In the October of that last year, Matt was home from his latest visit to hospital, but not making a lot of progress. He’d been in bed for weeks, needing constant nursing, pressure sores blooming on his skinny rump. He was hardly ever awake, and his rasping breathing rattled through the house day and night. Our double bed had been replaced by a hospital profiling bed for Matt and a single one for me.
Josh had just moved into a shared house with some mates from Raiders; he’d been meaning to move out for weeks, but had felt bad about going when his dad was so ill. I had to persuade him to go, although I missed him terribly and felt like we finally did have an empty nest. He’d been in touch every day, either visiting or on the phone, and the family were still as constant a presence in our lives as they had ever been, but now the children were gone, it felt different.
Matt needed so much care at the moment, I did as much as I could myself. We had the works – hoist, special bed, oxygen mask, drip stand, even, to Matt’s shame and something I swore to him I would never tell anyone, incontinence pads for when neither of us could get him to the loo.
Since he’d been out of hospital, Matt had needed constant nursing. I did as much as I could, and promised Beth I’d tell her when I needed help. Very occasionally I’d ask her to come over if I needed to go out, but I wanted to be there as much as I could. It felt like our time was running out, and I didn’t want to miss any of the times when he was awake. He could still make me laugh, or make my heart melt with a look.
Eventually, Matt started refusing his medication. I thought long and hard about fighting him, but couldn’t bring myself to force him. He was still getting the anti-biotics via the drip, although they didn’t seem to be doing much good, but nothing else was going into his system, including food. He would drink a little bit every now and then, as his mouth got dry and sore, but he was wasting away before my eyes and it was destroying me. He was being visited regularly by his GP and his MS nurse, but we all knew there was little we could do to make him either eat or take his meds. I’d been there before so many times with my patients, and I knew how it was going to end.
Matt was just getting his breath back after a huge eruption of coughing had shaken him for several minutes. I picked up the oxygen mask and put it over his mouth and nose. Matt raised his hand to the mask and pushed it away; I could see the effort it had taken, and could easily have pushed it back on, but I allowed my hand to drop away, still holding the mask. Matt was looking at me, his grey gaze burning into me.
‘Hahd … enuhf … Lau.’
‘What do you mean?’
Although I knew exactly what he meant, and he knew that I knew. I could see it in his eyes, how tired he was, exhausted of the battle. He could do it, another monumental fight to get better, one more time, but we’d soon be back here again, and then again. He had the right to stop. I knew what was going to happen, and it wouldn’t be long now.
‘Soh … ry.’
It was barely a whisper, and I struggled to hear him over the rattle of his breathing.
I tried to keep my voice light as I stroked his cheek, although inside I was screaming ‘no, don’t go, it’s too soon, I’m not ready, I’ll never be ready’.’
We’d talked about it, several months ago, how one day he would need to be in control, no arguments, and I’d agreed, but now it was here, and it was hard; the hardest promise I’d ever had to keep.
‘You have a rest. You’ve earned it. Lazy sod.’
He moved his hand toward mine and I dropped the oxygen mask, gripping his icy fingers with one hand and stroking his clammy forehead with the other. His eyes held mine, full of sorry, full of love, full of pain and full of goodbye.
‘Hohd … hahnds … fuh … eh … ver.’
We looked at each other and acknowledged what was going to happen. He started to speak and I bent my head closer to hear him.
‘Luhv … yuh … Lau … ra … Lou … ise … Scoht.’
It took so much effort to say that he went even paler, closed his eyes and swallowed hard as sweat ran down his face. Or it may have been tears. Each breath tore through him painfully.
‘I love you, Matthew Robert Scott.’
‘Niht … thehn.’
‘Night, beach boy. Sleep well.’
I leaned over as he opened his eyes, then I held his gaze for a long time, until finally I kissed him, and felt his mouth smiling under mine. His eyes closed, his face relaxed and his fingers stopped gripping mine as he let go and slept.
I sat up, still holding his hand, watching his face for a while, his long lashes resting softly on his cheeks. He was deeply asleep, almost unconscious, by the time I picked my phone up from the small table by the bed, and with shaking hands made a call to Josh.
‘Josh … Dad’s, er … sorry my love, I think it’s time for the chain.’
Some time ago, we’d come up with the idea of a chain of phone calls for when the family needed to know things were at a certain point with Matt. I knew I wouldn’t be able to call everyone, so we decided that I would ring one person, who would ring another one, or two, and the message would get round that way. Josh was going to call Beth, and Ella, who was staying with friends up north.
‘I’m sorry, Josh.’
‘Do you want me to come home?’
I couldn’t speak any more.
‘I’ll be right there.’
As I disconnected, my phone rang. The screen announced Dec. That was impossible – Josh wouldn’t have had time to call anyone, let alone any messages getting through to Dec. I answered.
‘Hey Lau. I just picked up a text from Matt. He said Plan B.’
‘Plan B’ was Matt’s code word for when Dec needed to hand over the IT part of the business solely to Tom, when he knew he wasn’t going to be around for much longer. Dec sounded close to tears, if not actually crying. I nearly hung up, I was finding the whole situation unreal and upsetting.
‘Sorry, flower, I think it is.’
‘No. I’ll come round, talk to him, we’ll get him back on his feet.’
‘Not this time, Dec.’
