30. Back to December

In which a deep and meaningful is endured, understandings are undertaken, and it is very nearly Christmas.

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Dec

I listened to the sounds from upstairs; Cal seemed to be explaining something to Jay, who laughed. There was a bit more talk, then I heard Jay coming back downstairs. He came into the living room, sat on the other sofa and put a large box of tissues on the table.

łI dare you.

‘Can’t promise anything.’

łFuck, me neither, actually mate. I’m so bloody tired, this has been such a bloody long time coming. Anyway, here we are. I don’t really know where to start. I want … I need to … ah fuck it, I just want you to be honest. Really honest with me. I want to know what went wrong, I guess. I don’t know what order to do things in, I’m not very good at this heart-to-heart shit. Maybe –

He took a deep breath.

łJesus, I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, sitting with Matty, you’d think I’d have it all straight by now. OK, there’s one thing I keep thinking about, wondering about, I don’t know if you can explain it. What the fuck possessed you to give Raiders a dodgy passport when you first arrived?

I was silent for a while, thinking back, trying to get it straight in my mind.

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

łCome on, Dec, you must have known.

‘Maybe part of me did. It seems so long ago. I was Declan by then, so I used Declan’s passport.’

łWhat do you mean? You make it sound like you changed your identity or something.

I breathed in deeply. This was hard, visiting places I’d buried a long time ago.

‘I … kind of did. Shit, Jay. I’ve … I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone about this. I know you want me to be honest, I want to be, but all this shit from back then, I’m not sure if I can even say it. Bear with me, yeah?’

He nodded. I wanted him to say it was OK, I didn’t have to carry on, but he didn’t. He just sat, looking at me.

‘OK. Right.’

I ran my hands over my face. Another couple of deep breaths. Reached into that deep, dark place.

‘Declan Summers is the name I was given when I was born. Actually, Declan Charles Summers. My real name, if you like, if you go back far enough. I was born in England, to English parents, whoever the fuck they were, don’t know, don’t really care. I was adopted when I was a baby, by my Mum and Dad, who were Australian. Their last name was Collier. They took my middle name and called me Charlie.’

My voice broke as I said it. No one I loved had called me Charlie for a very long time. Memories and feelings crowded in, threatening to paralyse me. I stopped talking for a while, summoning the strength to carry on. Jay was still looking at me, frowning slightly.

‘Anyway, so I had an Australian passport that said I was Charlie Collier and a British passport that said I was Declan Summers. Don’t ask me how I wound up with two, I really don’t know; there are so many gaps I can’t fill in. All I know is, when I ended up on my own in this fucking country after Mum and Dad …’

This was the part that was hard, the part I had pushed away, hidden, tried not to think about. I took some more ragged breaths.

‘… I was thirteen. I was Charlie Collier. I didn’t want to be Charlie Collier, it was too fucking hard. Charlie Collier’s parents were dead. Charlie Collier was put into care because nobody wanted him. Charlie Collier was having a really shit time. So I went back to being Declan Summers. Changed foster homes, changed schools, changed names. It was easier. It was better. No one had seen Declan Summers’ name in the paper, no one felt sorry for Declan Summers, no one felt weird being with Declan Summers because his parents were dead. Declan Summers was a clean slate. I didn’t think about passports or legal stuff, I was only thirteen for fuck’s sake.’

łJesus, Dec. I had no idea. We didn’t know any of this. Only the bare bones, about your parents, being in care. We never asked because you never seemed to want to talk about it. Didn’t you have social workers or anything?

‘Yeah, when they could be bothered. I don’t think I was badly behaved enough, although I tried my hardest. I saw counsellors, on and off, but I moved around a lot, and it was easy just to miss appointments. No one could keep track of me. I was a bit wild, but I didn’t break the law or anything, maybe a few tellings off from the police for getting into fights, smashing stuff up, that kind of thing. Social Services pretty much let me get on with it, my foster families weren’t much better. I did whatever I wanted. Luckily, some of what I wanted was playing rugby. Dad got me into it, used to take me to watch before we moved over here …

The memory crept up on me and took me by surprise. It stopped me in my tracks, halting my breath, as a wave of loss and desolation crashed over me. I stared at the floor, trying to breathe, trying to bring myself back.

łDec?

‘Fuck, Jay. I … it’s … sorry. I haven’t thought about this shit for so long. It’s just too fucking hard.’

With an effort I pushed it away, hid the memories from myself. Thought about what Jay had asked me, and focussed on that.

‘Anyway, you asked about my passport. By the time I was scouted by Raiders, I was well and truly Declan. Nobody remembered I had been Charlie, I barely remembered myself. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t use Declan’s passport at Raiders – why would I have gone back to being Charlie? I really didn’t do it on purpose, I just never even thought about it.’

łSo why did you use your other passport when you crashed your car?

‘I don’t know. I’ve kept myself awake many nights thinking about that one. Well, I suppose the passport bit’s easy. When I was questioned by the police after the accident, I just gave my name as Charlie Collier. I have no idea why. I was kind of sleepwalking, on automatic pilot, it just came out. Once I’d told them that name, I couldn’t change it, too many explanations, and I had to give them all the right paperwork. Maybe I was having another go at the self-protection thing, you know, try being a different person, then maybe all this didn’t really happen to me. It worked before. Plus, I was terrified. That man had died. I think I just wanted to escape it all, not think about it. But it all got so complicated. When the inquest was reported in the paper, I realised what a mess I’d made of things. It dawned on me what I’d done, giving them the wrong name, the wrong passport, and then I finally realised that I might have got Raiders in trouble too. I should have come clean to the club, talked to you, something, tried to sort it out. But I was so deep in it all, I couldn’t see a way through it. I just buried it all again. Hoped it might go away if no one found out. I mean, maybe it was going to come out sooner or later, but later was fine by me, just then.’

łJesus, Dec. This all sounds seriously fucked up. Who the fuck are you? Do you even know?

I looked at him miserably, shook my head. I’d tried to be honest, tell him how things had been. Now I was scared I’d just made things more confusing, made myself look more of a liar, and taken several steps backwards in trying to mend things, pushed him further away.

‘It’s been hard. I … I’ve been in a weird place, done things that felt like … like someone else was doing them. I’m still me.’

łI know you are, mate, I don’t think you’ve changed, really, but what I mean is, it’s all jumbled up in your head. How have you managed to keep any of it straight? Without completely cracking up?

‘I’m not sure I have, really. Most of my fuck-ups over the last few months I can’t explain, even to myself. I’m pretty much an emotional wreck, just ask Rose, she’s had to pick me up more times than I can count.’

łMate, you’ve had a really tough time, done most of it on your own. You’ve had to be pretty strong, I think, to cope with everything. I wish we’d known more, I wish we’d been able to help you. Jesus, thinking of you on your own here, no parents, in care … was there really no one who you could have gone to?

‘I didn’t have any other family here. Nobody back in Australia who gave a shit. No other choice.’

łBut a thirteen year old kid, you shouldn’t have been on your own. It’s … fuck, I just can’t believe it was allowed to happen.

‘It was shit for a long time. Deep, dark, shit. I was pretty fucked up. Well, you know what I was like when I first arrived. But that’s when it started to change, when I got the Raiders scholarship and came to live with you and Beth. It just got better. Yeah, I had a lot of stuff in my head that I hadn’t sorted, wasn’t going to touch, but you gave me back some of what I’d lost. I don’t know if you realise how much you helped. I don’t know if I realised it until I lost it. You and Beth cared about me, you let me in, wanted me. Raiders wanted me. I hadn’t felt wanted for such a bloody long time –

My voice broke again. My emotions were threatening to overwhelm me, close up my throat and shut me down completely. Jay waited, looking sad and worried.

Matt

I slept on into the evening, waking up to find Mum and Beth reading magazines, looking for all the world like they were in a waiting room.

‘Nehxt.’

They both looked up together, both got the same relieved look on their faces at the same time, and it was so funny, but I remembered what laughing had done to me last time and satisfied myself with an inner chuckle.

‘Hi Matty. You’re back with us, then. Want something to eat, sweetheart?’

Not really, but I’d learned that unless I said yes, they’d just spend the next hour offering me all sorts of weird shit to try and tempt me. ‘Yeh.’

‘We’ve made some mince pies, dear.’

I loved Mum’s mince pies. And I loved Beth’s mince pies. The thought of them made my mouth water. Fancy that.

‘Fuck yeh.’

‘I think ‘yes please’ is the acceptable form of address, dear.’

‘Fuck yeh plehs.’

Beth rolled her eyes and left, hopefully to fetch some mince pies and not to teach me a lesson for swearing. She did know I totally owned Cripple’s Corner, right? Whether she realised this or not, she came back a minute or two later with two plates of mince pies.

‘One lot was made by me, and the other by Carol. Your challenge is to tell us which is which.’

‘Wha? Noh, I can’t choose.’

‘You don’t have to say whose is the best, just whose is whose.’

I could already tell. I’d know one of Mum’s mince pies anywhere. But I played along, eating one of each, then going back and having a bite out of both, which was the point really, that I ate something, and I knew it, and Beth and Mum knew it, but fuck it, if it was a game and not something they were bloody going on about, it was worth it.

‘Mum’s. Yours.’

I pointed to the appropriate plates. Beth clapped.

‘Well done. How could you tell?’

‘Cahnt divuhlge my sehcrets.’

‘Oh well. Cup of tea to wash it down? Or how about your build-up?’

‘Teh.’

‘Are you sure? You’ve only had –’

She was in danger of spoiling it, and I needed to be firm.

‘Teh. Plehs.’

She left again to make the tea, and Mum took my hand.

‘How are you feeling, dear?’

‘Tihred.’

‘Go back to sleep then.’

‘Yeh. Muhm?’

‘Yes, dear.’

‘Yuhrs ahr the behst.’

I closed my eyes as the smuggest smile I had ever seen crept over my mum’s face.

Dec

‘Sorry, all this is really hard to say. When … when I fucked it all up in the summer, crashed my car and the whole fucking mess that came out of that, I went back there to that deep, dark, shit place. Back to being on my own. It was what I deserved. I’d pissed away everything. I wasn’t worth anything to anyone. Everything else I did after that came from being there.’

łDec, this … I’m not sure I know what to say. It’s a lot to take in. But you never deserved to be on your own. You never deserved to think you’re not worth anything. No one deserves that. I wish … things had been different. I don’t know, you’d talked to us, or things had just happened differently. Jesus, all this is way beyond me. But it does help me to understand it a bit. You definitely are going to see Don’s psychologist?

‘Yeah.’

łWell that’s something. Jesus, everything else I was going to say seems a bit trivial after that. Look, Dec, we can leave this for now, if you want, or we can carry on, thrash out all the crap that’s been between us the last few months. We’ve got to do it sometime. You look a bit shaky, though. Your call.

I sat, head bowed, considering. It was so, so hard to talk about. I didn’t know if I had the mental strength for any of it, but more than anything, I really wanted things to be right with me and Jay.

