And so I started work at Raiders, and I bloody loved it. Officially I did three days a week and match days when Raiders were at home, but I often went in on my days off, just to tinker with things. I didn’t have much to do with Jay, except when the technology was something that involved the players in some way, but although it was weird at first, and I had to stop myself grinning when he was being all ‘settle down and listen to the nice computer man’, we worked out a way of almost pretending we didn’t know each other.
That’s not to say I didn’t love being ‘part of the team’ – I’d watched Raiders with Cal enough times that I truly supported them, and rubbing shoulders with the guys I cheered on from the stands would never grow old. I loved the banter as well. Rugby players are renowned for the stick they give each other, and it wasn’t surprising that I came in for some of it, sometimes at Jay’s expense. I was more than capable of bandying words and insults about, though, and I think Jay was surprised at how well I could a) look after myself and b) not drag him into it.
If seeing Jay at work showed me a different side to him, seeing Dec at work did exactly the opposite. He was the same in any environment – laid back, cheerful, chatting easily with everyone from the tea lady to the managing director, permanent bloody annoying grin on his face. The only time he was different was when he was on the pitch. Then he was all focus, all aggression, all ‘don’t get in my way’.
And the money helped. Not that I became an overnight rich kid, but Raiders paid me more than GreenScreen, and I got some good performance related bonuses, so things were easier, and it meant Lau could stay at home for longer before having to decide when to go back to work herself.
And then it was Christmas, and Lau and I had been married for nearly a year, and I just didn’t know where the time had gone. The babies were five months old, and seemed to do another mind-blowingly clever thing every day. My top five favourite things about them were:
Making them laugh by pulling silly faces. I could keep all three of us amused for hours by sticking my tongue out and crossing my eyes. Josh particularly nearly peed his pants laughing at me – or maybe literally did, who knows; he peed his pants all the time anyway.
When they lifted their arms to be picked up and cuddled. It melted my heart that they wanted me so much, although they would both do it at the same time, the little tykes, as if they knew I’d be torn as to which one to pick up. Sometimes, before they got too enormous, I could pick both of them up, but luckily Lau was nearly always around to share.
Playing hide and seek. I loved hiding their toys with just a bit poking out from under the sofa, and seeing if they could spot it. They often had to point it out to Lau, who was woefully unobservant.
Chatting with them as they talked their unintelligible baby bollocks. I told them all sorts of shit, based on one or two syllables. Lau was so chuffed when Ella said ‘mama’, even when I explained that it was just random chuntering whereas Josh’s ‘dada’ was clearly a request for me to tell him all about Spurs’ chances in the League that year. And we mooed and baaed and woofed and meowed for all we were worth. Oh, and they had special twin names for each other. The nearest we could get to it was ‘Squeaks’ for Ella, and ‘Hippo’ for Josh, so we adopted them as their own special names.
The best thing, the absolute best thing, was their first Christmas. I know they were too young to know what it was, but Lau and I were like kids ourselves, and went the whole hog. It was at ours, for the first and only time that Beth ever relinquished the festive reins, and it was magical, the stuff dreams were made of.
TO THE PEOPLE WHO CREATED ME. I WILL NOT CALL YOU PARENTS, BECAUSE YOU NEVER WERE.
THIS LETTER WILL NEVER GET SENT BECAUSE I DON’T EVER WANT TO CONTACT YOU. BUT THINGS HAPPEN AND PEOPLE KEEP ASKING ME ABOUT YOU, AND ALTHOUGH I DON’T OWE ANYONE ELSE AN EXPLANATION, I THINK I NEED TO GET IT CLEAR IN MY OWN HEAD, WHY I DON’T WANT TO FIND YOU. I NEVER HAVE, I NEVER WILL, BUT THE LAST FEW YEARS, NOW MY NAME IS OUT THERE, THERE HAVE BEEN PEOPLE, OFFICIALLY AND UNOFFICIALLY, WHO WANT ME TO BELONG TO THEM. THEY SAY THEY’RE SISTERS, BROTHERS, UNCLES, WHATEVER.
IF THEY’D FOUND ME TEN YEARS OR SO AGO, WHEN I NEEDED SO DESPERATELY TO BELONG, IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT, BUT NOT BEFORE THAT, NOT WHEN MY MUM AND DAD WERE STILL ALIVE. THEY WERE ENOUGH FOR ME. THEY WANTED ME, THEY CHOSE ME. AND EVEN THOUGH I LOST THEM, I HAVE FOUND THIS AMAZING FAMILY WHO WOULD SUPPORT AND HELP ME IF I WANTED TO FIND YOU, BUT THEY ARE ALSO ENOUGH FOR ME, AND I DON’T NEED YOU.
ALL I KNOW ABOUT YOU ARE SOME BARE FACTS (NAMES, AGES, PLACE ON MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE, A COUPLE OF GENERAL THINGS). I ALWAYS KNEW I WAS ADOPTED, MY MUM USED TO SAY I WAS A LATE CHRISTMAS PRESENT, BECAUSE THEY TOOK ME HOME A FEW DAYS AFTER I WAS BORN, AND IT MADE ME FEEL SPECIAL, WANTED.
