The Philpotts Letters -13

Well I guess this is growing up (blink-182)

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Well I guess this is growing up (blink-182)

Dear Adults

You are no longer children. You are eighteen. Bloody hell, eighteen years old. You can vote, and fight for your country, and have sex. OK, so officially you’ve been able to do the last two legally for two years, even though you haven’t been able to have any legal say about the arses who make these kind of rules until now. And maybe, let’s call it ‘intuition’ (yeah, yeah, it’s your mum, she bloody knows everything, and she always tells me what she knows, so it looks like I know everything too), I get the feeling that although neither of you have to my knowledge fought for your country (hmm, does playing for England Under 18s count, Josh? Let’s say it does), at least one of you has had sex. I do not want to think about this, alright? Because it makes me very angry, and want to kick whoever it was in the bollocks so he never does it again. Obviously I am talking about you, Ella. Josh seems more than happy not to just yet, unless he’s way better at hiding things than I think he is.

I mean, yeah, eighteen, of course your kids will have had sex. Possibly more than once. And Ella, you are such an explorer, it was probably a while ago. I don’t want to know. Your mum has started to tell me a few times and I had to put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly just so she’d stop.

I’m glad you’ve both had your mum to talk to about all that. I like to think I’m pretty open with you about shit – I’ll talk about anything with you guys, you’re both a joy to natter to, but this one thing, well, I did the sex chat when you were younger, and have just firmly left everything else to your more than capable mother ever since. I seriously could not deal with the thought of either some slimy git touching my baby daughter, or my baby son touching some unsuitably painted harlot. Because, obviously that’s what they’d be, and not just normal kids like my normal kids.

Except, and here we go back to the headline, you’re not kids anymore. You’re now officially adults. You can tell me to fuck off, and there’s not a bloody thing I can do about it. And both of you have told me to fuck off, literally and figuratively, because I’ve never been able to moderate my language, and now it’s the norm in the Scott household to bandy the fucks about with gay abandon (unless you’re your mother), and that’s my fault I guess, but now there’s not a bloody thing I can do about it.

Oh it’s not really about being able to do something about anything, it’s about you both being considered ‘adult’ by the world at large, when you’re both so young. You don’t know shit about shit, even though naturally you’d like to believe you know everything about shit. Ella, you’re going to sodding university in a few months. Fuck, I can remember what I was like at Uni, once I got going. I really, really don’t want you to meet any Matt Scott or his ilk, or worse than his ilk, but I’m not going to have a choice, because that’s what it means, isn’t it. You’re old enough to make your own choices.

And it’s because of those choices, which I no longer have anything other than an advisory role in, that you’ll grow up and become you, I guess. I know I didn’t become me until I went to Uni. Josh, you may have a different path, but being part of a bunch of rugby players is going to bring you along nicely. And maybe you’ll still be living at home, but at least it won’t be both of you going off into the unknown at the same time. I don’t think me or your mum could bear that, to suddenly just be the two of us – oh, not that we won’t enjoy one day being just the two of us, but we’re going to miss Ella and her own smells and noises, so you’re just going to have to fill the gap with your slightly more manly smells and louder more masculine noises.

You know, kids, I still sometimes have to pinch myself that all this is real, that for the last eighteen years I’ve had just what I wanted – a family. There was a time I didn’t think it was what I wanted at all, and then when I realised I did, I thought it was an unachievable dream, and then it happened. I know it’s not over yet, having kids is never ‘over’, is it? I know I’ll be thinking about you and worrying about you for the rest of my life. It’s just that this is the end of the ‘kids’ chapter, and the start of a new one, maybe even part two of some as yet undefined trilogy. It will be an awesome trilogy though, beginning with King Matt in the Land of Denial, who finally meets his Fairy Princess Lau while he is trying to battle the Fuckinio Bastardius monster, who he manages to tame but not to defeat while at the same time bringing into the world and raising the Prince and Princess – well you know the rest so far. Enjoy book two, guys, it’s all about you.

Thanks for being my children, you have been awesome. I am looking forward to getting to know the grown-up you.

Yours faithfully (because it sounds like a grown-up signing off, and also I hope to be always faithful – a bit like a smelly old Golden Labrador)

Dad xxx

59. He don’t live here no more

In which Dec goes back to his roots.

Julia

A few months after the family gathering, Matt told me there was a trip planned back to the town where Dec’s parents had died, to mark an anniversary. Matt hadn’t planned to go; he avoided emotion-filled occasions when he could, or at least coated them with a barrage of silliness that took some of the intensity out of them. But on the morning, he changed his mind and called me to say he wouldn’t be at work because he was going with Dec, Rose, Beth and Amy ‘to arse about for the greater good’.

We had made plans to spend the night at his flat, and Matt had already given me his key, so he told me to wait there for him if I wanted to, as he didn’t expect to be home too late. Exchanging keys had felt like one of those moments that had the potential to freak me out, but actually made me feel more in control – I knew that at any moment Matt could potentially walk in to my flat and disrupt my life, but I also knew that he wouldn’t, that he understood me enough to know that he had to let me know he was coming. It also helped me to really know I could trust Matt, as I could potentially walk in to his apartment at any time, even though I stuck to the same rules of prior contact.

Matt

I hadn’t even planned to be there. It was the tenth anniversary of Dec’s parents’ death, and Beth had cooked up this scheme for him to commemorate it in the town where he had lived with them, a small seaside town about a hour up the motorway and across the moors. It was the sort of thing I tried to avoid like the plague, as all that emotional shit seemed somehow contagious, and spending one of my hard earned days off watching my mate being reflective and contemplative and miserable was just … ugh.

So I’d told him I couldn’t get the time off work, and in reality we were crazily busy, so it wasn’t really a fib. But anyway, despite my best efforts, I kept feeling guilty, thinking about how he’d helped me out of so many holes, and not that he was in a hole, and he was going to be well supported by Rose, Beth and Amy, but somehow that made it worse, thinking about all the misery they were all going to suck out of him given half a chance, and I knew if I was there I’d be able to inject some inappropriate humour or impertinent sarcasm to proceedings and take the sting out of it … so on the morning, I changed my mind, called Phil to take the day off, called Jules to tell her to let herself in after work if she wanted to, and texted Dec to let him know I was coming.

Dec

I woke to the familiar sound of retching from the bathroom. It was dark, and sleep clung to my head as I stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, where Amy was bent over the toilet.

‘Hey babe, how’s it going?’

I assumed my position by Amy’s side, holding her hair away from her face, rubbing her back, trying not to fall asleep as I knelt by her. I’d done this so many times, it wasn’t exciting any more, but I still wanted to be there, wanted to experience all the highs and lows of having a baby.

)You don’t have to come and help me every morning, hon.

‘I want to. Least I can do.’

More retching.

)It’s a big day for you, you should go and get more sleep.

‘I can’t sleep knowing you’re in here puking your guts up. Wouldn’t you rather I was here?’

)Oh you know I would, I completely love that you get up every morning with me, but I won’t mind if you sleep through it or decide that just once you’re going to turn over and ignore it.

‘Not going to happen, babe. How much longer is it going to last for?’

)God knows, hopefully not too much longer, I’ll be as pleased as you not to be up heaving before dawn. OK, I think I’m done. I’ll just clean my teeth – you go back to bed.

I wandered back into the bedroom, slid under the duvet and closed my eyes. I was asleep before Amy joined me.

The alarm woke us both a few hours later. I reached for it blearily and turned it off. Amy stretched beside me.

)Better get up, hon. We’ve got to pick Rose up in an hour.

‘Mm, come here, just a few more minutes.’

I reached for her and pulled her into my arms. She snuggled in willingly, but resisted all my other advances.

)We haven’t got time. Not if you’re making me breakfasts in beds.

I groaned.

‘What again? Nico’s got a lot to answer for.’

)Please, hon? Just tea and toast, nothing fancy.

‘I don’t know what I’d do if you ever did want anything fancy – might have to send out for takeaway.’

)See? I’m very undemanding really. I’ll just wait here, shall I?

She turned her big blue eyes on me and I was powerless to resist. On my way to the kitchen, I heard my phone ping in the bedroom with a text.

‘Who’s that, babe?’

I heard the rustle of bedclothes as Amy shuffled over to look at the screen.

)Matt. Oh, he’s coming. His exact words are ‘Change of heart, gonna tag along. Feel sorry for u being Rosed and Bethed all day. Must b going soft in my old age.’

I grinned to myself, hugely pleased that Matt had changed his mind and would be coming with us. I hadn’t been surprised when he had pleaded work commitments; big emotion filled days weren’t really his thing. But his presence would help to lighten any dark mood that threatened. His ability to take absolutely nothing seriously, and never hold back his sarcastic comments whatever the occasion, had often defused potentially tricky situations, most recently with Amy’s parents:

The Wrights had come for a family meal, instigated by Beth in an attempt to bridge some of the distance that existed between them, and Amy and me. It hadn’t been the greatest of successes – despite Rose’s constant conversation, Beth’s amazing cooking, and Iz’s disarming attempt to climb onto Amy’s dad’s lap at the dinner table to show him her teddy, Amy’s parents remained distant and difficult to engage in the general chatter that always surrounded our family gatherings. They obviously felt uncomfortable, and I wondered why they had agreed to come, when they seemed to want to be somewhere else.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to the baby. It seemed that this was what they had been waiting for, as Amy’s dad had launched into a tirade on unmarried mothers, and how it was my duty to marry his daughter now I had disgraced her. There was an awkward silence. I tried counting to ten, but would have needed ten thousand for it to stop me doing him violence. Before I could speak or act, though, Matt countered with:

}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.

Jack Wright looked open mouthed at Matt, who raised his glass and then drained it. It had stopped Amy’s dad in his tracks, and he didn’t continue. They left shortly after.

Having Matt along today might help us all not to get too emotional. I was dreading and anticipating it. Although I felt I could think and talk about Mum and Dad now without completely losing it, this anniversary and the way we were going to mark it, was going to be tough.

‘Is he coming here?’

)Don’t know, that’s all he said.

‘We’ll have to go in his car if there’s five of us. I’ll just do this then I’ll ring him.’

I made Amy’s breakfast, took it in to her, and called Matt.

‘Hey, you’re coming.’

}So it would seem.

‘Do you fancy driving too?’

}Oh go on then. Don’t really relish cramming in your bloody tiny geekmobile.

‘I’m offended on Betsy’s behalf. She’s not a geekmobile. We could always ask Rose to drive.’

}No way, you have to alert the emergency services at least forty eight hours before Rose attempts to drive on the motorway, we’ve left it too late. Otherwise, obviously, I would be only too happy. Anyway, her car’s even smaller than yours. And who calls their car Betsy for fuck’s sake? It’s embarrassing. Cars should have numbers or letters only, nothing to which you can become emotionally attached.

‘Thanks for that insight into the world according to Matt. Just as long as you’re happy to drive your bland nameless means of transport, we’re all happy. We’re picking Rose up, then Beth. Come and get us first?’

}OK, see you in a bit. You OK?

‘At the moment.’

}See you later.

I quickly stole a piece of toast from Amy, drank some orange juice, showered and dressed. I needed to finish some things off before we went. Amy was still drinking her tea, flipping through a magazine, and I knew I had time to do what I wanted to do.

I picked up the bag from the bedroom and took it in to the living room to sort through. I still needed to print off a couple of pictures, and finish off the letter, then it was good to go. I got my laptop out and started.

Matt arrived just as I had finished printing off everything I needed. I put it all in the bag, which I left by the door.

}Still using your foolproof system I see.

‘Yeah, foolproof until I walk past it so many times I forget it’s there and go off without it.’

}Ah, well, that’s the thing about foolproof systems. Only as good as the quality of fool who invents them. Ready to go?

‘Yeah, I am, and I think I heard Ames – oh, there you are, babe. Have you got everything?’

)Think so. Hi Matt. Thanks for driving.

}Easiest all round – on my nerves for a start.

)I don’t know what you mean, we’re all very good drivers.

}Don’t get me started, Amy. I can list several reasons why I wouldn’t willingly get into a car driven by Rose, Beth, Dec or you, but I won’t as I don’t want to appear ungrateful for driving services rendered in times of need in the past.

‘Oh, you mean like when I had to drive up to Bristol Parkway in the middle of the fucking night, and then had to drive you all over the country the next fucking morning to find your car.’

}That’s kind of the event I was trying not to appear ungrateful for.

Matt looked a bit shame-faced, but in truth we had both done our share of rescuing each other in the past. I grinned at him to let him know I wasn’t holding a grudge.

‘Well I’ll remember next time how you wouldn’t willingly get in a car driven by me, and maybe pass you on to a different taxi service. Rose might be available – the fare could sting a bit, though. But for now, let’s just get going.’

We collected Rose and Beth, and set off up the motorway to a small seaside town about an hour’s drive away. I had not been back here since I left to join Raiders seven years ago – this was the town we had moved to from Australia, the town where I had spent four years of my life with Mum and Dad, and the next three years trying to cope with life without them. The town where they had died, exactly ten years ago. Beth had not let go of the idea that we should mark the anniversary in some way, and had cajoled me into making some plans.

Our first stop was a café on the seafront. I may have been there with my parents, although I couldn’t remember a specific instance, but my main memories were of hanging out here at weekends and after school, in my early to mid-teens, trying to look cool and impress girls by, naturally, ignoring them. It seemed like a good place to sit and decide what to do first.

The café had changed hands since I was last a customer; it had a new jazzy name, a fresh paint job, and the beaten up old pinball machine was long gone. It was no longer somewhere I would have hung out when I was fifteen; it still served coffee, though, which was the main reason for coming.

I expected walking through the door to set off a load of memories, but nothing startling happened. Maybe it had just changed too much.

:Alright, love?

‘Yeah, I’m fine. Just expected more of a reaction. It’s changed a lot since I was here last. A bit more upmarket.’

}They probably needed to purge all remnants of your spotty teenage presence to encourage normal customers back.

_It must feel weird, though, Dec. It was bad enough when we moved back after a few months away. This must be really strange.

‘Yeah, it is. I kind of expected it all to be the same. But it’s OK.’

I found myself looking round at the other people in the café, to see if I recognised anyone, and I looked up every time someone came in the door. Why they wouldn’t all have left for something better, as I had, and why anyone I knew would be here in the middle of the morning on a weekday, did not seem to have occurred to my brain, which was making me see old friends in the faces of all the customers.

)What do you want to do first, hon?

‘I don’t know, I had a vague idea of wandering along the seafront and then into town, look up some places I used to go, but if they’ve all changed as much as this has, I don’t know if there’s any point. Maybe do the seafront later, before the beach.’

It was all starting to feel a bit forced, like I was trying to make myself feel something, and I began to question whether I should have come at all.

_Why don’t we wander into town anyway? We can have a look round, I’ve never been here before, maybe we can get some lunch if we see anywhere nice. Where did you used to live?

‘With Mum and Dad?’

Beth nodded.

‘Not far from the town centre, actually. Walking distance, up the hill a bit.’

_Well how about we have a look around town, have a nosey at your old house, bit of lunch, then go to the crematorium, then back for a stroll down the seafront, maybe back here for coffee, then the beach?

}Bloody hell, Beth, I hope you can remember all that. I got lost after ‘town’.

_It’s all flexible, Matty, Dec knows what he wants to do.

‘Actually, thinking about it, I wonder if we could go to the crem first? I’m kind of dreading that bit, and maybe if we get it over with I’ll be a bit clearer. Sorry, I’m being a bit indecisive.’

Amy cuddled up to me.

)It’s OK, hon, just take your time, we’ll do whatever you want.

I smiled down at her and kissed her forehead. Took a deep breath.

‘OK, crem it is, then.’

The small crematorium was just outside of the town, in a stretch of woodland. The last time I had been here, I was thirteen years old. Again, I expected a rush of memories and emotions as we drove up to the reception office, and again there was nothing.

I did remember the day of my parents’ funeral; it was a day when everything had happened around me. I had hardly been involved in any of it, none of the planning, none of the short ceremony, I hadn’t even scattered the ashes myself. I didn’t remember being upset or crying, I couldn’t remember feeling anything at all. A foster parent had been with me, and I had been driven away immediately afterwards, before anyone else had left. It had been the first, in fact the only, funeral I had ever been to.

The office had a record of where people’s ashes were scattered and we walked up a slight hill to a wooded area where there were a couple of benches. Rose was puffing hard and sat down, Amy beside her. Matt had wandered up ahead, having caught sight of a bird he wanted to identify. I stood, looking around, trying to catch a feeling or a memory or something that made this trip worthwhile. Beth stood close to me and put her arm round my waist.

_Alright, sweetheart?

‘Yeah. Just not getting anything. I thought I’d be … I don’t know … a bit more emotional. This is where they are, everything that was left of them, this is where they ended up. I can’t feel it.’

_Don’t try and force it, Dec. Just be open – you might not feel anything at all, or it might catch up with you later, when you’re at home, or it might be that you’ve already felt so much over the last few years, and sorted so much out, that there just isn’t that big emotional moment you’re expecting.

I was silent and stood looking at the trees, listening to the leaves swishing in the breeze, thinking about what I may or may not have sorted out. Matt came back up the path.

}It bloody was a woodpecker, I thought it was. A green one. I used to see them from my window in Stafford. How’s it going here?

I shrugged.

‘Not sure why I came.’

}No big epiphany?

I shook my head. Matt took a deep breath.

}I’m not surprised. I did something similar up in Stafford, once I was back on my feet. Went to a load of places I’d been with Carrie.

I looked at him in surprise, so did Beth. Matt never, ever, talked about Carrie.

}Yeah, first date, first kiss, first grope, all that shit, not necessarily in that order. Trying to recapture some of it. Trying to make sense of some of it. Trying to say goodbye to all of it. Nothing. There was fuck all in any of those places. Places are just places. They don’t hold moments once they’ve gone, they have to make room for the next moment. Anyway. Not saying it’s the same for you, mate. This place is beautiful. Lush. I expect it’s all the compost it gets.

_Matty!

}What? If it was me, I’d like to think I was being useful after I’d shuffled off this mortal coil.

I laughed. This was exactly why I’d been pleased Matt had come.

‘You’re right, though. Plenty of potash or something.’

Matt looked at me.

}Potash? Seriously?

‘Yeah. Too much time helping Carol in the garden, it seeps in eventually.’

}Well I guess if you were going to learn about compost from anyone, it’d be Mum. Who’d have thought, though? Declan Summers – master gardener.

I stood looking at the area under the trees where my parents’ ashes had been scattered. Part of them must have become the grass and plants that were there, but they weren’t here. I went over to the bench and scooched in between Amy and Rose.

:Alright, love?

‘Yeah, I’m fine. Not really sure what I was expecting, but it feels like a bit of an anti-climax.

:It’s very peaceful. Nice to think of them up here looking out over the sea, nice bit of shade, cooling breeze.

‘I guess so. It is a lovely spot. They’re not here, though.’

Amy put her arm round me and squeezed, resting her head on my shoulder.

)Are you disappointed?

‘No, it just feels like … I’m not sure what the point of all this was now. Have I just dragged you all out here for nothing?’

)No, hon. I’ve always wanted to see where you’re from, I love being by the sea. There’s no pressure for something to happen, is there? We’ve got the beach later, we’ll have some lunch and look round town, take it easy. Just a day out, if nothing else. Right Rose?

:Right, love. Don’t try to make yourself feel something. We’re all here for you whatever happens, let’s just enjoy a sunny day out by the sea.

I was quiet for a while, looking out over the sea, thinking about what everyone was telling me. I stood up.

‘OK, everyone alright to go back to town and get something to eat?’

}Thought you’d never ask, I’m bloody ravenous.

We walked together down the path back to Matt’s car and drove back into town, parked, then went to the main shopping area to look for somewhere to have lunch.

The high street looked the same at first glance, but there were Costas, Pound Shops and charity shops where all the shops I remembered used to be. Gino’s Pizza Place had gone (estate agents), the comic-book shop had gone (factory outlet), and I wouldn’t have hung out here as a fifteen year old, either.

We found a café with a table for five and ordered. Beth asked what I wanted to do next.

‘I’m not sure. I had thought about going up to my old house, but after this morning, I’m not sure if there’s any point. It will all be different, other people live there now.’

}I bet they haven’t even got the blue plaque up yet.

‘What?’

}You know, ‘Declan Summers, rugby player of slight renown, lived in this place’. Or ‘Here lived Declan Summers, spinster of this parish’. Once that’s up there’ll be bus tours and everything.

_I’d quite like to see where you used to live, Dec.

)Me too. Is it far?

‘About ten minutes walk, up the hill.

:Doesn’t sound far, love. Shall we just go and have a little look?

I shrugged. ‘OK.’

I wasn’t really that bothered now. I’d lived there for four years with Mum and Dad, but it was a long time ago. I didn’t think there would be anything to see, but was happy to wander up with everyone if they wanted to have a look.

)You’ve gone a bit quiet, hon.

‘Yeah, sorry, just … it’s turning out a bit different than I thought. I imagined everything setting off memories, and I could tell you ‘oh, that’s where I fell off my skateboard’ or ‘that’s where we used to hide out when we wagged school’ or ‘Mum used to bring me here to make me have my hair cut’ but it’s all changed, and there’s nothing, I just feel a bit … empty.’

Amy held my hand and looked at me, a slight frown above her eyes, while Rose tilted her head and had her usual wise idea.

:Why don’t you tell us about them, love? I know you wanted to show us, but maybe you can just tell us? You don’t often talk about them, and we don’t like to ask because it makes you sad, but today is about remembering them, isn’t it, and I think we’d all really like to know.

Rose looked round the table; everyone was nodding. As usual, Rose had managed to find a way to make things better. Talking would be harder than showing, but as long as I stuck to the good times, I could do it. I’d had enough sessions with Adam to know I could do it if I recognised my limits.