‘No, carry on. I want to sort things out. I’m OK, I’ll be OK.’

łOK, if you’re sure.

I nodded. He ran a hand through his hair.

łYou know, Dec, when you first came to live with us, you were … how can I put it?

‘Bit of a nightmare?’

łYeah, maybe, for want of a better word. Don was asking for volunteers to give you a room for a few weeks, Beth persuaded me to give it a go. I thought I wouldn’t see much of you, except at work, and maybe you’d need a bit of an eye keeping on you to start with, but the club would find somewhere else for you before long, and you’d be gone.

He took a breath, looked down at his fingers.

łAnyway, more than a few weeks went by, you were still there, I saw more of you than I expected because you kept ditching school and bringing those bloody Goths home with you. I hassled Don to find you somewhere else, but it didn’t happen. Beth was determined to give you a go anyway, said she could see your potential – must have been buried bloody deep down.

I was quiet. This all seemed like it had happened so long ago; I was so different now.

łI was a bit worried about the effect you were having on Cal, but Beth kept saying how good you were with him, and when I thought about it, you were. Maybe not a particularly good role model, with the underage drinking, the dodgy mates, the bunking off school and the bad language, but you played with him, and talked to him, and took care of him, and generally seemed to like having him around. He can only have been – what – two when you first arrived?

‘Something like that I guess. It was like having a little brother.’

łYeah, I know. You both seemed to hit it off, from the start really. Anyway, as well as being great with Cal, gradually other things changed, you settled down, you just started doing what you were told. Ditched the attitude, ditched the Goths, knuckled down at school and in training, actually grew up quite a bit, got sensible even. After a while, I never thought any more about you moving on somewhere else, you just became part of us, part of the family.

Jay paused, shaking his head slightly as if confused about what came next.

łWhen we came back from Portugal, though, it was like you’d gone back to being that sixteen year old nightmare – staying in your room, going out without saying where, all that. We couldn’t work out what had happened. For a while we wondered if you were pissed off with us for something, leaving you on your own while we went on holiday maybe, but it felt bigger than being a bit pissed off. We felt out of our depth, wondered if we should have got more help with you when you first got here, found out a bit more about you, so we could talk to you about what went on when you were younger. Maybe if we had, it would have changed things. Too late by then, you were over eighteen.

By the time I was eighteen, I had stopped childishly hankering after the ‘real parents’ I’d wanted Jay and Beth to be. I was well on the road to independence, thought I was tough enough not to need anyone. My life seemed littered with if onlys …

łBeth had tried so hard with you when you first arrived, she’d just seemed to know what to do to help you calm down and relax with us. Even she was at a loss, though, nothing was getting through. Then you moved out, didn’t even say goodbye, hardly ever answered your phone, and you never returned calls. You barely spoke to me at the club, except when you had to. For me, I felt like you’d chucked everything back in our faces, it was a real kick in the teeth. The only thing that wasn’t affected was your playing and your training.

‘It was all I had, I just had to hang on to it. If I hadn’t had that – well I needed it, it got me through everything else. When I was suspended, couldn’t even go to the ground, everything just got so much worse.’

łI guess so, I’m still trying to piece it all together. So, that went on for a while, we felt like you’d cut us out of your life, doing whatever the fuck it was you were doing. Beth was really upset, I was just bloody angry. We thought you just didn’t want us any more Cal really missed you, he kept asking why you weren’t there, and we didn’t really have a good answer. I know you came round a couple of times to see him, I guess that made a difference, but it was tough on him.

I felt close to tears thinking about how much I’d upset Cal.

‘I feel terrible. In my head, I was doing the right thing.’

łWhich was what, exactly?

‘Keeping away. I was one enormous fuck-up. Everything I touched seemed to turn to shit, from the moment I crashed my car. Every time I tried to make things better, they just got worse. I wanted to keep everyone away from me, so no one got dragged into it. When that bloke turned up at the house, asking for money, he scared me. I thought he was genuine, didn’t I, and he was pretty full on, intimidating. I had to move out, I didn’t want him to come round when Beth or Cal were there, I was scared he might do something to them, frighten them or something, to get at me, but I couldn’t explain it without telling you what I’d done. I couldn’t tell you what I’d done because it was just too huge, too many consequences I wasn’t in control of. I couldn’t face it. The less I talked to you, the less likely I was to slip up and tell you. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.’

łJesus, Dec. What a mess, what a fucking screwed up mess. Makes sense? Fuck, no. None of this makes any fucking sense. It sounds like you didn’t want to lose it all, so you threw it all away instead – you really weren’t thinking straight, were you? Thing is, you’ve tried to carry all this alone. I guess maybe I can see why, now, if you felt like you’d gone back to a place where you had to just look out for yourself. But for us, when we came back from holiday in the summer, your car was gone, your bloody precious car, no explanation, and it was like you were gone too. You were like a different person. You wouldn’t talk to us, you stayed in your room, then a few weeks later you left with some bloody lame story about a college course. It was so obviously not true. We didn’t know what to think. We thought you’d met a girl or something – it felt like you were ditching us. Why didn’t you talk to us? Everything might have been different if you’d just said something.

‘I don’t know if I can explain it. I just shut down. After I crashed my car, I felt panicky the whole time you were away. I don’t know if it would have been different if you hadn’t been away when it happened, but by the time you came back I’d gone into a kind of … like a daze or fog or something. I was scared someone was going to find out, that man had died and, I dunno, I thought I might go to prison or something. I don’t know if I was … ashamed? Terrified? Both. Couldn’t deal with it, pushed it down with all the other shit. Then that bloke came round, saying he wanted paying for what I did to his dad, and it seemed like I could fix it, make things better. I thought if I gave him what he wanted, it would all go away. I know it sounds mad now, but that’s what I thought. But to do it I had to make sure nobody knew, so I just … let everything go. If I didn’t see people they wouldn’t ask questions. I really think I might have been a bit mad. It sounds crazy just saying it.’

łJesus, Dec. Don’s shrink is sounding more and more necessary. This is all way beyond me. Something Rose said, while you were in hospital – did you know we called her, talked to her for a long time when we got back home?

‘You said, she’s never mentioned it.’

łShe’s bloody great, you owe her a lot.

‘I know.’

łAnyway, she told us some of why she thought you’d done the things you did, she saw what we couldn’t I guess, that you were really mixed up. We just saw what you were doing, how it affected us; Rose could see a bit of why.’

I thought about why that might have been.

‘I told Rose everything, things I never told you or Beth.’

Jay nodded.

łMaybe that explains it. She said you’re a bit fragile where families are concerned. It never occurred to us that you’d lost two lots of parents before you came to us – you never really talked about it, we never realised there was this much going on in your head. But she wondered if you felt you needed to deal with stuff on your own, partly because that’s how you’d learned to do things when you were in trouble, and partly because you were scared you’d lose us if you involved us.

I thought about it, but couldn’t begin to unravel my motives.

‘Could be. Did the opposite, though, didn’t it. Pretty much wrecked everything with you and Beth.’

łMaybe for a while, but don’t forget what I said to you before. Family is family, and you’re part of ours, if you want it. Actually, no, whether you want it or not. That’s never going to change, whatever happens. I don’t know if you get that, or believe it. Jesus, Dec, I said some fucking awful things to you. I lose sleep over that time I yelled at you in the car park. I was just so angry with you, and upset about Matty, it all just came out. I won’t say I didn’t mean it, because on that day I really did, and for a while afterwards, but now when I think about it, Jesus, if I could take it back, not say it …

‘Nothing I didn’t deserve.’

łDec, I don’t get this ‘what I deserve’ bullshit. Where’s it coming from? You cocked things up big time, made some seriously fucking horrendous decisions, there were consequences. But deserve it? I don’t see it.

‘Worthless piece of shit.’

łWhat?

‘That’s what I am, why I deserve it all, everything that’s happened, everything you said to me, all of it. I’ve screwed so many things up – your job, Cal, Raiders’ chances of top four. Shit, Jay, I fucking killed someone –’

łJesus! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What the fuck are you talking about? Do you think I’d let a worthless piece of shit spend the day with my son? Or have a laugh with my brother? Or hug my wife? I’ve met some fucking worthless pieces of shit in my time, and believe me you are not one. Yeah, I know, someone died, that must be fucking terrible for you to have to live with, but it wasn’t your fault. It was a fucking awful accident. Jesus. Dec, you seriously, seriously need some help with all this.

Cal

I tried to go to sleep, I really did, but when it’s Christmas tomorrow, it’s very hard, because the excited feeling just bubbles up in your tummy and stops you.

I could hear Dad and Dec talking in the living room, which was below my room, although I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I lay in bed for a long time, hearing the voices in the room below, and then I thought that if I went and sat on the stairs, I might be able to hear more. Sometimes I did that to hear what Mum and Dad were saying, but they usually had the door open. The door was shut, though, and I couldn’t hear much more from half way up the stairs than I could from my bed. I stayed and listened to their voices, because I liked hearing Dad and Dec talking – I hadn’t heard it for a long time, and it made me feel happy.

Dec

I had no reply for him, finding it hard to meet his eyes, trying to blink away the tears in my own. Jay’s tone of voice and anger had taken me back to the day he got the letter about the inquest, and to him yelling at me in the car park. I felt like I was about to lose him all over again.

łYou’re going quiet on me, come on, we’re not finished yet.

‘I can’t handle it.’

łWhat?

‘If I lose you all again.’

łHave you not heard a word I’ve said? OK, words of one syllable. We. Love. You. Jesus, that’s not something you’re going to hear me say often. But that’s what you need to hear. You’re part of our family. That’s what it means. Part of us. Forever. Family. Jay, Beth, Cal and Dec. Nothing you can do, nothing I can do will change it. Beth told me what you said to Cal, about being cross with people but still loving them. It’s true – you can’t lose us, that’s just how it is. You haven’t fucked anything up with us, not deep down. It’s taken me a while to get there, to understand it – I guess it might take you a while too – but you’re family. I think that’s as important to you as it is to us. I hope we never have to go through anything like the last few months again to make us realise it.

It finally did get through. I couldn’t quite take it in. I’d spent so long convincing myself I’d lost it all, I hadn’t realised how hard it would be for me to see things differently. It needed time to sink in.

‘Fuck.’

I took a shaky breath, leaned forwards and rubbed my face with my hands, trying to grab hold of what Jay had just said. He nudged the tissue box towards me.

‘No, I’m OK.’

Although the tremble in my voice told a different story.

łDo you get it now?

‘I think so.’

It was actually starting to feel like something had set me free, something that had kept me chained up for months.

‘Jay, being here, it’s so huge for me. A few weeks ago, I thought I’d blown it, thought I’d never see any of you again. What I did, what you said – I thought that was it, finished. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my head round that, trying to accept it. It’s been hard. Being here with you all, thinking maybe I might not have fucked it all up, it’s taking some getting used to. It doesn’t feel real yet. I can hardly believe it.’

