28. Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

In which ordinary things bring tears for Dec and delight for Cal; hair is cut; things are said and not said.

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Cal

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.

‘Great tree.’

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.

Dec

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.

Cal

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.

Dec

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.

‘Good thanks.’

:How’s everyone?

‘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.

‘Bye Rose.’

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.

‘Ready.’

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.

\what, Daddy?

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.

Cal

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.’

Dec

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.

‘Oh.’

Immediate happiness.

‘What, the whole book?’

Cal’s face lit up.

Cal

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.

‘Can I?’

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.

Dec

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.’

Cal giggled.

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.’

Cal

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?’

‘Course.’

‘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.

Dec

\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?’

Cal

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?’

Dec

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?’

Cal

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.

Dec

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.’

Cal

‘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.

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Why were Mummy and Daddy cross with you?’

Dec

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.’

Cal

‘I’ve forgotten.’

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.

Dec

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.’

Cal

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.

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Is it Christmas Eve tomorrow?’

I knew it was. It was one of the questions to make going to bed last longer.

‘Yeah.’

‘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.

Dec

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.’

_Oh.

‘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.

Cal

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.

Dec

I woke with a start, dark and disoriented, someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up and banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

Cal

I giggled, because Dec had done a bad swear, and Mum wasn’t here to say, ‘Dec, honestly’.

Dec

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.’

Cal

‘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.

Dec

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.

16. Everything is broken

In which unexpected contact is made, which makes matters worse.

Cal

I remember when we were still living at Granny’s, Mum and Dad weren’t talking to or about Dec, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be talking to him either, and my birthday was coming up, and I had been starting to worry about how Dec and I were going to be able to do our plan.

Months before, when Dec was still living with us and everything was OK, we had decided that we would go to Dinosaurland, and have a great time with ice cream and all sorts of other exciting treats, on my birthday. It was just going to be me and him, and I had been looking forward to it ever since – seeing the days pass that meant that my birthday was getting closer. But Dec hadn’t told me how it was going to happen now I wasn’t in our house any more, and I didn’t know how to check, and it was my birthday tomorrow, and I wanted to know how I was going to get to Dinosaurland.

Then Mum and Dad went to visit Uncle Matty in the hospital, leaving me with Granny, and when she fell asleep in front of the TV, I had to amuse myself. I decided to draw a picture for Uncle Matty – there were already loads of my pictures all round his bed in the hospital, because all I was allowed to do when I went there was colour quietly, but I felt he needed another velociraptor for his collection – and I took my felt pens and paper to the dining room table. And there it was, Dad’s phone. Just sitting on the table, practically saying ‘Use me’.

I forgot all about the picture, and picked up the phone. Dad would let me play games on it, and I knew his code even though he thought I didn’t, but I’d never made a call on it before. I quickly checked on Granny, who was still asleep, and put in the code to unlock the phone. I remembered it because the numbers spelled a word, which was T-W-A-T, and I remembered the word because it sounded funny when I heard Dad telling Mum. Once I had opened the phone, I looked at all the pictures, to see if I could tell which one to press to call Dec. It wasn’t that obvious, but right at the bottom was a green button with a white picture on it, and I spelled the word ‘Phone’ out to myself. This must be it. I pressed the picture.

A list of names filled the screen, and when I touched the list with my finger, it moved down. I couldn’t see Dec’s name, so I moved the list down and down, and eventually I saw it. I could spell Dec’s name, and there it was. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that if I touched the name, it would call Dec’s phone, so I tried it. A picture of Dec flashed up, the one where he was standing next to his car, and I put the phone to my ear, to see if I could hear Dec talking. I could hardly believe I’d done it, but I could hear the ‘brr brr’ of Dec’s phone ringing. Except I knew it wouldn’t be going ‘brr brr’ where Dec was, because when people called Dec, his phone sang a loud big-boy song. But all I could hear was ‘brr brr’, and then I heard someone’s voice.

Dec

‘Jay?’

A short silence. A child’s voice.

Cal

That was Dad’s name, but it didn’t sound like Dec saying it, not quite. I knew what you were supposed to say when you called people, because I listened when Mum and Dad and Granny did it, and Mum let me answer the phone sometimes, if she was there too.

‘Hello?’

‘Cal?’

The voice still didn’t sound right, so I thought I’d better ask.

‘I want to talk to Dec.’

Dec

Head spinning, heart pounding

‘It is me, Cal. Er …’

Knees went, sat down on the floor, back against the wall.

Cal

I wasn’t sure, but decided to believe him.

‘You sound funny.’

‘Do I? Is this better?’

He made a voice that sounded like when he read me stories, and then I knew it was Dec and I was happy.

Dec

Light headed with pleasure at hearing his voice and then his giggle.

\that’s the Gruffalo. I want to talk to Dec.

‘Granted.’

Changed to normal voice.

‘Cal, what’s up? Does your dad know you’re ringing me?’

Cal

He’d gone back to his proper voice, and I recognised it then. I didn’t want to tell a lie about Dad knowing, so I told Dec bits of the truth.

‘Mummy and Daddy are out. Daddy forgot his phone. I know how to use it, he lets me.’

‘Who’s looking after you?’

‘Granny. She’s asleep.’

Dec

A five year old’s scorn for such a lightweight.

‘Cal, I really don’t think you should be ringing me. Your mum and dad wouldn’t like it.’

Cal

Dec sounded like he might be about to tell me off, and say I had to tell Granny or Dad, or do something else that would get me told off by someone else, so I said the thing that was important before I could be stopped.

‘It’s my birthday tomorrow.’

Dec

‘Shit.’

How could I have forgotten?

‘Sorry, Cal. Shouldn’t swear.’

Cal

I knew Dec had just said a bad word, he said it all the time, and Mum always told him off, but then he’d say it again later, as if he hadn’t been told off. I giggled again, because I felt happy talking to Dec, and everything was going to be alright now, and I could remind him about the birthday plan.

‘Daddy says that word and Mummy says ‘James honestly’. You’re taking me to Dinosaurland and then to have a Ice Cream Factory and then buy me a Transformer. Can I have a Optimus Prime?’

Dec

The absolute confidence that promises will be kept. Promises from another lifetime.

‘Yeah, we made some good plans for your birthday, didn’t we.’

Of all the unforgivable things I’d done and said recently, this was, without exception, the one that burned me the deepest. Fuck, fuck, fuck you Declan Summers.

‘Cal, I’m so sorry. I’m not going to be able to do any of that.’

Silence. Then, in a very small voice:

Cal

I couldn’t believe it. We’d planned it, everything, how we were going to go in Dec’s car, and he was going to pick me up from school, and how we were going to see the fossils first, and leave the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex until last – he’d promised me. And now he was being just like a grown up and saying no.

‘Why?’

‘Well for one thing, you live a long way away now –’

Oh, well that was alright then. He was worrying about not being able to pick me up from school in his car – he wouldn’t know where my school was, and maybe we’d have to do different plans for things like that now I was living at Granny’s. I’d thought about it, and knew how to make things work.

‘I know that.’

Dec

The self-assured berating voice of a small child who feels patronised; I could picture him rolling his eyes impatiently.

\daddy can bring me in his car.

He would have a satisfied look on his face – he’d worked it all out. But from the little Nico and Lisa had said, they were a long way away, and there was no chance Jay was going to bring him to see me.

‘Oh Cal, your dad’s not going to bring you all the way down here.’

Cal

‘He will. It’s my birthday treat. I will ask him.’

I was always allowed one special treat on my birthday. Mum and Dad hadn’t asked me yet what I wanted, and I usually said pizza or burger, but this year I was going to ask Dad to take me to our house so Dec and me could go to Dinosaurland.

Dec

This was going to be tough. I didn’t know how much Cal knew, what Jay and Beth would have told him. Didn’t want to lie. Didn’t want him to know the truth. Had to choose. Deep breath.

‘Look, Cal, your mum and dad are very cross with me. They don’t want to see me, and they don’t want you to see me.’

Cal

Although I’d been aware of a bad feeling between Dec and my parents, and Granny talking about ‘that boy’ with a cross face, I didn’t know what Dec had done. He got in trouble with Mum quite a lot, mostly for saying bad words. Maybe that’s what had happened.

‘Why are they cross with you? Did you do a really big swear?’

Dec

He lowered his voice to a whisper.

\i know a bad word that starts with fuh …

I nearly laughed. Beth was always telling me off about my language. If Cal knew a bad word that started with fuh, he had without a doubt learned it from me. I hardly noticed I was doing it half the time. If only all I had done was a really big swear.

‘No, mate. I did worse things.’

Cal

I couldn’t think of what worse things Dec could mean. He had been in trouble with Mum before, about not doing the washing up, and leaving his pants in the bathroom, but neither of these seemed as bad as saying words beginning with ‘fuh’.

I heard Dec take a deep breath before he spoke.

Dec

‘I stole. And I lied.’

And a man died and I betrayed their trust and tossed my life with them down the toilet. And probably a fair bit of theirs too. But I just couldn’t say any of that to him, however true it was. There was more silence on the other end. I could hear him breathing, the distant sounds of a television.

Cal

The words seemed to hit my ears and fall straight into my heart, squeezing it painfully. Stealing and lying were really bad. I couldn’t believe Dec had done either of those things, they were things really bad people did, and I couldn’t understand how Dec could be a really bad person. I could hardly breathe, trying to cling on to the Dec I knew and not let this new Dec, who did really bad things, and made Mum and Dad cross with him, come into my world. Maybe, if it was something he had done just to me, I could say it was OK, and we could forget about it.

‘Did you steal and lie at me?’

I really didn’t want him to have done, and the thought of it made me feel small and hurt.

Dec

Of all the people I would have protected from the fallout of my screw-ups, Cal would have topped the list. I hadn’t even managed that. Fuck it, Declan Summers, you fucking worthless piece of fucking shit. Face up to it.

‘No mate, I didn’t steal from you or lie to you, I would never do that. But I took some money from some good people, and I lied to your mum and dad about it, and about some other things too. It upset them a lot, and they don’t want to be around me any more’

I felt the choke in my throat, tears on my cheeks.

Cal

Dec’s voice got funny again, and I started to feel funny too. It felt like part of my world had fallen away and left a hole, something I could fall through if I wasn’t careful; I didn’t know what I might find on the other side, and it was terrifying.

‘I’m so sorry about your birthday, Cal. I’m sure you’ll have a great day –’

No, no, I just wanted to say it was alright, I didn’t mind about the stealing and the lying, we could still do my birthday things, we’d planned it.

‘But you said you’d take me to Dinosaurland, you said we –’

I heard a noise from the lounge, and then Granny’s voice.

Dec

In the background:

#Calum, who are you talking to?

The line went dead.

Cal

I pressed the off button on the phone and dropped it on the table, so Granny wouldn’t know what I’d been doing. There was too much whirling around in my head – Dec had made Mum and Dad cross, and now they didn’t want him to live with them. Dec had stolen and lied. I wasn’t going to have my Dinosaurland birthday.

