45. Love shoulda brought you home

In which there may be trouble in paradise.

Cal

Then term started and I went back to my old school. I’d only missed Mrs Barnfield’s year, so it didn’t matter, because Mrs Barnfield was shouty, and this year was Mr Taylor, who told jokes and knew how to draw cartoons. And I was going to surprise Jake.

On the first day of school, I got out of bed as soon as Mum woke me up, and I put my school uniform on with a growing sense of excitement. My school was really near, and Mum and I always walked there, although Dec had walked me a few times when I first went, before Mrs Barnfield’s class. Today was different from how it used to be, because we had Iz with us. Mum was pushing her buggy, and some other mums were very interested, and we all walked to school together.

I kept a look out for Jake all the way, because sometimes he walked along the same path, but sometimes his mum or his brother drove him. I didn’t see Jake, but I did see Thomas Dabbs and Carly Binker, and we said hello, as if it was just yesterday we’d been in the same class. Mum talked to their mums as we walked, and explained a bit about moving away and then moving back, and said about Uncle Matty, but not about Dec, and they talked a lot about Iz, and Thomas and Carly and I smiled at each other. Thomas had a badge on his coat that said ‘7 Today!’, so it must be his birthday, and I wondered if he was having a party, and if I’d missed the invitation because no one knew I was back at school.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you having a party?’

‘Yes, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

A Dinosaurland party? I so had to wangle myself an invite.

‘Who’s going?’

‘Billy, Artie, Rhys and Joe.’

Thomas’s mum must have heard what we were saying.

‘Artie’s mum just texted me, Thomas, Artie’s not very well, so he can’t come. Oh, Cal, maybe you’d like to go?’

Well was that lucky or what? I looked up at Mum, hoping she wasn’t going to think of an excuse. I didn’t know Thomas that well, but we had played football in the playground sometimes, and Jake and I had swapped Pokémon cards with him a few times.

‘What do you say, Cal? Thank you, Sue, that sounds lovely. You like Dinosaurland, don’t you Cal?’

Well I’m sure I would if I’d ever been – so far I’d only seen the car park. But if this was what being back at my school was like, things were looking pretty good. I nodded and smiled more broadly at Thomas.

By the time we got to my school, I still hadn’t seen Jake, but there were loads of children in the playground. Jake was often one of the last to get to school, sometimes after the bell had gone, and Mum always made sure I was there early, so I wasn’t surprised not to see him. I stayed with Thomas and we went to get a ball from Mrs Nugent, who was playground teacher that morning.

After we’d been playing football for a while, and a few more people had joined in, I heard my name being shouted.

‘Cal!’

I heard running footsteps, and I turned round. Jake was running towards me, his school bag open, pens and paper flying out of it. He had the biggest smile on his face, and he was running so fast I thought he wasn’t going to stop, and he’d bang into me. But he stopped just as he reached me, and we stood grinning at each other. If we’d been grown-ups we might have had a cuddle, but we were six, and so we just got on with playing football, after saying hello in our own way:

‘Are you back for good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Cool. You can sit next to me. Let’s play football.’

And that was all it needed to click into place. It looked like Ewan Donohue had been Jake’s friend while I was away, but Ewan was really friends with Daniel Bosworth, and they didn’t like football, so I slotted back in nicely.

Before that first day was over, Jake had got in trouble with Mr Taylor for talking while we were supposed to be doing sums, and then he got in trouble for not having a pen, because all his pens had fallen out in the playground when he ran over to see me, and then he got in trouble for tipping his chair back until it fell over.

Matt

A few weeks before Christmas, I got a job. GreenScreen were a small IT consultancy firm looking to expand, and they felt similar to Eyeti. I sent them my CV, got an interview and got the job. Simple as that. They were aware, or rather, the manager was aware, that I was recovering from the bastard MS, and agreed to part time hours, with flexibility should I need it in the future, and also agreed not to share my health status with anyone else. My reference from Eyeti must have been good enough to convince him I was worth the risk. Even on part time hours, I was earning enough to buy a flat, having a pretty healthy savings account, and by then Iz really needed her own room – not that anyone was saying it, but I knew. So just before Christmas, I moved out, moved in and started my new life proper, without a spouted cup, a baby monitor or a wheelchair in sight.

That’s not to say Beth didn’t still feel the need to call me all the time to check I was OK, but I let her get on with it, and I went round there loads, because Beth’s Sunday roasts were legendary, and OK, because I missed them, alright? And just after Christmas, Mum moved down. She couldn’t stay away from Iz, and was spending more time visiting than she was living in her own home, so she sold that big old house of memories, and got a much smaller place, with a spare room for the odd sleepover, but which was a lot more manageable for someone who doesn’t get about as well as they used to.

Cal

Having Jake nearby, getting in trouble, made everything seem right. I hated getting in trouble, but Jake never seemed to care, and to me he appeared brave and fearless. He’d had some pretty wild schemes, like climbing the tree in the playground to see if we could see his house, even though there was a fence round the tree; or trying to sneak into the office at break to set the bell off; or mixing up people’s lunch boxes so they got the wrong sandwiches. I hardly ever did any of these things, because I was too scared of what Mum would say, and usually if I didn’t do it, Jake wouldn’t either, but sometimes he’d just go ahead anyway, and I’d be the lookout, like in a film.

Dec

SIX MONTHS AFTER IZ IS BORN

>Hey Declan.

‘Hi Nico. Are you and Lis around one day this week – I’d like to take you out to dinner.’

>Ha, we are around for taking out to dinners, for sure. Is a reason?

‘It’s my last payment on your loan. I want to say thanks.’

>Oh! Huh. I don’t realise this. Yeah, sure. I know we are busy tomorrow but Wednesday is good. Where we go?

‘Well, I thought about that new place near the cinema, it’s supposed to be really good.’

>Ha, and expensive. You need another loan to pay!

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll try and get us a table.’

>Thank you, Declan, we like this. Is no need, but we like to eat fancy dinner and not pay.

Matt

Julia started at GreenScreen at the same time as me, having been part of the same recruitment drive, and I noticed her straight away, who wouldn’t, she was bloody gorgeous, and she was really upfront, didn’t bullshit anyone about anything, and I really liked that. Really liked it. But she always had this air of ‘touch me not’ about her, and to start with, in my newly found ‘I can have anyone’ state of mind, I didn’t want to get turned down. So l left her to her own devices, and played around with the temps, the admin staff, the business grads, each one adding another layer of veneer.

