Thank you and goodbye

In which the author makes farewells and shows gratitude.

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To all the people who have visited this page, liked a post, or commented, I would like to say a huge thank you.  It was a very big step for me to post this story, the culmination of four years of writing and editing.  I wanted it to be ‘out there’, and now it is, it’s all done, and I am very proud of it.

It feels like a long time ago that I had a dream about a young lad in a changing room whose story I needed to finish.  I thought it would be a quick few words and I’d know how it ended, but then just as I thought I’d got there, it would become obvious that the end was not in sight, and there was more to write.  And of course characters who were only meant to be on the periphery kept attracting my attention, and before I knew it I’d written not one story but five, and really it hasn’t finished, because life never finishes, but sometimes you have to make an ending of sorts.  So that is what I’ve done.

Goodbye Matt, Dec, Laura, Cal and Julia.  Goodbye to you all, too, fellow WordPressers, and thanks for reading, however much you read and whatever you thought about it.

There won’t be any more posts on Shouldn’t Be Alone, but if you have anything at all you’d like to say, please post a comment and I’ll get back to you, I promise.

The Philpotts Letters – 14

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make (The Beatles).

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make (The Beatles)

My dearest, darling, wonderful, amazing, awesome Josh and Ella

Hey there. I know, pretty hard-core sentimental for me, eh? Well, there’s a reason, and I’ll get to it in a moment, but first, I want you to be perfectly and utterly sure that you know you are the most precious people in the world to me. You are both, without exception, shining examples of what people should be. Well, OK, sometimes you do smelly farts. And occasionally you don’t reply to my texts within a milisecond of receiving them. And also, your mum could do with a hand with the dishwasher every now and then, and the hoovering doesn’t do itself. But, you know, in general, shining examples and all that.

I just wanted to make sure you know that, because I’m pretty sure I haven’t told you enough, and now I’m not going to get much of a chance to tell you again, because it’s got me, the fucking bastard, it’s caught me, and I think it’s going to have its way with me. I’ve escaped a few times before, but it’s never held on this tightly, and I’m so fucking tired, I haven’t got the strength to beat it off again.

I wish I did have the strength, because I don’t want to miss any of it, of you growing up, having your own families, making me a grandad. Oh I so wanted to be a grandad.

OK, stop it, Matt, this isn’t about wistful hankering, this is about … oh I don’t fucking know. Kids, I’ve barely got the energy to type this, but it feels important that I do. I’m hoping the spellchecker will kick in, because I can hardly see what the fuck these bloody useless fingers are doing to my words.

Right, focus. I guess I want to apologise for leaving you. I know it’s going to be hard. I’ve tried my best to make as much of it as easy as possible, but some things I just can’t have any control over, however much I want it.

I’ve used this, the Philpotts Letters, over the years, as a way of letting off steam, a way of ranting about things I was freaking out about, and a way of thinking through some of the challenges that being a dad has brought. But looking back at it, it’s almost like a verbal photo album, snapshots of your lives, entwined with mine, and I wanted to finish it properly, so it didn’t just stop with me going ‘bloody hell, you’re eighteen, how the fuck did that happen’.

I want you to know you are awesome.

I want you to know how much you are loved by me.

I want you to know how much you have enriched my life.

I want you to know how amazing your lives are going to be.

I want you to know how sad I am that I won’t be there to see it.

I want you to know so much that I can’t say, because I can’t put it into words.

God, kids, I love you so, so much. It is unbearable, the thought of leaving you behind, and I am terrified of it, so scared, but I’m so, so tired, I just can’t go on.

Please, guys, look after your mum, I know you will, you’ll look after each other. If there’s a way, I’ll be looking down on you, or more likely up at you (I’ll be checking you’re not wearing indecent underwear, Ella, so watch it), and keeping abreast of Scott family developments.

OK, that’s me done. I’m falling asleep, and these days I never really know how long I’m going to be asleep for, or what state I’ll be in when I wake up.

Thanks for everything.

I love you.

Goodbye.

Dad xxx

137. I will remember you

In which final goodbyes are said.

Cal

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

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

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

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

‘Do you want anything to eat?’

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

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

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

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

‘But … Matt …’

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

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

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

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

‘OK. Sorry.’

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

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

Iz was still on the warpath.

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

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

‘I’ll go.’

Iz turned back, surprised.

‘Really? You’re sure?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, he loved a crackpot theory.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘What? You never stopped complaining about it.’

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

Mum!

‘What?’

‘Just … Jesus.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘They do look lovely, dear.’

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

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

‘Soh, Cal, when I wink like this –’

He did a wink with both eyes, twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hasn’t anyone else been?’

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

‘Should we go, then?’

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

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

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

‘No, I just thought I’d come over.’

‘Thanks.’

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

‘Did you want to see Mum?’

‘Yeah, just a quick hi.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Shit, I never thought.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Kettle on, then, Ella?’

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

‘Good timing.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, of course.’

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

‘Maybe.’

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

‘Isn’t it too soon?’

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

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

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

‘But what about Josh?’

‘What about him?’

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

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

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

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

Ella nodded, a little uncertainly.

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

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

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

‘Really? Like what?’

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

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

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

‘Ella tells me you’ve been awesome.’

Josh shrugged.

‘Have you got much time off?’

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

‘Aren’t all your tries for him?’

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

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

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

‘Has she just gone in with Mum?’

I nodded, and Josh let out a big breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fair enough.’

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

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

‘Did she say anything?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, I’ll call her.’

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

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

Josh looked at me gratefully and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This is a nice surprise.’

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

Mum looked at me, eyebrows raised.

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

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

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

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

‘Oh. What did he want help with?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How are they all doing?’

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

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

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

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

‘How’s Dad?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’ll never forget him.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please note that

WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT

the artist formerly known as

Matthew Robert Scott

should henceforth be known as

The Late Matthew Robert Scott

Work it out for yourselves, people!

Memorial Service – City Crematorium 1st November 1pm

and afterwards at Hilton Hotel

No flowers, donations to a charity of your choice

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

‘Matt Scott Road Trip

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

it’s a new life for me

and I’m feeling good

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

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

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

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

Loving

Dedicated

Brilliant

Inappropriate

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

Mate

Lovely

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

Literally

Heart

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

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

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

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

Take care of each other.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

135. Loose ends

In which a friend works things out, and goodbyes of a sort are said.

Cal

Just before Christmas, I got a phone call from Baggo.

‘Hey Callywally.’

‘Bags. How’s it going?’

‘It’s going great. Fucking great. You around on February fourteenth?’

‘Don’t know offhand. What day of the week is it?’

‘Thursday.’

‘Oh, then yeah, probably. Depends on games and stuff, but more than likely it’s my day off.’

‘Great. Glad to hear it, mate.’

There was a silence. I could almost hear him bursting to tell me something.

‘Baggo, please just spit it out. I haven’t got time to fuck about, I’m supposed to be picking Conor up from Mum’s.’

‘You always spoil my fun Callywally. So on February fourteenth, which is Valentine’s Day in case your cold hard unromantic heart has forgotten, me and Jen are getting married.’

Now it was my turn for silence. I needed a moment to compute what he’d told me. I knew it was going well, that he and Jen had sorted out some of the things that happened when he went off to Europe, but I had not expected this.

‘Holy shit Baggo. Seriously?’

‘Seriously, my friend. And I have a very serious favour to ask you.’

Naturally, he was going to want me to be his best man. Fair was only fair.

‘Yeah, anything, mate. Just ask.’

‘I thought that’s what you’d say. You’re my best mate, after all. OK then. What we need is some sparkly tablecloths, like those ones your mum used at your thirtieth. Could you ask her where she got them? Or even better, if she could give us a lend?’

‘Er … tablecloths?’

‘Yeah, mate. Jen’s dead set on them, with some little heart shaped candle holders. It’s gonna look really cute.’

‘Yeah. Sure. I’ll ask her.’

‘Oh, and something else you could do?’

OK, this was it now. He’d just been stringing me along. His little joke.

‘Name it, mate.’

‘Could you pop round the flat and have a look in the cupboard under the stairs for me? I think I’ve left my posh black shoes there.’

‘Oh. Shoes. Right. Sure thing.’

‘And while you’re there, check the answer machine and pick up the post?’

‘OK. Anything else?’

‘No, can’t think of anything. I’ll let you know.’

Oh who was I kidding? Baggo had two older brothers; he was kind of obliged to ask them, wasn’t he. I swallowed my disappointment and told myself I was happy for Bags, the important thing was he and Jen were happy.

‘You’ll be my best man though, right?’

Oh the bastard. He’d got me, right between the eyes.

‘Baggo, you complete arse. Of course I will. I thought you’d ask Michael or Wheels.’

‘What? And cause a fight because I asked one and not the other? No fucking way.’

‘So I’m just a fight avoider?’

‘No, not just a fight avoider. You’re probably better at stag dos than either of them.’

‘You’re never going to say I’m your first choice, are you.’

‘Nope.’

‘Fair enough. Fourteenth of February, you say?’

*

Baggo and Jen’s wedding was quick, intimate and romantic. There were only a few guests – Jen’s mum and sister, Baggo’s mum and brothers, Chrissie and me, Ayesh and Sam, a couple of Jen’s friends, and Daisy, who was a pretty cute bridesmaid.

We went back to Angus’s flat afterwards for a takeaway, which we ate at a table covered in sparkly tablecloths donated by Mum.