I couldn’t say any of it to Granny, and I should have picked up my pens and told her I was making up a story to myself, but I was frozen there, and I just started to cry.

I was still crying when Mum and Dad got home, not long afterwards, but wouldn’t tell Granny why. She had managed to get me onto her knee, and was cuddling me, but I was inconsolable.

So there I was, a sobbing puddle of cry-baby, dreading Mum and Dad getting home, because there would be questions, and Mum wouldn’t give up until she’d made me say what had happened, and then I’d be in trouble, which just made me cry harder.

By now, Granny had seen Dad’s phone on the table, and had asked me about it, but I had refused to answer. Granny had no idea how to work a phone, she still has limited capabilities if I’m honest, so she had no way of knowing how to tell if I had called anyone or just managed to access something scary on YouTube, so she just held me while I cried.

Eventually the door opened and Mum and Dad walked in, Mum rushing straight over to me and sitting next to Granny on the sofa. I wouldn’t tell Mum anything either, but Granny told her.

‘Jameson left his phone behind.’

‘What? But why is he so – oh. Cal, what have you done with Daddy’s phone?’

Mum is usually pretty quick off the mark, but at this stage, she was thinking I’d broken it or something. Dire consequences were always threatened if I ever used Dad’s phone without asking, in case anything happened to it. Dad headed off to the dining room, and came back with the phone in his hand, looking puzzled.

‘It’s fine.’

He knelt down in front of me and held the phone out towards me, which made me cry harder.

‘Hey, Cal, mate, what’s all this about? Did you play with my phone while we were out?’

Through my snivels I managed a nod. Maybe if they thought I was crying about that, I would get away with it.

‘Oh Cal, sweetheart, that’s nothing to get so upset about. You know Daddy doesn’t mind you playing his games, we just like you to ask first … what?’

Mum looked up at Granny, and I risked a peek to see what was going on. Granny was shaking her head.

‘I don’t think it was a game, dear. I heard Calum talking to someone.’

Mum gave me a hard look.

‘Cal? Were you talking to someone on the phone?’

I looked back, unable to nod or say anything. If I told her who I’d been talking to, I’d have to tell her what he told me, and it was just too big and bad for me to say. Dad was pressing buttons on the phone. He turned the screen to face Mum, and there was Dec’s name and a little picture of him standing next to his car.

‘Last number dialled.’

‘Oh no. Cal, did you call Dec?’

I managed the slightest nod.

What?

Dad’s yell made me jump, and I stiffened, looking up at him with wide eyes.

‘You phoned Dec?’

Dad spat his name out, as if it was a nasty taste. And he was still yelling. Dad never yelled, except when he was watching sport and his team scored. Or nearly scored. Or should have scored but didn’t. But now he was yelling at me.

‘How many times, Cal? How many times have I told you not to touch my phone?’

I cringed into Mum, trembling with guilt and shame, and paralysed with fear. I was starting to realise I had done something really bad. Maybe if Dec had done lying and stealing, Dad thought I had too. Maybe he was cross enough that he thought I was like Dec too.

‘Don’t you EVER touch my phone again. I don’t want you talking to him. I don’t want you to even say his name.’

‘James, that’s ENOUGH. You’re terrifying him.’

Mum pulled me really close and put both her arms round me, making ‘shh’ noises at me and kissing my head.

‘He’s got to learn, Beth.’

‘What, that his Daddy’s a big scary man? Look what you’ve done to him.’

Dad didn’t say anything, and I daren’t look at him, but I felt him plonk onto the sofa beside me and Mum. Mum carried on shushing me, and stroking my hair, and then she talked to me.

‘What did Dec say? What did he say that made you cry, sweetheart? Oh come here.’

She pulled me onto her lap and held her arms tightly round me, murmuring into my ear.

‘It’s alright, Cal, you’re not in trouble, just tell us.’

Mum stroked my hair and kissed my cheeks, and whispered ‘shh’ over and over, rocking me against her. I started to calm down, and my tears dried up, turning to occasional snivels.

Dec

I sat, head bowed, breathing hard, shuddering, trying not to sob, feeling sick and cold. I sat up and banged the back of my head hard against the wall. The pain felt like some kind of retribution, so I did it again. Screamed out my disgust with myself in a howl which tore at my throat.

Sat in the dark, hating myself. Realised I was going to have to let them know he’d called me, whether or not they wanted to hear from me. Texted them both, but Jay would be likely to delete any messages from me without reading them.

Me: =Cal rang me. Thought you should know. Dec.

Cal

Then Mum and Dad’s phones both pinged at once. Dad looked at his and gave a snort, showing the screen to Mum. I glanced at it, and saw Dec’s name. Mum pulled her phone out of her bag, looked at it and nodded at Dad.

‘He didn’t have to do that.’

‘What? It’s the bloody least he could do. What the fuck did he say?’

‘James, honestly.’

‘Sorry, Beth, but he’s obviously said something to upset Cal. What did he say, mate?’

I stared up at my dad, who was looking really angry, and the thought of having done something that made him so cross he stopped speaking to me as well, that he might even make me leave the house, made me cry again.

‘James, calm down, you’re not helping. Daddy’s not cross with you, sweetheart. Can you remember what Dec said?’

I shook my head, taking this as a get out. It didn’t calm me down at all, though, and all the other things were still swirling round, not least of which was that it was my birthday tomorrow, and I’d thought I was going to Dinosaurland with Dec, but it looked like I wasn’t now, and maybe I was going to be in trouble instead, and I’d made Dad cross, which was what Dec had done, and they didn’t want to speak with him or live with him.

Mum just held me tighter as my sobs ramped up again. Dad stood up and started pacing around, while Granny went into the kitchen to make some tea. Granny was always making tea. Dad sat down next to me, where Granny had been sitting, running his hands through his hair like he always did when he didn’t know what else to do.

‘I’m going to call him, find out what the … what on earth is going on. You don’t think he told him what he … that little shit.’

‘I’ll do it, James. You won’t be able to keep your temper.’

‘No, I bloody won’t. Whatever he said, it’s done this to my son, and he needs to know he can’t just go round blurting out whatever he likes, to whoever he likes, without thinking about the fucking consequences.’

‘James, honestly, just watch your language. I agree, but we’re not going to find out anything if you go in all guns blazing, you’ll just shout at him.’

Dad was quiet for a bit, then he gave in.

‘Oh alright. You ring him, then.’

‘In a bit. I think Cal needs a good cuddle, maybe some rice pudding and a story, before getting his PJs on. Maybe if Mummy and Daddy are really good, and behave ourselves, Cal might tell us what happened without us needing to ask Dec. Oh sweetheart …’

This last had started me off again, and Mum was occupied with calming me down, and with preventing Dad from phoning Dec, for a while.

Eventually, I stopped the theatrics, realising that nothing bad was going to happen immediately, but not wanting to risk Mum and Dad being cross with me in any way. I did everything they told me, even went to bed the minute they told me, without trying to drag it out like I usually did. I never wanted to make Dad cross with me like that again, and that meant being good, as good as I could, and doing as I was told, all the time.

Mum came upstairs with me, to the room that used to be Uncle Matty’s and still had all his chess trophies and computer books on the shelves, and smelt a bit dusty. The best thing about Uncle Matty’s room was the giant model of a space rocket that Uncle Matty made when he was a boy.

But that night I wasn’t interested in rockets, I just got into bed and pulled the duvet up to my chin. Mum sat on the edge of the bed, stroking my hair away from my forehead and smiling at me. She snuggled up and got my book out, and read a bit of it to me. I started to feel sleepy, and Mum stopped reading.

‘You know you can tell me anything, Cal. I won’t be cross. You’ll be doing a good thing.’

I didn’t answer her, just closed my eyes as if I had gone to sleep. I heard her sigh, then felt the mattress bounce as she stood up, and heard the door squeak open and shut as she left. I lay in the dark for a long time, thinking about Dec stealing things and lying to Mum and Dad.

Dec

Continued sitting and hating. Some time later, my phone rang. Beth. Clicked ‘answer’.

‘Hey.’

_What did you say to Cal?

‘He wanted me to take him to Dinosaurland for his birthday.’

_He’s very upset. I can’t get anything out of him. What did you tell him?

‘I’m sorry, Beth, I tried to fob him off, but I had to tell him what I did.’

_You what?

‘Not everything, no details. I can’t lie any more’

_Pity you didn’t think of that before. Don’t talk to him again.

‘But –’

She’d hung up. Sat and hated myself some more. I’d rarely been on the wrong side of an angry Beth. It was horrible, and worse that it was completely justified. All the wounds that had begun to scab over broke open, and I detested myself.

Cal

Somewhere in the darkness my thoughts turned into dreams, and I can still remember the terrifying image of Dec as a grotesque pantomime villain, cackling evilly and stealing all my toys, putting them in a sack and running away with them.

I woke up with Mum’s cool hand on my forehead and her soothing voice trying to wipe it all away, but I was freaked out, and I clung to her for a long time as I tried to forget the horrible dream.

‘What were you dreaming, sweetheart?’

‘There was … it was … Dec was … my cars … and then …’

It was no good, I couldn’t even make words, and trying to describe it was like trying to draw the wind. Mum just held me close and rocked me, until I quietened down and my eyes started to droop, then she lay me back against the pillow, kissed my forehead and said goodnight.

Dec

There was a tap at the door. Through the letterbox:

:Declan, love? I thought I heard something earlier. Been trying to decide whether to come up. Everything alright?

‘No.’

:What’s up? Do you want to let me in?

I slowly got to my feet, opened the door for her, let her in.

:You’re all in the dark. Shall I put the light on?

‘No.’

I sat against the wall again. Rose eased herself down beside me. Took my hand.

:What is it love?

It all felt so freshly broken, like that first day when Jay said we’re done. As I started to speak, the words came out in shudders.

‘Cal … rang me. It’s … his birthday … tomorrow. We’d … made plans. I’d forgotten.’

:Oh love, that’s a tough one. What did you tell him?

‘The truth, that I’m a … lying … thieving … scumbag and his parents don’t want … him anywhere … near me, so his … birthday’s fucked.’

:I hope you were a bit gentler than that!’

‘A bit. I didn’t want … to lie to him. Beth rang … and asked what I said, she said Cal was … upset, she was … so angry …’

:That must have been hard.

‘It just feels like … I’ve done it all over again. I miss … them so much. I can’t … bear that I’ve done this … to them, that I keep … doing this to them. I fucking hate myself.’

:Don’t ever say that.

‘It’s true. They’re all … better off without me. I’m a worthless … piece of shit.’

:You’re not. You’re kind and caring and you love your family. It’s hard when it goes wrong. But don’t ever say you’re worthless.

Rose sat with me the whole night, holding my hand and holding my soul. I cried quite a bit. I beat myself up a lot. She stayed through it all.