I THINK THEY KNEW WHO YOU WERE, BUT I NEVER ASKED ABOUT IT, ALWAYS REFUSED WHEN MUM AND DAD ASKED IF I WANTED TO KNOW, BECAUSE IT WAS ENOUGH THAT THEY WANTED ME WHEN YOU DIDN’T. I KNEW YOU DIDN’T DIE, OR HAVE AN ILLNESS, SO WHAT YOU DID WAS YOU GAVE ME AWAY. TO ME THAT’S UNACCEPTABLE, UNFORGIVEABLE, FOR ANY REASON, EVEN THOUGH IT MEANT I GOT TOM AND LUCY COLLIER AS MY PARENTS FOR 13 YEARS, WHICH JUST ABOUT MAKES UP FOR IT BECAUSE THEY WERE THE BEST PARENTS A KID COULD HAVE HOPED FOR.
ESPECIALLY NOW I’VE GOT MY OWN CHILDREN, I JUST DON’T GET IT, HOW YOU COULD GIVE ONE AWAY WHEN CHILDREN MAKE YOUR LIFE SO MUCH BETTER? I COULD HAVE DONE THAT, I COULD HAVE MADE YOUR LIFE BETTER, BUT YOU DIDN’T WANT ME SO YOUR LOSS.
I’VE BEEN ASKED A LOT IF I WANT TO FIND YOU, HAVE THE REUNION, FILL IN THE GAPS, AND THE ANSWER IS A BIG FAT DEFINITE NO. NO THANKS, COMPLETELY HAPPY WITH MY LIFE WITHOUT YOU, OR KNOWING ANY MORE ABOUT YOU THAN I DO NOW.
THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE CONTACTED ME IN VARIOUS WAYS TO CLAIM ME AS THEIRS WERE THEREFORE ALSO ON A HIDING TO NOTHING, BECAUSE I DIDN’T CARE IF THEY WERE GENUINE OR COMPLETE CON MERCHANTS, STILL DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR ANYTHING THEY HAD TO SAY. EVEN IF YOU REALLY ARE A TRUE RELATIVE, I’M NOT INTERESTED IN KNOWING SOMEONE WHO ONLY LOOKED FOR ME WHEN THEY SAW MY NAME ON TV.
I’D FORGOTTEN THAT MY NAME MIGHT MEAN SOMETHING TO SOMEONE SOMEDAY, AND IF I’D REALISED AT THE TIME, IF I’D THOUGHT ABOUT WHO MIGHT COME CALLING BECAUSE OF MY FUCKING NAME … WELL YOU CAN’T CHANGE THE PAST, CAN YOU. THIS NAME HAS ALREADY CAUSED A LOT OF UPSET IN MY LIFE, BUT I’VE OWNED IT NOW, IT’S MINE, AND IT’S NOT ANYONE ELSE’S PROPERTY, OR A TICKET TO ME.
SO WHAT BOTH MY HEART AND MY HEAD SAY IS THAT I BELONG WITH PEOPLE WHO CHOSE ME, WHEN I NEEDED CHOOSING AND BARELY DESERVED IT. ANYONE ELSE WHO WANTS A PIECE OF ME FOR ANY OTHER REASON CAN GO FUCK THEMSELVES, BECAUSE I CHOSE MY OWN FAMILY, AND THEY CHOSE ME BACK, AND I REALISE HOW LUCKY I AM TO HAVE HAD THAT PRIVILEGE.
THE SMALL PART OF MY PAST THAT WAS YOU IS GONE, IT’S A BLANK, AND I’M AT PEACE WITH THAT, BECAUSE MY PRESENT AND MY FUTURE ARE FULL OF ALL THE LOVE AND FAMILY I’LL EVER NEED. I FEEL NO RESPONSIBILITY OR YEARNING TOWARDS YOU, AND DON’T REGRET NEVER KNOWING YOU. I AM HAPPY WITHOUT YOU.
DECLAN CHARLES SUMMERS
And then it was nearly Christmas, and everywhere was full of sparkle and glitter, and we’d gone completely bananas with presents for Ella and Josh, and had somehow agreed to have Christmas dinner at our house for everyone.
Beth had managed to persuade us that as Dec and Amy lived just down the road, we could share the day between the two houses, and claimed she needed a year off from her usual mammoth cookathon. In reality, she found it impossible to leave us to it, and kept offering Amy and me recipes and tips, which we tried to offload in the direction of Dec and Matt, but were skilfully batted back our way.
Beth made a Christmas cake, Rose made a Christmas pudding, Mum ordered the meat, and all that was left for Amy and me was the vegetables. Even then, we only had to order them to be delivered, as Carol, Rose and Mum set up camp in our kitchen on Christmas Eve so they could peel and chop and compare saucepan sizes. Matt was a little put out that he wasn’t wanted in his own kitchen, having recently rediscovered a love for fiddling about and creating mouthwatering meals when we weren’t busy, but we distracted him by making him responsible for all things drink related, and on the whole, being taken over for the bulk of the hard work made it easy on us.
Beth commandeered Amy’s kitchen for some last minute mince pies, sausage rolls and other things without which, apparently, Christmas would be unable to occur. Matt got predictably grumpy about the amount of advice and instructions he was expected to follow.
‘Who says we were going to have a traditional family bloody Christmas anyway? Maybe we wanted to, I don’t know, do it Belgian style or something, just us, instead of invasion of the bloody hordes.’
‘What exactly is a Belgian Christmas like, then?’
‘Oh I don’t know, do I, but it’s like we didn’t get much of a say.’
‘Shall I call Beth and tell her we’re not doing it then? That we’re going to have a Belgian Christmas, just the four of us, and eat waffles and chocolate all day?’
‘Oh ha ha. You know what I mean, though.’
‘I know what you mean, but I don’t think you really mean what you mean.’
‘All this complaining is just lip service, because people expect you to moan about being told what to do. Inside, you’re secretly as chuffed as me that everyone’s coming here. It’s going to be mad, and you’re going to love it.’
