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.
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.’
Matt never volunteered to talk, he always needed to be cajoled or tricked into it.
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.
‘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.
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 love it.’
‘I love you.’
‘You’re a bit of a know-all.’
‘I think I just saw Dec walk past with the kids.’
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.
‘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.’
‘Picture of a camera with a circular arrow in ih. Press it.’
The image changed, and we saw Dec sitting with his family.
‘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.
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.
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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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’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.’
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.’
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?’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
‘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.
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.
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.