137. I will remember you

In which final goodbyes are said.

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Cal

We had hardly agreed about anything before it was time for lunch, and soon after that, Iz arrived. They’d had a nightmare journey with roadworks littering the motorways, so that had to be discussed, they all had to have food and drink thrust on them, and then we realised the kitchen was getting rather crowded, so we moved into the living room.

Dec was still sitting staring at nothing. He didn’t seem to have moved since I’d talked to him earlier, and I saw glances pass between Mum and Amy, and between Rosa, Tom and Charlie.

‘Dec, sweetheart, sorry but we’re going to have to disturb your peace. There’s not enough room for us all in the kitchen. Do you want anything to eat? Or drink? Dec. Please look at me.’

Mum was using her ‘no arguing’ voice. She didn’t bring it out very often these days, but it seemed to have some kind of residual effect on Dec, who slowly raised his eyes to Mum, although I wouldn’t like to swear that he actually saw her.

‘Do you want anything to eat?’

There was a small shake of the head. Iz was looking at Dec with a worried expression, and I saw her talk in a low voice to Amy, who nodded and spoke back to her in the same whisper.

Iz, never one to shirk a fight, even when she’s only just arrived on the scene, mentally rolled her sleeves up.

‘Right, then, Dec. I think it’s time for some plain speaking. Apparently you’ve been moping about like some teenage girl since last night. Get over yourself and either have a good cry or say something supportive to your family, or help Mum with the washing up. Something. This sitting here staring into space isn’t doing any of us any good.’

We all stared at her. OK, once I’d seen the look on her face, I knew she was just trying to get a reaction, but to start with I couldn’t believe how insensitive she was being. Dec looked at her and did another little shake of his head, but it wasn’t a ‘no’ shake like when I’d tried talking to him; it was a ‘shake myself out of it’ kind of shake. Then he spoke.

‘But … Matt …’

‘Yeah, Dec, we all know. Matty’s dead.’

Jesus but it sounded harsh. It was what Dec needed, though. He shuddered as she said the words, then looked at Amy pleadingly, as if she was going to jump in and save him from my cruel sister. My cruel sister had other ideas though, and she kept on.

‘We’re all feeling it, but there are things to be doing, and the first thing is to all look after each other. We can’t do that if you’re not even with us. We all miss him, we all feel like nothing’s ever going to be the same, but there are things we need to do, for him and for Lau.’

Dec looked at her, really looked, like he was seeing her, and realising where he was for the first time. His eyes were wide, and he nodded.

‘OK. Sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry, Dec, just come here and give me a hug.’

And to my amazement, he stood up and walked over to Iz, folding her up in his arms. I expected both of them to cry, but they didn’t, and after a while Dec let go and stood in the middle of the room looking lost.

Iz was still on the warpath.

‘Right then, Dad’s next. He’s not going to be escaping everything in his pit.’

She turned to walk out of the room, but Dec put his hand on her arm.

‘I’ll go.’

Iz turned back, surprised.

‘Really? You’re sure?’

Dec nodded and walked past us all. We could hear his footsteps as he climbed the stairs, and then his and Dad’s low voices. Then we all stopped being astonished and looked first at Iz and then at each other.

‘Well done, sweetheart. That was some speech.’

‘I just couldn’t bear to see him like that. Was I a bit over the top?’

‘No, you were just right. And you didn’t even swear.’

‘Yeah, well, with Dec swearing’s like water off a duck’s back. He probably took more notice because I didn’t.’

Iz shrugged and sat down and we all regrouped to eat lunch.

Mum was insistent on sorting out as much of Matty’s list as was possible. She’d called undertakers and venues, but there was still a lot of detail that needed arranging. We eventually realised that, list or no list, we were going to need Lau to give the final say on things. We couldn’t do that today, because it was too soon, and she’d asked to be left alone. Josh and Ella were with her, and maybe they could help tomorrow.

Chrissie arrived with the children mid-afternoon, not long after Dec and Dad appeared in the living room. They were both red-eyed and quiet, but looked more with-it that they had been earlier. My family has always worked best when people are talking to each other, rather than isolating themselves, and maybe Dec and Dad were feeling similar enough things that they could help each other.

Neither of them were going to stop being devastated for quite some time, but I wasn’t as worried as I had been earlier.

Eventually, after we’d talked about arrangements as much as we could, and Mum had fed us more cake and tea, we felt we’d done all that could be done for the day, and we just talked about Matty. We’d been doing this anyway, as part of the arrangements, but now it was full-on reminiscence.

‘Oh, do you remember when he started wearing that stupid hat? It was some kind of trilby thing, and he thought he looked so cool.’

‘Nah, he knew he didn’t look cool, he just liked seeing who would say something and having a discussion about it.’

‘It wasn’t as bad as his shorts phase – remember when he would only wear his cargo shorts, even if it was below zero outside? Some bollocks about lower temperatures being good for circulation in your calf muscles.’

‘Yeah, he loved a crackpot theory.’

‘What, like his ‘cats are really aliens’ thing?’

‘I think he might have had something there. I mean, we just let them wander into our houses, eat food we’ve bought for them and then wander out again to who knows where. We’ve been brainwashed.’

‘I see he brainwashed you too. You do know practically everything he ever said was so we’d all argue with him?’

‘Well not everything. Some things were specifically to wind Mum up.’

‘Oh, you mean his fruity language, Cal? I didn’t mind that.’

‘What? You never stopped complaining about it.’

‘I know, it kept him occupied, kept his brain ticking over. I loved the way he used words, he couldn’t just call someone a twat, they had to be, oh I don’t know, a giant thundertwatted pissarse of a fuckninny.’

Mum!

‘What?’

‘Just … Jesus.’

‘Well someone needs to keep it up, it’s not the same without the slightly blue tinge to the air round here. I miss it.’

And so it went on. There was a lot to talk about and remember, because Matty was a man who had never sat still, literally or metaphorically. And we all wanted to remember lots of things, because for a short time it made it feel like he was still there, still with us in the room.

But children need feeding and putting to bed, and I’d left Chrissie on her own with them all day, so eventually we went home. I wasn’t sure what to do about Uni. I wasn’t due in for lectures tomorrow, but didn’t know how understanding they’d be if I took any more time off. In the grand scheme of things, uncles don’t rate that highly in the compassionate leave stakes, but Matty wasn’t ‘just’ an uncle. He was the life and soul of our family, and I was going to need a while to get used to him not being there.

I decided the best thing to do would be to call my tutor tomorrow, and at least try to get an extension on my essay.

At home that evening, the children in bed, lying on the sofa with Chrissie, sadness just washed over me. Our family had lost another member, and it felt smaller. Not just because there was one less of us, but because Matty was such a big personality. He filled a room with his laughter, his chat, his way of including everyone in what was going on, and I knew we were going to feel his absence every time we all got together.

We had respected Lau’s wish not to have anyone contact her, but I texted Josh, to check there was nothing I could do. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

Hey Joshy, just wanted to say hope ur OK. Anything u need, u know where I am.

Yeah, thanks cuz. OK for tonight, but might need something tomoro, if u can call round?

Sure thing.

Chrissie and I went to bed early, having got little sleep the previous night. Lily was no respecter of grief, or lack of sleep, and she screamed the place down in the early hours. Chrissie got up, even though she was working the next day, and left me to try my best to get back into the fitful doze I’d been having beforehand.

I may have slept a bit during the night, but I spent a lot of it remembering Matty, thinking about things he’d done, things he’d said. He always had something to say in any situation, and would often choose his words so that people laughed instead of crying or getting angry. I remembered him really pissing off Amy’s parents once.

It was not long after Amy was expecting Charlie, so I must have been about nine or ten. Amy and Dec’s news hadn’t been very well received by Amy’s mum and dad, and she’d hardly spoken to them since telling them and then walking out when they gave her a hard time. My mum, of course, was unable to resist trying to mend things, and invited them over for Sunday lunch, imagining that what everyone needed in their lives was a good feed and several million family members making a bloody racket while spilling drinks and dropping gravy on each other.

Amy’s parents were very straight-laced. They only had Amy, no other kids, and they weren’t used to a lot of noise and chaos, and they looked really uncomfortable, both sitting on the sofa waiting for lunch, and then sitting at the table eating it. Mr Wright asked several times for someone to pass the salt before anyone heard him, and then just as it was heading down to his end of the table, Iz tried to climb on his lap to show him her latest soft toy, and knocked the salt cellar over. He took several deep breaths and decided to do without salt.

Neither Mr Wright or his wife said much, except to respond to the occasional question about their garden or the weather. None of us really knew what to say to them; even Rose was a bit non-plussed, and they didn’t give much back in the way of conversation.

I think Mum had been holding back on baby talk, maybe thinking that if they talked about it too soon it would leave nothing to talk about at the dinner table, but she could finally wait no longer, and waded in.

‘So are you excited about the baby, Diane?’

Amy’s mum looked down at her plate and didn’t answer, and I saw Mum frown, as a look passed between Dec and Amy. Amy’s dad took a deep breath and did his own bit of wading in.

‘I don’t see how we can be excited at the prospect of our daughter being an unmarried mother. We warned Amy of the dangers of irresponsible behaviour, but she didn’t listen, and now this is the result. Single parents are a scourge on society, and for our daughter to be one, well it’s unacceptable. Your ward has a responsibility to Amy.’

I was puzzled by the word ‘ward’, although he seemed to mean Dec, if the direction his fork was pointing in was anything to go by.

‘It is his duty to marry my daughter, and I can’t see why you aren’t insisting it happens before this child is born. It’s a disgrace.’

He managed to silence everyone. Even Iz stopped talking to her peas and looked up at us all, every one of us staring at Amy’s dad, wondering if we’d actually heard what we’d heard. Dec looked like he was going to punch him, Amy looked like she was about to cry, Rose’s eyebrows had nearly disappeared into her hair, Mum was actually lost for words.

Matty recovered first. He picked up his wine glass and held it up, so we all looked at him.

‘I would like to propose a toast to disgrace and the disgraced. If behaving disgracefully can bring the same smile to a face that Amy and Dec have been unremittingly wearing of late, then long may it continue. I personally plan to be a disgrace for the rest of my life. To disgrace.’

And he lifted the glass to his mouth and downed his wine in one swallow. He might have wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His eyes did not leave Mr Wright’s the whole time.

It silenced the tirade, although Amy’s dad muttered ‘well’ under his breath, which wasn’t really much of a comeback to be honest.

They made their excuses and left pretty soon after that, and Mum gave Matty a big hug.

Matty always seemed to be able to talk in public like that – off the cuff, saying the right thing, remembering everything he needed to say, getting things in the right order. His wedding was a case in point, where he remembered his vows to Lau without a single scrap of paper or any words written on his hand. There were one or two teary eyes that day, too, although not because anyone had insulted anyone.

I was too cool to say at the time, but Matty and Lau’s wedding was awesome. Mum organised it with about five days’ notice. Matty and Lau announced they were having a baby, and getting married the next Friday, on the Sunday before, and they planned to have a quick, quiet do, but Mum was never going to let that happen. She would have managed something spectacular with less than a day, I reckon. But she pulled out all the stops and called in a lot of favours so that Matty and Lau had a really special day.

The registry office in the city centre was the venue for the ceremony, and Matty had asked me to be in charge of the CD player. He had planned loads of little surprises for Lau, to make it seem like less of a rush and more like he wanted it to be special. The first surprise was when we arrived.

Gran and Rose had picked me up from school with Iz. I’d been allowed out early to get ready for the wedding, and had been promised it didn’t mean getting dressed up in anything uncool. Mum had even bought me new trainers and a Hollister sweatshirt, and the new clothes were waiting for me to change into at Gran’s.

Rose drove us to the nearest car park, and we walked up the street to where we could see a few people gathered. As we approached, a taxi pulled up, and Dad got out, and he was wearing a skirt! OK, he was wearing a kilt, but seriously, what’s the diff? I was embarrassed, I mean, it was my dad, running round the streets wearing women’s clothes. And then Matty got out of the taxi, and he was wearing exactly the same. Dad ran into the building, holding his skirt down front and back, looking suitably ashamed of himself, but Matty took his time, waving at people, chatting, as if he wasn’t wearing something completely ridiculous. I heard Rose and Gran talking.

‘Oh love, don’t they look handsome. I bet you’re that proud.’

‘They do look lovely, dear.’

What? Oh well, they were women, they were bound to think that. I looked around, worried that by some misfortune, anyone I knew had seen, but my luck was in, and I didn’t see anyone I knew, from school or rugby or anywhere else.

When we got inside, Matty was talking to loads of people, while Dad stood in a corner and looked like he didn’t want anyone to notice him. The waiting room was starting to fill up, and Matty wanted a practice run of our ‘turn the CD player on’ routine.

‘Soh, Cal, when I wink like this –’

He did a wink with both eyes, twice.

‘– yuh turn ih on, yeah? Give ih a goh.’

He did the winking thing, and I pretended to press play. It’s not like it was hard. Why he couldn’t just say ‘now’, I had no idea, but Matty liked to make things complicated if he could.

‘Awesome. Keep an eye on meh, they’ll be here soon.’

And sure enough, Lau came up the stairs, looking very pretty, and Matty did the double wink thing, and I pressed play, and bagpipe music blared out. Bagpipes. I had been responsible for bagpipes. I thought it might be some embarrassing slushy love song, that would have been bad enough, but bagpipes. Ugh. However, everyone else seemed to love it, including Lau, and not long after that the ceremony got going.

As I said, Matty remembered his words, although if it wasn’t written down anywhere, who’s to say that’s what he was always going to say, and he and Lau snogged with tongues, twice. Which was ultra embarrassing, although, again, no one else seemed that bothered.

Then we all got in our cars and drove to the barn at Thursley, which Mum had hired from my friend Archie’s mum. I’d been there before, because we’d used the barn for Archie’s party when he did paintballing. It was huge, and Mum had spent most of the week decorating it, or telling other people how to decorate it. It looked really different from when we did paintballing, and there was loads of food.

I suppose I did get bossed about a lot at the party, but mostly it was Lis doing the bossing, because she’d helped Mum with the party. Lis was much better at bossing than Mum, because she made it seem like you were doing her a favour, not like you should just do what she says and like it like Mum did. I ran about taking messages to people, and some of it was cool because I got to go backstage, where not many people knew there was anything going on, and talk to the band and the choir, and tell them important messages, and bring them drinks and food, and I even plugged in a microphone.

Best of all, even though there was a lot of dancing, I didn’t have to do any of it, because I managed to look busy enough that I escaped. I know Mum nearly caught me, but I told her I’d be back in a minute after I’d taken Gran a glass of wine, and she looked kind of proud and let me go, and oh dear, I just never found my way back to her after that.

I suppose, given Matty’s past, it was a wonder he ever settled down with a family. I didn’t know him very well before we moved up to Stafford, but after we all came back to the city, and Matty was better, well let’s just say he wasn’t a shining example of monogamy. That’s not to say he flaunted women, or maybe not that much anyway, but they were just never around long enough for me to take much notice of them. He did bring women round, sometimes for Sunday lunch, sometimes just to say hi, but we hardly ever saw them more than once, and they weren’t usually that interested in me or Iz, so we learned to ignore any woman Matty had with him. There were one or two who stood out, though, like the really tall, thin one with bright orange hair, and piercings pretty much everywhere. I couldn’t stop staring, and neither could Iz, despite Mum’s not so gentle reminders to be polite. The woman, whose name I can’t even begin to guess at, just stared back at us, with a kind of ‘what?’ look on her face. I think she was there to give Mum something to go on at Matty about, because she wasn’t his usual type, who was typically blonde, a fair bit younger than him, short skirts, high heels, lots of perfume. One of these ones threw up in Mum’s rosebush, before she even got inside, and Matty got a mouthful that time for not ensuring his ‘friends’ were recovered enough from their night of partying to come to lunch.

And of course there was Julia. Julia was not Matty’s usual type at all, either to look at, or in personality. She was fairly quiet, small and dark-haired, and dressed mostly in grey or browny colours. ‘Sludge tones’ as I heard Mum whisper to Lis once. We didn’t see that much of her, because Matty often came over without her, but he was with her for a long time, and everyone started to assume they were a couple, even though they didn’t live together, or even seem to do that much together. She was good to talk to, though. She never treated me like a kid, didn’t just ask about school, but asked me about X-box games, remembered my friends’ names, that kind of thing. She came round less and less, though, and so did Matty, and it seemed like she was taking him away from us, so I didn’t mind too much when I found out he’d broken up with her.

Then Lau came, and it was like someone had plugged Matty in and switched him on. He was so different. Maybe it was just because he’d been ill, and was sad about being ill, and about breaking up with Julia, but he seemed like a different person. Just the way he looked at Lau, it was like in films, all soppy, and he touched her and kissed her all the time (ugh sooo embarrassing), and you could tell by the way that she looked at him that she felt the same. From then, it was no more women, you could see there wasn’t going to be anyone else for him but Lau. Maybe the children came earlier than planned, if there had ever been a plan, but that was right too.

Seeing Matty with his children gave me something to want to emulate. He adored the pants off those little tykes when they were young, and loved them with all his heart when they were growing. Twins can’t have been easy, although I don’t really have more than a faint memory of those early days – I didn’t do any babysitting until they were well past the screaming and pooping stage. But I will always remember the look on Matty’s face as he walked up the path to Mum and Dad’s house, one or other of the twins in his arms, looking like he’d found the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Like he finally fitted, and it was in the place he’d least expected.

So it was those thoughts and memories that kept me awake that night, the night after Matty died. They were bittersweet, because Matty was great, but he’d gone, and every remembering reminded me of that. I dozed and drifted on the tide of recollection, and then finally fell under into sleep.

The next day, Chrissie let me sleep while she got the kids up and dressed, and only woke me up when she was about to leave. Did I mention my wife is bloody awesome? I’d managed maybe three hours tops, but the extras under the duvet was much appreciated.

Having kids to take care of tends to help take your mind off your troubles; a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old together are more than enough to occupy your mind and body. I wanted to call my tutor, but I couldn’t until the afternoon, when I rather hopefully tried to get them to nap together again. Lily went down with little fuss, but Conor wouldn’t stay in bed, and in the end I relented. I called Uni anyway, and they were really understanding, telling me to keep in touch, and let them know how much time I needed.

I texted Lau, but didn’t get a reply. I spoke to Mum and Iz, neither of whom had managed to contact Lau either, but we decided there was nothing to worry about, and Amy and Dec were just down the road if a drop-in was required.

I remembered Josh saying there might be something I could do, but he hadn’t said what, and on a whim, once Lily had woken up, I bundled them both in the car and drove over there.

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Lau, not really. I’d just begun the very first steps towards accepting Matty was gone, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find or how I was going to react. But I did know that Lau, Josh and Ella were part of our family, and it didn’t feel right for this huge thing to have happened to them, and us not know how they were dealing with it, or be helping them however we could.

I got Conor and Lil out of the car, and we walked up the path to the front door together.

I thought no one was going to answer the door at first, but after a while, I heard the latch, and Ella stood there, pale-faced with red-rimmed eyes.

‘Cal! Oh, you know what, it’s great to see you. Come in.’

She opened the door wider, and we walked into the hall, where I gave her a big hug and mumbled ‘I’m so sorry’ into her ear. She nodded against me, then stood back.

‘I didn’t think I wanted to see anyone, but I just realised I want to see everyone. Thanks for coming over.’

‘Hasn’t anyone else been?’

‘No, we’ve been putting people off, Mum’s not really up to it.’

‘Should we go, then?’

‘No, don’t, I don’t know if she’ll want to see you, but you can have a drink in the kitchen if not. She’s in the living room. Hey, Conor, do you want to see the cool game I’ve got on my laptop?’

Conor, as much of a gamer as his old man, nodded and followed Ella into the kitchen, as Josh came down the stairs.

‘Oh, hey Cal. I thought I heard you. I didn’t miss your call, did I?’

‘No, I just thought I’d come over.’

‘Thanks.’

There was a brief pause while I tried to decide whether to hug him, and what to say, but he made that decision for me by moving towards the living room door.

‘Did you want to see Mum?’

‘Yeah, just a quick hi.’

I opened the door to the living room and went in, Lily still in my arms. Josh was hovering behind me, as if he wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to say or do something stupid. He had a point, this was all way out of my comfort zone, and anything could come out of my mouth if I wasn’t careful.

Lau was sitting on the sofa, legs tucked under her, watching the TV. Or rather, with her face pointing in the direction of the TV. Her face had the same expression I’d seen on Dec’s the day before, and she didn’t look up. I stood between Lau and the screen, and she slowly lifted her eyes to me. It scared me to see how little of Lau there was in her face – she looked like she hadn’t slept, which was likely, and she looked so pale, so sad, almost haunted.

‘Hi Lau. Me and Lily just wanted to come and give you a kiss, see how you are.’ I wanted to say ‘I’m so sorry’ but it didn’t seem right, she didn’t look like she’d cope with me saying it, and I hoped she’d know without me saying.

I put Lil down on the floor, and she toddled over to Lau and held her arms out to be picked up. Lau usually gave the best smooshes, and Lil loved her to bits, but Lau didn’t react. I scooped Lily up again and held her close so she could kiss Lau, which she did, but Lau still didn’t seem to notice there was anyone else in the room.

I looked around at Josh, who shrugged and tilted his head to beckon me out. We joined Ella and Conor in the kitchen.

‘How’s it been for you guys? Lau looks pretty terrible.’

Josh nodded. ‘She didn’t sleep, as far as I can gather. She spent the night like that, on the sofa. I think it’s because of the bed.’

‘Shit, I never thought.’

For Lau to have gone to bed, she’d have had to sleep in the room with Matty’s empty hospital bed. There was no way it could happen.

‘I wondered if you’d help me move her bed upstairs? I mean, eventually she’ll need a bigger one, maybe, but for now, I think we should just move her back upstairs to their old room.’

‘Yeah, sure thing. I should have thought. Are you sure you’re up to it?’

‘I’d rather do it now, it’s been on my mind all day.’

Ella seemed absorbed in the computer with Conor, but her eyes kept sliding my way as if she wanted to say something.

‘OK, let’s do it then. Ella, are you OK with Lil as well?’

‘Yeah, as long as I don’t have to do any nappies.’

‘Shouldn’t do. I haven’t brought one anyway. I could do with a cuppa when we’re done, yeah?’

Ella nodded, seemingly satisfied that whatever she wanted to say could be postponed until after moving the bed.

It wasn’t hard to do, physically. What was hard was going into that room and seeing that empty bed, and trying to ignore it while we packed up the single divan and carried it bit by bit up into the upstairs room that used to be Lau and Matty’s room but had been turned into a lounge for Josh and Ella when Matty got too frail to do the stairs. Even now, using a word like ‘frail’ to describe Matty just seems wrong; he was so full of life, until just a few weeks beforehand, that we never thought of him as weak, really.

But anyway, Josh and I managed to move the bed and re-make it upstairs, not to Lau’s hospital corners standards, but well enough that she would be able to sleep in it.

Josh went to tell Lau what we’d done, and I went to collect my reward in the shape of a cup of tea.

‘Kettle on, then, Ella?’

She gestured to a steaming mug on the counter, which I picked up with a grin.

‘Good timing.’

‘Yeah, it’s not like you weren’t stomping around like a herd of bison so I could tell exactly when you were coming back down.’

‘I suppose. Good guess work then. How’ve you been?’

I bent down and scooped Lily up from Ella’s lap and held her up towards the ceiling, as I noticed Ella’s face crumple.

‘It’s been terrible. I feel so bad. I wasn’t here, was I, and Josh has been so brilliant, phoning everyone, talking to Beth about arrangements, I’ve just been bloody useless …’

Her voice tailed off as tears began to run down her face.

‘But I thought – Mum said you got here in time.’

‘He never woke up, I never said goodbye.’

‘Last time you spoke to him, though, you know, like, on the phone or whatever, you said goodbye then, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Then that’s all that matters. Knowing Matty, he knew every time could be the last time, and that’s how he would have taken it. It really isn’t that important to actually say the words, is it? You were here for your mum, and that would have mattered more to Matty than saying a word.’

‘Maybe.’

‘And the same goes for feeling useless. People do things in different ways. Josh has done what he’s been able to; if he couldn’t then one of us would have done it. Ella, it’s not a competition. Being here is enough. And we’re all here for you too, you don’t have to stay here day in day out if it’s too much. Go and see Mum, or pop up and see Amy.’

‘Isn’t it too soon?’

‘Who for? You should do what you feel.’

‘It’s bloody shit being here, but I don’t think I should leave Mum. Not that I’ve been any use. As soon as I look at her, I just start crying.’

‘You definitely need to get out then. Go and see Mum; we were just saying yesterday no-one’s seen you for weeks.’

‘But what about Josh?’

‘What about him?’

‘I shouldn’t leave him here, should I?’

‘I think Josh is big enough to cope. And he knows how to use a phone, funnily enough, so he can call one of his eight million family members should he require assistance with making a sandwich.’

‘Yeah, alright, piss off. I just feel guilty that I spent so much of last year away from here, and now I want to go again.’

‘OK then, how’s this. Go and sit with your mum, take her a cup of tea and a biscuit, either chat to her or sit and watch the TV with her, do it for a good hour, so she knows you’re there for her, and then go out for a bit. Then come back and sit with her again. Does that feel doable?’

Ella nodded, a little uncertainly.

‘You can tell her to go and get some sleep now her bed’s been moved.’

‘Yeah, see, I couldn’t even help with that, Josh said I wouldn’t be able to lift it.’

‘Well, he’s got a point. Hey, there’s lots you can help with, though. We’ve got a whole list going on at Mum and Dad’s. You know your dad has still got us twisted round his little finger with his ridiculous arrangements?’

‘Really? Like what?’

I reeled off some of the things Matty had requested for his funeral, and Ella laughed, then immediately looked guilty for laughing, then smiled again as I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. I might go and see Beth, but I’ll make a drink for Mum first.’

Ella sighed and stood up to put the kettle on as Josh came in.

‘Ella tells me you’ve been awesome.’

Josh shrugged.

‘Have you got much time off?’

‘Only today and tomorrow, so I can be with Mum. I’m playing on Sunday, so I’ve got to train. I’m going to be playing for Dad. If I score, it’s his.’

‘Aren’t all your tries for him?’

‘Yeah, not that I ever let him know they were all for him, he was big-headed enough anyway, but the next one is, well, special.’

Josh was always so chilled. I had no idea how I would have reacted, when I was playing, to losing one of my parents, but I knew how I was when I left Ayesh, and it knocked me back for weeks. If Josh really felt up to playing in a few days, just so he could score a try for his dad, it showed a depth of determination and mental strength I wish I’d had at his age.

Ella finished making the tea, and took two cups in to the living room. Josh watched her go.

‘Has she just gone in with Mum?’

I nodded, and Josh let out a big breath.

‘Good. I thought I was going to have to wrestle her in there. She’s been sat in here every waking moment, like she can’t bear to talk to her, in case she breaks.’

‘Josh, I’ve just had a bit of a chat with Ella, and I’ll say the same to you. Maybe you need to get out a bit, see people, just to stop you going nuts? I know this is difficult, a fucking awful time for you all, but as long as you or Ella are here with Lau, there’s no reason not to leave the house.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but I couldn’t go out if Ells couldn’t be in the same room. Mum shouldn’t be on her own. Hopefully it’ll be OK now. I’m going back to training in a couple of days, so things will have to be sorted by then anyway.’

‘Make sure you have time for yourself, mate. Don’t just sort things for everyone else. You need time to feel … what you need to feel.’

‘Yeah, I know. I have. Do you mean blarting?’

Matty had a special ‘Stafford’ word for crying, and it seemed Josh had adopted it.

‘Yeah, if that’s what you need to do.’

‘Well I have done, but only on my own. I don’t really do that shit in front of people.’

‘Fair enough.’

We heard the living room door open, and footsteps went up the stairs, as Ella came back into the kitchen.

‘Mum’s going to have a lie down. I think she’s really pleased you moved the bed, she’s knackered.’

‘Did she say anything?’

‘No, just nodded when I said it might be good for her to have a rest, then went up there.’

‘Well done, Ells. That’s pretty major. Maybe she’ll feel like saying something, or eating something, when she’s had a sleep.’

This seemed like something that Mum might be able to help with, although I wasn’t sure Lau was ready for the full-on Beth Scott rescue package.

‘I think Mum would like to come and see you all. I know she’s got things she wants to talk about for the funeral and afterwards.’

Josh and Ella both nodded. They, obviously, weren’t identical twins, but they often used the same gestures – small head movements and glances – which showed how close they were.

‘Maybe she can get Mum to talk. If anyone can, Beth can.’

‘Give her a call. She’s been holding back to give you some space.’

‘Really? This is Beth holding back? She’s texted me, like, every five minutes today, asking about songs and cakes and halls.’

‘You know what she’s like. She’d love to come over.’

‘Yeah, I’ll call her.’

I thought about what Ella had said about Josh calling everyone.

‘I’ll tell her. I’m on my way over there now.’

Josh looked at me gratefully and nodded.

‘Thanks for coming, Cal, you’ve been great.’

‘Sure thing, family and all that. You both know where I am if you need anything, any time. This little one makes sure I’m awake at all kind of interesting times.’

I scooped Lily up and kissed the top of her head, smiling as she threw her arms round me.

‘Actually, Ella, why don’t you come over to Mum’s with me? I know she’d love to see you.’

Ella looked furtively at Josh, as if it was wrong to want to go out. Josh smiled at her and stroked her arm.

‘Yeah, go Squeaks. You must be going stir crazy.’

Ella smiled gratefully at her brother and went into the hall to pick up her bag. Conor was still absorbed in the computer game Ella had shown him, but I prised him away and we all left for Mum and Dad’s.

Ella was quiet as I drove, and the kids were occupied with their car toys, so I worried about Lau. She was a coper, I’d never seen her down, or at a loss, and it was so weird to see her not make a fuss of the kids. She loved Conor and Lily, and would always play with them, getting down on the floor to inspect a Lego house or a teddy den, chattering nonsense with them about dollies and chocolate biscuits.

Lau and Matty had been a unit for so long, married for over twenty years, that Lau had truly looked like she’d lost half of herself. I was pretty sure Mum would know what to do, how much to push her, and when to leave her alone, which was one of the reasons I was going over there now, as well as to save Josh another call and get Ella out of the house.

Josh had impressed me with the way he’d stepped up and sorted things. I knew there were lots of people who needed to know about Matty, and although Mum had called some of them, Josh had a list and had gone through it until everyone on it had been contacted. That can’t have been easy; it had been bad enough calling Iz and using a code word. And he was being really supportive of his mum and sister. I wasn’t sure I would have coped as well at his age.

As I pulled up outside the house, and started to unbuckle Conor and Lily, Mum opened the front door and came to help, her smile widening as she saw Ella get out of the car. Mum could never resist a cuddle with her grandchildren, and always wanted to get going as soon as possible, so she took Lily straight out of the car seat and gave her a big squeeze.

‘This is a nice surprise.’

‘We’re doing the rounds. We’ve just been to number forty-seven.’

Mum looked at me, eyebrows raised.

‘I can see that. I would have come over, Ella, but Josh said not to go yet.’

‘I know, Beth. We didn’t think Mum would cope, but it was fine with Cal. She’s gone to bed, first time she’s slept I think.’

‘And I didn’t call first, I just went over. We texted yesterday, and he said there was something I could do, so I just got us all in the car and popped over.’

In your face, Mum, is something I would have never said, but she didn’t have dibs on getting things accomplished. At least not always.

‘Oh. What did he want help with?’

‘Lau wouldn’t sleep in her bed, so we moved it upstairs. She went and had a lie-down straight away.’

Mum started walking towards the door again, talking over her shoulder.

‘I never thought! That empty bed just sitting there. We’ll have to arrange to get it taken away.’

‘I think Josh has got a handle on things, Mum, you don’t have to do everything. Although, Josh did ask if you’d go over sometime, chat with Lau.’

We got inside and headed for the kitchen, because Mum could never have a visitor without feeding them, and she always had something wicked to spoil Conor and Lily with. Sure enough, once she had given Ella a big hug and installed her in the living room with Dad, she managed to rummage in a cupboard with the hand that wasn’t holding Lil, and pulled out some chocolate fingers.

She had looked a tiny bit pleased when I passed on Josh’s message, and spoke quietly to me.

‘How are they all doing?’

‘Josh is great. He’s just getting on with things. Ella needed to be told to get out, have a break, but Lau is … not herself. I mean, not that it’s not completely understandable, but it’s like she’s shut down.’

‘It’s been tough on her, especially the last few weeks. Even when you’re expecting it, it’s a shock.’

‘Yeah, I know. And she’s been half of this ‘Matty and Lau’ team, and now there’s just her. And with Josh just moving out, that house is going to feel enormous.’

‘We’ll just have to look after her. I’m glad I can go over.’

‘How’s Dad?’

‘Well he got up today, so that’s a plus. He’s not said much, though. Dec’s not answering his calls, either. I talked to Amy, and she said he’s quiet, too. It’ll just take time, sweetheart. Everyone does things their own way. I heard from that catering place – they need to know rough numbers. I wonder if Ella knows?’

‘I don’t think Ella has been … that involved with the arrangements. Josh seems to have been doing it all himself.’

‘Hmm. I’ll definitely pop over tomorrow then. Maybe I can ask him then.’

