49. Do you believe in shame?

In which regrets are experienced and articulated, leading to surprising consequences.

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Matt

How the fuck had I let that happen? Did I have no willpower at all? Of all things, Carrie’s voice floated back to me from the past, ‘You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option, is it?’

Jules looked like she was asleep; at any rate, she was curled up with her eyes closed. I pushed myself off the sofa and covered her with a throw, picked up her clothes and folded them, placing them in a pile near her head, then quickly dressed myself.

I was appalled at what I’d just done. Even in the full throes of Matt the Lad, I would never have screwed with someone who was having such an obviously hard time as Jules. I mean, OK, it’s not like I handed out a mental health questionnaire: You are about to get lucky with Matt. Please tick one of the following: a) I am in full possession of my faculties and happy with this state of affairs. b) I’ve had a few Jägerbombs, actually, but I know what I’m doing and am happy with the outcome. c) I am an off-my-kecks emotional wreck, probably shouldn’t really. But generally, especially in the whole keeping away from crying women scheme of things, I made sure everyone was OK with it all. Now, though, now, here was Jules, naked on my sofa, the evidence of my thoughtless dick-driven urges. So much for getting your act together, Matt. So much for being a better man. So much for sorting yourself out. What was the point of the last few weeks of abstinence and soul-searching if the moment some woman, who five minutes ago was seriously trying to do you an injury, looks for some kind of contact, you go all one hundred per cent full on. I could have stopped, couldn’t I? I should have stopped, shouldn’t I? I didn’t stop, did I?

I felt shame sweep over me, and I sat down hard in an armchair, leaned forward and pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. When was I going to stop making a total fuck-up of my life? I was a mess. I was messing with other people. I seriously needed some help. I seriously was not going to ask for any help. Total, complete and utter fuck-up.

Julia

Was it seconds later? Minutes? Hours? I came to myself, lying on my side, a chenille throw covering me. I was naked underneath it. Matt was sitting on the edge of an armchair, fully clothed, head in his hands. He looked up, possibly sensing movement from me, and held a supplicating hand out towards me.

‘Julia, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I fucking did that. Or rather I can believe I fucking did that, it’s what I do after all, I just can’t believe I did it to you, in that state. You’re right, I’m a fucking arsehole. I’m so sorry.’

He turned his head away, and put his hands back over his face.

Matt

She didn’t say anything, just closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and looked at me again. I couldn’t take her gaze, so I turned my head away, and put my hands back over my face. Then, far later than it should have, it occurred to me that she would just want to get the fuck out of there, rather than stare at the bastard who had just thoughtlessly fucked her, and she needed to get dressed. So I forced my thoughts away from their damning introspection and stood up.

Julia

Thoughts started to flood into my mind. I set about organising them into priority order. I was desperate to regain some kind of control over this mad day, but things had spun so far out of my reach, I wasn’t sure which bit of me I was trying to push things back into. I wasn’t at work or at home, and I had no anchor, no fixed point to pin everything onto.

Alright, prioritise, I was good at that. Top priority: get out of here. Action plan: get dressed. Equipment needed: clothes. I looked around me and found a neatly folded pile of garments by my head, so I reached for them. Objective achieved. Next problem: I was naked. Action plan: tricky, but I could try to get dressed underneath the throw. Equipment needed: aforementioned clothing, already acquired.

Matt suddenly got up and spoke.

‘Sorry, Julia. You get dressed, I’ll be in the bathroom.’

He walked over to the window and pulled a blind across it, then went into another room, closing the door behind him.

I lay where I was, in the darkened room, for a few moments, wondering if my scattered thoughts were going to gather themselves. They didn’t show any sign of doing so, so I stuck to the action plan. Clothes on.

I almost faltered at the first hurdle when I picked up my pants to find they were merely a torn strip of fabric. Reality almost shoved its way through with a flash of memory, before I screwed them up and stuffed them under a cushion. Didn’t need pants. There, that was easily avoided. Everything else seemed to be in working order, so I stood up and quickly pulled trousers, bra and shirt on, slipped my shoes on my feet and put my bag on my shoulder.

I didn’t feel the need for a goodbye, only a quick exit, so I let myself out and drifted in a daze back along the streets, past the churchyard, to the car park at GreenScreen, where I sat in my car breathing deeply for as long as I dared. Eventually, impelled by the possibility of someone I knew going to their car and seeing me, I started the engine and drove off. I found myself outside my flat some time later, having apparently driven home without incident.

Matt

I closed the blinds and went and locked myself in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet and listening to the small sounds of her dressing and leaving. It didn’t take her long, and she didn’t slam the door behind her, but the click, as the latch caught, reverberated through me nonetheless.

I stayed where I was for a long time, condemning myself, hating myself, berating myself. Then I got up and went back into the living room, opened the blinds and started tidying, not really thinking about what I was doing, straightening cushions, putting the throw over the back of the sofa. When I picked up one of the cushions, I found a scrap of black fabric – all that was left of Jules’ pants. I had torn them off her body in my frenzy, and it made me feel sick, that I’d done that to her. Oh it wasn’t the first time I’d ripped someone’s knickers off, not by a long way, but this was very different. It spoke to me of someone who had no self-control, who would stop at nothing to feed his need, and who respected no one’s feelings. It shocked me deeply.

Julia

I had never been so happy to see a front door. I lurched out of the car and fumbled, trembling, with the key to the street door. I shoved it open and ran up the stairs, to more fumbling with my front door key. When I finally got it open, I fell into my flat, tumbling head first onto the sofa, where I lay and felt another burst of sobbing racking my body.

Now I was home, I could face what I truly felt. I was safe here, I was me, not pretending or acting. The full implications of what had just happened could be analysed another time, but I had to face the fact that I had just had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid, meaningless, thoughtless sex. Unprotected sex. Rough, noisy, hot sex. With Matt Scott. A work colleague. An egotistical arsehole who would use it to torture me at every turn from now on. I nearly cried again, but was beginning, now I was home, to be able to gather a semblance of order to it all. I needed to think about what this meant, how I was going to deal with it, but first I needed a drink.

I had been thirsty for hours, and had cried too much. Dehydration was making me feel sick and woozy. I fetched myself a large glass of water and drank it all in one go. I fetched another, and sipped it more slowly, feeling the fuzziness in my head start to dissipate.

It kept hitting me. I had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid – yes. Meaningless – yes. Hot – where did that come from? I needed to think about it rationally, about how I was going to be able to function at work tomorrow. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be going in tomorrow. I had wasted enough time this afternoon, and there were projects that needed handling. No, the only question was not whether but how I was going to do this. I wrapped myself in The Ice Queen and started building tomorrow out of her snowy mantle.

Matt

My phone rang several times, but I ignored it until I could think straight enough to realise that it was probably work wondering where I was. I called them back and said I wasn’t feeling well and had gone home sick. Then I made myself a strong cup of coffee and sat down to give myself a severe talking to.

I went through it all – how I’d been in Stafford before Carrie; how I’d been with Carrie; how I’d been when I was ill; how I’d been since I’d got better and started to explore life in this city; how I’d been, or thought I’d been, for the last few weeks. I tried to make sense of it all. The best I could come up with was that, Carrie aside, I really didn’t do commitment. I was happier with one night or at the most a few nights, which wasn’t fair on the women I’d been with, who didn’t necessarily know that. I was a total bastard.

Julia

Some time later, I had worked it all through in my mind, how I was going to act, what I was going to say, how I was going to respond to taunts, teasing, questions. I felt a lot better. It was going to be alright. I could do this. Nothing had really changed, just a mistake, an accident caused by being under pressure. Handled in the right way, nothing would be any different.

My self-congratulation was interrupted by my phone ringing in my bag. I looked at the clock. Seven o’clock. My mother. God, she was going to tell me about Nons. I’d completely forgotten. Crushed, I answered.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘JuJu darling. Oh, darling isn’t it just terrible?’

‘I got your text.’

‘Oh did you? You didn’t reply, I wondered whether it had gone astray.’

‘I was at work, you know I can’t reply when I’m at work.’

This was a half-truth designed to circumvent any expectation of being able to be in contact with my mother while I was working. It wasn’t a GreenScreen rule that you couldn’t use a personal mobile; it was my rule. Shades of grey.

‘Oh nonsense, it was important, they would have understood.’

‘Mum, what happened?’

‘When?’

‘To Nons.’

‘Oh, yes. Sorry, darling, it’s all been frightful, your father and I have had to fly over to sort everything out, we’ve had to cut our trip to Florence short and we might have to cancel our reservations in Reykjavik –’

‘Mum.’

I was beyond irritated. This was typical of my mother; my parents’ travel arrangements always took precedence over any other life event. It seemed they were even more important than the death of her only sister. Why had I thought the ‘just terrible’ thing was Nons, when obviously it was having to cut short a trip to Florence. I don’t know what else I expected – my mother and father had been travelling nearly all of my life, and when they weren’t globe-trotting, they stayed with my sisters in Europe.

‘Yes darling.’

‘Tell me what happened to Nons.’

‘Oh, alright JuJu.’

She sounded surprised that I was asking, irritated that I had interrupted her report on her itinerary.

‘They think she had a heart attack.’

‘What?’

‘A heart attack, darling. William found her yesterday, he’d apparently been worried when he hadn’t seen her all day. He looked through the kitchen window and saw her on the floor, and called the emergency services. They had to break the door down. Made a terrible mess everywhere, your father and I have had to stay here while we’re waiting for an emergency carpenter.’

I was only getting snippets of the information I wanted, the rest was irrelevant. Biting back a terse remark, I started to ask the questions I needed answers to.

‘Was she still … alive … when they found her?’

‘Oh no, she’d been dead for hours. They said it would have been instant, or at least very quick, painless.’

But they always said that, didn’t they, what was the point in saying to relatives ‘oh no, it would have been slow and hurt a lot’?

‘Was she alone?’

I couldn’t bear the thought of Nons dying alone, I wished I’d been there to hold her hand and whisper that I loved her.

‘Yes, darling, who else do you think would have been there?’

Well it would have been nice if her sister, for example, had been able to visit before she died rather than after. But saying that was going to lead to a conversation in which I learned nothing except my mother’s opinion of me, so I held my tongue.

‘But she hadn’t been ill, had she?’

‘I don’t think so, JuJu, but I hadn’t been in touch for a little while. Did she say anything to you?’

‘No, nothing. I was going to go up this weekend, I haven’t – hadn’t seen her for ages.’

I felt so guilty, I’d been putting off visiting for so long, so many things I wanted to do instead – parties, shopping, weekends with friends. I’d spoken on the phone every week, as normal, and had sensed nothing out of place. But I might have noticed something if I’d seen her. The guilt welled up and mingled with the pain of losing her. I was almost grateful for all the weeping I’d done earlier that day; I was able to push it away. My mother did not cope well with emotions.

‘Oh well you still can, there’s lots needs doing. If you came up, your father and I could maybe fit in a couple of days in London, there’s a Mondrian exhibition at the Tate …’

This showed how important both Nons and I were in my parents’ lives. I was a place-filler, someone who could handle an inconvenient death for them while they looked at coloured squares. I was so used to it, I hardly felt the anger any more.

‘When’s the funeral?’

‘Oh darling, we haven’t had a chance to think about that, we’ve been too busy cancelling bookings and rearranging things. Perhaps it’s something you can help with when you come up?’

‘But I won’t be there until the weekend, I won’t be able to sort anything out on a Saturday, it will all be shut.’

‘Nonsense, these places are open twenty four hours these days. Or they should be.’

My mother’s answer to everything. If it wasn’t how she wanted it, well it should be, and she was just going to sit back until someone made it happen for her.

‘Oh, JuJu, I’ve got to go, your father’s having trouble with the online booking service. Give me a tinkle tomorrow, tell me what you want to do. Maybe you could phone some people, darling?’

She disconnected, and I felt the dull ache of the old rage fluttering up from the past. I let it flit around for a bit, but in the end it settled back down where it belonged. My mother was never going to change, she was always going to be concerned only with her own enjoyment, and she was never going to think of me as anything other than an inconvenience or a trophy, depending on whether I was disappointing her, or she was boasting about me.

My parents had me after my two older sisters had grown up and gone to university. I was not planned; I knew this at a very early age. I stopped them travelling the world, as they had intended to do after Sophie and Debra left home, until Auntie Nons, my mother’s unmarried sister, offered to look after me for a year when I was four, while they got it out of their systems. Except they never got it out of their systems, and Auntie Nons carried on looking after me, year after year, until I left to go to university myself. My parents were well into their seventies now, but showed no signs of ending their continuing search for that elusive unturned stone in some far off land.

Nons had fed and clothed me, cleaned my grazed knees, wiped my tears, waved me off to my first day of school, mopped me up after my first broken heart, persuaded me not to get a skull tattoo on my left buttock, taught me to drive, taught me to drink, and loved me as much as if I’d been her own child. Probably more.

Nons listened to me as I, at first, told her how my parents were going to come back and we were all going to live together in a huge house, and then as I downscaled my dreams to spending holidays with them by the sea and finally stopped mentioning them at all, as their gifts and postcards became less and less frequent. She never judged them, I never heard her say a bad word about my parents, even when I screamed at her and called her all the names under the sun for not being my mother.

My sisters hardly knew me; I had arrived when they were off discovering their own newly parent-free world, and a baby sister had not had nearly the same appeal as grown-up university life. Once I lived with Nons, I got the odd birthday card when they remembered, but hardly saw them and didn’t know them as people, just as names and faded photographs. They both lived abroad now, Debra in France and Sophie in Switzerland, and my parents used their houses as bases from which to plan their almost continuous World Tour.

I sat, numb, contemplating life without Nons. I should call William, he would be devastated, but I couldn’t face it right now. I couldn’t face talking to anyone, not even Evie, who would know just what to say to make everything alright. If I talked to anyone I was going to cry again, and I didn’t have the strength for that. I just about had the energy to make myself a sandwich and eat it, washing it down with a large glass of Pinot Grigiot, before I stumbled into bed, where, head full of Nons and how much I missed her, I cried myself to sleep.

Matt

I nearly fell back into the dark pit, but maybe some of the ‘not leaving you alone’ bollocks had permeated into my psyche, because the thought of Dec prising all of this out of me in some kind of all night intervention marathon made me realise I was just going to have to sort it myself. I was going to have to go back to square one in the ‘sorting my shit out’ plan, and start again. It was going to be hard to change. Harder, even, because I couldn’t let them at work know that Matt the Lad had altered his MO. I didn’t even know what I’d altered it to. I was still going to go out, get wrecked. Maybe I had to appear more wrecked than I was in order to stay in control of things. Shit, I couldn’t even stay in control of things when I was stone cold sober, as I had just proven. I had no hope. But I had to try. I had to believe there was no such thing as not being able to stop. I was going to make it true. I was going to change. This conclusion took me all of the rest of the day to come to, and I spent a sleepless night with everything still going round my head.

Julia

Oblivion felt good. I clung on to it as something tried to pull me out, something insistent and piercing. I wrapped myself up in the darkness, but the pull continued and eventually I surfaced, gasping, hearing the buzzing of the alarm clock and remembering it all.

Before I could dwell too much, I forced myself to go over my strategy for work today, pulling on my cold and distant persona as shield and armour to get me through, pushing unwanted thoughts about both Nons and Matt Scott as far to the back of my mind as they would go. I didn’t want distractions today, I had a lot to do.

I got out of bed and forced myself through my morning routine, propelling myself ever closer to the moment I was going to have to leave my sanctuary and face it all.

I breathed deeply all the way to work in my car, forcing myself to relax. Once I had seen him and got the first contact over with, I would feel calmer, I knew I would. That first contact wouldn’t be immediate, though.

Matt Scott worked part time, and usually rolled up half way through the morning, with bags of doughnuts and cups of coffee for his team. Part one of my strategy was to arrive early at the office, so I could leave early and reduce the amount of potential time in the vicinity of Matt Scott to a minimum.

I pulled up in the car park, the first car in the GreenScreen spaces. I unlocked the door and flicked all the lights on, illuminating the reception desk at the bottom and the stairwell as I walked up. Unlocking and walking through the door at the top of the stairs, I breathed in the tranquility. It wouldn’t last long; as soon as the first person arrived and started boiling the kettle, it would cease to be my space, but that was why I loved getting in first. For the first five, ten, occasionally twenty minutes of the day, it felt like mine, and that oasis helped me through. Today my oasis only lasted until I walked to my office, as I heard the door open behind me and voices filled up the silence.

‘Yeah, just walked out, he ran after her, neither of them came back – oh.’

The gossip stopped as soon as I was spotted taking my coat off, but there was no greeting, just a drive-by staring, which I shot back at them with interest, as they hurried past, bursting into giggles as they disappeared into the kitchen, from where I could hear their voices but not their words.

I turned on my computer and reached for the file I needed for this morning’s planning meeting. Yesterday’s hi-jacking of the Cullen report by Matt Scott’s team meant we would have to rethink our priorities, and I wanted to be clear about where I saw us heading before we were asked to take on anything else.

After organising my paperwork, I ventured into the kitchen for coffee. There was a small group of people in there, a couple from my team, one or two from Matt’s and some admin staff. The chatter stopped as I entered and people looked down into their coffee cups. Lexi, the receptionist, was the first to speak.

‘Alright, Julia?’

‘Yes, thank you.’

‘What have you done to your hand?’

‘I scratched it.’

I didn’t volunteer any further information, and Lexi didn’t quite have the nerve to push for more.

‘Oh. There were some messages for you yesterday afternoon. I put them in your tray.’

‘Yes, I saw them, thank you.’

‘Botley’s were trying all afternoon, I didn’t know where you were, I said you’d ring them first thing, although I didn’t really know if you were coming in or not –’

‘Thank you, Lexi, I’ll ring them.’

I knew they thought I was a supercilious cow, I encouraged that opinion to maintain some distance, but it was hard, on that morning, to have them all looking at me and wishing I wasn’t there, so they could get on with speculating. So I finished making my coffee and left, hearing ‘sniffy bitch’ and the resulting laughter as I walked back to my office.

The morning wore on. The meetings and project work I was doing filled my head and pushed everything else aside, which was a relief, although I found myself looking up every time the door opened, expecting it to be Matt, dreading it but wishing he would hurry up and get here so it would be over with, everyone would know, I could start to get on with it.

But Matt didn’t appear. It wasn’t that unusual for him to pitch up just before lunchtime, spend half an hour laughing and joking with everyone and then take them all off for a team lunch somewhere. But today, he didn’t appear at all. I tried to listen out for snippets of conversation that might give me a clue as to when he was expected, but in the end my anxiety got the better of me, and I went to see Phil.

Matt

The next morning, work loomed, and I just couldn’t face Jules that day. I hadn’t come up with anything I could say to her and I didn’t think I’d be able to look her in the eye. She’d made it clear what her opinion of me was, even before the disaster that was yesterday, and now it was going to be even lower. There were no words of apology I would be able to offer that would mean anything, but I certainly wasn’t going to be able to attempt any words of any description in front of the assembled gossip-mongers at GreenScreen. So I called in sick again and spent another miserable day trying to decide what to do about Julia.

Julia

‘Julia. Come in.’

‘I need to hand some things over to Matt, is he going to be in today?’

‘I believe he’s rung in sick. Can’t you do it with Joe?’

My heart sank. I would have to delay the ‘getting it over with’ part of my strategy.

‘I suppose I could. It just seemed more efficient to go straight to Matt so I know he’s got all the information he needs.’

