Dec came into the living room with Dad and me, so I could show him the Christmas tree. There were some presents under it, even though Santa hadn’t been yet, because they were for Mum and Dad from Nana Jane and Dada Rich, and Santa didn’t bring all the presents for grown-ups, they had to buy them for themselves sometimes. The day after tomorrow, there were going to be heaps and heaps of presents because Santa would have been. I couldn’t wait.
I knew Dec would like it. He always helped to decorate the tree in our other house.
‘Look Dec, this is the snowman you made.’
I pointed to the decoration I’d chosen to hang on one of the lower branches.
‘Oh yeah, we made him last year, didn’t we? I didn’t think he made the grade though, last Christmas – and he’s lost his nose.’
‘Mummy said it’s a family tree, and I choosed it to go on for you because you made it.’
‘Thanks mate, it’s perfect.’
Dec looked like he was trying not to cry again, and it was getting silly. He’d nearly cried at least twice and actually cried twice too, and I didn’t understand it.
I was choking up again, the good memories from the past rearing up and ambushing me.
‘Oh sh – eep shoes.’
\why do you keep crying?
‘Sorry, Cal, I don’t really know. I’ve missed you all a lot and I’m happy to be here.’
\but people cry when they’re sad.
łDec’s keeping in touch with his feminine side. We’ll lock him up with Uncle Matty all day tomorrow, they’re as bad as each other.
It was true that Uncle Matty cried quite a lot as well, but I wasn’t sure that locking him up with Dec was going to help. It would just make them both cry all day instead.
Mum came in with some biscuits and told Dad it was alright to cry even if you are a boy, or a man, and Dad looked sorry but didn’t say he was. But it had made me think about why both Dec and Uncle Matty were crying all the time now, when they didn’t used to.
‘Do people cry when they’re cripples?’
‘Cal! That’s a horrible word, where did you hear that?’
Uh-oh. I hadn’t expected that. I had no idea it was on the list of bad words. But it wasn’t my fault, and I needed to point this out to Mum.
‘Daddy said it. He said Uncle Matty’s room is Cripples Corner.’
‘James! Honestly. Look what you’ve done now. Cal, it’s a not very nice word for people who can’t do things as well as other people. Daddy was only joking, but it wasn’t very funny.’
That was just like Mum, to say something wasn’t funny when everyone thought it was, and stop the funny thing from happening. I really didn’t want to be in trouble this close to bedtime, and decided to lay the blame on Dad.
‘He said grown-ups can swear in Cr … Uncle Matty’s room. Uncle Matty said a big swear before he went to sleep. Dec said a swear too.’
I was just trying to point out that worse words had been said, so that no one got in trouble for saying Cripples Corner.
‘James, honestly. When Cal grows up with the foulest mouth at school, I’ll know who to blame.’
‘Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.’
‘OK Cal, time for a bath and bed I think.’
Would I ever learn? This always happened when Dad did something silly – I got sent to bed early.
‘Ohh, but I want to have a story.’
‘You can have a story, sweetheart. Dec, how about it? Cal’s missed your bedtime stories.’
That was alright then; if I was going to get a story from Dec, the first one in about a million million years, I could make this last a very long time. I was really good at making going to bed last for ages, and I was even better when I had a story.
‘Oh, I’d love to. Bath first, Cal, then choose a book, yeah?’
Well, yes, but only after I’d tried for something else.
‘But can’t I watch some Harry Potter first?’
‘No, sweetheart, we can watch DVDs tomorrow. Bath now.’
‘Oh but can’t I –’
‘No. Bath. Now.’
Mum had her ‘no arguing’ voice on, and I knew there was no point carrying on, although I was as slow as I could be going out of the room.
Cal eventually dragged himself out of the room, as slowly as he could. The phone rang as Beth and Cal were making their way up the stairs. Jay reached over for a handset that was on the coffee table and had a conversation with his mum, which seemed to be about arrangements for her visiting tomorrow. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows, shaking his head. The conversation carried on, it seemed pretty standard mum stuff.