Cal

The next morning, it was my birthday, but everything still felt weird, as if something had turned the world upside down, but no one had noticed yet. Mum and Dad came into my room before it was time to get up, and gave me some presents, but I didn’t feel excited like I should have done. I wanted to be at Dinosaurland with Dec.

Just because it was my birthday didn’t mean I could miss school, though. I went through the motions of breakfast, getting washed, getting dressed; being really careful not to do anything to annoy Mum or Dad, just in case. Then I did it, I dropped my sandwich box as I was putting it in my school bag, and the lid came off, scattering bread and cheese across the hall carpet, and bursting the yogurt pot in a spray of strawberry across the floor and up the wall.

I looked at it, horrified. I’d been so careful, and now I’d done it. Mum was going to shout, and Dad would hear, and they’d both be cross, and then I’d have to go and live somewhere else. I was frozen to the spot, a huge scream welling up in me.

‘Oh Cal, honestly.’

Mum knelt down beside me and started to pick up bits of my lunch, shaking strawberry yogurt off the bag of crisps and putting the juice carton to one side.

‘James, can you get a cloth? Put this in the bin, sweetheart.’

She held out the sandwiches and the yogurt pot, then looked at me as I didn’t move.

‘Cal? What’s the matter?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘I know that, sweetheart. We’ll soon have it cleared up, come on, take these to the bin.’

I continued to look at her, and she tutted and frowned.

‘Cal, come on, we’re going to be late. James can you bring me a cloth?’

There it was, that cross tone to her voice. Now I was in trouble.

Dad wandered in to the hall, still in his dressing gown, and looked at the mess.

‘Jesus, what’s happened here?’

‘Cal’s dropped his lunch box. Didn’t you hear me ask you to get a cloth?’

‘Oops, butterfingers, mate. Granny’s going to love you, getting yogurt all over her carpet.’

‘James, the cloth.’

‘Alright Beth. Jesus.’

Dad stomped off to the kitchen while I continued to stand where I was. I heard myself whimper. Mum looked at me.

‘Cal?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘No, I know, sweetheart.’

She had a closer look at me, dropped the sandwich and yogurt pot she was still holding out to me, and held both my hands in hers. They were sticky from the yogurt, and I wanted to pull my fingers away, but I didn’t want to make things worse.

‘Cal, it’s only your lunch. I can make you another box up.’

‘Don’t be cross, Mummy’

‘I’m not cross, it was an accident.’

‘You said we’ll be late.’

‘Well, perhaps we will, but that doesn’t really matter, sweetheart.’

‘Is Daddy cross?’

‘I don’t expect he’s enjoying having to find a cloth, but no, he won’t be cross. What’s all this about?’

I didn’t have an answer; if I told her what I was worried about, it might annoy her – talking about Dec always seemed to make Mum or Dad annoyed these days – and I didn’t know what might happen then. Maybe they’d think I was on his side, and not want to speak to me either. The thought of it brought tears to my eyes and then they ran down my cheeks.

‘Oh Cal. Come here, sweetheart.’

Mum pulled me towards her and cuddled me.

‘Is this about last night? Your phone call?’

I was silent.

‘I talked to Dec and he told me what he said.’

What? She’d talked to Dec? But they weren’t speaking to him. Dad had called him a bad word.

‘He shouldn’t have said that to you, it wasn’t fair. You shouldn’t worry about it, it’s grown up stuff.’

It was there again, the crossness in her voice. It made me tremble. Mum felt it and stroked my hair. Dad came back with a cloth in his hand.

‘Here.’

Mum looked up at Dad, who was holding the cloth out to her.

‘Well you can see where the mess is.’

‘What, you want me to clear it up?’

‘I’ve got my hands a bit full at the moment.’

Now they were being cross with each other, and it was all my fault. Everything was going wrong, and it was all because of me.

‘What’s the matter with Cal?’

‘He’s just upset.’

‘Jesus, it’s only yogurt. Come on Cal, get over it, mate. You need to get to school.’

‘James, just … don’t push it.’

‘What?’

‘Please will you clean the yogurt up? Cal and I need to make another lunch box. Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum put me on my feet, stood up, took my hand and walked me into the kitchen, leaving Dad to wipe up the spill. She started making another cheese sandwich, and got a juice and a yogurt out of the fridge.

‘Can you find me another lunch box, sweetheart?’

After a while, when I hadn’t moved, she stopped what she was doing and turned round.

‘Cal, we need a lunch box … oh, sweetheart, please will you tell me what’s wrong?’

‘Are you cross with me?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Are you cross with Daddy?’

‘No, Cal.’

‘Are you cross with Dec?’

‘Well … yes, Daddy and I are both cross with Dec, but it’s not because of anything you’ve done.’

‘I phoned him.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, and maybe you shouldn’t have without asking, but we’re not cross about it, not with you.’

It was as good a reassurance as I was going to get, and I fetched the lunch box as I’d been asked to. Mum seemed to relax as I started to move and do as I was told again. Dad came in with the yogurty cloth and pretended to wipe my nose with it, and it seemed like it was all OK.

I went to school, being as good as I knew how, and it was just as well I was far away from Jake Bagwell, because he’d have got me into trouble in the first five minutes, and that would have been a disaster.

Back at home, I carried on trying really hard to be good, until Mum noticed, when I said no to a chocolate biscuit. Chocolate was bad for you, and biscuits made you drop crumbs, and I was being good.

‘Are you feeling alright, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Chocolate biscuits are your favourite, I got them just for you, a birthday treat while we wait for Daddy to get back.’

When Dad got back we were going to go to Pizza Place. They hadn’t asked me what I wanted for my birthday treat, so I hadn’t been able to ask them to take me to Dinosaurland.

‘But they’re bad for me.’

‘Since when did that bother you, Cal?’

‘I’m being good.’

‘Well, that’s lovely, sweetheart, but why?’

‘I don’t want you to be cross.’

‘I’m not cross. Have you done something you think will make me cross?’

I shook my head.

‘Well then, what I think is, I’d rather you were just you, than trying so hard to be good that you don’t even eat chocolate biscuits on your birthday. Everyone should have chocolate biscuits on their birthday.’

She held the plate out to me and I took one. I didn’t need much persuading when it came to chocolate biscuits.

We waited and waited for Dad, who had been visiting Uncle Matty, and Mum kept looking at the clock and sighing, and Granny kept saying,

‘Has he not texted, dear?’

Even though we would have all heard Mum’s phone.

Finally, Dad came home. Mum stood up as soon as he opened the door, and picked up her bag.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Sorry, the traffic was a bloody nightmare. Some accident blocking the bypass, diversions everywhere.’

‘Did you remember we’re going out?’

‘Oh shit, I forgot. I would have texted.’

‘Honestly James, please mind your language. Come on, we’re all starving.’

This wasn’t quite true, as we’d all had one or two more chocolate biscuits.

‘What right now? Can’t I even change first?’

‘It will be past Cal’s bed time if we leave it any longer.’

There it was again, the crossness in their voices. What would happen if Mum and Dad got cross with each other? Would they have to live in different houses, like Jake’s mum and dad? The thought crossed my mind like an electric shock. I was desperate for them to not be angry with each other.

‘I don’t mind.’

They both looked at me.

‘What’s that, sweetheart?’

‘I don’t mind to not go to Pizza Place.’

‘Don’t be daft, Cal, it’s your birthday. Daddy just wants to get changed, he’ll be super quick and then we’ll go.’

‘Yeah, mate, I’m just going now. Quick change of clothes, cup of tea, read of the paper, check my emails, and we’re off.’

‘James, you don’t have time …’

Kidding, Beth. Jesus.’

‘Well if you just got on with it, rather than messing about, we could leave sooner.’

‘If you let me go, rather than chuntering on about it, we’d already be there.’

‘NO!’

I yelled as loudly as I could, and they all looked at me. I wasn’t going to let this happen. They couldn’t be cross with each other and stop speaking and go and live in different houses. And then I thought I might get in trouble for yelling at them, and I started crying. Mum and Dad were both staring at me; Dad knelt in front of me and put his hands on my cheeks.

‘Hey, mate, what’s this all about?’

‘Don’t … be … cross … with Mummy.’

‘I’m not, mate. Beth?’

‘Cal, we’re not cross with each other, not really, come on, sweetheart, you’ve been worried about us being cross ever since last night. What’s it all about?’

‘I … want … I don’t … want … you … I’m … good … I want … you … to speak … to me … don’t … make … me … live … somewhere … else … I’m good …’

It all came out in a jumble of tears and sobs, but somehow Granny got the gist.

‘Beth, dear, I think Calum is worried that if he makes you angry, you’ll stop speaking to him, and maybe send him away, like he may think has happened in another situation.’

‘But we didn’t – Cal, is Granny right?’

I nodded against her chest. Mum pulled me tightly to her.

‘Oh Cal. That will never happen. Listen to me. We love you, me and Daddy, and nothing you can do will make us send you away, ever. Oh my poor baby, it’s your birthday, and you’ve been worrying about this all this time.’

Dad was silent, and I risked a look up at him. He looked furious, and was clenching his fists by his side, but when he saw me looking at him, his face softened and he smiled at me.

‘Yeah, mate, Jesus, it’s not you we’re mad at. Maybe we’ve been a bit generally mad about stuff, but it’s not you. Hey –’

He sat next to Mum and ruffled my hair.

‘– you know, we wouldn’t send you away, or stop speaking to you, even if you said I had a big ugly nose, or that Mummy’s bottom looks enormous in her favourite trousers.’

I giggled at Dad’s jokes, and it made it feel better, like maybe they couldn’t get cross enough with me for it to destroy my world if they could joke about it. I still wanted to know about Dec, but I was so relieved that it looked like I still had a home, that I decided not to upset things again so soon by asking. I might try not to say anything about Dec for a long time.

My tears had stopped, and I clung on to Mum, while Dad looked at me with a mixture of worry and smiles. Granny had found a tissue and handed it to Mum, who wiped my face free of tears and snot.

‘Do you still want to go to Pizza Place, sweetheart? It’s still your birthday.’

I nodded.

‘Right then. James, are you going to get changed?’

‘No, I can go like this. It’s not like the Place has a dress code.’

‘OK. Are you ready, Carol?’

‘Oh, no, I won’t come, dear. I’ve got some of that leftover pasta bake. You three go and have a lovely time.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mum, we’re all going.’

Dad looked at me as he talked to Granny.

‘Er, that is, it’s your choice, of course, but we’d like you to join us.’

Mum laughed. ‘Oh James, we can’t go round walking on eggshells in case Cal thinks we’re upset with each other. Cal, you know that sometimes people just get a bit upset about things, but it doesn’t last, like when Jake broke your Action Man, and you were annoyed with him, but the next day you were playing with him like nothing had happened.’

I thought about it. It didn’t seem quite the same, but it would do for now. And I was going to get pizza and ice cream, which cheered me up quite a bit.

