Knowing Mum was coming made me relax slightly. Mum always knew what to do, always took charge. And I had a job now. I dialled nine nine nine, but the ambulance people wouldn’t just take my word for it. They made me check she wasn’t breathing, they made me check for a pulse, they made me shake her shoulder and say her name, and it was all seriously freaky, and by the time Mum arrived, I was sitting on the hall floor trying to think of anything else but how I’d just been touching her, and …
‘Oh sweetheart. Is the ambulance on its way?’
‘Yeah, but I don’t expect they’ll hurry.’
I stood up and let Mum give me a hug. I clung on a bit tighter than I would normally, and felt tears well up in my eyes.
‘Dad’s in your car with Dec. I didn’t want to leave either of you alone, so I brought him along.’
‘I bet he’s loving that.’
‘He’ll get over it.’
‘Is she in here?’
Mum went into the living room, on her own because I couldn’t go in there again. She came out after a while, wiping her eyes, and looked at me. It was my turn to give the comforting hug; Mum cried more than I’d ever seen her cry before, and I just held her while she sniffed into my sweatshirt. Then she stopped, stood back and wiped her eyes with a tissue.
‘How did you know?’
‘She called me.’
‘You? What did she say?’
‘Nothing, at least nothing I could understand.’
Mum nodded and patted my cheek.
‘Let’s go and check on Dec. There’s nothing we can do here until the ambulance turns up.’
I followed Mum out to my car. Dad had turned the reading light on, and he and Dec were illuminated in the front seats. Dec was staring ahead and Dad looked like he was trying to talk to him, but not having much success in starting a conversation.
Mum tapped on the driver’s side window, and Dad rolled the window down.
‘Hey you two. Hi Dec.’
Dec didn’t answer, just carried on staring ahead.
‘James, has he said anything?’
‘No, he’s been like this since we got here. I’m a bit out of my depth, Beth. Maybe you should try.’
Mum nodded, and she and Dad swapped places. Dad and I stood away from the car a bit while Mum tried to – well I don’t know what she was trying to do, get Dec to talk to her, look at her, something.
I looked at Dad, who seemed about a thousand miles outside his comfort zone. He gave me a weak smile.
‘Sorry to disturb your sleep.’
‘Yeah, well, wouldn’t have been my choice of early morning entertainment, but I guess you haven’t been having much of a laugh, either.’
He nodded in the direction of Rose’s flat.
‘No. Ah shit, Dad, it was fucking awful. She was just sitting there, with this look on her face … you could just tell right away she was … wasn’t there, you know?’
Dad slung an arm round my shoulder, as an ambulance pulled up behind Dec’s car. I took a deep breath and went to meet it, glancing over at my car, where Mum was still talking to Dec. I was going to have to do this on my own, or with Dad, which was just about the same thing.
I led the paramedics into the flat and pointed out the living room. I didn’t go in at first, but they kept asking me questions, and it felt weird just shouting to them from the hall, so in the end I went in, but stood by the door, not looking in the direction of the chair. I was feeling seriously weirded out by the whole thing.
When my phone jangled with Chrissie’s text tone, I jumped a mile, but used it as an excuse to not be in the room where people were doing things to other people that I really didn’t want to see.
‘Where ru? Thought u were downstairs.‘
Chrissie had been asleep when I left, and I’d thought I’d be back before long. I hadn’t even thought about letting her know where I was. I had to think hard before knowing how to explain it in a text, then realised I wasn’t going to be able to. I called her instead.
‘Where are you?’
‘At Rose’s. I thought Dec might need a hand.’
‘Well I didn’t know, but I just had a feeling.’
‘And you’re still there?’
‘Yeah. It was … er … she’s, er, died.’
‘Oh Cal. Did you find her?’
‘Dec did. He’s really freaked, gone all catatonic or something. Mum’s trying to get him to talk. The ambulance is here, taking Rose away. Shit, Chrissie, it’s fucking horrendous. I’ll be home as soon as I can.’
‘No, don’t worry, I just didn’t know where you were, and I thought if you were up with Conor I’d come and keep you company, then I couldn’t find you, so … but be there, if they need you.’
‘Thanks, babe. I expect Mum’s got it, but I don’t know how much longer things will go on here.’
‘I’ll see you when you get home.’
‘Yeah, I’m going to need a big smushy cuddle with you and Conor.’
‘On it. Cal, I’m really sorry about Rose.’
‘Yeah, me too. See you later. Love you.’
As I disconnected, the paramedics emerged from the living room carrying a stretcher with a black body bag on it. Dad, who had retreated to the end of the hallway, was staring at it with wide eyes. I opened the front door for them, and followed them out. Dad came behind, and I shut the door behind him.
As they loaded the stretcher onto the ambulance, I glanced over to my car. Dec had turned his head to look, and Mum had put her hand on his arm. I saw him shake his head, and could see the word ‘no’ form on his mouth. Then the car door opened, and he ran along the pavement to the ambulance, just as they shut the back doors.
‘Let me in, I want to go with her.’
‘And you are?’
‘Her … she’s like my mum.’
‘Is she your mum?’
‘Sorry, then, mate, you can follow us if you like, but, well, maybe you’d best leave it for now, eh?’
‘She shouldn’t be on her own in there.’
‘She won’t be, we’ll be with her.’
They weren’t kidding or being disrespectful, they were trying to reassure him. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they’d had to try to placate someone who had freaked out.
Mum had followed him out of the car, and now put her arm round his waist, drawing him away, talking quietly to him. I could hear snatches of what she was saying,
‘ … for the best … arrangements … tell Amy … come on sweetheart …’
and eventually Dec nodded and allowed himself to be pulled away, as Mum nodded at the paramedics, and they got in the front of the ambulance and drove away.
Dec stood, looking after the disappearing vehicle, eyes wide and haunted.
‘What am I going to do? Without her?’
‘Dec, we’re all here to help you through it.’
