That was it. Over. I’d said what I wanted to say, and got through it without stopping, and by not looking at anyone, I’d managed to finish reading the letter without crying myself. I’d had plenty of tears when I was writing it, had cried in Amy’s arms a few times when writing to them had made it feel like they were still alive, but this felt like a closing of sorts, and I was able to keep a grip on myself. I looked up and saw Rose and Beth wiping their eyes. I started to roll the letter and pictures up, to put them in the bottle.
_Wait a minute, Dec. Sweetheart, that was really, really lovely. I’m so proud of you. I hope you don’t mind, we’ve all got some things, a few words we’d like to go in the bottle too.
‘But … how did you know –’
)Sorry, hon. I told them you changed your mind. I wanted to do something, and I thought it might be nice if everyone did. I hope that’s OK.
‘Of course, babe. What have you done, though? There’s not much room in here.’
I held up the wine bottle I’d brought with me.
:It’s just a few words from each of us, love. Not much. We want to tell your mam and dad what you’re like, what we think of you. It won’t take up much room.
My family never ceased to amaze me. It was perfect.
‘Fuck, I can’t believe you guys, that’s a bloody awesome thing to do.’
)Shall I start?
I nodded, put my arm round Amy’s shoulders as she read from her piece of paper.
)Dec is everything to me. He is the most caring man you could wish for. He would walk to the other side of the world and back if I asked him to, he’d do anything for anyone. He’s going to be the father of your grandchild, and he’s going to be amazing. He gets up every morning to hold my hair when I’m being sick, and he sometimes doesn’t even grumble when I ask him for breakfast in bed. Dec isn’t the most practical person, and if we need anything doing we usually have to get a man in. Or Matt. But he has so much love, and is so generous with his time. He often helps Carol in her garden, he’s always at the club coaching the under elevens or publicising some charity event or something and he always has time to stop and chat to anyone – Raiders supporters, shop assistants, neighbours, anyone. Dec has really missed having you around, and I think he’ll always be sad you’re gone, but he’s got a great family who love him to bits and try to keep him sane. Having our baby is going to be the most exciting thing we’ve ever done, and I know he wishes you were here for it. Thank you for making him what he is today, for giving him to us.
Amy looked up at me and I bent down and kissed her, my heart overflowing.
‘Awesome, babe. I love you. Will you marry me?’
)Course, hon. Always. You OK?
‘Yeah, I should be blubbing, shouldn’t I, but it’s just not there. I’m OK.’
Amy gave me the piece of paper and I rolled it up with the others.
_Me next. I’ve tried to keep it short, but there was such a lot James and I wanted to say.
I held my other arm out and pulled Beth in close.
_OK, sweetheart. Here goes then.
She started reading.
_Dec was a very angry young man when he came to us. He made out he was a bit of a bad lad, but I was pretty sure I could see the real Dec underneath the attitude and the bad language. James took a bit of convincing, but with love and patience Dec stopped hiding behind his behaviour, and we saw the boy who’s turned into the lovely man he is now. You’d both be so proud of him. He’s loving, caring, loyal, he loves our two children so much, and they adore him. He’s so much a part of our family we can’t imagine it without him. Dec doesn’t talk much about you, it makes him too sad, but when he does it sounds like he had a very happy childhood. We can’t replace you, but we can love him enough that maybe it doesn’t hurt him quite so much all the time. We did have a bit of a hard time a few years ago, when things went a bit wrong for all of us, but we came through it, one way and another, and I think it made us all stronger, helped us realise what really mattered to us – things like acceptance, openness, being together, love and family. Now Dec’s going to be a father, James and I have realised how much he’s grown up, and how privileged we’ve been to be a part of his life. He’s going to be a great dad, he’s so good with Cal and Iz, he always knew just how to be with Cal, even when he first arrived as a stroppy sixteen year old, and every other word was a swear word. Now it’s just every word in three, so he’s made some progress. I’m so sorry I never met you, I would have loved to have known Dec’s mum and dad, to have found out what he was like when he was Charlie. I think you’d be very pleased with how … he’s … turned –
Beth lowered her bit of paper. Her bottom lip was trembling and some tears had run down her cheeks. It looked like there was a bit more written on the page, but she was choked up, and couldn’t read any further. I took it from her and put it with the rest, then and wrapped her up in a hug.
‘Thanks Beth. You’re fucking amazing.’
She wiped her eyes.
_Sorry, I couldn’t quite finish. There wasn’t much more, I was waffling anyway.
‘It was perfect. Can I put the cork in now?’
:Not yet love, you’ve got to listen to me yapping on now. Don’t worry, it’s not long, I’m not a great writer, or speaker.
‘Rose, you could talk the hind legs off a herd of donkeys and you’d still not be finished.’
:Yes, love but not speeches and stuff. Anyway, this isn’t a speech, it’s just telling your mam and dad some things. Hope that’s alright.
‘Come here, then.’
Amy and Beth stepped back and I put my arm round Rose. She put her glasses on and took out a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. She fiddled with it nervously, clearing her throat.