The full story was that Baggo had managed to get a job, with prospects no less, in a music shop, part of a chain. He was going to do some training, which would mean a promotion, and kept him in some small way in touch with the music world. He and Jen were trying hard to make things work between them, and she liked being in London, so they were staying. Daisy had started school at the beginning of January, and they were about to move into their own rented flat near Jen’s sister. Jen had got some evening work as a care assistant, and planned to study for a degree in the daytime at Open University, which she hoped would lead to a better paid job.

I was sad that Baggo was moving away permanently. He’d been around, part of the scenery, part of my life, since I was five, and although keeping in touch by phone, text, email, was easy, it wasn’t the same as having him text me at ten in the evening for ‘a quick half before closing‘ or being able to pop round there with Conor and Lily at the weekend.

But it was a good outcome of what could have been a tragedy for him, and I was glad for them all.

Laura

That last year, Matt and I had been to Ella’s graduation. It had taken a lot of organisation, as these things tended to have lots of rules attached, and pre-planning was required for any kind of disability. Matt was determined not to miss it, whatever it took, and in the end he was having a rare good day, and it wasn’t physically too difficult for us. His face as Ella received her certificate, the look of pride and love on it, was something that will stay with me the rest of my life, and he managed to charm all of Ella’s friends with his ever-present wit.

Josh was playing regularly for Raiders, and loving every minute of his rugby-filled life, and Matt and I went to watch him when we could, although I still didn’t ever really know what I was cheering.

Cal and Jay had retired at the end of the same season, Jay ending up being the longest serving coach in the league, and Cal being one of the longest serving players Raiders had ever had.

When I think about it, the rugby-playing side of our family is very lucky not to have had any life-changing injuries (although Josh and Basty are still playing, so fingers crossed and let’s not think about it more than we have to). Jay has a bit of an ongoing hobble because of his knee, Dec has the facial scars and nose expected of a rugby player but which had actually been caused by a vindictive madman many years ago, and Cal and Nico and got away relatively unscathed. So celebrating retirement seemed the right thing to do, although Jay and Cal were both going to miss their respective roles in the sport they loved.

Huge parties were had by all, it also being Beth’s swan song as a party planner. She had sold her business and she and Jay were planning a big trip, taking in America, where Beth’s mum was, Argentina to visit Nico and Lis, and Australia and New Zealand.

It felt like the family had scattered; even Dec and Amy had talked about moving over to Australia for a while, Dec wondering if there was a market over there for some of the IT stuff he did with Matt.

Cal

That year started off so well, with Baggo’s wedding. It was my last year of playing professional rugby, and although a couple of years ago I would have mourned this, I had come to terms with it and, thanks to my awesome wife, had planned to start training to be a Physiotherapist in the September afterwards. I say thanks to Chrissie, but there are more people who deserve thanks.

Chrissie was the one who chivvied me, supported me, calmed my nerves, talked me into it, gave me confidence I could do it, showed me how we could organise our family and her job so I could do it and we could afford it. Chrissie was just amazing.

Gracie helped me see it was what I wanted to do; I visited her up in Manchester and spent time in a couple of her lectures, talking to her a lot about how the course worked and how she decided it was what she wanted to do.

Iz, who had Gracie as a lodger in the house she shared with Ben, got drunk with me and told me how proud she was of me (she could only do this drunk, and I could only let her drunk), not for being a successful rugby player, but for finally choosing to do something with my life, rather than just going along with what was in front of me.

Dad, who was retiring with me at the end of same season, also seemed to come alive with ambition, and he and Mum were full of plans for what they were going to do with their free time. I saw in them what I wanted for myself – a sense of having worked hard for a long time, with personal achievements that led to a reward of having enough money to stop and take in some of the world. I still had that ahead of me – I hadn’t made enough money playing rugby to stop yet, and I had my family to support.

Dec and Amy – well if it hadn’t been for them plying me with cups of tea and beer when I went round there and bored them to tears with my should-I-shouldn’t-I, rather than booting me out on my arse and telling me the truth, that I needed a good kick … well I’m just very grateful.

Matty and Lau – they’ve always been there, for all of us, and at the start of the year Matty was in pretty good shape for a while. After his little talk a while back, he hadn’t felt the need to try to interfere in my life plan, such as it was, but when I told him what I wanted to do, he looked as much of a smug git as he usually did when things went his way. Matty and Lau were the ones I could call at stupid times of the night when I was worrying about how Chrissie was going be able to do all the things she assured me she was going to do; they were the ones who said we could leave the kids with them anytime we needed to; they were the ones who would call for a chat at just the right moment, when I was pulling my hair out with how to make everything work.

Mum was equally awesome. She organised the retirement party to end all retirement parties for me and Dad. It felt like everyone who had ever played in or even been to a rugby match was there. But even though Mum was up to her eyes in organising all that, she was round at ours practically every day giving Conor and Lily cuddles, offering to babysit, telling us all the news about everyone.

How she kept up with it all I have no idea, but Mum was gossip central, as well as meddling central. It was never enough for her to know something about someone; she had to do something about it too. I know some people (ahem Matty) found it a bit much, but she cared so much about people, and she was a fixer. Yeah, of course she stuck her oar in with me, she’d been trying for years to get me to sort my after-rugby life out, and she had her opinions about the best places to go to train, the best exams to do to get in, and the best ways to study. And of course I ignored her and did things my way. It gave us something to talk about.

So my new attempt at a career was underway – I managed to pass two A levels and a GCSE in the years leading up to my retirement from playing, and I got on to the only course I applied for, forty minutes drive away from home. Well I’d always lived here, it’s not like I was looking to move.

Ella graduated from Uni with a first in Law, the bloody know-all, and to everyone’s amazement Matty made it up to her graduation, all the way up to bloody Durham. There was just no way he was going to miss it – Lau’s got a picture in the front room of Matty looking at Ella, in her cap and gown, and I swear it should be captioned ‘Proud’, because that’s all you can see on his face.

Matty was equally proud of Josh, who was starting regularly for Raiders. He’d made it to as many games as he could, which wasn’t many, but he got the tech bods at Raiders to stream him footage when he couldn’t make it. That season, my and Dad’s last for Raiders, saw us win the European Cup and come second in the League, and when Josh gave Matty his Cup winner’s medal, Matty hung it over his bed and told everyone he kissed it every night. He was a lying bastard, he never did any such thing, but it meant a lot to him.

Charlie managed to bag a full-time job. She’d tried Uni, but couldn’t be doing with the organisation and, let’s face it, hard work she needed to do to make it. She’d come back at the end of her second term and been through bar job after waitressing job after shop job, but had finally found, for now, her niche. Beauty therapy. Massage, pedicures, hair, make-up, all that. And she was studying for qualifications. She still lived at home, but it was possible to be a hundred metres from Dec and Amy’s house and not hear her screeching in anger about something.

Tom was helping Dec and Matty with their business, in fact he covered for both of them more than either of them knew. He was even more of a genius with computers than Matty, and now Matty wasn’t as able to keep up with new developments, Tom would shyly suggest that the new ‘insert something techy here’ programme might be as good a fix for the ‘insert some techy problem’ that someone was having, and should he let Matty have the details or just email direct; and he’d often pick up emails and phone calls that Dec should have answered days or weeks ago, and smooth things over and promise to have things sorted as soon as. To be honest, he could have run the business on his own, but that would have left Dec and Matty with far too much time on their hands to play computer games, when really they should be doing something useful.

So until the end of the summer, that year was going well. Chrissie and I took the kids on our first going abroad family holiday. We went to the South of France and played on the beach all day, soaking up the sun, loving watching our children make sandcastles, loving being together and relaxing. It gave me a chance to feel like things had really finished at Raiders. We went when everyone was going back to pre-season, and although part of me missed all the coming back together banter and bonding that had always gone on, most of me really didn’t miss the back-breaking conditioning work that we had to do to make sure we were fit after the six-week lay-off. Being away while pre-season was going on made sure my mind and body knew all that was over.

When we came back, it was to the news that Matty was ill again. He hadn’t been ill since the winter, not like this, but Lau had all the kit, and he rarely had to go into hospital these days.

We went straight round to visit him, and he did look worse than I’d ever seen him, even those days in Stafford when he was so close to … whatever.

He managed a smile, but had no energy to talk, and he drifted in and out of sleep while we were there. Lau didn’t want us to stay in his room for long, so we went and sat in the living room with her for a bit.

‘You should have texted us, Lau.’

‘No, flower, there was no point worrying you. I didn’t want you to rush back.’

‘He looks worse than usual.’

‘Yeah, he’s not good. But tell me about France. You look like you all caught the sun.’

And that was as much as Lau was prepared to say about it. She would talk to Mum and to Amy when things got too much for her, but mostly she just coped on her own, as Josh had just moved out with some mates, although he still called round most days. She didn’t want to keep going over things with people, and we respected that. She and Matty still supported each other, and I wondered fleetingly what she was going to do without him. Then I banished that thought, because Matty always got better. It took a lot out of him, but he always made a huge effort, and with Lau and medication and all of us, he’d turn the corner and be back to his old self.

It was taking a while, though, and there were the inevitable family discussions.

Matty and Lau hadn’t been to Sunday lunch for a while; in fact, Mum hadn’t done Sunday lunch for a while, because now there were fewer of us around (like, only twelve on a good day), it apparently felt ‘too empty’.

Mum and Dad were getting ready to go on a huge round the world trip. They were going to start with the States and stay with Nana Jane, then branch out to South America, Australia and New Zealand and then take it from there. They spent a lot of time looking at different destinations, or rather I suspect that Mum looked and Dad nodded, and I think they were waiting for Matty to get better so they could firm things up and start making some reservations. Dad even got excited when he talked about it, and I wondered why he hadn’t done something like it sooner.

