134. I’m on my way

In which facing a difficult truth results in a plan, and help is at hand for a friend in need.

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Cal

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.

‘What?’

‘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.’

Josh nodded.

‘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 –’

‘No one.’

‘But you’ve got to –’

‘No, Beth. I can’t.’

‘James –’

‘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

Laura

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.

Cal

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.

‘Cal?’

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.

‘How?’

‘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?’

‘They’ve gone.’

‘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.

Jake

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.

Jen

‘Oh Bags.’

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.’

‘Yeah.’

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.

‘Bags, listen.’

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?

Later xx

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.

‘Baggo.’

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.’

‘Hmm. So?’

‘So. I don’t know.’

‘Meaning?’

‘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.

‘I am?’

‘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.

The Philpotts Letters -13

Well I guess this is growing up (blink-182)

Well I guess this is growing up (blink-182)

Dear Adults

You are no longer children. You are eighteen. Bloody hell, eighteen years old. You can vote, and fight for your country, and have sex. OK, so officially you’ve been able to do the last two legally for two years, even though you haven’t been able to have any legal say about the arses who make these kind of rules until now. And maybe, let’s call it ‘intuition’ (yeah, yeah, it’s your mum, she bloody knows everything, and she always tells me what she knows, so it looks like I know everything too), I get the feeling that although neither of you have to my knowledge fought for your country (hmm, does playing for England Under 18s count, Josh? Let’s say it does), at least one of you has had sex. I do not want to think about this, alright? Because it makes me very angry, and want to kick whoever it was in the bollocks so he never does it again. Obviously I am talking about you, Ella. Josh seems more than happy not to just yet, unless he’s way better at hiding things than I think he is.

I mean, yeah, eighteen, of course your kids will have had sex. Possibly more than once. And Ella, you are such an explorer, it was probably a while ago. I don’t want to know. Your mum has started to tell me a few times and I had to put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly just so she’d stop.

I’m glad you’ve both had your mum to talk to about all that. I like to think I’m pretty open with you about shit – I’ll talk about anything with you guys, you’re both a joy to natter to, but this one thing, well, I did the sex chat when you were younger, and have just firmly left everything else to your more than capable mother ever since. I seriously could not deal with the thought of either some slimy git touching my baby daughter, or my baby son touching some unsuitably painted harlot. Because, obviously that’s what they’d be, and not just normal kids like my normal kids.

Except, and here we go back to the headline, you’re not kids anymore. You’re now officially adults. You can tell me to fuck off, and there’s not a bloody thing I can do about it. And both of you have told me to fuck off, literally and figuratively, because I’ve never been able to moderate my language, and now it’s the norm in the Scott household to bandy the fucks about with gay abandon (unless you’re your mother), and that’s my fault I guess, but now there’s not a bloody thing I can do about it.

Oh it’s not really about being able to do something about anything, it’s about you both being considered ‘adult’ by the world at large, when you’re both so young. You don’t know shit about shit, even though naturally you’d like to believe you know everything about shit. Ella, you’re going to sodding university in a few months. Fuck, I can remember what I was like at Uni, once I got going. I really, really don’t want you to meet any Matt Scott or his ilk, or worse than his ilk, but I’m not going to have a choice, because that’s what it means, isn’t it. You’re old enough to make your own choices.

And it’s because of those choices, which I no longer have anything other than an advisory role in, that you’ll grow up and become you, I guess. I know I didn’t become me until I went to Uni. Josh, you may have a different path, but being part of a bunch of rugby players is going to bring you along nicely. And maybe you’ll still be living at home, but at least it won’t be both of you going off into the unknown at the same time. I don’t think me or your mum could bear that, to suddenly just be the two of us – oh, not that we won’t enjoy one day being just the two of us, but we’re going to miss Ella and her own smells and noises, so you’re just going to have to fill the gap with your slightly more manly smells and louder more masculine noises.

You know, kids, I still sometimes have to pinch myself that all this is real, that for the last eighteen years I’ve had just what I wanted – a family. There was a time I didn’t think it was what I wanted at all, and then when I realised I did, I thought it was an unachievable dream, and then it happened. I know it’s not over yet, having kids is never ‘over’, is it? I know I’ll be thinking about you and worrying about you for the rest of my life. It’s just that this is the end of the ‘kids’ chapter, and the start of a new one, maybe even part two of some as yet undefined trilogy. It will be an awesome trilogy though, beginning with King Matt in the Land of Denial, who finally meets his Fairy Princess Lau while he is trying to battle the Fuckinio Bastardius monster, who he manages to tame but not to defeat while at the same time bringing into the world and raising the Prince and Princess – well you know the rest so far. Enjoy book two, guys, it’s all about you.

Thanks for being my children, you have been awesome. I am looking forward to getting to know the grown-up you.

Yours faithfully (because it sounds like a grown-up signing off, and also I hope to be always faithful – a bit like a smelly old Golden Labrador)

Dad xxx

133. Plans

In which the dearly departed are remembered, and plans for the future are made.

Cal

Knowing Mum was coming made me relax slightly. Mum always knew what to do, always took charge. And I had a job now. I dialled nine nine nine, but the ambulance people wouldn’t just take my word for it. They made me check she wasn’t breathing, they made me check for a pulse, they made me shake her shoulder and say her name, and it was all seriously freaky, and by the time Mum arrived, I was sitting on the hall floor trying to think of anything else but how I’d just been touching her, and …

‘Oh sweetheart. Is the ambulance on its way?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t expect they’ll hurry.’

I stood up and let Mum give me a hug. I clung on a bit tighter than I would normally, and felt tears well up in my eyes.

‘Dad’s in your car with Dec. I didn’t want to leave either of you alone, so I brought him along.’

‘I bet he’s loving that.’

‘He’ll get over it.’

‘Is she in here?’

Mum went into the living room, on her own because I couldn’t go in there again. She came out after a while, wiping her eyes, and looked at me. It was my turn to give the comforting hug; Mum cried more than I’d ever seen her cry before, and I just held her while she sniffed into my sweatshirt. Then she stopped, stood back and wiped her eyes with a tissue.

‘How did you know?’

‘She called me.’

‘You? What did she say?’

‘Nothing, at least nothing I could understand.’

Mum nodded and patted my cheek.

‘Let’s go and check on Dec. There’s nothing we can do here until the ambulance turns up.’

I followed Mum out to my car. Dad had turned the reading light on, and he and Dec were illuminated in the front seats. Dec was staring ahead and Dad looked like he was trying to talk to him, but not having much success in starting a conversation.

Mum tapped on the driver’s side window, and Dad rolled the window down.

‘Hey you two. Hi Dec.’

Dec didn’t answer, just carried on staring ahead.

‘James, has he said anything?’

‘No, he’s been like this since we got here. I’m a bit out of my depth, Beth. Maybe you should try.’

Mum nodded, and she and Dad swapped places. Dad and I stood away from the car a bit while Mum tried to – well I don’t know what she was trying to do, get Dec to talk to her, look at her, something.

I looked at Dad, who seemed about a thousand miles outside his comfort zone. He gave me a weak smile.

‘Sorry to disturb your sleep.’

‘Yeah, well, wouldn’t have been my choice of early morning entertainment, but I guess you haven’t been having much of a laugh, either.’

He nodded in the direction of Rose’s flat.

‘No. Ah shit, Dad, it was fucking awful. She was just sitting there, with this look on her face … you could just tell right away she was … wasn’t there, you know?’

Dad slung an arm round my shoulder, as an ambulance pulled up behind Dec’s car. I took a deep breath and went to meet it, glancing over at my car, where Mum was still talking to Dec. I was going to have to do this on my own, or with Dad, which was just about the same thing.

I led the paramedics into the flat and pointed out the living room. I didn’t go in at first, but they kept asking me questions, and it felt weird just shouting to them from the hall, so in the end I went in, but stood by the door, not looking in the direction of the chair. I was feeling seriously weirded out by the whole thing.

When my phone jangled with Chrissie’s text tone, I jumped a mile, but used it as an excuse to not be in the room where people were doing things to other people that I really didn’t want to see.

Where ru? Thought u were downstairs.

Chrissie had been asleep when I left, and I’d thought I’d be back before long. I hadn’t even thought about letting her know where I was. I had to think hard before knowing how to explain it in a text, then realised I wasn’t going to be able to. I called her instead.

‘Hey babe.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At Rose’s. I thought Dec might need a hand.’

‘What with?’

‘Well I didn’t know, but I just had a feeling.’

‘And you’re still there?’

‘Yeah. It was … er … she’s, er, died.’

‘Oh Cal. Did you find her?’

‘Dec did. He’s really freaked, gone all catatonic or something. Mum’s trying to get him to talk. The ambulance is here, taking Rose away. Shit, Chrissie, it’s fucking horrendous. I’ll be home as soon as I can.’

‘No, don’t worry, I just didn’t know where you were, and I thought if you were up with Conor I’d come and keep you company, then I couldn’t find you, so … but be there, if they need you.’

‘Thanks, babe. I expect Mum’s got it, but I don’t know how much longer things will go on here.’

‘I’ll see you when you get home.’

‘Yeah, I’m going to need a big smushy cuddle with you and Conor.’

‘On it. Cal, I’m really sorry about Rose.’

‘Yeah, me too. See you later. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

As I disconnected, the paramedics emerged from the living room carrying a stretcher with a black body bag on it. Dad, who had retreated to the end of the hallway, was staring at it with wide eyes. I opened the front door for them, and followed them out. Dad came behind, and I shut the door behind him.

As they loaded the stretcher onto the ambulance, I glanced over to my car. Dec had turned his head to look, and Mum had put her hand on his arm. I saw him shake his head, and could see the word ‘no’ form on his mouth. Then the car door opened, and he ran along the pavement to the ambulance, just as they shut the back doors.

‘Let me in, I want to go with her.’

‘And you are?’

‘Her … she’s like my mum.’

Is she your mum?’

‘Not officially.’

‘Sorry, then, mate, you can follow us if you like, but, well, maybe you’d best leave it for now, eh?’

‘She shouldn’t be on her own in there.’

‘She won’t be, we’ll be with her.’

They weren’t kidding or being disrespectful, they were trying to reassure him. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they’d had to try to placate someone who had freaked out.

‘Dec …’

Mum had followed him out of the car, and now put her arm round his waist, drawing him away, talking quietly to him. I could hear snatches of what she was saying,

‘ … for the best … arrangements … tell Amy … come on sweetheart …’

and eventually Dec nodded and allowed himself to be pulled away, as Mum nodded at the paramedics, and they got in the front of the ambulance and drove away.

Dec stood, looking after the disappearing vehicle, eyes wide and haunted.

‘What am I going to do? Without her?’

‘Dec, we’re all here to help you through it.’

‘No … I can’t do this again … I just can’t …’

And while Mum desperately tried to cling on to him, Dec sank to his knees and started sobbing, the sounds echoing around the empty street. Mum crouched down next to him, and gestured to me and Dad to help her. Neither of us were sure what we were supposed to be doing, but Mum had put her arms round Dec, and I crouched by him and put a hand on his shoulder while Dad hovered behind, looking uncomfortable.

‘For God’s sake, James. He needs us to hold him.’

Dad reluctantly got to his knees and put his hand on a shoulder as well. None of it seemed to make a difference to Dec, who continued wailing.

After a few minutes, when a few lights went on in the nearby flats, and people started to look out of their windows, Mum decided a change of plan was necessary.

‘You two are going to have to get him in one of the cars. Maybe ours, James. Get him in the back, if you can. Dec, stand up for us sweetheart, we’re going to take you home.’

Dec didn’t move. Dad, seizing an opportunity to do something that didn’t involve having to talk or be emotional in any way, stood up, then bent down and hauled Dec to his feet by his armpits. Dec’s legs looked like they might give way, and he was still making the godawful racket, so I pitched in and supported him from one side, Dad going the other. We made our way to Dad’s car like this, dragging Dec with us. He wasn’t resisting, but he wasn’t actively moving either. Mum opened the back door, and Dad and I bundled him in, putting his seat belt on like he was five. Mum sat next to him in the back, and Dad got in the driver’s seat.

‘Cal, can you drive Dec’s car? We’ll bring you back afterwards.’

‘I need the keys.’

Mum patted Dec’s pockets and found the keys in his hoody. She gave them to me, and I followed them across the city to Dec and Amy’s house.

It was starting to get light by the time we got there, the dawn glow making everything seem even more surreal.

The porch light was on at Dec’s house, and I assumed Mum would have called Amy while we were on our way. As soon as we pulled up, the front door opened, and Amy came out, in her dressing gown.

Dec had quieted somewhat, but was still crying, and still shuddering with huge sobs. Amy came down the path as Dad and I were pulling Dec out of the car, and as he saw her, it was as if she was the first thing he’d truly noticed since the ambulance had driven away. He practically fell into her arms, and let her lead him into the house.

I looked at Mum, waiting to be told what to do. There didn’t seem any point going in; Amy was what Dec needed, not us fussing about him. Mum sometimes saw things differently, though, so I wasn’t going to do anything until I was told to.

‘Beth, just let them get on with it.’

‘I know, James. I just … after all this time, I thought he might be over it.’

‘I guess losing your parents isn’t something you get over.’

‘He’s had Rose longer than he ever had his mum and dad.’

‘Yeah, so it’s going to hurt even more. You know he’ll ask if he needs us.’

‘I know. I just want to fix it.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know. Are you OK Cal?’

‘No, I don’t think so. But I will be when I get home and give Conor a bloody good cuddle.’

‘Come here, sweetheart, give your mum a bloody good cuddle first.’

Mum held me tight and I felt her shudder. She was always this capable person who knew what to do in any crisis, but everyone often forgot that she felt things too, cared about everyone more than was strictly necessary.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. Come on, let’s get you back to your car.’

That night, and the weeks that followed, were hard for all of us. Dec was really cut up. In fact, cut up doesn’t even begin to describe it. He didn’t leave the house at all, until the day of Rose’s funeral. He wouldn’t see anyone, didn’t reply to texts or answer calls. Mum had long conversations with everyone about it, trying to decide the best thing to do. Matty wanted to do the ‘shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’ thing, but was talked out of it in the end by Amy, who felt it wasn’t the same, and that Dec needed time to do things his way. There was talk of doctors and mental health teams and psychologists, but Dec refused it all, and just sat staring at the TV all day.

Matty wasn’t up to much at the time, either, having had a serious chest infection and a flare-up of MS that had knocked him off his feet. With Matty out of action and Dec incommunicado, their business was suffering, and it was only because Tom knew about the techy side, and had his dad’s chilled manner with people, that the whole thing didn’t fold.

Rose’s funeral was sad, but it got Dec out of the house, and I think it started him on the road to being normal again. He was like a ghost in the crematorium – pale, lifeless, and he’d lost loads of weight. Amy and his children held him up, emotionally and physically, and the crem was full of people who Rose had meant a lot to. She was a friendly person who made connections and helped out a lot in this city, and Dec seemed surprised and gratified that so many had come to see her off.

Dec didn’t say much, to any of us, but he read a speech he’d written, talking about what she’d meant to him and his family, and how she’d always said she couldn’t replace his mum, but how she’d come to mean something else, something there are no words for, something as irreplaceable. He made it almost all the way through the speech, before just stopping in the middle of a sentence and looking out of the window. Amy had to finish it off for him, while Charlie and Tom helped Dec back to his seat.

I thought that might have sent Dec back to his morose introspection, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect, and at the wake, which Mum had naturally organised, it was good to see him talking to people, even smiling a couple of times, and looking like he was actually taking notice of things again.

After a while, things got better for Dec. I don’t know if he got some help from somewhere, he’d seen a psychologist in the past to help sort his life out, but whatever it was, he slowly got his spark back.

Laura

We had terrible days, like the day Rose died and Dec was inconsolable, and they nearly lost their business because Matt couldn’t get out to meet the clients and Dec was in no fit state to be meeting and greeting people. Tom came to our rescue that time, using his way with technology, his inside knowledge of the rugby world and his easy manner with people to smooth things over and persuade people to wait until Dec had recovered, and handling some of the simpler meetings himself.

All the children were growing up, moving away, or staying close by. Tom had a practical way with computers, and had become part of Dec and Matt’s business. Charlie had been away to Uni, given up her course in History, and come home to look for a career, which hadn’t been forthcoming and had led to lots of waitressing jobs. Gracie was half way through her Physiotherapy training in Manchester, where she shared a tiny flat with Iz, who was working for a language school, and Iz’s boyfriend Ben. Rosa had just left school and was working in a local jewellery shop while she got her own jewellery design business underway.

Amy and I often compared notes on the emptiness or otherwise of our houses; with Ella off on the other side of the world after finishing her Law degree, and Josh still living with us but usually at Raiders either training or attending a players’ function of some sort, I often felt like I had an empty nest. Although when Josh brought his mates back for a noisy session, it felt like the complete opposite.

Cal

We all missed Rose. She had been around almost as long as I could remember, and we all used to tease her about how much she talked, and how she and Mum had this, like, competition going to see who knew Dec the best, and who could feed us the best, almost as if they were trying to be the best mother figure. In truth, I don’t know that Dec really saw either of them as his mum. He often said Rose was like his mum, but I think that was only because he couldn’t find another word for it. He never made the same comparison with Mum, almost as if with his age and her age, he fell in the too-young-to-be-a-brother but too-old-to-be-a-son category, and it was just something else that was never defined.

I know Mum missed Rose, had missed for some time her being there and comparing notes about Dec and his family, having a gossip about the kids, tutting at the state of their house, all of that, because Rose hadn’t really been up to any of that for a good couple of years at least.

Rose had always tried her best to organise Dec, and Amy to some extent, but most of it had gone over his head. So she’d try with the rest of us, sometimes with some success. I remember visiting Gran, and interrupting one of their afternoon tea sessions. Lau’s mum, April, was there too, and I’d rocked up expecting to get going on taking some garden waste to the tip. I got distracted with tea and cake, and let the three witches brew their schemes as I munched and sipped. When I was little, I used to keep quiet in the hope that people would forget I was there and say something juicy. I used the same technique, and it worked for a while.

‘Isobel’s got into Manchester.’

This was Gran. She always used people’s full names.

‘Oh love, that’s so far away. Such a long journey, that is.’

This was Rose. Never really travelled, except to Wales to visit her sister and across the city to see Dec, Mum or Gran.

‘I lived in Manchester when I was younger. It’s a very cultured city.’

April had lived nearly everywhere. At least five different countries, and she knew someone in any city you talked about. I’m not quite sure how she’d crammed it all in, because Lau had always lived in the city and hardly left the county, so April must have travelled a lot before she had Lau.

‘I’ve got a friend who lives near the Arndale Centre. Maybe I could put them in touch.’

I smiled into my teacup at this (Gran always liked people to have proper cups and saucers, even though you didn’t get as much and the handles were fiddly). April was very religious, and her friends mostly seemed to be too. The thought of Iz scandalising April’s church mates with tales of her free-from-home exploits was quite amusing. Not that they wouldn’t get on – Iz got on with most people, of any age, any anything – and she might like knowing someone close to such a major shopping centre.

‘I’ll mention it to her, dear. Now Rose, tell me more about Charlie and her teacher. What exactly did she do to get detention?’

Charlie was the only person Gran called by her shortened name. Probably because although she was Charlotte, she had been Charlie since the minute she was born and the name had slipped under Gran’s radar.

‘Oh Carol, she was so cheeky. It’s been coming for a while with that one. Amy’s been to the school, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to do much good …’

Rose launched into a lengthy retelling of Charlie’s misbehaviour, with accompanying tuts from Gran and April. I drifted off a bit, having heard it all before from Mum, having discussed it with Iz (she and I being the oldest and therefore most sensible of the cousins, and also liking a good gossip) and knowing that Charlie Summers was always going to do exactly what she wanted regardless of detentions, tuts or anything anybody told her.

Half way through a second slice of Rose’s delicious ginger cake, I became aware that I was being discussed. Almost as if I wasn’t there.

‘… a good boy, always pops round and wheels the bin out. Although I think Ayesha wishes he’d do it for her a bit more often.’

‘Hey! Ayesh never has to wheel the bin out.’

‘No, love, because you always say you’re going to, and then it’s too late by the time she realises you haven’t and the bin lorry’s arrived, and she has to take the bags to the tip herself.’

I had no idea how Rose knew this. Oh alright, I had a very good idea. Ayesh would have told Mum, and word of this riveting bit of intel had been distributed far and wide. I was really going to have to have a word with Ayesh about what she told people. Or be more thoughtful in my chore-completion.

‘Oh great. Anything else I’m crap at?’

‘Well now you mention it, love, there’s the laundry, the washing up, the –’

‘OK, OK, I admit defeat. Gran, where are the garden bags?’

‘In the shed, dear.’

‘Right, I’d better go, before you think of anything else I should be better at. While I’m doing something nice for my Gran, if I can remind you.’

‘You’re a good boy, Calum.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Get back to your gossiping, ladies.’

Rose did love a good gossip, never seemed happier than when she was recounting something scandalous that a friend or neighbour had done or said, unless it was cuddling one of the children. But although she loved a good drama, she was kind and generous with her time, and often had wise words to say in the midst of her chatter.

When I was about fifteen, when all the stuff with Chrissie had gone on, when I was being the ‘Cob-on Kid’ on holiday, and everyone was taking the piss, she was the only one who didn’t act like it was some hilarious adolescent phase. I don’t know whether she knew exactly what was bothering me, but she stayed behind one day when everyone else had gone to the beach, leaving me to stew in my room.