‘Rose, it’s only me.’
:No it’s not, love, it’s your mam and dad as well. They’re a lot to live up to. I just want to say it right.
‘Whatever you say will be right. It always is. They’d love you. I love you. You’re great.’
:Thanks love. You know I think the world of you, don’t you.
Rose squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and started reading.
:Declan often says I’m like a mum to him. He agreed once to let me mother him, and I’ve held him to it all this time. I’ll carry on as long as he wants it, too. But I’ll never be his Mum, and that’s the thing I find really hard, that he hasn’t got you both. By, he’s a grand young man. I can’t take your place, I wouldn’t want to, but I’m very glad I’m here in mine watching him grow up. He’s a credit to you. He’s found it hard without you, but he’s resourceful and strong, and he’s made his own way. The family he’s found, all of us, well it’s not traditional or conventional, but it’s full of love and laughter and that’s the most important thing. You don’t need to worry about him, he’ll be alright. That’s all, love.
Rose took her glasses off and looked up at me. I bent down and kissed her on the cheek, pulled her in for one of her enormous hugs. Took her piece of paper from her and started to put the top on the bottle.
}Er, what about me?
I looked up at Matt, surprised.
‘You only decided you were coming this morning, you – oh, you’re taking the piss.’
He looked a bit hurt.
}No, although you’re right, I haven’t had time to prepare anything along the lines of the three muses here. Anyway, it’s only something little, and I’m not speechifying it, but this is from the first time I watched you play, a few months ago. I just wrote something on the back. It should fit in the bottle.
He held out a match ticket, from the game I had persuaded Cal to ask him to go to. I turned it over. On the back, he had written I don’t know much about rugby, but if Declan Summers is half as good a player as he is a friend, he’s fucking awesome and destined for greatness. I was really touched. This whole thing wasn’t something Matt would have felt very comfortable about, and he could easily have avoided it, or done or said something light-hearted to take the emotion out of it. Usually, a bit of banter would have occurred, but I recognised this was a serious gesture.
‘Thanks, Matt. It means a lot that you did this.’
He nodded. I put the ticket in the bottle and pushed the cork into the top. Then I wrapped some tape round it. It didn’t really matter if it was absolutely waterproof; it was never going to reach its destination, I just didn’t want it to sink while I was still watching it. I held the bottle for a while, still trying to conjure up some kind of feeling. Maybe Beth was right, and I would feel what I was trying to feel later, when I’d sorted through it in my mind. Holding onto a bottle wasn’t going to make anything happen.
I drew my arm back and threw the bottle, as hard as I could, out into the sea. I was pretty good at throwing things, and it went a long way; we watched it bobbing for quite a while, as the tide took it further and further out. Amy and Rose had their arms round me, Matt had his arm over Beth’s shoulder. I wasn’t sure how long to stand watching a bottle getting smaller and smaller on the outgoing tide, but I knew nobody was going to suggest leaving until I made the first move.
It went much as expected, really. We all wandered aimlessly with him for most of the day, trying to help him do his anniversary thing in whatever way he saw fit, but it had all been pretty low-key, he’d seemed fairly upbeat about the whole thing, apart from a couple of times when he got a bit wobbly, and I stepped in with my metaphorical jester’s hat on and eased the tension as was my role. He even did this, like, thousand page long speech on the beach, his accent getting thicker and more Australian as he read it, and he got through sentimental addresses from Amy, Beth and Rose without any kind of emotional outpouring. It’s not that he didn’t want to get emotional, I think he kind of did in a way, but whatever it was he was expecting, he didn’t quite get there.
And then yours truly, theoretically the class comedian, well I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. Maybe it had all got to me more than I’d realised, but we were all just standing watching his message in a bottle float out to sea, and I was re-running the day in my mind, in some kind of speeded up action replay, and I just had this image, which almost made me laugh, of Dec dashing around this town he used to live in, chasing after shadows and peering in corners, like he was trying to find something. I wondered if he knew he’d been looking for his mum and dad, and then the image changed into something even more potentially amusing, of Dec running about looking for the thing that had never left him, that he always carried with him, kind of like when someone’s looking for their glasses when they’re on their head all the time.
Obviously, it wasn’t really amusing, it was quite poignant, but it was the image that amused me, not the reality. But anyway, I just said it, without thinking.
‘Hey, you know what’s just occurred to me, Dec.’
‘No. Do tell.’
He probably thought I was going to say ‘the pubs open in half an hour’ or some such shit.
‘Well, I’ve watched you today tramping here and there, looking for I don’t know what, memories or feelings or something, and getting all frustrated because it’s not happening. What’s just occurred to me is that you’ve been looking for your mum and dad. You left them behind, in a way, when you moved to the city, and maybe part of you thought they’d be here when you came back, and you’d find them again, somehow. You’ve been looking in the wrong place. They’re not here –’
I gestured to the beach in front of us and the town behind us.