And that was how Mum did things. She organised, she planned, she lost herself in arrangements. While Conor and Lily were occupied with chocolate biscuits, I gave her a big hug. With Dad incommunicado, I wondered where she was getting her support from. It would be me right now. Mum clung on tighter than normal, and when we let go, there were tears on her cheeks.

‘Thank you sweetheart. I needed that. It’s all so sad, I don’t know what we’ll do without Matty.’

‘We’ll never forget him.’

‘No. He’d never forgive us. Oh, Lily darling, mind where you’re putting your fingers – oh too late. Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll get a cloth. Cal, keep an eye on her, I’ve just had those chairs cleaned.’

I herded the children away from Mum’s impractical cream upholstery, and once fingers had been wiped and mouths cleared of chocolate, we moved to the living room, where Ella was sitting on one of the sofas and Dad was stretched out on the other one, watching TV. To all intents and purposes, he didn’t look much different from usual, but there was a heavy sadness about him, maybe it was the set of his jaw, maybe a slump to his shoulders. He was hurting.

We didn’t stay much longer, having filled the kids up on chocolate biscuits just before tea time, and headed home to Chrissie, leaving Mum to take Ella home later.

Arrangements were made, and a date set for Matty’s funeral. Mum and Josh did most of the planning between them, as every time anyone asked Lau anything, she’d just say ‘it’s all written down’. We stopped asking in the end, as it was obviously too much for her to think about.

There was no church service, as Matty had made it clear he didn’t want any type of religion ‘impeding his passage to the afterlife’, as he put it. But the largest chapel in the crematorium couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to give him a send off. There were people stood at the back, and out of the doors. I knew a lot of them; there were former colleagues from Raiders and from his GreenScreen days; business contacts; friends and family from all over the city; Nico and Lis came, with Basty, and it became apparent that Basty and Ella were finding each other’s company particularly consoling; Matty’s old mate Andrew came, with a couple of people they both used to work with in Stafford; the place was full to bursting.

The notice in The Herald had been written by Matty, but edited by Beth, who had wanted people to at least know where to come to remember him.

Please note that

WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT

the artist formerly known as

Matthew Robert Scott

should henceforth be known as

The Late Matthew Robert Scott

Work it out for yourselves, people!

Memorial Service – City Crematorium 1st November 1pm

and afterwards at Hilton Hotel

No flowers, donations to a charity of your choice

One of the many things Matty had specified was that he didn’t want anyone to have to deal with ‘heaps of dying blooms from my heartbroken followers’, and he had instead requested that everyone attending should be given a balloon. He even said what he wanted printed on them:

‘Matt Scott Road Trip

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

it’s a new life for me

and I’m feeling good

which was a quote from one of his favourite songs (Muse or Ella Fitzgerald, he loved them both). I guess it was better than ‘I told you I was ill’, which Josh told us was what he wanted to have before Lau persuaded him otherwise.

So the whole place was filled with bobbing helium-filled balloons, all colours, and it was almost enough to give it a party atmosphere, rather than a funereal one. Almost.

Lau sat ramrod straight, between Josh and Ella. Ella was crying before the coffin even came in, and Basty, who was sitting behind her, put a hand on her shoulder more than once. Josh remained dry-eyed, and I remembered him saying that he didn’t cry in front of people. Lau – well, she was there in body, but her mind and her heart were elsewhere that day, as if she’d hidden herself away so as not to be able to feel it. I couldn’t blame her; it was what I felt like doing.

Matty had suggested that, rather than a eulogy, people be invited to write down one word that summed him up as they came in, to be put in a hat (a top hat, naturally) and ten of the words pulled out and read at random. Josh had volunteered to do this, and the rule was, apparently, no repeats but no censorship. The words were:

Loving

Dedicated

Brilliant

Inappropriate

Hot for an old guy (which is officially five words, but was allowed through)

Mate

Lovely

Old Bastard (again over the word count but allowed through due to truthfulness)

Literally

Heart

Josh then went on to read a message Matt had written for everyone. Trust Matty to write his own eulogy:

‘Hello Everyone. Thanks for coming, sorry to interrupt your day, I’m sure you will be amply compensated with food and drink in a short while. I hope you’re enjoying the balloons.

Now, I trust none of you are moping or wearing black or some such shit, because I very specifically asked that you didn’t. There’s a reason. This get together, well, it shouldn’t be about dying and sadness, although I’m going to miss all you guys and I’d like to think you might miss me a little bit, even if it’s just because you can now have control of the TV remote.

Anyway, the reason I didn’t want black and moping is because I had a great life. I had a wonderful, gorgeous wife and two fantastic children, and if I could have traded it all for a longer, healthier life without them, I wouldn’t have. I had the best life I could have imagined. Fuck the fact I had the bastard MS. Fuck my bastard lungs. My family are the best, and I want you all to look after each other. My life has been a great success because out of it came Me and Lau, and Josh and Ella. And if that isn’t a reason to celebrate and wear neon pink, then I don’t know what is.

Take care of each other.’

Josh looked up after he had finished reading, and took a deep breath.

‘My dad was the best. I can’t believe he’s gone. I’m going to miss him so much.’

And with that, he broke down, blarting like the rest of us, and Beth had to go and help him back to his seat.

I expected Lau to comfort him, but she didn’t seem to have heard any of it, and just sat staring at the coffin.

To be honest, after that, we were all in tears. Balloons or not, we were saying goodbye to a good man, one of the best, and it was heartbreaking. Chrissie and I held each other’s hands tightly, and most people there were comforting the people near to them.

There weren’t any hymns; Matty had stated he didn’t want anything religious. There was a sing-along version of Time of Your Life (Good Riddance) by GreenDay, and a montage of photos of Matty through the ages projected onto a screen and accompanied by Another One Bites the Dust. The coffin had been brought in to Darth Vader’s theme (people who knew Matty well had smiled at this, score Matty), and disappeared to Joy Division Oven Gloves. And when it was all over, Goodbyee Don’t Cryee made us all smile again, and we filed out of the chapel and into cars for the final leg, leaving Matty there.

Conor and Lily were at the childminder’s for the day. We didn’t need to use childminders very often, as both of us were around enough, and we had Beth, Lau and Amy as willing victims – er, volunteers – most of the time. But today, we all wanted to be there, and the funeral would be too much for the little ones. After the official gathering, we would collect them and go round to Mum and Dad’s for the family get-together.

It’s odd how weddings and funerals are the places to see people you really wish you kept in touch with, but never do. Cousins, aunts and uncles appear that you hardly ever think about, but when you meet up again and chat, you realise are pretty ace people. Of course, sometimes there are people you wish had stayed in whichever dark corner of the country they came from, but on the whole, the extended Scott family, and lots of Matty’s friends, were excellent people, and I made a lot of new Facebook friends that day, if nothing else.

We’d all hoped that the funeral would be a closure for the people who were feeling it the most – Lau, Dec and Dad – but it didn’t seem to have worked out like that for any of them. They all had the same blank expression, that made you wonder where they’d gone. Dec excused himself not long after the service; Dad only stayed because he was practically stapled to Mum, who didn’t let go of him all day; Lau was only there in body. She said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you for coming’ to everyone, and said ‘fine’ when anyone asked how she was, but she was on automatic. Josh and Ella were never far from her side, and did most of the talking.

122. Far away

In which a family is separated by half a world for a while.

Matt

And so, for the next few days, it felt like a part of me had been cut out. I mean, yeah, I know, right, get over it Matt, they hadn’t gone on a one way trip to Mars where communications were a shade rudimentary, they’d gone to another part of the same planet, where they even had such things as wireless internet, telephones, computers and other newfangled communications devices. However, for the first few days we didn’t hear from them at all, as they were getting settled in, finding their feet, finding where they’d packed their newfangled communications devices.

Beth had the world’s shortest text from Dec (G’day), which we took to mean he had arrived in Terra Australis but hadn’t yet mastered the language, and then nothing, until Thursday, when we all got the same text ‘Facetiming at Matt’s 6pm that’s 1 in the bloody am for us so be there.’

So we were there, me, Lau, Josh, Ella, Jay, Beth, Cal, Iz, Mum, Rose, Cal’s girlfriend Ayesha, we all piled into our living room and waited for the Facetime chime. I’d set the iPad up on a stand so I didn’t have to hold it at arm’s length, as my bastard arms wouldn’t have lasted. In the last few days I’d taken severe hits in the walking and talking department, and was glad to be squished on the sofa with everyone else so it wasn’t as apparent. I wasn’t going to be doing much chatting.

At ten past six, the Facetime tone sounded, Ella pressed ‘answer’, and they all appeared on the screen. For an instant it felt like we were all there together, and then the time delay kicked in and we remembered they were half a world away. Rose gasped and put her hand to her mouth, and couldn’t speak for the entire duration of the call, tears leaking from her eyes. The rest of us cheered, shouted, talked over each other, asked dumb questions that weren’t heard or were lost in the time delay.

The children were all so excited to see each other; Ella and Josh had been waiting for days to see their cousins and get a tour of their house, but they were disappointed that time, as the house wasn’t ready and they were all staying in some swanky hotel courtesy of Dec’s new rugby club.

‘Yeah, we’ve got a suite, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, jacuzzi –’

‘I’ve got to share with Gracie.’

Charlie was immensely put out at this terrible injustice.

‘Yeh beauhiful, buh Rosa has tuh put up wih Tom snoring.’

This caused much more hilarity than it warranted, and I suspected the joint effects of a twenty four hour flight, jet-lag and it being the early hours of the morning for them were reaping their rewards.

‘When will you be in your house, sweetheart?’

‘Hopefully end of next week, unless the hotel kicks us out first. We’ve already broken a chair and spilt blackcurrant on the cream carpet.’

‘I doubt Australia’s seen anything like you lot, mate. When do you start training?’

‘Monday. I’ll let you know how their coach compares, see what I have to do to get fifty bench presses.’

‘Ella, didn’t you want to ask Charlie something?’

‘Yes Mummy, but there are too many people.’

‘Wehl hahv our own Facetihm, Squeaks, at the wehkend, yeh?’

‘Yes, Daddy.’

‘Leh us knoh a good tihm, Dec.’

And it rambled on, the story of the flight (they flew, they slept, when they woke up they were in Australia), how near the beach was (bloody near), how hot it was (bloody hot), how much they missed us all (bloody loads), how much we all missed them (even bloodier loads), arrangements for more, smaller, Skype and Facetimes as this really was a bit too chaotic, and then they were gone, and everyone started to go from ours as well.

I was worried about Rose, who hadn’t said one word, even when Dec had spoken to her directly. She’d only been able to smile and nod.

‘Can weh tahk yuh home, Rohs?’

‘Oh, no love, I brought your mam in my car.’

‘Ih’s a bih overwehlming ihnt it.’

She nodded, looking small and lost, and not at all like her bustly, larger than life self.

‘I knoh ih’s not the sahm, buh come an see us, any tihm.’

‘Yeah, Rose, please don’t stop coming to see us. We’re not quite as rowdy, but we do good cuddles.’

‘An bring cake. If yuh happen tuh hahv made any.’

Rose nodded again.

‘Well, thanks, I think I might be needing a few of those cuddles.’

‘Hehr, hahv one now.’

I stood up, rather unsteadily, and folded Rose up. Rose was pretty good at hugging; she was short and quite stout, but somehow seemed to envelop you, even though her arms can’t have reached all the way around.

While my head was down at her mouth level, she murmured in my ear.

‘I know you don’t like a lot of fuss, love, but if there’s anything I can do …’ ‘Thahks, Rose. Cake will beh fine.’

I winked at her, and she nodded. As she turned to go, Mum put her hand on my arm and just looked at me. She didn’t say anything, as she often didn’t, but it seemed I’d done something right in her eyes.

So the world turned, and we got used to nearly half our family being elsewhere, and sometimes it hardly seemed like they weren’t there, and sometimes it felt like they were at least on the other side of the Sun, but with the help of phones and computers, one of us talked to one of them nearly every day, possibly more than when they were up the road. The time difference meant I could indulge my occasional need for middle of the night arsing about without worrying about waking anyone up; by the time it was three in the morning here, it was mid-morning over there, and nobody minded.

And sometimes I needed it, to text him in the middle of the night. As things got worse, and I developed into more of a fucking cripple, I needed to just talk to someone who didn’t look at me with sympathy, and who I wasn’t trying to stay strong for.

Fuck, I’m back on the whinge thing, aren’t I. OK, positivity. It helps, much as I hate to admit it. After Dec and Amy had gone, things were bad for a while, maybe a week, but I got over it, and found that Dec had been right, the bastard. I had Lau and I had my kids, and they all helped me, well we helped each other. Being a family is so bloody awesome, it’s like having your own personal cheerleading squad, only without the short skirts and annoying chanting. Yeah, I missed Dec like I couldn’t have imagined, but it was dulled by having Lau, Josh and Ella there, and it became OK, because really, if I had them, I had everything.

Of course the fucking bastard was on the rampage, but it was contained to a fairly slow rampage. Bits and pieces of me fell away, and poor Lau had to pick up the bits and pieces that were left and help me to carry on, and sometimes it was bloody hard, like when my legs just went, and I had to dig out my walking pole in order not to fall over walking from the car park to the office. I felt so self-conscious on the morning Lau had to help me to the car that I nearly didn’t go in to work, but I was desperate to stay working as long as possible, and if I didn’t go in that day, it wasn’t going to be any better the day after, or the day after that, so in I went.

Raiders was, in some ways, the ideal place to be. There weren’t sympathetic looks and ‘poor you’; there was acknowledgement and disrespect and a nod at the stick with ‘planning a trip up Everest, Matt?’. There was nowhere to hide, but there was good humour and treating me like a normal person. It helped immensely, and I think being part of that environment was equal therapy to all the talking I did with Stefan and Adam.

I really missed those arsing about chats with the man from up the road, though. There were things I could say to Dec I couldn’t say to any other living being, whether I was married to them or paying them silly money to listen to me blathering on, and talking on the phone or via the internet just wasn’t the same. There was something about being in the same room, breathing the same air, belching the same dodgy curry, that enabled me to say things I would never say to anyone else.

Laura

The night of their flight, after the taxi had picked them up and we’d waved them off at midnight, we went to bed and Matt cried until morning.

Once Dec and Amy had gone, though, Matt rallied a bit, emotionally. He talked to me, and accepted help from everyone who was kind enough to offer it. He took all his sadness and buried it inside, deciding to make the most of what he had rather than raging against what he had been given.

I could always sense it, this sorrow, but he was dealing with it as best he was able, and I held him when he needed it, laughed with him when that was what was necessary, and let him see, always, how much I loved him and needed him.

That’s not to say it was always easy. There were days when I could see he was doing too much, that he was going to crash the next day, and he wouldn’t listen, and we argued. There were days when too many people made too much of a fuss over him, and he went off somewhere to get away from it all, and I had to go and find him, and we argued. There were days when I could see him wishing me, Ella and Josh weren’t there, so he didn’t have to care about us all and love us enough to stay with us, and eventually he’d snap at me or one of the children, and we argued.

The worst days were when he lost something else – another word he couldn’t say properly, another part of his vision that disappeared, the day he needed to take his walking pole into work to help him stay on his feet.

On those days, I lost him for a while. He was physically there, with us all, but he wouldn’t talk or look at us, he wouldn’t eat or move, until we went to bed, and then he’d hold onto me and sob, mourning it all.

Eventually, inevitably, his sexual functioning was affected, and although that, in a way, was the the biggest blow as it was the thing he’d been dreading the most, once it happened, he didn’t need to anticipate it any more He asked me constantly if he was going to get it all back. He knew I couldn’t answer, that no one could, but he also knew as well as I did that the more times he experienced a flare up, the more likely it was that he would remain affected afterwards in various ways, and the more frequently it was likely to happen in the future.

Matt

It was while Dec was away that I got the letter, and if he had been around I would have talked to him about it, and he would have made me see that I should just tell Lau, and I would have done, and none of this long tale of woe would have happened. I leave it to you to decide whether or not that is a good thing.

About a year after the Summers clan decamped to Australia, an envelope was delivered to me at Raiders, redirected from GreenScreen. There was a note and a flash-drive. From Julia. Holy shit. I had to read her name several times before I could quite believe it, but it was in her handwriting.

Dear Matt

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

Julia

It threw me. I had no idea what was on the flash-drive, and I really didn’t know if I wanted to find out. I hadn’t thought about Jules for a long, long time, and had years ago made my peace with how things ended with us. Now I felt it starting to churn me up again, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t know what to do.

Lau, who I would usually have been able to rely on to tell me the sensible thing to do, had always had a hang-up about Jules. Maybe she wouldn’t any more, not with two children and several years of happily-married behind us, but I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to talk to someone, but that someone was thousands of miles away, and I couldn’t find the words.

So I took the envelope home and put it in a box of old stuff from GreenScreen, intending to talk to Dec about it when he came home, assuming he did, or when I managed to work out how to address important issues over a delayed internet connection instead of arsing about like I didn’t have a care in the world.

I forgot all about it. At least I think I did. It was on my mind for a while, I suppose, wondering what was on the flash-drive, what Jules had written about me, but I wanted to do the right thing with it, and until I knew what that was, maybe I just blanked it from my mind. Really successfully, as it turned out.

Years and years later, it would only have been just over a year ago, maybe eighteen months, I was trying to sort some of my crap out, and I was going through old boxes. I nearly threw the whole box away, because it said ‘GreenScreen’ on it, and there was no reason to be keeping it, but for old times’ sake I took the lid off, and there was the envelope. Of course, I’d forgotten what it was, but the note jolted me when I looked at it, and I realised it was way too late to be telling Lau about it now. Maybe I should have just chucked the whole lot anyway, consigned it to history, let it go. But I like knowing shit. So I opened the flash-drive.

Lord of all the fuckeries. It really was a whole story, about Jules and me, in her words, and I couldn’t stop reading it. It didn’t make me feel nostalgic, but it explained a lot, and if ever I’d wanted closure, it gave me that. Not that she was fine about everything, because I think it really did fuck her up, but that what happened was for the best, for both of us, in the end.

And bloody hell, she was good at writing sex. A bit too good, maybe. I wondered if she’d tried to publish any of it anywhere, online erotica sites or something, and that was why she’d sent it to me, but that seemed so un-Jules that I couldn’t imagine it.

Iz

Well here Matty and I have to disagree. Julia wrote a lot of sex, but it wasn’t good, in my opinion. It was descriptive, in that it was mechanical, he did this then I did this, then we shouted a lot, but it wasn’t exactly emotional. You have to be a good writer to write good erotica, and Julia’s was … meh. Just as well she had a day job. Just as well Matty and Lau did as well. Let’s just say none of them are likely to be signed up for Saucy Stories Weekly. Should there happen to be such a publication.

Matt

Jules’ story churned up a lot of feelings that I didn’t immediately know what to do with. I thought about telling Lau, I thought about talking to Dec, but I didn’t think anyone would really understand it, how reading it had made me feel, and so just to show that I occasionally listened to what people told me, and because Adam wasn’t an annoyingly perceptive family member, I fell back on one of his staple strategies. Write it down. And so it started.

I thought it would be short, like Jules’ story was, but I have taken a very long and circuitous route to get from ‘a’ (the beginning) to ‘b’ (the end), and although I have had to hide things from people and do this when nobody knew, the whole process of telling my life as I’ve seen it has been therapeutic. I feel like I’ve managed to put things in order, sort them out, know what I feel about things, about people, about events, if only in my own head. Believe me, that is no mean achievement.

The main thing I learned throughout all of this is that if I had to make all those choices again, the one I would choose without question and despite anything else is Lau. There are lots of other things I would change, but not Lau – none of it would be worth it without Lau.

o0o

I managed to hold on to my deal with Lau to take help where it was offered, and allowed the family to stick their collective beaks in, by calling, visiting, babysitting, driving me places, offering ‘helpful’ advice and generally fussing about. I hope it wasn’t just taking on my part; as long as I was able, I did my share of helping too, with homework, sorting out people’s computer problems, being available for a sarcastic put down at any time of the day or night.

The old libido finally went, of course, and that was a bit of a black day, when I realised it had been quite a while since I’d got that excited, and that it was going to be bloody months before I was any use to Lau in the marital equipment department. I pestered her endlessly about how long it would be before we could exercise our conjugal rights again, although I knew, if previous instances were anything to go by, that I had to be patient. The conversation would go something like:

The scene: Matt and Lau’s bedroom. Some heavy petting has just taken place.

Matt: Sohry Lau.

Lau: What for?

Matt: Yuh knoh. Tha I canht finish the job.

Lau: (Either tuts or sighs heavily) You are the most ridiculous man. Nothing unfinished about that for me.

Matt: I dohnt get why yuh wohnt let meh, I dohnt see the poin in both of us bein frustrahted.

Lau: Well, it’s kind of like a solidarity thing.

Matt: But tha’s bohlocks. Yuh cahnt fehl wha I feel, so ih duhnt hehp yuh understahd. Last tihm, maybeh, ih was awesohm tha yuh did tha, but now, ih feels lihk, if I was an amputeh, would yuh cut yuhr leg off too?

Lau: No, of course not –

Matt: Exactly. Soh let meh. Let meh, plehs, Lau. It’d beh greht if at least one of us cahm sometihm in the next yehr or two.

Lau: No. Thanks, flower, but I’m not going to be persuaded. It will make it all the more enjoyable when it’s both of us together. It’s like saving up for a holiday, or waiting for a birthday. Makes the wait worthwhile, and we can have fun together while we’re waiting.

Matt: How lohng ahr weh gona hahv tuh wait?

Lau: Precisely three hundred and fifty seven hours.

Matt: Whoa, tha’s only two wehks.

Lau: Or maybe more. Or maybe less.

Matt: Yuh fohgot I cahn duh mental arithmehtic, dihnt yuh.

Lau: Maybe a bit.

Matt: Yuh wehr trying tuh beh sarcastic wehrnt yuh.

Lau: Maybe a bit.

Matt: Lehv ih tuh the expehrts.

Lau: OK.

Matt: I bluhdy lohv yuh, Lau.

Lau: Good. Shut up and go to sleep now.

Matt: Another snog fihrst.

Lau: Oh go on then.

Mostly Lau kept me together, or I kept myself together so I didn’t affect us all, but sometimes it was too much. Sometimes, if Beth was being a pain, or something new had stopped working, or I had just had enough of people, I’d go off and hide for a bit.

To start with, it was the hideaway at St Saviours, but Lau always looked there first, so I took to finding other inaccessible spots – there was a taxi driver who often took me to the top of Whitman’s Hill, where there was an old shepherd’s hut that I sat in; I’d catch the bus to a small village and sit in a tea shop all afternoon staring at the horse-brasses until the last bus took me back again; I’d let myself into Raiders Stadium and sit at the back of the terrace, until the time I set the burglar alarm off and four police cars screeched up. But I didn’t do it very often. It gave me space, and Lau understood, and let me do it, as long as I came back after a bit.

And then, as if the bastard MS hadn’t taken enough from me, it teamed up with its old ally pneumonia, and they decided to have another go at kicking the shit out of me.

Ironically, I had started to feel like maybe the fucking bastard was fucking off – I had less trouble with the unintelligible bollocks, didn’t need to use the walking pole everywhere, could see a bit better. Admittedly, I’d had a bit of trouble swallowing, and a few drinks ended up going the wrong way. Maybe that was what did it, perhaps that’s how fluid got on my lungs, or maybe I had some kind of bug anyway, or maybe it was radiation from the bloody big screen. Never let it be said I don’t share the blame around for my misfortunes.

o0o

It was autumn. I’d been a fucking cripple for six months so far, and I’d had to change things at Raiders to take account of it. This involved reducing my hours and doing more from home, but sometimes shit happened that required me to be at the ground. Why does technology always throw a hissy fit when there just isn’t time to spend on putting it right?

It was a Friday afternoon, and the routine pre-match test of pretty much everything had shown up a glitch on the big screen. The sound wouldn’t sync with the visuals, the team sheet wouldn’t load properly, and something was wrong with the direct feed, causing pixellating and flickering. It wasn’t going to stop the match going ahead, but it needed fixing fast.

I did as much as I could from home, talking Jenna through some of the diagnostics, but eventually I realised I was going to have to go in and try the hands-on approach. Lau drove me over, and sat having coffee with the girls in the office while I wrestled with the glitch gremlins.

After an hour or so of trying everything, we thought we’d come up with a) a problem and b) a solution, which is always a handy way round to do things, and I headed out to the middle of the pitch, to check that everything was working, syncing and holding its own. I didn’t even realise I hadn’t taken my walking pole with me until I got out into the centre, and felt pretty chuffed with myself when it occurred to me that I was standing, supported by nothing, and hadn’t fallen flat on my arse. Things were looking up. I gave Jenna, who was in the media suite at the top of the grandstand, a thumbs up, and she fired up the screen.

The sky had gone dark, and the screen shone out against the black clouds, a video of Raiders’ most recent victory playing against the dramatic backdrop of lowering cumulo-nimbus. We tried a few adverts, the team sheet, the Twitter feed, it all seemed to be working, and I breathed a sigh of satisfaction just as the first fat rain drops plopped on my head.

Shit. It hadn’t occurred to me that as well as providing a great backdrop for the screen, the dark clouds might be holding some serious weather, which now seemed set to dump itself on me. I started to head off to the relative shelter of the dug outs, but without my stick it was slow going. Hurrying was a thing of the past, and before I’d got very far the clouds burst with a dramatic clap of thunder, kind of like you get in films but never seems to happen in real life. Maybe it only happens when something momentous is occurring, which I guess it was, not that I realised it at the time.

Before I was a quarter of the way to the dug outs, I was drenched right through, and bone-chillingly cold. By the time I got to the side of the pitch, there was little point sheltering in the dug outs, and I carried on down the tunnel and into the depths of the stadium.

I was freezing, teeth chattering like a set of wind-up joke dentures, and my clothes were dripping. The players weren’t training, so the changing rooms were locked and the heating wasn’t on. I blundered around trying to find somewhere appropriate to get warm and dry, but it took me a while, and I was shivering uncontrollably by the time I found the physio room, where a couple of players were having some treatment.

‘Matt! What the hell happened to you?’

Pete Dawson, one of the physios, looked up from the massage he was giving.

‘Rain.’

I was shivering too much to say more than a syllable at a time.

‘Shit, you’re fucking soaked.’

‘Mm.’

‘Here, I’ll get you a towel.’

He left his position by the table to grab a towel from a pile, and tossed one to me. I dried my hair, but my clothes were still dripping, and I needed to get out of them. Pete noticed my shivering.

‘Are you OK Matt?’

‘Cold.’

My phone rang, and I pulled it out of my pocket, wincing at how wet it was. Lau’s photo smiled out at me from the screen.

‘Heh.’

‘Matt, Jenna said you were out in the rain.’

‘Yeh.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Phy … si … o.’

‘Are you shivering?’

‘Mm.’

‘Oh God. I’m coming down there.’

‘Noh – ‘

But it was too late, she’d disconnected.

I sat on a small chair, clutching the towel, my sodden clothes making a puddle on the floor, while the two physios continued their treatment, throwing curious glances my way from time to time. After a while, there was a light tap on the door, and Lau stuck her head round.

‘Oh Matt. You need to get out of those things.’

She threw a frown in Pete’s direction, presumably for allowing me to sit in my saturated state, but this was a rugby club, nobody worried about a bit of rain.

Lau held out my walking pole, which she must have collected on the way. I took it, but was shaking too much to get to my feet, and she had to help me up.

Together we struggled out to the car, the cloudburst now over and the sun shining as if butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth, even though it obviously would, because, well, it was the sun, and butter would melt within several million miles of its mouth. I tried to worry about getting the car seats wet, but to be honest I just wanted to get home, dry and warm.

Lau fixed me up with a warm bath, some comfy jammies and a whisky toddy, and I spent the evening curled up under a blanket on the sofa, still shivering, feeling sorry for myself, but sure I’d be right as, oh the irony, rain the next day.

I wasn’t right as rain, but I managed to go to work to double-check the screen, feeling gradually worse as the day wore on. Over the next few days, it turned into a cold, with a cough which wouldn’t go, and my temperature kept spiking. Lau kept on at me about going to the doctor, as the cough got worse, I was struggling for breath, I was finding it harder not only to go into work, but to do things from home. But I wouldn’t, I didn’t want to, accept it, what it might mean, and in my usual fashion I thought that if I didn’t accept it, it would go away. That tactic had not worked once for me in my entire life, but it didn’t stop me employing it every single time something happened to me that I didn’t like.

So, I was coughing, struggling to breathe, dragging myself through every day feeling like shit, like worse than shit, honestly believing that the next day I would wake up and feel better.

But after a few days, I woke up to a feeling I hadn’t had for a long time, that I instantly recognised. It was the same head-pounding fuzziness, the same catch in my breath, the same oh shit not this again that I’d felt all those years ago when I’d ended up more than half dead on my bathroom floor. I fought it, I tried to deny it, but when Lau came upstairs and took my temperature, she called the doctor straight away, ignoring my protests. As the fever swept over me, I started hallucinating, weird living shapes growing out of the walls, giant octopuses swimming on the ceiling, purple witches flying in and out of the windows.

I didn’t really know much about the next couple of weeks, but when I was feeling a bit less like I’d been tripping on LSD, I found myself in hospital. I hadn’t nearly died, not quite, but when I finally woke up, and they were all there with the same looks on their faces, only this time I’d put the same look on Lau’s face too, I had to have a long hard look at how I coped with illness.

After a thousand years too long, I got better enough that they let me home and Dec stopped texting me once an hour asking if he needed to come back.

‘No, I’ll let u know when my funeral is.’

‘Not funny mate.’

‘It’s called gallows humour.’

‘Still not funny.’

‘I’m having a wicker coffin with purple satin lining.’

‘Not laughing.’

‘And family of baby bunnies 2 drop daisies on casket at the graveside.’

‘Yeah txt me again when u’ve stopped this bloody nonsense.’

‘Plus free bar on Jay.’

‘When’s this funeral again?’

Laura

Matt was in hospital for nearly three weeks while they pumped anti-biotics into him, semi-conscious for half of the time, irritated and desperate to get out for the other half.

It was a big wake-up call for him, though, bringing back as it did memories of that time when he nearly died. Jay sat by his bedside looking drawn and worried, the same memories on his mind as well. It was a great relief to everyone when Matt finally came home, and chastened as he was he agreed that he would look after himself better in future.

The damage had been done, though, and each time he relapsed in the coming years, he had to be really careful not to get a cold, as his chest just couldn’t cope with it. We never talked about it, but I knew that was what would finish him. Sometimes I wished I didn’t know so much about MS, hadn’t seen so many people experience what my family and I were going through.

Josh and Ella took it all in their stride – Matt was just Daddy, and sometimes he could run about and play football with them and drive them to parties and tickle them, and sometimes he didn’t have the energy to lift the remote control to the TV or walk to the loo without help or eat his breakfast. As they grew older, they understood more, and I could see it cross their minds that one day, Matt might not be there.

Ella coped with this by finding out as much about MS as she could – on the internet, in books, talking to people from the MS support group Matt attended when I nagged him enough – so she could make up her own mind about what she thought was going to happen to her dad; she asked us questions as well. Josh never really talked about it with Matt or me, but Ella told me he talked to her sometimes, and sometimes she’d ask me a question he had asked her that her extensive research hadn’t managed to find an answer to.

Family events came and went, sometimes Matt was fit for them and sometimes he wasn’t.

Matt

Oh God, here I am again, going over it all, the details, moaning on about it, when what I should be doing is just telling you the great bits. Because now there’s not time to do it all, to go over all the details of just how fucking amazing my life has been; there’s only time to tell you how, if I had known when the fucking bastard first reared its oh so fugly head that I would be doing battle with it for nigh on thirty years, and that its partner in crime, pneumonia, would come to claim me in the end, I would not have made it this far.

If I had known all that, I would have imagined my life as the shittest life it is possible to contemplate. But that hasn’t happened. I mean, yeah, I’ve hated having this fucking bastard thing, that takes my strength, stops me speaking, chains me to my bed, makes me rely on people to do shit for me. I’ve really fucking hated it. But that isn’t all my life has been.

My fucking amazing life has seen me married to this woman who – words fail me when I try to describe what Lau has meant to me. And they fail me when I think about Ella and Josh. Parents always think their kids are the best, but my kids actually are. I can claim no credit for them topping the league table of awesomeness. Lau can claim a lot of credit, but most of it they’ve managed on their own. From an early age they had to put up with their dad being unreliable in the physicality department, having to take things like going swimming or for bike rides with me when they could, being sullen and uncommunicative when things had seemed to be going well for me but suddenly got hijacked by some sudden recurrence of the fucking bastard and its evil ways.

So I’m going to stop whining on about my lot. I’ve had this fucking bastard thing, and it’s shit, and that’s that. I really, really want the people I love to know how I feel about them, and so rather than waste any more of what little time there may be left, I’m going to tell you all how I feel about you, because I’m never going to say it to your face without arsing around. Unless you’re Lau, in which case you know I love you forever, right? You should do, I say it enough.

I’m hoping that maybe some of you might put some other good bits into your own story. I’ve rambled on, and on, and on, for bloody pages, and I hope that maybe one or two of you might think ‘well bloody hell, he’s gone on ad infinitum about snogging Lau, but he’s totally ignored that time when I drove across the city to help him choose curtains. Know what, I’m going to bloody well write my own version, see how he likes that’. I think you should. It’s been cathartic, it’s been nostalgic, it’s been revelatory.