ł… no, he’s asleep, pretty wiped out … not bad today … we’re doing fine … Mum, don’t worry, we can manage, it’s no problem … nobody’s expecting you to do it, we want to … stop it now, we’ve talked about this … you’re coming tomorrow, you come over all the time … don’t start this again … oh Mum, don’t … you’ll be here tomorrow, see us all then. Or come tonight if you want to … yeah, that’s what I thought … go and enjoy yourself … OK … OK … see you tomorrow … bye.
He pressed the button and tossed the phone back onto the table.
łJesus, she’s hard work at the moment. Sorry, Dec, she goes on a bit. Guilty about us looking after Matty, but she can’t do it, she’s got arthritis. We don’t mind, we want to do it, but she can’t let it go. Sorry, not your problem. But I guess you might hear us discussing it more than once in the next few days.
‘Sounds really difficult.’
łYeah. We’re all still getting used to how things are. Anyway, what’s this I hear from Nico about you remembering being beaten up?
‘Oh. Yeah. I forgot I can’t scratch my arse without you all telling each other about it these days. It was weird, I had this kind of dream after my operation. When I woke up, it was clear as anything, I could just remember. I know, don’t look at me like that, everyone’s asked, I just know I’ve remembered.’
The images started crowding in again, and with an effort I pushed them away.
łSo you’re sure, it was Ben Hearne?
‘Yeah, and someone else. I can’t place him, but I think I know him.’
łJesus, Dec, that’s tough, wasn’t he your mate?
‘Yeah. It’s weird. And hard. But it felt the same when I thought it was DivDav. I should probably apologise to Dav, he will have had the police visit him and all sorts.’
łFrom what I hear he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory before.
‘No, but we made up, he apologised, I apologised. I will have fucked all that up again now.’
łCan’t be helped. If he’s a good mate he’ll understand and you can mend it. If not, well, you’re probably better off.
We both backed away from that statement, as it hit a bit closer to home than either of us were comfortable with. From upstairs we could hear squeals and splashes.
‘Sounds like he’s overcome his reluctance.’
łYou know what he’s like. Loves a bath, hates being made to have one. Pretty good at procrastinating. Potent combination as far as getting him to bed is concerned.
‘He’s really growing up, he’s changed loads.’
łI know, it goes so fast, I’m scared I’m going to miss something. He’s so excited about Christmas – you know he thinks you’ve got some kind of connection with Santa?
‘How do you know I haven’t?’
łFair point. Does that mean if I ask you, you can sort me a Lamborghini?
‘Nah mate, left it too late. All the Lambos are spoken for. Could sort a Skoda.’
łHm, might leave it then –
The phone rang again, this time it was Rose. Jay gave me the handset.
‘Rose, hi, you got there OK?’
:Yes, love, just thought I’d check how you’re doing.
‘Great, it’s great to see them. How about your sister and nephew?’
:Well I haven’t seen Gethin yet, he’s out with his friends, but I’ve had a grand catch up with Bron. Lots to do tomorrow, all the family are coming round.
‘Sounds great, have a good time.’
:You too, love. Just a quick one, got to go and do a last minute supermarket shop. Don’t forget to change your dressing tomorrow.
‘It’s all sorted. Thanks for organising me.’
:You’re welcome, love, see you in a few days, I’ll ring again. Tara.
Unbelievably, she’d set me off again, and I tried to wipe my eyes surreptitiously. Without me even realising it, I’d been letting Rose organise me, care for me, and I hardly protested any more. With things getting better between me and Jay and Beth, it was starting to feel like I wasn’t so alone, and it touched me somewhere deep.
łBloody hell, Dec, you seriously need to sort your tear ducts, they’re having a major malfunction today.
‘Sorry. I’m trying. Being here is pretty huge.’
łI know, mate. Don’t worry about it. Rose is a bit of a find. How exactly did you drag her into all this?
‘I didn’t do any dragging. She kind of was just, suddenly, there. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. She lives downstairs from me. I’ve only known her a few weeks. Feels like a lifetime.’
łShe’s really got your back, mate, you’ve made an impression.
