31. What Christmas means to me

In which it is Christmas Day, and there is excitement and bonding.

Cal

… the next thing I knew I was in bed, and it was still dark, but I felt backwards for my stocking and … HE’D BEEN! My stocking was full of presents. I wanted to start opening them straight away, but I was supposed to take the stocking in to Mum and Dad so they could watch, and I didn’t know what the time was. While I wondered what to do, I heard noises coming from below me. More of Dec’s noises.

‘No … no, no … mm … nnn … unh …’

He was louder than last night, and I wanted to see if he would do another swear, and then he would be awake and could help me with my stocking.

I climbed down the ladder and stood by Dec, wondering how to wake him up. He was moving around in the bed, twisting the duvet round him. I reached out and touched his cheek, and his eyes snapped open, although he wasn’t looking at me. He tried to sit up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.

Dec

… felt a slash to my cheek, heard glass shattering, felt blows raining down on my body, lay there helpless as I watched a brown boot heading towards my face …

Woke up in darkness, sweating, confused, disoriented. Could hear breathing close by. Tried to sit up, banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

Remembered doing the same yesterday. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

Cal

It worked! He’d said a swear, and he was awake. He rubbed his head as he lay down again, and looked at me.

‘Cal?’

‘You made noises again. I poked your face and you shouted. You did another swear.’

Dec looked at me, then shook his head, blinked, and nodded.

‘Sorry, mate, must have been dreaming again.’

‘Can I open my stocking?’

‘What? Oh. What time is it? Where’s your dinosaur clock?’

My dinosaur clock just said numbers, and I didn’t always know if they meant it was time to get up. I picked it up and showed Dec.

‘No, Cal, it’s far too early. It’s not even morning yet. Go back to bed.’

‘Can I come in with you?’

‘Try to go back to sleep in your bed, yeah?’

I’d been pretty sure he would say that, after Dad told him I wasn’t allowed in with him and Mum, but it was always worth a try. However, after being back in my bed for ages and ages, I still wasn’t asleep, and I could hear Dec still moving around, so I knew he wasn’t asleep either. I climbed back down the ladder and had another go.

Dec

He lasted about five minutes in his own bed, then hopped back down the ladder.

\i can’t get back to sleep. Can I come in with you?

I had no resistance – it was too late, I was too tired, I’d missed him too much.

‘Come on then.’

I shuffled over to the wall, while Cal took up the rest of the available space. He was asleep in seconds, while I carried on thinking about my dreams, worrying about why I kept revisiting the beating.

Cal

I fell asleep for a while, and then woke up again and thought it must be time by now. Dec was still asleep, or had his eyes shut. I tried to look in his eyes by pulling his eyelids up. Then Dec opened his eyes on his own.

‘Stop that, Cal, I’m awake now.’

‘Is it time yet?’

I showed Dec the clock again, but he shook his head.

‘Not yet. If you go back to sleep, it will go quicker.’

This was torture. My stocking was right there, waiting to be opened, and every second felt like years. It was all I could think about, and going back to sleep would be impossible.

‘But I can’t, I want to open my stocking. Santa’s been. Has he been downstairs?’

‘Yeah, mate, he’ll have been everywhere.’

‘Can I go and see?’

‘No, stay up here, wait till Mummy and Daddy and Granny are ready to go down.’

‘But Granny takes ages, she always says ‘just let me wash my hands’ and then she’s a long time.’

‘I know it’s annoying having to wait, but that’s the rule. Shall I tell you a story while we’re waiting?’

A story with Dec might make the waiting more bearable, so I nodded and snuggled up against him.

‘How about the end of the Christmas Mouse? You fell asleep before we finished it last night.’

That sounded good. I had wanted to hear about the mouse.

‘Kay.’

Dec wasn’t reading the story, he was remembering it from his head, and he got some bits wrong, like forgetting their names, and what order things happened in, but I helped him, and we got to the end, where the cat went to live with Santa.

When it was ‘The End’, Dec looked at the clock.

‘OK, it’s time now. You can take your stocking in to Mummy and Daddy.’

I jumped out of bed really quickly, took the stocking off the end of the bed and ran to Mum and Dad’s room. The door was locked, and I rattled the handle lots of times before I heard it unlock, and Dad opened the door. He had his pants on, and his hair was sticking up.

‘Hey Cal. Is it that time already? Merry Christmas.’

He got back into bed, and I jumped on top of the duvet. Mum was just waking up, and she sat up so I could cuddle her and give her a kiss.

‘Happy Christmas sweetheart. Ooh, what have you got here? Santa’s been busy, hasn’t he?’

‘Is Dec awake, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Go and get him. I’m sure he’d like to watch you open your stocking.’

‘James …’

Mum laughed and cuffed Dad on the arm, but didn’t say not to fetch Dec. Frustrated that it was taking so long to get to opening the stocking, I raced back to my room and tugged on Dec’s arm.

‘Daddy says come and watch.’

‘What?’

‘Come on, I want to open my stocking. Daddy says.’

I pulled Dec’s hand until he came with me. He stopped to put clothes on, but I couldn’t wait for him, and I went back to Mum and Dad.

I jumped on the bed and emptied the parcels onto the bed, then started tearing paper off, while Dec came in and sat on the end of the bed and yawned. There was lots of cool stuff: toys, pens, badges, games, a torch, Pokémon cards, chocolate coins, and dinosaurs. But now I’d opened everything, I started thinking about the big presents that might be downstairs under the tree in the living room and in Uncle Matty’s room.

Dec

As I walked into Jay and Beth’s room, I mouthed ‘you bastard’ over the top of Cal’s head, but Jay just laughed as Cal jumped on the bed, up-ended the stocking and started ripping paper off parcels. He made short work of it all, and soon had a pile of small, exciting looking stuff. Then he immediately wanted more.

Cal

‘When can we go downstairs?’

Not yet, Cal, it’s far too early for Granny and Uncle Matty. Play with your stocking toys for a bit.’

‘But when?’

‘When we hear Granny get up. She won’t be late, but it’s still too early for her.’

‘But when?’

It was like nobody else was excited about Christmas at all, and nobody seemed to want to go downstairs.

‘Just be patient sweetheart. You’ve got all these lovely things in your stocking.’

Maybe Dec will play in your room with you while you’re waiting?’

Well I suppose playing with some of these new toys would make the wait more fun. And I remembered what I’d thought yesterday, about sharing my stocking with Dec if he’d been too bad to have his own. Dec hadn’t had his own stocking, so it was only fair that I let him play with my things for a while.

Dec

Jay had an evil glint in his eye. I had been hoping to go back to bed for at least an hour or two. However, Beth was looking at me hopefully, and she looked wiped out. I caved.

‘Come on then Cal. Let’s take all this stuff back to your room. We’ll have to play quietly though.’

Cal gathered up his new treasures and ran back to his room. I looked Jay in the eyes.

‘You guys are seriously taking the piss.’

He grinned and settled down under the duvet.

łMerry Christmas, Dec. Thanks for the lie-in. Best present ever.

_Thank you, sweetheart.

Cal and I played with his toys for the next hour and a half. I loved it. We made up games, imagined stories about things and pretended our heads off. Tired as I was, I wouldn’t have swapped this Christmas morning for any other morning in my life. For a long time, I thought I’d never see Cal again. I wanted to enjoy every minute now I was back here. Finally, we heard movement from down the hall. Cal noticed before me.

Cal

‘Granny’s awake!’

I got up and went to the door, ready to run downstairs and start on the big presents, but Dec called me back.

‘Give her a minute, Cal, she’ll need to get dressed and stuff, and we’ll all need breakfast first. I know it’s hard, Christmas is exciting, but we might have to wait a bit. And we need to see if Matt’s getting up as well.’

Not more waiting. I was so fed up of waiting and waiting.

‘Ohh, but I’ve been waiting for hours.’

‘Only because you woke up so early. If you’d gone back to sleep, it would have seemed like no time at all. Come on, let’s have another go with this car – look, if you push this button, the lights come on.’

Dec

We heard another door open, then Jay came into the room, running his hands through his hair.

łOK, Dec, you’ve done your stint, thanks, mate. Go back to bed if you want.

‘No, I’m OK, I’m awake now. I’ll make a cup of tea, though, if you like.’

łThat’d be great. Seriously, thanks for this. Beth gets really tired at the moment, she needed the extras.

‘She did look wiped. Tea for all then.’

łCome on Cal, lets see if Mummy wants to play with all this cool stuff.

Jay picked Cal up in one arm and scooped the toys up in the other, and I heard them chatting as he took Cal into their room.

I went downstairs and filled the kettle, putting mugs out on the side. I found Matt’s spouted cup and put it out too. Decided to see if he was awake. Pushed open the door to his room. It was dark and I couldn’t see him, but could hear his noisy breathing.

Matt

I was awake before anyone came into my room the next day. It was Christmas Day; I could hardly believe how excited I was at the thought of actually getting up, leaving my room and sitting down to eat dinner. People did it every day of their lives, sometimes twice a day, but I’d like to bet it had never meant as much to any of those unthinking bastards who wasted their lives not appreciating the finer things like a place at a table, or holding a knife and fork properly. I resolved never to take things like leaving my bedroom for granted again.

I started to hear sounds from above, noises that made me think I wasn’t the only one awake. It was unlikely Cal would have slept through, with the amount of Santa anticipation he had been experiencing, and I knew the plan was that he would come in here first for some presents. So when the door opened and it was Dec, I was a little bit disappointed. I’d been looking forward to the squealing, the shining eyes, the thrill of watching a small child do Christmas morning.

I’d never spent Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal, having always found ways to avoid it before, despite Mum asking me to go down there with her every year. Beans on toast in front of the Doctor Who Christmas Special had been my middle finger up to ‘tradition’ and ‘commercialism’, but this year I was going to throw myself into the family Christmas vibe if it was the last thing I did. However, it looked like it wasn’t going to start yet, as Dec poked his head round the door.

‘You awake?’

‘Course, ih’s Chrihsmus. ‘Cited.’

‘Want some tea?’

‘Prehfer a tequila slahmer and a hot waihtress.’

If you didn’t ask, you didn’t get.

‘I’m just doing tea for now. No drinks with worms in before breakfast. And I’m as hot as you’re getting, hope you can handle it.’

He made me laugh, this kid. I pulled a face at him.

‘Hahv tuh do. Disappointihg lack of clehvage.’

‘Tough shit. Back in a minute, then.’

Cal

While I was playing, I heard Dec and Uncle Matty talking on the speaker, and just managed to hear a swear before Dad switched it off.

‘Those two are getting on well.’

‘I know. We’re going to have to watch out if Matty perks up a bit. Could cause all sorts of mischief.’

‘It would be lovely if Matty did perk up, though. Maybe he’s needed someone to cause mischief with.’

‘God, Beth, don’t wish that on us.’

Dec

I made tea for everyone, and a juice for Cal, realised I didn’t know everyone’s milk and sugar requirements, so had to make a up a tray with a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar and some teaspoons. I tested the weight, judged I could carry it up the stairs even with my shoddy arms. I took the tray up to Jay and Beth, who were still in bed watching Cal re-enact some of our earlier games.

łGet you, Mr Domesticated. You’ll make someone a lovely wife one day. One sugar, stirred please.

_Thanks Dec, this is a treat.

łWhat do you mean? I do you tea in bed.

_Once in a blue moon. Cal, Dec’s done you some juice too. Careful now, don’t spill it.

‘I’ve made one for your mum, Jay, not sure where she is?’

łShe was in the bathroom, but I think she’s back in her room now. Give her a knock. About time we were thinking of getting moving, I suppose. Or, maybe we’ll just stay here for a few more hours and let Dec get on with cooking the dinner.

‘Really? I can only do woossy beans. And I need help to use the can opener.’

łIt’s almost worth having woossy beans for Christmas dinner in exchange for a couple of extra hours in bed. Is that one for Matty? You saw him already?

‘Yeah, he asked for tequila.’

łWe heard. Dec, you do know there’s a monitor by his bed, we can hear everything until it’s turned off …

‘Sh … eep shoes. I completely forgot. Sorry.’

I glanced quickly at Cal, who was immersed in driving cars across the duvet.

łYeah, well, luckily certain ears were more interested in playing with their new space ships than listening to your witty repartee. Sounds like he’s OK then?

‘Seemed OK. I wasn’t in there for long. Better go and distribute.’

I took the tray along the hall and tapped on Jay’s mum’s door.

‘Mrs Scott, would you like a cup of tea?’

She opened the door, saw the tray, looked surprised.

#How lovely, oh and you’ve brought milk and sugar.

‘I didn’t know how you take it.’

#Just milk, thank you. Is this one for Matthew?

‘Yeah, I’m just going to take it in.’

#He might need help to drink it.

‘That’s OK, I can manage.’

Cal

I played on Mum and Dad’s bed for a while longer, and then the thrill of my stocking toys began to be overtaken by wanting to open more presents, and I asked again if we could go downstairs.

‘OK, Cal, you’ve been very patient. And Granny and Uncle Matty seem to be awake, so let’s go down. Put your slippers on first, though.’

Oh, there was always something I had to do first. I ran into my room and pushed my slippers on my feet. As I came out of my room, Granny was coming out of hers, and she gave me a cuddle and wished me Happy Christmas, and I cuddled her back but wriggled out of it as soon as I could because I wanted to be downstairs with the presents.

Matt

True to his word, the kid was soon back. I’d taken the opportunity to close my eyes, just for a minute … and I was suddenly aware he was peering at my face, a tray in his hands. Bugger it, I’d gone back to sleep.

‘Yeh, I’m stihl alihv.’

‘Glad to hear it, keep up the good work. Do you want the light on?’

He was actually asking if I wanted stuff. Jay just barged in and turned everything on, whether I was asleep or not.

‘Lamp plehs, and Chrihsmus lights. Monitor off?’

Dec put the tray on the table by my bed and then flicked all the switches; the lights from the Christmas tree making the pile of presents sparkle. I hadn’t appreciated last night what a huge pile there was.

‘Fuck meh, tha’s a loh of presents.’

‘You should see the living room. Floor to ceiling, practically. Want a cuppa?’

‘Yeh. Lihk the trahy. Dohn fancy the waihtress muhch thogh.’

‘She returns the compliment. Does sir take milk and sugar?’

‘Mihk, two suhgrs. Shoht of vodka.’

Another instance of if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Although I seemed to be doing a lot of asking and not a lot of getting.

‘You might have to imagine the vodka. And in tea? Strange tastes. Do you need help with the cup, or can you manage?’

Again with the asking. I could get used to this.

‘Gihv ih a goh. Migh need hehp. Geh rehdy tuh catch. Thahks fuh ahsking.’

I took the cup in both hands, slightly nervous as I hadn’t tried to do this on my own for a while, but that’s what the sodding spout was for, wasn’t it, in case of spillages. I held the offending item to my mouth, taking a couple of gulps.

‘Couhd do wih more imahginry vodka.’

‘Everyone’s a critic.’

‘Are they ahl up yeht?’

‘Your mum’s up, Cal’s been up since five to three, on and off, Jay and Beth were still in bed last I saw.’

‘Fihv tuh threh? Ha ha.’

Part of me would have loved to have been there when Cal first woke up and realised Santa had been, but most of me was glad I hadn’t had to be there at such a supremely ridiculous hour of the morning.

‘Yeah, thanks for the sympathy.’

Cal

I ran down the stairs, and into Uncle Matty’s room, because that’s where Mum said we were going to start, and skidded to a stop as I saw the tree and all the presents underneath it. I had never seen so many exciting looking presents in my life – and I was sure there were more in the living room.

Matt

The door burst open and Cal bounced in, stopping in awe when he saw the tree and presents underneath. There it was, that little shining face – it was almost worth being tied to this bed by the fucking bastard just so I could be there to see it. Jay and Beth were behind him, still in dressing gowns and slippers. Beth walked over and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Merry Christmas, Matty. Wait, Cal, don’t start yet, we’ve got to get Uncle Matty up and ready first. Give Uncle Matty a kiss, then come and have some breakfast with me while Daddy stays in here.

Cal

So there was going to be more waiting, and I’d have to have my breakfast first.

Dec

Cal jumped onto the bed, with an enthusiasm that made me wince when I remembered him doing the same to me in hospital, and hugged Matt.

Matt

‘Mehry Chrihsmus, Cal. Sohry, wohn be lohng.’

Jay gave me an appraising look. Whatever he saw, it was all good.

You’re looking better mate, I was expecting you to be trashed after yesterday. Feel up to it this morning? Oh, Merry Christmas.’

He ruffled my hair, as if I was the same age as Cal. It made me feel like a special little brother, in a good way and in a bloody annoying way.

‘Yeh, up tuh ih.’

I’d been waiting for this all week, I would have said I was up to it even if one of my legs had dropped off.

‘I’ll leave you to it. See you later, Matt.’

Dec picked up the tray and started to leave the room.

‘Thahks foh vodka.’

Jay gave Dec a quizzical look, probably wondering if he had been daft enough to give me alcohol for breakfast, thus necessitating several calls to out of hours GPs about mixing pills and booze.

‘It was imaginary.’

Jay looked relieved at first, then he frowned as he tried to work out what Dec meant. Comical.

Jay and I made short work of getting me ready. I felt energised, I did loads for myself, and Jay wondered aloud if my enforced sleeping for most of yesterday had somehow done me good. I had no answers for him, but didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just enjoyed feeling better. It looked like Christmas dinner was a goer. Woohoo.

Dec

Cal jiggled through his breakfast, hardly able to keep still. Jay’s mum had come downstairs too, and the three of us ate toast in the kitchen.

\when is Uncle Matty ready?

_He won’t be long. Daddy always helps him get up in the morning, Cal, you know that. Sometimes he needs more help. You’ll just have to be patient.

\can I go in the living room?

_Not yet, sweetheart.

\but I’ve been waiting for hours.

#Calum, what did you get in your stocking? Aren’t you going to show me?

\kay Granny.

He dashed upstairs and got his new toys, spreading them over the table, talking excitedly about his favourites. Jay came in as Cal was bombarding the remains of his breakfast with laser fire from the front of a spaceship.

_All done with Matty?

łJust need to sort the meds. Have we got any more of the blue ones? I can’t remember what they’re called.

_I’ll do it.

Beth left the table and went into Matt’s room.

#How is he, dear?

łSeems OK this morning. Doing quite a lot for himself. He got a good rest yesterday, one way and another. He might make it through today with a bit of luck.

#Oh, that is good news.

She seemed relieved.

#You’re so good to him, he’s very lucky. I’m sorry I can’t do more.

łNot now, Mum. Have some more tea.

He got up and put the kettle on.

łActually, I think Dec should do this. I am declaring him official Scott household tea maker. He uses a tray and everything. Very genteel.

‘Nothing genteel about it, saved me running up and down the stairs all morning carrying drinks.’

łAnd he’s practical and efficient with it.

Beth reappeared and washed her hands.

_OK, Cal, Uncle Matty’s ready for us now. Want to open some presents?

Cal jumped down from his chair and sped off into Matt’s room. The rest of us followed at a more sedate pace. Jay’s mum kissed and hugged Matt and sat in the chair. Cal stood in front of the tree, eyes wide. Jay had brought another chair for Beth; Jay and I sat on the floor.

łOK, Cal, first you need to find a present for everyone, then you can find one with your name on it. Shall I help you?

\no Daddy, I can read people’s names.

łOK then. Where’s mine?

Cal distributed a present for everyone, including a rectangular one for me, and then set to the rest of the pile. I watched in fascination as a small human paper-ripping machine made very short work of what was probably a couple of hours worth of cutting and sellotaping. He was methodical, looking at and appraising each present after opening, but not getting anything out of its box or playing with it. We were all mesmerised, and none of us had opened our presents.

Cal

At last. I didn’t know which to choose first, there were all sizes and shapes. I chose the one closest to me, tore the paper off and it was a Lego dinosaur, one which I’d put on my list to Santa. As I opened the other presents, a lot of the things were what I’d put on my list to Santa, but not an Arsenal shirt with Theo Walcott on the back, and not Optimus Prime. I didn’t realise everyone was watching me until Uncle Matty spoke.

‘Imprehsiv wohk.’

I looked at him, and he was smiling at me, but hadn’t opened his present. Dad noticed that too.

Yeah, you need to get ripping a bit yourself, mate. What do you think, Cal, wait for a minute and see what Santa brought Matty?’

I didn’t want to stop to see what Uncle Matty had in his present, because it was going to be something for grown-ups, like soap or something to drink, but Dad looked at me like he did when it was ‘no arguing’, and I put the present I had in my hand back on the floor.

‘Ehvryohn, noh jus meh.’

OK, everyone then. After three – one, two, three, rip.’

Nobody else had opened their presents either, but now they all took the paper off. Their presents were all from Santa, even Dec’s, so maybe he hadn’t been all bad. Uncle Matty was having trouble with his paper though.

‘Cal, cahn yuh hehp meh? Tuh much tahpe.’

I got onto the bed and tore a bit of paper in the corner.

‘Here, look, Uncle Matty, if you pull it, it will tear.’

After I showed him, Uncle Matty opened it easily. There was a box with a picture of a computer on the front. It wasn’t soap or drink, and Uncle Matty liked computers. So did I sometimes, when you could play games with them.

Matt

Presents between us in the past had been hit and miss. I’d always sent something down there for Cal, but never really knew what to get Jay and Beth, and so it might be a hamper, it might be vouchers, or it might be nothing at all. And Mum always came back from her Devon Christmas with a bottle of something alcoholic for me from them. Sometimes it was something useful, like ten year old scotch, and sometimes it was a bottle of something green with Greek writing on it.

So I was completely unprepared to open, with Cal’s help, an iPad. I could have cried, for many reasons, not least of which was their thoughtfulness and generosity, but Cal was sitting on the bed looking at the box excitedly, and I held myself together and looked at them instead, trying to convey my gratitude. They had bought me a cheap mobile phone when we realised mine had gone, just so they could contact me if they were out, but this, this was above and beyond.

Cal

‘What is it?’

‘Whoa, shih, eye pad. Thahnks Sahnta. Oops, sohry foh swehr, Beth.’

‘What’s a eye pad?’

It sounded like something a pirate might wear, but that wasn’t what the picture on the box said.

‘Plahy games, watch fihms, intehnet, music.’

That sounded like fun. I could see me spending lots of time with Uncle Matty showing him how to play games.

‘Can I use it with you?’

‘Yeh Cal, prohbly nehd yuhr hehp.’

Dec

łWhat did Santa bring everyone else? I got a DVD, cheers Santa.

_Necklace, lovely, thanks Santa. Carol?

#My favourite perfume, how did Santa know?

Matt

I knew they’d bought Dec an iPhone, as I’d helped them load the address book and add some apps I thought he might like; I sneaked a look at him as he opened it, and he looked as overwhelmed as me.

Dec

They looked at me. I was pretty speechless. Santa had brought me the latest smartphone. Previous Christmases had been low key in the present department, although Cal always had loads – for me, it had always been about who I was with, not what I’d got. This was a big present, one I felt unworthy of. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Cal

So everyone else had grown-up presents, but we hadn’t found out what Dec had got. Everyone looked at him. He looked like he was about to cry. Again. I wondered what he’d got. Maybe he’d been so bad that he’d just got a lump of coal, like Dad said would happen to me if I was really bad.

Dec

łUh oh, look out, blub club’s about to reconvene.

\what did Santa bring you, Dec?

‘A new phone, mate. Just what I wanted.’

_I think you’ll find Santa’s programmed it with the names and numbers of your friends and family. No more lists of numbers for you to lose.

‘I don’t know what to say –’

I looked at Jay and Beth.

‘– except thank you. Er, thank you Santa.’

łOK, Cal, finish off those last couple and we’ll get out of Uncle Matty’s hair for a bit.

}Noh, stahy.

łSeriously, Matty, if you want to do dinner, you’re going to need to rest up. We’ll go in the living room.

}Lehv the dohr open? Soh I can hehr?

łOK mate. Get some rest, though, yeah? Come on, Cal, leave those now, you can come back later and have a play. There’s more in the living room.

Matt

Eventually Cal finished his parcel Armageddon, and was eager to move into the living room for round two. I wanted them to stay, to prolong being part of the festivities, but there was no way Cal was going to stay in here when there were more presents in the other room. And Jay told me to rest up before dinner because he was a bossy twat (is what I thought to myself in my disgruntlement). As they all disappeared across the hall into the living room, I felt more than ever the frustration and loneliness of being part of but not part of everything that went on. They included me as much as they could, like just now, but until I could get about by myself, I was just going to get snippets of normality, then hours of staring at the inside of my eyelids.

Just as I was starting to get up a real head of steam on some major self-pity, I realised Dec was still sitting on the floor, looking a bit emotional. Wondering if I could distract him, I looked at the box in his hands.

Dec

While Cal zoomed out of the room to get stuck into the huge pile in the lounge, I stayed where I was for a moment, feeling overwhelmed.

}Coohl phohn.

‘Yeah.’

}Whas matter?

‘Oh, I’ll get grief for saying it, but it’s too much. I don’t deserve it.’

}Why noht?

‘You know what I did, right?’

Matt

‘Er …’

Jay had been vague about the details of what exactly Dec had done to push himself so far out of favour, although I knew there was money involved, and some kind of accident, and Beth had avoided the question altogether. Mum would only say ‘that boy …’ and look angry, and I hadn’t had the energy to push it with any of them. Now I wanted to know what had gone on.

‘… noht detahls.’

Dec

‘Oh. Well, I … things just got … shit, it’s so hard to remember everything exactly, let alone explain it. OK, first I crashed my car and someone died. Then I stole some money. Then I lied to fucking everyone about fucking everything. Then … oh there’s a shitload more to it than that, but that’s the main bit. I let everyone down, after all they did for me. They shouldn’t be buying me stuff like this.’

Matt

Dec gestured to the box containing the phone, while I tried to assimilate what he had told me. Some day I was going to have to get the whole story, although it sounded maybe too complicated for me to be able to focus on right now. Whatever the whole truth, things probably weren’t as bald and bleak as he had just told me, especially not now, and if Jay and Beth had asked him up here for Christmas, then he deserved whatever they wanted to give him, however he felt about it. Maybe if I tried some pragmatism.

‘Dihnt yohr phohn get trahshed?’

Jay had told me Dec’s phone had been smashed when he was beaten up. It had been irreparable and the police still had the bits, in an attempt to recover some useful data from it.

‘Yeah.’

‘Was ih insuhred?’

I was pretty sure I knew what the answer would be to this one; kids never insured their phones.

‘No.’

Told you.

‘Can yuh affohd a new ohn?’

I knew the answer to this one as well; Dec had no money, and no possessions, since the bastards who beat him up stole his keys and his wallet, trashed his flat and emptied his miniscule bank account.

‘No.’

I shrugged as if it answered everything.

‘Sahnta knohs best. Stahy fuh bit? Tuh quieht on my ohn.’

I could hear Cal talking nonstop across the hall, and if I sat and listened to it on my own I’d start getting miserable. I didn’t want to be miserable today.

Dec

Matt didn’t seem shocked by what I’d just told him; he almost seemed keen to reassure me.

‘Course. Although I wouldn’t call the excitement going on in there quiet.’

}Mahks meh lohnly.

‘Sorry, Matt, didn’t think. Must be tough, sometimes.’

}Mohst of the tihm. This ihn’t lihf.

He waved his arm around the room.

‘You’re doing OK, getting better by all accounts.’

Matt

I don’t know why I felt this need to unburden, all of a sudden, but there it was. Self-pity manifesting itself despite my best efforts.

‘Slohly. Lahs Chrihsmus I wahs in fucking New Yohk wih my girfriehd. Sehms lihk fuhever ago. Dohnt fehl lihk I’ll ever geh ih bahk. Fehl soh guilty, Jay an Behth gahv up evrything to wihpe my ahrs.’

And there it was, full blown poor me. It had just come out, and Dec was the lucky recipient of my need to share. First it was bottles full of my piss, then prattlings full of my despondency. Where would it end?

Dec

‘Because they wanted to. I do know how you feel. It’s hard to let people make sacrifices for you.’

I wanted to return the reassurance he’d given me, and tried to think of something that might help him.

‘But do you know what, when I was talking to Jay last night, he said that him and Beth want to do this for you, he doesn’t want anyone else looking after you, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t think he sees it as a sacrifice, it’s something he wants to do – oh, no mate, don’t …’

Matt

As he was talking, I just got a sense that he really did know how I felt, that somehow our experiences had been similar enough that he really did get it. And that felt huge. And then he reminded me that Jay had given up everything for me, and told me Jay had wanted to do it. I would never understand that, could never be grateful enough, would always feel guilty and unworthy.

It just welled up in me, and started pouring out of me in deep, heaving sobs. I couldn’t stop it, I sat with my hand over my face, wishing I was somewhere else, grateful for the excitement from across the hall that would be masking the sound of the tears that were unmanning me. I felt Dec take my other hand, and it surprised me enough to reduce the outpouring a little.

‘Ih’s soh fucking unfaihr.’

I meant all of it: me being ill, Jay and Beth feeling they had to uproot their lives, Carrie leaving me, everything.