Cal

I know Mum despaired of my friendship with Baggo. His older brothers meant he was much more worldly wise than me, and his mum worked a lot, so he was often at home with just one or other of his brothers to look after him. They weren’t what you would call disciplinarians, and mostly just wanted Jake to be quiet and keep out of their way, so he did what he liked until his mum came home. Mum never let me go there to play if Jake’s mum was out, not after the time we got our own tea, which consisted of crisps, Jaffa cakes, ice cream and nearly a whole two litre bottle of cola between us, and I was sick in the car on the way home, and again on the drive when we got home, and again in the kitchen on my way to the toilet to be sick again.

Matt

I fucked around like nobody’s business, sometimes a different woman every week, sometimes more than one every week. I got myself a bit of a reputation – some of it was deserved, as I was a bit of a bastard, I see that now, and some of it a whole sack of shit that people made up about me. But I suppose that’s the price of a reputation, that it gets added to and gets out of your control.

Cal

There was never a dull moment with Baggo around. He was always in trouble for something, but it didn’t stop him trying anything, always seeing what excitement could be got from any situation. He wasn’t bad – he didn’t do shoplifting or glue-sniffing or get into fights or anything – he just couldn’t bear to be bored, and would do things to spice up dull times.

I think we complement each other, even now. Nowadays, I’m the settled family man, he’s the rogueish bachelor, different woman every time I see him; when we were seven, he was always wanting to do things that would get him in trouble, and I was always trying to persuade him not to for fear of being in the same trouble. If we hadn’t been friends, I might have been less adventurous, and Baggo might have been more reckless. I shudder to think.

Matt

So, yeah, I’d go to clubs, and parties, and I’d home in on the younger, faker ones, and, yes, I know how this sounds, I was such a tosser back then, but as I said, I was angry and hurting, and felt like I was owed something, and it was payback in a way, but I’d try to make sure the ones I chose weren’t the ones who were going to go all weepy and clingy when I left without cuddling them shortly afterwards, but sometimes I got that wrong, and she’d seemed all young and fake, but I broke her heart.

But I suppose I didn’t much care, back then. I was making my reputation as Matt Scott, party animal, and I can’t say why, I wouldn’t say I’m a particular looker – I’ve always seen a skinny nerd looking out of the mirror at me – but I was a bit of a prize. I sound like such an arrogant arsehole, even now, even to myself, but for a while, in certain undiscerning circles, if you ended up with Matt Scott, that was it, top of the tree, job done.

I can’t believe that Lau was there at some of those parties, in some of those clubs. I can’t believe that I might have walked right past her and not known her, I just can’t believe I didn’t notice her; how could I ever have not noticed her? I’m surprised she even spoke to me when I finally … but anyway, I’m getting all out of sequence. This is the Jules part of my story, or it will be in a bit if you’re patient.

Cal

I can’t remember exactly when everyone started calling Jake ‘Baggo’. It was definitely before we went to big school. His brothers both had nicknames: Michael was ‘Troops’ because he’d been in the Army, and Harry was ‘Wheels’ because he had loads of cars that he was always doing up.

Baggo was a lot younger than his brothers, who both still lived at home. We would sneak into their rooms when they were out and look at their stuff, and Baggo often found things that blew my mind, like magazines with ladies in with no clothes on, and cigarettes, and funny things on their computers with swears on them. Sometimes one of his brothers would come home while we were still in his room, and Baggo would get shouted at, and I’d try to make myself look invisible, but Baggo would just stand there grinning, and the shouting would stop, and he’d get a punch on the shoulder, but not hard, and he’d be let off, and we’d scuttle out and giggle.

Actually, thinking about it, Baggo’s brothers were often the reason we got in trouble, however indirectly. Sometimes it was because one of us repeated something we’d heard, or Jake brought something that belonged to them to school, like a lighter, or playing cards with naked ladies on them, or, once, a chocolate brownie that made us giggle a lot when we shared it at lunch. Usually the contraband would be discovered because Baggo couldn’t help showing off about it, and a teacher would push their way through the crowd that had gathered, and confiscate the penknife, copy of Playboy or firework, and then he’d be in trouble not only with the school and his mum, but with whichever brother he’d ‘borrowed’ the item from as well.

I’m not sure how I remained so uncorrupted. I love Baggo, he’s the best mate a bloke could have, and although I’ve done a fair amount of bailing him out, once literally when he got so rat-arsed that he didn’t realise the bloke he was bad-mouthing for getting in his way outside a club was a copper, well Baggo has been there for me plenty of times too. I can really talk to him, the way I can’t talk to anyone else. He’s a lad, the laddest of lads, and I wouldn’t trust any female member of my family with him for five minutes, but he gets me, and I get him, and we have talked, long into the night sometimes, about deep shit.

Dec

The Rugby Paper

Quick’s Q&A

John Quick shoots quick-fire questions at one of the rugby world’s up and coming young players. This week: Declan Summers, Raiders.

JQ: Declan, how’s the season going so far?

DS: It’s been fantastic so far, both for me and Raiders. Top of the Premiership at this stage is amazing, and to have played in so many games is awesome for me personally.

JQ: You had a tricky time a couple of years back, when problems with your passport caused Raiders to be deducted points and miss out on a top four spot. Have you been able to put that behind you?

DS: I had some fantastic support from the club and from my family then. It was a tough time, but I got the help I needed. The Raiders supporters have been immense, I owe them a lot. I’m not sure it will ever be completely behind me; I learned a lot of life lessons that still help me today.

JQ: Such as?

DS: Well, it’s important to talk to people about how you’re feeling, it’s important to keep your club informed about what’s going on with you personally. Everything you do affects someone else, and affects how you play. You can’t do things on your own. You need to stay mentally strong too.

JQ: It was well publicised that Jay Scott left Raiders when the news broke of your suspension. How did you greet his return as assistant coach?

DS: It was great news. Scotty is an excellent coach, Raiders really missed him while he was away. The whole squad benefits from his expertise and coaching style.

JQ: Your suspension meant you couldn’t play for Raiders until the beginning of last season. How did you cope with that?

DS: The club made sure I was involved with training and coaching to maintain my skills and fitness as part of the squad. Not playing for Raiders was hard, once I was fit again, but I was recovering from injuries until the April, so I wouldn’t have played until nearly the end of the season anyway. Being dual registered with Trojans was a fantastic opportunity to regain some match fitness, and being part of their push for promotion was hugely exciting.

JQ: The autumn internationals aren’t far away, and the squads are due to be announced soon. How would it feel to be included for the Wallabies?

DS: To play for Australia would be immense, it’s a bit of a dream of mine, but I have no illusions – it’s a tough squad to get into, and I’m based in England. I’m still young, and there’s plenty of time for that. I’d be over the moon to get the call though.

JQ: Some pundits are comparing you to a young Brian O’Driscoll. Do comparisons like that affect your game?