}We’ve stocked up on man-size tissues and everything. Blub club can be reinstated if absolutely necessary.

‘Thanks Matt, your faith in my ability to keep my composure is heartening.’

}Just know you of old, mate.

‘Alright, then, it sounds like a great idea, thanks Rose. I’ll tell you about them, the good stuff. There are still places I can’t go, things I can’t talk about. But they were great. Mum and Dad were the best. Maybe I’m looking back through the years and forgetting some of the things that make you hate your parents when you’re a teenager, maybe I wasn’t quite old enough to have got to that stage. We lived near the sea in Australia too, in Perth, but we moved here when I was nine. I don’t know if they wanted to move first, or if Dad’s job came up first; I do remember being really upset at leaving my friends behind. It didn’t take me long to make new ones, although it did take me a long time to get used to how fucking cold it is here in the winter.

:What did your Dad do, love?

‘I was never quite sure, to be honest. It was something with some air conditioning firm, he did training or wrote manuals or … sorry, I never paid much attention.’

_I guess you don’t when you’re young, sweetheart. Do you remember what your mum did?

‘She worked in an office, something to do with … maybe it was a solicitors, or a surveyor or something. I know there was typing involved.’

:What were they like, love?

I paused for a moment. That was a huge question, I had to trawl back through the years to even remember what they looked like sometimes, let alone what my thirteen year old self had made of their personalities.

‘Well, Mum was quite short, with dark hair. I was taller than her when I was thirteen. She always seemed to be singing or humming or something. She used to like baking and – oh my God, I’ve just remembered she used to make the most amazing Lamingtons. Have you ever had them?’

)Dec, your voice just went all Australian.

‘No it didn’t.’

}Yeah, mate, a very antipodean twang.

:I think I made Lamingtons once. Aren’t they kind of sponge cake squares covered in chocolate and coconut?

‘That’s right! Mum’s were the best. Although I’m sure yours were delicious too, Rose.’

_You’ll have to do some more, Rose. They sound lovely.

:I’ve got the recipe somewhere, I’ll have a go when I get home.

)Tell us more about your mum, hon.

‘OK … er … she used to like listening to CDs while she was cooking tea. She used to dance to Take That while she was stirring things on the hob – she’d try to get me to join in if I was in there with her, but I manfully resisted dancing of any sort, let alone to ‘Could it be Magic’.

}Oh how times have changed.

‘Take that, Matt.’ I flipped a finger at him. ‘When I was little, she used to sing to me to get me to sleep. Just silly nonsense songs, and poems sometimes, things she made up. She could play the guitar a bit. She –’

She didn’t deserve to have her life taken away by a lorry driver too busy talking on his mobile phone to stop at a roundabout. Fuck, couldn’t go there. Pushed it away. Held Amy’s hand very tight and squeezed my eyes shut. Breathed deeply. Felt the concern, opened my eyes and saw the looks pass between them all.

‘Sorry, I’m OK, you can all stop looking at each other. Just, there are some things I really don’t want to remember, I need to put them away somewhere.’

_Shall we talk about something else, sweetheart?

‘No, it’s OK. I’ve spent so long with the bad times in my head, it’s actually really great to remember good things.’

Our food arrived, which halted things for a short time, but Rose’s curiosity got the better of her before she had eaten a couple of mouthfuls.

:What about your dad, love? Did you see much of him, or did he work a lot?

‘He worked full time, but he was always around in the evenings and at weekends, so yeah, I saw quite a bit of him. He used to take me to rugby training. We used to watch Speeders when we lived in Perth, I trained with their juniors a bit before we came over here. Then I played schools rugby at the comp here, and joined the local club too. Dad was pretty dedicated, he took me to training twice a week in the evenings, and to matches every weekend. He drove the minibus for the away games sometimes … I wish he’d known I was scouted by Raiders, he’d have been made up. We went to watch them a few times, when the fixtures worked out and I wasn’t playing. It was like watching Speeders again, we got really into it. Playing was the one thing that kept me going after …’

After some bastard driving a lorry took him away from me. Pushed it away again. Swallowed hard and forced myself to think about something else, so they didn’t all get that look on their faces.

}Did you ever see Jay play?

‘Yeah I did, a few times. I was a bit star-struck when they told me I was going to be staying with him when I went to Raiders. Fuck me, living with Jay Scott!’

_Well you’d never have known, sweetheart.

‘Ha ha, hid it well, did I?’

}Still star-struck?

‘Fuck no. Watching him pick his toenails soon cured me.’

}Fair point. Enough to destroy anyone’s hero worship, witnessing that spectacle. Did it for me at a very early age.

)Were your parents strict?

I looked at Amy. She never asked me about them, although I would have gladly told her, so this seemed an important question to answer, especially given her upbringing.

‘I … can’t remember them being particularly strict. You don’t analyse things when you’re that young do you. I knew what I should and shouldn’t do, and when I’d crossed the line. I suspect I was yelled at, stopped from doing a few things I wanted to, I know I was grounded a couple of times, all that shit, but now they’re gone it’s hard to know what I’ve edited out. They were always there and always supported me when it mattered. I loved them. That’s all I know.’

:It must have been hard without them, love.

‘Yeah it was. Can’t go there, Rose. Not now.’

:Alright, love.

_You were happy, though?

‘I guess so, as much as you think about it at the time. I feel happy looking back, if that’s the same thing.’

_It sounds the same to me, sweetheart. What’s your best memory of being here?

I had a sudden surge of images. Getting a bike for my birthday and freewheeling down the hill. Playing cricket on the beach with Mum, Dad and a group of their friends and children. Scoring a last minute match-winning try for the school team and hearing Dad going mad, cheering from the sidelines, ‘That’s my son! Charlie Collier! That’s my boy!’. Having an illegal open fire on the beach with cans of cider, undercooked sausages on sticks and singing songs with mates until the early hours. Making a coke float last all morning in the beach café while we messed about and tried to out-impress each other. But the best? Tough call.

‘I don’t know if I can pick one. I had some good times before the accident and some wild times afterwards. Probably now I’d have to say my best memory is the day I left to come to the city. I’d had enough, couldn’t wait to go and start again somewhere else.

:Oh, love.

Rose patted my arm. Amy squeezed my hand. Beth gave me a sad smile. Matt did what I wanted him to do.

}Bloody hell, they’ve only bloody well got tutti-frutti ice cream on the menu. Fucktastic! I haven’t had that for years. Used to be my absolute favourite. Anyone care to join me?

‘Is it proper tutti-frutti, with the little green and red bits?’

}Let’s find out!

I nodded at Matt gratefully as he tried to attract the waitress’s attention. He caught my eye and winked. He was well aware of his role today. With the best will in the world, Beth and Rose always wanted the nitty gritty, and I didn’t have the strength for it. Amy was holding me up, mentally and physically through the squeeze from her hand, and always knew when to leave well alone. Matt knew too, being less keen than most on outward displays of emotion, and had a whole menu of diversionary tactics to stop a poignant moment in its tracks.

We changed the subject to favourite desserts, and chatted on until we’d paid the bill and left the café, when I led everyone along the high street and turned off up the hill.

Three quarters of the way along the street was the fairly nondescript semi detached house that I’d called home for four years. I stopped and, again, waited to feel something. The house hadn’t changed that much. Maybe the outside had been painted, the front door was a different colour. The garden looked much the same. There was no car on the drive, no lights on inside that I could see. Looking up I could see what used to be my bedroom window; it had pink curtains and a glittery mobile now.

_Didn’t your parents leave you the house?

‘No, it was rented. They didn’t really have anything to leave me, just a bit of money, it was in a trust until I was eighteen. I blew most of it on Betsy and going to Ibiza that year.’

}It’s a bloody good job we all know Betsy is your car.

_What happened to all their things? You didn’t have much when you came to us.

‘I don’t really know. I think they got house clearers in or something.’

:Haven’t you got anything to remember them by, love?

‘Nothing physical, I guess, but it’s only stuff, isn’t it. I don’t need stuff to remember them.’

_Have you got any photos? I’ve never seen a picture of them.

‘No, I didn’t think about photos until later, and by then the place had been re-let. There was nothing left. But anyway, this is where I used to live. It feels like a very long time ago.’

}Maybe we should peer through the window, give the occupants a ghostly visit from an old inhabitant?

_We can’t do that!

‘There used to be a way of getting over the fence at the back – don’t worry, Beth, I’m not suggesting we try it. It will have been made secure by now, anyway. Me and Jason Dixon used to use it as a short cut if we’d wagged school and gone to the park, so our mums would think we had come straight home. He lived just up the road –

A sudden recollection slammed into me. Jase and I had used the short cut one afternoon and had sneaked up the side of the house to make it seem like we had come up the front way. As we rounded the corner of the house, we were startled to see two police officers waiting at the front door. Jase scarpered straight off up the road, leaving me to it, while the policeman asked my name and then asked if I had a key to get in the house. I let them in, panicking that someone had seen us climbing over the fence and reported us. The policewoman had sat next to me on the sofa and ripped my world apart.

‘–no!’

I felt hands on my shoulders and Amy’s arm round my waist; they brought me back to now. I breathed deeply and shoved it all back inside, forcing myself in to the present.

‘Fuck. Sorry. Things just bubble up sometimes. Can’t always deal with them.’

Amy reached up and kissed me on the cheek.

)Are you OK, hon?

I nodded. Pulled her close and hugged her tightly. Took a final look at the house. They weren’t here. All that was here was misery, and that wasn’t what I wanted today to be about.

_Dec, I just had a thought, do you want to go and see the place where the accident happened? Did you ever do that while you lived here?

I had, and it was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do now.

‘No thanks, Beth. It’s a good thought, but I did go there, a roundabout on the bypass back out the other side of town. It’s just a roundabout. There was nothing there to say something so huge had happened, everything had been cleaned up and put back. Cars just carried on driving round as if it wasn’t important. Made me feel … insignificant.’

_OK, sweetheart, just wanted to make sure we’d thought of everything.

‘Let’s go. Beach now, I think it’s time.’

The sun was still shining. There were seagulls circling, looking for dropped chips and unwary tourists holding ice creams. The tide was just on the turn, meaning there was only a bit of soft sand in front of the waves, which were breaking with a gentle splash. We walked along the beach for a while, until there were no other people around, then stopped. At last we were here; this was what we had come here for. Everyone looked at me.

_How do you want to do this, Dec? Do you want us to wait somewhere?

‘No! Fuck, no. Don’t make me do it on my own. Are you all OK to stay? It might take a while, I’ve rambled on a bit.’

:Course, love.

_We’re here, sweetheart, whatever you need.

A hand on the shoulder from Matt, Amy took my arm and cuddled up close.

‘OK, then.’

Beth handed me my bag of stuff, which she had been carrying for me in her spacious handbag, and I turned and faced the sea, standing as close as I could without risking getting my feet wet. I took some sheets of paper out of the bag.

‘This was supposed to be a remembering day, although I seem to have spent most of it either avoiding bad memories or trying to force good ones that didn’t appear. But what I’ve done is write a letter to Mum and Dad, telling them some of the things that have happened to me since they’ve been gone. I know we talked about speeches and scattering rose petals, and I’m going to read the letter out loud, so it’s a kind of a speech, but afterwards I’m going to put it in this bottle with some photos and throw it in the sea. I’m not, like, sending it to them. They’re gone, it won’t ever reach them. But I will have sent it away, told them, even though they won’t ever know. Probably sounds a bit mad.’

Beth and Rose had tears in their eyes. Amy clung even tighter to my arm and leaned her head on my shoulder. I put my arm round her and was very, very glad she was there.

}Makes sense to me, mate, even for a bloody nutter like you.

‘OK then, here goes. It’s a bit long, hope you’re alright here for a bit. Please try not to get upset, guys, I’m going to find it hard enough as it is, and I really want to finish it.’

Asking this was a bit of a lost cause, looking at Beth and Rose’s faces, but I could only ask. I looked down at the pages, took a deep breath and started to read the words.

‘Dear Mum and Dad,

You’ve been gone a long time, exactly ten years today, and there are some things I want to tell you. I’ve done a bit of a list, the major things I want you to know from the last ten years. Some are good, and I hope they’d make you proud. Some are not my finest hours, and would have got me grounded at the very least. But if you were here you’d know about them, so it’s only fair. I’ve got some people here with me who are my family now. You wouldn’t have needed to worry about me, I’m well looked after.

I suppose this is a list of events. Some of them I’ve got pictures of, and I’m sending them to you too.

I suppose I should start when I was thirteen, because that’s when you left me and I had to live with strangers and it was hard.

Just before I was fourteen, I changed schools and changed my name. I’m Declan now, Dec to some. Hope you don’t mind. It helped, but sometimes I feel bad about not having the name you gave me any more.

There’s a picture here of me and some of my mates at Billy Tucker’s party. It was the first time I ever got pissed. From the look of me, I already was pretty wasted in the picture. I was ill like you would not believe later, and all the next day, but I think I did it again soon afterwards. Mum, you would have said ‘some people never learn’. And, yeah, I know, fourteen is pretty young. I didn’t do it that often, but when you need to impress your mates and be the toughest, sometimes you have to do unwise things.

I didn’t get much wiser when I was fifteen, and here’s a picture of me on crutches after I broke my foot jumping off the sea wall onto the beach, in an attempt to get Gemma Pritchard to notice me. She certainly noticed me, it was a bit difficult to miss all the screaming in agony, but she still snogged Will Callaghan while I was at the hospital. I really regretted it, even apart from the pain and Gemma snogging Will, because I missed the end of the rugby season. I was lucky that I was mostly in plaster over the summer, so I could play once I got back to school after the holidays. I was bloody lucky I didn’t fuck up my foot for good. Fifteen was also when I got arrested for fighting in Gino’s pizza place after Billy Tucker called me a fucking liar. I can’t even remember why he did now, but it seemed important at the time. We gave each other black eyes and trashed a couple of tables, and Gino called the police. We got a severe telling off, for the first time but not the only time. I also got a tattoo, it was pretty naff, as I was trying for something dark and troubled but had it done cheap by this mate of a mate, so it didn’t quite turn out how I wanted. So, fifteen not my most impressive age. I’ve had the tat covered up now, though, by a proper body artist, and I know you never liked them, Mum, but it says ‘Mum and Dad’, and it feels like I carry the memory of you with me in some way.

It all changed when I was sixteen. I got picked for the county under-18s side and I got scouted by Raiders. Yes, Dad, Raiders. They offered me a scholarship and accommodation, and I left here and followed my dream. I moved in with Beth and Jay – Jay Scott, the Raiders full-back, although he was a coach by the time I got there. Bloody hell, eh? They’re my family now. Their son, Cal, was about two when I moved in; we got on like a house on fire. There’s a picture of the four of us here, I think we were at Pizza Place or something. I was a bit of a handful when I got there, that’s putting it mildly, but they sorted me out, took care of me. Kind of made up for all the people who didn’t want me after you’d gone. You’d love them – I do.

Seventeen was more of the same, really. I got into the Raiders Academy, made some great mates – here’s one of me, Bonksy, DivDav, Mikey, Danno and Big, out on the lash – no, I wasn’t legally old enough, none of us were, but we were having a great time, which is all that counted. I got a couple of GCSEs, unbelievably, and passed my driving test. I went to Twickenham to see England play Argentina – Nico Tiago scored an amazing try right in front of where I was sitting. I also got a couple of games off the bench with Raiders Reserves.

When I was eighteen I left school with a couple more GCSEs, and went pro at Raiders. I was still part of their academy, but started to play more often, and started most games for the reserves. I got a couple of games in the first team off the bench, mostly in the cup, but one in the Premiership – there’s a copy of a clipping from the newspaper, it has my name on the team list. Sorry this is mostly rugby, that’s really all I was doing. There were nights out (with rugby mates), nights in (either at home or with rugby mates), and I went on holiday to Ibiza (with rugby mates). I was having a great time. I didn’t have an eighteenth party because we had a game the next day, but we did have a mass piss-up when the season finished – there were four of us who’d turned eighteen that year, and we all celebrated together. It was a pretty wild night, as you can see from the pictures. I can’t remember much about it. That was also the year I bought my car, here’s a picture. She’s called Betsy. We’ve been through a lot together.

Nineteen – everything went a bit shit. I really fucked up, you would not have been happy. It’s all a bit complicated, but the short version is I crashed my car, someone died and everything fell apart. I ended up stealing some money, almost got sacked from Raiders, lost Jay and Beth for a while. I went somewhere weird and dark in my head, nearly lost everything. I mean everything. I missed you the most then, when I had nothing and no one, and nobody to blame but myself. But, sometimes things are meant to be. I met Rose who, it’s fair to say, forced herself into my life and insisted on helping me when I was bloody awful to her. She saved me. She picked me up off the floor, literally a couple of times, sorted me out. She’s not you, Mum. But she is bloody close to it. Rose can talk for Wales, cook for Wales, and hug for Wales. She helped me out of the pit I was in, and things turned around for me. I slowly got back on my feet, started putting things right. There were a few setbacks on the way, and I’ve got the scars to prove it if you look closely, but I got there in the end. Someone else I got to know when I was nineteen is Matt. He’s Jay’s brother. He’s probably my best friend. You may have noticed I swear quite a lot. It’s mostly his fault, although he blames it on me. We’ve done our fair share of helping each other through dark times the last few years. I’m not sure you’d approve of him, but you’d like him. Everyone does.

Just before my twentieth birthday, I started seeing a psychologist, Adam. He’s really helped me sort my shit out. I talk about you a lot. Later that year, I started going out with Amy. Eventually. Long story. Very long. It took us ages to admit how we felt about each other, but we got there in the end. Amy is gorgeous and amazing. There’s a picture of us here, but it doesn’t do justice to her big blue eyes. She only has to look at me and I’d do anything for her. I love her so much. She’s my world. Just over a year after we started going out, we moved in together and I asked her to marry me – so when I was twenty one. She said yes, but we still haven’t got round to doing anything about it yet. Was I always so slow off the mark? I started playing in Raiders’ first team pretty regularly. Nico Tiago was one of my team mates and he’s a really good friend, part of the family, although he’s back in Argentina now. I had a proper twenty first birthday party, Beth did most of the organising, it was a brilliant night, we had a band, food, drink, a bouncy castle, it was perfect. I’ve put in a couple of pictures of me making a fool of myself – Mum, I was dancing to Take That, and yes, Dad, that is a pair of Australia underpants I’m wearing on my head. You’re only twenty one once.

Last year, when I was twenty two, I was told I might be picked for England. Wow. I wasn’t asked in the end, but that would have been a dilemma. I only ever really wanted to play for the Wallabies, although I think that’s pretty unlikely. Thankfully I didn’t have to choose, although a part of me was a bit disappointed after all the excitement. Raiders came second in the Premiership – we lost the final in the last minute, it was really close. At the end of the season we went on a big family holiday – Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, Rose, Nico and Lis, Carol (Jay and Matt’s mum) and Matt, with Ames and me. There’s a picture of all of us in a restaurant trying to pluck up the courage to eat snails. We had a huge cottage practically on the beach in the south of France, and had an amazing time, chilling out, swimming, relaxing, and then called in at Disneyland Paris on the way back. I don’t know who was the biggest kid – me or Matt. Cal and Iz had quite a good time too. You can see in the picture that Matt and I were quite taken with Minnie Mouse, but Iz wasn’t so happy that the scary giant-headed cartoon person was kissing her uncle.

This year just gone, so I’m twenty three now, Raiders won the Prem. Awesome. But exciting as it was to be part of the team last season, I’m more blown away by the news I’m going to be a dad. I don’t know if you’d believe it, I can still hardly believe it myself. Ames and me still haven’t managed to get married, but now we’re going to be parents. The baby’s due next January – an early birthday present for me. Ames had her first scan last week, and I’ve put a copy of the picture in with everything else. I keep looking at it – we can’t tell boy or girl, but you can see the head and arm if you look closely. I think it’s made me miss you more, knowing what you’re never going to see and be part of.

I think about you every day. Sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I remember something we used to do that makes me happy for a bit, sometimes I can’t remember your faces and I feel bad, sometimes I can’t quite believe you’re gone. I wish you hadn’t died. I wish you knew all the awesome people I love. I wish you were here. I love you both and I always will.

Love

CHARLIE

29. Anticipation

In which it is Christmas Eve and fever pitch is approached from several angles.

Matt

The next day began much as the others had, with Jay coming in, helping me to eat breakfast, drink some tea and then drink some of the ghastly build-up drink. Then it was time for the loo. My exciting life was the envy of all.

I could get myself out of bed and into my wheelchair without help these days, I was such an elite athlete, and on good days I could just about wipe my own arse and get myself back in my chair. Still didn’t have the energy to propel the wheelchair across the two metres of carpet to the bathroom though.

There was a shower in the bathroom, but it wasn’t a wet room; I was a long way away from being able to get into the cubicle and have a really good scrub, and I felt dirty, soiled, grimy. Jay had to give me a wash every day, although I did as much as I could with the bits I could reach. Often a shave was beyond my strength, and I convinced myself the stubble made me look dangerous, rather than how it actually made me look, which was like I was auditioning to sell the Big Issue.

That morning I managed a lot for myself, taking the flannel out of Jay’s hand at one point as he started to rub it over my face.

‘I cahn duh ih, thahks.’

‘Right you are, mate. Sorry, wasn’t concentrating, I’m used to doing it with Cal.’

Yeah, Jay, that made me feel tons better. But maybe he had things on his mind.

‘Tehnager trauhmas?’

‘Ha ha, no, everything’s working out OK so far. He’s still in bed, not that I’m surprised, he spends most of his life in bed.’

I could relate to that – maybe we had more in common than I realised.

