It was April, I was getting out and about myself now, using buses and embracing the Stafford public transport system. Despite being constantly on the alert for glimpses of Carrie and Martin, I was feeling so much better that I had begun to overcome my apprehension. For a while it had taken me back to the time when Carrie was in the safe house and I’d seen Martin in every tall muscular man who rounded the corner, but I hadn’t had any near misses – real or imagined – since that time in the supermarket, and I gradually felt more confident about going out on my own. I’d even been thinking about going back to work, although how they’d feel about an employee who would be incapable of turning up until two in the afternoon, and would then only be able to do half an hour’s hard graft before collapsing on the desk in a stupor was anyone’s guess. I’d only been thinking about it. And my sick pay ran out soon; I’d have to start doing something to pay my way.
But anyway, Springtime in Stafford, birds are singing, daffs are blooming, sunshine and showers, all that shit. I’d got the bus into town after lunch, taking advantage of the good weather until, true to form, a sudden downpour had hit. I hadn’t taken a coat, and didn’t fancy a drenching, so I ducked into a Starbucks to wait it out. A coffee and a sit down, ace combination for waiting.
As I was walking to a vacant table with my full fat latte and chocolate muffin (hey, I’m the skinny one who’s trying to put on weight, it was medicinal), I caught sight of Simon, a mate of mine and Carrie’s, or maybe ex-mate, who was trying really hard to avoid eye contact. I hadn’t come across anyone from my former life in any of my previous sorties into civilisation, and I suddenly wanted some answers.
Ignoring his very loud body language, I plopped into the seat opposite him and played innocent for all I was worth.
‘Heh Si, haven’t seen yuh fuh ages.’
He looked up, dark expression on his face.
‘No. Time I was going.’
He stood up, but I grabbed his sleeve and didn’t let go.
‘Wha did she tell yuh?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
He tried to shake me off, but I’d anticipated that, and clung on. Unless he wanted to draw attention to himself, or take his jacket off and leave me holding it, he was staying for a little while at least.
‘She told yuh all some shih abou meh didn’t she. When she left, I tried tuh call yuh, all of yuh, an no one answered. I’ve behn rehly ill, I had no one.’
No one apart from my bloody awesome family, but that didn’t sound quite as dramatic, so I left that bit out.
‘Maybe you didn’t deserve anyone.’
‘Wha? She lef meh fuh her bastard ex, I had –’ I still couldn’t say it, ‘– I was rehly ill, an she lef meh.’
‘Maybe you should have thought of that before you messed around. Maybe if you’d been honest with us, we would have been more sympathetic.’
‘Wha? She told yuh I fucking messed around? I never did.’
‘Oh, so this illness you’ve had, it’s nothing to do with fucking around so much you managed to get HIV? Keeping something like that from your girlfriend is pretty shitty, Matt.’
‘Wha the fuck? Tha’s bollocks.’
I stared at him, not quite able to compute what he was telling me, how he could have got it so wrong, so turned on its head.
‘Yeah right. We all got your text.’
‘Yeh, saying she’d lef meh, asking yuh tuh hehp meh.’
Si shook his head, contempt writ large on his face.
‘The other text, after Carrie had told us all what was going on, saying it was true and – God, I can hardly believe you had the balls – asking to meet up so you could apologise.’
I let go of his sleeve in surprise. I had no idea what he was talking about, and then I remembered that Carrie had taken my phone from the flat. She must have sent them all a text from me – I started to explain, but I’d let go of Si, and he was away and out of the door in his haste to escape from me, the evil bastard who fucked about and put his girlfriend at risk of HIV.
I nearly followed him, but he’d gone, and lurching after him with my fucked up legs while shouting unintelligible bollocks really wasn’t going to help. Instead, I sat at the table, head in my hands, latte going cold, muffin untouched, thinking about what Si had told me. Carrie had left me, when I was just developing a fucking huge disease, then she had told our friends I’d left her, and then she’d told them I’d had a different fucking huge disease, but one that I’d caught by being so evil that no one would want to have anything to do with me.
Later, years later, I worked out why she’d done it, but at that moment, it just hurt, so overwhelmingly, that I couldn’t begin to think about it. I’d thought I’d put it all away somewhere it couldn’t touch me, but that ripped it all wide open again and poured salt all over it and it was bad.
A month or so before, it would have put me back in bed, curtains shut, Declan Summers going on at me from the loudspeaker until I caved, but not now. Now I took it and shoved it away, and it made me decide to sod the fucking lot of them. If they all really, truly believed that pile of shit, they had never really known me. If not even one of them had called me to check it, they weren’t worth me mourning them. I was worth more than that, I deserved better.
I did, however, need to check whether the rumour had got as far as work. Some of my ex-friends had known people I worked with. I asked Beth for help. She was livid about what Carrie had done, and threatened all sorts of reprisals, including suing her for slander, but I was calm enough about it outwardly to convince her all I wanted was to check that people at work knew the truth.
I’d asked my managers to keep the bastard MS quiet, but now I guessed it wouldn’t hurt if more people knew the truth. Beth agreed to talk to Eyeti for me, as I didn’t think I could have the conversation myself where I said ‘you know the rumours going round about me that I’ve got HIV? Well …’. She called them, sorted it out, and went even further up in my estimation.
If you’d told me, a year ago, I’d be living in the same house with Beth without doing her a serious injury, I would have laughed in your face. Yeah she was bossy, yeah she always thought she knew best, yeah she went on and on sometimes. But she was also organised, she was kind, and when all’s said and done she was pregnant, and you can’t go around doing pregnant women serious injuries.