DS: No, I just play how I play, there’s no point thinking about it. It’s flattering to read, but I haven’t consciously modelled myself on any one player. I try to incorporate the things I admire about lots of great players into my game.

JQ: Who are your rugby heroes?

DS: There are so many. Nico Tiago is someone I’ve always looked up to, as a player and a person, although he’ll get even more big-headed if I tell him that. All the big names you might think – Hill, Fofana, Shoemark, Roberts, certainly O’Driscoll. You can learn from anyone, you just have to watch their game and pick things up.

JQ: We hear you have had something in your personal life to celebrate recently. Care to share?

DS: (Laughs) How the [expletive deleted] did you know that? Hardly anyone knows! Yes, I just got engaged to Amy. I guess we’re going to have to tell her parents now!

JQ: Congratulations Declan, and good luck for the rest of the season.

DS: Thanks.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Rugby Paper.

RadarRaider: Here’s a link to the Quick Q&A in today’s TRP. Summers has had some stick on here over the last year or so, I hold my hands up, I didn’t think Raiders should have kept him on, felt pretty let down by the whole business. He sounds like he’s learned his lesson and tried to make up for it. He’s certainly played well enough so far this season to earn his place – seems to have stepped up a notch since all the trouble. If we’d lost him to Trojans, that could have come back to bite us with them doing so well in the Prem this year. Just saying, maybe he’s served his time and some of us lot should cut him some slack.

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Totally agree RR. Don and the club obviously gave it some serious consideration, Summers seemed apologetic enough at the time, and that court case around the assault can’t have helped him. He was only a kid, must have been tough. Accept and move on. I’ve met him a couple of times in the bar after a game, always very pleasant, takes time to talk, take photos, autographs. Can’t deny he always gives his all for Raiders on and off the pitch, he’s involved in coaching the youth team and you always see him in the photos of the community and charity stuff. We wouldn’t still be top if it wasn’t for his tackle on Tupovi at Warriors last week.

YoHoHo: Still don’t think he should even be playing for Raiders. Yes, he’s made a contribution, but look what he lost us. We’d have been top four that season if he hadn’t cost us those ten points. Who knows, could have been Champions the way we were playing. We only just scraped into the HC. There are plenty of other centres out there, plenty of others coming up from the Academy. Not sure his face fits.

Cap’nBirdseye: Sorry, but served his time, cut him some slack? Not on your life. Wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Might do if he wasn’t though.

RadarRaider: Always nice to see people forgiving and forgetting(!). I suppose no one here has ever done anything they wish they hadn’t and tried to make amends? I personally think Summers’ contribution at the end of last season and beginning of this shows his commitment to the club. Hope he doesn’t move on at the end of this season – his contract’s up. Wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction of some of the supporters decided him. Can’t believe some people still boo when his name is read out on match days.

Matt

So, I started at GreenScreen, and Julia was there, but we were in different teams, and there was this kind of rivalry going on, which Phil, the manager, liked to play on, because it helped with morale and helped to get the work done better, quicker, happier. So I hardly spoke to Julia, because she kept herself to herself, and her team to her team, and she had this kind of frigid – no that’s unfair – she had this kind of cold and detached manner, which made some of the juniors call her the Ice Queen.

I was the opposite, I was Matt the Lad, I did football with the guys, I saw the girls at the weekends in clubs, I flirted, I bed-hopped like a baddun, I’d had most of the business grads, I was nothing if not a team player.

As time went on and it became harder to actually find anyone at work who I hadn’t slept with at one time or another, I did slow down a bit, and there were some who lasted a few weeks, a month even, as I realised that I was going to run out of available women before too long.

But they’d always have to go, in the end, because she’d start thinking we had ‘something special’, just because I’d taken her round to Jay’s, or held her hand, or talked about plans for mid-week. I didn’t want something special, I wanted to be an excellent no-strings lay, I wanted those cracks covered up so well that I forgot they were there.

Dec

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Declan Summers renews contract

RadarRaider: At last! Can’t believe it took so long for them to agree terms. Surely Summs is first name on the list. Great news. Only a year, though, obviously everyone keeping their options open. Looks like we’ll all be biting our nails again next season.

Raiderette: Woohoo! Have been waiting for this news for weeks. I heard he was talking to Warriors, but they’ve got Elliott and Trancher, can’t see him being first choice ahead of England internationals.

WestStandRaider: What a relief, well done Declan. Don’t know where we’d have been without him this season. His tackling has been immense, don’t know if anyone’s got the stats, he hasn’t missed many, he’s our top try scorer and he’s an animal in defence. He links up really well with Boydy too.

YoHoHo: Reckon we could do better. Wasn’t Astley available from Royals? Don seems to back away from big signings. Reckon Jay Scott still has a lot to do with team selection when it comes to Summers.

WestStandRaider: Yohoho, I can’t believe you’re still on this track. Yes, we all know there’s some kind of family connection with Scotty and Summs, it happens all over the place, remember Pete and Justin Farley at TomCats? Bill Witton and Jack Gooding for England? They’re professional enough not to let it matter. Don would never let it get in the way of team selection or team performance. Summs has done well enough this season to put to bed all this nonsense. He’s in the team because he’s good enough.

Matt

I often got pretty wasted, liking the beer maybe a bit too much for my own good. Mr Summers was usually the one whose number was top of my contacts list and who, even in my most drunken of stupors, I knew how to call. He rescued me many, many times when he should have been tucked up in bed either saving his strength for running around a rugby pitch like a lunatic, or ravishing his girlfriend. But more frequently than he should have been happy with, the early hours of Sunday morning would find him woken up by an incoherent call.

‘Hey maaaaate. You know I fuuuucking looove you right?’

‘Matt, it’s two fucking thirty. Where the fuck are you?’

‘Dunno. Just been kicked offa bloody train. Bastards. Kicked me offabloodytrain they did.’

‘What train?’

‘Dunno. Oh, I’ll ask ‘snice man. Hey mate, where issis? … He says Brissle.’

‘Oh fucking hell, Matt. What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in fucking Bristol?’

‘Dunno. Can’t ‘member. Think I wuz … wuz I gonna go Stafford? Dunno.’

‘Why the fuck were you going to Stafford?’

‘Dunno. Oh! Wassit a bet? Might be a bet. Might have lost. Oh fuck it, can’t ‘member.’

‘Why did you get kicked off the train?’

‘Los my wallet. Dint havva ticket. No cash, ana bit pissed.’

A silence. A sigh.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Brissle. Man said. Jus tol you.’

‘There are two stations in Bristol. Parkway or Temple Meads?’

‘Wha the fuck? Dunno.’

‘Are there any signs anywhere?’

‘Wha? Wha signs?’