‘Tahked tuh him yeht?’

‘No. Later today, maybe.’

Jay seemed reluctant, and I wondered how long he was going to put off having his serious conversation with Dec.

‘Dohnt lehv ih too lohng.’

‘Yeah yeah, don’t go on, already got Beth giving it all the ‘don’t put it off, it’ll spoil Christmas’ shit. Don’t need you nagging me too.’

It felt good to nag him, I didn’t have much opportunity to get my own back these days, but I shrugged and handed him the flannel.

‘You look like you’ve put on a bit of weight, mate.’

I looked up in pleased surprise.

‘Rehly?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Still look like an anorexic scarecrow, but it’s good to see. You still planning to do Christmas dinner tomorrow?’

Having Christmas dinner at the table with everyone else had become the focus for me of the last week. I hadn’t been ‘out’ to the rest of the house since I’d been here, and now I could sit out in the chair for a little while, I really wanted to join in with the festivities, rather than hear it all going on while I listened from my room.

I’d told Beth my plan, and she’d initially demurred, saying I wasn’t strong enough, but I badgered her, told her how good it would be for me, promised to rest between now and then, eat what they put in front of me, drink my disgusting build-up drinks, be a good boy, and eventually she gave in. I had no idea how long I would last, maybe not beyond the turkey being carved, but making the effort was important to me.

‘Yeh.’

‘Glad to hear it. Family Christmas, yeah?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Mum’ll be here soon. She called last night, all in a dither about something or other, did we want her to come early.’

‘Yeh?’

‘She had that thing at her friend’s, drinks thing, I said I’d go and get her if she wanted, but she chose the drink over us.’

‘Typihcal.’

‘Be prepared for a full on mothering assault.’

‘Dohnt mihnd.’

And I didn’t. Of all the people who fussed about and told me what to do, Mum was the one I was least resentful of. Not that I enjoyed it, but I knew how worried she was about me, and how traumatised she’d been by finding me half-dead on my bathroom floor. She didn’t come and see me every day, but three or four times a week she got the bus over, so she could sit and look and sigh.

‘You have been warned.’

Cal

I didn’t wake up until Mum came in to get me up and ask what I wanted for breakfast.

Dec was still asleep when I went downstairs, and he stayed asleep for hours. He always used to be asleep for hours, when he wasn’t doing training or playing in a rugby game, so although I was a bit disappointed he wasn’t playing with me, I wasn’t surprised.

After a while, Mum looked at the clock, tutted, and went up the stairs. I followed her, and she tapped on my bedroom door.

Dec

I must have fallen asleep for a while, because I woke up on my own, still up against the wall, with a stiff neck. It was light outside, and I could hear voices from downstairs. I should really get up. Before long, there was a tap on the door.

_Dec, are you awake in there?

‘Mm.’

_Just wondered if you want any breakfast? Only it’s getting on a bit.

‘What time is it?’

_Eleven thirty.

I couldn’t believe I had slept away my first morning here with them.

‘Shit.’

_Yeah, Cal’s right behind me here.

‘Sorry, yeah, I didn’t realise the time. I’ll get up now.’

_We need to do your dressings sometime today.

‘Yeah, sorry Beth, I meant to get up, I just went back to sleep.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart. So, breakfast or not?

‘I’ll grab something quick in a minute shall I?’

_OK. Just so you know, James’s mum’s here.

‘Thanks for the warning, no wandering down in my boxers then.’

_If you could avoid it; I don’t think she’s ever forgotten that incident.

I had met Jay’s mum many times on her visits to Jay and Beth. I used to sleep on Cal’s floor so she could use my room, but when Jay and Beth had the conservatory built, they used it as a guest room, so when she stayed I had forgotten she was there. I had met her at the bottom of the stairs, bleary with sleep, wearing only my boxers which I quickly realised from the shocked direction of her gaze were gaping rather revealingly. Jay hadn’t let me forget that one for some time.

‘Be down in a minute.’

I dressed quickly, spraying deodorant in lieu of a proper wash, as I’d got used to doing recently. I really hadn’t meant to sleep in for so long, but Cal’s night time visit had stopped me sleeping properly and I must have been catching up.

Cal

I went downstairs to wait for Dec in the kitchen. I’d been playing in Uncle Matty’s room, but I knew Dec would get his breakfast first, because he always did. Granny had come earlier, and she and Mum were doing cooking. The table was a bit messy, but there was room for my dinosaurs to make footprints in the flour while I waited for Dec.

Dec wasn’t long, and I stared when he came in. His hair was all short! Yesterday, his hair had been long, and like a girl, and now it was short and spiky. I hadn’t noticed when he was in bed, because it was dark. I looked at him now, as he talked to Mum and got his breakfast, but then he took his cup and his plate into Uncle Matty’s room, so I picked up my dinosaurs and followed him.

Dec

Downstairs, the kitchen was busy. Beth was peeling vegetables, Jay’s mum had an apron on and she was doing something with flour in a bowl. Could have been making pastry, I’d never been that knowledgeable about things that went on in the kitchen. Cal was sitting at the table, playing with dinosaurs. There was a radio on, playing a cheesy Christmas song. Oh yeah, it was Christmas Eve. I kept forgetting.

‘Hi Mrs Scott.’

#Declan. How are you?

It wasn’t a warm welcome. I sensed disapproval. Maybe I was being over-sensitive.

‘I’m good thanks. You?’

#I’m well, thank you.

‘It’s busy in here.’

_Lucky for you, you didn’t get up sooner, we’d have put you to work spud bashing.

‘Can I do anything now?’

_No, sweetheart, I was teasing. It would seem a bit strange to have you helping out voluntarily, not like old times at all. We’ve got it covered. Actually, though, tell you what you could do later, there are some things we need to do without a certain someone in attendance, and if you could go out with Cal for a bit after lunch that would be great.

‘Consider it done.’

_Kettle’s on, cup of tea? James is in with Matty.

‘I can do it. Anyone else?’

I made my tea and took it in to Matt’s room, only realising afterwards how easily I had lifted and poured everything. From the toys scattered on the floor, it looked like Cal had already been busy.

Matt

Jay helped me get dressed and was adjusting the bed when Dec walked in holding a mug. At least I assumed it was Dec. The long unkempt hair had disappeared, swallowed up overnight and replaced by a short, spiky haircut that had been messily arranged to hide the scar disappearing into his scalp. The nose was still obviously askew, and he needed to ditch the forlorn crop of straggly bum-fluff asap, but there was only so much a haircut could patch up.

He smiled at us.

‘Morning.’

Jay looked pointedly at his watch.

Well just about – bloody hell, where did all the girly hair go?’

‘Beth gave it a trim last night.’

Beth fancied herself as a bit of a hairdresser, and was always grabbing the scissors and snipping bits off Jay’s and Cal’s locks, whether they wanted it or not. To be fair, Cal had blond ringlets that would be the envy of many a fairy princess, and his hair needed a bit of taming now and then, but Jay had pretty standard mid-brown slightly wavy hair, and he put up with the fiddling with more patience than I would have given him credit for.

Beth had cut my hair shortly after coming out of hospital, as it had got so overgrown that it was either that or call in the dog groomers, but never again. Not that she did a bad job, really, but I’d got used to Becky, the girl who did my hair at Classy Cuts in Stafford city centre, and Beth twittered far too much, and didn’t ask about my holidays, and there was altogether too much fannying about and shit. Ugh. Anyway, she had managed to turn the kid into a half-decent looking human being rather than a two-legged afghan hound, so I suppose she deserved credit for that.

‘Much better. I see your sleeping habits haven’t changed much.’

‘Had a late night visit from Cal.’

Ah, let me guess, he persuaded you to let him get in your bed and you spent the rest of the night with no room while he slept like a log.’

‘Pretty much.’

Well you’ll know next time. We don’t let him in anymore.’

‘He said you – oh.’

It was entertaining to see the realisation cross Dec’s face that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the ‘my mum and dad let me’ trick.

Yeah, you’ve been Cal-ed. You’re out of practice, mate.’

Dec laughed. ‘I guess I am a bit. Hi Matt.’

The hint of banter that had begun yesterday felt like it needed a boost.

‘Mohning – ahftenohn?’ I raised an eyebrow.

Dec grinned and took the baton.

‘Yeah, whatever. Don’t you start, I thought us cripples were sticking together.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

I grinned too, enjoying myself.

‘Fuck right back off.’

His grin widened, and it was so great to hear someone telling me to fuck off, even if it was a joke; everyone was nice to me, even when I was being an annoying git, even Jay, who took less of my shit than most.

That’s what I like to see, a bit of Cripples Corner team spirit. Keep the morale up, boys. Oh, hi Cal.’

None of us had seen Cal sidle into the room, eyes wide at the amount of forbidden words that had just been uttered in the house.

Cal

It was just as well it was me and not Mum who had been listening from the hallway. She would have said ‘honestly’ to all of them. I giggled to myself, and Dad looked round and saw me.

‘Daddy, you just –’

Shh, I know, won’t happen again. Let’s have a look at this Lego here, shall we?’

I loved it when Dad played with me, he was really good at building things and remembered how to make a spaceship without reading the structions. I had a really good game going, so we both knelt on the floor and started building while Dec talked to Uncle Matty.

Matt

I looked up at Dec, who was biting his lip and looked pensive.

‘He’s in trohbl now. Cal alwahs tells.’

‘We probably are too, then.’

‘Noh, crihpls privileges.’

It felt like I had an ally. Like a naughty school friend who, with a bit of encouragement, might help me put itching powder on the teacher’s chair or switch the sugar for salt. It felt good, kind of like things didn’t always have to be so bloody serious any more.

Jay looked up from Cal’s cars.

Guys, you’re not helping. ‘

I laughed, but something went the wrong way, and fuck fuck fuck I started to cough, and then I couldn’t stop, and I was choking, gasping for breath, unable to suck enough into my lungs before the next cough tried to force itself out. Jay was instantly by my side, and I distantly heard Dec and Cal leave pretty sharpish.

Dec

łShit. Dec, can you take Cal for some squash in the kitchen? I just need to help Matty a minute.

I herded Cal out, the coughing and gasping sounding behind us. The kitchen was full of noise and activity. Something was steaming on the hob, the radio was still on, and something was being done with – I’d been right – pastry. Beth looked up.

_Everything OK?

\i’m having some squash.

‘Jay’s helping Matt – he’s having a bit of a cough.’

_Ohh, does he need any help?

‘He didn’t say.’

_I’d better go and see.

She washed her hands and hurried out.

‘OK, Cal, where’s the squash?’

\that cupboard. I want purple.

‘You’d like purple, please, is that what you said?’

\purple please.

I poured out the squash, filled up the glass and gave it to Cal, who sat at the table to drink it.

‘Can I get you anything, Mrs Scott? I might do another cup of tea.’

#Actually that would be nice. It’s been a busy morning so far.

I made the tea and put a mug in front of her, again feeling pretty pleased with how well I was managing with lifting the kettle and pouring the large milk bottle.

‘What’s that you’re making?’

#Mince pies. I brought some with me but we thought we’d do a few more. Matthew really likes them, it’s a good way of bulking him up a bit.

_Beth’s mince pies are great – er, I’m sure yours are too.

There was an awkward pause.

#You look like you’ve been in the wars. Jameson said you were in a fight?

I sensed more disapproval.

‘Well, no, not a fight exactly, I was on the wrong end of a kicking. Didn’t know much about it till I woke up in hospital.’

#You’re still recovering are you?

‘Yeah, had to have an operation, but it’s all going to plan I think.’

#Jameson and Beth were pleased you could come for Christmas.

It seemed obvious but unspoken, however, that she wasn’t that pleased.

‘It’s great to see them, and Cal. I’ve really missed them.’

#They’ve had a hard time over the last few months.

‘I know. I regret everything I’ve done that’s made it harder for them.’

I was very aware of Cal’s small ears listening while he played with his dinosaurs.

#You won’t upset them again, will you?

‘No.’

Cal

Granny wasn’t being very friendly to Dec. Granny was better than Mum and Dad at not saying things she didn’t want me to hear, but I’d heard her call Dec ‘that boy’ a few times, and she hadn’t looked very pleased when I’d told her Dec was coming for Christmas. Now she was using her ‘telling off’ voice, although Dec didn’t look like he thought he was being told off, at least not like he used to when Mum did it.

I didn’t want Dec to be told off, so I thought of something I could ask Granny, even though I knew the answer.

‘Granny where is your bed?’

I knew exactly where Granny’s bed was; it was in the spare room, where it always was.

Dec

Jay’s mum held my gaze while she answered Cal. I looked back at her and nodded. It was an acknowledgement and a promise.

Cal

‘It’s in the spare room, dear.’

Granny didn’t look at me while she answered, she was looking at Dec, as if she was saying one thing to him with her eyes and another thing to me with her mouth. Dec nodded, as if he was agreeing with her, and then she looked at me.

‘Will Santa know you’re here and not at home?’

‘Yes, dear, he knows where everyone is. He knows Declan’s here too.’

Granny always called people by their full names. She called me Calum, and Dad Jameson, and Dec Declan and Uncle Matty Matthew.

‘Dec probably told him – he can talk to Santa.’

I’d spotted an opportunity to put Dec in Granny’s good books. She couldn’t be cross with someone who could talk to Santa – it could make a big difference to how many presents you got.

Dec shrugged. I suppose it wasn’t polite to boast about it, although Granny didn’t look as impressed as I’d thought she would.

Dec

I shrugged with a modest smile.

#Oh, well that’s alright then. Calum, what are you having for your lunch? How about some beans on toast?

\kay. Can Dec share my beans?

‘How about I make it, eh, Cal? Remember woossy beans?’

Cal

‘Woossy beans! Can we have woossy beans?’

Woossy beans was my and Dec’s favourite thing when he was looking after me. It was beans on toast with woosser sauce in it, and we both said it was the finest lunch. Mum had tried to make it, but it never tasted the same as when Dec did it.

‘I’ll check in the cupboard – any idea where Worcester sauce might be, Mrs Scott?’

Matt

Then, while I was struggling to pull in the tiniest amount of useful breath and largely failing, Beth came in, and started rubbing my back while Jay filled a bowl with hot water and menthol, and put it under my nose. None of it ever worked, the coughing had always stopped on its own eventually, but just having them there calmed me, because when it happened, it felt like I was going to die, that I would never catch my breath again, that my insides were trying to hurl themselves out via my windpipe. But Beth knew how to offer soothing, comforting words, and whether they needed to call someone, and Jay – well, Jay was pretty useless, really, but he’d never leave until it was all over and he knew I was OK. Part of me wondered if he was waiting for an opportunity to chuck me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift so he could show off his strength, but that hadn’t been necessary so far and I was damned if I was going to give him the satisfaction – and then it stopped.

I gradually got more and more air inside me and the need to manually haul each breath in subsided; an extreme lethargy swept over me and took me down and I was asleep before they’d laid me down and put the duvet over me.

Cal

Granny opened the cupboards and tried to find the woosser sauce, but she still wasn’t having much luck when Mum came back in. Granny stopped looking so she could ask Mum how Uncle Matty was. I thought it was obvious that Uncle Matty was alright, otherwise Mum wouldn’t have come back in the kitchen, but I didn’t say this out loud.

Mum told Granny that Uncle Matty was asleep now, and asked what she was looking for in the cupboards.

‘Worcester sauce. For Cal’s lunch.’

Mum looked like she was going to say I didn’t like woosser sauce, then she thought about it, and I saw her remember that I only liked it in beans.

‘Ohh, woossy beans! You haven’t had that for ages, Cal.’

‘Dec’s making it for me.’

‘Are you sure you can manage, Dec?’

‘I’ll give it a go. Everything’s working much better now. I may need a hand to spread the butter, oh and possibly to open the tin.’

I kept forgetting that Dec had hurt arms. I could see he had a hurt face, but his arms seemed the same as normal until he couldn’t break apart the small Lego, or he couldn’t lean down on them for as long as he usually did.

Dec

We made the woossy beans on toast together, Cal and I ate it, then we got ready to go out. Beth had suggested the local garden centre, which was just down the road, and had lots of Christmas decorations, lights, and most importantly a Santa’s Grotto.

_You might not get in, but it’s worth a shot. Don’t promise Cal, though, in case it doesn’t happen.

It showed how much of Beth’s trust I had lost that she felt she needed to tell me how to be around Cal. It was a reminder of how much I had to do to prove myself to them.

_Can you ring me when you’re on your way back, give us a bit of warning?

‘Haven’t got a phone.’

_Oh, of course not, sorry, we haven’t – no, I forgot. Take mine, the number’s under ‘Home’.

Beth sounded like she had started to say something and then changed her mind. She had probably remembered what happened to my phone and was being considerate.

She gave me some money, just in case we got in to see Santa, which I really didn’t want, but I hadn’t got my new bank card yet, so I still had no cash. Not that there was anything in my bank account any more. So I had to accept Beth’s money. We walked along the path, Cal holding tightly onto my hand, chattering all the way.

We spent a long time at the garden centre looking at all the sparkle. There were loads of people there, and it was bustling and noisy. There was a long queue for Santa, so I asked Cal if he wanted to wait, it looked like at least forty-five minutes to me. He was keen, with conditions.

\can I have a slushie?

Cal

After lunch, which was the best woossy beans I’d ever had, Dec took me to the garden centre, which was just down the road. There were lots of Christmas trees and fairy lights, and a giant reindeer made out of sticks, and the most ginormous tree, even more ginormous than ours. Dec and I walked around looking at everything, and then we saw Santa’s Grotto, and I wanted to see Santa. Because it was Christmas Eve, there were lots of people, and lots of other children wanted to see Santa, so there was a line, and Dec said it would be a long time to wait, but he would buy me a slushie and wait with me.

While we waited, we started a story. It was one of our stories like we used to do on Sunday afternoons when it was raining, and I wanted to go to the park but the swings would be all wet. How it worked was, we had to make everything we saw go in the story. There was a lot to see while we were waiting in the line for Santa; when we first stood in the line, we were near a giant animaltronic Santa, which wasn’t as good as the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex was going to be at Dinosaurland, because the Santa was just waving his arm and turning his head, but he was the first thing to go in our story, because I started. We decided that Santa needed a sleigh, so we looked around to see something that he would be able to use. At first we didn’t see anything, and then Dec said:

‘Oh, you know what, Cal, I bet Santa’s sleigh is like a Transformer. I bet it kind of looks like one thing most of the year, and then on Christmas Eve, when he needs it, he presses a button, and it turns into his sleigh.’

This sounded like the best thing about Christmas I’d ever heard.

‘Yeah, I bet Santa’s sleigh is a dinosaur the rest of the year.’

‘I bet it is. I bet it’s a dinosaur made out of … er …’

Dec looked around, trying to find something like the rules of the story said.

‘Out of shovels, which stick up for spines on his back, and big hammers for his feet …’

‘And his eyes are torches, and when he changes into the sleigh, his eyes are the headlights.’

‘Good thinking Batman. And if it’s really snowy, he can use the shovels to dig a path.’

We carried on thinking about the story all the way in the line to Santa, and I had a really happy feeling inside, because I was with Dec and we were doing things like we used to, and it didn’t seem like we waited a long time at all before we were at the front, and a bit of me was disappointed because we were going to have to stop our story, and I knew that stories like that were never as good when you started them again, but most of me really wanted to see Santa so I could check about the things on my list.

I knew that this Santa wasn’t the real Santa, he would be one of his helpers just dressed up like Santa, but he would know what was on the list I sent him, and he would probably know Dec as well.

Dec

Cal was so creative and he sparked my imagination; I’d missed being with him loads, and was really enjoying getting reacquainted. We were soon at the front of the queue, Cal by now very excited. When it was his turn, he ran over to Santa and jumped up onto his knee.

*Hello young man, what’s your name?

\calum. Are you really Santa, or a helper?

*Well, I’m real and a helper. The real real Santa is coming tonight with your toys.

\did Dec ask him about Optimus Prime?

‘You know I did Cal, it’s all sorted.’

*Yes, I believe it’s all on the list?

Santa looked at me, did a slight double take presumably at my scars and bruises. I nodded.

\what about a Arsenal shirt?

Another look from Santa. I shrugged. Optimus Prime was as far as my Santa knowledge went.

*You’ll have to wait and see. It’s nice to have surprises, isn’t it?

Cal

I nearly said that it’s only nice if you get what you want and not if you don’t, but I was trying to be good and not mind too much if I didn’t have an Arsenal shirt because some children in Africa don’t even know Arsenal.

Dec

Cal continued to grill Santa.

\will Dec get a stocking?

Another shrug from me. An exasperated look from Santa behind his beard and glasses.

Cal

I asked if Dec would have a stocking, because he didn’t used to, but I didn’t know if this year was different, because it felt a bit different, and Santa said he would if he’d been good boy. I wasn’t sure if Dec had been a good boy, with him stealing and lying and making Mum and Dad cross, so I didn’t say anything else, and thought I might share some of my toys with Dec if he’d been too bad to have any of his own.

And then Santa said I could choose a present for today, from his lucky dip sack. There were lots of presents to choose from, but because they were all wrapped up, I couldn’t tell what they were. I looked at them, trying to decide whether I wanted the biggest, the smallest, or one that looked interesting. In the end I saw one that wasn’t big, or small, or flat and square like a colouring book, but was lumpy and hard when I squished it. I tore the paper off, and it was a dinosaur, but not one that I knew. It had its mouth open, and pointy white teeth, and a button that made its eyes flash red and a roar come out of its mouth. I showed Dec, who smiled at Santa, and made me say thank you.

Dec

Beth was just clearing away wrapping paper and sellotape when we arrived back. Cal didn’t notice, he was so intent on showing off his dinosaur.

\look what Santa gived me.