After that, going out seemed like a lottery. Was I going to see someone I knew, never mind Carrie, and was I going to react calmly and explain everything, or was I going to go completely over the top and look like a total mentalist? It started to get to me so much that I went out less. I didn’t know what to do. I was on the lookout every time I went into town, whether it was on my own or with Beth or Jay, and it was stressing me.
April came and went, and I was getting better, tons better, and feeling trapped in the house. I loved walking – hiking – but didn’t have the energy for a long walk yet, and wasn’t getting my hit of being outside, feeling the air and hearing nature.
I started to wonder if I should stay here, in Stafford, but where else was I going to go? Maybe in 6 months, a year or so, I might be able to get a place of my own, but I was still literally finding my feet – OK, not literally, you got me, I knew where my feet were all the time, at the bottom of my legs – finding how much I could do, and I still relied a lot on having Jay and Beth around. More than I cared to admit, really.
I was nowhere near fit enough to go back to work, but I started to wonder what would happen when I was, when I could do more for myself, live by myself, support myself. Would Jay and Beth vanish back from whence they came? Or was Stafford their home now? And if it was, how could I leave? It all kept spinning round my head, until the day Beth asked if I wanted to go to town with her and Cal after school.
‘Come on Matty, you haven’t been out for ages. Cal would love it, he really likes being out with you.’
‘Maybe another tihm. Dohnt feel up tuh ih.’
Beth got that look on her face, that one that said ‘something’s up, Matty and I’m going to get to the bottom of it’. I braced myself.
‘Matty, you’ve been avoiding going out for a while. What’s it all about?’
‘Noh I hahvnt.’
‘When was the last time you came out with us, let alone went on your own?’
I couldn’t remember. I didn’t answer, but just shrugged, as if it wasn’t important. I should have known Beth wouldn’t be so easily put off.
‘Are you worried about running into someone you know?’
I shrugged again; she could read into it what she would.
‘You can’t live your life like that, Matty.’
‘I dohnt hahv any choice.’
‘Of course you do. I know it’s hard for you, but if you –’
‘Yuh hahv no idea wha ih’s like, knowing evryohn yuh know, maybe the whole fucking town, thinks I’m an evil bahstrd who’d slehp wih my girfriehnd when I thoht I had HIV.’
‘You can’t lock yourself away for ever. People will never know the truth if you do.’
‘Pehpl dohnt want tuh know the truth. Si showed meh tha.’
‘That was one person, sweetheart.’
‘An where are the rehst? They all think the sahm. I dohnt think I can stay hehr.’
I hadn’t meant to say it, but now it was out there, and I stared at Beth, guiltily.
‘Sohry. I dihnt mean tuh say tha. Where the fuck else am I gona goh?’
Beth was giving me a funny look, something I couldn’t interpret.
‘Well, maybe you’re right, though. Maybe a change of scene would be the best thing for you.’
‘Wha? Buh I cahnt, I cahnt goh anywhere.’
‘Leave it with me, Matty, just trust me for a bit. Come out with me and Cal, though, I’ll protect you from anyone who might give you grief. I’ve got support tights and I’m not afraid to use them.’
And so, intrigued and a little apprehensive, I went out with them, just to a coffee shop, where I knew no one but couldn’t help looking up every time someone came in the door.
Later that evening, once I’d loaded the dishwasher after dinner and made coffee for us all, because now I could totally nail difficult shit like that, a look was exchanged between Jay and Beth, and a subject was launched into.
‘Matty, what we were talking about this afternoon, about, er, staying here.’
Oh fuck, they were going to kick me out and move away somewhere, now I was getting better. That was it, end of Jay’s grand gesture. I knew he’d been frustrated with the disjointed bits of work he’d managed to get up here, and it had crossed my mind that eventually he might want to do something more permanent. What was I going to do? I might have to go and live at Mum’s, but she couldn’t look after me if I got ill again –
Beth broke into my escalating thoughts.
‘We’ve got something we’d like to talk to you about.’
‘James has been talking to Raiders, about the possibility of going back there, when you’re feeling better.’
‘Yeah, mate, it’s only a possibility, and I’d never go if you needed me, or thought you might need me, I’ll always be here for you. You know that, don’t you?’
I nodded, unable to see past the fact that Jay wanted to move back down to Devon, and I was holding him back. I couldn’t hold him back, wouldn’t allow it to happen, he might not get another chance, having resigned from them once.
‘Ih’ll beh OK, I can lihv wih Mum.’
‘Oh don’t be so daft, mate, that’s not what I meant. Beth told me what she thought was going on with you, that you feel like everyone here thinks some kind of bullshit about you, and you’re not going out because of it.’
I looked from him to Beth, feeling a little betrayed by Beth, but I guess it wasn’t like I’d asked her to keep it to herself.
‘Matty, James and I, we’ll be here for you, forever if you need us. We’re not looking for a way to get out of that, we love being here with you.’
I waited for the but. And here it came.
‘But we think we might have a solution.’
I lifted my head at that. I’d been expecting ‘but this is important to James’, or ‘but you know how much rugby means to James’ or some such shit.
‘Yeah, mate, we wondered, and it’s totally up to you, you don’t have to say now, but think about it, but we wondered if … how you’d feel about moving back down to Devon with us? There’s plenty of space, you could have Dec’s old room, we could still keep an eye on you as long as you needed it, which won’t be for much longer. It might be a fresh start, somewhere you don’t keep bumping into your old life at every turn.’
‘No, mate. Starting over. But I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to persuade you. If you’d rather stay here and give it a go, just say, and that’s what we’ll do.’
‘Yuh should goh, whatever.’