When I heard everyone leave, and the silence of the villa settled on me like a cool shower in the wake of all the noise, I opened the door of my room and went into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I was starving, but there was no way I was going out there to be ripped to shreds by Matty’s smart mouth, Charlie’s annoying questions or one of Mum’s looks.

I got half way across the lounge when a movement made me jump almost out of my skin. Rose was sitting in a chair, reading a book, and she’d turned a page. No one had ever stayed behind when they all went to the beach, I’d always had the villa to myself at least until lunch time when they all piled back again and filled the place with talking, laughing, clattering plates, music and chaos. I just wanted some head-space to deal with everything, and being away from home was hard enough, let alone being expected to have a jolly time.

Seeing Rose sat there, not even looking at me, but just in my space and my time, really annoyed me. I ignored her, once I’d noticed her, and carried on into the kitchen, where I banged plates and scraped cutlery for all I was worth, to show how pissed off I was.

Rose didn’t look up, not once, didn’t say a word, not even good morning. Well, if she was trying to get me to talk to her by being all quiet and mysterious, she was going to have a long wait.

I filled a bowl with cereal, using up the last of the milk, and poured myself a glass of orange juice, then took it all back to my room, as there was no way I was going to sit at the breakfast bar while Rose watched me eat.

I stomped crossly back to my room, checking out of the corner of my eye for some sign that she’d noticed so I could ignore her more, but she kept her eyes on her book.

Back in my room, furious that I was imprisoned by her and unable to wander round the villa like I’d been used to, I ate my cereal and drank my juice. Then I took out my iPod, put the earphones in and tried to block everything out with some loud music.

It didn’t work. I lay on my bed not thinking of anything, but my empty thoughts kept reminding me that Rose was in the next room, just being there. I couldn’t relax into my sulk, not properly, because the reason I was sulking (sulking more should I say) was because she was out there, and why couldn’t she just leave me alone, why did she have to bug me? Everyone else pissed off and left me to my own devices all day, why did she have to just be sitting there, obviously wanting to disturb me and get in my way.

I was fifteen, I was a growing bag of hormones. Of course everything was about me. I see it now, but I didn’t see it then. Then, nothing was fair, everything was huge and dramatic and black or white. And right then, I just wanted her to go to the beach with everyone else so I could have my space back.

I took my headphones out and stood up, intending to go out and tell her to fuck off out with the rest of them. Then I found myself hesitating, unsure how to start, knowing if I was too rude I’d be in the shit with Mum, and kind of not caring but only in a theoretical way, not in any way that meant I would do it regardless.

As I wavered by my bed, I heard footsteps coming my way, and a tap on the door. I stood, frozen, as if caught in the middle of something I shouldn’t have been doing.

‘I’m just making a cuppa, love. Anything you want?’

Rose drank tea all day. Even in Spain, where sangria was easier to come by, and relaxed you a lot more.

Shit, though. Now she’d acknowledged me, spoken to me, I had to either reply to get her off my back, or not reply, which would make her tap harder on the door, maybe even come in. I didn’t want to talk to her, because then I wouldn’t be ignoring her any more, but I didn’t want her to come in, either, because it would be much harder to ignore her.

‘Calum?’

I thought, seriously, about saying ‘fuck off’ but in the end I just couldn’t do it. I could have said it to almost anyone else who was there, except possibly Gran, and it would have made me feel more powerful, but with Rose, although she was well used to bad language, and said the odd word that raised Mum’s eyebrows from time to time, it just didn’t feel right. Rose was about the same age as Gran, and she was kind of like a gran, and you just didn’t do that to your gran, unless she really really annoyed you. And all she’d done was ask if I wanted a cup of tea. It shouldn’t have tied me in as many knots as it seemed to have done. I tried the best compromise I could think of.

‘No, I’m fine.’

See? No ‘thank you’. That was a bit rude, but not offensive, and curt enough to get my message across, I felt.

‘Are you, though, love?’

Oh now she wanted to talk about whether I was fine or not. Well if she tried anything more than offering tea, she was going to get told to fuck off. Her look out. I didn’t answer, and sat down on the bed, getting my earphones ready to put in.

‘Alright then, I’ll be here if you feel like a chat, or if you want some pancakes.’

Oh the evil old witch. She’d mentioned pancakes. Now I could think of nothing but pancakes, the thick ones with syrup, the ones that Rose made that were de-fucking-licious. But no, I had to be firm. She wasn’t going to win me over.

I was starting to get hungry again, though. A bowl of cereal and a glass of juice doesn’t go far for a growing lad. I usually had half a loaf of toast smothered in marmalade too, but Rose being there had stopped my breakfasting.

I carried on with my music, forcing myself to stop thinking about pancakes, or syrup, or food of any sort. But it was like telling someone not to think about red balloons. I couldn’t help it. And to make it worse, I thought I could smell pancakes cooking. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks, but I could smell the batter as it hit the frying pan, and then I could imagine the batter turning brown, being flipped over, steam and oily smoke rising, a stack of thick pancakes dripping with maple syrup …

I was out of my bedroom before I realised what I was doing. I hadn’t imagined the smell of cooking; Rose was in the kitchen, frying pan in one hand, spatula in the other, a small pile of pancakes on a plate by the side of her. She looked round when she heard me coming out of my room, and smiled, but turned back without saying anything.

I stopped in the doorway of my bedroom, wanting to go back in, unwilling to give up the pancakes. The eternal teenager dilemma: food or funk. Food won. Food always won with me. If Mum had only realised this, she would have won a lot more arguments.

I ambled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, like I was just looking for something to drink. I even got a bottle of water out, and stood looking at it, as if it was hugely interesting.

Rose still didn’t speak, just carried on making more pancakes. The stack was getting taller, and was crying out for something gooey to be oozing down its sides. She had butter and syrup standing by, but there were more pancakes on the go, so she was waiting.

‘I think I might have made too many, love. Fancy giving me a hand?’

Yeah, it was pretty lame, and I didn’t believe her for a minute – Rose hardly ever ate the things she cooked herself. But it did the trick, got me off the hook of having to ask for myself, and enabled me to shrug a reply.

‘Here, then, there’s tidy. Put half of them on a plate. There’s maple syrup, butter, and I think there’s some lemon juice and sugar if you want to be traditional.’

Rose split the pile and put half on the plate that I’d got from the cupboard. I poured maple syrup over my half and stood in the kitchen, eating greedily, stickiness running down my chin while I shovelled hot pancakes in my mouth as fast as I could. Rose watched, but didn’t eat.

As I finished the last mouthful, and wiped my chin on the back of my hand, Rose rolled her eyes at my rudeness and then gestured to her plateful.

‘I’m not as hungry as I thought. Can you eat this lot as well?’

I shrugged again and held my hand out. You know, anything I can do to help, I like to be useful. As I had my mouth full of hot battery sugary goodness, Rose decided this was the time to talk to me.

‘I expect you’re wondering where I got the milk from to make these?’

I had wondered no such thing, not really knowing or caring about ingredients so much as the end result. I frowned a response and offered another shrug.

‘I mean, on account of you using the last of the milk for your cereal and putting the bottle back empty in the fridge.’

Oh she was not serious. Having a go at me when my mouth was too full to defend myself was unfair.

‘None left for my cuppa, was there.’

I had a pang of guilt. I hadn’t thought about how Rose was going to manage her eighty million cups of tea without milk, and I’d have liked to have said I didn’t care, but it turns out I wasn’t quite as hard as I’d have liked to be.

‘Good job I’ve got my own little fridge in my room, for when I need tea in the night.’

Oh well that was alright. What was she complaining about?

‘Except there’s no milk there, now, either.’

Just pile it on, Rose, why don’t you.

‘I reckon you and me should take a little stroll to the shops, get some supplies. What do you think?’

Well I’d been absolutely stuffed, hadn’t I, and not just with pancakes. She must have been planning it since I got up, maybe before. I had managed the whole of this holiday so far by staying in my room, not going out into the bright Spanish sunshine, it was a bit of a thing. This was going to be the holiday Cal didn’t leave his room. And now she’d tricked me. I’d used the last of the milk, and made her use hers to do something nice for me, and now I had no choice but to do what she asked. OK, maybe I did, because if I’d truly been the sulky teen I liked to think I was, I would have said ‘screw you’ and slammed my bedroom door again.

But I suppose I wasn’t that kid, I was the one whose mum had given a huge sense of right and wrong to from an early age, and leaving Rose without tea all day was not something I could do.

My answer was, you’ve probably guessed, a shrug. I’d managed the morning so far by saying three words to Rose, and that was pretty good going. I hoped I would be able to stand as firm on the short walk to the nearest shop.

Turned out I didn’t need to stand firm at all, at least not at first. Rose talked all the way there and all the way back, about all sorts of things, ranging from her nephew, who was about Dec’s age, and his wife and children, to her landlord’s plans to put new carpet in, to Charlie’s first day at school, Rosa’s first tooth, in fact she went through practically every member of the family, talking about her worries and hopes for them all, and then she ended up with me. By the time she got there, I’d forgotten about being uncommunicative, and was craving a chance to say something, anything, to stop the flow of words coming from Rose.

‘I hope this girl’s worth it, love.’

‘What?’

‘I hope she’s worth you missing having the time of your life with your family. You won’t get it back, you know.’

‘What would you know?’

‘I’ve had my fair share of romances gone wrong. I wasn’t always an old bird, you know.’

Why did adults always say that, as if they had any idea what it was like?

‘They all miss you, being with them.’

‘Yeah right.’

‘That’s why they’re being so annoying, Matt and Declan trying everything to cheer you up and get you out of your room. It’s not the same without you there. Your mam misses you the most.’

I knew that, really. I knew deep down I was spoiling things in some way, for everyone, but I just didn’t have it in me right then to be that happy chappy they all wanted me to be.

‘I can’t, Rose, I just can’t.’

‘They worry, you know. We all do, love.’

‘I can’t help it. It’s like …’

I tried to find words to say how big a hole Chrissie had left in my life.

‘… whenever I feel happy, it doesn’t last long, because I think about her, and everything goes a bit dark, because I want to tell her how I’m feeling, but I can’t. I can’t ever. And don’t tell me I’m too young, Mum said I’m too fucking young to feel like this, so that’s why I don’t talk to her, she’ll never understand.’

‘Oh love, I’d never say you’re too young. Love can hit you hard any time, young or old, and I’m sorry you’re feeling like this. Maybe, though, you might need to think about trying to pull yourself out of it. I don’t mean right now, you sound like you do need some time to yourself, but don’t let it go on too long. It can be hard to shake it off.’

I looked at Rose. The way she spoke, it sounded like she did understand how I was feeling, almost as if she’d felt it too. She was looking back at me.

‘Yes, love, I do know how it is. I was fifteen once, too. Same thing, loved a boy, he left, I was heartbroken. Cried my eyes out for weeks, I did. Then I decided I wasn’t going to let a boy, who wasn’t there any more, rule my life, and I stopped crying and started smiling. If you smile enough, you can convince yourself you’re happy sometimes.’

It sounded like a load of bullshit to me, but it was true that Rose did seem happy a lot of the time. It wasn’t going to work for me, though, not yet, although maybe some of what she said made sense.

‘I’m not going to smile, not right now. I need to be on my own.’

‘Fair enough, love. Just promise me you won’t let it rule your life.’

‘OK.’

‘I can have a word, if you like, get them to leave you alone a bit?’

‘No, it’s OK, don’t say anything. There’s only a couple of days before we go home, I don’t want the ten thousand questions.’

‘Alright, love.’

We got back with the milk, and to my knowledge Rose never told anyone about our conversation – to all intents and purposes, nothing had happened that morning. I stayed in my room for the rest of the holiday, dinner aside, and thought about Chrissie and what she’d meant to me and what she meant to me now.

When I got home, I realised that what Rose had said had stuck, and I started smiling more. It did make a difference, even outwardly – the way people reacted to me was different if I was smiling than if I was being a miserable git, and that made me feel different. I didn’t miss Chrissie any less, but I started to do things that made me forget, and in time it stopped hurting so much.

Rose often had wise words to say, and she was often surprisingly discreet. She loved a good gossip, talking about who was moving in with who in her flats, how terrible it was that the postman had run off with the woman who ran the convenience store, but when she had her chats with you, she didn’t tell anyone, she just talked and you generally just listened because you couldn’t get a word in, but she let you make your own mind up if you took her advice. Never came back and said ‘didn’t I tell you to …’ or ‘why didn’t you do what I said’.

When Chrissie came back and there was all the awfulness that went on with Ayesh, and it felt like everyone hated me for breaking up with her, Rose was the first one to say ‘I knew you and Chrissie should be together’, and she gave me a look like she remembered that morning in Spain, when I’d told her things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and I’ll always love her for that.

o0o

It wasn’t long after Rose’s funeral, in fact it was a few days after Conor’s first birthday, that we found out Lily was on the way. Not that we knew it was Lily, obviously, and it was a bit of a deviation from our plan as she was due in February, instead of the summer holidays. Babies – you just can’t trust them to get anything right.

From the start, she caused no end of trouble, and I expect she’ll go on causing it, like all the women in our family seem destined to do. Firstly, she was a bit of an accident – not in any way unwanted, Lily my lovely girl, we always wanted you, so much, still do, even when you’re screaming the place down because you wanted a green lolly and Mummy got you a red one. But anyway, there was a contraception mishap (hey Lau, I said it again), and before we knew it, Chrissie was having morning, noon and night sickness. She vomited at the slightest hint of food, almost literally anything would set her off, and she lost about a stone, instead of gaining weight, in the first couple of months after we knew.

Chrissie and the doctors finally got the puking under control, only for her blood pressure to spike, resulting in her being on bed rest for the last two months of the pregnancy, and the last month actually in hospital, because she just would not do as she was told.

That meant a month of me and Conor fending for ourselves, although to be honest we’d been doing that beforehand anyway, trying to keep Chrissie out of action.

And then when the time came for Lily to arrive, we nearly lost them both when there was some bleeding that wouldn’t stop, and I was shoved unceremoniously out of the room to pace in the corridor, sick with worry and angry at the lack of information.

It was very different from Conor’s birth, and it took us some time to stop feeling traumatised and begin life as a family of four. Chrissie was unwell for quite a while afterwards, and it was only because of a massive rally round by the rest of the family that we didn’t go under.

It was approaching the end of what I didn’t realise at the time was my last full season as a regular Raiders player. I’d felt for a while that I was maybe a metre off the pace, couldn’t get across the pitch as fast as I used to any more, missed a few important tackles. In the summer after that season, Raiders brought in the young TomCats and England winger who was hitting the headlines, and my regular playing days came to an end. I was destined to stay with Raiders until I called it a day – I couldn’t leave now, I wouldn’t know how to start again somewhere else – but it was with a game here and there in less important cup competitions, and a role in coaching, which I really didn’t enjoy.

Having a young family to support helped me to focus my attention on what I was going to actually do to support them once I stopped earning a living by playing rugby. I’d had my head in the sand about it for so long, and then suddenly, it hit me slap in the face.

While Lily was so little and Chrissie was so poorly, I had no choice but to carry on playing, when I was picked, helping out with the corporate and media stuff when asked to, and trying not to mourn my fading fitness or the lack of match appearance or win bonuses which decreased our income somewhat.

I felt it deeply, it affected my sense of who I was. I was a rugby player, had been since I was a teenager. It was a constant in my life, and losing that with possibly two thirds of my life left – well, I found it hard to accept. Until I talked to Matty, that is.

Matty had more bad days than good. He was regularly in hospital with pneumonia; he was more often than not either confined to his bed or his recliner chair; when he was up and about, he usually needed wheeling from place to place. He hated every second that he wasn’t what he considered normal, so he spent a lot of his life hating what he was. He could have become bitter and angry, but somehow he kept his sense of humour and his love of a good natter about nothing.

We could have just left him alone, God knows he told us to often enough, but his and Dec’s ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you feel this shit’ mantra had filtered down to us all, and when he was feeling down, that’s when we stepped up the visits, calls, texts and Facetimes.

Mum was coordinating the current campaign, and she’d text someone every day to suggest they might give Matty a ring, or call in to see if Lau needed anything from the shop. It was my turn, and I stopped off on the way home.

‘Hi Cal. How lovely to see you.’

‘Hey Lau. Just on my way home, wondered if there’s anything you need?’

‘Oh, no, thanks flower. Josh popped to the shop for me this morning. Come and have a coffee, though. I’ve got some chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, too.’

‘Great. Is Matty about?’

I always asked this, even though Matty had no choice but to be ‘about’. It just continued the illusion, for him and for me, that there was a possibility he could be off on one of his hikes, or out checking the internet connection at Raiders.

‘Yeah, he’s had a snooze, just woken up.’

‘Lazy bastard.’

‘Matt’s always loved his sleep. He’s in the lounge, go through, I’ll be there in a minute.’

Lau headed off to the kitchen, and I walked through to the living room, where Matty was sitting in the large recliner chair they’d bought so he could sleep there in the day if he wanted to, without having the hassle of going back to bed.

These days, Matty was stick thin. He’d never had much body fat, but he was positively gaunt now. As I saw him, I had a sudden flashback to how he looked when he first came home from hospital up in Stafford, all those years ago, when I thought he looked like a ‘skellington’. He wasn’t that far off now, and I saw it with a lurch to my heart, how small his reserve of energy must be, and how exhausting every day must be for him. Before he could see me feeling sorry for him, I gave him a grin and plonked myself in the chair next to him.

‘About time you woke up, old man.’

‘Pihs ohf. I desehv my rehst.’

‘Yeah, I can see how a long day of sitting watching Countdown would tire someone out.’

‘Sihting watchihg Dec ruihn my businehs mohr lihk.’

Matty gestured to the laptop that was on a small table by his chair. He still spent a lot of time doing the IT side of their business, Linebreak, while Dec visited various locations and fed back via email and text.

‘Why, what’s he done now?’

‘Triehd tuh tehl Trohjans’ IT guy hoh tuh fihx thehr dahtabahs.’

‘Bugger. I take it he doesn’t know how to fix Trojans’ database?’

Matty looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘Cahl, yuh knoh he’s shih at compuhters. He cahnt evehn sahv a fihl, an now heh’s fucked ih up evehn mohr. Said he wahted tuh sahv meh a johb. Dickhehd. Cauhsed meh mohr wohk.’

‘Well that’s your afternoon sorted, then. I’ll leave you to it, shall I?’

‘Noh, dohnt goh, or Ih’ll hahve tuh sit an look at Lau ahl aftehnohn. Oh, heh Lau.’

Matty managed a cheeky grin as Lau came in with the coffee and cookies she’d promised.

‘Watch it, buster, I’m carrying a tray of hot drinks and it would be really unfortunate if one of them ended up in your lap, wouldn’t it.’

‘Lau, yuh wouhn’t, not my tahkle, wha wouhd yuh do wihout ih?’

‘Hmm maybe. Just watch your step then. Have a cookie and tell me how delicious it is, to make up for it.’

Lau was always trying to tempt Matty to eat, but Matty rarely had an appetite. He’d force enough down to keep him alive, but it was sad to see how little he cared about food any more. He’d always loved to cook, messing about with ingredients, making sauces for pasta, creating weird and wonderful sandwich fillings, doing amazing breakfasts for everyone, but now he hardly seemed to notice he was hungry.

‘I cahn smehl ih’s dehliciohs frohm hehr.’

‘Smelling’s not tasting, Matt. Here, Cal, show him what he’s missing.’

I dutifully ate a cookie. As I’d expected, it was really tasty. Chocolate chip cookies were Lau’s speciality.

‘Yeah, Matty, as good as ever. Possibly the best batch I’ve ever tasted.’

‘There you go, flower. How can you miss the chance to taste possibly my best batch ever?’

‘Goh on thehn, hahf a ohn.’

Lau smiled triumphantly and broke a cookie in half, handing it to Matty on a plate. She watched eagerly as he ate half of it, then put the plate down; Matty looked at her apologetically.

‘Dehd tahsty, Lau. Not huhgry tho.’

‘Never mind, flower. Here’s your coffee.’

She put Matty’s on the table by his laptop, then gave mine to me before picking up a mug of tea that Matty hadn’t drunk, and heading back to the kitchen. Matty’s coffee also remained untouched.

‘Hoh’s Chrihsie?’

‘Much better than she was, thanks. She’s been out a few times this week, taken Lily to appointments, came to the park with us yesterday.’

‘Greht. Lihly doing wehl?’

‘Yeah, growing every day. Conor’s got a cold, so he’s a grumpy little git. I would have brought him round at the weekend, but I didn’t want you to catch it.’

Matty rolled his eyes, as if catching a cold made no difference to him, when in reality it would have had him on a drip within twenty-four hours.

‘I saw Raihders sihgned Joss Tenk.’

Joss Tenk was the whizz-kid England winger who was set to replace me.

‘Yeah, great signing for us.’

‘Yuh OK wih ih?’

I looked at Matty, who knew as well as anyone what it meant for me, in all likelihood, unless I managed to find some previously undiscovered reserve of speed, fitness and (let’s face it) youth over the pre-season. I could have bullshitted him, but he would have seen through me in a second.