_Ooh, didn’t you do well. Did you have a nice time with Dec?

\we did a story about a dinosaur Transformer who was made of shovels and turned into Santa’s sleigh.

_Well it’s original. You’ll have to tell us that one, Dec, in case we’re asked for it again in the near future.

\can I show Uncle Matty my dinosaur?

_No, sweetheart, Uncle Matty’s still asleep. Play with Dec in the living room for now.

She looked at me to check.

‘Yeah, come on Cal, didn’t I see Jenga in your room?

\yes … but I’ve got Whirly Racers too.

‘Whirly Racers it is, go and fetch it.’

He ran out of the room to fetch his game.

_Thanks, Dec.

I shrugged, smiled and followed Cal. As I walked out I heard

_See? He’s so good with him.

#I do see that. He reminded Calum of his manners earlier. They seem very fond of each other.

We spent a lot of time racing small cars on the living room floor. Cal gave me the worst cars, so he won most of the time. He seemed very pleased with himself, whether because of his victories or his strategy I wasn’t sure. Half way through the afternoon, Beth came in with a bag.

_We need to do your dressings, Dec. Cal, go and sit with granny for a bit. She’s in the kitchen.

\oh but I want to watch.

Beth looked at me.

‘It’s fine, I don’t think it’s too gruesome.’

_Alright, then, stay for now but you go when I say, OK?

\kay Mummy.

I took my shirt off and Beth started to unwind the bandages that held the dressings in place, looking like she knew what she was doing – of course! She’d been a nurse, many years ago before she had Cal.

‘You’re good at this.’

_Don’t sound so surprised, it was my job.

‘I know, I just remembered.’

_It’s one of the things that made it easier to decide to look after Matty. I’ve seen it all before, I know how to do things, some idea about medication, when to call a doctor, all that stuff.

She carried on taking the dressings off, cleaning the scars with some fluid and cotton wool.

_These look pretty good, the stitches have nearly gone, there’s no swelling, no leakage. I think this could be your last dressing, Dec.

Cal had been watching intently, looking slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more blood.

\where does the sewing go?

_They’re special stitches that melt away after a while, so Dec doesn’t have to get the doctor to take them out. Is that what happened with the stitches in your face, Dec?

‘No, they took those out, and the ones in my back and legs. I had it done on Monday.’

Beth started putting new dressings on, and wound new bandages round them to hold them in place.

\mummy, can I have a bandage?

Cal

Mum never let me have plasters unless I really had a cut, but this time she looked at me and smiled.

‘How about a little tiny one on your finger?’

‘Kay.’

I held out my finger and Mum tied a bandage on the end of it. I held it up so Dec could see.

‘I can be in Cripples Corner now.’

I thought it would be alright to say it now I had a bandage. I was wrong.

Dec tried not to laugh, but Mum got cross.

‘Cal, remember what I said about not repeating everything Daddy says?’

‘But Dec and Uncle Matty say it too. It sounds funny.’

And it really wasn’t fair that everyone else was allowed to say it and I wasn’t.

‘Yes, I know, sweetheart, but it’s not, it’s not a nice word.’

‘Is it a swear?’

‘No, not a swear, but something I don’t want to hear you saying.’

‘Sorry, Cal, my fault mate. Let’s agree not to say it, if it upsets Mummy, yeah?’

That was a bit annoying. I wished I hadn’t said anything, because now nobody was allowed to say it.

‘Kay.’

‘Thanks, Dec. Right, I think that’s you all done.’

‘Nice job. Very professional. Good, eh, Cal? Bandage brothers, that’s what they’ll call us.’

‘Yeah, bandage brothers.’

I loved the name. And it sparked something off in my mind that Mum and Dad had talked about a while ago, about choosing a brother. If I could choose anyone for my brother, I’d choose Dec.

‘Dec, are you my new brother?’

‘What?’

Dec looked confused. Maybe I’d got it wrong. But Dec didn’t have a mummy and daddy, I was pretty sure of it, and if Mum and Dad wanted to give a me new brother, it just made sense to have Dec – he already did all the things brothers were supposed to do, like playing with me, and wrestling with me, and knowing which was a stegosaurus and which was a triceratops. And we already knew him. Then I saw Mum look at me and shake her head.

‘Cal –’

‘But Mummy, you said I might be having a new brother –’

‘Cal! I also said it was a secret.’

Well now I was really confused. If I could choose Dec as my brother, surely he’d have to know the secret too? I decided not to say anything else about it, because it just seemed to get me into trouble, even when it all made perfect sense.

Dec

I was a bit slow, but got there in the end.

‘Beth!’

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

_Yes, well now you know. But Carol doesn’t know yet, it’s very early days. I should have known big-mouth here would spill the beans, he heard me and James talking and worked it out. I suppose we’ll have to tell her now. God, she’ll never forgive me for you knowing before her.

‘Knowing what? Never heard a word. Congratulations for nothing, by the way. Wow.’

_Thanks, Dec.

She gave me a big, tired smile, patted me on her perfectly executed bandages, and left me to more Whirly Racing with Cal. I wondered briefly whether Beth’s news would change anything, but it was just one more thing I had no control over, and things had already changed beyond recognition anyway, so I hardly thought about it again.

Cal

So now Dec and I knew a secret together, and that felt better. Mum smiled at us, and then left us to get on with more Whirly Races.

Uncle Matty was asleep all the afternoon, and Dad was in his room, watching in case he coughed again or got more poorly, so Dec and I played and talked and fed Percy and made up more stories. The stories were mostly about Christmas, because Christmas was tomorrow, and I couldn’t think about much else.

At dinner time, Dad came out of Uncle Matty’s room, and Granny went in instead. They could have put the speaker on to hear for coughing, but when Uncle Matty had coughed a lot, they were all worried about him, and wanted to be near him, and wanted him to be in the quiet, so I couldn’t play in there.

Dec

The afternoon wore on, grew dark and became Christmas Eve proper. Cal got more and more excited, talking nineteen to the dozen about Santa, stockings and presents. Jay, who had been sitting with a sleeping Matt most of the afternoon, emerged for dinner looking tired. His mum went to sit in while Jay ate. Beth rubbed his shoulder.

_How’s he doing?

łStill sleeping it off. He’ll be OK, I think. He’s got some of the colour back in his cheeks. He wants to join in tomorrow so much, he needs to rest up. Jesus, Beth, I hate it when that happens. He can’t get his breath, you can just see it sucking his strength, right before your eyes.

_I know, it’s horrible. You were great.

łSorry, Dec, we’ve left you with Cal all day.

‘I’ve had a great time. Been exploring my inner six-year-old.’

_Oh, James, just to warn you, Cal told Dec our news.

łOur news? Oh. Shit.

Cal, wisely, didn’t comment on this particular swear and carried on eating his dinner as if butter wouldn’t melt. Jay put his face in his hands and breathed in deeply.

łWe’re going to have to tell Mum, now, aren’t we. And then your mum, and oh God, everyone. So much for keeping it quiet.

Beth nodded.

_Can’t be helped. Nice Christmas present?

łYeah, think positive.

He kissed her on the cheek, looked at me and winked.

Cal

Mum told Dad that I’d let Dec know the secret – Dad said a swear, but Mum didn’t say ‘James honestly’, and Dad winked at Dec, so I thought it might be OK. Dad said they’d have to tell Granny, so it wouldn’t be a secret for much longer, and I was glad because sometimes it was hard to remember not to say things until I’d said them and it was too late.

Then Dad did the list at me, the one about going to bed. He did the list because I would sometimes try to do lots of other things before I went to bed, and the list meant I couldn’t, I could only do what was on the list.

So, Cal, after dinner it’s bath, PJs, story, bed. No arguing, no slow-coaching. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

There wasn’t much room for slow-coaching if Dad followed the list, but I could at least take a long time over eating my dinner, and see if I could hear Mum and Dad saying anything interesting to Dec.

‘James, me and your mum are going to sit with Matty once Cal’s in bed. You and Dec could use the living room …’

For?’

‘Well, I know you wanted to have a talk with Dec.’

Dec

łOh, our deep and meaningful. Jesus. Sorry, Dec, not very subtle. Up for it?

‘Sure.’

It was one of the things I’d been dreading since arriving. Sorting things out with Jay was going to be painful, and bring up a lot of things I’d prefer remained buried, and a part of me worried that I’d fucked some things up so much they couldn’t be sorted or explained or forgiven. But it needed doing, and avoiding it wouldn’t make it any easier later on.

\daddy, what’s deep pan meanyful? Is it pizza?

Jay laughed out loud.

łNo Cal, it’s not pizza. I kind of wish it was.

_Daddy means him and Dec are going to talk for a while after you’ve gone to bed.

\can’t I stay and listen?

_No, sweetheart, you need to go to bed and sleep so Santa can bring your presents.

łCal, remember the list – bath, PJs, story, bed. No deep pan meanyful on the list.

\kay, Daddy.

Cal

Dad reminded me about the list, which didn’t have listening to talking, or pizza, on it anywhere, worse luck.

Dec

Cal prolonged finishing his dinner longer than I thought humanly possible – he really was an expert in avoiding going to bed. When he finally conceded that he had finished, Jay took him upstairs for a bath.

Cal

After dinner, Dad took me for a bath, and we put loads of bubbles in it and played with my submarine for ages. Dad put bubbles on my head like white hair, and put some on his chin, like a Santa beard, and it was funny.

When the water started to get cold, I got out of the bath and dried in the towel, then got my Christmas PJs on, the ones with snowflakes and Christmas trees. I’d worn them every weekend since the beginning of December, and now it was Christmas Eve, so it was definitely a good time to wear them.

Dec

Beth and I sat in the living room, watching a soppy Christmas film on TV. It might have been Love Actually, I obviously had no interest in such slushy nonsense. Jay’s mum was still sitting with Matt. In a break from the romantic traumas of Hugh Grant, I decided to check about my role on Christmas Day.

‘What’s the drill for tomorrow?’

_Not sure there’s a drill, sweetheart, we’ll just see how it goes. A lot depends on Matty. We were going to do some presents in his room, and he really wants to get up for dinner, but after today I don’t know if he’ll be up to it. He hasn’t been out of bed properly for a couple of days, so we’ll have to see. I hate to leave him out of things, but he gets so tired, we have to judge it at the time.

‘Sounds tricky.’

_It can be hard to make the call, he’s very stubborn, and doesn’t like to give in, so we just have to keep an eye on him. His colour changes when he’s had enough, so does his breathing.

‘Is he going to be OK?’

_Oh, Dec, nobody really knows. The combination of pneumonia and MS is a bit of an unknown quantity. He’s better than he was, but it’s slow progress. Something like today could be a setback, or he could wake up tomorrow full of beans.

‘It’s a bit shit, isn’t it.’

_Yes, sweetheart, it is a bit shit. Anyway, are you ready for your early morning Santa call?

‘How early is that likely to be?’

_Well, I don’t know if you remember last year, but if that’s anything to go by, it will be about three o’clock the first time, and you’ll be able to tell him firmly to go back to sleep. Second time, and if you’re lucky he’ll make it to four, he’ll be more persuasive. He definitely can’t open his stocking until five – he can come into our room to do that. It’s hanging by his bed – there’s a duplicate full stocking, James is going to change it over before we go to bed. Under no circumstances let him persuade you that he is allowed to come downstairs and open any presents under the tree. Carol and Matty will kill you if they miss anything.

‘So I’m going to have a sleepless night pretty much from three then?’

_Yep. OK with that?

‘Absolutely fine.’

Bath time over, Cal bounced into the living room carrying another large book. This one was about space. He was about to take a giant leap onto the sofa next to me.

łMind Dec’s arm.

He clambered carefully on instead, still managing to bash my bandaged arm with the huge book. I lifted my arm up and put it round him.

‘Which chapter?’

\man on the Moon.

łRight, I’m listening this time, you two. One chapter only.

Cal had chosen well, it was a really long chapter, with lots of pictures to talk about apart from the writing, and we made it last a good long time. When we reached the end of the last page, I glanced up at Jay, who was watching me in amusement.

Cal

The chapter about Man on the Moon was really long, and had lots of pictures to talk about. Dec read slowly, and we looked at some of the pictures twice, but Dad was listening this time, and when Dec got to the end of the chapter, we both looked up. Dad was looking back at us.

You may well check me out, I have read this chapter many times, and I know that is the end of it. Bed now, Cal.’

‘Ohh, Daddy –’

What’s next on the list after story?’

‘Bed.’

Have you had your story?’

‘Yes.’

So what’s next?’

‘Bed. But –’

No buts. Just bed. Come on, I’ll carry you up if you like.’

That was the problem with the list. You couldn’t argue with it, it was just a list.

Dad stood up and I jumped up so he would catch me. He held me upside down so Mum could kiss me night night, and I said night to Dec, then Dad carried me upstairs.

My stocking was lying on the top of my bed, and I climbed the ladder and hung the stocking on the end of the bed, almost hugging myself with excitement, because when I woke up tomorrow, Santa would have been, and the stocking would be full of shapes that squished and rustled, and I would have new toys.

Dec

Beth looked over at me once Cal was safely out of earshot.

_So far, so good. I’m expecting a few false starts. Right, I’ll vacate the room and leave you and James to it.

She stood up, left the room and closed the door. I flicked the TV off, and sat nervously, feeling like I was waiting for a job interview or an exam.

27. Who says you can’t go home?

In which there is an arrival, tears are shed, bonds are formed, and dinosaurs are encountered.

Dec

I opened the car door and got out.

~You go in, I’ll bring your bags, yeah?

I walked towards the front door, which suddenly opened and ejected a small heat-seeking missile, in the form of Calum James Scott.

\dec you’ve came it’s nearly dinner I’m having fish fingers you’re having spaghetti bognose you can see my rabbit he’s called Percy he’s in the garden.

He wrapped his arms round my legs. I had to stifle a sob and blink hard to stop tears running down my face.

‘Hey Cal, oh it’s great to see you, mate. Spaghetti bognose, eh? Sounds delicious. I’ll have to meet Percy a bit later.’

I ruffled his hair, took a deep breath to compose myself, then knelt down to give him a big hug. Cal wrapped his arms round my neck and dropped his voice to a whisper.

\did you say to Santa about Optimus Prime?

I whispered back. ‘It’s all sorted.’

Cal

I was so happy to see Dec that I grinned at him, and he grinned back, and everything that had seemed wrong suddenly seemed right. My world was alright again. Dec was here, he had talked to Santa, and it was Christmas Eve tomorrow.

‘Come on in Cal, you haven’t got your coat on, and neither has Dec.’

Mum called from the doorway. I didn’t have any shoes on either, but she didn’t mention that, and I followed Dec up the path and into the house.

Dec

Beth was standing in the doorway. I unpeeled Cal and walked up to her. She opened her arms and folded me in a huge hug. This time I couldn’t stop the tears, and we both cried. Maybe it wasn’t just ‘welcome’ – could I dare to believe it might be ‘welcome home’?

Cal

Dec gave Mum a big cuddle, and he cried, and so did Mum. I’d never seen Dec cry before, except in hospital when he was feeling hurt, and I remembered Mum saying Dec was sad, so I didn’t look too much, at least not at Dec crying. Dec’s face was very interesting, though, as it still had bruises on it, his nose looked bent in the middle, and some red lines with cuts in them down each side where the train tracks had been before.

Dec

_It’s great to see you, Dec. You’re looking so much better, now those stitches are out. I’m so glad you could make it up here. Oh, Lis, let James get that, is there any more stuff from the car?

Jay appeared at the door.

łHey mate, great to see you. You’re looking better.

Another big hug, I tried manfully not to shed any more tears, but failed. Despite all the crying, it was starting to feel like it might be alright.

łWe’ll catch up in a minute, Dec, let me just help Lis with your bags. I’m assuming you’re using your piss-poor arms as an excuse to leave the heavy lifting to a girl.

I shrugged, grinning, trying to wipe my eyes.

łYeah, yeah, go and wait in the kitchen, Beth’s got the kettle on.

It was so strange going through the front door. It was their home and not mine. This moment made me realise how much a part of their family I had become when I lived with them. Feeling a little detached, I followed Cal into the kitchen, where Beth and Lis were in full flow.

_ … welcome to stay tonight, James’s mum isn’t coming till tomorrow.

~Oh, I’d really love to, but Nico’s invited half the squad for Christmas dinner. I’m going to need all of tomorrow to get myself sorted. I’ll stay for something to eat, though. And I want the grand tour, your kitchen is lovely …

Cal

I followed Dec, Mum and Lis into the kitchen, where Mum made a cup of tea and put the spaghetti and my fish fingers on for dinner. I had another good look at Dec’s face. He looked more like Dec and less like a monster than the last time I’d seen him. In fact, I couldn’t exactly remember what he’d looked like then, but now I had loads of questions to ask him. Mum and Lis were talking about the kitchen, and Dec didn’t look at me, so I couldn’t ask straight away.

Matt

So he was here, at last. Not that I’d been particularly anticipating it, but the rest of the household seemed to have been abuzz for days, with lots of hoovering, discussions about meals and last minute phone calls to be had, arranging final details and gradually getting more hyperactive.

Apparently some sort of operation had nearly fucked up the whole plan, and someone had broken into Dec’s flat while he was in hospital (that felt familiar) but it was all sorted now, and a few minutes ago I’d heard Cal shouting ‘he’s here Mummy, he’s here’, and the front door opened, and there were excited voices, and a few silences where there could have been tears, but who was I to judge – the salty bastards seemed to leak out of my eyes every five minutes too. Then the voices went away, and I could hear them indistinctly from the kitchen. I strained my ears, but could hear no more than the faint murmur of voices. No one thought to come and tell me how it was going, but then my lot in life as a fucking cripple was to lie still and wait to be told what was happening.

Cal

I got bored listening to them talking about the kitchen, and if I looked at Dec’s face much longer I would ask him something, and Mum would be cross because I was supposed to remember about Dec being sad. So I went into Uncle Matty’s room, where I had a road set up for my cars. Uncle Matty was awake, and sitting up in his bed which could sit him up or lie him down using electric buttons. He smiled at me as I sat on the floor and started driving the cars and lorries around.

Matt

Cal surprised me by coming in after a little while and resuming the game he’d been playing on the floor with his cars.

‘Dec’s hehr, thehn.’

‘Yes.’

‘Guhd tuh seh hihm?’

‘Yes but he’s talking to Mummy and Lis about the kitchen.’

I smiled. I’d rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. Now I knew what was going on, I didn’t feel so left out. Dec could keep his cosy chat about the (for all I knew) solid oak cupboards and (did I give a shit as I’d never seen them) granite worktops as far as I was concerned.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled again, looking as if he knew what I meant, and would rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. He watched me for a little while, then asked if he could join in. I sometimes let Uncle Matty join in by suggesting where my cars could go. As long as he understood what the game was, he was usually pretty good at suggesting, and didn’t mind if I did something different instead. Sometimes I used Uncle Matty’s bed as a ski-jump, and he would hold his duvet up so the cars could roll down it and fly off the end of his bed. But I wasn’t playing ski-jumps today.

‘Kay. This game is about roadworks. The green lorry is doing traffic lights, and the yellow car is the men with the drill, and all these cars are going to be in a traffic jam.’

‘Goht ih. Is thehr a skycohpter?’

‘There could be, in case it gets on the news.’

Uncle Matty understood the importance of helicopters, and always tried his best to get them into my games.

‘Coohl.’

Dec

I sat at the kitchen table and let their chatter wash over me. Cal had disappeared, my novelty value being short-lived. Beth put a mug of tea in front of me and ruffled my hair. I looked up at her and smiled.

_Your hair’s got really long.

‘I know, it feels a bit of a mess.’

_Do you want me to sort it out?

‘Oh, that would be great. You are pretty handy with a pair of scissors, aren’t you.’

_We’ll do it later.

‘It doesn’t feel real.’

_What, your hair?

‘No, being here. Can’t quite believe it.’

Beth sat down next to me and took my hand.

_It’s been a bit of a time for all of us, hasn’t it. The last few months have been … eventful I suppose we could call it … but I’m so glad you here, sweetheart. I wondered how it would be, but … it feels right. Are you OK?

I’d welled up again. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘Sorry, keep doing this. Just ignore me.’

~It’s true, he’s a pretty big wooss these days.

Lis grinned and winked at me. Jay came in with a bag of presents he’d brought in from the car, checking Cal wasn’t in the room.

łDidn’t know what to do with these, I presume they’re from Santa? Where’s the stash, Beth?

_I’ll take them.

Jay looked over at me.

łBloody hell, are you off again? Come on, let’s go and say hi to Matty, you and him will make a right pair.

He gestured to me to follow him and led me across the hall to a downstairs room. Cal was in there, floor covered in Lego and Transformer toys. There was a Christmas tree in the corner, and some coloured paper chains at Cal’s height across the wall. A door was half open, through which I could see the edge of a toilet and the corner of a shower. By the window, in a hospital-type bed, Matt was half sat up, thin and pale. He looked terrible; I hardly recognised him.

Matt

A short while later, I heard Jay’s voice, and footsteps crossed the hall. Jay came in, followed by a long-haired lanky man who I wouldn’t have recognised as Dec if I hadn’t had a big clue, he being the only person who wasn’t Jay or Cal or me in the room. His face was discoloured with just-beginning-to-fade bruises of varying spectacular colours; there were two red scars running down either side of his face, raised and angry looking, one of which tracked a line perilously close to his eye; his nose looked as if it had been on a journey to the other side of his face when the wind changed; and his hair – this boy needed a hair cut. Some of it had been cut or shaved away where one of the scars ran up into his hairline, and the rest of it was overgrown and a complete mess. His lower face was covered in unshaven stubble as well. Injuries aside, I wouldn’t have known him. I knew how important it could be not to instantly comment on how terrible someone looks, so I just held out my hand.