łIt feels pretty huge for us too, Dec. It’s been fairly fucking shitty, hasn’t it? Yeah, I know what you mean, getting our heads round it all might take a while. But I’m glad you’re here, it feels right. I didn’t know if it would be weird or awkward, but it hasn’t been, it’s almost like we’ve started where we left off, before we went on holiday. Yeah, everything’s been shit for all of us, but I think we can leave that behind, I hope we can. Especially if you’re going to get some help sorting out the large amount of crap that seems to be lodged in your head?

‘Yeah. I will – I am.’

łThank fuck for that. I need to ask you just one more thing, though, if you can hack it. About Cal asking about us being cross with him. That’s been an ongoing thing since he called you that time on my phone. What the fuck did you tell him?

I thought back. It seemed a long time ago, when I felt like I was somewhere else and someone else.

‘Well, a while ago, when you were still living in the city, me and Cal made a plan to go to Dinosaurland on his birthday. I’d forgotten, with everything that happened, but he hadn’t, of course. He’d decided you were going to bring him down, so we could still do it. I tried to put him off, told him I couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t do it, but he had an answer for everything. I had to tell him something, explain it somehow, without telling any more lies. The only way I could do that was to tell him the truth.’

łYour version of which being …?

‘That I was a thief and a liar, and you were cross with me about it and didn’t want to see me any more’

łJesus Christ, did you say it just like that?

‘I can’t remember exactly. Probably not far off. I know it was a bit blunt – I was panicking, I was really messed up, not thinking straight. It was so good to talk to him, I needed to tell him the truth, but I was about to break a promise to him, and it freaked me out. I’d told so many lies, I just couldn’t do it any more, especially to Cal.’

łWell that explains a lot. He had a really hard time getting to grips with that one. And that’s when you lost Beth, she was pretty upset with you. Cal kept on and on that day about why we were cross, were we cross with him. For a little while he couldn’t cope if we bickered with each other, and he really thought if he annoyed us at all we were going to kick him out, not speak to him. Beth was really angry – up till then she’d been trying to make excuses for you, tried to talk about you with Cal, but that tipped it for her. It just seemed like you didn’t even care about Cal any more, about how what you said might affect him. It wasn’t until he ran away that she’d even mention your name again. I guess that was only about a week later, wasn’t it, but it seemed longer. I couldn’t even think about you. Jesus, I’m getting pissed off just talking about it now.

I listened to all this, in growing misery. I’d been so happy today, spending time with Cal, feeling like I might be back in their family. If I’d damaged Cal in any way, I couldn’t bear it.

‘I had no idea, Jay, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what else to say at the time. I tried to talk to him yesterday, told him you can care about someone and be cross with them at the same time.’

łI know, mate, I know how much you love him. I think we’ve got him to see that we’d never do any of the things he was worried about. He’s OK now. Ignore me, I’m just letting off steam, I need to tell you how it was for us. I know you were having a hard time, we’ve talked to Rose a lot, and Nico and Lis. They’ve helped us to see, I think, that you haven’t really been yourself for quite a while. Nico was so worried about you the night after the points hearing, he came home and told us everything, even though we’d said we didn’t want to know anything about you. He says you were in a right state.

‘I guess I was. That was a tough night. I felt like I’d lost absolutely everything, couldn’t see how I was going to carry on. Rose and Nico were amazing.’

łDec, I have to say, again, I think it’s really important you spend time with Don’s psychologist bloke.

‘Yeah. Got an appointment in the New Year.’

łGood. You need to sort your head out.

‘I know. I’m a mess.’

łYeah, you’re a bloody head case, but you’ve had a lot to cope with. You just need some help to sort it out.

‘Jay…’

łDec.

‘Can I ask you something?’

łSeems fair, you’ve been pretty brutally fucking honest with me so far.

‘Did you leave Raiders because of me?’

łJesus. Jesus, Dec. Well, fair question I suppose. OK … maybe, thinking about it … I guess, in a way, yeah.

He saw the anguish on my face, and held a hand up to stop me.

łHold on, before you go off on another guilt trip, let me explain. That day, when the letter came about your accident, and everything went arse about face, was the worst possible day it could have come. I’d just had a call from Mum to say Matty was in hospital, and it wasn’t looking very good. Beth and I had been trying to decide whether we needed to come up here to help Mum out – Matty was diagnosed in the summer, shortly after you moved out, but he hadn’t been too bad, he was living with his girlfriend, still working, although he’d had to cut his hours down. Then he started to get worse, his girlfriend left him, it was pretty messy, he got this cold, or flu or whatever, and just went downhill.

I was still trying to get the sequence of events straight in my head. That time, back when everything crashed around me, was hazy, but now Jay was telling it in order, I could understand why he’d been so angry.

łAnyway, Mum had just rung, and I was trying to get organised to come up here, when I get this letter about you, saying did I know you’d killed a man and did I know who you really are. I think it’s a joke, or some nutter stirring it, until I show it to you and you crumple like you’ve been shot. And then Don says you’ve taken the charity money, and all the shit with your passport, and it just seems like you’ve been lying about everything. And I can’t believe it’s all fucking happening at once, and it makes me so mad, and I can’t even start to think about it or know what the fuck to do about it –

Jay’s voice broke, his face buckled, and tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

łBollocks, I can’t believe I caved first. It just brings it all back.

He half laughed, half sobbed, took a shuddering breath.

łSorry, anyway, so I want to get away, come up here to be with Matty in case … but now I’ve got to deal with you, and you’re being all uncommunicative, and I don’t have the patience, or the time. And everyone I talk to is telling me you owe them money, and I feel like I just don’t know who the fuck you are any more It’s like you’ve been pulling the wool over our eyes all this time. And maybe if you don’t want us, we don’t want you either.

This was hard to hear. At the time I hadn’t thought how it might look to Jay and Beth. I’d only thought of getting away to protect both myself and them. I had never not wanted them; being apart from them had been the hardest thing.

łSo I decided I’d just quit, there and then, come up here, so I didn’t have to piss about with you, or have you or anyone else stop me from looking after my brother. Don didn’t want me to go, he said I could have some personal leave, but I guess, to answer your question, I wanted to get away and not have to come back and face all your shit, so, yeah, if I’m honest I did leave because of you. But, Dec, it was my decision. And it was the right one, thinking about it. I don’t want anyone else looking after Matty. Me and Beth have got it covered. I’m glad I came up here, it’s where I should be. Mum needs it and Matty needs it.

I was silent for a moment as I tried to figure out what to say.

‘I wish there was a better word – I’m sorry.’

łDon’t make me sodding punch you. Listen to me. It’s not about sorry or blame, or at least it’s not now. I guess I did blame you at first. But, like I said when you were in hospital, well, something like that happens and you realise deep down what you really feel. Jesus, Dec, when they told me the bloke I’d found in the car park was you, I felt sick. There was so much blood, your face was so swollen and bloody it was unrecognisable. We went straight to the hospital when they told us, I sat with you most of the night. I had a lot of time to think about why I was doing that, if I was so glad to be shot of you and all your fucking shit. Beth had already started to – I dunno – forgive you?

Jay ran his hands through his hair as he tried to explain it all.

łAfter you found Cal that time, she couldn’t stay angry. I wasn’t so ready – when I saw you again, after you found him, it just brought back all that anger, I mean I was so fucking relieved he was OK, and grateful, but I didn’t want to be, it was all churning around, wishing it had been anyone else who’d found him. But after that, Beth made me talk about you, and I found I could bear to say your name. Actually, she got me thinking. She asked why I still had your number on my phone if I was done with you. If I’d deleted it, Cal wouldn’t have been able to ring you that time, and things might have been a lot different.

I had wondered the same thing myself – had expected him to have deleted all traces of me from his life, by the time I got Cal’s call.

łI didn’t have a good answer to that, apart from maybe I wasn’t as done as I thought. So, I sat there in the hospital looking at you with your broken bones and your stitches and your bruises and your unrecognisable beaten up fuck-ugly face, and it occurred to me that you don’t sit there all night waiting for someone to wake up, to know they’re alright, if you don’t care about them. I thought about what you’d done, and how it made me feel, and decided that whether you had reasons for it or not, it was just part of us. I stopped being angry. Stopped blaming you. Accepted it. You need to do the same. Do you remember Rose saying, when you were in hospital, something about you being sad because you’d lost us, lost your family?

‘Yeah.’

łWell, that was what finally sorted it for me. Whatever you had been thinking while you were away from us, it wasn’t that you wanted to ditch us. You still thought of us as your family, and had done all along, whatever else you’d been trying to prove along the way. It was really important for me and Beth to know that, that it wasn’t all one way from us, that you felt the same. Fuck me, Dec, this is hard. You know I don’t usually do all this emotional talking shit. And, there you go, here are the tissues, join me in the blub club.

My eyes were streaming tears. I was completely choked up. Telling Jay about the past had stirred up feelings I had buried deep down, and the reality of still being part of his family was breaking over me. I was close to losing control and I needed to push it back down before it took over and swamped me. I closed my eyes, took some deep breaths and focussed on what Jay was saying.

łSo, bottom line, you need to get your head sorted. No more of this ‘worthless’ crap. You’re worth a lot to us. Find out what’s going on in that skull. Stop saying sorry, start accepting help from people. You’re in this family, whether you like it or not. OK?

I took another deep, shuddery breath and pushed the past back as far as it would go. It would still be there waiting, another day. Opened my eyes and looked at him.

‘Jay, are we really OK now?’

łYes, Dec, we’re OK. I think in a way, we always were, although looking back maybe neither of us would have said so at the time. It might have taken us a while longer to get there; whoever smashed that bottle over your head did us all a huge favour. Don’t ever stop talking to me again, OK?

‘OK.’

A wave of relief swamped me. I started to cry again.

łYou know what, it’s fucking Christmas tomorrow. No blubbing allowed. Come here.

He stood up and pulled me to my feet, throwing his arms round me, slapping me noisily on the back. I sniffled on his shoulder.

łOK, that’s enough of that.

Although his eyes were wet too.

łI think we need beer. Fuck, should have thought of that before.

I wiped my eyes.

‘Er, not sure I’m allowed.’

łWhat? Says who?

‘Don, weeks ago.’

łWhy?

‘Well, after I was suspended I went on a bit of a major vodka bender. Lost two days. Missed an appointment with him. He was rather pissed off. Made a no alcohol rule.’

łTwo days? Impressive. Ohh … so that’s where you disappeared to. Absolutely fucking everyone was looking for you. He won’t have intended for it to cover Christmas, he probably hasn’t even thought about telling you it’s OK now. Come on, you can’t have Christmas Eve without beer!

Cal

The door opened, and it made me jump, and I should have run back to bed, but it was Dad going to the kitchen and he didn’t see me. I heard him talking to Mum. I went down the rest of the stairs and stood in the doorway to the living room.