‘But I can’t, I can’t fucking do it without him, I just can’t.’
He sounded distraught.
‘None of us know how we’re going to do anything without him. We don’t have a choice now. I’m sorry, Dec, I can’t … I just can’t right now.’
One lunchtime at the end of September, I got a call from Dec. His kookaburra ringtone sounding like some kind of manic laughter and the picture from my retirement party of him with a pair of Australia underpants on his head (these ones were the red, white and blue flag with ‘100% Aussie’ across the front, even though that was a downright lie) always made me smile and shake my head, so I was grinning as I answered.
‘Hey old man.’
I expected some kind of come back, but there was silence for a while, some breathing sounds, and then one word. It was really quiet, and I hardly heard it.
Then the line went dead.
It took me a little while to figure it out; it had been over a year since the ‘Chain’ meeting, and I’d almost forgotten. Then it slammed into me and nearly brought me to my knees. Back then, Dec had reluctantly agreed to call Amy and me, to tell us with that one word that Matty was nearly gone, to expect the worst.
My first reaction, after sitting down, breathing hard and saying ‘fuck no, fuck no, fuck no’ to myself, was to call Lau and check how she was. But the whole point of The Chain was that she knew she wouldn’t want to talk to a load of people, and I needed to get going on my part of the calling.
The original idea had been that one person would call one person each, but in reality it hadn’t worked like that. Dad had point blank refused to call anyone; Dec had wanted to refuse but been persuaded with the one-word message idea; Mum had taken responsibility for Dad and Gran (who everyone agreed shouldn’t have to call anyone), and I was down to call Chrissie (well obviously) and Iz. I needed to get started, because people needed to know quickly.
Chrissie was working, and wouldn’t have her mobile on in the classroom, so I left a voicemail message, just the one word as agreed, and then tried the office at school to see if I could get a message to her. Then I texted her with the same word, then felt bad, even though we’d agreed that’s what we’d do, and sent her a longer text.
‘Shit Chrissie, I can’t believe it. This can’t be happening. Call me when you get a moment Cal xx‘
And that left Iz. Iz kept weird hours; she was an interpreter, having aced languages at school and Uni, and that meant she often worked evenings when people were having functions, or were doing something in different time zones. I had no idea where she would be when I called, or if it would be convenient for me to call her, or whether I should text. But if she was around, I really wanted to talk to her. I pressed her name.
‘Hey Cal. Got bored waiting for your beans to boil dry?’
Iz was fairly scornful of my attempts to make myself a meal, quite rightly as I remained as crap at cooking as I had always been. I couldn’t banter though, I had a job to do. It was the hardest word I’d ever had to say.
I didn’t say anything, just let it sink in.
‘Cal? Did you just say Tottenham? Oh. Oh no. Oh fuck no. Have you talked to anyone?’
‘No. Dec just rang me, but he just said the word and hung up. Chrissie’s phone’s off.’
‘Oh my God, Cal, I can’t believe it. I thought he’d get better. He always gets better. I want to talk to Lau, but that’s what this is all about, isn’t it, so she doesn’t have to deal with all of us. Shit. Maybe I’ll call Mum.’
‘Haven’t you got someone else you should call?’
‘Oh shit, of course. I’ve got to tell Gracie. Oh bollocks to it, Cal, this is so hard. You know what, now I’m glad it’s only one stupid word, so I don’t have to actually say it.’
‘The next time’s going to be harder.’
‘Don’t. I can’t think about it. I’m going to call Gracie, she’s in a class – oh, maybe I’ll catch her having her lunch. Text me later, yeah? We’ll talk soon.’
We disconnected, and I thought we’d be talking again pretty soon anyway, with The Chain part two.
I tried to call Mum, but her line was busy, so left a message for her to call me. I was starting to feel emotional, and although Conor and Lily were at home with me, I felt lonely and a bit scared. This was a big thing to be facing, and I wanted to share it with someone.
To try and distract myself, I turned back to the essay I’d been trying to write, but the words were just swimming around on the screen. I couldn’t settle, not knowing anything, not knowing how anyone was doing, thinking about how upset everyone was going to be, but not wanting to tie up my phone in case Chrissie called.
I knew Dec was going to be in a bad way, not only from his call, but from how he’d reacted with Rose. I sent him a text, but with no expectation that he would reply. I texted Mum, Dad, Tom, Josh and Ella, but none of them replied either, and I imagined them all talking to each other, a little whirl of family support, and felt even more on my own.
The children were both having afternoon naps, miraculously unconscious together for once, but I felt like waking them up so I could hold them. I needed to hold someone.
And then, as I was about to start my next round of texting, and to have another try at contacting Chrissie, I heard a car pull onto the drive and a key turn in the front door, and she was home. Chrissie was back, and I was so glad to see her I practically fell into her arms.
I disconnected, knowing that this was going to devastate Dec, but he had Amy to look after him and I just needed to be here with Matt, holding his hand.
I barely registered when Josh came in. He put his arm round me and gave me a kiss on the cheek, then bent down and kissed Matt too, and stroked his forehead lightly. Josh spoke to him, but I didn’t take in what he said. It was a while later, Josh had pulled up a chair and was sitting reading a book, when I thought about Ella.
‘Did you call your sister?’
Josh looked up and nodded. ‘Yeah. She’s coming straight down. Might take her a while.’