Dec

It wasn’t just filling up, this time, Matt was really sobbing, covering his face with one hand, whole body shuddering with each breath. I held his other hand, didn’t know what else to do, feeling bad that I’d brought this on him.

‘I know, mate. You’re right.’

I wished Rose was here, she was great at talking comforting nonsense when people were upset.

‘Come on, Matt, it’s OK. Shh, don’t worry, it’s OK.’

After a while, during which I watched him anxiously, worried it might affect his breathing again, Matt’s sobs subsided. He looked at me miserably, embarrassed.

Matt

I was mortified, both at the blarting and that Dec had felt the need to hold my hand. I needed to stop both, as soon as. After a quick recce of the situation, I found my out.

‘Nihs tat.’ I nodded at what I might loosely term the ‘artwork’ on his right forearm, as I disengaged from the handholding.

Dec looked down and self-consciously rubbed his left hand over the shoddily tattooed crucifix complete with dagger dripping blood. The kind of ‘tasteful’ ‘body art’ which is usually accompanied by ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on one’s knuckles, but a quick glance reassured me that this was not the case.

‘Yeah, it’s crap, isn’t it. Had it done when I was younger, thought it made me look hard. Might get it covered up.’

‘Good plahn.’

‘You feeling better?’

I nodded. ‘Sohry. Geh lihk this sohmtimes. Thahks. Dohn tell them, plehs? They wohry, and fuhs. Wohn leh me do dihner.’

I was desperate to do dinner, and I was well aware of how Beth reacted when I showed any sign of weakness. If she even got a hint I’d been anything less than happy and up for everything, she’d put me in lock-down and force feed me with chatter.

‘No worries, Cripples Corner brotherhood. United against unnecessary fussing, united for the having of Beth’s roast dinners whenever possible.’

I tried a smile, but decided to let him off the hook. I was sure he didn’t want to stay here with the blethering cripple when there was family fun to be had across the hall.

‘Do yuh want tuh joihn in the frenzy?’

‘No, I’m fine here, if you want me to stay.’

‘Yeh. Thahks, Dec. No mohr blahrting, prohmis. Puh TV on?’

‘OK.’

Dec found the remote and turned to a channel playing non-stop Christmas songs. He turned it down a bit, and sat back down. Before the first song had finished, I found that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, as was the usual way of things following a few seconds of excitement, and after a while I fell asleep.

Dec

Matt looked like he was starting to drift off to sleep, but I stayed with him. His eyes were shut, and his breathing became more even. I could hear Cal’s excited voice from the other room, amid sounds of paper tearing and Jay and Beth’s voices, with occasional comments from Jay’s mum. I could see how it would make Matt feel lonely, it felt a bit like they were on another planet. The difference for me was I could walk across the hall and join in whenever I wanted to; Matt would have to work a lot harder to be part of everything. It must be exhausting.

Cal

I could not believe how many more presents there were in the living room. I nearly couldn’t start opening them – there were so many that I nearly couldn’t choose where to start. But I did. I started with the big, red one, which was less exciting when I opened it and it was a dinosaur lampshade for my room. I mean, dinosaur lampshades are cool, but as a Christmas present, you can’t play with it, and you have to ask Dad to put it up for you, and he takes ages and grumbles about it. Then Mum said ‘Thank you, Granny’, and I realised it wasn’t a present from Santa, but one from Granny, so it wasn’t instead of an Arsenal shirt or Optimus Prime, and I said thank you too and put the lampshade to the side to make room for everything else.

I opened loads of presents, and one was Optimus Prime, and one was an Arsenal shirt with ‘WALCOTT’ on the back. There were some for Mum and Dad and Granny as well, and Dad had a remote control car from Dec, which I would play with, and there were some for Uncle Matty which we put in a pile for him to open later, and then I saw one for Dec, but he wasn’t in the room.

Dec

I heard Cal’s voice pipe up.

\this one’s for Dec. Where is he?

łI don’t know, did he stay with Matty? I’ll go and have a look.

I heard Jay’s footsteps coming across the hallway.

łWhat are you doing still in here?

‘Chatting with Matt.’

Jay looked across at the bed, confused.

łHe’s asleep.

‘Only just. He wanted some company.’

łCal’s found you a present. Want to come and open it? We might be able to squeeze you in among all the toys and wrapping paper.

I looked over at Matt. He seemed fast asleep.

‘OK.’

I followed Jay back to the living room. Cal sat by the Christmas tree, surrounded by toys and torn gift wrap. Beth looked like she had her work cut out keeping up with all the labels so she could remember who had given what, and she had started a list. Cal picked up a box to show me.

\dec, look, it’s Optimus Prime!

‘Cool, mate! I told you Santa knew. Looks like he knew about the Arsenal shirt too – turn round, whose name on the back? Ah, good old Theo.

Cal

I’d put my Arsenal shirt on right away, over the top of my pyjamas. It was the coolest shirt I’d ever had. Then I remembered the present for Dec.

‘This one’s for you. It’s not from Santa, it’s from Nico and Lis.’

I pushed the big, heavy box towards him. Dec didn’t look excited, he looked at Mum.

Dec

‘They already gave me all my clothes for Christmas.’

_Just open it, Dec.

I pulled the paper off, and was speechless again. It was a laptop.

Cal

Dec pulled the paper off, and it was a computer. A proper one, not one like Uncle Matty’s eye pad. A computer with a lid like Dad’s. Dec didn’t say anything, like go ‘wow’ or anything, so I decided to do it for him.

‘Cool! Can I play on it?’

I knew you could do loads of games on a computer, because Dad let me do games on his sometimes. Now I had Uncle Matty’s eye pad, and Dec’s phone and computer to play with, it was as if I’d had three extra presents.

Dec didn’t answer me, though, and I wondered if he didn’t want to share his computer. Mum would have something to say about that, because she liked people to share. Dad looked at Dec’s face, which didn’t seem very happy.

OK mate?’

‘It’s just, this … and the phone … it’s all too much. They lent me tons of money, I just don’t –’

Let me stop you before you say you don’t deserve it.’

Oh, it was because he thought he’d been too bad to have nice presents. But Santa always knew what you deserved, and Dec must have deserved a new phone and a new computer, otherwise he wouldn’t have got them, even if one had been from Nico and not from Santa.

Dad was looking a bit cross with Dec, and he told Mum to cover my ears, so I knew he might say some swears. Luckily, Mum didn’t cover my ears, and I heard everything.

‘That’s just a load of bollocks, Dec. Fucking bollocks. You’ve pretty much lost everything one way and another the last few months. That slime ball stole ten fucking thousand pounds off you, you sold everything that was worth anything to get it back, and then your so-called fucking mate steals the last bit of money you’ve got and trashes the rest of what little you owned. Nico and Lis are generous people and they wanted to do this for you. You need a phone and you need a computer, because you need to be able to keep in touch with people so nothing like this ever happens again. It’s not too much, it’s just right, because it’s something we wanted to do for you. Let people do what they want to help you, and don’t make us feel fucking bad about it. OK, rant over. It’s just more of what we said last night, isn’t it? I hope you get it now, I’m getting bored of bloody saying it. Sorry, Mum, lots of bad language. Sorry, Beth. Sorry Cal.

I was looking at Dad with wide eyes. Not only had he said lots of bad words, he’d said a lot about Dec that I hadn’t known. I thought Dec had stolen, but Dad had said some people had stolen from Dec, that one of his friends had done it. But Dad hadn’t sounded sorry for Dec, he sounded angry. I started to get that feeling I’d had for those couple of days after I’d phoned Dec, when I worried about Mum and Dad being cross with me, and what might happen if they were.

‘Daddy are you cross with Dec?’

Dad sighed and did a little smile at me.

No, mate, not cross. A bit exasperated, maybe. I’m just trying to make him understand something.’

I didn’t know what exasperated meant, but from how Dad said it, maybe it wasn’t as bad as cross.

‘You said lots of swears.’

I know, they seemed to make my point.’

Dad looked at Dec.

OK?’

Dec

I took a deep breath and tried to make myself believe it.

‘ … OK.’

Jay nodded.

łRight, lets get on with this then. Cal, what’s that huge one in red and green paper?

The unwrapping continued, and Cal finally made his way through all the presents. He found another one for me, from Rose. It was shower gel and soap, plus a big fluffy towel. I would have normally found this a pretty uninspiring gift, but Rose knew how much I was looking forward to a proper shower, once my dressings were off for good. It was also something that didn’t make me feel guilty about the amount of money she’d spent. It was perfect. I smiled to myself. I’d have to ring her later once I’d worked out how to use my phone.

Cal

I carried on with the presents until there were none left, only those ones for Uncle Matty, and there were only three of those.

Dec had another present, which said ‘from Rose’, and was a towel and some shower gel, and if I’d had that present I would have been very disappointed, but Dec smiled a lot when he opened it. I didn’t think I would ever smile if I got soap.

Dec

Presents opened, there was a bit of a lull. I wandered into the kitchen, to see if I could do anything to help with dinner, but it all seemed to be under control. Beth said she’d ask me to set the table later – something else that edged me towards believing I was part of their family again. Setting the table had always been my job when we all made Sunday lunch together. Slowly, bit by bit, it was sinking in.

30. Back to December

In which a deep and meaningful is endured, understandings are undertaken, and it is very nearly Christmas.

Dec

I listened to the sounds from upstairs; Cal seemed to be explaining something to Jay, who laughed. There was a bit more talk, then I heard Jay coming back downstairs. He came into the living room, sat on the other sofa and put a large box of tissues on the table.

łI dare you.

‘Can’t promise anything.’

łFuck, me neither, actually mate. I’m so bloody tired, this has been such a bloody long time coming. Anyway, here we are. I don’t really know where to start. I want … I need to … ah fuck it, I just want you to be honest. Really honest with me. I want to know what went wrong, I guess. I don’t know what order to do things in, I’m not very good at this heart-to-heart shit. Maybe –

He took a deep breath.

łJesus, I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, sitting with Matty, you’d think I’d have it all straight by now. OK, there’s one thing I keep thinking about, wondering about, I don’t know if you can explain it. What the fuck possessed you to give Raiders a dodgy passport when you first arrived?

I was silent for a while, thinking back, trying to get it straight in my mind.

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

łCome on, Dec, you must have known.

‘Maybe part of me did. It seems so long ago. I was Declan by then, so I used Declan’s passport.’

łWhat do you mean? You make it sound like you changed your identity or something.

I breathed in deeply. This was hard, visiting places I’d buried a long time ago.

‘I … kind of did. Shit, Jay. I’ve … I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone about this. I know you want me to be honest, I want to be, but all this shit from back then, I’m not sure if I can even say it. Bear with me, yeah?’

He nodded. I wanted him to say it was OK, I didn’t have to carry on, but he didn’t. He just sat, looking at me.

‘OK. Right.’

I ran my hands over my face. Another couple of deep breaths. Reached into that deep, dark place.

‘Declan Summers is the name I was given when I was born. Actually, Declan Charles Summers. My real name, if you like, if you go back far enough. I was born in England, to English parents, whoever the fuck they were, don’t know, don’t really care. I was adopted when I was a baby, by my Mum and Dad, who were Australian. Their last name was Collier. They took my middle name and called me Charlie.’

My voice broke as I said it. No one I loved had called me Charlie for a very long time. Memories and feelings crowded in, threatening to paralyse me. I stopped talking for a while, summoning the strength to carry on. Jay was still looking at me, frowning slightly.

‘Anyway, so I had an Australian passport that said I was Charlie Collier and a British passport that said I was Declan Summers. Don’t ask me how I wound up with two, I really don’t know; there are so many gaps I can’t fill in. All I know is, when I ended up on my own in this fucking country after Mum and Dad …’

This was the part that was hard, the part I had pushed away, hidden, tried not to think about. I took some more ragged breaths.

‘… I was thirteen. I was Charlie Collier. I didn’t want to be Charlie Collier, it was too fucking hard. Charlie Collier’s parents were dead. Charlie Collier was put into care because nobody wanted him. Charlie Collier was having a really shit time. So I went back to being Declan Summers. Changed foster homes, changed schools, changed names. It was easier. It was better. No one had seen Declan Summers’ name in the paper, no one felt sorry for Declan Summers, no one felt weird being with Declan Summers because his parents were dead. Declan Summers was a clean slate. I didn’t think about passports or legal stuff, I was only thirteen for fuck’s sake.’

łJesus, Dec. I had no idea. We didn’t know any of this. Only the bare bones, about your parents, being in care. We never asked because you never seemed to want to talk about it. Didn’t you have social workers or anything?

‘Yeah, when they could be bothered. I don’t think I was badly behaved enough, although I tried my hardest. I saw counsellors, on and off, but I moved around a lot, and it was easy just to miss appointments. No one could keep track of me. I was a bit wild, but I didn’t break the law or anything, maybe a few tellings off from the police for getting into fights, smashing stuff up, that kind of thing. Social Services pretty much let me get on with it, my foster families weren’t much better. I did whatever I wanted. Luckily, some of what I wanted was playing rugby. Dad got me into it, used to take me to watch before we moved over here …

The memory crept up on me and took me by surprise. It stopped me in my tracks, halting my breath, as a wave of loss and desolation crashed over me. I stared at the floor, trying to breathe, trying to bring myself back.

łDec?

‘Fuck, Jay. I … it’s … sorry. I haven’t thought about this shit for so long. It’s just too fucking hard.’

With an effort I pushed it away, hid the memories from myself. Thought about what Jay had asked me, and focussed on that.

‘Anyway, you asked about my passport. By the time I was scouted by Raiders, I was well and truly Declan. Nobody remembered I had been Charlie, I barely remembered myself. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t use Declan’s passport at Raiders – why would I have gone back to being Charlie? I really didn’t do it on purpose, I just never even thought about it.’

łSo why did you use your other passport when you crashed your car?

‘I don’t know. I’ve kept myself awake many nights thinking about that one. Well, I suppose the passport bit’s easy. When I was questioned by the police after the accident, I just gave my name as Charlie Collier. I have no idea why. I was kind of sleepwalking, on automatic pilot, it just came out. Once I’d told them that name, I couldn’t change it, too many explanations, and I had to give them all the right paperwork. Maybe I was having another go at the self-protection thing, you know, try being a different person, then maybe all this didn’t really happen to me. It worked before. Plus, I was terrified. That man had died. I think I just wanted to escape it all, not think about it. But it all got so complicated. When the inquest was reported in the paper, I realised what a mess I’d made of things. It dawned on me what I’d done, giving them the wrong name, the wrong passport, and then I finally realised that I might have got Raiders in trouble too. I should have come clean to the club, talked to you, something, tried to sort it out. But I was so deep in it all, I couldn’t see a way through it. I just buried it all again. Hoped it might go away if no one found out. I mean, maybe it was going to come out sooner or later, but later was fine by me, just then.’

łJesus, Dec. This all sounds seriously fucked up. Who the fuck are you? Do you even know?

I looked at him miserably, shook my head. I’d tried to be honest, tell him how things had been. Now I was scared I’d just made things more confusing, made myself look more of a liar, and taken several steps backwards in trying to mend things, pushed him further away.

‘It’s been hard. I … I’ve been in a weird place, done things that felt like … like someone else was doing them. I’m still me.’

łI know you are, mate, I don’t think you’ve changed, really, but what I mean is, it’s all jumbled up in your head. How have you managed to keep any of it straight? Without completely cracking up?

‘I’m not sure I have, really. Most of my fuck-ups over the last few months I can’t explain, even to myself. I’m pretty much an emotional wreck, just ask Rose, she’s had to pick me up more times than I can count.’

łMate, you’ve had a really tough time, done most of it on your own. You’ve had to be pretty strong, I think, to cope with everything. I wish we’d known more, I wish we’d been able to help you. Jesus, thinking of you on your own here, no parents, in care … was there really no one who you could have gone to?

‘I didn’t have any other family here. Nobody back in Australia who gave a shit. No other choice.’

łBut a thirteen year old kid, you shouldn’t have been on your own. It’s … fuck, I just can’t believe it was allowed to happen.

‘It was shit for a long time. Deep, dark, shit. I was pretty fucked up. Well, you know what I was like when I first arrived. But that’s when it started to change, when I got the Raiders scholarship and came to live with you and Beth. It just got better. Yeah, I had a lot of stuff in my head that I hadn’t sorted, wasn’t going to touch, but you gave me back some of what I’d lost. I don’t know if you realise how much you helped. I don’t know if I realised it until I lost it. You and Beth cared about me, you let me in, wanted me. Raiders wanted me. I hadn’t felt wanted for such a bloody long time –

My voice broke again. My emotions were threatening to overwhelm me, close up my throat and shut me down completely. Jay waited, looking sad and worried.

Matt

I slept on into the evening, waking up to find Mum and Beth reading magazines, looking for all the world like they were in a waiting room.

‘Nehxt.’

They both looked up together, both got the same relieved look on their faces at the same time, and it was so funny, but I remembered what laughing had done to me last time and satisfied myself with an inner chuckle.

‘Hi Matty. You’re back with us, then. Want something to eat, sweetheart?’

Not really, but I’d learned that unless I said yes, they’d just spend the next hour offering me all sorts of weird shit to try and tempt me. ‘Yeh.’

‘We’ve made some mince pies, dear.’

I loved Mum’s mince pies. And I loved Beth’s mince pies. The thought of them made my mouth water. Fancy that.

‘Fuck yeh.’

‘I think ‘yes please’ is the acceptable form of address, dear.’

‘Fuck yeh plehs.’

Beth rolled her eyes and left, hopefully to fetch some mince pies and not to teach me a lesson for swearing. She did know I totally owned Cripple’s Corner, right? Whether she realised this or not, she came back a minute or two later with two plates of mince pies.

‘One lot was made by me, and the other by Carol. Your challenge is to tell us which is which.’

‘Wha? Noh, I can’t choose.’

‘You don’t have to say whose is the best, just whose is whose.’

I could already tell. I’d know one of Mum’s mince pies anywhere. But I played along, eating one of each, then going back and having a bite out of both, which was the point really, that I ate something, and I knew it, and Beth and Mum knew it, but fuck it, if it was a game and not something they were bloody going on about, it was worth it.

‘Mum’s. Yours.’

I pointed to the appropriate plates. Beth clapped.

‘Well done. How could you tell?’

‘Cahnt divuhlge my sehcrets.’

‘Oh well. Cup of tea to wash it down? Or how about your build-up?’

‘Teh.’

‘Are you sure? You’ve only had –’

She was in danger of spoiling it, and I needed to be firm.

‘Teh. Plehs.’

She left again to make the tea, and Mum took my hand.

‘How are you feeling, dear?’

‘Tihred.’

‘Go back to sleep then.’

‘Yeh. Muhm?’

‘Yes, dear.’

‘Yuhrs ahr the behst.’

I closed my eyes as the smuggest smile I had ever seen crept over my mum’s face.

Dec

‘Sorry, all this is really hard to say. When … when I fucked it all up in the summer, crashed my car and the whole fucking mess that came out of that, I went back there to that deep, dark, shit place. Back to being on my own. It was what I deserved. I’d pissed away everything. I wasn’t worth anything to anyone. Everything else I did after that came from being there.’

łDec, this … I’m not sure I know what to say. It’s a lot to take in. But you never deserved to be on your own. You never deserved to think you’re not worth anything. No one deserves that. I wish … things had been different. I don’t know, you’d talked to us, or things had just happened differently. Jesus, all this is way beyond me. But it does help me to understand it a bit. You definitely are going to see Don’s psychologist?

‘Yeah.’

łWell that’s something. Jesus, everything else I was going to say seems a bit trivial after that. Look, Dec, we can leave this for now, if you want, or we can carry on, thrash out all the crap that’s been between us the last few months. We’ve got to do it sometime. You look a bit shaky, though. Your call.

I sat, head bowed, considering. It was so, so hard to talk about. I didn’t know if I had the mental strength for any of it, but more than anything, I really wanted things to be right with me and Jay.

‘No, carry on. I want to sort things out. I’m OK, I’ll be OK.’

łOK, if you’re sure.

I nodded. He ran a hand through his hair.

łYou know, Dec, when you first came to live with us, you were … how can I put it?

‘Bit of a nightmare?’

łYeah, maybe, for want of a better word. Don was asking for volunteers to give you a room for a few weeks, Beth persuaded me to give it a go. I thought I wouldn’t see much of you, except at work, and maybe you’d need a bit of an eye keeping on you to start with, but the club would find somewhere else for you before long, and you’d be gone.

He took a breath, looked down at his fingers.

łAnyway, more than a few weeks went by, you were still there, I saw more of you than I expected because you kept ditching school and bringing those bloody Goths home with you. I hassled Don to find you somewhere else, but it didn’t happen. Beth was determined to give you a go anyway, said she could see your potential – must have been buried bloody deep down.

I was quiet. This all seemed like it had happened so long ago; I was so different now.

łI was a bit worried about the effect you were having on Cal, but Beth kept saying how good you were with him, and when I thought about it, you were. Maybe not a particularly good role model, with the underage drinking, the dodgy mates, the bunking off school and the bad language, but you played with him, and talked to him, and took care of him, and generally seemed to like having him around. He can only have been – what – two when you first arrived?

‘Something like that I guess. It was like having a little brother.’

łYeah, I know. You both seemed to hit it off, from the start really. Anyway, as well as being great with Cal, gradually other things changed, you settled down, you just started doing what you were told. Ditched the attitude, ditched the Goths, knuckled down at school and in training, actually grew up quite a bit, got sensible even. After a while, I never thought any more about you moving on somewhere else, you just became part of us, part of the family.

Jay paused, shaking his head slightly as if confused about what came next.

łWhen we came back from Portugal, though, it was like you’d gone back to being that sixteen year old nightmare – staying in your room, going out without saying where, all that. We couldn’t work out what had happened. For a while we wondered if you were pissed off with us for something, leaving you on your own while we went on holiday maybe, but it felt bigger than being a bit pissed off. We felt out of our depth, wondered if we should have got more help with you when you first got here, found out a bit more about you, so we could talk to you about what went on when you were younger. Maybe if we had, it would have changed things. Too late by then, you were over eighteen.

By the time I was eighteen, I had stopped childishly hankering after the ‘real parents’ I’d wanted Jay and Beth to be. I was well on the road to independence, thought I was tough enough not to need anyone. My life seemed littered with if onlys …

łBeth had tried so hard with you when you first arrived, she’d just seemed to know what to do to help you calm down and relax with us. Even she was at a loss, though, nothing was getting through. Then you moved out, didn’t even say goodbye, hardly ever answered your phone, and you never returned calls. You barely spoke to me at the club, except when you had to. For me, I felt like you’d chucked everything back in our faces, it was a real kick in the teeth. The only thing that wasn’t affected was your playing and your training.

‘It was all I had, I just had to hang on to it. If I hadn’t had that – well I needed it, it got me through everything else. When I was suspended, couldn’t even go to the ground, everything just got so much worse.’

łI guess so, I’m still trying to piece it all together. So, that went on for a while, we felt like you’d cut us out of your life, doing whatever the fuck it was you were doing. Beth was really upset, I was just bloody angry. We thought you just didn’t want us any more Cal really missed you, he kept asking why you weren’t there, and we didn’t really have a good answer. I know you came round a couple of times to see him, I guess that made a difference, but it was tough on him.

I felt close to tears thinking about how much I’d upset Cal.

‘I feel terrible. In my head, I was doing the right thing.’

łWhich was what, exactly?

‘Keeping away. I was one enormous fuck-up. Everything I touched seemed to turn to shit, from the moment I crashed my car. Every time I tried to make things better, they just got worse. I wanted to keep everyone away from me, so no one got dragged into it. When that bloke turned up at the house, asking for money, he scared me. I thought he was genuine, didn’t I, and he was pretty full on, intimidating. I had to move out, I didn’t want him to come round when Beth or Cal were there, I was scared he might do something to them, frighten them or something, to get at me, but I couldn’t explain it without telling you what I’d done. I couldn’t tell you what I’d done because it was just too huge, too many consequences I wasn’t in control of. I couldn’t face it. The less I talked to you, the less likely I was to slip up and tell you. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.’

łJesus, Dec. What a mess, what a fucking screwed up mess. Makes sense? Fuck, no. None of this makes any fucking sense. It sounds like you didn’t want to lose it all, so you threw it all away instead – you really weren’t thinking straight, were you? Thing is, you’ve tried to carry all this alone. I guess maybe I can see why, now, if you felt like you’d gone back to a place where you had to just look out for yourself. But for us, when we came back from holiday in the summer, your car was gone, your bloody precious car, no explanation, and it was like you were gone too. You were like a different person. You wouldn’t talk to us, you stayed in your room, then a few weeks later you left with some bloody lame story about a college course. It was so obviously not true. We didn’t know what to think. We thought you’d met a girl or something – it felt like you were ditching us. Why didn’t you talk to us? Everything might have been different if you’d just said something.

‘I don’t know if I can explain it. I just shut down. After I crashed my car, I felt panicky the whole time you were away. I don’t know if it would have been different if you hadn’t been away when it happened, but by the time you came back I’d gone into a kind of … like a daze or fog or something. I was scared someone was going to find out, that man had died and, I dunno, I thought I might go to prison or something. I don’t know if I was … ashamed? Terrified? Both. Couldn’t deal with it, pushed it down with all the other shit. Then that bloke came round, saying he wanted paying for what I did to his dad, and it seemed like I could fix it, make things better. I thought if I gave him what he wanted, it would all go away. I know it sounds mad now, but that’s what I thought. But to do it I had to make sure nobody knew, so I just … let everything go. If I didn’t see people they wouldn’t ask questions. I really think I might have been a bit mad. It sounds crazy just saying it.’

łJesus, Dec. Don’s shrink is sounding more and more necessary. This is all way beyond me. Something Rose said, while you were in hospital – did you know we called her, talked to her for a long time when we got back home?

‘You said, she’s never mentioned it.’

łShe’s bloody great, you owe her a lot.

‘I know.’

łAnyway, she told us some of why she thought you’d done the things you did, she saw what we couldn’t I guess, that you were really mixed up. We just saw what you were doing, how it affected us; Rose could see a bit of why.’

I thought about why that might have been.

‘I told Rose everything, things I never told you or Beth.’

Jay nodded.

łMaybe that explains it. She said you’re a bit fragile where families are concerned. It never occurred to us that you’d lost two lots of parents before you came to us – you never really talked about it, we never realised there was this much going on in your head. But she wondered if you felt you needed to deal with stuff on your own, partly because that’s how you’d learned to do things when you were in trouble, and partly because you were scared you’d lose us if you involved us.

I thought about it, but couldn’t begin to unravel my motives.

‘Could be. Did the opposite, though, didn’t it. Pretty much wrecked everything with you and Beth.’

łMaybe for a while, but don’t forget what I said to you before. Family is family, and you’re part of ours, if you want it. Actually, no, whether you want it or not. That’s never going to change, whatever happens. I don’t know if you get that, or believe it. Jesus, Dec, I said some fucking awful things to you. I lose sleep over that time I yelled at you in the car park. I was just so angry with you, and upset about Matty, it all just came out. I won’t say I didn’t mean it, because on that day I really did, and for a while afterwards, but now when I think about it, Jesus, if I could take it back, not say it …

‘Nothing I didn’t deserve.’

łDec, I don’t get this ‘what I deserve’ bullshit. Where’s it coming from? You cocked things up big time, made some seriously fucking horrendous decisions, there were consequences. But deserve it? I don’t see it.

‘Worthless piece of shit.’

łWhat?

‘That’s what I am, why I deserve it all, everything that’s happened, everything you said to me, all of it. I’ve screwed so many things up – your job, Cal, Raiders’ chances of top four. Shit, Jay, I fucking killed someone –’

łJesus! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What the fuck are you talking about? Do you think I’d let a worthless piece of shit spend the day with my son? Or have a laugh with my brother? Or hug my wife? I’ve met some fucking worthless pieces of shit in my time, and believe me you are not one. Yeah, I know, someone died, that must be fucking terrible for you to have to live with, but it wasn’t your fault. It was a fucking awful accident. Jesus. Dec, you seriously, seriously need some help with all this.

Cal

I tried to go to sleep, I really did, but when it’s Christmas tomorrow, it’s very hard, because the excited feeling just bubbles up in your tummy and stops you.

I could hear Dad and Dec talking in the living room, which was below my room, although I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I lay in bed for a long time, hearing the voices in the room below, and then I thought that if I went and sat on the stairs, I might be able to hear more. Sometimes I did that to hear what Mum and Dad were saying, but they usually had the door open. The door was shut, though, and I couldn’t hear much more from half way up the stairs than I could from my bed. I stayed and listened to their voices, because I liked hearing Dad and Dec talking – I hadn’t heard it for a long time, and it made me feel happy.

Dec

I had no reply for him, finding it hard to meet his eyes, trying to blink away the tears in my own. Jay’s tone of voice and anger had taken me back to the day he got the letter about the inquest, and to him yelling at me in the car park. I felt like I was about to lose him all over again.

łYou’re going quiet on me, come on, we’re not finished yet.

‘I can’t handle it.’

łWhat?

‘If I lose you all again.’