But I haven’t really got time for any more of it. Time seems to have caught up with me, finally. I’ve been running for a long time, keeping ahead of it, just, but I think now I might have let it get too close; it’s time to stop this. It’s just too tiring, and there are things I’d rather do with my last days than type.

Cal

Dec moving to Australia was maybe the biggest thing that happened back then. Matty having a flare up of MS and then getting pneumonia – well I guess it was big at the time, but over the years it became a bit commonplace, it happened more regularly, Matty would either be well or he wouldn’t, nobody made too much of a big deal either way, not to his face. But at least he was around, you could go and see him and take the piss out of him and have the piss taken out of you, whether he could actually say ‘piss’ or whether it came out all garbled. Dec wasn’t there. None of us realised how much we’d miss him, all of them. We thought that Facetiming and Skyping and calling and emailing and texting would keep us in touch enough that we’d hardly notice it, but we all noticed, a lot.

It was things like Dec missing my Raiders debut. It wasn’t televised, so he couldn’t even actually see it, and it was some ridiculous time of the day or night over there, so he wasn’t part of it. Everyone else was there, even though it was the coldest night of the year, even Gran came along, one of the few times she came to watch rugby. I came on as a replacement for the last twenty minutes, and even though I knew he wasn’t going to be there, the first person I looked for in the bar afterwards was Dec. We Skyped later and I relived all twenty minutes for him, tackle by tackle, pass by pass, but it wasn’t the same.

And the birthdays. All of them had birthdays while they were out there, obviously, and Amy had her thirtieth. There would have been meals and parties, but we had to do it all sat in front of a computer instead of elbowing each other for room round the table, we had to listen to them telling us about getting together with their new friends and people they called their ‘second family’, which made us all just a bit sad and jealous, although we tried to remember that it was great they were getting on well and having a good time.

Dec and his family were away for nearly three years. They missed my eighteenth birthday and both the swanky party Mum put on and the one she didn’t know about with my friends and several cases of beer. Actually, Dad didn’t know about that one either, as it was in the middle of the rugby season and we would have been skinned alive. They missed me and Ayesh announcing at a Sunday lunch that Ayesh was officially moving out of the conservatory and in to my room and the look on Mum’s face. They missed Gran and Rose gradually getting older, especially Rose who missed them so much she seemed to shrivel a bit more every day they were gone.

They nearly missed Dad’s fiftieth birthday, and they nearly missed me and Ayesh properly moving in together, not just shacking up in the same room. But they were home just in time.

With Dec’s typical inability to plan more than an hour ahead, we only had a few days notice of the exact date they were coming home. We obviously knew they were coming back, because Dec had signed for Raiders again, and there had been a wild celebration when he called us and told us. None of us had been sure whether he would really come back to England, and if he did, Dad was the only one who knew whether Raiders would offer him a contract, but he was saying nothing. It was our regular weekly Skype session, the one everyone tried to make if at all possible, when he told us.

‘Right Matty, is it all set up?’

‘Yeh, Jay, I hahv done this ohnce or twice befohre, ahtually.’

‘OK then, why can’t we see them?’

Dad seemed more eager than usual to get going with the Skyping. Usually he just sat nursing a beer while everyone chattered around him.

‘Er, mehbe becohs yuh dihnt call them yet?’

‘Oh yeah. How do I do that again?’

‘Oh fuh fucks sahk. Clihk the Skype icon.’

‘Which is?’

‘Big bluh squahr, white S. Mohron.’

‘Yep, got it, oh, it’s ringing. Is it supposed to do that?’

‘G’day mates!’

Dec appeared, with Amy sitting next to him and Tom and Gracie hanging over the back of the sofa.

‘Hey mate! Great to see you.’

Dad certainly was seeming very jovial. I noticed Mum looking at him appraisingly.

‘Hello all of you. Not a full house, sweetheart?’

Mum always wanted to see all of them, every time, and if she couldn’t she wanted to know exactly where they all were, so she could talk about it to them like she was there.

‘No, Charlie’s at a party and Rosa’s got the lurgy. She’s in bed.’

‘Oh no, poor Rosa. Just a cold?’

‘Yeah, she’ll be right soon as.’

Dec’s speech, which had always verged on the Australian-sounding at times, had tipped over into full Aussie mode within months of him arriving in Perth.

‘How’s things, then?’

Again with Dad asking questions and sounding interested. Mum definitely knew something was up. She probably guessed what it was as well, but Dec didn’t give her a chance to say.

‘Well we’ve got some news, don’t know how you’re fixed in a few weeks, but we’re coming home.’

The living room practically exploded with squeals and yells, while Dad sat back and looked suspiciously calm about it all. Mum had tears in her eyes, and Rose sat there with her mouth open, unable to speak. She hadn’t done much speaking since they left anyway, but now she was just dumbfounded.

‘James, did you know about this?’

Dad looked at Mum and shrugged.

‘I’d say he did, Beth. I’ve signed for Raiders, just for a year.’

Mum punched Dad on the arm, pretty hard.

‘How could you not say?’

‘You know what it’s like, Beth, I’m not allowed.’

‘You bastard. You could have given me a hint.’

Now all of us shut up, as Mum swearing was something that just didn’t happen, ever. Dad was in serious shit now.

‘Sorry, Beth, I didn’t think.’

This was Dad’s catchphrase when he was in trouble with Mum. ‘I didn’t think’ wasn’t going to do him much good later, from the look on Mum’s face as she turned back to the computer screen.

‘So, if you’re back in a few weeks, you’ll be able to come to James’s party?’

Dad was having a monster fiftieth birthday party, organised by Mum, with half the country invited. Dec or no Dec, it was going ahead on the day it had been planned.

‘Oh Beth, I completely forgot about Jay’s birthday. We were hoping you could fetch us from the airport, but you might be in the middle of party stuff.’

‘Don’t be daft Amy. Of course we’ll be there.’

And so it was all organised, the mass convoy because we all wanted to be there to see them come back rather than one of us driving a minibus to fetch them.

Laura

Matt and I hadn’t even bothered to go to bed, although we’d sent Ella and Josh up at the usual time. We were both too excited to sleep ourselves, though. Tonight, or rather at two in the morning tomorrow, we were all setting off to the airport – the four of us in our car, Jay, Beth and Iz in their car and Cal and his girlfriend Ayesha in theirs – to bring Dec, Amy, Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa back home.

There had been great excitement earlier in the week, when a removal lorry had arrived and deposited a lot of their belongings back in their house from storage. There was a container load on its way from Australia as well.

They had been away for two and a half years, Dec having signed for two more seasons after the first one. We’d kept in touch, Skyping or Facetiming at least once a week, but Matt and I hadn’t managed to visit. Jay and Beth had been out there once, over a year ago, and Dec had come back briefly when he got a surprise call up to the Australian national squad that played in the UK in the autumn internationals.

Dec, at the grand age of thirty-three, was approaching the twilight of his rugby career, and had re-signed for Raiders for a year while he considered his options. He had taken some coaching exams while he was in Australia, and was considering moving in that direction, which might take them away from the city again. But for now, what was important was that they were coming home.

The sensible thing would have been to hire a large people carrier and one of us to drive to the airport, to collect them all and their luggage, but we all wanted to be there when they got off the plane. Even Rose offered to drive, but looked relieved when everyone told her she’d be more useful making sure breakfast was ready at their old house. The Summers family were likely to be tired after a long flight, but they weren’t going to get away without a grand reintroduction to the Scott family. And we were all piling up there, with enough seats and boot space between us to carry them back with us.

Matt and I sat watching a DVD, drinking coffee and fidgeting, waiting for it to be time to wake the children up and get in the car. Matt checked the time on his phone every five minutes, which would have been irritating if I hadn’t been checking the clock every three.

It was strange being out of touch with them. The last couple of weeks, in particular, had been a flurry of preparations, calls, Skypes, texts, all times of the day and night as things occurred to people and plans were made, but now they had been out of contact for nearly twenty four hours as they made their way across the world.

‘I’m just not used to not getting texts from him, Lau.’

As often happened, Matt seemed to have tapped into my thoughts.

‘I know. It’s not like I text Amy that much, or I didn’t think I did, but a few times today I’ve seen something or read something, and thought it would make her laugh, and I’ve pressed the message button, and then remembered, but I can tell her in person in – less than seven hours.’

We smiled at each other, eyes sparkling.

‘Did yuh hear Josh Facetiming Tom earlier?’

‘Yeah, he made me laugh, he told Tom he was glad he was coming back because he’d missed playing in the long grass.’

‘That garden’s not going to know wha’s hit ih.’

‘Ha ha. The full force of the Summers clan. Tomorrow, Matt – they’re going to be here tomorrow, we can just pop up the road and see them.’

‘Yeah, well, some of us can’t pop as quickly as we used to, but ih’s a bloody sight nearer than Perth. We won’t have tuh think about wha time ih is there, it’ll be the same as ih is here.’

‘Josh and Ella can go there after school, we can have them all here after school –’

‘Oh, I thought we were saying things we were looking forward to.’

‘You love it, Rosa on your knee telling you secrets, pretending not to notice Tom and Josh tying your shoelaces together, Charlie and Ella on the dance-mat –’

‘Hours afterwards wihping the sticky fingerprints ohf the telly an picking bihs of Cheesy Wotsit out of my hair. Ih’s a bloody good job weh didn’t have any more, we’d need bouncers.’

‘Who says we’re not having any more? There’s always a chance.’

We had finally stopped actively trying for another baby about five years ago, when it just got too much, the monthly disappointment, and we realised how much greater the chance of having a baby with some kind of abnormality was as we were getting older. Although we had started using contraception again, a part of me wasn’t prepared to give up and I still felt, even at the age of forty-three, that it wasn’t too late if nature decided to play ball with us and we wanted to take a shot.

‘Yeah, fading fast, Lau. Even if I wasn’t a dog’s breakfast down there, we’re getting on a bih, our equipment’s not wha it was.’

‘Speak for yourself. My equipment still happens to be spick and span, thanks.’

‘Spick and span, eh? Which particular Enid Blyton book are yuh out of, then?’

‘Five Check Out Their Equipment. It’s one of the lesser known classics, banned for its graphic sexual content. Dick’s equipment was always in perfect working order. Timmy the dog, well, sadly he’d had the chop early on, and as for – oh, who was the girl who wanted to be a boy?’

‘Couldn’t tell yuh, but I think I see where this is goin. Naughty Enid, then, who’d have thoht.’

‘Yeah. We should check the children’s bookshelves, just in case a contraband copy has slipped through.’

‘I hear black mahket Blyton is much soght after in the plahground.’

I looked at the clock again and put on my whiniest back-seat-of-the-car voice.

‘Oh isn’t it time to go yet?’

‘Patiehce, LauraLou.’

Matt put on a voice that sounded uncannily like my mother.

‘Another coffee? Stop us falling asleep on the way?’

‘Yeh, that’d beh great. I’ll need to keep awake up the motorway, keep yuh company.’

I was going to be driving, as Matt was recovering from his latest flare up of MS and still not confident of either his braking or his steering. The more severe symptoms hadn’t lasted as long, but had returned about eighteen months after the previous relapse had ended. As his mobility improved and the slur in his speech became less pronounced, Matt’s mood lifted and his confidence returned, and things were going pretty well for him at the moment. Raiders had been very accommodating, and had allowed him to reduce and increase his hours as his condition worsened and improved, and work from home when he needed to. They recognised that Matt worked hard, loved his job, and was very good at it, and they didn’t want to lose his expertise.

Finally it was time to wake the children up and get in the car. Ella and Josh hardly woke up before they were asleep again, and Matt nodded off soon after we got on the motorway, despite all the coffee.

I was following Jay, who was under strict instructions to drive slowly enough for me to keep up, but Beth must have fallen asleep as the speed gradually crept up.

Cal

We stayed in convoy on the motorway until Mum fell asleep and was no longer saying ‘slow down and wait for everyone James’ every ten seconds, then Dad put his foot down and sprinted away. Lau didn’t drive fast, and left to her own devices could have ended up in Inverness rather than Heathrow, after a tour of Britain and a nice sing, so I stayed with her, me and Ayesh singing to my iPod under the starry skies.

Laura

I dropped back, not willing to go as fast as Jay, and his large four by four sped off ahead. Cal was behind me, and he stayed with me. I knew the way anyway, and I didn’t need to follow Jay to know where I needed to go – I always got where I was going in the end. Maybe I sometimes took a bit longer, but there were always interesting things to see on the journey. We were going to get there in plenty of time, the plane wouldn’t be landing for hours, but we wanted to be sure we were all there when it did.

Getting the sleepy occupants out of our car when we arrived wasn’t an easy task. Matt didn’t get any easier to wake up, and Ella and Josh had been asleep the whole way. I was fighting a losing battle, getting one awake only for the others to fall asleep again. In the end Cal and Ayesha woke up Josh and Ella and persuaded them out of the car while I pinched and shook Matt awake.

‘Mmph … no … too early.’

‘Matt, we’re here, at Heathrow.’

‘Wha? Ih’s … day off … go ‘way.’

‘Matt.’

I pinched the back of his hand, and that got his attention, just as I was about to resort to the kissing method. His eyes opened blearily and looked at me, then he rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair.

‘Are weh hehr? I dinht sleep the whohl way, did I?’

I nodded.

‘Shih, Lau, why did yuh let meh? I was gona keep yuh awake, sing yuh songs and set yuh a quihz. It was a bloody amahzing quihz.’

‘Well, you’ve never tried to wake you up when you’re fast asleep, but it’s hard enough when your hands aren’t full of steering wheel, so I had no chance, really. Come on, everyone’s waiting for us.’

We sat and drank more coffee while we waited, watching the skies lighten through the windows, and the flight numbers appear and disappear on the boards.

Cal

Finally the Arrivals board announced that their flight had landed, and we headed off to the gate to wait for them. None of us could stop smiling. It had been too bloody long. Mum and Dad had been out to Australia once to see them, but nobody else had made it, and to have them in touching distance again was going to be awesome.

Mum leaned on the barrier, unable to stop jiggling with impatience. She hated not being in control of things, and the whole lot of them had been out of contact for more than twenty-four hours while they were on their way. We just had to wait until we saw them come round the corner, but Mum wasn’t one of life’s waiters. Ella and Josh were finding it hard, too, and Lau kept finding things to take their mind off it, like little snacks she’d brought, or giving them little quizzes. Matty was usually the quiz-master, but he was distracted today. He’d really missed Dec, more than he would ever admit, and he was jiggling with his eyes fixed on the corner almost as much as Mum was.

It was Charlie we heard first. She was the most raucous Summers, and it was her ‘come on, Rosa, don’t be so slow‘ that we heard first. We recognised it, even though there was an Australian accent to it, as it was so bossy. And I looked at Dad, and Mum looked at Lau, and Matty straightened up, and then we heard Amy, and then Dec laughed, and then they were all there, taking up the whole corridor, and then they saw us and they were running towards us and we met at the barrier, hugging and kissing and smiling and laughing and suddenly noticing how different they all were with their sun-bleached hair and how the hell had the kids all got so tall but how really the same they all were and how great it was to see them again, how truly great, and how much we’d missed them, but now they were back, and we were all together again.

*

I think I get it now, what holds our bloody enormous sprawl of a family together. Declan Summers. If it wasn’t for him, we’d just be a normal family, mum, dad, two kids, we’d see Gran every so often, we’d see Matty every so often, it would be, you know, a good family but that would be it. Dec is kind of a magnet. Without him, we sort of start drifting away from each other, just slightly. He pulls us all towards the centre, without even realising he’s doing it. I think it started when we nearly went our separate ways, back when I was little and he was a teenager. He realised, at the same time that Mum and Dad realised, that he was part of our family, and he was so relieved not to have lost it all, that he’s always clung on extra tight to us all, so tight that it attracts other people who would have otherwise been on the fringes too, like Nico. It’s become the norm that anyone who’s attached to any of us gets pulled in to ‘the family’, and rather than it feeling too big, or overwhelming, it just gets bigger and noisier and better.

When Dec was in Australia, we were a little bit lost without him, and when he came back, it was like something immediately clicked back into place.

121. Like it’s over

In which old friends tread a well worn path, and a dreaded event has to be faced.

Laura

Matt had finally called everyone who had tried to contact him, reassuring them, thanking them, sounding normal, convincing himself as much as them that there was nothing to worry about.

As he started texting, I thought about how much he needed it, to be normal, and how much he was going to fight what was likely to happen to him in the weeks ahead. I mentally prepared myself for a trying time. I’d spent most of the day worrying about Matt, chasing after him, reassuring him, holding him. With the return of his MS, and with both of us having to get used to Dec and Amy moving away, we were going to have to look after each other. It couldn’t just be down to me. I felt my lips tremble as I faced the enormity of it all.

Matt

As I looked at Lau, to reassure myself she was here, this paragon of all that was my rock, I saw a tear slide down her cheek, and her lips did that wobbly trying not to cry thing.

‘Fuck, Lau. Hey, baby, don’t, no, no.’

I couldn’t cope with Lau breaking down, not now. Admittedly I’d been pretty much ignoring her since we got in, intent on my self-flagellation by iPhone. She needed some TLC too, her day had been almost as shit as mine. Oh come on Matt, it could easily have been twice as shit, you’re not the only person to be affected by your little dramas.

I reached inside me to the place where the rest of my strength was. I found some somewhere, enough to reach out to her, be there for her.

‘Oh you’ve been so fucking awesome today. Here –’

I reached up and wiped the tear away, as Lau sniffed and blinked, trying to stop herself. She needed to know I was with her, ready to face it. Even if I wasn’t.

‘– I’ve finished texting now, at least the important ones. We need to chat properly, don’t we.’

Laura

‘Really?’

Matt never volunteered to talk, he always needed to be cajoled or tricked into it.

Matt

I could see how surprised she was. I never volunteered to talk, she nearly always had to bully or trick me into it.

‘Yeah. Oh, I really, really don’t feel like ih, but we need to get things straight, don’t we. I can’t have you carrying me, you’ll break.’

She’d done enough carrying today to last me a lifetime.

Laura

‘And you’re too heavy. Maybe I need a crane.’

I smiled weakly at him, pleased I wasn’t going to have to explain this to him. He’d changed a lot from the uncertain, self-centred man I’d met, to someone who looked outside himself and knew what to do to support the people he loved.

Matt

It was a pretty feeble joke, and she smiled apologetically in recognition of the fact.

‘Yeah, so practical and literal Lau, you know what I mean. Today, well, it made me realise, as if I didn’t already, how much I need you. And if I rely that much on you, you need someone to rely on too. Now, hopefully that will be me, but the way things are going, I don’t know if I’m going to be much sodding use to you in a few – what – weeks, months. We need to talk about what we’re going to do. Shit, I fucking hate asking for help, but maybe we need to, see what the combined forces of Scott UK, now incorporating our Australian division, can do. Fuck it, I still can’t believe they’re going to the other side of the fucking world.’

It burned through me again as I said it, but not saying it wasn’t going to make it not happen.

‘Matt, I love that you want to talk about this, but I think maybe we both just need to digest it all a bit first. You’ve been great just now, phoning everyone, telling them you’re OK, putting everything right. But you’re not OK, it’s not all right. Yeah, asking for help is important, but I think the first thing we need to do is just be together, see how it all works out for a few days. Yesterday, we realised your MS is back. Today, Dec told you he’s moving to Australia, which is big, upsetting news, and it’s affected you enough that you messed up your presentation. We need to get our heads round it before we make any decisions.’

She was, as usual, spot on. My head hadn’t caught up with everything yet, it wasn’t the time to be doing ‘let’s talk about the future’. I was hardly likely to be thinking straight, if recent events were anything to got by.

‘I was trying to have my sensible head on, kind of going ‘what does Matt usually hate doing but everyone badgers him until he does it’, and I thought if we ask right now, all that hassle will be one less thing.’

‘I know, my love, and I’m so proud of you for thinking that. We will, we can decide that now. No ignoring phone calls, no saying ‘no thanks’ when we should bite people’s hands off if they offer, no getting stressed about how it might look if one of us can’t do something on our own. Decision made. But I think, for tonight, we can just be Matt and Lau, and Ella and Josh, family time. You need an early night, maybe a warm bath and a cuddle from your adoring family. Tomorrow we can make plans. Tonight is for us.’

Oh she did it, every time. I’d thought I was going to be comforting her, but her tears were dry now, and she was just making everything OK, for tonight. There would be fall out, I was likely to be a pain in the arse about many things, but right now, that was top drawer.

‘Sounds fucking perfect, Lau.’

‘What would be even more perfect, is if you stopped swearing before the children get back. I know today’s been, well, stressful probably fails to describe it, but …’

And I loved that even though I was a fucking lunatic, and in a fragile state, or some such shit, she still had a go at me about the important things.

‘I know. Sorry. Matt Scott’s default position, lots of obscenity. Point taken.’

‘What do you want to do now?’

I looked at her, wanting to let her know truthfully how deep in it all I still was.

‘Honestly? Find somewhere dark and quiet and drink myself into oblivion.’

‘Would it help?’

I knew she was saying it would be OK, if that was what I wanted to do, just for tonight, but I sighed. A big part of me thought it would help a lot, right now, to just forget it all in a whisky-induced stupor. But there was always the waking up. That was worse.

‘No, I suppose not. This is hard, Lau. It was hard last time, but I kind of felt like, I dunno, I deserved it or something, with what happened with Jules and how I was before, all the playing the field shi – er stuff I used to do. This time, I don’t know what I’ve done.’

Lau frowned and shook her head.

‘You know it doesn’t work like that, it’s not a punishment, it’s a neurological condition. It doesn’t sit in your brain judging you.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I know that, really, logically, but I keep thinking, what did I do to make it come back? I haven’t been stressed, I’ve been happy, work, family, life in general, all good. Before, breaking up with Jules, well OK, maybe not a punishment, but a trigger. First time, I was seriously stressed at work. This time, all hunky dory. I just don’t get it.’

‘You know there’s no one cause, don’t you.’

We’d had similar discussions, many times. I needed a reason, an answer, something to point to and say ‘if I hadn’t done that’, or ‘if that had been different’, but there just wasn’t the luxury of being able to blame something or someone.

‘Yeah, I suppose so. Just looking for something to make sense of it.’

‘That’s a waste of energy. You’re better off making sense of where you’re heading, rather than where you’ve been. Lau’s Life Lessons.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, you’ve got a thousand of those, haven’t you. Where are you heading, Lau?’

‘Not sure, but I’m going there with this amazing man, who’s just faced up to two of his biggest fears, and has the most lovely little bum a girl could ever wish for. He makes me feel safe and loved and as long as he’s with me, I don’t care where I go.’

I pulled a doe-eyed face at her.

‘Aw, Lau, you are so soppy.’

‘I know.’

‘I love it.’

‘I know.’

‘I love you.’

‘I know.’

‘You’re a bit of a know-all.’

‘I know.’

‘I think I just saw Dec walk past with the kids.’

‘I know.’

Laura

The four of us spent the rest of the evening snuggled up on the sofa together, in front of the fire, wrapped up in a couple of blankets. We put DVDs on for the children, but none of us really watched them. Ella and Josh told us excitedly about how Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa were going to live in Australia with Dec and Amy, and they were going to have kangaroos in their garden and could we go and see them in the holidays.

A bit of gentle probing revealed that they didn’t really have any idea how far away Australia was, so we looked on a map, and decided that it was quite a long way to go for a game of football, but that we could use Daddy’s computer to talk to everyone really often.

‘Daddy, can we talk to them on your computer now?’

‘They’re only just up the road now, Squeaks. And you’ve only just seen them.’

‘Yes, but you need to check if it works.’

‘Well, I suppose you have a point. She gets it from you, Lau, being right all the time. Very irritating. Alright, bring my iPad. If we squish in close they’ll be able to see us all. I doubt they’ll all fit on the screen. Dec probably hasn’t got his turned on anyway. OK, Squeaks, you press this button and that tries to call Dec’s iPad, or his phone.’

She pushed the screen where Matt showed her. There was a short pause, and a ringing tone, and we looked at the picture of us all looking back at us all. Then the picture changed and Dec’s face appeared.

‘Oh, hey guys, haven’t done this for ages. Whoa, you look comfy.’

‘Dec, we’re practising for when you’re in Australia, so we can play football on the computer.’

‘Ha ha, no Squeaks, we can only talk. But yeah, mate, bit of a practice seemed in order.’

‘Great to see you all. Here, if I just go into the living room we can squeeze a few more Summerses into the picture – look, here’s Ames, and Tom and Gracie. Rosa’s in bed, and Charlie’s – babe, where’s Charlie?’

The picture wobbled as Dec walked through his house and forgot what he was doing while he talked to Amy. We heard Amy’s voice, but could only see Dec’s feet.

‘She’s doing some sticking for school tomorrow.’

‘Dec, mate, great feet, but we’d rather see something more interesting.’

‘Oh, fuck, sorry.’

The picture wobbled again and we could see Tom, Gracie and Amy sitting on their sofa.

‘Wave, guys.’

‘Who are we waving at, hon?’

‘Matt, Lau, Josh and Ella. They’re practising their Facetiming. Hey, I’m gonna sit down here, so I can get in the shot.’

The screen blurred and wobbled again, and when it settled down we could see a view of the living room.

‘You need to change the view, mate.’

‘What?’

‘Picture of a camera with a circular arrow in ih. Press it.’

‘Oh.’

The image changed, and we saw Dec sitting with his family.

‘Oh cool.’

‘Daddy, I think Dec needs some practice too.’

‘Yeah, Josh, I think so. Tom will sort him out, won’t you, Tom.’

Tom nodded, and looked back seriously.

‘OK, guys, just a test run, all went well, Roger over and out. Press that button, Squeaks.’

She touched the screen again, and we disconnected.

‘Daddy, who is Roger?’

‘Ha ha, it’s not a person, it means OK.’

‘Why does Roger mean OK?’

‘Er, do you know, I’m not sure. Maybe Mummy knows, she seems to know everything, usually.’

‘Mummy, why does Roger mean OK?’

I wrinkled my nose at Matt, not grateful to have been put on the spot. I doubted Matt didn’t know; he knew all sorts of useless facts like this.

‘Isn’t it something to do with pilots in the war?’

‘See, I said she’d know. Hey, let’s look it up.’

Matt Googled the term and Ella and Josh snuggled in closer as Matt set off on one of his internet surfing sprees. They loved watching as Matt got sidetracked, looking up videos on YouTube, finding pictures of things, looking on forums and in chat-rooms, and I watched the three of them, entranced at the effect the children had on Matt. I had no sense that he was having to pretend to them, that he was struggling to be happy with them. If anyone was going to help him through the months and probably years to come, it was going to be his son and daughter.

Matt

The day’s events caught up with Lau and me not long after the kids had gone to bed. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and we both stumbled up the stairs yawning.

Infuriatingly, once I was in bed, sleep wouldn’t come. Lau was dead to the world, but I just lay on my back, trying not to go over it all. Finally, I’d had enough, and I grabbed my phone and headed downstairs. I knew what I needed, who I needed to talk to, and just hoped it wasn’t too late.

‘Up for some arsing about?’

There was no reply, and I assumed Dec either had his phone on silent, or was asleep and just didn’t hear the text. He’d had a pretty full-on day too.

I flicked the TV on, with the sound muted, random images shifting over my eyes as I tried to make myself think of nothing. I didn’t hear the tapping at first, or at least it didn’t permeate my consciousness. Then my attention shifted, and I was aware of a light scratching on the window. It could have been a branch on one of the rose bushes, but it seemed too regular.

I got up and peered out from behind the curtain, nearly staggering backwards as Dec’s face confronted me just inches from my own, with only a pane of glass between us. He pointed to the front door, and I quickly opened it to let him in.

‘Holy shit, Summers, yuh could have let me know ih was you. You scared the bloody bejesus out of me.’

‘Sorry, mate. Just thought of you here in the dark sending secret ‘help me’ text messages, and before I knew what I was doing, I’d pulled on my trainers and here I was.’

I had a closer look at Dec’s attire; he was indeed wearing an old sleeping shirt, some pyjama bottoms, and trainers without socks.

‘Usually a phone call suffihces.’

‘Special circs, mate.’

I didn’t need to ask what they were.

‘Any chance of a drink?’

‘I think the occasion couhd warrant a beer. Or I could do yuh a nice camomile tea if yuh –’

‘Fuck off with your namby pamby tea shit. Bottle of your finest cold ones will be just great.’

He followed me into the kitchen and watched as I opened two bottles of beer, and took the one I offered him. We stayed there, both of us leaning against the counter, not speaking for a while, sipping out of the bottles.

‘Well go on then.’

Dec looked at me, head tilted.

‘Wha?’

Although I knew what, and had been trying to think how I was going to put any of it into words.

‘You text me in the middle of the night, as if it’s five years ago, like when this all happened last time, and you needed to talk. Or maybe it’s, shit, ten years ago and you needed rescuing from some party, or you needed me to help you find your fucking trousers. We’re not at a party, and you seem to have your fucking trousers. So spill.’

I looked at him, wondering how it was possible to have so much history with someone, to have someone know you so completely well, without actually being related to them, married to them, or indeed having any romantic feelings towards them at all.

‘I dunno Dec, I’m soh fucking tired of spilling. I’ve been spilling most of the day, since Lau came and got me, and the more I spill, the worse ih gets. Ih’s all just spinning round in my head. Maybe I shouldn’t have texted yuh. I just wanted something to feel the same, like something in this fucked up baboon’s arse of a day hadn’t changed, unlike the rest of life as we know ih. I just wanted to text yuh, and yuh to know what ih meant, and now here yuh are, and yuh do. You can sod off home again, if yuh want.’

Dec looked at me, one eyebrow raised, tapping the neck of his beer bottle against his cheek.

‘Hmm. Matt is saying he doesn’t want to chat, and is trying to get rid of me. Well isn’t that sounding bloody familiar.’

‘Fuck off. I’m serious, I really don’t think I can do any mohr bloody talking. Not tonight. I’ve got nothing left.’

Dec fixed me with a level gaze.

‘OK, have it your way. How about, though, I do some talking. You don’t have to say anything, just listen. You can doze off if you like, but I’m still going to say it.’

‘Say wha?’

‘Well, I’m going to start by apologising. I know this shit with me signing for Speeders couldn’t have happened on a worse day for you.’

I didn’t want to let him go there, feeling guilty about it.

‘Noh, Dec, don’t say tha –’

‘Ah ah, you weren’t going to talk, remember? That means not speaking. Shutting your bloody gob for once.’

He wasn’t going to let me get away with interjections of any sort, it seemed.

‘OK, let’s start at the beginning. Me and you, we’ve helped each other out, at different times, in different ways, more often than I can count. You like to think you’re all ‘I don’t need anyone’, but you’re not a loner, and you’ve always needed people more than you’ll ever admit. You’ve got Lau now, we all know that, but before Lau, you had me, and you had Jay and Beth if only you’d have let them be there.’

I was scowling at him now. I didn’t text him so he could come over here and tell me how things were. I texted him so … I actually didn’t have a clue. But he was here, and it felt like maybe he was going to say shit I needed to hear, so I pinned back my ears and listened to my mate telling it like it was. Doesn’t mean I had to enjoy it.

‘Yeah, you can take that bloody look off your face, you know what you’re like. But anyway, I know you’ve always had my back, and I’ve always had yours, and it’s meant a lot to me, because you didn’t have to be my mate, just because Jay and Beth made me part of their family. And now I’m going off for a bit, and it’s been one of the hardest things, knowing you’re not going to be just down the road, ready with a beer, or help with the laptop, or a sarcastic comment, or just to arse about with, because I’m going to be leaving you behind, and just when things have got really shit for you.’

‘Dec, stop. Please.’

I didn’t know if I could just listen to this. Today had already been too full of emotion, and any more was likely to be too much.

‘No. Matt, I didn’t come here intending to blurt out all this shit. But now I’m doing it, I’m bloody well doing it. Maybe it’ll upset you, maybe it’ll upset me, I don’t give a fuck. It’s about time we bloody well grew up and faced shit, isn’t it? You’re my best mate, and I’m sorry I’m flying to the other side of the world, not just for you, but for me. I’m going to bloody well miss you. But I’ll be back, I promise you that. And if you ever need me, need me to be here, then you just text me in the middle of the bloody night, and I’ll be on the next plane.’

‘Or maybe weh could just Skype, ih’s a damn sight cheaper.’

‘Ha! Oh you bastard, don’t make me laugh, I’m being all serious here.’

‘Yeh, too much serious now. Oh come here yuh silly arse, give meh a man hug and be done with it. Tha’s wha yuh really came round for, isn’t ih.’

Dec put his beer bottle down, as did I, and we hugged, briefly and fiercely.

‘You got me there, I’ve been thinking about doing that all day.’

‘I bet yuh have, can’t beat one of Matt Scott’s masculine cuhdles. They’re sought after all over the cihty.’

‘Ha, tell me about it mate. Do you remember that woman, oh what was her name … Alexis? She wouldn’t stop bloody hugging you. You brought her to Beth and Jay’s one Sunday, and every five minutes it was ‘oh Matt, your family’s so funny’ cuddle cuddle ‘oh Matt, thank you for inviting me here’ hug hug ‘oh Matt, will you really give me a lift home’ grope grope. Iz nearly scratched her eyes out.’

‘God, I had sohm near disasters, didn’t I.’