Cal

We played for a bit, then Uncle Matty got quiet, which meant he had gone to sleep and left me to play on my own. After a while, I heard Dad and Dec coming into the room. I looked up, and Uncle Matty was awake again. He lifted his hand and held it out to Dec.

I decided to stay as quiet as possible, in case anyone said anything interesting before they remembered I was there. It was also highly likely, with Dad, Dec and Uncle Matty in the same room, that I would hear some swears, possibly bad ones.

Matt

‘Heh Dec.’

‘Hey, sorry to see you so poorly.’

He obviously had no such compunction, the rude, thoughtless little git, although he clasped my hand warmly and gave me a smile that wasn’t full of pity or sympathy, so he got some points there.

‘Fehl mush behter, shuhldv sehn meh befohr.’

Dec

I suddenly realised where Cal had got his translation skills from when I was in hospital; Matt was having difficulty speaking clearly.

Cal

I looked up, because Dec needed to understand what Uncle Matty meant. Uncle Matty could talk a lot better than before, but he sometimes didn’t explain things very well.

‘Uncle Matty looked like a skellington, but now he’s like a vampire but not with sharp teeth.’

Matt

I hadn’t been aware I was being assessed using the Supernatural Being scale of symptoms, but his report was accurate.

‘Struh. Aihming fuh zombeh.’

This made everyone smile, which was always good, smiling was always good, it fended off the fussing for another few minutes. Supernatural Assessor Cal hadn’t quite finished giving his report, though.

‘Uncle Matty, you can’t be a zombie, because their arms fall off. You could be a werewolf because they are people half the time –’

And obviously, I was people at least half the time these days.

‘– or you could be … Daddy, what’s next after a werewolf?’

You’ve got me there, Cal, you’re the expert in the undead. I’m sure you’ll think of something for Uncle Matty to aspire to.’

Dec

Matt’s breathing was terrible. Laboured and rasping, he found it hard to get the breath to speak, and his words had a tendency to die away on a gasp. I tried to remember what Jay had said was wrong with him, and couldn’t. Whatever it was, it put my self-absorbed woes into perspective.

Matt

And then my body’s battery chose that moment to start blinking the red ‘recharge now’ light, and my eyes started to droop. Jay noticed; he always noticed.

Cal

Dad looked at Uncle Matty, then frowned. Uncle Matty’s eyes were starting to close. Sometimes he was only awake for a really short time.

Come on Cal, pack up your toys in the box, Uncle Matty’s getting tired.’

Uncle Matty opened his eyes a little bit.

Matt

I never wanted to send Cal away, because then I’d be all alone in the dark, so I roused myself.

‘No, sohkay, Cal can stahy.’

OK then, ten more minutes, Cal, then it’s time for dinner. Dec, I’ve put your stuff up in Cal’s room, you’re on the bottom bunk.’

Cal had a working hypothesis on this too.

Cal

I wanted Dec to know why he was in my room and not in Dad’s office. I was sure he’d agree it was the best way.

‘Sleeping underneath is best for people who can’t move properly. I’m on the top, because I can climb the ladder. Why can’t you climb the ladder?’

‘Well, I hadn’t thought about ladders, but you’re right, my arms hurt and pulling myself up a ladder might be difficult. Good thinking, Batman.’

I knew he’d think so, and he called me Batman, like he used to when I’d had a good idea, and it made me smile. I’d spent a lot of time considering whether Dec should go on the top or bottom bed, and although the top bed was the best, and it was where I slept, I was also being kind to Dec and his hurting arms.

Matt

Cal and Dec grinned goofily at each other, as if this was some kind of secret code, and Jay started to leave the room, indicating that Dec should follow him.

‘Yeah, and it’s just in case you feel the need to reach out for some chocolate in the night. Top bunk’s a bit far to fall for someone in your state. Come on, I’ll show you. You staying with Uncle Matty, then, Cal?’

Oh, the chocolate thing. It was something to do with the teenager reaching for some of the brown stuff when he was in hospital and falling out of bed as a consequence, the ninny. Cal nodded, although he didn’t seem to know what Jay was talking about, and returned to his cars. As Jay and Dec left to go upstairs, I could hear Dec talk to Jay.

‘Shit, Jay, he looks awful. I can’t remember what you said was wrong with him.’

Well, talk to him about it while you’re here, but …’

And I slept, before I got to hear what Jay was telling people was ‘wrong with him’.

Cal

I turned back to my road. Uncle Matty’s eyes were closed, so I played on my own; Mum and Lis were upstairs, talking about curtains or duvets, and I wouldn’t be able to talk to Dec about dinosaurs until later.

Dec

łHe’s got multiple sclerosis. It affects your nerves so you lose coordination and strength in your muscles. But the reason he looks so awful is he’s had pneumonia. He was in hospital for quite a while, only been out a few weeks. It was less than fifty fifty for him at one point. Much less, actually. If Mum hadn’t found him … Cal’s right, he looked like a skeleton. He’s got a long way to go yet. MS is a funny one, comes and goes, leaves you worse than you were, but no one can predict it. Pneumonia is pretty common and can be … well, really serious.

‘Fuck, I’m sorry. He’s a good bloke.’

łYeah. Anyway, before you initiate me into your blub club, I’ll show you Cal’s room and you can decide whether the dinosaur wallpaper is going to give you nightmares, or whether you’d rather have a camp bed in my office. Although I should warn you that Cal has been looking forward to you sleeping in the bottom bunk for days.

Beth and Lis were also upstairs, Lis exclaiming over various items of furniture and décor. We met up in Cal’s room, which seemed to be a mini version of Dinosaurland. Wallpaper, bedding, models on the shelves, he had the lot.

‘Whoa.’

_Think you can sleep in here, sweetheart?

‘Only in the bottom bunk. Nice and dark, can’t see all the teeth.’

łLucky you’ve got piss-poor arms, then. No ladders for you.

~Oh, Beth, that reminds me, Dec’s dressings need changing tomorrow. Rose sent along all the stuff and some instructions, can I show you? Is it in your bag, here, Dec?

‘I think so. Rose packed it all.’

~Let’s have a look, shall I show you downstairs?

Lis left with Beth. There was a pause.

łSo how is your arm now?

‘Getting there.’

Jay gave me a look, and I gave in, realising that sometimes I had to give more than the basic amount of information.

‘No, I mean it. After the operation it was so much better. My collar bone was really hurting before, the plaster kept dragging on it, and I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t move my arm or my fingers. It bloody hurts now, but I can bend my elbow and hold things. I can feel it getting better. Slow progress though, frustrating. I just want to get back to training again.’

łGlad to hear it. When will that be? You must have seen Pete and Steve by now. And I’m sure Don has his opinions.

‘Yeah, they want me to go in on the sixth.’

łThat’s great. You’ll really start to feel a difference once they get their hands on you. Stay positive, mate.

‘Yeah.’

łHey, sounds like dinner might be ready. Let’s go get spaghetti bognose.

Cal

Before long, dinner was ready. The grown-ups were having spaghetti bognose (it was what I called it once, and after that, it was spaghetti bognose forever), and I was having fish fingers, which was my current favourite dinner of all time.

I sat next to Dec, and felt happy that we were all there again, at the table, like we used to be. I looked at Dec a lot, because although I was happy he was there, and everything felt right again, his face looked wrong, with all the bruises and cuts, and I couldn’t help being interested, even though Mum was trying to tell me to stop looking without saying it. In the end, I had to say something.

‘Dec …’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘You know your skins were held together with sewing when you looked like a Frankystein?’

I’d seen pictures in my Mega Monsters book, and Dec’s train tracks had looked just like Frankenstein’s monster. Mum started to say shh, but I knew Dec would answer me, because he always answered me, even when I asked him about poo.

‘It’s OK. Yes, I remember.’

‘But the sewing isn’t there now, so how are your skins still together? Will they come unstuck when you eat something big?’

Mum had explained it back when Dec was first in hospital, but I couldn’t quite believe that Dec had let a doctor do sewing on his face. Needles were sharp, Mum was always telling me to mind out when she sewed buttons on my school shirt, and surely it would hurt more to have your face sewed than to have a cut on it.

‘I hope not! My skin has grown back together now, so the doctor took the stitches out and it will stay together all by itself.’

It was a shame that I wasn’t going to see Dec’s face split open when he ate a big mouthful of bognose, but I still had more questions.

‘But how did your skins come apart?’

Dec

Fuck, how do you explain a glassing to a six year old? I looked at Beth and Jay. Jay shrugged, a look of amusement on his face. Beth looked on warily. They had always let me explain myself to Cal – there had been a fair amount of explaining at times, things like hangovers, girlfriends, speeding tickets – but Beth always kept an eye and rescued me if I was struggling too much.

‘Well, you remember when I was in hospital and I had bruises and cuts and things?’

\yes, some bad men hit you.

I silently thanked whoever had explained things so simply to Cal.

‘Well, when they hit me, my face got cut and the doctor had to sew me up so my dinner wouldn’t come out of my cheeks. That would have been a bit of a pain.

\it would be awesome.

‘Not if you’re trying to drink a slushie, you’d dribble quite a lot, most of it would fall out.’

He considered this, nodding.

\did it hurt?

‘What, the cuts or the stitches?’

\when they sewed you.

‘Well, I was asleep when they did it, so it didn’t hurt me at the time. But it was sore afterwards.

\do your lines hurt?

‘My lines?’

łHe means your scars. They are still quite impressively sore looking.

‘Oh.’

I ran my finger along the line running down the side of my face, which made it tingle and sting.

‘Well, maybe a bit when I touch them. It hurts when I use my razor.’

Cal

Dec had a lot of whiskers on his face, and it looked like he hadn’t used his razor for a long time. Dad thought so too.

‘So that’s the reason for the designer stubble. Thought you were trying a new look, to combat the girly hair.’

Dec had really long hair now, and it did look like a girl’s hair. He could probably even put it in a pony tail, like Jake’s brother did, but I was glad he didn’t.

‘OK, Cal, let Dec eat the rest of his dinner now, before his cheek falls open and his bognose falls on your plate.’

Dad was teasing. I knew now that there was, sadly, no chance of Dec’s cheek coming apart either now, or at future dinners.

Dec

_Well done, Dec, I’d forgotten how good you are at answering Cal’s questions.

It was Cal who was making it all normal. He was chatting to me like he always had, asking me the same searching questions, treating me like I was just Dec who’d been away for a bit, but was back now, rather than Dec who’d fucked everything up and nearly lost it all. Beth was threatening more tears, especially when Lis gave her hand a squeeze. Jay saved the day with:

łMore vomit cheese anyone? Parmesan to the uninitiated. Cal, more vomit on your fish fingers?

_James!

łHey, if it gets him eating it I’ll call it anything. I’ll call it a pile of sh … er … sheep sh…oes, eh Cal?

\daddy, you nearly sweared.

łNo I didn’t, sheep shoes is nowhere near a swear. You’ll have to keep an eye on Dec, though, he could swear at any moment. More sheep shoes anyone?

Beth’s teary moment passed, and chaotic order was restored to the dinner table.

Cal

Dad made a joke about the cheese being vomit cheese, which meant it smelt like sick, because it did, and then he pretended to do a swear, but turned it from a word beginning with ‘sh’ into ‘sheep shoes’ and he made me laugh, and Dec was smiling, and everything felt like it was alright, even though Mum had nearly cried and Lis had to hold her hand.

I really hoped people were going to stop crying or nearly crying soon, because everything stopped while they were doing it or nearly doing it, and I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, or get down from the table.

Dec

Lis left soon after dinner, facing a long drive back home. She asked when I wanted picking up. It wasn’t something I’d thought about, as I had been focussed entirely on getting here.

łIt’s OK, Lis, I’ll bring him back. We can take our time here, see how it goes, how long it takes Dec to get bored of us, and you don’t have to drive all that way again.

‘I can get a train, or a bus.’

łYeah, OK, Dec, we’ll drop you off at the nearest bus stop with that heavy bag you can’t carry, and you can make your own way back. Sorted, Lis, OK?

‘Just trying to be helpful.’

I grinned at Jay, enjoying the amicable bickering.

łNoted. I’m taking you back, end of.

Cal

Lis went home, and Dec came into Uncle Matty’s room to help me play with Lego, although he couldn’t do fiddly bits because of his fingers being hurt.

Uncle Matty was asleep, so I had Dec all to myself, like I used to, and Dec was as good as he used to be at playing with Lego, although after a while he said he was getting sore on the floor and was going to talk to Uncle Matty. I nearly said Uncle Matty was asleep, but I looked up, and he wasn’t, he was looking at us, so I stayed quiet.

I listened while Dec and Uncle Matty talked, although it wasn’t very interesting, but you never knew when grown-ups were going to forget you were there and say something, especially Dec, who wasn’t really a grown-up, and Uncle Matty, who was a grown-up because he was very old like Dad, but said a lot of things that made Mum go ‘Matty, honestly’.

Matt

I woke up a bit later, to find Cal and Dec playing with the cars on the floor of my room. I watched, undetected, for a while, part of me marvelling at how unselfconscious Dec was, kneeling on the floor, making ‘neenaa’ noises and handing Cal various bits of Lego, just being in Cal’s imaginary world. Another part of me was envious of the ease with which he was able, even with an apparently broken arm and some serious lacerations, to move around on the floor. I wouldn’t even be able to get onto the floor unless I rolled off the bed and fell on my arse, and I wished I had some of Dec’s apparent power for fast healing. Dec turned round after a while, and saw me watching.

‘Know what, Cal, I’m getting a bit sore kneeling down here on the floor, I’m going to sit in this chair for a bit and talk to Matt. Let me know if you want me to find anything else.’

He stood up, stretched and plonked himself in the armchair by my bed, looking at me for a while as if unsure where to start. Then, like everyone did, he started with me being ill.

Dec

I didn’t know Matt that well, and all I could really think of to talk about was his health. Not inspiring, but everyone has to start somewhere.

‘Sorry you’ve been so poorly. Not much fun.’

Matt

I suppose it was as good a place as any when it was all you really knew about someone, but part of me wanted to shout ‘I’ve had a fucking life, a fucking job, a fucking flat of my own, I love hiking, and Spurs, and reading books about maths, and there’s more to me than being fucking ill’ but I didn’t, mostly because it would have taken me about an hour and I would have fallen asleep before I got to the end.

‘Noh. Better than I wahs tho.’

In the end, I took Dec’s conversation starter for what it was. I hadn’t had anyone new to talk to since Sally, and even if I had to talk about being ill, I might be able to do it in a different way.

‘Jay said you had it really bad a while ago.’

‘I knoh they all thoht I wouldn’t mahk it. Dohnt member much. How bouh yuh?’

Dec having problems of his own gave me something to reflect back, someone else’s story to find out, and I thought I’d have a go at delving a bit into the recent travails of the adolescent. Except I realised with a sudden shift in my perception that he wasn’t anymore. He was nineteen, and he was different. The last time I’d seen him, he had been open and talkative, and that was still there, but there was a reserve. He was quieter, more subdued. He seemed older than nineteen. Maybe with everything that had happened to him in the last few months, he needed someone to talk to as much as I needed not to talk about me?

‘Getting there. It’s been a shit year – sorry Cal, pretend you didn’t hear that. But now I feel like things are getting better.’

He even noticed when he swore these days. Didn’t seem stop him, but at least he noticed.

‘Good for yuh. Yuhr face sahys dihfrent tho. Yuhv had a hard tihm, Jay said.’

I hated people talking about me behind my back, but I wanted Dec to know that I had heard a lot of his story.

‘I’ve got good friends, they’ve helped me a lot.’

A pang of envy shot through me, and I covered it up with a truism.

‘Simpohtant to hahv pehpl yuh lohv and lohv yuh.’

‘Very true.’

Jay came in with two cups of coffee. One of them was in the plastic beaker, and I cringed inwardly at what it would look like to Dec when Jay had to help me drink.

Good to see some bonding going on in Cripples Corner. Here you go, freshly made. Can you hold that OK Dec?’

So it wasn’t just me who was being fussed over. Interesting. Dec didn’t seem to mind, and just smiled at Jay as he carefully took the hot mug.

‘There’s a mat here on the table. Matty, here’s yours, do you want to sit up a bit?’

Well I was going to find it hard to drink lying down, wasn’t I.

‘Yeh.’

Jay pressed a button on the remote control that moved the bed into a sitting position. Dec sat in the chair, sipping coffee, pretending not to watch while Jay held my cup for me. Jay seemed to become aware of the awkwardness and thought of something to say.

‘Lis says hi, and it’s a shame you were too busy snoring to appreciate having a hot girl in your bedroom.’

I liked Lis, a lot. She was straight up, no nonsense, dirty laugh, heart of gold. And hot, she wasn’t wrong about that. She’d driven Dec up this afternoon, and I’d been asleep when she left. I was sorry to have missed her.

‘She’ll lihv.’

As witty comebacks go, it wasn’t top notch, but I was getting tired.

Dec been entertaining you with his exploits?’

Jay seemed to find it a lot easier talking about Dec’s troubles than he did mine. Maybe they were both part of that world, the physical world, the rugby world, where having your face smashed up was all in a day’s work, and you just got to your feet and carried on. I wanted him to acknowledge that I was trying to get to my feet, it was just taking a bit longer.

‘Exchange war stohries.’

You’ve both got plenty of those.’

Cal, who had seemed absorbed in his game, but always had his ears open, especially when you forgot about him, joined in.

Cal

I’d liked the sound of Cripples Corner when Dad said it, and couldn’t wait to say it out loud; it would sound funny. Until I got the chance, I was listening out for when I could join in with what they were saying.

‘Dec sweared.’

Matt

At that moment I loved the little six-year-old listening device, who had just dropped Dec right in it, even though he’d dropped him on the wrong person.

‘Oh, cheers Cal, I thought you were on my side.’

I tried for a bit of solidarity.

‘Swehrs allohed in Crihpls Cohner.’

Jay seemed agreeable.

Fair enough, no argument from me.’

Cal

This was going well. It felt like we were all boys together, and I wanted to be the same as them all.

‘Can I do a swear?’

It was worth a try, but Dad wasn’t falling for it.

Matt

Jay belatedly realised that he should perhaps have taken a different tack and tried to backpedal.

No. Just grown-ups. And just sometimes, when we can’t help it. Do you want any more of this, Matty?’

I decided to used the new loophole. Wait till Beth heard about it, she was going to go ape-shit. And then I could tell her she’d gone ape-shit and there was nothing she could do about it, because I totally owned Cripples Corner.

‘Noh thahks. Toh fucking tihred.’

I grinned at Cal, who was looking at me with something approaching awe, which made me grin even more, because we both knew I was about to embark on a major campaign of flouting of the ‘no swearing in the house’ rule.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled at me. He was still hard to understand sometimes, especially when he was tired, but we could always understand his swears. I looked at him in awe. If Mum heard him he would be in lots of trouble, even though he was poorly.

Matt

Jay tried some damage limitation.

You’re taking advantage now. OK, let’s leave you to it. Come on Cal, pack your stuff away, do you want to put Uncle Matty’s bed down?’

‘Yes.’

Cal

Dad tried to be strict, but he was nowhere near as good as Mum. He tried to frown, but couldn’t help smiling at the corners of his mouth, because he thought it was funny too. And he wasn’t really cross, because he asked if I wanted to put Uncle Matty’s bed down. I loved putting Uncle Matty’s bed down. In fact, I loved moving the bed all over the place. It went up and down so it could be high or low, and it bent in the middle so it could make Uncle Matty sit up, and a bit at the end bent so that his legs went up. I played with it a lot, and Uncle Matty let me put him in any way I could think of, although I hadn’t managed to make it roll him onto the floor yet.

Matt

Cal always wanted to put my bed down, it was all anyone could do to stop him playing with the controls while I was lying in the damn thing. Sometimes I let him, to see what weird and wonderful positions he could make me lie, sit and almost stand in. Jay handed Cal the remote and he lowered the bed to almost flat, judging it correctly almost to within a degree, so my chest was tilted enough to drain, but I was still in a good position to sleep. He’d had a lot of practice and was a quick learner.

Turn the lamp off as well. Good boy. Night Matty.’

Jay flicked the monitor on without comment and walked out, after brushing a hand over my forehead. Sometimes the smallest of gestures affected me the most deeply, and I hoped the darkness hid the tears starting to run from the corners of my eyes.

‘Night Matt. See you tomorrow.’

Then Dec was gone too, as was I shortly afterwards, dragged off to the land of nod by the sleep elves.

2. Do you remember the first time?

In which Matty does some things for the first time, and does other things for the last time.

Matt

I pushed her away and stumbled backwards.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I so wished I had my glasses; the whole world felt out of focus, things were happening that I didn’t quite understand, and it was all making me feel a bit sick and dizzy, but she’d put them somewhere, and I couldn’t see to look for them. Cindy moved towards me again, until I put up my hands in a kind of fending off gesture.

‘Andrew’s my mate.’

She laughed again, compounding the confusion I was trying to fight my way through.

‘It’s OK, Matt. Drew and me have a … um … open relationship. We both see other people if we want to.’

‘What?’

First I’d heard of it, but then Andrew didn’t really confide in me much any more.

‘Yeah. It’d be OK.’

Her voice was low and breathy, and she was so damn close, and now she was touching my arm, running her fingers slowly down from my shoulder, and I thought I was going to explode. I was so conflicted. This was what I’d been thinking about for weeks, Cindy touching me, kissing me, me touching her, it had filled my alone time, given me some nicely sordid little fantasies for the shower, but it being real was different. I couldn’t quite get my head round it.

She was closer now. I’d backed up against the wall, and she was right in front of me, almost touching, so almost that it felt like there were little arcs of static between us. She reached up again and cupped my cheek.