łHave you not heard a word I’ve said? OK, words of one syllable. We. Love. You. Jesus, that’s not something you’re going to hear me say often. But that’s what you need to hear. You’re part of our family. That’s what it means. Part of us. Forever. Family. Jay, Beth, Cal and Dec. Nothing you can do, nothing I can do will change it. Beth told me what you said to Cal, about being cross with people but still loving them. It’s true – you can’t lose us, that’s just how it is. You haven’t fucked anything up with us, not deep down. It’s taken me a while to get there, to understand it – I guess it might take you a while too – but you’re family. I think that’s as important to you as it is to us. I hope we never have to go through anything like the last few months again to make us realise it.

It finally did get through. I couldn’t quite take it in. I’d spent so long convincing myself I’d lost it all, I hadn’t realised how hard it would be for me to see things differently. It needed time to sink in.

‘Fuck.’

I took a shaky breath, leaned forwards and rubbed my face with my hands, trying to grab hold of what Jay had just said. He nudged the tissue box towards me.

‘No, I’m OK.’

Although the tremble in my voice told a different story.

łDo you get it now?

‘I think so.’

It was actually starting to feel like something had set me free, something that had kept me chained up for months.

‘Jay, being here, it’s so huge for me. A few weeks ago, I thought I’d blown it, thought I’d never see any of you again. What I did, what you said – I thought that was it, finished. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my head round that, trying to accept it. It’s been hard. Being here with you all, thinking maybe I might not have fucked it all up, it’s taking some getting used to. It doesn’t feel real yet. I can hardly believe it.’

łIt feels pretty huge for us too, Dec. It’s been fairly fucking shitty, hasn’t it? Yeah, I know what you mean, getting our heads round it all might take a while. But I’m glad you’re here, it feels right. I didn’t know if it would be weird or awkward, but it hasn’t been, it’s almost like we’ve started where we left off, before we went on holiday. Yeah, everything’s been shit for all of us, but I think we can leave that behind, I hope we can. Especially if you’re going to get some help sorting out the large amount of crap that seems to be lodged in your head?

‘Yeah. I will – I am.’

łThank fuck for that. I need to ask you just one more thing, though, if you can hack it. About Cal asking about us being cross with him. That’s been an ongoing thing since he called you that time on my phone. What the fuck did you tell him?

I thought back. It seemed a long time ago, when I felt like I was somewhere else and someone else.

‘Well, a while ago, when you were still living in the city, me and Cal made a plan to go to Dinosaurland on his birthday. I’d forgotten, with everything that happened, but he hadn’t, of course. He’d decided you were going to bring him down, so we could still do it. I tried to put him off, told him I couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t do it, but he had an answer for everything. I had to tell him something, explain it somehow, without telling any more lies. The only way I could do that was to tell him the truth.’

łYour version of which being …?

‘That I was a thief and a liar, and you were cross with me about it and didn’t want to see me any more’

łJesus Christ, did you say it just like that?

‘I can’t remember exactly. Probably not far off. I know it was a bit blunt – I was panicking, I was really messed up, not thinking straight. It was so good to talk to him, I needed to tell him the truth, but I was about to break a promise to him, and it freaked me out. I’d told so many lies, I just couldn’t do it any more, especially to Cal.’

łWell that explains a lot. He had a really hard time getting to grips with that one. And that’s when you lost Beth, she was pretty upset with you. Cal kept on and on that day about why we were cross, were we cross with him. For a little while he couldn’t cope if we bickered with each other, and he really thought if he annoyed us at all we were going to kick him out, not speak to him. Beth was really angry – up till then she’d been trying to make excuses for you, tried to talk about you with Cal, but that tipped it for her. It just seemed like you didn’t even care about Cal any more, about how what you said might affect him. It wasn’t until he ran away that she’d even mention your name again. I guess that was only about a week later, wasn’t it, but it seemed longer. I couldn’t even think about you. Jesus, I’m getting pissed off just talking about it now.

I listened to all this, in growing misery. I’d been so happy today, spending time with Cal, feeling like I might be back in their family. If I’d damaged Cal in any way, I couldn’t bear it.

‘I had no idea, Jay, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what else to say at the time. I tried to talk to him yesterday, told him you can care about someone and be cross with them at the same time.’

łI know, mate, I know how much you love him. I think we’ve got him to see that we’d never do any of the things he was worried about. He’s OK now. Ignore me, I’m just letting off steam, I need to tell you how it was for us. I know you were having a hard time, we’ve talked to Rose a lot, and Nico and Lis. They’ve helped us to see, I think, that you haven’t really been yourself for quite a while. Nico was so worried about you the night after the points hearing, he came home and told us everything, even though we’d said we didn’t want to know anything about you. He says you were in a right state.

‘I guess I was. That was a tough night. I felt like I’d lost absolutely everything, couldn’t see how I was going to carry on. Rose and Nico were amazing.’

łDec, I have to say, again, I think it’s really important you spend time with Don’s psychologist bloke.

‘Yeah. Got an appointment in the New Year.’

łGood. You need to sort your head out.

‘I know. I’m a mess.’

łYeah, you’re a bloody head case, but you’ve had a lot to cope with. You just need some help to sort it out.

‘Jay…’

łDec.

‘Can I ask you something?’

łSeems fair, you’ve been pretty brutally fucking honest with me so far.

‘Did you leave Raiders because of me?’

łJesus. Jesus, Dec. Well, fair question I suppose. OK … maybe, thinking about it … I guess, in a way, yeah.

He saw the anguish on my face, and held a hand up to stop me.

łHold on, before you go off on another guilt trip, let me explain. That day, when the letter came about your accident, and everything went arse about face, was the worst possible day it could have come. I’d just had a call from Mum to say Matty was in hospital, and it wasn’t looking very good. Beth and I had been trying to decide whether we needed to come up here to help Mum out – Matty was diagnosed in the summer, shortly after you moved out, but he hadn’t been too bad, he was living with his girlfriend, still working, although he’d had to cut his hours down. Then he started to get worse, his girlfriend left him, it was pretty messy, he got this cold, or flu or whatever, and just went downhill.

I was still trying to get the sequence of events straight in my head. That time, back when everything crashed around me, was hazy, but now Jay was telling it in order, I could understand why he’d been so angry.

łAnyway, Mum had just rung, and I was trying to get organised to come up here, when I get this letter about you, saying did I know you’d killed a man and did I know who you really are. I think it’s a joke, or some nutter stirring it, until I show it to you and you crumple like you’ve been shot. And then Don says you’ve taken the charity money, and all the shit with your passport, and it just seems like you’ve been lying about everything. And I can’t believe it’s all fucking happening at once, and it makes me so mad, and I can’t even start to think about it or know what the fuck to do about it –

Jay’s voice broke, his face buckled, and tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

łBollocks, I can’t believe I caved first. It just brings it all back.

He half laughed, half sobbed, took a shuddering breath.

łSorry, anyway, so I want to get away, come up here to be with Matty in case … but now I’ve got to deal with you, and you’re being all uncommunicative, and I don’t have the patience, or the time. And everyone I talk to is telling me you owe them money, and I feel like I just don’t know who the fuck you are any more It’s like you’ve been pulling the wool over our eyes all this time. And maybe if you don’t want us, we don’t want you either.

This was hard to hear. At the time I hadn’t thought how it might look to Jay and Beth. I’d only thought of getting away to protect both myself and them. I had never not wanted them; being apart from them had been the hardest thing.

łSo I decided I’d just quit, there and then, come up here, so I didn’t have to piss about with you, or have you or anyone else stop me from looking after my brother. Don didn’t want me to go, he said I could have some personal leave, but I guess, to answer your question, I wanted to get away and not have to come back and face all your shit, so, yeah, if I’m honest I did leave because of you. But, Dec, it was my decision. And it was the right one, thinking about it. I don’t want anyone else looking after Matty. Me and Beth have got it covered. I’m glad I came up here, it’s where I should be. Mum needs it and Matty needs it.

I was silent for a moment as I tried to figure out what to say.

‘I wish there was a better word – I’m sorry.’

łDon’t make me sodding punch you. Listen to me. It’s not about sorry or blame, or at least it’s not now. I guess I did blame you at first. But, like I said when you were in hospital, well, something like that happens and you realise deep down what you really feel. Jesus, Dec, when they told me the bloke I’d found in the car park was you, I felt sick. There was so much blood, your face was so swollen and bloody it was unrecognisable. We went straight to the hospital when they told us, I sat with you most of the night. I had a lot of time to think about why I was doing that, if I was so glad to be shot of you and all your fucking shit. Beth had already started to – I dunno – forgive you?

Jay ran his hands through his hair as he tried to explain it all.

łAfter you found Cal that time, she couldn’t stay angry. I wasn’t so ready – when I saw you again, after you found him, it just brought back all that anger, I mean I was so fucking relieved he was OK, and grateful, but I didn’t want to be, it was all churning around, wishing it had been anyone else who’d found him. But after that, Beth made me talk about you, and I found I could bear to say your name. Actually, she got me thinking. She asked why I still had your number on my phone if I was done with you. If I’d deleted it, Cal wouldn’t have been able to ring you that time, and things might have been a lot different.

I had wondered the same thing myself – had expected him to have deleted all traces of me from his life, by the time I got Cal’s call.

łI didn’t have a good answer to that, apart from maybe I wasn’t as done as I thought. So, I sat there in the hospital looking at you with your broken bones and your stitches and your bruises and your unrecognisable beaten up fuck-ugly face, and it occurred to me that you don’t sit there all night waiting for someone to wake up, to know they’re alright, if you don’t care about them. I thought about what you’d done, and how it made me feel, and decided that whether you had reasons for it or not, it was just part of us. I stopped being angry. Stopped blaming you. Accepted it. You need to do the same. Do you remember Rose saying, when you were in hospital, something about you being sad because you’d lost us, lost your family?

‘Yeah.’

łWell, that was what finally sorted it for me. Whatever you had been thinking while you were away from us, it wasn’t that you wanted to ditch us. You still thought of us as your family, and had done all along, whatever else you’d been trying to prove along the way. It was really important for me and Beth to know that, that it wasn’t all one way from us, that you felt the same. Fuck me, Dec, this is hard. You know I don’t usually do all this emotional talking shit. And, there you go, here are the tissues, join me in the blub club.

My eyes were streaming tears. I was completely choked up. Telling Jay about the past had stirred up feelings I had buried deep down, and the reality of still being part of his family was breaking over me. I was close to losing control and I needed to push it back down before it took over and swamped me. I closed my eyes, took some deep breaths and focussed on what Jay was saying.

łSo, bottom line, you need to get your head sorted. No more of this ‘worthless’ crap. You’re worth a lot to us. Find out what’s going on in that skull. Stop saying sorry, start accepting help from people. You’re in this family, whether you like it or not. OK?

I took another deep, shuddery breath and pushed the past back as far as it would go. It would still be there waiting, another day. Opened my eyes and looked at him.

‘Jay, are we really OK now?’

łYes, Dec, we’re OK. I think in a way, we always were, although looking back maybe neither of us would have said so at the time. It might have taken us a while longer to get there; whoever smashed that bottle over your head did us all a huge favour. Don’t ever stop talking to me again, OK?

‘OK.’

A wave of relief swamped me. I started to cry again.

łYou know what, it’s fucking Christmas tomorrow. No blubbing allowed. Come here.

He stood up and pulled me to my feet, throwing his arms round me, slapping me noisily on the back. I sniffled on his shoulder.

łOK, that’s enough of that.

Although his eyes were wet too.

łI think we need beer. Fuck, should have thought of that before.

I wiped my eyes.

‘Er, not sure I’m allowed.’

łWhat? Says who?

‘Don, weeks ago.’

łWhy?

‘Well, after I was suspended I went on a bit of a major vodka bender. Lost two days. Missed an appointment with him. He was rather pissed off. Made a no alcohol rule.’

łTwo days? Impressive. Ohh … so that’s where you disappeared to. Absolutely fucking everyone was looking for you. He won’t have intended for it to cover Christmas, he probably hasn’t even thought about telling you it’s OK now. Come on, you can’t have Christmas Eve without beer!

Cal

The door opened, and it made me jump, and I should have run back to bed, but it was Dad going to the kitchen and he didn’t see me. I heard him talking to Mum. I went down the rest of the stairs and stood in the doorway to the living room.

Dec

There was a movement in the doorway – Cal stood there, blinking guiltily. I wondered if he’d been waiting on the stairs like he used to, trying to listen.

‘Dec, I’m not going to sleep.’

‘Why’s that, mate?’

Cal

‘It’s nearly Christmas.’

It was best not to tell him I’d been on the stairs trying to listen to what he’d been saying to Dad.

‘Are you excited?’

I nodded.

‘Come over here, let me tell you about the Christmas Mouse.’

This was a new story. Dec had never told me the Christmas Mouse before. We got into the reading position, and I warmed up a bit, because it had been cold sitting on the stairs in my pyjamas.

The Christmas Mouse story was about mouse children who wanted to see if Santa came to mice children, and how they saved a cat and …

Dec

It was a story Mum used to tell me when I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve. Cal found a place under my arm and snuggled in. When Jay came back with the beer, Cal was nearly asleep. A few more minutes, and he was completely out. Jay picked him up gently and carried him upstairs, while Beth came in and sat next to me on the sofa.

_I’m glad you’ve sorted stuff out with James. It’s been a completely horrible end to the year, he needed this. Are you alright, sweetheart? It sounds like you had quite an emotional conversation.

‘I’ll be OK. I told him a lot of stuff I haven’t thought about for a long time, things I’ve never told anyone before. I’m sure he’ll tell you. Need to put it away somewhere in my head for another day. Do I need to sort stuff out with you, too?’

My heart sank a bit at going over it all again with Beth, but if that’s what it took, I would. I’d do anything to make things right with these two people who meant more to me than I’d ever been willing to admit to myself.

_Not really, sweetheart. You found Cal when he ran away. That sorted me. You cared enough to go looking for him. You knew him well enough to know where he’d be. You found him and you told me and you loved us enough to walk away. I could see how hard that was for you. I’m so glad you’re here now.

‘I hate that I upset you, I hate that I upset Cal.’

_I know, Dec. I hate that we didn’t help you when you needed it. It’s done now. None of us can change what we did, although we can regret things and try not to do them again. Did you ever stop loving us?

‘No. I thought about you all the time.’

_Then that’s all I need to know. I was more upset that you didn’t talk to us than anything you might have done. I didn’t understand why you didn’t want us to help. You know me, I like to talk about things, and it hurt to be shut out. I thought we trusted each other.

‘Sorry. I’m sorry for everything, what I did, you know … ‘

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s finished now. I think you and James have just done more talking than either of you have ever done in your lives before. Don’t stop now, will you.

She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

_You know you never need to feel alone. You’ve always got us.

‘Thanks, Beth. It really means a lot. I guess, before, I just took it all for granted. I didn’t realise what I had with you all until I chucked it away.’

_Maybe sometimes you have to lose something before you realise how much it means to you. I didn’t know how much you were a part of our family until you’d gone and there was this big hole. I know I’m so pleased to have you back. Let’s talk more about things, out in the open, whatever’s bothering us.

‘I’ll try. Not my strong point.’

_Ha ha, don’t I know it. All any of us can do is try, sweetheart. God, I’m knackered. All evening talking to Carol is exhausting at the best of times. I’m going to bed. Remind James to put the presents under the tree, and some in Matty’s room, and do Cal’s stocking, would you?

‘Sure.’

_Dec …

‘Yeah?’

_One day, when you’re ready, I’d love to hear about your mum and dad.

My eyes filled with tears, which I blinked away.

‘OK.’

_Night, sweetheart.

‘See you tomorrow.’

I heard her go upstairs, and then heard her voice as she talked to Jay. A few minutes later, Jay came back into the living room, with a bottle opener.

łRight, let’s get these open and watch something Christmassy on the telly.

He opened the beers and handed one to me. And that was that, finished for now with the pain of explanations and remembering. Jay had switched back into normal life straight away. It took me longer to leave the darkness and come back to now.

The beer helped. It tasted really good, but went to my head pretty quickly. I hadn’t drunk anything alcoholic for quite a while now, and my system had adapted. When Jay got another a bit later, I took it a bit more slowly, but when I stood up to go to the loo, I swayed slightly.

łBloody hell, Dec, are you drunk? On two? You lightweight!

‘I’m not used to it. Need to build up my resistance again. Or something.’

łHave to see what we can do over the next couple of days, then.

‘Can’t go too mad, strict instructions from Steve.’

łBollocks to Steve, what does he know? He’s only got degrees in nutrition and stuff. I say fuck him, it’s Christmas.

I laughed. And burped.

‘OK, fuck him, it’s Christmas. Sounds good. Now I really need to pee.’

Some time later, Jay had had a couple more, I had managed one and was close to falling asleep. The TV was still on, but the programme had changed, and was now some Christmassy chat show. There was laughter, and music, and it felt happy and jolly, and finally, after months of unhappiness and uncertainty, I felt I could begin to relate to it. I sat and watched it, enjoyed the feelings that were starting to open up again inside me.

łCome on, Dec, you should go to bed. Early start with Cal tomorrow.

‘Yeah, but Beth said – oh what did she say, something to remind you – oh yeah. Presents under the tree, and in Matt’s room, and Cal’s stocking.’

łBollocks. Completely forgot. At least they’re all wrapped. Give me a hand, there’s bloody loads.

I followed Jay to a cupboard in the utility room. He was right, it was crammed with presents. He got a few black bin bags and shovelled them in.

‘Are you expecting a coach load tomorrow or something?’

łHa ha, no most of these are Cal’s. Spoilt or what? Beth’s family have gone overboard a bit, and I suppose we have, too. He’s only little once, isn’t he. Here, you take this bag and do Matty’s tree. Mum’s in there, she will have fallen asleep. Don’t know if Matty’s awake or not.

‘I’ll be quiet.’

łThanks, and then take this up with you when you go to bed, swap it over.

He held up a duplicate of Cal’s stocking, which was bulging with exciting looking shapes.

‘What do I do with the other one?’

łOh, I don’t know, Beth usually handles that. Er, hide it in your bag or something?

‘OK. Matt’s tree, Cal’s stocking, hide in bag. Got it.’

I headed over to Matt’s room, opened the door and crept in as quietly as I could. The room was lit only by the lights from the Christmas tree. Jay’s mum was asleep in the chair, Matt was breathing noisily, eyes closed. I started putting the presents under the tree, trying to make as little sound as possible.

Matt

The next time I woke, I heard a rustling and looked over to the Christmas tree where it had come from. Beth wasn’t there, and Mum was asleep, head back against the chair, mouth open. Dec appeared to be piling presents around the tree.

‘Sahnta?’

‘Ho ho ho.’

‘Ahnything fuh me?’

‘Have you been a good boy?’

‘Fuck noh.’

‘Then probably not. You know the rules. I expect you’re on the naughty list.’

Oh I loved it, that someone was willing to treat me as if I was a person who could possibly have had a past, and done things that deserved a slap, rather than a person with only a present who deserved relentless making of allowances and pitying looks. I was really warming to this disrespectfully amusing teenager.

Mum stirred in the chair and opened her eyes; we’d woken her up with our chattering. She looked over at me and stated the obvious.

‘You’re awake, dear. I must have dozed off.’

She leaned towards me and stroked my forehead. I put up with it because it was Mum, and it was what mums do. Then she looked over at Dec.

‘Hello Declan. What time is it?’

‘Gone eleven.’

‘Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

I knew she usually went to bed early, and was likely to be up at the crack of dawn basting turkey or some such shit.

‘No, I’m alright, dear, I can sleep here in the chair.’

And since when did I need a round the clock babysitter?

‘Noh need, got monitor. Dec’ll stay foh bit?’

I hoped he would pick up on my need to boot Mum out before she stayed in my room all night. He seemed to.

‘Sure, mate, if you want.’

‘Yeh. Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

‘Alright, dear, if you’re sure. Goodnight.’

She stood up, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then left, closing the door behind her.

I looked gratefully at Dec.

‘Thahks. Everyone fuhsses. Bluhdy exhosting.’

‘Tell me about it, you spend more energy trying to stop them going on than you would if they just bloody well left you alone.’

It really sounded like he knew where I was coming from. I thought about what he’d been through the past few weeks and realised he probably did.

‘Heh, yuh geh ih.’

‘Been there myself, quite recently. Still there, a bit, to be honest. It’s hard to let them love you.’

‘Yeh.’

And he just kept hitting the nail on the head. My eyes filled with bastard unbidden tears.

‘Bolluhks. Sohry.’

‘No worries, I’m a fully paid up member of the blub club. Seem to spend half my life wiping my eyes and apologising at the moment.’

I wondered whether his conversation with my brother had happened yet. Beth had engineered a vacancy in the living room earlier, but I’d been asleep – oh, that was why she and Mum were both in here together with the magazines and the mince pies.

‘Yuh talked wih Jay?

‘Yeah. We sorted some stuff out. I feel a lot better, I think he does too.’

‘Guhd, he nehded tha.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Him and Beth ahr pretty greht.’

I felt like I needed to remind him how lucky he was that they cared this much about him, grown up that I was.

‘Yeah.’

Then Dec’s eyes filled up. Fuck, I’d made him cry. Nice one Matt, you bastard. He was quiet for a bit, wiping his eyes, then breathed in and straightened up.

‘Santa’s got more jobs to do before he can go to sleep, I’ve got to do Cal’s stocking without waking him up, then try and get a few hours sleep before the middle of the night when he’s going to wake up.’

‘Kay. Seh yuh tomohrow.’

‘Will you be OK?’

I thought of the list of night time tasks Jay usually did, but hadn’t because I was asleep. No way was I asking Dec to help me change into my night clothes, but maybe there were a few things he could do. I hummed and hawed to myself about just how much I could ask of this kid I barely knew … oh bollocks, I was going to have to ask him to take my piss bottle. I’d had it under the covers, full, with the lid on, since Mum and Beth were playing the mince pie game. If I didn’t get it emptied I wouldn’t be able to pee in the night if I needed to. Arsing fucknozzles.

‘Couhd yuh ehmpty thihs?’

I held out the plastic piss collector as if I gave teenagers containers full of the ex-contents of my bladder as a matter of course, no big deal, it’s what mature grown-ups do all the time.

To his enormous credit, Dec didn’t even blink before he took it and headed off … er out of the room?

‘Whehr yuh goin?’

He turned round in the doorway, making my piss slosh lustily in its plastic prison.

‘Kitchen sink?’

‘Ehr, why noh pouhr ih dohn the loo?’

The short pause and then the lights going on behind his eyes were almost worth the humiliation of having to ask.

‘Oh yeah. Dur. Like, as if anyone’s going to want to have a cup that’s been washed up in a sink full of your piss.’

‘Heh, my pihs is sought ahfter in sehventehn couhntries. Sehls fuh mihlions.’

‘Oh really? Remind me why I’m tipping it away then.’

‘Creahting a demahnd.’

‘Genius. Toilet it is then, much as it pains me to pour away millions of quids worth of golden liquid that, er, seventeen countries could otherwise fight over for the privilege of … er … what did you say they did with it?’

‘Duhno. Ohnce ih lehves the fahtory, ih’s noh my prohblem.’

‘Fair enough. Sound business sense. Right, here goes then.’

He went into the en-suite bathroom and I heard a splash as he emptied the bottle, then the tap running as he (presumably) rinsed it out and (hopefully) washed his hands.

‘Alright? Anything else you need?’

‘Thanks. Could yuh turn lights off and monitor on?’

Much as it pained me to point it out, I aimed a finger at the small plastic speaker on the table next to the bed. It was almost as humiliating as the piss bottle.

‘So Jay can hehr if I chohk to death.’

‘Oh, don’t do that mate. That would seriously dampen the festive mood. I might not be able to eat my Christmas dinner.’

And there it was again, the cheeky banter, black humour, just what I needed.

‘Fuck ohf. Oh shih, did yuh already tuhn it on?’

I’d started speaking just as he flipped the switch. Beth would have just got an earful upstairs. Dec shrugged, grinned, flicked the Christmas tree lights off and left the room with a youthful swagger. He was turning out to be surprisingly good to have around.

Dec

Jay was still in the living room, placing the last few presents on top of an enormous pile. He looked up at me when I came in, shaking his head.

łJesus, we’re going to be here all day tomorrow with this lot. I’m almost tempted to put some away for another day.

‘You can’t do that!’

łNo, suppose not. Matty alright? I heard Mum go up.

‘Yeah. Where’s the monitor linked to?’

łOur room – we’ve got one in here too, but it’s not always on. Why?

‘I think I might have made him tell Beth to fuck off via the intercom.’

I grinned. He looked at me and wagged his finger admonishingly.

łYou really are a bad influence, Declan Summers. Keep it up, you’re good for him. OK, that’s it. I am now officially bushed. It doesn’t feel right going to bed before midnight on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think I can last any longer. Here’s Cal’s stocking, make really sure he’s not awake when you do the switch. You going to bed now?

‘Yeah, need to get as much sleep as I can, it’ll soon be three o’clock.’

łIt certainly will, my friend. I look forward to the extra hours of sleep your presence has awarded us.

I followed Jay up the stairs, got undressed in the bathroom and crept into Cal’s room, using the landing light to see by. He was lying on his back, one arm flung over his head. His breathing was regular and his eyes were moving beneath his eyelids as if he was dreaming. As far as I could tell, he was asleep. I took the empty stocking off the post by his head, and hooked the full one on in its place. I stuffed the empty one deep in my bag, hoping I would remember to give it back before I left. Then I flicked off the landing light, climbed into bed and lay down.

I wanted to go to sleep, but after my conversation with Jay, there was too much swirling around for me to wind down. I hadn’t thought about Mum and Dad, or anything from back then, for a long time, not properly. I allowed myself to remember the last Christmas I’d had with them, at home, dinner, presents, everything. I could barely remember their faces. It made me sad. Conscious of Cal asleep above me, I pushed the memories away before they made me cry, as I didn’t think I’d be able to stop. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. I am flying around the world. First I visit Mum and Dad and younger me. It is Christmas Eve, and Mum is reading me the Christmas Mouse. I watch through the window as she closes the book, carries me to bed and tucks me in. Then I fly off, over the sea, chasing snowflakes and reindeer and twinkling stars until I reach Jay, Beth and Cal. Cal is opening presents on Christmas morning, Jay and Beth are watching. I fly in through the window and sit with them for a bit. Then I fly back up to the stars and watch the world shining. Someone is next to me. I look down and see brown boots. Look up and …

29. Anticipation

In which it is Christmas Eve and fever pitch is approached from several angles.

Matt

The next day began much as the others had, with Jay coming in, helping me to eat breakfast, drink some tea and then drink some of the ghastly build-up drink. Then it was time for the loo. My exciting life was the envy of all.

I could get myself out of bed and into my wheelchair without help these days, I was such an elite athlete, and on good days I could just about wipe my own arse and get myself back in my chair. Still didn’t have the energy to propel the wheelchair across the two metres of carpet to the bathroom though.

There was a shower in the bathroom, but it wasn’t a wet room; I was a long way away from being able to get into the cubicle and have a really good scrub, and I felt dirty, soiled, grimy. Jay had to give me a wash every day, although I did as much as I could with the bits I could reach. Often a shave was beyond my strength, and I convinced myself the stubble made me look dangerous, rather than how it actually made me look, which was like I was auditioning to sell the Big Issue.

That morning I managed a lot for myself, taking the flannel out of Jay’s hand at one point as he started to rub it over my face.

‘I cahn duh ih, thahks.’

‘Right you are, mate. Sorry, wasn’t concentrating, I’m used to doing it with Cal.’

Yeah, Jay, that made me feel tons better. But maybe he had things on his mind.

‘Tehnager trauhmas?’

‘Ha ha, no, everything’s working out OK so far. He’s still in bed, not that I’m surprised, he spends most of his life in bed.’

I could relate to that – maybe we had more in common than I realised.

‘Tahked tuh him yeht?’

‘No. Later today, maybe.’

Jay seemed reluctant, and I wondered how long he was going to put off having his serious conversation with Dec.

‘Dohnt lehv ih too lohng.’

‘Yeah yeah, don’t go on, already got Beth giving it all the ‘don’t put it off, it’ll spoil Christmas’ shit. Don’t need you nagging me too.’

It felt good to nag him, I didn’t have much opportunity to get my own back these days, but I shrugged and handed him the flannel.

‘You look like you’ve put on a bit of weight, mate.’

I looked up in pleased surprise.

‘Rehly?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Still look like an anorexic scarecrow, but it’s good to see. You still planning to do Christmas dinner tomorrow?’

Having Christmas dinner at the table with everyone else had become the focus for me of the last week. I hadn’t been ‘out’ to the rest of the house since I’d been here, and now I could sit out in the chair for a little while, I really wanted to join in with the festivities, rather than hear it all going on while I listened from my room.

I’d told Beth my plan, and she’d initially demurred, saying I wasn’t strong enough, but I badgered her, told her how good it would be for me, promised to rest between now and then, eat what they put in front of me, drink my disgusting build-up drinks, be a good boy, and eventually she gave in. I had no idea how long I would last, maybe not beyond the turkey being carved, but making the effort was important to me.

‘Yeh.’

‘Glad to hear it. Family Christmas, yeah?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Mum’ll be here soon. She called last night, all in a dither about something or other, did we want her to come early.’

