102. All about tonight

In which there is drink, and there are consequences.

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Matt

Work the next day was buzzing with plans for the evening, which were getting more grandiose as the day went on. It had graduated from a pub crawl to a club crawl, incorporating lap dancers and a strip joint. Joe looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to rejoice that he’d been let off the leash or run howling back to his fiancée in fear and trembling. He plumped for the former, which meant it was all very much ‘on’, and so after I made a quick trip home for a shower, a piece of toast (to line my stomach) and a kiss and a cuddle with Lau (to line my heart), I set off for the first venue, a pub which was fortuitously down the road and within walking distance.

There were a couple of guys who were happy to be designated drivers, the foolish bastards, so taxis were not required. I had told Lau I would have my phone on at all times, on vibrate as well, in case it was noisy wherever we were and that if she needed anything that Dec couldn’t provide, she should call me and I’d come back. Maybe a little the worse for beer, possibly singing, but I’d be there.

I felt a little thrill as I walked to the Queen’s Head. I hadn’t let my hair down like this for – well I could count it in years. The last time I’d been on a boys’ night was in the early days of Jules, when I’d felt it was important to assert my individuality. It was all I could do to stop myself rubbing my hands together in anticipation.

Laura

I’d had a huge wee, which in hindsight was my waters breaking, then I’d hauled myself upstairs to bed, thinking I had a bit of indigestion, hoping that lying down would stop the babies from jumping around on my digestive tract for a bit. The discomfort had continued, though, until it had suddenly spiked in a cramping pain that rippled across my abdomen and took my breath away. My heart rate increased as my fear rose.

I tried to talk myself out of it, telling myself it could be Braxton-Hicks. I left it too long, trying to convince myself, and eventually had to admit to myself that I was in labour, and that it wasn’t going to be too long before something needed to be done about it. I reached over to the bedside table for my phone, just as another clenching spasm shook me. My fingers made contact with the phone, but sent it flying from the table and onto the floor.

‘Shit.’

I was starting to panic. I slowly positioned myself so I could swing my feet over the edge of the bed, but although I could see the phone, it was a little way away. My stomach was so large, I wasn’t going to be able to bend over and pick it up, so I tried to hook it towards me with my toes, hoping I would be able to get it close enough. I pulled it towards me, until it was right underneath me, but I couldn’t bend down to reach it.

Eventually, after another huge contraction, I hit on the idea of using my feet to dial, thanking the day I chose to ignore Matt’s advice to use a passcode, but cursing the day I ignored his advice to get a cool phone with voice recognition features. It was a painstaking, clumsy process, and took me ages, but eventually I had my contacts list up and managed to scroll down to Matt’s name. I dialled a couple of wrong numbers, including the Madras curry house and MatesRates builders, before finally pressing Matt’s name successfully with my big toe. His phone rang, for quite a time, and then went infuriatingly to voicemail. He must be somewhere really noisy and unable to hear the ringtone, although he’d promised me he’d have it on vibrate as well so he could feel if I called. I went back to the contacts list, and scrolled slowly up with my toe to ‘Dec and Amy (home)’. I pressed call, and heard the ringing tone start, noting with relief and a small amount of pride in my newly discovered toe-dialling abilities, that I hadn’t called the Devon Ramblers Association.

‘Hey Lau.’

‘Dec, thank God.’

‘Everything alright?’

‘No, the bloody babies are coming. Matt’s out.’

‘Oh shit. Holy fuck. I’ll be right there.’

Somehow the amount of swearing made me more aware of Matt not being there, and brought tears to my eyes. Dec disconnected and I sat on the edge of the bed feeling foolish, emotional and afraid. Then I realised Dec was going to be no use at all, as he didn’t have a key and wouldn’t be able to get in.

Matt

Several pubs and the first club of the night later, and at least two sheets to the wind, if not three or maybe four, I checked my phone. I’d been checking it on and off all night, and nothing to worry about had appeared on the screen, but just after eleven o’clock, there was a missed call from Lau. Bugger. She hadn’t left a message, so maybe it wasn’t that urgent, probably just wanted to say goodnight or some such shit. I called her anyway. It took a little while for her to answer, and I couldn’t hear that well over the music in the club. I hoped she wasn’t going to tell me she’d got stuck on the loo and was too embarrassed to call Dec. I mean, I’d told her she could, and I would come home, and I would have, but honestly, I was just starting to enjoy myself. Yeah, she just wanted to say goodnight, that’d be it.

Laura

I started to try and pull myself up, thinking that maybe I would have to go on all fours and crawl down the stairs to open the door, when the phone rang. Matt. I placed my toe over ‘Accept Call’ and pressed.

‘Lau?’

I shouted as loud as I could, so my voice from the bed reached the phone on the floor.

‘The babies are coming. Can you come home?’

Matt

It took a few seconds for this to filter through the music and the beer, but when Lau’s words finally made it to the thinking part of my brain, I nearly stopped breathing. In all the scenarios I’d imagined, why oh the fuck why had I not imagined her going into labour? It was only three weeks away. It was twins. How fucking stupid was I?

‘Oh shit. Yeah, fuck, Lau, I’ll be right there. Oh fuck it, I’ve had too much to bloody drink, I won’t be able to drive you.’

I might have chanced it on a pint or two, but I’d lost count. It was more than four. A lot more, especially if you count the shots. I was astounded I was even coherent, considering that was nearly as much as I’d had per month for the last five or six months.

Laura

‘Dec’s on his way, but he can’t get in, he hasn’t got a key. I’m not sure I can get down the st – aaah. Ohhh. Shiiit.’

Another disabling spasm shook me.

Matt

As Lau gasped and swore, I felt panic gripping me. Oh you stupid, stupid arse, Matt Scott. You make all these safety back-up plans for the Summers kid to be around to help if necessary, then your stupid, stupid-arse need for privacy makes you withhold the one thing the Summers kid will need to get into your house to actually be able to help. Aaaaagh. I had to get home, and fast. I needed to sober up, just needed to be there with Lau. Lau just swore. Lau never swore, it must have really bloody hurt, she must be so scared. All of our carefully formulated birth plans, which relied on me not being too pissed to drive, were out of the window, and I was going to have to wing it, while I was too pissed to think straight.

‘Bollocks, fuck, fuck, OK Lau, don’t panic –’

Yeah, Lau, let me do all the panicking, turns out I’m really good at it.

‘– I’ll get one of the guys to drive me. Mike isn’t drinking. I’ll be, like, minutes. Promise. Fucking, fucking, fucking bollocks. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

I held the phone to my ear as I looked for Mike. The club was fairly busy, but I finally spotted him sitting near the bar, looking like he was rethinking the advisability of being a designated driver.

Laura

From downstairs I heard a knock on the front door. I didn’t know what to do, and it panicked me more.

‘Don’t hang up, Matt, please keep talking to me.’

Matt

Lau was close to losing it, I could hear it in her voice, and that was truly scary. Lau never lost it, always had a complete handle on any situation.

‘OK, just hang on a minute Lau …’

I needed to sort out getting home. I approached Mike.

Laura

I could hear music and voices, and Matt talking to someone, although I couldn’t hear what he was saying, then he came back on the line.

Matt

‘Hey Mike, I’m really sorry to ask, you couldn’t take me home, could you? Lau’s gone into labour.’

Mike perked up, and looked like it might be just the sort of excitement a designated driver deserved for his sacrifice.

‘Oh, right, yeah, course. Do you want to go now?’

No, you goon, let’s leave it a few hours so it’s all over by the time I get home.

‘Yeah, that would be great.’

I had learned over the years that people respond better to bitingly sarcastic responses when you don’t say them out loud.

‘Where are you parked?’

‘Just outside.’

‘Lead on, then. Er, quite fast if you can.’

I broke into a run, looking over my shoulder to check he was keeping up. I had no idea where Mike’s car was, but we needed to hurry. Once Mike started running too, I let him overtake me, then I turned my attention back to Lau.

‘OK, Lau, Mike’s bringing me, we’re on our way, we’re legging … it … to the car park … can’t talk … listen to me … panting for a bit …’

I wanted to be reassuring and gentle, but I couldn’t do that and run to the car too. I let Lau have the benefit of my heavy breathing, just so she’d know I was still there. I thought I heard her say something, but missed it under the sound of my gasping. I was also having to concentrate on not falling over due to being wasted. It wasn’t easy to do all of these things at the same time as trying not to scare Lau more than she already was, but we made it to the car without incident and Mike drove us away.

Laura

Matt stopped talking, but true to his word, I could hear him breathing heavily. From downstairs, there was more banging on the front door, then I heard Dec shouting through the letterbox.

‘Lau? Are you OK?’

I shouted back as loudly as I could.

‘I can’t get down the stairs. Matt’s on his way.’

‘What?’

Wait for Matt.’

‘OK, not going anywhere.’

From my phone, the heavy breathing had lessened, and I heard Matt’s voice.

‘OK, Lau, we’re in the car, just setting off now. OK?’

‘Hurry.’

Matt

The fear in Lau’s voice had ramped up a notch. It was the strangest sensation, to know I’d had so much to drink I should be verging on incapacitation, and yet feel so sobered by the need to help Lau. Some sort of cognitive dissonance, I expect.

‘Yeah, on it, Mike’s only got a bloody Micra, though – sorry, Mike.’

Mike muttered something that could have been ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ or could have been ‘bugger off you loser’. Either way, I ignored him as Lau was talking again.

‘Dec’s here, but he can’t get in.’

Lau sounded totally freaked. She was stuck upstairs, about to give birth all on her own. I wondered briefly if I should call an ambulance, have them break the door down, but we’d be there before long, way before any ambulance would, and I could get in, it would be OK. It had to be OK.

‘Yeah, I know, baby, I’ll be there really, really soon. It’ll be fine.’

I was pulling out all the stops, trying to calm her down. I even called her ‘baby’. I never called her anything but ‘Lau’ or ‘gorgeous’, but it seemed like there may be extenuating circumstances, which were a) I needed to do everything in my power to make Lau feel OK, and b) I was pissed out of my skull, and who knew what was likely to come out of my mouth.

Laura

I heard the endearment. He hardly ever used them, and it told me how worried he was about me that he had called me ‘baby’. From downstairs, another shout.

‘How’s it going, Lau? I’ve tried ringing, your phone’s busy.’

‘Talking to Matt.’

‘OK, no worries.’

Matt

I was confused. Was she going loopy with pain?

‘What?’

‘I was talking to Dec. Through the letterbox.’

Oh. Well at least he was there and doing his best. Come on, Mike, hurry the fuck up, no don’t stop at the bloody red light – oh for fuck’s sake. Then it filtered through what she’d said. Dec would have been trying to call me and couldn’t because I was talking to Lau.

‘Oh. Lau, if we hang up, I can ring him and talk to him.’

I knew she wasn’t going to like it, but I wanted to talk to him, see if there was any way he could get in before I got there.

Laura

I swallowed a lump of panic at the thought of being disconnected from Matt.

Matt

‘I’ll call right back, promise, but we’re nearly there, aren’t we Mike?’

‘Yep, not far now.’

Whether this was true or not, I had no idea, not having been paying attention to where we were, and Mike took the sensible option of not further rattling the freaked out, pissed, expectant father by either not knowing our ETA, or suggesting it was going to be a long journey. Sensible move.

‘OK.’

Lau was trying, she really was, to be brave, and I loved her for it, but I was terrified, so I can only imagine how much more afraid she was than me.

‘I’ll talk to you in a minute. Don’t go anywhere.’

Hilarious much? Meh, best I could do. Pissed and freaked: affects the humour receptors in the brain. Well known scientific phenomenon.

Laura

There was a click and the screen on the phone announced ‘call ended’. Downstairs I heard the faint sound of music, which was Dec’s phone, and his voice. I stopped listening as another contraction swept over me, knocking me backwards onto the bed. I might have screamed, it bloody well hurt enough.

Matt

I pressed Dec’s name and he answered quickly.

‘Matt, where the fuck are you?’

‘On my way. Sorry mate. Just wondered if there’s any way you can get in? Are any of the windows open or anything?’

‘Not sure. Let’s have a quick recce.’

I heard the sound of footsteps scrunching on the gravel.

‘Nope, nothing I could squeeze through. The downstairs loo’s open, but it’s too small.’

‘Bollocks.’

‘Bet you wish you’d let me have a key, now, don’t you.’

This so was not the time for gloating. I would present him with a thousand golden keys in a civic ceremony performed by the King of Uzbekistan if he could think of a way of getting in before I got there, to make sure Lau was OK. I ignored it as irrelevant for now, it so wasn’t the time for scoring points. I looked around me to get my bearings and make an estimate of how far away we were.

‘Dec, can you tell Lau we’ll only be a few minutes? We’re nearly there, can you stay, help me get her to hospital?’

‘No worries, mate, I’m not going anywhere.’

Laura

Dec’s voice came through the letterbox again.

‘Lau, Matt’s a few minutes away, he’ll let me in, we’ll get you downstairs and take you straight to the hospital.’

Matt

I heard him shout the information to Lau, presumably through the letter box. I disconnected from Dec and called Lau back, to fulfil my promise of not being away from her for too long. But the phone rang and rang, and then went to voicemail. So I tried again, and again, voicemail every time. And now I was really scared. Not just scared in a general ‘we’re having a baby’ panicky kind of way, but in an ‘oh holy shit why isn’t she answering something terrible’s happened’ kind of way, and it nearly stopped my heart and froze me, but I called Dec.

Laura

I couldn’t answer him, my breath had gone. I heard my phone ring from the floor, but couldn’t sit back up to answer it. My feet were now dangling from the edge of the bed, nowhere near the phone, and I couldn’t see the screen in any case.

‘Lau?’

The phone stopped ringing, and went to voicemail. It started ringing again. Matt was going to be panicking; he didn’t know the phone was unreachable. The ringing stopped and started again several times, as I lay panting on the bed looking at the ceiling, feeling helpless and stupid. There was a pause in the ringing, and I heard Dec’s phone go again, then his voice.

‘Lau? Are you OK? Can you hear me?’

I tried to shout as loudly as I could, but lying on my back wasn’t the ideal position to get much volume on my voice.

Matt

‘Dec, Lau’s not answering her phone.’

‘No, she’s not answering me, either.’

Oh fuck, she must have passed out, or … all the ‘or’ situations piled up in my imagination and my head felt like it was about to explode.

‘Can you shout her again?’

I heard him call out to her.

‘Can’t hear anything, mate.’

‘Fuck. We’re almost there.’

Laura

‘Lau? Hang in there. Matt’s nearly – oh, this must be –’

Matt

I heard Dec shout again as Mike pulled the car up outside the house. I jumped out before he had even come to a complete stop, and ran up the path without thanking him or saying goodbye, or even thinking about him again. I pushed past Dec, grabbed my keys out of my pocket, fumbling them into the lock, my hands shaking, opened the front door and ran up the stairs, shouting Lau’s name, more scared than I had ever been in my life. I don’t make deals with non-existent deities, but I would have traded my soul not to be greeted with any of the grim things I was imagining.

