33. Walking on a dream

In which Matty takes literal and symbolic strides, and Dec comes a cropper.

Advertisements

Matt

Christmas Night, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring … I know, wrong night, but whatever. I thought everyone had gone to bed. Jay had been in, sorted me out, monitor was on, lights were off, footsteps had trundled up the stairs. Usually I’d be out cold by now, but I felt pretty well rested, and was just enjoying lying down without actually being asleep. Then I heard something. I was pretty good at using my ears to work out what was going on in the rest of the house; it was one of the consequences of spending a lot of time on my own wondering who was where and what they were doing.

So I heard something. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, just a little noise. Then I heard it again – a sniff. My heart almost stopped as I wondered if someone had broken in. If someone came in here, there’s no way I could fight them off, I’d have to hope Jay would hear the struggle on the monitor and … there it was again. A kind of choked sniffy sob. Someone was crying, downstairs somewhere. Not a burglar then, unless it was one who was really regretful about breaking and entering. I was full of adrenaline, from imagining having to fend off an intruder, and for some fuckwitted reason, I decided to investigate.

I hadn’t walked anywhere on my own since I’d come out of hospital, so why I decided now, in the middle of the night, with no one around, was a good time to start, fuck only knows. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. So far, so good. I tottered over to the wall and used it to lean on so that I could make my way to the door, which I did without incident and found myself in the hall. Now I could clearly hear the sounds of crying, which were coming from the living room.

Using the wall as my crutch, I slowly put one foot in front of the other, wondering more and more as I progressed what in the kingdom of fuck I thought I was doing. Why hadn’t I just said ‘someone’s crying’ into the monitor? Jay would have been down like a shot, and I wouldn’t be here, half way across the hall, legs trembling like I’d run a marathon. But I was investigating. Not just curious about who was crying, because there honestly weren’t that many people it could be considering Mum, Cal, Jay and Beth had all gone to bed, but also about how far I could get.

Yeah, it was stupid, but there was someone in the living room who would surely hear if I needed them and, oh, here I was in the doorway now. Fuck, that had taken it out of me. I leaned against the door frame, panting, and looked at the shape lying curled up on the couch.

‘Dec?’

His whole body jolted as he heard my voice.

‘Fuck! You scared the shit out of me. What are you doing out of bed? How did you get here?’

All very good questions, but not the most important thing right now. I was going to fall over if I didn’t get some help pretty soon.

‘Cahn yuh hehp meh sit dohn?’

Dec jumped up and took my arm, supporting me to the nearest sofa.

‘Thahks.’

I was breathing hard, but sitting down was better.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I’d lost sight of that a little bit in the last couple of minutes of trying to remain upright, but thought back to what had brought me out into the big wide world in the first place.

‘Hehrd someohn crying. Investigahting. Whasup?’

‘Just feeling sorry for myself, completely unjustifiably. I didn’t realise you could get about by yourself.’

‘Meh neihther. Gahv ih a try. Diddit. Fehls guhd. Fucking knahkered now.’

‘You look it. Do you want me to get Jay?’

No no no, then there would be questions and fussing and ‘oh Matty’ and exasperated looks.

‘Fuck noh. Ih’ll be okay in a bih.’

Oh, and nice try at distracting me Dec.

‘Why yuh crying?

‘Not really important.’

It was bloody important enough for me to do this, like, hundred mile walk from my bed to here.

‘Huhmour meh, Ihm a crihpl.’

‘OK then. Jay wants to take me home on Sunday. It made me realise I’m never going to live with them again. I’m a fucking selfish bastard who doesn’t appreciate what I’ve got, what I nearly lost, and what I’ve been given back with bells on. Boo hoo, poor me. Humorous enough?’

Right, well, he had spilt. Now I had to do something about it.

‘Bluhdy hilarious. Dihd yuh think yuhd lihv wih them here fuhever now?’

I didn’t know if this was on the cards, whether it had been discussed, even.

‘No, I guess not.’

‘Dohn’t yuh have some bihg fuck off ruhgby carehr to get bahk tuh?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so.’

‘Think of ih lihk lehving hohm, then. Hahs to happen sohm tihm. Yuh dohnt always chuhs when. Things hahpen, things chahnge. Noh one lihvs wih thehr fahmly foh ahlways. Member wha Jay said at dinner? Declan Suhmers in my fahmly fuhever. Tha mehns wherever yuh are. Connehcted. No nehd to beh hehr.’

I don’t know where the words were coming from, they just occurred to me and ended up coming out of my mouth. That was quite a lot of talking for me, and I started panting again. Dec looked like he was thinking about it, looking at his hands, then raising his eyes to stare at me.

‘Bloody hell, Matt.’

‘Mahk sehns?’

I bloody hoped so, because I was fast running out of energy for any more speeches.

‘Lots. How the fuck did you get so wise?’

‘Too much tihm tuh think, noht enough fucking vodka to forgeh ih all.’

‘I wouldn’t actually recommend the vodka method of forgetting, it has its drawbacks.’

Well that sounded interesting, hadn’t heard any hints of that one.

‘Souhds lihk a stohry. Mehbe tomohrow. Fuck, Ihm frehzing. Can yuh fetch whelchair? Noh suhr cahn walk back. Fuck.’

The cold had crept up on me unnoticed as I sat there thinking about my breathing. I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and had nothing on my feet, which were now so cold they were almost numb. Much as I hated the infernal wheeled machine, I wasn’t going to make it back to bed on my own.

Dec hurried to fetch the chair, helped me get into it and wheeled me back to my room. I leaned on him to help me out and back into bed, remembering his arms weren’t exactly in prime condition and so using my remaining strength to hoist myself onto the mattress. Now I needed to get warm, and I wasn’t going to have to be too finicky about asking for help. Come on, Matt, you asked him to tip your piss into the toilet yesterday. This is nothing.

‘Chehrs. Ohn mohr favohr? Hoht drink?’

‘Sure. Any requests?’

‘Dohn ‘spec I’ll geh whisky tohdy?’

Oh how I would have loved a whisky toddy, burny and soothing, to caress me down into unconsciousness. Never gonna happen.

‘Not even if I knew how to make one.’

‘Bahstrd. Tea then. Onna trahy lihk this mohning, ahl fahncy, mihk inna jug, sugar inna bohl, lacy doihly.’

‘How about in your cup, milk, two sugars, bit of a stir, lid on tightly if I’m feeling generous?’

Oh well, downgrade your whisky toddy dreams to warmish tea from a baby cup, then Matt.

‘Noh the sahm.’

‘All you’re bloody getting this time of night.’

Dec

As I headed towards the kitchen, I met Jay at the bottom of the stairs.

łWhat’s going on down here?

‘Just getting Matt a drink.’

łYou do know you’re both broadcasting over the monitor? Turn it off if you’re going to chat. Not really interested in your sordid late night tales.

‘Oops, sorry. Forgot about that. I think we were only talking about tea, though. Nothing particularly sordid.’

łThe night is young. Don’t forget to turn it off. And put it back on when you go to bed.

Matt

I vaguely heard voices as Dec left the room. Jay seemed to be complaining about something, and I hoped Dec wasn’t telling him I had just done the cripple equivalent of a trek up Kilimanjaro.

By the time Dec got back, turning off the monitor as he came in, I had started to shiver, and I couldn’t stop. Being under the duvet wasn’t noticeably warming me up. I was going to have to ask for more help. It doesn’t sound like much, but every time I had to ask for something it shaved a slice of self-respect from my soul.

‘Sohry, got really cohd. Cahn yuh plug lehtric blanket in?’

‘Sure, er, where is it?’

‘Lohng plug at the end, this sihd. Yeh, thas it. Thahks. Sohry tuh ahsk, cahn yuh hehp wih drink? Hohd ih foh meh? Hahnds shaking.’

Dec pulled the chair closer to the bed and held the cup for me to drink. I was shaking so much, the spout was getting nowhere near my mouth.

‘Should I get Jay?’

Dec looked worried, and maybe it wasn’t fair to put all this on him, but I knew I’d be OK and I really, really didn’t want Jay getting up to help and being all mardy and paternal on my arse.

‘Noh I’ll be OK once I wahm up. Feet lihk ice. Cahn yuh geh socks? Top drawhr.’

As Dec put the socks on my feet, I could feel the electric blanket starting to warm up, but I was still shivering.

‘You need to get this tea in you. Let’s have another try.’

I managed to get the spout in my mouth, and held on for dear life as I sucked the warm drink. Dec made it hotter than anyone else, obviously caring less about whether I scalded myself, the inconsiderate bastard, and it was what I needed. I finished the cup.

‘Another one?’

‘Yeh, might hehp get warm. Thahks, Dec.’

He made another drink and brought it in.

‘Still want me to hold the cup?’

‘Yeh, fuck the mahn poihts.’

Man points, that fantasy league where doing arbitrarily manly or unmanly things gains or loses you points. I was currently languishing at the bottom of the relegation zone with zero points and a goal difference of minus three thousand.

‘This one’s got half a bottle of imaginary vodka in it. Should help you sleep.’

‘Chehrs then. Bohtoms up.’