And so after my day or so of weirdness, things were better. But there was still this underlying wobbly feeling, like there was something underneath that wasn’t right. It was to do with Dec, and with not doing our plan, and with him seeming different now I knew he’d lied and stolen, and with him not living with us any more. I wanted things to be back to normal, but until Dec was here, they wouldn’t be. I didn’t know what to do about it, and I didn’t really think about it, it was just something that I felt.

When I thought enough time had gone by, I tried to ask about Dec, to find out what exactly he’d done, what he’d stolen, what he’d lied about, but neither Mum nor Dad would talk about it, and Granny said she didn’t know.

And then I got my chance.

14. Help me hold on

In which Dec gets an invitation, and we hear more snippets from Matty and Cal.

Dec

It was only just over a week since I was here last, joining in the same banter and conversation as everyone else; it felt like a million years ago. I slipped in through the open door and found a spot in the corner. Nobody seemed to notice, there wasn’t a sudden hush as I walked in. But there wasn’t a chorus of greetings either.

I changed next to Alex Bidworth – Bids – one of the older members of the academy. We nodded at each other but did not exchange any words. One by one we all made our way to the training pitch. I followed Bids. The person behind me, who I didn’t see or turn around to acknowledge, spent the short walk kicking the backs of my heels. Decided that ignorance was, if not bliss, then at least the best policy.

The training session consisted of rucks and mauls, trying different patterns, practising distribution, banging heads and most other parts with each other. A lot. I came in for a lot of punishment. I was kneed in the back, kicked on the elbow, slapped, poked, head-butted, strong-armed, you name it. I took some fairly massive hits, which left me reeling. I took it all without comment. I would have a lot of bruises tomorrow, but if that’s how the players chose to express their feelings with me, I had no right to complain. I was, after all, the worthless piece of shit who would be screwing up their season if Raiders lost out on a top four league position. It hurt, physically and emotionally, but I deserved it.

It was a fairly brutal session. The academy and senior players trained together, and some of the senior forwards packed a meaty punch. It was always punishing, but today I got extras.

Finally, near the end of the morning, I was on the end of a massive no arms tackle from Miles Abrahams, nineteen stone tight-head prop. I literally saw stars. Dropped, felled, to the ground.

The world disintegrated into a confused whirl of darkness, light and noise for a few seconds. I tried to get to my feet, but couldn’t get my limbs to work together. The medics, who always sat on the side-lines for training, were above me administering cold packs and icy water to various areas in an attempt to revive me a bit.

^Okay, let’s stop there for a minute.

Stuart called the players to him. I made an effort to sit up, then get up. I was pushed back down, more cold stuff applied. Fingers waved in front of my eyes. Asked to count. Managed that. Shook my head a few times to try and get rid of the fuzziness. Faces peered in my eyes. Hands helped me to my feet. Stood, swaying. Couldn’t quite remember how to walk. Stuart looked over at the medics and raised his eyebrows in a question. They nodded.

^Declan go and get changed.

‘I’m OK.’

^Just go.

I turned slowly and made my way dazedly towards the changing room. As I left I heard Stuart’s voice:

^Right, I think you’ve all made your point. That’s enough. Someone is going to get seriously hurt. It stops now …

The club doctor followed me, asked me to do a few more concussion tests, let me go.

I stood under the hot shower in the changing room, feeling lucidity and coordination return. Assessed the damage. There weren’t many parts of my body that weren’t reddening in preparation for bruises. I felt as if I had been run over by a fleet of trucks, each one adding it’s own slap to the ear or poke in the ribs. My neck and back were going to be particularly sore in the near future, but I was going to have to get used to it. I stayed in the shower until I heard everyone return, then changed while they showered.

My clothes were still damp from the morning rain; I should try and remember to bring spare clothes tomorrow. When I was going to have to do this all again. The banter and chat from the shower excluded me, and I left quickly, feeling the pain from that as much as the physical punishment.

The bus ride home stiffened me up. By the time I got back to my flat, I could barely walk up the stairs. I ran a bath, climbed laboriously over the side, and sat there for about an hour, topping up the hot water. I was so exhausted and battered I couldn’t think. This was good, even if the pain wasn’t. Floated along on steam and nothingness until I felt I could rouse myself enough to make it back over the side of the bath.

Started to get hungry; nothing like a bit of physical exertion to stimulate the appetite. Phone pinged. Several messages, a couple from people I could face getting messages from.

Nico: =Hope you OK. Tough session.

Big:

(I was a bit apprehensive about this one, I hadn’t been contacted by any of my mates for several days. Checked it anyway. He had a right to a say.)

=Guys out of order today. Stuey bollocking shld sort. Cu 2moro.

I was really, overwhelmingly touched. It felt like a major olive branch. I texted back my thanks.

DivDav: =Same again tomorrow, wanker.

No olive branch there. Fair enough. A voicemail message from Stuart:

^Well done this morning, tough one. I’ve had a word, but don’t expect an easy ride. Same time tomorrow.

The afternoon drifted by in a haze of avoidance. Didn’t want to sit for too long; muscles would stiffen, brain would work overtime. I wandered around the local shops, hood pulled up, avoiding eye contact, looking like a shoplifter. Ambled to the park, sat on a bench watching leaves blowing around. As I was about to get up, my phone rang. Nico.

>Declan, how you do?

‘Hurting.’

>Huh. No surprise. This morning is hard on you. Is serious?

‘I don’t think so.’

>Is good. Listen, my friend, there is something I want to ask you. Can you come to us tonight, we talk, I ask? Lis will cook. She make chicken balti. She cook very good.

Unexpected. Welcome. Undeserved. This attention from Nico was something I would have dreamed about a year ago. Now I felt like I was – what? A sponger? A free-loader? Something like that. Still, an invitation from a hero was what it was, even if accepting it made me a selfish worthless piece of shit.

‘I’d love to.’

>You know our house?

He gave directions. Easy bus ride. Arranged a time. Hung up. Started to walk out of the park. The phone rang again. The screen announced Amy Wright. I was puzzled.

Amy was DivDav’s girlfriend. I knew her pretty well, we’d all hung out together a lot. Dav and I had both fancied Amy, but he had made a determined play for her and got his woman, and I’d backed off. I hadn’t spoken to any of the girls in our group since everything had started to go wrong. Apart from the texts a week or so ago, there had been nothing. This was going to be another of those unpredictable calls. I hesitated, then answered.

‘Amy?’

)Hi Dec. I just wanted to find out how you are. David told me what went on in training this morning. It sounded really mean. Are you OK?

I was surprised and humbled.

‘Yeah, I’m OK thanks. Great to hear from you.’

)Yeah, well, I’ve told David it’s completely not on, and I’m going to tell the others as well. They’ve got to give you a chance. I’m sure there were reasons for everything. They should just talk to you, sort it out, instead of all this macho boy stuff.

Didn’t need this sympathy. Needed to hear the same condemnation I was giving myself.

‘Really, Amy, it’s OK. It wasn’t too bad. Nothing I didn’t have coming. Just a couple of bruises.’

Huge body covering bruises.

‘Thanks so much for ringing, but I’m OK.’

)Oh, well, alright then. Just wanted to make sure. You’ll be alright?

‘I’m fine.’

)OK then. See you around.

Tears sprang to my eyes. It was almost harder to face understanding and sympathy than rage and exclusion. But both were pretty hard.

Wiped my eyes, and continued walking back to the local shops. Picked up some wine to take with me to Nico’s. Still couldn’t quite believe I was going to have dinner with Nico Tiago and his new wife. I put thoughts of what he wanted to ask me to the back of my mind, and concentrated, as I walked home, on what I was going to wear. Not much choice; I had sold all my good stuff, and only really had a couple of t-shirts, hoodies and a pair of jeans left. They could all do with a wash, but they would have to do. Knocked on Rose’s door. Thought I heard the TV through the door, but there was no reply.

Showered, changed and made my way to the bus stop, walking more slowly than usual on account of my aching body. Had to wait in the rain for a bus, and then make my way in more rain for the short walk to Nico’s house. Rang the doorbell. Nico answered, smiling. I handed over the wine and stepped over the threshold, unwilling to go further as I was dripping water onto the carpet.

>You are on time – is good. Oh, but you are very wet.

‘It’s pissing down out there. I came by bus.’

Nico called out behind him as he beckoned me inside.

>Lis, baby, Declan is very wet.

~Well get him a towel or something, and some spare clothes if he needs them.

Lisa came out to meet me. We had met before, she was a good friend of Beth’s, and she had been to the house many times when I was there.

~Hi Dec. Great you could come. Oh, look at you, you’re soaking. Nico will get you some dry stuff and put your things in the dryer, yeah? ‘Scuse me, got to get back to the chicken.

Nico went upstairs, leaving me trickling slowly in the hallway. He reappeared shortly with an armful of items and a big towel. He seemed quite amused.

>Ha! I don’t know if this is OK. You are tall, I am not. You have no choice though. You will scare Lis to sit in your skin. You can change in here.

He showed me into the downstairs loo. I dried off and changed, leaving my socks and trainers next to the radiator. Nico’s clothes were too short, and a bit tight. I had already been feeling a little awkward, and this compounded the feeling. I bundled up my wet things and opened the door. Nico laughed and pointed at my bare ankles.

>Ha! You look like your cat die.

‘What?’

>Your flags are half down – up – what is it?

‘Half mast?’

I had no idea what Nico was talking about, but he seemed pleased with himself.

>Ha, yes! This is English words, yes? Is not a good look for you. I take these to the drier.

He picked up my clothes and disappeared with them into the kitchen. From beyond the door, I heard him.

>How I work the dryer?

~You’ll have to spin them first, they’ll never dry if you put them in like that.

>Huh. How I spin?

~Oh give them here. Watch this for a minute. Don’t let it boil.

>If it boil, what I do?

~Oh for God’s sake, Nico, you really are hopeless. I know you do it on purpose. Go and see to Dec, yeah? I bet you just left him standing in the hall, didn’t you. No, here, I’ll do it.

Nico reappeared, smiling.

>She love me really, I think! Come in here, sit down. I open this.

He gestured to the wine bottle in his hand. I followed him into the spacious lounge, and sat down.

>You want?

He held up the bottle.

‘Er, no I’d better not. Don was pretty clear about no alcohol. And my last experience wasn’t too positive. Better do as I’m told, I think.

>Huh – oh I remember you say hangover. Big one?

‘Fucking enormous. Lots of vodka. Lost two days. Scared myself a bit.’

>You look better now. You look horrible on that day.

‘I was pretty horrible. It all seems like a bit of a bad dream. Learned my lesson though. That one, at any rate.’

>Well, I have wine. Ha, Don don’t tell me not, so is OK.

He opened the bottle and poured a glass.

>I see you have good bruises from the morning already.

He gestured to my face, where my cheek and chin had taken some obvious hits. I shrugged.

‘It was a tough session.’

>I think people are too tough. I say to them. They can hurt you.

‘I think that was the intention. Fair enough. I expected it. Nico, thanks, really, but, fuck, you don’t have to stick up for me. You’ll get yourself dragged into all this, you’re really better off out of it.’