‘Bloody enormous ones saying the name of the fucking station.’

‘Dunno. Everthin’s fuckin blurry.’

Another sigh, longer and louder.

‘OK. Stay where you are. Have you got that, Matt? Don’t move from the station, I’ll come and get you, but it’ll take me at least an hour and a bit, longer if you’re not at the first station I try. Don’t move, yeah?’

‘Oh maaate. You’re bloody brilliant, you are. Bes mate a bloke could have. I bloody looooove you, I do.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Just stay put.’

That was the sort of thing that Declan Charles Summers put up with from me, for more years than I had a right to expect. To my knowledge, his saintly girlfriend never voiced a word of complaint, or if she did I never got to hear about it, and although there were a few times when I did my share of helping him out of tricky situations, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for that time when I seemed to be pressing the self-destruct button on a regular basis.

Dec

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

1 0 2

TWEETS FOLLOWING FOLLOWERS

Tweets

Declan Summers @summs12 1 Apr

Hello World. I’ve given in and joined Twitter. It’s not an April Fool. #amazeme

#whichbuttonsdoipressagain

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 1 Apr

Welcome to Twitter, Declan. #raidersfamily #enjoytheride #pushmybuttons

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 1 Apr

About bleeding time. Follow me. #notneedy #maybealittlebit

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Matt

But back to GreenScreen and how it all happened with Jules. It hadn’t occurred to me until it was too late, having my rep and all, that someone like Julia wouldn’t want to be with someone like I was trying to be.

I realised after we’d both been there a few months that we were both playing a role to some extent. I wasn’t nearly as much of a lad as I made out, but it made things easier in my team to make a big thing of the weekend, to party as hard as they did, to be one of them.

Julia wasn’t nearly as icy as she wanted everyone to think she was, but she did a good job of pretending, too, and most people didn’t see through it.

But anyway, a lot of my reputation was deserved, and I’d seen the look on Julia’s face when she heard tales of my exploits being bandied around as fact on a Monday morning, although half of it was complete bollocks. I was sure that if I’d ever been in with a chance with her, I’d pretty much burnt my bridges.

So I carried on with the shagging around, left a string of broken hearts in my wake, get me the big ‘I Am’, what a self-absorbed fucking gobshite wanker I was. Maybe it was payback, revenge, whatever you’d like to call it for dealing with what happened with Carrie. But those women didn’t deserve to be treated like shit. They didn’t deserve me using them to teach someone a lesson who wasn’t even in the same classroom. And after a while, this began to occur to me, and I started to think about what I was doing, and wondering who the fuck I thought I was, and I took a long hard look at myself and had a huge laugh at the douche canoe who was looking back. This was a slow process; I was enjoying myself, I can’t deny it, and despite my growing misgivings, I didn’t want to stop.

While all of that was going on, all the partying, all the working, all the feeling fucking normal for the first time in what felt like a very long time, I was still doing all the family stuff, seeing Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, watching the kids grow up, enjoying being cool Uncle Matty, who dished out chocolate, allowed inappropriate TV programmes and said bad swears when Mummy and Daddy weren’t looking.

I kept an eye on Mum, and I suppose she kept an eye on me too. Dec and I continued our mismatched friendship, he remaining the more mature of us by a whisker, and by dint of having a proper grown-up relationship. He asked Amy to marry him about a year after they got together in Jay’s kitchen, but no wedding plans were forthcoming, despite Beth and Rose’s best persuasive efforts.

Dec

_Hi Dec, tell me if I’m interfering, but have you got anything organised for Amy’s twenty first?

‘What? No! It’s not for ages yet.’

_Well, theoretically, but if you’re going to book anything, I don’t know, a weekend away for example, it’s in the middle of summer and things get full up pretty far in advance. I didn’t know if you were planning a party or anything, venues get pretty busy in the summer too.

‘Oh fuck. I’m so bloody useless, you know what I’m like. I hadn’t given it a thought.’

_I thought you might not have, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, prepared.

‘What should I do? If I’d thought about it at all, I would have gone ‘quick trip to the jewellery shop and a slap up meal’. Do I need to think bigger, then?’

_Ha ha, no clues from me, you need to work it out for yourself. I’m happy to help with the details, but it’ll mean so much more if you’ve thought of it on your own.

‘Beth! You can’t just drop this on me and leave me to it. I’ll only cock it all up. You did such an amazing job with my party … please?’

_Give it a go, sweetheart, you’ll do better than you think.

Matt

Oh, Rose! How could I forget about Rose? Dec had mentioned her that Christmas, as the person he’d held on to when he was in his own dark pit, but I didn’t actually meet her until I moved down here. Dec and Rose were kind of a package, now. Dec’s parents died when he was pretty young, and when he fell out with Jay and Beth, Rose kind of filled the gap and helped him through some tough times.

Dec didn’t really do relationships in the same way us normal people did, at least not family relationships. There was no name for what he had with Jay and Beth, and in the same way there was no name for what he had with Rose. The easiest way to describe it is she was like a mother to him, and she did mother him, but it was more than that. Your mum doesn’t choose you, she’s stuck with you because she’s your mum. With Dec and Rose, there was an unspoken recognition that they had chosen each other somehow, and although he hadn’t needed her in that way for a long time, they still needed each other.

So Rose was absorbed into the family too, and having the same interfering gene as Beth, she meddled in everyone’s lives, much as your annoying aunty might do. She put up with teasing and grumbling, and downright rudeness from me when she got too free with her advice about how to keep a woman, but she was a permanent fixture. And she was really good friends with Mum. They were polar opposites in outlook, personality and experience, but they both loved cooking, and they both adored their families, which overlapped in some convoluted way, and they spent a lot of time together.

Dec

RE: Booking enquiry

THE ORCHARD orchard@webserver.com

To: Declan Summers

Hi Declan

Thanks for your enquiry regarding a weekend booking in August. I’m really sorry, but we’re fully booked for the whole of August. If we can help in the future, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards

Sean

SEAN TIBBS

Reservations Manager

o0o

*Good afternoon, Bay Tree Hotel, how may I help you?

‘Oh, hi, can I speak to someone about hiring your function room?’

*Certainly, sir, did you have a date in mind?

‘First weekend in August, preferably the Saturday.’

*One moment, let me check our diary, but I know that is a very busy time …… … I’m sorry sir, as I thought, we’re fully booked throughout August. Is there another date we could offer you?

‘No, that’s OK. Thanks anyway.’

