137. I will remember you

In which final goodbyes are said.

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Cal

We had hardly agreed about anything before it was time for lunch, and soon after that, Iz arrived. They’d had a nightmare journey with roadworks littering the motorways, so that had to be discussed, they all had to have food and drink thrust on them, and then we realised the kitchen was getting rather crowded, so we moved into the living room.

Dec was still sitting staring at nothing. He didn’t seem to have moved since I’d talked to him earlier, and I saw glances pass between Mum and Amy, and between Rosa, Tom and Charlie.

‘Dec, sweetheart, sorry but we’re going to have to disturb your peace. There’s not enough room for us all in the kitchen. Do you want anything to eat? Or drink? Dec. Please look at me.’

Mum was using her ‘no arguing’ voice. She didn’t bring it out very often these days, but it seemed to have some kind of residual effect on Dec, who slowly raised his eyes to Mum, although I wouldn’t like to swear that he actually saw her.

‘Do you want anything to eat?’

There was a small shake of the head. Iz was looking at Dec with a worried expression, and I saw her talk in a low voice to Amy, who nodded and spoke back to her in the same whisper.

Iz, never one to shirk a fight, even when she’s only just arrived on the scene, mentally rolled her sleeves up.

‘Right, then, Dec. I think it’s time for some plain speaking. Apparently you’ve been moping about like some teenage girl since last night. Get over yourself and either have a good cry or say something supportive to your family, or help Mum with the washing up. Something. This sitting here staring into space isn’t doing any of us any good.’

We all stared at her. OK, once I’d seen the look on her face, I knew she was just trying to get a reaction, but to start with I couldn’t believe how insensitive she was being. Dec looked at her and did another little shake of his head, but it wasn’t a ‘no’ shake like when I’d tried talking to him; it was a ‘shake myself out of it’ kind of shake. Then he spoke.

‘But … Matt …’

‘Yeah, Dec, we all know. Matty’s dead.’

Jesus but it sounded harsh. It was what Dec needed, though. He shuddered as she said the words, then looked at Amy pleadingly, as if she was going to jump in and save him from my cruel sister. My cruel sister had other ideas though, and she kept on.

‘We’re all feeling it, but there are things to be doing, and the first thing is to all look after each other. We can’t do that if you’re not even with us. We all miss him, we all feel like nothing’s ever going to be the same, but there are things we need to do, for him and for Lau.’

Dec looked at her, really looked, like he was seeing her, and realising where he was for the first time. His eyes were wide, and he nodded.

‘OK. Sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry, Dec, just come here and give me a hug.’

And to my amazement, he stood up and walked over to Iz, folding her up in his arms. I expected both of them to cry, but they didn’t, and after a while Dec let go and stood in the middle of the room looking lost.

Iz was still on the warpath.

‘Right then, Dad’s next. He’s not going to be escaping everything in his pit.’

She turned to walk out of the room, but Dec put his hand on her arm.

‘I’ll go.’

Iz turned back, surprised.

‘Really? You’re sure?’

Dec nodded and walked past us all. We could hear his footsteps as he climbed the stairs, and then his and Dad’s low voices. Then we all stopped being astonished and looked first at Iz and then at each other.

‘Well done, sweetheart. That was some speech.’

‘I just couldn’t bear to see him like that. Was I a bit over the top?’

‘No, you were just right. And you didn’t even swear.’

‘Yeah, well, with Dec swearing’s like water off a duck’s back. He probably took more notice because I didn’t.’

Iz shrugged and sat down and we all regrouped to eat lunch.

Mum was insistent on sorting out as much of Matty’s list as was possible. She’d called undertakers and venues, but there was still a lot of detail that needed arranging. We eventually realised that, list or no list, we were going to need Lau to give the final say on things. We couldn’t do that today, because it was too soon, and she’d asked to be left alone. Josh and Ella were with her, and maybe they could help tomorrow.

Chrissie arrived with the children mid-afternoon, not long after Dec and Dad appeared in the living room. They were both red-eyed and quiet, but looked more with-it that they had been earlier. My family has always worked best when people are talking to each other, rather than isolating themselves, and maybe Dec and Dad were feeling similar enough things that they could help each other.

Neither of them were going to stop being devastated for quite some time, but I wasn’t as worried as I had been earlier.

Eventually, after we’d talked about arrangements as much as we could, and Mum had fed us more cake and tea, we felt we’d done all that could be done for the day, and we just talked about Matty. We’d been doing this anyway, as part of the arrangements, but now it was full-on reminiscence.

‘Oh, do you remember when he started wearing that stupid hat? It was some kind of trilby thing, and he thought he looked so cool.’

‘Nah, he knew he didn’t look cool, he just liked seeing who would say something and having a discussion about it.’

‘It wasn’t as bad as his shorts phase – remember when he would only wear his cargo shorts, even if it was below zero outside? Some bollocks about lower temperatures being good for circulation in your calf muscles.’

‘Yeah, he loved a crackpot theory.’

‘What, like his ‘cats are really aliens’ thing?’

‘I think he might have had something there. I mean, we just let them wander into our houses, eat food we’ve bought for them and then wander out again to who knows where. We’ve been brainwashed.’

‘I see he brainwashed you too. You do know practically everything he ever said was so we’d all argue with him?’

‘Well not everything. Some things were specifically to wind Mum up.’

‘Oh, you mean his fruity language, Cal? I didn’t mind that.’

‘What? You never stopped complaining about it.’

‘I know, it kept him occupied, kept his brain ticking over. I loved the way he used words, he couldn’t just call someone a twat, they had to be, oh I don’t know, a giant thundertwatted pissarse of a fuckninny.’

Mum!

‘What?’

‘Just … Jesus.’

‘Well someone needs to keep it up, it’s not the same without the slightly blue tinge to the air round here. I miss it.’

And so it went on. There was a lot to talk about and remember, because Matty was a man who had never sat still, literally or metaphorically. And we all wanted to remember lots of things, because for a short time it made it feel like he was still there, still with us in the room.

But children need feeding and putting to bed, and I’d left Chrissie on her own with them all day, so eventually we went home. I wasn’t sure what to do about Uni. I wasn’t due in for lectures tomorrow, but didn’t know how understanding they’d be if I took any more time off. In the grand scheme of things, uncles don’t rate that highly in the compassionate leave stakes, but Matty wasn’t ‘just’ an uncle. He was the life and soul of our family, and I was going to need a while to get used to him not being there.

I decided the best thing to do would be to call my tutor tomorrow, and at least try to get an extension on my essay.

At home that evening, the children in bed, lying on the sofa with Chrissie, sadness just washed over me. Our family had lost another member, and it felt smaller. Not just because there was one less of us, but because Matty was such a big personality. He filled a room with his laughter, his chat, his way of including everyone in what was going on, and I knew we were going to feel his absence every time we all got together.

We had respected Lau’s wish not to have anyone contact her, but I texted Josh, to check there was nothing I could do. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

Hey Joshy, just wanted to say hope ur OK. Anything u need, u know where I am.

Yeah, thanks cuz. OK for tonight, but might need something tomoro, if u can call round?

Sure thing.

Chrissie and I went to bed early, having got little sleep the previous night. Lily was no respecter of grief, or lack of sleep, and she screamed the place down in the early hours. Chrissie got up, even though she was working the next day, and left me to try my best to get back into the fitful doze I’d been having beforehand.

I may have slept a bit during the night, but I spent a lot of it remembering Matty, thinking about things he’d done, things he’d said. He always had something to say in any situation, and would often choose his words so that people laughed instead of crying or getting angry. I remembered him really pissing off Amy’s parents once.

It was not long after Amy was expecting Charlie, so I must have been about nine or ten. Amy and Dec’s news hadn’t been very well received by Amy’s mum and dad, and she’d hardly spoken to them since telling them and then walking out when they gave her a hard time. My mum, of course, was unable to resist trying to mend things, and invited them over for Sunday lunch, imagining that what everyone needed in their lives was a good feed and several million family members making a bloody racket while spilling drinks and dropping gravy on each other.

Amy’s parents were very straight-laced. They only had Amy, no other kids, and they weren’t used to a lot of noise and chaos, and they looked really uncomfortable, both sitting on the sofa waiting for lunch, and then sitting at the table eating it. Mr Wright asked several times for someone to pass the salt before anyone heard him, and then just as it was heading down to his end of the table, Iz tried to climb on his lap to show him her latest soft toy, and knocked the salt cellar over. He took several deep breaths and decided to do without salt.

Neither Mr Wright or his wife said much, except to respond to the occasional question about their garden or the weather. None of us really knew what to say to them; even Rose was a bit non-plussed, and they didn’t give much back in the way of conversation.

I think Mum had been holding back on baby talk, maybe thinking that if they talked about it too soon it would leave nothing to talk about at the dinner table, but she could finally wait no longer, and waded in.

‘So are you excited about the baby, Diane?’

Amy’s mum looked down at her plate and didn’t answer, and I saw Mum frown, as a look passed between Dec and Amy. Amy’s dad took a deep breath and did his own bit of wading in.

‘I don’t see how we can be excited at the prospect of our daughter being an unmarried mother. We warned Amy of the dangers of irresponsible behaviour, but she didn’t listen, and now this is the result. Single parents are a scourge on society, and for our daughter to be one, well it’s unacceptable. Your ward has a responsibility to Amy.’

I was puzzled by the word ‘ward’, although he seemed to mean Dec, if the direction his fork was pointing in was anything to go by.

‘It is his duty to marry my daughter, and I can’t see why you aren’t insisting it happens before this child is born. It’s a disgrace.’

He managed to silence everyone. Even Iz stopped talking to her peas and looked up at us all, every one of us staring at Amy’s dad, wondering if we’d actually heard what we’d heard. Dec looked like he was going to punch him, Amy looked like she was about to cry, Rose’s eyebrows had nearly disappeared into her hair, Mum was actually lost for words.

Matty recovered first. He picked up his wine glass and held it up, so we all looked at him.

‘I would like to propose a toast to disgrace and the disgraced. If behaving disgracefully can bring the same smile to a face that Amy and Dec have been unremittingly wearing of late, then long may it continue. I personally plan to be a disgrace for the rest of my life. To disgrace.’

And he lifted the glass to his mouth and downed his wine in one swallow. He might have wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His eyes did not leave Mr Wright’s the whole time.

It silenced the tirade, although Amy’s dad muttered ‘well’ under his breath, which wasn’t really much of a comeback to be honest.

They made their excuses and left pretty soon after that, and Mum gave Matty a big hug.

Matty always seemed to be able to talk in public like that – off the cuff, saying the right thing, remembering everything he needed to say, getting things in the right order. His wedding was a case in point, where he remembered his vows to Lau without a single scrap of paper or any words written on his hand. There were one or two teary eyes that day, too, although not because anyone had insulted anyone.

I was too cool to say at the time, but Matty and Lau’s wedding was awesome. Mum organised it with about five days’ notice. Matty and Lau announced they were having a baby, and getting married the next Friday, on the Sunday before, and they planned to have a quick, quiet do, but Mum was never going to let that happen. She would have managed something spectacular with less than a day, I reckon. But she pulled out all the stops and called in a lot of favours so that Matty and Lau had a really special day.

The registry office in the city centre was the venue for the ceremony, and Matty had asked me to be in charge of the CD player. He had planned loads of little surprises for Lau, to make it seem like less of a rush and more like he wanted it to be special. The first surprise was when we arrived.

Gran and Rose had picked me up from school with Iz. I’d been allowed out early to get ready for the wedding, and had been promised it didn’t mean getting dressed up in anything uncool. Mum had even bought me new trainers and a Hollister sweatshirt, and the new clothes were waiting for me to change into at Gran’s.

Rose drove us to the nearest car park, and we walked up the street to where we could see a few people gathered. As we approached, a taxi pulled up, and Dad got out, and he was wearing a skirt! OK, he was wearing a kilt, but seriously, what’s the diff? I was embarrassed, I mean, it was my dad, running round the streets wearing women’s clothes. And then Matty got out of the taxi, and he was wearing exactly the same. Dad ran into the building, holding his skirt down front and back, looking suitably ashamed of himself, but Matty took his time, waving at people, chatting, as if he wasn’t wearing something completely ridiculous. I heard Rose and Gran talking.

‘Oh love, don’t they look handsome. I bet you’re that proud.’

‘They do look lovely, dear.’

What? Oh well, they were women, they were bound to think that. I looked around, worried that by some misfortune, anyone I knew had seen, but my luck was in, and I didn’t see anyone I knew, from school or rugby or anywhere else.

When we got inside, Matty was talking to loads of people, while Dad stood in a corner and looked like he didn’t want anyone to notice him. The waiting room was starting to fill up, and Matty wanted a practice run of our ‘turn the CD player on’ routine.

‘Soh, Cal, when I wink like this –’

He did a wink with both eyes, twice.

‘– yuh turn ih on, yeah? Give ih a goh.’

He did the winking thing, and I pretended to press play. It’s not like it was hard. Why he couldn’t just say ‘now’, I had no idea, but Matty liked to make things complicated if he could.

‘Awesome. Keep an eye on meh, they’ll be here soon.’

And sure enough, Lau came up the stairs, looking very pretty, and Matty did the double wink thing, and I pressed play, and bagpipe music blared out. Bagpipes. I had been responsible for bagpipes. I thought it might be some embarrassing slushy love song, that would have been bad enough, but bagpipes. Ugh. However, everyone else seemed to love it, including Lau, and not long after that the ceremony got going.

As I said, Matty remembered his words, although if it wasn’t written down anywhere, who’s to say that’s what he was always going to say, and he and Lau snogged with tongues, twice. Which was ultra embarrassing, although, again, no one else seemed that bothered.

Then we all got in our cars and drove to the barn at Thursley, which Mum had hired from my friend Archie’s mum. I’d been there before, because we’d used the barn for Archie’s party when he did paintballing. It was huge, and Mum had spent most of the week decorating it, or telling other people how to decorate it. It looked really different from when we did paintballing, and there was loads of food.

I suppose I did get bossed about a lot at the party, but mostly it was Lis doing the bossing, because she’d helped Mum with the party. Lis was much better at bossing than Mum, because she made it seem like you were doing her a favour, not like you should just do what she says and like it like Mum did. I ran about taking messages to people, and some of it was cool because I got to go backstage, where not many people knew there was anything going on, and talk to the band and the choir, and tell them important messages, and bring them drinks and food, and I even plugged in a microphone.

Best of all, even though there was a lot of dancing, I didn’t have to do any of it, because I managed to look busy enough that I escaped. I know Mum nearly caught me, but I told her I’d be back in a minute after I’d taken Gran a glass of wine, and she looked kind of proud and let me go, and oh dear, I just never found my way back to her after that.

I suppose, given Matty’s past, it was a wonder he ever settled down with a family. I didn’t know him very well before we moved up to Stafford, but after we all came back to the city, and Matty was better, well let’s just say he wasn’t a shining example of monogamy. That’s not to say he flaunted women, or maybe not that much anyway, but they were just never around long enough for me to take much notice of them. He did bring women round, sometimes for Sunday lunch, sometimes just to say hi, but we hardly ever saw them more than once, and they weren’t usually that interested in me or Iz, so we learned to ignore any woman Matty had with him. There were one or two who stood out, though, like the really tall, thin one with bright orange hair, and piercings pretty much everywhere. I couldn’t stop staring, and neither could Iz, despite Mum’s not so gentle reminders to be polite. The woman, whose name I can’t even begin to guess at, just stared back at us, with a kind of ‘what?’ look on her face. I think she was there to give Mum something to go on at Matty about, because she wasn’t his usual type, who was typically blonde, a fair bit younger than him, short skirts, high heels, lots of perfume. One of these ones threw up in Mum’s rosebush, before she even got inside, and Matty got a mouthful that time for not ensuring his ‘friends’ were recovered enough from their night of partying to come to lunch.

And of course there was Julia. Julia was not Matty’s usual type at all, either to look at, or in personality. She was fairly quiet, small and dark-haired, and dressed mostly in grey or browny colours. ‘Sludge tones’ as I heard Mum whisper to Lis once. We didn’t see that much of her, because Matty often came over without her, but he was with her for a long time, and everyone started to assume they were a couple, even though they didn’t live together, or even seem to do that much together. She was good to talk to, though. She never treated me like a kid, didn’t just ask about school, but asked me about X-box games, remembered my friends’ names, that kind of thing. She came round less and less, though, and so did Matty, and it seemed like she was taking him away from us, so I didn’t mind too much when I found out he’d broken up with her.

Then Lau came, and it was like someone had plugged Matty in and switched him on. He was so different. Maybe it was just because he’d been ill, and was sad about being ill, and about breaking up with Julia, but he seemed like a different person. Just the way he looked at Lau, it was like in films, all soppy, and he touched her and kissed her all the time (ugh sooo embarrassing), and you could tell by the way that she looked at him that she felt the same. From then, it was no more women, you could see there wasn’t going to be anyone else for him but Lau. Maybe the children came earlier than planned, if there had ever been a plan, but that was right too.

Seeing Matty with his children gave me something to want to emulate. He adored the pants off those little tykes when they were young, and loved them with all his heart when they were growing. Twins can’t have been easy, although I don’t really have more than a faint memory of those early days – I didn’t do any babysitting until they were well past the screaming and pooping stage. But I will always remember the look on Matty’s face as he walked up the path to Mum and Dad’s house, one or other of the twins in his arms, looking like he’d found the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Like he finally fitted, and it was in the place he’d least expected.

So it was those thoughts and memories that kept me awake that night, the night after Matty died. They were bittersweet, because Matty was great, but he’d gone, and every remembering reminded me of that. I dozed and drifted on the tide of recollection, and then finally fell under into sleep.

The next day, Chrissie let me sleep while she got the kids up and dressed, and only woke me up when she was about to leave. Did I mention my wife is bloody awesome? I’d managed maybe three hours tops, but the extras under the duvet was much appreciated.

Having kids to take care of tends to help take your mind off your troubles; a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old together are more than enough to occupy your mind and body. I wanted to call my tutor, but I couldn’t until the afternoon, when I rather hopefully tried to get them to nap together again. Lily went down with little fuss, but Conor wouldn’t stay in bed, and in the end I relented. I called Uni anyway, and they were really understanding, telling me to keep in touch, and let them know how much time I needed.

I texted Lau, but didn’t get a reply. I spoke to Mum and Iz, neither of whom had managed to contact Lau either, but we decided there was nothing to worry about, and Amy and Dec were just down the road if a drop-in was required.

I remembered Josh saying there might be something I could do, but he hadn’t said what, and on a whim, once Lily had woken up, I bundled them both in the car and drove over there.

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Lau, not really. I’d just begun the very first steps towards accepting Matty was gone, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find or how I was going to react. But I did know that Lau, Josh and Ella were part of our family, and it didn’t feel right for this huge thing to have happened to them, and us not know how they were dealing with it, or be helping them however we could.

I got Conor and Lil out of the car, and we walked up the path to the front door together.

I thought no one was going to answer the door at first, but after a while, I heard the latch, and Ella stood there, pale-faced with red-rimmed eyes.

‘Cal! Oh, you know what, it’s great to see you. Come in.’

She opened the door wider, and we walked into the hall, where I gave her a big hug and mumbled ‘I’m so sorry’ into her ear. She nodded against me, then stood back.

‘I didn’t think I wanted to see anyone, but I just realised I want to see everyone. Thanks for coming over.’

‘Hasn’t anyone else been?’

‘No, we’ve been putting people off, Mum’s not really up to it.’

‘Should we go, then?’

‘No, don’t, I don’t know if she’ll want to see you, but you can have a drink in the kitchen if not. She’s in the living room. Hey, Conor, do you want to see the cool game I’ve got on my laptop?’

Conor, as much of a gamer as his old man, nodded and followed Ella into the kitchen, as Josh came down the stairs.

‘Oh, hey Cal. I thought I heard you. I didn’t miss your call, did I?’

‘No, I just thought I’d come over.’

‘Thanks.’

There was a brief pause while I tried to decide whether to hug him, and what to say, but he made that decision for me by moving towards the living room door.

‘Did you want to see Mum?’

‘Yeah, just a quick hi.’

I opened the door to the living room and went in, Lily still in my arms. Josh was hovering behind me, as if he wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to say or do something stupid. He had a point, this was all way out of my comfort zone, and anything could come out of my mouth if I wasn’t careful.

Lau was sitting on the sofa, legs tucked under her, watching the TV. Or rather, with her face pointing in the direction of the TV. Her face had the same expression I’d seen on Dec’s the day before, and she didn’t look up. I stood between Lau and the screen, and she slowly lifted her eyes to me. It scared me to see how little of Lau there was in her face – she looked like she hadn’t slept, which was likely, and she looked so pale, so sad, almost haunted.

‘Hi Lau. Me and Lily just wanted to come and give you a kiss, see how you are.’ I wanted to say ‘I’m so sorry’ but it didn’t seem right, she didn’t look like she’d cope with me saying it, and I hoped she’d know without me saying.

I put Lil down on the floor, and she toddled over to Lau and held her arms out to be picked up. Lau usually gave the best smooshes, and Lil loved her to bits, but Lau didn’t react. I scooped Lily up again and held her close so she could kiss Lau, which she did, but Lau still didn’t seem to notice there was anyone else in the room.

I looked around at Josh, who shrugged and tilted his head to beckon me out. We joined Ella and Conor in the kitchen.

‘How’s it been for you guys? Lau looks pretty terrible.’

Josh nodded. ‘She didn’t sleep, as far as I can gather. She spent the night like that, on the sofa. I think it’s because of the bed.’

‘Shit, I never thought.’

For Lau to have gone to bed, she’d have had to sleep in the room with Matty’s empty hospital bed. There was no way it could happen.

‘I wondered if you’d help me move her bed upstairs? I mean, eventually she’ll need a bigger one, maybe, but for now, I think we should just move her back upstairs to their old room.’

‘Yeah, sure thing. I should have thought. Are you sure you’re up to it?’

‘I’d rather do it now, it’s been on my mind all day.’

Ella seemed absorbed in the computer with Conor, but her eyes kept sliding my way as if she wanted to say something.

‘OK, let’s do it then. Ella, are you OK with Lil as well?’

‘Yeah, as long as I don’t have to do any nappies.’

‘Shouldn’t do. I haven’t brought one anyway. I could do with a cuppa when we’re done, yeah?’

Ella nodded, seemingly satisfied that whatever she wanted to say could be postponed until after moving the bed.

It wasn’t hard to do, physically. What was hard was going into that room and seeing that empty bed, and trying to ignore it while we packed up the single divan and carried it bit by bit up into the upstairs room that used to be Lau and Matty’s room but had been turned into a lounge for Josh and Ella when Matty got too frail to do the stairs. Even now, using a word like ‘frail’ to describe Matty just seems wrong; he was so full of life, until just a few weeks beforehand, that we never thought of him as weak, really.

But anyway, Josh and I managed to move the bed and re-make it upstairs, not to Lau’s hospital corners standards, but well enough that she would be able to sleep in it.

Josh went to tell Lau what we’d done, and I went to collect my reward in the shape of a cup of tea.

‘Kettle on, then, Ella?’

She gestured to a steaming mug on the counter, which I picked up with a grin.

‘Good timing.’

‘Yeah, it’s not like you weren’t stomping around like a herd of bison so I could tell exactly when you were coming back down.’

‘I suppose. Good guess work then. How’ve you been?’

I bent down and scooped Lily up from Ella’s lap and held her up towards the ceiling, as I noticed Ella’s face crumple.

‘It’s been terrible. I feel so bad. I wasn’t here, was I, and Josh has been so brilliant, phoning everyone, talking to Beth about arrangements, I’ve just been bloody useless …’

Her voice tailed off as tears began to run down her face.

‘But I thought – Mum said you got here in time.’

‘He never woke up, I never said goodbye.’

‘Last time you spoke to him, though, you know, like, on the phone or whatever, you said goodbye then, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Then that’s all that matters. Knowing Matty, he knew every time could be the last time, and that’s how he would have taken it. It really isn’t that important to actually say the words, is it? You were here for your mum, and that would have mattered more to Matty than saying a word.’

‘Maybe.’

‘And the same goes for feeling useless. People do things in different ways. Josh has done what he’s been able to; if he couldn’t then one of us would have done it. Ella, it’s not a competition. Being here is enough. And we’re all here for you too, you don’t have to stay here day in day out if it’s too much. Go and see Mum, or pop up and see Amy.’

‘Isn’t it too soon?’

‘Who for? You should do what you feel.’

‘It’s bloody shit being here, but I don’t think I should leave Mum. Not that I’ve been any use. As soon as I look at her, I just start crying.’

‘You definitely need to get out then. Go and see Mum; we were just saying yesterday no-one’s seen you for weeks.’

‘But what about Josh?’

‘What about him?’

‘I shouldn’t leave him here, should I?’

‘I think Josh is big enough to cope. And he knows how to use a phone, funnily enough, so he can call one of his eight million family members should he require assistance with making a sandwich.’

‘Yeah, alright, piss off. I just feel guilty that I spent so much of last year away from here, and now I want to go again.’

‘OK then, how’s this. Go and sit with your mum, take her a cup of tea and a biscuit, either chat to her or sit and watch the TV with her, do it for a good hour, so she knows you’re there for her, and then go out for a bit. Then come back and sit with her again. Does that feel doable?’

Ella nodded, a little uncertainly.

‘You can tell her to go and get some sleep now her bed’s been moved.’

‘Yeah, see, I couldn’t even help with that, Josh said I wouldn’t be able to lift it.’

‘Well, he’s got a point. Hey, there’s lots you can help with, though. We’ve got a whole list going on at Mum and Dad’s. You know your dad has still got us twisted round his little finger with his ridiculous arrangements?’

‘Really? Like what?’

I reeled off some of the things Matty had requested for his funeral, and Ella laughed, then immediately looked guilty for laughing, then smiled again as I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. I might go and see Beth, but I’ll make a drink for Mum first.’

Ella sighed and stood up to put the kettle on as Josh came in.

‘Ella tells me you’ve been awesome.’

Josh shrugged.

‘Have you got much time off?’

‘Only today and tomorrow, so I can be with Mum. I’m playing on Sunday, so I’ve got to train. I’m going to be playing for Dad. If I score, it’s his.’

‘Aren’t all your tries for him?’

‘Yeah, not that I ever let him know they were all for him, he was big-headed enough anyway, but the next one is, well, special.’

Josh was always so chilled. I had no idea how I would have reacted, when I was playing, to losing one of my parents, but I knew how I was when I left Ayesh, and it knocked me back for weeks. If Josh really felt up to playing in a few days, just so he could score a try for his dad, it showed a depth of determination and mental strength I wish I’d had at his age.

Ella finished making the tea, and took two cups in to the living room. Josh watched her go.

‘Has she just gone in with Mum?’

I nodded, and Josh let out a big breath.

‘Good. I thought I was going to have to wrestle her in there. She’s been sat in here every waking moment, like she can’t bear to talk to her, in case she breaks.’

‘Josh, I’ve just had a bit of a chat with Ella, and I’ll say the same to you. Maybe you need to get out a bit, see people, just to stop you going nuts? I know this is difficult, a fucking awful time for you all, but as long as you or Ella are here with Lau, there’s no reason not to leave the house.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but I couldn’t go out if Ells couldn’t be in the same room. Mum shouldn’t be on her own. Hopefully it’ll be OK now. I’m going back to training in a couple of days, so things will have to be sorted by then anyway.’

‘Make sure you have time for yourself, mate. Don’t just sort things for everyone else. You need time to feel … what you need to feel.’

‘Yeah, I know. I have. Do you mean blarting?’

Matty had a special ‘Stafford’ word for crying, and it seemed Josh had adopted it.

‘Yeah, if that’s what you need to do.’

‘Well I have done, but only on my own. I don’t really do that shit in front of people.’

‘Fair enough.’

We heard the living room door open, and footsteps went up the stairs, as Ella came back into the kitchen.

‘Mum’s going to have a lie down. I think she’s really pleased you moved the bed, she’s knackered.’

‘Did she say anything?’

‘No, just nodded when I said it might be good for her to have a rest, then went up there.’

‘Well done, Ells. That’s pretty major. Maybe she’ll feel like saying something, or eating something, when she’s had a sleep.’

This seemed like something that Mum might be able to help with, although I wasn’t sure Lau was ready for the full-on Beth Scott rescue package.

‘I think Mum would like to come and see you all. I know she’s got things she wants to talk about for the funeral and afterwards.’

Josh and Ella both nodded. They, obviously, weren’t identical twins, but they often used the same gestures – small head movements and glances – which showed how close they were.

‘Maybe she can get Mum to talk. If anyone can, Beth can.’

‘Give her a call. She’s been holding back to give you some space.’

‘Really? This is Beth holding back? She’s texted me, like, every five minutes today, asking about songs and cakes and halls.’

‘You know what she’s like. She’d love to come over.’

‘Yeah, I’ll call her.’

I thought about what Ella had said about Josh calling everyone.

‘I’ll tell her. I’m on my way over there now.’

Josh looked at me gratefully and nodded.

‘Thanks for coming, Cal, you’ve been great.’

‘Sure thing, family and all that. You both know where I am if you need anything, any time. This little one makes sure I’m awake at all kind of interesting times.’

I scooped Lily up and kissed the top of her head, smiling as she threw her arms round me.

‘Actually, Ella, why don’t you come over to Mum’s with me? I know she’d love to see you.’

Ella looked furtively at Josh, as if it was wrong to want to go out. Josh smiled at her and stroked her arm.

‘Yeah, go Squeaks. You must be going stir crazy.’

Ella smiled gratefully at her brother and went into the hall to pick up her bag. Conor was still absorbed in the computer game Ella had shown him, but I prised him away and we all left for Mum and Dad’s.

Ella was quiet as I drove, and the kids were occupied with their car toys, so I worried about Lau. She was a coper, I’d never seen her down, or at a loss, and it was so weird to see her not make a fuss of the kids. She loved Conor and Lily, and would always play with them, getting down on the floor to inspect a Lego house or a teddy den, chattering nonsense with them about dollies and chocolate biscuits.

Lau and Matty had been a unit for so long, married for over twenty years, that Lau had truly looked like she’d lost half of herself. I was pretty sure Mum would know what to do, how much to push her, and when to leave her alone, which was one of the reasons I was going over there now, as well as to save Josh another call and get Ella out of the house.