So, because it had been so long since the last one, when Mum asked us all round for Sunday lunch, everyone who was about made the effort. Chrissie and I picked up Gran, Josh brought April, Dec and Amy came with Tom and Rosa, and apologies from Charlie who had her usual Sunday hangover, which was huge enough to last most of the day. Matty wasn’t up to it, and Lau had stayed with him, but Josh had orders to bring roast potatoes and lemon tart back with him ‘to tempt Matt’, although it was more likely Lau would scoff most of it.

There were enough of us to make a bit of noise, enough kids that the older children (Dec and me) had plenty of fun, enough food that we were all stuffed before dessert but still managed to cram it all in and go back for seconds, but enough room for us all on the sofas without having to spill out onto the floor or split into two groups, one in the living room, one staying in the dining room.

Conor fell asleep on Gran’s knee, and Lily seemed happy enough to be distracted by various aunts while we chatted, and the topic inevitably got round to Matty. He and Lau were never really far from any of our thoughts.

‘Anyone seen Matty this week?’

Mum was angling for making a list of who wasn’t pulling their weight, but it turned out we’d all been round one way or another. So now she used the opportunity to compare notes.

‘He seems a bit brighter, don’t you think?’

‘Not when I was there, Mum. He was asleep most of the time, and when he was awake, he wasn’t really with it.’

‘Yeah, he was a bit like that when Ames and me went yesterday, he dozed off about three times, and we were only in there five minutes, but Lau said he’s been fairly good in the mornings. I think the day wipes him out and by the time it gets to Cash in the Attic, he’s had enough.’

‘So should we be trying to go round in the mornings more?’

‘Then he’ll just get more tired more quickly, Beth. Maybe we should go round less? They’re never going to turn us away, are they.’

‘No, James, but they need to know they’re not alone. It must be awful lying in that bed all day –’

‘– watching TV and being waited on hand and foot. Yeah, it’s a bit shit.’

‘Dec, you know he wouldn’t be in bed if he could choose. Matty’s always liked being out and about. I was wondering though … I had an idea.’

We all waited to find out what Mum was going to make us do now. More timetables and scheduled visits was my guess, but I was way off the mark.

‘It’s such a shame that Matty can’t go hiking any more; even if he was up and about, most of his favourite walks are too steep for his wheelchair.’

‘And too down sheer cliffs.’

‘Which was my point, Cal. I know most of us have been walking with him at one time or another, and I wondered about everyone filming his favourite rambles so he can watch them from his bed. It might make him feel more like he’s outside.’

We all sat, a little stunned, for a few moments. It was the best idea I’d ever heard.

‘Mum, that is brilliant. How did you come up with that?’

‘Well I can’t claim total credit, I did steal it slightly. I was in the dentist waiting room the other day, and they had a screen showing clips of walking trails around the area, and it just got me to thinking. Shall we do it then?’

Mum liked nothing better than everyone agreeing she’d had a great idea, so she could boss us about and get it done. We had a long discussion about Matty’s favourite walks, who was going to do them, and how we were going to film it. Matty was a legendary hiker, and some of his most favourite trails were too long for us – it wasn’t unusual for him in his prime to be gone all day and cover twenty miles or more.

I remembered going with him to the top of the big hill overlooking the sea, down the other side and then back round it. It was easily ten miles, and I had been wiped well before we got back, but Matty had still been fresh as a daisy. I volunteered to do that one.

Josh remembered doing some shorter walks with Matty when he was younger, and he and Rosa decided to do a couple together. Mum and Dad said they’d do a couple of walks on the moors that they knew Matty had enjoyed, and Dec and Amy said they’d walk along the beach near where they’d got married, because ‘there should be footage of the sea’ (and because old man Summers had let himself go a bit, and anything with a slight incline would have him puffing like a steam train).

Mum and Dad had a video camera, which had hardly been taken out of its box but seemed the ideal place to record the walks; Tom was the obvious person to ask to put all the footage together so Matty would be able to watch it.

It made us feel useful, almost excited, like we were doing something positive to help, rather than just calling round and never knowing if we should be there or not.

Doing the walks was good fun too. Chrissie came part of the way on mine, circling back after a while and meeting me at the end with the car. It almost felt like I was doing it with Matty; I was seeing things through his eyes, pointing the camera at birds I was seeing, standing with the lens capturing the view from the top of the hill, slowly panning round to see back to the woods, trying to make it as much of an experience through the camera as if he was actually there.

It was all a surprise for him, and we would have loved to have all been there to see his face when he watched them for the first time, but he really wasn’t able to cope with all of us crammed in his room, or even all being in the house at the same time, so we had to hear about it second hand from Mum who, as the one who’d thought of it, got to drop round the DVDs to Lau.

Matty apparently cried, although he would be quick to deny it and when questioned about it said he’d got chilli on his fingers. After that, I’d often find one of the walks on the TV screen when I went round, and as well as doing what Mum wanted, which was to mentally take him outside of the four walls of his room, it meant we didn’t have to sit and watch crap on TV or make conversation which tired him out.

The walk videos had always been intended as a two-fold thing – to bring the outside in to Matty, and to give him some motivation to get better. And his spirits did seem to lift afterwards.

But Matty didn’t get much better, and it started to occur to us that he’d been ill for much longer than ever before. Mum made one of her rotas to give Lau time off – we’d take it in turns to spend an evening or an afternoon with Matty once or twice a week so she could go and get her hair done, or have coffee with a friend, or go to a yoga class – but more often than not she’d just sit with us instead. It was like she couldn’t bear to leave him even for an hour or two, and often when I turned up she’d be sitting by Matty’s bed holding his hand, just looking at him.

Their old dining room was their bedroom now, and Matty had a special bed that went up and down and could be tilted up to let his chest drain, a bit like the bed he used to have in Stafford only swankier. I still had an urge to mess about with the controls, but I managed to contain myself.

Sometimes I took Conor with me, and would have a weird sense of deja vu when he’d play with his cars on the floor while Matty drifted in and out of sleep. It took me right back to Stafford, and I think Matty recognised it too, although we never mentioned it. Once, he woke up with a start, looked really disoriented and said ‘Tehl Beth … do ih mysehf … dohnt wana mihs Chrihsmus dihner’ and I was sure he thought he was back there too.

Lau slept in a single bed in the same room, so she could respond immediately if Matty needed anything in the night. In the day, when she wasn’t in the room, there was a monitor so she could hear if his breathing changed. It really was full circle back to the time he was first ill, and it wasn’t lost on me that we’d nearly lost him that time. I tried not to think about it. Matty would fight back, he always did. If there was ever a stubborn bastard who got his own way, it was Matty.

Summer turned to Autumn, and still Matty languished in his bed. He hardly ate, he wasn’t awake much, but he still had his sense of humour. Sometimes he felt a bit brighter, and I’d get a text from him.

Fancy an arm-wrestle? Now ur retired, cld beat u no sweat.

or

Tottenham Tottenham no one can stop em they’re gonna do it like they did last year

And he’d make me smile, and it would feel as if he was just texting me from his desk, rather than laboured letter by laboured letter in his sick-person’s bed surrounded by drips and oxygen masks. That was Matty, he always wanted us to think of him as Matty the dude, rather than Matty the pity case, and we tried, but it was hard watching him, it was hard to go there and just kid about with him, pretending like he hadn’t fallen asleep while we were telling him about the kids or bantering with him about the footy. It was hard, but we did it because he was Matty, and he deserved it.

Matt

Before I go, as I said, I want to tell you all what you’ve meant to me.

I’m going to start with Lau, because, my only and forever love, you have meant the most. Without you, none of this would have happened. I would have been gone, offed myself probably, at least be sunk in a sea of anti-depressants in a mental hospital somewhere. I don’t know if you fully appreciate how much you turned me around, how different I am now from who I was, and who I was becoming. You are my world, my shining star, my sun, my moon. I could not exist without you. I would not be Matthew Robert Scott without you, and I thank the universe for the day you swapped your day off with Anna and ended up doing your sex talk in that church hall. I only have one regret, which is that our time together has been marred by the fucking bastard, that you’ve had to do so much more for me than a wife should have to do for a husband.

Lau, I still love you, so fucking much. You made my life complete the day you walked into it, and to have had our bloody brilliant family together has bested anything else I may think I have achieved.

If I were going to choose one moment to put in a memory box and take with me, it would be – oh fuck it, I can’t choose one. So many things have come flooding into my mind: you, looking like you’d been lit up by a sunbeam on that day in the church hall; tousled and naked after some awesome lovin’; looking as beautiful, although fully clothed, on our wedding day; looking less beautiful, although only slightly, and employing somewhat juicier language, while giving birth to the twins; laughing with the family; making the most of the wettest camping holiday in history with an impromptu game of hide the spatula; mind-blowing sex; paint on your nose when we did Mum’s living room; crying after taking Josh and Ella to school for the first time; playing Jenga with me when you were so fat (pregnantly of course) that we couldn’t go out, and laughing so much you made the tower fall over – five times; getting rat-arsed on your fortieth birthday; mind-blowing sex; spending our tenth anniversary in bed and making me feel like it was because you wanted to be there with me, not because I couldn’t actually get out on my own; crying at sad films and happy films; mind-blowing sex; singing boy band shit; looking happy; oh, just tons and bloody tons of things, including some bloody mind-blowing sex. It’s all crowding in now, and I couldn’t possibly choose just one. I’m not going to get all maudlin, I’m going to say thank you. I will hold your hand forever with the last of my strength. I love you.