‘No … I can’t do this again … I just can’t …’
And while Mum desperately tried to cling on to him, Dec sank to his knees and started sobbing, the sounds echoing around the empty street. Mum crouched down next to him, and gestured to me and Dad to help her. Neither of us were sure what we were supposed to be doing, but Mum had put her arms round Dec, and I crouched by him and put a hand on his shoulder while Dad hovered behind, looking uncomfortable.
‘For God’s sake, James. He needs us to hold him.’
Dad reluctantly got to his knees and put his hand on a shoulder as well. None of it seemed to make a difference to Dec, who continued wailing.
After a few minutes, when a few lights went on in the nearby flats, and people started to look out of their windows, Mum decided a change of plan was necessary.
‘You two are going to have to get him in one of the cars. Maybe ours, James. Get him in the back, if you can. Dec, stand up for us sweetheart, we’re going to take you home.’
Dec didn’t move. Dad, seizing an opportunity to do something that didn’t involve having to talk or be emotional in any way, stood up, then bent down and hauled Dec to his feet by his armpits. Dec’s legs looked like they might give way, and he was still making the godawful racket, so I pitched in and supported him from one side, Dad going the other. We made our way to Dad’s car like this, dragging Dec with us. He wasn’t resisting, but he wasn’t actively moving either. Mum opened the back door, and Dad and I bundled him in, putting his seat belt on like he was five. Mum sat next to him in the back, and Dad got in the driver’s seat.
‘Cal, can you drive Dec’s car? We’ll bring you back afterwards.’
‘I need the keys.’
Mum patted Dec’s pockets and found the keys in his hoody. She gave them to me, and I followed them across the city to Dec and Amy’s house.
It was starting to get light by the time we got there, the dawn glow making everything seem even more surreal.
The porch light was on at Dec’s house, and I assumed Mum would have called Amy while we were on our way. As soon as we pulled up, the front door opened, and Amy came out, in her dressing gown.
Dec had quieted somewhat, but was still crying, and still shuddering with huge sobs. Amy came down the path as Dad and I were pulling Dec out of the car, and as he saw her, it was as if she was the first thing he’d truly noticed since the ambulance had driven away. He practically fell into her arms, and let her lead him into the house.
I looked at Mum, waiting to be told what to do. There didn’t seem any point going in; Amy was what Dec needed, not us fussing about him. Mum sometimes saw things differently, though, so I wasn’t going to do anything until I was told to.
‘Beth, just let them get on with it.’
‘I know, James. I just … after all this time, I thought he might be over it.’
‘I guess losing your parents isn’t something you get over.’
‘He’s had Rose longer than he ever had his mum and dad.’
‘Yeah, so it’s going to hurt even more. You know he’ll ask if he needs us.’
‘I know. I just want to fix it.’
‘I know. Are you OK Cal?’
‘No, I don’t think so. But I will be when I get home and give Conor a bloody good cuddle.’
‘Come here, sweetheart, give your mum a bloody good cuddle first.’
Mum held me tight and I felt her shudder. She was always this capable person who knew what to do in any crisis, but everyone often forgot that she felt things too, cared about everyone more than was strictly necessary.
‘Thank you, sweetheart. Come on, let’s get you back to your car.’
That night, and the weeks that followed, were hard for all of us. Dec was really cut up. In fact, cut up doesn’t even begin to describe it. He didn’t leave the house at all, until the day of Rose’s funeral. He wouldn’t see anyone, didn’t reply to texts or answer calls. Mum had long conversations with everyone about it, trying to decide the best thing to do. Matty wanted to do the ‘shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’ thing, but was talked out of it in the end by Amy, who felt it wasn’t the same, and that Dec needed time to do things his way. There was talk of doctors and mental health teams and psychologists, but Dec refused it all, and just sat staring at the TV all day.
Matty wasn’t up to much at the time, either, having had a serious chest infection and a flare-up of MS that had knocked him off his feet. With Matty out of action and Dec incommunicado, their business was suffering, and it was only because Tom knew about the techy side, and had his dad’s chilled manner with people, that the whole thing didn’t fold.
Rose’s funeral was sad, but it got Dec out of the house, and I think it started him on the road to being normal again. He was like a ghost in the crematorium – pale, lifeless, and he’d lost loads of weight. Amy and his children held him up, emotionally and physically, and the crem was full of people who Rose had meant a lot to. She was a friendly person who made connections and helped out a lot in this city, and Dec seemed surprised and gratified that so many had come to see her off.
Dec didn’t say much, to any of us, but he read a speech he’d written, talking about what she’d meant to him and his family, and how she’d always said she couldn’t replace his mum, but how she’d come to mean something else, something there are no words for, something as irreplaceable. He made it almost all the way through the speech, before just stopping in the middle of a sentence and looking out of the window. Amy had to finish it off for him, while Charlie and Tom helped Dec back to his seat.
I thought that might have sent Dec back to his morose introspection, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect, and at the wake, which Mum had naturally organised, it was good to see him talking to people, even smiling a couple of times, and looking like he was actually taking notice of things again.
After a while, things got better for Dec. I don’t know if he got some help from somewhere, he’d seen a psychologist in the past to help sort his life out, but whatever it was, he slowly got his spark back.
We had terrible days, like the day Rose died and Dec was inconsolable, and they nearly lost their business because Matt couldn’t get out to meet the clients and Dec was in no fit state to be meeting and greeting people. Tom came to our rescue that time, using his way with technology, his inside knowledge of the rugby world and his easy manner with people to smooth things over and persuade people to wait until Dec had recovered, and handling some of the simpler meetings himself.
All the children were growing up, moving away, or staying close by. Tom had a practical way with computers, and had become part of Dec and Matt’s business. Charlie had been away to Uni, given up her course in History, and come home to look for a career, which hadn’t been forthcoming and had led to lots of waitressing jobs. Gracie was half way through her Physiotherapy training in Manchester, where she shared a tiny flat with Iz, who was working for a language school, and Iz’s boyfriend Ben. Rosa had just left school and was working in a local jewellery shop while she got her own jewellery design business underway.