‘Yeh?’

‘She had that thing at her friend’s, drinks thing, I said I’d go and get her if she wanted, but she chose the drink over us.’

‘Typihcal.’

‘Be prepared for a full on mothering assault.’

‘Dohnt mihnd.’

And I didn’t. Of all the people who fussed about and told me what to do, Mum was the one I was least resentful of. Not that I enjoyed it, but I knew how worried she was about me, and how traumatised she’d been by finding me half-dead on my bathroom floor. She didn’t come and see me every day, but three or four times a week she got the bus over, so she could sit and look and sigh.

‘You have been warned.’

Cal

I didn’t wake up until Mum came in to get me up and ask what I wanted for breakfast.

Dec was still asleep when I went downstairs, and he stayed asleep for hours. He always used to be asleep for hours, when he wasn’t doing training or playing in a rugby game, so although I was a bit disappointed he wasn’t playing with me, I wasn’t surprised.

After a while, Mum looked at the clock, tutted, and went up the stairs. I followed her, and she tapped on my bedroom door.

Dec

I must have fallen asleep for a while, because I woke up on my own, still up against the wall, with a stiff neck. It was light outside, and I could hear voices from downstairs. I should really get up. Before long, there was a tap on the door.

_Dec, are you awake in there?

‘Mm.’

_Just wondered if you want any breakfast? Only it’s getting on a bit.

‘What time is it?’

_Eleven thirty.

I couldn’t believe I had slept away my first morning here with them.

‘Shit.’

_Yeah, Cal’s right behind me here.

‘Sorry, yeah, I didn’t realise the time. I’ll get up now.’

_We need to do your dressings sometime today.

‘Yeah, sorry Beth, I meant to get up, I just went back to sleep.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart. So, breakfast or not?

‘I’ll grab something quick in a minute shall I?’

_OK. Just so you know, James’s mum’s here.

‘Thanks for the warning, no wandering down in my boxers then.’

_If you could avoid it; I don’t think she’s ever forgotten that incident.

I had met Jay’s mum many times on her visits to Jay and Beth. I used to sleep on Cal’s floor so she could use my room, but when Jay and Beth had the conservatory built, they used it as a guest room, so when she stayed I had forgotten she was there. I had met her at the bottom of the stairs, bleary with sleep, wearing only my boxers which I quickly realised from the shocked direction of her gaze were gaping rather revealingly. Jay hadn’t let me forget that one for some time.

‘Be down in a minute.’

I dressed quickly, spraying deodorant in lieu of a proper wash, as I’d got used to doing recently. I really hadn’t meant to sleep in for so long, but Cal’s night time visit had stopped me sleeping properly and I must have been catching up.

Cal

I went downstairs to wait for Dec in the kitchen. I’d been playing in Uncle Matty’s room, but I knew Dec would get his breakfast first, because he always did. Granny had come earlier, and she and Mum were doing cooking. The table was a bit messy, but there was room for my dinosaurs to make footprints in the flour while I waited for Dec.

Dec wasn’t long, and I stared when he came in. His hair was all short! Yesterday, his hair had been long, and like a girl, and now it was short and spiky. I hadn’t noticed when he was in bed, because it was dark. I looked at him now, as he talked to Mum and got his breakfast, but then he took his cup and his plate into Uncle Matty’s room, so I picked up my dinosaurs and followed him.

Dec

Downstairs, the kitchen was busy. Beth was peeling vegetables, Jay’s mum had an apron on and she was doing something with flour in a bowl. Could have been making pastry, I’d never been that knowledgeable about things that went on in the kitchen. Cal was sitting at the table, playing with dinosaurs. There was a radio on, playing a cheesy Christmas song. Oh yeah, it was Christmas Eve. I kept forgetting.

‘Hi Mrs Scott.’

#Declan. How are you?

It wasn’t a warm welcome. I sensed disapproval. Maybe I was being over-sensitive.

‘I’m good thanks. You?’

#I’m well, thank you.

‘It’s busy in here.’

_Lucky for you, you didn’t get up sooner, we’d have put you to work spud bashing.

‘Can I do anything now?’

_No, sweetheart, I was teasing. It would seem a bit strange to have you helping out voluntarily, not like old times at all. We’ve got it covered. Actually, though, tell you what you could do later, there are some things we need to do without a certain someone in attendance, and if you could go out with Cal for a bit after lunch that would be great.

‘Consider it done.’

_Kettle’s on, cup of tea? James is in with Matty.

‘I can do it. Anyone else?’

I made my tea and took it in to Matt’s room, only realising afterwards how easily I had lifted and poured everything. From the toys scattered on the floor, it looked like Cal had already been busy.

Matt

Jay helped me get dressed and was adjusting the bed when Dec walked in holding a mug. At least I assumed it was Dec. The long unkempt hair had disappeared, swallowed up overnight and replaced by a short, spiky haircut that had been messily arranged to hide the scar disappearing into his scalp. The nose was still obviously askew, and he needed to ditch the forlorn crop of straggly bum-fluff asap, but there was only so much a haircut could patch up.

He smiled at us.

‘Morning.’

Jay looked pointedly at his watch.

Well just about – bloody hell, where did all the girly hair go?’

‘Beth gave it a trim last night.’

Beth fancied herself as a bit of a hairdresser, and was always grabbing the scissors and snipping bits off Jay’s and Cal’s locks, whether they wanted it or not. To be fair, Cal had blond ringlets that would be the envy of many a fairy princess, and his hair needed a bit of taming now and then, but Jay had pretty standard mid-brown slightly wavy hair, and he put up with the fiddling with more patience than I would have given him credit for.

Beth had cut my hair shortly after coming out of hospital, as it had got so overgrown that it was either that or call in the dog groomers, but never again. Not that she did a bad job, really, but I’d got used to Becky, the girl who did my hair at Classy Cuts in Stafford city centre, and Beth twittered far too much, and didn’t ask about my holidays, and there was altogether too much fannying about and shit. Ugh. Anyway, she had managed to turn the kid into a half-decent looking human being rather than a two-legged afghan hound, so I suppose she deserved credit for that.

‘Much better. I see your sleeping habits haven’t changed much.’

‘Had a late night visit from Cal.’

Ah, let me guess, he persuaded you to let him get in your bed and you spent the rest of the night with no room while he slept like a log.’

‘Pretty much.’

Well you’ll know next time. We don’t let him in anymore.’

‘He said you – oh.’

It was entertaining to see the realisation cross Dec’s face that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the ‘my mum and dad let me’ trick.

Yeah, you’ve been Cal-ed. You’re out of practice, mate.’

Dec laughed. ‘I guess I am a bit. Hi Matt.’

The hint of banter that had begun yesterday felt like it needed a boost.

‘Mohning – ahftenohn?’ I raised an eyebrow.

Dec grinned and took the baton.

‘Yeah, whatever. Don’t you start, I thought us cripples were sticking together.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

I grinned too, enjoying myself.

‘Fuck right back off.’

His grin widened, and it was so great to hear someone telling me to fuck off, even if it was a joke; everyone was nice to me, even when I was being an annoying git, even Jay, who took less of my shit than most.

That’s what I like to see, a bit of Cripples Corner team spirit. Keep the morale up, boys. Oh, hi Cal.’

None of us had seen Cal sidle into the room, eyes wide at the amount of forbidden words that had just been uttered in the house.

Cal

It was just as well it was me and not Mum who had been listening from the hallway. She would have said ‘honestly’ to all of them. I giggled to myself, and Dad looked round and saw me.

‘Daddy, you just –’

Shh, I know, won’t happen again. Let’s have a look at this Lego here, shall we?’

I loved it when Dad played with me, he was really good at building things and remembered how to make a spaceship without reading the structions. I had a really good game going, so we both knelt on the floor and started building while Dec talked to Uncle Matty.

Matt

I looked up at Dec, who was biting his lip and looked pensive.

‘He’s in trohbl now. Cal alwahs tells.’

‘We probably are too, then.’

‘Noh, crihpls privileges.’

It felt like I had an ally. Like a naughty school friend who, with a bit of encouragement, might help me put itching powder on the teacher’s chair or switch the sugar for salt. It felt good, kind of like things didn’t always have to be so bloody serious any more.

Jay looked up from Cal’s cars.

Guys, you’re not helping. ‘

I laughed, but something went the wrong way, and fuck fuck fuck I started to cough, and then I couldn’t stop, and I was choking, gasping for breath, unable to suck enough into my lungs before the next cough tried to force itself out. Jay was instantly by my side, and I distantly heard Dec and Cal leave pretty sharpish.

Dec

łShit. Dec, can you take Cal for some squash in the kitchen? I just need to help Matty a minute.

I herded Cal out, the coughing and gasping sounding behind us. The kitchen was full of noise and activity. Something was steaming on the hob, the radio was still on, and something was being done with – I’d been right – pastry. Beth looked up.

_Everything OK?

\i’m having some squash.

‘Jay’s helping Matt – he’s having a bit of a cough.’

_Ohh, does he need any help?

‘He didn’t say.’

_I’d better go and see.

She washed her hands and hurried out.

‘OK, Cal, where’s the squash?’

\that cupboard. I want purple.

‘You’d like purple, please, is that what you said?’

\purple please.

I poured out the squash, filled up the glass and gave it to Cal, who sat at the table to drink it.

‘Can I get you anything, Mrs Scott? I might do another cup of tea.’

#Actually that would be nice. It’s been a busy morning so far.

I made the tea and put a mug in front of her, again feeling pretty pleased with how well I was managing with lifting the kettle and pouring the large milk bottle.

‘What’s that you’re making?’

#Mince pies. I brought some with me but we thought we’d do a few more. Matthew really likes them, it’s a good way of bulking him up a bit.

_Beth’s mince pies are great – er, I’m sure yours are too.

There was an awkward pause.

#You look like you’ve been in the wars. Jameson said you were in a fight?

I sensed more disapproval.

‘Well, no, not a fight exactly, I was on the wrong end of a kicking. Didn’t know much about it till I woke up in hospital.’

#You’re still recovering are you?

‘Yeah, had to have an operation, but it’s all going to plan I think.’

#Jameson and Beth were pleased you could come for Christmas.

It seemed obvious but unspoken, however, that she wasn’t that pleased.

‘It’s great to see them, and Cal. I’ve really missed them.’

#They’ve had a hard time over the last few months.

‘I know. I regret everything I’ve done that’s made it harder for them.’

I was very aware of Cal’s small ears listening while he played with his dinosaurs.

#You won’t upset them again, will you?

‘No.’

Cal

Granny wasn’t being very friendly to Dec. Granny was better than Mum and Dad at not saying things she didn’t want me to hear, but I’d heard her call Dec ‘that boy’ a few times, and she hadn’t looked very pleased when I’d told her Dec was coming for Christmas. Now she was using her ‘telling off’ voice, although Dec didn’t look like he thought he was being told off, at least not like he used to when Mum did it.

I didn’t want Dec to be told off, so I thought of something I could ask Granny, even though I knew the answer.

‘Granny where is your bed?’

I knew exactly where Granny’s bed was; it was in the spare room, where it always was.

Dec

Jay’s mum held my gaze while she answered Cal. I looked back at her and nodded. It was an acknowledgement and a promise.

Cal

‘It’s in the spare room, dear.’

Granny didn’t look at me while she answered, she was looking at Dec, as if she was saying one thing to him with her eyes and another thing to me with her mouth. Dec nodded, as if he was agreeing with her, and then she looked at me.

‘Will Santa know you’re here and not at home?’

‘Yes, dear, he knows where everyone is. He knows Declan’s here too.’

Granny always called people by their full names. She called me Calum, and Dad Jameson, and Dec Declan and Uncle Matty Matthew.

‘Dec probably told him – he can talk to Santa.’

I’d spotted an opportunity to put Dec in Granny’s good books. She couldn’t be cross with someone who could talk to Santa – it could make a big difference to how many presents you got.

Dec shrugged. I suppose it wasn’t polite to boast about it, although Granny didn’t look as impressed as I’d thought she would.

Dec

I shrugged with a modest smile.

#Oh, well that’s alright then. Calum, what are you having for your lunch? How about some beans on toast?

\kay. Can Dec share my beans?

‘How about I make it, eh, Cal? Remember woossy beans?’

Cal

‘Woossy beans! Can we have woossy beans?’

Woossy beans was my and Dec’s favourite thing when he was looking after me. It was beans on toast with woosser sauce in it, and we both said it was the finest lunch. Mum had tried to make it, but it never tasted the same as when Dec did it.

‘I’ll check in the cupboard – any idea where Worcester sauce might be, Mrs Scott?’

Matt

Then, while I was struggling to pull in the tiniest amount of useful breath and largely failing, Beth came in, and started rubbing my back while Jay filled a bowl with hot water and menthol, and put it under my nose. None of it ever worked, the coughing had always stopped on its own eventually, but just having them there calmed me, because when it happened, it felt like I was going to die, that I would never catch my breath again, that my insides were trying to hurl themselves out via my windpipe. But Beth knew how to offer soothing, comforting words, and whether they needed to call someone, and Jay – well, Jay was pretty useless, really, but he’d never leave until it was all over and he knew I was OK. Part of me wondered if he was waiting for an opportunity to chuck me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift so he could show off his strength, but that hadn’t been necessary so far and I was damned if I was going to give him the satisfaction – and then it stopped.

I gradually got more and more air inside me and the need to manually haul each breath in subsided; an extreme lethargy swept over me and took me down and I was asleep before they’d laid me down and put the duvet over me.

Cal

Granny opened the cupboards and tried to find the woosser sauce, but she still wasn’t having much luck when Mum came back in. Granny stopped looking so she could ask Mum how Uncle Matty was. I thought it was obvious that Uncle Matty was alright, otherwise Mum wouldn’t have come back in the kitchen, but I didn’t say this out loud.

Mum told Granny that Uncle Matty was asleep now, and asked what she was looking for in the cupboards.

‘Worcester sauce. For Cal’s lunch.’

Mum looked like she was going to say I didn’t like woosser sauce, then she thought about it, and I saw her remember that I only liked it in beans.

‘Ohh, woossy beans! You haven’t had that for ages, Cal.’

‘Dec’s making it for me.’

‘Are you sure you can manage, Dec?’

‘I’ll give it a go. Everything’s working much better now. I may need a hand to spread the butter, oh and possibly to open the tin.’

I kept forgetting that Dec had hurt arms. I could see he had a hurt face, but his arms seemed the same as normal until he couldn’t break apart the small Lego, or he couldn’t lean down on them for as long as he usually did.

Dec

We made the woossy beans on toast together, Cal and I ate it, then we got ready to go out. Beth had suggested the local garden centre, which was just down the road, and had lots of Christmas decorations, lights, and most importantly a Santa’s Grotto.

_You might not get in, but it’s worth a shot. Don’t promise Cal, though, in case it doesn’t happen.

It showed how much of Beth’s trust I had lost that she felt she needed to tell me how to be around Cal. It was a reminder of how much I had to do to prove myself to them.

_Can you ring me when you’re on your way back, give us a bit of warning?

‘Haven’t got a phone.’

_Oh, of course not, sorry, we haven’t – no, I forgot. Take mine, the number’s under ‘Home’.

Beth sounded like she had started to say something and then changed her mind. She had probably remembered what happened to my phone and was being considerate.

She gave me some money, just in case we got in to see Santa, which I really didn’t want, but I hadn’t got my new bank card yet, so I still had no cash. Not that there was anything in my bank account any more. So I had to accept Beth’s money. We walked along the path, Cal holding tightly onto my hand, chattering all the way.

We spent a long time at the garden centre looking at all the sparkle. There were loads of people there, and it was bustling and noisy. There was a long queue for Santa, so I asked Cal if he wanted to wait, it looked like at least forty-five minutes to me. He was keen, with conditions.

\can I have a slushie?

Cal

After lunch, which was the best woossy beans I’d ever had, Dec took me to the garden centre, which was just down the road. There were lots of Christmas trees and fairy lights, and a giant reindeer made out of sticks, and the most ginormous tree, even more ginormous than ours. Dec and I walked around looking at everything, and then we saw Santa’s Grotto, and I wanted to see Santa. Because it was Christmas Eve, there were lots of people, and lots of other children wanted to see Santa, so there was a line, and Dec said it would be a long time to wait, but he would buy me a slushie and wait with me.

While we waited, we started a story. It was one of our stories like we used to do on Sunday afternoons when it was raining, and I wanted to go to the park but the swings would be all wet. How it worked was, we had to make everything we saw go in the story. There was a lot to see while we were waiting in the line for Santa; when we first stood in the line, we were near a giant animaltronic Santa, which wasn’t as good as the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex was going to be at Dinosaurland, because the Santa was just waving his arm and turning his head, but he was the first thing to go in our story, because I started. We decided that Santa needed a sleigh, so we looked around to see something that he would be able to use. At first we didn’t see anything, and then Dec said:

‘Oh, you know what, Cal, I bet Santa’s sleigh is like a Transformer. I bet it kind of looks like one thing most of the year, and then on Christmas Eve, when he needs it, he presses a button, and it turns into his sleigh.’

This sounded like the best thing about Christmas I’d ever heard.

‘Yeah, I bet Santa’s sleigh is a dinosaur the rest of the year.’

‘I bet it is. I bet it’s a dinosaur made out of … er …’

Dec looked around, trying to find something like the rules of the story said.

‘Out of shovels, which stick up for spines on his back, and big hammers for his feet …’

‘And his eyes are torches, and when he changes into the sleigh, his eyes are the headlights.’

‘Good thinking Batman. And if it’s really snowy, he can use the shovels to dig a path.’

We carried on thinking about the story all the way in the line to Santa, and I had a really happy feeling inside, because I was with Dec and we were doing things like we used to, and it didn’t seem like we waited a long time at all before we were at the front, and a bit of me was disappointed because we were going to have to stop our story, and I knew that stories like that were never as good when you started them again, but most of me really wanted to see Santa so I could check about the things on my list.

I knew that this Santa wasn’t the real Santa, he would be one of his helpers just dressed up like Santa, but he would know what was on the list I sent him, and he would probably know Dec as well.

Dec

Cal was so creative and he sparked my imagination; I’d missed being with him loads, and was really enjoying getting reacquainted. We were soon at the front of the queue, Cal by now very excited. When it was his turn, he ran over to Santa and jumped up onto his knee.

*Hello young man, what’s your name?

\calum. Are you really Santa, or a helper?

*Well, I’m real and a helper. The real real Santa is coming tonight with your toys.

\did Dec ask him about Optimus Prime?

‘You know I did Cal, it’s all sorted.’

*Yes, I believe it’s all on the list?

Santa looked at me, did a slight double take presumably at my scars and bruises. I nodded.

\what about a Arsenal shirt?

Another look from Santa. I shrugged. Optimus Prime was as far as my Santa knowledge went.

*You’ll have to wait and see. It’s nice to have surprises, isn’t it?

Cal

I nearly said that it’s only nice if you get what you want and not if you don’t, but I was trying to be good and not mind too much if I didn’t have an Arsenal shirt because some children in Africa don’t even know Arsenal.

Dec

Cal continued to grill Santa.

\will Dec get a stocking?

Another shrug from me. An exasperated look from Santa behind his beard and glasses.

Cal

I asked if Dec would have a stocking, because he didn’t used to, but I didn’t know if this year was different, because it felt a bit different, and Santa said he would if he’d been good boy. I wasn’t sure if Dec had been a good boy, with him stealing and lying and making Mum and Dad cross, so I didn’t say anything else, and thought I might share some of my toys with Dec if he’d been too bad to have any of his own.

And then Santa said I could choose a present for today, from his lucky dip sack. There were lots of presents to choose from, but because they were all wrapped up, I couldn’t tell what they were. I looked at them, trying to decide whether I wanted the biggest, the smallest, or one that looked interesting. In the end I saw one that wasn’t big, or small, or flat and square like a colouring book, but was lumpy and hard when I squished it. I tore the paper off, and it was a dinosaur, but not one that I knew. It had its mouth open, and pointy white teeth, and a button that made its eyes flash red and a roar come out of its mouth. I showed Dec, who smiled at Santa, and made me say thank you.

Dec

Beth was just clearing away wrapping paper and sellotape when we arrived back. Cal didn’t notice, he was so intent on showing off his dinosaur.

\look what Santa gived me.

_Ooh, didn’t you do well. Did you have a nice time with Dec?

\we did a story about a dinosaur Transformer who was made of shovels and turned into Santa’s sleigh.

_Well it’s original. You’ll have to tell us that one, Dec, in case we’re asked for it again in the near future.

\can I show Uncle Matty my dinosaur?

_No, sweetheart, Uncle Matty’s still asleep. Play with Dec in the living room for now.

She looked at me to check.

‘Yeah, come on Cal, didn’t I see Jenga in your room?

\yes … but I’ve got Whirly Racers too.

‘Whirly Racers it is, go and fetch it.’

He ran out of the room to fetch his game.

_Thanks, Dec.

I shrugged, smiled and followed Cal. As I walked out I heard

_See? He’s so good with him.

#I do see that. He reminded Calum of his manners earlier. They seem very fond of each other.

We spent a lot of time racing small cars on the living room floor. Cal gave me the worst cars, so he won most of the time. He seemed very pleased with himself, whether because of his victories or his strategy I wasn’t sure. Half way through the afternoon, Beth came in with a bag.

_We need to do your dressings, Dec. Cal, go and sit with granny for a bit. She’s in the kitchen.

\oh but I want to watch.

Beth looked at me.

‘It’s fine, I don’t think it’s too gruesome.’

_Alright, then, stay for now but you go when I say, OK?

\kay Mummy.

I took my shirt off and Beth started to unwind the bandages that held the dressings in place, looking like she knew what she was doing – of course! She’d been a nurse, many years ago before she had Cal.

‘You’re good at this.’

_Don’t sound so surprised, it was my job.

‘I know, I just remembered.’

_It’s one of the things that made it easier to decide to look after Matty. I’ve seen it all before, I know how to do things, some idea about medication, when to call a doctor, all that stuff.

She carried on taking the dressings off, cleaning the scars with some fluid and cotton wool.

_These look pretty good, the stitches have nearly gone, there’s no swelling, no leakage. I think this could be your last dressing, Dec.

Cal had been watching intently, looking slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more blood.

\where does the sewing go?

_They’re special stitches that melt away after a while, so Dec doesn’t have to get the doctor to take them out. Is that what happened with the stitches in your face, Dec?

‘No, they took those out, and the ones in my back and legs. I had it done on Monday.’

Beth started putting new dressings on, and wound new bandages round them to hold them in place.

\mummy, can I have a bandage?

Cal

Mum never let me have plasters unless I really had a cut, but this time she looked at me and smiled.

‘How about a little tiny one on your finger?’

‘Kay.’

I held out my finger and Mum tied a bandage on the end of it. I held it up so Dec could see.

‘I can be in Cripples Corner now.’

I thought it would be alright to say it now I had a bandage. I was wrong.

Dec tried not to laugh, but Mum got cross.

‘Cal, remember what I said about not repeating everything Daddy says?’

‘But Dec and Uncle Matty say it too. It sounds funny.’

And it really wasn’t fair that everyone else was allowed to say it and I wasn’t.

‘Yes, I know, sweetheart, but it’s not, it’s not a nice word.’

‘Is it a swear?’

‘No, not a swear, but something I don’t want to hear you saying.’

‘Sorry, Cal, my fault mate. Let’s agree not to say it, if it upsets Mummy, yeah?’

That was a bit annoying. I wished I hadn’t said anything, because now nobody was allowed to say it.

‘Kay.’

‘Thanks, Dec. Right, I think that’s you all done.’

‘Nice job. Very professional. Good, eh, Cal? Bandage brothers, that’s what they’ll call us.’

‘Yeah, bandage brothers.’

I loved the name. And it sparked something off in my mind that Mum and Dad had talked about a while ago, about choosing a brother. If I could choose anyone for my brother, I’d choose Dec.

‘Dec, are you my new brother?’

‘What?’

Dec looked confused. Maybe I’d got it wrong. But Dec didn’t have a mummy and daddy, I was pretty sure of it, and if Mum and Dad wanted to give a me new brother, it just made sense to have Dec – he already did all the things brothers were supposed to do, like playing with me, and wrestling with me, and knowing which was a stegosaurus and which was a triceratops. And we already knew him. Then I saw Mum look at me and shake her head.

‘Cal –’

‘But Mummy, you said I might be having a new brother –’

‘Cal! I also said it was a secret.’

Well now I was really confused. If I could choose Dec as my brother, surely he’d have to know the secret too? I decided not to say anything else about it, because it just seemed to get me into trouble, even when it all made perfect sense.

Dec

I was a bit slow, but got there in the end.

‘Beth!’

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

_Yes, well now you know. But Carol doesn’t know yet, it’s very early days. I should have known big-mouth here would spill the beans, he heard me and James talking and worked it out. I suppose we’ll have to tell her now. God, she’ll never forgive me for you knowing before her.

‘Knowing what? Never heard a word. Congratulations for nothing, by the way. Wow.’

_Thanks, Dec.

She gave me a big, tired smile, patted me on her perfectly executed bandages, and left me to more Whirly Racing with Cal. I wondered briefly whether Beth’s news would change anything, but it was just one more thing I had no control over, and things had already changed beyond recognition anyway, so I hardly thought about it again.

Cal

So now Dec and I knew a secret together, and that felt better. Mum smiled at us, and then left us to get on with more Whirly Races.

Uncle Matty was asleep all the afternoon, and Dad was in his room, watching in case he coughed again or got more poorly, so Dec and I played and talked and fed Percy and made up more stories. The stories were mostly about Christmas, because Christmas was tomorrow, and I couldn’t think about much else.

At dinner time, Dad came out of Uncle Matty’s room, and Granny went in instead. They could have put the speaker on to hear for coughing, but when Uncle Matty had coughed a lot, they were all worried about him, and wanted to be near him, and wanted him to be in the quiet, so I couldn’t play in there.

Dec

The afternoon wore on, grew dark and became Christmas Eve proper. Cal got more and more excited, talking nineteen to the dozen about Santa, stockings and presents. Jay, who had been sitting with a sleeping Matt most of the afternoon, emerged for dinner looking tired. His mum went to sit in while Jay ate. Beth rubbed his shoulder.

_How’s he doing?

łStill sleeping it off. He’ll be OK, I think. He’s got some of the colour back in his cheeks. He wants to join in tomorrow so much, he needs to rest up. Jesus, Beth, I hate it when that happens. He can’t get his breath, you can just see it sucking his strength, right before your eyes.

_I know, it’s horrible. You were great.

łSorry, Dec, we’ve left you with Cal all day.

‘I’ve had a great time. Been exploring my inner six-year-old.’

_Oh, James, just to warn you, Cal told Dec our news.

łOur news? Oh. Shit.

Cal, wisely, didn’t comment on this particular swear and carried on eating his dinner as if butter wouldn’t melt. Jay put his face in his hands and breathed in deeply.

łWe’re going to have to tell Mum, now, aren’t we. And then your mum, and oh God, everyone. So much for keeping it quiet.

Beth nodded.

_Can’t be helped. Nice Christmas present?

łYeah, think positive.

He kissed her on the cheek, looked at me and winked.

Cal

Mum told Dad that I’d let Dec know the secret – Dad said a swear, but Mum didn’t say ‘James honestly’, and Dad winked at Dec, so I thought it might be OK. Dad said they’d have to tell Granny, so it wouldn’t be a secret for much longer, and I was glad because sometimes it was hard to remember not to say things until I’d said them and it was too late.

Then Dad did the list at me, the one about going to bed. He did the list because I would sometimes try to do lots of other things before I went to bed, and the list meant I couldn’t, I could only do what was on the list.

So, Cal, after dinner it’s bath, PJs, story, bed. No arguing, no slow-coaching. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

There wasn’t much room for slow-coaching if Dad followed the list, but I could at least take a long time over eating my dinner, and see if I could hear Mum and Dad saying anything interesting to Dec.

‘James, me and your mum are going to sit with Matty once Cal’s in bed. You and Dec could use the living room …’

For?’

‘Well, I know you wanted to have a talk with Dec.’

Dec

łOh, our deep and meaningful. Jesus. Sorry, Dec, not very subtle. Up for it?

‘Sure.’

It was one of the things I’d been dreading since arriving. Sorting things out with Jay was going to be painful, and bring up a lot of things I’d prefer remained buried, and a part of me worried that I’d fucked some things up so much they couldn’t be sorted or explained or forgiven. But it needed doing, and avoiding it wouldn’t make it any easier later on.

\daddy, what’s deep pan meanyful? Is it pizza?

Jay laughed out loud.

łNo Cal, it’s not pizza. I kind of wish it was.

_Daddy means him and Dec are going to talk for a while after you’ve gone to bed.

\can’t I stay and listen?

_No, sweetheart, you need to go to bed and sleep so Santa can bring your presents.

łCal, remember the list – bath, PJs, story, bed. No deep pan meanyful on the list.

\kay, Daddy.

Cal

Dad reminded me about the list, which didn’t have listening to talking, or pizza, on it anywhere, worse luck.

Dec

Cal prolonged finishing his dinner longer than I thought humanly possible – he really was an expert in avoiding going to bed. When he finally conceded that he had finished, Jay took him upstairs for a bath.