There was a brief silence, in which Laura Scott triumphed again.
‘Yeah, very insightful. Think you bloody know me.’
‘Yeah, well, OK, I’ll give you that. But I’m doing my bloody celeriac and parsnip mash, whether it’s traditional or not.’
‘I’m sure it’s traditional somewhere in the world.’
‘They’re not banning me from my own kitchen, who knows what kind of mess they’ll make.’
‘I’m sure they’ll clear up after themselves. Why don’t we just enjoy them doing it all?’
‘Oh I suppose so. We’ll be tripping over each other as it is. I’ve had another idea about how to sit everyone in the dining room …’
And so plans were made and unmade and rearranged and interfered with by Beth, and eventually Christmas Day came. We both woke up early, not because Josh and Ella were awake, but because we felt like kids ourselves. We’d given the babies stockings, and filled them at midnight, putting presents under the tree for them, as if they were going to know what was going on. As Matt turned to me and stretched sleepily, I put my arms round him and nestled into his embrace.
‘Hey Lau. Happy Christmas.’
‘Happy Christmas. It’s early.’
‘I know, I feel like I’m seven again. I just can’t wait for it all to kick off.’
‘I think I can wait for nineteen people to descend on our dining room and the baby carnage that will follow.’
‘It’ll be great. I can spend all day winding everyone up, just watch.’
‘Is that your special present? Annoying everyone?’
‘Yeah. Just what I always wanted. Talking of special presents …’
Matt turned over and reached into the drawer of his bedside table. He turned back with a small parcel.
‘I know we said not to bother with each other, but I saw this, and so here you are.’
‘Oh Matt … I just haven’t had time …’
He smiled and stroked my cheek.
‘I don’t want anything. You, Ella and Josh are all I’ll ever want.’
I felt tears prickling my eyes as I looked up at him.
‘Well open it, then, before they wake up and scream the place down, and I revise my previous statement to ‘a bit of bloody peace and quiet is all I’ll ever want’.’
I tore the paper off the parcel. It was a small velvet ring box; I opened the lid. Inside was a gold ring, in the shape of two hands clasping each other.
‘Remember when we first met, we said ‘holding hands wherever we are’?’
‘It just reminded me. We don’t say it any more, I guess we don’t need to, seeing each other every day. But I still feel it. When I’m at work, you’re there, when I’m at Raiders with Cal, you’re there. And I never got you a ring when we got married. I just liked it, and it felt just right.’
‘It is just right, it’s perfect, I love it, thank you.’
I took it out of the box and put it on my finger. It fitted the ring finger on my right hand.
‘How did you know my size?’
‘Ha ha, I didn’t. There was only one, and I had to have a good long look, trying to imagine your hands, before I decided sod it, if it doesn’t fit I’ll just get it altered. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve looked at your hands since, trying to work out if any of your bloody fingers were the right size.’
‘Well it’s a perfect fit.’
I reached up and pulled his face down for a kiss.
‘Sorry I haven’t had time to go to the shops for you.’
‘It’s OK, Lau. Kisses and bum fondles are an acceptable substitute.’
‘Mm. Sure. But I did have time to use the computer.’
I reached over to the drawer on my bedside table and took out an envelope. I’d stuck a bow on the corner in an attempt to make it look more festive.
Matt took the envelope and looked at me with an eyebrow raised.
‘You bloody tease, Lau. I thought I was the online shopper, and I actually went out to a real shop and everything, and you hit the laptop. Nice reversal.’
‘Open it, then.’
He tore the envelope open and took out the contents.
‘Holy fuck, Lau, how the bloody hell did you get hold of these? It’s been sold out for months.’
He looked at the match tickets for Tottenham versus Manchester United with a look of love I recognised as reserved solely for Spurs.
‘I admit I had some help from, er, sources closer to sport than I am.’
‘Who? Did Jay get them?’
‘I’m not divulging my contacts.’
In fact, it was Dec who had helped me, through the Raiders media people and a complicated chain of emails and texts. Covering my tracks on the computer had been tricky.
‘But it’s … I can’t go away and leave you for a whole Saturday.’
‘Oh of course you can you dafty. There are plenty of people here to help out if I need it. There are two tickets, you can take someone else – I wondered about Andrew? Although please don’t ask me.’
‘Whoa, Lau, you’ve blown my mind. You are awesome, so, so awesome.’
And with that he pulled me into his arms and covered my face with kisses. As I kissed him back, I remembered last Christmas, when I was already pregnant but didn’t know, and how different it had been. We’d been in the flat, we’d spent the morning making love and having a lazy breakfast before getting dressed and heading over to Jay and Beth’s for dinner with the family.
It had been a wonderful day, and none of us had had any idea of the mad year we were about to have. Matt had still been affected by the MS flare up to some extent, I was still working and he was just about to go back to work. If I’d thought about the year ahead at all, I would have assumed that Matt and I would carry on as we were, getting to know each other better, settling down, thinking about what the future might hold. Instead, the future had hit us with both barrels and we’d had to do a lot of adjusting in a short space of time. This Christmas was going to be about as different from the one I would have predicted at this time last year as it was possible to be.
As Matt’s kisses became more passionate, and his hands roamed over my body in the same way that mine were roaming over his, we pushed our bodies urgently against each other, aware that Ella and Josh could wake at any time.
Quick PG rating folks. Honestly, Lau, I expected better from you.
Sex had become quick and with one ear on the baby monitor, rather than the leisurely activity it had been before the babies, but it was no less exciting for the need for speed. The snatched moments and interruptions had a hint of the forbidden about them, and I treasured them more for that.