‘Thanks, my love.’
‘How’re you doing, Mum? You’ve not said a word, I don’t think you heard me earlier.’
‘Sorry. This is … weird.’
We sat and listened to Matt’s rasping, laboured breathing for a while.
‘No one’s called. I thought someone might.’
‘Wasn’t that the point of the chain, so everyone knows what to expect, but not to bother you?’
‘Yeah, I suppose.’
‘Do you want to talk to someone?’
‘No, not really.’
Not except the one person I was never going to talk to again, or who at least was never going to talk to me.
Josh carried on with his book, and we sat through the night, watching Matt slip away, his breaths becoming more erratic. Eventually, Josh’s head kept dropping forwards as he dozed, and I shook him and told him to go to bed.
‘I’ll shout if I need you.’
He nodded and went off to his room.
We held each other for a long time, and Chrissie whispered how sorry she was, stroked my hair and stopped me from falling. I realised my legs were shaking, as what was really, actually happening started to hit home. Chrissie pulled me over to the sofa and made me sit down.
‘Oh Cal. It’s been such a long time coming. How awful.’
‘I know. I thought, though, the chain thing was going to make it easier, but this, waiting for the next call, I think I might go mad. I’ve texted people but no one’s answering.’
‘Did you call Iz?’
‘Yeah. I did the word, but we talked a bit too, then she had to tell Gracie, so we didn’t say much.’
‘What about your Mum?’
‘I left a message. I guess they’re all talking to each other.’
‘Or not talking to each other. It might be hard, they’re not all going to want to talk, are they. That’s kind of the point of all this.’
My phone rang with Mum’s tone.
‘Hi sweetheart. Sorry, I was talking to your gran.’
‘Oh, how is she?’
‘Well, you know what she’s like, she’s not saying a lot, but she’s obviously upset. How are you?’
‘Freaking. This is horrible, Mum. I’m going to jump every time the phone rings. Do we have any idea what’s going on?’
‘Not at the moment. Josh said he’d text if he can, he’s gone over to … wait I suppose. We’re just going to have to wait too, we can’t disturb Laura.’
‘No, I know, shit Mum, whatever it’s like for us, it must be a thousand times worse for Lau. I’m glad Josh is there. Is Ella coming home?’
‘Yes, she should be on her way.’
‘Will she make it … in time?’
‘I don’t know, sweetheart. I think … well I don’t really want to guess at timescales, but not long. I hope she gets here.’
Shit. Fucking hell. That meant hours, rather than … anything longer. I really couldn’t get my head round it. The Chain had been a theoretical thing, something we talked about and felt weird about back then, and I’d half-forgotten it, what had driven it, what it had meant. I’d been fooling myself about how ill Matty was for the last few months, and now it was rushing up at me at great speed.
‘Fuck. Mum, you’ll let me know if you hear anything won’t you?’
‘Of course, sweetheart.’
‘Shit. This is fucking horrendous.’
‘I know. Is Chrissie there with you?’
‘Take care of each other, then. Bye, sweetheart.’
We disconnected and I turned into Chrissie’s arms again.
‘Where are the kids?’
‘What both of them? Did you feed them knockout drops or something?’
‘No, just lunch, then I had a stiff word with them, told them I needed to write my two thousand words on the origins and insertions of the muscles in the upper limbs, and they said ‘Righto Daddy’ and put themselves to bed.’
‘You arse. How long have they been down?’
‘About an hour. Anytime now –’
‘Right on cue. Let’s go and get them. We can have a lovely play together, it’ll take our minds off things for a bit.’
And having the children awake was a distraction. I closed my computer down, knowing my essay was going to have to take a back seat for quite a while, then Chrissie and I played games with Conor and Lily.
Slowly, people replied to my texts, but no one else called, and there was a heavy atmosphere of dread. Each time my phone made a sound, I jumped, until I realised it wasn’t Dec’s kookaburra. I wondered if Dec would even be the one to make that next call; he’d found it hard enough to do the first one.
There weren’t many texts, and Mum was the only one who called me. Eventually I realised that everyone was just waiting, and no one wanted to make people think that it had happened, this dreaded ‘it’ that was going to happen soon. So we just waited, where we were, everything suspended in some kind of emotional limbo until the next part of the the chain began.
Chrissie and I gave the kids their tea, gave them a bath, put them to bed, we did all the family stuff, trying hard not to let them feel how we felt. Then, once it was all quiet, we put some music on, curled up together on the sofa and waited.
Waiting is shit. Waiting for anything is shit, but waiting to be told that someone you love has died is about the shittest thing I’ve ever had to wait for. My nerves were shot; I was on edge; I was in a constant state of recognising the inevitability of it while at the same time trying to convince myself that someone must have got it wrong. Maybe Lau had made a mistake, and Matty was going to pull through. But Lau was realistic, and she wouldn’t have put us all through this unless she was absolutely sure.
And so it went on, until I wore myself out with trying not to think about it. We went to bed, but neither of us slept, and neither did Lily.
A while later, in the early hours, I heard Ella come through the front door.
She sounded like a small scared child.
‘In here, my love.’
She came into the bedroom, eyes reaching for Matt’s face, scanning him to see if he was still breathing. She let out a big sigh.
‘He’s still here. Oh Mum, I was so scared, I thought it would take me too long to get here, I should never have been so far away.’