Josh had impressed me with the way he’d stepped up and sorted things. I knew there were lots of people who needed to know about Matty, and although Mum had called some of them, Josh had a list and had gone through it until everyone on it had been contacted. That can’t have been easy; it had been bad enough calling Iz and using a code word. And he was being really supportive of his mum and sister. I wasn’t sure I would have coped as well at his age.

As I pulled up outside the house, and started to unbuckle Conor and Lily, Mum opened the front door and came to help, her smile widening as she saw Ella get out of the car. Mum could never resist a cuddle with her grandchildren, and always wanted to get going as soon as possible, so she took Lily straight out of the car seat and gave her a big squeeze.

‘This is a nice surprise.’

‘We’re doing the rounds. We’ve just been to number forty-seven.’

Mum looked at me, eyebrows raised.

‘I can see that. I would have come over, Ella, but Josh said not to go yet.’

‘I know, Beth. We didn’t think Mum would cope, but it was fine with Cal. She’s gone to bed, first time she’s slept I think.’

‘And I didn’t call first, I just went over. We texted yesterday, and he said there was something I could do, so I just got us all in the car and popped over.’

In your face, Mum, is something I would have never said, but she didn’t have dibs on getting things accomplished. At least not always.

‘Oh. What did he want help with?’

‘Lau wouldn’t sleep in her bed, so we moved it upstairs. She went and had a lie-down straight away.’

Mum started walking towards the door again, talking over her shoulder.

‘I never thought! That empty bed just sitting there. We’ll have to arrange to get it taken away.’

‘I think Josh has got a handle on things, Mum, you don’t have to do everything. Although, Josh did ask if you’d go over sometime, chat with Lau.’

We got inside and headed for the kitchen, because Mum could never have a visitor without feeding them, and she always had something wicked to spoil Conor and Lily with. Sure enough, once she had given Ella a big hug and installed her in the living room with Dad, she managed to rummage in a cupboard with the hand that wasn’t holding Lil, and pulled out some chocolate fingers.

She had looked a tiny bit pleased when I passed on Josh’s message, and spoke quietly to me.

‘How are they all doing?’

‘Josh is great. He’s just getting on with things. Ella needed to be told to get out, have a break, but Lau is … not herself. I mean, not that it’s not completely understandable, but it’s like she’s shut down.’

‘It’s been tough on her, especially the last few weeks. Even when you’re expecting it, it’s a shock.’

‘Yeah, I know. And she’s been half of this ‘Matty and Lau’ team, and now there’s just her. And with Josh just moving out, that house is going to feel enormous.’

‘We’ll just have to look after her. I’m glad I can go over.’

‘How’s Dad?’

‘Well he got up today, so that’s a plus. He’s not said much, though. Dec’s not answering his calls, either. I talked to Amy, and she said he’s quiet, too. It’ll just take time, sweetheart. Everyone does things their own way. I heard from that catering place – they need to know rough numbers. I wonder if Ella knows?’

‘I don’t think Ella has been … that involved with the arrangements. Josh seems to have been doing it all himself.’

‘Hmm. I’ll definitely pop over tomorrow then. Maybe I can ask him then.’

And that was how Mum did things. She organised, she planned, she lost herself in arrangements. While Conor and Lily were occupied with chocolate biscuits, I gave her a big hug. With Dad incommunicado, I wondered where she was getting her support from. It would be me right now. Mum clung on tighter than normal, and when we let go, there were tears on her cheeks.

‘Thank you sweetheart. I needed that. It’s all so sad, I don’t know what we’ll do without Matty.’

‘We’ll never forget him.’

‘No. He’d never forgive us. Oh, Lily darling, mind where you’re putting your fingers – oh too late. Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll get a cloth. Cal, keep an eye on her, I’ve just had those chairs cleaned.’

I herded the children away from Mum’s impractical cream upholstery, and once fingers had been wiped and mouths cleared of chocolate, we moved to the living room, where Ella was sitting on one of the sofas and Dad was stretched out on the other one, watching TV. To all intents and purposes, he didn’t look much different from usual, but there was a heavy sadness about him, maybe it was the set of his jaw, maybe a slump to his shoulders. He was hurting.

We didn’t stay much longer, having filled the kids up on chocolate biscuits just before tea time, and headed home to Chrissie, leaving Mum to take Ella home later.

Arrangements were made, and a date set for Matty’s funeral. Mum and Josh did most of the planning between them, as every time anyone asked Lau anything, she’d just say ‘it’s all written down’. We stopped asking in the end, as it was obviously too much for her to think about.

There was no church service, as Matty had made it clear he didn’t want any type of religion ‘impeding his passage to the afterlife’, as he put it. But the largest chapel in the crematorium couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to give him a send off. There were people stood at the back, and out of the doors. I knew a lot of them; there were former colleagues from Raiders and from his GreenScreen days; business contacts; friends and family from all over the city; Nico and Lis came, with Basty, and it became apparent that Basty and Ella were finding each other’s company particularly consoling; Matty’s old mate Andrew came, with a couple of people they both used to work with in Stafford; the place was full to bursting.

The notice in The Herald had been written by Matty, but edited by Beth, who had wanted people to at least know where to come to remember him.

Please note that

WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT

the artist formerly known as

Matthew Robert Scott

should henceforth be known as

The Late Matthew Robert Scott

Work it out for yourselves, people!

Memorial Service – City Crematorium 1st November 1pm

and afterwards at Hilton Hotel

No flowers, donations to a charity of your choice

One of the many things Matty had specified was that he didn’t want anyone to have to deal with ‘heaps of dying blooms from my heartbroken followers’, and he had instead requested that everyone attending should be given a balloon. He even said what he wanted printed on them:

‘Matt Scott Road Trip

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

it’s a new life for me

and I’m feeling good

which was a quote from one of his favourite songs (Muse or Ella Fitzgerald, he loved them both). I guess it was better than ‘I told you I was ill’, which Josh told us was what he wanted to have before Lau persuaded him otherwise.

So the whole place was filled with bobbing helium-filled balloons, all colours, and it was almost enough to give it a party atmosphere, rather than a funereal one. Almost.

Lau sat ramrod straight, between Josh and Ella. Ella was crying before the coffin even came in, and Basty, who was sitting behind her, put a hand on her shoulder more than once. Josh remained dry-eyed, and I remembered him saying that he didn’t cry in front of people. Lau – well, she was there in body, but her mind and her heart were elsewhere that day, as if she’d hidden herself away so as not to be able to feel it. I couldn’t blame her; it was what I felt like doing.

Matty had suggested that, rather than a eulogy, people be invited to write down one word that summed him up as they came in, to be put in a hat (a top hat, naturally) and ten of the words pulled out and read at random. Josh had volunteered to do this, and the rule was, apparently, no repeats but no censorship. The words were:

Loving

Dedicated

Brilliant

Inappropriate

Hot for an old guy (which is officially five words, but was allowed through)

Mate

Lovely

Old Bastard (again over the word count but allowed through due to truthfulness)

Literally

Heart

Josh then went on to read a message Matt had written for everyone. Trust Matty to write his own eulogy:

‘Hello Everyone. Thanks for coming, sorry to interrupt your day, I’m sure you will be amply compensated with food and drink in a short while. I hope you’re enjoying the balloons.

Now, I trust none of you are moping or wearing black or some such shit, because I very specifically asked that you didn’t. There’s a reason. This get together, well, it shouldn’t be about dying and sadness, although I’m going to miss all you guys and I’d like to think you might miss me a little bit, even if it’s just because you can now have control of the TV remote.

Anyway, the reason I didn’t want black and moping is because I had a great life. I had a wonderful, gorgeous wife and two fantastic children, and if I could have traded it all for a longer, healthier life without them, I wouldn’t have. I had the best life I could have imagined. Fuck the fact I had the bastard MS. Fuck my bastard lungs. My family are the best, and I want you all to look after each other. My life has been a great success because out of it came Me and Lau, and Josh and Ella. And if that isn’t a reason to celebrate and wear neon pink, then I don’t know what is.

Take care of each other.’

Josh looked up after he had finished reading, and took a deep breath.

‘My dad was the best. I can’t believe he’s gone. I’m going to miss him so much.’

And with that, he broke down, blarting like the rest of us, and Beth had to go and help him back to his seat.

I expected Lau to comfort him, but she didn’t seem to have heard any of it, and just sat staring at the coffin.

To be honest, after that, we were all in tears. Balloons or not, we were saying goodbye to a good man, one of the best, and it was heartbreaking. Chrissie and I held each other’s hands tightly, and most people there were comforting the people near to them.

There weren’t any hymns; Matty had stated he didn’t want anything religious. There was a sing-along version of Time of Your Life (Good Riddance) by GreenDay, and a montage of photos of Matty through the ages projected onto a screen and accompanied by Another One Bites the Dust. The coffin had been brought in to Darth Vader’s theme (people who knew Matty well had smiled at this, score Matty), and disappeared to Joy Division Oven Gloves. And when it was all over, Goodbyee Don’t Cryee made us all smile again, and we filed out of the chapel and into cars for the final leg, leaving Matty there.

Conor and Lily were at the childminder’s for the day. We didn’t need to use childminders very often, as both of us were around enough, and we had Beth, Lau and Amy as willing victims – er, volunteers – most of the time. But today, we all wanted to be there, and the funeral would be too much for the little ones. After the official gathering, we would collect them and go round to Mum and Dad’s for the family get-together.

It’s odd how weddings and funerals are the places to see people you really wish you kept in touch with, but never do. Cousins, aunts and uncles appear that you hardly ever think about, but when you meet up again and chat, you realise are pretty ace people. Of course, sometimes there are people you wish had stayed in whichever dark corner of the country they came from, but on the whole, the extended Scott family, and lots of Matty’s friends, were excellent people, and I made a lot of new Facebook friends that day, if nothing else.

We’d all hoped that the funeral would be a closure for the people who were feeling it the most – Lau, Dec and Dad – but it didn’t seem to have worked out like that for any of them. They all had the same blank expression, that made you wonder where they’d gone. Dec excused himself not long after the service; Dad only stayed because he was practically stapled to Mum, who didn’t let go of him all day; Lau was only there in body. She said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you for coming’ to everyone, and said ‘fine’ when anyone asked how she was, but she was on automatic. Josh and Ella were never far from her side, and did most of the talking.

136. Someone great

In which a dreaded event comes to pass.

Laura

In the October of that last year, Matt was home from his latest visit to hospital, but not making a lot of progress. He’d been in bed for weeks, needing constant nursing, pressure sores blooming on his skinny rump. He was hardly ever awake, and his rasping breathing rattled through the house day and night. Our double bed had been replaced by a hospital profiling bed for Matt and a single one for me.

Josh had just moved into a shared house with some mates from Raiders; he’d been meaning to move out for weeks, but had felt bad about going when his dad was so ill. I had to persuade him to go, although I missed him terribly and felt like we finally did have an empty nest. He’d been in touch every day, either visiting or on the phone, and the family were still as constant a presence in our lives as they had ever been, but now the children were gone, it felt different.

Matt needed so much care at the moment, I did as much as I could myself. We had the works – hoist, special bed, oxygen mask, drip stand, even, to Matt’s shame and something I swore to him I would never tell anyone, incontinence pads for when neither of us could get him to the loo.

Since he’d been out of hospital, Matt had needed constant nursing. I did as much as I could, and promised Beth I’d tell her when I needed help. Very occasionally I’d ask her to come over if I needed to go out, but I wanted to be there as much as I could. It felt like our time was running out, and I didn’t want to miss any of the times when he was awake. He could still make me laugh, or make my heart melt with a look.

Eventually, Matt started refusing his medication. I thought long and hard about fighting him, but couldn’t bring myself to force him. He was still getting the anti-biotics via the drip, although they didn’t seem to be doing much good, but nothing else was going into his system, including food. He would drink a little bit every now and then, as his mouth got dry and sore, but he was wasting away before my eyes and it was destroying me. He was being visited regularly by his GP and his MS nurse, but we all knew there was little we could do to make him either eat or take his meds. I’d been there before so many times with my patients, and I knew how it was going to end.

Matt was just getting his breath back after a huge eruption of coughing had shaken him for several minutes. I picked up the oxygen mask and put it over his mouth and nose. Matt raised his hand to the mask and pushed it away; I could see the effort it had taken, and could easily have pushed it back on, but I allowed my hand to drop away, still holding the mask. Matt was looking at me, his grey gaze burning into me.

‘Hahd … enuhf … Lau.’

‘What do you mean?’

Although I knew exactly what he meant, and he knew that I knew. I could see it in his eyes, how tired he was, exhausted of the battle. He could do it, another monumental fight to get better, one more time, but we’d soon be back here again, and then again. He had the right to stop. I knew what was going to happen, and it wouldn’t be long now.

‘Soh … ry.’

It was barely a whisper, and I struggled to hear him over the rattle of his breathing.

‘It’s OK.’

I tried to keep my voice light as I stroked his cheek, although inside I was screaming ‘no, don’t go, it’s too soon, I’m not ready, I’ll never be ready’.’

We’d talked about it, several months ago, how one day he would need to be in control, no arguments, and I’d agreed, but now it was here, and it was hard; the hardest promise I’d ever had to keep.

‘You have a rest. You’ve earned it. Lazy sod.’

He moved his hand toward mine and I dropped the oxygen mask, gripping his icy fingers with one hand and stroking his clammy forehead with the other. His eyes held mine, full of sorry, full of love, full of pain and full of goodbye.

‘Hohd … hahnds … fuh … eh … ver.’

We looked at each other and acknowledged what was going to happen. He started to speak and I bent my head closer to hear him.

‘Luhv … yuh … Lau … ra … Lou … ise … Scoht.’

It took so much effort to say that he went even paler, closed his eyes and swallowed hard as sweat ran down his face. Or it may have been tears. Each breath tore through him painfully.

‘I love you, Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘Niht … thehn.’

‘Night, beach boy. Sleep well.’

I leaned over as he opened his eyes, then I held his gaze for a long time, until finally I kissed him, and felt his mouth smiling under mine. His eyes closed, his face relaxed and his fingers stopped gripping mine as he let go and slept.

I sat up, still holding his hand, watching his face for a while, his long lashes resting softly on his cheeks. He was deeply asleep, almost unconscious, by the time I picked my phone up from the small table by the bed, and with shaking hands made a call to Josh.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Josh … Dad’s, er … sorry my love, I think it’s time for the chain.’

‘No …’

Some time ago, we’d come up with the idea of a chain of phone calls for when the family needed to know things were at a certain point with Matt. I knew I wouldn’t be able to call everyone, so we decided that I would ring one person, who would ring another one, or two, and the message would get round that way. Josh was going to call Beth, and Ella, who was staying with friends up north.

‘I’m sorry, Josh.’

‘Do you want me to come home?’

‘Yes …’

I couldn’t speak any more.

‘I’ll be right there.’

As I disconnected, my phone rang. The screen announced Dec. That was impossible – Josh wouldn’t have had time to call anyone, let alone any messages getting through to Dec. I answered.

‘Dec.’

‘Hey Lau. I just picked up a text from Matt. He said Plan B.’

‘Plan B’ was Matt’s code word for when Dec needed to hand over the IT part of the business solely to Tom, when he knew he wasn’t going to be around for much longer. Dec sounded close to tears, if not actually crying. I nearly hung up, I was finding the whole situation unreal and upsetting.

‘Sorry, flower, I think it is.’

‘No. I’ll come round, talk to him, we’ll get him back on his feet.’

‘Not this time, Dec.’

‘But I can’t, I can’t fucking do it without him, I just can’t.’

He sounded distraught.

‘None of us know how we’re going to do anything without him. We don’t have a choice now. I’m sorry, Dec, I can’t … I just can’t right now.’

Cal

One lunchtime at the end of September, I got a call from Dec. His kookaburra ringtone sounding like some kind of manic laughter and the picture from my retirement party of him with a pair of Australia underpants on his head (these ones were the red, white and blue flag with ‘100% Aussie’ across the front, even though that was a downright lie) always made me smile and shake my head, so I was grinning as I answered.

‘Hey old man.’

I expected some kind of come back, but there was silence for a while, some breathing sounds, and then one word. It was really quiet, and I hardly heard it.

‘Tottenham.’

Then the line went dead.

It took me a little while to figure it out; it had been over a year since the ‘Chain’ meeting, and I’d almost forgotten. Then it slammed into me and nearly brought me to my knees. Back then, Dec had reluctantly agreed to call Amy and me, to tell us with that one word that Matty was nearly gone, to expect the worst.

My first reaction, after sitting down, breathing hard and saying ‘fuck no, fuck no, fuck no’ to myself, was to call Lau and check how she was. But the whole point of The Chain was that she knew she wouldn’t want to talk to a load of people, and I needed to get going on my part of the calling.

The original idea had been that one person would call one person each, but in reality it hadn’t worked like that. Dad had point blank refused to call anyone; Dec had wanted to refuse but been persuaded with the one-word message idea; Mum had taken responsibility for Dad and Gran (who everyone agreed shouldn’t have to call anyone), and I was down to call Chrissie (well obviously) and Iz. I needed to get started, because people needed to know quickly.

Chrissie was working, and wouldn’t have her mobile on in the classroom, so I left a voicemail message, just the one word as agreed, and then tried the office at school to see if I could get a message to her. Then I texted her with the same word, then felt bad, even though we’d agreed that’s what we’d do, and sent her a longer text.

Shit Chrissie, I can’t believe it. This can’t be happening. Call me when you get a moment Cal xx

And that left Iz. Iz kept weird hours; she was an interpreter, having aced languages at school and Uni, and that meant she often worked evenings when people were having functions, or were doing something in different time zones. I had no idea where she would be when I called, or if it would be convenient for me to call her, or whether I should text. But if she was around, I really wanted to talk to her. I pressed her name.

‘Hey Cal. Got bored waiting for your beans to boil dry?’

Iz was fairly scornful of my attempts to make myself a meal, quite rightly as I remained as crap at cooking as I had always been. I couldn’t banter though, I had a job to do. It was the hardest word I’d ever had to say.

‘Tottenham.’

‘What?’

I didn’t say anything, just let it sink in.

‘Cal? Did you just say Tottenham? Oh. Oh no. Oh fuck no. Have you talked to anyone?’

‘No. Dec just rang me, but he just said the word and hung up. Chrissie’s phone’s off.’

‘Oh my God, Cal, I can’t believe it. I thought he’d get better. He always gets better. I want to talk to Lau, but that’s what this is all about, isn’t it, so she doesn’t have to deal with all of us. Shit. Maybe I’ll call Mum.’

‘Haven’t you got someone else you should call?’

‘Oh shit, of course. I’ve got to tell Gracie. Oh bollocks to it, Cal, this is so hard. You know what, now I’m glad it’s only one stupid word, so I don’t have to actually say it.’

‘The next time’s going to be harder.’

‘Don’t. I can’t think about it. I’m going to call Gracie, she’s in a class – oh, maybe I’ll catch her having her lunch. Text me later, yeah? We’ll talk soon.’

We disconnected, and I thought we’d be talking again pretty soon anyway, with The Chain part two.

I tried to call Mum, but her line was busy, so left a message for her to call me. I was starting to feel emotional, and although Conor and Lily were at home with me, I felt lonely and a bit scared. This was a big thing to be facing, and I wanted to share it with someone.

To try and distract myself, I turned back to the essay I’d been trying to write, but the words were just swimming around on the screen. I couldn’t settle, not knowing anything, not knowing how anyone was doing, thinking about how upset everyone was going to be, but not wanting to tie up my phone in case Chrissie called.

I knew Dec was going to be in a bad way, not only from his call, but from how he’d reacted with Rose. I sent him a text, but with no expectation that he would reply. I texted Mum, Dad, Tom, Josh and Ella, but none of them replied either, and I imagined them all talking to each other, a little whirl of family support, and felt even more on my own.

The children were both having afternoon naps, miraculously unconscious together for once, but I felt like waking them up so I could hold them. I needed to hold someone.

And then, as I was about to start my next round of texting, and to have another try at contacting Chrissie, I heard a car pull onto the drive and a key turn in the front door, and she was home. Chrissie was back, and I was so glad to see her I practically fell into her arms.

Laura

I disconnected, knowing that this was going to devastate Dec, but he had Amy to look after him and I just needed to be here with Matt, holding his hand.

I barely registered when Josh came in. He put his arm round me and gave me a kiss on the cheek, then bent down and kissed Matt too, and stroked his forehead lightly. Josh spoke to him, but I didn’t take in what he said. It was a while later, Josh had pulled up a chair and was sitting reading a book, when I thought about Ella.

‘Did you call your sister?’

Josh looked up and nodded. ‘Yeah. She’s coming straight down. Might take her a while.’

‘Thanks, my love.’

‘How’re you doing, Mum? You’ve not said a word, I don’t think you heard me earlier.’

‘Sorry. This is … weird.’

‘Yeah.’

We sat and listened to Matt’s rasping, laboured breathing for a while.

‘No one’s called. I thought someone might.’

‘Wasn’t that the point of the chain, so everyone knows what to expect, but not to bother you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘Do you want to talk to someone?’

‘No, not really.’

Not except the one person I was never going to talk to again, or who at least was never going to talk to me.

Josh carried on with his book, and we sat through the night, watching Matt slip away, his breaths becoming more erratic. Eventually, Josh’s head kept dropping forwards as he dozed, and I shook him and told him to go to bed.

‘I’ll shout if I need you.’

He nodded and went off to his room.

Cal

We held each other for a long time, and Chrissie whispered how sorry she was, stroked my hair and stopped me from falling. I realised my legs were shaking, as what was really, actually happening started to hit home. Chrissie pulled me over to the sofa and made me sit down.

‘Oh Cal. It’s been such a long time coming. How awful.’

‘I know. I thought, though, the chain thing was going to make it easier, but this, waiting for the next call, I think I might go mad. I’ve texted people but no one’s answering.’

‘Did you call Iz?’

‘Yeah. I did the word, but we talked a bit too, then she had to tell Gracie, so we didn’t say much.’

‘What about your Mum?’

‘I left a message. I guess they’re all talking to each other.’

‘Or not talking to each other. It might be hard, they’re not all going to want to talk, are they. That’s kind of the point of all this.’

‘I know.’

My phone rang with Mum’s tone.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Hi sweetheart. Sorry, I was talking to your gran.’

‘Oh, how is she?’

‘Well, you know what she’s like, she’s not saying a lot, but she’s obviously upset. How are you?’

‘Freaking. This is horrible, Mum. I’m going to jump every time the phone rings. Do we have any idea what’s going on?’

‘Not at the moment. Josh said he’d text if he can, he’s gone over to … wait I suppose. We’re just going to have to wait too, we can’t disturb Laura.’

‘No, I know, shit Mum, whatever it’s like for us, it must be a thousand times worse for Lau. I’m glad Josh is there. Is Ella coming home?’

‘Yes, she should be on her way.’

‘Will she make it … in time?’

‘I don’t know, sweetheart. I think … well I don’t really want to guess at timescales, but not long. I hope she gets here.’

Shit. Fucking hell. That meant hours, rather than … anything longer. I really couldn’t get my head round it. The Chain had been a theoretical thing, something we talked about and felt weird about back then, and I’d half-forgotten it, what had driven it, what it had meant. I’d been fooling myself about how ill Matty was for the last few months, and now it was rushing up at me at great speed.

‘Fuck. Mum, you’ll let me know if you hear anything won’t you?’

‘Of course, sweetheart.’

‘How’s Dad?’

‘Not good.’

‘Shit. This is fucking horrendous.’

‘I know. Is Chrissie there with you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Take care of each other, then. Bye, sweetheart.’

We disconnected and I turned into Chrissie’s arms again.

‘Where are the kids?’

‘Sleeping.’

‘What both of them? Did you feed them knockout drops or something?’

‘No, just lunch, then I had a stiff word with them, told them I needed to write my two thousand words on the origins and insertions of the muscles in the upper limbs, and they said ‘Righto Daddy’ and put themselves to bed.’

‘You arse. How long have they been down?’

‘About an hour. Anytime now –’

‘MUMMY.’

‘Right on cue. Let’s go and get them. We can have a lovely play together, it’ll take our minds off things for a bit.’

And having the children awake was a distraction. I closed my computer down, knowing my essay was going to have to take a back seat for quite a while, then Chrissie and I played games with Conor and Lily.

Slowly, people replied to my texts, but no one else called, and there was a heavy atmosphere of dread. Each time my phone made a sound, I jumped, until I realised it wasn’t Dec’s kookaburra. I wondered if Dec would even be the one to make that next call; he’d found it hard enough to do the first one.

There weren’t many texts, and Mum was the only one who called me. Eventually I realised that everyone was just waiting, and no one wanted to make people think that it had happened, this dreaded ‘it’ that was going to happen soon. So we just waited, where we were, everything suspended in some kind of emotional limbo until the next part of the the chain began.

Chrissie and I gave the kids their tea, gave them a bath, put them to bed, we did all the family stuff, trying hard not to let them feel how we felt. Then, once it was all quiet, we put some music on, curled up together on the sofa and waited.

Waiting is shit. Waiting for anything is shit, but waiting to be told that someone you love has died is about the shittest thing I’ve ever had to wait for. My nerves were shot; I was on edge; I was in a constant state of recognising the inevitability of it while at the same time trying to convince myself that someone must have got it wrong. Maybe Lau had made a mistake, and Matty was going to pull through. But Lau was realistic, and she wouldn’t have put us all through this unless she was absolutely sure.

And so it went on, until I wore myself out with trying not to think about it. We went to bed, but neither of us slept, and neither did Lily.

Laura

A while later, in the early hours, I heard Ella come through the front door.

‘Mum?’

She sounded like a small scared child.

‘In here, my love.’

She came into the bedroom, eyes reaching for Matt’s face, scanning him to see if he was still breathing. She let out a big sigh.

‘He’s still here. Oh Mum, I was so scared, I thought it would take me too long to get here, I should never have been so far away.’

‘Have you had anything to eat?’

‘No. I’m not hungry. I can get myself something later. Can I … I was thinking all the way here of all the things I’ve never told him. I suppose it’s too late now.’

‘He might still be able to hear you, Squeaks. No one really knows. Let me go and make you a cup of tea. You have a chat with your dad.’

I dragged myself away from Matt, not really wanting to break my connection with him, but recognising that Ella needed some time alone with him. As I walked into the kitchen I heard her voice.

‘Hey Dad, it’s me. Well I guess you know that if you can hear me. I just … well I suppose it’s a bit late to beat around the bush. I love you, alright? I don’t think I ever told you. You told me lots, but it’s just not cool to say it to your dad, is it …’

I smiled to myself as she chattered on, thinking for the millionth time how different she was to Josh, who would sit with me and Matt, not feeling the need to say anything, but communicating all he needed to by his presence. If I didn’t have their shared date of birth branded on my heart, I would never guess they were twins.

I stayed in the kitchen for a while, to give Ella some time, then made her drink. As I carried the cup of tea back into the room, she was still talking.

‘… and then there was that time when I told you I was at Nicci’s sleepover, but really I was drinking cider with Jonny Gatzenberg – oh, Mum. Thanks.’

‘You know he knows about Jonny Gatzenberg.’

‘What?’

‘If you were just confessing all your past crimes, Ella, you’d be surprised how many of them he knows about. And forgives you for. We both remember what it was like to be young. And he loves you, never forget that. But you don’t have to tell him everything, keep some secrets, my love. No one tells their dad everything, dads can’t cope with all the sordid details.’

‘But I feel so guilty now, I wish I’d never lied to him, or screamed at him or all the other horrible things I did.’

‘Didn’t I just hear you tell him you love him?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Then that makes everything alright. Everything. He loves you so much and he’s so proud of you. We’re both so proud of you. Drink your tea and go to bed.’

She nodded, took a couple of mouthfuls of tea then stood up, and looked at Matt for a long time. Finally, she bent down, kissed his forehead and stroked his cheek.

‘Is Josh here?’

‘He’s in bed.’

‘I might go and sleep on his floor.’

Since they were little, whenever either of them had felt out of sorts or upset, they had slept in the same room. It had persisted through their teens until Ella went away to university. This was the first time she’d done it since. I smiled at her, and took Matt’s hand again, listening to him struggle for breath and watching small twitches wrinkle his face from time to time.

Eventually I felt my eyes start to droop. I leaned forwards, resting my head close to his, feeling his staccato breath on my hair, still holding his hand, telling him everything I needed him to know through my grip on his fingers.

Cal

Lily often woke in the middle of the night, and was hard to get back to sleep. Luckily her brother slept like a log, and she never woke him up, but Chrissie and I always took it in turns to get up with Lil. If I didn’t have to be up for Uni, I’d get up, and Chrissie did it when she wasn’t working.

That night was no different, and the cries started about two thirty, which was pretty standard. To be honest, I was relieved to have a distraction, and I got out of bed more willingly than usual. Chrissie reached for me.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yeah, babe. Can’t sleep anyway. Want me to bring you some tea when I come back?’

‘That would be nice. I doubt I’ll be asleep either.’

‘I’ll be back in a bit.’

I crossed the landing to Lil’s room and found her standing up in her cot, red-faced and screaming. She reached her arms up when she saw me, and despite the noise she was making, the gesture of trust tugged at my heart as I picked her up and held her to me.

Lily’s screams could be used as a four-minute warning for a nuclear attack, they are so piercing. I have often apologised to our neighbours, being convinced that she must wake the whole street. They kindly say they never hear a thing, but that girl has a seriously powerful set of lungs.

As I held her to me, Lily’s cries gradually quietened, but I knew from experience that she would only start up again if I put her back down in her cot. We took a little walk downstairs, did a tour of the living room and kitchen, wandered into the dining room, peeked into the conservatory, checked all the coats and shoes were where we left them in the porch, and then she started to get sleepy. I could feel the change in her little body, as she started to relax against my shoulder.

I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for Chrissie’s tea, then wandered around a bit more, to be sure Lil really was asleep. Something was stopping me from taking her back to her room, something was making me hold her extra tight and kiss her head where it rested on my shoulder.

It was the thought of losing someone, it made me want to cling on to the people I loved the most. I wondered how Lau was doing, how Josh and Ella were doing, how Matty was doing, how everyone was doing. I think it was the only time I can remember when there was some sort of family crisis that we didn’t all meet up and face it together. It felt weird, disjointed, cracked.