‘I know. She’s amazing. I seriously don’t know what the fuck I’d have done without her.’
From upstairs, we heard a thump and then small feet thundering down the stairs.
łUh-oh, sounds like story time has arrived. Ready?
I grinned, wiped my eyes.
Cal burst into the room carrying a large book. He jumped onto the sofa next to me, bumping the book into my right arm and making me wince. He didn’t notice but Jay did.
łHey, well done Dec, no big swears.
łNothing, Cal, just be careful of Dec’s arm, it’s still sore.
\dec, I’ve brought my dinosaur book. I can’t find about the porridge.
łAh, Dec, maybe you can clear this up. Ever since Cal, er, went to Dinosaurland on his own, he’s talked about this porridge stuff. He said you told him. We have no clue.
Although I’d mostly known Dec was making it up about the porridge at Dinosaurland when we were waiting for Mum and Dad to come in the car, I wanted to make sure, and I wanted to have that feeling where I was almost sure Dec was teasing me but not quite.
‘Oh, well, Cal, you won’t find it in your book, because the porridge is only for Dinosaurland dinosaurs. It’s only for dinosaurs that meet the public. These ones in your book lived a long time ago, and never met people. They would have eaten us all if they had. So the Dinosaurland dinosaurs have special porridge for breakfast to fill them up, so they don’t want to eat people in the day.’
And there it was, that feeling. Dec was joining in, and rather than saying he made it up, he was saying more things to make it sound like it was true. I loved it, I loved arguing with Dec, because we both knew what was true and what wasn’t, and we were just being silly. I felt like I hadn’t been silly with Dec for a long, long time.
‘But the Dinosaurland dinosaurs aren’t real, they’re just pretend. Some of them are made of plastic.’
Cal said this patiently as if trying to explain something very simple to a very stupid person who might possibly believe the dinosaurs at Dinosaurland were real. Jay had been looking impressed at my bullshit, but laughed at this deflating comment from the small genius.
‘You’re right, and I guess the porridge is kind of pretend as well, but just in case, you can never be too careful, it’s best to make sure they don’t feel peckish just as a boy, say one called Calum who is six years old, is about to visit their park.’
Cal looked dubious, but let it pass.
\i don’t want a story.
I was gutted, I had been looking forward to this since Beth had suggested it.
‘Oh, OK. No worries.’
\i want you to read this book.
‘What, the whole book?’
Cal’s face lit up.
Dec was joking again. He knew I’d never be allowed the whole book, because it would take hours and hours to read it all, and I would be really late to bed. But I thought I’d go for it anyway.
Dec might have said yes, but Dad wasn’t about to. He never let me stay up longer.
‘No, Cal, it’s too long. Choose one chapter. Dec needs to get to bed sometime tonight.’
‘OK, which chapter?’
Then Dec whispered in my ear:
‘Which one’s the longest?’
I looked up at Dec, and knew he’d remembered how I liked to take a really long time going to bed.
I whispered back:
‘The one with Tyrannosaurus Rex.’
Dec sat back and said, louder:
‘You know what, I fancy reading about Tyrannosaurus Rex. OK, reading position please.’
This was the best bit. Dec held his arm out and I snuggled under it, while Dec put his arm round me, just like he had in the shelter at Dinosaurland, just like he always used to. He had the book on his knee, so I could see it and turn the pages.
Dec read the words, and I told him when he’d missed things out and got things wrong, so we did it together. We spent a long time looking at pictures and talking about the different things in the chapter. It was just like it used to be; Dec always used to read my story before I went to bed. When he didn’t live with us any more, it was sometimes hard to go to sleep without my story from Dec. Now it was right again.
Beth came in half way through, and sat next to Jay, who put his arm round her. She looked tired, but smiled over at Cal and me. I carried on reading, keeping my voice low so Cal would relax before bed time. I’d done this routine so many times before; I’d nearly always read to Cal if I was in when he went to bed. Doing it again felt so normal and so completely amazing. We got to the end of the chapter, and I turned over the page and quickly started reading the next one. Cal looked up at me, and I winked back at him. He nestled in closer, smiling to himself. Half way through the chapter, Jay realised.