I drank, trying my hardest to think of it as vodka.

‘Nehd a bluhdy guhd maginahtion for tha.’

‘Best I could do.’

‘God I mihs gehting rat-ahsed.’

The glass of wine at dinner earlier was the first taste of alcohol I’d had for more than two months. Beer, I so wanted beer. I had nowhere to escape to, and enough beer would easily lead me down the path to the secret tunnel, then under the fence to temporary freedom. Or a glass of scotch. Oh how I hankered for the days when I would get home after a hard day, pour myself a glass of the good stuff, golden and welcoming, and take the load off. It seemed light years away, and I had to make do with a tiny sip of red wine, which I didn’t even like, and didn’t even get me to the gate at the entrance of the path to the secret tunnel.

‘I bet.’

It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and reassure the kid.

‘Fehl behter. Wahmer. Thahks.’

‘Least I could do, following your rescue act earlier. Cripples Corner code of conduct.’

‘All fuh ohn?’

Or some such Musketeery shit.

‘Something like that.’

I could feel myself warming up, and as I did so my eyes started to close and I slept.

So there you go, we shared, we bonded, he went home – oh really? The whole nine yards? Slave driver

Dec

As Matt warmed up and he stopped shivering, his eyes drooped and closed. I wasn’t happy leaving him just yet, I was a bit worried he might have got too cold, so I moved the chair back and settled down, pulling my phone out of my pocket for another look. I found the contacts list and read through the familiar names that had been programmed in, presumably by Jay or Beth. I felt incredibly fortunate to have such a group of people to call on, people who looked out for me, who wanted me in their lives. My misery from before receded.

Matt’s advice had been spot on and had really helped me; I’d never had brothers or sisters, or even aunts, uncles or grandparents, and had never left home in the usual way, so never had that sense of connection across distance that families developed. Thinking of ‘family’ in those terms helped me see the bigger picture. Beth said I had grown up, but I probably needed to do a bit more growing and be a bit less self-obsessed.

I must have fallen asleep in the chair thinking about it all, as I woke up with a crick in my neck, when the phone clunked to the floor. I checked Matt hadn’t woken, and that his breathing was steady, then I turned on the monitor and crept upstairs.

My phone told me it was two thirty. I undressed in the bathroom and trod as gently as I could into Cal’s room and into bed. I slept almost immediately.

Dreaming. The faceless man with the brown boots has carried Cal away and is threatening to drop him off a cliff. Every time I approach, the brown-booted man dangles a screaming Cal further over the edge. I am powerless to rescue him. Finally, the brown-booted man looks away and I launch myself at him, flying faster than I ever have before. I grab Cal and throw him to Jay, who is waiting. The brown-booted man catches me by the arm and throws me off the cliff. I fall, spinning and tumbling, ripping my face, snapping my arms, and land at the bottom, broken, helpless. I watch as the brown boots land by my head. One of the boots pulls back and then speeds towards my face …

Cal

I fell asleep really quickly once I was in bed, but was woken up again by Dec’s dream voice.

‘Unh … no … mm … no, no, no … aah … AAAAAAHHH … AAAAAAAAH!’

The loud scream scared me a lot. It was too near, and too loud, and I wanted to get away from it, and I nearly fell down the ladder trying to get away from Dec, and the loud noise he was making. I ran across my room, and backed up against my cupboard, as Dec carried on making noises. I didn’t want to hear him do another scream, and I was nearly crying because I was scared, but the noises got louder, and Dec screamed again.

This time, he sat up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.

‘Fuck.’

I didn’t giggle, because I was frightened, although if he’d said a swear, he might be awake. I thought I’d try to find out, and if he was still making monster sounds, I would run out of the room and get Dad.

‘Dec?’

Dec

A very small voice. Shit. Cal. Pulled myself together.

‘Sorry, Cal, I’m OK. Did I scare you?’

\yes.

The light went on and Jay came in. Cal was standing on the other side of the room, backed up against his toy cupboard, eyes wide.

Cal

I heard the door open, and the light went on, and Dad came in. I had to screw my eyes up because of the light, and I felt Dad pick me up and cuddle me, smoothing my hair. It made me feel better, that it was light, and my dad was holding me tight, and I stopped feeling so scared.

Dec

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Looked at Jay, who was looking back at me as he rubbed Cal’s back.

‘Sorry. Sorry Cal. I think I’ll go and sleep on the couch.’

I grabbed the duvet and a pillow and went downstairs to the living room, where the Christmas tree looked sad, trying to sparkle in the dark. I wrapped myself up in the duvet and tried to get comfortable. The dream was still floating around my head, and I felt terrible about the fright I’d given Cal.

Cal

Dad kissed my head and leaned back so he could look at me.

‘Are you OK, Cal?’

‘Yes. I was scared when Dec screamed.’

‘I know. He made a bit of a racket, didn’t he. He was probably having a bad dream. Are you going to be alright to go back to sleep?’

I nodded, and Dad took me over to my bed and tucked the duvet round me, telling me I was a big brave boy. He turned the light off, but stayed by the bed, stroking my hair and looking at me. Every so often I felt my breath shudder, but then my eyes closed, and I was asleep.

Dec

After a while, the door to the lounge opened and Jay came in. He sat on the end of the sofa, in the dark, and ran his hands through his hair.

łJesus, Dec. You scared the shit out of him. And me. What the fuck were you dreaming about?

‘This man with brown boots. I get flashbacks to getting kicked in the face. It really happened, I can remember the boots. Every dream ends with it, but what happens before changes. I can feel it all again as if it’s really happening. I can’t do anything about it. I’m so sorry I scared Cal.’

Jay shrugged, but whether that meant it didn’t matter, or that Cal was OK, or that he just didn’t know what to do about it, wasn’t clear.

łSo who’s the man in brown boots? Is he the other guy you can’t remember?

‘Fuck knows. Could be. I just wish it would stop. I’ll sleep down here till I go back.’

łJust tonight, yeah? We can make you up a bed in my office tomorrow. Sorry, mate, Cal was really freaked out.

‘Is he OK now?’

łYeah, I think so, he’s gone back to sleep. Don’t really want it to happen again though.

‘I know, it’s fine. I’ll be OK down here.’

łSleep well, then mate. Seriously.

‘I’ll try.’

I turned over as he left the room and shut my eyes. I couldn’t sleep, though; there was too much adrenaline pumping through me. I dozed on and off, until I finally slept, some time after six according to the clock on the DVD player.

Cal

While I was having my Weeties the next morning, Dad said we were going to go to the park and play football once Dec was awake. Dec had slept in the living room, and the door was still shut, and Dad said I couldn’t go in until he was awake. But I didn’t know if he was awake unless I went in. I opened the door a little bit and peeked round a few times, but Dec always had his eyes shut. Then, finally, I looked in and his eyes were open.

Dec

It was light when I woke up again. The DVD clock said nine thirty. I sat up, stretched, feeling the pull on my right arm and noticing it was moving much more freely. The bruising on my left hand had faded considerably – it wasn’t obviously a footprint any more – and my little finger seemed to be almost back to normal size. On the minus side, my back was aching from my half a night on the sofa. The door opened slowly and Cal peeked round.

\he’s awake I can go in now.

He dashed in and jumped on top of me. I lifted my arms out of harm’s way and got a knee in the stomach for my trouble.

‘Gently, mate, I’ve only just woken up. How are you this morning?’

\when can we go and play football? Daddy said when you wake up. You’re awake now, can we go? You’ve been asleep for hours. Did you do any more screams?

‘I don’t think so. Sorry I scared you last night Cal.’

\i wasn’t scared.

‘Oh, OK, well sorry I woke you up, then, was it a bit loud?’

\yes, it was. I think Optimus Prime was scared.

Cal looked at me with big, serious eyes, and I realised I needed to play along with his pretence.

Cal

Dad had said I was a big brave boy, and now that it was light, Dec’s screams didn’t seem so bad, and the scared feeling was difficult to remember. I’d gone to sleep with Optimus Prime beside my pillow, and Dec’s screams would have made him a little bit afraid.

‘I’m sure you looked after him, though. So, football, eh? Are you going in goal?’

‘No, I’m too little. I score goals, like Theo Walcott.’

It had been a while since I’d played football with Dec, but surely he hadn’t forgotten that I was always Theo Walcott, who was the striker and not the goalie?

‘Of course. Well, let me have some breakfast and get dressed, and see if Daddy’s ready, then we can go.’

Oh no, not more waiting. I was always waiting for people to finish doing boring things so I could do something exciting, and people never hurried.

‘Why can’t we go now?’

Dec

‘Well, because I’m not dressed yet for a start.’

And I’d left my clothes upstairs, with Jay’s mum only a few steps away from another gaping boxers incident.

‘And I need some breakfast. Have you had yours?’

\yes, I had Coco Pops.

‘Well I haven’t had mine. I bet you wouldn’t play football without having your Coco Pops first.’

He thought about this, unwilling to concede anything.

\but you’ll be hours.

‘I won’t, promise. Especially if you run upstairs and bring down my jeans and my t-shirt so I can get dressed.’