‘Not gonna happen, mate. Our priority is you. If you’d rather stay here, maybe start getting out and about again, we’ll stay together.’
I was touched beyond words. Obviously, there was no way on this earth I was going to let them stay here and pass up an opportunity like that, but Jay seemed totally genuine. I didn’t know what to say.
‘Cahn I think abouh ih?’
‘Of course, Matty. James doesn’t have to give them an answer right away, he’s been talking to them for a long time, they’ve been trying to persuade him to come back next season.’
‘Yuh guys … I dohnt knoh if I cahn ever say how much wha yuhv dohn mehns tuh meh.’
‘You don’t need to mate. I can see it in your eyes every time you look adoringly at me.’
‘Piss ohf, I dohnt fucking well adore yuh, never hahv.’
‘Your eyes tell me different. See, you’re doing it now.’
‘Fuck ohf, Jay.’
‘Oh you two, are you ever going to be able to say something nice to each other without spoiling it?’
‘Doubt it, Beth.’
And so I thought about it. And there were lots of objections, some of which had already been aired, and some of which were purely down to my pride, and some of which were Mum. Mum needed someone to keep an eye on her, more than ever. I was torn between staying and getting better so I could look after her if she needed it, staying and being a burden on her if I got worse again, and going and leaving her on her own.
Mum had friends, but they weren’t me, they weren’t family, and she’d got used to having Jay, Beth and Cal around. She’d miss them. I couldn’t decide.
Escaping to Devon, starting again, leaving all the shit behind that I’d found here, that really appealed. If there had been no other considerations, that would have been what I would have chosen. And if I stayed, then Jay was missing out on a job he loved, again, for me. Everywhere I looked, there where rocks and hard places.
Then Mum came to see me. Jay and Beth were out with Cal, and she knew it, and she turned up just as I was making myself a coffee.
‘Hey, Mum. Yuh must have heard the kehtle.’
‘Yes, dear, I have a sixth sense where cups of tea are concerned.’
‘Just done some coffee if yuh fancy ih?’
‘Oh well, if that’s what you’ve done, that will be fine.’
I rolled my eyes at her martyred tone.
‘Cup of tea it is then. One of these days I’ll geh you drinking espresso.’
‘Oh no, Matthew, it’s far too strong, gives me the heeby jeebies.’
‘How can I resist?’
So we sat in the kitchen, and chatted about this and that, and I wondered when she was going to get to the point, as there was so obviously a point.
‘… and apparently it’s not that much more expensive than the jumbo packs.’
‘Yeh. Fascinating, Mum. Why are yuh hehr?’
She affected a puzzled expression.
‘I came to see you, dear.’
‘Yeh, I knoh. Why?’
She started to dissemble again, but realised she was onto a loser.
‘I’m alright on my own, you know.’
‘I don’t need you to be here to look after me.’
Oh. She knew about it all then, and she’d worked it out, and now she was being noble and self-sacrificing. Well that was my job, and no one was going to take it away from me.
‘Dohn knoh wha yuh mean. If I stay ih’ll beh because I wan tuh.’
‘Matthew, you are one of the most obstinate people I know, and also one of the people I know best. I know you think I need you, I know you’ve stayed here because of me, when you could have been off seeing the world, and I know that being here, now, is too hard for you. I’ve had a good think; you’ve been a good boy, and I don’t know what I would have done without you over the last few years. But now it’s time for you to do what’s right for you. Go with Jameson, and build another life for yourself. I’ve talked to them about it, about how I’ll manage without you all, and I think I’ll be alright. And who knows, maybe in the end I’ll come down to Devon too. I’d like to try it here on my own, though, first. Just to see if I can do it. I’ve got some good friends here, who I’d be reluctant to leave behind, I’ve got my book club and my gardening club, but with Beth having the baby, I might not be able to resist being close to you all. Please don’t stay here for me, Matthew. You’ve done it once, and now I think Stafford has had more than it deserves of you. If you want to go with Jameson, I will be fine, in fact I’ll be better knowing you’re somewhere you can put everything behind you. It will put my mind at rest.’
I honestly had no words. She even almost managed to make it sound like I was doing her a favour. She was right, though, that it felt like it would be too hard to stay. She was giving me a way out, one that hardly made me feel guilty, although she was my mum, so I did feel guilty.
‘Please, Matthew, promise me that if you stay, it will only be because you want to, for you.’
If I’d thought like that, I wouldn’t even be here now. I’d be in another country, having another life. But if I didn’t promise, it would be like admitting that I’d only be staying for her. And if I did promise, I’d have to stick to it. Bloody mothers, they always got you in the end.
So she had me. She knew I didn’t want to stay, so if I stayed it would only be for her, and I’d have lied to her and broken my promise. I was a big boy now, and more than capable of breaking a promise if I thought it was important enough, but Mum had got to me with her ‘giving it a go on my own’ speech, and had almost convinced me with her ‘who knows, maybe I’ll come too’ thing as well. I’d almost made my mind up.
What finally decided me was a phone call from Eyeti. I was still on the payroll, although, having been off sick for almost two thirds of the year, was no longer being paid anything. If I left, I’d have to hand in my notice, and that was a pretty huge thing for me. But I had a call from Frank, who was the CEO, which sounds very grand, but he was CEO of a fairly small company and he was very approachable. I thought he was going to want to talk about when, or if, I was coming back to work. I was so far away from being able to consider working, that the thought of that conversation almost ended it before it had begun, but he wanted to tell me something.