‘Have you had anything to eat?’
‘No. I’m not hungry. I can get myself something later. Can I … I was thinking all the way here of all the things I’ve never told him. I suppose it’s too late now.’
‘He might still be able to hear you, Squeaks. No one really knows. Let me go and make you a cup of tea. You have a chat with your dad.’
I dragged myself away from Matt, not really wanting to break my connection with him, but recognising that Ella needed some time alone with him. As I walked into the kitchen I heard her voice.
‘Hey Dad, it’s me. Well I guess you know that if you can hear me. I just … well I suppose it’s a bit late to beat around the bush. I love you, alright? I don’t think I ever told you. You told me lots, but it’s just not cool to say it to your dad, is it …’
I smiled to myself as she chattered on, thinking for the millionth time how different she was to Josh, who would sit with me and Matt, not feeling the need to say anything, but communicating all he needed to by his presence. If I didn’t have their shared date of birth branded on my heart, I would never guess they were twins.
I stayed in the kitchen for a while, to give Ella some time, then made her drink. As I carried the cup of tea back into the room, she was still talking.
‘… and then there was that time when I told you I was at Nicci’s sleepover, but really I was drinking cider with Jonny Gatzenberg – oh, Mum. Thanks.’
‘You know he knows about Jonny Gatzenberg.’
‘If you were just confessing all your past crimes, Ella, you’d be surprised how many of them he knows about. And forgives you for. We both remember what it was like to be young. And he loves you, never forget that. But you don’t have to tell him everything, keep some secrets, my love. No one tells their dad everything, dads can’t cope with all the sordid details.’
‘But I feel so guilty now, I wish I’d never lied to him, or screamed at him or all the other horrible things I did.’
‘Didn’t I just hear you tell him you love him?’
‘Then that makes everything alright. Everything. He loves you so much and he’s so proud of you. We’re both so proud of you. Drink your tea and go to bed.’
She nodded, took a couple of mouthfuls of tea then stood up, and looked at Matt for a long time. Finally, she bent down, kissed his forehead and stroked his cheek.
‘Is Josh here?’
‘He’s in bed.’
‘I might go and sleep on his floor.’
Since they were little, whenever either of them had felt out of sorts or upset, they had slept in the same room. It had persisted through their teens until Ella went away to university. This was the first time she’d done it since. I smiled at her, and took Matt’s hand again, listening to him struggle for breath and watching small twitches wrinkle his face from time to time.
Eventually I felt my eyes start to droop. I leaned forwards, resting my head close to his, feeling his staccato breath on my hair, still holding his hand, telling him everything I needed him to know through my grip on his fingers.
Lily often woke in the middle of the night, and was hard to get back to sleep. Luckily her brother slept like a log, and she never woke him up, but Chrissie and I always took it in turns to get up with Lil. If I didn’t have to be up for Uni, I’d get up, and Chrissie did it when she wasn’t working.
That night was no different, and the cries started about two thirty, which was pretty standard. To be honest, I was relieved to have a distraction, and I got out of bed more willingly than usual. Chrissie reached for me.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah, babe. Can’t sleep anyway. Want me to bring you some tea when I come back?’
‘That would be nice. I doubt I’ll be asleep either.’
‘I’ll be back in a bit.’
I crossed the landing to Lil’s room and found her standing up in her cot, red-faced and screaming. She reached her arms up when she saw me, and despite the noise she was making, the gesture of trust tugged at my heart as I picked her up and held her to me.
Lily’s screams could be used as a four-minute warning for a nuclear attack, they are so piercing. I have often apologised to our neighbours, being convinced that she must wake the whole street. They kindly say they never hear a thing, but that girl has a seriously powerful set of lungs.
As I held her to me, Lily’s cries gradually quietened, but I knew from experience that she would only start up again if I put her back down in her cot. We took a little walk downstairs, did a tour of the living room and kitchen, wandered into the dining room, peeked into the conservatory, checked all the coats and shoes were where we left them in the porch, and then she started to get sleepy. I could feel the change in her little body, as she started to relax against my shoulder.
I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for Chrissie’s tea, then wandered around a bit more, to be sure Lil really was asleep. Something was stopping me from taking her back to her room, something was making me hold her extra tight and kiss her head where it rested on my shoulder.
It was the thought of losing someone, it made me want to cling on to the people I loved the most. I wondered how Lau was doing, how Josh and Ella were doing, how Matty was doing, how everyone was doing. I think it was the only time I can remember when there was some sort of family crisis that we didn’t all meet up and face it together. It felt weird, disjointed, cracked.
Lily was fast asleep by now, and I went up to her room and laid her back in her cot, looking down at her as she slept, her cherubic cheeks and rosebud mouth hiding the decibel monster she could be. I brushed her hair away from her forehead, then went downstairs to make some tea.
Chrissie was asleep when I got back to bed, so I put her mug by the bed and sat up drinking mine. I checked my phone, just in case anyone had texted or rung me. I should have had it with me, I suppose, but Chrissie would have heard it if it had gone off.
Sitting there with my phone in my hand, I really wanted to talk to someone, just to contact them so I wasn’t alone with all of this swirling round my head.