Laura

I heard a car engine outside, a door slam, footsteps, a key, I breathed a sigh of relief and a silent ‘thank you’ as I heard Matt running up the stairs.

Matt

‘Lau? Lau?

Laura

There was terror in his voice, and I would have answered to reassure him if another contraction hadn’t taken my breath away. Instead of answering, I screamed.

Matt

Shit, I have never heard a worse sound in my life. It simultaneously stopped my blood in my veins and propelled me up the last few stairs and into the bedroom.

‘Lau!’

She was lying on her back on the bed, abdomen thrust upwards. Her eyes were open, she was panting and red-faced; sweat had dampened her hair and trickled down her face. She looked at me. She was alive. There was no blood or other gruesomeness. Oh thank you non-existent deities, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I threw myself on to the bed next to her so I could check her over, everywhere. I couldn’t speak, all I could do was whimper and look at Lau; all thoughts had fled as I tried to calm myself down and think straight. Lau spoke first.

Laura

Matt burst into the room and launched himself onto the bed next to me. I could smell the beer on him, but he didn’t seem drunk. He checked me over, as I got my breath back. Dec had followed him up and was standing in the doorway. Eventually I could speak.

‘I’m OK. Help me up.’

Matt

‘You didn’t answer your phone.’

I sounded like I was complaining, although I was trying for explaining, why I’d been so scared, why I was still shaking from the pounding heartbeats that wouldn’t stop.

Laura

‘It’s on the floor. Help me up.’

Matt

‘You screamed.’

Still trying to explain. I felt like I needed to tell her. I’d thought I was going to find her in a pool of blood, unconscious or … worse. Couldn’t name the worse that I’d thought she might be. Finding her merely pissed off, while a great relief, was taking a bit of getting my head round.

Laura

‘I was having a contraction. It bloody, fucking hurt. Help me up.’

Matt

‘Matt, I think you need to help her up …’

Dec was standing in the doorway, and now too many people were talking. I needed to take it in; maybe the beer was meddling with my thinking, maybe the fear was interfering with my lucidity. Lau was alive. She was OK. The adrenaline tsunami receded, but only slightly.

Laura

A look of relief was filtering into Matt’s expression as he realised I wasn’t dead. He didn’t seem to be realising much else, though.

Matt

‘Shit, Lau, when you didn’t answer, I thought … and then Dec couldn’t hear you any more … and I thought … I was terrified …’

Laura

‘Matt, if you don’t fucking well help me up I’m going to have these fucking babies right fucking here on the fucking designer duvet cover.’

God, swearing felt good. I should do it more often, I could really see the appeal. Matt just gaped at me, though, and made no move to do anything at all.

Matt

I stared at her with my mouth open in surprise. I’d been trying to explain, and Lau had just sworn at me. She’d said ‘fuck’ four times in one sentence. She never said ‘fuck’. I’d only been trying to explain.

Suddenly, Dec was behind Lau, kneeling behind her and pushing her up by her shoulders.

‘Grab her arms, Matt.’

Laura

At last, someone was listening to me. Matt continued to look at me as if I’d grown two heads, but pulled on my arms as Dec pushed me from behind. Between them, they pushed and tugged me into a sitting position.

Matt

I continued to stare at Lau, this woman I hardly seemed to know, who had said ‘fuck’ four times in one sentence and who I seemed to be in the shit with somehow, but I did as instructed by Dec and pulled Lau by the arms as Dec pushed from behind. Between us, we pushed and tugged her into a sitting position. As I stepped backwards, there was a loud crack from under my feet. I looked down and saw Lau’s phone, the screen shattered.

‘Oh fuck.

Now she had a reason to be pissed off.

Laura

He bent down and picked up my phone, which now sported a shattered screen. It was the least of my worries, but it seemed like the last straw for Matt, who had a stricken look on his face.

Matt

I picked it up and showed Lau, expecting a bollocking, but she hardly seemed to notice.

‘Lau, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see it, fuck, I’m such a –’

I thought the bollocking was on its way as Lau drew in a breath, but what came out was another inhuman scream. I backed away, taken aback by the intensity of it. Was this normal? Were people supposed to make noises like that when they weren’t being cut in half with a chainsaw?

‘Matt, we need to get going, these are really close together.’

Declan Summers, baby delivering expert, was going all ‘I know this shit’ on me, and I was surprised to find it was helping. He was staying calm, and thinking rationally.

‘Lau, can you stand, or is it an ambulance job?’

‘I can stand, if you help me.’

So Dec took charge, the only one of us who wasn’t either a) suffering from a temporary stress-and-alcohol-related depletion of functioning brain cells or b) about to give birth.

‘OK, then, Matt, you go one side, I’ll go the other, we’ll go as quickly as we can, let us know if you need to stop, to, you know, have a baby, or something.’

He laughed nervously, and took up his position by Lau’s right side. I stood on her left, and we took her arms and helped her to stand, as I hurriedly put the broken phone on the bedside table. Maybe now she’d let me buy her a new one like I’d been trying to do for ages. Maybe that would make her less pissed off with me. Maybe she’d be less pissed off with me if I, oh I don’t know, focus on the matter in hand, Matt. We walked together to the top of the stairs, but we weren’t all going to fit side by side on the way down. I looked at Dec, the newly appointed CEO of Common Sense Incorporated, to tell me what to do.

‘Here, Matt, let me. You go in front, walk down backwards, take her hands.’

I did as I was told, grateful for not having to think.

‘If you see anything that looks like a baby, catch it.’

I quickly glanced down, as if I expected to see a tiny person about to tumble to the floor, then looked back at Dec to see him grinning – the bastard was taking advantage of my inebriation and panic. I shot him an evil look, but he just laughed as he put his arm round Lau’s waist, and clamped her to his side

We made it half way down the stairs before the next contraction hit. As the pain convulsed through Lau, she nearly fell on top of me, and I saw why Dec had positioned us as he had; I’d never have held onto Lau, but his strong arms held her up. All I could do was squeeze Lau’s hands and offer her mental strength as she tried to breathe her way through it.

Laura

I almost couldn’t bear the worry and fear in Matt’s eyes, I already had enough for all of us, but we made it down the stairs together and out to the car before the next contraction nearly knocked me off my feet.

Matt

Again, Dec held Lau up, and once it had passed, he helped her into my car. Then he held his hand out to me. I wondered, briefly if he wanted to shake hands, and couldn’t work it out. I just looked at him, waiting for him to tell me what he wanted.

‘Er, keys?’

Of all the things that made it through the jumbled panic, it was this:

‘You’re not insured.’

In my defence, I loved my car, and Dec wasn’t the most careful of drivers. I know, not much of a defence.

‘Yeah, right, that matters. You’ve had how many pints? We’re really going to argue about this now? I’m not going to crash your bloody car, but you’re not going to bloody drive it. Keys, please.’

In the face of more firm decisiveness, I gave in and handed Dec the keys, getting into the back seat as Dec got into the driver’s seat. I leaned over and put my hand on Lau’s shoulder as she breathed heavily. She turned towards me and gave me a weak smile.

‘You’ll be OK Lau, just a quick trip now, angel.’

She was my angel, although I’d never called her that before. Just seemed like the right time to start with the pet names. Lau held my hand on her shoulder and laid her head against it as Dec started the car and reversed off the drive.

Laura

I held the hand on my shoulder and laid my head against it. Matt gripped my shoulder throughout the journey, although whether it was to reassure me, or as a reaction to Dec’s crunching gear changes and jerky braking, I wasn’t sure.

Matt

I may have gripped a little tighter every time Dec mangled the gears, which I’m sure he did more than was strictly necessary. We’d timed the route to the hospital, and at this time of night, it should only take twelve minutes. It felt more like twelve hours. Lau had more contractions on the way, and I could see her trying hard not to scream, so she didn’t make Dec crash the car, but failing spectacularly every time. Oh, not that Dec crashed the car, but shit, she was loud. Dec gritted his teeth and manfully didn’t drive into any lamp posts. In a lull, I called the maternity unit to let them know we were on our way.

‘They didn’t sound too bothered.’

‘They don’t do panic, mate, you’ll have to be there bloody hours before anyone looks even slightly interested.’

Dec’s laid back attitude, his aura of calm, his knowledge and experience, produced that same slightly disorienting sensation of flipping about, and him being the older of us, that I often encountered. It definitely helped having someone there who wasn’t wrapped in panic, was offering useful advice, and knew what he was talking about, built on having experienced this before. However, Lau was still in the middle of having our babies, and I wasn’t going to relax now until they had arrived safely, and all heads, fingers and toes were present and correct.

Laura

It was only twelve minutes to the hospital, we’d timed it; it was a weekday night, so there wasn’t much traffic around, and we made it in good time.

Matt

It felt like several decades passed before we finally arrived at the hospital. Dec stopped the car in the ambulance bay while I jumped out to find a wheelchair. Lau started to say she could walk, but as she patently couldn’t, or at least not without help from a crane, she shut up about it pretty quickly when I flung her a ‘don’t give me that shit’ look, modelled on the same one she usually tossed my way when I was being a particularly stubborn bastard.

Laura

I waited with Dec, panting, worrying, contracting. He looked at me and patted my hand.

‘We made it. Fucking hell, I thought we were going to be DIYing it for a minute there, Lau.’

‘Thanks, Dec. You’ve been brilliant.’

‘No worries. You’ll let us know, you know, what happens, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, course.’

Matt

I ran into the building, which seemed devoid of all life and all wheelchairs. Aren’t there usually piles of the bloody things cluttering up corners and getting in the way, but when you need one, can you find one? Can you find anyone to ask? Can you fuck. I dashed about in a manner similar to decapitated poultry, until I spotted someone who looked vaguely medical. I ran up to him.

‘Need a wheelchair.’

I was gasping for breath, sweaty, red-faced and smelt like a brewery, but to his credit, he stopped and looked at me. I don’t know who he was, could have been a porter, or a brain surgeon. Whatever, he had the answer I needed.

‘Just down the corridor, there’s an alcove on the left … see it?’

I looked. ‘No.’

‘It’s got a curtain in front of it.’

I ran off in the direction of the curtain, chucking a ‘cheers’ over my shoulder as I did so. What a bloody stupid place to put wheelchairs, where no one can see them. They were much better when they got in everyone’s way, all piled up; at least you could bloody well see where they were.

I opened the wheelchair up and ran, pushing it, back to the car, where Dec had opened the door and helped Lau to swing her legs out. I reached the car door just as another contraction hit. There was screaming, and we waited for it to subside, because by now there had been so much bloody screaming that it was just a mild inconvenience rather than a reason to rush about like a maniac, then Dec and I helped Lau out of the car, while having a discussion about what to do with said car.

Much as I didn’t really want Dec driving it on his own, if he didn’t take it back, he was going to have to call a taxi. So I reluctantly let him take it home, and we agreed to be in touch tomorrow about it. Shit, tomorrow, when I was going to be a bloody father. Shit.

Lau must have remembered the overnight bag we’d stashed in the boot, only the other day, laughing at ourselves at how ridiculously over-prepared we were being. She held the bag on her lap as I started to push the wheelchair along the corridor; it seemed like an anchor of sense and organisation in the middle of this chaos.

I was suddenly overcome with guilt about not being there when Lau needed me, about being the sole cause of all the panic. If only I hadn’t been such a selfish dick, I’d have been there, we would have been here by now, it would all have happened much more sedately. I stopped the chair and knelt down beside Lau, pushing her sweaty hair back from her forehead, looking into her beautiful eyes.

‘Sorry I was out, Lau. Shit, I was so fucking scared.’

‘Me too.’ She took my hand. ‘Thanks for coming back.’

Oh I so didn’t deserve thanks.

‘I should think so too, you made me miss the stripper.’

‘I’ll strip for you later, if you like, to make up for it.’

I smiled at her.

‘Fuck yeah, Lau, can’t wait. You daft bat. Whoa, this is it, isn’t it.’

‘Yeah, flower, this is it. No going back. Tomorrow, or maybe later today, we’ll be parents.’

‘Holy shit. Sorry, just need to get a few swears out of my system before they come.’

‘Well maybe you’d – oh fucking ow!’

And I wasn’t the only one getting swears out of my system. Lau squeezed my hand so hard I seriously thought she might break a bone, but there was no way I was letting go, as another contraction gripped her. I stroked her hair and kissed her as she breathed through the pain, then we needed to get cracking and find the front desk, to get booked in.

All the bad words coming out of Lau’s mouth were making me feel a bit strange.

‘I can’t get used to you saying ‘fuck’, Lau. I mean, obviously, do what you need to, I’m sure ih’s bloody agony, but it’s just weird.’

‘Get used to it, it feels like there’s plenty more where that came from before the night is over. I suspect I’ll direct some of them at you.’

Plenty of people, Dec included, had warned me that the mildest-mannered women turned into potty-mouthed harridans in the face of the pain of labour and birth.

‘OK. Noted. But for the record, you said ih four times in one sentence back at home. I will be charging it to your account, and using it in my defence for years to come.’

We reached the desk, where I got shirty with the nurse there on account of all the bloody forms we had to fill in. I was trying to keep a lid on it, but I just wanted to scream ‘my wife’s having contractions, like, thirty seconds apart, don’t ask me my fucking religion, I’d believe in green flying teddy bears who live in caves at the bottom of the ocean now if it would make you help Lau‘. But I restrained myself, having learned in my time that in certain situations – one of them being when faced with a nurse who holds the metaphorical key to the figurative door behind which your babies lie – going off on one tends to delay things rather than speed them up.

Laura

We reached the desk, where there was the obligatory paperwork to complete, but as another contraction swept over me, and Matt explained how quickly they had been coming, I was whisked down to a delivery room, where I was examined almost immediately and declared nine centimetres dilated. It was always hard to be precise, but it wasn’t going to take much longer, from what I could tell.

Matt

Eventually, Lau had another contraction, the nurse started taking us seriously, and she was quickly whisked off to a delivery room, with me in tow and taking fifth or sixth place in the pecking order behind Lau, a couple of doctors, a midwife and some nurses. Actually, I put Lau top of that list, but I think at least the doctors were ahead of her.

The long and short of it seemed to be that they were a bit worried about Lau’s history of high blood pressure, and were thinking about a caesarian, but the babies seemed to be well positioned for a natural birth and they were going to go with that.

Laura

I had decided, well before I was in the grip of the excruciating pain that came with giving birth, that unless it was medically necessary, I wasn’t going to have any medication, no epidural, I wanted to experience everything. In light of the excruciating pain, I was rapidly rethinking this, but had left it too late. They gave me gas and air, which helped, and left us alone for a while.

Matt

I sat beside her, holding her hand, sweating, worrying, listening to her scream and swear more often than I ever want to again. I talked nonsense, told her I loved her, put my hand on her swollen belly and told the Philpottses I loved them, stroked her hair, fetched ice and wiped her forehead, feeling like none of it was doing any good, and feeling helpless.

