39. Welcome to my nightmare

In which we experience a certain amount of deja vu.

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Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

|What’s this, Luke?

+This …

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

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

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

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

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

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

|What did you bring him out here for?

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

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

|Luke, what are you doing?

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

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

+Was it the beating?

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

+Did we not kick you fucking hard enough?

|Luke …

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

Cal

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

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

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

Jaime, you think this Luke take Declan somewhere?’

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

‘I’m going to call the police.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hopefully the police are making an arrest.’

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

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

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

‘Helpful, Nico.’

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

‘Oh my God.’

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

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

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

At last, she’d realised. I nodded.

Dec

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

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

łDec! Dec! Oh Jesus, no, no, no. Dec!

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

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

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

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

‘Mm OK.’

łOh thank Christ. Can you move, sit up?

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

‘Aaah.’

łWhat, what is it?

‘Shoulder. Tore it. Arm’s fucked.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘No ambulance.’

łDec, you need to get checked out.

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

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

Not getting in a fucking ambulance.’

łOK, take it easy. Your choice, alright?

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

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

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

>Declan, you are alright?

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

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

>But there is ambulances coming.

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

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

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

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

>Here is Lee.

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

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

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

łYeah, Nico caught the guy who did it.

÷What’s the damage, Dec?

I couldn’t stop shivering and sobbing to answer.

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

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

łI didn’t want to try moving him.

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

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

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

÷Any bangs to the head?

I shook my head.

÷What’s this blood round your mouth then?

‘Hit my chin on the ground.’

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

‘No.’

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

I shook my head.

÷What happened, then?

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

÷What, here?

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

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

‘Just all fucking hurts.’

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

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

÷OK, what else have you got?

‘Kicked all over.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m not staying in.’

I could feel their relief.

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

>I go see.

Nico jogged out. Lee looked at Jay.

÷So what’s the story? Who did this?

łDo you remember Luke Woods?

÷Er, conditioning coach a few years back?

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

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

I nodded.

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

łWhat’s this?

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

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

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

Text:

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

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

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

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

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

‘No …’

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raised my head with an effort. Nodded.

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

‘Yeah. Luke Woods.’

ϙWas anyone else involved in the assault?

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

‘No.’

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

‘He hurt me. Twisted my arm.’

ϙDid you try to resist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>We take Declan now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah. Might be a bit slow.’

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

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

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

‘OK.’

÷Good luck.

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

>Declan, you are OK?

‘No, I’m not fucking OK.’

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

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

>OK. You look pale, don’t be sick.

‘I won’t be sick.’

Cal

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

‘Did the bad man hurt Dec?’

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

‘Will he have more sewing?’

‘Er … sewing?’

‘Yes, to keep his skin together.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did the police catch the bad man?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But I saw Dec before.’

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

‘I know, sweetie, but this time, your daddy wants you to come back with me, yeah?’

I couldn’t argue with Lis like I did with Mum, because I didn’t know what she would say, so I had to do as I was told.

‘Am I sleeping in your house?’

‘I’m not sure yet, Cal, I’m waiting to hear from your dad, but if we go home, we can at least have some tea and see what happens.’

‘What is for tea?’

‘Ooh, what do you fancy? I do a mean fish finger. Or a bustin’ chicken nugget.’

I remembered Lis’s chicken nuggets from before, and she burnt them, even though it wasn’t her fault, it was Nico’s fault for talking to Mum and Dad in the kitchen. But best steer clear of the chicken nuggets.

‘I like fish fingers.’

‘Sorted then. Come on, grab your backpack, we’ll head off.’

Matt

Beth had expected Jay to set off for home shortly after the match finished, but he’d texted and said he was catching up with a few people, so she was waiting for a text to say he was on his way. She, Mum and I were in my room, drinking tea, when her phone rang.

‘Hello, are you on your – oh. Oh no. Oh James … but where is he now? … Who’s with him? … oh James … how bad is it? … but he wasn’t unconscious … oh James …’

If she said ‘oh James’ once more without telling Mum and me what in the name of fuckness was going on, we were going to manhandle the phone off her and ask ourselves. She looked at me, then at Mum.

‘I don’t know. I’ll ask. Matty, something terrible’s happened.’

Yeah kind of got that, just tell us. Who’s unconscious?

‘Dec’s been beaten up.’

Again? Holy shit, that boy just attracted disaster.

‘Fuck, Beth, is heh ohkay?’

‘It’s not as bad as last time, but Nico’s taken him to hospital. He might have damaged the broken arm.’

‘Fuck.’

‘James wants to know – he’s going to the hospital in a bit to check on him, he thinks he might have to stay while they check him out, and he wants to know if he needs to come home to do your bed bits.’

I thought about it. I felt ridiculously panicked at the thought of Jay not being there, despite all my whining about independence and not being treated like a child.

‘We could try the care agency, but it’s a bit short notice.’

Hearing the plea in Beth’s voice, the ‘please, not loads of hassle on top of this news’, I pushed past my panic and did a quick self-assessment.

‘Noh, Ihm guhd. Ih’ll duh ih mysehf.’

‘Really, sweetheart?’

‘Yeh. Hahv a pee, tahk ohf clohths, geh in behd. Ehsy.’

Beth gave me a look of deep gratitude.

‘Thank you. James, Matty thinks he can do it himself … yes, we’ve had a great day, he’s been up and about, helped cook tea, we’ll have him out pruning the apple tree tomorrow … yeah … oh James, give him my love … yeah, I might later … do they have any idea who … no! … not well, but I did meet him a few times … oh it’s so awful that Dec knows them … he’s going to be very shocked, be gentle with him … I just know what you’re like sometimes … OK, I’ll ring Lis and talk to Cal, see you tomorrow sometime. Love you.’

She disconnected and looked at us, eyes wide with shock.

‘I can’t believe that’s happened again. It was the same man who did it before, he used to work for Raiders, a conditioning trainer. He’s been arrested, apparently Nico rugby tackled him in the car park and sat on him. Thank goodness they were there. Cal’s gone to Nico and Lis’s, I think James is going to stay there, and they’ll come back early tomorrow. Matty, are you sure you can manage by yourself?’

‘Yeh, Beth. Today, goh tuh behd by mysehf, tomohrow pruhn the ahpl treh, next day hahf marathohn.’

Beth gave me a weak smile. Maybe I was being over-optimistic with my half-marathon timetable, and she didn’t want to burst my bubble.

‘It’s a worry for you dear, are you alright?’

‘Yes, thanks Carol. I am worried, but James said he thinks Dec will be OK. Oh, but he’s had such a day already, with his panic attack thing this morning, and going home, then his first rugby game for ages, and now this. I hope it doesn’t set him back. I’ll just give Lis a ring, check she’s alright with Cal, then I’ll see if I can get hold of Dec.’

Beth took her phone and walked off into the house. Mum picked up the mugs and stood up, looking at me.

‘That poor young man. He’s had a lot to contend with in the last few months.’

‘I thoht yuh said tha boy was a trohblmahker.’

‘I may have misjudged him. He’s a nice young man, and I’ve seen you two become friends. He can’t be all bad.’

‘Noh, not ahl bad.’

I listened to Beth talking to Lis and then Dec, unable to make out the words, but hearing the panic recede from her voice a little. As Beth calmed down, I slowly filled up with anger that some bastard had had a go at my already injured mate. I felt the need to do something, not that I had the physical capacity for grand gestures, but that didn’t stop the need. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table and sent a text. That would show them.

I hoped it struck the right note, told him I was thinking of him without being overly sympathetic. I didn’t get a reply.

Cal

I went with Lis in her car, which was awesome because it was red and only had two seats, and its roof was made of material instead of metal. Lis said the the roof folded down so the wind blew your hair about, but she didn’t fold the roof down because it was winter and it would be too cold, and I didn’t sit in my car seat, because Lis didn’t have one.

I had fish fingers, beans and chips for tea. I didn’t tell Lis I’d already had chips, because Mum didn’t let me have chips twice in one day. Then we played on Nico’s X-box, and then Lis talked to Dad on the phone, and then she talked to Mum on the phone, and I talked to Mum on the phone, and then we watched a bit of a DVD, and then I went to bed. I didn’t have any pyjamas, so Lis said it was OK to sleep in my pants and Arsenal shirt. I wanted to stay awake until Dad got back so I could ask about Dec and his sewing, but I fell asleep and he still wasn’t back.

Dec

I was just about holding it together. A loud scream seemed to be building somewhere inside me, threatening to overpower me. It was affecting my concentration and making me jumpy and irritable. I couldn’t offer Nico any conversation, although he tried. We got to the hospital, and Nico parked his car illegally in front of A&E, helped me out and we went in together. The hospital was expecting me, but said there was likely to be a wait. It was Saturday evening, they were busy.

I sat next to Nico on the uncomfortable plastic chairs, staring at the wall, feeling my shoulder and arm swell up and become more painful. It was joined by throbs and twinges from all the other places Luke had kicked me. I didn’t say anything for some time, and Nico sat with me, not saying much either.

>You must call Rose. She need to know.

‘She’s not expecting me till later, I’ll call when I know how bad it is. I don’t want her worrying, or rushing over here.’

>She might find out, there was TV cameras.

‘Fucking hell.’

>You want I phone her?

‘No, I’ll do it. It sounds more serious if someone else calls.’

I got my phone out, dialled the number, took a deep breath, put on a brave face.

:Hello, love, alright?

‘Hi Rose, no, not really. I’m at A&E.’

:What? Oh love, what’s happened?

‘Well, bit of a re-run of last time. Someone tried to kick my head in. But I’m OK. Nico’s with me, we’re just waiting to be seen.’

:Oh love, I’ll be right there.

‘No, Rose, please don’t come down. I’m not going to be staying in, it’s all OK.’

:But you said you got kicked – are you hurt?

‘Well, yeah, I’ve hurt my arm again, and there’s a few more bruises for my collection. But I’m OK. Please don’t come down, Rose. I’ll be back there soon, I promise.’

:Alright, love, if that’s what you want. Can I talk to Nico?

I handed the phone over. That short conversation had been pretty exhausting.

>Hi Rose … yes … yes, he is hurt, he is in a bit shock … I don’t think you need to if he don’t want it … yes, I call you later … be careful of yourself. Bye.

Nico gave the phone back. It rang almost immediately. Beth.

_Dec, oh, Dec, sweetheart. Are you OK?

‘No.’

_I can’t believe it’s happened again. Where are you?

‘In A&E.’

_Is someone with you?

‘Nico.’

_Oh Dec, you poor love. You must have been terrified. James says they got him though.

‘Apparently.’

I was finding it hard to string more than one word together and keep my eyes open at the same time. Out of energy, I handed Nico the phone.

>Hey, Beth, is Nico. Declan he is not with us really. I think he is OK, but he hurts pretty bad and he have a big shock. We wait for doctor … yes … no, he see Lee, the Raiders doctor, he want him to come here for X-ray and for looking at where they kick him. He think about internal injury … no … yes … oh, OK, I know he worry. Cal is OK with Lis. You are OK? … I know, is worry to be so far, but we look after him … OK, we call you later.

He gave me the phone back.

>Is there other people you want me to talk to?

‘No.’

>Maybe Don? He will know what happen.

I sighed. Couldn’t really hack all the fuss, and having to think was doing my head in.

‘OK. Don. Thanks.’

I handed him my phone.

>Is OK, I use mine.

As I was putting my phone back in my pocket, it pinged with a text.

Matt: =Fucking attention seeker.

It almost brought half a smile to my face although I didn’t send a reply. Another text, almost immediately afterwards.

Amy: =OMG just heard what happened. RU OK? 😦 xx

Me: =Not OK. In A&E. Spk soon.

Nico was still talking to Don, telling him the same things he had told Rose and Beth. He finished his conversation and put his phone away.

‘Nico, you don’t have to stay.’

>Ha, is true I don’t have to. I stay, though, because you are my friend and you are hurt and seem not right to me. I want you don’t be alone, and I want to see you are OK. Jaime he come soon. He leave Cal with Lis. He want also to see you are OK.

‘He can’t, he needs to get back home.’

>He sort with Beth, don’t worry about him.

I didn’t have the strength to argue any more. I felt drained, dull, lifeless. My arm and shoulder were throbbing and I could feel every bruise forming under my skin. I settled into a kind of lethargy, in a world of pain, where I couldn’t move or talk or think about anything beyond staring at the wall. Nico tried to talk to me, but eventually gave up when he got no answer. Jay arrived after a while, taking a seat next to me. Nico went to move his car, and then check how long it would be before I was seen.

łDec, the police have arrested Luke Woods. Him and Ben have been charged with assaulting you before, and he’s also been charged with assaulting you tonight.

‘What about the other one?’

łWhat other one?

‘There was someone else –’

Details came back to me.

‘– older, scraggy beard, Raiders shirt. He was in the van.’

łJesus. Why didn’t you say before? You told the police it was just Luke.

‘Forgot.’

łJesus, Dec. I suppose you’re not really thinking straight. Well, as soon as you’re up to it, you should contact them. How are you doing?

‘Everything fucking hurts. You should go home.’

łIt’s a bit late, now. Lis is putting Cal to bed. We’re going to set off first thing tomorrow. I needed to come and see you’re OK. Stop worrying. Beth says Matty had a really good day today, and he’s going to put himself to bed, so that’s great, isn’t it?

‘You should be there with him, instead of fucking about here with me.’

Jay sighed.

łI really thought you’d got it. Maybe this has messed your head up more than I realised. You’re my family. You need me here, I need to be here, to make sure you’re OK. I’ve checked with Beth, Matty doesn’t need me just at the moment, he’s fine. So I’m staying here, and you’re going to accept that I need to be here and you need me to be here. Jesus, Dec, how many more times do we have to have this conversation?

I stayed silent, continuing to feel guilty about Beth and Carol having to manage Matt on their own. Nico came back from the reception desk and sat down. His charm had apparently not managed to shift me up the waiting list, and they said it was going to be another hour at least. I continued to sit on the uncomfortable plastic chair, staring at the wall, feeling everything carry on stiffening up, feeling guilty, feeling separated from reality. Jay and Nico talked over my head. Jay patted my back and ruffled my hair every so often. Although it was comforting, I couldn’t respond.

łBloody good tackle, Nico. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself landing on the car park.

>Ha! I am not hurt, but he is hurt. He bang his head, and I think he break some fingers.

łGood. Fucking bastard, it’s the least he deserves.

>You are right. I feel horrible he know Declan by me.

łJesus, Nico, it’s not your fault. Sounds like he had a major grudge going before you ever took Dec to his gym.

>Maybe you are right. I think he hurt Declan before. I see bruises on his shoulder after we are at his gym. Declan tell me it happen when he is drunk, but now I wish I say more.

łWell, trying to get Dec to admit to anything has always been a bloody hard job, eh, Dec?

‘Huh?’

łNothing, go back to sleep.

‘Not asleep.’

łMight as well be. Nico, did you see anyone else? Dec says there was another man there, in the van.

>No, I don’t see. I am busy chasing … wait, maybe there is someone when we first see Declan … I don’t remember well.

‘How did you know?’

łKnow what?

‘Where he took me.’

Jay blew his cheeks out.

łBit of luck, really. Nico was with Lis and Cal when I went back. I told him about you spotting Luke, and remembering it was him before. We asked around, and someone had seen Luke going through the door to where you’d been sitting. We ran out there, but you were nowhere to be seen. Took a bit of a gamble that he would try to get you outside. Lis called the police, and Nico called while we tried to find you. We got out there as fast as we could; when we got to the top of the steps, we saw him over on the other side of the car park giving you another going over. I shouted, he ran. Nico chased him, I got to you as quickly as I could. Fuck knows how the cops got there as fast as they did.

>I think there is a car there always after a game, down the hill. I am glad, I don’t think I can sit on him much longer.

‘Thanks.’

łNo problem, mate. I would say ‘anytime’, but please, for fuck’s sake, don’t go getting yourself beaten up again.

‘Sorry.’

Jay rolled his eyes.

‘Couldn’t help it.’

łI know that, Dec.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

łI know.

‘Sorry.’

łIs that what’s bothering you?

‘Wasn’t strong enough.’

łJesus, Dec, he nearly pulled your fucking arm off. And you weren’t feeling too hot to start with. He’s a complete fucking nutcase.

‘Just froze.’

łI’m not surprised. Jesus, you’ve been through enough, don’t start giving yourself grief about what he did to you. He’s the worthless piece of shit here.

I hung my head. Despite Jay’s words, I still felt guilty and ashamed about letting Luke dominate me.

>Declan, what he do to you is bad. Is his bad, not your bad. We hate him, not you.

łNicely put.

>Thank you.

I heard what they said, and most of me knew it was true, but somewhere inside I was cowering in a corner with my hands over my head, completely powerless to stop it all happening.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

Tears filled my eyes and I started to cry again.

łAh, Dec, come here.

Jay put his arm round me and pulled me towards him.

łDon’t let him get to you like this. He’s won, then, hasn’t he, eh? He didn’t win – here you are, large as life and twice as ugly. Possibly three times as ugly.

‘He nearly did. If you hadn’t been there –’

łYeah, could have been nasty. But we were there, we had your back. We always will, one way or another. You don’t have to be invincible, do everything on your own. I wish you’d bloody remember that once in a while, it would save me repeating it every five minutes.

I was silent, considering. Nico’s phone rang.

>Hello Rose … no we wait still … he is no worse … ha, yes, you would, I know this, but no, don’t come, they see him soon, I am sure. Jaime is here now. I call you as soon as I know.