Amy and I often compared notes on the emptiness or otherwise of our houses; with Ella off on the other side of the world after finishing her Law degree, and Josh still living with us but usually at Raiders either training or attending a players’ function of some sort, I often felt like I had an empty nest. Although when Josh brought his mates back for a noisy session, it felt like the complete opposite.
We all missed Rose. She had been around almost as long as I could remember, and we all used to tease her about how much she talked, and how she and Mum had this, like, competition going to see who knew Dec the best, and who could feed us the best, almost as if they were trying to be the best mother figure. In truth, I don’t know that Dec really saw either of them as his mum. He often said Rose was like his mum, but I think that was only because he couldn’t find another word for it. He never made the same comparison with Mum, almost as if with his age and her age, he fell in the too-young-to-be-a-brother but too-old-to-be-a-son category, and it was just something else that was never defined.
I know Mum missed Rose, had missed for some time her being there and comparing notes about Dec and his family, having a gossip about the kids, tutting at the state of their house, all of that, because Rose hadn’t really been up to any of that for a good couple of years at least.
Rose had always tried her best to organise Dec, and Amy to some extent, but most of it had gone over his head. So she’d try with the rest of us, sometimes with some success. I remember visiting Gran, and interrupting one of their afternoon tea sessions. Lau’s mum, April, was there too, and I’d rocked up expecting to get going on taking some garden waste to the tip. I got distracted with tea and cake, and let the three witches brew their schemes as I munched and sipped. When I was little, I used to keep quiet in the hope that people would forget I was there and say something juicy. I used the same technique, and it worked for a while.
‘Isobel’s got into Manchester.’
This was Gran. She always used people’s full names.
‘Oh love, that’s so far away. Such a long journey, that is.’
This was Rose. Never really travelled, except to Wales to visit her sister and across the city to see Dec, Mum or Gran.
‘I lived in Manchester when I was younger. It’s a very cultured city.’
April had lived nearly everywhere. At least five different countries, and she knew someone in any city you talked about. I’m not quite sure how she’d crammed it all in, because Lau had always lived in the city and hardly left the county, so April must have travelled a lot before she had Lau.
‘I’ve got a friend who lives near the Arndale Centre. Maybe I could put them in touch.’
I smiled into my teacup at this (Gran always liked people to have proper cups and saucers, even though you didn’t get as much and the handles were fiddly). April was very religious, and her friends mostly seemed to be too. The thought of Iz scandalising April’s church mates with tales of her free-from-home exploits was quite amusing. Not that they wouldn’t get on – Iz got on with most people, of any age, any anything – and she might like knowing someone close to such a major shopping centre.
‘I’ll mention it to her, dear. Now Rose, tell me more about Charlie and her teacher. What exactly did she do to get detention?’
Charlie was the only person Gran called by her shortened name. Probably because although she was Charlotte, she had been Charlie since the minute she was born and the name had slipped under Gran’s radar.
‘Oh Carol, she was so cheeky. It’s been coming for a while with that one. Amy’s been to the school, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to do much good …’
Rose launched into a lengthy retelling of Charlie’s misbehaviour, with accompanying tuts from Gran and April. I drifted off a bit, having heard it all before from Mum, having discussed it with Iz (she and I being the oldest and therefore most sensible of the cousins, and also liking a good gossip) and knowing that Charlie Summers was always going to do exactly what she wanted regardless of detentions, tuts or anything anybody told her.
Half way through a second slice of Rose’s delicious ginger cake, I became aware that I was being discussed. Almost as if I wasn’t there.
‘… a good boy, always pops round and wheels the bin out. Although I think Ayesha wishes he’d do it for her a bit more often.’
‘Hey! Ayesh never has to wheel the bin out.’
‘No, love, because you always say you’re going to, and then it’s too late by the time she realises you haven’t and the bin lorry’s arrived, and she has to take the bags to the tip herself.’
I had no idea how Rose knew this. Oh alright, I had a very good idea. Ayesh would have told Mum, and word of this riveting bit of intel had been distributed far and wide. I was really going to have to have a word with Ayesh about what she told people. Or be more thoughtful in my chore-completion.
‘Oh great. Anything else I’m crap at?’
‘Well now you mention it, love, there’s the laundry, the washing up, the –’
‘OK, OK, I admit defeat. Gran, where are the garden bags?’
‘In the shed, dear.’
‘Right, I’d better go, before you think of anything else I should be better at. While I’m doing something nice for my Gran, if I can remind you.’
‘You’re a good boy, Calum.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Get back to your gossiping, ladies.’
Rose did love a good gossip, never seemed happier than when she was recounting something scandalous that a friend or neighbour had done or said, unless it was cuddling one of the children. But although she loved a good drama, she was kind and generous with her time, and often had wise words to say in the midst of her chatter.
When I was about fifteen, when all the stuff with Chrissie had gone on, when I was being the ‘Cob-on Kid’ on holiday, and everyone was taking the piss, she was the only one who didn’t act like it was some hilarious adolescent phase. I don’t know whether she knew exactly what was bothering me, but she stayed behind one day when everyone else had gone to the beach, leaving me to stew in my room.
When I heard everyone leave, and the silence of the villa settled on me like a cool shower in the wake of all the noise, I opened the door of my room and went into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I was starving, but there was no way I was going out there to be ripped to shreds by Matty’s smart mouth, Charlie’s annoying questions or one of Mum’s looks.
I got half way across the lounge when a movement made me jump almost out of my skin. Rose was sitting in a chair, reading a book, and she’d turned a page. No one had ever stayed behind when they all went to the beach, I’d always had the villa to myself at least until lunch time when they all piled back again and filled the place with talking, laughing, clattering plates, music and chaos. I just wanted some head-space to deal with everything, and being away from home was hard enough, let alone being expected to have a jolly time.