Dec

There was a movement in the doorway – Cal stood there, blinking guiltily. I wondered if he’d been waiting on the stairs like he used to, trying to listen.

‘Dec, I’m not going to sleep.’

‘Why’s that, mate?’

Cal

‘It’s nearly Christmas.’

It was best not to tell him I’d been on the stairs trying to listen to what he’d been saying to Dad.

‘Are you excited?’

I nodded.

‘Come over here, let me tell you about the Christmas Mouse.’

This was a new story. Dec had never told me the Christmas Mouse before. We got into the reading position, and I warmed up a bit, because it had been cold sitting on the stairs in my pyjamas.

The Christmas Mouse story was about mouse children who wanted to see if Santa came to mice children, and how they saved a cat and …

Dec

It was a story Mum used to tell me when I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve. Cal found a place under my arm and snuggled in. When Jay came back with the beer, Cal was nearly asleep. A few more minutes, and he was completely out. Jay picked him up gently and carried him upstairs, while Beth came in and sat next to me on the sofa.

_I’m glad you’ve sorted stuff out with James. It’s been a completely horrible end to the year, he needed this. Are you alright, sweetheart? It sounds like you had quite an emotional conversation.

‘I’ll be OK. I told him a lot of stuff I haven’t thought about for a long time, things I’ve never told anyone before. I’m sure he’ll tell you. Need to put it away somewhere in my head for another day. Do I need to sort stuff out with you, too?’

My heart sank a bit at going over it all again with Beth, but if that’s what it took, I would. I’d do anything to make things right with these two people who meant more to me than I’d ever been willing to admit to myself.

_Not really, sweetheart. You found Cal when he ran away. That sorted me. You cared enough to go looking for him. You knew him well enough to know where he’d be. You found him and you told me and you loved us enough to walk away. I could see how hard that was for you. I’m so glad you’re here now.

‘I hate that I upset you, I hate that I upset Cal.’

_I know, Dec. I hate that we didn’t help you when you needed it. It’s done now. None of us can change what we did, although we can regret things and try not to do them again. Did you ever stop loving us?

‘No. I thought about you all the time.’

_Then that’s all I need to know. I was more upset that you didn’t talk to us than anything you might have done. I didn’t understand why you didn’t want us to help. You know me, I like to talk about things, and it hurt to be shut out. I thought we trusted each other.

‘Sorry. I’m sorry for everything, what I did, you know … ‘

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s finished now. I think you and James have just done more talking than either of you have ever done in your lives before. Don’t stop now, will you.

She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

_You know you never need to feel alone. You’ve always got us.

‘Thanks, Beth. It really means a lot. I guess, before, I just took it all for granted. I didn’t realise what I had with you all until I chucked it away.’

_Maybe sometimes you have to lose something before you realise how much it means to you. I didn’t know how much you were a part of our family until you’d gone and there was this big hole. I know I’m so pleased to have you back. Let’s talk more about things, out in the open, whatever’s bothering us.

‘I’ll try. Not my strong point.’

_Ha ha, don’t I know it. All any of us can do is try, sweetheart. God, I’m knackered. All evening talking to Carol is exhausting at the best of times. I’m going to bed. Remind James to put the presents under the tree, and some in Matty’s room, and do Cal’s stocking, would you?

‘Sure.’

_Dec …

‘Yeah?’

_One day, when you’re ready, I’d love to hear about your mum and dad.

My eyes filled with tears, which I blinked away.

‘OK.’

_Night, sweetheart.

‘See you tomorrow.’

I heard her go upstairs, and then heard her voice as she talked to Jay. A few minutes later, Jay came back into the living room, with a bottle opener.

łRight, let’s get these open and watch something Christmassy on the telly.

He opened the beers and handed one to me. And that was that, finished for now with the pain of explanations and remembering. Jay had switched back into normal life straight away. It took me longer to leave the darkness and come back to now.

The beer helped. It tasted really good, but went to my head pretty quickly. I hadn’t drunk anything alcoholic for quite a while now, and my system had adapted. When Jay got another a bit later, I took it a bit more slowly, but when I stood up to go to the loo, I swayed slightly.

łBloody hell, Dec, are you drunk? On two? You lightweight!

‘I’m not used to it. Need to build up my resistance again. Or something.’

łHave to see what we can do over the next couple of days, then.

‘Can’t go too mad, strict instructions from Steve.’

łBollocks to Steve, what does he know? He’s only got degrees in nutrition and stuff. I say fuck him, it’s Christmas.

I laughed. And burped.

‘OK, fuck him, it’s Christmas. Sounds good. Now I really need to pee.’

Some time later, Jay had had a couple more, I had managed one and was close to falling asleep. The TV was still on, but the programme had changed, and was now some Christmassy chat show. There was laughter, and music, and it felt happy and jolly, and finally, after months of unhappiness and uncertainty, I felt I could begin to relate to it. I sat and watched it, enjoyed the feelings that were starting to open up again inside me.

łCome on, Dec, you should go to bed. Early start with Cal tomorrow.

‘Yeah, but Beth said – oh what did she say, something to remind you – oh yeah. Presents under the tree, and in Matt’s room, and Cal’s stocking.’

łBollocks. Completely forgot. At least they’re all wrapped. Give me a hand, there’s bloody loads.

I followed Jay to a cupboard in the utility room. He was right, it was crammed with presents. He got a few black bin bags and shovelled them in.

‘Are you expecting a coach load tomorrow or something?’

łHa ha, no most of these are Cal’s. Spoilt or what? Beth’s family have gone overboard a bit, and I suppose we have, too. He’s only little once, isn’t he. Here, you take this bag and do Matty’s tree. Mum’s in there, she will have fallen asleep. Don’t know if Matty’s awake or not.

‘I’ll be quiet.’

łThanks, and then take this up with you when you go to bed, swap it over.

He held up a duplicate of Cal’s stocking, which was bulging with exciting looking shapes.

‘What do I do with the other one?’

łOh, I don’t know, Beth usually handles that. Er, hide it in your bag or something?

‘OK. Matt’s tree, Cal’s stocking, hide in bag. Got it.’

I headed over to Matt’s room, opened the door and crept in as quietly as I could. The room was lit only by the lights from the Christmas tree. Jay’s mum was asleep in the chair, Matt was breathing noisily, eyes closed. I started putting the presents under the tree, trying to make as little sound as possible.

Matt

The next time I woke, I heard a rustling and looked over to the Christmas tree where it had come from. Beth wasn’t there, and Mum was asleep, head back against the chair, mouth open. Dec appeared to be piling presents around the tree.

‘Sahnta?’

‘Ho ho ho.’

‘Ahnything fuh me?’

‘Have you been a good boy?’

‘Fuck noh.’

‘Then probably not. You know the rules. I expect you’re on the naughty list.’

Oh I loved it, that someone was willing to treat me as if I was a person who could possibly have had a past, and done things that deserved a slap, rather than a person with only a present who deserved relentless making of allowances and pitying looks. I was really warming to this disrespectfully amusing teenager.

Mum stirred in the chair and opened her eyes; we’d woken her up with our chattering. She looked over at me and stated the obvious.

‘You’re awake, dear. I must have dozed off.’

She leaned towards me and stroked my forehead. I put up with it because it was Mum, and it was what mums do. Then she looked over at Dec.

‘Hello Declan. What time is it?’

‘Gone eleven.’

‘Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

I knew she usually went to bed early, and was likely to be up at the crack of dawn basting turkey or some such shit.

‘No, I’m alright, dear, I can sleep here in the chair.’

And since when did I need a round the clock babysitter?

‘Noh need, got monitor. Dec’ll stay foh bit?’

I hoped he would pick up on my need to boot Mum out before she stayed in my room all night. He seemed to.

‘Sure, mate, if you want.’

‘Yeh. Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

‘Alright, dear, if you’re sure. Goodnight.’

She stood up, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then left, closing the door behind her.

I looked gratefully at Dec.

‘Thahks. Everyone fuhsses. Bluhdy exhosting.’

‘Tell me about it, you spend more energy trying to stop them going on than you would if they just bloody well left you alone.’

It really sounded like he knew where I was coming from. I thought about what he’d been through the past few weeks and realised he probably did.

‘Heh, yuh geh ih.’

‘Been there myself, quite recently. Still there, a bit, to be honest. It’s hard to let them love you.’

‘Yeh.’

And he just kept hitting the nail on the head. My eyes filled with bastard unbidden tears.

‘Bolluhks. Sohry.’

‘No worries, I’m a fully paid up member of the blub club. Seem to spend half my life wiping my eyes and apologising at the moment.’

I wondered whether his conversation with my brother had happened yet. Beth had engineered a vacancy in the living room earlier, but I’d been asleep – oh, that was why she and Mum were both in here together with the magazines and the mince pies.

‘Yuh talked wih Jay?

‘Yeah. We sorted some stuff out. I feel a lot better, I think he does too.’

‘Guhd, he nehded tha.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Him and Beth ahr pretty greht.’

I felt like I needed to remind him how lucky he was that they cared this much about him, grown up that I was.

‘Yeah.’

Then Dec’s eyes filled up. Fuck, I’d made him cry. Nice one Matt, you bastard. He was quiet for a bit, wiping his eyes, then breathed in and straightened up.

‘Santa’s got more jobs to do before he can go to sleep, I’ve got to do Cal’s stocking without waking him up, then try and get a few hours sleep before the middle of the night when he’s going to wake up.’

‘Kay. Seh yuh tomohrow.’

‘Will you be OK?’

I thought of the list of night time tasks Jay usually did, but hadn’t because I was asleep. No way was I asking Dec to help me change into my night clothes, but maybe there were a few things he could do. I hummed and hawed to myself about just how much I could ask of this kid I barely knew … oh bollocks, I was going to have to ask him to take my piss bottle. I’d had it under the covers, full, with the lid on, since Mum and Beth were playing the mince pie game. If I didn’t get it emptied I wouldn’t be able to pee in the night if I needed to. Arsing fucknozzles.

‘Couhd yuh ehmpty thihs?’

I held out the plastic piss collector as if I gave teenagers containers full of the ex-contents of my bladder as a matter of course, no big deal, it’s what mature grown-ups do all the time.

To his enormous credit, Dec didn’t even blink before he took it and headed off … er out of the room?

‘Whehr yuh goin?’

He turned round in the doorway, making my piss slosh lustily in its plastic prison.

‘Kitchen sink?’

‘Ehr, why noh pouhr ih dohn the loo?’

The short pause and then the lights going on behind his eyes were almost worth the humiliation of having to ask.

‘Oh yeah. Dur. Like, as if anyone’s going to want to have a cup that’s been washed up in a sink full of your piss.’

‘Heh, my pihs is sought ahfter in sehventehn couhntries. Sehls fuh mihlions.’

‘Oh really? Remind me why I’m tipping it away then.’

‘Creahting a demahnd.’