I felt Matt reach over to his drawer for a condom, and pause briefly to put it on, then pull at my t-shirt, and I quickly raised my arms so he could pull it over my head. As he lowered his head to my breasts and sucked my nipple into his mouth, his fingers were already travelling downwards, caressing me in readiness. I clasped his bum and squeezed, pulling his hips towards mine and he moaned, rolling me onto my back and pushing my legs apart with a knee. As he entered me, I wrapped my legs round his back and pulled him in further, feeling the length of him inside me as he thrust deep and fast. We kissed again, lips and tongues telling the tale of our need for each other as I matched Matt’s thrusts with the rhythm of my hips against his. His fingers stayed on me, stroking and teasing as he pushed into me, and I felt my climax building. Quieter than we used to be, not wanting to wake the two sleeping children, we murmured our half-words and stifled our cries, but the feeling was the same as we exploded into each other, leaving the world for a moment and coming back together in each other’s arms, looking into each other’s eyes with the same awe as the first time.
‘Whoa, Lau, we made it all the way through. Just whoa. I’d trade my Tottenham tickets for that any day.’
‘Are you saying I needn’t have jumped through all those hoops, I could have just flipped the switch on the speaker and shagged you senseless?’
‘Oh yeah. Best Christmas present ever.’
‘Oh. Well maybe I’ll just take these tickets –’
I reached over to the bedside table for the envelope.
‘– and give them to someone more appreciative.’
Matt grabbed my hand and took the envelope out of my fingers.
‘Don’t you bloody dare, woman. These are going to be put somewhere very safe until the day of the match.’
He bent down and kissed me again, wrapping me up in his arms.
‘Oh Lau, I could so do that again. I don’t suppose …’
‘We can always start …’
‘The longer you hang about, the less likely it is –’
A snuffly cry forced its way out of the small speaker of the baby monitor and Matt dropped his head with a resigned sigh. He looked up again moments later, with a smile on his face.
‘Shouldn’t be greedy, I guess. OK, let’s get up, sort them out, get this crazy Christmas Day started. Hey, do you reckon Dec’ll be up yet?’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Then I think a Christmas text is required. Why should he get a lie-in?’
‘Spread the Christmas cheer?’
‘Exactly. Be with you in a minute.’
So the day was started, early as so many of our days were now, but with love and family at the heart, as it should be. It wasn’t long before the doorbell went, and Mum, Carol and Rose bustled into the kitchen, ready to carry on where they had left off the day before. They’d brought presents, which we stowed under the tree until everyone had had breakfast and was ready for the paper-ripping fest.
Jay and Beth weren’t going to be arriving until later, and Dec and Amy would come along when they had their morning routine under control. Rose reported that nobody four doors down was yet dressed or fed, and to expect them in a couple of hours.
‘I don’t know, love,’ she said to me with a sigh, ‘I used to think Amy was going to get Declan out of his lazy ways, but I think he’s pulled her down to his level. I suppose it’s not easy, two babies to get ready and a man who finds it physically impossible to get out of bed before ten when he’s not working, but if it was me, I’d be having words.’
‘Rose, I don’t think there are enough words. Speaking from experience.’
‘Hey! You’re not comparing me to the slovenly Summers I hope? I get up bloody early all the time.’
‘Well, not all the time, flower, but OK, maybe you are a bit better than Dec.’
‘Thank you. That’s all I ask for, is to be a bit better than Dec.’
Our Christmas tree was in the living room, in the corner, next to the sofa. It was a real tree; Matt had gone and chosen it a couple of weeks ago, bringing it proudly home on the roof rack of his car, looking chuffed with himself.
‘I’ve always wanted to do that. Never bothered in the flat, the thought of hauling a tree up all those bloody stairs was just too much.’
We hadn’t had much in the way of decorations last year – just cards on strings, some tasteful green leafy arrangements and some of Matt’s arty things. This year, I’d taken my glitz out of storage and we’d gone full on with colour and sparkle. I knew it wasn’t exactly to Matt’s taste, but I persuaded him that Ella and Josh would love the stimulation, and it would be less effort than something creative. There were going to be so many children here later that I wanted everyone to feel comfortable, not like they were going to get told off if they broke something or knocked something out of alignment.
‘So your girly fairy lights are getting an airing then?’
‘Yeah. My way this year. You don’t want your glass candlesticks broken, or fingerprints on your classy festive silk screen prints, do you?’
‘No, I suppose not. I’ll put them away for fifty years or so.’
The mums and Rose had a break from the kitchen when Matt and I had seen to Ella and Josh, and we all went into the living room for some presents. Matt and I had spent ages choosing things that the babies would find stimulating and would encourage their development. I’d recently managed to wean them, finding breastfeeding two just too exhausting, and so a funky new bowl and spoon each with matching bib were top of the pile. We’d also bought new mobiles to go over their cots, that sparkled and made noises; Josh’s had aeroplanes and Ella’s had stars. They’d both recently started picking things up and dropping them, so we’d got them loads of different sized balls, some with bells and rattly things in them, some soft and furry, some with bobbles on. They both had teeth, two tiny ones at the bottom, so toothbrushes were also in there. It had been such fun wrapping things up, and was as much fun opening it all again, with the mums and Rose going all ‘aww’ at the tinyness of everything. They had brought lovely presents for them – clothes and toys, things that they would have grown out of in a few months, if not before, but I loved the impracticality of it all.