‘I haven’t got a choice, Matty. I’m not going to last forever, am I? I’m off my pace, and he’s a great signing. Raiders can’t afford to be sentimental. I’ll just have to try my best over the off season, see if I can’t show them there’s life in the old dog yet.’

‘Wha yuh gona duh?’

‘Well, work hard, train hard –’

‘Noh, wih yuhr lihf.’

It was a while since anyone had been this blunt with me. I’d avoided that question so well and for so long, that people had given up asking. I always hinted at some vague plan without actually expanding on it, and had become expert in avoiding being specific. Even Chrissie, who had begun to seriously question what I was going to do when I stopped playing, had been too poorly since Lily was born to be persistent, and I’d gone back to ignoring it all.

‘Oh I don’t know. Something will turn up.’

‘Yeh, yuhr righ, cos wehl paid johbs jus fahl in yuhr lap wehn yuhv got noh qualificahtions or expehriehce.’

‘I’ve got my coaching badges.’

‘Oh yeh. Weh ahl knoh hoh much yuh lohv cohching.’

‘Back the fuck off, Matty.’

I was getting defensive. I’d called round to see Matty and maybe have a bit of a chat about the weather and the kids, and instead I was getting the third degree about my career prospects.

‘Noh, Cahl, I dohnt thihk I wihl. Thihs fucking bahstrd’s gona geh meh ohn day, an I wana say shih befohr ih does.’

‘Matty …’

I hated it when Matty talked as if it was inevitable he wasn’t going to last much longer. However bad he got, he had so much guts and determination, he loved Lau and his kids so much, he always battled back. This was just another setback, I was sure, and I didn’t want to think about it being anything else.

‘Noh, Cahl. I wana say thihs. If yuhd behn shih at rugby, wha wouhd yuh hahv dohn?’

His question sparked a memory, of lying face down on the physio table at Raiders, talking to Kieran about what he was doing with his life because he knew he wasn’t going to be a professional sportsperson. Being a Physio wasn’t a substitute, it was completely different, and I wouldn’t say it was something that had ever occurred to me, except in a ‘bloody hell that’s too difficult’ kind of way. But I had always been fascinated with how the body healed itself and how it could be helped along. I had a sudden image of me being part of a different sort of team; one that looked at how to get the most out of arms and legs, how to help muscles repair, when to exercise and when to rest. It was just the seed of an ambition, but it took root in my head as I shrugged and answered Matty.

‘Dunno. Something physical, something not academic.’

I hardly had any GCSEs, not because I couldn’t have got some if I’d applied myself, but because I had other priorities at the time. Raiders Academy had always been hot on studying, but my focus had never been on schoolwork, it had always been on the outdoors, running about, throwing a ball, being buried under a pile of blokes, instead of under a pile of books.

‘Yuh couhd, tho. Duh the acadehmic thihg.’

‘Nah, I’m too old.’

‘Fuck ohf wih yuhr ‘tuh ohld’. Cahl, yuhv got a fahmly. They’ll lohv yuh whaever, buh yuhv got the braihs tuh beh amahzing. Duh ih while yuh can. Duh sohmthing tha hehps yuh look ahfter them. Yuhr gona nehd tuh suppoht them. Yuh nehd tuh duh the behst thihg yuh cahn. Migh tahk sohm hahd wohk.’

‘But I …’

My protests died away as Matty ignored me and took a big, noisy slurp of his coffee. He had decided the conversation was over, and when he’d finished swallowing his mouthful, he turned the topic to football, and we argued Tottenham versus Arsenal for a good half an hour before I had to go home.

Later that evening, my head still whirring with the possibilities Matty had made me think about, I pulled Chrissie against me on the sofa, after Conor and Lily were in bed.

‘Matty thinks I should go back to school.’

‘Oh does he? To do what?’

‘Get a career.’

‘Mm hmm. Did he give you any other careers advice?’

‘What, apart from never managing Spurs because they wouldn’t want someone who obviously knows nothing about football as evidenced by my poor taste in teams?’

‘Not that you’d take the job if they offered you a million a year.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Yeah, apart from that, then.’

‘Well, no, he didn’t come up with anything, but … I did have a thought.’

Chrissie twisted in my arms and looked up at my face, an eyebrow raised quizzically at me. She knew I never talked about this, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing talking about it myself, but something from this afternoon had got under my skin, and I needed to think out loud about it.

‘Well go on, then, share please.’

‘Alright then. I know it’s not the most original thing, but I was wondering about training to be a Physio.’

‘What, like Gracie?’

‘Yeah. Well, maybe more along the lines of Sports Physio than helping old ladies with their hip replacements, but it’s all the same training.’

‘That’s a lot of Uni, Cal.’

I looked down at Chrissie. She wasn’t suggesting I couldn’t do it, I knew she’d support me whatever I did, the same way I’d support her, we’d find a way to do whatever we all needed to do to be a family. She was wondering if I’d thought of all the implications and consequences, and fair enough, thinking things through wasn’t my strong point, and I had only just begun to think about this, I hadn’t thought any of it through at all. She also knew I was a lazy bastard at heart, and training aside, did as little as I could to get by.

‘Yeah, I know, I don’t know if I could do it, I mean, fuck, I’d have to do a shitload of exams just to get on the course. I honestly don’t know if I could actually stand it, but I think I want to find out.’

‘That sounds like a good place to start. Find out what you’d have to do. You should ask Gracie.’

‘I guess I could start with her, but she’s such a brainbox, she had all her exams sorted before she went, knew what grades she needed, passed everything with an A star. And she’s young. You know, old dog, new tricks and all.’

‘Yeah, but Cal, you haven’t really got a choice but to learn new tricks, have you?’

Trust my Chrissie to just say it how it was. She didn’t go on at me, usually said her piece once and then let it stew until I made my mind up, but once we were talking, she just said what she thought. And she was right. I didn’t have long before any decisions about my future were out of my hands, and I would be without a playing contract or, indeed, a job of any sort. It was like a light going on – I had to start doing something about it; should have been doing something about it for a long time.

‘Shit, Chrissie, you’re right. God, I need to do something, don’t I? I’ll call Gracie tomorrow, have a chat. Maybe talk to the guys at Raiders too.’

‘Yeah, sounds like a plan. Hey, who’d have thought, eh? Cal Scott has a plan.’

‘I know. Well weird. I think I need to lie down.’

‘You practically are lying down.’

‘Oh yeah. Well that’s alright then, no need to move at all.’

We sat together in comfortable silence for a bit.

‘How is Matty?’

‘He was out of bed, which is good, but still talking this shit about wanting to say everything while he’s got the chance.’

‘It sounds sensible to me. Do what you need to while you’ve got the energy.’

I didn’t respond immediately. It was too hard to think about Matty wanting to set his affairs in order, because I’d have to think about why he’d need to do that.

‘You know what, though, he’s a bit of an inspiration. He’s never let anything stop him doing what he wanted, or maybe what he needed to do. I mean, he can’t get around without help, and his speech has gone to shit, but he’s still working, still sorting out people’s IT stuff. He made it happen with Dec, and he’s training up Tom so when he –’

I stopped, as it was too hard to say what I’d almost said, that he was training up Tom to take over from him when he wasn’t around any more Matty was making sure everything was in place, that it was all sorted. I knew he’d made Lau some kind of partner in the business so she’d be financially OK, and it seemed he was working his way through the whole family, trying to make things as right as he could. Thinking back, I knew he’d talked to Iz about marrying Ben (fat chance, Matty, but nice try), he’d talked to Mum about ways to manage her business so she could step back a bit (Mum was rather taken aback at being told what to do for a change), he’d told Dad to retire and go travelling before he was too old (that went down well); I couldn’t think of any of us he hadn’t tried to sort out one way and another. He’d made some waves, thinking about it, but it hadn’t stopped him.

‘He is pretty inspiring, Cal. Nothing seems to stop him. He just fights all the time.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. He wants his family to be OK, and he’s just going for it. I should be doing the same, whatever it takes. If I have to do some studying, take some exams, get off my arse a bit, I bloody well should, to make sure you’re all OK and we don’t have to worry.’

‘We’ll be OK, whatever.’

‘Yeah, and I know it’s not just up to me, but I think now playing isn’t so certain any more, I need to man up, be part of Team Scott. Unless you think thirty-one is a bit young to be manning up?’

I looked at Chrissie hopefully, but she just cuffed me on the arm and shook her head.

132. May you never

In which we encounter birth and death.

‘Hello sweetheart. Everything alright?’

‘Yeah, just off to the hospital. The baby’s coming.’

‘Oh Cal! That’s so lovely. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

‘What? Why are you coming?’

‘Well I thought I might be able to help –’

‘Thanks, Mum, but I think we can manage. We’ll call you later, and you can come and start being a granny.’

‘Oh but –’

‘Thanks for offering, Mum, but we’ve got this. Gotta go, we’re in the car. Bye.’

As far as being assertive with Mum went, it was pretty successful. Chrissie and I had been very sure that we didn’t want Mum anywhere near the delivery room giving anyone and everyone the benefit of her advice, but we were sure that we wanted her there as soon as possible afterwards so she could cuddle her new grandson.

‘Well done you.’

‘I handled that quite well, didn’t I?’

‘Yep. Now, drive on – ooh – they’re expecting us.’

It was early afternoon, the sun was shining, it was just like going on a day-trip, apart from the occasional ‘ooh’ as I drove.

Just as I pulled up outside the hospital, parking in the ambulance-only bit because there was no way Chrissie was going to be walking across the car park, there was an ear-splitting scream.

‘Aaaaah fuck. Aah shit that fucking hurts.’

This was more like it. Now I was proper panicked, like I thought I ought to be, and Chrissie looked like she was in real pain, with screaming and everything. Now we were getting somewhere.

‘OK, OK, just wait here, I’ll get a wheelchair or something.’

‘Don’t, you can’t leave me.’

‘Well I’ve got to babe, I can’t stay parked here.’

‘No Cal, don’t leave me, please.’

‘Two seconds, just to get a wheelchair.’

‘No!’

Chrissie reached over and grabbed my arm, harder than I would have thought her capable of. Serene Chrissie had left the building, and Determinedly Unreasonable Chrissie had taken her place.

‘Chrissie, we can’t stay here –’

There was a tap on my window. Looking round, I saw a man wearing a hi-vis jacket with ‘AMBULANCE’ across the front in blue. I opened the window.

‘You can’t park here, mate.’

‘Yeah, I know. I’ve just brought my wife in. She’s in labour.’

The man looked over at Chrissie and saw what was obvious, that she was heavily pregnant, with a large side order of fraught and hysterical.

‘You need a wheelchair. I’ll get you one.’

Before I could thank him, he’d headed off; I prised Chrissie’s fingers from my arm and got out of the car to open the passenger door for her.

‘I’m sure he won’t be long, grab hold of me and get out, babe.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Sure you can. Here, hang on to me, swing your legs round –’

‘I mean I can’t do it. I can’t have the baby.’

What was this now? How could she even be thinking that? That was totally illogical.

‘But … but … you haven’t got a choice. It’s not like they do refunds. Come on, it’s just nerves.’

‘It is not just nerves. Are you the one who’s going to be in level ten pain, or squeezing a person out of your vagina?’

‘Er, no, but maybe keep your voice down a bit, babe.’

‘Don’t you dare. This fucking well hurts. I can’t do it.’

I didn’t know how to respond. Chrissie hadn’t moved from the front seat, and if we were there much longer I was going to have to explain myself to more irate ambulance drivers.

‘OK, then, what do you want to do?’

‘Well how should I know? Don’t just stand there looking like a moron, help me.’

‘But I don’t know what to –’

Aaaaaah. Aaaaaah fucking hell fucking hell fucking hell.

Chrissie bent over her stomach, her face going red and her hands gripping her knees. I had never seen a woman in such pain before, and it was truly terrifying. Of course I’d seen plenty of blokes in a lot of pain, you know, dislocated finger, ruptured knee ligaments, internal bleeding, that kind of thing, usually on a muddy field, on their backs, being tended to by a physio while a game went on around them. They didn’t make much of a fuss about it. I didn’t think now was the time to mention it.

As Chrissie’s screeches subsided, I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was the ambulance bloke with the wheelchair.

‘Here you go mate. Your first is it?’

I nodded.

‘Yeah, thought I recognised the look of terror. Need a hand?’

I nodded again, suddenly helpless in the enormity of what seemed to be happening. The hi-vis man reached over and put his hand on Chrissie’s arm.

‘Alright there, love?’

I winced. Chrissie hated being called ‘love’ by men she didn’t know, and always tore anyone off a strip who tried. Except today.

‘No, I’m in fucking labour and it’s fucking agony.’

‘Oh, yeah, I know how that goes. Having a contraction now are you?’

‘Just had one.’

‘OK, then, we need to get you into the chair before the next one, so we can get you up to the Maternity Unit before junior makes a surprise entrance.’

To my amazement, Chrissie nodded and swung her legs round, allowing herself to be helped up by the ambulance man. Maybe they were trained in Jedi mind control or something.

As Chrissie sat in the chair, Obi-Wan Kenobi addressed me.

‘You need to move the car, mate.’

‘No, Cal, don’t leave me.’

‘I can take her if you like.’

I looked at him, undecided. Fuck it, I should have brought someone else with me who could park the bloody car. Why had Chrissie misled me with all the serenity and ‘ooh’, when really this was a panic situation that required quick thinking and not having to spend hours driving around looking for a bloody parking space?

‘Chrissie, I’ll be two minutes, I promise. I’ll run, I’ll catch you up.’

Two minutes was if I just dumped the car on the first lot of double yellow lines I found and paid the ticket or got the car unclamped later.

‘Don’t be long. I’m scared.’

‘I won’t, babe. I’ll be right there.’

As I drove off, Chrissie was pushed away by the hi-vis man, and I saw her looking desperately back over her shoulder, as if it was going to be the last time she saw me.

The gods were smiling on me, and a parking space opened up as I drove by it, so I abandoned the car at a bit of a crazy angle, then legged it as fast as I could to try and catch up with Chrissie and Obi-Wan.

The hospital was enormous, and the maternity unit was over the other side of it. There were lines painted on the floor to help idiots like me who had no sense of direction and couldn’t follow simple instructions, so I kept my eyes glued to the purple line as I raced down the corridors.

It wasn’t long before I picked up the sound of Chrissie’s voice.

‘Jesus fucking Christ where is he? He said two minutes.’

There was a less audible reply, so I just followed the sound of swearing. There were no more quiet ‘ooh’s, just ‘aaaaaah‘s and ‘fuck‘s.

I should stress that Chrissie didn’t normally swear a lot. Not that she never did, just that she chose her moments a bit less often than other people, me for example. I knew as well as anyone how helpful a good ‘holy fuck’ was in times of need, and it sounded like Chrissie was currently in a lot of need.

I sped up towards her voice, and she came into view as I rounded a corner, just as she was approaching the door to the maternity unit.

‘Chrissie!’

She turned her head as I reached her, and relief washed over her face, swiftly replaced by pain.

Aaaaah. Fuck. This is all your fault, you fucking bastard. Where the fuck have you been?’

I reached for her hand, but she batted me away.

‘Sorry, babe, I had to park the car.’

‘Here, mate, do you want to take over now?’

The Jedi Master ambulance driver handed the wheelchair over to me and started to walk away.

‘Thanks very much, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘That’s my job. Good luck. The name’s Dave, by the way, in case, you know …’

Obi-Wan Dave looked at me hopefully.

‘Thanks. We’ll bear it in mind, er, Dave.’

I opened the door to the unit and pushed Chrissie through it. She let out another scream, which brought quite a few people running, and before long we were in a room with a doctor and a midwife. Not Chrissie’s midwife, who was on holiday. This was apparently my fault.

‘Why did you have to knock me up just then, so Karen wouldn’t be here?’

‘Sorry, babe.’

‘Fucking men, the whole bloody lot of you are fucking useless.’

‘On behalf of men, sorry.’

I thought by being apologetic and remaining calm, I might get out of further abuse. This was not to be the case. Chrissie only stopped berating me long enough to scream, and then it was back to the badmouthing.

After what felt like hours and hours of sweating, screaming and swearing, Chrissie was pronounced ready for the delivery room, and she was helped into the wheelchair again. I tagged along behind, feeling a bit useless and a bit unwanted, until Chrissie looked for me and held her hand out, an expression of complete fear on her face. I reached for her hand, and she squeezed it so hard it hurt, a lot. I was slightly worried she might have broken a bone, but chose not to mention it.

‘Don’t leave me.’

‘Not going anywhere, babe.’

‘I’m scared.’

‘I know. You’re being so brave, so incredible. Just keep going, not long now.’

And then, after another forever in the delivery room, with a lot more sweating, screaming and swearing, he was suddenly there. I watched it all happen, and it was impossibly gruesome but spine-tinglingly awesome to watch him arrive. I got to cut the cord, and then I went back to Chrissie and held her hand and wiped her forehead and kissed her, and then they gave us our son, all wrapped up, and he was the most exquisitely beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Neither of us could speak, we could only look at him. The first thing he did was cry, and it broke my heart. I wanted to tear the world apart to look for the thing that would make it better. Turned out I didn’t have to, he just needed a feed. Took after his dad straight away on that front.

We had a few minutes with him while he fed, and then had to go back to the private room, where they’d put a little plastic cot with a blanket in it, but otherwise we were left on our own.

‘Look at him. He’s perfect.’

‘I know. You’re a clever thing, babe.’

‘No, it all just happened. Sorry I was yelling at you.’

‘Were you? I didn’t notice.’

‘Are you going to call your mum?’

‘In a while. I want to have him to ourselves for a bit. Can I have a hold?’

Chrissie reluctantly passed him over, and I held him against me, taking in all the tiny details of his face and his little hands, and the small noises he made as he moved.

‘Why don’t you call your mum, while I’ve got him?’

‘OK, good idea.’

While Chrissie talked to her parents, who still lived up north, I took him on a tour of the room, which wasn’t very big, but included a window, so we went and had a look outside.

‘Well, here you are at last, little man. In the world. Not much to see out there, really, just a car park, a few litter bins, oh look, there’s a cat. They go meow. Some clouds in the sky. I hope it’s not too much of a shock out here, I know you’ve been pretty comfy where you are. Time to grow up now, though, and –’

My meaningless drivel was cut through by Chrissie’s voice.

‘Conor … no, not after anyone. It’s just what he looks like.’

She looked guiltily at me as she said it, neither of us ever having mentioned Conor as a name, and for just a second I was annoyed at having the decision taken away from me, but as I looked back at the bundle in my arms, I realised that’s who he was. Conor. Not something beginning with ‘J’ after all.

‘Hey Conor.’

He wriggled, and one arm went into the air.

‘Oh, you like that do you?’

I smiled over at Chrissie and she relaxed, talked to her mum for a little while longer and then disconnected.

‘Sorry, Cal. I just said it without thinking.’

‘It’s fine. Probably the best way to do it. We’ve been overthinking his name, we should have known he’d have something to say about it. He is your son after all, he’d want an opinion.’

‘Oh Cal, he is, isn’t he. My son. Our son. Oh give him here, I can’t get enough of him. Call your mum now.’

And so I had no choice but to give him up and call Mum, which went as predicted, with Mum practically cutting me off mid-sentence so she could jump in the car and drive over.

With Mum on the case I really didn’t need to call anyone else; she would have the hands-free going all the way there. But I wanted to do some of it myself. I predicted that her list would start with Dad, then move on to Dec, then Amy if she wasn’t with Dec, then either Gran or Matty, it was a toss up. If I was quick, I could get in first. Maybe forget Dad and Dec, and go straight for Matty.

Matty was bound to pick up, because he was recovering from his most recent bout of pneumonia, and didn’t move far from the house at the moment. I called him.

‘Wha news?’

‘It’s a boy.’

Woohoo! LAU! Thehyv hahd him! Ahl OK?’

‘Yeah, great, he’s four kilos. Tons of black hair.’

‘An yuh cahled him Matthew. Ah thahks Cal, Ihm honohed.’

‘Ha ha, no. He’s called Conor. After no one, just because that’s his name.’

‘Ah maht, tha’s awesohm. Soh plehsed fuh yuh.’

‘Thanks. You’re now officially a great uncle. I’m going to start calling you Bulgaria.’

‘Pihs ohf, Greht Uhncle Bulgahria’s way befohr yuhr time.’

‘Maybe, but I’m not too young to remember you’re a cockwomble.’

I fist pumped – I’d been saving this joke up for months, praying no one else would think of it first. I’d deliberately avoided all references to great uncles, because I knew it would make Matty laugh, and I wanted to be the gifter of the humour. It wasn’t often anyone got one over on Matty in word games, especially me.

Matty did laugh, hard, and then broke off with a cough, and I listened to him hacking for a few moments, fleetingly guilty that I might have harmed him with my need to impress him.

‘Cal? It’s Lau. Matt’s having a bit of a cough, you can probably hear him. That’s great news, flower. Is Chrissie OK?’

‘Apart from having to fight me to the death over who gets to hold him, yeah.’

‘Four kilos, that’s not small. Stitches?’

‘Nope.’

‘Ooh, get you, all smug.’

‘Yeah, like it had anything to do with me, but I’ll take it.’

‘Is she staying in?’

‘Yeah, just tonight.’

‘Bring him to see us as soon as you can, won’t you?’

‘Sure thing. Soon as. Can’t you make it over, Lau?’

‘I’d love to, flower, but I’ll have to wait.’