łHang on, this isn’t about Tyrannosaurus Rex any more
‘Oh, I must have turned over the page by mistake. Might as well carry on now, it’s nearly the end of the chapter.’
łHm. We’ll let it slide this once. You’re a terrible pair.
I high-fived Cal and continued reading. This time at the end of the chapter I closed the book.
‘Come on, Cal let’s get you to bed.’
I nearly argued, but I’d done quite a lot of arguing, and Dec had gone past the end of the chapter for me once, so I sat up.
‘Can you tuck me in?’
‘Can you carry me upstairs?’
‘Ah, no, I’m sorry Cal, my arms aren’t strong enough yet. You’re getting really big. If you want a carry, Daddy can do it.’
I’d forgotten about Dec’s hurt arms, but the way Dec said it made me feel like it wasn’t my fault I’d forgotten, and that it was because I was a big boy now.
‘Am I too strong for your arms?’
‘Yeah, mate. Much too big and strong. Race you upstairs though. Say goodnight to Mummy and Daddy first.’
I kissed Mum and Dad goodnight as quickly as I could, then ran up the stairs, so I could beat Dec. I beat him easily, because I was really fast, and maybe a little bit because he had hurt arms and legs. I went up the ladder quickly, and by the time Dec got into the room, I was under the duvet. I really, really wanted it to be time for Dec to go to bed, so he could be underneath, and maybe we could talk and tell jokes.
\are you coming to bed now?
‘Not just yet, but I won’t be long. I’ll try not to wake you up. I might snore though. My nose is a bit sore and it might make some noises.’
\daddy snores, I can hear him.
‘Well, if you hear me you can wake me up and tell me to stop. OK?’
I’d thought of lots of questions to ask Dec, some of them were ones I really wanted to know the answer to, and some of them were so I could stay up for longer. And some of them were both.
‘Kay. Dec, when you came to Dinosaurland, why did you run away?’
Fuck, that one took me by surprise. No Jay or Beth to rescue me now, either.
‘Oh, well, er, it was when Mummy and Daddy were cross with me, do you remember?’
I nodded. Of course I remembered, it wasn’t very long ago.
‘And, er, it made me sad to see them, so, er, I just ran away instead of talking to them. Not very brave, was it.’
‘But are they still cross with you?’
Mum had explained it a bit, but had mainly said to wait until Dec was here so we knew how we all felt. Now Dec was here, I wanted to know.
Shit, this was a minefield.
‘I’m not sure I can answer that, Cal, I think you’ll have to ask Mummy and Daddy. But I think sometimes being cross isn’t as important as caring about someone.’
‘Sometimes Mummy is cross with me. She shouts.’
And I knew she got cross with Dec sometimes, before, when he didn’t take his plate to the dishwasher, or put his pants on the floor instead of in the washing basket, but when they’d been really cross with him, I hadn’t heard any shouting at all, and it confused me.
‘I know, Cal, but she always loves you even when she’s cross. Always. She never stops. You need to go to sleep now, and stop asking awkward questions.’
So it seemed that no one was going to tell me if Mum and Dad were still cross with Dec. If Mum and Dad didn’t know, and Dec didn’t know, I wasn’t quite sure who did. I was going to ask Mum again tomorrow. Thinking about it made me remember that I wanted to know about Dec stealing and lying.
‘Why were Mummy and Daddy cross with you?’
So this was still on his mind. I was going to have to tread carefully – when I’d told him before, it had caused all sorts of problems.
‘I think I told you that.’
It was a long time ago that Dec told me. I could have forgotten. I had forgotten a little bit, I was sure.
‘Cal, it’s not something … oh I suppose … OK, last time I told you, you got upset, and that made your mum and dad even crosser. You know I’m always straight with you don’t you?’
It was true. Dec always told me the truth, and didn’t tell me what only little boys should know. I nodded.
I was always up front with Cal. I tried not to mislead him, but this was hard. I tried to figure it out as I went along.
‘I took some money that didn’t belong to me, and did a lot of other things that I didn’t tell anyone about for a long time, so that when they found out, it was the same as if I’d lied about it.’