>Hey, I already tell you I decide what is better for me. I think tomorrow is not so hard for you.

I had no answer to that. Didn’t want to think too much about tomorrow.

>I check on chicken. We are late – big surprise, huh?

Nico sprang up and left the room. I heard his and Lisa’s voices as they had an indistinct conversation in the kitchen. I looked around. The room was large and subtly decorated. There wasn’t much in the way of ornaments or pictures, but a framed Argentina shirt was hung over the fireplace. I went over to have a look. It had been signed by members of both teams. There was a small metal plaque with an inscription – ‘England v Argentina – Twickenham’ – and the date, which was just over two years ago. It was the game I’d been to .

The lounge door opened.

>We are ready soon.

‘I was at this match.’

>You were? It is special for me, to play against England, and it is my fiftieth cap. You were there?

‘I saved up for weeks.’

I could still remember my excitement, I talked about it for days before and even longer afterwards.

‘You were great. I can still remember your try. Right by where I was sitting. It was fucking awesome. Amazing take, brilliant run, fantastic dive.’

>You make me blush. To score that try was increible. I don’t believe it that you were there! I have a DVD here …

The door opened again.

~It’s on the table, come and get it – oh sorry, I’ve interrupted rugby talk. Well, all the more reason to come and eat now, yeah? It’ll go cold if I let you two get started.

We followed Lisa into the kitchen, where there was a large table. The balti smelt good, and there were plates of naan bread, a large bowl of rice, poppadoms and a dish of mango chutney.

‘This looks amazing.’

~Thanks. Sit down, help yourself. Nico, did you open that bottle? Oh, you’ve got yourself a glass, and mine is ..?

Chuckling, Nico went back into the lounge to retrieve the bottle.

~Your clothes should be dry soon. Sorry Nico’s don’t really fit you, you’re a lot taller than him. Haven’t you got a coat?

It had been a good one, and I’d sold it on eBay for thirty quid.

‘No, I lost it.’

~Bad luck!

Nico came back, filled a wine glass for Lisa, and we sat down to the meal. It was delicious; Lisa was a really good cook. Conversation was fairly standard, the weather, the buses, the chicken balti and various recipes for cooking it (which Lisa insisted on giving me and I had no intention of ever using), and their wedding, which had only been a few months ago.

There were quite a lot of wedding photos around. It had been a big occasion, some of the players had gone to the main event, the whole squad had all been invited to the evening party, but I had been too self-absorbed to attend.

Nico and Lisa had met at a club function, shortly after Nico arrived at Raiders. Lisa owned a sports equipment business that had sponsored some of the Raiders players in the past. Her company was looking to expand its media profile, and when Nico arrived they made a deal and fell in love. That, at least, was their potted version of their history.

I wondered when Nico was going to ask me what he had brought me there to ask. Eventually a look was exchanged between them, and Nico took a deep breath.

>Declan, we talk, Lis and me. I know yesterday I tell you I forget, but I can’t. I ask people at the club. You borrow a lot. People, they are against you for this. We want to lend you money to pay them back.

I looked down at my plate. My appetite had fled and I felt shame burn my cheeks. Without looking up:

‘No.’

>Why not?

‘Because I’m in the fucking mess I’m in because of borrowing money. If I borrow more, it just makes it all so much worse. I have to do this, sort it out, myself.’

>Huh. How about you think of it as those adverts, those what is it ‘consolidate your debts’ on TV. Then you don’t piss off lots of people, you only have one to worry about. That one is me. You don’t piss off me, or Lis will be mad. Your friends they like you again and things they are easier for you.

He made it sound very tempting, too easy. It should be hard. It had to be hard. Shook my head.

‘No.’

~Dec, how are you managing paying back all the money you owe?

‘Getting there.’

~Getting there as in you’ve nearly done it, or as in you’ve made a start and now you don’t know how you’re going to finish it?

I was silent. She’d pretty much nailed it.

~Can I just ask, you said the mess you are in is because of borrowing money, yeah? I know a bit about what’s been going on with you. Could it also be that you didn’t ask for help when you needed it, and that has been a big part of it too? All we’re saying is we’d like to help, and we’d like you to not be too bloody-minded to think about saying yes. Have a think about it, yeah?

I was humbled. Could not believe that there were such good people. Could not believe that such good people would waste their time, effort and money on me. They needed to know the truth about me, what a worthless piece of shit I was. I looked up.

‘Lisa, do you really know what’s been going on? Why I’ve borrowed so much money? What I did?’

Lisa gave me an appraising look.

~We got some edited highlights from Jay. It all seems like a bit of a nightmare.

>I know Jaime is mad, I see him yell at you in his car. Maybe he not very fair to you.

I tried to remember what Jay knew and what he might not. His version wouldn’t do me any favours, but then I didn’t really deserve any.

‘Why do you still want to help me? I …’

It was hard to say it.

‘… stole charity money. A lot of money.’

>We know this. Jaime, he is angry, we think maybe he not tell us all, about why you do it. You are not a bad person, we know this.

~You don’t have to tell us why you did it. But we know enough to think you didn’t do it for yourself or to hurt anyone. It doesn’t make any difference to us offering. We know how much it was. We want to help you make things better, yeah?

I looked at both of them in amazement.

~Really, Dec, don’t say no through some sense of pride or shame or stubbornness. You know, sometimes people do stupid things when they’re desperate. We want to make sure you don’t go to a loan shark or start dealing drugs or selling your body or something.

‘What the …’

~I’m kidding! Well, about selling your body anyway. You’re too scrawny to get much for it. Declan, if it can help at all … well, please just think about it, yeah?

I looked down at my plate again, unable to meet their eyes. It was true I was getting more desperate, and my methods of solving my financial problems had so far not been either logical or successful. Thinking about it wasn’t agreeing, and it bought me some time to work out how to turn them down without offending them.

‘OK. I’ll think about it.’

Thinking also didn’t cost anybody anything, and it would stop them going on about it. A big smile from Nico. Lisa took my hand and gave it a squeeze.

>Good decision. You let me know when you say yes!

From the hall, I heard the phone ring. Lisa started to get up.

>Let the machine pick up. What is dessert?

~You were supposed to get dessert.

>Huh. Sorry, baby, I forget. What else we have?

~Nico …

While they bickered back and forwards my attention was caught by the answering machine. With a lurch to my gut, I recognised the voice. It was Beth.

_Hi Lis, just got your message. We’re fine, staying with Carol till we find somewhere. It’s a bit of a squeeze. Cal loves it, she spoils him all day. Matty’s very poorly, James is in a bit of a state. Call me later.

Lisa must have realised too late that I had heard the message. She put her hand to her mouth and looked at me, concern creasing her brow. The blood had drained from my face. It was hard to hear Beth’s voice again. I swallowed. My mouth felt dry, and my heart was racing.

Sitting on my own all day, I could push things to the back of my mind. I was suddenly confronted with exactly what I had thrown away. It opened a hurt place in me that I had begun to close off. Jay and Beth would have been the very people I would have turned to for help, in any other situation than the one I’d got myself into. I’d chucked it away. My hands were trembling.

>You look horrible. Here, have some water.

Nico poured some into a glass.

~Sorry, Declan. That was harsh for you.

>You don’t speak to them before they leave?

I shook my head, remembering what they’d both said the last time either of them spoke to me.

~Declan, Beth is my friend. I know how much you’ve meant to her and I think I can see how much they mean to you. This has been hard on you all, yeah? Maybe if you give them time.

I shook my head.

‘I’ve fucked too much up, I don’t think there’s any coming back from it. They both want me to stay away from them. Jay and I are done. He said so.’

~Well people say all sorts of things, yeah? You never know. They are both very hurt at the moment. They’ve got a lot on their minds.

‘Mm.’

>Hey, you know Lis used to go out with Jaime?

I looked up, surprised. And, despite myself, interested.

~Nico, I don’t think –

>Yeah, long time ago. He is much older than her, he is still a player here. She work in the office. She dump him though. She know she will find a much, much better man. Much more handsome and charming. And more young.

He sat back, smugly. Lisa batted him on the arm.

~Big head. It’s true, though, from my dim and distant past. Jay and Beth have been great friends. Don’t give up on them, yeah?

Easy enough to say. It wasn’t down to me. Too much had happened, too much said, or rather unsaid. Couldn’t see a road back.

There was a clatter at the back door. A small tabby cat pushed its way through the cat flap, sniffed the air and made straight for me, twining itself round my legs and mewing. I glanced down, then looked more closely.

‘Is this Tabitha?’

Beth’s elderly cat. She had ignored me for most of the time I lived with Jay and Beth, except when it was up to me to feed her.

~Yes! We’re looking after her until they get settled. I forgot you’d know her. Looks like she remembers you.

The cat jumped on my lap and head-butted my nose. She reminded me again of things I’d had, and lost.

‘Probably remembering all the good times at her food bowl.’

~She does like a feed. She’s on a diet though – got a bit podgy in her old age.

‘Poor Tabs, I don’t expect a diet’s going down very well.’

~She’d be a bit more annoyed, and a bit thinner, if Nico didn’t keep giving her leftovers. I keep telling him she’s not a dog, and she needs to lose weight. He’s just a sucker for a pretty face.

>Is true. Is why you so fat.

~Right, you’re washing up, mister.

Seeing Tabitha, along with hearing Beth’s voice, had brought back lots of memories. I couldn’t stop them crowding in. I was overwhelmed with sadness, and I suddenly needed to know about them.

‘Where have they gone? I don’t even know where the fuck they are.’

A look passed between Nico and Lisa.

~Dec, I’m sorry, this is really difficult. Jay and Beth, well they were very clear, they don’t want you to know any details about anything, and they don’t want you to contact them. We can’t really tell you anything without breaking promises, I hope you understand. They’ve gone … away. They’re not local. That’s all I can say, sorry.

It was another blow, coming hot on the heels of the flood of memories. I felt a million miles away from them all in my head, but hadn’t really thought about them literally being somewhere else. I felt my cheeks begin to burn, and tears begin to prickle at the corner of my eyes. Frantically tried to blink them away.

‘It’s OK. Sorry, unfair of me.’

A short, awkward pause.

>Hey, I know, why don’t we watch the DVD of my amazing try, while Lis gets dessert?

It was as good a diversion as any. Lisa tutted and rolled her eyes.

~So this means I get dessert, and clear up, and fill the dishwasher, while you sit on your arses and watch rugby, yeah?

>Of course not, baby. You can fill the dishwasher tomorrow.

Nico got a clout for that one.

‘I’ll help.’

~Don’t be daft, go and watch your game. Your clothes should be dry, I’ll bring them through.

‘Thanks, Lisa. Great meal.’

We passed the rest of the evening watching the game, replaying Nico’s try several times so he could bask in adulation. We tried to spot me in the crowd, but it was impossible.