‘You had some full-on actual living nightmare fucking disasters, mate. Nothing near about them. How many times did I have to fetch you from that house near the railway bridge? I still can’t work out how you didn’t know that’s where you were going, every fucking time.’

‘Housemates. Pulled a different one each time. Didn’t ask the address, just got in the taxi. They were all fucking crazy bitches. One of them had this dog, and she’d dress it up like Michael Jackson and video it wagging it’s tail along to Beat It.’

‘Well you can’t say you haven’t lived a bit, can you?’

‘I guess not. Thanks mate. I know you’ve put up with a lot of shit from me, more than I deserve.’

Dec sighed again. ‘It’s not about deserving, I learned that a long time ago. Shit happens, life happens, and you make the most of what you’ve got to help you through it. And if what you’ve got is an iPhone and a mate on the other end of it, that’s what you use.’

‘Yeah, well, works both ways.’

‘I know, mate. Know what, I’m going to need you on the end of that iPhone a lot the next year or so.’

‘Count on it.’

There was a short silence while we chugged more beer.

‘Sorry about the cake.’

‘Wha?’

‘The bloody Australia cake this morning. It just seemed like it was the last thing you would have wanted.’

I waved him away. It certainly hadn’t helped, but it had only been a tiny bit of it all.

‘I hope yuh saved me a piece. Where did ih come from?’

‘Where do you think? Beth made it.’

‘Wha? She only had fohr hours max. How the fuck … oh I jus bloody give up with that woman. She has superpowers beyond our ken.’

‘You’ve only just noticed that? You do know she has some kind of sonar instead of ears? She can hear every bloody thing everybody says, everywhere. It’s how she knows shit.’

‘Ah. I always wondered. So she’s listening tuh us now?’

The arsing about was just what I needed. We always ended up talking complete bollocks, going off on beer-fuelled flights of fancy, taking a walk on the stupid side of life, then strolling back round to reality.

‘Yeah, I expect so. Hi Beth.’

Dec waved in the vague direction of their house.

‘Fuck, she can’t bloody see us, can she?’

‘I think so. It’s the only way to explain how she knew I let those left over roasties go mouldy in the fridge and had to throw them out.’

‘Yuh let Beth’s roasties go mouldy? Yuh are so not worthy of receiving them in a doggy bag.’

‘Bloody hell I’m going to miss Beth’s roasties. I wonder if you can get them couriered over to Perth?’

‘I bet yuh could. They might have lost some of their crispiness, mind yuh.’

‘God, they’re so fucking crispy. Oh shit.’

‘What?’

‘I’m going to have to call Speeders, tell them I’ve changed my mind.’

‘Becahse of Beth’s roasties?’

‘Yeah. I’ll send some to them, then they’ll understand.’

‘Or … I could jus eat them for yuh. Double portions. I’ll describe the experience fuhly, even Skype me eating them.’

‘Fuck off, you know that would just be torture. And you’d be the size of a bloody bus.’

‘Doubt ih. They’ll soon all be force feeding me to stop me getting too skinny.’

Dec’s grin faded.

‘Ah don’t say that, mate. It won’t come to that.’

‘Yuh can’t say that. Ih might. Might need every last potato by the time ihs done with me.’

I was desperately trying to cling on the mood I seemed to have killed, but it was drifting away, and Dec just looked at me, sadly.

‘Do you remember before, when you stayed with us?’

I nodded.

‘I’m glad you don’t need that now. I’m glad you’ve got Lau, and your kids. They’ll make the difference this time, mate.’

I looked down at my feet for a second, before glancing up.

‘I wish I didn’t have to do ih tuh them, though. They shouldn’t have to put up with a fucking cripple of a dad. Lau shouldn’t have tuh be the one who wipes my arse.’

‘I bet you Lau’s wiped more arses than you’ve had that fancy cheese on toast you like to call croque monsieur. I’m pretty sure she’s quite attached to your arse, too.’

‘Yeh, which is why she shouldn’t have tuh fucking wipe ih.’

The thought of it was making me angry, and ashamed.

‘Well you’ll just have to carry on wiping your own then, won’t you. Hey, you do realise that with your little tantrum this morning, you became both the family fucking cripple and family bloody nutter at the same time? Impressive.’

I shrugged. ‘Well with yuh leaving the country, I needed to make sure the title was in good hands. Don’t want just anyone walking off with the Scott Bluhdy Nutter championship.’

‘True. Look after it well, keep it warm for me.’

‘Mate, I’ll be posting ih to yuh before yuh’ve been out there a month. Yuh do know there are bloody enormous spiders in Australia.’

Yeah, Dec, the big rufty tufty rugby player, had an arachnid phobia.

‘Shit. I totally forgot the bloody enormous spiders. You don’t get them on rugby pitches, though, do you?’

‘I’m pretty suhr I saw this programme on Discovery that was about this spider that hides in the boot lockers at –’

‘Shit, shit, shut the fuck up. I know you’re only fucking about, but I can’t even think about it. Shit, I’m going to have to read up about the bloody spiders.’

‘Some of them ahr as big as yuhr hand.’

‘Yeah, I remember from when I was a kid. Fuck, one of my mates, he got in his dad’s car, in the front seat, and pulled the sun visor down, and this bloody enormous fucking monster spider landed in his lap. I was in the back seat. I beat him out of the car by a good two seconds. Fuck. Stop talking about it. Seriously. Or I’ll have to start remembering things you might rather forget, like screaming like a tiny girl at the hanging dead people in Sixth Sense –’

‘OK, yuh can never tell Lau about that –’

‘Or when you shut your dick in the toilet lid –’

‘I was pihsed.’

‘As a fart, although pissing would have been more sensible. Or when you –’

‘OK I get ih. No more eight legged terror tales.’

‘Finally.’

Dec drained his beer and put the bottle down.

‘I should get back. I told Ames I was going for a run.’

‘Yuh did not.’

‘You’re right. Ames was already out for a run. I left Charlie in charge.’

‘Shit, is that the sound of sirens I hear? Bloody hell, Dec, Australia’s not gona know what’s hit ih with yuhr mob. Charlie’ll be Prime Minister this time next year.’

‘Great. Then I can get her to ban spiders. Right, can’t stand here chatting, got some shut-eye to be having.’

Dec started to walk out to the hall, and I followed. As he reached the door, he put his hand on my shoulder, and stood looking at me for a few seconds, then opened the door and went home. God I was going to miss him.

Cal

And I guess that’s where it started for Matty, the beginning of the end, although it took a long time to end, but what he always called his bastard MS really was a huge bastard. It took him bit by bit, not only destroying his ability to walk and talk but taking his self-respect. Matty hated being dependent on anyone, although he would admit to needing Lau. It tore him up to even need to use his walking pole, and so when he eventually needed a wheelchair, or when he ended up in hospital all those times with pneumonia, you could see how much it got to him.

But I’m jumping ahead. This isn’t about Matty, I’ve already said that, although Matty was a huge, important part of my life. There are other things I’ve already missed out, maybe I’ll remember them and go back, maybe I’ll just get on with it now I’m here, seventeen years old, my girlfriend living in the same house, me on the brink of a career as a professional rugby player, my family just about to split apart for a few years while Dec follows his dream in Australia.

Laura

The weeks leading up to Dec and Amy leaving went too quickly. They put their house up for rent, and tenants were due to move in a few days after they left. Their flights were booked, accommodation the other end sorted, and a party organised by Beth. As the day approached, everyone seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for it to be over, the thing we were all dreading.

Matt had gone back to work, well supported by Raiders. His symptoms had continued to slowly reappear, but with no dramatic episodes like the one on the morning of his presentation. He contacted the MS service with no prompting from me, and made an appointment to see a counsellor – he had stopped going a year or two ago, but realised he needed to keep himself mentally well if he was going to cope with everything that life had suddenly thrown at him. Had he finally grown up? Ha ha, don’t be silly, this was Matt, and he was responding as he usually did, which was after a crisis, when he had no other choice. The thought of a grown up Matt is proper terrifying …

Matt

Those next few weeks were hard, for me. I mean they were bloody hard for Dec and Amy too, with all the arrangements they had to make, all the phone calls, trying to sort out accommodation from thousands of miles away, plane tickets, packing up their stuff, all that, yeah, I know it was tough and busy for them all. But for the ones who weren’t going, it was like some form of torture.

We couldn’t just be sad, we all put on this show of talking excitedly about the new house, the new club, looking at pictures of Perth on the internet, hearing them talk about schools; it just reminded us that it wouldn’t be four doors down, it wouldn’t be Raiders, it wouldn’t be here, it wouldn’t be St John’s Primary.

Beth, of course, threw a huge party, invited most of Devon, hangovers abounded for days afterwards. The house went up for rent, and tenants were sorted, most of their stuff went into storage, and cases were packed. They had organised nearly everything at the other end, booked flights, and then it was just waiting.

It was better when we weren’t just waiting. When stuff was going on, I could use it to divert me from the fucking bastard, which was making itself more and more evident as the days and weeks passed. I went back to work, Raiders were great, we agreed a way of working round as much of it as we could, while I was still able. I really didn’t want to go off sick, but I knew I might have to, I couldn’t risk anything going wrong because I was too stubborn to recognise my changing limits. And as the time came for Dec and his family to leave a Summers shaped hole in our lives, the fucking bastard upped its game, made me stagger and stumble, frequently had me spouting unintelligible bollocks, fucked with my vision.

To everyone’s surprise, including mine to some degree, I contacted the bastard MS service and got myself a new bastard MS nurse. It wasn’t Anna, who had moved on to something else; in fact, none of Lau’s old cronies still worked there, and that helped, that I was just Matthew Robert Scott, 42 year old male, who was having a flare-up of the bastard MS, no drama about it, and the nurse was a bloke called Stefan, he was about my age, and he was great.

I also saw Adam more regularly. I was still a fuck up, and things weren’t looking like getting unfucked any time soon, with the newest adventures. I wanted to make sure I was as good as I could be, mostly for Lau. I didn’t want her to shoulder all my shit, I wanted her to know I was talking about things, and that she didn’t always have to guess what I was feeling.

Laura

Dec and Amy’s going away party was enormous. Beth seemed to have invited most of the city, and had hired a huge warehouse on one of the industrial estates. It was an occasional business for Beth, now, and she had a lot of contacts in catering, lighting, DJing and everything else she needed, so the family was no longer needed to help out.

The enormous space was decorated in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ style, with palms and various different areas, although without the need to eat live insects, and Dec and Amy had a good send off.

We also had a marginally quieter family get-together, full of squealing children and one of Beth’s roast dinners. Matt’s mood was strange throughout. He told me later that he just wanted it to be over, for them to be gone, so he could get on with it, and then felt terrible about wishing they were gone.

Matt

And then the day dawned, the day we’d all been dreading, when Declan Summers and his tribe went away.

It was a Saturday, but even so, Beth was doing Sunday dinner, one of her roasts. Everyone was invited, and everyone was going. Everyone in the family, I mean. Everyone in the world had already been to the going away party to end all going away parties earlier in the week, this was just us, and I just wanted it to be over. Is that selfish? Just wanting all the goodbyeing to be done, them to be gone, so this awful waiting would be finished with?

Nobody else seemed to feel the same; everyone else seemed to be treasuring the days, hours, seconds, minutes, as if they were precious, and they were, I suppose, but they seemed pointless. All I could think of now, every time we were with Dec and his family, was that in three days, then two, then one, then nineteen hours, then fifteen, oh you get the picture, they wouldn’t be here. I don’t think I have ever dreaded an event more than midnight that night, when they would all be getting in a taxi and driving away, flying away from us for who knows how long.

It had been bad enough when the removals people came and took all their stuff to go into storage. Seeing their life packed up in boxes and crammed into the back of two lorries suddenly brought it home. They lived out of suitcases for a few days, camping out in the empty rooms and eating with us or Jay and Beth. The children were almost uncontrollably excited, and Dec and Amy were buzzing with arrangements and the thought of their new life. It was hard to pretend to be glad for them. Or rather, it was hard not to let my own sadness at their leaving tarnish any good wishes I might have for them.

I didn’t feel like smiling, I didn’t feel like playing along with the excitement and the planning, and I didn’t feel like telling them how great it was going to be. But I did all those things, ad infinitum or so it seemed, until finally it was the last day, and we were having Sunday lunch on Saturday, because the taxi was coming at midnight and they would be gone tomorrow. And I couldn’t do it any more I’d done too much smiling, excitement and planning, and to my shame, I spent that last day withdrawn and miserable.

I suppose none of us were too chatty; it seemed to have dawned on us that this big thing was actually happening, that six members of our family were leaving at once, and the gap they would leave would be huge, bigger than just their physical absence.

Beth tried her best, bringing out the board games when we all seemed to be sitting staring at each other, and we gave it a go, but long before anyone would usually have thought about going home, we all remembered things we were going to have to be doing that required us to be elsewhere.

As Beth saw us all start to get things together and call the children to order, she couldn’t help having one last tug on the heartstrings. Even though there had been speeches and toasts galore, cards and presents, hugs, kisses and handshakes, she wanted to hold on to it all for just a bit longer. I could understand it, I suppose.

‘Before everyone goes, can we just do this thing I thought of?’

We all looked at each other, resigned to doing what Beth wanted, recognising she was clinging on, trying to make a moment, trying to draw it out as long as she could. No one was about to deny her, but no one answered enthusiastically. Instead, we all just settled back in our seats and looked at her.

‘Well, I’ve got the iPad here, and I thought we could all just record either a wish or a memory of Dec or Amy or the children, and then maybe Matty, you could put it on a disk or save it or email it to us all.’

‘Suhr.’

That earned me a grateful smile that I really didn’t feel I deserved, as Beth aimed the iPad at me.

‘Whoa, noh way, Ih’m not stahting.’

It appeared nobody wanted to start, so Beth had to make the first stab herself. Cal did the filming honours, as Beth fixed her too-bright smile at the screen and started.

‘Well, my wish for you all is to have such a great time in Australia, to make lovely friends and do lovely things, and then to come home soon and tell us all about it and never go away again.’

‘Ha ha, Beth. We’ll do our best with the first bit, and definitely manage the second, for fuck’s sake, the amount of times I’ve told people, we’re coming back, we’re not going forever.’

‘Well that’s one wish that will come true, then, sweetheart, won’t it. Maybe I should have wished for one swear free day while I was on a roll.’

‘The phrase ‘in yuhr drehms’ springs tuh mind.’

‘Thank you Matty. Maybe you’d like to go now?’

I sighed. I supposed we were all stuck there now until we’d done as we were told, and I might as well get it over with.

‘Goh on then. Rehdy Cal?’

He pointed the iPad at me.

‘Yuh did say a memohry, righ Beth? Dec, I’m jus mehmbering yuhr face when Charlie hid yuhr car keys, then put them on the kitchen table after yuhd turned the place upsihd down.’

‘What? But that was only a week ago – what? Charlie put them there? I spent hours looking for them, I was late for that lunch thing. Oh you bastard, I might have known you’d had something to do with it –’

‘Yeh, the look was prehty similar tuh tha. Did yuh geh tha, Cal?’

Cal nodded.

‘That’s not quite what I had in mind, Matty.’

‘Oh, I thoht I got tuh choose my ohn mehmry.’

That silenced Beth.

‘Cahn I hahv a wish too?’

She looked sceptical, like she was regretting starting the whole business, and I relented.

‘A serious one?’

A nod, still suspicious.

‘OK. Dec, Amy, Suhmers trihbe, I wish yuh wehrnt going. Buh I hope ih’s not long befohr wehr back hehr being bohsed by Beth an fighting over the guhd seats. It wohnt beh the sahm when yuh cahn watch TV withouh an elbow in the nuts or a faceful of hair. Bon voyage.’

And so I started it off, and everyone added their bit, most more heartfelt and wistful than mine, and then it sparked off a kind of general reminiscing, where everyone was going ‘oh, and do you remember …’, and I looked at Cal and he was still recording it all, so I decided I would edit it all together, all the stilted sentimental shit, and the animated real shit.

And then finally it really was time for us all to go home. Dec and Amy’s four needed to have a nap, as they were going to be awake at midnight, and it didn’t feel right for us all to be there without them, so we all dribbled away.

Dec and Amy took Rose home, Rose who had hardly said a word all day, and looked pale and drawn. Lau had already decided we were going to adopt her while the Summerses were overseas, but I wasn’t sure Rose wanted adopting. She just wanted Dec and Amy and the kids not to go, and seemed to be having a harder time facing up to the reality of it than even I was.

We gave Mum a lift home. Mum wasn’t usually particularly chatty, but today she nattered in the back of the car to Josh and Ella, asking them about school, playing pretend games with Ella’s teddy, looking at Josh’s Action Man. As we dropped her off, she spoke very deliberately to the children.

‘Ella, you need to be extra good this week.’

‘Why Granny?’

‘Well, you and Joshua, really dear. Because your Mummy and Daddy are going to be sad that Declan and Amy have gone away, and I think they might need lots of cuddles. Isn’t that right, Matthew?’

I turned and looked at her, shaking my head slightly at her perceptiveness.

‘Yeh, Muhm. Althogh I always lihk cuhdles from Ella an Josh.’

‘But Granny, we’re going to Skype them or Facetime them tomorrow, so Charlie can show us her room.’

‘I know, dear, but it won’t be the same. Don’t forget now, lots of cuddles.’

Ella rolled her eyes and tutted, and Josh just looked at her, but they both said ‘OK Granny.’

‘I’ll call you tomorrow, dears.’

‘Thahks, Muhm.’

We got home, unloaded the children and set about as much displacement activity as we could think of, trying not to think of the family four doors down getting ready to leave. We went to the park and played cricket, came home and had a junk food picnic, watched a DVD with lots of songs to sing along to, let Josh and Ella stay up later than usual, had a bit of an iPad tour of the universe, and then the kids’ eyes were actually drooping, so we put them to bed. We had discussed letting them stay up to wave them all off with us, but in the end letting nature take its course was the best way, and reduced the amount of pleading and begging we needed to negotiate.

There were still a couple of hours to kill, and I was debating with myself the wisdom of staying up merely in order to wave at them as they departed. We’d already said our goodbyes, had the hugs, the quivery bottom lips, the meaningful looks, it felt like dragging the agony out.

‘I dunno, Lau, I migh not watch. I’m bluhdy wiped.’

‘What? We’ve got to send them off. We promised Beth.’

‘Well weh can fib, cahnt weh? Wha’s she gona say? How did ih goh? We jus say ‘oh they got in the taxi an drove off an we waved’.’

‘Are you really tired? Maybe you should get some sleep then, flower.’

Oh she was good. She knew that if she used the fucking bastard as my excuse, there’s no way on this earth I would go to bed. She also knew, somehow, that just suggesting I should go to bed and miss it made me not want to miss it. As she said it, I imagined going to bed and lying there in the dark knowing that in two hours, then ninety minutes, then fifty minutes, and counting, I was going to hear a taxi pull up. I was wiped, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep. You know when you’re going on holiday, and you have to leave at stupid o’clock for the airport, and you’re all excited because you’re going on holiday and you know you should catch some zzzs but you can’t possibly? This was like that only the complete opposite. As if I was going on holiday to the worst possible destination imaginable, and was guaranteed to have the shittest time ever.

I sighed. ‘No, I’ll stay up now. Fancy a game of Scrabble?’

‘Er … OK. I haven’t improved much since the last time you thrashed me, though.’

Lau was absolutely pants at Scrabble. She couldn’t spell for toffee, for a start, in fact she couldn’t even spell toffee, and she had never got the hang of using all the triple word scores where available; it was so easy to beat her that it wasn’t enjoyable playing, much as I enjoyed trouncing my opponents in all competitive activities. She also wasn’t that fond of my victory-fuelled celebrations, which were possibly slightly over the top, and it had therefore been a while since we’d got the board out.

‘Noh prohblem. I migh let yuh win tuhnight.’

‘Oi. I don’t need a pity victory, thanks. When I win, it will be through my own skill and perseverance.’

‘Alrighty then. Prepare tuh beh vanquished.’

As it turned out, I won. Big surprise. It passed the time, gave us something to think about other than the big event looming at the witching hour. My fingers were a bit shit at picking up the tiles, bastard MS and all, and I could feel myself getting tired, but now I’d definitely decided, or rather let myself be persuaded, that I was staying up, I was bloody well staying up.

‘What now, then? I think most of the games have pieces missing. I’ll play you at BattleStations if you like.’

‘Bluhdy hell, Lau, yuh mus beh desperate.’

Lau never played computer games, and had a serious disapproval of all war-based media.

‘Maybe I feel a bit like killing things.’

I looked at her, frowning.

‘How come?’

‘Same reason as you, tonight. A bit of stress relief. Come on, fire up the X-box, I’ll be the A Team.’

Maybe I should have explored it a bit more with her, but Lau was always so sorted, she always told me if she was feeling out of sorts, and what she needed to help her, and I guess she had just done that. Death and mayhem on a global scale was what she needed.

Half an hour later, and I had to surrender. There was only so much ‘die you evil git, die’ I could cope with hearing from my pacifist wife without it becoming too weird. She was pretty rubbish as well, and got us both killed more times than I care to recount, even though we were playing on team mode, and I was trying to cover her.

‘Stop, Lau. Tha’s it. Over the top fuh the last tihm.’

‘Oh. One more go?’

‘Noh. I dohnt think weh can get much deader.’

‘Fair enough. I’m going to finish off that bottle of wine. Fancy a beer?’

I looked at the clock. Eleven thirty. If that didn’t call for a beer, I don’t know what did.

‘Nice ohn.’

Lau came back in with our drinks, and we sat sipping in silence for a while. Then Lau put her glass down and took my beer out of my hands, placing it on the table next to her wine.

‘Kiss me.’

I never needed telling twice, and I gave her a tender kiss on the lips.

‘No, kiss me properly Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘Are yuh complaining abou my technique?’

‘No, there’s nothing wrong with your technique, it’s pretty damn perfect. I’d just like you to be a bit more … forceful.’

‘Rehly. Yuh hussy.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s nearly midnight, and I’d like to get to twelve on a wave of snogging rather than wrapped in a curtain of silence and regrets.’

‘Tha’s almost poehtry, Lau.’

‘I know. Stop flapping your tongue and stick it in my mouth.’

OK, so sometimes I did need telling twice, but then I got it. I stuck my tongue in her mouth, and honestly didn’t notice the passing of the next twenty minutes or so.

It wasn’t until Lau pushed me away, and I realised she wasn’t play-fighting, she was really pushing me away, that I stopped.

‘Taxi. I can hear it. Come on.’

My heart gave a great lurch, and I nearly didn’t make it to my feet. Lau held her hand out, and I clung on as she hauled me up from the sofa. She tried to smooth my hair down, but hers said ‘we’ve been sucking each other’s faces’ as much as mine and it wasn’t worth doing anything about.

We left the front door open and walked out onto the pavement. The big black cab was waiting, engine running, outside Dec and Amy’s house. Their front door was open, spilling light from the porch onto the drive, and as we watched, Dec came out carrying a sleeping Rosa, Amy followed herding Tom and Gracie, and Charlie brought up the rear, carrying a backpack. Dec and Amy put the children in the cab, then went back for several enormous suitcases.

As the last case was loaded into the boot, Dec turned and looked down the road. We hadn’t told them we were going to wave them off, but he’d had a last look anyway, as I’d thought he might, and he saw us there, arms round each other, watching. He held his hand up, and we made the same gesture back. Amy saw him looking, saw us, and went to stand by Dec, arm round his waist. We stood and looked at each other for a long moment, no words necessary, just great friends saying ‘farewell’ but not goodbye, hopefully not goodbye, and sending all kinds of unsayable things through the medium of it being dark and midnight. Then Dec gave Amy a squeeze, nodded at us, and they got in the taxi.

As the cab pulled away, I felt it all welling up in me. They were really gone. Tomorrow, when I woke up, they just weren’t going to be there. At that moment, my heart felt full of emptiness.

We watched the rear lights of the taxi until they reached the end of the road and turned out into the traffic, and then Lau pulled on my waist to bring me in. As she moved off, I realised I had been leaning on her more than I’d known, and maybe the bastard MS was upping its game. This just increased my desolation, and I felt a sob bubble up in my throat.

‘Come on, my love, let’s get in and go to bed.’

‘Hold meh, Lau.’

‘Yeah, flower, when we’re inside.’

She tugged me again, and I followed, in part because I would have fallen over without her supporting me.

Once we got inside, she carried on tugging until we were upstairs, and she practically threw me onto the bed. I stripped down to my boxers, as she pulled her sleeping shirt on, barely able to see through the tears that were brimming in my eyes.

‘Come here, then.’

She lay down and flung her arm wide, inviting me into her safety and comfort. I dived in.

I’m not ashamed to say that I cried for most of the night. Poor Lau hardly got any sleep, as I spilled it all out on her. I needed to, I needed to mourn their going, to admit to myself that a) they’d gone and b) it broke my heart. I knew I wasn’t going to be sad about it forever, I’d probably be a lot cheerier tomorrow, but that night I grieved as if they weren’t coming back. Lau cried too, but mostly she held me and comforted me and made me remember that the world wasn’t ending, it just felt that way temporarily.

118. State of shock

In which an old enemy returns, and bad news is imparted.

Matt

So here it is. Josh and Ella were five, they were happy at school, they were growing by the day, and learning so much stuff it was hard to keep up with them sometimes. I was loving life. I had my family, my job, friends, house, car, it was all going according to plan. Maybe that was one of the warning signs; nothing ever just pootles along merrily forever, does it. Sometimes it all crashes around you.

Looking back, I’d been ignoring it for a couple of weeks at least, probably longer. I’d fall asleep after dinner, a few of my words were slurred, but this wasn’t going to happen, it fucking well wasn’t going to come back, it had left me alone for nearly five years, and so I just worked hard, put it to the back of my mind, wished it away, and it seemed to go, and I wondered if I’d been imagining it.

Then it started creeping back, the odd unintelligible bit of bollocks, the occasional stumble, once I couldn’t get my arm to lift a cup into the dishwasher. My legs would tremble at odd times, sitting, standing or walking. I still ignored it. Because ignoring things makes them go away, doesn’t it.

Laura

One afternoon, school run completed, and Matt home from work, I was in the living room with Josh and Ella, waiting for Matt to bring us all a drink. Ella was lying on the floor colouring a picture; Josh was playing with his cars, pushing them up and down the sofa, having made a village on the cushions.

Matt

I was making everyone a drink – tea for Lau, blackcurrant squash for the kids, beer for me – and listening to their noises. Josh was playing cars, making engine sounds and beeps. Ella was colouring, and asking Lau which colour went with purple. I picked up the glass to pour my beer into, and as the liquid reached the top of the glass, my arm started to quiver. I tried to hold on, but my arm gave an almighty spasm, my hand let go, and glass and bottle fell to the floor. It was as if it had got pissed off with me ignoring it, and was making sure I knew it was back. Because it was, it was back. It was fucking back.

As the glass smashed on the floor and I stared at the burst of beer and froth that splattered the tiles and the units, it just slammed into me, and kept on pounding me. It was all my brain could compute.

‘Fuck off you fucking –’

Laura

I hissed a sharp intake of breath as Matt dropped the c-bomb. Sweary as he was, it was one of the few words I’d rarely heard him say. I felt my heart pinch with worry as Ella looked up from her drawing.

‘Daddy said a swear.’

Josh continued brrmming his cars along the sofa, shaking his head.

‘Really, Daddy.’

I smiled to hear my usual rebuke repeated. Matt didn’t swear as much as he used to, at least not within earshot of Josh and Ella, but a fair amount of cursing still went on, and the kids were always keen to join in the nagging. At least they hadn’t asked what it meant.

‘Alright in there?’

There was no reply. Sighing, I got to my feet and walked through the house.

Matt

I turned round to lean on the sink, breath heaving in my chest. This was the end, if it was back; the end of my normal life. How was I going to carry on now?

I heard Lau call out, but couldn’t answer her, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, all I could do was stare into the sink as hot tears flowed down my face and dropped into the washing up bowl.

Laura

In the kitchen, Matt was standing with his back to me, leaning on the sink, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh Matt.’

I picked my way through the explosion of glass and beer that had spread across the floor, until I could stand behind him and fold myself round him.

Matt

I felt her behind me, putting her arms round my waist and resting her face on my shoulder, and I span round, into her arms, crushing her to me, needing her to be there, my safe place. I tried to speak, to tell her, but it came out in shudders and sobs.

‘Ih’s back … the fucking … bastard’s … back. I thought … ih … had … gone.’

Laura

I’d been dreading something like this for a couple of weeks; I’d noticed small signs – a slight slur in the speech, stumbles and trips, difficulty focussing on the pictures the twins brought back from school, the fear in his eyes.

‘I know, flower.’

Although both of us knew it never really went, just lay in wait.

Matt

Of course she knew. She always knew everything. She’d been waiting for me to know.

‘Daddy, why are you crying?’

Oh shit, the kids were at the door. Lau turned round as I took deep breaths and tried to dry my eyes. Josh and Ella were standing in the doorway, eyes wide at the sight of their blarting father and the puddle of glass and beer spread across the kitchen floor. I tried a kind of smile, while Lau spoke to them.

Laura

‘Don’t come in, kids, there’s broken glass. Daddy’s sad because he dropped his beer.’

The immediately practical Ella rolled her eyes.

‘But Daddy you can get another one in the fridge. Mummy can clean up the floor.’

Josh stayed silent, always the one to soak everything up first and ask questions later.

‘I know, Squeaks, I’m just getting a cloth. Shoo, now, Daddy will bring your squash in a minute.’

Reluctant to leave the scene of impressive carnage, Ella and Josh lingered for a moment, eyeing the tempting puddle, until I waved my hands at them to urge them away. As they trotted off I turned back to Matt, lifting my hand to his face and wiping away a stray tear. I needed to show him I wasn’t just making light of it, to reassure him quickly, but was aware of the likelihood of small ears listening beyond the kitchen.

‘In it together, yeah?’

Matt

I put my hand over hers, then moved my lips to her palm, kissing it gently. If there was anyone I wanted with me while my world was ending, it was Lau. Always Lau.

‘Don’t know what I’d do without you, Lau. You don’t deserve this.’

My voice was ragged, whispering.

Laura

‘Matthew Robert Scott, I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life. When I signed on the dotted line, I knew exactly what I deserved, and it was you. It was always you, it will always be you. Now, a bit less nonsense and a bit more making blackcurrant squash to give to your gasping children while I clean up the floor. It needed a good mop anyway. And try not to track beery footprints through the house.’

Matt

I pulled her towards me while she was still talking, while she was still being practical and making it better, and we held each other tightly, as our bodies spoke of sorrow and pain and hard times to come, things that we couldn’t say while the children were within earshot.

‘Love you Lau.’

‘Love you too.’

So I made squash for the kids, and for the rest of the evening, until they went to bed, I was just Daddy, same old Daddy, who’d had a bit of a hissy fit when he spilt his beer, but came back in with the blackcurrant joking and smiling like it hadn’t happened. That was on the outside. On the inside I was folding into myself, how the fuck was I going to tell them, how the fuck were they going to understand their Daddy was going to become a fucking cripple who couldn’t walk, talk, pick them up, play football with them, reliably hit the right key on the computer … shit.

It all started hitting me, as Lau was upstairs with them and I sat on the sofa staring at nothing. This was worse, so much worse than before. I had two children who relied on me, not only to put food on their table, but to be their Daddy, and all the things that entailed. It wasn’t only going to be me who lost everything, it was going to be them too. I shrank into myself, trying to hide from it all.

Lau came back downstairs after tucking them in and reading them a story, and we sat curled up on the sofa, TV on, us silent. I knew she’d want to discuss it, and I nearly started a couple of times, but I didn’t even know where to begin.

Laura

After the children had gone to bed, we sat curled up on the sofa, a film on the TV that neither of us were watching, Matt’s arm round me as I lay against his chest. I heard him breathe in a couple of times as if he was going to say something, but he let the breath out without speaking.

‘Want to talk about it?’

Matt sighed. ‘No, not really. Ih’s not going to change anything, is ih. Can’t face ih just now. Need time.’

‘OK, whatever you need.’

I knew Matt well enough by now to know when to push him to talk and when he really did need the space he always asked for whether he needed it or not. At this moment there was a lot of thinking going on for him, now it was out in the open, and when he’d done that, I would push if I needed to. It wasn’t lost on me that I was experiencing MS from the other side, the side where – unlike at work – you couldn’t just detach from the pain and hurt of people, the side where you were in the middle of it all and there was no let up, no nine to five, no lunch break

‘Are you watching this?’

‘No, not really. Do you want to watch something else?’

‘No, I was thinking about going to bed.’

‘It’s still early.’

‘I didn’t necessarily mean to sleep.’

‘Oh.’

Matt’s face lit up, then darkened.

Matt

I looked at her expression, her come to bed eyes, and for a second she had me fooled. Then I knew what she was doing.

‘I don’t need a pity fuck, thanks.’

I realised straight away I’d offended her, that she’d been genuine. God, I was already retreating behind lashing out at the people I loved.

Laura

I tried not to be offended; he was feeling vulnerable and hitting out. Matt wasn’t the only one who maybe needed the reassurance that physical closeness always brought us, and it hadn’t been an offer, it had been a suggestion.

