110. We can work it out

In which things are resolved.

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Matt

Finally, after what seemed like all night but when I checked the time had been less than an hour, I heard the car outside, as it pulled onto the drive. I heard the car door slam, and I assumed a nonchalant pose, as if I’d been watching football since she left, and not sending myself out of my mind wondering where she’d been and what she’d been doing, or applying for jobs in another country.

I didn’t look up as the front door opened and Lau walked in, but she came into the living room waving a loaf of bread at me. Part of me loved that she couldn’t lie to me, and so had made it true, and another part just wanted her to be straight with me.

‘They were giving away free gifts with every loaf. I got a brother-in-law with mine.’

What the fuck? I looked up then, and saw Jay hovering behind her, and I was instantly furious. After all I’d said, all the talking we’d done, she’d just gone and fetched him, against my express wishes.

‘Lau, I thought I told you I didn’t want –’

‘Yeah, I heard what you said. But know what, Matt, this isn’t just about you. It’s mostly about you, and Jay, but it affects us all. I’m not having you so unhappy that you want to stop seeing your family. We need them, and they need us. Jay’s here, he wants to talk to you. I think you should listen to what he has to say.’

I nearly told both of them to piss off, nearly said it in terms that would have made it difficult to mend anything with Jay and would have seriously fucked things up with me and Lau, but I stopped myself, with a huge effort. I glanced at Jay, saw how nervous he seemed, and it crossed my mind how much it might have cost him to come here. Shit, there’s no way I would have gone over there in a million years. Maybe he deserved a chance. I nodded.

‘OK, Lau. Get us a couple of beers?’

Lau shook her head. ‘I’ll put the kettle on. I think beer may have affected some judgements last time.’

I suppose she might have had a point.

‘OK, fair enough.’

I looked at Jay, although I still found it hard to look him in the eye without anger clouding my vision.

‘Come on then, sit the fuck down, stop making the place look untidy.’

Jay walked into the living room as Lau went to make a drink. He sat down, looking self-conscious, and held an envelope out to me.

‘What’s this?’

I took it as if it was explosive.

‘Application form.’

‘What?’

I opened the envelope, and glanced at the contents. There was a piece of paper with the Raiders logo at the top.

‘For that job.’

What the fuck?

‘I talked to the Raiders IT guy, Sean, the guy Ed gave you the number for –’

‘I remember.’

‘Sounds like a great job. You should do it, you’d be good.’

I was taken completely by surprise. It sounded like Jay was almost apologising; he had at least executed a perfect U-turn, which I couldn’t recall ever happening in my life before.

‘Really? What about all my fucking about and embarrassing the shit out of you?’

Jay half smiled. ‘Are you planning to fuck about and embarrass the shit out of me?’

‘No.’

‘Then we’ll be OK, won’t we. I’ll probably, Jesus I don’t know, even be bloody proud of you or something.’

‘Fucking hell, can’t have that. World might bloody end.’

It was as if a plug had been pulled, and all the anger, all the fury, all the – yeah, I’m going to say it, as I’d got close to it over the last couple of days – hatred just drained away. Was I really so shallow that all I needed was a few supportive words from my brother and everything was OK? Well yeah, actually, it turns out I was.

‘It hasn’t been advertised yet. Sean said if you do the application asap, and they like it, you could have an interview by the end of the week. They need someone pretty soon.’

Laura

I felt my shoulders untense. There was still a way to go, but it had started well. I finished making the tea and got a book out to take with me while I sat with the twins.

Matt

I looked at Jay, wondering if there was going to be anything else, if this was the apology, or if we were going to actually address some of the huge shit that had underpinned this major Scott cataclysm.

‘Well, thanks.’

Maybe I was going to have to do a bit of work of my own, in recognition of his gesture in coming over here with Lau. Oh, and I was so going to have to find out what she’d done to get him here.

‘What made you change your mind?’

He looked at me for a moment, then shook his head slightly, as if he couldn’t quite understand it himself.

‘You have got yourself one bloody determined woman there, Matty.’

‘What, you mean Lau made you do it?’

He rolled his eyes at the defensive note in my voice.

‘Not just Laura, and give me a bit of credit for being able to think for myself, but Dec had already convinced me when she shoved her way into my office and gave me a piece of her mind.’

Lau brought two mugs of tea in, looking at me hopefully. I gave her a half smile as the best reassurance I could manage, and then she shut the door and left us to it.

‘So what did Dec do then?’

I was starting to wind myself up again, thinking of all the interfering that had been going on, or maybe to put it another way, all the concerned efforts to perform some damage limitation and get me and Jay talking again. But I wasn’t quite there yet, at the point of being able to recognise just what people did on my behalf sometimes.

‘He just reminded me that not talking about things isn’t always the best way to deal with stuff, and made me think about that time when he stopped talking to us and it all got so out of hand. It brought me to my senses. Matty, I don’t want the same thing to happen with us. You’re ten thousand times more stubborn than Dec.’

Thank you, at last someone had acknowledged my prowess in all things intractable.

‘We don’t talk, do we, not really, and sometimes that’s OK, it’s just how we are, and sometimes it’s not, and shit like this happens.’

I waited, because surely the next thing that should follow was an apology. I didn’t feel like making it easy for him, because he’d hurt me, and I’d been angry and miserable the last couple of days because of him, and I wanted him to say he knew that and –

‘I’m sorry, Matty.’

Bloody hell. And now I wanted gold coins to fall into my lap from the sky … oh well, can’t have everything. I still wasn’t letting him off, not just yet.

‘You called me a flirt and a waster, in front of Lau, and you refused to help me. You might as well have accused me of worse. It felt like being slutshamed.’

I thought having it stated so bluntly might piss him off, but he just nodded.

‘I know. You know I don’t really think you’d fuck about to make me look bad, don’t you?’

‘Well, no, actually. It sounded like you meant it.’

‘Sorry. I was … I don’t know if I can explain it. Do you remember when you got married, we had that talk, I said about feeling guilty about not being a very good brother?’

I nodded.

‘Well since you ended up in hospital back in Stafford, it’s been kind of like my second chance, like I can look out for you now.’

I frowned, not quite sure what he was getting at.

‘Jesus, Matty, I know you’re a grown up, or at least making a stab at it, but sometimes I just want to protect you. I know you don’t want it, I know it pisses you off, but … shit, this is hard to say. Please don’t take it the wrong way. I promised Laura I’d tell you what I was thinking, or some of it.’

‘When did you talk to Lau?’

Paranoia was still on high alert; I was imagining clandestine phone calls or some such shit.

‘In the car on the way over.’

Oh. Stand down paranoia, nothing to see here.

‘I asked her about your MS, what makes it come back, if it could be stress. I think one of the things I was thinking when you started getting all excited about the Raiders job was ‘what if Matty’s MS comes back?’. I know where you work now make allowances, but I wasn’t sure if Raiders would, and I didn’t want you getting stressed and it coming back and all going wrong for you. I just wanted to protect you.’

‘Holy shit, Jay, I don’t need my bloody hand holding like that, you sound worse than Beth.’

‘I know, mate. I’m not saying I was right, I’m just trying to explain. But like I say, that was only one thing that made me act like an arse on Saturday.’

‘The other thing being?’

‘Things.’

He sighed, shoulders slumped.

‘Jesus, this is fucking hard. OK, well, maybe you weren’t so far from the truth when you said I thought it would be embarrassing.’

‘What?’

My temper hadn’t retreated enough not to instantly flare at this.

‘No, hang on, what I mean is, the thought of you, working at Raiders, it just felt so weird. You know how different we are, I should think we’re even more different at work, I just imagined seeing you round the place, and it’s like I was imagining seeing an alien, someone from a different world. Do you get what I mean?’

I thought about it. Yeah, I could see what he meant. Jay had a work persona and a home persona, much as I did. I saw his work side when he gave interviews on TV, and he heard about my work side when I exaggerated some of the things that went on at GreenScreen for comedic effect. I could see how he might have trouble trying to make it all fit together, and now I was calming down a bit, I could see how having a few beers beforehand might have magnified the weirdness and affected both a) how he expressed it and b) how I received it. Fuck what a mess.

‘I suppose so. So are you saying you didn’t mean any of it?’

‘I guess I am. Well, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be weird at first, if you get the job and work at Raiders, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have you working there. You seem to know your stuff, that’s the main thing, and I think you should give it a go. I think you could be an asset to Raiders.’

It was magnanimous, and I recognised the generosity behind his words and his actions.

‘Thanks. So, this is the application form, then?’

I held up the sheet of paper, which was creased and smudged.

‘Sorry. I folded it a bit in the car. I can get you another one.’

‘Maybe I should ask them to email me one. You can’t apply for an IT job in handwriting, you wouldn’t even get shortlisted unless you had some kind of crazy font going on.’

‘I’m pretty sure you would, Matty, I had a chat with Sean earlier, told him how good you are, he nearly bit my hand off. They need someone pretty good, pretty quick, and they haven’t got anyone else interested at the moment. If you could do it soon, they might be able to sort it so you could start really quickly.’

‘Really?’

It almost sounded like I was a shoe-in. I felt my hopes go sky high, and tried to tether them to the ground, with only partial success.

Jay nodded, then took a breath.

‘Are we OK now?’

I thought about it.

‘Maybe.’

There was still that underlying old shit that hadn’t gone away, how I’d tapped into those younger days when Jay was mean to me. I didn’t know if I could bring it up now.

‘You don’t sound that sure.’

OK, I was going to say it.

‘I felt like a little boy again.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What you said, how you said it, it was like when we were kids and you’d pull my hair for being a smart-arse. I hated it back then, and it made me feel like that again, like you were throwing your weight around.’

‘Jesus, Matty. I hardly ever think about when we were kids. I didn’t mean it like that.’

‘Well … maybe I think about it too much. I guess I know, really …’

Oh fuck it, I was never going to have such a golden opportunity to say what I’d never said to Jay.

‘… I guess I know you don’t feel like that now. Jay, I’ve never said this before, told you how much it meant, when you came up to Stafford when I was ill, disrupted your life, all the help you gave me, all the things you did for me. It was … I still find it … astonishing that you would do that. I’m an ungrateful bastard, and I can’t tell you how humble I feel that you did that for me.’

There was more, there were the things Jay had said on my wedding day, the constant presence he’d been, if I thought about it, over the last few years, but I wasn’t going to say it all, I’d said the main thing, and without any fucking about to take the emotion out of it, and, result, I’d made Jay’s eyes fill with the suspicion of a tear or two.

‘Jesus, Matty, it was nothing, you needed me, us. Jesus, you bastard, just landing that on me.’

‘Yeah, well. I just think that on Saturday, it all felt like we were kids again, you hating me for being clever at something you weren’t, or some such shit, punishing me for it, and the last few years, well, it was as if they hadn’t happened. I’m sorry, I think I might have overreacted. I … started, the last few days, to think about getting away, just starting over, I couldn’t deal with it, feeling like that.’

Jay stared at me, frowning and shaking his head slightly.

‘No way. Jesus, Matty. Laura said something, but I thought she was just trying to get me over here. Jesus. OK, if we’re doing honest and feelings and shit, I felt it too, that ‘when we were kids’ feeling on Saturday. It was just … I don’t know if I can even put it into words. Here you were, having a bloody dinner party, with your wife and your kids and your house, and it was like ‘fucking hell, Matty’s really all grown up’, and it felt weird. It felt as if, maybe, you didn’t need me any more, as if things were changing, and I … maybe I just wanted to feel things were the same, like they used to be. If you were the same immature knobhead –’

‘Thanks.’

‘– you were before, then things weren’t really that different, and it felt better to me. I think that got all confused with the job thing. When Laura said you wanted out, I realised I’d gone too far.’

So that’s what had sent Lau scurrying off, the thought of me being serious about quitting the Scottapalooza.

‘What exactly did she do?’

Jay let out a sharp laugh.

‘Ha! I was in the middle having my ear seriously bent by Dec, he’d just turned up all ‘this isn’t happening’, I was just agreeing with him, having had Beth on at me for forty eight hours straight, when your Laura bursts into the office, all flustered and red-faced and just tells me to stop being a dick, that one of us was going to have to give in and it wasn’t going to be you, and you were saying you wanted out of the family. Ha ha, makes it sound like the Mafia.’

‘She called you a dick?’

I was seriously impressed.

‘No, not out loud, but I got the drift.’

Oh. Less impressive, then. But she’d stood up for me, done what I should have done, called Jay a dick in her mind. She was so bloody awesome.

‘I don’t think I stood a chance, she was like a hurricane. Before I knew it, I was in the car and on my way over here.’

‘So you’re really only here to shut Beth up and because you’re scared of Lau?’

I was grinning as I said it, I’d finally stopped being a dick myself, for the time being. Jay grinned back, looking relieved.

‘Yeah, our wives scare the shit out of me, both of them. We are in serious trouble here, Matty, this domination can’t continue.’

‘I know. Maybe we need to come up with a plan of attack.’

‘Ha ha, as if we could ever come up with anything that would work. They’ve got us totally sussed.’

I suspected this was true, much as I hated to admit it.

‘Shit, you could be right. Maybe we need some kind of family therapy?’

I looked at Jay, an eyebrow raised, and he looked back at me, and then we both started laughing, hard. Amongst the chuckling, we both imagined how that would work out.

‘Oh Matty, can you imagine all of us in one room trying to sort ourselves out? The poor shrink would never get a word in, and that’s just when Beth’s having her go. They’d have to get past Nico, and if she was a woman she’d be swooning too much to help us –’

‘And Mum would be all quiet and nodding, probably knitting her a jumper because she looked chilly –’

‘And I’d just sit there looking pissed off, and you’d be unable to say anything that didn’t begin with ‘fuck’ –’

‘And Dec would be leading it all because of his vast experience with the counselling profession, oh and Rose. She wouldn’t have any of it, she’d be all ‘don’t you take that tone of voice with me, love’ –’

We could hardly speak for laughing, not that any of it was particularly funny, but just because we’d talked, made up and it was OK now, and we were relieved and happy.

‘We should book a session anyway, just to see how quickly we got chucked out.’

‘Nah, it’d cost a bloody fortune. We should save our money, spend it on something more fun, holiday or … ooh, a holiday. Shit, Jay, we should all go on holiday at the end of the season, like we did before. That would be family therapy, better than therapy.’

Jay’s eyes lit up at the suggestion.

‘You might have something there, although we’d need somewhere even bigger than last time, there are more of us now. And a lot of us need pretty constant looking after.’

‘Well …’

As I was thinking about it, an idea was forming. It was true that the family had expanded since we had all been away before, with five more children, another wife and another mother, but with three potential grannies, surely plenty of fun and relaxation could be had by all?

‘What are you thinking? You’re looking devious, Matty.’

‘Mum, Rose, April. All loving a cuddle with the grandkids, all loving being left to their own devices to spoil them without censure …’

Jay cottoned on.

‘Oh, you are a genius.’

I bowed, modestly.

‘Right, when I get home I’m getting Beth on it. Then we won’t have to do any work, she’ll just tell us when to turn up with our passports.’

‘Now you’re the genius. And if you make her think it’s her idea all along, she’ll be happy as a pig in shit.’

‘And so everybody’s happy – look at us being all manipulative. Who said we can’t dish it out?’

Laura

They were still talking a long time later. I needed to feed the twins, but had promised to take Jay home. I tapped on the door and went in.

‘Sorry to interrupt –’

Matt looked up, a big smile on his face. His grin burst over me like a warm shower.

Matt

‘Lau, we’ve just had this brilliant idea.’

‘Oh?’

She looked so relieved, like I’d just lifted a huge weight from her, and I felt bad that I was the one who had put the heavy there in the first place.

‘Yeah, family holiday, huge fuck-off cottage or villa somewhere by the sea, soon as the rugby season finishes and Raiders have won the league again. All of us. I haven’t had a holiday for bloody ages, not a proper going away one, what do you think? We’ll bring Rose and the mums, they can look after the kids while we swan about getting tans and staying out late and shit.’

She gave me one of her dazzling smiles, and looked at Jay, who was looking at her and nodding, not only agreeing with the brilliance of the plan, but kind of reassuring Lau that everything was OK now.

‘You’re right, that is a proper good idea. You might want to run the details past Rose and the mums first.’

‘Nah, they’ll love it.’

‘I take it things have gone well here?’

‘Yeah, all sorted. Jay’s brought an application form for the IT job at Raiders, although I might get him to email it to me – this one’s got a bit manky.’

‘Sorry. I was fiddling with it in the car. Sweaty hands.’

‘Talking of the car, Jay, I need to feed the twins, do you want to go back now, or can you wait?’

‘I’ll take him, Lau.’

Laura

And there we were, crisis averted. Everything seemed back to normal, and apart from needing to find out what they had talked about, if I could persuade Matt to tell me, I could get on with worrying about whether I was pregnant or not.

Matt

I drove Jay back, and Dec was still there, waiting for a blow-by-blow description of the fall-out from Mattgate. No descriptions were forthcoming from either Jay or me, we were both buzzing, and not inclined to go all serious for Dec’s or Beth’s benefit, although I could see Beth was dying to get into the nitty gritty. Jay wasn’t going to get much peace after I’d gone, although we did our best to distract her with our family holiday idea.

We watched TV and messed about, and I enjoyed being there, in the place that was the hub of everything. I’d come pretty close to ditching it, and who knows, maybe they’d all get on top of me again, another day, but for now I recognised what I had, and that I needed it, and I loved it, and I loved them. That was quite enough realisation and backtracking for one day.

Laura

I was asleep in bed by the time Matt got back. The car door banging outside the bedroom window woke me up, and I waited for Matt to come upstairs. I heard him moving around downstairs, then his footsteps, the door to the bathroom opening, the sound of teeth being brushed, and finally he slipped into bed next to me.

Matt

The house was quiet when I got back, and I pottered around downstairs for a bit, turning lights off, clearing things away, then went upstairs to Lau. She had her eyes closed as I slipped into bed beside her.

‘Lau?’

I whispered so I didn’t wake her up.

She opened her eyes a fraction.

‘Mm hmm.’

‘Oh good, you’re awake. Sorry it’s late, Dec was still there, we were watching the basketball.’

‘You like basketball now?’

‘No, not really, but we were pissing about, having a laugh. Felt good. Sorry, I would have texted, but I didn’t realise how late it was, then it was too late to text in case I woke you up. Beth was feeding us all kinds of cake and biscuits and shit.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve been fine, Ella and Josh have been pretty quiet, I’ve been asleep.’

‘Oh, did I wake you up, then?’

‘I heard the car. But I wanted to wake up anyway. I wanted to ask you what happened with Jay. You said he brought an application form?’

‘Yeah. Didn’t you know?’

‘No, he didn’t say what was in the envelope. He must have printed it after me and Dec left the office.’

‘Yeah, I heard you made a bit of an entrance.’

‘It felt like a dramatic gesture was needed. I think Dec was in the process of having it covered though. Do you mind?’

I put my arm round her and pulled her towards me as I tried to decide whether I minded or not.

‘Honestly? You know I hate it when people interfere. So, at the time, irritated as hell. But glad now. It feels so much better to have bloody sorted it all out.’

‘I was worried you were going to move us all to the depths of Norfolk to get away.’

‘Norfolk? Oh, that job. No, Lau, Norfolk is never an option, for so many reasons. But, yeah, I did feel like running away.’

I made a mental note to delete the application for the job in Aberdeen. Who the fuck wanted to work in bloody Aberdeen anyway?

‘You and Jay talked properly, though? You didn’t just sit there making holiday plans?’

‘Ha ha, no, we did talk. We’re both bloody shit at saying stuff. Jay usually gets all tongue tied, while I sit there making smart-arse comments, which winds him up, but he actually apologised. I don’t think I can ever remember him apologising before, not in so many words. It meant a lot. I apologised too, afterwards; I think I might have overreacted. He said … well there seems to have been a lot going through his mind, he was worried about how working for Raiders was going to be compatible with the bastard MS, and I think that made him feel all protective or some such bollocks.’

‘Yeah, he said something similar to me in the car.’

‘But as well as that, he said, this was quite deep really, for Jay, he said he thought it would be weird having me around at work, some kind of ‘never the twain’ paradox. Although he didn’t actually use the words never the twain or paradox, but I knew what he meant. Like, every time he saw me it would feel like seeing something alien, from another world almost. We’re so bloody different, I guess if Jay pitched up at GreenScreen and started making us all do press-ups it would be equally weird. I hadn’t thought about it like that. I don’t think he was really worried about me fucking about, but he felt weird and it made him say something to stop the weirdness. It just pushed my buttons.’

‘Your mum thinks it’s something from when you were both younger.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s how it made me feel. Being five years younger doesn’t mean much now, but when you’re little, it’s immense. When I was ten, he was fifteen, already playing rugby, bulking up. I was a scrawny little scrap of nothing, and to make it worse I was more interested in books and computers than I was in sport. He used to tease me, every opportunity he got, and I used to hate it. He’d call me ‘puny’ and wrestle me, to the point of hurting me, and if I showed him my brainy side, I’d pay for it. He was kind of my hero, and I tried my best with sport, but I’ve always been bloody rubbish at playing anything. I so wanted to be like him, even get him to notice me as something other than a minor irritation, but it never really happened, and it’s kind of always been there between us I guess.’

‘But you’re so close now.’

‘Yeah, since I nearly pegged it. Woke up from that one, Jay was just there, given up his job, found a house with a downstairs en-suite, moved me in with them. I would never have predicted it in a million years, although I think a certain situation with a certain Mr Summers may have had a bearing on some of it, if you want to talk about running away from your difficulties. But when all that happened, and then they moved back down here and still wanted me with them, well I think it was then that I realised what family really is. But maybe all that shit from younger days doesn’t go away, and the other night made me feel the same as I used to, like being brainy didn’t mean anything to Jay, and all that was important to him was himself and his bloody rugby club.’

‘So did you say all this to him?’

‘Yeah, kind of, in man short-hand, lots of grunting. He did say he thinks I’d be an asset to Raiders. That blew my mind quite a bit. Jay never compliments me. I mean, I don’t think he really knows what the job is, or what I do, or how I might go about doing the job, but still. Major event.’

‘I’m so pleased, flower. I hope you said nice things to him too.’

‘Yeah, of course, I said he’s the best assistant coach at Raiders.’

‘Isn’t he the only assistant coach?’

‘Oh yeah. Not much of a compliment then.’

‘You daft sod.’

I squeezed Lau tighter, to feel her in my arms, loving me despite my propensity for the dramatic.

‘Thanks Lau. It’s good to know you’ve got my back when I’m being a stubborn fucker.’

‘I hope you know I can be as, if not more, stubborn than you. Don’t you ever put it to the test.’

‘I’m a bit scared now.’