I’d told Iz I’d text her later, but if I contacted her now, she’d think it was part two of the chain, and that wouldn’t be fair. I didn’t want to disturb anyone else, and I sat looking at my contacts list, undecided, when a picture flashed up and a tone jangled out. I nearly dropped the phone, my heart racing, but it wasn’t Dec, or Amy, or Mum. It was Iz. Iz wouldn’t be texting me with news; I was the one who was going to call her. I calmed down a little and read the text.
‘Sorry if I woke u up. Can’t sleep. Wanna talk?‘
‘Wasn’t asleep. Wld LOVE 2 talk.‘
I checked Chrissie. She had stirred when the text tone went off, but seemed to have drifted off to sleep again. I got out of bed, turning the volume down on the phone as I went, grabbed a hoody and walked down the stairs. I plopped onto the sofa as Iz’s tone started ringing.
‘Hey. So. This is about the least fun I’ve ever had.’
‘I know. We all thought it was such a good idea, didn’t we? Now, it’s like ‘here’s some really bad news that’s almost happened, but why don’t you all just sit there waiting for it all night’. It really sucks, Iz.’
‘I feel so far away.’
‘You are far away. Manchester is far.’
‘You know what I mean. If I was there, we’d all be together, helping each other.’
‘We’re not though, that’s the weird thing, no one’s rung, Mum hasn’t said all come round, as far as I know everyone’s at home doing their own thing. Which is probably the same as we’re doing – not getting any sleep. I wanted to call someone, but I think we’re all deliberately not calling or texting, because we’ll all think ‘this is it’ when the phone goes.’
‘But you’ll all get together … after, won’t you. I can see how it all feels weird now, but, you know, I think I’m going to come down. I mean, whatever, it’s not going to be long, is it. I just want to be there.’
‘Can you get time off work?’
‘I’ll take it, and worry about it later. Maybe Gracie will want to come, I’ll suggest it.’
‘How was she, when you told her?’
‘Oh you know Gracie. She was with her friends, she just said thanks for letting her know, didn’t chat or anything. When she came home, though, we had a little cry. She is the most perfect crier I’ve ever seen. I go all blobby and snotty, my face swells up and my eyes puff into pigginess, but Gracie, no redness, just beautiful tears falling symmetrically from her eyes.’
‘The cow. I expect she just does it to annoy you.’
‘Yeah, I bet. Ha ha, no, that’s the other bloody annoying thing about Gracie, well apart from her being gorgeous and having the body of a dancer and yet being able to put away half a chocolate cake with no ill effects, no, the other bloody annoying thing is she’s so bloody lovely, really thoughtful. She gives me and Ben space, goes out, stays in her room, but when she is with us she’s such good company. I’m so glad she’s staying with us this year.’
This felt better, talking to Iz, general chatter as well as acknowledging what was happening in a house half way across the city to someone we both loved.
‘Yeah, you lucked out there. Just think, you could have had Charlie if things had been different.’
‘What, you mean if she’d actually given Uni a proper go, or gone to a Uni that was less than two hundred miles away from where I live?’
‘Yeah, well, apart from that. God, can you imagine, student Charlie living with you?’
‘You mean things like the door banging at three in the morning, the sulks when we asked her to turn her music down, the ‘borrowing’ of my clothes and make-up, the ‘can I just take your car’, the unwashed dishes. Ben would have left me.’
‘Yep, you definitely dodged a bullet. Be thankful Dec managed to produce one or two normal children.’
‘They’re all lovely. Charlie’s lovely, just a bit …’
‘Yeah. Can you remember who was calling her?’
I hadn’t given much thought to who was where in the chain; I just knew who was calling me and who I had to pass it on to. I tried to remember the discussion from that night over a year ago.
‘No, but I think it would have been Amy – wasn’t there some argument about age order, didn’t it go Charlie, Tom, Rosa? With you getting Gracie because she’s up there with you?’
‘Yeah, I think you’re right. God help Tom, then. He might never get the call.’
‘I expect Amy will have it under control.’
Talking about it made me shudder with anticipation. It wouldn’t be long before Dec was calling me again.
‘Know what, Iz, we shouldn’t be tying up our phones, in case they’re trying to get through.’
Iz was silent for a moment.
‘No, you’re right. I was hoping for a bit of a distraction, but we’re just going to have to wait it out, aren’t we. Thanks for chatting, Cal. I’ll talk to you later. Let you know about coming down.’
‘Take care of yourself. Is Ben awake?’
‘No, but he said to wake him up when there’s some news. I’m glad he’s here.’
‘I’m glad he’s there for you. Talk to you later.’
I disconnected, noticing that my phone didn’t have much charge left. I plugged the charger in by the TV, and turned it on so I could watch some late night drivel while I waited for it to charge up a bit.
I woke with a start. At first I didn’t know what had woken me, then I heard it. The silence. It was quiet. Completely quiet and still. I was clasping his hand, but Matt had gone. I sat up with a whimper. Shouted out in panic.
It only took a couple of seconds before I heard stirring from his room, but it felt like a hour as I sat and looked at Matt’s face, his perfectly motionless face. He was never motionless; even when he was asleep he fidgeted. Josh burst into the room, Ella at his shoulder. I looked at them, stricken.
‘I think …’
I gestured at Matt, who was no longer there, not really.
Josh moved quickly to the side of the bed and felt Matt’s forehead.
‘He’s not breathing is he. Oh Mum.’
