awake and in the vicinity. They talked to each other about pretty much anything, but I knew that Lau tried to be as upbeat and optimistic with Matty as she could. Matty still tended towards blaming himself for everything, and if Lau got upset, he’d feel guilty.
‘U no where I am.‘
‘Thx flower x‘
Matt had several run-ins with pneumonia. Each one weakened him, sapped his energy, took longer to recover from, stole a part of his soul. He lost so much weight, he was barely skin and bone, but he stayed with me, his humour and his love shining out of his big grey eyes. He had bad days, when it was too much and he could only cry and rage about it, but dark Matt never came back to stay.
It tore at me to see it eating away at him, reducing his physical being to a shell, so dependent, and so hating it. But he put up with it for me. When he was bad I sat and held his hand, and when he wasn’t quite so bad we’d do as much as we could together, whether it was a crossword or watching a TV show or sitting and commenting on the Sunday papers, or if it was a really good day, going out to the park and watching the dogs and making up stories about the people walking by and laughing, always laughing.
It wasn’t long after that horrible awkward evening where we all had to confront an approaching sadness we’d been trying to avoid thinking about, that I heard from Baggo. He’d been out of the country for a few months, of all things on a tour of Europe with his band. They’d had some minor success locally and picked up some interest from a management company, who had arranged a recording studio for an EP, and a twelve week tour of the less discerning clubs in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. I’d seen Baggo for a bit of a send-off before he went; he’d been full of it all, but underneath I could see he was torn about leaving Jen and Daisy. He’d taken unpaid leave from his job, and was keen to tell me it was worth it, because …
‘What if we hit the big time? What if I didn’t go, and they got another singer, and they hit the big time, and here am I, left behind, dead end job, while they get all the glory?’
‘Are you likely to hit the big time in Belgium?’
‘Who the fuck knows, Cal? Some people do. You know I’ve always wanted to sing.’
Well I knew he’d always sung. It wasn’t until the last few years, when he’d made a few quid here and there at gigs, that it had become a career ambition. Not that I was belittling it; I’d followed my dream and it had become a reality. Just because it took Baggo a bit longer to realise what he wanted to do with his life, well, fair enough. The trouble with having ambitions when you’ve got responsibilities is that they don’t always go hand in hand.
‘You’ve always had a great voice, Bags. What’s Jen going to do while you’re away?’
‘Do? Same as usual I suppose.’
‘What, look after Daisy on her own while you’re out gigging? Without having to put up with you coming home in the small hours and waking her up to tell her all about it, I suppose. I can see why she’d be supportive.’
‘Fuck off, you arse. I do my share. That’s why I do nights, so I can help with school runs and shit while she’s working. Her mum’s going to help out. Jesus Christ, Cal, it’s only for a few weeks, it’s not like I’m fucking off to the other side of the world for years.’
The fact that Baggo was getting so defensive told me I might have got closer to the truth than I’d intended, and I decided not to push it.
‘Fair enough. She can always call me or Chrissie if she needs anything while you’re gone. I bet Ayesh and Sam would help out too.’
Me, Chrissie, Ayesh, Sam, Baggo and Jen had formed a group of friends that I would never have predicted a few years ago. Chrissie had always got on with Baggo when we were at school, but admitted her surprise at finding him essentially unchanged when she came back to the city. She’d missed out on the drinking and womening years, and so when Bags calmed down after he met Jen, to all intents and purposes he became the Baggo she’d known back then. Ayesh had never really got Bags, because she had known the drinking and the women, more than she’d known the ‘before’, so when he calmed down after he met Jen, he became a lot more palatable. We met up together a few times, with our kids, and we all got on together, so we did it a few more times, until we were kind of a group.
‘Well I’ll mention it. Don’t want Ayesh getting a stick up her arse about me leaving them alone, though, so don’t say anything till I’ve gone.’
‘Ayesh wouldn’t have a stick up her arse. She’s cool.’