Seeing Rose sat there, not even looking at me, but just in my space and my time, really annoyed me. I ignored her, once I’d noticed her, and carried on into the kitchen, where I banged plates and scraped cutlery for all I was worth, to show how pissed off I was.
Rose didn’t look up, not once, didn’t say a word, not even good morning. Well, if she was trying to get me to talk to her by being all quiet and mysterious, she was going to have a long wait.
I filled a bowl with cereal, using up the last of the milk, and poured myself a glass of orange juice, then took it all back to my room, as there was no way I was going to sit at the breakfast bar while Rose watched me eat.
I stomped crossly back to my room, checking out of the corner of my eye for some sign that she’d noticed so I could ignore her more, but she kept her eyes on her book.
Back in my room, furious that I was imprisoned by her and unable to wander round the villa like I’d been used to, I ate my cereal and drank my juice. Then I took out my iPod, put the earphones in and tried to block everything out with some loud music.
It didn’t work. I lay on my bed not thinking of anything, but my empty thoughts kept reminding me that Rose was in the next room, just being there. I couldn’t relax into my sulk, not properly, because the reason I was sulking (sulking more should I say) was because she was out there, and why couldn’t she just leave me alone, why did she have to bug me? Everyone else pissed off and left me to my own devices all day, why did she have to just be sitting there, obviously wanting to disturb me and get in my way.
I was fifteen, I was a growing bag of hormones. Of course everything was about me. I see it now, but I didn’t see it then. Then, nothing was fair, everything was huge and dramatic and black or white. And right then, I just wanted her to go to the beach with everyone else so I could have my space back.
I took my headphones out and stood up, intending to go out and tell her to fuck off out with the rest of them. Then I found myself hesitating, unsure how to start, knowing if I was too rude I’d be in the shit with Mum, and kind of not caring but only in a theoretical way, not in any way that meant I would do it regardless.
As I wavered by my bed, I heard footsteps coming my way, and a tap on the door. I stood, frozen, as if caught in the middle of something I shouldn’t have been doing.
‘I’m just making a cuppa, love. Anything you want?’
Rose drank tea all day. Even in Spain, where sangria was easier to come by, and relaxed you a lot more.
Shit, though. Now she’d acknowledged me, spoken to me, I had to either reply to get her off my back, or not reply, which would make her tap harder on the door, maybe even come in. I didn’t want to talk to her, because then I wouldn’t be ignoring her any more, but I didn’t want her to come in, either, because it would be much harder to ignore her.
I thought, seriously, about saying ‘fuck off’ but in the end I just couldn’t do it. I could have said it to almost anyone else who was there, except possibly Gran, and it would have made me feel more powerful, but with Rose, although she was well used to bad language, and said the odd word that raised Mum’s eyebrows from time to time, it just didn’t feel right. Rose was about the same age as Gran, and she was kind of like a gran, and you just didn’t do that to your gran, unless she really really annoyed you. And all she’d done was ask if I wanted a cup of tea. It shouldn’t have tied me in as many knots as it seemed to have done. I tried the best compromise I could think of.
‘No, I’m fine.’
See? No ‘thank you’. That was a bit rude, but not offensive, and curt enough to get my message across, I felt.
‘Are you, though, love?’
Oh now she wanted to talk about whether I was fine or not. Well if she tried anything more than offering tea, she was going to get told to fuck off. Her look out. I didn’t answer, and sat down on the bed, getting my earphones ready to put in.
‘Alright then, I’ll be here if you feel like a chat, or if you want some pancakes.’
Oh the evil old witch. She’d mentioned pancakes. Now I could think of nothing but pancakes, the thick ones with syrup, the ones that Rose made that were de-fucking-licious. But no, I had to be firm. She wasn’t going to win me over.
I was starting to get hungry again, though. A bowl of cereal and a glass of juice doesn’t go far for a growing lad. I usually had half a loaf of toast smothered in marmalade too, but Rose being there had stopped my breakfasting.
I carried on with my music, forcing myself to stop thinking about pancakes, or syrup, or food of any sort. But it was like telling someone not to think about red balloons. I couldn’t help it. And to make it worse, I thought I could smell pancakes cooking. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks, but I could smell the batter as it hit the frying pan, and then I could imagine the batter turning brown, being flipped over, steam and oily smoke rising, a stack of thick pancakes dripping with maple syrup …
I was out of my bedroom before I realised what I was doing. I hadn’t imagined the smell of cooking; Rose was in the kitchen, frying pan in one hand, spatula in the other, a small pile of pancakes on a plate by the side of her. She looked round when she heard me coming out of my room, and smiled, but turned back without saying anything.
I stopped in the doorway of my bedroom, wanting to go back in, unwilling to give up the pancakes. The eternal teenager dilemma: food or funk. Food won. Food always won with me. If Mum had only realised this, she would have won a lot more arguments.
I ambled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, like I was just looking for something to drink. I even got a bottle of water out, and stood looking at it, as if it was hugely interesting.
Rose still didn’t speak, just carried on making more pancakes. The stack was getting taller, and was crying out for something gooey to be oozing down its sides. She had butter and syrup standing by, but there were more pancakes on the go, so she was waiting.
‘I think I might have made too many, love. Fancy giving me a hand?’
Yeah, it was pretty lame, and I didn’t believe her for a minute – Rose hardly ever ate the things she cooked herself. But it did the trick, got me off the hook of having to ask for myself, and enabled me to shrug a reply.
‘Here, then, there’s tidy. Put half of them on a plate. There’s maple syrup, butter, and I think there’s some lemon juice and sugar if you want to be traditional.’
Rose split the pile and put half on the plate that I’d got from the cupboard. I poured maple syrup over my half and stood in the kitchen, eating greedily, stickiness running down my chin while I shovelled hot pancakes in my mouth as fast as I could. Rose watched, but didn’t eat.