He turned to me, face full of sorrow, and leaned down and hugged me. I sobbed onto his shoulder. I felt Ella’s arm round my neck, as her hot tears splashed onto my arm. They both knelt by my chair and we put our arms round each other and wept. We stayed like that for a while, then I looked up at Matt’s still face, his head turned towards me, mouth slightly open, and I didn’t want to be there any more, in that room, where he wasn’t.
I stood up, Josh and Ella making way for me as I walked into the hall. I stopped there, dazed, not knowing where I’d intended to go.
‘Come on, Mum.’
Josh took my arm and led me to the living room, where he gently pushed me down onto a sofa.
‘Sit there for a bit. Ella, stay with her, yeah?’
‘Why, where are you going?’
‘Just upstairs. Gonna call Beth.’
It was chain of calls phase two. Josh had agreed to be the first in the chain, but looking at his face it was going to be one of the hardest things he’d ever have to do.
OK, that’s your lot with the sloppy love notes, folks. It’s getting harder to type this shit, and the voice rec software can’t understand my unintelligible bollocks any more, so I think I’m going to
It ends here; I don’t know if he got interrupted, or was just too tired and ill to carry on and thought he’d finish later. Tom tells me that the last date this file was modified was about three weeks before Matt died, and he was hardly awake much after that, let alone capable of writing anything. So this is the end of the story of Matthew Robert Scott. I’m going to write my version, although I’ll probably steal a lot of his words, as I don’t think my memory is as good as his, and I don’t have his way of putting things into writing. But I’ll take it to the end, because there’s a lot he didn’t get to tell you about. I would have loved to have read Matt’s version of his fiftieth birthday, of Dec and Amy coming home, of Josh and Ella’s twenty-first, of Ella’s graduation, of Josh’s debut for Raiders, of Cal’s wedding and Conor’s christening, of so many things he didn’t get the chance to write down. I hope you might think about doing the same, or if you don’t think you can do the whole thing, maybe write something, it doesn’t matter how short, and send it to me. Please remember him, he was a special man.
Before I knew it, my eyes had closed, and I woke up to the jarring sound of two bits of music playing at the same time. It was some kind of poppy advert jingle, conflicting with a power ballad and it jangled me awake, disoriented for a bit until I realised what it was. My phone was ringing, Amy’s ringtone.
Amy. Oh God.
‘Hey Amy … er …’
‘Hi Cal. I’m so sorry, but …’
She paused. There was no point waiting for her to get herself together enough to say it, so I did it for her.
At the time, when we were making plans for The Chain, it had seemed like ‘Tottenham’ and ‘Hotspur’ would be so appropriate for this, it made us smile to think of telling each other this awful news in this way, as if somehow it would make it seem better, lighter maybe. It didn’t. It made it seem more unreal, almost as if it was taking the piss.
‘Thanks Amy. How are you?’
‘Oh, you know.’
I did, because I was the same. Matty was gone. So much I was going to miss, so much I was never going to tell him, so much he was never going to see. I never said goodbye – although that was his choice.
Matty had spent a lot of time with Lau making plans for what he referred to as ‘My Demise’. He wanted people to come and see him, but not to be ‘morose wankers’, he didn’t want any goodbyes, he had a whole theme park event planned, what he called ‘putting the ‘fun’ back into funeral’, and had even written his own notice for the Herald. Maybe it was going to help in the days to come, but for now, we were all just going to be hurting.
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘Dec couldn’t do it, call you. He’s completely just in bits. I’ll have to go, Cal, I’ve got to call everyone else.’
‘No, just Charlie really, but she’ll probably want me to call Tom. And I want to call Beth, see how she and Jay are.’
And I had my own call to make, too.
‘OK then. We’ll talk later, though, yeah? Maybe all get together?’
‘Yeah, that’d be good. It’s been awful, this last night, I didn’t know what to do.’
‘Yeah, we were the same. See you later then.’
We disconnected and I called Iz.
‘Hi Cal, don’t say it please, I’ve been dreading you saying it, so don’t say it OK?’
‘OK. I won’t. But that’s what I was calling to say.’
‘I know. Fuck. Why does this feel worse than before? We knew it was coming, but now it’s happened. And although I know everything I need to know, I don’t know any details. I shouldn’t want to know details, should I? That’s, like, so none of my business, but maybe I’m just trying to cling on to him … oh Cal. He’s gone. Matty’s gone …’
Her voice trailed away and I could hear her crying, then Ben’s voice as he talked to her, then as he talked to me.
‘Hey Cal, it’s Ben. Iz and I are coming down today, we’re bringing Gracie. Sorry about Matty, it’s just shit, isn’t it.’
‘Yeah, mate, it is. We’ll see you later, then.’
We disconnected, and I sat on the sofa and felt misery welling up in me. It was what I’d been feeling, lodged inside, since Dec called yesterday, but I’d been holding it back, waiting, it seemed, until everything had finally happened. My throat constricted, my eyes pricked and stang, and finally, with a loud sob, it all came out. Tears, snot, loud noises. I was lost in sorrow for Matty, and for myself and how much I was going to miss him.
After a while I felt arms go round me – small arms and larger arms – and Chrissie and Conor were giving me a cuddle. I pulled myself together, mainly for Conor, who was looking at me with concern creasing his little forehead.