‘About being mates with her ex, maybe. I know it’s taken me a while to get in her good books though.’
‘Once you’re in her good books, it takes quite a lot to get you out again.’
‘What, like shagging another woman?’
‘Thanks for that, Bags.’
He never changed. If he thought it, he said it, whether it was appropriate or not. Usually it was not. Usually it was in front of someone who also thought it was not. I’d got used to it, and was never shocked by his lack of discretion, but he still made people gasp with his directness.
‘No, but I suppose you’re right. She’s still your mate, isn’t she. Not many exes you can say that about.’
‘No. But if you wouldn’t mind not being so … blunt about it when Chrissie and Ayesh are in the same room I’d appreciate it.’
Baggo frowned as if he didn’t know what I meant.
‘Ach, they’re both fine with it. Jen told me they were all talking about you the other day, comparing what you’re like now with Chrissie and what you were like with Ayesh. I have to say, mate, you are totally whipped these days.’
Baggo did an exaggerated whipping motion with added ‘ker chh’ sound effects.
‘I am not. You have to be more organised with kids. It’s teamwork.’
‘See what I mean? Fucking whipped.’
‘So Jen never gets you to do anything?’
‘Nothing I don’t want to do.’
‘You just said you do nights so you can help with the school run.’
‘Yeah, I want to do that.’
‘And you’d never, oh I don’t know, put all the money from your gigs into a savings account for Daisy, rather than going out on the piss?’
‘Yeah, I want to do that too.’
‘Hmm. And cleaning the bathroom every Saturday so Jen can have a lie-in, that would be –’
‘How the fuck do you know – I’ll fucking kill her. She’s destroying my street cred.’
Anyway, so Baggo had gone on his tour of the backwaters of Europe, and by way of keeping in touch, I’d got the odd fairly incomprehensible text:
‘They fucking love us gona b beruhmt.‘
‘Post gig parties rock n roll woohoo.‘
‘Shmsl u rnt hr not gd fr bak soon.‘
‘Lichtenstein is shit.‘
‘11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.‘
I’m pretty sure the last one wasn’t meant for me. Who knows, maybe none of them were, but anyway, apart from the texts, I didn’t hear from him while he was away, and Jen didn’t ask for help from us, or to my knowledge from Ayesh and Sam. Chrissie and I tried to contact Jen, but she didn’t reply to any of our calls or texts, and her phone always went to voicemail. We even went round once or twice, on the off-chance, with the kids, but she never answered the doorbell.
In the middle of one afternoon my phone rang with Baggo’s tone – a short clip of one of his band’s songs he’d insisted on putting on my phone as his ringtone. Most of my ringtones were put on by other people; I couldn’t be arsed to change the default.
‘Bags! Where are you?’
There was silence for a while, then some sounds I couldn’t decipher, then Baggo’s voice, coming as if from a long way away. Which it quite possibly was.
He sounded so … unsure. Baggo was big on self-confidence, and this small, tremulous voice, well I only recognised it because it was his ringtone and his picture on my screen.
‘Yeah. What’s up, mate?’
‘I’ve fucked up. Big time.’
I sighed, to myself. This felt like a conversation from a long time ago, even though I had no idea, as yet, in what way Bags might have fucked up.
‘Jen. She’s gone. Taken Daisy.’
‘Shit. Bags, where exactly are you?’
‘I’ve just got home. All their stuff, it’s gone. I didn’t think she meant it, I thought she was just trying to get me to change my mind, I can’t believe she’s really done it …’
Baggo’s voice trailed off. I knew what I had to do.
‘I’m coming over.’
‘No, mate, you don’t have –’
‘See you in fifteen.’
Baggo and Jen’s flat was across the city, on an ex-council estate. The neighbourhood was friendly, but rough and ready. I was conscious of people openly watching as I got out of my BMW four wheel drive; I convinced myself they were being neighbourly, and that I wouldn’t come back to find my wheels removed. It had never happened before, no reason apart from prejudice to think it might happen this time.
