44. Dance little sister

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

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Matt

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

‘Hey. Any news?’

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

‘Woohoo.’

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

‘Is evhryone OK?’

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

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

‘Isobel Flora.’

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

‘See you soon, Matty.’

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

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

\dec forgot to ask her name.

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

\will she be able to play football with me?

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

Cal

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

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

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

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

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

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

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

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

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

Cal nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

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

Cal

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

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

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

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

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

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

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

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

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

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

_Would you like a cuddle?

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

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

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

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

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

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

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

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

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

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

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

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

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

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

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

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

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

)Maybe one day.

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

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

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

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

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

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

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

Cal

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

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

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

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

_She’s very good with children.

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

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

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

‘Really?’

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

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

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

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

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

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

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

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

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

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

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

Cal

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

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

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

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

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

\why?

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

‘Need some help?’

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

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

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

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

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

)Why couldn’t you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

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

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

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

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

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

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

\but Nico and Lis are still there

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

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

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

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

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

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

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

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

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

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

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

\kay. How long can I watch for?

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

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

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

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

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

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

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

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

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

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

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

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

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

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

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

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

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

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

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

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

)I’ll phone you later.

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

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

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

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

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

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

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

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

‘Hey, Matt.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

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

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

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

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

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘He’s the master.’

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

‘She is pretty amazing.’

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

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

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

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

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

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

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

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

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

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

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

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

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

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

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

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

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

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

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

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

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

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

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

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

‘Love.’

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

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

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

We clinked our bottles together.

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

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

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

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

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

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

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

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

36. Running in the family

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

Dec

Beth and Carol looked at me. I looked back.

_What did you say to him last night?

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

_Is he OK this morning?

‘Seems to be.’

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

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

_Dec!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#What do you mean, dear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_Whose idea was that?

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

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

\daddy how far are we going?

łDunno, Cal, could be a hundred miles.

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

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

\can I have a piggy back now?

łNo, wait until you’re tired.

\i’m tired now.

Jay accepted defeat.

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

‘No worries.’

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

}Wha dih yuh say to them?

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

}Bolluhks, no mohr peace and quieht then.

‘Fraid not my friend.’

}Yuh are, ahrnt yuh.

‘What?’

}My friehd.

‘Yeah. Never in doubt.’

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

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

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

‘Yeah, mate, Beth said something.’

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

‘Yeah.’

}Hey, yuh gohn quieht.

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

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

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

}Heh Cal, race yuh.

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

}Dohnt stop, yuh lohser.

‘Got to … gonna die.’

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

}Fucking lighweigh.

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

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

\we won, we won.

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

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

\daddy, I can’t, you’re too big.

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

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

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

\we need bread to feed the ducks, Granny.

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

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

_The pair of you want your heads banging together.

}Heh, wha abouh meh? My idea.

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

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

_Boys! I’ll never understand you.

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

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

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

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

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

łYou alright, Matty?

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

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

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

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

}Ha ha. Yeh.

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

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

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

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

\daddy a duck pecked my finger.

łReally mate? Probably thought it was a worm.

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

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

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

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

\uncle Matty, has a duck ever pecked you?

}Er, noh tha I member.

\dec, has a duck ever pecked you?

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

Cal beamed with pride.

\daddy, can you give me a piggy back?

Jay sagged.

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

\i want to race Uncle Matty again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

}Tha was lahs nigh.

łBloody cheek, that was my curry.

}Zahctly.

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

_We’re going to miss you.

‘I’m going to miss this. A lot.’

_You’ll come back and see us soon?

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

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

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

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

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

_Don’t let them bully you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

łMatty …

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

\the ladies and Dec.

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

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

_James, honestly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Course, what do you need?’

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

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

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

}Prohbly noh. Gihv ih a try.

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

‘Is that OK? Duvet over you?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

‘Need anything else?’

}Noh … th … muh … blr …

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

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

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

‘Will he be OK?’

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

Beth looked at me and realised I was feeling guilty.

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

łYeah, yeah.

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

‘Nico, hi!’

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

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

>You stay afterwards?

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

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

‘Yeah, sounds good.’

>You have good times?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘OK, look forward to it. Bye.’

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

‘Sorry, I feel a bit responsible.’

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

Matt continued to sleep, breathing raggedly.

‘He’s out for the count.’

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

‘Would you rather not take me back tomorrow?’

łWhat? Where did that come from?

‘Just in case …’

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

‘I’ll do it now.’

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

‘Hello?’

ϙHello, Declan Summers?

‘Yeah.’

ϙIt’s DI Johnson.

‘Oh. Hi.’

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

‘OK.’

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

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

ϙDeclan, are you still there?

‘Yeah … I … fuck.’

ϙAre you alright? Is someone there with you?

‘Yeah … I’m OK.’

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

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

‘OK.’

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

_Dec, is soup OK for you?

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

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

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

_You’re white as a sheet.

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

_Oh, sweetheart. What a shock for you.

‘Yeah.’

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

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

_Oh sweetheart …

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

_Oh Dec, don’t. He’s not worth it.

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

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

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

_What?

‘DNA from my flat.’

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

łWhat’s going on?

Jay stood in the doorway as I wiped my eyes.

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

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

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

‘Yeah.’

I sniffed and took a deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

łYou’d better get that, mate.

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

‘Hi Don.’

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

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

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

‘Sure, no worries.’

I wondered if he knew about Big.

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

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

-Perfect. How are you doing?

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

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

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

Don was silent for a long time.

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

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

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

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

_OK?

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

Beth rolled her eyes and ruffled my hair.

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

‘Ha ha, deal.’

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

I had a memory, and a thought.

‘How about … a game of charades?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

\mummy –

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

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

}Yuh behn playing wihouh meh?

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

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

\me!

}Wha ehls yuh play?

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

}Who wohn thohs?

\me!

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

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

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

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

}Lohng as ih’s meh.

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

}Stahving. Wha time issit?

_Nearly tea time. You slept right through.

}Shih, haht doin tha.

_Matty, honestly …

}Wha? Blahm Dec foh any inadvehtent swehrs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

}Did yuh rehly sell all yuhr stuhf?

‘Yeah. Necessary at the time.’

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

‘Yeah.’

}Fucking hehl, Dec. Hahrsh.

‘No more harsh than what happened to you.’

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

‘I like it.’

}Am I ihn yuhr cohtacts?

‘No. I didn’t think you had a phone.’

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

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

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

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

}Geh yuhsehf sohted. Nehd tuh kehp in touch.

‘Yeah. I really do, don’t I.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

łWhatever you say, mate.

Cal

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

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

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

‘What’s caveenion?’

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

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

‘But I like football.’

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

‘Can I wear my Arsenal shirt?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But why does Dec have to go away?’

‘Mate, he doesn’t live here.’

‘But why?’

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

‘Kay Daddy.’

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

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

Dec

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

Cal

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

I went and stood at the living room door.

‘Daddy …’

Cal, why are you out of bed?’

‘I can’t sleep.’

Come here, mate.’

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

Why can’t you sleep?’

‘I want Dec to sleep under me.’

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

But Dec has bad dreams and scares you.’

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

I see.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad looked at Dec again.

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

Dec looked really pleased.

‘I’d love it.’

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

łSure that’s OK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

#That would be lovely, dear.

łDec, beer?

‘Great.’

łGrandpa Matty?

‘Behr. Oh, and fuck ohf ‘

łThink again.

}Oh, OK. Er … stihl behr.

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

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

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

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

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

}Noh, not having hehp wih fucking behr.

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

#Jameson, are you really sure Matthew should –

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

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

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

}Yuh jus said sohnly behr.

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

}Ihm betteh at hohding my drihnk.

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

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

}Noh point, Muhm wouhd win hahns down.

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

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

_You’re certainly not getting another three or four.

}Soh unfahr.

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

}Dec, stahy, dohnt lehv meh wih them.

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

}Bahstrd.

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

łOK Matty, time for bed.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Matt?’

His eyes flickered open.

}Auhnty Dec. Jus wahted to say thahks.

‘What for?’

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

‘I wouldn’t count on it.’

}Sohmthing tuh aim fuh. Anyway, thahks.

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

}Wha?

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

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

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

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

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

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

łNo moping, now.

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

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

‘Ha ha. See you tomorrow.’

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

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

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

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

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

Little by little drowsiness overtook me and I slept.

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

35. In repair

In which the ‘shouldn’t be alone’ concept is explained, proposed and trialled.

Matt

And then, there they were again, those sounds, tormented. I couldn’t help turning to look at Dec, sitting in the chair, whole body moving from side to side, mouth contorted.

‘Ungh … mm … no, no … wai … no … mm … mm … no … can’t … ungh … no … NO!

Dec’s eyes snapped wide open, but he wasn’t seeing anything for a few seconds, at least not anything that was really there. His breathing was rapid, and there was a sheen of sweat on his face.

He deserved better than this, but …

‘Shuh the fuck uhp.’

Dec

I woke up in the familiar sweat, heart pounding, breathing hard. I remembered not to sit up, so I wouldn’t bang my head. Realised I was already sitting up. I wasn’t in Cal’s room, I was in the chair in Matt’s room.

I looked up. Matt was looking back at me.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Hope I wasn’t screaming.’

}Noh, moahns and nohs …

Matt

I was going to have to be nice to the little bastard, wasn’t I. I sighed.

‘ … yuh OK?’

‘Yeah, I’ll calm down in a minute. You OK?’

I had to think about this. I hadn’t been, I had been in a pit of despair, on my own, having a good wallow, drowning in the inky blackness. But now, maybe …

‘Duhno. Yuhr a fucking bahstrd.’

‘I know.’

‘Goh tuh behd.’

Maybe now he’d been asleep and had his nightmare, he’d see sense.

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’m staying here.’

Yeah, I get that, you keep saying.

‘Why?’

‘Well, I did say before, you shouldn’t be on your own when you’re feeling this shit. You might think it’s what you want, but what you really want is to push away anyone who might show they care about you.’

Well that was a bloody annoying assessment, being as it was very nearly spot on. Who did he think he was?

‘Wha the fuck do yuh knoh? Yuhr not meh.’

‘I know, mate, I’m not saying I am. But I think we’re pretty similar when it comes to needing help.’

Ah, needing help. That old chestnut. Yeah, not very good at that. How did this kid know all about this shit? Oh, and here were the bloody tears again, welling in my eyes, I was going to have to do some fast talking to stop them overflowing. I tipped my head back to try and make them drain away. But Dec had come close to the truth and deserved an answer.

‘Haht hahving tuh ahsk. Fucking haht ih. Fucking haht all this.’

‘I know that. Everyone knows that. It’s why they all fuss around all the time, asking if you want this or that, are you OK, too hot, too cold, all so you don’t have to fucking ask for yourself.’

What the ..? It bloody well made sense.

‘Hahnt thoht of ih lihk tha.’

Dec

‘I know it’s bloody infuriating when they fuss, you feel powerless, or something. It’s easier on your own, you think, only me to worry about, you’re in control, not them. So you scare people off when you’re feeling shit, so they leave you alone and you don’t have to worry about them. Believe me, I’ve done it – I came this close to making sure Jay and Beth never wanted to see me again. And you’re on your way to it working with them too. I saw how quickly Beth shooed us all out when you turned on the silent treatment. And they both told me to leave you alone when you’re ‘like this’. Before long you’ll be ‘like this’ more and more of the time, and they’ll leave you alone more and more. They won’t want Cal to play in here, either. Happy days, you’ll have got your wish and you’ll be completely on your own. Maybe you should think carefully about whether it really is what you want.’

I sounded more confident about my theory than I felt; everything I had just said had only occurred to me that afternoon, as I considered Matt’s self-imposed solitary confinement. It made sense to me, but from Matt there was more lengthy silence. Then an intake of breath.

Matt

Fucking hell. He was bloody right. Not that I was going to just come out and say that.

‘Mehbe.’

I took a deep, ragged breath and ran a hand over my face. I didn’t know how he’d done it, but he had me talking now.

‘Gohd, it’s soh fucking hard.’

‘Well, you can have a good wallow in self-pity. But it gets harder to drag yourself up from your wallowing, and sometimes it just feels easier to stay down there. So that’s why I’m staying here with you. I was in a bad place not so long ago, and if I hadn’t had someone to hold on to while I was there, I might never have got out. I’m here so you’ve got something to hold on to, if you want it.’

How did he know this shit? It was like he was inside my head. I thought about him staying with me all evening, sitting in the armchair, being here, giving me something to hold on to. And it had worked. I hadn’t been able to get as far into the black hole as I wanted to, because he’d been there, dangling that bloody rope, making me hold on to it. I turned my head to look at him.

‘Who did yuh hahv?’

‘Rose.’

Ah, that would be one of the many girls, then.

‘Girfriehd?’

‘Fuck no!’

He sounded so horrified, it was almost amusing.

‘She’s this woman, lives downstairs. Decided she was going to look after me, I had no choice one way or the other. I’d be in the shit well and truly now if it wasn’t for her. I should send her up here, she’d soon sort you out.’

Dec’s lady friends notwithstanding, there was other stuff on my mind.

‘Yohr going bahk on Suhndy.’

Dec

I looked at Matt. His face was a picture of hopelessness and desolation, and I had a feeling this was at the heart of everything for him at the moment. Thought about why that might be. It wasn’t me he was sad about, it was what I was going back to.

Matt

As I said it, I realised that it was this that had set me off. Not only was I jealous of his return to his life, to his resumption of normality, but I was going to bloody well miss him. How had that happened? He was Jay’s family, not mine. He was only nineteen, I was thirty. We shouldn’t have anything in common, should we? He was just this moody teenager, wasn’t he? No bond of friendship should have developed, should it? But it had, maybe because I’d lost all my friends and was a bit needy when someone talked to me like I was a normal person, but it was there, this thing, and I felt hopeless and desolate at the thought of being without it.

‘Yeah, all good things come to an end.’

He was being flippant about it, but I hadn’t done wallowing, not quite yet.

‘Ihm going nohwehr.’

‘You’re getting there, just slowly. Take it easy mate, what’s the rush?’

I wanted him to know, how he’d affected me.

‘Ihv sehn yuh, yuhv got behter since yuhv behn hehr. Yuhr face looks behter, yuhr hahpy. Jus in a few days. I wan tha. Jus wan my lihf bahk.’

I wanted to say it again, ‘it’s not fair’, but I was in danger of forgetting which of us was the teenager here, so I didn’t.

‘You’ll get it. It doesn’t seem like something you’re going to be able to rush, but it’ll come.’

He seemed to have all the answers, everything made sense.

‘Wha if ih duhnt? Cahnt spehd the rest of my days hahving my ahrs wiped by my brohther.’

‘Matt, I know, believe me, that pride is important. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. But speaking as someone who might just be peeking out of the end of a tunnel of dark shit, pride is pretty useless if you’re stuck on your own in that dark shit without a helping hand to pull you out. Let them help. It’s much less exhausting than fighting it all the time.’

That was rich, coming from him. In the short time I’d known him, I’d found out that half of his problems had come from not asking for help. We were more alike than either of us would admit.

‘Tha’s wha yuh duh, issit?’

‘Fuck no, I spend all my energy trying to do things on my own, then when someone finally insists on helping, I spend more energy fighting them off, but then I am a head case.’

At least he was self-aware.

‘And bluhdy hypocriht.’

‘Pretty much. Just giving you the benefit of my vast experience of fending off people who care too fucking much for their own good.’

He’d opened up the floodgates, and talking felt good, now, so I carried on.

‘Cahnt face being lihk this fuhever, nehding soh much hehp.’

‘Who says it’s forever? You’re getting better, aren’t you?’

‘Fehls soh slow. Bahstrd MS might cohm back any tihm, then Ihm rehly screwed.’

‘Mate, you’ve got to stay positive. Think about what you’ve achieved – like going out today.’

I snorted. People went out every day without getting a ‘You Have Been Amazing!‘ medal, sponsored by Patronised-Cripples-R-Us.

‘Yeh, big fucking dehl, Ih wahs allohed ouh wih twenty layers of clohths. Hahd to fucking beg to get ih. Cuhdn’t even puhl my fucking trohsers up mysehf. And I stohd up tuh kick a bahl. Woofuckinghoo.’

‘When was the last time you went out?’

‘Cahnt member. Noh since hospital.’

‘So, isn’t that a big achievement? I mean, it might not get you signed for Man United –

No, no, wasn’t having that.

‘Spuhrs.’

‘What?’

‘My tehm. Spuhrs. Wouhnt play foh fucking Man U if yuh paihd meh.’

‘OK, my apologies, well, assuming that the Tottenham scouts were down the park this morning, they just possibly might not have been impressed enough with your penalty effort to sign you up immediately, but it’s huge for you where you are at the moment. I think you might be looking too big, too soon.’

That was part of it, but not all.

‘Dohn nehd big, jus nehd nohmal. Sohmtimes fehl threh years old, noh allohed ouh, noh allohed tuh drink, noh allohed tuh fucking move, fucking bahby monitor foh fuck’s sahk.’

He’d been the only one who asked if I wanted help, if I wanted this or that, as if I had a choice in the matter. I wondered if he knew what a difference it made.

‘They worry about you. They feel as out of control as you do. I don’t think they realise how you feel. You should tell them.’

No, no, not going there. There will be no telling Jay or Beth how I’m feeling about shit.

‘Cahnt. They gahv up evrything foh meh. Jus wish ih was diffreht.’

‘It won’t change unless you do something about it.’

So I went on the attack again, because doing something about it was hard, and making Dec feel guilty and distracting him was easy.

‘Why duh yuh care? Yuhr going back tuh yuhr nohmal lihf, behr an sehx, all tha, big rugby carehr, fucking golden boy.’

‘It’s not quite as simple as that, and I’m a long way from being anyone’s fucking golden boy, but yeah, with a lot of work, I hope I’ll get some of it back. Why do I care? Well, didn’t Jay say I was part of his family? Doesn’t that include you? Didn’t you call me aunty or something? And quite a big part of me would swap everything back there to stay here with them.’

That hadn’t worked quite as well as I’d hoped. There was still a way to put him off, though.

‘Yuh dohn need to care bouh me, yuh hahdly knoh meh.’

Dec

I recognised this tactic, the one where he tried to push me away, stop me caring about him, so he could go back to feeling sorry for himself, wrapping himself up in a cocoon of self-pity.

‘Don’t try that shit on me, mate, I know all the tricks. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people I’ve had to fob off, push away, let down, and generally piss right off to get my lonely quiet life – I’m a bit of an expert. You don’t get rid of me that easily. In fact you don’t really get rid of me at all. And you’ve only got yourself to blame.’

Matt

Now I was confused. He was leaving soon. Then I’d get rid of him, like it or not.

‘Wha yuh mean?’

‘Well, last night, when, by the way, you struggled into the living room and nearly froze your balls off just because I was having a hard time, anyway, you said to me that I’m connected to this family even if I’m not here. It made a bit of an impact, both what you said and you coming all that way to say it. And I’m throwing it back at you. Even when I’m not here, you’re not going to be able to get rid of me. That connection is going to be there. If you’re having a bad day, I’ll be here; if you do something amazing, like wipe your own arse, I’ll be here. I might not hear about it till afterwards, but it doesn’t stop the connection. As if there’s a webcam in your head or something.’

Holy shit. My ‘family always connected’ speech coming back to bite me. Or make perfect sense, one or the other.

‘Fuck, thas a scahry thoht. Speciahly if Ihm wihping my ahrs.’

‘Yeah, maybe an image too far.’

OK, and now I got it. It had taken nearly all night, but he’d done it. I bowed to his superior obstinacy in the face of a serious challenger.

‘I geh the point. Fucking bahstrd. Shih, yuh can tahk fuh bluhdy England. Got a fucking ahnswer foh ehvrything. Ihm fucking exhosted. Goh tuh behd.’

‘No.’

Not this again. Didn’t he get it? He’d won, he’d pulled me out of the pit, I was going to be OK.

‘Shih, Dec, yuh cahnt stay hehr all night.’

‘Watch me.’

‘Yuh rehly ahr an infuhriatingly stuhborn fucking bahstrd.’

‘Yeah.’

Well alright then, to the victor the prize.

‘ … Thahks tho. Mehns a loh, ahtually.’

And it did. It meant a lot that not only had he stayed with me in the face of some pretty hard core rudeness, he’d seen how things were with me, known how to fix them, and done it. He hadn’t had to, he could have just gone to bed and had his nightmares in Jay’s office and not given me a thought, but he’d cared enough that, when he thought he could make a difference, he’d tried. And that really did mean a lot.

‘No worries.’

‘Remihn meh how ohl yuh ahr?’

‘Nineteen. Nearly twenty. Why?’

‘Fuck meh. Bluhdy bossy fuh tehnager. Yuh knoh Ihv got more than ten yehrs on yuh? Shouhnt beh taking this shih. Bluhdy upstaht.’

The little sod didn’t even talk like a bloody teenager. It was if something had sucked all the ‘like’, ‘totally’ and ‘random’ out of him, and it made him seem more like an equal. Not that he wasn’t my equal, more than my equal with me being a fucking cripple and us both being human in any case. Being a bit older gave me no rights to claim superiority of any kind. Maybe I mean he seemed … more adult? Older? Oh I don’t fucking know, he was just easy to bloody well talk to, alright?

Dec didn’t answer, and in the silence I nearly fell asleep. I wanted to keep things going for a bit, and thought I was up for more conversation now.

‘Heh, fahncy cuhp o teh?’

‘Yeah, you making?’