He ran out of the room and I could hear him run upstairs, then thunder down again. He gave me my clothes, and I slipped into them under the duvet, unwilling to even risk giving Carol another unwanted flash of my boxers and beyond.

‘OK, now breakfast.’

Cal stuck to me like glue, apparently not trusting I wasn’t going to backtrack on my promise to be quick. Jay, Beth and Carol were in the kitchen, sitting at the table, Jay and Beth still in dressing gowns.

_Hi Dec. How are you this morning?

‘Good thanks. I was just thinking how much better my arm feels. And look at my hand, the bruises have almost gone.’

I showed her.

_It is looking better. Any more dreams?

‘No. Sorry if I woke you up.’

_I think you woke us all up. You were having quite a rough time by the sounds of it.

‘Sorry.’

#What were you dreaming about, dear?

‘It’s kind of this recurring thing, flashbacks to being kicked in the face, and other stuff. And there’s this man wearing brown boots. I’ve been dreaming about him since I got beaten up. It’s been worse since I had my op and remembered who one of them was. I think this other man must be on my mind somehow.

#That’s understandable, dear. It must be terrifying to keep reliving it. You shouldn’t worry about waking us up, we can go back to sleep easily enough. Are you getting any help for it?

Carol’s sympathy and understanding were touching, and a bit of a turnaround from the reception she’d given me a couple of days ago.

‘Hopefully, seeing a psychologist soon.’

#That’s something, then.

Beside me, there was a big sigh from Cal, who was losing patience with the big amount of talk and the small amount of breakfast that was going on.

\dec, are you going to have your Coco Pops?

‘Maybe I won’t have Coco Pops, I think I’ll have some toast and a cup of tea, leave you some Coco Pops for tomorrow. I’ll be as quick as I can. It doesn’t look like Daddy’s quite ready yet.’

I raised my eyebrows at Jay.

łWaiting for you, mate. No point rushing around getting ready for footy if the goalie lets us down.

‘I’m not going in goal.’

łLast up gets no choice.

‘If I land on my arm and knacker it, Don’ll have your guts.’

łOh fu … lip you’re right. No goalie then.

‘You could always do it.’

łDon’t think so.

\daddy come on. Get dressed so we can play football.

łAlright, Cal. Why don’t you go and play with your cars while you’re waiting? Uncle Matty’s awake, he could do with some company.

Cal left the room with a scowl.

łDo us another cup of tea, Beth?

_You could always get it yourself.

łWouldn’t taste as good as yours.

_Jameson Lucas Scott you are a terrible man. Dec, cup of tea? Carol?

I made some toast while Beth boiled the kettle.

_I’ve done one for Matty. Do you want to take it in, Dec? Here’s the tray, just like he likes it. I couldn’t find any doilies, hope he’s not too disappointed.

‘Ha ha, sorry if we woke you up last night. I keep forgetting about the monitor.’

I put my tea and toast on the tray and took it in to Matt’s room, where Cal was already absorbed in his cars and roads.

‘Tea up.’

}Ih’s the maid. Luhvly.

‘How are you this morning?’

}Good. Tohstie. Blanket on ahl night. Noh hypothehmia. Yuh dihnt tell Jay?

‘No. Did you?’

}Noh. Cal sahys yuhr plahying football?

‘Soon as Jay gets dressed.’

}Tahk me?

‘Sure, if you think you’re up to it. Jay might make you go in goal, though.’

}Juhs wanna geh ouh. Stand up foh meh?

‘Sure thing. CC’s code of conduct’

}Wha?

I glanced at Cal.

‘Orders from Beth. No more inappropriate words for people who … er … have trouble getting around, at least in presence of … er … minors.’

Matt processed that for a moment.

}Oh. She got yuh under the thumb.

‘Pretty much do what I’m told where Beth’s concerned.’

}Wihs man. I wouhd tuh if I wahnt a crihpl.

I rolled my eyes and took a sip of my tea.

‘Want help with yours?’

Matt shook his head.

}Gihv a try on my ohn.

I handed him the cup. He held it with two hands and sipped the tea from the spout.

}Wha I wouhnt gihv to hahv a nohmal cup.

‘Doesn’t seem much to ask.’

}Toh mahny spihls. Toh much lectric. Mahks meh fehl lihk a bahby tho.

‘Something to work towards then.’

}Chuhs my bahtles?

‘Something like that. When I was having a hard time, not so long ago, it really helped to not look too far ahead. One day at a time, one hour, one minute, however much I could cope with. One second sometimes. Stopped me going completely mad.’

}Mm, only pahtially succehsful Ih’d say.

Jay came in holding his coat.

łOK Cal, I’m ready to go. Pack your road up.

\oh daddy, can’t I leave it up?

łNo, mate it’s in the way if Uncle Matty needs the loo while we’re out.

Matt was looking at me intently, and I got the message.

‘Can Matt come with us for a bit of footie?’

łYeah, good one mate.

‘No, really, just so he can get out for a bit?’

Jay was silent for a moment, looking at Matt, considering.

}Going mad stuhk in hehr. Fehl rehly good today.

łI dunno, Matty, it’s cold out.

}Plehs, Jay, gimme a brehk.

‘Warm clothes, gloves, scarf, flask of coffee?’

}Plehs?

Jay was torn. Then he made a decision.

łOK, we’ll wrap you up like a Michelin man. But one shiver or cough and you’re straight back, and no more trips out till summer. And it might not get past Mum and Beth before we even get there.

Matt smiled widely and did a fist pump.

łOK. Cal, you need to clear your road up super-fast – we need to get Uncle Matty’s wheelchair out. Dec, you find as many layers as you can, top and bottom, thick socks, start piling them on. In the drawer there, and here in the cupboard. I’ll make up a flask and explain to the ladies. If I don’t come back, you’ll know it hasn’t gone well – start planning my funeral. And yours, Dec, for suggesting it. Matty, you’re sure you’re up to it?

}Suhr. Thahks.

łGreat job, Cal. When you’ve finished, go and find your football, and the little rugby ball, and get your coat, shoes, scarf and hat. Dec, when you’ve finished with Matty, make sure Cal’s got all his gear on.

I knew this side of Jay from when he coached at Raiders. He would have a plan, and then he would start issuing instructions to get it accomplished. He was efficient and organised. It was like working with him again, and very different from domestic Jay, who was haphazard and a bit lazy.

I pulled t-shirts, hoodies and jumpers out of the drawers, and found a pair of thermal longjohns, some jeans and some baggy tracksuit bottoms in the cupboard. I held up the longjohns, grinning.

‘Nice. Planning on going to the Arctic?’

}Noh, just tuh the fucking pahk. Dohnt nehd all this.

‘I disagree. You nearly got hypothermia last night just coming to the living room.’

} … fair poiht. OK, pihl ih on.

Matt took off his t-shirt and held his hand out for the first layer. As he put it on I couldn’t help noticing how thin he was; his ribs were showing through his skin, and I could see his collar bones, which stood out prominently. It occurred to me why he’d got so cold last night; he had no energy reserves in his body. It would explain why he got so tired as well.

Matt covered himself up with a long sleeved tight fitting top, and then put on another t-shirt, a thin zip-up hoody, a thicker hoody and a woollen jumper. The trousers were a bit more problematic. Matt could stand, but had difficulty bending down to pull anything up. He looked at me with a resigned expression.

}Jus fucking do ih. Goh minus ten thouhsand mahn poihts anyway.

I pulled up the longjohns, jeans and finally the tracksuit bottoms.

‘Shall I tuck the bottom shirt in somewhere? Don’t want a draught.’

}Yeh, muhm.

‘Piss off, just remember who got you this gig in the first place.’

}My etehnal gratituhd.

‘I should think so.’

I tucked as many of the top layers as I could in the tracksuit bottoms, remembering how it had felt for me not so long ago to not be able to dress myself, trying not to think about how embarrassed Matt might be.

‘Right, socks and shoes. Where are they?’

}Socks top drawhr. Shohs – dohno. Hahnt wohn any since I goh hehr.

‘OK, I’ll have a look around. Cal, well done clearing up your road. Go and find your coat and stuff now, yeah?’

\is Uncle Matty coming with us?

‘Yeah. Good, eh?’

\yes but can we go soon?

‘Yeah, go and get your coat and stuff – er – shoes, hat, gloves, scarf. Oh and Daddy said get a football and a rugby ball?’

\kay.

He toddled off, but I had no idea if he was going where he was supposed to. Jay came back in.

łI think I convinced them. Not that happy about it though. They’re going to come along so they can fuss over you.

Matt pulled a face.

}Greht.

łDon’t worry, I’ll put Mum in goal and Beth can ref. That’ll keep them out of trouble.

}Ha ha.

łYou look about ready – what are you looking for, Dec?

‘Shoes.’

łUse my hiking boots, in the porch. Matty’s same size as me. Right, we need your coat, and I’ll get you a scarf, gloves, hat. Back in a minute.

I went and fetched the hiking boots from the hall, and put them on over the thick socks from the drawer. Matt was sitting on the edge of the bed.

‘Do you want to get in your chair?’

}Wait foh coht. Only hahv to stand up agahn.

‘Good point. Is this all really worth it?’