OK kids, your turn. How the fuck did I manage to father both a future England rugby international and a future top international lawyer? Left to their own devices, my genes would have produced two skinny, short-sighted nerds with no ball skills and a penchant for computer code, so I think you must have your mum to thank for any rippling muscles or off-the-scale IQs.

Josh, the day you made your first start for Raiders was the proudest I have ever been of you. I have no doubt you will play for your country. But sport aside, I am proud of you for the man you have become. I remember when you were little, you used to follow your sister round like a little sheep (yeah, I know, ‘little sheep are actually called lambs, Dad’. Don’t get clever with me, alright?), and you’d let her make all your decisions for you. Then, about the time puberty hit in an explosion of body hair, pustules and growth spurts, you worked out that she’d been using this to her advantage, and took control of your own destiny. I saw you change from a follower to a leader, and I love the quietly assertive Josh who stops your mum from fussing about whether you’re eating right with a look and a ‘chill, Mum’, who sits on the edge of my bed and says ‘about time you got out of your pit old man’, who picks up a screaming Conor and quiets him with a cuddle without making Chrissie or Cal feel bad.

Ella, you seem to have spent your whole life trying to make up for being the youngest. Baby girl, it’s only fifteen minutes, get over it. You’ve taken the world by the horns and shaken it to let it know you’re here, and it can’t help but take notice of you. Your brother’s a home bird, but you’ve flown, and although it’s been so quiet when you’ve been off on your travels, and when you were at Uni, it’s been OK too, because it’s like you’re out there doing what you want to do, spreading Ella-ness around the globe. I don’t think a dad has ever been prouder of a daughter than I was of you when you graduated. I’m so glad I was here for that.

Hippo and Squeaks, you are both fucking awesome. I have loved being a dad, best thing I ever did, but above all I am privileged to have been your Dad and to have been able to watch you grow up. I love you both so much.

Who next? Mum. Mum, I’m so sorry. Oh fuck, I really didn’t want this to be a big mope, but it’s not right, is it? I’ve been thinking a lot recently, about things in general and you in particular, and about kids and parents and what’s right and what’s wrong. And it’s a cliché but nonetheless true that you shouldn’t outlive your kids. So I’m sorry for bringing that wrongness to your doorstep. Just think of it as Matthew’s way of bucking the trend, two fingers up to convention as per.

Mum, I don’t think I’ve ever said this to your face, but I love you. I hope you know that. You’ve saved me from myself more times than I care to remember, and although there are quite a few people who know me pretty well, no one knows me like you.

Sometimes I can tell what you’re thinking without even having to look at you, can feel your look as I’m arsing about, taking things too far, and then I’ll glance up, and there it is, that expression, and I’ll know.

You’ve always given me everything I needed, whether it was a cuddle when I fell over and banged my knee, the last portion of shepherd’s pie when Jay wanted it, a kick up the arse when I was being a pain, whatever it was. It was always delivered with gentleness and compassion.

You are a clever lady; you hide it well, don’t want to blow your own trumpet, but I bet if you took an IQ test you’d be up there with the top lot. But you’re not only intellectually smart, you’re savvy too. You know when to make a fuss and when to leave things, and it draws people to you rather than pushing them away. I’m glad I could give you Josh and Ella, they adore you, and I think they’ll help you when you need it.

Oh alright, then. Jay. Bloody hell, have I got to think of some nice things to say about you, you bastard? Hope I don’t get struck by a thunderbolt for talking out of my arse, or some such shit. OK, here goes then. I bloody hated you when we were kids. There, that’s nice enough, isn’t it? Oh, I should perhaps add that I bloody loved you too, even though I’d really rather not. See, the thing is brother mine, it’s hard to have a superstar for an older brother, it’s a lot to live up to. You have this kind of conflict going on, wanting so much to be like him, but wanting to be completely different and your own person at the same time. It’s a bloody good job I don’t have a sporting bone in my body, as I seriously could not have stood the competition. But that was then, and I guess now, well now I can look at your pot belly and compare it to my much slenderer frame; I can be a bit smug, because I know which one of us is the finer figure of a man.

I never got a chance to speechify to you like you did to me at my wedding, but if I had, I would have arsed around and made light of the things you’ve done for me, and what we’ve become to each other. Oh, I just got a bit serious – did that take you by surprise? It did me. Oh well, now I’m on this track, I guess I should add that although we maybe didn’t start out as the best of brothers, and went our own ways for quite a while, I’m glad that for whatever reason (I’m not going to wax lyrical about your noble sacrifice, I’ve said it before, you know how I feel) we are where we are, comfortable with our differences and in each other’s company. I love you, Jay.

Beth. What can I say to you, Beth? I’ve made your life a bloody misery at times, I’m quite sure, often on purpose, but you never bloody well give up. You have superhuman levels of persistence in the face of overwhelming odds of lack of success, and I salute you. I won’t say I have always, or even often, appreciated your – oh how many ways have I categorised it? Interfering, fussing, do-goodering, mithering, wittering, get the thesaurus out, they’ll all be in there. But I do appreciate that behind it is genuine caring. You didn’t have to take on Jay’s recalcitrant younger sibling and try to make him do things differently, you could have left me to it and thought ‘sod him, why do I bother?’. You bothered, because you’re kind and good and I know, in my heart, you only want what you think is best for people. We’ve had our differences, but we’ve also had our sames, and the bottom line is that you’ve always been there when I’ve needed you, even though I would not have blamed you in the slightest for giving up on my ungrateful arse. Sorry I’ve said ‘fuck’ so much. I don’t think you actually mind it that much, it just gives you something to bang on about. Beth, I like you a lot, although I don’t often show it, and I love you.

Declan Charles Summers. Oh my fucking God, if ever a man had love for another man who wasn’t related to him and who he wasn’t even a teensy bit romantically attached to, then it would be mine for you. I sometimes wish you were my brother, just so I could say this is Dec, he’s my brother, rather than he’s my mate. But the truth is, you are my brother, and my mate, and I thank the universe on a fairly regular basis for the circumstances that brought you up to Stafford that Christmas when we realised we were the same. I guess we’re not really the same any more, you’ve sorted a lot of your crap out, while I’ve gone on having lots of crap and never really sorted it, but your nineteeny self and my thirty onety self were pretty fucking similar.

I would say I’ve watched you grow up, but you were fairly growed already back then, telling me a few home truths and showing me how it was going to be. I like to think I’ve never grown up, a bit like Peter Pan, or Michael J Fox, but you were always streets ahead of me in the maturity stakes.

Mate, I have so enjoyed working with you. That day we had the idea for our business, I can’t tell you how excited I was. When I got the job at Raiders, that was Level 10 excited. When I realised we could work together, and how it might all pan out … Level 692, at least. It has been a blast, the last few years, making a go of it, seeing it work, knowing Tom will be there when I’m not.

You have been the most awesome dude, almost Beth-like scary in knowing what I’m thinking, but not as bloody pushy about it. I love you, mate. I love your bloody awesome family. I’m privileged to have shared so much of my life with yours.

Amy, I love you. Ha, I just wanted to put it there to make Dec look twice. It’s true, though. Remember the first time we met, and you told me to fuck off? Awesome. I’ve hardly heard you curse since, but I knew Dec had found a keeper. You were so young then, and, I don’t know, demure and contained. On the outside, at least. You were a right little goer according to Dec. Yeah, I’m just trying to embarrass you; you’re cute when you blush. I bet you’re blushing now, aren’t you? Knew it. Dec loves it when you go red, does all sorts of man-things to him, so consider this my gift to you both.

Amy, you have been so, so fucking awesome. I’m sure having me just up the road, constantly on the look out for an opportunity to arse about with your husband, has been sorely trying at times, but you’ve always made me feel like nothing is too much trouble, like whatever I get up to, you just accept it. I know when you ask if I’m alright, I’d better bloody well behave myself, because you just don’t do that fussing thing that every other bugger in the family seems to.

I think you kind of keep the rest of us sane – you let us get on with the insanity, the idiocy, the bickering, the posturing, and then you just go ‘but don’t you think that …’ and say the one thing that makes us all look at each other, embarrassed at what we were just doing, and stop to remember that we love each other. Look after him, Amy, he’ll need you.

Spawn of Summers – I have already sung your praises elsewhere, you’re not getting a second go, but suffice it to say the whole bleeding lot of you are more trouble than you’re worth, a bunch of noisy ne’er-do-wells who should learn to pipe down and have a bit of respect for your ageing crippled uncle. I love the whole bloody annoying rabble of you, alright?

Nico, Lis and Bastien. Sorry, I’ve lumped you all together as the South American branch of Scott Global Incorporated. We miss you guys, you really should come over more often.

Basty – are you ever going to make an honest woman out of Ella? (Ha, I bet neither of you thought I knew, but I know everything. There’s not much for a fucking cripple to do all day in bed except listen, cogitate, ruminate and hypothesise. I’m right, aren’t I?)

Nico – Argentina isn’t that great. Come and live in England again. The country is suffering from a shortage of flirting, and you could save the day.

Lis – I understand Linebreak is recruiting to a senior sales position, if you’re interested. A day off a week solely for networking in Costa purposes, and a personal Jimmy Choo budget.

Tiago Tribe, I love you all.

April, April, April. God I was so fucking scared of you. You may notice that I have both sworn and blasphemed in the same sentence, which I usually avoid when communicating with you, but now I’m no longer around, I feel like not giving a shit, and I hope you won’t either.

Thanks for Lau. I know she wouldn’t be who she was without you; she has your steely determination, your compassion and your eyes, and I’m nearly as scared of her. Actually, I’m not scared of you any more, I know you’re not as much of a dragon as you liked to make out early on, in an attempt to scare off any of Lau’s boyfriends who weren’t that serious about her. You’re a warm-hearted person, and I know Ella and Josh love you to bits. I love you too.