Lily was fast asleep by now, and I went up to her room and laid her back in her cot, looking down at her as she slept, her cherubic cheeks and rosebud mouth hiding the decibel monster she could be. I brushed her hair away from her forehead, then went downstairs to make some tea.

Chrissie was asleep when I got back to bed, so I put her mug by the bed and sat up drinking mine. I checked my phone, just in case anyone had texted or rung me. I should have had it with me, I suppose, but Chrissie would have heard it if it had gone off.

Sitting there with my phone in my hand, I really wanted to talk to someone, just to contact them so I wasn’t alone with all of this swirling round my head.

I’d told Iz I’d text her later, but if I contacted her now, she’d think it was part two of the chain, and that wouldn’t be fair. I didn’t want to disturb anyone else, and I sat looking at my contacts list, undecided, when a picture flashed up and a tone jangled out. I nearly dropped the phone, my heart racing, but it wasn’t Dec, or Amy, or Mum. It was Iz. Iz wouldn’t be texting me with news; I was the one who was going to call her. I calmed down a little and read the text.

Sorry if I woke u up. Can’t sleep. Wanna talk?

Wasn’t asleep. Wld LOVE 2 talk.

I checked Chrissie. She had stirred when the text tone went off, but seemed to have drifted off to sleep again. I got out of bed, turning the volume down on the phone as I went, grabbed a hoody and walked down the stairs. I plopped onto the sofa as Iz’s tone started ringing.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey. So. This is about the least fun I’ve ever had.’

‘I know. We all thought it was such a good idea, didn’t we? Now, it’s like ‘here’s some really bad news that’s almost happened, but why don’t you all just sit there waiting for it all night’. It really sucks, Iz.’

‘I feel so far away.’

‘You are far away. Manchester is far.’

‘You know what I mean. If I was there, we’d all be together, helping each other.’

‘We’re not though, that’s the weird thing, no one’s rung, Mum hasn’t said all come round, as far as I know everyone’s at home doing their own thing. Which is probably the same as we’re doing – not getting any sleep. I wanted to call someone, but I think we’re all deliberately not calling or texting, because we’ll all think ‘this is it’ when the phone goes.’

‘But you’ll all get together … after, won’t you. I can see how it all feels weird now, but, you know, I think I’m going to come down. I mean, whatever, it’s not going to be long, is it. I just want to be there.’

‘Can you get time off work?’

‘I’ll take it, and worry about it later. Maybe Gracie will want to come, I’ll suggest it.’

‘How was she, when you told her?’

‘Oh you know Gracie. She was with her friends, she just said thanks for letting her know, didn’t chat or anything. When she came home, though, we had a little cry. She is the most perfect crier I’ve ever seen. I go all blobby and snotty, my face swells up and my eyes puff into pigginess, but Gracie, no redness, just beautiful tears falling symmetrically from her eyes.’

‘The cow. I expect she just does it to annoy you.’

‘Yeah, I bet. Ha ha, no, that’s the other bloody annoying thing about Gracie, well apart from her being gorgeous and having the body of a dancer and yet being able to put away half a chocolate cake with no ill effects, no, the other bloody annoying thing is she’s so bloody lovely, really thoughtful. She gives me and Ben space, goes out, stays in her room, but when she is with us she’s such good company. I’m so glad she’s staying with us this year.’

This felt better, talking to Iz, general chatter as well as acknowledging what was happening in a house half way across the city to someone we both loved.

‘Yeah, you lucked out there. Just think, you could have had Charlie if things had been different.’

‘What, you mean if she’d actually given Uni a proper go, or gone to a Uni that was less than two hundred miles away from where I live?’

‘Yeah, well, apart from that. God, can you imagine, student Charlie living with you?’

‘You mean things like the door banging at three in the morning, the sulks when we asked her to turn her music down, the ‘borrowing’ of my clothes and make-up, the ‘can I just take your car’, the unwashed dishes. Ben would have left me.’

‘Yep, you definitely dodged a bullet. Be thankful Dec managed to produce one or two normal children.’

‘They’re all lovely. Charlie’s lovely, just a bit …’

‘Overwhelming.’

‘Yeah. Can you remember who was calling her?’

I hadn’t given much thought to who was where in the chain; I just knew who was calling me and who I had to pass it on to. I tried to remember the discussion from that night over a year ago.

‘No, but I think it would have been Amy – wasn’t there some argument about age order, didn’t it go Charlie, Tom, Rosa? With you getting Gracie because she’s up there with you?’

‘Yeah, I think you’re right. God help Tom, then. He might never get the call.’

‘I expect Amy will have it under control.’

Talking about it made me shudder with anticipation. It wouldn’t be long before Dec was calling me again.

‘Know what, Iz, we shouldn’t be tying up our phones, in case they’re trying to get through.’

Iz was silent for a moment.

‘No, you’re right. I was hoping for a bit of a distraction, but we’re just going to have to wait it out, aren’t we. Thanks for chatting, Cal. I’ll talk to you later. Let you know about coming down.’

‘Take care of yourself. Is Ben awake?’

‘No, but he said to wake him up when there’s some news. I’m glad he’s here.’

‘I’m glad he’s there for you. Talk to you later.’

‘Bye Cal.’

I disconnected, noticing that my phone didn’t have much charge left. I plugged the charger in by the TV, and turned it on so I could watch some late night drivel while I waited for it to charge up a bit.

Laura

I woke with a start. At first I didn’t know what had woken me, then I heard it. The silence. It was quiet. Completely quiet and still. I was clasping his hand, but Matt had gone. I sat up with a whimper. Shouted out in panic.

‘Josh! Josh!’

It only took a couple of seconds before I heard stirring from his room, but it felt like a hour as I sat and looked at Matt’s face, his perfectly motionless face. He was never motionless; even when he was asleep he fidgeted. Josh burst into the room, Ella at his shoulder. I looked at them, stricken.

‘I think …’

I gestured at Matt, who was no longer there, not really.

‘Oh Mum.’

Josh moved quickly to the side of the bed and felt Matt’s forehead.

‘He’s not breathing is he. Oh Mum.’

He turned to me, face full of sorrow, and leaned down and hugged me. I sobbed onto his shoulder. I felt Ella’s arm round my neck, as her hot tears splashed onto my arm. They both knelt by my chair and we put our arms round each other and wept. We stayed like that for a while, then I looked up at Matt’s still face, his head turned towards me, mouth slightly open, and I didn’t want to be there any more, in that room, where he wasn’t.

I stood up, Josh and Ella making way for me as I walked into the hall. I stopped there, dazed, not knowing where I’d intended to go.

‘Come on, Mum.’

Josh took my arm and led me to the living room, where he gently pushed me down onto a sofa.

‘Sit there for a bit. Ella, stay with her, yeah?’

‘Why, where are you going?’

‘Just upstairs. Gonna call Beth.’

It was chain of calls phase two. Josh had agreed to be the first in the chain, but looking at his face it was going to be one of the hardest things he’d ever have to do.

Matt

OK, that’s your lot with the sloppy love notes, folks. It’s getting harder to type this shit, and the voice rec software can’t understand my unintelligible bollocks any more, so I think I’m going to

It ends here; I don’t know if he got interrupted, or was just too tired and ill to carry on and thought he’d finish later. Tom tells me that the last date this file was modified was about three weeks before Matt died, and he was hardly awake much after that, let alone capable of writing anything. So this is the end of the story of Matthew Robert Scott. I’m going to write my version, although I’ll probably steal a lot of his words, as I don’t think my memory is as good as his, and I don’t have his way of putting things into writing. But I’ll take it to the end, because there’s a lot he didn’t get to tell you about. I would have loved to have read Matt’s version of his fiftieth birthday, of Dec and Amy coming home, of Josh and Ella’s twenty-first, of Ella’s graduation, of Josh’s debut for Raiders, of Cal’s wedding and Conor’s christening, of so many things he didn’t get the chance to write down. I hope you might think about doing the same, or if you don’t think you can do the whole thing, maybe write something, it doesn’t matter how short, and send it to me. Please remember him, he was a special man.

Laura

Cal

Before I knew it, my eyes had closed, and I woke up to the jarring sound of two bits of music playing at the same time. It was some kind of poppy advert jingle, conflicting with a power ballad and it jangled me awake, disoriented for a bit until I realised what it was. My phone was ringing, Amy’s ringtone.

Amy. Oh God.

‘Hey Amy … er …’

‘Hi Cal. I’m so sorry, but …’

She paused. There was no point waiting for her to get herself together enough to say it, so I did it for her.

‘Hotspur?’

‘Yeah.’

At the time, when we were making plans for The Chain, it had seemed like ‘Tottenham’ and ‘Hotspur’ would be so appropriate for this, it made us smile to think of telling each other this awful news in this way, as if somehow it would make it seem better, lighter maybe. It didn’t. It made it seem more unreal, almost as if it was taking the piss.

‘Thanks Amy. How are you?’

‘Oh, you know.’

I did, because I was the same. Matty was gone. So much I was going to miss, so much I was never going to tell him, so much he was never going to see. I never said goodbye – although that was his choice.

Matty had spent a lot of time with Lau making plans for what he referred to as ‘My Demise’. He wanted people to come and see him, but not to be ‘morose wankers’, he didn’t want any goodbyes, he had a whole theme park event planned, what he called ‘putting the ‘fun’ back into funeral’, and had even written his own notice for the Herald. Maybe it was going to help in the days to come, but for now, we were all just going to be hurting.

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘Dec couldn’t do it, call you. He’s completely just in bits. I’ll have to go, Cal, I’ve got to call everyone else.’

‘Everyone?’

‘No, just Charlie really, but she’ll probably want me to call Tom. And I want to call Beth, see how she and Jay are.’

And I had my own call to make, too.

‘OK then. We’ll talk later, though, yeah? Maybe all get together?’

‘Yeah, that’d be good. It’s been awful, this last night, I didn’t know what to do.’

‘Yeah, we were the same. See you later then.’

‘Bye Cal.’

We disconnected and I called Iz.

‘Hi Cal, don’t say it please, I’ve been dreading you saying it, so don’t say it OK?’

‘OK. I won’t. But that’s what I was calling to say.’

‘I know. Fuck. Why does this feel worse than before? We knew it was coming, but now it’s happened. And although I know everything I need to know, I don’t know any details. I shouldn’t want to know details, should I? That’s, like, so none of my business, but maybe I’m just trying to cling on to him … oh Cal. He’s gone. Matty’s gone …’

Her voice trailed away and I could hear her crying, then Ben’s voice as he talked to her, then as he talked to me.

‘Hey Cal, it’s Ben. Iz and I are coming down today, we’re bringing Gracie. Sorry about Matty, it’s just shit, isn’t it.’

‘Yeah, mate, it is. We’ll see you later, then.’

We disconnected, and I sat on the sofa and felt misery welling up in me. It was what I’d been feeling, lodged inside, since Dec called yesterday, but I’d been holding it back, waiting, it seemed, until everything had finally happened. My throat constricted, my eyes pricked and stang, and finally, with a loud sob, it all came out. Tears, snot, loud noises. I was lost in sorrow for Matty, and for myself and how much I was going to miss him.

After a while I felt arms go round me – small arms and larger arms – and Chrissie and Conor were giving me a cuddle. I pulled myself together, mainly for Conor, who was looking at me with concern creasing his little forehead.

‘Sorry mate, I’m just sad.’

‘Why you sad, Daddy?’

‘Well, Unca Matty, you know he’s been very poorly, he just got too poorly and too tired, and he’s died.’

Chrissie and I had talked about how to tell the kids. Lily was too young to grasp any of it, but Conor loved his Unca Matty, and it was going to be hard for him to understand it all.

‘Conor, you remember Confucius?’

Confucius was Rosa’s pet rat. He had lived a long and happy life in an enormous rat playground in Rosa’s room, until one day he conked out. Conor had seen the stiff little body and been to the ratty funeral in the back garden.

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Well, Confucius got very old and his body stopped working, and the same has happened to Unca Matty. He got too poorly and his body stopped working. And we’re going to miss him, which is why Daddy’s sad.’

‘Will he go in the garden?’

‘No, sweetie, there’s not enough room for Unca Matty in the garden. He’ll go … somewhere else.’

‘Where?’

This was going to be the tricky one. Matty wanted to be cremated, but Conor was too young to understand everything. I couldn’t deal with this, was finding it too hard to think about, and I ran my hands through my hair. I felt Chrissie’s hand on my arm and looked up to see her looking at me. She mouthed ‘I’ve got this’ at me, and I gratefully disappeared upstairs, as she started to explain difficult concepts to our son.

I thought about going back to bed, wrapping myself in the duvet, shutting everything out, but I heard Lily moving around in her room, and decided instead to head another screaming session off at the pass. I picked her up and held her close, hearing her snuffles and then her babble, as she talked to me without needing to know the answers to serious questions. I felt so lucky to have my family.

Not long after, it was morning proper, and although Chrissie and I weren’t going to be doing our normal everyday things, the kids still needed to be up and about. My phone started ringing soon after eight, Mum first, then Iz, who was on her way, Ayesh, and a couple of mates from Raiders who had heard somehow (Mum I expect). I realised there were people I needed to check on too, and I called Gran, Josh and Amy.

It felt better, reconnecting with everyone, knowing how everyone was. Mum was coping by organising us all. We were going there for lunch, then getting started on plans for Matty’s funeral (like, wait a day Mum? Unlikely). Even though I didn’t really want to think about it, it did need doing. She was going to try to get Lau to come over too, but Lau wasn’t answering calls or messages, and Josh said she didn’t want to see anyone.

Dad and Dec seemed to have been hit the hardest out of the rest of us. Neither of them were answering calls or texts, and Mum said Dad wouldn’t get out of bed. Apparently Dec had spent the night staring into space while sitting on the sofa, and was not speaking to anyone.

Gran was with Mum, and both of them were cooking – at least, Gran would be sat at the table looking at recipe books while Mum made cakes. Gran’s gnarly old hands made it difficult for her to bake much these days.

It was going to be a while before Iz arrived, but I needed to be with the others, and before long Chrissie looked at me, hand on a hip.

‘Just go, Cal.’

‘What?’

‘Go to your mum’s. I’ll bring the kids after lunch. Iz won’t be here till later anyway. Just go.’

I looked at her gratefully. She always got me, knew what I wanted to do, without me even having to say it half the time. Not that she didn’t make me say it, because it was good for me to ‘be in tune with my feelings’ or something, but we had a lot of shorthand, particularly with young ears around, that meant we didn’t actually have to say things with words.

‘Thanks, babe. You’re awesome. Ring me if it gets hairy, though.’

‘Yeah, like they can throw anything at me I can’t handle.’

‘Hmm. Remember Sunday of the Shits?’

‘Oh God. Thanks for reminding me. But there isn’t any sign of runny poo so far – go while the going’s good. If I start to drown I’ll text.’

‘Deal.’

I drove off to Mum and Dad’s feeling more purposeful, which was weird because I was going to be doing just as much sitting around there, and less actually being useful, but it felt good to be going to see people, even if we were just going to be sad.

Amy’s car was already parked outside, and when I went in, they were all congregated in the kitchen, except for Dec, who was sitting on the sofa on his own, staring at the TV, which wasn’t on. There was a lot of talking going on in the kitchen, and I didn’t think they’d heard me come in, so I started with Dec, a little freaked out by the expression on his face.

‘Hey old man.’

He didn’t even look up, just shook his head slightly. I went and sat next to him, and he let out a huge, ragged sigh.

‘So, this is shit, eh?’

His eyes slid sideways, but didn’t quite meet mine. I’d only seen him like this once before, when Rose died. I fleetingly wondered just how he’d coped when he was a young boy and his parents were killed in a crash – had he gone all silent like this, or did anything that felt like that time bring it all back so much that it just shut him down? He never talked to us about it, so it was hard to know, and that made it hard to help him now.

‘Come on, Dec, I think there might be cake to be eaten in there.’

I nodded my head at the kitchen, from where baking smells were drifting. Dec only shook his head again and carried on staring at the blank TV.

‘Alright then, I’ll go and get you a coffee or something.’

I stood up and followed the sound of voices into the kitchen.

‘Cal! When did you get here, sweetheart?’

‘A few minutes ago. I was trying to talk to Dec.’

Mum gave me a big hug. She looked like she’d been crying, as did Gran, Amy, Charlie and Rosa. Tom was sat in front of a laptop and looked his usual chilled self.

‘He’s not really up to talking.’

‘I noticed.’

‘We’re giving him a bit of time and space.’

‘Yeah, it seems to be what he wants. Where’s Dad?’

‘He won’t get out of bed.’

Mum huffed a sigh and shook her head at this. Mum could never understand anyone who met a crisis with inaction; she always had a plan and it always involved doing something.

‘I’ll go and say hi.’

‘If you like, sweetheart.’

I quickly hugged everyone else, then went upstairs. Mum and Dad’s bedroom door was open, but the curtains were shut. I went slowly into the darkened room, letting my eyes adjust to the light, and perched precariously on the edge of the bed.

‘Hey Dad. Mum says you’re not getting up.’

‘No.’

Well at least he was talking, that was one up on Silent Boy downstairs.

‘Want to talk about it?’

‘Not really. What good would that do?’

‘Might make you feel better. Might make me feel better.’

‘Really Cal? Is it going to change anything?’

‘No, well, it won’t change that Matty’s gone –’

Dad hissed a sharp breath in.

‘– but it might change what you do about it, which might change how you’re feeling.’

‘I want to feel like this.’

‘OK, fair enough. We all feel like shit, to be honest. Dec’s downstairs staring at nothing like he’s lost the ability to speak. I don’t know what it’s like to lose your brother, but I do know what it’s like to lose your uncle, I know what it’s like to lose Matty.’

‘Jesus, Cal, stop saying that. Stop fucking saying it.’

‘Is that why you’re not getting up? So you don’t have to hear us all talking about it? So it feels less real?’

This was quite a major talk for me and Dad. We’d had our moments over the years, but usually it was him giving me advice because Mum told him to, or stuff about Raiders. I suddenly felt like I knew him, like for those moments I got where he was coming from.

Dad didn’t reply, just squeezed his eyes shut to try and stop tears leaking out of them. He opened his mouth and breathed in, his breath shuddering. I reached out and put my hand on his shoulder.

‘I’m not saying it’s not a good strategy, short term, but it’ll all be here when you get up in the end, unless you’re planning on staying in bed forever. And I have to say that is a plan I can understand, but the downside of it is you’ll have Mum going on at you until the end of time, so it won’t be as peaceful as you might imagine.’

There was the ghost, the tiniest hint, of a smile.

‘Piss off downstairs Cal. I’ll get up when I’m ready.’

‘Sure thing. No rush. Mum’s making lemon drizzle, but I’m not bringing you any.’

‘Bastard.’

‘Yup.’

I got up and left the room, pulling the door to behind me. It wasn’t going to do any good to make Dad face things just yet; he’d do it in his own time, if Mum left him alone long enough. Dec was more concerning right now, but I didn’t know what to do about him.

I went downstairs and sat next to Tom, looking over at what he was doing on the laptop. There was a document open, headed ‘Matt’s Wishes’, and under it was a list of what seemed to be the things he wanted for his funeral. I looked away from it, recognising an echo in myself of Dad’s desire to avoid the whole thing.

The trouble with looking away from something in a room full of people is that you have to look at something or, more likely, someone else. I caught Mum’s eye; she clocked what I’d been looking at.

‘We were just talking about all that, Cal. Matty made a list of what he wants to happen now, he did it with Laura some time ago. Laura wants us to organise everything, but some of his requests are a bit, well, you know what Matty was like, he never did anything traditionally. He might ruffle a few feathers.’

‘But you’ve got to do it if it’s what he wanted.’

‘There are just a few things – the songs, the notice in the Herald, we weren’t sure if people would be offended.’

‘That’s probably what he wanted. He liked ruffling feathers. This is his last chance.’

Mum nodded. She knew that better than anyone, having had most of her plumage well and truly trampled by Matty over the years. She looked over at Gran, but didn’t say anything, and I realised what she meant. That she didn’t want Gran to be upset, any more than she already was.

‘I’m sure Matt took all that into account when he was planning this, Beth.’

Amy always saw everyone’s side, tried to smooth over disputes. She’d had enough practice with her large family, and usually managed to say the one thing that made everyone see sense.

‘Maybe, maybe not. He’s always liked the thought of making people do things differently than they think they should be done.’

‘But they’re his last wishes, aren’t they?’

Charlie had looked up from her phone.

‘You have to, like, obey them, don’t you?’

‘Usually, Charlie, but you also have to bear in mind other people and how it might affect them.’

‘But it’s not like he wants to have a Nazi flag on his coffin, or make people recite the Satanic Verses or something. What’s the worst thing he wants?’

I risked a look at the list Tom had up on his computer, and glanced down it. Some of the things on it made me smile, some of them made me wince.

‘He wants the Darth Vader death march when they bring the coffin in.’

Rosa laughed. ‘That’s brilliant. I mean, inappropriate much, but brilliant. Do you think they’d do it?’

‘That’s not the point, sweetheart. We can’t offend people like that.’

‘Seriously Mum? Who’s going to be offended? Anyone who knows what it is will think it’s funny, and Mattyish, and anyone who doesn’t know what it is will just think it’s a bit of a weird tune, a bit kind of doomy. Do you even know what it sounds like?’

Mum was looking daggers at me, but I pulled up the tune on YouTube and played it to her. It didn’t seem to help matters.

We talked around in circles about this and plenty of the other things Matty had expressly said he wanted, for ages. I suspected he never thought in a million years we’d do most of them, it was just a way to make us talk about things and get together, but it was difficult not to be on the side of letting Matty have his way.

133. Plans

In which the dearly departed are remembered, and plans for the future are made.

Cal

Knowing Mum was coming made me relax slightly. Mum always knew what to do, always took charge. And I had a job now. I dialled nine nine nine, but the ambulance people wouldn’t just take my word for it. They made me check she wasn’t breathing, they made me check for a pulse, they made me shake her shoulder and say her name, and it was all seriously freaky, and by the time Mum arrived, I was sitting on the hall floor trying to think of anything else but how I’d just been touching her, and …

‘Oh sweetheart. Is the ambulance on its way?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t expect they’ll hurry.’

I stood up and let Mum give me a hug. I clung on a bit tighter than I would normally, and felt tears well up in my eyes.

‘Dad’s in your car with Dec. I didn’t want to leave either of you alone, so I brought him along.’

‘I bet he’s loving that.’

‘He’ll get over it.’

‘Is she in here?’

Mum went into the living room, on her own because I couldn’t go in there again. She came out after a while, wiping her eyes, and looked at me. It was my turn to give the comforting hug; Mum cried more than I’d ever seen her cry before, and I just held her while she sniffed into my sweatshirt. Then she stopped, stood back and wiped her eyes with a tissue.

‘How did you know?’

‘She called me.’

‘You? What did she say?’

‘Nothing, at least nothing I could understand.’

Mum nodded and patted my cheek.

‘Let’s go and check on Dec. There’s nothing we can do here until the ambulance turns up.’

I followed Mum out to my car. Dad had turned the reading light on, and he and Dec were illuminated in the front seats. Dec was staring ahead and Dad looked like he was trying to talk to him, but not having much success in starting a conversation.

Mum tapped on the driver’s side window, and Dad rolled the window down.

‘Hey you two. Hi Dec.’

Dec didn’t answer, just carried on staring ahead.

‘James, has he said anything?’

‘No, he’s been like this since we got here. I’m a bit out of my depth, Beth. Maybe you should try.’

Mum nodded, and she and Dad swapped places. Dad and I stood away from the car a bit while Mum tried to – well I don’t know what she was trying to do, get Dec to talk to her, look at her, something.

I looked at Dad, who seemed about a thousand miles outside his comfort zone. He gave me a weak smile.

‘Sorry to disturb your sleep.’

‘Yeah, well, wouldn’t have been my choice of early morning entertainment, but I guess you haven’t been having much of a laugh, either.’

He nodded in the direction of Rose’s flat.

‘No. Ah shit, Dad, it was fucking awful. She was just sitting there, with this look on her face … you could just tell right away she was … wasn’t there, you know?’

Dad slung an arm round my shoulder, as an ambulance pulled up behind Dec’s car. I took a deep breath and went to meet it, glancing over at my car, where Mum was still talking to Dec. I was going to have to do this on my own, or with Dad, which was just about the same thing.

I led the paramedics into the flat and pointed out the living room. I didn’t go in at first, but they kept asking me questions, and it felt weird just shouting to them from the hall, so in the end I went in, but stood by the door, not looking in the direction of the chair. I was feeling seriously weirded out by the whole thing.

When my phone jangled with Chrissie’s text tone, I jumped a mile, but used it as an excuse to not be in the room where people were doing things to other people that I really didn’t want to see.

Where ru? Thought u were downstairs.

Chrissie had been asleep when I left, and I’d thought I’d be back before long. I hadn’t even thought about letting her know where I was. I had to think hard before knowing how to explain it in a text, then realised I wasn’t going to be able to. I called her instead.

‘Hey babe.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At Rose’s. I thought Dec might need a hand.’

‘What with?’

‘Well I didn’t know, but I just had a feeling.’

‘And you’re still there?’

‘Yeah. It was … er … she’s, er, died.’

‘Oh Cal. Did you find her?’

‘Dec did. He’s really freaked, gone all catatonic or something. Mum’s trying to get him to talk. The ambulance is here, taking Rose away. Shit, Chrissie, it’s fucking horrendous. I’ll be home as soon as I can.’

‘No, don’t worry, I just didn’t know where you were, and I thought if you were up with Conor I’d come and keep you company, then I couldn’t find you, so … but be there, if they need you.’

‘Thanks, babe. I expect Mum’s got it, but I don’t know how much longer things will go on here.’

‘I’ll see you when you get home.’

‘Yeah, I’m going to need a big smushy cuddle with you and Conor.’

‘On it. Cal, I’m really sorry about Rose.’

‘Yeah, me too. See you later. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

As I disconnected, the paramedics emerged from the living room carrying a stretcher with a black body bag on it. Dad, who had retreated to the end of the hallway, was staring at it with wide eyes. I opened the front door for them, and followed them out. Dad came behind, and I shut the door behind him.

As they loaded the stretcher onto the ambulance, I glanced over to my car. Dec had turned his head to look, and Mum had put her hand on his arm. I saw him shake his head, and could see the word ‘no’ form on his mouth. Then the car door opened, and he ran along the pavement to the ambulance, just as they shut the back doors.

‘Let me in, I want to go with her.’

‘And you are?’

‘Her … she’s like my mum.’

Is she your mum?’

‘Not officially.’

‘Sorry, then, mate, you can follow us if you like, but, well, maybe you’d best leave it for now, eh?’

‘She shouldn’t be on her own in there.’

‘She won’t be, we’ll be with her.’

They weren’t kidding or being disrespectful, they were trying to reassure him. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they’d had to try to placate someone who had freaked out.

‘Dec …’

Mum had followed him out of the car, and now put her arm round his waist, drawing him away, talking quietly to him. I could hear snatches of what she was saying,

‘ … for the best … arrangements … tell Amy … come on sweetheart …’

and eventually Dec nodded and allowed himself to be pulled away, as Mum nodded at the paramedics, and they got in the front of the ambulance and drove away.

Dec stood, looking after the disappearing vehicle, eyes wide and haunted.

‘What am I going to do? Without her?’

‘Dec, we’re all here to help you through it.’

‘No … I can’t do this again … I just can’t …’

And while Mum desperately tried to cling on to him, Dec sank to his knees and started sobbing, the sounds echoing around the empty street. Mum crouched down next to him, and gestured to me and Dad to help her. Neither of us were sure what we were supposed to be doing, but Mum had put her arms round Dec, and I crouched by him and put a hand on his shoulder while Dad hovered behind, looking uncomfortable.

‘For God’s sake, James. He needs us to hold him.’

Dad reluctantly got to his knees and put his hand on a shoulder as well. None of it seemed to make a difference to Dec, who continued wailing.

After a few minutes, when a few lights went on in the nearby flats, and people started to look out of their windows, Mum decided a change of plan was necessary.

‘You two are going to have to get him in one of the cars. Maybe ours, James. Get him in the back, if you can. Dec, stand up for us sweetheart, we’re going to take you home.’

Dec didn’t move. Dad, seizing an opportunity to do something that didn’t involve having to talk or be emotional in any way, stood up, then bent down and hauled Dec to his feet by his armpits. Dec’s legs looked like they might give way, and he was still making the godawful racket, so I pitched in and supported him from one side, Dad going the other. We made our way to Dad’s car like this, dragging Dec with us. He wasn’t resisting, but he wasn’t actively moving either. Mum opened the back door, and Dad and I bundled him in, putting his seat belt on like he was five. Mum sat next to him in the back, and Dad got in the driver’s seat.

‘Cal, can you drive Dec’s car? We’ll bring you back afterwards.’

‘I need the keys.’

Mum patted Dec’s pockets and found the keys in his hoody. She gave them to me, and I followed them across the city to Dec and Amy’s house.

It was starting to get light by the time we got there, the dawn glow making everything seem even more surreal.

The porch light was on at Dec’s house, and I assumed Mum would have called Amy while we were on our way. As soon as we pulled up, the front door opened, and Amy came out, in her dressing gown.

Dec had quieted somewhat, but was still crying, and still shuddering with huge sobs. Amy came down the path as Dad and I were pulling Dec out of the car, and as he saw her, it was as if she was the first thing he’d truly noticed since the ambulance had driven away. He practically fell into her arms, and let her lead him into the house.

I looked at Mum, waiting to be told what to do. There didn’t seem any point going in; Amy was what Dec needed, not us fussing about him. Mum sometimes saw things differently, though, so I wasn’t going to do anything until I was told to.

‘Beth, just let them get on with it.’

‘I know, James. I just … after all this time, I thought he might be over it.’

‘I guess losing your parents isn’t something you get over.’

‘He’s had Rose longer than he ever had his mum and dad.’

‘Yeah, so it’s going to hurt even more. You know he’ll ask if he needs us.’

‘I know. I just want to fix it.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know. Are you OK Cal?’

‘No, I don’t think so. But I will be when I get home and give Conor a bloody good cuddle.’

