134. I’m on my way

In which facing a difficult truth results in a plan, and help is at hand for a friend in need.

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Cal

The weeks and months to come saw more of us coming to the same conclusion about Matty; that he was getting worse, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight off many more bouts of pneumonia. His MS never seemed to relent these days, and it took away more and more of his coordination and strength. He found it harder to use his computers, and even things like lifting a cup to drink coffee were hard sometimes.

There were lots of discussions about it, some including Matty, but most not, because he got so mad at us. So we talked to each other, none of us wanting to say the thing we were all dreading, that one day soon we were going to be without Matty. Then we all got a text from Lau.

Please be at Beth and Jay’s for six. Lau x

All of us who could be there, were, and Tom had set up Facetime for Iz, Gracie, Ella and Nico. I had no doubt I was one of the few who didn’t know what it was about, but I’d had to come straight from training, and hadn’t had a chance to ask anyone. I was the last to arrive, and everyone was sitting in Mum and Dad’s living room, looking like they weren’t having a fun time.

‘Hi Cal. Thanks for coming flower. Josh, budge up and let Cal sit down.’

‘It’s OK, Lau, I’m not a geriatric yet, I’ll go on the floor.’

I plopped down next to Chrissie, lifting Conor off her knee and giving him a big cuddle. Mum was holding Lily, who was asleep. Typical that the child who never slept was now sleeping like an angel.

‘That’s everyone, then, Laura. Tom, can everyone see everyone on the screen?’

‘Yeah, it’s all good. Whenever you’re ready, Lau.’

‘Thanks for doing that, flower. OK, well thanks all for coming. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and because of some of the things I’ve talked to some of you about, we’ve had this idea. Oh, it’s about Matt. It’s going to be hard for me to say, and I’ve left him on his own, so I’m just going to say it fast, and then I’m going to go home and let you all sort it out, I hope that’s OK.’

I didn’t have a clue what she was going to say, but it didn’t sound like anything good. I’d never seen Lau nervous; she was trembling, and Josh put a steadying hand on her arm as she spoke.

‘OK, here’s the thing. Matt’s slowly getting worse, and it’s getting to the point where we need to think about what we do, how we tell each other, when things get really bad. I don’t think I’m going to be able to call all of you and say it, I just don’t think I’ll be able to get the words out, when the time comes.’

‘Laura, you say as if Matty he is soon to be not with us?’

This was Nico, who hadn’t seen Matty face to face for a while, and who was Facetiming from Argentina. Lau turned and looked at the computer screen, which was split into three and showed Nico, Iz with Gracie, and Ella.

I glanced at Ella, who was looking scared, and at Iz, who had her arm round Gracie. Fuck, this was a hard conversation to be having. I looked around at everyone else. Dec looked like he wanted to be anywhere else, and Amy was holding his hand really tightly. Gran looked so, so sad. Mum was looking at Lau and I could almost feel the mental strength she was sending her. Dad was looking at his knees. Josh still had his hand on his mum’s arm and was nodding slightly. Charlie had actually put her phone away, and looked more thoughtful than was usual. Tom was fiddling with a computer lead, and Rosa looked like she might cry any minute. Chrissie put her hand on my shoulder and gripped it hard. Lau swallowed, and then answered Nico.

‘Well, I think it’s something we all need to think about. Every time he gets a cold, it’s really bad, and he gets weaker, and although we try really hard to keep him germ-free, we just never know. I’m sorry, Nico, we just don’t know how long he’s got. The stubborn git could go on for years, just to annoy me, but I think we need to be prepared.’

‘Laura, to hear this I am sorry.’

‘Thanks, flower, but I just need to get through this. We’ll talk later.’

Lau took a deep breath and carried on.

‘So anyway, this is hard enough, saying it now, but I want you all to know, to give you some warning, and Matt wants that too. He knows I’m here doing this, it was kind of his idea, well, ours. He’s called it The Chain. What it means is that when it’s obvious that he hasn’t … got much longer, only one person has to make one call to one person, who then calls another person, so none of us have to keep saying it. That’s part one, and then part two, when … it’s all over, the same thing. Oh God …’

Lau stopped and held her hand to her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut and breathing hard through her nose. Josh on one side of her and Dad on the other put their arms round her.

‘I’m OK. I’m just going to finish this then I’m going. I’m nearly done. So that’s it, two chains, two bits of information. I’d suggest the fewer words the better, I know some of you are going to find it hard to say anything at all.’

Lau looked at Dec as she said this.

‘So please, work out who calls who and what you say, so we all know where we are. Thanks for coming, you are all so good.’

She stood up, picked up her bag and left the room. Mum stood up, giving Lily back to Chrissie, and went to the door with her, but she came back after a moment and sat down. We all looked at her.

‘Why are you all looking at me?’

‘Because you’re usually the one who organises who does what, Mum. You’ve been text-bossing us all about when we go to see Matty, this is just a step up from that.’

‘Maybe one day, Iz, I’ll just stop organising you all and you’ll have to do it for yourselves.’

‘Maybe one day, Mum. But you’re so gonna do this.’

Mum sighed. ‘Oh I suppose so.’

While Iz and Mum were distracting themselves with their bickering, the rest of us were looking at each other, different expressions of discomfort reflected on our faces.

For Lau to have done this, got us all together and said what she did, things with Matty must be really serious. It was time to unbury our heads from the sand and take a good look at what we needed to do. It was so like both of them to do this, give us time to face it, make a plan, spell it out for us, rather than it being a shock at the last minute. However, it was still a shock. I could see it most on Dec’s face; his eyes were wide, he had gone pale and his chest was moving fast as his breathing became shallower. I held Conor tightly to me and waited for Mum.

Mum closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath and then looked around at us all, including the four people on the computer screen.

‘Well. I suppose it’s down to me, then. James, can you get me some paper and a pen?’

Dad looked up, as if he’d been in another world.

‘What?’

‘Paper and pen, please, so I can write down what we decide, and then send it out to everyone.’

‘Oh. Where’s the paper?’

Dad wasn’t just being his usual unhelpful self. He wasn’t as obvious about his emotions as Dec, but he looked like someone had just hit him with a hard object, and he was having trouble focussing.

‘Try your office? The printer?’

‘Oh. Yeah. OK.’

Dad hauled himself to his feet and walked out of the room. We could hear him cross the hall and open the door to his office, then the door closed. We all sat in silence, waiting. This was eerie. We were never quiet, there was always noise and fighting and kidding about, but usually Matty was at the centre of it. Now he was at the centre of this weird silence.

Mum waited impatiently, jiggling a foot and tutting every few seconds. Eventually she lost the ability to wait any longer.

‘Cal, can you go and see what he’s doing in there? I only want a sheet of paper.’

I didn’t see why I had to go, she was as capable of going as me, but Mum always liked to be the one dishing out the orders, and this didn’t seem like the time to be arguing. I stood up, deposited Conor on the closest unoccupied knee, which happened to be Josh’s, and went to fetch Dad.

I could hear him from the hall. He was crying. Shit. I hadn’t seen my dad cry for years, and then it was because of Matty, when he was so ill back in Stafford. I hesitated for a few moments, unsure whether I should go in, but if I didn’t, Mum would send someone else, or worse, come herself, and Dad didn’t need that.

I opened the door to the office and walked over to the printer, doing my best not to notice Dad, who had startled when I entered and tried to wipe his eyes. I grabbed a few sheets of paper, and a pen from the desk, put my hand briefly on Dad’s shoulder as I passed, then shut the door behind me as I left the room.

It shook me up, knowing Dad wasn’t handling it. Dad handled everything the same way – without any drama. He hardly seemed to take in a lot of what went on, and did as Mum told him with varying levels of irritability and bewilderment.

I needed a few deep breaths before I went back into the living room and handed the pen and paper to Mum.

‘Where’s your dad?’

‘Give him a moment. He’ll be back in a bit.’

I hoped Mum would be able to read between the lines and give Dad space without making a big deal of it. She didn’t look pleased, but didn’t say anything else, just took the things I gave her.

‘Right then, so we just need to decide who’s going to tell who, and what we’re going to say. Obviously Laura will be the first, so who is going to be the one she calls?’

None of us wanted to be that person, so we all looked at our shoes, until Josh spoke.

‘Me. If she calls anyone, it should be me, shouldn’t it.’

Josh was only twenty-one. He was handling this with a dignity I would have expected from a much older person. To be honest, I would have expected Mum to volunteer to be the first, the one who got it all going, but she hadn’t. Maybe she had her own thoughts on the matter and was just waiting for the right people to come to the right conclusions. She looked at Josh tenderly.

‘Josh, sweetheart, this is hard, I know, but yes, I think your mum would like you to be the one she tells.’

Josh nodded and squared his shoulders. Maybe his chin quivered a little, but no one mentioned it. I saw him look at Ella, who was looking back from the computer screen. Ella was always off somewhere – this country, other countries, frequently not contactable – so if Lau wanted one of her children to be top of the list of people who she told when Matty was in trouble, then Josh was right, it was going to have to be him.

‘And I’ll tell Ells, if she’s somewhere with a signal.’

‘I’m not leaving the country now, Joshy. You’ll be able to get hold of me.’

Josh nodded.

‘Maybe one of you would call me, or text me?’

Mum looked from Josh to Ella. This was obviously where she felt she fitted in.

‘I will, Beth. But Ells, you can call Nana April, yeah?’

April wasn’t there, I didn’t know why.

As Ella nodded at Josh, Dad walked back in and took his seat on the sofa. His eyes were red and the hair around his face was wet, as if he’d splashed his face. He locked eyes with Mum, and they had a momentary silent conversation which ended with him shaking his head very slightly.

‘James, we’ve just sorted the first bit out. Josh is going to call Ella and me. I’ll call you, you can call –’

‘No one.’

‘But you’ve got to –’

‘No, Beth. I can’t.’

‘James –’

‘No. I won’t physically be able to do it.’

They had a brief stare-off, which to my astonishment ended with Mum dropping her eyes and nodding at the sheet of paper in her lap.

‘Alright, then. I’ll call Dec. Dec, you can –’

‘I can’t either, Beth. Shit, do you have any idea how fucking hard it’s going to be to make that call? I won’t be able to get a single fucking word out.’

Mum’s lips went thin and tight, like they always did when she wasn’t getting her own way.

‘Yes, Dec, I do have an idea how hard it’s going to be. That’s why we’re doing this, so Laura doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone, so Josh doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone. We’re doing it for them, and to make it just a little easier for everyone.’

‘Hon, just call me. Or text me. We’ll think of one word. You’ll probably be with me anyway, then you won’t have to call anyone.’

Ever the peacekeeper, Amy was stroking the back of Dec’s neck and holding his hand tightly. Her softly spoken words seemed to soothe him, and he swallowed a couple of times, then nodded once.

The rest of the chain was decided, along with our code word, which was Tottenham. It made us smile to think of Matty having the last word in that way, and it was also a word that would be extremely unlikely to be said or texted, on its own, by mistake.

Usually when we all got together, there was food and laughter, but as soon as we’d sorted everything out, including the second chain, which included more people to tell and how to do it, we couldn’t stay there feeling miserable about Matty and we went home.

Chrissie put Lily to bed as soon as we got in, and I got Conor into his PJs and read him a story, waiting for Chrissie to come down so she could say goodnight to him.

‘Hey little man, you’re lovely and ready for bed tonight. Daddy’s done a great job with you.’

Conor lifted his arms to Chrissie and she hoisted him up, holding him close and looking at me over his shoulder.

‘Are you OK, Cal?’

I shrugged. It had been an emotional evening, and it was going to take a while to sort through it all.

‘Not sure. I’m not ready for Matty to be this close.’

‘We don’t really know how close he is.’

‘Pretty close, if Lau’s making arrangements.’

‘They’re just being organised.’

‘Yeah, maybe. I can’t imagine it, though … you know, after.’

‘We’ll all help each other. Wasn’t Josh amazing?’

‘Yeah, he’s pretty grown up. Must take after Lau, because Matty’s still seven years old at heart. That’s why he finds all this so hard, his body letting him down, not getting his own way any more’

‘Lau’s got a young soul too. You know what she told me? It must have only been a few months ago, Matt was having a good day, they locked the doors, turned off their phones –’

‘Let me stop you before you scar me for life – again – with the goings on at number forty seven. Jesus, ill or not, Matty’s fifty-six for fuck’s sake.’

‘So? That doesn’t mean anything. I hope we’re still going strong when we’re that age, and older. It was in the garden, by the way. On the swing chair. All the neighbours were out.’

‘Chrissie! Stop! Put Conor to bed or something.’

I put both my hands over my ears and started to ‘la la la’ loudly. Conor, who had been drowsing on Chrissie’s shoulder, roused briefly and looked at me with those solemn two-year-old eyes, as if to say ‘I’ll never understand grown ups’. Then he closed his eyes again, as Chrissie carried him up the stairs. I could hear her chuckling and humming to Conor as she put him into bed.

Later that night, although Chrissie had kidded me out of feeling low about Matty, I hadn’t been able to get Lau out of my mind. What she and Matty had done for us was pretty amazing, when I thought about it; to make sure we all knew exactly what to do when we needed to, no dithering, just all follow the plan, and to make us think about it, face what was going to happen sooner or later. It had taken a lot of courage.

I looked at the time. Late-ish, but Lau would still be up. No idea about Matty – he seemed to spend half his life asleep these days, but that often meant he kept weird hours.

Hi Lau. U OK?

So-so flower. Weird evening. Thx 4 asking.

Need 2 talk?

Not right now. Might call u tmrw. Matt says hi.

From that, I gathered that Lau could do with offloading to someone, but Matt was awake and in the vicinity. They talked to each other about pretty much anything, but I knew that Lau tried to be as upbeat and optimistic with Matty as she could. Matty still tended towards blaming himself for everything, and if Lau got upset, he’d feel guilty.

U no where I am.

Thx flower x

Laura

Matt had several run-ins with pneumonia. Each one weakened him, sapped his energy, took longer to recover from, stole a part of his soul. He lost so much weight, he was barely skin and bone, but he stayed with me, his humour and his love shining out of his big grey eyes. He had bad days, when it was too much and he could only cry and rage about it, but dark Matt never came back to stay.

It tore at me to see it eating away at him, reducing his physical being to a shell, so dependent, and so hating it. But he put up with it for me. When he was bad I sat and held his hand, and when he wasn’t quite so bad we’d do as much as we could together, whether it was a crossword or watching a TV show or sitting and commenting on the Sunday papers, or if it was a really good day, going out to the park and watching the dogs and making up stories about the people walking by and laughing, always laughing.

Cal

It wasn’t long after that horrible awkward evening where we all had to confront an approaching sadness we’d been trying to avoid thinking about, that I heard from Baggo. He’d been out of the country for a few months, of all things on a tour of Europe with his band. They’d had some minor success locally and picked up some interest from a management company, who had arranged a recording studio for an EP, and a twelve week tour of the less discerning clubs in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. I’d seen Baggo for a bit of a send-off before he went; he’d been full of it all, but underneath I could see he was torn about leaving Jen and Daisy. He’d taken unpaid leave from his job, and was keen to tell me it was worth it, because …

‘What if we hit the big time? What if I didn’t go, and they got another singer, and they hit the big time, and here am I, left behind, dead end job, while they get all the glory?’

‘Are you likely to hit the big time in Belgium?’

‘Who the fuck knows, Cal? Some people do. You know I’ve always wanted to sing.’

Well I knew he’d always sung. It wasn’t until the last few years, when he’d made a few quid here and there at gigs, that it had become a career ambition. Not that I was belittling it; I’d followed my dream and it had become a reality. Just because it took Baggo a bit longer to realise what he wanted to do with his life, well, fair enough. The trouble with having ambitions when you’ve got responsibilities is that they don’t always go hand in hand.

‘You’ve always had a great voice, Bags. What’s Jen going to do while you’re away?’

‘Do? Same as usual I suppose.’

‘What, look after Daisy on her own while you’re out gigging? Without having to put up with you coming home in the small hours and waking her up to tell her all about it, I suppose. I can see why she’d be supportive.’

‘Fuck off, you arse. I do my share. That’s why I do nights, so I can help with school runs and shit while she’s working. Her mum’s going to help out. Jesus Christ, Cal, it’s only for a few weeks, it’s not like I’m fucking off to the other side of the world for years.’

The fact that Baggo was getting so defensive told me I might have got closer to the truth than I’d intended, and I decided not to push it.

‘Fair enough. She can always call me or Chrissie if she needs anything while you’re gone. I bet Ayesh and Sam would help out too.’

Me, Chrissie, Ayesh, Sam, Baggo and Jen had formed a group of friends that I would never have predicted a few years ago. Chrissie had always got on with Baggo when we were at school, but admitted her surprise at finding him essentially unchanged when she came back to the city. She’d missed out on the drinking and womening years, and so when Bags calmed down after he met Jen, to all intents and purposes he became the Baggo she’d known back then. Ayesh had never really got Bags, because she had known the drinking and the women, more than she’d known the ‘before’, so when he calmed down after he met Jen, he became a lot more palatable. We met up together a few times, with our kids, and we all got on together, so we did it a few more times, until we were kind of a group.

‘Well I’ll mention it. Don’t want Ayesh getting a stick up her arse about me leaving them alone, though, so don’t say anything till I’ve gone.’

‘Ayesh wouldn’t have a stick up her arse. She’s cool.’

‘About being mates with her ex, maybe. I know it’s taken me a while to get in her good books though.’

‘Once you’re in her good books, it takes quite a lot to get you out again.’

‘What, like shagging another woman?’

‘Thanks for that, Bags.’

He never changed. If he thought it, he said it, whether it was appropriate or not. Usually it was not. Usually it was in front of someone who also thought it was not. I’d got used to it, and was never shocked by his lack of discretion, but he still made people gasp with his directness.

‘No, but I suppose you’re right. She’s still your mate, isn’t she. Not many exes you can say that about.’

‘No. But if you wouldn’t mind not being so … blunt about it when Chrissie and Ayesh are in the same room I’d appreciate it.’

Baggo frowned as if he didn’t know what I meant.

‘Ach, they’re both fine with it. Jen told me they were all talking about you the other day, comparing what you’re like now with Chrissie and what you were like with Ayesh. I have to say, mate, you are totally whipped these days.’

Baggo did an exaggerated whipping motion with added ‘ker chh’ sound effects.

‘I am not. You have to be more organised with kids. It’s teamwork.’

‘See what I mean? Fucking whipped.’

‘So Jen never gets you to do anything?’

‘Nothing I don’t want to do.’

‘You just said you do nights so you can help with the school run.’

‘Yeah, I want to do that.’

‘And you’d never, oh I don’t know, put all the money from your gigs into a savings account for Daisy, rather than going out on the piss?’

‘Yeah, I want to do that too.’

‘Hmm. And cleaning the bathroom every Saturday so Jen can have a lie-in, that would be –’

‘How the fuck do you know – I’ll fucking kill her. She’s destroying my street cred.’

Anyway, so Baggo had gone on his tour of the backwaters of Europe, and by way of keeping in touch, I’d got the odd fairly incomprehensible text:

They fucking love us gona b beruhmt.

Post gig parties rock n roll woohoo.

Shmsl u rnt hr not gd fr bak soon.

Lichtenstein is shit.

11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.

I’m pretty sure the last one wasn’t meant for me. Who knows, maybe none of them were, but anyway, apart from the texts, I didn’t hear from him while he was away, and Jen didn’t ask for help from us, or to my knowledge from Ayesh and Sam. Chrissie and I tried to contact Jen, but she didn’t reply to any of our calls or texts, and her phone always went to voicemail. We even went round once or twice, on the off-chance, with the kids, but she never answered the doorbell.

In the middle of one afternoon my phone rang with Baggo’s tone – a short clip of one of his band’s songs he’d insisted on putting on my phone as his ringtone. Most of my ringtones were put on by other people; I couldn’t be arsed to change the default.

‘Bags! Where are you?’

There was silence for a while, then some sounds I couldn’t decipher, then Baggo’s voice, coming as if from a long way away. Which it quite possibly was.

‘Cal?’

He sounded so … unsure. Baggo was big on self-confidence, and this small, tremulous voice, well I only recognised it because it was his ringtone and his picture on my screen.

‘Yeah. What’s up, mate?’

‘I’ve fucked up. Big time.’

I sighed, to myself. This felt like a conversation from a long time ago, even though I had no idea, as yet, in what way Bags might have fucked up.

‘How?’

‘Jen. She’s gone. Taken Daisy.’

‘Shit. Bags, where exactly are you?’

‘I’ve just got home. All their stuff, it’s gone. I didn’t think she meant it, I thought she was just trying to get me to change my mind, I can’t believe she’s really done it …’

Baggo’s voice trailed off. I knew what I had to do.

‘I’m coming over.’

‘No, mate, you don’t have –’

‘See you in fifteen.’

Baggo and Jen’s flat was across the city, on an ex-council estate. The neighbourhood was friendly, but rough and ready. I was conscious of people openly watching as I got out of my BMW four wheel drive; I convinced myself they were being neighbourly, and that I wouldn’t come back to find my wheels removed. It had never happened before, no reason apart from prejudice to think it might happen this time.

I rang Baggo’s doorbell, and waited for a long time. I rang it again, then again, then leaned on it for a long time, until I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. The lock went and the door opened, revealing a pale-faced, red-eyed Baggo who wouldn’t look at me.

‘Ah mate, I’ve brought beer.’

I lifted the six-pack I’d grabbed from the fridge so he could see it. Worryingly, this didn’t seem to perk Baggo up in the slightest; he just turned and walked up the stairs, leaving me to shut the door behind me.

I followed Baggo into the living room. Their flat was never tidy; having a young child in a small flat meant too much stuff and not enough space. But all the toys and piles of laundry had gone; there were no photos of Daisy, only squares of unfaded wall where they had been; the only coats on the hooks by the door were Baggo’s duffle coat (winter) and denim jacket (summer). It was like a different place, like some kind of personality had left it.

‘Baggo, what’s happened?’

‘They’ve gone.’

‘I can kind of see that. Shit. Here, have one of these.’

I held out the bottles to Bags, but he shook his head.

‘Mate, you’re fucking freaking me out. What’s happened? When did you get back?’

Judging by the huge rucksack and pile of various mic stands and leads, he hadn’t been back long.

‘About an hour ago. Here.’

He handed me a note, in Jen’s handwriting.

Jake

In case you haven’t noticed, and I wonder if you will, Daisy and I have gone. I don’t know if you will have any idea why, because you haven’t been listening to me for the last I don’t know how long, so I will say it clearly.

I begged you not to go to Europe. You ignored me. You said it would be good for us to do our own thing. What that meant was it would be good for you to do your own thing, and that you didn’t really care what I might think about being left on my own with our daughter to arrange childcare while I went out to work to make sure neither of us starved.

Well I hope you’ve had a wonderful time, and to show how much I think you should carry on doing your own thing, Daisy and me have gone. We’re going to be doing our own thing somewhere else, somewhere that isn’t this shit-hole where we have to stare at four crappy walls all day wondering when you’re going to remember us and care enough about us to ditch band practice, or pre-practice drinks, or post-practice drinks, or fucking tours of fucking European cities no-one has ever fucking heard of.

I told you I would leave if you went, I suppose you thought I was calling your bluff. Well it took me a couple of weeks, I wondered if I’d been unreasonable, but you hardly called us. Daisy asks where you are every day, wanting to know when you’re going to talk to her. You promised her, Jake. So, no, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I told you what would happen, and it’s happening.

Oh, and next time you’re lining up a post-gig shag, make sure you send the text to the right slut, and not your girlfriend.

I loved you, you tosser, and you’ve broken me. I want to spend the rest of my life a very, very long way away from you.

Jen

‘Oh Bags.’

I sat down on the sofa and re-read the letter. It didn’t get any better with a second look.

‘When did she go?’

Baggo sat next to me, put his face in his hands and spoke through his fingers.

‘I don’t know. There was a mountain of mail when I got back. Could be weeks.’

‘We’ve been trying to get in touch, she hasn’t answered. Where’s she gone?’

‘I don’t know.’

Baggo sounded distraught. The story in the note seemed like the Baggo of old, not the more responsible Baggo he’d become over the last few years, but I supposed no one ever really knows what goes on between two people.

‘Bags, is this all true?’

I held the note up.

‘Before you went, you said everything was fine, her mum was going to help out, I thought it was sorted.’

‘So did I. Maybe, though … maybe I just wanted to think it was, like, you know, bulldozed my way through it because I so wanted to go.’

‘Did she beg you not to go?’

‘She might have. I didn’t think she was serious.’

‘Did she say she’d leave if you went anyway?’

‘I might have ignored her because I didn’t want to hear it. I can do that sometimes.’

‘Yeah.’

It was actually the way Baggo always did things, but saying that right now wasn’t going to help matters.

‘What about the post-gig shag?’

‘No! That never happened. I didn’t go out there for women, I went for … to …’

His sat, shaking his head, as if he could no longer remember why he’d gone away.

‘Do you know what she’s talking about, though, this text you sent to the wrong person?’

‘Not a fucking clue. I sent thousands of texts while I was out there. I sent a ton to you.’

‘Yeah, and not all of them seemed as if you’d meant to send them to me. Have you checked your phone?’

He reached into a pocket and pulled out his phone, then started scrolling through it.

‘Oh fuck this, there’s fucking thousands, I’ll never find it.’

He threw the phone on the floor and slumped back into the sofa. I picked it up and had a look, finding his conversation with Jen and looking back to the last text she had replied to. The one after that seemed to be the culprit.

Hey babe, wants to meet up afterwards the gig?

and then one that seemed familiar

11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.

I got my phone out and scrolled back through Baggo’s random texts from the last few weeks. I had one exactly the same. Weird.

‘Baggo, what were you doing on the twelfth of September?’

‘How the fuck should I know?’

‘Try. Something seems a bit off. Now, don’t blow your top, but you’re positive you didn’t hook up with anyone after any of your gigs?’

Baggo looked at me for a few seconds, and I could see the anger rising in his face, but he took a few deep breaths and it drained away again. He shook his head.

‘It might be in the calendar, what we did on the twelfth of September. The manager put all our gigs and shit on Google calendar, with reminders, so we didn’t forget anything.’

I scrolled through the list of dates and names of cities and venues until I found the right one.

‘Does Rockhalcafe ring any bells? Luxembourg City?’

Baggo shook his head. I Googled it and found some pictures, which I showed him. Light dawned.

‘Oh yeah. That was a mega night. Really cool place. I mean, yeah, there were girls there, I’m not saying I couldn’t have if I wanted to, but I turned it all down, sat at the bar afterwards, watching the rest of the band chatting them up. You know what, Cal, I actually said no to three women. Me. I said ‘no’. I said ‘I’ve got a girlfriend, I’m texting her now’ and I did, I texted Jen right then and told her I missed her and Daisy. Got a bit pissed, actually, because I missed them. One of them wanted to see a picture, took my phone when I showed her, put her number in – oh fuck!’

The same thing occurred to Baggo that had occurred to me a short time ago. The way the first text was written, it didn’t sound like proper English. I mean, yeah, texting isn’t proper English, and some of Baggo’s texts didn’t even sound like proper human, especially when he was pissed, but this text sounded like someone trying to sound English. Someone had sent the texts to Jen on purpose. Why they’d sent one to me as well I wasn’t sure, but Jen’s last name was Sanderson, so it was pretty close to mine in Baggo’s contact list. I didn’t know enough about phones to understand it; I could ask Tom or Matty another time.

Meanwhile, Baggo’s face had lit up with hope.

‘So all we need to do is find her, find Jen, and tell her. Tell her they hacked my phone, and we can fix it.’

‘Whoa, hang on Bags, I think it might not be as simple as that. I mean, yeah, maybe this was the thing that made her snap, but what about all that stuff at the beginning of her note? How she didn’t want you to go, but you went anyway? I don’t think we’re going to find a quick fix for that, mate.’

Baggo’s face fell, as he thought about it.

‘Yeah, but maybe, maybe she was just so mad thinking I’d gone back to my old ways that it made her more mad than she should have been about the other shit.’

Baggo was never particularly realistic. He saw things one way, and could never quite understand why nobody else saw things the same way, so he just adjusted things in his mind until, to him, it appeared everyone was happy with the way things were.

‘Bags, listen.’

I held up Jen’s note.

‘This is a letter from a seriously pissed off woman who never wants to see you again. Not because someone sent her a text pretending to be you, but because she feels like you’ve abandoned her and your daughter so you can go off and have fun for three months. Maybe it’s possible to fix it, but I think you need to ask yourself, mate, if you’re willing to change the way you do things, if you think you can change. I’m not saying it’s a lost cause, I’m just asking you to be honest with yourself.’

He looked at me as if I’d just stamped on his Christmas presents.

‘But I love her. And Daisy. How can I live without them?’

I rolled my eyes and refrained from saying he should have thought of that before he buggered off to Europe for three months to live without them. Instead I tried to help him.

‘Bags, if you really want to try and find them, I’ll help you, I will, but only if you face facts, and the facts are she’s left because you’ve been a shit and only thought about yourself, and she might not want you back even if you apologise and offer her the moon to say sorry.’

It sounds harsh, I know, but with Baggo you had to be very, very clear about things, otherwise he just saw the tiniest loophole that meant he could do things his way.

‘Did she talk to Chrissie? Or Ayesh?’

‘No, well definitely not to Chrissie, and Ayesh hasn’t said anything. Could you try Jen’s mum?’

‘Great plan. Or, even better plan, you could. Say you’ve been worried about her because you haven’t heard from her. It’s the truth isn’t it?’

‘And how do I explain where I got her number from?’

‘Oh she won’t ask, will she. Go on, mate. If I ring her I won’t get anywhere. And no one knows I’m back yet. As soon as word gets round it’ll be too late. Please, mate?’

And so I did it. I called Jen’s mum and lied through my teeth for my mate and felt like a creep for doing it, but got the information Baggo was looking for. She’d gone to London to stay with her sister while she decided what to do.

‘Well that’s encouraging, she still doesn’t know what she wants to do. Maybe she’s waiting for me to get back so we can sort things out.’

Baggo’s ability to hope reminded me of a puppy that kept trying to eat from the table no matter how many times it got its nose smacked with a newspaper.

‘You’ve got to phone her sister now. The number’s here, look.’

He held his phone out, but I pushed it away.

‘No, Bags, I’m not going to phone her sister. Phoning her mum was bad enough. You know where she is, it’s down to you now.’

‘But she won’t talk to me.’

‘You don’t know that.’

‘I can’t do it. What if she goes off somewhere else? What if she won’t let me see Daisy? Oh God, Cal, what if I never see Daisy again?’

Baggo was looking at me now with genuine fear. It had not occurred to him before that he risked losing his daughter. I tried to give him some hope without sending him sky-rocketing the other way.

‘Bags, you’ll always be Daisy’s dad. Jen knows that. Whatever happens, don’t you think she’ll want you to be a part of her life, in some way?’

‘Fuck it, Cal, I can’t deal with this. Please call her for me. I don’t think I can hear her say the words, I don’t think I can do it.’

I nearly weakened, but it really did seem like it would be best if Baggo called for himself. It was going to be obvious enough where I’d got her mum’s number from; I didn’t want to seem like I was stalking Jen.

‘You can, Bags. I’ll stay if you like, or I’ll give you some space and you can let me know how it goes –’

‘No, stay – oh, but maybe don’t listen. Shit, I don’t know. I’ll go in the bedroom. I don’t think I can fucking stand it if you hear her binning me.’

He stood up and walked to the bedroom, dialling the number as he went. I sat on the sofa, and heard Baggo talking. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the fact that the talking was going on for longer than it took to say ‘fuck off’, I took as an encouraging sign. I got my own phone out and texted Chrissie.

Found out where Jen is. Left him, gone to sister’s with Daisy.

OMG! Why? How do u know?

Later xx

A small evil part of me loved having gossip that I knew and no one else did. I was always the last to know things, largely because I took after my dad with not listening to anything anyone said and assuming that what people were talking about would be of no immediate relevance to me. Still, it felt a little bit good to know something before anyone else, even though it was at the expense of my best mate’s relationship.

Chrissie’s text tone started, and continued, to chirp ‘Arsenal Arsenal’ at me (some couples had romantic ‘our song’ tones – not us, this was much more meaningful), so I silenced it and sat back smugly while my phone vibrated against my hip.

After some time, Baggo emerged from his bedroom, stuffing his phone in his pocket and wiping his eyes. I sat up straighter and waited for him to tell me how it had gone.

He walked over to the small kitchenette and filled the kettle up, then got a mug out and put a teabag in it. When he opened the fridge and got the milk out, without even acknowledging me, I lost patience.

‘Baggo.’

He turned and looked at me, mild surprise on his face, as if he actually had forgotten I was there.

‘Sorry mate. I was in a world of my own.’

‘Hmm. So?’

‘So. I don’t know.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Well she hasn’t binned me, not exactly, not yet.’

‘What did she say?’

‘Not much. I grovelled like I’ve never grovelled before, said I was a dick, had been a dick for a while, how did she put up with me, I missed her and Daisy so much it was too hard to contact them much while I was away, I’m giving up music, gonna work hard, you know, all that shit I just said to you.’

He hadn’t said any of that to me, but sometimes Baggo didn’t realise he hadn’t said the things that were in his head, so I let it pass.

‘Is it just shit, then?’

‘No, I didn’t mean that, it’s not shit, I mean it. But she doesn’t really believe me. I guess I’ve got to prove it. Fucking hell, Cal, how am I going to prove it if she’s living in London?’

I thought about it for a moment.

‘Well, you could go and live in London. Be near them. Be around. Be responsible.’

Baggo stared at me.

‘What, leave here? What about my job? And there’s my mum … and …’

His protests faded away, and I didn’t need to say that his job was nothing special, nothing that couldn’t be replicated somewhere else, and his mum had his two brothers, or the most important thing: if he was serious about getting Jen and Daisy back, he had to show them that they were worth more than any of the rest of it. Bar none. Baggo wasn’t stupid; he was brainless and thoughtless a lot of the time, but when it came to thinking, he was actually very smart, and I could see all this going on while I looked at him.

‘No, you’re right.’

I hadn’t spoken, but it was as if I had. I guess when you’ve been mates all your lives, you know so well what each other is going to say, that it’s easier to assume it’s been said.

‘I am?’

‘Yeah. Bloody hell, though, mate. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a job in London, and it’s fucking expensive to live there.’

‘I might be able to help you out.’

I saw Baggo about to refuse, as he thought I was going to offer him money. I’d never insult him like that, although it’s true it was always my round in the pub, and we always took my car when we went anywhere, and I always brought a good bottle of scotch when I came over. It’s just the way things were.

‘I’ve got a mate who used to play for Warriors, he’s just moved to Birmingham to play for Chieftains. He doesn’t want to sell his flat, and he doesn’t want to rent it out because of the hassle. I can have a word, see what he thinks about letting you have it if you look after it for a bit? I mean, it would only be temporary, wouldn’t it, while you tried to convince Jen? Couple of months or so?’

Baggo nodded, seemingly unable to speak.

‘I’ll call him, then, give him your number. He’s called Angus.’

‘Good old rugger bugger name there.’

‘Yeah, please don’t say that to him, Bags, he could be saving your life, here.’