‘– or here –’
I pointed to the tattoo on his forearm, now a fairly tasteful swirl of roses and calligraphy.
‘– they’re here.’
He walked up to me and put his hand on my chest, over my heart. I stared at him, and as the truth sunk in, I felt it shockwave through me. When my legs buckled, Matt tried to catch me, but I collapsed to my knees as the memories, the sadness, the grief, the sorrow, the pain, the anger, came boiling up from the place I’d buried it all.
I don’t know what I’d expected, maybe a nod as he thought about it, a word or two of agreement. What I did not fucking well expect was for the most anguished expression I have ever seen to come over his face, as he dropped to the ground, on his knees. I tried to catch him, but he was sixteen stone of rugby player, and there was no way I could hold him. And the noises that started coming out of him – wails, moans, incoherent shouts. I was bloody terrified.
It swept over me and I knelt on the beach and sobbed and howled and raged. I couldn’t keep it buried any more, I had to let the hurt out, noisily and painfully, as memories crashed over me and feelings rampaged through me. I cried because they were dead. I cried because they’d left me. I cried for the good times I’d lost and the hard times I’d found. I cried because they were never coming back. I cried because they’d never know me or Amy or our baby. I cried for it all, everything that had been and everything that would never be and everything that should have been and everything that shouldn’t have been. I threw handfuls of sand at the sea. I pulled my hair. I shouted and screamed. But mostly I cried. I don’t know how long I knelt there, feeling it all, remembering it all, crying it all, because I’d never really cried about it before and there was a lot of crying to be done.
Dec was just beside himself, I don’t think he knew what he was doing. He hurled sand around, he wailed, he pulled his hair, he shouted, he cried and cried, tears and snot pouring out of him at the same time as all the noise, and it just went on and on. I looked helplessly at Rose, Beth and Amy, hoping for some guidance, but they were all looking as shocked as I felt.
Rose recovered first, and got on her knees beside him, putting her arms round him. I stood rooted to the spot, looking on, horrified.
‘Just hold him. He needs to know we’re here.’
Rose seemed sure, but I didn’t think any amount of cuddling was going to help him out of this, and I got my phone out in case we needed to call someone … well, who I had not a clue, but it felt way beyond me, and I wanted to hand it over to someone else.
Amy and Beth had followed Rose onto their knees on the sand, and after a while, feeling foolish, I joined them, making a circle round Dec, holding his shoulders, saying reassuring things. It seemed to last for hours, but it eventually started to calm down; it wasn’t hours, but it was a bloody long time, and then, finally, to my overwhelming relief, he stopped, and flopped forwards, head on his knees, panting and sniffing, the occasional shudder.
They all held me, even Matt. None of them tried to stop it. After a long, long time, I felt it recede, felt cleaned and emptied by it. I was exhausted, could hardly lift my head up, and I knelt on the sand trying to get my breath back. I felt Amy’s hand on the back of my neck, stroking my hair; I looked up into her eyes, which were filled with tears as she rested her forehead on mine.
)It’s OK, Dec. We’re all here. Take your time, hon.
I closed my eyes and took several deep, ragged, snotty breaths.
‘Did someone say something about man-size tissues?’
Yes, that would be me, as a joke, back when we were having a laugh at lunchtime, and nobody was going all mental patient all over the place.
‘Well I did, but I actually was taking the piss that time.’
‘Here you are, love.’
Rose could always be relied on to have a tissue. Dec blew his nose, wiped his eyes and sniffed a bit. I was still reeling from the disaster zone I seemed to have caused.
‘Fucking hell, Dec, I’m sorry. If I’d thought you were going to –’
‘It’s OK. I needed it. That was ten years worth of bottled up shit. Sorry it was a bit explosive. Fuck. Did I scare the seagulls?’
After all that, he was worried about the effect he’d had on the wildlife?
‘Sod the fucking seagulls, you scared the living shit out of me.’
I was seriously shaken up, that was my best mate, who for a bloody long time, I’d thought was going to be seeing out the end of the day in a straight-jacket.
Matt did look a bit shaken. Thinking back, although we’d both helped each other through some difficult times, and there had been tears on both sides, this was in a different league from anything Matt had ever witnessed.
‘Sorry. Call it blub club plus, or something.’
I sat down on the sand next to him, needing to tell him how scared I’d been, but unwilling to upset him any further.
‘Fuck, Dec, that was extreme. I thought you were going to stop breathing, or hurt yourself or something. Are you OK now?’
I nodded. I felt as if something that had kept me tied up had been cut away, and now I was free. It was what I’d been looking for, expecting to find, ever since we arrived here this morning.
‘Thanks for being here.’
I nodded back, but felt tears pricking at the corners of my eyes, whether of relief or concern I was not in a position to tell, so I got up and started to walk down the beach before anyone noticed.
Matt nodded in turn, got up and started to walk down the beach. He looked like he was wiping his eyes as he went. I put both my arms round Amy, held her close and stared out at the sea. The bottle had disappeared, floating too far away to be able to see. Behind me, I became aware of more sniffing. Beth was being comforted by Rose, trying to muffle it and not succeeding. They were having a muted conversation in between the sniffles.