‘I should hope so. And while we’re on the subject, don’t you ever threaten to quit your family again. We can’t do without them.’

I sighed. ‘I know. I sometimes wish I didn’t need them as much as I do, but there it is. Come here, then, goodnight snog now all the chat’s out of the way.’

As Lau snuggled into me, I brushed her forehead with my lips. She turned her face up to me, and I kissed her mouth, falling into its warmth and wetness as we locked lips and tongues, and for a while we were just Matt and Lau, kissing each other passionately. Then, inevitably, there was a yelp from the monitor, and then another, then a blood-curdling squawk, and it was business as usual from thereonin …

Laura

… and the night carried on as normal, lovely, safe, familiar normal, where no one was fighting with anyone and no one was going to suggest running to somewhere far away to avoid their brother.

Matt

A few days later two things were sorted in one day, within half an hour of each other actually. Read on.

So, I’d emailed my application to Raiders, had it accepted, been put on a ‘shortlist’ and had a date for an interview. I was led to believe, by Jay, that it was a very short list indeed, but I still approached the interview as if there were hundreds of us going for it, and found out as much as I could about the inner technological workings of large rugby clubs in general and Raiders in particular. There was a lot of computery shit to know about – it was thrilling.

The interview itself, with the CEO, the head admin honcho and Sean, the outgoing IT wiz, seemed to go well. I got into a detailed techy conversation with the outgoing wiz, realised the other two were glazing over, and rescued it with a bit of Matt Scott special fucking about, which made them laugh, made them not feel like idiots for not knowing what the fuck we were on about, and was a bit self-deprecating.

I managed to chat to the outgoing wiz afterwards, just to make sure there wasn’t some nefarious reason he was leaving that would make me regret the job on day one, but he was an older bloke who had been with Raiders for donkeys, about twenty years, and was up front about feeling that he could no longer keep up with the IT demands of the job. He still knew his shit, though, and I hoped I’d be able to stay in touch with him, if I got the job, for some inside info.

I’d been in the impressive Raiders Stadium many times with Cal – on the terraces, in the stands, in the bars afterwards and occasionally into the changing rooms or offices to see Jay – but the tour I had of the whole place, top to toe, was mind-blowing. There were bits that no one would have imagined were there, and which all had some sort of tech need, like alarm systems, Wi-Fi links to the big screens in the gym showing player fitness stats, operating systems for the PCs in the offices, player GPS, you name it. Bloody hell, if someone connected with Raiders, be they player, grounds man, steward or supporter, did something, it required a bit of tech to help them do it. The thought of what would happen if it all went wrong at once blew my mind slightly, but this was the sort of challenge I was looking for, being able to fix stuff, being able to suggest better stuff, improving things, tweaking things, thinking on my feet instead of on my arse. I so, so, wanted this job, so, so much. I ached for it.

I finally tore myself away from it all, and went home to await their decision. I kept veering from ‘you must have fucked it all up’ to ‘you’re the only one they interviewed, you know your shit, it’s yours’, and my heart was beating a mile a minute.

They promised a decision by the end of the day, and I checked my phone about fifty times on the way home, keeping it in my hand as I got out of the car and opened the front door.

Lau was waiting for me.

Laura

‘So how did it go?’

I saw the naked want on his face.

Matt

‘Lau, it’s my job, it has to be. If they fucking give it to someone else, I … there’ll be a stiff letter to the Times, that’s what. And I’ll cancel my subscription to Rugby World.’

‘You don’t have a subscription to Rugby World.’

‘See? The very thought has made me mad enough to cancel it in advance of even getting it.’

‘You daft sod. Did you have a good nosey around?’

‘Yeah, looked everywhere, peeked into every cranny, well, every cranny where someone with an IT degree is likely to be looking, which seems to be just about bloody everywhere. Did you know the players wear GPS trackers in their shirts so the coaches can see what they’ve been up to on the pitch? How far they’ve run, to the millimetre, how fast, where they’ve been. It’s bloody mind-blowing.’

‘Actually, I did. Dec told me.’

‘Oh.’

This took the wind out of my sails for a second, but I rallied.

‘Well, sometimes they go wrong, and I can fix them. Or tell them to buy bloody new ones when they’re out of date. Or I can if I get the bloody job.’

I couldn’t keep still. I paced around the kitchen, feeling like I was buzzing. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted it, and the more I wanted it, the more I kept trying to retain some perspective.

Laura

Matt seemed really excited, more animated than I’d seen him for a long time.

‘How did the interview go?’

Matt

‘Piece of piss. More like a chat, really, only a chat between really nerdy computer geeks who were talking in binary.’

‘Talking in what?’

‘Nerdy computer geek joke, Lau. Just laugh and say ‘that’s very funny, Matt’.’

‘Ha ha, that’s very funny Matt. You look nice in your suit, by the way, liking the rumpled look, wonky tie, untucked shirt. Making me go a bit unnecessary …’

The past week or so had seen a distinct rekindling of interest in the latest chapter in Matt and Lau: Getting Steamy. Lau leaned in and ran a finger down my tie, looking up at me with sexy mischief on her face.

‘Ooh, really? Noted.’

‘When will you know?’

‘They said they’d ring by the end of the day.’

‘Were they interviewing anyone else?’

‘Didn’t see anyone, but that doesn’t mean anything.’

‘Did you see Jay?’

‘Nope. Expect he was keeping out of my way. Caught sight of Dec, his back view disappearing down a corridor. I shouted out ‘Oi, Summers, get a sweat on’ as they were showing me round.’

‘You did not.’

I did, of course, not.

‘No, you’re right, I actually shouted ‘OMG it’s Declan Summers, I’m his greatest fan, oh please let me go and get a selfie’ and then I ran after him and ripped his shirt a bit in excitement.’

‘You did not.’

Again, actually, not.

‘Lau, I don’t know how you do it, you always see right through me.’

‘Hm, maybe it’s something to do with the outrageousness of your lies.’

‘Maybe.’

I smiled at Lau and kissed the end of her nose.

‘Babies been behaving themselves?’

‘They’ve been angels. They’re still asleep, but I don’t expect it’ll last much longer.’

‘Long enough for you to take advantage of my rumpled look? I can be more rumpled if you –’

The phone rang in my hand and stopped my amorous train of thought. I looked at the screen. It was the Raiders number. I stared at Lau, slightly worried my heart might give out, so I put an arm round her to steady myself, and pulled her close, forcing myself to sound calm.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Hello Matt, it’s Malcolm Howard here.’

Oh bloody hell, the CEO himself. That was good, right? Didn’t they get underlings to deliver the bad news? Or maybe I was so shit he wants to give me a dressing down, maybe about talking gibberish with Sean, or fucking about afterwards. Breathe, Matt. Lau squeezed my hand.

‘Oh, hello.’

I tried to inject some cool into my greeting, as if CEOs of places I really really REALLY wanted to work called me up to tell me the outcome of the most important interview in my life every five minutes or so.

‘How are you?’

Oh fuck off with the pleasantries and just tell me.

‘Yeah, good thanks.’

‘Good, good. Matt, thank you for coming in today. As you know, we’re keen to fill the post quickly.’

‘Yep.’

Just get on with it, then, and fill it with me.

‘And it’s a part time post, with flexible hours.’

‘Yep.’

Well aware of that, thanks, all fully discussed at my interview along with disclosing my bastard MS status, if it’s a no-go just fucking well tell me, please.

‘I have to say, you interviewed very well, you have a very comfortable manner that not all people in the computer trade can boast.’

‘Oh, thanks.’

But seriously, have I got the fucking job or not? I’m about to spontaneously combust here, and then you’ll have Lau to deal with, and you’ll wish you’d just spat it out when you had the chance.

‘We’d like to offer you the job.’

Holy fucking shit. Did he just say that he was offering me the job?

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

There was a hint of a smile in his voice, as if he knew he’d been stringing me along, and now he’d reaped the rewards of his fun. CEOs were bastards with their power games.

‘Whoa, thank you.’

I was on the point of gushing more thanks, but he hadn’t finished yet.

‘I think you’ll be a valuable addition to the Raiders team.’

He chuckled as if he’d made a joke. Oh – ‘team’, like as if I was one of the players. As jokes went, it was pretty feeble. Probably the only one he knew.

‘We’d like you to come in as soon as possible, to work out things like start dates, any training you need to get you up to speed, that kind of thing.

‘Yeah, yeah, of course.’

‘Do you have any idea when you could start?’

‘Well I’ll have to work some notice at GreenScreen, a month, I think.’

Although I was already trying to think of ways it could be sooner, maybe by being strict with GreenScreen about my part time hours and starting with Raiders in my off time.

‘We’ll have a contract drawn up, which you’ll need to sign.’

‘Yeah, great, just let me know, I can call in and sign whatever.’

I’d sign my life away now if you asked me, probably my children and my soul as well.

‘I look forward to working with you, Matt.’

‘Thank you.’

‘We’re very glad to have you with us.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Maybe you could have a look at my son’s laptop when you come in?’

I didn’t think he was serious, but I wasn’t quite sure. Maybe he knew two jokes. That’s how I played it.

‘Ha ha, yeah, great, see you then, then.’

The chuckle told me that, phew, yes he had been joking.

‘Have a good evening, Matt.

‘Yep, bye for now.’

We disconnected, and I looked down at Lau, who was trying to read my face to tell her what had happened. I felt full of beans – whole tins of the little orange fart-makers.

‘They only offered me the effing job.’

I was currently undergoing a renewed concerted effort not to swear out loud. In my head was my own domain, but what came out of my mouth was strictly monitored. Until I lapsed again.

In the meantime, unaware of my gargantuan attempt at verbal decency, Lau squealed, and I took her hands and swung her round crazily, then pulled her to me and folded her up in my arms, as it slowly drained away, all the stress, uncertainty and tension, to be replaced with a warm, fuzzy feeling. It was almost as good as after sex, although to be honest, having sex first is better.

‘You really wanted this, didn’t you.’

‘Like I never wanted anything before. Oh, except you, Lau. And the babies, of course. And a Tottenham season ticket. But all that aside, yeah, I really really wanted it. Holy chuff.’ [Notice the distinct lack of sweariness, readers.] ‘Well that’s going to be an interesting conversation with Phil tomorrow. We’ve just taken on a huge account, several months’ work, and now he’s going to need a new me. Tough shit, Philly boy.’ [Notice the distinct presence of overexcited sweariness, readers.]

Phil had had his money’s worth out of me the last few years, months off with a bastard neurological condition notwithstanding. I wasn’t going to have many regrets at leaving GreenScreen behind.

I leaned down to Lau’s highly desirable mouth and gave it a thorough snogging. As my tongue wandered over hers, my mind must have been wandering elsewhere too, and I suddenly remembered what she had been going to do today. I pulled away, frowning.

‘Shit, Lau, you were going to do the test. Did you get one?’

Laura

I nodded. ‘Yeah, that was awkward, I was at the counter in the supermarket, had just asked for a pregnancy test, when I saw Kate. There was no way I wanted her to know what I was buying, and she came over to say hi …

Matt

Lau launched into a long story about buying the test at the supermarket, but I’m ashamed to say my head was so full of job I wasn’t really listening. I drifted off into a delighted world of self-congratulation while I waited for her to get to the point.

‘… got a bit of a funny look from the girl.’

The story had finished, but I still needed to know the most important thing.

‘Have you done it yet?’

‘No, I wanted you to be here. It was horrible doing it on my own last time.’

And now it was my turn to be supportive and understanding, and hold her if she needed it, and be sensible and practical and, well, positive, if it was positive.

‘OK, then, up to the loo with you.’

Laura

And so, heart beating fast, I made my way upstairs with Matt, and peed on a stick. The couple of minutes it took for the result went so slowly, with Matt and I looking at each other, then looking back at the little window on the stick, then back at each other, then at his watch, and finally, when the time had passed and the window showed ‘Not pregnant’, looking at each other with strange expressions on our faces.

Matt

We looked at each other for a while, not sure what to say. I have to admit to a tiny, but perceptible, not to mention completely inappropriate, twinge of disappointment.

‘Whoa, phew then, Lau.’

She shook her head, but I wasn’t sure if she meant ‘not phew’ or something else.

Laura

I wasn’t sure. About the result, not about the ‘phew’. I was very sure about the ‘phew’.

‘I think I need to do the other one, there can be false results.’

‘But it’s the same piss, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, but it’s still early on. Maybe we should wait a few more days and do another one.’

Matt

‘How long do we have to go on re-doing them? Surely we should just go with this, aren’t they really reliable these days?’

I could almost foresee week after week of pregnancy tests, never quite believing that ‘Not pregnant’ meant ‘Not pregnant’.

‘Yes, but hormones are weird. They can skew things.’

I got what she was saying about hormones, but sometimes you just had to trust the things you were asking to give you an expert opinion, didn’t you?

‘Well, whatever you need, Lau, but I think that’s said it for me. No more babies for the foreseeable.’

I felt my mouth do a funny little sad face. Shit, had not meant to show anything one way or the other. Lau, of course, noticed straight away.

Laura

He made a funny little sad mouth. What? What was that all about? No, there will be no funny little sad mouths, this was a good thing.

‘Wait, are you disappointed?’

Matt

‘No, or, maybe a tiny bit. In my head I was kind of living it slightly – not all the no-sleep, more-nappies, louder-screaming reality of it all, but being a Daddy again, getting to know another one. I loved it last time, apart from being pissed and scared shitless. Don’t worry, Lau, I know it’s so impractical, you could well expire from overwork, but it just feels a little bit like we’ve lost something. You know?’

With everything else that had happened in the last week, I hadn’t really had time to get my head round the potential of another baby, but while we were waiting for the result, I’d seen in my mind’s eye a ‘1-2 weeks pregnant’ notice coming up, and I’d been surprised to find myself OK with it, even looking forward to some of it.

Laura

‘Yeah, I know.’

And I did, I saw where he was coming from, but my overwhelming feeling was relief. It wasn’t like we’d lost something at all.

‘But we haven’t, it’s not something that was ever there. And I so, so do not want to have to do all that again right now.’

Matt

‘But not never, though.’

I wanted more children, some day, when the memory of all the baby shit and screaming had faded to a dull roar.

‘No, not never. One day, we’ll have more. Tons more, thousands more, but not just yet, it’s time for Matt and Lau’s thrill ride to slow down, don’t you think?’

She was so right. We’d been going at a ridiculous speed since we met, and another baby now would have just been absurd.

‘Agreed, for now. New job first, oust Jay as assistant coach by the end of the season, replace him with computer operated robots and the world is mine – mwah hah hah. Then more babies, defo.’

‘You daft sod. I’m still going to do this one in a few days.’

Lau held up the second test from the box.

‘But just to be sure, not because I think it will change.’

‘You sure you’re OK?’

‘Yeah, just obsessing.’

‘Freaking a little bit?’

She hardly ever freaked, and I liked to press home my advantage when it happened.

‘A little bit.’

‘Love it when you freak and I don’t.’

‘I aim to please.’

‘Ha ha. Come on, Lau, much as I love our bathroom, I can think of better rooms to congratulate me on my new job in.’

A piercing shriek came from the babies’ room. Ella was awake.

‘Oh bugger. They always know, bloody little killjoys. Fat chance of any action while they’re on the case.’

109. Because of you

In which there is a digging in of heels, and a plan to escape.

Laura

At least Matt didn’t seem to be bearing a grudge against his mum. I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and then Carol was in the doorway.

‘Hello, Laura. Oh, have you just got them to sleep? I’ll be quiet.’

Her voice was low, and neither Josh in his cot nor Ella on my shoulder stirred.

‘Don’t worry, they’re pretty robust. Sometimes I think they take after Matt in the sleeping department, they sleep through the loudest noises. Then one of us coughs, and it’s baby Armageddon.’

‘Well, it’s true Matthew’s always liked his sleep.’

‘I think ‘like’ is an understatement. If it was an Olympic sport he’d have fifty-seven gold medals. Would you like a cuddle with Ella? Come and sit on the sofa.’

Carol couldn’t resist, and she sat down next to me as I passed the sleeping Ella over to her. Her arthritic hands found it hard to hold them comfortably, and she always worried about dropping them when she was standing up, but sitting down was easier, and I gave her as much opportunity to hold her grandchildren as I could. She looked down at Ella for a while, then up at me, speaking in the quiet tone she had used since coming into the room.

‘Did you hear any of what I was saying to Matthew?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I was listening, I’m afraid.’

‘Oh no, dear, I’m glad. I won’t say anything now, but I’d like to call you tomorrow, while he’s at work, if I may. I’m worried about all this.’

‘Oh Carol, of course. Ring me anytime.’

Matt

The voices from upstairs made me wonder if Lau and Mum were hatching some plot between them, so I quickly cut some slices of cake and made some more tea, put it all on a tray and hurried up the stairs. Their voices were too low for me to hear what they were saying, but by the time I got into the room, they had stopped speaking.

Laura

Any further conversation was curtailed by the sound of Matt’s footsteps coming up the stairs. He came into the room with a tray with more tea and cake on it.

‘Seconds for me and Mum, firsts for Lau. This cake is superb, Lau.’

‘What a surprise. Did Beth ever make a cake that wasn’t?’

‘Ha ha, not that I can remember. It would have made News at Ten, caused the global cake markets to crash. Babies snoozing? Lazy bastards.’

‘Matt!’

Matt

OK, I was trying to watch my language around them, but seriously? All the bloody time? Give me a day off, for fuck’s sake.

‘Oh, sorry, Lau, but that’s not really a bad one, is it?’

‘Every little one adds up, dear.’

Yeah, there was definitely some kind of womanly bonding going on.

‘Yes, Mum. Just can’t get a break round here at the moment. Might have to lock myself in the bathroom and say all the rude words I can think of.’

‘That might take you a while, flower. Do you want to stay for dinner, Carol?’

‘Oh, no dear, thank you for asking though. Rose is going to call round when she’s ready to go. She’ll not be long, she spent the day with Declan and Amy, and when she got home she realised she’d still got Charlie’s giraffe in her bag, so she just rang to see if I wanted a little jaunt.’

‘Oh no, not Gigi! Disaster, good job she noticed before bedtime.’

‘Yes, it is. But she said she wasn’t going to be long.’

‘Yeah, right, like Rose ever just popped round to anyone’s, let alone when Charlie and Tom are there, ripe for a good grannying.’

‘Well, we’ll see. If my tummy rumbles too loudly, I may have to take you up on your offer.’

‘You’re always welcome, Carol.’

We were all being jolly and happy and avoiding the issue, which was fine by me, that was just the way I wanted it to stay, everybody avoiding saying anything about anything.

The doorbell rang, and I went downstairs to let Rose in. Even she was trying to get in on the act, and started in straight away.

‘Hello Matt. What have you been up to with that brother of yours?’

I totally ignored the question, kissed her on the cheek.

‘Hi Rose, Mum’s just coming, she’s all ready for you.’

Laura

‘I’ll call you tomorrow, then, dear.’

‘Thanks, Carol, I’d like to chat about it.’

‘They’ll sort it out, I’m sure, but they might need a few nudges. Bye bye you beautiful girl.’

This last was to Ella, who had opened her eyes and given her granny a huge grin.

Matt

Lau and I had a quiet evening, once the babies were in bed. I was wondering how I was going to keep everyone at arm’s length while I got my head around things, and Lau would have been worrying about me as well as worrying about whether or not she was pregnant and worrying about how she was going to fit everything in that she needed to do tomorrow.

Laura

Matt and I spent the rest of the evening lost in our own thoughts. I suspected Matt was thinking about what his mum had said. He hated being told what to do, but once he’d got past his initial annoyance, he sometimes listened in retrospect. I was worried about him, and also at the back of my mind was the constant ‘what if I’m pregnant’ niggle, which just wouldn’t go away however much I tried to distract myself. What if I was pregnant? I was going to need everyone in the family, or I really would go under.

Matt

My mind wandered over what Mum had said. I didn’t know how she could have got it so completely wrong. Jay and I had rubbed along together OK over the last few years, but before I was ill the first time we hadn’t been close, and it seemed like Jay preferred it that way. I couldn’t begin to imagine him being jealous of me. It was laughable; he had always made it clear that he valued strength and athleticism over intelligence and wit, and nothing seemed to have changed in that respect.

Lau eventually decided to go to bed. I wasn’t tired, and didn’t want to spend hours tossing and turning.

‘Do you mind if I don’t come up just yet?’

‘Course not, flower. You didn’t get up till the crack of lunch anyway. Wake me up when you get in, if I’m not with the babies.’

‘Why?’

‘Just want to make sure I give you a huge cuddle before we go to sleep.’

And believe it or not, all I wanted was a huge cuddle. This morning’s antics had been awesome, but apart from knowing it would freak Lau right out to try anything now, I just wanted her to fold me up and show me how much she loved me and believed in me.

‘Oh Lau, sounds bloody perfect. Might not be that long after all, then.’

‘See you later, my love.’

Laura

The next morning Matt left for work, to my eyes more reluctantly than usual. He didn’t have specific hours, and was still officially part time, usually going in mid-morning, but today he hung around finding things to do that didn’t really need doing. I understood his reluctance, it would be hard to go back somewhere you’d thought you had a chance of escaping, but then feeling like you may never be able to leave. I didn’t know how to help him, and it frustrated me.

Matt

The next morning I took ages getting ready for work. My feet felt like lead; it was as if I’d seen the escape route but had discovered at the last minute it had been blocked off. The thought of going back to GreenScreen, not just today, but every day for the foreseeable, was seeming less and less attractive.

Laura

Not long after Matt left, I had a text from Beth.

‘How’s Matty?’

‘Same. Saw Carol yesterday. No change.’

‘Did she say what she thinks?’

‘Yeh, but M not listening.’

‘Need 2b devious.’

‘Really? Not sure. Wot u thinking?’

‘Use Cal. Science homework. Get him here?’

‘Worth a try, but think he’ll see thru it.’

‘Maybe. Step 1 tho. Will txt him now.’

A bit later the same morning, I had a text from Amy.

‘Wot’s going on w Jay n Matt? Rose said big fall out?’

‘Yeh, J said some stuff, upset M.’

‘Really? Wot he say?’

‘Long story. Fancy coming round?’

‘Gr8. Gimme a minute or 60 to get C & T ready. Cu soon.’

Matt

Once I was there it was business as usual, and I managed to drag my mood off the floor with some banter and some doughnuts, but as I looked ahead to the projects and meetings that were in store over the coming months, I couldn’t help feeling my heart sinking. I’d done it all before, I was bored with it.

Half way through the morning, Beth started with the texting. She always thinks she’s being subtle, but she’s as transparent as glass.

‘Matty, ru around 2nite? Cal cld do with help, science homework.’

‘Yeh, sure, get him 2 FaceTime me.’

‘Might need hands on?’

‘Bring him round then.’