Phil chuckled to himself.

‘You and your efficiency, Julia. I’m glad to see you came in today. Is everything alright? You left in a bit of a hurry yesterday.’

‘I’m fine, thank you.’

‘There were quite a few clients trying to get hold of you.’

‘I’ve contacted most of them. I’ll stay later today to make up my hours.’

Now I knew Matt wasn’t going to be in, I was happy to be there as long as it took to catch up with what I’d missed out on yesterday.

‘Don’t worry about it, Julia. You know, er, you can talk to me about anything, if there’s anything worrying you, don’t you?’

‘There’s nothing, thank you. Although, it’s possible I may need a day off in the next couple of weeks for a family funeral.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, someone close?’

Yes, as close as it was possible to be without her being your own mother.

‘My aunt.’

‘Oh.’

To Phil, an aunt wasn’t really tragic news and he dismissed it as something that would take me away from the office for a day, but shouldn’t impact any further on my work. I was grateful that I wasn’t going to have to endure sympathy and entreaties to take some personal time. What I needed was impersonal time.

‘Yes, of course, just let Lexi know when you’ll be off. Now, I’ve had some thoughts about how you might re-jig your team’s workload …’

Matt

It was partly the thought of what she might have heard about me on the rumour mill that made me realise I was going to have to go and see her. We’d had unprotected sex – shit, I never had unprotected sex, I was always so careful, again with the what the fuck had I been thinking – and she needed to know it was OK, at least from the nasty diseases point of view.

I didn’t know where Jules lived, so I called Phil and begged him to give me her address, saying I needed to apologise about the Cullen fiasco. He agreed in the end, after I reminded him it was mostly his fault anyway and I was saving his arse too.

Julia

The rest of the day was filled with phone calls, meetings and computer work as I tried to catch up with the things I’d missed yesterday afternoon. By the time I looked at the clock, wondering if it was time to go home yet, I was virtually the only one left. Phil came past my door, coat over his arm.

‘You off soon, Julia?’

‘Yes, just finishing up.’

‘You alright locking up?’

‘Fine.’

And so I had my oasis back. With everyone gone, my shoulders untensed, I breathed more deeply and I relaxed. I enjoyed it for as long as I could, and then the thought of the phone calls I was going to have to make when I got home started intruding on the peace. Sighing, I put my coat on, picked up my bag and left.

Back home, having eaten, and started a new bottle of wine, I reviewed the day. It could have been worse. I had managed to make up for the time I lost yesterday afternoon, and although I was still dreading Matt’s return and the embarrassment I was going to face when everyone knew, I had weathered the storm of gossip this morning, and it had diminished to an apathetic drizzle by the afternoon.

I had spoken to Phil about my disappointment at having the Cullen report taken away from my team, he had listened to my point of view and agreed to do things differently another time. I was now home, enjoying a good glass of red, and feeling more relaxed. It was time to start calling some people. William was top of my list.

Matt

I parked in the next street and walked to Julia’s flat. I found her name on the bell outside, but there was no answer when I pressed it. I looked up at the building, but had no idea which windows would be hers, so couldn’t tell if she was in or not. I pressed the bell again, for longer.

‘Yes.’

I’d lucked out; she’d answered.

‘Julia, it’s Matt.’

Julia

Oh shit. How on earth did he know where I lived? I didn’t give my address out to anyone at work. What did he want? He wasn’t coming up.

‘Go away.’

I put the handset down and returned to my seat on the sofa, heart pounding and thoughts whirling. Then I got up and looked out of the front window, through the voile curtains, and saw him stand back from the door and look up at the building.

Matt

I nearly gave up, but as I looked around, an old lady started to walk up the steps towards me. I approached her, my best ‘I’m not a serial killer’ smile on my face.

‘Hi, do you live here?’

She was a worryingly trusting old lady, because she smiled back and answered.

‘Yes I do.’

‘I don’t suppose you could let me in could you? I’ve just buzzed Julia in flat five and I think there’s something wrong with her buzzer. I could hardly hear her, and the door won’t open.’

‘Oh dear, well, yes I suppose I could. These buzzers are a bit contrary sometimes. She’s a nice girl, your Julia.’

Thanking the cosmic supplier of contrary buzzers, I compounded the half truth that was backing up my story.

‘Yeah, she is, lucky me.’

I flashed her another ‘I’m harmless’ smile, and she opened the door for me.

Julia

To my horror, I saw Mrs Custance from 2B walk up the pavement towards him, keys in hand. I saw Matt talk to her, while she nodded and smiled and fell for his sweet talk, and let him in. Shit, shit, shit.

Matt

I let the old lady go ahead of me, partly because I’m polite like that, and partly because I didn’t want her to realise I wasn’t sure where Julia’s flat was. I found flat five on the second floor, and knocked on the door, speaking without waiting for her to open the door. She probably wasn’t going to anyway, so I might as well start straight away.

Julia

Well he wasn’t coming in. He could just stay out there and do or say whatever he had come to do or say, he could – a knock on the door startled me.

‘Julia, please, I need to talk to you.’

Well he could need all he wanted, I was not even going to answer him, let alone open the door.

Matt

There was no answer, no sound from behind the door that indicated she was at home. If she hadn’t answered her buzzer a few moments ago, I wouldn’t have believed she was actually there.

Julia

A long pause, during which I went to the peep hole to see if he had gone. The sight of his face, close up and distorted by the fish-eye lens, made me jump, and my hand came up involuntarily to ward him off, hitting the door. He must have heard.

Matt

I stood close to the door, as close as I could without putting my ear to it and listening, so that I could hear any small sounds of movement. There was a sudden bang on the door from the inside. She was right there, probably looking through the peephole to see if I’d gone or not. I took my chance.

‘Julia? Please let me in, I just want to say something, I’m not going to stay, I just need to do this.’

Julia

‘I’m not interested in what you need. Go away.’

So much for not even answering him.

Matt

She’d answered me. Result. I ploughed on with my plan.

‘It’s not just what I need, you need it too. You need to hear this. I can say it through the door if you want, but I’m not sure you want all your neighbours hearing about my STDs right n –’

She’d opened the door and pulled me inside before I’d finished the sentence. She slammed the door shut and glared at me, dark eyes flashing angry fire. I tried to look contrite; the STD thing was pretty shabby of me, but also true.

Julia

I’d expected a smirk on his face, triumphant that his scheme had worked, but he actually looked contrite. On closer inspection, he also looked pale and haggard.

‘Sorry, Julia, that was a bloody cheap trick. Like I said, I won’t keep you long, and I actually do want to tell you about my STDs. Or lack of them.’

As he was standing there, I was having flashbacks to yesterday afternoon in his flat – the kissing and the nakedness and the heat. My face was burning. I couldn’t speak.

Matt

She looked tired and pale. I hoped she hadn’t had as shit a time as I had over the last day or so. As I stood there, looking at her, her face started to redden and she looked really uncomfortable.

‘Are you OK?’

She nodded, curtly, and her pallor slowly returned, although she continued to look uncomfortable. OK then, let’s get on with this.

Julia

If by OK, he meant unable for the moment to think about anything other than his hands on me, my mouth on his, then yes, I was absolutely fine. Then he spoke again and broke the spell.

‘Well, anyway, we had unprotected sex yesterday.’

I snorted derisively. Matt took a breath and started in on a long explanation.

‘Yeah, well, I guess you were there. Sorry, I’ve been thinking about it all fucking day, I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t come to work, I couldn’t face you, I feel so bad about it, anyway, I just want to put your mind at rest. I know there are some wild stories floating around about me, some of them are true, some of them are, shall we say, exaggerated. I’ve heard the one about all the different things you can catch if you let Matt Scott’s dick within a mile of you. That’s one of the exaggerations. Actually, it’s more than that, it’s a tale put out there by a delightful lady by the name of Petra who was a little disappointed that I didn’t propose marriage after a night of passion, and decided to try to spoil my chances of any further nights of passion with any further delightful ladies by spreading malicious rumours. Worked for a while, too. But anyway, sorry, neither here nor there. It’s not true, not any of it. I’ve been thoroughly and regularly tested for any nasty diseases, infections, crawling things or viruses and my nether regions have been pronounced fit for use by all and sundry.’

Matt

I hoped I’d hit the right note of openness, reassurance and responsibility. It soon appeared I had failed, on all three counts.

‘Oh well that’s alright then.’

I could do sarcasm, but Julia’s tone of voice told me I was a novice when it came to caustic.

Julia

I’d found my voice, my full-blown, sarcastic, now-I’ve-really-had-it-with-you voice. This man had to be the most self-involved, egotistical, arrogant representative of his gender I had ever encountered. Flashbacks of naked, entwined bodies notwithstanding.

‘What?’

‘That’s all it is to you, isn’t it? Phew, I didn’t give her the clap, aren’t I a gent. Oh, I suppose you’re wondering if you might have impregnated me too? Well breathe easy, Matt, I’m on the pill. Another lucky escape, eh.’

Matt

‘No, that’s not what –’

Well it kind of was, but there’s no way I would have asked, and she’d cut me off again.

‘As long as your dick’s alright to be used by ‘all and sundry’, we can sleep in our beds, knowing Matt Scott’s still out there sticking it to some ‘delightful lady’ he has no intention of ever seeing again.’

I was really getting it with both barrels, and it was completely deserved. If only she knew how much of a champion she was being for all the other women I’d treated like shit. But I was still trying to explain.

‘Julia, please –’

‘Do you know what my biggest worry is about having had sex with you? Not what filthy diseases I may have been at risk of picking up, but whether I was actually out of my fucking mind. Yes there are plenty of wild stories about you, your mother must be so proud, but they don’t tell me about the health of your genitals. They tell me what a complete arsehole you are, what a taker you are, how little you give back, and I can’t believe I was stupid enough – no, worse than stupid, I must have been completely certifiable – to have allowed it to happen. Well you can go now, there’s not much I can do about it, it’s happened, you can tell your little gang, you can all have a good laugh, Hot Scott melted the Ice Queen, then maybe we can all get on with our lives and forget it ever happened.’

‘No!’

All the other stuff, it was pretty much what I thought. In her eyes I was a low-life, and fair enough; in my own eyes I was a low-life. But she thought I’d done it so I could score points at work, she honestly thought I’d go in and brag about it, and I had to put her right on that.

Julia

He actually looked appalled, and had gone a few shades paler.

‘I would never –’

‘But you already did, we already did. It’s too late.’

‘No, I mean, I haven’t told, I would never tell, anyone. I told you yesterday, I’m not the one who’s done any of the telling –’

‘So it’s not going to be all over the office tomorrow, how I shagged Julia Marran? Don’t make me laugh.’

Matt

Oh shit, she really thought I would. I had to convince her. Whatever else she thought of me, the sleeping around, partying hard bollocks, she had to know I wouldn’t bring it to work. I was never the one who spilt the beans, it was always someone else. I just chose to neither confirm nor deny things. Arsehole that I, assuredly, was.

‘No! Julia, please believe me. I feel fucking terrible that I let it happen in the first place, you were really vulnerable, really upset, I should have had more fucking self-control. The last thing I want to do is make it worse by telling anyone about it. I know I come across as a bit of an annoying bell-end sometimes, but is that really what you think of me?’

The look on her face, full of scorn and distaste, confirmed it. I looked down and muttered to myself.

‘Shit, nice one Matt.’

Julia

Then he lifted his head, and he actually looked miserable. In spite of myself, I felt a bit sorry for him. If this conversation had happened at work, there was no way I would have allowed him any sympathy at all, but we were in my home, where I was Jules, who had feelings and couldn’t hide behind ice walls all the time. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Matt

Then I looked up, miserably, wondering if there was any way I could salvage anything from this, or if I should just cut my losses and let her get on with her evening.

‘So you’re not going to tell anyone?’

Oh, this suddenly sounded more promising. Had I somehow managed to convince her, then? I shook my head.

‘No.’

‘So, if I hear even a hint from someone else about what happened yesterday –’

‘Then you must have told them. I promise you, Julia. I’ve spent all day at home, just thinking about it, thinking about the sort of person I am, I don’t like it, I don’t like being two different people just to get a job done, I don’t like what it’s done to me –’

‘What do you mean, two different people?’

‘This act I put on at work, fun Matt, man-of-the-people Matt, Matt the Lad. What did you call me? Hot Scott. Yeah, heard that one too. Oh, I won’t say some of it’s not me, or that I haven’t enjoyed a lot of it, but it’s over the top, an act, it’s how I get people to do what I want them to, gel as a team, relax at work so it doesn’t seem like work.’

‘But … that’s what I do.’

It burst out of her in a petulant wail, as if I’d taken her sweets.

‘Yeah I know, Julia Marran, Ice Queen, super bitch, don’t cross her, do exactly what she says or she’ll spear you with some frosty sarcasm. I know you’re not really like that. We’re kind of the same, you and me. Except completely and absolutely opposite to each other. I bet if we compared notes we’d have fucking tons in common – oh, know what, we do, don’t we. Books, films, art, we talked about it all in The Long Legged Frog.’

Julia

That seemed so long ago, but he was right, we had talked about a lot of different things, and I had been struck by how similar our tastes and opinions were. And yesterday at his flat, I had been expecting an extension of – what had he called it? – Matt the Lad, but had seen a glimpse of someone with style and flair, and who may be a little more grown up than I’d given him credit for.

‘I guess we did.’

Matt

She seemed, somewhat miraculously, to be warming up to me a little. I decided to make the most of it.

‘I had a really nice time that evening, getting to know you a bit, being myself a bit.’

I wanted to try to push home my advantage, salvage what I could of this mess. Even if I could just get her to stop hating me, see me as someone different, just for a while …

‘Mm.’ She nodded.

‘But I guess now I’ve fucked it all up and confirmed what a ‘taker’ I am. I’m so sorry, Julia. I don’t know if it means anything, but I really like you. Yesterday, I know what it must have seemed like, a bit out of the blue, but I’ve actually … well I suppose it doesn’t matter now.’

What was the point in telling her I’d had a thing for her? She’d made it pretty clear what she thought about me.

Julia

I wanted him to go on. He was starting to intrigue me. Yes, it was Matt Scott standing in my flat, a place nobody from work ever came to disrupt the equilibrium, but I was starting to see a different side to him, a side that interested me, a side that wasn’t self-involved, egotistical or arrogant.

‘Let’s say it matters. You’ve actually what?’

He looked at me, a slight frown above his eyes, wondering where I was going with that. I could see him thinking about whether it was worth it to finish his sentence, and deciding it might be. He took a deep breath, as if to steel himself against something.

Matt

What was she up to? Was this some kind of game where she gets a confession out of me and then slaps me down even harder? Oh well, she had earned it I suppose. I took a deep breath, to prepare myself for what might be coming.

‘OK then. I’ve actually been trying to pluck up the courage to ask you out. Since before the Long Legged Frog, but definitely after.’

Julia

‘What? But, but … me?’

I spluttered. I was so far removed from the women Matt was known for asking out, the dizzy blonde brigade, that I couldn’t quite take it in.

Matt

It was so cute, her seeming to think she wasn’t my type or something, I almost laughed. Like I had a type. Two lumpy bits in front? My type, simple as.

‘You’re fucking hot, Julia Marran. And you’re interesting. And, as I said, we’re the same in a way, I wanted to explore that a bit. Get to know you without all the ‘big act’ crap getting in the way for both of us. But you’re bloody scary, and I wasn’t sure what you’d say. Well, actually I was perfectly sure what you’d say, and I didn’t really want to hear it.’

I was being more bloody open and honest than I’d been in a long time, with anyone. It was true, she interested me, she attracted me, she intrigued me. And now she knew, and she could do with it what she would. It was almost as if I trusted her with an important part of me, and knew she would respect it. It felt right to be open with her, which should have felt wrong and had me panicking, but instead had me sharing. Bloody hell.

Julia

This was not possible. Nobody knew both sides of me, there wasn’t anyone who crossed over between the two worlds I inhabited. And now it was out of the bag, and I wondered how long it would be before it ruined everything.

‘Julia, I … yesterday was a mistake. Things got out of hand in a way I’m ashamed of –’

‘Weren’t there two of us in the room?’

Matt

Well of course there were, I knew that, but I also knew which one of us had cried several times, and then turned murderously violent, and then clung to me in some kind of daze.

‘Only one of us was thinking straight. I shouldn’t have –’

Julia

‘I was thinking straight. I know I was upset, I’d just thrown a huge wobbler, lots of stuff had gone on beforehand, but I knew exactly what I was doing. I’m not sure I could explain any of it, but if I’d wanted to I could have stopped it.’

I was letting him off the hook. Part of me had enjoyed seeing him miserable and beating himself up about it, but a larger part thought enough misery had already been caused, and he’d been pretty honest with me about a lot of things.

Matt

What was this? Was she letting me off the hook? I couldn’t quite believe it. She should be screaming at me about what a bastard I was, but she was saying she’d been in her right mind and had been up for it. Holy shit.

‘So … you wanted it too?’

‘At that moment, yes. I didn’t think about it, hadn’t planned it or ever even considered it, except in an ‘over my dead body’ kind of way. I liked the way you made me feel and I needed more. At that moment.’

‘Wow, Julia.’

The word that I’d been pushing out of my mind, the one that accused me, that put me in serious forever shit, the one I couldn’t even contemplate, I started to feel I could let it go. I’d been trying not to imagine police sirens and swabs and headlines and lots of other terrifying scenarios, but they had all been there, potentially, if I really had forced myself on her. But if I hadn’t, if she’d been willing … oh fuck, I’d still done a terrible thing, but maybe not quite as terrible as I hadn’t been completely able to admit to myself.

‘I don’t know what that means for now. You … you’re starting to fascinate me. You’re not what I thought you were. But there’s a lot of other stuff. I’m like I am at work for a reason. The same way you are, I guess. None of that can change, whatever we’ve found out about each other just now – if you tell anyone I’ll call you a liar.’

‘Wow, Julia.’

And not only had she been willing then, but it sounded like she was saying she might not be averse to getting to know me a bit better now.

‘Yes, you said.’

‘So are you saying … we could … what?’

I saw her thinking about it. I was hanging on her every word. It wasn’t going to be ‘let’s be fuck buddies’ or ‘marry me’ or anything easily definable in-between I was staying open to things; this evening had already thrown more pleasant surprises my way than I had been prepared for.

Julia

I considered it. I wasn’t going to make any promises. But the thought of getting to know Matt, the real Matt, was becoming more intriguing by the minute.

‘I’m saying we could get to know each other, who we really are away from work, and see if we like each other. That’s it. At work, things are exactly as they always were.’

Matt

And that was about as perfect for me as it was likely to get. No strings, nothing to make excuses about.

‘Wow, Julia.’

‘Stop saying that, you sound like an illiterate idiot. I’ll start regretting all this in a minute.’

‘No you won’t, because the thought of the hot sex will keep you going. It was fucking hot, wasn’t it?’

I just couldn’t resist mentioning it now, now I knew she wasn’t totally repulsed by the memory, now I knew it had been a two way thing. Her cheeks turned red again.

Julia

An unbidden recollection of Matt’s naked body pounding into mine turned my cheeks scarlet.

‘You blush! Oh you’re so cute. The Ice Queen blusheth.’

I glared at him from behind my crimson cheeks.

Matt

‘Oh don’t be like that. You want to get to know the real me? Well the real me is a bit of a tease. The real you had better bloody well get used to it. How about we seal our new deal? What’s that pub like down the end of your road? The Whispering Kettle or something? Fancy a pint?’