_… I just never realised there was so much pain and hurt there, all this time.
:It’s always been there, love. He’s hidden it away. I’ve seen bits of it before, not quite like this though.
Beth looked up, saw me watching her. She wiped her eyes.
_Oh Dec, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It just took me by surprise, that’s all. Rose did say something like this might happen, but we’d been everywhere today, and did all the words, and I didn’t think it was going to. I just got upset, seeing you like that.
I stood up, and she came over and kissed my cheek.
_Are you alright?
‘You know what, I think I am. I think I’ve been carrying all that shit around with me for ten years and it’s about fucking time I got rid of it. It feels like it’s been getting harder and harder to keep it all down there, not all of it will always go away when I try to make it. Now it’s out and gone, and I don’t have to worry about hiding it any more. Sorry if it was a bit dramatic.’
_Oh, Dec, sweetheart, well I won’t say it wasn’t dramatic, but please don’t apologise. Whatever you need, you know we’re here. Where’s Matty going?
‘I think I freaked him out a bit. He’s just getting himself together. He was supposed to be the comic relief, not the best supporting actor.’
Beth looked thoughtful, then headed off after Matt.
I hadn’t got far, and hadn’t finished wiping my eyes, when Beth caught up with me.
I didn’t wait. The last thing I wanted was Beth trying to get to the bottom of things with me.
She took my arm and pulled me back, making me slow down to match her stride.
‘Well that was a bit of an event, wasn’t it.’
‘Are you alright, Matty?’
‘Not really. Are you?’
I thought if I could turn it round on her, it might focus things away from the bloody traitorous leakage running down my face.
‘No. I didn’t expect anything that powerful. I was a bit scared.’
I don’t think I’d ever known Beth to be anything other than completely in control of things, and I admired her ability to just say how she was feeling. How different my life would be if I could a) realise how I was feeling and b) say it.
‘Where did it all come from?’
‘Oh Matty, this has will have been building up for years. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that set it all off.’
‘And sometimes it’s the stupidest. What the fuck was I thinking?’
‘You can’t blame yourself, sweetheart. It could have been anything any one of us said or did.’
‘Nice try, but I’m pretty sure I was the one who started it all.’
‘It wasn’t your fault. I think it will have helped him.’
‘Yeah, well, we’ll see. I thought he’d sorted all his shit out with his shrink.’
‘I know seeing Adam has really helped him, but that doesn’t mean he’s sorted through all his troubles. He’s made loads of progress, but sometimes you store things up without realising. You know he never talks about his parents. Maybe he never lets himself think about them, either. All of that, back there, could be a culmination of the last ten years, and a full on day of thinking about them, remembering them, talking about them. Think of yourself as the last straw, not the only straw.’
As we walked, I looked out to sea, not at Beth. She always talked sense, really, much as I moaned about her meddling ways, but although I’d been worried about having been the one who caused it all for Dec, there were now other misgivings tapping at my consciousness. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about them, and didn’t speak for a while, as we walked along the shoreline.
‘Matty, talk to me. What’s bothering you?’
How did she always know? It was like she had a sixth sense when you wanted to keep something from her. I didn’t want to do this right now.
‘Piss off, Beth, sometimes people just want to be alone with their thoughts.’
‘I know, sweetheart, but when you’ve just seen your friend very distressed, and been very worried about him, maybe being alone with any thoughts that might have been thrown your way isn’t the best thing.’
‘Do you ever stop fussing over people?’
She sighed. ‘No, I suppose I don’t. And I’m not going to stop now. Please tell me, Matty. I’d like to help if I can.’
‘Seriously, Beth, just piss off. I’m quite capable of walking up the fucking beach on my own, I don’t need you to fucking babysit my every move.’
It was the tone of voice that usually worked, if the ‘fuck’s didn’t. Beth was pretty persistent, but hated being told to piss off, and usually called the cavalry, i.e. Dec, when I came on too strong with her. If I went on long enough with it, she’d give up, I was sure.
‘You know what, Matty, I think I won’t this time. What’s going to happen if you get back to Dec and you’re still being like this? He’ll know, and then he’ll spend all night trying to drag it out of you, won’t he. And that’s not fair on him, not today. So just get over yourself, tell me about it, let me help you sort it out, and we can go back and convince Dec that everything’s OK.’
Oh bollocks, she had a point. Dec was almost as good as Beth at knowing when I needed to talk, and both of them were better at knowing it than me. Sighing to myself, realising I may as well give it up willingly, rather than walk all the way along the coast to avoid it, I tried to explain.
‘It’s just bloody terrifying, the thought of how much shit we’ve all got lurking in us, waiting to burst its way out like that. I don’t think I could handle it if it happened to me. I don’t know how he’s handled it, how he’s not foaming at the mouth in the back of the little white van or some such bollocks.’