‘You don’t know me at all if you think there’s anything pitying in trying to get you into bed. You’re the hotty with the great bum that all my friends are jealous of, I just thought that rather than sitting here vegging in front of a crappy film neither of us are watching, we could maybe explore said bum in more comfort. Maybe explore my bum too. I found a muscle the other day.’

‘You did not!’

To my relief, Matt took the line I’d dangled; the opportunity to tease me.

Matt

She had a saucy smile, and she was throwing me a life-line. I caught it and clung on for dear life.

‘You have no muscles in your arse, that’s why it’s so lush.’

‘I’m telling you I found a muscle. It’s all those squats and lunges at the gym. Will says –’

Lau was doing really well at the gym. She didn’t need to do any of it, not for me, but she was getting fitter for her, and losing some of the curves she found most vexing.

‘Oh Will says, your uhmayzing personal trainer who gets to perv on you in your gym top. What does Willy-boy say?’

‘I’m not going to tell you now, I don’t think you’ll take Willy-boy seriously.’

She feigned a pout.

‘Does he say you’ve got a fantastic arse?’

‘No, but he –’

‘Then he’s an idiot. Come on, let’s go and see just where this imaginary bum muscle is.’

I grabbed her hand, losing myself in the moment, in the Matt and Lau of it, while I could. I pulled her out of her seat, and she ran past me up the stairs, as I followed, trying to tickle her newly toned arse.

I spent some considerable time looking for Lau’s bum muscle, using various inventive search methods, before pronouncing it invisible to the naked eye.

‘But hey, Lau, I bet you’ve hidden it somewhere else. Is it … here?’

Iz

Lord Above, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more … hang on to your jam sandwiches folks.

Matt

I conducted a thorough investigation of her mouth with my tongue and lips that left us both breathless and flushed.

‘Well, Lau, there is a pretty good muscle in there, but it’s not the one I’m looking for. How about here?’

I kissed my way down her throat and had a good hunt around her breasts with my mouth and fingers. Lau tangled her fingers in my hair and moaned. How could I have thought this was out of pity? She was enjoying herself as much as I was.

‘Nope, no sign of a muscle in there either. Just have to keep on looking.’

Holding her gaze, I let my hand drift lower, brushing her belly button before settling between her legs. Lau twitched as I found her most sensitive spot, and she grasped my shoulders as I moved myself downwards and followed my fingers with my mouth. It was her favourite, and never failed to light her up; I grinned against her as it worked again.

My fingers probed lower and deeper, until they were in her, and I started to thrust. Lau clenched around me, inside her.

‘Whoa, there it is, that’s the muscle I was looking for. Naughty Willy-boy if he’s been working on this one!’

I knelt between her legs, continuing to thrust into her with my fingers, watching Lau writhe, building the heat as I gazed down at her. God she was awesome, and I wanted her so much.

‘Ready, Lau?’

‘Yeah, oh God, yeah.’

‘Work that body. Here we go.’

I slipped my fingers out and guided my hard-on into her. As I filled her, pushed into her, felt the familiar sensation, allowed it to blow my mind again, as it did every time, I started to thrust, slowly and rhythmically, so I could feel every part of her sliding and sparking against every part of me.

At first I propped myself up on my arms, so just our hips were touching, then her mouth was so appealing, I bent down and kissed her, wrapping her up in my arms as she folded her legs round my back and drew me deeper into her. My thrusts became more urgent and we both started to cry out before remembering the children and dropping the volume, but we stayed locked together, bodies slipping against each other, breathing hard, moaning our pleasure, and then coming, and coming and coming, plunging deep into each other, exploding with the release.

I clung on to Lau for a long time afterwards, wanting, needing to be as close to her as I could. After a while, it was overwhelming, the whole mess, and it started coming out, first in gulps, then shudders. I tried not to let go, but there was too much of it, and before long I was quivering against her, sobbing. Lau soothed me, stroking my back, kissing my hair, whispering nonsense to me, until I calmed down. I still held on as if I was drowning.

Lau was waiting, to see if I was going to say anything. This time I was.

‘I don’t wana lose this.’

‘Oh my love.’

I knew she wouldn’t say ‘you won’t’, because I had last time, and indeed the time before, and Lau never made empty promises.

‘Don’t mourn it before it’s gone. Make the most of it while it’s here.’

I sniffed and wiped my eyes.

‘Oh you’re right, you bloody cow, you always know what to say. Anyone would think you used to be a nurse or something.’

‘Still am a nurse, thanks.’

Lau was always very firm about the fact that even though she wasn’t working, she had trained as a nurse, and a nurse was what she would stay, come what may.

‘Yeah, OK, fair enough. Oh Lau, I’m sorry.’

I let go of her and rolled onto my back, with my arm over my face. Lau snuggled into my side with an arm over my chest.

‘What are you sorry about?’

‘All this. Fucking bastard MS, me fucking freaking, you having to be all ‘one step at a time’ when you just want to freak yourself. You know … Lau, you know you don’t have to stay, no one would blame you, least of all me, if you took the kids and went.’

It was something that had occurred to me as I thought about how it was going to affect them all. Surely it would be easier for them all if they could just get on with things without having to bother about me?

Lau pushed me away from her angrily, and her eyes were flashing fire.

‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere, and neither are Josh and Ella. You can stop this ‘poor me’ nonsense right now. Just for the record, as you seem to have forgotten, I love you. When I met you, you were having a flare-up of MS, so if I was going to bail out because of that, then would have been the time. How dare you think I care about you so little that I run, and take our children with me, at the first sign of something untoward? What sort of a person do you think I am?’

I closed my eyes, didn’t speak for a moment.

‘Sorry, Lau, didn’t think of it like that. Trying to be selfless.’

‘Yeah, I seem to remember you trying that before one time, and we nearly didn’t get together in the first place as a result, in fact, you nearly – well who knows what you might have done that night. The point is, there is no ‘selfless’ when it comes to our family, we are all together, we help each other and love each other and support each other, and need each other. If you even think of going it alone, that’s selfish, not selfless. We all need you. God, you are proper infuriating.’

I couldn’t look at her. My eyes were spilling tears again; I just didn’t deserve it, this love, this loyalty, when all I was going to be able to offer them, soon, was pain and unhappiness. Lau folded me up in her arms again, and I squeezed her tightly against me as I cried again. I could feel her strength pouring into me, and part of me felt selfish for taking it, but God how I needed it, how I needed her comfort, as she stroked my back and made soft noises in my ear. It all subsided after a time, but Lau carried on holding me, and we lay in the darkness and breathed together.

Just as I was starting to drift into the black, the door handle rattled. We didn’t have a lock on the door, but the twins had taken to visiting in the early hours, so we had put a chair in front of the door, so we at least had some warning. We must have woken them up.

Laura

‘Mummy.’

It was Ella. It usually was, and she would be closely followed by Josh, who didn’t like being left on his own in the room they still shared.

‘Go back to bed, Squeaks.’

Matt

Lau was stricter than me about letting them in, and at the moment was protecting me. I suddenly wanted them all here, our family together.

‘Can’t they come in, Lau? Four way cuddle would be great right now.’

Laura

I sighed. It sent all sorts of mixed messages, but sometimes other things were more important. I got out of bed and moved the chair. Ella stood outside the door, holding her teddy. As predicted, Josh was at her shoulder. Both were looking up at me with big sleepy eyes.

‘Come on then. No noise or giggling, now.’

I tried to be strict, but it was a treat to have us all snuggled up together. We’d all be tired tomorrow, but it wasn’t tomorrow yet, it was now. Ella and Josh trotted into the bedroom and jumped into the bed as Matt held the duvet open for them – there was just enough room for us all, Josh and Ella on the inside, Matt and me on the outside.

Matt

By the time the kids had rolled over a few times and spread out, one of us would be off to the guest room, usually Lau, but before that happened, we all smushed together, me starting a bit of tickling because Lau loved trying to make us stop and behave, and then kisses and cuddles before going to sleep. I folded them both up, one after the other, with big hugs. Josh, as usual, submitted willingly, but Ella would only stand it for a short while.

‘You’re squeezing me Daddy.’

Laura

Our children were so different; Ella always took the lead, asked questions, said what she wanted, did what she wanted, threw a tantrum when she didn’t get what she wanted, using pester-power and volume to see her needs were met. Josh was happier to follow, riding on his sister’s coat tails, picking up the crumbs she left behind. When Josh made a fuss, you knew it was really important.

I wondered how they would react to the return of Matt’s MS, and started to think about what we might say to them. There had been some really good children’s resources around when I worked in the MS team; I’d give them a ring and see if I could beg some freebies.

Eventually we settled down, and Matt, Josh and Ella fell asleep while I listened to the sound of their breathing. I dozed off eventually, but woke later, teetering on the edge of the bed, with Ella curled against my back, her knees digging into my kidneys; it was usually me who ended up in the spare room. Stifling a resigned sigh, I rolled out of bed and walked round the bed.

Matt

I woke up, arse hanging over the edge of the bed, to see Lau creeping out of the room.

‘Lau?’

‘Been squeezed out. See you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t go.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of this night, of all nights, without her.

‘There’s no room.’

‘Wait, then.’

She waited by the bed as I climbed out, disentangling myself from Josh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Coming with you.’

‘We won’t both fit in the spare bed.’

‘Yeah we will. You and your muscly arse, me a skinny streak of nothing, plenty of room. Come on, we’ll wake them up if we stand here chatting.’

I couldn’t see her clearly, but I recognised the shape of her rolling her eyes at me as I followed her to the door.

Laura

We would have been better off taking Josh and Ella’s beds, but I knew Matt wanted to wrap himself up in me tonight, so we headed off to the spare room.

I woke early, cramped, neck stiff, shoved up against the wall. Matt was lying on his front, half hanging off the side of the single bed, head turned towards me, mouth open. His hair stuck out at wild angles, and I reached out and smoothed it, as I did most mornings.

I heard a noise from our room; it was Matt’s phone. It was set to go off every two minutes when he got a text, unless he read it. I decided to fetch it before it pinged again, to avoid waking Ella and Josh early, if possible. I carefully sat up and rearranged the duvet around Matt, before shuffling to the end of the bed and hopping off. Although I was trying to be quiet, I probably could have jumped up and down on the mattress without waking him, but it was a habit from being around the children.

The screen on Matt’s phone was lit up on his bedside table. I glanced at Ella and Josh, but they were dead to the world, Ella’s arm flung out across Josh’s chest. I looked down at the phone – it was a short text from Dec. I quickly carried the phone into the spare room before it pinged again.

It wasn’t unusual for Dec and Matt to text each other at all sorts of times of the day and night, sometimes it was a bit of a competition to see who could annoy the other the most, but something about this one made me try to wake Matt.

I tried shaking him gently, not wanting him to fall out of bed from his precarious perch. I tried speaking into his ear. I tried pinching him. The most I got was a mumbled curse and a move to a more comfortable position, away from the edge of the bed, as he rolled onto his back. As a last resort, I kissed him, using the full force of my tongue and lips to try and rouse him, tweaking his nipples as I did so.

Matt

I woke with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her fingers tweaking my nipple. This was more like it, a proper wake-up call. Oh, but she pulled away as I started kissing her back. She shoved my phone in front of my face, but I didn’t understand.

‘Wha? No, c’mere, keep snogging.’

‘You’ve got a text from Dec.’

‘Wha? He can piss off, ih’s only –’

I took the phone and looked at the time.

‘– shit, Lau, ih’s only bloody five o’clock.’

‘Yeah, but I think you need to read it.’

I still wasn’t quite awake, and I ran a hand through my hair as I tried to gather my thoughts. I looked blearily at the phone, and clicked on the message.

‘Shit.’

‘What does he say?’

‘RU awake, need 2 talk. Urgent.’

‘Ring him then.’

No, no, no, I couldn’t cope with any more drama, not today, I needed time to get my head around things. I combed my hair with my fingers again, then lay down, holding my arm out for Lau to get back in beside me. She climbed in and cuddled up, as I hit ‘call’.

‘Hey, ih’s me.’

‘Hey mate. You’re awake, then?’

‘Well I am now, what’s the big emergency?’

I was hoping that maybe it was something relatively innocuous, like Amy was poorly and we needed to look after the kids while he was at training, although why he was calling this bloody early in the morning I had no idea.

‘Can I come over? I’m … I’ve got … I just need to tell you something.’

What the fuck? I didn’t like the sound of this.

‘Oh, well, I guess, yeah.’

‘Coffee would be good.’

‘OK, I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘Five minutes?’

‘Yeah, see you in a bit.’

Oh I didn’t like this at all. Dec wasn’t fucking about or anything. It was something pretty huge. I turned to Lau.

‘He’s coming round.’

‘Why?’

‘Said he needed to tell me something. Shit, ih sounds big, Lau.’

I heard the tremble in my voice. I knew what Lau’s response would be – don’t worry about it until you know for sure – but all sorts of possibilities were flooding into my mind, each one worse than the last. And on top of it all was me; me and the fucking bastard.

‘I don’t want him to know about … me, not just yet.’

‘OK, flower, but … he’ll notice eventually.’

‘Yeah. But not today. Please.’

‘Sure, of course, it’s totally up to you. I’ll go and put the kettle on, while you find some pyjama bottoms or something.’

Laura

I grabbed my dressing gown from our bedroom, and went quickly downstairs, as I heard a light tap on the door. I let Dec in, looking at him quizzically. He looked nervous, which was unlike him; he was usually laid back about everything.

‘Go through, flower.’

I gestured to the living room.

‘I’m just making a drink. Tea or coffee?’

‘Thanks, Lau, coffee would be great, it’s early for me.’

‘It’s early for all of us.’

‘Yeah, I know, sorry.’

‘Matt’s on his way down, just getting decent.’

‘Oh, good, wouldn’t want any indecency from Matt, not before breakfast anyway.’

Matt

Lau went downstairs to let Dec in while I found some trousers. I heard a light tap on the door, then Dec and Lau’s voices, then Lau went back into the kitchen. I sat upstairs, on the bed, for as long as I could, knowing I was avoiding whatever it was, knowing it would surely be better to know than to imagine. Finally, I made my way downstairs and into the living room, where Dec was waiting.

I kept telling myself it might not be anything bad. Last time I’d convinced myself it was, and they were getting married. Dec didn’t always consider the effect of how he did things on other people, yeah, who was I to judge. I should just wait.

But as I went into the living room and saw the look on Dec’s face, saw him look ill-at-ease, fiddling with his fingers, hardly able to meet my eyes, I knew. At least, I knew it wasn’t good.

Lau brought some coffee in, and then turned to go, but I wanted her here, needed her here while he told me whatever it was. I felt for her hand and looked up at her, begging her to stay with my eyes.

‘Stay, Lau.’

Lau looked at Dec, to check it was OK with him. He nodded back at her.

‘Yeah, Lau, you should hear this too.’

She sat next to me and squeezed my hand, trying to keep me calm. Dec looked down for a while, taking a few deep breaths. It was almost more than I could stand, waiting for him to spit it out.

‘Please, Dec, get on with ih, I’m imagining all sorts of terrible shit, put me out of my fucking misery.’

Dec looked up and met my eyes.

‘I’ve signed for West Coast Speeders.’

A jolt went through me, I felt it lift me out of my seat slightly. I’d been pretty sure he was going to tell me he’d signed for another club, had steeled myself for it, was expecting him to be on his way to London, maybe TomCats or Warriors, one of the big clubs. West Coast Speeders were in Australia. He was moving to the other side of the fucking world. I couldn’t speak, just looked at him. Dec filled the silence with more information, but I could hardly take it in. I was numb.

Laura

I felt the shock go through Matt. He didn’t say anything, just looked back at Dec. Dec couldn’t possibly know the hammer blow he had just dealt Matt, with his MS symptoms returning – how much Matt would have relied on having Dec around.

Matt

‘It’s going to be announced at nine this morning, I wanted you to know before you went to work, or you heard it on the fucking telly or something.’

I still just stared at him, it was Lau who spoke.

Laura

Still nothing from Matt, although I had a question.

‘Where are West Coast wotsits?’

I’d vaguely heard of the team, but didn’t think they were in the league that Raiders played in.

Matt

Oh, Lau wouldn’t know, she knew fuck all about rugby anyway, let alone which continent teams played on.

‘Australia. Perth. It’s where I lived when I was little.’

‘Australia? Oh Dec.’

Laura

I squeezed Matt’s hand with all my might, as my eyes filled with tears. Amy and Dec were our best friends, our children played together and fought together, in and out of each other’s houses all the time. I couldn’t imagine our lives without them just up the road.

Matt

I looked at Lau, and saw tears in her eyes. It wasn’t just me this was going to affect. Amy was Lau’s friend, their kids were in and out of our house all the time, what would Beth and Jay think? What about Rose? Considering the impact this news would have on people who weren’t me made me slightly less self-obsessed, made me think of something to say. Dec was sitting there looking miserable and tense, when this was great for him, an incredible opportunity.

‘Didn’t you support Speeders when you were a kid?’

I tried to keep my tone light, but I heard the catch in my voice. At least I wasn’t spouting unintelligible bollocks.

Dec looked relieved that I had spoken, and that I was acting normal.

‘Yeah. I used to train with them as well, before I moved to England, with their juniors. It’s like my last chance, I’m getting older and don’t always make the first team here any more. If I don’t go now, they might not ask again, and it’s like a childhood dream kind of thing. And there’s a small chance, if I’m playing in Oz, that I could get the call from the Wallabies.’

‘That’s great for you, mate. Fucking brilliant.’

With a huge effort, I managed a smile for him. He was my mate, almost my brother, and if I couldn’t fake a bit of happiness on his behalf, I wasn’t really worth much. A few more tears spilled down Lau’s face.

Laura

I saw the effort Matt made to be happy for his friend, his brother, and was so proud of him, but I couldn’t match his faked composure, or stop a few tears spilling down my face.

‘We’ll miss you.’

Matt

She said it for me, for all of us.

‘I know, Lau. I can’t really believe we’re going to be moving away. I’ve lived here, in this city for, well it feels like my whole life. Everything I know is here. It’s scaring the shit out of me, and we’ll miss you guys too, but it won’t be forever. I’ve only got two or three more years left of playing before I’m too knackered, and I’m only signing for a year to start with.’

‘When are you going, mate?’

‘At the end of the season. May, sometime, depending on what Raiders get up to in the league. I might be able to fit a couple of games in over there before their season finishes.’

Shit, that was really soon. I wasn’t going to have any time to take it in, get used to it. Shit. I squeezed Lau’s hand so tightly I saw her wince, and loosened my hold slightly.

‘Holy fuck, that’s only a few weeks – why so soon?’

‘Well their season’s already started over there. I’m going to get stuck right in as soon as I arrive, but I’ve got to finish up here with Raiders first.’

‘I assume you’ve told Jay.’

‘Yeah, I just rang him. I’ve only just sorted it out – time difference and all that. Been on the phone to agents and admin people all bloody night, now I’ve got to go in for training. Gonna take a bit of stick, I should think.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Oh, you know Jay, not at his best for early morning calls. But he was OK. It was Beth who was in floods. Oh shit, this is going to be so hard, telling everyone. I should go, I’ve got to call a few people, then go round to see Rose on my way to training. Really, really not looking forward to that one.’

If I thought I wasn’t handling it well, I only had to think of Rose to put things in perspective. Rose had no family of her own, apart from a sister and nephew in Wales, and Dec, Amy and their children were like her own children and grandchildren. She was going to be destroyed.

Dec stood up to go, and Lau went out with him. I gave him as good a smile as I could muster, but it was a pretty feeble effort. As soon as he left the room, I dropped my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes, the news pounding through me, threatening to overpower me. The fucking bastard was back, and Dec wasn’t going to be here. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fucking fair.

Laura

I showed Dec to the door. He looked at me and lowered his voice.

‘Is he OK?’

‘Yeah, we’re both just surprised. And sad for us. Great for you, though, flower. Exciting.’

‘He just seems a bit …’

Dec’s words trailed off and he shrugged. I knew he meant more than just being upset. He would have noticed the same things I had over the past week or so, but I decided to play innocent.

‘He’ll be fine, once we get used to it. One of Beth’s huge parties will sort things.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, oh fuck, she’s going to throw a humdinger isn’t she. Take care, Lau.’

‘You too. Have a good day.’

Matt

Lau came back in and tried to take my hand, but I just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to touch anyone, be with anyone, just needed time to process it all, put it somewhere it didn’t all hurt so fucking much. Maybe tomorrow I’d laugh at myself for being such a melodramatic wanktard, but today it was a pain deep in my gut, and I needed to be there in the middle of it, sore, bruised and miserable. I pulled away from Lau, curled my knees up to my chest and turned away from her.

‘Just wana be on my own for a bit.’

To her credit, she didn’t try to get me to talk, or even try to stay with me.

‘OK, then. Here, put this round you so you don’t get cold.’

I hardly noticed while she put the throw from the back of the sofa over me, and left the room.

I spent the next couple of hours hovering over the pit of despair, the same one that had tried to drag me into it before, when Dec had climbed in and pulled me out. Except now he couldn’t, because he was the reason I was here, and I couldn’t let him know how devastated I was, I couldn’t tell him I needed him here like I needed all of them here, that him fucking off to another continent was the worst news I’d ever heard. Because he had his own life, and he deserved it, he’d worked hard for it, and fuck knows he’d spent enough time in the past propping me up and being there for me. I wasn’t about to make him feel guilty about going and making the most of life while he had the opportunity.

So I hovered there, on the edge, nearly falling in, the darkness beckoning, and then it crossed my mind, just floated in there, what I was supposed to be doing today. I’d managed to toss everything else out to make room for my enormous bout of self-pity, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be giving a presentation this morning. People were relying on me. Maybe I’d been considering taking the day off to bury myself under the duvet, I hadn’t really thought about it coherently, but with a plummeting heart, I realised I was going to have to get myself into some kind of shape, slap on some smart clothes and a professional attitude, and tell a room full of people about shit that right at that moment I couldn’t have cared less about.

It was almost more than I could bear, and I seriously considered calling in sick, but there was no one else who could do it, and it had taken ages to sort out this date so everyone who needed to be there was there. I was going to have to pull myself together and do it. Maybe working would distract me.

I looked at the time. Gone seven, so Lau would be up soon, ready to start chivvying Ella and Josh. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to disperse both my tiredness and the churning that was going on inside my head. Things needed doing, the day needed to start, so I got up and went into the kitchen to make some breakfast.

Laura

Ella woke me up, holding my phone, which was bleeping insistently, to my ear. It was seven eighteen and the alarm had been going for a minute.

‘Mummy wake up your phone is making me cross.’

I took the phone and turned it off.

‘Sorry, Squeaks, I forgot it was in there. There, all better.’

‘Where’s Daddy?’

‘Oh, I think he’s … downstairs already. Shall we go and find him?’

Ella nodded and took my hand as I got out of bed and made for the stairs.

‘Is Josh still asleep?’

I peered into our bedroom as I passed, and could make out Josh’s sleeping form. He was clutching Ella’s teddy.

‘Yes, he was saying things last night.’

Josh often sleep-talked. He slept more deeply than Ella, who could wake at the slightest sound, and she often reported the weird things her brother chattered about in the night.

We went downstairs together; I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the living room, how Matt would be, but when Ella and I opened the door, he wasn’t there, and the throw had been folded up and returned to the back of the sofa. I heard noises from the kitchen.

‘Hey, Squeaks, if we’re lucky Daddy’s making breakfast. Do you want Weeties?’

Ella considered, her morning breakfast choices being the first of many things she weighed up seriously before continuing her morning routine.

‘Coco Pops.’

‘OK, I’ll tell Daddy.’

Ella continued into the living room, and I made my way into the kitchen, where Matt was busy making his breakfast. I looked at his face; he looked terrible, dark circles under his eyes, pale and drawn.

Matt

Lau came in on her own, Ella having gone into the living room to turn the TV on. I carried on making tea and toast, putting more bread in the toaster for Lau and getting the Coco Pops out for Ella. It all felt automatic, like it wasn’t really me doing it. I felt dreadful, only half alive. Lau came over and looked at me, studying my face.

Laura

‘Matt, you look awful. Maybe you shouldn’t go to work today.’

‘I’ve got to, I’m doing a presentation about the new GPS, to everyone, players, coaches, admin, the whole bloody club.’

‘Can’t Cory or Jenna do it?’

‘Cory’s on a course and Jenna’s on holiday.’

‘Oh. Are you sure you can do it?’

‘Yeah, Lau, I’ve not got a bloody choice. I’m just tired, I didn’t sleep after Dec went, and not much before. I’ve been wiped before, I’ll be OK.’

‘Here, let me do that, then.’

I took the kettle out of his hand, noticing the shake as he held it.

‘Ella’s up, Josh is still fast asleep, whole bed to himself.’

‘Go Hippo, sleep hard.’

Matt tried a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

‘We’ll talk later, flower.’

Matt

I closed my eyes briefly, unable to face the thought of all the talking, fussing, I was going to have to endure once they all got wind of it. Then I nodded and took Ella’s cereal to her.

I dragged myself through getting ready. None of it seemed real, it was all overlaid with a sense of being outside my own life looking in, wishing so hard things were different that I was almost detaching myself from reality.

I was ready about the same time as Josh and Ella. I usually took them to school on my way to work, and today was no different. Lau had got them ready, and she gave them their sandwich boxes as I stood by the door.

Lau come over and straightened my tie, giving me a kiss as she did so. There was a lot we weren’t saying to each other, not only because the children were right there, but because we both knew I wasn’t going to talk about it yet.

‘Must be an important presentation, for you to get all togged up in your posh.’

‘Important enough. The CEO’s gona be there, not exactly one where I can wear my cargo shorts and ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt.’

‘You look lovely, you should dress up more often. Not just for work.’

She gave me a meaningful look and I did my best to flash her a smile

‘Noted. See you later, Lau. Kiss your mum, kids.’

Lau bent down to Josh, who gave her a big cuddle and a kiss, and to Ella, who pecked her on the cheek, eager to get going and see her friends. If I could just focus on this, the ordinary stuff, I’d be OK. Ordinary was fine; it was big, huge, life-changing shit that was hard. I chatted to them both in the car and saw them into the playground, then continued my journey to work, where it became a bit more difficult to feel ordinary.

Laura

I waved them all off and went to pack my gym bag. I usually went with Amy, as we had a Pilates class together later on in the morning, but she had texted to say that with all the events of last night, she wasn’t going.

53. I don’t want love

In which it all gets a bit much, and consequently a request is made and chivalrously denied.

Julia

I ate alone that evening, as my mother and father had made reservations at a restaurant in the next town. I could have gone with them, but decided eating out was beyond me just then. I called round to see William and we arranged to meet, with our photos of Nons, the following afternoon, after the appointment at the solicitors. William was coming to the first part of that too, as he had been named in the will and had some papers to sign. Once I had finished my dinner, I felt restless, not wanting to sit alone in the quiet house, but not wanting the inanity of television or music. I pulled my phone out and dialled Matt’s number.

‘Hey! Bored of Norfolk already?’

It felt so good to hear his voice.

‘I really need some cheering up.’

‘On it! I’ve been looking up fascinating facts on Google today. Did you know that a snail can sleep for three years?’

‘What? It can not. Nothing sleeps for three years.’

‘Are you disputing the wisdom of Google?’

‘Well, naturally I wouldn’t want to call into question anything that has been published on the internet, it’s such a reliable source of information, but three years sounds excessive, how long do snails even live?’

‘Google was silent on the lifespan of snails. But bloody hell, what a life, carry your house round on your back, but as that’s fucking exhausting, you get to sleep for years at a time. I think I want to come back as a snail next time around.’

‘Really? A snail?’

‘I can think of worse lives than sleeping for three years. If I put my mind to it, I reckon I could manage eighteen solid months of sleep right now. I bloody love sleeping.’

‘Alright, then. So snails sleep for three years. What else does Google have to fascinate me factually with?’

‘Snails not doing it for you?’

‘Not so much.’

‘OK then, here’s one for you considering your long journey today. The average driver emits more than 900 pints of wind inside their car during their lifetime.’

‘Ew, no fart facts. Next.’

‘Fuck me, you’re a hard woman to impress. That impressed the shit out of me – oh, ha ha. Almost a pun. Anyway. No fart facts. Right, this is my last gasp attempt, and I know you will feel an affinity with the little chap for reasons that will become clear. Did you know that Donald Duck comics are banned in Finland?’

‘I can’t say I did, or that I ever thought I would have an affinity with any cartoon character. Why, exactly?’

‘Well, think about him. What does he wear?’

I had to think hard to remember.

‘Er … hat?’

‘Correct.’

‘Little jacket thing?’

‘Correct.’

‘Er … ooh, bow tie.’

‘You are fucking amazing, and correct.’

‘Er … shoes?’

‘Nope.’

‘Trousers?’

‘Nope.’

‘No trousers? Shorts.’

‘Nope.’

‘What? Donald Duck had no … oh! He didn’t, did he! But surely that’s not why Finland banned him. Aren’t Scandinavians renound for their lax rules about images of people who very specifically aren’t wearing pants?’

‘Again you are right, but again Google didn’t see fit to elaborate. I hope you’re thinking yourself lucky you have never been to Finland.’

‘How do you know I haven’t?’

‘Have you?’

‘No.’

‘I rest my case. You would have been banged up as a no-fuking-pants wearer quicker than you could say ‘smorgasbord’. You’d still be rotting in some remarkably clean prison, probably sharing a cell with Donald and his white feathery arse.’

‘Thank God for Google.’

‘I know. Who the fuck would have thought that fascinating facts would be responsible for keeping you out of jail?’

‘Thanks, Matt.’

‘Oh, any time you need to avoid prison, I’m your go-to Google man.’

‘No, I mean thanks for this, for cheering me up.’

‘Oh. Well, it seems to be my role in life to arse about, might as well put it to use. At the risk of fucking up my good work, are you OK?’

I paused. I didn’t want to lose the lighter mood I’d found with Matt.

‘Better now. I’m here on my own, Mum and Dad have gone out. I was getting a bit freaked out.’

‘Oh, Julia, you shouldn’t be there on your own.’

‘No, it’s OK now. I lived here for fourteen years, I came back here every holiday from Uni, it’s my home. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m fine. You’ve cheered me up, honestly.’

‘FaceTime me.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve got an iPhone. FaceTime me. I want to see you.’

‘I’ve never used FaceTime before.’

‘What? You’re a fucking IT consultant. I despair. OK, you need to put my home email in your contacts.’

He told me what it was.

‘And now ask Siri to FaceTime me. You’d better not fucking well tell me you’ve never used Siri.’

‘Well not since I first got the phone, it seemed like a bit of a gimmick. But OK, OK, I know how to do it.’

‘Go on then.’

I felt a bit foolish talking to a disembodied voice on my phone, but when seconds later Matt’s face appeared on the screen, I forgot my self-consciousness.

‘Hey you.’

His eyes and mouth crinkled into the familiar smile.

‘Hello.’

‘Have you seriously never done this before?’

‘No. I’ve done video conferencing at work, but not this. I suppose you’re an expert?’

‘Well I have got a nine year old nephew who likes arsing about on his dad’s phone, I’m always getting calls from him. Usually at inconvenient moments like when I’m on the loo.’

‘You don’t have to answer him.’

‘No, but it’s fucking hilarious when I do. Sometimes I show him my poo.’

‘Oh dear Lord. Which one of you is nine years old?’

‘Ha ha, sometimes I forget. Do you want me to show you anything?’

‘Nothing in the bathroom, thanks. Just you is fine.’

‘This is nice, Julia.’

‘Yes.’

We looked at each other for a while.

‘I like seeing you, I can tell if you’re OK.’

‘And am I?’

‘Not really, but you’re putting on a brave face.’

He’d pretty much called it accurately, so I just shrugged.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to dampen the mood.’

‘No, it’s OK, it’s actually good to see you.’

‘So, how about a bit of a tour? You look like you’re sitting on a sofa – show me the living room.’

‘Really? Why?’

‘It helps me to imagine where you are. You’ve seen my place, you know where I am. I’m on the couch, by the way. It remembers you well.’

I felt my cheeks colour as I recalled why I should remember Matt’s plum coloured couch.

‘Are you blushing?’

‘No.’

‘You so are. You’re so cute when you blush. Come on, flick the camera angle, show me where you are.’

As much to divert the camera from my red cheeks as to do as I was asked, I changed the view and showed Matt what I could see from where I was sitting: the two comfy armchairs either side of the sofa, the wooden coffee table, the living flame gas fire, the large mirror above it, all the familiar trappings of the place I considered my home.

‘How about a walking tour? Take me to the kitchen, show me what you’ve done with those bloody meatballs.’

‘I feel silly.’

‘What are you talking about, woman? It’s just like taking a photo or a video, except it’s instant. Come on, hurry up.’

I took the phone into the kitchen, then up the stairs into my old room,

‘Those trousers aren’t yours are they?’

‘No, they’re my dad’s. They’re staying in here.’

‘So where are you staying?’

‘Nons’ room.’

‘Fuck! Really? Isn’t that, like, really weird?’

‘It might be. I haven’t slept here yet. When I came last time I couldn’t do it, I stayed with William.’

‘Show me.’

I took the phone into Nons’ room and showed him the bed with flowery duvet and pink padded headboard, the pine wardrobe and matching chest of drawers and the chair which had been Nons’ pride and joy, a bargain from a car boot sale that was actually an antique worth loads more than the ten pounds she paid for it, but not as much as the two hundred pounds she paid to have it reupholstered. I’d draped my black funeral dress over the chair, pending hanging it up. I turned the view back to me.