‘Noh. Crihpl, ‘member?’

‘Any bloody excuse. My turn again, then, is it?’

‘Thahks Auhnty Dec. Jus ahsking foh hehp lihk a guhd boy. Mehbe yuh couhd empty my pihs bohtle too, knoh hoh much yuh lohv hehping.’

Dec

I came back with the tea, and Matt wordlessly handed me the plastic bottle filled with golden liquid. His was smiling challengingly, but I took the bottle without comment and went into the bathroom to deal with it like before. It was a very small thing to do for someone, but I recognised that for Matt is was a big ask, and thought of a way of joking with him about it to make it feel better, while I was washing it out. When I got back into the room, though, Matt was fast asleep his cup of tea going cold, the third undrunk cup he’d been given that night. I sat in the chair sipping mine and thought over everything we’d said, about what made life normal for me, and what might make it normal for Matt. Beer and sex, all that. It had been a long time for me too, and last night’s beers with Jay had shown me I wasn’t quite up to speed yet. It would have been a long time for Matt as well – little things that added up to feeling normal. I eventually fell into a dreamless sleep.

Matt

And that really is it. Oh, well, there was more bonding, and he talked to Jay, Beth and Mum and told them not to let me get away with the ‘I vont to be alone’ shit, that I was fed up being treated like a child, and that they needed to wait until I asked for help before barging in and giving it, and things were different. But that’s how it all began.

Dec

When I woke up next morning, the sun was trying to shine through the curtains, and my back was protesting a night spent sitting in a chair. Matt was still asleep. I could hear voices from the direction of the kitchen. I got up, picked up the plates and cups from last night, and headed towards the voices. Jay and Cal were there, Jay was making tea and Cal was eating cereal.

‘Stick another teabag in?’

łHey Dec, how did it go last night?

‘OK.’

łHow’s Matty?

‘OK I think. He’s still asleep, but he seemed better last night. We had a talk.’

łReally? I’d love to know how you pulled that one off.

‘I was just there. It’s what he needs – someone more determined than him to be there, to keep him going.’

łHow come you know this and we don’t?

‘Well, I’ve been there, where he is, lost it all, no hope. You push people away, don’t think you deserve it. Becomes true if you let it go too far.’

Jay stared at me.

łBloody hell, Dec. I never thought. Jesus. He’s always so adamant, leave me alone and all that.

‘You have to ignore him. He won’t like it, but you have to want it more. Battle of wills.’

łIt really worked?

‘In the end. Told him a few home truths, his and mine. He didn’t like it, he was pretty pissed off, but I wore him down eventually. I can be pretty persistent.’

I stretched, trying to get the kinks out of my spine.

łYou didn’t sit in that chair all night, did you?

‘Yeah, my back’s killing me.’

łJesus, Dec, you really are a headcase. Go and get some proper sleep.

‘No, I’ll be OK. Just need to move around a bit.’

Jay handed me a cup of tea.

‘Thanks. Could you do one for Matt, too? In a proper mug?

He looked at me, eyebrows raised.

‘You need to stop babying him, it makes him feel even more crap.’

łJesus, Dec. You’re full of advice this morning. When did you stop being a teenager and start being an agony aunt?

‘Just think about it.’

łOK. Here’s his tea. Proper mug as requested. You’ll presumably be washing the duvet and fixing the bloody expensive electric bed if he spills it.

I walked back into Matt’s room with both cups of tea. He was still asleep, or seemed to be.

Cal

The next day, Uncle Matty’s door was open, and Uncle Matty wasn’t quiet and sad any more, so I went in and played. It was Dec’s last day before he went back, and I still couldn’t understand why he wasn’t going to stay with us. He could sleep underneath me, I wouldn’t mind if he screamed every night. I just didn’t want him to go.

Dec

\dec can you help me build a road?

‘Course, mate. What are we going to use?’

\these black Legos are the sides, and these green ones are trees.

I knelt down on the floor, and started to sort out the blocks.

}Heh, it’s Auhnty Dec.

I looked up to see Matt looking back.

‘I fear I may have started a nickname I would rather not have.’

}Thas poiht of nicknahms. Cup oh teh? Er, plehs?

‘That’s yours on the table.’

He looked over at it.

}Wha noh spouht?

I stood up and handed it to him.

‘Give it a try. But if you spill it, I’m in the shit with Jay.’

}Might hahv tuh spihl a lihtl bit, jus tuh see tha.

He held the mug in both hands and took a couple of gulps.

}Mm, tahsts behter in prohpr cup.

He drank the rest and put the mug on the table.

}Thahks, Dec.

‘Thanks for not spilling, much appreciated.’

}Thahks fuh las nigh. Mehnt a loh.

‘Any time, mate.’

\dec, are you going to help me?

‘Course, Cal, what was I doing? Oh yeah, black bits.’

I knelt back down to the Lego and engrossed myself in Cal’s game. Beth and Carol came in to say good morning to Matt, but Jay remained absent. Beyond the room, after a while, I could hear them talking, the sound of plates and cups being loaded into the dishwasher, music from the radio.

Cal’s road soon stretched from one end of the room to the other, and branched off towards the door. He filled it with vehicles of all descriptions, including a spaceship and a giant tortoise on wheels. This was apparently a police car. Cal’s other toys populated the streets and committed crimes that allowed the tortoise police car to race around arresting them. Optimus Prime was the chief of police who decided whether they merited jail, freedom or Transformer justice in the form of a laser blast. Most of my characters were laser blasted.

}Dec.

I looked up.

‘Yeah.’

}Jay hahnt behn in this mohning. Nehd a … er .. the loo.

I felt a pang of guilt, and wondered if Jay had taken what I had said this morning the wrong way.

‘Do you want me to get him?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

Cal

I knew Uncle Matty wanted to do a poo because he could wee in a bottle that he had in bed with him. I wasn’t allowed to ask about it, because Uncle Matty didn’t like talking about it, but sometimes I saw the lump under the duvet where the bottle was, and knew Uncle Matty was doing a wee.

Dec

I wandered out to the kitchen, where I could hear Jay’s voice. As I opened the kitchen door, he stopped talking. Beth and Carol were sat at the table as well, and they looked liked they had been having an intense discussion.

‘Matt’s wondering if you could help him with the loo?’

łI was just on my way. We’ve been talking about it, actually.

‘Really?’

łWell, no, not specifically the loo, more what you said about not babying him. You think we should let him do more for himself?

I was uncomfortable in the role of ‘expert on Matt’, and frowned as I tried to put into words what I thought Matt needed from them.

‘Well, that was what I meant, but it’s not really my place to say. You guys are the ones who look after him, I’m sure it’s not easy, I wasn’t criticising. It was just something he said, how he feels like a child. I was thinking how it feels to need help to eat and drink, and have people decide everything for you, like when I was in hospital, and afterwards. You feel helpless, stupid almost. I can see from your side how you want to make sure he’s OK, so you do things for him. Maybe just remember he can ask if he needs help?

łBut isn’t that the opposite of what you’ve just said about ignoring him when he tells us to leave him alone?

I thought about it, the contradictions of those in need.

‘I’m not an expert, I only know how it feels for me. Something huge like feeling hopeless, I guess you step in, but feeling normal, it’s about little things, like which cup you use. He can say if he’s feeling wobbly and needs a cup with a spout. If he doesn’t say and he spills it, it’s his responsibility. When his tea is always in his plastic cup, it says you expect him to not be able to do it. Put it in a normal cup, and the message is he’s normal. At least when it comes to drinking tea. He did ask if you would help him now, though.’

łOK then, let’s see how this works. Matty has to ask for help, should be interesting. Brave new world.

He left the kitchen and headed for Matt’s room.

Cal

After Dad had been in and helped Uncle Matty in the bathroom, he looked out of the window.

‘Know what, Matty, the sun’s shining, we should get you out again. Fancy it?’

‘Fuck yeh.’

‘Right, let’s get your layers on then. Cal, go and get your coat and your wellies.’

When I came back with my things, Dad had started putting all Uncle Matty’s clothes on again, and he helped me with my wellies while Uncle Matty put his jumpers on.

Matt

Jay came in that very morning, after his little chat with the kid, and just sat there, while I struggled through getting myself up, determined I wasn’t going to ask unless I fell forwards into a sink full of water. And I did it, and it felt great. We were both so excited afterwards that we decided to go out again, and Jay helped me pile on the contents of my wardrobe, and later on decided it would be a regular occurrence. My head was almost spinning with the speed of it; after months of torpor, I could feel things moving, shifting, getting better, and that Christmas was the turning point. I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to show Dec what it had meant to me.

I didn’t have to wait long, as it turned out. But, shh, spoilers.

34. One is the loneliest number

In which Dec decides Matty shouldn’t be alone.

Cal

Then Dad nearly broke Dec. We were throwing the rugby ball to each other, even though I didn’t like throwing it that much because it was a funny shape. After a lot of throws, Dad threw the ball to Dec, who held on to it and started to run down the pitch. Dad started to run after him and then, to my astonishment, jumped at Dec, and pulled him down on to the ground. Dec shouted really loud, like Dad had really hurt him. I stood where I was, wondering what was going to happen. I’d never seen Dad hurt anyone before, and I wondered if it was because he was cross with Dec.

‘Aah. Fuck. Fucking hell, Jay. Aagh. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck it.’

This was a lot of swears, even for Dec, so it must have hurt him quite a bit. Dad didn’t look cross, he looked worried.

Jesus, Dec, I’m so sorry, I got carried away.’

So he hadn’t meant to hurt Dec. Why had he pulled him over then? Dad knelt next to Dec while I stood behind him, trying to see where Dec was hurt, in case there was any blood.

Dec

I lay on the ground, breathing hard, holding my arm, trying to assess the damage. Jay knelt beside me, concern on his face. Cal hovered just behind his shoulder, eyes wide.

łStay there for a minute, see what still hurts in a bit. Fuck it, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot about your arm.

I lay on the ground for a few more seconds, getting my breath back, but it was uncomfortably damp and I sat up.

‘It’s wet down here.’

łShit, course, sorry. Stand up then, carefully. Can you put any weight through it?

‘Don’t think I’m going to try. Help me up?’

I held out my left hand, and Jay gripped it and pulled. I pulled back, and he toppled over, landing face first. He sat up, spitting grass and mud, wiping his face.

łYou bastard. It’s not that bad, then?

‘Just tingling a bit now. I don’t think it’s serious.’

łJesus, Dec, you absolute bastard. I thought I’d broken you again. I was imagining having to call Don and tell him. You bloody bastard.

‘What were you thinking? You could have done me some serious damage.’

łI know, mate, I got carried away. You sprinting off, set off a reflex. I really miss playing sometimes. Didn’t think. Sorry.

Cal

I was really confused. Dec didn’t seem like he was hurting now, although he had to start with, and now Dad seemed annoyed and not sorry.

‘Daddy did you hurt Dec?’

‘He didn’t really hurt me, Cal, I was just pretending. In the end. I’m OK. Look.’

Dec waggled his arm and fingers at me, and I knew he wasn’t hurting, so that was all clear. But there was still more I wanted to understand.

‘Why did you fight Dec, Daddy?’

I wasn’t fighting, we were playing rugby. You’ve seen rugby on telly, haven’t you. I was tackling Dec, trying to get the ball off him.’

Oh. I often forgot that Dec played rugby and Dad was a rugby coach and used to play rugby. I didn’t really pay much attention to it, because football was so much better. But they used some of the same words for different things, and it was confusing sometimes.

‘It’s not a tackle. A tackle is when you bang your legs with the other man, and you kick the ball away.’

‘That’s in football, Cal. A rugby tackle is different – you’re allowed to pull someone onto the ground if they’ve got the ball.’

‘I think football tackles are best. You would get very muddy if you did tackles from rugby, Mummy would be cross.’

Well that’s told me, might explain a lot. OK, I think we’ve finished here for today, how about going home for some lunch?’

Dec

On the way home, I talked to Jay about where he was working now. I had spent a lot of time wondering what he had left Raiders for. Now I knew it was to look after Matt, but he must be doing something to earn a living.

łI’m doing some coaching for a local team, nothing formal, just on a sessional basis. They’re a National League Two side, mid-table. Also doing a bit of consultancy stuff, and, you’ll laugh at this, I’ve been asked to write a column in The Rugby Paper.

‘No way! Scotty’s Gritty Gossip?’

łI don’t think so, I’m too far removed from the top end of things at the moment for that. No, it’s opinion stuff. Beth’s going to help with my grammar.

‘Bloody hell, people paying good money to read your half-arsed opinions. Who’d have thought?’

łPiss off. It’s a living. Other possibilities in the pipeline, but nothing definite.

‘Do you miss it?’

łWhat?

‘Raiders.’

Jay ran a hand through his hair.

łYeah, if I’m honest. This was totally the right thing to do, I wouldn’t be anywhere else than with Matty right now. But yeah, I do wake up sometimes and wish I was out on a rainy training pitch yelling at some academy lout who needs his arse kicked. I played for Raiders for seven years, and I coached for three, so it’s a big chunk of my life. Just takes a bit of getting used to.

‘When I thought I’d lost all that, it was the hardest, really bad time. I can’t imagine life without them. That place just gets inside you. It’s like it’s alive.’

łIt is tough, and even tougher to leave the place you started out, but sometimes you just have to move on. Who knows what your future might bring? You’ve got dual reg with Trojans now, haven’t you? They’ve got a great set up, and if you recover well and get some game time with them, you’ll really benefit. Don’t put all your hopes and dreams in one place, Dec. Stay open to different things.

\daddy race you home.

Jay sped off with Cal, leaving me to walk the rest of the way with my thoughts for company. The phone in my pocket started to ring. I’d forgotten it was still there, and I was lucky it hadn’t got broken when Jay tackled me. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Lis.

‘Hi Lis.’

~Dec, how are you?

‘Good, thanks. Really good.’

We compared Christmas Days and I told her the plan to go and watch Raiders.

~Well, maybe see you Sunday? I’ll be there too.

‘Great.’

~Dec, you sound like you’re having a good time up there. I’m so pleased.

‘Thanks, Lis, couldn’t have done it without you. Oh, and thanks so much to you and Nico for the computer. At the risk of getting a telling off –’

~Don’t even go there Declan Summers. You’re welcome. It was totally selfish – I just want someone to play Words with Friends with. Nico’s useless, although he tells me he’s amazing in Spanish.

‘Am I at least allowed to say thanks very very much?’

~Course you are. See you soon, yeah?

‘Bye.’

Cal

Dad and Dec talked on the way back, until I got bored and asked Dad to race me home. When we got there, Mum stopped us before we even got through the door and told us to take our muddy things off. She said ‘honestly James’ a lot, but because of the mud, not because of the swears, because Dad didn’t tell her about those. He didn’t tell her about nearly breaking Dec, either, but Dec did when he got back.

Dec

I put the phone back in my pocket just as I reached the front door. There was a pile of muddy shoes and boots just inside, so I took mine off and slung them on top. I took off my coat, wondering where to put it as it was also covered in mud. As were my jeans. Beth opened the hall door.

_I had a feeling you’d be in the same state. Give me your coat, sweetheart, I’ll hang it up to dry, we can brush most of it off later. Ugh, your trousers are nearly as bad as James’s. Take them off.

‘What, here?’

_I don’t want you trailing mud through the house. I’ll go and fetch you some more. What on earth were you thinking?

‘I was just running, Jay decided to tackle me. I thought he’d broken my arm again for a minute.’

_God, that man.

She smiled fondly.

_He’s so competitive, he probably couldn’t bear to see you go past him. You’re not hurt though?

‘No, but no thanks to Jay. He’s still surprisingly quick.’

_Don’t tell him that, we’d never hear the last of it. Trousers, please.

As Beth went off to fetch my spare jeans, I took the muddy ones off, managing to smear mud up my legs, and stood self-consciously in the hall. Beth reappeared a few minutes later with a clean pair, checked the pockets of the dirty pair and handed me my phone. I put the clean jeans on and padded through to the utility room, where Beth was loading the washing machine.

‘Beth, I could really use a shower. I’m covered in mud, it’s all in my hair. Do you think there’s any way I can have one, with my dressings?’

She thought about it for a moment.

_Do you know what, everything looked so close to being healed last time, I think you could take the dressings off, have the shower, let it all dry and put more on. We didn’t use all the stuff up before, did we?

‘Should all be in the bag.’

_OK, give me a minute, I just need to sort out all these muddy things, and I’ll be with you. Living room OK?

‘Thanks, that’d be great.’

I sat and waited in the living room. My duvet and pillow had been cleared away. There were still piles of toys waiting for Cal to bring them to life with his imagination, but with the wrapping paper gone, the room looked less bright in its post-Christmas state.

I could hear Carol talking in Matt’s room, and Cal’s car noises told me he was there too. From upstairs I could hear the faint hiss of the water from Jay’s shower. I’d missed this – having a house full of people, whose noises filled your days and helped you make sense of who you were and where you belonged. I’d been on my own too long.

Before I could ponder too much, Beth came in, holding the bag containing the equipment for my dressings.

_OK, lets see what we’ve got here. Take your hoody off, and your shirt actually, I forgot about your collar bone.

She undid the bandages and peeled back the dressings. The stitches had almost disappeared. The scars were pink, but not swollen or weeping. Beth prodded each scar – there was one on my collar bone, one on my forearm, and one on my upper arm.

_Tell me if it hurts.

‘No, it’s tender, but nothing bad.’

_Can you bend your arm, twist it, wiggle your fingers, whole range of movement stuff?

I did as I was asked. There were a few twinges, but it was feeling OK.

_That looks great, Dec. I’m no expert, but it’s looking really good. I think you’re good to go with the shower. Your last few stitches might not last, but we’ll do you back up afterwards, and you’ll be good as new. I think Jay’s up there at the moment, but he’ll be out soon.

‘Thanks, Beth. I haven’t had a shower since before I was in hospital. I must stink.’

_We’d been wondering what it was. Thought it was the drains.

She flashed me a smile, picked up the old bandages and dressings and took them out of the room with her. I put my t-shirt back on, leaving my forearms bare – it felt good to have the air on them. A few moments later, Jay wandered in, hair damp and tousled, and plonked himself down on the sofa.

łHey, look at you all unwrapped. Did Beth just do that?

‘Yeah, I really need a shower, thanks to you. She had a look and thought it’d be OK.’

łAre you sure your arm’s OK now?

‘Yeah, it’s fine, I just jarred it when I landed on it.’

Jay had a closer look at the scars from the operation.

łLooks neat. The bruising’s really going down too, and from your face as well. You’re almost back to normal, apart from those tramlines. Every time I look at those, it makes me shudder. You were pretty close to losing an eye.

‘I know.’

łStill, interesting story for the ladies. They like a bit of a scar here and there.

‘That’s what Rose said. Don’t see it myself.’

łMate, you’ve got a lot to learn. Bit of vulnerability goes a long way. Use it to your advantage.

‘I’ll bear it in mind.’

łWell, bathroom’s free, if you want it.

I stood under the hot running water, luxuriating in the sensation. I could feel myself relaxing, and the mud ran off me. I used the shower gel Rose had given me, soaped my hair and watched the water run first brown and then clear. I scrubbed the mud off my legs, and soaped myself all over, feeling the shower refresh me. Eventually I felt clean and relaxed enough, so I turned the water off and wrapped myself in Rose’s huge towel. I sat on the edge of the bath, wrapped in the fluffy warm cosiness, enjoying being properly clean for the first time in ages and looked at my arm. It didn’t seem to have suffered any ill-effects, no extra redness, the remaining stitches were still mostly intact. I dried myself, pulled some clean clothes on and went in search of Beth, to re-apply the dressings.

Matt

Later on, having rested but not slept, which was pretty major, Beth was in my room, drinking coffee with me. Cal was playing on the floor. I was holding my coffee myself and not spilling any. I was Mr Incredible.

Dec wandered in, hair damp, cheeks rosy, looking scrubbed, and Beth looked at him enquiringly.

‘Good shower?’

‘Great shower.’

‘Did your arm stand up to it OK?’

‘As far as I can tell.’

‘Let’s have a look. Sit on the edge of the bed. OK to slip your shirt off?’

Hey, this was still my room, not some examination clinic.

‘Stehdy on, pehpl trying tuh not vohmit.’

‘Sorry, mate, nurse’s orders. If you think you might faint at the sight of my muscular torso, close your eyes.’

‘Ha ha, mohr lihkly die laughing.’

As Dec took his shirt off, I goggled at all the bruises and scarring. The scars from the operation on his arm were neat and short, but the other ones, especially on his back, were long and jagged and had been done by someone who really didn’t like him very much. I had seen my fair share of faces bruised and battered from fights in various nightclubs, but the sheer scale of the damage inflicted on Dec’s body – someone had meant him serious harm. Had caused it, actually. When Beth went to get some bandages, I commented.

‘Yuh goh done ohver prehty good.’

‘They used a bottle, as well as fists and feet. Nice people.’

Holy shit. I hadn’t realised.

‘Fuck. Dihnt noh. Bahstrds.’

‘Yeah.’

Beth came back swinging a bag in her hand.

‘Here we are, then, Dec. Let’s get you all bandaged up. I expect the docs at the club will just take this lot off again when you see them.’

Dec put his shirt back on, covering up the evidence of his recent hard times.

‘That’s not till the sixth. I can’t wait that long to have another shower!’

‘Won’t you be able to see them on Sunday? They’ll probably just say take it all off. ‘

‘Suhndy?’