‘Yeah, I know. You know it’s what I do. It’s instead of saying thanks. OK then, what I should have said is thanks. Thanks, Cal. Yet again you have come to my fucking rescue when I’ve made a complete and utter dog’s fucking dinner of my fucking life.’

I knew what he wanted me to say; that he hadn’t made a dog’s dinner of anything, that everything would work out now he had this chance, and other such encouraging shit. Thing was, though, it felt like he needed a kick up the arse to stop him firstly taking it for granted that everything would now be alright, and secondly to prevent him doing it again when he forgot what he felt like right now. I seemed to be the only one in a prime arse-kicking position. And I was pretty good at kicking, it being my job and all. No choice then, really.

‘Baggo, you know I’m always here, anytime, same way you’ve been there for me when I’ve needed it. But for fuck’s sake, Bags, you nearly stuffed this up. You might still have stuffed it up. This is Jen and Daisy we’re talking about, not some random one-night-stand whose name you’ve forgotten and who left without giving you her number. You can’t be that old Baggo, you can’t go around thinking about just yourself any more If Jen says don’t do something because it will make things really difficult for us, if she says if you do it I’ll leave, then you have to fucking well listen. People don’t say things like that for the fun of it, just to test you, to see how stubborn you are. They mean it. You really have to decide, once and for all, what’s most important to you. If you had to choose one or the other, would it be Jen and Daisy, or singing in a band? I’m not saying one or other is the right thing, I’m just saying you need to be one hundred per cent certain that if you go after Jen and she’s not the most important thing, you’re going to fuck all of you up. You can’t mess with Daisy. She needs a dad who thinks she’s worth sticking around for. Just give it some thought.’

Baggo nodded. A few times he’d looked like he was about to interrupt, maybe to tell me how important his music was to him, maybe to tell me if he got Jen and Daisy back he’d never do anything to hurt them ever again, but he’d stopped himself, and I began to hope that he would indeed think about things, instead of just rushing headlong into the next Baggo drama.

I stayed for a while, drinking tea and offering variations on my ‘don’t fuck it up’ speech until the vibration in my pocket threatened to wear a hole in my jeans.

‘Sorry Bags, I’m going to have to get back. Chrissie’s on her own with the kids, and she’ll be getting their tea.’

‘What would you do?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘If it was, like, earlier, and you had to choose Chrissie and the kids or rugby?’

‘Jesus, Baggo. Well, I suppose when I was younger, I would have said rugby all the way, but I didn’t have Chrissie and the kids then, and now I do, well, rugby’s nearly over for me, so it’s not the same sort of choice. I honestly don’t know.’

‘I always look at you, you know, when I’m wondering if I’m doing the right thing about anything.’

‘Really? Fuck me, Baggo, I’m no bloody role model.’

‘You are to me. Your life seems just about fucking perfect to me.’

‘Yeah, well, maybe ask Chrissie some time how perfect we are. Don’t ask the day after she’s had to remind me to do the bins for the fiftieth time, or Lily’s been screaming since two in the morning, or we’ve had to turn round at the mini-roundabout for the third day in a row because Chrissie left her phone on the kitchen counter.’

‘You never fuck up, though, Cal. Not like this.’

I looked at Baggo, who truly seemed like he’d lost the spark of what made him Jake Bagwell.

‘Bags, we’re different, you and me. I could never in a million years have gone off to Europe to see if I could make it as a singer; not because of my family, although Chrissie would have had my balls, I admit, but I haven’t got the balls in the first place. I don’t take risks, I stick to what I know. If you want to talk about role models, or heroes, you’re kind of mine. You just go for it, whatever it is. You’re, I don’t know, passionate.’

‘Yeah, I suppose. Plus, you can’t sing for fucking toffee.’

I gave him a light punch on the arm, and then man-hugged him, with lots of back slapping, before heading home to Chrissie and the intense questioning session I deserved.

A few weeks later, having given Angus Baggo’s contact details and vouched for him as honestly as I could, I drove Baggo up to the flat in Shoreditch that was going to be his home for the next few months.

Jen had agreed to give him another chance; they were keeping the flat down here in case it worked out and they wanted to come back; they were giving it until after Christmas, because that’s when Daisy was due to start school, and she needed something settled and permanent, whether that was in London or in Devon.

I could only cross my fingers and hope Baggo knew for definite what he wanted. All the way to London he talked about Daisy, and how much she would have grown since he last saw her, all the new things she was saying to him on the phone, all the friends she told him about that he didn’t know. I saw something of the pride and infatuation I’d seen when she was first born, and I felt hopeful that he was putting her first.

Baggo had left the band. They were on the point of getting more prestigious gigs, being on the road a bit more, and he chose not to do it. I know it was hard for him, because in his heart of hearts he wanted to make a go of it, but he made that choice. He told me it was fine, there were plenty of karaoke bars in London where he could sing, and he had his guitar and Angus’s flat to rattle around in, so he could treat the neighbours to the odd spontaneous performance (he was grinning wickedly while he said this, knowing I would panic about Angus’s neighbours being pissed off with a noisy Baggo keeping them awake with his guitar at all hours). He told me it was enough, just singing for his own enjoyment, and I hoped it was.

131. I’ll be there

In which an ex becomes a friend, and a new dad begins his journey.

Laura

Matt continued his unsteady decline. His MS took him down and let him back up again, but he always lost something more along the way. We had our house turned upside down so that our bedroom was downstairs, where the dining room had been, and made a lounge for the children upstairs. We turned the downstairs shower room into an en-suite, and Matt grudgingly accepted various bits and pieces of equipment, that gathered dust in the cupboard under the stairs until he really couldn’t do without them.

Matt was an usher at Cal’s wedding; he stayed on his feet through the whole ceremony using what I can only assume was willpower, stayed in a chair throughout the reception, and collapsed exhausted as soon as Cal and Chrissie had left for their honeymoon.

Just over a year later, he stood in for Jay at Iz’s graduation from Manchester University, as Jay was away coaching with the England rugby team. He managed to give Iz a standing ovation when she collected her certificate, and was so proud of his niece.

Cal

It was a Thursday afternoon. Raiders day off, down time to prepare for the game on Saturday. Chrissie was at Uni, and I was lying on the sofa flicking through channels on the TV trying to find something to watch so I didn’t have to do something more productive. ‘Oh but, babe, I would have done the washing up’ sounds so much more convincing if you can follow it up with ‘but there was this thing about how the world’s going to end because of a superbug’ than ‘but I couldn’t be arsed’. At least it did in my head, before I presented it to Chrissie.

Chrissie was much more on my case about pulling my weight than Ayesh had been. I can’t blame Ayesh at all, she just took the path of least resistance, and followed Mum’s model, which was to give up the daily fight of getting me to put my socks in the laundry basket/dirty cups in the dishwasher/towels on the towel rail, in favour of the quieter life where they did it for me. Suited me. Chrissie was not of a mind to let me get away with such blatant laziness, however, and chivvied me at every opportunity, never doing something that was my job, always reminding me when things needed doing, and she was actually training me well. Most of the time.

Days off were a different matter, a kind of holiday, and that Thursday afternoon I was just chilling. My phone rang. Ayesh. I had long ago changed her ringtone from the clubbing number that used to announce her calls, to the generic tone for anyone from acquaintances to wrong numbers, but I hadn’t ever been able to delete her from my contacts. Ayesh hadn’t called me for a long time, and I hadn’t spoken to her since that brief conversation at our wedding, several months ago.

‘Ayesh? Er … hey.’

‘Hi Cal. I’m really sorry to call you.’

‘No problem. What’s up?’

‘It’s just, there’s no one else … everyone’s … I can’t get hold of …’

‘Are you OK?’

‘I think I just ran over a cat.’

Ayesh was completely soppy about animals. She wouldn’t even kill spiders and flies, choosing instead to spend hours shooing them out of windows, and so running a cat over would be horrendous for her.

‘Shit. You only think?’

‘There was a bump and I looked in my mirror and something gingery ran into the bushes behind me. I don’t know what to do. What if it’s lying there all …’

Her voice tailed off as she imagined the horrors, and I heard a sniff.

‘Ayesh, where are you?’

‘On the bypass. Just past the retail park.’

‘That’s not far from us.’

‘I know. I didn’t know what else to do. Sam’s not answering his phone, but he’s at work, and you’re so close, I just want to look for it, but what if it’s …’

More unimaginable horrors filled the silence. Stifling a sigh, I sat up and slipped my trainers on.

‘I’ll be there in five minutes.’

‘Oh Cal, are you sure? I’m so sorry, I just didn’t know what else to do.’

‘Stay in your car, yeah?’

As I drove there, I thought about how weird it felt, that after all this time, Ayesh was calling me to help her out. And how weird it didn’t feel to be going to help her.

I saw Ayesh’s car and pulled in behind her in the layby where she’d parked. She opened her door as soon as my car stopped, and got out, looking pale and a bit shaky.

‘Cal, I’m so sorry, I’m being stupid, I know, but it shook me up, and I just can’t stop thinking about it. We’ve got a cat, and I know if anything happened to it, I’d want someone to look after it, so –’

‘It’s OK, Ayesh. Which way did it go?’

‘Well if it was anything, it went that way.’

‘OK then, let’s have a look. You stay here, just in case.’

I knew that was what was at the heart of Ayesh’s panic. She wanted to make sure the hypothetical cat was alright, but didn’t want to have to see its mangled remains. I’d always been the one who bashed the spiders with a shoe, hence the hours she spent shooing them out of windows.

‘I can come.’

‘No, it’s fine, stay here. Keep an eye on the cars.’

It was a bit of a flimsy excuse for her not to come with me, but she took it and nodded her agreement.

There was no cat that I could find, although I have to say I didn’t look tremendously hard. I tramped around a bit, peered under a few bushes, made a few half-hearted ‘puss puss’ noises after I’d carefully checked there was no one around to hear me, and went back to the cars when I thought I’d spent long enough to convince Ayesh there was nothing there.

‘I can’t find anything. Nothing under any of the bushes, no cat noises, I suppose it could have gone anywhere, but it might not have been anything, Ayesh.’

‘Did you look in the long grass?’

Well I’d looked at the long grass.

‘Yeah. Nothing there. Maybe you just hit, I don’t know, a pothole or something?’

Ayesh looked dubious, but I looked back down the road, and sure enough there was a divot in the road. I pointed at it.

‘But what about the ginger thing I saw?’

‘I don’t know, but it could have been anything, something lit up by the sun in your mirror, a Sainsbury’s bag –’

‘Did you see a Sainsbury’s bag?’

‘Ayesh, there are about fifty thousand plastic bags littering the undergrowth. I’m almost a hundred per cent sure you didn’t hit a cat.’

I had no way of being able to promise her this, but it just seemed like the easiest way to stop her worrying. In fact, her face lightened a bit as she either believed me, or chose to believe me.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Almost a hundred per cent.’

‘I feel really silly now.’

‘No, don’t, it’s better to be safe, isn’t it.’

‘Thanks for coming out. I didn’t know who else to call. When Sam didn’t pick up, I couldn’t think of anyone else who wasn’t miles away, might be at home, and who wouldn’t laugh at me.’

‘Why would anyone laugh at you?’

‘Oh you know, my little dramas. Rhi’s always calling me a silly cow for what I worry about.’

‘You always were a worrier, Ayesh, but Rhi would have helped.’

‘Yeah, but she’s at her sister’s. So, anyway, thanks.’

‘Sure thing. Are you OK? You looked a bit shaky before. Do you want to come back for a cuppa or something?’

Ayesh looked at me gratefully.

‘If that’s OK. I was a bit wobbly, before you got here, just thinking it could have been Nobbles – oh, that’s our cat – and how I would have felt.’

‘Nobbles, eh?’

‘He’s a rescue cat, we didn’t choose the name.’

‘Yeah right, Ayesh. You stick to that story. Follow me back, I’ll put the kettle on.’

So now this was officially weird-but-not-weird. Ayesh and me spent the rest of the afternoon catching up like old friends, drinking tea and scoffing chocolate biscuits. It should have been awkward, there should have been lots of things we said that made us go ‘ooh, shouldn’t have mentioned that’, but Ayesh talked easily about leaving our old flat, about taking time off work when we split up, about meeting Sam, about moving in with him, about her job in a GP surgery, about his job as manager of a Toyota dealership. She didn’t flinch when I mentioned Chrissie, she looked at our wedding photo and asked to see the album, she complimented our décor and the furniture (which were mainly Chrissie’s choices and ideas).

While she was flipping through the wedding album, she stopped on a picture of Rosa dancing with me.

‘I couldn’t believe how much they’d all grown. I swear Tom was six inches taller than the last time I’d seen him.’

‘Yeah, they just keep on stretching. I think Amy feeds them fertiliser.’

‘Ha ha. Dec might, I think Amy’s a bit more sensible. I miss them, you know. It feels weird them growing up without me.’

‘You don’t have to. Everyone would be more than happy to see you.’

‘I don’t want to make things difficult for you.’

‘You wouldn’t. Chrissie would be fine.’

‘Yeah, I know she would, I meant you, really.’

I raised my eyebrows at her assumption of Chrissie’s fineness.

‘You know it was Chrissie who invited me to your wedding, don’t you?’

‘Really? No, I didn’t know. I assumed it was Mum, or Iz, one of the more assertive members of my family.’

‘Chrissie’s pretty assertive.’

I couldn’t disagree there. Ayesh had always been a pushover for Mum and Iz, she’d just done whatever they told her. Chrissie presented more of a challenge.

‘Yeah, I know. Why, did she get assertive with you?’

This was a whole wedding story I hadn’t heard, and I was more than a little intrigued.

Ayesh nodded. ‘I wasn’t going to come, sent back a ‘declining your kind invitation’ card, but she called me and said I should definitely come and bring Sam, help me and you get over ourselves and be friends.’

‘What, she knew about Sam?’

‘I guess someone told her, your Mum, Lau, someone. I’ve kept in touch with them a bit.’

‘Jesus she’s sneaky. So you’ve talked to each other then?’

‘Only that one phone call. Cal, she was lovely, she is lovely, you’re so right for each other. I talked to Lau, about that, and about me and Sam, and she made a lot of sense about knowing when someone’s right for you.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had that speech too.’

‘She made me realise that me and you, we were always great mates, but it was never, really, anything more. If you think about it now, I mean, feeling how you do for Chrissie and how I do for Sam.’

I was a bit overwhelmed. A couple of hours ago, I’d been trying to think of a way to avoid the washing up without getting into trouble. Now, I’d just had Ayesh call Chrissie and me right for each other and we were having a chat about old times like old friends; in fact, she’d just called us great mates; and now Chrissie was home to join in the party – what? Oh fuck, Chrissie was home.

I heard the key in the lock, and Ayesh must have seen something on my face that told her of the sudden pang of guilt I felt.

‘I should go.’

I didn’t know what to say to her. I didn’t want to rush her out like she was a sneaky secret, but I really didn’t know what Chrissie was going to do if she walked in on us having a cosy chat. But it was too late, because Chrissie had just walked in on us having a cosy chat.

‘Hi Cal, whose car is that – oh. Ayesha, hi.’

Nothing about her expression betrayed any hint of suspicion, although I wouldn’t say the greeting was overly warm, not at first anyway.

‘Hi Chrissie. I was just going. I hope you don’t mind, I borrowed Cal for a while this afternoon, made him wander around the bypass looking for a cat I didn’t run over.’

‘What?’

We explained what had happened, and the mugs and biscuit crumbs told the rest of the story. Half way through the telling, I saw a tension leave Chrissie. I hadn’t realised she was holding herself in until she let it out. She smiled her rock star smile at me and Ayesh, and sat down next to me, giving me a kiss on the cheek while listening to Ayesh.

‘So there wasn’t anything other than a carrier bag?’

‘Yeah, if it was even that. Still, got me out of the house I suppose.’

‘Mm, I’m sure you were grateful for the excuse not to do the washing up.’

Chrissie knew me really, really well.

‘Not that you haven’t got a hundred of those, Cal.’

And so did Ayesh.

‘Hey, that’s not fair, both of you ganging up on me.’

‘I suppose you do sometimes load the dishwasher.’

Ayesh arched an eyebrow at Chrissie.

‘Really? God, it must be true love. I don’t think you did that in four years, Cal.’

‘He’s coming along nicely.’

‘Hey!’

‘Socks in the laundry basket?’

‘Mostly.’

‘Chrissie, I bow to you.’

‘Look, if you two don’t mind –’

‘Any chance of a cuppa, Cal? There are some more biscuits in the cupboard.’

Sensing defeat and needing to get out of the line of fire, I stood up, shaking my head, and escaped to the kitchen, where I listened to Ayesh and Chrissie firstly comparing notes on me, and then starting to generally chat about other things. It was bizarre.

Half way through the cup of tea, Ayesh’s phone rang.

‘Hey huns … yeah, I’ll be home in a bit, I’m just leaving … with Cal and Chrissie … yeah … ha ha, no … no I’m fine, I had a bit of a thing, Cal helped me out … yeah, you weren’t answering … yeah, I thought so, it’s fine … tell you when I get back, yeah? Bye, love you.’

Ayesh stood up to go, picking up her bag.

‘Sorry to have ruined your afternoon, Cal. Thanks for the loan of your husband, Chrissie.’

‘Any time.’

We both answered together, then looked at each other, eyebrows raised in mock disapproval.

‘You and Sam should come over for dinner sometime.’

I was surprised by Chrissie’s offer, but if she was willing to invite my ex-girlfriend to our wedding, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised if she was prepared to invite her and her new boyfriend round for tea.

‘Yeah, you should.’

‘Know what? I’d really like that.’

‘I’ll text you.’

‘Great. Thanks for all the tea and biscuits.’

She left, and I gave Chrissie the more thorough hug and kiss I hadn’t been able to in polite company.

‘Mm, miss me, did you?’

‘Always. Have a good day?’

‘Yeah, hard work, unlike some, strolling around looking for imaginary cats.’

‘I couldn’t believe it when she called. And then she told me you were the one who invited her to the wedding.’

I scowled in pretend annoyance, but Chrissie was never fazed by my annoyance, real or pretend.

‘Yeah.’

‘You never said.’

‘You never asked.’

‘Some things you maybe should say without being asked.’

‘Some things you maybe should keep to yourself. You were getting on well though, before I turned up and made you feel guilty.’

‘I didn’t feel guilty.’

‘Cal, I can read you like a book, a picture book for a three year old.’

‘Thanks.’

‘The look on your face when I walked in, like all the excuses you could possibly think of were causing a log jam in your brain.’

I couldn’t deny it.

‘Were you doing anything to feel guilty about?’

‘No, of course not. Actually, Ayesh had just finished telling me how Lau thinks you and me are perfect for each other in the same way she thinks Ayesh and Sam are perfect for each other, and that me and Ayesh were only ever great mates.’

‘Yeah, Lau’s had that conversation with me too.’

‘Jesus, does she ever let up? She’s such a bloody romantic.’

‘I’m glad, though, Cal. I really like Ayesha, and I’d like it if things could be OK between you and her.’

‘Chrissie Scott, you have to be the most awesome woman there has ever been.’

‘Well I certainly hope you believe that.’

‘I do. I don’t know many women who would not only invite their husband’s ex to their wedding, but would ask her and her boyfriend to dinner, and actively wish for things to be OK between them. Maybe you’re wasted on teaching, I think your diplomacy and powers of forgiveness could be better used in the UN or something.’

‘Oh I don’t know, a classroom of thirteen year olds might fit the bill actually.’

And that’s how it started, how me and Ayesh became the great mates we’d apparently always been, and Chrissie and Sam let us, and all four of us started something great that really, given how it all began, I just did not deserve. But the wise Declan Summers would have something to say about that, wouldn’t he, about not deserving shit, but just taking what you get and making the most of it.

Oh, and just having a bit of a think about what else was happening around then, the biggest news of that year was Baggo. Baggo sorted his life out, with no help from anyone. Just did it. I mean, he was always going to be Baggo, a bit off the wall, a bit too easy to get pissed, a bit of an eye for a D cup, but he got a real, proper job, started doing a real proper college course so he could do his job better and get a promotion, and he started actually going out with a real proper woman, like actually dating her, not just copping a feel and being dumped or waking up in her bed and scarpering before her husband came home.

Jen was brilliant for Baggo. She let him have his flights of fantasy, talking bollocks about his plans for the future, never told him it was a load of horseshit, but still somehow managed to keep his feet on the ground, so his dreams weren’t trampled on, but he didn’t try too hard to do some of the crazier things he thought about. She even encouraged him to join a band.

Baggo’s voice stayed in great shape despite all the drink and cigarettes he’d put his vocal cords through over the years – who knows, maybe that’s what had made it mature into such a deep, resonant, gravelly sound, kind of a bit like Kelly Jones from Stereophonics. Baggo met Jen at a karaoke night in his local, when she went over to him after he’d sung, and complimented him on his voice. They talked until closing time, and Baggo realised he hadn’t had a single drink, hadn’t even thought about it.

After that, Jen took him to karaoke nights, then open mic nights, then got him to respond to ads in local music venues for singers, and after a couple of auditions, he ended up in a band that gigged regularly. It was great to see things coming together, finally, for Baggo. I wouldn’t say he was settled down, because there were still times when he let his love of a pint and a bit of cleavage get the better of him, and there were big rows between him and Jen, and she called it off a couple of times, but on the whole, if you thought about where he had been, well, where he’d got to was pretty amazing.

o0o

Nothing major happened for a couple of years, which was good, because things had been a bit full-on for a while there. Iz graduated from Uni, and stayed up in Manchester with her boyfriend and her job. I missed her, even though we called and texted all the time, but it wasn’t the same. Now Iz was grown up, we got on really well, and I suppose Manchester isn’t the end of the world. Just feels like it when you’re up there and it’s bloody raining.

Maybe a quick round up of where everybody was and what they were doing just then, so I can keep it all straight in my head.

I was still having the time of my life playing for Raiders. I’d never quite made it into the England team, not for want of trying, but it was my misfortune and England’s fortune that there was a glut of incredible wingers around, most of whom were my age or younger. It hadn’t helped that my one shot, the only time I’d been called up to the squad, when I was twenty-one, I buggered up my cruciate ligament in a game the week before. I tried really hard not to be gutted, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to try to keep my spirits up through months of rehab, seeing mates take my place in the Raiders team, and people I knew take my place in the England squad. By the time I was fit again, it was too late, people were established, and although I was still young enough that it was a hope, I had learned not to get swept along with the Raiders supporters loyally calling for a place for me every time a new England squad was announced.

I’d got my place back in the Raiders team, with hard work and a bit of luck with other team mates getting injured – that’s the conflicted nature of playing, that you have such a close bond with everyone in the team, and put your body on the line for your team mates, but the ones in front of you in your shirt (in my case number fourteen), you could happily murder in their sleep. Even if you’d die for them on the field.

So, anyway, that’s where I was with Raiders. There weren’t many players who had stayed with the same club for so long. Dec was the longest serving Raiders player, and I suppose I took my cue from him. Dad had been there since the year dot as well, and even though he was always telling me to look around, listen to offers, try a different way, I just didn’t want to. I had an agent, and I always had a look at the things he showed me, some flattering offers from other teams both home and abroad, but this city was where I belonged. Maybe, if I lost my place and Raiders didn’t want me any more, I’d think harder about it but Chrissie and I wanted to stay here.

Chrissie and I – we were awesome. Chrissie was nearly two years into a teaching degree, studying hard, I was so proud of her. She worked harder than I thought I would ever be capable of, although I was going through my levels in coaching badges, in an increasingly unsuccessful attempt to kid myself I was planning my post-rugby future.

As a bit of a distraction, Chrissie and I had even planned for our future, which must mean I was getting truly old mustn’t it, either that or Chrissie was way more successful than anyone else had ever been at badgering me into talking about important shit. Our future, meaning children. We’d talked about it, what we wanted, what we saw for us, and once I really thought about it, I realised that, yeah, I did see us with kids, which was just as well, because I think Chrissie was going to have children whether I wanted to or not, and not would have been a little awkward.

So having agreed on that, the timing of it, in our plan, was that Chrissie would finish her degree and work for a couple of years, and then, boom, we’d have a baby, and that would be the start, then maybe in a couple of years after that, boom, another one, there was our family. Sorted. It was still the planning stages, but it seemed pretty foolproof to me.

Chrissie was a little bit worried about leaving it too late – if our plan worked out, she would be thirty or thereabouts when she had the first one. There were so many people around she could talk to about it, I decided to suggest going public. It’s not like someone didn’t ask almost every week ‘when are you going to start a family’ or something equally nosy.

‘Talk to Mum if you want to know about having babies in your thirties. She had Iz when she was thirty something or other.’

‘You are kidding? Your mum? Cal, I love your mum, but she’d have our whole family planned in ten minutes, down to the colour of the nursery, make of people carrier and date of your vasectomy.’

The last one made me gulp a bit, and Chrissie was right, we needed to have things watertight before letting Mum get her mitts on any information.

‘OK, so maybe not Mum. Although I like the sound of ‘our family’, God Chrissie, it sounds awesome.’

It suddenly did sound very awesome indeed. Up until then, it had been kind of theoretical, just a natural progression from being married and getting older, but suddenly I could see it, a couple of golden haired children in the park, snuggling up on the sofa to watch a DVD, carrying them on my shoulders. It made me smile.

‘What about Lau? She had Josh and Ella in her mid-thirties.’

‘Maybe. I always forget she’s the same age as Matty. She looks so much younger.’

‘Don’t let Matty hear you say that, he likes to think he’s weathered well. Lau would be great though. You know she keeps things to herself.’

‘Yeah, I do.’

The look she gave me suggested there may have been one or two discussions I wasn’t aware of.

‘Give her a call, babe. If you want to go over there, I can go and see Matty and you two can gossip about me in the kitchen.’

‘Alright then.’

Dec and Matty had continued their success with their rugby IT business. I have never been that sure what it is they did, but it meant that Matty could be at home more, which he was needing on a regular basis because of his health. Working from home was ideal for him, and he had reduced his hours with Raiders. Dec did all the travelling about meeting people, charming them, while Matty kept a close eye via e-mail. It was a really successful business, and had given Dec something to focus on after he retired that still involved him in the sport.

I hated what was happening to Matty, we all did. His MS returned more often and took more away every time, leaving him reliant on crutches, a wheelchair, rails and stuff in their home. It took part of his soul away to be so dependent on it all. And he had so many fights with pneumonia that we were all on first name terms with the nurses at the hospital. Lau tried to keep him at home for as long as she could when he got really bad, but sometimes he just had to go in and be pumped full of whatever it was that made him better.

That’s not to say he was always ill. He still had days when he could get about pretty well, and he never lost his love of banter and chat. You could see in his eyes how much he got from having everyone there, talking, chatting and arguing with each other, taking the piss, winding each other up. Matty was always in the thick of it. It was really surprising to me, reading Matty’s story, that it hadn’t always been that way, that he’d been a bit maybe resentful of Mum and Dad, maybe distanced himself from them, because if anyone was a natural family man it was Matty. Maybe you don’t always recognise who you are when you’re younger. Or maybe you grow into who you are. Oh, way too philosophical, Cal.

Mum’s party business was going great guns, it kept her busy and made her quite a bit of money. Dad was thinking about retiring. He had been head coach at Raiders for several years, and he and Mum were finally finding the demands of the rugby season getting in the way of other things they wanted to do. They wanted to travel while they were still young and fit enough to do it, and although they never actually said anything, I had a feeling that Dad was considering how much longer he was going to stay.

All the kids were growing up, by which I mean Dec’s and Matty’s kids – obviously Iz and I were extremely mature already. All of the ‘little cousins’ as my sister and I liked to patronisingly call them, were teenagers or thereabouts, and causing havoc of their own on varying levels.

Josh was doing really well at Raiders, and had been called up to the England under sixteens too. He didn’t think about much else apart from rugby, and Ella was always taunting him with being boring. Ella herself was off and away as soon as she tasted freedom. She’d try for every school trip going, soaked up knowledge, argued the toss with Matty and sometimes won, tried arguing with Lau but never won, not because of a lack of debating talent, but because Lau would just put her foot down and say how it was going to be. Josh just got on with quietly doing what he wanted, which was either playing on his PlayStation, training, or hanging out with his mates.

Dec’s lot, well if ever a more undisciplined rabble existed I am unaware of it. Chaos ruled in that house at that time, but it was always fun, full of life, full of laughter (and full of screeching if Charlie wanted her way about something). Tom was the laid back one, and Gracie was usually fairly chilled, but sometimes, usually when Charlie had wound everyone up about something, all three girls would be screaming at each other about the unfairness of something or other (someone having sparklier lip gloss maybe), and Tom would just be quietly tapping away on his laptop, oblivious to it all. Tom and Matty had a special relationship because Tom was so techy. The two of them often spoke their own language, or so it seemed, because they were talking about things none of the rest of us had a clue about.

All the oldies were getting older.

Gran was amazing, she was in her eighties but still going strong, never let her gnarly old arthritic hands get her down, always knew what everyone was up to, always said just the right thing to make you feel good.

Rose wasn’t doing so well. No one really knew how old she was, she would never tell, and Dec claimed not to know either. When Dec went to Australia, something broke in Rose. We all looked after her while he was away, but it wasn’t the same, and she changed. She’d always talked non-stop, been in the thick of everything, giving her opinion, helping out, but when Dec took his family to the other side of the world, she stopped talking so much, and she started to look like someone had deflated her. Dec had offered to take her with them, but Rose was terrified of flying and couldn’t face the journey. I think Dec even considered not going because of it, but sometimes you have to make those hard choices. Even when they all came back, and Rose perked up a bit, she wasn’t right. She was never as, I can’t think of the right word to describe her … bustly. Before, she would bustle everywhere, being busy, getting involved. After, she sat still a lot more, quietly, and she lost her confidence in things like cooking.

Rose had always been an awesome cook, a match for Mum even. They used to try to outdo each other by seeing who could make the best cake for tea on a Sunday, and honours were pretty much even. But little by little, Rose stopped baking, she stopped doing the little things she’d always been good at, like sewing, she even stopped doing so much cleaning and tidying, and I knew Dec and Amy were worried about her. There was talk about her moving to a sheltered flat somewhere, but no one knew how to suggest it, and there was also talk of Dec and Amy having her to live with them. Dec and Amy’s house had already been extended outwards and upwards to cope with their brood, and there was little available space for any further extending, so that would mean moving somewhere else, which would mean not being four doors down from Matty and Lau. Negotiations were still at an early stage.

Right, well, I think that’s the catch up sorted. On with the tale.

Laura

So life went on, after a fashion, and there were triumphs and disasters along the way:

Matt had allowed us to buy a powered wheelchair, for more independence. I’d thought he would enjoy being able to get out and about on his own, but his spasms had increased, and on only his second trip out in it, he tipped himself out of it when he rocketed off the kerb. He was lucky he didn’t end up under a lorry, and he never used it again.

He carried on working, as an occasional consultant for Raiders, and with Dec in their rugby IT business.

His health began to suffer; he got more chest infections and pneumonia was always on the cards. Although he had been in hospital several times, and it was always an option, I tried to care for him at home as much as I could. I knew when he needed to be admitted, and wouldn’t let him persuade me otherwise, but it was better for him to be at home if he could when he was really poorly. I had all the kit – the oxygen masks, the drip stands, the access to physios for chest drainage, the emergency numbers. The family were fantastic, and never let me carry it on my own. The children accepted how their dad was, and enjoyed spending time with him, whether it was a mad dash to the beach to catch the sunset, or sitting by his bed trying to keep his spirits up with a ridiculous conversation.

Cal

I guess one of the reasons I’m doing this is for Conor and Lily, so maybe I should restart with that, how child number one came about. Oh for God’s sake, no. What part of ‘there will be no porn’ did you not understand? Seriously, if you want to know how babies are made, read Matty’s or Lau’s stories, or just go and ask Mum.

So, baby-making part one. Remember the plan? Well it only went and worked. Chrissie passed her degree, wore the square hat and batman cape, and got a standing ovation from the Scott family who had managed to wangle far too many tickets for the graduation ceremony and caused a scene.

Then she got a job in a local primary school, because she’s so clever, who would not want to hire her? And bloody hell, teaching is hard, I know this because I know how hard Chrissie works, it’s much more than the time she spends in the classroom. Long summer holidays? Forget it. She’s doing lesson plans and all sorts for most of it, it’s all I can do to prise her away for a couple of weeks in the sun when the season’s finished. But she loves it, loves teaching, loves kids.

As soon as she’d been teaching for a year, we stopped using contraception (Lau, I hope you’re noticing that I’m using the word), and within three months, bang on schedule, she was up the duff, and a baby was due just in time for the end of summer term.

I still can’t believe how it all went to plan. Maybe this is because I never make plans, so don’t get much opportunity to see them working, but I do know how bloody unpredictable making babies can be. I know Dec never planned any of his four kids (sorry guys, if you were unaware of this fact), and neither, come to think of it, did Matty (again, soz for blurting). Mum and Dad apparently tried for years after they had me, and it took six to get to Iz. So I would not have been surprised to find that babies don’t always pop along just when you want them to.

However, Conor was on his way shortly after ordering him. It was thrilling and scary at the same time, knowing I was going to be a dad. I had all manner of dad role models around – Dad, Dec, Matty, Baggo – oh yeah. Baggo.

I forgot to mention that Baggo beat me to fatherhood by a good couple of years. He and Jen moved in together and she was pregnant within six months. Baggo as a dad was a changed man. He adored his daughter, you should have seen him with her, going all soppy. He stopped drinking, altogether, when she arrived, because he never wanted to be unable to help her when she needed it. Oh, and he sang to her every night. Sang her a story. He still sent me manic texts in the middle of the night, too, but they were a bit more comprehensible.

Callywally, how do u stop a v crying child from crying?

Dunno Bags. Lullaby?

Tried it. Still screaming.

Milk?

Tried.

Cuddles?

Tried.

Earplugs?

U beauty. On it.

So all these father figures, and I was still cacking my pants at the thought of being a dad. Maybe it was a lot to live up to, or more likely there was such a variety of styles, ranging from Dad’s less-is-more, via Matty’s ruling with a humorous iron rod to Dec’s let’s all have a laugh and see who can make Fanta come out of their nose, and I wasn’t sure how I would know what to do. Admittedly it was going to be a while before I had a teenager, but even knowing what to do when they cried was a worry (I really didn’t think earplugs was going to cut it with Chrissie), when the most responsibility I’d previously had was babysitting, and making sure they went to bed on time, which they never ever did when I was babysitting because I was a complete pushover.

The nearer it got to Chrissie having the baby, the more worried I got, tying myself up in knots, and I couldn’t talk to her about it. She was so happy, I didn’t want her to think I was this incompetent buffoon and make her worry too.

Inevitably it was Lau who set me straight. She’d called round with Josh and Ella after school one day, to borrow a saucepan or maybe it was a cake tin, something round and metal, not important. Anyway, she caught sight of the ‘Being a Great Dad for Dummies’ book I’d been reading and had carelessly left on the sofa when the doorbell went. I’d been reading it in secret, while Chrissie was out, in a desperate attempt to try to learn something useful and then seem casually competent when things started to happen, but it was having the opposite effect so far.

‘Doing some homework, flower?’

I shrugged.

‘Useful book?’

‘More like confusing. Lau, how the fuck am I going to remember all this?’