I realised I was pushing my luck, but the rush of relief I’d felt at the sudden turnaround had made me bold.

‘Matt, I think we’ve done enough to be going on with for one night, don’t you? Let’s start another night. I’ve got a lot to do this evening, and a lot to think about now.’

I hadn’t really expected anything more, but it was a bit disappointing nonetheless.

‘OK, fair enough. How about a snog before I go then?’

I flashed her a cheeky grin, knowing it was way beyond likely.

Julia

He was grinning cheekily, eyes and mouth crinkling. He would have, if I’d agreed, but he wasn’t expecting me to agree.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Hug?’

It appealed.

Matt

I saw her hesitate and instantly closed the distance between us, wrapping my arms around her. She pulled me closer. It was just like yesterday, before it all went wrong. She melted into me and I loved how she felt in my arms, like she belonged there. I pushed that thought away. No one belonged there, I was my own person, I didn’t do belonging. But it felt nice, I liked it. There you are, I could admit that without freaking out, and after a short time I kissed the top of her head.

Julia

It was just like yesterday, I felt safe and held and it was so comforting. So much like yesterday that after a short time I felt him kiss the top of my head. But I had to stop it before it happened all over again. I moved my arms and pushed him gently away, looking up into his actually quite spectacular grey eyes.

‘Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow. At work. Me Ice Queen, you Lord of the Lads.’

Matt

‘Ha ha. Alright then, I’ll go. But can I see you tomorrow, after work?’

I’ve always been of the ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ persuasion.

‘Yes.’

And this time I got.

‘Text me during the day. Have you got my number?’

‘I don’t use my mobile at work.’

‘What, never?’

I spent half my working life messaging and using social media, some of it work, some of it not. I wouldn’t know what to do without my mobile in my hand.

‘Not on purpose.’

‘Then it’s going to have to be The Rustling Saucepan or whatever the fuck it’s called. I bet you’re a regular.’

I’d walked past it on my way from my car to her flat. It was as good a place as any.

‘They do a good Cabernet Sauvignon. And it’s The Whistling Panhandler. And it’s a wine bar.’

‘I knew it. Regular. OK, there. Eight? Seven?’

‘Eight thirty.’

‘Date. Yes, I’ve got a date with bloody Julia Marran, re-fucking-sult.’

Julia

The triumphant look on his face almost made me change my mind, as I had a sudden anxiety that this was all still some kind of game for him. Well, maybe it was, maybe it was for both of us – certainly a little voice I was trying to ignore was wondering if this was just a way of distracting myself from Nons. We’d have to see if either of us ended up on the winning side.

Matt

I nearly blew it then, Matt the Lad resurfacing just as she was starting to trust me. Then I saw her ignore it, and breathed a bit easier. I made sure we exchanged mobile numbers, even if she wasn’t going to use hers at work, then I left, mentally breathless, feeling tons better, still resolved to follow my not being a bastard plan, as well as my ‘never again get so completely carried away that I’m not sure if I’ve forced myself on someone’ plan, but nonetheless excited about developments with Jules.

48. She’s lost control

In which things escalate rather quickly.

Matt

I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Jules for weeks. She was even less approachable than usual, and our teams were focussed on entirely different projects.

Then Phil stuck his managerial oar in and asked my team to take over one of her team’s accounts. Julia’s team were getting behind, and my team had just finished a project, so had a bit of time to give, and Phil decided to mix things up. This was unheard of – taking another team’s account was tantamount to throwing down a leather gauntlet and suggesting pistols at dawn. Jules was going to have a shit fit. I tried to dissuade Phil, but he kept quoting stats and deadlines at me, and in the end he just pulled rank, and I had no choice.

Julia

I never used my personal mobile phone when I was at work; I didn’t want any part of my private life interfering with my well constructed work cocoon. But that day I had forgotten to switch it off, as I sometimes did if I’d been charging it, and heard it announce a text in my bag. Tutting to myself, I reached for the phone to turn it to silent, and caught sight of the text on the screen. I saw the name ‘Nons’ and despite my rules, had to look. It was a typically bald informational statement from my mother.

‘Hello JuJu darling. Sorry to inform you Nons died yesterday. Just about to board. Will ring you tonight at 7pm.’

No ‘love Mum’, no ‘hope you’re OK’, but I would have been astounded if there had been. I stared at the message in disbelief. Nons. My aunt. She’d brought me up while my parents gallivanted round the world. She was my home, my rock. No. Appalled at myself, I felt tears well up in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. My lips trembled. No.

Matt

I procrastinated like mad, and didn’t talk to Jules about the account for a while, trying several different ways to introduce the subject, and then I walked past her office, looked in and saw her crying. Shit. Jules, Julia Marran, the fucking Ice Queen, was bloody crying. Phil must have gone off-piste, as he tended to sometimes, and told her. I did not do women crying, due to the previously mentioned fuckwittedness that came out of my mouth on such occasions. But this felt like partly my fault, so I took a deep breath.

‘Everything alright?’

Julia

Matt Scott’s voice filtered through my distress. Shit, he was the last person I wanted to see me like this.

‘Jules?’

I looked up to see him closing the door behind him, reaching for some tissues out of a box on my desk, handing them to me, crouching next to my chair with concern on his face.

‘It’s Julia.’

Matt

Shit, I’d forgotten about that, it had just slipped out. I looked down for a second.

‘Sorry. Julia. You just look like a Jules to me. What the fuck’s the matter?’

She avoided my eyes, sniffing back the tears, blinking hard and shaking her head.

Julia

I tried to pull myself together, sniffing back the tears, thinking of other things. I didn’t trust myself to speak for a while, so I just shook my head and remained silent. I needed to think – I wanted to call my mother, but I couldn’t do that at work, I had my own rules about using my personal mobile at work, and besides, I didn’t want to be overheard. Before I could even start to decide what to do, Matt spoke again.

Matt

‘Is it Phil? Has he said something about the Cullen report?’

She looked at me then, frowning.

‘No, what about the Cullen report?’

Oh bollocks. She wasn’t upset about that. Well not yet, anyway.

‘Oh, er, shit, well nothing then. Fuck. Had to open my big mouth.’

Julia’s demeanour changed, as if she’d completely forgotten she’d been upset just moments before. She wasn’t going to let it go.

Julia

His faux pas was actually helping me focus back on work and stop my tears. I was going to have to do something about my mother’s text soon, contact her, but right now I was at work, and Matt Scott was in my office having seen me crying. And he’d said something about a project my team was working on.

‘What about the Cullen report?’

I pushed my chair away from him, and he stood up, putting his hands out in front of him in a conciliatory gesture.

Matt

Maybe I should have just told her then, but I was a bigger coward than I realised, and I didn’t want a big confrontation, so I just tried to bullshit my way out of it.

‘Look, forget I said anything, sorry Jule – er – Julia, you looked upset and I just thought … just forget it. Shit.’

I turned round and walked out of the office, closing the door behind me.

Julia

I couldn’t leave it like that; if I did, I was going to have to deal with the news I’d just received, so I wiped my face and went in search of Phil, the manager of all the teams, who informed me that Matt’s team was going to be taking responsibility for the Cullen report, despite the weeks of work my team had already put into it. He wouldn’t listen to my arguments and told me to hand over all the research and data we had immediately.

I was furious. I rarely showed my emotions in the office (hence The Ice Queen), but today everybody knew I was seriously pissed off. I slammed my door shut and started gathering the information together with loud bangs and the odd shouted insult. It helped enormously in enabling me to direct my emotions at the files I was throwing into a box rather than at the more troubling other things that were filling my head.

Matt

Well, of course, she went to Phil and got the whole story, and she had the predicted shit fit, shut herself in her office and started chucking things around, swearing loudly. Phil, the bastard, I really don’t know what he was up to, he must have had some kind of death wish on my behalf, but he insisted I went and got all the files from her. Everyone could hear her doing violence to things, and I thought it was particularly unfair to be made to interrupt, but there we had it. I was a minion when all was said and done.

I tapped softly on the door, in the partial hope that she wouldn’t hear. She didn’t answer, but I knew I wasn’t really going to get away with that one, so I tapped louder. Still no answer, so I just opened the door. I tried to look as apologetic as I could, but I was under no illusions that I was in for an earful.

Julia

‘Piss off. You’ve done enough for today.’

He had the decency to hang his head and look embarrassed.

‘Sorry, Julia. Really, I’m sorry, I thought you must know, shit, what a fucking balls-up. Phil wanted me to come and get the stuff, but it can wait.’

‘No, take it, it’s all right here.’

I took the box of papers and thrust it into his arms, pushing him back out of the door as I did so, then I turned round, grabbed my bag and my coat and walked out of the office, not sure where I was going or whether I would be back before the end of the day. As I stamped down the stairs, trying hard not to cry before I got well away from the building, I heard a voice shouting my name.

Matt

She just looked so upset, more upset than I thought could be accounted for by Phil’s shenanigans, and much as I hated crying women, I felt a bit responsible, so I dumped the box on a desk and followed her.

‘Julia, wait.’

If I concentrated really hard, I would remember not to call her Jules.

She didn’t wait. She hurried down the stairs and disappeared through the outer door, so I ran after her, catching up with her just before she crossed the road. I grabbed her arm and pulled her round to face me, more roughly than I meant to because I wanted to make sure she didn’t get away. She angrily pulled her arm out of my grip.

‘What the fuck do you want?’

She was nearly spitting she was so annoyed.

‘Just to see if you’re OK. I feel terrible.’

‘Well I’m not OK. And I’m glad you feel terrible. Just leave me alone.’

Well, she’d done it now. She’d invoked the ‘leave me alone I’m feeling shit’ code, and I was powerless to do anything else. I smiled, probably very irritatingly.

Julia

Something seemed to click behind his eyes and a tiny smile flickered at the corner of his mouth, then disappeared.

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘No, I won’t leave you alone. When you feel as shit as this, you shouldn’t be on your own.’

It sounded almost as if he was reciting the words, and I was astounded to see a grin spread across his face.

‘Come on.’

‘What?’

‘Come with me, I want to show you a secret.’

He grabbed my hand and started to pull me down the street. I was by now completely flummoxed. All thoughts of how I should be behaving and with whom had vanished completely, and having someone telling me what to do was, for the moment, very welcome. I could regain some control in a while, once I had first regained some composure.

Matt

I didn’t think she’d come with me, but she put up less of a fight than I’d imagined she would. At first I thought she was dragging her feet on purpose, and then I realised she was wearing heels, and couldn’t keep up with the pace I’d set. So I slowed down, and she became more compliant, following me quietly.

‘Sorry. We’re nearly there.’

‘Where?’

‘Wait and see.’

I so wanted to see the look on her face when we got there, she was going to be so surprised, it was going to take her mind off whatever it was that had upset her, it was also going to take her mind off the Cullen report, and so I kept a tight hold on her hand and led her through the gates of the churchyard.

Julia

The smug look on his face nearly had me marching back up the street, but Matt had a firm grip on my hand, and in a few more steps he led me through the gates of the churchyard and started picking his way between the gravestones. My heels were struggling with the long grass, so I stopped to take them off.

‘Watch out for the dog shit.’

I sighed.

‘No, you watch out for the dog shit. This is your bloody mystery tour. Any canine faeces I find on the bottom of my feet, I will wipe off on your shirt.’

‘Fair enough. Shit, you’re a hard woman.’

‘Ice Queen, remember.’

‘Yeah. Fuck. Anyway, here we are.’

Matt

When she took her shoes off to, presumably, prevent her from sinking into the grass surrounding the gravestones, I thought it was safe to let go of her hand, and she followed me, grumbling about getting dog shit on her feet, until we had crossed the grass and were standing in front of a tall box hedge which boundaried one edge of the cemetery. She stood and looked at it, unimpressed.

‘It’s a hedge.’

‘No kidding, not much gets past you does it, bugger I thought you’d be more impressed with a bit of greenery…’

As I was speaking, I backed away from her, and then found what I was looking for. This was my pièce de resistance; when Cal had shown me a few months ago I had been stunned, and I’d been dying to try it out on someone else. I stopped talking and took a step to my right, entering the hidden outside anteroom that held a couple of gravestones and a stone bench. She wouldn’t have a clue what had just happened; it would have looked like I’d disappeared.

Julia

As Matt was speaking, he was walking backwards away from me, and as he stopped talking he took a step to his right and – disappeared. Just vanished from sight, as if he’d stepped into the hedge. I stood with my mouth open.

‘Matt?’

Nothing, just the sound of the traffic from the street and leaves rustling in the breeze. I walked along the hedge trying to find the spot where he had disappeared, but it seemed to be continuous. It wasn’t until I was on my way back that I saw it, a cunningly hidden alcove grown into the hedge that was only visible from certain angles. I still might have missed it if I hadn’t seen the toe of Matt’s trainer peeping out at the very bottom edge. I would have loved to have paid him back with a similar joke, but I really wasn’t in the mood, and as I stopped being quite so flustered by the events of the afternoon so far, I was beginning to return to my work persona. The best I could do was spoil his surprise, so I walked into the alcove as nonchalantly as I could manage.

Matt

I’m not quite sure how Cal found out about this hidden room in the graveyard, although if Cal knew about it, then every other person in the city did. Certainly, judging from the amount of discarded shit – empty cans, fag ends, chip wrappers – littering the floor, plenty of people used it, but I had come here quite a few times with Cal, and we’d always been the only ones. We’d sit here and eat crisps and read comics, then go to the park and kick a ball about – see, I wasn’t always a bastard arsehole excellent no-strings lay; sometimes I was cool Uncle Matty. It brought a sense of perspective to life.

But anyway, now I’d shown the trick to Jules, and I really wanted to see what she was doing, but I had to stay where I was. I contented myself with standing at the entrance so I could see her face when she finally found it – I knew she’d work it out, she was smart, but for now, I wanted to enjoy … oh. She walked in as if she’d known it was there all the time, looking as underwhelmed as it was possible to look.

Julia

‘So where’s this big secret then?’

It was worth it for the crestfallen look on his face; it only lasted a second, but I knew I’d taken the wind out of his sails. He still flashed a quick grin and spread his arms wide, introducing me to a small enclosure about three metres square. There was a stone bench along one edge and two neat gravestones along the opposite edge announcing themselves memorials to John and Roberta Chartham who departed this earth 1776 and 1790 respectively. Matt sat on the bench and patted the seat next to him, so I sat, bending down to slip my shoes back on.

Matt

It pretty much took the wind out of my sails, but she was here now, all mine for a short time, I hoped. I flashed her a quick grin and spread my arms in welcome, then sat on the bench and patted the seat next to me. Still surprisingly compliant, she sat down.

‘Welcome to my lunchtime hideaway. I know you all think I go to The Anchor to get shit-faced, but in reality I come here and ponder the nature of the universe in general and the nature of Margie Feller’s boobs in particular – i.e. silicon or real – with a chicken mayo on brown, a packet of Walkers’ salt and vinegar, and a can of Fanta. Any visible shit-facedness upon my return is purely an act designed to distract.’

She raised a sceptical eyebrow.

‘And the beery breath?’

‘Oh come on, that was one fucking time, Phil gave me a bollocking, and anyway I was entertaining a sodding prospective client. What was I supposed to do, drink mineral water?’

Her eyebrow stayed raised.

‘Really? Fucking mineral water? Beside the point. So what do you think?’

I gestured around the hidden alcove.

‘It’s my secret. Nobody else knows about it.’

I tapped the side of my nose and winked, playing it up for all I was worth.

‘How did you find out about it?’

‘My nephew showed me.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nine.’

‘Particularly good at keeping secrets is he?’

‘A bit shit actually – wait, are you trying to say I might not be the only one he’s told? Bloody hell, the little scamp, all this time I thought the empty bottles and fag ends must be his, I nearly told his mum, are you saying they could have been just … anybody’s?’

I held the back of my hand dramatically to my forehead.

‘I feel betrayed.’

I was starting to enjoy myself, almost forgetting that Julia had been upset, twice, and was here because I’d dragged her here.

Julia

Without thinking, I told him something I shouldn’t have.

‘Real.’

‘What?’

‘A secret for a secret. Margie Feller’s boobs. Completely real.’

Matt

Well I hadn’t expected that – either the telling of the fact, or the fact itself. I’d been trying to find out about Margie’s awesome boobs for some time, and people either didn’t know or were sworn to secrecy. I’d not had a chance to investigate for myself, as Margie was married and not interested in extra-marital boob feeling sessions, but in my own mind I had plumped, if you’ll forgive the expression, for fake, because they couldn’t possibly be real. Now I knew. Awesome.

‘Fuuucking hell.’ Oh, but … ‘How do you know? Have you, you know, like, felt them?’

My fascination for the subject temporarily distracted me, and Julia saw something in my expression that brought her back to herself somewhat. She closed down the part of her that had started to share stuff with me, and I couldn’t blame her.

Julia

His expression of totally prurient lecherousness reminded me who I was talking to. I wasn’t just having a chat with a normal person, I was discussing the private matters of a colleague with another colleague whose morals were, to put it bluntly, suspect. I needed to backtrack.

‘No, only one secret traded at a time. And that one’s not for sale. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.’

He sensed the shift.

‘Aw Jules – fuck, sorry, sorry, Julia, it’s just you look so much like a Jules to me – you’ve gone all Ice Queen on me. I thought we were getting somewhere.’

‘Where precisely did you think we were getting?’

‘Well somewhere we could have a laugh, forget you think I’m an uncontrollable shag monster, forget I think you have a ten foot pole lodged in your arse, take your mind off your woes, call a truce?’

I was confused.

‘A truce?’

‘Yeah, you know, cease hostilities, wave a white flag, stop hating each other for, oh I don’t know, perhaps we could make it to half a bloody hour?’

‘Do you hate me?’

For some reason it seemed important that he didn’t.

Matt

Oh bloody hell, I hadn’t really meant that, it was a, I don’t know, metaphor or something.

‘Fuck. No, I didn’t mean that, I said ‘hating each other’ didn’t I. I suppose I meant fighting with each other. Haven’t we been doing that since we both started at GreenScreen: rival teams, rival contracts, all designed to up the stakes and get the most out of both of us?’

She stared at me, and I realised with horror that she hadn’t known. Phil was open with me about pitting our teams against each other to increase competitiveness and up productivity; it had never occurred to me that Julia wasn’t in on it. Oh shit and now she looked like she was going to bloody well cry again. All this had been to stop her crying in the first place, and I’d just made her do it again. Nice one, Matt.

Julia

I stared at him. How naïve had I been? It had never occurred to me, and I felt absolutely stupid. Unbelievably, I felt tears prickle at the corners of my eyes for the second time that day. I’d been sucked into one huge game, a game that Matt was playing and winning, because he knew all the rules, while I wasn’t even aware I was a competitor.

‘Oh shit, Julia, fuck, I’m sorry, fuck, no, don’t do that, here –’

He handed me a rather used looking tissue from his pocket

Matt

‘–sorry, it’s not that fresh. Fuck, I’m such a dickwad. I thought everyone knew how it was? No, no, no, please don’t, I don’t do women crying, oh fuck, come here.’

I put my arm round her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands and started sobbing. This didn’t noticeably diminish the crying, so I put my other arm round the front of her and held her while she cried. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard, holding Julia Marran while she cried her eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

Julia

I felt his arm go round my shoulder as I buried my face in my hands and started sobbing. The news about Nons had just caught up with me, and the fresh revelations from Matt had tipped me over the edge. I wasn’t an emotionally expressive person, and crying made me feel sick, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt Matt’s other arm go round the front of me and he made some attempt to hold me while I wept. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard being held by Matt Scott while I cried my eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

After a while I snivelled myself to a standstill, and stayed hunched over, my face in my hands, feeling awkward and bilious. Matt released his hold, then tried to get me to look up by pushing my chin up and pulling on my hands. I shook my head.