This meant Matty wasn’t up to going out and she didn’t want to leave him, but he was still in the room, so she wouldn’t say.

‘I’d better go, Lau, other people to call, I’m trying to beat Mum to it.’

‘Good luck with that, flower. See you soon, I hope.’

I disconnected and tried Gran.

‘Hello?’

Gran never used caller ID, so she never knew who it was calling her.

‘Hi Gran, it’s Cal.’

‘Calum! Hello dear.’

‘Has Mum called you yet?’

‘No dear, why?’

Yes! Two down in the beating Mum to it stakes.

‘Well I just wanted to let you know you’re a great-granny.’

There was a brief pause and a slight intake of breath, then Gran replied in her unflappable way.

‘Oh that’s just lovely dear. I trust all is well?’

That was Gran’s way of being really excited and asking for more information.

‘Yeah, everything’s great. We’ve called him Conor. He was four kilos – er, oh, I don’t know what that is in pounds. Chrissie, what’s four kilos in pounds?’

‘Eight pounds thirteen.’

I had no idea how Chrissie knew that, maybe she’d made it up, but I took it.

‘Did you hear that Gran? Eight pounds thirteen.’

‘Goodness, Calum. That’s large. Is Chrissie alright?’

‘Yeah, no trouble at all.’

I loved telling people there were no stitches, as if my wife had the most stretchy lady parts, and it was all down to me, in some way.

‘Well I’m glad to hear that.’

‘I don’t know if you can make it in? Mum’s on her way, but if you call Dad or Dec, they might give you a lift.’

‘Oh I don’t want to trouble anyone.’

‘It won’t be any trouble, Gran. You do want to see your first great grandson don’t you?’

‘Well of course, dear.’

‘Call them then.’

‘You don’t think they’d mind?’

‘Gran, when did Dad or Dec ever mind you asking them to do anything?’

‘Alright then. I will.’

‘Great. See you in a bit.’

I disconnected and sat on the bed next to Chrissie, holding them both close as we gazed in stunned adoration at the most amazing baby that was ever born. I was pretty sure Mum would have contacted the rest of the world in the time I’d been talking to Matty and Gran, and sure enough texts started arriving not long after.

Dec: ‘Woohoo he’s here. On our way. Ready 4 invasion of the Summers?

Iz: ‘Aunty Iz says hi to little nephew. Any chance of details? Mum too excited to note names etc.

Dad: ‘Got to pick up your Gran then will b there. Well done.

Nico: ‘Cal this is great news from England. We like to see a picture soon please.

Ayesh: ‘Congratulations, Cal and Chrissie. Hope 2 cu & Conor soon Ayesh and Sam xx

Charlie: ‘Does this mean I’m an aunty? Congrats Daddy Cal. Love 2 Chrissie c ya l8r xxx

Mum really had been busy. I wouldn’t have put it past her to set up a conference call while she was on her way over so she could blitz as many people as possible. I almost turned on the TV in the room to see if it had made the headlines on the local – no, make that national – news.

It wasn’t long before the newest Scott grandmother made her appearance. We could hear her heels clicking down the corridor, gathering speed as she nearly broke into a run.

‘Ready babe? You’re going to have to hand him over now, you might not get him back for a while.’

‘I’ll get him back when I say so.’

This was likely true. Chrissie was superb at handling Mum.

The door opened, and Mum came in, breathless and shiny-eyed; her gaze honed in on Conor wrapped in Chrissie’s arms, and she hurried over to stare down at him. Chrissie and I could have been invisible for all the notice she took of us.

After a good minute or two of staring, Mum reached out and touched his cheek very gently, then looked at first Chrissie and then me.

‘Cal, he’s just perfect.’

I could sense the self-control she was having to use not to grab him from Chrissie. Chrissie seemed to realise too, and relaxed her grip slightly.

‘Would you like to give him a cuddle?’

Mum looked hungrily at Conor.

‘Oh I’d love to.’

She reached down and picked him up from Chrissie’s arms.

‘Hello Conor. Oh you are just the most adorable thing. I’m your Granny – oh. Dammit. I was going to say Nana.’

‘Don’t stress it, Mum, it’s not like University Challenge, your first answer isn’t binding. You can be Nana, like Nana Jane.’

‘I don’t want to be Nana Beth, it sounds Victorian. Just Nana.’

‘Great.’

‘How’s that, then, Conor? I’m your Nana. I’m going to have you over for sleepovers, and feed you all the things your Mummy says you can’t have, and buy you really inappropriate things for Christmas.’

‘Really, Mum?’

‘No, I suppose not. But I hope you remember that it is my right to if I want to, as his Nana.’

‘You’ll always have the right to spoil him, Beth.’

‘Thank you sweetheart. I don’t think it’ll be hard. Oh, he’s so, so lovely. How are you Chrissie? He’s quite a weight. Was it hard work?’

‘No, not really. Didn’t seem to take that long.’

I stared at my lying wife, who seemed to have forgotten the hours calling me all the names under the sun – or maybe it was just ‘fucking bastard’ repeated at frequent intervals – while she screamed in pain through every contraction and all the pushing. Bloody hormones have a lot to answer for.

‘Cal said no stitches. Well done you. All that massaging and Vaseline must have worked after all.’

Oh dear God. Was there anything she hadn’t shared with my Mum? The massaging and Vaseline had been one of the perks of pregnancy, even though I hadn’t been quite sure why I was doing it. Some things you just don’t question, do you. If Mum knew, I could guarantee Amy and Lau would know, and that meant Dec and Matty would know and would be unable to resist taking the piss. In fact, it was amazing they hadn’t already.

To save me from further immediate embarrassment, the door opened again and Dec and Amy came in, closely followed by Tom, Gracie and Rosa.

‘Calum Scott you make me feel bloody ancient. How can you be a dad?’

‘Same way you are, old man.’

‘Let’s have a look then – come on Beth, hand him over.’

I thought Mum was going to resist for a moment, but she gave Conor to Dec without any fuss. Chrissie was watching closely, ready to demand his return at any minute.

‘Oh mate, he’s great. Look, Amy, he’s got my nose.’

‘Yeah, hon, course he has. Just like Josh has got your ears and Ella’s got your eyes. He’s perfect, Chrissie. Well done you.’

Conor started to cry, a little bleat at first, then full on yelling with added wriggling and arm-waving. Chrissie sat up a little straighter, looking worried, but Dec handed him straight back to her.

‘Thanks Dec. I think he just wants a feed.’

Chrissie pulled up her shirt and held Conor close so he could suckle; Dec went a bit pale and looked uncomfortable.

‘Maybe we’d better leave you to it.’

‘Don’t be daft, it’s fine.’

‘You could always wimp out in the corridor.’

Dec looked at me gratefully, despite the ironic nature of my suggestion.

‘Good thinking, Batman.’

As he turned to leave, Amy rolled her eyes at him.

‘Oh honestly hon, you’re not still squeamish? After all the babies there have been?’

‘Yep. Come and get me when it’s all over.’

Dec had a thing about breastfeeding. It had been fine, apparently, when it was Amy, no problem with that, but when it was anyone else’s wife or girlfriend, he’d be found waiting outside pretending to be interested in the January edition of Woman and Home. Matty was the same. Pair of losers.

Dad and Gran turned up shortly afterwards. I could hear Dad talking to Dec in the corridor, then the door opened and it became seriously crowded in the small room.

I had a sudden memory of a similar scene, many years ago, when Charlie was born, the room full to bursting with family, lots of noise and laughing, the small baby being handed round to everyone, and then all of us getting kicked out by a nurse for being too loud. There were about the same amount of people in the room today, despite there being notices up everywhere about the rules around two visitors at a time and keeping the noise down.

I watched proudly as everyone admired Conor, and as he coped admirably with being held by them all, the young Summerses included. He was the first baby in the family since Rosa, the first second cousin, or first cousin once removed, or third generation Scott, or whatever his official title was, and even though it would have meant even more people crammed into the small room, I wished Matty and Lau, and Iz and Ben could have been there. Rose would have made the family gathering complete, but she hardly went out, and even another baby to cuddle wasn’t enough to tempt her.

I made a mental list of people I was going to have to either visit or text pictures to, which included Baggo and Ayesh.

The loud Scott-Summers baby welcoming committee didn’t stay too long, although Mum had to be crowbarred out of the room by Dad, and Chrissie and I looked at each other, letting out a sigh. It was great being part of a big family, but exhausting too, especially after the day we’d had. It was early evening, and Chrissie looked wiped.

‘I should go soon, babe, let you get some sleep.’

‘Not yet, though. Stay with us for a bit.’

‘As long as you like, I can hardly bear to leave him.’

‘He is amazing.’

‘Yeah, he is. Can we Facetime Matty? And Iz? I really want to show him to them.’

‘Of course we can. I’ll scooch over, we can sit together here.’

So Chrissie and I snuggled together and I held my phone up, calling up Matty on Facetime. Soon, his face filled my phone screen. He couldn’t keep the smile from his face, although he was trying really hard to be cool.

‘Yuhv distuhbed my buhsy lying dohn scheduhl. Hohp ih’s impohtant.’

‘I’d say so. Here’s your great-nephew. Conor, say hi to Unca Matty.’

‘Uhnca Mahty … not behn cahled tha in a whihl. Heh Cohnor. He’s prehty cool.’

‘Yeah, we think so. We’ve got something to ask you.’

‘Noh, yuh cahn’t lihv hehr tihl he’s twehnty.’

‘Oh bugger. Well that’s that, Chrissie, he’s going to have to go back, if we can’t sponge off the old rellies.’

‘Lehs of the ohld thahks.’

‘Will you be his godfather?’

There was a long silence, and Matty’s eyes looked suspiciously like they filled with tears. It was even more suspicious when the view was suddenly of the ceiling of their bedroom, and we could hear rustling sounds. I looked at Chrissie and shook my head as the view returned to Matty, who had regained his composure.

‘Rehly, Cal?’

‘Yeah, we need some dodgy old atheist bastard to stand up and promise to look after our son’s spiritual well-being.’

‘Yeh, wehl, cahn’t promihs tuh beh able tuh stahnd uhp.’

‘No worries. Just being the dodgy old atheist bastard is good enough for us.’

‘Ha ha. Oh, Lau. Hehr, hahv a lohk, ih’s Cal an Chrihssie an Cohnor.’

There was a bit of readjustment as Lau came into the shot and sat next to Matty.

‘Hi guys – ohh, he’s gorgeous. How are you Chrissie?’

‘Yeah, good, tired though. Cal’s going to give me some peace in a bit.’

She looked up at me, and I could see the fatigue on her face. I wouldn’t stay long.

‘Lau, they wahnt meh tuh beh godfather.’

‘Why, did everyone else say no?’

Lau’s teasing was softened by a quick stroke on Matty’s face.

‘Chehky cow. Heh guys, cahn Josh have a quick look? Dehd quihk, promihs.’

‘Sure.’

Matty called Josh, and he came into the shot a few moments later. He’d been doing some kind of training and was still wearing his Raiders kit. Josh – the newest Scott on the Raiders block, on the point of breaking into the first team, in the middle of his first proper pre-season. Ella was away with friends celebrating the end of school, and I would have to text her later.

‘Hey Josh.’

‘Hi Cal. You’ve had him, then.’

‘We’ve had him. You can pass the good news on to the guys if you want.’

‘No, lazy arse, you can do that. He’s pretty cool, though. Alright, Chrissie?’

‘Yeah. Tired but happy.’

‘Will you be at training tomorrow, Cal?’

‘Yeah, but maybe not till later. Chrissie and Conor are coming home, and I’ve got the morning off.’

‘Any excuse.’

‘Come on Josh, let’s get off the iPad so Cal can get home.’

‘Thanks Lau. We’ll come and see you soon.’

‘Look forward to it. Bye flower.’

‘See yuh.’

‘Bye.’

I turned to Chrissie, who was really flagging now. She was almost asleep, and Conor was snoozing in her arms. I picked him up and placed him in his hospital cot, wrapping a blanket round him and stroking his head. As I looked back at Chrissie, her eyes closed and her head settled back against the pillows. I tucked the blankets around her and kissed her forehead, then took some pictures of Conor, to add to the several hundred I’d already taken. Iz’s Facetime would have to wait.

I looked at Conor for an age; I would have stayed all night, but Chrissie needed her rest, and our son was bound to wake up soon wanting food. Chrissie was going to call or text or Facetime if she was awake in the night and able to get to her phone, and I hoped this meant it would feel more like I was there too.

It was really hard to leave the room. Once I’d taken a step out into the corridor, it felt like I was back in a world I hadn’t visited for a long time. In fact, it felt like the world had changed. Now, it was a world where I was a dad, where Conor Scott was my son, and it felt completely new and utterly different from how it had felt before.

I drove home in a happy haze, microwaved some dinner and then called Iz while I emailed her from my laptop.

‘At last! I thought you’d forgotten about me.’

‘Sorry, I’ve only just got home. I wanted to Facetime, but Chrissie fell asleep. I’m just sending you some pictures and a vid.’

‘Mum sent some pictures. Actually she sent thirty-seven. Cal, he’s so gorgeous. I can’t believe he’s yours.’

‘Neither can I. He’s so perfect, I keep thinking someone’s going to come along and say ‘sorry, we made a mistake, this is the one who’s really your son’, and it’ll be some minging baby with enormous ears and a weird belly button.’

‘Ha ha. Ben and I were thinking about coming down at the weekend. Can we come and see him?’

‘Yeah! Chrissie’s coming home tomorrow, she’ll be glad of the company. I’ve got a pre-season game on Saturday. Oh, does Ben want tickets?’

‘Oh I suppose so.’

I could almost hear Iz rolling her eyes. She couldn’t escape rugby even in football mad Manchester, because her boyfriend was a huge Royals and England supporter, and whenever they visited, she had to sit through hours of rugby chat.

‘Great, I’ll sort it. Don’t pretend you won’t be happy to sit with Chrissie, cuddling your nephew.’

‘Yeah, if I can get a look-in. Did Mum even let you or Chrissie hold him all the time she was there?’

‘Maybe for a second or two. Chrissie’s more than capable of telling her to back off though.’

‘I know. She bloody scares me sometimes, your missis.’

‘Yeah. Me too. That’s the only reason I married her.’

‘It is not. It’s because I made you go and find her when you nearly let her move away.’

‘Jesus, Iz, you’d take credit for the bloody sun coming up if you could.’

‘And why not? It does mainly happen because of me.’

‘Ha ha. Have the pictures come through yet?’

‘Yeah, I’m just looking now. Oh, and the video, oh Cal. He’s so tiny.’

‘Not that tiny. Four kilos.’

‘Yeah, but compared to you, he’s so little. Aw you look well chuffed. How’s it feel, being a dad?’

‘I don’t know. Different to how I thought it would be. It’s like, kind of weird that they’re back in the hospital and I’m here. Like there’s some kind of link, pulling on me, so I can feel him all the time. I can’t believe I made him, or part of him. It’s the best thing I ever did.’

‘Well I can’t wait to see him. We’ll be there late Friday, so we’ll come and see you before you go to the game on Saturday. Is Joshy playing?’

‘No, but he’s going to be with the squad. You’ll see him in the kit doing the warm up.’

‘Well I won’t, but Ben will. If Josh was playing I might have gone. I hope I can see his first game.’

‘It won’t be long.’

‘I bet Matty’s pleased.’

‘I hope he’s better before Josh’s first game. He’d hate to miss it.’

‘Yeah. He’s not that great much of the time any more, is he.’

‘No. It’s horrible. He couldn’t come and see Conor today, we had to Facetime him from the hospital. We’ve asked him to be godfather.’

‘Oh wow, he’ll love that. Well, maybe not the God bit, but the honour and that.’

‘Would you be honoured?’

‘Er …’

I hadn’t meant to say anything, Chrissie and I were going to ask her together, but it felt like the right time. I had, of course, made a bit of a bodge of it.

‘I mean, we’d like you to be Conor’s godmother, when we get round to having a christening.’

Iz’s voice got very quiet.

‘Oh my God, Cal. Yes. Yes please. Wow. Thank you.’

‘I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I might not tell Chrissie, so if we ask you again at the weekend, you’ve got to act all ‘OMG what a surprise’, right?’

‘I’ll try. God, thanks. That’s amazing. Does Mum know?’

‘Do you think it would be a surprise if she did? She’d have blabbed to bloody everyone by now.’

‘How do you know she didn’t, and I was just demonstrating my talent at acting all ‘OMG what a surprise’?’

‘True. Well as long as everyone thinks nobody knew, that’s the main thing, isn’t it.’

‘If you say so, Cal.’

‘I should go, I’ve got texts to answer and ‘proud dad’ photos to post on Facebook.’

‘Go on, then, bugger off and greet your public.’

I disconnected from Iz, replied to all the texts, which included congratulations from team mates, Ella, and Rose. I also tried to call Baggo, but he had his phone off, or didn’t hear it, or more likely had forgotten to charge it, so I texted him.

Hi Bags. Here’s a photo of MY SON! He’s Conor and arrived earlier today. More photos about to be posted on Facebook. Will call u soon. Cal.

And then I set to work on Facebook. I had never really got people’s obsession with posting daily pictures of their new babies, not until now, when I just wanted everyone to ‘Like’ and comment, and tell me how awesome he was.

I also posted a picture on my Twitter account, and immediately got the expected flurry of replies from Raiders supporters, which I favourited to show I appreciated it.

Then I opened a beer and flicked the TV on, and sat not watching it, but scrolling through all the pictures of Conor I’d taken that day. I was entranced, and sat smiling stupidly to myself as I looked at the photos and watched the few short clips of video.

Baggo replied after a while.

Awesome mate. Proper little tyke. Must meet up soon, wet his head.

Then Chrissie called, just as my eyes started drooping and my head lolled backwards on the sofa.

‘Hey babe. How are you?’

‘Better now I’ve had a sleep. Sorry I passed out on you.’

‘I think you needed it. Full on day, with a new person at the end of it, can’t blame you for snoozing. How is he?’

‘Awake, but quiet. He’s just had some dinner. So have I, it’s pretty good in here. He says hi.’

Chrissie put on a squeaky voice.

‘Hi Daddy I miss you.’

‘Hey mate. You’re not missing much, though, son, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to watch your old man drinking beer and slobbing on the sofa over the next few years.’

‘Sounds like you’re having a relaxing time.’

‘Yeah I am, now. I called Iz when I got in, she’s coming down with Ben at the weekend.’

‘Oh great. We can ask her, then.’

‘Yep.’

And I couldn’t do it, couldn’t keep it from her.

‘I, er, might have let it slip though.’

‘What, you asked her already?’

‘Yeah, kind of couldn’t help it.’

‘What did she say?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Oh, well that’s great. One less thing to do.’

I was a little relieved. The last few months had been slightly unpredictable regarding how Chrissie handled changes in plans. She liked things ‘just so’ anyway, and often got exasperated with me being what she called ‘lackadaisical’ about arrangements; but being pregnant had made her cranky at times, and I’d come in for some stick. Not that I didn’t deserve it, mostly, but it would be nice to think I wasn’t permanently in trouble.

‘I’m getting Ben some tickets for Saturday’s game, so you and Iz can have a girly time in the afternoon.’

‘Sounds good. What time will you be here tomorrow?’

‘How about nine?’

‘Great. I can’t wait to bring him home.’

‘Me neither. I love you, Chrissie.’

‘Just as well I love you too, then, isn’t it.’

I eventually went to bed, after looking at all the pictures one more time. Chrissie texted me a couple of times in the night, to say she was feeding Conor, and we Facetimed once she knew I was awake. Watching them both was mesmerising, and although I should really have been sleeping, I couldn’t think of a better way of spending the night than watching my wife feed my son.

Laura

Ella went off to university to study Law; Josh worked his way through the ranks at Raiders, and became a regular starter in the first team. Matt managed to travel with us to take Ella to Durham to start university life, and with a huge effort he made it to Raiders Stadium with the rest of the family to watch Josh’s first team debut. He missed Josh’s first try and Ella’s starring role in the University production of The Importance of Being Earnest, as he was in hospital recovering from pneumonia both times. There was enough video footage of both events to more than make up for his absence, and he played them over and over again when he was back at home. I often heard him shouting ‘A handbag?!’ or ‘Scott goes over for his first’ and knew what he was watching.

Matt made it to Cal’s son’s christening; I don’t think anything could have stopped him from being there, as he was godfather to Conor, and it was one of his proudest moments.

We had good days, where things were normal, or felt normal, and we got happy and sad and cross and relaxed with each other. We had great days, like the day Matt and I went for a walk round the lake in the cold, and it was sunny and frosty, and although Matt was in his wheelchair, when we sat together, me on a bench and him next to me, it was like we were the only couple in the world, and we talked and talked about nothing and everything, and came home feeling like nothing was going to get to us ever again.

Cal

Having a son was brilliant. I mean, yeah, the lack of sleep was a pain in the arse, and when he was really little, all he seemed to do was eat, sleep and shit, but that didn’t last long, then he started to get interesting, and learn stuff, and it seemed like he changed every day.

Chrissie really wanted to go back to work, but she was taking a year out before she decided for definite. I was starting to weigh up my own employment options for when I finished rugby – I was thirty now, and I suppose the end was in sight. I really didn’t want to think about it, but with Dad and Dec on my case about not leaving it until the last minute, and every game could be my last and other such cheery bollocks, I had little choice.