We’d asked everyone not to buy us presents – previous Christmases had shown us both that the older we got, the more difficult we were to buy for, and we would be happier if people got things for Ella and Josh. Mum and Carol had found it impossible to agree to this, though, and had teamed up to buy me a pamper day at a local spa, and Matt a new work bag to replace his old satchel, which was almost falling to pieces, much as he loved it. Normally, he wouldn’t have liked people choosing something so personal for him, but between them, they’d managed to find something that ticked all the boxes, something he would have chosen himself, and I thought to myself how well Carol knew her son.
Dec and Amy arrived late morning, Charlie running in looking for Matt, arms held high, wanting to be picked up, Amy’s mum Diane bringing up the rear.
‘Hey beautiful, Merry Christmas.’
Charlie squealed and wriggled in Matt’s arms.
‘Did Santa bring you anything cool?’
‘Santa Daddy Gigi.’
‘Right. OK. Er …’
Matt looked at Amy and Dec for help.
‘You got me, mate, she’s so excited this morning, we’ve had a shit-load of presents and stuff, I think it’s all just spilling out.’
‘OK then, beautiful, Santa Daddy Gigi it is. Where is Gigi?’
Charlie’s toy giraffe was never far from her side, although he was a bit the worse for wear these days.
Charlie held the giraffe up to Matt for inspection.
‘OK. Fair enough. Hey, Charlie, want to see if there’s a present under the tree for you?’
Matt took Charlie into the living room and we all followed, Amy putting Tom on the floor and holding his hands while he toddled along. I smiled at the sight, and imagined Josh and Ella doing the same in a few months.
‘He’s so nearly walking on his own, Amy.’
‘I know. Then, watch out world. He crawls so fast, I can’t keep up with him. I hope your tree is well secured, he nearly had ours over again this morning.’
‘Hey, Tom, come and see what Santa left for you under our tree.’
Amy handed over control to me, and Tom and I waddled into the living room, where Matt and Charlie were searching under the tree for Charlie’s present.
‘Ooh, look, Charlie, this one’s got Tom’s name on it. Gona take it over to him, beautiful?’
‘Yeah, go and give it to him.’
Charlie dashed over to Tom with the box, thrust it at him and raced back to Matt, not wanting to lose a second of the excitement. The box ended up on the floor, Tom looking a bit bewildered.
‘Here, Tom, let’s have a look – oh, maybe Rose could help you open it, I think I need to go and get Ella and Josh. They won’t want to miss out on all this.’
I ran up the stairs, into the babies’ room and found Mum and Carol sitting on the sofa, a baby each.
‘Oh, this is where you got to. Aren’t there potatoes to be roasted or something?’
‘I think everything’s under control for now, dear. Your mother and I thought we’d grab a little bit of a quiet cuddle with these two, it might be our last chance for some peace today.’
‘Ha ha, you’re right, Carol. Madness is about to descend downstairs, I didn’t want them to miss any of it.’
‘Did I hear Dec and Amy arrive, Laura?’
‘Yeah, Mum. Matt’s finding presents with Charlie, excitement is reaching fever pitch. Here, Carol, let me take Josh. Are you OK bringing Ella down, Mum?’
The five of us trooped down the stairs, and I reinstalled Josh in Carol’s arms on the sofa just as the doorbell rang.
‘Merry Christmas, Laura.’
‘Hi Beth. Merry Christmas. Hi Cal, oh, hey Iz. Who have you got there?’
‘She’s great, flower. Did Santa bring her?’
‘No, Mummy made her. Santa’s not real.’
I looked at Beth, wondering how to respond to this.
‘Oh Iz, sweetheart, don’t forget what we said, don’t spoil Santa for the babies. It’s a lovely magical story for Christmas.’
She looked at me apologetically.
‘She’s so practical. She asked me outright if Santa was real, and I couldn’t lie, but we’ve decided it’s OK to still believe if you’re little. Although obviously Iz is a big girl now.’
‘Yeah, so big she still has a stocking.’
Cal was in full grumpy mode. He was in that unenviable slot in the family where he was the oldest child by some way, but at twelve not yet old enough to be part of the adult world. He compensated by teasing Iz endlessly.
‘Hey, mate, don’t be mean to your sister. You’d have had a stocking too if you hadn’t chosen to have your new bike.’
‘Stockings are for kids.’
‘Ha ha, yeah, Cal, tell that to Rose.’
‘Rose did not have a stocking.’
‘Yeah she did, she has one every year, hangs it up at Dec and Amy’s and Santa fills it up. As if by magic.’
Cal went in search of verification and Iz followed him, leaving me with Beth and Jay in the hall, me taking coats and bags.
‘This is so lovely, Laura. I can’t remember a year since we got married that Christmas wasn’t at our house. Oh, except for that year when we were in Stafford, which I suppose was still our house, but not.’
‘It’s about time you had a year off, then. Not that you have, really, with all the help you’ve given us.’
‘Is there anything else needs doing?’
‘No, I don’t think so. Mum, Carol and Rose were here at the crack of dawn and have declared everything under control. Now I’m just waiting for the signal, so Matt can whip his seating plan out and then get grumpy when no one goes where they’re supposed to.’
‘Ha ha, the little brother likes a good visual planner. Must make a note to not sit where I’m told.’
Beth cuffed Jay on the arm.
‘Maybe it would be nice if, for once, you two didn’t spend all day winding each other up.’
‘Oh lighten up, Beth, we don’t mean it, it keeps us entertained. Stops us turning to drink. Talking of which, Laura …’
‘You know where the fridge is, Jay, plenty of cold beer stacked in there. You could bring a few in, I expect Dec and Matt wouldn’t say no.’