}Yeh. Nehd to goh ouh. Chohs bahtle.

‘Fair enough.’

Jay came back with a coat, scarf, gloves and hat.

łDec, you’ve got nothing on your feet, and you need more than a t-shirt. I’ll do this, you go and sort yourself out. Where’s Cal?

‘Getting his stuff together.’

łCan you check on him?

‘No worries.’

I ran upstairs to Cal’s room, grabbed my trainers and socks. Cal wasn’t up there. I put my socks and trainers on and went to the pegs in the hall to get my coat. Cal’s coat was still hanging up, along with his scarf and hat, so I grabbed them and went in search of him. He was in the living room, having been sidetracked by a dinosaur game.

‘Cal! I thought you wanted to go out. Here’s your coat. Put it on.

I helped him into it, and the scarf and hat.

‘Where are your shoes?’

\don’t know.

I went back to the hallway, found a pair of wellies with a pair of socks screwed up in them. Took them back to Cal.

‘Where’s your football?’

\don’t know.

I ran upstairs to his bedroom, and after a brief search found the football and rugby ball nestling together under the bed. Came back downstairs, just as Jay was wheeling Matt out of his bedroom. I could hardly see him under all the layers, but his eyes were shining.

łWhere’s Beth and Mum?

_We’re here, just need to get my coat – Matty, is that you under all that? No danger of frostbite then.

}Bluhdy douht ih, hard to geh frohsbite and heatstrohk ah sahm tihm. Ihm bluhdy boihling.

_Where’s Cal?

‘In the living room putting his wellies on.’

Beth went to fetch him, while Carol got her coat. Finally, we were all ready to go out. I handed Cal the football, and held onto the small rugby ball. Span it all the way to the park, enjoying being able to use both hands without too much discomfort.

Cal

And so I had to wait and wait while Dec got dressed, then had breakfast, then talked to Uncle Matty, then Uncle Matty wanted to come and play football, so he had to get dressed as well, and then Mum and Granny wouldn’t let Uncle Matty come unless they came with a flask of coffee, and then Dec had to find my wellies and coat and hat and scarf and a football and a rugby ball, and then at last we were ready to go.

Uncle Matty was in his wheelchair, which Dad pushed. He was wearing lots and lots of clothes, because Dad was worried about how cold it was, and Uncle Matty hadn’t been outside since before it was winter, and he had been very poorly. Uncle Matty counted, and he had three pairs of trousers, five jumpers, a coat, gloves, a woolly hat and a scarf on. He grumbled a lot about having to wear it all, but he was smiling, and he looked happy to be going to the park.

Matt

So, thanks to some fancy talking from the kid and some pleading from me, I actually left the house. They were all going to sod off to the park and leave me with Mum, but I wasn’t having that. Last night I walked across the bloody hall to the living room, even if they didn’t know it because neither Dec nor I had told them, and if they were going out, this newly expanded family I seemed to be part of, I was going too.

Dec

The park wasn’t far, just beyond the garden centre. There were a few other people there, but nobody using the football pitch. Cal threw the ball on to the pitch and ran after it, dribbling it up to the goal and scoring.

\can someone go in goal?

Jay looked at me. I held up my bandaged arm and shook my head. He admitted defeat and trudged off to stand between the posts.

\dec will you be on my team?

‘Course. Team Cal, yeah?’

\Mummy and Granny can be on the other team and Uncle Matty is referee.

_I don’t think Granny or me are actually going to be playing, Cal. We’ll just watch, and drink some of this coffee.

Beth held up the flask and started to open it while Cal reassessed his options.

\dec you can be the other team and try to score past Daddy. I will tackle you.

‘OK.’

I knew how this worked: I had to let Cal get the ball off me so he could have a shot at goal. Jay was supposed to let it in, but he was so competitive he couldn’t always bring himself to. I dribbled the ball up to the six yard box, and slowed as Cal ran up to me, letting him kick the ball away from my feet.

\and Walcott steals the ball from Dec, he shoots –

Cal kicked the ball hard but not very accurately at the goal. Jay graciously dived over the top of it and let it in.

\walcott scores. The goalie had no chance. One nil to Arsenal.

We carried on like this for some time, sometimes Jay would let the ball in, mostly he would save it, and he got pretty muddy from diving around in the goalmouth. Beth, Carol and Matt cheered every goal. After Cal had scored a lot of goals, and Jay had saved a few more, Beth shouted over to us.

_Matty wants a go, take a penalty.

\for my team?

_If you want.

\yes. Here’s the spot, Uncle Matty.

Beth wheeled Matt over to the penalty spot. I expected him to kick it from his chair, but he stood up, shakily, and beckoned me over.

}Need yuh tuh lean on. Stahd still.

Cal placed the ball on the penalty spot. Matt stood with one arm across my shoulders and swung back with his right leg, connecting well with the ball. It headed for the bottom corner of the goal, but at the last second Jay just got a hand to it.

}Bahstrd

łNo favours, mate. Better luck next time.

As Matt sat back down in the wheelchair, he was panting.

}Noh hohding bahk nex tihm. Yuhr tohst.

He had a huge smile on his face.

}Thihk I shouhd goh back now.

‘OK, let’s go.’

}Noh, s’okay. Mum and Beth can do it. Stay wih Cal. Thahks, Dec. Fucking awesohm.

Beth wheeled Matt away, with Carol in attendance.

Matt

We cheered Cal scoring goals, which he did through a combination of luck and generosity on the part of Dec and Jay. I even stood up and took a penalty myself, although my bastard goalie brother couldn’t bring himself to let me actually score. I was astounded at my physical prowess.

I got a bit tired, alright I was completely wiped, and my feet were bloody freezing, so I decided to go back before I was dragged back.,

Dec

Jay picked up the ball and walked over, trying in vain to wipe some of the mud from his clothes. He was pretty much covered from head to foot.

łLast time I’m ever being goalie. Hey, Cal, what about a bit of throwing?

He picked up the rugby ball and tossed it to me. It was much smaller than I was used to, but it was Cal sized. We threw the ball between us for a bit, and it felt great, even with the small ball and on the muddy park pitch. I had really missed being outside with a ball, being physical.

I could feel how far my fitness had slipped in the time – was it less than two weeks? – since I had ended up in hospital, and now I was moving about again, I really wanted to get back to training.

I threw the ball to Cal, who threw it back. As I caught it, I had an urge to go on a run with it, so I tucked the ball into my arm and set off down the field, intent on crossing the goal line as if I was scoring a try under the posts. It felt really good to stretch my legs, as unused muscles in my calves and thighs came back to life.

I heard Jay pounding after me, didn’t think he’d be able to catch me, or even that he’d be trying, so it came as a huge shock when I felt him grab my waist and pull me down. I fell awkwardly, onto my right shoulder, and everything in my right arm protested.

31. What Christmas means to me

In which it is Christmas Day, and there is excitement and bonding.

Cal

… the next thing I knew I was in bed, and it was still dark, but I felt backwards for my stocking and … HE’D BEEN! My stocking was full of presents. I wanted to start opening them straight away, but I was supposed to take the stocking in to Mum and Dad so they could watch, and I didn’t know what the time was. While I wondered what to do, I heard noises coming from below me. More of Dec’s noises.

‘No … no, no … mm … nnn … unh …’

He was louder than last night, and I wanted to see if he would do another swear, and then he would be awake and could help me with my stocking.

I climbed down the ladder and stood by Dec, wondering how to wake him up. He was moving around in the bed, twisting the duvet round him. I reached out and touched his cheek, and his eyes snapped open, although he wasn’t looking at me. He tried to sit up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.

Dec

… felt a slash to my cheek, heard glass shattering, felt blows raining down on my body, lay there helpless as I watched a brown boot heading towards my face …

Woke up in darkness, sweating, confused, disoriented. Could hear breathing close by. Tried to sit up, banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

Remembered doing the same yesterday. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

Cal

It worked! He’d said a swear, and he was awake. He rubbed his head as he lay down again, and looked at me.

‘Cal?’

‘You made noises again. I poked your face and you shouted. You did another swear.’

Dec looked at me, then shook his head, blinked, and nodded.

‘Sorry, mate, must have been dreaming again.’

‘Can I open my stocking?’

‘What? Oh. What time is it? Where’s your dinosaur clock?’

My dinosaur clock just said numbers, and I didn’t always know if they meant it was time to get up. I picked it up and showed Dec.

‘No, Cal, it’s far too early. It’s not even morning yet. Go back to bed.’

‘Can I come in with you?’

‘Try to go back to sleep in your bed, yeah?’

I’d been pretty sure he would say that, after Dad told him I wasn’t allowed in with him and Mum, but it was always worth a try. However, after being back in my bed for ages and ages, I still wasn’t asleep, and I could hear Dec still moving around, so I knew he wasn’t asleep either. I climbed back down the ladder and had another go.

Dec

He lasted about five minutes in his own bed, then hopped back down the ladder.

\i can’t get back to sleep. Can I come in with you?

I had no resistance – it was too late, I was too tired, I’d missed him too much.

‘Come on then.’

I shuffled over to the wall, while Cal took up the rest of the available space. He was asleep in seconds, while I carried on thinking about my dreams, worrying about why I kept revisiting the beating.

