37. This is how it goes

In which goodbyes are said, tears are shed, and cheesy dinosaur biscuits are eaten.

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Cal

I didn’t hear Dec come in later, but I did hear him in the middle of the night.

‘No … nnnh … no no no … mm … no … ‘

I heard Dec moving, and then I felt a bump from under me, as he sat up and banged his head on the underneath of my bed. I didn’t have to wait long

Dec

… woke up in a sweat, heart racing, breathing hard, disoriented. Tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle from above me. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

Cal

I’d known it would happen, and I liked knowing things and being right. Dec must have heard me, and his voice came from below.

‘Sorry, Cal.’

‘You sweared.

‘I know. I was half asleep. Sorry. Was I making noises?’

‘Yes you were going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and I waited for you to do a big swear and you did.’

‘I didn’t scare you – er – Optimus Prime, though?’

I hadn’t been scared, not even of the thought that Dec might scream really loudly.

‘No, he wasn’t scared. It’s only your dreams.’

‘Well that’s very brave of him.’

‘Dec can I come in with you?’

I thought I might have a chance, because it was Dec’s last night, and I might not see him again for days and days.

Dec

Oh what the hell, it was my last night.

‘Come on, then.’

Cal

It had worked. I climbed down the ladder and got under Dec’s duvet, and was asleep before I could think about it.

Dec

He hopped down the ladder and filled the bottom bunk with his sleepy body. Crammed up against the wall, I slept as well as I could, dreamless and happy.

When I woke up next morning, Cal was still asleep, looking innocent and peaceful. I could hear sounds from downstairs that suggested someone was up and in the kitchen, and my stomach rumbled. I didn’t know what the time was, couldn’t see a clock from my position under the top bunk. It was dark, but this time of year it didn’t get light till fairly late. I couldn’t bear to wake Cal, but I was really hungry so, moving slowly and carefully, I edged to the bottom of the bed, tucking the duvet back around him as I did so. Once there, I hopped off, pulled on some clothes and went downstairs. Jay was in the kitchen, making tea and toast.

łHey, mate. Bit early yet?

I looked at the kitchen clock. Just after six. Very early for me, pretty early for Jay as well. Having a pregnant wife must be overriding his natural laziness.

‘Oh well. Didn’t sleep too well.’

łMore bad dreams?

I nodded.

‘Cal got his wish for a big swear, too. Sorry. Didn’t know where I was for a minute.’

łCan’t be helped. Was he OK?

‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was what he’d been waiting for. He got in with me afterwards.’

łOh great, now he’s going to be trying to come in to us at all hours. We’d just got him to stop.

‘Sorry. It’s very hard to say no, especially in the middle of the night.’

łTell me about it, he knows all the tricks in the book. Breakfast? I’m just doing tea for Beth, then I’ll come back down and see if Matty’s awake.

‘I can check on Matt if you like.’

łCheers.

Jay went back upstairs. I made a pile of toast and two cups of tea, just in case Matt was awake, and went into his room with a tray. The room was dark, and I didn’t want to put the lamp on in case it woke him up.

‘Matt?’

No reply. I sat in the chair, ate toast and drank tea. Matt slept on. I finished my breakfast and stood up, picking up the tray from the table. Matt suddenly woke with a startled intake of breath.

}Fuck. Who’s tha?

‘Dec. Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Just brought you some breakfast if you want it.’

}Scared the bejehsus out of meh. Why dihnt yuh put the ligh on?

‘Didn’t want to wake you up.’

}Prefer to gihv meh a coronary?

‘Sorry. Tea and toast? Get it while it’s tepid.

}Mm, just how I lihk ih.

I turned on the table lamp and handed him his breakfast.

}Oh, Auhnty Dec yuh did a tray and ehvrything.

‘Well, last day and all, had to make it memorable.’

}Wha time issit?

‘Sometime after six.’

}Bluhdy hell, bih early ihnt ih?

‘I was awake, couldn’t sleep, hungry. Thought I might as well get up.’

}Well thahks foh sharing. Buhger off now, too early foh meh. Thahks foh tray, maybe laher …

His eyes closed and he went back to sleep. I picked the tray up and took it back into the kitchen. The house was silent again. I sat at the table, resting my chin on my hand, trying to soak up the atmosphere. I wanted to take in as much as possible of my time here, so I could take it back with me. Now that there wasn’t long to go before I left, I wanted to appreciate every minute. The inactivity did for me eventually, and I woke up, head resting on my arm on the table, when Beth came in.

_Oh! Were you asleep? What on earth are you doing down here?

‘Sorry, just dozed off. I’m up, honest. It was just really quiet. Doesn’t happen much round here.’

_I know. I love being first up, before everyone else. Don’t get to do it very often, especially at the moment, I’m sleeping so much. But I’m just as happy to have breakfast in bed. Even if James does go back to sleep more often than not. Have you seen Matty?

‘I did a while ago, he said it was a bit early for him.’

I glanced at the clock – it was now nearly eight – and stretched to work out some of the knots that sleeping with my head on the table had tied in my neck.

‘I can have another go if you like.’

_No it’s OK, James can see what he needs, he should be down in a minute. What time were you thinking of setting off?

‘I don’t know. Hadn’t really thought. Didn’t really want to think about it if I’m honest. I’ve had such a good time, Beth. I never thought I’d be part of this again. If nothing else in my life works out, this Christmas will make it alright.’

_Oh, Dec. We’ve loved having you here, with us. I know the past few months have been hard, for all of us. If I could pretend none of it had happened, I would. But I think we’ve managed to mend it pretty well – maybe we’re even stronger. We know a bit more about you, now, about how things have been for you. We all love you, you know that, don’t you? I think even Carol’s got a soft spot for you.

I nodded, speechless, throat closing familiarly, tears threatening.

Cal

When I woke up, Dec had got up, and I could hear voices in the kitchen. It sounded like Mum and Dec. I got up quietly, went downstairs quietly, and stood in the hall listening to what they were saying. They were talking, and although I couldn’t really hear, I think it was about Dec going home, and Dec cried. Dec had cried all the time since he’d got here, and it was a bit annoying, but I remembered Mum saying he was sad even though he didn’t look it, and we needed to give him loves, so I tried not to be annoyed.

‘Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum was trying to cheer Dec up.

‘You’ll be back up here in no time. And we’ll be down to see you – there’s always a reason to go back to Devon.’

Dec sniffed. ‘I’m not going to spend my last morning here being miserable. I’ve had a great time. I’ve got my family back. I’m going back to get fit and play rugby. Nothing to be miserable about at all.’

I remembered that Dec was in our family, and I felt happy, and went into the kitchen to be part of everyone feeling happy. Dec had stopped crying and was smiling. Mum was patting Dec on the shoulder.

‘That’s the spirit – oh here’s Cal. You’re up late, sweetheart.’

‘Dec keeped me awake with noises and a big swear.’

I wasn’t telling on Dec, I was just telling Mum what had happened, because she’d ask me later, and I’d have to tell her anyway.

‘Oh did he? Well Daddy told me you were quite keen for that to happen last night, so maybe you got your wish. Dec, I feel I have to be a bit annoyed about the big swear, just to keep up appearances.’

She pretended to frown at Dec, but he just grinned, like he always did when Mum told him off about swears.

‘Sorry, Beth, won’t happen again.’

‘Ha ha, if only I believed you.’

Dad came in, yawning.

Don’t believe him, whatever he said.’

I liked when Dad teased Dec, because he’d say something like he was telling Dec off, but he was being funny. I wanted to join in with that too.

‘Dec said he won’t do any big swears again.’

Is that so? Let’s see how long he lasts. My vote is for ten past eight. What’s the time now? Oh, maybe five past.’

‘Piss off.’

‘Four minutes past. I win.’

And there it was. I’d joined in, and Dad had carried on, and Dec had done a swear. It didn’t get much better, although Mum wasn’t as happy as I was about it.

‘Honestly, you two. I’m a bit worried about what Cal’s going to come back saying, especially if he’s going to be hanging around rugby players all afternoon. You will tone it down a bit, won’t you?’

We’ll be model citizens. He’ll come back talking like an angel. Right Cal?’

I wasn’t sure about that. I had no idea what angels talked like, and I wasn’t going to have much of a chance to learn.

‘How do angels talk, Daddy?’

A bit like this.’

Dad’s voice was all squeaky, like a lady’s. I really didn’t want to have to talk like a lady.

‘Why do I have to talk like that?’

‘Daddy’s being silly. He means that he and Dec will watch their language so you don’t start saying some of the bad words they do.’

Sometimes grown-ups said the stupidest things. I knew I couldn’t say swears, although sometimes I whispered them to myself just to feel them in my mouth. No, I knew the rules about saying swears out loud.

‘But I’m six, I can’t do bad swears.’

‘I’m glad at least one of you has got some sense.’

‘I can’t do bad swears until I’m seven. Jake telled me.’

Jake knew everything about things big boys could do, because he had two brothers who were big boys. One of them was so big, he was in the Army, and Jake had often told me things his brothers did and said that astonished me.

Mum put her hands in the air like she was surrendering. I liked when Dad and me did boy and man things together, and Mum had to give in because she was a lady, and there was only one of her.

‘I give up. Even Jake Bagwell is against me.’

After that, Dec was getting ready to go, and he was finding his socks and pants, and checking he hadn’t left anything, and he couldn’t play with me because he was busy. He helped me feed Percy, and helped Mum with the dishwasher, and helped Granny watch TV, and talked to Uncle Matty, but he didn’t really have time for a big play with me, so I played in Uncle Matty’s room.

Dec

We decided to leave about ten o’clock. Jay reckoned he could do the journey in just over two hours, even though it had taken Lis over three and a half to do it before. That gave us plenty of time to drop my stuff off and say hello to Rose, get something to eat and head for the stadium. So I was left with a strange couple of hours of hanging around, waiting to leave, trying to find things to do, but not having time to really do very much.

I helped Cal feed his rabbit. I walked round the house again to check I hadn’t left anything behind. I emptied the dishwasher for Beth, I sat and watched a bit of a Sunday morning cookery programme with Carol. I scraped mud off my trainers. It felt like time was ticking away too fast.

I fetched my bags from upstairs, leaving them by the door. When I had arrived a few days ago, I hadn’t been able to carry anything. Now my left hand was so much better, I hardly remembered my little finger had been broken, although my right arm was still stiff, and the bandages served to remind me that I couldn’t push myself too far. Jay saw me bring my bags down.

łDo you want to put them in the car? While you’re out there you could move Beth’s car out of the way, it’s in front of the garage.

He tossed me the keys. I took my bags outside and left them by the garage door. I pointed the key at Beth’s car and pressed the button, opened the driver’s door, got in, shut the door and I was spinning, swerving across the road, unable to control the car. I was heading towards the ditch. A man appeared, lit by headlights. I frantically pulled on the steering wheel but he was too close and the car was too out of control. There was a bang, and my airbag inflated, pushing me backwards as the car lurched forwards into the ditch. I couldn’t move. The combination of my seatbelt, the airbag and the angle of the car pinned me to my seat, I couldn’t get out. Then I was spinning, swerving across the road, unable to control the car as it started again, replaying over and over on a loop in my head …

Cal

Uncle Matty was sitting in his chair, rather than his bed, and we heard Dad tell Dec to go and put his bag in Dad’s car, and to move Mum’s car out of the way, and we heard the front door slam as Dec went out.

‘Dohs tha boy ehver shuh a dohr quiehly?’

‘I think he does sometimes.’

‘Not ohften.’

Dad came in after a while.

‘Oh. I thought Dec must be in here. Where is he?’

‘Ouhside. Dihnt yuh fehl the trehmors wehn he shuh the dohr?’

‘But that was ages ago. He was only moving Beth’s car. Oh for God’s sake. He’d better not have bashed it.’

Dad stomped out and we heard the front door shut, almost as loudly as Dec had shut it.

Dec

łDec? What’s going on?

Jay’s voice brought me back to the present. I was gripping the steering wheel, my knuckles white, my breathing rapid and shallow, and I was sweating, trembling, staring straight ahead. Jay put his hand on my arm.

łDec?

I shook my head, trying to get the repeating images out of my mind.

‘Sorry. Fuck. I just had an action replay of crashing my car. Several action replays. Shit. I haven’t driven since. Didn’t think. Fuck.’

łJesus, Dec, how long have you been sat out here? You came out ages ago. You look terrible, you’re shaking. Come back inside, I think you need to calm down.

He took the keys out of my hand. I leaned forwards, resting my head on the steering wheel, eyes closed, trying to push it all down. Jay pulled on my arm.

łCome on, mate. Back inside.

I got out of the car and followed Jay indoors to the living room, where I sat down, leaned forwards and rubbed my face with my hands. Jay sat next to me, concern creasing his brow.

łHas that ever happened before?

‘No.’

łBut you’ve been in a car since, haven’t you? Course you have, I mean, Lis brought you up on Tuesday.

‘Only as a passenger. I think it was trying to drive, set something off. Fuck. That was intense. I couldn’t stop it. Just kept seeing it … feeling it … over and over.’

łHas it stopped now?

‘Yeah, as soon as you opened the door it stopped.’

łHow are you feeling?

‘A bit shaky. I’ll be OK.’

łIf you don’t want to go today, that’s fine.

‘No, no, I think I’ll be OK. You don’t want me to drive do you?’

łFuck no, I’m not letting you behind the wheel of my baby, even if you weren’t a bloody head case. Jesus, Dec, what the fuck’s going on in that tiny mind of yours?

‘I wish I bloody knew.’

łLet me get you a glass of water. If we weren’t about to set off I’d make it something stronger, but it’s not a good idea.

‘Thanks.’

I sat and took more ragged breaths while Jay got the water. The images were slowly fading and the panic was receding. I could hear Jay talking to Beth and Carol in the kitchen. He came back in, Beth in tow.

_Dec, what’s this James has been telling me? Some kind of panic attack?

‘I don’t know what you’d call it. I’m feeling better now, just shook me up a bit.’

łHere’s your water, mate.

‘Thanks.’

_Let me have a look at you.

Cal

The front door opened again after a few minutes, and we heard Dad and Dec go into the living room. Dad was talking like something had happened, and I tried really hard to listen, and Uncle Matty was listening too, but we couldn’t hear. Dad went and got Mum, and I drove one of my cars into the hall so I could hear a bit better.

Dec

Beth felt my forehead and checked my pulse while I gulped from the glass. She looked closely at my face.

_You look pale, your heart’s beating fast and you’re a bit clammy, but I think you’ll live. Has it happened before?

‘No – well, I suppose it feels like when I wake up after one of my dreams.’

_I wonder if it’s some kind of post traumatic thing?

‘Sorry, Beth, I just don’t know. Looks like another thing I need to sort out with Don’s shrink.’

_Poor you, things just pile up don’t they.

‘I’ll be OK. Really. Do we need to get going?’

łYeah. Sure you’re OK?

‘Yeah, sure.’

I breathed in deeply and pushed the panic away.

Cal

I didn’t understand everything they said, but they were talking about Dec’s dreams, and I think they said something about shrinking the postman, but that didn’t make any sense.

I couldn’t work out what had happened, but Dec was saying he was alright now, so it didn’t sound too bad. Maybe he’d banged his head on the garage door, or fallen over and banged his knee. I’d done that, and it had made me cry, but Mum had rubbed it and kissed it better, and after a while it didn’t hurt any more.

I’ll go and move Beth’s car, then. Have you said goodbye to Matty?’

‘No, I’ll go now.’

I ran up the stairs with my car so that Dad and Dec didn’t see I’d been listening, and I played up there for a while, until Mum came up and said it was nearly time to go, and to help me put things in my bag to take with me.

Dec

I crossed the hall into Matt’s room. I was surprised to see him sitting in the chair, iPad on his knee, rather than in bed.

‘Progress?’

}Yeh. Feel prehty good today. Fed up of being in behd. Might goh for a run laher. Or, yuh knoh, evehn walk tuh the lihving rohm on my ohn. Yuh going soon?

‘Yeah, Jay’s just swapping the cars around. Don’t run too far, maybe just 10k first time?’

}Noted, wihs spohts pehson. Yuh OK? Bih of a commohtion jus now.

‘Just more madness going on in my fucked up head. Had a bit of a weird moment in Beth’s car. I’m OK now, just about ready to go.’

I wasn’t sure quite how OK I really was, but the last thing I wanted to do was worry people. I could push it away and forget about it, I was sure.

}Wish I was coming wih yuh.

‘Next time, yeah?’

}Yeh. Ihs a date, Auhnty Dec. Take cahr of yuhsehf. Fucking nutter.

‘You too. Bloody cripple.’

He held his hand out, I clasped it tightly. Fist bumped. Left the room as Jay came in from outside.

łHave you seen Cal? Is he ready?

‘Don’t know, sorry.’

Cal

Mum put chocolate buttons in my bag, and a jumper, and some purple squash, and a hat and gloves because it was cold, and gave me three pound coins just in case. I didn’t know just in case of what, maybe she meant just in case I saw some sweets, and Dad didn’t have his money, and then three pound coins would be really helpful.

I wanted to take lots of dinosaurs with me, so I had something to make a game with in the car, but Mum said there wasn’t room in my bag for lots of dinosaurs. I needed at least four to make the game I’d thought of, but Mum said less than four, and so I chose three, which were my furry stegosaurus, my Lego tyrannosaurus rex and my pterodactyl puppet. They were the three biggest dinosaurs I had. Mum said they were all too big, and to choose smaller ones, because she didn’t know about the game I wanted to play, which needed them all. While Mum was telling me I couldn’t take all of them, Dad called up the stairs, and Mum answered him.

Cal?’

‘Right here, just having a discussion about how many dinosaurs he can take with him.’

One. OK Cal? Come on, let’s get moving.’

Which was really not fair, because Dad knew even less about my game than Mum, but he had his ‘no arguing’ voice on, and so I chose the stegosaurus. I would have to pretend all the other dinosaurs.

Dec

Carol came out of the kitchen.

#Are you off, now?

łSoon as Cal’s ready. OK Dec?

‘Yeah.’

It was all going a bit quickly, but couldn’t be helped.

#Goodbye, Declan, I hope I see you again soon.

‘Thanks Carol, me too.’

I kissed her on the cheek. Beth and Cal came downstairs, Beth carrying a bag and Cal’s coat, Cal carrying a large fluffy stegosaurus and wearing his Arsenal shirt.

łAre we all set? Let’s go, then. See you later Matty. Behave yourself. Sure you and Mum will be OK, Beth? Back about – oh I don’t bloody know. This evening, probably later on. I’ll ring you. OK, Dec? Come on then.

_Hug first. Come here, sweetheart.

Beth wrapped her arms round me and squeezed tightly.

_Oh I’m going to miss you. Ring me lots. Come back as soon as you can. Dec, promise me you’ll talk to us, call us, if you need anything, if anything happens. Call us all the time.

‘Promise.’

She let me go. She had tears in her eyes, so did I.

łOh for fuck’s sake, girls, don’t start each other off again.

_James!

łSorry. Sorry Cal. Right, off we go. Raiders here we come.

Jay, Cal and I got in the car. Beth and Carol waved us off, Beth had tears running down her face, and I had to wipe my eyes several times.

Cal

Mum and Granny waved from the door until we went round the corner and couldn’t see them any more, then Dad turned the radio on, and didn’t say anything about Dec wiping his eyes.

So, according to Rose you think I drive too fast.’

‘True.’

But you kinda like it.’

‘No comment.’

Off we go then!’

Dad did drive really fast, and we had fun singing with some of the songs on the radio – Dec and Dad did silly high shouty voices to the songs, which made me laugh, and we spotted Eddie Stobart lorries, and Dad shouted at other cars to get out of the way, and I didn’t have time to play a dinosaur game, because I fell asleep.

Dec

The time in the car passed really quickly, we sung along, badly, to the radio, helped Cal spot Eddie Stobart lorries, shouted at other drivers to get out of the way. Jay did drive fast, and Cal was asleep by the time we had got half way. As we got closer, I started to feel a return of some of the cloud I had been under for the past few months. It was distant, but it was there.

łYou’ve gone quiet.

‘Just thinking.’

łStop thinking and get singing. I bloody love this song.

He cranked up the stereo and I had no choice. Cal slept on, despite the raucous out of tune noise we were making. We finally pulled up outside the flats. It was about midday, still ages before the game, and I sat for a while, trying to get my thoughts together. Jay looked at me.

Cal

I woke up when the car stopped, but I didn’t open my eyes straight away. Dad and Dec were talking, and I wanted to hear what they were saying. Dad was trying to make Dec get out of the car.

Come on, what are you waiting for?’

‘This is it, back to reality. I’m freaking out a bit.’