Well they were talking about it in my room, I felt it was my place to join in.

‘Yeah, going home.’

Cal

I hadn’t thought about Dec going home. Once he had got here, I’d thought he would just be here like he always had been. I didn’t like to think about him going away again, and then it going back to how it was before he came for Christmas. I think Uncle Matty might have felt the same, because when he found out, he went all quiet and sad like he did sometimes, and Mum made us all go out of the room, and shut the door, and Uncle Matty didn’t even want the speaker on so we could hear if he was coughing or poorly.

Matt

I’d forgotten last night’s crying episode and the reason for it, and suddenly realised that I was going to be losing an ally.

‘Oh yeh. Fohgot.’

And he was going back to his normal life, now he was getting better. It would be full of normal things like walking, running, talking, drinking. I bet he had girls coming out of his ears too. How long was it going to be before I had any of that? Any of it?

I felt myself plummet into a deep pit of hopelessness. I’d been here before. It was where I reminded myself of everything I’d had but didn’t have any longer. It was where I reminded myself of what my future looked like, despite the positive spin I put on ridiculous achievements like standing up by myself and drinking a cup of tea out of a child’s cup without spilling any. It was where Carrie waited for me.

‘We’re going to the Raiders game, I guess I could see some of the medical staff, could have a chat.’

Dec was talking to me but I no longer had any interest in why he was going home, or what he might do when he was there.

‘Mm.’

Dec

Matt’s mood had seemed to suddenly change.

‘Alright, mate?’

Matt

‘Jus fuck ohf hohm.’

I wanted to make it about me. I was going nowhere, didn’t even have a home to go to if I could get further than across the hallway under my own steam. Didn’t see why other people should get to go home, get on with their lives.

Dec

As usual, Beth seemed to understand what was going on, even though I was confused about what Matt meant.

_Oh Matty, you won’t be stuck here forever.

Matt

Really Beth? Try seeing what it looks like from my side of things.

‘Mm.’

She tried the chivvying thing, but I was a master at this.

‘Look how much you’ve done in the last few days, you’re so much better. You played football today.’

Oh just fuck off with your cripple-patronising.

‘Mm.’

I turned my face away from both of them and looked out of the window. Dec took his lead from Beth and tried his own brand of cheeriness.

Dec

Beth’s brightness didn’t seem to be getting through to Matt. He turned away from us, refusing to talk or even look in our direction.

‘This time next year mate, best seats in the house for my full debut and first try in the Christmas game.’

Matt

‘Yeh, whaever.’

Why should I care about his bloody rugby? I’d never even seen Jay play, why should I care about some little upstart who thought he knew what would cheer me up?

Dec

I wasn’t having much luck either. Maybe if I reminded him of something we’d talked about?

‘Don’t forget, choose your battles, one day at a time.’

Matt

It was time to get rid of them, so I could just sink down into it, let it fold me up, let me just be there, in the darkness, where I belonged.

‘Mm. ‘Nough pep tahk, thahks.’

Beth finally got it, that she wasn’t going to win.

‘You look tired, sweetheart. Shall we leave you to it?’

‘Mm.’

Fuck off the lot of you. Couldn’t raise the energy to say it.

Dec

Matt stared blankly out of the window, his jaw clenched.

_Come on Cal, you can set your road up in the living room.

\oh, but I want to –

_Cal, do it now.

Matt

Cal looked at me, as I was usually the one who said ‘oh let him stay’, but although I hated myself, I ignored him. I didn’t want Cal there, I didn’t want anyone there. Just wanted to be left the fuck alone.

‘Do you want the door open?’

‘Noh.’

Beth moved towards the monitor.

‘Noh, lehv ih.’

If I was going to die, so be it. If I was going to cry, I didn’t want the whole lot of them hearing me. Where I was going, I could easily do one or the other or both, and I wanted to be there completely on my own. When I’d done, if I was ever done, I was going to have to put up with Beth trying to persuade me, once again, to talk to a doctor about being depressed. But for now I was sinking into the dark fog, letting it swallow me.

Dec

Beth sighed and continued into the kitchen. I followed her. Cal took his toys into the living room, where the TV was on and Jay and Carol were sitting watching it.

Matt

I lay there, in my black pit of misery, for a long time. I cried a bit. I raged a bit, although it was fairly impotent raging as I couldn’t exactly throw stuff, and if I shouted they’d all hear me. I examined every single aspect of the waste of space that was Matt Scott.

What had I achieved in my thirty years? I’d got a degree. I’d wasted it by working in Stafford for the last eight years. Eight years I’d lived in this dump, when I could have got out. Oh, but no, I couldn’t, because of Mum. I was never going to escape. Strike one.

I’d had a lot of women. Yeah, that was pretty empty too, because really, what I’d really been looking for was that one woman, and I’d found her, and where had that got me? Heart pulverised, all my stuff gone, hatred. Jagged, raw, red hatred, where there had been love. Strike two.

What else? Oh yeah, needed more help with eating, walking, washing and wiping my arse than a two year old. Strike three, and I’m out.

This was how it went, round and round my head, wishing things were different but knowing nothing was going to change.

I lay there for a long time, watching the light fade outside, feeling the darkness gather inside me. I could hear the TV on in the living room, the occasional snatch of conversation, but I tried to ignore it. It wasn’t part of the black landscape I was painting for myself.

I settled down for a long stint of being on my own, because I always managed to chase them away. They wouldn’t be back tonight, I might have to do some more sullen fending off tomorrow morning, then I might get the rest of tomorrow to myself too.

Dec

‘What was that all about?’

_He gets like this sometimes, especially when he’s tired. I can understand it. He feels like life is passing him by. It’s very frustrating for him.

‘But he had a great time this morning.’

_Sometimes that just makes it worse. He sees a glimpse of normality, then pays for it by being wiped out. I was half expecting it to be honest.

‘Shouldn’t he have someone with him?’

_He doesn’t want anyone, just wants to be left alone. You won’t get anything out of him for the rest of the day, he won’t even want Cal in with him. He won’t eat anything. It might last a couple of days – it happened a couple of times when he was in hospital and soon after he got here.

‘Sounds pretty miserable.’

_He’s feeling pretty miserable. Most of the time, actually. Most of his bluster is just an act. As well as everything else, he’s still getting over Carrie – did you know Carrie?

‘I can’t remember, might have met her once.’

_She visited us a couple of times with Matty. Anyway, they’d been living together for a few months when he was diagnosed with MS. She left him for an ex-boyfriend just when things started to get really hard for him. He was absolutely devastated. He got pneumonia not long after. She hasn’t been in touch, although we tried to let her know how poorly he was. She cleaned out their flat while he was in hospital, took the computer, his phone, TV, all the CDs, all the furniture worth taking. None of their friends have been in touch with him, we don’t know what she’s told them, but it’s pretty heartbreaking. Matty’s best friend from school, who he’s known for years and used to talk to about everything, moved abroad with his family. He emails occasionally, but apart from that he’s only got us.

‘Fucking hell, Beth. That’s terrible. I had no idea.’

_He doesn’t really talk about it, even to us. So on top of MS and recovering from pneumonia, he’s depressed. He won’t see the doctor about it, so we just have to cope with it the best we can. Letting him stew isn’t ideal, but he won’t talk while he’s like this. Leaving him on his own, when he asks for it, is about as much as we can do. Anyway, I’m going to do some lunch. Turkey sandwiches?

I helped Beth with the sandwiches, having worked out that mayonnaise was easier than butter. It felt good to be properly helpful, after being pretty useless for so long. We piled the sandwiches high and took them into the living room.

łAh, turkey butties, the best part of Boxing Day. Thanks, Beth.

_It was a joint effort, Dec buttered the bread. Or rather, mayoed it.

łAnd the bread survived it, good job. Have you taken some in to Matty?

_No, he’s gone into one of his moods, wants the door shut, probably best to leave him for a bit.

łWhat set that off?

_I don’t know, he probably overdid it a bit this morning.

łDamn, he’s been on really good form the last few days. When he came out this morning, I thought he’d really turned a corner.

‘Sometimes things ambush you just when you start feeling better. Hits you twice as hard.’

Beth gave me a penetrating look.

_That sounds like the voice of experience.

I shrugged and ate another sandwich.

We spent the afternoon watching and not watching the Sound of Music on TV. I didn’t manage to stay awake for all of it, and played with Cal and his cars for a bit while it was on, but it was a really long film, the sort of thing nobody really had to concentrate on if they had other things to do like dozing, playing with Christmas presents or chatting. Beth, Jay, Carol and I all fell asleep for various lengths of time at various intervals. It eventually grew dark, and Jay put the lights on.

łWhat’s for tea?

_Don’t know James, what do you fancy making?

łCome on, Beth, you’ve always got a plan.

_My plan today is letting you come up with something.

łDon’t do this to me, I have no cooking skills whatsoever, you know that.

_How about your world famous Christmas leftover curry?

łYeah, well, OK, apart from that. Damn, I forgot. I do make a good one, don’t I.

_You do. Come on, James, so I can put my feet up?

Jay slumped, defeated.

łOK, you win. You can only use this baby thing for nine more months, though. Eight if I’m lucky. Then I go back to being grouchy lazy husband.

_Oh, had you stopped? I hadn’t noticed.

łCareful, lady, or no curry for you.

Jay ambled off to the kitchen, where he could be heard banging cupboard doors and crashing saucepans.

\mummy I don’t want leftover curry.

_No, sweetheart, I didn’t think you would. Daddy will do you something else. Do you want chicken nuggets?

\yes.

_Go and ask him, then.

Cal wandered off with his order. I thought about offering to help Jay, but decided he could cope without me. I was feeling bad for Matt, and kept thinking about him lying on his own being miserable, by now in the dark. Thought about how we’d both lost a lot, how it had felt for me, what I’d wanted, what I’d needed, what I’d asked for and what had helped.

When Jay announced that dinner was ready, I followed Beth, Cal and Carol into the kitchen. I put some on a plate for me, then loaded another plate and started to leave the kitchen.

łWhere are you going with that?

‘Just thought I’d see if Matt fancies some.’

łLeave it, Dec, he won’t want any, not when he’s like this.

‘He can tell me if he’s not hungry.’

łHe will, in no uncertain terms.

‘No worries. Smells delicious, by the way.’

Matt

I couldn’t believe it when the door opened, and the bloody teenager came in. He was carrying two plates of curry, which he put down on the table by the bed, before he turned a lamp on. What did he think he was he doing? Surely Beth had explained to him what happened when I got like this?

‘Brought you some dinner. Jay’s legendary Christmas curry. If it tastes as good as I remember, you’re in for a treat. I think there are extra sprouts in yours.’

No, I wasn’t doing the banter thing. I was doing the pit of darkness thing.

‘Pihs ohf, Dec. Wana beh on my ohn.’

‘Well that’s your bad luck, really, because I want to eat my dinner in here. Yours is on the table there, I’m happy to help if needed, but there is a fork for your use should you require it.’

What was he up to? I wanted him to go.

‘Pihs ohf.’

‘No.’

What? It wasn’t a request.

Dec

I started eating the curry, which was extremely tasty. Jay had mixed up all the left over vegetables, turkey and stuffing and combined them with a curry sauce. He did it every year, and it was always worth the wait.

Matt carried on looking at the ceiling.

‘Good view up there, is it?’

No reply. I ate, wishing I’d brought a drink in, because the curry was quite hot, and it was making me thirsty.

Cal

Once Dec had gone in to Uncle Matty’s room, he didn’t come out, and Mum, Dad and Granny talked about what might be happening.

‘You don’t think they’re talking, do you?’

‘Unlikely, Beth. You know how he gets. Dec can be as stubborn, though, so they’re probably having a silence-off.’

‘Do you think it’s good for him, dear? Don’t you think we should just give him the peace and quiet he’s asked for?’

‘I don’t know, Mum. Let’s just see what happens.’

Matt

I resumed my contemplation of the ceiling. Maybe if I just ignored him he’d get the message. If I ignored him, I could get on with what I was doing, and he’d get bored and go away.

‘This is really good. You should try it before it gets cold.’

Ignoring you, you dick. Fuck off .

Dec

I finished eating and put my plate on the table. Sat down. Took my phone out, texted Nico and Rose. Got up, looked at the books on the shelf by Matt’s bed. There were several story books, a dinosaur book, a bird spotting guide and a few crime novels. Not the widest choice, but it would keep me going for now. I plumped for the dinosaur book; it never hurt to be clued up on dinosaurs with Cal around. I sat down and started flicking through the book.

Matt

My ignoring strategy didn’t seem to be having the desired results, as he was apparently trying the same method. Maybe if I found out what he was playing at, I could convince him none of it would work, and that I really just wanted him to leave me the fuck alone.

‘Wha ahr yuh trying tuh achieve?’

‘Nothing. Just sitting here reading a book.’

It was time for some directness.

‘Dohn wan yuh hehr.’

‘I know. Not your choice, unless you feel up to wrestling for it.’

It bloody well was my choice. Who did he think he was, coming in my room and just sitting there, making disparaging remarks about my ability to wrestle?

‘Fuck yuh. Lehv meh alohn.’

‘No.’

Then at least tell me what you’re fucking well doing.

‘Why?’

‘Because when you’re feeling as shit as you are, you shouldn’t be on your own, whether you want to be or not.’

What was that supposed to mean? He had no idea how shit I was feeling, what I wanted, or what I needed.

Dec carried on leafing through the book.

Maybe if I asked nicely.

‘Plehs jus pihs ohf.’

Or half nicely.

‘No.’

‘Plehs.’

There, I’d asked completely nicely.

‘No.’

This was beyond frustrating. What was I going to have to do to make him fuck off? I couldn’t fight him, although if I’d had any strength I would have added to his bruises. No, no, don’t fucking cry Matt, oh for fuck’s sake. I tried to sniff back the tears. Dec looked up from the book.

‘Want a tissue?’

Oh you bastard.

‘Noh. Wahn yuh tuh fuck ohf.’

‘No.’

He put the box of tissues within my reach, although surely he realised there was no way I was going to touch them, and he went back to the book.

Hard as I tried to get back into my black sea of despair and misery, I couldn’t while he was sitting here with the light on, as the tantalising smell of curry drifted over from the plate on the table. Without meaning to, I turned my head and looked at it.

‘Hungry?’

Shit. I turned my head back so I was looking at the ceiling again, but I was hungry. And now I couldn’t think about anything but eating that sodding curry.

‘Yeh. Fuck yuh.’

‘It’ll be cold by now. I’ll go and microwave it.’

He picked up the plate and took it out. Brainwave. Get him to do stuff for me, that got me some time to myself. I moved the bed into a sitting position and waited for him to come back. Maybe eating something would get me enough brownie points to be left to my own devices.

Dec

I picked up the plate and took it into the kitchen, where Beth and Carol were still sitting at the table.

_You’ve been in there a long time.

‘Yeah, we’ve been having a cosy little chat.’

_Really?

‘No.’

I carried on microwaving the curry.

#How is he?

‘Pretty pissed off with me.’

#Maybe you should leave him be, dear?

‘He shouldn’t be alone when he’s like this, it just makes it all worse. He said he was hungry though, I’m heating this up for him.’

I grabbed the plate when the microwave beeped, as Jay, Beth and Carol all looked at each other, surprised. I took the curry back to Matt, who had moved the bed into a sitting position, and handed him the plate and the fork.

Matt

Let’s test out my theory.

‘If I eaht this, wihl yuh fuck ohf?’

‘No.’

I snorted with exasperation, but started eating the curry. It was bloody tasty, and I managed about half of it, then put the fork down and sank back against my pillows. I deliberately left the plate on the side of the bed, against my leg, and then moved so it started to slide off the duvet, hopefully spilling curry and rice onto the bed and the floor, so Dec would have to clear it up, and get an ear-bashing from Beth at the same time. Dec almost didn’t notice, but at the last minute, he jumped up and grabbed the plate as the fork clattered to the floor.

‘Thanks for that. I’ll just put the plate on the table in case you want the rest later, shall I? And just so you know, if that had splattered on the floor, it wouldn’t be me that was clearing it up. I’m staying put.’

Fuck it, he’d sussed that one out too. I took the remote control for the bed and lowered myself back into a semi-lying position, from where I continued to stare at the ceiling.

Dec put the dinosaur book down, and made a start on a novel, rhythmically turning the pages over. The steady rustling was lulling me to sleep. I didn’t want to sleep, I wanted to rage in the darkness, but it was no good, I was on the slide down, and then my eyes closed, and that was it.

Dec

Matt’s eyelids started to droop, and the next time I looked up from the book, his eyes were closed. I looked at the time on my phone; seven forty. I turned it to silent.

Beth came in with a cup of tea for both of us. She fussed around a bit, tidying up, pulling the curtains.

_How long are you planning to stay in here?

‘No idea.’

_James is making you a bed up in his office, he’s put your bag in there, hope that’s OK?

‘Yeah, course. Thanks.’

_He’s asleep now, Dec, why don’t you come out for a bit?

‘No.’

I wasn’t sure Matt was really asleep, and if he wasn’t I wanted him to know I wasn’t going anywhere.

Matt

I woke up a couple of times, when people came in. Beth tried to persuade Dec to come out, as I was asleep.

‘Cal wants his bedtime story.’

‘I can do that in here.’

Oh, why not just invite the whole street in, it’s not like it’s my bedroom or anything.

‘You’re very stubborn.’

‘I know.’

Yeah, well, we’ll see who wins Stubbornfest, shall we?

_Hope you know what you’re doing, sweetheart.

‘So do I.’

Oh great, so he really didn’t have any idea. I was getting seriously pissed off with him.

Dec

At the very least I hoped I was annoying Matt enough that he stopped focussing on his misery. I was running the risk of pissing him off so much he’d be glad to see the back of me when I left, and that would be something else I’d managed to fuck up, but I hoped that something would get through to him.

Cal came in a short while later. I got him to choose one of the story books from the shelf, and I read him a couple of stories. He sat on my lap and looked at the pictures while I read.

Matt

Cal sat on Dec’s lap while he had his bedtime story. Despite myself, I was impressed at how well they got on together, and how Dec didn’t just read a story, but involved Cal in thinking about the pictures, possible plot developments and how characters might be feeling. But I wasn’t supposed to be being impressed, I was supposed to be wallowing, and asleep.

Dec

‘OK, Cal, time for bed now.’

\can I say goodnight to Uncle Matty?

‘Course you can, but he’s asleep, he might not hear you.’

\’night Uncle Matty.

Before I could stop him, he climbed onto the bed and gave Matt a hug, then jumped off and ran out of the room.

Matt

Because I was prepared for him, I managed not to open my eyes when Cal climbed onto the bed and gave me a hug, then jumped off and ran out of the room.

Dec

I couldn’t work out if Matt had woken up or not. His eyes were still closed, and his noisy breathing was still regular.

Cal

Because Mum let me go and have my story with Dec, in Uncle Matty’s room, I got to see what was going on, which wasn’t much. Uncle Matty looked asleep, and Dec was sitting in the chair. After Dec read me some stories from the books in Uncle Matty’s room, I went upstairs with Mum.

Mum wanted to talk to me.

‘Cal, you know you asked me about Daddy and me being cross with Dec?’

I did remember. It seemed like a long time ago now, before Dec came back.

‘Yes.’

‘Do you still want to talk about it?’

I nodded.

‘OK. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, ever since Dec got here – well, before that too. Daddy and I aren’t cross with Dec, not any more He did some things which made us cross at the time, but there were other things we didn’t know about, and if we had, we would have helped him, rather than being cross with him.’

‘What things?’

‘Oh, well, some of them are from a long time ago. Dec’s Mummy and Daddy died when he was a boy, so he hasn’t had a Mummy or a Daddy for a long time. And that’s made him sad, sadder than we knew about. And when we were in Portugal, Dec crashed his car, and it worried him so much that he wasn’t thinking properly about things. That’s when he stole the money he told you about, and lied to us about lots of things. Dec’s not a bad man, he’s a good man who did some bad things that he didn’t really mean to do. He’s paid the money back now, and we’re trying to help him not to feel so sad.’

‘But he doesn’t look sad.’

‘No, I know, sweetheart. Sometimes people don’t look how they’re feeling. And I think being here with us has made him feel a lot happier. We’ve decided he is part of our family.’

‘So he is my brother.’

‘Well, I don’t know if we’d call him that, we’re a bit young to be his Mummy and Daddy, he’s just part of the family. We hope it will help him not to feel so sad.’

‘But will I still have a brother?’

‘Or a sister. I hope so. I’m having a baby, Cal, it’s growing in my tummy.’

Well that was news to me. Daniel Glover had got it all wrong.

‘How did it get there?’

And Mum, who has always been the plain talking nurse, told me how babies came to be, and it was astounding, and I had lots of questions, not just then, but later, at all sorts of times, that she always answered.

But the main thing was that they weren’t cross with Dec any more, and Dec wasn’t a bad man, and he was part of our family, like he always had been, so it was OK for me to love him.

Dec

I tried some more of the novel, but it was hard going, and I felt myself doze off a couple of times. Nico and Rose replied to my texts. Jay came in later with more tea.

łWe’re off to bed soon, are you planning to stay here all night?

‘Don’t know.’

łWhat exactly are you doing?

‘Being here.’

Matt

Oh, so that was the big plan? Being here? I bet I could be here longer than he could. He was going home the day after tomorrow. I was still going to be here. I win then, day after tomorrow.

OK, if you say so. Head case. ‘Night then. ‘Night Matty.’