‘Oh Matty, you and Dec are so different, you’ve had such different experiences, just because he’s reacted like this doesn’t mean you will. Losing his parents like he did, when he did, we can never really understand what that’s like.’
‘Maybe, but I’ve got a fair amount of unsorted crap of my own that I’d rather not think about.’
‘If you talked about things a bit more, sweetheart …’
‘Yeah, well, that’s the thing, though, isn’t it. I don’t do talking, I do this, don’t I.’
I waved my hand vaguely in the direction of the rest of the way down the beach.
‘I’m not going to change any time soon.’
‘Oh Matty, if you’d –’
‘No, Beth. You wanted me to tell you what I was thinking. I’ve told you. Now can we go back? Fuck, we’ve walked miles.’
I turned round and looked back along the sand. I couldn’t see Dec, Amy or Rose, but they would have been small dots by now.
I stood and watched as she caught him up, taking his arm and walking further up the beach. I wasn’t sure what I’d missed; my head was still in a whirl, I wasn’t really thinking clearly. Amy followed my gaze.
)What are you thinking?
‘Nothing coherent. Still a bit wobbly. Come here.’
I pulled her into my arms, kissed her and folded her into a hug.
‘You have been amazing. How are you doing, babe? Knackered yet?’
)Not yet, but it won’t be long. There are plenty of places to sit down, I’m completely fine.
‘We should go as soon as Matt and Beth get back. Jay won’t last much longer on his own with Iz once Cal’s home from school. Rose, how are you doing? Cup of tea before we go?’
:What everyone else wants to do is fine, don’t worry about me, love.
‘How about we go back and wait in the café? Two birds, one cup of tea.’
)Good plan. I’ll text Beth and let her know.
We strolled back down the beach towards the café, arm in arm. We didn’t talk much. I tried to work out how I was feeling, how things had just changed for me. I had spent the last ten years trying to avoid feeling what I had just felt very publicly, and now everything was out there, I felt a bit light-headed, almost as if I was floating. I was dehydrated from all the crying, and my throat was sore, my voice croaky.
One of the biggest things had been what Matt had said. I could now think of Mum and Dad not as burdens of sadness to keep hidden, but as thirteen years of my life that weighed very little and that I wore with me, in my heart. I was no longer scared of what accessing the memories and emotions associated with those thirteen years would do to me; I had faced it, and rid myself of a lot of baggage. I would still be sad when I thought about them and talked about them, but I was pretty sure I would be able to do it much more easily now.
We reached the café and ordered tea for Rose. Amy had water, and put her feet up on the bench seat, resting her back against my arm and her head against the back of the seat. She looked like she might fall asleep soon. I had a sudden urge for a coke float, which used to be my favourite thing on a Saturday morning, gathered here with Billy, Jase, and Will. The drinks arrived, and Rose poured out her tea.
:Don’t know how you can drink that, love, so much sugar, it looks revolting.
‘It is pretty sweet and sickly. It’s nostalgia, really. Special treat on a Saturday morning.’
I sucked a bit through the straw, pulled a face.
‘No, it’s not the same. I don’t think I’ve got such a sweet tooth as I used to have.’
:I can get another cup, you can share my tea if you like.
‘I couldn’t possibly deprive you, but thanks for the offer. I’ll grab some of Amy’s water in a bit. She’s nearly asleep, look.’
) … no I’m not. Just resting my eyes.
:You have a snooze, love, it’s been a long day.
)Mm. Might do. Carry me to the car, later, hon.
‘OK, babe. Whatever you say.’
I reached round and put my hand on her stomach, kissing her behind her ear.
‘How’s the bubster doing?’
:How are you doing, Declan love?
‘OK. I feel, well, apart from feeling a bit foolish and hoping not too many people were out there to see me, it feels like a good thing in a way. I didn’t realise all that was in there. I’ve been feeling a bit, like there’s something bubbling under, for a while. I could keep a lid on it, but only just, and it was making me a bit edgy. I think the lid’s blown off now, but it took a lot of crap with it. Back to manageable levels.’
:Well, good. That’s good. You gave us all a bit of a turn out there, though, love. Last time I saw you like that, remember when your team lost all those points and you poured your heart out onto my kitchen table, while me and Nico looked at each other and wondered what on earth we were going to do. This was worse, though, I … I wondered if you were going to be alright when you stopped. There was so much hurt on your face, old pain. Sometimes it’s hard to get back from those old places.
I looked at the worry on Rose’s face. I wanted to reassure her.
‘I was always going to be alright, Rose, the same way and for the same reason I was always going to be alright that time with you and Nico. Because I had people with me who cared enough about me to hold on to me. As long as I have all of you, I’ll always be alright. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but that’s the truth. If we look after each other, we can make sure we’ll all always be alright.’
Rose took my hand and squeezed it. Then her knack for changing the subject at just the right moment kicked in.
:Oh, I meant to tell you, Bron and Gethin are coming down next weekend. Gethin’s got a new girlfriend, Bron wants me to check her out.