‘Genius. Toilet it is then, much as it pains me to pour away millions of quids worth of golden liquid that, er, seventeen countries could otherwise fight over for the privilege of … er … what did you say they did with it?’

‘Duhno. Ohnce ih lehves the fahtory, ih’s noh my prohblem.’

‘Fair enough. Sound business sense. Right, here goes then.’

He went into the en-suite bathroom and I heard a splash as he emptied the bottle, then the tap running as he (presumably) rinsed it out and (hopefully) washed his hands.

‘Alright? Anything else you need?’

‘Thanks. Could yuh turn lights off and monitor on?’

Much as it pained me to point it out, I aimed a finger at the small plastic speaker on the table next to the bed. It was almost as humiliating as the piss bottle.

‘So Jay can hehr if I chohk to death.’

‘Oh, don’t do that mate. That would seriously dampen the festive mood. I might not be able to eat my Christmas dinner.’

And there it was again, the cheeky banter, black humour, just what I needed.

‘Fuck ohf. Oh shih, did yuh already tuhn it on?’

I’d started speaking just as he flipped the switch. Beth would have just got an earful upstairs. Dec shrugged, grinned, flicked the Christmas tree lights off and left the room with a youthful swagger. He was turning out to be surprisingly good to have around.

Dec

Jay was still in the living room, placing the last few presents on top of an enormous pile. He looked up at me when I came in, shaking his head.

łJesus, we’re going to be here all day tomorrow with this lot. I’m almost tempted to put some away for another day.

‘You can’t do that!’

łNo, suppose not. Matty alright? I heard Mum go up.

‘Yeah. Where’s the monitor linked to?’

łOur room – we’ve got one in here too, but it’s not always on. Why?

‘I think I might have made him tell Beth to fuck off via the intercom.’

I grinned. He looked at me and wagged his finger admonishingly.

łYou really are a bad influence, Declan Summers. Keep it up, you’re good for him. OK, that’s it. I am now officially bushed. It doesn’t feel right going to bed before midnight on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think I can last any longer. Here’s Cal’s stocking, make really sure he’s not awake when you do the switch. You going to bed now?

‘Yeah, need to get as much sleep as I can, it’ll soon be three o’clock.’

łIt certainly will, my friend. I look forward to the extra hours of sleep your presence has awarded us.

I followed Jay up the stairs, got undressed in the bathroom and crept into Cal’s room, using the landing light to see by. He was lying on his back, one arm flung over his head. His breathing was regular and his eyes were moving beneath his eyelids as if he was dreaming. As far as I could tell, he was asleep. I took the empty stocking off the post by his head, and hooked the full one on in its place. I stuffed the empty one deep in my bag, hoping I would remember to give it back before I left. Then I flicked off the landing light, climbed into bed and lay down.

I wanted to go to sleep, but after my conversation with Jay, there was too much swirling around for me to wind down. I hadn’t thought about Mum and Dad, or anything from back then, for a long time, not properly. I allowed myself to remember the last Christmas I’d had with them, at home, dinner, presents, everything. I could barely remember their faces. It made me sad. Conscious of Cal asleep above me, I pushed the memories away before they made me cry, as I didn’t think I’d be able to stop. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. I am flying around the world. First I visit Mum and Dad and younger me. It is Christmas Eve, and Mum is reading me the Christmas Mouse. I watch through the window as she closes the book, carries me to bed and tucks me in. Then I fly off, over the sea, chasing snowflakes and reindeer and twinkling stars until I reach Jay, Beth and Cal. Cal is opening presents on Christmas morning, Jay and Beth are watching. I fly in through the window and sit with them for a bit. Then I fly back up to the stars and watch the world shining. Someone is next to me. I look down and see brown boots. Look up and …

20. Hope in front of me

In which Dec and Cal find out what happens when you bounce on the bed, and explanations are attempted.

Dec

Noises, voices, pain, blurred, sleep, jumbled dreams. Dreamt Jay and Beth and Cal had been here.

Woke up suddenly. Sound of running water. Couldn’t open my eyes. Back hurt. Head hurt. Arms hurt. Legs hurt. Shifted position to continue inventory. Agony. May have screamed, or it may have been in my head. This was the worst fucking hangover I’d ever had. I thought I wasn’t supposed to drink? Why had I been drinking? Don was going to be so pissed off. I tried to open my eyes and look at where the sound of water was coming from, but my head started pounding and I groaned.

¬Oh hello. You’re back with us then. Just in time. I’m going to bathe your eyelids. Get some of this crusty stuff off. Might help you open your eyes. Lovely sunny day out there, shame for you to miss it.

Tried speaking, to whoever it was. She sounded friendly enough.

‘Phlwuthchst.’

Shit, what the fuck was wrong with my mouth? I could hardly speak, and when I tried, it hurt like a bitch.

¬I think you’ll need me to bathe your mouth too. Then you can tell us what you really think.

Whoever this was had the right idea. I needed to start talking, so I could ask some questions. If only I could think what the questions should be. Felt something warm and wet dabbing at my eyes. Stung like crazy. Whoa, this was the weirdest hangover ever. Winced. That hurt even more. What the fuck was happening to me? I tried to move my head away, felt a hand on my cheek, steadying me.

¬Sorry m’dear, won’t take long. Keep still.

Did as I was told, hoping things would become clearer in time. Images from before began to flutter into my head. Sounds, voices – Cal. Jay. Had I dreamed it? Or had Jay, Beth and Cal really all been here, with me?

‘Cckchll’

¬Wait a bit, m’dear, not quite there yet.

‘Vthhh’

¬I see we’re going to have some trouble with you. Bit of patience please.

‘Zshhay’

¬I know, I know, I’m going as fast as I can. OK, that’s your eyes done, have a bit of a go opening them. Slowly, it might hurt.

Again, did as I was told. Through a small opening, beyond the blur of my eyelashes, I saw a blonde woman peering into my face. She was wearing a white tunic. She was pretty. Her name was Michelle, and she was a nurse. It said so on her name badge. Jay’s voice drifted across my memory …

łAh mate, you’re in hospital.

Tried to remember more, but everything was jumbled up and confused. I was in hospital? Bit more than a hanger, then? Tried to remember what I’d been doing to end up here, but it was a blank. Wait, I saw Don yesterday, he told me I’ve still got my job – started to smile at that, but it hurt so much I stopped moving my mouth. The nurse was still looking at me.

¬Hello! Very good m’dear. Your eyes are still very swollen, so it’ll be a while before you can open them the whole way. But not bad for a first try. It should get a bit easier now we’ve got all the gunk off.

She smiled and turned back to a bowl on a trolley.

¬OK then, mouth next.

She dipped some cotton wool into water in the bowl and dabbed it across my lips. She was gentle, but it still stung a lot. What had happened to my mouth? And my eyes? Why did I need a nurse? I was still fuzzy, couldn’t work it out, I tried to think about it, but the stinging from whatever was on the cotton wool was too distracting. Some of the liquid dribbled between my lips. It tasted vile and it stung to buggery. The cotton wool came away red. The nurse discarded it and got another bit.

¬Alright there?

Couldn’t speak, so nodded as much as I could, which wasn’t much.

¬Goodo, let’s keep going then. Nearly finished.

Three more bits of cotton wool later, and she was done.

¬OK, that’s that. Have a bit of a move of your lips if you can, see how it feels. Couldn’t do it before we got rid of the crusty stuff, in case it split again.

Did as I was told. I was getting good at it. Tongue felt huge and furry. Lips very painful, bruised, split and swollen. It all felt very disconnected from my face.

¬Like a drink?

Fuck, yes! I was parched. A drink suddenly seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had.

‘Mm.’

¬Ok, then, let’s sit you up.

She pressed some button somewhere that made the bed sit up underneath me.

¬Start with water. Here you are.

She held out a plastic tumbler, with a straw in it.

¬Small sips, please.

Even though it hurt to suck, it was the most delicious drink ever. Felt it running across my swollen tongue and down my throat. Sipped and sipped until the glass was empty. She took it away from my mouth.

¬Try now – would you like to say a few words?

From between my filmy eyelids I saw her hold an invisible microphone up to my mouth. All my questions fought briefly for dominance, but it seemed I needed above all to know if what I remembered from last night was real. Had they all really been here or was it some kind of dream torture? Nothing was clear in my head, it was all scrambled. How the fuck was I going to ask?

‘Hee …’

Stopped in frustration. My mouth wasn’t making the right shapes to say the word.

¬No rush, take your time.

‘Hhshay.’

Bloody hell this was difficult.

‘Ghshay.’

Shook my head. Tried again.

‘Gshay.’

Better.

‘Shay.’

Best I was going to do.

‘Shay. Mm. Shay.’

After all that, she looked puzzled.

¬Alright, might take a bit of guess work, I’ll give it a go. Want me to say something? No. Ask me about something?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. Where am I, what am I doing here, isn’t that what they do in the films?

No response from me. I did want to know what I was doing here, but there was something more important I needed to know.

¬Sorry, flippant. OK, have another go.

It was worse than frustrating. Tried another tack.

‘Vsstrrs’

¬Ooh, visitors?

At last.

‘Mm.’

¬Well I’m glad we sorted that one out. You’ve had quite a few visitors since you came in yesterday. Want to know about that?

Sagged with relief. Now I was getting somewhere.

‘Mm.’

¬OK, let’s see, I wasn’t on when you were admitted, but when I got here you had a family with you.

That was it. Surely it must be them? Hope and caution battled in me. Don’t get carried away, it can’t be possible.

‘Mm. Mm.’

¬Hey, we got there, that didn’t take long. The mum and little boy left earlier on, but the dad stayed until we moved you in here, a couple of hours ago. What else did you want to know?

Tried to say where are they, but only ended up blowing bad breath over the bedclothes.

¬Wondering when they’re coming back?

Or if. But when would be better.

‘Mm.’

¬I’ll see if I can find out. Might be something on your file. Depends if they talked to the charge nurse before they left. Won’t be a tick.

She walked briskly out of the room. Left to myself, I sank into the pillow. Looked up through the gap in my eyelids to the ceiling. Couldn’t face thinking about whether they had really been here, or what it might mean if they had.

Started to catalogue the pain, trying to work out what the fuck had happened to me. I hurt pretty much everywhere. Face felt giant, and there seemed to be something stuck to my nose. Scalp hurt. Back shrieked. Couldn’t move my right arm. Glanced down. Plaster from knuckles to shoulder, sleeve cut off. Left arm, blackened hand peeking out of long sleeved pyjama top, sore and swollen. Metal splint on little finger. Tube from a drip on a stand by the side of the bed disappeared up my left sleeve. Tried to bend at the elbow. Stopped trying pretty quickly. Looked down at feet, humps under the bedclothes. Terrified I wouldn’t be able to move them. Tried an experimental toe-wiggle. Pain shot up my shins as I saw movement under the blankets. Moaned in pain and relief.