As if Rose’s call had caused it, my name was called.

21. The consequences of falling

In which Dec tries to find his feet and Matty tries to find stuff out.

Dec

Nurse Michelle popped her head round the door.

¬Sorry to break up the party, the police are quite anxious to have a word with Declan. I’m going to have to ask you to leave. You can visit again this afternoon if you want to.

:Any idea how long he’s going to be in here, love?

¬Well, we’ll ask the physios to have a go at standing him, and if he can stand up on his own and walk unaided, it could be later on tomorrow or the day after. We need to get the catheter out and make sure he can get to the loo on his own. Might try that today, even, it’s not good to have it in too long. He’s had several bangs to the head which need an eye for the next twenty four hours in any case. Is there anyone at home to look after him?

>He live on his own.

:I live downstairs. He won’t be on his own.

¬Well that’s great, should speed it all up if there’s going to be someone around when he goes home. I’m going to send the policeman in now. Declan, do you want anyone with you?

‘Ruhz.’

:Of course, love, as if I’m going anywhere!

>I guess that mean we are not wanted. We will be back, Declan. Be careful with yourself.

~Bye Dec. Chin up – oh, but mind the stitches. See you soon, yeah?

And so it was just Rose and me. She gently took my injured hand and gave it the tiniest squeeze.

‘Thnks Ruhz. Yohr graat.’

:Oh love, I was worried when I didn’t hear from you all day yesterday. I wondered if it had all gone like you thought it would, and you’d gone off doing something silly. I was so relieved when I saw you on the news. When you didn’t come back, I thought you must have gone out celebrating. Ah love, look at you. I can’t believe someone would do this to you.

‘Dint I call yuh?’

I’d certainly meant to, but couldn’t remember doing it.

:No, love. I left you a couple of messages.

‘Sohry.’

:Oh love, don’t worry about it, I’m just glad you’ve still got your job. I hope all this –

She indicated my battered body.

: – doesn’t affect things with your club.

Hadn’t considered that. Put it to the back of my mind as something to worry about later. Had enough going on just now. Rose brushed my hair back from my forehead. I had a sudden memory from my childhood of my mum doing exactly the same when I was ill or upset. It was a bit overwhelming.

:What about your visitors, though, love, your Jay and Beth and little Calum, I was that pleased for you. How about that?

Now they were gone it all felt unreal again, and I could easily have doubted they had been here, if it wasn’t for the dinosaur magazine lying on top of the cupboard by the bed.

‘Cahn bliehve ih. Hahpy.’

:I’m happy for you, love, they seem lovely, obviously care a lot about you. Did Jay say he stayed here all night with you?

‘Thihnk so. Wahs ouh of ih. Noh hehr when I wohk up.’

:I expect he had to go and get a bit of sleep, or a bit of breakfast. I’m glad I met them.

A knock on the door.

¬Declan, this is DI Johnson. He just wants to ask a few questions. Are you up to it m’dear?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. DI Johnson, Declan’s speech is not that clear due to his facial injuries. He is also on a lot of pain medication. Don’t tire him out, please.

ϙUnderstood. Hello there. OK if I sit down?

He took a notebook out of his pocket, and began asking me about the previous evening. I wasn’t much help. Barely being able to talk aside, I couldn’t remember leaving the club, and nothing of the attack, except the boot coming towards me. It was difficult for me to take in exactly what had happened to me, let alone remembering. Everything from late afternoon and evening was foggy, vague and jumbled. I remembered watching the game, and bits and pieces of the press conference but everything after that was a blur.

DI Johnson picked up a plastic bag he had placed on a chair when he came in. It was a mess of broken bits, the remains of a mobile phone.

ϙDoes this look familiar?

‘Fhone?’

ϙIs it yours?

He held the bag closer to my face. There wasn’t much left, I really couldn’t tell; my phone was pretty nondescript, just black, no fancy cover. If it had been smashed, it could well look like this bag of bits.

‘Duhnuh.’

ϙOK. No problem, it is rather mangled. Can you tell us your number? We might be able to check, if there’s enough left of it.

I couldn’t remember the number, but Rose had it on her phone, and she told him.

ϙWas anyone expecting you to be out in the car park at that time? It would have been sometime around seven o’clock, that’s when you were seen leaving the bar.

I kept telling him, it was all a haze. I suppose he had to ask, but it wasn’t jogging my memory at all.

‘Duhnuh.’

ϙCan’t remember any arrangements with anyone?

‘Nuh.’

He asked a few more details: people I could remember talking to, phone calls or texts I could remember. I really struggled to recall anything useful.

ϙAnyone you can think of who may have wanted to hurt you?

Only about ten thousand Raiders fans.

‘Nuh.’

ϙOK, I’ll leave it there. I may come back if anything turns up on the phone. And if you remember anything else at all, however small, please contact me. Here’s my card.

‘Kay.’

I was pretty exhausted. It had been wonderful – amazing – to see everyone, but I was seriously flagging now. I closed my eyes and drifted away.

Dreaming. I am standing surrounded by people, everyone I know and care about. They start to walk away, in different directions. I can fly. I fly above them and watch them go. The higher I fly, the easier it is to watch everyone at the same time.

Matt

True to his word, Jay was back early enough the next morning that he could sort me out. I wasn’t any more pleasant to him than I had been to Ian, although Jay wasn’t as prepared to put up with it.

‘What the fuck’s the matter with you, Matty? You’re not making this easy, you know.’

‘Sohry if meh bein ihl is suhch an incohvehience.’

‘You know I didn’t mean that. You can help a bit, is all I meant. Try pushing with your arms, at least.’

‘Why dih yuh cahcel Sahly?’

‘What?’

‘Yehsday, sohm blohk cahm.’

‘What, the agency?’

He took my silence as a yes.

‘I didn’t cancel her, I didn’t ask for her, I thought you’d prefer a bloke to wash your bits and pieces.’

‘He wahs shih.’

‘Sorry, mate. I didn’t know you had a preference, although maybe I should have guessed you’d rather have a woman’s hands on your balls.’

‘Fuck. Ohf.’

He’d hit a nerve, unintentionally. There had been absolutely no stirrings from my balls or any other part of my male anatomy since … I couldn’t really remember. Since Carrie left me, certainly. I’d expected to be at least mildly turned on when Sally washed me, but there had been nothing, and it felt wrong.

‘What is it then? I’m not quite sure what I’ve done.’

You’ve just walked all over me without even asking me, is what you’ve done, you’ve just assumed I don’t have an opinion, or rather you’ve guessed what that opinion is, and now you’ve just second guessed it. But I didn’t have the strength, the breath or the courage to say it all.

‘Wanted Sahly.’

It sounded petulant, even to me.

‘Sorry, mate, I’ll remember next time, but I don’t think we’ll need to use them again, we’re not planning on going away again any time soon. Oh, Beth went shopping and got you something, should make life a bit easier for you.’

He went out of the room, and came back in with a cup. It was made of plastic and had a lid with a spout. It looked like something you gave a two year old to drink juice out of. I looked at it with disgust

‘Wha the fuck’s tha?’

‘So you don’t spill so much tea. We’re going to have to buy a new bed if you drop much more.’

‘No Tohtenham ohns left?’

I was actually close to tears, but tried to make light of it, as if having a football team’s logo emblazoned on a baby cup would somehow make it more manly. All the hope that Sally had given me for a quick recovery dribbled away.

‘Ha ha, I don’t think so. Maybe we can get you a sticker, if you’re a good boy.’

And that was the root of it, really, the fact that Jay could joke about me being a child and getting a sticker, when I actually felt like a child, like everyone made decisions around me but not with me. He still thought I was his little brother. Well, I was still his little brother, but I wasn’t still twelve, he wasn’t still the boss of me. Oh, that sounded like I was still twelve.

Then, as always happened, I reminded myself that he had given up his job, his fucking job, and uprooted his family from Devon to come and live in shitty Stafford, although admittedly the nice part, so he could look after me. And I kept my thoughts to myself and drank out of the cup, because it was the least I could do not to spill tea on the bed and break it.

Dec

I came to, gradually, later. Rose was asleep in the armchair by my bed. Did a quick check of my moving parts. Seemed slightly easier, although trying to move set up a chorus of protests from various areas. My mouth felt more a part of me, and I could open my eyes further, although my head was pounding. Couldn’t move my right arm, which was plastered all the way up and ended in the stabbing, tearing pain of a broken collar bone. Tried the left arm. Managed to move it, but my hand was swollen and bruised, and the little finger had a splint and bandage on it, so wiggling any of my fingers was difficult and painful. My elbow bent a bit more than it had this morning. Tried moving my head from side to side. That hurt a lot, and sent shooting pains down my neck, shoulders and back. Moved toes, feet and legs. It hurt, and they were stiff, but everything seemed to work. It also tugged on the tube for my pee, which felt really weird. I wasn’t quite sure what it was or how it was attached, but I decided I wanted it removed as soon as possible.

Thought I might try getting out of bed. I was already in a semi-sitting position, propped up with pillows and the mattress, which had been raised at an angle. I tried sitting more upright, so I would be able to swing my legs over the side. It was slow, painful progress. Every tiny movement set off sharp digs, pulls and stabs from stitches, bruises, broken bones. It was almost like being beaten up all over again.

I had just about pulled myself up into a more upright position when Rose woke up with a start. She looked disoriented for a few seconds, then looked over at me. Frowned.

:What on earth are you up to, love?

‘Wanna gerrup.’

:Whatever for?

‘Neeto gerrouof here.’

:No arguments from me there, love, but if you fall flat on that big ugly broken nose of yours, you’ll be staying for several more days at least, and that’s a fact. You’re woozy on painkillers, only have half a working arm, and who knows if your legs will even stand you up properly. Wait for a nurse to get here, at least, so you can have some proper supervision. Please, Declan. I can see you’re about to argue with me and do it your own way. I don’t think I could bear it if you hurt yourself again. Please.

Unable to go against her pleading, I flopped back on the pillows. That hurt too.

‘Ahsk nuhrse foh meh?’

Rose paused, considering.

:Alright, I’ll go and find someone. Promise me you won’t try it while I’m out the room.

‘Prohmis.’

While she was gone, I tried limbering up by moving as many bits of me as I could. If I got used to how much pain there was going to be before I actually did anything, I might be able to push through it. I had done it in games and in training before, not to this extent, but knew that I had the capacity to ignore pain to achieve a goal. After a while, Rose returned.

:They’ll come and help you in a bit, I think they’re dishing out pills at the moment. Think you can wait?

I sighed.

‘Kay.’

:Anything you want? There’s a little shop downstairs, sells papers, drinks, everything. You missed lunch, they brought something then took it away again.

‘Whatime issit?’

:Half past two.

I had been asleep for several hours. I was really thirsty.

‘Drink.’

:OK, love. Anything particular?

‘Vodka Redbull.’

I tried a cheeky grin.

:In your dreams. Anything doable?

‘Joos. Apple.’

:Right you are, love, I’ll be back in a tick.

Rose hurried out, and I drifted into a doze again. Before I could sleep too deeply, there was a knock on the door. Nurse Michelle. Seemingly the front of house for the Summers function.

¬You have a visitor, if you’re up to it.

‘Who?’

She turned round to someone behind her.

¬What’s your name please?

-Don Barker.

¬Declan?

‘Kay.’

My pulse rate had shot up; I suddenly remembered Rose’s throwaway comment about my newly restored status at the club being affected by my injuries. Thought about feigning sleep, but that was only postponing it, and he already knew I was awake. Don walked in and sat on the chair by the bed.

-Hello Declan. You actually look better than you did last night, although that’s not saying much. How are you?

‘Pruhty shit. Yuh wuhr hehr?’

-I came as soon as Jay rang me last night. You were out for the count though. Do you have any idea who did this?

‘Nuh.’

-Have you spoken to the police?

‘Yuh. Noh much tuh tell. Cahn member.’

-Oh, well, maybe something will come back, these things can take time. Would you –

The door opened, and Rose came back in carrying a bag that seemed full of more than just apple juice. She stopped when she saw Don, who stood up and held out his hand in greeting. Rose ignored it.

-Hello, Don Barker.

:Rose. Who are you?

-I’m Declan’s boss.

Don paused so Rose could tell him who she was. She was returning no such favour. There was a silence. I caved.

‘Ruhz is guhd fruhnd. Joos?’

:Oh, yes, love, here you go.

She emptied the slushie cup, and poured some juice into it. Put the straw in the cup. Held it up to my mouth. I sipped. Heaven.

:Got a few more bits in case you’re hungry. Can’t go missing your lunch. So, Mr Barker, is Declan keeping his job?

I spluttered.

‘Ruhz! Bluhdy hell!’

Don laughed.

-You’re quite direct aren’t you! Fair enough. Yes, Declan will be keeping his job. We’ve got a place for him, all the rehab he’ll need, we’ll keep our end of the bargain if he keeps his.

I sank back with relief. Rose patted my hand.

:Well you wouldn’t have asked, would you love? Best get things out in the open, I say.

Don looked like something had just occurred to him.

-Are you the lady who lives in Declan’s building?

Rose looked wary.

:Yes.

-Ah, I’ve heard a lot about you from Nico. He credits you with keeping Declan together, helping him through the last few weeks, making sure he turned things round so he could stay at Raiders.

:I didn’t have much to do with it –

‘Bolluhks. Cuhdn’t huv dun it wuthout yuh.’

:Well, we’ve helped each other over the past few weeks I suppose. Declan is a lovely lad, he’s been a bit sad and mixed up. Needs someone who understands.

-Well, I think you could be right there. Declan, I’ve spoken at length to Nico and Jay, who are both very worried about you, not just because of this attack, but your state of mind. I’m glad you seem to have mended some bridges with Jay. As part of your rehab, we’d like you to make contact with a psychologist who helps out at the club from time to time. I think there are lots of issues you could sort out that might prevent anything similar happening again.

Rose looked at me.

:Oh love that sounds grand. Someone proper to talk to, get it all off your chest.

‘Got yuh.’

Talking about all my shit to a stranger was the last thing I wanted to be doing.

:I know, love, but I can only do mam chat. Doesn’t solve much. Not like a professional. You can still chat to me, I can still stick my oar in. Why don’t you do this as well?

I really didn’t like the thought of a psychologist, but I wasn’t being given much of a choice.

‘Kay.’

Rose wasn’t finished sticking her oar in today.

:This rehab you mentioned. Do you have physios?

-Yes, the club have several physios, we’ll devise the best prog –

:Are they available today?

-Er… it’s their day off … why do you ask?

:Well, Declan can’t go home until a physio says he can stand up without falling flat on his face. Any chance yours could come down and give him the once over? Might speed things up a bit.

Don laughed again.

-It hadn’t occurred to me. Is he up to going home so soon?

:I think he wants to try, if he can, right love?

‘Yeh. Need tuh gerrouof here.

-OK then, I’ll see if I can contact someone. I’ll have to go outside to use my phone. Back in a minute.

Don shut the door behind him as I left, and I turned to look at Rose.

‘Ruhz, yuhr tehrible.’

:Sticking up for you, that’s all. You’d still be here next Christmas if we did things your way.

‘Thahnks.’

:You’re welcome, love.

Rose showed me the contents of her carrier bag. She seemed to have brought every type of junk food the shop could possibly have sold. Sandwiches, crisps, a nutty energy bar, a pork pie, chocolate. I couldn’t remember the last time I ate – was it lunchtime yesterday? What day was today?

‘Ruhz, what day issit?’

:Sunday, love.

‘Seehms long tihm ago.’

:What does love?

‘Yessday.’

:Well a lot’s happened, hasn’t it. Who’d have thought yesterday morning, when you could hardly speak for thinking it was the end of the world, that you’d have your job back and your family back? How are you now, love? I mean, in yourself. It’s obvious the outside of you’s not up to much at the moment, but when I dropped you off yesterday morning, I was that worried. Now, you seem different, like, I don’t know, a weight’s lifted off.

‘Yeah. Behter.’

I didn’t really have the right words to explain the difference between yesterday morning and now. I’d been falling apart, but somehow, despite everything that had happened, I had been glued back together by keeping my job and finding my family.

: I’m glad to hear it. You’ve been beaten black and blue into the bargain, mind, you’re bound to be feeling a bit out of it. All those knocks to the head aren’t helping either. Oh, love, I wish you could remember what happened. What if they have another go?

‘Lethem try.’

:Well the state you’re in, they’d have no trouble finishing the job, so ten out of ten for bravery, but nothing for common sense. Anyway, what do you fancy out of this lot?

I looked at the pile of food Rose had bought. Didn’t think I’d be able to manage most of it – chewing was a bit beyond me right now, crisps would lacerate and rub salt in too many wounds, nuts too crunchy –

‘Choclut plehs.’

Rose broke off a square and put it in my mouth. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was. As the chocolate melted on my tongue, my mouth filled with saliva, and I became aware of how empty my stomach was. It let out a rumble. Rose gave me a look.

:When did you last eat?

‘Carn member. Lunch yessday?’

:Oh love, what do these people do all day in here? You need sustenance. Try some of this other stuff.

‘Too hard. Carn chew.’

Rose looked stricken.

:I’m sorry, love, I didn’t think. Crisps, what am I like? Right, I’m going to find some proper food if I have to raid the kitchens myself. Assuming these places still have kitchens. Be back in a tick.

And she was off again.

Matt

Jay was sitting in the chair by the bed later, doing some paperwork on his knee as I dozed.

‘Soh wha’s stohry wih the adolehscent?’

Jay looked up, frowning slightly.

‘Dec?’