‘Where are they all going to sleep?’
:Oh, they’ll get a B&B or something. Bron’ll stay with me, I expect.
‘I know someone who might put them up …’
‘Where are they?’
‘Amy just texted. She said they’ve gone to wait in the café. I think we should go back, and you should tell Dec why you were upset, and let him know you’re OK.’
‘You appear to be the boss.’
‘Don’t be like that, Matty, you know I’m right. Dec doesn’t need to be up all night holding you together.’
‘I suppose not.’
‘You know if you ever need someone to offload to –’
‘Yeah, you’ll be the first interfering busybody I call. Enough now.’
I started walking back along the beach, a bit faster than Beth could manage without trotting to keep up. It meant she didn’t have enough breath to badger me, and I was silent until we reached the café.
We carried on chatting until Matt and Beth arrived. Matt looked a bit wild-eyed and wary, like he did when something was up that he didn’t know how to talk about. Beth held my gaze and raised her eyebrows at me. They sat down at the table, squeezing next to Rose, as Amy was still asleep with her legs stretched out.
}It’s a lovely location. Ten out of ten for childhood reminiscence spots.
}Oh alright. Dec, Beth says I should tell you, so you don’t have to drag it out of me later. Told her to piss off, but for once she stood firm. Not a big deal really. Any other day and I might have put up more of a fight, but you get special dispensation today.
_Matty. Just say it.
}OK. Well, first, before I do, I just want to check how you are. Are you still a bloody hysterical blart bomb likely to explode with salt water, snot, showers of sand and unbelievably loud noises at any minute, or are all things Summers a bit calmer?
‘I’m feeling OK, thanks for asking so sensitively.’
}Fuck off, having my own mini-crisis here. Alright, Beth, I’m doing it now, I just didn’t want to set him off again. OK, Dec, when you did your little display just now up the beach, it scared ten fucking kinds of zombie-shit out of me. Not just because I thought you were going to do yourself an injury, although there was that. I’m a bit afraid of what I might have lurking down there for me, waiting to pop up at some inconvenient moment. There’s all the shit with Carrie. Then there’s the bastard MS waiting in the wings, the nearly dying of pneumonia, and although my dad died when I was two, and I thought I was OK about it because it was so long ago, that’s a nice little undercurrent too. And, oh, just all of the joys of being the current Mr Matthew Robert Scott. Shit, this is so the wrong time to be unloading all this. But anyway, long story short, I was worried about what I might have waiting to ambush me. So that’s why I buggered off up the beach, as well as to get the image of you, bawling your eyes out, right out of my head.
‘You’re not me, Matt.’
}Well thankful fucks to the god of small mercies for that.
‘Just because something happens to me doesn’t mean it will happen to you.’
}I know that, and Beth reminded me of the same thing. I think … I was so pleased with myself for working out what was going on here with you, that when it produced that reaction I was really shocked. I don’t think I could let go like that, I don’t ever fucking want to.
‘It’s not like I had a choice.’
}That’s kind of my point. But I’m not dwelling, I’m putting it all away to ponder another day. Seriously. I was under orders to tell you why I wandered off, and I’ve done my duty. May we speak of this no more.
}What the fuck have you been drinking? It looks disgusting.
}Ugh, I can’t think of many less palatable combinations than brown sugary liquid and creamy curdling blobs. Is there anything else on offer?
As promised, I briefly shared with the group why I had seen fit to flounce off, and then the subject was dropped and to all intents and purposes things returned to normal.
I still had an underlying unease, although I covered it up with my normal arsing about. Dec would have noticed if he hadn’t been preoccupied with his day, so I kept things to myself and resolved to … well, do nothing about it, I suppose.
He looked at the menu, while I considered what he had told me. Matt was really complex. People couldn’t tell when he was being serious, and he often wrapped up sincerity in bluff and sarcasm to put everyone off the scent. He had a lot of things he wouldn’t readily talk about, and pushing him to talk usually resulted in him retreating further behind his front. I hoped he would come to one of us in his own way and his own time if he needed to.
As we waited for Matt’s and Beth’s drinks to arrive, I noticed I was being stared at from the other side of the café. There was a woman at a table with a boy, who looked about eight or so. Something about his face looked familiar, but there was no way I could have known him when I lived here – he was too young. The boy was looking at me intently, but looked away when I caught his eye, and he kept glancing back to see if I was still looking, then looking away again when he saw I was. I looked at the woman, I assumed she was his mum, to see if I recognised her, but I couldn’t recall her. After a while, they got up and the woman went to the till to pay. As they passed our table, the boy slowed down and looked again. I smiled at him. He smiled back and stopped.
*Are you Declan Summers?
I nodded, and his mum turned round at the sound of his voice.
*Ned, come here, now.
He held his ground for the briefest moment, but couldn’t disobey and ran up to her, looking back at me. He tugged on his mum’s t-shirt.
*Mum, it’s Declan Summers.
*He plays for Raiders. Uncle Jason used to go to school with him.