I searched Cal’s face for any signs of being upset, but he just looked at me as he asked his next question.
\were you sorry?’
Cal sounded so grown-up. I could hear Beth’s influence in his question – Beth was big on sorry, and she was turning Cal into a mini-me from the sounds of it.
‘Yes I was, I am, really sorry.’
\did you say sorry to the people?’
This was something else from Beth. It wasn’t enough to be sorry, you had to say it too.
‘I’ve said sorry to everyone I can think of. And I gave the money back.’
I didn’t think Dec could have done much more – he had done everything Mum would have told him to do. And now he had been poorly and couldn’t use his arms properly, so it would be wrong to be cross with him. Mum was always saying we should be nice to people who didn’t have as much as us, or were poorly, but I didn’t know how to say this to Dec, as it didn’t seem polite. I decided to talk about something else.
‘Is it Christmas Eve tomorrow?’
I knew it was. It was one of the questions to make going to bed last longer.
‘Is Granny coming?’
And so was that.
‘I think so.’
‘Are you having a stocking from Santa?’
Yep, that too. I asked too many questions, and Dec worked it out.
‘I think you need to go to sleep and stop using delaying tactics. I’m turning the light off now. ‘Night.’
He ruffled my hair and turned the light off, and walked out of the room, leaving the door open a crack how I liked it, so the monsters didn’t come in.
I went back downstairs, thinking I should talk to Jay and Beth about Cal’s understanding of how things had been with us for the last few months, but they were asleep on the couch, heads resting against each other. I couldn’t disturb them, so went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of coffee. There was a small TV in there, which I flicked on and sifted through the channels. I stopped at a repeat of a rugby game from the weekend which I put on, just as background, but found myself absorbed in it.
Apart from the Raiders game I’d watched at the club the day of the press conference, I hadn’t watched TV rugby for a long time. I really enjoyed watching this repeat, and got carried away disagreeing with one of the pundits who seemed a bit up himself. I told him so in a loud voice, then remembered where I was as I heard movement from the living room. Voices. Beth came into the kitchen, looking bleary and carrying dirty cups.
_Dec, what are you doing in here?
‘Didn’t want to disturb you.’
_Sorry we fell asleep, we’re such lightweights these days. Thanks for putting Cal to bed. Was he OK?
‘Yeah … although he was asking some difficult questions, about how things have been. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, I didn’t know what you’d told him. He asked if you’re still cross with me.’
‘And he said you’re cross with him sometimes. I don’t know if he thinks it’s the same thing.
_Oh. He’s trying to make sense of it all. It’s all a bit complicated, isn’t it. What did you say?
‘Not much. I didn’t think it was up to me to say whether you’re still cross with me. I said you always love him, even when you’re cross with him. He … er … he asked about what I did, as well. You know, with the money and everything.’
Beth’s expression became wary.
_Oh? What did you tell him?’
‘That I’d told him before, but he said he’d forgotten, so I said I took some money, but gave it back, and did some things I didn’t tell anyone about which was like lying.’
This was hard to say. It was, in short, everything that had come between us for the last few months. Beth nodded, still apprehensive.
_Did he say anything?’
‘He asked if I said sorry.’
Beth smiled, then.
_He’s a good boy. Anything else I need to know about?
‘No, he changed the subject.’
_Oh Dec, you’re great with him. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, try to explain things a bit. You and James need to talk, too, about loving people you’re cross with. Not tonight though. But soon. Shall I trim your hair quickly before we go to bed?
Beth rummaged in a drawer and held up a pair of scissors.
_Put this round your shoulders.
She tucked a towel into my shirt and ran her fingers through my hair. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had it cut – hadn’t really thought about it at all, could hardly remember looking at myself in a mirror over the last few months.
_How short do you want it? I’m going to have to be careful where this scar goes into your scalp. Oh, sweetheart, when I think what they did to you … it makes me shudder.
There was a silence. She was standing behind me, and I felt her touch the tender bit on my scalp where the hair had been shaved away and the stitches had been.