‘Yeh. Muhm said bihg rihft, then yehsday ahl behter?’

‘Well I suppose that’s a very short way of saying it.’

‘Spihl?’

He sighed. ‘Really? Could take a while.’

It was something of a novelty, Jay having more than five words to say to me at a time, and I wanted to encourage it while it was on offer.

‘Sehm tuh hahv tihm on my hahnds befohr I ruhsh off tuh my nehxt appoihment. Kehp trahk if I nohd ohf, thogh.’

‘OK then. Weren’t we just off to Portugal last time you were down?’

I nodded.

‘Jesus, where do I start? A lot of it we didn’t know till later, but I’ll do my best. Everything was going great, Dec had turned into a good kid, did what he was told, worked hard. Then when we came back from holiday, he was like a different person, he sulked in his room, didn’t talk, ate his meals at different times to us.’

I thought back to how Dec had been last time I saw him, how open he was, how different from the sullen uncommunicative teenager I’d always seen before.

‘Wha was ih?’

Jay told me the long, involved tale of Dec’s indiscretions, misdemeanours and misfortunes, which included some kind of fraud, some kind of theft and some kind of accidental death. Above all, it involved Dec not telling anyone about any of it.

‘I didn’t find out about any of this until, well it all came out on the same day, about an hour after Mum called me and told me she’d found you on the floor of your bathroom.’

‘Shih.’

‘Yeah, well, it wasn’t the best day. By then, he’d moved out, been gone a couple of months, and we hardly saw him, or spoke to him, so the last thing I needed was being landed with all his shit when I just wanted to get up here and see what was going on with you. I was seriously angry, and I told him we were done with him. Then I handed in my notice at Raiders and we were off.’

I’d had no idea how traumatic it had been, and swore again to give Jay an easier time about everything. It would probably last half an hour, but at least I’d sworn it.

‘Buh wha now?’

‘Well, in-between there was a lot of other shit. Do you know Nico?’

I shrugged, not being able to summon the thinking power to trawl through Jay’s rugby-mates contact list.

‘He’s one of the Raiders players. Him and his wife – oh, you know Lis?’

‘Yuhr ex?’

‘Yeah, Jesus, don’t blurt that out in front of Beth though, it doesn’t get mentioned. Anyway, Nico and Lis decided to take Dec under their wing a bit. They told us, but we didn’t want to know, didn’t want to be involved. And Cal got hold of my phone and called Dec while we were out visiting you one time, and I tore him off a strip and probably caused him some kind of emotional trauma. And Cal ran away from the hotel when we were back down in Devon.’

‘Muhm said.’

‘Did she tell you Dec found him?’

I nodded.

‘So it’s been a bit of an action-packed few months, all told.’

‘Sohry.’

Jay’s eyes softened, and he reached over and ruffled my hair.

‘Don’t be yampy Matty, sometimes you have to do what you have to do.’

‘Buh Muhm said ih’s ahl hahpy now.’

I was getting tired, taking all this in, but I wanted to hear the end. I wanted something else to focus on apart from my bloody woes.

‘I wouldn’t say happy exactly, but yeah, something’s happened that’s changed things. Dec was – he’s been beaten up, glassed and kicked in the car park at Raiders. I found him.’

‘Hohly shih.’

‘Yeah. I didn’t know it was him though, just tripped over this bloke, looked down, shitloads of blood, like splattered up the side of a car and running across the ground. This bloke, Jesus, his face was just blood, glass all over the place, his clothes were all cut; you could see gashes through them. He was kind of mumbling, but he stopped after a bit. I got Beth to call an ambulance, and had to stay with him while it came, but then we were still going to come back up here. The police wouldn’t let me go, though, until they’d talked to me, and they kept me bloody ages. Cal was getting seriously bored, we were waiting in one of the suites at Raiders with nothing to do. Then they finally came and talked to us, and asked if I knew the victim. I said I didn’t recognise him, but neither would his mother, so they asked if I knew Declan Summers, and then it twigged. The bloke I’d found on the ground, with his face smashed in, was Dec. Jesus, I was nearly sick. I’m sorry, mate, but I just needed to go to the hospital and make sure he was OK.’

‘Sohkay. Fuck.’

‘Yeah, you could say that. It was weird, though. The night before last, sorry, I’m not telling this very well, God, was it only Friday? Well, Raiders got docked a ton of points because of the passport thing. We were staying with Nico and Lis, and I had a feeling Dec’s name would get a mention, I mean, it was his passport all the fuss was about. I’d said to Beth, beforehand, you’re sure they’re not going to want to talk about Dec, because Lis had been making these ‘maybe you don’t know the whole story’ noises, and I didn’t want to know.

That seemed about right. Jay was never one for facing a confrontation head on.

‘Nico was out when we got there on Friday evening, but when he came back he said he knew we didn’t want to hear it, but Dec was seriously disturbed, like mentally unwell, like the points thing had unhinged him somehow. It worried me, hearing that, and me and Beth talked into the small hours about whether we’d made a mistake cutting him out like we had. Cal really missed him, and so did we, I guess. Anyway, I went to the hospital as soon as I found out, and he was lying there, face all swollen and bruised, stitches everywhere you looked, they broke his fucking arm in three places, nearly broke his jaw.’

Jay’s own jaw tightened as he spoke, and I could see how much it had affected him, how much it was still affecting him to tell the tale.

‘He was medicated up to his eyeballs, so he was virtually unconscious, but I just wanted to be there when he woke up, so he had someone with him. But it took a long time, and while I was sat there waiting, I just realised that we were OK now. We’d been in this bad place, but things were OK. It might take a bit of talking, but we’d get there, things could get back to how they’d been.’

‘Soh is heh cohming tuh lihv up hehr?’

‘Oh fuck knows, Matty, I highly doubt it. We haven’t even talked to him properly, he can hardly speak his face is such a mess. He’s so Raiders, I doubt he’d give it up, and I don’t think he should if things work out for him. Haven’t really got the room, either, although I could always do without my office I suppose. We might ask him up for Christmas, though, if he’s well enough, see how things go.’

I looked at the Christmas tree sparkling in the corner of the room, lights flashing. Cal had been so excited about it being December that he’d apparently wanted a tree in every room as soon as they moved in, but had had to compromise with one in the living room and one in my room.

I hadn’t given Christmas much thought. It was going to be a weird time. Last year I’d been in New York with Carrie, and the world was mine. This year the world had kicked my arse, and it owned me instead. One teenager more or less wouldn’t make much difference to me in life’s grand scheme.

‘Greht.’

‘You won’t have to see much of him, if he comes.’

‘S’fihn.’

Dec

The square of chocolate had melted and slipped smoothly down my throat, but had hardly touched my awakened hunger. I looked longingly at the opened bar that Rose had left on the top of the cupboard. Surely if I was really careful, and did it really slowly, I could just twist round and reach it? My bruised hand wasn’t working great, but I only needed to break a bit off. It wouldn’t take much. Surely.

I inched my legs to the side of the bed. If I could get my legs over the side, the momentum would lift me up into a sitting position on the side of the bed, wouldn’t it? Little by little I moved my left leg nearer to the edge of the mattress. My heel eventually hung over the edge. I moved my right leg next to it. Shoved the left foot with the right and both feet were dangling in space, pulling painfully on all sorts of aches and pains. Feeling the twist in my spine, I braced myself with my left elbow, which didn’t seem to want to bend completely, and gave an almighty heave to push both legs over the side. The combined push of my arm and my legs did indeed manage to sit me up over the side of the bed, but it hurt a lot.

Breathing heavily, and waiting for the throbbing to subside, I sat wondering if a bite of chocolate was worth it. Couldn’t see any way back now. My feet didn’t reach the floor, and there was no way I would be able to get my legs back onto the bed. The bed seemed to be some kind of automatic high-low thing; it was at its highest setting and the controls were nowhere to be seen. The gap between my feet and the floor was only a few inches, but it felt insurmountable, as although my legs were the least injured part of me, I wasn’t sure of them.

Rather than plunging into the relatively unknown, I decided to edge my way along the bed until I was close enough to reach the chocolate. This was more easily thought than done, as I only had one arm to brace myself with, and at the end of that was a bruised hand with a broken finger. The other arm was heavy with plaster, and with every movement I felt the ends of my collar bone scraping together, and the thump of my pounding headache . So, slow progress.

Finally I thought I was close enough to try reaching. I was going to have to stretch forwards and sideways, and possibly twist my hips to the left a little bit.

I’m not sure what happened. I was doing it all really carefully, but all of a sudden my arse was in mid-air, followed shortly by the rest of me, and I was on my way to the floor.

I tried to grab hold of the bed to save myself, but only succeeded in catching my fingers in the sheet and painfully wrenching my right shoulder. My head hit the cupboard, which rocked, and sent the vase of flowers to the floor, where it smashed next to me, closely followed by Cal’s bottle of blackcurrant, the jug of water and the carton of apple juice. The stand with the drip hanging from it started to wobble.

As I hit the floor, everything that had been cut, scraped, broken, bruised or otherwise damaged, protested this new mistreatment. All at once, in a huge burst of pain. I shrieked. The drip stand fell on top of me and the tube was pulled from my arm. Something had happened to the pee bag, which had been strapped to my leg, and it was leaking piss all over me and the floor; something unmentionable seemed to have happened to the tube. I couldn’t move.

I started to cry – big, baby, shocked, hurt tears. Too much to handle. I half expected someone to come running, but no one came. Couldn’t shout. Couldn’t reach the alarm call button. Could only hope Rose would be back soon. Lay there, getting cold, feeling water, blackcurrant, apple juice and piss soaking into my pyjamas. Sniffed back tears.

In time, to my great relief, the door opened. I was in the wrong position to see who it was, but I didn’t care.

°Shit!

A pair of feet wearing brown Chukkas was right by my head. I looked up the legs and beyond, and saw Big. He stood looking at me with a stunned expression.

‘Help.’

°Shit, Captain, I’ll go and get someone.

He ran out of the room and returned quickly with a couple of nurses. They positioned themselves beside me, exclaiming, picking bits of broken vase off my face, standing the drip back up, checking me over. Apart from the indignity of the piss, and the entire situation, I didn’t seem to have sustained further damage.

°Anything I can do?

Big moved close to me again, and something about the combination of his boots and the broken glass caused a flashback.

I was on the ground in the car park again, seeing a brown booted foot coming towards my face.

Back on the floor in the hospital, I flinched away from the nurses, and tried to curl into a ball, crying out in agony as everything hurt all over again. For a short time every stab of pain felt like a punch or kick.

*Hey, hey, steady now, Declan, it’s OK, take it easy. You’re OK. Can you tell us what happened?

*Maybe you’d better come back to see your friend later?

°Sure thing. OK.

I heard the door close.

*Where’s this blood coming from? I thought it was all blackcurrant, but he’s bleeding here, look, and here. The cannula has come out and I think he’s pulled some stitches. And I think he’s pulled on the catheter tube. We’d better get the doctor to check him over before we try and move him.

One of them left. Rose chose this moment to make her re-entrance.

:Oh my – what’s happened? Declan?

‘Rohz, sohry.’

She bent down, pushing the nurse, who was trying to check my pulse, out of the way.

:What have you done?

‘Wanted choclat. Sohry.’

:I told you I was going to find you something. You promised me you wouldn’t try on your own.

‘Sohry.’

:What’s he done to himself? Where’s all this blood coming from?

Rose sounded panicked.

*It’s not blood, it’s Ribena. We’re going to get the doctor to have a look. It doesn’t look like he’s made anything any worse, apart from pulling a few stitches, and a bit of a problem with the catheter. That’s going to hurt for a bit. Declan, I’m going to try to sit you up. You need to get out of these wet things before it ruins your plaster cast. Can you help at all?

I could barely lift my shoulders off the ground, but I did that and felt her arms go underneath, slowly levering me onto her knees, and from there, bit by bit, into a sitting position, leaning back against her. In another lifetime I would have been embarrassed or maybe even enjoyed it but didn’t have the energy for either, and it was so painful.

*Okay, any chance you could lean forwards and support yourself?

Gave it a go. Managed it.

*Great stuff. Right, lets get that top off. Er, are you his mum?

:No love, just a friend.

*Maybe you’d like to wait outside?

:Hm. Well just until he’s changed, then I’m coming back in. OK Declan?

‘Kay.’

The nurse took off my top and wiped me down with some disposable cloths that seemed to be kept in the bedside cupboard.

*Have you got any fresh pyjamas? Let’s have a look – oh, here.

I’d forgotten about the ones that Beth had brought earlier. The nurse pulled the clean shirt over my head, handling the plastered arm with skill and tying the hem of it out of the way of my soaking bottoms.

*Hmm, changing your lower half is going to be a bit more tricky, don’t really want to do that on the floor with all this glass and liquid. We need to get you back on the bed, it’ll need more than just me, and we need to have a bit of a clear up. I’ll get your friend to come and wait while I get someone to help me.

Rose came back in, and knelt down beside me.

‘Mind yohr clothes.’

:Don’t you worry about me. It’s you we need to worry about, love.

She started to pick up the larger bits of glass and put them in an empty carrier bag.

:What are we going to do with you? I’d say your stubborn streak is going to get you into trouble, but it already has so many times it’s not really worth saying. Bet you gave yourself a bit of shock, love. Were you trying to stand up?

‘Noh. Fell off bed. Too high. Cuhdn’t reach’

:So did you even get the chocolate in the end?

‘Noh.’

I started to laugh, an edge of hysteria.

:And look, here it is.

Rose picked up the chocolate bar from somewhere on the floor. It dripped purpley yellow droplets.

:I’d guess you don’t want any of it now?

This also struck me as very funny, and I laughed again. It was very close to weeping. I got myself under control with an effort.

The nurses returned, with a white-coated doctor in tow. He had a quick look in my swollen eyes, checked some reflexes, prodded, poked, asked a few questions, restitched the busted stitches, gave me the all clear, and got the nurses to remove the catheter tube completely, with Rose asked to briefly leave the room again while they did so.

*You’ll have another large bruise on your gluteus maximus – that’s your backside – to add to your collection, but I don’t think you’ve broken anything else.

*So lets have a go at getting you back into bed. We could use a hoist, but how about having a go using those legs? Oh! The glass has been cleared up.

:I did the big bits, but there’ll still be some slivers in the water there. Careful where you’re kneeling –

The door opened again. Don.

*You can’t come in, sir.

-What’s going on?

*Please wait outside.

:Declan’s had a bit of a tumble. I’ll fill you in.

Rose left with Don. The nurses had a discussion about the best way to get me off the floor. They didn’t seem too confident, and were starting to err on the side of a hoist. Didn’t fancy that.

‘Lemme try, plehs.’

*It’s not as simple as that. We don’t want you falling again. You were lucky just now, but you’ve got plenty of injuries as it is –

The door opened.

-Can I have a word? I’ve got two of my physios on the way. They don’t know Declan’s had a fall, but maybe they could help get him back into bed and have a look at his mobility at the same time? Two birds with one stone? They’re literally on their way, should be here any time.

The nurses looked at each other over the top of my head. One shrugged, the other nodded.

*What do you think, Declan? Can you wait a few minutes? We can get a towel for you to sit on.

‘Kay.’

Undignified doesn’t even begin to describe the wait for Pete and Janie, the Raiders physios, to arrive. Sat on a folded up towel, in a purple puddle of piss, while people cleared up around me, cold, feeling very foolish, hurting everywhere, while Rose and Don attempted small talk with the nurse who remained with me, was not an experience I would rush to repeat.

I huddled as small as I could, feeling conspicuous, helpless and stupid. I was sure I was more mobile than everyone was making out, but their protective instincts were in full flight, and I wasn’t allowed to move. I almost wished I’d agreed to the hoist, although I wasn’t quite sure what it was and suspected it would involve me dangling in mid-air somehow.

When Pete and Janie finally arrived, I nearly wept with relief, and was incredibly grateful for their no-nonsense attitude. Don filled them in with the latest developments. They knelt beside me and gave me the once over, carefully moving all my joints to check range of movement, ignoring what they were kneeling in and my soaking pyjama bottoms.

$Blimey, Declan, you look like you’ve been in a fight with the front row. Just stretch your arm out to here … great.

£Can you bend your left knee? Good … and your right one … great. OK, what I suggest is using your quads and knees, which seem in fairly good shape compared to the rest of you, to try standing. We’ll be behind you supporting – you’ve got some tender areas on your back, we’ll do our best but it might hurt a bit.

‘Skay.’

£Good lad. OK then …

Working together, they supported me and guided me slowly to my feet. I could do most of it myself, ignored the pain, wobbled a bit and was glad of their arms holding me steady. The audience of Rose, Don and the nurse made me self-conscious, but I tried to put it out of my mind so I could concentrate on walking. After the initial burst of pain from falling, I had started to feel more physically with-it, and was determined to show them all I could do it.

$Well done, Dec. OK, would someone like to get rid of that towel and mop up the rest of this water? Not a good idea for any of us to slip just now.

The nurse had the mop and bucket ready, and made short work of the remaining mess. She also dried it off with the towel and some paper sheets she had brought from somewhere.

£OK Declan, we’re going to let go just for a few seconds and see how you manage standing unsupported. Ready?

‘Kay.’

£After three …

I stood, unsupported, like I’d been sure I would be able to. Felt great. A bit wobbly, but managed it all on my own, ignoring all the pain as an irrelevant annoyance. Result.

£OK Declan, great stuff, we’re still here. We’re going to try a little walk. Up for that?

‘Kay.’