Checklist of body parts taken, but really none the wiser as to how I got here in this state, I looked beyond the bed. I was in a room on my own, bed, two chairs, a bedside cupboard with a vase of flowers. A card with a stegosaurus on it that said Hope Your Recovery is Dinomite. It was the sort of thing Cal might have chosen, but I couldn’t reach it to see who it was from. Painting of a tree screwed to the wall. A small window looking onto the side of a building. A patch of blue sky. In the corridor outside the door, footsteps, voices.

¬…that’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.

I looked at the door through the rapidly expanding slit in my vision, heart beating fast with expectancy. Thought my heart might burst with relief and joy when Cal ran into the room, followed by Beth and then Jay. Tried a smile, no idea what shape my lips made.

Cal

Because we were in a rush, we went out without me having my juice, and I asked a few times on the way if I could have a drink. Maybe I asked a lot of times. So when we got to the hospital and passed the shop near the door, Mum went in and got some purple squash that we could fill up with Dec’s water, and she picked up some pyjamas on the way to the till to pay. I hoped they weren’t for Dec, because it wasn’t a very exciting present, and I told Mum that Dec might like a Mars bar instead, so he could share it with me, but Mum said no. So I thought of something else.

‘I think Dec would like a magazine, Mummy.’

‘Oh, really, Cal? Any magazine in particular?’

‘This dinosaur one has got a toy of the front.’

‘Yes, I can see. How about you give Dec the magazine, but keep the toy?’

I could hardly believe my luck. I hadn’t even had to be that sneaky. And Dec would like the magazine; he talked to me about dinosaurs all the time. If I was really lucky, he’d say I could keep the magazine as well.

We walked along the corridors and up the stairs; there were loads of interesting things to see, like a lady on a big bed with wheels who had a plastic mask over her face, some people wearing all green running and shouting ‘get out of the way’, and someone in a wheelchair with a big bag on a pole like Dec had, only it was being wheeled along by the side of the chair. I didn’t have time to ask about one thing before I saw the next – it was a lot more exciting than Uncle Matty’s hospital.

And then we got to the place where Dec had been last night, but Dad took us round the corner, saying that Dec had gone into his own room early this morning, just before Dad had come back to go to sleep. We saw a nurse come out of a room, and Dad stopped her.

‘We’ve come to see Declan Summers. It’s not too early is it?’

The nurse looked at Dad with her head on one side.

‘Are you family?’

‘Ye … es.’

‘Oh, you were here last night, weren’t you. OK, that’s fine, then. He hasn’t been awake long, but I’ve just bathed his eyes and his mouth, he might even be able to talk to you.’

‘How is he?’

‘He was a bit disoriented, which is to be expected, and very battered and bruised, as I’m sure you know, but his CT scan showed nothing to worry about, and with a bit of luck he’ll be able to get back to normal.’

‘Oh James, that sounds great, doesn’t it. We’ve brought him his own pyjamas, I hope that’s OK.’

The nurse stepped towards the door she had just come out of, and opened it.

‘That’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.’

I ran in the room, wanting to see what Dec looked like this morning, and keen to show him the dinosaur magazine. Dec was sitting up in his bed, and although his eyes were swollen almost shut with bruises, they were open, and he was looking at me. His mouth moved, and I thought he might be trying to smile.

‘You’re in a different room please can I have some purple squash?’

‘Cal! Sorry Dec, he’s been saying he’s thirsty all the way here. We got you some blackcurrant squash, by the way, hope you don’t mind sharing. And some pyjamas. You don’t have to share those.’

Mum bent down and kissed Dec on the cheek while I stood at the side of the bed and looked at him. Then Mum made me a purple squash and I sat on the chair and drank it all in one go, waiting to see what would happen next.

Dec

Beth bent down and kissed me on the cheek. Bloody hell it hurt, but no way was I going to show it. Would have hugged her if either of my arms could have moved. She opened the bottle, poured some into a glass, filled it with water from a jug on the top of the cupboard, and handed it to Cal. He drank in big, noisy gulps, and started to wipe his mouth on the back of his hand when he’d finished, before he caught Beth’s eye and took the tissue she held out to him, as she looked at me and spoke.

_The nurse said you were talking.

‘Mm.’

_Although not long speeches yet I see.

She was being bright and breezy, but her eyes were wary. Jay was hanging back, looking tired, a guarded look in his eyes, tense and ill-at-ease. But it was so, so unbelievably good to see them. I felt like they could be dream people, about to disappear in insubstantial wisps. Still no idea what had happened to make them be here.

‘Gutuhsyu.’

A pause while Beth tried to translate.

_Sorry, Dec, you’re going to have to try again. Haven’t got my ‘I’ve been hit by a truck’ head on yet.

Had I been hit by a truck? The state of my body said yes. Memories from yesterday were vague and fragmented. No idea how I’d ended up here in this state, and as my brain started to wake up a bit, I was starting to worry.

Cal

I wasn’t sure why Mum thought Dec had been hit by a truck, when even I remembered he’d been hit by a bad man, but I was as good at understanding Dec as I was at understanding Uncle Matty, so I told her what he had said.

‘He said, ‘good to see you’. I heared him.’

Mum looked at Dec as if she didn’t think I could possibly have got it right, but Dec confirmed it.

‘Mm.’

Just to make it clear that I knew what I was talking about, I told them what that meant, as well.

‘That means yes.’

Dec

_It’s good to see you too, Dec. But not like this, so…

She waved her hand vaguely over the bed, and with horror I saw tears fill her eyes. Jay came over and put his arm round her protectively.

Cal, saviour of us all:

\do you like your dinosaur card?

‘Mm. Fm yu?’

\of course it’s from me. Stegosauruses are the best ones. I choosed it from the shop downstairs. It says ‘Dinomite’ but it’s spelled wrong on purpose so it looks like dinosaur. Mummy buyed it. And a Mars bar but I ate it. And some flowers, the nurse put them in a pot. We got you some squash today because I was thirsty. And a dinosaur magazine. Do you want to see it?

‘Mm. Luvtuh.’

\you can’t have the toy on the front, but you can see the picture of the triceratops in the middle, it’s awwwwesome.

Without warning, he launched himself onto the end of the bed, bouncing the mattress. There was such a protest of pain from every part of my body I couldn’t help myself shouting out:

Fuck!

Cal

I stopped dead, mid-crawl. Dec was not allowed to swear when I was nearby, and he had just shouted the baddest word I knew, very loud. He didn’t even look sorry, he just looked like he was breathing fast, and trying not to say it again. Mum didn’t even tell him off.

‘That was a very big swear.’

I wasn’t sure why no one had said anything; this should have earned Dec at least an ‘honestly Dec’, but Mum didn’t even look cross.

‘Yes, sweetheart, I understood that one. I think Dec means that he would like you to get off his bed and stop bouncing.

‘Mm.’

It seemed that Dec being hit by bad men changed quite a lot of things.

‘Let’s pull this chair next to the bed, you can sit here and show him your magazine. OK Dec?’

‘Grut.’

‘That means great.

‘Yes, Cal.’

I sat on the chair and held the magazine up so Dec could see. I couldn’t really tell if he was looking, because his eyes were nearly shut, but his head was pointed towards the pages and he did little nods every now and then as I turned over the pages. It wasn’t quite the same, because usually Dec would have been talking to me, and telling me stories about the pictures, making up names like ‘Terence the Pterodactyl’ and ‘Howard the Hadrosaur’ to make me laugh, but this time I did all the talking, because it hurt Dec to speak.

Dec

He flicked over a few pages, explaining what all the pictures were of, just like he would have done all those months ago when everything was normal and they still cared and I wasn’t in a hospital bed hardly able to move.

I was still trying to work it all out, looking from Cal to Beth to Jay, when I heard voices outside, one raised in protest, one stating intent.

¬You can’t go in, he’s already got three visitors, you’ll have to wait for someone to come out. There’s a chair here, look. I’m sure they won’t be long.

:Look, love, I’ve come all the way from across town, on my day off, on the bus, and you’re not stopping me. I’ll sort it out in there, you don’t have to worry.

‘Rz.’

Cal looked up at me, puzzled. The door opened.

¬You can’t just –

But she could, and she did. The nurse hovered at the door, looking at me. I tried to nod that it was OK, as Rose bustled forwards. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, and for the second time that day I saw eyes fill with tears. No more crying over me, please. Couldn’t take it.

:Oh love, look at you.

She came over to hug me. Didn’t think I would survive one of Rose’s envelopings.

‘Nnuh.’

Cal

As Mum stepped forwards, hands out ready to stop her, I realised why Dec didn’t want the cuddle. He didn’t want to do a big swear to this lady.

‘That means no.’

The lady stepped back, and looked at me, Mum and Dad.

‘Rz. Hh.’

Rose looked at Dec again, her mouth open a little bit.

‘Sry. Hrts.’

I thought she might not know what Dec was saying, so I told her what he meant.

‘Dec can’t talk properly. He said he’s sorry it hurts. He means if you cuddle him he might cry, or say a big swear. I jumped on his bed and he said a very big swear.’

The lady looked at me and smiled.

‘Well thank you young man, I see you speak Declanese. He says a lot of big swears, he seems to quite enjoy it. It might not have been your fault, love.’

I grinned at the lady. I liked that she called Dec’s way of talking ‘Declanese’.

Dec

‘Rz. Shay. Vth.’

I tried to direct her gaze with my eyes, but she probably couldn’t see much of them underneath my swollen eyelids. She looked at Cal, already trusting him to know what I was saying.

\I don’t know what Rz means. Jay is my Daddy and Beth is my Mummy.

Light dawned in Rose’s eyes and she glanced quickly at both of them, then back at Cal.

:I can help you there. I think Rz must be me. I’m Rose.

She looked at me, eyes shining; she looked as happy as I felt.

:Oh Declan, they’re here, love.

She turned to face Jay and Beth.

:You’re Declan’s family, aren’t you. I didn’t know you’d … you must have … didn’t know you were here. Oh, there’s grand now. He’s told me lots about you all.

\what did he tell you about me?

Rose turned back to Cal.

:Well, let’s see now. You must be Calum. Declan says you really like dinosaurs. You’re very good at football and your team is … er … Arsenal?

\who’s my favourite player?

Cal was relishing his role as official examiner.

:Oh, er …

Seeing mild panic behind Rose’s eyes, I ventured

‘Thuh Wct.’

:No chance, love, but thanks for trying. Sorry, love, I expect he told me, but I’m not much good at footballers.

\what did he say about Mummy and Daddy?

łThat’s enough, Cal.

It was the first time Jay had spoken since he came into the room. Rose spoke to Cal, but directed her words at Jay.

:He’s alright, love. I’ll tell you, shall I? Declan told me your mam and dad were like the best family he could ever have wanted. He told me he did some wrong things, and wishes he hadn’t because losing his family has made him so sad and it’s made a lot of trouble for everyone, and meant he couldn’t see you and your mam and dad any more. He also told me that your mam makes really good roast potatoes, better than mine he says, although I find that hard to believe, and your dad drives too fast, which I think Declan quite likes.