‘Young Declan had better be watching the beers, he’s got training tomorrow.’
‘So have you, Jay.’
‘Yeah, but I’m no longer a prime sporting specimen needing to be on top of my game, I’m a coach who can afford to put on a few ounces here and there.’
‘Hmm. Maybe a bit more than a few ounces, sweetheart.’
The final visitors to arrive were Nico and Lis, with Bastien, now eighteen months.
‘Hello Laura, you look very beautiful today. Feliz Navidad.’
‘Thanks, Nico. Oh, thank you.’
He handed me a bottle of wine, as Lis hugged me around her bundle of Bastien.
‘Oh this is so exciting, Lau. It sounds like everything’s going with a swing already. Are we last?’
‘Only just. Jay and Beth got here a few minutes ago.’
‘Well it wouldn’t be the same if the Tiagos weren’t late, yeah?’
‘Not late, flower, someone has to be last.’
‘Hey, I like this, I think is Nico’s new words. What you think, Jaime? Laura, she say someone must be last.’
‘Yeah, Nico, she said someone, not always bloody you. Variety is the spice of life, mix it up mate and arrive, ooh be daring, second to last for a change.’
And so Christmas Day carried on. We laughed, we ate, we drank, we played games, we cuddled children, we mopped up tears, we teased each other, we cleared up, and we all trooped down the road to Dec and Amy’s for tea that nobody really wanted but just for the change of scene.
I looked at Matt often, and I didn’t see him without a smile on his face and a child in his arms. If I hadn’t realised before, it cemented in my mind how much he loved his family, and how much they loved him. For a brief second a tiny chill ran through me at the thought that he had almost given it all up because of his fight with Jay, but then I looked around me at all the people who meant so much to me, and felt warm inside.
It was later, and we were still at Amy and Dec’s. Carol and Mum had gone back to our house with Ella and Josh, to put them to bed, pleading a need for peace and quiet but transparently wanting time on their own with the babies. Nico and Lis had gone home to put an overtired and screaming Bastien to bed. The rest of us were in various stages of tiredness; Iz was asleep on Jay, whose eyes were drooping; Beth was yawning and I thought it wouldn’t be long before she tried to prise Cal away from Dec’s PlayStation to go home; Matt was sound asleep, head back, mouth open, and Rose was holding a sleeping Charlie to her like she was never going to let go. Diane, Amy’s mum, looked tired, but was sitting up with Tom on her knee as if determined to stay awake for every minute of Charlie and Tom’s Christmas. I wasn’t tired, or no more tired than normal, and had started to stack some plates to take out into the kitchen, where Amy was making coffee. I picked the pile of crockery up and walked into the kitchen.
‘Oh, thanks, Lau. I think I got away pretty lightly, your place was carnage when we left.’
We started to stack the dishwasher.
‘Yeah, it was, but I suspect the mums will have sorted it by the time we get home. It’s half the reason they went back, I’m sure, neither of them can bear a mess. It will have been niggling them all afternoon.’
‘Good job I’m not like that, I’d be completely more than niggled all the time at the moment.’
‘Yeah, me too. It’s been a great day, hasn’t it.’
‘Oh completely. I so love it when everyone gets together. I never had Christmases like this when I was younger, it was just me, Mum and Dad. Sometimes Aunty Tina. Pretty quiet.’
‘Same for me. Just me and my parents, not even an aunty or uncle to relieve the silence.’
‘Oh, I never thought about it before, we’re both only children. It’s weird, isn’t it, nobody gets it, how full-on this family is if you spent your childhood on your own, with mostly adults to talk to.’
‘Isn’t Dec an only child?’
‘Yeah, but his family stuff is complicated. I don’t think he finds all this overwhelming at all, he throws himself into it, loves it all. I mean, I do too, now, but there have been times I’ve wished it was a bit less in your face.’
‘I can’t believe I just had nineteen people to dinner in my house. I’ve never entertained that many people in my life – I’ve been to parties where there were less. Not very good parties, but still …’
‘Oh it was completely amazing, Lau. We’ll have to do it again. Maybe in several years, when Beth pretends to be bored of doing it at theirs again.’
‘Do you think she was pretending?’
‘Yeah, course. She was giving the newbies a chance, but she couldn’t keep her hands off it. She was in my kitchen all week ‘just making a few mince pies’ or ‘just wondering if you or Laura had thought about gravy’. She’s hopeless.’
‘You’re right, she was round loads. I was so grateful for the help, I didn’t really think about it. I have to admit it’s easier at Beth and Jay’s, they’ve got so much more space. And Beth does most of the work.’
‘And it’s like a home from home, I love their house, we’ve spent so much time there over the years.’
‘How long have you known them?’
‘Jay and Beth? Well, I didn’t get to know them properly until I started going out with Dec, which was, oh, I was eighteen, so six years ago. I knew them a bit before, partly because I used to go out with David, who was another Raiders player, but Dec and me were friends before we got together, and there was a load of us who’d hang out at Jay and Beth’s sometimes. But once you’re part of the family, there’s no escape.’
‘Ha ha, you’re right there, once a Scott, always a Scott, even if your name’s not Scott.’
‘Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of us now, Tiagos, Summerses, but we’re all lumped in the Scotts, aren’t we? Oh Lau, I meant to say, well ask really, has Matt got Raiders privileges to the gym? You know, the one really close to the stadium?’
‘I don’t know, he hasn’t mentioned it, but gyms aren’t really his thing. He’s all ‘why bother walking on a treadmill where all you can see is sweaty blokes, when you can walk up a hill and see the world’. I don’t know what his problem is with sweaty blokes, especially the ones who go to the gym.’