Dad took a deep breath.

You know, you can always come back and live with us. We can make room. If all this is too hard, we can work something out.’

I nearly opened my eyes, because this was what I wanted, but Dad had said there wasn’t any room, and that Dec didn’t live with us any more, but now it seemed like there might be a chance … I almost stopped breathing waiting to hear what Dec would say.

‘Really?’

Really. Beth and I talked about asking you.’

Dec

I looked at him. At that moment, thinking about all the hard work, all the people and all the sorting out I was going to have to face, it was very tempting to leave it all behind and start again.

‘But we thought it would be selfish of us to ask – I mean, think about what you’d be letting go. You’ve got a second chance with Raiders, once you recover you’re not far away from the first team. Yeah, it’ll be hard work, and yeah it’s not the easy life. Rugby isn’t. You know that. And I think part of you belongs here, in this city. Think about Rose, too. She’d understand if you moved away, but I think you need her. She gets you, knows how to help you, knows how to make you accept the help.’

I shook my head, to clear it, not to disagree. Everything he said was absolutely right. Much as it would have meant to me to live with them all again, and much as it meant to me that they’d talked about it, and Jay had asked me, it wasn’t right just now, for any of us. Jay and Beth already had enough to cope with looking after Matt, they didn’t need the extra baggage of an unemployed hanger on. Regretfully, I pushed my apprehension aside.

Cal

It sounded like Dad was trying to get Dec to stay with Rose, and not live with us. I didn’t know much about all the reasons; I didn’t understand a lot of it. I just wanted Dec to live with us again.

‘No, you’re right, it’s just nerves. It means a lot to me that you offered, though. Let’s do this.’

Sure?’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s shoulder.

‘Sure.’

Thank fuck for that, no idea where we would have put you. Cubby hole by the washing machine, maybe, or a deck chair in the shed. Come on Cal, time to wake up.’

And that was the end of that.

Dec

Jay got out of the car and opened the back door so he could undo Cal’s seat belt. I got out and opened the boot to get my bag. I picked it up in my left hand, realising again with pleasure that I could carry it in that hand with no problems whatsoever. I waited with Cal while Jay picked up the other bag containing my new laptop and some food and drink Beth had insisted I brought back with me.

I fished the keys out of my pocket and, feeling really weird about it, opened the front door. It felt even more strange to be opening the door to Rose’s flat, as if I’d been away for months.

‘Only me.’

Rose rushed into the hall from the living room. As soon as I saw her, I realised how much I’d missed her, how big a part of my life she had become.

:Oh! You’re here! Let’s have a look at you. By, your face is looking better. You’ve had a haircut! There’s lovely now. Oh, and you’ve brought Jay and Calum with you. Hello young man. Would you like some orange squash?

\can I have purple?

‘I don’t think Rose does purple squash, Cal. Orange is OK isn’t it?

\kay.

:Tea for you two?

‘Great.’

She hurried off to the kitchen. We trooped after her, putting the bags down in the hall. After putting the kettle on and giving Cal his squash, Rose came over to me and gave me an enormous hug. I squeezed back and kissed her on the cheek, realising how much I’d missed her and recognising how much Rose had come to mean to me over the past weeks.

‘Good to see you.’

:You too love, it’s been quiet here without you.

‘You only got back yesterday, didn’t you?’

:Yes, love. Still missed you. I like having someone to make a fuss of.

Cal

Rose gave Dec a very big cuddle, it looked like she was going to squeeze him in half, but she didn’t, and then she went to make my squash. She talked to Dec the whole time, about how much she’d missed him, and because I was still trying to work out what she was to Dec, I just asked.

‘Dec, is Rose your mummy?’

Cal! Sorry, guys.’

I wasn’t sure what Dad was saying sorry for. He put his hand on my shoulder, to stop me saying anything else. I suppose I often got told off for asking things, but Granny always said ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’, although she sometimes told me off for asking things too, like about poo and wee when we were at Pizza Place and my voice was too loud.

Then Dec answered, and I knew I hadn’t said a wrong thing, because he wouldn’t have answered if I had.

‘She’s the nearest I’ve got to a mummy, yeah, Cal.’

I didn’t really know what that meant. Surely someone is either your mummy or they’re not? I tried to get him to explain.

Dec

Rose’s eyes filled up and she turned away to wipe them.

\does she make you tidy your room? And eat peas?

Cal’s definition of motherhood.

‘Well she hasn’t done either of those so far, but there’s plenty of time. Rose has looked after me while I’ve been sad and needed help, and I think she’s pretty great.’

Rose’s sniffles intensified.

Cal

I heard a sniff, and looked at Rose, who had her back to us. She might have been crying. There had been a lot of crying over the last few days, and I was starting to recognise the signs.

Bloody hell, Dec, way to go. Cal, stop asking awkward questions. Drink your squash, maybe Rose has got a biscuit or something?’

I didn’t know why Dad was cross with Dec and me, I’d only asked a question, and Dec had only answered it. But a biscuit sounded like a good idea. Rose got a tin out and opened the lid, then put some chocolate biscuits on a plate. I took one and munched on it while Dec, Rose and Dad talked some more.

Dec

Rose put some biscuits on a plate, turned round and put them on the table by Cal. Her eyes were still red, but there were no more tears.

‘Sorry, Rose, I didn’t mean to upset you.’

:Not upset, love, just emotional. Take no notice.

łDec’s done his fair share of blubbing over the last few days. Had to have serious words with him about it. Him and my brother make a right pair, anything sets them off.

:Did you have a good time, love?

‘Yeah, I had a great time. Just what I needed.’

łJust what we needed too. Like the old days. It was good to have him back, and he was a great help with Cal. Beyond the call of duty at times.

:Sounds grand, love. Did you sort things out between you?

łYeah, we had words, didn’t we Dec. All sorted now. Dec’s part of my family, end of, in a nutshell. Oh, and sort yourself out, you bloody headcase. I think he gets it.

‘I get it.’

:Oh that’s grand, just grand. Remember how heartbroken you were, love, all those weeks ago, when you thought you’d lost them. You’d never have believed you’d be standing here telling me about your Christmas with them, would you? You never know what’s round the corner.

\rose can I have another biscuit?

:Of course, love. Are you stopping for some lunch?

‘Hadn’t thought about lunch, but yeah, that would be great, then we can get over to the club?’

I looked at Jay for approval. He nodded. Rose had obviously given lunch some thought, although she tried to make it seem casual.

:I’ve got some cold bits and pieces in the fridge, wasn’t quite sure what Calum would like, so I made some cheesy dinosaur biscuits and some dip.

She started to take things out of the fridge, and the table was soon covered in plates of meat, bowls of crisps, bread, dip, cheese, olives.

łBloody hell, Rose, this is a feast. What if we’d already eaten?

‘Rose would have made us eat it anyway. Nothing goes to waste!’

\daddy can I have a grape?

łThere aren’t any grapes, mate – oh, you mean an olive. Well, you can, but they taste very different.

Cal took a bite, and the look on his face was priceless. He chewed on, knowing he wasn’t allowed to spit it out. Jay and I laughed.

:You rotters. Poor Calum, have some more juice, love, get the taste out of your mouth.

Cal

Rose asked Dec about Christmas, and rather than saying what presents he’d got, Dec and Dad said about how they’d had a talk, and how Dec was in our family now. I wondered if that would upset Rose, as she was nearly Dec’s mummy, but it made her smile.

Then Rose asked if we were going to stay for lunch, and we did, and Rose had made me some biscuits made of cheese that looked like dinosaurs, and a bowl of stuff to dip them in, and they were very delicious, and I ate them all, but I also had a green round thing that looked like a grape, but tasted very not like a grape, and I nearly spat it out, but Dad would really have been cross, so I ate it all. It made Dec and Dad laugh, but Rose felt sorry for me and made me more squash, and gave me a chocolate biscuit when Dad wasn’t looking. I liked Rose.

Dec

We finished lunch and headed off. Jay said he wanted to swing by the old house, which was being rented out. I hadn’t realised their new house was also rented.

łWe weren’t sure what our plans were – a lot depends on Matty – it seemed like the easiest way to keep our options open. I’m just going to sort a couple of things out with the tenants. You OK staying with Cal in the car?

\i want to go with you, Daddy.

łNo, Cal, stay here with Dec. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.

Cal

It was still Mum and Dad’s house, and I didn’t really understand that, or why we couldn’t come back and live in it, but Dad had to go and talk to the people who lived there now, while Dec and I waited in the car.

I had lots of questions for Dec while we waited. The house looked the same but different: the grass looked long at the front, there was a car I didn’t know on the drive, there was a Christmas tree in the window with flashing lights, and there were toys and a bike on the grass. I hadn’t thought about our house since we went to live with Granny and then in our new house, but now I thought about all the things that were in this house when I lived there, and I wondered if they were still there, if my pictures were still on the fridge and Dad’s trophies were still in the living room.

‘Whose bike is that?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, maybe another little boy lives here now.

I couldn’t imagine another little boy sleeping in my bedroom, shutting my Ben10 curtains at night and being scared of the shadow the crack in the door made at night if it was left too wide open.

‘Which little boy?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, sorry. Ask your dad when he comes back.’

‘When am I going to live here again?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, ask your dad.’

Dec wasn’t being any help. He was saying ‘I don’t know’ to everything.

‘When are you going to live with us?’

‘Don’t kn … oh mate, no Cal, you live in Stafford now. I live down here. I’m not going to be living with you.’

I knew this was the answer, but I wanted to keep checking, because it just didn’t make sense. If I kept asking, I hoped that maybe someone would say ‘oh this is silly, Dec should be living with you, shouldn’t he’. Dec didn’t say that, so I tried to nudge him there.

Can you come and live with us?’

Dec

This was really hard. Cal saw things in such simple terms, and my situation felt so complicated, it was like negotiating a minefield trying to decide what to tell him and what not to.

‘I wish I could live a bit closer to you, but my job is down here, I have to live here so I can do my job.’

Cal

Well that was easy to change.

‘But Daddy got a new job, you can get a new job.’

‘No, Cal, it’s not as easy as that. I have to stay here. But I’ll come and see you as often as I can, and you can all come and see me.’

The more Dec said it, the more I was realising that it was true, that Dec wasn’t going to be living with us again. Maybe Dad and Dec weren’t the right people to talk to. I would ask Mum when I got back. She’d cried when Dec left this morning, so she must want him to live with us. But if Dec wasn’t going to live with us, and he didn’t live here in our old house, I wasn’t quite sure where he did live.

‘Where is your house?’

‘Well, you know Rose, where we just had lunch? My flat is upstairs, just above her flat.’

That made sense. I could see Dec living near Rose, so she could tell him to pick his pants up and when to go to bed.

‘Can I see your house?’

‘Maybe another day. We’re going to Raiders Stadium when Daddy’s finished here, to watch the rugby.’

I’d almost forgotten the reason for our trip. I’d never seen rugby, or football, that wasn’t on TV, and I wondered if I might be able to have a bit of both.

‘Are Arsenal playing?’

‘No, Cal, you know Arsenal play football. This is Raiders, my rugby team, and Daddy’s old team.’

‘Are you playing?’

‘No, I can’t play with my hurt arm. Nico’s playing, though, so you can cheer for him.’

‘Is Daddy playing?’

‘No, Daddy doesn’t play any more You, me and Daddy are all going to watch it together. We might see Lis there too, she’s going to watch Nico.’

This was all very confusing. I decided to just wait and see what happened when we got there, and for now, there was something else I could ask.

‘Can I have some chocolate?’

‘I think your mum put some in your bag. Wait till your dad gets back, though. He won’t be long.’

‘But I’m hungry.’

‘You can’t be hungry, you just ate a whole plate of cheesy dinosaur biscuits at Rose’s. You didn’t even let me have one, and they looked well tasty.’

Dec pretended to look sad, but I had seen him and Dad eat lots of other things, so I knew he wasn’t hungry. Luckily, I also had an answer for him.

‘I’m hungry for chocolate.’

‘You’re still going to have to wait.’

Although it didn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.

‘Ohh but how long is Daddy going to be?’

Maybe using whine-mode might work better.

‘I don’t know. Let’s play I-Spy shall we?’

I-Spy is a really boring game when you’re sitting in a car that isn’t moving outside a house, where all you can see is other houses. I played for two goes, and then I thought of another question.

‘Dec, for my next birthday, can you go to Dinosaurland with me?’

‘I think that’s a great idea, Cal, but it depends on lots of things.’

This was a bit less enthusiastic than I’d been hoping for.

‘What things?’

‘Well, things like whether you can get here, what I’m doing, what you’re doing – it’s nearly a year till your next birthday.’

A year was forever. And Dec sounded like he was making grown-up excuses not to come to Dinosaurland, so our plan was never going to happen.

Dec

I saw the disappointment on his face, remembered how much I’d let him down about his last birthday, and thought of a way to make it right.

‘I’m sure we’ll be able to sort something out though. Even if it’s not on your birthday, maybe near to it. We’ll talk to your mum and dad, yeah? Make some plans.’

\can we ask Daddy now?

Cal

This sounded more promising, and if I could get Dec to agree and tell Dad, then there was no getting out of it. Dad was walking up the drive, so I needed Dec to be quick.

‘Maybe wait a bit, I’ll give them a ring later.’

I didn’t understand that. Why not say yes now? Dad got in the car, and I decided to take my chance.

Everything OK in here?’

‘I’m going to Dinosaurland with Dec for my birthday.’

Oh really, you’ve been busy plotting while I’ve been out have you?’

‘Just a suggestion from Cal. I said we’d have to think about it. There’s plenty of time.’

Sounds good to me. Dinosaurland’s a lot of fun, eh Cal?’

I was delighted. Dad had said yes, so it was going to happen.

‘See, Dec, Daddy said yes.’

‘Hm, I’m not sure that’s exactly what he said.’

Dec still wasn’t saying we could. It was very annoying.

Why the hell not? Like you say, there’s plenty of time to sort it. Maybe not actually on your birthday, Cal, it might not be possible, but close to it. OK?’

Dec

Cal looked at me triumphantly, and decided to push his luck.

\daddy can Dec live with us? He can sleep under me.

It occurred to me that Cal had been really young when I moved in with them. I didn’t even know if he could remember a time, before recently, when I hadn’t been there, and these last few months must have been tough for him to get his head around.

‘Cal, we just talked about this. I’ve got to stay here and get better and play rugby.’

łYeah, and you know how messy Dec is. You’d lose all your Lego under piles of his dirty socks if he shared your room. I know you’ve liked having him around again, haven’t you. We’ll just have to get him back up for lots of visits, won’t we.

Cal

No, that wasn’t the same. I didn’t mind about Dec’s socks, even though they were very smelly. It just had to go back the way it used to be. I still didn’t understand why it couldn’t.

‘But Mummy said you aren’t cross with Dec any more and he’s been sad and needs us to give him loves to make him better, like Uncle Matty does. Why can’t he get better with us like Uncle Matty?’

Dec

I gasped at Cal’s matter-of-factness. Jay ran a hand through his hair and looked over at me with a sigh.

Cal

Dad pushed his hands through his hair, like he did when he was thinking. For a minute, I thought he was going to say OK, like with my birthday plan, but then I realised he was thinking about a way to say no.

‘Well, Cal, we’ve all missed Dec, and it’s been great having him with us for Christmas, hasn’t it. And yeah, Uncle Matty needs Mummy and me to look after him, but Dec needs people down here to make sure he gets better, people like the doctors at Raiders, and Rose, and Nico. Mummy and me couldn’t do it the same, and it’s too far away from where Dec plays rugby. Dec knows we don’t have to be near him to love him. Tell you what, though, it’s Dec’s birthday in a few weeks, why don’t we ask him if he wants to come back for a family party?’

I had to admit defeat. If Dec needed to be here to get better, and we had to be there to help Uncle Matty get better, I suppose there was nothing we could do. Maybe Dec coming back to see us on his birthday, when we could have fun and football and pizza, would be something to look forward to.

‘Dec, can you?’

‘That sounds great, mate. Maybe you can take me for an Ice Cream Factory? And I can stay in the bottom bunk again?’

Dec sounded excited about it, so maybe it was a good idea after all. And we could do a birthday plan for Dec, like we had a birthday plan for me, only this one would work.

‘Kay. Daddy, I think Dec will like to see the zoo and have Smarties on his birthday too.’

We’ll make some plans with Mummy, shall we? She loves a party. Sounds like you’ve got some great ideas already. Right. That’s the partying sorted. Let’s go watch some rugby.’

36. Running in the family

In which changes are afoot, games are played and farewells are begun

Dec

Beth and Carol looked at me. I looked back.

_What did you say to him last night?

‘Lots of things. I think we do needing help in a pretty similar way. Neither of us are very good at it. I’m just a little bit further down the line than he is.’

_Is he OK this morning?

‘Seems to be.’

_What you said to Jay, about not leaving him alone when he’s down. How did you know that?

‘It’s just what happened to me. The first few times Rose tried to help me I was really unpleasant to her – yelled at her, told her to fuck off, I think I nearly punched her once.’

_Dec!

Beth looked horrified, and Carol looked as if she was reassessing her ceasing of hostilities.

‘I was extremely hungover, probably still drunk, thinking about it. She took me by surprise, I know that’s no excuse. But she hung in there, didn’t let me go. She stayed up with me all night one time, when I was in a really bad way. She never gave up; she was just there. I kept telling her to go away, but she stayed. I wanted to show Matt that he can’t push people away, that there’s going to be someone there to hold on to when he needs it. I just think it’s what he needs.’

_But he gets so angry if you don’t leave him alone.

‘Yeah, he does, it works well, doesn’t it? Who wants to stay there with someone who’s so pissed off? You just have to ride it out and be stronger than him. It’s not easy. He won’t let it be easy.’

#It’s very hard to do the opposite of what someone is asking you to do.

‘Yeah, I know. I guess, if you think of what he’s really asking for, rather than the words he’s saying, it might be easier.’

They both looked at me, waiting for me to explain.

#What do you mean, dear?

‘He’s saying leave me alone. He’s actually asking you to show you care enough about him to not leave him alone through all his shit. Kind of like a test. If you leave him alone, he was right and he doesn’t deserve you.’

_Oh Dec. Is that really what it’s been like for you? Did we make you feel like that?

I shrugged. Didn’t want to make this about me.

‘I didn’t really think about it until yesterday. All afternoon I kept thinking about Matt on his own feeling like shit, and it just kind of occurred to me, we’ve both come close to losing everything in different ways. It affects you, makes you, I dunno, try to protect yourself. What I’ve done in the not so distant past, and what Matt does, is pretty similar. It’s all about willpower. I just decided I was more stubborn than he is. He ran me pretty close.’

#Well maybe there’s something in what you’re saying, Declan. Sometimes you can be too close to someone, and not see what they need because you need things too. Like being his mum means I feel I need to look after him, but he actually needs to do more for himself. I think you might have been able to see things more clearly because you’re a little further removed. Maybe we’ve been too busy taking care of him to help him get better?

_Oh Carol, that’s a really lovely way of putting it. Dec, if you’re right, you might have helped us to help him more, made a real difference. Thank you, sweetheart.

Beth got up and put her arms round me, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

łHey, unhand my wife. No time for that, we’re going on a family walk. Matty’s all ready, taken his meds and is now wearing about seventy layers of thick clothing. So before he faints from heat exhaustion, I suggest you get your coats and shoes and join us. Cal’s even got his coat and wellies on, so we haven’t got long before he gets bored and takes it all off again.

_Whose idea was that?

łMine. Why the hell not? We had a great time in the park yesterday, apart from all the mud, and nearly wrecking Dec. We need to do more of this stuff; sitting around snoozing in the house isn’t doing anything for the size of my arse. Come on, what are you waiting for?

We all did as we were told, finding coats, shoes and various other warm items. It didn’t take long to get ready, and we all left the house, Jay pushing Matt in his wheelchair.

\daddy how far are we going?

łDunno, Cal, could be a hundred miles.

\but I don’t want to walk a hundred miles.

łOh, OK, a bit less then. I’ll give you a piggy back if you get tired.

\can I have a piggy back now?

łNo, wait until you’re tired.

\i’m tired now.

Jay accepted defeat.

łDec, can you take over with Matty’s chair? OK with your arm?

‘No worries.’

He bent down and Cal jumped onto his back. Jay galloped up the road like a horse, to accompanying squeals from Cal. Beth and Carol followed, and I pushed Matt at a slower pace.

}Wha dih yuh say to them?

‘Not much. Told them to stop fussing over you. You’re going to have to ask for help a lot more now. Told them what it was like for me, too. Pretty much it. Oh, and next time you’re feeling miserable, don’t expect to be left alone.’