He’d been contacted by a friend who worked in a big Systems Analysis company, with branches in Singapore and Hong Kong, and they were looking to recruit staff. Frank’s friend had asked if he knew of anyone with suitable experience and qualifications, and Frank thought of me. Even though I was off sick, he still wanted to give me the opportunity to at least consider it. I considered it for all of a second and a half, as even remembering the lock code on my iPad was beyond me sometimes, and reluctantly turned it down, but something about the offer made me think that maybe I wasn’t all washed up, maybe there was more to life than shitty Stafford and what it had to offer.
Maybe if I went to Devon with Jay, I could get myself together and find something down there, where the air was clearer, the beach was only ten miles away, and I’d be with my family, who wanted me to be with them. I could come back and visit Mum, I could try my hardest to persuade her to move down too, everything could be new. People still wanted me, people on the other side of world. I could work towards it, one step at a time. It was a plan. I was always happier when I had a plan, and I hadn’t had one for a long time. Sold, to the man with the funny walk and the unintelligible bollocky words.
It was nearly the summer holidays, and Mum picked me up from school one day in the car, instead of walking. She said we were going to Pizza Place, and I asked if Owen Little could come, but she said no, just us, but when we got there, Dad was there too.
We had a pepperoni with pineapple and mushrooms, because I like pepperoni, Mum likes pineapple and Dad likes mushrooms, and Mum let me have a large coke and said I could have an ice cream bowl afterwards. It was like it was my birthday, but my birthday wasn’t until November, and it wasn’t Mum’s or Dad’s birthday either.
After we’d finished our pizza and ice cream, Dad kind of punched me on the shoulder; not hard, but like he was just pretending.
‘Cal, we’ve got something to tell you.’
I wondered if they were going to tell me if I was having a brother or a sister, but I kept quiet, because I didn’t want to guess the surprise.
‘Sweetheart, Daddy’s got a new job, back where we used to live, and we’re all going to go back there to our old house.’
I looked at them both, as I thought about what they’d said. We were moving away? Away from my school? Away from our house? Away from Granny? Away from Uncle Matty? Where would Uncle Matty live? A lot of questions fought to be asked, and I couldn’t think fast enough to ask them before the next question popped into my head.
‘What do you think, mate?’
Finally one thing burst out.
‘But what about the parade?’
At my school, there was going to be a parade at the end of term, and I was going to be an elf, because my class was being Lord of the Rings. Mum had made my costume, it had pointy ears and a bow and arrow, and I had been looking forward to it all term. If we went back to the city, I wouldn’t be able to do it, and someone else would get to be an elf, and Miss Bradshaw said I would be the best elf because of my blond hair, and it would be nice to finally have something good about my hair, even though Mum wanted to put plaits in it like Legolas.
‘You can still do the parade, sweetheart. We won’t be moving until the summer holidays.’
Oh. Well that was alright, then. When we moved before, it was on the day after Mum told me, and I didn’t have time to make sure all of my things were in my backpack, and I lost my Furby and some of my Lego.
‘Where will Uncle Matty live?’
‘With us – he’s coming too.’
‘Will Granny live with us?’
‘No, she’s staying here, so she can still see her friends and go to her gardening club.’
‘Will Dec live with us?’
‘No, Dec has got his own house to live in, but we’ll be able to see him a lot more often. That’ll be good, won’t it.’
It did sound good, at least being able to see more of Dec. But I was going to have to leave my school and my friends behind, and Owen Little had just let me join his Pokemon club, and Miss Bradshaw had just said I was good at being tidy. I hadn’t been good at being tidy at my other school, because Jake had always … Jake! I’d be able to see Jake again!
‘Will I go to my old school?’
‘Yes, mate, Mummy’s sorted it all out, you can go back after the summer holidays.’
‘Mummy, can you phone Jake’s mummy and tell her?’
Mum and Dad looked at each other, but didn’t look as happy as I was about seeing Jake again.
‘Let’s see, Cal. We could always leave it as a surprise.’
That did sound good, I would love to see Jake’s face when I walked in on the first day of school. Maybe a surprise would be alright. I didn’t agree or disagree, though, in case I changed my mind later.
For now, it was time to start thinking about what I could get out of it. I liked my dinosaur bedroom, but maybe a change would be good.
‘Can I have a Pokémon bedroom?’
‘I kept your Ben10 curtains, sweetheart. I thought we could put up some posters.’
Ben10 was for babies. I was six.
‘But Pokémon is cool. Jonny Basset has got a Pikachu duvet, and his aunty painted his walls, and he’s got cushions and baseball boots and –’
‘Cal, your mum’s got enough to worry about without thinking about painting Pokemons on your bedroom wall. We’ll make sure it looks nice, mate, but let’s just wait a bit, use your old curtains for now, or we can take your dinosaur ones with us. Then later in the year, maybe we can think about making your room look really good.’
Dad was using his ‘no arguing’ voice, and Mum patted his arm like she was agreeing with him, so it didn’t seem like I was going to have much of a choice. I decided a change of subject was needed. There were still lots of questions to be answered.
‘Is the baby going to have a room?’
I had counted the rooms in our old house, and when Dec lived there too, there were enough bedrooms for one each. If Dec wasn’t living there, but Uncle Matty was, that still meant one each, but if the baby needed a room too, I was worried I was going to have to share, like Daniel Glover did. His baby sister was always crying and keeping Daniel awake, and he wasn’t allowed to play in his room sometimes. I didn’t think I would like that.
‘Probably not at first, sweetheart. The baby will be very little to start with, and Daddy and I will have a cot in our room, like we did when you were a baby.’
‘But I’m big now, and I’ve got my own room.’
‘Yeah, mate, but it’ll be a while before your brother or sister is big enough to have a room of their own. You don’t need to worry.’