I rang Baggo’s doorbell, and waited for a long time. I rang it again, then again, then leaned on it for a long time, until I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. The lock went and the door opened, revealing a pale-faced, red-eyed Baggo who wouldn’t look at me.
‘Ah mate, I’ve brought beer.’
I lifted the six-pack I’d grabbed from the fridge so he could see it. Worryingly, this didn’t seem to perk Baggo up in the slightest; he just turned and walked up the stairs, leaving me to shut the door behind me.
I followed Baggo into the living room. Their flat was never tidy; having a young child in a small flat meant too much stuff and not enough space. But all the toys and piles of laundry had gone; there were no photos of Daisy, only squares of unfaded wall where they had been; the only coats on the hooks by the door were Baggo’s duffle coat (winter) and denim jacket (summer). It was like a different place, like some kind of personality had left it.
‘Baggo, what’s happened?’
‘I can kind of see that. Shit. Here, have one of these.’
I held out the bottles to Bags, but he shook his head.
‘Mate, you’re fucking freaking me out. What’s happened? When did you get back?’
Judging by the huge rucksack and pile of various mic stands and leads, he hadn’t been back long.
‘About an hour ago. Here.’
He handed me a note, in Jen’s handwriting.
In case you haven’t noticed, and I wonder if you will, Daisy and I have gone. I don’t know if you will have any idea why, because you haven’t been listening to me for the last I don’t know how long, so I will say it clearly.
I begged you not to go to Europe. You ignored me. You said it would be good for us to do our own thing. What that meant was it would be good for you to do your own thing, and that you didn’t really care what I might think about being left on my own with our daughter to arrange childcare while I went out to work to make sure neither of us starved.
Well I hope you’ve had a wonderful time, and to show how much I think you should carry on doing your own thing, Daisy and me have gone. We’re going to be doing our own thing somewhere else, somewhere that isn’t this shit-hole where we have to stare at four crappy walls all day wondering when you’re going to remember us and care enough about us to ditch band practice, or pre-practice drinks, or post-practice drinks, or fucking tours of fucking European cities no-one has ever fucking heard of.
I told you I would leave if you went, I suppose you thought I was calling your bluff. Well it took me a couple of weeks, I wondered if I’d been unreasonable, but you hardly called us. Daisy asks where you are every day, wanting to know when you’re going to talk to her. You promised her, Jake. So, no, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I told you what would happen, and it’s happening.
Oh, and next time you’re lining up a post-gig shag, make sure you send the text to the right slut, and not your girlfriend.
I loved you, you tosser, and you’ve broken me. I want to spend the rest of my life a very, very long way away from you.
I sat down on the sofa and re-read the letter. It didn’t get any better with a second look.
‘When did she go?’
Baggo sat next to me, put his face in his hands and spoke through his fingers.
‘I don’t know. There was a mountain of mail when I got back. Could be weeks.’
‘We’ve been trying to get in touch, she hasn’t answered. Where’s she gone?’
‘I don’t know.’
Baggo sounded distraught. The story in the note seemed like the Baggo of old, not the more responsible Baggo he’d become over the last few years, but I supposed no one ever really knows what goes on between two people.
‘Bags, is this all true?’
I held the note up.
‘Before you went, you said everything was fine, her mum was going to help out, I thought it was sorted.’
‘So did I. Maybe, though … maybe I just wanted to think it was, like, you know, bulldozed my way through it because I so wanted to go.’
‘Did she beg you not to go?’
‘She might have. I didn’t think she was serious.’
‘Did she say she’d leave if you went anyway?’
‘I might have ignored her because I didn’t want to hear it. I can do that sometimes.’
It was actually the way Baggo always did things, but saying that right now wasn’t going to help matters.
‘What about the post-gig shag?’
‘No! That never happened. I didn’t go out there for women, I went for … to …’
His sat, shaking his head, as if he could no longer remember why he’d gone away.
‘Do you know what she’s talking about, though, this text you sent to the wrong person?’