}Bolluhks, no mohr peace and quieht then.

‘Fraid not my friend.’

}Yuh are, ahrnt yuh.

‘What?’

}My friehd.

‘Yeah. Never in doubt.’

}Douhted ih lahs night. Thought you wehr jus being an annohying dick.

‘Well, I was that too. Call it a character flaw.’

} … Yuh knoh my girfriehnd lehf meh an took ahl my friehds?

‘Yeah, mate, Beth said something.’

}Havant had a friend since then. Jus fahmly, which is greht, thehr greht. But guhd tuh hahv someone who gets meh. Kehp in touch, yeh?

‘Yeah.’

}Hey, yuh gohn quieht.

He tilted his head backwards to look at me. It felt like a long time since someone had called me their friend, too. My leaky eyes let me down once more.

}Oh bluhdy hell, fucking hehd case blahrting again. Heh, lehs catch up wih Jay. Can yuh push fast?

I started running with the chair, bumping over the pavement, trying to avoid the potholes and the resulting jolts to Matt, as well as my arms.

}Heh Cal, race yuh.

Cal looked behind and saw us coming. Beth and Carol scrambled out of the way. Jay had been walking, but sped up when Cal told him we were coming. If the path hadn’t been going uphill, we would have overtaken them, but it was just too much for me to keep going. The strain on my arm started to tell, and my infrequently tested lungs started to protest. Jay slowed too, but he only had a six-year old on his back, whereas I was pushing a full-grown man wearing lots of clothes, in a metal wheelchair.

}Dohnt stop, yuh lohser.

‘Got to … gonna die.’

I slowed down and stopped, putting the brakes on the chair before I lay down on the path, panting.

}Fucking lighweigh.

‘Get out … and run yourself … next time you … want a fucking race.’

Cal had got down from Jay’s back and skipped back to us.

\we won, we won.

Jay followed more slowly, he looked nearly as tired as me, and bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

łOK Cal … your turn … to give me … a piggy back.

\daddy, I can’t, you’re too big.

łThen maybe Uncle Matty’s … going to have to get out … of his wheelchair … and push me home.

}Uncle Mahty’s staying righ hehr, thahks. Cahnt mohv in ahl thehs clohths anyway.

#Perhaps we just all need to go a little bit more slowly. We could get to the river and feed the ducks, it’s not far, is it?

\we need bread to feed the ducks, Granny.

#Then it’s a good thing I brought some, isn’t it? Come on, Calum, see if you can remember the way.

They walked off ahead, Cal carrying the bag of bread. Beth stood looking at Jay and me, hands on hips. I stood up, having regained my composure, but Jay was still breathing hard.

_The pair of you want your heads banging together.

}Heh, wha abouh meh? My idea.

_You too, then, Matty. All three of you need a slap.

łCome on, Beth, it was just a bit of fun. Where’s the harm?

_Boys! I’ll never understand you.

She walked off after Cal and Carol, shaking her head. We stood and looked at each other, nonplussed.

łNot sure what we did. Good laugh. Rematch on the way back?

‘What, down the hill? Great, I can just let go. Make sure you hold on tight, Matt.’

łYeah, maybe not. Perhaps I can see Beth’s point. Better get after them, those ducks aren’t going to feed themselves.

Jay and I pushed Matt’s wheelchair between us up the hill. Jay took over at the top, and I walked beside Matt.

łYou alright, Matty?

}Greht, guhd tuh be ouh. Two dahys in a roh. Woo hoo.

łWe should do it more often. Very often in fact. I’m taking Dec back tomorrow, but Monday let’s start something new. As long as the weather’s good, let’s go for a walk every day, I don’t know, feed those bloody ducks or something. Get us both out of the house. Maybe you’ll feel up to walking a bit of the way yourself – up that bloody hill for a start.

}Yeh. Greht. Plehs. Noh wahking up the bluhdy hill thogh.

łOr how about coming to watch me coaching sometime? You can hold the players’ handbags.

}Ha ha. Yeh.

łAnd maybe I could give you a list and you could do the weekly shop?

}Fuck ohf. Bluhdy haht shopping. Do ih online fuh yuh tho.

łWorth a try. Beth doesn’t approve of online shopping.

We walked on to the river and caught up with Cal, Beth and Carol, who had made the fat ducks even fatter by the time we got there.

\daddy a duck pecked my finger.

łReally mate? Probably thought it was a worm.

\no, he was getting bread from my hand. It tickled. They’re all gone now.

Cal looked wistfully up the river in the direction the ducks had gone.

łWell we can come back soon and give them some more bread. Uncle Matty’s going to come for lots more walks to feed the ducks.

Jay looked at Beth, who raised her eyebrows. He nodded back at her.

\uncle Matty, has a duck ever pecked you?

}Er, noh tha I member.

\dec, has a duck ever pecked you?

‘No, mate, never, you must be the only one of us a duck has ever pecked.’

Cal beamed with pride.

\daddy, can you give me a piggy back?

Jay sagged.

łOh come on, Cal, fair dos, I carried you most of the way here.

\i want to race Uncle Matty again.

_I don’t think we’ll have any more races, the last one just about did for Daddy and Dec.

}Why dohn yuh climb up hehr and Daddy can push us both bahk hohm?

Cal conceded that this was almost as good as a piggy back, although Jay’s face showed he wasn’t too thrilled about his increased load. Cal climbed onto Matt’s lap, where Matt put his arms round Cal protectively.

_James, please be careful, I don’t want anyone falling out of any wheelchairs. No running, promise me.

łYou’ll be lucky. Thanks a bunch, Matty.

}Jus being hehpful. Yuh nehd to geh fit if yuhr going tuh kehp up wih meh every day, new rehgime and all tha.

łHmm, I’m starting to wonder if it’s such a good idea. Come on, then, Cal, let’s get rolling. I wonder what Mummy’s got planned for lunch? I wonder if it’s … frogs and snails?

}Tha was lahs nigh.

łBloody cheek, that was my curry.

}Zahctly.

Jay headed off with Matt and Cal, still talking nonsense at the top of their voices. As I watched them go, Beth touched my arm.

_We’re going to miss you.

‘I’m going to miss this. A lot.’

_You’ll come back and see us soon?

‘When I can. I think it’s going to be tricky, I’m going to be busy once I start training again. And I’m coaching with the youth team, and once I start playing again I’ll be with Trojans, even further away. I’ll come back whenever I can, if it’s OK with you.’

_Oh Dec, come back and stay as long and as often as you like. I’d almost forgotten how much time rugby takes up – since we moved up here, I’ve seen so much more of James. You’ll keep in touch? There’s all sorts of things you can do on the computer, and now you’ve got your phone you can call us, or text.

‘Course I’ll keep in touch. Not so good with all the technology, maybe I need Matt to show me before I go.’

_Do that – he’s great with all that stuff, it’d help him to feel useful I’m sure. Are you sure you want to go tomorrow, sweetheart? You don’t have to be back in training until the sixth, do you? It seems like we’ve just got used to having you around again …

‘Ah, Beth, I’d really, really love to stay, but the longer I stay, the harder it’ll be to leave. You might never get rid of me. And I need to start working off some of your roast potatoes before I get into training. The conditioning team are going to be horrified at the state of me as it is.’

_Don’t let them bully you.

‘It’s what they’re good at. And what I need.’

_As long as you’re sure. Just want to hang onto you as long as I can now we’ve got you back.

I put my arm round her and pulled her close. What was this woman to me? Mother? Sister? Friend? A mixture of all and more. I loved her with all my heart.

‘A wise man once said to me, actually it was Matt the night before last, that families are connected wherever they are. We don’t have to be together to feel together. Or something like that. It helped me when I was feeling miserable about going home.’

_Oh Dec, that’s perfect. You and Matty have got on really well, haven’t you?

‘He’s great, I really like him. We’re kind of the same.’

_God help us. Come on, sweetheart, let’s go and see if it’s frogs and snails for lunch.

We caught up with Jay, who hadn’t managed to get very far with his unruly load. Cal was asking Jay to stop every time he saw a pine cone, so he could pick it up for Matt. Fir trees lined the road; there were a lot of pine cones.

łCome on Cal, you don’t need every single one.

\uncle Matty says every one’s different, and he needs them for his collection.

łHe no more collects pine cones than you collect pink dresses. Matty, please tell him.

}Thehr’s another ohn, Cal, it’s rehly big. Behst one yeht.

łMatty …

}Oh alright, I wahs jus waiting foh the lahdies to catch up.

\the ladies and Dec.

}Whaever yuh say, eh Auhnty Dec? Ohkay, enough pihn cohns, thahks Cal. Cahry on drihver.

łI swear, Matty, if you weren’t a bloody cripple …

_James, honestly!

łSorry. I swear, if you weren’t unable to defend yourself …

}Who sahys I cahnt? I’ve got my attack-Cal. Cal – pihn cohns launch!

Cal and Matt started pelting Jay over Matt’s shoulder. Cal was beside himself with glee and Matt cackled evilly. Jay stopped the wheelchair, put the brakes on and put his hands in the air.

łI surrender, give up, no more. Dec, please take over if your piss-poor arms can cope, and take this rabble home. I’m going to escort my lovely wife and charming mother in a more sedate fashion.

I took the brakes off, and started to push. Matt resumed holding on to Cal; the hilarity died down, but Matt and Cal continued to point out red cars and they excitedly spotted a squirrel in a tree. When we reached the house, Cal jumped off Matt’s knee and ran indoors, stripping off his coat as he went. Matt waited until Cal was out of earshot.

}Bolluhks, think I’ve wohn mysehf out. Cahn yuh hehp me?

‘Course, what do you need?’

}Clohths off, all thehs, into behd. Dohn thihk I cahn stahnd. Fuck.

I took Matt into his room and peeled off the top layers as he sat in the wheelchair. He had gone pale and was panting noisily.

‘OK, arm round my shoulder, can you help at all?’

}Prohbly noh. Gihv ih a try.

I stood up, lifting Matt up as well as I could. He had a little strength in his legs, but not much, and the effort made him breathe more raspingly. I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung him round to lie down. Pulled off the three pairs of trousers, leaving him in t-shirt and boxers.

‘Is that OK? Duvet over you?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

‘Need anything else?’

}Noh … th … muh … blr …

He fell asleep before my eyes, while he was still trying to speak. Jay, Beth and Carol came in through the front door, laughing. They stopped when they saw Matt was already in bed.

‘He said he was tired, asked me to get him into bed. Just fell straight to sleep.’

łBloody idiot overdid it. I thought he was getting a bit manic. He’s worse than Cal at admitting when he’s tired.

‘Will he be OK?’

łHopefully he’ll just sleep it off. Otherwise, fancy another sleepless night in the chair pissing him off?

Beth looked at me and realised I was feeling guilty.

_Don’t worry, Dec, it’s not your fault. Let’s make sure someone’s with him when he wakes up. Take it in turns. You first, James, I’ll bring some lunch in. New approach, remember?

łYeah, yeah.

Jay stomped off and sat in the chair by Matt’s bed, as the phone in my pocket started to ring. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Nico. I went into the living room to answer it.

‘Nico, hi!’

>Declan, is good to hear you. You come to watch me play tomorrow.

‘Well, not just you, the whole team, but yeah.’

>You stay afterwards?

‘Hadn’t really thought, but yeah, I should think so.’

>Good, you have a drink after the game with me and Lis. Lis come also to watch me play. You tell us how is your Christmas.

‘Yeah, sounds good.’

>You have good times?

‘Yeah it’s been really great. Lis told me you had a busy day.’

>Was busy, much noise and much love. We enjoy. Many people and many childrens. We still find sticky places everywhere.

‘Sounds like a lot of fun, apart from the clearing up.’

>Ha, I let Lis clear up. I tell her is good for her, she is better wife.

I heard Lisa’s voice in the background, and suspected Nico was going to be in trouble for that one.

>Lis say see you tomorrow. I must go – she give me a cloth. What I do with this, baby? Ow. Tomorrow, then, Declan. Be careful with yourself.

‘OK, look forward to it. Bye.’

It occurred to me that I hadn’t checked with Jay that he had been able to get tickets for the game. I walked into Matt’s room, where Jay sat flicking through a magazine.

‘Sorry, I feel a bit responsible.’

łDon’t do that, Dec. Matty wants more control, more independence, more going out, he needs to know the consequences. We’re all still learning here. I guess he’s not going to get better unless he learns how far he can push himself. Sometimes it’s going to be too far. I think he’ll be OK.

Matt continued to sleep, breathing raggedly.

‘He’s out for the count.’

łYeah, well, I think he had a pretty good morning. Maybe it was worth it. We’ll see when he wakes up.

‘Would you rather not take me back tomorrow?’

łWhat? Where did that come from?

‘Just in case …’

łNo, it’ll be fine. I sorted us out seats for the game. Don wants to talk to you about it. Ring him. I think we put his number on your phone.

‘I’ll do it now.’

Cal

I enjoyed myself on our walk so much, and so did everyone else, that I still wondered why Dec wasn’t staying, because everything seemed better since he came. Mum and Dad and Granny laughed, and Uncle Matty had been out twice and had sat at the table, and nobody was cross with anyone. I just didn’t get it. It was better with Dec there, and I wanted him to stay, but I didn’t know how to say it.

When we got back, I did some drawing with Granny. I liked Granny’s drawings, because she was good at cartoons, and could draw Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu.

Dec

I headed into the living room, stood looking out of the window, and called Don’s number. It went to voicemail. I left a message and hung up. The phone rang almost immediately. I was expecting it to be Don, but the screen just showed a number, not a name.

‘Hello?’

ϙHello, Declan Summers?

‘Yeah.’

ϙIt’s DI Johnson.

‘Oh. Hi.’

ϙDeclan we have some news regarding our investigations into the assault on you and the subsequent incident in your flat.

‘OK.’

ϙWe’ve checked out the two names you gave us, David Allsop and Ben Hearne, and been able to match the DNA from samples taken from your flat to Ben Hearne, but not David Allsop. Mr Allsop has an alibi for the time of your assault. Mr Hearne does not, and he was seen following you out of the bar just prior to the assault. We also found his fingerprints on some of the glass from the bottle you were hit with. We have arrested Mr Hearne and are currently questioning him.

My legs buckled, and I sat down heavily on the sofa.

ϙDeclan, are you still there?

‘Yeah … I … fuck.’

ϙAre you alright? Is someone there with you?

‘Yeah … I’m OK.’

Although I felt far from it. Thinking it might be Big was one thing, having it confirmed was another. Deep down I’d been hoping I was wrong, that my dream was just a dream, that Big couldn’t possibly have done it. But it was him. Big, who had been my mate … it brought the whole episode into sharp focus, intruding into my time here with Jay’s family, making me too aware of what I was facing when I went home.

ϙI’ll keep you up to date with things. Thank you for the information you have already given us. Please let me know if you remember anything else.

‘OK.’

He rang off. I sat, immobile, on the sofa, staring at the ‘call ended’ screen on the phone. Beth called from the kitchen.

_Dec, is soup OK for you?

I didn’t answer. Hardly heard her. That was officially the end of it with me and Big; I couldn’t take it in.

_Dec? James, where’s – oh, there you are. Is soup – what’s the matter?

She came in and sat next to me, looked closely at my face.

_You’re white as a sheet.

‘Yeah … er … just had a call. Police. They’ve arrested Big. Er, Ben Hearne.

_Oh, sweetheart. What a shock for you.

‘Yeah.’

_You did think it was him, though, didn’t you?

‘Yeah. I kept hoping I was wrong. He was my mate, he was the only one who talked to me when things were tough. He was just a fucking liar. I don’t fucking get it.’

_Oh sweetheart …

Beth put her arm round my shoulders. I put my face in my hands and cried, for lost friendship, lost trust, lost pride.

_Oh Dec, don’t. He’s not worth it.

‘I know he’s fucking not. I was such an idiot. So desperate to get my friends back, I let him fool me.’

_Don’t be so hard on yourself. It sounds like he fooled a lot of people. How were you to know? They’ve got him now. He wasn’t so smart, really.

‘Not smart enough not to piss on my stuff, I guess.’

_What?

‘DNA from my flat.’

_Well, that just shows who’s the idiot then.

łWhat’s going on?

Jay stood in the doorway as I wiped my eyes.

łDec, seriously, we’re running out of tissues.

_He’s just had a bit of a shock. They’ve arrested Ben Hearne.

łJesus, no way. Ah, Dec, sorry, mate. That is a bit of a shocker. You were right, then?

‘Yeah.’

I sniffed and took a deep breath.

‘Yeah, I was, I’m OK. Like you say, it’s just a bit of a shock. Brings it all home, churns it all up again. Fuck, I am a head case, aren’t I.’

łBeen trying to tell you that since you got here. Bloody nutter.

He sat down on the other side of me and put his arm round the other shoulder. Having these two people at my side made me feel safer and less out of control than I had for a long time.

łBut you’re our bloody nutter. Wouldn’t have you any other way. You going to be OK?

‘Yeah. Fuck. Sorry. I’ll be OK now. Really.’

I took several deep breaths, tried to rearrange the information in my head in a way which made sense. My phone rang, making me jump, and I nearly dropped it. Looked at the screen. Don.

łYou’d better get that, mate.

He stood up and left the room. Beth squeezed my shoulder and did the same.

‘Hi Don.’

-Declan, I got your message. Jay tells me you’re coming to tomorrow’s game?

‘Yeah, he said he squared it with you?’

-Yes, that’s fine. Just a couple of things I wanted to go over with you. I’d appreciate you wearing your training kit, just so people know you’re representing us.

‘Sure, no worries.’

I wondered if he knew about Big.

-Good. Will you have a chance for the medics to look you over after the game? I’d like them to get a look at how you’re healing, see how much we can do in your initial training sessions.

‘Yeah, no problem. I was going to ask if someone could check me out while I’m there.’

-Perfect. How are you doing?

‘Things seem to be going pretty well, I’ve almost got full movement back in my right arm, bruises have gone down a lot, stitches going nicely, don’t look quite as much like Frankenstein as I did.’

-That’s good news. I’m glad to hear it, son.

‘Don, er, did you know, the police – er – they just called me, they’ve arrested Ben Hearne.’

Don was silent for a long time.

-I was aware they were investigating Ben, and David Allsop. I didn’t know they had arrested anyone.

‘They said they didn’t think it was DivDav – er, David. But they found DNA from Ben in my flat, and on the bottle I was hit with.’

-Declan, I’m very sorry to hear that, I know he was your friend. Thank you for telling me. I suspect I’ll need to talk to Adrian now about media coverage. It might put a different complexion on your attendance tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

He hung up abruptly. Beth, who must have been waiting in the hallway, came back in to the room.

_OK?

‘Think so. I think I heard the sound of shit hitting the fan. Fuck, what a fucking mess. Sorry. Sorry, Beth, it just comes out. Too much time on my own, no one to tell me to mind my language.’

Beth rolled her eyes and ruffled my hair.

_I don’t remember it being much different when there was someone around to tell you. It’s part of your charm. When Cal’s expelled, I’ll send you the bill for a private school.

‘Ha ha, deal.’

_Oh, what a way to spend your last afternoon with us, Matty out cold, upsetting phone calls, what can we do to make it better?

I had a memory, and a thought.

‘How about … a game of charades?’

_Oh that’s brilliant! I’d forgotten about Christmas charades. Let’s do it in Matty’s room, we can all join in then. I’ll do some lunch, then we’ll get charading. Well remembered.

Beth busied herself with lunch. Carol and Cal were drawing pictures at the kitchen table. Jay was with Matt. I sat and caught my breath. The latest news from DI Johnson had knocked me, but at least I wasn’t going to bump into Big at the game tomorrow. I wondered what Don was going to do about it – he might even say I shouldn’t go. I decided that if that was the case I would try to stay here for a few more days.

After lunch, we all went into Matt’s room. Jay and I brought in extra chairs. Matt was still fast asleep. The game of charades brought back so many good memories for me from past Christmases. Cal understood the point of the game much better now he was older, but he hadn’t always, and I clearly remembered him repeating out loud the title Beth had just whispered to him, and then beaming when we all laughed, thinking he’d won. How old had he been then? Three? Four? He seemed so much older now, he had grown so fast.

We had an uproarious time. Jay opened a bottle of wine, to help us feel less self-conscious, and we threw ourselves into the game. Matt slept on, oblivious. I glanced at him from time to time to see if a loud shout or laugh had disturbed him, but he didn’t seem to stir.

After we had wrung the last bit of amusement out of charades, we moved on to some of Cal’s board games. Jay moved the table away from the side of Matt’s bed, and we all sat round it. With a bit of creative scoring, Cal won everything. Just as we were finishing, Matt woke up. He looked dazed and bleary eyed.