Laura

I could see Matt felt really guilty for leaving me alone so he could go out, and then having had too much to drink to help me himself. I tried to reassure him, in-between yelling obscenities at him.

‘Don’t beat yourself up, flower, we’re here, it’s all OK.’

‘Why did I have to go out? I should have known.’

‘How could you know? I didn’t have a clue. I thought I had indigestion.’

‘Ha ha, really? You’re supposed to be a bloody nurse.’

‘See? You couldn’t have – oh holy mother of fuck! What have you fucking done to me you bastard?’

Matt

The contractions were coming in increasingly more rapid waves, now. After another examination, Lau was told to push. They were still keeping an eye on Lau’s blood pressure, ready to whisk her off to theatre if some arbitrary number was reached, but suddenly, a huge push, and an enormous scream from Lau, ending in, ‘aaaaaaah fuck, oh fuck, oh you fucking, arsing aaaaiiiiiieeeeaaah’ seemed to be getting things seriously moving along.

Laura

In the end, Philpotts One made his own mind up. The contractions seemed to join together in a huge assault on my abdomen, overtaking me in one gigantic urge to push down, push out. Matt held my hand and breathed with me; I have no recollection of what I shouted, but it was probably fairly profane. I had never felt pain like it. I had let Beth and Amy fool me with their ‘oh it doesn’t hurt that much’. It actually felt like two people were fighting to rip their way out of my insides. I’d had bad period pains, and everyone – everyone – told me it wouldn’t be much worse. This was worse. MUCH WORSE.

Three more large shouts later, and the nurse announced that head and shoulders were visible. She asked Matt if he wanted to watch, but he shook his head.

Matt

We had decided, in the spirit of ‘only do what we can both do’, that as Lau wouldn’t have the same viewing angle, we’d both stay upstairs, as it were. I was feeling decidedly weird, everything seemed to be catching up with me, I was sweating, going hot and cold, and totally freaking out, worried to death that something terrible was going to happen at the last minute and I would be helpless to do anything to prevent it.

Laura

It was the right decision; he already looked pale and clammy, and I wasn’t sure how well he was coping, although he was supporting me incredibly well.

Two more huge pushes, a surge of emotion that took me by surprise, and I felt the first baby slip out of me. He was picked up, the cord was cut, he cried, which made me want to hold him forever, they cleaned him up, wrapped him up and gave him to me, as I looked at him through my tears. Oh yeah, he was a boy. Our son. Blimey.

Matt

And then suddenly, there he was. My son. He just seemed to slip out, and he was … there. He cried, which made Lau whimper and reach for him, they wiped some of the baby goop off him, wrapped him in a blanket and gave him to Lau, who had tears rolling down her face as she looked at him.

God, he was – I’m supposed to say beautiful, right? To be honest, he was covered in baby crap and was all red and wrinkled, so aesthetically, not the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed, but he was my son, God, he was my son, and for that he was the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed.

‘Fuuucking hell, Lau. Here he is. Oh, damn, I mean, fliiipping heck.’

I was genuinely annoyed with myself for swearing, but Lau didn’t seem to notice. She probably felt like such an old hand now, that she was going to let all sorts of language pass unremarked upon.

Laura

He looked genuinely annoyed with himself for swearing. I’d hardly noticed, the air in my immediate vicinity having been bright blue for some time. The nurse coughed apologetically, then spoke.

‘Sorry, Laura, but we need to get going on the next one, love.’

Oh, yes, I was going to have to do this all over again. I suddenly felt exhausted. I wanted to curl up with this tiny bundle and just love him, but now I had to go through all that pain and sweating and shouting once more.

Matt

Just for a second, Lau looked like she didn’t think she could do it all again. She was exhausted, but I saw her look at our boy and remember that we still needed our girl.

‘Do you want Dad to hold him, or do you want us to pop him in the incubator for a bit?’

It sounded a bit like they could put him on defrost, and he’d be just fine. No way was he going in some plastic box when he could be in my arms. Lau looked at me, and I couldn’t read what was going on inside her – some kind of battle. Maybe she didn’t want to let go of him.

Laura

I looked at Matt. I really wanted Matt to hold my hand, but I didn’t want the baby to be put in a plastic box when he had his dad to cuddle him.

‘Can you hold him, Matt?’

He nodded, tearing up again, and took him from me as I got ready to scream again, feeling the wave of cramping start from within me, as my daughter got ready to be born.

Matt

This was the single most important moment of my life so far. I was going to hold my son. I took him from Lau as she revved up the fuckometer and got ready for round two, although I hardly noticed what Lau was up to for several minutes as I gazed down at this new tiny person who was made of bits of me and bits of Lau, all stuck together in the shape of a tiny bundle of perfection.

The next one took about another fifteen minutes to arrive, and then there we were, a baby each in our arms. A son and a daughter. It felt huge, impossibly enormous, that these tiny beings were ours, our children.

We grinned at each other like loonies, until the girl started crying, and set her brother off, and although we hadn’t finally decided on names, making them stop crying seemed more important right now, so Lau fed them, both at the same time, and again I felt a tiny twinge of jealousy, as I would never know what it felt like to feed your child from your own body, but seeing Lau do it was awesome, and I just felt such love, for these three people, the most important people I would ever have in my life.

Laura

We hadn’t decided on names, we’d talked about it, but come to the conclusion that until we met them, we wouldn’t know who they were, and so they were just ‘he’ and ‘she’ for now. This was unsatisfactory, and felt wrong, and we needed to choose names as soon as possible, but when she started crying, it seemed like making her feel better was more important than giving her a name, and then her brother cried too, and the nurse suggested I try giving them a feed, and as they both suckled, held in my arms, I felt such an overwhelming surge of love for them that, at that moment, and for all the remaining moments of my life, I would have walked through fire, climbed a mountain, braved a torrent, fought an army, laid down my life for them. I had never known love like it. I would protect these tiny lives with my own and beyond. I looked at Matt, and saw that he felt it too.

Matt

Lau looked down at them as if she wanted to imprint their faces directly into her eyes, as if she wasn’t going to see them every day of her life for the foreseeable. At that moment, there was nothing on this earth I wouldn’t have done to make them all feel safe and loved; I’d protect them with my life, and give them whatever they needed. I looked at Lau, and knew that she felt it too, and we have never stopped feeling that way about these two remarkable tiny people.

Not long afterwards, Lau was wheeled into a private room. It was, I think, the same room where I’d met Charlie for the first time, and it seemed appropriate that the place where it had all started was the place where, after a madcap couple of years, it had kind of finished. Here I was, having fulfilled my desire, the thing that had stopped me in my tracks, that I thought at one stage I would never have. A family. Me, Lau, and our children. The four of us.

We cuddled one each, Lau lying in bed, dozing, me just grinning like a crazy person. I couldn’t take my eyes off any of them; the babies were tiny and perfect, and once they’d been fed, they slept, breathing quickly and softly, moving a bit, snuffling. Everything they did was fascinating to me, and I said ‘I can’t believe it’ quite a lot.

It was true, I couldn’t believe it, that these two perfect beings were mine, that it was down to Lau and me to protect them forever, that the universe had given them to us – yeah, I know, my non-belief status was taking a bit of a battering. It just all seemed so … meant to be. No getting away from it. I wasn’t going to examine that in any way, just let it all kind of mooch around in my head until I had the time or the inclination to consider it.

In the meantime, there were a couple of babies who we couldn’t just keep on calling ‘him’ and ‘her’, and Lau and I started giving it some serious consideration.

45. Love shoulda brought you home

In which there may be trouble in paradise.

Cal

Then term started and I went back to my old school. I’d only missed Mrs Barnfield’s year, so it didn’t matter, because Mrs Barnfield was shouty, and this year was Mr Taylor, who told jokes and knew how to draw cartoons. And I was going to surprise Jake.

On the first day of school, I got out of bed as soon as Mum woke me up, and I put my school uniform on with a growing sense of excitement. My school was really near, and Mum and I always walked there, although Dec had walked me a few times when I first went, before Mrs Barnfield’s class. Today was different from how it used to be, because we had Iz with us. Mum was pushing her buggy, and some other mums were very interested, and we all walked to school together.

I kept a look out for Jake all the way, because sometimes he walked along the same path, but sometimes his mum or his brother drove him. I didn’t see Jake, but I did see Thomas Dabbs and Carly Binker, and we said hello, as if it was just yesterday we’d been in the same class. Mum talked to their mums as we walked, and explained a bit about moving away and then moving back, and said about Uncle Matty, but not about Dec, and they talked a lot about Iz, and Thomas and Carly and I smiled at each other. Thomas had a badge on his coat that said ‘7 Today!’, so it must be his birthday, and I wondered if he was having a party, and if I’d missed the invitation because no one knew I was back at school.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you having a party?’

‘Yes, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

A Dinosaurland party? I so had to wangle myself an invite.

‘Who’s going?’

‘Billy, Artie, Rhys and Joe.’

Thomas’s mum must have heard what we were saying.

‘Artie’s mum just texted me, Thomas, Artie’s not very well, so he can’t come. Oh, Cal, maybe you’d like to go?’

Well was that lucky or what? I looked up at Mum, hoping she wasn’t going to think of an excuse. I didn’t know Thomas that well, but we had played football in the playground sometimes, and Jake and I had swapped Pokémon cards with him a few times.

‘What do you say, Cal? Thank you, Sue, that sounds lovely. You like Dinosaurland, don’t you Cal?’

Well I’m sure I would if I’d ever been – so far I’d only seen the car park. But if this was what being back at my school was like, things were looking pretty good. I nodded and smiled more broadly at Thomas.

By the time we got to my school, I still hadn’t seen Jake, but there were loads of children in the playground. Jake was often one of the last to get to school, sometimes after the bell had gone, and Mum always made sure I was there early, so I wasn’t surprised not to see him. I stayed with Thomas and we went to get a ball from Mrs Nugent, who was playground teacher that morning.

After we’d been playing football for a while, and a few more people had joined in, I heard my name being shouted.

‘Cal!’

I heard running footsteps, and I turned round. Jake was running towards me, his school bag open, pens and paper flying out of it. He had the biggest smile on his face, and he was running so fast I thought he wasn’t going to stop, and he’d bang into me. But he stopped just as he reached me, and we stood grinning at each other. If we’d been grown-ups we might have had a cuddle, but we were six, and so we just got on with playing football, after saying hello in our own way:

‘Are you back for good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Cool. You can sit next to me. Let’s play football.’

And that was all it needed to click into place. It looked like Ewan Donohue had been Jake’s friend while I was away, but Ewan was really friends with Daniel Bosworth, and they didn’t like football, so I slotted back in nicely.

Before that first day was over, Jake had got in trouble with Mr Taylor for talking while we were supposed to be doing sums, and then he got in trouble for not having a pen, because all his pens had fallen out in the playground when he ran over to see me, and then he got in trouble for tipping his chair back until it fell over.

Matt

A few weeks before Christmas, I got a job. GreenScreen were a small IT consultancy firm looking to expand, and they felt similar to Eyeti. I sent them my CV, got an interview and got the job. Simple as that. They were aware, or rather, the manager was aware, that I was recovering from the bastard MS, and agreed to part time hours, with flexibility should I need it in the future, and also agreed not to share my health status with anyone else. My reference from Eyeti must have been good enough to convince him I was worth the risk. Even on part time hours, I was earning enough to buy a flat, having a pretty healthy savings account, and by then Iz really needed her own room – not that anyone was saying it, but I knew. So just before Christmas, I moved out, moved in and started my new life proper, without a spouted cup, a baby monitor or a wheelchair in sight.

That’s not to say Beth didn’t still feel the need to call me all the time to check I was OK, but I let her get on with it, and I went round there loads, because Beth’s Sunday roasts were legendary, and OK, because I missed them, alright? And just after Christmas, Mum moved down. She couldn’t stay away from Iz, and was spending more time visiting than she was living in her own home, so she sold that big old house of memories, and got a much smaller place, with a spare room for the odd sleepover, but which was a lot more manageable for someone who doesn’t get about as well as they used to.

Cal

Having Jake nearby, getting in trouble, made everything seem right. I hated getting in trouble, but Jake never seemed to care, and to me he appeared brave and fearless. He’d had some pretty wild schemes, like climbing the tree in the playground to see if we could see his house, even though there was a fence round the tree; or trying to sneak into the office at break to set the bell off; or mixing up people’s lunch boxes so they got the wrong sandwiches. I hardly ever did any of these things, because I was too scared of what Mum would say, and usually if I didn’t do it, Jake wouldn’t either, but sometimes he’d just go ahead anyway, and I’d be the lookout, like in a film.

Dec

SIX MONTHS AFTER IZ IS BORN

>Hey Declan.

‘Hi Nico. Are you and Lis around one day this week – I’d like to take you out to dinner.’

>Ha, we are around for taking out to dinners, for sure. Is a reason?

‘It’s my last payment on your loan. I want to say thanks.’

>Oh! Huh. I don’t realise this. Yeah, sure. I know we are busy tomorrow but Wednesday is good. Where we go?

‘Well, I thought about that new place near the cinema, it’s supposed to be really good.’

>Ha, and expensive. You need another loan to pay!

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll try and get us a table.’

>Thank you, Declan, we like this. Is no need, but we like to eat fancy dinner and not pay.

Matt

Julia started at GreenScreen at the same time as me, having been part of the same recruitment drive, and I noticed her straight away, who wouldn’t, she was bloody gorgeous, and she was really upfront, didn’t bullshit anyone about anything, and I really liked that. Really liked it. But she always had this air of ‘touch me not’ about her, and to start with, in my newly found ‘I can have anyone’ state of mind, I didn’t want to get turned down. So l left her to her own devices, and played around with the temps, the admin staff, the business grads, each one adding another layer of veneer.

Cal

I know Mum despaired of my friendship with Baggo. His older brothers meant he was much more worldly wise than me, and his mum worked a lot, so he was often at home with just one or other of his brothers to look after him. They weren’t what you would call disciplinarians, and mostly just wanted Jake to be quiet and keep out of their way, so he did what he liked until his mum came home. Mum never let me go there to play if Jake’s mum was out, not after the time we got our own tea, which consisted of crisps, Jaffa cakes, ice cream and nearly a whole two litre bottle of cola between us, and I was sick in the car on the way home, and again on the drive when we got home, and again in the kitchen on my way to the toilet to be sick again.

Matt

I fucked around like nobody’s business, sometimes a different woman every week, sometimes more than one every week. I got myself a bit of a reputation – some of it was deserved, as I was a bit of a bastard, I see that now, and some of it a whole sack of shit that people made up about me. But I suppose that’s the price of a reputation, that it gets added to and gets out of your control.

Cal

There was never a dull moment with Baggo around. He was always in trouble for something, but it didn’t stop him trying anything, always seeing what excitement could be got from any situation. He wasn’t bad – he didn’t do shoplifting or glue-sniffing or get into fights or anything – he just couldn’t bear to be bored, and would do things to spice up dull times.