Andrew fucking Distock, you old bastard. You are the person who has known me the longest, apart from my mum and Jay. You knew me when we were nerdy science geeks together, and all these years later, here we are, still throwing bits of code and random physics facts at each other and loving the Mighty Spurs with all our hearts. You’re one of those rare people who I can have a chat with after months, or years, and it feels like it’s only been a few days (that time when you fucked off to Africa with Jesus notwithstanding); you’ve been a rock, someone outside of the madness of being here, being me, who I can cling to and call up when I need it. I hope you’ve felt the same about me, but you never know, maybe you’ve been trying to get rid of me all these years. Andrew, you have been a great mate, and I love you.

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.

37. This is how it goes

In which goodbyes are said, tears are shed, and cheesy dinosaur biscuits are eaten.

Cal

I didn’t hear Dec come in later, but I did hear him in the middle of the night.

‘No … nnnh … no no no … mm … no … ‘

I heard Dec moving, and then I felt a bump from under me, as he sat up and banged his head on the underneath of my bed. I didn’t have to wait long

Dec

… woke up in a sweat, heart racing, breathing hard, disoriented. Tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle from above me. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

Cal

I’d known it would happen, and I liked knowing things and being right. Dec must have heard me, and his voice came from below.

‘Sorry, Cal.’

‘You sweared.

‘I know. I was half asleep. Sorry. Was I making noises?’

‘Yes you were going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and I waited for you to do a big swear and you did.’

‘I didn’t scare you – er – Optimus Prime, though?’

I hadn’t been scared, not even of the thought that Dec might scream really loudly.

‘No, he wasn’t scared. It’s only your dreams.’

‘Well that’s very brave of him.’

‘Dec can I come in with you?’

I thought I might have a chance, because it was Dec’s last night, and I might not see him again for days and days.

Dec

Oh what the hell, it was my last night.

‘Come on, then.’

Cal

It had worked. I climbed down the ladder and got under Dec’s duvet, and was asleep before I could think about it.

Dec

He hopped down the ladder and filled the bottom bunk with his sleepy body. Crammed up against the wall, I slept as well as I could, dreamless and happy.

When I woke up next morning, Cal was still asleep, looking innocent and peaceful. I could hear sounds from downstairs that suggested someone was up and in the kitchen, and my stomach rumbled. I didn’t know what the time was, couldn’t see a clock from my position under the top bunk. It was dark, but this time of year it didn’t get light till fairly late. I couldn’t bear to wake Cal, but I was really hungry so, moving slowly and carefully, I edged to the bottom of the bed, tucking the duvet back around him as I did so. Once there, I hopped off, pulled on some clothes and went downstairs. Jay was in the kitchen, making tea and toast.

łHey, mate. Bit early yet?

I looked at the kitchen clock. Just after six. Very early for me, pretty early for Jay as well. Having a pregnant wife must be overriding his natural laziness.

‘Oh well. Didn’t sleep too well.’

łMore bad dreams?

I nodded.

‘Cal got his wish for a big swear, too. Sorry. Didn’t know where I was for a minute.’

łCan’t be helped. Was he OK?

‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was what he’d been waiting for. He got in with me afterwards.’

łOh great, now he’s going to be trying to come in to us at all hours. We’d just got him to stop.

‘Sorry. It’s very hard to say no, especially in the middle of the night.’

łTell me about it, he knows all the tricks in the book. Breakfast? I’m just doing tea for Beth, then I’ll come back down and see if Matty’s awake.

‘I can check on Matt if you like.’

łCheers.

Jay went back upstairs. I made a pile of toast and two cups of tea, just in case Matt was awake, and went into his room with a tray. The room was dark, and I didn’t want to put the lamp on in case it woke him up.

‘Matt?’

No reply. I sat in the chair, ate toast and drank tea. Matt slept on. I finished my breakfast and stood up, picking up the tray from the table. Matt suddenly woke with a startled intake of breath.

}Fuck. Who’s tha?

‘Dec. Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Just brought you some breakfast if you want it.’

}Scared the bejehsus out of meh. Why dihnt yuh put the ligh on?

‘Didn’t want to wake you up.’

}Prefer to gihv meh a coronary?

‘Sorry. Tea and toast? Get it while it’s tepid.

}Mm, just how I lihk ih.

I turned on the table lamp and handed him his breakfast.

}Oh, Auhnty Dec yuh did a tray and ehvrything.

‘Well, last day and all, had to make it memorable.’

}Wha time issit?

‘Sometime after six.’

}Bluhdy hell, bih early ihnt ih?

‘I was awake, couldn’t sleep, hungry. Thought I might as well get up.’

}Well thahks foh sharing. Buhger off now, too early foh meh. Thahks foh tray, maybe laher …

His eyes closed and he went back to sleep. I picked the tray up and took it back into the kitchen. The house was silent again. I sat at the table, resting my chin on my hand, trying to soak up the atmosphere. I wanted to take in as much as possible of my time here, so I could take it back with me. Now that there wasn’t long to go before I left, I wanted to appreciate every minute. The inactivity did for me eventually, and I woke up, head resting on my arm on the table, when Beth came in.

_Oh! Were you asleep? What on earth are you doing down here?

‘Sorry, just dozed off. I’m up, honest. It was just really quiet. Doesn’t happen much round here.’

_I know. I love being first up, before everyone else. Don’t get to do it very often, especially at the moment, I’m sleeping so much. But I’m just as happy to have breakfast in bed. Even if James does go back to sleep more often than not. Have you seen Matty?

‘I did a while ago, he said it was a bit early for him.’

I glanced at the clock – it was now nearly eight – and stretched to work out some of the knots that sleeping with my head on the table had tied in my neck.

‘I can have another go if you like.’

_No it’s OK, James can see what he needs, he should be down in a minute. What time were you thinking of setting off?

‘I don’t know. Hadn’t really thought. Didn’t really want to think about it if I’m honest. I’ve had such a good time, Beth. I never thought I’d be part of this again. If nothing else in my life works out, this Christmas will make it alright.’

_Oh, Dec. We’ve loved having you here, with us. I know the past few months have been hard, for all of us. If I could pretend none of it had happened, I would. But I think we’ve managed to mend it pretty well – maybe we’re even stronger. We know a bit more about you, now, about how things have been for you. We all love you, you know that, don’t you? I think even Carol’s got a soft spot for you.

I nodded, speechless, throat closing familiarly, tears threatening.

Cal

When I woke up, Dec had got up, and I could hear voices in the kitchen. It sounded like Mum and Dec. I got up quietly, went downstairs quietly, and stood in the hall listening to what they were saying. They were talking, and although I couldn’t really hear, I think it was about Dec going home, and Dec cried. Dec had cried all the time since he’d got here, and it was a bit annoying, but I remembered Mum saying he was sad even though he didn’t look it, and we needed to give him loves, so I tried not to be annoyed.

‘Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum was trying to cheer Dec up.

‘You’ll be back up here in no time. And we’ll be down to see you – there’s always a reason to go back to Devon.’

Dec sniffed. ‘I’m not going to spend my last morning here being miserable. I’ve had a great time. I’ve got my family back. I’m going back to get fit and play rugby. Nothing to be miserable about at all.’

I remembered that Dec was in our family, and I felt happy, and went into the kitchen to be part of everyone feeling happy. Dec had stopped crying and was smiling. Mum was patting Dec on the shoulder.

‘That’s the spirit – oh here’s Cal. You’re up late, sweetheart.’

‘Dec keeped me awake with noises and a big swear.’

I wasn’t telling on Dec, I was just telling Mum what had happened, because she’d ask me later, and I’d have to tell her anyway.

‘Oh did he? Well Daddy told me you were quite keen for that to happen last night, so maybe you got your wish. Dec, I feel I have to be a bit annoyed about the big swear, just to keep up appearances.’

She pretended to frown at Dec, but he just grinned, like he always did when Mum told him off about swears.

‘Sorry, Beth, won’t happen again.’

‘Ha ha, if only I believed you.’

Dad came in, yawning.

Don’t believe him, whatever he said.’

I liked when Dad teased Dec, because he’d say something like he was telling Dec off, but he was being funny. I wanted to join in with that too.

‘Dec said he won’t do any big swears again.’

Is that so? Let’s see how long he lasts. My vote is for ten past eight. What’s the time now? Oh, maybe five past.’

‘Piss off.’

‘Four minutes past. I win.’

And there it was. I’d joined in, and Dad had carried on, and Dec had done a swear. It didn’t get much better, although Mum wasn’t as happy as I was about it.

‘Honestly, you two. I’m a bit worried about what Cal’s going to come back saying, especially if he’s going to be hanging around rugby players all afternoon. You will tone it down a bit, won’t you?’

We’ll be model citizens. He’ll come back talking like an angel. Right Cal?’

I wasn’t sure about that. I had no idea what angels talked like, and I wasn’t going to have much of a chance to learn.

‘How do angels talk, Daddy?’

A bit like this.’

Dad’s voice was all squeaky, like a lady’s. I really didn’t want to have to talk like a lady.

‘Why do I have to talk like that?’

‘Daddy’s being silly. He means that he and Dec will watch their language so you don’t start saying some of the bad words they do.’

Sometimes grown-ups said the stupidest things. I knew I couldn’t say swears, although sometimes I whispered them to myself just to feel them in my mouth. No, I knew the rules about saying swears out loud.

‘But I’m six, I can’t do bad swears.’

‘I’m glad at least one of you has got some sense.’

‘I can’t do bad swears until I’m seven. Jake telled me.’