And then radio silence was resumed while Beth rethought her strategy.

My day got worse when Phil asked me to talk to one of the new employees about her work on a project. As in tell her if she didn’t pull her socks up she was history. Fuck I hated that shit, it wasn’t the way I did things, but now that I was more of a manager than a team leader, and didn’t just have my own team to do with as I wished, I was more constrained by what Phil wanted me to do. She had been warned before, and now I had to get all heavy on her arse.

Laura

Amy had just left, after a big catch up where I filled her in on what had happened with Matt and Jay, when I had a call from Carol.

‘Hi Carol.’

‘Hello, dear. Do you have time to talk?’

‘Yes, of course. I might have to desert you at any time for a small crying person, but at the moment they’re happy in their baby seats. We were just having a game of peekaboo.’

‘Oh that’s good. I’m glad you’re getting a bit of peace.’

‘Amy’s just been here with Charlie and Tom. Part of me thinks I’m better off having my two both together. She’s really got her hands full with hers, especially now Charlie’s walking.’

‘Maybe wait until you’ve got two toddlers before thinking you’ve got it easier, dear.’

‘Yes, you could be right.’

‘Now, Laura, I just wanted to talk to you about this silly argument. You were there, weren’t you? What exactly did Jameson say?’

‘Oh, I’m not sure I can remember the exact words. There was this talk about a job at Raiders, Matt asked Jay for a number of someone to talk to about it, Jay wouldn’t give it to him, at first because he didn’t think he should be disturbed on a Sunday, then he ended up saying he didn’t think Matt should go for the job because it would be awkward when Matt messed about and flirted. Matt got upset, told Jay he wouldn’t go for the job, and that was kind of it.’

‘Hm, that’s about what Beth said. Laura, they haven’t argued like this for a long time. When Matthew was ill and Jameson moved up to Stafford, Matthew was overwhelmed. I won’t say they haven’t had a cross word since, because they’re so different, they often have different opinions, but they’ve been much closer than they were before.’

‘I’ve tried reminding Matt about what Jay did for him. He’s not exactly open to thinking about it at the moment.’

‘No. I think all this has stirred up a bit of deep emotion for both of them. Before Matthew was diagnosed with MS, he and Jameson didn’t see each other very much. Jameson never really understood Matthew when they were younger; he was such a physical boy, always out playing football or rugby, and he used to tease Matthew terribly because he always had his head stuck in a book or a knew how to do his sums. Matthew looked up to his brother, and the teasing hurt him, although he tried not to show it. He tried so hard to match Jameson physically, but he just never had the build for it, or the aptitude for sport. I suppose he’s more like me, whereas Jameson is more like his father. When they got older they lived in different worlds – Jameson with his rugby and Matthew with his computers. They got on well enough when they met up, but it didn’t happen that often. I don’t think Jameson realised how much he loved Matthew until he nearly died, and I don’t think Matthew realises how scared Jameson was, how upset he was, how much soul-searching he did while Matthew was in hospital.’

‘So what do you think happened on Saturday?’

‘Well, it’s just a guess, but I don’t think they ever resolved their jealousies. Jameson knows he’s not as clever as Matthew, and it grates with him. Matthew has always tried to be as strong and tough as Jameson, but he falls short. I think when their two worlds are separate, they get on just fine. Being with the family is fine too, there’s a lot of common ground. But Jameson seeing Matthew becoming part of his sport world, the world where he knows a lot, and where Matthew has the potential to show him up and know more about something, that would threaten Jameson’s security. I don’t expect he even thought about it, he just reacted, a sort of automatic fighting response. That’s why Matthew has reacted so badly as well, it’s taken both of them back to when they were younger.’

‘Matt did say he felt like he was ten, when Jay teased him for knowing all the planets or something.’

‘Oh. That almost confirms it then, dear.’

‘Well it would explain it, Carol, but what on earth are we going to do about it?’

‘I don’t know if there’s a quick solution. I think these things take time. Jameson won’t even talk about it, not to me, not to Beth. I don’t expect Matthew’s much better.’

‘Not so as you’d notice. I suppose I’ll just keep plugging away. It’s exhausting, though. And the longer it goes on, the more stubborn both of them are going to get.’

‘Yes, the stubborn streak is another factor, I suppose. Perhaps we should get our heads together properly, you, me and Beth, and see what we can think up.’

‘Maybe we’ll be able to think of something. I’ll talk to Beth later.’

‘Alright dear. How are you coping with it all?’

‘Oh I’m alright. To be honest, Ella and Josh keep me so busy I’m just letting Matt get on with it to some extent.’

And I might be pregnant, so that was taking some of my worrying space away from Matt’s concerns, but I wasn’t going to be saying that to Carol right now.

‘That’s the best way, dear. You will call me if you want to talk about it, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, sure, and I’ll let you know what Beth says.’

The afternoon passed, my mum came over for a quick visit, then I started getting dinner ready, did more feeding, changing and washing, and the time flew by.

Matt

The employee bollocking didn’t go well. There was no gentle way of saying what I had to say, and she cried buckets, and I told her to go home and think about things. I didn’t know if she was going to come back, and a part of me was envious of her. Shit I needed to get out of there, it was seriously doing my bloody nut. I spent the rest of the day sitting in my office, writing up the disciplinary report and Googling jobs, wishing I wasn’t there. I sent a few links to my home email, then I looked up and it was time to go.

I hurried home, and shut the front door behind me, as if it was a portcullis I had just let down to protect us from marauding hordes.

‘Hey Lau. Come here and give me a cuddle, woman.’

Lau walked towards me with an eyebrow raised and did as she was told.

‘That’s better. Just needed someone to obey my every command. Bloody subordinates, don’t know their place half the time.’

‘Ah, poor Matt, have the underlings been rebelling again?’

‘Yeah. It doesn’t pay to be a democratic leader, they just take the piss. I had to bloody discipline someone today. Hated every bloody second.’

‘What, tell someone off?’

Lau knew I didn’t work like that, and she stroked my face sympathetically.

‘Yeah. They’d fucked up a contract, not for the first time. I’m usually more of a ‘let’s learn from our mistakes’ kind of guy, but Phil wanted to be hard-line about it, and so I had to do it. Made her cry.’

‘Oh, Matt. That’s terrible.’

‘Yeah. Still, now I’m home, in the arms of my bloody awesome wife, with, is that a waft of chicken casserole I smell? And freshly wiped baby bum? Hopefully not from the same source.’

‘Yes, it is a chicken casserole, and yes the babies are clean and tidy awaiting a kiss bestowed by their doting father.’

‘Whoa, you’ve been busy. Bet you haven’t made anyone cry, though.’

‘There have been some tears, although I’m not sure I can claim full responsibility for all of them. Mum was round earlier, she helped with the casserole, peeled some veg.’

‘She OK?’

I didn’t really want to get into any discussions Lau might have had with April. I was going to have to be careful what I talked about with anyone, to avoid being told what people thought vicariously.

‘Yeah, fine. Saw Amy earlier as well.’

This included Amy, but Lau seemed disinclined to tell me anything about it, so I assumed they’d had a good gossip about me and left it at that.

Laura

I left out my conversation with Carol, until I could think of how to tell Matt we’d been discussing him. He was bound to know we had been, but it irritated him when he found out about it.

Matt

‘I got a text from Beth this morning, she’s so obvious, some boll – er – rubbish about helping Cal with his science homework. Thinks she’s going to trick me into going round there. I said if Cal needs help he can FaceTime me, or she can bring him here.’

Laura

‘Oh Matt.’

I didn’t say any more, just gave him a sympathetic look and squeezed him tight. This was going to affect the whole family until it was resolved. Cal and Iz would miss Matt a lot, and as I thought about it, I realised that Dec would find it hard to know who to support. It was something else to throw into the mix, but not right now, when Matt was still refusing to communicate about it.

Matt

I didn’t know how much longer she was going to be able to remain supportive but silent, Lau always had an opinion, but I appreciated the effort so far.

‘Yeah, well. OK, babies to kiss, first job on the old man’s to do list.’

So we had a bit of baby time, both of us chatting to them, saying nursery rhymes, Lau singing, watching them wriggle and giggle, seeing them smile. When they were behaving themselves, they were the best therapy.

Laura

I watched as Matt bent down to first Josh and then Ella, loving as always to see them smile and wriggle as he cuddled them. Matt always chatted to both of them about all sorts of things – football, food, family – as if they understood everything he said, and he had their complete attention.

He sat down, Ella on his knee, as I scooped up Josh and sat next to them and we spent some time bouncing babies and talking to them. Both of them were developing distinct personalities. Josh was more laid back, and would usually wait patiently for his more assertive sister to have her needs met. Josh would gaze intensely into my eyes while he fed, focussed entirely on me, whereas Ella would look around, everything distracting her. I found myself wondering how their different characters would develop as they grew up, and whether they would argue like Matt and Jay had. It almost brought tears to my eyes to imagine them not being as close as they were – they reached out to each other constantly, and looked at each other when they were in their separate beds, their daily cycles seemingly linked as well. I needed to say something to Matt.

‘Your mum rang me today.’

Matt

I so didn’t want to talk about this.

‘Oh yeah?’

‘She’s quite upset about this thing with Jay.’

I didn’t want Mum and Lau talking about me when I wasn’t there. I didn’t want them doing it when I was there either. Lau knew that, she knew how I felt about ‘being discussed’.

‘It’s nothing to do with her.’

‘She’s your mum. She’s just worried.’

‘Had a good gossip, did you?’

I couldn’t help it, the sarcastic tone. I was pissed off.

Laura

‘Hey, don’t take it out on me. I was thinking, just now, what if Josh and Ella fall out when they’re older? I’d be destroyed.’

Maybe if Matt could see it from a parent’s point of view, it might give him a different perspective.

Matt

She was trying to make me see it from someone else’s point of view, but I wanted to see it from my own. I wasn’t going to talk to her about it, not now. Maybe not ever.

‘Leave it, Lau. So, Josh, Spurs have got a Monday night game with Sunderland, shall we watch it together?’

Laura

And that was the end of that conversation, although I hoped Matt might at least think about it.

Matt

After dinner I started to watch the football while Lau did an evening feed. As she was starting to get them ready to go to bed, Dec’s ring tone pinged on my phone. I’d been expecting to hear from him all day, but he’d shown remarkable restraint, until now.

‘Seriously? Not speaking to Jay? How old ru again?’

I could just see it all happening, the family network springing into action on Mission Matty. Beth had tried, so it was Dec’s turn next, and then when he had no joy it would be Mum, then they might get Nico to give it a go, and before long they would have all had a turn. Well good luck to them. It wasn’t going to work, because it was different this time; I had Lau.

Laura

He looked at his phone, then tossed it back onto the table with a sigh. It was so like when I first knew him, when he got so exasperated with people checking up on him.

‘Who was that?’

‘Dec. He’s wading in now. They can all just piss off and leave me alone.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Nothing. Just talk.’

‘Oh. Say goodnight to Daddy, Ella.’

Matt kissed her gently and stroked her hair.

‘I’ll be back down for Josh in a minute.’

‘I can bring him up if you like.’

‘No, you watch the football, I won’t be long.’

Matt

While Lau was upstairs, the FaceTime tone went on my iPad. I nearly ignored it, but remembered my text conversation with Beth earlier, and relented, hoping it would be Cal rather than his mum. I pressed the button, and Cal appeared, to my relief and mild surprise. I’d thought it might just be a ruse to get me over there, but it seemed there had been some truth in it.

Laura

While I was upstairs I heard the FaceTime tone go on Matt’s iPad. I thought he might ignore it, but heard:

Matt

‘Hey Cal.’

‘Mum said you’d help me with my science homework?’

‘Sure, mate. What is it?’

‘Physics.’

‘OK, what have you got to do?’

Laura

As Matt continued talking to Cal, I relaxed a little. Matt wasn’t so angry that he wouldn’t talk to anyone, then. He never liked letting Cal down, but the way he’d been the last couple of days, I’d wondered if he would really let his anger encompass all of Jay’s family, not just Jay. If he was talking to Cal, there was some hope. Maybe Beth had been more perceptive than I’d thought.

Matt

Helping Cal diverted me for a while, although it meant I missed the football, but I never really minded with Cal. He could be a grouchy little git sometimes, but once you got him out of his shell, he was really interested in things, and once he understood something, this look came over his face, as if he’d just been give the key to a magic door, and it was awesome. It made me realise why teaching is appealing to some people.

It didn’t take that long to help Cal, although while I was talking to him I had two more texts from Dec, which I ignored until I’d finished Facetiming. Once I’d said goodbye to Cal, I picked up my phone.

‘Seriously, Matt. Get over it.’

‘U know what happens when u go all silent. I’ll be round in a few.’

I just wasn’t having any of it. Dec was bound to be siding with Jay, and I didn’t need the Summers treatment, hadn’t since I’d found Lau. She was my rock, my safe place, my confessional.

‘The whole lot of you can just fuck right off. Don’t need any of you. Stay the fuck out of it.’

Laura

When I came back downstairs, Matt had finished his FaceTime and was texting. He didn’t look up at me, his body language telling me he didn’t want to talk about who or what he was texting. When I went down after putting Josh to bed, he was watching the football again. He looked up and held his arm out, patting the seat beside him. I sat beside him as he put his arm round me, and rested my head on his shoulder as he watched the football.

‘It’s nearly finished, Lau.’ He indicated the football match.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll just sit here and veg for a bit.’

I wasn’t vegging, I was racking my brains for ways of getting Matt to talk, and coming up with nothing. Matt was so obstinate that the longer it went on, the more it was just going to be ‘a thing’ that had no reason behind it, but was just absorbed into Matt’s way of being. That couldn’t happen, it would be devastating to Matt and his whole family. I sat, leaning up against Matt, thinking hard. When the doorbell rang, it made me jump. Matt grunted.

Matt

I knew who it would be. Summers, party of one, eager for a fun all-nighter.

‘Just leave it.’

‘Why?’

I’d told Lau before about our ‘not leaving you alone’ bollocks, but I don’t think she’d completely got it.

‘It’ll be Dec, he’s just texted.’

‘So why are we ignoring it?’

She pushed herself to her feet to go and answer the door, but I caught her hand and pulled her back to the sofa, more roughly than I’d intended in my desperation not to let Dec in. Yeah, thinking about it now, maybe I was scared about what he was going to make me face if he got in, but at the time I was just angry and defiant.

‘No, Lau.’

Laura

I swung round to face him, annoyed at his tone of voice and at being manhandled.

‘Hey. It’s my front door as well as yours. Don’t push me around.’

Matt had the decency to look ashamed.

Matt

I was ashamed of myself. I never got physical with people, least of all Lau. I really was desperate.

‘Sorry, Lau. I just don’t want to see anyone. Please?’

Lau looked at me, and must have seen something in my face that convinced her, as she agreed.

‘Alright, for now. But this can’t go on, Matt. I’m not cutting us off from your entire family so you don’t have to face people.’

The doorbell rang again, and my phone pinged. I ignored it. Then Lau’s phone went too. Oh the bastard was upping the stakes, thinking he could involve Lau in our little game.

Lau got to her feet again and headed to the hallway.

‘Matt, I’m going to answer the door. I won’t let him in, but he knows we’re here, he’ll just keep on until we answer, and he’ll wake the babies up.’

Well that was true. I sighed.

‘You’re right. But don’t let him persuade you.’

‘Hey, you don’t have dibs on stubbornness. Don’t worry.’

I heard Lau open the door. She can’t have opened it more than a centimetre, or Dec would have been in like Flynn and we wouldn’t have got rid of him for weeks.

Laura

I reached the door as the bell rang again, and opened it. Dec moved towards me, but stopped, looking confused, when I blocked his way.

‘Hi Dec. Sorry, Matt doesn’t want to talk to anyone.’

‘Oh. Yeah, heard that one before.’

Dec raised his voice so it would reach Matt in the living room.

‘Tell him I’m a stubborner fucking bastard than he is, I’ll keep going all night until he talks to me. I’ve done it before, more than once.’

‘Please don’t, Dec. I’m here, Matt will talk to me, we’ll be fine. He’ll talk to you another time, I’m sure, just don’t push it.’

Matt

Oh I loved her so much. She was loyal and good and everything I needed.

Laura

Dec frowned, then nodded. When he spoke again, it was at his normal volume.

‘Are you OK, Lau?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I hate this, I can’t take sides.’

‘I know.’

‘Call us if you need us.’

I nodded, throat closing with emotion as I closed the door. I sniffed and tried to wipe my eyes so Matt didn’t see. To cover it up, I went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, but a wave of sadness washed over me and I started crying properly. I felt torn; I wanted to support Matt, but he needed his family, we all needed each other, and if things didn’t improve soon, it was going to tear us apart. Matt’s family were so closely entwined, that if one of them wasn’t there, they could all crumble. If I tried to push things, he was going to see me as against him too. I stood in the middle of the room with my arms folded tightly around me, trying to pull myself together.

Matt

I heard the door close, and then Lau went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. I wanted to say thanks for sticking up for me, so I wandered in to help her.

‘Hey, Lau, did I hear the kettle go –’

Lau was standing with her back to me, arms tightly folded, head bowed, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh fuck, you’re crying.’

I quickly went to her and pulled her into my arms.

‘Ssh, Lau. Oh please don’t, baby.’

This was all such a mess. I couldn’t handle Lau being this upset, and now she was crying harder, sobbing onto my chest.

‘Oh angel, don’t. Ssh.’

I’d used ‘baby’ and ‘angel’, my two best comfort words, and neither of them had made any difference at all. I hugged her as tightly as I could and kissed the top of her head as she wept, until she’d cried it all out and she shuddered to a halt, breathing hotly into my t-shirt.

‘I’m sorry Lau. I didn’t think about what all this is doing to you, and with worrying about the test in a few days as well.’

‘Did you hear what Dec said?’

Yeah, I got it, he wasn’t going to give up.

‘What, about him being a stubborner fucking bastard? Yeah, I get that, old news. I heard what you said too. Thanks.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I meant about him not taking sides. It affects all of us, will affect all of us for a long time if you carry on.’

I loosened my hold on her a little so I could look down at her. Throughout the day and into the evening, I had been getting more and more pissed off with my fucking family’s claims on me, what they thought they had a right to say or do. Things weren’t the same as they used to be, but they still thought they bloody owned me. I was just so tired of it, tired of fighting it and tired of fighting about it.

‘I know that. Maybe it’s time …’

I wasn’t quite ready to announce my as-yet-incomplete proposal, and backed away from what I’d been about to blurt out.

‘… I’m just still going over it all, Lau.’

Laura

He’d stopped himself in the middle of a sentence, but I could almost feel the weight behind the words he didn’t say, and a spike of fear shot through me. Once Matt got an idea in his head, it was nigh-on impossible to shake it out. Usually it was something that didn’t really matter, like building a fire pit in the garden, or spending an afternoon at Diggerworld, but there was so much more at stake this time. What was he considering?

‘Maybe it’s time for what?’

Matt

She had stiffened in my arms.

‘Nothing. I’m angry, I’m just thinking about stuff. Options.’

Laura

This was now properly scary. If Matt was starting to make decisions on his own, without consulting me, there was no telling what he’d end up doing, or wanting to do. Once he’d convinced himself about a course of action, it would be really hard to talk him out of it. Matt was much more flexible when he was at the talking stage of making his mind up.

‘Do I have any say in these options?’

Matt

She searched my face for what the fuck I was talking about. It was all just feelings at the moment, I hadn’t had a chance to put words to any of it, but now I had to, because I needed to explain it to Lau.

‘Well, of course, but not about how I feel. And how I feel at the moment is my bloody family is more trouble than they’re worth, and I’d be better off without them.’

Laura

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. He was going to ditch the family in some way, separate himself, and that meant all of us, from them.

‘Matt!’ I pushed myself away from him, looking at him in horror. ‘You can’t mean that.’

Matt

‘I’m still just thinking, Lau.’

I wasn’t going to get into discussing it, it was just how I was feeling.

Laura

Despite his words, there was a lift to his chin that defied me to try to contradict him. I remembered this feeling – I’d faced it in his flat when I’d seen a pile of pills and a bottle of whisky, and things had hung in the balance. In a panic, I tried to find something, anything, that would convince him not to make that final decision. I could almost see the years ahead, locked in a feud with Jay that had such small origins but would be so devastating to us all. Devastating to Matt and me and our children.

‘Please talk to Jay before you decide anything like that. Please try and sort it out with him.’

Matt

‘I can’t even think about him, let alone talk to him at the moment.’

This was nothing to do with Jay, none of his business. He wasn’t the only one who could decide who was or wasn’t a part of his family. People could be out as well as in, and perhaps it was time I just got out and broke away, got rid of their interfering nagging for good. At that moment, the thought was extremely appealing. Just me, Lau and the babies.

Laura

The calm tone that Matt was talking about this in was more scary than if he’d yelled. It chilled me to the core. Matt without his family wasn’t something I’d ever thought I’d have to contemplate; they were part of him, they almost defined him, they were all in his thoughts and controlled his actions one way or another for a lot of his waking hours. And now I might be pregnant – if I had another baby I’d need them all, or I’d go under like I nearly had before. It couldn’t happen. I wasn’t going to let it happen. He needed them, and I needed them. This wasn’t just about him any more. I walked over to the counter and picked up the car keys.

‘I’m going out.’

‘What?’

‘I won’t be long.’

‘Where are you going?’

Matt

Oh what the fuck was she up to now?

‘Back soon. Need bread.’

Laura

Before Matt could react I ran out of the door and got in the car, started the engine and reversed onto the road. I expected him to run after me, maybe try to stop me, but I drove away before he could catch up with me.

Matt

It was an obvious lie. We had tons of bread. That shocked me more than anything – Lau had never lied to me. I started to go after her, to, I don’t know, jump in the car, stop her, find out what she was going to do, but a cry from upstairs reminded me that she’d got me good and proper. I couldn’t leave, because I couldn’t leave Josh and Ella.

I took some deep breaths as I heard the car reverse off the drive and pull away. Then I went upstairs to see what the fuss was about up there, but all was quiet, as if neither of them had made a sound. I sat up there for a while, in the dark, listening to their noises, trying to let everything go, trying not to think about it all.

God I loved these two tiny people; they were all I needed, them and Lau. We were a family, a unit. As long as we were together, we wouldn’t need anything or anyone. Everything was OK. It was.

Once I was sure neither of them were going to start yelling for real, I went back downstairs and sat in front of the TV. There was more football, some European game I wasn’t interested in, but it was something to distract me. I checked my phone, but Lau hadn’t texted or called, and it was eating away at me, not knowing where she was or what she was doing. No one else had contacted me, either, and I was a bit surprised that the Summers kid had given up so easily. It wasn’t like him, and it made me apprehensive.