‘But where will they go? There aren’t any rooms left.’
‘Maybe we’ll put Uncle Matty out in the shed. He likes spiders.’
I wasn’t sure if Dad was joking. The shed was pretty cool, but there wasn’t much room because the lawnmower was in there and tins of paint and spades and bags of earth for the garden. If Uncle Matty went in there, he’d want it to look a bit more tidy.
‘Can Percy come with us?’
‘Yes of course, sweetheart. We wouldn’t dream of leaving Percy behind. He’ll like it in our old house, I’m sure.’
‘Will Tabitha come too?’
‘I don’t know, Cal. Tabitha is pretty comfortable with Nico and Lis, and she’s quite old. Maybe we should let her stay there.’
I couldn’t think of any more questions for the time being, so I got on with scraping the last little bit of ice cream from my bowl. It would be a bit annoying to leave my new school behind, because I’d just got used to the way everyone talked funny and said things like ‘he’s got a cob on’ instead of ‘he’s cross’, and how the dinner ladies called me a duck when they could see I was a boy, but mostly it would be awesome to go back to my old school and see all my old friends there.
łDec, I’ve got some news for you, before you see it in the papers.
‘OK, you’ve got my attention.’
łI’m coming back to Raiders. Assistant Coach. Start next season. We’re going to move back in a couple of months.
‘Holy shit! Jay, that’s fucking awesome!’
Because it was nearly the summer holidays, Dec had finished playing rugby until the autumn. He came up to see us sometimes, but even though he wasn’t doing rugby, he was busy doing other things, like going out and dancing. Then he had to do training so his legs were strong when he started playing rugby again, so he couldn’t come and see us much then either. I was glad we were going back to the city, so we could see Dec whenever we wanted to. I would be able to see Nico too, and most of all I would be able to play with Jake. The closer it got to us moving, the more excited I got about seeing Jake again. I didn’t know if I could wait until school started in September. I wanted Mum to take me to his house, so we could play on his brother’s X-box and swap Pokemon cards and listen outside his other brother’s door while he said swears on his phone.
So I said goodbye to Stafford. I literally said goodbye to it, did a tour of all the places that had meant something to me.
I went into Eyeti, once I’d given my notice, and took a huge tray of doughnuts, and told them what was wrong with me, although I used lots of ‘bastard’s and ‘fucking’s when I said it, and I got lots of sympathy, which was hard to take, and a couple of weeks later, Frank came round with a card and a present, which was a signed photo of the Tottenham team that his nephew had managed to get, and I was touched, and it was an ending.
I went to Stafford Rangers FC, where I had spent many a frozen Saturday afternoon watching some entertaining football – they weren’t Spurs by a mile, and it wasn’t the Premier League by much more than a mile, but they were my home team, and although I didn’t watch them play that time, I went to the social club and had a beer, and it was an ending.
I walked up to the highest point I could find and looked down on the town, and felt both big and small at the same time, and it was an ending.
I also did a tour of all the places that had meant something to Carrie and me, or at least to me. I’m not really sure why I did it, apart from needing some sort of ending to that, too. I went back to the Pizza Place where we’d met after she’d left the safe house; I sat outside our old flat, looking up at the window; I went to the pub where we’d seen the band, and wandered round the beer garden; I went to the castle; I went to the school on a Thursday night and sat in the car park; I went to the Lebanese café where I’d seen her crying.
I didn’t think why I was doing it at the time. Maybe I was trying to come across her, so I could have an ending that way. Maybe I was trying to prove that I could do it, that even if I found her there, in any of those places, I could cope, she no longer had any power over me. But she wasn’t there, in spirit or in reality. Other people were there, making their own memories, and that was a different kind of ending for me. It made me realise there was less than nothing in that town for me any longer and it made me glad, really glad I was going.
Beth: =Change of plan. Can u come up 2moro? James booked van for wrong day. Might as well go day early. Need yr muscles. Thx. Xx
Not long after the end of term, after the triumph that was the Lord of the Rings parade where everyone said what a good elf I had been, it was time to move out of our new house and back into our old one.
Mum’s tummy was really big, so she couldn’t move anything herself, but she did lots of telling, and Dad did lots of putting his hands in his hair, because sometimes Mum made him do something exactly the opposite of what he’d just done, like when he took all of the plates out of the cupboard and put them in a box, but then Mum said we’d need them for our tea, and why had Dad just put them in a box, and Dad said because you told me to.
I went to Granny’s a lot while Mum and Dad were packing things up, so I didn’t get packed in a box myself. Uncle Matty helped, because he was better enough, but he couldn’t lift heavy things, like Mum couldn’t, so Dec came and helped on the day we moved, even though the lorry had special men for lifting things. I wasn’t allowed to stay and watch the men put things in the lorry, because I might get in the way, but I watched the beginning, and then Dad came and got me from Granny’s when the lorry was ready to go, and we followed the lorry all the way to our old house, which was our new house.
Jay, Beth and Cal moved out at the beginning of June. Beth was seven months pregnant by then, and unable to do any of the lifting, although she was more than capable of telling everyone else what to lift and where to lift it to. I did what I could, but mainly stuck to my allotted task of making drinks for everyone and cleaning up after everyone had gone.
I stayed with Mum for a couple of weeks afterwards, partly out of guilt and partly because there were a few things Jay and Beth needed tying up which I could do for them. Dec had been up to lend his muscle for the moving vans, and thinking back to how he had been at Christmas, he was a different person. Apart from the scars on his face, which might never completely fade, he had recovered physically from his kickings, and he seemed more confident. Jay teased him mercilessly about some girl he was apparently hung up on, but when I asked him about her later, he was unforthcoming.