‘Come on Jules, we both know you’re going to look a complete nightmare, all blotchy and dribbly and gloopy and shit, I won’t be shocked. You’ll make your back ache if you sit hunched over like that.’

He pulled on my hands again, and this time I let go, but kept my eyes shut as he gently pulled me so I was sitting back against the seat. I took several deep, shuddering breaths.

‘There you go, that’s better. Hmm, not as bad as I was expecting. Bloody expensive waterproof mascara? You’re worth it!’

I heard him chuckle to himself at his little joke. I opened my eyes and gave him the full Ice Queen special.

‘Hey, you’re back with us, your majesty.’

Matt was turned towards me on the seat, apparently not affected by the icy blast coming from my eyes.

‘Want to tell me? I mean, if all that was just about Phil’s little office politics games and my fucking cack-handed foot-in-mouth explanation, then my heartfelt apologies and by all means keep the tissue –’

‘You really are a self-centred prick aren’t you.’

‘–but if there was something else, I know I’m a self-centred prick, but for the next little while I’m your self-centred prick and I can listen in a way that only self-centred pricks can.’

I took a deep breath.

‘It’s personal.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t mix work and personal.’

‘OK.’

‘What?’

‘Well, I couldn’t help but notice, we’re not at work, and you’ve just been blarting your fucking eyes out all over my shirt sleeve.’

He held up his arm which was damp around the elbow.

‘So, I’m thinking maybe this isn’t work, which makes it kinda personal, which means, spill.’

‘I’m not about to tell you my personal business.’

‘I disagree. I think you are about to, and I will tell you why.’

This was the very type of annoying light banter that usually frustrated the hell out of me at work, as it wasted so much time. However, I had to admit I was currently finding it diverting. I huffed a breath out and crossed my arms over my chest as I waited for the inevitable nonsense.

‘OK. Firstly, I am the soul of discretion. Ah ah, before you give me that ‘fuck off Matt Scott you are the most indiscreet fuckweasel anyone knows’ look, let me just advise you that I have never, ever kissed and told. There has been lots of kissing and lots of telling, and although I will admit to a lot, but not all, of the kissing, I have never done any of the telling. Think back. Where did any of those wild stories originate? The ladies in question or their cohorts? Yes. Me? No. Exactly. I rest my case. Your secret, sordid or otherwise, is safe with me. I’d rather it was a bit sordid, though, to be honest, just to make it worth my while.’

I turned my head away and studied the hedge, hoping his chattering would carry on long enough for my eyes to calm down so I could leave.

‘Secondly, I am a seriously stubborn fucking bastard. I’ve won competitions in it. I never give up. I’m pretty good at getting people to talk to me, even when they have no intention of it. Persistence is my middle name. Had a better ring to it than Robert, so I changed it.’

I turned my head back to look at him.

‘Your middle name is Robert?’

‘Was. Is now Persistence. Suits me, don’t you think?’

I tutted, rolled my eyes and turned back to my perusal of the hedge.

‘Thirdly, and this is the killer, the deal-breaker. If you talk to me I’ll tell you something about me that no-one else at GreenScreen knows – oh apart from Phil, and he knows everything about everyone anyway. If I divulge your secret to any living soul, you have my permission to spread the goss to the waiting ears of Lexi on reception, who will have informed the entire staff team before you’ve even got up the stairs, and the news will greet you, complete with Lexi’s imaginative embellishments, as you walk in the door.’

Intriguing as this was, I had no interest in acquiring personal information about Matt. Much as he seemed to enjoy the machinations of office affairs, I tried to keep myself out of them as much as possible. I was getting a bit tired of his assumption that I had some deep dark secret though.

‘It’s nothing, alright? I just got some bad news. I don’t usually have my phone on, but I picked up a text by mistake and now I wish I hadn’t.’

Matt seemed nonplussed for a second; maybe he thought he was going to have more of a battle with me, maybe he was so caught up in his game that he forgot I had a part to play too. More likely: he was astounded at the thought of not having one’s phone switched on and in one’s hand at all times. He recovered quickly, leaning back on the seat with a smug grin.

‘There you go, that wasn’t so hard was it. And the bad news was ..?’

‘None of your damn business.’

‘Oh Jules, don’t stop now, we were just getting started –’

‘Leave it, Matt, I’m not going to tell you. And stop calling me Jules. Only my friends call me that, and –’

And Nons. Not my immediate family. My family, my mother, father and two sisters, called me JuJu, which I hated. Everyone I loved called me Jules. I didn’t want this self-important – what had he called himself? – uncontrollable shag monster calling me Jules when Nons was never again going to call my name up the stairs in the morning to the smell of frying bacon, or say ‘Hello Jules how’s my favourite niece’ when she rang, or look disappointed and say ‘oh well Jules, there’s still time for you’ when I’d told another potential husband (in her eyes) to take a hike.

It was all too much. I didn’t want to be here with this man who was being far too understanding, far too nice. I wanted him to be the annoying cocky dickhead he usually was so I could rage at him and storm off, and be on my own, which was after all what I had asked for in the first place. I wanted Nons. I wanted her here so much. She was the only one who could possibly help me, and she was the only one who wouldn’t be able to. I almost felt my heart break. Without warning, the tears came again. Large sobs almost stopped me breathing. I couldn’t do this here, with Matt Scott.

I got up and stumbled towards the exit from the arbour. Except I didn’t, because I couldn’t find the way. Blinded by tears and disoriented by distress, I bumped into the side of the hedge twice, scratched my hands trying to scrabble my way out, and then gave up with a howl, slumping to the floor, curling up and giving in to it, no longer caring who was there to witness it. Nons was gone. I’d never felt so alone. Nothing else mattered.

Matt

Jules just fell on the floor and started sobbing, curled in a ball, racked with these horrible noises that sounded like an alien was trying to break out of her throat.

And she just kept saying ‘non’. I couldn’t work it out. It was like she was French or something. Maybe she was, she had a bit of an exotic look about her sometimes, and ‘Marran’, wasn’t that French for chestnut or some such bollocks?

But anyway, whether you do women crying or not, you don’t let someone just lie there on the floor in serious distress without trying to help them in some way. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I sat next to her and stroked her hair and tried to think of comforting things to say that were a bit more meaningful than ‘shh’ and ‘there there’, but didn’t really come up with much.

After what felt a very long time, but when women are crying it always feels like bloody ages to me, she stopped.

Julia

However upset you are, it is impossible to cry forever, although it is possible to cry for a very long time. Long enough to almost forget where you are and who you’re with, until you come back to yourself a little bit and feel a hand stroking your hair away from your face, and hear their voice saying nonsense designed to make you feel better. Then you realise where you are, what’s just happened and, finally, who it is who is stroking your hair.

I sat up and tried to organise myself. My face was puffy and tear-stained. I had a headache and felt sick. I was really thirsty. I tried to run my hands through my hair, but it was tangled and there were bits of leaf and twig stuck in it. I rummaged in my bag for a comb and a mirror. I did anything and everything to avoid looking at Matt, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, watching quietly.

‘I think you need some antiseptic.’

Now he’d spoken, it wasn’t as easy to ignore him. I didn’t have to look at him though.

‘What?’

I continued to paw through my bag, no longer sure what I was looking for.

‘Your hands.’

He took my right hand and turned it palm upwards. I gasped at the bloody mess of scratches.

‘How did I …’

‘You scratched them on the hedge. What the fuck were you trying to do? The exit is over there.’

He pointed to the opposite side of the enclosure. I felt too stupid to even answer him.

‘Come on, Julia, come home with me.’

‘What?’

More stupidity. This man certainly had the ability to make me feel several IQ points below par.

‘I live a couple of streets away. I can clean you up, you need to put some plasters on it or something.’

‘No … I can –’

‘No, you can’t, whatever you were going to argue with me about. You can’t drive like that, you can’t do anything or go anywhere until you’re patched up. I told you I’m a stubborn fucking bastard. I will win this. Give in now and save yourself some time and effort.’

So I did give in. It was all too much, being here in this hidden place, after everything that had happened so far today. My hands hurt, my head hurt, my brain hurt, and I just did what I was told. It would be over soon, then I could go home and be on my own and everything would all be alright after that, but until then I would just do what I was told.

Matt

As I saw it, her choices were go back to work and face tons of questions about how she’d scratched her hands and why she looked like shit, or come back to mine where I could patch her up and lend her my bathroom so she could get the leaves out of her hair, and she could do what she wanted from there. She hardly argued when I suggested it. She stood up and followed me, silently, all the way to my flat.

Julia

I followed Matt out of the strange secret place, across the graveyard, down the street, along a few more streets, and then into an apartment building. I walked behind him up the stairs and he let me through his front door. We didn’t exchange a single word the whole time. Then I looked up at where I was and –

‘Wow!’

The view from his window was spectacular. The glass almost filled one wall, and it overlooked the river. Beyond were rolling hills, with the city in-between His apartment was stunning too – there was an open plan living and kitchen area, with a couple of doors to, presumably, bedroom and bathroom It was a modern and surprisingly minimally and tidily decorated space. I would have imagined empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and a few back issues of Nuts magazine spread around, but the place was spotless. Even a framed Star Wars poster seemed in keeping, and blended with everything else.

Matt

My flat was my pride and joy. I got it cut price via some unfortunate soul foreclosing on their mortgage and me being in the right place at the right time – poor them, lucky me. I fucking loved it. It was big and light and modern, and had the most impressive view over the river, across the city to the moors. It changed constantly, with the weather, the light and the time of day, and I never got bored of looking out of the window. The kitchen and lounge were in one large room separated by a counter, and I had put a small dining table next to the window. I had a huge squishy sofa, a couple of armchairs and a large TV with a couple of games consoles.

Julia hadn’t spoken since we left the graveyard, but when she saw the view she said, ‘Wow’ and looked around her in surprise. She was the first person who’d ever been up here who wasn’t family, or for whom the flat hadn’t been especially prepared for a lad’s night. No woman who wasn’t a member of my family had ever been here; I always went to ‘her place’. This was my sanctuary, somewhere I didn’t have to pretend, the odd night of watching football with the guys in a sea of beer bottles and takeaway containers notwithstanding.

Julia

‘Great view, eh?’

I nodded, trying to align the image I had of Matt Scott with the light, airy, tasteful apartment. It wasn’t computing. I continued to look out of the window, peripherally aware of Matt going through one of the doors and rummaging sounds emerging. His voice floated back to me.

‘Have a seat, just trying to find my first aid kit.’

I turned and looked into the room, and headed towards a plum coloured sofa. I sank into the generous cushions as the rummaging sounds continued.

‘Fuck it, I know I put it in here – oh. Bloody hell, Dec, can’t you ever put things back where you fucking well found them?’

This last was uttered sotto voce. The rummaging continued briefly and then stopped. Matt emerged, with a green and white box tucked under his arm. God, he even had a proper first aid kit. It was like he was changing into someone I no longer recognised.

‘Trust a mate with your fucking stuff, it could end up anywhere. Had to patch up my nephew the other day, game of footy got out of hand, kit got put back in the wrong place.’

Matt

I got Julia to sit on the sofa while I found the first aid box, then sat next to her.

‘Hold out your hands.’

Julia

I turned them palm up and rested them on my knees, and Matt proceeded to tip antiseptic onto a cotton wool pad. The smell made my eyes smart.

Matt

‘I think I’m supposed to tell you this is going to sting, but you will already know that. Pretend you’re on some live reality TV show and please, do not swear.’

I started to clean her scratches with antiseptic. She hardly spoke, and I was a bit worried about how she was just letting me tell her what to do; it didn’t seem like her at all.

Julia

I watched dispassionately as the cotton wool headed towards my right palm. I remained dispassionate until the moment the cotton wool actually touched my right palm.

‘Ah!’

With a sharp intake of breath, I pulled my hand away, knocking the cotton wool out of Matt’s hand. The sting brought more tears to my eyes. Matt bent down to retrieve the cotton wool from the floor, then took my hand in his, holding it firmly.

‘I said it was going to fucking sting. Get a grip, woman.’

He glanced up at my face, and saw a couple of tears dribble their way down my cheeks.

‘Oh Jules, sorry.’

He reached up and brushed the droplets away with the tip of his forefinger.

‘Be a brave little soldier, for me, OK?’

‘Patronising bastard.’

My voice sounded raw and broken; apart from a ‘wow’ and an ‘ah’ I hadn’t spoken since all the crying in the graveyard.

‘That’s better, that’s my Ice Queen.’

I glared at him, daring him to say one more condescending word. He laughed, and bent his head over my palm.

‘Alright then, let’s do it your way. This is going to fucking hurt, right? Swear all the fuck you want, but keep still.’

He was right, it did fucking hurt, both hands, but I stayed still as ordered while he wiped and wadded and bandaged and plastered. My right hand only needed a couple of plasters, but the scratches on my left hand were long and awkwardly positioned, and he bandaged it up. He did a really professional looking job, and I was impressed despite myself.

Matt

I wiped her scratches and provided bandages and plasters; Beth would have been proud.

‘It pays to have a nurse in the family, lots of First Aid lessons.’

Julia

He gestured at an array of photographs on top of a bookshelf. Several people smiled down at me, but I had no idea which one was the nurse responsible for my neat bandages.

‘Right, that’s you done. Can I get you a drink?’

I was really thirsty, but just wanted to be gone. I’d had enough of this shitty day, with its nasty surprises and its surreal weirdness and its king-sized dollop of Matt Scott. I shook my head and started to rummage in my bag for my car keys.

‘No, I’d better go. Thanks for this.’

I held up my hands. Matt opened his mouth to speak, as though he was going to try to persuade me to stay, but held back and nodded instead. He was probably as exhausted as I was with the whole situation and wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. I stood up, picked up my bag and coat, wincing at the pull on my scratches, and walked to the door. He held it open for me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder as I passed in front of him.

Matt

Just as she was stepping through the doorway, I remembered how she’d kept saying ‘non’ when she was sobbing on the ground, and without thinking, it just came out.

‘I didn’t know you were French.’

‘What?’

‘Aren’t you French?’

It must have been delayed fuckwittedness from the earlier weeping.

‘No. What do you mean?’

The look on her face told me instantly that I was indeed making a complete arse of myself. It should have stopped me, but some outside force seemed to have taken over my mouth, and I found myself continuing.

Julia

This a propos of nothing remark left me completely flummoxed. It didn’t seem to be a joke, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

‘In the graveyard, you were all curled up on the floor, bit of a soggy puddle, and you kept saying ‘non’. Thought you must be French. Sorry, forget it.’

‘Nons.’

Dammit, hadn’t meant to say it out loud, just saying her name summoned the sobs again. I needed to get out of there.

Matt

She said it again, and now I was confused.

‘Yeah, that’s it – Jules, you really don’t look OK, will you please come and sit down and have a drink or something?’

Julia

Something snapped. I felt it go, in my brain, as the last ‘Jules’ broke the dam.

Matt

And then, if I thought she’d gone ape-shit before, back in the office, well that was nothing. This was something else, suddenly she was a berserker, like a red mist descended or something. She turned to face me, her eyes going dark with anger, her fists balled up. The force of her glare made me take a step backwards.

‘It’s JULIA you FUCKING ARSEHOLE. You think you can waltz around doing or saying what the FUCK you want because you’ve got a FUCKING cheeky grin and you know where to shove your dick. I’ve asked you to call me JULIA, you TOSSER, is it really that FUCKING hard to remember? And no I’m not fucking FRENCH. Nons is a name, a fucking NAME, it’s a name … Nons is her … was her … unh …’

She took a step towards me, and then another one, and she started trying to hit me, her fists still balled up, scrumpling the bandages. She was a lot shorter than me, and slight, so none of it really hurt me, but she was a hay-maker, and I needed to try to contain her, and I was a bit worried she was going to try to scratch my eyes out, so I used my height to gather her up, pin her arms to her side and just hold her there until she calmed down.

Julia

And then coherence, if you could call it that, slipped away and although I vaguely remember lurching towards Matt, fists raised, and maybe he held my wrists, possibly to prevent me scratching his eyes out, and then there might have been some strong arms around me, pinning my arms to my sides while I may have yelled and screamed and thrashed, I don’t really remember any of it until suddenly there I was, wrapped up in Matt Scott’s arms, face against his chest, breathing in little shudders as he stroked my hair.

Matt

It took a long time, and she yelled and screamed and thrashed and cried, but I just held her, wrapping her up, as she slowly, slowly calmed down, and I felt it all gradually leave her, and we were standing there, her face against my chest, as she breathed in little shudders and I stroked her hair and I accidentally kissed the top of her head, didn’t mean to, just did it. I felt her stir against me.

Julia

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head?’

Jesus, my voice sounded even worse than before. My throat was ragged and sore. I had a raging thirst.

Matt

Her voice sounded ragged and broken. And a bit pissed off.

‘Yeah. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Oh. OK. Sure. Anything else you want me not to do?’

It was best to be clear about these things. Standing there with her in my arms, in the aftermath of a storm of emotion, there were all sorts of things I might do that she wouldn’t want me to. Really didn’t want to have her trying to bash me again. In any case, she didn’t answer, so I assumed I was alright to carry on stroking her hair, at the very least. We were kind of rocking, folded up in each other, almost lulling each other to sleep. It felt unreal. And very nice.

Julia

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. It felt good to be held, as if someone could take it all away. But the one doing the holding – that was another matter. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about that. He carried on stroking my hair.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

He was almost lulling me to sleep, gently rocking me on my feet as we stood there, me folded up in him.

‘I’m sorry I called you Jules.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Not sure I deserved to have the crap beaten out of me though.’

‘Mm.’

I was sure he had deserved it. He’d certainly had something coming to him, couldn’t focus on the whats or the whys just now. I carried on almost sleeping, being held up by a pair of strong arms.

Matt

I’d got the apology out of the way, but now I wanted to find out what it was all about.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Who’s Nons?’

She answered in a kind of dazed voice, head still buried in my chest.

Julia

I was so sleepy, I could just say it now and it didn’t matter.

‘My aunt. She died.’

Matt

‘Ohh. Fuck, Julia, I’m sorry.’

It all made sense now. Why would I have ever thought she was upset about some nonsense at work? She never got upset about work stuff. But somebody dying, that was huge. I felt terrible about it, about how inconsiderate I must have been, so I dropped a consoling kiss onto the top of her head.

Julia

I felt a familiar sensation. It roused me enough to ask about it.

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head again?’

‘I believe I did.’

‘After I asked you not to?’

‘Sorry. It seemed like the thing to do.’

More soft swaying, almost like we were dancing, but slower and more gentle. I felt soothed.

Matt

I just wanted to make her feel better, I swear, but you can probably see where this is going. And then I became aware of my hard-on, which had popped up at the most bloody inconvenient time. I needed to alert her to my arousal status without scaring her off completely.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘This is bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Maybe a bit too bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm … what?’

‘I don’t just want to kiss the top of your head.’

‘What?’

She lifted her head away from my chest and looked up at me, then looked down.

‘Fuck, Julia, I think we need to stop this before I kiss something I’ll regret.’