Laura

All the way there, I went over and over in my mind what I was going to do, my heart pounding, determination to end this fuelling my own anger at the two idiotic brothers.

Matt

Paranoia started to grip me, and I imagined Lau having some kind of family pow-wow where they all decided what was best for me and then tried to browbeat me into their way of doing things. Well they could all just go fuck themselves. Oh but Lau wouldn’t really do that, would she? No, it had seemed like a spur of the moment thing, the way she took off. Where the fuck was she, then?

My self-distraction techniques weren’t working very well; I couldn’t concentrate on the football, and every time a car went past I listened intently to see if it pulled onto the drive. I kept checking my phone, although I would have heard if a call or a text had come through. The babies were quiet, but I started to wonder what I was going to do if they needed feeding, so I checked the fridge, and found enough milk for both of them. Lau wouldn’t even run off spontaneously without making sure we were all looked after. I thought about texting her, but decided against it, then decided for it, then decided against it again as I was half way through a text that sounded angrier than I intended. Come on, Lau, how long does it take to ‘get bread’ or whatever the fuck it is you’re really doing?

I opened my emails, and found the links I’d sent to myself from work. I had a good look at the jobs in the links, and downloaded an application form for one of them. The job was in Aberdeen. I started filling out the form.

Laura

A short journey later and I was outside Beth and Jay’s house, vaguely noticing that Dec’s car was also outside. I ran up the path and rang the doorbell. Beth answered the door.

‘Laura!’

‘Is Jay here?’

‘Yes, he’s talking to Dec –’

‘I need to talk to him.’

‘They’re in his office.’

I pushed past Beth, a bit rudely, crossed the hallway and shoved the door to Jay’s office wide open. Jay was sitting in his leather swivel chair, and Dec was perched on the edge of the desk. They both looked at me in surprise as I barged in. I didn’t wait to be greeted.

‘Jay, you need to sort this out with Matt. I know you’re having some kind of man-off about it, but he’s talking about being better off without his family. You can’t let that happen. I know you’re both ridiculously attached to your pride, but one of you needs to give in, and I don’t think it’s going to be Matt. You said some hurtful things to him, and he’s got himself all worked up about it, so whatever it is you’re not talking about, you need to talk about it, sort it out, apologise, whatever it takes. I don’t care how you do it, but do it. Please.’

I ground to a halt as Jay and Dec stared at me. Dec started to speak, but Jay interrupted him.

‘OK.’

I was winding myself up to start again, and Jay’s short reply took the wind out of my sails.

‘What?’

‘OK, I’ll do whatever it takes, like you asked. Mr Summers here was just pointing out something very similar, and I’ve had my wife and my mother bending my bloody ear for the last two days, so just to get a bit of peace, OK, I agree, I’ve been an arse, I’ll sort it out with Matty.’

‘Really?’

My voice trembled, and I felt a bit wobbly, I was so relieved.

‘You’ve got to talk to him.’

‘I know. Give me a minute, I just want to finish something off in here. Turn the printer on, Dec.’

‘Thanks, Jay.’

‘No need to thank me, Laura. I’m sorry I’ve upset you all, I was pretty stupid. Why don’t you both get a drink? I won’t be long here.’

And so, dismissed, Dec and I went into the kitchen where we were joined by Beth.

‘So …?’

Dec answered, as I was too shaken to speak.

‘He’s going over in a minute, to, er, what was it Lau? Do whatever it takes. To sort it out.’

Beth leaned on the counter, sagging with relief. She looked at me and put an arm round my shoulders as I tried to take it in, that Jay had actually backed down. He hadn’t even seemed that angry, and I wondered what was different about either Jay’s temperament or the approach he had been subjected to, to make him react like this instead of digging his heels in like Matt had.

‘Oh sweetheart, thank goodness. What did you say?’

Beth looked up at Dec and put her hand on his arm.

‘Well, I just pointed out how things nearly went pear shaped with him and me a few years ago, because I stopped talking, and asked him if he wanted the same thing to happen with Matt. I’d only just started, really, and then Lau barged in like some kind of fucking scary mad woman on a mission and told him that Matt was thinking about ditching the family and he needed to sort it, which kind of sealed it, I think.’

Beth turned to me, eyes wide.

‘Oh Laura, Matt was going to do what?’

‘He said he’d be better off without his family, and he told me a while ago he was offered a job in Norwich, I’m just worried he’s going to do something impulsive.’

‘But James is going to sort it out?’

‘Yeah, he said he’s coming in a minute. I really hope he can say something to stop all this.’

‘Did James say anything else?’

‘Not to me, but I didn’t really give him a chance.’

‘Dec?’

‘I’d only just got here myself.’

‘Well he’s going to have to do some serious talking when he gets back, then. I let him get away with grunting too much, he never says what’s on his mind. Not this time, though.’

While Beth thought about how she was going to extract information from Jay, I suddenly remembered what I’d said to Matt when I left home. I’d lied to him. I never lied. Was it still a lie if he knew it was a lie? He’d known it was a lie, right? The sort of lie you tell when you don’t want to say ‘I’m going to see your brother so I can make him talk to you and stop you doing this ridiculous thing’, so instead say ‘We need bread’, when we have at least two loaves in the bread bin and several in the freezer. Well there’s an easy way round it, Laura Scott.

‘Beth, have you got a loaf of bread?’

Beth looked at me in complete confusion.

‘Bread?’

‘Yeah. I told Matt I was going out for bread. I’ve never lied to him.’

‘Oh. Oh Laura, that’s so lovely. Here, sweetheart.’

She gave me a smile, reached behind her and took a loaf out of the cupboard as Jay came in, holding an envelope.

‘Do you know where my car keys are, Beth?’

‘Hanging up on the key hook? Oh no, silly me, they’re never there, are they. In your pocket? By the phone? Still in the car? Office? Jacket? Shall I continue?’

‘If you like, but I can’t get going and sort this out with Matty until I find them, so more help, less sarcasm, thanks.’

‘Come with me, Jay, I can bring you back later.’

‘Maybe you’d better, James, it took you an hour to find your keys yesterday.’

‘Oh alright. Are you sure, Laura?’

‘Yeah. Are you ready now?’

Jay nodded, and we left, Dec staying to play on the X-box with Cal.

Jay seemed nervous in the passenger seat, and twisted the envelope in his hands until it was screwed up and grubby.

‘Thanks, Jay. I’m sorry I just went off like that, but I didn’t know what else to do.’

‘It’s OK, Laura. I think I needed a bit of a rocket. I’m not good at talking. I don’t really talk much to Matty, or haven’t for a while, not about important stuff. I’m a bit worried about what I’m going to say. He’s better with words than me.’

‘Just say what you’re feeling. It doesn’t have to be clever or fancy, just true.’

‘Thanks. That helps. You probably want to bang our heads together.’

‘It had occurred to me. But coming over and giving you a verbal slap was almost as satisfying.’

‘Has it been bad? With Matty, I mean. He can … he hasn’t for a long time, but he can get pretty down, has these black moods. It can be grim.’

‘No, not down exactly, but he’s been angry and won’t talk to me about it. I know there’s a lot of brother stuff between you that I won’t ever get to the bottom of –’

‘Laura, can I ask you something? About his MS?’

As a change of subject, it was about as abrupt as they came, but I went with it.

‘Er, OK.’

‘How likely is it to come back?’

‘Oh. Well, it isn’t something that goes away, really, it’s always there, and a lot of it depends on how well he looks after himself. It’s impossible to say, Jay; flare-ups are unpredictable to a large extent. Why do you ask?’

‘Well, is stress a cause?’

‘It can be.’

Jay sighed.

‘I think one of the reasons I overreacted the other night was I’m worried if he gets this job at Raiders, he’ll be stressed and it’ll make him ill. He’s just got over the last bout, he’s coped with getting married, having the twins, all that, really well, but it’s full-on at Raiders, busy, demanding. I know his job at the moment has taken the MS into account, I’m not sure Raiders would, or could, to the same extent.’

‘He has to make that decision for himself. It’s lovely that you want to protect him, but to be honest, the last few days have been stressful enough to be a trigger in themselves. And staying in a job he’s unhappy in could too. There’s just no knowing. He works well under pressure, and he’s a lot better at being aware of how he’s feeling these days.’

‘You’ve been good for him.’

‘Hm, don’t know about that, but he talks to me about stuff, usually, which I gather he hasn’t always.’

‘Ha ha, Jesus, no, getting Matty to talk about anything seriously has always been a bit of a challenge, although Dec seems to have managed it from time to time. OK, well, I’ll try the talking, and see how it goes.’

‘Good luck. He won’t be happy to see you.’

‘Used to that. I can brazen it out.’

44. Dance little sister

In which we meet Isobel, and Matty finds his Plan D.

Matt

Not long after we got in the fun bus and started the drive down the hill and back to the Land of Signal, I heard Jay’s ringtone on my phone.

‘Hey. Any news?’

‘Hi Matty. Yeah, we’ve got a daughter.’

‘Woohoo.’

There was clapping and cheering from everyone on the bus, as they knew I was waiting for news, and I’d given them a thumbs up.

‘Is evhryone OK?’

‘Yeah, mate, everyone’s perfect. Any chance you can get over here? Dec’s bringing Cal.’

‘Yeh, on my way home now. Wha’s she called?’

‘Isobel Flora.’

‘Great. Look forward tuh meeting her. Well done, mate.’

‘See you soon, Matty.’

The fun bus driver agreed to drop me off at the hospital rather than at home, and I met up with Dec, Amy and Cal in the car park.

Cal

And then I finally had my baby sister. I had been looking forward to it for ages, because I didn’t know she was going to be a sister, she still might be a brother, and even if the baby was a sister, Mum had said that girls sometimes like football, and so I thought she might go in goal for me. She could be a bit little, but I would score more goals that way. I was still hoping for a brother, but a sister wouldn’t be too bad.

So when Mum told me Dec and Amy were coming to our house because she and Dad were going to hospital to have a baby, I was pleased that at last I could stop waiting, and I would be a big brother, which was very important. It was a very long day of waiting, because Mum and Dad went away in the morning, and me and Dec and Amy did lots of things all day, like going to the beach, and flying my kite, and eating sandwiches, and playing football, and eating chocolate, before Dec said that Mum had had the baby, and it was a sister, and we were going to go and see her in the hospital.

Dec

We bundled Cal into the car and set off. At the hospital entrance, we met Matt, who had just been dropped off by his friends.

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

}I know, Cal, I’m coming to meet her, like you.

\dec forgot to ask her name.

}Oh, good job one of us has got half a brain then. Her name’s Isobel Flora Scott.

\will she be able to play football with me?

}Maybe in a few years, but at the moment she’s really tiny. Leh’s go and see her.

Cal

Dec didn’t know what my sister’s name was, because he forgot to ask, but he said we would find out when we got there, because Dad couldn’t use his phone in the hospital. When we got there, Uncle Matty was in the car park too, because he’d been walking on a hill, and his friends had brought him in a minibus to see my sister. Uncle Matty knew my sister’s name, which was Isobel Flora, but he said it would be years before she would play football with me. Years! No one had said anything about it being years. I thought it might be a few weeks, maybe, until she got big enough to stand up, but I didn’t think I could wait years for someone to go in goal.

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

}Loved it. I’m bloody knackered now, but it was just what I needed. I’ve really missed getting out like that. I just took it slow, like everyone else, and enjoyed the views. Have you been up the top there? You can see righ over the river to the sea. There are deer and birds and everything.

‘Sounds like a great day, did you some good.’

}Yeah, thanks for talking me into sticking with it.

‘Pleasure. We had a good day on the beach, didn’t we Cal?’

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

‘Cal, we didn’t kiss all day long, we did loads of cool things at the beach.’

}Probably quite a loh of kissing though, eh Cal?

Cal nodded.

\dec said he will sleep under my bed tonight and make dream noises.

}Did he? What have you done to deserve that?

‘Apparently my mad night noises are much sought after. Amy and Cal were fighting over them earlier.’

}Takes all sorts I suppose. Having experienced your utter insanity when you’re dreaming, I would say they’re bloody welcome to it. Are you still doing tha, then?

‘Apparently so. Worth reporting to Adam I guess.’

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

We checked where Beth and Jay were, and found the room. Beth was sitting up in bed, looking sweaty, tired and lovely, holding the tiniest person I had ever seen. Amy and I hovered by the door as Cal and Matt went in, unsure how many of us were allowed in at a time. Matt kissed Beth and hugged Jay, then sat in one of the chairs by the bed.

Cal

We got to the room where Mum and Dad were with my sister, and Mum was in a bed, holding a lot of blankets. I wondered where my sister was, and then the blankets moved and I saw a little tiny finger, and then Mum tilted the blankets and there was a face in there, and it didn’t look like a girl or a boy, just like a little face.

‘Hey, Cal, hop up on my lap and have a look at your sister.’

Uncle Matty was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and he was holding his arms out to me, so I climbed onto his lap to have a closer look. The face in the blankets still didn’t look anything like I had thought it would – girls have long hair and sometimes hair grips, and boys have short hair but I couldn’t see any hair because it was covered by the blanket. I needed to be doubly sure.

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

‘Yes, sweetheart, she is. She loves her big brother. Do you want to give her a kiss?’

The little face suddenly moved, and I could see her hair, which was blonde like mine, and she screwed her face up and opened her mouth and wriggled her hands, and suddenly I saw that she was a really, really, little girl, and I was her big brother, and I was going to have to look after her like big brothers do, so I would tell Archie Shepherd off if he was mean to her, and I might share my sweets if I had enough and she had run out, and I’d let her play cars with me as long as she didn’t mind having the second best ones. I did want to give her a kiss, because that’s what Mums and Dads and big brothers did to little sisters.

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

I got on the bed and kissed her, and her cheek was all soft, and her eyes were open and she looked at me, then I climbed off and stood next to Mum, looking at my sister.

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

Beth stroked the baby’s hair and looked at Matt.

_Would you like a cuddle?

}Well I’d have thought you’d be a bit tired, giving birth and all, but if you’re sure you’re up to it …

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

Matt stood up and took the tiny baby from Beth. He jiggled her and made cooing noises, and she opened her eyes and looked into his. His own eyes filled with tears. He kissed her on the cheek and gave her back to Beth, wiping his eyes.

}Fuck, didn’t see tha coming. Anyone got a tissue?

_Matty, did that really have to be your first word to her?

}Sorry, Beth. I guess she’ll just have to get used to cool Uncle Matty. It’s not like she can understand me yet.

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

}Well when someone’s getting told off for saying ‘fuck’, it’s usually your fault.

łWhy are you both loitering by the door? You’re making the place look untidy. Come in.

Amy and I moved further into the room. I was a bit in awe of the tiny bundle in Beth’s arms. I had no close up experience of babies, and this was all very new and quite scary.

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

łAbout the size of a rugby ball, you can carry one of those well enough.

_Er, excuse me, there is nothing about my daughter that remotely resembles a rugby ball. You won’t try to score a try with her will you, Dec? Amy, why don’t you show him how to do it?

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

Amy took Isobel from Beth, and sat in one of the chairs, rocking her and talking nonsense. I looked on in wonder. Amy’s eyes were shining, and she looked over at me, making my heart melt. She looked beautiful. Jay was grinning at me.

łWatch out, Dec, I think Amy’s getting ideas.

Amy gave him a look. Perhaps I should have felt panicked or trapped or something, but I just felt awestruck.

)Maybe one day.

She looked at me. I nodded, smiling, wondering for the first time what it would be like to have a family of my own, and liking the idea of it. Way in the future, obviously.

)Come on Dec, have a cuddle, she’s so amazing. Look, sit here and I’ll pass her over. You won’t drop her. Just remember to support her head. Yeah, that’s it. Hey, there she is.

I sat with Isobel in my arms. She was as light as air, but she was the weightiest thing I had ever carried. Her features were miniaturised, and the smallest hand I had ever seen poked out of the blanket she was wrapped in. I was filled with an emotion I couldn’t identify, which was mixed up with family and tenderness and love. She was the closest I was ever going to get to having a sister; I felt very protective.

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

I felt tears spill out of my eyes. I risked a look at Matt, who laughed and shrugged.

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

Amy put her hand on the back of my neck and stroked my hair.

Cal

Uncle Matty and Amy and Dec all cuddled my sister, and Uncle Matty even did a swear, although Mum told him off. Then I remembered that there had been a shop on the way in, and that shops in hospitals had sweets and drinks and other interesting things.

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

I knew there was, but it was a way of talking about it first.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

Mum usually knew things like where the shops were, so now I was going to have to be less sneaky, or she wouldn’t know what I wanted.

‘I would like a slushie and a dinosaur magazine.’

‘I think I saw a shop on the way in, do you want to come with me, Cal? Let’s see what we can find.’

I turned and looked at Amy. This was good, because Mum didn’t look like she was going to get out of bed to come to the shop with me, even though it was the middle of the day.

Dec

Amy took Cal’s hand and they went off together. Beth looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

_She’s very good with children.

łShe has a lot of practice with Dec. Things are obviously going very well with you two.

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

}According to Cal they spent all day at the beach sucking each other’s faces.

‘On come on, you know Cal’s exaggerating. One or two kisses. Maybe three. And we were watching him the whole time. The whole time. Eyes open and everything.’

_Well I think it’s lovely. After all the months of wondering if you were ever going to sort it out, I’m really pleased. She’s lovely. She’s good for you. It’s lovely to see you so happy, sweetheart.

Isobel chose that moment to wake up and start bawling at the top of her voice. I was still holding her, and the noise and wriggling panicked me a bit. I looked at Beth, wondering what to do.

_It’s alright Dec, she’s hungry. Jay, can you pass her over? Er, you two can leave if you like I’m about to feed her. Or stay, it’s up to you.

As Beth started to unbutton her shirt, it dawned on me what she meant. I blushed, stood up and left the room, closely followed by Matt. We found a row of chairs in the corridor.

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

}I kind of remember when Cal was born. I dihnt see him for a while, couldn’t get away from work; he wasn’t so small and delicate by the time I saw him. I remember needing to leave the room on many occasions on account of feeding, though. Got very familiar with the kitchen. Did a loh of washing up.

‘Really?’

}Fuck, no. They’ll be a while in there, it can take bloody ages. I should go home, have a shower, fall asleep in my dinner. How long are you staying here?

‘We could go too, not sure if we should take Cal or leave him here, don’t want to tire Beth out. Not sure I can go in and ask at the moment though.’

}We’ll send Amy in when she gets back with Cal.

‘Good plan. So, you had a good hike – think you’ll go again?’

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

}Yeah, it’s all local people with the bastard MS, they take it nice and easy, and everyone understands what everyone needs. If I get a bih fitter, who knows I might move on to something else, but this suits me at the moment. They’re a really good bunch, we had a laugh. I thought they’d all be older, but there were a few around my age –

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

}Fuck off, you half-grown knob-cheeser. Anyway, we’ve arranged to go out for a drink next week. I need to meet some people down here, get out more, this is a really good start.

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

}Oh no, that’s just a Scott family tradition. Me, you and Mum. Fuck the rest.

I laughed, as Cal’s voice sounded along the corridor.

Cal

So I went to the shop with Amy, and she let me choose a slushie and, best of all, a Transformer magazine, which had a poster of Optimus Prime in it for my bedroom wall. I asked Amy a lot of things that I thought of while we were walking there and back; some of them I already knew the answers to because Mum had told me, like how my sister had got out of Mum’s tummy, but I wanted to see if Amy knew, and she didn’t know as well as Mum because she kept saying ‘er’ and mixing her words up; and some were things I wanted to know the answer to, like how long it would be before she could play football, and Amy didn’t really know that either, because baby horses could walk right away, so why couldn’t baby sisters?

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

)Well, when babies are born, not all their muscles work yet. They have to spend a long time doing baby exercises like standing and crawling to get themselves strong enough to walk.

\but when baby horses are born their legs work straight away.

)Well, yes, that’s right … it’s just different for people and horses.

\why?

Matt and I grinned at Amy, while she looked pleadingly at us.

‘Need some help?’

)Cal has so many questions. I can’t answer them all. He wanted to know when Isobel would be playing football with him.

}Diversionary tactics are required. Cal, wha’s in your magazine?

\there wasn’t a dinosaur one, so I got a Transformer one. Look, Optimus Prime is on the front.

Matt raised his eyebrows at a grateful Amy, as Cal opened the magazine and started showing him pictures.

‘Ames, Beth is feeding Isobel at the moment, we were wondering if you could go in and ask whether she wants us to take Cal home for some tea, or whether he’s staying here with her and Jay?’

)Why couldn’t you ask?

‘Well, Beth’s feeding, I’m not sure I’d know where to look.’

)Oh for God’s sake, it’s only boobs. It’s not like you’ve never seen any before.

‘Yeah, but it’s Beth, it feels weird … please?’

Amy rolled her eyes, but went into the room, taking Cal with her.

}Only boobs? She is aware you’re male, right?

‘Yes, well aware, thanks. I just don’t get girls sometimes … most of the time … ever, in fact.’

}Well that’s something we have in common – with the rest of the men in the world. Let’s just agree that girls aren’t actually human, but a different species. Makes ih easier to stomach, somehow.

A familiar voice floated towards us. Nico. Lis was with him.

>Ha, is Declan and Matty. Why you sit outside?

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

‘Well it feels … kind of wrong to be there.’

>No, is natural, is beautiful. We go in, Lis?

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

They went into the room, and Nico’s loud voice and laugh drifted back out to us through the door.

‘Are we the biggest sexist pigs going, or is he just being Nico?’

}I’m on your side, mate, no one’s getting me in there till it’s all over. Beth’s like my sister. Only she’s not. Ew. Too weird. Besides, with Nico in there it’s like ten extra people have turned up, there wohnt be room for any more egos.

Cal

When I got back to Mum, she was feeding Isobel. She wasn’t giving her ice cream or chips, though. She was letting my sister suck her booby. She told me there was special Mummies milk in there, just how little sisters like it, and that she was too young for chips at the moment. I felt quite pleased that I was going to be able to eat chips and not have to suck Mum’s booby for my dinner.

Nico and Lis were in the room too, and they had brought me a present, which was a book about tractors, because I really liked tractors. I liked getting presents for having a little sister, and some of the things I got later, from people like Granny and Aunty Lou, were Woody from Toy Story and a T-shirt with ‘World’s Best Big Brother’ on it.

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

)OK, the decision is that, apart from you two being complete wimps, Cal is coming back with us for some tea and then bath and bed.

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

)I know sweetie, but your mum’s tired and she needs to go to sleep in a bit.

\but Nico and Lis are still there

)They’re not staying long, and Daddy will be home soon too. Mummy’s staying here tonight, then Daddy will fetch her and Isobel home tomorrow so she can live with you all. How about we make a welcome home banner for her when we get back?