Beth: =Barbecue 18th 5pm. Bring anyone – Danno? Mikey? Amy?? 🙂 xx
Our new house, which was our old house, felt a bit strange at first, because I knew other people had lived there, and there was pen on the wall of my bedroom, and my bed was my bunk beds, which I hadn’t had before, but once Mum had put my dinosaur curtains up, and I’d got all my toys out, it felt like my room again.
Dec came to see us a lot, and sometimes he had his friend Amy with him. Amy wasn’t his girlfriend, because they didn’t kiss each other or hold hands, but they talked to each other about music and about things they did with other friends who I didn’t know. I liked Amy because she gave me a dinosaur badge and knew about cool trainers with flashing lights on the back.
I went to Dec’s new house too. He didn’t live at Rose’s house any more, and he didn’t live over Rose either. He lived in a house with some other big boys who all did rugby too, and he had his own room. I liked going there, because it was always noisy and messy, and there was a PlayStation and an X-box and a really, really big TV, and nobody put their clothes away.
I woke up slowly, the sun through the curtains alerting me to the promise of the day ahead. Lots to do – first, a run, then the gym, then I’d promised Amy we’d go to the beach. She stirred beside me, turned over and opened her big blue eyes.
)Mm. Morning. What time is it?
She moved in closer, into the crook of my arm, put one arm across me and closed her eyes, drifting back to sleep. I kissed the top of her head, breathing in the smell of her hair. This was all pretty new and amazing.
We had finally got together properly a few weeks ago, after months of being friends, good friends, great friends, more than friends, then both afraid to ruin it by saying what we felt. We had hung out together a lot, phoned and texted each other all the time. We talked to each other about almost everything, knew each other really well, we had just been reluctant to risk taking the next step.
Part of the hesitation, for me, had been DivDav. He wasn’t around any more; he’d moved to another club soon after Raiders told him they weren’t renewing his contract. I’d tried to contact him so I could apologise to him, but he never replied to any of my calls or messages and eventually I had to accept that there were some fuck-ups that just stayed fucked. Amy had broken things off with Dav partly because of me and I felt awkward bringing it up; I didn’t know if Amy felt the same, as it was one of the few things we never seemed to talk about.
Amy had been instrumental in helping me rebuild my friendships with some of my other mates, people like Danno, Mikey and Bonksy. She was relentless in persuading me to come along to meals, clubs, cinema trips, any event where everyone was together, and she overcame the remaining tension between us all. Eventually things just got better.
A few weeks after they moved back to the city, Jay and Beth had a house re-warming barbecue, and we both went. Matt caught me watching her as she helped Beth carry plates to the table, and followed my gaze.
So, PCC 1.2.4 having ended with complete system failure and irretrievable data, I moved down myself at the beginning of July, and once we’d all settled in, Beth threw a ‘welcome back’ barbecue. This was where I finally got to clap my eyes on Amy Wright, and see the effect she had had on Declan Summers.
It was a very hot day, and I was excited, because Nico was coming, and Dec was coming, and I wanted to play football with them in my new goal. Mum didn’t have time to play with me because she’d been cooking things for ever, and she made me put forks on the table, and then I had to wash my hands and change my shirt. I wanted to wear my Arsenal shirt, or my Raiders shirt, but Mum said that wasn’t smart enough, so I had to wear my school shirt, which was hot and itched, and I had to have sun cream on my face and arms which smelt funny.
People started ringing the doorbell at twelve o’clock, so I went into the garden with my football, hoping that someone would come soon who would go in goal. Mum had told me not to ask people, because they would want to eat burgers and hot dogs first, but I could ask later when everyone had eaten pudding. Pudding seemed like a long time away, so I had to make do with kicking the ball into the goal myself.
Uncle Matty was sitting on a bench in the shade, and he had a glass of beer. I went and sat next to him, because sometimes he would let me have a sip of beer if Mum wasn’t looking. It was my bad luck that Mum was out in the garden the whole time, and Uncle Matty didn’t have a chance to give me beer.
‘Heh Cal, no takers fuh footy yet?’
‘No, but I think Dec will be here soon.’
‘Let’s hohp so. I think yuhr pitch is gona be full of people sohn anyway.’
We looked over to my goal, and while I’d been away from it, lots of people had gone and stood there with drinks, talking to each other. I knew Mum wouldn’t like it if I asked them to move, so I stayed where I was. I wished Mum had asked some of my friends to this barbecue. She was still holding on to her ‘let’s surprise everyone at school’ thing, and hadn’t let me ask Jake over, or asked any of my friends’ mums to the barbecue. I was going to be really bored if all people did all afternoon was drink wine and beer and eat burgers. I looked at Uncle Matty, who was looking at me with one eyebrow up and one down, like I wished I could do.
‘My Playstahtion’s on. I wohnt tell if yuh don’t.’
He winked at me. Uncle Matty was cool.
I slipped inside while Mum was talking to another lady, and ran up the stairs. True to his word, Uncle Matty had left his PlayStation on, although he hadn’t put his war game on. He’d left it on Lego Star Wars, and the controller was sitting on his bed. I started playing.
Some time later, there was a tap on the door.
I paused the game, looked up, saw Dec and smiled.
‘Dec, I got twenty three super Legos.’
‘Awesome, mate. Do you need a partner?’
Dec was useless at PlayStation Uncle Matty beat everyone, but Dec lost to everyone, even me, even Dad, who wasn’t very good either. If Dec was my partner, my high scores would take a bit of a bashing.