Jake knew everything about things big boys could do, because he had two brothers who were big boys. One of them was so big, he was in the Army, and Jake had often told me things his brothers did and said that astonished me.

Mum put her hands in the air like she was surrendering. I liked when Dad and me did boy and man things together, and Mum had to give in because she was a lady, and there was only one of her.

‘I give up. Even Jake Bagwell is against me.’

After that, Dec was getting ready to go, and he was finding his socks and pants, and checking he hadn’t left anything, and he couldn’t play with me because he was busy. He helped me feed Percy, and helped Mum with the dishwasher, and helped Granny watch TV, and talked to Uncle Matty, but he didn’t really have time for a big play with me, so I played in Uncle Matty’s room.

Dec

We decided to leave about ten o’clock. Jay reckoned he could do the journey in just over two hours, even though it had taken Lis over three and a half to do it before. That gave us plenty of time to drop my stuff off and say hello to Rose, get something to eat and head for the stadium. So I was left with a strange couple of hours of hanging around, waiting to leave, trying to find things to do, but not having time to really do very much.

I helped Cal feed his rabbit. I walked round the house again to check I hadn’t left anything behind. I emptied the dishwasher for Beth, I sat and watched a bit of a Sunday morning cookery programme with Carol. I scraped mud off my trainers. It felt like time was ticking away too fast.

I fetched my bags from upstairs, leaving them by the door. When I had arrived a few days ago, I hadn’t been able to carry anything. Now my left hand was so much better, I hardly remembered my little finger had been broken, although my right arm was still stiff, and the bandages served to remind me that I couldn’t push myself too far. Jay saw me bring my bags down.

łDo you want to put them in the car? While you’re out there you could move Beth’s car out of the way, it’s in front of the garage.

He tossed me the keys. I took my bags outside and left them by the garage door. I pointed the key at Beth’s car and pressed the button, opened the driver’s door, got in, shut the door and I was spinning, swerving across the road, unable to control the car. I was heading towards the ditch. A man appeared, lit by headlights. I frantically pulled on the steering wheel but he was too close and the car was too out of control. There was a bang, and my airbag inflated, pushing me backwards as the car lurched forwards into the ditch. I couldn’t move. The combination of my seatbelt, the airbag and the angle of the car pinned me to my seat, I couldn’t get out. Then I was spinning, swerving across the road, unable to control the car as it started again, replaying over and over on a loop in my head …

Cal

Uncle Matty was sitting in his chair, rather than his bed, and we heard Dad tell Dec to go and put his bag in Dad’s car, and to move Mum’s car out of the way, and we heard the front door slam as Dec went out.

‘Dohs tha boy ehver shuh a dohr quiehly?’

‘I think he does sometimes.’

‘Not ohften.’

Dad came in after a while.

‘Oh. I thought Dec must be in here. Where is he?’

‘Ouhside. Dihnt yuh fehl the trehmors wehn he shuh the dohr?’

‘But that was ages ago. He was only moving Beth’s car. Oh for God’s sake. He’d better not have bashed it.’

Dad stomped out and we heard the front door shut, almost as loudly as Dec had shut it.

Dec

łDec? What’s going on?

Jay’s voice brought me back to the present. I was gripping the steering wheel, my knuckles white, my breathing rapid and shallow, and I was sweating, trembling, staring straight ahead. Jay put his hand on my arm.

łDec?

I shook my head, trying to get the repeating images out of my mind.

‘Sorry. Fuck. I just had an action replay of crashing my car. Several action replays. Shit. I haven’t driven since. Didn’t think. Fuck.’

łJesus, Dec, how long have you been sat out here? You came out ages ago. You look terrible, you’re shaking. Come back inside, I think you need to calm down.

He took the keys out of my hand. I leaned forwards, resting my head on the steering wheel, eyes closed, trying to push it all down. Jay pulled on my arm.

łCome on, mate. Back inside.

I got out of the car and followed Jay indoors to the living room, where I sat down, leaned forwards and rubbed my face with my hands. Jay sat next to me, concern creasing his brow.

łHas that ever happened before?

‘No.’

łBut you’ve been in a car since, haven’t you? Course you have, I mean, Lis brought you up on Tuesday.

‘Only as a passenger. I think it was trying to drive, set something off. Fuck. That was intense. I couldn’t stop it. Just kept seeing it … feeling it … over and over.’

łHas it stopped now?

‘Yeah, as soon as you opened the door it stopped.’

łHow are you feeling?

‘A bit shaky. I’ll be OK.’

łIf you don’t want to go today, that’s fine.

‘No, no, I think I’ll be OK. You don’t want me to drive do you?’

łFuck no, I’m not letting you behind the wheel of my baby, even if you weren’t a bloody head case. Jesus, Dec, what the fuck’s going on in that tiny mind of yours?

‘I wish I bloody knew.’

łLet me get you a glass of water. If we weren’t about to set off I’d make it something stronger, but it’s not a good idea.

‘Thanks.’

I sat and took more ragged breaths while Jay got the water. The images were slowly fading and the panic was receding. I could hear Jay talking to Beth and Carol in the kitchen. He came back in, Beth in tow.

_Dec, what’s this James has been telling me? Some kind of panic attack?

‘I don’t know what you’d call it. I’m feeling better now, just shook me up a bit.’

łHere’s your water, mate.

‘Thanks.’

_Let me have a look at you.

Cal

The front door opened again after a few minutes, and we heard Dad and Dec go into the living room. Dad was talking like something had happened, and I tried really hard to listen, and Uncle Matty was listening too, but we couldn’t hear. Dad went and got Mum, and I drove one of my cars into the hall so I could hear a bit better.

Dec

Beth felt my forehead and checked my pulse while I gulped from the glass. She looked closely at my face.

_You look pale, your heart’s beating fast and you’re a bit clammy, but I think you’ll live. Has it happened before?

‘No – well, I suppose it feels like when I wake up after one of my dreams.’

_I wonder if it’s some kind of post traumatic thing?

‘Sorry, Beth, I just don’t know. Looks like another thing I need to sort out with Don’s shrink.’

_Poor you, things just pile up don’t they.

‘I’ll be OK. Really. Do we need to get going?’

łYeah. Sure you’re OK?

‘Yeah, sure.’

I breathed in deeply and pushed the panic away.

Cal

I didn’t understand everything they said, but they were talking about Dec’s dreams, and I think they said something about shrinking the postman, but that didn’t make any sense.

I couldn’t work out what had happened, but Dec was saying he was alright now, so it didn’t sound too bad. Maybe he’d banged his head on the garage door, or fallen over and banged his knee. I’d done that, and it had made me cry, but Mum had rubbed it and kissed it better, and after a while it didn’t hurt any more.

I’ll go and move Beth’s car, then. Have you said goodbye to Matty?’

‘No, I’ll go now.’

I ran up the stairs with my car so that Dad and Dec didn’t see I’d been listening, and I played up there for a while, until Mum came up and said it was nearly time to go, and to help me put things in my bag to take with me.

Dec

I crossed the hall into Matt’s room. I was surprised to see him sitting in the chair, iPad on his knee, rather than in bed.

‘Progress?’

}Yeh. Feel prehty good today. Fed up of being in behd. Might goh for a run laher. Or, yuh knoh, evehn walk tuh the lihving rohm on my ohn. Yuh going soon?

‘Yeah, Jay’s just swapping the cars around. Don’t run too far, maybe just 10k first time?’

}Noted, wihs spohts pehson. Yuh OK? Bih of a commohtion jus now.

‘Just more madness going on in my fucked up head. Had a bit of a weird moment in Beth’s car. I’m OK now, just about ready to go.’

I wasn’t sure quite how OK I really was, but the last thing I wanted to do was worry people. I could push it away and forget about it, I was sure.

}Wish I was coming wih yuh.

‘Next time, yeah?’

}Yeh. Ihs a date, Auhnty Dec. Take cahr of yuhsehf. Fucking nutter.

‘You too. Bloody cripple.’

He held his hand out, I clasped it tightly. Fist bumped. Left the room as Jay came in from outside.

łHave you seen Cal? Is he ready?

‘Don’t know, sorry.’

Cal

Mum put chocolate buttons in my bag, and a jumper, and some purple squash, and a hat and gloves because it was cold, and gave me three pound coins just in case. I didn’t know just in case of what, maybe she meant just in case I saw some sweets, and Dad didn’t have his money, and then three pound coins would be really helpful.

I wanted to take lots of dinosaurs with me, so I had something to make a game with in the car, but Mum said there wasn’t room in my bag for lots of dinosaurs. I needed at least four to make the game I’d thought of, but Mum said less than four, and so I chose three, which were my furry stegosaurus, my Lego tyrannosaurus rex and my pterodactyl puppet. They were the three biggest dinosaurs I had. Mum said they were all too big, and to choose smaller ones, because she didn’t know about the game I wanted to play, which needed them all. While Mum was telling me I couldn’t take all of them, Dad called up the stairs, and Mum answered him.

Cal?’

‘Right here, just having a discussion about how many dinosaurs he can take with him.’

One. OK Cal? Come on, let’s get moving.’

Which was really not fair, because Dad knew even less about my game than Mum, but he had his ‘no arguing’ voice on, and so I chose the stegosaurus. I would have to pretend all the other dinosaurs.

Dec

Carol came out of the kitchen.

#Are you off, now?

łSoon as Cal’s ready. OK Dec?

‘Yeah.’

It was all going a bit quickly, but couldn’t be helped.

#Goodbye, Declan, I hope I see you again soon.

‘Thanks Carol, me too.’