‘What are you worried about in particular?’

‘What apart from everything? Well for starters, what if he hates me?’

‘Does it suggest in the book that the baby will hate you?’

‘Well, no, not in so many words, but there’s all this shit about the baby bonding with the mother and how all the hormones get going between them and it’s all great, but I don’t have those hormones, so what if he hates me?’

Lau laughed and patted my arm.

‘Cal, your baby will love you. It’s not just hormones. You’ll love him, as soon as you see him.’

‘I already do.’

‘See? You’ve got that bond already. Do any of the kids you know hate their dads? Oh, maybe best not to think about Charlie.’

‘Well, no, I suppose not.’

‘There you go then. Matt used to talk to Ella and Josh, put his mouth right on my bump and talk all sorts of nonsense to them.’

‘I do that.’

I looked down, embarrassed to admit it.

‘Then he’ll know the sound of your voice. As soon as you say ‘hi’, he’ll recognise you as the one who told him about Arsenal. Or told him you loved him, or something else not as important as Arsenal.’

Lau always got it, I liked that about her. And it had really helped. She was a genius.

I had chats with everyone I knew about the same sort of thing, after that. Loads of the Raiders lads had kids, and there’s no one softer about his children than a rugby player. I felt part of the kid chat now, and it made me look forward to his arrival even more.

We knew he was a boy, had wanted to know as soon as we were offered the chance, and it helped us get to know him before he was born. We decorated his room with racing cars and space rocket mobiles, and were given piles of clothes from friends and family – Lau even gave us some of Josh’s old things, God knows where she’d kept them for eighteen years, but they were in mint condition.

So knowing he was a boy, we could choose names, although nothing binding in case he didn’t suit it when he arrived. Matty had insisted he needed a womb name, and threatened to come up with one himself if we didn’t. That led to a bizarre conversation late one Saturday night.

‘Cal, we need to think about a name.’

‘We’ve already got three. Have you ditched another one?’

Chrissie was forever changing her mind about the names, I sometimes wondered if we were going to get through every single name in existence before we finally decided, but I’d thought the last three were goers – they’d lasted a week so far, which was a record.

‘No, a womb name. We need to do it before tomorrow.’

‘Huh? What’s the rush?’

‘It’s Sunday lunch. Matty will be there.’

‘And?’

‘He said he’d think of one if we didn’t.’

‘Yeah he did. And since when was Matty the boss of us?’

‘You know what he’s like, he’ll think of something stupid on purpose like, I don’t know, Darth Vader, and then he’ll make everyone laugh, and they’ll remember, and that will be it until he’s born, even afterwards. Do you want your son to be called Darth Vader?’

Pregnant Chrissie had a tendency to be slightly paranoid and overwrought about everything. It was usually best to go with what she wanted to avoid floods of tears and accusations of not caring about her needs.

‘No, maybe not. I see your point.’

‘Or, God Cal, he might try a Tottenham player, he might call him ‘Hoddle’ or ‘Osvaldo’ or something. He’d think that was hilarious.’

Now that was more serious.

‘Shit. You’re right. We need to get thinking. Maybe head him off with an Arsenal name. Theo?’

‘No, don’t be stupid, womb names aren’t supposed to be real names.’

I hadn’t reached that chapter in ‘Being a Great Dad for Dummies’ yet, so was lacking a vital piece of information which was obviously only available to the person with the womb.

‘Oh. What do you think, then?’

‘Well I don’t know, do I. There aren’t books like there are of baby names.’

We had spent hours and hours looking at baby name books, and I mean hours and hours, before eventually deciding our top three boy’s names were Joel, Jack and Jordan. Something beginning with ‘J’ anyway. It sounded good with ‘Scott’. I was pretty sure he was going to be a Jack; it was Tom’s middle name, but apart from that there was no one else in the family or close friends who had a Jack. I was quite glad there wasn’t a book of womb names, as I wanted to get some sleep before Chrissie woke me up at the crack of dawn with a desperate need for banana and sardines on toast.

‘Well, I suppose it could be something self-explanatory like The Bump, or Peanut, that sort of thing.’

‘Really? That’s a bit boring.’

‘Seriously, Chrissie, we’re only doing this to stop Matty calling him Klinsmann.’

‘Yeah, but don’t you think it would be nice if we had a cool kind of name?’

‘I think it would be nice if I could go to sleep sometime tonight without having to think up a stupid name.’

‘Do you think it’s stupid?’

Oh bollocks. Chrissie’s eyes had filled with tears. Pre-pregnancy Chrissie had her emotions in perfect working order. She laughed when she was happy or something was funny; she cried when something was sad; she gave me a bollocking when I’d been an inconsiderate git. Nowadays, it really didn’t take very much, just one thoughtless word, and she was blubbing. I needed to back-pedal, and quickly.

‘No, of course not, sorry babe, I’m just tired. Let’s think then. Something that will shut Matty up, but isn’t boring.’

Chrissie’s tears stopped, and she smiled up at me. Her rock star smile was always worth it, whatever it took.

‘You know, I’m quite liking your Arsenal idea. Not Theo, obviously. No-one too recent. Old players maybe.’

This started a bit of a list battle, to see which of us could name the most obscure old Arsenal player. Chrissie started it off.

‘Brady.’

‘Nah, too much like a first name. Ljungberg.’

‘Nobody will be able to say it. Bergkamp.’

‘Veto. Too European. Wilson.’

‘Hmm. Has potential. That’s a maybe. Van Persie.’

‘Traitor. And too European.’

‘Why do you keep saying too European?’

‘It’s a valid veto. Sunderland.’

‘What? That’s a city. No way. Winterbottom.’

‘He never played for Arsenal. You’re thinking of Winterburn.’

‘No I’m not. Walter Winterbottom –’

‘Was the first manager of England. He never really played football, a couple of seasons with Man U. He was just a manager, really.’

A pause while Chrissie furiously Googled on her phone. A silence when it was confirmed that I was, of course, correct.

‘Well I still like Winterbottom.’

‘As a womb name for our baby?’

‘Yes.’

‘As something that will shut Matty up?’

‘Yes.’

‘Even though he played for Man U?’

‘Yes.’

I sighed. I wanted to go to sleep.

‘OK. Winterbottom it is. Night Winterbottom. Night Chrissie.’

‘Night Cal. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

So that’s how our baby son ended up being called Winterbottom for five months of his pre-birth life. Sorry, Conor. We stopped as soon as you were born, but some things are always remembered.

After hearing all the scare stories that people, especially women, like to tell about the births of their various children, and particularly being aware of Matty and Lau’s adventure when Lau got stuck upstairs with Matty out on the piss at a stag do, I was quite anxious about how it was all going to go. In fact, pregnancy and childbirth are two of the few things that actually make me feel anxious. Usually I’m fairly laid back, but this, having a tiny person who you already love, who is inside someone else, and who has to go through unbelievably difficult things in order to get into the world, made me feel utterly out of control.

Chrissie was really, really well throughout the whole thing. No high blood pressure, no dizziness, she hardly even seemed to put on much weight, if you ignored the enormous bump protruding from her front. She worked right up to the end of term, which was two weeks away from her due date, and although she was tired when she got home in the evenings, she managed it well (in other words, by me doing my best not to burn a meal either she or Mum had made for the freezer, and giving her loads of foot rubs and cold drinks, and doing as I was told as regards washing up and cleaning the worktops).

Even the timing was great. Most babies, from what I can gather, decide to come in the middle of the night, meaning two groggy adults stumbling around trying to remember where the baby bag is and find the car keys, but this one was so considerate, he even waited until we’d had our breakfast before deciding he was on his way.

‘Oh! Cal, I think, sorry, can you get the mop? I think my waters just broke.’

‘Really? Where?’

‘Where do you think? Where I’m sitting. Ooh.’

Chrissie held her large bump and screwed her face up in discomfort.

‘Shit. What do we do?’

‘Well, you get a mop, and a cloth, just clean up a bit here. Then maybe you can help me have a shower and get changed?’

‘Shouldn’t we be going to the hospital?’

‘Not yet. That’s the first contraction. It’ll be ages yet.’

Chrissie seemed very calm; however, all of the information I’d taken in from ‘Being a Great Dad for Dummies’ and the ante-natal classes we’d been to went out of the window in the rush of panic I was feeling.

‘But if it’s started … what if we’re too late? What if we have to stop on the way, what if –’

‘Cal, just chill. We’ll time the contractions, when they’re closer together, we’ll go, OK?’

I took a few deep breaths and nodded, then reached into the cupboard for the cleaning stuff as Chrissie headed off for her shower.

I cleaned up as well as I could (which to be honest wasn’t that well) then hurried into the bathroom, where Chrissie was standing under the shower, leaning against the wall, with her eyes shut.

‘Chrissie? Are you OK?’

She opened her eyes, and looked almost serene, as if she gave birth every day of the week.

‘Yeah. I was just thinking, this is my last day of being pregnant. I’m going to miss it.’

‘Really? Even the not being able to put your shoes on and the piles?’

‘In a way. You can’t go back there, can you, it won’t ever feel like this again, even when we have another one.’

‘S’pose not. Shall I wash your back?’

‘Mm yeah, that’d be lovely. Ooh. There’s another one. Can you check my watch?’

I told her the time, and she nodded.

‘Thirteen minutes. Ages yet.’

And that’s how it went, all morning, Chrissie just going ‘ooh’ every once in a while. It almost freaked me out, how little screaming there was. I was pretty sure there should be screaming, and at least some questioning of my parentage. The gentle ‘oohing’ continued as we listened to the radio and I wandered about doing things Chrissie couldn’t do on account of her huge belly, like dusting the skirting boards (seriously? Who does that?), making an olive and lemon curd sandwich (oh, that wasn’t pregnancy, that was some freakish thing she’d learned to love in Carlisle. Weirdo), rubbing her feet (which I never moaned about because she had lovely feet).

Then, shortly after lunch (the aforementioned weirdo sandwich for her, a cheese toastie for me because I’m normal), Chrissie announced it was time to get going, and she called the hospital to tell them we were coming, while I called Mum to let her in on it.

122. Far away

In which a family is separated by half a world for a while.

Matt

And so, for the next few days, it felt like a part of me had been cut out. I mean, yeah, I know, right, get over it Matt, they hadn’t gone on a one way trip to Mars where communications were a shade rudimentary, they’d gone to another part of the same planet, where they even had such things as wireless internet, telephones, computers and other newfangled communications devices. However, for the first few days we didn’t hear from them at all, as they were getting settled in, finding their feet, finding where they’d packed their newfangled communications devices.

Beth had the world’s shortest text from Dec (G’day), which we took to mean he had arrived in Terra Australis but hadn’t yet mastered the language, and then nothing, until Thursday, when we all got the same text ‘Facetiming at Matt’s 6pm that’s 1 in the bloody am for us so be there.’

So we were there, me, Lau, Josh, Ella, Jay, Beth, Cal, Iz, Mum, Rose, Cal’s girlfriend Ayesha, we all piled into our living room and waited for the Facetime chime. I’d set the iPad up on a stand so I didn’t have to hold it at arm’s length, as my bastard arms wouldn’t have lasted. In the last few days I’d taken severe hits in the walking and talking department, and was glad to be squished on the sofa with everyone else so it wasn’t as apparent. I wasn’t going to be doing much chatting.

At ten past six, the Facetime tone sounded, Ella pressed ‘answer’, and they all appeared on the screen. For an instant it felt like we were all there together, and then the time delay kicked in and we remembered they were half a world away. Rose gasped and put her hand to her mouth, and couldn’t speak for the entire duration of the call, tears leaking from her eyes. The rest of us cheered, shouted, talked over each other, asked dumb questions that weren’t heard or were lost in the time delay.

The children were all so excited to see each other; Ella and Josh had been waiting for days to see their cousins and get a tour of their house, but they were disappointed that time, as the house wasn’t ready and they were all staying in some swanky hotel courtesy of Dec’s new rugby club.

‘Yeah, we’ve got a suite, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, jacuzzi –’

‘I’ve got to share with Gracie.’

Charlie was immensely put out at this terrible injustice.

‘Yeh beauhiful, buh Rosa has tuh put up wih Tom snoring.’

This caused much more hilarity than it warranted, and I suspected the joint effects of a twenty four hour flight, jet-lag and it being the early hours of the morning for them were reaping their rewards.

‘When will you be in your house, sweetheart?’

‘Hopefully end of next week, unless the hotel kicks us out first. We’ve already broken a chair and spilt blackcurrant on the cream carpet.’

‘I doubt Australia’s seen anything like you lot, mate. When do you start training?’

‘Monday. I’ll let you know how their coach compares, see what I have to do to get fifty bench presses.’

‘Ella, didn’t you want to ask Charlie something?’

‘Yes Mummy, but there are too many people.’

‘Wehl hahv our own Facetihm, Squeaks, at the wehkend, yeh?’

‘Yes, Daddy.’

‘Leh us knoh a good tihm, Dec.’

And it rambled on, the story of the flight (they flew, they slept, when they woke up they were in Australia), how near the beach was (bloody near), how hot it was (bloody hot), how much they missed us all (bloody loads), how much we all missed them (even bloodier loads), arrangements for more, smaller, Skype and Facetimes as this really was a bit too chaotic, and then they were gone, and everyone started to go from ours as well.

I was worried about Rose, who hadn’t said one word, even when Dec had spoken to her directly. She’d only been able to smile and nod.

‘Can weh tahk yuh home, Rohs?’

‘Oh, no love, I brought your mam in my car.’

‘Ih’s a bih overwehlming ihnt it.’

She nodded, looking small and lost, and not at all like her bustly, larger than life self.

‘I knoh ih’s not the sahm, buh come an see us, any tihm.’

‘Yeah, Rose, please don’t stop coming to see us. We’re not quite as rowdy, but we do good cuddles.’

‘An bring cake. If yuh happen tuh hahv made any.’

Rose nodded again.

‘Well, thanks, I think I might be needing a few of those cuddles.’

‘Hehr, hahv one now.’

I stood up, rather unsteadily, and folded Rose up. Rose was pretty good at hugging; she was short and quite stout, but somehow seemed to envelop you, even though her arms can’t have reached all the way around.

While my head was down at her mouth level, she murmured in my ear.

‘I know you don’t like a lot of fuss, love, but if there’s anything I can do …’ ‘Thahks, Rose. Cake will beh fine.’

I winked at her, and she nodded. As she turned to go, Mum put her hand on my arm and just looked at me. She didn’t say anything, as she often didn’t, but it seemed I’d done something right in her eyes.

So the world turned, and we got used to nearly half our family being elsewhere, and sometimes it hardly seemed like they weren’t there, and sometimes it felt like they were at least on the other side of the Sun, but with the help of phones and computers, one of us talked to one of them nearly every day, possibly more than when they were up the road. The time difference meant I could indulge my occasional need for middle of the night arsing about without worrying about waking anyone up; by the time it was three in the morning here, it was mid-morning over there, and nobody minded.

And sometimes I needed it, to text him in the middle of the night. As things got worse, and I developed into more of a fucking cripple, I needed to just talk to someone who didn’t look at me with sympathy, and who I wasn’t trying to stay strong for.

Fuck, I’m back on the whinge thing, aren’t I. OK, positivity. It helps, much as I hate to admit it. After Dec and Amy had gone, things were bad for a while, maybe a week, but I got over it, and found that Dec had been right, the bastard. I had Lau and I had my kids, and they all helped me, well we helped each other. Being a family is so bloody awesome, it’s like having your own personal cheerleading squad, only without the short skirts and annoying chanting. Yeah, I missed Dec like I couldn’t have imagined, but it was dulled by having Lau, Josh and Ella there, and it became OK, because really, if I had them, I had everything.

Of course the fucking bastard was on the rampage, but it was contained to a fairly slow rampage. Bits and pieces of me fell away, and poor Lau had to pick up the bits and pieces that were left and help me to carry on, and sometimes it was bloody hard, like when my legs just went, and I had to dig out my walking pole in order not to fall over walking from the car park to the office. I felt so self-conscious on the morning Lau had to help me to the car that I nearly didn’t go in to work, but I was desperate to stay working as long as possible, and if I didn’t go in that day, it wasn’t going to be any better the day after, or the day after that, so in I went.

Raiders was, in some ways, the ideal place to be. There weren’t sympathetic looks and ‘poor you’; there was acknowledgement and disrespect and a nod at the stick with ‘planning a trip up Everest, Matt?’. There was nowhere to hide, but there was good humour and treating me like a normal person. It helped immensely, and I think being part of that environment was equal therapy to all the talking I did with Stefan and Adam.

I really missed those arsing about chats with the man from up the road, though. There were things I could say to Dec I couldn’t say to any other living being, whether I was married to them or paying them silly money to listen to me blathering on, and talking on the phone or via the internet just wasn’t the same. There was something about being in the same room, breathing the same air, belching the same dodgy curry, that enabled me to say things I would never say to anyone else.

Laura

The night of their flight, after the taxi had picked them up and we’d waved them off at midnight, we went to bed and Matt cried until morning.

Once Dec and Amy had gone, though, Matt rallied a bit, emotionally. He talked to me, and accepted help from everyone who was kind enough to offer it. He took all his sadness and buried it inside, deciding to make the most of what he had rather than raging against what he had been given.

I could always sense it, this sorrow, but he was dealing with it as best he was able, and I held him when he needed it, laughed with him when that was what was necessary, and let him see, always, how much I loved him and needed him.

That’s not to say it was always easy. There were days when I could see he was doing too much, that he was going to crash the next day, and he wouldn’t listen, and we argued. There were days when too many people made too much of a fuss over him, and he went off somewhere to get away from it all, and I had to go and find him, and we argued. There were days when I could see him wishing me, Ella and Josh weren’t there, so he didn’t have to care about us all and love us enough to stay with us, and eventually he’d snap at me or one of the children, and we argued.

The worst days were when he lost something else – another word he couldn’t say properly, another part of his vision that disappeared, the day he needed to take his walking pole into work to help him stay on his feet.

On those days, I lost him for a while. He was physically there, with us all, but he wouldn’t talk or look at us, he wouldn’t eat or move, until we went to bed, and then he’d hold onto me and sob, mourning it all.

Eventually, inevitably, his sexual functioning was affected, and although that, in a way, was the the biggest blow as it was the thing he’d been dreading the most, once it happened, he didn’t need to anticipate it any more He asked me constantly if he was going to get it all back. He knew I couldn’t answer, that no one could, but he also knew as well as I did that the more times he experienced a flare up, the more likely it was that he would remain affected afterwards in various ways, and the more frequently it was likely to happen in the future.

Matt

It was while Dec was away that I got the letter, and if he had been around I would have talked to him about it, and he would have made me see that I should just tell Lau, and I would have done, and none of this long tale of woe would have happened. I leave it to you to decide whether or not that is a good thing.

About a year after the Summers clan decamped to Australia, an envelope was delivered to me at Raiders, redirected from GreenScreen. There was a note and a flash-drive. From Julia. Holy shit. I had to read her name several times before I could quite believe it, but it was in her handwriting.

Dear Matt

I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it.

Julia

It threw me. I had no idea what was on the flash-drive, and I really didn’t know if I wanted to find out. I hadn’t thought about Jules for a long, long time, and had years ago made my peace with how things ended with us. Now I felt it starting to churn me up again, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t know what to do.

Lau, who I would usually have been able to rely on to tell me the sensible thing to do, had always had a hang-up about Jules. Maybe she wouldn’t any more, not with two children and several years of happily-married behind us, but I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to talk to someone, but that someone was thousands of miles away, and I couldn’t find the words.

So I took the envelope home and put it in a box of old stuff from GreenScreen, intending to talk to Dec about it when he came home, assuming he did, or when I managed to work out how to address important issues over a delayed internet connection instead of arsing about like I didn’t have a care in the world.

I forgot all about it. At least I think I did. It was on my mind for a while, I suppose, wondering what was on the flash-drive, what Jules had written about me, but I wanted to do the right thing with it, and until I knew what that was, maybe I just blanked it from my mind. Really successfully, as it turned out.

Years and years later, it would only have been just over a year ago, maybe eighteen months, I was trying to sort some of my crap out, and I was going through old boxes. I nearly threw the whole box away, because it said ‘GreenScreen’ on it, and there was no reason to be keeping it, but for old times’ sake I took the lid off, and there was the envelope. Of course, I’d forgotten what it was, but the note jolted me when I looked at it, and I realised it was way too late to be telling Lau about it now. Maybe I should have just chucked the whole lot anyway, consigned it to history, let it go. But I like knowing shit. So I opened the flash-drive.

Lord of all the fuckeries. It really was a whole story, about Jules and me, in her words, and I couldn’t stop reading it. It didn’t make me feel nostalgic, but it explained a lot, and if ever I’d wanted closure, it gave me that. Not that she was fine about everything, because I think it really did fuck her up, but that what happened was for the best, for both of us, in the end.

And bloody hell, she was good at writing sex. A bit too good, maybe. I wondered if she’d tried to publish any of it anywhere, online erotica sites or something, and that was why she’d sent it to me, but that seemed so un-Jules that I couldn’t imagine it.

Iz

Well here Matty and I have to disagree. Julia wrote a lot of sex, but it wasn’t good, in my opinion. It was descriptive, in that it was mechanical, he did this then I did this, then we shouted a lot, but it wasn’t exactly emotional. You have to be a good writer to write good erotica, and Julia’s was … meh. Just as well she had a day job. Just as well Matty and Lau did as well. Let’s just say none of them are likely to be signed up for Saucy Stories Weekly. Should there happen to be such a publication.

Matt

Jules’ story churned up a lot of feelings that I didn’t immediately know what to do with. I thought about telling Lau, I thought about talking to Dec, but I didn’t think anyone would really understand it, how reading it had made me feel, and so just to show that I occasionally listened to what people told me, and because Adam wasn’t an annoyingly perceptive family member, I fell back on one of his staple strategies. Write it down. And so it started.

I thought it would be short, like Jules’ story was, but I have taken a very long and circuitous route to get from ‘a’ (the beginning) to ‘b’ (the end), and although I have had to hide things from people and do this when nobody knew, the whole process of telling my life as I’ve seen it has been therapeutic. I feel like I’ve managed to put things in order, sort them out, know what I feel about things, about people, about events, if only in my own head. Believe me, that is no mean achievement.

The main thing I learned throughout all of this is that if I had to make all those choices again, the one I would choose without question and despite anything else is Lau. There are lots of other things I would change, but not Lau – none of it would be worth it without Lau.

o0o

I managed to hold on to my deal with Lau to take help where it was offered, and allowed the family to stick their collective beaks in, by calling, visiting, babysitting, driving me places, offering ‘helpful’ advice and generally fussing about. I hope it wasn’t just taking on my part; as long as I was able, I did my share of helping too, with homework, sorting out people’s computer problems, being available for a sarcastic put down at any time of the day or night.

The old libido finally went, of course, and that was a bit of a black day, when I realised it had been quite a while since I’d got that excited, and that it was going to be bloody months before I was any use to Lau in the marital equipment department. I pestered her endlessly about how long it would be before we could exercise our conjugal rights again, although I knew, if previous instances were anything to go by, that I had to be patient. The conversation would go something like:

The scene: Matt and Lau’s bedroom. Some heavy petting has just taken place.

Matt: Sohry Lau.

Lau: What for?

Matt: Yuh knoh. Tha I canht finish the job.

Lau: (Either tuts or sighs heavily) You are the most ridiculous man. Nothing unfinished about that for me.

Matt: I dohnt get why yuh wohnt let meh, I dohnt see the poin in both of us bein frustrahted.

Lau: Well, it’s kind of like a solidarity thing.

Matt: But tha’s bohlocks. Yuh cahnt fehl wha I feel, so ih duhnt hehp yuh understahd. Last tihm, maybeh, ih was awesohm tha yuh did tha, but now, ih feels lihk, if I was an amputeh, would yuh cut yuhr leg off too?

Lau: No, of course not –

Matt: Exactly. Soh let meh. Let meh, plehs, Lau. It’d beh greht if at least one of us cahm sometihm in the next yehr or two.

Lau: No. Thanks, flower, but I’m not going to be persuaded. It will make it all the more enjoyable when it’s both of us together. It’s like saving up for a holiday, or waiting for a birthday. Makes the wait worthwhile, and we can have fun together while we’re waiting.

Matt: How lohng ahr weh gona hahv tuh wait?

Lau: Precisely three hundred and fifty seven hours.

Matt: Whoa, tha’s only two wehks.

Lau: Or maybe more. Or maybe less.

Matt: Yuh fohgot I cahn duh mental arithmehtic, dihnt yuh.

Lau: Maybe a bit.

Matt: Yuh wehr trying tuh beh sarcastic wehrnt yuh.

Lau: Maybe a bit.

Matt: Lehv ih tuh the expehrts.

Lau: OK.

Matt: I bluhdy lohv yuh, Lau.

Lau: Good. Shut up and go to sleep now.

Matt: Another snog fihrst.

Lau: Oh go on then.

Mostly Lau kept me together, or I kept myself together so I didn’t affect us all, but sometimes it was too much. Sometimes, if Beth was being a pain, or something new had stopped working, or I had just had enough of people, I’d go off and hide for a bit.

To start with, it was the hideaway at St Saviours, but Lau always looked there first, so I took to finding other inaccessible spots – there was a taxi driver who often took me to the top of Whitman’s Hill, where there was an old shepherd’s hut that I sat in; I’d catch the bus to a small village and sit in a tea shop all afternoon staring at the horse-brasses until the last bus took me back again; I’d let myself into Raiders Stadium and sit at the back of the terrace, until the time I set the burglar alarm off and four police cars screeched up. But I didn’t do it very often. It gave me space, and Lau understood, and let me do it, as long as I came back after a bit.

And then, as if the bastard MS hadn’t taken enough from me, it teamed up with its old ally pneumonia, and they decided to have another go at kicking the shit out of me.

Ironically, I had started to feel like maybe the fucking bastard was fucking off – I had less trouble with the unintelligible bollocks, didn’t need to use the walking pole everywhere, could see a bit better. Admittedly, I’d had a bit of trouble swallowing, and a few drinks ended up going the wrong way. Maybe that was what did it, perhaps that’s how fluid got on my lungs, or maybe I had some kind of bug anyway, or maybe it was radiation from the bloody big screen. Never let it be said I don’t share the blame around for my misfortunes.

o0o

It was autumn. I’d been a fucking cripple for six months so far, and I’d had to change things at Raiders to take account of it. This involved reducing my hours and doing more from home, but sometimes shit happened that required me to be at the ground. Why does technology always throw a hissy fit when there just isn’t time to spend on putting it right?

It was a Friday afternoon, and the routine pre-match test of pretty much everything had shown up a glitch on the big screen. The sound wouldn’t sync with the visuals, the team sheet wouldn’t load properly, and something was wrong with the direct feed, causing pixellating and flickering. It wasn’t going to stop the match going ahead, but it needed fixing fast.

I did as much as I could from home, talking Jenna through some of the diagnostics, but eventually I realised I was going to have to go in and try the hands-on approach. Lau drove me over, and sat having coffee with the girls in the office while I wrestled with the glitch gremlins.

After an hour or so of trying everything, we thought we’d come up with a) a problem and b) a solution, which is always a handy way round to do things, and I headed out to the middle of the pitch, to check that everything was working, syncing and holding its own. I didn’t even realise I hadn’t taken my walking pole with me until I got out into the centre, and felt pretty chuffed with myself when it occurred to me that I was standing, supported by nothing, and hadn’t fallen flat on my arse. Things were looking up. I gave Jenna, who was in the media suite at the top of the grandstand, a thumbs up, and she fired up the screen.

The sky had gone dark, and the screen shone out against the black clouds, a video of Raiders’ most recent victory playing against the dramatic backdrop of lowering cumulo-nimbus. We tried a few adverts, the team sheet, the Twitter feed, it all seemed to be working, and I breathed a sigh of satisfaction just as the first fat rain drops plopped on my head.

Shit. It hadn’t occurred to me that as well as providing a great backdrop for the screen, the dark clouds might be holding some serious weather, which now seemed set to dump itself on me. I started to head off to the relative shelter of the dug outs, but without my stick it was slow going. Hurrying was a thing of the past, and before I’d got very far the clouds burst with a dramatic clap of thunder, kind of like you get in films but never seems to happen in real life. Maybe it only happens when something momentous is occurring, which I guess it was, not that I realised it at the time.

Before I was a quarter of the way to the dug outs, I was drenched right through, and bone-chillingly cold. By the time I got to the side of the pitch, there was little point sheltering in the dug outs, and I carried on down the tunnel and into the depths of the stadium.

I was freezing, teeth chattering like a set of wind-up joke dentures, and my clothes were dripping. The players weren’t training, so the changing rooms were locked and the heating wasn’t on. I blundered around trying to find somewhere appropriate to get warm and dry, but it took me a while, and I was shivering uncontrollably by the time I found the physio room, where a couple of players were having some treatment.

‘Matt! What the hell happened to you?’

Pete Dawson, one of the physios, looked up from the massage he was giving.

‘Rain.’

I was shivering too much to say more than a syllable at a time.

‘Shit, you’re fucking soaked.’

‘Mm.’

‘Here, I’ll get you a towel.’

He left his position by the table to grab a towel from a pile, and tossed one to me. I dried my hair, but my clothes were still dripping, and I needed to get out of them. Pete noticed my shivering.

‘Are you OK Matt?’

‘Cold.’

My phone rang, and I pulled it out of my pocket, wincing at how wet it was. Lau’s photo smiled out at me from the screen.

‘Heh.’

‘Matt, Jenna said you were out in the rain.’

‘Yeh.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Phy … si … o.’

‘Are you shivering?’

‘Mm.’

‘Oh God. I’m coming down there.’

‘Noh – ‘

But it was too late, she’d disconnected.

I sat on a small chair, clutching the towel, my sodden clothes making a puddle on the floor, while the two physios continued their treatment, throwing curious glances my way from time to time. After a while, there was a light tap on the door, and Lau stuck her head round.

‘Oh Matt. You need to get out of those things.’

She threw a frown in Pete’s direction, presumably for allowing me to sit in my saturated state, but this was a rugby club, nobody worried about a bit of rain.

Lau held out my walking pole, which she must have collected on the way. I took it, but was shaking too much to get to my feet, and she had to help me up.

Together we struggled out to the car, the cloudburst now over and the sun shining as if butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth, even though it obviously would, because, well, it was the sun, and butter would melt within several million miles of its mouth. I tried to worry about getting the car seats wet, but to be honest I just wanted to get home, dry and warm.

Lau fixed me up with a warm bath, some comfy jammies and a whisky toddy, and I spent the evening curled up under a blanket on the sofa, still shivering, feeling sorry for myself, but sure I’d be right as, oh the irony, rain the next day.

I wasn’t right as rain, but I managed to go to work to double-check the screen, feeling gradually worse as the day wore on. Over the next few days, it turned into a cold, with a cough which wouldn’t go, and my temperature kept spiking. Lau kept on at me about going to the doctor, as the cough got worse, I was struggling for breath, I was finding it harder not only to go into work, but to do things from home. But I wouldn’t, I didn’t want to, accept it, what it might mean, and in my usual fashion I thought that if I didn’t accept it, it would go away. That tactic had not worked once for me in my entire life, but it didn’t stop me employing it every single time something happened to me that I didn’t like.

So, I was coughing, struggling to breathe, dragging myself through every day feeling like shit, like worse than shit, honestly believing that the next day I would wake up and feel better.

But after a few days, I woke up to a feeling I hadn’t had for a long time, that I instantly recognised. It was the same head-pounding fuzziness, the same catch in my breath, the same oh shit not this again that I’d felt all those years ago when I’d ended up more than half dead on my bathroom floor. I fought it, I tried to deny it, but when Lau came upstairs and took my temperature, she called the doctor straight away, ignoring my protests. As the fever swept over me, I started hallucinating, weird living shapes growing out of the walls, giant octopuses swimming on the ceiling, purple witches flying in and out of the windows.

I didn’t really know much about the next couple of weeks, but when I was feeling a bit less like I’d been tripping on LSD, I found myself in hospital. I hadn’t nearly died, not quite, but when I finally woke up, and they were all there with the same looks on their faces, only this time I’d put the same look on Lau’s face too, I had to have a long hard look at how I coped with illness.

After a thousand years too long, I got better enough that they let me home and Dec stopped texting me once an hour asking if he needed to come back.

‘No, I’ll let u know when my funeral is.’

‘Not funny mate.’

‘It’s called gallows humour.’

‘Still not funny.’

‘I’m having a wicker coffin with purple satin lining.’

‘Not laughing.’

‘And family of baby bunnies 2 drop daisies on casket at the graveside.’

‘Yeah txt me again when u’ve stopped this bloody nonsense.’

‘Plus free bar on Jay.’

‘When’s this funeral again?’

Laura

Matt was in hospital for nearly three weeks while they pumped anti-biotics into him, semi-conscious for half of the time, irritated and desperate to get out for the other half.

It was a big wake-up call for him, though, bringing back as it did memories of that time when he nearly died. Jay sat by his bedside looking drawn and worried, the same memories on his mind as well. It was a great relief to everyone when Matt finally came home, and chastened as he was he agreed that he would look after himself better in future.

The damage had been done, though, and each time he relapsed in the coming years, he had to be really careful not to get a cold, as his chest just couldn’t cope with it. We never talked about it, but I knew that was what would finish him. Sometimes I wished I didn’t know so much about MS, hadn’t seen so many people experience what my family and I were going through.

Josh and Ella took it all in their stride – Matt was just Daddy, and sometimes he could run about and play football with them and drive them to parties and tickle them, and sometimes he didn’t have the energy to lift the remote control to the TV or walk to the loo without help or eat his breakfast. As they grew older, they understood more, and I could see it cross their minds that one day, Matt might not be there.

Ella coped with this by finding out as much about MS as she could – on the internet, in books, talking to people from the MS support group Matt attended when I nagged him enough – so she could make up her own mind about what she thought was going to happen to her dad; she asked us questions as well. Josh never really talked about it with Matt or me, but Ella told me he talked to her sometimes, and sometimes she’d ask me a question he had asked her that her extensive research hadn’t managed to find an answer to.

Family events came and went, sometimes Matt was fit for them and sometimes he wasn’t.

Matt

Oh God, here I am again, going over it all, the details, moaning on about it, when what I should be doing is just telling you the great bits. Because now there’s not time to do it all, to go over all the details of just how fucking amazing my life has been; there’s only time to tell you how, if I had known when the fucking bastard first reared its oh so fugly head that I would be doing battle with it for nigh on thirty years, and that its partner in crime, pneumonia, would come to claim me in the end, I would not have made it this far.

If I had known all that, I would have imagined my life as the shittest life it is possible to contemplate. But that hasn’t happened. I mean, yeah, I’ve hated having this fucking bastard thing, that takes my strength, stops me speaking, chains me to my bed, makes me rely on people to do shit for me. I’ve really fucking hated it. But that isn’t all my life has been.

My fucking amazing life has seen me married to this woman who – words fail me when I try to describe what Lau has meant to me. And they fail me when I think about Ella and Josh. Parents always think their kids are the best, but my kids actually are. I can claim no credit for them topping the league table of awesomeness. Lau can claim a lot of credit, but most of it they’ve managed on their own. From an early age they had to put up with their dad being unreliable in the physicality department, having to take things like going swimming or for bike rides with me when they could, being sullen and uncommunicative when things had seemed to be going well for me but suddenly got hijacked by some sudden recurrence of the fucking bastard and its evil ways.