‘Sorry mate, I’m just sad.’
‘Why you sad, Daddy?’
‘Well, Unca Matty, you know he’s been very poorly, he just got too poorly and too tired, and he’s died.’
Chrissie and I had talked about how to tell the kids. Lily was too young to grasp any of it, but Conor loved his Unca Matty, and it was going to be hard for him to understand it all.
‘Conor, you remember Confucius?’
Confucius was Rosa’s pet rat. He had lived a long and happy life in an enormous rat playground in Rosa’s room, until one day he conked out. Conor had seen the stiff little body and been to the ratty funeral in the back garden.
‘Well, Confucius got very old and his body stopped working, and the same has happened to Unca Matty. He got too poorly and his body stopped working. And we’re going to miss him, which is why Daddy’s sad.’
‘Will he go in the garden?’
‘No, sweetie, there’s not enough room for Unca Matty in the garden. He’ll go … somewhere else.’
This was going to be the tricky one. Matty wanted to be cremated, but Conor was too young to understand everything. I couldn’t deal with this, was finding it too hard to think about, and I ran my hands through my hair. I felt Chrissie’s hand on my arm and looked up to see her looking at me. She mouthed ‘I’ve got this’ at me, and I gratefully disappeared upstairs, as she started to explain difficult concepts to our son.
I thought about going back to bed, wrapping myself in the duvet, shutting everything out, but I heard Lily moving around in her room, and decided instead to head another screaming session off at the pass. I picked her up and held her close, hearing her snuffles and then her babble, as she talked to me without needing to know the answers to serious questions. I felt so lucky to have my family.
Not long after, it was morning proper, and although Chrissie and I weren’t going to be doing our normal everyday things, the kids still needed to be up and about. My phone started ringing soon after eight, Mum first, then Iz, who was on her way, Ayesh, and a couple of mates from Raiders who had heard somehow (Mum I expect). I realised there were people I needed to check on too, and I called Gran, Josh and Amy.
It felt better, reconnecting with everyone, knowing how everyone was. Mum was coping by organising us all. We were going there for lunch, then getting started on plans for Matty’s funeral (like, wait a day Mum? Unlikely). Even though I didn’t really want to think about it, it did need doing. She was going to try to get Lau to come over too, but Lau wasn’t answering calls or messages, and Josh said she didn’t want to see anyone.
Dad and Dec seemed to have been hit the hardest out of the rest of us. Neither of them were answering calls or texts, and Mum said Dad wouldn’t get out of bed. Apparently Dec had spent the night staring into space while sitting on the sofa, and was not speaking to anyone.
Gran was with Mum, and both of them were cooking – at least, Gran would be sat at the table looking at recipe books while Mum made cakes. Gran’s gnarly old hands made it difficult for her to bake much these days.
It was going to be a while before Iz arrived, but I needed to be with the others, and before long Chrissie looked at me, hand on a hip.
‘Just go, Cal.’
‘Go to your mum’s. I’ll bring the kids after lunch. Iz won’t be here till later anyway. Just go.’
I looked at her gratefully. She always got me, knew what I wanted to do, without me even having to say it half the time. Not that she didn’t make me say it, because it was good for me to ‘be in tune with my feelings’ or something, but we had a lot of shorthand, particularly with young ears around, that meant we didn’t actually have to say things with words.
‘Thanks, babe. You’re awesome. Ring me if it gets hairy, though.’
‘Yeah, like they can throw anything at me I can’t handle.’
‘Hmm. Remember Sunday of the Shits?’
‘Oh God. Thanks for reminding me. But there isn’t any sign of runny poo so far – go while the going’s good. If I start to drown I’ll text.’
I drove off to Mum and Dad’s feeling more purposeful, which was weird because I was going to be doing just as much sitting around there, and less actually being useful, but it felt good to be going to see people, even if we were just going to be sad.
Amy’s car was already parked outside, and when I went in, they were all congregated in the kitchen, except for Dec, who was sitting on the sofa on his own, staring at the TV, which wasn’t on. There was a lot of talking going on in the kitchen, and I didn’t think they’d heard me come in, so I started with Dec, a little freaked out by the expression on his face.
‘Hey old man.’
He didn’t even look up, just shook his head slightly. I went and sat next to him, and he let out a huge, ragged sigh.
‘So, this is shit, eh?’
His eyes slid sideways, but didn’t quite meet mine. I’d only seen him like this once before, when Rose died. I fleetingly wondered just how he’d coped when he was a young boy and his parents were killed in a crash – had he gone all silent like this, or did anything that felt like that time bring it all back so much that it just shut him down? He never talked to us about it, so it was hard to know, and that made it hard to help him now.
‘Come on, Dec, I think there might be cake to be eaten in there.’
I nodded my head at the kitchen, from where baking smells were drifting. Dec only shook his head again and carried on staring at the blank TV.
‘Alright then, I’ll go and get you a coffee or something.’
I stood up and followed the sound of voices into the kitchen.
‘Cal! When did you get here, sweetheart?’
‘A few minutes ago. I was trying to talk to Dec.’
Mum gave me a big hug. She looked like she’d been crying, as did Gran, Amy, Charlie and Rosa. Tom was sat in front of a laptop and looked his usual chilled self.
‘He’s not really up to talking.’
‘We’re giving him a bit of time and space.’
