Beth and Carol looked at me. I looked back.
_What did you say to him last night?
‘Lots of things. I think we do needing help in a pretty similar way. Neither of us are very good at it. I’m just a little bit further down the line than he is.’
_Is he OK this morning?
‘Seems to be.’
_What you said to Jay, about not leaving him alone when he’s down. How did you know that?
‘It’s just what happened to me. The first few times Rose tried to help me I was really unpleasant to her – yelled at her, told her to fuck off, I think I nearly punched her once.’
Beth looked horrified, and Carol looked as if she was reassessing her ceasing of hostilities.
‘I was extremely hungover, probably still drunk, thinking about it. She took me by surprise, I know that’s no excuse. But she hung in there, didn’t let me go. She stayed up with me all night one time, when I was in a really bad way. She never gave up; she was just there. I kept telling her to go away, but she stayed. I wanted to show Matt that he can’t push people away, that there’s going to be someone there to hold on to when he needs it. I just think it’s what he needs.’
_But he gets so angry if you don’t leave him alone.
‘Yeah, he does, it works well, doesn’t it? Who wants to stay there with someone who’s so pissed off? You just have to ride it out and be stronger than him. It’s not easy. He won’t let it be easy.’
#It’s very hard to do the opposite of what someone is asking you to do.
‘Yeah, I know. I guess, if you think of what he’s really asking for, rather than the words he’s saying, it might be easier.’
They both looked at me, waiting for me to explain.
#What do you mean, dear?
‘He’s saying leave me alone. He’s actually asking you to show you care enough about him to not leave him alone through all his shit. Kind of like a test. If you leave him alone, he was right and he doesn’t deserve you.’
_Oh Dec. Is that really what it’s been like for you? Did we make you feel like that?
I shrugged. Didn’t want to make this about me.
‘I didn’t really think about it until yesterday. All afternoon I kept thinking about Matt on his own feeling like shit, and it just kind of occurred to me, we’ve both come close to losing everything in different ways. It affects you, makes you, I dunno, try to protect yourself. What I’ve done in the not so distant past, and what Matt does, is pretty similar. It’s all about willpower. I just decided I was more stubborn than he is. He ran me pretty close.’
#Well maybe there’s something in what you’re saying, Declan. Sometimes you can be too close to someone, and not see what they need because you need things too. Like being his mum means I feel I need to look after him, but he actually needs to do more for himself. I think you might have been able to see things more clearly because you’re a little further removed. Maybe we’ve been too busy taking care of him to help him get better?
_Oh Carol, that’s a really lovely way of putting it. Dec, if you’re right, you might have helped us to help him more, made a real difference. Thank you, sweetheart.
Beth got up and put her arms round me, giving me a kiss on the cheek.
łHey, unhand my wife. No time for that, we’re going on a family walk. Matty’s all ready, taken his meds and is now wearing about seventy layers of thick clothing. So before he faints from heat exhaustion, I suggest you get your coats and shoes and join us. Cal’s even got his coat and wellies on, so we haven’t got long before he gets bored and takes it all off again.
_Whose idea was that?
łMine. Why the hell not? We had a great time in the park yesterday, apart from all the mud, and nearly wrecking Dec. We need to do more of this stuff; sitting around snoozing in the house isn’t doing anything for the size of my arse. Come on, what are you waiting for?
We all did as we were told, finding coats, shoes and various other warm items. It didn’t take long to get ready, and we all left the house, Jay pushing Matt in his wheelchair.
\daddy how far are we going?
łDunno, Cal, could be a hundred miles.
\but I don’t want to walk a hundred miles.
łOh, OK, a bit less then. I’ll give you a piggy back if you get tired.
\can I have a piggy back now?
łNo, wait until you’re tired.
\i’m tired now.
Jay accepted defeat.
łDec, can you take over with Matty’s chair? OK with your arm?
He bent down and Cal jumped onto his back. Jay galloped up the road like a horse, to accompanying squeals from Cal. Beth and Carol followed, and I pushed Matt at a slower pace.
}Wha dih yuh say to them?
‘Not much. Told them to stop fussing over you. You’re going to have to ask for help a lot more now. Told them what it was like for me, too. Pretty much it. Oh, and next time you’re feeling miserable, don’t expect to be left alone.’
}Bolluhks, no mohr peace and quieht then.
‘Fraid not my friend.’
}Yuh are, ahrnt yuh.
‘Yeah. Never in doubt.’
}Douhted ih lahs night. Thought you wehr jus being an annohying dick.
‘Well, I was that too. Call it a character flaw.’
} … Yuh knoh my girfriehnd lehf meh an took ahl my friehds?
‘Yeah, mate, Beth said something.’
}Havant had a friend since then. Jus fahmly, which is greht, thehr greht. But guhd tuh hahv someone who gets meh. Kehp in touch, yeh?
}Hey, yuh gohn quieht.
He tilted his head backwards to look at me. It felt like a long time since someone had called me their friend, too. My leaky eyes let me down once more.
}Oh bluhdy hell, fucking hehd case blahrting again. Heh, lehs catch up wih Jay. Can yuh push fast?
I started running with the chair, bumping over the pavement, trying to avoid the potholes and the resulting jolts to Matt, as well as my arms.