}Kehp the noihs dohn, crihpls trying tuh slehp hehr.

\mummy –

_Yes, Cal, I know. Uncle Matty doesn’t like doing as he’s told, and he’s too big for the naughty step.

I saw a relieved glance pass between Jay and Beth. Matt seemed to be feeling OK so far.

}Yuh behn playing wihouh meh?

łNot technically, you were here in the room. Can’t be helped if you were too lazy to wake up.

}Leh yuh ohf. Cal, who won Huhngry Hihpos?

\me!

}Wha ehls yuh play?

\pop-Up Pirate and Operation. And the game where you guess if it’s films or books and the answer’s Bob the Builder.

}Who wohn thohs?

\me!

}Wehl dohn. Glahd yuhr on my team. Especiahly if I mihsed bluhdy charahds.

łHang on a minute, you can’t just claim a victory like that, you were asleep.

}Yeh, buh Cal’s ahlways on my tehm, dohn matter if I’m awahk or noh. I win. Rohnd one tuh meh.

_Stop it you two, it’s only a game, doesn’t matter who wins.

}Lohng as ih’s meh.

_Well, Matty, you don’t seem to have suffered any ill effects from your morning’s efforts. Are you hungry?

}Stahving. Wha time issit?

_Nearly tea time. You slept right through.

}Shih, haht doin tha.

_Matty, honestly …

}Wha? Blahm Dec foh any inadvehtent swehrs.

‘Hey! I’m getting a bit pissed off with – oh shit, sorry – fu – dammit. I’ll shut up, shall I?’

I looked sheepishly at Beth who raised an eyebrow and didn’t need to say any more. I was all for trying, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to rein in my bad language.

#Well you seem awake enough now, Matthew. I’ll do some tea, dear, you’ve got that mince, Beth dear, shall I do a shepherd’s pie?

_Oh Carol that would be wonderful. I’ll come and put the kettle on, get us all a drink.

And so my final evening with them, for now, had begun. I tried not to let it bother me, just relax and enjoy it, but I couldn’t help thinking about leaving tomorrow, and how hard it would be. To take my mind off it, I asked Matt to show me how to use my phone and laptop to use Skype and FaceTime. He didn’t seem to be suffering any further ill effects from his walk, and was very willing to show me what he knew.

}Bluhdy hell, Dec, I thought ehvryohn yuhr age knew this stuhf?

‘Never been great with technology. I can just about text and phone, use the internet if there’s free Wi-Fi. I only ever used my laptop for surfing the net and storing music. Oh, and eBay, but that tested my abilities. Haven’t had one for so long now, I’m kind of out of practice.’

}Did yuh rehly sell all yuhr stuhf?

‘Yeah. Necessary at the time.’

}And had yuhr phohn smashed and yuhr flat trashed and yuhr bank accohnt emptied?

‘Yeah.’

}Fucking hehl, Dec. Hahrsh.

‘No more harsh than what happened to you.’

}Ghess noht. Lehs staht League of Losers, incohporating bluhb cluhb and Crihpls Cohner.

‘I like it.’

}Am I ihn yuhr cohtacts?

‘No. I didn’t think you had a phone.’

}Only goh basic ohn, Cahrie took my iPhone. Buh can tex. And now hahv iPad, can mehsage an FaceTime if yuh hahv Wi-Fi.

‘I haven’t got internet at home, nor has Rose.’

}Bluhdy hell, it’s lihk the dahk ages. Yuhr phohn’s goh a contraht wih 3G. Or if yuhv got noh signhal, goh tuh Stahbucks or sohmthing. Or geh Wi-Fi. Or a dongle.

‘If I knew what the fuck one of those was, I’m sure I would. I should do something, though, otherwise this laptop’s not going to be much good.’

}Geh yuhsehf sohted. Nehd tuh kehp in touch.

‘Yeah. I really do, don’t I.’

I had a real sense of having made a friend. Previously, friendships had come easily, had been part of school, or Raiders, just people who were there who I had a laugh with, who were the same age as me. Matt and I had made a connection somehow, and it was another good thing I could take away from this Christmas.

I had a phone call later from Don, confirming that Jay and I could use the tickets for the part of the stand reserved for family of team members. He wanted to remind me that I wasn’t to talk to reporters, or anyone who I thought might be a reporter, and to refer them to him, or remind them about the press conference at the end of the game. He didn’t want me to attend it, and said it was fine to go to the bar afterwards and circulate. I assumed he had a plan, as he had the last time he suggested it.

I called Rose and told her I was coming back the next day. She sounded really pleased, full of plans for meals and what she needed to do to get the place ready. I told her we were going to watch the game, and although we’d call in and see her to drop off my bags beforehand, I might not be back till later on.

Business concluded, I could relax, and concentrate on enjoying the evening. I read Cal a story before he went to bed, or rather read him a long complicated chapter of a book about the history of flight.

łCal, do you spend all your time finding the longest chapters in all your books so you can avoid going to bed?

\no Daddy. This is my bedtime story. I like Concorde.

łWhatever you say, mate.

Cal

For my last bedtime story before Dec went home, I found the longest chapter in any of my books, which was about Concorde in my History of Flight book. It lasted a long time, but in the end we had to finish reading, and Dad put me to bed.

‘Daddy, why does Dec have to go home tomorrow?’

‘Well, I suppose he doesn’t have to, it’s just convenient.’

‘What’s caveenion?’

I liked knowing new words and what they meant. Caveenion sounded like an exciting sort of cave where onions grew.

‘It means it’s easy and it makes sense. There’s a rugby match on in the city, and me and Dec are going to watch it, and I’m going to talk to some of the people at Raiders, so it makes sense to take Dec home at the same time. Do you want to come, so you can say goodbye, and watch the rugby?’

‘But I like football.’

‘I know, mate. How about giving it a try?’

‘Can I wear my Arsenal shirt?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But why does Dec have to go away?’

‘Mate, he doesn’t live here.’

‘But why?’

‘Cal, this was never Dec’s home, not like before. There’s no room for him, now Granny stays over so much. It doesn’t mean we don’t like him the same as we ever did. Come on mate, go to sleep.’

‘Kay Daddy.’

Dad left the door open a crack because of the monsters, and went back downstairs. I knew Dec wasn’t going to be sleeping underneath me; he had an airbed in Dad’s office, because of his screams. He hadn’t slept in my room last night when he was being with Uncle Matty, and I hadn’t liked it, and now it was his last night, and I wanted him near while I was asleep. I tried to get to sleep, but I couldn’t, and I could hear the TV and talking downstairs.

After a while, I decided to risk going downstairs. I sometimes got in trouble for going downstairs after I’d gone to bed, but it depended on what the reason was. Dad didn’t get as cross as Mum, so I hoped that Mum would be asleep or in the kitchen.

Dec

After Cal had gone to bed, I helped Beth unload and load the dishwasher, and packed my belongings, which had got scattered around the house. I found the duplicate Christmas stocking stuffed in my bag, and left it in the cupboard in the utility room, then I went back to the living room and joined Jay and Carol in front of the TV, while Beth was fiddling with laundry in the kitchen.

Cal

I walked quietly down the stairs and listened at the bottom, to see if I could find out who was in the living room. I could only hear the TV, but the light was on in the kitchen, and I could hear somebody doing something in there – it must be Mum, because Dad hardly ever did things on his own in the kitchen.

I went and stood at the living room door.

‘Daddy …’

Cal, why are you out of bed?’

‘I can’t sleep.’

Come here, mate.’

I went to Dad, and he scooped me on to his lap and kissed me on the top of my head. It was going well so far.

Why can’t you sleep?’

‘I want Dec to sleep under me.’

Dad looked at Dec, who was on the other sofa.

But Dec has bad dreams and scares you.’

‘I won’t be scared. It’s only his dreams. I like when Dec does bad swears at night.’

I see.’

Dad liked doing bad swears too, and I thought this might help to explain it. He looked at Dec again. Dec grinned at me and shrugged at Dad.

‘Thanks, Cal. Yeah, I think I might’ve a couple of times – sat up and banged my head. Just came out. Sorry.’

Hmm. Well, Cal, I think we’ve got quite a long journey tomorrow, and we all need to get a good night’s sleep. So maybe Dec would be better off on the air bed in my office.’

That didn’t sound good, it sounded like the sensible thing to do. I needed something more than sensible, something that Dec could help with.

‘But Daddy, Optimus Prime is scared without Dec.’

Is he now? I thought he was king of the Transformers or something.’

‘Yes, but he likes having Dec sleeping under him too.’

Dec wasn’t there last night, he sat up with Uncle Matty’

Oh yeah. It felt like I was losing this one, but I had one last go.

‘Yes but Optimus Prime woke up and it was all quiet, and Dec wasn’t going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and he didn’t like it.’

This was true, if you pretended that I was Optimus Prime. I hadn’t liked waking up in the dark and not hearing Dec breathing below me.

Dad looked at Dec again.

What have you done to him? He can’t sleep without your mad noises. OK, Cal, let’s ask Dec. Dec, how would you feel about sleeping in the bottom bunk for one last night?’

Dec looked really pleased.

‘I’d love it.’

Will you promise faithfully not to do any big swears?’

‘I promise to try, but I can’t really control what goes on while I’m asleep.’

It was a great thing to promise, because it meant I still might hear some loud swears, but if I did, Dec wouldn’t be in trouble about it. Dad sighed.

I suppose that’s good enough. OK Cal, you wheedled your way into that one. Go to bed now, Dec will be up later.’

I smiled at Dad and then Dec, and the ran back upstairs and got into bed.

Dec

łSure that’s OK?

‘If you’re sure, I did scare the living shit out of him last time.’

łHe seems to have taken it in his stride. Do you know what, I’m going to see if Matty wants to join us in here. There’s really no reason he has to stay in that room all on his own if he’s starting to feel more sociable. I’ll go and find out.

Jay left, returning a short while later with Matt in his wheelchair, wrapped up in a thick jumper and with a blanket over his knees.

łDon’t know why I didn’t bloody think of this before. Here you go, let’s just get you out onto this end of the sofa. Are you warm enough?

}Tohstie. Duh I hahv to hahv the blahnket? Its tartan foh fuck’s sahk.

łYeah, you have to have the old man blanket. We need something to take the piss out of. Anyone want a drink? Mum, glass of wine?

#That would be lovely, dear.

łDec, beer?

‘Great.’

łGrandpa Matty?

‘Behr. Oh, and fuck ohf ‘

łThink again.

}Oh, OK. Er … stihl behr.

łFuck it, you know what, I don’t think one beer is going to hurt. I’m not even going to ask Beth.

}Bluhdy hell, who ahr yuh and wha hahv yuh dohn wih my noh-fun bruhther?

łHa ha. Less of your lip, tartan boy, I still control the bottle opener.

Jay went to organise the drinks. He came back with three bottles of beer and a glass of wine.

łCheers, everyone. Here comes Beth, with her glass of delicious water. Matty, I’d advise you to get drinking before she realises what you’ve got there. Need help?

}Noh, not having hehp wih fucking behr.

łFair enough. Dec, small sips, don’t want you passing out on me, you lightweight. Mum, don’t slurp.

#Jameson, are you really sure Matthew should –

łYes, Mum, I’m sure. Got to try sometime. It’s only beer.

}Oh my Gohd, ih’s fucking awsohm. Mohr plehs.

łNo way. Make that one last, no more for you.

}Yuh jus said sohnly behr.

łHm, so I did. Well we’ll see how that one goes then, but treat it as if it is the only one you’re having. Dec was pissed on two the other night.

}Ihm betteh at hohding my drihnk.

łYou’re both completely out of practice. I’d drink you under the table in five minutes.

_If you were having a competition, which of course you won’t be, will you?

}Noh point, Muhm wouhd win hahns down.

The rest of the evening passed quickly as we relaxed in each other’s company. Matt managed to wheedle another beer out of Jay, much to Beth’s disgust.

}Cohm on Beth, ih hahdly touched the sihds. Nehd another threh or fohr to mahk a dent.

_You’re certainly not getting another three or four.

}Soh unfahr.

_Just remember, Matty, you’re on your own with me and your mum tomorrow. You’re at our mercy. We could easily make you eat sprout sandwiches and drink carrot juice if you don’t behave yourself tonight.

}Dec, stahy, dohnt lehv meh wih them.

‘You’re on your own, mate, no way I’m eating sprout sandwiches.’

}Bahstrd.

The conversation and banter was batted to and fro, and we all stayed up later than we had planned to. Matt suddenly drooped, eyes closing. His head kept dropping forwards as he struggled to stay awake.

łOK Matty, time for bed.

}Oh, buh I was jus stahting tuh enjoy mysehf.

łYou sound just like Cal – oh but! You’re falling asleep. You won’t miss anything, I think we’ll all be in bed soon. Me and Dec have got a long drive tomorrow, and Beth and Mum have got their work cut out trying to keep you away from the cooking sherry. Come on, hop in your chair, I can’t lift you if you’re asleep, you’re too bloody heavy.

Matt got in his wheelchair grumpily, and Jay took him back to his room. I sat where I was, not wanting to make a move. If I went to bed, that was it, evening over, end of my stay. Beth and Carol cleared up glasses around me and took them to the kitchen. Jay came back into the room.

łSays he wants you to tuck him in. Better be quick, he’s going to be asleep in a minute.

I hurried into Matt’s room. He looked asleep already.

‘Matt?’

His eyes flickered open.

}Auhnty Dec. Jus wahted to say thahks.

‘What for?’

}Whaever yuh said tuh Jay an Beth, it feels dihferent now. Migh even let meh get pihsed if Ihm lucky.

‘I wouldn’t count on it.’

}Sohmthing tuh aim fuh. Anyway, thahks.

‘No worries. Well at least that’s the beer sorted …’

}Wha?

‘Just the sex to go now, and you’re back to normal.’

}Ha ha, look fohward tuh reaching tha mihlstone in the nehr fuhture.

He held his hand out and I clasped it. His grip loosened, and he was asleep.

I wandered back into the living room. Jay was finishing off his beer, watching the end of a sit com.

łWell, that’s me done for tonight. Beth and Mum have already gone up. You going to be long?

‘I think I’ll stay down here for a bit.’

łNo moping, now.

‘I’m not moping, just thinking. Had a huge few days. Sorting through it. Trying to get my head round it.’

łJesus, with the state of your head, should we be afraid?

‘Ha ha. See you tomorrow.’

Jay went to bed, and I was alone with my reflections. In a way, the last few days seemed to have lasted forever. I felt like I had slotted back in to the way things used to be; Jay, Beth and Cal were exactly the same, it all felt exactly the same, even though the location was different. It had felt so natural, it was hard to remember what it had been like when I thought I’d lost them for good, when Jay told me ‘we’re done’ and Beth told me not to call them again. If ever I’d had blessings to count, these people, my family, were at the top of the list. It was going to be hard to leave them tomorrow.

My thoughts meandered on to tomorrow’s game and the challenges that it might bring. I would see people I hadn’t seen since I was beaten up – the bruises and scars still showed on my face. There were plenty of people who still held a grudge against me because of the points I’d cost Raiders; people I had withdrawn from and alienated; people who simply didn’t like what I’d done and how I’d behaved. I’d have to face them all, not just tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future. It was the legacy of my recent actions. But now I had Jay, Beth and Cal back, it seemed easier to face, gave me strength.

Eventually, despite my contemplations, I started to fall asleep. The house was quiet. I took a deep breath and headed up the stairs, undressed in the bathroom and slid into the bottom bunk. I lay awake for some time, the sleepiness that had overcome me downstairs having disappeared. I listened to Cal breathing, and the odd noises that the house made as its occupants slept.

I thought about being back in my flat, on my own. Not something I was looking forward to, but something I was going to have to do sooner rather than later, or I might never do it. Having family around me, people I trusted and loved, made me realise what I had been missing for months, and how much I needed it.

I thought about watching the game tomorrow. That was something I was looking forward to, despite having anxieties about who I might run into. I hadn’t seen a live Raiders game for months, and I was going to be with Jay and Cal. I wasn’t sure if Cal had ever seen a live game before, and I was going to enjoy being there with him for the experience.

Little by little drowsiness overtook me and I slept.

Dreaming. I am flying above the pitch, watching the game. Raiders are playing well, but can’t score. I can see what needs to be done. Don calls me over and sends me on as a replacement. They pass me the ball, I fly over the line and touch the ball down. As I land on the ground, a pair of brown boots appears by my head. I see one of the boots heading straight for my face …

24. Bruised but not broken

In which Dec gets used to a life where he needs help.

Dec

I woke up to the sound of a phone ringing. I couldn’t work out where I was for a moment, and the flying sensation from my dream lingered. It was not completely dark in the room, but still felt pretty early. Then the ringing stopped and Rose’s voice filtered through the remainder of my dream, as I remembered I was in Rose’s spare room.

:Hello? … speaking … who is this? … yes, we did … I’m sorry, I can’t say where he is at the moment. Would you like to leave a message, I’ll make sure he gets it.

Rose, my bouncer. I smiled, started to stretch, forgetting exactly what I was stretching until needles of pain ran up my arms, down my back and gathered in my collar bone. I yelped. Rose rushed in.

:What is it, love?

‘I’m OK. Forgot I had broken bones. Aah. Fuck. Sorry. Someone for me on the phone?’

:Your boss, that Mr Barker. As far as I could tell. He wants you to call him this morning. I’ve got to go to work now. I’ll ring you later. Don’t forget to ring him, and ring that policeman too. Promise me, love.

‘Promise.’

:I thought I’d let you sleep this morning – do you want some breakfast before I go?

‘No, thanks, I’ll be fine.

:Anything else you need?

I was finding it hard to ask, but swallowed my pride.

‘Could you get me some of my pills? Everything’s bloody hurting.’

:Alright, love.

Rose fetched the pills and a glass of water and waited while I took them.

:Anything else you need?

‘No thanks. Go to work. See you later.’

I settled back in the bed as she left the room, and heard the door shut behind her. I wasn’t an early morning person, but felt rested, despite having flown round the world in my dreams. Thought about getting up and facing the day. Fell asleep immediately.

Woken up by the intercom. Opened my eyes groggily. Fuck it, needed to get up to answer the door. Arms and legs wouldn’t coordinate, got tangled in the duvet. Nearly fell trying to stand up. All my aches and pains woke up together and held me up even more. The buzzer sounded again, more insistently. Deep breaths. They’d have to wait while I sorted myself out. Slowed down. Got organised. Stood up carefully. Made my way out of the room to the intercom, which was buzzing again.

‘Hello.’

~Dec, it’s Lis. The password is ‘underpants’.

‘What?’

~Sorry, just joking. You sound really sleepy. Have you just woken up?

‘Yeah.’

~Sorry to get you out of bed. It is quite late, though. Can I come in?

‘Yeah, course.’

I pushed the button to open the outside door, and went to open the front door. After some juggling between the fingers poking out of the plaster on my right hand, and my swollen left hand, I managed to get it open. Lis came in, carrying several shopping bags. She looked at my dishevelled appearance.

~I’m guessing you haven’t phoned any of the people you were supposed to phone this morning? Didn’t Nico ring to remind you? Honestly, he’s so brainless.

I tried to drag my own brain into some form of activity. Who was I supposed to phone?

‘Er …’

Lis tutted and rolled her eyes.

~I’ve been given strict instructions, from Rose, so you know I have to do as I’m told, that you should have phoned DI Johnson before eleven. Also, you’re supposed to ring Don this morning.

She looked at her watch.

~It is now eleven twelve.

I groaned.

‘Shit. I just went back to sleep. Shit.’

I stood in a stupor, not knowing which way to go first.

~OK, don’t panic, first thing to do is sit down before you collapse. Living room, yeah?

I followed her in.

~Right, now, you might have missed the police guy, or he might still be around. Are you up to trying right now? You still seem half asleep to me. I can ring and explain if you like? See if there’s another time later, yeah?

That sounded like a good plan, one that involved me doing no talking to any policeman, and got me off the hook for a short while.

‘Kay.’

Lis made the call. She spoke for a few minutes, then hung up.

~OK, you missed DI Johnson, he’s in a meeting till later, but his secretary said he wants to visit you this afternoon. OK?

‘Kay.’

~Right, next job on Rose’s list, make sure you’ve had some breakfast. Unless you ate in your sleep, I’m assuming that’s currently a no. Let’s go and see what’s in the kitchen, yeah?

I followed her out.

~Well let’s see if you know where things are. What are you having?

‘Toast, tea.’

~Off you go then, I’m sure you’re more than capable of boiling a kettle and burning some bread. Anything you can’t manage, let me know. Don’t get butter on your cast, yeah? I won’t stand here and watch, I’ll sort out the clothes I got, show them to you while you’re eating. I’m quite pleased with myself, I have to say. Nico’s pretty set in his ways as far as clothes are concerned, I enjoyed having a free hand.