Cal

I fell asleep for a while, and then woke up again and thought it must be time by now. Dec was still asleep, or had his eyes shut. I tried to look in his eyes by pulling his eyelids up. Then Dec opened his eyes on his own.

‘Stop that, Cal, I’m awake now.’

‘Is it time yet?’

I showed Dec the clock again, but he shook his head.

‘Not yet. If you go back to sleep, it will go quicker.’

This was torture. My stocking was right there, waiting to be opened, and every second felt like years. It was all I could think about, and going back to sleep would be impossible.

‘But I can’t, I want to open my stocking. Santa’s been. Has he been downstairs?’

‘Yeah, mate, he’ll have been everywhere.’

‘Can I go and see?’

‘No, stay up here, wait till Mummy and Daddy and Granny are ready to go down.’

‘But Granny takes ages, she always says ‘just let me wash my hands’ and then she’s a long time.’

‘I know it’s annoying having to wait, but that’s the rule. Shall I tell you a story while we’re waiting?’

A story with Dec might make the waiting more bearable, so I nodded and snuggled up against him.

‘How about the end of the Christmas Mouse? You fell asleep before we finished it last night.’

That sounded good. I had wanted to hear about the mouse.

‘Kay.’

Dec wasn’t reading the story, he was remembering it from his head, and he got some bits wrong, like forgetting their names, and what order things happened in, but I helped him, and we got to the end, where the cat went to live with Santa.

When it was ‘The End’, Dec looked at the clock.

‘OK, it’s time now. You can take your stocking in to Mummy and Daddy.’

I jumped out of bed really quickly, took the stocking off the end of the bed and ran to Mum and Dad’s room. The door was locked, and I rattled the handle lots of times before I heard it unlock, and Dad opened the door. He had his pants on, and his hair was sticking up.

‘Hey Cal. Is it that time already? Merry Christmas.’

He got back into bed, and I jumped on top of the duvet. Mum was just waking up, and she sat up so I could cuddle her and give her a kiss.

‘Happy Christmas sweetheart. Ooh, what have you got here? Santa’s been busy, hasn’t he?’

‘Is Dec awake, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Go and get him. I’m sure he’d like to watch you open your stocking.’

‘James …’

Mum laughed and cuffed Dad on the arm, but didn’t say not to fetch Dec. Frustrated that it was taking so long to get to opening the stocking, I raced back to my room and tugged on Dec’s arm.

‘Daddy says come and watch.’

‘What?’

‘Come on, I want to open my stocking. Daddy says.’

I pulled Dec’s hand until he came with me. He stopped to put clothes on, but I couldn’t wait for him, and I went back to Mum and Dad.

I jumped on the bed and emptied the parcels onto the bed, then started tearing paper off, while Dec came in and sat on the end of the bed and yawned. There was lots of cool stuff: toys, pens, badges, games, a torch, Pokémon cards, chocolate coins, and dinosaurs. But now I’d opened everything, I started thinking about the big presents that might be downstairs under the tree in the living room and in Uncle Matty’s room.

Dec

As I walked into Jay and Beth’s room, I mouthed ‘you bastard’ over the top of Cal’s head, but Jay just laughed as Cal jumped on the bed, up-ended the stocking and started ripping paper off parcels. He made short work of it all, and soon had a pile of small, exciting looking stuff. Then he immediately wanted more.

Cal

‘When can we go downstairs?’

Not yet, Cal, it’s far too early for Granny and Uncle Matty. Play with your stocking toys for a bit.’

‘But when?’

‘When we hear Granny get up. She won’t be late, but it’s still too early for her.’

‘But when?’

It was like nobody else was excited about Christmas at all, and nobody seemed to want to go downstairs.

‘Just be patient sweetheart. You’ve got all these lovely things in your stocking.’

Maybe Dec will play in your room with you while you’re waiting?’

Well I suppose playing with some of these new toys would make the wait more fun. And I remembered what I’d thought yesterday, about sharing my stocking with Dec if he’d been too bad to have his own. Dec hadn’t had his own stocking, so it was only fair that I let him play with my things for a while.

Dec

Jay had an evil glint in his eye. I had been hoping to go back to bed for at least an hour or two. However, Beth was looking at me hopefully, and she looked wiped out. I caved.

‘Come on then Cal. Let’s take all this stuff back to your room. We’ll have to play quietly though.’

Cal gathered up his new treasures and ran back to his room. I looked Jay in the eyes.

‘You guys are seriously taking the piss.’

He grinned and settled down under the duvet.

łMerry Christmas, Dec. Thanks for the lie-in. Best present ever.

_Thank you, sweetheart.

Cal and I played with his toys for the next hour and a half. I loved it. We made up games, imagined stories about things and pretended our heads off. Tired as I was, I wouldn’t have swapped this Christmas morning for any other morning in my life. For a long time, I thought I’d never see Cal again. I wanted to enjoy every minute now I was back here. Finally, we heard movement from down the hall. Cal noticed before me.

Cal

‘Granny’s awake!’

I got up and went to the door, ready to run downstairs and start on the big presents, but Dec called me back.

‘Give her a minute, Cal, she’ll need to get dressed and stuff, and we’ll all need breakfast first. I know it’s hard, Christmas is exciting, but we might have to wait a bit. And we need to see if Matt’s getting up as well.’

Not more waiting. I was so fed up of waiting and waiting.

‘Ohh, but I’ve been waiting for hours.’

‘Only because you woke up so early. If you’d gone back to sleep, it would have seemed like no time at all. Come on, let’s have another go with this car – look, if you push this button, the lights come on.’

Dec

We heard another door open, then Jay came into the room, running his hands through his hair.

łOK, Dec, you’ve done your stint, thanks, mate. Go back to bed if you want.

‘No, I’m OK, I’m awake now. I’ll make a cup of tea, though, if you like.’

łThat’d be great. Seriously, thanks for this. Beth gets really tired at the moment, she needed the extras.

‘She did look wiped. Tea for all then.’

łCome on Cal, lets see if Mummy wants to play with all this cool stuff.

Jay picked Cal up in one arm and scooped the toys up in the other, and I heard them chatting as he took Cal into their room.

I went downstairs and filled the kettle, putting mugs out on the side. I found Matt’s spouted cup and put it out too. Decided to see if he was awake. Pushed open the door to his room. It was dark and I couldn’t see him, but could hear his noisy breathing.

Matt

I was awake before anyone came into my room the next day. It was Christmas Day; I could hardly believe how excited I was at the thought of actually getting up, leaving my room and sitting down to eat dinner. People did it every day of their lives, sometimes twice a day, but I’d like to bet it had never meant as much to any of those unthinking bastards who wasted their lives not appreciating the finer things like a place at a table, or holding a knife and fork properly. I resolved never to take things like leaving my bedroom for granted again.

I started to hear sounds from above, noises that made me think I wasn’t the only one awake. It was unlikely Cal would have slept through, with the amount of Santa anticipation he had been experiencing, and I knew the plan was that he would come in here first for some presents. So when the door opened and it was Dec, I was a little bit disappointed. I’d been looking forward to the squealing, the shining eyes, the thrill of watching a small child do Christmas morning.

I’d never spent Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal, having always found ways to avoid it before, despite Mum asking me to go down there with her every year. Beans on toast in front of the Doctor Who Christmas Special had been my middle finger up to ‘tradition’ and ‘commercialism’, but this year I was going to throw myself into the family Christmas vibe if it was the last thing I did. However, it looked like it wasn’t going to start yet, as Dec poked his head round the door.

‘You awake?’

‘Course, ih’s Chrihsmus. ‘Cited.’

‘Want some tea?’

‘Prehfer a tequila slahmer and a hot waihtress.’

If you didn’t ask, you didn’t get.

‘I’m just doing tea for now. No drinks with worms in before breakfast. And I’m as hot as you’re getting, hope you can handle it.’

He made me laugh, this kid. I pulled a face at him.

‘Hahv tuh do. Disappointihg lack of clehvage.’

‘Tough shit. Back in a minute, then.’

Cal

While I was playing, I heard Dec and Uncle Matty talking on the speaker, and just managed to hear a swear before Dad switched it off.

‘Those two are getting on well.’

‘I know. We’re going to have to watch out if Matty perks up a bit. Could cause all sorts of mischief.’

‘It would be lovely if Matty did perk up, though. Maybe he’s needed someone to cause mischief with.’

‘God, Beth, don’t wish that on us.’

Dec

I made tea for everyone, and a juice for Cal, realised I didn’t know everyone’s milk and sugar requirements, so had to make a up a tray with a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar and some teaspoons. I tested the weight, judged I could carry it up the stairs even with my shoddy arms. I took the tray up to Jay and Beth, who were still in bed watching Cal re-enact some of our earlier games.

łGet you, Mr Domesticated. You’ll make someone a lovely wife one day. One sugar, stirred please.

_Thanks Dec, this is a treat.

łWhat do you mean? I do you tea in bed.

_Once in a blue moon. Cal, Dec’s done you some juice too. Careful now, don’t spill it.