}Heh Cal, race yuh.
Cal looked behind and saw us coming. Beth and Carol scrambled out of the way. Jay had been walking, but sped up when Cal told him we were coming. If the path hadn’t been going uphill, we would have overtaken them, but it was just too much for me to keep going. The strain on my arm started to tell, and my infrequently tested lungs started to protest. Jay slowed too, but he only had a six-year old on his back, whereas I was pushing a full-grown man wearing lots of clothes, in a metal wheelchair.
}Dohnt stop, yuh lohser.
‘Got to … gonna die.’
I slowed down and stopped, putting the brakes on the chair before I lay down on the path, panting.
‘Get out … and run yourself … next time you … want a fucking race.’
Cal had got down from Jay’s back and skipped back to us.
\we won, we won.
Jay followed more slowly, he looked nearly as tired as me, and bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.
łOK Cal … your turn … to give me … a piggy back.
\daddy, I can’t, you’re too big.
łThen maybe Uncle Matty’s … going to have to get out … of his wheelchair … and push me home.
}Uncle Mahty’s staying righ hehr, thahks. Cahnt mohv in ahl thehs clohths anyway.
#Perhaps we just all need to go a little bit more slowly. We could get to the river and feed the ducks, it’s not far, is it?
\we need bread to feed the ducks, Granny.
#Then it’s a good thing I brought some, isn’t it? Come on, Calum, see if you can remember the way.
They walked off ahead, Cal carrying the bag of bread. Beth stood looking at Jay and me, hands on hips. I stood up, having regained my composure, but Jay was still breathing hard.
_The pair of you want your heads banging together.
}Heh, wha abouh meh? My idea.
_You too, then, Matty. All three of you need a slap.
łCome on, Beth, it was just a bit of fun. Where’s the harm?
_Boys! I’ll never understand you.
She walked off after Cal and Carol, shaking her head. We stood and looked at each other, nonplussed.
łNot sure what we did. Good laugh. Rematch on the way back?
‘What, down the hill? Great, I can just let go. Make sure you hold on tight, Matt.’
łYeah, maybe not. Perhaps I can see Beth’s point. Better get after them, those ducks aren’t going to feed themselves.
Jay and I pushed Matt’s wheelchair between us up the hill. Jay took over at the top, and I walked beside Matt.
łYou alright, Matty?
}Greht, guhd tuh be ouh. Two dahys in a roh. Woo hoo.
łWe should do it more often. Very often in fact. I’m taking Dec back tomorrow, but Monday let’s start something new. As long as the weather’s good, let’s go for a walk every day, I don’t know, feed those bloody ducks or something. Get us both out of the house. Maybe you’ll feel up to walking a bit of the way yourself – up that bloody hill for a start.
}Yeh. Greht. Plehs. Noh wahking up the bluhdy hill thogh.
łOr how about coming to watch me coaching sometime? You can hold the players’ handbags.
}Ha ha. Yeh.
łAnd maybe I could give you a list and you could do the weekly shop?
}Fuck ohf. Bluhdy haht shopping. Do ih online fuh yuh tho.
łWorth a try. Beth doesn’t approve of online shopping.
We walked on to the river and caught up with Cal, Beth and Carol, who had made the fat ducks even fatter by the time we got there.
\daddy a duck pecked my finger.
łReally mate? Probably thought it was a worm.
\no, he was getting bread from my hand. It tickled. They’re all gone now.
Cal looked wistfully up the river in the direction the ducks had gone.
łWell we can come back soon and give them some more bread. Uncle Matty’s going to come for lots more walks to feed the ducks.
Jay looked at Beth, who raised her eyebrows. He nodded back at her.
\uncle Matty, has a duck ever pecked you?
}Er, noh tha I member.
\dec, has a duck ever pecked you?
‘No, mate, never, you must be the only one of us a duck has ever pecked.’
Cal beamed with pride.
\daddy, can you give me a piggy back?
łOh come on, Cal, fair dos, I carried you most of the way here.
\i want to race Uncle Matty again.
_I don’t think we’ll have any more races, the last one just about did for Daddy and Dec.
}Why dohn yuh climb up hehr and Daddy can push us both bahk hohm?
Cal conceded that this was almost as good as a piggy back, although Jay’s face showed he wasn’t too thrilled about his increased load. Cal climbed onto Matt’s lap, where Matt put his arms round Cal protectively.
_James, please be careful, I don’t want anyone falling out of any wheelchairs. No running, promise me.
łYou’ll be lucky. Thanks a bunch, Matty.
}Jus being hehpful. Yuh nehd to geh fit if yuhr going tuh kehp up wih meh every day, new rehgime and all tha.
łHmm, I’m starting to wonder if it’s such a good idea. Come on, then, Cal, let’s get rolling. I wonder what Mummy’s got planned for lunch? I wonder if it’s … frogs and snails?
}Tha was lahs nigh.
łBloody cheek, that was my curry.
Jay headed off with Matt and Cal, still talking nonsense at the top of their voices. As I watched them go, Beth touched my arm.
_We’re going to miss you.
‘I’m going to miss this. A lot.’
_You’ll come back and see us soon?