Cal

After dinner, Dad took me for a bath, and we put loads of bubbles in it and played with my submarine for ages. Dad put bubbles on my head like white hair, and put some on his chin, like a Santa beard, and it was funny.

When the water started to get cold, I got out of the bath and dried in the towel, then got my Christmas PJs on, the ones with snowflakes and Christmas trees. I’d worn them every weekend since the beginning of December, and now it was Christmas Eve, so it was definitely a good time to wear them.

Dec

Beth and I sat in the living room, watching a soppy Christmas film on TV. It might have been Love Actually, I obviously had no interest in such slushy nonsense. Jay’s mum was still sitting with Matt. In a break from the romantic traumas of Hugh Grant, I decided to check about my role on Christmas Day.

‘What’s the drill for tomorrow?’

_Not sure there’s a drill, sweetheart, we’ll just see how it goes. A lot depends on Matty. We were going to do some presents in his room, and he really wants to get up for dinner, but after today I don’t know if he’ll be up to it. He hasn’t been out of bed properly for a couple of days, so we’ll have to see. I hate to leave him out of things, but he gets so tired, we have to judge it at the time.

‘Sounds tricky.’

_It can be hard to make the call, he’s very stubborn, and doesn’t like to give in, so we just have to keep an eye on him. His colour changes when he’s had enough, so does his breathing.

‘Is he going to be OK?’

_Oh, Dec, nobody really knows. The combination of pneumonia and MS is a bit of an unknown quantity. He’s better than he was, but it’s slow progress. Something like today could be a setback, or he could wake up tomorrow full of beans.

‘It’s a bit shit, isn’t it.’

_Yes, sweetheart, it is a bit shit. Anyway, are you ready for your early morning Santa call?

‘How early is that likely to be?’

_Well, I don’t know if you remember last year, but if that’s anything to go by, it will be about three o’clock the first time, and you’ll be able to tell him firmly to go back to sleep. Second time, and if you’re lucky he’ll make it to four, he’ll be more persuasive. He definitely can’t open his stocking until five – he can come into our room to do that. It’s hanging by his bed – there’s a duplicate full stocking, James is going to change it over before we go to bed. Under no circumstances let him persuade you that he is allowed to come downstairs and open any presents under the tree. Carol and Matty will kill you if they miss anything.

‘So I’m going to have a sleepless night pretty much from three then?’

_Yep. OK with that?

‘Absolutely fine.’

Bath time over, Cal bounced into the living room carrying another large book. This one was about space. He was about to take a giant leap onto the sofa next to me.

łMind Dec’s arm.

He clambered carefully on instead, still managing to bash my bandaged arm with the huge book. I lifted my arm up and put it round him.

‘Which chapter?’

\man on the Moon.

łRight, I’m listening this time, you two. One chapter only.

Cal had chosen well, it was a really long chapter, with lots of pictures to talk about apart from the writing, and we made it last a good long time. When we reached the end of the last page, I glanced up at Jay, who was watching me in amusement.

Cal

The chapter about Man on the Moon was really long, and had lots of pictures to talk about. Dec read slowly, and we looked at some of the pictures twice, but Dad was listening this time, and when Dec got to the end of the chapter, we both looked up. Dad was looking back at us.

You may well check me out, I have read this chapter many times, and I know that is the end of it. Bed now, Cal.’

‘Ohh, Daddy –’

What’s next on the list after story?’

‘Bed.’

Have you had your story?’

‘Yes.’

So what’s next?’

‘Bed. But –’

No buts. Just bed. Come on, I’ll carry you up if you like.’

That was the problem with the list. You couldn’t argue with it, it was just a list.

Dad stood up and I jumped up so he would catch me. He held me upside down so Mum could kiss me night night, and I said night to Dec, then Dad carried me upstairs.

My stocking was lying on the top of my bed, and I climbed the ladder and hung the stocking on the end of the bed, almost hugging myself with excitement, because when I woke up tomorrow, Santa would have been, and the stocking would be full of shapes that squished and rustled, and I would have new toys.

Dec

Beth looked over at me once Cal was safely out of earshot.

_So far, so good. I’m expecting a few false starts. Right, I’ll vacate the room and leave you and James to it.

She stood up, left the room and closed the door. I flicked the TV off, and sat nervously, feeling like I was waiting for a job interview or an exam.

28. Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

In which ordinary things bring tears for Dec and delight for Cal; hair is cut; things are said and not said.

Cal

Dec came into the living room with Dad and me, so I could show him the Christmas tree. There were some presents under it, even though Santa hadn’t been yet, because they were for Mum and Dad from Nana Jane and Dada Rich, and Santa didn’t bring all the presents for grown-ups, they had to buy them for themselves sometimes. The day after tomorrow, there were going to be heaps and heaps of presents because Santa would have been. I couldn’t wait.

‘Great tree.’

I knew Dec would like it. He always helped to decorate the tree in our other house.

‘Look Dec, this is the snowman you made.’

I pointed to the decoration I’d chosen to hang on one of the lower branches.

‘Oh yeah, we made him last year, didn’t we? I didn’t think he made the grade though, last Christmas – and he’s lost his nose.’

‘Mummy said it’s a family tree, and I choosed it to go on for you because you made it.’

‘Thanks mate, it’s perfect.’

Dec looked like he was trying not to cry again, and it was getting silly. He’d nearly cried at least twice and actually cried twice too, and I didn’t understand it.

Dec

I was choking up again, the good memories from the past rearing up and ambushing me.

‘Oh sh – eep shoes.’

\why do you keep crying?

‘Sorry, Cal, I don’t really know. I’ve missed you all a lot and I’m happy to be here.’

\but people cry when they’re sad.

łDec’s keeping in touch with his feminine side. We’ll lock him up with Uncle Matty all day tomorrow, they’re as bad as each other.

Cal

It was true that Uncle Matty cried quite a lot as well, but I wasn’t sure that locking him up with Dec was going to help. It would just make them both cry all day instead.

Mum came in with some biscuits and told Dad it was alright to cry even if you are a boy, or a man, and Dad looked sorry but didn’t say he was. But it had made me think about why both Dec and Uncle Matty were crying all the time now, when they didn’t used to.

‘Do people cry when they’re cripples?’

‘Cal! That’s a horrible word, where did you hear that?’

Uh-oh. I hadn’t expected that. I had no idea it was on the list of bad words. But it wasn’t my fault, and I needed to point this out to Mum.

‘Daddy said it. He said Uncle Matty’s room is Cripples Corner.’

‘James! Honestly. Look what you’ve done now. Cal, it’s a not very nice word for people who can’t do things as well as other people. Daddy was only joking, but it wasn’t very funny.’

That was just like Mum, to say something wasn’t funny when everyone thought it was, and stop the funny thing from happening. I really didn’t want to be in trouble this close to bedtime, and decided to lay the blame on Dad.

‘He said grown-ups can swear in Cr … Uncle Matty’s room. Uncle Matty said a big swear before he went to sleep. Dec said a swear too.’

I was just trying to point out that worse words had been said, so that no one got in trouble for saying Cripples Corner.

‘James, honestly. When Cal grows up with the foulest mouth at school, I’ll know who to blame.’

Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.’

‘OK Cal, time for a bath and bed I think.’

Would I ever learn? This always happened when Dad did something silly – I got sent to bed early.

‘Ohh, but I want to have a story.’

‘You can have a story, sweetheart. Dec, how about it? Cal’s missed your bedtime stories.’

That was alright then; if I was going to get a story from Dec, the first one in about a million million years, I could make this last a very long time. I was really good at making going to bed last for ages, and I was even better when I had a story.

‘Oh, I’d love to. Bath first, Cal, then choose a book, yeah?’

Well, yes, but only after I’d tried for something else.

‘But can’t I watch some Harry Potter first?’

‘No, sweetheart, we can watch DVDs tomorrow. Bath now.’

‘Oh but can’t I –’

‘No. Bath. Now.’

Mum had her ‘no arguing’ voice on, and I knew there was no point carrying on, although I was as slow as I could be going out of the room.

Dec

Cal eventually dragged himself out of the room, as slowly as he could. The phone rang as Beth and Cal were making their way up the stairs. Jay reached over for a handset that was on the coffee table and had a conversation with his mum, which seemed to be about arrangements for her visiting tomorrow. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows, shaking his head. The conversation carried on, it seemed pretty standard mum stuff.

ł… no, he’s asleep, pretty wiped out … not bad today … we’re doing fine … Mum, don’t worry, we can manage, it’s no problem … nobody’s expecting you to do it, we want to … stop it now, we’ve talked about this … you’re coming tomorrow, you come over all the time … don’t start this again … oh Mum, don’t … you’ll be here tomorrow, see us all then. Or come tonight if you want to … yeah, that’s what I thought … go and enjoy yourself … OK … OK … see you tomorrow … bye.

He pressed the button and tossed the phone back onto the table.

łJesus, she’s hard work at the moment. Sorry, Dec, she goes on a bit. Guilty about us looking after Matty, but she can’t do it, she’s got arthritis. We don’t mind, we want to do it, but she can’t let it go. Sorry, not your problem. But I guess you might hear us discussing it more than once in the next few days.

‘Sounds really difficult.’

łYeah. We’re all still getting used to how things are. Anyway, what’s this I hear from Nico about you remembering being beaten up?

‘Oh. Yeah. I forgot I can’t scratch my arse without you all telling each other about it these days. It was weird, I had this kind of dream after my operation. When I woke up, it was clear as anything, I could just remember. I know, don’t look at me like that, everyone’s asked, I just know I’ve remembered.’

The images started crowding in again, and with an effort I pushed them away.

łSo you’re sure, it was Ben Hearne?

‘Yeah, and someone else. I can’t place him, but I think I know him.’

łJesus, Dec, that’s tough, wasn’t he your mate?

‘Yeah. It’s weird. And hard. But it felt the same when I thought it was DivDav. I should probably apologise to Dav, he will have had the police visit him and all sorts.’

łFrom what I hear he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory before.

‘No, but we made up, he apologised, I apologised. I will have fucked all that up again now.’

łCan’t be helped. If he’s a good mate he’ll understand and you can mend it. If not, well, you’re probably better off.

We both backed away from that statement, as it hit a bit closer to home than either of us were comfortable with. From upstairs we could hear squeals and splashes.

‘Sounds like he’s overcome his reluctance.’

łYou know what he’s like. Loves a bath, hates being made to have one. Pretty good at procrastinating. Potent combination as far as getting him to bed is concerned.

‘He’s really growing up, he’s changed loads.’

łI know, it goes so fast, I’m scared I’m going to miss something. He’s so excited about Christmas – you know he thinks you’ve got some kind of connection with Santa?

‘How do you know I haven’t?’

łFair point. Does that mean if I ask you, you can sort me a Lamborghini?

‘Nah mate, left it too late. All the Lambos are spoken for. Could sort a Skoda.’

łHm, might leave it then –

The phone rang again, this time it was Rose. Jay gave me the handset.

‘Rose, hi, you got there OK?’

:Yes, love, just thought I’d check how you’re doing.

‘Good thanks.’

:How’s everyone?

‘Great, it’s great to see them. How about your sister and nephew?’

:Well I haven’t seen Gethin yet, he’s out with his friends, but I’ve had a grand catch up with Bron. Lots to do tomorrow, all the family are coming round.

‘Sounds great, have a good time.’

:You too, love. Just a quick one, got to go and do a last minute supermarket shop. Don’t forget to change your dressing tomorrow.

‘It’s all sorted. Thanks for organising me.’

:You’re welcome, love, see you in a few days, I’ll ring again. Tara.

‘Bye Rose.’

Unbelievably, she’d set me off again, and I tried to wipe my eyes surreptitiously. Without me even realising it, I’d been letting Rose organise me, care for me, and I hardly protested any more. With things getting better between me and Jay and Beth, it was starting to feel like I wasn’t so alone, and it touched me somewhere deep.

łBloody hell, Dec, you seriously need to sort your tear ducts, they’re having a major malfunction today.

‘Sorry. I’m trying. Being here is pretty huge.’

łI know, mate. Don’t worry about it. Rose is a bit of a find. How exactly did you drag her into all this?

‘I didn’t do any dragging. She kind of was just, suddenly, there. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. She lives downstairs from me. I’ve only known her a few weeks. Feels like a lifetime.’

łShe’s really got your back, mate, you’ve made an impression.

‘I know. She’s amazing. I seriously don’t know what the fuck I’d have done without her.’

From upstairs, we heard a thump and then small feet thundering down the stairs.

łUh-oh, sounds like story time has arrived. Ready?

I grinned, wiped my eyes.

‘Ready.’

Cal burst into the room carrying a large book. He jumped onto the sofa next to me, bumping the book into my right arm and making me wince. He didn’t notice but Jay did.

łHey, well done Dec, no big swears.

\what, Daddy?

łNothing, Cal, just be careful of Dec’s arm, it’s still sore.

\dec, I’ve brought my dinosaur book. I can’t find about the porridge.

łAh, Dec, maybe you can clear this up. Ever since Cal, er, went to Dinosaurland on his own, he’s talked about this porridge stuff. He said you told him. We have no clue.

Cal

Although I’d mostly known Dec was making it up about the porridge at Dinosaurland when we were waiting for Mum and Dad to come in the car, I wanted to make sure, and I wanted to have that feeling where I was almost sure Dec was teasing me but not quite.

‘Oh, well, Cal, you won’t find it in your book, because the porridge is only for Dinosaurland dinosaurs. It’s only for dinosaurs that meet the public. These ones in your book lived a long time ago, and never met people. They would have eaten us all if they had. So the Dinosaurland dinosaurs have special porridge for breakfast to fill them up, so they don’t want to eat people in the day.’

And there it was, that feeling. Dec was joining in, and rather than saying he made it up, he was saying more things to make it sound like it was true. I loved it, I loved arguing with Dec, because we both knew what was true and what wasn’t, and we were just being silly. I felt like I hadn’t been silly with Dec for a long, long time.

‘But the Dinosaurland dinosaurs aren’t real, they’re just pretend. Some of them are made of plastic.’

Dec

Cal said this patiently as if trying to explain something very simple to a very stupid person who might possibly believe the dinosaurs at Dinosaurland were real. Jay had been looking impressed at my bullshit, but laughed at this deflating comment from the small genius.

‘You’re right, and I guess the porridge is kind of pretend as well, but just in case, you can never be too careful, it’s best to make sure they don’t feel peckish just as a boy, say one called Calum who is six years old, is about to visit their park.’

Cal looked dubious, but let it pass.

\i don’t want a story.

I was gutted, I had been looking forward to this since Beth had suggested it.

‘Oh, OK. No worries.’

\i want you to read this book.

‘Oh.’

Immediate happiness.

‘What, the whole book?’

Cal’s face lit up.

Cal

Dec was joking again. He knew I’d never be allowed the whole book, because it would take hours and hours to read it all, and I would be really late to bed. But I thought I’d go for it anyway.

‘Can I?’

Dec might have said yes, but Dad wasn’t about to. He never let me stay up longer.

No, Cal, it’s too long. Choose one chapter. Dec needs to get to bed sometime tonight.’

‘OK, which chapter?’

Then Dec whispered in my ear:

‘Which one’s the longest?’

I looked up at Dec, and knew he’d remembered how I liked to take a really long time going to bed.

I whispered back:

‘The one with Tyrannosaurus Rex.’

Dec sat back and said, louder:

‘You know what, I fancy reading about Tyrannosaurus Rex. OK, reading position please.’

This was the best bit. Dec held his arm out and I snuggled under it, while Dec put his arm round me, just like he had in the shelter at Dinosaurland, just like he always used to. He had the book on his knee, so I could see it and turn the pages.

Dec read the words, and I told him when he’d missed things out and got things wrong, so we did it together. We spent a long time looking at pictures and talking about the different things in the chapter. It was just like it used to be; Dec always used to read my story before I went to bed. When he didn’t live with us any more, it was sometimes hard to go to sleep without my story from Dec. Now it was right again.

Dec

Beth came in half way through, and sat next to Jay, who put his arm round her. She looked tired, but smiled over at Cal and me. I carried on reading, keeping my voice low so Cal would relax before bed time. I’d done this routine so many times before; I’d nearly always read to Cal if I was in when he went to bed. Doing it again felt so normal and so completely amazing. We got to the end of the chapter, and I turned over the page and quickly started reading the next one. Cal looked up at me, and I winked back at him. He nestled in closer, smiling to himself. Half way through the chapter, Jay realised.

łHang on, this isn’t about Tyrannosaurus Rex any more

‘Oh, I must have turned over the page by mistake. Might as well carry on now, it’s nearly the end of the chapter.’

Cal giggled.

łHm. We’ll let it slide this once. You’re a terrible pair.

I high-fived Cal and continued reading. This time at the end of the chapter I closed the book.

‘Come on, Cal let’s get you to bed.’

Cal

I nearly argued, but I’d done quite a lot of arguing, and Dec had gone past the end of the chapter for me once, so I sat up.

‘Can you tuck me in?’

‘Course.’

‘Can you carry me upstairs?’

‘Ah, no, I’m sorry Cal, my arms aren’t strong enough yet. You’re getting really big. If you want a carry, Daddy can do it.’

I’d forgotten about Dec’s hurt arms, but the way Dec said it made me feel like it wasn’t my fault I’d forgotten, and that it was because I was a big boy now.

‘Am I too strong for your arms?’

‘Yeah, mate. Much too big and strong. Race you upstairs though. Say goodnight to Mummy and Daddy first.’

I kissed Mum and Dad goodnight as quickly as I could, then ran up the stairs, so I could beat Dec. I beat him easily, because I was really fast, and maybe a little bit because he had hurt arms and legs. I went up the ladder quickly, and by the time Dec got into the room, I was under the duvet. I really, really wanted it to be time for Dec to go to bed, so he could be underneath, and maybe we could talk and tell jokes.

Dec

\are you coming to bed now?

‘Not just yet, but I won’t be long. I’ll try not to wake you up. I might snore though. My nose is a bit sore and it might make some noises.’

\daddy snores, I can hear him.

‘Well, if you hear me you can wake me up and tell me to stop. OK?’

Cal

I’d thought of lots of questions to ask Dec, some of them were ones I really wanted to know the answer to, and some of them were so I could stay up for longer. And some of them were both.

‘Kay. Dec, when you came to Dinosaurland, why did you run away?’

Dec

Fuck, that one took me by surprise. No Jay or Beth to rescue me now, either.

‘Oh, well, er, it was when Mummy and Daddy were cross with me, do you remember?’

Cal

I nodded. Of course I remembered, it wasn’t very long ago.

‘And, er, it made me sad to see them, so, er, I just ran away instead of talking to them. Not very brave, was it.’

‘But are they still cross with you?’

Mum had explained it a bit, but had mainly said to wait until Dec was here so we knew how we all felt. Now Dec was here, I wanted to know.

Dec

Shit, this was a minefield.

‘I’m not sure I can answer that, Cal, I think you’ll have to ask Mummy and Daddy. But I think sometimes being cross isn’t as important as caring about someone.’

Cal

‘Sometimes Mummy is cross with me. She shouts.’

And I knew she got cross with Dec sometimes, before, when he didn’t take his plate to the dishwasher, or put his pants on the floor instead of in the washing basket, but when they’d been really cross with him, I hadn’t heard any shouting at all, and it confused me.

‘I know, Cal, but she always loves you even when she’s cross. Always. She never stops. You need to go to sleep now, and stop asking awkward questions.’

So it seemed that no one was going to tell me if Mum and Dad were still cross with Dec. If Mum and Dad didn’t know, and Dec didn’t know, I wasn’t quite sure who did. I was going to ask Mum again tomorrow. Thinking about it made me remember that I wanted to know about Dec stealing and lying.

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Why were Mummy and Daddy cross with you?’

Dec

So this was still on his mind. I was going to have to tread carefully – when I’d told him before, it had caused all sorts of problems.

‘I think I told you that.’

Cal

‘I’ve forgotten.’

It was a long time ago that Dec told me. I could have forgotten. I had forgotten a little bit, I was sure.

‘Cal, it’s not something … oh I suppose … OK, last time I told you, you got upset, and that made your mum and dad even crosser. You know I’m always straight with you don’t you?’

It was true. Dec always told me the truth, and didn’t tell me what only little boys should know. I nodded.

Dec

I was always up front with Cal. I tried not to mislead him, but this was hard. I tried to figure it out as I went along.

‘I took some money that didn’t belong to me, and did a lot of other things that I didn’t tell anyone about for a long time, so that when they found out, it was the same as if I’d lied about it.’

I searched Cal’s face for any signs of being upset, but he just looked at me as he asked his next question.

\were you sorry?’

Cal sounded so grown-up. I could hear Beth’s influence in his question – Beth was big on sorry, and she was turning Cal into a mini-me from the sounds of it.

‘Yes I was, I am, really sorry.’

\did you say sorry to the people?’

This was something else from Beth. It wasn’t enough to be sorry, you had to say it too.

‘I’ve said sorry to everyone I can think of. And I gave the money back.’

Cal

I didn’t think Dec could have done much more – he had done everything Mum would have told him to do. And now he had been poorly and couldn’t use his arms properly, so it would be wrong to be cross with him. Mum was always saying we should be nice to people who didn’t have as much as us, or were poorly, but I didn’t know how to say this to Dec, as it didn’t seem polite. I decided to talk about something else.

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Is it Christmas Eve tomorrow?’

I knew it was. It was one of the questions to make going to bed last longer.

‘Yeah.’

‘Is Granny coming?’

And so was that.

‘I think so.’

‘Are you having a stocking from Santa?’

Yep, that too. I asked too many questions, and Dec worked it out.

‘I think you need to go to sleep and stop using delaying tactics. I’m turning the light off now. ‘Night.’

He ruffled my hair and turned the light off, and walked out of the room, leaving the door open a crack how I liked it, so the monsters didn’t come in.

Dec

I went back downstairs, thinking I should talk to Jay and Beth about Cal’s understanding of how things had been with us for the last few months, but they were asleep on the couch, heads resting against each other. I couldn’t disturb them, so went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of coffee. There was a small TV in there, which I flicked on and sifted through the channels. I stopped at a repeat of a rugby game from the weekend which I put on, just as background, but found myself absorbed in it.

Apart from the Raiders game I’d watched at the club the day of the press conference, I hadn’t watched TV rugby for a long time. I really enjoyed watching this repeat, and got carried away disagreeing with one of the pundits who seemed a bit up himself. I told him so in a loud voice, then remembered where I was as I heard movement from the living room. Voices. Beth came into the kitchen, looking bleary and carrying dirty cups.

_Dec, what are you doing in here?

‘Didn’t want to disturb you.’

_Sorry we fell asleep, we’re such lightweights these days. Thanks for putting Cal to bed. Was he OK?

‘Yeah … although he was asking some difficult questions, about how things have been. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, I didn’t know what you’d told him. He asked if you’re still cross with me.’

_Oh.

‘And he said you’re cross with him sometimes. I don’t know if he thinks it’s the same thing.

_Oh. He’s trying to make sense of it all. It’s all a bit complicated, isn’t it. What did you say?

‘Not much. I didn’t think it was up to me to say whether you’re still cross with me. I said you always love him, even when you’re cross with him. He … er … he asked about what I did, as well. You know, with the money and everything.’

Beth’s expression became wary.

_Oh? What did you tell him?’

‘That I’d told him before, but he said he’d forgotten, so I said I took some money, but gave it back, and did some things I didn’t tell anyone about which was like lying.’

This was hard to say. It was, in short, everything that had come between us for the last few months. Beth nodded, still apprehensive.

_Did he say anything?’

‘He asked if I said sorry.’

Beth smiled, then.

_He’s a good boy. Anything else I need to know about?

‘No, he changed the subject.’

_Oh Dec, you’re great with him. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, try to explain things a bit. You and James need to talk, too, about loving people you’re cross with. Not tonight though. But soon. Shall I trim your hair quickly before we go to bed?

Beth rummaged in a drawer and held up a pair of scissors.

_Put this round your shoulders.

She tucked a towel into my shirt and ran her fingers through my hair. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had it cut – hadn’t really thought about it at all, could hardly remember looking at myself in a mirror over the last few months.

_How short do you want it? I’m going to have to be careful where this scar goes into your scalp. Oh, sweetheart, when I think what they did to you … it makes me shudder.

There was a silence. She was standing behind me, and I felt her touch the tender bit on my scalp where the hair had been shaved away and the stitches had been.

_This bit’s a lot shorter. Anyway, I’ll be careful, so how short?

‘Er, don’t really know, whatever you think.’

_How about that spiky Brad Pitt thing you had going on last summer?

‘If you like, sounds great. Never hurts to look like Brad Pitt, I suppose.’

_Ha ha, well your hair can lead the way at least, it’s the same colour. I’m not sure he’s ever quite matched the way your face looks at the moment, though, so maybe you’ve got one up on him. When did we last do this? Feels like ages.

‘Must’ve been before you went to Portugal.’

_Have you not had it cut since then? No wonder it’s got so long.

‘Haven’t really thought much about my hair.’

_I suppose not. We’ve all had a lot on our minds I guess.

There was so much we weren’t saying. Beth looked tired, and I didn’t think I could face confronting everything that needed it just now, only a few hours after I’d arrived. I was enjoying the closeness and sense of normality that being here had brought. I didn’t want to spoil it so soon by picking apart everything that had happened in the last few months, but until I did, things were going to feel a bit superficial. I sat, cowardly, and felt Beth cut my hair.

_ Right, that’s the hatchet job finished. What do you think?

She held up a mirror. I had to admit that it made a difference – I’d ignored my hair for months, and its messy state had become another part of me. Now, despite the ruins of my face, I looked half way to normal. There was a big pile of hair on the floor around my feet to prove just how much crap I needed to cut away to make things right.

‘That’s great, thanks Beth. Feels a zillion times better. A weight off my mind.’

_Ha ha. It looks better though, sweetheart, more like you.

She ruffled my new hair cut, then swept up hair clippings into the bin.

_Right, I think we’re off to bed. I know it’s still early, but we’re done in. You’ll be OK with Cal tonight?

‘Yeah, looking forward to dreaming of dinosaurs.’

_See you tomorrow, sweetheart.

I heard her talk to Jay, then heard them both go upstairs. I stayed watching TV for a while, feeling a little bit like an intruder in the otherwise silent house. Finally my eyes started to droop and I made my way up to Cal’s room, turning lights off as I went. I undressed in the bathroom, made my way to the bottom bunk by feel in the darkness, climbed in and slept.

Dreaming. Jumbled images of brown boots, being chased, fighting, struggling.

Cal

I thought I would be awake until Dec came to bed, and then we could whisper jokes to each other, but I didn’t hear him come to bed, and I woke with a jump when I heard noises coming from under me. It was somebody talking, but not saying words.

‘Mm … nnn … no … no … mm …’

I remembered Dec was sleeping in the bottom bed, and I climbed down the ladder to stand next to him, listening, in case he woke up and said something I understood. I bent over so I was right next to Dec’s face, and he suddenly woke up and sat up. Except he was in the underneath bed, so he banged his head on the bottom of my bed.

Dec

I woke with a start, dark and disoriented, someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up and banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

Cal

I giggled, because Dec had done a bad swear, and Mum wasn’t here to say, ‘Dec, honestly’.

Dec

A giggle, next to my head. I remembered where I was. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

‘Cal, why aren’t you in bed?’

\you were making noises. You said I could wake you up.

‘Oh. Sorry. Was I snoring?’

\no, you were going ‘mm mm’ and ‘no’.

‘I was probably dreaming.’

Cal

‘What did you dream?’

It hadn’t sounded like a happy dream, and if there were scary things I’d quite like to know what they were. I only didn’t like my own bad dreams; other people’s made good stories.

‘I can’t remember.’

Which was disappointing, but now I was down here, I might as well get what I could out of it.

‘I can’t sleep.’

‘What time is it?’

‘I don’t know. Daddy and Mummy let me get in their bed when I can’t sleep.’

Well they certainly used to, before they began locking the door at night and not letting me in.

Dec

I was fairly certain there had been a ‘sleep all night in your own bed’ rule, but that was before, and things could have changed.

‘Oh, OK. Do you want to hop in with me then?

I held the duvet open and he climbed in, immediately taking up most of the available space and pushing me up against the wall. He fell asleep straight away, and I dozed uncomfortably until it started to get light through the stegosaurus curtains.

27. Who says you can’t go home?

In which there is an arrival, tears are shed, bonds are formed, and dinosaurs are encountered.

Dec

I opened the car door and got out.

~You go in, I’ll bring your bags, yeah?

I walked towards the front door, which suddenly opened and ejected a small heat-seeking missile, in the form of Calum James Scott.

\dec you’ve came it’s nearly dinner I’m having fish fingers you’re having spaghetti bognose you can see my rabbit he’s called Percy he’s in the garden.

He wrapped his arms round my legs. I had to stifle a sob and blink hard to stop tears running down my face.

‘Hey Cal, oh it’s great to see you, mate. Spaghetti bognose, eh? Sounds delicious. I’ll have to meet Percy a bit later.’