I think we complement each other, even now. Nowadays, I’m the settled family man, he’s the rogueish bachelor, different woman every time I see him; when we were seven, he was always wanting to do things that would get him in trouble, and I was always trying to persuade him not to for fear of being in the same trouble. If we hadn’t been friends, I might have been less adventurous, and Baggo might have been more reckless. I shudder to think.

Matt

So, yeah, I’d go to clubs, and parties, and I’d home in on the younger, faker ones, and, yes, I know how this sounds, I was such a tosser back then, but as I said, I was angry and hurting, and felt like I was owed something, and it was payback in a way, but I’d try to make sure the ones I chose weren’t the ones who were going to go all weepy and clingy when I left without cuddling them shortly afterwards, but sometimes I got that wrong, and she’d seemed all young and fake, but I broke her heart.

But I suppose I didn’t much care, back then. I was making my reputation as Matt Scott, party animal, and I can’t say why, I wouldn’t say I’m a particular looker – I’ve always seen a skinny nerd looking out of the mirror at me – but I was a bit of a prize. I sound like such an arrogant arsehole, even now, even to myself, but for a while, in certain undiscerning circles, if you ended up with Matt Scott, that was it, top of the tree, job done.

I can’t believe that Lau was there at some of those parties, in some of those clubs. I can’t believe that I might have walked right past her and not known her, I just can’t believe I didn’t notice her; how could I ever have not noticed her? I’m surprised she even spoke to me when I finally … but anyway, I’m getting all out of sequence. This is the Jules part of my story, or it will be in a bit if you’re patient.

Cal

I can’t remember exactly when everyone started calling Jake ‘Baggo’. It was definitely before we went to big school. His brothers both had nicknames: Michael was ‘Troops’ because he’d been in the Army, and Harry was ‘Wheels’ because he had loads of cars that he was always doing up.

Baggo was a lot younger than his brothers, who both still lived at home. We would sneak into their rooms when they were out and look at their stuff, and Baggo often found things that blew my mind, like magazines with ladies in with no clothes on, and cigarettes, and funny things on their computers with swears on them. Sometimes one of his brothers would come home while we were still in his room, and Baggo would get shouted at, and I’d try to make myself look invisible, but Baggo would just stand there grinning, and the shouting would stop, and he’d get a punch on the shoulder, but not hard, and he’d be let off, and we’d scuttle out and giggle.

Actually, thinking about it, Baggo’s brothers were often the reason we got in trouble, however indirectly. Sometimes it was because one of us repeated something we’d heard, or Jake brought something that belonged to them to school, like a lighter, or playing cards with naked ladies on them, or, once, a chocolate brownie that made us giggle a lot when we shared it at lunch. Usually the contraband would be discovered because Baggo couldn’t help showing off about it, and a teacher would push their way through the crowd that had gathered, and confiscate the penknife, copy of Playboy or firework, and then he’d be in trouble not only with the school and his mum, but with whichever brother he’d ‘borrowed’ the item from as well.

I’m not sure how I remained so uncorrupted. I love Baggo, he’s the best mate a bloke could have, and although I’ve done a fair amount of bailing him out, once literally when he got so rat-arsed that he didn’t realise the bloke he was bad-mouthing for getting in his way outside a club was a copper, well Baggo has been there for me plenty of times too. I can really talk to him, the way I can’t talk to anyone else. He’s a lad, the laddest of lads, and I wouldn’t trust any female member of my family with him for five minutes, but he gets me, and I get him, and we have talked, long into the night sometimes, about deep shit.

Dec

The Rugby Paper

Quick’s Q&A

John Quick shoots quick-fire questions at one of the rugby world’s up and coming young players. This week: Declan Summers, Raiders.

JQ: Declan, how’s the season going so far?

DS: It’s been fantastic so far, both for me and Raiders. Top of the Premiership at this stage is amazing, and to have played in so many games is awesome for me personally.

JQ: You had a tricky time a couple of years back, when problems with your passport caused Raiders to be deducted points and miss out on a top four spot. Have you been able to put that behind you?

DS: I had some fantastic support from the club and from my family then. It was a tough time, but I got the help I needed. The Raiders supporters have been immense, I owe them a lot. I’m not sure it will ever be completely behind me; I learned a lot of life lessons that still help me today.

JQ: Such as?

DS: Well, it’s important to talk to people about how you’re feeling, it’s important to keep your club informed about what’s going on with you personally. Everything you do affects someone else, and affects how you play. You can’t do things on your own. You need to stay mentally strong too.

JQ: It was well publicised that Jay Scott left Raiders when the news broke of your suspension. How did you greet his return as assistant coach?

DS: It was great news. Scotty is an excellent coach, Raiders really missed him while he was away. The whole squad benefits from his expertise and coaching style.

JQ: Your suspension meant you couldn’t play for Raiders until the beginning of last season. How did you cope with that?

DS: The club made sure I was involved with training and coaching to maintain my skills and fitness as part of the squad. Not playing for Raiders was hard, once I was fit again, but I was recovering from injuries until the April, so I wouldn’t have played until nearly the end of the season anyway. Being dual registered with Trojans was a fantastic opportunity to regain some match fitness, and being part of their push for promotion was hugely exciting.

JQ: The autumn internationals aren’t far away, and the squads are due to be announced soon. How would it feel to be included for the Wallabies?

DS: To play for Australia would be immense, it’s a bit of a dream of mine, but I have no illusions – it’s a tough squad to get into, and I’m based in England. I’m still young, and there’s plenty of time for that. I’d be over the moon to get the call though.

JQ: Some pundits are comparing you to a young Brian O’Driscoll. Do comparisons like that affect your game?

DS: No, I just play how I play, there’s no point thinking about it. It’s flattering to read, but I haven’t consciously modelled myself on any one player. I try to incorporate the things I admire about lots of great players into my game.

JQ: Who are your rugby heroes?

DS: There are so many. Nico Tiago is someone I’ve always looked up to, as a player and a person, although he’ll get even more big-headed if I tell him that. All the big names you might think – Hill, Fofana, Shoemark, Roberts, certainly O’Driscoll. You can learn from anyone, you just have to watch their game and pick things up.

JQ: We hear you have had something in your personal life to celebrate recently. Care to share?

DS: (Laughs) How the [expletive deleted] did you know that? Hardly anyone knows! Yes, I just got engaged to Amy. I guess we’re going to have to tell her parents now!

JQ: Congratulations Declan, and good luck for the rest of the season.

DS: Thanks.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Rugby Paper.

RadarRaider: Here’s a link to the Quick Q&A in today’s TRP. Summers has had some stick on here over the last year or so, I hold my hands up, I didn’t think Raiders should have kept him on, felt pretty let down by the whole business. He sounds like he’s learned his lesson and tried to make up for it. He’s certainly played well enough so far this season to earn his place – seems to have stepped up a notch since all the trouble. If we’d lost him to Trojans, that could have come back to bite us with them doing so well in the Prem this year. Just saying, maybe he’s served his time and some of us lot should cut him some slack.

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Totally agree RR. Don and the club obviously gave it some serious consideration, Summers seemed apologetic enough at the time, and that court case around the assault can’t have helped him. He was only a kid, must have been tough. Accept and move on. I’ve met him a couple of times in the bar after a game, always very pleasant, takes time to talk, take photos, autographs. Can’t deny he always gives his all for Raiders on and off the pitch, he’s involved in coaching the youth team and you always see him in the photos of the community and charity stuff. We wouldn’t still be top if it wasn’t for his tackle on Tupovi at Warriors last week.

YoHoHo: Still don’t think he should even be playing for Raiders. Yes, he’s made a contribution, but look what he lost us. We’d have been top four that season if he hadn’t cost us those ten points. Who knows, could have been Champions the way we were playing. We only just scraped into the HC. There are plenty of other centres out there, plenty of others coming up from the Academy. Not sure his face fits.

Cap’nBirdseye: Sorry, but served his time, cut him some slack? Not on your life. Wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Might do if he wasn’t though.

RadarRaider: Always nice to see people forgiving and forgetting(!). I suppose no one here has ever done anything they wish they hadn’t and tried to make amends? I personally think Summers’ contribution at the end of last season and beginning of this shows his commitment to the club. Hope he doesn’t move on at the end of this season – his contract’s up. Wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction of some of the supporters decided him. Can’t believe some people still boo when his name is read out on match days.

Matt

So, I started at GreenScreen, and Julia was there, but we were in different teams, and there was this kind of rivalry going on, which Phil, the manager, liked to play on, because it helped with morale and helped to get the work done better, quicker, happier. So I hardly spoke to Julia, because she kept herself to herself, and her team to her team, and she had this kind of frigid – no that’s unfair – she had this kind of cold and detached manner, which made some of the juniors call her the Ice Queen.

I was the opposite, I was Matt the Lad, I did football with the guys, I saw the girls at the weekends in clubs, I flirted, I bed-hopped like a baddun, I’d had most of the business grads, I was nothing if not a team player.

As time went on and it became harder to actually find anyone at work who I hadn’t slept with at one time or another, I did slow down a bit, and there were some who lasted a few weeks, a month even, as I realised that I was going to run out of available women before too long.

But they’d always have to go, in the end, because she’d start thinking we had ‘something special’, just because I’d taken her round to Jay’s, or held her hand, or talked about plans for mid-week. I didn’t want something special, I wanted to be an excellent no-strings lay, I wanted those cracks covered up so well that I forgot they were there.

Dec

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Declan Summers renews contract

RadarRaider: At last! Can’t believe it took so long for them to agree terms. Surely Summs is first name on the list. Great news. Only a year, though, obviously everyone keeping their options open. Looks like we’ll all be biting our nails again next season.

Raiderette: Woohoo! Have been waiting for this news for weeks. I heard he was talking to Warriors, but they’ve got Elliott and Trancher, can’t see him being first choice ahead of England internationals.

WestStandRaider: What a relief, well done Declan. Don’t know where we’d have been without him this season. His tackling has been immense, don’t know if anyone’s got the stats, he hasn’t missed many, he’s our top try scorer and he’s an animal in defence. He links up really well with Boydy too.

YoHoHo: Reckon we could do better. Wasn’t Astley available from Royals? Don seems to back away from big signings. Reckon Jay Scott still has a lot to do with team selection when it comes to Summers.

WestStandRaider: Yohoho, I can’t believe you’re still on this track. Yes, we all know there’s some kind of family connection with Scotty and Summs, it happens all over the place, remember Pete and Justin Farley at TomCats? Bill Witton and Jack Gooding for England? They’re professional enough not to let it matter. Don would never let it get in the way of team selection or team performance. Summs has done well enough this season to put to bed all this nonsense. He’s in the team because he’s good enough.

Matt

I often got pretty wasted, liking the beer maybe a bit too much for my own good. Mr Summers was usually the one whose number was top of my contacts list and who, even in my most drunken of stupors, I knew how to call. He rescued me many, many times when he should have been tucked up in bed either saving his strength for running around a rugby pitch like a lunatic, or ravishing his girlfriend. But more frequently than he should have been happy with, the early hours of Sunday morning would find him woken up by an incoherent call.

‘Hey maaaaate. You know I fuuuucking looove you right?’

‘Matt, it’s two fucking thirty. Where the fuck are you?’

‘Dunno. Just been kicked offa bloody train. Bastards. Kicked me offabloodytrain they did.’

‘What train?’

‘Dunno. Oh, I’ll ask ‘snice man. Hey mate, where issis? … He says Brissle.’

‘Oh fucking hell, Matt. What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in fucking Bristol?’

‘Dunno. Can’t ‘member. Think I wuz … wuz I gonna go Stafford? Dunno.’

‘Why the fuck were you going to Stafford?’

‘Dunno. Oh! Wassit a bet? Might be a bet. Might have lost. Oh fuck it, can’t ‘member.’

‘Why did you get kicked off the train?’

‘Los my wallet. Dint havva ticket. No cash, ana bit pissed.’

A silence. A sigh.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Brissle. Man said. Jus tol you.’

‘There are two stations in Bristol. Parkway or Temple Meads?’

‘Wha the fuck? Dunno.’

‘Are there any signs anywhere?’

‘Wha? Wha signs?’

‘Bloody enormous ones saying the name of the fucking station.’

‘Dunno. Everthin’s fuckin blurry.’

Another sigh, longer and louder.

‘OK. Stay where you are. Have you got that, Matt? Don’t move from the station, I’ll come and get you, but it’ll take me at least an hour and a bit, longer if you’re not at the first station I try. Don’t move, yeah?’

‘Oh maaate. You’re bloody brilliant, you are. Bes mate a bloke could have. I bloody looooove you, I do.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Just stay put.’

That was the sort of thing that Declan Charles Summers put up with from me, for more years than I had a right to expect. To my knowledge, his saintly girlfriend never voiced a word of complaint, or if she did I never got to hear about it, and although there were a few times when I did my share of helping him out of tricky situations, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for that time when I seemed to be pressing the self-destruct button on a regular basis.

Dec

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

1 0 2

TWEETS FOLLOWING FOLLOWERS

Tweets

Declan Summers @summs12 1 Apr

Hello World. I’ve given in and joined Twitter. It’s not an April Fool. #amazeme

#whichbuttonsdoipressagain

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 1 Apr

Welcome to Twitter, Declan. #raidersfamily #enjoytheride #pushmybuttons

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 1 Apr

About bleeding time. Follow me. #notneedy #maybealittlebit

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Matt

But back to GreenScreen and how it all happened with Jules. It hadn’t occurred to me until it was too late, having my rep and all, that someone like Julia wouldn’t want to be with someone like I was trying to be.

I realised after we’d both been there a few months that we were both playing a role to some extent. I wasn’t nearly as much of a lad as I made out, but it made things easier in my team to make a big thing of the weekend, to party as hard as they did, to be one of them.

Julia wasn’t nearly as icy as she wanted everyone to think she was, but she did a good job of pretending, too, and most people didn’t see through it.

But anyway, a lot of my reputation was deserved, and I’d seen the look on Julia’s face when she heard tales of my exploits being bandied around as fact on a Monday morning, although half of it was complete bollocks. I was sure that if I’d ever been in with a chance with her, I’d pretty much burnt my bridges.

So I carried on with the shagging around, left a string of broken hearts in my wake, get me the big ‘I Am’, what a self-absorbed fucking gobshite wanker I was. Maybe it was payback, revenge, whatever you’d like to call it for dealing with what happened with Carrie. But those women didn’t deserve to be treated like shit. They didn’t deserve me using them to teach someone a lesson who wasn’t even in the same classroom. And after a while, this began to occur to me, and I started to think about what I was doing, and wondering who the fuck I thought I was, and I took a long hard look at myself and had a huge laugh at the douche canoe who was looking back. This was a slow process; I was enjoying myself, I can’t deny it, and despite my growing misgivings, I didn’t want to stop.

While all of that was going on, all the partying, all the working, all the feeling fucking normal for the first time in what felt like a very long time, I was still doing all the family stuff, seeing Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, watching the kids grow up, enjoying being cool Uncle Matty, who dished out chocolate, allowed inappropriate TV programmes and said bad swears when Mummy and Daddy weren’t looking.