Coaching wasn’t really my thing. I’d done some badges, and maybe I could have made a go of it, but I didn’t have the ability to control a group of people like the best coaches do. I could tell a bunch of kids the best way to step around a tackle, or how to hold a defensive line, but I’d never be able to give a group of grown men a bollocking to motivate them in the upcoming game.

I’d got a few GCSEs at school, but nothing that had inspired me, and by the time it came to A levels, I was purely thinking about my rugby career, despite advice from everyone to think about another option in case things didn’t work out, and I’d failed the two I took. I hadn’t had to have a plan before, and now I needed one. I needed to be able to provide for my family once my days of earning a living from the sport I loved were over.

I’d never thought about Physiotherapy as something I could do; the thought of doing something like a degree seemed really hard, and I’d seen how much work Chrissie put in to her teaching degree. I didn’t think I had the brains to put that much into learning something new.

It wasn’t until a student Physio came to Raiders on a placement from Uni at the same time as I’d developed an ongoing calf strain problem, that I even showed any interest in what it took to become a Physio.

I was having a massage in the treatment room and, as you do, we were chatting while Kieran (the student) iced and heated my calf, then massaged it. Chatting helped you relax and took your mind off what was happening, so you didn’t tense up the part that was being worked on.

I found out that Kieran had gone to the same schools as me, both primary and secondary, and that one of the reasons he was a Physio was because I’d been to his school and was a bit of a ‘legend’. I use this word lightly, because I know there is a signed picture of me and a signed Raiders shirt in the corridor near the hall, but to my certain knowledge my photo is anatomically altered regularly with a Sharpie, and Kieran confirmed that this was still the case. However, being a huge Raiders fan, this didn’t stop Kieran wanting to find a way to enter the world of professional sport, despite not having found a way to do this as a sportsperson himself.

‘And so when Uni said I was coming here for my placement, I couldn’t believe it. I went home and sat at the table for about an hour just going ‘wow’. Now I’m here, of course, I know you’re all just a bunch of tossers and I’m changing my allegiance to Trojans.’

‘Careful, Kieran. You know us tossers get to comment on your final report.’

‘Yeah, but you don’t know what you’d have done without me, so I’m pretty confident.’

Despite our banter, he was a good Physio, particularly as he hadn’t even qualified yet.

‘Is it hard, doing practical and academic stuff? My wife’s a teacher, and she had to do both when she was training.’

‘Well, I suppose there never seems enough time to do both, but you can’t do one without the other, and it’s great to put your learning into practice, like now. When you learn a technique, and practice on other students or on volunteers, it’s not the same as a real person with a real injury, and when you see what you know working on someone, it’s awesome.’

I recognised this concept from playing rugby. Practising moves on the training ground was one thing; using the same moves in a game and scoring or preventing a try as a result felt fantastic.

‘My cousin’s just started training to be a Physio, in Manchester. She spent some time here hanging round you lot, talking about obscure bones no one’s heard of and I think you make up, and recovery rates and other nonsense.’

‘Hey that made up nonsense is keeping you playing, old man.’

‘Fair point. Must be rewarding though, like you say, knowing how to put things right.’

‘Yeah it is, and frustrating when it doesn’t happen, and when you lot go out and blow weeks of work by twisting your knee in the first tackle.’

‘I’d love to be able to do something like that when I finish.’

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Nah, never been bookish, well not since I was little anyway.’

‘What will you do, do you think? I know some people have got, like, plumbing qualifications or are starting their own companies.’

‘Yeah, I know. Haven’t really got a plan. I should, I know, everyone goes on at me all the time, but I hate thinking of not playing.’

‘Happens to everyone some time, whether you’re working in a bank or playing rugby. You can’t go on forever.’

‘No, I suppose not.’

And that was the spark. I didn’t think about it a lot, but every so often I’d go back to it and something about working with muscles and bones, and using what I knew about strength and conditioning, appealed to me. Every time I talked to Gracie, I’d quiz her about what she was doing, and just wonder if I could do it. But that’s as far as I got, just wondering. I was still avoiding thinking about it.

o0o

It was a few weeks after my conversation with Kieran that I was woken in the night by my phone. I didn’t recognise the tone, but when I looked at the screen, it was Rose. Rose never called me. Actually, Rose hardly ever called anyone apart from Dec, and I assumed she’d pressed the wrong key by mistake. Still, you never knew, and I answered.

‘Hey Rose.’

There was no sound for a moment, then some words that didn’t make sense, then a noise I couldn’t interpret. Then the connection was lost.

Chrissie had woken up next to me.

‘Who was that?’

‘Rose.’

‘Is she OK?’

‘I don’t know. She wasn’t making sense. I thought she’d called me by mistake, but it was weird. Maybe I should call Dec.’

Dec’s phone rang for a while, and I wondered if it was on mute, but he finally answered.

‘What the fuck Cal? If your bloody baby’s keeping you awake, watch repeats of The Simpsons like normal people at this time of night.’

‘I just had a call from Rose.’

‘Oh. Oh, what? What did she want?’

‘I don’t know. It was weird. She said … well I don’t know, it was just garbled.’

‘Shit. I’ll call her.’

‘Can I do anything?’

‘No, mate. Thanks for letting me know.’

I disconnected and turned over, but couldn’t sleep. Something felt wrong. I texted Dec.

Anything to report?

She’s not answering. On my way over there.

Without thinking about it much, I got out of bed, pulled on some jeans and a sweatshirt, and got in the car. We lived closer to Rose than Dec and Amy did, and I’d get there about the same time.

The streets were almost deserted at that time of night, and the journey was quick and uneventful. Dec had just arrived at the sheltered flats when I got there. I got out of the car and hurried over to him as he opened the door to the lobby.

‘Cal? What the …’

‘Thought you might like someone with you.’

I had a really bad feeling, and didn’t want Dec walking in on something awful by himself.

‘Thanks.’

Dec knocked on Rose’s door, then unlocked it and went in, calling out as he did so.

‘Hey, it’s me.’

There was no reply. The flat was in darkness, so Dec flipped on the hall light.

‘Rose?’

It was all eerily silent.

‘Shit, Cal, where the fuck is she?’

‘Bed?’

It seemed logical. In the hall light, I could see how terrified Dec was. He was shaking, his eyes were wide and he was breathing fast.

‘Let me check. You stay here.’

‘Sorry, I feel like a complete wimp.’

‘Just stay there.’

I tapped on Rose’s bedroom door, then opened it and tried to see by the light from the hallway if she was in bed, but it was too dark. Almost holding my breath, I turned the light on. And breathed out. She wasn’t there. The duvet was turned back, as if she’d just got out of bed.

‘CAL!’

Dec’s shout startled me, and I ran out of the room and towards him. He wasn’t in the hallway; the door to the living room was open, with soft lamplight coming out. I hurried into the room, to find Dec standing staring at Rose, who was sitting in her armchair, eyes open, but no longer seeing. I stared at her for a long time, hoping to see the rise and fall of her chest as breath went in and out, but it was all terrifyingly still.

‘Fuck. Dec, go and wait in the car.’

It was the only thing I could think of to do. Dec was frozen to the spot, staring at Rose, who, just to be clear, was obviously dead. He didn’t need to be here, there were things that needed doing, and he wouldn’t be able to do them. Part of me wanted to freeze along with him – I’d never seen a dead person before, and it was freaking large parts of me out. But Dec, the look on his face, like he was having waking nightmares, I knew he needed to be out of there.

‘Dec. Dec.’

He slowly looked at me, but there was no understanding on his face. I knew he was going to need me to be pretty forceful, so I pulled hard on his arm and made him come with me. He started to resist as we got near the front door.

‘No … no I need to … she needs …’

‘I know, mate. I’m going to do it, OK? You need to sit in the car and wait, and I’ll come out when I’ve done it, yeah?’

I had no idea what Dec thought he needed to do; I was just trying to reassure him. I also had no way of making him stay in the car, but I had to trust that he would. I opened the passenger door of my car, and made sure I had my keys, so he wouldn’t take it into his head to go driving off, and then I went back into the flat. I couldn’t immediately face going back into the living room, so I got my phone out and called the one person everyone called in a crisis. Mum.

‘Hello sweetheart. Is everything alright?’

‘No. Rose is …’

I couldn’t make myself say the words, because then it would be real, and it felt too soon and too harsh for it to be real, and it might tip me over the edge into completely freaking out.

‘Rose is what?’

‘Me and Dec just found her.’

‘Found her where?’

‘In her flat. She was just sitting in her chair.’

‘Is she alright?’

‘No, Mum.’

‘Is she …’

Mum never minced her words, but it seemed even she found this hard to say.

‘Is she breathing?’

‘No.’

‘Oh God. Where’s Dec?’

‘He’s in my car. He just froze, like a statue. I had to drag him away.’

‘OK, Cal, I’m on my way. You need to call an ambulance, though. They’ll need to take her away.’

131. I’ll be there

In which an ex becomes a friend, and a new dad begins his journey.

Laura

Matt continued his unsteady decline. His MS took him down and let him back up again, but he always lost something more along the way. We had our house turned upside down so that our bedroom was downstairs, where the dining room had been, and made a lounge for the children upstairs. We turned the downstairs shower room into an en-suite, and Matt grudgingly accepted various bits and pieces of equipment, that gathered dust in the cupboard under the stairs until he really couldn’t do without them.

Matt was an usher at Cal’s wedding; he stayed on his feet through the whole ceremony using what I can only assume was willpower, stayed in a chair throughout the reception, and collapsed exhausted as soon as Cal and Chrissie had left for their honeymoon.

Just over a year later, he stood in for Jay at Iz’s graduation from Manchester University, as Jay was away coaching with the England rugby team. He managed to give Iz a standing ovation when she collected her certificate, and was so proud of his niece.

Cal

It was a Thursday afternoon. Raiders day off, down time to prepare for the game on Saturday. Chrissie was at Uni, and I was lying on the sofa flicking through channels on the TV trying to find something to watch so I didn’t have to do something more productive. ‘Oh but, babe, I would have done the washing up’ sounds so much more convincing if you can follow it up with ‘but there was this thing about how the world’s going to end because of a superbug’ than ‘but I couldn’t be arsed’. At least it did in my head, before I presented it to Chrissie.

Chrissie was much more on my case about pulling my weight than Ayesh had been. I can’t blame Ayesh at all, she just took the path of least resistance, and followed Mum’s model, which was to give up the daily fight of getting me to put my socks in the laundry basket/dirty cups in the dishwasher/towels on the towel rail, in favour of the quieter life where they did it for me. Suited me. Chrissie was not of a mind to let me get away with such blatant laziness, however, and chivvied me at every opportunity, never doing something that was my job, always reminding me when things needed doing, and she was actually training me well. Most of the time.

Days off were a different matter, a kind of holiday, and that Thursday afternoon I was just chilling. My phone rang. Ayesh. I had long ago changed her ringtone from the clubbing number that used to announce her calls, to the generic tone for anyone from acquaintances to wrong numbers, but I hadn’t ever been able to delete her from my contacts. Ayesh hadn’t called me for a long time, and I hadn’t spoken to her since that brief conversation at our wedding, several months ago.

‘Ayesh? Er … hey.’

‘Hi Cal. I’m really sorry to call you.’

‘No problem. What’s up?’

‘It’s just, there’s no one else … everyone’s … I can’t get hold of …’

‘Are you OK?’

‘I think I just ran over a cat.’

Ayesh was completely soppy about animals. She wouldn’t even kill spiders and flies, choosing instead to spend hours shooing them out of windows, and so running a cat over would be horrendous for her.

‘Shit. You only think?’

‘There was a bump and I looked in my mirror and something gingery ran into the bushes behind me. I don’t know what to do. What if it’s lying there all …’

Her voice tailed off as she imagined the horrors, and I heard a sniff.

‘Ayesh, where are you?’

‘On the bypass. Just past the retail park.’

‘That’s not far from us.’

‘I know. I didn’t know what else to do. Sam’s not answering his phone, but he’s at work, and you’re so close, I just want to look for it, but what if it’s …’

More unimaginable horrors filled the silence. Stifling a sigh, I sat up and slipped my trainers on.

‘I’ll be there in five minutes.’

‘Oh Cal, are you sure? I’m so sorry, I just didn’t know what else to do.’

‘Stay in your car, yeah?’

As I drove there, I thought about how weird it felt, that after all this time, Ayesh was calling me to help her out. And how weird it didn’t feel to be going to help her.

I saw Ayesh’s car and pulled in behind her in the layby where she’d parked. She opened her door as soon as my car stopped, and got out, looking pale and a bit shaky.

‘Cal, I’m so sorry, I’m being stupid, I know, but it shook me up, and I just can’t stop thinking about it. We’ve got a cat, and I know if anything happened to it, I’d want someone to look after it, so –’

‘It’s OK, Ayesh. Which way did it go?’

‘Well if it was anything, it went that way.’

‘OK then, let’s have a look. You stay here, just in case.’

I knew that was what was at the heart of Ayesh’s panic. She wanted to make sure the hypothetical cat was alright, but didn’t want to have to see its mangled remains. I’d always been the one who bashed the spiders with a shoe, hence the hours she spent shooing them out of windows.

‘I can come.’

‘No, it’s fine, stay here. Keep an eye on the cars.’

It was a bit of a flimsy excuse for her not to come with me, but she took it and nodded her agreement.

There was no cat that I could find, although I have to say I didn’t look tremendously hard. I tramped around a bit, peered under a few bushes, made a few half-hearted ‘puss puss’ noises after I’d carefully checked there was no one around to hear me, and went back to the cars when I thought I’d spent long enough to convince Ayesh there was nothing there.

‘I can’t find anything. Nothing under any of the bushes, no cat noises, I suppose it could have gone anywhere, but it might not have been anything, Ayesh.’

‘Did you look in the long grass?’

Well I’d looked at the long grass.

‘Yeah. Nothing there. Maybe you just hit, I don’t know, a pothole or something?’

Ayesh looked dubious, but I looked back down the road, and sure enough there was a divot in the road. I pointed at it.

‘But what about the ginger thing I saw?’

‘I don’t know, but it could have been anything, something lit up by the sun in your mirror, a Sainsbury’s bag –’

‘Did you see a Sainsbury’s bag?’

‘Ayesh, there are about fifty thousand plastic bags littering the undergrowth. I’m almost a hundred per cent sure you didn’t hit a cat.’

I had no way of being able to promise her this, but it just seemed like the easiest way to stop her worrying. In fact, her face lightened a bit as she either believed me, or chose to believe me.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Almost a hundred per cent.’

‘I feel really silly now.’

‘No, don’t, it’s better to be safe, isn’t it.’

‘Thanks for coming out. I didn’t know who else to call. When Sam didn’t pick up, I couldn’t think of anyone else who wasn’t miles away, might be at home, and who wouldn’t laugh at me.’

‘Why would anyone laugh at you?’

‘Oh you know, my little dramas. Rhi’s always calling me a silly cow for what I worry about.’

‘You always were a worrier, Ayesh, but Rhi would have helped.’

‘Yeah, but she’s at her sister’s. So, anyway, thanks.’

‘Sure thing. Are you OK? You looked a bit shaky before. Do you want to come back for a cuppa or something?’

Ayesh looked at me gratefully.

‘If that’s OK. I was a bit wobbly, before you got here, just thinking it could have been Nobbles – oh, that’s our cat – and how I would have felt.’

‘Nobbles, eh?’

‘He’s a rescue cat, we didn’t choose the name.’

‘Yeah right, Ayesh. You stick to that story. Follow me back, I’ll put the kettle on.’

So now this was officially weird-but-not-weird. Ayesh and me spent the rest of the afternoon catching up like old friends, drinking tea and scoffing chocolate biscuits. It should have been awkward, there should have been lots of things we said that made us go ‘ooh, shouldn’t have mentioned that’, but Ayesh talked easily about leaving our old flat, about taking time off work when we split up, about meeting Sam, about moving in with him, about her job in a GP surgery, about his job as manager of a Toyota dealership. She didn’t flinch when I mentioned Chrissie, she looked at our wedding photo and asked to see the album, she complimented our décor and the furniture (which were mainly Chrissie’s choices and ideas).

While she was flipping through the wedding album, she stopped on a picture of Rosa dancing with me.

‘I couldn’t believe how much they’d all grown. I swear Tom was six inches taller than the last time I’d seen him.’

‘Yeah, they just keep on stretching. I think Amy feeds them fertiliser.’

‘Ha ha. Dec might, I think Amy’s a bit more sensible. I miss them, you know. It feels weird them growing up without me.’

‘You don’t have to. Everyone would be more than happy to see you.’

‘I don’t want to make things difficult for you.’

‘You wouldn’t. Chrissie would be fine.’

‘Yeah, I know she would, I meant you, really.’

I raised my eyebrows at her assumption of Chrissie’s fineness.

‘You know it was Chrissie who invited me to your wedding, don’t you?’

‘Really? No, I didn’t know. I assumed it was Mum, or Iz, one of the more assertive members of my family.’

‘Chrissie’s pretty assertive.’

I couldn’t disagree there. Ayesh had always been a pushover for Mum and Iz, she’d just done whatever they told her. Chrissie presented more of a challenge.

‘Yeah, I know. Why, did she get assertive with you?’

This was a whole wedding story I hadn’t heard, and I was more than a little intrigued.

Ayesh nodded. ‘I wasn’t going to come, sent back a ‘declining your kind invitation’ card, but she called me and said I should definitely come and bring Sam, help me and you get over ourselves and be friends.’

‘What, she knew about Sam?’

‘I guess someone told her, your Mum, Lau, someone. I’ve kept in touch with them a bit.’

‘Jesus she’s sneaky. So you’ve talked to each other then?’

‘Only that one phone call. Cal, she was lovely, she is lovely, you’re so right for each other. I talked to Lau, about that, and about me and Sam, and she made a lot of sense about knowing when someone’s right for you.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had that speech too.’

‘She made me realise that me and you, we were always great mates, but it was never, really, anything more. If you think about it now, I mean, feeling how you do for Chrissie and how I do for Sam.’

I was a bit overwhelmed. A couple of hours ago, I’d been trying to think of a way to avoid the washing up without getting into trouble. Now, I’d just had Ayesh call Chrissie and me right for each other and we were having a chat about old times like old friends; in fact, she’d just called us great mates; and now Chrissie was home to join in the party – what? Oh fuck, Chrissie was home.

I heard the key in the lock, and Ayesh must have seen something on my face that told her of the sudden pang of guilt I felt.

‘I should go.’

I didn’t know what to say to her. I didn’t want to rush her out like she was a sneaky secret, but I really didn’t know what Chrissie was going to do if she walked in on us having a cosy chat. But it was too late, because Chrissie had just walked in on us having a cosy chat.

‘Hi Cal, whose car is that – oh. Ayesha, hi.’

Nothing about her expression betrayed any hint of suspicion, although I wouldn’t say the greeting was overly warm, not at first anyway.

‘Hi Chrissie. I was just going. I hope you don’t mind, I borrowed Cal for a while this afternoon, made him wander around the bypass looking for a cat I didn’t run over.’

‘What?’

We explained what had happened, and the mugs and biscuit crumbs told the rest of the story. Half way through the telling, I saw a tension leave Chrissie. I hadn’t realised she was holding herself in until she let it out. She smiled her rock star smile at me and Ayesh, and sat down next to me, giving me a kiss on the cheek while listening to Ayesh.

‘So there wasn’t anything other than a carrier bag?’

‘Yeah, if it was even that. Still, got me out of the house I suppose.’

‘Mm, I’m sure you were grateful for the excuse not to do the washing up.’

Chrissie knew me really, really well.

‘Not that you haven’t got a hundred of those, Cal.’

And so did Ayesh.

‘Hey, that’s not fair, both of you ganging up on me.’

‘I suppose you do sometimes load the dishwasher.’

Ayesh arched an eyebrow at Chrissie.

‘Really? God, it must be true love. I don’t think you did that in four years, Cal.’

‘He’s coming along nicely.’

‘Hey!’

‘Socks in the laundry basket?’

‘Mostly.’

‘Chrissie, I bow to you.’

‘Look, if you two don’t mind –’

‘Any chance of a cuppa, Cal? There are some more biscuits in the cupboard.’

Sensing defeat and needing to get out of the line of fire, I stood up, shaking my head, and escaped to the kitchen, where I listened to Ayesh and Chrissie firstly comparing notes on me, and then starting to generally chat about other things. It was bizarre.

Half way through the cup of tea, Ayesh’s phone rang.

‘Hey huns … yeah, I’ll be home in a bit, I’m just leaving … with Cal and Chrissie … yeah … ha ha, no … no I’m fine, I had a bit of a thing, Cal helped me out … yeah, you weren’t answering … yeah, I thought so, it’s fine … tell you when I get back, yeah? Bye, love you.’

Ayesh stood up to go, picking up her bag.

‘Sorry to have ruined your afternoon, Cal. Thanks for the loan of your husband, Chrissie.’

‘Any time.’

We both answered together, then looked at each other, eyebrows raised in mock disapproval.

‘You and Sam should come over for dinner sometime.’

I was surprised by Chrissie’s offer, but if she was willing to invite my ex-girlfriend to our wedding, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised if she was prepared to invite her and her new boyfriend round for tea.

‘Yeah, you should.’

‘Know what? I’d really like that.’

‘I’ll text you.’

‘Great. Thanks for all the tea and biscuits.’