I ruffled his hair, took a deep breath to compose myself, then knelt down to give him a big hug. Cal wrapped his arms round my neck and dropped his voice to a whisper.

\did you say to Santa about Optimus Prime?

I whispered back. ‘It’s all sorted.’

Cal

I was so happy to see Dec that I grinned at him, and he grinned back, and everything that had seemed wrong suddenly seemed right. My world was alright again. Dec was here, he had talked to Santa, and it was Christmas Eve tomorrow.

‘Come on in Cal, you haven’t got your coat on, and neither has Dec.’

Mum called from the doorway. I didn’t have any shoes on either, but she didn’t mention that, and I followed Dec up the path and into the house.

Dec

Beth was standing in the doorway. I unpeeled Cal and walked up to her. She opened her arms and folded me in a huge hug. This time I couldn’t stop the tears, and we both cried. Maybe it wasn’t just ‘welcome’ – could I dare to believe it might be ‘welcome home’?

Cal

Dec gave Mum a big cuddle, and he cried, and so did Mum. I’d never seen Dec cry before, except in hospital when he was feeling hurt, and I remembered Mum saying Dec was sad, so I didn’t look too much, at least not at Dec crying. Dec’s face was very interesting, though, as it still had bruises on it, his nose looked bent in the middle, and some red lines with cuts in them down each side where the train tracks had been before.

Dec

_It’s great to see you, Dec. You’re looking so much better, now those stitches are out. I’m so glad you could make it up here. Oh, Lis, let James get that, is there any more stuff from the car?

Jay appeared at the door.

łHey mate, great to see you. You’re looking better.

Another big hug, I tried manfully not to shed any more tears, but failed. Despite all the crying, it was starting to feel like it might be alright.

łWe’ll catch up in a minute, Dec, let me just help Lis with your bags. I’m assuming you’re using your piss-poor arms as an excuse to leave the heavy lifting to a girl.

I shrugged, grinning, trying to wipe my eyes.

łYeah, yeah, go and wait in the kitchen, Beth’s got the kettle on.

It was so strange going through the front door. It was their home and not mine. This moment made me realise how much a part of their family I had become when I lived with them. Feeling a little detached, I followed Cal into the kitchen, where Beth and Lis were in full flow.

_ … welcome to stay tonight, James’s mum isn’t coming till tomorrow.

~Oh, I’d really love to, but Nico’s invited half the squad for Christmas dinner. I’m going to need all of tomorrow to get myself sorted. I’ll stay for something to eat, though. And I want the grand tour, your kitchen is lovely …

Cal

I followed Dec, Mum and Lis into the kitchen, where Mum made a cup of tea and put the spaghetti and my fish fingers on for dinner. I had another good look at Dec’s face. He looked more like Dec and less like a monster than the last time I’d seen him. In fact, I couldn’t exactly remember what he’d looked like then, but now I had loads of questions to ask him. Mum and Lis were talking about the kitchen, and Dec didn’t look at me, so I couldn’t ask straight away.

Matt

So he was here, at last. Not that I’d been particularly anticipating it, but the rest of the household seemed to have been abuzz for days, with lots of hoovering, discussions about meals and last minute phone calls to be had, arranging final details and gradually getting more hyperactive.

Apparently some sort of operation had nearly fucked up the whole plan, and someone had broken into Dec’s flat while he was in hospital (that felt familiar) but it was all sorted now, and a few minutes ago I’d heard Cal shouting ‘he’s here Mummy, he’s here’, and the front door opened, and there were excited voices, and a few silences where there could have been tears, but who was I to judge – the salty bastards seemed to leak out of my eyes every five minutes too. Then the voices went away, and I could hear them indistinctly from the kitchen. I strained my ears, but could hear no more than the faint murmur of voices. No one thought to come and tell me how it was going, but then my lot in life as a fucking cripple was to lie still and wait to be told what was happening.

Cal

I got bored listening to them talking about the kitchen, and if I looked at Dec’s face much longer I would ask him something, and Mum would be cross because I was supposed to remember about Dec being sad. So I went into Uncle Matty’s room, where I had a road set up for my cars. Uncle Matty was awake, and sitting up in his bed which could sit him up or lie him down using electric buttons. He smiled at me as I sat on the floor and started driving the cars and lorries around.

Matt

Cal surprised me by coming in after a little while and resuming the game he’d been playing on the floor with his cars.

‘Dec’s hehr, thehn.’

‘Yes.’

‘Guhd tuh seh hihm?’

‘Yes but he’s talking to Mummy and Lis about the kitchen.’

I smiled. I’d rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. Now I knew what was going on, I didn’t feel so left out. Dec could keep his cosy chat about the (for all I knew) solid oak cupboards and (did I give a shit as I’d never seen them) granite worktops as far as I was concerned.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled again, looking as if he knew what I meant, and would rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. He watched me for a little while, then asked if he could join in. I sometimes let Uncle Matty join in by suggesting where my cars could go. As long as he understood what the game was, he was usually pretty good at suggesting, and didn’t mind if I did something different instead. Sometimes I used Uncle Matty’s bed as a ski-jump, and he would hold his duvet up so the cars could roll down it and fly off the end of his bed. But I wasn’t playing ski-jumps today.

‘Kay. This game is about roadworks. The green lorry is doing traffic lights, and the yellow car is the men with the drill, and all these cars are going to be in a traffic jam.’

‘Goht ih. Is thehr a skycohpter?’

‘There could be, in case it gets on the news.’

Uncle Matty understood the importance of helicopters, and always tried his best to get them into my games.

‘Coohl.’

Dec

I sat at the kitchen table and let their chatter wash over me. Cal had disappeared, my novelty value being short-lived. Beth put a mug of tea in front of me and ruffled my hair. I looked up at her and smiled.

_Your hair’s got really long.

‘I know, it feels a bit of a mess.’

_Do you want me to sort it out?

‘Oh, that would be great. You are pretty handy with a pair of scissors, aren’t you.’

_We’ll do it later.

‘It doesn’t feel real.’

_What, your hair?

‘No, being here. Can’t quite believe it.’

Beth sat down next to me and took my hand.

_It’s been a bit of a time for all of us, hasn’t it. The last few months have been … eventful I suppose we could call it … but I’m so glad you here, sweetheart. I wondered how it would be, but … it feels right. Are you OK?

I’d welled up again. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘Sorry, keep doing this. Just ignore me.’

~It’s true, he’s a pretty big wooss these days.

Lis grinned and winked at me. Jay came in with a bag of presents he’d brought in from the car, checking Cal wasn’t in the room.

łDidn’t know what to do with these, I presume they’re from Santa? Where’s the stash, Beth?

_I’ll take them.

Jay looked over at me.

łBloody hell, are you off again? Come on, let’s go and say hi to Matty, you and him will make a right pair.

He gestured to me to follow him and led me across the hall to a downstairs room. Cal was in there, floor covered in Lego and Transformer toys. There was a Christmas tree in the corner, and some coloured paper chains at Cal’s height across the wall. A door was half open, through which I could see the edge of a toilet and the corner of a shower. By the window, in a hospital-type bed, Matt was half sat up, thin and pale. He looked terrible; I hardly recognised him.

Matt

A short while later, I heard Jay’s voice, and footsteps crossed the hall. Jay came in, followed by a long-haired lanky man who I wouldn’t have recognised as Dec if I hadn’t had a big clue, he being the only person who wasn’t Jay or Cal or me in the room. His face was discoloured with just-beginning-to-fade bruises of varying spectacular colours; there were two red scars running down either side of his face, raised and angry looking, one of which looked tracked a line perilously close to his eye; his nose looked as if it had been on a journey to the other side of his face when the wind changed; and his hair – this boy needed a hair cut. Some of it had been cut or shaved away where one of the scars ran up into his hairline, and the rest of it was overgrown and a complete mess. His lower face was covered in unshaven stubble as well. Injuries aside, I wouldn’t have known him. I knew how important it could be not to instantly comment on how terrible someone looks, so I just held out my hand.

Cal

We played for a bit, then Uncle Matty got quiet, which meant he had gone to sleep and left me to play on my own. After a while, I heard Dad and Dec coming into the room. I looked up, and Uncle Matty was awake again. He lifted his hand and held it out to Dec.

I decided to stay as quiet as possible, in case anyone said anything interesting before they remembered I was there. It was also highly likely, with Dad, Dec and Uncle Matty in the same room, that I would hear some swears, possibly bad ones.

Matt

‘Heh Dec.’

‘Hey, sorry to see you so poorly.’

He obviously had no such compunction, the rude, thoughtless little git, although he clasped my hand warmly and gave me a smile that wasn’t full of pity or sympathy, so he got some points there.

‘Fehl mush behter, shuhldv sehn meh befohr.’

Dec

I suddenly realised where Cal had got his translation skills from when I was in hospital; Matt was having difficulty speaking clearly.

Cal

I looked up, because Dec needed to understand what Uncle Matty meant. Uncle Matty could talk a lot better than before, but he sometimes didn’t explain things very well.

‘Uncle Matty looked like a skellington, but now he’s like a vampire but not with sharp teeth.’

Matt

I hadn’t been aware I was being assessed using the Supernatural Being scale of symptoms, but his report was accurate.

‘Struh. Aihming fuh zombeh.’

This made everyone smile, which was always good, smiling was always good, it fended off the fussing for another few minutes. Supernatural Assessor Cal hadn’t quite finished giving his report, though.

‘Uncle Matty, you can’t be a zombie, because their arms fall off. You could be a werewolf because they are people half the time –’

And obviously, I was people at least half the time these days.

‘– or you could be … Daddy, what’s next after a werewolf?’

You’ve got me there, Cal, you’re the expert in the undead. I’m sure you’ll think of something for Uncle Matty to aspire to.’

Dec

Matt’s breathing was terrible. Laboured and rasping, he found it hard to get the breath to speak, and his words had a tendency to die away on a gasp. I tried to remember what Jay had said was wrong with him, and couldn’t. Whatever it was, it put my self-absorbed woes into perspective.

Matt

And then my body’s battery chose that moment to start blinking the red ‘recharge now’ light, and my eyes started to droop. Jay noticed; he always noticed.

Cal

Dad looked at Uncle Matty, then frowned. Uncle Matty’s eyes were starting to close. Sometimes he was only awake for a really short time.

Come on Cal, pack up your toys in the box, Uncle Matty’s getting tired.’

Uncle Matty opened his eyes a little bit.

Matt

I never wanted to send Cal away, because then I’d be all alone in the dark, so I roused myself.

‘No, sohkay, Cal can stahy.’

OK then, ten more minutes, Cal, then it’s time for dinner. Dec, I’ve put your stuff up in Cal’s room, you’re on the bottom bunk.’

Cal had a working hypothesis on this too.

Cal

I wanted Dec to know why he was in my room and not in Dad’s office. I was sure he’d agree it was the best way.

‘Sleeping underneath is best for people who can’t move properly. I’m on the top, because I can climb the ladder. Why can’t you climb the ladder?’

‘Well, I hadn’t thought about ladders, but you’re right, my arms hurt and pulling myself up a ladder might be difficult. Good thinking, Batman.’

I knew he’d think so, and he called me Batman, like he used to when I’d had a good idea, and it made me smile. I’d spent a lot of time considering whether Dec should go on the top or bottom bed, and although the top bed was the best, and it was where I slept, I was also being kind to Dec and his hurting arms.

Matt

Cal and Dec grinned goofily at each other, as if this was some kind of secret code, and Jay started to leave the room, indicating that Dec should follow him.

‘Yeah, and it’s just in case you feel the need to reach out for some chocolate in the night. Top bunk’s a bit far to fall for someone in your state. Come on, I’ll show you. You staying with Uncle Matty, then, Cal?’

Oh, the chocolate thing. It was something to do with the teenager reaching for some of the brown stuff when he was in hospital and falling out of bed as a consequence, the ninny. Cal nodded, although he didn’t seem to know what Jay was talking about, and returned to his cars. As Jay and Dec left to go upstairs, I could hear Dec talk to Jay.

‘Shit, Jay, he looks awful. I can’t remember what you said was wrong with him.’

Well, talk to him about it while you’re here, but …’

And I slept, before I got to hear what Jay was telling people was ‘wrong with him’.

Cal

I turned back to my road. Uncle Matty’s eyes were closed, so I played on my own; Mum and Lis were upstairs, talking about curtains or duvets, and I wouldn’t be able to talk to Dec about dinosaurs until later.

Dec

łHe’s got multiple sclerosis. It affects your nerves so you lose coordination and strength in your muscles. But the reason he looks so awful is he’s had pneumonia. He was in hospital for quite a while, only been out a few weeks. It was less than fifty fifty for him at one point. Much less, actually. If Mum hadn’t found him … Cal’s right, he looked like a skeleton. He’s got a long way to go yet. MS is a funny one, comes and goes, leaves you worse than you were, but no one can predict it. Pneumonia is pretty common and can be … well, really serious.

‘Fuck, I’m sorry. He’s a good bloke.’

łYeah. Anyway, before you initiate me into your blub club, I’ll show you Cal’s room and you can decide whether the dinosaur wallpaper is going to give you nightmares, or whether you’d rather have a camp bed in my office. Although I should warn you that Cal has been looking forward to you sleeping in the bottom bunk for days.

Beth and Lis were also upstairs, Lis exclaiming over various items of furniture and décor. We met up in Cal’s room, which seemed to be a mini version of Dinosaurland. Wallpaper, bedding, models on the shelves, he had the lot.

‘Whoa.’

_Think you can sleep in here, sweetheart?

‘Only in the bottom bunk. Nice and dark, can’t see all the teeth.’

łLucky you’ve got piss-poor arms, then. No ladders for you.

~Oh, Beth, that reminds me, Dec’s dressings need changing tomorrow. Rose sent along all the stuff and some instructions, can I show you? Is it in your bag, here, Dec?

‘I think so. Rose packed it all.’

~Let’s have a look, shall I show you downstairs?

Lis left with Beth. There was a pause.

łSo how is your arm now?

‘Getting there.’

Jay gave me a look, and I gave in, realising that sometimes I had to give more than the basic amount of information.

‘No, I mean it. After the operation it was so much better. My collar bone was really hurting before, the plaster kept dragging on it, and I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t move my arm or my fingers. It bloody hurts now, but I can bend my elbow and hold things. I can feel it getting better. Slow progress though, frustrating. I just want to get back to training again.’

łGlad to hear it. When will that be? You must have seen Pete and Steve by now. And I’m sure Don has his opinions.

‘Yeah, they want me to go in on the sixth.’

łThat’s great. You’ll really start to feel a difference once they get their hands on you. Stay positive, mate.

‘Yeah.’

łHey, sounds like dinner might be ready. Let’s go get spaghetti bognose.

Cal

Before long, dinner was ready. The grown-ups were having spaghetti bognose (it was what I called it once, and after that, it was spaghetti bognose forever), and I was having fish fingers, which was my current favourite dinner of all time.

I sat next to Dec, and felt happy that we were all there again, at the table, like we used to be. I looked at Dec a lot, because although I was happy he was there, and everything felt right again, his face looked wrong, with all the bruises and cuts, and I couldn’t help being interested, even though Mum was trying to tell me to stop looking without saying it. In the end, I had to say something.

‘Dec …’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘You know your skins were held together with sewing when you looked like a Frankystein?’

I’d seen pictures in my Mega Monsters book, and Dec’s train tracks had looked just like Frankenstein’s monster. Mum started to say shh, but I knew Dec would answer me, because he always answered me, even when I asked him about poo.

‘It’s OK. Yes, I remember.’

‘But the sewing isn’t there now, so how are your skins still together? Will they come unstuck when you eat something big?’

Mum had explained it back when Dec was first in hospital, but I couldn’t quite believe that Dec had let a doctor do sewing on his face. Needles were sharp, Mum was always telling me to mind out when she sewed buttons on my school shirt, and surely it would hurt more to have your face sewed than to have a cut on it.

‘I hope not! My skin has grown back together now, so the doctor took the stitches out and it will stay together all by itself.’

It was a shame that I wasn’t going to see Dec’s face split open when he ate a big mouthful of bognose, but I still had more questions.

‘But how did your skins come apart?’

Dec

Fuck, how do you explain a glassing to a six year old? I looked at Beth and Jay. Jay shrugged, a look of amusement on his face. Beth looked on warily. They had always let me explain myself to Cal – there had been a fair amount of explaining at times, things like hangovers, girlfriends, speeding tickets – but Beth always kept an eye and rescued me if I was struggling too much.

‘Well, you remember when I was in hospital and I had bruises and cuts and things?’

\yes, some bad men hit you.

I silently thanked whoever had explained things so simply to Cal.

‘Well, when they hit me, my face got cut and the doctor had to sew me up so my dinner wouldn’t come out of my cheeks. That would have been a bit of a pain.

\it would be awesome.

‘Not if you’re trying to drink a slushie, you’d dribble quite a lot, most of it would fall out.’

He considered this, nodding.

\did it hurt?

‘What, the cuts or the stitches?’

\when they sewed you.

‘Well, I was asleep when they did it, so it didn’t hurt me at the time. But it was sore afterwards.

\do your lines hurt?

‘My lines?’

łHe means your scars. They are still quite impressively sore looking.

‘Oh.’

I ran my finger along the line running down the side of my face, which made it tingle and sting.

‘Well, maybe a bit when I touch them. It hurts when I use my razor.’

Cal

Dec had a lot of whiskers on his face, and it looked like he hadn’t used his razor for a long time. Dad thought so too.

‘So that’s the reason for the designer stubble. Thought you were trying a new look, to combat the girly hair.’

Dec had really long hair now, and it did look like a girl’s hair. He could probably even put it in a pony tail, like Jake’s brother did, but I was glad he didn’t.

‘OK, Cal, let Dec eat the rest of his dinner now, before his cheek falls open and his bognose falls on your plate.’

Dad was teasing. I knew now that there was, sadly, no chance of Dec’s cheek coming apart either now, or at future dinners.

Dec

_Well done, Dec, I’d forgotten how good you are at answering Cal’s questions.

It was Cal who was making it all normal. He was chatting to me like he always had, asking me the same searching questions, treating me like I was just Dec who’d been away for a bit, but was back now, rather than Dec who’d fucked everything up and nearly lost it all. Beth was threatening more tears, especially when Lis gave her hand a squeeze. Jay saved the day with:

łMore vomit cheese anyone? Parmesan to the uninitiated. Cal, more vomit on your fish fingers?

_James!

łHey, if it gets him eating it I’ll call it anything. I’ll call it a pile of sh … er … sheep sh…oes, eh Cal?

\daddy, you nearly sweared.

łNo I didn’t, sheep shoes is nowhere near a swear. You’ll have to keep an eye on Dec, though, he could swear at any moment. More sheep shoes anyone?

Beth’s teary moment passed, and chaotic order was restored to the dinner table.

Cal

Dad made a joke about the cheese being vomit cheese, which meant it smelt like sick, because it did, and then he pretended to do a swear, but turned it from a word beginning with ‘sh’ into ‘sheep shoes’ and he made me laugh, and Dec was smiling, and everything felt like it was alright, even though Mum had nearly cried and Lis had to hold her hand.

I really hoped people were going to stop crying or nearly crying soon, because everything stopped while they were doing it or nearly doing it, and I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, or get down from the table.

Dec

Lis left soon after dinner, facing a long drive back home. She asked when I wanted picking up. It wasn’t something I’d thought about, as I had been focussed entirely on getting here.

łIt’s OK, Lis, I’ll bring him back. We can take our time here, see how it goes, how long it takes Dec to get bored of us, and you don’t have to drive all that way again.

‘I can get a train, or a bus.’

łYeah, OK, Dec, we’ll drop you off at the nearest bus stop with that heavy bag you can’t carry, and you can make your own way back. Sorted, Lis, OK?

‘Just trying to be helpful.’

I grinned at Jay, enjoying the amicable bickering.

łNoted. I’m taking you back, end of.

Cal

Lis went home, and Dec came into Uncle Matty’s room to help me play with Lego, although he couldn’t do fiddly bits because of his fingers being hurt.

Uncle Matty was asleep, so I had Dec all to myself, like I used to, and Dec was as good as he used to be at playing with Lego, although after a while he said he was getting sore on the floor and was going to talk to Uncle Matty. I nearly said Uncle Matty was asleep, but I looked up, and he wasn’t, he was looking at us, so I stayed quiet.

I listened while Dec and Uncle Matty talked, although it wasn’t very interesting, but you never knew when grown-ups were going to forget you were there and say something, especially Dec, who wasn’t really a grown-up, and Uncle Matty, who was a grown-up because he was very old like Dad, but said a lot of things that made Mum go ‘Matty, honestly’.

Matt

I woke up a bit later, to find Cal and Dec playing with the cars on the floor of my room. I watched, undetected, for a while, part of me marvelling at how unselfconscious Dec was, kneeling on the floor, making ‘neenaa’ noises and handing Cal various bits of Lego, just being in Cal’s imaginary world. Another part of me was envious of the ease with which he was able, even with an apparently broken arm and some serious lacerations, to move around on the floor. I wouldn’t even be able to get onto the floor unless I rolled off the bed and fell on my arse, and I wished I had some of Dec’s apparent power for fast healing. Dec turned round after a while, and saw me watching.

‘Know what, Cal, I’m getting a bit sore kneeling down here on the floor, I’m going to sit in this chair for a bit and talk to Matt. Let me know if you want me to find anything else.’

He stood up, stretched and plonked himself in the armchair by my bed, looking at me for a while as if unsure where to start. Then, like everyone did, he started with me being ill.

Dec

I didn’t know Matt that well, and all I could really think of to talk about was his health. Not inspiring, but everyone has to start somewhere.

‘Sorry you’ve been so poorly. Not much fun.’

Matt

I suppose it was as good a place as any when it was all you really knew about someone, but part of me wanted to shout ‘I’ve had a fucking life, a fucking job, a fucking flat of my own, I love hiking, and Spurs, and reading books about maths, and there’s more to me than being fucking ill’ but I didn’t, mostly because it would have taken me about an hour and I would have fallen asleep before I got to the end.

‘Noh. Better than I wahs tho.’

In the end, I took Dec’s conversation starter for what it was. I hadn’t had anyone new to talk to since Sally, and even if I had to talk about being ill, I might be able to do it in a different way.

‘Jay said you had it really bad a while ago.’

‘I knoh they all thoht I wouldn’t mahk it. Dohnt member much. How bouh yuh?’

Dec having problems of his own gave me something to reflect back, someone else’s story to find out, and I thought I’d have a go at delving a bit into the recent travails of the adolescent. Except I realised with a sudden shift in my perception that he wasn’t anymore. He was nineteen, and he was different. The last time I’d seen him, he had been open and talkative, and that was still there, but there was a reserve. He was quieter, more subdued. He seemed older than nineteen. Maybe with everything that had happened to him in the last few months, he needed someone to talk to as much as I needed not to talk about me?

‘Getting there. It’s been a shit year – sorry Cal, pretend you didn’t hear that. But now I feel like things are getting better.’

He even noticed when he swore these days. Didn’t seem stop him, but at least he noticed.

‘Good for yuh. Yuhr face sahys dihfrent tho. Yuhv had a hard tihm, Jay said.’

I hated people talking about me behind my back, but I wanted Dec to know that I had heard a lot of his story.

‘I’ve got good friends, they’ve helped me a lot.’

A pang of envy shot through me, and I covered it up with a truism.

‘Simpohtant to hahv pehpl yuh lohv and lohv yuh.’

‘Very true.’

Jay came in with two cups of coffee. One of them was in the plastic beaker, and I cringed inwardly at what it would look like to Dec when Jay had to help me drink.

Good to see some bonding going on in Cripples Corner. Here you go, freshly made. Can you hold that OK Dec?’

So it wasn’t just me who was being fussed over. Interesting. Dec didn’t seem to mind, and just smiled at Jay as he carefully took the hot mug.

‘There’s a mat here on the table. Matty, here’s yours, do you want to sit up a bit?’

Well I was going to find it hard to drink lying down, wasn’t I.

‘Yeh.’

Jay pressed a button on the remote control that moved the bed into a sitting position. Dec sat in the chair, sipping coffee, pretending not to watch while Jay held my cup for me. Jay seemed to become aware of the awkwardness and thought of something to say.

‘Lis says hi, and it’s a shame you were too busy snoring to appreciate having a hot girl in your bedroom.’

I liked Lis, a lot. She was straight up, no nonsense, dirty laugh, heart of gold. And hot, she wasn’t wrong about that. She’d driven Dec up this afternoon, and I’d been asleep when she left. I was sorry to have missed her.

‘She’ll lihv.’

As witty comebacks go, it wasn’t top notch, but I was getting tired.

Dec been entertaining you with his exploits?’

Jay seemed to find it a lot easier talking about Dec’s troubles than he did mine. Maybe they were both part of that world, the physical world, the rugby world, where having your face smashed up was all in a day’s work, and you just got to your feet and carried on. I wanted him to acknowledge that I was trying to get to my feet, it was just taking a bit longer.

‘Exchange war stohries.’

You’ve both got plenty of those.’

Cal, who had seemed absorbed in his game, but always had his ears open, especially when you forgot about him, joined in.

Cal

I’d liked the sound of Cripples Corner when Dad said it, and couldn’t wait to say it out loud; it would sound funny. Until I got the chance, I was listening out for when I could join in with what they were saying.

‘Dec sweared.’

Matt

At that moment I loved the little six-year-old listening device, who had just dropped Dec right in it, even though he’d dropped him on the wrong person.

‘Oh, cheers Cal, I thought you were on my side.’

I tried for a bit of solidarity.

‘Swehrs allohed in Crihpls Cohner.’

Jay seemed agreeable.

Fair enough, no argument from me.’

Cal

This was going well. It felt like we were all boys together, and I wanted to be the same as them all.

‘Can I do a swear?’

It was worth a try, but Dad wasn’t falling for it.

Matt

Jay belatedly realised that he should perhaps have taken a different tack and tried to backpedal.

No. Just grown-ups. And just sometimes, when we can’t help it. Do you want any more of this, Matty?’

I decided to used the new loophole. Wait till Beth heard about it, she was going to go ape-shit. And then I could tell her she’d gone ape-shit and there was nothing she could do about it, because I totally owned Cripples Corner.

‘Noh thahks. Toh fucking tihred.’

I grinned at Cal, who was looking at me with something approaching awe, which made me grin even more, because we both knew I was about to embark on a major campaign of flouting of the ‘no swearing the in the house’ rule.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled at me. He was still hard to understand sometimes, especially when he was tired, but we could always understand his swears. I looked at him in awe. If Mum heard him he would be in lots of trouble, even though he was poorly.

Matt

Jay tried some damage limitation.

You’re taking advantage now. OK, let’s leave you to it. Come on Cal, pack your stuff away, do you want to put Uncle Matty’s bed down?’

‘Yes.’

Cal

Dad tried to be strict, but he was nowhere near as good as Mum. He tried to frown, but couldn’t help smiling at the corners of his mouth, because he thought it was funny too. And he wasn’t really cross, because he asked if I wanted to put Uncle Matty’s bed down. I loved putting Uncle Matty’s bed down. In fact, I loved moving the bed all over the place. It went up and down so it could be high or low, and it bent in the middle so it could make Uncle Matty sit up, and a bit at the end bent so that his legs went up. I played with it a lot, and Uncle Matty let me put him in any way I could think of, although I hadn’t managed to make it roll him onto the floor yet.

Matt

Cal always wanted to put my bed down, it was all anyone could do to stop him playing with the controls while I was lying in the damn thing. Sometimes I let him, to see what weird and wonderful positions he could make me lie, sit and almost stand in. Jay handed Cal the remote and he lowered the bed to almost flat, judging it correctly almost to within a degree, so my chest was tilted enough to drain, but I was still in a good position to sleep. He’d had a lot of practice and was a quick learner.

Turn the lamp off as well. Good boy. Night Matty.’

Jay flicked the monitor on without comment and walked out, after brushing a hand over my forehead. Sometimes the smallest of gestures affected me the most deeply, and I hoped the darkness hid the tears starting to run from the corners of my eyes.

‘Night Matt. See you tomorrow.’

Then Dec was gone too, as was I shortly afterwards, dragged off to the land of nod by the sleep elves.

26. Get ready for this

In which Dec encounters recovery and remembering, and anticipates reunions.

Silence. Darkness. Faded to grey, sounds reappeared. Voices. Made no sense at first. Pains in both my arms. Mixed up with my dream. Someone was kicking me. I wasn’t sure where I was.

‘Fuck off, Big.’

>Hey Declan, you live. Stop moving, the lovely Suzanne try to take your blood pressure.

I opened my eyes. Two faces bent over me. Nico and a nurse. My brain attempted to make sense of it, but failed.

‘What?’

*Hello Declan. Just need to take your blood pressure. Both your arms are pretty knocked about, but I’m using your left so we can leave the operation site alone. Does it hurt?

‘Mm. Where’s Big?’

>What is big?

‘He was just here.’

>Only just me and Suzanne. You wake up from operation on your arm. You are confusing.

*I’ll give you some oxygen, that’ll help you think better.

The nurse put a mask over my face, and I felt a cold gas enter my lungs. A few breaths later, and things were a lot less foggy.