And I really meant it, I really did want to stop, because she was in a state, and I didn’t want to be that kind of arsehole, not with her, not while she was like this, all upset and emotional.

But then she reached up and put her hand round my neck, pulling my face down to hers. Fuck it, I even managed to resist for a second or two, and then Matt the Lad kicked in, like some kind of reflex, and my mouth met hers, and I couldn’t stop.

Julia

To his credit, he resisted for a brief moment, and then his lips were on mine, and his hands were in my hair, and my hands were under his shirt, and his tongue was slipping over and around mine, and somehow he was standing in front of me without his shirt and I was running my hands down his chest and then he was slipping my bra off my shoulders …

Matt

… our hands were everywhere, ripping off clothes, exploring urgently. Our tongues and lips pressed and tangled and tasted …

Julia

… and then nipples were sucked and our hands were lower, much lower, and more clothes were coming off and then there was nothing between us but air, and then, and then there was no air between us …

Matt

… and before I could think about it, we were naked, our bodies pressed against each other, and I lifted her up and laid her on the sofa, and she pulled me towards her and our bodies joined and I thrust and pounded and it was hard and fast and explosive and …

Julia

… and we were kissing and licking and sucking and fucking, hard and fast and noisily and urgently and then, and then …

Matt

Oh fuck.

Julia

Oh Jesus.

40. Somewhere I belong

In which tables are turned, and chairs turned over.

Matt

A bit later, having been sitting in the living room for the second consecutive evening, although without the beer I’d been able to wheedle out of Jay the night before, I decided to go to bed before I got too tired to manage it on my own. Beth being pregnant, and Mum’s arthritis, meant that having any help getting into bed was not an option and for once I was sensible about how much I could manage.

Dec

The doctor prodded and poked me much as Lee had; my arm had stiffened a lot, and the bruises on my back and side were extremely tender to touch. He spent a lot of time poking them; I tried to ignore the pain and tenderness.

*Did you receive any blows to the head, or hit your head at all?

‘No. I hit my chin on the ground.’

*Yes, that’s a nasty graze, we’ll clean it up, but it’ll be fine. Same for these abrasions on your forearm. I think you’re going to be OK, no sign of internal bleeding, ribs intact. I think you’ve been very lucky. These types of injuries often rupture internal organs. But your shoulder is a different matter. I think there might be some soft tissue damage – a tear or something to muscle or ligament, maybe your glenohumerals. You’re going to need a scan on it. I can refer, or, am I right in thinking you play for Raiders?

He indicated my training kit.

‘Yes.’

*Well, they may have faster access to scans than I do. Talk to them, see your GP if you need to.

He asked a nurse to clean the grazes, and said I could go back to the waiting room once that had been done. Then I’d have to wait for an X-ray to see if there was any damage to the pins and plates in my arm. I sat with my eyes closed while a nurse dabbed antiseptic on my arm and chin, which really stung, and then started picking out tiny bits of grit which had embedded themselves in my skin.

I felt really peculiar; not ill, or sick, but not really there, very distant from everything. My phone had pinged a few times, announcing texts, but I couldn’t be bothered to look at them. The nurse finally finished with me, and I went back to wait with Jay and Nico.

‘You really don’t both need to be here. I’ve got to wait for an X-ray now.’

łAlright, which one of us would you like to fuck off then?

‘Your choice.’

łOK, Nico, I think I’m going to stay here with Dec. What about you?

>I stay with Declan also. We must fight for it?

łNah, I don’t think he means it. Besides, if you go I won’t have anyone to talk to apart from Mr Chatty here. Bad luck, Dec, neither of us are fucking off anytime soon. Take a seat.

He patted the chair next to him. I sat down, unable to raise a smile at their banter.

łSo what did they say?

‘Need an X-ray.’

łI heard you say. What about the other stuff? Bruises, bleeding, what?

‘It’s OK, nothing to worry about. They got some grit out of my chin and my arm. Now I’ve just got to wait to see if everything’s as fucked up as it feels. I’ve really done my shoulder. Fuck it, I can’t deal with this. If my shoulder is gone, that’s it, I’m fucking screwed.’

łWhat exactly did he say?

‘Something about getting a scan through Raiders. Might have torn my … some fucking long word. I know I have, I felt it go. Fuck, shoulders take fucking ages, it might not ever be right. And if my arm’s gone too, I might as well give up now. It’s just too fucking hard.’

łI think you should wait until you’ve had the X-ray and the scan, so you know, rather than getting upset now, when you don’t know for sure.

‘What the fuck do you know? This ever happen to you, did it?’

All my rage suddenly came boiling up, misdirected at Jay.

łNo, mate. Calm down a bit, and keep your voice down, there’s other people here.

‘Fuck you. I’m not fucking calm. My whole life just got ripped apart. I might never play again. It’s not fucking fair.’

I stood up and kicked the chair, sending it skittering into the wall. I looked around for something to throw or punch, kicked the chair again. The receptionist looked over, picked up the telephone. Jay stood up, held out a placating hand to her, and then grabbed my upper arms, holding on tightly, forcing me to look at him. I tried to shrug him off, but he gripped harder, hurting my arm but holding me steady.

łDec, I know you’re angry. This is the last thing you need, you’ve had a bastard of a day, you’re upset and in pain and scared and fuck knows what else. You’re right, this never happened to me, but I’ve had my fair share of injuries, wondering if this is the one that finishes it all, and I had to give up in the end because of my knee. So I understand a bit. Kicking the shit out of the furniture isn’t going to help, unless you want to get us all thrown out of here. You need to wait for the X-ray and the scans, and take it from there, one bit at a time. OK?

I looked at him. The fury had subsided slightly, but was still bubbling.

‘I guess.’

Jay let go of me, looked over at the receptionist, who had replaced the phone, and nodded.

łSit down.

He gestured to the dislodged chair. I moved it back and sat.

>I need coffee. I go to find some – Declan, you want? Jaime?

I shook my head.

łIf you can find anything decent.

Nico headed off in search of caffeine.

łDec, I’m more than a little worried about you at the moment.

‘I’m fine.’

łYou definitely are not fine. Your head is all over the place. You spend half the night in some kind of daze, and then you chuck all your toys out of the pram at once and start mouthing off and throwing your weight around. I know you’ve had a major trauma, but it’s not like you. Talk to me?

‘Don’t know if I can.’

łTry. Start with what all that was about just now. Tell me.

‘Just … so fucking angry.’

łI get that. Tell me.

‘It just seems like … I just get some of my shit together and something happens that fucks it all up again.’

łOK. Except it wasn’t just something happening, it was Luke Woods, twice, making a serious effort to fuck it all up. It’s not just random, the whole world isn’t against you, just one seriously fucking screwed up waste of space.

‘But he’s done it, he’s got what he wanted. If I can’t play again, he’s won.’

łDec, he’s probably going to prison for what he did to you, that’s not winning. I think you need to focus on this X-ray and then getting a scan on your shoulder. It might not be as bad as you think. These things often feel worse, especially when you’re worried about it. Try not to think about the what-ifs. It can drive you mad. And you’re already a bloody nutter.

‘Agh, it’s doing my head in. I just keep thinking about him forcing me to go with him, I couldn’t stop it, it makes me feel … ashamed.’

łThen try not to think about it. Luke Woods is an ex-conditioning coach. He has some serious muscle. He could have got the better of you on a good day, let alone when you’re already shaken up and have a broken arm. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Like Nico said, he’s the one in the wrong, not you. Jesus, Dec, if you keep thinking about it like that you’re just letting him beat you up over and over again.

‘That’s what it feels like. I can’t get it out of my head. I keep seeing it, feeling it.’

łYou need some distraction. Ah, Nico, just in time. What can we do to amuse Dec and take his mind off his woes?

>Ha! We can tell stories of great tries of Nico Tiago.

łSeriously, mate, trying to cheer him up, not make him sick. Is that for me?

>All I could find, cappuccino from machine. Declan, I know you see my tries today, which is best?

‘Don’t know.’

>You must choose! Jaime, you say, I am sure.

łBoth bloody lucky in my opinion. Jesus, Nico, this coffee is awful. I hope you didn’t pay for it.

They bantered back and forth, it was fairly entertaining, but I still felt in a dark, cold, far away place inside. Eventually I was called for my X-ray. Jay insisted on coming with me, and for the chat afterwards with the doctor.

łYour head’s not on straight, I want to make sure someone remembers what they tell you.

The pictures showed my arm had suffered no further damage, although it felt to me like it had been squeezed in a vice and stamped on by elephants. The doctor said it had been put under severe pressure, but the pins, plates and more importantly bones had held firm. The residual pain and swelling was more to do with the damage to my shoulder.

łSo that’s good news, isn’t it.

I nodded. I had really expected the worst, more operations, irreparable injuries to the already broken arm. How much more would Raiders be prepared to invest in someone who was so damaged before they had even proven themselves? Or reached their twentieth birthday? It remained to be seen what would happen to my shoulder, and those questions could still be asked.

Jay took me back to Rose’s flat. It was getting late by now, but she was still up, seemingly waiting by her door, which she opened as soon as she heard us come in.

:Oh love, come here.

She folded me up in one of her enormous hugs, but I had no response for her.

‘I’m going to bed.’

She looked at me, then at Jay.

łDec, Rose has been worried sick about you, you wouldn’t let her come and see you, you could at least give her the time of day.

‘I just need to go to bed.’

:Alright, love, you know where I am.

I left my bedroom door open while I got undressed, and could hear them talking in the living room. Then I sat on the bed, in the dark, as their words drifted over me.

ł… really worried about his state of mind. There were a lot of tears back home, everything seemed to set him off. He’s been really strange tonight, first hardly speaking, then shouting and kicking stuff. He’s had nightmares every night he was with us, and two panic attacks today. He’s not himself. We saw some of the old Dec back home, it was really great to see him and Cal getting on like they always did, almost like nothing had happened, but he was … he just seems … quieter. More serious.

:Well I have seen him like this, uncommunicative, down, and I’ve often heard him crying, his flat is right above mine, I can hear everything. Oh love, you can’t expect him to just go right back to how he used to be with you. He’s happy to have you back, but he’s been so sad, he’s had so much to cope with, and tried to do it all on his own. He kind of goes into himself. You just have to stay with him, let him know you’re there, give him something to hold on to.

łFunny that, he gave me exactly the same advice when my brother was having a hard time. Jesus, Rose, this head stuff is all a bit beyond me. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to help him.

:He doesn’t need you to be qualified, love, just to be there. He’s been so lonely, had to fend for himself for so long, he feels more comfortable on his own. But it’s no way to be when you’re hurting, so we have to give him what he won’t ask for, even when he pushes us away.

łYeah, I kind of get that. It’s all this other stuff, these mood swings, nightmares, panic attacks, it’s pretty heavy duty.

:I don’t think you need to worry about it. Doesn’t his boss have some psychologist sorted out?

łYeah – whether it does any good or not …

:He’s the one who’s qualified. We just have to do our best with what we’re good at. Show him we love him and he’s not alone.

łI’m not really much good at the touchy feely stuff.

:You managed to sort things out between you over the last few days, though, didn’t you? Sounds like you did that fairly well, love.

łYeah, we did sort things. I did more serious talking than I’ve ever done in my life. I’m usually the first to arse about, avoid the issue, but there was stuff I needed to sort out in my head, things I needed to understand. We got there in the end, but I realised how messed up he’s been over the past few months, and why. I ended up making a big speech after Christmas dinner – I was a bit pissed, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

:What did you say, love?

łOh, how Dec’s part of my family, forever, whatever, all that.

:Oh, love, that sounds grand, just what he’s needed. He’s so missed his family, it’s so sad what happened to him, losing his parents when he was so young, then when he thought he’d lost you too, well that was really hard for him to deal with. Parents are what he’s needed.

łHm, not sure I feel like his parent … well, maybe when he first arrived, we had to be a bit firm with him. I’m not actually sure what I feel like. Kind of, like – yeah, a responsibility, but he’s also really good to have around, like a mate. Jesus, when I saw him lying on the ground out there today, I didn’t think he was breathing, he looked … I thought … oh Jesus … I’m sorry.

:Here you go love, don’t worry, I’ve had a little weep too, before you got here. It must have been terrible for you, finding him like that.

łIt felt like … almost as bad as when we woke up and Cal was gone, or when Mum called me about Matty. Same lurch in my gut, I just thought the worst.

:But he’s alright, love, he’s safe, maybe a bit more knocked about and none too happy at the moment, but he’s still here. He’s got you and your family, and he’s got me – he’ll get there. As long as he knows he’s got us, it doesn’t matter how it all works.

łIt is all a bit bloody complicated, when you think about it. I suppose I haven’t thought too much about exactly where he fits with us or we fit with him. I just know he fits.

:And he knows that?

łYeah. Well, he should do, I told him enough times the last few days.

:Then I think, love, you’ve already helped him more than any psychologist. For a long time, he really thought the things he’d done meant he was never going to see you again. He was very hurt, and very sad and ashamed, and very mixed up. He thought he’d done it all to himself, like he deserved it somehow. Making things right with you is very important to him, but it’s going to take time to sort through it all in his mind. He’s not going to be his old self overnight, he needs you to be patient with him.

łJesus, Rose, he just … if he’d only … Beth and I, we’re worried we made things worse for him. If we’d realised what a state he was in, how much he’d let go, what he’d lost, what he was going through, we would never … well, I don’t know. I was bloody angry … I hope that if we’d known, we might have done things a bit differently.

:From what I’ve seen, Declan’s pretty good at hiding when he needs help and making sure you don’t get close enough to find out. You’re not to blame, but neither is he. It’s all been one long, horrible mixed up time for you all, but it sounds like you’ve all made a start at putting things right. That’s the important thing.

łDo you think he’ll be OK?

:Yes, love, I think things are getting better for him –

Jay’s phone rang.

Matt

As I got into bed, I picked up my phone to call Jay. I wasn’t sure if he was still at the hospital, and just wanted to check how things were going. The atmosphere here had been subdued as Beth worried and Mum tried unsuccessfully to take her mind off it; neither of them seemed to have the energy to fuss over me as Beth wheeled me back to my room and said goodnight. As she closed the door, I dialled.

‘Hey mate, you OK? Thought you’d be asleep by now.’

‘Jus puh mysehf tuh behd, doin yuh ouh of a johb. Is Dec ohkay?’

‘Yeah, just brought him back, he’s gone to bed.’

‘Hoh is heh?’

‘Not great, a bit all over the place, taken it all a bit badly, not talking to anyone.’

‘Sohnds lihk heh nehds a kick up the ahrs. Cahn I cahl hihm?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Mehbe I shohd try the ‘not lehving yuh alohn wehn yuhr fehling this shih’ technihque on hihm.’

‘Not sure, worth a try, worked for you didn’t it.’

‘Gihv ih a goh. Try ih now.’

‘OK Matty, see you tomorrow.’

I pressed Dec’s name. No reply. Can’t say I was surprised. But he wasn’t getting away that lightly; he’d set the bar pretty high the night before last, and he only had himself to blame. I sent a text.

‘Just 2 remind u. Family. Connected. I’m a stubborner fucking bastard than u. Will call & txt u all night. Turn off phone, I’ll still do it. Talk 2 me. Matt.’

Dec

I put the phone on the bedside table. I doubted he would last all night, he’d be asleep before long. I glanced at the list of messages and missed calls from earlier. Lacked the energy to open most of them, but replied to Amy.

Me: =Tired n sore, going 2 bed. Spk soon. Dec

My phone pinged again.

Matt:=Here’s the first of many. Tell me how u doing. M

I ignored it. Another ping.

Amy: =Poor u. Hope u feel better soon. Amy xx

In the living room, Jay and Rose continued dissecting my life. I got under the duvet, leaving the door open, their words muffled by the bedclothes. I drifted in and out of sleep, unable to completely relax. My phone continued to ring, and ping with texts. I thought of Matt sitting up in bed, calling me when he should be sleeping, and I reached for the phone and turned it off. The silence made me feel more guilty than the ringtones.

Matt

I bombarded him with texts and calls, but then felt myself getting tired. Bugger, I was never going to win this if I fell asleep like a fucking cripple this early in the contest. So I set the alarm on my phone to screech at me every ten minutes. I may well doze off, but I could just damn well wake up again and send a text, or try ringing again. He might turn his phone off, that’s what I would do, but he’d have to turn it back on again sometime, and when he did, there would be a zillion messages from me, which would tell him something; hopefully something more than ‘you have a zillion messages from Matt’.

It’s not really that I wanted to win some kind of contest, although a competition does tend to focus the mind. I was imagining what was going on for Dec, how traumatic it must have been. Beth had given me more details, and it sounded like he’d been forced out into the car park with his broken arm twisted up behind his back, before being kicked while he was on the ground. Jay and Nico had interrupted the kicking, but Jay had thought Dec was dead when he got to him. I knew a bit about being almost dead. And now I knew a bit about having someone to hold on to when you tried to shut yourself away. So the least I could do was stay awake, just in case he answered, and it gave me something else to focus on apart from impotent rage.

Dec

I turned on to my side and pulled the duvet over my head. Felt rather than heard someone in my room. A hand on my shoulder, gentle, aware of the pain.

łDec.

I didn’t move or acknowledge Jay.

łI know you’re awake, you can’t have slept through all that racket from your phone. I’m going now, try to catch some sleep at Nico’s. We’re setting off early tomorrow, won’t see you again for a bit. I know you’re feeling sorry for yourself, be strong, stay positive, eh, mate?

I didn’t reply.

łOK. Take care of yourself. Call us soon.

He left the room, leaving the door open. A short time later, Rose came in.

:Anything you need, love?

No reply from me. A sigh from Rose.

:Well, you know where I am.

She left, shutting the door behind her, leaving the room in complete darkness. I felt the familiar misery welling up in me, and gave in to it, trying to cry without making any noise. It hurt my chest, and the tears ran down my nose, soaking my pillow. I’d thought I was past all this, the dark sadness bearing down on me. Getting Jay, Beth and Cal back, and keeping my job, had been major positives. This was about old losses and feeling scared, demoralised and powerless. I tried to cling on to the thread of family that had been given back to me, and was surprised to find that although it was tenuous, it was there, and it comforted me a little bit.

Matt

I don’t know how many times I’d done it, hauled myself out of sleep, sent a text, drifted away again. I lost count. It just felt like a rhythm I’d got into. Then I heard the phone trill, and I opened my eyes to send another text, but it wasn’t the alarm that had sounded, it was the text alert. He’d replied.

Dec

Thought again about Matt, wondered if he’d given up and gone to sleep yet. Turned my phone back on. Alerts from all the missed calls and texts arrived, the last one only five minutes ago. Somehow, Matt wasn’t asleep. I sent a text.

Me: =Stop it now. Made your point. Go to sleep.

Matt:=No.

Matt

He’d done it now, he’d replied, he’d broken the cycle. I was in. I called him. It went to voicemail. I sent another text.

‘Cripples Corner says fuck you. When we need help we’ll fucking ask for it. Unless we’re Declan Summers.’

‘Matt, please stop.’

‘No.’

Dec

I was getting a dose of my own medicine. It was irritating beyond belief, but I couldn’t deny that the thought of someone putting themselves out for me, not being prepared to leave me alone, was starting to work. It needed to stop, though. Matt needed it to stop. Dialled the number.

Matt

He was getting a dose of his own medicine, and I had to admit I was enjoying turning the tables. Then, my reward, as my phone rang.

‘Heh, Dec. Rohnd two to meh.’

Oh, yeah, I know I said it wasn’t a competition, but it so was.