‘Not a fucking clue. I sent thousands of texts while I was out there. I sent a ton to you.’
‘Yeah, and not all of them seemed as if you’d meant to send them to me. Have you checked your phone?’
He reached into a pocket and pulled out his phone, then started scrolling through it.
‘Oh fuck this, there’s fucking thousands, I’ll never find it.’
He threw the phone on the floor and slumped back into the sofa. I picked it up and had a look, finding his conversation with Jen and looking back to the last text she had replied to. The one after that seemed to be the culprit.
‘Hey babe, wants to meet up afterwards the gig?‘
and then one that seemed familiar
‘11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.‘
I got my phone out and scrolled back through Baggo’s random texts from the last few weeks. I had one exactly the same. Weird.
‘Baggo, what were you doing on the twelfth of September?’
‘How the fuck should I know?’
‘Try. Something seems a bit off. Now, don’t blow your top, but you’re positive you didn’t hook up with anyone after any of your gigs?’
Baggo looked at me for a few seconds, and I could see the anger rising in his face, but he took a few deep breaths and it drained away again. He shook his head.
‘It might be in the calendar, what we did on the twelfth of September. The manager put all our gigs and shit on Google calendar, with reminders, so we didn’t forget anything.’
I scrolled through the list of dates and names of cities and venues until I found the right one.
‘Does Rockhalcafe ring any bells? Luxembourg City?’
Baggo shook his head. I Googled it and found some pictures, which I showed him. Light dawned.
‘Oh yeah. That was a mega night. Really cool place. I mean, yeah, there were girls there, I’m not saying I couldn’t have if I wanted to, but I turned it all down, sat at the bar afterwards, watching the rest of the band chatting them up. You know what, Cal, I actually said no to three women. Me. I said ‘no’. I said ‘I’ve got a girlfriend, I’m texting her now’ and I did, I texted Jen right then and told her I missed her and Daisy. Got a bit pissed, actually, because I missed them. One of them wanted to see a picture, took my phone when I showed her, put her number in – oh fuck!’
The same thing occurred to Baggo that had occurred to me a short time ago. The way the first text was written, it didn’t sound like proper English. I mean, yeah, texting isn’t proper English, and some of Baggo’s texts didn’t even sound like proper human, especially when he was pissed, but this text sounded like someone trying to sound English. Someone had sent the texts to Jen on purpose. Why they’d sent one to me as well I wasn’t sure, but Jen’s last name was Sanderson, so it was pretty close to mine in Baggo’s contact list. I didn’t know enough about phones to understand it; I could ask Tom or Matty another time.
Meanwhile, Baggo’s face had lit up with hope.
‘So all we need to do is find her, find Jen, and tell her. Tell her they hacked my phone, and we can fix it.’
‘Whoa, hang on Bags, I think it might not be as simple as that. I mean, yeah, maybe this was the thing that made her snap, but what about all that stuff at the beginning of her note? How she didn’t want you to go, but you went anyway? I don’t think we’re going to find a quick fix for that, mate.’
Baggo’s face fell, as he thought about it.
‘Yeah, but maybe, maybe she was just so mad thinking I’d gone back to my old ways that it made her more mad than she should have been about the other shit.’
Baggo was never particularly realistic. He saw things one way, and could never quite understand why nobody else saw things the same way, so he just adjusted things in his mind until, to him, it appeared everyone was happy with the way things were.
I held up Jen’s note.
‘This is a letter from a seriously pissed off woman who never wants to see you again. Not because someone sent her a text pretending to be you, but because she feels like you’ve abandoned her and your daughter so you can go off and have fun for three months. Maybe it’s possible to fix it, but I think you need to ask yourself, mate, if you’re willing to change the way you do things, if you think you can change. I’m not saying it’s a lost cause, I’m just asking you to be honest with yourself.’
He looked at me as if I’d just stamped on his Christmas presents.
‘But I love her. And Daisy. How can I live without them?’