‘When I can. I think it’s going to be tricky, I’m going to be busy once I start training again. And I’m coaching with the youth team, and once I start playing again I’ll be with Trojans, even further away. I’ll come back whenever I can, if it’s OK with you.’
_Oh Dec, come back and stay as long and as often as you like. I’d almost forgotten how much time rugby takes up – since we moved up here, I’ve seen so much more of James. You’ll keep in touch? There’s all sorts of things you can do on the computer, and now you’ve got your phone you can call us, or text.
‘Course I’ll keep in touch. Not so good with all the technology, maybe I need Matt to show me before I go.’
_Do that – he’s great with all that stuff, it’d help him to feel useful I’m sure. Are you sure you want to go tomorrow, sweetheart? You don’t have to be back in training until the sixth, do you? It seems like we’ve just got used to having you around again …
‘Ah, Beth, I’d really, really love to stay, but the longer I stay, the harder it’ll be to leave. You might never get rid of me. And I need to start working off some of your roast potatoes before I get into training. The conditioning team are going to be horrified at the state of me as it is.’
_Don’t let them bully you.
‘It’s what they’re good at. And what I need.’
_As long as you’re sure. Just want to hang onto you as long as I can now we’ve got you back.
I put my arm round her and pulled her close. What was this woman to me? Mother? Sister? Friend? A mixture of all and more. I loved her with all my heart.
‘A wise man once said to me, actually it was Matt the night before last, that families are connected wherever they are. We don’t have to be together to feel together. Or something like that. It helped me when I was feeling miserable about going home.’
_Oh Dec, that’s perfect. You and Matty have got on really well, haven’t you?
‘He’s great, I really like him. We’re kind of the same.’
_God help us. Come on, sweetheart, let’s go and see if it’s frogs and snails for lunch.
We caught up with Jay, who hadn’t managed to get very far with his unruly load. Cal was asking Jay to stop every time he saw a pine cone, so he could pick it up for Matt. Fir trees lined the road; there were a lot of pine cones.
łCome on Cal, you don’t need every single one.
\uncle Matty says every one’s different, and he needs them for his collection.
łHe no more collects pine cones than you collect pink dresses. Matty, please tell him.
}Thehr’s another ohn, Cal, it’s rehly big. Behst one yeht.
}Oh alright, I wahs jus waiting foh the lahdies to catch up.
\the ladies and Dec.
}Whaever yuh say, eh Auhnty Dec? Ohkay, enough pihn cohns, thahks Cal. Cahry on drihver.
łI swear, Matty, if you weren’t a bloody cripple …
łSorry. I swear, if you weren’t unable to defend yourself …
}Who sahys I cahnt? I’ve got my attack-Cal. Cal – pihn cohns launch!
Cal and Matt started pelting Jay over Matt’s shoulder. Cal was beside himself with glee and Matt cackled evilly. Jay stopped the wheelchair, put the brakes on and put his hands in the air.
łI surrender, give up, no more. Dec, please take over if your piss-poor arms can cope, and take this rabble home. I’m going to escort my lovely wife and charming mother in a more sedate fashion.
I took the brakes off, and started to push. Matt resumed holding on to Cal; the hilarity died down, but Matt and Cal continued to point out red cars and they excitedly spotted a squirrel in a tree. When we reached the house, Cal jumped off Matt’s knee and ran indoors, stripping off his coat as he went. Matt waited until Cal was out of earshot.
}Bolluhks, think I’ve wohn mysehf out. Cahn yuh hehp me?
‘Course, what do you need?’
}Clohths off, all thehs, into behd. Dohn thihk I cahn stahnd. Fuck.
I took Matt into his room and peeled off the top layers as he sat in the wheelchair. He had gone pale and was panting noisily.
‘OK, arm round my shoulder, can you help at all?’
}Prohbly noh. Gihv ih a try.
I stood up, lifting Matt up as well as I could. He had a little strength in his legs, but not much, and the effort made him breathe more raspingly. I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung him round to lie down. Pulled off the three pairs of trousers, leaving him in t-shirt and boxers.
‘Is that OK? Duvet over you?’
‘Need anything else?’
}Noh … th … muh … blr …
He fell asleep before my eyes, while he was still trying to speak. Jay, Beth and Carol came in through the front door, laughing. They stopped when they saw Matt was already in bed.
‘He said he was tired, asked me to get him into bed. Just fell straight to sleep.’
łBloody idiot overdid it. I thought he was getting a bit manic. He’s worse than Cal at admitting when he’s tired.
‘Will he be OK?’
łHopefully he’ll just sleep it off. Otherwise, fancy another sleepless night in the chair pissing him off?
Beth looked at me and realised I was feeling guilty.
_Don’t worry, Dec, it’s not your fault. Let’s make sure someone’s with him when he wakes up. Take it in turns. You first, James, I’ll bring some lunch in. New approach, remember?
Jay stomped off and sat in the chair by Matt’s bed, as the phone in my pocket started to ring. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Nico. I went into the living room to answer it.
>Declan, is good to hear you. You come to watch me play tomorrow.
‘Well, not just you, the whole team, but yeah.’
>You stay afterwards?
‘Hadn’t really thought, but yeah, I should think so.’