Cal considered the offer. He liked spending time with Amy almost as much as I did, but obviously for very different reasons.

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

With Cal placated, we got back to Jay and Beth’s house. Amy and Cal made a banner, I cobbled together an extremely unhealthy dinner of chicken nuggets, beans and oven chips while Matt had a shower, then Matt grumbled about the dinner and made some pasta which met his higher-than-mine taste standards. Then we all collapsed in front of the TV. Being a Sunday, there wasn’t much on, so Cal persuaded us all to start watching one of his DVDs.

‘Just the first bit, then it’s time for a bath.’

\oh, but the best bit is after the first bit.

I hid a smile at his delaying tactics; Cal hadn’t got any keener on going to bed, and I steeled myself to be firm with him.

‘Then you can watch the rest tomorrow when you get up.’

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

‘I know, mate, you never do, but you like it once you get there. Have you still got your submarine? We could have a water battle.’

Bribery always went a long way towards persuading Cal, and now he was torn with indecision between battling bath time and battling me with water and submarines and various other toys. I won.

\kay. How long can I watch for?

‘Thirty minutes. We’re all watching the timer on the DVD.’

)Actually, Dec, if we’ve got half an hour, would you mind taking me home?

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

‘Cal, are you sure you still want me to stay tonight?’

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

‘OK, I’ll have to go and pick up my PJs then. I’ll try to be back before thirty minutes, OK, then we’ll have our water battle … er … bath.’

As I drove Amy back to her parents’ house, we passed the spot where I had crashed my car last summer. I drove past it nearly every day, but it still made my stomach churn and my heart beat faster. Amy noticed me looking, and she put her hand on my arm.

)Remember what Adam said – every time it gets a tiny bit easier. You only notice after lots of tiny bits.

‘I know. It’s true, looking back it’s easier now than the first time. Still makes me feel weird, though.’

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

)Well, today turned out a bit different to what we were expecting.

‘Thanks for helping out with Cal. He loves you.’

)He’s great. I really like being with him.

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

)Oh, she’s completely adorable. Have you ever held a baby before?

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

)Not bad, but I think you need lots more practice.

‘We’ll just have to volunteer for lots of babysitting then.’

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

I pulled up outside the house. It was hard to say goodbye, even overnight; Amy had been virtually living with me for the past few weeks. We’d spent some time early on at Amy’s house, but several calculated appearances at Amy’s bedroom door by her mum, interrupting various stages of undress, meant we spent most of our time at mine. Amy had a delightful chest, and I liked uncovering it and looking at it a lot, and Amy’s parents made it quite clear that this, and other related activities they had walked in on, were frowned on ‘under my roof’, so we moved it all to under my roof, where it definitely was not frowned on, and in fact was actively encouraged by both of us. Other than going to work, we’d been together the whole time; this would be our first night apart for a quite a while. We kissed long and lingeringly in the car.

)I’ll phone you later.

‘I’ll text you when I’ve finished Cal’s bath.’

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

)I’d better get out, you’ll be late back for Cal.

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

‘I just saw your dad look out of the window.’

)I’d better go then, see you tomorrow.

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

It was worse than the ‘you hang up’ ‘no you hang up’ game, as the kissing and close bodily contact were a big deterrent to moving. I hadn’t realised how long we’d lingered until my phone rang in my pocket. I fished it out. Matt.

‘Hey, Matt.’

}Where the fuck are you? This DVD has nearly finished, and it’s way past time for Cal’s bath. Do you want me to do it? Cal won’t go up until you geh back.

Amy opened the car door, stroked my cheek and got out. I looked longingly after her as she walked up the path to the front door, where she turned, waved and blew me a kiss before rearranging her dishevelled hair and disappearing inside.

‘Sorry, I got held up. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’

}Stop licking her tonsils and feeling her up for two seconds, deliver her back to the bosom of her family and get your overexcited arse back here. This is several levels of taking the pissery.

‘Sorry, be right with you. Starting the car now.’

I pulled my seatbelt on and drove off. As I pulled up outside the house, I realised I’d forgotten to fetch any washing stuff or clothes to sleep in; I’d just have to make do with what I could find. I opened the front door to the sounds of splashing and squeals from upstairs; Matt had obviously managed to persuade Cal into the bath and started the water battle. I ran up, rolled up my sleeves and joined in, and by the time we’d finished, the bathroom was dripping. I fetched a mop and bucket, and tried to pass it to Matt.

}Fuck off, you’re the one who was late back, you get to clear it up. I get to dry off, dry Cal’s hair, read him a story, nice and quiet and relaxed, in the dark, while you make sure all the water disappears before Jay gehs back.

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

Jay arrived back home as I was tipping the bucket down the sink. He looked tired, but also elated, proud and very pleased with himself.

łHey, Dec, didn’t expect you to still be here. Jesus, you’re soaking – what the hell have you been doing?

‘Er, just a bit of playtime to encourage Cal into the bath. He wants me to stay the night in the bottom bunk.’

łWell aren’t you a glutton for punishment. Thanks for helping out today, we really appreciate it. Where is Cal?

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

I towelled my hair dry, took one of Jay’s t-shirts from the laundry cupboard and sat on a towel on the sofa in my damp boxers, having put my jeans in the tumble dryer. I texted Amy, then flicked through the TV channels, listening to Jay, Matt and Cal’s voices upstairs. Matt came down a few minutes later, giving my boxers a sideways glance.

}Ugh. For fuck’s sake put ih away, Summers. Where are your trousers?

‘They got soaked. I put them in the dryer.’

}Well borrow some of mine, or Jay’s. I don’t really want to stare at that all night. Thinking about Amy by any chance?

He left the room, then came back and threw a pair of baggy sweatpants in my direction.

}Here, have Jay’s decorating sweaties. Haven’t seen active service for some years, and lots of handy splodges already, so one or two more won’t show if you really can’t control yourself.

I pulled them on and rearranged myself to be a little less obvious.

}That’s better. Bit of modesty goes a long way. Can’t you even manage one night without her?

I was actually missing Amy more than I’d thought I would; I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and whether her mum and dad would be giving her a hard time.

‘Piss off, I’m here, aren’t I? Is Cal settled yet?

}All sorted, although he’s currently putting in a request for a story from you as well, in a vain attempt to put off going to sleep even longer.

‘He’s the master.’

}He certainly is. Jay’s just about goh it covered. He’s telling him about his baby sister, good as any story.

‘She is pretty amazing.’

}Never thought you’d be that appreciative of babies.

‘Neither did I, but it feels different when it’s family.’

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

‘Ha ha, no. You did hear her say ‘maybe one day’, not ‘I need to make a baby with you, right here, right now’?’

}I suppose so. Tha could have been awkward. You’re being very chilled about the whole thing.

‘I just know, after all the effort of me and Amy getting together, nothing’s going to fuck it up. It took us long enough to get here, I’m happy to enjoy the ride, wherever it goes.’

}Fuck, yes, the longest will they, won’t they saga in the history of mankind.

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

}I goh the headlines, even if you yourself were strikingly reticent on the matter. Dec loves Amy, Amy loves Dec, what will it take to get them to say it? Worse than some bloody soap. I have to claim some credit, I must say, for my forthright words at the barbecue.

‘Piss off, I was going to say something anyway.’

}Yeah, like fuck you were. ‘Oh she’s just a mate’ you told me, as you pined away pathetically in a dark corner of the garden.

‘OK, maybe I did need a little nudge.’

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

}Bollocks would you, you’d still be pissing about now. Instead of hours of snogging and groping in the car jus now, you’d have been chastely dropping her off at home, promising to text her, staring miserably after her as she disappeared inside the forbidden fortress. And you’d have been back in time to give Cal his bath. I’ve given you all these extra weeks of bliss, as well as severely inconveniencing myself and getting half drowned into the bargain. I accept your grateful thahks.

I rolled my eyes. Decided to shift the focus of the conversation.

‘What about you, anyone worth looking twice at in the hiking group?’

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

}Well, there is this one girl, she’s a bit younger than me.

‘So not exactly a girl, but not in her sixties yet?’

}Fuck off you impudent urchin. We chatted quite a lot today. Seems really nice. Good arse. We got on pretty well. A few of us are going for a drink next week, she’ll be there. You can wipe that look off your face. I’m not looking for anything serious, I’m only jus getting better. I don’t know if getting involved with someone else with the bastard MS is the best idea. Actually, not sure ‘getting involved’ with someone is what I want at all. I just need to get my own bit of normal, start having some fun again.

łDid I hear someone mention fun? What’s the story?

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

}Piss off, Dec. No, just going out for a drink with some people next week. Goh to start somewhere.

łDrink sounds good – shall we have a practice now? I’ve got beers in. A toast to … oh, I don’t know, fatherhood? Family? Something less corny?

‘Love.’

łI said less corny, Dec. We all know you’re loved up, pretty hard to miss. Especially right this minute – Jesus, are they my sweatpants? Fuck, I may never be able to wear them again.

He went to get the beers. Came back looking thoughtful.

łYou know what, I am going to make a toast to love. Not just the full on snoggy type that Dec’s so fond of, but all of it. I feel pretty loved up myself today. I’ve got this fantastic daughter, courtesy of my incredible wife, I’ve spent time with my brilliant family and amazing friends and just watched my awesome son go to sleep. And you two are here helping me celebrate. Life just doesn’t get any better. To love.

We clinked our bottles together.

A few hours and many beers later I stumbled up the stairs, undressed quickly in the bathroom and climbed under the duvet in Cal’s bottom bunk as quietly as I could. I was asleep almost before I was lying down.

Dreaming. I am flying. High above the world. I can see it all, the people and patterns that make up my life. It is beautiful. It is amazing. It is awesome. It is love.

I woke up in the dark, disoriented. Someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

\you said a big swear. Can I come in with you?

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

I pulled the duvet back and he jumped in, immediately filling the available space while I shuffled back against the wall. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

Having a sister wasn’t that great, really, although everyone kept saying ‘Do you love your little sister?’ to me, and I had to say yes, because I didn’t think I would be allowed to say no. But she cried a lot, and woke me up at night sometimes, and Mum was busy feeding her and changing her nappies, although she sometimes let me help with the nappies so I could look at the poo. So I was quite glad when it was the start of school, and time to surprise Jake.

Not long after Isobel was born, everyone started calling her Iz. It was a lot easier to say, and it was like a nickname, so I liked it.

Matt

I couldn’t remember much about when Cal was born; I really wasn’t into babies back then, and I suppose you could say I wasn’t now, but having lived with Jay and Beth throughout the whole deal with cravings, hormonal rants, swelling belly, ooh feel it kicking no thanks I’d rather not, I felt a lot closer to this one.

When Cal had arrived, I didn’t rush down to see the new-born first born, and contented myself with emailed and texted pictures, which looked much like any other Churchill-a-like baby I’d ever seen. I visited with Mum several weeks later (it was her third visit) and dutifully held him and jiggled him a bit, but the amount of time I spent in a different room while Beth breastfed him hardly seemed worth the hassle. Not that Beth sent me out, you understand, but … well … you know, the whole boob thing. Yeah, I know, really not PC of me, really bad form, but that’s how it was. Didn’t want to see Beth’s boobs, really didn’t want to be thinking about them in any way either, so spent a lot of time in the kitchen honing my cooking skills and consequently getting brownie points from the new parents.

But this one was different. I felt like I knew this one a bit before it arrived. They didn’t want to know if it was a boy or a girl, they wanted it to be a surprise. I never understood why people did that, it’s not like it’s Secret Santa or something, it’s a baby, a tiny person, and surely if you can get to know it in any small way before it comes, that’s better than knowing jack-shit about it until it pops out. But hey, it wasn’t my baby, and it was up to them, so until Jay rang me I didn’t know if I had a niece or another nephew. And I’d been expecting to be a bit uninterested, like I had with Cal at first, until I’d got to know the little tyke in the last year or so, but as soon as I clapped eyes on Isobel Flora Scott, as soon as I held her, I was won. She had my heart. I mean, yeah, she looked as much like Winston as her brother had, but when I held her I actually cried, bloody huge tears and everything, she was so small and fragile, and I just wanted to protect her. Dec cried as well, we were still pretty much competing for the play-off position in the blub club league tables, but we both scarpered as soon as Beth started unbuttoning her top, and in the corridor we stayed until we managed to persuade Amy to go and get Cal so we could go home.

So Isobel, who pretty soon got shortened to Iz, would need a bedroom before too long. She was going in with Jay and Beth for a few months, and although there was talk of rejigging things and maybe using Jay’s office, I knew my days were numbered. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with the end of my stay chez Scott being nigh, because it meant I was getting better, and by the end of September, I’d got a reference from Eyeti, a pretty bloody good one, too, and had hawked my wares around a few different IT companies in the city.

I’d upped my game in other ways too. Remember Imogen, from the hiking group? Yeah, well, she helped me prove I still had it. Now, I’m not proud of this, not now, but at the time it was pretty major for me. Imogen and I got on well, the hiking group went out a couple of times and then I saw Imogen just the two of us once or twice. OK, twice. And she definitely had that look in her eye, and things were definitely happening for me that said ‘Thunderbirds are go’. And she was a bit of a safety net, because if things didn’t go quite right, she had the bastard MS too, and she’d understand. But things did go right, very right indeed, and it was a great relief to know that everything worked, and I think we both had a good time, I mean I know I did, and she seemed to, but there was no way I was getting into anything, not with the huge hole in my chest where Carrie had ripped my heart out, so it was with regret that I finished things with Imogen before they could develop, and she was upset, and so then I couldn’t go hiking with them anymore.

But that was OK too, because I joined a normal person’s hiking group, got lucky there too, with Alice and Maya, although not together, you understand, then left that group as well, then just went for a walk when I felt like it, on my own, without feeling the need to surround myself with people. So you can see how my career as an excellent no-strings lay was resurrected in this city. It didn’t take me long to begin it, and it was fun, and it was reassuring, and it laid down a wafer thin veneer over my fractured life, a veneer that got thicker with every woman, with every ego-boosting response to my moves.

Yeah, I used a lot of people to make me feel better, I was an arrogant bastard, and I regret it, now. But at the time I was hurting, I was angry and I needed reassurance that I could still do it, and that was my justification for a long time – not in those exact words of course; if I thought about it at all, I’d say I was looking for some fun after a shit year, and that seemed like vindication enough.

That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t as good at fooling myself as I’d like to think; a couple of times it all came crashing down on me, and the pit opened up invitingly beneath me as the cracks in the veneer opened a little and the pain seeped through. When Iz was tiny, I felt in the way and useless, and looking back maybe I was just being an attention-seeking git, but I succumbed to the dark once or twice. It was really unfair of me, but I just went to bed and lay there with the curtains closed until somebody noticed. Which didn’t take long, because new mother or not, Beth Scott never missed anything. She didn’t have the time or energy to devote to my misguided angst-ins, but Dec did, and he extricated his tongue from Amy’s mouth long enough to come round and sit with me, annoying me until I gave in. He even held my hand, which was above and beyond, and has never been mentioned by either of us until now. It wasn’t just support and being there that he offered, he was pretty forthright about how selfish I was being with a new baby in the house, and I came to my senses, such as they were, and shoved my self-pity as far down as it would go, which was pretty far, and filled the pit up with as much blonde tits action as I could muster.

I tore up the plans. No more plans for Matt, they’d got me precisely nowhere. Whereas I’d got into the way of having a plan a, b and c, now my only plan was plan d. D for debauchery.

40. Somewhere I belong

In which tables are turned, and chairs turned over.

Matt

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

Dec

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

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

‘No. I hit my chin on the ground.’

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

He indicated my training kit.

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Your choice.’

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

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

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

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

łSo what did they say?

‘Need an X-ray.’

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

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

łWhat exactly did he say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I guess.’

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

łSit down.

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

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

I shook my head.

łIf you can find anything decent.

Nico headed off in search of caffeine.

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

‘I’m fine.’

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

‘Don’t know if I can.’

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

‘Just … so fucking angry.’

łI get that. Tell me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t know.’

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

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

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

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

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

łSo that’s good news, isn’t it.

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

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

:Oh love, come here.

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

‘I’m going to bed.’

She looked at me, then at Jay.

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

‘I just need to go to bed.’

:Alright, love, you know where I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

łYeah – whether it does any good or not …

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

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

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

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

:What did you say, love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

:And he knows that?

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

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

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

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

łDo you think he’ll be OK?

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

Jay’s phone rang.

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘Hoh is heh?’

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

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

‘Yeah, of course.’

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

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

‘Gihv ih a goh. Try ih now.’

‘OK Matty, see you tomorrow.’

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

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

Dec

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

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

My phone pinged again.

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

I ignored it. Another ping.

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

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

Matt

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

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

Dec

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

łDec.

I didn’t move or acknowledge Jay.

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

I didn’t reply.

łOK. Take care of yourself. Call us soon.

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

:Anything you need, love?

No reply from me. A sigh from Rose.

:Well, you know where I am.

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

Matt

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

Dec

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

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

Matt:=No.

Matt

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

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

‘Matt, please stop.’

‘No.’

Dec

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

Matt

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

‘Heh, Dec. Rohnd two to meh.’

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

‘Matt, please stop. It’s late.’

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

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

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

‘Noh.’

‘Please.’

‘Noh.’

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

Dec

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

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

}Talk to meh then.

‘What about?’

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

Matt

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

‘I can’t do this now.’

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

And I could. Provided my alarm kept going off.

Dec

‘Just fuck off, Matt.’

He laughed.

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

I was silent.

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘I couldn’t stop him.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So I’m told.’

‘Sort ih ouh.’

‘OK.’

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

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

‘Thanks.’

‘Call me if yuh need anything.’

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

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Worth a shoht.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Wehcome. Bluhdy nutter.’

‘Fucking cripple.’

Dec

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

Matt

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where’s Dec?’

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

‘Did he have sewing?’

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

‘Is he like a Frankystein?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Kay Daddy.’

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

‘Yes. Get dressed, eat breakfast.’

I grinned at Dad and he handed me my clothes.

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

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

‘I want to see Dec.’

‘Alright then. Hop out, mate.’

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

‘Yes?’

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

‘Oh, of course, love.’

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

‘Hello you two.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

\dec.

I pulled the duvet further over my head.

\dec, wake up.

A small hand tried to shake me.

Cal

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

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

‘But Daddy, he’s not waking up.’

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

Dec.’

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

Dec

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

‘Hey Cal, what are you doing here?’

\me and Daddy are going home.

‘What time is it?’

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

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

Cal

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

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

‘Yes. Have you had more sewing?’

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

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

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

‘Awesome.’

You seem chirpier this morning.’

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

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

‘Still fu … very painful.’

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

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

‘Bye, Dec.’

‘Bye Cal.’

Dec reached over and ruffled my hair.

‘See you soon.’

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

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

Just … don’t forget about us.’

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

‘Morning, Rose. I missed your tea.’

:Did you, love?

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

:I’m sure you did just fine.

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

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

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

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

‘I know, I heard you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll try.’

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

I lowered myself back onto the pillow.

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

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

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

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

‘Hi Amy.’

)Dec! How are you?

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

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

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

)Yeah, you too, great game.

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

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

‘Er … who’s going?’

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

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

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

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

‘Alright, you’re on. I’ll come.’

)Great!

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

‘It’s Declan Summers’

ϙHello. Thank you for calling. How are you?

‘Sore. Thanks for asking.’

ϙWhat can I do for you?

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

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

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

ϙDeclan?

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

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

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

ϙDid you recognise him?

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

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

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

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

ϙGo on.

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

ϙWe are aware of the incident.

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

ϙWhen you say threatened, what exactly do you mean?

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

ϙDid you pay him?

‘Yes.’

ϙHow much?

I was silent for a while, considering.

‘A lot.’

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

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

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

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

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

I hung up and texted Matt:

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

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

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

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

Call to Beth:

_Hi Dec, how are you, sweetheart?

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, we were trading stubborn points.’

_That must have been some contest.

‘Pretty spectacular. Is he OK?’

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

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

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

‘Probably not.’

She sighed.

_Do you want to talk to James?

‘Yeah, quick word.’

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

łHey, mate, you alright?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks.’

łYeah. Cheers, Dec, talk to you soon.

One last phone call, to Nico:

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

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

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

‘I can’t tonight, I’m out, sorry.’

>Tomorrow then, I tell her.

‘OK, that would be great.’

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

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

One last text, to Rose:

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

Rose:=whats ur greight

Me: =It means you’re great.

Cal

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

33. Walking on a dream

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

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.

32. You can’t always get what you want

In which Dec has dreams and nightmares, Matty has dinner and gets brave, and Cal finds his favourite joke.

Iz

At this point, it is worth mentioning that I realise Christmas is being related in a lot of detail. The thing is that all three versions of that Christmas – Dec’s, Matty’s and Cal’s – give pretty much chapter and verse of what happened over those few days, and it’s because that Christmas was so important. Cal says he can remember so much of it, even though he was only six, and Dec goes all misty eyed when you mention it. I expect if you quizzed them really hard, neither of them would actually admit to being able to remember the specific conversations, and Lau is pretty sure Matty used a fair amount of artistic license in his retelling. But Cal and Dec both say they can remember how it felt, how it was the sense of everything coming back together that made it special, and maybe beyond that, of our family becoming something more than the sum of its parts. So please bear with this retelling.

Dec

Cal went back into Matt’s room and played with some of his toys in there, while I sat and watched from the chair next to the bed. Matt was still asleep. My disturbed night and early morning started to catch up with me, and I found myself dozing too.

Dreaming. I am running, trying to fly but can’t get off the ground. The man in brown boots is chasing me, and I keep looking behind me, trying to see his face, but I can’t quite make it out. He is gaining on me. Just as I manage to launch myself upwards into the air, he catches my ankle and sends me spinning to the ground. Blows from fists and feet hit me, and I lie helplessly as his brown boot moves in slow motion towards my face …

Cal

So, all the presents were opened, and Mum and Granny were making dinner, Dad was watching TV and drinking beer, and Dec and I were in Uncle Matty’s room. I was playing on the floor, and Dec had started off watching me from the chair, but then had fallen asleep. Suddenly, he made a noise.

‘Unh’

Matt

The next thing I know I’m pulled out of my comfy darkness.

‘Mm … ungh … no … no …’

I opened my eyes to see Dec sitting in the chair, apparently asleep but looking like it wasn’t a pleasant experience. He was twitching and murmuring. Cal had looked up from his toys, and wandered over to stand next to me, looking interestedly at Dec. He glanced at me.

‘Dec does mms and nos when he’s asleep. Sometimes he does a big swear.’

I wasn’t sure what to do. Wasn’t there something bad about waking people up from nightmares? Maybe Cal shouldn’t be in here. I was caught in indecision as Dec’s murmurings got louder, and he kicked out with a foot.