So I’m going to stop whining on about my lot. I’ve had this fucking bastard thing, and it’s shit, and that’s that. I really, really want the people I love to know how I feel about them, and so rather than waste any more of what little time there may be left, I’m going to tell you all how I feel about you, because I’m never going to say it to your face without arsing around. Unless you’re Lau, in which case you know I love you forever, right? You should do, I say it enough.

I’m hoping that maybe some of you might put some other good bits into your own story. I’ve rambled on, and on, and on, for bloody pages, and I hope that maybe one or two of you might think ‘well bloody hell, he’s gone on ad infinitum about snogging Lau, but he’s totally ignored that time when I drove across the city to help him choose curtains. Know what, I’m going to bloody well write my own version, see how he likes that’. I think you should. It’s been cathartic, it’s been nostalgic, it’s been revelatory.

But I haven’t really got time for any more of it. Time seems to have caught up with me, finally. I’ve been running for a long time, keeping ahead of it, just, but I think now I might have let it get too close; it’s time to stop this. It’s just too tiring, and there are things I’d rather do with my last days than type.

Cal

Dec moving to Australia was maybe the biggest thing that happened back then. Matty having a flare up of MS and then getting pneumonia – well I guess it was big at the time, but over the years it became a bit commonplace, it happened more regularly, Matty would either be well or he wouldn’t, nobody made too much of a big deal either way, not to his face. But at least he was around, you could go and see him and take the piss out of him and have the piss taken out of you, whether he could actually say ‘piss’ or whether it came out all garbled. Dec wasn’t there. None of us realised how much we’d miss him, all of them. We thought that Facetiming and Skyping and calling and emailing and texting would keep us in touch enough that we’d hardly notice it, but we all noticed, a lot.

It was things like Dec missing my Raiders debut. It wasn’t televised, so he couldn’t even actually see it, and it was some ridiculous time of the day or night over there, so he wasn’t part of it. Everyone else was there, even though it was the coldest night of the year, even Gran came along, one of the few times she came to watch rugby. I came on as a replacement for the last twenty minutes, and even though I knew he wasn’t going to be there, the first person I looked for in the bar afterwards was Dec. We Skyped later and I relived all twenty minutes for him, tackle by tackle, pass by pass, but it wasn’t the same.

And the birthdays. All of them had birthdays while they were out there, obviously, and Amy had her thirtieth. There would have been meals and parties, but we had to do it all sat in front of a computer instead of elbowing each other for room round the table, we had to listen to them telling us about getting together with their new friends and people they called their ‘second family’, which made us all just a bit sad and jealous, although we tried to remember that it was great they were getting on well and having a good time.

Dec and his family were away for nearly three years. They missed my eighteenth birthday and both the swanky party Mum put on and the one she didn’t know about with my friends and several cases of beer. Actually, Dad didn’t know about that one either, as it was in the middle of the rugby season and we would have been skinned alive. They missed me and Ayesh announcing at a Sunday lunch that Ayesh was officially moving out of the conservatory and in to my room and the look on Mum’s face. They missed Gran and Rose gradually getting older, especially Rose who missed them so much she seemed to shrivel a bit more every day they were gone.

They nearly missed Dad’s fiftieth birthday, and they nearly missed me and Ayesh properly moving in together, not just shacking up in the same room. But they were home just in time.

With Dec’s typical inability to plan more than an hour ahead, we only had a few days notice of the exact date they were coming home. We obviously knew they were coming back, because Dec had signed for Raiders again, and there had been a wild celebration when he called us and told us. None of us had been sure whether he would really come back to England, and if he did, Dad was the only one who knew whether Raiders would offer him a contract, but he was saying nothing. It was our regular weekly Skype session, the one everyone tried to make if at all possible, when he told us.

‘Right Matty, is it all set up?’

‘Yeh, Jay, I hahv done this ohnce or twice befohre, ahtually.’

‘OK then, why can’t we see them?’

Dad seemed more eager than usual to get going with the Skyping. Usually he just sat nursing a beer while everyone chattered around him.

‘Er, mehbe becohs yuh dihnt call them yet?’

‘Oh yeah. How do I do that again?’

‘Oh fuh fucks sahk. Clihk the Skype icon.’

‘Which is?’

‘Big bluh squahr, white S. Mohron.’

‘Yep, got it, oh, it’s ringing. Is it supposed to do that?’

‘G’day mates!’

Dec appeared, with Amy sitting next to him and Tom and Gracie hanging over the back of the sofa.

‘Hey mate! Great to see you.’

Dad certainly was seeming very jovial. I noticed Mum looking at him appraisingly.

‘Hello all of you. Not a full house, sweetheart?’

Mum always wanted to see all of them, every time, and if she couldn’t she wanted to know exactly where they all were, so she could talk about it to them like she was there.

‘No, Charlie’s at a party and Rosa’s got the lurgy. She’s in bed.’

‘Oh no, poor Rosa. Just a cold?’

‘Yeah, she’ll be right soon as.’

Dec’s speech, which had always verged on the Australian-sounding at times, had tipped over into full Aussie mode within months of him arriving in Perth.

‘How’s things, then?’

Again with Dad asking questions and sounding interested. Mum definitely knew something was up. She probably guessed what it was as well, but Dec didn’t give her a chance to say.

‘Well we’ve got some news, don’t know how you’re fixed in a few weeks, but we’re coming home.’

The living room practically exploded with squeals and yells, while Dad sat back and looked suspiciously calm about it all. Mum had tears in her eyes, and Rose sat there with her mouth open, unable to speak. She hadn’t done much speaking since they left anyway, but now she was just dumbfounded.

‘James, did you know about this?’

Dad looked at Mum and shrugged.

‘I’d say he did, Beth. I’ve signed for Raiders, just for a year.’

Mum punched Dad on the arm, pretty hard.

‘How could you not say?’

‘You know what it’s like, Beth, I’m not allowed.’

‘You bastard. You could have given me a hint.’

Now all of us shut up, as Mum swearing was something that just didn’t happen, ever. Dad was in serious shit now.

‘Sorry, Beth, I didn’t think.’

This was Dad’s catchphrase when he was in trouble with Mum. ‘I didn’t think’ wasn’t going to do him much good later, from the look on Mum’s face as she turned back to the computer screen.

‘So, if you’re back in a few weeks, you’ll be able to come to James’s party?’

Dad was having a monster fiftieth birthday party, organised by Mum, with half the country invited. Dec or no Dec, it was going ahead on the day it had been planned.

‘Oh Beth, I completely forgot about Jay’s birthday. We were hoping you could fetch us from the airport, but you might be in the middle of party stuff.’

‘Don’t be daft Amy. Of course we’ll be there.’

And so it was all organised, the mass convoy because we all wanted to be there to see them come back rather than one of us driving a minibus to fetch them.

Laura

Matt and I hadn’t even bothered to go to bed, although we’d sent Ella and Josh up at the usual time. We were both too excited to sleep ourselves, though. Tonight, or rather at two in the morning tomorrow, we were all setting off to the airport – the four of us in our car, Jay, Beth and Iz in their car and Cal and his girlfriend Ayesha in theirs – to bring Dec, Amy, Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa back home.

There had been great excitement earlier in the week, when a removal lorry had arrived and deposited a lot of their belongings back in their house from storage. There was a container load on its way from Australia as well.

They had been away for two and a half years, Dec having signed for two more seasons after the first one. We’d kept in touch, Skyping or Facetiming at least once a week, but Matt and I hadn’t managed to visit. Jay and Beth had been out there once, over a year ago, and Dec had come back briefly when he got a surprise call up to the Australian national squad that played in the UK in the autumn internationals.

Dec, at the grand age of thirty-three, was approaching the twilight of his rugby career, and had re-signed for Raiders for a year while he considered his options. He had taken some coaching exams while he was in Australia, and was considering moving in that direction, which might take them away from the city again. But for now, what was important was that they were coming home.

The sensible thing would have been to hire a large people carrier and one of us to drive to the airport, to collect them all and their luggage, but we all wanted to be there when they got off the plane. Even Rose offered to drive, but looked relieved when everyone told her she’d be more useful making sure breakfast was ready at their old house. The Summers family were likely to be tired after a long flight, but they weren’t going to get away without a grand reintroduction to the Scott family. And we were all piling up there, with enough seats and boot space between us to carry them back with us.

Matt and I sat watching a DVD, drinking coffee and fidgeting, waiting for it to be time to wake the children up and get in the car. Matt checked the time on his phone every five minutes, which would have been irritating if I hadn’t been checking the clock every three.

It was strange being out of touch with them. The last couple of weeks, in particular, had been a flurry of preparations, calls, Skypes, texts, all times of the day and night as things occurred to people and plans were made, but now they had been out of contact for nearly twenty four hours as they made their way across the world.

‘I’m just not used to not getting texts from him, Lau.’

As often happened, Matt seemed to have tapped into my thoughts.

‘I know. It’s not like I text Amy that much, or I didn’t think I did, but a few times today I’ve seen something or read something, and thought it would make her laugh, and I’ve pressed the message button, and then remembered, but I can tell her in person in – less than seven hours.’

We smiled at each other, eyes sparkling.

‘Did yuh hear Josh Facetiming Tom earlier?’

‘Yeah, he made me laugh, he told Tom he was glad he was coming back because he’d missed playing in the long grass.’

‘That garden’s not going to know wha’s hit ih.’

‘Ha ha. The full force of the Summers clan. Tomorrow, Matt – they’re going to be here tomorrow, we can just pop up the road and see them.’

‘Yeah, well, some of us can’t pop as quickly as we used to, but ih’s a bloody sight nearer than Perth. We won’t have tuh think about wha time ih is there, it’ll be the same as ih is here.’

‘Josh and Ella can go there after school, we can have them all here after school –’

‘Oh, I thought we were saying things we were looking forward to.’

‘You love it, Rosa on your knee telling you secrets, pretending not to notice Tom and Josh tying your shoelaces together, Charlie and Ella on the dance-mat –’

‘Hours afterwards wihping the sticky fingerprints ohf the telly an picking bihs of Cheesy Wotsit out of my hair. Ih’s a bloody good job weh didn’t have any more, we’d need bouncers.’

‘Who says we’re not having any more? There’s always a chance.’

We had finally stopped actively trying for another baby about five years ago, when it just got too much, the monthly disappointment, and we realised how much greater the chance of having a baby with some kind of abnormality was as we were getting older. Although we had started using contraception again, a part of me wasn’t prepared to give up and I still felt, even at the age of forty-three, that it wasn’t too late if nature decided to play ball with us and we wanted to take a shot.

‘Yeah, fading fast, Lau. Even if I wasn’t a dog’s breakfast down there, we’re getting on a bih, our equipment’s not wha it was.’

‘Speak for yourself. My equipment still happens to be spick and span, thanks.’

‘Spick and span, eh? Which particular Enid Blyton book are yuh out of, then?’

‘Five Check Out Their Equipment. It’s one of the lesser known classics, banned for its graphic sexual content. Dick’s equipment was always in perfect working order. Timmy the dog, well, sadly he’d had the chop early on, and as for – oh, who was the girl who wanted to be a boy?’

‘Couldn’t tell yuh, but I think I see where this is goin. Naughty Enid, then, who’d have thoht.’

‘Yeah. We should check the children’s bookshelves, just in case a contraband copy has slipped through.’

‘I hear black mahket Blyton is much soght after in the plahground.’

I looked at the clock again and put on my whiniest back-seat-of-the-car voice.

‘Oh isn’t it time to go yet?’

‘Patiehce, LauraLou.’

Matt put on a voice that sounded uncannily like my mother.

‘Another coffee? Stop us falling asleep on the way?’

‘Yeh, that’d beh great. I’ll need to keep awake up the motorway, keep yuh company.’

I was going to be driving, as Matt was recovering from his latest flare up of MS and still not confident of either his braking or his steering. The more severe symptoms hadn’t lasted as long, but had returned about eighteen months after the previous relapse had ended. As his mobility improved and the slur in his speech became less pronounced, Matt’s mood lifted and his confidence returned, and things were going pretty well for him at the moment. Raiders had been very accommodating, and had allowed him to reduce and increase his hours as his condition worsened and improved, and work from home when he needed to. They recognised that Matt worked hard, loved his job, and was very good at it, and they didn’t want to lose his expertise.

Finally it was time to wake the children up and get in the car. Ella and Josh hardly woke up before they were asleep again, and Matt nodded off soon after we got on the motorway, despite all the coffee.

I was following Jay, who was under strict instructions to drive slowly enough for me to keep up, but Beth must have fallen asleep as the speed gradually crept up.

Cal

We stayed in convoy on the motorway until Mum fell asleep and was no longer saying ‘slow down and wait for everyone James’ every ten seconds, then Dad put his foot down and sprinted away. Lau didn’t drive fast, and left to her own devices could have ended up in Inverness rather than Heathrow, after a tour of Britain and a nice sing, so I stayed with her, me and Ayesh singing to my iPod under the starry skies.

Laura

I dropped back, not willing to go as fast as Jay, and his large four by four sped off ahead. Cal was behind me, and he stayed with me. I knew the way anyway, and I didn’t need to follow Jay to know where I needed to go – I always got where I was going in the end. Maybe I sometimes took a bit longer, but there were always interesting things to see on the journey. We were going to get there in plenty of time, the plane wouldn’t be landing for hours, but we wanted to be sure we were all there when it did.

Getting the sleepy occupants out of our car when we arrived wasn’t an easy task. Matt didn’t get any easier to wake up, and Ella and Josh had been asleep the whole way. I was fighting a losing battle, getting one awake only for the others to fall asleep again. In the end Cal and Ayesha woke up Josh and Ella and persuaded them out of the car while I pinched and shook Matt awake.

‘Mmph … no … too early.’

‘Matt, we’re here, at Heathrow.’

‘Wha? Ih’s … day off … go ‘way.’

‘Matt.’

I pinched the back of his hand, and that got his attention, just as I was about to resort to the kissing method. His eyes opened blearily and looked at me, then he rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair.

‘Are weh hehr? I dinht sleep the whohl way, did I?’

I nodded.

‘Shih, Lau, why did yuh let meh? I was gona keep yuh awake, sing yuh songs and set yuh a quihz. It was a bloody amahzing quihz.’

‘Well, you’ve never tried to wake you up when you’re fast asleep, but it’s hard enough when your hands aren’t full of steering wheel, so I had no chance, really. Come on, everyone’s waiting for us.’

We sat and drank more coffee while we waited, watching the skies lighten through the windows, and the flight numbers appear and disappear on the boards.

Cal

Finally the Arrivals board announced that their flight had landed, and we headed off to the gate to wait for them. None of us could stop smiling. It had been too bloody long. Mum and Dad had been out to Australia once to see them, but nobody else had made it, and to have them in touching distance again was going to be awesome.

Mum leaned on the barrier, unable to stop jiggling with impatience. She hated not being in control of things, and the whole lot of them had been out of contact for more than twenty-four hours while they were on their way. We just had to wait until we saw them come round the corner, but Mum wasn’t one of life’s waiters. Ella and Josh were finding it hard, too, and Lau kept finding things to take their mind off it, like little snacks she’d brought, or giving them little quizzes. Matty was usually the quiz-master, but he was distracted today. He’d really missed Dec, more than he would ever admit, and he was jiggling with his eyes fixed on the corner almost as much as Mum was.

It was Charlie we heard first. She was the most raucous Summers, and it was her ‘come on, Rosa, don’t be so slow‘ that we heard first. We recognised it, even though there was an Australian accent to it, as it was so bossy. And I looked at Dad, and Mum looked at Lau, and Matty straightened up, and then we heard Amy, and then Dec laughed, and then they were all there, taking up the whole corridor, and then they saw us and they were running towards us and we met at the barrier, hugging and kissing and smiling and laughing and suddenly noticing how different they all were with their sun-bleached hair and how the hell had the kids all got so tall but how really the same they all were and how great it was to see them again, how truly great, and how much we’d missed them, but now they were back, and we were all together again.

*

I think I get it now, what holds our bloody enormous sprawl of a family together. Declan Summers. If it wasn’t for him, we’d just be a normal family, mum, dad, two kids, we’d see Gran every so often, we’d see Matty every so often, it would be, you know, a good family but that would be it. Dec is kind of a magnet. Without him, we sort of start drifting away from each other, just slightly. He pulls us all towards the centre, without even realising he’s doing it. I think it started when we nearly went our separate ways, back when I was little and he was a teenager. He realised, at the same time that Mum and Dad realised, that he was part of our family, and he was so relieved not to have lost it all, that he’s always clung on extra tight to us all, so tight that it attracts other people who would have otherwise been on the fringes too, like Nico. It’s become the norm that anyone who’s attached to any of us gets pulled in to ‘the family’, and rather than it feeling too big, or overwhelming, it just gets bigger and noisier and better.

When Dec was in Australia, we were a little bit lost without him, and when he came back, it was like something immediately clicked back into place.

121. Like it’s over

In which old friends tread a well worn path, and a dreaded event has to be faced.

Laura

Matt had finally called everyone who had tried to contact him, reassuring them, thanking them, sounding normal, convincing himself as much as them that there was nothing to worry about.

As he started texting, I thought about how much he needed it, to be normal, and how much he was going to fight what was likely to happen to him in the weeks ahead. I mentally prepared myself for a trying time. I’d spent most of the day worrying about Matt, chasing after him, reassuring him, holding him. With the return of his MS, and with both of us having to get used to Dec and Amy moving away, we were going to have to look after each other. It couldn’t just be down to me. I felt my lips tremble as I faced the enormity of it all.

Matt

As I looked at Lau, to reassure myself she was here, this paragon of all that was my rock, I saw a tear slide down her cheek, and her lips did that wobbly trying not to cry thing.

‘Fuck, Lau. Hey, baby, don’t, no, no.’

I couldn’t cope with Lau breaking down, not now. Admittedly I’d been pretty much ignoring her since we got in, intent on my self-flagellation by iPhone. She needed some TLC too, her day had been almost as shit as mine. Oh come on Matt, it could easily have been twice as shit, you’re not the only person to be affected by your little dramas.

I reached inside me to the place where the rest of my strength was. I found some somewhere, enough to reach out to her, be there for her.

‘Oh you’ve been so fucking awesome today. Here –’

I reached up and wiped the tear away, as Lau sniffed and blinked, trying to stop herself. She needed to know I was with her, ready to face it. Even if I wasn’t.

‘– I’ve finished texting now, at least the important ones. We need to chat properly, don’t we.’

Laura

‘Really?’

Matt never volunteered to talk, he always needed to be cajoled or tricked into it.

Matt

I could see how surprised she was. I never volunteered to talk, she nearly always had to bully or trick me into it.

‘Yeah. Oh, I really, really don’t feel like ih, but we need to get things straight, don’t we. I can’t have you carrying me, you’ll break.’

She’d done enough carrying today to last me a lifetime.

Laura

‘And you’re too heavy. Maybe I need a crane.’

I smiled weakly at him, pleased I wasn’t going to have to explain this to him. He’d changed a lot from the uncertain, self-centred man I’d met, to someone who looked outside himself and knew what to do to support the people he loved.

Matt

It was a pretty feeble joke, and she smiled apologetically in recognition of the fact.

‘Yeah, so practical and literal Lau, you know what I mean. Today, well, it made me realise, as if I didn’t already, how much I need you. And if I rely that much on you, you need someone to rely on too. Now, hopefully that will be me, but the way things are going, I don’t know if I’m going to be much sodding use to you in a few – what – weeks, months. We need to talk about what we’re going to do. Shit, I fucking hate asking for help, but maybe we need to, see what the combined forces of Scott UK, now incorporating our Australian division, can do. Fuck it, I still can’t believe they’re going to the other side of the fucking world.’

It burned through me again as I said it, but not saying it wasn’t going to make it not happen.

‘Matt, I love that you want to talk about this, but I think maybe we both just need to digest it all a bit first. You’ve been great just now, phoning everyone, telling them you’re OK, putting everything right. But you’re not OK, it’s not all right. Yeah, asking for help is important, but I think the first thing we need to do is just be together, see how it all works out for a few days. Yesterday, we realised your MS is back. Today, Dec told you he’s moving to Australia, which is big, upsetting news, and it’s affected you enough that you messed up your presentation. We need to get our heads round it before we make any decisions.’

She was, as usual, spot on. My head hadn’t caught up with everything yet, it wasn’t the time to be doing ‘let’s talk about the future’. I was hardly likely to be thinking straight, if recent events were anything to got by.

‘I was trying to have my sensible head on, kind of going ‘what does Matt usually hate doing but everyone badgers him until he does it’, and I thought if we ask right now, all that hassle will be one less thing.’

‘I know, my love, and I’m so proud of you for thinking that. We will, we can decide that now. No ignoring phone calls, no saying ‘no thanks’ when we should bite people’s hands off if they offer, no getting stressed about how it might look if one of us can’t do something on our own. Decision made. But I think, for tonight, we can just be Matt and Lau, and Ella and Josh, family time. You need an early night, maybe a warm bath and a cuddle from your adoring family. Tomorrow we can make plans. Tonight is for us.’

Oh she did it, every time. I’d thought I was going to be comforting her, but her tears were dry now, and she was just making everything OK, for tonight. There would be fall out, I was likely to be a pain in the arse about many things, but right now, that was top drawer.

‘Sounds fucking perfect, Lau.’

‘What would be even more perfect, is if you stopped swearing before the children get back. I know today’s been, well, stressful probably fails to describe it, but …’

And I loved that even though I was a fucking lunatic, and in a fragile state, or some such shit, she still had a go at me about the important things.

‘I know. Sorry. Matt Scott’s default position, lots of obscenity. Point taken.’

‘What do you want to do now?’

I looked at her, wanting to let her know truthfully how deep in it all I still was.

‘Honestly? Find somewhere dark and quiet and drink myself into oblivion.’

‘Would it help?’

I knew she was saying it would be OK, if that was what I wanted to do, just for tonight, but I sighed. A big part of me thought it would help a lot, right now, to just forget it all in a whisky-induced stupor. But there was always the waking up. That was worse.

‘No, I suppose not. This is hard, Lau. It was hard last time, but I kind of felt like, I dunno, I deserved it or something, with what happened with Jules and how I was before, all the playing the field shi – er stuff I used to do. This time, I don’t know what I’ve done.’

Lau frowned and shook her head.

‘You know it doesn’t work like that, it’s not a punishment, it’s a neurological condition. It doesn’t sit in your brain judging you.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I know that, really, logically, but I keep thinking, what did I do to make it come back? I haven’t been stressed, I’ve been happy, work, family, life in general, all good. Before, breaking up with Jules, well OK, maybe not a punishment, but a trigger. First time, I was seriously stressed at work. This time, all hunky dory. I just don’t get it.’

‘You know there’s no one cause, don’t you.’

We’d had similar discussions, many times. I needed a reason, an answer, something to point to and say ‘if I hadn’t done that’, or ‘if that had been different’, but there just wasn’t the luxury of being able to blame something or someone.

‘Yeah, I suppose so. Just looking for something to make sense of it.’

‘That’s a waste of energy. You’re better off making sense of where you’re heading, rather than where you’ve been. Lau’s Life Lessons.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, you’ve got a thousand of those, haven’t you. Where are you heading, Lau?’

‘Not sure, but I’m going there with this amazing man, who’s just faced up to two of his biggest fears, and has the most lovely little bum a girl could ever wish for. He makes me feel safe and loved and as long as he’s with me, I don’t care where I go.’

I pulled a doe-eyed face at her.

‘Aw, Lau, you are so soppy.’

‘I know.’

‘I love it.’

‘I know.’

‘I love you.’

‘I know.’

‘You’re a bit of a know-all.’

‘I know.’

‘I think I just saw Dec walk past with the kids.’

‘I know.’

Laura

The four of us spent the rest of the evening snuggled up on the sofa together, in front of the fire, wrapped up in a couple of blankets. We put DVDs on for the children, but none of us really watched them. Ella and Josh told us excitedly about how Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa were going to live in Australia with Dec and Amy, and they were going to have kangaroos in their garden and could we go and see them in the holidays.

A bit of gentle probing revealed that they didn’t really have any idea how far away Australia was, so we looked on a map, and decided that it was quite a long way to go for a game of football, but that we could use Daddy’s computer to talk to everyone really often.

‘Daddy, can we talk to them on your computer now?’

‘They’re only just up the road now, Squeaks. And you’ve only just seen them.’

‘Yes, but you need to check if it works.’

‘Well, I suppose you have a point. She gets it from you, Lau, being right all the time. Very irritating. Alright, bring my iPad. If we squish in close they’ll be able to see us all. I doubt they’ll all fit on the screen. Dec probably hasn’t got his turned on anyway. OK, Squeaks, you press this button and that tries to call Dec’s iPad, or his phone.’

She pushed the screen where Matt showed her. There was a short pause, and a ringing tone, and we looked at the picture of us all looking back at us all. Then the picture changed and Dec’s face appeared.

‘Oh, hey guys, haven’t done this for ages. Whoa, you look comfy.’

‘Dec, we’re practising for when you’re in Australia, so we can play football on the computer.’

‘Ha ha, no Squeaks, we can only talk. But yeah, mate, bit of a practice seemed in order.’

‘Great to see you all. Here, if I just go into the living room we can squeeze a few more Summerses into the picture – look, here’s Ames, and Tom and Gracie. Rosa’s in bed, and Charlie’s – babe, where’s Charlie?’

The picture wobbled as Dec walked through his house and forgot what he was doing while he talked to Amy. We heard Amy’s voice, but could only see Dec’s feet.

‘She’s doing some sticking for school tomorrow.’

‘Dec, mate, great feet, but we’d rather see something more interesting.’

‘Oh, fuck, sorry.’

The picture wobbled again and we could see Tom, Gracie and Amy sitting on their sofa.

‘Wave, guys.’

‘Who are we waving at, hon?’

‘Matt, Lau, Josh and Ella. They’re practising their Facetiming. Hey, I’m gonna sit down here, so I can get in the shot.’

The screen blurred and wobbled again, and when it settled down we could see a view of the living room.

‘You need to change the view, mate.’

‘What?’

‘Picture of a camera with a circular arrow in ih. Press it.’

‘Oh.’

The image changed, and we saw Dec sitting with his family.

‘Oh cool.’

‘Daddy, I think Dec needs some practice too.’

‘Yeah, Josh, I think so. Tom will sort him out, won’t you, Tom.’

Tom nodded, and looked back seriously.

‘OK, guys, just a test run, all went well, Roger over and out. Press that button, Squeaks.’

She touched the screen again, and we disconnected.

‘Daddy, who is Roger?’

‘Ha ha, it’s not a person, it means OK.’

‘Why does Roger mean OK?’

‘Er, do you know, I’m not sure. Maybe Mummy knows, she seems to know everything, usually.’

‘Mummy, why does Roger mean OK?’

I wrinkled my nose at Matt, not grateful to have been put on the spot. I doubted Matt didn’t know; he knew all sorts of useless facts like this.

‘Isn’t it something to do with pilots in the war?’

‘See, I said she’d know. Hey, let’s look it up.’

Matt Googled the term and Ella and Josh snuggled in closer as Matt set off on one of his internet surfing sprees. They loved watching as Matt got sidetracked, looking up videos on YouTube, finding pictures of things, looking on forums and in chat-rooms, and I watched the three of them, entranced at the effect the children had on Matt. I had no sense that he was having to pretend to them, that he was struggling to be happy with them. If anyone was going to help him through the months and probably years to come, it was going to be his son and daughter.

Matt

The day’s events caught up with Lau and me not long after the kids had gone to bed. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and we both stumbled up the stairs yawning.

Infuriatingly, once I was in bed, sleep wouldn’t come. Lau was dead to the world, but I just lay on my back, trying not to go over it all. Finally, I’d had enough, and I grabbed my phone and headed downstairs. I knew what I needed, who I needed to talk to, and just hoped it wasn’t too late.

‘Up for some arsing about?’

There was no reply, and I assumed Dec either had his phone on silent, or was asleep and just didn’t hear the text. He’d had a pretty full-on day too.

I flicked the TV on, with the sound muted, random images shifting over my eyes as I tried to make myself think of nothing. I didn’t hear the tapping at first, or at least it didn’t permeate my consciousness. Then my attention shifted, and I was aware of a light scratching on the window. It could have been a branch on one of the rose bushes, but it seemed too regular.

I got up and peered out from behind the curtain, nearly staggering backwards as Dec’s face confronted me just inches from my own, with only a pane of glass between us. He pointed to the front door, and I quickly opened it to let him in.

‘Holy shit, Summers, yuh could have let me know ih was you. You scared the bloody bejesus out of me.’

‘Sorry, mate. Just thought of you here in the dark sending secret ‘help me’ text messages, and before I knew what I was doing, I’d pulled on my trainers and here I was.’

I had a closer look at Dec’s attire; he was indeed wearing an old sleeping shirt, some pyjama bottoms, and trainers without socks.

‘Usually a phone call suffihces.’

‘Special circs, mate.’

I didn’t need to ask what they were.

‘Any chance of a drink?’

‘I think the occasion couhd warrant a beer. Or I could do yuh a nice camomile tea if yuh –’

‘Fuck off with your namby pamby tea shit. Bottle of your finest cold ones will be just great.’

He followed me into the kitchen and watched as I opened two bottles of beer, and took the one I offered him. We stayed there, both of us leaning against the counter, not speaking for a while, sipping out of the bottles.

‘Well go on then.’

Dec looked at me, head tilted.

‘Wha?’

Although I knew what, and had been trying to think how I was going to put any of it into words.

‘You text me in the middle of the night, as if it’s five years ago, like when this all happened last time, and you needed to talk. Or maybe it’s, shit, ten years ago and you needed rescuing from some party, or you needed me to help you find your fucking trousers. We’re not at a party, and you seem to have your fucking trousers. So spill.’

I looked at him, wondering how it was possible to have so much history with someone, to have someone know you so completely well, without actually being related to them, married to them, or indeed having any romantic feelings towards them at all.

‘I dunno Dec, I’m soh fucking tired of spilling. I’ve been spilling most of the day, since Lau came and got me, and the more I spill, the worse ih gets. Ih’s all just spinning round in my head. Maybe I shouldn’t have texted yuh. I just wanted something to feel the same, like something in this fucked up baboon’s arse of a day hadn’t changed, unlike the rest of life as we know ih. I just wanted to text yuh, and yuh to know what ih meant, and now here yuh are, and yuh do. You can sod off home again, if yuh want.’

Dec looked at me, one eyebrow raised, tapping the neck of his beer bottle against his cheek.

‘Hmm. Matt is saying he doesn’t want to chat, and is trying to get rid of me. Well isn’t that sounding bloody familiar.’

‘Fuck off. I’m serious, I really don’t think I can do any mohr bloody talking. Not tonight. I’ve got nothing left.’

Dec fixed me with a level gaze.

‘OK, have it your way. How about, though, I do some talking. You don’t have to say anything, just listen. You can doze off if you like, but I’m still going to say it.’

‘Say wha?’

‘Well, I’m going to start by apologising. I know this shit with me signing for Speeders couldn’t have happened on a worse day for you.’

I didn’t want to let him go there, feeling guilty about it.

‘Noh, Dec, don’t say tha –’

‘Ah ah, you weren’t going to talk, remember? That means not speaking. Shutting your bloody gob for once.’

He wasn’t going to let me get away with interjections of any sort, it seemed.

‘OK, let’s start at the beginning. Me and you, we’ve helped each other out, at different times, in different ways, more often than I can count. You like to think you’re all ‘I don’t need anyone’, but you’re not a loner, and you’ve always needed people more than you’ll ever admit. You’ve got Lau now, we all know that, but before Lau, you had me, and you had Jay and Beth if only you’d have let them be there.’

I was scowling at him now. I didn’t text him so he could come over here and tell me how things were. I texted him so … I actually didn’t have a clue. But he was here, and it felt like maybe he was going to say shit I needed to hear, so I pinned back my ears and listened to my mate telling it like it was. Doesn’t mean I had to enjoy it.

‘Yeah, you can take that bloody look off your face, you know what you’re like. But anyway, I know you’ve always had my back, and I’ve always had yours, and it’s meant a lot to me, because you didn’t have to be my mate, just because Jay and Beth made me part of their family. And now I’m going off for a bit, and it’s been one of the hardest things, knowing you’re not going to be just down the road, ready with a beer, or help with the laptop, or a sarcastic comment, or just to arse about with, because I’m going to be leaving you behind, and just when things have got really shit for you.’

‘Dec, stop. Please.’

I didn’t know if I could just listen to this. Today had already been too full of emotion, and any more was likely to be too much.

‘No. Matt, I didn’t come here intending to blurt out all this shit. But now I’m doing it, I’m bloody well doing it. Maybe it’ll upset you, maybe it’ll upset me, I don’t give a fuck. It’s about time we bloody well grew up and faced shit, isn’t it? You’re my best mate, and I’m sorry I’m flying to the other side of the world, not just for you, but for me. I’m going to bloody well miss you. But I’ll be back, I promise you that. And if you ever need me, need me to be here, then you just text me in the middle of the bloody night, and I’ll be on the next plane.’

‘Or maybe weh could just Skype, ih’s a damn sight cheaper.’

‘Ha! Oh you bastard, don’t make me laugh, I’m being all serious here.’

‘Yeh, too much serious now. Oh come here yuh silly arse, give meh a man hug and be done with it. Tha’s wha yuh really came round for, isn’t ih.’

Dec put his beer bottle down, as did I, and we hugged, briefly and fiercely.

‘You got me there, I’ve been thinking about doing that all day.’

‘I bet yuh have, can’t beat one of Matt Scott’s masculine cuhdles. They’re sought after all over the cihty.’

‘Ha, tell me about it mate. Do you remember that woman, oh what was her name … Alexis? She wouldn’t stop bloody hugging you. You brought her to Beth and Jay’s one Sunday, and every five minutes it was ‘oh Matt, your family’s so funny’ cuddle cuddle ‘oh Matt, thank you for inviting me here’ hug hug ‘oh Matt, will you really give me a lift home’ grope grope. Iz nearly scratched her eyes out.’

‘God, I had sohm near disasters, didn’t I.’

‘You had some full-on actual living nightmare fucking disasters, mate. Nothing near about them. How many times did I have to fetch you from that house near the railway bridge? I still can’t work out how you didn’t know that’s where you were going, every fucking time.’

‘Housemates. Pulled a different one each time. Didn’t ask the address, just got in the taxi. They were all fucking crazy bitches. One of them had this dog, and she’d dress it up like Michael Jackson and video it wagging it’s tail along to Beat It.’

‘Well you can’t say you haven’t lived a bit, can you?’

‘I guess not. Thanks mate. I know you’ve put up with a lot of shit from me, more than I deserve.’

Dec sighed again. ‘It’s not about deserving, I learned that a long time ago. Shit happens, life happens, and you make the most of what you’ve got to help you through it. And if what you’ve got is an iPhone and a mate on the other end of it, that’s what you use.’

‘Yeah, well, works both ways.’

‘I know, mate. Know what, I’m going to need you on the end of that iPhone a lot the next year or so.’

‘Count on it.’

There was a short silence while we chugged more beer.