>Good, you have a drink after the game with me and Lis. Lis come also to watch me play. You tell us how is your Christmas.
‘Yeah, sounds good.’
>You have good times?
‘Yeah it’s been really great. Lis told me you had a busy day.’
>Was busy, much noise and much love. We enjoy. Many people and many childrens. We still find sticky places everywhere.
‘Sounds like a lot of fun, apart from the clearing up.’
>Ha, I let Lis clear up. I tell her is good for her, she is better wife.
I heard Lisa’s voice in the background, and suspected Nico was going to be in trouble for that one.
>Lis say see you tomorrow. I must go – she give me a cloth. What I do with this, baby? Ow. Tomorrow, then, Declan. Be careful with yourself.
‘OK, look forward to it. Bye.’
It occurred to me that I hadn’t checked with Jay that he had been able to get tickets for the game. I walked into Matt’s room, where Jay sat flicking through a magazine.
‘Sorry, I feel a bit responsible.’
łDon’t do that, Dec. Matty wants more control, more independence, more going out, he needs to know the consequences. We’re all still learning here. I guess he’s not going to get better unless he learns how far he can push himself. Sometimes it’s going to be too far. I think he’ll be OK.
Matt continued to sleep, breathing raggedly.
‘He’s out for the count.’
łYeah, well, I think he had a pretty good morning. Maybe it was worth it. We’ll see when he wakes up.
‘Would you rather not take me back tomorrow?’
łWhat? Where did that come from?
‘Just in case …’
łNo, it’ll be fine. I sorted us out seats for the game. Don wants to talk to you about it. Ring him. I think we put his number on your phone.
‘I’ll do it now.’
I enjoyed myself on our walk so much, and so did everyone else, that I still wondered why Dec wasn’t staying, because everything seemed better since he came. Mum and Dad and Granny laughed, and Uncle Matty had been out twice and had sat at the table, and nobody was cross with anyone. I just didn’t get it. It was better with Dec there, and I wanted him to stay, but I didn’t know how to say it.
When we got back, I did some drawing with Granny. I liked Granny’s drawings, because she was good at cartoons, and could draw Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu.
I headed into the living room, stood looking out of the window, and called Don’s number. It went to voicemail. I left a message and hung up. The phone rang almost immediately. I was expecting it to be Don, but the screen just showed a number, not a name.
ϙHello, Declan Summers?
ϙIt’s DI Johnson.
ϙDeclan we have some news regarding our investigations into the assault on you and the subsequent incident in your flat.
ϙWe’ve checked out the two names you gave us, David Allsop and Ben Hearne, and been able to match the DNA from samples taken from your flat to Ben Hearne, but not David Allsop. Mr Allsop has an alibi for the time of your assault. Mr Hearne does not, and he was seen following you out of the bar just prior to the assault. We also found his fingerprints on some of the glass from the bottle you were hit with. We have arrested Mr Hearne and are currently questioning him.
My legs buckled, and I sat down heavily on the sofa.
ϙDeclan, are you still there?
‘Yeah … I … fuck.’
ϙAre you alright? Is someone there with you?
‘Yeah … I’m OK.’
Although I felt far from it. Thinking it might be Big was one thing, having it confirmed was another. Deep down I’d been hoping I was wrong, that my dream was just a dream, that Big couldn’t possibly have done it. But it was him. Big, who had been my mate … it brought the whole episode into sharp focus, intruding into my time here with Jay’s family, making me too aware of what I was facing when I went home.
ϙI’ll keep you up to date with things. Thank you for the information you have already given us. Please let me know if you remember anything else.
He rang off. I sat, immobile, on the sofa, staring at the ‘call ended’ screen on the phone. Beth called from the kitchen.
_Dec, is soup OK for you?
I didn’t answer. Hardly heard her. That was officially the end of it with me and Big; I couldn’t take it in.
_Dec? James, where’s – oh, there you are. Is soup – what’s the matter?
She came in and sat next to me, looked closely at my face.
_You’re white as a sheet.
‘Yeah … er … just had a call. Police. They’ve arrested Big. Er, Ben Hearne.
_Oh, sweetheart. What a shock for you.
_You did think it was him, though, didn’t you?
‘Yeah. I kept hoping I was wrong. He was my mate, he was the only one who talked to me when things were tough. He was just a fucking liar. I don’t fucking get it.’
_Oh sweetheart …
Beth put her arm round my shoulders. I put my face in my hands and cried, for lost friendship, lost trust, lost pride.
_Oh Dec, don’t. He’s not worth it.
‘I know he’s fucking not. I was such an idiot. So desperate to get my friends back, I let him fool me.’
_Don’t be so hard on yourself. It sounds like he fooled a lot of people. How were you to know? They’ve got him now. He wasn’t so smart, really.
‘Not smart enough not to piss on my stuff, I guess.’
‘DNA from my flat.’
_Well, that just shows who’s the idiot then.
łWhat’s going on?
Jay stood in the doorway as I wiped my eyes.
łDec, seriously, we’re running out of tissues.
_He’s just had a bit of a shock. They’ve arrested Ben Hearne.
łJesus, no way. Ah, Dec, sorry, mate. That is a bit of a shocker. You were right, then?
I sniffed and took a deep breath.