*… sorry, no vacancies …

*… full on that date …

*… no availability …

*… full …

*… sorry …

*… fully booked …

Matt

Right, where was I? Oh yeah. Dec and Amy. So they were engaged, but nothing more was forthcoming, and they moved in together, into a tiny flat, and they continued to be sickeningly inseparable There were a few blips along the way, I suppose, like Dec nearly fucking it all up by being an insensitive bastard, and then nearly compounding the fucking up of it all by getting himself semi-kidnapped by some certifiable stalker woman when he should have been having dinner with Amy and her stick-up-their-arses parents, but I suppose these are the things that life and love are made of – fuck knows I haven’t made things easy for Lau over the years, and the fact she’s stuck with me continues to astound, amaze and humble me. It always comes back to Lau, doesn’t it. It always will.

Dec

Matt: =Have u checked ur Twitter account lately?

Dec: =No. Don’t use much. Why?

Matt: =@bouncybec getting a bit saucy. Do u know her?

Dec: =Don’t think so.

Matt: =Might b nothing. Keep an i.

Matt

But, digressing again, I still haven’t got to Jules, have I? So, I’d been at GreenScreen for a couple of years or so, enjoying life, feeling great, all thoughts of the bastard MS well to the back of my mind. Work was going well, life was going well, I had my reputation, which didn’t hurt in a lot of ways, but I knew what was real and what was bullshit.

I suppose I’d kind of started to wonder if there was more to life than going out partying every weekend, getting hammered and having to extricate myself from another unfamiliar bed in the small hours. Maybe it had run its course. I was thirty-three, and it was starting to occur to me that it might be time to grow up. I had no idea what this meant, just that occasionally, in the dead of night, as I was gathering my underwear off the floor, it all felt a bit … immature.

So I backed off, went out less, didn’t try so hard to pull, gave myself a break, got a bit of breathing space, time to think. Plan A had been going pretty well so far, maybe it was time to start thinking about the next phase, where I could look for a different job, away from this city, away from the South West even.

Dec

Declan Summers @summs12 15 Apr

Great result against TomCats – thanks to all the Raiders supporters. 16th man

as usual. #idratherbearaiderthanapuss

Reply to @summs12

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 great game today Declan #nothingwrongwithpusses 😉

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_____________________________________________________________________

Declan Summers @summs12 19 Apr

Looking forward to some down time. Training has broken me. #tired #bathplease

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 Mmm bath sounds nice. #wishiwasabarofsoap

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 20 Apr

@summs12 Had that bath yet? #imagining

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 21 Apr

@summs12 make sure you scrub behind your ears.

#getridofunwantedgrime

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Matt

And all this time, Jules and I were working in parallel at GreenScreen, hardly talking to each other except in the context of work, and I’d look at her sometimes and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been such a dick, and if I’d taken the time to get to know her, but she had this, like, shell around her, and it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get through.

Dec

‘Hey babe, sorry, I’m still at the club, I got caught up, lost track of time.’

)What a surprise. Cara’s picking me up any minute. I won’t see you till later, then, if you’re still awake.

‘No worries, I’ll wait up. Haven’t seen you properly for ages and I actually need to kiss you quite a lot. Hey, I met someone who knows you. Becca Davis?

)Oh.

‘She said you were at school together.’

)Yes, we were.

‘She’d like to catch up, can I give her your mobile number?’

)Actually … I’d rather you – dammit, that’s Cara. I’ll tell you later, hon. Got to go. Love you.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Player of the Season

EastStandRaider: It’s that time of year again, get voting here for your player of the season.

RadarRaider: Only one in it for me, Miles Abrahams has been outstanding in the front row. Our scrum has been rock solid.

YoHoHo: Got to be one of the backs, the amount of superb tries we’ve scored. My choice would be Crofty, he’s creative, quick and can tackle well, and Nico Tiago has done a great job out on the wing yet again, always knows when to go looking for the ball.

Foxyraider: I’m pretty sure Declan Summers will be the ladies’ choice. He’s played really well and is a bit of a babe. What a combination.

YoHoHo: Good to see it’s someone’s ability and commitment that counts with some people. Summers is lucky he’s still here. Fail to see how he gets picked so much.

Foxyraider: I guess we’ll see when the results of the vote come out. A well-turned bum goes a long way in my book.

o0o

Dec: =Help! Tried everywhere u suggested. All booked. Considering dirty w/end in Blackpool. In caravan. Told u I was useless :((

Beth: =Don’t panic. Not useless just left a bit late. Other options. Had idea. Come round later, kettle on.

o0o

_So what do you think?

‘I think it sounds fucking awesome. Better than any of the lame-arse stuff I’ve managed to come up with and not even be able to book. Beth, you are a lifesaver. But really, are we really allowed to put a marquee up on the beach?’

_My friend Trish knows a man from the Council and all you need is a permit. It’s easily sorted. We’ll only really need to use it if it rains, and it’s somewhere to put the food, maybe have a sleepover if it’s warm enough? If we have it right down the end near Usley Point we won’t need to worry about noise or anything, and it’s easier to make sure we don’t get uninvited guests. We can use James’s four by four to take the food and drink down there, it’s ideal.

‘Awesome. A sleepover on the beach would be amazing – she’d love it. And you’re sure you and Rose are OK doing the food?’

_I’m sure, and Carol will help as well. I talked to Rose this morning. Her very words were ‘don’t you dare try asking some tinpot catering firm to do it, love’. She was deadly serious, I feared for my life if I contradicted her.

‘Ha ha, she takes her cooking very seriously.’

_She takes you and Amy very seriously, too, sweetheart.

‘I guess so. I bet she’s started planning a menu already. Probably already made a zillion – oh, what the fuck are those round things with prawns in?’

_Vol au vents?

‘Yeah. Those. She’ll have made a zillion. Actually, we might need to buy several new freezers, she’ll have made a ton of stuff by the weekend.’

_Now, the main thing is we need to make sure we keep it a secret, so don’t tell Cal, or Amy will know five minutes later. I’ll leave it as long as possible to tell James, but once he knows, he’s a bit of a loose cannon, he can never remember what he’s allowed to say. Think you can avoid telling Amy?

‘That won’t be difficult at the moment, haven’t clapped eyes on her for days, we’ve hardly been in at the same time, seems like for weeks.’

_Oh. Everything OK, sweetheart?

‘It’s just … I’ve been really busy, with coaching the under elevens, and all the end of season stuff, play-offs, away games, stuff at the club after home games, and when I’m home she’s out doing Pilates or with her friends or studying for her exam.’

_You sound a bit fed up. Is that all it is, just not seeing much of each other?

A silence.

_Dec?

‘Well I suppose I was a bit of a twat on Saturday. She asked me not to do something but it was awkward, so I did it anyway. Maybe we’ve been sort of keeping out of each other’s way a bit since then … sleeping on the sofa, that kind of thing.’

_That actually sounds a bit serious, sweetheart. What happened?