I kept an eye on Mum, and I suppose she kept an eye on me too. Dec and I continued our mismatched friendship, he remaining the more mature of us by a whisker, and by dint of having a proper grown-up relationship. He asked Amy to marry him about a year after they got together in Jay’s kitchen, but no wedding plans were forthcoming, despite Beth and Rose’s best persuasive efforts.

Dec

_Hi Dec, tell me if I’m interfering, but have you got anything organised for Amy’s twenty first?

‘What? No! It’s not for ages yet.’

_Well, theoretically, but if you’re going to book anything, I don’t know, a weekend away for example, it’s in the middle of summer and things get full up pretty far in advance. I didn’t know if you were planning a party or anything, venues get pretty busy in the summer too.

‘Oh fuck. I’m so bloody useless, you know what I’m like. I hadn’t given it a thought.’

_I thought you might not have, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, prepared.

‘What should I do? If I’d thought about it at all, I would have gone ‘quick trip to the jewellery shop and a slap up meal’. Do I need to think bigger, then?’

_Ha ha, no clues from me, you need to work it out for yourself. I’m happy to help with the details, but it’ll mean so much more if you’ve thought of it on your own.

‘Beth! You can’t just drop this on me and leave me to it. I’ll only cock it all up. You did such an amazing job with my party … please?’

_Give it a go, sweetheart, you’ll do better than you think.

Matt

Oh, Rose! How could I forget about Rose? Dec had mentioned her that Christmas, as the person he’d held on to when he was in his own dark pit, but I didn’t actually meet her until I moved down here. Dec and Rose were kind of a package, now. Dec’s parents died when he was pretty young, and when he fell out with Jay and Beth, Rose kind of filled the gap and helped him through some tough times.

Dec didn’t really do relationships in the same way us normal people did, at least not family relationships. There was no name for what he had with Jay and Beth, and in the same way there was no name for what he had with Rose. The easiest way to describe it is she was like a mother to him, and she did mother him, but it was more than that. Your mum doesn’t choose you, she’s stuck with you because she’s your mum. With Dec and Rose, there was an unspoken recognition that they had chosen each other somehow, and although he hadn’t needed her in that way for a long time, they still needed each other.

So Rose was absorbed into the family too, and having the same interfering gene as Beth, she meddled in everyone’s lives, much as your annoying aunty might do. She put up with teasing and grumbling, and downright rudeness from me when she got too free with her advice about how to keep a woman, but she was a permanent fixture. And she was really good friends with Mum. They were polar opposites in outlook, personality and experience, but they both loved cooking, and they both adored their families, which overlapped in some convoluted way, and they spent a lot of time together.

Dec

RE: Booking enquiry

THE ORCHARD orchard@webserver.com

To: Declan Summers

Hi Declan

Thanks for your enquiry regarding a weekend booking in August. I’m really sorry, but we’re fully booked for the whole of August. If we can help in the future, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards

Sean

SEAN TIBBS

Reservations Manager

o0o

*Good afternoon, Bay Tree Hotel, how may I help you?

‘Oh, hi, can I speak to someone about hiring your function room?’

*Certainly, sir, did you have a date in mind?

‘First weekend in August, preferably the Saturday.’

*One moment, let me check our diary, but I know that is a very busy time …… … I’m sorry sir, as I thought, we’re fully booked throughout August. Is there another date we could offer you?

‘No, that’s OK. Thanks anyway.’

*… sorry, no vacancies …

*… full on that date …

*… no availability …

*… full …

*… sorry …

*… fully booked …

Matt

Right, where was I? Oh yeah. Dec and Amy. So they were engaged, but nothing more was forthcoming, and they moved in together, into a tiny flat, and they continued to be sickeningly inseparable There were a few blips along the way, I suppose, like Dec nearly fucking it all up by being an insensitive bastard, and then nearly compounding the fucking up of it all by getting himself semi-kidnapped by some certifiable stalker woman when he should have been having dinner with Amy and her stick-up-their-arses parents, but I suppose these are the things that life and love are made of – fuck knows I haven’t made things easy for Lau over the years, and the fact she’s stuck with me continues to astound, amaze and humble me. It always comes back to Lau, doesn’t it. It always will.

Dec

Matt: =Have u checked ur Twitter account lately?

Dec: =No. Don’t use much. Why?

Matt: =@bouncybec getting a bit saucy. Do u know her?

Dec: =Don’t think so.

Matt: =Might b nothing. Keep an i.

Matt

But, digressing again, I still haven’t got to Jules, have I? So, I’d been at GreenScreen for a couple of years or so, enjoying life, feeling great, all thoughts of the bastard MS well to the back of my mind. Work was going well, life was going well, I had my reputation, which didn’t hurt in a lot of ways, but I knew what was real and what was bullshit.

I suppose I’d kind of started to wonder if there was more to life than going out partying every weekend, getting hammered and having to extricate myself from another unfamiliar bed in the small hours. Maybe it had run its course. I was thirty-three, and it was starting to occur to me that it might be time to grow up. I had no idea what this meant, just that occasionally, in the dead of night, as I was gathering my underwear off the floor, it all felt a bit … immature.

So I backed off, went out less, didn’t try so hard to pull, gave myself a break, got a bit of breathing space, time to think. Plan A had been going pretty well so far, maybe it was time to start thinking about the next phase, where I could look for a different job, away from this city, away from the South West even.

Dec

Declan Summers @summs12 15 Apr

Great result against TomCats – thanks to all the Raiders supporters. 16th man

as usual. #idratherbearaiderthanapuss

Reply to @summs12

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 great game today Declan #nothingwrongwithpusses 😉

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_____________________________________________________________________

Declan Summers @summs12 19 Apr

Looking forward to some down time. Training has broken me. #tired #bathplease

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 Mmm bath sounds nice. #wishiwasabarofsoap

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 20 Apr

@summs12 Had that bath yet? #imagining

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 21 Apr

@summs12 make sure you scrub behind your ears.

#getridofunwantedgrime

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Matt

And all this time, Jules and I were working in parallel at GreenScreen, hardly talking to each other except in the context of work, and I’d look at her sometimes and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been such a dick, and if I’d taken the time to get to know her, but she had this, like, shell around her, and it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get through.

Dec

‘Hey babe, sorry, I’m still at the club, I got caught up, lost track of time.’

)What a surprise. Cara’s picking me up any minute. I won’t see you till later, then, if you’re still awake.

‘No worries, I’ll wait up. Haven’t seen you properly for ages and I actually need to kiss you quite a lot. Hey, I met someone who knows you. Becca Davis?

)Oh.

‘She said you were at school together.’

)Yes, we were.

‘She’d like to catch up, can I give her your mobile number?’

)Actually … I’d rather you – dammit, that’s Cara. I’ll tell you later, hon. Got to go. Love you.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Player of the Season

EastStandRaider: It’s that time of year again, get voting here for your player of the season.

RadarRaider: Only one in it for me, Miles Abrahams has been outstanding in the front row. Our scrum has been rock solid.

YoHoHo: Got to be one of the backs, the amount of superb tries we’ve scored. My choice would be Crofty, he’s creative, quick and can tackle well, and Nico Tiago has done a great job out on the wing yet again, always knows when to go looking for the ball.

Foxyraider: I’m pretty sure Declan Summers will be the ladies’ choice. He’s played really well and is a bit of a babe. What a combination.

YoHoHo: Good to see it’s someone’s ability and commitment that counts with some people. Summers is lucky he’s still here. Fail to see how he gets picked so much.

Foxyraider: I guess we’ll see when the results of the vote come out. A well-turned bum goes a long way in my book.

o0o

Dec: =Help! Tried everywhere u suggested. All booked. Considering dirty w/end in Blackpool. In caravan. Told u I was useless :((

Beth: =Don’t panic. Not useless just left a bit late. Other options. Had idea. Come round later, kettle on.

o0o

_So what do you think?

‘I think it sounds fucking awesome. Better than any of the lame-arse stuff I’ve managed to come up with and not even be able to book. Beth, you are a lifesaver. But really, are we really allowed to put a marquee up on the beach?’

_My friend Trish knows a man from the Council and all you need is a permit. It’s easily sorted. We’ll only really need to use it if it rains, and it’s somewhere to put the food, maybe have a sleepover if it’s warm enough? If we have it right down the end near Usley Point we won’t need to worry about noise or anything, and it’s easier to make sure we don’t get uninvited guests. We can use James’s four by four to take the food and drink down there, it’s ideal.

‘Awesome. A sleepover on the beach would be amazing – she’d love it. And you’re sure you and Rose are OK doing the food?’

_I’m sure, and Carol will help as well. I talked to Rose this morning. Her very words were ‘don’t you dare try asking some tinpot catering firm to do it, love’. She was deadly serious, I feared for my life if I contradicted her.

‘Ha ha, she takes her cooking very seriously.’

_She takes you and Amy very seriously, too, sweetheart.

‘I guess so. I bet she’s started planning a menu already. Probably already made a zillion – oh, what the fuck are those round things with prawns in?’

_Vol au vents?

‘Yeah. Those. She’ll have made a zillion. Actually, we might need to buy several new freezers, she’ll have made a ton of stuff by the weekend.’

_Now, the main thing is we need to make sure we keep it a secret, so don’t tell Cal, or Amy will know five minutes later. I’ll leave it as long as possible to tell James, but once he knows, he’s a bit of a loose cannon, he can never remember what he’s allowed to say. Think you can avoid telling Amy?

‘That won’t be difficult at the moment, haven’t clapped eyes on her for days, we’ve hardly been in at the same time, seems like for weeks.’

_Oh. Everything OK, sweetheart?

‘It’s just … I’ve been really busy, with coaching the under elevens, and all the end of season stuff, play-offs, away games, stuff at the club after home games, and when I’m home she’s out doing Pilates or with her friends or studying for her exam.’

_You sound a bit fed up. Is that all it is, just not seeing much of each other?

A silence.

_Dec?

‘Well I suppose I was a bit of a twat on Saturday. She asked me not to do something but it was awkward, so I did it anyway. Maybe we’ve been sort of keeping out of each other’s way a bit since then … sleeping on the sofa, that kind of thing.’

_That actually sounds a bit serious, sweetheart. What happened?

‘Oh, it was just so fucking stupid, I was so fucking stupid. There was this girl, Becca Davis, she was talking to me after the Warriors game, in the bar. She mentioned that she knew Ames from school, and asked if she could have Ames’ mobile number so they could catch up. A bit later I called Ames and asked, but she was just going out, and she said no, or kind of started to, but there wasn’t time to talk about it. Anyway, later on Becca asked for her number again, and I didn’t know what to say. Ames hadn’t quite said no, she hadn’t given me a reason, and I thought, or maybe I convinced myself, it was because she was in a rush to go out, or she was pissed off with me for being late again, or didn’t want a long phone conversation with an old school friend just then. So …’

_Oh Dec, tell me you didn’t give her the number.

‘… so I gave her the number. So later on I’m at home waiting up for Amy, and she phones me, so angry, I’ve never known her like that. She swore at me, a lot, wasn’t really making much sense, but I kind of realised I’d fucked up. She didn’t come home till really late, she’d had a lot to drink and wasn’t really in a state to talk about it, but still in a rage, and she yelled at me and told me to sleep on the sofa. Next day, she was still pretty pissed off, but we managed to grab five minutes in the same room, and she tells me Becca Davis made her life a misery at school, bullied her, used to make a point of stealing her boyfriends. Last person on earth she wanted to get a call from on a girls night out.

_Oh, Dec.

‘It gets worse.’

_Oh sweetheart …

‘I opened a Twitter account a few weeks ago, Matt was badgering me, and so were some of the guys at Raiders. I’ve only posted a couple of things, just Raiders stuff. Becca Davis has been replying, a bit, I dunno, flirty or suggestive or something – I honestly didn’t realise it was her at the time. She’d told Ames, who had a look, and got really upset. I didn’t respond to any of it, but now …’

_Now Amy’s worried Becca Davis is going to steal you as well. Oh Dec. You need to sort it out. It’s easy for things like this to take on a life of their own and get out of hand. Avoid Becca if you can.

‘Well that’s part of the problem. She comes to the Raiders games, she’s always in the bar afterwards, I have to be polite and corporate, I can’t even ignore her or blank her, I can only try to palm her off onto someone else. She’s a bit persistent. Beth, I love Amy, I love her so much, I don’t want anyone else, but I can’t make her understand, I haven’t looked twice at Becca fucking Davis, I don’t even want anything to bloody do with her now I know how mean she was to Ames.’

_Sweetheart, Amy’s feeling insecure. I know she had a hard time at school, it really knocked her confidence. You know better than most of us that what happens to us when we’re younger affects how we feel about things later on; it’s not logical or rational. You might have to make a pretty big gesture to help her see you don’t want Becca. It might be awkward and uncomfortable for you, but I think you’ll have to just do it.

‘Like what?’

_Sorry, sweetheart, I can’t help you out this time. It really needs to come from you.

o0o

HEY AMES – FEEL LIKE I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU PROPERLY FOR DAYS. MISS YOU BABE. HOPING YOU’RE AROUND TONIGHT SO WE CAN TALK. I KNOW I’VE BEEN A MONUMENTAL DICKHEAD AND YOU’RE UPSET WITH ME. I’LL COOK DINNER IF YOU LIKE. LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

D XXX

Dec – Sorry hon, some people from the course are getting together tonight to go over our exam questions. I really want to go, I’m getting nervous. Tomorrow? Talking would be good. Love you. Axxx PS don’t cook! PPS Please don’t sleep on the couch tonight x

TOMORROW IT IS. D X

PS TAKEAWAY THEN?

o0o

\dec, Mum says you’re from Australia.

‘Yeah, Cal, I lived there when I was little.

\we’ve got to do some writing at school about Australia. Mum says you can help me.

‘Oh, no worries, if I can. What have you got to write about?

\i’ve got to choose a part of Australia and find out things about it. Did you have a kangaroo?

‘Ha ha, no, you can’t have kangaroos as pets. I had a dog called Woofster.’

\Was he a dingo?

‘No mate, you can’t have dingoes as pets either. Woofster was a cross between a Labrador and an Australian cattle dog.

\where did you live?

‘In Perth. It’s on the west coast. I don’t really know much about any other bits of Australia. Where are you going to do your project about?’

\if I write about Perth will you help me?

‘Course I will. When do you have to write it by?’

\tomorrow.

Tomorrow? That doesn’t leave us much time, mate. Oh, and Cal, I’ve got to spend some time with Amy tonight, it’s really important. I can come round now, but I can’t stay long. I’ll help you as much as I can.

o0o

Amy: =Where ru? Thought we were going 2 talk.

Dec: =Fuck, sorry babe, helping Cal with homework. Got delayed. Nearly done. Back soon. xxx

11. Pieces of the night

In which Matty continues to teeter perilously between one world and the next, and Dec continues to encounter setbacks.