‘Matt, please stop. It’s late.’

Yeah, I knew how late it was – too late for you, mate.

‘Thoht you’d have turned yuh phone off by now.’

‘I did. It doesn’t help. Please go to sleep.’

‘Noh.’

‘Please.’

‘Noh.’

I couldn’t stop myself smiling; I was having a great time. Not revelling in Dec’s distress, but now he was talking to me, now he was going to be OK, I was relishing the sweet taste of just desserts.

Dec

I could hear the grin in his voice; he was enjoying this.

‘You fucking bastard, I can’t believe you’re doing this.’

}Talk to meh then.

‘What about?’

}Whaever ih is tha’s making yuh fehl bad.

Matt

Just two nights ago, he hadn’t been able to stop me rambling on about my shit. His turn to share.

‘I can’t do this now.’

‘OK, yuhr choice. Member wha yuh said bout pushing pehpl away thogh. One day they wohn cohm back. Buh noh tonigh. Tonigh, I fehl an allnigher cohming on. Ihv had a greht day, fehl top of the world. Can outlast yuh no sweat.’

And I could. Provided my alarm kept going off.

Dec

‘Just fuck off, Matt.’

He laughed.

}This ihs poetic juhstice. Yohr saying everything I said. Difference is, weh both know Ihm right. Don’t rehly have tuh goh through ih all do weh?

I was silent.

}Noh gonna wohk. Spihl. I knoh yuh had another kicking. I knoh yuh hurt yuhr arm again. I ‘spect yuhr angry and scahed, I fucking would beh.

Matt

And that did it, broke the dam, a flash-flood of words tumbling over me as I tried to swim along and keep up.

‘I just fucking let him do it, alright? He just came along and grabbed me and I had no choice, I just went with him because he was fucking hurting me. I didn’t fight him, or shout, or do anything to stop him, I just fucking let him do it all again. If it hadn’t been for Jay and Nico, I was this close to another boot in the face. I think he was going to finish it this time. Shit, Matt, I’m just completely fucking useless.’

I paused briefly to make sure I’d got it all.

‘Well I guess I ahsked for tha. Hohly fuck, Dec. Where dohs all this shit of yuhrs come from? How dohs ohn fucking psycho bahstrd giving yuh a kicking become yuh being useless?’

‘I couldn’t stop him.’

So this was all mixed up with being hurt, with needing to seem tough, with being embarrassed about feeling weak. With hating being scared. I was going to need to persuade him that it wasn’t his fault.

‘Ih’m not suhprised. He’s a fucking psycho bahstrd. They’re usually faihly determined. Yuh were already frehked ouh, he fucking bent yuhr fucking broken arm, the fucking bahstrd. Yuhr the only ohn who blames yuh. Why do yuh think yuh have to do everything yuhself?’

‘Don’t know. Always have. Feels like failing to ask for help.’

‘Yuhr a bluhdy mad fucker aren’t yuh?’

Possibly a madder fucker than me, and that was saying something.

‘So I’m told.’

‘Sort ih ouh.’

‘OK.’

He’d given in much more easily than I had. Lightweight.

‘OK. Yuh can go now. I’ll stop stalking yuh.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Call me if yuh need anything.’

He was as likely to call me in times of need as I was to call him, but you have to offer, don’t you.

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Worth a shoht.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Wehcome. Bluhdy nutter.’

‘Fucking cripple.’

Dec

It had helped. Just saying it, letting out everything I’d been holding inside, felt better. I lay down again, and pulled the duvet over my head. Slept straight away. No dreams, no faceless men in brown boots, just deep, dark sleep.

Matt

And that’s how it started, the ‘not leaving you alone when you’re feeling this shit’ business. To be honest, Dec did it to me more than I did it to him, because he started seeing a psychologist soon after that, and he learned more healthy ways of dealing with the mountains of crud clogging up his brain, although there were occasions not long after that Christmas when I was more perceptive than usual, and consequently was on the receiving end of some of the Summers bloody nutterness, as well as on the dishing out end of a listening ear and late night texting sessions.

Cal

I woke up when it was still dark. Dad had said my name and ruffled my hair and shaken my shoulder, and all of those things had gradually woken me up, until I opened my eyes to see him sitting on the edge of my bed, the light from the hallway shining into the room.

‘Hey mate, sorry it’s early, but we need to go home. Come on, get dressed and come downstairs for some breakfast, and then we’ll go.’

He put my trousers and sweatshirt on top of the bed, and my shoes on the floor. I didn’t move straight away, it felt like it was still night, and I couldn’t quite remember where I was.

‘Come on Cal. We’ve got to go back so I can help Uncle Matty get up.’

Oh, I was in Nico’s house. Then it all flooded back. We were here because Dec had been hurt by a bad man, and Dad had to be with him in the hospital.

‘Where’s Dec?’

‘He’s at Rose’s. He didn’t stay in the hospital.’

‘Did he have sewing?’

‘No, he didn’t need any. He’s OK – well, his arm’s a bit hurt, but it’s not like last time.’

‘Is he like a Frankystein?’

‘No mate, he’s fine. Come on, we need to get moving. You can talk to Dec on the phone later.’

It hit me, then, that I might not see Dec for a long time. His birthday was in a few weeks, which was ages, and I wasn’t ready to just go home. If Dec hadn’t been hurt by the bad man, I would have been able to say goodbye and check about our birthday plans.

‘Daddy, I think we need to go and see Dec, so he knows we are going home.’

‘No, Cal, it’s too early. Dec was pretty grumpy last night, and you know what he’s like with early mornings. He’ll just go ‘mmpf’ and roll over.’

I didn’t want to just go home, without seeing Dec for myself, to see if he had any more cuts or bruises. Maybe if I said the right things, he wouldn’t be grumpy. Maybe if I said the right things to Dad, he’d let us go and see him.

‘But Daddy, I didn’t say thank you to Dec for saying to Santa about Optimus Prime. And we should say goodbye.’

Mum was always saying it was important to say thank you, and to be polite. Dad sighed. He must have been thinking about what Mum would say too.

‘I’ll tell you what. We’ll go over there, see if Rose answers the door, and see if we can wake him up. We can’t stay, though, just tell him we’re going home and hope he’s feeling better soon. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

‘Right, get dressed, eat breakfast. That’s the list. Probably the shortest one ever. Got it?’

‘Yes. Get dressed, eat breakfast.’

I grinned at Dad and he handed me my clothes.

We hadn’t said goodbye to Nico and Lis, because they were still asleep, but Dad said we could talk to them on the phone later. As Dad drove through the dark, empty streets, I nearly fell asleep, but woke up when Dad parked the car and banged his door. He came round to my door, opened it and took the seat-belt off.

‘Are you sure Cal? It’s dark and cold, and Rose and Dec will still be asleep, and they won’t be too pleased to see us right now.’

‘I want to see Dec.’

‘Alright then. Hop out, mate.’

We walked to the front door and Dad pressed the button. We waited a long time, and I wanted Dad to press the button again, but he didn’t, and it was so long, I thought Rose or Dec might not answer it. Just as I thought Dad was going to go, the box with the buttons on it crackled with a voice.

‘Yes?’

‘Rose, I’m so sorry, it’s Jay and Cal. We wondered if we could come in and say goodbye to Dec.’

‘Oh, of course, love.’

Rose’s voice sounded funny coming out of the box. The door made a buzzing sound, and Dad pushed it open. We walked over to Rose’s door, and waited for her to open it.

‘Hello you two.’

‘Hi Rose. Sorry about this. Cal didn’t get to say goodbye, and we’re just heading off back for Matty.’

‘That’s OK, love, it’s nearly time to get up anyway.’

‘Ha ha, Rose, you’re priceless. It’s hours away from time to get up. Did you talk to him last night?’

‘No, he didn’t say a word to me. I heard him talking to someone, though, later on, on his phone.’

‘Oh well, he doesn’t have to say anything, just listen to us saying goodbye. Alright if we go in?’

Rose nodded, and Dad opened a door off the hallway. The room was dark, but the light went into the room from the door and shone on the bed. The top of Dec’s head was poking out of the duvet, and I went over to the bed and stood by what I could see of him, which was mainly hair.

Dec

\dec.

I pulled the duvet further over my head.

\dec, wake up.

A small hand tried to shake me.

Cal

I reached out and shook him, like Dad had done to me earlier. Dec seemed awake, or almost awake, because he’d moved. He just needed a bit of help, and he’d be properly awake.

Gently, Cal, Dec’s hurt his shoulder.’

‘But Daddy, he’s not waking up.’

Dad took over, using his ‘no arguing’ voice.

Dec.’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s arm, and Dec’s face peeked out of the duvet. His eyes were a bit open and he was awake. Dec rubbed a hand over his face and he made a groaning noise.

Dec

A firmer hand on my arm. My brain started to work. I opened my eyes. The door was open and the room was lit by the hall light. Cal was standing by the bed, Jay beside him. It was still dark outside. I rubbed my face, as all the pain from Luke’s brown boots woke up with me. Groaned. Sat up, slowly and sorely, and put the lamp on.

‘Hey Cal, what are you doing here?’

\me and Daddy are going home.

‘What time is it?’

łEarly. Don’t worry, you can go back to sleep after we’ve gone. Cal wanted to say goodbye. Well, we both did. Rose kindly answered her door at this ridiculous time of the morning.

\dec, when are you coming to play with me again?

Cal

I knew the answer to this, because we’d agreed yesterday, and made our plan.

‘I don’t know, Cal, soon I hope. Maybe for my birthday? We’ve had a good time this Christmas, haven’t we.’

‘Yes. Have you had more sewing?’

I think Cal may have had an ulterior motive for wanting to see you. He didn’t want to miss any new gore.’

Dec laughed. ‘No, Cal, no new sewing. Just a few extra bruises and a hurt shoulder. I hurt my chin too, look.’

Dec tipped his head back to show me a big patch of red, broken skin underneath his chin. It wasn’t quite as cool as sewing and lines, but it looked like it would hurt a lot.

‘Awesome.’

You seem chirpier this morning.’

‘Matt did some reverse psychology. He’s almost as stubbornly annoying as me.’

‘Ha ha, yep, that’s Matty alright. He told me he was going to give it a go. Glad it made a difference. How’s the shoulder?’

‘Still fu … very painful.’

Dec had nearly done a swear, but he hadn’t done it at the last minute. I was disappointed, because Dec could usually be relied on to do swears without even thinking about it.

Nice catch, mate, Beth will be proud. Get it checked out later, yeah? OK, Cal, we’d better get going so we can be home soon. Say goodbye to Dec.’

‘Bye, Dec.’

‘Bye Cal.’

Dec reached over and ruffled my hair.

‘See you soon.’

See you soon, mate, you’ll ring us won’t you?’

‘Yeah. Thanks for everything. I mean … everything.’

Just … don’t forget about us.’

Daddy and Dec shook hands, because I suppose it is difficult to cuddle someone who is in bed and who has a hurt shoulder.

‘Not likely. Piss off before you set me off again.’

Dad laughed and I smiled, because Dec had done a swear after all. Rose closed the door after us, and we drove back.

Dec

Jay laughed and walked out with Cal, shutting the door behind him. For the first time, I thought ‘my family‘, and I smiled to myself. I turned the light off and settled myself slowly back down under the duvet for a few more hours of sleep. Rose had other ideas. A knock on the door.

:Here, love, now you’re awake I brought you some tea.

I groaned inwardly, but sat back up, trying to ignore the protests from my bruises and scrapes. I had been unforgivably rude to Rose last night, and needed to apologise.

‘Morning, Rose. I missed your tea.’

:Did you, love?

‘Yeah. I missed you as well, nobody bossing me about or organising me, don’t know how I managed.’

:I’m sure you did just fine.

‘Sorry I went to bed when I got in yesterday, it was rude, I was being a twat.’

:It was understandable, love. You had a bit of a day of it by all accounts. How are you feeling now?

‘Well my shoulder is pretty bad. I need to go to the club and get them to look at it –’

:But in yourself, how are you? Jay was here for a long time last night talking about you.

‘I know, I heard you.’

:Sorry, love, I know that annoys you, but he needed to talk. He’s worried about how you’re coping with all this. He feels very far away. He said you cried a lot?

‘Yeah, well, I suppose I did. I felt – feel – really emotional. Everything seemed so normal, and that was huge for a start, that it wasn’t awkward at all. Then they’d say how glad they were to have me there or something and I’d realise how close I’d been to losing them and I’d just cry.

:And this latest upset, and getting angry at the hospital, then barely speaking when you got back yesterday?

‘I’m a bit better now. Yesterday just all got a bit much. I had a talk with Matt, Jay’s brother, yesterday …’

I told her about our conversation, and how I’d done a similar thing to him a few days before. Rose laughed.

:Sounds like you’re both as bad as each other. Or as good, not sure which. I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better. Don’t stop talking to us, love, whichever one of us is around.

‘I’ll try.’

:That’s all you can do. Are you getting up, or having a lie-in?

I lowered myself back onto the pillow.

‘Lie-in. Then I’ll call Don and sort out a scan for my shoulder. Thanks, Rose.’

I disappeared gratefully under the duvet again, resurfacing a few hours later.

Feeling in a much more positive mood, if still battered and the worse for wear, I caught the bus to the ground and saw Lee, who looked at my shoulder and referred me for a scan the next day. I caught up with the strength and conditioning guys, just to update them. It was another week before I was expected back anyway, so the scan would just help them re-jig my rehab to fit in with the extra shoulder damage. I felt a lot more optimistic than yesterday, but when I really thought about it, I’d pushed a lot of it down deep, where I pushed everything I couldn’t deal with right away. Maybe this wasn’t the best way to deal with my shit – perhaps the psychologist Don had sorted out would be a good thing.

However I came to terms with what had happened yesterday, for now I concluded it had been an extremely stressful day, and I needed to chill a bit today. I had a family, people who weren’t prepared to let me get on with things by myself, who wanted me to be part of their lives. But before I could get on with chilling, I had several calls to make.

‘Hi Amy.’

)Dec! How are you?

‘A bit battered. Bloody sore. Sorry I didn’t get back to you yesterday.’

)Oh, don’t be silly. I completely understand. It was late by the time you got home.

‘Yeah, and I was pretty wiped. Anyway, things feel better now, so just thought I’d say hi. It was good to see you yesterday.’

)Yeah, you too, great game.

‘Yeah, it was fucking amazing to be there again.’

)Hey, a bunch of us are going out later, just for a pizza. Do you fancy coming?

‘Er … who’s going?’

)Oh, usual crowd, um except Big, obviously. Or David. But everyone else.

‘I don’t know, Amy, it’s been a while. Don’t want to spoil everyone’s evening.’

)It’s only pizza! Oh, go on – you’ve got to start somewhere.

I was undecided for a few moments, then thought why the hell not?

‘Alright, you’re on. I’ll come.’

)Great!

She gave me the time and place, and I moved on to the next call. DI Johnson.

‘It’s Declan Summers’

ϙHello. Thank you for calling. How are you?

‘Sore. Thanks for asking.’

ϙWhat can I do for you?

‘I just thought I should stay in touch after yesterday. Is there any news?’

ϙWell, Ben Hearne and Luke Woods have been formally charged with grievous bodily harm and criminal damage. Luke Woods has two counts of GBH following yesterday’s assault. His DNA was also found in your flat, we’ve managed to positively identify his boot-print from the pictures your doctor took, and it turns out the anonymous texts we were looking into originated from his mobile phone. It’s likely, if they are found guilty, they face a prison sentence.

I was silent, absorbing it. Didn’t give a shit about Luke, but Big going to jail was overwhelming.

ϙDeclan?

‘Yeah, I’m here, sorry. Er, yesterday at the ground, there was another man, in the van, he got out and spoke to Luke Woods. He … did anyone see him?’

ϙWe weren’t aware of another man. Was he involved in the assault?

‘No, well, not directly, but he knew Luke Woods, and seemed to know me. He seemed to be trying to get Luke to stop.’

ϙDid you recognise him?

‘Well, I think so, he seemed familiar, but I can’t place him. Sorry, I know it’s not much information. I just wondered if anyone noticed him or – fuck! I know who he is.’

I had a sudden image of him, not from yesterday, but standing on Jay’s doorstep.

‘I don’t know his name or anything, but I know where I’ve seen him before.’

I immediately regretted saying anything, because I was more than aware that Raiders hadn’t gone to the police about my theft of the charity money.

ϙGo on.

‘He came to the house once, where I used to live, he – I don’t know how much you know about everything, it’s complicated. I crashed my car, someone died.’

ϙWe are aware of the incident.

‘This guy came round, pretended to be the man’s son, threatened me. Shit – this means it’s all connected.’

ϙWhen you say threatened, what exactly do you mean?

‘He just … got angry, asked for money, said he’d tell the club about my passport and stuff if I didn’t pay him.’

ϙDid you pay him?

‘Yes.’

ϙHow much?

I was silent for a while, considering.

‘A lot.’

It was DI Johnson’s turn to be silent – maybe he was writing down what I’d said, maybe he was wondering how much more information was waiting to be revealed. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know the whole story.

ϙI think we need to talk properly, Declan. Can you come in to the station?

‘Maybe later, there are some things I need to do first.’

I hung up and called Don to tell him what else might be about to hit the fan. I told him about my conversation with DI Johnson. Don sighed.

-You don’t make things easy, son. No, that’s not fair, I guess it’s not your fault. We just need to make sure this doesn’t get more complicated. I think I’ll have a chat with our lawyers and get them to ring you. Don’t go to the police before you’ve talked to them.

I hung up and texted Matt:

Me: =Hope Cripples Corner not missing its resident nutter.

Matt:=Much less crazy. Nobody doing bad swears except me. Might have 2 teach Cal.

Me: =Beware the wrath of Beth if u do.

Matt:=I can handle Beth. Just 2 keep me going: bloody shitty fucknogglets you arsebasket ;P

Call to Beth:

_Hi Dec, how are you, sweetheart?

‘Not too bad. Aching a bit. Got to have a scan on my shoulder tomorrow, see exactly what I’ve done to it.’

_I hope that goes alright, sweetheart. James says your arm is OK though, the pins and plates held OK?

‘Yeah, no more damage. Did they get back alright?’

_Yes, they set off so early, and you know how fast James drives anyway. They were here before Matty woke up – actually he was asleep for ages, I hear you had a late night conversation with him.

‘Yeah, we were trading stubborn points.’

_That must have been some contest.

‘Pretty spectacular. Is he OK?’

_Yes, he’s managed to sleep it off. I think he would have kept going all night. He set his alarm to go off every ten minutes so he could keep texting you.

‘Bloody hell, that is dedicated. I think he might even be worse than me. Don’t tell him, he might think he’s won.’

_Is there anything you boys won’t turn into a competition?

‘Probably not.’

She sighed.

_Do you want to talk to James?

‘Yeah, quick word.’

She went to find him. In the silence, I imagined their house, tried to feel part of it all. Nearly managed it.

łHey, mate, you alright?

‘Yeah, good, just been to see the docs, arranged a scan for tomorrow.’

łGood, I’m glad you can get cracking on that. How’ve you been today? Any more dreams last night?

‘No, I slept through. Until you woke me up at the crack of hours before dawn, that is.’

łBlame Cal, he was determined to say goodbye. I think he wanted you to swear, and have lots of stitches. You’re a big disappointment.

‘Story of my life. I’ve got to go to the police in a bit.’

I outlined the most recent part of the Declan Summers saga.