I kissed her on the cheek. Beth and Cal came downstairs, Beth carrying a bag and Cal’s coat, Cal carrying a large fluffy stegosaurus and wearing his Arsenal shirt.

łAre we all set? Let’s go, then. See you later Matty. Behave yourself. Sure you and Mum will be OK, Beth? Back about – oh I don’t bloody know. This evening, probably later on. I’ll ring you. OK, Dec? Come on then.

_Hug first. Come here, sweetheart.

Beth wrapped her arms round me and squeezed tightly.

_Oh I’m going to miss you. Ring me lots. Come back as soon as you can. Dec, promise me you’ll talk to us, call us, if you need anything, if anything happens. Call us all the time.

‘Promise.’

She let me go. She had tears in her eyes, so did I.

łOh for fuck’s sake, girls, don’t start each other off again.

_James!

łSorry. Sorry Cal. Right, off we go. Raiders here we come.

Jay, Cal and I got in the car. Beth and Carol waved us off, Beth had tears running down her face, and I had to wipe my eyes several times.

Cal

Mum and Granny waved from the door until we went round the corner and couldn’t see them any more, then Dad turned the radio on, and didn’t say anything about Dec wiping his eyes.

So, according to Rose you think I drive too fast.’

‘True.’

But you kinda like it.’

‘No comment.’

Off we go then!’

Dad did drive really fast, and we had fun singing with some of the songs on the radio – Dec and Dad did silly high shouty voices to the songs, which made me laugh, and we spotted Eddie Stobart lorries, and Dad shouted at other cars to get out of the way, and I didn’t have time to play a dinosaur game, because I fell asleep.

Dec

The time in the car passed really quickly, we sung along, badly, to the radio, helped Cal spot Eddie Stobart lorries, shouted at other drivers to get out of the way. Jay did drive fast, and Cal was asleep by the time we had got half way. As we got closer, I started to feel a return of some of the cloud I had been under for the past few months. It was distant, but it was there.

łYou’ve gone quiet.

‘Just thinking.’

łStop thinking and get singing. I bloody love this song.

He cranked up the stereo and I had no choice. Cal slept on, despite the raucous out of tune noise we were making. We finally pulled up outside the flats. It was about midday, still ages before the game, and I sat for a while, trying to get my thoughts together. Jay looked at me.

Cal

I woke up when the car stopped, but I didn’t open my eyes straight away. Dad and Dec were talking, and I wanted to hear what they were saying. Dad was trying to make Dec get out of the car.

Come on, what are you waiting for?’

‘This is it, back to reality. I’m freaking out a bit.’

Dad took a deep breath.

You know, you can always come back and live with us. We can make room. If all this is too hard, we can work something out.’

I nearly opened my eyes, because this was what I wanted, but Dad had said there wasn’t any room, and that Dec didn’t live with us any more, but now it seemed like there might be a chance … I almost stopped breathing waiting to hear what Dec would say.

‘Really?’

Really. Beth and I talked about asking you.’

Dec

I looked at him. At that moment, thinking about all the hard work, all the people and all the sorting out I was going to have to face, it was very tempting to leave it all behind and start again.

‘But we thought it would be selfish of us to ask – I mean, think about what you’d be letting go. You’ve got a second chance with Raiders, once you recover you’re not far away from the first team. Yeah, it’ll be hard work, and yeah it’s not the easy life. Rugby isn’t. You know that. And I think part of you belongs here, in this city. Think about Rose, too. She’d understand if you moved away, but I think you need her. She gets you, knows how to help you, knows how to make you accept the help.’

I shook my head, to clear it, not to disagree. Everything he said was absolutely right. Much as it would have meant to me to live with them all again, and much as it meant to me that they’d talked about it, and Jay had asked me, it wasn’t right just now, for any of us. Jay and Beth already had enough to cope with looking after Matt, they didn’t need the extra baggage of an unemployed hanger on. Regretfully, I pushed my apprehension aside.

Cal

It sounded like Dad was trying to get Dec to stay with Rose, and not live with us. I didn’t know much about all the reasons; I didn’t understand a lot of it. I just wanted Dec to live with us again.

‘No, you’re right, it’s just nerves. It means a lot to me that you offered, though. Let’s do this.’

Sure?’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s shoulder.

‘Sure.’

Thank fuck for that, no idea where we would have put you. Cubby hole by the washing machine, maybe, or a deck chair in the shed. Come on Cal, time to wake up.’

And that was the end of that.

Dec

Jay got out of the car and opened the back door so he could undo Cal’s seat belt. I got out and opened the boot to get my bag. I picked it up in my left hand, realising again with pleasure that I could carry it in that hand with no problems whatsoever. I waited with Cal while Jay picked up the other bag containing my new laptop and some food and drink Beth had insisted I brought back with me.

I fished the keys out of my pocket and, feeling really weird about it, opened the front door. It felt even more strange to be opening the door to Rose’s flat, as if I’d been away for months.

‘Only me.’

Rose rushed into the hall from the living room. As soon as I saw her, I realised how much I’d missed her, how big a part of my life she had become.

:Oh! You’re here! Let’s have a look at you. By, your face is looking better. You’ve had a haircut! There’s lovely now. Oh, and you’ve brought Jay and Calum with you. Hello young man. Would you like some orange squash?

\can I have purple?

‘I don’t think Rose does purple squash, Cal. Orange is OK isn’t it?

\kay.

:Tea for you two?

‘Great.’

She hurried off to the kitchen. We trooped after her, putting the bags down in the hall. After putting the kettle on and giving Cal his squash, Rose came over to me and gave me an enormous hug. I squeezed back and kissed her on the cheek, realising how much I’d missed her and recognising how much Rose had come to mean to me over the past weeks.

‘Good to see you.’

:You too love, it’s been quiet here without you.

‘You only got back yesterday, didn’t you?’

:Yes, love. Still missed you. I like having someone to make a fuss of.

Cal

Rose gave Dec a very big cuddle, it looked like she was going to squeeze him in half, but she didn’t, and then she went to make my squash. She talked to Dec the whole time, about how much she’d missed him, and because I was still trying to work out what she was to Dec, I just asked.

‘Dec, is Rose your mummy?’

Cal! Sorry, guys.’

I wasn’t sure what Dad was saying sorry for. He put his hand on my shoulder, to stop me saying anything else. I suppose I often got told off for asking things, but Granny always said ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’, although she sometimes told me off for asking things too, like about poo and wee when we were at Pizza Place and my voice was too loud.

Then Dec answered, and I knew I hadn’t said a wrong thing, because he wouldn’t have answered if I had.

‘She’s the nearest I’ve got to a mummy, yeah, Cal.’

I didn’t really know what that meant. Surely someone is either your mummy or they’re not? I tried to get him to explain.

Dec

Rose’s eyes filled up and she turned away to wipe them.

\does she make you tidy your room? And eat peas?

Cal’s definition of motherhood.

‘Well she hasn’t done either of those so far, but there’s plenty of time. Rose has looked after me while I’ve been sad and needed help, and I think she’s pretty great.’

Rose’s sniffles intensified.

Cal

I heard a sniff, and looked at Rose, who had her back to us. She might have been crying. There had been a lot of crying over the last few days, and I was starting to recognise the signs.

Bloody hell, Dec, way to go. Cal, stop asking awkward questions. Drink your squash, maybe Rose has got a biscuit or something?’

I didn’t know why Dad was cross with Dec and me, I’d only asked a question, and Dec had only answered it. But a biscuit sounded like a good idea. Rose got a tin out and opened the lid, then put some chocolate biscuits on a plate. I took one and munched on it while Dec, Rose and Dad talked some more.

Dec

Rose put some biscuits on a plate, turned round and put them on the table by Cal. Her eyes were still red, but there were no more tears.

‘Sorry, Rose, I didn’t mean to upset you.’

:Not upset, love, just emotional. Take no notice.

łDec’s done his fair share of blubbing over the last few days. Had to have serious words with him about it. Him and my brother make a right pair, anything sets them off.

:Did you have a good time, love?

‘Yeah, I had a great time. Just what I needed.’

łJust what we needed too. Like the old days. It was good to have him back, and he was a great help with Cal. Beyond the call of duty at times.

:Sounds grand, love. Did you sort things out between you?

łYeah, we had words, didn’t we Dec. All sorted now. Dec’s part of my family, end of, in a nutshell. Oh, and sort yourself out, you bloody headcase. I think he gets it.

‘I get it.’

:Oh that’s grand, just grand. Remember how heartbroken you were, love, all those weeks ago, when you thought you’d lost them. You’d never have believed you’d be standing here telling me about your Christmas with them, would you? You never know what’s round the corner.

\rose can I have another biscuit?

:Of course, love. Are you stopping for some lunch?

‘Hadn’t thought about lunch, but yeah, that would be great, then we can get over to the club?’

I looked at Jay for approval. He nodded. Rose had obviously given lunch some thought, although she tried to make it seem casual.

:I’ve got some cold bits and pieces in the fridge, wasn’t quite sure what Calum would like, so I made some cheesy dinosaur biscuits and some dip.

She started to take things out of the fridge, and the table was soon covered in plates of meat, bowls of crisps, bread, dip, cheese, olives.

łBloody hell, Rose, this is a feast. What if we’d already eaten?

‘Rose would have made us eat it anyway. Nothing goes to waste!’

\daddy can I have a grape?

łThere aren’t any grapes, mate – oh, you mean an olive. Well, you can, but they taste very different.

Cal took a bite, and the look on his face was priceless. He chewed on, knowing he wasn’t allowed to spit it out. Jay and I laughed.