‘Ha ha, you’re right there. Well check about the gym, because I’m a member with Dec’s club membership, and I wondered if you wanted to start going to any of the classes? I went a couple of times before Charlie, but I gave up after. They’ve got a really good café bar, a sauna, spa pool, swimming pool, or we could go just for a coffee and a lounge around and tell everyone we’ve been working out.’
‘Ha ha, sounds great. I could really do with trying to get rid of some of my belly. Have they got a crèche?’
‘No, but I reckon we could have another go at Dec and Matt’s fun-filled afternoons. Which days is Matt at Raiders?’
Although they had started with good intentions, the weekly afternoons that Matt and Dec had promised to devote to childcare had soon dwindled to occasional, then diminished to non-existent, particularly when Matt started his new job.
‘Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday or Sunday if there’s a home game. And Tuesdays and Wednesdays if they ‘need’ him, or rather, if he fancies going in and tinkering with something, which he usually does.’
‘Oh. So not much free time, then.’
‘No, but I think you’re right. Tuesday or Wednesday afternoons should be our time – I guess we could always ask Mum, or Carol, or Rose, or all three of them, if Dec and Matt wimp out.’
‘Actually, I think it was usually down to Rose, Carol and April before, from something Dec let slip.’
‘Right, well that settles it, then. I’ll join you in getting in shape while we sip lattes and relax in the spa pool. I can feel the pounds being shed already.’
‘Well, I think we’re finished in here, Lau. Let’s see who’s still awake. I bet Jay will be snoring, now Iz has gone to sleep on him, Dec – oh, he was playing some battle thing with Cal, he’ll still be awake, Beth will have nodded off while she’s waiting to go, Mum will have dozed while she’s cuddling Tom, Rose will still be awake, she never wants to miss a second of having Charlie on her knee. Who else, oh, Matt, well he was gone before I got up. So not much point having made the coffee, but maybe if we clink the cups loudly enough we can wake them up.’
We carried the coffee and a plate of mince pies into the living room. Amy was almost spot on with her predictions, apart from Jay, who was asleep, but minus Iz, and Matt, who looked like he had just woken up, and was stretching and looking around blearily.
‘Oh, great, more food, like my intestines aren’t about to explode.’
‘No one’s force-feeding you, Matt.’
‘Never said I wasn’t going to eat another mince pie, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? I mean, yeah, blah blah, family, love, Away in a Manger sung by a small child, all that bollocks. But mainly eating and drinking more in one day than you would otherwise cram down in a bloody week, and having to start bloody jogging or some such shit to feel less guilty.’
‘Funny you should mention jogging, Matt.’
‘What? Amy, you so are not going to start jogging.’
‘No, but Lau and I were just saying, whatever happened to our child-free afternoons? We’d like to go to the gym – you and Dec need to face up to your parental responsibilities a bit more. And you need to check if you get gym membership with your salary.’
‘Oh, I do. Did I not mention that, Lau?’
‘No, I don’t think you did.’
‘Oh, well, I didn’t really think about it. Rather go for a good hike than get all hot and sweaty indoors.’
I looked at Amy out of the corner of my eye, and saw her smirk at Matt’s predictable response.
‘But if you want to, great. Hey, hang on a minute, some of the players go there, isn’t there a coffee lounge or something?’
‘Er, not sure.’
‘There is – oh, I get it, you two are planning on sitting there with your mochaccinos checking out all the muscle-bound gym guys, then coming back and telling me how hard you’ve worked out.’
‘That’s an outrageous thing to say.’
‘It doesn’t stop it being true. Well, I will expect weekly fitness reports, and if you leave me for a bloody teen with a six-pack I will be mightily annoyed. I might even stop your membership.’
‘Don’t worry, a pumped up teenager sounds more trouble than he’s worth. I think I’ll stick with my slightly skinny, unfit thirty-something.’
‘Hey, who are you calling unfit? I ran up the stairs the other day.’
‘Hm, and it took you ten minutes to get your breath back.’
‘Ha ha, true, shut up and give me a mince pie.’
Jay woke up with a start and an intake of breath.
Jay’s voice seemed to rouse Beth, who opened her eyes and yawned.
‘Oh, I must have dropped off. It’s getting late, James.’
‘Yeah, we should go. Training tomorrow.’
Beth smiled, a little sadly.
‘I thought when you stopped playing we might have some normal Christmases, complete with Boxing Day, but there’s no chance, really, is there?’
‘At least I can eat what I want. The coach is supposed to have a bit of a pot belly.’
‘Written in your contract, is it?’
‘Yes, Matty, that’s the only reason for my expanding waistline – so I don’t make the players look bad. Where are Cal and Iz?’
‘Cal’s playing something violent with Dec – oh, I bet Iz is watching. Go and get them James, she shouldn’t be watching that.’
‘Why do I have to go and get them? You know Cal will moan at me.’
‘Go on, take your pot belly and get your son.’
Jay left the room, grumbling, as Beth stood up too, looking around her for all the things they had brought with them.
After Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz had gone, Amy prised her children from the arms of their snoozy grannies and put them to bed. Rose and Diane decided to make a move too, now deprived of their cuddling partners, and it was just Amy, Dec, Matt and me. Mum and Carol were staying the night at our house, so we didn’t have to hurry back, but Dec was training the next day, so we had one eye on the clock.
‘Don’t you ever get fed up with having to watch what you eat and being away from everyone over Christmas?’ I asked Dec.