I wasn’t prepared this time, and when Jay brushed my forehead with his hand, I almost opened my eyes. Dec slurped his tea noisily.

‘There’s a cuppa here for you if you want it. Whether you want it or not, actually. I’m really thirsty after that curry.’

Yeah, I was really thirsty too, but I wasn’t letting him trick me again like he had with the curry. No more eating, no more drinking, just lying here either staring at the ceiling or eyes closed. It would send him away eventually, like it sent them all away.

Dec

No reply. I wasn’t sure what I was doing was going to work, but I knew that when I had been feeling like the world was ending, having Rose and Nico there helped. So I was going to be there for Matt until I knew I didn’t have to be any more I felt my eyes start to close. I rested my head against the back of the chair, and fell asleep.

Dreaming. I am chasing the faceless man with brown boots. He has something of mine and I want it back, but he is always ahead of me and I can never fly fast enough to catch him. He runs through crowded streets. I fly up so I can see him from the air, but I lose him. I fly back down and run along the pavement, trying to find some trace of him. I turn into an alley, knowing he has come this way. Suddenly, he is behind me and there is no way out. He knocks me to the floor and stands over me. I am helpless. He draws back his leg, and I see his boot hurtle towards my face.

33. Walking on a dream

In which Matty takes literal and symbolic strides, and Dec comes a cropper.

Matt

Christmas Night, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring … I know, wrong night, but whatever. I thought everyone had gone to bed. Jay had been in, sorted me out, monitor was on, lights were off, footsteps had trundled up the stairs. Usually I’d be out cold by now, but I felt pretty well rested, and was just enjoying lying down without actually being asleep. Then I heard something. I was pretty good at using my ears to work out what was going on in the rest of the house; it was one of the consequences of spending a lot of time on my own wondering who was where and what they were doing.

So I heard something. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, just a little noise. Then I heard it again – a sniff. My heart almost stopped as I wondered if someone had broken in. If someone came in here, there’s no way I could fight them off, I’d have to hope Jay would hear the struggle on the monitor and … there it was again. A kind of choked sniffy sob. Someone was crying, downstairs somewhere. Not a burglar then, unless it was one who was really regretful about breaking and entering. I was full of adrenaline, from imagining having to fend off an intruder, and for some fuckwitted reason, I decided to investigate.

I hadn’t walked anywhere on my own since I’d come out of hospital, so why I decided now, in the middle of the night, with no one around, was a good time to start, fuck only knows. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. So far, so good. I tottered over to the wall and used it to lean on so that I could make my way to the door, which I did without incident and found myself in the hall. Now I could clearly hear the sounds of crying, which were coming from the living room.

Using the wall as my crutch, I slowly put one foot in front of the other, wondering more and more as I progressed what in the kingdom of fuck I thought I was doing. Why hadn’t I just said ‘someone’s crying’ into the monitor? Jay would have been down like a shot, and I wouldn’t be here, half way across the hall, legs trembling like I’d run a marathon. But I was investigating. Not just curious about who was crying, because there honestly weren’t that many people it could be considering Mum, Cal, Jay and Beth had all gone to bed, but also about how far I could get.

Yeah, it was stupid, but there was someone in the living room who would surely hear if I needed them and, oh, here I was in the doorway now. Fuck, that had taken it out of me. I leaned against the door frame, panting, and looked at the shape lying curled up on the couch.

‘Dec?’

His whole body jolted as he heard my voice.

‘Fuck! You scared the shit out of me. What are you doing out of bed? How did you get here?’

All very good questions, but not the most important thing right now. I was going to fall over if I didn’t get some help pretty soon.

‘Cahn yuh hehp meh sit dohn?’

Dec jumped up and took my arm, supporting me to the nearest sofa.

‘Thahks.’

I was breathing hard, but sitting down was better.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I’d lost sight of that a little bit in the last couple of minutes of trying to remain upright, but thought back to what had brought me out into the big wide world in the first place.

‘Hehrd someohn crying. Investigahting. Whasup?’

‘Just feeling sorry for myself, completely unjustifiably. I didn’t realise you could get about by yourself.’

‘Meh neihther. Gahv ih a try. Diddit. Fehls guhd. Fucking knahkered now.’

‘You look it. Do you want me to get Jay?’

No no no, then there would be questions and fussing and ‘oh Matty’ and exasperated looks.

‘Fuck noh. Ih’ll be okay in a bih.’

Oh, and nice try at distracting me Dec.

‘Why yuh crying?

‘Not really important.’

It was bloody important enough for me to do this, like, hundred mile walk from my bed to here.

‘Huhmour meh, Ihm a crihpl.’

‘OK then. Jay wants to take me home on Sunday. It made me realise I’m never going to live with them again. I’m a fucking selfish bastard who doesn’t appreciate what I’ve got, what I nearly lost, and what I’ve been given back with bells on. Boo hoo, poor me. Humorous enough?’

Right, well, he had spilt. Now I had to do something about it.

‘Bluhdy hilarious. Dihd yuh think yuhd lihv wih them here fuhever now?’

I didn’t know if this was on the cards, whether it had been discussed, even.

‘No, I guess not.’

‘Dohn’t yuh have some bihg fuck off ruhgby carehr to get bahk tuh?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so.’

‘Think of ih lihk lehving hohm, then. Hahs to happen sohm tihm. Yuh dohnt always chuhs when. Things hahpen, things chahnge. Noh one lihvs wih thehr fahmly foh ahlways. Member wha Jay said at dinner? Declan Suhmers in my fahmly fuhever. Tha mehns wherever yuh are. Connehcted. No nehd to beh hehr.’

I don’t know where the words were coming from, they just occurred to me and ended up coming out of my mouth. That was quite a lot of talking for me, and I started panting again. Dec looked like he was thinking about it, looking at his hands, then raising his eyes to stare at me.

‘Bloody hell, Matt.’

‘Mahk sehns?’

I bloody hoped so, because I was fast running out of energy for any more speeches.

‘Lots. How the fuck did you get so wise?’

‘Too much tihm tuh think, noht enough fucking vodka to forgeh ih all.’

‘I wouldn’t actually recommend the vodka method of forgetting, it has its drawbacks.’

Well that sounded interesting, hadn’t heard any hints of that one.

‘Souhds lihk a stohry. Mehbe tomohrow. Fuck, Ihm frehzing. Can yuh fetch whelchair? Noh suhr cahn walk back. Fuck.’

The cold had crept up on me unnoticed as I sat there thinking about my breathing. I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and had nothing on my feet, which were now so cold they were almost numb. Much as I hated the infernal wheeled machine, I wasn’t going to make it back to bed on my own.

Dec hurried to fetch the chair, helped me get into it and wheeled me back to my room. I leaned on him to help me out and back into bed, remembering his arms weren’t exactly in prime condition and so using my remaining strength to hoist myself onto the mattress. Now I needed to get warm, and I wasn’t going to have to be too finicky about asking for help. Come on, Matt, you asked him to tip your piss into the toilet yesterday. This is nothing.

‘Chehrs. Ohn mohr favohr? Hoht drink?’

‘Sure. Any requests?’

‘Dohn ‘spec I’ll geh whisky tohdy?’

Oh how I would have loved a whisky toddy, burny and soothing, to caress me down into unconsciousness. Never gonna happen.

‘Not even if I knew how to make one.’

‘Bahstrd. Tea then. Onna trahy lihk this mohning, ahl fahncy, mihk inna jug, sugar inna bohl, lacy doihly.’

‘How about in your cup, milk, two sugars, bit of a stir, lid on tightly if I’m feeling generous?’

Oh well, downgrade your whisky toddy dreams to warmish tea from a baby cup, then Matt.

‘Noh the sahm.’

‘All you’re bloody getting this time of night.’

Dec

As I headed towards the kitchen, I met Jay at the bottom of the stairs.

łWhat’s going on down here?

‘Just getting Matt a drink.’

łYou do know you’re both broadcasting over the monitor? Turn it off if you’re going to chat. Not really interested in your sordid late night tales.

‘Oops, sorry. Forgot about that. I think we were only talking about tea, though. Nothing particularly sordid.’

łThe night is young. Don’t forget to turn it off. And put it back on when you go to bed.

Matt

I vaguely heard voices as Dec left the room. Jay seemed to be complaining about something, and I hoped Dec wasn’t telling him I had just done the cripple equivalent of a trek up Kilimanjaro.

By the time Dec got back, turning off the monitor as he came in, I had started to shiver, and I couldn’t stop. Being under the duvet wasn’t noticeably warming me up. I was going to have to ask for more help. It doesn’t sound like much, but every time I had to ask for something it shaved a slice of self-respect from my soul.

‘Sohry, got really cohd. Cahn yuh plug lehtric blanket in?’

‘Sure, er, where is it?’

‘Lohng plug at the end, this sihd. Yeh, thas it. Thahks. Sohry tuh ahsk, cahn yuh hehp wih drink? Hohd ih foh meh? Hahnds shaking.’

Dec pulled the chair closer to the bed and held the cup for me to drink. I was shaking so much, the spout was getting nowhere near my mouth.

‘Should I get Jay?’

Dec looked worried, and maybe it wasn’t fair to put all this on him, but I knew I’d be OK and I really, really didn’t want Jay getting up to help and being all mardy and paternal on my arse.

‘Noh I’ll be OK once I wahm up. Feet lihk ice. Cahn yuh geh socks? Top drawhr.’

As Dec put the socks on my feet, I could feel the electric blanket starting to warm up, but I was still shivering.

‘You need to get this tea in you. Let’s have another try.’

I managed to get the spout in my mouth, and held on for dear life as I sucked the warm drink. Dec made it hotter than anyone else, obviously caring less about whether I scalded myself, the inconsiderate bastard, and it was what I needed. I finished the cup.

‘Another one?’

‘Yeh, might hehp get warm. Thahks, Dec.’

He made another drink and brought it in.

‘Still want me to hold the cup?’

‘Yeh, fuck the mahn poihts.’

Man points, that fantasy league where doing arbitrarily manly or unmanly things gains or loses you points. I was currently languishing at the bottom of the relegation zone with zero points and a goal difference of minus three thousand.

‘This one’s got half a bottle of imaginary vodka in it. Should help you sleep.’

‘Chehrs then. Bohtoms up.’

I drank, trying my hardest to think of it as vodka.

‘Nehd a bluhdy guhd maginahtion for tha.’

‘Best I could do.’

‘God I mihs gehting rat-ahsed.’

The glass of wine at dinner earlier was the first taste of alcohol I’d had for more than two months. Beer, I so wanted beer. I had nowhere to escape to, and enough beer would easily lead me down the path to the secret tunnel, then under the fence to temporary freedom. Or a glass of scotch. Oh how I hankered for the days when I would get home after a hard day, pour myself a glass of the good stuff, golden and welcoming, and take the load off. It seemed light years away, and I had to make do with a tiny sip of red wine, which I didn’t even like, and didn’t even get me to the gate at the entrance of the path to the secret tunnel.

‘I bet.’

It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and reassure the kid.

‘Fehl behter. Wahmer. Thahks.’

‘Least I could do, following your rescue act earlier. Cripples Corner code of conduct.’

‘All fuh ohn?’

Or some such Musketeery shit.

‘Something like that.’

I could feel myself warming up, and as I did so my eyes started to close and I slept.

So there you go, we shared, we bonded, he went home – oh really? The whole nine yards? Slave driver

Dec

As Matt warmed up and he stopped shivering, his eyes drooped and closed. I wasn’t happy leaving him just yet, I was a bit worried he might have got too cold, so I moved the chair back and settled down, pulling my phone out of my pocket for another look. I found the contacts list and read through the familiar names that had been programmed in, presumably by Jay or Beth. I felt incredibly fortunate to have such a group of people to call on, people who looked out for me, who wanted me in their lives. My misery from before receded.

Matt’s advice had been spot on and had really helped me; I’d never had brothers or sisters, or even aunts, uncles or grandparents, and had never left home in the usual way, so never had that sense of connection across distance that families developed. Thinking of ‘family’ in those terms helped me see the bigger picture. Beth said I had grown up, but I probably needed to do a bit more growing and be a bit less self-obsessed.

I must have fallen asleep in the chair thinking about it all, as I woke up with a crick in my neck, when the phone clunked to the floor. I checked Matt hadn’t woken, and that his breathing was steady, then I turned on the monitor and crept upstairs.

My phone told me it was two thirty. I undressed in the bathroom and trod as gently as I could into Cal’s room and into bed. I slept almost immediately.

Dreaming. The faceless man with the brown boots has carried Cal away and is threatening to drop him off a cliff. Every time I approach, the brown-booted man dangles a screaming Cal further over the edge. I am powerless to rescue him. Finally, the brown-booted man looks away and I launch myself at him, flying faster than I ever have before. I grab Cal and throw him to Jay, who is waiting. The brown-booted man catches me by the arm and throws me off the cliff. I fall, spinning and tumbling, ripping my face, snapping my arms, and land at the bottom, broken, helpless. I watch as the brown boots land by my head. One of the boots pulls back and then speeds towards my face …

Cal

I fell asleep really quickly once I was in bed, but was woken up again by Dec’s dream voice.

‘Unh … no … mm … no, no, no … aah … AAAAAAHHH … AAAAAAAAH!’

The loud scream scared me a lot. It was too near, and too loud, and I wanted to get away from it, and I nearly fell down the ladder trying to get away from Dec, and the loud noise he was making. I ran across my room, and backed up against my cupboard, as Dec carried on making noises. I didn’t want to hear him do another scream, and I was nearly crying because I was scared, but the noises got louder, and Dec screamed again.

This time, he sat up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.

‘Fuck.’

I didn’t giggle, because I was frightened, although if he’d said a swear, he might be awake. I thought I’d try to find out, and if he was still making monster sounds, I would run out of the room and get Dad.

‘Dec?’

Dec

A very small voice. Shit. Cal. Pulled myself together.

‘Sorry, Cal, I’m OK. Did I scare you?’

\yes.

The light went on and Jay came in. Cal was standing on the other side of the room, backed up against his toy cupboard, eyes wide.

Cal

I heard the door open, and the light went on, and Dad came in. I had to screw my eyes up because of the light, and I felt Dad pick me up and cuddle me, smoothing my hair. It made me feel better, that it was light, and my dad was holding me tight, and I stopped feeling so scared.

Dec

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Looked at Jay, who was looking back at me as he rubbed Cal’s back.

‘Sorry. Sorry Cal. I think I’ll go and sleep on the couch.’

I grabbed the duvet and a pillow and went downstairs to the living room, where the Christmas tree looked sad, trying to sparkle in the dark. I wrapped myself up in the duvet and tried to get comfortable. The dream was still floating around my head, and I felt terrible about the fright I’d given Cal.

Cal

Dad kissed my head and leaned back so he could look at me.

‘Are you OK, Cal?’

‘Yes. I was scared when Dec screamed.’

‘I know. He made a bit of a racket, didn’t he. He was probably having a bad dream. Are you going to be alright to go back to sleep?’

I nodded, and Dad took me over to my bed and tucked the duvet round me, telling me I was a big brave boy. He turned the light off, but stayed by the bed, stroking my hair and looking at me. Every so often I felt my breath shudder, but then my eyes closed, and I was asleep.

Dec

After a while, the door to the lounge opened and Jay came in. He sat on the end of the sofa, in the dark, and ran his hands through his hair.

łJesus, Dec. You scared the shit out of him. And me. What the fuck were you dreaming about?

‘This man with brown boots. I get flashbacks to getting kicked in the face. It really happened, I can remember the boots. Every dream ends with it, but what happens before changes. I can feel it all again as if it’s really happening. I can’t do anything about it. I’m so sorry I scared Cal.’

Jay shrugged, but whether that meant it didn’t matter, or that Cal was OK, or that he just didn’t know what to do about it, wasn’t clear.

łSo who’s the man in brown boots? Is he the other guy you can’t remember?

‘Fuck knows. Could be. I just wish it would stop. I’ll sleep down here till I go back.’

łJust tonight, yeah? We can make you up a bed in my office tomorrow. Sorry, mate, Cal was really freaked out.

‘Is he OK now?’

łYeah, I think so, he’s gone back to sleep. Don’t really want it to happen again though.

‘I know, it’s fine. I’ll be OK down here.’

łSleep well, then mate. Seriously.

‘I’ll try.’

I turned over as he left the room and shut my eyes. I couldn’t sleep, though; there was too much adrenaline pumping through me. I dozed on and off, until I finally slept, some time after six according to the clock on the DVD player.

Cal

While I was having my Weeties the next morning, Dad said we were going to go to the park and play football once Dec was awake. Dec had slept in the living room, and the door was still shut, and Dad said I couldn’t go in until he was awake. But I didn’t know if he was awake unless I went in. I opened the door a little bit and peeked round a few times, but Dec always had his eyes shut. Then, finally, I looked in and his eyes were open.

Dec

It was light when I woke up again. The DVD clock said nine thirty. I sat up, stretched, feeling the pull on my right arm and noticing it was moving much more freely. The bruising on my left hand had faded considerably – it wasn’t obviously a footprint any more – and my little finger seemed to be almost back to normal size. On the minus side, my back was aching from my half a night on the sofa. The door opened slowly and Cal peeked round.

\he’s awake I can go in now.

He dashed in and jumped on top of me. I lifted my arms out of harm’s way and got a knee in the stomach for my trouble.

‘Gently, mate, I’ve only just woken up. How are you this morning?’

\when can we go and play football? Daddy said when you wake up. You’re awake now, can we go? You’ve been asleep for hours. Did you do any more screams?

‘I don’t think so. Sorry I scared you last night Cal.’

\i wasn’t scared.

‘Oh, OK, well sorry I woke you up, then, was it a bit loud?’

\yes, it was. I think Optimus Prime was scared.

Cal looked at me with big, serious eyes, and I realised I needed to play along with his pretence.

Cal

Dad had said I was a big brave boy, and now that it was light, Dec’s screams didn’t seem so bad, and the scared feeling was difficult to remember. I’d gone to sleep with Optimus Prime beside my pillow, and Dec’s screams would have made him a little bit afraid.

‘I’m sure you looked after him, though. So, football, eh? Are you going in goal?’

‘No, I’m too little. I score goals, like Theo Walcott.’

It had been a while since I’d played football with Dec, but surely he hadn’t forgotten that I was always Theo Walcott, who was the striker and not the goalie?

‘Of course. Well, let me have some breakfast and get dressed, and see if Daddy’s ready, then we can go.’

Oh no, not more waiting. I was always waiting for people to finish doing boring things so I could do something exciting, and people never hurried.

‘Why can’t we go now?’

Dec

‘Well, because I’m not dressed yet for a start.’

And I’d left my clothes upstairs, with Jay’s mum only a few steps away from another gaping boxers incident.

‘And I need some breakfast. Have you had yours?’

\yes, I had Coco Pops.

‘Well I haven’t had mine. I bet you wouldn’t play football without having your Coco Pops first.’

He thought about this, unwilling to concede anything.

\but you’ll be hours.

‘I won’t, promise. Especially if you run upstairs and bring down my jeans and my t-shirt so I can get dressed.’

He ran out of the room and I could hear him run upstairs, then thunder down again. He gave me my clothes, and I slipped into them under the duvet, unwilling to even risk giving Carol another unwanted flash of my boxers and beyond.

‘OK, now breakfast.’

Cal stuck to me like glue, apparently not trusting I wasn’t going to backtrack on my promise to be quick. Jay, Beth and Carol were in the kitchen, sitting at the table, Jay and Beth still in dressing gowns.

_Hi Dec. How are you this morning?

‘Good thanks. I was just thinking how much better my arm feels. And look at my hand, the bruises have almost gone.’

I showed her.

_It is looking better. Any more dreams?

‘No. Sorry if I woke you up.’

_I think you woke us all up. You were having quite a rough time by the sounds of it.

‘Sorry.’

#What were you dreaming about, dear?

‘It’s kind of this recurring thing, flashbacks to being kicked in the face, and other stuff. And there’s this man wearing brown boots. I’ve been dreaming about him since I got beaten up. It’s been worse since I had my op and remembered who one of them was. I think this other man must be on my mind somehow.

#That’s understandable, dear. It must be terrifying to keep reliving it. You shouldn’t worry about waking us up, we can go back to sleep easily enough. Are you getting any help for it?

Carol’s sympathy and understanding were touching, and a bit of a turnaround from the reception she’d given me a couple of days ago.

‘Hopefully, seeing a psychologist soon.’

#That’s something, then.

Beside me, there was a big sigh from Cal, who was losing patience with the big amount of talk and the small amount of breakfast that was going on.

\dec, are you going to have your Coco Pops?

‘Maybe I won’t have Coco Pops, I think I’ll have some toast and a cup of tea, leave you some Coco Pops for tomorrow. I’ll be as quick as I can. It doesn’t look like Daddy’s quite ready yet.’

I raised my eyebrows at Jay.

łWaiting for you, mate. No point rushing around getting ready for footy if the goalie lets us down.

‘I’m not going in goal.’

łLast up gets no choice.

‘If I land on my arm and knacker it, Don’ll have your guts.’

łOh fu … lip you’re right. No goalie then.

‘You could always do it.’

łDon’t think so.

\daddy come on. Get dressed so we can play football.

łAlright, Cal. Why don’t you go and play with your cars while you’re waiting? Uncle Matty’s awake, he could do with some company.

Cal left the room with a scowl.

łDo us another cup of tea, Beth?

_You could always get it yourself.

łWouldn’t taste as good as yours.