From the amount of bags she’d brought in with her, Lisa had bought up the city centre. I tried not to think about what she might have bought, or how much she might have spent, and focussed on trying to get my faulty arms to make my breakfast.

I boiled the kettle with no problem – there was already enough water in it and I didn’t need to run the tap or lift the lid, or do anything else I would struggle with. Tea bag – easy. Pouring the kettle, however, took some coordination, and I slopped water over the counter.

‘Fuck.’

Teaspoon was a little more fiddly. Four pint cartons of milk also proved to be hard to handle with a damaged left hand, and a fair amount of milk joined the water on the counter and dripped down onto the floor.

‘Fuck.’

Squashed the bread a bit getting it into the toaster, and failed to butter it in any recognisable way.

‘Fuck it.’

I couldn’t hold the knife properly in my left hand, and my right arm being encased in plaster meant I couldn’t move it properly. It dawned on me that I was going to have to get used, for the time being, to asking for help. It also dawned on me that there were easier things to have for breakfast. Tomorrow I would try cereal.

‘Fuck it. Lis?’

~Yep.

‘Can you help me?’

She came into the kitchen, saw the mess I’d made of the counter and the toast, took the knife out of my hand and sorted it out.

~Hm, so that’s what all the ‘fuck‘s were about. Being on your own’s not going to be so easy, is it, as long as you’re plastered up. Not so annoyed to have visitors calling in now, yeah?

She rubbed my shoulder and smiled.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

I smiled back.

~Okay, eat your breakfast, I’ll talk you through the Declan Summers winter collection. Ooh, I like that, the Summers Winter Collection. Maybe you should take up modelling – um, once your face is a bit more presentable.

I sat at the kitchen table, dropping bits of toast and spilling my tea with my left hand, while Lis wiped up my spills and then brought my clothes in.

She had gone completely over the top. I could have done with one pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts, one hoody, a few pairs of pants and socks. That’s what washing machines were for. Lisa had bought jeans, chinos, cargo pants, T-shirts, shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, sweaters, a coat, countless pairs of pants and socks and a pair of trainers, although I didn’t remember telling her my size. She’d even got some pyjama bottoms.

‘What have you done? This is way too much.’

~Don’t worry, I wanted to give you a choice, I can take things back if they don’t fit. Do you like it?

‘It looks great, I can’t try it all on though.’

I gestured to my plaster cast.

~Hm, hadn’t thought of that. Don’t want to rip anything. Tell you what, keep it all, try it on whenever, if it’s not right then, we’ll try to take it back, yeah?

‘It must have cost you a fortune.’

~Oh, don’t worry, I got it on Nico’s credit card. He won’t mind.

‘You already lent me all that money, I haven’t even started to pay it back yet. It’s way too much.’

Lis sighed and rolled her eyes.

~You know what, Dec, it actually isn’t. You have no clothes. You sold almost everything you own to pay back the charities, you owed your soul to your friends and the rest of the world, and then some bastards came and took everything else you had in the most offensive way I can imagine. You actually deserve to have some nice things. We can afford it. Let us do this, yeah?

I sat looking at the table. Humbled, undeserving. Worthless piece of shit. A few tears welled up, spilled over, plopped on my plate. I really needed to stop doing this. Lis knelt beside me and put her hand over mine.

~Look, Dec, it’s all very well you being this big independent I-don’t-need-help kind of guy. Very macho. Man points galore. Extra testosterone and everything. But you actually do need help, just at the moment. It’s OK to ask. It’s OK to take it when it’s offered. It’s … just OK, yeah? We help because we care about you. I hope you care enough about us to let us.

She ruffled my hair and stood up.

~OK, lecture over. Right, what else did Rose tell me I had to do? Oh yes, make sure you call Don. This morning. Well, you’ve got about five minutes left before it’s officially afternoon, yeah? You’d better get on it. Can I leave you to it? You won’t go back to bed?

I sniffed and wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘No, I’m OK. I’ll get the phone – oh bollocks, I haven’t got any numbers.’

~Rose said the number is by the phone, she left you a note, and there’s also a list of other numbers – me, Nico, her, Jay and Beth, Don, DI Johnson.

‘Thanks.’

Lis brought the phone and the note into the kitchen.

~Off you go, then, before you get into trouble. Are you OK for something for lunch? I think Rose might have left you a sandwich – oh yeah, in the fridge here. Looks tasty. Nico’s going to call in after training, whenever that may be, once he first remembers and, second, stops chatting for thirty seconds. Later this afternoon I would guess. Call me if you need me, yeah? Anything else you need before I go?

‘No, thanks. Really, thanks, Lis.’

~No trouble, see you soon. Don’t get that plaster wet – no washing up.

‘Not likely.’

~No showers.

‘Sadly, also not likely.’

She walked out, closing the front door behind her.

I looked at the phone and the list of numbers. Dialled Don. He wanted me to go in to see the club medics that afternoon, but I didn’t know what time the police were coming so he asked me to go in first thing in the morning. I’d have to swallow a bit more of my pride and ask Rose or Nico for a lift. Another thing occurred to me, and I filled him in briefly – apart from what I was wearing on Saturday, my spare training kit had been in my flat, along with my studs, club hoodies, everything I was supposed to wear to official events, all ruined. Don was silent for quite a while.

-I’m sorry to hear that, son. That really is out of order. Are you alright? Is there anything I can do?

‘I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Just haven’t got any official gear.’

-Well that’s easily sorted. Come tomorrow in your civvies and we’ll get you another load to take away. The basics at least … Declan, you do know I’m here for anything you need, to talk, any kind of help. I’m starting to realise just how tough a time you’ve had lately. Please let me know if you’re finding things difficult. I’d like to help if I can – it’s not just about rugby.

I didn’t know who Don had been talking to – Nico, Jay, even Rose for all I knew, but someone must have been filling in the blanks about my recent history. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it; I liked my privacy and my independence. Yeah, and look where they’d got me.

‘Thanks very much. See you tomorrow?’

-Sure. Oh, one more thing, I tried to contact you on your mobile, but there was some problem with it. Have you got it turned on?

‘Er, no, it’s with the police. It was trashed on Saturday. Don’t think it’ll be working anytime soon. Ever again, actually, looking at it.

-Oh, I didn’t realise. You’ve been through a lot one way and another, haven’t you. OK, is it alright to contact you on this number then?

‘Yeah, sure.’

-Great. Tomorrow, then.

I was feeling drained, and contemplated going back to bed, but knew that would be frowned on by several people. I also didn’t want to have to rush for the door when DI Johnson arrived, so on balance decided to stay awake.

I looked at the clothes Lisa had bought. It was all really good stuff, she had been very good at choosing. Clean clothes appealed just then, and I wanted to put some on, although without having a shower I wasn’t going to do them justice. How long would it be until I could get clean? Decided that was a thought for another time. I’d have to stink for now, and hope none of the clothes needed returning. I chose a baggy t-shirt and zip-up hoody, some tie-waist cargo pants and some necessary underwear, took them into the bedroom and struggled into it all.

The right sleeve of the hoody was rather tight over the cast, and getting the cargos on was difficult – pulling trousers up one-handed with hardly any working fingers was really tricky. But each time I did it, it got easier. That was something I wasn’t about to ask for help with, however many lectures I got.

Despite only just having had my breakfast, I was hungry by the time I got dressed. I took the sandwich from the fridge, not egg thankfully, but a very satisfying beef and salad on a half-baguette. Rose obviously knew me better now, and it was just what I wanted.

Now I was dressed and had some underpants on, for the first time in what felt like ages, I started to feel a bit more normal. I went into the living room and flicked the TV on. There really wasn’t much on in the middle of the day, and Rose only had basic channels. I settled for a quiz show and let it wash over me.

Being there was going to take a bit of getting used to. My flat upstairs wasn’t the most homely of places, but I had got used to its bareness and its smell. This place was very definitely Rose’s, with her ornaments, cushions, slightly twee pictures and penchant for pine air freshener. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel I belonged either. I was almost tempted to go upstairs, just to have a look at exactly what kind of a state it was all in, but knew I wouldn’t handle it very well. Best wait until it was all cleaned up; I’d go up then.

The quiz show became a chat show became an antiques show. I got bored and turned it off. I made another attempt at a cup of tea – more difficult this time, as I had to put water in the kettle. I couldn’t hold it under the tap at all, and was very pleased with myself for finding a bottle of water in the fridge which I managed to pour into the kettle using both hands. I’d have to make sure I asked someone to fill the bottle up for tomorrow, and get some milk put in a smaller jug. Or stick to glasses of water.

I heard some footsteps, voices and banging from overhead, and remembered the cleaners were there dealing with my flat. I hadn’t realised how much could be heard from down here, some of the noises seemed to be in the same room. What had Rose heard from down here? I hadn’t had a music system or a TV up there, and I’d pretty much kept to myself, but I’d been miserable a lot of the time, spent more than a few nights crying myself to sleep when I was really low. She’d never said anything, but maybe I was beginning to understand why Rose was looking out for me.

To take my mind off it all, I tried to work out what the cleaners were doing: hoovering was easy, but some of the other noises sounded like full on DIY rather than any cleaning I’d ever done.

Once the noises from overhead had stopped, I found myself sitting staring into space. I finally had room in my head to drift – there were no demands on me, nobody talking to me, and nothing I had to think about.

The intercom shattered the quiet that had settled on the flat. My heart rate rose slightly – I had downgraded my personal security alert status a little, but I was still half-expecting ‘someone’ to have found out where I was staying. I picked up the handset, slightly nervous.

‘Hello.’

>Declan, let me in. Is Nico.

Unless it was a really good impersonator, I recognised Nico’s voice, so I pressed the button, and went to open the front door. Still tricky turning the lock, but managed it after some fiddling.

‘Hey.’

>Ha, you have been dressed by Lis. Very nice. She try to dress me, but I say no. She tell me she buy many clothes on my card. Is OK. She enjoy shopping always. You are OK today?

‘Getting there.’

>Ha, you say this to us all. How you really feel?

I sighed. People were starting to get to know me too well, and my usual strategies were failing.

‘Hurting everywhere, fed up with not being able to use my hands, fed up with people telling me what to do, tired, pissed off, a bit scared. Satisfied?’

>Much better. I want that you say this, is not good to not say. I am sorry you feel this. I am happy I am here to help.

Nico waved a DVD in the air.

>We watch me! I find more DVDs – Rose has DVD player?

‘I guess so, it might be a bit ancient, is that it there?’

Nico bent down to the TV stand and put the disc in a slot while I turned the TV back on. It took some time to find the DVD channel, but we got there in the end, and the game started playing.

>We need beer. Rose she has beer?

‘Er, no, and I’m on strong pain meds, so no go, and also Don said not, plus it’s the middle of the afternoon. We’ll have to do without.’

>Ha, but Rose has tea, I know this. I make tea. I am not English, but I learn things about tea. You will like.

Nico was lifting my spirits – I guess this was on his list from Rose. He was very good at it. While he was in the kitchen, the intercom buzzed again. I answered it.

‘Hello.’

ϙMr Summers?

I didn’t recognise the voice, and my heart lurched. Had he found me?

‘Who is this?’

ϙDI Johnson, are you expecting me?

‘Oh, yeah, OK.’

Trying to get myself under control, I pressed the button and struggled with the lock again.

>I make tea for the policeman. They always drink tea.

DI Johnson stepped inside, looking slightly ill-at-ease. I showed him into the living room, where he perched on the edge of Rose’s comfy armchair. Nico came in and handed us a mug of tea each, and turned off the DVD.

ϙOh, ah, thank you. I’m DI Johnson, and you are?

>Nico Tiago.

ϙAh, yes, good, good, I was hoping to speak to you anyway, are you able to stay?

>Yes, I stay with Declan.

He sat at the other end of the sofa.

ϙGood, thank you. OK, Declan, firstly I wanted to verify some information we received from Mr Tiago yesterday regarding a wallet and a name he gave us.

‘OK. I’m pretty sure my wallet was in my bag at the club with the keys to my flat. I obviously wasn’t the one who looked through my bag, Nico did that. He didn’t find my wallet.’

ϙCan you confirm that Mr Tiago?

>Yes, I look in Declan’s bag, I look in his pockets, take everything out. Is all covered in piss and shit. His keys and his wallet are not in there. I look well.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Nico had had to trawl through filth to search for my keys. Another debt of gratitude owed.

ϙWhat happened to the bag?

>I throw it away.

ϙHm that’s unfortunate. There could have been fingerprints.

>Huh, I don’t think of this. It smelled bad, I wanted it to be gone.

ϙWell not to worry, maybe we can retrieve it. Declan, can you think of anywhere else you may have left your keys or wallet?

‘Sorry, it’s all still really difficult to remember, Saturday afternoon is all jumbled up. I can remember getting changed in the office, but I can’t specifically remember putting my keys and wallet in the bag. But I would have done, because that’s what I always do, in my jeans pocket.’

ϙOK. Thank you. Now, the name that you have given, David Allsop, where does this come from?

>It come from him being the one who do this to Declan.

DI Johnson looked at me, ignoring Nico.

‘It … seems … possible’

ϙDeclan, you seem less sure than Mr Tiago?

‘He’s a mate. I can’t quite believe it.’

>He do it before. Declan, be honest about this, or I will say.

‘OK, alright.’

I looked down at my hands. Thought about what he had taken away from me, how he had made me feel.

‘Several weeks ago, he was part of a group of players who gave me a hard time in training. Really hard, physical stuff. He also pissed on my clothes twice, in the changing room. But we made it up, shook hands. We were going for a drink after the Chieftains game –’

ϙWait, you had arranged to meet Mr Allsop on Saturday evening?

I had to rewind what I’d said in my head, it had just come out of my mouth without me thinking about it.

‘… yeah … I’d forgotten till just now. He texted me on Saturday afternoon.’

ϙWhere were you going to meet?

‘In the car park … shit.’

I started to shake. It suddenly seemed so obvious.

‘He wanted to meet by his car. He always parks over the other side, out of the way. Fuck, I was so stupid. I just totally believed him. He even came to see me in hospital – yesterday morning. He apologised for how he’d been, it was – I just – believed him.’

I thought about it all, how he’d fooled me, even coming to the hospital to – what? – check out what I remembered? Had I missed something important when we’d talked earlier? I looked at Nico. He was looking back at me with some concern.

>Declan, you look not well. You are temblando.

He looked at the policeman.

>We must do this now? Declan he only come from hospital yesterday.

ϙI can see it’s upsetting to you. You’re being very helpful. If you feel we could continue, I won’t be much longer.

I felt sick, a bit light-headed. But this needed doing. I nodded.

ϙIn fact, we have managed to piece together some of the data from your phone. It’s not complete, as the phone was pretty well destroyed, but there are some records we could retrieve. You did receive texts from Mr Allsop on Saturday afternoon, but the content was irretrievable. We were able to retrieve more messages from longer ago, and will be able to get more, with your permission, from your service provider. We were particularly interested in a couple which were anonymous, and seemed a little threatening.

That didn’t surprise me. I hadn’t read everything that had been sent my way in the last few months, but a lot of it had been from people who weren’t my biggest admirers.

‘I’ve had a lot of texts from people who don’t like me much. Pissed off nearly everybody over the past few months.’

ϙI understand that. These two were ‘caller withheld’, and seemed more directly threatening than the others – we have been through them in some detail. One said ‘Payback’, and the other began ‘Watch your back …’ The first one was sent on the same day that, I believe, your suspension by your club made the news. The second was sent on the day of the points hearing, after the announcement. We have software that might be able to decrypt the senders’ numbers, but we are having some trouble with it. Do you remember either of these messages, or have any idea who they were from?

‘No, sorry. I’ve had hundreds of texts that I deleted before I even read them. Not happy reading.’

ϙWell, no problem, we’ll keep going with the software. You understand that while we will investigate your allegations about Mr Allsop, there were no witnesses to your assault, the alleged theft of the keys and wallet or the events perpetrated in your flat. If you remember anything else that could help, please contact me. I think I’ll leave it there. I’ll be in touch.

He stood up, held his hand out, realised I couldn’t shake it properly and patted me on the shoulder instead. Nico showed him out, then came back into the living room.

>Well done. Very well done. Is not easy to say about a friend. You still look horrible. You don’t drink your tea. Neither does the policeman. I make some more.

‘I can’t believe I forgot he texted me. It’s so clear now.’

>You remember more things?

‘No, not really. I’ve been trying so hard to, but that just popped in when he asked me about it.’

>Huh. Maybe this is the answer, not to try.

‘Yeah, maybe. Bloody hell, Nico, you went through my bag!’

>Sorry, my friend. Rose, she want your keys. I try to help.

‘No, I mean … that must have been … I can’t believe you would do that for me.’

>Ha, is not problem. I wash hands good. Now, we think of something other. Tea and DVD? Maybe you remember again how great I play?

Nico was great at changing the mood, taking the stress out of it all, and I gladly took his bait.

‘Maybe I’ll remember again how modest you are.’

>This also.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Nico’s DVD, eating Rose’s biscuits and messing about. He managed to completely take my mind off everything that was worrying me, and I felt a small part of myself start to relax. The afternoon wore on, and Nico looked at his watch.

>Huh. I must go home to my beautiful wife. She miss me. Rose will be home soon. Is there something you need?

I remembered my conversation with Don about getting to the stadium early tomorrow morning, and my lecture from Lisa this morning about asking for help.

‘Actually, a favour?’

>Ha! I think this never happen before. Please ask, my friend.

‘Well, how early are you going to be at the club tomorrow?’

>I am there to train at eight thirty.

‘Could you pick me up? Don wants me to get there early to see the docs.’

>Is not too early for you? You are very late today – Lis, she tell me, no secrets!

‘I’ll make sure I’m ready. Rose will make sure I’m ready.’

>Then I am here. Eight sharp. Ha, you know I am late.

‘Can I ask something else? Another favour.’

>Ha, two in one day, increible! You have big bang on the head.

‘Cal’s asked for an Optimus Prime for Christmas. No way I can get one.’

>What is Opti – what is this?

‘It’s a toy, a Transformer. Long story, I promised it a long time ago.’

>Huh, OK, I write it, Lis, she help. Is done.

I spelt the words, and Nico wrote them down.

‘Thanks Nico.’

>Is pleasure. Be careful of yourself, my friend. See you tomorrow. No, don’t come to door, I let myself out.

He waved and walked out. As the front door opened, I heard Rose’s voice.

:Oh hello, love. Just off are you? Not staying for a cuppa?

>Oh, Rose, I am sad to miss your wonderful tea, but I must go home to kiss my wife. I am here tomorrow morning to fetch Declan – he need to wake early, you can help?

:Of course, love. What time?

>I am here eight sharp. I never late. Right, Declan?

‘Hardly ever.’

:I’ll make sure he’s ready. Bye then, love, see you tomorrow.

I heard the front door close, and Rose came into the living room.

:How are you, love?

‘Getting there.’

Rose gave me a look, and I knew I was going to have to change my stock phrase, as it had definitely been rumbled.

:I know that, love, but how’s your day been? Did you manage to phone everyone?

I told Rose about the visit from DI Johnson, my phone call with Don, and Lisa and Nico’s visits. It had been a pretty busy day, once I’d got out of bed.

‘And I think the cleaners have been upstairs, I could hear them moving around. You can hear pretty much everything that goes on up there, can’t you?’

:You can, love. Just remember that, next time you have a wild party.

‘Doubt that’ll be for a while.’

:And of course you’d invite me anyway. Right, what shall we have for tea?

The rest of the evening passed pleasantly with eating, TV, showing Rose my new clothes and a phone call from Beth, asking how I was and discussing dates and times for my visit. Tony the landlord also called round to say the cleaners had finished, and that my flat was clean once again, although there were no carpets. These would be replaced in the next few weeks.

:You’ll just have to stay here till they’re done, love.

I could have gone straight up to have a look, but I decided not to right away, feeling weird about seeing the flat again. However, I didn’t have a toothbrush or any washing stuff, and didn’t know what had been kept and what had been thrown away.

:You should have said, love. I forgot you can’t shower with your cast. Washing’s going to be a bit tricky too, isn’t it. Have you managed to wipe your bum alright?

‘Fuck, Rose! Yes I have thanks, just about. Not that it’s any of your bloody business.’

:Sorry, love, but if you don’t ask you don’t know. If you want a wash, I’ve got a flannel and soap you can use, you’ll just have to try your best with that. I might have a new toothbrush somewhere too, let’s have a look.