She left, and I gave Chrissie the more thorough hug and kiss I hadn’t been able to in polite company.

‘Mm, miss me, did you?’

‘Always. Have a good day?’

‘Yeah, hard work, unlike some, strolling around looking for imaginary cats.’

‘I couldn’t believe it when she called. And then she told me you were the one who invited her to the wedding.’

I scowled in pretend annoyance, but Chrissie was never fazed by my annoyance, real or pretend.

‘Yeah.’

‘You never said.’

‘You never asked.’

‘Some things you maybe should say without being asked.’

‘Some things you maybe should keep to yourself. You were getting on well though, before I turned up and made you feel guilty.’

‘I didn’t feel guilty.’

‘Cal, I can read you like a book, a picture book for a three year old.’

‘Thanks.’

‘The look on your face when I walked in, like all the excuses you could possibly think of were causing a log jam in your brain.’

I couldn’t deny it.

‘Were you doing anything to feel guilty about?’

‘No, of course not. Actually, Ayesh had just finished telling me how Lau thinks you and me are perfect for each other in the same way she thinks Ayesh and Sam are perfect for each other, and that me and Ayesh were only ever great mates.’

‘Yeah, Lau’s had that conversation with me too.’

‘Jesus, does she ever let up? She’s such a bloody romantic.’

‘I’m glad, though, Cal. I really like Ayesha, and I’d like it if things could be OK between you and her.’

‘Chrissie Scott, you have to be the most awesome woman there has ever been.’

‘Well I certainly hope you believe that.’

‘I do. I don’t know many women who would not only invite their husband’s ex to their wedding, but would ask her and her boyfriend to dinner, and actively wish for things to be OK between them. Maybe you’re wasted on teaching, I think your diplomacy and powers of forgiveness could be better used in the UN or something.’

‘Oh I don’t know, a classroom of thirteen year olds might fit the bill actually.’

And that’s how it started, how me and Ayesh became the great mates we’d apparently always been, and Chrissie and Sam let us, and all four of us started something great that really, given how it all began, I just did not deserve. But the wise Declan Summers would have something to say about that, wouldn’t he, about not deserving shit, but just taking what you get and making the most of it.

Oh, and just having a bit of a think about what else was happening around then, the biggest news of that year was Baggo. Baggo sorted his life out, with no help from anyone. Just did it. I mean, he was always going to be Baggo, a bit off the wall, a bit too easy to get pissed, a bit of an eye for a D cup, but he got a real, proper job, started doing a real proper college course so he could do his job better and get a promotion, and he started actually going out with a real proper woman, like actually dating her, not just copping a feel and being dumped or waking up in her bed and scarpering before her husband came home.

Jen was brilliant for Baggo. She let him have his flights of fantasy, talking bollocks about his plans for the future, never told him it was a load of horseshit, but still somehow managed to keep his feet on the ground, so his dreams weren’t trampled on, but he didn’t try too hard to do some of the crazier things he thought about. She even encouraged him to join a band.

Baggo’s voice stayed in great shape despite all the drink and cigarettes he’d put his vocal cords through over the years – who knows, maybe that’s what had made it mature into such a deep, resonant, gravelly sound, kind of a bit like Kelly Jones from Stereophonics. Baggo met Jen at a karaoke night in his local, when she went over to him after he’d sung, and complimented him on his voice. They talked until closing time, and Baggo realised he hadn’t had a single drink, hadn’t even thought about it.

After that, Jen took him to karaoke nights, then open mic nights, then got him to respond to ads in local music venues for singers, and after a couple of auditions, he ended up in a band that gigged regularly. It was great to see things coming together, finally, for Baggo. I wouldn’t say he was settled down, because there were still times when he let his love of a pint and a bit of cleavage get the better of him, and there were big rows between him and Jen, and she called it off a couple of times, but on the whole, if you thought about where he had been, well, where he’d got to was pretty amazing.

o0o

Nothing major happened for a couple of years, which was good, because things had been a bit full-on for a while there. Iz graduated from Uni, and stayed up in Manchester with her boyfriend and her job. I missed her, even though we called and texted all the time, but it wasn’t the same. Now Iz was grown up, we got on really well, and I suppose Manchester isn’t the end of the world. Just feels like it when you’re up there and it’s bloody raining.

Maybe a quick round up of where everybody was and what they were doing just then, so I can keep it all straight in my head.

I was still having the time of my life playing for Raiders. I’d never quite made it into the England team, not for want of trying, but it was my misfortune and England’s fortune that there was a glut of incredible wingers around, most of whom were my age or younger. It hadn’t helped that my one shot, the only time I’d been called up to the squad, when I was twenty-one, I buggered up my cruciate ligament in a game the week before. I tried really hard not to be gutted, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to try to keep my spirits up through months of rehab, seeing mates take my place in the Raiders team, and people I knew take my place in the England squad. By the time I was fit again, it was too late, people were established, and although I was still young enough that it was a hope, I had learned not to get swept along with the Raiders supporters loyally calling for a place for me every time a new England squad was announced.

I’d got my place back in the Raiders team, with hard work and a bit of luck with other team mates getting injured – that’s the conflicted nature of playing, that you have such a close bond with everyone in the team, and put your body on the line for your team mates, but the ones in front of you in your shirt (in my case number fourteen), you could happily murder in their sleep. Even if you’d die for them on the field.

So, anyway, that’s where I was with Raiders. There weren’t many players who had stayed with the same club for so long. Dec was the longest serving Raiders player, and I suppose I took my cue from him. Dad had been there since the year dot as well, and even though he was always telling me to look around, listen to offers, try a different way, I just didn’t want to. I had an agent, and I always had a look at the things he showed me, some flattering offers from other teams both home and abroad, but this city was where I belonged. Maybe, if I lost my place and Raiders didn’t want me any more, I’d think harder about it but Chrissie and I wanted to stay here.

Chrissie and I – we were awesome. Chrissie was nearly two years into a teaching degree, studying hard, I was so proud of her. She worked harder than I thought I would ever be capable of, although I was going through my levels in coaching badges, in an increasingly unsuccessful attempt to kid myself I was planning my post-rugby future.

As a bit of a distraction, Chrissie and I had even planned for our future, which must mean I was getting truly old mustn’t it, either that or Chrissie was way more successful than anyone else had ever been at badgering me into talking about important shit. Our future, meaning children. We’d talked about it, what we wanted, what we saw for us, and once I really thought about it, I realised that, yeah, I did see us with kids, which was just as well, because I think Chrissie was going to have children whether I wanted to or not, and not would have been a little awkward.

So having agreed on that, the timing of it, in our plan, was that Chrissie would finish her degree and work for a couple of years, and then, boom, we’d have a baby, and that would be the start, then maybe in a couple of years after that, boom, another one, there was our family. Sorted. It was still the planning stages, but it seemed pretty foolproof to me.

Chrissie was a little bit worried about leaving it too late – if our plan worked out, she would be thirty or thereabouts when she had the first one. There were so many people around she could talk to about it, I decided to suggest going public. It’s not like someone didn’t ask almost every week ‘when are you going to start a family’ or something equally nosy.

‘Talk to Mum if you want to know about having babies in your thirties. She had Iz when she was thirty something or other.’

‘You are kidding? Your mum? Cal, I love your mum, but she’d have our whole family planned in ten minutes, down to the colour of the nursery, make of people carrier and date of your vasectomy.’

The last one made me gulp a bit, and Chrissie was right, we needed to have things watertight before letting Mum get her mitts on any information.

‘OK, so maybe not Mum. Although I like the sound of ‘our family’, God Chrissie, it sounds awesome.’

It suddenly did sound very awesome indeed. Up until then, it had been kind of theoretical, just a natural progression from being married and getting older, but suddenly I could see it, a couple of golden haired children in the park, snuggling up on the sofa to watch a DVD, carrying them on my shoulders. It made me smile.

‘What about Lau? She had Josh and Ella in her mid-thirties.’

‘Maybe. I always forget she’s the same age as Matty. She looks so much younger.’

‘Don’t let Matty hear you say that, he likes to think he’s weathered well. Lau would be great though. You know she keeps things to herself.’

‘Yeah, I do.’

The look she gave me suggested there may have been one or two discussions I wasn’t aware of.

‘Give her a call, babe. If you want to go over there, I can go and see Matty and you two can gossip about me in the kitchen.’

‘Alright then.’

Dec and Matty had continued their success with their rugby IT business. I have never been that sure what it is they did, but it meant that Matty could be at home more, which he was needing on a regular basis because of his health. Working from home was ideal for him, and he had reduced his hours with Raiders. Dec did all the travelling about meeting people, charming them, while Matty kept a close eye via e-mail. It was a really successful business, and had given Dec something to focus on after he retired that still involved him in the sport.

I hated what was happening to Matty, we all did. His MS returned more often and took more away every time, leaving him reliant on crutches, a wheelchair, rails and stuff in their home. It took part of his soul away to be so dependent on it all. And he had so many fights with pneumonia that we were all on first name terms with the nurses at the hospital. Lau tried to keep him at home for as long as she could when he got really bad, but sometimes he just had to go in and be pumped full of whatever it was that made him better.

That’s not to say he was always ill. He still had days when he could get about pretty well, and he never lost his love of banter and chat. You could see in his eyes how much he got from having everyone there, talking, chatting and arguing with each other, taking the piss, winding each other up. Matty was always in the thick of it. It was really surprising to me, reading Matty’s story, that it hadn’t always been that way, that he’d been a bit maybe resentful of Mum and Dad, maybe distanced himself from them, because if anyone was a natural family man it was Matty. Maybe you don’t always recognise who you are when you’re younger. Or maybe you grow into who you are. Oh, way too philosophical, Cal.

Mum’s party business was going great guns, it kept her busy and made her quite a bit of money. Dad was thinking about retiring. He had been head coach at Raiders for several years, and he and Mum were finally finding the demands of the rugby season getting in the way of other things they wanted to do. They wanted to travel while they were still young and fit enough to do it, and although they never actually said anything, I had a feeling that Dad was considering how much longer he was going to stay.

All the kids were growing up, by which I mean Dec’s and Matty’s kids – obviously Iz and I were extremely mature already. All of the ‘little cousins’ as my sister and I liked to patronisingly call them, were teenagers or thereabouts, and causing havoc of their own on varying levels.

Josh was doing really well at Raiders, and had been called up to the England under sixteens too. He didn’t think about much else apart from rugby, and Ella was always taunting him with being boring. Ella herself was off and away as soon as she tasted freedom. She’d try for every school trip going, soaked up knowledge, argued the toss with Matty and sometimes won, tried arguing with Lau but never won, not because of a lack of debating talent, but because Lau would just put her foot down and say how it was going to be. Josh just got on with quietly doing what he wanted, which was either playing on his PlayStation, training, or hanging out with his mates.

Dec’s lot, well if ever a more undisciplined rabble existed I am unaware of it. Chaos ruled in that house at that time, but it was always fun, full of life, full of laughter (and full of screeching if Charlie wanted her way about something). Tom was the laid back one, and Gracie was usually fairly chilled, but sometimes, usually when Charlie had wound everyone up about something, all three girls would be screaming at each other about the unfairness of something or other (someone having sparklier lip gloss maybe), and Tom would just be quietly tapping away on his laptop, oblivious to it all. Tom and Matty had a special relationship because Tom was so techy. The two of them often spoke their own language, or so it seemed, because they were talking about things none of the rest of us had a clue about.

All the oldies were getting older.

Gran was amazing, she was in her eighties but still going strong, never let her gnarly old arthritic hands get her down, always knew what everyone was up to, always said just the right thing to make you feel good.

Rose wasn’t doing so well. No one really knew how old she was, she would never tell, and Dec claimed not to know either. When Dec went to Australia, something broke in Rose. We all looked after her while he was away, but it wasn’t the same, and she changed. She’d always talked non-stop, been in the thick of everything, giving her opinion, helping out, but when Dec took his family to the other side of the world, she stopped talking so much, and she started to look like someone had deflated her. Dec had offered to take her with them, but Rose was terrified of flying and couldn’t face the journey. I think Dec even considered not going because of it, but sometimes you have to make those hard choices. Even when they all came back, and Rose perked up a bit, she wasn’t right. She was never as, I can’t think of the right word to describe her … bustly. Before, she would bustle everywhere, being busy, getting involved. After, she sat still a lot more, quietly, and she lost her confidence in things like cooking.

Rose had always been an awesome cook, a match for Mum even. They used to try to outdo each other by seeing who could make the best cake for tea on a Sunday, and honours were pretty much even. But little by little, Rose stopped baking, she stopped doing the little things she’d always been good at, like sewing, she even stopped doing so much cleaning and tidying, and I knew Dec and Amy were worried about her. There was talk about her moving to a sheltered flat somewhere, but no one knew how to suggest it, and there was also talk of Dec and Amy having her to live with them. Dec and Amy’s house had already been extended outwards and upwards to cope with their brood, and there was little available space for any further extending, so that would mean moving somewhere else, which would mean not being four doors down from Matty and Lau. Negotiations were still at an early stage.

Right, well, I think that’s the catch up sorted. On with the tale.

Laura

So life went on, after a fashion, and there were triumphs and disasters along the way:

Matt had allowed us to buy a powered wheelchair, for more independence. I’d thought he would enjoy being able to get out and about on his own, but his spasms had increased, and on only his second trip out in it, he tipped himself out of it when he rocketed off the kerb. He was lucky he didn’t end up under a lorry, and he never used it again.

He carried on working, as an occasional consultant for Raiders, and with Dec in their rugby IT business.

His health began to suffer; he got more chest infections and pneumonia was always on the cards. Although he had been in hospital several times, and it was always an option, I tried to care for him at home as much as I could. I knew when he needed to be admitted, and wouldn’t let him persuade me otherwise, but it was better for him to be at home if he could when he was really poorly. I had all the kit – the oxygen masks, the drip stands, the access to physios for chest drainage, the emergency numbers. The family were fantastic, and never let me carry it on my own. The children accepted how their dad was, and enjoyed spending time with him, whether it was a mad dash to the beach to catch the sunset, or sitting by his bed trying to keep his spirits up with a ridiculous conversation.

Cal

I guess one of the reasons I’m doing this is for Conor and Lily, so maybe I should restart with that, how child number one came about. Oh for God’s sake, no. What part of ‘there will be no porn’ did you not understand? Seriously, if you want to know how babies are made, read Matty’s or Lau’s stories, or just go and ask Mum.

So, baby-making part one. Remember the plan? Well it only went and worked. Chrissie passed her degree, wore the square hat and batman cape, and got a standing ovation from the Scott family who had managed to wangle far too many tickets for the graduation ceremony and caused a scene.

Then she got a job in a local primary school, because she’s so clever, who would not want to hire her? And bloody hell, teaching is hard, I know this because I know how hard Chrissie works, it’s much more than the time she spends in the classroom. Long summer holidays? Forget it. She’s doing lesson plans and all sorts for most of it, it’s all I can do to prise her away for a couple of weeks in the sun when the season’s finished. But she loves it, loves teaching, loves kids.

As soon as she’d been teaching for a year, we stopped using contraception (Lau, I hope you’re noticing that I’m using the word), and within three months, bang on schedule, she was up the duff, and a baby was due just in time for the end of summer term.

I still can’t believe how it all went to plan. Maybe this is because I never make plans, so don’t get much opportunity to see them working, but I do know how bloody unpredictable making babies can be. I know Dec never planned any of his four kids (sorry guys, if you were unaware of this fact), and neither, come to think of it, did Matty (again, soz for blurting). Mum and Dad apparently tried for years after they had me, and it took six to get to Iz. So I would not have been surprised to find that babies don’t always pop along just when you want them to.

However, Conor was on his way shortly after ordering him. It was thrilling and scary at the same time, knowing I was going to be a dad. I had all manner of dad role models around – Dad, Dec, Matty, Baggo – oh yeah. Baggo.

I forgot to mention that Baggo beat me to fatherhood by a good couple of years. He and Jen moved in together and she was pregnant within six months. Baggo as a dad was a changed man. He adored his daughter, you should have seen him with her, going all soppy. He stopped drinking, altogether, when she arrived, because he never wanted to be unable to help her when she needed it. Oh, and he sang to her every night. Sang her a story. He still sent me manic texts in the middle of the night, too, but they were a bit more comprehensible.

Callywally, how do u stop a v crying child from crying?

Dunno Bags. Lullaby?

Tried it. Still screaming.

Milk?

Tried.

Cuddles?

Tried.

Earplugs?

U beauty. On it.

So all these father figures, and I was still cacking my pants at the thought of being a dad. Maybe it was a lot to live up to, or more likely there was such a variety of styles, ranging from Dad’s less-is-more, via Matty’s ruling with a humorous iron rod to Dec’s let’s all have a laugh and see who can make Fanta come out of their nose, and I wasn’t sure how I would know what to do. Admittedly it was going to be a while before I had a teenager, but even knowing what to do when they cried was a worry (I really didn’t think earplugs was going to cut it with Chrissie), when the most responsibility I’d previously had was babysitting, and making sure they went to bed on time, which they never ever did when I was babysitting because I was a complete pushover.

The nearer it got to Chrissie having the baby, the more worried I got, tying myself up in knots, and I couldn’t talk to her about it. She was so happy, I didn’t want her to think I was this incompetent buffoon and make her worry too.

Inevitably it was Lau who set me straight. She’d called round with Josh and Ella after school one day, to borrow a saucepan or maybe it was a cake tin, something round and metal, not important. Anyway, she caught sight of the ‘Being a Great Dad for Dummies’ book I’d been reading and had carelessly left on the sofa when the doorbell went. I’d been reading it in secret, while Chrissie was out, in a desperate attempt to try to learn something useful and then seem casually competent when things started to happen, but it was having the opposite effect so far.

‘Doing some homework, flower?’

I shrugged.

‘Useful book?’

‘More like confusing. Lau, how the fuck am I going to remember all this?’

‘What are you worried about in particular?’

‘What apart from everything? Well for starters, what if he hates me?’

‘Does it suggest in the book that the baby will hate you?’

‘Well, no, not in so many words, but there’s all this shit about the baby bonding with the mother and how all the hormones get going between them and it’s all great, but I don’t have those hormones, so what if he hates me?’

Lau laughed and patted my arm.

‘Cal, your baby will love you. It’s not just hormones. You’ll love him, as soon as you see him.’

‘I already do.’

‘See? You’ve got that bond already. Do any of the kids you know hate their dads? Oh, maybe best not to think about Charlie.’

‘Well, no, I suppose not.’

‘There you go then. Matt used to talk to Ella and Josh, put his mouth right on my bump and talk all sorts of nonsense to them.’

‘I do that.’

I looked down, embarrassed to admit it.

‘Then he’ll know the sound of your voice. As soon as you say ‘hi’, he’ll recognise you as the one who told him about Arsenal. Or told him you loved him, or something else not as important as Arsenal.’

Lau always got it, I liked that about her. And it had really helped. She was a genius.

I had chats with everyone I knew about the same sort of thing, after that. Loads of the Raiders lads had kids, and there’s no one softer about his children than a rugby player. I felt part of the kid chat now, and it made me look forward to his arrival even more.

We knew he was a boy, had wanted to know as soon as we were offered the chance, and it helped us get to know him before he was born. We decorated his room with racing cars and space rocket mobiles, and were given piles of clothes from friends and family – Lau even gave us some of Josh’s old things, God knows where she’d kept them for eighteen years, but they were in mint condition.

So knowing he was a boy, we could choose names, although nothing binding in case he didn’t suit it when he arrived. Matty had insisted he needed a womb name, and threatened to come up with one himself if we didn’t. That led to a bizarre conversation late one Saturday night.

‘Cal, we need to think about a name.’

‘We’ve already got three. Have you ditched another one?’

Chrissie was forever changing her mind about the names, I sometimes wondered if we were going to get through every single name in existence before we finally decided, but I’d thought the last three were goers – they’d lasted a week so far, which was a record.

‘No, a womb name. We need to do it before tomorrow.’

‘Huh? What’s the rush?’

‘It’s Sunday lunch. Matty will be there.’

‘And?’

‘He said he’d think of one if we didn’t.’

‘Yeah he did. And since when was Matty the boss of us?’

‘You know what he’s like, he’ll think of something stupid on purpose like, I don’t know, Darth Vader, and then he’ll make everyone laugh, and they’ll remember, and that will be it until he’s born, even afterwards. Do you want your son to be called Darth Vader?’

Pregnant Chrissie had a tendency to be slightly paranoid and overwrought about everything. It was usually best to go with what she wanted to avoid floods of tears and accusations of not caring about her needs.

‘No, maybe not. I see your point.’

‘Or, God Cal, he might try a Tottenham player, he might call him ‘Hoddle’ or ‘Osvaldo’ or something. He’d think that was hilarious.’

Now that was more serious.

‘Shit. You’re right. We need to get thinking. Maybe head him off with an Arsenal name. Theo?’

‘No, don’t be stupid, womb names aren’t supposed to be real names.’

I hadn’t reached that chapter in ‘Being a Great Dad for Dummies’ yet, so was lacking a vital piece of information which was obviously only available to the person with the womb.

‘Oh. What do you think, then?’

‘Well I don’t know, do I. There aren’t books like there are of baby names.’