_Jameson Lucas Scott you are a terrible man. Dec, cup of tea? Carol?

I made some toast while Beth boiled the kettle.

_I’ve done one for Matty. Do you want to take it in, Dec? Here’s the tray, just like he likes it. I couldn’t find any doilies, hope he’s not too disappointed.

‘Ha ha, sorry if we woke you up last night. I keep forgetting about the monitor.’

I put my tea and toast on the tray and took it in to Matt’s room, where Cal was already absorbed in his cars and roads.

‘Tea up.’

}Ih’s the maid. Luhvly.

‘How are you this morning?’

}Good. Tohstie. Blanket on ahl night. Noh hypothehmia. Yuh dihnt tell Jay?

‘No. Did you?’

}Noh. Cal sahys yuhr plahying football?

‘Soon as Jay gets dressed.’

}Tahk me?

‘Sure, if you think you’re up to it. Jay might make you go in goal, though.’

}Juhs wanna geh ouh. Stand up foh meh?

‘Sure thing. CC’s code of conduct’

}Wha?

I glanced at Cal.

‘Orders from Beth. No more inappropriate words for people who … er … have trouble getting around, at least in presence of … er … minors.’

Matt processed that for a moment.

}Oh. She got yuh under the thumb.

‘Pretty much do what I’m told where Beth’s concerned.’

}Wihs man. I wouhd tuh if I wahnt a crihpl.

I rolled my eyes and took a sip of my tea.

‘Want help with yours?’

Matt shook his head.

}Gihv a try on my ohn.

I handed him the cup. He held it with two hands and sipped the tea from the spout.

}Wha I wouhnt gihv to hahv a nohmal cup.

‘Doesn’t seem much to ask.’

}Toh mahny spihls. Toh much lectric. Mahks meh fehl lihk a bahby tho.

‘Something to work towards then.’

}Chuhs my bahtles?

‘Something like that. When I was having a hard time, not so long ago, it really helped to not look too far ahead. One day at a time, one hour, one minute, however much I could cope with. One second sometimes. Stopped me going completely mad.’

}Mm, only pahtially succehsful Ih’d say.

Jay came in holding his coat.

łOK Cal, I’m ready to go. Pack your road up.

\oh daddy, can’t I leave it up?

łNo, mate it’s in the way if Uncle Matty needs the loo while we’re out.

Matt was looking at me intently, and I got the message.

‘Can Matt come with us for a bit of footie?’

łYeah, good one mate.

‘No, really, just so he can get out for a bit?’

Jay was silent for a moment, looking at Matt, considering.

}Going mad stuhk in hehr. Fehl rehly good today.

łI dunno, Matty, it’s cold out.

}Plehs, Jay, gimme a brehk.

‘Warm clothes, gloves, scarf, flask of coffee?’

}Plehs?

Jay was torn. Then he made a decision.

łOK, we’ll wrap you up like a Michelin man. But one shiver or cough and you’re straight back, and no more trips out till summer. And it might not get past Mum and Beth before we even get there.

Matt smiled widely and did a fist pump.

łOK. Cal, you need to clear your road up super-fast – we need to get Uncle Matty’s wheelchair out. Dec, you find as many layers as you can, top and bottom, thick socks, start piling them on. In the drawer there, and here in the cupboard. I’ll make up a flask and explain to the ladies. If I don’t come back, you’ll know it hasn’t gone well – start planning my funeral. And yours, Dec, for suggesting it. Matty, you’re sure you’re up to it?

}Suhr. Thahks.

łGreat job, Cal. When you’ve finished, go and find your football, and the little rugby ball, and get your coat, shoes, scarf and hat. Dec, when you’ve finished with Matty, make sure Cal’s got all his gear on.

I knew this side of Jay from when he coached at Raiders. He would have a plan, and then he would start issuing instructions to get it accomplished. He was efficient and organised. It was like working with him again, and very different from domestic Jay, who was haphazard and a bit lazy.

I pulled t-shirts, hoodies and jumpers out of the drawers, and found a pair of thermal longjohns, some jeans and some baggy tracksuit bottoms in the cupboard. I held up the longjohns, grinning.

‘Nice. Planning on going to the Arctic?’

}Noh, just tuh the fucking pahk. Dohnt nehd all this.

‘I disagree. You nearly got hypothermia last night just coming to the living room.’

} … fair poiht. OK, pihl ih on.

Matt took off his t-shirt and held his hand out for the first layer. As he put it on I couldn’t help noticing how thin he was; his ribs were showing through his skin, and I could see his collar bones, which stood out prominently. It occurred to me why he’d got so cold last night; he had no energy reserves in his body. It would explain why he got so tired as well.

Matt covered himself up with a long sleeved tight fitting top, and then put on another t-shirt, a thin zip-up hoody, a thicker hoody and a woollen jumper. The trousers were a bit more problematic. Matt could stand, but had difficulty bending down to pull anything up. He looked at me with a resigned expression.

}Jus fucking do ih. Goh minus ten thouhsand mahn poihts anyway.

I pulled up the longjohns, jeans and finally the tracksuit bottoms.

‘Shall I tuck the bottom shirt in somewhere? Don’t want a draught.’

}Yeh, muhm.

‘Piss off, just remember who got you this gig in the first place.’

}My etehnal gratituhd.

‘I should think so.’

I tucked as many of the top layers as I could in the tracksuit bottoms, remembering how it had felt for me not so long ago to not be able to dress myself, trying not to think about how embarrassed Matt might be.

‘Right, socks and shoes. Where are they?’

}Socks top drawhr. Shohs – dohno. Hahnt wohn any since I goh hehr.

‘OK, I’ll have a look around. Cal, well done clearing up your road. Go and find your coat and stuff now, yeah?’

\is Uncle Matty coming with us?

‘Yeah. Good, eh?’

\yes but can we go soon?

‘Yeah, go and get your coat and stuff – er – shoes, hat, gloves, scarf. Oh and Daddy said get a football and a rugby ball?’

\kay.

He toddled off, but I had no idea if he was going where he was supposed to. Jay came back in.

łI think I convinced them. Not that happy about it though. They’re going to come along so they can fuss over you.

Matt pulled a face.

}Greht.

łDon’t worry, I’ll put Mum in goal and Beth can ref. That’ll keep them out of trouble.

}Ha ha.

łYou look about ready – what are you looking for, Dec?

‘Shoes.’

łUse my hiking boots, in the porch. Matty’s same size as me. Right, we need your coat, and I’ll get you a scarf, gloves, hat. Back in a minute.

I went and fetched the hiking boots from the hall, and put them on over the thick socks from the drawer. Matt was sitting on the edge of the bed.

‘Do you want to get in your chair?’

}Wait foh coht. Only hahv to stand up agahn.

‘Good point. Is this all really worth it?’

}Yeh. Nehd to goh ouh. Chohs bahtle.

‘Fair enough.’

Jay came back with a coat, scarf, gloves and hat.

łDec, you’ve got nothing on your feet, and you need more than a t-shirt. I’ll do this, you go and sort yourself out. Where’s Cal?

‘Getting his stuff together.’

łCan you check on him?

‘No worries.’

I ran upstairs to Cal’s room, grabbed my trainers and socks. Cal wasn’t up there. I put my socks and trainers on and went to the pegs in the hall to get my coat. Cal’s coat was still hanging up, along with his scarf and hat, so I grabbed them and went in search of him. He was in the living room, having been sidetracked by a dinosaur game.

‘Cal! I thought you wanted to go out. Here’s your coat. Put it on.

I helped him into it, and the scarf and hat.

‘Where are your shoes?’

\don’t know.

I went back to the hallway, found a pair of wellies with a pair of socks screwed up in them. Took them back to Cal.

‘Where’s your football?’

\don’t know.

I ran upstairs to his bedroom, and after a brief search found the football and rugby ball nestling together under the bed. Came back downstairs, just as Jay was wheeling Matt out of his bedroom. I could hardly see him under all the layers, but his eyes were shining.

łWhere’s Beth and Mum?

_We’re here, just need to get my coat – Matty, is that you under all that? No danger of frostbite then.

}Bluhdy douht ih, hard to geh frohsbite and heatstrohk ah sahm tihm. Ihm bluhdy boihling.

_Where’s Cal?

‘In the living room putting his wellies on.’

Beth went to fetch him, while Carol got her coat. Finally, we were all ready to go out. I handed Cal the football, and held onto the small rugby ball. Span it all the way to the park, enjoying being able to use both hands without too much discomfort.

Cal

And so I had to wait and wait while Dec got dressed, then had breakfast, then talked to Uncle Matty, then Uncle Matty wanted to come and play football, so he had to get dressed as well, and then Mum and Granny wouldn’t let Uncle Matty come unless they came with a flask of coffee, and then Dec had to find my wellies and coat and hat and scarf and a football and a rugby ball, and then at last we were ready to go.

Uncle Matty was in his wheelchair, which Dad pushed. He was wearing lots and lots of clothes, because Dad was worried about how cold it was, and Uncle Matty hadn’t been outside since before it was winter, and he had been very poorly. Uncle Matty counted, and he had three pairs of trousers, five jumpers, a coat, gloves, a woolly hat and a scarf on. He grumbled a lot about having to wear it all, but he was smiling, and he looked happy to be going to the park.

Matt

So, thanks to some fancy talking from the kid and some pleading from me, I actually left the house. They were all going to sod off to the park and leave me with Mum, but I wasn’t having that. Last night I walked across the bloody hall to the living room, even if they didn’t know it because neither Dec nor I had told them, and if they were going out, this newly expanded family I seemed to be part of, I was going too.

Dec

The park wasn’t far, just beyond the garden centre. There were a few other people there, but nobody using the football pitch. Cal threw the ball on to the pitch and ran after it, dribbling it up to the goal and scoring.

\can someone go in goal?

Jay looked at me. I held up my bandaged arm and shook my head. He admitted defeat and trudged off to stand between the posts.

\dec will you be on my team?

‘Course. Team Cal, yeah?’

\Mummy and Granny can be on the other team and Uncle Matty is referee.

_I don’t think Granny or me are actually going to be playing, Cal. We’ll just watch, and drink some of this coffee.

Beth held up the flask and started to open it while Cal reassessed his options.

\dec you can be the other team and try to score past Daddy. I will tackle you.

‘OK.’

I knew how this worked: I had to let Cal get the ball off me so he could have a shot at goal. Jay was supposed to let it in, but he was so competitive he couldn’t always bring himself to. I dribbled the ball up to the six yard box, and slowed as Cal ran up to me, letting him kick the ball away from my feet.

\and Walcott steals the ball from Dec, he shoots –

Cal kicked the ball hard but not very accurately at the goal. Jay graciously dived over the top of it and let it in.

\walcott scores. The goalie had no chance. One nil to Arsenal.

We carried on like this for some time, sometimes Jay would let the ball in, mostly he would save it, and he got pretty muddy from diving around in the goalmouth. Beth, Carol and Matt cheered every goal. After Cal had scored a lot of goals, and Jay had saved a few more, Beth shouted over to us.

_Matty wants a go, take a penalty.

\for my team?

_If you want.

\yes. Here’s the spot, Uncle Matty.

Beth wheeled Matt over to the penalty spot. I expected him to kick it from his chair, but he stood up, shakily, and beckoned me over.

}Need yuh tuh lean on. Stahd still.

Cal placed the ball on the penalty spot. Matt stood with one arm across my shoulders and swung back with his right leg, connecting well with the ball. It headed for the bottom corner of the goal, but at the last second Jay just got a hand to it.

}Bahstrd

łNo favours, mate. Better luck next time.

As Matt sat back down in the wheelchair, he was panting.

}Noh hohding bahk nex tihm. Yuhr tohst.

He had a huge smile on his face.

}Thihk I shouhd goh back now.

‘OK, let’s go.’

}Noh, s’okay. Mum and Beth can do it. Stay wih Cal. Thahks, Dec. Fucking awesohm.

Beth wheeled Matt away, with Carol in attendance.

Matt

We cheered Cal scoring goals, which he did through a combination of luck and generosity on the part of Dec and Jay. I even stood up and took a penalty myself, although my bastard goalie brother couldn’t bring himself to let me actually score. I was astounded at my physical prowess.

I got a bit tired, alright I was completely wiped, and my feet were bloody freezing, so I decided to go back before I was dragged back.,

Dec

Jay picked up the ball and walked over, trying in vain to wipe some of the mud from his clothes. He was pretty much covered from head to foot.

łLast time I’m ever being goalie. Hey, Cal, what about a bit of throwing?

He picked up the rugby ball and tossed it to me. It was much smaller than I was used to, but it was Cal sized. We threw the ball between us for a bit, and it felt great, even with the small ball and on the muddy park pitch. I had really missed being outside with a ball, being physical.

I could feel how far my fitness had slipped in the time – was it less than two weeks? – since I had ended up in hospital, and now I was moving about again, I really wanted to get back to training.

I threw the ball to Cal, who threw it back. As I caught it, I had an urge to go on a run with it, so I tucked the ball into my arm and set off down the field, intent on crossing the goal line as if I was scoring a try under the posts. It felt really good to stretch my legs, as unused muscles in my calves and thighs came back to life.

I heard Jay pounding after me, didn’t think he’d be able to catch me, or even that he’d be trying, so it came as a huge shock when I felt him grab my waist and pull me down. I fell awkwardly, onto my right shoulder, and everything in my right arm protested.

32. You can’t always get what you want

In which Dec has dreams and nightmares, Matty has dinner and gets brave, and Cal finds his favourite joke.

Iz

At this point, it is worth mentioning that I realise Christmas is being related in a lot of detail. The thing is that all three versions of that Christmas – Dec’s, Matty’s and Cal’s – give pretty much chapter and verse of what happened over those few days, and it’s because that Christmas was so important. Cal says he can remember so much of it, even though he was only six, and Dec goes all misty eyed when you mention it. I expect if you quizzed them really hard, neither of them would actually admit to being able to remember the specific conversations, and Lau is pretty sure Matty used a fair amount of artistic license in his retelling. But Cal and Dec both say they can remember how it felt, how it was the sense of everything coming back together that made it special, and maybe beyond that, of our family becoming something more than the sum of its parts. So please bear with this retelling.

Dec

Cal went back into Matt’s room and played with some of his toys in there, while I sat and watched from the chair next to the bed. Matt was still asleep. My disturbed night and early morning started to catch up with me, and I found myself dozing too.

Dreaming. I am running, trying to fly but can’t get off the ground. The man in brown boots is chasing me, and I keep looking behind me, trying to see his face, but I can’t quite make it out. He is gaining on me. Just as I manage to launch myself upwards into the air, he catches my ankle and sends me spinning to the ground. Blows from fists and feet hit me, and I lie helplessly as his brown boot moves in slow motion towards my face …

Cal

So, all the presents were opened, and Mum and Granny were making dinner, Dad was watching TV and drinking beer, and Dec and I were in Uncle Matty’s room. I was playing on the floor, and Dec had started off watching me from the chair, but then had fallen asleep. Suddenly, he made a noise.

‘Unh’

Matt

The next thing I know I’m pulled out of my comfy darkness.

‘Mm … ungh … no … no …’

I opened my eyes to see Dec sitting in the chair, apparently asleep but looking like it wasn’t a pleasant experience. He was twitching and murmuring. Cal had looked up from his toys, and wandered over to stand next to me, looking interestedly at Dec. He glanced at me.

‘Dec does mms and nos when he’s asleep. Sometimes he does a big swear.’

I wasn’t sure what to do. Wasn’t there something bad about waking people up from nightmares? Maybe Cal shouldn’t be in here. I was caught in indecision as Dec’s murmurings got louder, and he kicked out with a foot.

‘No … no … wana … ungh … aah … no … NO!’

And with that, my dilemma was solved, as Dec’s eyes opened. He looked dazedly at us for a moment, then collected himself, gripped the arms of the chair, levered himself upright.

Cal

I went to stand in front of Dec, interested to see what he looked like when he was having a bad dream. When he did it in the night, it was dark, and I couldn’t see his face. Dec’s eyes opened, and he looked like he thought he was somewhere else, then looked at me and Uncle Matty. I didn’t know if he knew if he’d been talking. I was disappointed he didn’t do any swears.

‘You shouted.’

‘Yuh ohkay? Mahking noises.’

‘Oh God.’

Dec rubbed his face with his hands.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to doze off. I was dreaming.’

What’s going on in here?’

Dad must have heard Dec shout. I hadn’t said anything about Dec’s bad dreams, because once it was the daytime, I’d forgotten about them.

‘Dec was dreaming. He makes noises.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had some weird dreams. Not sure it’s good for Cal, I’ve woken him up a couple of times’

Dreams about what?’

‘Oh –’

Dec looked at me, and I knew I wasn’t going to get to hear what the bad dreams were about.

‘– people chasing me, flashbacks to … recent events.’

Jesus. How long for?’

‘Pretty much since it happened, it’s been worse since the op. Don’t know if the anaesthetic messed me up a bit. First time it’s happened during the day, though. Sorry, Matt, did I wake you up?’

Matt

I made as light of it as I could, just in case Jay felt like using the fact I’d had a somniloquist to contend with against my ability to eat dinner at the table with the normal people.

‘Noh, was entertaihing. Meh and Cal enjohyed the shoh.’

It had certainly been true of Cal, who had watched with unconcealed captivation.

Cal

Uncle Matty didn’t seem to mind; he seemed as interested as I was.

‘Maybe I should sleep on the sofa tonight.’

I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Let’s see how it goes. Cal, were you scared when Dec shouted?’

I wouldn’t have said yes, even if I had been, because I didn’t want Dec to sleep on the sofa instead of underneath me.

‘No, he makes lots of noises. I waked him up, he said I could.’

There you go, then, mate. Seems OK for the time being. Bloody head-case. OK, guys, I think lunch is nearly ready. Matty, are you still up for joining us?’

Uncle Matty was going to sit at the table with us for Christmas dinner. It would be the first time he had been out of bed to anywhere else in the house apart from his room, and I could tell he was excited about it. He was smiling, and his eyes were wide and sparkly.

Dec

As we crossed the hall, the smell of dinner wafted out of the kitchen, and I remembered Beth had asked me to set the table.

‘I’ll be right there, Cal, just need to talk to Mummy.’

I popped my head round the kitchen door. The table was already set. Beth and Jay’s mum were busy with steaming pans and pouring things and sizzling things.

‘Sorry, Beth, I fell asleep. This all smells amazing.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s all done now.

‘Anything I can do?’

_Has James checked with Matty about dinner?

‘Yeah, they’re getting sorted now.’

_Oh good. See, Carol? James wouldn’t let him if he didn’t think he was up to it. We’ll keep an eye on him. OK, Dec, no I don’t think there’s anything. Maybe keep Cal occupied while we’re waiting?

‘On it’.

Cal and I played for a while. The clattering continued in the kitchen, and then the door opened and Beth called out

_Dinner’s ready.

‘Come on, Cal, let’s go and get some Christmas dinner.

\can I take Optimus Prime?

‘I guess so.’

\and my stegosaurus book?

‘I think just one thing.’

He chose the Transformer and we went into the kitchen. The table was magnificent, a huge turkey in the middle and bowls of hot vegetables and roast potatoes, jugs of gravy, stuff I didn’t recognise, all around it.

‘Wow. Good work, Beth, Mrs Scott.’

#Thank you Declan. You know, why don’t you call me Carol?

‘OK, thanks.’

I looked at her, surprised, and she gave me half a smile. Cal climbed into his seat and plonked Optimus Prime onto the table. He had a sideways glance at Beth to check it was OK. She raised her eyebrows at him, but didn’t say anything.

\dec can you sit next to me?

I looked at Beth.

‘Don’t know, mate, we’d better see what your mum wants to do.’

_Well there’s a space for Matty here, everywhere else is up for grabs.

\next to me, next to me. Granny, can you sit the other side? You can play with Optimus Prime.

#Thank you, Calum. I’m honoured.

As we both sat down in our appointed places, the door opened and Matt and Jay came in. Matt was in a wheelchair, which Jay pushed up to the space at the table. Matt was smiling broadly.

}Whoa, awsohm.

_Glad you could join us, sweetheart. James, sit next to Matty so you can help him.

}Noh, gihv a try mysehf.

Beth bent down and kissed his cheek. Carol was looking at him, close to tears. Jay was opening a bottle of wine.

łAnyone for a drop of red?

}Yeh. Lahge glahs.

łNo booze with your meds, mate.

}Ohn glahs? It’s Chrihsmus.

Jay looked at Beth.

łOne glass?

She considered it.

_Maybe one, but a small one, and with dinner, don’t slurp it all at once.

}Cohm on, gahging! Lahge glahs eahsier tuh hohd.

Beth rolled her eyes.

_OK, large glass with a small amount in it. On a full stomach only, and a glass of water for your raging thirst. That’s the rule.

}Ohkay nuhrsy.

łAnyone else? Mum?

#Lovely, dear, yes please.

łDec?

‘OK.’

Although I thought I might have to take it slowly, after my reaction to the beer last night.

łCal?

\daddy! I don’t have wine. I’ve got juice, look.

łSorry, my mistake. Jay? Yes please, big glass, don’t mind if I do. Merry Christmas everyone. Here’s to family.

He raised his glass.

}Behth? Yuh fuhgot hehr.

_Oh, no, it’s OK, Matty, I’ll just have water for now. Family.

She raised her glass and we all did the same. Magical moment for me. Laid to rest a lot of ghosts. Beyond my self-absorbed happiness, I became aware of glances going on round the table.