‘Well it doesn’t seem like a particularly scary bedroom. Bed looks comfy. Wardrobe looks spacious.’

‘It’s got all her clothes in it. I felt really strange earlier when I tried to put my things away in a drawer. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to sleep in here or downstairs.’

‘Oh. Would it help if I was available all night on FaceTime? You wouldn’t be alone then. All night, any night, until you get home. Just ask Siri.’

‘I think … it might. Thanks. I might not call.’

‘I know. But just the thought I might get to see you in your old tshit and random pants will be enough to keep me going.’

Matt winked at me and grinned.

‘You have a pants fetish.’

‘Guilty.’

‘I assume it extends to all underwear.’

‘Also guilty.’

‘You won’t be seeing any of my underwear on FaceTime.’

‘I was hoping for a sneaky peek.’

‘I will have the duvet up to my chin should I require your services.’

‘Bollocks. Oh well, I’ll take what I can get.’

I heard a car pulling onto the drive and saw the headlights shining through the net curtains.

‘I think my parents are back. I should go.’

‘OK. Thanks for showing me round.’

‘Thanks for the arsing about.’

‘Anytime.’

‘I’m glad we’ve got this … this whatever it is we’re doing.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

I heard my parents come in through the front door.

‘Don’t wait up for me though.’

‘As if. Here, this is for you.’

He kissed his fingertips and blew towards me.

‘Thank you.’

‘What, don’t I get one back?’

‘No. I’m not as sentimental as you.’

‘Will you go out with me?’

‘I’ll have to ask my mum.’

‘If she says no, will you meet me behind the bike sheds anyway?’

‘No, I’ll get told off.’

‘Oh go on, I’ll share my CurlyWurly.’

‘So I’ve heard. Alright then. Got to go now, it’s past my bed time.’

I smiled, waved and disconnected, feeling much better. For all his ‘arsing about’, Matt was showing himself to be surprisingly sensitive. Feeling bolstered, I went downstairs.

‘Who were you talking to, darling?’

‘Just a friend.’

‘Not this boy that William was telling us about?’

I rolled my eyes, both at the question and that William had been gossiping about me.

‘How old do you think I am, Mum? I was talking to a friend. He is male, but he is not a boy.’

‘Sorry, darling. When are we going to meet him?’

I rolled my eyes again.

‘You’re not. You’ve never met anyone else – you’re never here. He’s just a friend.’

Although I knew this was far from the truth, however much I was trying to convince myself.

‘Oh, well, I suppose so. Oh JuJu, I know we haven’t been here very much for you. I think, now Nons has gone, we need to pay you a bit more attention.’

I bit back several retorts to that, and said nothing.

The evening, what was left of it, continued in the same vein, with both of my parents raising my hopes that they had started to care about me only to dash them with a thoughtless comment. I went to bed early, determined to sleep well, and not take up Matt’s offer of contacting him.

I was tired from driving and from the effort of not losing my temper with my self-involved parents, and went to sleep quickly. However, I woke up in the dark, not knowing where I was, and thought there was a large shadow looming by the side of the bed. I sat up with a start, and realised it was my black dress which I had forgotten to hang up, and which was still draped over the chair. But now my heart was pounding and my breathing was rapid, and sleep seemed a million years away. I felt very alone, despite my parents being asleep in the room next door, and after a few moments of hesitation, I reached for my phone. I thought about Facetiming Matt, but I didn’t want to wake my parents, so I texted.

‘Hello.’

Matt’s reply was gratifyingly instantaneous.

‘Hi. Want to FaceTime?’

‘No, it’s too noisy. Thanks for being awake.’

‘U OK?’

‘I freaked myself out – seeing shadows.’

‘Real or imagined?’

‘A bit of both, it was a black dress on a chair. My brain interpreted it as sinister.’

‘U hv 2 watch those little black numbers. They like 2 tease. OK now?’

‘Yes, I just gave myself a fright. I was disoriented. I think I’ll be alright, I’ll try to go back to sleep.’

‘OK, u no where I am xx’

‘Thank you.’

I turned the screen off, turned over and shut my eyes. After a while, I slept again, not waking until I heard movement from the room next door, and smelt toast. I lay there as long as I could, delaying the moment when I would have to go and make small talk with my mother and father, but there was a lot to do today, and putting it off wasn’t going to make it any easier. Sighing, I got up and began the day.

o0o

I went round to see William after breakfast, and we spent the morning in his garden, looking at his vegetables and herbaceous borders, and chatting. Before long, it was time to go to the solicitors. I went with William, and my parents went under their own steam. There wasn’t going to be any dramatic ‘reading of the will’ like I had seen in films and TV dramas. It wasn’t as glamorous as that; copies of the will had been sent to the four of us as beneficiaries, and there were some signatures needed.

It all took place in a small, cramped office at the back of the solicitors’ town offices. The five of us – my parents, William, me and Toby, who was the solicitor but seemed to be about eleven years old – sat knee to knee around a table and put our names to the various documents.

Nons had left her house to me; I was humbled. She hadn’t had much, and she had left what little money she had to William. She had left my parents a few pictures, that she thought might be valuable, but very likely weren’t. They didn’t need money, and had always been snooty about Nons’ tastes in art, believing as they did that their taste was the only one that counted. They weren’t at all bothered about not being left a lot; they knew as well as I did how little there was to leave, and probably knew how little they were entitled to anything anyway.

I was overwhelmed to have the house. I didn’t own my own flat, and the thought of having to decide what to do with Nons’ home was something I couldn’t cope with right then. There was no rush to decide, as the paperwork wouldn’t be completed for some time. We left the solicitors’ offices. William and I went home and my parents went to the Chapel of Rest.

William had cleared his dining room table, leaving a large space for putting out photographs. He had a huge box, and I had several older albums, plus my computer. I set a slide-show running on my laptop, of pictures I had taken and also scanned in, and Nons’ face smiled at us as we looked at the pictures. I started music playing, a playlist of some of Nons’ old favourites; we laughed and cried remembering things we’d done with Nons, listening to each other’s stories about events we both had and hadn’t known about, and then tried to lay the pictures out chronologically. A fair few photos of me ended up on the table, usually me pouting at the camera with Nons trying to cajole me into a smile by pulling a funny face. There was a picture of Nons at a wedding, and with a jolt I recognised the groom as William.

‘I didn’t know she’d gone to your wedding.’

‘Well I couldn’t not invite her, could I pet.’

‘Wasn’t it a bit awkward?’

‘No, it was never awkward with Vonnie. Pat didn’t know how I’d felt about her, they both got on really well.’

‘Do you think Nons ever knew?’

William was quiet for a moment.

‘I don’t know, maybe not back then, but there were a few times, when we’d been supping the ale a bit, when I maybe wasn’t as discreet as I should have been, like. I can’t believe she left me her money.’

‘It isn’t much. She would have wanted you to have it. William, is there anything of hers you’d like, from the house?’

William’s eyes had filled with tears, and he shook his head.

‘I can’t think about it, lass. Maybe in a while, after we’ve laid her to rest.’

‘I feel the same, it’s a lot to think about isn’t it? We’ll get there.’

I left William’s house in the early evening. My parents had come back from the Chapel of Rest, but hadn’t come round to join in our nostalgia. I wandered back into the house and we resumed our family script of misunderstandings, politely veiled criticism and failure to see the other person’s point of view. In the end I took my laptop out and checked my emails, deciding that lack of communication was better than the frustration of miscommunication.

Matt had texted a few times during the day, but as he had been at work I had stuck to my rules and not replied. Evie and a few other friends had texted and left messages, and I decided to go upstairs to answer them. After a few calls, I got another text from Matt.

‘Need more fascinating facts?’

‘More fascinating than snails, farts and Donald Duck?’

‘Equally as fascinating. Do u want disgusting or intriguing?’

‘Let’s start with intriguing.’

‘It’s impossible to touch yr nose with yr elbow.’

‘That’s not intriguing.’

‘Bet u just tried tho, didn’t u.’

‘I might have.’

‘Gotcha. Disgusting now. The avg person eats 8 spiders in their sleep in their life.’

‘Oh my God! That’s particularly horrible. I can’t go to sleep ever again. I don’t like fascinating facts.’

‘OK, let’s ditch the facts. Wanna talk properly?’

‘Yes please.’

My phone rang a few moments later.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Got one last fact for you. Did you know lobster’s bladders are in their skulls?’

‘Hmm. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘piss-head’.

‘Ha ha, brilliant. I hadn’t thought of that. How’s today been?’

‘Pretty full on. Solicitors, photos, parents. I’m exhausted. And now I can’t sleep for thinking about eating spiders.’

‘Sorry. It was too good to resist. I wish I could hold you.’

I breathed deeply. I wished it too, but I was scared of how much I wished it. Next Wednesday, when I would be able to see him again, felt like a long way away. I had a lot to get through before then, and wishing wouldn’t make things any easier.

‘Julia?’

‘I’m here, sorry, drifted off for a minute.’

‘Was it something I said?’

‘Yes and no.’

‘OK, spill, then.’

‘I’m just struggling a bit with how quickly things are going with us.’

‘You think things are going quickly?’

‘Well, maybe not in your terms. But I’m not used to feeling the way I’m feeling as soon as I have.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Like … oh I don’t know, I don’t want to say anything, I haven’t thought about it properly yet. I just know if something happens, if I feel upset or think of something crazy, you’re the first person I think of to tell. That’s just mad. I’ve only known you five minutes.’

‘Oh Jules. Fuck it, sorry, fuck, I’ve been trying really hard, that’s the first ‘Jules’ I’ve let slip. Shit. Sorry.’

‘See, that’s mad too, because I should be annoyed, but I’m not, it feels right. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I should be being more careful, but I don’t feel like being careful. I feel like driving back to the city right now and …’

I stopped, uncertain how much I wanted to divulge.

‘And what?’

‘I can’t talk about this, Matt. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started it. Can we go back to arsing about with fascinating facts?’

‘Well, alright, I was kind of liking where that was heading, but if you haven’t had enough of snails and naked duck’s arses I’m sure there’s more where they came from …’

He reeled off more ridiculous nonsense he’d found on the internet, but it seemed I’d completely ruined the easy chat and made things a bit awkward. The jollity ground to a halt after a while.

‘Julia, would you like me to come up at the weekend?’

‘What? No!’

‘OK, just a thought, you don’t have to make it sound like I asked if you want me to poke your fucking eyes out or something.’

‘Sorry. I’ve made things difficult. I know you’re trying to help me. I’m not very good at being helped.’

‘Sorry backatcha. I think that was a bit of a selfish offer. I really want to see you, more than see you. It would feel weird for you if I was there, I know that, but I couldn’t fucking help myself. Julia – shit, I can’t believe I’m about to say this – would it be better if I stopped texting and calling you, just until you’re back?’

‘No!’

‘I don’t want to, but I just wondered if you’d find it easier to get your head round everything if I gave you some space.’

I sat for a moment, thinking. My head and my heart were having their own private battle.

‘I thought we agreed to say Chartham if we wanted to stop? Maybe a couple of days ago, before I came up here, I was considering it. But now … I don’t think I’m going to make it through the next few days without you. That probably puts way too much pressure on you.’

‘Sorry, Julia, I’m bloody useless at deep and meaningfuls. I do arsing about better than most, but I’m fucking awful at serious. But I’ll give it a shot. OK, here goes, ready? Uncharacteristically magnanimous gesture coming up. Actually, can we Facetime? I want to see you while we’re talking about this.’

‘OK.’

A few seconds later I was staring into Matt’s big grey eyes. He smiled his crinkly smile.

‘Hello. You look hot tonight. Just thought I’d say.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You could always reply ‘why thank you Matt, and I’d quite like to rip your clothes off too’ if you wanted to.’

I smiled and shook my head.

‘I could, but I fear your head would swell so much it wouldn’t all fit on the screen.’

‘So you’re not denying the possibility that you might quite like to rip my clothes off then?’

‘I am neither confirming nor denying anything. I thought you were going to go all deep and meaningful on me?’

‘Oh yeah, just building up to it while having a bloody good gawk at your bra. I can totally see it through your t-shirt.’

I looked down, horrified.

‘You can not! This was what I wore to the solicitors and round at William’s all afternoon.’

Matt laughed.

‘You are so easy to wind up, you’re so proper. So what if a solicitor had the chance to perv on your undies? Not that he did, because I can’t see a bloody thing, more’s the pity.’

‘Alright, deep and meaningful now, or I’m disconnecting.’

‘Oh fucking hell, you’re so bloody bossy. OK, OK, what I was going to suggest is that I won’t just randomly and incessantly text you. You can contact me whenever you like, and for whatever reason, whether you want to arse about or bawl your fucking eyes out, I’ll be here, or wherever I am, I’ll be there for you. Fuck, I’ve never had so many rules about phoning someone before. It’s fine, though. But just so you know, even though I’m not texting you or phoning or Facetiming, I will be thinking about you all the fucking time. Thinking about what I’m going to tell you next time we speak – I’ve got so much fucking office goss I’m saving up, I found out what Mike Davies keeps in his locked drawer! But anyway, that’s for another time. So you don’t have to worry about me popping up on your phone at inopportune moments, you have complete charge over when we speak, in what media, and what about. If you want to be on your own, that’s your choice. What do you think?’

‘I want to know what Mike keeps in his drawers.’

‘Ooh, that’s a diversionary reply worthy of me! Come on, Julia. Is it a goer?’

‘It sounds just about right. I know I’m a control freak, how did you know?’

‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve worked with the bloody Ice Queen all this time, it’s her stock in trade. You don’t get that good at work without some of it being part of you. So that’s what we’ll do then.’

He stopped talking and looked at me, a long look that I returned, drinking in his gaze. Eventually I nodded. He gave me a sad smile.

‘I can’t say I’m not going to bloody well miss this. But I’m just thinking of next week, when I can see you again.’

‘You can still think about me.’

‘I do anyway.’

‘I’ll think about you.’

‘Good.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Pleasure.’

‘Is one of us going to go, then?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Me, then?’

‘Gonna have to be, I seriously can’t make myself press the fucking button.’

‘Night then.’

‘Don’t go.’

‘We can’t just sit staring at each other.’

‘Why the fuck not? The view’s great from here.’

‘I’m tired.’

‘I can watch you sleep.’

‘Very sweet, but a bit stalkery?’

‘Maybe you’re right. I want to watch you sleep one day though. I bet you snore.’

‘I do not!’

‘Everyone says that. I’ll find out. I bet you dribble too.’

‘I don’t dribble.’

‘The only way to prove it is to spend the night with me.’

‘Goodnight, Matt.’

‘Goodnight, Jules.’

I pressed the button on the phone, and his face disappeared from the screen. I remained looking at the home page of my phone for a while, shaking my head at the uncharacteristic whimsy I was feeling all of a sudden. I got ready for bed, and resisted an urge to call Matt back to discuss my night attire. I got into bed, turned the light out and slept almost immediately.

o0o

The next few days passed with arrangements for Nons’ funeral, organising the reception, and several long walks along north Norfolk beaches while I thought and cried and wrote Nons’ eulogy in my head. The wind was bracing, as ever, and the shoreline was bleak, but it helped to sort through a lot of the things that had lain unresolved in my mind. I texted Matt a couple of times, and Facetimed him once while I was walking along the beach near Blakeney Point, as I thought he would like to see it. He was suitably impressed, and got enthusiastic about going on a hike when I got back. He kept his promise not to contact me, and although I missed him more than I thought I would, his absence helped me to focus on what I was doing there. Before I knew it, the day of the funeral had dawned and it was all going to be over.

Matt

So Jules went away for a week, to bury her aunt. And I missed her. I could not believe how much I missed her, even though we spoke on the phone and texted, and even, bloody hell, FaceTimed. I had fallen for Jules good and proper, and even though I wasn’t ready to examine just how much or in what way, I was prepared to admit that I wanted to see a lot more of her and spend time getting to know her.

Julia

I ghosted through the day in a dream. Part of me was screaming and raging with anger and hurt that Nons had been taken away from me, but I locked this away and concentrated on the things I needed to get done, like saying the eulogy, greeting people afterwards, paying the caterers and mopping up my mother who had suddenly become a quivering heap in the corner requiring lots of patience and tissues.

By the time it was all over and everyone had gone, it was late afternoon. My parents, my mother now recovered, had departed for the airport, and I gave William a lift home.

‘I’ll be back in a few weeks, to start sorting the house out. I think I need to leave it a bit before I start tackling it.’

‘I understand, pet. I’ll give you a hand to sort through it all if you like. Let me know when you’re coming.’

‘Thanks, William. Will you be alright?’

‘I will be, lass. I will be.’

I packed up quickly and set off, wanting to leave this week behind me. I had hoped the journey would get me home in time to get a good night’s sleep before work tomorrow, but a major accident had closed one of the motorways and the resulting delays and diversions meant I didn’t get back to the city until well after midnight.

I felt frazzled and overtired, and without thinking about it, I found myself pulling onto the street where Matt’s apartment was. I stopped the car and got my phone out, not really sure what I was intending to do. It was far too late to call, and going to see him would be madness. But he had said I could call him anytime while I was away, and I wasn’t technically back home yet. And I really wanted to talk to him. I pressed his name. And then hung up. I started the car as my phone rang. I stopped the car and answered it.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Are you home?’

‘Not quite.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Outside.’

‘Outside where? Are you OK?’

I didn’t say anything, feeling suddenly foolish.

‘Julia, where are you?’

‘Nowhere, it’s alright, I’m going home now.’

‘Wait – shit – outside – are you outside here?’

I nodded, close to tears, forgetting he couldn’t see me.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you outside here now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Stay there, I’m coming down.’

He disconnected. The car’s engine was running and I nearly drove away, but just as I was about to put my foot on the clutch and take the handbrake off, Matt came running out of the front door. He was wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and was barefoot; he’d been in bed.

Matt ran over to the car and pulled the door open, crouching down close to me.

‘Julia, what the fuck?’

I looked up at him, trying not to cry. Seeing him made me realise just how much I needed to be with him. I shook my head.

‘I’m sorry I woke you up. I’m just being stupid.’

‘Come up.’

‘No, I should go.’

‘Julia, I’m freezing my fucking balls off out here. Come on, we can talk about it inside, yeah?’

He stood up and held his hand out. When I didn’t take it, he took mine and pulled. I got out of the car, and as soon as I was standing up, he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into him. I collapsed against him, giving in to the tears I had managed to hold back all day.

‘Hey, shh. It’s OK. It’s OK, Jules. Shh now.’

He held me while I cried, but after a time I felt him unwrap himself from me a little bit, and start to walk to the door, an arm still round me, holding me close to him. I thought about resisting, but being in Matt’s arms was where I wanted to be and I couldn’t fight it. I let him lead me in through the door and up the stairs to his flat, where he sat me down on the sofa, then kissed me on top of my head before heading towards the kitchen area to put the kettle on. I sat and sniffled to myself, trying to wipe my eyes on the back of my hands.

‘Here, it’s camomile.’

Matt handed me a mug of tea and then a box of tissues. Then he sat down beside me and put his arm around me again.

‘Have you only just got back?’

I nodded.

‘Shit, Julia, you must be wiped.’

Another nod.

‘Why didn’t you go straight home?’

‘I just needed … you.’

A sound somewhere between a moan and a laugh escaped from Matt.

‘Well I can’t say it’s not reciprocated, but shit, you don’t half choose your moments. You’re not in any fit state for anything I may have to offer you tonight, apart from my bed –’

I looked up at him, startled, scared and hopeful.

‘– I’ll sleep here on the sofa. I’ve got an old tshit you can use, and no fuking pants is fine by me.’

I nodded again, too exhausted to think, let alone argue. Matt stayed next to me, holding me against him, while I drank my tea. Then he took the cup from my hands and put it on the table.

‘Come on, it’s this way. Are you OK to get undressed? There’s a shirt in here you can use –’

He opened a drawer

‘– we can worry about everything else in the morning.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yep.’

‘Kiss me.’

He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.

‘Holy fuck, Julia, you make it bloody difficult for a bloke to behave decently. Not tonight. I’m not going there again with you like this. If I start kissing you now, I won’t be able to stop.’

‘I won’t want you to stop.’

‘Don’t, Jules, please, I need to say no. I’m sorry, you have no idea how sorry, but not tonight. Soon though, bloody soon. Goodnight, gorgeous.’

He blew me a kiss and walked out, shutting the door behind him.

I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, not really sure what I was feeling. I was so, so tired, but I had so, so wanted to kiss Matt, and to feel him hold me again, whatever that might have brought. I was just about with-it enough to recognise what Matt had done and what it might mean to me later.

The duvet had been pushed back, and I felt the sheet underneath, which was still warm from Matt’s body. I pulled my clothes off and picked the top t-shirt from the drawer Matt had left open, pulling it on over my head. I kept my pants on. Then I slid under the duvet, holding the warmth from it around me, and switched the lamp off, falling into sleep almost immediately.

Matt

When Jules came back, she was in a bit of a state and she came to my flat late at night and said she wanted to kiss me, the inference being that she wanted to sleep with me, but fuck I was noble, and said no and slept on the sofa while she crashed in my bed. I hope you’re impressed, because I bloody well was.

Julia

As I woke up, it slowly registered that it was light. I couldn’t hear any of the familiar sounds I had got used to in Norfolk, and I couldn’t hear the traffic outside my flat. I opened my eyes. I was in a strange room. I closed my eyes and gathered my thoughts. I was in Matt’s bed. I groaned to myself, thinking about how ridiculous I must have looked yesterday.

I had no idea of the time – I had left my phone in the car along with my bags – but it felt late enough that I should be getting up. I didn’t want to be late for work on my first morning back. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and dragged my fingers through my hair; as I was about to stumble to the door, it opened and Matt came in with a cup of tea.

‘Hey you. Toast or cereal for breakfast? Or something fancier?’

‘What time is it?’

‘Just gone ten.’

What?

‘You needed to sleep.’

‘I’m late for work. Shit, Matt, it’s my first day back.’

I started to gather my clothes together, wondering how I was going to explain this to Lexi, and then get home, shower and change into something decent. I felt Matt’s hands on my shoulders.

‘Hey, stop panicking. I’ve phoned in for you.’

‘What? What the fuck did you tell them?’

‘Well, of course, I told them you’d stayed the night here and were so exhausted from the adventure that you were having a bit of a skive –

What?’

‘Stop shrieking, I rang Phil, told him you were taking an extra day because yesterday was a bit too much, and it’s all sorted. Don’t worry, I didn’t talk to Lexi, Phil will be discreet, he doesn’t know you’re here.’

I sat on the edge of the bed and put my head in my hands.

‘You can’t just do things like that on my behalf. You should have woken me up.’

‘Well I didn’t, not much we can do about it now. Tell me you didn’t need the sleep.’

I stayed silent.

‘Hmm. Well I’ve got to shoot off myself in a minute, can’t have both of us shirking, you’re welcome to stay here, all day if you want to, but if you go, pull the door shut behind you, make sure it clicks.’

I stayed sitting on the bed as he left the room, and I watched him through the open bedroom door as he left the flat, turning to wave as he did so. I sat for a long time, thinking about what I was doing there.

Matt was right, I had needed the sleep; but I should never have come here in the first place. Yesterday had been a weird, horrible day, and I had made some bad errors of judgement, not least of which had been asking Matt to kiss me. I was now awake enough to be well aware of what it had cost him to say no, but confronting that with him later was something I chose not to think about.

I pulled on the clothes I had worn the day before, folding the t-shirt I had slept in, and putting it on the pillow. I located my car keys and left, pulling the door shut behind me, trying not to think about the last time I did that or the circumstances in which I had left Matt’s flat then.

Arriving at my flat, I hauled my bags up the stairs and then started unpacking them, putting things out to wash or into the laundry basket for later. I thought about calling Phil to explain why I hadn’t rung in myself, but couldn’t think of a way to justify it that wouldn’t make things worse. I texted Evie to see if she was around for a chat later, and she replied that she would call me when she got home from work. I got some of the papers that I’d brought home from Norfolk – bank details and other things I needed to sort out – but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them.

I curled up on the sofa and cried, wishing I could get a grip on my emotions and stop bursting into tears at inconvenient moments. I missed Nons. I wanted Matt, but I didn’t want to want him. I felt impatient with myself, and could only imagine how frustrated he must be feeling with me. Slowly, my tears dried up and I fell into a doze.

I woke some time later to the sound of the door intercom. It startled me into instant wakefulness, and jolted me onto my feet. I pressed the button.

‘Hello.’

‘Julia, it’s Matt.’

I looked at the clock. It was one fifteen; he must have come over in his lunch hour.

‘Come up.’

I pushed the button again, and heard the buzz as he opened the door. I waited for his knock, which came, tentatively, a few moments later. I opened the door.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you.’

A crinkly smile, but some uncertainty behind it.

‘I’m sorry about last night.’

‘No need. I just wanted to see how you are. Can I come in?’

I stood aside and let Matt walk into the flat, where he stood, unsure, by the door.

‘Sit down. Have you come in your lunch hour?’

‘Yeah, they all think I’m off wining and dining the elusive Roberta.’

He walked over to the sofa and sat down. I sat at the other end, a seat between us.

‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got anything to eat. I emptied my fridge before I left last week.’

‘I didn’t come here for a three course meal, Julia. You were, well, how can I put it tactfully? I can’t. OK. You were a fucking mess last night. I wanted to check you’re not still a fucking mess today.’

‘I’m not a fucking mess.’

Matt looked at me, studying my face.

‘No, maybe not, but you’re not right. You’ve gone all distant and Ice Queeny.’

‘I’m sorry. I feel silly and embarrassed. I don’t know why I came to yours last night, I wasn’t thinking straight.’

‘I thought you came because you needed me?’

I snorted.

‘Is that what I said?’

‘Yeah. You also asked me to kiss you. I’m sorry I had to say no.’

I closed my eyes and inhaled.

‘I’m not. I’m very grateful. You would have had every right to … do what I asked you to. You continue to astound me.’

‘Hey, that’s always good to know. A good astounding is my speciality. Not that it’s always called that, you understand. Jules, you have no idea how fucking hard it was to say no. I’ve missed you so much more than I thought I would this last week. When you turned up last night, even though I was half asleep and it was bloody freezing outside and I cut my fucking foot on a stone, it was so bloody great just to see you again. Just holding you sent all sorts of messages to all sorts of places, and I had to talk pretty bloody fast to them to get them to simmer down. It just wasn’t right last night. After last time, I wasn’t going to do that again, feel the way I did, have you leave the way you did.’

‘You cut your foot?’

He laughed, tutted and shook his head.

‘Yeah, focus on that why don’t you. Fuck, Julia, you’re better than me at avoiding the issue, and that’s saying something. I’m telling you I missed you and didn’t want to do something stupid in the heat of the moment last night that we’d both regret because you were a fucking mess and I was an uncontrollable shag monster.’

‘Alright, I get it. You were more of a gentleman than I thought you capable of. You have been on several occasions. But soon you’re going to have to stop saying no, because eventually I won’t be a fucking mess and you won’t have an excuse.’

‘Believe me, Julia, as soon as you stop being a fucking mess, I will be right here on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and a condom and you won’t even have to ask me to kiss you.’

‘Just the one condom?’

‘I would like to think that in these modern times, you have a supply. Mine will just be a spare in case we run out.’

I looked into Matt’s eyes. He looked relieved. I felt a bit better.

‘I’m not sure I’m there yet.’

‘I know. I’m keeping a close eye on the situation. Until then, you don’t have to worry, I’ll be saying no.’

‘Thank you. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this.’

‘A mate of mine says it’s not about deserving, it’s about how you react to things. I’m just reacting to you, the same as you’re reacting to me. It feels pretty fucking good so far. Hey, know what, I think I can risk a hug without turning into that uncontrollable shag monster. No snogging though.’

Matt opened his arms wide, and I fell into them, burying myself in his chest and holding him tightly against me. As his arms went round me, it felt like the place I most belonged in the world.

‘I’m scared.’

He pulled away and looked at me again.

‘Of what?’

‘Of this, I don’t know what it is, what it’s going to be.’

Matt sighed.

‘You know what, you don’t have the monopoly on freaking out. Didn’t we say at the start we were going to see where it goes? Let’s just do that. That doesn’t scare me, what fucking terrifies me is analysing it to death and killing it before it has the chance to be anything. Jules, I’m not looking for anything in particular, I don’t know if you are. I’m not trying to make us into a couple or anything, fuck, probably exactly the opposite. I’m a commitmentophobe, hadn’t you heard? I know it’s bloody terrifying for you not to know exactly what the rules are, but it’s just as bloody terrifying for me to feel like there are a bunch of rules I’m trapped by. I just feel like there aren’t any here.’

I carried on looking at him, trying to work out if what he said made me more, or less, terrified.

‘I think you need to try to let yourself go a bit. I know there’s this weird vibe with us knowing each other at work, but maybe we can try to forget about that when we’re not at GreenScreen. Try to just relax enough that we can be ourselves, maybe even challenge each other a bit. Then we might get a bit more of an idea of where we’re going, if indeed we have to be headed anywhere.’

‘Do you think I’m uptight?’

‘I think you think too much about shit that’s not important.’

‘So yes, then.’

‘I didn’t say that, and it’s not what I meant. Julia, you’ve had a major life event, with your aunt. You’re still getting your head round it. Let yourself do that and at the same time get your head around us too. We don’t have to be together every second. We both have our own lives. I think we need to be together, by which I mean sleep together, by which I actually mean fucking hot sex, just so we’re clear, very soon so we can get it out of the way – shit that wasn’t very romantic was it – I meant –’

‘I know what you meant. You’re right. It’s been this … thing … hasn’t it. An undercurrent. Until it happens, it’s going to affect everything else between us. I know what you were saying about it needing to be right, but … can we plan it?’

I looked up at him, conscious that my need to control things was affecting this too. He pushed a strand of hair away from my face.

‘It wouldn’t be appropriate if we didn’t, really, after everything else that’s been so well organised. I’m not doing anything tonight, but maybe, after everything I just said, it’s too soon …’

‘Evie’s calling me later, but I haven’t got any plans after that.’

Matt looked at me, assessingly.

‘You know what, there’s only so many times I can resist you, Julia. Tonight then. Come to mine? I’ll cook you something, planned seduction.’

‘Are you supposed to tell me if you’re planning to seduce me?’

‘Probably not. I’m Matt Scott, though, ‘evil seducer’ is on my doorbell. It’s a bit of a given.’

‘I thought that was ‘uncontrollable shag monster’?’

‘That’s just at weekends. Come here, soon-to-be-seduced Julia Marran. I want you in my arms right now.’

As he pulled me towards him again, I leaned into him and put my arms round his back, pressing myself up against him. I could feel his heart pounding in his chest. After a time, he kissed the top of my head, sighed, disentangled himself and pulled away.

‘I should get back. I can only have so many long lunches before Phil starts taking it out of my holiday.’

‘How exactly did you get such flexible hours?’

I saw a flicker of alarm cross his face for a split second, then it was gone.

‘Well … I was ill a few years ago – when I first moved down here I was living with my brother, they were looking after me – but I wanted to work again. But I got really tired, so I needed to work part time with the flexibility to come and go and up or down my hours as necessary. I had a pretty good reference from my job in Stafford, and Phil reckoned I was worth the risk.’

‘But you’re not ill now.’

‘I guess I just never renegotiated. It suits my lazy bastard ethos.’

I sensed a guardedness in Matt’s expression. He wasn’t telling me everything, but I didn’t have any rights to his personal information.

‘I work my share, I know I come in late, but I stay late if I need to, I don’t miss deadlines, I get my job done. I work more hours than I’m contracted for if anyone’s counting.’

He sounded defensive, as if he’d had to justify it to himself many times.

‘I know, I wasn’t questioning your work at all. You carry on being a lazy bastard, it suits you.’

‘OK, thanks, I will. Starting today. Long lunch hour followed by leaving early to get ready for my hot date. It is going to be fucking hot, Jules, I can’t wait.’

‘I’m looking forward to it too.’

‘Still scared?’

‘Petrified.’

‘Great! See you later – sevenish?’

He stood up and pulled me to my feet.

‘Here’s a little something to keep you interested.’

He leaned down and kissed me hard and long, tongue searching deep into my mouth, lips locked onto mine, hands in my hair holding my face to his, and then he pulled away.

‘Fuck, need to stop that, otherwise there will be no seduction tonight, just a quick hop to your bedroom right now. No, don’t even say that would be fine, you temptress, I can see it on your face. Well I’ve got no one to blame but myself for sending me back to work with the boner from hell. Fuck. I’m going now before I do something else I’ll regret. See you later.’

He backed towards the door, leaving me breathless and open mouthed in the middle of the room, then turned and walked out with a wave, pulling the door shut behind him.

I couldn’t settle after Matt left. I drifted around, unpacking, sorting my laundry, tidying up, but my mind wasn’t really on it. I was restless, thinking about my assignation later. The more I thought about it the more it felt like the right thing to do; get the sex out of the way and I might be able to think more clearly. Thinking logically about it didn’t stop my heart racing in anticipation, though, and I was in need of distraction.

I thought about going in to work for a couple of hours but that wasn’t going to distract me from Matt. In the end I went to the supermarket and filled my trolley with food I didn’t really want because I was wandering around in an unthinking haze. As I loaded the bags at the till I shook my head at what I’d bought, wondering when I was ever going to eat a tin of sausage and beans or a jar of pickled onions.