*That looks better, more colour in your cheeks. Blood pressure’s fine. Stay here for a bit, then we can take you back to your room. You’ll feel tired and want to sleep for a while, but try to get moving as soon as you can. Eat something too, and have a drink.

I felt the mattress move underneath me as the bed sat me up.

*Is your arm hurting? Do you need painkillers?

‘Mm, please.’

*Here you go, then, some meds for the pain and some water. Can you hold the cup?

My right arm was in a sling, so I tried to take it with my left hand, hooked my fingers in the handle, did my best, but spilt a lot, so the nurse got a straw and I managed to swallow the tablets.

I looked at Nico.

‘Thanks for coming.’

>Is no problem for me. I talk to the beautiful Suzanne while you sleep. She tell me your operation go very well, and now your arm is very good. I must call Rose and Lis to say you are awake. Suzanne, I use my phone?

*Not in here, sorry. Best go outside.

>OK. Declan, I must do this, I am not long.

‘No worries. Say hi.’

My throat was dry and I was really thirsty, and I managed to drink two mugs of water. This reawakened my appetite – it was getting on for a whole day since I last ate anything. My stomach growled.

*Hungry, are you?

I nodded.

*You can go back to your room when your friend gets back, they’ll bring you some dinner. You must be ravenous.

‘Starving.’

*The food in here is great, you’ll have a feast. Just need to take your temperature – pop the thermometer in your mouth for me.

Just as she took the thermometer out, Nico came back.

>Rose, she is very relieved. I think she worry all day. She want to visit, I say is OK.

‘Course.’

*You can take Declan to his room now, if you’re OK with the wheelchair. You’ll be able to use your mobile there if you want to.

>Thank you, Suzanne. Declan, I have to ring Don and Jaime to say you are OK, we can wait until we are in your room. Maybe you talk to them?

‘Sure.’

Once back in my room, Nico phoned Don and Jay and told them everything had gone well. I spoke briefly to both, but was still groggy and knew less than Nico, so didn’t have that much to say.

Just as I rang off from Jay, my dinner arrived. As Suzanne had predicted, it was a feast, and I ate the lot.

>You are hungry, my friend. Is good I have big lunch.

‘Sorry, I was starving. Nothing since midnight.’

>Ha, I know this.

Nico’s phone pinged. He looked at the screen.

>Ha, Lis say you must stand up, get blood to move. She boss you from my phone. You stand up now.

‘What?’

>You remember your list from Don, this is one thing. Suzanne she say also. You move to keep blood going, OK?

I grumbled a bit, as my large meal had made me feel sleepy, but swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. It was so much easier without the cast getting in the way, and without the constant pain of the broken collar bone. Even though my arm hurt, and was stiff and sore, and the scars themselves covered in dressings, I managed so much better, and it lifted my spirits.

‘How far should I go?’

>Ha, you ask me? OK … there is drink machine in the corridor, go there, get me coffee!

‘OK then.’

I set off out of the door, looked left, saw the coffee machine at the end of the corridor. Got all the way there, realised I had no money. Walked back. Nico was waiting with a huge grin on his face.

>Your head still not work right. You have no coins, eh?

‘Yeah, very funny. You can get your own fucking coffee.

:Well this must be Declan’s room, I can hear the language from the corridor.

‘Rose!’

:Hello, love, it’s good to see you up and about. Come here.

She folded me up in one of her huge hugs, being very careful of my right arm.

:Oh, love, that’s better. I’ve been so worried all day, soft aren’t I?

‘It’s nice to be worried about.’

As I said it, I realised how good it felt that someone was thinking about me, and how much pressure it took off me.

:I suppose so, love.

>Rose you have a chair. I go to get coffee from machine, as Declan fail. You want?

:Tea if they’ve got it, ta, love.

I sat on the edge of the bed and swung my legs back in.

:That looks so much better, love. That big cast just got in your way. Is it sore?

‘Lots of painkillers. Will be sore tomorrow.’

I could feel my energy slipping away; I was finding it hard to speak.

:Not long and you can have a shower, I imagine you’ll have to be careful of those dressings for a while. Maybe you can stick your arm out the shower curtain or something?

‘Mm.’

I was feeling very sleepy, couldn’t keep my eyes open. Tried to listen to Rose, but everything faded.

: … sure he’s going to be alright?

> … fine, is normal to sleep …

: … how long I should stay …

> … go home soon, he look out for the night …

: … night Nico, love. No, I won’t stay much longer …

: … night Declan, love, I’m going home, I’ll see you in the morning …

Woke up with a start a lot later. It was dark in the room, there was no sign of Rose or Nico. I assumed they had gone home. I had had more strange half-dreams about Big and someone else, wearing brown boots, who was stamping on my phone. I kept trying to make the other person become DivDav, but his face wouldn’t stay there. I seemed to wake up regularly, in a panic, then drop off to sleep only for the same thing to happen again.

By the time morning came, I was shattered, and my arm was starting to throb. A nurse came in before long and gave me some painkillers, which calmed my arm a bit.

I managed to doze without dreaming for a while before the doctor came to check on me, shone a light in my eyes, signed a form and said I could go home in the afternoon. I also had an early morning visit from Don, Pete the physio and one of the conditioning coaches. They wanted to check my arm and make some plans for my restart in the New Year. I hoped they didn’t expect me to remember any of the conversation, which mostly carried on over my head, and was a detailed discussion about muscle fibres and recovery rates. I think it was decided that my arm might need a week or two before the stitches were out, and then I would be back on the treadmill, getting fit again. That was fine by me; a large part of me couldn’t wait to get back to training and feel a proper part of Raiders once more.

-See you on the sixth, then, Declan.

‘Sixth. Right.’

£You might need to write it down, Don. He’s not going to remember his own name for a while. Better still, tell someone else.

‘Tell Rose.’

-Right you are. You’re doing well, son. Have a good Christmas.

‘Thanks. You too.’

I slept again, after a good breakfast, until Rose appeared.

:Alright, love? I’m glad you’re awake, hardly saw you yesterday before you were out of it. Had to go back home in the end. How did you sleep?

‘Not too good. Weird dreams, kept waking up.’

:So you’ve been knocked out on the table but kept awake half the night after, you poor love. How are you now?

‘Still tired.’

:Have a snooze then. I won’t tell. I brought some magazines, look. I’ll be here when you wake up.

So I did. My eyelids were drooping anyway, and I drifted off quickly.

Dreaming. Although it feels real. I was in the car park at Raiders, had my phone out to call Rose. It was dark, my head was down, looking at the screen on the phone, and I was heading over towards where DivDav’s car should have been, although neither he nor his car were anywhere to be seen.

I heard footsteps behind me. Turned, half expecting it to be DivDav. Caught sight of movement, then something hit the back of my head. Heard it smash. Glass cascaded around me. I staggered, stunned. Dropped my phone.

Felt blows, slashes, to my face. Bent forwards, hands over my head, trying to protect myself. More blows hit my body, and I fell to the ground. Feet all round me, kicking me, grinding bits of glass through my clothes and into my skin, stamping on my phone, stamping on my arm, sharp peaks of agony overtaking all my senses. Looked up, tried to see who it was.

Blond hair, tall … familiar. And then brown hair, tall, stocky, Big. They redoubled their efforts to kick the shit out of me. By looking up I’d left my face vulnerable, and I lay there helplessly as a brown boot headed towards my face, crashing into my nose with a blast of pain. Seeing stars didn’t begin to describe it, whole universes flashed in my head. I tried to cover my face again, but I was nearly unconscious and I couldn’t move my arms. More blasts of pain burst over me and I fell into the black.

:Declan. It’s alright, love, you’re dreaming. Come on, wake up, now. You’re OK, I’m here. Shush now.

Someone’s hand smoothing the hair away from my forehead. For a confused second, my heart soared.

‘Mum?’

:Oh love, it’s Rose. You’re OK, you were having a dream. Calling out, fighting you were. It’s alright now. You remember where you are?

I opened my eyes groggily as I crashed back to earth. The sun had made its way into my room and was shining on the floor. I tried to get my thoughts working. My heart was pounding, and I was panting like I’d been for a run. I pushed away the brief instant when I’d thought Mum was here, and made myself focus on what I’d been dreaming – no, not dreaming. Remembering. It was big. It was …

‘Big.’

:What’s that, love?

‘Not DivDav.’

:Sorry, you’ve lost me.

‘Not a dream. I remember. Being kicked. Not DivDav. It was Big and someone else, I knew him, but it wasn’t Dav. They hit me with a bottle.’

It started to bring it all back again, felt like I was there again. I closed my eyes.

‘Shit. Big. No way.’

:What do you mean, love? A big bottle?

Exasperated that I would have to explain myself, I sighed and tried to gather my thoughts into something comprehensible.

‘Big’s … he was my mate. It’s a nickname. His name’s Ben.’

I waited for the penny to drop.

:Ah, I see. And so this friend of yours has been hitting you with bottles in your dreams?

‘No, I told you, it wasn’t a dream. I remember it.

:Are you sure, love? You’re pretty dosed up at the moment, your mind can play all sort of tricks. You and Nico were certain it was this Dav fellow the other day.

‘It was real. Memory, not a dream. Can’t explain – I know the difference.’

:Well if you’re really convinced, we need to contact the police, but we’re not going to do it now, it can wait till you get home. Any idea when they’re letting you out?

‘This afternoon. You don’t have to wait.’

:Course I don’t love, but I’m going to, I hardly saw you yesterday before you dozed off again. You’ve gone a very funny colour, I think I’ll get a nurse.

‘No –’

But she had bustled off in search of someone. I tried not to go over my newly uncovered memories, but my brain was on a single track. Once again I was hit by the bottle, once again I saw my phone smashed, once again I looked up and saw Big and … who the fuck was it? I knew him … and once again the brown boot smashed into my face. In my head I lay on the ground in the car park, powerless to do anything about it.

Big. He’d been the only one who’d been nice to me, had gone out of his way to talk to me, been for a drink with me. What had that been all about? Surely he wasn’t the one who trashed my flat? He did know where I lived though, and as far as I knew, DivDav didn’t. He’d come to see me in hospital, twice. As I remembered this, and Big standing over me looking stunned when I’d fallen out of bed, I also remembered something he said when he visited with DivDav:

°Probably have to wait till his phone’s back in commission.

How had he known about my phone, unless he’d been there when it was broken? Hardly anyone knew. With a sinking heart, I started to put some of it together. His friendliness seemed the biggest sham now, designed to – what? – get information out of me? Keep me on the back foot? And once the outcome of the points deduction was known, that was it, payback. I remembered DI Johnson’s question about the ‘Payback’ text. Rose was right, I was going to have to contact the police as soon as I felt a bit more alert.

Rose returned with a nurse in tow.

:He’s just had a bit of a shock, that’s all, he lost his memory when he was attacked, and it’s all come back while he was asleep.

*Well let’s have a look then. Are you in any pain, Declan?

‘Bit of a headache, arm’s a bit sore.’

*Alright, then, let’s see what we can do.

She took my temperature, pulse and blood pressure. Offered me some more tablets.

‘I don’t want to go to sleep again.’

*Well, I can understand that, but these will make you a bit drowsy. You’ll doze on and off for a while. You are going to have someone with you when you go home, aren’t you?

:He’s staying at mine.

*Oh good, nice to have your mum looking after you, eh?

Neither of us contradicted her.

The rest of the morning and afternoon passed slowly, me trying and failing not to fall asleep, waking with a start every time my head dropped forwards, and Rose checking her watch every five minutes. I had another great meal at lunchtime, but shared it with Rose, who wasn’t included in the free fabulous food offer at the private hospital. I told her it wasn’t a patch on her cooking, but we both knew I wasn’t being completely honest.

I was finally given the all clear to leave, and we made our way to the car park, where Rose had parked as close to the main entrance as she could. My legs wobbled alarmingly, but I made it to the car. I was panting a bit by the time I got there, and I considered ruefully how much conditioning work I was going to have to do just to regain my fitness, let alone get back to a state in which I could play a game of rugby. Big and his mate had certainly had some payback in the form of the amount of my life they had taken from me.

Rose settled me in her comfy armchair, then left me in front of the TV while she made some tea. She shouted through from the kitchen.

:Nico’s going to ring later. He said he won’t visit as you’ll be tired, but he’ll come and see you tomorrow morning. Beth rang this morning, she’s going to call you later, I had a chat with little Calum too. He told me you’ve spoken to Santa about an – oh what was it – Optimax something –

‘Optimus Prime. It’s all sorted. Me and Santa know what we’re doing.’

:Oh that’s good, then, love. Wouldn’t do to disappoint him, he seems very keen.

‘Yeah. I know. Need to keep my promises. Can’t wait to see him, though.’

:I think he feels the same, from the amount of questions he asked about you. He’s very interested in your operation scars.

‘He loves gore. The bloodier the better.’

:Oh, typical six year old then.

Rose came in with two mugs of tea, gave me one and settled down on the sofa. We passed the evening companionably, although she did keep making me move around and do the exercises the hospital had suggested to avoid blood clots.

I went to bed early, finding it much easier to undress without the plaster cast and painful collar bone, although as the operation sites had begun to throb, I took some painkillers just before I settled down. I fell asleep really quickly, but was woken up a couple of times by the phone ringing in the hallway. From the muffled conversations I overheard, it was firstly Nico and then Beth. Rose told them both I had gone to bed, but would ring them tomorrow, and I slept on again.

Dreaming. I am flying, with Mum. She wants to show me things, tell me the names of things, talk to me, but I want to see everything, and fly on ahead. I turn round and she has gone. I fly everywhere, but I can’t find her.

I woke the next morning, with tears on my face and a heavy sadness in my chest. I didn’t think about Mum very often, it was too painful. I’d only been thirteen when she’d died with Dad in the accident, and my subsequent experiences in various foster homes hadn’t lent themselves to introspection or dealing in any helpful way with grief. It had been more about survival, which didn’t include any kind of a softer side. By the time I’d got to Jay and Beth, I had shut Mum and Dad away somewhere virtually inaccessible. If I didn’t think about them, I didn’t have to deal with the loss of them. I’d dreamed about Mum a few times in the past few weeks, and it had unlocked that place. I tried now to push my sorrow back there, but it wouldn’t quite fit, leaving a part of me feeling exposed and vulnerable.

It took me a while to get out of bed that day, feeling down physically and emotionally. Rose spent a lot of time trying to gee me up, but she was working really hard for little reward. Nico and Beth phoned back, but I couldn’t find the energy for long conversations. Rose asked if I wanted to phone DI Johnson, but that felt a long way from possible.

I also had a phone call from Adam, the psychologist Don wanted me to see in the New Year. I made an appointment, he said he would send a letter confirming it, and that was another thing sorted, but another reminder of how much I had to do to get better.

After nearly a day of trying to get a response out of me, Rose had had enough, and took matters into her own hands. She called Nico and asked him to come over.

:I think he needs some cheering up, hardly had a word out of him all day.

Nico arrived half an hour later, full of chatter and charm, and raised my spirits a bit. He told a funny story about trying to buy a present for Lis in town that morning, he teased Rose mercilessly about her need for tea, he made fun of the TV programmes that were on in the background, and it was impossible not to be a bit swept up in his performance. I caught myself smiling, despite myself, and Nico noticed too.

>Ha, this is better. You seem very sad today, Rose tell me.

‘Had stuff on my mind.’

>You must say this stuff, or we cannot help.

I was silent. They couldn’t have helped, whatever I said, and I wasn’t going to tell them what was on my mind. I could barely acknowledge it myself, and talking about it would release a whole lot of shit I wasn’t ready to face.

>Huh, you are stubborn. OK, is up to you.

:Are you worried about this business with your friend, love?

I shook my head, frowned at her, didn’t want both of them going on at me.

>What business?

Rose ignored my scowl.

:Declan thinks he’s remembered the assault. He thinks it was someone different to that Dav fellow you told the police about. I think he should call DI Johnson, but he’s not felt up to it today.

>Declan, you remember?

I was trying not to, but thinking about it now brought the flashbacks into my head; kicks and punches and slashes. I groaned and covered my face with my hands. Too much I was trying not to think about.

‘I remember being punched and kicked, glass smashing on my head. It was Big. Ben Hearne. And someone else – I think I know him, but it wasn’t DivDav.’

>Declan, you must tell the police.

‘Rose thinks it was a dream.’

:Well it did happen while you were asleep, love.

‘I know the difference.’

>OK, is importante. If you are sure, we tell the police the wrong name before. We must tell them.

‘I’m sure I remember.’

>Then I call, like last time.

Nico made the call, I was relieved to have it taken out of my hands. It was a short conversation.

>He say he come this evening to talk to you. I say yes. I stay or go, which you want.

‘Stay, please. When’s he coming?’

>Ha, I forget to ask. Rose, I am here all evening, feed me please!

:You’ve got a cheek on you. Alright, I’ll get cracking on tea.

>I call Lis to say I stay longer.

DI Johnson eventually arrived about eight thirty. He asked me to go over what I remembered, and was particularly interested in how I knew it was Big, and what I could recall of the other man. I described what I could remember: blond hair, brown boots, nondescript clothing. I couldn’t see how any of it could help, it was all too vague. He asked the question I had been expecting.

ϙWhat made you remember?

‘I woke up after a dream, and I just remembered.’

ϙHow can you be sure it wasn’t part of the dream?

‘Because it’s a memory. I can’t explain it any better. It’s like when I remembered Dav texting me on Saturday. I just know. I’ve remembered something else though, not something from my sleep. When I was in hospital the first time, Big and Dav came to see me. Big said something about my phone being out of commission. I don’t know how he would have known that unless he’d had something to do with smashing it.’

ϙInteresting. When you gave us David Allsop’s name we did some checking on his phone records, and he tried to contact you by text and phone on three occasions between twenty and thirty minutes after your phone was destroyed. Although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that he would have done this if he had known your phone was broken. You’re sure this other man wasn’t David Allsop?

‘I’m sure. Dav’s got dark brown hair, this man was blond, and could have been taller. I’m sure I know him from somewhere.’

>Do you know yet the anonymous numbers?

ϙWe’re still working on it. Lots of red tape. Thank you very much, Declan. We’ll be in touch. Can we get hold of you here over Christmas?

‘No, I’m away.’

I smiled to myself as I thought about going up to Jay and Beth’s.

‘Rose, have you got Jay’s number?’

Rose wrote out a number for DI Johnson, then showed him out.

>Huh. Ben Hearne. You are sure?

‘I’m sure.’

>Are you OK? He is your friend, he never hurt you in training, he seem OK.

‘I know. No, I’m not OK really. He’s kind of fucked up my life for the next few months. I thought he was a good mate, we went out for a drink when no one else would talk to me. Don’t know what to think about that now. Don’t feel like I can trust anyone.

>You know you can trust me and Rose and Jaime. Start with us. We look after you now. We are Three Musketeers. Four if you count Lis. No, six with Beth and Cal. We are Six Musketeers. Were there six? There should be six, what good is three?

:You do talk some nonsense, lad.

>Ha, I say what is in my head. Sometimes is much nonsense, sometimes is much clever. Is luck which one. I go now, Lis she make special dinner.

:But you’ve had your dinner.

>She don’t know this.

He winked at Rose and stood up to go.

>Declan, I hope you OK, I try to cheer you up, you are sad still, yes?

‘A bit, I’ll be OK. Thanks for coming.’

He left and it was just Rose and me again.

Matt

And so the days ticked on to Christmas. I was more aware of it than I might have been because Cal was so excited – he had an advent calendar in my room, as well as one elsewhere in the house, and he came in every morning to open the cardboard door and eat the chocolate and tell me how many sleeps until Santa.

He told me earnestly how he’d asked Dec about some Transformer toy, and how Dec was going to talk to Santa about it. I hoped Dec wasn’t just bullshitting, and wasn’t going to let Cal down. I tried to talk to Beth about getting some presents for Cal, but she just waved me away and said that Santa was bringing enough more than enough, and there wouldn’t be any names on anything, and to save my strength. I wasn’t quite sure what I was saving it for, as there didn’t seem to be a marathon or even a walk to the toilet in my immediate future, but it was the end of the subject.

I was, however, slowly, infinitesimally, feeling things get better. There were days when I could sit in the chair in my room for a few minutes – not many days, but it happened, and it was something I used to chart my progress. I could sometimes even get myself out of bed and into the chair myself, although these occasions were few and far between, and I couldn’t get myself back again.

There were also days when my lungs decided they were going to try to expel all the foul deposits left in their depths, and I would cough uncontrollably, and Jay and Beth would sit with me trying to help me get it under control as I choked, their fingers poised on the nine on the phone. Those days left me weak and feeble for a long time, exhausted with the effort and sore from the overused chest muscles. I tried not to notice the fear in their eyes when it happened, but it was hard not to, and I knew I wasn’t truly out of it yet, it could still take me. The upshot of all the coughing was that I was the proud recipient of a baby monitor. It was switched on whenever there was no one in the room with me, so at the slightest sign of dying, someone could be with me in an instant to stop me. Bastards. I hated the fucker, it just made me feel more like an infant. But it was another thing I put up with because, at the end of the day, they were terrified and they had given up everything so I could be here and not in some shitty care home.

Cal

I only had a few more days of school, and then it was the Christmas holidays. I couldn’t remember ever being more excited than I was that year. I spent a lot of time in Uncle Matty’s room, playing with my toys and talking to Uncle Matty, who seemed to be able to talk and play for longer, and slept less, than when he first came to live with us. Sometimes all four of us would be in there, and we’d watch Uncle Matty’s TV, and Mum, Dad and Uncle Matty would talk, or maybe Uncle Matty would be asleep, but we’d all still be there.

Like any good six-year-old, I was counting the days to Christmas, but I was also counting the days until Dec arrived, which was going to be two days before Christmas.

I had talked to Dec on the phone a lot, although Dec didn’t talk for long, and we didn’t make any plans about what we were going to do while he was here.

Mum said that we needed to see how Dec felt, and not try to make him do a lot of playing and games, but me and Dec had always done a lot of playing and games, and I wasn’t sure what Dec would do if we weren’t doing that. Mum said Dec had been sad, and hurt from his cuts and broken arm, and that we needed to give him loves like we did to Uncle Matty, but Dec wasn’t going to be asleep in his bed all day like Uncle Matty, and I was pretty sure he’d want to play football, or cars, or Jenga, or any of the things that we always did.

Dec

I spent the weekend focussing on doing the physio exercises Pete had given me, determined I was going to be as fit as I could when I returned to the club in January. I needed less and less help generally from Rose as my arm got used to its new operational status. My mood lifted as I did more for myself, I tried to concentrate on being busy rather than thinking, using Rose’s ‘don’t prod it’ theory, and managed to push things down far enough that I couldn’t feel them.

Lis visited a couple of times, Nico had an away Raiders game on Saturday, so I didn’t see much of him. Beth rang, I spoke to her and Jay and confirmed arrangements for Tuesday. That helped to cheer me up as much as anything. I was really looking forward to going up there, although Matt, Jay’s brother, was now living with them and very poorly, and Jay’s mum was going to be staying at the same time as me, and I was nervous about how everything was going to work out with us all. Couldn’t wait to see them all though, see them properly without being on medication, or in huge amounts of pain, or unable to talk without a six year old translator. Really needed to see how it was all going to work out.

On Monday, after a trip to my GP to have various stitches removed and to be told I no longer needed the sling, which I hadn’t been wearing much anyway, I borrowed a holdall from Rose, packed it with all the clothes Lisa had bought me, and put the presents I was taking up into another bag.

Now the stitches were out from my face and scalp, I could wash my hair. I still couldn’t have a shower, though, and had to ask Rose to help me using her shower hose over the bath so I could avoid soaking the dressings on my arm. It was such a relief to have clean hair, I almost didn’t mind Rose having to do it for me. It must have been washed when I was first admitted to hospital, to get the blood out, but I hadn’t been able to wash it since. It felt like another step towards recovering, getting back on my feet.

I hadn’t looked in the mirror much since I’d been out of hospital; seeing myself in the mirror on the ward had shaken me, and the odd glimpse out of the corner of my eye was all I’d been able to cope with. However, now the stitches were out, I risked an in-depth study, keeping it exploratory and fact-finding, and not thinking about how all the marks actually found their way onto my skin in the first place.

The bruises were still there, beginning to fade but still very noticeable, in every shade from deep green through canary yellow to dark browny purple; the stitches had been replaced by raised red lines which bracketed my face. I could still barely recognise myself.

I wondered how long the scars would last – I’d asked at the surgery when I had the stitches out, but they were non-committal, which I took to mean ‘a long time’. I really didn’t want to think of men in brown boots kicking me every time I looked at myself, so I was going to have to start covering all of those thoughts over with something else soon.

Matt

Two days before Christmas was the day set for Advent. Not the coming of the baby Jesus, but the coming of the juvenile rugby player. Dec was arriving that evening, and Cal rushed about excitedly all day, tidying his room up, drawing pictures, cleaning out his rabbit, so that everything would be ready. Because obviously the teenager wouldn’t have set foot through the door if the straw in the rabbit hutch wasn’t clean enough to see your face in. Fucksake.

Since they came back from Devon, Cal had talked a lot about Dec and his scars and bruises, seeming to find it all fascinating rather than horrifying, and I was looking forward to having a look for myself, nosy parker that I was. I knew Beth and Jay were nervous about him coming.

Jay felt that things hadn’t been properly sorted, and wanted to get to the bottom of everything. He wasn’t a fan of long conversations, but he seemed to have resigned himself to this particular one.

Beth just wanted everything to be lovely again. She’d been hurt more by Dec shutting himself off and not telling them about some pretty huge shit than she had about the actual huge shit, and wondered if things could ever be back the way they’d been.

It could be pretty handy, being a useless lump in a bed, who couldn’t talk much. People opened up, told you stuff. Of course, sometimes it meant you had to lie there while they fussed and went on at you as well, but the payoff was you sometimes got to hear the good shit, always provided you could a) remember it and b) not fall asleep at a crucial point.

Then Dec was here for Christmas. He was here for four days, and by the time he left, he’d changed things for me, and he was my mate, and part of my family. The End. What, you want details? My version of events? Blow-by-blow account? Oh alright then, if you insist.

Cal

So after what felt like years, it was at last the day that Dec was coming. I had tidied my room so that you could see the carpet and all my toys had been put away to leave room for Dec’s clothes and trainers and pants. I so wanted Dec to see my dinosaur bedroom; my old bedroom had Ben 10 curtains and blue walls, but my dinosaur bedroom was cool, and it was a big boy’s bedroom. And Dec hadn’t seen Percy, my rabbit, yet. Mum had never let me have a pet, because Tabitha, our cat wouldn’t like it. But Tabitha lived with Nico and Lis now, and I had Percy. Dec would love him.

Mum had a text from Lis to say that they were driving in Lis’s car, and that they should be at our house in a few hours. Mum had made some dinner, but we weren’t going to have it until Dec got here.

Dec

It was finally Tuesday, the day I was going to see Jay, Beth and Cal; the day, if it all went right, I was going to get my family back. Rose left in the morning, torn between wanting to be on her way to her sister’s and staying to fuss over me, but finally leaving me to it along with a long list of things I had to do and say, pots of jam to give to Beth, and a couple of her speciality huge hugs.

I wandered around restlessly, waiting for Lis to pick me up in the afternoon. I did some exercises, watched some of a Christmas film on TV, ate lunch, paced some more. Lis, of course, showed up dead on time.

The car journey was nearly as tortuous as the waiting had been. It should have taken about two and a half hours, but loads of other drivers seemed to be making an early Christmas getaway and the motorways were pretty busy. Being stuck in several traffic jams did nothing for my nerves. We got there in just over three and a half hours.

Cal

It got dark, and although I kept looking out of the window, I couldn’t see anything. Lots of cars went by, but I could only see their headlights, and none of them stopped. I took up a permanent position at the hall window, and pressed my face to the glass.

Finally, a car stopped outside, under the street-light, and a light went on inside the car. I saw Dec in the passenger seat, but he didn’t get out straight away. I jumped off the chair I’d been standing on and ran into the kitchen.

‘He’s here, Mummy, he’s here.’

Dec

It was early evening, dark and cold as Lis pulled up outside the house, following my directions via a map on her phone. I had managed to get us lost once, but we had found our way again and now we were here. My pulse rate rose with anticipation. I was finally here, I would find out if it really was all OK, if we could be together again, if things could be mended, or … not. I was excited and terrified.

~Ready?

Deep breath. I looked at Lisa, who gave me a reassuring smile.

‘… Ready.’

25. One step forward

In which disappointment is encountered.

It was dark when I woke up. I wasn’t sure what had woken me, or what the time was. There was a tap on the door.

:Are you decent, love? I’ve got a cup of tea and some toast for you. Have it in bed. It’s seven o’clock.

‘I’m decent.’

:Alright, I’m putting the light on.

Rose walked into the room with a mug and a plate, flicking the light switch with her thumb. The light dazzled me for a few seconds.

:By, you don’t like hanging things up, do you love?

She stepped over my pile of clothes in the middle of the floor, and looked at the other clothes strewn over a chair and a chest of drawers.

‘Sorry, not very tidy.’

:I can see that, love. Doesn’t worry me, just don’t you trip on anything. Here you go. Sit up now, don’t dawdle, you’ve got a lot to do before Nico gets here.