łJesus, Dec, you really are always in the thick of things. Good luck, mate. If you need someone to go with you, make sure you ask. Nico’ll be up for it, I’m sure.

‘I’ll be OK, Don’s got some lawyers on it, don’t think he wants more scandal if he can avoid it. Jay … I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused. I heard you and Rose talking last night, I’m just … my head’s all over the place and I get a bit up myself.’

łAh, mate, don’t worry about it. Rose, she’s amazing. She could set up her own advice line. OK, I guess I need to say this again. I can take any shit you dish out. Family, yeah? We might have words about it, we definitely won’t always agree, and if I think you’re being a prick I’ll let you know, but I’m here. We’re all here. You’ve even got Matty looking out for you. Now bugger off, you bloody head case.

‘Thanks.’

łYeah. Cheers, Dec, talk to you soon.

One last phone call, to Nico:

>Declan! Good to hear from you my friend. How life treats you today?

‘OK, thanks. Nico, I just wanted to say thanks for helping me out yesterday. Without you and Jay, things would have been a lot worse. Sorry I was a bit of a dick at the hospital.’

>Ha, yes you are, but we understand. You are hurt, you are sad, you are angry. Is OK. Lis say when you come over? Tonight?

‘I can’t tonight, I’m out, sorry.’

>Tomorrow then, I tell her.

‘OK, that would be great.’

>We miss hearing about Christmas with Jaime, we want details, yes?

‘I’ll probably send you to sleep, then, but OK. Thanks, Nico, see you tomorrow.’

One last text, to Rose:

Me: =Back later, out for tea. UR GR8. Dec.

Rose:=whats ur greight

Me: =It means you’re great.

Cal

So that is it, the story of that Christmas, when things were mended, and in a way better than mended, although it took me a long time to be able to see it like that, because I was six, and I just wanted things to be back the way they were.

39. Welcome to my nightmare

In which we experience a certain amount of deja vu.

Dec

As I sat outside the bar, eyes covered, I became aware of someone standing in front of me. I moved my hands away from my eyes to see a pair of brown boots on the floor in front of me. I’d seen them so often in my dreams, it took me a moment to take in that they were real, and here, which meant …

Startled, I looked up to see Luke Woods staring down at me. Fear instantly paralysed me. My heart pounded and I could hardly breathe.

+Did I not warn you? Stay away from Nico Tiago, I said. But you didn’t fucking well listen, and he stopped coming to the gym. Lost me a lot of business.

I felt my heart racing. I tried to get to my feet, but he pushed me back down in the chair. I glanced to my right, towards the door to the bar, and left, down the corridor, trying to work out the best direction to get away.

+Oh no you don’t. And try shouting if you like, they won’t hear you, it’s too noisy in there.

In a swift movement, he grabbed my right arm, twisting it to send a spike of pain from my broken wrist up to my broken collar bone. Using the pain, he forced me to stand, and twisted my arm behind my back. I could barely see, the pain was so intense. My legs were still shaking, and sweat ran down my face, stinging my eyes.

+Let’s go for a walk. There’s someone you should meet.

He pushed me down the corridor. I looked behind me to the door, desperate for Jay to come back. Luke pushed my arm up further. I gasped, could feel everything being stretched beyond its limits. Round and round in my head, Luke’s brown boots were kicking me in the face, stopping me thinking clearly. All I could think or feel was fear.

Luke seemed to know the back ways inside the club. The corridors we went down were dark and silent. He went nowhere near the treatment room or changing rooms, and after manhandling me down a couple of flights of stairs, we came to a fire door with a bar across it. He pushed me up against the door, pinning me with his body while he pressed the bar with his left hand.

The door opened and a blast of cold air hit me. It cleared my head momentarily, and I tried to kick backwards at him and wriggle out of his grip. He kicked the back of my knee, causing it to buckle and me to drop. My weight was taken by my twisted arm and I felt something tear in my shoulder. I cried out in agony. Luke hauled me back up and continued pushing me forwards until we emerged from behind some large wheeled bins into the car park.

By now, I could hardly focus on where I was or what was happening to me. The pain throbbing from my arm and shoulder was taking all my concentration; dark blobs were gathering at the edge of my vision, I felt dizzy and sick, and was close to passing out. I couldn’t pick my feet up properly, and every time I stumbled, Luke yanked on my arm, causing more needle stabs along my collar bone and then down my arm to my fingers.

We seemed to be heading for the far side of the car park, where it was darker and there were fewer cars, and a white Transit van was parked. As we approached the van, the door opened and a man got out. I barely glanced at him, other than to notice he was wearing a Raiders shirt.

|What’s this, Luke?

+This …

He shoved me forwards, and I fell onto my knees, gasping and panting. The relief of not having my arm bent up behind me stopped me from moving any further. I cradled my arm against me, trying hard not to sob with pain.

+… is our fucking problem. Remember Mr Declan fucking Summers? Also known as Charlie fucking Collier to the proper authorities. But not to Raiders, not until it was too fucking late.

I stayed on the ground, hunched over, holding my right arm close to my chest, trying to stop shaking, trying to catch my breath and organise my thoughts.

|I thought you were just going to talk to someone about Ben.

The man’s voice sounded familiar, but I was in no state to search my memory. I couldn’t even raise my head to look up at him.

+Yeah, well, turns out this piece of shit is hanging around today, all chummy with Jay Scott and his kid again.

|What did you bring him out here for?

+He hasn’t learned his lesson yet. Thought we could have another go at teaching him. Maybe you’ll be less of a fucking wimp about it than Ben.

He kicked me hard from behind and I sprawled forwards, banging my chin on the ground, scraping the skin off my left arm on the tarmac and landing on my right arm, which was curled up under me. I cried out with the pain that exploded from my shoulder.

|Luke, what are you doing?

+Which bit didn’t you fucking understand last time, Summers? Was it the warning?

He kicked me in the side, twice. Sharp pain bit me, my mouth filled with bile and I curled up, coughing and retching.

+Was it the beating?

More kicks to my back, pain bloomed and spots danced before my eyes.

+Did we not kick you fucking hard enough?

|Luke …

The other man seemed to be protesting, but not very loudly. I tried to look at him, to get him to help, but I lay powerless on the floor as Luke walked round me, aiming kicks with each step which crunched into my legs. I watched as his feet moved round to where I lay, my left arm trying to protect my head. Too much of me was exposed, I didn’t stand a chance. I looked on in horror as he came level with my face and drew his brown-booted foot back. This wasn’t a dream or a memory. It was happening again. I closed my eyes and whimpered. Heard a shout. Waited for the pain and longed for the darkness.

Cal

‘Shit. He would have seen Dec sitting there. I bet he’s done something, taken him somewhere or something.’

Lis frowned. ‘Really, Jay? Dec is pretty strong. You’d have to be fairly determined to get him to go somewhere he didn’t want to without a fuss.’

‘You didn’t see him, Lis. He was white as a sheet, he couldn’t stand up, he wasn’t thinking straight. And if he’d yelled, would anyone have heard him? It’s pretty loud in here.’

Jaime, you think this Luke take Declan somewhere?’

Dad nodded. ‘My guess is outside. I think we need to have a look.’

‘I’m going to call the police.’

Dad looked at Lis, and I thought he was going to tell her not to, but she spoke before he could say it.

‘If this bloke’s got Dec, he could be in for another kicking. It nearly ended badly for him last time, didn’t it. If we’re wrong, well, we get a telling off for wasting their time, but if we’re right, they need to be here, yeah?’

Dad nodded, and I stayed very quiet. I could hardly believe this was all going on around me, and they had forgotten I was there, so they hadn’t sent me somewhere else.

Lis picked her phone up and pressed numbers, holding it to her ear. As she started to talk, Dad and Nico ran out of the room, Nico pressing on his phone too.

I had never been with anyone while they called the police before. I’d been with Mum when she called the ambulance for Dec, before we knew it was Dec, but the police was different, it felt like it should be more exciting, although Lis used nearly the same words to start with.

‘Police … Raiders Stadium … Lisa Tiago … I think someone’s going to get beaten up … No, but I really think you need to get someone up here fast, and if you make me explain it all before you do, it could go very badly … OK … Someone’s on the way now? … OK then … Well, it’s Declan Summers, he was attacked a few weeks ago, here, and the person who did it, well we think he’s got him again … no, not for sure, but …’

Lis tried to explain to the police person, but it was taking a long time. While she was still talking, I heard the sound of sirens. One of the windows looked out onto the car park, and I got up and walked over. Lis came with me, still talking on the phone.

It was dark outside, but the car park was lit with bright lights. There were lots of cars, and I saw a police car with its lights flashing near the entrance to the car park. As I watched, I saw some people running, but I couldn’t see what happened, because they went behind some cars. More police cars came then, and people started to stand and watch whatever it was that was happening. It was very frustrating to be up here watching and not down there, really seeing.

Quite a few other people were looking out of the window, too, and some of them were asking Lis what was going on.

‘Hopefully the police are making an arrest.’

That was all she would say, and she looked at her phone and pressed it a lot so that people wouldn’t talk to her.

After a while, nobody was looking out of the window any more, because there wasn’t anything to see, and Lis and I sat down at the table again. We were nearly the only people left, and I think everyone else had gone outside to see for themselves. I wished we could go outside to see as well. I wanted to know where Dad and Nico and Dec were, and if the police had anything to do with them, and I was still hoping there might be robots attacking with guns.

Lis kept looking at her phone, like she wanted it to ring, and then she’d look at me and smile, but as soon as she stopped looking at me, she stopped smiling. Then her phone did a bell sound, and she sat up and looked at the screen, and then frowned.

‘Helpful, Nico.’

She tapped on the screen, like she was sending a text. Then she stared at the phone again, until it did another bell sound. She pressed the screen and looked at it.

‘Oh my God.’

There was more tapping and another bell sound. I wanted her to tell me what she was reading, but it was Lis’s private message, and Mum was always telling me that what people got in their private messages wasn’t for me to know unless they wanted to tell me. I wasn’t allowed to ask, and I wasn’t allowed to look at her or Dad’s phones when they got texts. But I really wanted to know what had happened to Dec, and if the bad man called Luke was still here somewhere, and where Dad and Nico were, and what all the policemen were doing.

I couldn’t ask, so I did the best I could, which was a really big huffy sigh. Lis looked up and noticed me, then put her head on one side.

‘Sorry Cal, this is all a bit of a nightmare. I should think you’re wondering what’s going on, yeah?’

At last, she’d realised. I nodded.

Dec

More shouts. Still no pain, no darkness. Running feet.

Opened my eyes. The brown boots had gone, running away, others were chasing them. There were flashing lights and sirens. Noise and light. I lay my head back down on the ground and shut my eyes again. I felt a rushing from in my head, and everything went very distant and indistinct. From what seemed like far, far away, more feet, running towards me. He was coming back. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even raise my head, paralysed by fear and flashbacks. So I took another route to protect myself; I pushed it away, closed my mind down, to avoid it all. A voice, from a great distance.

łDec! Dec! Oh Jesus, no, no, no. Dec!

It sounded like Jay. Running feet came closer, skidded to a stop. Thumped down beside me. Hands shook my shoulder, tapped my cheek.

łOh my God. Dec. Oh my God. Fuck. Fuck. Dec, can you hear me?

Still sounded like Jay. I was so far away I couldn’t be sure. With a struggle, I opened my eyes. Jay’s stricken face slowly came into focus, his expression changing to one of massive relief as I looked at him. He covered his nose and mouth with his hands, breathing heavily and deeply.

łOh my God, Jesus, Dec. Fuck. I thought … Jesus. Say something, can you speak?

‘Mm OK.’

łOh thank Christ. Can you move, sit up?

I tried, but everything was hurting, and my coordination and focus were shot. Jay put his arm underneath my shoulder and helped me push up from the ground.

‘Aaah.’

łWhat, what is it?

‘Shoulder. Tore it. Arm’s fucked.’

łJesus, are you trying for some kind of most injured Raider award, or something?

He tried to smile, but tears filled his eyes, and he pulled me into a bear hug.

łJesus, Dec, I thought you’d had it, seeing you lying there, you weren’t moving, you’re so pale, I thought I was going to have to give you fucking mouth to mouth. Jesus.

He exhaled loudly and shakily, and looked over to where the blue lights were flashing, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand.

łI think they’ve got him. Nico chased him, Jesus he can run fast, tackled him, sat on him, I think. There’s an ambulance on its way.

‘No ambulance.’

łDec, you need to get checked out.

‘No more fucking hospitals. Docs here can look.’

łI don’t think they’ve got the kit, mate.

Not getting in a fucking ambulance.’

łOK, take it easy. Your choice, alright?

The shock of it all suddenly caught up with me, the rushing strangeness threatened, and I started shaking again, teeth chattering, body shuddering. Jay took his hoody off and put it round my shoulders, leaving his arm round me. He got his phone out, dialled a number.

łHi Lee, it’s Jay again. Are you still at the club? Great. Can you come out into the car park? Dec needs checking out … no, not that – there’s been a bit of an incident. Thanks.

I carried on shivering, head down, eyes closed, Jay carried on sitting on the ground next to me, arm round my shoulder. I heard footsteps running towards us. Opened my eyes in a panic. Nico. He knelt beside me and looked into my face.

>Declan, you are alright?

I looked at him, unable to answer, unable to focus on anything.

łWe’re waiting for Lee to come and check him out. I don’t want to get him up in case it’s the wrong thing.

>But there is ambulances coming.

łI know. He doesn’t want to go to hospital.

>Declan, you have no choice. You look very bad. You bleed. We see him kick you.

It was all too much. I was tired, hurting, cold, scared and everyone wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do. I started to cry, small sniffs at first and quickly moved on to large, heaving sobs. Jay folded me up in another bear hug. Nico put his hand on my arm.

łIt’s OK, Dec, it’s all OK now. It’s all over. They got him. Come on, mate, ssh.

>Here is Lee.

÷What the fuck’s been going on out here?

łCan you have a look at Dec? He’s had another kicking.

÷What, since I left you upstairs? Bloody hell, Dec, I’m going to have to get you a loyalty card. Is that what the police are doing here?

łYeah, Nico caught the guy who did it.

÷What’s the damage, Dec?

I couldn’t stop shivering and sobbing to answer.

łCome on Dec, if you don’t give us something it’ll be in the ambulance with you.

÷Maybe inside would be better? We’re going to have the press over here if we’re not careful.

łI didn’t want to try moving him.

÷I think if he can sit up he’s OK to move. We can all help. Let’s try to get him to the treatment room.

Jay helped me up and I leaned on him and Nico as we made our way back across the car park. I was starting to stiffen up and was beginning to feel the blows to my side, back and legs, as well as my arm and shoulder. I had stopped crying, but was still shivering and everything felt unreal and distant.

We reached the treatment room. Lee asked me to sit on a treatment table, and shone a light in my eyes.

÷Any bangs to the head?

I shook my head.

÷What’s this blood round your mouth then?

‘Hit my chin on the ground.’

÷OK, that’s going to need cleaning up, it’s got half the car park in it. No kicks or blows to your head, though, and you didn’t bang it when you fell?

‘No.’

÷You’re holding that arm a bit awkwardly. Is that where you fell?

I shook my head.

÷What happened, then?

‘He twisted it behind me. Tore my shoulder, felt it go.’

÷What, here?

Lee touched the top of my shoulder, which made the pain intensify and zing along my arm. I flinched and cried out.

÷Hmm. What about the rest of your arm? Any problems with the op sites?

‘Just all fucking hurts.’

÷OK, lets see, try some of these movements. Might be a bit soon, it might need to settle down, but it’ll give us an idea.

I tried to do the movements, but it was just too painful. I couldn’t, daren’t, lift my arm very much at all. Lee bound it up in a makeshift sling and I tried not to wince when he touched it.

÷OK, what else have you got?

‘Kicked all over.’

÷OK, let’s see then, I’m just going to lift your shirt up.

He prodded various places on my back and side, and then I had to stand up and drop my trousers for him to look at my legs. I had to hold on to Jay, as I was wobbling a lot, but whether from shock or damage I wasn’t sure.

÷Okay, pretty bad bruising, and one looks a bit near your kidney. I know you don’t want to go to hospital, Dec, but you really need to get this checked out, I don’t want you with undetected internal injuries. You might have broken a rib, and you need an X-ray on that arm. I think your legs are badly bruised, but nothing more.

I was silent, just wanting it all to go away so I could be left alone.

>Declan I know you, when you are quiet it mean you will be stubborn. You must go. Is serious. I am serious.

I tried to consider it sensibly. It was the fussing that was doing my head in. What would cause least fuss?

‘I’m not staying in.’

I could feel their relief.

łNo, mate, no more hospital pyjamas for you. Just go and get checked out. I can take you, we can cancel the ambulance, if it’s not here already.

>I go see.

Nico jogged out. Lee looked at Jay.

÷So what’s the story? Who did this?

łDo you remember Luke Woods?

÷Er, conditioning coach a few years back?

łYeah. It was him. Fuck knows what the full story is. Nico thinks he’s related to Ben Hearne, uncle or something. It was both of them a couple of weeks ago, he came back to finish the job.

÷Shit. Can’t quite get my head round it all. This might sound a bit crazy, but do you remember those pictures we took of your hand, Dec?

I nodded.

÷Maybe the police might like to see them, match them up with his boots?

łWhat’s this?

Lee told Jay about taking shots of the boot print on my hand.

łLee, you’re a genius, I think they’d be very interested. Dec, we’ll have words later about why this hasn’t been mentioned before.

My phone pinged in my pocket. Somehow it had survived me landing on it, and looking at it gave me a way to avoid answering Jay.

Text:

Amy: =r u still around? Fancy a drink?

I didn’t have the energy to reply and explain it all. Put the phone back in my pocket and kept my head down so I didn’t have to look at anyone.

łYou’re looking a better colour, Dec. You were really pale before. You’ve stopped shaking too. Jesus, what a day you’ve had. Two panic attacks and a kicking. And the night is young.

It seemed I wasn’t going to have to explain myself immediately, so I gave Jay a weak smile. Everything still seemed to be going on around me without involving me much, which was fine by me, until Nico came back.

>Ambulance is cancelled, but the police they want to talk to us before we go. I say Declan he is not well, but they come now.

‘No …’

I put my head in my hands, couldn’t cope with more questions, more people, more talking.

łSorry, Dec, I don’t think we’ve got much choice. When this happened last time, I needed to get back for Matty, but they wouldn’t let me until I’d talked to them. They only waited to talk to you because you were out of it.

>Declan, we are here with you. Lee will stay. He will say if is too much.

÷Sure thing, mate. I’ll be here keeping an eye.

There was a knock on the door. DI Johnson walked in and sat down. He checked over details of the 999 call, then talked to Jay and Nico. I couldn’t focus on the conversation, and I was aware of Lee glancing at me from time to time as I sat on the treatment table, head bowed, staring at the floor. Jay reminded Lee about the pictures of my hand that were on his phone. DI Johnson was very interested in them, and asked Lee to send them to him.

ϙDeclan, can I ask you some questions? It won’t take long.

I raised my head with an effort. Nodded.

ϙI understand from your friends here that you have received further injuries. Can you confirm that the person you named in our earlier telephone conversation is the person who also assaulted you tonight?

‘Yeah. Luke Woods.’

ϙWas anyone else involved in the assault?

My head was full of Luke kicking me, over and over. It was threatening to overwhelm me, and talking about it made it worse. I took a shuddering breath.

‘No.’