I walked home, having missed the last bus, but not wanting to tell Nico, who wanted to drive me. The rain had stopped, but it had turned cold, and my socks and trainers were still damp. It was fairly late by the time I got back. I listened at Rose’s door for signs of life, but couldn’t hear anything; I’d have to call on her tomorrow.

Back in my flat, I got undressed and flopped, tired, into bed. My bangs and scrapes were going to hurt tomorrow, but for now I was ready to sleep deeply.

Dreaming. Flying. High above the city. Looking down at a group of people in the park. Everyone is there – Mikey, Bonksy, DivDav, Big, Danno and the girls, Amy, Sarah, Katie, and Cara. They are sitting on the grass, having a laugh. I circle round, then fly down lower. I wave at them. They all wave back, and beckon me down. As my feet touch the ground, they all run away, laughing. I give chase – I can fly faster than them. I get in front of them, they all gather round, smiling, laughing, pleased to see me, taking my hand, taking me with them.

Cal

I suppose I should say a bit about Mum and Dad, they were fairly influential in my early years. Mum gets some bad press from Matty, although I know she knows he loved her really, and I suppose she can be a bit full on when she’s worried about you, which is most of the time, for most of us, but she’s this wonderfully big-hearted person, and she genuinely cares about everyone she meets. Maybe she has the urge to help too much for her own good, and could do with reining in the need to visit old ladies she meets at the bus stop with casseroles and stuff, and to realise she can’t fix all the problems in the world single-handedly, but I doubt it will ever happen, and she’ll carry on trying to make things better one person at a time.

Anyway, when I was little, before Iz came along, it was just me, Mum and Dad, or mostly Mum, because Dad would be at work. Who can really remember their parents at that age? I’d love to say we had a great time, and I’m sure we did, Christmases were awesome, there was always lots of food, lots of laughter, we did things together. I turned out alright, I think, so it must have been fine. Sorry, Mum, that doesn’t seem like much of a compliment – you are amazing, and I wish I could be more specific about your amazingness. I think maybe I’ll remember more when I get to the next bit.

The same is true of Dad. Obviously, I now know that Jay Scott is forever linked with England and Raiders (I saw the Scott Suite at the big hotel before they redecorated – Jesus, Dad, how did your head not get too big to get out of the door?), and I have been asked so many times, by journalists, supporters, even other players, ‘what was it like growing up with Jay Scott?’, and I have a bit of a chuckle to myself before I say ‘oh, you know, he was my role model’, because he really was my role model, but not in the way they want to think. My dad always got away with doing as little as possible at home, by using his charm and the twinkle in his eye to get round Mum, or by pretending to be asleep.

That’s not to say he was a lazy bastard who never lifted a finger, although he was a lazy bastard who never lifted a finger, but we’d do things as a family, he’d play with me endlessly, do all the Dad things you expect dads to do. Neither he nor Mum ever raised their voice when it wasn’t deserved, as far as I can remember, and when I think about being a kid, it feels like I was safe and loved.

Dad liked being outdoors and being active rather than being indoors and being productive, so we’d often go to the park and kick a ball around when it looked like Mum might be about to find a job for him to do, and I hate to admit that I have inherited the same dislike for housework and handy-manning, much to Chrissie’s disgust. Sorry babe.

Matt

And the next mystery – the ever-present Jay, Beth and Cal. Every day, one or all of them would be there with Mum. Why were they up here and not down in Devon being all busy with rugby as per?

It took a while longer to get to the reasons for this one, mainly because they were so evasive, and when you’re bloody exhausted and saying two words together feels like climbing a mountain, evasiveness works, so it wasn’t until I was quite a lot better that I found out that Jay had given up his job. For me. To come up here and look after me for the foreseeable. Well, that filled me with pride and gratitude and love and shit, but it also filled me with guilt, that Jay had given up the job he’d loved for me, that finally there was something more important than his bloody rugby, and it turns out it’s me. I’d never have asked that of him, I didn’t think I’d ever have done that for him, but I suppose who knows.

But now he was here, and he’d got this big house with a downstairs bedroom so I could go and live with them while I got better (although no one actually said what would happen if I didn’t get better), and they’d got Cal in a new school, and so it was all going to be lovely, and that should make everything alright. But they didn’t say what had happened to the golden-boy rugby protégé, where he was in all this, and they didn’t say why they weren’t talking about me going home, to my flat. I had to wait until a lot later, until I actually got out of there, before they told me either of those little nuggets.

So I stayed in hospital and got stronger, although not strong, and I was a bit easier to understand, although not easy. Cal was best at understanding me; he seemed to have some kind of universal translator in his head that picked up any of the unintelligible bollocky shit my mouth was trying to come out with and reworked it into proper words in two seconds flat. Maybe he was closer in age to a time when unintelligible bollocks was all that he could say as well, but the best conversations I had were when Cal was around. There’s a lot to be said for being six, can’t recommend it highly enough.

And although I got better bit by bit, it was slow bit by slow bit, because my body had the bastard MS coursing through it, and it had joined forces with its new chum pneumonia, and between them they were frolicking hand in hand through my energy levels, my concentration and my strength, gleefully kicking the shit out of all of it as they went.

And there were days when I didn’t want any of it, when having them there, reminding me what they’d given up for me, was too much, days when I remembered too much of my life before, with Carrie, and what she’d ripped from me with a scrap of paper and a few words. And on those days I wouldn’t even look at them; I’d turn away from them, close my eyes, tell them to leave me the fuck alone, even if Cal was there to hear the ‘fuck’, and although on the outside I was blank, on the inside I was screaming at the unfairness of it all and wishing I’d died when I had the chance.

12. Against the wind

In which Matty rallies somewhat, and we find out what’s bothering Dec.

Matt

I am with Carrie. We are having a picnic in a park, a rug beneath us, food and drink spread out on it. I stand up to go, and she looks at me, bright blue eyes begging me to stay. She takes my hand, pulling me towards her and I fall …

Dec

I lay for a long time, just looking at the ceiling. Concentrating on the bland whiteness. A cure for thinking. Eventually I had to get up. I was hungry and I needed a pee. Hard to believe that ordinary things like that could matter.

I heard my mobile ping in the pocket of yesterday’s discarded trousers. I got out of bed, picked up the phone and took it to the bathroom. Once I had peed, I checked the message.

Nico: =I come this morning, we train together. Gym 10.30.

Really didn’t feel like training. What time was it? Phone said 9.30. Could text back and put him off. Considered it. But this was Nico bloody Tiago.

A couple of years ago I had spent a large part of my teenage savings travelling up to Twickenham to see Nico Tiago play for Argentina against England. When he joined Raiders at the beginning of last season, it was unreal. I had trained beside him under Jay’s coaching, hardly believing my luck. Worthless piece of shit or not, you didn’t text Nico Tiago and make an excuse. Better get moving then.

Made a reasonable stab at organising myself. Toast and tea for breakfast. Showered. Shaved. Dressed appropriately. Remembered to take phone, keys and wallet with me. Kit bag. Set off down the stairs.

Rose was lying in wait; her door opened as I reached the entrance hall.

:It’s good to see you up, love. Just on your way out, are you?

‘I’m going to the gym.’

:Oh that sounds like a grand idea. Blow the cobwebs away.

‘Something like that. Has to be done.’

I fidgeted, wanting to be away, not wanting to be rude.

:Sleep alright?

‘So-so. Lot on my mind. Listen, Rose, I’m meeting someone at the gym, don’t want to be late. Really sorry. I’ll call in when I get back, yeah?’

:Right you are love. You can take the telly back with you.

‘Great, see you later’

The gym was where I thought it was, just down the road from the corner shop. I was a bit early, and Nico was nowhere in sight. I asked at the desk, but they hadn’t seen him. Waited ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Started to think he had been taking the piss. At ten past eleven I was just about to walk back home, when he sauntered in the door. His easy smile faded a bit when he saw the look on my face. He checked his watch.

>Sorry to be late. I am always.

He shrugged with a sheepish grin.

>Come, meet Luke.

We changed quickly in the changing room, and walked onto the gym floor. Nico waved to a tall blond man who was adjusting some weights.

>Lukey! Please come to meet Declan.

The blond man walked over slowly, looking less than thrilled at the prospect.

+Nico. Alright?

>I am good. This is Declan. He is my guest today. Can we talk about a programme for him?

+Could I just have a quick chat with you, Nico?

He looked pointedly at me. I moved away and stood watching from a distance. I had a feeling events of the last few days were about to cause more trouble.

As they talked, Luke looked at me several times. He didn’t look happy. Nico seemed unflustered. I remembered Nico saying that Luke used to be a trainer at Raiders, and began to understand his unhappiness. I walked over. Clearly heard the words:

+… lying little bastard …

And some of Nico’s reply:

>… give a chance …

‘Nico, I think I’m going to head off. No worries. Thanks for inviting me.

>No, Declan, you must stay. Lukey will help us.

Luke didn’t look like he had any intention of helping me, and was clenching his fists intimidatingly.

‘It’s OK, I understand. I wouldn’t want me here either if I was him. Thanks anyway.’

I turned and walked away. Nico’s raised voice echoed behind me.

>If you don’t train him, you don’t train me also. I go.

+Wait. Nico. OK, alright, I’ll give it a go.

>Thank you. Declan, come back. Please.

I turned round. Nico was beaming. Luke scowled, but did not protest when Nico beckoned me back.

Together we went over a programme of weights, treadmill, spin and rowing. Luke asked questions about my programme at the club, and what he suggested for the morning wasn’t that different. Nico and I worked together, not talking much. Luke adjusted speeds and weights and tensions from time to time. It was a good work out, and felt great to do something so physical after my days of inactivity.

We showered and changed quickly afterwards. Then, in the lobby:

>I need to eat. You come for lunch? There is great sushi bar. I fetch the car.

He jogged out of the door before I could reply. I waited. A hand on my shoulder, not gentle.

+A word.

I turned to see Luke, closer and more in my face than felt comfortable.

+I don’t want you in my gym, you little shit. I don’t want you hanging around with Nico either. Piss off now, before he gets back, or you’ll regret it.

He gripped my shoulder again. Squeezed. Very hard. Lost my bottle. Had no fight left. Turned and walked away. I guess sometimes you can be a worthless enough piece of shit that you text Nico Tiago and make an excuse.

I slipped in the front door as quietly as I could, not wanting Rose to hear and come out to chat. I promised myself I would pop down later. My quiet entry worked, and I made it to my flat undetected.

The work-out had energised me, but my encounter with Luke had brought home to me how difficult things were going to be for me now. I was going to meet people with similar feelings to him on a daily basis at the club, in the street, in the supermarket. I was going to have to get used to it.

My mobile rang. Nico. Thought about ignoring it. Didn’t.

‘Nico, hi.’

>I get your text. What happen?

‘Yeah, sorry, I remembered I had an, er, appointment. Had to go. Sorry.’

>Huh. Luke, he say you change your mind and are allergic to fish.

‘Oh.’

>So which is true?

I paused, thrown.

>Or maybe Luke say something to you? This morning, he is a dick.