Dec

Woke with a start. Daylight. Thumping head. Dry furry mouth. Body aching all over. Still wearing training kit. Still stinking. Still a worthless piece of shit. Stomach growled. I was hungry. Really hungry. Well, I could do something about that.

Sat up carefully and swung leaden, aching legs over the edge of the bed. Dizzy. Stood up. Wobbled to the kitchen. Found biscuits. Ate. Crumbs stuck to the inside of my mouth. Drank water. Lots of water. Hands shaking so much I nearly dropped the glass. Leaned against the sink, tap running fast, panting noisily. Life one piece at a time.

:Alright, love?

Startled, my whole body jolted. Wheeled round to face her, heart pounding.

‘What the fuck.

:Sorry, love, didn’t mean to make you jump. I did knock. Heard you moving about from downstairs. I still had your key. Just wanted to see how you are.

‘Give me the sodding key. Leave me the fuck alone.’

I was almost growling, but she handed me the key and patted me on the shoulder.

:Whatever it is, love, I’m sure it’ll be alright.

Anger welled up, rage from a thousand places.

‘What the fuck do you know? Who the fuck are you anyway? Get the fuck out. Just fuck off.

Moved towards her, fist raised, a reflex. She put her hands up defensively and backed away.

:Alright, I’m going. Sorry to have disturbed you, I’m sure.

Turned back to lean against the sink. Heard the door shut as she left. Eyes screwed shut against the light from the window. Stomach still growling with hunger. Turned round to the fridge. A sandwich, on a plate, covered with cling film. A handwritten note on the top: Protein is good for hangovers. Protein meant meat right? Mouth filled with saliva. So hungry, didn’t even wonder where the magic sandwich had come from. Tore the cling-film off. Smell of egg hit me like a punch. Bile rose into my mouth. Ran to the bathroom. Puked up digestives and water. Flashbacks. Recent memories of puking here, in the lounge, in the kitchen sink. Fun times. But … no memories of clearing up. Surely she hadn’t …

Rested my head on the toilet bowl, unable to think with the renewed pounding in my head blotting out everything. Mouth felt disgusting, bits of vomit clinging to my lips, regurgitated biscuit on my chin, mucus hanging from my nose, tears of humiliation running down my cheeks.

Stood up unsteadily. Turned on the tap. Drank. Rinsed my face. Without lifting my head too far, loaded my toothbrush. Got rid of the worst. Rinsed and spat. Flushed toilet. Again thinking – surely she hadn’t …

Leaned forwards, breathing hard, hands on knees. Stench of me, puke and piss and cheap vodka, no longer bearable. Stood upright slowly. Pulled off shirt, smearing old vomit over my face and through my hair. Pushed down tracksuit bottoms and boxers. Stickiness and smell confirmed I had pissed myself at some stage. From low to lowest. Stepped out of clothes. God Almighty I still had my studs on. Ruined now, covered in filth. Slipped boots and socks off. Turned on shower. Climbed slowly over the side of the bath. Stood under the hot cleansing stream. Remembered what I’d lost.

Wept.

I stood under the shower for a long time. The water had long ago removed at least the physical evidence of my self-induced coma. Thoughts and feelings were becoming a bit clearer. I considered getting more vodka, because forgetting had its upsides. But also its humiliating downsides. I was hollowed out, as if something had scoured away everything I had ever been.

I didn’t know who I was. Everything I had dreamed of, worked for, hoped for, asked for, was gone. I had tossed it away. The steam filled the bathroom, and I began to feel even more light headed. My stomach growled again. I needed to eat.

Finally leaving the limbo of the hot shower, I climbed out of the bath and wrapped a towel round my waist. Walked through the lounge. Able to take in more, it seemed clean and tidy. It was never clean and tidy. Where had all the bottles gone? When I woke up, there were bottles. A lot of bottles.

A sour smell. The couch. It smelt like I had smelt before my shower, would have been soaked with the same fluids. Couldn’t think about it. Went into the kitchen. Avoided the fridge and the egg sandwich which I had thrust back inside. Cupboards provided little beyond a sprouting potato and more digestives. I’d really seen enough of digestives, one way and another. I was going to have to go out. I hadn’t eaten since – what day was it today? I could not compute how long I had wallowed.

From the kitchen I spotted a newspaper sticking out of the letterbox. I walked over and pulled it out. It was the local paper, dated Thursday. Thursday? Surely yesterday was … Monday? Began to realise how much I must have drunk. And why I felt so wobbly. I hadn’t eaten for several days.

As I put the paper down, the back page headline screamed out “Summers Storm Rocks Raiders”. There was a picture of me, in my puke-stained training shirt, with two days growth on my chin, snarling at the camera. Lowest? Nowhere near yet.

Almost immobilised again, but my increasingly insistent hunger was taking priority. I threw the paper to the floor. Moving dazedly to the bedroom (which offered a similar fragrance to the couch) I pulled on some clothes and shoes.

Couldn’t find my wallet. Fumbled around in trouser pockets and found some loose change. Hopefully enough for a Pot Noodle or something. Keys, keys. Couldn’t find my keys. Keys, keys, come on where the fuck are you? Sorted through the rancid pile of clothes I’d left on the bathroom floor. Not there. In the bed? Not there. Down the back of the couch? Not there. Any more stinking shit-holes to search? Could I leave my door open while I went out? Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to get back in the main door. Nobody lets you in if they don’t know you.

Maybe that old lady from downstairs … oh fuck. I remembered swearing at her, I remembered … Jesus, did I raise my fist at her? Then I remembered hearing the hoover, and the clink of glass, and looked again at the tidy flat. Shit, must I screw up everything? Still, I was getting desperate now. Maybe she’d help me if I apologised. Didn’t she say something about having a key? No – she gave me the key. What did I do with it? Where was I when she gave it to me? Kitchen! And there it was by the sink. I held the key up like a trophy.

I left the flat as quickly as my unsteady legs would take me, feeling queasy with hunger and still fighting the hangover from a two day binge. As I reached the ground floor, a door opened. The woman from earlier came out, with a coat on. When she saw me she put her head down and began to walk past.

‘No wait, please, er, sorry don’t know your name.’

She stopped with her hand on the outside door handle. Looked at me. Assessed.

:Rose.

‘Hi. Um, I just, fuck, can I just ask, sorry, I was in a bit of a state before. Did you clean up my flat?’

I was trying my hardest to sound coherent, but it was a struggle.

:I did.

Her lips were pressed tightly together and disapproval knitted her brows in a furrow.

‘Well … thanks. I don’t know what to say. Sorry, I guess, that I shouted at you, and everything.

:You weren’t very pleasant.

‘Sorry. I’ve, er, been, er, not very well.’

:Yes I could see that

She continued to level her gaze at me. I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach made a loud gurgling noise.

‘I need to get some food.’

:I left you a sandwich.

‘Yeah, I know. Thanks. But it, er, made me sick. The smell. Anyway, I need something to eat so …’

I gestured at the door, which she was blocking. When I glanced back to her, she was looking horrified, holding her hand to her mouth.

:Oh love, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think. I always have an egg sandwich when I’ve had one too many, does the trick lovely.

Welsh. That was her accent – it was the ‘lovely’ that did it. Rose was very Welsh.

‘Yeah, well, I had more than one too many.’

:Yes you did, love. From the look of all the bottles, you’re lucky you didn’t give yourself alcohol poisoning. Or choke to death.

‘Or unlucky.’

I muttered it under my breath. Maybe that would have solved everything. Rose had heard me, though, and she focussed sharply on my face.

:What’s that, love?

Shook my head and looked away.

:Hmm. Well I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to make you feel worse.

‘Yeah, well, anyway I need to get to the shop, so …’

I waggled my hand at the door again.

:Look, why don’t I do you some soup?

‘What?’

:Well you’re hungry, my flat is just by here, I have a tin of cream of chicken and some crusty bread. Two ticks, that’s all it’d take.

My mouth filled with spit just hearing about it, and my stomach contracted shamelessly. But talking with a stranger not really on my agenda.

‘Oh no, you’re OK, I need to get, um, other stuff.’

:Oh come on with you.

And for a second time she took my arm and led me away.

:I see you’ve cleaned yourself up a bit. By, you were a sight. And a smell. You might have to throw that sofa away, love, if we can’t get everything out of it. Maybe your carpet too. Did you see the air freshener I left? Anti-bacterial. Should help with some of it. I used it when next door’s cat got shut in while I was work – now there’s a smell you don’t want hanging around: rampant tom cat. I had some words to say about that, I can tell you …

I realised I might not have to do much talking.

Sitting at her kitchen table, chatter floated over me. Didn’t need to reply very often; single words were, thankfully, enough.

:So, how old are you love?

‘Nineteen.’

:Oh, same as my sister’s boy. They’re up in Pontypool. South Wales. Don’t see him much, he’s that age, aunties aren’t very cool are they? From round here are you?

‘No.’

:I’ve lived here fifteen years next February. Came down with my job and my husband. Worked for the gas company. In sales. He left and I stayed. Feels like home now. Like it here do you?

‘S’ok.’

And so she talked on as she heated the soup and cut the bread. Couldn’t focus on her words, the smell of the food was all I could think about, nausea and hunger battling for dominance. Finally it was ready and she placed the bowl in front of me, a spoon into my hand.

:Eat slow now, love. Small spoonfuls. No repeat performances, please.

I nodded. It was hard to go slowly, I was so hungry. The hot liquid slid down my throat and lined my stomach. The bread (:chew it all, love, you’ll choke) was crusty and soft and filling. She tidied and washed up while I ate, talking the whole time. No idea what she said. I finished the bowlful and sat up. Started to feel – what? Normal? Very, very far from normal. But my stomach was full, the waves of nausea were receding and my head throbbed a little less.

‘Thanks, er, Rose.’

:Hit the spot did it?

‘Yeah, very good.’

Really hoped she wasn’t expecting me to stay. I had reached the limits of small talk tolerance. But really didn’t want to offend her again.

:Tidy. Now, I want you to make a list of things I can get you from the shop.

‘What? No, honestly, this was fine. Great. Thanks. I’ll sort something out.’

Wasn’t sure why she was bothering, I’d been pretty awful to her. The soup had been great, I was starting to feel much better, and really just wanted to be left alone now.

:No arguments, love. You need supplies. You’re not in a state to go out. And those noisy buggers from yesterday might still be hanging about.

Hadn’t occurred to me, but I remembered the headline and photo in this morning’s paper.

‘I think they got what they wanted.’

:Hmm. Still, I want you to let me do this for you. It’s no trouble, I’m going for myself anyway.

‘Can’t find my wallet. This is all I’ve got.’

I held out the handful of coins I’d found earlier.

:Oh, that’s in a drawer, love, with your keys and your mobile phone. I found them on the floor last night. Put them away safe.

Sensed defeat. Didn’t have the energy to fight her right now.

‘I’ll go and get you some money then.’

:No rush, love. When I get back is fine. I know where you live.

She settled at the table, satisfied that she’d won the argument.

:Now, I think more soup and bread, easy and hearty, and fruit, keep up your vitamin C. Something for the microwave?

‘Haven’t got one.’

:No microwave?

Jay and Beth had bought me a microwave when I moved out, but I’d needed the money more.

‘Sold it.’

:Oh, alright then, love. Hmm, jacket potatoes then, nice and easy, just stick them in the oven. Bit of butter …

Automatic: ‘I can’t have butter.’

:Oh, you allergic?

‘No, I’m not allowed –’

Sudden realisation that no one would care any more if my highly formulated diet plan was ignored. New loss. Every situation, every conversation, mined with reminders. All started to crowd in on me again. Still couldn’t face the specifics, but lying on top of it all was a silent scream – it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone.

Rose carried on obliviously, organising a shopping list, filling in the gaps my silence created. A hand on my shoulder brought me back to now.

:Come on love, back to your own place. I won’t be long. And I’ll make sure I ring the bell this time.

She steered me through her front door to the stairs.

Back in my flat, tiredness overtook me again. Rose’s continual talking had propped me up, but with nothing to focus on, a full stomach and the continued, if muted, nausea and headache, I felt heavy and lethargic. Still didn’t want to think. Too much I didn’t want to think about. Sleep was appealing. Ignoring the sour odour from my bed, I lay down.

Dreaming. Flying over houses. Seeing Jay’s house, I fly down and in through a window. I watch us all making Sunday lunch. I’m teasing Cal, Jay is teasing us both and Beth is laughing. We eat together and play football in the garden afterwards. I fly down and help Cal score a goal. We go inside and sit down just as the doorbell…

Matt

It is dark. I can hear voices, but I cannot see anything. Mum seems to be talking to Beth. I do not know where I am, whether I am standing or lying, asleep or awake, alive or dead, and I fall …

Dec

…rang. I tried to cling on to the wisps of the dream, but it was gone. All of it. As if it had died. I curled up on the bed, wrapped in misery. Bell rang again. And again. Scythed through my insides.

Fuck. Off.’

Letterbox pushed open.

:Only me love. I’ve got your bits and pieces. I can just leave the bag here, but there’s things need to go in the fridge. Don’t leave it too long, it’ll go off.

Shit. I owed her money.

‘Wait’.

And I’d told her to fuck off. Again.

‘Sorry.’

Jumped off the bed, ignoring protesting head and aching limbs. Tripped over pile of clothes. Stumbled to the door and flung it open. She was just disappearing round the corner on the stairs.

‘Wait!’

Footsteps returned upwards and then she appeared round the corner.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. I was asleep. I’m so sorry.’

:Don’t worry, love. I didn’t take it personally. You still look asleep, if I’m honest. Anything else I can do?’

She reached the door, picked up the bag of shopping and gave it to me.

‘No, no, this is great. Lifesaver. Really.’

The gratitude was wearing me out.

:You know, love, I’m a bit of an interfering old bat, but you don’t seem right to me. Been on a hell of a bender, you’re all over the place, shouting and cursing, bunch of hooligans hanging around till all hours. None of my business I know. But do you need any help? Is there anything I can do? Tell me to wind my neck in if you like, and I will. Just asking because, well, you have to ask don’t you.

Still a worthless piece of shit. Didn’t deserve this. Tried to say ‘I’m fine’. Choked on the words. Lips trembled. Tears welled.

:Oh love, come on now. Why don’t you just tell me? I know I yap on a bit, but I stop and listen sometimes. Might do you good to talk about it.

Say it and it’s real. No way. Suddenly her attention was elsewhere.

:Hold on, is that you?

She bent down and picked up the paper I had thrown down earlier.

:This is you! Oh! You’re that lad from the rugby club aren’t you … oh! You poor love …

She stepped over to me and put her arms round me. I stiffened. Then felt myself crumple. Dropped the bag of shopping. She was short and stout, much shorter than me, but she somehow enfolded me. It seemed so long since anyone had cared how I felt. Beyond my control now to prevent it pouring out. Heaving sobs. Streams of hot tears. Choked incoherent half-words. Leaned on her and wept it all. Emptied myself. She talked the whole time

:There love. It’s alright. Shush now. You poor love. It’s alright. Shush now. There now. There now.