Cal

Dec really had told Rose everything about us. Dad really did drive fast, and Mum really did cook roast potatoes. I didn’t even know who Rose was, I’d never seen her before, but I wondered if Rose was Dec’s mum, although I thought he didn’t have a mum. Before I could ask, Rose started talking again. She talked a lot. She wanted to know what had happened to Dec, but Mum wasn’t just going to tell her without permission from Dec.

‘If that’s OK with Dec.’

Mum looked at Dec, checking. I don’t think she knew who Rose was either.

‘Mm. Rzs gd frnd’

‘He said Rose is a good friend.’

‘Thank you sweetheart, I think Dec’s getting a bit easier to understand. OK, well, lovely to meet you Rose. Actually, Nico told us a lot about you, how you’ve looked after Dec. Thanks for what you said. It means a lot to James and me.’

So she did know who Rose was. I would have to ask later if she was Dec’s mum.

‘As for what’s happened, well, Cal, why don’t we go and get you a slushie, and Rose and Daddy and Dec can have a talk?’

I was torn between wanting a slushie, and maybe other things if I asked enough times, and wanting to stay and find out what Dad said to Rose.

‘But they won’t understand Dec if I’m not here.’

‘I think they’ll be OK. Green or blue slushie?’

Dec

He skipped out of the room with Beth.

\green. And can I have Monster Munch…

Cal’s list of requests faded into the distance. Jay and Rose talked while I lay back and let them. I didn’t know how I had ended up here, most of it was very hazy, a lot of it was missing. Now I’d had a chance to think, I could remember everything up to leaving the little office to go to the press conference, then there were fragments, shards I didn’t really want to explore as they mostly held pain.

A sudden recollection of lying helplessly on the ground watching a boot approach my face. Maybe not a truck then.

I tried to focus while Jay told Rose about finding me in the car park at Raiders Stadium, half underneath a car. He had only called at the club to drop off some paperwork on his way back up the motorway, and had nearly tripped over me. He hadn’t recognised me, so bloody and battered was my face. He had to talk to the police before they would let him drive back, and it wasn’t until they asked him if he knew me, that he realised. They had come to the hospital straight away, Jay had sat with me all night, Beth and Cal staying with Nico and Lisa.

łThey moved him to this room late last night, or more like early this morning – only a couple of hours ago, actually. Apparently the police thought it might be a good idea. Think it might be some kind of payback for the – I don’t know how much you know –

He looked over at me.

‘Rz kns vrythng.’

łOK then, payback for the points Raiders lost because of the passport thing. Lots of angry people, but nobody knows who did it.

:Well I’m glad you were here, love, I’d have hated to think of him being alone.

łI think Dec’s had quite a few visitors, not that he’d remember many of them, he’s been pretty much out of it since he came in. Massive dose of painkillers, as well as the bangs to the head. The doctor said he might not remember much about any of it. He woke up for a short time last night, but they whacked more meds in and he was out for the count again. Not surprised he’s been lazing around half the morning.

:He is a bit of a lazy sod.

‘Pss ff’

:Well that came out loud and clear, love. So, what’s the damage? I can obviously see his face, don’t know if you’ve seen yourself yet, love, you’re a bit of a sight. Plenty of time for that, now. And a broken arm. Anything more serious?

łI don’t know if I can remember the full list. He seems to have been hit over the head with a bottle, they had to pick glass out of his cuts before they stitched them. He was unconscious for a while, but they didn’t think any permanent damage, though how would they ever tell, eh Dec? Some of the cuts were fairly deep, looks like a glassing, but nothing major severed. And nothing internal that they could find. But they’re being careful. He’s been punched and kicked, probably while on the ground. Lots of bruises, lots of stitches, you can see all that. Broken collar bone – might need an operation on that. Thought he might have a broken jaw, but just badly bruised. Broken nose – that can only improve his looks. Can’t look at his eyes properly yet, but they think just bruising and swelling. Broken little finger, looks like someone stamped on his hand, you can see the footprint, look…

They both inspected the damage. I could only concentrate on two pieces of information. I had been beaten up, or kicked, or something. And Jay, Beth and Cal were here. They were all here, and talking to me and looking like they cared about me and might not want me to fuck off and die. It felt fragile, though, as if it might shatter any second and leave me back where I’d been.

ł… kind of tube in for his pee at the moment – he’s been pretty heavily medicated and they couldn’t get him to the loo. Bit undignified, eh, Dec?

So that was what that weird sensation had been. Hadn’t been able to explore due to two non-functioning hands.

łHe’s been pretty lucky. Could have been a lot worse.

Not sure my pains agreed with him.

:Especially if you hadn’t found him. Oh, love. Who did this to you?

She shuffled her chair closer to the bed and tried to find a part of me to touch that wouldn’t hurt. She failed, but it was OK. I had no answer to her question.

:I don’t know what to say, love. After everything that’s happened to you. It’s so unfair.

łBloody good job he plays rugby. He’s fit and strong. He’ll heal quickly. Seen worse than this after a collision with a loose-head, eh Dec? He’ll be back in training in a few weeks.

Rose laughed.

łI’m serious! He won’t be allowed to sit around feeling sorry for himself. He’ll be back in training soon as his breaks have healed. Maybe before.

Rose harrumphed a bit and the set of her jaw told me what she thought of that.

:Well we’ll see now, I s’pose, won’t we.

There was a brief pause. Rose looked determinedly at Jay, who looked back with an amused expression on his face. Rose changed tack.

:Now, look here. Declan knows I’m an interfering old busybody –

‘Struh.’

:No, don’t you try and deny it, love. Anyway, what I want to know is, you being here with your family, is everything put right now with the two of you?

There was a weighty silence. I hardly dared breathe, although I continued to do so noisily through my swollen nose. Jay looked down at his hands. Then at Rose. Then at me. I shut my eyes completely. Would have shut my ears if I could have. Really didn’t know if I could take his answer. He took a deep breath. Blew it out. I felt like everything was balancing on what Jay said now.

łAlright then. I don’t know if this is the right time or place, Dec, but I think I need to say this. You really messed up. You pissed all over me and Beth, you pissed all over Raiders. We couldn’t understand it. Still don’t think I really get it. I thought we were finished, you and me. Well, you know, I said it all before.

The searing pain of being dismissed by Jay in the car park cut through me again. I almost gasped at the memory.

łCouldn’t even say your name, didn’t talk about it, I was so angry about everything, what you’d done, what you’d lied about. When Cal rang you that time, I was so mad at him, he stopped asking me about you too. God knows what that did to the poor little sod. Jesus, what a mess. Anyway, then you found Cal when he ran away, and, I dunno, it changed something. Started talking to Beth, we started talking about you, still thoroughly pissed off, but wondering why you’d done it all … thinking up reasons, maybe it was this, maybe that, maybe if we’d said … whatever. Then Friday we came to stay with Nico and Lis, and Nico came back and told us what a state you were in; he thought you were close to doing something daft to yourself.

Had I been? Friday night was a bit of a blur. I’d been in a state, no doubt about that, but the details weren’t easy to grasp onto.

łHe rang some psychiatrist he knows to talk about you, I think he nearly got someone to come and have a look at you. I was worried about you, for the first time in a long time. It felt weird. Beth and I talked all night, trying to decide how we were feeling. Didn’t reach any conclusions. Then something like this happens, and, shit, I dunno … turns out, we still care after all. Can’t ignore that. You’ve been a prick. But there it is. I think family stays family, in the end. Or something like that.

Wait, was Jay saying, actually saying out loud, that I was part of his family? It had never been actually said before, hadn’t needed to be before everything went tits up.

łWhat Rose just said about you telling her we’re your family, and you thought you’d lost us, that’s helped. We felt like you’d thrown all that back in our faces, didn’t want us or need us any more, so knowing you think of us as family too is really important. Dec, I really don’t understand what’s been going on with you the last few months. But I think I want to, need to. Probably need some kind of bloody deep and meaningful as soon as I can understand what the fuck you’re saying, mate.

Couldn’t speak. Even if my mouth had been working, my throat had closed with emotion. Tears leaked excruciatingly out of my eyes and stung various parts of my face on their way down. Rose patted my arm gently. The balance had tipped; it felt like things with Jay might be starting to be OK.

:I’m very glad to hear it, love. Now, what I want to know-

Cal

Mum held her hand out, and the slushie won.

‘Green. And can I have Monster Munch and another Mars Bar? And can we see if they’ve got a Lego magazine?’

Mum laughed. ‘Slow down, Cal. We’ll get the slushie first, shall we, and see how it goes.’

All the way to the shop, I asked Mum questions about Dec. Now it was OK to talk about him, there was a lot I wanted to say.

‘Why can’t Dec talk properly?’

‘You saw his mouth, sweetheart, it’s very swollen and it must hurt a lot. Remember when you shut your finger in the door and it swelled up and wouldn’t bend?’

I nodded. My finger had gone purple and blue and doubled in size. And it had hurt. A lot.

‘That’s what’s happened with Dec’s mouth. It will get better, he’ll get more used to speaking with swollen lips, and the swelling will go down.’

‘Is the bag with water in it for Dec to drink through his arm?’

‘That’s right, clever boy, do you remember from the one Uncle Matty had? Dec hasn’t been able to drink for himself, or have anything to eat, so they put special water in the bag so he doesn’t get hungry or thirsty. There’s a bag under the covers to take Dec’s wee away too, so he doesn’t have to get up to go to the loo.’

I remembered Uncle Matty’s wee bag; I had been very interested in that as well. Why didn’t everyone have one? It would save all sorts of complications. I was so interested that I asked more questions, even though I knew the answers.

‘Does his wee bag come out of his arm?’

‘No, there’s a tube coming out of his willy.’

Oh. Suddenly I remembered why everyone didn’t have one. Time for another question.

‘Mummy are we cross with Dec?’

‘Oh Cal. I know this is confusing for you. Alright, let’s see if I can explain. Dec did some things that made me and Daddy cross and disappointed. We’re still trying to understand why he did them, but I think Daddy and me feel more like helping Dec than being cross with him at the moment. He looks like he could do with some help, doesn’t he?’

‘Will he have to share my room?’

‘What?’

‘When he lives in our house.’

Mum walked on for a bit, not saying anything.

‘Let’s just wait for him to get better first, Cal. Look, there’s the shop. Go and ask for your slushie.’

I ran over to the counter and asked. Mum paid, and then thought it might be good to get some snacks for the journey home. I, of course, had lots of helpful suggestions, and Mum soon had a full basket.

I had been sipping my slushie through the straw while I waited for Mum to pay, and the ice had numbed my lips. I thought about when my finger hurt, and then about Dec’s mouth, and it made me wonder …

‘Mummy, does Dec’s mouth hurt?’

‘I expect so, sweetheart.’

‘If he had some slushie, would it make it stop hurting?’

Mum stopped and looked at me.