‘You’re so cute. It’s really OK to have a bit of fun, Matt. Drew would be totally OK, I know it.’

Now she was closer, I could see her face, and look into her eyes, and I was lost. I was gone. Whatever ear-splitting alarm bells were going off in my head, this was Cindy, this was my daydream come true, offering ‘a bit of fun’, and saying her boyfriend, my best mate, would be OK with it. I stopped struggling with my conscience, and my hormones took over.

Iz

OK, so here’s the first taste of Matty love. Go Matty and all that, but this is what you have to look forward to.

Matt

Now, I may have lacked experience in the women department, but what I lacked in practical application I had more than made up for in theoretical learning. I had read books – no, not just porn, but real books, about what made women tick, what turned them on, where to touch, what to do, how to be. I’d watched DVDs – again, not just porn, but ‘how to’ stuff. I was pretty much a theory into practice kind of guy, and I had a head full of knowledge that was just aching to be tried on a real live woman. Here was real live Cindy, apparently desperate for it to be tried on her, putting all my well-researched theories into practice.

‘I’ve never –’

How could I have never? I was eighteen. Eighteen and a half if you want to split hairs. Practically middle-aged in the virginity stakes. But there it was, and I needed to get my excuses in first.

‘I know. Drew said. It was so cute, the two of you coming here all innocent.’

Oh great – did Andrew just blurt all my secrets?

‘It’ll be OK, Matt, you’ll be fine. I know you want to, I’ve seen you looking at me.’

Yeah, well, cat out of the bag, then, nothing to lose. Unable to stop another groan or moan or grunt escaping from my throat, I tentatively lifted my hand up to touch her hair, then the other hand, then cupped her face in my palms, with my fingers in her hair, and bent down to her mouth, which opened beneath my lips, and all the softness and slipperiness and tongueiness I had ever imagined opened with it.

And then things happened really quickly. I’d always, in my imagination, taken things really slowly the first time, so I could savour the moment and relish the experience. But I hadn’t factored in several years of teenage neediness, nearly two months of pining forlornly after Cindy, or the fact that she had her tongue down my throat, her hands up my shirt and her luscious body pressed hard against me. All of these elements made for an explosive cocktail, and before I knew it she’d pulled my shirt over my head, had divested herself of most of her clothes too, and was standing in front of me in her bra and pants. Then I definitely wasn’t able to go slow.

Every single one of my buttons had been well and truly pushed, and stopping now would cause cataclysmic, seismic chain reactions that would be felt in the depths of rural China. I pulled her towards me with my hands on her buttocks and kissed her deeply, grinding my crotch into hers. She kissed back, but started to pull me towards the bed. I willingly followed her lead, and lay down next to her, where we rolled around for a while, kissing and rubbing against each other until I wasn’t sure I could take it much longer.

This was so much more than my distant memories of pashing Lily Knight, this was real, this was grown up, this was sex, or at least it was going to be in the very near future. I felt Cindy reach for my belt, unbuckle it, and slide the zip down on my jeans, then her hand wriggled below the waistband of my boxers and I felt her fingers on my cock. I nearly let rip against her right then, but just managed to control myself.

‘You can touch me, Matt, I won’t break.’

She turned away from me and arched her back, and I could see her nipples peaking through the lacy fabric of her bra. They were irresistible, and with widened eyes I bent my head down to them. As I touched and tasted her breasts through her bra with my tongue and fingers, she wiggled my jeans and underpants down my thighs. When she had taken off the remainder of my clothes, she reached behind her and unclasped her bra, and I had my first ever view of a real live pair of breasts. I was awestruck.

‘Holy fuck.’

‘Hopefully.’

I couldn’t help myself; I leaned down to her, cupped them both, kissed them both, sucked them both, unable to stop feasting on them.

I’ve always been a bit of a breast man – actually who isn’t? Some of us say it’s legs or arses or necks or even elbows, but really, when it comes down to the nasty, it’s those two soft orbs of womanliness that are the difference between us, those glorious spheres that quiver and tremble with every movement, that have nipples that harden under your touch, your breath, or even your gaze.

Nipples are so much more subtle than dicks; if you can see a woman’s nipples through her shirt, it might not be because she’s aroused, she could just be cold. Or she may just be excited about what she’s talking about. You can never assume, you have to delve, and I’ve always loved a good delve.

Breasts don’t have to be big, although big is beautiful. They can be small but perfectly formed; they can be the ideal medium-sized handful; they can be purely perky or delightfully droopy; they can be high fliers or low slung; they can be almost anything and they’ll attract my attention.

I have given a lot of thought to breasts over the years. Lau’s are perfect – not so big that they’re the only thing you notice when you meet her, although yeah, I noticed. Not so small that she has to wear padded push-up bras to get a cleavage; what you see is what you get – well that’s pretty much Lau all over. But more of Lau later. Patience, dear readers.

Anyway, so I’m a breast man. Could be something to do with all that time with my mum – ew, let’s not explore that little nugget too deeply – and Cindy was pushing me closer and closer to the edge with hers. I could easily have come just by looking at her, but I wanted to do it properly.

‘Shit, condom.’

‘I’m on the pill.’

‘But we should still …’

‘Why? I’m clean and you’ve never done it before, so why do we need it?’

I ignored all the reasoned arguments about only ninety nine percent guarantees, and not knowing her that well so could I trust her, and I didn’t need any further persuasion, especially as I had no condoms, and didn’t fancy sprinting down to the vending machine in the Student Union while Cindy went off the whole idea back in my room.

‘You’re forgetting something.’

Cindy ran her thumb under the top of her pants, if you could call the tiny scrap of nothing much pants.

‘Can’t do anything with these on. Take them off.’

I was open to suggestions or, as it turns out, direct orders, at that point, and did as I was told, pulling the lacy thong down her thighs, over her feet and dropping it on the floor. I would have liked to have explored it a bit longer, having a bit of a thing for knickers, but events were urgently coming to a head.

‘Come on, Matt, what are you waiting for?’

I groaned as Cindy spread her legs, and the promised land awaited and I just knelt and stared at her naked body in awe. I felt a moment of panic, as I wondered if I really knew what to do, but it seemed like my brain was happy on autopilot as I knelt between her thighs, positioned myself and plunged forwards into her. I had never felt anything like it, in all my wildest wanking fantasies. To feel myself inside her, filling her, pulling out, thrusting back in, the friction, the movement, the sensation. I wanted it to last, but it wasn’t going to last, it was going to be over soon, I could feel it building and bubbling, filling my balls and setting my cock on fire, and Cindy seemed to be building and bubbling too, writhing beneath me, moaning, and here it came, here I came. It rushed through me, searing my body with hot electricity, pouring out of me in streams of throbbing … joy. I shouted, and Cindy shouted, and I collapsed on her, panting, unable to move or feel or speak, until she pushed me off her and I rolled onto my side, a grin on my face.

I was spent. I was in heaven, or somewhere very like it. Surely not my smelly room in halls, it must be some kind of divine antechamber. There was an angel lying next to me at any rate. I looked into Cindy’s eyes, smiled, and pulled her close, kissing her hair, stroking her soft skin.

‘Wow.’

‘Good?’

‘Wow.’

She laughed and rolled away from me.

‘Good then. Bin bags.’

‘What?’

‘We’ve got to get to the charity shop before they close.’

‘What? No. I can’t move.’

‘Come on, get up, no time. They shut at one on a Wednesday. Here.’

She threw my jeans and t-shirt at me so they landed on my chest. I really didn’t want to get up. I wanted to hold her close and talk about what had just happened, how amazing it was, how much I loved her. Nothing in my books and DVDs said it would all be over within minutes of all the shouting.

‘Can’t we just … stay here for a bit? I dunno, hold each other and talk or something?’

‘Ha ha, no Matt. That was great, but cuddling is just for me and Drew.’

‘Oh.’

It was as if someone had plunged me into an ice bath. The glow I’d been feeling disappeared instantly, replaced by a sinking feeling.

‘What was all that about then?’

‘We were just having fun, weren’t we?’

Yeah, if your idea of fun is having your heart ripped out and stomped on fairly comprehensively. But obviously if you’ve been stupid enough to believe something different when it isn’t true, you’re not about to admit it.

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘Well then. Bin bags, for this lot. Come on.’

And for some reason, I did what she said. I put my clothes in bin bags, I meekly followed her to Oxfam and gave them away, and I bought what she told me to from the same shop. I did it all in a daze, unable to put coherent thoughts together, unable to speak much. I even let her lead me into an opticians, where a lucky cancellation meant a trial pair of contact lenses and an order for a new pair of glasses. Walking back without my glasses on, I felt naked, which further compounded the strangeness.

When I got back to my room, Cindy having gone to the Union bar in search of Andrew, I dumped the shopping bags on the floor and flopped onto my bed. Cindy seemed to have lost interest in the ‘big reveal’, and I still hadn’t looked at myself in the mirror. I was – well, heartbroken may be overstating it a little, I don’t think my heart was broken. For the few minutes we were – what were we doing? Fucking? Yeah, sounds right. For the few minutes we were fucking, Cindy was the love of my life. I’d wanted her since Andrew got her. I’d overlooked several annoying character flaws in favour of several distractingly attractive physical traits, but since she metaphorically poured cold water on me straight after the sex, I’d been in a stupor of regret and self-condemnation. I’d just slept with my best friend’s girlfriend. I’d just ignored all the carefully constructed fantasies of how I wanted my first time to be, of how respectful and careful and giving I was going to be, to have a frantic fuck with someone I shouldn’t have. Instead of lying here glowing, revelling in the fact that I had at last HAD SEX, I was lying here cold and miserable inside.

It felt like Cindy had used me. Whether she and Andrew really did have an open relationship or not, I had no idea, but she had wanted me at that moment, and she’d had me, and that was that.

I could have lain there all afternoon feeling sorry for myself, wondering whether to say something to Andrew, and what exactly that something would be, and I did spend some time doing that. But then I made a decision. I’d lost my virginity, not in the way I’d planned, and not with someone I would have chosen, not really.

My crush on Cindy was well and truly over, as any woman who would sleep with their boyfriend’s best mate wasn’t for me, even though the twisted logic of that and what it said about me had to be shoved far to the back of my mind. But I’d had sex. I’d done it. It had been incredible, and if only for that I could be thankful to Cindy. She’d cut my hair and changed my clothes, and I decided to have a good look at what she’d done.

I hauled myself off my bed and walked over to the mirror. I looked back at myself. Skinny, lanky, dorky, stupid Star Wars t-shirt. Cool haircut, though. And my eyesight was so poor that it had been a while since I’d studied myself without glasses – but contact lenses undoubtedly changed my ‘look’. Maybe the clothes would make a bit of a difference after all. Feeling ridiculous, I looked in the bags from the charity shop for a different shirt and trousers, and changed into them. Considered the results in the mirror, although as I turned this way and that, I felt like a preening princess. But even so, I had to admit to looking and feeling different. The bloke staring back at me was still a skinny lanky dork, but he had a bit of something about him. Maybe it was the hair, maybe it was the clothes, maybe it was the lack of specs. I quite liked it, and smiled stupidly at myself.

There was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Andrew, and immediately felt embarrassed at my newly makeovered state; he didn’t look too happy to see it either.

‘She did it, didn’t she.’

He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me backwards into the room.

‘What?’

‘Cind. She cut your hair. Bought you clothes. Did she fuck you too?’

‘What?’

‘I’m not stupid, Matt. Where are your glasses? What’s all this?’

He pulled at the collar on my shirt.

‘Er …’

‘Did you?’

‘What?’

‘Fuck her?’

This was so far removed from any conversation I’d ever had with Andrew that all sensible words fled my brain, but he must have seen something in my face.

‘Jesus Christ, you did, didn’t you. What did she tell you? That we had an open relationship?’

‘Er …’

‘Jesus Christ. You fucking knob. She’s my – Christ, Matt, she’s the best thing that ever, ever happened to me and you’ve just fucking – ugh you knob.’

And with that he punched me. It came out of nowhere, and I suppose really it wasn’t that hard of a punch, him being a nerdy dork with no muscles, just like me, but it connected with my cheek and knocked me backwards so that I fell on my arse on the floor, and he jumped on top of me and we started wrestling as I tried to get up and he tried to stop me. He grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled my head up, then let go and the back of my head bounced on the floor.

‘Ow.’

‘Sorry.’

‘What?’

We stopped wrestling and looked at each other. Andrew had tears running down his face, and a strange mixture of emotions raced across him: sorrow, anger, shame, and finally laughter. He started to shake with it, seeming to come close to the edge of tears again. I lay pinned beneath him, trying to get my breath back, trying to work out what was going on.

Eventually Andrew stood up and held a hand out to me. I took it warily, and pulled myself to my feet, wondering what was coming next.

‘Shit, Matt, you bastard. You fucking bastard.’

I hung my head, barely able to look at him.

‘Sorry. She said you –’

‘I know exactly what she said. She said it all to me, that first night. She’s got a boyfriend, back home, some footballer bloke. Apparently they have an open relationship too, and she’s done the haircut and clothes thing with him as well. When she told me she’d made you over, I just started thinking, what if that’s what she does, how she does blokes? I think she collects virgins.’

‘What?’

That seemed to be my catchphrase at the moment; I had spent most of today in a haze of not understanding and getting things completely wrong.

‘This footballer bloke, she told me she was his first too, then me, now you. And I think – shit I hate to say this – I think she might have done the open relationship thing with someone else.’

‘What, here? On campus?’

Andrew nodded. I sat down on the bed, and he sat next to me.

‘Christ, what a mess, Matt.’

‘So you guys don’t have an open relationship?’

Andrew snorted.

‘Well she obviously does, she just neglected to inform me. I thought we were pretty exclusive, apart from her back home boyfriend, who apparently ‘didn’t need to know about us’. Shit, I’m just as bad, aren’t I.’

‘Sorry. I just believed her. Still, I shouldn’t have done it.’

‘She’s hard to resist.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’re a fucking bastard bumhole for doing my girl.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I should dump her.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I might not, though.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t want you to fuck her again.’

‘OK.’

And there we had it. Andrew spent the rest of his three years at University being tormented by Cindy. I lost count of the times he knocked on my door, needing to talk, needing reassurance that he was doing the right thing, or wanting permission to dump her, or just wanting to tell me he loved her but that he’d found out about yet another ‘makeover’.

He eventually dumped her for good just before Finals, which screwed both of them up so much they both failed – some would say justice was done.

Whereas I’d lost my virginity, but found something else, a new haircut, new clothes, a new face. I’d also found attractiveness, confidence, of a sort. And Cindy had been right – walking into the canteen that night had been a revelation.

Shallow as it made me, I couldn’t help being pleasantly surprised at the amount of girls who came and sat at my table, chattering to each other at first, but swinging covert glances my way, and holding eye contact. The new bruise deposited on my cheekbone by Andrew was also a bit of a talking point, and elicited sympathy and a few tender touches too. I was asked if I was ‘new’, and when I told them I’d been here since the beginning of term, and always sat in this spot for dinner, I smiled to myself at the ‘no, that other bloke sits here, kind of skinny, with … oh!’. I went back to my room that night a new man. I wondered if Andrew felt the same way.

And thus began the belated chapter in the life of Matt Scott: Ladies Man. The rest of that term, I chatted girls up, tentatively at first, worrying all the time they were going to laugh in my face, but gaining confidence as even if they didn’t fall at my feet, they at least talked back. I went on dates, I had lots more sex. University campuses seem to be the place for it; lots of girls and boys away from the constraints of home life for the first time, eager to test out their new found freedom. It worked for me. I took more interest in my appearance, not to the point of obsession, but there were to be no more haircuts from my mum, and I bought my own clothes now.

By the time I went home for Christmas, I was juggling two potential girlfriends and a couple of one night stands who wanted it to be more. It was a little overwhelming, and I relished the three week break back in Stafford, where I could get on with some course work in peace. I turned my mobile phone off and decided to take a breather from the whirl of girls.

When I got home, I was surprised to find Jay installed in the living room. We grunted a greeting, mine a more subdued grunt than usual, as he was an interloper these days, someone who treated the place like it was home, but was hardly ever there. A bit like me, now I was at Uni, I suppose.

‘How come you’re back?’

Jay was never around for the festive season, there was always a game on Boxing Day, or thereabouts, or there was training or travelling or some such shit.

‘Done my hamstring. Out for a few weeks.’

‘Oh. Bummer.’

‘Yeah.’

Not playing rugby was just about the worst thing that could happen to Jay. He was naturally taciturn, but not playing rugby made him sullen and self-pitying and a general pain in the arse to be around. I sighed inwardly at the thought of trying to be jolly for him for the next – how long?

‘So you’re back for, what, a week or two?’

‘Not sure. Might have to go back in a few days, start rehab.’

‘What, before Christmas?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Mum’ll be disappointed.’

Jay shrugged, Mum’s disappointment being neither here nor there for him when compared to the thrill of doing lots of exercises so he could play again.

‘Your brother thinks he might be able to do some physio with the Old Rotarians down the road.’

Mum had come in, unheard by me, and I turned round and gave her a welcoming hug.

‘Hi Mum. Oh, well, that’ll be great if Jay can stay here a bit longer.’

I looked at him pointedly, but he was staring impassively at the TV.

‘Yes dear. It’s lovely to see you, Matthew, have you brought much washing?’

I grinned and fetched my bags.

‘Is that a new haircut, dear?’

‘Yeah. Andrew’s girlfriend did it.’

This stirred Jay.

‘What, Dipstick’s got a girl?’

Andrew’s surname was Distock, with predictable consequences.

‘Must have missed the headlines on the news. Class minger is she?’

‘Jameson, stop it now. Andrew’s a nice looking boy. So is Matthew. What have you done with your glasses, dear?’

‘I got contacts.’

‘You look very different. You can see your eyes. You haven’t got a girlfriend have you?’

She looked at me hopefully. I laughed and shook my head at her.

‘Not yet. Too young to get tied down.’

I wasn’t about to get into the tangled web of girlfriends, potential girlfriends and one nighters that had littered the last few breathtaking weeks.

‘Yeah, and the class minger’s taken.’

‘Fuck off, Jay.’

And I wasn’t about to take Jay’s shit anymore. He was sitting there like he owned the place, like the whole world revolved around him and his precious hamstring, and he needed a – well, maybe a slap would just get me in more trouble than it was worth, but give me a few years in a gym and I could do it. At least a slap. Anyway, I’d gone away to Uni a boy, but I felt like I’d come back a bit of a man, and I wanted him to know.

‘Matthew, language.’

‘Sorry, Mum, but –’

‘Jameson’s come back to … recuperate from more than an injury. Just be nice to him.’

‘What?’

‘Just be nice.’

She looked at me, asking me with her eyes. I caved, and looked at Jay, who was still staring at the TV. Fascinating programme about sharks, apparently. I looked back at Mum, who mouthed ‘later’ at me and took my bag into the kitchen to start my laundry.

I have to say, in my defence, I usually did my own laundry, but Mum liked to do it, is what I told myself, and I’d had a hard term and I was knackered from the long forty minute bus and train journey home and deserved a bit of pampering.

I sat down on the sofa, slipped my shoes off – Timberland boots I’d found in a charity shop the week before – and lounged along the length of it, prepared to give sharks a go in the name of being nice to Jay. After a while I felt his eyes on me and looked up at him.

‘What?’

‘You. What’s with the new look?’

I shrugged. ‘Just fancied a change.’

‘Working for you is it?’

‘S’pose.’

This was Jay and me communicating at the highest level. There were hardly any grunts at all. Sophisticated linguistic effort on both sides.

‘What’s she like, then?’

‘Who?’

‘Dipstick’s woman.’

‘Don’t know why you’d care, you think she’s the bloody class minger.’

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to be a git.’

What? Had Jay just apologised? I hadn’t heard the trumpets announcing the end of the world, so I had trouble believing it.

‘I was just interested. Feels weird you guys being all grown up. So what’s she like then?’

This felt strange, talking normally with Jay, but I bit the bullet.

‘Pretty, I guess. Bit of a bitch, though.’

‘Oh?’

‘Fucks around.’

‘And Dipstick puts up with it?’

‘He’s besotted.’

‘Idiot.’

‘Yeah, well.’

We went back to watching sharks. Apparently, they don’t have any bones, and some of them can live up to a hundred and fifty years. Who knew.

Jay wasn’t finished yet though.

‘Seriously, Matty, what’s with the hair, and the contacts?’

‘Like I said, time for a change.’

‘And Dipstick’s bitch girlfriend was the one to change you?’

He’d hit a bit closer to the truth than I liked, and I made my reply deliberately offhand.

‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

Jay gave me a sharp look.

‘She didn’t fuck around … with you?’

I shrugged, trying to make it as small a deal as possible.

‘Amongst others.’

Jay’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.

‘Holy shit, Matty. You broke your duck.’

‘Fuck off. How do you know when I broke my duck? How do you know I had a duck to break?’

‘It’s written all over your Jack Wills jeans and your lack of nerd-specs. You got laid, little bro.’

‘So? Who hasn’t?’

I was really trying to hold my own with Jay. This was about the most adult conversation I’d ever had with him, not that there was a lot of previous experience to compare with, and I was determined it wasn’t going to dissolve into petulant insults and sneering, at least on my part.

‘Ha ha, nice try at nonchalance.’

Nonchalance? Since when did Jay know words like nonchalance?

You hadn’t, at least not to my knowledge, not before you went away to Uni. You didn’t seriously boff your mate’s girlfriend? Not your first time?’

Jay was looking at me with a mixture of disbelief and awe and … something else I couldn’t identify.

‘It wasn’t like that.’