‘Oh, it was just so fucking stupid, I was so fucking stupid. There was this girl, Becca Davis, she was talking to me after the Warriors game, in the bar. She mentioned that she knew Ames from school, and asked if she could have Ames’ mobile number so they could catch up. A bit later I called Ames and asked, but she was just going out, and she said no, or kind of started to, but there wasn’t time to talk about it. Anyway, later on Becca asked for her number again, and I didn’t know what to say. Ames hadn’t quite said no, she hadn’t given me a reason, and I thought, or maybe I convinced myself, it was because she was in a rush to go out, or she was pissed off with me for being late again, or didn’t want a long phone conversation with an old school friend just then. So …’

_Oh Dec, tell me you didn’t give her the number.

‘… so I gave her the number. So later on I’m at home waiting up for Amy, and she phones me, so angry, I’ve never known her like that. She swore at me, a lot, wasn’t really making much sense, but I kind of realised I’d fucked up. She didn’t come home till really late, she’d had a lot to drink and wasn’t really in a state to talk about it, but still in a rage, and she yelled at me and told me to sleep on the sofa. Next day, she was still pretty pissed off, but we managed to grab five minutes in the same room, and she tells me Becca Davis made her life a misery at school, bullied her, used to make a point of stealing her boyfriends. Last person on earth she wanted to get a call from on a girls night out.

_Oh, Dec.

‘It gets worse.’

_Oh sweetheart …

‘I opened a Twitter account a few weeks ago, Matt was badgering me, and so were some of the guys at Raiders. I’ve only posted a couple of things, just Raiders stuff. Becca Davis has been replying, a bit, I dunno, flirty or suggestive or something – I honestly didn’t realise it was her at the time. She’d told Ames, who had a look, and got really upset. I didn’t respond to any of it, but now …’

_Now Amy’s worried Becca Davis is going to steal you as well. Oh Dec. You need to sort it out. It’s easy for things like this to take on a life of their own and get out of hand. Avoid Becca if you can.

‘Well that’s part of the problem. She comes to the Raiders games, she’s always in the bar afterwards, I have to be polite and corporate, I can’t even ignore her or blank her, I can only try to palm her off onto someone else. She’s a bit persistent. Beth, I love Amy, I love her so much, I don’t want anyone else, but I can’t make her understand, I haven’t looked twice at Becca fucking Davis, I don’t even want anything to bloody do with her now I know how mean she was to Ames.’

_Sweetheart, Amy’s feeling insecure. I know she had a hard time at school, it really knocked her confidence. You know better than most of us that what happens to us when we’re younger affects how we feel about things later on; it’s not logical or rational. You might have to make a pretty big gesture to help her see you don’t want Becca. It might be awkward and uncomfortable for you, but I think you’ll have to just do it.

‘Like what?’

_Sorry, sweetheart, I can’t help you out this time. It really needs to come from you.

o0o

HEY AMES – FEEL LIKE I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU PROPERLY FOR DAYS. MISS YOU BABE. HOPING YOU’RE AROUND TONIGHT SO WE CAN TALK. I KNOW I’VE BEEN A MONUMENTAL DICKHEAD AND YOU’RE UPSET WITH ME. I’LL COOK DINNER IF YOU LIKE. LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

D XXX

Dec – Sorry hon, some people from the course are getting together tonight to go over our exam questions. I really want to go, I’m getting nervous. Tomorrow? Talking would be good. Love you. Axxx PS don’t cook! PPS Please don’t sleep on the couch tonight x

TOMORROW IT IS. D X

PS TAKEAWAY THEN?

o0o

\dec, Mum says you’re from Australia.

‘Yeah, Cal, I lived there when I was little.

\we’ve got to do some writing at school about Australia. Mum says you can help me.

‘Oh, no worries, if I can. What have you got to write about?

\i’ve got to choose a part of Australia and find out things about it. Did you have a kangaroo?

‘Ha ha, no, you can’t have kangaroos as pets. I had a dog called Woofster.’

\Was he a dingo?

‘No mate, you can’t have dingoes as pets either. Woofster was a cross between a Labrador and an Australian cattle dog.

\where did you live?

‘In Perth. It’s on the west coast. I don’t really know much about any other bits of Australia. Where are you going to do your project about?’

\if I write about Perth will you help me?

‘Course I will. When do you have to write it by?’

\tomorrow.

Tomorrow? That doesn’t leave us much time, mate. Oh, and Cal, I’ve got to spend some time with Amy tonight, it’s really important. I can come round now, but I can’t stay long. I’ll help you as much as I can.

o0o

Amy: =Where ru? Thought we were going 2 talk.

Dec: =Fuck, sorry babe, helping Cal with homework. Got delayed. Nearly done. Back soon. xxx

44. Dance little sister

In which we meet Isobel, and Matty finds his Plan D.

Matt

Not long after we got in the fun bus and started the drive down the hill and back to the Land of Signal, I heard Jay’s ringtone on my phone.

‘Hey. Any news?’

‘Hi Matty. Yeah, we’ve got a daughter.’

‘Woohoo.’

There was clapping and cheering from everyone on the bus, as they knew I was waiting for news, and I’d given them a thumbs up.

‘Is evhryone OK?’

‘Yeah, mate, everyone’s perfect. Any chance you can get over here? Dec’s bringing Cal.’

‘Yeh, on my way home now. Wha’s she called?’

‘Isobel Flora.’

‘Great. Look forward tuh meeting her. Well done, mate.’

‘See you soon, Matty.’

The fun bus driver agreed to drop me off at the hospital rather than at home, and I met up with Dec, Amy and Cal in the car park.

Cal

And then I finally had my baby sister. I had been looking forward to it for ages, because I didn’t know she was going to be a sister, she still might be a brother, and even if the baby was a sister, Mum had said that girls sometimes like football, and so I thought she might go in goal for me. She could be a bit little, but I would score more goals that way. I was still hoping for a brother, but a sister wouldn’t be too bad.

So when Mum told me Dec and Amy were coming to our house because she and Dad were going to hospital to have a baby, I was pleased that at last I could stop waiting, and I would be a big brother, which was very important. It was a very long day of waiting, because Mum and Dad went away in the morning, and me and Dec and Amy did lots of things all day, like going to the beach, and flying my kite, and eating sandwiches, and playing football, and eating chocolate, before Dec said that Mum had had the baby, and it was a sister, and we were going to go and see her in the hospital.

Dec

We bundled Cal into the car and set off. At the hospital entrance, we met Matt, who had just been dropped off by his friends.

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

}I know, Cal, I’m coming to meet her, like you.

\dec forgot to ask her name.

}Oh, good job one of us has got half a brain then. Her name’s Isobel Flora Scott.