‘I’ve made one for your mum, Jay, not sure where she is?’

łShe was in the bathroom, but I think she’s back in her room now. Give her a knock. About time we were thinking of getting moving, I suppose. Or, maybe we’ll just stay here for a few more hours and let Dec get on with cooking the dinner.

‘Really? I can only do woossy beans. And I need help to use the can opener.’

łIt’s almost worth having woossy beans for Christmas dinner in exchange for a couple of extra hours in bed. Is that one for Matty? You saw him already?

‘Yeah, he asked for tequila.’

łWe heard. Dec, you do know there’s a monitor by his bed, we can hear everything until it’s turned off …

‘Sh … eep shoes. I completely forgot. Sorry.’

I glanced quickly at Cal, who was immersed in driving cars across the duvet.

łYeah, well, luckily certain ears were more interested in playing with their new space ships than listening to your witty repartee. Sounds like he’s OK then?

‘Seemed OK. I wasn’t in there for long. Better go and distribute.’

I took the tray along the hall and tapped on Jay’s mum’s door.

‘Mrs Scott, would you like a cup of tea?’

She opened the door, saw the tray, looked surprised.

#How lovely, oh and you’ve brought milk and sugar.

‘I didn’t know how you take it.’

#Just milk, thank you. Is this one for Matthew?

‘Yeah, I’m just going to take it in.’

#He might need help to drink it.

‘That’s OK, I can manage.’

Cal

I played on Mum and Dad’s bed for a while longer, and then the thrill of my stocking toys began to be overtaken by wanting to open more presents, and I asked again if we could go downstairs.

‘OK, Cal, you’ve been very patient. And Granny and Uncle Matty seem to be awake, so let’s go down. Put your slippers on first, though.’

Oh, there was always something I had to do first. I ran into my room and pushed my slippers on my feet. As I came out of my room, Granny was coming out of hers, and she gave me a cuddle and wished me Happy Christmas, and I cuddled her back but wriggled out of it as soon as I could because I wanted to be downstairs with the presents.

Matt

True to his word, the kid was soon back. I’d taken the opportunity to close my eyes, just for a minute … and I was suddenly aware he was peering at my face, a tray in his hands. Bugger it, I’d gone back to sleep.

‘Yeh, I’m stihl alihv.’

‘Glad to hear it, keep up the good work. Do you want the light on?’

He was actually asking if I wanted stuff. Jay just barged in and turned everything on, whether I was asleep or not.

‘Lamp plehs, and Chrihsmus lights. Monitor off?’

Dec put the tray on the table by my bed and then flicked all the switches; the lights from the Christmas tree making the pile of presents sparkle. I hadn’t appreciated last night what a huge pile there was.

‘Fuck meh, tha’s a loh of presents.’

‘You should see the living room. Floor to ceiling, practically. Want a cuppa?’

‘Yeh. Lihk the trahy. Dohn fancy the waihtress muhch thogh.’

‘She returns the compliment. Does sir take milk and sugar?’

‘Mihk, two suhgrs. Shoht of vodka.’

Another instance of if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Although I seemed to be doing a lot of asking and not a lot of getting.

‘You might have to imagine the vodka. And in tea? Strange tastes. Do you need help with the cup, or can you manage?’

Again with the asking. I could get used to this.

‘Gihv ih a goh. Migh need hehp. Geh rehdy tuh catch. Thahks fuh ahsking.’

I took the cup in both hands, slightly nervous as I hadn’t tried to do this on my own for a while, but that’s what the sodding spout was for, wasn’t it, in case of spillages. I held the offending item to my mouth, taking a couple of gulps.

‘Couhd do wih more imahginry vodka.’

‘Everyone’s a critic.’

‘Are they ahl up yeht?’

‘Your mum’s up, Cal’s been up since five to three, on and off, Jay and Beth were still in bed last I saw.’

‘Fihv tuh threh? Ha ha.’

Part of me would have loved to have been there when Cal first woke up and realised Santa had been, but most of me was glad I hadn’t had to be there at such a supremely ridiculous hour of the morning.

‘Yeah, thanks for the sympathy.’

Cal

I ran down the stairs, and into Uncle Matty’s room, because that’s where Mum said we were going to start, and skidded to a stop as I saw the tree and all the presents underneath it. I had never seen so many exciting looking presents in my life – and I was sure there were more in the living room.

Matt

The door burst open and Cal bounced in, stopping in awe when he saw the tree and presents underneath. There it was, that little shining face – it was almost worth being tied to this bed by the fucking bastard just so I could be there to see it. Jay and Beth were behind him, still in dressing gowns and slippers. Beth walked over and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Merry Christmas, Matty. Wait, Cal, don’t start yet, we’ve got to get Uncle Matty up and ready first. Give Uncle Matty a kiss, then come and have some breakfast with me while Daddy stays in here.

Cal

So there was going to be more waiting, and I’d have to have my breakfast first.

Dec

Cal jumped onto the bed, with an enthusiasm that made me wince when I remembered him doing the same to me in hospital, and hugged Matt.

Matt

‘Mehry Chrihsmus, Cal. Sohry, wohn be lohng.’

Jay gave me an appraising look. Whatever he saw, it was all good.

You’re looking better mate, I was expecting you to be trashed after yesterday. Feel up to it this morning? Oh, Merry Christmas.’

He ruffled my hair, as if I was the same age as Cal. It made me feel like a special little brother, in a good way and in a bloody annoying way.

‘Yeh, up tuh ih.’

I’d been waiting for this all week, I would have said I was up to it even if one of my legs had dropped off.

‘I’ll leave you to it. See you later, Matt.’

Dec picked up the tray and started to leave the room.

‘Thahks foh vodka.’

Jay gave Dec a quizzical look, probably wondering if he had been daft enough to give me alcohol for breakfast, thus necessitating several calls to out of hours GPs about mixing pills and booze.

‘It was imaginary.’

Jay looked relieved at first, then he frowned as he tried to work out what Dec meant. Comical.

Jay and I made short work of getting me ready. I felt energised, I did loads for myself, and Jay wondered aloud if my enforced sleeping for most of yesterday had somehow done me good. I had no answers for him, but didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just enjoyed feeling better. It looked like Christmas dinner was a goer. Woohoo.

Dec

Cal jiggled through his breakfast, hardly able to keep still. Jay’s mum had come downstairs too, and the three of us ate toast in the kitchen.

\when is Uncle Matty ready?

_He won’t be long. Daddy always helps him get up in the morning, Cal, you know that. Sometimes he needs more help. You’ll just have to be patient.

\can I go in the living room?

_Not yet, sweetheart.

\but I’ve been waiting for hours.

#Calum, what did you get in your stocking? Aren’t you going to show me?

\kay Granny.

He dashed upstairs and got his new toys, spreading them over the table, talking excitedly about his favourites. Jay came in as Cal was bombarding the remains of his breakfast with laser fire from the front of a spaceship.

_All done with Matty?

łJust need to sort the meds. Have we got any more of the blue ones? I can’t remember what they’re called.

_I’ll do it.

Beth left the table and went into Matt’s room.

#How is he, dear?

łSeems OK this morning. Doing quite a lot for himself. He got a good rest yesterday, one way and another. He might make it through today with a bit of luck.

#Oh, that is good news.

She seemed relieved.

#You’re so good to him, he’s very lucky. I’m sorry I can’t do more.

łNot now, Mum. Have some more tea.

He got up and put the kettle on.

łActually, I think Dec should do this. I am declaring him official Scott household tea maker. He uses a tray and everything. Very genteel.

‘Nothing genteel about it, saved me running up and down the stairs all morning carrying drinks.’

łAnd he’s practical and efficient with it.

Beth reappeared and washed her hands.

_OK, Cal, Uncle Matty’s ready for us now. Want to open some presents?

Cal jumped down from his chair and sped off into Matt’s room. The rest of us followed at a more sedate pace. Jay’s mum kissed and hugged Matt and sat in the chair. Cal stood in front of the tree, eyes wide. Jay had brought another chair for Beth; Jay and I sat on the floor.

łOK, Cal, first you need to find a present for everyone, then you can find one with your name on it. Shall I help you?

\no Daddy, I can read people’s names.

łOK then. Where’s mine?

Cal distributed a present for everyone, including a rectangular one for me, and then set to the rest of the pile. I watched in fascination as a small human paper-ripping machine made very short work of what was probably a couple of hours worth of cutting and sellotaping. He was methodical, looking at and appraising each present after opening, but not getting anything out of its box or playing with it. We were all mesmerised, and none of us had opened our presents.

Cal

At last. I didn’t know which to choose first, there were all sizes and shapes. I chose the one closest to me, tore the paper off and it was a Lego dinosaur, one which I’d put on my list to Santa. As I opened the other presents, a lot of the things were what I’d put on my list to Santa, but not an Arsenal shirt with Theo Walcott on the back, and not Optimus Prime. I didn’t realise everyone was watching me until Uncle Matty spoke.

‘Imprehsiv wohk.’

I looked at him, and he was smiling at me, but hadn’t opened his present. Dad noticed that too.

Yeah, you need to get ripping a bit yourself, mate. What do you think, Cal, wait for a minute and see what Santa brought Matty?’