I rolled my eyes and refrained from saying he should have thought of that before he buggered off to Europe for three months to live without them. Instead I tried to help him.
‘Bags, if you really want to try and find them, I’ll help you, I will, but only if you face facts, and the facts are she’s left because you’ve been a shit and only thought about yourself, and she might not want you back even if you apologise and offer her the moon to say sorry.’
It sounds harsh, I know, but with Baggo you had to be very, very clear about things, otherwise he just saw the tiniest loophole that meant he could do things his way.
‘Did she talk to Chrissie? Or Ayesh?’
‘No, well definitely not to Chrissie, and Ayesh hasn’t said anything. Could you try Jen’s mum?’
‘Great plan. Or, even better plan, you could. Say you’ve been worried about her because you haven’t heard from her. It’s the truth isn’t it?’
‘And how do I explain where I got her number from?’
‘Oh she won’t ask, will she. Go on, mate. If I ring her I won’t get anywhere. And no one knows I’m back yet. As soon as word gets round it’ll be too late. Please, mate?’
And so I did it. I called Jen’s mum and lied through my teeth for my mate and felt like a creep for doing it, but got the information Baggo was looking for. She’d gone to London to stay with her sister while she decided what to do.
‘Well that’s encouraging, she still doesn’t know what she wants to do. Maybe she’s waiting for me to get back so we can sort things out.’
Baggo’s ability to hope reminded me of a puppy that kept trying to eat from the table no matter how many times it got its nose smacked with a newspaper.
‘You’ve got to phone her sister now. The number’s here, look.’
He held his phone out, but I pushed it away.
‘No, Bags, I’m not going to phone her sister. Phoning her mum was bad enough. You know where she is, it’s down to you now.’
‘But she won’t talk to me.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘I can’t do it. What if she goes off somewhere else? What if she won’t let me see Daisy? Oh God, Cal, what if I never see Daisy again?’
Baggo was looking at me now with genuine fear. It had not occurred to him before that he risked losing his daughter. I tried to give him some hope without sending him sky-rocketing the other way.
‘Bags, you’ll always be Daisy’s dad. Jen knows that. Whatever happens, don’t you think she’ll want you to be a part of her life, in some way?’
‘Fuck it, Cal, I can’t deal with this. Please call her for me. I don’t think I can hear her say the words, I don’t think I can do it.’
I nearly weakened, but it really did seem like it would be best if Baggo called for himself. It was going to be obvious enough where I’d got her mum’s number from; I didn’t want to seem like I was stalking Jen.
‘You can, Bags. I’ll stay if you like, or I’ll give you some space and you can let me know how it goes –’
‘No, stay – oh, but maybe don’t listen. Shit, I don’t know. I’ll go in the bedroom. I don’t think I can fucking stand it if you hear her binning me.’
He stood up and walked to the bedroom, dialling the number as he went. I sat on the sofa, and heard Baggo talking. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the fact that the talking was going on for longer than it took to say ‘fuck off’, I took as an encouraging sign. I got my own phone out and texted Chrissie.
‘Found out where Jen is. Left him, gone to sister’s with Daisy.‘
‘OMG! Why? How do u know?‘
A small evil part of me loved having gossip that I knew and no one else did. I was always the last to know things, largely because I took after my dad with not listening to anything anyone said and assuming that what people were talking about would be of no immediate relevance to me. Still, it felt a little bit good to know something before anyone else, even though it was at the expense of my best mate’s relationship.
Chrissie’s text tone started, and continued, to chirp ‘Arsenal Arsenal’ at me (some couples had romantic ‘our song’ tones – not us, this was much more meaningful), so I silenced it and sat back smugly while my phone vibrated against my hip.
After some time, Baggo emerged from his bedroom, stuffing his phone in his pocket and wiping his eyes. I sat up straighter and waited for him to tell me how it had gone.
He walked over to the small kitchenette and filled the kettle up, then got a mug out and put a teabag in it. When he opened the fridge and got the milk out, without even acknowledging me, I lost patience.