I squirmed with embarrassment. I’d tried to erase the whole Cindy incident from my mind, had hardly seen her or Andrew since, had been comfortable with not exploring it in any way.

‘What was it then? Mistaken identity? They were on a break? They have one of these modern ‘we can see other people’ things going on? And by the way, good on Dipstick if he’s managed to wangle that one.’

‘Yeah, you’d think.’

‘What? Really? They see other people?’

‘Not they. Her.’

‘Oh. Oh Matty …’

I would almost describe the look that came over Jay’s face as sympathetic.

‘She told you they do other people, and you did her, and then you found out Dipstick wasn’t quite as open-minded as she was.’

‘Yeah, very perceptive.’

When the hell had Jay got perceptive?

‘He punched me, actually. And his name’s Andrew, not Dipstick.’

‘He punched you? Like, actually made contact? Did it hurt? Jesus. I’ve been away too long.’

‘Yeah, it hurt. But I deserved it.’

‘Yeah, I’ll say you did. But he didn’t dump her?’

‘No, like I said, besotted.’

‘Sounds like he deserves what he got as well then.’

‘Whatever. Can we talk about something else? Or find out more about sharks?’

‘Your call.’

We turned back to the TV, but it wasn’t long before Jay’s newly awakened curiosity surfaced again.

‘So was it just the once, or have there been more?’

‘What is it with the zillion questions?’

‘Just showing an interest. You’re my little bro, I worry about you.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since you went out into the big wide world away from mummy’s apron-strings and started fucking around with your best mate’s woman.’

‘Piss off. I’m not about to go into details to satisfy your prurient prying.’

‘Fine, have it your way. Just thought you might like to talk about it with someone other than Mum. But I’m sure she’ll be up for advice on premature ejaculation, or what to do when the condom splits, or how to leave in the morning when you’ve got no intention of seeing her again.’

I was silent for a moment, battling with myself. It would be good to have someone to talk to about it all, but Jay? I’d never talked to Jay about doing the washing up, let alone about doing a relationship. I wasn’t sure he was sincere, and prior experiences told me I was as likely to get the piss taken out of me as I was to find out anything useful. Still, he did seem to be showing signs of being vaguely human, against all the odds, and I made a snap decision to give him a chance. We could always go back to grunting like Neanderthals for the remainder of the holidays if being homo sapiens didn’t work out.

‘Well how do you, then?’

‘What, leave in the morning?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Best not to.’

‘What? Not leave?’

‘Best not to wait until morning. Once you’ve stayed the night, they think it’s, like, a “relationship”, so if you’re not up for a “relationship” – ‘

Jay was busy air-quoting for my benefit.

‘– or for extricating yourself from one, make sure you bugger off as soon as possible afterwards, and never cuddle them or say you’ll call them unless you want weeks of needy emails or texts.’

‘But I always cuddle. Kind of says thanks.’

‘Ha ha, really? You’re so cute. But it’s making a rod for your own back, mate. Unless she’s The One. Or one of the ones.’

‘And how do you know if she is?’

‘Jesus, Matty, how the fuck would I know? You don’t need to know either, not when you’re still barely out of nappies. There’s plenty of time for you to find The One yet.’

‘But I thought you and …’ oh what was her name, Mum had told me, ‘… Sophia were …’

I tailed off as an incredibly miserable expression crossed over Jay’s face.

‘What?’

‘Don’t go there, mate, that’s all. You’re best off playing the field, not committing to anyone, that way you won’t be crushed when it all goes tits up. Just try not to fuck with someone else’s girl along the way.’

Jay really looked on the verge of tears, and I couldn’t handle it, had never seen him cry, even when we were kids. I backed off the deep and meaningful, and tried some lighthearted banter.

‘Yeah, well, me and commitment not exactly an item. Cuddling afterwards is the fullest extent, and maybe not that any more, if I take your advice.’

Jay gave me a weak smile and turned back to the TV, where the sharks had given way to World War Two, and we sank back into our more comfortable reticent state.

Later on, I was sitting up with Mum after Jay had gone to bed, and she told me the whole story. I had only half realised there even was a whole story; Jay’s life outside of rugby usually held little drama, it was on the pitch where the highs and lows seemed to happen. But nevertheless, there were off-field events apart from the hamstring that had caused my brother to come home for some recuperation.

The short version is that Jay’s girlfriend, Sophia, had been having some of her own open relationship action with Jay’s team mate and friend, and he’d been among the last on the team to know. They’d been together for about a year, and had moved in together a couple of months ago. It had affected Jay to the point of him considering leaving his team, Royals, and looking for another club, but he was under contract until the end of the season, and it was likely he was going to have to stay there for another few months at least.

I felt terrible. I’d done exactly the same to Andrew as Jay’s mate had done to him, and then asked Jay advice about it. I was probably lucky to have got away without another punch, which would have done a lot more damage than Andrew’s, and for Jay to be civilised about it was remarkable in the circumstances. Mum sensed my discomfort, but I couldn’t tell her the details of my newly non-virginal status without serious embarrassment, and much as I talked to her about a lot of things, this was one of those subjects I couldn’t broach.

‘Are you alright, dear?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’ve gone very quiet.’

‘Just thinking.’

‘Anything you want to talk about?’

‘No, not really. Just think I might have made things worse for Jay.’

‘How’s that, dear? You’ve not been fighting again, have you? Honestly, Matthew, you’ve only been home five minutes, I did say be nice to him.’

‘No Mum, nothing like that. I didn’t know about him and Sophia, and I just … told him about some stuff that I wouldn’t have done if I had known.’

‘Oh.’

I saw that she wanted to ask me, but that she knew I wasn’t really up for talking about it.

‘Just … be a bit sensitive, Matthew. I know your brother doesn’t really talk about things, but this has hit him hard.’

‘Yeah. I’ll try.’

My way of trying was to be my annoying little brother self. I didn’t think Jay would want to talk to me about his woman troubles, and the best I could do was not let him wallow by antagonising him as much as I could. I made a point of talking about computer code at dinner time, of watching re-runs of University Challenge and blatantly celebrating when I got the answers right, of reading books with titles like Moonwalking with Einstein, and Introduction to Algorithms, but none of it had the desired effect of making him annoyed with me. He didn’t even really seem to notice, and it was as if he’d finally given up being irritated by my brains, much as I’d given up being overawed by his brawn.

We rubbed along together for the Christmas holidays. Jay had found somewhere to get his physio, and had decided to stay for and beyond Christmas itself. I’d finished my assignments, and decided one morning to look at my phone, which I’d had on silent and in a trouser pocket since I got home, to avoid the girls who had been plaguing me before the end of term. (This was obviously before I became chairman of the board of phone addicts anonymous, as turning my phone off for even half an hour these days has me sweating.) As I turned the phone on, I saw all the texts and voicemails, and my heart quailed a little bit.

‘Holy shit.’

‘Finally caught up with you have they?’

Jay had just come in after a training session, and was leaning on the door frame in his gym gear.

‘Who’s caught up with me?’

‘Whoever it was you were just ‘holy shitting’ about.’

‘Oh. Yeah. You could say that.’

I glanced down at the phone’s screen again. Admittedly I hadn’t turned it on for more than two weeks, but surely this volume of phone usage was excessive? I wasn’t that big of a catch; I’d hoped that if I just went out of radio contact, they’d get bored and make my decisions for me.

‘Wanna tell me?’

I looked at Jay, who pushed himself away from the door and sat down in the armchair across from me.

‘I know I’m more the strong and silent type, but if I can help at all …’

Jay and I hadn’t had a recurrence of our touchy feely moment since Mum told me about Sophia; I’d wanted to stay clear of it all in case I brought up stuff that made either of us uncomfortable. Maybe … just maybe … it was time to stop acting like a ten year old, and talk to my brother like we were both grown ups. I sighed.

‘I just turned my phone on, it’s been off all holidays. I’ve had a few more messages than I was anticipating.’

‘Messages from?’

‘A few girls.’

‘Ah. Maybe not my specialist subject just at the moment.’

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to remind you –’

‘Jesus, Matty, it’s not like I’ve forgotten. Come on then, shoot. More than one girl? Go Matty!’

‘Yeah, well, I was kind of hoping it would be down to one or less by the time I got back, but they all seem to be hanging in there. Sarah’s texted twelve times – I miss you. Where are you? Did you get my text? Happy Christmas kiss kiss kiss. Text me. Etcetera. Ruby’s left five voicemails, I dread to think what they say. Charlotte has texted and left voicemails, and Pia has sent me lots of happy and sad faces and kisses.’

‘Bloody hell, Matty. Four women on the go. I bow to you.’

‘I can’t do it, though, they’re doing my head in. Pia and Ruby were just one night, I never intended – I feel like such a bastard. Sarah and Charlotte are both hot, but they don’t know about each other, and I’m going seriously loopy trying to juggle it all.’

Jay had an amused look on his face.

‘A bit like buses, then.’

‘What?’

‘None for years then four come along at once.’

‘Oh. Ha ha. Funny. Not. What am I going to do? I was hoping if I ignored them it would all have resolved itself when I got back. Now I’m just going to be straight back into the middle of it all.’

‘OK. First rule of women. Never expect them to do your dirty work. You’re going to have to decide who you want, if you want any of them, and tell the others thanks but no thanks. Jesus, I can’t believe I’m actually giving you girl advice.’

‘Neither can I. Isn’t there an easier way?’

‘You could always leave Uni and stack shelves.’

‘Shit. But how am I going to choose?’

‘Well there’s no law to say you can’t have more than one girl on the go at one time, but believe me, it quickly becomes messy and complicated, even when everyone’s happy with it.’

‘Really? Have you done it?’

‘Not since I was at school. Remember Shona McKenna?’

I nodded.

‘And Rosie Phillips?’

I nodded again. ‘Oh. Both at the same time? Did they know?’

‘Well, yeah, kind of, but Shona was in a different year to me, and she and Rosie didn’t come across each other very often. But at the end of term it was the school dance, and I took Rosie, but asked Shona as well. Ever seen two girls trying to scratch each other’s eyes out? Hot as fuck, but seriously scary, especially as once they’d finished with each other they both joined forces and came after me. Believe me, Matty, you’re better off sticking with the one woman at a time, and ones who don’t have added complications like already having boyfriends.’

‘It does sound less stressful.’

‘Trust me. You need to call the one-nighters and let them down gently, and call whichever of the long-termers will cause you more lost sleep if you don’t have her than if you do, and pick her. And let the other one down gently. And Jesus, Matty, stop cuddling them afterwards. It seriously gives them the wrong idea.’

And after that, something changed between Jay and me. Something matured; things were different. I wouldn’t say we became pals, or even greatly altered the way we communicated with each other. We didn’t even see any more of each other than we had before, but Jay would occasionally call me and ask how I was doing, and I’d text him or email him if I’d seen his photo on the back page of a paper. Something like – Me: I c u muscled yr way onto the Guardian sports pages. Thumb wrestling or something? Jay: Don’t b jealous, u’ll nerd yr way onto the cover of Geek Weekly one day. He even sent me a pair of trainers he’d got free from a sponsor. Cindy would have been proud.

I finally worked out the girl thing, as much as anyone was ever going to, and had a few short-lived flings but nothing long term. I was more interested in my degree, to be honest, than I was in having a girlfriend, but I was very interested in sex, and was happy to see a woman for a few weeks while we stayed casual and exciting, but got used to ending it, quickly, when she showed signs of wanting more commitment. I used all the moves I’d learned from books and DVDs, and added a few of my own, and always made it a point to ensure we both had a good time.

I finished my degree, graduated with first class Honours, and was amazed and choked when Jay came with Mum to my graduation. The ceremony was in June, and he was spending some time in Stafford before joining his new club, Raiders, who were based down south. His presence caused a bit of a stir, which I would have resented a few years ago, but had grown comfortable and self-confident enough with to enjoy the reflected attention.

I had landed a one-year contract with an IT company in Holland, and Jay took Mum and me out to a posh restaurant to celebrate and say ‘bon voyage’. I left the next day, knowing Mum would miss me and worry about me, but needing to start living my own life.

I carried on my commitment-free life in Holland, stockpiling casual relationships while avoiding being tied down in any but the most erotic way. My book, DVD and now practical knowledge had stood me in good stead, and most women were impressed at how well I knew my way around their bodies. I got a reputation for being an excellent no-strings lay, and it suited me that way. Nobody was under any illusions and nobody got hurt.

I also got a reputation for being an excellent Information Systems technician, and once my contract was up, it was easy to find another job with the reference I was given from the Dutch company. I could conceivably have gone anywhere in the world, but I fancied a bit of familiarity and home comforts, and when I was offered the job in Stafford, I took it, fully intending to stay for a maximum of a year before jetting off somewhere exotic.

  Funny how things turn out …

1. Beginnings

In which we meet everyone, but especially Matty, and decide whether or not we like him.

Iz

How do I let myself get talked into these things, eh? Just because I’ve done languages at Uni and happen to be an interpreter, and, you know, like words and stuff, people think – assume – I’m OK with just spending every waking minute putting everyone’s rambling life stories into some kind of order. Well, alright, I admit I have loved it. So I’m not really moaning, because it’s been awesome making everyone’s tales fit with everyone else’s. It’s just the assumption that I take issue with, and the constant ‘Iz, have you finished putting the book together?’ and ‘I don’t suppose there’s room for one of my poems?’ and ‘When can we all read it?’. Because without all the hassle and interruptions, I would have finished a looooot sooner, I can tell you.

However, here it is, done. I thought it was five people’s stories, and it is that, but really what it is, what it has become, is Matty’s story, with a big slice of Lau, a large helping of Dec, a dollop of Cal and a spoonful of Julia. It’s like a family album, like a huge panoramic photo of our family through the ages, or rather through the ages of Matthew Robert Scott age 0 – 57 and a little bit beyond.

I hope I’ve done a good enough job, I’m pretty pleased with it, the whole thing has helped me know different sides of people I thought I knew pretty well, and I hope you will feel the same. I haven’t changed anything without permission, and haven’t left anything out, although obviously there are millions of things that have happened to us all that aren’t in there. I’ve had some great reminiscences about things that happened, and some great argy-bargies about things that I said happened and others said didn’t, or the other way round. That’s the thing about remembering, it’s so subjective.

Oh, and while I’m on the theme of subjectivity, weeelll, there may be one or two or nineteen or twenty bits where the heat is on, if you get my drift. I might warn you about them, I might just let you hurtle headlong into them. Watch out for my ‘parental guidance’ alerts, but also, just be on your toes. Rumpy pumpy could crop up anywhere, without warning. Just saying. TBH it’s not that great (let’s be generous and call it) erotica. Julia is rather clinical – this went here, he did that, I screamed that – Matty just copied her really, and Lau should have remembered the phrase ‘too much information’ once in a while. But anyway, now you know.

Anyway, Scott family, and anyone else who reads it (Tom, if you really feel the need to blog it, knock yourself out), enjoy it for what it is: the stories of some mighty fine people and one mighty fine person in particular.

Iz xx

Cal

This is for Matty.

It’s not about you, Matty, you raging egomaniac, but reading your story made me realise how much knowing a different side of things can mean to the people you love.

So it’s for Matty, because I miss him, but it’s about all of you, family and friends. This is my side of things.

How do I do it? Just straight, factual, one thing after another, like Lau? Or jumping around here and there like Matty? Or starting straight then adding clips and cuttings like Dec? I suppose I should just get going and see how it pans out.

One thing I do know: There. Will. Be. No. Porn. Jesus, I don’t think I’ve ever blushed so much in my life as when I was reading Matty’s and Lau’s stories, even if you say you censored yours before it got to me, Lau. Neither my kids nor my mum will be reading details of … private stuff, because it’s just not going in, alright?

I can at least start at the beginning. Can’t I? Maybe not. Things can get pretty confusing round here, even if you start out in a straight line trying to explain them. Perhaps that’s where I should start, with who we all are and what we all are to each other. Let’s give it a go.

Me. I’m Cal. Calum James Scott, son of Beth and Jay, brother of Iz. I’m married to Chrissie and we’ve got two children, Conor and Lily. I’ve been a rugby player in my time, but retired a few years ago, and now I’m a Physiotherapist.

That’s easy so far, isn’t it? A nice ordinary family, simply explained. Then it starts to get interesting …

Dec

I thought this would be easy to write, because I’d done most of it way back then, when I was more than a little bit mad, when writing it all down helped me. But it’s made me think about it all again, about what I lost and what I found, or rather who I found, and I can’t go back over it, not right from the start to now, it’s too hard, opens up too many hurting places.

God, Matt would laugh at me – I can almost hear him calling me a ‘miserable doomwank’. So, OK, because it’s important that people you love know about things, I’m going to do this, but only up to a point. Only up until it’s good, until it’s shining, kind of the top of the mountain. All downhill from there, as they say, and I’m not really up for that journey, downhill I mean. And there are some things I’m not going to tell you, because I spent a lot of time in a therapist’s room sorting them in my head, and to go there again will seriously fuck me up.

So, off we go to the top of the shiny mountain.

Julia

Dear Matt

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

Julia

Laura

From: lustylau@hotnet.com

Hello Everyone

I’ve just had a lovely surprise. Well, I think it’s lovely. Maybe I’m not quite sure yet. But Matt left all of us something. He addressed it to me, but it’s obvious it’s for all of you too.

He hid a story on the computer, something he’d been writing in secret for over a year. It’s his story, and parts of it are your parts of his story, and I know he wanted you to read it, because he says things in it he would never say to you out loud, only in his heart.

You don’t have to read it, Matt would have understood. But if you would like to, here it is. Don’t print it off, for goodness sake. It’s really long.

Just a word of warning – some of Matt’s descriptions are rather intimate. He gets up close and personal, about our relationship and about previous relationships. It’s probably not something to read to small children. I wondered about cutting bits out, to make it less embarrassing (I mean to me, Matt wouldn’t have given a hoot), but I’ve decided to leave it as it is.

I’ve only just finished reading it, and I think I’m going to do something similar. It feels good to think that something of you lives on after you’ve finished. It feels good to think that Matt has kept this much of him alive for us.

As I said, take your time, read it slowly, or never if it’s too much.

I’m planning on getting some kind of memory file together, maybe on the computer or real paper in a real box somewhere for the things that I don’t know how to computerise (help Tom!), so if you’ve got anything, please let me have it.

Anyway, here it is.

Laura xx

Matt

My name is Matt, and I am a swearaholic. Actually, although most people call me Matt, I have been known to answer to Matty and Matthew, with the occasional ‘arrogant bastard’ thrown in for good measure. And a couple of people call me Dad, or Daaad if I’ve done something particularly squeamishly embarrassing, which I try to manage at least once a week, because it makes them say ‘Daaad’ and I bloody love it. But, yeah, swearaholic. Even invented ‘Fuckotinell’ to help counter it, but it never really did the trick – in all likelihood because, despite some people’s assertion that I have some kind of compulsion to say, oh I don’t know, fuck or bollocks a bit too often, I would retort that it’s not actually a compulsion, not a neurological medical condition as such; I already have one of those. No, I can trace the origins of the increase in the ‘fuck’ rate to a certain Christmas, when a certain teenager name of Declan Summers took it into his head to shove his way past my painstakingly erected defences, without even so much as a by-your-leave, to become my best mate-brother-aunty-ohidon’tknowwhatthefuckheis.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A lot had happened in my thirty years on this planet before the year that I nearly died. I’ve been around a bit, got a bit of a reputation in some quarters, so you might think you know me; I doubt you do. In any case, here’s my story, here’s how I got where I am, the whole roller-coaster, hands in the air and scream, wind in your hair, log flume water in your pants, hundred mile an hour fun ride that has been Matt Scott. Ready? I hope so.

Ha ha. Fun ride? With me? That’s a laugh. I wish. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to convince people I’m different than I am, that I’m not always sure what ‘me’ is. Without wishing to sound maudlin, I’m here at what is potentially the end of it all for me, and without Lau, without that huge, inexplicable, indescribable, fucking amazing love I have for her, and that somehow, unbelievably, she has for me, well I wouldn’t even have made it this far. But again, ahead of myself. Oh bollocks, maybe you should just resign yourself to this being an all-over-the-place, out of sequence, mixed up splurge of a life story, because really, being the story of Matthew Robert Scott, it couldn’t be any other way.

I will at least start at the beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start. Or as near to the beginning as I remember. I was born – no, of course I don’t remember being born, but my mother and my birth certificate tell me – in Stafford, which is in the Midlands, England, UK, Europe, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe, should you wish to send me a letter from the Aldebaran system.

I am Matthew Robert Scott, my parents having lacked the foresight to consider what the initials MRS would do to a teenage boy. I am the youngest of two boys, my brother Jay being five years older than me.

You will have heard of Jay; most people have. Full name Jameson Lucas Scott. You will notice that he got the big long Scottish sounding rufty tufty name, shortened with a cool nickname, and I’m name after some wanker in the Bible. Probably the weediest of the disciples or some such shit. Practically a self-fulfilling prophecy, as nearly all the women I’ve ever met, especially in this city, when I’ve mistakenly let slip that my brother is Jay Scott, have said, ‘Wow, I really fancied him when he played for Raiders. You’re nothing like him, are you’. It’s one of the reasons I hate him. Not really hate him. Oh but, yeah, really really hate him. He’s my brother, doesn’t that come with the territory? Mostly I hate him for being five years older than me, for how far ahead of me that makes him, how much bigger and stronger than me he’s always been, how much more confident and worldly wise he seemed growing up. I also hate him for rescuing me when I nearly died. I also love him for rescuing me when I nearly died. My relationship with Jay is really fucking screwed. But then again, probably no more screwed than any other family.