‘No … no … wana … ungh … aah … no … NO!’

And with that, my dilemma was solved, as Dec’s eyes opened. He looked dazedly at us for a moment, then collected himself, gripped the arms of the chair, levered himself upright.

Cal

I went to stand in front of Dec, interested to see what he looked like when he was having a bad dream. When he did it in the night, it was dark, and I couldn’t see his face. Dec’s eyes opened, and he looked like he thought he was somewhere else, then looked at me and Uncle Matty. I didn’t know if he knew if he’d been talking. I was disappointed he didn’t do any swears.

‘You shouted.’

‘Yuh ohkay? Mahking noises.’

‘Oh God.’

Dec rubbed his face with his hands.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to doze off. I was dreaming.’

What’s going on in here?’

Dad must have heard Dec shout. I hadn’t said anything about Dec’s bad dreams, because once it was the daytime, I’d forgotten about them.

‘Dec was dreaming. He makes noises.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had some weird dreams. Not sure it’s good for Cal, I’ve woken him up a couple of times’

Dreams about what?’

‘Oh –’

Dec looked at me, and I knew I wasn’t going to get to hear what the bad dreams were about.

‘– people chasing me, flashbacks to … recent events.’

Jesus. How long for?’

‘Pretty much since it happened, it’s been worse since the op. Don’t know if the anaesthetic messed me up a bit. First time it’s happened during the day, though. Sorry, Matt, did I wake you up?’

Matt

I made as light of it as I could, just in case Jay felt like using the fact I’d had a somniloquist to contend with against my ability to eat dinner at the table with the normal people.

‘Noh, was entertaihing. Meh and Cal enjohyed the shoh.’

It had certainly been true of Cal, who had watched with unconcealed captivation.

Cal

Uncle Matty didn’t seem to mind; he seemed as interested as I was.

‘Maybe I should sleep on the sofa tonight.’

I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Let’s see how it goes. Cal, were you scared when Dec shouted?’

I wouldn’t have said yes, even if I had been, because I didn’t want Dec to sleep on the sofa instead of underneath me.

‘No, he makes lots of noises. I waked him up, he said I could.’

There you go, then, mate. Seems OK for the time being. Bloody head-case. OK, guys, I think lunch is nearly ready. Matty, are you still up for joining us?’

Uncle Matty was going to sit at the table with us for Christmas dinner. It would be the first time he had been out of bed to anywhere else in the house apart from his room, and I could tell he was excited about it. He was smiling, and his eyes were wide and sparkly.

Dec

As we crossed the hall, the smell of dinner wafted out of the kitchen, and I remembered Beth had asked me to set the table.

‘I’ll be right there, Cal, just need to talk to Mummy.’

I popped my head round the kitchen door. The table was already set. Beth and Jay’s mum were busy with steaming pans and pouring things and sizzling things.

‘Sorry, Beth, I fell asleep. This all smells amazing.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s all done now.

‘Anything I can do?’

_Has James checked with Matty about dinner?

‘Yeah, they’re getting sorted now.’

_Oh good. See, Carol? James wouldn’t let him if he didn’t think he was up to it. We’ll keep an eye on him. OK, Dec, no I don’t think there’s anything. Maybe keep Cal occupied while we’re waiting?

‘On it’.

Cal and I played for a while. The clattering continued in the kitchen, and then the door opened and Beth called out

_Dinner’s ready.

‘Come on, Cal, let’s go and get some Christmas dinner.

\can I take Optimus Prime?

‘I guess so.’

\and my stegosaurus book?

‘I think just one thing.’

He chose the Transformer and we went into the kitchen. The table was magnificent, a huge turkey in the middle and bowls of hot vegetables and roast potatoes, jugs of gravy, stuff I didn’t recognise, all around it.

‘Wow. Good work, Beth, Mrs Scott.’

#Thank you Declan. You know, why don’t you call me Carol?

‘OK, thanks.’

I looked at her, surprised, and she gave me half a smile. Cal climbed into his seat and plonked Optimus Prime onto the table. He had a sideways glance at Beth to check it was OK. She raised her eyebrows at him, but didn’t say anything.

\dec can you sit next to me?

I looked at Beth.

‘Don’t know, mate, we’d better see what your mum wants to do.’

_Well there’s a space for Matty here, everywhere else is up for grabs.

\next to me, next to me. Granny, can you sit the other side? You can play with Optimus Prime.

#Thank you, Calum. I’m honoured.

As we both sat down in our appointed places, the door opened and Matt and Jay came in. Matt was in a wheelchair, which Jay pushed up to the space at the table. Matt was smiling broadly.

}Whoa, awsohm.

_Glad you could join us, sweetheart. James, sit next to Matty so you can help him.

}Noh, gihv a try mysehf.

Beth bent down and kissed his cheek. Carol was looking at him, close to tears. Jay was opening a bottle of wine.

łAnyone for a drop of red?

}Yeh. Lahge glahs.

łNo booze with your meds, mate.

}Ohn glahs? It’s Chrihsmus.

Jay looked at Beth.

łOne glass?

She considered it.

_Maybe one, but a small one, and with dinner, don’t slurp it all at once.

}Cohm on, gahging! Lahge glahs eahsier tuh hohd.

Beth rolled her eyes.

_OK, large glass with a small amount in it. On a full stomach only, and a glass of water for your raging thirst. That’s the rule.

}Ohkay nuhrsy.

łAnyone else? Mum?

#Lovely, dear, yes please.

łDec?

‘OK.’

Although I thought I might have to take it slowly, after my reaction to the beer last night.

łCal?

\daddy! I don’t have wine. I’ve got juice, look.

łSorry, my mistake. Jay? Yes please, big glass, don’t mind if I do. Merry Christmas everyone. Here’s to family.

He raised his glass.

}Behth? Yuh fuhgot hehr.

_Oh, no, it’s OK, Matty, I’ll just have water for now. Family.

She raised her glass and we all did the same. Magical moment for me. Laid to rest a lot of ghosts. Beyond my self-absorbed happiness, I became aware of glances going on round the table.

}Spihl, Behth. Wahter foh Chrihsmus dinner? Buhlshih. Oops, sohry.

_Honestly, Matty, I’m going to ban Dec from your room.

‘Why am I getting the blame?’

_Well it’s only since you arrived that the swear count has increased. Last night I had it loud and clear over the monitor thank you very much.

Matt and I exchanged a look, part guilt, part amusement.

}Behside the poihn. Wahter?

Beth rolled her eyes, looked at Jay and took his hand. Carol had a sharp intake of breath and put her hand over her mouth, eyes shining.

}Say ih, befohr Mum blohs a gahsket.

_OK, well, as you seem to have guessed, we’re having another baby. Early days, long way to go, not due until the summer. But yes, that’s why I’m drinking water.

Jay put his arm round her and kissed her on the forehead, then smiled back at us all.

}Greht news.

#Oh Beth, I’m so pleased for you.

Suddenly realised I had to pretend I didn’t already know.

‘Congratulations.’

_We were going to tell you today anyway. Cal found out, and he’s not good with secrets, so sooner rather than later seemed best.

#You must be thrilled, after all this time.

_Pretty thrilled, yeah. Tired though.

#Oh, and you’ve just done all this.

She gestured to the table.

#I wish I’d known.

_Carol, I’m fine, just tired. You know what it’s like. Dec’s been a great help, spending so much time with Cal. Thanks for my lie-in this morning, sweetheart, it was a life-saver.

‘Glad to help.’

}Ahny chahce of eahting behfor next Chrihsmus?

_Sorry, Matty, let’s get stuck in. But it was you who wanted to stop and chat about why I’m drinking water.

The meal was amazing. Everyone was in high spirits. Jay and Carol were fuelled by wine, Cal was fuelled by Christmas, Beth was fuelled by some kind of inner fire, Matt and I were fuelled, for different reasons, just by being there. We all sat for a long time afterwards, telling awful cracker jokes, wearing silly hats, talking. Cal got bored with the grown-up chat, and had disappeared to play some more.

łOK, another toast. Fill your glasses.

Matt pushed his forwards.

łYou’ve had your quota. Water or juice now, mate.

}Fucking spoihlsport.

#Matthew. Really. I’m beginning to think Beth was right.

}Sohry Muhm. Dec’s rehlehsed my ihner swehrer.

#I don’t think it needed much releasing, dear.

łDec?

‘No more for me, I’ll be asleep.’

łHere you go then, Mum, finish it up. Anyway. Now I’m a bit pissed, there’s something I want to say, just so it’s said and everyone knows and there are no more misunderstandings. We had a toast to family before. I just want you all to know that my family includes Declan Summers. And all who sail in her. Forever. Whatever he gets up to, whether I like it or not. Just so it’s official. Right, Dec? Oh bloody hell, pass him the bloody tissues, he’s bloody off again.

I looked at Beth through my tears, and she smiled back at me. This felt very close to the ‘real parents’ thing I’d wanted when I was much younger. When I was in foster care I’d had ridiculous dreams about a ‘forever family’, but Jay had just given me that, almost ceremonially, despite the large quantity of wine he’d drunk, and my heart was bursting.

Matt reached across the table and clasped my hand.

}Wehcom bro, or cuz, or auhnty, or whaever.

Carol didn’t quite know what to do with the information, and just patted me on the shoulder.

}Jay, sohry, thihnk Ih behter go back to bed. Toh much good nehws. Noht enough wihn.

łOK, mate, let’s go.

Jay wheeled Matt out of the kitchen.

Matt

And so I’d made it to Christmas dinner and beyond. In my wheelchair, admittedly, in case Jay needed to whisk me back for some emergency fussing in the middle of pouring the brandy butter, but I was there. I got to see parts of the house I had only previously visited in my wildest dreams, starting with a trek across the hallway, taking in a glimpse of the living room on the way, and then the whole huge family kitchen complete with fuck-off ebloodynormous table laden with enough festive fare to feed a moderately sized army. I even fed myself, although I had to insist on that. I lasted for all of it and more, to the crap cracker jokes, the paper hats slipping forgotten to the floor, the slightly drunken laughter (although that was really just Jay and Mum).

I had been ‘allowed’ one small glass of wine, despite my loud protests and well-reasoned arguments. Dec didn’t seem to be drinking much, and Beth – well Beth was on the water on account of being pregnant.

Whoa. Hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d known they’d wanted another kid from hints dropped by Mum, but Cal was six, and it seemed to be taking long enough that who knew if it was going to happen. Mum nearly burst with happiness, right there at the table. Not only was she going to be a granny again, but her little boy had made it to dinner. I’d like to think it was the latter that made her happiest, but who am I kidding, grandchildren win hands down every time. I could have single-handedly flown to Mars and come back with proof of life up there, and Jay and Beth would still have trumped me with the ‘having a baby’ card. Not bitter. Not really. Just how it was.

Oh, and apparently, as if a baby wasn’t enough, we had another new member of the Scott family to welcome. Jay had made a pissed toast, after Cal had left the table to play with more toys, saying that Dec was now officially part of his family, forever, and although Jay kind of looked defiantly at me and Mum while he said it as if he expected us to argue with him, really it wasn’t a problem. I don’t know why they hadn’t just adopted him when he was young enough, to be honest, but this seemed like the same kind of thing, although less official, and I was cool with it, not that I had any say. I looked at Mum, who had been less than happy at having to share Christmas with ‘that boy’, as she’d called him, just to me, but she was patting his shoulder and smiling, so it looked like he’d won her over as well.

And that was kind of it for Christmas. Dec stayed a couple more days, then he went back to Devon and that was that. What? Oh, you don’t really want to know about all that shit with the ‘leave me alone’ and the bonding do you? Oh for fuck’s sake, alright, if it will shut you up.

Cal

So Mum and Dad told everyone the secret, and it wasn’t that Dec was going to be my brother. They were going to get a baby, but not until the summer, which was ages away, and they didn’t know if it would be a brother or a sister. But everyone was happy and drank wine, and pulled crackers and wore the hats and gave me all the toys out of the crackers, then told each other the jokes from the crackers, and there were some really funny ones, like ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick.’ That’s funny because you think the answer is going to be something like Marmite, or poo, which are brown and sticky. But it means something that is stick-y, which is what a stick is. It was my favourite joke for ages. My second favourite joke was ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they aargh.’ That’s funny because aargh is what pirates say, but it sounds like you’ve said ‘because they are’ only in a pirate way.

I got bored after a while, because everyone was talking about boring things like how to make gravy, and I was allowed to get down to play, although Mum said I couldn’t eat any chocolate until later.

I heard them all still talking and laughing in the kitchen, and I felt happy inside. When Uncle Matty was in hospital and we came to live with Granny, there was a lot of talking but not much laughing, and the talking was all serious and I couldn’t join in. Then Uncle Matty woke up, and Dad smiled like he hadn’t done for ages, and things got brighter, and then Uncle Matty came out of hospital, and there were still serious talks, but it seemed better, apart from not being able to talk about Dec.

Now, things seemed better than back to normal. Dec was here, and Uncle Matty was here, and everyone in the house was happy. It felt like a long time since everyone in the house was happy.

Dec

#Well, what a lovely meal, dear. It all went very well, I think. I’m so pleased Matthew stayed for so long and did so much for himself. He’ll be tired now, I should think.

I had managed to wipe my eyes.

‘Best. Roasties. Ever.’

_Don’t let Rose hear you say that.

‘Oh, she knows!’

_Have you spoken to her today?

‘No, I was going to try my phone out, haven’t had a chance.’

_Don’t leave it too long.

‘I’ll do it this afternoon.’

#Beth, dear, why don’t you go and have a sit down? Declan and I will clear the table and make a start on the washing up, won’t we Declan?

‘Yeah, no worries. Go and put your feet up.’

_Oh you angels, thank you.

And then it was just me and Carol. I didn’t know her that well; although she had visited Jay and Beth plenty of times when I had lived with them, I had tended to keep out of the way, be polite if we came across each other (gaping boxers incident aside) and do my own thing. She stood up and started collecting plates into a pile. I noticed that she struggled to lift more than a couple at a time, and remembered Jay saying she had arthritis.

‘Here, let me do that.’

I piled all the plates on top of each other, then realised that I was going to find it a bit hard to lift them too, with a bruised hand and healing arm. I looked at her.

‘Bitten off more than I can chew, I think. Sorry, trying to be chivalrous.’

#It’s very sweet of you, dear. We’re a couple of old crocks, really, aren’t we. Maybe you should initiate me into your Cripples Corner.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

‘I’m not sure you’d appreciate the bad language, it’s a bit of a rule.’

#I don’t really mind the language, dear, I’ve got used to it over the years with Jameson and Matthew. You need to be careful with young Calum though, he idolises his dad and his uncle – and you. He’ll do what you do.

‘I know, I’m trying. Matt and Jay are wicked though.’

#Tell me something I don’t know, dear. Right, how are we going to do this? One plate at a time?

It was slow progress, but we managed to cram most of it into the dishwasher. There were a few pans we optimistically decided to leave for Jay, as I didn’t want to get my dressings wet in the washing up bowl, and Carol thought they’d be too heavy for her. And we thought he deserved it. She may have been disinhibited by quite a large amount of wine, but Carol was OK.

#I think that’s enough for now. I’m going to put my feet up with Beth.

‘Fancy some coffee?’

#That sounds lovely, dear. I’ll leave that with you.

I boiled the kettle, found a cafetière and some fresh coffee and made a pot. Put it all on a tray with cream and sugar and even put some mince pies on a plate. Felt very pleased with myself. I took the tray into the living room, where Beth and Carol were both asleep in front of the TV. I moved on to Matt’s room, where Cal was building a road for his cars out of Lego blocks. Matt was asleep in bed, and Jay was asleep in the chair. Christmas afternoons everywhere always seemed to turn out the same – only the kids awake. A bit deflated, I took the tray back into the living room, poured myself a cup of coffee and took it back into Matt’s room.

‘Need any help, Cal?’

\no, I don’t need help, but you can play with my cars.

‘That’d be great. Which ones can I have?’

I knelt down and engrossed myself in the tiny world Cal had created. He had a huge imagination and was fully absorbed in his game. The room grew dark, and I put the lamp on so we could see what we were doing. Jay woke with a groan and a stretch.

łWhat time is it? Jesus, it’s dark already. How long have I been asleep?

‘Several weeks have passed.’

łHa ha. Have I missed the washing up?

‘You know you have, you planned it that way.’

łVery true, just checking I don’t need to doze off again. Where is everyone?

‘Well four of us are in here. Your mum and Beth were asleep in the living room last time I checked.’

łBetter go and see if there’s anything I need to be doing.

He ran his hands through his hair.

łDamn, I was going to get us out for a walk this afternoon. Bit dark now.

‘We can do it tomorrow. How about a game of football – is there a park?’

łGreat idea. How about it Cal? You and me versus Dec and Granny?

\i don’t think Dec will win if Granny’s on his side.

łI don’t think Granny will win if Dec’s on her side. Especially if she leaves the free kicks to him. I’d better go and see what Beth is up to with Mum, could have all sorts of plans involving me doing stuff I’d rather not do, if I’m not careful.

‘There’s some pans soaking in the kitchen could do with washing up.’

łYeah, right.

Jay shot me a look and padded out of the room, shaking his head.

I carried on playing with Cal and his cars for a while. I became aware of a ringing sound, quite faint.

‘Is that a phone? Can you hear it Cal?’

\it’s from there.

He pointed to the corner of the room where I’d been sitting that morning. There was the box with my new phone in it. It was ringing. I leapt over to the box and tried to open it, unearthing packaging, small plastic bags, earphones, and a charger before the phone finally tumbled into my hand. It had stopped ringing. I looked at the screen: Missed Call. Rose. Fuck. I’d forgotten about calling her.

‘Cal, I need to phone Rose. Back in a minute.’

I went into the kitchen, which seemed to be the only downstairs room not full of sleeping people. I looked at the phone, trying to work out how to dial a number or access the address book. It was different from my last phone and a much more recent model. While I was in the middle of pushing buttons and scrolling through menus, the screen flashed up with Rose’s name, and an option to answer or decline. I pressed answer.

‘Hi Rose! Sorry, I didn’t get to the phone in time just now. Happy Christmas. How are you?’

:Hello, love, oh it’s grand to talk to you. I’m grand. Just thought I’d ring on your new phone. Was it a nice surprise?

‘Yeah. A bit overwhelmed, to tell you the truth.’

:Well, Happy Christmas, love. Have you had a good day?

‘I’ve had the best day. It’s been amazing. Started a bit early, with Cal waking up before three, but it’s been pretty special. Thanks for the present, by the way, it’ll be great in a few days when I get these dressings off.’

:Oh, you’re welcome love, and thank you for the smellies, dead posh they are. I think you might have had a bit of help choosing?

‘Yeah, Lisa did it all really. Otherwise you’d have had an old potato, wrapped in a bit of cling film. I might have washed the potato first – you deserve the best.’

:Oh love, you sound really happy. I don’t think I’ve heard you happy before, not properly. It’s doing you good being there.

‘It really is, I can’t quite believe it still. I feel a bit all over the place. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.’

:When’s that love?

‘Not sure, Jay’s going to bring me back, don’t know when yet. I’ll let you know.’

:Alright, love. See you soon then. Love to Jay and Beth and little Calum.

‘Cheers Rose, bye.’

I pressed ‘end call’ and put the phone in my pocket as Cal wandered into the kitchen.

\can you help me make a Dalek?

‘I’ll have a go. Have you got instructions, or is this just kind of free-hand?

\it’s in the box.

‘OK, bring it in, we can do it on the table here.

Cal skipped off to get the box as the phone in my pocket pinged. I pulled it out. Text.

Nico: =I just check you still alive. Happy Christmas 🙂 from Nico & Lis x

Me: =Just abt 2 build Dalek. Very much alive. Thanks v much 4 laptop 🙂 talk ltr. Dec.

I did feel back in the land of the living, amazing what a difference a phone made. I had felt completely out of touch for the last couple of weeks. Cal returned with a large box full of complicated small pieces and a very detailed several-page booklet of instructions. We emptied the pieces onto the table and sorted them into piles, then started making the model. Cal lost focus easily, but I needed him to manage the fiddly bits, my fingers still tripping over themselves at times.

‘Why don’t you go and get a book or something so you’ve got something to do while I’m working out what goes where?’

\i want to help you.

‘OK, it’s up to you, but this might take a long time. There might be some boring bits for you.’

Some time later we had finally finished. Cal just about kept his concentration, although he was fidgeting a lot by the time we put the finishing touches to the model. The rest of the house was still quiet, and I could feel myself drooping a bit too.

‘Why don’t we go and show your dad?’

\kay. Then what can we do?

‘Well …’

I looked at the clock in the kitchen. Well past time for people to be awake and helping me entertain Cal.

‘Let’s go and see if Daddy wants to play a game with you.’

I followed Cal into the living room, where Carol, Jay and Beth were all asleep on the sofas. I mean, seriously? I know we’d all been up early, I knew that better than any of them, but this was verging on the ridiculous. I looked on as Cal launched himself onto Jay’s lap.

\daddy, what can I do now? We made a Dalek, look. Can we play my football game?

Jay’s eyes had snapped open as soon as Cal kneed him in the balls, and he tried hard to focus on the model Cal was holding in front of his face.

łAh, Jesus. Sorry, Cal, agh, what? Uh. Great, er, Dalek. Jesus, mind what you’re doing there. Jesus.

Beth stirred beside him.

_Was I asleep? What time is it?

She looked at the clock.

_God, it’s really late. I should get some tea or something.

She got up and headed for the kitchen.

\daddy, what can I do?

Jay was still trying to get his breath back. He caught my eye.

łI don’t suppose ..?

Nope, wasn’t having that, however grateful I was to be part of the family.

‘I’ve been the only one awake with Cal all afternoon.’

łFair enough. OK, Cal, let’s see what we can do. Fancy helping Mummy get some tea?

\no, I want to play a game.

I laughed.

‘Suck it up, Daddy. No getting out of it.’

Jay glanced over at Carol, who was still asleep. No assistance there, either.

łI guess all that wine is taking its toll. OK, Cal, let’s have a look then …

I left the room to avoid being sucked into Cal’s game. Much as I had enjoyed being with him, he was a tiring bundle of energy, I’d got out of the habit of being with him, and I felt drained. I went into the kitchen, where Beth was starting to wash up the pans Carol and I had left.

‘Oh, we left those for Jay.’

_You’d have been waiting a long time, then! It’s OK, there’s not much. Thanks for doing the rest, great help.

‘No worries. Anything else I can do?’

_No, sweetheart, I’m just going to finish this and put some tea on the table, people can help themselves. Won’t take a minute. Thanks for being with Cal this afternoon. You must be exhausted.

‘Yeah, a bit. He kept me busy. Loved it, though.’

_You’ve always been so good with him, the two of you with your heads together, cooking up some mischief or other. He’s missed you. We all have.