Something clicked. That was who he looked like – Jason Dixon. He must be related to Jase. Nephew? I tried to recall details of his family. Did he have an older sister? Couldn’t remember.
They left the café, the boy looking back over his shoulder and trying to get his mum to listen to him. I might have followed, but Amy was still asleep against me, and I didn’t want to disturb her.
:Did you know them, love?
‘I don’t think so. The boy looked like someone I used to know, I suppose he might have been related, but I didn’t know the boy or the woman. He seemed to know me, though.’
}The perils of dining with a sporting superstar, one just can’t have a mochaccino in peace these days without it being ruined by the rabble.
We finished our drinks, although I left most of my coke float and drank Amy’s water, and then we decided to put Jay out of his misery and go home. Jay had texted Beth a couple of times asking when we were going to be back, and she was starting to feel guilty.
_I hardly ever have a day off from the children, I’m just prolonging it as much as I can. He’ll cope. I might text him and tell him what to do for our tea, so it’s ready when we get home.
‘Great idea, Beth, if you really want to eat black oven chips and rubber burgers.’
}Or worse, find the house burnt down and all your possessions charred to a crisp. Nothing more likely to ruin an appetite.
_Sadly, I think you could be right. How about we pick up takeaway on the way back, then?
}Top idea. I’ll wash up.
}Fuck, no. That’s what the dishwasher is for. Right, are we all ready? Dec, wake Amy up unless you’re giving her a fireman’s lift to the car park. Or I could go and fetch the car … oh fuck it, why did I even suggest that, you’re all going to sit here and let me sod off on my own now, aren’t you.
_I’ll come with you, sweetheart. I think Amy could do with the extra rest, and Rose has done a lot of walking about today.
‘And I’m propping Amy up. If I come, she’ll fall over.’
}You’re excused, fucking nancy. Summers is deducted five man points for using a lame excuse. Right, won’t be long. Beth, you remember where we parked don’t you …
As they left, Amy stirred and woke up. She swung her legs over the edge of the seat, sat up, yawned and rubbed her eyes.
)Hello. Did I doze off?
‘Yeah, babe. Huge snores and everything. Look – the whole place has emptied because of the noise.’
)I wasn’t snoring! Rose, I wasn’t snoring?
:No, love, but you were pretty fast asleep. Are you still getting morning sickness?
)Yeah, three o’clock every morning, you could set your alarm by it if you really wanted to be up then.
:I’m not surprised you’re tired, then, love. Shouldn’t last much longer, hopefully, first twelve weeks is usually the worst.
)Hope so. Aren’t Matt and Beth back yet?
‘They’ve been and gone.’
)What, while I was asleep? Was I asleep that long?
I laughed at the surprised look on her face.
‘Yeah, babe. They’ve gone to fetch the car so I don’t have to carry you through town over my shoulder. Sorry I wore you out today. Early night, yeah?’
)Sounds lovely. But really, an early night, with just going to bed early to sleep and not …
She stopped herself and looked at Rose, who laughed.
:I know what ‘early night’ means, love, I’ve even had a few myself, although not for a while, mind. Declan, let the poor girl catch up on her sleep and stop being so demanding.
‘It’s not my fault she’s bloody irresistible.’
:Actually, love, it is. Have some willpower.
‘Yeah, thanks Rose. Thanks a bunch.’
We laughed as I pulled Amy close enough to whisper in her ear.
‘You’re just too fucking gorgeous, fancy a quickie out the back, by the bins?’
She laughed and whispered back.
)Have some willpower.
I gave her a wet sloppy kiss on the cheek and hugged her tight to me. I was starting to feel some kind of normality creeping back following the weirdness of the episode on the beach. We sat and chatted for a while longer, and just as I was beginning to wonder if they’d got lost on the way back to the car park, I saw Matt’s four wheel drive pull up outside the café. He honked the horn. Amy and Rose got up and walked to the car, while I paid the bill for the drinks.
As I was leaving the café, I noticed a car coming pretty fast down the road along the seafront. It braked sharply and pulled in behind Matt’s car. Both front doors opened, and the little boy from before got out of the passenger side. A man got out of the driver’s side. The boy had a big grin on his face and turned to speak to the man.
*See, it is him.
The man stared at me, realised he was staring, closed the car door and walked with the boy to where I had stopped. I was aware of everyone in Matt’s car watching.
*You don’t remember me.
I thought about the boy, and who he’d reminded me of, and his Uncle Jason. I added a few years to the face of the boy from my memories.
The man smiled, nodded and held out his hand. I grinned, and clasped it.
*I hope you don’t mind, Neddy here recognised you in the café, he goes to Raiders with his dad a lot. He came back full of how he’d seen you, wouldn’t give his mum any peace, she rang me and I had to come straight down, see if you were still here. What are you doing here?
‘I’m with my family.’
I gestured to the car. They all waved at him, and he raised a hand self-consciously.
*Oh, well, sorry, looks like you’re all just off. I just wanted to see if it really was you. How long has it been?