‘Sorry about the cake.’

‘Wha?’

‘The bloody Australia cake this morning. It just seemed like it was the last thing you would have wanted.’

I waved him away. It certainly hadn’t helped, but it had only been a tiny bit of it all.

‘I hope yuh saved me a piece. Where did ih come from?’

‘Where do you think? Beth made it.’

‘Wha? She only had fohr hours max. How the fuck … oh I jus bloody give up with that woman. She has superpowers beyond our ken.’

‘You’ve only just noticed that? You do know she has some kind of sonar instead of ears? She can hear every bloody thing everybody says, everywhere. It’s how she knows shit.’

‘Ah. I always wondered. So she’s listening tuh us now?’

The arsing about was just what I needed. We always ended up talking complete bollocks, going off on beer-fuelled flights of fancy, taking a walk on the stupid side of life, then strolling back round to reality.

‘Yeah, I expect so. Hi Beth.’

Dec waved in the vague direction of their house.

‘Fuck, she can’t bloody see us, can she?’

‘I think so. It’s the only way to explain how she knew I let those left over roasties go mouldy in the fridge and had to throw them out.’

‘Yuh let Beth’s roasties go mouldy? Yuh are so not worthy of receiving them in a doggy bag.’

‘Bloody hell I’m going to miss Beth’s roasties. I wonder if you can get them couriered over to Perth?’

‘I bet yuh could. They might have lost some of their crispiness, mind yuh.’

‘God, they’re so fucking crispy. Oh shit.’

‘What?’

‘I’m going to have to call Speeders, tell them I’ve changed my mind.’

‘Becahse of Beth’s roasties?’

‘Yeah. I’ll send some to them, then they’ll understand.’

‘Or … I could jus eat them for yuh. Double portions. I’ll describe the experience fuhly, even Skype me eating them.’

‘Fuck off, you know that would just be torture. And you’d be the size of a bloody bus.’

‘Doubt ih. They’ll soon all be force feeding me to stop me getting too skinny.’

Dec’s grin faded.

‘Ah don’t say that, mate. It won’t come to that.’

‘Yuh can’t say that. Ih might. Might need every last potato by the time ihs done with me.’

I was desperately trying to cling on the mood I seemed to have killed, but it was drifting away, and Dec just looked at me, sadly.

‘Do you remember before, when you stayed with us?’

I nodded.

‘I’m glad you don’t need that now. I’m glad you’ve got Lau, and your kids. They’ll make the difference this time, mate.’

I looked down at my feet for a second, before glancing up.

‘I wish I didn’t have to do ih tuh them, though. They shouldn’t have to put up with a fucking cripple of a dad. Lau shouldn’t have tuh be the one who wipes my arse.’

‘I bet you Lau’s wiped more arses than you’ve had that fancy cheese on toast you like to call croque monsieur. I’m pretty sure she’s quite attached to your arse, too.’

‘Yeh, which is why she shouldn’t have tuh fucking wipe ih.’

The thought of it was making me angry, and ashamed.

‘Well you’ll just have to carry on wiping your own then, won’t you. Hey, you do realise that with your little tantrum this morning, you became both the family fucking cripple and family bloody nutter at the same time? Impressive.’

I shrugged. ‘Well with yuh leaving the country, I needed to make sure the title was in good hands. Don’t want just anyone walking off with the Scott Bluhdy Nutter championship.’

‘True. Look after it well, keep it warm for me.’

‘Mate, I’ll be posting ih to yuh before yuh’ve been out there a month. Yuh do know there are bloody enormous spiders in Australia.’

Yeah, Dec, the big rufty tufty rugby player, had an arachnid phobia.

‘Shit. I totally forgot the bloody enormous spiders. You don’t get them on rugby pitches, though, do you?’

‘I’m pretty suhr I saw this programme on Discovery that was about this spider that hides in the boot lockers at –’

‘Shit, shit, shut the fuck up. I know you’re only fucking about, but I can’t even think about it. Shit, I’m going to have to read up about the bloody spiders.’

‘Some of them ahr as big as yuhr hand.’

‘Yeah, I remember from when I was a kid. Fuck, one of my mates, he got in his dad’s car, in the front seat, and pulled the sun visor down, and this bloody enormous fucking monster spider landed in his lap. I was in the back seat. I beat him out of the car by a good two seconds. Fuck. Stop talking about it. Seriously. Or I’ll have to start remembering things you might rather forget, like screaming like a tiny girl at the hanging dead people in Sixth Sense –’

‘OK, yuh can never tell Lau about that –’

‘Or when you shut your dick in the toilet lid –’

‘I was pihsed.’

‘As a fart, although pissing would have been more sensible. Or when you –’

‘OK I get ih. No more eight legged terror tales.’

‘Finally.’

Dec drained his beer and put the bottle down.

‘I should get back. I told Ames I was going for a run.’

‘Yuh did not.’

‘You’re right. Ames was already out for a run. I left Charlie in charge.’

‘Shit, is that the sound of sirens I hear? Bloody hell, Dec, Australia’s not gona know what’s hit ih with yuhr mob. Charlie’ll be Prime Minister this time next year.’

‘Great. Then I can get her to ban spiders. Right, can’t stand here chatting, got some shut-eye to be having.’

Dec started to walk out to the hall, and I followed. As he reached the door, he put his hand on my shoulder, and stood looking at me for a few seconds, then opened the door and went home. God I was going to miss him.

Cal

And I guess that’s where it started for Matty, the beginning of the end, although it took a long time to end, but what he always called his bastard MS really was a huge bastard. It took him bit by bit, not only destroying his ability to walk and talk but taking his self-respect. Matty hated being dependent on anyone, although he would admit to needing Lau. It tore him up to even need to use his walking pole, and so when he eventually needed a wheelchair, or when he ended up in hospital all those times with pneumonia, you could see how much it got to him.

But I’m jumping ahead. This isn’t about Matty, I’ve already said that, although Matty was a huge, important part of my life. There are other things I’ve already missed out, maybe I’ll remember them and go back, maybe I’ll just get on with it now I’m here, seventeen years old, my girlfriend living in the same house, me on the brink of a career as a professional rugby player, my family just about to split apart for a few years while Dec follows his dream in Australia.

Laura

The weeks leading up to Dec and Amy leaving went too quickly. They put their house up for rent, and tenants were due to move in a few days after they left. Their flights were booked, accommodation the other end sorted, and a party organised by Beth. As the day approached, everyone seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for it to be over, the thing we were all dreading.

Matt had gone back to work, well supported by Raiders. His symptoms had continued to slowly reappear, but with no dramatic episodes like the one on the morning of his presentation. He contacted the MS service with no prompting from me, and made an appointment to see a counsellor – he had stopped going a year or two ago, but realised he needed to keep himself mentally well if he was going to cope with everything that life had suddenly thrown at him. Had he finally grown up? Ha ha, don’t be silly, this was Matt, and he was responding as he usually did, which was after a crisis, when he had no other choice. The thought of a grown up Matt is proper terrifying …

Matt

Those next few weeks were hard, for me. I mean they were bloody hard for Dec and Amy too, with all the arrangements they had to make, all the phone calls, trying to sort out accommodation from thousands of miles away, plane tickets, packing up their stuff, all that, yeah, I know it was tough and busy for them all. But for the ones who weren’t going, it was like some form of torture.

We couldn’t just be sad, we all put on this show of talking excitedly about the new house, the new club, looking at pictures of Perth on the internet, hearing them talk about schools; it just reminded us that it wouldn’t be four doors down, it wouldn’t be Raiders, it wouldn’t be here, it wouldn’t be St John’s Primary.

Beth, of course, threw a huge party, invited most of Devon, hangovers abounded for days afterwards. The house went up for rent, and tenants were sorted, most of their stuff went into storage, and cases were packed. They had organised nearly everything at the other end, booked flights, and then it was just waiting.

It was better when we weren’t just waiting. When stuff was going on, I could use it to divert me from the fucking bastard, which was making itself more and more evident as the days and weeks passed. I went back to work, Raiders were great, we agreed a way of working round as much of it as we could, while I was still able. I really didn’t want to go off sick, but I knew I might have to, I couldn’t risk anything going wrong because I was too stubborn to recognise my changing limits. And as the time came for Dec and his family to leave a Summers shaped hole in our lives, the fucking bastard upped its game, made me stagger and stumble, frequently had me spouting unintelligible bollocks, fucked with my vision.

To everyone’s surprise, including mine to some degree, I contacted the bastard MS service and got myself a new bastard MS nurse. It wasn’t Anna, who had moved on to something else; in fact, none of Lau’s old cronies still worked there, and that helped, that I was just Matthew Robert Scott, 42 year old male, who was having a flare-up of the bastard MS, no drama about it, and the nurse was a bloke called Stefan, he was about my age, and he was great.

I also saw Adam more regularly. I was still a fuck up, and things weren’t looking like getting unfucked any time soon, with the newest adventures. I wanted to make sure I was as good as I could be, mostly for Lau. I didn’t want her to shoulder all my shit, I wanted her to know I was talking about things, and that she didn’t always have to guess what I was feeling.

Laura

Dec and Amy’s going away party was enormous. Beth seemed to have invited most of the city, and had hired a huge warehouse on one of the industrial estates. It was an occasional business for Beth, now, and she had a lot of contacts in catering, lighting, DJing and everything else she needed, so the family was no longer needed to help out.

The enormous space was decorated in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ style, with palms and various different areas, although without the need to eat live insects, and Dec and Amy had a good send off.

We also had a marginally quieter family get-together, full of squealing children and one of Beth’s roast dinners. Matt’s mood was strange throughout. He told me later that he just wanted it to be over, for them to be gone, so he could get on with it, and then felt terrible about wishing they were gone.

Matt

And then the day dawned, the day we’d all been dreading, when Declan Summers and his tribe went away.

It was a Saturday, but even so, Beth was doing Sunday dinner, one of her roasts. Everyone was invited, and everyone was going. Everyone in the family, I mean. Everyone in the world had already been to the going away party to end all going away parties earlier in the week, this was just us, and I just wanted it to be over. Is that selfish? Just wanting all the goodbyeing to be done, them to be gone, so this awful waiting would be finished with?

Nobody else seemed to feel the same; everyone else seemed to be treasuring the days, hours, seconds, minutes, as if they were precious, and they were, I suppose, but they seemed pointless. All I could think of now, every time we were with Dec and his family, was that in three days, then two, then one, then nineteen hours, then fifteen, oh you get the picture, they wouldn’t be here. I don’t think I have ever dreaded an event more than midnight that night, when they would all be getting in a taxi and driving away, flying away from us for who knows how long.

It had been bad enough when the removals people came and took all their stuff to go into storage. Seeing their life packed up in boxes and crammed into the back of two lorries suddenly brought it home. They lived out of suitcases for a few days, camping out in the empty rooms and eating with us or Jay and Beth. The children were almost uncontrollably excited, and Dec and Amy were buzzing with arrangements and the thought of their new life. It was hard to pretend to be glad for them. Or rather, it was hard not to let my own sadness at their leaving tarnish any good wishes I might have for them.

I didn’t feel like smiling, I didn’t feel like playing along with the excitement and the planning, and I didn’t feel like telling them how great it was going to be. But I did all those things, ad infinitum or so it seemed, until finally it was the last day, and we were having Sunday lunch on Saturday, because the taxi was coming at midnight and they would be gone tomorrow. And I couldn’t do it any more I’d done too much smiling, excitement and planning, and to my shame, I spent that last day withdrawn and miserable.

I suppose none of us were too chatty; it seemed to have dawned on us that this big thing was actually happening, that six members of our family were leaving at once, and the gap they would leave would be huge, bigger than just their physical absence.

Beth tried her best, bringing out the board games when we all seemed to be sitting staring at each other, and we gave it a go, but long before anyone would usually have thought about going home, we all remembered things we were going to have to be doing that required us to be elsewhere.

As Beth saw us all start to get things together and call the children to order, she couldn’t help having one last tug on the heartstrings. Even though there had been speeches and toasts galore, cards and presents, hugs, kisses and handshakes, she wanted to hold on to it all for just a bit longer. I could understand it, I suppose.

‘Before everyone goes, can we just do this thing I thought of?’

We all looked at each other, resigned to doing what Beth wanted, recognising she was clinging on, trying to make a moment, trying to draw it out as long as she could. No one was about to deny her, but no one answered enthusiastically. Instead, we all just settled back in our seats and looked at her.

‘Well, I’ve got the iPad here, and I thought we could all just record either a wish or a memory of Dec or Amy or the children, and then maybe Matty, you could put it on a disk or save it or email it to us all.’

‘Suhr.’

That earned me a grateful smile that I really didn’t feel I deserved, as Beth aimed the iPad at me.

‘Whoa, noh way, Ih’m not stahting.’

It appeared nobody wanted to start, so Beth had to make the first stab herself. Cal did the filming honours, as Beth fixed her too-bright smile at the screen and started.

‘Well, my wish for you all is to have such a great time in Australia, to make lovely friends and do lovely things, and then to come home soon and tell us all about it and never go away again.’

‘Ha ha, Beth. We’ll do our best with the first bit, and definitely manage the second, for fuck’s sake, the amount of times I’ve told people, we’re coming back, we’re not going forever.’

‘Well that’s one wish that will come true, then, sweetheart, won’t it. Maybe I should have wished for one swear free day while I was on a roll.’

‘The phrase ‘in yuhr drehms’ springs tuh mind.’

‘Thank you Matty. Maybe you’d like to go now?’

I sighed. I supposed we were all stuck there now until we’d done as we were told, and I might as well get it over with.

‘Goh on then. Rehdy Cal?’

He pointed the iPad at me.

‘Yuh did say a memohry, righ Beth? Dec, I’m jus mehmbering yuhr face when Charlie hid yuhr car keys, then put them on the kitchen table after yuhd turned the place upsihd down.’

‘What? But that was only a week ago – what? Charlie put them there? I spent hours looking for them, I was late for that lunch thing. Oh you bastard, I might have known you’d had something to do with it –’

‘Yeh, the look was prehty similar tuh tha. Did yuh geh tha, Cal?’

Cal nodded.

‘That’s not quite what I had in mind, Matty.’

‘Oh, I thoht I got tuh choose my ohn mehmry.’

That silenced Beth.

‘Cahn I hahv a wish too?’

She looked sceptical, like she was regretting starting the whole business, and I relented.

‘A serious one?’

A nod, still suspicious.

‘OK. Dec, Amy, Suhmers trihbe, I wish yuh wehrnt going. Buh I hope ih’s not long befohr wehr back hehr being bohsed by Beth an fighting over the guhd seats. It wohnt beh the sahm when yuh cahn watch TV withouh an elbow in the nuts or a faceful of hair. Bon voyage.’

And so I started it off, and everyone added their bit, most more heartfelt and wistful than mine, and then it sparked off a kind of general reminiscing, where everyone was going ‘oh, and do you remember …’, and I looked at Cal and he was still recording it all, so I decided I would edit it all together, all the stilted sentimental shit, and the animated real shit.

And then finally it really was time for us all to go home. Dec and Amy’s four needed to have a nap, as they were going to be awake at midnight, and it didn’t feel right for us all to be there without them, so we all dribbled away.

Dec and Amy took Rose home, Rose who had hardly said a word all day, and looked pale and drawn. Lau had already decided we were going to adopt her while the Summerses were overseas, but I wasn’t sure Rose wanted adopting. She just wanted Dec and Amy and the kids not to go, and seemed to be having a harder time facing up to the reality of it than even I was.

We gave Mum a lift home. Mum wasn’t usually particularly chatty, but today she nattered in the back of the car to Josh and Ella, asking them about school, playing pretend games with Ella’s teddy, looking at Josh’s Action Man. As we dropped her off, she spoke very deliberately to the children.

‘Ella, you need to be extra good this week.’

‘Why Granny?’

‘Well, you and Joshua, really dear. Because your Mummy and Daddy are going to be sad that Declan and Amy have gone away, and I think they might need lots of cuddles. Isn’t that right, Matthew?’

I turned and looked at her, shaking my head slightly at her perceptiveness.

‘Yeh, Muhm. Althogh I always lihk cuhdles from Ella an Josh.’

‘But Granny, we’re going to Skype them or Facetime them tomorrow, so Charlie can show us her room.’

‘I know, dear, but it won’t be the same. Don’t forget now, lots of cuddles.’

Ella rolled her eyes and tutted, and Josh just looked at her, but they both said ‘OK Granny.’

‘I’ll call you tomorrow, dears.’

‘Thahks, Muhm.’

We got home, unloaded the children and set about as much displacement activity as we could think of, trying not to think of the family four doors down getting ready to leave. We went to the park and played cricket, came home and had a junk food picnic, watched a DVD with lots of songs to sing along to, let Josh and Ella stay up later than usual, had a bit of an iPad tour of the universe, and then the kids’ eyes were actually drooping, so we put them to bed. We had discussed letting them stay up to wave them all off with us, but in the end letting nature take its course was the best way, and reduced the amount of pleading and begging we needed to negotiate.

There were still a couple of hours to kill, and I was debating with myself the wisdom of staying up merely in order to wave at them as they departed. We’d already said our goodbyes, had the hugs, the quivery bottom lips, the meaningful looks, it felt like dragging the agony out.

‘I dunno, Lau, I migh not watch. I’m bluhdy wiped.’

‘What? We’ve got to send them off. We promised Beth.’

‘Well weh can fib, cahnt weh? Wha’s she gona say? How did ih goh? We jus say ‘oh they got in the taxi an drove off an we waved’.’

‘Are you really tired? Maybe you should get some sleep then, flower.’

Oh she was good. She knew that if she used the fucking bastard as my excuse, there’s no way on this earth I would go to bed. She also knew, somehow, that just suggesting I should go to bed and miss it made me not want to miss it. As she said it, I imagined going to bed and lying there in the dark knowing that in two hours, then ninety minutes, then fifty minutes, and counting, I was going to hear a taxi pull up. I was wiped, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep. You know when you’re going on holiday, and you have to leave at stupid o’clock for the airport, and you’re all excited because you’re going on holiday and you know you should catch some zzzs but you can’t possibly? This was like that only the complete opposite. As if I was going on holiday to the worst possible destination imaginable, and was guaranteed to have the shittest time ever.

I sighed. ‘No, I’ll stay up now. Fancy a game of Scrabble?’

‘Er … OK. I haven’t improved much since the last time you thrashed me, though.’

Lau was absolutely pants at Scrabble. She couldn’t spell for toffee, for a start, in fact she couldn’t even spell toffee, and she had never got the hang of using all the triple word scores where available; it was so easy to beat her that it wasn’t enjoyable playing, much as I enjoyed trouncing my opponents in all competitive activities. She also wasn’t that fond of my victory-fuelled celebrations, which were possibly slightly over the top, and it had therefore been a while since we’d got the board out.

‘Noh prohblem. I migh let yuh win tuhnight.’

‘Oi. I don’t need a pity victory, thanks. When I win, it will be through my own skill and perseverance.’

‘Alrighty then. Prepare tuh beh vanquished.’

As it turned out, I won. Big surprise. It passed the time, gave us something to think about other than the big event looming at the witching hour. My fingers were a bit shit at picking up the tiles, bastard MS and all, and I could feel myself getting tired, but now I’d definitely decided, or rather let myself be persuaded, that I was staying up, I was bloody well staying up.

‘What now, then? I think most of the games have pieces missing. I’ll play you at BattleStations if you like.’

‘Bluhdy hell, Lau, yuh mus beh desperate.’

Lau never played computer games, and had a serious disapproval of all war-based media.

‘Maybe I feel a bit like killing things.’

I looked at her, frowning.

‘How come?’

‘Same reason as you, tonight. A bit of stress relief. Come on, fire up the X-box, I’ll be the A Team.’

Maybe I should have explored it a bit more with her, but Lau was always so sorted, she always told me if she was feeling out of sorts, and what she needed to help her, and I guess she had just done that. Death and mayhem on a global scale was what she needed.

Half an hour later, and I had to surrender. There was only so much ‘die you evil git, die’ I could cope with hearing from my pacifist wife without it becoming too weird. She was pretty rubbish as well, and got us both killed more times than I care to recount, even though we were playing on team mode, and I was trying to cover her.

‘Stop, Lau. Tha’s it. Over the top fuh the last tihm.’

‘Oh. One more go?’

‘Noh. I dohnt think weh can get much deader.’

‘Fair enough. I’m going to finish off that bottle of wine. Fancy a beer?’

I looked at the clock. Eleven thirty. If that didn’t call for a beer, I don’t know what did.

‘Nice ohn.’

Lau came back in with our drinks, and we sat sipping in silence for a while. Then Lau put her glass down and took my beer out of my hands, placing it on the table next to her wine.

‘Kiss me.’

I never needed telling twice, and I gave her a tender kiss on the lips.

‘No, kiss me properly Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘Are yuh complaining abou my technique?’

‘No, there’s nothing wrong with your technique, it’s pretty damn perfect. I’d just like you to be a bit more … forceful.’

‘Rehly. Yuh hussy.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s nearly midnight, and I’d like to get to twelve on a wave of snogging rather than wrapped in a curtain of silence and regrets.’

‘Tha’s almost poehtry, Lau.’

‘I know. Stop flapping your tongue and stick it in my mouth.’

OK, so sometimes I did need telling twice, but then I got it. I stuck my tongue in her mouth, and honestly didn’t notice the passing of the next twenty minutes or so.

It wasn’t until Lau pushed me away, and I realised she wasn’t play-fighting, she was really pushing me away, that I stopped.

‘Taxi. I can hear it. Come on.’

My heart gave a great lurch, and I nearly didn’t make it to my feet. Lau held her hand out, and I clung on as she hauled me up from the sofa. She tried to smooth my hair down, but hers said ‘we’ve been sucking each other’s faces’ as much as mine and it wasn’t worth doing anything about.

We left the front door open and walked out onto the pavement. The big black cab was waiting, engine running, outside Dec and Amy’s house. Their front door was open, spilling light from the porch onto the drive, and as we watched, Dec came out carrying a sleeping Rosa, Amy followed herding Tom and Gracie, and Charlie brought up the rear, carrying a backpack. Dec and Amy put the children in the cab, then went back for several enormous suitcases.

As the last case was loaded into the boot, Dec turned and looked down the road. We hadn’t told them we were going to wave them off, but he’d had a last look anyway, as I’d thought he might, and he saw us there, arms round each other, watching. He held his hand up, and we made the same gesture back. Amy saw him looking, saw us, and went to stand by Dec, arm round his waist. We stood and looked at each other for a long moment, no words necessary, just great friends saying ‘farewell’ but not goodbye, hopefully not goodbye, and sending all kinds of unsayable things through the medium of it being dark and midnight. Then Dec gave Amy a squeeze, nodded at us, and they got in the taxi.

As the cab pulled away, I felt it all welling up in me. They were really gone. Tomorrow, when I woke up, they just weren’t going to be there. At that moment, my heart felt full of emptiness.

We watched the rear lights of the taxi until they reached the end of the road and turned out into the traffic, and then Lau pulled on my waist to bring me in. As she moved off, I realised I had been leaning on her more than I’d known, and maybe the bastard MS was upping its game. This just increased my desolation, and I felt a sob bubble up in my throat.

‘Come on, my love, let’s get in and go to bed.’

‘Hold meh, Lau.’

‘Yeah, flower, when we’re inside.’

She tugged me again, and I followed, in part because I would have fallen over without her supporting me.

Once we got inside, she carried on tugging until we were upstairs, and she practically threw me onto the bed. I stripped down to my boxers, as she pulled her sleeping shirt on, barely able to see through the tears that were brimming in my eyes.

‘Come here, then.’

She lay down and flung her arm wide, inviting me into her safety and comfort. I dived in.

I’m not ashamed to say that I cried for most of the night. Poor Lau hardly got any sleep, as I spilled it all out on her. I needed to, I needed to mourn their going, to admit to myself that a) they’d gone and b) it broke my heart. I knew I wasn’t going to be sad about it forever, I’d probably be a lot cheerier tomorrow, but that night I grieved as if they weren’t coming back. Lau cried too, but mostly she held me and comforted me and made me remember that the world wasn’t ending, it just felt that way temporarily.

120. Everybody hurts

In which a hiding place is found, and reparations are made.

Cal

I could hear Lau’s voice as she talked to Matty, but he didn’t seem to be replying. I wasn’t sure how long I should stay there waiting. I’d put my phone on silent, but I could feel it vibrating in my pocket. I didn’t want to look at my messages, because then I’d have to answer them, and I was pretty sure Matty wouldn’t want everyone knowing where he was. He particularly wouldn’t want Mum knowing where he was.

Laura

I walked over to him and sat beside him, the stone floor cold and hard against my bottom.

Matt

I heard footsteps walking over to me, and a rustle and a slight grunt as Lau sat down next to me. I still didn’t look up. If I just stayed here, like this, maybe she’d give up after a while, go home, leave me to it. Surely she would have had enough of me one of these days.

Laura

‘So this is where you got to. I thought it would have to be somewhere pretty special to drag me away from my Pilates class.’

No reply. I couldn’t see his face, could only read the stiff tension in the way he was sitting, hear his shallow breathing.

Matt

I tried my hardest, gave it a really good go, to ignore her and get back to my drifting, where I didn’t have to think of anything, where the world wasn’t one big fuck-up, where I could just float and nothing mattered. Didn’t work. The sense of Lau next to me, the scent of her, the sound of her breathing, it stopped me from going back. Didn’t stop me trying though.

Laura

I tried a different approach.

‘I can’t believe you never brought me here. Although it was a meeting place with an old flame, so fair enough, maybe you were being uncharacteristically diplomatic. It’s so quiet in here, you can’t hear the traffic at all, it’s like we’re in another world.’

Matt

Breezy chit-chat wasn’t going to do it. I had been more than half way to another place, and I wasn’t coming back easily, not just for a bit of gab about the weather, or old girlfriends, or whatever psychobollocks she was trying.

Laura

Still nothing. I sat for a while longer before trying again, feeling the cold from the flagstones seeping into my behind. Still all I could hear from Matt was his breathing; he wasn’t moving at all. If he had been sitting like that, his arms clamped over his head, his back hunched, for any length of time, his muscles would be cramping up, and he would be feeling very uncomfortable. However, if he was distressed enough, he might not even notice the physical discomfort. I tried some gentle cajoling.

‘Some people might say forty one, nearly forty two, is a bit old to be sulking like a teenager because a couple of things went wrong at school.’

Matt

Of all the things she could have said, calling me childish wasn’t what I was expecting. It riled me. Yeah, she’s very good at what she does, but at the time I hated it.

‘Some people should fuck off and mind their own business.’

I was shocked at the sound of my voice. It didn’t sound like me, rasping and raw as it was, and the words burst from me uninvited.

Laura

At long last, a response. Matt still had his head buried in his knees, as if he was in brace position on a plane, but speaking was a breakthrough.

‘Well, bad luck, I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

‘Leave me the fuck alone, Lau.’

I wanted her to go away. This place was just for me, I hadn’t come here so all and sundry could come and chat to me while I was doing this.

Laura

‘No, I’m staying.’

Especially now he was talking. Before he spoke, I was worried Matt had locked himself away somewhere I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t feel him, then. But now I knew he was coming back, slowly, from wherever it was he’d been.

‘You don’t have to talk to me, but I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

I started to imagine everyone else turning up one by one, each having their pop at me, trying to pull me out of it.

‘Who else did you bring? I heard Cal.’

Laura

This was even better. He was fighting me, getting riled up. He had looked like he was shutting down, but now he was thinking about the outside world, and although it seemed I might be in for a fight, I started to think things might not turn out so badly. At least today.

‘No one.’

Matt

Oh pull the other one, Lau.

‘Yeah, sure, I bet they’re all fucking lining up outside to come and have their fucking say.’

‘No one else knows we’re here. I needed Cal because I didn’t know exactly where this was. I asked him to wait, but I can ask him to go if you like.’

Well it would be something, I suppose.

‘Mm.’

Laura

I took that as a yes, and raised my voice so it would reach beyond the hedge.

‘Cal?’

He popped round the corner.

‘Yeah?’

‘I think we’ll be OK here. Can you let everyone know I’ve found Matt, but don’t tell them where we are. Oh, here –’

Cal

She tossed me her car keys, which considering I’d only passed my test a few months ago was very trusting.

Laura

‘– just in case, would you mind fetching Ella and Josh from school? They get out at three, take them to Amy’s. I’ll let you know if we need picking up.’

Cal

‘Sure thing. Oh, before I go –’

I decided to give Matty the benefit of some of my own brand of advice.

‘Matty, stop being such a fucking drama queen. So you dropped something and fucked a few words up. Get over it. Nobody’s fucking perfect. No reason to chuck your fucking laptop across the room.’

Matt

What? I hadn’t chucked my laptop, the fucking bastard had chucked my laptop. Shit, it was even worse than I thought, if everyone assumed I’d just thrown a complete wobbler.

‘Fuck off, Cal.’

Cal

Matty was still sitting in the same crunched up way, with his arms over his head, and he didn’t look up when he spoke, but Lau smiled at me and I winked at her before setting off for Lau’s car.

Matt

He fucked off, probably still smiling. Nothing much wiped the perma-grin off his face these days, since he stopped being the Cob-on Kid and hatched out into Mr Sunshine around his sixteenth birthday. Now he was seventeen, and loving life, with a Raiders career underway, a pretty girlfriend, oh he just had it all. I tried to hate him for it, but I couldn’t. He was Cal, he was my nephew, I could wish him no ill, even though he had it all to look forward to and I’d just had it all taken away.

Laura

There was a long silence. I sat and resisted touching Matt. I so wanted to, but he was tense and rigid, and emanating ‘hands off’ vibes, and I knew he wasn’t receptive to any type of touch just yet. I didn’t think I could cope with him shrugging me off, so I waited. I waited a long time. My bum went numb and my feet went to sleep. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate with calls or texts many times, but I didn’t look at it; I needed to focus on Matt.

Cal

I texted Mum and Dad to let them know Matty was OK, or at least that we knew where he was, and braced myself for Mum not leaving me alone for the rest of the afternoon. I left my phone on silent while I drove Lau’s car back home, because the sheer amount of pings and bleeps would have put me off and caused an accident. As it was, I could hardly concentrate for the amount of vibrating the bloody thing was doing.

Matt

I carried on sitting, wrapped up in myself, legs numb, back aching, with Lau sitting next to me. She wasn’t so close that she was touching me, and I hoped she didn’t, because I didn’t want her to, couldn’t handle it, her soft and comforting touch. I felt jagged and sharp, cut and broken, and I didn’t want to touch her while I was like this.

I thought again about what Cal had said, that I’d thrown the laptop. Of everything that had happened this morning, all the reasons I had to feel stupid, to know it was all over, this felt the most unfair. I hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, I hadn’t done any of it on purpose, but I just felt like whining ‘the bastard MS made me do it’.

‘Is that what they think?’

Laura

I was confused. It had been so long since either of us had spoken, I couldn’t remember what the last thing was that had been said.

‘Is what what who thinks?’

Matt

I was so used to Lau knowing what was going on in my head that it was weird when she couldn’t actually read my thoughts.

‘That I chucked my fucking laptop?’

Laura

‘Well, Jay and Cal both told me that’s what you did. Why, what happened?’

Better again. He was asking specifically about this morning, checking details. He could go there. There was another long silence.

Matt

I still could hardly think about it, let alone say any of it, and it took several breaths trying to start, knowing that if I did, that was it, no more floaty oblivion, just hard, cold, dealing with it. Finally, one more deep breath, and I took the leap.

‘Fucking spasm. I kept dropping the fucking remote, they were all laughing at me, so I went to use the arrow keys on the laptop, and my arm just fucking spasmed and sent ih flying.’

I still had my arms over my head, and as I said the words, it just brought it all back, all the humiliation from the morning, and I started crying. I hadn’t thought I had any more tears left, but there are always some of the salty bastards to get you, aren’t there.

Laura

Matt still had his arms over his head, and his head on his knees, and now he was crying. It tore at me, to see him like this, but crying was good. It was when he was silent and distant that I was most scared for him. I wasn’t immune to his tears, though, and a wave of sadness washed over me.

‘Oh, my love …’

It was time for some touching. I put my arm round his shoulders and felt him shuddering, trying to control his sobs.

Matt

I felt Lau’s arm go round my shoulder, and it was OK, she was soft and safe, and now I needed to be with her, I was done with doing it on my own, she was here, where she needed to be, as she’d known she would need to be, and I could do it now. I made a huge effort to stop blarting, but it just turned to shudders.

Laura

‘Don’t fight it Matt, flower. Let it go. Be sad about it. Have a good weep, you’ve had a shit day.’

And so he wept, while I did my best to hold him, one arm round his shoulders, the other round the front of him, across his knees, as he howled out his anger and pain, humiliation and sadness.

Matt

And so I did, I let it all go, all the shit from the shit day to end all shit days. The shit day that began all the way back in yesterday, when I admitted the fucking bastard had come back, had carried on into the early hours of this morning when my best mate had told me he was moving to the other side of the world, and had continued when I’d shown myself up in front of everyone at work and broken an expensive piece of equipment before running away like a small child. I had been trying to hold it all in, to stop it becoming part of the world, so that it couldn’t get to me, but it was too much, and now Lau was here it was just about alright to let it out.

Lau did her best to hold me, but we weren’t in the greatest position, and it was awkward. I didn’t want to move out of my safe corner; I was making all sorts of noises, and having Lau there wrapped around me while I did so made me feel protected.

Cal

When I pulled up outside our house, I checked the screen, and Mum had tried to call me twenty-seven times. I mean, come on. That’s insane. I’d already told her Matty was with Lau and was OK. I had hardly got out of the car when she was running down the path.

‘Cal! Why are you driving Laura’s car? Why aren’t they with you? Where are they?’

‘Chill, Mum. Lau’s with Matty. He’s not ready to talk to anyone else yet.’

‘What do you mean? Where are they?’

‘Somewhere no one will find them.’

Mum continued haranguing me as I walked up the path, and I realised I was going to have to work hard not to either strangle her or let it slip where they were. I changed tack, in an attempt to divert Mum’s worrying to something else.

‘Lau’s brakes need fixing. I’m going to ask Wheels if he’ll have a look.’

It didn’t work, just set Mum off about the car.

‘Why have you got Laura’s car? You’re not insured to drive it.’

‘Relax, Mum. Look, put the kettle on, make us a coffee or something. Lau wants me to fetch Josh and Ella in case she’s not back.’

‘Why won’t she be back? Where’s she going?’

‘She’s not going anywhere, that’s the point. Look, Mum, Matty’s in a bad way, in his head, he needs some time and a bit of space, and he needs Lau. She’s staying with him for now, until he gets over himself. Neither of them need you barging in being all ‘let’s do this my way’. Just let them sort it, alright?’

Mum stopped and looked at me

‘Is Matty really in a bad way?’

‘Yeah, it looked like it. He was all kind of hunched over, like he just wanted to disappear. Lau got him talking, though. I really think he just needs to be with her.’

‘I suppose you’re right. You can’t drive that car again, though.’

‘Course I can. Apart from the shit brakes, it’s a doddle.’