£This is the easy bit. We’ll have you doing weights in a week or so, you’ll wish you’d stayed in bed …

Pete and Janie supported me again as I took a few steps, then slowly let go. I felt like a complete novice, as if I’d never walked before. This time yesterday I hadn’t given a thought to how my legs worked, now it was taking all my concentration. I started walking. One foot in front of the other. Bloody hurt, didn’t care. I could walk. I could go home. I wobbled to the door. Turned round on my own. Wobbled back to the bed, where the nurse had put another towel. Sat down. Looked at everyone watching me. Grinned a stupid grin.

‘Diddit.’

Got a round of applause. Felt ridiculously proud of myself. The nurse looked at Pete and Janie.

*So what’s the verdict? He has to stay in tonight, but how about tomorrow?

£Well I don’t know about you, Janie, but I think he just needs a bit of practice and he’ll be fine. With all these other injuries, it’s going to take a bit of adjusting, but Declan’s strong, and he can compensate. Keep on trying, Dec, you’ll get your balance and start to feel what you can do and what you can’t. Just watch that right arm, it might throw you off. And, listen to me, do not push yourself too hard.

Janie nodded her agreement.

$If you can get your own physios to sign off first thing tomorrow, I think going home would do him the world of good.

‘Bluhdy right.’

:Oh love, that’s great.

$I’ll email them when I get back, and ring them first thing.

*OK, we need to change Declan’s pyjama bottoms. Everyone out, now.

Once everyone had gone, the nurse changed my pyjama bottoms and gave me a quick wash. She was young and pretty, and this time I quite enjoyed it. She helped me get back into bed, and I managed most of it myself, maybe leaning on her a little more than was strictly necessary. She showed me how to use the controls to lift the bed up and down, and change the position of the mattress, explaining that it was on the high setting earlier to make it easier to care for me on the bed. Now I was obviously more mobile and independent, I could stay down low and get in and out as I wanted.

*I don’t think we’ll put the catheter back in –

‘Yay.’

*– but you’ll need to get to the loo yourself. If you need any help, press the button here. If you see any blood in your pee, let us know straight away. Alright, all done here I think. Shall I send your friends back in?

‘Plehs.’

Rose sat down, pulling her chair next to the bed.

:Your boss and those physios have gone. They said they’re going to email and talk to the hospital physios first thing. I don’t know, they seemed to think you’ll be up and about in no time.

‘Bluhdy will.’

:Oh love, have you seen yourself?

‘No.’

:You’re covered in bruises, plaster casts, stitches. You need to take it easy.

‘Need tuh get moving.’

:That’s what they said. You rugby players are a tough lot, although some might call it stupid.

‘Both.’

She tutted and shook her head.

:Listen, love, I’ve been having a think. Rather than going home to your flat, with the stairs and being on your own and that, how about starting off with me in my spare room? I’d keep an eye on you, keep you out of trouble, make sure –

‘Yes plehs.’

It sounded like the best thing anyone had ever suggested. I really wanted to get out of this bed, out of this room, go home, but to be honest, my flat didn’t feel like home. There was no one there, nothing there, and I’d spent far too much of my time there being in a dark place. Staying with Rose might just help me to get properly back on my feet, in more ways than one.

:Oh love, that’s grand. I thought you were going to argue –

My stomach gave out a large rumble.

:Oh my – I totally forgot your soup! I put it down somewhere when I came in, seeing you on the floor was a bit of a shock. Do you know there’s no kitchen here? One of the nurses gave me her tin of soup, she was going to microwave it for her tea. Lovely girl, she was. Where did I put it, now?

She looked around and located the bowl on the windowsill.

:Stone cold, not that I’m surprised. Shall I heat it up again?

‘Mm, plehs.’

She hurried off again. I lay back and closed my eyes, the day’s events so far had drained me. I had no idea of the time, it must be late afternoon. Drifted for a while before Rose returned with a steaming bowl.

:It’s cream of chicken, would you believe, do you remember that day when you had it with me? Want me to feed it to you?

‘No thanks, I’ll try.’

:OK love, here’s that plastic spoon we used for your slushie. I’ll just give it a rinse.

Eating with my left hand would have been a bit of a challenge under normal circumstances, but the swelling together with a splinted little finger added an extra dimension of difficulty. I spilled a lot down my chin and on the bedclothes. Rose was on mopping stand by and soon put a towel down my front to catch the drips.

:Well I think this will need a bit of practice, love. Maybe we should avoid soup for a while. How is it?

‘Dlishus.’

I finished the bowl, lay back on the pillows and sighed. I had a lot going round my head, today seemed to have lasted forever. Needed some head space.

‘Rose, goh home.’

:No, love, you’re alright, I’ll stay as long as you need me.

‘Plehs, go home.’

She opened her mouth to argue, thought twice, closed her mouth and nodded to herself.

:Well maybe I could be getting on with a few things. You’ll be alright?

‘Fine.’

:Shall I come back tomorrow? You’ll need someone to fetch you home.

‘Plehs.’

:You look done in. Shall I ask them to stop visitors for now?

‘Plehs.’

:Alright, then, love, I’ll leave you to it. Behave yourself. Call me when there’s any news about going home.

She squeezed my arm and left the room. I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. Today had been a crazy day, preceded by two equally crazy days. Starting with the build up to and aftermath of the points deduction on Friday, through the ups and downs of what I could remember of Saturday, I had woken up in hospital today, with some fairly serious injuries. I had learned to talk. Jay, Beth and Cal had visited me; we were going to be OK. I had been visited by the police. I had nearly wrecked my chances of a recovery by falling out of bed. I had learned to walk. I had some pretty amazing people looking out for me. My head was swimming. Nearly forgot I was a worthless piece of shit. Nearly.

By far the most significant item on that list was the visit from Jay, Beth and Cal. I knew I still had a long way to go with them, things were still tentative and fragile, and Jay’s news about Matt made me feel even worse about the way I had behaved, but to know they still cared about me was enormous. I spent a long time dwelling on that. Smiled a lot.

A few less welcome thoughts intruded, including my flashbacks while on the floor. Up until then I hadn’t remembered anything about what happened in the car park, but now bits and pieces kept popping into my head. Nothing substantial, and nothing I would have any confidence in telling anyone. Just flashes – images which set off corresponding pains all over my body. The brown boot heading towards my face continued to haunt me, and this in particular started a hearty throb in my broken nose.

I had time to start to wonder who had attacked me. There was a pretty long list of people who would be justified in holding a grudge – Raiders fans, people I had hassled for loans, players whose careers and prospects I had damaged with the points deduction – but I couldn’t come up with anyone I knew personally who I thought would beat me up, slash my face, break my bones. Who even knew if it was connected? I had no memory of it, and nobody seemed to have witnessed it. Maybe I got into an argument or a fight in the car park about something totally random. Saturday had been a pretty full on day, it wouldn’t have taken much to push my buttons – although it had been years since I’d felt the need to throw my fists around to make a point. I tried to force my memory but it remained stubbornly blank.

20. Hope in front of me

In which Dec and Cal find out what happens when you bounce on the bed, and explanations are attempted.

Dec

Noises, voices, pain, blurred, sleep, jumbled dreams. Dreamt Jay and Beth and Cal had been here.

Woke up suddenly. Sound of running water. Couldn’t open my eyes. Back hurt. Head hurt. Arms hurt. Legs hurt. Shifted position to continue inventory. Agony. May have screamed, or it may have been in my head. This was the worst fucking hangover I’d ever had. I thought I wasn’t supposed to drink? Why had I been drinking? Don was going to be so pissed off. I tried to open my eyes and look at where the sound of water was coming from, but my head started pounding and I groaned.

¬Oh hello. You’re back with us then. Just in time. I’m going to bathe your eyelids. Get some of this crusty stuff off. Might help you open your eyes. Lovely sunny day out there, shame for you to miss it.

Tried speaking, to whoever it was. She sounded friendly enough.

‘Phlwuthchst.’

Shit, what the fuck was wrong with my mouth? I could hardly speak, and when I tried, it hurt like a bitch.

¬I think you’ll need me to bathe your mouth too. Then you can tell us what you really think.

Whoever this was had the right idea. I needed to start talking, so I could ask some questions. If only I could think what the questions should be. Felt something warm and wet dabbing at my eyes. Stung like crazy. Whoa, this was the weirdest hangover ever. Winced. That hurt even more. What the fuck was happening to me? I tried to move my head away, felt a hand on my cheek, steadying me.

¬Sorry m’dear, won’t take long. Keep still.

Did as I was told, hoping things would become clearer in time. Images from before began to flutter into my head. Sounds, voices – Cal. Jay. Had I dreamed it? Or had Jay, Beth and Cal really all been here, with me?

‘Cckchll’

¬Wait a bit, m’dear, not quite there yet.

‘Vthhh’

¬I see we’re going to have some trouble with you. Bit of patience please.

‘Zshhay’

¬I know, I know, I’m going as fast as I can. OK, that’s your eyes done, have a bit of a go opening them. Slowly, it might hurt.

Again, did as I was told. Through a small opening, beyond the blur of my eyelashes, I saw a blonde woman peering into my face. She was wearing a white tunic. She was pretty. Her name was Michelle, and she was a nurse. It said so on her name badge. Jay’s voice drifted across my memory …

łAh mate, you’re in hospital.

Tried to remember more, but everything was jumbled up and confused. I was in hospital? Bit more than a hanger, then? Tried to remember what I’d been doing to end up here, but it was a blank. Wait, I saw Don yesterday, he told me I’ve still got my job – started to smile at that, but it hurt so much I stopped moving my mouth. The nurse was still looking at me.

¬Hello! Very good m’dear. Your eyes are still very swollen, so it’ll be a while before you can open them the whole way. But not bad for a first try. It should get a bit easier now we’ve got all the gunk off.

She smiled and turned back to a bowl on a trolley.

¬OK then, mouth next.

She dipped some cotton wool into water in the bowl and dabbed it across my lips. She was gentle, but it still stung a lot. What had happened to my mouth? And my eyes? Why did I need a nurse? I was still fuzzy, couldn’t work it out, I tried to think about it, but the stinging from whatever was on the cotton wool was too distracting. Some of the liquid dribbled between my lips. It tasted vile and it stung to buggery. The cotton wool came away red. The nurse discarded it and got another bit.

¬Alright there?

Couldn’t speak, so nodded as much as I could, which wasn’t much.

¬Goodo, let’s keep going then. Nearly finished.

Three more bits of cotton wool later, and she was done.

¬OK, that’s that. Have a bit of a move of your lips if you can, see how it feels. Couldn’t do it before we got rid of the crusty stuff, in case it split again.

Did as I was told. I was getting good at it. Tongue felt huge and furry. Lips very painful, bruised, split and swollen. It all felt very disconnected from my face.

¬Like a drink?

Fuck, yes! I was parched. A drink suddenly seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had.

‘Mm.’

¬Ok, then, let’s sit you up.

She pressed some button somewhere that made the bed sit up underneath me.

¬Start with water. Here you are.

She held out a plastic tumbler, with a straw in it.

¬Small sips, please.

Even though it hurt to suck, it was the most delicious drink ever. Felt it running across my swollen tongue and down my throat. Sipped and sipped until the glass was empty. She took it away from my mouth.

¬Try now – would you like to say a few words?

From between my filmy eyelids I saw her hold an invisible microphone up to my mouth. All my questions fought briefly for dominance, but it seemed I needed above all to know if what I remembered from last night was real. Had they all really been here or was it some kind of dream torture? Nothing was clear in my head, it was all scrambled. How the fuck was I going to ask?

‘Hee …’

Stopped in frustration. My mouth wasn’t making the right shapes to say the word.

¬No rush, take your time.

‘Hhshay.’

Bloody hell this was difficult.

‘Ghshay.’

Shook my head. Tried again.

‘Gshay.’

Better.

‘Shay.’

Best I was going to do.

‘Shay. Mm. Shay.’

After all that, she looked puzzled.

¬Alright, might take a bit of guess work, I’ll give it a go. Want me to say something? No. Ask me about something?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. Where am I, what am I doing here, isn’t that what they do in the films?

No response from me. I did want to know what I was doing here, but there was something more important I needed to know.

¬Sorry, flippant. OK, have another go.

It was worse than frustrating. Tried another tack.

‘Vsstrrs’

¬Ooh, visitors?

At last.

‘Mm.’

¬Well I’m glad we sorted that one out. You’ve had quite a few visitors since you came in yesterday. Want to know about that?

Sagged with relief. Now I was getting somewhere.

‘Mm.’

¬OK, let’s see, I wasn’t on when you were admitted, but when I got here you had a family with you.

That was it. Surely it must be them? Hope and caution battled in me. Don’t get carried away, it can’t be possible.

‘Mm. Mm.’

¬Hey, we got there, that didn’t take long. The mum and little boy left earlier on, but the dad stayed until we moved you in here, a couple of hours ago. What else did you want to know?

Tried to say where are they, but only ended up blowing bad breath over the bedclothes.

¬Wondering when they’re coming back?

Or if. But when would be better.

‘Mm.’

¬I’ll see if I can find out. Might be something on your file. Depends if they talked to the charge nurse before they left. Won’t be a tick.

She walked briskly out of the room. Left to myself, I sank into the pillow. Looked up through the gap in my eyelids to the ceiling. Couldn’t face thinking about whether they had really been here, or what it might mean if they had.

Started to catalogue the pain, trying to work out what the fuck had happened to me. I hurt pretty much everywhere. Face felt giant, and there seemed to be something stuck to my nose. Scalp hurt. Back shrieked. Couldn’t move my right arm. Glanced down. Plaster from knuckles to shoulder, sleeve cut off. Left arm, blackened hand peeking out of long sleeved pyjama top, sore and swollen. Metal splint on little finger. Tube from a drip on a stand by the side of the bed disappeared up my left sleeve. Tried to bend at the elbow. Stopped trying pretty quickly. Looked down at feet, humps under the bedclothes. Terrified I wouldn’t be able to move them. Tried an experimental toe-wiggle. Pain shot up my shins as I saw movement under the blankets. Moaned in pain and relief.

Checklist of body parts taken, but really none the wiser as to how I got here in this state, I looked beyond the bed. I was in a room on my own, bed, two chairs, a bedside cupboard with a vase of flowers. A card with a stegosaurus on it that said Hope Your Recovery is Dinomite. It was the sort of thing Cal might have chosen, but I couldn’t reach it to see who it was from. Painting of a tree screwed to the wall. A small window looking onto the side of a building. A patch of blue sky. In the corridor outside the door, footsteps, voices.

¬…that’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.

I looked at the door through the rapidly expanding slit in my vision, heart beating fast with expectancy. Thought my heart might burst with relief and joy when Cal ran into the room, followed by Beth and then Jay. Tried a smile, no idea what shape my lips made.

Cal

Because we were in a rush, we went out without me having my juice, and I asked a few times on the way if I could have a drink. Maybe I asked a lot of times. So when we got to the hospital and passed the shop near the door, Mum went in and got some purple squash that we could fill up with Dec’s water, and she picked up some pyjamas on the way to the till to pay. I hoped they weren’t for Dec, because it wasn’t a very exciting present, and I told Mum that Dec might like a Mars bar instead, so he could share it with me, but Mum said no. So I thought of something else.

‘I think Dec would like a magazine, Mummy.’

‘Oh, really, Cal? Any magazine in particular?’

‘This dinosaur one has got a toy of the front.’

‘Yes, I can see. How about you give Dec the magazine, but keep the toy?’

I could hardly believe my luck. I hadn’t even had to be that sneaky. And Dec would like the magazine; he talked to me about dinosaurs all the time. If I was really lucky, he’d say I could keep the magazine as well.

We walked along the corridors and up the stairs; there were loads of interesting things to see, like a lady on a big bed with wheels who had a plastic mask over her face, some people wearing all green running and shouting ‘get out of the way’, and someone in a wheelchair with a big bag on a pole like Dec had, only it was being wheeled along by the side of the chair. I didn’t have time to ask about one thing before I saw the next – it was a lot more exciting than Uncle Matty’s hospital.

And then we got to the place where Dec had been last night, but Dad took us round the corner, saying that Dec had gone into his own room early this morning, just before Dad had come back to go to sleep. We saw a nurse come out of a room, and Dad stopped her.

‘We’ve come to see Declan Summers. It’s not too early is it?’

The nurse looked at Dad with her head on one side.

‘Are you family?’

‘Ye … es.’

‘Oh, you were here last night, weren’t you. OK, that’s fine, then. He hasn’t been awake long, but I’ve just bathed his eyes and his mouth, he might even be able to talk to you.’

‘How is he?’

‘He was a bit disoriented, which is to be expected, and very battered and bruised, as I’m sure you know, but his CT scan showed nothing to worry about, and with a bit of luck he’ll be able to get back to normal.’

‘Oh James, that sounds great, doesn’t it. We’ve brought him his own pyjamas, I hope that’s OK.’

The nurse stepped towards the door she had just come out of, and opened it.

‘That’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.’

I ran in the room, wanting to see what Dec looked like this morning, and keen to show him the dinosaur magazine. Dec was sitting up in his bed, and although his eyes were swollen almost shut with bruises, they were open, and he was looking at me. His mouth moved, and I thought he might be trying to smile.

‘You’re in a different room please can I have some purple squash?’

‘Cal! Sorry Dec, he’s been saying he’s thirsty all the way here. We got you some blackcurrant squash, by the way, hope you don’t mind sharing. And some pyjamas. You don’t have to share those.’

Mum bent down and kissed Dec on the cheek while I stood at the side of the bed and looked at him. Then Mum made me a purple squash and I sat on the chair and drank it all in one go, waiting to see what would happen next.