Back at my flat I filled my fridge and cupboards with my unwise purchases. The food was making me hungry and I realised with a start that I hadn’t eaten anything all day – in fact not since I stopped at a service station on the way home yesterday. I slotted some bread into the toaster and cut off a lump of cheese. It would have to do until dinner with Matt later, as I was euphemistically calling it, in the hope that he was a reasonable cook and we actually made it to the dinner table to eat.

Not long after I got back from the shop, Evie rang. We spent a while talking about Nons’ funeral and then about Evie’s job, where she was having ‘unreasonable boss’ trouble; then she asked about Matt.

‘So how’s it going with the stud muffin?’

‘The what?’

‘Has he managed to keep it in his boxers?’

‘Evie! I’ve been away, I haven’t seen him.’

‘I’ve heard some stories, Jules. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘What stories?’

‘Kath – you know, from the dentist? She heard that he’s got some kind of STD, maybe more than one. Her friend Petra had to go to the GUM clinic. And he’s not the type to hang around once he’s got what he wants.’

If I hadn’t heard the Petra story from Matt I might have been swayed, but I was offended on Matt’s behalf.

‘You don’t know him Evie, nor does Kath. He’s not like everyone thinks. A lot of its an act. And that STD story is just a story.’

‘OK my lovely, whatever you say. You’re obviously smitten.’

‘I am not.’

‘Right.’

She filled that one word with as much sarcasm as she could muster.

‘When are you seeing him next?’

‘…tonight.’

‘For?’

‘Dinner’

‘Where?’

‘His place.’

‘Yeah and the rest Jules. You’ve gone all monosyllabic, you think you can kid me. Anything else on the menu? Or rather, anyone?

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Course you don’t. Wouldn’t have crossed your mind that womaniser Matt Scott might want to get in your knickers – it’s not like it hasn’t already happened once. I’m not judging you Jules, I think it’s great, go for it if it’s what you want. Just be careful. Not just about STDs, but don’t let him break your heart.’

I laughed.

‘Evie you’re hilarious. I don’t do heartbreak. We’re just seeing what happens, enjoying ourselves.’

I could almost convince myself.

‘Alright then my lovely. Have a good time tonight, I’ll wait to hear all about it later.’

When I’d finished talking to Evie I had about half an hour to get ready before I needed to leave. I spent far too long choosing clothes and selecting underwear, tying myself up in knots about the messages I would be sending. Eventually I reminded myself I had agreed to go to Matt’s so we could sleep together, which was a pretty clear message, and so I wore something I felt comfortable and sexy in. I was finally as ready as I’d ever be.

25. One step forward

In which disappointment is encountered.

It was dark when I woke up. I wasn’t sure what had woken me, or what the time was. There was a tap on the door.

:Are you decent, love? I’ve got a cup of tea and some toast for you. Have it in bed. It’s seven o’clock.

‘I’m decent.’

:Alright, I’m putting the light on.

Rose walked into the room with a mug and a plate, flicking the light switch with her thumb. The light dazzled me for a few seconds.

:By, you don’t like hanging things up, do you love?

She stepped over my pile of clothes in the middle of the floor, and looked at the other clothes strewn over a chair and a chest of drawers.

‘Sorry, not very tidy.’

:I can see that, love. Doesn’t worry me, just don’t you trip on anything. Here you go. Sit up now, don’t dawdle, you’ve got a lot to do before Nico gets here.

‘He’ll be late.’

:He said eight sharp.

‘He was joking. He’s always late. Always. At least half an hour.’

:Best be ready, just in case.

I sighed. I had, after all, asked not to be allowed to go back to sleep. Sat up and took the mug from Rose. Managed to hold it in my left hand, it ached but was strong enough. She put the plate well within reach on the bedside table.

:There’s some of your painkillers here, in case you need them, love. When will you be back, do you think?

‘Don’t know. This afternoon? Might have to wait for Nico to give me a lift back. Don’t think I’m up to the bus just yet.

:I’m at work all day, just wondering if you want me to pop back at lunchtime? Do you some lunch?

‘No, don’t do that. I’ll get myself something, somewhere, no worries. I’ll see you later. Maybe you could come upstairs with me?’

:If that’s what you want, love. Finish your breakfast, I’ll be back to bother you in a minute.

With Rose’s frequent bothering, I managed to be ready by eight o’clock. I was extra sure to do everything I needed to for myself, as I was a bit worried she was going to offer to come and wash me if I seemed like I couldn’t manage. I did it all well enough, though, then had to wait forty minutes for Nico to arrive. Rose was on tenterhooks the whole time.

‘If you need to go, just go, don’t be late for work. I said he’d be late.’

:Well I’ll have to go soon.

‘Go then, I can leave the building fine on my own, what are you waiting for?’

:What if he doesn’t come? I’ll have to take you.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, Rose, just go to work. Go on.’

Eventually she went, and two minutes later Nico arrived.

>Here I am, eight sharp like you say. This mean nearly nine, yes? Ha!

‘You’re going to get a bollocking from Rose. She’s not good with late.’

>You tell her I am always, don’t you?

‘Couldn’t quite get her head round it. She thought you must have stood me up or something.’

>Poor Rose. She learns the ways of Nico. Are you ready?

‘I’ve been ready since ‘eight sharp’, thanks.’

>Ha, then we go.

We got to the club about nine o’clock. I wasn’t quite sure who I needed to see – Don would be overseeing training, and at least one of the docs would be there too in case he was needed. I went to the main office.

I’d forgotten I looked such a sight. The swelling on my face was really going down, but the bruises were coming out in spectacular combinations of purple, yellow and green. The stitches gave my whole face the air of a slasher movie, and the nose cover completed the look. The girls in the office looked at me with open mouths when I walked in. I caused a bit of a stir while they recognised me and sympathised and finally told me to go to the treatment room. I made my escape, eager to get away from the excessive mothering, but happy that things seemed more normal with them all.

The treatment room was near the changing rooms, and although I hadn’t really thought about how I would react if I met anyone I knew, fortunately the players were all out on the training ground, and I didn’t run into anyone.

I tapped on the treatment room door and went in. Lee Brady, one of the club doctors, was in the room, writing at a table. He looked up, doing the by now familiar double-take as he saw my face then realised who I was.

÷Dec. Shit, you’ve seen better days, mate. Have a seat. Don’s out at training, but he wanted me to let him know when you’re here. I’ll just text him.

He pressed a few keys on a mobile phone then looked up at me.

÷We’ve asked the hospital to email over your X-rays so we can have a look at your arm and collar bone. Do you mind if I have a quick prod?

I shook my head. Lee lifted up my right arm, watching my face to see when it hurt. It hurt pretty much straight away.

÷Do you happen to know the specifics of your arm breaks? This plastering is pretty over the top unless there’s some fairly heavy-duty damage under there.

‘No, sorry.’

÷No problem, we can wait for the X-rays, I’m expecting them in the next few minutes. I’m hoping we might be able to get away without the plaster – immobilising your arm for several weeks will mean you have to work harder and longer to build your strength back up. Might need to fix that collar bone though. How’s everything else? Your left hand looks badly bruised.

He had a look, took the bandage and splint off the little finger, then moved the other fingers backwards and forwards, and asked me to move my fingers on my own. The swelling had gone down a lot, and this morning I noticed I could do more with my hand than yesterday.

÷Hm, could’ve been worse, lucky to get away with just the pinky broken. That’s quite a footprint. Have you taken a photo?

‘Er, no. Not something I particularly want to remember.’

÷Not for the family album, you plonker, but for identifying who did it.

It hadn’t occurred to me.

‘Genius.’

÷Use your phone.

‘Can’t, it was smashed.’

÷Oh, OK. I’ll do it now, then. If you need it, you know where I am.

He took a few shots of my hand and saved them on his phone. The laptop on the table bleeped.

÷Here are your X-rays. Let’s have a look, now.

The door opened and Don came in, slightly breathless.

-Hello Declan, thanks for coming. Any news, Lee?

÷The X-rays have just arrived, I’m having a look now. Looks like a simple humerus, plus ulna and radius near the wrist, a bit more complicated. I can understand why they plastered, but I think screw and plate would give more mobility – I was just explaining to Declan about losing muscle bulk if you’re kept immobile. We need to fix the collar bone too, the ends aren’t together, it’ll set wrong.

-Thanks, Lee, that’s what we talked about yesterday, isn’t it? Declan, what we’re suggesting is that you have an operation as soon as possible to try and fix your arm. We want to get the plaster off and get you moving as soon as we can, fix up your collar bone, and then you’ll be able to train. You’ll be out for much longer if you keep the plaster on, and the collar bone might not heal properly. Lee and I have checked with the local private hospital and the surgeon we’ve used before, and they could fit you in next Tuesday. I know it’s close to Christmas, but you’d be out the next day.

I was silent. The day after Tuesday was Christmas Eve. There was no way I’d be able to travel. It was a big blow, beyond disappointment. I couldn’t quite believe my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal was being taken away, almost as soon as it had been given to me. I didn’t know what to say. I understood everything they’d said, and realised the strings they would have had to pull to get such an early date, especially at this time of year. But Christmas with them all … it was more than a holiday, it was a chance to put it right, to try to make things good again. I’d said ‘yes’, and now I was going to have to say ‘thanks but no thanks’.

-Is everything alright, son? I know it’s a lot to spring on you, but we really don’t want to hang around with breaks, there can be all sorts of complications.

‘I understand that. It’s just, er, this sounds stupid I know, is there any way it could be after Christmas?’

Don shook his head.

-The surgeon is away for a month – that’s too long to wait. I know you probably had plans, but this is important.

If I didn’t say it, they wouldn’t know. It still might not make any difference. I felt selfish and mean-spirited. But just had to say it.

‘I was … Jay’s asked me to go up there for Christmas.’

Don sighed. He looked briefly at Lee and then back at me.

-I can understand this is a bit of a blow for you then. I’m sorry. You do understand this is really important to your rehab and will get you back to playing more quickly?

‘Yeah. I know. Sorry, just disappointed.’

-The other thing to bear in mind is that you will need looking after for at least twenty four hours after you get home. I don’t know if you’re still planning to stay with Rose, will she be able to look after you?

So I was going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas too. The worthless piece of shit – the gift that just kept on giving.

‘I can ask.’

-I’m really sorry, Declan, if there was another way – I know how important this must have been to you.

I shrugged.

There was a brief pause. Another look passed between Don and Lee.

÷Are we going to …

-May be best in the circumstances. Declan, I don’t know if you remember when you were in hospital, I mentioned the possibility of using a psychologist to help you talk through some of your, er, issues?

I nodded reluctantly, still not keen on delving into my confusion with someone I didn’t know. Or even with someone I did know, come to that.

-He’s called Adam Palmer. Lee and I have been in touch with him and told him some of your story, just background stuff and some of your recent troubles. He thinks you might have some kind of post traumatic stress relating to your accident. He is a bit of an expert, and we’d like you to meet him in the New Year. Can I give him Rose’s number so he can contact you?

‘Yeah.’

Although it would need a whole team of psychologists to get to the bottom of my mixed up brain.

I wanted to get out of there, to get my head round this latest bit of bad news, but Don wanted to give me details of hospital dates and times and what I needed to bring and remember and how I would get there. I found it hard to concentrate – all I could think of was having my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal taken away so I could be in more pain and need more looking after. Don seemed to realise I was lacking some focus, and wrote it down for me.

-I’ll be in touch before Tuesday, but go home and rest up now. How are you getting home?

>Waiting for Nico.

-He might be some time, there’s a couple more hours of training to go yet.

I shrugged.

-Why don’t you wait in the corporate suite where you were on Saturday morning? It’s more comfortable than down here. We can get the TV put on, get you some coffee?

‘OK.’

I passed the time miserably. I was going to disappoint Cal yet again. He’d soon stop trusting me at all. I needed to contact Rose to ask if I could fuck up her plans too, and was keenly missing having a mobile phone.

I stood at the window and looked out. I could just about see the training pitch from the window; players were running about, throwing balls and practising moves. It reminded me how far away I was from spending time out there. Even when I was suspended I had spent time with everyone, but now I’d just be spending time in the gym, keeping fit, bulking up, working on weaknesses, with other injured players but not running with the ball, tackling, rucking – any of the stuff that made me feel alive.

By now all my aches, bruises and pains had begun to reassert themselves; I hadn’t brought my pain meds with me and I started to feel very sorry for myself.

One of the girls from the office brought me a coffee and some biscuits, dug out a paracetamol and stopped for a chat, but the time passed slowly. I had no idea when Nico would be able to take me home, and I began to wish I’d got the bus, or called a taxi, both of which would have been impossible as I would struggle to walk to the bus stop, and I had no cash.

I stared out of the window and wallowed a bit in self-pity. Eventually the door opened and Nico popped his head round.

>Hey, Declan, I go now. How are you? Don tell me about this operation. Is horrible timing.

I looked up at him, feeling wretched.

‘I promised Cal. I’ve got to tell him. Got to tell Rose too. She’s going to her sister’s.’

>Cal and Rose will understand. You visit Cal soon after Christmas, Rose she love looking after you, she don’t mind.

‘Cal’s six. All he knows is Christmas Day is the big one, and I wasn’t there on his birthday either. Fuck it, I’m a selfish bastard, after all this club has done for me, but I just got them all back and now it’s all fucked up again …’

>Come Declan, we go home. My home. Lis is there, she make us lunch, we talk, Lis she know what to say. Come.

He held his hand out and beckoned me out of the chair. I stood up and followed him out to his car, glad to put off telling everyone for a while longer.

I was silent on the journey to Nico’s house, wrapped up in my thoughts. For someone who hadn’t thought about Christmas a few days ago, I had pinned a lot of dreams on it this year. Nico didn’t talk either, I guess I was a bit of a dampener on conversation.

Lis was in the kitchen when we got there.

>Hey baby, I bring a guest. Put on a kettle, show him you make better tea than Rose.

~Dec? Wasn’t expecting you – oh you look good in those, like the cargos, much better than Nico’s trousers flapping round your knees. Hoody looks good too – what’s wrong?

>Don he say he want Dec to have operation on his arm on Tuesday. He can’t go to Jaime‘s for Christmas.

~Oh no, Dec, that’s terrible. Jay and Beth will be really disappointed. And Cal.

>Dec worry about Rose too, she go to Wales. Someone need to look after him when he come out afterwards. Maybe we can?

~Oh, yes, of course. What a great idea. There’s plenty of room here. That would solve one of your worries, yeah?

I was bowled over by their immediate kindness.

‘Are you sure?’

~Absolutely sure.

‘Thanks, that would be great.’

~And I’ll take you up to Stafford as soon as you’re fit after Christmas. They’ll understand, I know they will.

>He worry about Cal. He promise a – huh – what you call it? Optiprime? I write it somewhere …

‘Optimus Prime. It’s a toy. I promised Cal that Santa would bring him one on Christmas Day. I’ve broken so many promises to him, I really needed to keep this one.’

~Hm, well, I’m sure there’s something we can do. There’s plenty of time, we’ve still got over a week. Let’s have a coffee and a sandwich and sit down for now, yeah? Dec, I know this must be a huge disappointment, but I’m sure it’s for the best. Don does usually know what he’s doing when it comes to injuries. You’re upset now, but I bet in a couple of months, you’ll see it differently, especially if you’re playing again.

Lis was making complete sense, and some of it was getting through. Didn’t stop me feeling very sorry for myself though. Lis went to make coffee and Nico turned on the TV.

>Which DVD we watch? You like one with explodings?

‘Explodings sounds good.’

Some time later, having immersed myself in the action movie, I heard the phone ring. It was only on the edge of my consciousness, but Lisa came into the room with the handset.

~Sorry to interrupt you, but it’s Don for Dec. Turn the sound down, Nico.

She gave me the handset as Nico paused the film.

‘Hi. It’s Declan.’

-Hello there. I just wanted to check with you, I realised this morning what a setback the timing of this operation would be for you. There’s a possibility of an earlier time, there’s been a cancellation. Could you do it tomorrow afternoon?

‘Tomorrow? Yes. Yes, I can do that.’

My heart leapt with hope – after the disappointment of this morning, I could hardly believe it was being given back to me.

-It would make a big difference to you being able to travel sooner, would give you almost a week to recover, and we’d be able to get that arm fixed up all the more quickly. But for you I think the important thing is you should still be able to spend Christmas with Jay and his family.

‘Don, thank you. Really, thank you so much. You don’t know how much I appreciate it.’

-I think I’ve got an idea of what it means, to all of you. OK. You need to remember not to eat anything after midnight tonight. Get a good night’s rest, the surgery is scheduled for three. You need to be there by twelve so they can check you out, give you pre-meds – actually, given your recent ability to concentrate on information, could you pass me back to Lisa, I’ll ask her to write it down.

I handed the phone back to Lisa. She looked at me, puzzled at the big grin on my face, so I told her the latest news, then handed her the phone so she could take down the details.

Now my trip to Stafford was on again, there were some things I wanted to sort out – it suddenly felt like there was no time to lose. Nico was happy to search online for an Optimus Prime instead of watching the end of the film, and he persuaded me to let him drive me to the retail park on the way back to Rose’s so we could buy it.

I was elated now. I was finding it hard to control my moods, swinging from crashing through the floor to spiralling to the ceiling when I should have been able to deal with things better. In between times I was having difficulty concentrating. I tried to calm down, pushed thoughts of the operation right to the back of my mind and allowed myself a bit of happiness.

Lis had finished talking to Don, and had a list of things he wanted me to remember. She made me put it in my pocket to read later and show to Rose, and for once I wasn’t annoyed at the implication that I couldn’t look after myself. I was starting to realise that it could be a good thing when people wanted to help out. This was just as well, because Lis had more helping out lined up for me.

~Dec, please don’t think I’m interfering, but would you like me to get a present for you for Beth, or Jay?

‘Er … I hadn’t thought. Bollocks, I should really shouldn’t I?’

~Totally up to you, just wondered if you wanted any help. You blokes are rubbish at presents, on the whole.

>Is true, I still don’t shop yet. Poor Lis.

‘What should I get?’

I’d never really done a great deal for Christmas presents, but this year it felt different, like I wanted to make an effort. I was out of ideas, though.

~Well, why don’t you let me find something? I’ve got to go into town tomorrow, to buy my own Christmas present from Nico by the sounds of it. I’ll sort something. As long as you get Cal’s Transformer tonight, that’s the main thing.

I looked at Lisa gratefully and nodded my thanks.

>We must go back to Rose, she need to know about tomorrow. We ask if she is here for you when you go home on Thursday.

Nico was right. Having the operation tomorrow might mean I wasn’t going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas, but that depended on her plans.

‘Shit, didn’t think of that. Bloody hell, why is everything so fucking complicated?’

>Ha, is lucky we have Lis’s list to help us. We buy toys, then see Rose and drink more tea. Easy.

Rose had just got home when we got there, and was still taking her coat off.

:Hello, loves. Are you only just getting back now?

‘I went back to Nico’s this afternoon. Had a bit of a morning, to be honest.’

:Tell me about it while I put the kettle on. What did they say? How’s your arm?

I filled Rose in on the latest news about my operation, which surprised her but didn’t faze her at all, gave her the list of things Don wanted me to remember, and checked she would be alright about looking after me when I came back. Rose was working tomorrow, so Lis would take me in for the op, but there were things Rose wanted to sort immediately.

:You’ll need to pack a bag, won’t you?

‘Probably.’

:Pyjamas, toothbrush, that kind of thing?

‘Probably.’

Rose sighed and rolled her eyes in the face of my appalling lack of organisation.

:Alright, love, I’ll do your thinking for you, get your stuff together. Any news from the police on your bank card or any of the other business?

‘I haven’t been here all day, not unless they’ve left a message.’

:We’ll check the phone in a minute then. Do you still want to go upstairs, check your flat?

I’d put my flat to the back of my mind, but now Rose had mentioned it, I wanted to get it over with. If I was out of action from tomorrow, I wanted to go up there now to take stock. Didn’t want it hanging over me for another few days. I nodded.

:Coming, Nico?

>Huh, sure. Is clean now?

:Yes, love, they did it yesterday. Had to chuck most of it, I think it’s bare bones. Declan didn’t want to go up on his own.

>Huh, I understand. We go, then.

I followed Rose and Nico up the stairs and into my flat. It had only been a couple of days since I was last there, but it felt like a lifetime had passed. I let Rose open the door, and she and Nico walked in ahead of me. A bleachy waft floated up my nose.

:Hm, smells clean at any rate.

I hesitated in the doorway. This was harder than I’d expected. I looked past the door. The whole place was completely bare. The only furniture I’d had in the living room was the couch, the small table the television had been on and the phone table; they had all gone. The carpet had been taken up, leaving bare boards which looked like they’d been scrubbed or cleaned in some way. I hadn’t had any personal possessions to speak of, so I found it hard to say what I felt was missing, but something more than ‘stuff’ had gone. There was a small pile of mail on the floor by the door, and to shift the focus from the room, I sorted through it. Mostly junk, a couple of bills which I kept to pay later. I became aware that Rose and Nico were watching me.

‘What?’

:You alright, love? It’s a bit different, isn’t it.

‘Yeah, feels a bit weird, like it’s not my place. Better look in the other rooms I guess.’

I looked into the kitchen. The fridge and all the cupboards were open and completely empty.

‘What happened to all my food?’

:They smashed it all up, love, all your jars, tins opened and emptied, there was mess everywhere mixed with who knows what all over the place. Sorry love. It’s best not to know.

I wandered into the bedroom. Bed had been stripped, no mattress or carpet. Cupboards and drawers were open, nothing in them. It felt like I’d been burgled. For all I knew, I had. They had left me nothing in any case. I sat on the bare mattress, feeling shaken, until Rose and Nico came to find me. Nico sat next to me and put his arm round my shoulder.

>Declan, this is horrible. I think we go downstairs. Come back when there is carpet, you put things in your cupboards, and is yours again. There is no alma, no soul here, no Declan now. We bring your things when you are better, help then.

I nodded. I almost wished I hadn’t come up, but it was better to know, rather than keep wondering. I got up, and walked out, leaving Rose and Nico to follow and shut the door behind them.

Back in Rose’s flat, away from the reality of my own place and what had happened up there, who had done it, and what it meant, I managed to push it all down, away from me; far enough away that I couldn’t feel it any more I felt a bit better.

I focussed on what I needed to do for tomorrow. No food after midnight meant I had to eat well tonight, and make sure I drank enough to stay hydrated. Which meant water instead of tea, although Rose was going to take some persuading. I was looking forward to being able to shower, once the plaster was off and my arm worked a bit better. I felt very unclean, especially as I was a bit clumsy washing myself, and hadn’t done it properly for days; my hair felt greasy, as did the rest of me. Rose pottered about getting things together to put in a bag, in-between making a lasagne for tea. Nico chatted for a bit, then had to go.

>Lis, she see you tomorrow. Good luck, I call the hospital later to check all is good. I come to see you also.

I scrounged some wrapping paper from Rose and made a complete balls-up of trying to wrap Cal’s present. In the end, Rose took over and did it for me. It had taken a while, and a lot of people repeatedly telling me to stop being obstinate, but I was finally prepared to accept a little bit of help. I would have a lot of paying back to do when I could do more for myself.

Dinner eaten, bag packed, list of instructions gone over, Rose’s soaps watched, and a call made to Jay and Beth to tell them about my operation, I decided to go to bed and prepare for the next day by getting as much sleep as I could. I downed some painkillers, which I was pleased to note I hadn’t needed as much as the day before. Struggled out of my clothes and, for Rose’s sake, threw them on the chair instead of leaving them on the floor. Sat on the bed, turned the light off, manoeuvred myself under the duvet. I had only been with Rose for two nights, but it felt comfortable and familiar. Slept.

Dreaming. I am flying, soaring, feeling the best I have ever felt. I can go anywhere, see anyone I want, all over the world. I play rugby with the lads, I play football with Cal, I kiss girls, I swim, I laugh, I run, until a man in brown boots trips me up and I come tumbling down, head over heels, crashing all the way, ripping my face, breaking my arms. I lie helpless on the floor and see his boot coming towards me –

I woke in a cold sweat, disoriented, shaking, face and arms hurting. My nose was throbbing. I’d taken the nose-guard off yesterday after seeing Lee, and although the break wasn’t too bad, and had been reset, there was still a lot of swelling and bruising. I lay on my back, breathing heavily, trying to calm myself.

It was completely dark, very early in the morning. I heard a door open. There was a light tap on my door. Rose’s voice, barely above a whisper.

:You alright, love? Thought I heard a shout.

‘Had a dream. Come in.’

The door opened and Rose came in slowly.

:I won’t put the light on, but am I going to trip over anything?

‘No, nothing on the floor. You’re OK.’

She hesitated by the bed, then knelt down beside it.

:Worried about tomorrow?

‘Don’t think so, just had this dream, it was a really good one, flying, then it all went wrong and turned into someone kicking my face in.’

:Just a dream, love. Try to go back to sleep. It’s really early.

She pushed my hair back from my forehead, as she had done before, and again I was reminded of my mum. I calmed down a bit, my eyes started to droop, and I fell back to sleep while Rose was still kneeling by the bed. No more dreams, just floating in the black.

Rose woke me the next day, no tea and toast, just a glass of water. She sat on the edge of my bed while I drank, making sure I remembered the schedule for the day.

:I’ve put my mobile and work numbers in your bag. If anyone gets a chance to ring me after it’s all done, I’d be grateful. I’ll come and see you later, once I know you’re awake, although I’m getting a bit too used to visiting you in hospitals, love. Right, I need to get on, can’t be late.

She seemed reluctant to leave the room and spent a little time folding my clothes and straightening things up.

‘Thanks, Rose. Don’t be late for work.’

:No love, just fussing. I know you’ll be alright.

She gave me a weak smile and left the room. I wasn’t quite sure of the time, but Rose left for work at eight thirty, so I guessed at some time before eight. I didn’t want to fall back to sleep, so, sighing, I swung my legs over the side of the bed, ignoring the protests from various stabbing niggles, and sat up. I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, trying to gather my thoughts and pull together the energy to get washed and dressed.

I’d have to wait until Rose had finished in the bathroom, but chose some clothes from the pile Lis had bought. Decided to give jeans a go, I had enough time before I left to get the zip and buttons done up. Nice, easy, comfy t-shirt and hoody to go on top. Finally, Rose’s voice floated through the door.

:Bathroom’s free.

I stood up and started my day.

Rose seemed distracted. She told me the same things twice, she checked over and over again that I had her phone numbers. She kept finding things to do that delayed her leaving for work. In the end, I almost had to push her out of the door. She made a big deal of looking in her bag for her keys.

‘Rose, go to work, you’re already late. I’ll be fine, you’ve organised me thoroughly.’

:I know, love, I’m just a bit worried about you, that’s all.

‘Don’t worry, it’s routine, I’ll be back tomorrow, needing all sorts of TLC.’

:I know, love. Oh, look at me.

A few tears had started to leak out of her eyes. She dabbed them with a tissue. I gave her as good a hug as I could manage with my malfunctioning arms and kissed her on the cheek with my bruised lips.

‘Go on. Try not to think about it. Don’t get the sack because of me.’

:No, you’re right love.

She took a deep breath, put her tissue back in her pocket, patted me on the cheek and left.

That left the rest of the morning to keep myself occupied. I checked the list from Don, everything seemed taken care of. I flipped the TV on, but it was full of rubbish I didn’t want to watch. I really wasn’t very good at sitting still, despite having had enough practice in the past few days. I checked my bag again, even though I knew Rose had packed and re-packed it last night. I kept wandering into the kitchen in search of food, then remembering I couldn’t eat. I was getting pretty hungry, just needed to concentrate.

DI Johnson phoned. He had some news on my bank card, which had been found in a bin some miles away from the club. They had checked it, and it had been used to withdraw all the money from my account, which amounted to a few hundred pounds. He wondered how they had known my PIN number, but as this was on a piece of paper in my wallet it wouldn’t have required much of a criminal brain to work it out. There didn’t seem to be much news about DivDav, or at least nothing he would tell me.

ϙWe’re following up your information.

Was all he would say. So that was it. I officially had nothing. No stuff, no money, nothing to call my own. I started a small pity party in my honour, and then remembered that, actually, Nico and Lis had bought me a shitload of clothes to call my own, and yeah, maybe I didn’t have much in the way of possessions, but against all the odds, I had friends a kind of family and a job, and life was looking up. So I put away the ‘Poor Me’ balloons for another time.

A short time after my conversation with DI Johnson, the intercom buzzed. It was Lis.

~I know I’m early, thought you might want some company. Are you up and about?

It was good to see someone, and she had brought presents to wrap up for Jay, Beth and Rose. I hadn’t thought about Rose. Being a worthless piece of shit, I didn’t have much time to think about thanking the people who meant the most to me. I hadn’t even thought about Lis and Nico, and I tried to apologise for this, and for all the money Lis had spent on my behalf over the last few days. She silenced me with a look.

~Stop that. We’ve had this conversation. Now, here’s the paper, do you know where Rose keeps her scissors and sellotape?

We had a rummage in some drawers and managed to find both, then set about wrapping the presents. Lis had got some kind of posh bubble bath stuff for Beth and Rose, and a remote control car for Jay; they were in boxes, and would have been easy to wrap if I hadn’t had my own special wrapping in the shape of the cast. So, instead, my plaster cast acted as a sellotape dispenser, and I handed Lis the scissors when needed; that was as far as my contribution to this year’s Christmas presents went.

~OK, we’ll put these in your room ready to go on Tuesday. Leave Rose’s here on the table for when she gets back from work. Right, it’s still a bit early, but why don’t we get going? Might as well wait there as here.

It seemed reasonable, and I was starting to get nervous; doing something seemed better than not, for now. Lis picked up my bag and we went out to her car.

Once at the hospital, we found the department we needed and announced ourselves. Although we were a bit early, my room was apparently ready, and we were shown in. I had to get into a gown and into bed, which felt a bit weird, but there were lots of doctors who were going to come to see me, and things they needed to check and test, and premeds to administer in the next few hours, as well as having the plaster taken off my arm before the operation. Lis sat in a chair, flicking through a magazine; I was preoccupied, and couldn’t think of anything to say, and worried she would be bored sitting with me while I fidgeted.

‘You don’t have to stay. It’s going to be pretty boring.’

She looked at me.

~I don’t have to, but I’m going to. I’ve got plenty to do, I’ve brought my laptop, might do a bit of work if your conversation gets really dull. But I’m going to be here. Nico’s going to come later this afternoon, and he’ll be here when you wake up, yeah? Nobody’s going to leave you on your own.

I looked back at her, silently relieved.

‘Thanks. I don’t deserve what you and Nico have done for me.’

That got me another look, one I couldn’t hold. I turned my head away, towards the window, so I didn’t have to see her face as she spoke.

~All me and Nico have done is try to make sure you’re not alone. Everyone deserves that.

I couldn’t meet her gaze, and she changed the subject.

The afternoon passed with visits from the surgeon, the anaesthetist, nurses with meds, someone who took the plaster off my arm, and the tea trolley. It was a pretty spectacular tea trolley. By now I was really hungry, but had to pass it all up, although I saw Lis look longingly at the cakes.

‘Go on. Do it for me. I can’t.’

It was the least I could do after she had spent the afternoon with me; she didn’t take much persuading.

~Oh alright, if I’m doing it for you.

She chose a piece of chocolate fudge cake and ‘wow’ed her way through it.

~That was awesome. Please have lots more operations, Dec. I will gladly sit with you through all of them.

Just before three o’clock, I was asked to sign a consent form. Then I was asked to get on a trolley, ready to be wheeled down to the operating theatre. Lis took my hand, and kissed me on the cheek. I suddenly felt scared and alone, and tears pricked my eyes.

~You’ll be fine, Dec. Nico will be here when you wake up. In fact, he’ll probably wake you up early with his chattering. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine, yeah? You will.

She let go of my hand and the porter took the trolley away down the corridor. I watched the ceiling go past. Entered the theatre, a white room with a large operating table in the middle. Was moved from the trolley to the table. Covered with paper sheet. The surgeon and anaesthetist were both there, gowned up, only their eyes showing. The mask was put over my face, I counted backwards from a hundred, all the way down to ninety eight and knew no more.

Dreaming. Someone is shouting and punching me. I fall to the floor. Big is kicking my arm, hard. A brown boot hurtles towards my face.

23. Dream a little dream

In which boundaries are established, an invitation is made and considered, and dreams of brown boots begin in earnest.

Dec

:Feels good to be outside, eh, love?

‘Great. Where’s your car?’

:I had to park quite a way away, but you wait here and I’ll come and pick you up. Here’s a bench, look. I won’t be long.

I thought about insisting on going with her, but I was flagging and my legs had begun to ache. The constant jogging of my collar bone wasn’t helping either. Decided for once not to be needlessly stubborn. I sat on the bench, closed my eyes and waited.

Footsteps and voices all around me. The sound of the entrance doors swishing open and closed. Cars pulling up and pulling away. The occasional ringtone. Sun on my face and breeze in my hair. Relative freedom. Let my mind drift while I waited. Started to relax. Felt my shoulders untense, hadn’t realised how tight I’d been holding myself, since Rose told me about first my bag and then my flat. Concentrated on unwinding everything, mind and body. It felt like I needed several weeks rather than a few minutes, but it was a start. Had only scratched the surface when I felt a hand on my arm, and heard Rose’s voice.