We had spent hours and hours looking at baby name books, and I mean hours and hours, before eventually deciding our top three boy’s names were Joel, Jack and Jordan. Something beginning with ‘J’ anyway. It sounded good with ‘Scott’. I was pretty sure he was going to be a Jack; it was Tom’s middle name, but apart from that there was no one else in the family or close friends who had a Jack. I was quite glad there wasn’t a book of womb names, as I wanted to get some sleep before Chrissie woke me up at the crack of dawn with a desperate need for banana and sardines on toast.

‘Well, I suppose it could be something self-explanatory like The Bump, or Peanut, that sort of thing.’

‘Really? That’s a bit boring.’

‘Seriously, Chrissie, we’re only doing this to stop Matty calling him Klinsmann.’

‘Yeah, but don’t you think it would be nice if we had a cool kind of name?’

‘I think it would be nice if I could go to sleep sometime tonight without having to think up a stupid name.’

‘Do you think it’s stupid?’

Oh bollocks. Chrissie’s eyes had filled with tears. Pre-pregnancy Chrissie had her emotions in perfect working order. She laughed when she was happy or something was funny; she cried when something was sad; she gave me a bollocking when I’d been an inconsiderate git. Nowadays, it really didn’t take very much, just one thoughtless word, and she was blubbing. I needed to back-pedal, and quickly.

‘No, of course not, sorry babe, I’m just tired. Let’s think then. Something that will shut Matty up, but isn’t boring.’

Chrissie’s tears stopped, and she smiled up at me. Her rock star smile was always worth it, whatever it took.

‘You know, I’m quite liking your Arsenal idea. Not Theo, obviously. No-one too recent. Old players maybe.’

This started a bit of a list battle, to see which of us could name the most obscure old Arsenal player. Chrissie started it off.

‘Brady.’

‘Nah, too much like a first name. Ljungberg.’

‘Nobody will be able to say it. Bergkamp.’

‘Veto. Too European. Wilson.’

‘Hmm. Has potential. That’s a maybe. Van Persie.’

‘Traitor. And too European.’

‘Why do you keep saying too European?’

‘It’s a valid veto. Sunderland.’

‘What? That’s a city. No way. Winterbottom.’

‘He never played for Arsenal. You’re thinking of Winterburn.’

‘No I’m not. Walter Winterbottom –’

‘Was the first manager of England. He never really played football, a couple of seasons with Man U. He was just a manager, really.’

A pause while Chrissie furiously Googled on her phone. A silence when it was confirmed that I was, of course, correct.

‘Well I still like Winterbottom.’

‘As a womb name for our baby?’

‘Yes.’

‘As something that will shut Matty up?’

‘Yes.’

‘Even though he played for Man U?’

‘Yes.’

I sighed. I wanted to go to sleep.

‘OK. Winterbottom it is. Night Winterbottom. Night Chrissie.’

‘Night Cal. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

So that’s how our baby son ended up being called Winterbottom for five months of his pre-birth life. Sorry, Conor. We stopped as soon as you were born, but some things are always remembered.

After hearing all the scare stories that people, especially women, like to tell about the births of their various children, and particularly being aware of Matty and Lau’s adventure when Lau got stuck upstairs with Matty out on the piss at a stag do, I was quite anxious about how it was all going to go. In fact, pregnancy and childbirth are two of the few things that actually make me feel anxious. Usually I’m fairly laid back, but this, having a tiny person who you already love, who is inside someone else, and who has to go through unbelievably difficult things in order to get into the world, made me feel utterly out of control.

Chrissie was really, really well throughout the whole thing. No high blood pressure, no dizziness, she hardly even seemed to put on much weight, if you ignored the enormous bump protruding from her front. She worked right up to the end of term, which was two weeks away from her due date, and although she was tired when she got home in the evenings, she managed it well (in other words, by me doing my best not to burn a meal either she or Mum had made for the freezer, and giving her loads of foot rubs and cold drinks, and doing as I was told as regards washing up and cleaning the worktops).

Even the timing was great. Most babies, from what I can gather, decide to come in the middle of the night, meaning two groggy adults stumbling around trying to remember where the baby bag is and find the car keys, but this one was so considerate, he even waited until we’d had our breakfast before deciding he was on his way.

‘Oh! Cal, I think, sorry, can you get the mop? I think my waters just broke.’

‘Really? Where?’

‘Where do you think? Where I’m sitting. Ooh.’

Chrissie held her large bump and screwed her face up in discomfort.

‘Shit. What do we do?’

‘Well, you get a mop, and a cloth, just clean up a bit here. Then maybe you can help me have a shower and get changed?’

‘Shouldn’t we be going to the hospital?’

‘Not yet. That’s the first contraction. It’ll be ages yet.’

Chrissie seemed very calm; however, all of the information I’d taken in from ‘Being a Great Dad for Dummies’ and the ante-natal classes we’d been to went out of the window in the rush of panic I was feeling.

‘But if it’s started … what if we’re too late? What if we have to stop on the way, what if –’

‘Cal, just chill. We’ll time the contractions, when they’re closer together, we’ll go, OK?’

I took a few deep breaths and nodded, then reached into the cupboard for the cleaning stuff as Chrissie headed off for her shower.

I cleaned up as well as I could (which to be honest wasn’t that well) then hurried into the bathroom, where Chrissie was standing under the shower, leaning against the wall, with her eyes shut.

‘Chrissie? Are you OK?’

She opened her eyes, and looked almost serene, as if she gave birth every day of the week.

‘Yeah. I was just thinking, this is my last day of being pregnant. I’m going to miss it.’

‘Really? Even the not being able to put your shoes on and the piles?’

‘In a way. You can’t go back there, can you, it won’t ever feel like this again, even when we have another one.’

‘S’pose not. Shall I wash your back?’

‘Mm yeah, that’d be lovely. Ooh. There’s another one. Can you check my watch?’

I told her the time, and she nodded.

‘Thirteen minutes. Ages yet.’

And that’s how it went, all morning, Chrissie just going ‘ooh’ every once in a while. It almost freaked me out, how little screaming there was. I was pretty sure there should be screaming, and at least some questioning of my parentage. The gentle ‘oohing’ continued as we listened to the radio and I wandered about doing things Chrissie couldn’t do on account of her huge belly, like dusting the skirting boards (seriously? Who does that?), making an olive and lemon curd sandwich (oh, that wasn’t pregnancy, that was some freakish thing she’d learned to love in Carlisle. Weirdo), rubbing her feet (which I never moaned about because she had lovely feet).

Then, shortly after lunch (the aforementioned weirdo sandwich for her, a cheese toastie for me because I’m normal), Chrissie announced it was time to get going, and she called the hospital to tell them we were coming, while I called Mum to let her in on it.

The Philpotts Letters – 12

She tore my feelings like I had none, she fucking hates me (Puddle of Mudd)

She tore my feelings like I had none, she fucking hates me (Puddle of Mudd)

Dear Children, or more specifically Ella, but Josh too just in case you ever …

You said you hate me. Holy shit, that hurt. A lot. I’ve tried to rationalise it, to say it was hormones, or temper, or a bit of both, with a bit of added random Ella for good measure.

Your mum assures me you didn’t mean it. I’m trying to believe you didn’t mean it, but your face when you yelled it at me told me you meant it.

I thought I was being reasonable. When did you stop listening to reason and start thinking anyone who didn’t see things your way must be destroyed? Because that’s how it feels right now. I feel destroyed. My baby girl said she hates me.

I only ever have your best interests at heart. I hardly ever tell you that you can’t do something; we’ve always been able to chat about it, discuss the pros and cons, see the sensible option. I’ve rarely had to use the ‘I’m your Dad and I say so’ card, because you’re so bright, and so switched on, and so fair, and you know that if you convince me otherwise, using logic and good sense, I’ll change my mind, and I thought that’s how things worked with us.

But there is no fucking way on this earth I am going to let you go to a party where a) you don’t know the last name of the boy whose party it is, b) you don’t know how old he is, but he’s a friend of Goat’s (Goat is seventeen, for fuck’s sake), or c) you don’t know if his parents are going to be there (which although you think I’m stupid, I know means that they aren’t).

Maybe you think I don’t know what goes on at parties? Do you think I’ve never been to any? Well, OK, fair point, I didn’t get invited to many when I was fourteen, I admit, but I more than made up for it later in life, and believe me, a party held by a seventeen year old is not a place I am ever going to permit my fourteen year old daughter to be present at. Yeah, you can tell me Charlie is allowed until you’re blue in the face, but I have been to parties held by seventeen year olds. I would not want you running into anyone like me at Goat’s mate’s party. Or, worse, someone less discerning and principled than me (yes, I say this with a completely straight face), because bad boy as I was, I knew when someone was too young.

OK, looking back through all that, and trying to put myself in your shoes, I can possibly see how you hate me. I can see how I must sound like the biggest stick-up-my-arse old fart there has ever been. I want to say ‘wait until you have kids of your own’, because it’s what everyone always says, but I can’t wait that long for you to get it. Or rather, if I start letting you go to Goat’s mates’ parties, we might not have to wait very long at all. I want you to see it now, how inadvisable it is, but I know all you can see is how fun it is, and how unreasonable I’m being.

Well tough shit. OK, here is me making my peace with it, you saying you hate me. If that’s what it takes to keep you out of harm’s way, bring it on, bring on the hating, because I’m going to grow a tough skin from now on, and it’s a skin made of love, so your hate can bounce off and not make me let you do something even more unwise than this incredibly long sentence.

Love you my precious babies, please don’t hate me …

Dad xxx

130. By your side

In which a landmark birthday is celebrated, and a wedding occurs.

Cal

Matty had been up and down with his health; more recently he’d been down more often than he’d been up, and just before his birthday, his MS flared up again, knocking him off his feet and sending him into himself. Mum’s big plans looked doomed, as Matty had taken to his bed and was refusing to talk to anyone, until Mum talked to Tom.

Dec’s son took after Matty in that he was an utter tech wizard. Matty’s main reason for his funk was that he was suddenly reliant on his wheelchair, and that he couldn’t get downstairs. Plenty of us had offered to carry him down so he could get to his party, but none of us were surprised when he refused us all and said he just wasn’t going. Tom came up with a completely brilliant plan using some technological wizardry, where Matty could still be at his party through the medium of the internet:

Matty’s face would be projected onto screens at the venue, he would have live images sent to him from several webcams around the place, and there would be a constant flow of real guests to keep him company while he watched from his bedroom. I wasn’t there when this idea was suggested to Matty, but he agreed to it, so it must have been convincing.

And it was inspired. Matty lorded it over his party looking like some kind of floating-head Bond villain, and could keep up with the action from the two laptops and three iPads that were connected to the WiFi in his bedroom. All of the family were taking it in turns to sit with Matty, not that it was a chore, because Matty had cheered up quite a lot by the time his party rolled around, and it was always fun to be with Matty when he was happy.

Lau had stayed to start with as well, not wanting to leave Matty. I was down for the nine o’clock stint, and Matty seemed keen for Lau to be on her way.

‘Lau, yuh dohnt hahv tuh stay the whole night, goh an hahv fun.’

‘I am. This is cool, I can see everything, in fact I can see more than if I was there.’

Lau did, actually, look like she was wishing she could go and see everything up close, and maybe have a scoff of some of the food. Lau loved her food.

‘I think what Matty’s trying to say is bugger off so I can fetch him beer and we can get wasted.’

‘Yeah, good luck with that, Cal, there is no beer.’

Well that needed addressing. Matty must have been upstairs being a miserable git for longer than I’d realised.

‘What? Matty, how did you let that happen?’

‘Fuck, sooner I geh downstairs an staht takin control of the fridge, the behter.’

‘Seriously, though, Lau, go and have a look, Mum’ll be well disappointed if you don’t even go over there and go ‘ooh isn’t it lovely Beth didn’t you do a good job’ and tell her how amazing the lighting is and what a clever cow she is and shit.’

While it was true that Mum liked a bit of backslapping, I also hoped that Lau would just go and have a good time, because the rest of us were more than happy to be here with Matty, with our well-organised rota (yeah, Mum’s work) keeping us strictly to time.

‘I suppose so. Who’s relieving you, then, Cal?’

‘Charlie and Goat are coming at ten, and Dec and Amy are coming at eleven, then I think Dad is putting in an appearance, although that’s because he wants to avoid any clearing up, and he’ll sit in the chair and sleep until he can sneak off home. Beyond that, well it depends how blitzed the Raiders lot get as to how late it goes on.’

‘Surely the players won’t be staying late, it’s midweek.’

‘I didn’t mean the players, I meant the office girls and IT guys. They party hard!’

From the look of the action from the computers, the Raiders clerical support team were already rocking Matty’s fiftieth birthday. I was looking forward to going over there and joining them once my Matty shift was finished in about an hour and Chrissie came to fetch me.

Lau finally let her curiosity and need for cake get the better of her, and she left, but not before checking about a million times that I knew where everything was, that I had her number, that I, or whoever was here after me, would call her if anything happened. I don’t think she appreciated that having an enormous screen with a live feed of Matty on it would mean she would be able to see the minute a new pimple formed on his face, so any phone calls would not be necessary.

‘Thank fuck, I thoht she was gona stay ahl nigh.’

Matty was relieved; not because he wanted Lau to go, but because he wanted her to go and have a good time. Matty and Lau spent their lives, now Matty was ill more often than not, dancing around each other trying not to put the other one out. It got ridiculous sometimes, the things both of them would refuse to do so the other one didn’t have to walk up the stairs, or ask for a glass of water.

‘Nah, she’s too nosy. That cake looks seriously chocolatey, no way Lau was going to resist. So if there’s no beer in the fridge, where is it?’

‘Gahrage.’

‘Nice one. Back in a minute.’

Matty and I spent a pleasant hour sinking beers and making bitchy comments about the guests at his party (there was no sound on the images of him being projected into the venue), and then Charlie arrived for her turn, with her boyfriend the ever unpopular (with Dec, because of going out with his daughter) Goat. Nobody knew why he was called Goat, but he was a couple of years older than Charlie, who was fifteen, and was the cause of many a raised voice in the Summers household.

Who would have thought that it would be his daughter who would finally turn Dec from being Mr Chilled into Mr Angry? Oh, only anyone who had been around in the last fifteen years and seen the demanding Charlie, who no one ever said no to, twist her parents round both little fingers and a few toes as well. Once she started wanting to do things that Dec could only say no to, such as going to clubs with her seventeen year old boyfriend, it was way too late. The shock-waves continued to vibrate around the city, and Dec discovered depths of exasperation he never knew existed.

However, for the time-being, there was an uneasy truce between Charlie, Goat and Dec, and they had been allowed to Matty’s party, and to do a time-slot with Matty together.

Charlie and Goat arrived before Chrissie came to fetch me, and for a short while the three of us watched the party unfolding on the various computer screens.

‘Who’s that with the hat – oh no.’

‘Is that your dad? Wait, that’s not a hat.’

Charlie was hiding her face with shame, as we watched Dec pull his usual party ‘trick’ of wearing a pair of Australia underpants on his head. He did it at every party he got pissed at, which was every party he went to. Charlie must have seen it tons of times, but obviously never in the presence of someone she was hoping to impress with her coolness.

‘Charlie, Dec always does this. I’ve got pictures on my computer going back to when I was little of him wearing various pairs of Australia kecks.’

‘God, he’s just so embarrassing.’

‘Noh, heh’s brahv.’

‘How do you reckon brave, Matty? He’s wearing yellow and green pants. On his head. I think they say ‘Waltz down here, Matilda’. He’s my bloody dad. That is the definition of embarrassing.’

‘Not many mehn wouhd show thehr lohv of thehr cohntry by the fehrless display of undergahments.’

‘Matty, you do know Dad’s not really Australian?’

Matty was enjoying winding Charlie up immensely. She was just too easy.

‘Yuhr couhtry is wha’s in yuhr heart. An wha’s on yuh passpoht.’

‘He was born in England.’

‘Heh’ll alwahs belohg tuh Austrahlia.’

Matty blew it by solemnly nodding his head and placing his hand over his heart.

‘Oh just fuck off, Matty. Goat, I’m so sorry both my dad and my uncle want to embarrass the shit out of me tonight.’

‘Don’t stress it Char, your dad’s pretty cool. The pants make him a bit less scary, actually.’

Matty and I cracked up at this.

‘Priceless. Dec, scary? Tell you what, Goat, if you want to be less scared of Dec, we can come up with something better than wearing underwear on his head. How about it, Matty? I’ll go first …’

And we got some way through a list of Dec’s more cringe-able moments, from the distant and not-so-distant past, before Chrissie arrived to take me to where the rest of the action was.

Laura

‘Know wha, Lau? Bes birthday ever. Apaht from bein bluhdy fifty. Stihl cahnt believe tha.’

‘Really? Better than the one just before the children were born when we spent the whole weekend in the bridal suite at that posh hotel in Bath?’

‘OK, reassessin, second bes birthday ever. Unless yuh geh naked an wiggle yuhr tits fuh meh now.’

‘Happy to oblige, hang on a minute, how do you turn this web-cam thingy off?’

‘Ih’s off. Tom rigged ih up soh I can turn ih off when I’m wiped an the screen shows an ahtistic montage of photos from my youth. Geh em ouh then.’

‘I’m not sure I like it looking at me, can we put something over it?’

‘Ha ha, yuhr hilarious Lau. Jus clohs the cover.’

‘Oh. Right. And we’re not expecting any more virtual party goers? You’ve had quite a mob up here all night.’

‘Noh, all gohn. Yuh can goh an lock the dohr thogh.’

*

‘Right, where were we?’

‘Yuh wehr gona geh yuhr tits ouh.’

‘Oh yeah. How’s this?’

‘Awesohm. Never geh tired of seeing tha. Cohm hehr. Lau, I lohv yuh. Soh, soh much. Sohry I tol yuh tuh fuck off las nigh. How duh yuh put up wih meh?’

‘You must be worth it or something.’

‘Sohry fuh las couple of days.’

‘Mm. Don’t do it again.’

‘Try not tuh.’

‘I mean it. I don’t ever want to see dark Matt in my bed again.’

‘OK. Nohted. Dark Maht fucking off fuh good.’

‘I should think so.’

‘Lau …’

‘Yeah.’

‘Our fahmly’s soh awesohm. Dohnt knoh wha I’d do wihouh them.’

‘I know. We’re lucky.’

‘Yeh.’

Cal

Matty had been told, by Mum, in the big stand-off leading up to the party, that Matty was going to be at her son’s wedding if she had to carry him down the stairs herself. This must have been enough of a threat – I have no doubt that she would have made good on it – to make him think again about how stubborn he was being about his independence, because shortly afterwards, Lau and Matty had a lot of alterations done to their house so Matty didn’t need to do the stairs ever again. He was going to be an usher at our wedding which, for the first time in recent family history was going to be in a proper church, with a vicar and all the trimmings, rather than a barn or a beach, and Chrissie and I didn’t give a shit if Matty was in his chair, or using crutches, standing or lying on the bloody floor, as long as he was there. But it mattered to Matty, and he made a big effort.

As the day approached, the whole thing got bigger and bigger. Mum was the official wedding planner, it was just easier to let her do it, but she and Chrissie had banged heads quite a few times over some of the details.

Now it won’t come as a surprise, I’m sure, if I say that Mum likes to be in charge of things. She gets an idea in her head, and everyone is supposed to follow along as she dishes out jobs and writes lists, and things generally get done and are generally awesome.

Chrissie, understandably, had her own thoughts about what our wedding day should be like. She tried to get me to say what I wanted, but I really just wanted to be married to her, and it could have been in a yurt in the Outer Hebrides for all I cared about the where and how. I was a really, really frustrating groom. Plus, being the one who had to pick sides between my mum and my fiancée? No thanks.

So, yeah, I can hear the condemnation from all sides, but I just stayed non-committal about it all, said what my favourite dessert was, agreed with Chrissie that purple was an ace colour for bridesmaids, told Mum we maybe didn’t need a personally engraved wine glass for every single guest, and kept my mind on the most important decision of the wedding. Who my best man was going to be.

Obviously, Mum had her opinion. Naturally, Chrissie wanted to have her say. There were about five thousand different views from every single member of my family, and I listened to them all, and weighed up their arguments for and against various people. And then I went ahead and did what I wanted anyway. I asked Baggo.

Well who else was I going to ask? I’d considered Dec, as the kind of brother I’d never had but had actually had; I’d thought about Matty, who had been a rock in some difficult times, and would be able to organise the stag to end stags; there were a couple of mates from Raiders who would have fitted the bill. But no one knew me like Baggo. Also, Mum would hate it.

Over the years, Bags had … well, let’s just say we had matured at different rates. Being a rugby player isn’t the most responsible job in the world, so I could hardly claim to be completely grown up, but even so, Baggo’s world still revolved around copping off with a girl for the night, desperately avoiding any serious relationship, working part-time in his brother’s garage while simultaneously going through job after job designed to help him make ends meet. It didn’t seem to worry him that he never had any money, that he didn’t have any kind of qualification or trade, or that he still lived with his mum – as it wasn’t that long ago that I was living with mine, I didn’t judge him.

We stayed mates, after school and beyond, seeing each other more often in the off-season and less often otherwise, because Baggo’s evenings out always meant beer and late nights and I couldn’t keep up. Or rather, I had to not keep up.

A couple of months before the wedding, having known I was going to ask Baggo to be my best man for almost a year, but loving that no one else knew, I arranged to go out for the evening after a home Raiders game. Baggo never came to watch Raiders, so we met in a bar in the city centre.