She managed to find everything in a cupboard in the bathroom. I’d need to be up fairly early tomorrow to make myself even slightly presentable.

‘What time do you get up?’

:Usually about seven, love. Do you want me to wake you up?

‘Yeah. Thanks. Might need a few goes.’

:Hm, you don’t like waking up much do you? Don’t worry, I won’t let you sleep in. Off to bed now are you?

‘Yeah.’

:Need some of your pills, do you?

‘Yeah, thanks.’

Rose helped me with my painkillers, before I went into my room and struggled out of my clothes. I couldn’t be bothered to struggle into pyjama bottoms, so just wore my boxers. Easier all round, less to struggle out of all over again tomorrow. Reaching for the bedside lamp was difficult, so I turned it off before I got into bed, and climbed under the duvet in the dark. I slept almost immediately.

Dreaming. I am being chased by faceless men in brown boots. I find a safe place on a hill, but they surround me and are closing in. I can’t fly, something is stopping me, but everyone who loves me can, and they swoop down from the sky to stand around me, holding hands in a circle, making sure the men in brown boots can’t reach me.

23. Dream a little dream

In which boundaries are established, an invitation is made and considered, and dreams of brown boots begin in earnest.

Dec

:Feels good to be outside, eh, love?

‘Great. Where’s your car?’

:I had to park quite a way away, but you wait here and I’ll come and pick you up. Here’s a bench, look. I won’t be long.

I thought about insisting on going with her, but I was flagging and my legs had begun to ache. The constant jogging of my collar bone wasn’t helping either. Decided for once not to be needlessly stubborn. I sat on the bench, closed my eyes and waited.

Footsteps and voices all around me. The sound of the entrance doors swishing open and closed. Cars pulling up and pulling away. The occasional ringtone. Sun on my face and breeze in my hair. Relative freedom. Let my mind drift while I waited. Started to relax. Felt my shoulders untense, hadn’t realised how tight I’d been holding myself, since Rose told me about first my bag and then my flat. Concentrated on unwinding everything, mind and body. It felt like I needed several weeks rather than a few minutes, but it was a start. Had only scratched the surface when I felt a hand on my arm, and heard Rose’s voice.

:Declan, love, you asleep?

I opened my eyes.

‘Relaxing.’

:Oh is that what you call it. Come on love, here’s the car. You sure you’ll be able to get in alright? I’m a bit worried about that plaster cast –

‘Give it a try.’

I stood up, wandered over to Rose’s car and slowly got in. It was quite a tight squeeze, even though the seat was all the way back. My right arm, in its unbending cast, threatened to get in the way of the handbrake and Rose’s gear changes.

:Don’t worry, I’ll work round you.

She was trying to sound cheerful, but Rose wasn’t a confident driver and I could see she was a bit worried. I shifted as far to the left in my seat as I could and tried to hold my arm on my lap. Rose had to put my seat belt on for me.

:It’s not really that far, won’t take long.

Sounding like she was trying to convince herself, she started the engine and we set off. She drove very slowly, taking great care with all the gear changes. The flats were over on the other side of the city, but the traffic was fairly light. Rose didn’t say a word to me, she was concentrating so hard on driving, hands gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles were white, teeth chewing on her bottom lip.

I looked around me as she drove, noticing all the lights and sparkle. Was it nearly Christmas? I thought back to the weekend and counted forwards to what the date must be today. Hadn’t really been paying attention. Must only be ten days or so to go. Hadn’t given it a thought, I’d been so preoccupied with everything else that had been going on. Christmas seemed largely irrelevant just at the moment, but the rest of the world obviously didn’t share my opinion.

We finally pulled up outside Rose’s garage. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, got out of the car, and came round to open my door.

:Alright, love, here we are then. Let’s go in and have a cuppa and a bit of cake.

‘Thanks a lot, Rose.’

:Get on with you, always got tea and cake on the go.

‘I mean for everything. Really, thanks.’

:Well, remember our deal, as long as you want it, I’ll stick my oar in. Still a deal?

‘Deal.’

As we reached Rose’s front door, I glanced up the staircase, and of course it was noticed.

:I’ll go and check on how things are going in a minute, get you settled first. Don’t go up yourself, love. Try not to think about it.

Rose led me inside and into the lounge, where she made me sit in her comfy armchair. Bringing me a cup of tea and a large piece of fruit cake, she headed off to check on my flat, as I sipped carefully and ate slowly.

Rose came back, accompanied by Tony, the landlord. He told me the police had finished in my flat, had taken some samples and photos, but they wanted to talk to me. He didn’t paint a pretty picture of the inside of my flat, it seemed like virtually everything I had up there had been ruined, and I was doubly glad I had already agreed to stay with Rose.

Tony had arranged a cleaning firm for the next day, and started to talk about costs and insurance, before Rose gave him a stern look, but I couldn’t blame him for bringing up the subject.

‘Kay, thanks, let me know.’

*It’s all locked up again now, I’ve had the locks changed – here’s your new keys, for both of you. The cleaning firm will get the keys off me, I’ll let you know when it’s all done.

‘Thanks.’

:Thanks, Tony, thanks for sorting it all out for Declan – he’s not really in a fit state to do it himself.

*No problem, let me know if there’s any hassle tomorrow.

Rose showed him to the door, then came back, looked at me and sat down on her sofa.

:Right, love, I think we need a list of things to do.

‘Really? What things?’

:Well, getting you some new clothes for a start. We also need to let people know where you are, organise some people to sit with you while I’m at work –

‘What? No, don’t need that.’

:I can’t go off to work tomorrow and leave you here on your own.

‘You bloody can, I’m OK.’

:I’m out all day, love. I took today off so I could be around, but I can’t get tomorrow off.

‘I’m fine. physios said.’

:They said you can walk. Don’t see you doing much else for yourself for a while. Come on, love, humour me, I won’t relax if I’m worrying about you.

‘Don’t need babysitting.’

:No, alright, fair enough, how about someone popping in just to check? Have a chat? I know Nico wants to, he’s asked me to ring him.

I sighed, I wasn’t going to completely win; I could foresee lots of compromising in my future.

‘OK, visits is fine. No sitters.’

Rose sat back, satisfied, and I had a sense that she had haggled me down to where she had wanted me in the first place.

Cal

Then, before tea, Mum got the phone and let me press the button to call Rose. I gave the phone to Mum, because she wanted to talk to Rose first.

Mum talked to Rose about how Dec was, and said a lot of ‘oh no, that’s terrible’ and ‘oh poor love, how is he’, and I was worried for a little while that Dec was too hurt or too sad to talk to us, but soon Mum stopped saying ‘oh no’, and looked at me.

Dec

I couldn’t hear much of what Rose said, as her phone was in the hallway, but from her lowered voice I assumed she was talking to someone about me. I realised this was something else I would get lots of in the near future. After a while Rose came back into the room holding the handset.

:Want to talk to Beth?

I smiled broadly and put my hand out for the phone. It still felt incredible that she wanted to talk to me.

‘Hi Beth.’

_Dec, lovely to hear your voice. You sound much better. How are you, sweetheart?

‘Getting there.’

_Rose tells me you’ve had some more trouble. Are you OK?

‘Getting there.’

_Alright, then, I’ll stop fussing. There’s someone here would like to ask you something. Are you OK to talk to Cal?

‘Great.’

Cal

Mum held the phone out to me.

‘Come on Cal, Dec’s ready now.’

She whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t forget what we said,’

I whispered back: ‘I know, Mummy.’

Then I took the phone and forgot everything we’d practised.

‘Dec, can you talk now?’

Dec

‘I can talk better, yeah. Thanks for helping me out when I was in hospital.’

\can you come and live with us on Christmas?

‘Oh … er … ‘

I was completely thrown. Was Cal asking me to spend Christmas with them? I had not thought beyond this afternoon. Planning for a major event in – what? – a week or so was far out of my reach. Had assumed I would be here at Rose’s for, hmm, a couple of weeks? Did that include Christmas? But if they were asking me to go there to stay, if they wanted me there, in their home … what if they were asking me to live with them again …

Cal

I’d expected Dec to be really pleased and excited, but he stopped talking altogether. He could talk again, and although his voice still sounded a bit funny, everyone would be able to know what he was saying, so I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t talking.

‘Mummy he’s being quiet.’

‘Er, yeah, sorry Cal, just thinking. Don’t know if I can answer you just yet. Can I talk to Mummy?’

‘Mummy – talk to Dec.’

I handed the phone to Mum, hoping that I hadn’t somehow messed things up. What I’d said wasn’t what we practised, and maybe I’d done it so wrong that Dec would say no. I hadn’t considered Dec saying no until now, and I clung on to Mum while she talked, feeling worried.

Dec

_Hi Dec, sorry, sweetheart, that was a bit different than we rehearsed. I shouldn’t think you’ve had a chance to think about Christmas yet.

‘Not really. Is it next week?’

_A week on Thursday. You are a bit out of it, aren’t you? I just had a quick chat with Rose. We really want to see you, but we’re not going to be able to make it down there for a while. But if you think you’ll be fit enough, and if you’d like to come up, we’d love to have you here for Christmas. Cal would absolutely love it. He’s talked about you non-stop since we left you yesterday.

Cal

This was true. I’d asked all sorts of questions about where Dec had been, what he’d been doing, why he’d been gone, but none of them had really been answered. The only things Mum and Dad would talk about were how long it was going to take Dec to get better, and all the things I wanted to know about his cuts and bruises, and things at the hospital, like the wee bag and the water bag. Still, it was a lot better than not being allowed to talk about Dec at all.

Dec

‘James and I would love it too. James really wants a good talk. We’ve all missed you, sweetheart.’

So it was just for Christmas. I was immediately overwhelmed with conflicting feelings – disappointment that it was just for Christmas, and not forever; relief that I wasn’t going to have to think about whether I stayed here or moved to where they were; joy that they wanted me to spend time with them. Tears welled up and spilled down my face, taking me by surprise. I had the phone in one hand and couldn’t bend my other arm, so couldn’t wipe my eyes. I sniffed.

‘I … er … don’t know what to say.’

What I wanted to say was ‘yes, yes, fuck yes’, but I looked over at Rose, who was turning the pages of a magazine, pretending she wasn’t listening intently. I really didn’t want to upset her, didn’t know what plans she’d made, after she’d been good enough to give me a room in her home. Bloody hell, being looked after was hard work.

_Well there’s plenty of time, have a think and let us know, OK?’

Cal

I suddenly remembered my Transformer dilemma and tugged on Mum’s arm.

‘Yes, alright Cal. Dec, are you OK for another word with Cal?’

She handed the phone over again.

‘Dec, I haven’t got a Optimus Prime yet.’

‘Really? Did you put it in your letter to Santa?’

‘No, because you were going to get it on my birthday, and then you didn’t get it on my birthday, and I didn’t put it in Santa’s letter because I don’t want two Optimus Primes.’

‘Oh, OK … well … sorry for the confusion. Me and Santa will sort it out. OK?’

‘Kay. Bye.’

Dec

I laughed at his abruptness. Beth came back on the line; she was laughing too.

_I don’t know what he likes more – your promises of Transformers or your cool scars. I’m a bit worried he’s going to get into a fight so he can look more like you.

‘Shit, Beth, don’t say that.’

_As long as he doesn’t start swearing like you, he’ll be OK.

‘Sorry.’

_Honestly, you and James are as bad as each other. Maybe you’re a bit worse than James. I suppose it’s up to me to keep Cal on the straight and narrow.

‘You are good at it.’

_No help from you! Anyway, let us know what you think about Christmas, sweetheart. No rush, short notice is fine. Want a quick word with James?

‘Yeah.’

The more I talked to them, the more real it felt. It was filtering into my brain that I might not have lost them forever after all.

łHey mate.

‘Hey.’

łHow’s it going?

‘Getting there.’

łYeah, and really, how’s it going.

I paused. This was an opportunity to put right some of the things that had caused this mess in the first place. Not bottling things up, saying how I was really feeling, being honest, asking for help. Not easy. Deep breath.

‘Still pretty shit. I’m a bit of a wreck. And my flat was broken into, everything trashed.’

łJesus, Dec, I didn’t know. That’s all you need. You’re staying with Rose, though?

‘Yeah, she’s been bloody great.’

I looked over at Rose and grinned at her. ‘Bit bossy, but I can take it.’

łShe’s more than a match for you, mate. How’s all your aches and pains?

‘Getting there. Honest. Better than yesterday.’

łYou sound much better – well I can understand you for a start. Nico said you fell out of bed?

‘Bloody hell, can’t do anything round here. Yeah, but no damage. Pulled a few stitches. Big bruise on my arse. Fucking hurt. Felt a bit of a twat. No more.’

łOK, glad to hear it. Be strong, mate, stay positive. See you soon.

There was a catch in Jay’s voice that I really didn’t want to investigate.

‘Hope so. Bye.’

I put the phone down and rested my head back against the chair, blowing my cheeks out. Looked over at Rose, who put down the magazine she hadn’t been reading and looked at me.

‘They want me to go up for Christmas.’

I couldn’t read Rose’s expression.

:What do you want to do?

Well that was the question. I hadn’t given Christmas a thought, but now I was remembering the last three Christmases, which I had spent with Jay, Beth and Cal. They had put to rest the ghosts of several miserable festive seasons in various foster homes, and to be part of their Christmas now would mean a lot – to be with them at all, but especially for Christmas. It was just the thing to help me get over the seemingly constant stream of bad things that had happened to me in the last few days.

On the other hand, I couldn’t bear to let Rose down. I didn’t know what she was expecting or wanted. Before yesterday, she hadn’t been planning a house-guest, and would have been organising something else, somewhere else, for weeks.

‘Kind of depends on you.’

:Don’t be daft, love. Don’t worry about me. The only thing I will say is, it’s a long way to Stafford, are you up to the journey?

I ignored the last part, apart from briefly wondering just how far away Stafford was.

‘What were you planning, before me?’

:That’s not important, love. Just do what makes you happy.

‘For fuck’s sake, Rose … sorry … what I mean is, if I wasn’t here, what would you be doing for Christmas? Please tell me.’

:Well, as you asked so nicely, in the end, I was going to go to my sister’s, same as every year.

‘Looking forward to it or not?’

Rose hesitated, as if trying to decide whether her answer would sway my decision.

:We get on really well, you know that, and I love seeing Gethin, he’s about the same age as you, did I tell you?

‘Might have mentioned it.’ A few zillion times.

:But if you need me here, I’ll stay. I can see them any time.

Finally, I knew what I needed to.

‘No, I think I’ll go. Sort something out to get there, get the train or something. Where exactly is Stafford?’

:I can take you, drop you off on the way.

‘Rose, you get nervous driving out of the garage. No fucking way you’re taking me. I doubt it’s ‘on the way’ to Pontypool.

:Cheek, I’m a good driver, very careful.

‘Whatever you say. But you’re not taking me. End of.’

Rose gave me a look that suggested I hadn’t heard the last of this conversation, but stood up and said she was going to start some dinner. I felt exhausted at the thought of all the battles I was going to have with Rose over the next few days. I closed my eyes, and must have dozed off, as I suddenly felt a shake on my shoulder.

:Come on love, tea’s ready.

‘What, already?’

:You’ve been asleep. Not as tough as you thought, eh? Want it here on your lap, or at the table in the kitchen?

‘Table.’

Cal

I heard Dad talk to Dec for a little while, and then Mum and Dad were talking to each other. I thought about listening outside the room again, but I just wanted to know if Dec was coming for Christmas, so I went straight in.

‘When is Dec coming?’

‘He hasn’t decided yet, sweetheart. I think we surprised him. He might not be able to come.’

‘Oh, but, I want him to.’

‘I know, Cal, but Dec’s got to make his own mind up. He’ll let us know, when he’s thought about it.’

‘When will he?’

‘I don’t know. Try not to think about it, until we hear from him.’

I tried really hard not to think about it, but it’s difficult not to think about something you’re trying really hard not to think about, especially if it’s something you’re excited about, and something to do with Christmas, which isn’t far away. I really wanted to be with Dec again, so we could play, and tell jokes, and watch Arsenal, and read stories, and do mouth and bottom burps, like we always did.

Dec

Half way through the meal, the phone rang again. Rose answered, and took the call in the lounge. I was getting a bit annoyed at her tendency to discuss me first out of earshot – nothing had happened to me that I didn’t know about, and I knew she thought she was considering my feelings, but nonetheless it was irritating. Decided to wander into the lounge, with my plate balanced precariously in my left hand, to have a listen.

: … talk to the police, they’ve taken samples – oh hello love. Everything alright?

‘Apart from being talked about behind my back, yeah.’

Rose gave me a steely look.

:It’s Nico. Perhaps you’d like to talk to him?

‘Thanks.’

I put my plate down and took the handset from her.

‘Hey.’

>Declan, you are not nice to Rose. She worry about you, and we talk last night while you are not here. She tell me about your flat just now. I worry. The one who take your key, and piss in your bag, he is the same, I know it. You know who do it before.

I was silent. I had my suspicions, but naming DivDav out loud was not something I could do easily. He was a mate, and if he wasn’t, he had made a fool of me.

>Declan, you are there?

‘Yeah. I … I’m not sure. We don’t know for definite. I don’t think he would –’

>He do it before, you know this.

‘I just saw him this morning, we made up, shook hands, we were OK.’

>You must tell the police. They will find out.

‘Maybe. Not tonight.’

>Huh. OK. Soon though.

‘Kay.’

>And be nice to Rose, she try hard for you.

‘I know.’

>Lis want to see you, she like a man with stitches. We come tonight?

‘I guess, if you can get past Rose.’

>Rose love to see me. Lis love to see Rose. You love to see us both. Good. We are there soon.

Having been thoroughly Nicoed, I finished my plateful and took it back into the kitchen, where Rose was clearing away the tea table.

‘Sorry, Rose, just getting a bit fed up of being talked about when I’m out of the room. I don’t mind if you talk to people about me, just like to know what you’re saying, that’s all.’

:I know, love, sorry too, just trying to spare your feelings with going over it all again. I should have remembered from before how you are with being talked about.

‘Nico and Lis are coming over.’

Rose’s face lit up.

:Oh, that’s grand. When are they coming?

‘I think they’re on their way.’

Her face fell.

:Better do some tidying up, then.

I looked around at the spotless kitchen.

‘Why?’

:Got to look nice for visitors.

‘OK, give me a duster.’

:Cheeky, doesn’t need dusting.

‘Hoover then.’

:Or hoovering.

I looked at her. She looked back. I think I won that one.

:Alright then. You go back and sit down, I’ll get a nice packet of biscuits and put the kettle on.

I let her get on with fussing in the kitchen, went back to the living room, flicked the TV on for some early evening meaninglessness. Sat with my eyes closed, letting it wash over me until I suddenly heard my name.

*… Summers. Police are investigating an assault at the Raiders stadium on Saturday night. It is understood that the young player, who is at the centre of Raiders’ points deduction scandal, was attacked after Saturday’s victory over Chieftains, and has spent the weekend in hospital. His injuries are reported to be serious but not life-threatening. No further details are known at this time.

They showed an old photo of me, from the haircut I was about seventeen. It brought it all home. I still had no memory of Saturday evening, apart from the little flashes that presented themselves at odd times when I stretched my stitches or moved too quickly and set off a twinge.

I had actually been beaten up. Someone had wanted to physically hurt me and had done me some pretty major damage. And then, as if that message wasn’t enough someone had come to my home and trashed that too. I shied away from the thought that ‘someone’ might be a person or people I knew, as it was terrifying. It suddenly occurred to me that Rose could be at risk if ‘someone’ knew I was staying with her.

‘Rose!’

She came hurrying into the room.

:What’s the matter, love?

‘Don’t let anyone in, be really careful. Lock your doors, front and back.’

:What are you talking about, love?

‘It’s not safe. I don’t know if they know I’m here.’

:Are you feeling alright, love? You’re not making any sense.

I knew I wasn’t, I was trying to explain but feeling a sense of urgency, and it was all getting jumbled up. Deep breaths.

‘OK. Sorry. Whoever did this –’

I gestured at myself

‘– and my flat, it could be the same person. They must know me, know where I live, and if they know I’m staying here who knows what else they might try. I don’t want you to let anyone in, even if they say they’re a friend.’

:Oh, love, you’re safe here, no one gets past my front door. I assume Nico is on the guest list?

I conceded that point.

‘But no one else. Not until I know who did it. And don’t just buzz people in until you know who they are. And don’t tell them I’m here, even if they sound like they know. And you need to sort out your back door, it’s too easy to get over the wall. Keep it locked, and you need a bolt or something.’

:Alright, then.’

Rose looked amused, then frowned.

‘But do you think someone you know might have done all this? You should tell the police if you’ve remembered anything.