I took a deep breath, not believing I was about to blow off Nico Tiago.

‘He did make it clear that he didn’t think his gym was right for me. But to be honest I can see his point. I’m nobody’s ideal customer at the moment. I’m a fucking disgrace. Thanks for taking me this morning, but I think it’s best if you just leave me alone.’

>Oh you think is best.

He sounded amused.

>I decide what is best for me. Best for me is to train with you. We find another gym.

‘Nico, I really don’t –’

>Enough. I decide. I let you know when I find somewhere good. Bye.

He hung up.

Stuart Clarke called after lunch, asking me to go in early the next day to go over what he called a plan of action. He had sounded brisk and professional; I couldn’t hear anything else in his voice, no opinions leaking through. Didn’t know him all that well, but so far it felt OK.

Washed up some plates and mugs. Made a cup of tea. Ordinary tasks designed to keep me busy enough not to think. But in the end, in a flat devoid of television, computer or books, thinking was almost all there was.

So I plugged the headphones in my phone, put some music on and took stock. Counted my blessings. There weren’t many, and what there were, were not of my own making. Still, it was easier on the mind than the alternative.

Blessing number one: I was still just about connected to Raiders. Somehow I had managed that. It wouldn’t last, but for now I still had it.

Number two: People had helped me and been nice to me. Without Rose, I couldn’t imagine the state I would have been in yesterday when I finally woke up. Nico had been needlessly kind; he and his wife were friends with Jay and Beth, and I would have expected a different response from him. I didn’t deserve any of it, but they didn’t seem to see that.

Number three: I was fit and healthy, things that people always seemed to count in lists of blessings.

That was pretty much all I could think of. Didn’t take long. The other side of the coin, the messed up last few months of my fucked up, pathetic waste of a life, produced a longer list. Thinking about all the things I needed to sort out, to put right, would never be able to put right, took much longer. My mental list started chronologically.

Matt

I am sleeping. It could be night or it could be day. There are sounds. I do not know what all of them are, but one of them is Jay snoring. The other sounds could be machines – there is a bleep, and a tick, and a rasp, and something with air rushing through it. I thought I was sleeping, dreaming, but now, maybe, I am awake. I open my eyes and it is bright, too bright, and I close them again and I fall …

Dec

It all began when I crashed my car. Jay, Beth and Cal had gone on holiday in the summer. I was looking after the house and the cat while they were gone. The first night they were away, I had been coming home after an evening with the lads. I’d had a beer, only one, as I’d known I was giving Bonksy, Big and Danno a lift home. It was pretty late, the roads were empty.

As I drove along the bypass, on my way home after dropping the lads off, I lost control of my car. I still don’t know what happened, one minute I was driving, the next I was swerving, terrified, all over the road. They did all sorts of tests afterwards, couldn’t find anything on the road, couldn’t find anything wrong with the car, but couldn’t blame it on me.

As the car span out of control and veered off towards the ditch at the side of the road, I saw someone picked out in the headlights. Too late to avoid him, even if I had been able to. The car caught him on its way into the ditch, stopped with a jolt.

I sat there, stunned and shaking. My airbag had inflated, pinning me inside the car. I wasn’t hurt, but for a long time I couldn’t move or think, just sat there, gripping the steering wheel. Once I tried to move, to undo my seatbelt, I realised I was stuck, and I had to manoeuvre my phone out of my pocket to dial 999. They all arrived in a clamour of sirens and blue lights, got me out, found the man under the car, zipped him into a body bag and took him away. I was breathalysed, checked out, questioned, released. My car was taken away. I didn’t get it back.

By the time Jay and Beth came back from holiday, a couple of weeks later, my life had taken on a surreal edge where I couldn’t tell them about it. The police had finished with me, I didn’t claim on my insurance, and I just couldn’t tell them. I was full of guilt about the man who had died. I didn’t know anything about him. Couldn’t stop thinking about him. The crash replayed itself over and over in my head. Everything together was too much to cope with, and reduced me to a robot. I could only exist, anything else was too hard, too much to process.

I was already thinking of moving out when the man’s son came to see me. The inquest had been about a week before, and had been reported in a minor way in the local press. I’d used a police-recommended solicitor, it had all seemed fairly straightforward, and I’d managed to keep my whereabouts for the day from anyone who knew me.

Keeping everything from Beth and Jay was getting harder; Beth in particular always seemed to know when something was up with me, and she kept asking me what was wrong, pushing me to talk. Moving out seemed to be the only way to stop all the questions.

When he knocked on the door, it was the middle of the day. Jay was at the club, Beth was out somewhere with Cal. I had been sitting listlessly on the sofa, watching a movie channel on TV. I nearly didn’t answer the knock, but Beth was waiting for a delivery, so I went to the door. The man was tall and heavily built. He had short brown hair and a scraggy beard. He was wearing a Raiders shirt and baggy jeans. I could not guess at how old he was. Older than me.

|Hello Charlie

I was put instantly on the back foot and on the alert.

‘Sorry, what?’

|You are Charlie Collier, aren’t you?

‘Don’t know what you mean’

|Alright then Declan, if that’s the way you want it. I’d like to talk to you.

He stepped forwards. I blocked his way, held my hands out in front of me

‘Whoa, hold on –’

There was no way he was getting into the house. Lots of Raiders supporters knew where Jay lived, not many made a nuisance of themselves, but I didn’t know this bloke, and he intimidated me more than a little. He raised his voice.

|Well we could talk about it out here, Charlie, where anyone can overhear, but somewhere more private might be best. What do you think?

He moved forwards again. Torn between protecting Jay’s property and worrying about what he might be going to say, I decided to let him in, just to the hallway. Another shameful choice. Me first. I left the front door ajar, stood between him and the door to the lounge. Tried to appear unconcerned. Heart was pounding, wondering how he knew, what he was going to do.

‘What do you want?’

|Well, son, you’ve caused me a bit of trouble.

‘What?’

|You had an accident last month.

‘What do you mean?’

|Stop playing dumb, boy, you know what I mean.

His tone was aggressive and I shrank a bit.

|You drove your car into a ditch on the bypass. Hit an old man on the way. That was my old dad.

I reeled as if I’d been punched. I think I physically stepped backwards to keep my footing.

‘I – don’t know what to say. I didn’t know he had any family.’

|Yeah, well, we haven’t always got on. But recently, now, we got on better. He was right fond of my little girl. Jessie, she’s called.

I shook my head, confused, not sure why he was telling me this.

‘I’m sorry. I really am so sorry about your dad.’

Just saying those words brought back memories of someone saying exactly the same to me – the lorry driver who had killed my parents. It hadn’t helped me at all, and now it made me realise how my accident had affected someone else. The guilt I had begun to bury surfaced again, with extras.

|Well, that’s good of you. But sorry isn’t really enough, see.

‘What do you mean?’

|Well, my little Jessie she’s not well. She’s got cystic fibrosis, might not have long, little mite. My old dad, he wanted to do something for her, was going to give us the money for an extension to the house so’s she can have a nice room, convert the garage, with all the equipment and stuff she needs. Our house is real small, her room is pretty cramped. Well, now he’s dead, his money’s all tied up with solicitors, he didn’t change his will. Me and the missus, we can’t afford it on our own. We’ve promised Jessie, see, picked out colours and everything.

I was struggling to keep up with what he was telling me, and how it was relevant. I just kept nodding.

|So, what I’m coming to is, you say you’re sorry my old dad got in the way of your car, but my Jessie’s the one that suffers. You get to live here in Jay Scott’s posh house, nice and cosy, while my dad’s in the ground and little Jessie has to grow up, if she does grow up, in that dingy little room. I think, Charlie, that you owe us. You need to pay for what you did.

Now I understood. My insides turned to ice water.

‘But I don’t have any money, really. I can’t help you. I’m sorry, so sorry about your dad, and your daughter, but I haven’t got anything.’

|Is that so, Charlie? See, when I saw you at the inquest, it didn’t register at first. You looked familiar, but I couldn’t place you. Then I put two and two together. You looked just like the lad I’d watched playing for Raiders reserves a few months before. The more I looked, the more I thought you didn’t just look like him, you were him. Seen your face around the place, too. Asked around. Found out you lived here. Very nice. Raiders know you’re Charlie Collier? Jay Scott know you’re Australian? Anyone know you killed an old man?

I reeled again. Didn’t answer him.

|Thought not. Would have been all over the press, wouldn’t it. Now, it seems we can help each other out. I need a lot of money to help my little Jessie. You need someone to keep their mouth shut. Job done. Is there any way you could see that we could work this out?

My brain was working overtime.

‘How much do you need?’

A smile.

|Ah, see, we’re working together already. I’ve had a quote for ten grand.

‘What? I can’t get that sort of money. I told you, I haven’t got anything.’

|Maybe you should try. I’ll let you think about it. I’ll be in touch.

And he walked out of the front door and down the drive as I watched him go.

I stayed in my room that night, didn’t eat, didn’t talk to Jay, Beth, or Cal. Told them I had a headache. Thinking, thinking. I had no way of getting the money. Must have fallen asleep.

Woke in the early hours with a plan. The charity money. If I paid it back quickly enough, no one would know. Told myself it was borrowing, not stealing. Maybe if I sold a lot of my stuff, put most of my pay into it, I could do it, pay it back before anyone noticed. It could be worth the risk.

The man’s story had resonated with me. His manner had been intimidating, and he had threatened me, but I had believed him about his daughter. I thought his tone had softened when he talked about her. I did feel I owed him something for the death of his father. If I could do this, and no one found out, I might feel less of the crushing guilt I had been carrying with me since the accident. That was how I convinced myself, how all the real lies started.

He called round a few days later, again when I was alone in the house. He stayed on the doorstep.

|Hello Charlie. Had any thoughts about our talk?

‘I can get your money.’

He smiled briefly.

|That’s my boy.

‘But I can only get you this much. I can’t get you any more’

He put on a hurt expression.

|I don’t know what you’re suggesting, lad, I only need this one favour, that my old dad was going to help me out with. I’ll not come knocking again. When can you get it?

‘Tomorrow.’

|Bring it to The Bell, four o’clock, should be nice and empty. I’ll buy you a pint.

And so it had begun. I emptied the special account, put the cash in an old rucksack and gave my life away.

From there, it had been a downward spiral. I needed to get away from Jay’s house, scared the man would come back when Beth and Cal were around. I couldn’t tell them the reason I wanted to move out. I made up improbable excuses like wanting my independence, outright lies like starting a course to get a qualification for when I’d finished with rugby and needing to be closer to college, things we had discussed in a general way before, but had decided there was no rush. I sold everything I had that was worth anything, and moved into a small furnished flat as soon as I found one cheap enough. I put as much of my pay as I could back into the charity account and kept my fingers crossed that I could keep it quiet until I’d paid it all back.