:Declan, love, you asleep?

I opened my eyes.

‘Relaxing.’

:Oh is that what you call it. Come on love, here’s the car. You sure you’ll be able to get in alright? I’m a bit worried about that plaster cast –

‘Give it a try.’

I stood up, wandered over to Rose’s car and slowly got in. It was quite a tight squeeze, even though the seat was all the way back. My right arm, in its unbending cast, threatened to get in the way of the handbrake and Rose’s gear changes.

:Don’t worry, I’ll work round you.

She was trying to sound cheerful, but Rose wasn’t a confident driver and I could see she was a bit worried. I shifted as far to the left in my seat as I could and tried to hold my arm on my lap. Rose had to put my seat belt on for me.

:It’s not really that far, won’t take long.

Sounding like she was trying to convince herself, she started the engine and we set off. She drove very slowly, taking great care with all the gear changes. The flats were over on the other side of the city, but the traffic was fairly light. Rose didn’t say a word to me, she was concentrating so hard on driving, hands gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles were white, teeth chewing on her bottom lip.

I looked around me as she drove, noticing all the lights and sparkle. Was it nearly Christmas? I thought back to the weekend and counted forwards to what the date must be today. Hadn’t really been paying attention. Must only be ten days or so to go. Hadn’t given it a thought, I’d been so preoccupied with everything else that had been going on. Christmas seemed largely irrelevant just at the moment, but the rest of the world obviously didn’t share my opinion.

We finally pulled up outside Rose’s garage. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, got out of the car, and came round to open my door.

:Alright, love, here we are then. Let’s go in and have a cuppa and a bit of cake.

‘Thanks a lot, Rose.’

:Get on with you, always got tea and cake on the go.

‘I mean for everything. Really, thanks.’

:Well, remember our deal, as long as you want it, I’ll stick my oar in. Still a deal?

‘Deal.’

As we reached Rose’s front door, I glanced up the staircase, and of course it was noticed.

:I’ll go and check on how things are going in a minute, get you settled first. Don’t go up yourself, love. Try not to think about it.

Rose led me inside and into the lounge, where she made me sit in her comfy armchair. Bringing me a cup of tea and a large piece of fruit cake, she headed off to check on my flat, as I sipped carefully and ate slowly.

Rose came back, accompanied by Tony, the landlord. He told me the police had finished in my flat, had taken some samples and photos, but they wanted to talk to me. He didn’t paint a pretty picture of the inside of my flat, it seemed like virtually everything I had up there had been ruined, and I was doubly glad I had already agreed to stay with Rose.

Tony had arranged a cleaning firm for the next day, and started to talk about costs and insurance, before Rose gave him a stern look, but I couldn’t blame him for bringing up the subject.

‘Kay, thanks, let me know.’

*It’s all locked up again now, I’ve had the locks changed – here’s your new keys, for both of you. The cleaning firm will get the keys off me, I’ll let you know when it’s all done.

‘Thanks.’

:Thanks, Tony, thanks for sorting it all out for Declan – he’s not really in a fit state to do it himself.

*No problem, let me know if there’s any hassle tomorrow.

Rose showed him to the door, then came back, looked at me and sat down on her sofa.

:Right, love, I think we need a list of things to do.

‘Really? What things?’

:Well, getting you some new clothes for a start. We also need to let people know where you are, organise some people to sit with you while I’m at work –

‘What? No, don’t need that.’

:I can’t go off to work tomorrow and leave you here on your own.

‘You bloody can, I’m OK.’

:I’m out all day, love. I took today off so I could be around, but I can’t get tomorrow off.

‘I’m fine. physios said.’

:They said you can walk. Don’t see you doing much else for yourself for a while. Come on, love, humour me, I won’t relax if I’m worrying about you.

‘Don’t need babysitting.’

:No, alright, fair enough, how about someone popping in just to check? Have a chat? I know Nico wants to, he’s asked me to ring him.

I sighed, I wasn’t going to completely win; I could foresee lots of compromising in my future.

‘OK, visits is fine. No sitters.’

Rose sat back, satisfied, and I had a sense that she had haggled me down to where she had wanted me in the first place.

Cal

Then, before tea, Mum got the phone and let me press the button to call Rose. I gave the phone to Mum, because she wanted to talk to Rose first.

Mum talked to Rose about how Dec was, and said a lot of ‘oh no, that’s terrible’ and ‘oh poor love, how is he’, and I was worried for a little while that Dec was too hurt or too sad to talk to us, but soon Mum stopped saying ‘oh no’, and looked at me.

Dec

I couldn’t hear much of what Rose said, as her phone was in the hallway, but from her lowered voice I assumed she was talking to someone about me. I realised this was something else I would get lots of in the near future. After a while Rose came back into the room holding the handset.

:Want to talk to Beth?

I smiled broadly and put my hand out for the phone. It still felt incredible that she wanted to talk to me.

‘Hi Beth.’

_Dec, lovely to hear your voice. You sound much better. How are you, sweetheart?

‘Getting there.’

_Rose tells me you’ve had some more trouble. Are you OK?

‘Getting there.’

_Alright, then, I’ll stop fussing. There’s someone here would like to ask you something. Are you OK to talk to Cal?

‘Great.’

Cal

Mum held the phone out to me.

‘Come on Cal, Dec’s ready now.’

She whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t forget what we said,’

I whispered back: ‘I know, Mummy.’

Then I took the phone and forgot everything we’d practised.

‘Dec, can you talk now?’

Dec

‘I can talk better, yeah. Thanks for helping me out when I was in hospital.’

\can you come and live with us on Christmas?

‘Oh … er … ‘

I was completely thrown. Was Cal asking me to spend Christmas with them? I had not thought beyond this afternoon. Planning for a major event in – what? – a week or so was far out of my reach. Had assumed I would be here at Rose’s for, hmm, a couple of weeks? Did that include Christmas? But if they were asking me to go there to stay, if they wanted me there, in their home … what if they were asking me to live with them again …

Cal

I’d expected Dec to be really pleased and excited, but he stopped talking altogether. He could talk again, and although his voice still sounded a bit funny, everyone would be able to know what he was saying, so I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t talking.

‘Mummy he’s being quiet.’

‘Er, yeah, sorry Cal, just thinking. Don’t know if I can answer you just yet. Can I talk to Mummy?’

‘Mummy – talk to Dec.’

I handed the phone to Mum, hoping that I hadn’t somehow messed things up. What I’d said wasn’t what we practised, and maybe I’d done it so wrong that Dec would say no. I hadn’t considered Dec saying no until now, and I clung on to Mum while she talked, feeling worried.

Dec

_Hi Dec, sorry, sweetheart, that was a bit different than we rehearsed. I shouldn’t think you’ve had a chance to think about Christmas yet.

‘Not really. Is it next week?’

_A week on Thursday. You are a bit out of it, aren’t you? I just had a quick chat with Rose. We really want to see you, but we’re not going to be able to make it down there for a while. But if you think you’ll be fit enough, and if you’d like to come up, we’d love to have you here for Christmas. Cal would absolutely love it. He’s talked about you non-stop since we left you yesterday.

Cal

This was true. I’d asked all sorts of questions about where Dec had been, what he’d been doing, why he’d been gone, but none of them had really been answered. The only things Mum and Dad would talk about were how long it was going to take Dec to get better, and all the things I wanted to know about his cuts and bruises, and things at the hospital, like the wee bag and the water bag. Still, it was a lot better than not being allowed to talk about Dec at all.

Dec

‘James and I would love it too. James really wants a good talk. We’ve all missed you, sweetheart.’

So it was just for Christmas. I was immediately overwhelmed with conflicting feelings – disappointment that it was just for Christmas, and not forever; relief that I wasn’t going to have to think about whether I stayed here or moved to where they were; joy that they wanted me to spend time with them. Tears welled up and spilled down my face, taking me by surprise. I had the phone in one hand and couldn’t bend my other arm, so couldn’t wipe my eyes. I sniffed.

‘I … er … don’t know what to say.’

What I wanted to say was ‘yes, yes, fuck yes’, but I looked over at Rose, who was turning the pages of a magazine, pretending she wasn’t listening intently. I really didn’t want to upset her, didn’t know what plans she’d made, after she’d been good enough to give me a room in her home. Bloody hell, being looked after was hard work.

_Well there’s plenty of time, have a think and let us know, OK?’

Cal

I suddenly remembered my Transformer dilemma and tugged on Mum’s arm.

‘Yes, alright Cal. Dec, are you OK for another word with Cal?’

She handed the phone over again.

‘Dec, I haven’t got a Optimus Prime yet.’

‘Really? Did you put it in your letter to Santa?’

‘No, because you were going to get it on my birthday, and then you didn’t get it on my birthday, and I didn’t put it in Santa’s letter because I don’t want two Optimus Primes.’

‘Oh, OK … well … sorry for the confusion. Me and Santa will sort it out. OK?’

‘Kay. Bye.’

Dec

I laughed at his abruptness. Beth came back on the line; she was laughing too.

_I don’t know what he likes more – your promises of Transformers or your cool scars. I’m a bit worried he’s going to get into a fight so he can look more like you.

‘Shit, Beth, don’t say that.’

_As long as he doesn’t start swearing like you, he’ll be OK.

‘Sorry.’

_Honestly, you and James are as bad as each other. Maybe you’re a bit worse than James. I suppose it’s up to me to keep Cal on the straight and narrow.

‘You are good at it.’

_No help from you! Anyway, let us know what you think about Christmas, sweetheart. No rush, short notice is fine. Want a quick word with James?

‘Yeah.’

The more I talked to them, the more real it felt. It was filtering into my brain that I might not have lost them forever after all.

łHey mate.

‘Hey.’

łHow’s it going?

‘Getting there.’

łYeah, and really, how’s it going.

I paused. This was an opportunity to put right some of the things that had caused this mess in the first place. Not bottling things up, saying how I was really feeling, being honest, asking for help. Not easy. Deep breath.

‘Still pretty shit. I’m a bit of a wreck. And my flat was broken into, everything trashed.’

łJesus, Dec, I didn’t know. That’s all you need. You’re staying with Rose, though?

‘Yeah, she’s been bloody great.’

I looked over at Rose and grinned at her. ‘Bit bossy, but I can take it.’

łShe’s more than a match for you, mate. How’s all your aches and pains?

‘Getting there. Honest. Better than yesterday.’

łYou sound much better – well I can understand you for a start. Nico said you fell out of bed?

‘Bloody hell, can’t do anything round here. Yeah, but no damage. Pulled a few stitches. Big bruise on my arse. Fucking hurt. Felt a bit of a twat. No more.’

łOK, glad to hear it. Be strong, mate, stay positive. See you soon.

There was a catch in Jay’s voice that I really didn’t want to investigate.

‘Hope so. Bye.’

I put the phone down and rested my head back against the chair, blowing my cheeks out. Looked over at Rose, who put down the magazine she hadn’t been reading and looked at me.

‘They want me to go up for Christmas.’

I couldn’t read Rose’s expression.

:What do you want to do?

Well that was the question. I hadn’t given Christmas a thought, but now I was remembering the last three Christmases, which I had spent with Jay, Beth and Cal. They had put to rest the ghosts of several miserable festive seasons in various foster homes, and to be part of their Christmas now would mean a lot – to be with them at all, but especially for Christmas. It was just the thing to help me get over the seemingly constant stream of bad things that had happened to me in the last few days.

On the other hand, I couldn’t bear to let Rose down. I didn’t know what she was expecting or wanted. Before yesterday, she hadn’t been planning a house-guest, and would have been organising something else, somewhere else, for weeks.

‘Kind of depends on you.’

:Don’t be daft, love. Don’t worry about me. The only thing I will say is, it’s a long way to Stafford, are you up to the journey?

I ignored the last part, apart from briefly wondering just how far away Stafford was.

‘What were you planning, before me?’

:That’s not important, love. Just do what makes you happy.

‘For fuck’s sake, Rose … sorry … what I mean is, if I wasn’t here, what would you be doing for Christmas? Please tell me.’

:Well, as you asked so nicely, in the end, I was going to go to my sister’s, same as every year.

‘Looking forward to it or not?’

Rose hesitated, as if trying to decide whether her answer would sway my decision.

:We get on really well, you know that, and I love seeing Gethin, he’s about the same age as you, did I tell you?

‘Might have mentioned it.’ A few zillion times.

:But if you need me here, I’ll stay. I can see them any time.

Finally, I knew what I needed to.

‘No, I think I’ll go. Sort something out to get there, get the train or something. Where exactly is Stafford?’

:I can take you, drop you off on the way.

‘Rose, you get nervous driving out of the garage. No fucking way you’re taking me. I doubt it’s ‘on the way’ to Pontypool.

:Cheek, I’m a good driver, very careful.

‘Whatever you say. But you’re not taking me. End of.’

Rose gave me a look that suggested I hadn’t heard the last of this conversation, but stood up and said she was going to start some dinner. I felt exhausted at the thought of all the battles I was going to have with Rose over the next few days. I closed my eyes, and must have dozed off, as I suddenly felt a shake on my shoulder.

:Come on love, tea’s ready.

‘What, already?’

:You’ve been asleep. Not as tough as you thought, eh? Want it here on your lap, or at the table in the kitchen?

‘Table.’

Cal

I heard Dad talk to Dec for a little while, and then Mum and Dad were talking to each other. I thought about listening outside the room again, but I just wanted to know if Dec was coming for Christmas, so I went straight in.

‘When is Dec coming?’

‘He hasn’t decided yet, sweetheart. I think we surprised him. He might not be able to come.’

‘Oh, but, I want him to.’

‘I know, Cal, but Dec’s got to make his own mind up. He’ll let us know, when he’s thought about it.’

‘When will he?’

‘I don’t know. Try not to think about it, until we hear from him.’

I tried really hard not to think about it, but it’s difficult not to think about something you’re trying really hard not to think about, especially if it’s something you’re excited about, and something to do with Christmas, which isn’t far away. I really wanted to be with Dec again, so we could play, and tell jokes, and watch Arsenal, and read stories, and do mouth and bottom burps, like we always did.

Dec

Half way through the meal, the phone rang again. Rose answered, and took the call in the lounge. I was getting a bit annoyed at her tendency to discuss me first out of earshot – nothing had happened to me that I didn’t know about, and I knew she thought she was considering my feelings, but nonetheless it was irritating. Decided to wander into the lounge, with my plate balanced precariously in my left hand, to have a listen.

: … talk to the police, they’ve taken samples – oh hello love. Everything alright?

‘Apart from being talked about behind my back, yeah.’

Rose gave me a steely look.

:It’s Nico. Perhaps you’d like to talk to him?

‘Thanks.’

I put my plate down and took the handset from her.

‘Hey.’

>Declan, you are not nice to Rose. She worry about you, and we talk last night while you are not here. She tell me about your flat just now. I worry. The one who take your key, and piss in your bag, he is the same, I know it. You know who do it before.

I was silent. I had my suspicions, but naming DivDav out loud was not something I could do easily. He was a mate, and if he wasn’t, he had made a fool of me.

>Declan, you are there?

‘Yeah. I … I’m not sure. We don’t know for definite. I don’t think he would –’

>He do it before, you know this.

‘I just saw him this morning, we made up, shook hands, we were OK.’

>You must tell the police. They will find out.

‘Maybe. Not tonight.’

>Huh. OK. Soon though.

‘Kay.’

>And be nice to Rose, she try hard for you.

‘I know.’

>Lis want to see you, she like a man with stitches. We come tonight?

‘I guess, if you can get past Rose.’

>Rose love to see me. Lis love to see Rose. You love to see us both. Good. We are there soon.

Having been thoroughly Nicoed, I finished my plateful and took it back into the kitchen, where Rose was clearing away the tea table.

‘Sorry, Rose, just getting a bit fed up of being talked about when I’m out of the room. I don’t mind if you talk to people about me, just like to know what you’re saying, that’s all.’

:I know, love, sorry too, just trying to spare your feelings with going over it all again. I should have remembered from before how you are with being talked about.

‘Nico and Lis are coming over.’

Rose’s face lit up.

:Oh, that’s grand. When are they coming?

‘I think they’re on their way.’

Her face fell.

:Better do some tidying up, then.

I looked around at the spotless kitchen.

‘Why?’

:Got to look nice for visitors.

‘OK, give me a duster.’

:Cheeky, doesn’t need dusting.

‘Hoover then.’

:Or hoovering.

I looked at her. She looked back. I think I won that one.

:Alright then. You go back and sit down, I’ll get a nice packet of biscuits and put the kettle on.

I let her get on with fussing in the kitchen, went back to the living room, flicked the TV on for some early evening meaninglessness. Sat with my eyes closed, letting it wash over me until I suddenly heard my name.

*… Summers. Police are investigating an assault at the Raiders stadium on Saturday night. It is understood that the young player, who is at the centre of Raiders’ points deduction scandal, was attacked after Saturday’s victory over Chieftains, and has spent the weekend in hospital. His injuries are reported to be serious but not life-threatening. No further details are known at this time.

They showed an old photo of me, from the haircut I was about seventeen. It brought it all home. I still had no memory of Saturday evening, apart from the little flashes that presented themselves at odd times when I stretched my stitches or moved too quickly and set off a twinge.

I had actually been beaten up. Someone had wanted to physically hurt me and had done me some pretty major damage. And then, as if that message wasn’t enough someone had come to my home and trashed that too. I shied away from the thought that ‘someone’ might be a person or people I knew, as it was terrifying. It suddenly occurred to me that Rose could be at risk if ‘someone’ knew I was staying with her.

‘Rose!’

She came hurrying into the room.

:What’s the matter, love?

‘Don’t let anyone in, be really careful. Lock your doors, front and back.’

:What are you talking about, love?

‘It’s not safe. I don’t know if they know I’m here.’

:Are you feeling alright, love? You’re not making any sense.

I knew I wasn’t, I was trying to explain but feeling a sense of urgency, and it was all getting jumbled up. Deep breaths.

‘OK. Sorry. Whoever did this –’

I gestured at myself

‘– and my flat, it could be the same person. They must know me, know where I live, and if they know I’m staying here who knows what else they might try. I don’t want you to let anyone in, even if they say they’re a friend.’

:Oh, love, you’re safe here, no one gets past my front door. I assume Nico is on the guest list?

I conceded that point.

‘But no one else. Not until I know who did it. And don’t just buzz people in until you know who they are. And don’t tell them I’m here, even if they sound like they know. And you need to sort out your back door, it’s too easy to get over the wall. Keep it locked, and you need a bolt or something.’

:Alright, then.’

Rose looked amused, then frowned.

‘But do you think someone you know might have done all this? You should tell the police if you’ve remembered anything.

‘Not sure, don’t want to be wrong.’

:Oh love, you’ve got to say something.

‘I know. Tomorrow?’

She sat down beside me and patted my hand.

:It’s a funny old time for you, isn’t it love? I think you’re coping really well with everything. You’ve had quite a few ups and downs over the last few days, you need time just to sort through it. I think some peace and quiet here, then some time with your family at Christmas is just what you need.

The door entry buzzer went.

:Well, I don’t think we’ll be starting the peace and quiet until after Nico has been …’

‘Check it’s him, don’t let him in till you’re sure.’

:Alright, love …

I could hear her on the intercom in the hallway.

:Who is this? … What are you here for? … No, just checking … Alright, love, come in.

She went to open her front door. I wasn’t sure Rose’s security measures would be up to much, and it continued to gnaw away at me. Voices from the hallway.

>What happens, Rose, why these questions?

:Sorry, love, Declan is having some kind of panic about safety. Wants to make sure nobody gets in who might … oh I don’t know, you’d better ask him yourself.

She showed Nico and Lisa into the living room. I shuffled up on the sofa to make room. Lisa bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

~You’re looking lots better.

I smiled at her.

‘Thanks. Getting there.’

~Sounding it too. Just as well, seeing as Cal’s not here to translate.

>What is this security nonsense?

‘Not nonsense, don’t want Rose to get hurt. Just need to check people before letting them in.’

>There is only one person you need to check. You know this.

:No, Nico. I can’t be sure. I’m not talking about this now. OK?

~OK Dec.

Lisa sat next to me and took my hand. She reached up to Nico and pulled him down next to her.

~Let’s not get stressed, yeah? We’ve come to see Dec and help him feel better, not start going on at him. Rose, did you say the kettle was on?

:Yes, love, there’s some chocolate biscuits too.

~I’ll come and give you a hand. Nico, behave yourself.

>Ha, always, baby.

He gave her a cheeky grin. Rose and Lisa left the room. I turned the TV off, and I could hear their voices in the kitchen as they got to know each other.

>Sorry, man. You know I worry. We promise Jaime we look after you. I forget you don’t like to be looked after. You are problem.

‘I worry too, about Rose.’

>I know this. She is strong, I think. Very clever. Cares very much. She – oh, she bring tea and biscuits. Tremendo!

We sat and chatted, or rather Rose, Nico and Lis chatted while I mostly listened. Even though my speech was back to normal, talking was still painful, my mouth was bruised and the stitches pulled. I was feeling tired, and there was something emotional there too. When I’d been battered and bruised as a result of playing, it was like battle scars. But this, these marks that had been deliberately put there by someone, well there was nothing glorious about it at all. I had felt similar things when I’d been battered in the training sessions after my suspension – the bruises themselves were physically insignificant, but psychologically they were hard to overcome. This was worse – someone had meant to do me a serious injury. I couldn’t think about it, but I couldn’t ignore it either, and it put me on edge.

Rose was still conscious of my earlier tantrum about being talked about, and checked with me with her eyes before saying anything. I gave her a nod, and she told Nico and Lis about my lack of anything to wear.

~So you haven’t got any other clothes than what you’ve got on?

I shook my head.

~Well I think we need to get onto that first thing tomorrow. I’m not working, I’ll go and get you some stuff, yeah? Tell me your sizes, which shops you like, maybe we can have a look on the internet – Rose have you got a computer?

:Sorry, love, not up with all this technology. All I can do to work my mobile phone.

Lis got her phone out, but couldn’t get a signal.

~Oh, OK, know what, I’ll just pop home and get my laptop. Then make a list. Soon have you sorted.

Lisa stood up, put her hand out to Nico for the car keys, and left. As the door closed behind her, I had a sudden thought.

‘Wallet.’

:What, love?

‘Never got my wallet back. Would have been in my bag with the keys. Shit.’

>OK, Declan, now you must tell police. You must report stolen money. If they have your cards, you must do something.

‘Can’t pay for clothes.’

Nico let out an exasperated sigh.

>We pay. You don’t worry about clothes. But you must do this. Rose, you have a number for police?

Rose looked from me to Nico, battling with herself about what to do.

:Wasn’t it DI Johnson, love? He gave you his card, I put it in my bag somewhere …

She started rifling through her cavernous handbag, sorting through various pockets and bits of paper. Finally, she held a business card up. I found myself with my own battle – angry at the powerlessness that I was feeling, but relief that it might be sorted, and I might regain control over this part of the whole situation. At the moment everything felt out of my grasp and I hated it. I put my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes. Rose patted my shoulder.

:Alright, love, it’s for the best. Get it over with, if we can.

‘Mm.’

I had no more fight left; they could do what they wanted to. Rose handed the card to Nico.

:Here it is. Try this one, love. He’s the one who spoke to Declan yesterday.

>OK, I call now?

Nico looked at me, eyebrows raised. I looked at him and shrugged.

>Ha, is a Declan ‘yes’, I think. OK …

He dialled the number. Waited.

>Hello, my name is Nicolàs Tiago … yes … is me … I call about Declan Summers. I have information you should know … about both … I think we know who do this to Declan … we also think he take Declan’s wallet and keys … his name is David Allsop, he is player with Raiders.

I found it hard to listen to, tried to drift away, but Nico’s voice pulled me back.

>He do this before, not the beating, but the piss on the clothes. He in trouble at Raiders for treating Declan bad … what? … yes, he is here, he is not well, he is just from hospital. I phone for him … OK, I ask, I don’t think he talk tonight.

Nico looked at me.

>This policeman he want to talk to you, OK?

I looked back at him. I supposed I was going to have to do it sometime, but I was exhausted, my brain felt fuzzy, and all I could do was look at Nico and shake my head.

:Maybe tomorrow, love. I’ll get Declan to ring.

Rose, my guardian angel. Nico spoke into the phone again.

>I think not tonight, but he call you tomorrow … OK … yes … before eleven … OK … what you do now? We worry about him finding Declan again … OK … yes … OK … thank you.

He hung up. Breathed out.

>They talk to you tomorrow, can do nothing until then. He say if we worry, we call them again.

:Alright love, well you got that off your chest. I think we need to cancel Declan’s bank cards too – can you remember which ones you had in your wallet, love?

‘Only got one now. Not much in it.’

:Still, better safe than sorry. Which bank are you with?

I told her, and let her ring them for me. I was starting to feel sorry for myself again, very tired, a bit out of control, sad and confused about DivDav. The bank wouldn’t talk to Rose, hard as she tried to make them, so I sighed, took the phone. Gave them what details I could remember. They cancelled everything. I put the phone down on the arm of the sofa and flopped backwards.

‘Fucking knackered now.’

:I bet you are love. Banks always tire me out. Such a palaver.

>You do well. Now is less worry.

The intercom buzzer sounded, making me jump. Rose got up to answer it, as panic stabbed through me.

‘Don’t let them in if you don’t know them.’

:Relax, love, it’ll only be Lisa.

I was incredibly jumpy, and energy reserves on empty weren’t helping. Lis ran the gauntlet of Rose’s questioning, exaggerated for my benefit, then plonked herself down next to me and opened her laptop.

~I guess you haven’t got broadband, Rose, so I brought my dongle.

:If you say so, love, haven’t got a clue what that means, I’ll let you get on with it. More tea for anyone?

No one had much of a choice. Constant tea was the price you paid for visiting Rose. I wasn’t really up for online shopping, but I needed clothing pretty urgently. Especially pants and socks. Not that sure I wanted to discuss my underwear requirements with Lis, but didn’t have much choice – it was her or Rose.

‘Don’t have any money.’

>Declan just find out his wallet is gone from Saturday. We call the police and his bank, but I say we buy his clothes.

~Oh Dec, of course – oh my God, do you think it was the same –

>I know it is the same one. I tell the policeman.

~Sorry, Dec. He was a friend of yours, wasn’t he? Must be tough.

‘Mm.’

A look passed between Lis and Nico.

~Well, anyway, let’s not worry about that just now. We’ll have a look at a few bits, I’ll go and get them tomorrow and you can be best dressed of the year again. What’s first on the list?

‘Pants.’

~Oh Lord! OK, well I guess we don’t need to look at those, just tell me what you prefer and what size. I’ll believe you.

She winked at me. I gave her the information.

‘Socks. Size 11.’

~OK, another easy one.

‘T shirt, hoody, jeans. That’s it.’

~Alright, where do you usually shop?

‘Anywhere. Not fussy. Nothing fancy.’

>Ha, I think Declan shop in Primark for cheap but don’t want to say.

‘Primark is fine.’

~I think we can do a bit better than that for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll call it an early Christmas present, yeah? Ah – no arguing. It’s not cool to argue about Christmas presents.

Lis carried on talking about sizes and colours, showing me different pictures, I lost interest, becoming rapidly exhausted. Rose reappeared with more tea and biscuits.

:Did you know Declan’s going to Jay and Beth’s for Christmas?

~No! I knew they were going to ask. Oh Dec, that’s great news. What did Beth say?

‘Er, haven’t told them yet.’

~Well what are you bloody waiting for?

‘Need to sort transport, might not be possible.’

:I told you I’d take you.

‘And I told you it’s too fucking far.’

I couldn’t help snapping at Rose; I was tired of arguing about everything. As Rose and I stared each other down, this particular one felt like it could rumble on for some time; however, Lisa rolled her eyes at us and got involved.

~I’ll take you. I really want to see their new place, it’s a great excuse.

Rose and I looked at Lis, both trying to hide our relief.

>Ha, I laugh at you, Declan and Rose. So stubborn. You want to say yes, but you don’t say. I say for you. Yes, Lis will take Declan to Jaime‘s. Now, Declan, you phone to Beth and make her happy.

‘Are you sure, Lis?’

~Very sure. I can take you any time after Tuesday lunchtime. Let me know, yeah?

I gave her a huge smile, grateful and relieved.

‘Thank you. Very much.’

She smiled back. I reached for the phone again, but I didn’t know any numbers without my mobile.

‘Does anyone know their number?’

~It’s here, look.

Lisa showed me from her phone’s address book. I dialled, clumsily. Using my left hand to do everything was getting to be really annoying.

Cal

We had tea, and I played with my fire engine for a while, in Uncle Matty’s room. I heard the phone ringing, but no one picked it up to stop it ringing.

‘Yuh gona geh tha?’

I looked up at Uncle Matty. I loved answering the phone, but I wasn’t supposed to unless Mum or Dad were there. But if Uncle Matty had told me to, that was bound to be OK. So I ran into the living room, picked up the handset and pressed the button.

‘Hello who is it?’

‘Hi Cal, it’s Dec.’

He must be phoning to say if he was coming for Christmas. I was suddenly scared he would say no, and I didn’t want him to say no to me, so I said the first thing that came into my head.

‘Dec, I ate three fish fingers.’

‘That’s great. Well done, mate. Fish is good for you. Is your mum there?’

I put the phone on the table and went to get Mum, who was in the kitchen.

‘Mummy, Dec wants to talk to you.’

‘Is he on the phone? Did you answer it again? Cal, what did we say about that?’

She walked and told me off at the same time, until she reached the phone.

‘Hello? Dec? … everything alright sweetheart? …’

I was hanging around, trying to see if I could work out what Dec was saying by what Mum was saying.

‘Ohh, great. That’s great. Really great.’

Well it sounded like it was good, but Mum looked like she might be crying, so I was really confused.

‘Sorry, Dec. I’m really pleased. I thought you were going to say no. I’m so pleased. Oh, sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re coming. It’ll be great to put an end to this crappy year in a good way … ‘

As I stared at Mum, who had said an almost bad word, which she never did, and watched her wipe her eyes, Dad came in and put his arm round her, asking her about it without using words, but using his eyes and his eyebrows. Mum put her hand over the phone so Dec couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I could.

‘No, I’m okay, James, it’s Dec. He said yes, he’s coming for Christmas.’

I put my arms in the air like footballers do when they score a goal, as Dad took the phone from Mum. He was smiling, but his voice was wobbly too.

What have you been saying to make my wife cry? … I’m yanking your chain, mate. We’re really pleased. Talk later, yeah?’

Dad pressed the off button, and looked at Mum, and they both smiled at each other, and smiled at me.

‘Dec’s coming to stay with us for Christmas.’

I put both arms in the air again, as if I was Theo Walcott.

‘Yessss!’

‘I think you might need to tidy your room before Dec gets here, or we might never find any of your things again.’

I suppose there’s a downside to everything. Having to tidy my room was the downside to Dec coming for Christmas. But he was coming, we were going to be able to do all the things we hadn’t done for ages, and it was all going to be alright.

Dec

I hung up. Wiped my eyes.

‘That went well. Everybody cried.’

:Oh, love, tears are good sometimes.

Rose appeared to be wiping her eyes too, in fact Nico was the only one who wasn’t. He was smiling his enormous smile.

>You do good thing. You mend it with you and Jaime. This is big. Very good. Baby, I think we go now. Declan, he look very tired. He has big day today, and more tomorrow.

~Yeah, of course. Dec, is it OK if I pop in tomorrow morning to drop off your clothes, check you’ve eaten breakfast and generally fuss about annoyingly?

‘I suppose.’

>I come also, after training.

‘No need.’

>I know this. I want to steal Rose’s biscuits when she not here.

They stood up, Lis kissed me on the cheek, Nico gave Rose a hug, then Rose saw them to the front door.

>I call to remind him to talk to the policeman. Call us if you worry, or the police if you really worry. OK?

:Thanks you two.

~You’re welcome. We’re all in it together. He’s a toughie, but he needs us more than he’ll admit. Right, Dec? I’m sure you’re listening.

They said their goodbyes, and Rose shut the door behind them, making a big thing of putting the chain on, for my benefit. She came into the living room, picked up cups and plates, tidied up in the kitchen, plumped some cushions.

:You look done in, love. I know it’s early but why don’t you go to bed? You know where your room is. Get some sleep, recharge your batteries.

It sounded like the best idea anyone had had for a long time. I could hardly pull myself off the sofa, as moving made all my aches and pains protest together. I remembered the medication I had brought home from the hospital. Now was a good time to take some, get some solid sleep.

I padded into the kitchen, got the bottle of pills. Asked Rose to open the bottle, took some with a slurp of cold tea, said goodnight and went to bed. Rose had put my pyjamas from the hospital in the wash, and I had no underwear, so got into bed in my clothes. Slept.

Dreaming. Chased by faceless men in brown boots. Can’t fly, can only run, looking over my shoulder. They nearly catch up with me, then I trip –

– woke with a start, in a sweat, in darkness, heart racing, panting. The details of the dream faded, but the panic stayed for a long time. Eventually my pulse calmed, my breathing slowed, and I drifted off again.

Dreaming. This time I can fly. I fly around the world looking for a man in brown boots. There are too many. None of them are the one I am looking for. After a long time flying, I see him. He is a long way away. He isn’t looking. Doesn’t see me coming until I am almost there. He turns round, but just before I see his face, he disappears.