Lau still had the tiny Micra she’d had ever since I’d known her. She didn’t look after it very well – oh, it was immaculate inside and out, she was nearly as much of a neat freak as Matty, but she knew jack-shit about cars, and didn’t think it was worth bothering with all the regular checks that kept Matty’s car purring like a kitten. She thought using a dipstick was just something boys did to pass boy time, like watching football or reading comics. Matty used to get really frustrated about it, but he refused to do it for her, and as a result, her car was not in the best mechanical shape. As well as the brakes, it sounded like the timing was off, and there was a gravelly noise when you accelerated that needed looking at. I really spent way too much time at Baggo’s brother’s garage.

But Mum hadn’t been talking about my physical ability to drive the car, she’d been stressing about the insurance, or lack of it, and I took the opportunity she’d given me to draw her attention away from the fact that she didn’t know where Matty and Lau were.

‘You know that’s not what I meant, sweetheart. You can’t drive it without insurance, it’s illegal.’

‘Only if you have an accident or get stopped. That’s not going to happen.’

‘Cal, you can’t. I’ll go and fetch Josh and Ella.’

‘Haven’t you got your meeting thingy this afternoon?’

Thank goodness for Mum’s carefully filled in daily planner, with slots for everything any one of us might be doing on any given day, including Ayesh, but with Mum’s column the only one with any actual writing in it. I’d happened to glance at it this morning when I was looking for something to read while I ate my cereal.

‘Oh. Yes. Well Dad will have to go.’

‘He can’t, he’s got that press thing about Dec.’

‘Oh, so I suppose Dec can’t do it either.’

Mum was going to have to think again. What I didn’t tell her, what I wasn’t about to tell her, was that Lau had put me on her insurance while I was learning, God knows how much it must have cost her, but she’d take me out every so often for a practice when I got close to murdering Mum. It suited my purposes at that moment for Mum to be focussed more on solving that problem than beating me down until I confessed where Matty was.

‘Nope, just me. Is Ayesh home?’

‘Yes, she’s in her room doing some coursework.’

‘I’ll just go and say hi then.’

‘Maybe you should let her work.’

‘Yeah, after I’ve said hi.’

I was now a master at not letting Mum get her way. I did it with charm and a cheeky smile, and never ever just did what she told me. I always agreed that she was right, and then did what I wanted to do anyway, and she was powerless in the face of my skill. I tried to pass my wisdom on to Iz, but she seemed to prefer the screaming in Mum’s face method of getting her to change her mind, which didn’t work nearly so well and just stressed the whole household out.

Anyway, I knew where I was going to spend the next hour or two, and it was with my lovely girlfriend, whether Mum liked it or not.

Matt

After a while, just having Lau holding me wasn’t enough. I needed to connect with her. I lifted my head – it felt weird, after all this time bowed over, underneath my arms. The world felt too big, I could hear too much, feel too much, but I looked at Lau, into her sea blue green eyes, and knew she was there, in my world, in the world which was ending, but she was there with me. I gazed at her, and fell apart. I felt myself shatter against her as I clung on, feeling like this was the end, this was the finish of everything good, forever.

Laura

Somewhere in the middle of it, he lifted his head and looked at me, his face a mess of misery and dejection, and I wrapped him up in my arms as he fell apart, pouring it all out, breaking my heart to hear it.

Matt

She held me tight, and we ended up with our legs tangled up as we sat facing each other on the ground, her arms round me, me holding on to her so tightly.

It lasted a long time, me wailing all over Lau. I’d been arrogant for so long, thinking this was never going to come back, thinking life, the universe, whatever the fuck it was I thought I believed in, had good things in store for me. In one day, it had shown me its power to take away as well as to give, but it hadn’t taken Lau. She was there, holding me, and after a long time, I quietened down, my shudders diminished to the occasional quiver, I was breathing more or less evenly and my body loosened up. My shoulders ached, my back was shrieking, and my legs had started to cramp up. But I could feel it all. I was back.

Laura

A long time later, after the loud sobs had quietened, the shudders had diminished to the occasional shiver, and his breathing had calmed, and some of the tension had seeped away from his body, I pushed away from him slightly so I could see his face. I put a finger under his chin and lifted it, needing to see his eyes. The pain and sorrow in them almost undid me. Matt shook his head and looked away from me.

Matt

I almost didn’t want her to see, to see the wreck of a man I’d become in the last few hours, but her grip was firm. I looked at her, but the sympathy and understanding I saw were too much for me and I looked away.

‘I’ve fucked ih all up, Lau.’

My voice was broken, like the rest of my life.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Lost my job, made a total tit of myself, fucking laughing stock.’

It wasn’t all of it, but it was enough, somewhere to start.

‘Lost your job? How did you work that one out?’

Lau was great at thinking positively, but she hadn’t been there, she didn’t know what I must have looked like, talking unintelligible bollocks and throwing computers about the place.

‘They think I chucked a laptop. I was – I must have looked shit-faced. Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s thought I was pissed. Everyone was there.’

And someone had practically accused me of it, with the ‘vodka for breakfast’ comment. I knew how I came across when the fucking bastard was having its way with me.

‘Matt, of all the people I’ve talked to, and believe me I’ve talked to a lot of people today, everyone was just worried about you. They all know you’ve got MS don’t they?’

I didn’t know how many people knew. I’d been open about it at my interview, but that was a few years ago, and perhaps people had forgotten, the people who had known might have moved on. Cory and Jenna on my team knew I had some kind of unspecified ‘thing’.

‘Maybe. I’ve talked to a couple of people about ih. I guess Jay migh have told people about me, before I started working there. Doesn’t change anything, though, I made a complete arse of myself. They were all laughing at me, getting my words wrong, dropping shit, I felt so fucking stupid.’

‘Well, it was mean to laugh, but isn’t that what you lot all do? I’m sure it wasn’t meant to hurt you, they just didn’t realise.’

‘But Lau, they think I chucked a laptop, that’s like toys out of the pram time, tantrum city. I’m finished.’

‘OK, Matt, I’m going to repeat your nephew’s words, maybe without all the swearing. Stop being a drama queen. Wait until you’ve talked to someone, Jay or someone else from the club. You don’t have to do it today, or tomorrow, or this week even, I think you’ve earned a few days off, but you can explain then, if you need to, and I think you’ll find that they’ll be pretty understanding. I guess it’s possible you might come in for a bit of ribbing, but you’ve always been able to hold your own with them, you know more words than most of them put together for a start.’

I rested my forehead on Lau’s shoulder and breathed deeply. She always knew exactly what to say, how to put things in perspective, how to stop me catastrophising. I nodded against her, and felt her stroke my hair, thinking about everything she’d said. It seemed like maybe it was time to stop her worrying, because calm as she was outwardly, she would be a mass of panic and fretting underneath.

‘Lau.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you say ‘shit’ just now?’

Laura

I nearly laughed with the relief of it. He was teasing me.

‘Er, I might have.’

Matt

‘You said I’ve had a shit day.’

‘Well you have. Sometimes there’s only one word to describe things.’

‘Feels weird, hearing you swear.’

I didn’t feel like it, but I was trying to seem like cheery Matt, trying to pretend there was a possibility I could think about something light-hearted.

‘You have heard it before. I seem to remember using some choice language when the babies were being born.’

‘Special circumstances. Doesn’t count. Don’t do ih again.’

‘Well, that pretty much depends on you. Try not to have any more shit days.’

I looked up in mock outrage.

‘Lau!’

Laura

‘Totally up to you. Know what, my bum has completely gone to sleep, I need to stand up before my legs fall off.’

I saw the glimmer of a smile cross Matt’s face as I pulled away from him and got ready to stand up. I started to believe things had turned a corner.

Matt

I managed to force it, the tiniest hint of a smile, as she pulled away and got ready to stand. Lau’s bum was the answer to a lot of life’s problems.

‘Might need a massage, then.’

‘Great minds, flower.’

She stood up and held her hand out to me. It took me a while to get going, as I needed to unkink my aching back and shake some life into my own legs before I could even think of standing up, and then there were the pins and needles that surged down from my hips to my toes and were so bloody painful. I thought pins and needles were, like, little tickly things when you’d sat cross-legged for too long. Try folding yourself up for several hours and see how much it tickles.

I finally got my limbs into some kind of functional order, grasped Lau’s hand and stood, falling against her to be wrapped up again. In fact, we leaned against each other, both being a bit wobbly from our sitting on cold stone in early Spring. My hands wandered down to Lau’s backside, where they rested, in their accustomed place. It just felt right. I squeezed a bit, as she’d said she needed a massage. It was the least I could do.

‘Oh this is just so wrong in a graveyard.’

‘Just being helpful, Lau. You could return the favour, haven’t been able to feel my fucking arse for about two hours.’

Laura

I let my hands drift down to Matt’s bum cheeks and rubbed them vigorously. Oh things were always going to be alright as long as I could feel Matt Scott’s bum.

Matt

‘Whoa, gently there, Lau, don’t wana get too excited.’

‘Need to get the circulation going, don’t want those delightful buns to fall off.’

After that, we just stayed locked together, hands on each others bums. I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave this place, which for different reasons with different people had always felt like some kind of sanctuary. It felt like maybe, with Lau, just maybe I might be able to face it all, but there was going to be a lot of ‘it’ to face, a lot of talking, a lot of apologising, and I didn’t want to think about it for as long as I could get away with.

Laura

I could sense Matt’s unwillingness to leave this place and get back to the real world, but I also had a sense of ‘crisis over’. There was a fair amount of talking still to be done, firstly from me while I tried to persuade him to talk to everyone else who needed to know he was OK, and then to people at work, the people who had been at his presentation, and maybe later try and get him to contact the MS service.

Matt had kept up with Anna fairly regularly, until she left the team a couple of years ago, and he had declared himself unneedy of an MS nurse. I didn’t know anyone who worked there now; Anna had gone to work on a Neuro ward, Rachel had married Jed and gone travelling for a while before coming back and setting up an internet self-help book business with him, Kate had moved away in search of the perfect man and Patrick had retired. It was a good thing that nobody knew us, and Matt would just be another referral. If I could get him to ring them.

Cal

Ayesh turned out not to be nearly as interested in coursework as she was in snogging me, funnily enough, and we closed the curtains to the conservatory and enjoyed each other’s company, despite a couple of interruptions to turn away Mum’s offers of coffee and then cake, and then it was time for me to go and fetch Josh and Ella from school.

I tried calling Lau several times so I could ask her what she wanted me to do with her car once I’d dropped the kids off. I could leave it at their house, or take it back to the church. She didn’t answer, so I sent a text.

I’d picked my cousins up a couple of times, so the teachers knew who I was and didn’t report me as a child stealer. Josh and Ella were excitable, because I was unexpected, and they got to go home to Dec and Amy’s house, which was always exciting, being full as it was of uncontrollable Summers kids.

Dec and Amy had four children, and their house was always full of noise and chaos because Dec and Amy were so laid back. Dec loved being a dad so much – he’d been adopted when he was a baby, and his parents had died when he was thirteen, and all he wanted in life was to give all his kids the kind of childhood he never had after that, which meant lots of love and, it seemed, no saying no. Amy tried with the discipline, but she couldn’t say no to anyone either, and couldn’t be the bad guy, so Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa ruled the roost there.

They were all great kids, just a bit exhausting to be around. Dec was always being a horse or a piggy-back ride or a sword-fighter, and Amy was always making drinks and snacks or trying to read stories and have some calm time before bed.

I remembered Dec when I was little, how much time we’d spent together and what it had meant to me, and realised how much love he had to give his family. We had a different relationship now, because we were both older, but we were still as close as brothers, and I realised as I pulled up outside their house how much I was going to miss him and his crazy family while he was away.

Josh and Ella ran up the path and rang the doorbell, and disappeared inside. As I walked towards the door, my phone vibrated in my pocket, and I realised I hadn’t turned the ringer back on. Pulling it out, I saw from the screen that Mum was on the warpath again, with five texts sent since I’d left the house, demanding that I tell her where Matty and Lau were. I shook my head and decided to ignore Mum, but tried calling Lau again, and sent her another text telling her I’d picked the kids up and asking what she wanted me to do with her car. Then I put the phone back in my pocket.

‘Let me guess, your mum wants you to tell her where Matty’s hiding out?’

Amy had it spot on. I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Mum needs to realise that some people can solve their problems without her help.’

‘She just texted me too, in case I was hiding them here. Not that they’d be getting much peace and quiet if I was – listen to that lot!’

The addition of Josh and Ella had added a few hundred decibels of noise to the squealing that was going on.

‘Do you want a cup of something, Cal?’

‘No, you’re OK. I should get the car back to Lau.’

‘Sure? Dec’s just had a delivery from his agent, there’s free hats and t-shirts all round.’

‘Ha ha, I think I’ll pass. So you’re really going to Australia?’

Amy’s eyes grew serious.

‘Yeah. I can hardly believe it. This time next month, we’ll be living in Perth.’

‘I’m gonna miss you guys.’

‘Yeah. Me too. Great opportunity, though.’

Amy’s eyes misted with tears.

‘Oh who am I kidding. I completely can’t believe I’m not going to see everyone every day. And now Matt’s … I’m dreading it, we’ll be so far away. Don’t tell Dec.’

‘Sure thing. You’ll be fine, though, Amy. We’ll Facetime and Skype all the time. Maybe come and visit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, you’d better get the car back to Lau.’

And so I was dismissed, presumably before I caused proper tears that Dec didn’t need to see, and I went back to the hedge room.

I found my way in, unsure what I was going to find, or even if Matty and Lau were still going to be there. They were still there, standing up, wrapped up in each other, hands on each other’s arses. They both had their eyes closed, and they looked like they were totally unaware of anything else that was going on apart from each other. I hoped it meant that Matty was feeling better, but I felt awkward just looking at them, so I coughed to let them know I was there.

Matt

I don’t know how long we stood there, arms round each other, but eventually there was a rustle from the hedge, and a cough.

Cal

‘Er, if you two have had enough of feeling each other up …’

Lau opened her eyes and turned towards me, but neither of them spoke.

‘Lau, do you ever answer your fucking phone? Just for future reference, in a family crisis it’s the done thing to, like, let people know you’re OK and not be all unreachable and shit. Goes for you too, Matty, just so you know.’

It seemed like it was time for a reality check, now that maybe the worst of the crisis was over and Matty was possibly back in the land of the living, although he still had his eyes closed. Lau looked at her phone and raised her eyebrows at the screen. I’d tried calling her God knew how many times, and I suspected Dec and Beth had also been trying all afternoon.

Laura

I automatically reached for the phone in my pocket and looked at the screen. Ten missed calls from Cal, similar quantities from Dec and Beth.

‘Sorry, flower. Are the children OK? Have you picked them up?’

A quick glance at the time on my phone showed it was half past three. I had been here with Matt for over three hours.

Cal

Well of course they were OK, that wasn’t the point. Kids are a big responsibility and they should both be a bit more aware.

‘Yeah, they’re with Amy. I only wanted you to know they were OK, Jesus, is it too much to ask that you have your phone on? What if the school had needed to contact you or something?’

Laura

‘Sorry, Cal.’ I smiled to myself at his grown up rebuke. ‘Won’t happen again.’

Cal

‘Fair enough. Have you had a fucking word with yourself, Matty?’

Matty opened his eyes and looked at me. He took a deep breath, and I saw a change come over him, from some kind of hopelessness to some kind of well, if not optimism, at least someone who knew where to look for their strength.

Matt

This was a good kid, he was caring, he’d brought Lau here to find me, he’d taken care of Josh and Ella while I visited the land of the hopeless and lost. He needed taking down a bloody peg or two.

‘What is it with bloody teenagers thinking they’re the boss of me? When Dec was about your age he thought he could give me fucking grief when he wanted to as well. Respect your elders, Calum Scott.’

Cal

It lifted my spirits, to hear him have a go at me. I knew he was going to be OK. He wasn’t yet, but he was going to be.

‘Oh, I see you have. Radical. Here’s your keys, Lau, your car’s right out the front. You need to get your brakes checked, they’re shit. I’m going to see Baggo, he just lives round the corner. Oh, Mum says ring her, like, half an hour ago. I’d do it soon, she’s on the warpath because I wouldn’t tell her where you are. It won’t be me fucking copping it, though, and she’ll start tearing the city apart soon. Oh, and Matty, they’ve rescheduled your presentation for next Friday.’

I threw Lau’s keys to her and turned round. They didn’t need me any more, so I waved and walked out.

Matt

He was such a good kid. Disrespectful cheek notwithstanding.

Laura

I raised my voice so he could hear me as he walked away.

‘Cal.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thank you, flower.’

‘Sure thing.’

I looked at Matt, who looked back. I could see some of the doubt seeping away, although there was still a lot of pain and hurt behind his eyes.

Matt

Lau turned her attention back to me, and I looked back at her. It felt better, maybe the world wasn’t ending today, maybe it was only beginning to end.

Laura

‘So, if they’ve rescheduled your presentation …’

‘Yeah, I get it Lau, I’m a fucking drama queen. We should get home, I think I’ve got some phoning to do.’

‘Thank God for that. I’ve been waiting for you to leave – I don’t think I can find my way out on my own.’

We drove home in silence, leaving Matt’s car in the street where he’d parked it. I was very conscious of the fragility of Matt’s emotions, and also of his usual defensive response to confrontations. I didn’t want to risk saying anything that would make him retreat back to that place he’d been when I found him; it hadn’t been a good place, and it had been hard for him to come back from it before. I touched his arm from time to time, but otherwise kept my eyes on the road and limited myself to sending mental strength.

We pulled up into our driveway and I took off my seatbelt.

‘I’ll just pop up the road and fetch Ella and Josh.’

Matt

‘I’ll come.’

It was like getting back on the pony, ripping off the plaster, any number of things that meant doing something painful to get it over with so it was done.

Laura

I gave him an appraising look. I hadn’t expected Matt to want to see anybody so soon.

‘Are you sure?’

Matt

I sighed. The wave of grief and pain had crashed over me and been dragged back with the tide. It had left a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam that needed clearing up.

‘Yeah. Need to stop being a tosser and face people, don’t I?’

That too.

‘You’re not a … actually I can’t think of the polite word for it. You’re not a tosser. You’ve had some fairly hefty life events to deal with in the last twenty four hours. If you want some time on your own, or at least just the four of us, I think that’s allowed.’

It was tempting, to just go indoors, hole up, hide from everyone, for a while. But it wasn’t going to help. And I needed to see Dec, to just … see him.

Laura

I took Matt’s hand and gave it a squeeze, wondering to myself if he realised how far he’d come since I first met him, when he wouldn’t even reply to texts because he thought people were interfering.

‘Come on, then, let’s fetch our children, and hope Dec hasn’t been giving them beer again.’

Matt

We walked up the road, hand in hand. As we stood outside Dec and Amy’s front porch, we could hear the excited noises being made by six children between the ages of three and seven. There was no such thing as chilling out in the Summers House of Fun.

‘Hmm. Sounds like sugar overload. Perhaps we should leave it and fetch them later.’

Lau grinned wickedly up at me and pretended to turn back for home.

‘Great plan, Lau, when they’ve had even more sugar, so they never get to sleep.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. OK, doorbell here we go.’

The noise that could be heard inside the house – squealing, running footsteps, unidentifiable musical noises – all increased as we saw a shape appear in the frosted glass. Dec opened the door, wearing a large hat with corks hanging off it, a child attached to each leg and one hanging on his back. Two more children were behind him, wearing smaller versions of the cork hats and carrying soft toys. Also in evidence were blue West Coast Speeders shirts.

‘Oh, Lau, hi –’

Dec saw me and his eyes widened.

‘Matt! Hey, mate. Great to see you guys. Sorry, we just opened a big box sent by my agent, lots of really naff Aussie stuff, we were giving it a try. Come in – no, let go of me, Tom, you too Ella, I need to let Matt and Lau in. Down you get Rosa.’

Dec slowly unravelled himself from the children so he could open the door wide enough to let us in, pulled the cork hat off and tossed it onto the banister post. As we went into the hall, Amy’s voice floated out of the kitchen.

‘Who is it, hon?’

‘Lau and Matt.’

‘Oh!’

Amy came into the hall, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

‘Oh Matt, how are you?’

I shrugged but didn’t answer, instead bending down to Rosa, who was tugging on my trousers and holding a furry koala up for my inspection. I picked her up and held her while she clung on, one arm round my neck.

‘Kala bear.’

‘Yeh, beautiful, g’day mate an all tha. Have you been playing Crocodile Dundee?’

Rosa shook her head, not understanding the cultural reference that was several decades before her time.

‘We play kalas an kangroos.’

‘Sounds just as good, Red. I like yuhr hat. Did the bottles fall off?’

I flicked a cork.

‘No bottles.’

‘Oh, bad luck.’

‘Rosa, why don’t you go with Ella and Josh and Tom and Gracie and find Charlie? She was looking for a puzzle, wasn’t she?’

All five children thought this was a superb idea, and set off screaming up the stairs in search of Charlie.

Dec looked at me, while I looked back, not sure where to start. There was an awkward silence.

‘Mate, if I’d had any idea, I wouldn’t have signed.’

What was this? Oh do me a favour Declan Summers.

‘Don’t be a fuckwit, why should ih have stopped you? You’re not responsible for my appallingly timed health lapses. Chance of a lifetime, mate, goh an see the world with your family, you’ll have a blast.’

If I said it quickly, I could almost mean it.

‘Yeah, whatever.’

Dec wasn’t convinced by my bluff, and waved off my response.

‘If you … Ames and me talked earlier, and if you need me to stay, I’ll cancel it all.’

I couldn’t have that. I knew he meant it, that was the worst thing, but if I even let him offer, it was going to undo me, I could feel it bubbling under, and I just wanted to do this, get out of it, in one piece.

‘You have to be out of your teeny tiny fucking little mind, Declan Charles Summers. You’re so bloody up yourself. Why the fuck should I need you? I’ve got Lau, I’ve got the whole extended Scott army to bloody nag me and make my life a fucking misery as and when they see fit. I never heard a bigger load of bollocks in my life.’

‘Yeah, right. Come here, then.’

Dec walked towards me and pulled me into a huge bear hug.

‘Thanks mate.’

I murmured into his ear, keeping a tight grip on my emotions.

‘Always’.

Dec’s whispered reply very nearly finished me off, but the moment was broken by the sound of a large herd of children galloping downstairs, and we had to get out of the way or risk a messy trampling.

Laura

As I shook my head at the two stubborn men who loved each other like brothers, probably more, but would never say it as if they meant it in a thousand years, Matt and Dec let go of each other and moved out of the way to avoid being mown down. The crowd of little people surged across the hall and into the living room, Charlie holding a DVD and trailing the smaller children in her wake, and I followed after them.

‘Josh, Ella, it’s time to go. Take your shirts and hats off and give them back to Dec.’

‘Oh, no, it’s OK Lau, they can keep them, you never know Matt might stop being too stingy to fork out for a sports package that shows Super 15 and they can watch me, cheer me on, wearing them. Maybe not the hats, might take someone’s eye out if they get excited when I score.’

‘What do you say?’

I looked at Josh and Ella with my eyebrows raised.

‘Thank you Dec.’

They were well drilled in politeness, but looked disappointed that it was time to go; they loved playing with their almost-cousins.

‘They’re completely welcome to stay, Lau, I’m just doing pizza. If you want some time on your own? Dec’ll bring them back in a bit.’

Matt

Lau glanced at me. Much as I wanted a cuddle with my kids, I really could do with some peace and quiet, and Josh and Ella after an hour or two with the Summerses was usually anything but. Lau didn’t need much of a look to know what I was thinking.

Laura

‘Thanks, flower. You’re an angel.’

Amy smiled and touched my arm.

‘Any time, you know that.’

I nodded again, almost overcome with sudden emotion. It wouldn’t be long before ‘any time’ wouldn’t be possible. A few weeks and they’d be gone.

Matt

Lau nodded, tears sparkling in her eyes. I decided to be brisk and sound more cheerful than I was feeling about what was facing me when I got home.

‘Right then, Lau, best get back and make the most of the silence to bloody ring people and start grovelling.’

‘Grovelling? What for, mate?’

‘For being a prize fucking loony, smashing the club’s newest laptop, and then running off into the night like a –’

‘Right, Matt, you need to stop this now. I don’t know what your fucked up brain is imagining people are thinking, but this morning’s over with, forgotten. No grovelling or apologising needed. We know the score, it’s done. End of.’

A lot of that was what I needed to hear; it cleared up a lot of things I’d been worrying about. But I still had to apologise, explain, make amends.

‘Maybe for you. I’ll need to explain myself to certain, oh I don’t know, brothers, and maybe the odd CEO who may be a bit curious as to why his head of IT couldn’t hold on to a small piece of plastic or say two words together without having a hissy fit.’

Dec opened his mouth to argue, but I stopped him.

‘No, Dec. Ih’s much appreciated, you making out ih doesn’t matter, and I know ih doesn’t to you, and I’m grateful, but I am going to have to spend most of this evening on the phone to various people, not least of all Beth who, if the vibration in my trouser pocket is anything to go by, is about to call out Search and Rescue.’

Dec nodded at me, tacitly agreeing to let it go.

‘OK, you know best, you bastard. But, just so you know, there’s not going to be any comeback from the lads, they’re totally cool.’

‘Yeah, like I can’t hold my own against the shit banter supplied by a bunch of muscle-headed rugby players.’

By now we were both grinning stupidly at each other, happy to be winding each other up instead of talking about serious shit. God I loved my family. Lau pulled on my arm to direct me to the door, and we left, with a kiss and hug from Amy and a promise from Dec that he wouldn’t drop Josh and Ella off too late.

As we walked up the road, I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen. I’d turned it back on in the car on the way home, but hadn’t looked at it. I could no longer avoid the calls and texts that were likely to have accrued on my silenced phone from a certain Mrs Beth Scott.

‘Holy crap, she’s persistent. She’s sent fifteen texts. Let’s see – squawk squawk squawk where are you, squawk squawk let me know you’re safe, squawk squawk squawk. Fifteen times. Bloody hell. I bet she’s sent you as many. Oh, and about a dozen voicemails.’

‘Maybe you should ring her.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve got my phone out now, might as well make contact with The Mothership.’

Laura

Matt was always going to ring Beth. He didn’t mind nearly as much as he tried to pretend he did about her fussing over him. Matt pressed the screen and held the phone to his ear.

Matt

‘Hey.’

‘Oh Matty. At last. I’ve been so worried. How are you, sweetheart?’

‘OK.’

‘Where were you? There have been people out everywhere looking for you, we nearly called the police.’

‘Didn’t Cal tell you?’

I knew he’d said he wouldn’t, but I also knew how persistent Beth could be, and how you ended up telling her shit you didn’t mean to.

‘No, all he’d say was that you were safe, and you were with Laura. So where were you?’

I hesitated. Once Beth knew, that was another place I wouldn’t be able to escape to if I ever needed to again. I let her know part of it.

‘I was over by Avondale, somewhere quiet.’

‘But were you alright, sweetheart? Jay and Cal said you left in a bit of a state.’ ‘No, I was pretty shit actually, but Lau was there, and I’m better.’

As I was talking, we’d got inside and I started to take off my tie, which Lau helped me with, and my jacket, and as I carried on talking, getting the full Beth treatment, Lau brought me a hoody and helped me put it on.

Laura

I looked down at myself and realised I was still wearing my gym clothes from this morning. I hadn’t even been wearing a jacket, but hadn’t noticed the cold. Now I felt chilly, and as Matt sat down on the sofa, I lit the gas fire in the living room, watching the flames leap and feeling warmer.

Matt

Beth was still going on.

‘Oh Matty, you’ve really been having symptoms for a couple of weeks? You should have said something.’

Oh like that was ever going to happen, Beth.

‘Yeah, well sometimes ih’s hard to admit things to yourself that you don’t want to be true. A bit like you and your cellulite.’

I had a quick smirk to myself as Beth started to squawk in earnest.

‘I do not have cellulite! I keep myself in good shape, I –’

It was amusing that even now, she sometimes couldn’t tell when I was just trying to shut her up.

‘Oh stop being outraged, Beth.’

‘Matty, James is here, can I pass you over?’

Might as well, I suppose. This was going to be one of the few conversations with Jay that was going to encompass work and home, and we were just going to have to embrace the weird.

‘Yeah, I think I need to talk to him.’

‘He was so worried about you, Matty.’

This was just the start, the beginning of all the apologising.

‘I know, I didn’t mean to worry anyone, just freaked out.’

‘Take care of yourself, sweetheart.’

‘OK.’

‘Stay in touch.’

‘Yeah, see you soon.’

The phone was handed to Jay.

‘Matty, you’re alive.’

‘Hey.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Bit better now.’

If I said it enough times, it might start being true.

‘You’ve been having symptoms again.’

‘Yeah, the fucking bastard’s back.’

‘How bad is it?’

‘Not bad at the moment, well, apart from this morning.’

‘So this morning was, what, a blip or something?’

‘Yeah, well, feel a bit of a dick, probably owe Raiders a laptop.’

In truth, although the shakes, the unintelligible bollocks, the vision, it had all gone away since my meltdown, I could feel it lurking. I didn’t know how much of it was going to come crashing back, but I was preparing myself for it.

‘Well don’t worry about the bloody laptop, Matty, but maybe you need to talk to Malcolm.’

‘I know, I’ll talk to him now.’

‘Do you want us to come over? Beth’s getting a lasagne out of the freezer.’

Dear God no, the last thing I bloody needed was a houseful of people twittering over me.

‘No, I don’t need you all to bloody pile over, Lau’s here, just need some space.’

‘Can Laura manage alright?’

I sighed. Jay was catching the Beth bug. It was inevitable, I suppose.

‘It’s OK, Jay.’

I looked up at Lau.

‘Jay wants to know if you’re alright looking after me, Lau. You won’t forget to change my nappy and give me my four hourly feed, will you?’

She rolled her eyes at me.

‘Yeah, she’s fine with it, as long as she doesn’t forget the Calpol.’

‘Piss off, Matty, we’re just concerned.’

‘Piss off yourself.’

‘We’ll come over tomorrow, though. Beth says no excuses.’

‘Yeah, see you tomorrow.’

‘Be strong, Matty. Stay positive.’

I disconnected and flopped back against the sofa. It was exhausting trying to convince people everything was OK really, nothing to worry about, when I just wanted to scream. Lau took my hand and gave me a sympathetic look. Having her here, knowing what was going on for me and understanding without words, was what was keeping me sane, stopping me from actually screaming.

‘Only another four thousand calls and I can relax.’

‘Do you have to do them all now?’

‘Yeah, need to get ih done. In a minute. First, I need to do this.’

I turned in my seat and reached for her, pulling her towards me and holding her tight against me, speaking into her ear.

‘Lau you are so fucking phenomenal, you’re all that’s keeping me going. I’d just jack ih all in if ih wasn’t for you.’

‘Good job I’m here then.’

‘Yeah. I just can’t bullshit you, can I, you know exactly how I am, I don’t even have to say ih.’

‘To be fair, flower, you are much better at talking than you used to be.’

‘Always been bloody good at talking, Lau. Not always so good at talking sense. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

‘Right, next on the list, the big boss.’

I scrolled down my address book and tapped his name.

‘Hello Malcolm, it’s Matt Scott here.’

‘Matt. How are you?’

‘Yeah, well, better thanks, I just wanted to apologise about this morning.’

And so it went on, call after call, to some of the people who’d been there this morning, people who’d been out looking for me, some of the people who’d left messages on my phone or Lau’s phone asking about me, other members of the family, Mum, Cory, who’d heard from afar about what had happened, and I said the same to all of them.

‘I’m fine now, just had a bit of a wobble. Sorry to worry you. Talk to you about it tomorrow.’

I had no idea who I was going to see tomorrow. I didn’t know if I was going to go into work or not, although it appeared I still had a job.

Laura

And Matt carried on, making his way through his list of missed calls and texts. I sat and held his hand, half listening to him talk, proud of how well he was showing a brave face to the world when what he really felt like doing was running to the darkest most hidden place he could find until it all went away.

Matt

Then I started in on the texts, people who needed to know I was OK, but didn’t need to speak to me. I just wanted everyone to know I was normal, I was Matt, and although I might not have seemed like Matt this morning, that was a one-off, and now I was back. It wasn’t how I felt, but it was how I needed to be. Except with Lau. I could be me with Lau, and that was the difference this time. I had her, and I wasn’t trying to fool the whole world that everything was normal, because there was a Lau shaped bit of it who knew how things really were. It mattered, a lot.

118. State of shock

In which an old enemy returns, and bad news is imparted.

Matt

So here it is. Josh and Ella were five, they were happy at school, they were growing by the day, and learning so much stuff it was hard to keep up with them sometimes. I was loving life. I had my family, my job, friends, house, car, it was all going according to plan. Maybe that was one of the warning signs; nothing ever just pootles along merrily forever, does it. Sometimes it all crashes around you.

Looking back, I’d been ignoring it for a couple of weeks at least, probably longer. I’d fall asleep after dinner, a few of my words were slurred, but this wasn’t going to happen, it fucking well wasn’t going to come back, it had left me alone for nearly five years, and so I just worked hard, put it to the back of my mind, wished it away, and it seemed to go, and I wondered if I’d been imagining it.

Then it started creeping back, the odd unintelligible bit of bollocks, the occasional stumble, once I couldn’t get my arm to lift a cup into the dishwasher. My legs would tremble at odd times, sitting, standing or walking. I still ignored it. Because ignoring things makes them go away, doesn’t it.

Laura

One afternoon, school run completed, and Matt home from work, I was in the living room with Josh and Ella, waiting for Matt to bring us all a drink. Ella was lying on the floor colouring a picture; Josh was playing with his cars, pushing them up and down the sofa, having made a village on the cushions.

Matt

I was making everyone a drink – tea for Lau, blackcurrant squash for the kids, beer for me – and listening to their noises. Josh was playing cars, making engine sounds and beeps. Ella was colouring, and asking Lau which colour went with purple. I picked up the glass to pour my beer into, and as the liquid reached the top of the glass, my arm started to quiver. I tried to hold on, but my arm gave an almighty spasm, my hand let go, and glass and bottle fell to the floor. It was as if it had got pissed off with me ignoring it, and was making sure I knew it was back. Because it was, it was back. It was fucking back.

As the glass smashed on the floor and I stared at the burst of beer and froth that splattered the tiles and the units, it just slammed into me, and kept on pounding me. It was all my brain could compute.

‘Fuck off you fucking –’

Laura

I hissed a sharp intake of breath as Matt dropped the c-bomb. Sweary as he was, it was one of the few words I’d rarely heard him say. I felt my heart pinch with worry as Ella looked up from her drawing.

‘Daddy said a swear.’

Josh continued brrmming his cars along the sofa, shaking his head.

‘Really, Daddy.’

I smiled to hear my usual rebuke repeated. Matt didn’t swear as much as he used to, at least not within earshot of Josh and Ella, but a fair amount of cursing still went on, and the kids were always keen to join in the nagging. At least they hadn’t asked what it meant.

‘Alright in there?’

There was no reply. Sighing, I got to my feet and walked through the house.

Matt

I turned round to lean on the sink, breath heaving in my chest. This was the end, if it was back; the end of my normal life. How was I going to carry on now?

I heard Lau call out, but couldn’t answer her, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, all I could do was stare into the sink as hot tears flowed down my face and dropped into the washing up bowl.

Laura

In the kitchen, Matt was standing with his back to me, leaning on the sink, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh Matt.’