\will she be able to play football with me?

}Maybe in a few years, but at the moment she’s really tiny. Leh’s go and see her.

Cal

Dec didn’t know what my sister’s name was, because he forgot to ask, but he said we would find out when we got there, because Dad couldn’t use his phone in the hospital. When we got there, Uncle Matty was in the car park too, because he’d been walking on a hill, and his friends had brought him in a minibus to see my sister. Uncle Matty knew my sister’s name, which was Isobel Flora, but he said it would be years before she would play football with me. Years! No one had said anything about it being years. I thought it might be a few weeks, maybe, until she got big enough to stand up, but I didn’t think I could wait years for someone to go in goal.

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

}Loved it. I’m bloody knackered now, but it was just what I needed. I’ve really missed getting out like that. I just took it slow, like everyone else, and enjoyed the views. Have you been up the top there? You can see righ over the river to the sea. There are deer and birds and everything.

‘Sounds like a great day, did you some good.’

}Yeah, thanks for talking me into sticking with it.

‘Pleasure. We had a good day on the beach, didn’t we Cal?’

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

‘Cal, we didn’t kiss all day long, we did loads of cool things at the beach.’

}Probably quite a loh of kissing though, eh Cal?

Cal nodded.

\dec said he will sleep under my bed tonight and make dream noises.

}Did he? What have you done to deserve that?

‘Apparently my mad night noises are much sought after. Amy and Cal were fighting over them earlier.’

}Takes all sorts I suppose. Having experienced your utter insanity when you’re dreaming, I would say they’re bloody welcome to it. Are you still doing tha, then?

‘Apparently so. Worth reporting to Adam I guess.’

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

We checked where Beth and Jay were, and found the room. Beth was sitting up in bed, looking sweaty, tired and lovely, holding the tiniest person I had ever seen. Amy and I hovered by the door as Cal and Matt went in, unsure how many of us were allowed in at a time. Matt kissed Beth and hugged Jay, then sat in one of the chairs by the bed.

Cal

We got to the room where Mum and Dad were with my sister, and Mum was in a bed, holding a lot of blankets. I wondered where my sister was, and then the blankets moved and I saw a little tiny finger, and then Mum tilted the blankets and there was a face in there, and it didn’t look like a girl or a boy, just like a little face.

‘Hey, Cal, hop up on my lap and have a look at your sister.’

Uncle Matty was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and he was holding his arms out to me, so I climbed onto his lap to have a closer look. The face in the blankets still didn’t look anything like I had thought it would – girls have long hair and sometimes hair grips, and boys have short hair but I couldn’t see any hair because it was covered by the blanket. I needed to be doubly sure.

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

‘Yes, sweetheart, she is. She loves her big brother. Do you want to give her a kiss?’

The little face suddenly moved, and I could see her hair, which was blonde like mine, and she screwed her face up and opened her mouth and wriggled her hands, and suddenly I saw that she was a really, really, little girl, and I was her big brother, and I was going to have to look after her like big brothers do, so I would tell Archie Shepherd off if he was mean to her, and I might share my sweets if I had enough and she had run out, and I’d let her play cars with me as long as she didn’t mind having the second best ones. I did want to give her a kiss, because that’s what Mums and Dads and big brothers did to little sisters.

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

I got on the bed and kissed her, and her cheek was all soft, and her eyes were open and she looked at me, then I climbed off and stood next to Mum, looking at my sister.

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

Beth stroked the baby’s hair and looked at Matt.

_Would you like a cuddle?

}Well I’d have thought you’d be a bit tired, giving birth and all, but if you’re sure you’re up to it …

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

Matt stood up and took the tiny baby from Beth. He jiggled her and made cooing noises, and she opened her eyes and looked into his. His own eyes filled with tears. He kissed her on the cheek and gave her back to Beth, wiping his eyes.

}Fuck, didn’t see tha coming. Anyone got a tissue?

_Matty, did that really have to be your first word to her?

}Sorry, Beth. I guess she’ll just have to get used to cool Uncle Matty. It’s not like she can understand me yet.

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

}Well when someone’s getting told off for saying ‘fuck’, it’s usually your fault.

łWhy are you both loitering by the door? You’re making the place look untidy. Come in.

Amy and I moved further into the room. I was a bit in awe of the tiny bundle in Beth’s arms. I had no close up experience of babies, and this was all very new and quite scary.

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

łAbout the size of a rugby ball, you can carry one of those well enough.

_Er, excuse me, there is nothing about my daughter that remotely resembles a rugby ball. You won’t try to score a try with her will you, Dec? Amy, why don’t you show him how to do it?

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

Amy took Isobel from Beth, and sat in one of the chairs, rocking her and talking nonsense. I looked on in wonder. Amy’s eyes were shining, and she looked over at me, making my heart melt. She looked beautiful. Jay was grinning at me.

łWatch out, Dec, I think Amy’s getting ideas.

Amy gave him a look. Perhaps I should have felt panicked or trapped or something, but I just felt awestruck.

)Maybe one day.

She looked at me. I nodded, smiling, wondering for the first time what it would be like to have a family of my own, and liking the idea of it. Way in the future, obviously.

)Come on Dec, have a cuddle, she’s so amazing. Look, sit here and I’ll pass her over. You won’t drop her. Just remember to support her head. Yeah, that’s it. Hey, there she is.

I sat with Isobel in my arms. She was as light as air, but she was the weightiest thing I had ever carried. Her features were miniaturised, and the smallest hand I had ever seen poked out of the blanket she was wrapped in. I was filled with an emotion I couldn’t identify, which was mixed up with family and tenderness and love. She was the closest I was ever going to get to having a sister; I felt very protective.

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

I felt tears spill out of my eyes. I risked a look at Matt, who laughed and shrugged.

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

Amy put her hand on the back of my neck and stroked my hair.

Cal

Uncle Matty and Amy and Dec all cuddled my sister, and Uncle Matty even did a swear, although Mum told him off. Then I remembered that there had been a shop on the way in, and that shops in hospitals had sweets and drinks and other interesting things.

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

I knew there was, but it was a way of talking about it first.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

Mum usually knew things like where the shops were, so now I was going to have to be less sneaky, or she wouldn’t know what I wanted.

‘I would like a slushie and a dinosaur magazine.’

‘I think I saw a shop on the way in, do you want to come with me, Cal? Let’s see what we can find.’

I turned and looked at Amy. This was good, because Mum didn’t look like she was going to get out of bed to come to the shop with me, even though it was the middle of the day.

Dec

Amy took Cal’s hand and they went off together. Beth looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

_She’s very good with children.

łShe has a lot of practice with Dec. Things are obviously going very well with you two.