Dec

Beth bent down and kissed me on the cheek. Bloody hell it hurt, but no way was I going to show it. Would have hugged her if either of my arms could have moved. She opened the bottle, poured some into a glass, filled it with water from a jug on the top of the cupboard, and handed it to Cal. He drank in big, noisy gulps, and started to wipe his mouth on the back of his hand when he’d finished, before he caught Beth’s eye and took the tissue she held out to him, as she looked at me and spoke.

_The nurse said you were talking.

‘Mm.’

_Although not long speeches yet I see.

She was being bright and breezy, but her eyes were wary. Jay was hanging back, looking tired, a guarded look in his eyes, tense and ill-at-ease. But it was so, so unbelievably good to see them. I felt like they could be dream people, about to disappear in insubstantial wisps. Still no idea what had happened to make them be here.

‘Gutuhsyu.’

A pause while Beth tried to translate.

_Sorry, Dec, you’re going to have to try again. Haven’t got my ‘I’ve been hit by a truck’ head on yet.

Had I been hit by a truck? The state of my body said yes. Memories from yesterday were vague and fragmented. No idea how I’d ended up here in this state, and as my brain started to wake up a bit, I was starting to worry.

Cal

I wasn’t sure why Mum thought Dec had been hit by a truck, when even I remembered he’d been hit by a bad man, but I was as good at understanding Dec as I was at understanding Uncle Matty, so I told her what he had said.

‘He said, ‘good to see you’. I heared him.’

Mum looked at Dec as if she didn’t think I could possibly have got it right, but Dec confirmed it.

‘Mm.’

Just to make it clear that I knew what I was talking about, I told them what that meant, as well.

‘That means yes.’

Dec

_It’s good to see you too, Dec. But not like this, so…

She waved her hand vaguely over the bed, and with horror I saw tears fill her eyes. Jay came over and put his arm round her protectively.

Cal, saviour of us all:

\do you like your dinosaur card?

‘Mm. Fm yu?’

\of course it’s from me. Stegosauruses are the best ones. I choosed it from the shop downstairs. It says ‘Dinomite’ but it’s spelled wrong on purpose so it looks like dinosaur. Mummy buyed it. And a Mars bar but I ate it. And some flowers, the nurse put them in a pot. We got you some squash today because I was thirsty. And a dinosaur magazine. Do you want to see it?

‘Mm. Luvtuh.’

\you can’t have the toy on the front, but you can see the picture of the triceratops in the middle, it’s awwwwesome.

Without warning, he launched himself onto the end of the bed, bouncing the mattress. There was such a protest of pain from every part of my body I couldn’t help myself shouting out:

Fuck!

Cal

I stopped dead, mid-crawl. Dec was not allowed to swear when I was nearby, and he had just shouted the baddest word I knew, very loud. He didn’t even look sorry, he just looked like he was breathing fast, and trying not to say it again. Mum didn’t even tell him off.

‘That was a very big swear.’

I wasn’t sure why no one had said anything; this should have earned Dec at least an ‘honestly Dec’, but Mum didn’t even look cross.

‘Yes, sweetheart, I understood that one. I think Dec means that he would like you to get off his bed and stop bouncing.

‘Mm.’

It seemed that Dec being hit by bad men changed quite a lot of things.

‘Let’s pull this chair next to the bed, you can sit here and show him your magazine. OK Dec?’

‘Grut.’

‘That means great.

‘Yes, Cal.’

I sat on the chair and held the magazine up so Dec could see. I couldn’t really tell if he was looking, because his eyes were nearly shut, but his head was pointed towards the pages and he did little nods every now and then as I turned over the pages. It wasn’t quite the same, because usually Dec would have been talking to me, and telling me stories about the pictures, making up names like ‘Terence the Pterodactyl’ and ‘Howard the Hadrosaur’ to make me laugh, but this time I did all the talking, because it hurt Dec to speak.

Dec

He flicked over a few pages, explaining what all the pictures were of, just like he would have done all those months ago when everything was normal and they still cared and I wasn’t in a hospital bed hardly able to move.

I was still trying to work it all out, looking from Cal to Beth to Jay, when I heard voices outside, one raised in protest, one stating intent.

¬You can’t go in, he’s already got three visitors, you’ll have to wait for someone to come out. There’s a chair here, look. I’m sure they won’t be long.

:Look, love, I’ve come all the way from across town, on my day off, on the bus, and you’re not stopping me. I’ll sort it out in there, you don’t have to worry.

‘Rz.’

Cal looked up at me, puzzled. The door opened.

¬You can’t just –

But she could, and she did. The nurse hovered at the door, looking at me. I tried to nod that it was OK, as Rose bustled forwards. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, and for the second time that day I saw eyes fill with tears. No more crying over me, please. Couldn’t take it.

:Oh love, look at you.

She came over to hug me. Didn’t think I would survive one of Rose’s envelopings.

‘Nnuh.’

Cal

As Mum stepped forwards, hands out ready to stop her, I realised why Dec didn’t want the cuddle. He didn’t want to do a big swear to this lady.

‘That means no.’

The lady stepped back, and looked at me, Mum and Dad.

‘Rz. Hh.’

Rose looked at Dec again, her mouth open a little bit.

‘Sry. Hrts.’

I thought she might not know what Dec was saying, so I told her what he meant.

‘Dec can’t talk properly. He said he’s sorry it hurts. He means if you cuddle him he might cry, or say a big swear. I jumped on his bed and he said a very big swear.’

The lady looked at me and smiled.

‘Well thank you young man, I see you speak Declanese. He says a lot of big swears, he seems to quite enjoy it. It might not have been your fault, love.’

I grinned at the lady. I liked that she called Dec’s way of talking ‘Declanese’.

Dec

‘Rz. Shay. Vth.’

I tried to direct her gaze with my eyes, but she probably couldn’t see much of them underneath my swollen eyelids. She looked at Cal, already trusting him to know what I was saying.

\I don’t know what Rz means. Jay is my Daddy and Beth is my Mummy.

Light dawned in Rose’s eyes and she glanced quickly at both of them, then back at Cal.

:I can help you there. I think Rz must be me. I’m Rose.

She looked at me, eyes shining; she looked as happy as I felt.

:Oh Declan, they’re here, love.

She turned to face Jay and Beth.

:You’re Declan’s family, aren’t you. I didn’t know you’d … you must have … didn’t know you were here. Oh, there’s grand now. He’s told me lots about you all.

\what did he tell you about me?

Rose turned back to Cal.

:Well, let’s see now. You must be Calum. Declan says you really like dinosaurs. You’re very good at football and your team is … er … Arsenal?

\who’s my favourite player?

Cal was relishing his role as official examiner.

:Oh, er …

Seeing mild panic behind Rose’s eyes, I ventured

‘Thuh Wct.’

:No chance, love, but thanks for trying. Sorry, love, I expect he told me, but I’m not much good at footballers.

\what did he say about Mummy and Daddy?

łThat’s enough, Cal.

It was the first time Jay had spoken since he came into the room. Rose spoke to Cal, but directed her words at Jay.

:He’s alright, love. I’ll tell you, shall I? Declan told me your mam and dad were like the best family he could ever have wanted. He told me he did some wrong things, and wishes he hadn’t because losing his family has made him so sad and it’s made a lot of trouble for everyone, and meant he couldn’t see you and your mam and dad any more. He also told me that your mam makes really good roast potatoes, better than mine he says, although I find that hard to believe, and your dad drives too fast, which I think Declan quite likes.

Cal

Dec really had told Rose everything about us. Dad really did drive fast, and Mum really did cook roast potatoes. I didn’t even know who Rose was, I’d never seen her before, but I wondered if Rose was Dec’s mum, although I thought he didn’t have a mum. Before I could ask, Rose started talking again. She talked a lot. She wanted to know what had happened to Dec, but Mum wasn’t just going to tell her without permission from Dec.

‘If that’s OK with Dec.’

Mum looked at Dec, checking. I don’t think she knew who Rose was either.

‘Mm. Rzs gd frnd’

‘He said Rose is a good friend.’

‘Thank you sweetheart, I think Dec’s getting a bit easier to understand. OK, well, lovely to meet you Rose. Actually, Nico told us a lot about you, how you’ve looked after Dec. Thanks for what you said. It means a lot to James and me.’

So she did know who Rose was. I would have to ask later if she was Dec’s mum.

‘As for what’s happened, well, Cal, why don’t we go and get you a slushie, and Rose and Daddy and Dec can have a talk?’

I was torn between wanting a slushie, and maybe other things if I asked enough times, and wanting to stay and find out what Dad said to Rose.

‘But they won’t understand Dec if I’m not here.’

‘I think they’ll be OK. Green or blue slushie?’

Dec

He skipped out of the room with Beth.

\green. And can I have Monster Munch…

Cal’s list of requests faded into the distance. Jay and Rose talked while I lay back and let them. I didn’t know how I had ended up here, most of it was very hazy, a lot of it was missing. Now I’d had a chance to think, I could remember everything up to leaving the little office to go to the press conference, then there were fragments, shards I didn’t really want to explore as they mostly held pain.

A sudden recollection of lying helplessly on the ground watching a boot approach my face. Maybe not a truck then.

I tried to focus while Jay told Rose about finding me in the car park at Raiders Stadium, half underneath a car. He had only called at the club to drop off some paperwork on his way back up the motorway, and had nearly tripped over me. He hadn’t recognised me, so bloody and battered was my face. He had to talk to the police before they would let him drive back, and it wasn’t until they asked him if he knew me, that he realised. They had come to the hospital straight away, Jay had sat with me all night, Beth and Cal staying with Nico and Lisa.

łThey moved him to this room late last night, or more like early this morning – only a couple of hours ago, actually. Apparently the police thought it might be a good idea. Think it might be some kind of payback for the – I don’t know how much you know –

He looked over at me.

‘Rz kns vrythng.’

łOK then, payback for the points Raiders lost because of the passport thing. Lots of angry people, but nobody knows who did it.

:Well I’m glad you were here, love, I’d have hated to think of him being alone.

łI think Dec’s had quite a few visitors, not that he’d remember many of them, he’s been pretty much out of it since he came in. Massive dose of painkillers, as well as the bangs to the head. The doctor said he might not remember much about any of it. He woke up for a short time last night, but they whacked more meds in and he was out for the count again. Not surprised he’s been lazing around half the morning.

:He is a bit of a lazy sod.

‘Pss ff’

:Well that came out loud and clear, love. So, what’s the damage? I can obviously see his face, don’t know if you’ve seen yourself yet, love, you’re a bit of a sight. Plenty of time for that, now. And a broken arm. Anything more serious?

łI don’t know if I can remember the full list. He seems to have been hit over the head with a bottle, they had to pick glass out of his cuts before they stitched them. He was unconscious for a while, but they didn’t think any permanent damage, though how would they ever tell, eh Dec? Some of the cuts were fairly deep, looks like a glassing, but nothing major severed. And nothing internal that they could find. But they’re being careful. He’s been punched and kicked, probably while on the ground. Lots of bruises, lots of stitches, you can see all that. Broken collar bone – might need an operation on that. Thought he might have a broken jaw, but just badly bruised. Broken nose – that can only improve his looks. Can’t look at his eyes properly yet, but they think just bruising and swelling. Broken little finger, looks like someone stamped on his hand, you can see the footprint, look…

They both inspected the damage. I could only concentrate on two pieces of information. I had been beaten up, or kicked, or something. And Jay, Beth and Cal were here. They were all here, and talking to me and looking like they cared about me and might not want me to fuck off and die. It felt fragile, though, as if it might shatter any second and leave me back where I’d been.

ł… kind of tube in for his pee at the moment – he’s been pretty heavily medicated and they couldn’t get him to the loo. Bit undignified, eh, Dec?

So that was what that weird sensation had been. Hadn’t been able to explore due to two non-functioning hands.

łHe’s been pretty lucky. Could have been a lot worse.

Not sure my pains agreed with him.

:Especially if you hadn’t found him. Oh, love. Who did this to you?

She shuffled her chair closer to the bed and tried to find a part of me to touch that wouldn’t hurt. She failed, but it was OK. I had no answer to her question.

:I don’t know what to say, love. After everything that’s happened to you. It’s so unfair.

łBloody good job he plays rugby. He’s fit and strong. He’ll heal quickly. Seen worse than this after a collision with a loose-head, eh Dec? He’ll be back in training in a few weeks.

Rose laughed.

łI’m serious! He won’t be allowed to sit around feeling sorry for himself. He’ll be back in training soon as his breaks have healed. Maybe before.

Rose harrumphed a bit and the set of her jaw told me what she thought of that.

:Well we’ll see now, I s’pose, won’t we.

There was a brief pause. Rose looked determinedly at Jay, who looked back with an amused expression on his face. Rose changed tack.

:Now, look here. Declan knows I’m an interfering old busybody –

‘Struh.’

:No, don’t you try and deny it, love. Anyway, what I want to know is, you being here with your family, is everything put right now with the two of you?

There was a weighty silence. I hardly dared breathe, although I continued to do so noisily through my swollen nose. Jay looked down at his hands. Then at Rose. Then at me. I shut my eyes completely. Would have shut my ears if I could have. Really didn’t know if I could take his answer. He took a deep breath. Blew it out. I felt like everything was balancing on what Jay said now.

łAlright then. I don’t know if this is the right time or place, Dec, but I think I need to say this. You really messed up. You pissed all over me and Beth, you pissed all over Raiders. We couldn’t understand it. Still don’t think I really get it. I thought we were finished, you and me. Well, you know, I said it all before.

The searing pain of being dismissed by Jay in the car park cut through me again. I almost gasped at the memory.

łCouldn’t even say your name, didn’t talk about it, I was so angry about everything, what you’d done, what you’d lied about. When Cal rang you that time, I was so mad at him, he stopped asking me about you too. God knows what that did to the poor little sod. Jesus, what a mess. Anyway, then you found Cal when he ran away, and, I dunno, it changed something. Started talking to Beth, we started talking about you, still thoroughly pissed off, but wondering why you’d done it all … thinking up reasons, maybe it was this, maybe that, maybe if we’d said … whatever. Then Friday we came to stay with Nico and Lis, and Nico came back and told us what a state you were in; he thought you were close to doing something daft to yourself.

Had I been? Friday night was a bit of a blur. I’d been in a state, no doubt about that, but the details weren’t easy to grasp onto.

łHe rang some psychiatrist he knows to talk about you, I think he nearly got someone to come and have a look at you. I was worried about you, for the first time in a long time. It felt weird. Beth and I talked all night, trying to decide how we were feeling. Didn’t reach any conclusions. Then something like this happens, and, shit, I dunno … turns out, we still care after all. Can’t ignore that. You’ve been a prick. But there it is. I think family stays family, in the end. Or something like that.

Wait, was Jay saying, actually saying out loud, that I was part of his family? It had never been actually said before, hadn’t needed to be before everything went tits up.

łWhat Rose just said about you telling her we’re your family, and you thought you’d lost us, that’s helped. We felt like you’d thrown all that back in our faces, didn’t want us or need us any more, so knowing you think of us as family too is really important. Dec, I really don’t understand what’s been going on with you the last few months. But I think I want to, need to. Probably need some kind of bloody deep and meaningful as soon as I can understand what the fuck you’re saying, mate.

Couldn’t speak. Even if my mouth had been working, my throat had closed with emotion. Tears leaked excruciatingly out of my eyes and stung various parts of my face on their way down. Rose patted my arm gently. The balance had tipped; it felt like things with Jay might be starting to be OK.

:I’m very glad to hear it, love. Now, what I want to know-

Cal

Mum held her hand out, and the slushie won.

‘Green. And can I have Monster Munch and another Mars Bar? And can we see if they’ve got a Lego magazine?’

Mum laughed. ‘Slow down, Cal. We’ll get the slushie first, shall we, and see how it goes.’

All the way to the shop, I asked Mum questions about Dec. Now it was OK to talk about him, there was a lot I wanted to say.

‘Why can’t Dec talk properly?’

‘You saw his mouth, sweetheart, it’s very swollen and it must hurt a lot. Remember when you shut your finger in the door and it swelled up and wouldn’t bend?’

I nodded. My finger had gone purple and blue and doubled in size. And it had hurt. A lot.

‘That’s what’s happened with Dec’s mouth. It will get better, he’ll get more used to speaking with swollen lips, and the swelling will go down.’

‘Is the bag with water in it for Dec to drink through his arm?’

‘That’s right, clever boy, do you remember from the one Uncle Matty had? Dec hasn’t been able to drink for himself, or have anything to eat, so they put special water in the bag so he doesn’t get hungry or thirsty. There’s a bag under the covers to take Dec’s wee away too, so he doesn’t have to get up to go to the loo.’

I remembered Uncle Matty’s wee bag; I had been very interested in that as well. Why didn’t everyone have one? It would save all sorts of complications. I was so interested that I asked more questions, even though I knew the answers.

‘Does his wee bag come out of his arm?’

‘No, there’s a tube coming out of his willy.’

Oh. Suddenly I remembered why everyone didn’t have one. Time for another question.

‘Mummy are we cross with Dec?’

‘Oh Cal. I know this is confusing for you. Alright, let’s see if I can explain. Dec did some things that made me and Daddy cross and disappointed. We’re still trying to understand why he did them, but I think Daddy and me feel more like helping Dec than being cross with him at the moment. He looks like he could do with some help, doesn’t he?’

‘Will he have to share my room?’

‘What?’

‘When he lives in our house.’

Mum walked on for a bit, not saying anything.