‘Yeah, it seems to be what he wants. Where’s Dad?’
‘He won’t get out of bed.’
Mum huffed a sigh and shook her head at this. Mum could never understand anyone who met a crisis with inaction; she always had a plan and it always involved doing something.
‘I’ll go and say hi.’
‘If you like, sweetheart.’
I quickly hugged everyone else, then went upstairs. Mum and Dad’s bedroom door was open, but the curtains were shut. I went slowly into the darkened room, letting my eyes adjust to the light, and perched precariously on the edge of the bed.
‘Hey Dad. Mum says you’re not getting up.’
Well at least he was talking, that was one up on Silent Boy downstairs.
‘Want to talk about it?’
‘Not really. What good would that do?’
‘Might make you feel better. Might make me feel better.’
‘Really Cal? Is it going to change anything?’
‘No, well, it won’t change that Matty’s gone –’
Dad hissed a sharp breath in.
‘– but it might change what you do about it, which might change how you’re feeling.’
‘I want to feel like this.’
‘OK, fair enough. We all feel like shit, to be honest. Dec’s downstairs staring at nothing like he’s lost the ability to speak. I don’t know what it’s like to lose your brother, but I do know what it’s like to lose your uncle, I know what it’s like to lose Matty.’
‘Jesus, Cal, stop saying that. Stop fucking saying it.’
‘Is that why you’re not getting up? So you don’t have to hear us all talking about it? So it feels less real?’
This was quite a major talk for me and Dad. We’d had our moments over the years, but usually it was him giving me advice because Mum told him to, or stuff about Raiders. I suddenly felt like I knew him, like for those moments I got where he was coming from.
Dad didn’t reply, just squeezed his eyes shut to try and stop tears leaking out of them. He opened his mouth and breathed in, his breath shuddering. I reached out and put my hand on his shoulder.
‘I’m not saying it’s not a good strategy, short term, but it’ll all be here when you get up in the end, unless you’re planning on staying in bed forever. And I have to say that is a plan I can understand, but the downside of it is you’ll have Mum going on at you until the end of time, so it won’t be as peaceful as you might imagine.’
There was the ghost, the tiniest hint, of a smile.
‘Piss off downstairs Cal. I’ll get up when I’m ready.’
‘Sure thing. No rush. Mum’s making lemon drizzle, but I’m not bringing you any.’
I got up and left the room, pulling the door to behind me. It wasn’t going to do any good to make Dad face things just yet; he’d do it in his own time, if Mum left him alone long enough. Dec was more concerning right now, but I didn’t know what to do about him.
I went downstairs and sat next to Tom, looking over at what he was doing on the laptop. There was a document open, headed ‘Matt’s Wishes’, and under it was a list of what seemed to be the things he wanted for his funeral. I looked away from it, recognising an echo in myself of Dad’s desire to avoid the whole thing.
The trouble with looking away from something in a room full of people is that you have to look at something or, more likely, someone else. I caught Mum’s eye; she clocked what I’d been looking at.
‘We were just talking about all that, Cal. Matty made a list of what he wants to happen now, he did it with Laura some time ago. Laura wants us to organise everything, but some of his requests are a bit, well, you know what Matty was like, he never did anything traditionally. He might ruffle a few feathers.’
‘But you’ve got to do it if it’s what he wanted.’
‘There are just a few things – the songs, the notice in the Herald, we weren’t sure if people would be offended.’
‘That’s probably what he wanted. He liked ruffling feathers. This is his last chance.’
Mum nodded. She knew that better than anyone, having had most of her plumage well and truly trampled by Matty over the years. She looked over at Gran, but didn’t say anything, and I realised what she meant. That she didn’t want Gran to be upset, any more than she already was.
‘I’m sure Matt took all that into account when he was planning this, Beth.’
Amy always saw everyone’s side, tried to smooth over disputes. She’d had enough practice with her large family, and usually managed to say the one thing that made everyone see sense.
‘Maybe, maybe not. He’s always liked the thought of making people do things differently than they think they should be done.’
‘But they’re his last wishes, aren’t they?’
Charlie had looked up from her phone.
‘You have to, like, obey them, don’t you?’
‘Usually, Charlie, but you also have to bear in mind other people and how it might affect them.’
‘But it’s not like he wants to have a Nazi flag on his coffin, or make people recite the Satanic Verses or something. What’s the worst thing he wants?’
I risked a look at the list Tom had up on his computer, and glanced down it. Some of the things on it made me smile, some of them made me wince.
‘He wants the Darth Vader death march when they bring the coffin in.’
Rosa laughed. ‘That’s brilliant. I mean, inappropriate much, but brilliant. Do you think they’d do it?’
‘That’s not the point, sweetheart. We can’t offend people like that.’
‘Seriously Mum? Who’s going to be offended? Anyone who knows what it is will think it’s funny, and Mattyish, and anyone who doesn’t know what it is will just think it’s a bit of a weird tune, a bit kind of doomy. Do you even know what it sounds like?’
Mum was looking daggers at me, but I pulled up the tune on YouTube and played it to her. It didn’t seem to help matters.
We talked around in circles about this and plenty of the other things Matty had expressly said he wanted, for ages. I suspected he never thought in a million years we’d do most of them, it was just a way to make us talk about things and get together, but it was difficult not to be on the side of letting Matty have his way.