I picked my way through the explosion of glass and beer that had spread across the floor, until I could stand behind him and fold myself round him.

Matt

I felt her behind me, putting her arms round my waist and resting her face on my shoulder, and I span round, into her arms, crushing her to me, needing her to be there, my safe place. I tried to speak, to tell her, but it came out in shudders and sobs.

‘Ih’s back … the fucking … bastard’s … back. I thought … ih … had … gone.’

Laura

I’d been dreading something like this for a couple of weeks; I’d noticed small signs – a slight slur in the speech, stumbles and trips, difficulty focussing on the pictures the twins brought back from school, the fear in his eyes.

‘I know, flower.’

Although both of us knew it never really went, just lay in wait.

Matt

Of course she knew. She always knew everything. She’d been waiting for me to know.

‘Daddy, why are you crying?’

Oh shit, the kids were at the door. Lau turned round as I took deep breaths and tried to dry my eyes. Josh and Ella were standing in the doorway, eyes wide at the sight of their blarting father and the puddle of glass and beer spread across the kitchen floor. I tried a kind of smile, while Lau spoke to them.

Laura

‘Don’t come in, kids, there’s broken glass. Daddy’s sad because he dropped his beer.’

The immediately practical Ella rolled her eyes.

‘But Daddy you can get another one in the fridge. Mummy can clean up the floor.’

Josh stayed silent, always the one to soak everything up first and ask questions later.

‘I know, Squeaks, I’m just getting a cloth. Shoo, now, Daddy will bring your squash in a minute.’

Reluctant to leave the scene of impressive carnage, Ella and Josh lingered for a moment, eyeing the tempting puddle, until I waved my hands at them to urge them away. As they trotted off I turned back to Matt, lifting my hand to his face and wiping away a stray tear. I needed to show him I wasn’t just making light of it, to reassure him quickly, but was aware of the likelihood of small ears listening beyond the kitchen.

‘In it together, yeah?’

Matt

I put my hand over hers, then moved my lips to her palm, kissing it gently. If there was anyone I wanted with me while my world was ending, it was Lau. Always Lau.

‘Don’t know what I’d do without you, Lau. You don’t deserve this.’

My voice was ragged, whispering.

Laura

‘Matthew Robert Scott, I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life. When I signed on the dotted line, I knew exactly what I deserved, and it was you. It was always you, it will always be you. Now, a bit less nonsense and a bit more making blackcurrant squash to give to your gasping children while I clean up the floor. It needed a good mop anyway. And try not to track beery footprints through the house.’

Matt

I pulled her towards me while she was still talking, while she was still being practical and making it better, and we held each other tightly, as our bodies spoke of sorrow and pain and hard times to come, things that we couldn’t say while the children were within earshot.

‘Love you Lau.’

‘Love you too.’

So I made squash for the kids, and for the rest of the evening, until they went to bed, I was just Daddy, same old Daddy, who’d had a bit of a hissy fit when he spilt his beer, but came back in with the blackcurrant joking and smiling like it hadn’t happened. That was on the outside. On the inside I was folding into myself, how the fuck was I going to tell them, how the fuck were they going to understand their Daddy was going to become a fucking cripple who couldn’t walk, talk, pick them up, play football with them, reliably hit the right key on the computer … shit.

It all started hitting me, as Lau was upstairs with them and I sat on the sofa staring at nothing. This was worse, so much worse than before. I had two children who relied on me, not only to put food on their table, but to be their Daddy, and all the things that entailed. It wasn’t only going to be me who lost everything, it was going to be them too. I shrank into myself, trying to hide from it all.

Lau came back downstairs after tucking them in and reading them a story, and we sat curled up on the sofa, TV on, us silent. I knew she’d want to discuss it, and I nearly started a couple of times, but I didn’t even know where to begin.

Laura

After the children had gone to bed, we sat curled up on the sofa, a film on the TV that neither of us were watching, Matt’s arm round me as I lay against his chest. I heard him breathe in a couple of times as if he was going to say something, but he let the breath out without speaking.

‘Want to talk about it?’

Matt sighed. ‘No, not really. Ih’s not going to change anything, is ih. Can’t face ih just now. Need time.’

‘OK, whatever you need.’

I knew Matt well enough by now to know when to push him to talk and when he really did need the space he always asked for whether he needed it or not. At this moment there was a lot of thinking going on for him, now it was out in the open, and when he’d done that, I would push if I needed to. It wasn’t lost on me that I was experiencing MS from the other side, the side where – unlike at work – you couldn’t just detach from the pain and hurt of people, the side where you were in the middle of it all and there was no let up, no nine to five, no lunch break

‘Are you watching this?’

‘No, not really. Do you want to watch something else?’

‘No, I was thinking about going to bed.’

‘It’s still early.’

‘I didn’t necessarily mean to sleep.’

‘Oh.’

Matt’s face lit up, then darkened.

Matt

I looked at her expression, her come to bed eyes, and for a second she had me fooled. Then I knew what she was doing.

‘I don’t need a pity fuck, thanks.’

I realised straight away I’d offended her, that she’d been genuine. God, I was already retreating behind lashing out at the people I loved.

Laura

I tried not to be offended; he was feeling vulnerable and hitting out. Matt wasn’t the only one who maybe needed the reassurance that physical closeness always brought us, and it hadn’t been an offer, it had been a suggestion.

‘You don’t know me at all if you think there’s anything pitying in trying to get you into bed. You’re the hotty with the great bum that all my friends are jealous of, I just thought that rather than sitting here vegging in front of a crappy film neither of us are watching, we could maybe explore said bum in more comfort. Maybe explore my bum too. I found a muscle the other day.’

‘You did not!’

To my relief, Matt took the line I’d dangled; the opportunity to tease me.

Matt

She had a saucy smile, and she was throwing me a life-line. I caught it and clung on for dear life.

‘You have no muscles in your arse, that’s why it’s so lush.’

‘I’m telling you I found a muscle. It’s all those squats and lunges at the gym. Will says –’

Lau was doing really well at the gym. She didn’t need to do any of it, not for me, but she was getting fitter for her, and losing some of the curves she found most vexing.

‘Oh Will says, your uhmayzing personal trainer who gets to perv on you in your gym top. What does Willy-boy say?’

‘I’m not going to tell you now, I don’t think you’ll take Willy-boy seriously.’

She feigned a pout.

‘Does he say you’ve got a fantastic arse?’

‘No, but he –’

‘Then he’s an idiot. Come on, let’s go and see just where this imaginary bum muscle is.’

I grabbed her hand, losing myself in the moment, in the Matt and Lau of it, while I could. I pulled her out of her seat, and she ran past me up the stairs, as I followed, trying to tickle her newly toned arse.

I spent some considerable time looking for Lau’s bum muscle, using various inventive search methods, before pronouncing it invisible to the naked eye.

‘But hey, Lau, I bet you’ve hidden it somewhere else. Is it … here?’

Iz

Lord Above, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more … hang on to your jam sandwiches folks.

Matt

I conducted a thorough investigation of her mouth with my tongue and lips that left us both breathless and flushed.

‘Well, Lau, there is a pretty good muscle in there, but it’s not the one I’m looking for. How about here?’

I kissed my way down her throat and had a good hunt around her breasts with my mouth and fingers. Lau tangled her fingers in my hair and moaned. How could I have thought this was out of pity? She was enjoying herself as much as I was.

‘Nope, no sign of a muscle in there either. Just have to keep on looking.’

Holding her gaze, I let my hand drift lower, brushing her belly button before settling between her legs. Lau twitched as I found her most sensitive spot, and she grasped my shoulders as I moved myself downwards and followed my fingers with my mouth. It was her favourite, and never failed to light her up; I grinned against her as it worked again.

My fingers probed lower and deeper, until they were in her, and I started to thrust. Lau clenched around me, inside her.

‘Whoa, there it is, that’s the muscle I was looking for. Naughty Willy-boy if he’s been working on this one!’

I knelt between her legs, continuing to thrust into her with my fingers, watching Lau writhe, building the heat as I gazed down at her. God she was awesome, and I wanted her so much.

‘Ready, Lau?’

‘Yeah, oh God, yeah.’

‘Work that body. Here we go.’

I slipped my fingers out and guided my hard-on into her. As I filled her, pushed into her, felt the familiar sensation, allowed it to blow my mind again, as it did every time, I started to thrust, slowly and rhythmically, so I could feel every part of her sliding and sparking against every part of me.

At first I propped myself up on my arms, so just our hips were touching, then her mouth was so appealing, I bent down and kissed her, wrapping her up in my arms as she folded her legs round my back and drew me deeper into her. My thrusts became more urgent and we both started to cry out before remembering the children and dropping the volume, but we stayed locked together, bodies slipping against each other, breathing hard, moaning our pleasure, and then coming, and coming and coming, plunging deep into each other, exploding with the release.

I clung on to Lau for a long time afterwards, wanting, needing to be as close to her as I could. After a while, it was overwhelming, the whole mess, and it started coming out, first in gulps, then shudders. I tried not to let go, but there was too much of it, and before long I was quivering against her, sobbing. Lau soothed me, stroking my back, kissing my hair, whispering nonsense to me, until I calmed down. I still held on as if I was drowning.

Lau was waiting, to see if I was going to say anything. This time I was.

‘I don’t wana lose this.’

‘Oh my love.’

I knew she wouldn’t say ‘you won’t’, because I had last time, and indeed the time before, and Lau never made empty promises.

‘Don’t mourn it before it’s gone. Make the most of it while it’s here.’

I sniffed and wiped my eyes.

‘Oh you’re right, you bloody cow, you always know what to say. Anyone would think you used to be a nurse or something.’

‘Still am a nurse, thanks.’

Lau was always very firm about the fact that even though she wasn’t working, she had trained as a nurse, and a nurse was what she would stay, come what may.

‘Yeah, OK, fair enough. Oh Lau, I’m sorry.’

I let go of her and rolled onto my back, with my arm over my face. Lau snuggled into my side with an arm over my chest.

‘What are you sorry about?’

‘All this. Fucking bastard MS, me fucking freaking, you having to be all ‘one step at a time’ when you just want to freak yourself. You know … Lau, you know you don’t have to stay, no one would blame you, least of all me, if you took the kids and went.’

It was something that had occurred to me as I thought about how it was going to affect them all. Surely it would be easier for them all if they could just get on with things without having to bother about me?

Lau pushed me away from her angrily, and her eyes were flashing fire.

‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere, and neither are Josh and Ella. You can stop this ‘poor me’ nonsense right now. Just for the record, as you seem to have forgotten, I love you. When I met you, you were having a flare-up of MS, so if I was going to bail out because of that, then would have been the time. How dare you think I care about you so little that I run, and take our children with me, at the first sign of something untoward? What sort of a person do you think I am?’

I closed my eyes, didn’t speak for a moment.

‘Sorry, Lau, didn’t think of it like that. Trying to be selfless.’

‘Yeah, I seem to remember you trying that before one time, and we nearly didn’t get together in the first place as a result, in fact, you nearly – well who knows what you might have done that night. The point is, there is no ‘selfless’ when it comes to our family, we are all together, we help each other and love each other and support each other, and need each other. If you even think of going it alone, that’s selfish, not selfless. We all need you. God, you are proper infuriating.’

I couldn’t look at her. My eyes were spilling tears again; I just didn’t deserve it, this love, this loyalty, when all I was going to be able to offer them, soon, was pain and unhappiness. Lau folded me up in her arms again, and I squeezed her tightly against me as I cried again. I could feel her strength pouring into me, and part of me felt selfish for taking it, but God how I needed it, how I needed her comfort, as she stroked my back and made soft noises in my ear. It all subsided after a time, but Lau carried on holding me, and we lay in the darkness and breathed together.

Just as I was starting to drift into the black, the door handle rattled. We didn’t have a lock on the door, but the twins had taken to visiting in the early hours, so we had put a chair in front of the door, so we at least had some warning. We must have woken them up.

Laura

‘Mummy.’

It was Ella. It usually was, and she would be closely followed by Josh, who didn’t like being left on his own in the room they still shared.

‘Go back to bed, Squeaks.’

Matt

Lau was stricter than me about letting them in, and at the moment was protecting me. I suddenly wanted them all here, our family together.

‘Can’t they come in, Lau? Four way cuddle would be great right now.’

Laura

I sighed. It sent all sorts of mixed messages, but sometimes other things were more important. I got out of bed and moved the chair. Ella stood outside the door, holding her teddy. As predicted, Josh was at her shoulder. Both were looking up at me with big sleepy eyes.

‘Come on then. No noise or giggling, now.’

I tried to be strict, but it was a treat to have us all snuggled up together. We’d all be tired tomorrow, but it wasn’t tomorrow yet, it was now. Ella and Josh trotted into the bedroom and jumped into the bed as Matt held the duvet open for them – there was just enough room for us all, Josh and Ella on the inside, Matt and me on the outside.

Matt

By the time the kids had rolled over a few times and spread out, one of us would be off to the guest room, usually Lau, but before that happened, we all smushed together, me starting a bit of tickling because Lau loved trying to make us stop and behave, and then kisses and cuddles before going to sleep. I folded them both up, one after the other, with big hugs. Josh, as usual, submitted willingly, but Ella would only stand it for a short while.

‘You’re squeezing me Daddy.’

Laura

Our children were so different; Ella always took the lead, asked questions, said what she wanted, did what she wanted, threw a tantrum when she didn’t get what she wanted, using pester-power and volume to see her needs were met. Josh was happier to follow, riding on his sister’s coat tails, picking up the crumbs she left behind. When Josh made a fuss, you knew it was really important.

I wondered how they would react to the return of Matt’s MS, and started to think about what we might say to them. There had been some really good children’s resources around when I worked in the MS team; I’d give them a ring and see if I could beg some freebies.

Eventually we settled down, and Matt, Josh and Ella fell asleep while I listened to the sound of their breathing. I dozed off eventually, but woke later, teetering on the edge of the bed, with Ella curled against my back, her knees digging into my kidneys; it was usually me who ended up in the spare room. Stifling a resigned sigh, I rolled out of bed and walked round the bed.

Matt

I woke up, arse hanging over the edge of the bed, to see Lau creeping out of the room.

‘Lau?’

‘Been squeezed out. See you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t go.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of this night, of all nights, without her.

‘There’s no room.’

‘Wait, then.’

She waited by the bed as I climbed out, disentangling myself from Josh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Coming with you.’

‘We won’t both fit in the spare bed.’

‘Yeah we will. You and your muscly arse, me a skinny streak of nothing, plenty of room. Come on, we’ll wake them up if we stand here chatting.’

I couldn’t see her clearly, but I recognised the shape of her rolling her eyes at me as I followed her to the door.

Laura

We would have been better off taking Josh and Ella’s beds, but I knew Matt wanted to wrap himself up in me tonight, so we headed off to the spare room.

I woke early, cramped, neck stiff, shoved up against the wall. Matt was lying on his front, half hanging off the side of the single bed, head turned towards me, mouth open. His hair stuck out at wild angles, and I reached out and smoothed it, as I did most mornings.

I heard a noise from our room; it was Matt’s phone. It was set to go off every two minutes when he got a text, unless he read it. I decided to fetch it before it pinged again, to avoid waking Ella and Josh early, if possible. I carefully sat up and rearranged the duvet around Matt, before shuffling to the end of the bed and hopping off. Although I was trying to be quiet, I probably could have jumped up and down on the mattress without waking him, but it was a habit from being around the children.

The screen on Matt’s phone was lit up on his bedside table. I glanced at Ella and Josh, but they were dead to the world, Ella’s arm flung out across Josh’s chest. I looked down at the phone – it was a short text from Dec. I quickly carried the phone into the spare room before it pinged again.

It wasn’t unusual for Dec and Matt to text each other at all sorts of times of the day and night, sometimes it was a bit of a competition to see who could annoy the other the most, but something about this one made me try to wake Matt.

I tried shaking him gently, not wanting him to fall out of bed from his precarious perch. I tried speaking into his ear. I tried pinching him. The most I got was a mumbled curse and a move to a more comfortable position, away from the edge of the bed, as he rolled onto his back. As a last resort, I kissed him, using the full force of my tongue and lips to try and rouse him, tweaking his nipples as I did so.

Matt

I woke with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her fingers tweaking my nipple. This was more like it, a proper wake-up call. Oh, but she pulled away as I started kissing her back. She shoved my phone in front of my face, but I didn’t understand.

‘Wha? No, c’mere, keep snogging.’

‘You’ve got a text from Dec.’

‘Wha? He can piss off, ih’s only –’

I took the phone and looked at the time.

‘– shit, Lau, ih’s only bloody five o’clock.’

‘Yeah, but I think you need to read it.’

I still wasn’t quite awake, and I ran a hand through my hair as I tried to gather my thoughts. I looked blearily at the phone, and clicked on the message.

‘Shit.’

‘What does he say?’

‘RU awake, need 2 talk. Urgent.’

‘Ring him then.’

No, no, no, I couldn’t cope with any more drama, not today, I needed time to get my head around things. I combed my hair with my fingers again, then lay down, holding my arm out for Lau to get back in beside me. She climbed in and cuddled up, as I hit ‘call’.

‘Hey, ih’s me.’

‘Hey mate. You’re awake, then?’

‘Well I am now, what’s the big emergency?’

I was hoping that maybe it was something relatively innocuous, like Amy was poorly and we needed to look after the kids while he was at training, although why he was calling this bloody early in the morning I had no idea.

‘Can I come over? I’m … I’ve got … I just need to tell you something.’

What the fuck? I didn’t like the sound of this.

‘Oh, well, I guess, yeah.’

‘Coffee would be good.’

‘OK, I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘Five minutes?’

‘Yeah, see you in a bit.’

Oh I didn’t like this at all. Dec wasn’t fucking about or anything. It was something pretty huge. I turned to Lau.

‘He’s coming round.’

‘Why?’

‘Said he needed to tell me something. Shit, ih sounds big, Lau.’

I heard the tremble in my voice. I knew what Lau’s response would be – don’t worry about it until you know for sure – but all sorts of possibilities were flooding into my mind, each one worse than the last. And on top of it all was me; me and the fucking bastard.

‘I don’t want him to know about … me, not just yet.’

‘OK, flower, but … he’ll notice eventually.’

‘Yeah. But not today. Please.’

‘Sure, of course, it’s totally up to you. I’ll go and put the kettle on, while you find some pyjama bottoms or something.’

Laura

I grabbed my dressing gown from our bedroom, and went quickly downstairs, as I heard a light tap on the door. I let Dec in, looking at him quizzically. He looked nervous, which was unlike him; he was usually laid back about everything.

‘Go through, flower.’

I gestured to the living room.

‘I’m just making a drink. Tea or coffee?’

‘Thanks, Lau, coffee would be great, it’s early for me.’

‘It’s early for all of us.’

‘Yeah, I know, sorry.’

‘Matt’s on his way down, just getting decent.’

‘Oh, good, wouldn’t want any indecency from Matt, not before breakfast anyway.’

Matt

Lau went downstairs to let Dec in while I found some trousers. I heard a light tap on the door, then Dec and Lau’s voices, then Lau went back into the kitchen. I sat upstairs, on the bed, for as long as I could, knowing I was avoiding whatever it was, knowing it would surely be better to know than to imagine. Finally, I made my way downstairs and into the living room, where Dec was waiting.

I kept telling myself it might not be anything bad. Last time I’d convinced myself it was, and they were getting married. Dec didn’t always consider the effect of how he did things on other people, yeah, who was I to judge. I should just wait.

But as I went into the living room and saw the look on Dec’s face, saw him look ill-at-ease, fiddling with his fingers, hardly able to meet my eyes, I knew. At least, I knew it wasn’t good.

Lau brought some coffee in, and then turned to go, but I wanted her here, needed her here while he told me whatever it was. I felt for her hand and looked up at her, begging her to stay with my eyes.

‘Stay, Lau.’

Lau looked at Dec, to check it was OK with him. He nodded back at her.

‘Yeah, Lau, you should hear this too.’

She sat next to me and squeezed my hand, trying to keep me calm. Dec looked down for a while, taking a few deep breaths. It was almost more than I could stand, waiting for him to spit it out.

‘Please, Dec, get on with ih, I’m imagining all sorts of terrible shit, put me out of my fucking misery.’

Dec looked up and met my eyes.

‘I’ve signed for West Coast Speeders.’

A jolt went through me, I felt it lift me out of my seat slightly. I’d been pretty sure he was going to tell me he’d signed for another club, had steeled myself for it, was expecting him to be on his way to London, maybe TomCats or Warriors, one of the big clubs. West Coast Speeders were in Australia. He was moving to the other side of the fucking world. I couldn’t speak, just looked at him. Dec filled the silence with more information, but I could hardly take it in. I was numb.

Laura

I felt the shock go through Matt. He didn’t say anything, just looked back at Dec. Dec couldn’t possibly know the hammer blow he had just dealt Matt, with his MS symptoms returning – how much Matt would have relied on having Dec around.

Matt

‘It’s going to be announced at nine this morning, I wanted you to know before you went to work, or you heard it on the fucking telly or something.’

I still just stared at him, it was Lau who spoke.

Laura

Still nothing from Matt, although I had a question.

‘Where are West Coast wotsits?’

I’d vaguely heard of the team, but didn’t think they were in the league that Raiders played in.

Matt

Oh, Lau wouldn’t know, she knew fuck all about rugby anyway, let alone which continent teams played on.

‘Australia. Perth. It’s where I lived when I was little.’

‘Australia? Oh Dec.’

Laura

I squeezed Matt’s hand with all my might, as my eyes filled with tears. Amy and Dec were our best friends, our children played together and fought together, in and out of each other’s houses all the time. I couldn’t imagine our lives without them just up the road.

Matt

I looked at Lau, and saw tears in her eyes. It wasn’t just me this was going to affect. Amy was Lau’s friend, their kids were in and out of our house all the time, what would Beth and Jay think? What about Rose? Considering the impact this news would have on people who weren’t me made me slightly less self-obsessed, made me think of something to say. Dec was sitting there looking miserable and tense, when this was great for him, an incredible opportunity.

‘Didn’t you support Speeders when you were a kid?’

I tried to keep my tone light, but I heard the catch in my voice. At least I wasn’t spouting unintelligible bollocks.

Dec looked relieved that I had spoken, and that I was acting normal.

‘Yeah. I used to train with them as well, before I moved to England, with their juniors. It’s like my last chance, I’m getting older and don’t always make the first team here any more. If I don’t go now, they might not ask again, and it’s like a childhood dream kind of thing. And there’s a small chance, if I’m playing in Oz, that I could get the call from the Wallabies.’

‘That’s great for you, mate. Fucking brilliant.’

With a huge effort, I managed a smile for him. He was my mate, almost my brother, and if I couldn’t fake a bit of happiness on his behalf, I wasn’t really worth much. A few more tears spilled down Lau’s face.

Laura

I saw the effort Matt made to be happy for his friend, his brother, and was so proud of him, but I couldn’t match his faked composure, or stop a few tears spilling down my face.

‘We’ll miss you.’

Matt

She said it for me, for all of us.

‘I know, Lau. I can’t really believe we’re going to be moving away. I’ve lived here, in this city for, well it feels like my whole life. Everything I know is here. It’s scaring the shit out of me, and we’ll miss you guys too, but it won’t be forever. I’ve only got two or three more years left of playing before I’m too knackered, and I’m only signing for a year to start with.’

‘When are you going, mate?’

‘At the end of the season. May, sometime, depending on what Raiders get up to in the league. I might be able to fit a couple of games in over there before their season finishes.’

Shit, that was really soon. I wasn’t going to have any time to take it in, get used to it. Shit. I squeezed Lau’s hand so tightly I saw her wince, and loosened my hold slightly.

‘Holy fuck, that’s only a few weeks – why so soon?’

‘Well their season’s already started over there. I’m going to get stuck right in as soon as I arrive, but I’ve got to finish up here with Raiders first.’

‘I assume you’ve told Jay.’

‘Yeah, I just rang him. I’ve only just sorted it out – time difference and all that. Been on the phone to agents and admin people all bloody night, now I’ve got to go in for training. Gonna take a bit of stick, I should think.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Oh, you know Jay, not at his best for early morning calls. But he was OK. It was Beth who was in floods. Oh shit, this is going to be so hard, telling everyone. I should go, I’ve got to call a few people, then go round to see Rose on my way to training. Really, really not looking forward to that one.’

If I thought I wasn’t handling it well, I only had to think of Rose to put things in perspective. Rose had no family of her own, apart from a sister and nephew in Wales, and Dec, Amy and their children were like her own children and grandchildren. She was going to be destroyed.

Dec stood up to go, and Lau went out with him. I gave him as good a smile as I could muster, but it was a pretty feeble effort. As soon as he left the room, I dropped my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes, the news pounding through me, threatening to overpower me. The fucking bastard was back, and Dec wasn’t going to be here. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fucking fair.

Laura

I showed Dec to the door. He looked at me and lowered his voice.

‘Is he OK?’

‘Yeah, we’re both just surprised. And sad for us. Great for you, though, flower. Exciting.’

‘He just seems a bit …’

Dec’s words trailed off and he shrugged. I knew he meant more than just being upset. He would have noticed the same things I had over the past week or so, but I decided to play innocent.

‘He’ll be fine, once we get used to it. One of Beth’s huge parties will sort things.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, oh fuck, she’s going to throw a humdinger isn’t she. Take care, Lau.’

‘You too. Have a good day.’

Matt

Lau came back in and tried to take my hand, but I just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to touch anyone, be with anyone, just needed time to process it all, put it somewhere it didn’t all hurt so fucking much. Maybe tomorrow I’d laugh at myself for being such a melodramatic wanktard, but today it was a pain deep in my gut, and I needed to be there in the middle of it, sore, bruised and miserable. I pulled away from Lau, curled my knees up to my chest and turned away from her.

‘Just wana be on my own for a bit.’

To her credit, she didn’t try to get me to talk, or even try to stay with me.

‘OK, then. Here, put this round you so you don’t get cold.’

I hardly noticed while she put the throw from the back of the sofa over me, and left the room.

I spent the next couple of hours hovering over the pit of despair, the same one that had tried to drag me into it before, when Dec had climbed in and pulled me out. Except now he couldn’t, because he was the reason I was here, and I couldn’t let him know how devastated I was, I couldn’t tell him I needed him here like I needed all of them here, that him fucking off to another continent was the worst news I’d ever heard. Because he had his own life, and he deserved it, he’d worked hard for it, and fuck knows he’d spent enough time in the past propping me up and being there for me. I wasn’t about to make him feel guilty about going and making the most of life while he had the opportunity.

So I hovered there, on the edge, nearly falling in, the darkness beckoning, and then it crossed my mind, just floated in there, what I was supposed to be doing today. I’d managed to toss everything else out to make room for my enormous bout of self-pity, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be giving a presentation this morning. People were relying on me. Maybe I’d been considering taking the day off to bury myself under the duvet, I hadn’t really thought about it coherently, but with a plummeting heart, I realised I was going to have to get myself into some kind of shape, slap on some smart clothes and a professional attitude, and tell a room full of people about shit that right at that moment I couldn’t have cared less about.

It was almost more than I could bear, and I seriously considered calling in sick, but there was no one else who could do it, and it had taken ages to sort out this date so everyone who needed to be there was there. I was going to have to pull myself together and do it. Maybe working would distract me.

I looked at the time. Gone seven, so Lau would be up soon, ready to start chivvying Ella and Josh. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to disperse both my tiredness and the churning that was going on inside my head. Things needed doing, the day needed to start, so I got up and went into the kitchen to make some breakfast.

Laura

Ella woke me up, holding my phone, which was bleeping insistently, to my ear. It was seven eighteen and the alarm had been going for a minute.

‘Mummy wake up your phone is making me cross.’

I took the phone and turned it off.

‘Sorry, Squeaks, I forgot it was in there. There, all better.’

‘Where’s Daddy?’

‘Oh, I think he’s … downstairs already. Shall we go and find him?’

Ella nodded and took my hand as I got out of bed and made for the stairs.

‘Is Josh still asleep?’

I peered into our bedroom as I passed, and could make out Josh’s sleeping form. He was clutching Ella’s teddy.

‘Yes, he was saying things last night.’

Josh often sleep-talked. He slept more deeply than Ella, who could wake at the slightest sound, and she often reported the weird things her brother chattered about in the night.

We went downstairs together; I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the living room, how Matt would be, but when Ella and I opened the door, he wasn’t there, and the throw had been folded up and returned to the back of the sofa. I heard noises from the kitchen.

‘Hey, Squeaks, if we’re lucky Daddy’s making breakfast. Do you want Weeties?’

Ella considered, her morning breakfast choices being the first of many things she weighed up seriously before continuing her morning routine.

‘Coco Pops.’

‘OK, I’ll tell Daddy.’

Ella continued into the living room, and I made my way into the kitchen, where Matt was busy making his breakfast. I looked at his face; he looked terrible, dark circles under his eyes, pale and drawn.

Matt

Lau came in on her own, Ella having gone into the living room to turn the TV on. I carried on making tea and toast, putting more bread in the toaster for Lau and getting the Coco Pops out for Ella. It all felt automatic, like it wasn’t really me doing it. I felt dreadful, only half alive. Lau came over and looked at me, studying my face.

Laura

‘Matt, you look awful. Maybe you shouldn’t go to work today.’

‘I’ve got to, I’m doing a presentation about the new GPS, to everyone, players, coaches, admin, the whole bloody club.’

‘Can’t Cory or Jenna do it?’

‘Cory’s on a course and Jenna’s on holiday.’

‘Oh. Are you sure you can do it?’

‘Yeah, Lau, I’ve not got a bloody choice. I’m just tired, I didn’t sleep after Dec went, and not much before. I’ve been wiped before, I’ll be OK.’

‘Here, let me do that, then.’

I took the kettle out of his hand, noticing the shake as he held it.

‘Ella’s up, Josh is still fast asleep, whole bed to himself.’

‘Go Hippo, sleep hard.’

Matt tried a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

‘We’ll talk later, flower.’

Matt

I closed my eyes briefly, unable to face the thought of all the talking, fussing, I was going to have to endure once they all got wind of it. Then I nodded and took Ella’s cereal to her.

I dragged myself through getting ready. None of it seemed real, it was all overlaid with a sense of being outside my own life looking in, wishing so hard things were different that I was almost detaching myself from reality.

I was ready about the same time as Josh and Ella. I usually took them to school on my way to work, and today was no different. Lau had got them ready, and she gave them their sandwich boxes as I stood by the door.

Lau come over and straightened my tie, giving me a kiss as she did so. There was a lot we weren’t saying to each other, not only because the children were right there, but because we both knew I wasn’t going to talk about it yet.

‘Must be an important presentation, for you to get all togged up in your posh.’

‘Important enough. The CEO’s gona be there, not exactly one where I can wear my cargo shorts and ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt.’

‘You look lovely, you should dress up more often. Not just for work.’

She gave me a meaningful look and I did my best to flash her a smile

‘Noted. See you later, Lau. Kiss your mum, kids.’

Lau bent down to Josh, who gave her a big cuddle and a kiss, and to Ella, who pecked her on the cheek, eager to get going and see her friends. If I could just focus on this, the ordinary stuff, I’d be OK. Ordinary was fine; it was big, huge, life-changing shit that was hard. I chatted to them both in the car and saw them into the playground, then continued my journey to work, where it became a bit more difficult to feel ordinary.

Laura

I waved them all off and went to pack my gym bag. I usually went with Amy, as we had a Pilates class together later on in the morning, but she had texted to say that with all the events of last night, she wasn’t going.

116. Be my baby

In which things are begun and things are finished, and we learn the art of serenading.

Matt

‘Hey Cory. Everything OK?’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know it’s your day off, but it’s all going tits up here.’

‘Tits up how?’

I’d left everything in perfect working order yesterday, so as to be able to have a rare match day off to celebrate my fortieth and Rosa’s first birthdays.

Dec and Amy’s fourth, and allegedly final, child had been born exactly a year ago, on my birthday. She had caused all sorts of drama, right from the start, with Amy suffering horrendous morning sickness, then seriously high blood pressure, then having a nightmare labour resulting in an emergency caesarean, before arriving a month early, on the afternoon of my thirty-ninth birthday, and spending the first two weeks of her life in an incubator, tubes erupting from nearly every orifice.

She was a bloody little fighter, though, with her shock of red hair and her indignant cries as she protested her lot in early life. It wasn’t until she was released from the hospital, and got some serious cuddles from her relieved parents and wider family, that she calmed down, as if she’d been yelling for that attention all this time, and finally people were giving her what she wanted, dammit.

Rosa always wanted cuddles, from everyone, possibly a throwback to her early experiences when they were few and far between, and one of my joys has been the tiny redhead clambering into my lap for a story, or just to sit sucking her thumb while she gazed spellbound at a DVD.

But anyway, so now she was one year old, and we were having a joint party, because turning forty makes you feel like being a big kid, and it was going to be a bit of a Scott free-for-all, naturally organised by Beth, except that now I was talking to Cory, it sounded very much like I wasn’t going to make it to my party.

This big ‘0’ birthday could not have been more different from my thirtieth, when nobody had really seemed to notice and when I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of interest. This time, well firstly there was the party, which yeah was mainly for the kids, but I was excited about it too. And then, I’d woken up this morning with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her hands on my balls, and she wasn’t trying to get me out of bed; she was trying to keep me in it so she could get into my pants. Awesome.

Unfortunately, before we could complete proceedings, the door handle rattled and Josh and Ella were there with cards they’d made and presents Lau had bought for them to give me, and we had a big family smush before breakfast, and I really hardly minded about not completing proceedings.

There had been texts from hilarious people all day, reminding me how ancient I now was, but the truth was, I didn’t feel it. I had felt older at thirty, probably due to being with a girlfriend who a) didn’t care that it was my birthday and b) was several years younger than me, so had no idea what a big deal an ‘0’ birthday was.

But now, loads of people were letting me know they knew it was a big deal, and I felt great about it. Hey, I had everything, didn’t I? Well, not everything, I wasn’t sitting on my private island, hopping on my private jet to my private skyscraper or some such shit, but I was pretty happy with life. Oh, except now it looked like there was a cloud on the horizon regarding the party. Fuck it.

‘The system’s crashed.’

‘Which bit?’

‘All of it.’

‘Oh shit.’

That meant serious, unmitigated, fuckety fuck fuck fuck disaster time. Full Titanic meets iceberg. With – I checked my watch – less than five hours until kick off, none of the ticketing systems would be working, which meant no new tickets could be sold, the bar code scanners wouldn’t recognise tickets or season tickets, the cash registers in the bars would be locked up, the scoreboard wouldn’t work, the player GPS would be down, and any number of similarly disastrous things that wouldn’t be happening.

‘Any idea why?’

‘Not yet, it just happened. Sorry, Matt, me and Jenna have tried, but nothing’s worked.’

‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’

‘Oh ha ha. Actually, yes. Can you think of anything else?’

‘I think I need to be there.’

‘But isn’t it your party?’

‘Yeah, Cory, but I think I’d rather have a job on Monday than be full of cake and fizzy pop tonight. I’ll be there in … give me half an hour so I can explain and escape.’

‘Beth, really sorry, major disaster @ work, will b late. Save me some jelly.’

‘Oh no, Matty. How late?’