ϙCan you tell me how you got from the upstairs bar to the car park?

‘He hurt me. Twisted my arm.’

ϙDid you try to resist?

‘No. Yeah. Once. It tore my shoulder.’

÷Declan has a broken arm and collarbone. I think his arm was twisted up behind his back. It would have been very painful.

ϙThank you, sir. Declan, were you forced into the car park against your will?

I thought about it. I couldn’t see how I could have avoided it, but I felt at fault. I should have been stronger, fought more. I felt tears fill my eyes and run down my face.

÷I think it’s fair to say that Dec didn’t go there willingly to be beaten up. Actually, I think that’s enough questions for now. He’s not feeling a hundred per cent, he’s had a big shock and he really needs to go to the hospital to get checked out.

ϙAlright. Declan, I’ll be in touch. Thank you for your time.

He stood up, closed his notebook and left the room.

>We take Declan now?

łYeah, I’ll just have to get my keys, Lis has got them – fuck it! Cal! How am I going to explain all this to him?

>I take Declan, you take care of Cal. He don’t need to know everything. Take him to ours, Lis feeds him, I let you know what happen.

łI need to call Beth, check if she’s OK with me being late. If Matty needs lifting, she … can’t do it. I’ll see what kind of a day he’s had.

Jay left the room to make the call. I could hear his voice from down the corridor. There was no way Jay could leave Beth to look after Matt on her own, and I wanted to tell him to go home, but he was walking away from me and I couldn’t find the strength to raise my voice.

>Come, Declan, my car is near. You can walk?

Nico was standing by the door, beckoning to me, and I didn’t have the focus or the energy to argue about it, so I slipped down from the treatment table and stood, swaying slightly. Tried a couple of steps.

‘Yeah. Might be a bit slow.’

>Ha, is OK. Lee and me, we catch you.

We made our way slowly out to the car park. A police car was still there, lights flashing, drawing a crowd. Nico’s car was near the door. He opened the passenger door for me and I got in, painfully and slowly. I couldn’t move my arm enough to reach the seatbelt, so Lee and Nico had to put it on for me. Lee put his hand on my shoulder.

÷Maybe you should come in tomorrow, get checked over? Tell me what they say?

‘OK.’

÷Good luck.

He shut the door, Nico started the engine and drove away. I rested my head against the window. I really couldn’t believe this was all happening again.

>Declan, you are OK?

‘No, I’m not fucking OK.’

>I know this, I mean, you don’t want me to stop?

‘No, just get there, get this over with.’

>OK. You look pale, don’t be sick.

‘I won’t be sick.’

Cal

‘Nico just texted, he’s down in the doctor’s room with Dec and your daddy. Dec has been hurt, and they’re getting him checked and talking to the police.’

‘Did the bad man hurt Dec?’

‘Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it’s as bad as last time.’

‘Will he have more sewing?’

‘Er … sewing?’

‘Yes, to keep his skin together.’

‘Oh … stitches. I don’t know, Cal. Nico didn’t say.’

Lis’s phone started singing, and she picked it up quickly and held it to her ear.

‘Nico, what’s going on? … OK … OK … OK … So not too bad then? … It’s just there are small ears listening, and I need to tell him something … OK … I’ll say that then. What’s Jay going to do? … OK … Oh … OK, yeah, that’s fine … No, we can go home, I’ll wait to hear from you or Jay. Shall I call Beth? … OK … OK … OK … Yeah, see you later. Be careful, Nico, no more bloody car park heroics, yeah? I was worried to death … Yeah, I love you too.’

Lis put the phone back on the table and looked at me.

‘Dec is going to the hospital, but he’s not badly hurt like last time. Nico is taking him, he’s not poorly enough to go in an ambulance. Your dad’s talking to your mum to sort out Matt, and you’re coming home with me.’

So that answered some of my questions, but there was something else I was getting more worried about.

‘Did the police catch the bad man?’

If the bad man was still around, maybe he would carry on trying to kick people, and if he knew I knew Dec, perhaps he would try to kick me. I didn’t want to have my bones broken, even if it meant I had metal in my arms and could be a Transformer.

‘Yeah, sweetie. Nico caught him in the car park and kept him there until the police got there. They’ve taken him away. You don’t need to worry, yeah?’

I felt very happy about that. I had been worried, without realising it. And now I could think about the other things that had happened.

‘I want to go to the hospital with Nico and Dec, I want to see him have sewing.’

I hadn’t really had a chance to look closely at it before, and the thought of sewing a person’s skin was fascinating. I hoped I would be able to see Dec soon, so I could see whether he looked like a Frankystein again.

‘Nico’s already gone, and your daddy wants you to come back with me.’

‘But I saw Dec before.’

I didn’t want them to think I was too little to see blood and sewing. I was six.

‘I know, sweetie, but this time, your daddy wants you to come back with me, yeah?’

I couldn’t argue with Lis like I did with Mum, because I didn’t know what she would say, so I had to do as I was told.

‘Am I sleeping in your house?’

‘I’m not sure yet, Cal, I’m waiting to hear from your dad, but if we go home, we can at least have some tea and see what happens.’

‘What is for tea?’

‘Ooh, what do you fancy? I do a mean fish finger. Or a bustin’ chicken nugget.’

I remembered Lis’s chicken nuggets from before, and she burnt them, even though it wasn’t her fault, it was Nico’s fault for talking to Mum and Dad in the kitchen. But best steer clear of the chicken nuggets.

‘I like fish fingers.’

‘Sorted then. Come on, grab your backpack, we’ll head off.’

Matt

Beth had expected Jay to set off for home shortly after the match finished, but he’d texted and said he was catching up with a few people, so she was waiting for a text to say he was on his way. She, Mum and I were in my room, drinking tea, when her phone rang.

‘Hello, are you on your – oh. Oh no. Oh James … but where is he now? … Who’s with him? … oh James … how bad is it? … but he wasn’t unconscious … oh James …’

If she said ‘oh James’ once more without telling Mum and me what in the name of fuckness was going on, we were going to manhandle the phone off her and ask ourselves. She looked at me, then at Mum.

‘I don’t know. I’ll ask. Matty, something terrible’s happened.’

Yeah kind of got that, just tell us. Who’s unconscious?

‘Dec’s been beaten up.’

Again? Holy shit, that boy just attracted disaster.

‘Fuck, Beth, is heh ohkay?’

‘It’s not as bad as last time, but Nico’s taken him to hospital. He might have damaged the broken arm.’

‘Fuck.’

‘James wants to know – he’s going to the hospital in a bit to check on him, he thinks he might have to stay while they check him out, and he wants to know if he needs to come home to do your bed bits.’

I thought about it. I felt ridiculously panicked at the thought of Jay not being there, despite all my whining about independence and not being treated like a child.

‘We could try the care agency, but it’s a bit short notice.’

Hearing the plea in Beth’s voice, the ‘please, not loads of hassle on top of this news’, I pushed past my panic and did a quick self-assessment.

‘Noh, Ihm guhd. Ih’ll duh ih mysehf.’

‘Really, sweetheart?’

‘Yeh. Hahv a pee, tahk ohf clohths, geh in behd. Ehsy.’

Beth gave me a look of deep gratitude.

‘Thank you. James, Matty thinks he can do it himself … yes, we’ve had a great day, he’s been up and about, helped cook tea, we’ll have him out pruning the apple tree tomorrow … yeah … oh James, give him my love … yeah, I might later … do they have any idea who … no! … not well, but I did meet him a few times … oh it’s so awful that Dec knows them … he’s going to be very shocked, be gentle with him … I just know what you’re like sometimes … OK, I’ll ring Lis and talk to Cal, see you tomorrow sometime. Love you.’

She disconnected and looked at us, eyes wide with shock.

‘I can’t believe that’s happened again. It was the same man who did it before, he used to work for Raiders, a conditioning trainer. He’s been arrested, apparently Nico rugby tackled him in the car park and sat on him. Thank goodness they were there. Cal’s gone to Nico and Lis’s, I think James is going to stay there, and they’ll come back early tomorrow. Matty, are you sure you can manage by yourself?’

‘Yeh, Beth. Today, goh tuh behd by mysehf, tomohrow pruhn the ahpl treh, next day hahf marathohn.’

Beth gave me a weak smile. Maybe I was being over-optimistic with my half-marathon timetable, and she didn’t want to burst my bubble.

‘It’s a worry for you dear, are you alright?’

‘Yes, thanks Carol. I am worried, but James said he thinks Dec will be OK. Oh, but he’s had such a day already, with his panic attack thing this morning, and going home, then his first rugby game for ages, and now this. I hope it doesn’t set him back. I’ll just give Lis a ring, check she’s alright with Cal, then I’ll see if I can get hold of Dec.’

Beth took her phone and walked off into the house. Mum picked up the mugs and stood up, looking at me.

‘That poor young man. He’s had a lot to contend with in the last few months.’

‘I thoht yuh said tha boy was a trohblmahker.’

‘I may have misjudged him. He’s a nice young man, and I’ve seen you two become friends. He can’t be all bad.’

‘Noh, not ahl bad.’

I listened to Beth talking to Lis and then Dec, unable to make out the words, but hearing the panic recede from her voice a little. As Beth calmed down, I slowly filled up with anger that some bastard had had a go at my already injured mate. I felt the need to do something, not that I had the physical capacity for grand gestures, but that didn’t stop the need. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table and sent a text. That would show them.

I hoped it struck the right note, told him I was thinking of him without being overly sympathetic. I didn’t get a reply.

Cal

I went with Lis in her car, which was awesome because it was red and only had two seats, and its roof was made of material instead of metal. Lis said the the roof folded down so the wind blew your hair about, but she didn’t fold the roof down because it was winter and it would be too cold, and I didn’t sit in my car seat, because Lis didn’t have one.

I had fish fingers, beans and chips for tea. I didn’t tell Lis I’d already had chips, because Mum didn’t let me have chips twice in one day. Then we played on Nico’s X-box, and then Lis talked to Dad on the phone, and then she talked to Mum on the phone, and I talked to Mum on the phone, and then we watched a bit of a DVD, and then I went to bed. I didn’t have any pyjamas, so Lis said it was OK to sleep in my pants and Arsenal shirt. I wanted to stay awake until Dad got back so I could ask about Dec and his sewing, but I fell asleep and he still wasn’t back.

Dec

I was just about holding it together. A loud scream seemed to be building somewhere inside me, threatening to overpower me. It was affecting my concentration and making me jumpy and irritable. I couldn’t offer Nico any conversation, although he tried. We got to the hospital, and Nico parked his car illegally in front of A&E, helped me out and we went in together. The hospital was expecting me, but said there was likely to be a wait. It was Saturday evening, they were busy.

I sat next to Nico on the uncomfortable plastic chairs, staring at the wall, feeling my shoulder and arm swell up and become more painful. It was joined by throbs and twinges from all the other places Luke had kicked me. I didn’t say anything for some time, and Nico sat with me, not saying much either.

>You must call Rose. She need to know.

‘She’s not expecting me till later, I’ll call when I know how bad it is. I don’t want her worrying, or rushing over here.’

>She might find out, there was TV cameras.

‘Fucking hell.’

>You want I phone her?

‘No, I’ll do it. It sounds more serious if someone else calls.’

I got my phone out, dialled the number, took a deep breath, put on a brave face.

:Hello, love, alright?

‘Hi Rose, no, not really. I’m at A&E.’

:What? Oh love, what’s happened?

‘Well, bit of a re-run of last time. Someone tried to kick my head in. But I’m OK. Nico’s with me, we’re just waiting to be seen.’

:Oh love, I’ll be right there.

‘No, Rose, please don’t come down. I’m not going to be staying in, it’s all OK.’

:But you said you got kicked – are you hurt?

‘Well, yeah, I’ve hurt my arm again, and there’s a few more bruises for my collection. But I’m OK. Please don’t come down, Rose. I’ll be back there soon, I promise.’

:Alright, love, if that’s what you want. Can I talk to Nico?

I handed the phone over. That short conversation had been pretty exhausting.

>Hi Rose … yes … yes, he is hurt, he is in a bit shock … I don’t think you need to if he don’t want it … yes, I call you later … be careful of yourself. Bye.

Nico gave the phone back. It rang almost immediately. Beth.

_Dec, oh, Dec, sweetheart. Are you OK?

‘No.’

_I can’t believe it’s happened again. Where are you?

‘In A&E.’

_Is someone with you?

‘Nico.’

_Oh Dec, you poor love. You must have been terrified. James says they got him though.

‘Apparently.’

I was finding it hard to string more than one word together and keep my eyes open at the same time. Out of energy, I handed Nico the phone.

>Hey, Beth, is Nico. Declan he is not with us really. I think he is OK, but he hurts pretty bad and he have a big shock. We wait for doctor … yes … no, he see Lee, the Raiders doctor, he want him to come here for X-ray and for looking at where they kick him. He think about internal injury … no … yes … oh, OK, I know he worry. Cal is OK with Lis. You are OK? … I know, is worry to be so far, but we look after him … OK, we call you later.

He gave me the phone back.

>Is there other people you want me to talk to?

‘No.’

>Maybe Don? He will know what happen.

I sighed. Couldn’t really hack all the fuss, and having to think was doing my head in.

‘OK. Don. Thanks.’

I handed him my phone.

>Is OK, I use mine.

As I was putting my phone back in my pocket, it pinged with a text.

Matt: =Fucking attention seeker.

It almost brought half a smile to my face although I didn’t send a reply. Another text, almost immediately afterwards.

Amy: =OMG just heard what happened. RU OK? 😦 xx

Me: =Not OK. In A&E. Spk soon.

Nico was still talking to Don, telling him the same things he had told Rose and Beth. He finished his conversation and put his phone away.

‘Nico, you don’t have to stay.’

>Ha, is true I don’t have to. I stay, though, because you are my friend and you are hurt and seem not right to me. I want you don’t be alone, and I want to see you are OK. Jaime he come soon. He leave Cal with Lis. He want also to see you are OK.

‘He can’t, he needs to get back home.’

>He sort with Beth, don’t worry about him.

I didn’t have the strength to argue any more. I felt drained, dull, lifeless. My arm and shoulder were throbbing and I could feel every bruise forming under my skin. I settled into a kind of lethargy, in a world of pain, where I couldn’t move or talk or think about anything beyond staring at the wall. Nico tried to talk to me, but eventually gave up when he got no answer. Jay arrived after a while, taking a seat next to me. Nico went to move his car, and then check how long it would be before I was seen.

łDec, the police have arrested Luke Woods. Him and Ben have been charged with assaulting you before, and he’s also been charged with assaulting you tonight.

‘What about the other one?’

łWhat other one?

‘There was someone else –’

Details came back to me.

‘– older, scraggy beard, Raiders shirt. He was in the van.’

łJesus. Why didn’t you say before? You told the police it was just Luke.

‘Forgot.’

łJesus, Dec. I suppose you’re not really thinking straight. Well, as soon as you’re up to it, you should contact them. How are you doing?

‘Everything fucking hurts. You should go home.’

łIt’s a bit late, now. Lis is putting Cal to bed. We’re going to set off first thing tomorrow. I needed to come and see you’re OK. Stop worrying. Beth says Matty had a really good day today, and he’s going to put himself to bed, so that’s great, isn’t it?

‘You should be there with him, instead of fucking about here with me.’

Jay sighed.

łI really thought you’d got it. Maybe this has messed your head up more than I realised. You’re my family. You need me here, I need to be here, to make sure you’re OK. I’ve checked with Beth, Matty doesn’t need me just at the moment, he’s fine. So I’m staying here, and you’re going to accept that I need to be here and you need me to be here. Jesus, Dec, how many more times do we have to have this conversation?

I stayed silent, continuing to feel guilty about Beth and Carol having to manage Matt on their own. Nico came back from the reception desk and sat down. His charm had apparently not managed to shift me up the waiting list, and they said it was going to be another hour at least. I continued to sit on the uncomfortable plastic chair, staring at the wall, feeling everything carry on stiffening up, feeling guilty, feeling separated from reality. Jay and Nico talked over my head. Jay patted my back and ruffled my hair every so often. Although it was comforting, I couldn’t respond.

łBloody good tackle, Nico. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself landing on the car park.

>Ha! I am not hurt, but he is hurt. He bang his head, and I think he break some fingers.

łGood. Fucking bastard, it’s the least he deserves.

>You are right. I feel horrible he know Declan by me.

łJesus, Nico, it’s not your fault. Sounds like he had a major grudge going before you ever took Dec to his gym.

>Maybe you are right. I think he hurt Declan before. I see bruises on his shoulder after we are at his gym. Declan tell me it happen when he is drunk, but now I wish I say more.

łWell, trying to get Dec to admit to anything has always been a bloody hard job, eh, Dec?

‘Huh?’

łNothing, go back to sleep.

‘Not asleep.’

łMight as well be. Nico, did you see anyone else? Dec says there was another man there, in the van.

>No, I don’t see. I am busy chasing … wait, maybe there is someone when we first see Declan … I don’t remember well.

‘How did you know?’

łKnow what?

‘Where he took me.’

Jay blew his cheeks out.

łBit of luck, really. Nico was with Lis and Cal when I went back. I told him about you spotting Luke, and remembering it was him before. We asked around, and someone had seen Luke going through the door to where you’d been sitting. We ran out there, but you were nowhere to be seen. Took a bit of a gamble that he would try to get you outside. Lis called the police, and Nico called while we tried to find you. We got out there as fast as we could; when we got to the top of the steps, we saw him over on the other side of the car park giving you another going over. I shouted, he ran. Nico chased him, I got to you as quickly as I could. Fuck knows how the cops got there as fast as they did.

>I think there is a car there always after a game, down the hill. I am glad, I don’t think I can sit on him much longer.

‘Thanks.’

łNo problem, mate. I would say ‘anytime’, but please, for fuck’s sake, don’t go getting yourself beaten up again.

‘Sorry.’

Jay rolled his eyes.

‘Couldn’t help it.’

łI know that, Dec.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

łI know.

‘Sorry.’

łIs that what’s bothering you?

‘Wasn’t strong enough.’

łJesus, Dec, he nearly pulled your fucking arm off. And you weren’t feeling too hot to start with. He’s a complete fucking nutcase.

‘Just froze.’

łI’m not surprised. Jesus, you’ve been through enough, don’t start giving yourself grief about what he did to you. He’s the worthless piece of shit here.

I hung my head. Despite Jay’s words, I still felt guilty and ashamed about letting Luke dominate me.

>Declan, what he do to you is bad. Is his bad, not your bad. We hate him, not you.

łNicely put.

>Thank you.

I heard what they said, and most of me knew it was true, but somewhere inside I was cowering in a corner with my hands over my head, completely powerless to stop it all happening.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

Tears filled my eyes and I started to cry again.

łAh, Dec, come here.

Jay put his arm round me and pulled me towards him.

łDon’t let him get to you like this. He’s won, then, hasn’t he, eh? He didn’t win – here you are, large as life and twice as ugly. Possibly three times as ugly.

‘He nearly did. If you hadn’t been there –’

łYeah, could have been nasty. But we were there, we had your back. We always will, one way or another. You don’t have to be invincible, do everything on your own. I wish you’d bloody remember that once in a while, it would save me repeating it every five minutes.

I was silent, considering. Nico’s phone rang.

>Hello Rose … no we wait still … he is no worse … ha, yes, you would, I know this, but no, don’t come, they see him soon, I am sure. Jaime is here now. I call you as soon as I know.

As if Rose’s call had caused it, my name was called.