I didn’t want to stop to see what Uncle Matty had in his present, because it was going to be something for grown-ups, like soap or something to drink, but Dad looked at me like he did when it was ‘no arguing’, and I put the present I had in my hand back on the floor.

‘Ehvryohn, noh jus meh.’

OK, everyone then. After three – one, two, three, rip.’

Nobody else had opened their presents either, but now they all took the paper off. Their presents were all from Santa, even Dec’s, so maybe he hadn’t been all bad. Uncle Matty was having trouble with his paper though.

‘Cal, cahn yuh hehp meh? Tuh much tahpe.’

I got onto the bed and tore a bit of paper in the corner.

‘Here, look, Uncle Matty, if you pull it, it will tear.’

After I showed him, Uncle Matty opened it easily. There was a box with a picture of a computer on the front. It wasn’t soap or drink, and Uncle Matty liked computers. So did I sometimes, when you could play games with them.

Matt

Presents between us in the past had been hit and miss. I’d always sent something down there for Cal, but never really knew what to get Jay and Beth, and so it might be a hamper, it might be vouchers, or it might be nothing at all. And Mum always came back from her Devon Christmas with a bottle of something alcoholic for me from them. Sometimes it was something useful, like ten year old scotch, and sometimes it was a bottle of something green with Greek writing on it.

So I was completely unprepared to open, with Cal’s help, an iPad. I could have cried, for many reasons, not least of which was their thoughtfulness and generosity, but Cal was sitting on the bed looking at the box excitedly, and I held myself together and looked at them instead, trying to convey my gratitude. They had bought me a cheap mobile phone when we realised mine had gone, just so they could contact me if they were out, but this, this was above and beyond.

Cal

‘What is it?’

‘Whoa, shih, eye pad. Thahnks Sahnta. Oops, sohry foh swehr, Beth.’

‘What’s a eye pad?’

It sounded like something a pirate might wear, but that wasn’t what the picture on the box said.

‘Plahy games, watch fihms, intehnet, music.’

That sounded like fun. I could see me spending lots of time with Uncle Matty showing him how to play games.

‘Can I use it with you?’

‘Yeh Cal, prohbly nehd yuhr hehp.’

Dec

łWhat did Santa bring everyone else? I got a DVD, cheers Santa.

_Necklace, lovely, thanks Santa. Carol?

#My favourite perfume, how did Santa know?

Matt

I knew they’d bought Dec an iPhone, as I’d helped them load the address book and add some apps I thought he might like; I sneaked a look at him as he opened it, and he looked as overwhelmed as me.

Dec

They looked at me. I was pretty speechless. Santa had brought me the latest smartphone. Previous Christmases had been low key in the present department, although Cal always had loads – for me, it had always been about who I was with, not what I’d got. This was a big present, one I felt unworthy of. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Cal

So everyone else had grown-up presents, but we hadn’t found out what Dec had got. Everyone looked at him. He looked like he was about to cry. Again. I wondered what he’d got. Maybe he’d been so bad that he’d just got a lump of coal, like Dad said would happen to me if I was really bad.

Dec

łUh oh, look out, blub club’s about to reconvene.

\what did Santa bring you, Dec?

‘A new phone, mate. Just what I wanted.’

_I think you’ll find Santa’s programmed it with the names and numbers of your friends and family. No more lists of numbers for you to lose.

‘I don’t know what to say –’

I looked at Jay and Beth.

‘– except thank you. Er, thank you Santa.’

łOK, Cal, finish off those last couple and we’ll get out of Uncle Matty’s hair for a bit.

}Noh, stahy.

łSeriously, Matty, if you want to do dinner, you’re going to need to rest up. We’ll go in the living room.

}Lehv the dohr open? Soh I can hehr?

łOK mate. Get some rest, though, yeah? Come on, Cal, leave those now, you can come back later and have a play. There’s more in the living room.

Matt

Eventually Cal finished his parcel Armageddon, and was eager to move into the living room for round two. I wanted them to stay, to prolong being part of the festivities, but there was no way Cal was going to stay in here when there were more presents in the other room. And Jay told me to rest up before dinner because he was a bossy twat (is what I thought to myself in my disgruntlement). As they all disappeared across the hall into the living room, I felt more than ever the frustration and loneliness of being part of but not part of everything that went on. They included me as much as they could, like just now, but until I could get about by myself, I was just going to get snippets of normality, then hours of staring at the inside of my eyelids.

Just as I was starting to get up a real head of steam on some major self-pity, I realised Dec was still sitting on the floor, looking a bit emotional. Wondering if I could distract him, I looked at the box in his hands.

Dec

While Cal zoomed out of the room to get stuck into the huge pile in the lounge, I stayed where I was for a moment, feeling overwhelmed.

}Coohl phohn.

‘Yeah.’

}Whas matter?

‘Oh, I’ll get grief for saying it, but it’s too much. I don’t deserve it.’

}Why noht?

‘You know what I did, right?’

Matt

‘Er …’

Jay had been vague about the details of what exactly Dec had done to push himself so far out of favour, although I knew there was money involved, and some kind of accident, and Beth had avoided the question altogether. Mum would only say ‘that boy …’ and look angry, and I hadn’t had the energy to push it with any of them. Now I wanted to know what had gone on.

‘… noht detahls.’

Dec

‘Oh. Well, I … things just got … shit, it’s so hard to remember everything exactly, let alone explain it. OK, first I crashed my car and someone died. Then I stole some money. Then I lied to fucking everyone about fucking everything. Then … oh there’s a shitload more to it than that, but that’s the main bit. I let everyone down, after all they did for me. They shouldn’t be buying me stuff like this.’

Matt

Dec gestured to the box containing the phone, while I tried to assimilate what he had told me. Some day I was going to have to get the whole story, although it sounded maybe too complicated for me to be able to focus on right now. Whatever the whole truth, things probably weren’t as bald and bleak as he had just told me, especially not now, and if Jay and Beth had asked him up here for Christmas, then he deserved whatever they wanted to give him, however he felt about it. Maybe if I tried some pragmatism.

‘Dihnt yohr phohn get trahshed?’

Jay had told me Dec’s phone had been smashed when he was beaten up. It had been irreparable and the police still had the bits, in an attempt to recover some useful data from it.

‘Yeah.’

‘Was ih insuhred?’

I was pretty sure I knew what the answer would be to this one; kids never insured their phones.

‘No.’

Told you.

‘Can yuh affohd a new ohn?’

I knew the answer to this one as well; Dec had no money, and no possessions, since the bastards who beat him up stole his keys and his wallet, trashed his flat and emptied his miniscule bank account.

‘No.’

I shrugged as if it answered everything.

‘Sahnta knohs best. Stahy fuh bit? Tuh quieht on my ohn.’

I could hear Cal talking nonstop across the hall, and if I sat and listened to it on my own I’d start getting miserable. I didn’t want to be miserable today.

Dec

Matt didn’t seem shocked by what I’d just told him; he almost seemed keen to reassure me.

‘Course. Although I wouldn’t call the excitement going on in there quiet.’

}Mahks meh lohnly.

‘Sorry, Matt, didn’t think. Must be tough, sometimes.’

}Mohst of the tihm. This ihn’t lihf.

He waved his arm around the room.

‘You’re doing OK, getting better by all accounts.’

Matt

I don’t know why I felt this need to unburden, all of a sudden, but there it was. Self-pity manifesting itself despite my best efforts.

‘Slohly. Lahs Chrihsmus I wahs in fucking New Yohk wih my girfriehd. Sehms lihk fuhever ago. Dohnt fehl lihk I’ll ever geh ih bahk. Fehl soh guilty, Jay an Behth gahv up evrything to wihpe my ahrs.’

And there it was, full blown poor me. It had just come out, and Dec was the lucky recipient of my need to share. First it was bottles full of my piss, then prattlings full of my despondency. Where would it end?

Dec

‘Because they wanted to. I do know how you feel. It’s hard to let people make sacrifices for you.’

I wanted to return the reassurance he’d given me, and tried to think of something that might help him.

‘But do you know what, when I was talking to Jay last night, he said that him and Beth want to do this for you, he doesn’t want anyone else looking after you, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t think he sees it as a sacrifice, it’s something he wants to do – oh, no mate, don’t …’

Matt

As he was talking, I just got a sense that he really did know how I felt, that somehow our experiences had been similar enough that he really did get it. And that felt huge. And then he reminded me that Jay had given up everything for me, and told me Jay had wanted to do it. I would never understand that, could never be grateful enough, would always feel guilty and unworthy.

It just welled up in me, and started pouring out of me in deep, heaving sobs. I couldn’t stop it, I sat with my hand over my face, wishing I was somewhere else, grateful for the excitement from across the hall that would be masking the sound of the tears that were unmanning me. I felt Dec take my other hand, and it surprised me enough to reduce the outpouring a little.

‘Ih’s soh fucking unfaihr.’

I meant all of it: me being ill, Jay and Beth feeling they had to uproot their lives, Carrie leaving me, everything.