‘Come here, sweetheart, give your mum a bloody good cuddle first.’

Mum held me tight and I felt her shudder. She was always this capable person who knew what to do in any crisis, but everyone often forgot that she felt things too, cared about everyone more than was strictly necessary.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. Come on, let’s get you back to your car.’

That night, and the weeks that followed, were hard for all of us. Dec was really cut up. In fact, cut up doesn’t even begin to describe it. He didn’t leave the house at all, until the day of Rose’s funeral. He wouldn’t see anyone, didn’t reply to texts or answer calls. Mum had long conversations with everyone about it, trying to decide the best thing to do. Matty wanted to do the ‘shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’ thing, but was talked out of it in the end by Amy, who felt it wasn’t the same, and that Dec needed time to do things his way. There was talk of doctors and mental health teams and psychologists, but Dec refused it all, and just sat staring at the TV all day.

Matty wasn’t up to much at the time, either, having had a serious chest infection and a flare-up of MS that had knocked him off his feet. With Matty out of action and Dec incommunicado, their business was suffering, and it was only because Tom knew about the techy side, and had his dad’s chilled manner with people, that the whole thing didn’t fold.

Rose’s funeral was sad, but it got Dec out of the house, and I think it started him on the road to being normal again. He was like a ghost in the crematorium – pale, lifeless, and he’d lost loads of weight. Amy and his children held him up, emotionally and physically, and the crem was full of people who Rose had meant a lot to. She was a friendly person who made connections and helped out a lot in this city, and Dec seemed surprised and gratified that so many had come to see her off.

Dec didn’t say much, to any of us, but he read a speech he’d written, talking about what she’d meant to him and his family, and how she’d always said she couldn’t replace his mum, but how she’d come to mean something else, something there are no words for, something as irreplaceable. He made it almost all the way through the speech, before just stopping in the middle of a sentence and looking out of the window. Amy had to finish it off for him, while Charlie and Tom helped Dec back to his seat.

I thought that might have sent Dec back to his morose introspection, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect, and at the wake, which Mum had naturally organised, it was good to see him talking to people, even smiling a couple of times, and looking like he was actually taking notice of things again.

After a while, things got better for Dec. I don’t know if he got some help from somewhere, he’d seen a psychologist in the past to help sort his life out, but whatever it was, he slowly got his spark back.

Laura

We had terrible days, like the day Rose died and Dec was inconsolable, and they nearly lost their business because Matt couldn’t get out to meet the clients and Dec was in no fit state to be meeting and greeting people. Tom came to our rescue that time, using his way with technology, his inside knowledge of the rugby world and his easy manner with people to smooth things over and persuade people to wait until Dec had recovered, and handling some of the simpler meetings himself.

All the children were growing up, moving away, or staying close by. Tom had a practical way with computers, and had become part of Dec and Matt’s business. Charlie had been away to Uni, given up her course in History, and come home to look for a career, which hadn’t been forthcoming and had led to lots of waitressing jobs. Gracie was half way through her Physiotherapy training in Manchester, where she shared a tiny flat with Iz, who was working for a language school, and Iz’s boyfriend Ben. Rosa had just left school and was working in a local jewellery shop while she got her own jewellery design business underway.

Amy and I often compared notes on the emptiness or otherwise of our houses; with Ella off on the other side of the world after finishing her Law degree, and Josh still living with us but usually at Raiders either training or attending a players’ function of some sort, I often felt like I had an empty nest. Although when Josh brought his mates back for a noisy session, it felt like the complete opposite.

Cal

We all missed Rose. She had been around almost as long as I could remember, and we all used to tease her about how much she talked, and how she and Mum had this, like, competition going to see who knew Dec the best, and who could feed us the best, almost as if they were trying to be the best mother figure. In truth, I don’t know that Dec really saw either of them as his mum. He often said Rose was like his mum, but I think that was only because he couldn’t find another word for it. He never made the same comparison with Mum, almost as if with his age and her age, he fell in the too-young-to-be-a-brother but too-old-to-be-a-son category, and it was just something else that was never defined.

I know Mum missed Rose, had missed for some time her being there and comparing notes about Dec and his family, having a gossip about the kids, tutting at the state of their house, all of that, because Rose hadn’t really been up to any of that for a good couple of years at least.

Rose had always tried her best to organise Dec, and Amy to some extent, but most of it had gone over his head. So she’d try with the rest of us, sometimes with some success. I remember visiting Gran, and interrupting one of their afternoon tea sessions. Lau’s mum, April, was there too, and I’d rocked up expecting to get going on taking some garden waste to the tip. I got distracted with tea and cake, and let the three witches brew their schemes as I munched and sipped. When I was little, I used to keep quiet in the hope that people would forget I was there and say something juicy. I used the same technique, and it worked for a while.

‘Isobel’s got into Manchester.’

This was Gran. She always used people’s full names.

‘Oh love, that’s so far away. Such a long journey, that is.’

This was Rose. Never really travelled, except to Wales to visit her sister and across the city to see Dec, Mum or Gran.

‘I lived in Manchester when I was younger. It’s a very cultured city.’

April had lived nearly everywhere. At least five different countries, and she knew someone in any city you talked about. I’m not quite sure how she’d crammed it all in, because Lau had always lived in the city and hardly left the county, so April must have travelled a lot before she had Lau.

‘I’ve got a friend who lives near the Arndale Centre. Maybe I could put them in touch.’

I smiled into my teacup at this (Gran always liked people to have proper cups and saucers, even though you didn’t get as much and the handles were fiddly). April was very religious, and her friends mostly seemed to be too. The thought of Iz scandalising April’s church mates with tales of her free-from-home exploits was quite amusing. Not that they wouldn’t get on – Iz got on with most people, of any age, any anything – and she might like knowing someone close to such a major shopping centre.

‘I’ll mention it to her, dear. Now Rose, tell me more about Charlie and her teacher. What exactly did she do to get detention?’

Charlie was the only person Gran called by her shortened name. Probably because although she was Charlotte, she had been Charlie since the minute she was born and the name had slipped under Gran’s radar.

‘Oh Carol, she was so cheeky. It’s been coming for a while with that one. Amy’s been to the school, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to do much good …’

Rose launched into a lengthy retelling of Charlie’s misbehaviour, with accompanying tuts from Gran and April. I drifted off a bit, having heard it all before from Mum, having discussed it with Iz (she and I being the oldest and therefore most sensible of the cousins, and also liking a good gossip) and knowing that Charlie Summers was always going to do exactly what she wanted regardless of detentions, tuts or anything anybody told her.

Half way through a second slice of Rose’s delicious ginger cake, I became aware that I was being discussed. Almost as if I wasn’t there.

‘… a good boy, always pops round and wheels the bin out. Although I think Ayesha wishes he’d do it for her a bit more often.’

‘Hey! Ayesh never has to wheel the bin out.’

‘No, love, because you always say you’re going to, and then it’s too late by the time she realises you haven’t and the bin lorry’s arrived, and she has to take the bags to the tip herself.’

I had no idea how Rose knew this. Oh alright, I had a very good idea. Ayesh would have told Mum, and word of this riveting bit of intel had been distributed far and wide. I was really going to have to have a word with Ayesh about what she told people. Or be more thoughtful in my chore-completion.

‘Oh great. Anything else I’m crap at?’

‘Well now you mention it, love, there’s the laundry, the washing up, the –’

‘OK, OK, I admit defeat. Gran, where are the garden bags?’

‘In the shed, dear.’

‘Right, I’d better go, before you think of anything else I should be better at. While I’m doing something nice for my Gran, if I can remind you.’

‘You’re a good boy, Calum.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Get back to your gossiping, ladies.’

Rose did love a good gossip, never seemed happier than when she was recounting something scandalous that a friend or neighbour had done or said, unless it was cuddling one of the children. But although she loved a good drama, she was kind and generous with her time, and often had wise words to say in the midst of her chatter.

When I was about fifteen, when all the stuff with Chrissie had gone on, when I was being the ‘Cob-on Kid’ on holiday, and everyone was taking the piss, she was the only one who didn’t act like it was some hilarious adolescent phase. I don’t know whether she knew exactly what was bothering me, but she stayed behind one day when everyone else had gone to the beach, leaving me to stew in my room.

When I heard everyone leave, and the silence of the villa settled on me like a cool shower in the wake of all the noise, I opened the door of my room and went into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I was starving, but there was no way I was going out there to be ripped to shreds by Matty’s smart mouth, Charlie’s annoying questions or one of Mum’s looks.

I got half way across the lounge when a movement made me jump almost out of my skin. Rose was sitting in a chair, reading a book, and she’d turned a page. No one had ever stayed behind when they all went to the beach, I’d always had the villa to myself at least until lunch time when they all piled back again and filled the place with talking, laughing, clattering plates, music and chaos. I just wanted some head-space to deal with everything, and being away from home was hard enough, let alone being expected to have a jolly time.

Seeing Rose sat there, not even looking at me, but just in my space and my time, really annoyed me. I ignored her, once I’d noticed her, and carried on into the kitchen, where I banged plates and scraped cutlery for all I was worth, to show how pissed off I was.

Rose didn’t look up, not once, didn’t say a word, not even good morning. Well, if she was trying to get me to talk to her by being all quiet and mysterious, she was going to have a long wait.

I filled a bowl with cereal, using up the last of the milk, and poured myself a glass of orange juice, then took it all back to my room, as there was no way I was going to sit at the breakfast bar while Rose watched me eat.

I stomped crossly back to my room, checking out of the corner of my eye for some sign that she’d noticed so I could ignore her more, but she kept her eyes on her book.

Back in my room, furious that I was imprisoned by her and unable to wander round the villa like I’d been used to, I ate my cereal and drank my juice. Then I took out my iPod, put the earphones in and tried to block everything out with some loud music.

It didn’t work. I lay on my bed not thinking of anything, but my empty thoughts kept reminding me that Rose was in the next room, just being there. I couldn’t relax into my sulk, not properly, because the reason I was sulking (sulking more should I say) was because she was out there, and why couldn’t she just leave me alone, why did she have to bug me? Everyone else pissed off and left me to my own devices all day, why did she have to just be sitting there, obviously wanting to disturb me and get in my way.

I was fifteen, I was a growing bag of hormones. Of course everything was about me. I see it now, but I didn’t see it then. Then, nothing was fair, everything was huge and dramatic and black or white. And right then, I just wanted her to go to the beach with everyone else so I could have my space back.

I took my headphones out and stood up, intending to go out and tell her to fuck off out with the rest of them. Then I found myself hesitating, unsure how to start, knowing if I was too rude I’d be in the shit with Mum, and kind of not caring but only in a theoretical way, not in any way that meant I would do it regardless.

As I wavered by my bed, I heard footsteps coming my way, and a tap on the door. I stood, frozen, as if caught in the middle of something I shouldn’t have been doing.

‘I’m just making a cuppa, love. Anything you want?’

Rose drank tea all day. Even in Spain, where sangria was easier to come by, and relaxed you a lot more.

Shit, though. Now she’d acknowledged me, spoken to me, I had to either reply to get her off my back, or not reply, which would make her tap harder on the door, maybe even come in. I didn’t want to talk to her, because then I wouldn’t be ignoring her any more, but I didn’t want her to come in, either, because it would be much harder to ignore her.

‘Calum?’

I thought, seriously, about saying ‘fuck off’ but in the end I just couldn’t do it. I could have said it to almost anyone else who was there, except possibly Gran, and it would have made me feel more powerful, but with Rose, although she was well used to bad language, and said the odd word that raised Mum’s eyebrows from time to time, it just didn’t feel right. Rose was about the same age as Gran, and she was kind of like a gran, and you just didn’t do that to your gran, unless she really really annoyed you. And all she’d done was ask if I wanted a cup of tea. It shouldn’t have tied me in as many knots as it seemed to have done. I tried the best compromise I could think of.

‘No, I’m fine.’

See? No ‘thank you’. That was a bit rude, but not offensive, and curt enough to get my message across, I felt.

‘Are you, though, love?’

Oh now she wanted to talk about whether I was fine or not. Well if she tried anything more than offering tea, she was going to get told to fuck off. Her look out. I didn’t answer, and sat down on the bed, getting my earphones ready to put in.

‘Alright then, I’ll be here if you feel like a chat, or if you want some pancakes.’

Oh the evil old witch. She’d mentioned pancakes. Now I could think of nothing but pancakes, the thick ones with syrup, the ones that Rose made that were de-fucking-licious. But no, I had to be firm. She wasn’t going to win me over.

I was starting to get hungry again, though. A bowl of cereal and a glass of juice doesn’t go far for a growing lad. I usually had half a loaf of toast smothered in marmalade too, but Rose being there had stopped my breakfasting.

I carried on with my music, forcing myself to stop thinking about pancakes, or syrup, or food of any sort. But it was like telling someone not to think about red balloons. I couldn’t help it. And to make it worse, I thought I could smell pancakes cooking. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks, but I could smell the batter as it hit the frying pan, and then I could imagine the batter turning brown, being flipped over, steam and oily smoke rising, a stack of thick pancakes dripping with maple syrup …

I was out of my bedroom before I realised what I was doing. I hadn’t imagined the smell of cooking; Rose was in the kitchen, frying pan in one hand, spatula in the other, a small pile of pancakes on a plate by the side of her. She looked round when she heard me coming out of my room, and smiled, but turned back without saying anything.

I stopped in the doorway of my bedroom, wanting to go back in, unwilling to give up the pancakes. The eternal teenager dilemma: food or funk. Food won. Food always won with me. If Mum had only realised this, she would have won a lot more arguments.

I ambled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, like I was just looking for something to drink. I even got a bottle of water out, and stood looking at it, as if it was hugely interesting.

Rose still didn’t speak, just carried on making more pancakes. The stack was getting taller, and was crying out for something gooey to be oozing down its sides. She had butter and syrup standing by, but there were more pancakes on the go, so she was waiting.

‘I think I might have made too many, love. Fancy giving me a hand?’

Yeah, it was pretty lame, and I didn’t believe her for a minute – Rose hardly ever ate the things she cooked herself. But it did the trick, got me off the hook of having to ask for myself, and enabled me to shrug a reply.

‘Here, then, there’s tidy. Put half of them on a plate. There’s maple syrup, butter, and I think there’s some lemon juice and sugar if you want to be traditional.’

Rose split the pile and put half on the plate that I’d got from the cupboard. I poured maple syrup over my half and stood in the kitchen, eating greedily, stickiness running down my chin while I shovelled hot pancakes in my mouth as fast as I could. Rose watched, but didn’t eat.

As I finished the last mouthful, and wiped my chin on the back of my hand, Rose rolled her eyes at my rudeness and then gestured to her plateful.

‘I’m not as hungry as I thought. Can you eat this lot as well?’

I shrugged again and held my hand out. You know, anything I can do to help, I like to be useful. As I had my mouth full of hot battery sugary goodness, Rose decided this was the time to talk to me.

‘I expect you’re wondering where I got the milk from to make these?’

I had wondered no such thing, not really knowing or caring about ingredients so much as the end result. I frowned a response and offered another shrug.

‘I mean, on account of you using the last of the milk for your cereal and putting the bottle back empty in the fridge.’

Oh she was not serious. Having a go at me when my mouth was too full to defend myself was unfair.

‘None left for my cuppa, was there.’

I had a pang of guilt. I hadn’t thought about how Rose was going to manage her eighty million cups of tea without milk, and I’d have liked to have said I didn’t care, but it turns out I wasn’t quite as hard as I’d have liked to be.

‘Good job I’ve got my own little fridge in my room, for when I need tea in the night.’

Oh well that was alright. What was she complaining about?

‘Except there’s no milk there, now, either.’

Just pile it on, Rose, why don’t you.

‘I reckon you and me should take a little stroll to the shops, get some supplies. What do you think?’

Well I’d been absolutely stuffed, hadn’t I, and not just with pancakes. She must have been planning it since I got up, maybe before. I had managed the whole of this holiday so far by staying in my room, not going out into the bright Spanish sunshine, it was a bit of a thing. This was going to be the holiday Cal didn’t leave his room. And now she’d tricked me. I’d used the last of the milk, and made her use hers to do something nice for me, and now I had no choice but to do what she asked. OK, maybe I did, because if I’d truly been the sulky teen I liked to think I was, I would have said ‘screw you’ and slammed my bedroom door again.

But I suppose I wasn’t that kid, I was the one whose mum had given a huge sense of right and wrong to from an early age, and leaving Rose without tea all day was not something I could do.

My answer was, you’ve probably guessed, a shrug. I’d managed the morning so far by saying three words to Rose, and that was pretty good going. I hoped I would be able to stand as firm on the short walk to the nearest shop.

Turned out I didn’t need to stand firm at all, at least not at first. Rose talked all the way there and all the way back, about all sorts of things, ranging from her nephew, who was about Dec’s age, and his wife and children, to her landlord’s plans to put new carpet in, to Charlie’s first day at school, Rosa’s first tooth, in fact she went through practically every member of the family, talking about her worries and hopes for them all, and then she ended up with me. By the time she got there, I’d forgotten about being uncommunicative, and was craving a chance to say something, anything, to stop the flow of words coming from Rose.

‘I hope this girl’s worth it, love.’

‘What?’

‘I hope she’s worth you missing having the time of your life with your family. You won’t get it back, you know.’

‘What would you know?’

‘I’ve had my fair share of romances gone wrong. I wasn’t always an old bird, you know.’

Why did adults always say that, as if they had any idea what it was like?

‘They all miss you, being with them.’

‘Yeah right.’

‘That’s why they’re being so annoying, Matt and Declan trying everything to cheer you up and get you out of your room. It’s not the same without you there. Your mam misses you the most.’

I knew that, really. I knew deep down I was spoiling things in some way, for everyone, but I just didn’t have it in me right then to be that happy chappy they all wanted me to be.

‘I can’t, Rose, I just can’t.’

‘They worry, you know. We all do, love.’

‘I can’t help it. It’s like …’

I tried to find words to say how big a hole Chrissie had left in my life.

‘… whenever I feel happy, it doesn’t last long, because I think about her, and everything goes a bit dark, because I want to tell her how I’m feeling, but I can’t. I can’t ever. And don’t tell me I’m too young, Mum said I’m too fucking young to feel like this, so that’s why I don’t talk to her, she’ll never understand.’

‘Oh love, I’d never say you’re too young. Love can hit you hard any time, young or old, and I’m sorry you’re feeling like this. Maybe, though, you might need to think about trying to pull yourself out of it. I don’t mean right now, you sound like you do need some time to yourself, but don’t let it go on too long. It can be hard to shake it off.’

I looked at Rose. The way she spoke, it sounded like she did understand how I was feeling, almost as if she’d felt it too. She was looking back at me.

‘Yes, love, I do know how it is. I was fifteen once, too. Same thing, loved a boy, he left, I was heartbroken. Cried my eyes out for weeks, I did. Then I decided I wasn’t going to let a boy, who wasn’t there any more, rule my life, and I stopped crying and started smiling. If you smile enough, you can convince yourself you’re happy sometimes.’

It sounded like a load of bullshit to me, but it was true that Rose did seem happy a lot of the time. It wasn’t going to work for me, though, not yet, although maybe some of what she said made sense.

‘I’m not going to smile, not right now. I need to be on my own.’

‘Fair enough, love. Just promise me you won’t let it rule your life.’

‘OK.’

‘I can have a word, if you like, get them to leave you alone a bit?’

‘No, it’s OK, don’t say anything. There’s only a couple of days before we go home, I don’t want the ten thousand questions.’

‘Alright, love.’

We got back with the milk, and to my knowledge Rose never told anyone about our conversation – to all intents and purposes, nothing had happened that morning. I stayed in my room for the rest of the holiday, dinner aside, and thought about Chrissie and what she’d meant to me and what she meant to me now.

When I got home, I realised that what Rose had said had stuck, and I started smiling more. It did make a difference, even outwardly – the way people reacted to me was different if I was smiling than if I was being a miserable git, and that made me feel different. I didn’t miss Chrissie any less, but I started to do things that made me forget, and in time it stopped hurting so much.

Rose often had wise words to say, and she was often surprisingly discreet. She loved a good gossip, talking about who was moving in with who in her flats, how terrible it was that the postman had run off with the woman who ran the convenience store, but when she had her chats with you, she didn’t tell anyone, she just talked and you generally just listened because you couldn’t get a word in, but she let you make your own mind up if you took her advice. Never came back and said ‘didn’t I tell you to …’ or ‘why didn’t you do what I said’.

When Chrissie came back and there was all the awfulness that went on with Ayesh, and it felt like everyone hated me for breaking up with her, Rose was the first one to say ‘I knew you and Chrissie should be together’, and she gave me a look like she remembered that morning in Spain, when I’d told her things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and I’ll always love her for that.

o0o

It wasn’t long after Rose’s funeral, in fact it was a few days after Conor’s first birthday, that we found out Lily was on the way. Not that we knew it was Lily, obviously, and it was a bit of a deviation from our plan as she was due in February, instead of the summer holidays. Babies – you just can’t trust them to get anything right.

From the start, she caused no end of trouble, and I expect she’ll go on causing it, like all the women in our family seem destined to do. Firstly, she was a bit of an accident – not in any way unwanted, Lily my lovely girl, we always wanted you, so much, still do, even when you’re screaming the place down because you wanted a green lolly and Mummy got you a red one. But anyway, there was a contraception mishap (hey Lau, I said it again), and before we knew it, Chrissie was having morning, noon and night sickness. She vomited at the slightest hint of food, almost literally anything would set her off, and she lost about a stone, instead of gaining weight, in the first couple of months after we knew.

Chrissie and the doctors finally got the puking under control, only for her blood pressure to spike, resulting in her being on bed rest for the last two months of the pregnancy, and the last month actually in hospital, because she just would not do as she was told.

That meant a month of me and Conor fending for ourselves, although to be honest we’d been doing that beforehand anyway, trying to keep Chrissie out of action.

And then when the time came for Lily to arrive, we nearly lost them both when there was some bleeding that wouldn’t stop, and I was shoved unceremoniously out of the room to pace in the corridor, sick with worry and angry at the lack of information.

It was very different from Conor’s birth, and it took us some time to stop feeling traumatised and begin life as a family of four. Chrissie was unwell for quite a while afterwards, and it was only because of a massive rally round by the rest of the family that we didn’t go under.

It was approaching the end of what I didn’t realise at the time was my last full season as a regular Raiders player. I’d felt for a while that I was maybe a metre off the pace, couldn’t get across the pitch as fast as I used to any more, missed a few important tackles. In the summer after that season, Raiders brought in the young TomCats and England winger who was hitting the headlines, and my regular playing days came to an end. I was destined to stay with Raiders until I called it a day – I couldn’t leave now, I wouldn’t know how to start again somewhere else – but it was with a game here and there in less important cup competitions, and a role in coaching, which I really didn’t enjoy.

Having a young family to support helped me to focus my attention on what I was going to actually do to support them once I stopped earning a living by playing rugby. I’d had my head in the sand about it for so long, and then suddenly, it hit me slap in the face.

While Lily was so little and Chrissie was so poorly, I had no choice but to carry on playing, when I was picked, helping out with the corporate and media stuff when asked to, and trying not to mourn my fading fitness or the lack of match appearance or win bonuses which decreased our income somewhat.

I felt it deeply, it affected my sense of who I was. I was a rugby player, had been since I was a teenager. It was a constant in my life, and losing that with possibly two thirds of my life left – well, I found it hard to accept. Until I talked to Matty, that is.

Matty had more bad days than good. He was regularly in hospital with pneumonia; he was more often than not either confined to his bed or his recliner chair; when he was up and about, he usually needed wheeling from place to place. He hated every second that he wasn’t what he considered normal, so he spent a lot of his life hating what he was. He could have become bitter and angry, but somehow he kept his sense of humour and his love of a good natter about nothing.

We could have just left him alone, God knows he told us to often enough, but his and Dec’s ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you feel this shit’ mantra had filtered down to us all, and when he was feeling down, that’s when we stepped up the visits, calls, texts and Facetimes.

Mum was coordinating the current campaign, and she’d text someone every day to suggest they might give Matty a ring, or call in to see if Lau needed anything from the shop. It was my turn, and I stopped off on the way home.

‘Hi Cal. How lovely to see you.’

‘Hey Lau. Just on my way home, wondered if there’s anything you need?’

‘Oh, no, thanks flower. Josh popped to the shop for me this morning. Come and have a coffee, though. I’ve got some chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, too.’

‘Great. Is Matty about?’

I always asked this, even though Matty had no choice but to be ‘about’. It just continued the illusion, for him and for me, that there was a possibility he could be off on one of his hikes, or out checking the internet connection at Raiders.

‘Yeah, he’s had a snooze, just woken up.’

‘Lazy bastard.’

‘Matt’s always loved his sleep. He’s in the lounge, go through, I’ll be there in a minute.’

Lau headed off to the kitchen, and I walked through to the living room, where Matty was sitting in the large recliner chair they’d bought so he could sleep there in the day if he wanted to, without having the hassle of going back to bed.

These days, Matty was stick thin. He’d never had much body fat, but he was positively gaunt now. As I saw him, I had a sudden flashback to how he looked when he first came home from hospital up in Stafford, all those years ago, when I thought he looked like a ‘skellington’. He wasn’t that far off now, and I saw it with a lurch to my heart, how small his reserve of energy must be, and how exhausting every day must be for him. Before he could see me feeling sorry for him, I gave him a grin and plonked myself in the chair next to him.

‘About time you woke up, old man.’

‘Pihs ohf. I desehv my rehst.’

‘Yeah, I can see how a long day of sitting watching Countdown would tire someone out.’

‘Sihting watchihg Dec ruihn my businehs mohr lihk.’

Matty gestured to the laptop that was on a small table by his chair. He still spent a lot of time doing the IT side of their business, Linebreak, while Dec visited various locations and fed back via email and text.

‘Why, what’s he done now?’

‘Triehd tuh tehl Trohjans’ IT guy hoh tuh fihx thehr dahtabahs.’

‘Bugger. I take it he doesn’t know how to fix Trojans’ database?’

Matty looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘Cahl, yuh knoh he’s shih at compuhters. He cahnt evehn sahv a fihl, an now heh’s fucked ih up evehn mohr. Said he wahted tuh sahv meh a johb. Dickhehd. Cauhsed meh mohr wohk.’

‘Well that’s your afternoon sorted, then. I’ll leave you to it, shall I?’

‘Noh, dohnt goh, or Ih’ll hahve tuh sit an look at Lau ahl aftehnohn. Oh, heh Lau.’

Matty managed a cheeky grin as Lau came in with the coffee and cookies she’d promised.

‘Watch it, buster, I’m carrying a tray of hot drinks and it would be really unfortunate if one of them ended up in your lap, wouldn’t it.’

‘Lau, yuh wouhn’t, not my tahkle, wha wouhd yuh do wihout ih?’

‘Hmm maybe. Just watch your step then. Have a cookie and tell me how delicious it is, to make up for it.’

Lau was always trying to tempt Matty to eat, but Matty rarely had an appetite. He’d force enough down to keep him alive, but it was sad to see how little he cared about food any more. He’d always loved to cook, messing about with ingredients, making sauces for pasta, creating weird and wonderful sandwich fillings, doing amazing breakfasts for everyone, but now he hardly seemed to notice he was hungry.

‘I cahn smehl ih’s dehliciohs frohm hehr.’

‘Smelling’s not tasting, Matt. Here, Cal, show him what he’s missing.’

I dutifully ate a cookie. As I’d expected, it was really tasty. Chocolate chip cookies were Lau’s speciality.

‘Yeah, Matty, as good as ever. Possibly the best batch I’ve ever tasted.’

‘There you go, flower. How can you miss the chance to taste possibly my best batch ever?’

‘Goh on thehn, hahf a ohn.’

Lau smiled triumphantly and broke a cookie in half, handing it to Matty on a plate. She watched eagerly as he ate half of it, then put the plate down; Matty looked at her apologetically.

‘Dehd tahsty, Lau. Not huhgry tho.’

‘Never mind, flower. Here’s your coffee.’

She put Matty’s on the table by his laptop, then gave mine to me before picking up a mug of tea that Matty hadn’t drunk, and heading back to the kitchen. Matty’s coffee also remained untouched.

‘Hoh’s Chrihsie?’

‘Much better than she was, thanks. She’s been out a few times this week, taken Lily to appointments, came to the park with us yesterday.’

‘Greht. Lihly doing wehl?’

‘Yeah, growing every day. Conor’s got a cold, so he’s a grumpy little git. I would have brought him round at the weekend, but I didn’t want you to catch it.’

Matty rolled his eyes, as if catching a cold made no difference to him, when in reality it would have had him on a drip within twenty-four hours.

‘I saw Raihders sihgned Joss Tenk.’

Joss Tenk was the whizz-kid England winger who was set to replace me.

‘Yeah, great signing for us.’

‘Yuh OK wih ih?’

I looked at Matty, who knew as well as anyone what it meant for me, in all likelihood, unless I managed to find some previously undiscovered reserve of speed, fitness and (let’s face it) youth over the pre-season. I could have bullshitted him, but he would have seen through me in a second.

‘I haven’t got a choice, Matty. I’m not going to last forever, am I? I’m off my pace, and he’s a great signing. Raiders can’t afford to be sentimental. I’ll just have to try my best over the off season, see if I can’t show them there’s life in the old dog yet.’

‘Wha yuh gona duh?’

‘Well, work hard, train hard –’

‘Noh, wih yuhr lihf.’

It was a while since anyone had been this blunt with me. I’d avoided that question so well and for so long, that people had given up asking. I always hinted at some vague plan without actually expanding on it, and had become expert in avoiding being specific. Even Chrissie, who had begun to seriously question what I was going to do when I stopped playing, had been too poorly since Lily was born to be persistent, and I’d gone back to ignoring it all.

‘Oh I don’t know. Something will turn up.’

‘Yeh, yuhr righ, cos wehl paid johbs jus fahl in yuhr lap wehn yuhv got noh qualificahtions or expehriehce.’

‘I’ve got my coaching badges.’

‘Oh yeh. Weh ahl knoh hoh much yuh lohv cohching.’

‘Back the fuck off, Matty.’

I was getting defensive. I’d called round to see Matty and maybe have a bit of a chat about the weather and the kids, and instead I was getting the third degree about my career prospects.