‘Yeah, I was, I’m OK. Like you say, it’s just a bit of a shock. Brings it all home, churns it all up again. Fuck, I am a head case, aren’t I.’
łBeen trying to tell you that since you got here. Bloody nutter.
He sat down on the other side of me and put his arm round the other shoulder. Having these two people at my side made me feel safer and less out of control than I had for a long time.
łBut you’re our bloody nutter. Wouldn’t have you any other way. You going to be OK?
‘Yeah. Fuck. Sorry. I’ll be OK now. Really.’
I took several deep breaths, tried to rearrange the information in my head in a way which made sense. My phone rang, making me jump, and I nearly dropped it. Looked at the screen. Don.
łYou’d better get that, mate.
He stood up and left the room. Beth squeezed my shoulder and did the same.
-Declan, I got your message. Jay tells me you’re coming to tomorrow’s game?
‘Yeah, he said he squared it with you?’
-Yes, that’s fine. Just a couple of things I wanted to go over with you. I’d appreciate you wearing your training kit, just so people know you’re representing us.
‘Sure, no worries.’
I wondered if he knew about Big.
-Good. Will you have a chance for the medics to look you over after the game? I’d like them to get a look at how you’re healing, see how much we can do in your initial training sessions.
‘Yeah, no problem. I was going to ask if someone could check me out while I’m there.’
-Perfect. How are you doing?
‘Things seem to be going pretty well, I’ve almost got full movement back in my right arm, bruises have gone down a lot, stitches going nicely, don’t look quite as much like Frankenstein as I did.’
-That’s good news. I’m glad to hear it, son.
‘Don, er, did you know, the police – er – they just called me, they’ve arrested Ben Hearne.’
Don was silent for a long time.
-I was aware they were investigating Ben, and David Allsop. I didn’t know they had arrested anyone.
‘They said they didn’t think it was DivDav – er, David. But they found DNA from Ben in my flat, and on the bottle I was hit with.’
-Declan, I’m very sorry to hear that, I know he was your friend. Thank you for telling me. I suspect I’ll need to talk to Adrian now about media coverage. It might put a different complexion on your attendance tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.
He hung up abruptly. Beth, who must have been waiting in the hallway, came back in to the room.
‘Think so. I think I heard the sound of shit hitting the fan. Fuck, what a fucking mess. Sorry. Sorry, Beth, it just comes out. Too much time on my own, no one to tell me to mind my language.’
Beth rolled her eyes and ruffled my hair.
_I don’t remember it being much different when there was someone around to tell you. It’s part of your charm. When Cal’s expelled, I’ll send you the bill for a private school.
‘Ha ha, deal.’
_Oh, what a way to spend your last afternoon with us, Matty out cold, upsetting phone calls, what can we do to make it better?
I had a memory, and a thought.
‘How about … a game of charades?’
_Oh that’s brilliant! I’d forgotten about Christmas charades. Let’s do it in Matty’s room, we can all join in then. I’ll do some lunch, then we’ll get charading. Well remembered.
Beth busied herself with lunch. Carol and Cal were drawing pictures at the kitchen table. Jay was with Matt. I sat and caught my breath. The latest news from DI Johnson had knocked me, but at least I wasn’t going to bump into Big at the game tomorrow. I wondered what Don was going to do about it – he might even say I shouldn’t go. I decided that if that was the case I would try to stay here for a few more days.
After lunch, we all went into Matt’s room. Jay and I brought in extra chairs. Matt was still fast asleep. The game of charades brought back so many good memories for me from past Christmases. Cal understood the point of the game much better now he was older, but he hadn’t always, and I clearly remembered him repeating out loud the title Beth had just whispered to him, and then beaming when we all laughed, thinking he’d won. How old had he been then? Three? Four? He seemed so much older now, he had grown so fast.
We had an uproarious time. Jay opened a bottle of wine, to help us feel less self-conscious, and we threw ourselves into the game. Matt slept on, oblivious. I glanced at him from time to time to see if a loud shout or laugh had disturbed him, but he didn’t seem to stir.
After we had wrung the last bit of amusement out of charades, we moved on to some of Cal’s board games. Jay moved the table away from the side of Matt’s bed, and we all sat round it. With a bit of creative scoring, Cal won everything. Just as we were finishing, Matt woke up. He looked dazed and bleary eyed.
}Kehp the noihs dohn, crihpls trying tuh slehp hehr.
_Yes, Cal, I know. Uncle Matty doesn’t like doing as he’s told, and he’s too big for the naughty step.
I saw a relieved glance pass between Jay and Beth. Matt seemed to be feeling OK so far.
}Yuh behn playing wihouh meh?
łNot technically, you were here in the room. Can’t be helped if you were too lazy to wake up.
}Leh yuh ohf. Cal, who won Huhngry Hihpos?
}Wha ehls yuh play?
\pop-Up Pirate and Operation. And the game where you guess if it’s films or books and the answer’s Bob the Builder.
}Who wohn thohs?
}Wehl dohn. Glahd yuhr on my team. Especiahly if I mihsed bluhdy charahds.
łHang on a minute, you can’t just claim a victory like that, you were asleep.
}Yeh, buh Cal’s ahlways on my tehm, dohn matter if I’m awahk or noh. I win. Rohnd one tuh meh.