‘What a brilliant idea! Would you like to share your slushie with him?’

I’d been thinking more along the lines of getting him his own, but Mum was big on sharing, and I nodded my reluctant agreement.

‘Can we go and give it to him?’

‘Just let me finish paying, sweetheart, then we’ll hurry back.’

I had a few slurps of slushie before leaving the shop, just in case Dec drank the lot, and then we started back to Dec’s room, me holding the cardboard cup with one hand and Mum’s hand with the other.

Dec

What Rose wanted to know was interrupted by the door opening and Nico striding in, closely followed by Nurse Michelle and Lisa.

>Ha, you see, you say four people, but only there is two. And one of them is Rose, she is very small and quiet, she is no trouble. I am trouble if I don’t get in this room – but, ha, I am in. Thank you Michelle, you are very helping.

Lisa was watching from the rear, with a half resigned, half amused look on her face.

~I’m so sorry, he’s always like this. We’ll be quick, and quiet, promise.

Michelle gave Nico a look that was a mixture of scowl and flirty smile.

¬Well alright then, but really quick, the police want to see him, and then I think he needs some peace and quiet.

>Thank you. You are beautiful.

He blew her a kiss. The force of nature that was Nico Tiago. Michelle raised her eyebrows at Lisa and shut the door on her way out. Nico turned to his audience and bowed. Jay gave him a slow handclap, Rose sat and looked at him, mouth slightly agape, until he gave her a huge hug.

>Ah Rose, I am so happy you are here, you get my message. I worry you not know about Declan. This is Lis, my beautiful wife, I tell her all about you. I think you like her.

Lisa and Rose smiled at each other. I was keeping a low profile, trying to get my emotions under control, not succeeding. Nico turned to me, and the fun went out of his face. Lisa was looking at me with horror, a hand over her mouth. I looked away to avoid the inevitable eyes filling with tears. Nico put an arm round her.

>OK baby? I tell you he look bad. Declan, how are you? You look not so horrible as last night, but horrible still. Who did this?

‘Ownno.’

łDec’s needing translations from Cal at the moment, Nico. But I don’t think he knows who did it.

Jay raised his eyebrows at me.

‘Mm.’

łWe can work out the yeses. So I guess we can talk by process of elimination. Oh, and he can say ‘fuck’ and ‘piss off’ pretty clearly. Funny that. And other things are getting clearer slowly, but it’s still a fairly limited vocabulary.

On cue, my mini-interpreter burst into the room, carrying a large cardboard cup with a straw.

Cal

As we got close to Dec’s room, I started to run, eager to see Dec again and make him talk better. I ignored Mum telling me to walk, or failing that to hold on tight to the cup, and pushed the door to the room open.

‘Dec, drink some slushie. It’s icy. Your voice will come back. Will it go green in your wee? Can I see your wee bag?’

‘Cal! Dec’s wee is private. Sorry, Dec, he’s just so curious about everything.’

Disappointingly, this meant I wouldn’t get to see Dec’s wee bag, or any green slushie wee, so I took the cup to him and put the straw in his mouth. Mum fussed about a bit, and then everyone decided that Dec needed a spoon instead of a straw, but in the end Dec got mouthfuls of slushie, and managed to talk better, although I was right and he had the whole cup to himself.

Dec

Cal shoved the drink under my nose, the straw sticking painfully into a sore area above my lip.

_Careful Cal, look, hold the straw like this so Dec can sip. Sorry, Dec, we had this idea that the ice would soothe your throat and might make it easier for you to talk. You don’t have to.

‘Sskay.’

>I think it work already, Declan talk!

Cal noticed Nico for the first time.

\nico, Dec can talk but only I can understand him.

>I know this, Cal. But I like your way to help Declan to talk.

\i already helped him once. I jumped on the bed and made him say a really bad swear.

>Ha! I would like to try this. You show me how, maybe later. I am bigger than you, maybe he say even badder swears.

While Cal’s eyes grew round at the thought of badder swears than ‘fuck’, Beth had positioned the straw so I could sip the slushie. Although sucking hurt the muscles in my face and pulled painfully on my lips, it was worth it for the combined pleasure and relief of fluorescent green ice slipping over my tongue and down my throat. I could feel it taming the fire in my throat, most of which was thirst. I closed my eyes and moaned with relief.

~Dec, would a spoon be easier? You’ll get more in that way, yeah?

Brilliant idea. I looked gratefully at Lisa.

‘Mmmm.’

:I’ll go and sort it out.

Rose hurried off to commandeer a spoon. I could already feel the small amount of ice I had swallowed trickling soothingly down my throat.

‘Thks Chll.’

\dec said thanks Cal.

He informed his watching public.

>Cal you are small genius. You do very well for Declan.

Rose soon returned with a spoon to try.

:I thought a metal one might hurt your mouth love, so they found this plastic one, it’s not that big though. You don’t look like you can feed yourself with that arm and that hand. Can you put up with me feeding you?

Of all the recent indignities, this one was pretty easy to bear.

‘Mm.’

Rose sat by the bed and spooned the ice into me. I was very conscious of everyone watching, but the eyes on me were the ones I loved best in the world, so it was OK. The slushie was like magic. The pain and swelling in my throat reduced considerably. There was a similar effect on my lips too.

:How’s that now, love?

‘Mm … muhch bhetter’

Not bad for a first post-ice attempt. It still hurt to talk, and I wasn’t going to be making any speeches anytime soon, but it was a great start.

‘Thuhnks. Luv yuh uhll.’

A bit briefer and more sentimental than it would have been had I had my voice back properly, but the message was there. Rose, Beth and Lisa all teared up again, I really was going to have to have words about that, when I had access to more of them.

łI think it’s fair to say we all feel the same way, Dec. Fuck knows what you’ve done to deserve it. Sorry Cal. Dec’s a bad influence on me.

Jay ruffled Cal’s hair, pulled him in closer and kissed him on the top of his head.

łDec, I’m really sorry, we’re going to have to go. I … don’t know if you know … Matty’s really poorly. He’s got multiple sclerosis and pneumonia, and he’s … he nearly … he’s had a really bad time over the last couple of months.

Matt was Jay’s brother. He lived in the Midlands, near Jay’s mum.

‘Nah way. Suhry.’

łHe’s one of the main reasons I left Raiders. I need to look after him. I … I was …

Jay started to choke up. Beth held his hand.

_Dec, we’ve both said some things to you we regret. We were very angry and upset, and it was a bad time for us. I think that’s behind us now. James has been struggling with what to do for a while, since before things … well … changed between us. We felt it would be difficult to be with Matty while we still felt responsible for you. When everything happened with you, it seemed to make the decision easier. We didn’t realise how much you’d been struggling too, until Nico and Lis told us, and I’m so sorry if some of that was down to us, sweetheart.

Beth came over and kissed me on the forehead. I was almost speechless but just managed a lame

‘S’okay.’

_But we’ve got to get back home. James’s mum’s been with Matty since Friday afternoon, and we should’ve been back last night, so we’ve got to get going. So sorry, Dec, we’ll be back to see you soon. Take care, sweetheart.

Jay gave me a very gentle punch on the shoulder.

łI’ll be in touch for that deep and meaningful. We’ll sort things out properly, yeah? Be strong, stay positive. Cal, say goodbye to Dec.

Cal came to the side of the bed. He looked at me for a while, considering.

\you can have my dinosaur magazine, and you can have the toy on the front.

‘Thnks uh lo. Read ih layher.’

And then, having hugged Nico, Lisa and Rose, they were gone.

Cal

It was so fast, I’d only just got used to being there, and I hadn’t even told him about my fire engine or asked when we could go to Dinosaurland. But now we were allowed to talk about Dec, I hoped I would be able to do both of those soon.

In the car on the way home, Mum and Dad were quiet, to start with. Dad started to say something a few times, and then Mum would shake her head, Dad would look in the mirror and see me, and stop talking. So I thought if I closed my eyes they would think I was asleep, and say interesting things, probably about Dec. And it worked.

‘What did you say while we were in the shop?’

‘How do you know I said anything?’

‘Everything was different when we got back. It felt like you’d cleared the air.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure the air’s completely clear, just yet. I told him we need a bloody good talk, soon as. But I said how it had been, and how it changed after yesterday, or after Friday, actually. You know what, I think we might get there. Jesus, Beth, how did that happen?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m glad, though. After everything Nico said, and all the talking we did on Friday night, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get past everything else, but this has just … oh …’

There were a few sniffles, and it sounded like Mum was crying.

‘Oh James, I was so scared last night. I’ve been so angry with him, but I never wanted anything to happen to him.’

‘I know. That’s kind of what I told him, that it doesn’t matter any more what he did, because we’re family.’

‘Oh James, really?’

‘It’s true, isn’t it? I didn’t realise until yesterday, when I thought he might … When you think you might lose someone, you find out what’s important. How did the little bastard get himself in here?’

I opened one eye a crack, wondering where Dad meant, and if Dec had got in the car somehow, but I saw Dad put his hand on his chest, so he meant in his heart.

‘I don’t know, but I feel the same. We’re going to have to keep in touch with him. Oh! I didn’t get Rose’s number. I was going to call her later.’

‘Nico’ll have it. She’s something else, isn’t she?’

‘She seems to care a lot about him. I’m glad he’s had someone to look out for him. God, when I think about how lonely he must have been …’

‘Yeah, well, he brought a lot of it on himself.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘I’m just being honest. He fucked up, Beth. We’ve got a way to go yet before I’m Mr Forgiveness.’

‘But you just said –’

‘I said he was family and what he did doesn’t matter. I know. But before I can just forget it, I need to understand it. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll call him tomorrow, or as soon as we can, start talking to him.’

‘Cal was happy to see him.’

‘Yeah, they’ve always been great mates.’

‘He asked when Dec was going to live with us.’

‘Shit.’

One of the good things about pretending to be asleep was that Dad was allowed to do swears and I could hear him.

‘We should make sure they talk too. Cal’s really missed him.’

‘Yeah. Oh it’s all such a bloody mess, isn’t it.’

‘Maybe, maybe not any more – James could you slow down a bit? I’m feeling a bit icky.’

‘Still? That’s all weekend, Beth. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?’

‘No.’

‘No what?’

‘No, I’m not sure I’m not coming down with something.’

‘Huh?’

‘It’s not just this weekend. I’ve been feeling sick all week, especially around coffee.’

‘Really? Coffee used to make you sick when … oh holy shit.’

‘I know. I’m going to get a test tomorrow.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. That would be fantastic.’

‘Well, let’s not count our chickens, or any other baby animals, it could still be a bug or something.’

‘Yeah, yeah, course. Holy shit.

I hadn’t understood much of what Mum and Dad had been talking about, although I wondered if we might be getting a chicken to lay eggs and keep Percy company, but the amount of bad swears that Dad didn’t get told off about forced my eyes open in surprise, and Dad saw me in the mirror. This stopped the conversation, and Mum turned music on for the rest of the way home.