‘Same here. Don’t start me off again.’

_Thanks for coming up, Dec, it’s been like old times. Well, not that old I suppose. Feels like a long time ago though. You’ve grown up a lot – I keep forgetting how young you are.

I felt slightly miffed at being considered young. I was in my last few weeks of being a teenager.

‘Twenty next month.’

_Sorry, sweetheart, twenty sounds really young to me! You’ve had a lot to cope with in the past few months, when you add it all up. James told me a lot of what you told him last night. I’m sorry we weren’t there for you.

‘Fuck, Beth, you’ve got nothing to apologise for. You and Jay had your own shit going on. I did some appallingly stupid things and made some bloody mind-blowing decisions, I just made it harder for you. Looking back, I can’t quite understand myself. I made myself a really deep hole, and I’d still be in it if it hadn’t been for Rose. And Nico.’

_Rose is so lovely. She really cares about you.

‘I know.’

_Nico and Lis care about you too. I’m glad you’ve got them all.

‘Yeah, me too.’

_I’m glad you’ve got us as well.

‘Thanks, Beth. I feel very lucky.’

_You’re not the only one. We were all pretty close to losing each other, weren’t we? Come here.

She held her arms open, and hugged me. Predictably, tears were shed on both sides. She patted my back and let go.

_Well I’ve got my hormones as an excuse. What’s yours?

‘Bloody head case, according to Jay.’

_You’re seeing someone though, aren’t you, sweetheart?

‘Got an appointment in the New Year.’

_I think it might help, don’t you? Just sorting through stuff in general, let alone all the recent stuff. You’ve had quite a tough start in life.

‘I’ll give it a go. Don’s orders anyway, so not much choice.’

_He usually knows what he’s doing.

‘Yeah. Anyway, I might go and check on Matt.’

_Is that code for taking a nap? It’s nice and quiet in there, I can keep Cal in the living room.

I grinned at her.

‘I’ll see how it goes.’

Matt’s room was completely dark. I switched on the Christmas tree lights, and looked over at Matt. His eyes were closed and his breathing regular. I sat in the chair by his bed and took the phone out of my pocket, thinking I would try to get to grips with it. The first thing I pressed caused a loud trilling. Matt stirred and opened his eyes.

‘Shit, sorry, mate, didn’t mean to wake you up.’

}Dark.

‘Happens at night.’

}Whas tihm?

‘About six thirty.’

}Bolluhks. Haht bluhdy slehping soh much.

‘No different from everyone else today. Me and Cal have been holding the fort since after lunch, everyone else crashed. Came in here for a bit of peace and quiet. So stop your bloody chatter.’

}Pihs off. How’s yuh phone?

‘I’m just trying it out. It’s different from my old one, trying to work out where everything is.’

}Hahv a lohk?

I handed it to him.

}Had ohn lihk this. Prehty easy. Hehr’s yuh contahts, yuh cahl or text from hehr. This foh intehnet. Sehtings foh Wi-Fi – uhs Jay’s while yuhr hehr, I’ll lohg yuh on. Thehr yuh goh. Easy.

He handed it back.

‘Well I know where to come for a quick tutorial. Thanks.’

}Hahv my uhses.

‘Everyone’s good at something.’

Carol appeared in the doorway.

#I think Beth’s put some tea on the table. Do either of you want anything?

}Noh Ihm stuhfed. Cup of teh tho?

#Right you are, dear. Declan?

‘Cup of tea sounds great. No food just yet, though, thanks. I’m stuffed too.’

Carol left to fill our order.

}Muhm’s wahmed up tuh yuh a bih.

‘Yeah, seems to have. I can understand why she was a bit off to start with, me walking in looking like a I’d lost a cage fight, having caused Jay and Beth no end of grief.’

}Yuh must hahv chahmed her.

‘I think several large glasses of wine helped, then we bonded over the dishwasher.’

}Bluhdy ahrslicker.

‘She’s alright, your mum.’

}I knoh. Juhs jeluhs couhnt hehp wash uhp.

‘Really?’

}Fuck noh. Only rehson Ihm in behd, tuh avoid the dishes.

‘Ha ha, seems to be working. Keep it up.’

Carol came back in with two mugs of tea, one in Matt’s spouted cup.

#Are you alright with this dear? Do you want me or Declan to help you?

}Yuh, Muhm. Sohry Dec, mahn poihts.

‘Understood. I’ll leave you to it.’

I stood up.

‘Oh, by the way, your mum’s the newest member of Cripple’s Corner. She’s up for the dirty songs and the swearing.’

Matt spluttered into his tea as I left the room.

The rest of the evening passed in a lazy, dozy haze. Cal, who had effectively been awake since three o’clock that morning, went to bed at seven with hardly any protest. I read him a really short story and Beth tucked him in, still wearing his Arsenal shirt, which he refused to take off. He apparently fell asleep while Beth was still talking to him.

The TV was on, taking away the need for conversation, and my mind drifted contentedly. Carol was still sitting in with Matt, Jay and Beth were cosied up on one sofa, I was stretched out on the other. The phone rang, shattering the peace. Jay had a brief conversation with Beth’s mum, then handed the phone over to Beth, mouthing ‘tell her’. Beth rolled her eyes and nodded, taking the phone into the kitchen.

Jay picked up the TV remote and managed to find a repeat of a rugby international on a sports channel. We watched it for a while, occasionally commenting on some aspect of the play, or a refereeing decision. Jay suddenly sat up and looked at me.

łI’ve just had a bloody brilliant idea.

‘OK.’

łAren’t Raiders at home on Sunday?

I thought about it, a bit surprised that Raiders had been so far from my mind. If these people were my family, then Raiders were my home, and I’d just recently been granted access back there too. Before my mind could go wandering down too many guilty paths, I answered Jay.

‘Yeah. Against Warriors.’

łWhy don’t we go? I can take you home – we could bring Cal, that’d give Beth a break, he’d love it. Three birds with one stone.

I hadn’t thought about going back. I had settled back into life with Jay and Beth so quickly that, for the moment, it hadn’t occurred to me it wasn’t going to last. I felt like someone had poured cold water on me.

‘Isn’t it a sell out?’

łI reckon I could swing some tickets. I’ll talk to Don, I need to ring him anyway. What do you think?

‘Yeah, great.’

He looked so excited by his plan that I joined in, even though I felt rather churned up about it.

łI’ll talk to Beth once she’s off the phone. I can get Matty up in the morning, she should be alright for a day, I can come back after so I’m not away overnight. I’ll ring Don first thing.

‘It’s Boxing Day.’

łIt’s the Friday before a Sunday game, they’ll be training. It’s only ex-players like me and injured nancies like you that get Boxing Day off.

‘Oh yeah.’

łAre you OK? You’re a bit quiet. Is it a bad idea?

‘No, it’s a great idea. I’d love to watch Raiders with you and Cal. Just hadn’t given going home much thought. Been in a bit of a bubble since I got here, and I think it just popped.’

łJesus, sorry, mate. Maybe it was a bit insensitive of me. We can leave it if you want. Stay a bit longer?

I thought about it, but in the end, whether I went back in a few days or a few weeks, it was going to feel the same.

‘No, it sounds good if you can swing it. I haven’t seen a home game for a long time. Should get back to Rose, I guess, or even go back to my flat.’

I wasn’t relishing that one, but it would have to happen eventually – I couldn’t impose on Rose for much longer, now I was getting fitter.

łOK, if you’re sure. You know you can stay as long as you like, come back whenever you like, don’t you?

‘Thanks.’

Jay settled back down to watch the game, a satisfied look on his face, although I could no longer concentrate on the TV now as thoughts from pre-Christmas crept in.

I wondered if I would see DivDav or Big at the game. Needed to think about how I would handle that. I had no idea if the police had approached either of them about my allegations. Fuck, fuck, fuck, all the complications I had managed to forget over the last forty-eight hours came crashing back and I started to feel really gloomy.

The game finished and Beth came back in to say she was going to bed.

łIs your Mum excited?

_You bet. I talked to both my sisters too. Rachel’s already planning what to knit. Lou wants to visit for New Year. I tried to put her off, don’t know if it worked.

łBugger. Oh well, can’t be helped. You’d like to see her, wouldn’t you.

_Course.

łI’ll manage then. If I get pissed enough she might not annoy me at all. I’ll be up after I’ve sorted Matty – me and Dec have had an idea about Sunday …

They waved goodnight, then I heard Beth go upstairs while Jay went in to Matt to check he was alright for the night. I stayed on the sofa, still feeling sorry for myself. The sports channel was now showing football, previewing the Boxing Day games. I turned the sound down and let it drift over me.

I tried to be positive. I’d had a great couple of days, and I was here for another two. Jay, Beth and Cal had welcomed me back into their family with open arms, permanently and unreservedly. Despite everything I’d done, the mess I’d made of everything over the last few months, I hadn’t lost them. It was more than I deserved. And yet, it wasn’t ever going to be the same as it had been. It was going to be visits and weekends, and once I was playing again, I would hardly see them during the season.

This seemed like another loss on top of everything. It welled up in me, starting somewhere below my ribs and then spreading up into my throat. I curled on the sofa and cried, trying to be as quiet as possible. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, but couldn’t stop the tears, giving myself over to a good dose of self-pity.

29. Anticipation

In which it is Christmas Eve and fever pitch is approached from several angles.

Matt

The next day began much as the others had, with Jay coming in, helping me to eat breakfast, drink some tea and then drink some of the ghastly build-up drink. Then it was time for the loo. My exciting life was the envy of all.

I could get myself out of bed and into my wheelchair without help these days, I was such an elite athlete, and on good days I could just about wipe my own arse and get myself back in my chair. Still didn’t have the energy to propel the wheelchair across the two metres of carpet to the bathroom though.

There was a shower in the bathroom, but it wasn’t a wet room; I was a long way away from being able to get into the cubicle and have a really good scrub, and I felt dirty, soiled, grimy. Jay had to give me a wash every day, although I did as much as I could with the bits I could reach. Often a shave was beyond my strength, and I convinced myself the stubble made me look dangerous, rather than how it actually made me look, which was like I was auditioning to sell the Big Issue.

That morning I managed a lot for myself, taking the flannel out of Jay’s hand at one point as he started to rub it over my face.

‘I cahn duh ih, thahks.’

‘Right you are, mate. Sorry, wasn’t concentrating, I’m used to doing it with Cal.’

Yeah, Jay, that made me feel tons better. But maybe he had things on his mind.

‘Tehnager trauhmas?’

‘Ha ha, no, everything’s working out OK so far. He’s still in bed, not that I’m surprised, he spends most of his life in bed.’

I could relate to that – maybe we had more in common than I realised.

‘Tahked tuh him yeht?’

‘No. Later today, maybe.’

Jay seemed reluctant, and I wondered how long he was going to put off having his serious conversation with Dec.

‘Dohnt lehv ih too lohng.’

‘Yeah yeah, don’t go on, already got Beth giving it all the ‘don’t put it off, it’ll spoil Christmas’ shit. Don’t need you nagging me too.’

It felt good to nag him, I didn’t have much opportunity to get my own back these days, but I shrugged and handed him the flannel.

‘You look like you’ve put on a bit of weight, mate.’

I looked up in pleased surprise.

‘Rehly?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Still look like an anorexic scarecrow, but it’s good to see. You still planning to do Christmas dinner tomorrow?’

Having Christmas dinner at the table with everyone else had become the focus for me of the last week. I hadn’t been ‘out’ to the rest of the house since I’d been here, and now I could sit out in the chair for a little while, I really wanted to join in with the festivities, rather than hear it all going on while I listened from my room.

I’d told Beth my plan, and she’d initially demurred, saying I wasn’t strong enough, but I badgered her, told her how good it would be for me, promised to rest between now and then, eat what they put in front of me, drink my disgusting build-up drinks, be a good boy, and eventually she gave in. I had no idea how long I would last, maybe not beyond the turkey being carved, but making the effort was important to me.

‘Yeh.’

‘Glad to hear it. Family Christmas, yeah?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Mum’ll be here soon. She called last night, all in a dither about something or other, did we want her to come early.’

‘Yeh?’

‘She had that thing at her friend’s, drinks thing, I said I’d go and get her if she wanted, but she chose the drink over us.’

‘Typihcal.’

‘Be prepared for a full on mothering assault.’

‘Dohnt mihnd.’

And I didn’t. Of all the people who fussed about and told me what to do, Mum was the one I was least resentful of. Not that I enjoyed it, but I knew how worried she was about me, and how traumatised she’d been by finding me half-dead on my bathroom floor. She didn’t come and see me every day, but three or four times a week she got the bus over, so she could sit and look and sigh.

‘You have been warned.’

Cal

I didn’t wake up until Mum came in to get me up and ask what I wanted for breakfast.

Dec was still asleep when I went downstairs, and he stayed asleep for hours. He always used to be asleep for hours, when he wasn’t doing training or playing in a rugby game, so although I was a bit disappointed he wasn’t playing with me, I wasn’t surprised.

After a while, Mum looked at the clock, tutted, and went up the stairs. I followed her, and she tapped on my bedroom door.

Dec

I must have fallen asleep for a while, because I woke up on my own, still up against the wall, with a stiff neck. It was light outside, and I could hear voices from downstairs. I should really get up. Before long, there was a tap on the door.

_Dec, are you awake in there?

‘Mm.’

_Just wondered if you want any breakfast? Only it’s getting on a bit.

‘What time is it?’

_Eleven thirty.

I couldn’t believe I had slept away my first morning here with them.

‘Shit.’

_Yeah, Cal’s right behind me here.

‘Sorry, yeah, I didn’t realise the time. I’ll get up now.’

_We need to do your dressings sometime today.

‘Yeah, sorry Beth, I meant to get up, I just went back to sleep.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart. So, breakfast or not?

‘I’ll grab something quick in a minute shall I?’

_OK. Just so you know, James’s mum’s here.

‘Thanks for the warning, no wandering down in my boxers then.’

_If you could avoid it; I don’t think she’s ever forgotten that incident.

I had met Jay’s mum many times on her visits to Jay and Beth. I used to sleep on Cal’s floor so she could use my room, but when Jay and Beth had the conservatory built, they used it as a guest room, so when she stayed I had forgotten she was there. I had met her at the bottom of the stairs, bleary with sleep, wearing only my boxers which I quickly realised from the shocked direction of her gaze were gaping rather revealingly. Jay hadn’t let me forget that one for some time.

‘Be down in a minute.’

I dressed quickly, spraying deodorant in lieu of a proper wash, as I’d got used to doing recently. I really hadn’t meant to sleep in for so long, but Cal’s night time visit had stopped me sleeping properly and I must have been catching up.

Cal

I went downstairs to wait for Dec in the kitchen. I’d been playing in Uncle Matty’s room, but I knew Dec would get his breakfast first, because he always did. Granny had come earlier, and she and Mum were doing cooking. The table was a bit messy, but there was room for my dinosaurs to make footprints in the flour while I waited for Dec.

Dec wasn’t long, and I stared when he came in. His hair was all short! Yesterday, his hair had been long, and like a girl, and now it was short and spiky. I hadn’t noticed when he was in bed, because it was dark. I looked at him now, as he talked to Mum and got his breakfast, but then he took his cup and his plate into Uncle Matty’s room, so I picked up my dinosaurs and followed him.

Dec

Downstairs, the kitchen was busy. Beth was peeling vegetables, Jay’s mum had an apron on and she was doing something with flour in a bowl. Could have been making pastry, I’d never been that knowledgeable about things that went on in the kitchen. Cal was sitting at the table, playing with dinosaurs. There was a radio on, playing a cheesy Christmas song. Oh yeah, it was Christmas Eve. I kept forgetting.

‘Hi Mrs Scott.’

#Declan. How are you?

It wasn’t a warm welcome. I sensed disapproval. Maybe I was being over-sensitive.

‘I’m good thanks. You?’

#I’m well, thank you.

‘It’s busy in here.’

_Lucky for you, you didn’t get up sooner, we’d have put you to work spud bashing.

‘Can I do anything now?’

_No, sweetheart, I was teasing. It would seem a bit strange to have you helping out voluntarily, not like old times at all. We’ve got it covered. Actually, though, tell you what you could do later, there are some things we need to do without a certain someone in attendance, and if you could go out with Cal for a bit after lunch that would be great.

‘Consider it done.’

_Kettle’s on, cup of tea? James is in with Matty.

‘I can do it. Anyone else?’

I made my tea and took it in to Matt’s room, only realising afterwards how easily I had lifted and poured everything. From the toys scattered on the floor, it looked like Cal had already been busy.

Matt

Jay helped me get dressed and was adjusting the bed when Dec walked in holding a mug. At least I assumed it was Dec. The long unkempt hair had disappeared, swallowed up overnight and replaced by a short, spiky haircut that had been messily arranged to hide the scar disappearing into his scalp. The nose was still obviously askew, and he needed to ditch the forlorn crop of straggly bum-fluff asap, but there was only so much a haircut could patch up.

He smiled at us.

‘Morning.’

Jay looked pointedly at his watch.

Well just about – bloody hell, where did all the girly hair go?’

‘Beth gave it a trim last night.’

Beth fancied herself as a bit of a hairdresser, and was always grabbing the scissors and snipping bits off Jay’s and Cal’s locks, whether they wanted it or not. To be fair, Cal had blond ringlets that would be the envy of many a fairy princess, and his hair needed a bit of taming now and then, but Jay had pretty standard mid-brown slightly wavy hair, and he put up with the fiddling with more patience than I would have given him credit for.

Beth had cut my hair shortly after coming out of hospital, as it had got so overgrown that it was either that or call in the dog groomers, but never again. Not that she did a bad job, really, but I’d got used to Becky, the girl who did my hair at Classy Cuts in Stafford city centre, and Beth twittered far too much, and didn’t ask about my holidays, and there was altogether too much fannying about and shit. Ugh. Anyway, she had managed to turn the kid into a half-decent looking human being rather than a two-legged afghan hound, so I suppose she deserved credit for that.

‘Much better. I see your sleeping habits haven’t changed much.’

‘Had a late night visit from Cal.’

Ah, let me guess, he persuaded you to let him get in your bed and you spent the rest of the night with no room while he slept like a log.’

‘Pretty much.’

Well you’ll know next time. We don’t let him in anymore.’

‘He said you – oh.’

It was entertaining to see the realisation cross Dec’s face that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the ‘my mum and dad let me’ trick.

Yeah, you’ve been Cal-ed. You’re out of practice, mate.’

Dec laughed. ‘I guess I am a bit. Hi Matt.’

The hint of banter that had begun yesterday felt like it needed a boost.

‘Mohning – ahftenohn?’ I raised an eyebrow.

Dec grinned and took the baton.

‘Yeah, whatever. Don’t you start, I thought us cripples were sticking together.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

I grinned too, enjoying myself.

‘Fuck right back off.’

His grin widened, and it was so great to hear someone telling me to fuck off, even if it was a joke; everyone was nice to me, even when I was being an annoying git, even Jay, who took less of my shit than most.

That’s what I like to see, a bit of Cripples Corner team spirit. Keep the morale up, boys. Oh, hi Cal.’

None of us had seen Cal sidle into the room, eyes wide at the amount of forbidden words that had just been uttered in the house.

Cal

It was just as well it was me and not Mum who had been listening from the hallway. She would have said ‘honestly’ to all of them. I giggled to myself, and Dad looked round and saw me.

‘Daddy, you just –’

Shh, I know, won’t happen again. Let’s have a look at this Lego here, shall we?’

I loved it when Dad played with me, he was really good at building things and remembered how to make a spaceship without reading the structions. I had a really good game going, so we both knelt on the floor and started building while Dec talked to Uncle Matty.

Matt

I looked up at Dec, who was biting his lip and looked pensive.

‘He’s in trohbl now. Cal alwahs tells.’

‘We probably are too, then.’

‘Noh, crihpls privileges.’

It felt like I had an ally. Like a naughty school friend who, with a bit of encouragement, might help me put itching powder on the teacher’s chair or switch the sugar for salt. It felt good, kind of like things didn’t always have to be so bloody serious any more.

Jay looked up from Cal’s cars.

Guys, you’re not helping. ‘

I laughed, but something went the wrong way, and fuck fuck fuck I started to cough, and then I couldn’t stop, and I was choking, gasping for breath, unable to suck enough into my lungs before the next cough tried to force itself out. Jay was instantly by my side, and I distantly heard Dec and Cal leave pretty sharpish.

Dec

łShit. Dec, can you take Cal for some squash in the kitchen? I just need to help Matty a minute.

I herded Cal out, the coughing and gasping sounding behind us. The kitchen was full of noise and activity. Something was steaming on the hob, the radio was still on, and something was being done with – I’d been right – pastry. Beth looked up.

_Everything OK?

\i’m having some squash.

‘Jay’s helping Matt – he’s having a bit of a cough.’

_Ohh, does he need any help?

‘He didn’t say.’

_I’d better go and see.

She washed her hands and hurried out.

‘OK, Cal, where’s the squash?’

\that cupboard. I want purple.

‘You’d like purple, please, is that what you said?’

\purple please.

I poured out the squash, filled up the glass and gave it to Cal, who sat at the table to drink it.

‘Can I get you anything, Mrs Scott? I might do another cup of tea.’

#Actually that would be nice. It’s been a busy morning so far.

I made the tea and put a mug in front of her, again feeling pretty pleased with how well I was managing with lifting the kettle and pouring the large milk bottle.

‘What’s that you’re making?’

#Mince pies. I brought some with me but we thought we’d do a few more. Matthew really likes them, it’s a good way of bulking him up a bit.

_Beth’s mince pies are great – er, I’m sure yours are too.

There was an awkward pause.

#You look like you’ve been in the wars. Jameson said you were in a fight?

I sensed more disapproval.

‘Well, no, not a fight exactly, I was on the wrong end of a kicking. Didn’t know much about it till I woke up in hospital.’

#You’re still recovering are you?

‘Yeah, had to have an operation, but it’s all going to plan I think.’

#Jameson and Beth were pleased you could come for Christmas.

It seemed obvious but unspoken, however, that she wasn’t that pleased.

‘It’s great to see them, and Cal. I’ve really missed them.’

#They’ve had a hard time over the last few months.

‘I know. I regret everything I’ve done that’s made it harder for them.’

I was very aware of Cal’s small ears listening while he played with his dinosaurs.

#You won’t upset them again, will you?

‘No.’

Cal

Granny wasn’t being very friendly to Dec. Granny was better than Mum and Dad at not saying things she didn’t want me to hear, but I’d heard her call Dec ‘that boy’ a few times, and she hadn’t looked very pleased when I’d told her Dec was coming for Christmas. Now she was using her ‘telling off’ voice, although Dec didn’t look like he thought he was being told off, at least not like he used to when Mum did it.