I was there first, as Bags had started out somewhere else, and had texted to say he’d been held up, doubtless in a different bar, probably trying to extricate himself from or, who knows, entangle himself with some woman. I got a couple of pints in, on the off chance he arrived within the zone of the time we’d arranged, but wasn’t too surprised when I ended up half way down the second one before he arrived, predictably pissed.

Baggo’s ability to hold his drink had not improved with age, and it was often the case that he became very shit-faced, very early in the evening. This may have accounted for a large proportion of his failed love life, although Baggo was unlikely to call it failed. The beer would make him sociable enough to pick up a woman early in the evening, she’d hang around until she got a better offer than the drunken arse who kept grabbing her chest, and then he’d be left with the ones who were a little less discerning, or a little more rat-arsed, and he’d take his pick and take her home. Baggo had never, to my knowledge, had a steady girlfriend, but then he had never said he wanted one. He’d had quite a few other blokes’ steady girlfriends, though, and it was lucky his older brothers were around to intimidate the shit out of said blokes when necessary.

By the time Baggo finally made it to the bar where we’d arranged to meet, he was in phase two of his night, which was having been ditched by woman number one, and on the lookout for the lucky lady he was going to take home. I was a fortunate pit stop on his regular journey.

‘Callywally! Hope I didn’t keep you waiting mate.’

‘Don’t sweat it, Bags. Glad you made it.’

‘I was in Molly’s, thought I had a sure-fire winner, but she bailed. Shit hot, arse up to here, top down to there. Redhead. Buggered off while I was in the bog.’

‘Shame, mate.’

‘Yeah. Wha’ ya having?’

‘Oh, let me, Bags. Are you sure you’re having another one?’

‘What? I haven’t started yet. Night is fucking young. On you? Double scotch donmindifido.’

I got the drinks in, and we sat at the table I’d managed to secure by having been there long enough to keep an eye out for people leaving. Baggo was eyeing up the talent, but wasn’t having much luck finding anyone who wasn’t very obviously with someone else. Someone bigger than him, in most cases.

‘Cheers, mate. Why’d ya make us come in this dive? S’all posh birds and rugger buggers. Oh, no ‘fence, mate, I didn’t mean like you. I meant, like, public school, yah yah.’

‘Well, Bags, this might come as a shock to you, but I’m actually not out on the pull, as I’m getting married in a couple of months, so I chose somewhere we could talk, rather than get off with random women.’

I had never actually been out on the pull with Baggo, largely due to having been with Ayesh since before I left school, although there had been many times when Bags had been out on the pull while I was nearby. In fact, Baggo seemed to be in a permanent state of ‘on the pull’. He waved my comment away with an unsteady hand.

‘You should be making the most of it, mate, wild oats, play the field. You’re too bloody sensible, you are. Two months before that’s it? Tied down, family man? Shit, Callywally. You know what? That is sad.’

‘Sad or not, it’s what I’m here to talk to you about.’

Baggo’s face brightened.

‘Oh, you want me to help sort you out with a little last minute skirt? Oh mate, I’m your man, why didn’t you say?’

‘No, Bags. I’m marrying Chrissie at the end of June, and I’m going to be as faithful to her then as I am now. Which is completely, if you don’t count the ten years we didn’t see each other.’

Baggo was a few too many sheets to the wind to make much sense of that, so I simplified it in the face of his confused expression.

‘I’m not after skirt, Bags. I want to ask you something – something else, not to do with women.’

‘Oh. Bugger. Thought I’d turned you at last, you boring old fart. What then?’

‘Well, most of the wedding is organised, the dress is bought, I’m told, the menu has been chosen, the church is booked, and the hen night is planned. I need someone to sort my stag.’

‘Your best man should be doing that, mate. What do you need, some suggestions? Michael might be able to sort some cheap beer.’

‘Yeah, my best man should be doing that, shouldn’t he.’

‘Yeah, like I say. He needs to get going, though, it’s not long, is it.’

‘No, it’s not, but I haven’t asked him yet, so give him a break.’

‘Who is it?’

‘Who?’

‘Your best man. Keep up, mate. How many pints have you had?’

‘You.’

‘Me what?’

‘You’re my best man.’

‘Wha … FUCK! REALLY?’

Baggo was temporarily lost for words. A look of disbelief was quickly followed by a huge grin and a wide-eyed stare. More shouting followed.

‘REALLY, CAL?’

‘Really.’

‘I DON’T FUCKING BELIEVE IT! YOU’VE GOT FUCKING FAMOUS RUGGER BUGGER FRIENDS COMING OUT YOUR ARSE, AND YOUR WHOLE BLOODY FAMILY, AND YOU’RE ASKING ME!

‘Yeah. I am very slightly regretting it just at the moment. Any chance you could keep it down a bit, Baggo?’

There was no chance at all. Baggo addressed the room, even though it had already been pretty thoroughly addressed.

‘HEY, THIS BLOKE, THE BEST MATE A BLOKE COULD HAVE, HE’S JUST ASKED ME TO BE HIS FUCKING BEST MAN.’

There were a few cheers, but the bar manager was looking over with a scowl, and I tried to send him a reassuring shrug and calm Baggo down by putting my hand on his arm and squeezing.

‘Baggo, seriously, you’re going to get us kicked out.’

‘Oh, soz mate. Ah, Cal, I don’t know what to say. I never thought about being asked, you’ve got your mates and your uncle and your … Dec. I’d have thought it’d be one of them.’

‘You’re my best mate.’

‘Ah mate, you’re making me go all poncey. Don’t make me cry, I’ll have to beat you up.’

I treated that remark with the contempt it deserved. Threatening me with one of his brothers beating me up might have made me take him a bit more seriously.

‘OK then, you’ve got nine weeks to organise my stag. Night, weekend, don’t care. Maybe talk to Matty and Dec, they’ll have some ideas.’

And they might be able to keep some of Baggo’s own ideas in check.

‘Yeah, sounds cool. OK, what I’m thinking is, weekend, Ibiza, or, no, lets go classy, Dublin, or, whoa, there’s this new club on Moor Street, we could …’

Baggo spent the rest of the evening on a fantasy tour of stag venues. He drank a lot more, and I slipped the letter I’d prepared in his pocket as I put him in the taxi to take him home. I’d predicted him either being or becoming too drunk to remember exactly what I’d asked him, so I’d left him a reminder.

Dear Baggo

Last night, you agreed to be my best man and organise my stag. You had lots of great ideas, but I doubt you will have remembered any of them.

Please call Dec or Matty for help. You have nine weeks to sort it.

Your other jobs are: Don’t lose the rings, and give a speech without swearing.

I’m serious about the swearing. Mum will cut out your tongue if the word ‘fuck’ passes your lips while you’re telling everyone about my sordid past.

Cal

So that was the best man sorted, and I freely admit that I sat back and let everyone else get on with the rest of the stressing. Not that I didn’t listen when Chrissie told me how impossible it was to get decent shoes for her sister (bridesmaid with size nine feet), or when Mum was having a meltdown over whether to decorate the cake with edible real or sugar flowers, or when Auntie Lou and Uncle Steve couldn’t come then could then couldn’t again then finally said they could with a week’s notice, when someone else had already been invited in their place. If I hadn’t been listening, I wouldn’t be able to tell you all about it, would I? I just didn’t get stressed, because to me, being married to Chrissie was the only thing that mattered, and as we were both going to be there whoever else came, and whatever was on top of the cake, and even if the bridesmaids wore wellies, well, to me, that was what was important.

I know I was bloody infuriating, because I was told so at least three times a day. I began to suspect it was on a list somewhere – tell Cal he’s infuriating (tick) – but still didn’t let it get to me. Mum and Chrissie sorted things between them, got closer, nearly fell out several times, but ended up being best of friends. I like to think I was doing my bit by giving them some common ground (i.e. moaning about me being infuriating and then ticking it off the list), because I can be helpful like that.

Baggo, with some help from other sources, sorted a weekend in Magaluf which is best left to the imagination. It included a great deal of drink, most of my Raiders team mates, old man Declan Summers, and that is where the tale of my stag weekend finishes. It stays in Magaluf, oh, and maybe the odd picture on What’s App.

And then, unbelievably, it was the day itself. The day I married the love of my life, the woman I’d fallen for when I was fifteen, hadn’t seen for ten years, and then fallen for all over again when she came to find me.

We were doing the traditional church thing, so we did everything the right way (although all this really meant was doing things Mum’s way), and I spent the night at Mum and Dad’s, while Chrissie got our house to herself so the girls (an astonishingly large herd of female friends and family) could squeal all morning, drink Prosecco, and get ready together.

Mum was part of the herd, probably the chief cow, which meant I had the morning to myself for a lie-in, then a visit from the Best Man and Ushers team for a few beers before getting ready in our penguin suits and heading off to do the deed.

I was hit by a wave of nerves as I was sitting at the front of the church with Baggo. It was the first time I’d felt nervous during the whole process of planning the entire event – it may have had something to do with Baggo jiggling his leg like he was trying to make it fall off, and muttering to himself under his breath.

‘Baggo, shut the fuck up, you’re giving me the heeby jeebies.’

‘Sorry, mate. I’m trying to remember my words.’

‘What words? You don’t have to say anything. It’s me who has to say ‘I do’ in the right place.’

‘No, I mean my speech.’

‘Haven’t you got it written down?’

‘Yeah, course I have, but Matt said you can’t have bits of paper, you have to do it, like, commando style –’

Light dawned. Matty had been having some fun at the expense of Baggo, who would normally have told him to fuck off, he was reading his speech, what were they going to do arrest him, but for some reason saw his role as best man as being some kind of saint who did everything he was told to. Maybe it was being in the church that was having this effect.

‘You can read your speech. Matty was pulling your leg.’

Baggo’s face displayed a comical mix of deep relief, embarrassment and then annoyance, as he turned round to see where Matty was. He got a thumbs up from my wayward uncle, who was showing my Aunty Rachel to her seat, and Baggo turned back to me, shaking his head.

‘Wanker. Oh fuck, so I’m not going to actually have to sit on the kiddies table? Or help the old ladies on and off the loo?’

‘Ha ha, no. Not unless you want to. Bags, how long have you known Matty?’

‘Er … as long as I’ve known you.’

‘Does he or does he not like taking the piss and winding people up?’

‘I suppose.’

‘So why did you choose today to believe him?’

‘It wasn’t just today, it was when he was helping me with the stag, he was coming up with these like top notch suggestions, and then he’d throw something in that sounded reasonable, like ‘you know it’s your job to tip the vicar’, and so –’

‘Oh my God Baggo, you haven’t tried to tip the vicar?’

‘Well not yet, I thought I’d wait until afterwards.’

‘Baggo, Do. Not. Offer. The. Vicar. Money.’

‘OK, OK, I get it. I’ve been had. Doing the bridesmaids is all part of it, though, isn’t it?’

As I turned horrified eyes to Baggo’s cheeky grin, I realised I was part of the revenge, already being served hot, and that Matty would live to regret his little joke later.

This whispered exchange ate up a few more minutes; minutes where I didn’t have to concentrate on the butterflies that seemed intent on eating their way out of my stomach, and then I was checking my watch every thirty seconds, and then Chrissie was late, and I started going through all the reasons why she might be, which ranged from planned lateness (Mum’s idea of traditional), through hair and make-up trauma (about which I would have no clue), alongside having to go back for her phone (always happened, why should today be any different), merging into traffic jam (they were coming along the bypass, which was notorious on Saturdays), which morphed into the car having been involved in an accident (minor, no one injured), then became a head-on collision (blood, guts, that type of thing), so that by the time Baggo tapped my arm, I was deep in fear and dread, and I jumped about a foot in the air.

‘She’s here, mate. Up you get.’

I turned round and caught a glimpse of white in the door of the church, and got to my feet, taking deep breaths as I did so. Then I turned round properly, the organ music started, and my beautiful Chrissie walked down the aisle, smiling her rock star smile just for me, making my heart pound with pride, love, and more than a bit of desire. I could not believe this woman was about to promise to be with me for the rest of my life.

But that’s what she did, in front of witnesses too, so she couldn’t go back on it later. It felt awesome, being all dressed up, doing it properly, saying words that sounded solemn and serious, like we really meant it, like no one could contradict us.

And then afterwards, after we’d promised to love and cherish, better or worse, death do us part, after all that, and about a zillion photos, then we got to the bit where we let our hair down.

Mum had not left any detail out of the reception. Chrissie had planned most of the ceremony, and told Mum about music, food, who needed to sit next to and, more importantly, far away from each other, but Mum had just gone to town on the details. She’d done marquees in the past, she’d done barns, she’d hired warehouses, she’d hired church halls. This was a giant ballroom in one of the oldest hotels in the city, not the swankiest, but by the time Mum had finished with it, it was just stunning.

All the colours toned with the bridesmaids dresses and the ties the guys were wearing (er, so I’m told, not that I notice this type of thing, being so infuriating). There was a jazz band playing in the foyer as we arrived. There was a string quartet playing while we ate our meal, which was all the things Chrissie and I enjoyed, from exquisite salmon fillets to an old favourite, woossy beans, which not many guests chose, but I had a plateful of while saluting Dec with my beer bottle. There was dancing, lots and lots of dancing, first to a swing band, then one of the best DJs in the south west, then a soul band got everyone grooving, then the DJ kept the party swinging well after Chrissie and I left.

And the speeches. I won’t put it all down here, because mine was pretty dull (Chrissie is lovely, I love her, she’s my wife, I’m so happy, yay), Chrissie’s dad’s was similar (Chrissie is lovely, I love her, she’s my daughter, treat her well, Calum Scott, or you’re toast), and Baggo’s was … typical Baggo.

He’d taken my warning to heart, about Mum cutting his tongue out if he swore, and he didn’t, not intentionally, not as part of his speech, anyway. He told a few tales of my misspent youth, even though most of my youth had been misspent because of him and his antics, not because of anything particularly noteworthy that I’d done. Still, there were enough of our escapades to keep the public entertained.

Then he told everyone what good mates we were, embarrassed me by saying what a good mate I was, embarrassed Chrissie by complimenting her arse, and then embarrassed everyone by looking up to the back of the room.

‘Fucking hell, Ayesh, I didn’t know you were coming.’

All eyes turned to the back of the room, where Ayesh was, indeed, standing, next to a tall man who had his arm round her, looking self-conscious. I looked at Chrissie, prepared to declare my innocence, but she didn’t look outraged, more like it wasn’t a big deal, almost like she’d expected it.

‘Oh, sorry, Mrs S. Cal said you’d cut out my tongue if I said fuck. Oh shit, I’ve only got one tongue, and I kind of need it for pleasuring the ladies. Any chance of a let off?’

Mum waved him away with a shake of her head, in the hope of averting any more bad language, and attention was rediverted to Baggo’s speech, which he finished without any more ‘fuck’s or references to ex-girlfriends.

It had shaken me, though, to see Ayesh. I didn’t know how long she had been standing there, or whether she had stayed after Baggo had made everyone look at her. I forced myself to put it out of my mind, because after the speeches, it was time for the first dance, and then cutting the cake, and it wasn’t until Chrissie needed the loo that I had a moment to myself. Just before Chrissie disappeared in a gaggle of bridesmaids who were going to help her, I don’t know, undo her buttons or something, she whispered in my ear.

‘Go and find her, Cal, talk to her before she goes.’

I didn’t have to ask who she meant. I looked around at everyone enjoying themselves, and caught sight of Ayesh disappearing through a door at the back with the tall man. She had just hugged Mum, and they were both smiling.

I hurried over to the door and caught up with her just as she was leaving the building.

‘Ayesh!’

She turned at the sound of my voice, looked up at the man and smiled. He started to walk away, but she held onto his arm, pulling him to her side as they waited for me to come closer.

‘So, er, you’re here.’

‘Yeah. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘No, it’s great to see you. Sorry about Baggo, he never did know when to keep his mouth shut.’

‘No, I remember. The rest of his speech was surprisingly good, though.’

‘Yeah, amazing what he can do when he puts his mind to it.’

I looked at the man by Ayesh’s side, sizing him up a little longer than was strictly polite.

‘Cal, this is Sam.’

‘Hi.’

I held a hand out, and he shook it.

‘Aren’t you staying, then?’

‘No, we just popped in. I wanted to see you all dressed up, doesn’t happen often.’

‘Ha ha, no, Penguins R Us not my usual dress code. Please stay, Ayesh. Sam, can’t you persuade her? Couple more dances? A few drinks?’

Ayesh looked up at Sam, checking, it seemed, what he thought. He shrugged to tell her it was up to her.

‘Well it is great to see everyone. Maybe a dance or two huns?’

‘Whatever you want, Ay.’

That told me everything I needed to know, which was that they definitely were Ayesh and Sam, as in a couple, not just someone she’d brought along for moral support while she checked out her ex getting hitched. He seemed like a decent bloke, if you can tell that on thirty seconds of conversation, and I was happy for her. I had no idea how this plot had been hatched, how much Chrissie had known about Ayesh being here, but Chrissie being OK with it was huge.

We had never talked much about Ayesh, I hadn’t talked much about her to anyone once she moved out of the flat we’d shared. It had always felt wrong, that someone who had been such a huge part of my life was suddenly not in it any more, but it seemed like it had to be that way. And maybe it would still have to be that way, but today something mended in me, seeing Ayesh with someone who made her happy.

As it turned out, Ayesh and Sam were still there when Chrissie and I left for our honeymoon much later that night, and it seemed like the new beginning for Chrissie and me was the ending in my mind of Ayesh and me. She’d moved on, and a lot of the guilt I’d felt, continued to feel, could be put behind me.

So.

Wedding – bloody awesome. Initial nerves dispelled as soon as I saw Chrissie and she blasted me with her rock star smile. Sun shining through the stained glass windows, Mum sniffing into a hanky, Dad looking proud, in fact my whole family squashed together in the front three pews, Iz grinning up at me trying to make me laugh, Dec with actual tears in his eyes the big loser, an exhausted Matty being held up by Lau but pretending he was fine for me, Charlie trying to check her texts while we were saying our vows, Rosa nudging her and making her put her phone away, Baggo looking chuffed with himself when the vicar asked him for the rings, and he actually had them in his pocket, me getting Chrissie’s name wrong (oh not disastrously, just called her Christine instead of Christina, because I was nervous, alright?), Chrissie having to stop in the middle of her vows because she got a bit tearful (in a good way, apparently, and none of her mascara ran, so that was also seen as a good thing), walking up the aisle as Mr and Mrs Scott to the sound of church bells, and standing outside in the sun having photos taken with everyone. It was just a wedding, the same sort of wedding I guess I’d been to loads of times, but it was ours, and it felt perfect.

Reception – bloody awesome. I was glad I hadn’t been that involved in the planning (i.e. not involved at all), because everything was a surprise, from the vintage car that took us there, to the tiny Raiders players that everyone had as place markers, with their names on the back of their painted shirts, to the woossy beans, to the music, to the dance that the Raiders lads had choreographed to a smushy love song (there is footage, and I will sell to the highest bidder when I need the cash), to Josh having a slow dance with one of Chrissie’s cousins, to Iz being out of her tree on cocktails and falling on her arse while trying to out-groove Charlie, to Dec’s predictable head-wear, oh there was so much, it’s all on a Wedding Video somewhere, that we haul out once a year and remember. Bloody awesome.

Honeymoon – bloody awesome. Two weeks in Mexico, soaking up the sun, seeing the sights, being with my amazing new wife. I’d never doubted I’d done the right thing over a year ago, well not after all the self-doubt and beating myself up at first, but afterwards, it just set inside me as this big feeling of rightness. We were so happy, neither of us wanted to come home, but I had the joy of pre-season training, and Chrissie had to get ready to start her teacher training, so we both needed to bulk up a bit (although my bulking was brawn and Chrissie’s was brain).

After that fairly crazy year, when my life had been turned upside down, and then hurried along like that for the next twelve months, it was a bit of a relief to start to feel settled again. The rugby season started, and its rhythm felt familiar. Chrissie started her course, but worked part time too, and we became Mr and Mrs Scott, Happily Married Couple. Chrissie had a study, which was the third bedroom in our house, and I’d often get out of bed, having woken up to find her still not sleeping next to me, walk along the hall where the light from the desk lamp was spilling out of the doorway, and rub her shoulders while telling her to stop, she was already top of the class, she needed to come to bed and be top of my class for a bit.

Chrissie worked so hard. Corporate sales had never really been her thing, but she loved kids, and had always wanted to teach, just had never got round to doing anything about it. Quitting her job to stay here with me had given her the opportunity to rethink where she was headed, and now the wedding was out of the way, she was giving studying her full attention. Sometimes too much attention. I felt the need to remind her from time to time that we were newly-weds, and there were certain expectations we had to live up to. No, still no porn, although I am well aware that if this was Matty or Lau telling this, we would have been naked and sweaty in the bedroom already, but you know what I mean. It was all going well, is all you need to know.

One of the most surprising things to come out of our wedding was a friendship with Ayesh and Sam. I didn’t find out till later exactly how Ayesh ended up at my wedding reception, but it seemed it had happened with Chrissie’s blessing, and it was highly likely that Mum and Iz had something to do with it too(and let’s face it, they are pretty impossible to turn down, especially when they team up). But if Baggo hadn’t blurted out his surprise, I might never have known she was there, and four people would never have got to be such good friends.