:You rotters. Poor Calum, have some more juice, love, get the taste out of your mouth.

Cal

Rose asked Dec about Christmas, and rather than saying what presents he’d got, Dec and Dad said about how they’d had a talk, and how Dec was in our family now. I wondered if that would upset Rose, as she was nearly Dec’s mummy, but it made her smile.

Then Rose asked if we were going to stay for lunch, and we did, and Rose had made me some biscuits made of cheese that looked like dinosaurs, and a bowl of stuff to dip them in, and they were very delicious, and I ate them all, but I also had a green round thing that looked like a grape, but tasted very not like a grape, and I nearly spat it out, but Dad would really have been cross, so I ate it all. It made Dec and Dad laugh, but Rose felt sorry for me and made me more squash, and gave me a chocolate biscuit when Dad wasn’t looking. I liked Rose.

Dec

We finished lunch and headed off. Jay said he wanted to swing by the old house, which was being rented out. I hadn’t realised their new house was also rented.

łWe weren’t sure what our plans were – a lot depends on Matty – it seemed like the easiest way to keep our options open. I’m just going to sort a couple of things out with the tenants. You OK staying with Cal in the car?

\i want to go with you, Daddy.

łNo, Cal, stay here with Dec. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.

Cal

It was still Mum and Dad’s house, and I didn’t really understand that, or why we couldn’t come back and live in it, but Dad had to go and talk to the people who lived there now, while Dec and I waited in the car.

I had lots of questions for Dec while we waited. The house looked the same but different: the grass looked long at the front, there was a car I didn’t know on the drive, there was a Christmas tree in the window with flashing lights, and there were toys and a bike on the grass. I hadn’t thought about our house since we went to live with Granny and then in our new house, but now I thought about all the things that were in this house when I lived there, and I wondered if they were still there, if my pictures were still on the fridge and Dad’s trophies were still in the living room.

‘Whose bike is that?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, maybe another little boy lives here now.

I couldn’t imagine another little boy sleeping in my bedroom, shutting my Ben10 curtains at night and being scared of the shadow the crack in the door made at night if it was left too wide open.

‘Which little boy?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, sorry. Ask your dad when he comes back.’

‘When am I going to live here again?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, ask your dad.’

Dec wasn’t being any help. He was saying ‘I don’t know’ to everything.

‘When are you going to live with us?’

‘Don’t kn … oh mate, no Cal, you live in Stafford now. I live down here. I’m not going to be living with you.’

I knew this was the answer, but I wanted to keep checking, because it just didn’t make sense. If I kept asking, I hoped that maybe someone would say ‘oh this is silly, Dec should be living with you, shouldn’t he’. Dec didn’t say that, so I tried to nudge him there.

Can you come and live with us?’

Dec

This was really hard. Cal saw things in such simple terms, and my situation felt so complicated, it was like negotiating a minefield trying to decide what to tell him and what not to.

‘I wish I could live a bit closer to you, but my job is down here, I have to live here so I can do my job.’

Cal

Well that was easy to change.

‘But Daddy got a new job, you can get a new job.’

‘No, Cal, it’s not as easy as that. I have to stay here. But I’ll come and see you as often as I can, and you can all come and see me.’

The more Dec said it, the more I was realising that it was true, that Dec wasn’t going to be living with us again. Maybe Dad and Dec weren’t the right people to talk to. I would ask Mum when I got back. She’d cried when Dec left this morning, so she must want him to live with us. But if Dec wasn’t going to live with us, and he didn’t live here in our old house, I wasn’t quite sure where he did live.

‘Where is your house?’

‘Well, you know Rose, where we just had lunch? My flat is upstairs, just above her flat.’

That made sense. I could see Dec living near Rose, so she could tell him to pick his pants up and when to go to bed.

‘Can I see your house?’

‘Maybe another day. We’re going to Raiders Stadium when Daddy’s finished here, to watch the rugby.’

I’d almost forgotten the reason for our trip. I’d never seen rugby, or football, that wasn’t on TV, and I wondered if I might be able to have a bit of both.

‘Are Arsenal playing?’

‘No, Cal, you know Arsenal play football. This is Raiders, my rugby team, and Daddy’s old team.’

‘Are you playing?’

‘No, I can’t play with my hurt arm. Nico’s playing, though, so you can cheer for him.’

‘Is Daddy playing?’

‘No, Daddy doesn’t play any more You, me and Daddy are all going to watch it together. We might see Lis there too, she’s going to watch Nico.’

This was all very confusing. I decided to just wait and see what happened when we got there, and for now, there was something else I could ask.

‘Can I have some chocolate?’

‘I think your mum put some in your bag. Wait till your dad gets back, though. He won’t be long.’

‘But I’m hungry.’

‘You can’t be hungry, you just ate a whole plate of cheesy dinosaur biscuits at Rose’s. You didn’t even let me have one, and they looked well tasty.’

Dec pretended to look sad, but I had seen him and Dad eat lots of other things, so I knew he wasn’t hungry. Luckily, I also had an answer for him.

‘I’m hungry for chocolate.’

‘You’re still going to have to wait.’

Although it didn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.

‘Ohh but how long is Daddy going to be?’

Maybe using whine-mode might work better.

‘I don’t know. Let’s play I-Spy shall we?’

I-Spy is a really boring game when you’re sitting in a car that isn’t moving outside a house, where all you can see is other houses. I played for two goes, and then I thought of another question.

‘Dec, for my next birthday, can you go to Dinosaurland with me?’

‘I think that’s a great idea, Cal, but it depends on lots of things.’

This was a bit less enthusiastic than I’d been hoping for.

‘What things?’

‘Well, things like whether you can get here, what I’m doing, what you’re doing – it’s nearly a year till your next birthday.’

A year was forever. And Dec sounded like he was making grown-up excuses not to come to Dinosaurland, so our plan was never going to happen.

Dec

I saw the disappointment on his face, remembered how much I’d let him down about his last birthday, and thought of a way to make it right.

‘I’m sure we’ll be able to sort something out though. Even if it’s not on your birthday, maybe near to it. We’ll talk to your mum and dad, yeah? Make some plans.’

\can we ask Daddy now?

Cal

This sounded more promising, and if I could get Dec to agree and tell Dad, then there was no getting out of it. Dad was walking up the drive, so I needed Dec to be quick.

‘Maybe wait a bit, I’ll give them a ring later.’

I didn’t understand that. Why not say yes now? Dad got in the car, and I decided to take my chance.

Everything OK in here?’

‘I’m going to Dinosaurland with Dec for my birthday.’

Oh really, you’ve been busy plotting while I’ve been out have you?’

‘Just a suggestion from Cal. I said we’d have to think about it. There’s plenty of time.’

Sounds good to me. Dinosaurland’s a lot of fun, eh Cal?’

I was delighted. Dad had said yes, so it was going to happen.

‘See, Dec, Daddy said yes.’

‘Hm, I’m not sure that’s exactly what he said.’

Dec still wasn’t saying we could. It was very annoying.

Why the hell not? Like you say, there’s plenty of time to sort it. Maybe not actually on your birthday, Cal, it might not be possible, but close to it. OK?’

Dec

Cal looked at me triumphantly, and decided to push his luck.

\daddy can Dec live with us? He can sleep under me.

It occurred to me that Cal had been really young when I moved in with them. I didn’t even know if he could remember a time, before recently, when I hadn’t been there, and these last few months must have been tough for him to get his head around.

‘Cal, we just talked about this. I’ve got to stay here and get better and play rugby.’

łYeah, and you know how messy Dec is. You’d lose all your Lego under piles of his dirty socks if he shared your room. I know you’ve liked having him around again, haven’t you. We’ll just have to get him back up for lots of visits, won’t we.

Cal

No, that wasn’t the same. I didn’t mind about Dec’s socks, even though they were very smelly. It just had to go back the way it used to be. I still didn’t understand why it couldn’t.

‘But Mummy said you aren’t cross with Dec any more and he’s been sad and needs us to give him loves to make him better, like Uncle Matty does. Why can’t he get better with us like Uncle Matty?’

Dec

I gasped at Cal’s matter-of-factness. Jay ran a hand through his hair and looked over at me with a sigh.

Cal

Dad pushed his hands through his hair, like he did when he was thinking. For a minute, I thought he was going to say OK, like with my birthday plan, but then I realised he was thinking about a way to say no.

‘Well, Cal, we’ve all missed Dec, and it’s been great having him with us for Christmas, hasn’t it. And yeah, Uncle Matty needs Mummy and me to look after him, but Dec needs people down here to make sure he gets better, people like the doctors at Raiders, and Rose, and Nico. Mummy and me couldn’t do it the same, and it’s too far away from where Dec plays rugby. Dec knows we don’t have to be near him to love him. Tell you what, though, it’s Dec’s birthday in a few weeks, why don’t we ask him if he wants to come back for a family party?’

I had to admit defeat. If Dec needed to be here to get better, and we had to be there to help Uncle Matty get better, I suppose there was nothing we could do. Maybe Dec coming back to see us on his birthday, when we could have fun and football and pizza, would be something to look forward to.

‘Dec, can you?’

‘That sounds great, mate. Maybe you can take me for an Ice Cream Factory? And I can stay in the bottom bunk again?’

Dec sounded excited about it, so maybe it was a good idea after all. And we could do a birthday plan for Dec, like we had a birthday plan for me, only this one would work.

‘Kay. Daddy, I think Dec will like to see the zoo and have Smarties on his birthday too.’

We’ll make some plans with Mummy, shall we? She loves a party. Sounds like you’ve got some great ideas already. Right. That’s the partying sorted. Let’s go watch some rugby.’