}Spihl, Behth. Wahter foh Chrihsmus dinner? Buhlshih. Oops, sohry.

_Honestly, Matty, I’m going to ban Dec from your room.

‘Why am I getting the blame?’

_Well it’s only since you arrived that the swear count has increased. Last night I had it loud and clear over the monitor thank you very much.

Matt and I exchanged a look, part guilt, part amusement.

}Behside the poihn. Wahter?

Beth rolled her eyes, looked at Jay and took his hand. Carol had a sharp intake of breath and put her hand over her mouth, eyes shining.

}Say ih, befohr Mum blohs a gahsket.

_OK, well, as you seem to have guessed, we’re having another baby. Early days, long way to go, not due until the summer. But yes, that’s why I’m drinking water.

Jay put his arm round her and kissed her on the forehead, then smiled back at us all.

}Greht news.

#Oh Beth, I’m so pleased for you.

Suddenly realised I had to pretend I didn’t already know.

‘Congratulations.’

_We were going to tell you today anyway. Cal found out, and he’s not good with secrets, so sooner rather than later seemed best.

#You must be thrilled, after all this time.

_Pretty thrilled, yeah. Tired though.

#Oh, and you’ve just done all this.

She gestured to the table.

#I wish I’d known.

_Carol, I’m fine, just tired. You know what it’s like. Dec’s been a great help, spending so much time with Cal. Thanks for my lie-in this morning, sweetheart, it was a life-saver.

‘Glad to help.’

}Ahny chahce of eahting behfor next Chrihsmus?

_Sorry, Matty, let’s get stuck in. But it was you who wanted to stop and chat about why I’m drinking water.

The meal was amazing. Everyone was in high spirits. Jay and Carol were fuelled by wine, Cal was fuelled by Christmas, Beth was fuelled by some kind of inner fire, Matt and I were fuelled, for different reasons, just by being there. We all sat for a long time afterwards, telling awful cracker jokes, wearing silly hats, talking. Cal got bored with the grown-up chat, and had disappeared to play some more.

łOK, another toast. Fill your glasses.

Matt pushed his forwards.

łYou’ve had your quota. Water or juice now, mate.

}Fucking spoihlsport.

#Matthew. Really. I’m beginning to think Beth was right.

}Sohry Muhm. Dec’s rehlehsed my ihner swehrer.

#I don’t think it needed much releasing, dear.

łDec?

‘No more for me, I’ll be asleep.’

łHere you go then, Mum, finish it up. Anyway. Now I’m a bit pissed, there’s something I want to say, just so it’s said and everyone knows and there are no more misunderstandings. We had a toast to family before. I just want you all to know that my family includes Declan Summers. And all who sail in her. Forever. Whatever he gets up to, whether I like it or not. Just so it’s official. Right, Dec? Oh bloody hell, pass him the bloody tissues, he’s bloody off again.

I looked at Beth through my tears, and she smiled back at me. This felt very close to the ‘real parents’ thing I’d wanted when I was much younger. When I was in foster care I’d had ridiculous dreams about a ‘forever family’, but Jay had just given me that, almost ceremonially, despite the large quantity of wine he’d drunk, and my heart was bursting.

Matt reached across the table and clasped my hand.

}Wehcom bro, or cuz, or auhnty, or whaever.

Carol didn’t quite know what to do with the information, and just patted me on the shoulder.

}Jay, sohry, thihnk Ih behter go back to bed. Toh much good nehws. Noht enough wihn.

łOK, mate, let’s go.

Jay wheeled Matt out of the kitchen.

Matt

And so I’d made it to Christmas dinner and beyond. In my wheelchair, admittedly, in case Jay needed to whisk me back for some emergency fussing in the middle of pouring the brandy butter, but I was there. I got to see parts of the house I had only previously visited in my wildest dreams, starting with a trek across the hallway, taking in a glimpse of the living room on the way, and then the whole huge family kitchen complete with fuck-off ebloodynormous table laden with enough festive fare to feed a moderately sized army. I even fed myself, although I had to insist on that. I lasted for all of it and more, to the crap cracker jokes, the paper hats slipping forgotten to the floor, the slightly drunken laughter (although that was really just Jay and Mum).

I had been ‘allowed’ one small glass of wine, despite my loud protests and well-reasoned arguments. Dec didn’t seem to be drinking much, and Beth – well Beth was on the water on account of being pregnant.

Whoa. Hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d known they’d wanted another kid from hints dropped by Mum, but Cal was six, and it seemed to be taking long enough that who knew if it was going to happen. Mum nearly burst with happiness, right there at the table. Not only was she going to be a granny again, but her little boy had made it to dinner. I’d like to think it was the latter that made her happiest, but who am I kidding, grandchildren win hands down every time. I could have single-handedly flown to Mars and come back with proof of life up there, and Jay and Beth would still have trumped me with the ‘having a baby’ card. Not bitter. Not really. Just how it was.

Oh, and apparently, as if a baby wasn’t enough, we had another new member of the Scott family to welcome. Jay had made a pissed toast, after Cal had left the table to play with more toys, saying that Dec was now officially part of his family, forever, and although Jay kind of looked defiantly at me and Mum while he said it as if he expected us to argue with him, really it wasn’t a problem. I don’t know why they hadn’t just adopted him when he was young enough, to be honest, but this seemed like the same kind of thing, although less official, and I was cool with it, not that I had any say. I looked at Mum, who had been less than happy at having to share Christmas with ‘that boy’, as she’d called him, just to me, but she was patting his shoulder and smiling, so it looked like he’d won her over as well.

And that was kind of it for Christmas. Dec stayed a couple more days, then he went back to Devon and that was that. What? Oh, you don’t really want to know about all that shit with the ‘leave me alone’ and the bonding do you? Oh for fuck’s sake, alright, if it will shut you up.

Cal

So Mum and Dad told everyone the secret, and it wasn’t that Dec was going to be my brother. They were going to get a baby, but not until the summer, which was ages away, and they didn’t know if it would be a brother or a sister. But everyone was happy and drank wine, and pulled crackers and wore the hats and gave me all the toys out of the crackers, then told each other the jokes from the crackers, and there were some really funny ones, like ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick.’ That’s funny because you think the answer is going to be something like Marmite, or poo, which are brown and sticky. But it means something that is stick-y, which is what a stick is. It was my favourite joke for ages. My second favourite joke was ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they aargh.’ That’s funny because aargh is what pirates say, but it sounds like you’ve said ‘because they are’ only in a pirate way.

I got bored after a while, because everyone was talking about boring things like how to make gravy, and I was allowed to get down to play, although Mum said I couldn’t eat any chocolate until later.

I heard them all still talking and laughing in the kitchen, and I felt happy inside. When Uncle Matty was in hospital and we came to live with Granny, there was a lot of talking but not much laughing, and the talking was all serious and I couldn’t join in. Then Uncle Matty woke up, and Dad smiled like he hadn’t done for ages, and things got brighter, and then Uncle Matty came out of hospital, and there were still serious talks, but it seemed better, apart from not being able to talk about Dec.

Now, things seemed better than back to normal. Dec was here, and Uncle Matty was here, and everyone in the house was happy. It felt like a long time since everyone in the house was happy.

Dec

#Well, what a lovely meal, dear. It all went very well, I think. I’m so pleased Matthew stayed for so long and did so much for himself. He’ll be tired now, I should think.

I had managed to wipe my eyes.

‘Best. Roasties. Ever.’

_Don’t let Rose hear you say that.

‘Oh, she knows!’

_Have you spoken to her today?

‘No, I was going to try my phone out, haven’t had a chance.’

_Don’t leave it too long.

‘I’ll do it this afternoon.’

#Beth, dear, why don’t you go and have a sit down? Declan and I will clear the table and make a start on the washing up, won’t we Declan?

‘Yeah, no worries. Go and put your feet up.’

_Oh you angels, thank you.

And then it was just me and Carol. I didn’t know her that well; although she had visited Jay and Beth plenty of times when I had lived with them, I had tended to keep out of the way, be polite if we came across each other (gaping boxers incident aside) and do my own thing. She stood up and started collecting plates into a pile. I noticed that she struggled to lift more than a couple at a time, and remembered Jay saying she had arthritis.

‘Here, let me do that.’

I piled all the plates on top of each other, then realised that I was going to find it a bit hard to lift them too, with a bruised hand and healing arm. I looked at her.

‘Bitten off more than I can chew, I think. Sorry, trying to be chivalrous.’

#It’s very sweet of you, dear. We’re a couple of old crocks, really, aren’t we. Maybe you should initiate me into your Cripples Corner.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

‘I’m not sure you’d appreciate the bad language, it’s a bit of a rule.’

#I don’t really mind the language, dear, I’ve got used to it over the years with Jameson and Matthew. You need to be careful with young Calum though, he idolises his dad and his uncle – and you. He’ll do what you do.

‘I know, I’m trying. Matt and Jay are wicked though.’

#Tell me something I don’t know, dear. Right, how are we going to do this? One plate at a time?

It was slow progress, but we managed to cram most of it into the dishwasher. There were a few pans we optimistically decided to leave for Jay, as I didn’t want to get my dressings wet in the washing up bowl, and Carol thought they’d be too heavy for her. And we thought he deserved it. She may have been disinhibited by quite a large amount of wine, but Carol was OK.

#I think that’s enough for now. I’m going to put my feet up with Beth.

‘Fancy some coffee?’

#That sounds lovely, dear. I’ll leave that with you.

I boiled the kettle, found a cafetière and some fresh coffee and made a pot. Put it all on a tray with cream and sugar and even put some mince pies on a plate. Felt very pleased with myself. I took the tray into the living room, where Beth and Carol were both asleep in front of the TV. I moved on to Matt’s room, where Cal was building a road for his cars out of Lego blocks. Matt was asleep in bed, and Jay was asleep in the chair. Christmas afternoons everywhere always seemed to turn out the same – only the kids awake. A bit deflated, I took the tray back into the living room, poured myself a cup of coffee and took it back into Matt’s room.

‘Need any help, Cal?’

\no, I don’t need help, but you can play with my cars.

‘That’d be great. Which ones can I have?’

I knelt down and engrossed myself in the tiny world Cal had created. He had a huge imagination and was fully absorbed in his game. The room grew dark, and I put the lamp on so we could see what we were doing. Jay woke with a groan and a stretch.

łWhat time is it? Jesus, it’s dark already. How long have I been asleep?

‘Several weeks have passed.’

łHa ha. Have I missed the washing up?

‘You know you have, you planned it that way.’

łVery true, just checking I don’t need to doze off again. Where is everyone?

‘Well four of us are in here. Your mum and Beth were asleep in the living room last time I checked.’

łBetter go and see if there’s anything I need to be doing.

He ran his hands through his hair.

łDamn, I was going to get us out for a walk this afternoon. Bit dark now.

‘We can do it tomorrow. How about a game of football – is there a park?’

łGreat idea. How about it Cal? You and me versus Dec and Granny?

\i don’t think Dec will win if Granny’s on his side.

łI don’t think Granny will win if Dec’s on her side. Especially if she leaves the free kicks to him. I’d better go and see what Beth is up to with Mum, could have all sorts of plans involving me doing stuff I’d rather not do, if I’m not careful.

‘There’s some pans soaking in the kitchen could do with washing up.’

łYeah, right.

Jay shot me a look and padded out of the room, shaking his head.

I carried on playing with Cal and his cars for a while. I became aware of a ringing sound, quite faint.

‘Is that a phone? Can you hear it Cal?’

\it’s from there.

He pointed to the corner of the room where I’d been sitting that morning. There was the box with my new phone in it. It was ringing. I leapt over to the box and tried to open it, unearthing packaging, small plastic bags, earphones, and a charger before the phone finally tumbled into my hand. It had stopped ringing. I looked at the screen: Missed Call. Rose. Fuck. I’d forgotten about calling her.

‘Cal, I need to phone Rose. Back in a minute.’

I went into the kitchen, which seemed to be the only downstairs room not full of sleeping people. I looked at the phone, trying to work out how to dial a number or access the address book. It was different from my last phone and a much more recent model. While I was in the middle of pushing buttons and scrolling through menus, the screen flashed up with Rose’s name, and an option to answer or decline. I pressed answer.

‘Hi Rose! Sorry, I didn’t get to the phone in time just now. Happy Christmas. How are you?’

:Hello, love, oh it’s grand to talk to you. I’m grand. Just thought I’d ring on your new phone. Was it a nice surprise?

‘Yeah. A bit overwhelmed, to tell you the truth.’

:Well, Happy Christmas, love. Have you had a good day?

‘I’ve had the best day. It’s been amazing. Started a bit early, with Cal waking up before three, but it’s been pretty special. Thanks for the present, by the way, it’ll be great in a few days when I get these dressings off.’

:Oh, you’re welcome love, and thank you for the smellies, dead posh they are. I think you might have had a bit of help choosing?

‘Yeah, Lisa did it all really. Otherwise you’d have had an old potato, wrapped in a bit of cling film. I might have washed the potato first – you deserve the best.’

:Oh love, you sound really happy. I don’t think I’ve heard you happy before, not properly. It’s doing you good being there.

‘It really is, I can’t quite believe it still. I feel a bit all over the place. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.’

:When’s that love?

‘Not sure, Jay’s going to bring me back, don’t know when yet. I’ll let you know.’

:Alright, love. See you soon then. Love to Jay and Beth and little Calum.

‘Cheers Rose, bye.’

I pressed ‘end call’ and put the phone in my pocket as Cal wandered into the kitchen.

\can you help me make a Dalek?

‘I’ll have a go. Have you got instructions, or is this just kind of free-hand?

\it’s in the box.

‘OK, bring it in, we can do it on the table here.

Cal skipped off to get the box as the phone in my pocket pinged. I pulled it out. Text.

Nico: =I just check you still alive. Happy Christmas 🙂 from Nico & Lis x

Me: =Just abt 2 build Dalek. Very much alive. Thanks v much 4 laptop 🙂 talk ltr. Dec.

I did feel back in the land of the living, amazing what a difference a phone made. I had felt completely out of touch for the last couple of weeks. Cal returned with a large box full of complicated small pieces and a very detailed several-page booklet of instructions. We emptied the pieces onto the table and sorted them into piles, then started making the model. Cal lost focus easily, but I needed him to manage the fiddly bits, my fingers still tripping over themselves at times.

‘Why don’t you go and get a book or something so you’ve got something to do while I’m working out what goes where?’

\i want to help you.

‘OK, it’s up to you, but this might take a long time. There might be some boring bits for you.’

Some time later we had finally finished. Cal just about kept his concentration, although he was fidgeting a lot by the time we put the finishing touches to the model. The rest of the house was still quiet, and I could feel myself drooping a bit too.

‘Why don’t we go and show your dad?’

\kay. Then what can we do?

‘Well …’

I looked at the clock in the kitchen. Well past time for people to be awake and helping me entertain Cal.

‘Let’s go and see if Daddy wants to play a game with you.’

I followed Cal into the living room, where Carol, Jay and Beth were all asleep on the sofas. I mean, seriously? I know we’d all been up early, I knew that better than any of them, but this was verging on the ridiculous. I looked on as Cal launched himself onto Jay’s lap.

\daddy, what can I do now? We made a Dalek, look. Can we play my football game?

Jay’s eyes had snapped open as soon as Cal kneed him in the balls, and he tried hard to focus on the model Cal was holding in front of his face.

łAh, Jesus. Sorry, Cal, agh, what? Uh. Great, er, Dalek. Jesus, mind what you’re doing there. Jesus.

Beth stirred beside him.

_Was I asleep? What time is it?

She looked at the clock.

_God, it’s really late. I should get some tea or something.

She got up and headed for the kitchen.

\daddy, what can I do?

Jay was still trying to get his breath back. He caught my eye.

łI don’t suppose ..?

Nope, wasn’t having that, however grateful I was to be part of the family.

‘I’ve been the only one awake with Cal all afternoon.’

łFair enough. OK, Cal, let’s see what we can do. Fancy helping Mummy get some tea?

\no, I want to play a game.

I laughed.

‘Suck it up, Daddy. No getting out of it.’

Jay glanced over at Carol, who was still asleep. No assistance there, either.

łI guess all that wine is taking its toll. OK, Cal, let’s have a look then …

I left the room to avoid being sucked into Cal’s game. Much as I had enjoyed being with him, he was a tiring bundle of energy, I’d got out of the habit of being with him, and I felt drained. I went into the kitchen, where Beth was starting to wash up the pans Carol and I had left.

‘Oh, we left those for Jay.’

_You’d have been waiting a long time, then! It’s OK, there’s not much. Thanks for doing the rest, great help.

‘No worries. Anything else I can do?’

_No, sweetheart, I’m just going to finish this and put some tea on the table, people can help themselves. Won’t take a minute. Thanks for being with Cal this afternoon. You must be exhausted.

‘Yeah, a bit. He kept me busy. Loved it, though.’

_You’ve always been so good with him, the two of you with your heads together, cooking up some mischief or other. He’s missed you. We all have.

‘Same here. Don’t start me off again.’

_Thanks for coming up, Dec, it’s been like old times. Well, not that old I suppose. Feels like a long time ago though. You’ve grown up a lot – I keep forgetting how young you are.

I felt slightly miffed at being considered young. I was in my last few weeks of being a teenager.

‘Twenty next month.’

_Sorry, sweetheart, twenty sounds really young to me! You’ve had a lot to cope with in the past few months, when you add it all up. James told me a lot of what you told him last night. I’m sorry we weren’t there for you.

‘Fuck, Beth, you’ve got nothing to apologise for. You and Jay had your own shit going on. I did some appallingly stupid things and made some bloody mind-blowing decisions, I just made it harder for you. Looking back, I can’t quite understand myself. I made myself a really deep hole, and I’d still be in it if it hadn’t been for Rose. And Nico.’

_Rose is so lovely. She really cares about you.

‘I know.’

_Nico and Lis care about you too. I’m glad you’ve got them all.

‘Yeah, me too.’

_I’m glad you’ve got us as well.

‘Thanks, Beth. I feel very lucky.’

_You’re not the only one. We were all pretty close to losing each other, weren’t we? Come here.

She held her arms open, and hugged me. Predictably, tears were shed on both sides. She patted my back and let go.

_Well I’ve got my hormones as an excuse. What’s yours?

‘Bloody head case, according to Jay.’

_You’re seeing someone though, aren’t you, sweetheart?

‘Got an appointment in the New Year.’

_I think it might help, don’t you? Just sorting through stuff in general, let alone all the recent stuff. You’ve had quite a tough start in life.

‘I’ll give it a go. Don’s orders anyway, so not much choice.’

_He usually knows what he’s doing.

‘Yeah. Anyway, I might go and check on Matt.’

_Is that code for taking a nap? It’s nice and quiet in there, I can keep Cal in the living room.

I grinned at her.

‘I’ll see how it goes.’

Matt’s room was completely dark. I switched on the Christmas tree lights, and looked over at Matt. His eyes were closed and his breathing regular. I sat in the chair by his bed and took the phone out of my pocket, thinking I would try to get to grips with it. The first thing I pressed caused a loud trilling. Matt stirred and opened his eyes.

‘Shit, sorry, mate, didn’t mean to wake you up.’

}Dark.

‘Happens at night.’

}Whas tihm?

‘About six thirty.’

}Bolluhks. Haht bluhdy slehping soh much.

‘No different from everyone else today. Me and Cal have been holding the fort since after lunch, everyone else crashed. Came in here for a bit of peace and quiet. So stop your bloody chatter.’

}Pihs off. How’s yuh phone?

‘I’m just trying it out. It’s different from my old one, trying to work out where everything is.’

}Hahv a lohk?

I handed it to him.

}Had ohn lihk this. Prehty easy. Hehr’s yuh contahts, yuh cahl or text from hehr. This foh intehnet. Sehtings foh Wi-Fi – uhs Jay’s while yuhr hehr, I’ll lohg yuh on. Thehr yuh goh. Easy.

He handed it back.

‘Well I know where to come for a quick tutorial. Thanks.’

}Hahv my uhses.

‘Everyone’s good at something.’

Carol appeared in the doorway.

#I think Beth’s put some tea on the table. Do either of you want anything?

}Noh Ihm stuhfed. Cup of teh tho?

#Right you are, dear. Declan?

‘Cup of tea sounds great. No food just yet, though, thanks. I’m stuffed too.’

Carol left to fill our order.

}Muhm’s wahmed up tuh yuh a bih.

‘Yeah, seems to have. I can understand why she was a bit off to start with, me walking in looking like a I’d lost a cage fight, having caused Jay and Beth no end of grief.’

}Yuh must hahv chahmed her.

‘I think several large glasses of wine helped, then we bonded over the dishwasher.’

}Bluhdy ahrslicker.

‘She’s alright, your mum.’

}I knoh. Juhs jeluhs couhnt hehp wash uhp.

‘Really?’

}Fuck noh. Only rehson Ihm in behd, tuh avoid the dishes.

‘Ha ha, seems to be working. Keep it up.’

Carol came back in with two mugs of tea, one in Matt’s spouted cup.

#Are you alright with this dear? Do you want me or Declan to help you?

}Yuh, Muhm. Sohry Dec, mahn poihts.

‘Understood. I’ll leave you to it.’

I stood up.

‘Oh, by the way, your mum’s the newest member of Cripple’s Corner. She’s up for the dirty songs and the swearing.’

Matt spluttered into his tea as I left the room.