‘Let’s just wait for him to get better first, Cal. Look, there’s the shop. Go and ask for your slushie.’

I ran over to the counter and asked. Mum paid, and then thought it might be good to get some snacks for the journey home. I, of course, had lots of helpful suggestions, and Mum soon had a full basket.

I had been sipping my slushie through the straw while I waited for Mum to pay, and the ice had numbed my lips. I thought about when my finger hurt, and then about Dec’s mouth, and it made me wonder …

‘Mummy, does Dec’s mouth hurt?’

‘I expect so, sweetheart.’

‘If he had some slushie, would it make it stop hurting?’

Mum stopped and looked at me.

‘What a brilliant idea! Would you like to share your slushie with him?’

I’d been thinking more along the lines of getting him his own, but Mum was big on sharing, and I nodded my reluctant agreement.

‘Can we go and give it to him?’

‘Just let me finish paying, sweetheart, then we’ll hurry back.’

I had a few slurps of slushie before leaving the shop, just in case Dec drank the lot, and then we started back to Dec’s room, me holding the cardboard cup with one hand and Mum’s hand with the other.

Dec

What Rose wanted to know was interrupted by the door opening and Nico striding in, closely followed by Nurse Michelle and Lisa.

>Ha, you see, you say four people, but only there is two. And one of them is Rose, she is very small and quiet, she is no trouble. I am trouble if I don’t get in this room – but, ha, I am in. Thank you Michelle, you are very helping.

Lisa was watching from the rear, with a half resigned, half amused look on her face.

~I’m so sorry, he’s always like this. We’ll be quick, and quiet, promise.

Michelle gave Nico a look that was a mixture of scowl and flirty smile.

¬Well alright then, but really quick, the police want to see him, and then I think he needs some peace and quiet.

>Thank you. You are beautiful.

He blew her a kiss. The force of nature that was Nico Tiago. Michelle raised her eyebrows at Lisa and shut the door on her way out. Nico turned to his audience and bowed. Jay gave him a slow handclap, Rose sat and looked at him, mouth slightly agape, until he gave her a huge hug.

>Ah Rose, I am so happy you are here, you get my message. I worry you not know about Declan. This is Lis, my beautiful wife, I tell her all about you. I think you like her.

Lisa and Rose smiled at each other. I was keeping a low profile, trying to get my emotions under control, not succeeding. Nico turned to me, and the fun went out of his face. Lisa was looking at me with horror, a hand over her mouth. I looked away to avoid the inevitable eyes filling with tears. Nico put an arm round her.

>OK baby? I tell you he look bad. Declan, how are you? You look not so horrible as last night, but horrible still. Who did this?

‘Ownno.’

łDec’s needing translations from Cal at the moment, Nico. But I don’t think he knows who did it.

Jay raised his eyebrows at me.

‘Mm.’

łWe can work out the yeses. So I guess we can talk by process of elimination. Oh, and he can say ‘fuck’ and ‘piss off’ pretty clearly. Funny that. And other things are getting clearer slowly, but it’s still a fairly limited vocabulary.

On cue, my mini-interpreter burst into the room, carrying a large cardboard cup with a straw.

Cal

As we got close to Dec’s room, I started to run, eager to see Dec again and make him talk better. I ignored Mum telling me to walk, or failing that to hold on tight to the cup, and pushed the door to the room open.

‘Dec, drink some slushie. It’s icy. Your voice will come back. Will it go green in your wee? Can I see your wee bag?’

‘Cal! Dec’s wee is private. Sorry, Dec, he’s just so curious about everything.’

Disappointingly, this meant I wouldn’t get to see Dec’s wee bag, or any green slushie wee, so I took the cup to him and put the straw in his mouth. Mum fussed about a bit, and then everyone decided that Dec needed a spoon instead of a straw, but in the end Dec got mouthfuls of slushie, and managed to talk better, although I was right and he had the whole cup to himself.

Dec

Cal shoved the drink under my nose, the straw sticking painfully into a sore area above my lip.

_Careful Cal, look, hold the straw like this so Dec can sip. Sorry, Dec, we had this idea that the ice would soothe your throat and might make it easier for you to talk. You don’t have to.

‘Sskay.’

>I think it work already, Declan talk!

Cal noticed Nico for the first time.

\nico, Dec can talk but only I can understand him.

>I know this, Cal. But I like your way to help Declan to talk.

\i already helped him once. I jumped on the bed and made him say a really bad swear.

>Ha! I would like to try this. You show me how, maybe later. I am bigger than you, maybe he say even badder swears.

While Cal’s eyes grew round at the thought of badder swears than ‘fuck’, Beth had positioned the straw so I could sip the slushie. Although sucking hurt the muscles in my face and pulled painfully on my lips, it was worth it for the combined pleasure and relief of fluorescent green ice slipping over my tongue and down my throat. I could feel it taming the fire in my throat, most of which was thirst. I closed my eyes and moaned with relief.

~Dec, would a spoon be easier? You’ll get more in that way, yeah?

Brilliant idea. I looked gratefully at Lisa.

‘Mmmm.’

:I’ll go and sort it out.

Rose hurried off to commandeer a spoon. I could already feel the small amount of ice I had swallowed trickling soothingly down my throat.

‘Thks Chll.’

\dec said thanks Cal.

He informed his watching public.

>Cal you are small genius. You do very well for Declan.

Rose soon returned with a spoon to try.

:I thought a metal one might hurt your mouth love, so they found this plastic one, it’s not that big though. You don’t look like you can feed yourself with that arm and that hand. Can you put up with me feeding you?

Of all the recent indignities, this one was pretty easy to bear.

‘Mm.’

Rose sat by the bed and spooned the ice into me. I was very conscious of everyone watching, but the eyes on me were the ones I loved best in the world, so it was OK. The slushie was like magic. The pain and swelling in my throat reduced considerably. There was a similar effect on my lips too.

:How’s that now, love?

‘Mm … muhch bhetter’

Not bad for a first post-ice attempt. It still hurt to talk, and I wasn’t going to be making any speeches anytime soon, but it was a great start.

‘Thuhnks. Luv yuh uhll.’

A bit briefer and more sentimental than it would have been had I had my voice back properly, but the message was there. Rose, Beth and Lisa all teared up again, I really was going to have to have words about that, when I had access to more of them.

łI think it’s fair to say we all feel the same way, Dec. Fuck knows what you’ve done to deserve it. Sorry Cal. Dec’s a bad influence on me.

Jay ruffled Cal’s hair, pulled him in closer and kissed him on the top of his head.

łDec, I’m really sorry, we’re going to have to go. I … don’t know if you know … Matty’s really poorly. He’s got multiple sclerosis and pneumonia, and he’s … he nearly … he’s had a really bad time over the last couple of months.

Matt was Jay’s brother. He lived in the Midlands, near Jay’s mum.

‘Nah way. Suhry.’

łHe’s one of the main reasons I left Raiders. I need to look after him. I … I was …

Jay started to choke up. Beth held his hand.

_Dec, we’ve both said some things to you we regret. We were very angry and upset, and it was a bad time for us. I think that’s behind us now. James has been struggling with what to do for a while, since before things … well … changed between us. We felt it would be difficult to be with Matty while we still felt responsible for you. When everything happened with you, it seemed to make the decision easier. We didn’t realise how much you’d been struggling too, until Nico and Lis told us, and I’m so sorry if some of that was down to us, sweetheart.

Beth came over and kissed me on the forehead. I was almost speechless but just managed a lame

‘S’okay.’

_But we’ve got to get back home. James’s mum’s been with Matty since Friday afternoon, and we should’ve been back last night, so we’ve got to get going. So sorry, Dec, we’ll be back to see you soon. Take care, sweetheart.

Jay gave me a very gentle punch on the shoulder.

łI’ll be in touch for that deep and meaningful. We’ll sort things out properly, yeah? Be strong, stay positive. Cal, say goodbye to Dec.

Cal came to the side of the bed. He looked at me for a while, considering.

\you can have my dinosaur magazine, and you can have the toy on the front.

‘Thnks uh lo. Read ih layher.’

And then, having hugged Nico, Lisa and Rose, they were gone.

Cal

It was so fast, I’d only just got used to being there, and I hadn’t even told him about my fire engine or asked when we could go to Dinosaurland. But now we were allowed to talk about Dec, I hoped I would be able to do both of those soon.

In the car on the way home, Mum and Dad were quiet, to start with. Dad started to say something a few times, and then Mum would shake her head, Dad would look in the mirror and see me, and stop talking. So I thought if I closed my eyes they would think I was asleep, and say interesting things, probably about Dec. And it worked.

‘What did you say while we were in the shop?’

‘How do you know I said anything?’

‘Everything was different when we got back. It felt like you’d cleared the air.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure the air’s completely clear, just yet. I told him we need a bloody good talk, soon as. But I said how it had been, and how it changed after yesterday, or after Friday, actually. You know what, I think we might get there. Jesus, Beth, how did that happen?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m glad, though. After everything Nico said, and all the talking we did on Friday night, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get past everything else, but this has just … oh …’

There were a few sniffles, and it sounded like Mum was crying.

‘Oh James, I was so scared last night. I’ve been so angry with him, but I never wanted anything to happen to him.’

‘I know. That’s kind of what I told him, that it doesn’t matter any more what he did, because we’re family.’

‘Oh James, really?’

‘It’s true, isn’t it? I didn’t realise until yesterday, when I thought he might … When you think you might lose someone, you find out what’s important. How did the little bastard get himself in here?’

I opened one eye a crack, wondering where Dad meant, and if Dec had got in the car somehow, but I saw Dad put his hand on his chest, so he meant in his heart.

‘I don’t know, but I feel the same. We’re going to have to keep in touch with him. Oh! I didn’t get Rose’s number. I was going to call her later.’

‘Nico’ll have it. She’s something else, isn’t she?’

‘She seems to care a lot about him. I’m glad he’s had someone to look out for him. God, when I think about how lonely he must have been …’

‘Yeah, well, he brought a lot of it on himself.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘I’m just being honest. He fucked up, Beth. We’ve got a way to go yet before I’m Mr Forgiveness.’

‘But you just said –’

‘I said he was family and what he did doesn’t matter. I know. But before I can just forget it, I need to understand it. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll call him tomorrow, or as soon as we can, start talking to him.’

‘Cal was happy to see him.’

‘Yeah, they’ve always been great mates.’

‘He asked when Dec was going to live with us.’

‘Shit.’

One of the good things about pretending to be asleep was that Dad was allowed to do swears and I could hear him.

‘We should make sure they talk too. Cal’s really missed him.’

‘Yeah. Oh it’s all such a bloody mess, isn’t it.’

‘Maybe, maybe not any more – James could you slow down a bit? I’m feeling a bit icky.’

‘Still? That’s all weekend, Beth. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?’

‘No.’

‘No what?’

‘No, I’m not sure I’m not coming down with something.’

‘Huh?’

‘It’s not just this weekend. I’ve been feeling sick all week, especially around coffee.’

‘Really? Coffee used to make you sick when … oh holy shit.’

‘I know. I’m going to get a test tomorrow.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. That would be fantastic.’

‘Well, let’s not count our chickens, or any other baby animals, it could still be a bug or something.’

‘Yeah, yeah, course. Holy shit.

I hadn’t understood much of what Mum and Dad had been talking about, although I wondered if we might be getting a chicken to lay eggs and keep Percy company, but the amount of bad swears that Dad didn’t get told off about forced my eyes open in surprise, and Dad saw me in the mirror. This stopped the conversation, and Mum turned music on for the rest of the way home.

19. Bless the broken road

In which a huge event has lasting ramifications for Dec, Cal is excited by all the blue lights, and Matty has a disappointment.

Cal

The next day, Dad had to go to work, Nico had to go to rugby, and I had to go shopping with Mum and Lis, and then Mum, Dad and me were going home.

I was glad when the shopping was over, and we could go back to Lis and Nico’s and have some pizza before we got in the car. Looking out for Dec had made me tired, and I hadn’t seen him anywhere. Mum had bought me a big fire engine that had blue flashing lights and real siren noises, and the ladder and the hose really worked, and I was looking forward to getting home so I could show Uncle Matty and play with it properly.

Dec

I stood smiling at the view from the window, soaking it all up. This place, this beautiful place, felt more like my home than anywhere. And I still belonged. I hadn’t really appreciated how much I had missed being a proper part of it, or how much I had been dreading being separated from it.

I was now full of energy and hopped from foot to foot. Remembered some of what Don had said about eating and drinking – there was a vending machine in the corridor so I bought a sports drink and a grain bar. Tried not to drop crumbs on the swanky chairs.

My phone buzzed in my pocket; it had been on silent.

Nico: =We are called in for special meeting before the game. Any news?

Me: =Don’t know abt meeting, but I’m staying. NOT SACKED!

Nico: =Great news 🙂

I needed to phone Rose. She would be worrying all day if I didn’t let her know. I was just scrolling through my contacts when there was a knock at the door. Stuart came in, smiled. I hurriedly put my phone back in my pocket.

^How are you feeling now?

‘Much better. Sorry, I was a bit out of it earlier.’

^We could see that. I’m sorry this has been such a stressful time for you. Hopefully things will get better for you now. Are you up to this meeting?

‘I’ll give it a go. Am I going to have to say much?’

^Adrian and Don are the ones to ask about that. You know where the media room is?

I nodded.

^OK, best get going.

‘Stuart, I can’t remember much of what I said before. Probably most of it didn’t make much sense. But thank you for this. I can’t believe it.’

^You played a huge part in this decision. It wasn’t taken lightly. Lots of people had lots of opinions, but your actions spoke very well for you. Be proud of yourself. Go on, get to your meeting.

The meeting about the press conference mainly focussed on what information Don wanted to give out and what he wanted to avoid giving out. Don wanted it to be clear that although I was remaining at the club, I was still being sanctioned by way of suspension for the part I had played in Raiders being docked ten points.

-People need someone to blame, someone to be getting punished. Declan, you’re our fall guy. We need to highlight how unhappy we are with how you handled things, so people don’t complain about you getting off lightly. I want you to be contrite and apologetic.

Adrian nodded in agreement.

.They’ll try and get an emotional reaction out of you, they might have some personal information, or use something from the past they’ve dug up, so be prepared for some questions maybe about your car accident, or maybe about how you presented yourself to the press when they took that photo of you that got in the Herald.

‘OK.’

Don didn’t want to discuss in detail the terms of my suspension, or how individual team members had reacted to the yesterday’s events. He wanted to highlight any positive consequences, like coaching the youth team and linking with Trojans, who were a Championship side in the next county. We discussed ways of deflecting unwanted questions and answering them with something we wanted to say. We went over and over the strategies. This was just as well, as I needed to focus. My mood had flipped from devastation to delight in a very short space of time, and everything felt scrambled. Adrian typed up a list for me, so I could review it while the game was on.

I was going to have to sit it out until after the match in an unused office. It was nowhere near as plush as the hospitality suite, and had no windows, but there was a TV where I could watch the game. It would be the first time I had watched any rugby for weeks – I hadn’t been able to face it on TV, and had not been allowed at the ground on match days. I hadn’t even been keeping up with scores and league positions until the last couple of days, when I needed to know how the points deductions were going to affect everything. Now I had been let back in, I was really excited to be a part of it all again.

Don wrapped up our meeting.

-OK, then, I’ve got the pre-match to attend to now. Declan, make yourself scarce. Change into your kit before the press conference. We’ll come and get you. It’ll be shortly after the game finishes. See you then.

I sat in the office for a long time waiting for the game to start. The catering staff had provided lunch, the same as the players were having together pre-match. Full of protein and energy. I was really hungry and ate it all. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had much of an appetite. Couldn’t believe how much difference this morning had made to how I felt. I had been under this cloud for weeks and now it was suddenly lifted. I felt lighter, straighter, less substantial, as if I could float away.

There wasn’t much to do in the office, and I should have been bored to tears, but I still had a lot of information and emotion to process. While I tried to get my head around things, I turned the TV on, flicking through the channels, looking for the sports channel where the Raiders game was being shown. There was a rugby preview programme on, so I stopped to watch that for a bit. They mentioned today’s game, the points deduction and how it affected league positions. Yesterday, I wouldn’t have been able to watch it; today, I sat through it. Uncomfortable viewing but bearable. I was amazed at the change in me.

I took my phone out – I needed to tell Rose. I had turned the ringer off by mistake when I put it back in my pocket and I had missed a couple of calls from her. Listened to the voice-mails:

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just seeing if there’s any news yet. Don’t worry about ringing back, unless you want to.

and

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just checking up on you. I’ve got to go to work this afternoon, but I’ll call you again when I get home. I’ll be out later, have my phone off I expect. Hope everything’s alright, love.

No point calling her now, she’d be at work. I’d do it later.

The afternoon’s build up to the game passed slowly. I imagined the gradually increasing crowd – people who liked to get there early, have a few beers, chat with their mates, get their favourite spot on the terraces, people who maybe had seated tickets who didn’t need to get there so early, all the kids getting excited, Raiders shirts, Raiders hats, Raiders flags, noise, activity, excitement.

Being stuck down here was weird; I could sense the atmosphere that would be mounting beyond the room I was in. The team would already be there, having a final team talk and any last minute physio or other treatment. They would be able to hear the crowd from the changing rooms, gradually getting louder until just before kick-off when it would reach a crescendo and the stadium announcer would whip them all up with a cheering contest. They were the best supporters, made a lot of noise, followed the team around all over the country and all over Europe. I had really let them down. It was time I repaid them however I could.