_Stop it you two, it’s only a game, doesn’t matter who wins.
}Lohng as ih’s meh.
_Well, Matty, you don’t seem to have suffered any ill effects from your morning’s efforts. Are you hungry?
}Stahving. Wha time issit?
_Nearly tea time. You slept right through.
}Shih, haht doin tha.
_Matty, honestly …
}Wha? Blahm Dec foh any inadvehtent swehrs.
‘Hey! I’m getting a bit pissed off with – oh shit, sorry – fu – dammit. I’ll shut up, shall I?’
I looked sheepishly at Beth who raised an eyebrow and didn’t need to say any more. I was all for trying, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to rein in my bad language.
#Well you seem awake enough now, Matthew. I’ll do some tea, dear, you’ve got that mince, Beth dear, shall I do a shepherd’s pie?
_Oh Carol that would be wonderful. I’ll come and put the kettle on, get us all a drink.
And so my final evening with them, for now, had begun. I tried not to let it bother me, just relax and enjoy it, but I couldn’t help thinking about leaving tomorrow, and how hard it would be. To take my mind off it, I asked Matt to show me how to use my phone and laptop to use Skype and FaceTime. He didn’t seem to be suffering any further ill effects from his walk, and was very willing to show me what he knew.
}Bluhdy hell, Dec, I thought ehvryohn yuhr age knew this stuhf?
‘Never been great with technology. I can just about text and phone, use the internet if there’s free Wi-Fi. I only ever used my laptop for surfing the net and storing music. Oh, and eBay, but that tested my abilities. Haven’t had one for so long now, I’m kind of out of practice.’
}Did yuh rehly sell all yuhr stuhf?
‘Yeah. Necessary at the time.’
}And had yuhr phohn smashed and yuhr flat trashed and yuhr bank accohnt emptied?
}Fucking hehl, Dec. Hahrsh.
‘No more harsh than what happened to you.’
}Ghess noht. Lehs staht League of Losers, incohporating bluhb cluhb and Crihpls Cohner.
‘I like it.’
}Am I ihn yuhr cohtacts?
‘No. I didn’t think you had a phone.’
}Only goh basic ohn, Cahrie took my iPhone. Buh can tex. And now hahv iPad, can mehsage an FaceTime if yuh hahv Wi-Fi.
‘I haven’t got internet at home, nor has Rose.’
}Bluhdy hell, it’s lihk the dahk ages. Yuhr phohn’s goh a contraht wih 3G. Or if yuhv got noh signhal, goh tuh Stahbucks or sohmthing. Or geh Wi-Fi. Or a dongle.
‘If I knew what the fuck one of those was, I’m sure I would. I should do something, though, otherwise this laptop’s not going to be much good.’
}Geh yuhsehf sohted. Nehd tuh kehp in touch.
‘Yeah. I really do, don’t I.’
I had a real sense of having made a friend. Previously, friendships had come easily, had been part of school, or Raiders, just people who were there who I had a laugh with, who were the same age as me. Matt and I had made a connection somehow, and it was another good thing I could take away from this Christmas.
I had a phone call later from Don, confirming that Jay and I could use the tickets for the part of the stand reserved for family of team members. He wanted to remind me that I wasn’t to talk to reporters, or anyone who I thought might be a reporter, and to refer them to him, or remind them about the press conference at the end of the game. He didn’t want me to attend it, and said it was fine to go to the bar afterwards and circulate. I assumed he had a plan, as he had the last time he suggested it.
I called Rose and told her I was coming back the next day. She sounded really pleased, full of plans for meals and what she needed to do to get the place ready. I told her we were going to watch the game, and although we’d call in and see her to drop off my bags beforehand, I might not be back till later on.
Business concluded, I could relax, and concentrate on enjoying the evening. I read Cal a story before he went to bed, or rather read him a long complicated chapter of a book about the history of flight.
łCal, do you spend all your time finding the longest chapters in all your books so you can avoid going to bed?
\no Daddy. This is my bedtime story. I like Concorde.
łWhatever you say, mate.
For my last bedtime story before Dec went home, I found the longest chapter in any of my books, which was about Concorde in my History of Flight book. It lasted a long time, but in the end we had to finish reading, and Dad put me to bed.
‘Daddy, why does Dec have to go home tomorrow?’
‘Well, I suppose he doesn’t have to, it’s just convenient.’
I liked knowing new words and what they meant. Caveenion sounded like an exciting sort of cave where onions grew.
‘It means it’s easy and it makes sense. There’s a rugby match on in the city, and me and Dec are going to watch it, and I’m going to talk to some of the people at Raiders, so it makes sense to take Dec home at the same time. Do you want to come, so you can say goodbye, and watch the rugby?’
‘But I like football.’
‘I know, mate. How about giving it a try?’
‘Can I wear my Arsenal shirt?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘But why does Dec have to go away?’
‘Mate, he doesn’t live here.’
‘Cal, this was never Dec’s home, not like before. There’s no room for him, now Granny stays over so much. It doesn’t mean we don’t like him the same as we ever did. Come on mate, go to sleep.’