The rest of the evening passed in a lazy, dozy haze. Cal, who had effectively been awake since three o’clock that morning, went to bed at seven with hardly any protest. I read him a really short story and Beth tucked him in, still wearing his Arsenal shirt, which he refused to take off. He apparently fell asleep while Beth was still talking to him.

The TV was on, taking away the need for conversation, and my mind drifted contentedly. Carol was still sitting in with Matt, Jay and Beth were cosied up on one sofa, I was stretched out on the other. The phone rang, shattering the peace. Jay had a brief conversation with Beth’s mum, then handed the phone over to Beth, mouthing ‘tell her’. Beth rolled her eyes and nodded, taking the phone into the kitchen.

Jay picked up the TV remote and managed to find a repeat of a rugby international on a sports channel. We watched it for a while, occasionally commenting on some aspect of the play, or a refereeing decision. Jay suddenly sat up and looked at me.

łI’ve just had a bloody brilliant idea.

‘OK.’

łAren’t Raiders at home on Sunday?

I thought about it, a bit surprised that Raiders had been so far from my mind. If these people were my family, then Raiders were my home, and I’d just recently been granted access back there too. Before my mind could go wandering down too many guilty paths, I answered Jay.

‘Yeah. Against Warriors.’

łWhy don’t we go? I can take you home – we could bring Cal, that’d give Beth a break, he’d love it. Three birds with one stone.

I hadn’t thought about going back. I had settled back into life with Jay and Beth so quickly that, for the moment, it hadn’t occurred to me it wasn’t going to last. I felt like someone had poured cold water on me.

‘Isn’t it a sell out?’

łI reckon I could swing some tickets. I’ll talk to Don, I need to ring him anyway. What do you think?

‘Yeah, great.’

He looked so excited by his plan that I joined in, even though I felt rather churned up about it.

łI’ll talk to Beth once she’s off the phone. I can get Matty up in the morning, she should be alright for a day, I can come back after so I’m not away overnight. I’ll ring Don first thing.

‘It’s Boxing Day.’

łIt’s the Friday before a Sunday game, they’ll be training. It’s only ex-players like me and injured nancies like you that get Boxing Day off.

‘Oh yeah.’

łAre you OK? You’re a bit quiet. Is it a bad idea?

‘No, it’s a great idea. I’d love to watch Raiders with you and Cal. Just hadn’t given going home much thought. Been in a bit of a bubble since I got here, and I think it just popped.’

łJesus, sorry, mate. Maybe it was a bit insensitive of me. We can leave it if you want. Stay a bit longer?

I thought about it, but in the end, whether I went back in a few days or a few weeks, it was going to feel the same.

‘No, it sounds good if you can swing it. I haven’t seen a home game for a long time. Should get back to Rose, I guess, or even go back to my flat.’

I wasn’t relishing that one, but it would have to happen eventually – I couldn’t impose on Rose for much longer, now I was getting fitter.

łOK, if you’re sure. You know you can stay as long as you like, come back whenever you like, don’t you?

‘Thanks.’

Jay settled back down to watch the game, a satisfied look on his face, although I could no longer concentrate on the TV now as thoughts from pre-Christmas crept in.

I wondered if I would see DivDav or Big at the game. Needed to think about how I would handle that. I had no idea if the police had approached either of them about my allegations. Fuck, fuck, fuck, all the complications I had managed to forget over the last forty-eight hours came crashing back and I started to feel really gloomy.

The game finished and Beth came back in to say she was going to bed.

łIs your Mum excited?

_You bet. I talked to both my sisters too. Rachel’s already planning what to knit. Lou wants to visit for New Year. I tried to put her off, don’t know if it worked.

łBugger. Oh well, can’t be helped. You’d like to see her, wouldn’t you.

_Course.

łI’ll manage then. If I get pissed enough she might not annoy me at all. I’ll be up after I’ve sorted Matty – me and Dec have had an idea about Sunday …

They waved goodnight, then I heard Beth go upstairs while Jay went in to Matt to check he was alright for the night. I stayed on the sofa, still feeling sorry for myself. The sports channel was now showing football, previewing the Boxing Day games. I turned the sound down and let it drift over me.

I tried to be positive. I’d had a great couple of days, and I was here for another two. Jay, Beth and Cal had welcomed me back into their family with open arms, permanently and unreservedly. Despite everything I’d done, the mess I’d made of everything over the last few months, I hadn’t lost them. It was more than I deserved. And yet, it wasn’t ever going to be the same as it had been. It was going to be visits and weekends, and once I was playing again, I would hardly see them during the season.

This seemed like another loss on top of everything. It welled up in me, starting somewhere below my ribs and then spreading up into my throat. I curled on the sofa and cried, trying to be as quiet as possible. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, but couldn’t stop the tears, giving myself over to a good dose of self-pity.

31. What Christmas means to me

In which it is Christmas Day, and there is excitement and bonding.

Cal

… the next thing I knew I was in bed, and it was still dark, but I felt backwards for my stocking and … HE’D BEEN! My stocking was full of presents. I wanted to start opening them straight away, but I was supposed to take the stocking in to Mum and Dad so they could watch, and I didn’t know what the time was. While I wondered what to do, I heard noises coming from below me. More of Dec’s noises.

‘No … no, no … mm … nnn … unh …’

He was louder than last night, and I wanted to see if he would do another swear, and then he would be awake and could help me with my stocking.

I climbed down the ladder and stood by Dec, wondering how to wake him up. He was moving around in the bed, twisting the duvet round him. I reached out and touched his cheek, and his eyes snapped open, although he wasn’t looking at me. He tried to sit up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.

Dec

… felt a slash to my cheek, heard glass shattering, felt blows raining down on my body, lay there helpless as I watched a brown boot heading towards my face …

Woke up in darkness, sweating, confused, disoriented. Could hear breathing close by. Tried to sit up, banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

Remembered doing the same yesterday. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

Cal

It worked! He’d said a swear, and he was awake. He rubbed his head as he lay down again, and looked at me.

‘Cal?’

‘You made noises again. I poked your face and you shouted. You did another swear.’

Dec looked at me, then shook his head, blinked, and nodded.

‘Sorry, mate, must have been dreaming again.’

‘Can I open my stocking?’

‘What? Oh. What time is it? Where’s your dinosaur clock?’

My dinosaur clock just said numbers, and I didn’t always know if they meant it was time to get up. I picked it up and showed Dec.

‘No, Cal, it’s far too early. It’s not even morning yet. Go back to bed.’

‘Can I come in with you?’

‘Try to go back to sleep in your bed, yeah?’

I’d been pretty sure he would say that, after Dad told him I wasn’t allowed in with him and Mum, but it was always worth a try. However, after being back in my bed for ages and ages, I still wasn’t asleep, and I could hear Dec still moving around, so I knew he wasn’t asleep either. I climbed back down the ladder and had another go.

Dec

He lasted about five minutes in his own bed, then hopped back down the ladder.

\i can’t get back to sleep. Can I come in with you?

I had no resistance – it was too late, I was too tired, I’d missed him too much.

‘Come on then.’

I shuffled over to the wall, while Cal took up the rest of the available space. He was asleep in seconds, while I carried on thinking about my dreams, worrying about why I kept revisiting the beating.

Cal

I fell asleep for a while, and then woke up again and thought it must be time by now. Dec was still asleep, or had his eyes shut. I tried to look in his eyes by pulling his eyelids up. Then Dec opened his eyes on his own.

‘Stop that, Cal, I’m awake now.’

‘Is it time yet?’

I showed Dec the clock again, but he shook his head.

‘Not yet. If you go back to sleep, it will go quicker.’

This was torture. My stocking was right there, waiting to be opened, and every second felt like years. It was all I could think about, and going back to sleep would be impossible.

‘But I can’t, I want to open my stocking. Santa’s been. Has he been downstairs?’

‘Yeah, mate, he’ll have been everywhere.’

‘Can I go and see?’

‘No, stay up here, wait till Mummy and Daddy and Granny are ready to go down.’

‘But Granny takes ages, she always says ‘just let me wash my hands’ and then she’s a long time.’

‘I know it’s annoying having to wait, but that’s the rule. Shall I tell you a story while we’re waiting?’

A story with Dec might make the waiting more bearable, so I nodded and snuggled up against him.

‘How about the end of the Christmas Mouse? You fell asleep before we finished it last night.’

That sounded good. I had wanted to hear about the mouse.

‘Kay.’

Dec wasn’t reading the story, he was remembering it from his head, and he got some bits wrong, like forgetting their names, and what order things happened in, but I helped him, and we got to the end, where the cat went to live with Santa.

When it was ‘The End’, Dec looked at the clock.

‘OK, it’s time now. You can take your stocking in to Mummy and Daddy.’

I jumped out of bed really quickly, took the stocking off the end of the bed and ran to Mum and Dad’s room. The door was locked, and I rattled the handle lots of times before I heard it unlock, and Dad opened the door. He had his pants on, and his hair was sticking up.

‘Hey Cal. Is it that time already? Merry Christmas.’

He got back into bed, and I jumped on top of the duvet. Mum was just waking up, and she sat up so I could cuddle her and give her a kiss.

‘Happy Christmas sweetheart. Ooh, what have you got here? Santa’s been busy, hasn’t he?’

‘Is Dec awake, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Go and get him. I’m sure he’d like to watch you open your stocking.’

‘James …’

Mum laughed and cuffed Dad on the arm, but didn’t say not to fetch Dec. Frustrated that it was taking so long to get to opening the stocking, I raced back to my room and tugged on Dec’s arm.

‘Daddy says come and watch.’

‘What?’

‘Come on, I want to open my stocking. Daddy says.’

I pulled Dec’s hand until he came with me. He stopped to put clothes on, but I couldn’t wait for him, and I went back to Mum and Dad.

I jumped on the bed and emptied the parcels onto the bed, then started tearing paper off, while Dec came in and sat on the end of the bed and yawned. There was lots of cool stuff: toys, pens, badges, games, a torch, Pokémon cards, chocolate coins, and dinosaurs. But now I’d opened everything, I started thinking about the big presents that might be downstairs under the tree in the living room and in Uncle Matty’s room.

Dec

As I walked into Jay and Beth’s room, I mouthed ‘you bastard’ over the top of Cal’s head, but Jay just laughed as Cal jumped on the bed, up-ended the stocking and started ripping paper off parcels. He made short work of it all, and soon had a pile of small, exciting looking stuff. Then he immediately wanted more.

Cal

‘When can we go downstairs?’

Not yet, Cal, it’s far too early for Granny and Uncle Matty. Play with your stocking toys for a bit.’

‘But when?’

‘When we hear Granny get up. She won’t be late, but it’s still too early for her.’

‘But when?’

It was like nobody else was excited about Christmas at all, and nobody seemed to want to go downstairs.

‘Just be patient sweetheart. You’ve got all these lovely things in your stocking.’

Maybe Dec will play in your room with you while you’re waiting?’

Well I suppose playing with some of these new toys would make the wait more fun. And I remembered what I’d thought yesterday, about sharing my stocking with Dec if he’d been too bad to have his own. Dec hadn’t had his own stocking, so it was only fair that I let him play with my things for a while.

Dec

Jay had an evil glint in his eye. I had been hoping to go back to bed for at least an hour or two. However, Beth was looking at me hopefully, and she looked wiped out. I caved.

‘Come on then Cal. Let’s take all this stuff back to your room. We’ll have to play quietly though.’

Cal gathered up his new treasures and ran back to his room. I looked Jay in the eyes.

‘You guys are seriously taking the piss.’

He grinned and settled down under the duvet.

łMerry Christmas, Dec. Thanks for the lie-in. Best present ever.

_Thank you, sweetheart.

Cal and I played with his toys for the next hour and a half. I loved it. We made up games, imagined stories about things and pretended our heads off. Tired as I was, I wouldn’t have swapped this Christmas morning for any other morning in my life. For a long time, I thought I’d never see Cal again. I wanted to enjoy every minute now I was back here. Finally, we heard movement from down the hall. Cal noticed before me.

Cal

‘Granny’s awake!’

I got up and went to the door, ready to run downstairs and start on the big presents, but Dec called me back.

‘Give her a minute, Cal, she’ll need to get dressed and stuff, and we’ll all need breakfast first. I know it’s hard, Christmas is exciting, but we might have to wait a bit. And we need to see if Matt’s getting up as well.’

Not more waiting. I was so fed up of waiting and waiting.

‘Ohh, but I’ve been waiting for hours.’

‘Only because you woke up so early. If you’d gone back to sleep, it would have seemed like no time at all. Come on, let’s have another go with this car – look, if you push this button, the lights come on.’

Dec

We heard another door open, then Jay came into the room, running his hands through his hair.

łOK, Dec, you’ve done your stint, thanks, mate. Go back to bed if you want.

‘No, I’m OK, I’m awake now. I’ll make a cup of tea, though, if you like.’

łThat’d be great. Seriously, thanks for this. Beth gets really tired at the moment, she needed the extras.

‘She did look wiped. Tea for all then.’

łCome on Cal, lets see if Mummy wants to play with all this cool stuff.

Jay picked Cal up in one arm and scooped the toys up in the other, and I heard them chatting as he took Cal into their room.

I went downstairs and filled the kettle, putting mugs out on the side. I found Matt’s spouted cup and put it out too. Decided to see if he was awake. Pushed open the door to his room. It was dark and I couldn’t see him, but could hear his noisy breathing.

Matt

I was awake before anyone came into my room the next day. It was Christmas Day; I could hardly believe how excited I was at the thought of actually getting up, leaving my room and sitting down to eat dinner. People did it every day of their lives, sometimes twice a day, but I’d like to bet it had never meant as much to any of those unthinking bastards who wasted their lives not appreciating the finer things like a place at a table, or holding a knife and fork properly. I resolved never to take things like leaving my bedroom for granted again.

I started to hear sounds from above, noises that made me think I wasn’t the only one awake. It was unlikely Cal would have slept through, with the amount of Santa anticipation he had been experiencing, and I knew the plan was that he would come in here first for some presents. So when the door opened and it was Dec, I was a little bit disappointed. I’d been looking forward to the squealing, the shining eyes, the thrill of watching a small child do Christmas morning.

I’d never spent Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal, having always found ways to avoid it before, despite Mum asking me to go down there with her every year. Beans on toast in front of the Doctor Who Christmas Special had been my middle finger up to ‘tradition’ and ‘commercialism’, but this year I was going to throw myself into the family Christmas vibe if it was the last thing I did. However, it looked like it wasn’t going to start yet, as Dec poked his head round the door.

‘You awake?’

‘Course, ih’s Chrihsmus. ‘Cited.’

‘Want some tea?’

‘Prehfer a tequila slahmer and a hot waihtress.’

If you didn’t ask, you didn’t get.

‘I’m just doing tea for now. No drinks with worms in before breakfast. And I’m as hot as you’re getting, hope you can handle it.’

He made me laugh, this kid. I pulled a face at him.

‘Hahv tuh do. Disappointihg lack of clehvage.’

‘Tough shit. Back in a minute, then.’

Cal

While I was playing, I heard Dec and Uncle Matty talking on the speaker, and just managed to hear a swear before Dad switched it off.

‘Those two are getting on well.’

‘I know. We’re going to have to watch out if Matty perks up a bit. Could cause all sorts of mischief.’

‘It would be lovely if Matty did perk up, though. Maybe he’s needed someone to cause mischief with.’

‘God, Beth, don’t wish that on us.’

Dec

I made tea for everyone, and a juice for Cal, realised I didn’t know everyone’s milk and sugar requirements, so had to make a up a tray with a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar and some teaspoons. I tested the weight, judged I could carry it up the stairs even with my shoddy arms. I took the tray up to Jay and Beth, who were still in bed watching Cal re-enact some of our earlier games.

łGet you, Mr Domesticated. You’ll make someone a lovely wife one day. One sugar, stirred please.

_Thanks Dec, this is a treat.

łWhat do you mean? I do you tea in bed.

_Once in a blue moon. Cal, Dec’s done you some juice too. Careful now, don’t spill it.

‘I’ve made one for your mum, Jay, not sure where she is?’

łShe was in the bathroom, but I think she’s back in her room now. Give her a knock. About time we were thinking of getting moving, I suppose. Or, maybe we’ll just stay here for a few more hours and let Dec get on with cooking the dinner.

‘Really? I can only do woossy beans. And I need help to use the can opener.’

łIt’s almost worth having woossy beans for Christmas dinner in exchange for a couple of extra hours in bed. Is that one for Matty? You saw him already?

‘Yeah, he asked for tequila.’

łWe heard. Dec, you do know there’s a monitor by his bed, we can hear everything until it’s turned off …

‘Sh … eep shoes. I completely forgot. Sorry.’

I glanced quickly at Cal, who was immersed in driving cars across the duvet.

łYeah, well, luckily certain ears were more interested in playing with their new space ships than listening to your witty repartee. Sounds like he’s OK then?

‘Seemed OK. I wasn’t in there for long. Better go and distribute.’

I took the tray along the hall and tapped on Jay’s mum’s door.

‘Mrs Scott, would you like a cup of tea?’

She opened the door, saw the tray, looked surprised.

#How lovely, oh and you’ve brought milk and sugar.

‘I didn’t know how you take it.’

#Just milk, thank you. Is this one for Matthew?

‘Yeah, I’m just going to take it in.’

#He might need help to drink it.

‘That’s OK, I can manage.’

Cal

I played on Mum and Dad’s bed for a while longer, and then the thrill of my stocking toys began to be overtaken by wanting to open more presents, and I asked again if we could go downstairs.

‘OK, Cal, you’ve been very patient. And Granny and Uncle Matty seem to be awake, so let’s go down. Put your slippers on first, though.’

Oh, there was always something I had to do first. I ran into my room and pushed my slippers on my feet. As I came out of my room, Granny was coming out of hers, and she gave me a cuddle and wished me Happy Christmas, and I cuddled her back but wriggled out of it as soon as I could because I wanted to be downstairs with the presents.

Matt

True to his word, the kid was soon back. I’d taken the opportunity to close my eyes, just for a minute … and I was suddenly aware he was peering at my face, a tray in his hands. Bugger it, I’d gone back to sleep.

‘Yeh, I’m stihl alihv.’

‘Glad to hear it, keep up the good work. Do you want the light on?’

He was actually asking if I wanted stuff. Jay just barged in and turned everything on, whether I was asleep or not.

‘Lamp plehs, and Chrihsmus lights. Monitor off?’

Dec put the tray on the table by my bed and then flicked all the switches; the lights from the Christmas tree making the pile of presents sparkle. I hadn’t appreciated last night what a huge pile there was.

‘Fuck meh, tha’s a loh of presents.’

‘You should see the living room. Floor to ceiling, practically. Want a cuppa?’

‘Yeh. Lihk the trahy. Dohn fancy the waihtress muhch thogh.’

‘She returns the compliment. Does sir take milk and sugar?’

‘Mihk, two suhgrs. Shoht of vodka.’

Another instance of if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Although I seemed to be doing a lot of asking and not a lot of getting.

‘You might have to imagine the vodka. And in tea? Strange tastes. Do you need help with the cup, or can you manage?’

Again with the asking. I could get used to this.

‘Gihv ih a goh. Migh need hehp. Geh rehdy tuh catch. Thahks fuh ahsking.’

I took the cup in both hands, slightly nervous as I hadn’t tried to do this on my own for a while, but that’s what the sodding spout was for, wasn’t it, in case of spillages. I held the offending item to my mouth, taking a couple of gulps.

‘Couhd do wih more imahginry vodka.’

‘Everyone’s a critic.’

‘Are they ahl up yeht?’

‘Your mum’s up, Cal’s been up since five to three, on and off, Jay and Beth were still in bed last I saw.’

‘Fihv tuh threh? Ha ha.’

Part of me would have loved to have been there when Cal first woke up and realised Santa had been, but most of me was glad I hadn’t had to be there at such a supremely ridiculous hour of the morning.

‘Yeah, thanks for the sympathy.’

Cal

I ran down the stairs, and into Uncle Matty’s room, because that’s where Mum said we were going to start, and skidded to a stop as I saw the tree and all the presents underneath it. I had never seen so many exciting looking presents in my life – and I was sure there were more in the living room.

Matt

The door burst open and Cal bounced in, stopping in awe when he saw the tree and presents underneath. There it was, that little shining face – it was almost worth being tied to this bed by the fucking bastard just so I could be there to see it. Jay and Beth were behind him, still in dressing gowns and slippers. Beth walked over and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Merry Christmas, Matty. Wait, Cal, don’t start yet, we’ve got to get Uncle Matty up and ready first. Give Uncle Matty a kiss, then come and have some breakfast with me while Daddy stays in here.

Cal

So there was going to be more waiting, and I’d have to have my breakfast first.

Dec

Cal jumped onto the bed, with an enthusiasm that made me wince when I remembered him doing the same to me in hospital, and hugged Matt.

Matt

‘Mehry Chrihsmus, Cal. Sohry, wohn be lohng.’

Jay gave me an appraising look. Whatever he saw, it was all good.

You’re looking better mate, I was expecting you to be trashed after yesterday. Feel up to it this morning? Oh, Merry Christmas.’

He ruffled my hair, as if I was the same age as Cal. It made me feel like a special little brother, in a good way and in a bloody annoying way.

‘Yeh, up tuh ih.’

I’d been waiting for this all week, I would have said I was up to it even if one of my legs had dropped off.

‘I’ll leave you to it. See you later, Matt.’

Dec picked up the tray and started to leave the room.