Finally it was kick-off time. I had sat through almost an hour of speculation pre-match on the sports channel, realising how little the pundits actually knew, and how much they could spin out the smallest piece of incorrect information. According to them, I was born in Australia, moved to England to join Raiders and had played for Australia under sixteens. They also said the discrepancy in my passport had been found in a routine check. They’d either got their facts completely wrong, or made it up, or it was misinformation given out by Raiders’ media office.

And then it was game time. I muted the sound on the TV for a few moments, and could hear the crowd beyond the room. It sent a tingle down my spine. They seemed to be getting behind the team even more following yesterday’s setback. I settled down to watch the team – my team.

Raiders won convincingly. Nico scored two tries. They played superbly – moves flowing, passes connecting, running, rucking, scrumming, tackling, everything was clicking. It was just the response Don would have wanted. Now the game was over, it was time for a few interviews with key players and the coaches, and then it would be the press conference.

My phone buzzed. A text

DivDav: =Good news 4 u mate. Fancy beer later?

Me: =Wld b gr8. r u @ club?

DivDav: =No but cld pick u up. Car park, 7? Usual spot.

DivDav liked to pretend he had a personal parking spot for his old Fiat. In reality it was the furthest reaches of the car park, where there was always a space.

Me: =OK, gr8.

I was more than a little touched. DivDav had given me a hard time when I was first suspended. But since paying him back the money I had borrowed, he had been more friendly. I hoped this might be another step towards healing my broken friendships.

I had just changed into my Raiders gear when a knock on the door signalled my call to the press conference. My heart beat faster as I made my way to the media room, which had been set up with microphones on a table in front of some chairs where the journalists were already sitting. More journalists than I had imagined; it was a bit intimidating.

Don led the way to the table and we both sat down behind the mics. Adrian stood, directing which journalists should ask a question. They started with the match, and Don answered the questions with his usual steady diplomacy, praising the team and the result and complimenting the opposition. They quickly moved on to the points deduction, and Don fielded all their questions with ease. He was very used to this. They addressed me a few times, asking about my suspension and how I felt about yesterday’s decision. I followed the strategy we had worked out, and seemed to get away with it. Don made a big deal out of me coaching the youth team and registering with Trojans. That seemed to go down well. There were some more testing questions.

“Has the club taken into account the death of a man in a car accident involving Mr Summers?

Don took that one.

-That is not a club matter, and has been dealt with through the proper channels.

“Declan have you any comment to make about this local newspaper report?

I was shown the back page headline from several weeks ago with my unflattering picture and description of my unkempt, drunken state.

‘I’m not proud of my actions then. It didn’t reflect well on me or Raiders, and I have given the club an assurance that it won’t happen again. The reputation of Raiders is very important to me, and I will do everything I can to ensure I don’t tarnish it again.’

“How do you feel about being responsible for Jay Scott leaving Raiders and quitting rugby?

This one threw me – I sat with my mouth open. Quitting rugby? I had not heard that version. Don took one look at my shocked expression and jumped in.

-Jay Scott’s decision to leave Raiders was a personal one, and not something Declan is qualified or permitted to discuss. I don’t know where you guys get your information from, but Jay has not ‘quit rugby’ to my knowledge.

“But he has left Raiders and not gone to a position with another club?

-That is something you would need to discuss with Jay.

A few more questions around changed priorities for the season, what might happen with my contract beyond the end of the season, all deflected. It seemed to be a big game to all of them.

And finally it was over.

-Well done, Declan. Thank you for that, I’m glad to see you’ve regained your powers of concentration. Why don’t you go and join the players in the bar?

‘Really?’

-Your suspension only covers playing; everything else is back on. Go and enjoy it. Just remember what we’ve said here this afternoon.

Almost on a cloud, I walked to the main bar, where players met with supporters and sometimes opposing players after the game. I could not have imagined this outcome to the day while I was preparing for it this morning. It was difficult to even remember clearly how I had felt when I woke up that morning – it seemed like a different life, or a long time ago. I had been in a dark place, and now it seemed like I’d been given a light.

Despite my happiness, I was apprehensive about going into the bar; Nico and Big aside, I hadn’t socialised with anyone for a long time. There would be loads of people there, whose reactions I couldn’t predict, and it could be uncomfortable. I also hadn’t drunk any alcohol since my vodka bender. Might be better to give the beer a miss tonight, especially as Don hadn’t said it was OK.

I slipped through the door into the bar. I felt like there was a bright spotlight shining on me, but in reality I was just another bloke walking into a bar. No one noticed. I was immediately aware of the less than celebratory mood, despite the win, and had to adjust mine to compensate. No one was going to be cheering my news, and I needed to show everyone I knew what I had cost Raiders. I realised with renewed respect for his people management why Don had suggested I come here.

>Declan!

Nico’s greeting ensured everyone in the bar now knew I was there. Many eyes turned towards me. Nico strode over and shook my hand warmly.

>Great news that you stay with us.

In a quieter voice:

>You are OK? I am very worried about you last night.

‘I’m good. Great, actually. Yesterday seems a bit unreal. Actually, today seems a bit unreal.’

>You look better. We talk later, OK? Come, have a drink.

He led me over to the bar, where there was a group of players and supporters watching a replay of the afternoon’s game on a large TV screen. It appeared to be about half way through the second half. Nico didn’t make a big fuss, just handed me a bottle of water.

>For clear head, yes?

I nodded and leaned on the bar watching the screen. I was getting some sidelong glances which I tried to return with a smile.

The replay of the match over, the pundits returned to the theme of the points deduction and what it would mean for Raiders. More glances slid my way. I started to feel very uncomfortable, but didn’t know what to do; whether to say something now, or wait to be confronted.

I was saved by the press conference. They showed some of it on the programme, some clips of me being apologetic and contrite, and some bits of Don outlining how I was going to help Raiders out while I remained suspended. When the programme had finished, the man standing next to me, a supporter, turned to me and said:

*Fair play to you son, you’ve owned up to it and taken the punishment. Losing so many points is a bit of a bugger, but not much anyone can do about it now. Just have to get on with it. Best of luck.

He held out his hand, and I shook it gratefully. A few people seemed to relax at this. Not everyone was so generous. I noticed several people directing dark looks at me, although Big came over, gave my shoulder a squeeze.

°Great to have you back, Captain. Fancy going out later?

‘Oh mate, that would be great, but Dav is picking me up. Do you know where he is?’

I looked around, expecting to see Dav somewhere around.

°I expect he’s off drowning his sorrows somewhere.

‘Sorrows?’

°Yeah, he didn’t get his contract extended. Found out yesterday. And Amy dumped him last week. He’s being a bit of a dick about it. Still, maybe he’s feeling better. Get together later this week then?

‘Love to.’

Cal

We got in the car to go back, and then Dad remembered he had to go to his old work to pick something up, so we stopped off at Raiders Stadium. I’d been here lots of times to Dad’s work, where he had an office that smelt like sweaty people, but I had never seen a rugby game. I liked football, and although Dad and I watched rugby on TV sometimes, I didn’t understand the rules at all, and it just seemed silly to pick the ball up and run, rather than kicking it to each other.

Dec

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Glanced at the screen. Rose. Shit. I was going to have to ring her, she’d be worried out of her mind. Couldn’t do it here though. Looked at the time. Nearly seven. Time to go and meet DivDav. I’d ring Rose back when I got outside.

I walked out into the dark car park, looking for DivDav. I couldn’t see his car over the far side, but began to walk over that way as I got my phone out to call Rose.

Dreaming. Not flying. Playing. Running on the pitch, muscles stretching, catching, tackle after tackle, passing, scoring, happy.

Cal

Dad stopped the car in the car park, and I looked up at the bright lights, shining in rooms a few floors up, lighting up people who were sitting at tables and standing talking to each other.

‘Can I come with you Daddy?’

‘No, Cal, I won’t be a minute, I’m not stopping.

‘Stay here with me, Cal, we can have some of these Maltesers.’

Mum and I watched Dad walk towards the building.

Dec

Then afterwards with Jay, Beth and Cal. Laughing, talking, arguing, playing, happy. Jay is talking.

łWhat the fuck … hey, mate, you OK?

Must still be dreaming. Why is my bed so hard? Why does everything hurt so much? Why is Jay shouting?

łJesus. Shit. Jesus.

Cal

Then, just as I was about to remind Mum about the Maltesers, we saw Dad bend down and look back at us, waving frantically. Mum wound the window down; Dad was shouting.

‘Call an ambulance.’

Mum got out of the car, phone in hand, to try to see what Dad was looking at.

‘What is it, James?’

‘Dial 999. There’s a bloke here. He’s covered in blood. He’s in a bad way.’

I tried to get out of the car, being quite interested in lots of blood, but Mum stopped me, standing in front of the door so I couldn’t see. I heard her talking to her phone.

‘Ambulance … Raiders Stadium car park … my husband has just found a man covered in blood lying on the ground … I don’t know, I’ll ask.’

She shouted to Dad.

‘James, is he breathing?’

Dec

Not dreaming, then. Lots of pain. Loads of it, crashing around, banging into every bit of me. Vaguely remembered a lot of banging and crashing. Tried to stop remembering and carry on dreaming. Jay carried on shouting.

Cal

Dad shouted back.

Yeah, he’s breathing. Almost unconscious though. His eyes are fluttering and he’s mumbling.’

Mum told the person on the phone what Dad said, then Dad shouted back to her.

‘How long will they be? Jesus, there’s blood everywhere.’

Mum folded her phone up and called to Dad.

‘They said five minutes. I’m coming over, James, I can do something to help –’

Mum knew about putting plasters on and wiping cuts with TCP. She would be good with a man with blood on him, and I would be able to go with her and see it too.

‘No Beth, stay with Cal – he can’t see this.’

Dec

Beth and Cal were here? Tried to open my eyes. Wanted to see them. Hurt.

łStay still, mate, the ambulance is coming.

Drifted off somewhere quiet and soft.

Cal

Mum knew that if she went over to where Dad was, I’d follow her, so she was stuck at the car with me while Dad waited for the ambulance. We both looked out of the window at Dad as he knelt down, although we couldn’t see the man. Mum kept tutting and looking at her watch, and I watched the entrance into the car park to see the blue lights when the ambulance came. It came very quickly, and we watched as the ambulance people put the man on a stretcher and then into the back of the ambulance. I couldn’t really see the man, because it was dark, and he was wrapped up in a blanket, which was disappointing, but I hoped Dad would tell us all about it.

Some police cars had come too, and policemen were talking to Dad. I saw him running his hand through his hair a few times, and shaking his head, then looking up at the lit up rooms and nodding. Then, finally, he came back to the car so we could find out what had happened.

‘Well?’

Mum got out of the car to meet Dad as he walked back to us.

‘We’ve got to stay, the police want to talk to me.’

‘But we can’t, we’ve got to get back for Matty.’

‘I know, I said that, but they want me to give a statement, as I was the only one who found him, and you’ve got to stay because you called the ambulance.’

‘Oh this is ridiculous. Who did you talk to?’

Dad pointed to one of the policemen, and Mum walked quickly over to him. Dad opened the back door of the car for me and I got out, and we stood and looked at Mum arguing with the policeman. Mum was good at arguing, and usually won, like in cafes when the cake was dry, or taking clothes back to shops, but she didn’t win against the policeman, although she seemed to be trying her very best. She walked slowly back to us, looking really cross.

‘No luck?’

‘No, I can’t believe it, they honestly didn’t care that your disabled mother is going to have to get your disabled brother in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, undressed, dressed in pyjamas and settled for the night. We’ve got to wait here.’

‘I’ll call the agency, see if they’ve got anyone short notice. You’re right, Mum can’t do it, but they might have someone. Come on, we can wait inside, they’ve taken over one of the corporate suites as an incident room.’

Dad got his phone out and started talking about Uncle Matty as we walked across the car park and into the Stadium. We went up some stairs, and then found ourselves in a room with a window overlooking the pitch, although I couldn’t see much because the floodlights weren’t on. There were two policemen, who were using computers, but they didn’t take much notice of us, even though Mum said who we were.

We sat on a sofa, and Dad went to get us drinks and crisps from the bar. He was gone a long time, and Mum looked at her watch a few more times. She got her phone out and talked to Granny, but didn’t say anything different from the things Dad had said to her when he told her about the person who was coming to put Uncle Matty to bed.

Dad came back after a while and gave me a can of Fanta, and Mum a glass of wine.

‘Sorry, I got held up in the bar, everyone wanted to talk to me, I was trying not to make a drama of it. Do we know when they’re going to talk to us here?’

‘No, I don’t know what’s taking so long.’

We waited for a long time; I’d finished my Fanta and the crisps that Dad had brought, and Mum was trying to play some games with me, but she wasn’t concentrating very well because of waiting for the policeman to talk to her.

Finally, one of the policeman looked up from his computer and came over to us.

‘Mr Scott?’

‘Yes. This is my wife, Beth.’

‘Mrs Scott. Thank you for staying. We just want to ask a few questions, as you found the victim. I’m Detective Constable Simmonds.’

‘Are you going to take long? We need to get back home, and we’ve got a long drive.’

‘We’ll be as quick as we can, sir. Is your little boy alright here with us? Detective Peterson could look after him …’

‘No, you’ll be fine, won’t you sweetheart.’

I nodded, hardly able to believe I was going to be allowed to stay while the policeman talked to Mum and Dad.

‘Alright then. First, can we just check some of the details you gave us when you called us, Mrs Scott …’

There was a lot of talking about all the things I already knew, about how Dad found the man, and Mum called the ambulance, and why we were in the car park, and lots of things that weren’t very interesting. I started to feel sleepy, and snuggled in to Mum, who put her arm round me.

I was half asleep, not really listening to the grown up voices talking, but in that weird half-dreaming way, I seemed to suddenly be listening, as if part of me knew that I needed to be paying attention before I knew what was being said.

‘… long have you know the victim?’

‘What? I don’t know him.’

‘Oh, maybe I’ve misunderstood, sir. I thought you were a coach here?’

‘Was. I left a couple of months ago.’

‘But am I right in thinking Mr Summers has been here for several years?’

‘… er … what?’

‘My apologies, I thought you had been made aware, the victim is Mr Declan Summers. I believe he is a Raiders player.’

There was a long silence. I sat up and looked at Dad, who was looking at the policeman, with his mouth open. I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought the policeman was saying that Dec was the person who Dad had found on the ground in the car park. But surely Dad would have known it was Dec? He was only not talking to him, he wasn’t not seeing him.

‘Mummy, is Dec –’

‘Shh Cal. James – was that Dec? Could it have been?’

‘Shit. I don’t know, he was, his face was – bloody hell Beth, no one could have recognised him.’

Dad turned to the policeman.

‘Are you for real? That bloke, the one with his face mashed in, was Declan Summers?’

‘I’m sorry sir, but yes. Can you tell me how long you’ve known him?’

Mum and Dad sat very still. Mum’s arm was round me, but I saw her other hand holding Dad’s hand tightly. They didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then Mum kind of shook herself.

‘Just over three years. But we haven’t really seen him, not properly, for a few months.’

‘Do you know … have you heard … how is he?’

‘We haven’t got any news from the hospital. You’re not family? Because someone suggested there was a family connection.’

Mum let out a deep sigh.

‘Dec lived with us, like part of our family. He doesn’t have anyone else. I suppose you could say we’re the only family he’s got. James, we need to go and see him.’

She looked at the policeman.

‘Will they let us see him?’

‘They usually say family only.’

‘He doesn’t have family, not blood relatives. His parents died when he was thirteen, he was in care before he came to us. He’s going to be there on his own.’

‘You make a good case, Mrs Scott, but you’re better off talking to the hospital. I think we’re finished here, you can go now, see if they’ll let you in.’

‘Is he … how bad is he?’

‘I’m really, sorry, I don’t know. I’d suggest going to the hospital to see what you can find out.’

‘Yeah, come on Beth. You must know someone up there who can smuggle us in.’

Mum looked at Dad, and gave him half a smile, but also looked like she was going to cry.

‘Really? You don’t mind going?’

‘That bloody boy is going to be the death of me, but no, I think we both need to be there, don’t we?’

‘I can call Lis, see if Cal can go back there –’

‘I want to see Dec.’

A long look passed between Mum and Dad.

‘Sweetheart, Dec has been badly hurt. We don’t know how he is, yet. I don’t know if you can see him.’

‘I want to. I don’t mind his blood. I’ve seen Dec’s blood before, when he chopped his thumb.’

‘This is a bit different, mate.’

‘But I want to see him.’

‘Maybe it would be easier for now if he just comes with us, James. I’ll find out what’s what and we can take it from there.’

And so I was allowed to go with them to the hospital. I had to wait for a long time with Dad while Mum talked to people about how Dec was and whether we could see him. I wasn’t sure how to feel, because it sounded like Dec was more hurt than just needing a plaster, and I couldn’t imagine what that really meant. But I just felt that now, all of a sudden, the thing that had been there that had made Dad get that cross, tight look on his face had gone – in fact it had been gone since this morning, and I wanted to see Dec and talk to him. And I was a bit fascinated with the promise of all the blood as well.

After sitting on plastic chairs for ages and ages, Mum came back and sat next to Dad. I thought if I looked sleepy and leaned against Dad, they would be more likely to say things than if I looked interested, so that’s what I did, and that’s what happened.

‘So …?’

‘He’s alive.’

Dad let out a huge breath, as if it had been possible that Dec hadn’t been alive.

‘Jesus. How bad is it, then?’

‘Bad enough. Multiple fractures, he’s having a CT scan to check his brain.’