Dad left the door open a crack because of the monsters, and went back downstairs. I knew Dec wasn’t going to be sleeping underneath me; he had an airbed in Dad’s office, because of his screams. He hadn’t slept in my room last night when he was being with Uncle Matty, and I hadn’t liked it, and now it was his last night, and I wanted him near while I was asleep. I tried to get to sleep, but I couldn’t, and I could hear the TV and talking downstairs.
After a while, I decided to risk going downstairs. I sometimes got in trouble for going downstairs after I’d gone to bed, but it depended on what the reason was. Dad didn’t get as cross as Mum, so I hoped that Mum would be asleep or in the kitchen.
After Cal had gone to bed, I helped Beth unload and load the dishwasher, and packed my belongings, which had got scattered around the house. I found the duplicate Christmas stocking stuffed in my bag, and left it in the cupboard in the utility room, then I went back to the living room and joined Jay and Carol in front of the TV, while Beth was fiddling with laundry in the kitchen.
I walked quietly down the stairs and listened at the bottom, to see if I could find out who was in the living room. I could only hear the TV, but the light was on in the kitchen, and I could hear somebody doing something in there – it must be Mum, because Dad hardly ever did things on his own in the kitchen.
I went and stood at the living room door.
‘Cal, why are you out of bed?’
‘I can’t sleep.’
‘Come here, mate.’
I went to Dad, and he scooped me on to his lap and kissed me on the top of my head. It was going well so far.
‘Why can’t you sleep?’
‘I want Dec to sleep under me.’
Dad looked at Dec, who was on the other sofa.
‘But Dec has bad dreams and scares you.’
‘I won’t be scared. It’s only his dreams. I like when Dec does bad swears at night.’
Dad liked doing bad swears too, and I thought this might help to explain it. He looked at Dec again. Dec grinned at me and shrugged at Dad.
‘Thanks, Cal. Yeah, I think I might’ve a couple of times – sat up and banged my head. Just came out. Sorry.’
‘Hmm. Well, Cal, I think we’ve got quite a long journey tomorrow, and we all need to get a good night’s sleep. So maybe Dec would be better off on the air bed in my office.’
That didn’t sound good, it sounded like the sensible thing to do. I needed something more than sensible, something that Dec could help with.
‘But Daddy, Optimus Prime is scared without Dec.’
‘Is he now? I thought he was king of the Transformers or something.’
‘Yes, but he likes having Dec sleeping under him too.’
‘Dec wasn’t there last night, he sat up with Uncle Matty’
Oh yeah. It felt like I was losing this one, but I had one last go.
‘Yes but Optimus Prime woke up and it was all quiet, and Dec wasn’t going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and he didn’t like it.’
This was true, if you pretended that I was Optimus Prime. I hadn’t liked waking up in the dark and not hearing Dec breathing below me.
Dad looked at Dec again.
‘What have you done to him? He can’t sleep without your mad noises. OK, Cal, let’s ask Dec. Dec, how would you feel about sleeping in the bottom bunk for one last night?’
Dec looked really pleased.
‘I’d love it.’
‘Will you promise faithfully not to do any big swears?’
‘I promise to try, but I can’t really control what goes on while I’m asleep.’
It was a great thing to promise, because it meant I still might hear some loud swears, but if I did, Dec wouldn’t be in trouble about it. Dad sighed.
‘I suppose that’s good enough. OK Cal, you wheedled your way into that one. Go to bed now, Dec will be up later.’
I smiled at Dad and then Dec, and the ran back upstairs and got into bed.
łSure that’s OK?
‘If you’re sure, I did scare the living shit out of him last time.’
łHe seems to have taken it in his stride. Do you know what, I’m going to see if Matty wants to join us in here. There’s really no reason he has to stay in that room all on his own if he’s starting to feel more sociable. I’ll go and find out.
Jay left, returning a short while later with Matt in his wheelchair, wrapped up in a thick jumper and with a blanket over his knees.
łDon’t know why I didn’t bloody think of this before. Here you go, let’s just get you out onto this end of the sofa. Are you warm enough?
}Tohstie. Duh I hahv to hahv the blahnket? Its tartan foh fuck’s sahk.
łYeah, you have to have the old man blanket. We need something to take the piss out of. Anyone want a drink? Mum, glass of wine?
#That would be lovely, dear.
‘Behr. Oh, and fuck ohf ‘
}Oh, OK. Er … stihl behr.
łFuck it, you know what, I don’t think one beer is going to hurt. I’m not even going to ask Beth.
}Bluhdy hell, who ahr yuh and wha hahv yuh dohn wih my noh-fun bruhther?
łHa ha. Less of your lip, tartan boy, I still control the bottle opener.
Jay went to organise the drinks. He came back with three bottles of beer and a glass of wine.
łCheers, everyone. Here comes Beth, with her glass of delicious water. Matty, I’d advise you to get drinking before she realises what you’ve got there. Need help?
}Noh, not having hehp wih fucking behr.
łFair enough. Dec, small sips, don’t want you passing out on me, you lightweight. Mum, don’t slurp.
#Jameson, are you really sure Matthew should –
łYes, Mum, I’m sure. Got to try sometime. It’s only beer.
}Oh my Gohd, ih’s fucking awsohm. Mohr plehs.
łNo way. Make that one last, no more for you.