Weeping petered out into shudders. Stood back from her, head in hands. Embarrassed. Wiped face on sleeve. She patted my arm.

:Alright now, love. It’s alright.

I looked at her. Her face was wet too, and she fished in a pocket for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes

:By, you needed that didn’t you, love?

A shrug. A deep breath. A nod.

:Is your mam nearby?

Shook my head.

:Can you ring her?

Old, old sadness. Pushed it back down where it came from, with an effort, so I could say it without feeling it.

‘No … she’s dead.’

:Oh love, I’m so sorry. How about your dad.

‘Same.’

Her eyes filled up again.

:Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?

Made a quick mental list of people I had alienated deliberately and incidentally over the past days, weeks and months.

‘No.’

:Oh love, you must be so lonely. Now look, you can’t go on like this. You don’t look well. Your flat stinks, to be frank, and, well, you haven’t got much stuff have you? Haven’t most of you lads got playstations and computers and the like? You haven’t even got a telly.

‘Sold it.’

:Alright … whatever you say … but you can’t stay here on your own with no one to talk to. This trouble you’re in with the rugby club – I honestly can’t say I know much about it, just saw a bit on the local news when I was waiting for my programme. Isn’t there anyone there?

Felt rather than remembered Don’s words hitting me like a hammer. Remembered Jay’s we’re done.

‘Doubt it.’

Needed not to follow this line of conversation. Not ready to explore reality yet.

‘I can’t talk about it. Please don’t ask.’

:Alright love. But at least let’s make your flat a bit more liveable. Where’s that air freshener?

And she bustled off, spraying pine freshness over the couch, putting the shopping away in the kitchen, calling me into the bedroom to make me strip the bed and put my clothes in the washing machine, tidying and cleaning as she went. There wasn’t much to clean, most it of had gone to eBay, before I sold my laptop.

As Rose made a start on scrubbing the oven, I noticed a pile of mail on the table by the front door. Mostly junk mail, but one white envelope with a Raiders logo in the corner was hard to miss. I opened it slowly and read the contents

‘No, no, no, fuck no.’

:Everything alright love?

‘Today’s Thursday, right?’

:All day, love.

‘Shit. Fuck.’

:You do like a good swear don’t you. What’s the matter, love?

‘I should have been at the club yesterday. Meeting with the coach.’

:Well there’s not much you can do about missing it. Phone and explain. They’ll understand I’m sure.

‘Rose, I really am in a shitload of trouble. I can’t just not turn up when they tell me to. Especially if it’s because I was wasted.’

:Well it’s happened now. The longer you leave it, the worse it’ll be. Just ring. What have you got to lose?

She had a point.

‘Have you moved my phone?

:It’s in the drawer, with your keys, love.

I retrieved my mobile from the drawer where Rose had put it. There wasn’t much charge left. I ignored the alerts to a whole stack of missed calls and texts.

‘Thanks, but I actually meant the land-line Should be on the table here.’

Rose pointed at the wall next to the kitchen door, where there was a large dent, and scratches in the plaster.

:See that hole?

‘Yeah.’

:What was left of your telephone was in little bits underneath that hole, along with your answering machine. I threw it away. Don’t know if you threw it, kicked it, stamped on it or what, but there wasn’t enough left of it to do you much good.

Didn’t know what to say to that. No memory of it. So that left my mobile, and the hope that neither the battery nor the credit ran out before I’d finished the call.

The phone call was painful for all concerned. I knew the girls in the office pretty well, had tried my chat-up techniques out on a couple of them a few times, sometimes dropped in close to coffee time for a freebie. They obviously knew all about me, and were distant and professional. It hurt. I was put on hold while my message was relayed to Don.

*Mr Barker would like you to come in this afternoon.

‘Yeah, what time?’

*Four o’clock would suit him.

‘I’ll be there.’

It was early afternoon now. The buses to that side of town were sporadic and I’d have to walk the last bit along the dual carriageway. I needed to make myself presentable quite quickly.

:Well done love, see that was easier than you thought.

‘They were polite.’

:Well that’s good, isn’t it?

‘We used to have a laugh.’

:Oh, well, not so good then. You need a shave. And another shower wouldn’t go amiss. Have you got clean clothes?

And so Rose carried on organising me. Still a worthless piece of shit. But it seemed like someone might be willing to help me clean the pan when I’d flushed it all away.

I sat on the bus and tried not to think. This would be the ceremonial end of my Raiders career, which had been put out of its misery yesterday. I shied away from it. I dreaded and welcomed it. I didn’t deserve to keep it. And there was my passport and visa not to think about too. Don’s words, ‘implications for remaining in this country’, had shocked me at the time, but with everything else that had been said on Monday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend them, or even give them much attention until now. I couldn’t deal with it.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

I walked along the dual carriageway in a kind of trance. Up the hill to the club car park.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

Started to cross the car park to the players entrance. Became aware of someone walking across from me. It was Jay. The bombardment of questions from outside my front door last night surfaced, with “Anything to say about Jay Scott’s resignation? stopping my footsteps.

If Jay saw me, he ignored me and carried on walking towards his car. I called out to him. He didn’t look up. I ran towards him, needed to talk to him.

‘Jay. Please. I didn’t know – I found out – you’re not really going?’

He got into his car as if he hadn’t heard me, not even glancing in my direction.

‘I’m so sorry. I can’t believe how much I’ve fucked everything up.’

He shut the door, started the engine, put on his seat belt and drove away, all with a determinedly grim expression on his face. As I watched the car, the brake lights went on and then the reversing lights. The car came back towards me. When it drew level, the front window came down. Jay glanced at me, then turned to face forwards. He took a deep breath and began to speak, his voice getting louder as he became more angry.

łYou really are a fucking self-centred little prick. I don’t give a shit about you or your fucking miserable apologies. Not everything is about you. The world doesn’t fucking revolve around you. People don’t live or die because of you. Oh no, sorry, sometimes people do die because of you don’t they. Fuck you. The sun doesn’t shine out of your fucking arse any more. No one gives a shit about you, no one here, no one anywhere. Just fuck off Declan. Or Charlie. Or whatever fucking lying bastard name you’ve chosen today. You make me sick. Just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t talk to us, don’t call us. Go on, fuck off. Fuck off and die for all I care.

He revved the engine and the car roared away.

His words froze me. Could hardly breathe. We really were done. Slumped to the ground and leaned against a car. Completely numb. No thoughts. No tears. Not even any feelings. It all crashed around me.

>Please I need to get to my car.

Looked up, tried to focus. Nico Tiago. With an effort, pushed myself to my feet. Moved aside. He glanced at me before opening the driver’s door. Recognition. A closer look.

>Declan. You look like you see a ghost. Many ghosts. You are alright?

Nodded. He waited.

‘Appointment with Don.’

>Huh. OK. Good luck.

I started to walk across the car park. Feet of lead. From behind me:

>Wait. Don’t go in players’ entrance. There are reporters. They annoy everyone. We all use delivery door.

Changed direction. Got to Don’s office without meeting anyone else. Knocked.

-Yep.

Opened the door.

-Declan. Come on in. Take a seat.

Closed the door and sat down. Waited. Head still full of the bite of Jay’s words. Don breathed in deeply.

-We’ve been trying to get hold of you since Tuesday morning.

Forced myself back to now.

‘I know. Sorry. I’ve been, er, ill.’

Don glanced at something on his desk, and then looked back to me.

-Declan, we’re aware that this must all be very difficult for you. But we need to figure out a lot of things. We need to stay in contact with you. You need to answer your phone when we call you.

Flashback image of hurling my ringing phone across the lounge; stamping on it until the noise stopped. Memory returned, at least of that particular event.

‘My land-line’s broken.’

-Then you need to keep your mobile with you. OK?

My mobile had been in my pocket all the time, but I hadn’t been in any fit state to answer it. Now wasn’t the time to say that.

‘OK. Sorry.’

-Alright. In any case, you’re here now. I just wanted to talk to you about what’s been happening. We need to keep communicating. Don’t go out of contact again.

I nodded.

-Declan, when we spoke on Monday, it was quite an emotional time for us all. I want to update you on some things. It’s not all bad news. But it’s not all good, either. Firstly, I want to talk about the Community Project money. You said you were almost able to pay back the money you took. Can you explain?

‘I’ve been saving up, wages, sold my stuff, borrowed, anything. It’s taken longer than I thought. I’ve got most of it. About a thousand short. It’s in a bank account.’

The full extent of the amount I’d borrowed, who I’d borrowed it from and how long it was going to take me to pay it all back made my blood run cold, but that was for another day.

-I’ve been asking around. Over the past couple of months, you haven’t made yourself very popular here, you’ve borrowed a lot of money. Frankly, with the potential consequences of your passport, you’re even less popular right now. But nonetheless, we have decided that if you hand over the money you have, to the charities it was destined for, we won’t press charges. To be honest, I thought your borrowing was to add to what you took, not to try to replace it, and it makes a difference, knowing your motives. To my knowledge, your actions in this respect have not reached the press, so we should be able to keep it as an internal matter. This club prides itself on its community and charity links, and if this becomes general knowledge, it will damage our reputation. It is only for this reason we are not taking the matter further; if it becomes public, we may have to rethink.

I gaped. I had not expected anything other than a visit from the police. It was more, much more than I deserved.

‘That’s … I … thank you.’

-This isn’t a let off. Your conduct has been gravely unprofessional and risked the reputation of Raiders. But we felt we had to take into account your conduct prior to this incident, and your attempts to make good. Another development of this particular saga is that we have done some investigating and it appears that the man who died in your accident didn’t have any children.

‘Whoa – what?’

My jaw dropped and I just stared at Don with my mouth open.

-Did you actually check any of his story before handing over the money?

My brain was rapidly scrambling.

‘I … no. I … just … he seemed to know all about it. I was … fuck … I’m a fucking idiot.’

I carried on berating myself silently. Don had a grim look on his face.

-Well I think your chances of recovering any money from him are non-existent, so in effect you have given away ten thousand pounds of your own money to a complete stranger.

Fucking, fucking idiot.

To say I hope you’ve learned your lesson would be very much an understatement. As a club we are going to draw a line under this, but obviously you still have some way to go to make things right. However, the other issues we discussed when we last met continue to be concerning. Concealing criminal proceedings, giving us an invalid passport, and taking the money in the first place are matters of grave concern to me. You have made some serious errors of judgement and have not used the support network available to you through the club to communicate with us about what’s been going on with you. I’m afraid we are not looking very favourably at this. Missing your appointment yesterday was an extra consideration.

Don glanced to his desk again. Following his glance this time I saw the local paper folded on his desk, ‘Summers Storm Rocks Raiders’ headline uppermost. Hidden underneath, the telling photo of me in all my glory. Don was well aware of why I had been out of contact.

-I think it may be difficult, for Raiders and for you, for us to work together in the future. You have severely damaged your relationship with the club. You should know that we are considering terminating your contract. For the time being you will remain suspended, for the time being on full pay, but will meet regularly with Stuart Clarke, who is taking over as backs coach. You are aware that Jay is leaving us?

A miserable nod. Thought again about Jay venting his disgust at me from his car.

-I think you should be aware that if Jay were staying, you would not be returning in any capacity. Stuart is going out on a limb to make sure we all have the chance to make something work with you. We will see how things have progressed in a few weeks and review it then. We want to try to re-establish some kind of trust in you; you are a promising young player and until recent events we had been very happy with your progress. But we are not willing to risk the wider club for your sake. So you have a lot of hard work to do, and I think it will be an uphill struggle. You have alienated a great many of the players, coaching staff and people working throughout the club, and it may not be possible to get to a point where we think it will work. A lot of it depends on your attitude and the amount of work you put in. But it will ultimately be a club decision. In the meantime, you need to keep fit. The conditioning team have drawn up a training programme for you. You will not be able to use the club gym, or any of your club memberships to affiliated facilities. In fact all your privileges as a Raiders player are suspended. You will not come to Raiders premises unless specifically invited by me or Stuart.

Another glance at the newspaper. He picked it up and turned the back page to face me.

-This type of image is not acceptable in a Raiders shirt. It is not acceptable from a Raiders player. I want you to lay off the alcohol. Completely. Do you understand all this?

‘I think so. I mean, yeah. I understand. I’m sorry.’

My head was spinning. I had thought everyone would feel the same as Jay, had truly expected to be dismissed. It wasn’t far from it, maybe only a few more weeks until it happened, but there was a tiny glimmer of hope. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Wasn’t sure I could even remember it all.

-It’s a lot to take in, I know. I will get a letter sent to you outlining the main points of our discussion today, and a copy of your training schedule. I also want to talk through your visa situation. We have looked into your passports. It appears that you would qualify for dual nationality, but that your British passport was not correctly registered. It still means that Raiders are likely to be punished for having you on our books as a British citizen, especially having played in that game last season. But I think it can be sorted out so you don’t need a visa. You just need to sign some forms and give us both your passports. Our legal guys are doing the rest. Declan, you were this close to potentially being deported. I hope you appreciate how serious this is.

I nodded. I had never really paid much attention to my passports, or the legal significance of which one I used. I thought of myself as Australian. I knew there were complicated rules about foreign players, but it never occurred to me that any of them applied to me. I had been extremely naïve, and very lucky. It made me feel sick to think how close I may have come to being sent back to Australia, where I knew nobody.

‘Thank you. I … I know I’ve caused a huge amount of trouble. It’s generous of the club to help me out. It’s more than I deserve.’

Don nodded.

-There is just one other thing.

He leaned back and steepled his hands under his chin.

-Jay is aware we are meeting today, and has asked me to pass on to you a request that you do not try to see him or contact him or his family.

His words stung me. The realisation that I had lost, no, thrown away what Jay and his family had given me caused me physical pain. If he didn’t want me to contact them, I wouldn’t. But I could hardly believe I wasn’t going to be able to see them or talk to them again. It wasn’t just Jay, but Beth, and Cal … it was unbearable. Don was still speaking, and I dragged my attention back to him with an effort.

-Jay’s last day with us is tomorrow. Declan, of all the outcomes of your actions, the rift you have caused between you and Jay is the one I think you will regret the most. I personally feel that the amount of trouble you find yourself in stems from not going to Jay, or someone else from the club, from the start. This might all be behind you by now if you had. You would both have had the support you need. And we may still have had our backs coach. You have burned many bridges in the last few months. I hope this isn’t the one that proves most catastrophic.

He took a deep breath and sat up.

-OK. I think that’s enough for now. Go home and sort yourself out. Turn your phone on.

He stood up and indicated the door.

It was getting dark by the time I crossed the car park. There were a few cars left, but most people would be gone by now. As I passed a red Honda, a window wound down.

>Hey, Declan.

It was Nico Tiago. I stopped, surprised.

>I wait for you. I worry. You look horrible before.

‘I’m OK.’

>You look horrible still.

‘Hangover.’

>Ha! I understand. Meeting Don with hangover is never good. I do this before. He always know!