‘Not sure, don’t want to be wrong.’

:Oh love, you’ve got to say something.

‘I know. Tomorrow?’

She sat down beside me and patted my hand.

:It’s a funny old time for you, isn’t it love? I think you’re coping really well with everything. You’ve had quite a few ups and downs over the last few days, you need time just to sort through it. I think some peace and quiet here, then some time with your family at Christmas is just what you need.

The door entry buzzer went.

:Well, I don’t think we’ll be starting the peace and quiet until after Nico has been …’

‘Check it’s him, don’t let him in till you’re sure.’

:Alright, love …

I could hear her on the intercom in the hallway.

:Who is this? … What are you here for? … No, just checking … Alright, love, come in.

She went to open her front door. I wasn’t sure Rose’s security measures would be up to much, and it continued to gnaw away at me. Voices from the hallway.

>What happens, Rose, why these questions?

:Sorry, love, Declan is having some kind of panic about safety. Wants to make sure nobody gets in who might … oh I don’t know, you’d better ask him yourself.

She showed Nico and Lisa into the living room. I shuffled up on the sofa to make room. Lisa bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

~You’re looking lots better.

I smiled at her.

‘Thanks. Getting there.’

~Sounding it too. Just as well, seeing as Cal’s not here to translate.

>What is this security nonsense?

‘Not nonsense, don’t want Rose to get hurt. Just need to check people before letting them in.’

>There is only one person you need to check. You know this.

:No, Nico. I can’t be sure. I’m not talking about this now. OK?

~OK Dec.

Lisa sat next to me and took my hand. She reached up to Nico and pulled him down next to her.

~Let’s not get stressed, yeah? We’ve come to see Dec and help him feel better, not start going on at him. Rose, did you say the kettle was on?

:Yes, love, there’s some chocolate biscuits too.

~I’ll come and give you a hand. Nico, behave yourself.

>Ha, always, baby.

He gave her a cheeky grin. Rose and Lisa left the room. I turned the TV off, and I could hear their voices in the kitchen as they got to know each other.

>Sorry, man. You know I worry. We promise Jaime we look after you. I forget you don’t like to be looked after. You are problem.

‘I worry too, about Rose.’

>I know this. She is strong, I think. Very clever. Cares very much. She – oh, she bring tea and biscuits. Tremendo!

We sat and chatted, or rather Rose, Nico and Lis chatted while I mostly listened. Even though my speech was back to normal, talking was still painful, my mouth was bruised and the stitches pulled. I was feeling tired, and there was something emotional there too. When I’d been battered and bruised as a result of playing, it was like battle scars. But this, these marks that had been deliberately put there by someone, well there was nothing glorious about it at all. I had felt similar things when I’d been battered in the training sessions after my suspension – the bruises themselves were physically insignificant, but psychologically they were hard to overcome. This was worse – someone had meant to do me a serious injury. I couldn’t think about it, but I couldn’t ignore it either, and it put me on edge.

Rose was still conscious of my earlier tantrum about being talked about, and checked with me with her eyes before saying anything. I gave her a nod, and she told Nico and Lis about my lack of anything to wear.

~So you haven’t got any other clothes than what you’ve got on?

I shook my head.

~Well I think we need to get onto that first thing tomorrow. I’m not working, I’ll go and get you some stuff, yeah? Tell me your sizes, which shops you like, maybe we can have a look on the internet – Rose have you got a computer?

:Sorry, love, not up with all this technology. All I can do to work my mobile phone.

Lis got her phone out, but couldn’t get a signal.

~Oh, OK, know what, I’ll just pop home and get my laptop. Then make a list. Soon have you sorted.

Lisa stood up, put her hand out to Nico for the car keys, and left. As the door closed behind her, I had a sudden thought.

‘Wallet.’

:What, love?

‘Never got my wallet back. Would have been in my bag with the keys. Shit.’

>OK, Declan, now you must tell police. You must report stolen money. If they have your cards, you must do something.

‘Can’t pay for clothes.’

Nico let out an exasperated sigh.

>We pay. You don’t worry about clothes. But you must do this. Rose, you have a number for police?

Rose looked from me to Nico, battling with herself about what to do.

:Wasn’t it DI Johnson, love? He gave you his card, I put it in my bag somewhere …

She started rifling through her cavernous handbag, sorting through various pockets and bits of paper. Finally, she held a business card up. I found myself with my own battle – angry at the powerlessness that I was feeling, but relief that it might be sorted, and I might regain control over this part of the whole situation. At the moment everything felt out of my grasp and I hated it. I put my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes. Rose patted my shoulder.

:Alright, love, it’s for the best. Get it over with, if we can.

‘Mm.’

I had no more fight left; they could do what they wanted to. Rose handed the card to Nico.

:Here it is. Try this one, love. He’s the one who spoke to Declan yesterday.

>OK, I call now?

Nico looked at me, eyebrows raised. I looked at him and shrugged.

>Ha, is a Declan ‘yes’, I think. OK …

He dialled the number. Waited.

>Hello, my name is Nicolàs Tiago … yes … is me … I call about Declan Summers. I have information you should know … about both … I think we know who do this to Declan … we also think he take Declan’s wallet and keys … his name is David Allsop, he is player with Raiders.

I found it hard to listen to, tried to drift away, but Nico’s voice pulled me back.

>He do this before, not the beating, but the piss on the clothes. He in trouble at Raiders for treating Declan bad … what? … yes, he is here, he is not well, he is just from hospital. I phone for him … OK, I ask, I don’t think he talk tonight.

Nico looked at me.

>This policeman he want to talk to you, OK?

I looked back at him. I supposed I was going to have to do it sometime, but I was exhausted, my brain felt fuzzy, and all I could do was look at Nico and shake my head.

:Maybe tomorrow, love. I’ll get Declan to ring.

Rose, my guardian angel. Nico spoke into the phone again.

>I think not tonight, but he call you tomorrow … OK … yes … before eleven … OK … what you do now? We worry about him finding Declan again … OK … yes … OK … thank you.

He hung up. Breathed out.

>They talk to you tomorrow, can do nothing until then. He say if we worry, we call them again.

:Alright love, well you got that off your chest. I think we need to cancel Declan’s bank cards too – can you remember which ones you had in your wallet, love?

‘Only got one now. Not much in it.’

:Still, better safe than sorry. Which bank are you with?

I told her, and let her ring them for me. I was starting to feel sorry for myself again, very tired, a bit out of control, sad and confused about DivDav. The bank wouldn’t talk to Rose, hard as she tried to make them, so I sighed, took the phone. Gave them what details I could remember. They cancelled everything. I put the phone down on the arm of the sofa and flopped backwards.

‘Fucking knackered now.’

:I bet you are love. Banks always tire me out. Such a palaver.

>You do well. Now is less worry.

The intercom buzzer sounded, making me jump. Rose got up to answer it, as panic stabbed through me.

‘Don’t let them in if you don’t know them.’

:Relax, love, it’ll only be Lisa.

I was incredibly jumpy, and energy reserves on empty weren’t helping. Lis ran the gauntlet of Rose’s questioning, exaggerated for my benefit, then plonked herself down next to me and opened her laptop.

~I guess you haven’t got broadband, Rose, so I brought my dongle.

:If you say so, love, haven’t got a clue what that means, I’ll let you get on with it. More tea for anyone?

No one had much of a choice. Constant tea was the price you paid for visiting Rose. I wasn’t really up for online shopping, but I needed clothing pretty urgently. Especially pants and socks. Not that sure I wanted to discuss my underwear requirements with Lis, but didn’t have much choice – it was her or Rose.

‘Don’t have any money.’

>Declan just find out his wallet is gone from Saturday. We call the police and his bank, but I say we buy his clothes.

~Oh Dec, of course – oh my God, do you think it was the same –

>I know it is the same one. I tell the policeman.

~Sorry, Dec. He was a friend of yours, wasn’t he? Must be tough.

‘Mm.’

A look passed between Lis and Nico.

~Well, anyway, let’s not worry about that just now. We’ll have a look at a few bits, I’ll go and get them tomorrow and you can be best dressed of the year again. What’s first on the list?

‘Pants.’

~Oh Lord! OK, well I guess we don’t need to look at those, just tell me what you prefer and what size. I’ll believe you.

She winked at me. I gave her the information.

‘Socks. Size 11.’

~OK, another easy one.

‘T shirt, hoody, jeans. That’s it.’

~Alright, where do you usually shop?

‘Anywhere. Not fussy. Nothing fancy.’

>Ha, I think Declan shop in Primark for cheap but don’t want to say.

‘Primark is fine.’

~I think we can do a bit better than that for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll call it an early Christmas present, yeah? Ah – no arguing. It’s not cool to argue about Christmas presents.

Lis carried on talking about sizes and colours, showing me different pictures, I lost interest, becoming rapidly exhausted. Rose reappeared with more tea and biscuits.

:Did you know Declan’s going to Jay and Beth’s for Christmas?

~No! I knew they were going to ask. Oh Dec, that’s great news. What did Beth say?

‘Er, haven’t told them yet.’

~Well what are you bloody waiting for?

‘Need to sort transport, might not be possible.’

:I told you I’d take you.

‘And I told you it’s too fucking far.’

I couldn’t help snapping at Rose; I was tired of arguing about everything. As Rose and I stared each other down, this particular one felt like it could rumble on for some time; however, Lisa rolled her eyes at us and got involved.

~I’ll take you. I really want to see their new place, it’s a great excuse.

Rose and I looked at Lis, both trying to hide our relief.

>Ha, I laugh at you, Declan and Rose. So stubborn. You want to say yes, but you don’t say. I say for you. Yes, Lis will take Declan to Jaime‘s. Now, Declan, you phone to Beth and make her happy.

‘Are you sure, Lis?’

~Very sure. I can take you any time after Tuesday lunchtime. Let me know, yeah?

I gave her a huge smile, grateful and relieved.

‘Thank you. Very much.’

She smiled back. I reached for the phone again, but I didn’t know any numbers without my mobile.

‘Does anyone know their number?’

~It’s here, look.

Lisa showed me from her phone’s address book. I dialled, clumsily. Using my left hand to do everything was getting to be really annoying.

Cal

We had tea, and I played with my fire engine for a while, in Uncle Matty’s room. I heard the phone ringing, but no one picked it up to stop it ringing.

‘Yuh gona geh tha?’

I looked up at Uncle Matty. I loved answering the phone, but I wasn’t supposed to unless Mum or Dad were there. But if Uncle Matty had told me to, that was bound to be OK. So I ran into the living room, picked up the handset and pressed the button.

‘Hello who is it?’

‘Hi Cal, it’s Dec.’

He must be phoning to say if he was coming for Christmas. I was suddenly scared he would say no, and I didn’t want him to say no to me, so I said the first thing that came into my head.

‘Dec, I ate three fish fingers.’

‘That’s great. Well done, mate. Fish is good for you. Is your mum there?’

I put the phone on the table and went to get Mum, who was in the kitchen.

‘Mummy, Dec wants to talk to you.’

‘Is he on the phone? Did you answer it again? Cal, what did we say about that?’

She walked and told me off at the same time, until she reached the phone.

‘Hello? Dec? … everything alright sweetheart? …’

I was hanging around, trying to see if I could work out what Dec was saying by what Mum was saying.

‘Ohh, great. That’s great. Really great.’

Well it sounded like it was good, but Mum looked like she might be crying, so I was really confused.

‘Sorry, Dec. I’m really pleased. I thought you were going to say no. I’m so pleased. Oh, sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re coming. It’ll be great to put an end to this crappy year in a good way … ‘

As I stared at Mum, who had said an almost bad word, which she never did, and watched her wipe her eyes, Dad came in and put his arm round her, asking her about it without using words, but using his eyes and his eyebrows. Mum put her hand over the phone so Dec couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I could.

‘No, I’m okay, James, it’s Dec. He said yes, he’s coming for Christmas.’

I put my arms in the air like footballers do when they score a goal, as Dad took the phone from Mum. He was smiling, but his voice was wobbly too.

What have you been saying to make my wife cry? … I’m yanking your chain, mate. We’re really pleased. Talk later, yeah?’

Dad pressed the off button, and looked at Mum, and they both smiled at each other, and smiled at me.

‘Dec’s coming to stay with us for Christmas.’

I put both arms in the air again, as if I was Theo Walcott.

‘Yessss!’

‘I think you might need to tidy your room before Dec gets here, or we might never find any of your things again.’

I suppose there’s a downside to everything. Having to tidy my room was the downside to Dec coming for Christmas. But he was coming, we were going to be able to do all the things we hadn’t done for ages, and it was all going to be alright.

Dec

I hung up. Wiped my eyes.

‘That went well. Everybody cried.’

:Oh, love, tears are good sometimes.

Rose appeared to be wiping her eyes too, in fact Nico was the only one who wasn’t. He was smiling his enormous smile.

>You do good thing. You mend it with you and Jaime. This is big. Very good. Baby, I think we go now. Declan, he look very tired. He has big day today, and more tomorrow.

~Yeah, of course. Dec, is it OK if I pop in tomorrow morning to drop off your clothes, check you’ve eaten breakfast and generally fuss about annoyingly?

‘I suppose.’

>I come also, after training.

‘No need.’

>I know this. I want to steal Rose’s biscuits when she not here.

They stood up, Lis kissed me on the cheek, Nico gave Rose a hug, then Rose saw them to the front door.

>I call to remind him to talk to the policeman. Call us if you worry, or the police if you really worry. OK?

:Thanks you two.

~You’re welcome. We’re all in it together. He’s a toughie, but he needs us more than he’ll admit. Right, Dec? I’m sure you’re listening.

They said their goodbyes, and Rose shut the door behind them, making a big thing of putting the chain on, for my benefit. She came into the living room, picked up cups and plates, tidied up in the kitchen, plumped some cushions.

:You look done in, love. I know it’s early but why don’t you go to bed? You know where your room is. Get some sleep, recharge your batteries.

It sounded like the best idea anyone had had for a long time. I could hardly pull myself off the sofa, as moving made all my aches and pains protest together. I remembered the medication I had brought home from the hospital. Now was a good time to take some, get some solid sleep.

I padded into the kitchen, got the bottle of pills. Asked Rose to open the bottle, took some with a slurp of cold tea, said goodnight and went to bed. Rose had put my pyjamas from the hospital in the wash, and I had no underwear, so got into bed in my clothes. Slept.

Dreaming. Chased by faceless men in brown boots. Can’t fly, can only run, looking over my shoulder. They nearly catch up with me, then I trip –

– woke with a start, in a sweat, in darkness, heart racing, panting. The details of the dream faded, but the panic stayed for a long time. Eventually my pulse calmed, my breathing slowed, and I drifted off again.

Dreaming. This time I can fly. I fly around the world looking for a man in brown boots. There are too many. None of them are the one I am looking for. After a long time flying, I see him. He is a long way away. He isn’t looking. Doesn’t see me coming until I am almost there. He turns round, but just before I see his face, he disappears.

19. Bless the broken road

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

Nico: =Great news 🙂

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

^How are you feeling now?

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

^OK, best get going.

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

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

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

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

Adrian nodded in agreement.

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

‘OK.’

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

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

Don wrapped up our meeting.

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My phone buzzed. A text

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

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

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

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

Me: =OK, gr8.

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

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

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

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

Don took that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally it was over.

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

‘Really?’

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

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

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

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

>Declan!

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

>Great news that you stay with us.

In a quieter voice:

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

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

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

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

>For clear head, yes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked around, expecting to see Dav somewhere around.

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

‘Sorrows?’

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

‘Love to.’

Cal

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

Dec

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

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

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

Cal

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

‘Can I come with you Daddy?’

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

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

Mum and I watched Dad walk towards the building.

Dec

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

łWhat the fuck … hey, mate, you OK?

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

łJesus. Shit. Jesus.

Cal

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

‘Call an ambulance.’

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

‘What is it, James?’

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

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

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

She shouted to Dad.

‘James, is he breathing?’

Dec

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

Cal

Dad shouted back.

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

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

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

Mum folded her phone up and called to Dad.

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

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

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

Dec

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

łStay still, mate, the ambulance is coming.

Drifted off somewhere quiet and soft.

Cal

Mum knew that if she went over to where Dad was, I’d follow her, so she was stuck at the car with me while Dad waited for the ambulance. We both looked out of the window at Dad as he knelt down, although we couldn’t see the man. Mum kept tutting and looking at her watch, and I watched the entrance into the car park to see the blue lights when the ambulance came. It came very quickly, and we watched as the ambulance people put the man on a stretcher and then into the back of the ambulance. I couldn’t really see the man, because it was dark, and he was wrapped up in a blanket, which was disappointing, but I hoped Dad would tell us all about it.

Some police cars had come too, and policemen were talking to Dad. I saw him running his hand through his hair a few times, and shaking his head, then looking up at the lit up rooms and nodding. Then, finally, he came back to the car so we could find out what had happened.

‘Well?’

Mum got out of the car to meet Dad as he walked back to us.

‘We’ve got to stay, the police want to talk to me.’

‘But we can’t, we’ve got to get back for Matty.’

‘I know, I said that, but they want me to give a statement, as I was the only one who found him, and you’ve got to stay because you called the ambulance.’

‘Oh this is ridiculous. Who did you talk to?’

Dad pointed to one of the policemen, and Mum walked quickly over to him. Dad opened the back door of the car for me and I got out, and we stood and looked at Mum arguing with the policeman. Mum was good at arguing, and usually won, like in cafes when the cake was dry, or taking clothes back to shops, but she didn’t win against the policeman, although she seemed to be trying her very best. She walked slowly back to us, looking really cross.

‘No luck?’

‘No, I can’t believe it, they honestly didn’t care that your disabled mother is going to have to get your disabled brother in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, undressed, dressed in pyjamas and settled for the night. We’ve got to wait here.’

‘I’ll call the agency, see if they’ve got anyone short notice. You’re right, Mum can’t do it, but they might have someone. Come on, we can wait inside, they’ve taken over one of the corporate suites as an incident room.’

Dad got his phone out and started talking about Uncle Matty as we walked across the car park and into the Stadium. We went up some stairs, and then found ourselves in a room with a window overlooking the pitch, although I couldn’t see much because the floodlights weren’t on. There were two policemen, who were using computers, but they didn’t take much notice of us, even though Mum said who we were.

We sat on a sofa, and Dad went to get us drinks and crisps from the bar. He was gone a long time, and Mum looked at her watch a few more times. She got her phone out and talked to Granny, but didn’t say anything different from the things Dad had said to her when he told her about the person who was coming to put Uncle Matty to bed.

Dad came back after a while and gave me a can of Fanta, and Mum a glass of wine.

‘Sorry, I got held up in the bar, everyone wanted to talk to me, I was trying not to make a drama of it. Do we know when they’re going to talk to us here?’

‘No, I don’t know what’s taking so long.’

We waited for a long time; I’d finished my Fanta and the crisps that Dad had brought, and Mum was trying to play some games with me, but she wasn’t concentrating very well because of waiting for the policeman to talk to her.

Finally, one of the policeman looked up from his computer and came over to us.

‘Mr Scott?’

‘Yes. This is my wife, Beth.’

‘Mrs Scott. Thank you for staying. We just want to ask a few questions, as you found the victim. I’m Detective Constable Simmonds.’

‘Are you going to take long? We need to get back home, and we’ve got a long drive.’

‘We’ll be as quick as we can, sir. Is your little boy alright here with us? Detective Peterson could look after him …’

‘No, you’ll be fine, won’t you sweetheart.’

I nodded, hardly able to believe I was going to be allowed to stay while the policeman talked to Mum and Dad.

‘Alright then. First, can we just check some of the details you gave us when you called us, Mrs Scott …’

There was a lot of talking about all the things I already knew, about how Dad found the man, and Mum called the ambulance, and why we were in the car park, and lots of things that weren’t very interesting. I started to feel sleepy, and snuggled in to Mum, who put her arm round me.

I was half asleep, not really listening to the grown up voices talking, but in that weird half-dreaming way, I seemed to suddenly be listening, as if part of me knew that I needed to be paying attention before I knew what was being said.

‘… long have you know the victim?’

‘What? I don’t know him.’

‘Oh, maybe I’ve misunderstood, sir. I thought you were a coach here?’

‘Was. I left a couple of months ago.’

‘But am I right in thinking Mr Summers has been here for several years?’

‘… er … what?’

‘My apologies, I thought you had been made aware, the victim is Mr Declan Summers. I believe he is a Raiders player.’

There was a long silence. I sat up and looked at Dad, who was looking at the policeman, with his mouth open. I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought the policeman was saying that Dec was the person who Dad had found on the ground in the car park. But surely Dad would have known it was Dec? He was only not talking to him, he wasn’t not seeing him.