He turned and looked at me, mild surprise on his face, as if he actually had forgotten I was there.
‘Sorry mate. I was in a world of my own.’
‘So. I don’t know.’
‘Well she hasn’t binned me, not exactly, not yet.’
‘What did she say?’
‘Not much. I grovelled like I’ve never grovelled before, said I was a dick, had been a dick for a while, how did she put up with me, I missed her and Daisy so much it was too hard to contact them much while I was away, I’m giving up music, gonna work hard, you know, all that shit I just said to you.’
He hadn’t said any of that to me, but sometimes Baggo didn’t realise he hadn’t said the things that were in his head, so I let it pass.
‘Is it just shit, then?’
‘No, I didn’t mean that, it’s not shit, I mean it. But she doesn’t really believe me. I guess I’ve got to prove it. Fucking hell, Cal, how am I going to prove it if she’s living in London?’
I thought about it for a moment.
‘Well, you could go and live in London. Be near them. Be around. Be responsible.’
Baggo stared at me.
‘What, leave here? What about my job? And there’s my mum … and …’
His protests faded away, and I didn’t need to say that his job was nothing special, nothing that couldn’t be replicated somewhere else, and his mum had his two brothers, or the most important thing: if he was serious about getting Jen and Daisy back, he had to show them that they were worth more than any of the rest of it. Bar none. Baggo wasn’t stupid; he was brainless and thoughtless a lot of the time, but when it came to thinking, he was actually very smart, and I could see all this going on while I looked at him.
‘No, you’re right.’
I hadn’t spoken, but it was as if I had. I guess when you’ve been mates all your lives, you know so well what each other is going to say, that it’s easier to assume it’s been said.
‘Yeah. Bloody hell, though, mate. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a job in London, and it’s fucking expensive to live there.’
‘I might be able to help you out.’
I saw Baggo about to refuse, as he thought I was going to offer him money. I’d never insult him like that, although it’s true it was always my round in the pub, and we always took my car when we went anywhere, and I always brought a good bottle of scotch when I came over. It’s just the way things were.
‘I’ve got a mate who used to play for Warriors, he’s just moved to Birmingham to play for Chieftains. He doesn’t want to sell his flat, and he doesn’t want to rent it out because of the hassle. I can have a word, see what he thinks about letting you have it if you look after it for a bit? I mean, it would only be temporary, wouldn’t it, while you tried to convince Jen? Couple of months or so?’
Baggo nodded, seemingly unable to speak.
‘I’ll call him, then, give him your number. He’s called Angus.’
‘Good old rugger bugger name there.’
‘Yeah, please don’t say that to him, Bags, he could be saving your life, here.’
‘Yeah, I know. You know it’s what I do. It’s instead of saying thanks. OK then, what I should have said is thanks. Thanks, Cal. Yet again you have come to my fucking rescue when I’ve made a complete and utter dog’s fucking dinner of my fucking life.’
I knew what he wanted me to say; that he hadn’t made a dog’s dinner of anything, that everything would work out now he had this chance, and other such encouraging shit. Thing was, though, it felt like he needed a kick up the arse to stop him firstly taking it for granted that everything would now be alright, and secondly to prevent him doing it again when he forgot what he felt like right now. I seemed to be the only one in a prime arse-kicking position. And I was pretty good at kicking, it being my job and all. No choice then, really.
‘Baggo, you know I’m always here, anytime, same way you’ve been there for me when I’ve needed it. But for fuck’s sake, Bags, you nearly stuffed this up. You might still have stuffed it up. This is Jen and Daisy we’re talking about, not some random one-night-stand whose name you’ve forgotten and who left without giving you her number. You can’t be that old Baggo, you can’t go around thinking about just yourself any more If Jen says don’t do something because it will make things really difficult for us, if she says if you do it I’ll leave, then you have to fucking well listen. People don’t say things like that for the fun of it, just to test you, to see how stubborn you are. They mean it. You really have to decide, once and for all, what’s most important to you. If you had to choose one or the other, would it be Jen and Daisy, or singing in a band? I’m not saying one or other is the right thing, I’m just saying you need to be one hundred per cent certain that if you go after Jen and she’s not the most important thing, you’re going to fuck all of you up. You can’t mess with Daisy. She needs a dad who thinks she’s worth sticking around for. Just give it some thought.’
