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.

30. Back to December

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

Dec

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

łI dare you.

‘Can’t promise anything.’

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

He took a deep breath.

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

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

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

łCome on, Dec, you must have known.

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

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

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

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

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

‘OK. Right.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

łDec?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

‘Nehxt.’

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

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

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

‘We’ve made some mince pies, dear.’

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

‘Fuck yeh.’

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

‘Fuck yeh plehs.’

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

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

‘Wha? Noh, I can’t choose.’

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

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

‘Mum’s. Yours.’

I pointed to the appropriate plates. Beth clapped.

‘Well done. How could you tell?’

‘Cahnt divuhlge my sehcrets.’

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

‘Teh.’

‘Are you sure? You’ve only had –’

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

‘Teh. Plehs.’

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

‘How are you feeling, dear?’

‘Tihred.’

‘Go back to sleep then.’

‘Yeh. Muhm?’

‘Yes, dear.’

‘Yuhrs ahr the behst.’

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

Dec

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

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

łOK, if you’re sure.

I nodded. He ran a hand through his hair.

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

‘Bit of a nightmare?’

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

He took a breath, looked down at his fingers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

łWhich was what, exactly?

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

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

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

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

‘You said, she’s never mentioned it.’

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

‘I know.’

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

I thought about why that might have been.

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

Jay nodded.

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

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

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

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

‘Nothing I didn’t deserve.’

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

‘Worthless piece of shit.’

łWhat?

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

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

‘I can’t handle it.’

łWhat?

‘If I lose you all again.’

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

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

‘Fuck.’

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

‘No, I’m OK.’

Although the tremble in my voice told a different story.

łDo you get it now?

‘I think so.’

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

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

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

‘Yeah. I will – I am.’

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

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

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

łYour version of which being …?

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

łJesus Christ, did you say it just like that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

łGood. You need to sort your head out.

‘I know. I’m a mess.’

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

‘Jay…’

łDec.

‘Can I ask you something?’

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

‘Did you leave Raiders because of me?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

‘Jay, are we really OK now?’

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

‘OK.’

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

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

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

łOK, that’s enough of that.

Although his eyes were wet too.

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

I wiped my eyes.

‘Er, not sure I’m allowed.’

łWhat? Says who?

‘Don, weeks ago.’

łWhy?

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

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

Cal

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

Dec

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

‘Dec, I’m not going to sleep.’

‘Why’s that, mate?’

Cal

‘It’s nearly Christmas.’

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

‘Are you excited?’

I nodded.

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

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

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

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

‘I’ll try. Not my strong point.’

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

‘Sure.’

_Dec …

‘Yeah?’

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

My eyes filled with tears, which I blinked away.

‘OK.’

_Night, sweetheart.

‘See you tomorrow.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed. And burped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll be quiet.’

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

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

‘What do I do with the other one?’

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

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

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

Matt

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

‘Sahnta?’

‘Ho ho ho.’

‘Ahnything fuh me?’

‘Have you been a good boy?’

‘Fuck noh.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hello Declan. What time is it?’

‘Gone eleven.’

‘Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sure, mate, if you want.’

‘Yeh. Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

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

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

I looked gratefully at Dec.

‘Thahks. Everyone fuhsses. Bluhdy exhosting.’

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

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

‘Heh, yuh geh ih.’

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

‘Yeh.’

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

‘Bolluhks. Sohry.’

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

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

‘Yuh talked wih Jay?

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

‘Guhd, he nehded tha.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Him and Beth ahr pretty greht.’

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

‘Kay. Seh yuh tomohrow.’

‘Will you be OK?’

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

‘Couhd yuh ehmpty thihs?’

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

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

‘Whehr yuh goin?’

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

‘Kitchen sink?’

‘Ehr, why noh pouhr ih dohn the loo?’

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

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

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

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

‘Creahting a demahnd.’

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

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

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

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

‘Alright? Anything else you need?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

‘You can’t do that!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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