Sooo, anyway. Back to the epistle. My father died when I was two; I barely remember him – just a vague impression of largeness, a booming laugh and scratchy whiskers. And maybe even that is a false memory borne of poring over photos and talking to my mum about him. I always used to say that because I was so young when he died, and it was a long time ago, well, I don’t remember him, thus it doesn’t really matter. But it does matter, he was always there-but-not-there, throughout my whole childhood. Jay was seven so he remembers more, but he never talks about him. We were never able to bond over fond memories of our father, because the way Jay chose to remember him was to try and be just like him. Their build is the same, they have the same features – when I see Jay now and compare him to the photos I’ve seen of my father, he’s got the same eyes, the same chin, the same bulky rugby player’s shoulders, chest and thighs. Jay even calls me Matty because that’s what my father used to call me. I, on the other hand, look much more like my mum, with the skinny build, the light brown hair and greyish eyes, although I’m a lot taller than her. I wouldn’t have had a hope of following in my father’s footsteps, even if that had been my chosen path, because I was far too scrawny. I’d like to think my way was more healthy than Jay’s – talking to Mum, looking at photos, asking questions – but to be honest, I claim the prize as the bigger fuck up in the long run, so who’s to say?

So I guess that’s how it all started, my story, with the absence of a father figure, the presence of a mother figure and a brother figure, a leaning towards books and knowing shit, and a leaning away from anything that required a muscle of any description.

By the time I was ten or so, Jay was already playing rugby for the county, had already attracted schoolboy contracts from various local clubs, had been scouted by England youth teams, was the popular boy at school, had more girlfriends than he seemed to know what to do with, and really disliked having a little brother. Especially a little brother who spent a lot of time with his head in a book or fiddling with the innards of a CD player; especially a little brother who needed protecting from the bullies at school, on the orders of our mum; especially a little brother who knew answers to questions on Mastermind. And most especially a little brother who enjoyed spending time with our mum, being ten and still liking that closeness, when a fifteen year old, who might still have wanted the closeness with his mum but would never admit it in a million years, could only look on and sneer when we spent Saturday mornings making cakes or pulling up weeds or sorting out socks from the washing basket. I’m still a good sock sorter-outer, it appeals to the neat freak in me, and is about all I can contribute to the running of the house these days.

God, I’ve spent so long over the years analysing Jay and me. Some of it with paid professionals, some of it on my own in the dark. I often wonder if Jay has spent anywhere near as many minutes thinking about us, but it’s unlikely, as he’s not really a thinker. Shit happens and he reacts, he doesn’t really plan – he’s got Beth for that. But anyway, what it boils down to is this: if someone were to say ‘tell me about your childhood’, and I’ve spent enough time with shrinks over the past few years to know that they never actually say that, but if they did, then the edited highlights would be: a) my dad died when I was really little and my mum and I leaned on each other more than maybe we would have done otherwise. b) my brother made my life difficult, whether on purpose or not. c) despite this, I looked up to my brother and wanted to be like him. d) I never was like my brother in any way, and we never really connected when we were young.

That’s pretty much it. I could tell you about the miserable dark evenings standing on the touchline of some muddy rugby pitch in the middle of sodding nowhere with Mum, waiting for Jay to come on as a sub, or replacement, or whatever the don’t-give-a-toss they call them. I could tell you about all the times Jay wasn’t there when I was getting the school maths prize or being a shepherd in the Nativity play or playing in the recorder concert. I could tell you about my brief brush with popularity with girls when I was nearly eleven, which came to nothing when Jay found out and told all his mates I was gay. I could tell you about all the times I was knocked over and sat on, usually with a hair pull or a finger bent backwards, because I’d said something clever that made him feel stupid. I could tell you about every teacher in every school in every class I ever sat in asking if I was Jay’s little brother. I could tell you about all the times … oh but what’s the point? It was then. Maybe I sound bitter. I guess I was. I wanted Jay to notice me, to think I was worth something. I needed, craved, some male approval, a someone to replace my father, but he was so busy being popular and strong and older, I was beneath his notice. And I suppose, if I’m being fair, it’s not a role many teenage boys would willingly step into. Then, when he was eighteen, he was gone. He left school, signed professional terms with a rugby club, and left home.

Jay and I didn’t see each other much after that. I spoke to him if I happened to pick up the phone when he called to talk to Mum, and if he came back to stay in the off season, we’d be there together and we’d grunt at each other, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I was doing, and I had never been able to keep up with his physicality, so we really had nothing in common. It was almost a relief, a liberation, to be just me and Mum. I got on with things my way, I did my homework, passed most of my exams with straight As, joined the computer club, the chess club and the debating society with no one to call me a ‘poncey wanker’ for playing to my strengths.

Yeah, I was a nerd, a geek, I was gangly and gawky, I wore glasses, I had acne, my hair was thick and unruly and cut by my mum and I didn’t really care about the latest trainers or designer jeans. Luckily my mates were equally nerdy, and we’d talk for hours about the latest version of computer code, or the finer points of Star Wars back history, or, OK, as we got older, occasionally the finer points of Pamela Anderson.

I made my mum proud, as did Jay, and when it was time to think about my further education, I chose a University near to home, so I could come back regularly. Said it was to do laundry, but really it was where I felt comfortable.

My course was Information Systems & Computer Science, and my best mate Andrew was there too. He was as nerdy as me, and I’d thought we’d be able to carry on as we had at school with our prattling about science fiction, our off-the-cuff equation battles, our joint love of all things Tottenham Hotspur, and our occasional drunken ‘what’s the answer to life the universe and everything if it’s not forty two’ sessions.

But I hadn’t counted on Andrew dropping the nerdiness and landing himself a seriously hot babe in Freshers’ Week. It was as if he underwent some kind of overnight larval transformation. On the Tuesday he was Andrew – skinny, gawky, hair in his eyes, slight squint. Then on the Wednesday, we went to the Freshers’ Ball, downed copious amounts of cheap cider, he must have been pissed enough to ask a girl to dance and she must have been pissed enough to say yes, all while I was pissed enough to be sat in the stalls with my head spinning trying not to vomit. I lost track of him, but the next day I knocked on his door at noon, hangover pounding behind my eyes, and I had to look twice when he opened it to check I had the right room. He looked completely different.

‘Whoa. Holy shit, Andrew. Did you get lucky with Edward Scissorhands?’

‘Ha ha. Er …’

Andrew looked behind him and moved his body to stop me going any further into the room.

‘Are you coming to the Chess Club thing?’

He ran a hand through his newly chopped, and actually, now I thought about it, pretty trendy hair.

‘Shit, Matt, sorry, I completely forgot. Er …’

Again with the look behind him. I heard a giggle, and tried to look over his shoulder.

‘Sorry, mate, maybe another time, I, er …’

Andrew pulled the door to behind him and stepped out into the corridor of the halls where we both had rooms.

‘I, look, sorry, I, er, hooked up with Cindy last night and, well she’s still here. Sorry to blow you off, but …’

He shrugged, unable to disguise the huge smug bastard grin of the newly de-flowered.

‘No shit, Andrew. You dog.’

I punched him on the shoulder, feeling more than a little envious – Cindy was a girl we had both identified early on in Freshers’ Week as someone we ‘would’, although of course we ‘would’ just about anyone, given the desperate nerd-virgins we were.

‘Did she cut your hair?’

‘Yeah. Her sister’s a hairdresser, apparently she taught her. She said it brings out the sparkle in my eyes.’

He ruffled the haircut again trying and failing to look embarrassed, but managing to look extremely pleased with himself.

‘Yeah, looks great mate. Loving those sparkly eyes. Later then.’

And so things changed for me and Andrew. He was still my mate, they included me in lots of things, but Cindy wasn’t into Star Wars or computer code, or even Spurs (she was a girl, it was just about forgivable), and three’s a crowd, and they bloody snogged all the bloody time. Oh, and I had the hots for Cindy. Big time. Like there wasn’t a whole university full of girls I could have obsessed over, I had to pick the one who was doing it with my bloody best friend to be hopelessly in love with.

So spending time with them was bitter sweet. I really didn’t have any other friends, being a bit of a loser back then at the socialising thing, but seeing her with him was torture. And not seeing her was torture. So I hung around like either a lost puppy or a bad smell depending on your take on things.

I tried to join societies, clubs, go to things on my own in the hope of making some friends, and there were people on the course I talked to and hung out with a bit, but Andrew was my best mate, I used to tell him everything, in a blokey kind of way, and although I tried to give them time on their own, I felt like I needed him and didn’t want to just disappear. I told myself I was ‘being there’ in case things went wrong with Cindy, someone he could talk to for advice if it was necessary. Yeah, right, I know.

Cindy had friends she hung out with when she wasn’t sucking Andrew’s tonsils, and she’d sometimes have a go at setting me up with one or other of them, but somehow it never came off – they’d cancel or be really vague about when they were available and, oh, actually look, there’s this other boy … and anyway, I was hung up on Cindy, who was small and blonde and vivacious and curvy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Maybe it was the whole ‘want her because you can’t have her’ thing – she was a safe bet because she was my best mate’s girlfriend and therefore off-limits. But thinking about it rationally didn’t make it any easier.

Occasionally Cindy and I would hang out together, if Andrew had a tutorial, or was doing laundry or something, and none of her girl-gang was around. On one of these occasions, we were in Andrew’s room waiting for him to get back from a meeting with his tutor. I was looking at my emails and she was flicking through a glossy magazine. I was also checking her cleavage out of the corner of my eye when I thought I could get away with it. Her top was low cut; there was a bit of lacy bra showing at the edge of the neckline, and it was driving me wild. She suddenly looked up. I quickly looked down at my computer.

‘Hey, Matt, this is what you need.’

‘Huh?’

I looked up, trying to seem as if I’d been engrossed in some piece of startlingly well-written cyber literature. She turned the magazine to face me and showed me a neon-pink headline which positively yelled, ‘Man Makeovers – Ten Top Tips to Get Your Geek Gorgeous!

‘You need a makeover.’

‘What? No I don’t.’

‘Why not? I could do it. I could cut your hair, like I did Drew’s.’

Oh, I neglected to mention, Andrew’s name was now Drew, to Cindy and indeed everyone except me. Could he be any more lame? And yeah, I was a green-eyed monster. Couldn’t help it. He was shagging the girl I wanted.

‘I don’t want my hair cut.’

Although the thought of her standing close to me, running her fingers across my scalp, maybe pressing into me a bit, did nearly make my eyes go crossed and raised my pulse rate several notches. I was glad I had the laptop to disguise my hard-on, which had been threatening since I noticed the lacy bra, but had now developed fully.

‘Oh but why not?’

I do believe she even pouted a bit. It might have been the pout that did it, especially as she stuck out her chest at the same time.

‘It says here that a man’s haircut and clothes are what attract seventy per cent of women at initial glance.’

‘Oh really. Empirical study is it? Or just Cosmo bollocks?’

‘Don’t be so snooty. Why don’t you give it a try? I’m at a loose end this morning, we could go to your room, I could cut your hair, we could have a look at your clothes, make you a new man.’

‘I’m happy with being an … um … old man.’

‘Yeah, that’s your problem. You look ten years older than you are. All it would take is a little trim …’

She got up and sat next to me, looking at my hair, then reaching out and pulling at a strand, between forefinger and middle finger, measuring. I wondered if she had any idea of the effect she had on me. My breathing sped up, and I tried to calm myself so she wouldn’t notice.

‘Come on.’

She stood up and took my hand, pulling me to my feet. I quickly shut the laptop and clamped it to my groin as she tugged me along the corridor to my room. I wasn’t quite sure when I had agreed to this, but it was apparently somewhere between the pout and me looking ten years older than I was. I stood in the middle of my room, laptop jammed against the bulge in my jeans.

‘What are you standing there for? I can’t cut your hair standing up, you’re too tall. Sit down.’

She gestured to the bed. There wasn’t anywhere else. I sat down, laptop still stuck to me like glue.

‘Put your bloody computer down, Matt. I know you love it like you want to marry it, but you’ll get hair in it, and won’t that mess with the, er, microchip thingy or something. I’ll get a towel, look, so you don’t get the bits all over your clothes.’

She fetched the towel, which I held around me like a cape while I slid the laptop off my crotch.

‘Who usually does your hair?’

‘My mum.’

‘Oh. Well that explains a lot. Mums don’t always know best, do they.’

I was silent, not prepared to criticise my mum at this point.

‘Your hair’s lovely and thick, isn’t it. Nice colour, too. Oh, you’re going to have to take your glasses off, they’ll get in the way.’

‘I can’t see without them.’

‘Well dur, otherwise you wouldn’t need them. As long as I can see, you don’t need to worry. Give them here, I’ll put them on the – oh you’ve got amazing eyes, I never noticed before. You should defo try contacts.’

So first my hair’s a nice colour and now I’ve got amazing eyes. And this is my best friend’s girlfriend. If things got any more awkward I might possibly self-combust. And then she started touching my hair, pulling at it, and then snipping with the scissors she’d grabbed from the bedside in Andrew’s room, and things definitely got a whole lot more awkward. I’d never been in this close proximity to a girl – well, not since my brush with popularity when I was nearly eleven and snogged Lily Knight and Lucy Carpenter both in one lunchtime behind a portakabin.

Lily was my first kiss. She was in my class, and we were in our last year at junior school – the year when hormones started surging, and boys noticed that girls were girls rather than just not boys. I definitely noticed Lily was a girl. She had big blue eyes and wore her hair in a high ponytail, and she was really really good at spelling. She always came first in the spelling tests. I always came second, and it was my aim to beat her at least once before we went to secondary school, so there may have been an ulterior motive to my romantic interest; possibly I was trying to nobble the opposition. Oh come on, I said nobble. I was ten.

It was the lunchtime before the spelling test. I’d asked Mum to test me all week, and I knew I could get all of the words right, even ‘miscellaneous’, which I could never pronounce, didn’t have a clue what it meant, but could finally spell. If I could just distract Lily enough, I might have a chance. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but it started well enough, with me sharing my crisps with her at lunchtime. We got talking about stuff – ten year old stuff, nothing particularly earth shattering, she had a cat called Biggles, and I liked the name, and I told her about the Biggles books, but she already knew about them because her brother had some and that was why the cat was called Biggles – and she suddenly grabbed my hand and told me she wanted to show me something behind the portakabin. Poor naïve me had no idea that this was code for having a bit of a pash, so I went with her willingly, expecting maybe a secret passage or something, and was extremely surprised when she pounced on me as soon as we got there, crushing her mouth against mine in a facsimile of a movie kiss. Maybe it was a secret passage of sorts.

So I was surprised, but not so much that I didn’t enjoy it; I enjoyed it a lot, in fact, and we spent the rest of the lunchtime kissing. Fairly chastely, but still, to ten year old me, it was a highlight of my life so far. Sadly I still came second in the spelling test, but the upside was that lunchtimes after that became much more entertaining, with several more pashing sessions to follow.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if Lily was my girlfriend, she ditched me. I had gone to our usual spot behind the portakabin only to find her locking lips with Harry Thomas, the class clown, who must have joked his way into her favour, the bastard. I walked away despondent, but was accosted on the way back to the playground by Lucy Carpenter, who was one of Lily’s friends. She’d obviously heard about Lily and my lunchtime trysts, and wasn’t shy in expressing herself.

‘Lily says you’re a good kisser.’

What does a boy say to that? Yeah I am sounds rather big-headed. Am I? sounds a bit disingenuous and needy. So I shrugged, and let her take my hand and lead me to a different part of behind the portakabin, where I showed her just what a good kisser I was.

And then Jay found out, from Lily’s brother, and he decided to out me to the world, even though I wasn’t even in, and that was the end of my junior school kissing career, as I spent the remainder of my lunchtimes there fending off juvenile homophobic bullying. Cheers Jay. Did I mention I hate him?

But anyway, back to Cindy. Things were getting awkward, especially in my jeans, and I needed to alleviate the tension. I tried to focus on something boring. Maths. Equations, standard deviation, Pythagoras’ theorem. None of it boring, not to me, but it almost worked as a distraction. Locks of my hair were falling past my shoulders and onto the towel, as well as drifting onto the bed and the floor. Cindy was kneeling behind me, her knees either side of my hips. I was hyper-aware of her breasts brushing my shoulders, and indeed all the places where her body was touching mine, and Pythagoras was taking a bit of a battering.

As Cindy chattered, I didn’t say a word, I was trying so hard to concentrate my way out of saying or doing something to offend her. Finally, after what felt like hours of exquisite torment, she leaned back, then shuffled off the bed, to stand in front of me and look. She gave me a satisfied smile.

‘There, that’s tons better. Shows off those eyes. You’re a bit of a babe, Matt. Now all we need is to sort out your wardrobe …’

She walked over to the cupboard where my clothes were hanging. She was a blur.

‘Wait.’

The blur turned round, and looked like it might have raised its eyebrows.

‘Where did you put my glasses? I can’t see a thing, and I haven’t seen what you’ve done yet.’

‘Oh no, you don’t get your glasses back until the big reveal. Honestly, have you never watched any of those celebrity makeover programmes?’

I honestly never had, so I shook my head. Cindy tutted and turned back to the wardrobe, where she started taking clothes off hangers.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Sorting your clothes. Two piles. This one is ‘no hope, down to Oxfam with you’, and this one is ‘oh well it’ll have to do’. I’m hoping for a third pile of ‘wowzers’, but it’s not looking promising.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.’

‘Not for an old age pensioner. Does your mum buy your clothes too?’

I shrugged, trying not to feel embarrassed, because that was exactly what usually happened. It hadn’t ever felt embarrassing before.

‘Isn’t your brother, like, some kind of sports hero? Doesn’t he get you free cool stuff?’

‘No.’

I wasn’t prepared to bring Jay into this. I’d never told anyone here that Jay Scott, Royals and England rugby player, was my brother, because I hated all the people who wanted to know me so they could get to Jay. Andrew must have told her.

‘Oh, you should defo get him to. Maybe ask for me as well. I went out with a footballer last year, he only played for Port Vale, but he got me a really cool pair of Nikes.’

Well at least now I knew where I stood with Cindy: a complimentary pass back to the sporting freebie world. I didn’t reply, as she continued heaping my clothes into two piles. From my fuzzy vantage point on the bed, the ‘off to Oxfam’ pile was considerably bigger than the ‘have to do’ pile, and I was likely to be wearing the same t-shirt and cargo shorts until the end of term.

‘Am I actually going to have any clothes left to wear when you’ve finished?’

‘Well, there is quite a large charity shop pile, but I did this with Drew, it was so cool, we took three bags of stuff to the charity shop, and then replaced it with loads of other stuff from the same shop, so it was dead recycly and all that. There’s this really good place just off the High Street, they do lots of vintage and labels and stuff. You’re pretty skinny, so there’ll be loads of stuff for you to try.’

‘No, I don’t do shopping.’

‘What? How do you get clothes, then?’

What, apart from my mum?

‘Internet.’

Another tut, and probably a roll of the eyes.

‘Well you’re going shopping with me today. We’ll bag this stuff up and then get you some cooler stuff.’

I was starting to feel irritated. Cindy had decided I wasn’t good enough as I was, and was just barging through my whole life, changing everything. I half expected her to announce she was changing my course from Information Systems & Computer Science to Fashion & Media, as well.

‘Look, thanks Cindy, I appreciate the haircut and everything, but I really don’t want to get rid of my clothes, or buy new ones, or even old smelly ones from a charity shop, and –’

‘Oh come on Matt, it’ll be fun. You’re already half way there. Just imagine what everyone will say when you walk into the canteen this evening and you look totally hot.’

‘Well that’s not hard to imagine, as I won’t.’

Self-confidence not high on my list of personality traits back then, but I wasn’t usually as openly self-deprecating. There was a brief silence, as Cindy turned to look at me, then walked over and sat down next to me.

‘You totally already do, Matt.’

She took my hand, and all the aching desire I’d managed to push away while she was irritating me returned with a vengeance. I felt my cheeks burn and my jeans got tight again. Bugger.

‘Cindy, I –’

‘Underneath that hair, those dorky glasses and those Matalan Online clothes, you’re a total hotty. I never realised before.’

She squeezed my hand and leaned up to kiss me on the cheek. My burning red cheek that was giving away everything. Shit shit shit. And then she lifted her hand up to the back of my neck and put her fingers in my hair and as a bolt of pure want shot to my dick, I couldn’t stop a sound coming out of my mouth. It was a moan or a groan or a grunt or some such bollocks, but I couldn’t stop it, and once it was there, it was there.

Cindy looked pointedly down at my crotch where the traitorous hard-on was throbbing for all to see. She laughed. I loved her laugh, it kind of tinkled and set the hairs on the back of my neck on end, but I didn’t want that tinkly laugh directed at my hard-on, so I pulled away from her and stood up, turning my back on her, unable to think what to say or do, trying not to die of shame.

‘Oh Matt, don’t worry, it happens all the time, Drew’s always bulging out all over.’

‘Yeah but he’s your boyfriend.’

‘So?’

I thought that was patently obvious. You shouldn’t be getting a hard-on when sitting next to your best mate’s girlfriend. Didn’t girls know anything?

‘So maybe you should just go.’

She laughed again.

‘Why? To spare your blushes? Don’t be silly Matt. I’m not embarrassed.’

I wheeled round to face her, my anger and shame somewhat offset by not being able to focus on her face, and the slightly off-balance wobble that made me stumble.

‘Well I fucking well am. You should go, Cindy. Thanks for the haircut. See you sometime.’

‘But that would be such a waste.’

She stayed sitting on the bed, and I couldn’t clearly see her face without going up to her and peering, so I didn’t have a clue what she was thinking.

‘What?’

‘A waste of a good stiffy.’

What?

What was going on now? I was about to find out, as Cindy stood up, walked over to me and put her arms round my neck, stood on tiptoe and pulled my face down to hers.  And that’s when things got a whole lot more interesting …