‘Shit. Shit.’

‘James.’

I suspected a look came my way, but I’d closed my eyes, so I could hear better.

‘Can we see him?’

‘After his scan. They’re admitting him, but he’ll be sedated, he’ll be out of it for several hours. They don’t expect him to wake up until tomorrow.’

‘I want to stay.’

‘I know. I had a look to see who’s on the ward he’s going to, and I know the Nurse in Charge. I’m pretty sure I can talk us in there, but maybe I should take Cal to Lis’s first.’

I opened my eyes quickly and sat up, because at this point being asleep would only get me carried out to the car.

‘I want to see Dec.’

They both looked quickly down at me, as if they’d forgotten I was there for a moment. Dad shrugged at Mum, and I held my breath, hoping they wouldn’t say no.

‘If one of us takes him back to Nico’s, and Dec wakes up, we’ll be sorry we missed it.’

‘I know, but I’m not sure Cal should be seeing … whatever he might see.’

‘I shouldn’t think it’ll be any worse than imagining it. I know I’m imagining some pretty horrific things, and I saw him at the time. He’ll have been cleaned up, won’t he?’

‘Yes, but still … oh I suppose you’re right. OK, Cal, you can stay with us for a little while, but you have to promise to be quiet and still, and when we say it’s time to go, no arguing. Otherwise I’ll take you straight back to Lis and she’ll put you to bed.’

‘Kay Mummy.’

I started practising being quiet and still right away, so they could see how good I was at it, and didn’t feel the need to take me back to Nico’s house. Another benefit of this was they forgot to talk quietly, and I found out more things, like that Dec had been hit by someone, with a bottle, and he had got glass in his cuts, and then he had fallen on the ground, and someone had kicked him. It hurts when someone kicks you, because Jake and me kicked each other once at break-time, just to see, and we both got bruises. I wondered if Dec would have bruises on his shins, like me and Jake.

After a while, Mum decided that we might be more comfortable waiting in the family room, near where Dec was going to be taken, so we went up some stairs, then Mum talked to a nurse, who showed us to a small room with some chairs and a table in it. There were toys in the corner, so I played with them while Mum and Dad sat together, not saying much, although Dad talked on his phone to Nico and some other people.

A little while later, a nurse came to get us, and said that Dec was in a bed, and that we could sit with him if we wanted to. Mum stood up and said she would go and have a look, and decide if I could go too. I went and sat next to Dad, who put his arm round me.

‘I want to see Dec, Daddy.’

‘I know, mate. But he might be a bit too gruesome just now, maybe a bit too poorly. Mummy will know if it’s OK.’

‘Will he be scary like in Monsters Inc?’

‘Ha, could be even worse, Cal. We don’t know yet. He wasn’t too pretty when I found him.’

‘But Dec isn’t pretty, he’s a boy.’

‘Yeah I know, mate. There are a few girls who might disagree with you as far as Dec’s concerned, but I know what you mean. I meant that … Cal, Dec’s not just had an accident, he’s … he’s been hit, by a bad man who wanted to hurt him, and did a good job of it.’

‘What bad man?’

‘We don’t know. The police are trying to find out.’

‘Is it because Dec did stealing and lying?’

‘Er … Jesus, Cal. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see what Dec remembers if … er … when he wakes up.’

‘Can I tell him about my fire engine?’

‘Yeah, course you can, mate, tell him anything you like. But he’ll be asleep, he might not remember what you tell him.’

I was quiet for a while, trying to remember all the things I’d wanted to tell Dec but couldn’t before, like my new school, my rabbit and the gap where my tooth came out. Then Mum came back and stood in the doorway. Dad looked up.

‘Well?’

‘He’s asleep, or unconscious, he’s had a load of meds to knock him out. He’s due some more in an hour or so, there’s a small chance he might wake up then.’

‘Really? That’s great. What’s the … er … damage?’

Dad waved his hand around his face.

‘Oh James, his face is one huge bruise, and he’s got stitches all over the place, one lot is really close to his eye. If I didn’t know it was Dec, I wouldn’t have recognised him.’

Mum looked like she might cry, and Dad stood up and cuddled her.

‘Hey, hey, shh, it’s OK, we’re here now. What about Cal? He’s really keen to see him. I’ve told him Dec’s been hit by a bad man. He asked if he looks like something out of Monsters Inc.’

Mum looked over at me and smiled.

‘Well, he’s a little bit like a monster, sweetheart, but not as bad as Henry J. Waternoose.’

Dad looked confused; he never paid attention to people’s names in films.

‘So, are we all going then?’

‘Yeah, I think so. Cal, remember, quiet and still. Dec’s not the only poorly person here. And we’re not going to stay long.’

‘I’m staying until I know he’s OK.’

‘Alright, James, but me and Cal will have to go home and get some sleep soon.’

‘Let’s see how it goes.’

‘OK.’

Mum held her hand out to me, and I jumped off the chair and over to her. We walked along a corridor, and then through a door, where there were lots of curtains in the middle of the room, like there had been in the hospital where Uncle Matty was.

‘Jesus, if I never see the inside of one of these places again it’ll be too bloody soon.’

Mum led us over to one of the curtains and pulled it aside. There was a bed and two chairs and a table with a jug of water on it. In the bed was a man. Well, in the bed was Dec, but he didn’t look like Dec, at least not at first, or even second, glance. I had to go up really close to him to find anything that let me know he really was Dec.

He was lying very still, on his back, and he had a big cast on one of his arms from his shoulder to his fingers. I knew it was a cast because Sophie Evans had one last year when she fell out of the tree, but it wasn’t as big as this cast. His other arm had bandages on it. There was also a big thing on his nose that covered a lot of his face. The rest of him, or what I could see, was coloured black and purple, and was either swollen or had lines of what looked like tiny railway track along it. I wanted to ask what it was, but I had to be quiet and still, so I just looked. His eyes were puffed shut, and his mouth looked too big for his face.

He still didn’t look like Dec, and I wondered how they knew it was, so I turned and looked at Mum and Dad to see how they knew, but Dad was staring with a kind of surprised and scared look on his face, and Mum looked like she was trying not to cry again, and I knew that it was Dec, because they knew it was.

Mum and Dad sat in the chairs, and I sat on Mum’s lap and looked at Dec, in awe of all the bruises and swelling. I had expected there to be lots of blood, but there wasn’t any, which was a bit disappointing, although there were lots of other things to see – too many things, in fact, and eventually I couldn’t stay quiet any longer; I had to ask something.

‘What are those?’

I pointed at the train tracks.

‘They’re stitches, sweetheart.’

‘What are they for?’

‘Well, when people have bad cuts, sometimes it tears their skin apart, and the doctors have to sew it back together.’

‘Dec’s been sewed?’

‘Yes, sweetheart.’

‘With a needle?’

‘Yes. And special cotton.’

‘Will he have holes in his face forever?’

‘No, his skin will grow back together, the stitches just hold everything in place while it’s growing. Are you OK, sweetheart, looking at Dec?’

I nodded. I still couldn’t quite see Dec in the battered features of the man on the bed, but I didn’t feel sad or scared or any of the things Mum seemed to think I was going to feel.

There were lots of things to look at, all over the place; on the way in, I had seen other people’s beds with cards all round them, and some people with TVs. Dec didn’t have a TV, or any cards, although he did have a tall pole with a bag of water on it that seemed to go into his arm. I supposed that if he was asleep, he couldn’t drink water, but it would have made more sense for the water to go into his mouth rather than his arm. Then I remembered Uncle Matty having a bag like this when he was first in hospital, before he woke up, and Mum telling me it was a way to give people food and medicine if they were too asleep to eat or take tablets.

After the initial thrill, it got a bit boring sitting and watching Dec sleep, and I wanted to do something. I thought about the cards I’d seen round the other people’s beds.

‘Mummy can I make Dec a card to say get well?’

‘Of course, sweetheart. As soon as we get home, we’ll find your pens and you can draw something great for Dec.’

‘No, I mean now. Then he can see it when he wakes up.’

‘Oh Cal, there isn’t any paper here or anything. It’s a lovely idea though.’

‘I bet there’s a shop downstairs, Beth. They’re bound to sell cards. Fancy a little walk?’

‘Not particularly, why, do you?’

‘Could use a coffee, or I’ll fall asleep if I’m not careful.’

‘And your legs have dropped off, have they?’

‘No, I just thought –’

‘Yeah, the same as you always think. Oh alright. I’ll go and see what they’ve got. Would you like something to drink, Cal?’

‘Yes please Mummy.’

Mum was gone for a long time, and Dad closed his eyes and then fell asleep in the chair. I wasn’t tired, not even a bit, and now Dad was asleep, I knew I was the one who had to watch out for Dec waking up. I stared hard at him, and watched for signs of movement.

Dec

Woke up somewhere noisy and full of pain. Couldn’t open my eyes. Hurt. Everything hurt. Groaned.

\daddy.

The little boy’s voice sounded just like Cal.

łMmph.

The little boy was more insistent.

\daddy! Wake up.

Just like Cal.

łWha … shit … sorry Cal, nodded off.

Head felt fuzzy, but that sounded like Jay. Must still be dreaming.

\dec went ‘nnn’ and he moved. Daddy, you sweared.

The scrape of a chair. A hand on my arm. Felt real. Real enough to bloody hurt.

łDec, it’s Jay.

What? How? Where? Too many thoughts. Tried a smile. Bad idea. Mouth too big. Lips stuck together. Pain. Groaned. Tried to open my eyes. Eyelids too big. Stuck together. Pain. Brief tiny glimpse of the ceiling. Shouldn’t I be worried about all this? Too much to think about, let it go. Groaned.

\you’ve got a big swelled up face. It’s all purple. It looks funny.

He was close to me, I could feel his breath on my cheek. I tried to turn towards him, to see if it really was Cal. No good. Groaned.

łCal! Come here. What did we say? You can stay if you’re quiet and still. Otherwise Mummy will take you back to Lis’s. Dec, can you hear me?

I could, but saying so was proving difficult. In the end, managed

‘Mm.’

It was them, I was sure. How were they here? How the glorious fuck were they here? I didn’t even know where here was.

łAh mate, you’re in hospital. How are you feeling? Sorry, bloody stupid question, considering the state of you. Do you know what happened?

Had no idea. Couldn’t get a single thought together, apart from ‘Jay and Cal are here’. The slightest shake of my head.

łYou’ve had a bit of a bashing. We found you in the car park, blood and glass everywhere. The police want to talk to you – can you manage that?

Another small head shake. All this moving and thinking was exhausting.

łOK no problem. They can wait. Just take it easy for now.

\does it hurt?

łCal, ssh.

‘Mm.’

\dec said mm. That’s yes. He heared me.

Wanted to keep him talking, but my mouth wouldn’t work properly.

‘Mm.’

He was delighted.

\he did it again!

łOK, Cal, that’s enough. When Mummy gets back you’re off to Lis’s.

\but I want to stay. I want to tell Dec –

_Cal. Sit down here – look I got you a slushie. It’s got a bendy straw.

Beth was here too. They were all here. Couldn’t smile, mouth wouldn’t work, but felt a huge smile spreading somewhere inside me.

łHe’s awake. Not very talkative. No change there.

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart …

Felt a hand on my cheek. Tried not to wince. Tried not to groan. Tried not to cry. Failed. Started to drift in and out. Things put in my mouth. Things wiped on my face. Things poked here and there. People said my name, lots of people.

_Dec, I’m going to go now, Cal needs …

>Declan … mierda, Jaime, he look horrible …

łDec, the nurse is just …

-Declan? No, looks like he’s still out …

łDec, sorry, need to go, I’ll be back …

Matt

When I woke up it was dark, and I could hear Mum talking. Jay and Beth must have come back while I was asleep; it was only a matter of time before Jay came in and the humiliations could start again. I was going to ask him if I could have Sally instead, at least in the mornings. It would be a relief to both of us.

Sure enough, the door opened and light from the hall crept into the room along with – oh – Mum. She put the lamp on by the bed and sat in the chair, looking serious.

‘Matthew, that was Jameson on the phone.’

On the phone? Where was he then? Oh fuck, they hadn’t been in an accident had they? A sudden unwanted image of twisted metal and spatters of blood forced its way into my head, because ever since I got a cold and nearly died, I had a tendency to over-dramatise.

‘They’re going to have to stay down in Devon overnight. There’s been a … well, that boy Declan’s got himself put in hospital, some sort of fight, he’s in a bad way, and Jameson says he needs to stay there until he wakes up. He’s arranged another carer for tonight, and said he’ll be here in plenty of time for you tomorrow.’

Sorry as I was to hear Dec had been in some kind of bust-up where he’d come off worst, I was massively relieved that nothing had happened to Jay, Beth or Cal, and smiled to myself at the thought of Sally coming back later.

‘Ohkay.’

Mum seemed to breathe her own sigh of relief, happy I wasn’t kicking up a stink, as was my wont now I was feeling brighter and getting more bolshy about things.

‘Thoht he wahn’t tahking tuh Dec.’

‘So did I. It seems this altercation, whatever it was, has made him think again.’

‘Guhd thehn.’

‘Hm.’

Mum didn’t seem so sure.

‘How are you, dear?’

‘Shih.’

Troubled teenagers or not, I had still had the remains of my life torn apart by Carrie.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. You were asleep when I made dinner. Are you hungry at all?’

‘Noh.’

‘You didn’t eat lunch.’

‘Soh?’

‘So you should try to eat something.’

‘Wha fuh? Soh I dohnt geh ill? Toh laht.’

‘Matthew, don’t, please.’

I tried to spare her this, I really did, the times when it just all seemed too much and I felt like it wasn’t worth it any more, but sometimes she just went on too much, they all did, telling me what I should do for the good of my health, fussing over me. None of it mattered, none of it, in the end, if someone you love can rip your heart out and give it to the bastard you hate, then go and take everything you own while you’re dying across the other side of town.

‘Lehv meh alohn, Muhm.’

‘Don’t you want –’

‘Plehs.’

‘Matthew, if you –’

‘Pihs ohf Muhm.’

I never swore at Mum. I swore near her a lot, but never at her. It had the desired effect, as she got up without another word and walked to the door. Then she turned in the doorway.

‘Apparently the agency chap will be here at nine thirty.’

‘Chahp?’

‘Yes, Jameson thought you’d be more comfortable with a man, so he’s booked this chap Ian tonight.’

I sulked my way through efficient Ian’s clammy hands and non-existent banter. He tried talking about the weather, the traffic and the plans for the new leisure centre, but as all of these things were happening outside of my life and were being talked about by him, I had no interest. His fascinating topics of conversation dried up in the face of my lack of replying and he just got on with his job, only checking with me occasionally about which pyjamas I wore and where I wanted my drink left. I just about deigned to answer him, then closed my eyes as soon as he put me back into bed. He could assume I was asleep if he wanted to. I soon drifted off anyway, and didn’t hear him leave.

Cal

Dec didn’t say any more, even ‘nnn’, and nurses started coming over and we kept having to go back to the family room while the nurses did things. Mum showed me two cards she’d bought, one with a dinosaur on it, and one with a flower on it. Of course I chose the dinosaur, and wrote in it with my best writing. She’d also bought a Mars Bar, which I ate, and some flowers for Dec, although I thought he’d probably rather have the Mars Bar. But I wasn’t going to say so. After two times of going backwards and forwards between Dec’s bed and the family room, Mum decided she was going to take me back to go to sleep while Dad stayed.

‘I think he’s going to be OK, James, at least, you know, in general. You don’t need to stay.’

‘I’m staying until I know for sure.’

‘OK.’

‘I can’t leave him like this.’

‘It’s OK. I know. Come back for a bit of sleep, though?’

‘Yeah.’

Mum went and told Dec we were going, even though he was asleep and couldn’t hear her, then we went back to Nico’s. I don’t remember anything until the next morning, so I suppose I must have fallen asleep in the car, and Mum must have carried me out and put me to bed.

I woke up in my room in Nico’s house, when Mum came in.

‘Wake up, sleepyhead.’

I remembered why I was there, and not at home in my dinosaur room.

‘Are we going to see Dec again?’

‘We’re just going to pop in, and then we’re going home. Hurry up and get dressed, sweetheart.’

I hurried up and got dressed, eager to see if Dec’s face still looked purple and big, but Dad still wasn’t ready when Mum had finished clearing my breakfast things away. Nico and Lis were still in bed too, and I expected Dad to be in trouble for dawdling like he usually was, but when he came into the kitchen, yawning, Mum just smiled at him and gave him a cup of coffee.

‘Thanks, Beth, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘There’s plenty more where that came from. You’re going to need it if you’re going to insist on driving back on two hours’ sleep.’

‘Less than two, I don’t think I shut my eyes for more than five minutes.’

‘Oh James. Why don’t you go back to bed? Cal and I can check on Dec and pick you up in a bit.’

‘No, I want to see him.’

‘But you know he’s going to be OK.’

‘Yeah, I know what they told me last night, but it’s more than that. If he’s awake at all, I … I just want to see how he is. Not how he is like his bangs and scrapes; how he is with us.’

Mum tutted and rolled her eyes.

‘Only a rugby player would call that face bangs and scrapes, but I know what you mean. Things have changed quite a bit since Friday, haven’t they.’

I listened to all this without understanding much of it. I thought, maybe, from how they were talking about Dec, that they might have stopped being cross about him stealing and lying. But you could never tell with grown-ups; sometimes they seemed one way, and just changed their minds. So I thought I’d wait, rather than asking right away, because I didn’t want to do anything to stop them taking me to see Dec.