As I finished the last mouthful, and wiped my chin on the back of my hand, Rose rolled her eyes at my rudeness and then gestured to her plateful.
‘I’m not as hungry as I thought. Can you eat this lot as well?’
I shrugged again and held my hand out. You know, anything I can do to help, I like to be useful. As I had my mouth full of hot battery sugary goodness, Rose decided this was the time to talk to me.
‘I expect you’re wondering where I got the milk from to make these?’
I had wondered no such thing, not really knowing or caring about ingredients so much as the end result. I frowned a response and offered another shrug.
‘I mean, on account of you using the last of the milk for your cereal and putting the bottle back empty in the fridge.’
Oh she was not serious. Having a go at me when my mouth was too full to defend myself was unfair.
‘None left for my cuppa, was there.’
I had a pang of guilt. I hadn’t thought about how Rose was going to manage her eighty million cups of tea without milk, and I’d have liked to have said I didn’t care, but it turns out I wasn’t quite as hard as I’d have liked to be.
‘Good job I’ve got my own little fridge in my room, for when I need tea in the night.’
Oh well that was alright. What was she complaining about?
‘Except there’s no milk there, now, either.’
Just pile it on, Rose, why don’t you.
‘I reckon you and me should take a little stroll to the shops, get some supplies. What do you think?’
Well I’d been absolutely stuffed, hadn’t I, and not just with pancakes. She must have been planning it since I got up, maybe before. I had managed the whole of this holiday so far by staying in my room, not going out into the bright Spanish sunshine, it was a bit of a thing. This was going to be the holiday Cal didn’t leave his room. And now she’d tricked me. I’d used the last of the milk, and made her use hers to do something nice for me, and now I had no choice but to do what she asked. OK, maybe I did, because if I’d truly been the sulky teen I liked to think I was, I would have said ‘screw you’ and slammed my bedroom door again.
But I suppose I wasn’t that kid, I was the one whose mum had given a huge sense of right and wrong to from an early age, and leaving Rose without tea all day was not something I could do.
My answer was, you’ve probably guessed, a shrug. I’d managed the morning so far by saying three words to Rose, and that was pretty good going. I hoped I would be able to stand as firm on the short walk to the nearest shop.
Turned out I didn’t need to stand firm at all, at least not at first. Rose talked all the way there and all the way back, about all sorts of things, ranging from her nephew, who was about Dec’s age, and his wife and children, to her landlord’s plans to put new carpet in, to Charlie’s first day at school, Rosa’s first tooth, in fact she went through practically every member of the family, talking about her worries and hopes for them all, and then she ended up with me. By the time she got there, I’d forgotten about being uncommunicative, and was craving a chance to say something, anything, to stop the flow of words coming from Rose.
‘I hope this girl’s worth it, love.’
‘I hope she’s worth you missing having the time of your life with your family. You won’t get it back, you know.’
‘What would you know?’
‘I’ve had my fair share of romances gone wrong. I wasn’t always an old bird, you know.’
Why did adults always say that, as if they had any idea what it was like?
‘They all miss you, being with them.’
‘That’s why they’re being so annoying, Matt and Declan trying everything to cheer you up and get you out of your room. It’s not the same without you there. Your mam misses you the most.’
I knew that, really. I knew deep down I was spoiling things in some way, for everyone, but I just didn’t have it in me right then to be that happy chappy they all wanted me to be.
‘I can’t, Rose, I just can’t.’
‘They worry, you know. We all do, love.’
‘I can’t help it. It’s like …’
I tried to find words to say how big a hole Chrissie had left in my life.
‘… whenever I feel happy, it doesn’t last long, because I think about her, and everything goes a bit dark, because I want to tell her how I’m feeling, but I can’t. I can’t ever. And don’t tell me I’m too young, Mum said I’m too fucking young to feel like this, so that’s why I don’t talk to her, she’ll never understand.’
‘Oh love, I’d never say you’re too young. Love can hit you hard any time, young or old, and I’m sorry you’re feeling like this. Maybe, though, you might need to think about trying to pull yourself out of it. I don’t mean right now, you sound like you do need some time to yourself, but don’t let it go on too long. It can be hard to shake it off.’
I looked at Rose. The way she spoke, it sounded like she did understand how I was feeling, almost as if she’d felt it too. She was looking back at me.
‘Yes, love, I do know how it is. I was fifteen once, too. Same thing, loved a boy, he left, I was heartbroken. Cried my eyes out for weeks, I did. Then I decided I wasn’t going to let a boy, who wasn’t there any more, rule my life, and I stopped crying and started smiling. If you smile enough, you can convince yourself you’re happy sometimes.’
It sounded like a load of bullshit to me, but it was true that Rose did seem happy a lot of the time. It wasn’t going to work for me, though, not yet, although maybe some of what she said made sense.
‘I’m not going to smile, not right now. I need to be on my own.’
‘Fair enough, love. Just promise me you won’t let it rule your life.’
‘I can have a word, if you like, get them to leave you alone a bit?’
‘No, it’s OK, don’t say anything. There’s only a couple of days before we go home, I don’t want the ten thousand questions.’
We got back with the milk, and to my knowledge Rose never told anyone about our conversation – to all intents and purposes, nothing had happened that morning. I stayed in my room for the rest of the holiday, dinner aside, and thought about Chrissie and what she’d meant to me and what she meant to me now.
When I got home, I realised that what Rose had said had stuck, and I started smiling more. It did make a difference, even outwardly – the way people reacted to me was different if I was smiling than if I was being a miserable git, and that made me feel different. I didn’t miss Chrissie any less, but I started to do things that made me forget, and in time it stopped hurting so much.