‘No, it’s just for one player.’
‘OK, cool. We’ll play football later, shall we? When it’s a bit cooler, and everyone’s sitting down?’
I nodded and turned back to the game as Dec left the room.
Beth, despite now being only a few weeks away from giving birth, had been working for days to prepare food and get the house and garden sorted out, so it was ready for all the people she had invited – half of the city, by the sounds of it, including Raiders players, friends of hers from her nursing days and various random other people I didn’t know.
I had been sitting on a wooden bench, drinking a beer, watching Dec watching a girl. I was talking to him, trying to get a conversation going, but every time he looked like he was listening to me, the girl would walk out of the kitchen door carrying a plate of burgers or a bottle of mayonnaise, and his attention would slide over to her. She was slender and pretty, with long dark hair and big blue eyes. Attractive enough, but she only looked about eighteen. I guess that was just the right age for Dec. The look in his eyes as he followed her every move was very entertaining, and although I’d pretended not to notice him looking, eventually I couldn’t resist it any longer.
‘Aha, a pretty lady. Someone special, by any chance?’
Jay had told me all about Dec’s crush. It had been going on for months, since just after Christmas. He’d spent over half the year pining over her, and although she seemed to reciprocate the pining, neither of them had seemed able to make the first move. He’d never mentioned her to me, other than in ‘oh a bunch of us went to the cinema’ type terms, and until I saw him this afternoon, I hadn’t realised just how bad he’d got it.
‘That’s Amy. She’s just a mate.’
‘Oh tha’s the mysterious Amy. Seeing someone, is she?’
Because really, Dec, it’s about time you made your move.
‘What in the name of fuck are you waiting for then? They don’t grow tha hot on trees, or wait around forever while you grow a pair.’
And if you don’t get on with it, some other bloke might start hanging round, and then you’d really have something to look all piney about.
‘She’s a really good mate.’
Ha ha. Here’s the other one, give it a jiggle and hear the tinkling.
‘Then tha’s a really good reason to tell her how you feel.’
‘Yeah? How exactly do I feel, if you’re so fucking smart?’
You’re really asking me? I’ve had more women than you’ve had hot dinners, and I know, yeah, as well as that, I know how it feels, so get ready for the plain truth, kid.
‘Oh, I don’t know, like she’s part of you, like she’s your reason for living, like she lights up your world. All those bloody awful clichés tha suddenly mean something when you’re in lurve.‘
And I knew what it looked like, too. And he was, I could see it.
‘I’m not –’
He stopped himself. He so was. Pitiful.
‘Yeah, you are. Well done, Summers, you worked it out. Plus it’s written all over your puppy dog eyes. Why don’t you fuck off and do something about it?’
He just needed a little nudge, that’s all. I was surprised Beth hadn’t done any nudging, it was what she excelled at, but maybe she had other things on her mind, or was taking a baby break from interfering. Dec suddenly took a deep breath and stood up, a determined look on his face.
‘Alright then, you know what, I bloody well will.’
‘Wha, now? Holy shit, Dec.’
Take a bow, Matthew Robert Scott, you have just single-handedly made sure the course of true love ever did run smooth. I know, misquote of the century, completely changing the meaning of the Bard’s poetry with a single absent ‘n’, but what the hell.
Before I could bottle it, I walked over to Amy, took the plates from her, put them down on the table.
‘Can I have a word?’
She looked up at me, frowning slightly.
)Are you OK?
‘Yeah. Come with me a minute.’
With my heart beating very fast, I took her hand and led her inside, to the kitchen.
‘There’s something I want to say.’
She looked up at me with her big blue eyes. They made my heart beat even faster. Deep breath.
‘OK … right … er … you know how … um … when I … we … I mean … would you … oh fuck it, I’m really fucking this up. Why don’t I just show you?’
Without giving myself time to think about what I was doing, I took her face in my hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She didn’t respond immediately, and I started to draw back, mortified and embarrassed. Then she reached up and twined her fingers in my hair, pulled my face down to hers and started kissing me back. Relieved beyond belief, stomach doing flip-flops, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close as we lost ourselves in each other. After a long time, we stepped back, staring at each other in amazement.
‘Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to do that?’
)About as long as I’ve wanted you to?
‘Has anyone ever told you you’re fucking amazing?
)Not in so many words.
‘Oh Amy, you’re so fucking amazing.’
I leaned towards her, pulled her to me, and we started again.
łWell it’s about bloody time, you pair.
We sprang apart as if we’d been electrocuted. Jay stood in the doorway, carrying a tray of sausages, grinning widely.
łWe were all beginning to despair of you two ever getting your act together. Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. Just need to get some barbecue sauce for these. Behind you, Dec, if you wouldn’t mind.
I reached for the sauce and handed it to him.
łThanks. As you were.
Jay walked out, whistling, and we heard him announce:
łKitchen’s out of bounds, Dec and Amy having a snogfest.
Jay introduced me to Nico, and we all sat drinking beer in the sun, while Jay occasionally got up to flip burgers or do some other of Beth’s bidding. Once, he went inside for a bowl of barbecue sauce and came out with a huge grin on his face, announcing to the gathered crowd that Dec and Amy had been found in a compromising position in the kitchen.
There were cheers and wolf-whistles, the tale of unrequited love seeming to have reached a few people. Jay came and sat back down, shaking his head.
‘Happy ending, then?’
‘Dunno about happy, Matty, but if he puts his tongue any further down her throat he’ll be able to share her breakfast.’
‘Jaime, this is good. Declan loves Amy a long time.’
Nico seemed to be some kind of Latino hopeless romantic.