‘Noh, Cahl, I dohnt thihk I wihl. Thihs fucking bahstrd’s gona geh meh ohn day, an I wana say shih befohr ih does.’

‘Matty …’

I hated it when Matty talked as if it was inevitable he wasn’t going to last much longer. However bad he got, he had so much guts and determination, he loved Lau and his kids so much, he always battled back. This was just another setback, I was sure, and I didn’t want to think about it being anything else.

‘Noh, Cahl. I wana say thihs. If yuhd behn shih at rugby, wha wouhd yuh hahv dohn?’

His question sparked a memory, of lying face down on the physio table at Raiders, talking to Kieran about what he was doing with his life because he knew he wasn’t going to be a professional sportsperson. Being a Physio wasn’t a substitute, it was completely different, and I wouldn’t say it was something that had ever occurred to me, except in a ‘bloody hell that’s too difficult’ kind of way. But I had always been fascinated with how the body healed itself and how it could be helped along. I had a sudden image of me being part of a different sort of team; one that looked at how to get the most out of arms and legs, how to help muscles repair, when to exercise and when to rest. It was just the seed of an ambition, but it took root in my head as I shrugged and answered Matty.

‘Dunno. Something physical, something not academic.’

I hardly had any GCSEs, not because I couldn’t have got some if I’d applied myself, but because I had other priorities at the time. Raiders Academy had always been hot on studying, but my focus had never been on schoolwork, it had always been on the outdoors, running about, throwing a ball, being buried under a pile of blokes, instead of under a pile of books.

‘Yuh couhd, tho. Duh the acadehmic thihg.’

‘Nah, I’m too old.’

‘Fuck ohf wih yuhr ‘tuh ohld’. Cahl, yuhv got a fahmly. They’ll lohv yuh whaever, buh yuhv got the braihs tuh beh amahzing. Duh ih while yuh can. Duh sohmthing tha hehps yuh look ahfter them. Yuhr gona nehd tuh suppoht them. Yuh nehd tuh duh the behst thihg yuh cahn. Migh tahk sohm hahd wohk.’

‘But I …’

My protests died away as Matty ignored me and took a big, noisy slurp of his coffee. He had decided the conversation was over, and when he’d finished swallowing his mouthful, he turned the topic to football, and we argued Tottenham versus Arsenal for a good half an hour before I had to go home.

Later that evening, my head still whirring with the possibilities Matty had made me think about, I pulled Chrissie against me on the sofa, after Conor and Lily were in bed.

‘Matty thinks I should go back to school.’

‘Oh does he? To do what?’

‘Get a career.’

‘Mm hmm. Did he give you any other careers advice?’

‘What, apart from never managing Spurs because they wouldn’t want someone who obviously knows nothing about football as evidenced by my poor taste in teams?’

‘Not that you’d take the job if they offered you a million a year.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Yeah, apart from that, then.’

‘Well, no, he didn’t come up with anything, but … I did have a thought.’

Chrissie twisted in my arms and looked up at my face, an eyebrow raised quizzically at me. She knew I never talked about this, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing talking about it myself, but something from this afternoon had got under my skin, and I needed to think out loud about it.

‘Well go on, then, share please.’

‘Alright then. I know it’s not the most original thing, but I was wondering about training to be a Physio.’

‘What, like Gracie?’

‘Yeah. Well, maybe more along the lines of Sports Physio than helping old ladies with their hip replacements, but it’s all the same training.’

‘That’s a lot of Uni, Cal.’

I looked down at Chrissie. She wasn’t suggesting I couldn’t do it, I knew she’d support me whatever I did, the same way I’d support her, we’d find a way to do whatever we all needed to do to be a family. She was wondering if I’d thought of all the implications and consequences, and fair enough, thinking things through wasn’t my strong point, and I had only just begun to think about this, I hadn’t thought any of it through at all. She also knew I was a lazy bastard at heart, and training aside, did as little as I could to get by.

‘Yeah, I know, I don’t know if I could do it, I mean, fuck, I’d have to do a shitload of exams just to get on the course. I honestly don’t know if I could actually stand it, but I think I want to find out.’

‘That sounds like a good place to start. Find out what you’d have to do. You should ask Gracie.’

‘I guess I could start with her, but she’s such a brainbox, she had all her exams sorted before she went, knew what grades she needed, passed everything with an A star. And she’s young. You know, old dog, new tricks and all.’

‘Yeah, but Cal, you haven’t really got a choice but to learn new tricks, have you?’

Trust my Chrissie to just say it how it was. She didn’t go on at me, usually said her piece once and then let it stew until I made my mind up, but once we were talking, she just said what she thought. And she was right. I didn’t have long before any decisions about my future were out of my hands, and I would be without a playing contract or, indeed, a job of any sort. It was like a light going on – I had to start doing something about it; should have been doing something about it for a long time.

‘Shit, Chrissie, you’re right. God, I need to do something, don’t I? I’ll call Gracie tomorrow, have a chat. Maybe talk to the guys at Raiders too.’

‘Yeah, sounds like a plan. Hey, who’d have thought, eh? Cal Scott has a plan.’

‘I know. Well weird. I think I need to lie down.’

‘You practically are lying down.’

‘Oh yeah. Well that’s alright then, no need to move at all.’

We sat together in comfortable silence for a bit.

‘How is Matty?’

‘He was out of bed, which is good, but still talking this shit about wanting to say everything while he’s got the chance.’

‘It sounds sensible to me. Do what you need to while you’ve got the energy.’

I didn’t respond immediately. It was too hard to think about Matty wanting to set his affairs in order, because I’d have to think about why he’d need to do that.

‘You know what, though, he’s a bit of an inspiration. He’s never let anything stop him doing what he wanted, or maybe what he needed to do. I mean, he can’t get around without help, and his speech has gone to shit, but he’s still working, still sorting out people’s IT stuff. He made it happen with Dec, and he’s training up Tom so when he –’

I stopped, as it was too hard to say what I’d almost said, that he was training up Tom to take over from him when he wasn’t around any more Matty was making sure everything was in place, that it was all sorted. I knew he’d made Lau some kind of partner in the business so she’d be financially OK, and it seemed he was working his way through the whole family, trying to make things as right as he could. Thinking back, I knew he’d talked to Iz about marrying Ben (fat chance, Matty, but nice try), he’d talked to Mum about ways to manage her business so she could step back a bit (Mum was rather taken aback at being told what to do for a change), he’d told Dad to retire and go travelling before he was too old (that went down well); I couldn’t think of any of us he hadn’t tried to sort out one way and another. He’d made some waves, thinking about it, but it hadn’t stopped him.

‘He is pretty inspiring, Cal. Nothing seems to stop him. He just fights all the time.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. He wants his family to be OK, and he’s just going for it. I should be doing the same, whatever it takes. If I have to do some studying, take some exams, get off my arse a bit, I bloody well should, to make sure you’re all OK and we don’t have to worry.’

‘We’ll be OK, whatever.’

‘Yeah, and I know it’s not just up to me, but I think now playing isn’t so certain any more, I need to man up, be part of Team Scott. Unless you think thirty-one is a bit young to be manning up?’

I looked at Chrissie hopefully, but she just cuffed me on the arm and shook her head.

132. May you never

In which we encounter birth and death.

‘Hello sweetheart. Everything alright?’

‘Yeah, just off to the hospital. The baby’s coming.’

‘Oh Cal! That’s so lovely. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

‘What? Why are you coming?’

‘Well I thought I might be able to help –’

‘Thanks, Mum, but I think we can manage. We’ll call you later, and you can come and start being a granny.’

‘Oh but –’

‘Thanks for offering, Mum, but we’ve got this. Gotta go, we’re in the car. Bye.’

As far as being assertive with Mum went, it was pretty successful. Chrissie and I had been very sure that we didn’t want Mum anywhere near the delivery room giving anyone and everyone the benefit of her advice, but we were sure that we wanted her there as soon as possible afterwards so she could cuddle her new grandson.

‘Well done you.’

‘I handled that quite well, didn’t I?’

‘Yep. Now, drive on – ooh – they’re expecting us.’

It was early afternoon, the sun was shining, it was just like going on a day-trip, apart from the occasional ‘ooh’ as I drove.

Just as I pulled up outside the hospital, parking in the ambulance-only bit because there was no way Chrissie was going to be walking across the car park, there was an ear-splitting scream.

‘Aaaaah fuck. Aah shit that fucking hurts.’

This was more like it. Now I was proper panicked, like I thought I ought to be, and Chrissie looked like she was in real pain, with screaming and everything. Now we were getting somewhere.

‘OK, OK, just wait here, I’ll get a wheelchair or something.’

‘Don’t, you can’t leave me.’

‘Well I’ve got to babe, I can’t stay parked here.’

‘No Cal, don’t leave me, please.’

‘Two seconds, just to get a wheelchair.’

‘No!’

Chrissie reached over and grabbed my arm, harder than I would have thought her capable of. Serene Chrissie had left the building, and Determinedly Unreasonable Chrissie had taken her place.

‘Chrissie, we can’t stay here –’

There was a tap on my window. Looking round, I saw a man wearing a hi-vis jacket with ‘AMBULANCE’ across the front in blue. I opened the window.

‘You can’t park here, mate.’

‘Yeah, I know. I’ve just brought my wife in. She’s in labour.’

The man looked over at Chrissie and saw what was obvious, that she was heavily pregnant, with a large side order of fraught and hysterical.

‘You need a wheelchair. I’ll get you one.’

Before I could thank him, he’d headed off; I prised Chrissie’s fingers from my arm and got out of the car to open the passenger door for her.

‘I’m sure he won’t be long, grab hold of me and get out, babe.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Sure you can. Here, hang on to me, swing your legs round –’

‘I mean I can’t do it. I can’t have the baby.’

What was this now? How could she even be thinking that? That was totally illogical.

‘But … but … you haven’t got a choice. It’s not like they do refunds. Come on, it’s just nerves.’

‘It is not just nerves. Are you the one who’s going to be in level ten pain, or squeezing a person out of your vagina?’

‘Er, no, but maybe keep your voice down a bit, babe.’

‘Don’t you dare. This fucking well hurts. I can’t do it.’

I didn’t know how to respond. Chrissie hadn’t moved from the front seat, and if we were there much longer I was going to have to explain myself to more irate ambulance drivers.

‘OK, then, what do you want to do?’

‘Well how should I know? Don’t just stand there looking like a moron, help me.’

‘But I don’t know what to –’

Aaaaaah. Aaaaaah fucking hell fucking hell fucking hell.

Chrissie bent over her stomach, her face going red and her hands gripping her knees. I had never seen a woman in such pain before, and it was truly terrifying. Of course I’d seen plenty of blokes in a lot of pain, you know, dislocated finger, ruptured knee ligaments, internal bleeding, that kind of thing, usually on a muddy field, on their backs, being tended to by a physio while a game went on around them. They didn’t make much of a fuss about it. I didn’t think now was the time to mention it.

As Chrissie’s screeches subsided, I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was the ambulance bloke with the wheelchair.

‘Here you go mate. Your first is it?’

I nodded.

‘Yeah, thought I recognised the look of terror. Need a hand?’

I nodded again, suddenly helpless in the enormity of what seemed to be happening. The hi-vis man reached over and put his hand on Chrissie’s arm.

‘Alright there, love?’

I winced. Chrissie hated being called ‘love’ by men she didn’t know, and always tore anyone off a strip who tried. Except today.

‘No, I’m in fucking labour and it’s fucking agony.’

‘Oh, yeah, I know how that goes. Having a contraction now are you?’

‘Just had one.’

‘OK, then, we need to get you into the chair before the next one, so we can get you up to the Maternity Unit before junior makes a surprise entrance.’

To my amazement, Chrissie nodded and swung her legs round, allowing herself to be helped up by the ambulance man. Maybe they were trained in Jedi mind control or something.

As Chrissie sat in the chair, Obi-Wan Kenobi addressed me.

‘You need to move the car, mate.’

‘No, Cal, don’t leave me.’

‘I can take her if you like.’

I looked at him, undecided. Fuck it, I should have brought someone else with me who could park the bloody car. Why had Chrissie misled me with all the serenity and ‘ooh’, when really this was a panic situation that required quick thinking and not having to spend hours driving around looking for a bloody parking space?

‘Chrissie, I’ll be two minutes, I promise. I’ll run, I’ll catch you up.’

Two minutes was if I just dumped the car on the first lot of double yellow lines I found and paid the ticket or got the car unclamped later.

‘Don’t be long. I’m scared.’

‘I won’t, babe. I’ll be right there.’

As I drove off, Chrissie was pushed away by the hi-vis man, and I saw her looking desperately back over her shoulder, as if it was going to be the last time she saw me.

The gods were smiling on me, and a parking space opened up as I drove by it, so I abandoned the car at a bit of a crazy angle, then legged it as fast as I could to try and catch up with Chrissie and Obi-Wan.

The hospital was enormous, and the maternity unit was over the other side of it. There were lines painted on the floor to help idiots like me who had no sense of direction and couldn’t follow simple instructions, so I kept my eyes glued to the purple line as I raced down the corridors.

It wasn’t long before I picked up the sound of Chrissie’s voice.

‘Jesus fucking Christ where is he? He said two minutes.’

There was a less audible reply, so I just followed the sound of swearing. There were no more quiet ‘ooh’s, just ‘aaaaaah‘s and ‘fuck‘s.

I should stress that Chrissie didn’t normally swear a lot. Not that she never did, just that she chose her moments a bit less often than other people, me for example. I knew as well as anyone how helpful a good ‘holy fuck’ was in times of need, and it sounded like Chrissie was currently in a lot of need.

I sped up towards her voice, and she came into view as I rounded a corner, just as she was approaching the door to the maternity unit.

‘Chrissie!’

She turned her head as I reached her, and relief washed over her face, swiftly replaced by pain.

Aaaaah. Fuck. This is all your fault, you fucking bastard. Where the fuck have you been?’

I reached for her hand, but she batted me away.

‘Sorry, babe, I had to park the car.’

‘Here, mate, do you want to take over now?’

The Jedi Master ambulance driver handed the wheelchair over to me and started to walk away.

‘Thanks very much, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘That’s my job. Good luck. The name’s Dave, by the way, in case, you know …’

Obi-Wan Dave looked at me hopefully.

‘Thanks. We’ll bear it in mind, er, Dave.’

I opened the door to the unit and pushed Chrissie through it. She let out another scream, which brought quite a few people running, and before long we were in a room with a doctor and a midwife. Not Chrissie’s midwife, who was on holiday. This was apparently my fault.

‘Why did you have to knock me up just then, so Karen wouldn’t be here?’

‘Sorry, babe.’

‘Fucking men, the whole bloody lot of you are fucking useless.’

‘On behalf of men, sorry.’

I thought by being apologetic and remaining calm, I might get out of further abuse. This was not to be the case. Chrissie only stopped berating me long enough to scream, and then it was back to the badmouthing.

After what felt like hours and hours of sweating, screaming and swearing, Chrissie was pronounced ready for the delivery room, and she was helped into the wheelchair again. I tagged along behind, feeling a bit useless and a bit unwanted, until Chrissie looked for me and held her hand out, an expression of complete fear on her face. I reached for her hand, and she squeezed it so hard it hurt, a lot. I was slightly worried she might have broken a bone, but chose not to mention it.

‘Don’t leave me.’

‘Not going anywhere, babe.’

‘I’m scared.’

‘I know. You’re being so brave, so incredible. Just keep going, not long now.’

And then, after another forever in the delivery room, with a lot more sweating, screaming and swearing, he was suddenly there. I watched it all happen, and it was impossibly gruesome but spine-tinglingly awesome to watch him arrive. I got to cut the cord, and then I went back to Chrissie and held her hand and wiped her forehead and kissed her, and then they gave us our son, all wrapped up, and he was the most exquisitely beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Neither of us could speak, we could only look at him. The first thing he did was cry, and it broke my heart. I wanted to tear the world apart to look for the thing that would make it better. Turned out I didn’t have to, he just needed a feed. Took after his dad straight away on that front.

We had a few minutes with him while he fed, and then had to go back to the private room, where they’d put a little plastic cot with a blanket in it, but otherwise we were left on our own.

‘Look at him. He’s perfect.’

‘I know. You’re a clever thing, babe.’

‘No, it all just happened. Sorry I was yelling at you.’

‘Were you? I didn’t notice.’

‘Are you going to call your mum?’

‘In a while. I want to have him to ourselves for a bit. Can I have a hold?’

Chrissie reluctantly passed him over, and I held him against me, taking in all the tiny details of his face and his little hands, and the small noises he made as he moved.

‘Why don’t you call your mum, while I’ve got him?’

‘OK, good idea.’

While Chrissie talked to her parents, who still lived up north, I took him on a tour of the room, which wasn’t very big, but included a window, so we went and had a look outside.

‘Well, here you are at last, little man. In the world. Not much to see out there, really, just a car park, a few litter bins, oh look, there’s a cat. They go meow. Some clouds in the sky. I hope it’s not too much of a shock out here, I know you’ve been pretty comfy where you are. Time to grow up now, though, and –’

My meaningless drivel was cut through by Chrissie’s voice.

‘Conor … no, not after anyone. It’s just what he looks like.’

She looked guiltily at me as she said it, neither of us ever having mentioned Conor as a name, and for just a second I was annoyed at having the decision taken away from me, but as I looked back at the bundle in my arms, I realised that’s who he was. Conor. Not something beginning with ‘J’ after all.

‘Hey Conor.’

He wriggled, and one arm went into the air.

‘Oh, you like that do you?’

I smiled over at Chrissie and she relaxed, talked to her mum for a little while longer and then disconnected.

‘Sorry, Cal. I just said it without thinking.’

‘It’s fine. Probably the best way to do it. We’ve been overthinking his name, we should have known he’d have something to say about it. He is your son after all, he’d want an opinion.’

‘Oh Cal, he is, isn’t he. My son. Our son. Oh give him here, I can’t get enough of him. Call your mum now.’

And so I had no choice but to give him up and call Mum, which went as predicted, with Mum practically cutting me off mid-sentence so she could jump in the car and drive over.

With Mum on the case I really didn’t need to call anyone else; she would have the hands-free going all the way there. But I wanted to do some of it myself. I predicted that her list would start with Dad, then move on to Dec, then Amy if she wasn’t with Dec, then either Gran or Matty, it was a toss up. If I was quick, I could get in first. Maybe forget Dad and Dec, and go straight for Matty.

Matty was bound to pick up, because he was recovering from his most recent bout of pneumonia, and didn’t move far from the house at the moment. I called him.

‘Wha news?’

‘It’s a boy.’

Woohoo! LAU! Thehyv hahd him! Ahl OK?’

‘Yeah, great, he’s four kilos. Tons of black hair.’

‘An yuh cahled him Matthew. Ah thahks Cal, Ihm honohed.’

‘Ha ha, no. He’s called Conor. After no one, just because that’s his name.’

‘Ah maht, tha’s awesohm. Soh plehsed fuh yuh.’

‘Thanks. You’re now officially a great uncle. I’m going to start calling you Bulgaria.’

‘Pihs ohf, Greht Uhncle Bulgahria’s way befohr yuhr time.’

‘Maybe, but I’m not too young to remember you’re a cockwomble.’

I fist pumped – I’d been saving this joke up for months, praying no one else would think of it first. I’d deliberately avoided all references to great uncles, because I knew it would make Matty laugh, and I wanted to be the gifter of the humour. It wasn’t often anyone got one over on Matty in word games, especially me.

Matty did laugh, hard, and then broke off with a cough, and I listened to him hacking for a few moments, fleetingly guilty that I might have harmed him with my need to impress him.

‘Cal? It’s Lau. Matt’s having a bit of a cough, you can probably hear him. That’s great news, flower. Is Chrissie OK?’

‘Apart from having to fight me to the death over who gets to hold him, yeah.’

‘Four kilos, that’s not small. Stitches?’

‘Nope.’

‘Ooh, get you, all smug.’

‘Yeah, like it had anything to do with me, but I’ll take it.’

‘Is she staying in?’

‘Yeah, just tonight.’

‘Bring him to see us as soon as you can, won’t you?’

‘Sure thing. Soon as. Can’t you make it over, Lau?’

‘I’d love to, flower, but I’ll have to wait.’

This meant Matty wasn’t up to going out and she didn’t want to leave him, but he was still in the room, so she wouldn’t say.

‘I’d better go, Lau, other people to call, I’m trying to beat Mum to it.’

‘Good luck with that, flower. See you soon, I hope.’

I disconnected and tried Gran.

‘Hello?’

Gran never used caller ID, so she never knew who it was calling her.

‘Hi Gran, it’s Cal.’

‘Calum! Hello dear.’

‘Has Mum called you yet?’

‘No dear, why?’

Yes! Two down in the beating Mum to it stakes.

‘Well I just wanted to let you know you’re a great-granny.’

There was a brief pause and a slight intake of breath, then Gran replied in her unflappable way.

‘Oh that’s just lovely dear. I trust all is well?’

That was Gran’s way of being really excited and asking for more information.

‘Yeah, everything’s great. We’ve called him Conor. He was four kilos – er, oh, I don’t know what that is in pounds. Chrissie, what’s four kilos in pounds?’

‘Eight pounds thirteen.’

I had no idea how Chrissie knew that, maybe she’d made it up, but I took it.

‘Did you hear that Gran? Eight pounds thirteen.’

‘Goodness, Calum. That’s large. Is Chrissie alright?’

‘Yeah, no trouble at all.’

I loved telling people there were no stitches, as if my wife had the most stretchy lady parts, and it was all down to me, in some way.

‘Well I’m glad to hear that.’

‘I don’t know if you can make it in? Mum’s on her way, but if you call Dad or Dec, they might give you a lift.’

‘Oh I don’t want to trouble anyone.’

‘It won’t be any trouble, Gran. You do want to see your first great grandson don’t you?’

‘Well of course, dear.’

‘Call them then.’

‘You don’t think they’d mind?’

‘Gran, when did Dad or Dec ever mind you asking them to do anything?’

‘Alright then. I will.’

‘Great. See you in a bit.’

I disconnected and sat on the bed next to Chrissie, holding them both close as we gazed in stunned adoration at the most amazing baby that was ever born. I was pretty sure Mum would have contacted the rest of the world in the time I’d been talking to Matty and Gran, and sure enough texts started arriving not long after.

Dec: ‘Woohoo he’s here. On our way. Ready 4 invasion of the Summers?

Iz: ‘Aunty Iz says hi to little nephew. Any chance of details? Mum too excited to note names etc.

Dad: ‘Got to pick up your Gran then will b there. Well done.

Nico: ‘Cal this is great news from England. We like to see a picture soon please.

Ayesh: ‘Congratulations, Cal and Chrissie. Hope 2 cu & Conor soon Ayesh and Sam xx

Charlie: ‘Does this mean I’m an aunty? Congrats Daddy Cal. Love 2 Chrissie c ya l8r xxx

Mum really had been busy. I wouldn’t have put it past her to set up a conference call while she was on her way over so she could blitz as many people as possible. I almost turned on the TV in the room to see if it had made the headlines on the local – no, make that national – news.

It wasn’t long before the newest Scott grandmother made her appearance. We could hear her heels clicking down the corridor, gathering speed as she nearly broke into a run.

‘Ready babe? You’re going to have to hand him over now, you might not get him back for a while.’

‘I’ll get him back when I say so.’

This was likely true. Chrissie was superb at handling Mum.

The door opened, and Mum came in, breathless and shiny-eyed; her gaze honed in on Conor wrapped in Chrissie’s arms, and she hurried over to stare down at him. Chrissie and I could have been invisible for all the notice she took of us.

After a good minute or two of staring, Mum reached out and touched his cheek very gently, then looked at first Chrissie and then me.

‘Cal, he’s just perfect.’

I could sense the self-control she was having to use not to grab him from Chrissie. Chrissie seemed to realise too, and relaxed her grip slightly.

‘Would you like to give him a cuddle?’

Mum looked hungrily at Conor.

‘Oh I’d love to.’

She reached down and picked him up from Chrissie’s arms.

‘Hello Conor. Oh you are just the most adorable thing. I’m your Granny – oh. Dammit. I was going to say Nana.’

‘Don’t stress it, Mum, it’s not like University Challenge, your first answer isn’t binding. You can be Nana, like Nana Jane.’

‘I don’t want to be Nana Beth, it sounds Victorian. Just Nana.’

‘Great.’

‘How’s that, then, Conor? I’m your Nana. I’m going to have you over for sleepovers, and feed you all the things your Mummy says you can’t have, and buy you really inappropriate things for Christmas.’

‘Really, Mum?’

‘No, I suppose not. But I hope you remember that it is my right to if I want to, as his Nana.’

‘You’ll always have the right to spoil him, Beth.’

‘Thank you sweetheart. I don’t think it’ll be hard. Oh, he’s so, so lovely. How are you Chrissie? He’s quite a weight. Was it hard work?’

‘No, not really. Didn’t seem to take that long.’

I stared at my lying wife, who seemed to have forgotten the hours calling me all the names under the sun – or maybe it was just ‘fucking bastard’ repeated at frequent intervals – while she screamed in pain through every contraction and all the pushing. Bloody hormones have a lot to answer for.

‘Cal said no stitches. Well done you. All that massaging and Vaseline must have worked after all.’

Oh dear God. Was there anything she hadn’t shared with my Mum? The massaging and Vaseline had been one of the perks of pregnancy, even though I hadn’t been quite sure why I was doing it. Some things you just don’t question, do you. If Mum knew, I could guarantee Amy and Lau would know, and that meant Dec and Matty would know and would be unable to resist taking the piss. In fact, it was amazing they hadn’t already.

To save me from further immediate embarrassment, the door opened again and Dec and Amy came in, closely followed by Tom, Gracie and Rosa.

‘Calum Scott you make me feel bloody ancient. How can you be a dad?’

‘Same way you are, old man.’

‘Let’s have a look then – come on Beth, hand him over.’

I thought Mum was going to resist for a moment, but she gave Conor to Dec without any fuss. Chrissie was watching closely, ready to demand his return at any minute.

‘Oh mate, he’s great. Look, Amy, he’s got my nose.’

‘Yeah, hon, course he has. Just like Josh has got your ears and Ella’s got your eyes. He’s perfect, Chrissie. Well done you.’

Conor started to cry, a little bleat at first, then full on yelling with added wriggling and arm-waving. Chrissie sat up a little straighter, looking worried, but Dec handed him straight back to her.

‘Thanks Dec. I think he just wants a feed.’

Chrissie pulled up her shirt and held Conor close so he could suckle; Dec went a bit pale and looked uncomfortable.

‘Maybe we’d better leave you to it.’

‘Don’t be daft, it’s fine.’

‘You could always wimp out in the corridor.’

Dec looked at me gratefully, despite the ironic nature of my suggestion.

‘Good thinking, Batman.’

As he turned to leave, Amy rolled her eyes at him.

‘Oh honestly hon, you’re not still squeamish? After all the babies there have been?’

‘Yep. Come and get me when it’s all over.’

Dec had a thing about breastfeeding. It had been fine, apparently, when it was Amy, no problem with that, but when it was anyone else’s wife or girlfriend, he’d be found waiting outside pretending to be interested in the January edition of Woman and Home. Matty was the same. Pair of losers.

Dad and Gran turned up shortly afterwards. I could hear Dad talking to Dec in the corridor, then the door opened and it became seriously crowded in the small room.

I had a sudden memory of a similar scene, many years ago, when Charlie was born, the room full to bursting with family, lots of noise and laughing, the small baby being handed round to everyone, and then all of us getting kicked out by a nurse for being too loud. There were about the same amount of people in the room today, despite there being notices up everywhere about the rules around two visitors at a time and keeping the noise down.

I watched proudly as everyone admired Conor, and as he coped admirably with being held by them all, the young Summerses included. He was the first baby in the family since Rosa, the first second cousin, or first cousin once removed, or third generation Scott, or whatever his official title was, and even though it would have meant even more people crammed into the small room, I wished Matty and Lau, and Iz and Ben could have been there. Rose would have made the family gathering complete, but she hardly went out, and even another baby to cuddle wasn’t enough to tempt her.

I made a mental list of people I was going to have to either visit or text pictures to, which included Baggo and Ayesh.

The loud Scott-Summers baby welcoming committee didn’t stay too long, although Mum had to be crowbarred out of the room by Dad, and Chrissie and I looked at each other, letting out a sigh. It was great being part of a big family, but exhausting too, especially after the day we’d had. It was early evening, and Chrissie looked wiped.

‘I should go soon, babe, let you get some sleep.’

‘Not yet, though. Stay with us for a bit.’

‘As long as you like, I can hardly bear to leave him.’

‘He is amazing.’

‘Yeah, he is. Can we Facetime Matty? And Iz? I really want to show him to them.’

‘Of course we can. I’ll scooch over, we can sit together here.’

So Chrissie and I snuggled together and I held my phone up, calling up Matty on Facetime. Soon, his face filled my phone screen. He couldn’t keep the smile from his face, although he was trying really hard to be cool.

‘Yuhv distuhbed my buhsy lying dohn scheduhl. Hohp ih’s impohtant.’

‘I’d say so. Here’s your great-nephew. Conor, say hi to Unca Matty.’

‘Uhnca Mahty … not behn cahled tha in a whihl. Heh Cohnor. He’s prehty cool.’

‘Yeah, we think so. We’ve got something to ask you.’

‘Noh, yuh cahn’t lihv hehr tihl he’s twehnty.’

‘Oh bugger. Well that’s that, Chrissie, he’s going to have to go back, if we can’t sponge off the old rellies.’

‘Lehs of the ohld thahks.’

‘Will you be his godfather?’

There was a long silence, and Matty’s eyes looked suspiciously like they filled with tears. It was even more suspicious when the view was suddenly of the ceiling of their bedroom, and we could hear rustling sounds. I looked at Chrissie and shook my head as the view returned to Matty, who had regained his composure.

‘Rehly, Cal?’

‘Yeah, we need some dodgy old atheist bastard to stand up and promise to look after our son’s spiritual well-being.’

‘Yeh, wehl, cahn’t promihs tuh beh able tuh stahnd uhp.’

‘No worries. Just being the dodgy old atheist bastard is good enough for us.’

‘Ha ha. Oh, Lau. Hehr, hahv a lohk, ih’s Cal an Chrihssie an Cohnor.’