Rose often had wise words to say, and she was often surprisingly discreet. She loved a good gossip, talking about who was moving in with who in her flats, how terrible it was that the postman had run off with the woman who ran the convenience store, but when she had her chats with you, she didn’t tell anyone, she just talked and you generally just listened because you couldn’t get a word in, but she let you make your own mind up if you took her advice. Never came back and said ‘didn’t I tell you to …’ or ‘why didn’t you do what I said’.
When Chrissie came back and there was all the awfulness that went on with Ayesh, and it felt like everyone hated me for breaking up with her, Rose was the first one to say ‘I knew you and Chrissie should be together’, and she gave me a look like she remembered that morning in Spain, when I’d told her things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and I’ll always love her for that.
It wasn’t long after Rose’s funeral, in fact it was a few days after Conor’s first birthday, that we found out Lily was on the way. Not that we knew it was Lily, obviously, and it was a bit of a deviation from our plan as she was due in February, instead of the summer holidays. Babies – you just can’t trust them to get anything right.
From the start, she caused no end of trouble, and I expect she’ll go on causing it, like all the women in our family seem destined to do. Firstly, she was a bit of an accident – not in any way unwanted, Lily my lovely girl, we always wanted you, so much, still do, even when you’re screaming the place down because you wanted a green lolly and Mummy got you a red one. But anyway, there was a contraception mishap (hey Lau, I said it again), and before we knew it, Chrissie was having morning, noon and night sickness. She vomited at the slightest hint of food, almost literally anything would set her off, and she lost about a stone, instead of gaining weight, in the first couple of months after we knew.
Chrissie and the doctors finally got the puking under control, only for her blood pressure to spike, resulting in her being on bed rest for the last two months of the pregnancy, and the last month actually in hospital, because she just would not do as she was told.
That meant a month of me and Conor fending for ourselves, although to be honest we’d been doing that beforehand anyway, trying to keep Chrissie out of action.
And then when the time came for Lily to arrive, we nearly lost them both when there was some bleeding that wouldn’t stop, and I was shoved unceremoniously out of the room to pace in the corridor, sick with worry and angry at the lack of information.
It was very different from Conor’s birth, and it took us some time to stop feeling traumatised and begin life as a family of four. Chrissie was unwell for quite a while afterwards, and it was only because of a massive rally round by the rest of the family that we didn’t go under.
It was approaching the end of what I didn’t realise at the time was my last full season as a regular Raiders player. I’d felt for a while that I was maybe a metre off the pace, couldn’t get across the pitch as fast as I used to any more, missed a few important tackles. In the summer after that season, Raiders brought in the young TomCats and England winger who was hitting the headlines, and my regular playing days came to an end. I was destined to stay with Raiders until I called it a day – I couldn’t leave now, I wouldn’t know how to start again somewhere else – but it was with a game here and there in less important cup competitions, and a role in coaching, which I really didn’t enjoy.
Having a young family to support helped me to focus my attention on what I was going to actually do to support them once I stopped earning a living by playing rugby. I’d had my head in the sand about it for so long, and then suddenly, it hit me slap in the face.
While Lily was so little and Chrissie was so poorly, I had no choice but to carry on playing, when I was picked, helping out with the corporate and media stuff when asked to, and trying not to mourn my fading fitness or the lack of match appearance or win bonuses which decreased our income somewhat.
I felt it deeply, it affected my sense of who I was. I was a rugby player, had been since I was a teenager. It was a constant in my life, and losing that with possibly two thirds of my life left – well, I found it hard to accept. Until I talked to Matty, that is.
Matty had more bad days than good. He was regularly in hospital with pneumonia; he was more often than not either confined to his bed or his recliner chair; when he was up and about, he usually needed wheeling from place to place. He hated every second that he wasn’t what he considered normal, so he spent a lot of his life hating what he was. He could have become bitter and angry, but somehow he kept his sense of humour and his love of a good natter about nothing.
We could have just left him alone, God knows he told us to often enough, but his and Dec’s ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you feel this shit’ mantra had filtered down to us all, and when he was feeling down, that’s when we stepped up the visits, calls, texts and Facetimes.
Mum was coordinating the current campaign, and she’d text someone every day to suggest they might give Matty a ring, or call in to see if Lau needed anything from the shop. It was my turn, and I stopped off on the way home.
‘Hi Cal. How lovely to see you.’
‘Hey Lau. Just on my way home, wondered if there’s anything you need?’
‘Oh, no, thanks flower. Josh popped to the shop for me this morning. Come and have a coffee, though. I’ve got some chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, too.’
‘Great. Is Matty about?’
I always asked this, even though Matty had no choice but to be ‘about’. It just continued the illusion, for him and for me, that there was a possibility he could be off on one of his hikes, or out checking the internet connection at Raiders.
‘Yeah, he’s had a snooze, just woken up.’
‘Matt’s always loved his sleep. He’s in the lounge, go through, I’ll be there in a minute.’
Lau headed off to the kitchen, and I walked through to the living room, where Matty was sitting in the large recliner chair they’d bought so he could sleep there in the day if he wanted to, without having the hassle of going back to bed.
These days, Matty was stick thin. He’d never had much body fat, but he was positively gaunt now. As I saw him, I had a sudden flashback to how he looked when he first came home from hospital up in Stafford, all those years ago, when I thought he looked like a ‘skellington’. He wasn’t that far off now, and I saw it with a lurch to my heart, how small his reserve of energy must be, and how exhausting every day must be for him. Before he could see me feeling sorry for him, I gave him a grin and plonked myself in the chair next to him.
‘About time you woke up, old man.’
‘Pihs ohf. I desehv my rehst.’
‘Yeah, I can see how a long day of sitting watching Countdown would tire someone out.’
‘Sihting watchihg Dec ruihn my businehs mohr lihk.’
Matty gestured to the laptop that was on a small table by his chair. He still spent a lot of time doing the IT side of their business, Linebreak, while Dec visited various locations and fed back via email and text.
‘Why, what’s he done now?’