It was much harder than I’d thought it would be, now I was paying rent on the flat and with all the bills, food and bus fares. I felt the sense of urgency, and I ended up borrowing money from all my friends, their friends and then people they barely knew. I borrowed from the bank, but they weren’t keen to lend me a lot as I had nothing. I told them it was for a new car. I was in a lot of debt, and people were beginning to chase me.

So I had already killed an old man, hidden it, stolen from a charity, lied about my passport, lied about everything else and borrowed more money than I knew how to pay back. Add to this my broken relationships with Jay, Raiders and all my friends, and my small list of blessings retreated to a dot on the horizon.

To top it all, it had all been for nothing. I had given it all away to some con man, in a completely pointless act. Fucking idiot. I couldn’t see a way out. People were beginning to seriously chase me for the money I owed them, I had had another sprinkling of texts reminding me how much I owed and when I had promised it. I was out of ideas, and pinned with inertia.

From beyond the front door, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I was expecting the ring on the bell, which came shortly afterwards. Rose, I predicted.

:Only me love.

A wry smile on my face, I got up and opened the door. She stood there with a small, old style large-backed portable television in her arms, and a carrier bag bulging with various cables and what looked like a digibox. She was out of breath and red in the face, so I took it all from her and beckoned her in.

‘Thanks for this, it looks great.’

:A bit old fashioned, and the vertical hold goes sometimes, but I think everything’s there that you need. Don’t ask me to set it up for you though. I just unplugged it all, that was complicated enough.

‘Cuppa?’

:If you’re having one, love. Enjoy the gym did you? Didn’t hear you come back.

While she parked herself on the couch, I shouted through from the kitchen, above the noise of the kettle.

‘It was OK. Don’t think they really wanted me there. Trainer is an ex-Raider. Not very friendly.’

:Oh don’t take no notice. People shouldn’t be so judgemental. Don’t know everything, do they.

‘I think he knew enough. Anyway, it was good to have a workout.’

:Sounds like it did you some good, love. Think you’ll go back?

‘Er, not there. Maybe somewhere else.’

:Well I wish I had your energy. I need a whiff just coming up your stairs. Glad I’ve got a ground floor flat, I am.

‘I hate staying still, really. Can’t believe how long I’ve sat around up here feeling sorry for myself.’

:Oh, love, you do sound a bit better.

I walked back to the living room carrying her tea.

‘Dunno about that, but I had a big think this afternoon. I think I’ve moped around long enough. I’m trying to think of ways to put things right. Some things, anyway. Not coming up with much.’

I told her about going through my texts and the increasingly insistent demands for repayment.

:Oh love, I can’t really help you much. I haven’t got any savings to speak of, my husband took it all when he left. And I don’t earn much from my little job –

I had to stop her.

‘Rose, Rose, the absolute last thing I’m doing is asking you for money! Fuck no! That’s how I got half way here in the first place. You’ve already helped me out more than enough. Thanks, though, you are bloody great.’

She blushed.

:Well, that’s alright then. But if you need anything else –

‘Yes, I know exactly where you are.’

I made a start on putting the television and digibox together. Even though I wasn’t great with technology either, it wasn’t complicated, and I sorted it fairly quickly. Rose, even though she professed to have no technical know-how, couldn’t resist giving her advice. I flipped the switch, and the screen lit up. The picture was a bit squashed, and the sound was tinny, but we sat and watched a late afternoon quiz show together, drinking tea and eating biscuits, chipping in with the odd answer and congratulating ourselves when we got one right. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much in ages.

Rose left, eliciting a promise that I would

:Pop in and see me, love, I’d like to hear how you’re getting on.

The afternoon rolled on towards evening, and it passed in a haze of brain-numbing television. Brain-numbing was good: tomorrow was Saturday. Match day. Raiders at home. Tonight, players in the match day squad would be getting an early night, other members of the squad would maybe go out for a meal with wives or girlfriends, some of the younger among us going to a club for a drink and a laugh. Those who needed to be up early for the under elevens training would be regretting it. It was part of my life, and I felt rudderless without it.

Usually there would be a flurry of texts making arrangements, re-making them, organising lifts, generally pissing about. We all had nicknames – mine had been Captain Sensible, as I was usually the one who sorted out taxis, reminded everyone we had training in the morning so should call it a night, gave lifts when I’d still had my car. I had only been peripherally involved in all that for the last few months, and nobody had called me Captain for a long time, but they were still my mates, we shared a bond through Raiders, and I missed them all. I was not looking forward to tomorrow. After more terrible Friday TV, I went to bed.

Dreaming. I am flying. So are Bonksy, Mikey, DivDav, Big and Danno. We all fly together, high above the pitch, throwing the ball to each other, laughing, spinning, looping the loop. Crazy patterns, beautiful lines, we are invincible.

Matt

Then I open my eyes again and it’s darker, easier. The sounds are all there, except Jay snoring, but I don’t think about the noises, as I’m in a strange room. I’m in a room that is all curtains, and I am in bed, although that shouldn’t be so surprising, as I’ve just woken up. Where am I? What’s going on? I was just fetching something wasn’t I?

‘… next time I ask, Cal, just tell me if you need to go, don’t wait until the last minute.’

The curtains are moved aside, and I can’t really see that well because it’s all blurry, but it looks like Beth. Beth stands there, holding the curtains apart so Cal can come in. I can tell it’s Cal because his blond curls are so shiny and bright. Beth hasn’t seen me yet, and I want to shout ‘over here’ but there’s something in my mouth and it’s stopping me talking, and anyway, she soon looks over at me and she gasps, lets go of the curtains – which fall on Cal so he has to fight with them – and rushes over.

‘Matty, oh Matty, sweetheart.’

And it seems like I might have missed something important, but trying to think about it is hard, and so I think I’ll just close my eyes, just for a second. And I fall …

Dec

I woke up near dawn and I was alone.

Couldn’t stand the thought of another day on my own in this flat going over what a mess I’d made of my life. Needed to get out, escape from it all, from my thoughts, my fuck-ups and particularly from Raiders match day. Spent a long time planning my route. Filled a backpack. Caught the early bus out of the city. Got off at a bus stop on a country lane. Walked all day. Didn’t think or feel anything except one foot in front of the other, left, right or straight on for twenty miles or so. Caught the bus home. Grabbed a takeaway. Ate it watching more brain mush. Avoided the news and sports reports. Went to bed. A good day.

No dreams.

Matt

And the next time I woke up, Mum was there too, and they all looked at me when I opened my eyes, but I couldn’t stay awake for long, even though there was a lot I wanted to ask them, which was very frustrating, and I resolved that next time I woke up I really would try hard to stay awake, as Mum would call me a lazybones and that was a laugh, as it was Jay who was the lazy sod, right down to his bones, and the thought made me chuckle.

‘What’s so funny Matty?’

‘Lahzh … bohns.’

Where had that come from? Not out of my mouth, surely. I spoke clearly, loved using words to make a point and take the piss, unless I’d had a few beers, then things sometimes got a bit less clear. But I didn’t remember having beers. Surely that would be the sort of thing you’d remember? It ought to be. Next time I had beer I’d definitely make a note somewhere, so I wouldn’t wake up wondering.

‘Matty? Jesus, did you actually hear me?’

‘Yehh … cohrhs.’

Again with the words. It must have been a hell of a party. Hope I enjoyed it. Hope I gave someone a good time. Oh, no, I wouldn’t have, because I’m with Carrie now, she’s my girl and – oh, no, too, too much, way too much remembering, fuck off all you remembery shit, let me go back to where it was just dark and fuzzy, when I was asleep or dead. Let me be dead again.

‘Matty, oh bloody hell, here.’

I felt something wipe my eyes, and opened them. It was so out of focus, everything was blurred, where the fuck were my glasses, but it looked like Jay, and it felt like he was wiping my eyes with a tissue. What the fuck? Get off Jay, I’m not four years old for fuck’s sake. I tried to move my head away, or grab his hand – it was worse than Mum licking her thumb and wiping dinner from the side of my mouth – but I couldn’t seem to move much at all.

Dec

Wanted to do the same on Sunday, but no buses to speak of. Oblivion was going to be harder to find. Muscles aching from yesterday’s walk. Ran the bath and lay back in the hot water. Watched the steam rising, concentrated on the lazy curls until the water cooled. Still needed to get outside. Walked the streets for a while, still fairly early, not many people about. Walked past a church that was open. Maybe I could do with some quiet contemplation.

Sat inside, watching the light change through the stained glass windows. Peaceful. Helped. People came in, sang, prayed, went away. Allowed my thoughts to wander over the various messes I’d got myself in. Tried to find someone else to blame. Kept coming back to me. Sat there a long time. No divine inspiration. Quite a bit of self-condemnation.

Took my phone out, plugged my headphones in and blocked the world out with music, scrolling through all the pictures I had stored. Reminders of better times – nights out, silly faces, Jay and Beth and Cal, holiday in Ibiza, my car, Cal riding a bike, celebrating a win in the changing room, a birthday cake. I lost myself in memories, living in the past feeling infinitely better than living in the present.

Eventually, a priest came and gently told me he needed to lock up, asking if I needed anything. I shook my head, smiled at him and left. On the way home, the phone pinged with a text.

Nico: =I hear about a gym. We go tomorrow. I check it, is OK for you. I pick you up 5.30. I will be late 😉

I acknowledged his text, then walked home, the winter light fading fast. Once behind my own front door, I thought about eating. Checked my supplies. Rose, in her enthusiasm for cream of chicken soup, had got me little else that I could cook. Potatoes, cabbage, other things that were very healthy, but needed peeling, chopping and otherwise preparing in a manner I could only guess at. I settled for chicken soup tonight. I would need to shop tomorrow.

Sunday night TV even worse than Saturday. Antiques, hymns, local programmes, reality dance shows. All very well when you’re taking the piss out of them with your friends, but no company when you’re on your own. Another early night.

Dreaming. I am flying. Just flying. All night long.

Matt

And after that, everything was real again, albeit in bits and pieces. Jay, Beth, Mum and Cal were here every day. Here was hospital. I’d nearly died. They didn’t tell me that straight off. All I could cope with to start with was they were all here, and here was hospital, and in the beginning they had to tell me that a lot of times, because I was tired, and I felt like shit, and I kept forgetting what they told me.

And I couldn’t bloody well speak. It was like my brain went in one direction, and my mouth went in the other, and I had no breath, so even when I managed to say some piece of unintelligible bollocks, I could only say it one unintelligibly bollocky word at a time, sometimes with pauses in the middle, if the word was a particularly long one, like ‘hello’.

Dec

Woke lying on my front with my arms stretched wide. Felt like I was still in the air for a time. Drifted. Wonderful. Small sounds slowly intruded on my tranquil floating – traffic outside, doors opening and closing in the hallway, voices, a police siren far away. Reality came in piece by piece and shattered it all. Everything came crashing back, one hit after another, knocking me down until I fell from the sky to the world.

My phone bleeped urgently, blasting away all traces of the spell. It was the alarm, telling me to get up, get dressed, get to the club to meet Stuart Clarke and start sorting my life out.