‘He’ll be late.’

:He said eight sharp.

‘He was joking. He’s always late. Always. At least half an hour.’

:Best be ready, just in case.

I sighed. I had, after all, asked not to be allowed to go back to sleep. Sat up and took the mug from Rose. Managed to hold it in my left hand, it ached but was strong enough. She put the plate well within reach on the bedside table.

:There’s some of your painkillers here, in case you need them, love. When will you be back, do you think?

‘Don’t know. This afternoon? Might have to wait for Nico to give me a lift back. Don’t think I’m up to the bus just yet.

:I’m at work all day, just wondering if you want me to pop back at lunchtime? Do you some lunch?

‘No, don’t do that. I’ll get myself something, somewhere, no worries. I’ll see you later. Maybe you could come upstairs with me?’

:If that’s what you want, love. Finish your breakfast, I’ll be back to bother you in a minute.

With Rose’s frequent bothering, I managed to be ready by eight o’clock. I was extra sure to do everything I needed to for myself, as I was a bit worried she was going to offer to come and wash me if I seemed like I couldn’t manage. I did it all well enough, though, then had to wait forty minutes for Nico to arrive. Rose was on tenterhooks the whole time.

‘If you need to go, just go, don’t be late for work. I said he’d be late.’

:Well I’ll have to go soon.

‘Go then, I can leave the building fine on my own, what are you waiting for?’

:What if he doesn’t come? I’ll have to take you.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, Rose, just go to work. Go on.’

Eventually she went, and two minutes later Nico arrived.

>Here I am, eight sharp like you say. This mean nearly nine, yes? Ha!

‘You’re going to get a bollocking from Rose. She’s not good with late.’

>You tell her I am always, don’t you?

‘Couldn’t quite get her head round it. She thought you must have stood me up or something.’

>Poor Rose. She learns the ways of Nico. Are you ready?

‘I’ve been ready since ‘eight sharp’, thanks.’

>Ha, then we go.

We got to the club about nine o’clock. I wasn’t quite sure who I needed to see – Don would be overseeing training, and at least one of the docs would be there too in case he was needed. I went to the main office.

I’d forgotten I looked such a sight. The swelling on my face was really going down, but the bruises were coming out in spectacular combinations of purple, yellow and green. The stitches gave my whole face the air of a slasher movie, and the nose cover completed the look. The girls in the office looked at me with open mouths when I walked in. I caused a bit of a stir while they recognised me and sympathised and finally told me to go to the treatment room. I made my escape, eager to get away from the excessive mothering, but happy that things seemed more normal with them all.

The treatment room was near the changing rooms, and although I hadn’t really thought about how I would react if I met anyone I knew, fortunately the players were all out on the training ground, and I didn’t run into anyone.

I tapped on the treatment room door and went in. Lee Brady, one of the club doctors, was in the room, writing at a table. He looked up, doing the by now familiar double-take as he saw my face then realised who I was.

÷Dec. Shit, you’ve seen better days, mate. Have a seat. Don’s out at training, but he wanted me to let him know when you’re here. I’ll just text him.

He pressed a few keys on a mobile phone then looked up at me.

÷We’ve asked the hospital to email over your X-rays so we can have a look at your arm and collar bone. Do you mind if I have a quick prod?

I shook my head. Lee lifted up my right arm, watching my face to see when it hurt. It hurt pretty much straight away.

÷Do you happen to know the specifics of your arm breaks? This plastering is pretty over the top unless there’s some fairly heavy-duty damage under there.

‘No, sorry.’

÷No problem, we can wait for the X-rays, I’m expecting them in the next few minutes. I’m hoping we might be able to get away without the plaster – immobilising your arm for several weeks will mean you have to work harder and longer to build your strength back up. Might need to fix that collar bone though. How’s everything else? Your left hand looks badly bruised.

He had a look, took the bandage and splint off the little finger, then moved the other fingers backwards and forwards, and asked me to move my fingers on my own. The swelling had gone down a lot, and this morning I noticed I could do more with my hand than yesterday.

÷Hm, could’ve been worse, lucky to get away with just the pinky broken. That’s quite a footprint. Have you taken a photo?

‘Er, no. Not something I particularly want to remember.’

÷Not for the family album, you plonker, but for identifying who did it.

It hadn’t occurred to me.

‘Genius.’

÷Use your phone.

‘Can’t, it was smashed.’

÷Oh, OK. I’ll do it now, then. If you need it, you know where I am.

He took a few shots of my hand and saved them on his phone. The laptop on the table bleeped.

÷Here are your X-rays. Let’s have a look, now.

The door opened and Don came in, slightly breathless.

-Hello Declan, thanks for coming. Any news, Lee?

÷The X-rays have just arrived, I’m having a look now. Looks like a simple humerus, plus ulna and radius near the wrist, a bit more complicated. I can understand why they plastered, but I think screw and plate would give more mobility – I was just explaining to Declan about losing muscle bulk if you’re kept immobile. We need to fix the collar bone too, the ends aren’t together, it’ll set wrong.

-Thanks, Lee, that’s what we talked about yesterday, isn’t it? Declan, what we’re suggesting is that you have an operation as soon as possible to try and fix your arm. We want to get the plaster off and get you moving as soon as we can, fix up your collar bone, and then you’ll be able to train. You’ll be out for much longer if you keep the plaster on, and the collar bone might not heal properly. Lee and I have checked with the local private hospital and the surgeon we’ve used before, and they could fit you in next Tuesday. I know it’s close to Christmas, but you’d be out the next day.

I was silent. The day after Tuesday was Christmas Eve. There was no way I’d be able to travel. It was a big blow, beyond disappointment. I couldn’t quite believe my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal was being taken away, almost as soon as it had been given to me. I didn’t know what to say. I understood everything they’d said, and realised the strings they would have had to pull to get such an early date, especially at this time of year. But Christmas with them all … it was more than a holiday, it was a chance to put it right, to try to make things good again. I’d said ‘yes’, and now I was going to have to say ‘thanks but no thanks’.

-Is everything alright, son? I know it’s a lot to spring on you, but we really don’t want to hang around with breaks, there can be all sorts of complications.

‘I understand that. It’s just, er, this sounds stupid I know, is there any way it could be after Christmas?’

Don shook his head.

-The surgeon is away for a month – that’s too long to wait. I know you probably had plans, but this is important.

If I didn’t say it, they wouldn’t know. It still might not make any difference. I felt selfish and mean-spirited. But just had to say it.

‘I was … Jay’s asked me to go up there for Christmas.’

Don sighed. He looked briefly at Lee and then back at me.

-I can understand this is a bit of a blow for you then. I’m sorry. You do understand this is really important to your rehab and will get you back to playing more quickly?

‘Yeah. I know. Sorry, just disappointed.’

-The other thing to bear in mind is that you will need looking after for at least twenty four hours after you get home. I don’t know if you’re still planning to stay with Rose, will she be able to look after you?

So I was going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas too. The worthless piece of shit – the gift that just kept on giving.

‘I can ask.’

-I’m really sorry, Declan, if there was another way – I know how important this must have been to you.

I shrugged.

There was a brief pause. Another look passed between Don and Lee.

÷Are we going to …

-May be best in the circumstances. Declan, I don’t know if you remember when you were in hospital, I mentioned the possibility of using a psychologist to help you talk through some of your, er, issues?

I nodded reluctantly, still not keen on delving into my confusion with someone I didn’t know. Or even with someone I did know, come to that.

-He’s called Adam Palmer. Lee and I have been in touch with him and told him some of your story, just background stuff and some of your recent troubles. He thinks you might have some kind of post traumatic stress relating to your accident. He is a bit of an expert, and we’d like you to meet him in the New Year. Can I give him Rose’s number so he can contact you?

‘Yeah.’

Although it would need a whole team of psychologists to get to the bottom of my mixed up brain.

I wanted to get out of there, to get my head round this latest bit of bad news, but Don wanted to give me details of hospital dates and times and what I needed to bring and remember and how I would get there. I found it hard to concentrate – all I could think of was having my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal taken away so I could be in more pain and need more looking after. Don seemed to realise I was lacking some focus, and wrote it down for me.

-I’ll be in touch before Tuesday, but go home and rest up now. How are you getting home?

>Waiting for Nico.

-He might be some time, there’s a couple more hours of training to go yet.

I shrugged.

-Why don’t you wait in the corporate suite where you were on Saturday morning? It’s more comfortable than down here. We can get the TV put on, get you some coffee?

‘OK.’

I passed the time miserably. I was going to disappoint Cal yet again. He’d soon stop trusting me at all. I needed to contact Rose to ask if I could fuck up her plans too, and was keenly missing having a mobile phone.

I stood at the window and looked out. I could just about see the training pitch from the window; players were running about, throwing balls and practising moves. It reminded me how far away I was from spending time out there. Even when I was suspended I had spent time with everyone, but now I’d just be spending time in the gym, keeping fit, bulking up, working on weaknesses, with other injured players but not running with the ball, tackling, rucking – any of the stuff that made me feel alive.

By now all my aches, bruises and pains had begun to reassert themselves; I hadn’t brought my pain meds with me and I started to feel very sorry for myself.

One of the girls from the office brought me a coffee and some biscuits, dug out a paracetamol and stopped for a chat, but the time passed slowly. I had no idea when Nico would be able to take me home, and I began to wish I’d got the bus, or called a taxi, both of which would have been impossible as I would struggle to walk to the bus stop, and I had no cash.

I stared out of the window and wallowed a bit in self-pity. Eventually the door opened and Nico popped his head round.

>Hey, Declan, I go now. How are you? Don tell me about this operation. Is horrible timing.

I looked up at him, feeling wretched.

‘I promised Cal. I’ve got to tell him. Got to tell Rose too. She’s going to her sister’s.’

>Cal and Rose will understand. You visit Cal soon after Christmas, Rose she love looking after you, she don’t mind.

‘Cal’s six. All he knows is Christmas Day is the big one, and I wasn’t there on his birthday either. Fuck it, I’m a selfish bastard, after all this club has done for me, but I just got them all back and now it’s all fucked up again …’

>Come Declan, we go home. My home. Lis is there, she make us lunch, we talk, Lis she know what to say. Come.

He held his hand out and beckoned me out of the chair. I stood up and followed him out to his car, glad to put off telling everyone for a while longer.

I was silent on the journey to Nico’s house, wrapped up in my thoughts. For someone who hadn’t thought about Christmas a few days ago, I had pinned a lot of dreams on it this year. Nico didn’t talk either, I guess I was a bit of a dampener on conversation.

Lis was in the kitchen when we got there.

>Hey baby, I bring a guest. Put on a kettle, show him you make better tea than Rose.

~Dec? Wasn’t expecting you – oh you look good in those, like the cargos, much better than Nico’s trousers flapping round your knees. Hoody looks good too – what’s wrong?

>Don he say he want Dec to have operation on his arm on Tuesday. He can’t go to Jaime‘s for Christmas.

~Oh no, Dec, that’s terrible. Jay and Beth will be really disappointed. And Cal.

>Dec worry about Rose too, she go to Wales. Someone need to look after him when he come out afterwards. Maybe we can?

~Oh, yes, of course. What a great idea. There’s plenty of room here. That would solve one of your worries, yeah?

I was bowled over by their immediate kindness.

‘Are you sure?’

~Absolutely sure.

‘Thanks, that would be great.’

~And I’ll take you up to Stafford as soon as you’re fit after Christmas. They’ll understand, I know they will.

>He worry about Cal. He promise a – huh – what you call it? Optiprime? I write it somewhere …

‘Optimus Prime. It’s a toy. I promised Cal that Santa would bring him one on Christmas Day. I’ve broken so many promises to him, I really needed to keep this one.’

~Hm, well, I’m sure there’s something we can do. There’s plenty of time, we’ve still got over a week. Let’s have a coffee and a sandwich and sit down for now, yeah? Dec, I know this must be a huge disappointment, but I’m sure it’s for the best. Don does usually know what he’s doing when it comes to injuries. You’re upset now, but I bet in a couple of months, you’ll see it differently, especially if you’re playing again.

Lis was making complete sense, and some of it was getting through. Didn’t stop me feeling very sorry for myself though. Lis went to make coffee and Nico turned on the TV.

>Which DVD we watch? You like one with explodings?

‘Explodings sounds good.’

Some time later, having immersed myself in the action movie, I heard the phone ring. It was only on the edge of my consciousness, but Lisa came into the room with the handset.

~Sorry to interrupt you, but it’s Don for Dec. Turn the sound down, Nico.

She gave me the handset as Nico paused the film.

‘Hi. It’s Declan.’

-Hello there. I just wanted to check with you, I realised this morning what a setback the timing of this operation would be for you. There’s a possibility of an earlier time, there’s been a cancellation. Could you do it tomorrow afternoon?

‘Tomorrow? Yes. Yes, I can do that.’

My heart leapt with hope – after the disappointment of this morning, I could hardly believe it was being given back to me.

-It would make a big difference to you being able to travel sooner, would give you almost a week to recover, and we’d be able to get that arm fixed up all the more quickly. But for you I think the important thing is you should still be able to spend Christmas with Jay and his family.

‘Don, thank you. Really, thank you so much. You don’t know how much I appreciate it.’

-I think I’ve got an idea of what it means, to all of you. OK. You need to remember not to eat anything after midnight tonight. Get a good night’s rest, the surgery is scheduled for three. You need to be there by twelve so they can check you out, give you pre-meds – actually, given your recent ability to concentrate on information, could you pass me back to Lisa, I’ll ask her to write it down.

I handed the phone back to Lisa. She looked at me, puzzled at the big grin on my face, so I told her the latest news, then handed her the phone so she could take down the details.

Now my trip to Stafford was on again, there were some things I wanted to sort out – it suddenly felt like there was no time to lose. Nico was happy to search online for an Optimus Prime instead of watching the end of the film, and he persuaded me to let him drive me to the retail park on the way back to Rose’s so we could buy it.

I was elated now. I was finding it hard to control my moods, swinging from crashing through the floor to spiralling to the ceiling when I should have been able to deal with things better. In between times I was having difficulty concentrating. I tried to calm down, pushed thoughts of the operation right to the back of my mind and allowed myself a bit of happiness.

Lis had finished talking to Don, and had a list of things he wanted me to remember. She made me put it in my pocket to read later and show to Rose, and for once I wasn’t annoyed at the implication that I couldn’t look after myself. I was starting to realise that it could be a good thing when people wanted to help out. This was just as well, because Lis had more helping out lined up for me.

~Dec, please don’t think I’m interfering, but would you like me to get a present for you for Beth, or Jay?

‘Er … I hadn’t thought. Bollocks, I should really shouldn’t I?’

~Totally up to you, just wondered if you wanted any help. You blokes are rubbish at presents, on the whole.

>Is true, I still don’t shop yet. Poor Lis.

‘What should I get?’

I’d never really done a great deal for Christmas presents, but this year it felt different, like I wanted to make an effort. I was out of ideas, though.

~Well, why don’t you let me find something? I’ve got to go into town tomorrow, to buy my own Christmas present from Nico by the sounds of it. I’ll sort something. As long as you get Cal’s Transformer tonight, that’s the main thing.

I looked at Lisa gratefully and nodded my thanks.

>We must go back to Rose, she need to know about tomorrow. We ask if she is here for you when you go home on Thursday.

Nico was right. Having the operation tomorrow might mean I wasn’t going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas, but that depended on her plans.

‘Shit, didn’t think of that. Bloody hell, why is everything so fucking complicated?’

>Ha, is lucky we have Lis’s list to help us. We buy toys, then see Rose and drink more tea. Easy.

Rose had just got home when we got there, and was still taking her coat off.

:Hello, loves. Are you only just getting back now?

‘I went back to Nico’s this afternoon. Had a bit of a morning, to be honest.’

:Tell me about it while I put the kettle on. What did they say? How’s your arm?

I filled Rose in on the latest news about my operation, which surprised her but didn’t faze her at all, gave her the list of things Don wanted me to remember, and checked she would be alright about looking after me when I came back. Rose was working tomorrow, so Lis would take me in for the op, but there were things Rose wanted to sort immediately.

:You’ll need to pack a bag, won’t you?

‘Probably.’

:Pyjamas, toothbrush, that kind of thing?

‘Probably.’

Rose sighed and rolled her eyes in the face of my appalling lack of organisation.

:Alright, love, I’ll do your thinking for you, get your stuff together. Any news from the police on your bank card or any of the other business?

‘I haven’t been here all day, not unless they’ve left a message.’

:We’ll check the phone in a minute then. Do you still want to go upstairs, check your flat?

I’d put my flat to the back of my mind, but now Rose had mentioned it, I wanted to get it over with. If I was out of action from tomorrow, I wanted to go up there now to take stock. Didn’t want it hanging over me for another few days. I nodded.

:Coming, Nico?

>Huh, sure. Is clean now?

:Yes, love, they did it yesterday. Had to chuck most of it, I think it’s bare bones. Declan didn’t want to go up on his own.

>Huh, I understand. We go, then.

I followed Rose and Nico up the stairs and into my flat. It had only been a couple of days since I was last there, but it felt like a lifetime had passed. I let Rose open the door, and she and Nico walked in ahead of me. A bleachy waft floated up my nose.

:Hm, smells clean at any rate.

I hesitated in the doorway. This was harder than I’d expected. I looked past the door. The whole place was completely bare. The only furniture I’d had in the living room was the couch, the small table the television had been on and the phone table; they had all gone. The carpet had been taken up, leaving bare boards which looked like they’d been scrubbed or cleaned in some way. I hadn’t had any personal possessions to speak of, so I found it hard to say what I felt was missing, but something more than ‘stuff’ had gone. There was a small pile of mail on the floor by the door, and to shift the focus from the room, I sorted through it. Mostly junk, a couple of bills which I kept to pay later. I became aware that Rose and Nico were watching me.

‘What?’

:You alright, love? It’s a bit different, isn’t it.

‘Yeah, feels a bit weird, like it’s not my place. Better look in the other rooms I guess.’

I looked into the kitchen. The fridge and all the cupboards were open and completely empty.

‘What happened to all my food?’

:They smashed it all up, love, all your jars, tins opened and emptied, there was mess everywhere mixed with who knows what all over the place. Sorry love. It’s best not to know.

I wandered into the bedroom. Bed had been stripped, no mattress or carpet. Cupboards and drawers were open, nothing in them. It felt like I’d been burgled. For all I knew, I had. They had left me nothing in any case. I sat on the bare mattress, feeling shaken, until Rose and Nico came to find me. Nico sat next to me and put his arm round my shoulder.

>Declan, this is horrible. I think we go downstairs. Come back when there is carpet, you put things in your cupboards, and is yours again. There is no alma, no soul here, no Declan now. We bring your things when you are better, help then.

I nodded. I almost wished I hadn’t come up, but it was better to know, rather than keep wondering. I got up, and walked out, leaving Rose and Nico to follow and shut the door behind them.

Back in Rose’s flat, away from the reality of my own place and what had happened up there, who had done it, and what it meant, I managed to push it all down, away from me; far enough away that I couldn’t feel it any more I felt a bit better.

I focussed on what I needed to do for tomorrow. No food after midnight meant I had to eat well tonight, and make sure I drank enough to stay hydrated. Which meant water instead of tea, although Rose was going to take some persuading. I was looking forward to being able to shower, once the plaster was off and my arm worked a bit better. I felt very unclean, especially as I was a bit clumsy washing myself, and hadn’t done it properly for days; my hair felt greasy, as did the rest of me. Rose pottered about getting things together to put in a bag, in-between making a lasagne for tea. Nico chatted for a bit, then had to go.

>Lis, she see you tomorrow. Good luck, I call the hospital later to check all is good. I come to see you also.

I scrounged some wrapping paper from Rose and made a complete balls-up of trying to wrap Cal’s present. In the end, Rose took over and did it for me. It had taken a while, and a lot of people repeatedly telling me to stop being obstinate, but I was finally prepared to accept a little bit of help. I would have a lot of paying back to do when I could do more for myself.

Dinner eaten, bag packed, list of instructions gone over, Rose’s soaps watched, and a call made to Jay and Beth to tell them about my operation, I decided to go to bed and prepare for the next day by getting as much sleep as I could. I downed some painkillers, which I was pleased to note I hadn’t needed as much as the day before. Struggled out of my clothes and, for Rose’s sake, threw them on the chair instead of leaving them on the floor. Sat on the bed, turned the light off, manoeuvred myself under the duvet. I had only been with Rose for two nights, but it felt comfortable and familiar. Slept.

Dreaming. I am flying, soaring, feeling the best I have ever felt. I can go anywhere, see anyone I want, all over the world. I play rugby with the lads, I play football with Cal, I kiss girls, I swim, I laugh, I run, until a man in brown boots trips me up and I come tumbling down, head over heels, crashing all the way, ripping my face, breaking my arms. I lie helpless on the floor and see his boot coming towards me –

I woke in a cold sweat, disoriented, shaking, face and arms hurting. My nose was throbbing. I’d taken the nose-guard off yesterday after seeing Lee, and although the break wasn’t too bad, and had been reset, there was still a lot of swelling and bruising. I lay on my back, breathing heavily, trying to calm myself.

It was completely dark, very early in the morning. I heard a door open. There was a light tap on my door. Rose’s voice, barely above a whisper.

:You alright, love? Thought I heard a shout.

‘Had a dream. Come in.’

The door opened and Rose came in slowly.

:I won’t put the light on, but am I going to trip over anything?

‘No, nothing on the floor. You’re OK.’

She hesitated by the bed, then knelt down beside it.

:Worried about tomorrow?

‘Don’t think so, just had this dream, it was a really good one, flying, then it all went wrong and turned into someone kicking my face in.’

:Just a dream, love. Try to go back to sleep. It’s really early.

She pushed my hair back from my forehead, as she had done before, and again I was reminded of my mum. I calmed down a bit, my eyes started to droop, and I fell back to sleep while Rose was still kneeling by the bed. No more dreams, just floating in the black.

Rose woke me the next day, no tea and toast, just a glass of water. She sat on the edge of my bed while I drank, making sure I remembered the schedule for the day.

:I’ve put my mobile and work numbers in your bag. If anyone gets a chance to ring me after it’s all done, I’d be grateful. I’ll come and see you later, once I know you’re awake, although I’m getting a bit too used to visiting you in hospitals, love. Right, I need to get on, can’t be late.

She seemed reluctant to leave the room and spent a little time folding my clothes and straightening things up.

‘Thanks, Rose. Don’t be late for work.’

:No love, just fussing. I know you’ll be alright.

She gave me a weak smile and left the room. I wasn’t quite sure of the time, but Rose left for work at eight thirty, so I guessed at some time before eight. I didn’t want to fall back to sleep, so, sighing, I swung my legs over the side of the bed, ignoring the protests from various stabbing niggles, and sat up. I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, trying to gather my thoughts and pull together the energy to get washed and dressed.

I’d have to wait until Rose had finished in the bathroom, but chose some clothes from the pile Lis had bought. Decided to give jeans a go, I had enough time before I left to get the zip and buttons done up. Nice, easy, comfy t-shirt and hoody to go on top. Finally, Rose’s voice floated through the door.

:Bathroom’s free.

I stood up and started my day.

Rose seemed distracted. She told me the same things twice, she checked over and over again that I had her phone numbers. She kept finding things to do that delayed her leaving for work. In the end, I almost had to push her out of the door. She made a big deal of looking in her bag for her keys.

‘Rose, go to work, you’re already late. I’ll be fine, you’ve organised me thoroughly.’

:I know, love, I’m just a bit worried about you, that’s all.

‘Don’t worry, it’s routine, I’ll be back tomorrow, needing all sorts of TLC.’

:I know, love. Oh, look at me.

A few tears had started to leak out of her eyes. She dabbed them with a tissue. I gave her as good a hug as I could manage with my malfunctioning arms and kissed her on the cheek with my bruised lips.

‘Go on. Try not to think about it. Don’t get the sack because of me.’

:No, you’re right love.

She took a deep breath, put her tissue back in her pocket, patted me on the cheek and left.

That left the rest of the morning to keep myself occupied. I checked the list from Don, everything seemed taken care of. I flipped the TV on, but it was full of rubbish I didn’t want to watch. I really wasn’t very good at sitting still, despite having had enough practice in the past few days. I checked my bag again, even though I knew Rose had packed and re-packed it last night. I kept wandering into the kitchen in search of food, then remembering I couldn’t eat. I was getting pretty hungry, just needed to concentrate.

DI Johnson phoned. He had some news on my bank card, which had been found in a bin some miles away from the club. They had checked it, and it had been used to withdraw all the money from my account, which amounted to a few hundred pounds. He wondered how they had known my PIN number, but as this was on a piece of paper in my wallet it wouldn’t have required much of a criminal brain to work it out. There didn’t seem to be much news about DivDav, or at least nothing he would tell me.

ϙWe’re following up your information.

Was all he would say. So that was it. I officially had nothing. No stuff, no money, nothing to call my own. I started a small pity party in my honour, and then remembered that, actually, Nico and Lis had bought me a shitload of clothes to call my own, and yeah, maybe I didn’t have much in the way of possessions, but against all the odds, I had friends a kind of family and a job, and life was looking up. So I put away the ‘Poor Me’ balloons for another time.

A short time after my conversation with DI Johnson, the intercom buzzed. It was Lis.

~I know I’m early, thought you might want some company. Are you up and about?

It was good to see someone, and she had brought presents to wrap up for Jay, Beth and Rose. I hadn’t thought about Rose. Being a worthless piece of shit, I didn’t have much time to think about thanking the people who meant the most to me. I hadn’t even thought about Lis and Nico, and I tried to apologise for this, and for all the money Lis had spent on my behalf over the last few days. She silenced me with a look.

~Stop that. We’ve had this conversation. Now, here’s the paper, do you know where Rose keeps her scissors and sellotape?

We had a rummage in some drawers and managed to find both, then set about wrapping the presents. Lis had got some kind of posh bubble bath stuff for Beth and Rose, and a remote control car for Jay; they were in boxes, and would have been easy to wrap if I hadn’t had my own special wrapping in the shape of the cast. So, instead, my plaster cast acted as a sellotape dispenser, and I handed Lis the scissors when needed; that was as far as my contribution to this year’s Christmas presents went.

~OK, we’ll put these in your room ready to go on Tuesday. Leave Rose’s here on the table for when she gets back from work. Right, it’s still a bit early, but why don’t we get going? Might as well wait there as here.

It seemed reasonable, and I was starting to get nervous; doing something seemed better than not, for now. Lis picked up my bag and we went out to her car.

Once at the hospital, we found the department we needed and announced ourselves. Although we were a bit early, my room was apparently ready, and we were shown in. I had to get into a gown and into bed, which felt a bit weird, but there were lots of doctors who were going to come to see me, and things they needed to check and test, and premeds to administer in the next few hours, as well as having the plaster taken off my arm before the operation. Lis sat in a chair, flicking through a magazine; I was preoccupied, and couldn’t think of anything to say, and worried she would be bored sitting with me while I fidgeted.

‘You don’t have to stay. It’s going to be pretty boring.’

She looked at me.

~I don’t have to, but I’m going to. I’ve got plenty to do, I’ve brought my laptop, might do a bit of work if your conversation gets really dull. But I’m going to be here. Nico’s going to come later this afternoon, and he’ll be here when you wake up, yeah? Nobody’s going to leave you on your own.

I looked back at her, silently relieved.

‘Thanks. I don’t deserve what you and Nico have done for me.’

That got me another look, one I couldn’t hold. I turned my head away, towards the window, so I didn’t have to see her face as she spoke.

~All me and Nico have done is try to make sure you’re not alone. Everyone deserves that.

I couldn’t meet her gaze, and she changed the subject.

The afternoon passed with visits from the surgeon, the anaesthetist, nurses with meds, someone who took the plaster off my arm, and the tea trolley. It was a pretty spectacular tea trolley. By now I was really hungry, but had to pass it all up, although I saw Lis look longingly at the cakes.

‘Go on. Do it for me. I can’t.’

It was the least I could do after she had spent the afternoon with me; she didn’t take much persuading.

~Oh alright, if I’m doing it for you.

She chose a piece of chocolate fudge cake and ‘wow’ed her way through it.

~That was awesome. Please have lots more operations, Dec. I will gladly sit with you through all of them.

Just before three o’clock, I was asked to sign a consent form. Then I was asked to get on a trolley, ready to be wheeled down to the operating theatre. Lis took my hand, and kissed me on the cheek. I suddenly felt scared and alone, and tears pricked my eyes.

~You’ll be fine, Dec. Nico will be here when you wake up. In fact, he’ll probably wake you up early with his chattering. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine, yeah? You will.

She let go of my hand and the porter took the trolley away down the corridor. I watched the ceiling go past. Entered the theatre, a white room with a large operating table in the middle. Was moved from the trolley to the table. Covered with paper sheet. The surgeon and anaesthetist were both there, gowned up, only their eyes showing. The mask was put over my face, I counted backwards from a hundred, all the way down to ninety eight and knew no more.

Dreaming. Someone is shouting and punching me. I fall to the floor. Big is kicking my arm, hard. A brown boot hurtles towards my face.