‘Triehd tuh tehl Trohjans’ IT guy hoh tuh fihx thehr dahtabahs.’
‘Bugger. I take it he doesn’t know how to fix Trojans’ database?’
Matty looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
‘Cahl, yuh knoh he’s shih at compuhters. He cahnt evehn sahv a fihl, an now heh’s fucked ih up evehn mohr. Said he wahted tuh sahv meh a johb. Dickhehd. Cauhsed meh mohr wohk.’
‘Well that’s your afternoon sorted, then. I’ll leave you to it, shall I?’
‘Noh, dohnt goh, or Ih’ll hahve tuh sit an look at Lau ahl aftehnohn. Oh, heh Lau.’
Matty managed a cheeky grin as Lau came in with the coffee and cookies she’d promised.
‘Watch it, buster, I’m carrying a tray of hot drinks and it would be really unfortunate if one of them ended up in your lap, wouldn’t it.’
‘Lau, yuh wouhn’t, not my tahkle, wha wouhd yuh do wihout ih?’
‘Hmm maybe. Just watch your step then. Have a cookie and tell me how delicious it is, to make up for it.’
Lau was always trying to tempt Matty to eat, but Matty rarely had an appetite. He’d force enough down to keep him alive, but it was sad to see how little he cared about food any more. He’d always loved to cook, messing about with ingredients, making sauces for pasta, creating weird and wonderful sandwich fillings, doing amazing breakfasts for everyone, but now he hardly seemed to notice he was hungry.
‘I cahn smehl ih’s dehliciohs frohm hehr.’
‘Smelling’s not tasting, Matt. Here, Cal, show him what he’s missing.’
I dutifully ate a cookie. As I’d expected, it was really tasty. Chocolate chip cookies were Lau’s speciality.
‘Yeah, Matty, as good as ever. Possibly the best batch I’ve ever tasted.’
‘There you go, flower. How can you miss the chance to taste possibly my best batch ever?’
‘Goh on thehn, hahf a ohn.’
Lau smiled triumphantly and broke a cookie in half, handing it to Matty on a plate. She watched eagerly as he ate half of it, then put the plate down; Matty looked at her apologetically.
‘Dehd tahsty, Lau. Not huhgry tho.’
‘Never mind, flower. Here’s your coffee.’
She put Matty’s on the table by his laptop, then gave mine to me before picking up a mug of tea that Matty hadn’t drunk, and heading back to the kitchen. Matty’s coffee also remained untouched.
‘Much better than she was, thanks. She’s been out a few times this week, taken Lily to appointments, came to the park with us yesterday.’
‘Greht. Lihly doing wehl?’
‘Yeah, growing every day. Conor’s got a cold, so he’s a grumpy little git. I would have brought him round at the weekend, but I didn’t want you to catch it.’
Matty rolled his eyes, as if catching a cold made no difference to him, when in reality it would have had him on a drip within twenty-four hours.
‘I saw Raihders sihgned Joss Tenk.’
Joss Tenk was the whizz-kid England winger who was set to replace me.
‘Yeah, great signing for us.’
‘Yuh OK wih ih?’
I looked at Matty, who knew as well as anyone what it meant for me, in all likelihood, unless I managed to find some previously undiscovered reserve of speed, fitness and (let’s face it) youth over the pre-season. I could have bullshitted him, but he would have seen through me in a second.
‘I haven’t got a choice, Matty. I’m not going to last forever, am I? I’m off my pace, and he’s a great signing. Raiders can’t afford to be sentimental. I’ll just have to try my best over the off season, see if I can’t show them there’s life in the old dog yet.’
‘Wha yuh gona duh?’
‘Well, work hard, train hard –’
‘Noh, wih yuhr lihf.’
It was a while since anyone had been this blunt with me. I’d avoided that question so well and for so long, that people had given up asking. I always hinted at some vague plan without actually expanding on it, and had become expert in avoiding being specific. Even Chrissie, who had begun to seriously question what I was going to do when I stopped playing, had been too poorly since Lily was born to be persistent, and I’d gone back to ignoring it all.
‘Oh I don’t know. Something will turn up.’
‘Yeh, yuhr righ, cos wehl paid johbs jus fahl in yuhr lap wehn yuhv got noh qualificahtions or expehriehce.’
‘I’ve got my coaching badges.’
‘Oh yeh. Weh ahl knoh hoh much yuh lohv cohching.’
‘Back the fuck off, Matty.’
I was getting defensive. I’d called round to see Matty and maybe have a bit of a chat about the weather and the kids, and instead I was getting the third degree about my career prospects.
‘Noh, Cahl, I dohnt thihk I wihl. Thihs fucking bahstrd’s gona geh meh ohn day, an I wana say shih befohr ih does.’
I hated it when Matty talked as if it was inevitable he wasn’t going to last much longer. However bad he got, he had so much guts and determination, he loved Lau and his kids so much, he always battled back. This was just another setback, I was sure, and I didn’t want to think about it being anything else.
‘Noh, Cahl. I wana say thihs. If yuhd behn shih at rugby, wha wouhd yuh hahv dohn?’
His question sparked a memory, of lying face down on the physio table at Raiders, talking to Kieran about what he was doing with his life because he knew he wasn’t going to be a professional sportsperson. Being a Physio wasn’t a substitute, it was completely different, and I wouldn’t say it was something that had ever occurred to me, except in a ‘bloody hell that’s too difficult’ kind of way. But I had always been fascinated with how the body healed itself and how it could be helped along. I had a sudden image of me being part of a different sort of team; one that looked at how to get the most out of arms and legs, how to help muscles repair, when to exercise and when to rest. It was just the seed of an ambition, but it took root in my head as I shrugged and answered Matty.
‘Dunno. Something physical, something not academic.’
I hardly had any GCSEs, not because I couldn’t have got some if I’d applied myself, but because I had other priorities at the time. Raiders Academy had always been hot on studying, but my focus had never been on schoolwork, it had always been on the outdoors, running about, throwing a ball, being buried under a pile of blokes, instead of under a pile of books.