‘Probably about seven years. That’s when I left.’
*Bit longer than that, you moved about so much, changed your name, we kind of lost touch. You’re doing well for yourself.
‘Yeah, I’m doing OK. How about you?’
*Yeah, pretty good, working with my dad, he’s got this timber business. Getting married next year. Remember Suzie McDonald?
‘Really, Suzie? Fuck me. Congratulations.’
I’d had to stop myself repeating her nickname, Suzie the Floozie.
*Uncle Jason …
*Oh, yeah, right. Ned was pretty keen to get your autograph, er, it feels a bit awkward, but would you mind? He’s brought a programme.
I laughed. ‘No, of course not. Do you ever come with him to the games?
*I’ve been a couple of times, when his dad couldn’t make it. Football’s really more my game, sorry. I follow the results, though, see if you’ve scored. You usually have.
Ned handed me the programme and a pen. He’d opened it to a page with my picture on.
‘I like this picture, Ned, it was my first try for Raiders.’
*I was there, it was near where I was standing, it was awesome. Did you really go to school with Uncle Jason?
‘Yeah, I did. I was just telling everyone today, we both used to sneak over the fence at the back of my house after school, so everyone thought we’d come straight home instead of going to the park. And we used to come here on a Saturday morning and drink coke floats.’
*He called you Charlie.
‘I know. I used to be called Charlie when I was at school with Jase.’
*But are you really Declan Summers?
‘Yes, I really am. What do you want me to put here?’
*To Ned, and your name, please.
I wrote in the programme and handed it back.
‘Ned, next time you and your dad, or your uncle if you can persuade him to give up the football, are at Raiders, let the girls in the ticket office know you’re there, ask them to tell me. You could come after, meet some of the players, get a tour of the ground, or something.’
Ned’s eyes went very round.
*What do you say, Ned?
*Thanks, mate, that’s really good of you.
‘What’s your dad’s name?’
‘I’ll leave a message in the office, look out for you.’
*We should leave you to it, Char – er – Declan. Thanks for this, he’s a complete Raiders nut.
‘Keep it up, Ned. Seriously, Jase, come and find me after a game sometime, we can have a proper catch up. Great to see you, really great.’
*You too. Cheers mate, see you sometime.
We shook hands, they walked off to his car and got in. I got into the front seat of Matt’s.
}Satisfied your eager public have we?
‘Ha ha. It was an old friend.’
:Was that the little boy from the café, love?
‘Yeah, he’s Jason Dixon’s nephew.’
}Jason Dixon – why do I know that name?
‘I mentioned him today, at the house. He was my fellow fence hopper.’
}Oh yeah. So that was him. Happy reunion?
‘Bit weird meeting someone I probably last saw when we were wagging school together. His nephew’s a Raiders fan.’
}Yeah, we got that, with the autographs and the hero-worship and the big beam of light shining down on your head. Fucking egomaniac.
)Are you going to keep in touch?
I shrugged. ‘Up to him, I’ve told him to look me up after a game. See if it ever happens. I feel like I’ve left this place behind, especially after today. I’m not in any hurry to rekindle old stuff, he probably isn’t either. Good to see him, though. I was beginning to think nothing had stayed the same here. Matt are you ever going to start this car, or are we going to sit here bloody chatting for the rest of the week?’
}Yes, sir, starting the engine, sir, sorry to have kept you waiting, sir, even though it was you who was standing around outside keeping the faith with the little people, sir.
‘Piss off and drive us home.’
An hour or so later, having picked up a Chinese meal on the way home, we pulled up outside Jay and Beth’s house. Amy, Rose and Beth were all asleep in the back of the car.
}I vote we leave them here until we’ve had our pick of the takeaway, then we’ll wake them up so they can polish off the egg fried rice and prawn crackers no one ever wants.
‘Don’t like your chances if you deprive Amy of her chicken chow mein.’
}Bollocks, good point. Hadn’t taken into account hormonal surges as a risk factor. OK, better wake them up then, bagsy not it, see you inside.
Matt grabbed the bags of takeaway, jumped out of the car and slammed the door hard. Rose, Beth and Amy all woke up with a start. It was very funny.
‘Come on, ladies, Matt’s gone inside with dinner. I suggest you get going if you want there to be any left.’
)He’d better not be touching my chicken chow mein.
‘He’s well aware of the consequences if he does, babe, but everything else is fair game.’
Amy and Beth got out from either side of the car and went indoors; I stayed and helped Rose down from the back seat.
:Thanks, love. Alright?
‘I’m good, thanks, Rose. What a day. Thanks for coming.’
:You know I’ll always be there for you, love.
‘I know. It means a lot. Same here. Know what, Rose, you and me, we’re a little family all on our own, aren’t we. I mean, yeah, part of this fucking weird sprawly chaotic unexplainable one, but me and you, we’re a little unit too.’
:You’re right, love. Don’t start me off, now, I gave you my last tissue.
‘Ha ha, let’s go and fight Matt for dinner, then.’