‘Yeah, it’s a pain, especially now we’ve got Charlie and Tom, but I guess it won’t be forever. It’ll be weird when I stop playing and I can do Christmas properly. But I’m luckier than some people, my family are all here, I can see them on Christmas day. Most of the players’ families live in other parts of the country, and some in other countries – Nico hasn’t been home for Christmas for ages. Oh, except I think he snuck one in when he went back to Argentina for that one season.’
‘Well I, for one, will be enjoying the fact that the day after our highly bloody entertaining but unbelievably knackering Christmas day, full of festive fare and delightful drink, I can stumble home and go to bed to sleep like the dead until a reasonable hour tomorrow, when I don’t have to be out in the cold and dark, running about like a mad man.’
‘Unless Ella and Josh have other ideas, of course.’
‘Yeah, well, bloody kids can keep their opinions to themselves. That’s why the mums are staying over, isn’t it?’
‘Not so we can laze around while they get run ragged.’
‘Oh? Well no one ever tells me bloody anything. I must have missed the memo. Damn.’
‘Sorry, guys, I really need to go to bed. Like Matt said, early start. Think of me driving to the ground in the dark, icicles hanging off my fucking nose, shivering, lonely, I might even be crying a little bit …’
‘Piss off, you love it. You’re playing bloody TomCats on Saturday, you love that one.’
‘Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask, can you fiddle with my GPS so it looks like I’ve run further than I have? I could do with taking it a bit easy at the weekend.’
‘Ha ha, yeah, the day you take it easy on a bloody rugby pitch, young Summers, is the day the rugby world as we know it collapses in on itself in an implosion of the improbable.’
‘I wish I knew what the fuck you were on about sometimes. So that’s a no then.’
‘Yes, it’s a no. Go to bed and get your beauty sleep, you need it more than most.’
‘Piss off to you too. Merry Christmas, guys, had a fucking amazing day.’
Amy stood up as Dec disappeared up the stairs, and it was time for us to go.
As we walked back to our house, Matt put his arm round me and pulled me close against him. We altered our steps so we were in sync, and slowed down as we approached our house. Matt stopped, and pulled me towards him, folding me up in his arms. Our breath streamed out into the cold night air, and we looked at each other. Matt bent down and kissed me, soft, warm lips pulling against mine, tongue flickering into my mouth.
I pressed myself up against him, winding my hands round his neck and into his hair. For a few minutes it felt like when we first met, a bit wild, a bit abandoned. Then reality crept back in. We pulled away, laughing.
‘You’re bloody sexy, Lau. I must be getting old, or I’d be bloody ravishing you against the wall, freezing my balls off or no freezing my balls off.’
‘If you think I’m taking my tights down out here, you’ve got another think coming.’
‘Ha ha, OK, inside with you then, you harlot, I’ll just have to take you on the dining table, under the noses of our mums.’
‘We managed it once today, think yourself lucky.’
‘All that did was give me an appetite.’
‘Yeah, like that ever goes away.’
‘True. Come on then, let’s get warm.’
He put his arm round my shoulder and we went into the house.
After a quick check on the babies and the mums, all of who were asleep – Josh and Ella in their room, with Grandma April on a camp bed beside them and Granny Carol in the spare room – we went to bed ourselves. Maybe it was that last coffee at Dec and Amy’s, but my mind was buzzing and I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned a few times, until
‘You too, Lau?’
The bedside light went on. Matt was lying on his side looking at me.
‘Yeah, can’t sleep.’
‘It’s been a full-on day. Our first family Christmas.’
‘I’ve loved it.’
‘Yeah, me too. When I was all … before I met you, when I’d fucked things up with Jules, this was one of the things, I kept wondering, was it really worth it, making us both so bloody miserable, and then I’d think about it, and I’d imagine what it would be like, you know, having a family, and the first Christmas was one of the things that made me think ‘yeah, it bloody was worth it’. I was right. I’m a happy man. You make me happy, Lau, we’ve got our babies, and we’ve got each other.’
‘You are a sentimental old fool.’
‘But you love me.’
‘But I love you.’
‘I hope you don’t bloody tell Beth and Amy and everyone the slushy shit I spout when I’ve had a few too many beers.’
‘Your secret’s safe with me. Everyone believes you’re an emotionless robot with a heart of stone.’
‘Good, wouldn’t want it any other way.’
‘I’m glad though.’
‘What, that I’m an emotionless robot? Although being a robot would be cool.’
‘No, that you’re happy.’
‘Oh. I could be a happy robot. That would still be pretty cool.’
‘What? Not a daft sod?’
‘I’m trying to watch my language.’
‘Quite right. There are children in this house and everything. Can’t have them learning fucking swear words before they can bloody well talk, and all that bollocks.’
‘Beth told me –’
‘Beth can keep her bloody opinions to herself, not that she ever does. The more she bangs on, the worse it makes me.’
‘I know. But sometimes she talks sense and isn’t just banging on.’
Matt sighed. ‘Yeah, yeah. You know I’m trying, it just comes out. Bloody hell, I sound like Summers, that’s his bloody excuse to Amy ‘sorry babe, it just came out’. OK, that’s it, I’m not going be like Dec. New Year’s resolution. No more ‘fuck’ing. Oh, shit, no, lots more fucking, Lau, ha ha. But no more saying it.’
‘No more at all? Even when the babies aren’t around?’
‘If I can possibly help it. Nag me. Feel free. I might not even get shirty. But I can have up until midnight on the thirty-first.’
‘I can nag you?’
Eventually we fell asleep, wrapped up in each other, smiles on our faces, happy.