‘Yuh couhd, tho. Duh the acadehmic thihg.’
‘Nah, I’m too old.’
‘Fuck ohf wih yuhr ‘tuh ohld’. Cahl, yuhv got a fahmly. They’ll lohv yuh whaever, buh yuhv got the braihs tuh beh amahzing. Duh ih while yuh can. Duh sohmthing tha hehps yuh look ahfter them. Yuhr gona nehd tuh suppoht them. Yuh nehd tuh duh the behst thihg yuh cahn. Migh tahk sohm hahd wohk.’
‘But I …’
My protests died away as Matty ignored me and took a big, noisy slurp of his coffee. He had decided the conversation was over, and when he’d finished swallowing his mouthful, he turned the topic to football, and we argued Tottenham versus Arsenal for a good half an hour before I had to go home.
Later that evening, my head still whirring with the possibilities Matty had made me think about, I pulled Chrissie against me on the sofa, after Conor and Lily were in bed.
‘Matty thinks I should go back to school.’
‘Oh does he? To do what?’
‘Get a career.’
‘Mm hmm. Did he give you any other careers advice?’
‘What, apart from never managing Spurs because they wouldn’t want someone who obviously knows nothing about football as evidenced by my poor taste in teams?’
‘Not that you’d take the job if they offered you a million a year.’
‘Yeah, apart from that, then.’
‘Well, no, he didn’t come up with anything, but … I did have a thought.’
Chrissie twisted in my arms and looked up at my face, an eyebrow raised quizzically at me. She knew I never talked about this, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing talking about it myself, but something from this afternoon had got under my skin, and I needed to think out loud about it.
‘Well go on, then, share please.’
‘Alright then. I know it’s not the most original thing, but I was wondering about training to be a Physio.’
‘What, like Gracie?’
‘Yeah. Well, maybe more along the lines of Sports Physio than helping old ladies with their hip replacements, but it’s all the same training.’
‘That’s a lot of Uni, Cal.’
I looked down at Chrissie. She wasn’t suggesting I couldn’t do it, I knew she’d support me whatever I did, the same way I’d support her, we’d find a way to do whatever we all needed to do to be a family. She was wondering if I’d thought of all the implications and consequences, and fair enough, thinking things through wasn’t my strong point, and I had only just begun to think about this, I hadn’t thought any of it through at all. She also knew I was a lazy bastard at heart, and training aside, did as little as I could to get by.
‘Yeah, I know, I don’t know if I could do it, I mean, fuck, I’d have to do a shitload of exams just to get on the course. I honestly don’t know if I could actually stand it, but I think I want to find out.’
‘That sounds like a good place to start. Find out what you’d have to do. You should ask Gracie.’
‘I guess I could start with her, but she’s such a brainbox, she had all her exams sorted before she went, knew what grades she needed, passed everything with an A star. And she’s young. You know, old dog, new tricks and all.’
‘Yeah, but Cal, you haven’t really got a choice but to learn new tricks, have you?’
Trust my Chrissie to just say it how it was. She didn’t go on at me, usually said her piece once and then let it stew until I made my mind up, but once we were talking, she just said what she thought. And she was right. I didn’t have long before any decisions about my future were out of my hands, and I would be without a playing contract or, indeed, a job of any sort. It was like a light going on – I had to start doing something about it; should have been doing something about it for a long time.
‘Shit, Chrissie, you’re right. God, I need to do something, don’t I? I’ll call Gracie tomorrow, have a chat. Maybe talk to the guys at Raiders too.’
‘Yeah, sounds like a plan. Hey, who’d have thought, eh? Cal Scott has a plan.’
‘I know. Well weird. I think I need to lie down.’
‘You practically are lying down.’
‘Oh yeah. Well that’s alright then, no need to move at all.’
We sat together in comfortable silence for a bit.
‘How is Matty?’
‘He was out of bed, which is good, but still talking this shit about wanting to say everything while he’s got the chance.’
‘It sounds sensible to me. Do what you need to while you’ve got the energy.’
I didn’t respond immediately. It was too hard to think about Matty wanting to set his affairs in order, because I’d have to think about why he’d need to do that.
‘You know what, though, he’s a bit of an inspiration. He’s never let anything stop him doing what he wanted, or maybe what he needed to do. I mean, he can’t get around without help, and his speech has gone to shit, but he’s still working, still sorting out people’s IT stuff. He made it happen with Dec, and he’s training up Tom so when he –’
I stopped, as it was too hard to say what I’d almost said, that he was training up Tom to take over from him when he wasn’t around any more Matty was making sure everything was in place, that it was all sorted. I knew he’d made Lau some kind of partner in the business so she’d be financially OK, and it seemed he was working his way through the whole family, trying to make things as right as he could. Thinking back, I knew he’d talked to Iz about marrying Ben (fat chance, Matty, but nice try), he’d talked to Mum about ways to manage her business so she could step back a bit (Mum was rather taken aback at being told what to do for a change), he’d told Dad to retire and go travelling before he was too old (that went down well); I couldn’t think of any of us he hadn’t tried to sort out one way and another. He’d made some waves, thinking about it, but it hadn’t stopped him.
‘He is pretty inspiring, Cal. Nothing seems to stop him. He just fights all the time.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. He wants his family to be OK, and he’s just going for it. I should be doing the same, whatever it takes. If I have to do some studying, take some exams, get off my arse a bit, I bloody well should, to make sure you’re all OK and we don’t have to worry.’
‘We’ll be OK, whatever.’
‘Yeah, and I know it’s not just up to me, but I think now playing isn’t so certain any more, I need to man up, be part of Team Scott. Unless you think thirty-one is a bit young to be manning up?’
I looked at Chrissie hopefully, but she just cuffed me on the arm and shook her head.