‘Yeah, Nico, I know. Not sure how hygienic it is to have it all happening in my kitchen, though.’
A while later, the door opened again. It was Mum, and she didn’t look happy.
‘Cal, you can’t just come in and play with Uncle Matty’s things.’
‘He said I could.’
‘Come outside, sweetheart. The burgers are ready.’
‘Oh, but I’ve nearly finished the level.’
Mum’s no arguing voice was harder to ignore than Dad’s, and she used it a lot. I paused the game and turned the TV off, so it looked like I’d turned the game off but I might be able to go back to it later, then I followed Mum down the stairs. Mum took a long time going downstairs at the moment, because her tummy was very big, and she had to go slowly, and I wished she had let me go first so I could run down and get outside, but I had to wait behind her.
When we got out into the garden, there were still loads of people standing in front of my goal, so I went over to where Uncle Matty and Nico were sitting, to see if they were doing any swears, or talking about things I wasn’t supposed to hear.
‘Ha, is Cal, the best Raiders supporter.’
I smiled at Nico, still a bit star-struck.
‘How did yuh get on wih the Plahstation, mate?’
‘I got to level fourteen.’
‘Whoa, you’re beating meh then.’
Uncle Matty turned to Nico.
‘Cal’s got sohm serious gaming fingers.’
‘I like this, Cal. You must come to me and play me on my X-box.’
‘Have you got Lego Star Wars?’
‘No, I don’t have this, but I have some good games.’
Nico listed his games, most of which I knew from when I’d stayed with Nico and Lis before, and most of which Mum wouldn’t let me play if she knew.
‘When can I come and play on your X-box?’
‘Whenever you like, we make a day soon, huh?’
‘Can you play football with me now?’
‘I think we wait until there is room, huh? This is what your Mama say.’
Mum had obviously got to Nico, and probably Uncle Matty too.
‘Yuh should ask Dec. I bet he’d clear a space for you.’
‘This is a good thought, Matty. Yes, Cal, you must ask Declan.’
There was a look that passed between Nico and Uncle Matty that I didn’t understand, and they were smiling, almost laughing, as if it was a joke, but before I could ask what they meant, Mum called over to me.
‘Cal, sweetheart, can you go and ask Dec to bring some bread rolls for me? He’s in the kitchen, the rolls are in one of the cupboards.’
Nico and Uncle Matty thought this was funny, but I didn’t understand why, although it didn’t feel like they were laughing at me. They had been drinking beer, and Uncle Matty often thought things were funny when he’d drunk beer, so I didn’t say anything to them, just went inside and …
… stood in the doorway of the kitchen, watching Dec and Amy doing grown-up kissing, for a really, really long time. Like she was his girlfriend. They were all squished together, and their mouths were making sucky noises, and they didn’t notice I was there for ages. Then I saw Dec’s eyes flicker sideways, and he saw me, and he stepped back from Amy. They both had red faces, and Dec wiped his mouth with the back of his hand like Mum used to tell him off for.
I remembered what I was supposed to be doing there.
‘Mummy says can you bring more bread rolls. She says they’re in the cupboard.
Dec reached up and took down a bag of rolls and gave it to me. I nearly told him that he was supposed to bring them out, but I didn’t think that would get me anywhere, as I didn’t have an excuse not to take them out myself.
Dec turned back to Amy, but I remembered I had something else to ask him.
‘Can you come and play football with me?’
‘In a bit, Cal, I’m busy at the moment.’
Dec didn’t even look at me while he was talking, he was looking at Amy, but he wasn’t busy, he wasn’t doing anything except twirling Amy’s hair on his finger.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Er, talking to Amy. Can’t Matt or Nico play with you?’
‘They said ask you.’
Dec said a swear beginning with ‘ba’ but really quietly so I could hardly hear it.
‘OK mate, I’ll be out in a minute. Go and give the rolls to Mummy and find your football.’
I ran outside, smiling, because Dec had promised, and now I was going to be able to play football like I’d been waiting to do all day. I gave the rolls to Mum, and then I waited, and waited. And waited. And waited and waited. I went back and asked Uncle Matty and Nico again, but they said they were waiting for Dec so they could watch him.
In the end, I went over to Dad, who was talking to some people, and tugged on his shirt.
‘Daddy, Dec said he’d play football, but he’s not.’
‘Oh, I see. Is he still in the kitchen with Amy?’
‘Yes. He’s doing kissing with her.’
‘Jesus, how much of that did you see? Never mind, I don’t want to know. I’ll go and get him, shall I?’
This was very helpful, because Dec was more likely to listen to Dad than to me.
łCome on Dec, time to meet your public. Cal’s desperate for a game of football and we need our kitchen back. You’re seriously leading Amy astray in here.
)We should really go back outside. I said I’d help Beth, she’s been on her feet all day.
‘I guess she could do with taking the weight off.’
łTake these out with you, then.
He handed me two plates of cupcakes.
łGo on, get out of here. Spread the love.
Jay whacked my behind with a tea towel as Amy took one of the plates from me. Holding hands tightly, we walked together to the table where Beth was busy arranging desserts, looking hot and flustered and struggling to reach around her large stomach.
_Oh, thanks you two.
She gave us a cheeky grin.
_Well done, I’m so pleased!
Amy and I looked at each other, half embarrassed, half delighted. I felt lighter than air and couldn’t stop smiling. Couldn’t stop touching Amy – her soft hair, her beautiful face, my arm round her slender shoulders. She was staring into my eyes as if she might forget what I looked like, an expression of happy bewilderment on her face that I suspect was mirrored on mine. We were the same but everything was different.