Dec

It wasn’t just filling up, this time, Matt was really sobbing, covering his face with one hand, whole body shuddering with each breath. I held his other hand, didn’t know what else to do, feeling bad that I’d brought this on him.

‘I know, mate. You’re right.’

I wished Rose was here, she was great at talking comforting nonsense when people were upset.

‘Come on, Matt, it’s OK. Shh, don’t worry, it’s OK.’

After a while, during which I watched him anxiously, worried it might affect his breathing again, Matt’s sobs subsided. He looked at me miserably, embarrassed.

Matt

I was mortified, both at the blarting and that Dec had felt the need to hold my hand. I needed to stop both, as soon as. After a quick recce of the situation, I found my out.

‘Nihs tat.’ I nodded at what I might loosely term the ‘artwork’ on his right forearm, as I disengaged from the handholding.

Dec looked down and self-consciously rubbed his left hand over the shoddily tattooed crucifix complete with dagger dripping blood. The kind of ‘tasteful’ ‘body art’ which is usually accompanied by ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on one’s knuckles, but a quick glance reassured me that this was not the case.

‘Yeah, it’s crap, isn’t it. Had it done when I was younger, thought it made me look hard. Might get it covered up.’

‘Good plahn.’

‘You feeling better?’

I nodded. ‘Sohry. Geh lihk this sohmtimes. Thahks. Dohn tell them, plehs? They wohry, and fuhs. Wohn leh me do dihner.’

I was desperate to do dinner, and I was well aware of how Beth reacted when I showed any sign of weakness. If she even got a hint I’d been anything less than happy and up for everything, she’d put me in lock-down and force feed me with chatter.

‘No worries, Cripples Corner brotherhood. United against unnecessary fussing, united for the having of Beth’s roast dinners whenever possible.’

I tried a smile, but decided to let him off the hook. I was sure he didn’t want to stay here with the blethering cripple when there was family fun to be had across the hall.

‘Do yuh want tuh joihn in the frenzy?’

‘No, I’m fine here, if you want me to stay.’

‘Yeh. Thahks, Dec. No mohr blahrting, prohmis. Puh TV on?’

‘OK.’

Dec found the remote and turned to a channel playing non-stop Christmas songs. He turned it down a bit, and sat back down. Before the first song had finished, I found that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, as was the usual way of things following a few seconds of excitement, and after a while I fell asleep.

Dec

Matt looked like he was starting to drift off to sleep, but I stayed with him. His eyes were shut, and his breathing became more even. I could hear Cal’s excited voice from the other room, amid sounds of paper tearing and Jay and Beth’s voices, with occasional comments from Jay’s mum. I could see how it would make Matt feel lonely, it felt a bit like they were on another planet. The difference for me was I could walk across the hall and join in whenever I wanted to; Matt would have to work a lot harder to be part of everything. It must be exhausting.

Cal

I could not believe how many more presents there were in the living room. I nearly couldn’t start opening them – there were so many that I nearly couldn’t choose where to start. But I did. I started with the big, red one, which was less exciting when I opened it and it was a dinosaur lampshade for my room. I mean, dinosaur lampshades are cool, but as a Christmas present, you can’t play with it, and you have to ask Dad to put it up for you, and he takes ages and grumbles about it. Then Mum said ‘Thank you, Granny’, and I realised it wasn’t a present from Santa, but one from Granny, so it wasn’t instead of an Arsenal shirt or Optimus Prime, and I said thank you too and put the lampshade to the side to make room for everything else.

I opened loads of presents, and one was Optimus Prime, and one was an Arsenal shirt with ‘WALCOTT’ on the back. There were some for Mum and Dad and Granny as well, and Dad had a remote control car from Dec, which I would play with, and there were some for Uncle Matty which we put in a pile for him to open later, and then I saw one for Dec, but he wasn’t in the room.

Dec

I heard Cal’s voice pipe up.

\this one’s for Dec. Where is he?

łI don’t know, did he stay with Matty? I’ll go and have a look.

I heard Jay’s footsteps coming across the hallway.

łWhat are you doing still in here?

‘Chatting with Matt.’

Jay looked across at the bed, confused.

łHe’s asleep.

‘Only just. He wanted some company.’

łCal’s found you a present. Want to come and open it? We might be able to squeeze you in among all the toys and wrapping paper.

I looked over at Matt. He seemed fast asleep.

‘OK.’

I followed Jay back to the living room. Cal sat by the Christmas tree, surrounded by toys and torn gift wrap. Beth looked like she had her work cut out keeping up with all the labels so she could remember who had given what, and she had started a list. Cal picked up a box to show me.

\dec, look, it’s Optimus Prime!

‘Cool, mate! I told you Santa knew. Looks like he knew about the Arsenal shirt too – turn round, whose name on the back? Ah, good old Theo.

Cal

I’d put my Arsenal shirt on right away, over the top of my pyjamas. It was the coolest shirt I’d ever had. Then I remembered the present for Dec.

‘This one’s for you. It’s not from Santa, it’s from Nico and Lis.’

I pushed the big, heavy box towards him. Dec didn’t look excited, he looked at Mum.

Dec

‘They already gave me all my clothes for Christmas.’

_Just open it, Dec.

I pulled the paper off, and was speechless again. It was a laptop.

Cal

Dec pulled the paper off, and it was a computer. A proper one, not one like Uncle Matty’s eye pad. A computer with a lid like Dad’s. Dec didn’t say anything, like go ‘wow’ or anything, so I decided to do it for him.

‘Cool! Can I play on it?’

I knew you could do loads of games on a computer, because Dad let me do games on his sometimes. Now I had Uncle Matty’s eye pad, and Dec’s phone and computer to play with, it was as if I’d had three extra presents.

Dec didn’t answer me, though, and I wondered if he didn’t want to share his computer. Mum would have something to say about that, because she liked people to share. Dad looked at Dec’s face, which didn’t seem very happy.

OK mate?’

‘It’s just, this … and the phone … it’s all too much. They lent me tons of money, I just don’t –’

Let me stop you before you say you don’t deserve it.’

Oh, it was because he thought he’d been too bad to have nice presents. But Santa always knew what you deserved, and Dec must have deserved a new phone and a new computer, otherwise he wouldn’t have got them, even if one had been from Nico and not from Santa.

Dad was looking a bit cross with Dec, and he told Mum to cover my ears, so I knew he might say some swears. Luckily, Mum didn’t cover my ears, and I heard everything.

‘That’s just a load of bollocks, Dec. Fucking bollocks. You’ve pretty much lost everything one way and another the last few months. That slime ball stole ten fucking thousand pounds off you, you sold everything that was worth anything to get it back, and then your so-called fucking mate steals the last bit of money you’ve got and trashes the rest of what little you owned. Nico and Lis are generous people and they wanted to do this for you. You need a phone and you need a computer, because you need to be able to keep in touch with people so nothing like this ever happens again. It’s not too much, it’s just right, because it’s something we wanted to do for you. Let people do what they want to help you, and don’t make us feel fucking bad about it. OK, rant over. It’s just more of what we said last night, isn’t it? I hope you get it now, I’m getting bored of bloody saying it. Sorry, Mum, lots of bad language. Sorry, Beth. Sorry Cal.

I was looking at Dad with wide eyes. Not only had he said lots of bad words, he’d said a lot about Dec that I hadn’t known. I thought Dec had stolen, but Dad had said some people had stolen from Dec, that one of his friends had done it. But Dad hadn’t sounded sorry for Dec, he sounded angry. I started to get that feeling I’d had for those couple of days after I’d phoned Dec, when I worried about Mum and Dad being cross with me, and what might happen if they were.

‘Daddy are you cross with Dec?’

Dad sighed and did a little smile at me.

No, mate, not cross. A bit exasperated, maybe. I’m just trying to make him understand something.’

I didn’t know what exasperated meant, but from how Dad said it, maybe it wasn’t as bad as cross.

‘You said lots of swears.’

I know, they seemed to make my point.’

Dad looked at Dec.

OK?’

Dec

I took a deep breath and tried to make myself believe it.

‘ … OK.’

Jay nodded.

łRight, lets get on with this then. Cal, what’s that huge one in red and green paper?

The unwrapping continued, and Cal finally made his way through all the presents. He found another one for me, from Rose. It was shower gel and soap, plus a big fluffy towel. I would have normally found this a pretty uninspiring gift, but Rose knew how much I was looking forward to a proper shower, once my dressings were off for good. It was also something that didn’t make me feel guilty about the amount of money she’d spent. It was perfect. I smiled to myself. I’d have to ring her later once I’d worked out how to use my phone.

Cal

I carried on with the presents until there were none left, only the ones for Uncle Matty, and there were only three of those.

Dec had another present, which said ‘from Rose’, and was a towel and some shower gel, and if I’d had that present I would have been very disappointed, but Dec smiled a lot when he opened it. I didn’t think I would ever smile if I got soap.

Dec

Presents opened, there was a bit of a lull. I wandered into the kitchen, to see if I could do anything to help with dinner, but it all seemed to be under control. Beth said she’d ask me to set the table later – something else that edged me towards believing I was part of their family again. Setting the table had always been my job when we all made Sunday lunch together. Slowly, bit by bit, it was sinking in.

e