‘Thahks foh vodka.’

Jay gave Dec a quizzical look, probably wondering if he had been daft enough to give me alcohol for breakfast, thus necessitating several calls to out of hours GPs about mixing pills and booze.

‘It was imaginary.’

Jay looked relieved at first, then he frowned as he tried to work out what Dec meant. Comical.

Jay and I made short work of getting me ready. I felt energised, I did loads for myself, and Jay wondered aloud if my enforced sleeping for most of yesterday had somehow done me good. I had no answers for him, but didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just enjoyed feeling better. It looked like Christmas dinner was a goer. Woohoo.

Dec

Cal jiggled through his breakfast, hardly able to keep still. Jay’s mum had come downstairs too, and the three of us ate toast in the kitchen.

\when is Uncle Matty ready?

_He won’t be long. Daddy always helps him get up in the morning, Cal, you know that. Sometimes he needs more help. You’ll just have to be patient.

\can I go in the living room?

_Not yet, sweetheart.

\but I’ve been waiting for hours.

#Calum, what did you get in your stocking? Aren’t you going to show me?

\kay Granny.

He dashed upstairs and got his new toys, spreading them over the table, talking excitedly about his favourites. Jay came in as Cal was bombarding the remains of his breakfast with laser fire from the front of a spaceship.

_All done with Matty?

łJust need to sort the meds. Have we got any more of the blue ones? I can’t remember what they’re called.

_I’ll do it.

Beth left the table and went into Matt’s room.

#How is he, dear?

łSeems OK this morning. Doing quite a lot for himself. He got a good rest yesterday, one way and another. He might make it through today with a bit of luck.

#Oh, that is good news.

She seemed relieved.

#You’re so good to him, he’s very lucky. I’m sorry I can’t do more.

łNot now, Mum. Have some more tea.

He got up and put the kettle on.

łActually, I think Dec should do this. I am declaring him official Scott household tea maker. He uses a tray and everything. Very genteel.

‘Nothing genteel about it, saved me running up and down the stairs all morning carrying drinks.’

łAnd he’s practical and efficient with it.

Beth reappeared and washed her hands.

_OK, Cal, Uncle Matty’s ready for us now. Want to open some presents?

Cal jumped down from his chair and sped off into Matt’s room. The rest of us followed at a more sedate pace. Jay’s mum kissed and hugged Matt and sat in the chair. Cal stood in front of the tree, eyes wide. Jay had brought another chair for Beth; Jay and I sat on the floor.

łOK, Cal, first you need to find a present for everyone, then you can find one with your name on it. Shall I help you?

\no Daddy, I can read people’s names.

łOK then. Where’s mine?

Cal distributed a present for everyone, including a rectangular one for me, and then set to the rest of the pile. I watched in fascination as a small human paper-ripping machine made very short work of what was probably a couple of hours worth of cutting and sellotaping. He was methodical, looking at and appraising each present after opening, but not getting anything out of its box or playing with it. We were all mesmerised, and none of us had opened our presents.

Cal

At last. I didn’t know which to choose first, there were all sizes and shapes. I chose the one closest to me, tore the paper off and it was a Lego dinosaur, one which I’d put on my list to Santa. As I opened the other presents, a lot of the things were what I’d put on my list to Santa, but not an Arsenal shirt with Theo Walcott on the back, and not Optimus Prime. I didn’t realise everyone was watching me until Uncle Matty spoke.

‘Imprehsiv wohk.’

I looked at him, and he was smiling at me, but hadn’t opened his present. Dad noticed that too.

Yeah, you need to get ripping a bit yourself, mate. What do you think, Cal, wait for a minute and see what Santa brought Matty?’

I didn’t want to stop to see what Uncle Matty had in his present, because it was going to be something for grown-ups, like soap or something to drink, but Dad looked at me like he did when it was ‘no arguing’, and I put the present I had in my hand back on the floor.

‘Ehvryohn, noh jus meh.’

OK, everyone then. After three – one, two, three, rip.’

Nobody else had opened their presents either, but now they all took the paper off. Their presents were all from Santa, even Dec’s, so maybe he hadn’t been all bad. Uncle Matty was having trouble with his paper though.

‘Cal, cahn yuh hehp meh? Tuh much tahpe.’

I got onto the bed and tore a bit of paper in the corner.

‘Here, look, Uncle Matty, if you pull it, it will tear.’

After I showed him, Uncle Matty opened it easily. There was a box with a picture of a computer on the front. It wasn’t soap or drink, and Uncle Matty liked computers. So did I sometimes, when you could play games with them.

Matt

Presents between us in the past had been hit and miss. I’d always sent something down there for Cal, but never really knew what to get Jay and Beth, and so it might be a hamper, it might be vouchers, or it might be nothing at all. And Mum always came back from her Devon Christmas with a bottle of something alcoholic for me from them. Sometimes it was something useful, like ten year old scotch, and sometimes it was a bottle of something green with Greek writing on it.

So I was completely unprepared to open, with Cal’s help, an iPad. I could have cried, for many reasons, not least of which was their thoughtfulness and generosity, but Cal was sitting on the bed looking at the box excitedly, and I held myself together and looked at them instead, trying to convey my gratitude. They had bought me a cheap mobile phone when we realised mine had gone, just so they could contact me if they were out, but this, this was above and beyond.

Cal

‘What is it?’

‘Whoa, shih, eye pad. Thahnks Sahnta. Oops, sohry foh swehr, Beth.’

‘What’s a eye pad?’

It sounded like something a pirate might wear, but that wasn’t what the picture on the box said.

‘Plahy games, watch fihms, intehnet, music.’

That sounded like fun. I could see me spending lots of time with Uncle Matty showing him how to play games.

‘Can I use it with you?’

‘Yeh Cal, prohbly nehd yuhr hehp.’

Dec

łWhat did Santa bring everyone else? I got a DVD, cheers Santa.

_Necklace, lovely, thanks Santa. Carol?

#My favourite perfume, how did Santa know?

Matt

I knew they’d bought Dec an iPhone, as I’d helped them load the address book and add some apps I thought he might like; I sneaked a look at him as he opened it, and he looked as overwhelmed as me.

Dec

They looked at me. I was pretty speechless. Santa had brought me the latest smartphone. Previous Christmases had been low key in the present department, although Cal always had loads – for me, it had always been about who I was with, not what I’d got. This was a big present, one I felt unworthy of. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Cal

So everyone else had grown-up presents, but we hadn’t found out what Dec had got. Everyone looked at him. He looked like he was about to cry. Again. I wondered what he’d got. Maybe he’d been so bad that he’d just got a lump of coal, like Dad said would happen to me if I was really bad.

Dec

łUh oh, look out, blub club’s about to reconvene.

\what did Santa bring you, Dec?

‘A new phone, mate. Just what I wanted.’

_I think you’ll find Santa’s programmed it with the names and numbers of your friends and family. No more lists of numbers for you to lose.

‘I don’t know what to say –’

I looked at Jay and Beth.

‘– except thank you. Er, thank you Santa.’

łOK, Cal, finish off those last couple and we’ll get out of Uncle Matty’s hair for a bit.

}Noh, stahy.

łSeriously, Matty, if you want to do dinner, you’re going to need to rest up. We’ll go in the living room.

}Lehv the dohr open? Soh I can hehr?

łOK mate. Get some rest, though, yeah? Come on, Cal, leave those now, you can come back later and have a play. There’s more in the living room.

Matt

Eventually Cal finished his parcel Armageddon, and was eager to move into the living room for round two. I wanted them to stay, to prolong being part of the festivities, but there was no way Cal was going to stay in here when there were more presents in the other room. And Jay told me to rest up before dinner because he was a bossy twat (is what I thought to myself in my disgruntlement). As they all disappeared across the hall into the living room, I felt more than ever the frustration and loneliness of being part of but not part of everything that went on. They included me as much as they could, like just now, but until I could get about by myself, I was just going to get snippets of normality, then hours of staring at the inside of my eyelids.

Just as I was starting to get up a real head of steam on some major self-pity, I realised Dec was still sitting on the floor, looking a bit emotional. Wondering if I could distract him, I looked at the box in his hands.

Dec

While Cal zoomed out of the room to get stuck into the huge pile in the lounge, I stayed where I was for a moment, feeling overwhelmed.

}Coohl phohn.

‘Yeah.’

}Whas matter?

‘Oh, I’ll get grief for saying it, but it’s too much. I don’t deserve it.’

}Why noht?

‘You know what I did, right?’

Matt

‘Er …’

Jay had been vague about the details of what exactly Dec had done to push himself so far out of favour, although I knew there was money involved, and some kind of accident, and Beth had avoided the question altogether. Mum would only say ‘that boy …’ and look angry, and I hadn’t had the energy to push it with any of them. Now I wanted to know what had gone on.

‘… noht detahls.’

Dec

‘Oh. Well, I … things just got … shit, it’s so hard to remember everything exactly, let alone explain it. OK, first I crashed my car and someone died. Then I stole some money. Then I lied to fucking everyone about fucking everything. Then … oh there’s a shitload more to it than that, but that’s the main bit. I let everyone down, after all they did for me. They shouldn’t be buying me stuff like this.’

Matt

Dec gestured to the box containing the phone, while I tried to assimilate what he had told me. Some day I was going to have to get the whole story, although it sounded maybe too complicated for me to be able to focus on right now. Whatever the whole truth, things probably weren’t as bald and bleak as he had just told me, especially not now, and if Jay and Beth had asked him up here for Christmas, then he deserved whatever they wanted to give him, however he felt about it. Maybe if I tried some pragmatism.

‘Dihnt yohr phohn get trahshed?’

Jay had told me Dec’s phone had been smashed when he was beaten up. It had been irreparable and the police still had the bits, in an attempt to recover some useful data from it.

‘Yeah.’

‘Was ih insuhred?’

I was pretty sure I knew what the answer would be to this one; kids never insured their phones.

‘No.’

Told you.

‘Can yuh affohd a new ohn?’

I knew the answer to this one as well; Dec had no money, and no possessions, since the bastards who beat him up stole his keys and his wallet, trashed his flat and emptied his miniscule bank account.

‘No.’

I shrugged as if it answered everything.

‘Sahnta knohs best. Stahy fuh bit? Tuh quieht on my ohn.’

I could hear Cal talking nonstop across the hall, and if I sat and listened to it on my own I’d start getting miserable. I didn’t want to be miserable today.

Dec

Matt didn’t seem shocked by what I’d just told him; he almost seemed keen to reassure me.

‘Course. Although I wouldn’t call the excitement going on in there quiet.’

}Mahks meh lohnly.

‘Sorry, Matt, didn’t think. Must be tough, sometimes.’

}Mohst of the tihm. This ihn’t lihf.

He waved his arm around the room.

‘You’re doing OK, getting better by all accounts.’

Matt

I don’t know why I felt this need to unburden, all of a sudden, but there it was. Self-pity manifesting itself despite my best efforts.

‘Slohly. Lahs Chrihsmus I wahs in fucking New Yohk wih my girfriehd. Sehms lihk fuhever ago. Dohnt fehl lihk I’ll ever geh ih bahk. Fehl soh guilty, Jay an Behth gahv up evrything to wihpe my ahrs.’

And there it was, full blown poor me. It had just come out, and Dec was the lucky recipient of my need to share. First it was bottles full of my piss, then prattlings full of my despondency. Where would it end?

Dec

‘Because they wanted to. I do know how you feel. It’s hard to let people make sacrifices for you.’

I wanted to return the reassurance he’d given me, and tried to think of something that might help him.

‘But do you know what, when I was talking to Jay last night, he said that him and Beth want to do this for you, he doesn’t want anyone else looking after you, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t think he sees it as a sacrifice, it’s something he wants to do – oh, no mate, don’t …’

Matt

As he was talking, I just got a sense that he really did know how I felt, that somehow our experiences had been similar enough that he really did get it. And that felt huge. And then he reminded me that Jay had given up everything for me, and told me Jay had wanted to do it. I would never understand that, could never be grateful enough, would always feel guilty and unworthy.

It just welled up in me, and started pouring out of me in deep, heaving sobs. I couldn’t stop it, I sat with my hand over my face, wishing I was somewhere else, grateful for the excitement from across the hall that would be masking the sound of the tears that were unmanning me. I felt Dec take my other hand, and it surprised me enough to reduce the outpouring a little.

‘Ih’s soh fucking unfaihr.’

I meant all of it: me being ill, Jay and Beth feeling they had to uproot their lives, Carrie leaving me, everything.

Dec

It wasn’t just filling up, this time, Matt was really sobbing, covering his face with one hand, whole body shuddering with each breath. I held his other hand, didn’t know what else to do, feeling bad that I’d brought this on him.

‘I know, mate. You’re right.’

I wished Rose was here, she was great at talking comforting nonsense when people were upset.

‘Come on, Matt, it’s OK. Shh, don’t worry, it’s OK.’

After a while, during which I watched him anxiously, worried it might affect his breathing again, Matt’s sobs subsided. He looked at me miserably, embarrassed.

Matt

I was mortified, both at the blarting and that Dec had felt the need to hold my hand. I needed to stop both, as soon as. After a quick recce of the situation, I found my out.

‘Nihs tat.’ I nodded at what I might loosely term the ‘artwork’ on his right forearm, as I disengaged from the handholding.

Dec looked down and self-consciously rubbed his left hand over the shoddily tattooed crucifix complete with dagger dripping blood. The kind of ‘tasteful’ ‘body art’ which is usually accompanied by ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on one’s knuckles, but a quick glance reassured me that this was not the case.

‘Yeah, it’s crap, isn’t it. Had it done when I was younger, thought it made me look hard. Might get it covered up.’

‘Good plahn.’

‘You feeling better?’

I nodded. ‘Sohry. Geh lihk this sohmtimes. Thahks. Dohn tell them, plehs? They wohry, and fuhs. Wohn leh me do dihner.’

I was desperate to do dinner, and I was well aware of how Beth reacted when I showed any sign of weakness. If she even got a hint I’d been anything less than happy and up for everything, she’d put me in lock-down and force feed me with chatter.

‘No worries, Cripples Corner brotherhood. United against unnecessary fussing, united for the having of Beth’s roast dinners whenever possible.’

I tried a smile, but decided to let him off the hook. I was sure he didn’t want to stay here with the blethering cripple when there was family fun to be had across the hall.

‘Do yuh want tuh joihn in the frenzy?’

‘No, I’m fine here, if you want me to stay.’

‘Yeh. Thahks, Dec. No mohr blahrting, prohmis. Puh TV on?’

‘OK.’

Dec found the remote and turned to a channel playing non-stop Christmas songs. He turned it down a bit, and sat back down. Before the first song had finished, I found that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, as was the usual way of things following a few seconds of excitement, and after a while I fell asleep.

Dec

Matt looked like he was starting to drift off to sleep, but I stayed with him. His eyes were shut, and his breathing became more even. I could hear Cal’s excited voice from the other room, amid sounds of paper tearing and Jay and Beth’s voices, with occasional comments from Jay’s mum. I could see how it would make Matt feel lonely, it felt a bit like they were on another planet. The difference for me was I could walk across the hall and join in whenever I wanted to; Matt would have to work a lot harder to be part of everything. It must be exhausting.

Cal

I could not believe how many more presents there were in the living room. I nearly couldn’t start opening them – there were so many that I nearly couldn’t choose where to start. But I did. I started with the big, red one, which was less exciting when I opened it and it was a dinosaur lampshade for my room. I mean, dinosaur lampshades are cool, but as a Christmas present, you can’t play with it, and you have to ask Dad to put it up for you, and he takes ages and grumbles about it. Then Mum said ‘Thank you, Granny’, and I realised it wasn’t a present from Santa, but one from Granny, so it wasn’t instead of an Arsenal shirt or Optimus Prime, and I said thank you too and put the lampshade to the side to make room for everything else.

I opened loads of presents, and one was Optimus Prime, and one was an Arsenal shirt with ‘WALCOTT’ on the back. There were some for Mum and Dad and Granny as well, and Dad had a remote control car from Dec, which I would play with, and there were some for Uncle Matty which we put in a pile for him to open later, and then I saw one for Dec, but he wasn’t in the room.

Dec

I heard Cal’s voice pipe up.

\this one’s for Dec. Where is he?

łI don’t know, did he stay with Matty? I’ll go and have a look.

I heard Jay’s footsteps coming across the hallway.

łWhat are you doing still in here?

‘Chatting with Matt.’

Jay looked across at the bed, confused.

łHe’s asleep.

‘Only just. He wanted some company.’

łCal’s found you a present. Want to come and open it? We might be able to squeeze you in among all the toys and wrapping paper.

I looked over at Matt. He seemed fast asleep.

‘OK.’

I followed Jay back to the living room. Cal sat by the Christmas tree, surrounded by toys and torn gift wrap. Beth looked like she had her work cut out keeping up with all the labels so she could remember who had given what, and she had started a list. Cal picked up a box to show me.

\dec, look, it’s Optimus Prime!

‘Cool, mate! I told you Santa knew. Looks like he knew about the Arsenal shirt too – turn round, whose name on the back? Ah, good old Theo.

Cal

I’d put my Arsenal shirt on right away, over the top of my pyjamas. It was the coolest shirt I’d ever had. Then I remembered the present for Dec.

‘This one’s for you. It’s not from Santa, it’s from Nico and Lis.’

I pushed the big, heavy box towards him. Dec didn’t look excited, he looked at Mum.

Dec

‘They already gave me all my clothes for Christmas.’

_Just open it, Dec.

I pulled the paper off, and was speechless again. It was a laptop.

Cal

Dec pulled the paper off, and it was a computer. A proper one, not one like Uncle Matty’s eye pad. A computer with a lid like Dad’s. Dec didn’t say anything, like go ‘wow’ or anything, so I decided to do it for him.

‘Cool! Can I play on it?’

I knew you could do loads of games on a computer, because Dad let me do games on his sometimes. Now I had Uncle Matty’s eye pad, and Dec’s phone and computer to play with, it was as if I’d had three extra presents.

Dec didn’t answer me, though, and I wondered if he didn’t want to share his computer. Mum would have something to say about that, because she liked people to share. Dad looked at Dec’s face, which didn’t seem very happy.

OK mate?’

‘It’s just, this … and the phone … it’s all too much. They lent me tons of money, I just don’t –’

Let me stop you before you say you don’t deserve it.’

Oh, it was because he thought he’d been too bad to have nice presents. But Santa always knew what you deserved, and Dec must have deserved a new phone and a new computer, otherwise he wouldn’t have got them, even if one had been from Nico and not from Santa.

Dad was looking a bit cross with Dec, and he told Mum to cover my ears, so I knew he might say some swears. Luckily, Mum didn’t cover my ears, and I heard everything.

‘That’s just a load of bollocks, Dec. Fucking bollocks. You’ve pretty much lost everything one way and another the last few months. That slime ball stole ten fucking thousand pounds off you, you sold everything that was worth anything to get it back, and then your so-called fucking mate steals the last bit of money you’ve got and trashes the rest of what little you owned. Nico and Lis are generous people and they wanted to do this for you. You need a phone and you need a computer, because you need to be able to keep in touch with people so nothing like this ever happens again. It’s not too much, it’s just right, because it’s something we wanted to do for you. Let people do what they want to help you, and don’t make us feel fucking bad about it. OK, rant over. It’s just more of what we said last night, isn’t it? I hope you get it now, I’m getting bored of bloody saying it. Sorry, Mum, lots of bad language. Sorry, Beth. Sorry Cal.

I was looking at Dad with wide eyes. Not only had he said lots of bad words, he’d said a lot about Dec that I hadn’t known. I thought Dec had stolen, but Dad had said some people had stolen from Dec, that one of his friends had done it. But Dad hadn’t sounded sorry for Dec, he sounded angry. I started to get that feeling I’d had for those couple of days after I’d phoned Dec, when I worried about Mum and Dad being cross with me, and what might happen if they were.

‘Daddy are you cross with Dec?’

Dad sighed and did a little smile at me.

No, mate, not cross. A bit exasperated, maybe. I’m just trying to make him understand something.’

I didn’t know what exasperated meant, but from how Dad said it, maybe it wasn’t as bad as cross.

‘You said lots of swears.’

I know, they seemed to make my point.’

Dad looked at Dec.

OK?’

Dec

I took a deep breath and tried to make myself believe it.

‘ … OK.’

Jay nodded.

łRight, lets get on with this then. Cal, what’s that huge one in red and green paper?

The unwrapping continued, and Cal finally made his way through all the presents. He found another one for me, from Rose. It was shower gel and soap, plus a big fluffy towel. I would have normally found this a pretty uninspiring gift, but Rose knew how much I was looking forward to a proper shower, once my dressings were off for good. It was also something that didn’t make me feel guilty about the amount of money she’d spent. It was perfect. I smiled to myself. I’d have to ring her later once I’d worked out how to use my phone.

Cal

I carried on with the presents until there were none left, only the ones for Uncle Matty, and there were only three of those.

Dec had another present, which said ‘from Rose’, and was a towel and some shower gel, and if I’d had that present I would have been very disappointed, but Dec smiled a lot when he opened it. I didn’t think I would ever smile if I got soap.

Dec

Presents opened, there was a bit of a lull. I wandered into the kitchen, to see if I could do anything to help with dinner, but it all seemed to be under control. Beth said she’d ask me to set the table later – something else that edged me towards believing I was part of their family again. Setting the table had always been my job when we all made Sunday lunch together. Slowly, bit by bit, it was sinking in.

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