‘Not sure, dep on size of iceberg.’

‘??’

‘Don’t count on me. Sorry.’

‘:(‘

*

‘Hello Malcolm, what can I do for you?’

‘Matt, I just wanted to thank you for your efforts today. I don’t think anyone noticed the glitches, but I appreciate you giving up your time and making sure the game went ahead.’

‘Oh, er, how did you know I was there?’

‘I don’t miss much when it comes to Raiders. You averted a fairly catastrophic situation for us – today was a sell out, and we would have had to postpone.’

‘Well it just took a bit of jiggery-pokery. Cory and Jenna had most of it covered.’

‘You are a very modest man. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed, or the fact you gave up a family celebration.’

‘Oh, well, thanks Malcolm.’

‘I’ll see you on Monday. Goodbye Matt.’

I’d missed the party. Not all of it, I’d made it back in time for the last of the pass the parcel, and to get a goody bag (Beth had made me a special one which included miniature whisky, some chocolate body paint and a condom – at least I hope that’s not what was in the ones she gave to all the kids), but I’d missed the jelly and ice-cream, the joint birthday cake, the musical statues, the murder in the dark and all of the squealing.

Josh and Ella were full of sugar and e-numbers, and were running about the hall Beth had hired like things possessed, along with all the other hyped up Coke-heads. The day was saved, for me, by Mum and April offering to have all of the kids, at Dec’s house, while Dec, Amy, Jay and Beth took Lau and me out to dinner. It was a more grown-up celebration than I had been planning, but it meant that Dec and Jay could be there. They hadn’t made it to the party either, because of the Raiders home game.

So in the end, it all worked out, as it tended to, and I got brownie points aplenty for being a) a work hero and b) chilled about it all. Oh, also, I let Lau get in my pants later as we’d been so rudely interrupted earlier. Result.

Cal

Ayesha Chaudhry. Quiet, unassuming, totally hot (not that I noticed of course), science project partner. When we were assigned partners, I didn’t give much thought to who I was going to get. They usually paired boys up with boys and girls up with girls, but there must have been an odd number, so Ayesha and I ended up growing plants in the dark together.

Matt

I got home one night, and Lau was waiting for me, like she wanted to say something. I thought about the date, and what it might be that she wanted to say, and I was excited, as I had been every month for the last year, since we’d stopped using contraception. I knew these things often took a while, and I wasn’t in any particular mad hurry to expand our family, but it was just … something to look forward to, in the fullness of time.

‘Hey gorgeous. You look stunning today.’

‘Thanks, flower.’

She was distracted, as if she hadn’t heard me.

‘What’s up, Lau?’

‘My period started.’

‘Oh.’

I was disappointed, but not crushed, there was always next month, or the next, ad infinitum.

‘Bugger. Well, we’ll just have to get cracking on this month’s instalment of The Baby-making Tales then.’

I hugged her, but she pulled away slightly.

‘Lau?’

‘I don’t think it’s good for us, living from month to month like this. It feels like a lot of pressure.’

I had tried so hard not to put any pressure on Lau, to try to let things happen naturally, no ovulation charts or rushing home because the temperature was just right, or getting stressed because we missed a chance, none of that bollocks. Just Matt and Lau having a good time, getting it on when we felt like it, see what happens. It had worked for me, maybe I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to whether it was working for Lau.

‘So are you saying … what? You want to stop trying?’

She shook her head.

‘No, of course not. I just … think we shouldn’t be expecting it to happen. It might not. I’m nearly forty, and you already are. Maybe it’s too old for another one, maybe it might not happen anyway.’

‘What are you talking about woman? We’re in the prime of life. You’re gorgeous, and so am I. We’ve got plenty of time to make the world’s most gorgeous babies, at least ten more.’

She looked at me, sadly, and stroked my face.

‘I hope so. I’m just saying we should be realistic about our chances.’

‘Lau, you’re giving up.’

Now I was crushed. It felt like she was saying never.

‘No I’m not, my love, I’m truly not. I still want it, so much, but I have to let it go, this hope, every month. It’s not doing me any good.’

‘Fuck, Lau, I didn’t think.’

Lau would let me get away with the occasional ‘fuck’, as long as a) the occasion demanded it and therefore it wasn’t gratuitous, b) the children weren’t within earshot and c) I didn’t go overboard in the cursing department. Obviously the occasion merited it this time, as yet again I’d been an insensitive bastard. It was easy for me: First, get my end away with as much regularity as I could muster, and I could muster pretty damn regularly. Second, wait for any ensuing offspring to appear.

It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that Lau might be going through a different emotional process. Every month it had been more like ‘oh well, let’s get trying again’ rather than sackcloth and ashes, and she’d managed to hide how she felt from me with startling aplomb.

‘It’s OK, it’s only really the last couple of months, I just don’t want us to spend the next however long with it being all we can think about. We need to live our lives with the children we’ve got, not spend it being sad about the ones we haven’t.’

How did she do it? I found myself wondering how she did it at least twice a week, when she just said exactly the right thing to make me see the sense in something.

‘You’re right, Lau. You always bloody well are. OK, from now on, it’s if it happens it happens, and if not, well, we already have the world’s most awesome family anyway, so fuck you fertility.’

‘So no more planning the colour of the nursery.’

Her mind-reading voodoo was starting to scare me now.

‘How did you know that?’

‘Saw you looking at colour charts on the iPad. And no more eyeing up Tottenham babygros in the online shop.’

Shit, the woman had spies everywhere. I almost looked around me for hidden cameras.

‘Guilty.’

‘Tell you what you can do, though.’

‘G and T, ice and a slice?’

‘Ooh, yeah, in a bit, but first, kiss your wife.’

‘Oh, gladly. I thought it was going to be something difficult and unpalatable.’

‘I might not have brushed my teeth.’

‘I’m feeling reckless, I’ll chance it.’

Cal

We started off a bit unsure of each other, got to know each other really quickly and ended up being great friends. I know what you’re thinking, that I hadn’t learned my lesson from before, from when Chrissie was my girl friend, then my girlfriend, and then my everything, then my nothing; but I had. I’d learned. I didn’t fancy Ayesha in the slightest. Her long, thick wavy hair, her deep brown eyes, her skin the colour of toffee, her full, dark lips, I didn’t notice any of it. We were just mates.

We talked, right from the start. About the project to start with, then she asked me about Katya, because she’d been bullied a bit by the Holy Trinity and was checking out whether I was in or out of their circle of influence. I was happy to report that I was so far out of the circle that I was practically a little square all on my own, and then she smiled at me from underneath her eyelashes, and that was that.

Matt

How did this happen? How did my tiny babies end up dressed in a school uniform, on their first day at St John’s Primary? I just stared at them both, until they giggled nervously.

‘Daddy, why are you looking at us?’

‘You just look awesome, Squeaks. You’re so grown up.’

Ella rolled her eyes, her favourite facial expression.

‘I’m five, Daddy. I’m not growed up until I’m ten.’

I hid a smile.

‘Oh, my mistake. I like your backpack, Joshy. What’s in it?’

Josh shrugged. ‘Mummy put things in.’

Ella tutted. ‘Your lunch is there, and a drink, and some pencils. I’ve got Barry Bear in mine, and you’ve got Buzz Lightyear in yours.’

Josh nodded, happily, always confident that someone else was going to sort his life out. It was an occupational hazard of living surrounded by so many Scott control freaks.

Lau called from the hallway.

‘Have you both got your shoes on?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Give Daddy a kiss, then, and come and get your coats on.’

Josh launched himself at me, small hands wrapping round my neck and a sloppy kiss splatting itself on my cheek. I ruffled his hair and hugged him to me. Ella hung back, not as demonstrative, then ran up and kissed me briefly in the same place as Josh, and ran out to Lau, wiping Josh’s slobber from her mouth as she did so.

‘Bye Matt. See you later.’

‘Bye, guys, have an awesome day.’

And then they were gone, and the house was silent, and it felt … eerie. Not that it hadn’t ever been silent before, but it hadn’t been empty before, kids out all day somewhere that wasn’t with Lau or me, or one of the family. It was going to be like this every day, although, obviously I wasn’t going to be here either, so Lau would be all on her own.

No new baby had been forthcoming, and we had admitted to ourselves and each other that a) it was unlikely now, and b) it was unwise given both our ages. The chances of any baby having some kind of disability got higher with every passing year, and although we would have loved any child of ours, it wasn’t something we actively sought. So we not only stopped trying, we started using contraception again, and that was done and dusted.

So Lau’s days were going to need filling with something. We were giving thought to what that might be, and she’d thought about working, not in the bastard MS service, as she’d given that job up for good a few years ago, but maybe some nursing bank work, or a few hours volunteering, or something. But for now, we were going to get the first day, week, month of school over, and make sure everything was OK for Josh and Ella.

I sat reading the paper and drinking tea until I heard the car come back, and Lau opened the front door. I looked up, to see how she was. I wasn’t surprised to see tears on her face, and I stood up and held my arms out. She fell into me and cried for a bit, then stopped, wiped her eyes and looked up and me.

‘Oh, I wasn’t going to do that. I’m so proud of them, they just toddled off, Ella saw Mary-Jane, and Josh joined in with some boys playing football, they hardly looked back. God, it’s quiet here, isn’t it.’

‘I was just thinking the same thing.’

I stroked her hair, and wiped her tears away.

‘They fill up this house. We should make the most of the silence, though.’

I raised my eyebrows suggestively.

‘Aren’t you going in to work?’

‘It’s my day off.’

‘Doesn’t usually stop you.’

Lau wasn’t being critical, just stating a fact. I couldn’t keep away from work, there was always some thorny problem I wasn’t happy until I’d solved, and I usually ended up at Raiders for a while, even on my days off.

‘It’s stopping me today. I want to spend the day with you, in our spookily quiet house, maybe making some noise of our own.’

‘Ooh, what did you have in mind? Turn the stereo up, bit of a party?’

‘Well, that could be part of it, if you like. Or, maybe –’

I pulled her to me again and kissed her, to leave her in no doubt about the sort of party I was suggesting.

‘– more that type of thing, with no one to ask why Mummy was shouting at Daddy in the night.’

‘God, noisy sex. I miss that.’

I nodded. ‘Me too. I bet we could be bloody noisy. I’ve got a decibel counter on my iPad, how about trying it out? First one to a hundred.’

‘OK, then, beach boy. Race you.’

Cal

I haven’t told you much about Baggo yet, have I? Maybe it’s time for him to have a starring role of his own. OK, so we’re seventeen. Baggo is still at school, just prior to jumping before he was pushed. He never really took his classes seriously, although he was a lot more brainy than he made out – Matty sussed that out once, when Baggo got the right answer to some quiz programme that was on the telly. We were all chatting, and the telly was just on in the background, we weren’t paying attention to it, and Baggo just said ‘quantum’, out of the blue, and none of us noticed except Matty, who said afterwards, ‘There’s more to your Baggo than meets the eye.’

But anyway, I keep getting sidetracked. So, we’re seventeen. Baggo is in more trouble at school than he knows what to do with – it’s coming from all sides. He’s not doing his coursework, he’s bunking off all the time, he’s giving the teachers lip, he keeps getting sent to the head teacher. His mum has been up there I don’t know how many times, but that doesn’t do much good because she hasn’t been able to tell him what to do since he was four, when his dad left.

Baggo had decided that Katie Rivers was the girl of his dreams. That was how Baggo did things. He didn’t just fancy someone, or slowly build a relationship out of a friendship, or any of the normal ways boys and girls got together. He went all out, total commitment, leading, usually, to total heartbreak. He would just come to school one day, usually a week or two after his last romantic escapade had hit the headlines, and declare that, in this case, ‘Katie Rivers is the one for me. I must have her in my arms, or preferably wrapped around my waist, by the end of the day.’

No amount of reminding him that Katie Rivers, or Lucy Fletcher, or Courtney Blenkinsop, you get the picture, had a boyfriend already who she seemed pretty into made any difference. It was as if he had tunnel vision, and could only focus on the object of his desire, whilst filtering out the unnecessarily inconvenient facts.

Sometimes it had worked for him. Courtney, for one, had ditched her boyfriend not long after Baggo began his chase, and they had four whole weeks of passion before he set fire to her mum’s coffee table by mistake, and the ardour cooled. But usually it led to tension, threats of beatings from the boyfriends, and me picking up the pieces.

By then, by the time we were seventeen, I was almost with Ayesha. I guess I’ll tell you that whole story later, because this is about Baggo, but it meant I was in a different place to him – I wasn’t experimenting, I was kind of settled, if you can ever be settled at seventeen, and I think Baggo felt I was a bit of calm at the centre of his storm. Or maybe he just liked Mum’s cake, and that’s why he was round at ours all the time. You could never tell with Baggo.

But anyway, back to Katie Rivers. Katie was the head girl at our school, and because these things have some kind of weird life of their own, she was going out with the head boy, Darren Stamp. They would sit and snog in the sixth form common room at break, do their French homework together in an empty classroom at lunchtimes, and be otherwise nauseatingly wrapped up in each other at most other hours of the day.

Why on earth Baggo set his sights on Katie I could not begin to guess at, but he has always relished a challenge, and maybe someone unattainable ticked the right boxes and pushed the right buttons. Perhaps it was the romantic equivalent of snowboarding down the North Face of the Eiger.

So on that day, when he made his declaration of his undying love for Katie Rivers, I groaned inwardly and got ready for a bumpy few weeks of trying to talk him out of it, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for an angry Darren Stamp, and at the same time attempting to keep him away from Katie as much as possible.

‘No, it’ll be alright, though. I’ve got a plan.’

‘Baggo, you’ve always got a plan. They’re always bloody terrible.’

‘They are not. My skateboard plan worked, my throw the shoe over the hedge plan worked, my –’

‘You nearly broke my leg with your skateboard, and you had to buy Cassandra a new pair of fuck-off expensive shoes. And she still didn’t go out with you.’

‘Well, OK, maybe not the shoe thing again, then. Right. Bugger it, I thought I was onto a winner. I’ve got a back up though. I’m learning the guitar.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since Michael got me one from his mate down the market.’

‘You can’t play the guitar.’

‘Dur, that’s why I’m learning. There’s this YouTube vid, I know two chords already.’

‘Which two?’

‘Er, A and, er, oh fuck it I can’t remember which letter it is. H? Is there an H?’

‘I don’t think so, Baggo. So this plan. Does it involve playing the guitar? Could be some time before it gets a run out.’

‘Fuck off. I’m gonna be great. I’m gonna serenade Katie. Tonight.’

I shook my head. Luckily I was at rugby training this evening, and would not have to witness or in any way be part of the humiliation.

‘You’ll come, right?’

‘Can’t mate. Training.’

‘Oh bollocks to your bloody training. Bloody rugby’s all you ever bloody think about. Oh, unless it’s football, or cricket or tennis or some other bloody knackering stupid-arse ooh-look-here’s-my-shiny-trophy sport shit. Ditch it, just this once. I need you, my plan won’t work without you.’

An excellent reason not to be a part of it, as far as I was concerned.

‘You don’t need me to make an idiot of yourself. Just turn up with your guitar and your one chord –’

‘Two.’

‘One of which you can’t even name, and no amount of help I could give you is going to change the outcome.’

‘I’m going to sing ‘All of Me’. I’ve got it nailed.’

If Baggo had one thing going for him, it was his voice. Not much about him was cherubic, but he had the voice of an angel. If he’d been able to resist looking up the music teacher’s skirt, he’d have been in the school choir, probably the next Charlotte Church by now. If he was going to impress Katie, then singing to her was the one thing that was likely to work – what was I thinking? It was a terrible plan. Nothing about it, apart from Baggo’s voice, was in any way a good idea. But a small part of me, the part that Baggo had nurtured all these years with his schemes and adventures, wanted to see if it worked. I was tempted. But rugby training was not ditchable. When your dad is the coach, he kind of notices when you’re not there, and when he knows your every movement because you live with him, and your mum is Beth Scott who has radar instead of a brain, you don’t stand a chance of having a lie believed. It was probably what had kept me out of all the trouble Baggo seemed intent on landing me in up until now.

‘What time?’

‘Eight thirty. It’ll be after the soaps and before I’m a Celebrity. It’s my window. I’ll be at her window in my window. Geddit?’

Baggo’s attempts at humour were best ignored. It only encouraged him otherwise.

‘How do you know she’ll be at home? She might be out with Darren somewhere – you remember Darren? Her boyfriend?’

‘No, he’s doing some Duke of Edinburgh thing, camping on the moors or something. He’s away all night. Come on, Cal, it’s my one chance.’

I weakened. He saw it.

‘All I need you to do is –’

‘Hang on, I haven’t said I will.’

‘But you will, though.’

‘Not until after training. Definitely not at eight thirty.’

How the bloody hell had that happened? I’d just found myself agreeing to help him out, without even knowing what he wanted me to do. Calum Scott, you should be ashamed of yourself.

‘Oh but –’

Baggo stopped himself as he realised he’d achieved a victory of sorts.

‘– OK, maybe later would be better. She might be in her nightie when she leans out of the window to listen.’

‘Ten. I can do ten. For half an hour, then you’re on your own.’

‘Awesome, mate. I just need someone to help me lift the amp out of Harry’s car.’

‘Er … amp?’

‘Yeah, you know, big speaker, and you plug a microphone in it and everyone can hear you.’

Oh sweet Jesus.

‘Baggo, you can’t do this with amplification. You’ll have the coppers round for disturbing the peace.’

‘She won’t hear me if I just warble away on my own. I need her to hear me. ‘All of me loves all of you, all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections.’ How could she not love it?’

‘You can’t.’

‘You said you would now. I’m borrowing Harry’s car and his mate’s amp. I’ll see you there at ten. Cheers mate.’

And there we had it. That’s how I ended up explaining to two very nice policemen why my mate Baggo was passed out in the Rivers’ front garden, with a screeching amplifier keeping the whole street awake and a car that was on the verge of catching fire.

This is how it happened.

I was a bit late, because I’d had to stay behind at training to talk to the backs coach about the game on Saturday. I’d hoped that when I got to Katie’s house, Baggo might have thought I wasn’t coming and gone home, but wasn’t really surprised when I saw his brother’s car outside, and walked over to it.

‘Caaal. Ohh maaate. You caaaame.’

My heart sank when I saw the state of him, and smelt the booze drifting out of the open car window.

‘Shit, Bags, you didn’t drive over like that, did you?’

‘Like wha?’

‘Pissed.’

‘M’not pissed. Jus hadda coupla shots. Cutch dourage. Dutch. Whaevs. Nah. Drank it whenni got here. Wan some? Oh. S’none lef. Soz.’

‘Maybe we should just go home.’

‘Wha? Nononononono. I’m gonna sing to my ladily lovey, my lovedy lalidy, to Katie. You’re gonna help me witha amp. S’in the back.’

He leaned forwards and pushed the button that released the boot catch, then he opened the car door. I hoped he might find it too difficult to get out of the front seat, but he poured himself onto his feet and pulled me with him to the boot, where he stood swaying and looking slightly puzzled.

Baggo wasn’t a huge drinker; I mean, we’d both experimented with the contents of our parents’ drinks cupboards, blagged cheap cider off Baggo’s brothers, and been to parties where everyone was off their faces on something or other, but it was only a kind of social thing, in that vomming all over your mate’s shoes is ever particularly sociable. It didn’t take much to get Baggo shit-faced, and he paid heavily the next day, and as a consequence he didn’t overindulge very often. I could only think that he was more nervous about that evening’s planned performance than he had let on.

‘Hmm. Oh. S’right. Amp.’

Light dawned, and Baggo lifted the boot lid, displaying the amp, an electric guitar, a microphone and a tangle of leads.

‘Baggo, I really think –’

He cut me off.

‘Nonono, m’gonna do this. No poopy partying from Callywally. Gonna win my girl. Gonna winna girl. Like a prize, like a prize girl. Help me lif this motherfucker.’

He started pulling the enormous amp towards him. If I didn’t help, he was going to hurt himself, so I helped. The amp wasn’t easy to manhandle out of the car, and despite our efforts it crashed to the ground, wobbled a bit, and then sat in the road. Baggo leaned back into the car and pulled out the guitar and cables.

‘Michael sez it’s one a these bastards. Dunno which one.’

He held the tangle out to me, as if I was going to know.

‘Don’t look at me, mate, I haven’t got a bloody clue about all this. And what are you going to plug it into? There’s no electricity out here.’

‘Ahahaha. Tha’s where you’re wrongobongowrongowrongobongo. Gonna ‘tach the amp t’the car battery witha jump lead.’

‘What?’

‘Yeah, Wheels showed me, you use a leetle teeny tiny clip. It’s here somewhere … oh! Gottit. Hello, leetle teeny tiny clip.’

He held up more leads, these ones with crocodile clips on the end.

‘You’re going to blow us both up.’

‘Nonono, s’all perfectily safe. You getta mic out, ana cable for the guitar, I’ll hook th’amp up.’

Baggo went to the front of the car and popped the bonnet catch. Sighing and shaking my head, having serious misgivings, I did what he had asked. I hoped the whole thing just wouldn’t work. I couldn’t imagine it working, but if I let myself I could imagine it not working in some pretty spectacular ways.

Baggo fiddled under the bonnet for a while, turned the car engine on, then came back with the other end of the leads, which he connected to the amp. He took the guitar from me and plugged a cable into it and then the amp, and flicked a switch. There was a hum, a tiny protest of feedback, and Baggo tried a strum. No noise came out of the amp, for which I was very grateful. Baggo wasn’t put off though. He lurched back to the boot, seeming less coordinated than before, and grabbed the microphone and another cable, plugging them both into the amp as well. He fiddled with some knobs, and then held the microphone out to me.

‘What? I’m not singing.’

‘Hahahaha, no bloody way, wanna win her not kill her. Wan you t’hold it, got no stand.’

The microphone was picking up his words, and I could hear them coming out of the speaker, albeit faintly. Baggo picked up the guitar and slung it over his shoulder, then beckoned me to follow him through the gate to the front garden.

Baggo stood a bit like a rock star, legs wide apart, swaying wildly, and gestured to me to hold the microphone in front of him. He grabbed hold of it with both hands and yelled into it.

‘Katie Rivers, this one’s for you.’

There was a squeal of feedback as the decibels reverberated around the neighbouring houses. Lights turned on along the street, and I felt more and more uncomfortable. A face appeared at an upstairs window, but it didn’t look like Katie. At least not to me. To Baggo, he had achieved his objective.

With a wink at me, he revved his arm up, placed his fingers on the fretboard, and slammed his other hand down on the strings. A ghastly noise exploded from the amp, I mean literally exploded (yep Matty, literally), with a bang and a flash, and the bang and flash were echoed back in the road, from the car. A screeching howl burst forth from the road, making me flinch and drop the microphone, as I covered my head with my hands. When I looked up again, Baggo was lying on his back on the grass.

‘Shit. Baggo? Jake?’

I sank down next to him, thinking he had been electrocuted, and frantically trying to remember my first aid. I shouldn’t touch him, should I? Get a dry stick or something, wear rubber boots, call an –

Baggo started to snore. He had passed out, not been knocked out. As relief washed over me, I became aware of people standing near me. One of those people was Katie Rivers, who did not look overjoyed to see either of us, and I presumed that the other people were Katie’s parents. They also were not overjoyed. And now Baggo was sleeping it off while I had to explain it all.

‘We’ve called the police.’

This was (I assumed) Katie’s father. He was a big bloke with a very stern expression.

Oh shit. I was really going to cop it now, and Baggo was just going to sleep through it.

‘Do we need to call an ambulance too?’

Katie’s mum.

Another loud snore from Baggo announced that an ambulance wouldn’t be necessary; I felt an apology of some description was in order.

‘Look, I’m really sorry, I tried to stop him, but he was determined –’

‘Just turn that racket off.’

I looked back towards the amp, which was still squawking to the street.

‘I’m not sure I know how to. Baggo hooked it all up.’

‘You’re disturbing the whole neighbourhood. Turn it off.’

I was panicking. I suppose if I’d just turned the car engine off, it would have all stopped, but I couldn’t think because of the noise, the embarrassment, and Katie’s dad clenching and unclenching his fists in front of me. To put the icing on the cake, a blue flashing light announced the arrival of the police. Now I was really panicking. I briefly registered that Katie had her phone out and was recording everything.

The police car stopped and two policemen got out. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood where I was while Katie’s dad went to meet them. I didn’t know where to look, so I looked at my shoes, finding the laces fascinating. I really didn’t want to be here, and a small part of me just wanted my mum. I pulled my phone out and sent a quick text.

‘Help. 14 Bigbury Avenue. Sorry.’

Usually the last person I’d contact if I was in trouble was Mum. She was very likely to go off on one, she was always saying Baggo was a bad influence on me, and I wouldn’t hear the end of it for days and days. But right now that seemed a small price to pay, because Mum was great in a crisis. I hoped she wouldn’t text me or call me for more information, as I doubted I’d be able to answer her. But even if she came, and came right away, I was going to have to deal with this myself for the time being.

The policemen walked into the garden with Mr Rivers, who gestured at me and at Baggo, still lying on his back, guitar on top of him, microphone to the side.

‘Good evening sir.’

This was addressed to me, and even I could hear the sarcasm in the ‘sir’. I just nodded and waited.

‘Having a bit of a party are we?’

‘No. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to turn it off.’

‘Constable Evans?’

One copper gestured to the other one, who went to the car and, presumably, turned the engine off, while we all watched him. The squealing stopped, mercifully, but now I noticed that the air was full of the smell of electrical burning. Wisps of smoke seemed to be coming from under the bonnet.

Constable Evans came back into the garden.

‘Can I take your name sir?’

‘Calum Scott.’

‘And your friend’s name?’

‘Jake Bagwell. Look, if I can just wake him up, we’ll just go, and –’

‘Your friend makes a habit of falling asleep in people’s front gardens does he?’

‘No, he, er …’

… was underage, and who knew where he’d got the booze from.

‘… er, he fell over when the amp blew.’

‘And does he require medical assistance?’

‘No, he’ll be fine.’

If the smile on his sleeping face was anything to go by, he was already fine, as he cuddled his guitar to his chest.

‘Mr Rivers, sir, has any damage been done to your property?’

‘Well, no, but this pair of hooligans have disturbed the whole street with their rumpus.’

I nearly laughed; I hadn’t heard the word rumpus used in all seriousness before. I controlled myself and tried to look contrite – I needed to get Baggo and me out of this with as little fuss as possible.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Rivers. We’ll pack all this up and go. Sorry for disturbing you. It won’t happen again.’

It was my best smarmy adult-pleasing voice, and it nearly worked, until Baggo started to wake up, and was noisily sick on the grass. A look of extreme distaste came over Mr Rivers’ face, and his wife muttered something about ‘undesirables’ just loud enough for me to hear.

‘Get off my property now, or I’ll have you charged with trespassing.’

He sounded deadly serious, and the policemen looked like they were serious too, so I knelt by Baggo and tried to pull him to his feet; he resisted, shrugging me off with a loud expletive.

‘Bags, we’ve got to go. The coppers are here.’

‘Wha? Nonono, gotta singta Katie – oh! She’s here. Kaaatie, baaaby. Gotta song forya. All of me loves all of you…’

Despite Baggo’s drunken state, his voice was in remarkable shape. Sadly, it didn’t impress the object of his desire as much as he hoped, and she span round and went inside, slamming the front door behind her.

‘Kaaatie, come ba’, gotta finisha song.’

‘Bags, come on.’

I put as much urgency as I could into my voice, but Baggo was having none of it. I saw Mr Rivers move towards the policemen, and knew I had to do something drastic to stop things getting any worse, but couldn’t think of a single thing. Then the cavalry arrived.

Mum’s little red car pulled up outside, not in a hurry, not in a squeal of brakes, just as if she was calling round for a cuppa. She got out of the car, adjusted her scarf, slung her bag over her shoulder and smiled brightly at us all.

‘Hello Jennifer, Gary. Just picking up Cal – oh, and Jake. Are you ready, Cal?’

Boy was I ready. I started to walk towards the car, but it wasn’t going to be as easy as that. Of course it wasn’t. This was one of Baggo’s schemes, and now Mum was involved too. It didn’t get much less easy.

‘Hang on, he can’t just go. He’s caused a lot of upset here.’

Mr Rivers moved to block the gate, stopping Mum getting in and me getting out. Baggo was still looking forlornly at the front door, and I thought it wouldn’t be long before he either started singing or puking again. I tried another tug on his arm, still to no avail.

‘Oh. Cal, what’s been going on?’

Mum would without a doubt have sussed out most of it within seconds of arriving. She never missed a thing, and would have clocked the amp, the car with leads attached, Baggo’s unsober state and the guitar and come to her own, most likely correct, conclusion.

‘Baggo wanted to sing to Katie.’

‘I see. And you thought this was a good idea because ..?’

‘I didn’t. I tried to stop him.’

‘Mm hmm. Jake, go and get in my car.’

‘Hang on …’

Mr Rivers still wasn’t happy for us to just leave. He probably wanted us to get a telling off from the police.

‘Sir, I think if we can just clear the property and ensure the items and vehicle will be removed, we’ll be on our way.’

There was nothing more for the police to do. We hadn’t broken the law, and they had some innocent teenagers to arrest for sitting in a bus stop or something. They moved towards Mr Rivers, and he reluctantly stepped aside from the gate. As they passed me, the one called Constable Evans stopped and looked at me.

‘Make sure you clear this up, son. Don’t want to have to come back and talk to you about criminal damage.’

‘OK.’

I didn’t know if he meant the amp, cables and car, or the vomit. They didn’t wait to see if I did as I was told, but got in their patrol car and drove away. Jake was still looking at Mum, as if he was trying to work out what she was doing there. He looked like he was trying to work out what he was doing there, as he swayed on his feet, still gripping the guitar.

‘Missis Scoh. Wha ya doin ere?’

‘Get in the car, Jake. I’m taking you home.’

Baggo’s face fell.

‘Ohnonono, not hoooome. S’only me an Mum, an she’s fallen out with Aunty Marion, an she’s all wearing black an cryin an shit. C’n I come back with you? Have ya got cake?’

Baggo’s mum got depressed on a regular basis. Baggo usually coped with it with the help of his aunt, but sometimes looking after his Mum in one of her dark phases got too much, and if he was on his own … well I had a sudden flash of insight into his reason for both going after Katie, and drinking so much just prior.

A similar thing seemed to have occurred to Mum, and her face softened. She put a hand on Baggo’s back and pushed him towards the car, gesturing to me to follow him. I took Baggo’s arm and tugged him to the road, while Mum stayed back and talked in a low voice to Katie Rivers’ mum and dad. I don’t know what she said, whether she told them everything she knew about Baggo’s life, but there was a lot of nodding of heads while I was attempting to get Baggo in the passenger seat of Mum’s car, and by the time she walked up the path towards us, the Riverses had smiled and patted Mum on the shoulder, and all had departed friends. At least that’s what it looked like.

Meanwhile, Baggo was in the front seat of Mum’s car, with the window wound down in case of barfing. I started to open the back door, but Mum stopped me.

‘You need to sort out this mess.’

She pointed to the amp, the guitar and the car. Surely she didn’t mean I had to sort it? It wasn’t my mess, it was totally and utterly Baggo’s fault. I stared at Mum.

‘I can’t do it, not on my own.’

Mum looked at the car and the amp, and seemed to realise that I would need help.

‘Get Dec to come and help you lift it then. Maybe Matty to help with the car.’

‘It’s late.’

‘It’s not eleven yet. They’ll both still be up. Just call them Cal.’

And so my shame was complete. Not only had I been humiliated in front of the head girl and her parents (and by the way, the video was doing the rounds at school for weeks), but now I had to admit to my part in the whole thing to Dec and Matty. I was never, ever going to live this down.

Of course, they both came straight over when I asked them, and Dec helped me lift the amp back into the car, and Matty helped me start the bloody thing and drove it back over to Wheels’ house, where I had to explain to him why his battery was knackered without making him mad at Baggo. I make it sound like it was easy, like I didn’t have the piss taken out of me the whole time they were helping – ‘Oh Cal, give us a tune while we’re working’, ‘What’s your favourite karaoke, Cal? Is it ‘I Like Driving in my Car?’, yeah it was hilarious.

And when I finally got home, Baggo was still there, being fed cake and black coffee by Mum, and he was more sober, but a bit tearful, which wasn’t completely unheard of, he didn’t have it easy really, and he apologised over and over again.

‘Oh mate, I’m so sorry, I’ve fucked up your evening, we could have been in deep shit with those coppers, I’m such a dick, if it hadn’t been for your mum –’

‘You should be more worried about the shit you’re going to be in with Wheels.’

‘Oh fuck. You didn’t tell him about his car?’

‘I told him he might need a new battery and you’re going to pay for it. I didn’t tell him exactly what you did. I thought he knew what you were doing?’

‘Well only in theory. I kind of asked how you might hook up an amp to a car battery, like if you wanted to. Didn’t tell him I was actually going to.’

‘Jesus Baggo…’

‘I know mate, I know, I’m a twat, you should get shot of me while you can.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jake. Cal’s your friend.’

This was a lot different from what Mum said to me when Baggo wasn’t there. I was always being advised to hang out with him less. But once Mum was in Florence Nightingale mode, she was on your side and that was that.

‘Aw, Mrs Scott, the best mate a bloke could have. Thanks for helping me. I should get going.’

‘Have more coffee first, then James will drop you home.’

‘I can walk, it’s no trouble.’

It was about five miles to Baggo’s house from ours.

‘Coffee first.’

And so Baggo was sobered up, and invited to stay the night, but he was worried about his mum, so he went home in the end, and it wasn’t the last time things got too much for him and he acted the fool to distract himself, not by a long way, but it was the first time Mum really got it, why he was like he was, and she got off his case after that. Well, as much as Mum ever got off anyone’s case, I suppose.

Things have often been that way with me and Baggo: him having mad ideas, going totally all out to do something off the planet, me chasing along after him, trying to achieve some damage limitation, but getting dragged into the middle of something wild (off the top of my head, I remember ‘borrowing’ his neighbour’s German Shepherd to impress some girl then having to leave it tied to a lamp post when the Facebook search and offers of reward got too intense; jumping off the footbridge into the river after his school bag, which he had tossed there in a moment of madness and regretted whilst it was still in mid-air; flooding his bathroom doing a ‘science experiment’ involving plasticine, bubble bath and bicarbonate of soda. The list could go on and on).

It wasn’t always Baggo getting into unwanted situations, though. Sometimes it was me – I owe him a lot for getting me out of trouble with the Holy Trinity, for a start. And despite the trouble we got into, we were always there for each other. A lot of people wouldn’t touch Baggo with a barge pole, but they don’t know how loyal he is, what he’d do for anyone he calls a mate. They just see the headlines and assume. But anyway, he’s been a great mate, still is.

Matt

Do you remember when I was trying really hard not to think some things were meant to be? Well, I’d given up not thinking it, and my non-scientific conclusion was currently that some things are just destined, somehow. Meant by the universe at large, unstoppable.

When the next thing, this big thing in Matt Scott’s timeline, happened, I also came to the conclusion that some things are meant not to be, and much as you want them, when they don’t happen, you look back and see why they didn’t. How, even if you think they would make your life better, you see, later, what a calamity it would have been, how much harder it would have made an already hard time. If we’d had another baby …