There was a bit of readjustment as Lau came into the shot and sat next to Matty.

‘Hi guys – ohh, he’s gorgeous. How are you Chrissie?’

‘Yeah, good, tired though. Cal’s going to give me some peace in a bit.’

She looked up at me, and I could see the fatigue on her face. I wouldn’t stay long.

‘Lau, they wahnt meh tuh beh godfather.’

‘Why, did everyone else say no?’

Lau’s teasing was softened by a quick stroke on Matty’s face.

‘Chehky cow. Heh guys, cahn Josh have a quick look? Dehd quihk, promihs.’

‘Sure.’

Matty called Josh, and he came into the shot a few moments later. He’d been doing some kind of training and was still wearing his Raiders kit. Josh – the newest Scott on the Raiders block, on the point of breaking into the first team, in the middle of his first proper pre-season. Ella was away with friends celebrating the end of school, and I would have to text her later.

‘Hey Josh.’

‘Hi Cal. You’ve had him, then.’

‘We’ve had him. You can pass the good news on to the guys if you want.’

‘No, lazy arse, you can do that. He’s pretty cool, though. Alright, Chrissie?’

‘Yeah. Tired but happy.’

‘Will you be at training tomorrow, Cal?’

‘Yeah, but maybe not till later. Chrissie and Conor are coming home, and I’ve got the morning off.’

‘Any excuse.’

‘Come on Josh, let’s get off the iPad so Cal can get home.’

‘Thanks Lau. We’ll come and see you soon.’

‘Look forward to it. Bye flower.’

‘See yuh.’

‘Bye.’

I turned to Chrissie, who was really flagging now. She was almost asleep, and Conor was snoozing in her arms. I picked him up and placed him in his hospital cot, wrapping a blanket round him and stroking his head. As I looked back at Chrissie, her eyes closed and her head settled back against the pillows. I tucked the blankets around her and kissed her forehead, then took some pictures of Conor, to add to the several hundred I’d already taken. Iz’s Facetime would have to wait.

I looked at Conor for an age; I would have stayed all night, but Chrissie needed her rest, and our son was bound to wake up soon wanting food. Chrissie was going to call or text or Facetime if she was awake in the night and able to get to her phone, and I hoped this meant it would feel more like I was there too.

It was really hard to leave the room. Once I’d taken a step out into the corridor, it felt like I was back in a world I hadn’t visited for a long time. In fact, it felt like the world had changed. Now, it was a world where I was a dad, where Conor Scott was my son, and it felt completely new and utterly different from how it had felt before.

I drove home in a happy haze, microwaved some dinner and then called Iz while I emailed her from my laptop.

‘At last! I thought you’d forgotten about me.’

‘Sorry, I’ve only just got home. I wanted to Facetime, but Chrissie fell asleep. I’m just sending you some pictures and a vid.’

‘Mum sent some pictures. Actually she sent thirty-seven. Cal, he’s so gorgeous. I can’t believe he’s yours.’

‘Neither can I. He’s so perfect, I keep thinking someone’s going to come along and say ‘sorry, we made a mistake, this is the one who’s really your son’, and it’ll be some minging baby with enormous ears and a weird belly button.’

‘Ha ha. Ben and I were thinking about coming down at the weekend. Can we come and see him?’

‘Yeah! Chrissie’s coming home tomorrow, she’ll be glad of the company. I’ve got a pre-season game on Saturday. Oh, does Ben want tickets?’

‘Oh I suppose so.’

I could almost hear Iz rolling her eyes. She couldn’t escape rugby even in football mad Manchester, because her boyfriend was a huge Royals and England supporter, and whenever they visited, she had to sit through hours of rugby chat.

‘Great, I’ll sort it. Don’t pretend you won’t be happy to sit with Chrissie, cuddling your nephew.’

‘Yeah, if I can get a look-in. Did Mum even let you or Chrissie hold him all the time she was there?’

‘Maybe for a second or two. Chrissie’s more than capable of telling her to back off though.’

‘I know. She bloody scares me sometimes, your missis.’

‘Yeah. Me too. That’s the only reason I married her.’

‘It is not. It’s because I made you go and find her when you nearly let her move away.’

‘Jesus, Iz, you’d take credit for the bloody sun coming up if you could.’

‘And why not? It does mainly happen because of me.’

‘Ha ha. Have the pictures come through yet?’

‘Yeah, I’m just looking now. Oh, and the video, oh Cal. He’s so tiny.’

‘Not that tiny. Four kilos.’

‘Yeah, but compared to you, he’s so little. Aw you look well chuffed. How’s it feel, being a dad?’

‘I don’t know. Different to how I thought it would be. It’s like, kind of weird that they’re back in the hospital and I’m here. Like there’s some kind of link, pulling on me, so I can feel him all the time. I can’t believe I made him, or part of him. It’s the best thing I ever did.’

‘Well I can’t wait to see him. We’ll be there late Friday, so we’ll come and see you before you go to the game on Saturday. Is Joshy playing?’

‘No, but he’s going to be with the squad. You’ll see him in the kit doing the warm up.’

‘Well I won’t, but Ben will. If Josh was playing I might have gone. I hope I can see his first game.’

‘It won’t be long.’

‘I bet Matty’s pleased.’

‘I hope he’s better before Josh’s first game. He’d hate to miss it.’

‘Yeah. He’s not that great much of the time any more, is he.’

‘No. It’s horrible. He couldn’t come and see Conor today, we had to Facetime him from the hospital. We’ve asked him to be godfather.’

‘Oh wow, he’ll love that. Well, maybe not the God bit, but the honour and that.’

‘Would you be honoured?’

‘Er …’

I hadn’t meant to say anything, Chrissie and I were going to ask her together, but it felt like the right time. I had, of course, made a bit of a bodge of it.

‘I mean, we’d like you to be Conor’s godmother, when we get round to having a christening.’

Iz’s voice got very quiet.

‘Oh my God, Cal. Yes. Yes please. Wow. Thank you.’

‘I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I might not tell Chrissie, so if we ask you again at the weekend, you’ve got to act all ‘OMG what a surprise’, right?’

‘I’ll try. God, thanks. That’s amazing. Does Mum know?’

‘Do you think it would be a surprise if she did? She’d have blabbed to bloody everyone by now.’

‘How do you know she didn’t, and I was just demonstrating my talent at acting all ‘OMG what a surprise’?’

‘True. Well as long as everyone thinks nobody knew, that’s the main thing, isn’t it.’

‘If you say so, Cal.’

‘I should go, I’ve got texts to answer and ‘proud dad’ photos to post on Facebook.’

‘Go on, then, bugger off and greet your public.’

I disconnected from Iz, replied to all the texts, which included congratulations from team mates, Ella, and Rose. I also tried to call Baggo, but he had his phone off, or didn’t hear it, or more likely had forgotten to charge it, so I texted him.

Hi Bags. Here’s a photo of MY SON! He’s Conor and arrived earlier today. More photos about to be posted on Facebook. Will call u soon. Cal.

And then I set to work on Facebook. I had never really got people’s obsession with posting daily pictures of their new babies, not until now, when I just wanted everyone to ‘Like’ and comment, and tell me how awesome he was.

I also posted a picture on my Twitter account, and immediately got the expected flurry of replies from Raiders supporters, which I favourited to show I appreciated it.

Then I opened a beer and flicked the TV on, and sat not watching it, but scrolling through all the pictures of Conor I’d taken that day. I was entranced, and sat smiling stupidly to myself as I looked at the photos and watched the few short clips of video.

Baggo replied after a while.

Awesome mate. Proper little tyke. Must meet up soon, wet his head.

Then Chrissie called, just as my eyes started drooping and my head lolled backwards on the sofa.

‘Hey babe. How are you?’

‘Better now I’ve had a sleep. Sorry I passed out on you.’

‘I think you needed it. Full on day, with a new person at the end of it, can’t blame you for snoozing. How is he?’

‘Awake, but quiet. He’s just had some dinner. So have I, it’s pretty good in here. He says hi.’

Chrissie put on a squeaky voice.

‘Hi Daddy I miss you.’

‘Hey mate. You’re not missing much, though, son, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to watch your old man drinking beer and slobbing on the sofa over the next few years.’

‘Sounds like you’re having a relaxing time.’

‘Yeah I am, now. I called Iz when I got in, she’s coming down with Ben at the weekend.’

‘Oh great. We can ask her, then.’

‘Yep.’

And I couldn’t do it, couldn’t keep it from her.

‘I, er, might have let it slip though.’

‘What, you asked her already?’

‘Yeah, kind of couldn’t help it.’

‘What did she say?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Oh, well that’s great. One less thing to do.’

I was a little relieved. The last few months had been slightly unpredictable regarding how Chrissie handled changes in plans. She liked things ‘just so’ anyway, and often got exasperated with me being what she called ‘lackadaisical’ about arrangements; but being pregnant had made her cranky at times, and I’d come in for some stick. Not that I didn’t deserve it, mostly, but it would be nice to think I wasn’t permanently in trouble.

‘I’m getting Ben some tickets for Saturday’s game, so you and Iz can have a girly time in the afternoon.’

‘Sounds good. What time will you be here tomorrow?’

‘How about nine?’

‘Great. I can’t wait to bring him home.’

‘Me neither. I love you, Chrissie.’

‘Just as well I love you too, then, isn’t it.’

I eventually went to bed, after looking at all the pictures one more time. Chrissie texted me a couple of times in the night, to say she was feeding Conor, and we Facetimed once she knew I was awake. Watching them both was mesmerising, and although I should really have been sleeping, I couldn’t think of a better way of spending the night than watching my wife feed my son.

Laura

Ella went off to university to study Law; Josh worked his way through the ranks at Raiders, and became a regular starter in the first team. Matt managed to travel with us to take Ella to Durham to start university life, and with a huge effort he made it to Raiders Stadium with the rest of the family to watch Josh’s first team debut. He missed Josh’s first try and Ella’s starring role in the University production of The Importance of Being Earnest, as he was in hospital recovering from pneumonia both times. There was enough video footage of both events to more than make up for his absence, and he played them over and over again when he was back at home. I often heard him shouting ‘A handbag?!’ or ‘Scott goes over for his first’ and knew what he was watching.

Matt made it to Cal’s son’s christening; I don’t think anything could have stopped him from being there, as he was godfather to Conor, and it was one of his proudest moments.

We had good days, where things were normal, or felt normal, and we got happy and sad and cross and relaxed with each other. We had great days, like the day Matt and I went for a walk round the lake in the cold, and it was sunny and frosty, and although Matt was in his wheelchair, when we sat together, me on a bench and him next to me, it was like we were the only couple in the world, and we talked and talked about nothing and everything, and came home feeling like nothing was going to get to us ever again.

Cal

Having a son was brilliant. I mean, yeah, the lack of sleep was a pain in the arse, and when he was really little, all he seemed to do was eat, sleep and shit, but that didn’t last long, then he started to get interesting, and learn stuff, and it seemed like he changed every day.

Chrissie really wanted to go back to work, but she was taking a year out before she decided for definite. I was starting to weigh up my own employment options for when I finished rugby – I was thirty now, and I suppose the end was in sight. I really didn’t want to think about it, but with Dad and Dec on my case about not leaving it until the last minute, and every game could be my last and other such cheery bollocks, I had little choice.

Coaching wasn’t really my thing. I’d done some badges, and maybe I could have made a go of it, but I didn’t have the ability to control a group of people like the best coaches do. I could tell a bunch of kids the best way to step around a tackle, or how to hold a defensive line, but I’d never be able to give a group of grown men a bollocking to motivate them in the upcoming game.

I’d got a few GCSEs at school, but nothing that had inspired me, and by the time it came to A levels, I was purely thinking about my rugby career, despite advice from everyone to think about another option in case things didn’t work out, and I’d failed the two I took. I hadn’t had to have a plan before, and now I needed one. I needed to be able to provide for my family once my days of earning a living from the sport I loved were over.

I’d never thought about Physiotherapy as something I could do; the thought of doing something like a degree seemed really hard, and I’d seen how much work Chrissie put in to her teaching degree. I didn’t think I had the brains to put that much into learning something new.

It wasn’t until a student Physio came to Raiders on a placement from Uni at the same time as I’d developed an ongoing calf strain problem, that I even showed any interest in what it took to become a Physio.

I was having a massage in the treatment room and, as you do, we were chatting while Kieran (the student) iced and heated my calf, then massaged it. Chatting helped you relax and took your mind off what was happening, so you didn’t tense up the part that was being worked on.

I found out that Kieran had gone to the same schools as me, both primary and secondary, and that one of the reasons he was a Physio was because I’d been to his school and was a bit of a ‘legend’. I use this word lightly, because I know there is a signed picture of me and a signed Raiders shirt in the corridor near the hall, but to my certain knowledge my photo is anatomically altered regularly with a Sharpie, and Kieran confirmed that this was still the case. However, being a huge Raiders fan, this didn’t stop Kieran wanting to find a way to enter the world of professional sport, despite not having found a way to do this as a sportsperson himself.

‘And so when Uni said I was coming here for my placement, I couldn’t believe it. I went home and sat at the table for about an hour just going ‘wow’. Now I’m here, of course, I know you’re all just a bunch of tossers and I’m changing my allegiance to Trojans.’

‘Careful, Kieran. You know us tossers get to comment on your final report.’

‘Yeah, but you don’t know what you’d have done without me, so I’m pretty confident.’

Despite our banter, he was a good Physio, particularly as he hadn’t even qualified yet.

‘Is it hard, doing practical and academic stuff? My wife’s a teacher, and she had to do both when she was training.’

‘Well, I suppose there never seems enough time to do both, but you can’t do one without the other, and it’s great to put your learning into practice, like now. When you learn a technique, and practice on other students or on volunteers, it’s not the same as a real person with a real injury, and when you see what you know working on someone, it’s awesome.’

I recognised this concept from playing rugby. Practising moves on the training ground was one thing; using the same moves in a game and scoring or preventing a try as a result felt fantastic.

‘My cousin’s just started training to be a Physio, in Manchester. She spent some time here hanging round you lot, talking about obscure bones no one’s heard of and I think you make up, and recovery rates and other nonsense.’

‘Hey that made up nonsense is keeping you playing, old man.’

‘Fair point. Must be rewarding though, like you say, knowing how to put things right.’

‘Yeah it is, and frustrating when it doesn’t happen, and when you lot go out and blow weeks of work by twisting your knee in the first tackle.’

‘I’d love to be able to do something like that when I finish.’

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Nah, never been bookish, well not since I was little anyway.’

‘What will you do, do you think? I know some people have got, like, plumbing qualifications or are starting their own companies.’

‘Yeah, I know. Haven’t really got a plan. I should, I know, everyone goes on at me all the time, but I hate thinking of not playing.’

‘Happens to everyone some time, whether you’re working in a bank or playing rugby. You can’t go on forever.’

‘No, I suppose not.’

And that was the spark. I didn’t think about it a lot, but every so often I’d go back to it and something about working with muscles and bones, and using what I knew about strength and conditioning, appealed to me. Every time I talked to Gracie, I’d quiz her about what she was doing, and just wonder if I could do it. But that’s as far as I got, just wondering. I was still avoiding thinking about it.

o0o

It was a few weeks after my conversation with Kieran that I was woken in the night by my phone. I didn’t recognise the tone, but when I looked at the screen, it was Rose. Rose never called me. Actually, Rose hardly ever called anyone apart from Dec, and I assumed she’d pressed the wrong key by mistake. Still, you never knew, and I answered.

‘Hey Rose.’

There was no sound for a moment, then some words that didn’t make sense, then a noise I couldn’t interpret. Then the connection was lost.

Chrissie had woken up next to me.

‘Who was that?’

‘Rose.’

‘Is she OK?’

‘I don’t know. She wasn’t making sense. I thought she’d called me by mistake, but it was weird. Maybe I should call Dec.’

Dec’s phone rang for a while, and I wondered if it was on mute, but he finally answered.

‘What the fuck Cal? If your bloody baby’s keeping you awake, watch repeats of The Simpsons like normal people at this time of night.’

‘I just had a call from Rose.’

‘Oh. Oh, what? What did she want?’

‘I don’t know. It was weird. She said … well I don’t know, it was just garbled.’

‘Shit. I’ll call her.’

‘Can I do anything?’

‘No, mate. Thanks for letting me know.’

I disconnected and turned over, but couldn’t sleep. Something felt wrong. I texted Dec.

Anything to report?

She’s not answering. On my way over there.

Without thinking about it much, I got out of bed, pulled on some jeans and a sweatshirt, and got in the car. We lived closer to Rose than Dec and Amy did, and I’d get there about the same time.

The streets were almost deserted at that time of night, and the journey was quick and uneventful. Dec had just arrived at the sheltered flats when I got there. I got out of the car and hurried over to him as he opened the door to the lobby.

‘Cal? What the …’

‘Thought you might like someone with you.’

I had a really bad feeling, and didn’t want Dec walking in on something awful by himself.

‘Thanks.’

Dec knocked on Rose’s door, then unlocked it and went in, calling out as he did so.

‘Hey, it’s me.’

There was no reply. The flat was in darkness, so Dec flipped on the hall light.

‘Rose?’

It was all eerily silent.

‘Shit, Cal, where the fuck is she?’

‘Bed?’

It seemed logical. In the hall light, I could see how terrified Dec was. He was shaking, his eyes were wide and he was breathing fast.

‘Let me check. You stay here.’

‘Sorry, I feel like a complete wimp.’

‘Just stay there.’

I tapped on Rose’s bedroom door, then opened it and tried to see by the light from the hallway if she was in bed, but it was too dark. Almost holding my breath, I turned the light on. And breathed out. She wasn’t there. The duvet was turned back, as if she’d just got out of bed.

‘CAL!’

Dec’s shout startled me, and I ran out of the room and towards him. He wasn’t in the hallway; the door to the living room was open, with soft lamplight coming out. I hurried into the room, to find Dec standing staring at Rose, who was sitting in her armchair, eyes open, but no longer seeing. I stared at her for a long time, hoping to see the rise and fall of her chest as breath went in and out, but it was all terrifyingly still.

‘Fuck. Dec, go and wait in the car.’

It was the only thing I could think of to do. Dec was frozen to the spot, staring at Rose, who, just to be clear, was obviously dead. He didn’t need to be here, there were things that needed doing, and he wouldn’t be able to do them. Part of me wanted to freeze along with him – I’d never seen a dead person before, and it was freaking large parts of me out. But Dec, the look on his face, like he was having waking nightmares, I knew he needed to be out of there.

‘Dec. Dec.’

He slowly looked at me, but there was no understanding on his face. I knew he was going to need me to be pretty forceful, so I pulled hard on his arm and made him come with me. He started to resist as we got near the front door.

‘No … no I need to … she needs …’

‘I know, mate. I’m going to do it, OK? You need to sit in the car and wait, and I’ll come out when I’ve done it, yeah?’

I had no idea what Dec thought he needed to do; I was just trying to reassure him. I also had no way of making him stay in the car, but I had to trust that he would. I opened the passenger door of my car, and made sure I had my keys, so he wouldn’t take it into his head to go driving off, and then I went back into the flat. I couldn’t immediately face going back into the living room, so I got my phone out and called the one person everyone called in a crisis. Mum.

‘Hello sweetheart. Is everything alright?’

‘No. Rose is …’

I couldn’t make myself say the words, because then it would be real, and it felt too soon and too harsh for it to be real, and it might tip me over the edge into completely freaking out.

‘Rose is what?’

‘Me and Dec just found her.’

‘Found her where?’

‘In her flat. She was just sitting in her chair.’

‘Is she alright?’

‘No, Mum.’

‘Is she …’

Mum never minced her words, but it seemed even she found this hard to say.

‘Is she breathing?’

‘No.’

‘Oh God. Where’s Dec?’

‘He’s in my car. He just froze, like a statue. I had to drag him away.’

‘OK, Cal, I’m on my way. You need to call an ambulance, though. They’ll need to take her away.’

88. The nurse who loved me

In which things are looking up … then down … then up again … then …

Matt

So I’d just asked Lau to move in with me and she’d said yes, and I didn’t freak, not even a tiny bit, not even in that part of me reserved for freaking when everything is perfectly fine.

‘Woohoo. Move all your girly crap in here, cushions, woolly post-modern bog roll concealers, the lot. Or whatever. I’ll bring my sofa tuh yours and cram my clothes in your bloody tiny wardrobe. Or we can spend every weekend from now till the end of the world looking round other people’s houses an talking about mortgages.’

‘I’ll move in here. I can rent my house out, leave most of the big stuff there.’

‘Really?’

It sounded suspiciously like she’d given it some serious thought.

‘Really. I’ve thought about it. It makes sense. I love your flat, you love your flat, we’re never at mine. You’re so close to the High Street here, and you’re close to work when you go back.’

I have to confess I was relieved. I did like Lau’s house, but only because Lau lived there. I loved my flat, with its views and the large living space and the awesome shower, and although I would have done anything for Lau, I would rather stay here.

‘Thank fuck for tha. I mean, I’d live anywhere with yuh, Lau – in a tent near the landfill if yuh asked me – you’re not gona ask me, are yuh?’

‘No.’

‘But I love ih here too. And if you’re here, ih’s going to be the perfect place. I migh never go back to work, I’ll just sit here all day thinking ‘Lau’s here now, this is perfect’ and sighing happily. I migh even sing tuh myself.’

She batted me on the arm.

‘You’re daft. Do you realise what we’ve just done, though?’

‘Yeah.’

I was perfectly aware of what a non-Matt-type undertaking I had just made.

‘We’ve done the commitment thing. Well that can’t happen. Bye Lau, see ya, don’t slam the door on your way out.’

I pretended to try to push her out of bed but she just rolled over and lay on top of me, face close to mine, looking into my eyes.

‘I love you, Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘I love you, Laura Louise Shoeman.’

Laura

As the start of our sex life, that first time was a lot to live up to, but things just got better from there. Matt was so attentive. He’d kneel beside me, stroking me and kissing me, he’d pull me up and down the bed, he’d sigh and gaze at me. He knew when to go fast and when I needed slow, although that’s not to say there weren’t times when we both raced for the finish line and he held his arms aloft as if he’d scored for Spurs.

I once started to say ‘if you paid as much attention to …’ and then couldn’t think of anything he didn’t pay as much attention to – cooking, washing up, he was big on the details, lots of instinct, very thorough. Lucky me.

I never lost the thrill of waking up to him cupping my breasts and whispering ‘Lau, I declare you’re breathing faster and bits of you just got more lumpy’, or me snuggling up to him and finding he already had a meaty erection.

Part of it always remained a juvenile ‘Matt Scott fancies me’ thing, but most of it was due to the deep physical attraction we’d both felt almost instantly, and that never waned.

Matt

The next morning I was woken by a tongue in my mouth and a hand on my balls. It’s the sort of thing that tends to focus the mind and wrench you from sleep pretty damn smart, and I opened my eyes as I put my arms round Lau and snogged back with all my might. But she pulled away, and I gave a frustrated groan.

‘Wha yuh doin? C’mere.’

‘Uh uh. You need to get up, about half an hour ago. We’ve got to meet Dec in twenty minutes.’

‘Wha? Why did yuh start all tha, then?’

‘I’ve been trying to wake you up since nine o’clock. You are a ridiculously heavy sleeper when you want to be.’

Well I suppose that was true, it took a lot to actually make me wake up before my brain decided it was time these days. I was bloody frustrated that we weren’t going to continue the tonguing and groping though.

‘So yuh decided tuh employ foul means, then?’

‘It was a last resort. It was a hard job, but it needed to be done.’

‘Think yuhself lucky I’m feeling forgiving an don’t spank yuh.’

‘Hm. Maybe later, then, beach boy?’

Oh she was such a tease, as she walked out of the room, tossing her hair. I just wanted to grab her and finish what she started, but we really did have to get going if we were going to meet Dec at ten.

Any other time, for any other reason, and I would have felt confident to be at least an hour late, but I knew Dec wanted to get on with sorting things at Amy’s parents’ house, and he wouldn’t have slept well last night, so it was likely he’d be there on time. I didn’t want to keep him waiting there, so I subdued my desire for Lau, showered and dressed quickly, and we turned up outside the house at the same time as Dec.

I’d never actually been inside, and only knew where it was because I’d dropped both Dec and Amy off there before, in the early days of their relationship when Dec wasn’t driving and Amy’s car was being repaired. It was weird actually going through the front door, a little bit like being a voyeur. I couldn’t help looking around at all their things, making judgements about them based on their pictures, their furnishings, their colour scheme, and had to remind myself that Amy’s dad was dead and that was why I was even here at all.

Then we reached the kitchen, and all thoughts of judgement went out of my head.

‘Holy fuck.’ (That was me.)

‘Shit.’ (Dec.)

‘Oh my God.’ (Lau.)

Dec stood frozen in the doorway, staring at the chaos. The table, which presumably should have been in the middle of the room, was pushed to one side, against the cupboards, and on the floor was a mess of torn packets of what I assumed had contained syringes, and other medical paraphernalia such as a couple of latex gloves; there was a broken wooden chair; there was a lot of blood; and to one side, upside down, was a shoe. Just a shoe. The blood was mainly in a pool on the floor, and it had dried, but there were smears on the cupboards and some footprints leading up to the back door.

I looked at Dec, whose face had gone the colour of ashes, and I put my hand on his shoulder. He tensed and let out a whimper, as if he’d forgotten there was anyone with him, and I’d made him jump.

Lau looked up at his face as she heard the sound he made.

‘Come with me, Dec. Matt will make a start in here, we’ll go and get the things Diane wanted.’

She raised her eyebrows at me to check it was OK, and took Dec’s elbow, tugging him with her away from the scene and up the stairs. I heard her voice as she chattered overhead, and Dec’s monosyllabic replies. Oh she was good. I guess she’d had a bit of practice at dealing with shock, and knew what to do, but seeing her in action was an education.

Before I did as instructed and started clearing up, I found some coffee and some cups and boiled the kettle. I filled mugs for us all and put them in the living room, then found the cleaning stuff under the sink. I couldn’t find a bucket in the kitchen, but a quick reccy in the hall found a cupboard under the stairs complete with bucket, mop and Marigolds, which I donned before starting anything else. I picked up all the litter and put it in the bin, then took the bin bag out and tied it. As I filled the bucket with hot water and surface cleaner, I heard Dec and Lau come down the stairs.

‘… sooner the better. Matt and I can handle this, Dec. Honestly.’

‘I can’t leave you guys to clear up all that shit.’

‘Matt, I was just saying, we’ll do this. Dec should be with Amy.’

Lau looked at me for support.

‘Yeh, course. I’ve done coffee if anyone wants it?’

Dec looked gratefully at me, as he was still pale, and he headed into the living room, following my gesture, unable to prevent his gaze sliding beyond the kitchen door as he passed, but quickly averting his eyes.

We sat down and sipped coffee, not saying anything as there didn’t seem to be anything worth saying that wasn’t trite or clichéd.

It felt weird, sitting there in someone else’s house, someone I didn’t know, had only met once and had been quite rude to, and was now in the midst of clearing up the evidence of their last journey through this world.

I’d made the coffee strong, and put sugar in it, as my knowledge of the treatment of shock only extended to hospital dramas and the internet, but it seemed to bring some of the colour back to Dec’s face, and he roused himself as he drained the last from his mug.

‘Right, better get on with it, then. What needs doing?’

‘No, Dec. I meant it.’

Lau had her determined look on, the one that always made me stop and listen to her. Dec didn’t stand a chance.

‘You go home, Matt and I will finish up here. You’ve done most of it, anyway, haven’t you Matt?’

She had no way of knowing how much I’d done, but I wasn’t going to argue with her.

‘Yeh, nearly finished. We’ll drop the keys round in a bih. Seriously, mate, go home. Did you geh everything you needed?’

‘Yeah, it was only clothes and washing stuff and shit.’

I sensed Dec struggling with himself, wanting to go but feeling he should stay.

‘Are you guys sure?’

We both nodded.

‘You are both fucking awesome. Thanks.’

He stood up, picking up the bag of Amy’s mum’s stuff he’d collected, and we stood too, hugs all round, and shooed him out of the door.

Then we turned and surveyed the damage. Now most of the detritus had been cleared away, it was just the mopping and wiping to do, and there was a full, foamy bucket just waiting for us – and then I turned and looked at Lau, and she had tears on her face and memories in her eyes.

‘Oh Lau, noh noh noh, come here.’

I pulled her to me and held her tight. She sniffled a bit, then lifted her chin.

‘Your dad?’

She nodded. ‘Yeah. It’s just taken me back there, all this. Sorry, flower, I thought I’d be OK. I am OK, just a wobble.’

‘Well yuhr not doin any of this, Lau.’

I tried a copy of her determined look; it must have worked, because she nodded again and looked up at me, trying, I suppose to gauge if I was going to be OK doing it on my own.

‘I’ll beh fine. Go an sit down, won’t take meh long.’

‘Thanks, flower. Actually, I might go and wait in the car, it’s just a bit weird being here, if you’re going to be OK on your own.’

‘Yeh, fine. Migh spur me on to finish quickly.’

It certainly did that. Not that I believed in ghosts, but it was one of the weirdest things I’ve done, clearing up a dead man’s blood in a kitchen I’d never visited; wiping bloody fingerprints from cupboards I’d never opened; bagging up a broken chair and hunting for the wheely bin to dispose of it all; moving the table and chairs back into the middle of the room, even though I didn’t know exactly where they should go; having a final look to make sure there wasn’t anything left, no little reminders to upset a woman I hardly knew and didn’t much care for; locking the door of a house I didn’t own and was unlikely ever to return to; driving away with a strangely sorrowful feeling.

o0o

‘Yuh OK, Lau?’

It was later that afternoon, and Lau had been quiet since we got back.

‘Yeah. Just thinking. You know, I might go and see Mum.’

‘Didn’t yuh goh yesterd – oh, everything happened, didn’t ih.’

‘Yeah, I had to call her. But I think I just want to be there, it might stop me feeling so weird.’

‘Wan meh tuh come?’

‘No, flower, thanks though.’

I was relieved, as I was feeling a bit weird too, and some time on my own might help me stop dwelling on things I couldn’t change and shouldn’t really be so bothered about. Clearing up a dead man’s blood had affected me more than I was willing to admit.