}Yuh jus said sohnly behr.
łHm, so I did. Well we’ll see how that one goes then, but treat it as if it is the only one you’re having. Dec was pissed on two the other night.
}Ihm betteh at hohding my drihnk.
łYou’re both completely out of practice. I’d drink you under the table in five minutes.
_If you were having a competition, which of course you won’t be, will you?
}Noh point, Muhm wouhd win hahns down.
The rest of the evening passed quickly as we relaxed in each other’s company. Matt managed to wheedle another beer out of Jay, much to Beth’s disgust.
}Cohm on Beth, ih hahdly touched the sihds. Nehd another threh or fohr to mahk a dent.
_You’re certainly not getting another three or four.
_Just remember, Matty, you’re on your own with me and your mum tomorrow. You’re at our mercy. We could easily make you eat sprout sandwiches and drink carrot juice if you don’t behave yourself tonight.
}Dec, stahy, dohnt lehv meh wih them.
‘You’re on your own, mate, no way I’m eating sprout sandwiches.’
The conversation and banter was batted to and fro, and we all stayed up later than we had planned to. Matt suddenly drooped, eyes closing. His head kept dropping forwards as he struggled to stay awake.
łOK Matty, time for bed.
}Oh, buh I was jus stahting tuh enjoy mysehf.
łYou sound just like Cal – oh but! You’re falling asleep. You won’t miss anything, I think we’ll all be in bed soon. Me and Dec have got a long drive tomorrow, and Beth and Mum have got their work cut out trying to keep you away from the cooking sherry. Come on, hop in your chair, I can’t lift you if you’re asleep, you’re too bloody heavy.
Matt got in his wheelchair grumpily, and Jay took him back to his room. I sat where I was, not wanting to make a move. If I went to bed, that was it, evening over, end of my stay. Beth and Carol cleared up glasses around me and took them to the kitchen. Jay came back into the room.
łSays he wants you to tuck him in. Better be quick, he’s going to be asleep in a minute.
I hurried into Matt’s room. He looked asleep already.
His eyes flickered open.
}Auhnty Dec. Jus wahted to say thahks.
}Whaever yuh said tuh Jay an Beth, it feels dihferent now. Migh even let meh get pihsed if Ihm lucky.
‘I wouldn’t count on it.’
}Sohmthing tuh aim fuh. Anyway, thahks.
‘No worries. Well at least that’s the beer sorted …’
‘Just the sex to go now, and you’re back to normal.’
}Ha ha, look fohward tuh reaching tha mihlstone in the nehr fuhture.
He held his hand out and I clasped it. His grip loosened, and he was asleep.
I wandered back into the living room. Jay was finishing off his beer, watching the end of a sit com.
łWell, that’s me done for tonight. Beth and Mum have already gone up. You going to be long?
‘I think I’ll stay down here for a bit.’
łNo moping, now.
‘I’m not moping, just thinking. Had a huge few days. Sorting through it. Trying to get my head round it.’
łJesus, with the state of your head, should we be afraid?
‘Ha ha. See you tomorrow.’
Jay went to bed, and I was alone with my reflections. In a way, the last few days seemed to have lasted forever. I felt like I had slotted back in to the way things used to be; Jay, Beth and Cal were exactly the same, it all felt exactly the same, even though the location was different. It had felt so natural, it was hard to remember what it had been like when I thought I’d lost them for good, when Jay told me ‘we’re done’ and Beth told me not to call them again. If ever I’d had blessings to count, these people, my family, were at the top of the list. It was going to be hard to leave them tomorrow.
My thoughts meandered on to tomorrow’s game and the challenges that it might bring. I would see people I hadn’t seen since I was beaten up – the bruises and scars still showed on my face. There were plenty of people who still held a grudge against me because of the points I’d cost Raiders; people I had withdrawn from and alienated; people who simply didn’t like what I’d done and how I’d behaved. I’d have to face them all, not just tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future. It was the legacy of my recent actions. But now I had Jay, Beth and Cal back, it seemed easier to face, gave me strength.
Eventually, despite my contemplations, I started to fall asleep. The house was quiet. I took a deep breath and headed up the stairs, undressed in the bathroom and slid into the bottom bunk. I lay awake for some time, the sleepiness that had overcome me downstairs having disappeared. I listened to Cal breathing, and the odd noises that the house made as its occupants slept.
I thought about being back in my flat, on my own. Not something I was looking forward to, but something I was going to have to do sooner rather than later, or I might never do it. Having family around me, people I trusted and loved, made me realise what I had been missing for months, and how much I needed it.
I thought about watching the game tomorrow. That was something I was looking forward to, despite having anxieties about who I might run into. I hadn’t seen a live Raiders game for months, and I was going to be with Jay and Cal. I wasn’t sure if Cal had ever seen a live game before, and I was going to enjoy being there with him for the experience.
Little by little drowsiness overtook me and I slept.
Dreaming. I am flying above the pitch, watching the game. Raiders are playing well, but can’t score. I can see what needs to be done. Don calls me over and sends me on as a replacement. They pass me the ball, I fly over the line and touch the ball down. As I land on the ground, a pair of brown boots appears by my head. I see one of the boots heading straight for my face …