‘Mummy, is Dec –’

‘Shh Cal. James – was that Dec? Could it have been?’

‘Shit. I don’t know, he was, his face was – bloody hell Beth, no one could have recognised him.’

Dad turned to the policeman.

‘Are you for real? That bloke, the one with his face mashed in, was Declan Summers?’

‘I’m sorry sir, but yes. Can you tell me how long you’ve known him?’

Mum and Dad sat very still. Mum’s arm was round me, but I saw her other hand holding Dad’s hand tightly. They didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then Mum kind of shook herself.

‘Just over three years. But we haven’t really seen him, not properly, for a few months.’

‘Do you know … have you heard … how is he?’

‘We haven’t got any news from the hospital. You’re not family? Because someone suggested there was a family connection.’

Mum let out a deep sigh.

‘Dec lived with us, like part of our family. He doesn’t have anyone else. I suppose you could say we’re the only family he’s got. James, we need to go and see him.’

She looked at the policeman.

‘Will they let us see him?’

‘They usually say family only.’

‘He doesn’t have family, not blood relatives. His parents died when he was thirteen, he was in care before he came to us. He’s going to be there on his own.’

‘You make a good case, Mrs Scott, but you’re better off talking to the hospital. I think we’re finished here, you can go now, see if they’ll let you in.’

‘Is he … how bad is he?’

‘I’m really, sorry, I don’t know. I’d suggest going to the hospital to see what you can find out.’

‘Yeah, come on Beth. You must know someone up there who can smuggle us in.’

Mum looked at Dad, and gave him half a smile, but also looked like she was going to cry.

‘Really? You don’t mind going?’

‘That bloody boy is going to be the death of me, but no, I think we both need to be there, don’t we?’

‘I can call Lis, see if Cal can go back there –’

‘I want to see Dec.’

A long look passed between Mum and Dad.

‘Sweetheart, Dec has been badly hurt. We don’t know how he is, yet. I don’t know if you can see him.’

‘I want to. I don’t mind his blood. I’ve seen Dec’s blood before, when he chopped his thumb.’

‘This is a bit different, mate.’

‘But I want to see him.’

‘Maybe it would be easier for now if he just comes with us, James. I’ll find out what’s what and we can take it from there.’

And so I was allowed to go with them to the hospital. I had to wait for a long time with Dad while Mum talked to people about how Dec was and whether we could see him. I wasn’t sure how to feel, because it sounded like Dec was more hurt than just needing a plaster, and I couldn’t imagine what that really meant. But I just felt that now, all of a sudden, the thing that had been there that had made Dad get that cross, tight look on his face had gone – in fact it had been gone since this morning, and I wanted to see Dec and talk to him. And I was a bit fascinated with the promise of all the blood as well.

After sitting on plastic chairs for ages and ages, Mum came back and sat next to Dad. I thought if I looked sleepy and leaned against Dad, they would be more likely to say things than if I looked interested, so that’s what I did, and that’s what happened.

‘So …?’

‘He’s alive.’

Dad let out a huge breath, as if it had been possible that Dec hadn’t been alive.

‘Jesus. How bad is it, then?’

‘Bad enough. Multiple fractures, he’s having a CT scan to check his brain.’

‘Shit. Shit.’

‘James.’

I suspected a look came my way, but I’d closed my eyes, so I could hear better.

‘Can we see him?’

‘After his scan. They’re admitting him, but he’ll be sedated, he’ll be out of it for several hours. They don’t expect him to wake up until tomorrow.’

‘I want to stay.’

‘I know. I had a look to see who’s on the ward he’s going to, and I know the Nurse in Charge. I’m pretty sure I can talk us in there, but maybe I should take Cal to Lis’s first.’

I opened my eyes quickly and sat up, because at this point being asleep would only get me carried out to the car.

‘I want to see Dec.’

They both looked quickly down at me, as if they’d forgotten I was there for a moment. Dad shrugged at Mum, and I held my breath, hoping they wouldn’t say no.

‘If one of us takes him back to Nico’s, and Dec wakes up, we’ll be sorry we missed it.’

‘I know, but I’m not sure Cal should be seeing … whatever he might see.’

‘I shouldn’t think it’ll be any worse than imagining it. I know I’m imagining some pretty horrific things, and I saw him at the time. He’ll have been cleaned up, won’t he?’

‘Yes, but still … oh I suppose you’re right. OK, Cal, you can stay with us for a little while, but you have to promise to be quiet and still, and when we say it’s time to go, no arguing. Otherwise I’ll take you straight back to Lis and she’ll put you to bed.’

‘Kay Mummy.’

I started practising being quiet and still right away, so they could see how good I was at it, and didn’t feel the need to take me back to Nico’s house. Another benefit of this was they forgot to talk quietly, and I found out more things, like that Dec had been hit by someone, with a bottle, and he had got glass in his cuts, and then he had fallen on the ground, and someone had kicked him. It hurts when someone kicks you, because Jake and me kicked each other once at break-time, just to see, and we both got bruises. I wondered if Dec would have bruises on his shins, like me and Jake.

After a while, Mum decided that we might be more comfortable waiting in the family room, near where Dec was going to be taken, so we went up some stairs, then Mum talked to a nurse, who showed us to a small room with some chairs and a table in it. There were toys in the corner, so I played with them while Mum and Dad sat together, not saying much, although Dad talked on his phone to Nico and some other people.

A little while later, a nurse came to get us, and said that Dec was in a bed, and that we could sit with him if we wanted to. Mum stood up and said she would go and have a look, and decide if I could go too. I went and sat next to Dad, who put his arm round me.

‘I want to see Dec, Daddy.’

‘I know, mate. But he might be a bit too gruesome just now, maybe a bit too poorly. Mummy will know if it’s OK.’

‘Will he be scary like in Monsters Inc?’

‘Ha, could be even worse, Cal. We don’t know yet. He wasn’t too pretty when I found him.’

‘But Dec isn’t pretty, he’s a boy.’

‘Yeah I know, mate. There are a few girls who might disagree with you as far as Dec’s concerned, but I know what you mean. I meant that … Cal, Dec’s not just had an accident, he’s … he’s been hit, by a bad man who wanted to hurt him, and did a good job of it.’

‘What bad man?’

‘We don’t know. The police are trying to find out.’

‘Is it because Dec did stealing and lying?’

‘Er … Jesus, Cal. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see what Dec remembers if … er … when he wakes up.’

‘Can I tell him about my fire engine?’

‘Yeah, course you can, mate, tell him anything you like. But he’ll be asleep, he might not remember what you tell him.’

I was quiet for a while, trying to remember all the things I’d wanted to tell Dec but couldn’t before, like my new school, my rabbit and the gap where my tooth came out. Then Mum came back and stood in the doorway. Dad looked up.

‘Well?’

‘He’s asleep, or unconscious, he’s had a load of meds to knock him out. He’s due some more in an hour or so, there’s a small chance he might wake up then.’

‘Really? That’s great. What’s the … er … damage?’

Dad waved his hand around his face.

‘Oh James, his face is one huge bruise, and he’s got stitches all over the place, one lot is really close to his eye. If I didn’t know it was Dec, I wouldn’t have recognised him.’

Mum looked like she might cry, and Dad stood up and cuddled her.

‘Hey, hey, shh, it’s OK, we’re here now. What about Cal? He’s really keen to see him. I’ve told him Dec’s been hit by a bad man. He asked if he looks like something out of Monsters Inc.’

Mum looked over at me and smiled.

‘Well, he’s a little bit like a monster, sweetheart, but not as bad as Henry J. Waternoose.’

Dad looked confused; he never paid attention to people’s names in films.

‘So, are we all going then?’

‘Yeah, I think so. Cal, remember, quiet and still. Dec’s not the only poorly person here. And we’re not going to stay long.’

‘I’m staying until I know he’s OK.’

‘Alright, James, but me and Cal will have to go home and get some sleep soon.’

‘Let’s see how it goes.’

‘OK.’

Mum held her hand out to me, and I jumped off the chair and over to her. We walked along a corridor, and then through a door, where there were lots of curtains in the middle of the room, like there had been in the hospital where Uncle Matty was.

‘Jesus, if I never see the inside of one of these places again it’ll be too bloody soon.’

Mum led us over to one of the curtains and pulled it aside. There was a bed and two chairs and a table with a jug of water on it. In the bed was a man. Well, in the bed was Dec, but he didn’t look like Dec, at least not at first, or even second, glance. I had to go up really close to him to find anything that let me know he really was Dec.

He was lying very still, on his back, and he had a big cast on one of his arms from his shoulder to his fingers. I knew it was a cast because Sophie Evans had one last year when she fell out of the tree, but it wasn’t as big as this cast. His other arm had bandages on it. There was also a big thing on his nose that covered a lot of his face. The rest of him, or what I could see, was coloured black and purple, and was either swollen or had lines of what looked like tiny railway track along it. I wanted to ask what it was, but I had to be quiet and still, so I just looked. His eyes were puffed shut, and his mouth looked too big for his face.

He still didn’t look like Dec, and I wondered how they knew it was, so I turned and looked at Mum and Dad to see how they knew, but Dad was staring with a kind of surprised and scared look on his face, and Mum looked like she was trying not to cry again, and I knew that it was Dec, because they knew it was.

Mum and Dad sat in the chairs, and I sat on Mum’s lap and looked at Dec, in awe of all the bruises and swelling. I had expected there to be lots of blood, but there wasn’t any, which was a bit disappointing, although there were lots of other things to see – too many things, in fact, and eventually I couldn’t stay quiet any longer; I had to ask something.

‘What are those?’

I pointed at the train tracks.

‘They’re stitches, sweetheart.’

‘What are they for?’

‘Well, when people have bad cuts, sometimes it tears their skin apart, and the doctors have to sew it back together.’

‘Dec’s been sewed?’

‘Yes, sweetheart.’

‘With a needle?’

‘Yes. And special cotton.’

‘Will he have holes in his face forever?’

‘No, his skin will grow back together, the stitches just hold everything in place while it’s growing. Are you OK, sweetheart, looking at Dec?’

I nodded. I still couldn’t quite see Dec in the battered features of the man on the bed, but I didn’t feel sad or scared or any of the things Mum seemed to think I was going to feel.

There were lots of things to look at, all over the place; on the way in, I had seen other people’s beds with cards all round them, and some people with TVs. Dec didn’t have a TV, or any cards, although he did have a tall pole with a bag of water on it that seemed to go into his arm. I supposed that if he was asleep, he couldn’t drink water, but it would have made more sense for the water to go into his mouth rather than his arm. Then I remembered Uncle Matty having a bag like this when he was first in hospital, before he woke up, and Mum telling me it was a way to give people food and medicine if they were too asleep to eat or take tablets.

After the initial thrill, it got a bit boring sitting and watching Dec sleep, and I wanted to do something. I thought about the cards I’d seen round the other people’s beds.

‘Mummy can I make Dec a card to say get well?’

‘Of course, sweetheart. As soon as we get home, we’ll find your pens and you can draw something great for Dec.’

‘No, I mean now. Then he can see it when he wakes up.’

‘Oh Cal, there isn’t any paper here or anything. It’s a lovely idea though.’

‘I bet there’s a shop downstairs, Beth. They’re bound to sell cards. Fancy a little walk?’

‘Not particularly, why, do you?’

‘Could use a coffee, or I’ll fall asleep if I’m not careful.’

‘And your legs have dropped off, have they?’

‘No, I just thought –’

‘Yeah, the same as you always think. Oh alright. I’ll go and see what they’ve got. Would you like something to drink, Cal?’

‘Yes please Mummy.’

Mum was gone for a long time, and Dad closed his eyes and then fell asleep in the chair. I wasn’t tired, not even a bit, and now Dad was asleep, I knew I was the one who had to watch out for Dec waking up. I stared hard at him, and watched for signs of movement.

Dec

Woke up somewhere noisy and full of pain. Couldn’t open my eyes. Hurt. Everything hurt. Groaned.

\daddy.

The little boy’s voice sounded just like Cal.

łMmph.

The little boy was more insistent.

\daddy! Wake up.

Just like Cal.

łWha … shit … sorry Cal, nodded off.

Head felt fuzzy, but that sounded like Jay. Must still be dreaming.

\dec went ‘nnn’ and he moved. Daddy, you sweared.

The scrape of a chair. A hand on my arm. Felt real. Real enough to bloody hurt.

łDec, it’s Jay.

What? How? Where? Too many thoughts. Tried a smile. Bad idea. Mouth too big. Lips stuck together. Pain. Groaned. Tried to open my eyes. Eyelids too big. Stuck together. Pain. Brief tiny glimpse of the ceiling. Shouldn’t I be worried about all this? Too much to think about, let it go. Groaned.

\you’ve got a big swelled up face. It’s all purple. It looks funny.

He was close to me, I could feel his breath on my cheek. I tried to turn towards him, to see if it really was Cal. No good. Groaned.

łCal! Come here. What did we say? You can stay if you’re quiet and still. Otherwise Mummy will take you back to Lis’s. Dec, can you hear me?

I could, but saying so was proving difficult. In the end, managed

‘Mm.’

It was them, I was sure. How were they here? How the glorious fuck were they here? I didn’t even know where here was.

łAh mate, you’re in hospital. How are you feeling? Sorry, bloody stupid question, considering the state of you. Do you know what happened?

Had no idea. Couldn’t get a single thought together, apart from ‘Jay and Cal are here’. The slightest shake of my head.

łYou’ve had a bit of a bashing. We found you in the car park, blood and glass everywhere. The police want to talk to you – can you manage that?

Another small head shake. All this moving and thinking was exhausting.

łOK no problem. They can wait. Just take it easy for now.

\does it hurt?

łCal, ssh.

‘Mm.’

\dec said mm. That’s yes. He heared me.

Wanted to keep him talking, but my mouth wouldn’t work properly.

‘Mm.’

He was delighted.

\he did it again!

łOK, Cal, that’s enough. When Mummy gets back you’re off to Lis’s.

\but I want to stay. I want to tell Dec –

_Cal. Sit down here – look I got you a slushie. It’s got a bendy straw.

Beth was here too. They were all here. Couldn’t smile, mouth wouldn’t work, but felt a huge smile spreading somewhere inside me.

łHe’s awake. Not very talkative. No change there.

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart …

Felt a hand on my cheek. Tried not to wince. Tried not to groan. Tried not to cry. Failed. Started to drift in and out. Things put in my mouth. Things wiped on my face. Things poked here and there. People said my name, lots of people.

_Dec, I’m going to go now, Cal needs …

>Declan … mierda, Jaime, he look horrible …

łDec, the nurse is just …

-Declan? No, looks like he’s still out …

łDec, sorry, need to go, I’ll be back …

Matt

When I woke up it was dark, and I could hear Mum talking. Jay and Beth must have come back while I was asleep; it was only a matter of time before Jay came in and the humiliations could start again. I was going to ask him if I could have Sally instead, at least in the mornings. It would be a relief to both of us.

Sure enough, the door opened and light from the hall crept into the room along with – oh – Mum. She put the lamp on by the bed and sat in the chair, looking serious.

‘Matthew, that was Jameson on the phone.’

On the phone? Where was he then? Oh fuck, they hadn’t been in an accident had they? A sudden unwanted image of twisted metal and spatters of blood forced its way into my head, because ever since I got a cold and nearly died, I had a tendency to over-dramatise.

‘They’re going to have to stay down in Devon overnight. There’s been a … well, that boy Declan’s got himself put in hospital, some sort of fight, he’s in a bad way, and Jameson says he needs to stay there until he wakes up. He’s arranged another carer for tonight, and said he’ll be here in plenty of time for you tomorrow.’

Sorry as I was to hear Dec had been in some kind of bust-up where he’d come off worst, I was massively relieved that nothing had happened to Jay, Beth or Cal, and smiled to myself at the thought of Sally coming back later.

‘Ohkay.’

Mum seemed to breathe her own sigh of relief, happy I wasn’t kicking up a stink, as was my wont now I was feeling brighter and getting more bolshy about things.

‘Thoht he wahn’t tahking tuh Dec.’

‘So did I. It seems this altercation, whatever it was, has made him think again.’

‘Guhd thehn.’

‘Hm.’

Mum didn’t seem so sure.

‘How are you, dear?’

‘Shih.’

Troubled teenagers or not, I had still had the remains of my life torn apart by Carrie.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. You were asleep when I made dinner. Are you hungry at all?’

‘Noh.’

‘You didn’t eat lunch.’

‘Soh?’

‘So you should try to eat something.’

‘Wha fuh? Soh I dohnt geh ill? Toh laht.’

‘Matthew, don’t, please.’

I tried to spare her this, I really did, the times when it just all seemed too much and I felt like it wasn’t worth it any more, but sometimes she just went on too much, they all did, telling me what I should do for the good of my health, fussing over me. None of it mattered, none of it, in the end, if someone you love can rip your heart out and give it to the bastard you hate, then go and take everything you own while you’re dying across the other side of town.

‘Lehv meh alohn, Muhm.’

‘Don’t you want –’

‘Plehs.’

‘Matthew, if you –’

‘Pihs ohf Muhm.’

I never swore at Mum. I swore near her a lot, but never at her. It had the desired effect, as she got up without another word and walked to the door. Then she turned in the doorway.

‘Apparently the agency chap will be here at nine thirty.’

‘Chahp?’

‘Yes, Jameson thought you’d be more comfortable with a man, so he’s booked this chap Ian tonight.’

I sulked my way through efficient Ian’s clammy hands and non-existent banter. He tried talking about the weather, the traffic and the plans for the new leisure centre, but as all of these things were happening outside of my life and were being talked about by him, I had no interest. His fascinating topics of conversation dried up in the face of my lack of replying and he just got on with his job, only checking with me occasionally about which pyjamas I wore and where I wanted my drink left. I just about deigned to answer him, then closed my eyes as soon as he put me back into bed. He could assume I was asleep if he wanted to. I soon drifted off anyway, and didn’t hear him leave.

Cal

Dec didn’t say any more, even ‘nnn’, and nurses started coming over and we kept having to go back to the family room while the nurses did things. Mum showed me two cards she’d bought, one with a dinosaur on it, and one with a flower on it. Of course I chose the dinosaur, and wrote in it with my best writing. She’d also bought a Mars Bar, which I ate, and some flowers for Dec, although I thought he’d probably rather have the Mars Bar. But I wasn’t going to say so. After two times of going backwards and forwards between Dec’s bed and the family room, Mum decided she was going to take me back to go to sleep while Dad stayed.

‘I think he’s going to be OK, James, at least, you know, in general. You don’t need to stay.’

‘I’m staying until I know for sure.’

‘OK.’

‘I can’t leave him like this.’

‘It’s OK. I know. Come back for a bit of sleep, though?’

‘Yeah.’

Mum went and told Dec we were going, even though he was asleep and couldn’t hear her, then we went back to Nico’s. I don’t remember anything until the next morning, so I suppose I must have fallen asleep in the car, and Mum must have carried me out and put me to bed.

I woke up in my room in Nico’s house, when Mum came in.

‘Wake up, sleepyhead.’

I remembered why I was there, and not at home in my dinosaur room.

‘Are we going to see Dec again?’

‘We’re just going to pop in, and then we’re going home. Hurry up and get dressed, sweetheart.’

I hurried up and got dressed, eager to see if Dec’s face still looked purple and big, but Dad still wasn’t ready when Mum had finished clearing my breakfast things away. Nico and Lis were still in bed too, and I expected Dad to be in trouble for dawdling like he usually was, but when he came into the kitchen, yawning, Mum just smiled at him and gave him a cup of coffee.

‘Thanks, Beth, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘There’s plenty more where that came from. You’re going to need it if you’re going to insist on driving back on two hours’ sleep.’

‘Less than two, I don’t think I shut my eyes for more than five minutes.’

‘Oh James. Why don’t you go back to bed? Cal and I can check on Dec and pick you up in a bit.’

‘No, I want to see him.’

‘But you know he’s going to be OK.’

‘Yeah, I know what they told me last night, but it’s more than that. If he’s awake at all, I … I just want to see how he is. Not how he is like his bangs and scrapes; how he is with us.’

Mum tutted and rolled her eyes.

‘Only a rugby player would call that face bangs and scrapes, but I know what you mean. Things have changed quite a bit since Friday, haven’t they.’

I listened to all this without understanding much of it. I thought, maybe, from how they were talking about Dec, that they might have stopped being cross about him stealing and lying. But you could never tell with grown-ups; sometimes they seemed one way, and just changed their minds. So I thought I’d wait, rather than asking right away, because I didn’t want to do anything to stop them taking me to see Dec.