Lau disappeared off to April’s, and I put the TV on, entertaining myself with one of the better written sit-coms, enjoying a laugh, which helped to restore my mood. I decided to text Dec, and see how it was all going there.

‘Hey. How’s everyone?’

‘As u’d expect. It’s all a bit gloomy. Got anything happy to tell me?’

He probably didn’t expect me to have anything, or maybe wanted a bit of Matt’s special brand of fucking about to relieve the mournfulness, but I chose to spill the beans on the newest chapter in Matt and Lau: The Need for Speed.

‘Lau’s moving in :)’

‘WHOA! That is happy. :):) Cheered me up. Can I tell Ames? Will make her smile.’

‘Tell NE1 u like.’

‘Really? Bloody hell. Who r u & what have u done with Matt Scott?’

‘Ha bloody ha.’

‘Is gr8 news tho. U don’t know the meaning of slow do u?’

‘What is this ‘slow’ of which u speak?’

‘LOL. Thx 4 2day.’

‘:)’

It occurred to me that if Dec had been on the receiving end of a text like this from me, he would have called me. I liked the idea of turning the tables for once, so I called him up.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Heh, I knoh this is what everyone always says, buh if there’s anything I can do …’

‘No, we’re fine, thanks though. You’ve done enough. Today was awesome.’

‘Can’t have been easy fuh yuh, though.’

There was a pause. I’d learned from my sessions with Adam that sometimes pauses were there for people to gather their thoughts, rather than to be filled with chatter, so I let this one go on for a short while, before I said anything else.

‘I knoh yuh never forget about them, Dec, but things like this, ih must be like living ih again.’

‘Yeah.’

Dec’s voice sounded choked, and the one-word answer showed me he didn’t trust himself to speak. He was holding himself together for Amy and her mum, and although I didn’t want to make him blart, I did want him to know that he ‘didn’t have to be alone when he was feeling this shit’. Dec and Amy supported each other, but he would feel the need to be strong for her, and I wanted to lend a shoulder if required.

‘Mate, I know yuh don’t want to say anything with Amy there, but if yuh want to come round, or go out for a drink, in the next day or soh, talk about ih, yuh knoh where I am.’

There was a big shuddery breath.

‘Thanks, mate.’

‘Any time. Heh, ih might be yuhr turn tuh text me ridiculously early this morning.’

‘Yeah. Fat chance of you bloody answering though.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, yuh could be right. Any time, though, I mean ih.’

‘Thanks.’

That felt better. It was usually me being called to ‘talk about it’, although I was usually a more reluctant participant than Dec had just proven to be. I’d call him again tomorrow, and try to set my brain to be alert to any texts I might get in the middle of the night. Maybe if I turned the volume up on the phone – oh but then it would wake Lau up – ah but then she might have to wake me up using her freshly patented snogging method. It was all good.

I was still feeling a bit weird about the earlier cleaning-up-blood event, but I sorted my head out while Lau was gone, and when she got back, she’d sorted her head out too. She and her mum had had a good old reminisce about her dad, and rather than feeling sad, she was feeling full of nostalgia, and talked to me about things she remembered for a long time.

I often say that Dec is the most sorted person I know, but really it’s Lau. She always knows what she needs to feel sane, and doesn’t hide from either going to get it, or asking for it. If I’d ever followed her example, I would be a much less fucked up person than I am, but sadly I have stayed fucked up for the entirety, and am likely to remain so for the foreseeable. Sorry Lau.

And so, because I’d learned my lesson from Jules, we told everyone else our plans as soon as possible, and everyone had comments and advice, although most people managed to keep their ‘isn’t it a bit soon’ thoughts to themselves except Beth (‘exactly how long have you known each other, sweetheart?’), but most of all we had help with the moving of stuff, Lau’s stuff.

She left a lot of it in her house, because she was renting it out, but she did fill my flat with a lot of crap – er, of her personal possessions. My toilet cistern now sported a crocheted toilet roll cover. Her name was Ann, surname Drakes, and she caused much hilarity and comment whenever we had people over. My wardrobes were crammed to bursting, and we had to buy another one fairly soon after Lau moved in, although I did manage to persuade her that we both needed a clothing cull before we were smothered by all the fabric.

And maybe with anyone else, the filled spaces, the knick-knacks on the shelves, the overflowing drawers would have grated on me and made me feel resentful, but what I actually felt was that the flat was full of Lau. She had just flowed into the spaces and now everywhere I looked, there was a bit of her and a bit of me nestled side by side, and I loved it; in fact, I couldn’t imagine, now she was living there, how it would feel to live on my own, without her. Or rather, I could, but it wasn’t somewhere I ever wanted to go again.

Laura

Matt’s remission continued. As he improved, regained his mobility, his energy and most of the other faculties he’d lost in his flare-up, I started to really get to know him. I realised why he’d found being immobile so frustrating – he always wanted to be doing something, although sometimes what he wanted to do was a lot of sex, as we didn’t seem to be able to stop once he’d got his function back. Matt was pretty good at it, and I don’t think I’m too shabby if feedback is anything to go by, so life was busy and hectic and full of action.

Even before Matt started to get better, I would forget that he had MS. I never saw him as a project or an object of pity, and although I made allowances for the things he struggled with, they were just part of us, part of how we were with each other, as if helping him up the stairs sometimes was the same as him popping to the shop to buy me tampons when I needed them.

Matt

We’d got the move sorted just before Christmas, and would have loved to have had our first Christmas all to ourselves, but that was never going to happen, so we managed the morning together before we had to cross the city for Beth’s traditional festive extravaganza. She had invited approximately two million people this year, so it wasn’t just family, but it was always a happy time, lots of kids, lots of laughing, games, food, presents, and it was something to look forward to, after our quiet morning at home.

Lau and I had agreed no presents, and I had made her promise faithfully that it actually meant ‘no presents’, and not ‘but I’ll get you something anyway, and you’d better get me something or I’ll be upset’, but she assured me it meant no presents, not that we’d do it every year, just this year, and if we really wanted, we could give each other a kiss. Well that was a no-brainer, and I would have given her that anyway, but it made for a good start to the day, giving and receiving Christmas kisses, then Christmas touches, and, oh go on then, Christmas lovin’.

I made us breakfast, Lau’s favourite (Pop Tarts, I know, but they were her favourite) and mine (croissants with smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers, I know, I’m apparently a food snob), and she pinched some off my plate because really she liked good food and not processed crap, and I pinched some off her plate, because really I liked a bit of tasteless sugary shit as much as the next person. And then I gave her another Christmas present, and another and another, and it really was the best idea for a Christmas present either of us could have come up with, and then I gave her her real Christmas present, no, I hadn’t gone back on our deal, but I’d decided something and sorted it out in the last few days, and I’d saved it until today, because I thought she’d be pleased.

‘Lau, I’ve got something tuh tell yuh.’

‘Mm hmm.’

Her mouth was still full of, I’m embarrassed to recount, a bite of Pop Tart mixed with a bite of smoked salmon croissant. She chewed, swallowed, and looked at me expectantly, wrinkling her nose slightly at what I assumed was the odd mixture of flavours disappearing down her throat.

‘Yuh know we were gona have tha long weekend in York?’

She looked at me, frowning, hearing the ‘it’s not going to happen’ in my words.

‘Yeeees.’

‘We’re gona have tuh do ih another time.’

‘Oh. OK. Well, never mind. It’s not like York is going anywhere, is it?’

She looked disappointed, though, and was possibly wondering why I was telling her this on Christmas morning. I admired her self-restraint at not immediately asking why we couldn’t go, although it didn’t last long.

‘It’s not like we’ve booked it or anything.’

I saw her brows knit together slightly as she tried to work out what was preventing us from going.

‘Oh, is it the same weekend as the semi-final?’

Good guess, Lau, but incorrect. And I will now put you out of your misery.

‘Noh. Ih’s because I’m goin back tuh work on the Monday.’

‘What? Oh Matt, that’s awesome.’

The frown disappeared from her face, which lit up with pleasure for me.

‘When did you decide that?’

‘Only a couple of days ago. Wanted tuh tell you today. Jus a few hours a week tuh start wih, see how wiped I geh, buh ih’s the Monday after tha weekend, so …’

‘Oh of course, flower. We can go any time. A long weekend away isn’t what you need just before going back. Have you heard from anyone?’

She meant from work. She knew I’d missed being part of all the socialising and social networking that went on, having been in self-imposed exile from it all.

‘Noh, not yet, gona text a few people in a couple of days.’

‘Oh Matt, I’m so pleased for you. You’re nearly there, aren’t you, nearly back to where you were.’

I nodded. It was another thing ticked off that made me feel like I was getting my life back, and I was grateful to … well the universe, I suppose, for giving me this most excellent woman to have my life back with.

‘We’ll go tuh York another time, yeh?’

‘You bet. Now you’ll be earning an honest wage, you’ll be able to treat me in the manner to which I would like to become accustomed.’

‘Fuck off, weh goh Dutch or not at all.’

‘Skinflint.’

‘Gold digger.’

‘Love you.’

‘Love yuh.’

As it happened, we didn’t go to York, because as things progressed Lau didn’t want to be too far away from home, but we did have a long weekend in Bath for my birthday, a few weeks before it all kicked off, and bloody hell, considering Lau was the size of a three-bedroomed semi-detached house, we had some of the most outstanding sex so far. It was as if her hormones were going crazy, and although we did wander around the city a bit, we mostly stayed in our hotel and shagged each other senseless. I will always think fondly of Bath. But spoiler alert and all that. Pretend I didn’t mention it, yeah?

And so Christmas was had, and Beth’s praises were sung for days, and she basked in it while complaining about the amount of work she’d had to do, but oh, it was so lovely, we’ll have to do it all again next year. And then I had to get myself psyched up to go back to work.

I did this mainly by hitting the texts, and social media, letting everyone know I was back in circulation, finding it easier to answer all the bloody nosy questions via a keyboard, rather than having awkward conversations face to face on my first day back. Some of the questions were about why I’d been off, and although it was really none of anyone’s damn business, I answered them honestly, so they’d understand why I was only coming back for a couple of meetings a week and maybe an hour here or there to start with. There were a few questions about what Jules was doing now, which I couldn’t answer, and some about Lau, who Lexi had filled everyone in on after meeting her in the High Street a while ago.

I had no qualms about telling everyone how great Lau was, as a) it was true and b) it would help to lay Matt the Lad to rest once and for all. I didn’t want to see him ever again, I didn’t want to hide behind him, I wanted to be Matt Scott. People would have to do some adjusting when I got back, as I wasn’t going to be the all-out fun guy I’d been before. There would still be doughnuts and coffee, and chatting and banter, but I was going to be me, not some arsehole who didn’t respect people. And being in touch with everyone before I returned helped me to do the groundwork for that before I got there.

I hardly slept the night before my first day. It was ridiculous; I was only going in for one meeting, just a general staff meeting, I wasn’t going to have to say anything unless I wanted to and I knew nearly everyone who was going to be there. But I still tossed and turned, thinking about everything that might be said, how people might be, how it was all going to work. I was keeping Lau awake as well, moving about so much, sighing, tutting, and eventually she just pulled me to her and did this thing where she just felt me all over.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, no, it wasn’t in any way sexual. She was just doing a check, with me, making sure I was OK everywhere, showing me I was OK everywhere. She went from my toes up to my hair, just stroking, feeling, touching, reassuring, and that’s where it started, this thing that she did. It calmed me down, and I slept afterwards, and she’s done it nearly every night of our lives after that, just letting me know that she’s there for all of me, forever, whatever. The few times she hasn’t done it, that’s when I know something’s up, that I’ve fucked up in some way, or things aren’t right, and I need to do some uncharacteristic talking to get back on track.

So I went back to work, getting on for a year after I had last been in. There were a few new faces, including the bloke who had replaced Jules, and I was kind of grateful for that, because at least there were some people who didn’t know what I was like before.

It was weird, going in for the first time, seeing Lexi sitting at reception, chatting with her kind of like I’d just been on a long holiday, then seeing everyone from my old team, but it being different because Phil had shuffled things about and I didn’t really have a team any more, not yet, then going and talking to Phil and the constant stream of interruptions from people who ‘just wanted to check’ various things, but really wanted a good gawp at the fucking cripple who had returned to the fold. Then we all filed into the big meeting room and we were off, work had begun again for me.

Shit, I was so unbelievably wiped that night. I had lost concentration in the meeting after about ten minutes; the sheer amount of information I was trying to squeeze into my brain just overloaded me. For the last several months, my big event of the day might have been taking Iz to the park, or doing an online shop, or maybe, if I was really stretching myself, both on the same day. But now I had to catch up with how things had changed, the pace of everything, the new priorities, new technology. It was daunting, tiring, terrifying. When I got home, I felt like giving up, finding a job in a supermarket or something.

‘I don’t think I can do ih, Lau.’

‘It’s your first day, Matt. Give yourself a chance.’

‘Too much has changed, I’m lef behind.’

‘You’ll get there. You need to work up to it.’

‘I’m bluhdy knackered. I’m gona beh asleep soon.’

‘Not before I’ve cooked your tea, I hope?’

‘Oh would yuh? Yuhr awesome.’

Much as I loved cooking for Lau, I just didn’t have the energy to cook in the first few weeks after returning to work, and she took over culinary duties. I loved her meals, even though I teased her about some of the recipes and ingredients she used, which were usually plain and simple. She did a quiche to die for, I could never do it the same as her, even though she told me all her secrets, which included using pre-rolled pastry.

But after a few weeks, I got used to being back in the workforce, as Lau had assured me I would; I was less tired, I could think more clearly, I settled in, I got used to everyone, and everyone got used to me. I still rolled up late, carrying a tray of doughnuts from time to time, and so maybe things weren’t that different after all.

And then it happened, the thing that changed it all, forever. I suppose you know what’s coming, don’t you, but I had no idea. Lau had no idea. We were clueless innocents, about to have our world turned upside down.

87. Sticky drama

In which there is a sad event, there is a happy event, and then there is a proposition.

Iz

Here’s another post-watershed viewing alert for all you sensitive folk. Don’t leave this page unattended in the presence of minors. Just saying. And I know there has been naughtiness that I haven’t warned you about, but Matty and Lau are always at it in some form or another, so it’s just the major bits. You’re on your own for the minor indiscretions.

Matt

It was a few weeks later, a Saturday morning, early, the sun barely up, when I woke to a familiar sensation. The significance escaped me at first, lost in the fog of waking up, but with a gasp I realised what it was. I had a hard-on. One hundred per cent completely and fully hard. It felt bloody awesome, and I needed to tell someone. Oh, someone in particular, not just throw open the window and shout to the first person unfortunate enough to be walking by; that’s the sort of behaviour that precedes a visit from the local constabulary. No, I mean Lau, as I am sure you will have surmised.

You had to be careful waking Lau up, because if you did anything too suddenly, you jolted her into instant attack mode, so you had to be gentle and slow. I didn’t feel like being gentle and slow, but I made myself slip my arm softly round her waist, concentrating on the softness of the skin I could feel beneath the bottom of her sleep shirt. Then I started with some soft kisses just where her neck met her shoulder. She liked that, it made her go ‘mm’, and her ‘mm’ was so fucking sexy.

I could feel her begin to wake up and push back against me, saying ‘hi’ with her body, and I started to feel for her breasts, pushing my hips into her. I so wanted to do something productive with this hard-on, but I was worried that if Lau didn’t get going soon, it would go away, like all the preceding tingles and semis had. I was sure Lau would be able to feel it, I was pushing myself right up against her.

Laura

I was woken from a deep sleep by an arm round my waist and kisses at the crease of my neck. This wasn’t unusual, and I’d got used enough to it that it no longer startled me into full wakefulness, but it felt early for Matt. It also felt more urgent than usual, his hands feeling for my breasts and his hips pushing into me – and there was a little bit extra.

‘Good morning.’

‘Heh Lau. I got a hard-on. Woohoo.’

I smiled to myself, incredibly pleased, but knowing I needed to be nursey. I turned over and faced him.

Matt

I immediately kissed her hard, my tongue pushing its way into her mouth, holding her face against mine, pushing myself against her belly. I was hard – did I mention that? – and I could feel her along me, and it was so, so fucking awesome.

Laura

Matt had been experiencing more and more tingles over the past weeks, often accompanied by movement, and I was hopeful it meant a return of function that may mean a diminishing of his MS symptoms. His mobility and speech had certainly improved slightly, but neither of us had mentioned it. I knew what this meant to him, but also knew I was going to have to be the one who was sensible. I didn’t feel like being sensible, I wanted this almost as much as he did. But sensible I was going to have to be.

‘Remember what we talked about?.’

I ran my hand down his body, and felt him tremble. He could hardly think, he wanted it so much.

Matt

Lau ran her hand down my body, and it made me quiver. I was strung so tight I could hardly think, and I certainly wasn’t going to be remembering anything we had talked about that might be about to deny me what I so wanted to do.

‘I want yuh, Lau. Fuck what we said. I’m rehdy.’

I looked at her imploringly, hoping she could see how much I needed it, and it would change her mind.

Laura

I’d known this would be difficult.

‘We’re going to take it slowly. Only what we can both do, remember?’

Matt

She was infuriating. I felt like I was going to burst all over us both, and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted … well, I wanted to be in her, I wanted all of her, all of it, everything I hadn’t had, hadn’t been able to do up until now.

‘Lau, I’ve goh a hard-on the size of Apollo thirteen. I can do fucking anythihg.’

‘Well, let’s start slowly.’

So that didn’t mean no, did it, it meant let’s start slowly and then do it. We’d get there. Oh but I was so impatient, it could disappear at any second. And I suppose that was the point. God I hated it when Lau was right.

Lau ran her hand over my arse and carried on down my thigh. I sighed, it felt so good, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I kissed her again, tongue thrusting deep into her mouth, trying to show her what I wanted to do, what I knew I could do. She pushed me over onto my back, kissing me back, moving her hands down my chest and – oh, she was actually going there.

I felt her hands on my swollen dick through the fabric of my boxers, and it felt so good. She ran her hand along my erection and I moaned into her, as I thrust against her hand and ohh, just that little movement caused a deluge of fizzing sparks to pour along me from the tip of my cock, down into my balls, where they bubbled, waiting.

Lau moved her hands away, and I let a disappointed sound escape from me, but it was only so she could pull my boxers down and look at me, in all my glory. And it was glorious. I’m not being immodest, I’m not commenting on size, or girth, or any of that, but just the fact of it, lying there, hard and, OK, I’m going to use the word throbbing because that’s how it felt, well that made it glorious.

Laura

We both stared down at his erection, Matt looking almost impossibly proud of himself.

‘Impressive, flower.’

Matt

Oh, you just never get tired of hearing your girl say that, do you.

‘Bluhdy awesome. Never thought I was going tuh feel tha again.’

‘I think it deserves something special.’

Lau stroked a finger along its length, as I closed my eyes and groaned.

‘Oh yeh, Lau. Dohnt stop.’

Everything was heightened; even the slightest touch was driving me wild, and Lau was giving it her all. She kissed me quickly on the lips, then started kissing down my throat, stopping at my nipples to suck and tease, then continuing her journey downwards, and I could finally see where this was going.

Oh, Lau, you are just the best.

She carried on, past my navel and finally got to the head of my dick, where she licked and kissed it gently, taking just the head into her mouth, holding the base with her fingers. She was not a novice, and I held my breath as her tongue and lips ignited even more of the sparking desire.

‘Oh my fucking God, Lau, you’ve dohn this before.’

‘Mmm.’

The vibration of her voice as she held me in her mouth sent a shock wave through me and I couldn’t help thrusting upwards, which made her gag. She pulled away briefly, coughing a bit.

‘Oh fuck, sohry Lau. That was bluhdy ace.’

Lau didn’t say anything, but repositioned herself and licked me from base to tip, looking me in the eye the whole time, then took me in her mouth again, tongue working over the surface, sucking, licking and teasing.

Then, to my extreme disappointment, I felt it all start to ebb, the sparks and fizzing subsided and flowed away, and I went soft. I groaned again, but this time in frustration. Lau didn’t stop, though, and I loved her for showing me that a hard-on wasn’t the be all and end all for her, that she could give me pleasure without it. But eventually I just wanted to hold her, and I put my fingers in her hair and tugged gently to bring her back up into my arms. Lau had been spot on; I wouldn’t have lasted long enough for what I wanted to do.

‘Yuh are bluhdy annoyingly righ most of the time, Lau. How did yuh knoh?’

‘State secret. Only me and MI5 are allowed to know.’

‘Really? I bet ih’d be easier to get ih out of Stella Rimington than you. Oh, buh Lau, I had a hard-on. A real live hard-on. You were sucking me off an everything. Whoa.’

I pulled her to me, and then felt the emotion welling up in me. I was safe with Lau, I could be myself, show her how I was feeling, and I felt like crying. Having a hard-on was huge (emotionally, I’m still not giving details about the physical), and I needed to let it out.

Laura

He pulled me into a tight hug. I felt his body convulse, as he started to cry, and I held him tightly, stroking his hair, kissing the bits I could reach, shushing him. This sounds cheesy, but I really did feel so privileged that he felt he could cry with me, that I was his safe place. After a while, it subsided, and he relaxed his hold on me, pulling his head back and looking into my eyes.

Matt

‘Sohry, Lau. I thought tha was never gona happen again. I’m so relieved. You know … I feel like … I’ve been a bit better the last couple of weeks. Have yuh noticed?’

I hadn’t mentioned it before; had been scared to, in case it was nothing, or I was misreading things. But she nodded.

‘I didn’t want to say anything. Have you talked to Anna about it?’

So it wasn’t just my imagination; I could dare to dream this nightmare might be coming to an end.

‘No, seeing her Monday, though. Migh tell her about my hard-on.’

It was a significant enough event to tell Anna, but even though there was this pact of silence between them all, it wasn’t information I was going to risk being discussed at Lau’s work. And really, I was just trying to wind Lau up.

‘If you feel you must.’

‘Ih’s very important.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Will I hahv any more any time soon?’

‘Who knows? Does it feel likely?’

‘Oh, I hate ih when yuh do tha reflecting back shit. OK, I’ll play ih your way. Ih feels to me like I’ve been getting more tingles and more movement, and now, finally, I’ve got the big one. Ih didn’t last long, buh, yeh, ih feels likely.’

‘Good.’

‘An now, Laura Louise Shoeman, ih’s time tuh fulfil my side of the bargain.’

‘What side of which bargain?’

‘The bargain tha says you only geh what I geh. An I just got one hell of a blow-job. On yuhr back.’

I had been waiting for weeks for a chance to do this again, but Lau had stuck to her ‘above the waist for both of us’ guns, in the main. Now, however, it seemed that she had been waiting as eagerly as I had, as she rolled onto her back and spread her legs.

‘Whoa, you’re ready, aren’t yuh.’

‘Like you wouldn’t believe. I remember the last one. This one had better be as awesome.’

And I guess that was the start of it, the big recovery. It took longer than before, and the bastard MS had lasted longer than before, even though I hadn’t had a life-threatening complication to create mischief with my ability to be a normal person. But once I started to get better, once it all began to piss off from whence it came, it was like it just rolled away, and every week I could do more. I could go a whole day without falling asleep, I could talk without people surreptitiously smelling my breath for hints of beer, I could get up the stairs to my flat without having to hold on to the rail for dear life and above all, the best thing, I could make love to Lau.

I don’t usually call it ‘making love’, it seems like a poncey metaphor for sex. But with Lau, although my increasingly frequent hard-ons hadn’t yet made it to shaggable timescales, we could do enough with each other that it really did feel like we were getting closer, showing each other how much we loved each other.

Oh, I know I seem like I’m completely obsessed with sex, as if I was, oh I don’t know, an unstoppable shag monster or something. I guess I did, do, think about it a lot, but at that time it was my marker for how much of a fucking cripple I was, and when I started getting it back, I felt like I was getting me back.

Lau had warned me that things might change between her and me, the balance of things might shift, when I started getting better, but she was so considerate, so thoughtful, so bloody stubborn, that it didn’t happen.

It wasn’t as if when we met she decided I needed taking care of; if she had, we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. She did, and does, take care of me, but I like to think I’ve done my share of taking care of her over the years, OK, maybe not equally, she is Lau, and she is remarkably fucking amazing, after all. But there was never an imbalance, at the start, that had to be redressed when I started needing less help, and so, to go back to my original point, when we were in bed together, or on the sofa, or the floor, or against the wall, it really felt like we were making love, like this thing between us was growing even deeper, even more incredible.

It wasn’t just having a working dick that improved. Being able to stay awake and functional for longer periods meant that I could start to do things I did before, and had been missing a lot.

I took Cal to see Raiders, which he was delighted about as it meant he no longer had to sit with the juniors, but could lord it over his mates by sitting in the family seats.

I started to feel like I might be able to handle work again, and contacted Phil to talk about the next step there.

I got out and about, not driving yet, not trusting my wayward nervous system; nearly running that bloke over on the zebra crossing had really put the wind up me, and I thought it might be a long time before I was willing to risk it. However, I tried a bit of non-strenuous hiking with Lau, which nearly killed her and proved to me that as unfit as I thought I had become with my enforced immobility, she really was at the nadir of fitness, despite being a healthy woman without a fucking bastard neurological disease. It cheered me up no end to see her red-faced and sweating after climbing a fairly moderate hill, and I decided we could embrace our fitness levels together. Lau wasn’t keen but agreed, only if I went with her to see Michael Buble.

It was a close thing, I nearly refused, but it was a one off and I made her promise no one would find out or it was deal off. She kept the promise until the day after, when she posted photos all over Facebook, and my shame was known. That meant several steeper hills for Lau, but she was unrepentant.

Lau and Mum were like co-conspirators. Lau would often come with me when I went to see Mum and not only because I needed her to drive me there; I was more than capable of getting the bus. She even went round without me, to do odd bits and pieces that she knew Mum couldn’t do so well herself but wouldn’t ask anyone, like some of the ironing that she noticed had got a bit out of hand, or taking a few bits of shopping that Mum had mentioned she hadn’t been able to get. They must have talked about me when I wasn’t there, because I would often be on the receiving end of the odd comment from Lau.

‘So tell me about your Star Wars collection, then.’

‘I don’t have a Star Wars collection.’

‘No, not now, but apparently you had an extensive one when you were younger, and used to polish the boxes once a week.’

This was said with an impish smile and a tilt of the head.

‘I did not pohlish the boxes.’

‘Really?’

‘Noh. I dusted the boxes.’

‘Ah. Huge difference. What happened to them all, though?’

Martin kicked them into tiny pieces, that’s what happened to them. I had stopped mourning them a long time ago.

‘Why, would yuh like me tuh rekindle my interest?’

‘Well of course that’s up to you. But I always wanted to know why you guys keep things in boxes. Aren’t they easier to play with out of the box?’

‘Lau, Lau, Lau. Yuh don’t know anything, do yuh? Yuh don’t play with Star Wars collectables. Yuh just … collect them.’

‘Why?’

‘Same way yuh collect shoes.’

‘I wear my shoes.’

‘Noh yuh don’t, not all of them. I’ve seen shoes in boxes in yuhr wardrobe you’ve never worn.’

This was a complete guess but, from the outraged look on her face, an accurate one.

‘You’ve been rifling through my wardrobe?’

‘Ha ha, noh Lau, but yuh jus told meh it’s true.’

‘Oh you.’

I got a cuff on the arm, and was starting to build up quite a collection of those, too. Lau was deliciously easy to tease; she always believed me when I said something the first time, and sometimes I could lead her down the garden path for quite a while before she cottoned on. The further I led her, the harder the cuff, and rightly so.

Although the rugby season was well underway, there was still the occasional full-on Sunday lunch at Jay and Beth’s when circumstances prevailed, and Lau and I were regulars whatever the guest list. When I was with Jules, I hadn’t always gone, and when I had, I’d often gone on my own, to a barrage of questions. I loved going with Lau, who got on with everyone, who everyone liked and, more importantly, now trusted.

To start with there had been a bit of an unspoken kind of trial period, where people were wondering if she was up to something untoward, or if I was being foolishly impetuous, but Lau won them over, and once she’d met everyone a few times, I think they could see that although it had been quick, it was real; that although we were still getting to know each other, there was something deep there.

It really felt like, although we had jumped into this mad thing that was Lau and Matt with both feet, declared deep feelings inconceivably early, and then got to know each other properly, that whatever we’d found out, whatever had been revealed, it wouldn’t have mattered.

That’s the thing with soulmates, it’s the recognition. And although I didn’t change my stance on supernatural, paranormal or religious experiences, I did notice my opinions towards things like ‘karma’ changing, and I was less likely to take the piss out of people who stated that ‘the universe’ knew what it was doing. Maybe I was starting to believe that; not that there was a supreme being with a plan for us all, I didn’t believe that, but that somehow, maybe it was Jung’s collective unconscious, things happened for a reason, that there is a person shaped hole inside all of us, and sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we meet the person who fits it.

That’s how it felt with Lau. She fitted the space inside me, and I fitted her space, and getting to know each other after that was just the icing on the cake, rather than the list of pros and cons that led to a decision. The decision had already been made, and we were just filling it out with details.

We were certainly very different, in outlook, personality and tastes. It didn’t cause arguments, although it caused teasing, because it just felt like more to explore about each other. If we’d been the same, we would have had less to talk about, but as it was, we hardly seemed to stop talking.

Laura

As the weeks went on, things steadily improved for Matt. His mobility and speech continued to get better, and his energy levels increased. He began to have more erections, which were more sustained, and although he was hard to hold back, he seemed to accept going slowly. He was better at saying when he was getting tired, too, and the aftermath of Sunday lunch was less of an ordeal. He started to talk about going back to work, and had an appointment with his firm’s occupational health advisers. I understood that his contract had always been flexible to take into account possible health fluctuations; he was really lucky, he would be able to slot back in as and when he was able to.

Matt and Mum got on like a house on fire. She even let the odd swear word pass without comment, especially if Matt was apologetic enough afterwards and made out he hardly ever used bad language. Mum wasn’t an idiot, and had would have had enough conversations with Carol by now to know what was what, but seemed to appreciate an effort was being made.