Baggo nodded. A few times he’d looked like he was about to interrupt, maybe to tell me how important his music was to him, maybe to tell me if he got Jen and Daisy back he’d never do anything to hurt them ever again, but he’d stopped himself, and I began to hope that he would indeed think about things, instead of just rushing headlong into the next Baggo drama.
I stayed for a while, drinking tea and offering variations on my ‘don’t fuck it up’ speech until the vibration in my pocket threatened to wear a hole in my jeans.
‘Sorry Bags, I’m going to have to get back. Chrissie’s on her own with the kids, and she’ll be getting their tea.’
‘What would you do?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘If it was, like, earlier, and you had to choose Chrissie and the kids or rugby?’
‘Jesus, Baggo. Well, I suppose when I was younger, I would have said rugby all the way, but I didn’t have Chrissie and the kids then, and now I do, well, rugby’s nearly over for me, so it’s not the same sort of choice. I honestly don’t know.’
‘I always look at you, you know, when I’m wondering if I’m doing the right thing about anything.’
‘Really? Fuck me, Baggo, I’m no bloody role model.’
‘You are to me. Your life seems just about fucking perfect to me.’
‘Yeah, well, maybe ask Chrissie some time how perfect we are. Don’t ask the day after she’s had to remind me to do the bins for the fiftieth time, or Lily’s been screaming since two in the morning, or we’ve had to turn round at the mini-roundabout for the third day in a row because Chrissie left her phone on the kitchen counter.’
‘You never fuck up, though, Cal. Not like this.’
I looked at Baggo, who truly seemed like he’d lost the spark of what made him Jake Bagwell.
‘Bags, we’re different, you and me. I could never in a million years have gone off to Europe to see if I could make it as a singer; not because of my family, although Chrissie would have had my balls, I admit, but I haven’t got the balls in the first place. I don’t take risks, I stick to what I know. If you want to talk about role models, or heroes, you’re kind of mine. You just go for it, whatever it is. You’re, I don’t know, passionate.’
‘Yeah, I suppose. Plus, you can’t sing for fucking toffee.’
I gave him a light punch on the arm, and then man-hugged him, with lots of back slapping, before heading home to Chrissie and the intense questioning session I deserved.
A few weeks later, having given Angus Baggo’s contact details and vouched for him as honestly as I could, I drove Baggo up to the flat in Shoreditch that was going to be his home for the next few months.
Jen had agreed to give him another chance; they were keeping the flat down here in case it worked out and they wanted to come back; they were giving it until after Christmas, because that’s when Daisy was due to start school, and she needed something settled and permanent, whether that was in London or in Devon.
I could only cross my fingers and hope Baggo knew for definite what he wanted. All the way to London he talked about Daisy, and how much she would have grown since he last saw her, all the new things she was saying to him on the phone, all the friends she told him about that he didn’t know. I saw something of the pride and infatuation I’d seen when she was first born, and I felt hopeful that he was putting her first.
Baggo had left the band. They were on the point of getting more prestigious gigs, being on the road a bit more, and he chose not to do it. I know it was hard for him, because in his heart of hearts he wanted to make a go of it, but he made that choice. He told me it was fine, there were plenty of karaoke bars in London where he could sing, and he had his guitar and Angus’s flat to rattle around in, so he could treat the neighbours to the odd spontaneous performance (he was grinning wickedly while he said this, knowing I would panic about Angus’s neighbours being pissed off with a noisy Baggo keeping them awake with his guitar at all hours). He told me it was enough, just singing for his own enjoyment, and I hoped it was.