_This bit’s a lot shorter. Anyway, I’ll be careful, so how short?
‘Er, don’t really know, whatever you think.’
_How about that spiky Brad Pitt thing you had going on last summer?
‘If you like, sounds great. Never hurts to look like Brad Pitt, I suppose.’
_Ha ha, well your hair can lead the way at least, it’s the same colour. I’m not sure he’s ever quite matched the way your face looks at the moment, though, so maybe you’ve got one up on him. When did we last do this? Feels like ages.
‘Must’ve been before you went to Portugal.’
_Have you not had it cut since then? No wonder it’s got so long.
‘Haven’t really thought much about my hair.’
_I suppose not. We’ve all had a lot on our minds I guess.
There was so much we weren’t saying. Beth looked tired, and I didn’t think I could face confronting everything that needed it just now, only a few hours after I’d arrived. I was enjoying the closeness and sense of normality that being here had brought. I didn’t want to spoil it so soon by picking apart everything that had happened in the last few months, but until I did, things were going to feel a bit superficial. I sat, cowardly, and felt Beth cut my hair.
_ Right, that’s the hatchet job finished. What do you think?
She held up a mirror. I had to admit that it made a difference – I’d ignored my hair for months, and its messy state had become another part of me. Now, despite the ruins of my face, I looked half way to normal. There was a big pile of hair on the floor around my feet to prove just how much crap I needed to cut away to make things right.
‘That’s great, thanks Beth. Feels a zillion times better. A weight off my mind.’
_Ha ha. It looks better though, sweetheart, more like you.
She ruffled my new hair cut, then swept up hair clippings into the bin.
_Right, I think we’re off to bed. I know it’s still early, but we’re done in. You’ll be OK with Cal tonight?
‘Yeah, looking forward to dreaming of dinosaurs.’
_See you tomorrow, sweetheart.
I heard her talk to Jay, then heard them both go upstairs. I stayed watching TV for a while, feeling a little bit like an intruder in the otherwise silent house. Finally my eyes started to droop and I made my way up to Cal’s room, turning lights off as I went. I undressed in the bathroom, made my way to the bottom bunk by feel in the darkness, climbed in and slept.
Dreaming. Jumbled images of brown boots, being chased, fighting, struggling.
I thought I would be awake until Dec came to bed, and then we could whisper jokes to each other, but I didn’t hear him come to bed, and I woke with a jump when I heard noises coming from under me. It was somebody talking, but not saying words.
‘Mm … nnn … no … no … mm …’
I remembered Dec was sleeping in the bottom bed, and I climbed down the ladder to stand next to him, listening, in case he woke up and said something I understood. I bent over so I was right next to Dec’s face, and he suddenly woke up and sat up. Except he was in the underneath bed, so he banged his head on the bottom of my bed.
I woke with a start, dark and disoriented, someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up and banged my head.
I giggled, because Dec had done a bad swear, and Mum wasn’t here to say, ‘Dec, honestly’.
A giggle, next to my head. I remembered where I was. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.
‘Cal, why aren’t you in bed?’
\you were making noises. You said I could wake you up.
‘Oh. Sorry. Was I snoring?’
\no, you were going ‘mm mm’ and ‘no’.
‘I was probably dreaming.’
‘What did you dream?’
It hadn’t sounded like a happy dream, and if there were scary things I’d quite like to know what they were. I only didn’t like my own bad dreams; other people’s made good stories.
‘I can’t remember.’
Which was disappointing, but now I was down here, I might as well get what I could out of it.
‘I can’t sleep.’
‘What time is it?’
‘I don’t know. Daddy and Mummy let me get in their bed when I can’t sleep.’
Well they certainly used to, before they began locking the door at night and not letting me in.
I was fairly certain there had been a ‘sleep all night in your own bed’ rule, but that was before, and things could have changed.
‘Oh, OK. Do you want to hop in with me then?
I held the duvet open and he climbed in, immediately taking up most of the available space and pushing me up against the wall. He fell asleep straight away, and I dozed uncomfortably until it started to get light through the stegosaurus curtains.