I loved being part of Matt’s family. The Sunday gatherings weren’t usually as full-on as that first one had been, and we didn’t always go, but I was beginning to feel like I belonged. Matt and I had also looked after all of the children together, at various times, and I loved being with them all. Bastien was tiny and cute, Charlie was just developing her own wilful personality, Iz was a bundle of energy demanding constant attention and entertainment, and Cal was a teenager-in-waiting, one minute whining and complaining, and the next playing silly games with us. We had been out several times with Dec and Amy. They were younger than Matt and me, but they were very easy company, and Amy and I had struck up a friendship.

Work had settled down a bit after the falling out with Rachel. We still didn’t really talk much, but she didn’t completely ignore me, and the team balance had righted itself. It was hard not to ask Anna what was going on with Matt. I knew he told me most of it, but also knew he needed to keep some things to himself, to have a part of him that was just his. I never pressed either of them for information, and knew that Matt would tell me the important stuff, and Anna wouldn’t tell me anything. Occasionally I’d come into the office and the conversation would stop dead, and I’d know that they’d been talking about Matt, either professionally or having a good gossip. It made me feel a bit outside of things, but it was a small price to pay.

Matt and I started to talk in very general terms about moving in together. I spent most of my evenings and nights at his flat, and hardly spent any time in my house, except to grab clothes every now and then. It seemed a bit of a waste, but part of me was reluctant to give up my house. It was the first house that was mine – or partly mine, mostly the bank’s – and I was attached to it; I had put down a deposit with money my dad left me after he died. But Matt and I were starting to feel permanent, and it was going to have to go eventually. His flat was much nicer, and it made sense. We hadn’t made any decisions, just floated the idea, and as neither of us had freaked out, it seemed like it was going to happen one day.

Matt

It wasn’t long before it became apparent that it would be more sensible to live together. We didn’t even talk about it, as in one of us bringing the subject up in some kind of momentous way, and I can’t remember which one of us dropped it into the conversation first, but it would go something like this:

‘I’m just popping home to get that CD.’

‘Bollocks, weh forgot. Sorry, meant tuh remind yuh.’

‘I need to pick up my post anyway.’

‘Don’t forget yuhr jumper.’

‘Oh yeah. God, it’ll be so much easier when we’re both in one place.’

Me: So not freaking out.

Or

‘I rehly like yuhr house, why don’t we come here more often?’

‘Because it’s easier for me to just flop at yours after work than drive back over here and worry about you getting home the next day. Your place is nicer, too.’

‘Buh you’re paying bills fuh shit you’re not using.’

‘Yeah, but it’s only the fridge-freezer really.’

‘Wha abouh water, an council tax, and mortgage? Be easier if we jus shared everything, all in one place.’

‘I know, flower. We should think about it, shouldn’t we.’

Me: Still not freaking out, and I’d been the one to bring it up.

But we didn’t get round to it, not for a while, and in the meantime, I recovered a lot, started walking and talking almost like a normal person, picked up babies without being worried I was going to drop them on their heads, and started staying up late. Sometimes it was ten thirty before I went to bed, and I could still give Lau a bloody good feel up before I went to sleep. I was a human miracle.

So summer became autumn, and I was well and truly on my feet. Still bloody knackered if I overdid it, but was getting better at judging it, and didn’t crash like I used to, just got weary and needed to sleep it off.

I’d been to talk to work’s Occupational Health woman, and we’d wondered about me going back after Christmas, a few hours a week only, to see how it went. It was a major boost to my confidence, as I’d been off work for eight months already, and needed to be earning my keep and paying my way.

I’d been to watch Raiders with Cal a few times, which was another thing that increased my self-esteem. Cal could be a pretty grouchy kid at times, but the look on his face when I offered to take him for the first time in months, how pleased he was, well it meant a lot to me.

One Saturday in November, I’d left Lau at my flat for the afternoon, as she had declined to come with us, being a complete sporting duffer; I caught the bus over to Jay’s place to collect Cal. I knew he liked it better when we parked in the official Raiders car park, where the players parked, where Jay could get us a pass to park, but until I was up to driving, it was the bus for us.

I quite liked going by bus, as we travelled with other supporters, and walked into the ground with other supporters, and had conversations with them without them knowing who we were, as if we were normal fans rather than family of Jay Scott, and I kind of wanted Cal to get that too, that although he enjoyed the privileged position of being son of the coach, there was a lot to be said for just enjoying watching as a civilian.

We’d been to the club shop to get a car sticker, bought pasties and chips once we got through the turnstiles, taken our seats, read the programme, watched the players warm up and joined in the cheering contest when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket.

Laura

Matt had taken Cal to the rugby and I was at Matt’s flat, thinking about making something for dinner, when my phone rang. It was Amy.

‘Hi flower.’

‘Lau, sorry, I’ve tried to get hold of Beth but her phone’s off. Is there any way you could have Charlie for a bit?’

She sounded upset.

‘Of course. What’s happened?’

‘My … dad’s … they’ve just …’ her words turned to sobs.

‘Oh Amy. I’ll be right there.’

I grabbed my bag and ran down to my car, driving across the city as fast as I could. I knew Amy had an uneasy relationship with her dad; he hadn’t approved of her and Dec not being married when they had Charlie, and had been less than impressed when they announced they were expecting another baby soon after she was born.

When I arrived outside Dec and Amy’s house, she was waiting at the door, coat on, car keys in hand. Her face was puffy and her eyes were red.

‘Oh Amy, what’s happened?’

‘Dad’s in hospital, he’s collapsed, they don’t think …’ she started to cry again.

‘Oh flower, you can’t drive like this. Let me take you. Is the car seat in your car?’

She nodded. I took the keys from her and got the seat out of the car, then quickly put it in mine while she got Charlie. Ten minutes or so later we were outside the hospital.

‘You go in, I’ll take Charlie to Matt’s. We’ve got some of her things there. Has she had her lunch?’

‘Yeah, she’s fed and changed. Lau, can you make sure Dec knows? He’ll come and pick her up later, after the game. Oh, and Beth, if you can get hold of her.’

‘Of course. Will you be OK on your own?’

She nodded, more tears rolling down her face.

‘Mum’s there, we’ll be OK. Thanks Lau.’

I took her hand briefly, then she got out and I drove away.

When I got to Matt’s flat with Charlie, I texted Dec, although I knew his phone would be off this close to the start of a game. I called Matt, unsure if he would hear the ringer.

Matt

I took my phone out, expecting to hit ‘decline’, but it was Lau. She wouldn’t be calling unless it was important, and a tiny shiver of worry went through me.

‘Heh, Lau. Changed your mind? Bet you wish you were here now.’

‘No. Matt, Amy’s dad’s in hospital. I’ve brought Charlie here.’

‘Shit. Is he OK?’

‘Well, no, he’s in hospital. Amy didn’t know much. She wanted me to tell Dec, and I’ve sent a text, but can you find him after the game? Charlie’s fine here, isn’t she, we’ve got loads of her stuff, nappies and things, from before.’

‘Yeh, you know where ih is, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I’ve found it all.’

‘Do you want me to come back?’

I knew she’d be perfectly alright on her own with Charlie, they always had a great time together, but it would be a few hours before I was home if I stayed until the end of the game, and she was going to be with someone else’s baby in someone else’s home.

Laura

Truthfully, I would have liked Matt to come back, but he loved taking Cal to watch the rugby, and I knew Cal would be upset to miss it, especially as they were already there.

‘No, I’ll be fine, Charlie’s no trouble. Don’t disappoint Cal, it’s the first time you’ve taken him for ages. I’ll ring Beth.’

Matt

I was relieved, as Cal really would not have enjoyed having to leave before kick-off, but it was going to be hard to concentrate on the game while I was worrying about Amy.

‘Thanks Lau. Let me know if yuh hear anything.’

‘OK. See you later.’

I disconnected and turned the ringer up to full volume. Cal was looking at me, scowling.

‘Why have we got to go?’

‘Weh haven’t mate, but I’m keeping an ear out for my phone. Amy’s dad’s not well an Lau’s got tuh look after Charlie.’

Cal’s face took on the appeased expression of someone who had been about to have a major strop but had heard good news at the last minute. He didn’t know Amy’s dad, and he was only just about to turn eleven, so he didn’t really care about the status of some stranger’s health.

‘So we’re staying here.’

He needed to double check I wasn’t going to whisk him away. I was fairly sure I wouldn’t have to.

‘Yeh, Cal. Lau wants us to find Dec after the game so weh can tell him. His phone’s off.’

That cheered Cal up. Usually I made him wait for the players to come up to the supporters’ bar, like everyone else had to, but if we were going to have to look for Dec straight after the game, it meant going past the stewards and the kudos that entailed.

Laura

I called Beth.

‘Hello Laura. How are you?’

‘Hi Beth. I don’t know if you’ve picked up Amy’s messages?’

‘No, I’ve only just turned my phone on, it’s been charging.’

‘She was trying to get hold of you. Her dad’s been taken into hospital. I’m looking after Charlie here at Matt’s. She just wanted you to know.’

‘Oh no, poor Amy. Is she OK?’

‘No, she was in a bit of a state. But her mum was there already, they can look after each other.’

‘What happened to her dad?’

‘She didn’t really know much, but he collapsed at home and she thought it didn’t sound good.’

‘Ohh.’ There was a silence. It wasn’t that long since Beth’s dad had died, and although she seemed fine in her own brisk Beth way, it would be natural if situations like this brought up strong emotions. I heard Beth take a breath and imagined her straightening herself up and shaking away whatever thoughts had momentarily frozen her. ‘I don’t suppose she’s been able to get hold of Dec.’

‘I’ve asked Matt to find him after the game.’

‘I’ll leave a message for James and get him to call me later. Bloody rugby – the whole world stops while it goes on. Thank you, sweetheart. Do you need any help with Charlie?’

I noticed the ‘bloody’ which was unusual for Beth and told me how upset she was, and the ‘sweetheart’, which was reserved for family, and felt a secret flush of pleasure.

‘No, I’m fine, we’ve got everything we need here. It’s only for a few hours.’

Matt

The game was exciting, as Raiders games usually were, but even more exciting was feeling my jeans fill with a swelling hard-on half way through the first half. I mean, inconvenient or what, but it felt awesome. I covered it up with the match programme and tried to think Anne Widecombe thoughts, but it didn’t go away until nearly the end of half time. It was the best one yet, and I was convinced that the next one would be the one that would kick-start Matt Scott Superstud into his new one-woman-only phase. Eventually it subsided and I could stop feeling so conspicuous, but I looked forward to being with Lau that evening so we could try to coax it back.

What with that and thinking about having to find Dec afterwards to impart some unhappy tidings, I wasn’t really concentrating on the match, but it went on without my full attention anyway.

The game ended, with a Raiders win by one point, and we headed off as soon as the final whistle went to find Dec, who would still be in the changing room having the team de-briefing. We made our way past several stewards and security people, most of them recognising Cal as Jay’s son, some of them recognising me as Jay’s brother, and were escorted to the door of the changing room by Bill, the Head Steward, who greeted Cal like a mate.

‘Cal! Haven’t seen you for ages. Still playing on the wing for the juniors?’

‘Yep.’

‘Scored any tries recently?’

‘I got one in training last week.’

‘Good lad. Right, I’ll just give them a knock, might take a while to answer, Mr Barker usually likes to have a bit of a chat after the game.’

He tapped on the door, and we waited.

‘I only knock once. They know I’m here, but you can’t interrupt Mr Barker. They’ll answer in good time.’

From what I knew of Don Barker, who I’d met a few times, the worst you’d get would be a raised eyebrow if you did interrupt, but sometimes that kind of low-key approach earned you more respect than a bollocking. It wasn’t long before the door was opened by one of the conditioning coaches.

‘Alright, Bill?’

‘These two gentlemen need to speak to Mr Summers.’

The coach looked at me blankly, then at Cal, and recognised him.

‘Oh, hey Cal. Shall I get your dad?’

I spoke before he could shut the door.

‘Actually, could yuh get Dec, please? Amy’s been trying to get hold of him, ih’s pretty urgent.’

I became more important to him as he realised I knew Dec, and Bill the security guard and Cal gave me added authority.

‘Oh, OK mate, I’ll get him.

The door closed, and Cal and I stood looking at Bill for a few moments before it opened again, to reveal Dec. He was already changed, was carrying his kit bag and was putting his phone in his pocket. He looked pale.

‘Hey Matt. Alright, Cal?’

‘Dec, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Amy’s been trying to get hold of yuh.’

‘Yeah, I know, Beth left messages, and I’ve just called. I’m going there now.’

‘How are things?’

‘Not sure. Better go, mate.’

I patted him on the shoulder and he started to walk off, then turned round and spoke as he walked backwards down the corridor.

‘Oh, Ames said Lau’s got Charlie at your place?’

I nodded.

‘I’ll come and get her later.’

‘OK. We can have her all nigh if you need ih.’

He nodded.

‘OK. Here’s the key in case you need any of her stuff.’

Dec pulled a key off his key ring and tossed it to me, and I was impressed with myself when I caught it.

‘Cheers mate. Appreciated.’

He turned and jogged away down the corridor.

The door opened again, and Jay stood there.

‘Hey Matty.’

Jay put his hand on Cal’s head and ruffled his hair.

‘Sorry tuh interrupt your debrief, buh I was supposed to tell Dec about Amy’s dad.’

‘Yeah, sorry, Beth left me about twenty messages on my phone, and also contacted everyone she could think of at the club. I’m surprised she didn’t get it announced over the tannoy – ‘Would Mr Declan Summers please report to the ticket office where he has an urgent message’, just as he was about to score or something.’

‘Yeh, we jus saw him. He looked a bit shocked.’

‘Thanks anyway, Matty. Cal, do you want to come home with me?’

He did, of course, because that meant spending time with the players that his mates didn’t. He was probably going to be allowed in the changing room now.

‘S’pose.’

But there was no way he was going to appear enthusiastic about it.

‘If you want to hang around, I’ll drop you home too, Matty.’

‘No, tha’s OK, I’ll get the bus. Lau’s looking after Charlie, I should make sure she’s alright.’

‘Thanks for bringing Cal today. What do you say, Cal?’

Cal rolled his eyes, hating to be reminded of his manners like a small child.

‘Thanks Matty.’

He mumbled as incoherently as he could get away with and didn’t look me in the eyes. Luckily I was a similarly ungrateful bastard in my turn, so knew that he appreciated it really.

‘Noh problem Cal. Chips an pasty on you nex time?’

He grinned, and his whole face changed, in that mercurial way that kids have from the age of ten to about, oh, thirty-five in my case.

I caught a bus from the stadium, frustrated by the length of the queue I had to wait in, and finally got home about six, having texted Lau to say I was on my way. It would be so much easier if I drove, things like emergencies would be a lot more manageable and I wouldn’t have to rely on the quirky bus routes that ran through the city. Maybe I should just do it; I hadn’t had a spasm for ages.

I opened the door to the flat and peered into the living room. Lau was sitting on the sofa, with Charlie asleep next to her.

‘Hey Lau. How’s ih been?’

‘Fine, she’s been asleep for the last hour or so. Any word from Amy?’

‘No. I managed to find Dec, but Beth had already called Jay and got him tuh pass the message on. He went straight there, he said he’ll come and geh Charlie as soon as he can. I said we can have her for the nigh if we need to. I’ve got their key, we can go and pick stuff up.’

‘Of course.’

‘Hey, beautiful, how’s the sleepy girl? Have you behaved fuh Lau?’

I bent over her, all tucked up on the sofa, and softly kissed her forehead. She stirred and moved her arms, but didn’t wake up. I looked at Lau and smiled.

‘She’s soh cute when she’s asleep.’

‘I know. Shame they have to wake up sometimes.’

It was what people always said, but I knew Lau loved kids and could entertain them endlessly.

‘You don’t mean tha.’

I wagged a finger at her, our mutual desire for children one of the unspoken constant connections between us.

‘No, I don’t.’

She grinned mischievously.

‘Do you want some dinner? Or did you have pasty and chips again?’

‘I had pasty an chips, kind of a ritual, buh how about dinner now? I’m starving.’

And I loved cooking for Lau, especially when she’d done something awesome for my mate.

‘OK, but I haven’t made anything.’

‘I’ll do some pasta. Chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms?’

As I suggested it, I started getting things together, ingredients from the fridge and the cupboards, pans, spoons.

‘Mm, sounds yummy. Oh, did they win?’

‘Wha?’

I’d nearly forgotten where I’d been.

‘Oh, Raiders, yeah. Dec scored a try, so Cal was pleased. He likes showing off tuh his mates. I was thinking about yuh all game.’

‘Yeah, right, and not thinking about thirty hefty blokes beating each other to pieces at all.’

I grinned at her.

‘No, jus you. Got another boner. Had to let ih go, though. Match programme not big enough to hide it.’

‘You’re on top form this week, flower.’

She was right. If we’d been counting, that would have been six. Not that we were counting. Maybe I was. Lau might have been. We didn’t have a chart or anything, though. That would just have been sad. Perhaps there was a kind of a chart in my head. Just a little one.

‘I know. Yuh never know, might come back later. Next time, Lau –’

I pointed at her, using the knife I was holding, but only in a gesticulating way, and not intended to threaten,

‘– I’m having my own way. No more of this waiting bollocks. Yuhr having a good Scottying, like ih or not.’

Lau raised her eyebrows at me, but didn’t say anything. I wondered if she thought it was time, too. To be honest, I wasn’t taking no for an answer any more. I’d been patient and sensible, listened to my body rather than just my libido, and I knew I was ready. Really ready, rather than just eager. Bloody eager, though. Bloody, bloody eager.

Laura

Being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I could wait any longer either. There was only so long I could be sensible and nursey before Lusty Lau took over.

Matt

Dinner didn’t take long to make, and just as we finished loading the dishwasher, Charlie woke up. Immediately after she started crying, the door buzzer went, and it was Dec, still looking pale, with added stressed and unhappy on top.

‘Hey mate. How’s it going?’

‘Ames’ dad died.’

He looked haunted, and I could only imagine the memories it was bringing back for him.

‘Oh no. Shit. Sorry. How is she?’

‘Broken. Just in bits. I hate seeing her like that. Hey Lau.’

He looked at Lau, and then at Charlie, who Lau was holding and trying to shush.

‘Hey lovely girl.’

Charlie’s tears stopped when Dec spoke to her, and she held out her arms to him. Dec took her and held her close, looking near to tears himself.

‘Poor Amy. Where is she now?’

‘I took her home, Diane’s going to stay with us for a bit.’

‘Bad luck, mate.’

I knew Dec didn’t think much of Amy’s mum, but they got on better than they used to.

‘Yeah, well, she’s a bit hard going sometimes, but she can’t go home at the moment. I might have to go over and clear up. Apparently he keeled over in the kitchen, hit his head, made a bit of a mess.’

‘We’ll help. Leh us know. Lau’s good with blood.’

It felt good to be able to offer to help someone out for a change.

‘Actually, mate, that’d be great. Wasn’t looking forward to being there on my own. I was going to go over tomorrow morning, get some things for Diane. Thanks. Oh fuck.’

I saw Dec’s face crumple, and he sat down suddenly as tears rolled down his face.

‘Sorry, I don’t know why it’s upset me so much. I should be over all this by now, it just brings it all back. I didn’t even like Jack, he was a wanker who made Ames’ life a misery. She’s so cut up though. Sorry, Charlie-girl, shouldn’t talk about your grampa like that.’

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Things like this were always going to affect Dec, I imagined. Losing both your parents when you’re thirteen isn’t something you are ever likely to forget, or get over, or recover from, even though Dec was just about as sorted a bloke as you could hope to meet. There were always going to be times like this when it felt so close to what happened to him that it tore at him again. And when something hurts the woman you love, it hurts you too. I sat next to Dec and put an arm round his shoulders.

‘Ah mate, ih’s always gona be there for you. Shit like this will always bring stuff back. Look at us – four people, only one dad between us. Life’s a bitch. Make the mos of him, beautiful.’

I unhooked my arm from around Dec and stroked Charlie’s forehead. Dec straightened, nodded and took a deep breath.

‘Got to pull myself together, can’t do this in front of Ames. Thanks mate. Are you sure you’re both OK for tomorrow morning?’

Lau and I both nodded.

‘Probably the earlier the better. Ten OK?’

‘Fine. We’ll meet you there.’

It would be a miracle if Dec managed to get out of the house before eleven, let alone across the city by ten, but I suppose this could be deemed to be an exceptional circumstance. Dec stood up, hoisting Charlie onto his shoulder and wiping his eyes.

‘Come on then lovely girl, let’s go and cheer Mummy up. Bye Matt, bye Lau.’

I saw him to the door, closed it behind him and turned to Lau, noticing as I did so how sad she looked, and I remembered her dad with a mental kick to myself. Possibly the last thing she needed to be doing was clearing up after Jack Wright, especially considering everything I had just been thinking about past events never really leaving you.

‘Oh, Lau. I didn’t think about your dad. Are yuh OK?’

She nodded, and I saw that she was upset, but she’d managed to put it away in that place she had where she could put shit like this. It was something to do with her work; she had to detach herself from everyone’s sadness so she could do her job without breaking down every five minutes, and she got good support at work to help her deal with it. She was pretty up front about confronting her own shit, and I knew if she felt she needed to talk about it she would do, either with me or someone else she could confide in.

Laura

I was obviously upset for Amy, and seeing Dec lose it a bit was emotional, but I dealt with difficult emotions every day at work, and had learned how to portion parts of me off so it didn’t affect me too much.

‘It is very similar to what happened with Dad, but I’m OK.’

Matt joined me on the sofa, putting an arm over my shoulder and pulling me close.

Matt

‘Will you be alright tuh go tomorrow morning? I can go on my own if you want.’

‘No, it’ll be fine. I think Dec will need people there, if only so we can strong arm him out of the room if it gets too much for him.’

‘Ha ha, I’d like to see tha. I think it’d take more than me an you tuh beat Dec in a fight. You haven’t seen him on a rugby pitch, have you. He’s an animal.’

‘You haven’t seen me in a fight, either. It could be a close thing.’

Thinking about it, I wasn’t sure who I would back in a fight between Dec and Lau. It would depend how much chocolate was at stake, and what the rules were about high tackles.

‘Now I’m scared. Don’t you an Dec gang up on meh, now. I’m just a fucking cripple.’

‘Matt …’

Lau sounded exasperated. I couldn’t get her to see why I called myself a fucking cripple, because I couldn’t explain it properly to myself. It was something to do with calling it as I saw it, something to do with getting my retaliation in first, something to do with wanting people to correct me, something to do with me and Dec all those years ago when he was a bloody nutter too, and maybe lots of other somethings I couldn’t define. Lau constantly tried to stop me doing it, especially now I was getting better. She thought it stopped me thinking of myself as normal, but it was just something I did, and until I felt ‘better’, whatever that felt like, I wasn’t going to stop.

Laura

I couldn’t stop him referring to himself as a cripple, even though he was getting better. He’d told me it was a kind of self-deprecating nickname he and Dec had come up with the first time he was ill, with Dec being labelled a nutter on account of emotional difficulties he was having, but I thought it just carried on the thought that he wasn’t ‘normal’, whether it was a joke or not.

Matt

‘OK, OK, I’m jus a skinny streak of nothing. Better?’

Although sometimes I was going to compromise.

‘Better, and truer. But a skinny streak of nothing with a lovely bum.’

‘Ooh, Lau. Know wha, for that, you can have a feel.’

I stood up and waggled said lovely bum in her face. Before I knew it, she grabbed me and bit me on the arse, through my trousers. I gasped as I felt my dick swell.

‘Lau – you did ih.’

I turned round and proudly showed her the bulge in my jeans.

‘It’s Scotty time. Come on.’

Iz

Just a quick warning. You know the score by now.

Matt

There was to be no hanging around, this needed doing, and it needed doing now. I grabbed Lau’s hand and pulled her to her feet, pausing only to guide her hand to the bulge, just so she could feel how hard it was. Yeah, I was pretty pleased with it.

‘Tha’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.’

‘It’d better not.’

Whoa, so she was as up for it as I was, which just made me harder. I pulled her with me to the bedroom and started pulling her clothes off, hardly pausing to kiss her, heading straight for her breasts with my mouth. I really only had one goal, but I didn’t want to appear impolite. Lau pulled my shirt off and undid my belt, letting my trousers drop to the floor. My dick was tenting the front of my boxers, and I pushed it urgently against her.

‘I’m not gona last long, Lau. I mean, yeah, I am, but not before I pop.’

I was going to come as soon as a very low threshold was reached, and I wanted to be inside her when I did. Lau pulled my mouth onto hers with one hand and pushed my boxers down with the other, then cupped my arse cheeks in both hands, using them to pull me against her. I pushed her knickers down her thighs and turned her to the bed, pushing her onto her back, possibly none too gently. Lau reached up and pulled me down on top of her, kissing any part of my body that passed her mouth. My hands were everywhere, grabbing, stroking, gripping, but I had only one destination.

I pulled her knickers off completely and pushed her legs apart, kneeling between them, gripping my dick in one hand and guiding it into her. Ohh how easily I glided in, how agonisingly, excruciatingly, exquisitely she slid against me, fuck how I wanted this woman, wanted to claim her, wanted to be the best she’d ever had. Lau moaned, a sound that seemed borne of almost as much longing as I felt in me.

‘Fuck me, you’re so wet, Lau.’

‘I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Ohh that’s amazing.’

I couldn’t wait any longer, and started to thrust, feeling the slippery friction as I pushed all the way into her, hard and fast, the velvet smooth of her setting fire to the hard planes of me as if I were doused in petrol; there was to be no going slowly, this was destined to be a short, fast journey.

I was grunting with the effort, and groaning with need and longing, and I could feel the finish line approaching fast as my balls started to fizz. Lau clenched me from inside, and it felt like my cock doubled in size, too, and I shouted out again, even as I felt her wrap her legs round my back, pulling me further and deeper into her. I sped up, until my world was a blur of my dick moving against the inside of Lau, the sliding, the quivering, the slap of me against her, the rise and fall of us, the in and out, and I was shouting but I didn’t know what I was saying.

‘Fuck, Lau, yeah, tha, unh, yeah, yeah, ohh, fuck, fuck, cuh, I’m, ple – oh Lau, angel!’

And then suddenly I was there. It all exploded from my balls up through the base of my cock to the very end, and I thrust up into Lau as far as I could, and stayed there while paradise erupted around me. I remained motionless, pushed up on my hands, eyes closed, a roar in my ears which could have been the blood in my veins, the shout from my throat or the universe coming back into alignment, while I emptied myself into her, each shudder causing shock-waves through my world.

Then I opened my eyes, and looked down at Lau in wonder at this woman who had given it back to me, and in the most spectacular way. I had had orgasms before, many times, but nothing and no one on this earth had made me feel like that, like I was connected to a power supply.

A smile started to creep across my face, my arms gave way, and I collapsed on top of her, heart beating wildly, trying to catch my breath, and then kissed her from neck to mouth, then rolled onto my side as I slipped out of her, still twitching a bit, pulling Lau with me so we were face to face.

While I got my breath back, I stroked her hair and looked into her eyes, trying to tell her silently how fucking amazing that had been. I couldn’t think of any words that would even begin to do justice to it, but eventually I stopped panting and spoke.

‘Lau, that was better than I ever imagined. Oh my fucking God, it’s been so fucking long. Ohh … yuh are awesome. Fucking awesome. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’

I resumed my frantic kissing of any part of Lau that was close enough, then pulled her tightly to me, overcome with the emotion of it all. My head was buried in her neck, and my tears trickled down my face and across her throat. Lau pushed me gently away from her and wiped my eyes with her fingers.

‘Hey, Matt, it’s OK. This is good, isn’t it?’

I nodded. ‘I know. I just can’t believe ih, there was a time I thought ih wasn’t gona fucking happen. I can’t even think how long ih’s been.’

‘Well, it must be getting on for a year. That’s a long time, especially for someone as … er … experienced as you.’

As straight talking as Lau was, she never really knew how to refer to my Matt the Lad days. She meant, I suppose, that considering how much sex I’d had, it must have felt like a long wait, and yeah, readers, you will know how true that is. However, I wanted her to know that it wasn’t just the having of the sex that was so hugely important, it was who I was having it with.

‘Noh, Lau, you know what, for the last couple of months it’s been about you. I mean, yeah, getting ih up’s important to me, I’m a bloody bloke aren’t I, but I’ve so wanted to do that with you. So fucking much.’

And then it occurred to me, how focussed I’d been just on me and what I needed, no change there then.

‘Oh fuck, and it’s gone again, and I didn’t even wait for you, I just went in all guns blazing, Matt has to get his end away and –’

‘Stop it, Matt. It was fine, it was great, there’s going to be plenty of time to do it all again and take it slower. Feeling you inside me, how much of you I could feel, it was – I’ve never – just wow. I’ve waited a long time for that too. It was worth it.’

If I’d believed in angels, I would have outed Lau as one in disguise. I wondered if she had any idea how much better she made me feel.

‘Really?’

‘Really. God, do you know how much I love you?’

‘I bloody hope ih’s as much as I love you.’

‘At least as much. Might be a bit more.’

‘Doubt ih’s more, not possible. Not gona leh you beat me.’

‘Too bad. I believe I win.’

‘How d’you work that out?’

‘I am the ref. You said the ref is always right.’

‘Tha’s in rugby. Sometimes football. Who made yuh the bloody love ref?’

‘Self-appointed. I’ve taken all the exams, passed all the tests. The certificate’s on its way.’

‘Can’t we call ih a draw? I don’t wana think I migh be lacking in the love department.’

‘Well … alright. Ref judges a draw is achieved. Love all.’

‘Ha ha. Good score. Know wha, Lau, just because my hard-on’s gone dohnt mean you miss out.’

I stroked a nipple, which rather pleasingly immediately stood to attention.

‘See, there’s plenty more ways of getting a good Scottying.’

‘I do see that. Care to show me more?’

I showed her more with my tongue, lips and fingers, for some time, until it all reached a very satisfactory conclusion.

Laura

Afterwards, lying in the gentle glow of heat and love, in his arms, kissing softly and touching gently, Matt suddenly propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at me.

‘Lau, move in with me. Or I’ll move in with yuh. Or we’ll get somewhere together. It’s bloody stupid having two places. You belong with me. Let’s do ih.’

I smiled up at him. Yes, it was time.

‘OK. Let’s.’