I didn’t want Dec to be told off, so I thought of something I could ask Granny, even though I knew the answer.

‘Granny where is your bed?’

I knew exactly where Granny’s bed was; it was in the spare room, where it always was.

Dec

Jay’s mum held my gaze while she answered Cal. I looked back at her and nodded. It was an acknowledgement and a promise.

Cal

‘It’s in the spare room, dear.’

Granny didn’t look at me while she answered, she was looking at Dec, as if she was saying one thing to him with her eyes and another thing to me with her mouth. Dec nodded, as if he was agreeing with her, and then she looked at me.

‘Will Santa know you’re here and not at home?’

‘Yes, dear, he knows where everyone is. He knows Declan’s here too.’

Granny always called people by their full names. She called me Calum, and Dad Jameson, and Dec Declan and Uncle Matty Matthew.

‘Dec probably told him – he can talk to Santa.’

I’d spotted an opportunity to put Dec in Granny’s good books. She couldn’t be cross with someone who could talk to Santa – it could make a big difference to how many presents you got.

Dec shrugged. I suppose it wasn’t polite to boast about it, although Granny didn’t look as impressed as I’d thought she would.

Dec

I shrugged with a modest smile.

#Oh, well that’s alright then. Calum, what are you having for your lunch? How about some beans on toast?

\kay. Can Dec share my beans?

‘How about I make it, eh, Cal? Remember woossy beans?’

Cal

‘Woossy beans! Can we have woossy beans?’

Woossy beans was my and Dec’s favourite thing when he was looking after me. It was beans on toast with woosser sauce in it, and we both said it was the finest lunch. Mum had tried to make it, but it never tasted the same as when Dec did it.

‘I’ll check in the cupboard – any idea where Worcester sauce might be, Mrs Scott?’

Matt

Then, while I was struggling to pull in the tiniest amount of useful breath and largely failing, Beth came in, and started rubbing my back while Jay filled a bowl with hot water and menthol, and put it under my nose. None of it ever worked, the coughing had always stopped on its own eventually, but just having them there calmed me, because when it happened, it felt like I was going to die, that I would never catch my breath again, that my insides were trying to hurl themselves out via my windpipe. But Beth knew how to offer soothing, comforting words, and whether they needed to call someone, and Jay – well, Jay was pretty useless, really, but he’d never leave until it was all over and he knew I was OK. Part of me wondered if he was waiting for an opportunity to chuck me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift so he could show off his strength, but that hadn’t been necessary so far and I was damned if I was going to give him the satisfaction – and then it stopped.

I gradually got more and more air inside me and the need to manually haul each breath in subsided; an extreme lethargy swept over me and took me down and I was asleep before they’d laid me down and put the duvet over me.

Cal

Granny opened the cupboards and tried to find the woosser sauce, but she still wasn’t having much luck when Mum came back in. Granny stopped looking so she could ask Mum how Uncle Matty was. I thought it was obvious that Uncle Matty was alright, otherwise Mum wouldn’t have come back in the kitchen, but I didn’t say this out loud.

Mum told Granny that Uncle Matty was asleep now, and asked what she was looking for in the cupboards.

‘Worcester sauce. For Cal’s lunch.’

Mum looked like she was going to say I didn’t like woosser sauce, then she thought about it, and I saw her remember that I only liked it in beans.

‘Ohh, woossy beans! You haven’t had that for ages, Cal.’

‘Dec’s making it for me.’

‘Are you sure you can manage, Dec?’

‘I’ll give it a go. Everything’s working much better now. I may need a hand to spread the butter, oh and possibly to open the tin.’

I kept forgetting that Dec had hurt arms. I could see he had a hurt face, but his arms seemed the same as normal until he couldn’t break apart the small Lego, or he couldn’t lean down on them for as long as he usually did.

Dec

We made the woossy beans on toast together, Cal and I ate it, then we got ready to go out. Beth had suggested the local garden centre, which was just down the road, and had lots of Christmas decorations, lights, and most importantly a Santa’s Grotto.

_You might not get in, but it’s worth a shot. Don’t promise Cal, though, in case it doesn’t happen.

It showed how much of Beth’s trust I had lost that she felt she needed to tell me how to be around Cal. It was a reminder of how much I had to do to prove myself to them.

_Can you ring me when you’re on your way back, give us a bit of warning?

‘Haven’t got a phone.’

_Oh, of course not, sorry, we haven’t – no, I forgot. Take mine, the number’s under ‘Home’.

Beth sounded like she had started to say something and then changed her mind. She had probably remembered what happened to my phone and was being considerate.

She gave me some money, just in case we got in to see Santa, which I really didn’t want, but I hadn’t got my new bank card yet, so I still had no cash. Not that there was anything in my bank account any more. So I had to accept Beth’s money. We walked along the path, Cal holding tightly onto my hand, chattering all the way.

We spent a long time at the garden centre looking at all the sparkle. There were loads of people there, and it was bustling and noisy. There was a long queue for Santa, so I asked Cal if he wanted to wait, it looked like at least forty-five minutes to me. He was keen, with conditions.

\can I have a slushie?

Cal

After lunch, which was the best woossy beans I’d ever had, Dec took me to the garden centre, which was just down the road. There were lots of Christmas trees and fairy lights, and a giant reindeer made out of sticks, and the most ginormous tree, even more ginormous than ours. Dec and I walked around looking at everything, and then we saw Santa’s Grotto, and I wanted to see Santa. Because it was Christmas Eve, there were lots of people, and lots of other children wanted to see Santa, so there was a line, and Dec said it would be a long time to wait, but he would buy me a slushie and wait with me.

While we waited, we started a story. It was one of our stories like we used to do on Sunday afternoons when it was raining, and I wanted to go to the park but the swings would be all wet. How it worked was, we had to make everything we saw go in the story. There was a lot to see while we were waiting in the line for Santa; when we first stood in the line, we were near a giant animaltronic Santa, which wasn’t as good as the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex was going to be at Dinosaurland, because the Santa was just waving his arm and turning his head, but he was the first thing to go in our story, because I started. We decided that Santa needed a sleigh, so we looked around to see something that he would be able to use. At first we didn’t see anything, and then Dec said:

‘Oh, you know what, Cal, I bet Santa’s sleigh is like a Transformer. I bet it kind of looks like one thing most of the year, and then on Christmas Eve, when he needs it, he presses a button, and it turns into his sleigh.’

This sounded like the best thing about Christmas I’d ever heard.

‘Yeah, I bet Santa’s sleigh is a dinosaur the rest of the year.’

‘I bet it is. I bet it’s a dinosaur made out of … er …’

Dec looked around, trying to find something like the rules of the story said.

‘Out of shovels, which stick up for spines on his back, and big hammers for his feet …’

‘And his eyes are torches, and when he changes into the sleigh, his eyes are the headlights.’

‘Good thinking Batman. And if it’s really snowy, he can use the shovels to dig a path.’

We carried on thinking about the story all the way in the line to Santa, and I had a really happy feeling inside, because I was with Dec and we were doing things like we used to, and it didn’t seem like we waited a long time at all before we were at the front, and a bit of me was disappointed because we were going to have to stop our story, and I knew that stories like that were never as good when you started them again, but most of me really wanted to see Santa so I could check about the things on my list.

I knew that this Santa wasn’t the real Santa, he would be one of his helpers just dressed up like Santa, but he would know what was on the list I sent him, and he would probably know Dec as well.

Dec

Cal was so creative and he sparked my imagination; I’d missed being with him loads, and was really enjoying getting reacquainted. We were soon at the front of the queue, Cal by now very excited. When it was his turn, he ran over to Santa and jumped up onto his knee.

*Hello young man, what’s your name?

\calum. Are you really Santa, or a helper?

*Well, I’m real and a helper. The real real Santa is coming tonight with your toys.

\did Dec ask him about Optimus Prime?

‘You know I did Cal, it’s all sorted.’

*Yes, I believe it’s all on the list?

Santa looked at me, did a slight double take presumably at my scars and bruises. I nodded.

\what about a Arsenal shirt?

Another look from Santa. I shrugged. Optimus Prime was as far as my Santa knowledge went.

*You’ll have to wait and see. It’s nice to have surprises, isn’t it?

Cal

I nearly said that it’s only nice if you get what you want and not if you don’t, but I was trying to be good and not mind too much if I didn’t have an Arsenal shirt because some children in Africa don’t even know Arsenal.

Dec

Cal continued to grill Santa.

\will Dec get a stocking?

Another shrug from me. An exasperated look from Santa behind his beard and glasses.

Cal

I asked if Dec would have a stocking, because he didn’t used to, but I didn’t know if this year was different, because it felt a bit different, and Santa said he would if he’d been good boy. I wasn’t sure if Dec had been a good boy, with him stealing and lying and making Mum and Dad cross, so I didn’t say anything else, and thought I might share some of my toys with Dec if he’d been too bad to have any of his own.

And then Santa said I could choose a present for today, from his lucky dip sack. There were lots of presents to choose from, but because they were all wrapped up, I couldn’t tell what they were. I looked at them, trying to decide whether I wanted the biggest, the smallest, or one that looked interesting. In the end I saw one that wasn’t big, or small, or flat and square like a colouring book, but was lumpy and hard when I squished it. I tore the paper off, and it was a dinosaur, but not one that I knew. It had its mouth open, and pointy white teeth, and a button that made its eyes flash red and a roar come out of its mouth. I showed Dec, who smiled at Santa, and made me say thank you.

Dec

Beth was just clearing away wrapping paper and sellotape when we arrived back. Cal didn’t notice, he was so intent on showing off his dinosaur.

\look what Santa gived me.

_Ooh, didn’t you do well. Did you have a nice time with Dec?

\we did a story about a dinosaur Transformer who was made of shovels and turned into Santa’s sleigh.

_Well it’s original. You’ll have to tell us that one, Dec, in case we’re asked for it again in the near future.

\can I show Uncle Matty my dinosaur?

_No, sweetheart, Uncle Matty’s still asleep. Play with Dec in the living room for now.

She looked at me to check.

‘Yeah, come on Cal, didn’t I see Jenga in your room?

\yes … but I’ve got Whirly Racers too.

‘Whirly Racers it is, go and fetch it.’

He ran out of the room to fetch his game.

_Thanks, Dec.

I shrugged, smiled and followed Cal. As I walked out I heard

_See? He’s so good with him.

#I do see that. He reminded Calum of his manners earlier. They seem very fond of each other.

We spent a lot of time racing small cars on the living room floor. Cal gave me the worst cars, so he won most of the time. He seemed very pleased with himself, whether because of his victories or his strategy I wasn’t sure. Half way through the afternoon, Beth came in with a bag.

_We need to do your dressings, Dec. Cal, go and sit with granny for a bit. She’s in the kitchen.

\oh but I want to watch.

Beth looked at me.

‘It’s fine, I don’t think it’s too gruesome.’

_Alright, then, stay for now but you go when I say, OK?

\kay Mummy.

I took my shirt off and Beth started to unwind the bandages that held the dressings in place, looking like she knew what she was doing – of course! She’d been a nurse, many years ago before she had Cal.

‘You’re good at this.’

_Don’t sound so surprised, it was my job.

‘I know, I just remembered.’

_It’s one of the things that made it easier to decide to look after Matty. I’ve seen it all before, I know how to do things, some idea about medication, when to call a doctor, all that stuff.

She carried on taking the dressings off, cleaning the scars with some fluid and cotton wool.

_These look pretty good, the stitches have nearly gone, there’s no swelling, no leakage. I think this could be your last dressing, Dec.

Cal had been watching intently, looking slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more blood.

\where does the sewing go?

_They’re special stitches that melt away after a while, so Dec doesn’t have to get the doctor to take them out. Is that what happened with the stitches in your face, Dec?

‘No, they took those out, and the ones in my back and legs. I had it done on Monday.’

Beth started putting new dressings on, and wound new bandages round them to hold them in place.

\mummy, can I have a bandage?

Cal

Mum never let me have plasters unless I really had a cut, but this time she looked at me and smiled.

‘How about a little tiny one on your finger?’

‘Kay.’

I held out my finger and Mum tied a bandage on the end of it. I held it up so Dec could see.

‘I can be in Cripples Corner now.’

I thought it would be alright to say it now I had a bandage. I was wrong.

Dec tried not to laugh, but Mum got cross.

‘Cal, remember what I said about not repeating everything Daddy says?’

‘But Dec and Uncle Matty say it too. It sounds funny.’

And it really wasn’t fair that everyone else was allowed to say it and I wasn’t.

‘Yes, I know, sweetheart, but it’s not, it’s not a nice word.’

‘Is it a swear?’

‘No, not a swear, but something I don’t want to hear you saying.’

‘Sorry, Cal, my fault mate. Let’s agree not to say it, if it upsets Mummy, yeah?’

That was a bit annoying. I wished I hadn’t said anything, because now nobody was allowed to say it.

‘Kay.’

‘Thanks, Dec. Right, I think that’s you all done.’

‘Nice job. Very professional. Good, eh, Cal? Bandage brothers, that’s what they’ll call us.’

‘Yeah, bandage brothers.’

I loved the name. And it sparked something off in my mind that Mum and Dad had talked about a while ago, about choosing a brother. If I could choose anyone for my brother, I’d choose Dec.

‘Dec, are you my new brother?’

‘What?’

Dec looked confused. Maybe I’d got it wrong. But Dec didn’t have a mummy and daddy, I was pretty sure of it, and if Mum and Dad wanted to give a me new brother, it just made sense to have Dec – he already did all the things brothers were supposed to do, like playing with me, and wrestling with me, and knowing which was a stegosaurus and which was a triceratops. And we already knew him. Then I saw Mum look at me and shake her head.

‘Cal –’

‘But Mummy, you said I might be having a new brother –’

‘Cal! I also said it was a secret.’

Well now I was really confused. If I could choose Dec as my brother, surely he’d have to know the secret too? I decided not to say anything else about it, because it just seemed to get me into trouble, even when it all made perfect sense.

Dec

I was a bit slow, but got there in the end.

‘Beth!’

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

_Yes, well now you know. But Carol doesn’t know yet, it’s very early days. I should have known big-mouth here would spill the beans, he heard me and James talking and worked it out. I suppose we’ll have to tell her now. God, she’ll never forgive me for you knowing before her.

‘Knowing what? Never heard a word. Congratulations for nothing, by the way. Wow.’

_Thanks, Dec.

She gave me a big, tired smile, patted me on her perfectly executed bandages, and left me to more Whirly Racing with Cal. I wondered briefly whether Beth’s news would change anything, but it was just one more thing I had no control over, and things had already changed beyond recognition anyway, so I hardly thought about it again.

Cal

So now Dec and I knew a secret together, and that felt better. Mum smiled at us, and then left us to get on with more Whirly Races.

Uncle Matty was asleep all the afternoon, and Dad was in his room, watching in case he coughed again or got more poorly, so Dec and I played and talked and fed Percy and made up more stories. The stories were mostly about Christmas, because Christmas was tomorrow, and I couldn’t think about much else.

At dinner time, Dad came out of Uncle Matty’s room, and Granny went in instead. They could have put the speaker on to hear for coughing, but when Uncle Matty had coughed a lot, they were all worried about him, and wanted to be near him, and wanted him to be in the quiet, so I couldn’t play in there.

Dec

The afternoon wore on, grew dark and became Christmas Eve proper. Cal got more and more excited, talking nineteen to the dozen about Santa, stockings and presents. Jay, who had been sitting with a sleeping Matt most of the afternoon, emerged for dinner looking tired. His mum went to sit in while Jay ate. Beth rubbed his shoulder.

_How’s he doing?

łStill sleeping it off. He’ll be OK, I think. He’s got some of the colour back in his cheeks. He wants to join in tomorrow so much, he needs to rest up. Jesus, Beth, I hate it when that happens. He can’t get his breath, you can just see it sucking his strength, right before your eyes.

_I know, it’s horrible. You were great.

łSorry, Dec, we’ve left you with Cal all day.

‘I’ve had a great time. Been exploring my inner six-year-old.’

_Oh, James, just to warn you, Cal told Dec our news.

łOur news? Oh. Shit.

Cal, wisely, didn’t comment on this particular swear and carried on eating his dinner as if butter wouldn’t melt. Jay put his face in his hands and breathed in deeply.

łWe’re going to have to tell Mum, now, aren’t we. And then your mum, and oh God, everyone. So much for keeping it quiet.

Beth nodded.

_Can’t be helped. Nice Christmas present?

łYeah, think positive.

He kissed her on the cheek, looked at me and winked.

Cal

Mum told Dad that I’d let Dec know the secret – Dad said a swear, but Mum didn’t say ‘James honestly’, and Dad winked at Dec, so I thought it might be OK. Dad said they’d have to tell Granny, so it wouldn’t be a secret for much longer, and I was glad because sometimes it was hard to remember not to say things until I’d said them and it was too late.

Then Dad did the list at me, the one about going to bed. He did the list because I would sometimes try to do lots of other things before I went to bed, and the list meant I couldn’t, I could only do what was on the list.

So, Cal, after dinner it’s bath, PJs, story, bed. No arguing, no slow-coaching. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

There wasn’t much room for slow-coaching if Dad followed the list, but I could at least take a long time over eating my dinner, and see if I could hear Mum and Dad saying anything interesting to Dec.

‘James, me and your mum are going to sit with Matty once Cal’s in bed. You and Dec could use the living room …’

For?’

‘Well, I know you wanted to have a talk with Dec.’

Dec

łOh, our deep and meaningful. Jesus. Sorry, Dec, not very subtle. Up for it?

‘Sure.’

It was one of the things I’d been dreading since arriving. Sorting things out with Jay was going to be painful, and bring up a lot of things I’d prefer remained buried, and a part of me worried that I’d fucked some things up so much they couldn’t be sorted or explained or forgiven. But it needed doing, and avoiding it wouldn’t make it any easier later on.

\daddy, what’s deep pan meanyful? Is it pizza?

Jay laughed out loud.

łNo Cal, it’s not pizza. I kind of wish it was.

_Daddy means him and Dec are going to talk for a while after you’ve gone to bed.

\can’t I stay and listen?

_No, sweetheart, you need to go to bed and sleep so Santa can bring your presents.

łCal, remember the list – bath, PJs, story, bed. No deep pan meanyful on the list.

\kay, Daddy.

Cal

Dad reminded me about the list, which didn’t have listening to talking, or pizza, on it anywhere, worse luck.

Dec

Cal prolonged finishing his dinner longer than I thought humanly possible – he really was an expert in avoiding going to bed. When he finally conceded that he had finished, Jay took him upstairs for a bath.

Cal

After dinner, Dad took me for a bath, and we put loads of bubbles in it and played with my submarine for ages. Dad put bubbles on my head like white hair, and put some on his chin, like a Santa beard, and it was funny.

When the water started to get cold, I got out of the bath and dried in the towel, then got my Christmas PJs on, the ones with snowflakes and Christmas trees. I’d worn them every weekend since the beginning of December, and now it was Christmas Eve, so it was definitely a good time to wear them.

Dec

Beth and I sat in the living room, watching a soppy Christmas film on TV. It might have been Love Actually, I obviously had no interest in such slushy nonsense. Jay’s mum was still sitting with Matt. In a break from the romantic traumas of Hugh Grant, I decided to check about my role on Christmas Day.

‘What’s the drill for tomorrow?’

_Not sure there’s a drill, sweetheart, we’ll just see how it goes. A lot depends on Matty. We were going to do some presents in his room, and he really wants to get up for dinner, but after today I don’t know if he’ll be up to it. He hasn’t been out of bed properly for a couple of days, so we’ll have to see. I hate to leave him out of things, but he gets so tired, we have to judge it at the time.

‘Sounds tricky.’

_It can be hard to make the call, he’s very stubborn, and doesn’t like to give in, so we just have to keep an eye on him. His colour changes when he’s had enough, so does his breathing.

‘Is he going to be OK?’

_Oh, Dec, nobody really knows. The combination of pneumonia and MS is a bit of an unknown quantity. He’s better than he was, but it’s slow progress. Something like today could be a setback, or he could wake up tomorrow full of beans.

‘It’s a bit shit, isn’t it.’

_Yes, sweetheart, it is a bit shit. Anyway, are you ready for your early morning Santa call?

‘How early is that likely to be?’

_Well, I don’t know if you remember last year, but if that’s anything to go by, it will be about three o’clock the first time, and you’ll be able to tell him firmly to go back to sleep. Second time, and if you’re lucky he’ll make it to four, he’ll be more persuasive. He definitely can’t open his stocking until five – he can come into our room to do that. It’s hanging by his bed – there’s a duplicate full stocking, James is going to change it over before we go to bed. Under no circumstances let him persuade you that he is allowed to come downstairs and open any presents under the tree. Carol and Matty will kill you if they miss anything.

‘So I’m going to have a sleepless night pretty much from three then?’

_Yep. OK with that?

‘Absolutely fine.’

Bath time over, Cal bounced into the living room carrying another large book. This one was about space. He was about to take a giant leap onto the sofa next to me.

łMind Dec’s arm.

He clambered carefully on instead, still managing to bash my bandaged arm with the huge book. I lifted my arm up and put it round him.

‘Which chapter?’

\man on the Moon.

łRight, I’m listening this time, you two. One chapter only.

Cal had chosen well, it was a really long chapter, with lots of pictures to talk about apart from the writing, and we made it last a good long time. When we reached the end of the last page, I glanced up at Jay, who was watching me in amusement.

Cal

The chapter about Man on the Moon was really long, and had lots of pictures to talk about. Dec read slowly, and we looked at some of the pictures twice, but Dad was listening this time, and when Dec got to the end of the chapter, we both looked up. Dad was looking back at us.

You may well check me out, I have read this chapter many times, and I know that is the end of it. Bed now, Cal.’

‘Ohh, Daddy –’

What’s next on the list after story?’

‘Bed.’

Have you had your story?’

‘Yes.’

So what’s next?’

‘Bed. But –’

No buts. Just bed. Come on, I’ll carry you up if you like.’

That was the problem with the list. You couldn’t argue with it, it was just a list.

Dad stood up and I jumped up so he would catch me. He held me upside down so Mum could kiss me night night, and I said night to Dec, then Dad carried me upstairs.

My stocking was lying on the top of my bed, and I climbed the ladder and hung the stocking on the end of the bed, almost hugging myself with excitement, because when I woke up tomorrow, Santa would have been, and the stocking would be full of shapes that squished and rustled, and I would have new toys.

Dec

Beth looked over at me once Cal was safely out of earshot.

_So far, so good. I’m expecting a few false starts. Right, I’ll vacate the room and leave you and James to it.

She stood up, left the room and closed the door. I flicked the TV off, and sat nervously, feeling like I was waiting for a job interview or an exam.