I smiled grimly, pretty sure that none of Nico Tiago’s hangovers had been plastered over the back pages of the local paper.

>You want a lift home?

‘Oh, no, you’re OK, I’m getting the bus.’

>I am quicker. Get in.

‘But –’

He opened the passenger door and gestured me round the car.

‘OK, thanks’.

Something else a worthless piece of shit like me didn’t deserve. Added it to the tab. As we pulled away, he asked

>How was the meeting?

I thought back over the twists and turns. It had been a bit of a roller coaster. Hadn’t sorted through it all properly yet.

‘Had its moments. Not all bad. Not much good.’

>You stay here?

‘Suspended. On some kind of probation.’

>Probation?

‘Er, have to behave myself, work hard, still might have fucked it all up in the end.’

>Huh. There is hope for you then.

‘I guess. I’m pretty lucky to still have my job, for now, and not be on the next plane to the other side of the world.’

>Don send you away?

‘You know I fucked up my passport? It’s complicated. I could have been deported, let alone all the grief I’ve caused Raiders.’

It started to dawn on me how close I had been. I couldn’t think about it. Pushed it away.

>Declan, this sound bad. Is OK now? I know passport is important, rules for playing are hard to understand.

‘I think it’s sorted.’

>Good. Where you live?

I gave him directions.

>Oh is near my gym. I do extra training in the week, they have a great trainer there, he used to work for Raiders. Do you go there?

‘No. But I … guess I might have to.’

I told him about the fitness conditions of my suspension.

>I take you sometime. You come as my guest, I introduce to you Luke.

His offer was unbelievably kind. I struggled to accept it. I didn’t deserve anyone’s help. I deserved to fuck off and die.

‘Thanks’ was all I could manage.

>Great. I let you know. I turn off here?

The rest of the journey was taken up with lefts and rights and mini-roundabouts. As we pulled up outside:

>See you soon.

As I opened the passenger door:

>Hey Declan, be careful of yourself.

I nodded and walked to the front door as he drove away. Paused before putting the key in the lock. Turned and walked down the road to the park.

Sat on a bench in the dark, allowing myself to think. The aches, pains and fog from the vodka were fading, and I could feel some coherence returning. I felt anonymous in the dark. It was good to disappear.

Seeing Jay, feeling the full force of his anger, had brought home to me just how much I had thrown away. I’d cost him his job, one way or another, and I had to accept it was over with me and his family. They were gone, I had no one again. I had done it to myself.

I had thought everything else would be gone by now, but there was just that tiny bit of hope. I was still clinging on to being part of Raiders, just barely. I could feel a cliff-side facing me. I would have to swallow a lot of pride and face a lot of scorn if I was going to climb it. And I still might get thrown from the top, even if I made it up there. I sat for a while longer. Then I went home to start climbing.

Back in my flat, I plugged my mobile into the charger (also in the drawer, put there by Rose). Avoided all the messages for now, but would have to go through them eventually to clear some space. Sat on the couch – there was a lingering hint of the excesses of the past few days, but Rose must have emptied about five cans of air freshener onto it, as it predominantly smelt strongly of pine.

The doorbell went. Through the letterbox:

:It’s Rose. I heard you come in. How did it go?

‘Do you want to come in?’

:Ooh I would, love, but not if you’re busy.

I opened the door. She bustled into the room, looking about her, probably trying to find things to tidy up. She sat on the sofa. It was a bit cosy for two relative strangers, so I sat on the floor.

:Cuppa wouldn’t go amiss, mind.

‘Yeah, sure, coming up.’

I got up off the floor, noting as I did so how much easier moving around had become in the last couple of hours. The pounding headache had reduced to a dull throb that mingled with the shame, guilt and misery. I pushed it all down and tried not to feel any of it.

Rose chatted away as I made the tea, telling me about some run in with a neighbour, filling the spaces with fluff and meaninglessness and wonderful irrelevance. I felt my mood lifting a little bit. It was almost imperceptible, but I had spent so long on my own, having to keep my thoughts to myself, looking after myself, overthinking everything, that having Rose’s talk as a buffer sheltered me from the intensity of it all. I handed her the tea.

:So how did it go, then? I hope you don’t mind, I read that bit in the paper about you. Not a good photo, love, and you don’t really come off that well in the rest of it I must say. Don’t put much store by everything I read in the papers, but you really do seem to be in a heap of it.

And easy as that it was several steps backwards. Mood crashed. Climbing the cliff was going to be a slow process.

‘I haven’t read the paper, but I should think most of it was true.’

:By, you must have been through it in the past few months then, love.

‘All my own fault really.’

:Was there nobody who could help you?

‘My mates all play for Raiders. I couldn’t tell them, the club would have found out.’

:What about one of the older ones? I always used to tell my nephew to tell a teacher if he was in trouble.

‘Same thing. I had to keep it to myself.’

:I’m sure you had your reasons. Seems a shame, though, young lad like you with all this on your shoulders. No family around?

‘Not really, not now.’

Jay, Beth and Cal had become my family, and I’d blown that one out of the water. My eyes suddenly stung with tears. I hadn’t seen Cal for weeks. He was like a little brother, annoying, cheeky, wisdom of a five year old, we had fun times. After today with Jay, I knew it was unlikely I would ever see him again.

:What is it love?

I wiped my eyes.

‘Sorry Rose, I can’t keep crying all over you. Not good for my man points.’

:Don’t you worry about that, got broad shoulders I have. Want to tell me, love?

And, surprising myself, I did. I told her about how I’d arrived in the city three years ago, on a rugby scholarship. I was sixteen then, so one of the conditions was that I lived with a family to start with. Jay had volunteered; as new backs coach, he had told me he felt he was well placed to oversee the development of a potential Raiders centre.

It had been a rocky start. I wasn’t used to doing as I was told, having been in and out of different foster homes after my parents died when I was thirteen. I was pretty awful to begin with, if I’m honest; bad language, outbursts, hanging out with all sorts of weird people to get a reaction, wagging school on a regular basis. Jay and Beth were solid, though, always seemed to know how to handle my moods, tempers and rudeness. They seemed to understand me, and treated me as part of their family. I should have moved on after a few weeks, found something more permanent, but I liked it there, I liked them, and it just never happened.

As we trusted each other more, I calmed down a bit and began to enjoy being part of all that. Calum – Cal – was two when I arrived, now five, and he felt like the little brother I’d never had. Jay and I messed about like mates sometimes, but I knew where I stood with him, and he didn’t take any shit from me. Beth kept me in line with the odd word or disappointed look if I was getting out of hand, but she was great to talk to, for advice, chats, gossip about the rest of the team. I think I was a bit of a project for her; she liked a challenge.

Jay gave me no preferential treatment at the club, never gave my mates reason to shout ‘unfair’, never treated me any differently at work from anyone else. Same bollockings when I’d messed up, same praise when I’d done well. He was Scotty at work and Jay at home.

I became pretty settled. I’d progressed through the scholarship to the academy and was possibly on the verge of breaking into the first team. Life had been good.

‘And then I fucked it all up. Sorry. I know I swear a lot. Just comes out.’

:Don’t worry love, a good swear can help sometimes.

Rose had listened without interrupting through the story, which was a minor miracle. She had obviously been bursting with questions though.

:But where did it, I mean how … it sounds like such a lovely home … what did you –

‘Are you trying to ask exactly how I fucked it all up?’

:Yes, love, I suppose I am. But if it’s hard for you to talk about, you don’t have to.

I thought about it. Found a way.

‘OK, I’ll give you the short version, but I don’t think I can do details, it’s too hard.’

:Alright love, no nosy questions, I promise.

‘OK … I had a car accident. A man died. There was an inquest. Couldn’t tell anyone. Used the wrong passport as ID, which will affect Raiders, and could have got me kicked out of the country. Stole money to help the son – no – the person I thought was the son of the man who died. Couldn’t tell anyone. Moved out so I didn’t have to face telling Jay and Beth. Avoided everyone I know by telling them I’m doing a college course that keeps me busy. Told so many lies to so many people. I saw Jay today. He told me to fuck off and die. He’s leaving Raiders because of me, I don’t know where he’s going. I’ll probably never see them again.’

I pushed it down far enough that I managed to say it without getting emotional, but it still hurt pretty badly.

:Oh, love.

A silence. Rose had promised not to ask questions, but was likely to have hundreds.

:You know, I don’t even know your real name. The paper said you’re Declan, but also Charlie. Which one are you?

‘Well, I’ve been Declan for a while now. I was Charlie before. It’s what my parents called me. That’s why the passport stuff is so bloody complicated. Don’t really know who the fuck I am now.

:What does everyone call you?

‘Bloody troublemaker probably. Declan is fine.’

:Alright, then, love. So, Declan, I want to know how your meeting with your boss went today.

‘Oh … so-so. Not lost my job yet, but likely will in a few weeks. Suspended, got to work hard on trying to get them to trust me again to have a chance.’

:Well, to me that says it’s not all doom and gloom then, if they didn’t give you your marching orders this afternoon.

‘No. I was expecting them to, really, but they’ve been pretty fair. Amazingly fair. Really helpful with sorting out my passport. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.’

:Well I think that’s encouraging. Having a reasonable boss is important – I remember when I worked in Ponty for a solicitors, ooh now there was a boss you wouldn’t want. He had me working all hours …

And she was off again. Rose seemed to have a knack for sensing when I had reached my limits in a conversation, and could immediately launch into a lengthy story behind which I could hide and drift away. She didn’t seem to expect me to contribute to this, just to appear to be listening politely, for which I was very grateful. I hid and drifted.

: … so anyway, eventually I told him where to stick his plastic yucca plant, and walked out. Can you imagine?

‘Yes, Rose, I can imagine.’

:Now, I’ve bent your ear long enough, love. I’ll wash this cup up and be out of your hair.

‘No need, I can wash it up. I’m really feeling a lot better.’

I took the cup from her and took it into the kitchen. She was by the front door when I came out. I needed to say it.

‘Rose, before you go, can I just say, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’ve been great and I am very grateful. I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused you the last couple of days, how rude I was to you, I don’t know why you’ve helped me, I don’t deserve it.’

:Oh love, don’t ever say that. We should all help each other, it’s not about deserving. But you’re welcome. I like looking after people, I’m good at it. Which reminds me, I’m bringing you a telly tomorrow.

‘What?’

:Well I can’t have you sitting here staring at that big dent in the wall all day. You need something to look at, even if it’s only Countdown. I’ve got a spare in my guest room. You can borrow that.

I laughed – first time I had done that for a while.

‘Go home Rose. You’re fucking amazing.’

I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and shut the door behind her.

As I was closing the door, my phone beeped. It reminded me of all the texts and messages I needed to sort through. Not a prospect I relished. But the longer I left it the worse it would be – that cliff I’d imagined rose up above me, getting taller all the time, and the only way to make it look any less intimidating was to climb up it.

Steeling myself, also realising I couldn’t miss any more calls from Raiders, I unplugged the phone from the charger and took it to the sofa. Started with the texts. I had too many to deal with one by one, so I deleted all the spam and numbers only, then checked the names on the rest. Many from mates from the club. Many of them people I owed money to. Checked a couple. Not complimentary.

Big: =Thanks 4 losing Scotty 4 us. Twat.

Mikey: =Wot u finking? Cheers 4 pts deduction.

DivDav: =Fuck off, wanker. Don’t call me.

Danno: =Where’s my £500? U said this week.

Hurtful. Not unexpected. The younger players at the club were a tight knit group, with girlfriends included. There were messages from some of the girls too, which seemed to be fishing for more information in the guise of sympathy.

Cara: =Hope u ok. Wanna talk?

Sarah: =RUOK? Call me 2 chat.

Katie: =UOK hun? Need my money back soon. Txt me.

After scanning a few and sensing a theme I deleted all of those ones. I had borrowed money from most of my mates, and could understand how they must be feeling. Just didn’t want to read it all.

There were some texts from senior players who had my number, most asking me to get in touch with Don. There had obviously been a concerted effort to contact me. Some of them had added their thoughts on my actions. Not pleasant reading. Read it all anyway. One text from an anonymous number caught my eye before I deleted it.

No number: =Payback.

After the texts, I went through my voice-mails A few from some of my mates on Monday evening, trying to find me, after seeing me having my heart-to-heart in the changing room with Jay earlier in the day. A few from them all again, early on Tuesday morning having found out what had been going on and having a go at me. Easy to delete, but not before their anger and hurt filtered through. Several messages on Tuesday morning from various Admin staff, then more senior office staff and eventually Don sounding extremely angry and telling me to:

-Get your arse to the club right now.

Don rarely (for an ex-rugby player) swore, and even more rarely lost his temper. I realised anew how lucky I had been to keep my job. I went through the messages and texts systematically, trying to distance myself from the anger in them all.

Saved one of them till last. Voicemail from Monday afternoon. From Beth. Hardly dared play it. Finger hovered over the delete button for a long time. She deserved her say. Pressed play.

From long ago and far away:

_Dec, please can you ring me? I can’t get hold of James. He’s left me a message, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he sounds really upset. I’m worried. I think he said something about you, but I couldn’t really hear him. I’m really worried. Please ring me, sweetheart. Do you know where he is? What’s happened? I’m so worried. Please ring me and let me know you’re both alright.

Took a long time to process that one. It was from a time before she knew I’d fucked it all up, when she still cared. Played it again, to hear her voice, talking to me as if I was only across town and not across a chasm. Played it again. And again. And cried. And listened again. So, so wanted to call her, both of them. I missed them, so much. Worthless, worthless piece of shit.

There’s only so long you can huddle in the dark on a couch that stinks of pine, feeling sorry for yourself, before it occurs to you that you’d be better off in bed.

Hauled myself off the sofa and into the bedroom, stripped my clothes off and got under the duvet. Sleep didn’t come. Too many swirls and tangents inhabiting my mind. Things I should and shouldn’t have said or done. Damning myself for every one of the mistakes I had made that had led me here. Imagining, torturing myself with ways it could have been different.

Underneath it all, Beth’s voice from last night:

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

And Jay’s:

łFuck off and die for all I care.

Curled myself into a ball and sobbed my wretchedness into the pillow. Must have fallen asleep eventually.

Dreaming. I am flying. Flying over a beach in Australia. There is a family on a picnic rug. Mum, Dad and me. I wave at my smaller self, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly off over the sea. Fly and fly, high as the wind. After a long time, another beach, another country. Another picnic rug. Jay, Beth and Cal. I wave at Cal, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly down onto the beach to join them. We all build sandcastles with Cal, then lie down on the rug, looking up at the sky. The sun gets in my eyes and…

Matt

I am running. Running across fields, running along beaches, running up hills, running through streets. Ahead is a cliff, but I do not stop running, I run towards it, to the edge, where I jump high in the air, and I fall …

Dec

…woke me up. I hadn’t pulled the curtains last night, and the sun was shining on my pillow. Shut my eyes again, hoping to find traces of the dream behind my eyelids. It was long gone, leaving me bare and raw The desolation settled somewhere under my ribcage.