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

}According to Cal they spent all day at the beach sucking each other’s faces.

‘On come on, you know Cal’s exaggerating. One or two kisses. Maybe three. And we were watching him the whole time. The whole time. Eyes open and everything.’

_Well I think it’s lovely. After all the months of wondering if you were ever going to sort it out, I’m really pleased. She’s lovely. She’s good for you. It’s lovely to see you so happy, sweetheart.

Isobel chose that moment to wake up and start bawling at the top of her voice. I was still holding her, and the noise and wriggling panicked me a bit. I looked at Beth, wondering what to do.

_It’s alright Dec, she’s hungry. Jay, can you pass her over? Er, you two can leave if you like I’m about to feed her. Or stay, it’s up to you.

As Beth started to unbutton her shirt, it dawned on me what she meant. I blushed, stood up and left the room, closely followed by Matt. We found a row of chairs in the corridor.

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

}I kind of remember when Cal was born. I dihnt see him for a while, couldn’t get away from work; he wasn’t so small and delicate by the time I saw him. I remember needing to leave the room on many occasions on account of feeding, though. Got very familiar with the kitchen. Did a loh of washing up.

‘Really?’

}Fuck, no. They’ll be a while in there, it can take bloody ages. I should go home, have a shower, fall asleep in my dinner. How long are you staying here?

‘We could go too, not sure if we should take Cal or leave him here, don’t want to tire Beth out. Not sure I can go in and ask at the moment though.’

}We’ll send Amy in when she gets back with Cal.

‘Good plan. So, you had a good hike – think you’ll go again?’

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

}Yeah, it’s all local people with the bastard MS, they take it nice and easy, and everyone understands what everyone needs. If I get a bih fitter, who knows I might move on to something else, but this suits me at the moment. They’re a really good bunch, we had a laugh. I thought they’d all be older, but there were a few around my age –

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

}Fuck off, you half-grown knob-cheeser. Anyway, we’ve arranged to go out for a drink next week. I need to meet some people down here, get out more, this is a really good start.

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

}Oh no, that’s just a Scott family tradition. Me, you and Mum. Fuck the rest.

I laughed, as Cal’s voice sounded along the corridor.

Cal

So I went to the shop with Amy, and she let me choose a slushie and, best of all, a Transformer magazine, which had a poster of Optimus Prime in it for my bedroom wall. I asked Amy a lot of things that I thought of while we were walking there and back; some of them I already knew the answers to because Mum had told me, like how my sister had got out of Mum’s tummy, but I wanted to see if Amy knew, and she didn’t know as well as Mum because she kept saying ‘er’ and mixing her words up; and some were things I wanted to know the answer to, like how long it would be before she could play football, and Amy didn’t really know that either, because baby horses could walk right away, so why couldn’t baby sisters?

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

)Well, when babies are born, not all their muscles work yet. They have to spend a long time doing baby exercises like standing and crawling to get themselves strong enough to walk.

\but when baby horses are born their legs work straight away.

)Well, yes, that’s right … it’s just different for people and horses.

\why?

Matt and I grinned at Amy, while she looked pleadingly at us.

‘Need some help?’

)Cal has so many questions. I can’t answer them all. He wanted to know when Isobel would be playing football with him.

}Diversionary tactics are required. Cal, wha’s in your magazine?

\there wasn’t a dinosaur one, so I got a Transformer one. Look, Optimus Prime is on the front.

Matt raised his eyebrows at a grateful Amy, as Cal opened the magazine and started showing him pictures.

‘Ames, Beth is feeding Isobel at the moment, we were wondering if you could go in and ask whether she wants us to take Cal home for some tea, or whether he’s staying here with her and Jay?’

)Why couldn’t you ask?

‘Well, Beth’s feeding, I’m not sure I’d know where to look.’

)Oh for God’s sake, it’s only boobs. It’s not like you’ve never seen any before.

‘Yeah, but it’s Beth, it feels weird … please?’

Amy rolled her eyes, but went into the room, taking Cal with her.

}Only boobs? She is aware you’re male, right?

‘Yes, well aware, thanks. I just don’t get girls sometimes … most of the time … ever, in fact.’

}Well that’s something we have in common – with the rest of the men in the world. Let’s just agree that girls aren’t actually human, but a different species. Makes ih easier to stomach, somehow.

A familiar voice floated towards us. Nico. Lis was with him.

>Ha, is Declan and Matty. Why you sit outside?

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

‘Well it feels … kind of wrong to be there.’

>No, is natural, is beautiful. We go in, Lis?

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

They went into the room, and Nico’s loud voice and laugh drifted back out to us through the door.

‘Are we the biggest sexist pigs going, or is he just being Nico?’

}I’m on your side, mate, no one’s getting me in there till it’s all over. Beth’s like my sister. Only she’s not. Ew. Too weird. Besides, with Nico in there it’s like ten extra people have turned up, there wohnt be room for any more egos.

Cal

When I got back to Mum, she was feeding Isobel. She wasn’t giving her ice cream or chips, though. She was letting my sister suck her booby. She told me there was special Mummies milk in there, just how little sisters like it, and that she was too young for chips at the moment. I felt quite pleased that I was going to be able to eat chips and not have to suck Mum’s booby for my dinner.

Nico and Lis were in the room too, and they had brought me a present, which was a book about tractors, because I really liked tractors. I liked getting presents for having a little sister, and some of the things I got later, from people like Granny and Aunty Lou, were Woody from Toy Story and a T-shirt with ‘World’s Best Big Brother’ on it.

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

)OK, the decision is that, apart from you two being complete wimps, Cal is coming back with us for some tea and then bath and bed.

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

)I know sweetie, but your mum’s tired and she needs to go to sleep in a bit.

\but Nico and Lis are still there

)They’re not staying long, and Daddy will be home soon too. Mummy’s staying here tonight, then Daddy will fetch her and Isobel home tomorrow so she can live with you all. How about we make a welcome home banner for her when we get back?

Cal considered the offer. He liked spending time with Amy almost as much as I did, but obviously for very different reasons.

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

With Cal placated, we got back to Jay and Beth’s house. Amy and Cal made a banner, I cobbled together an extremely unhealthy dinner of chicken nuggets, beans and oven chips while Matt had a shower, then Matt grumbled about the dinner and made some pasta which met his higher-than-mine taste standards. Then we all collapsed in front of the TV. Being a Sunday, there wasn’t much on, so Cal persuaded us all to start watching one of his DVDs.

‘Just the first bit, then it’s time for a bath.’

\oh, but the best bit is after the first bit.

I hid a smile at his delaying tactics; Cal hadn’t got any keener on going to bed, and I steeled myself to be firm with him.

‘Then you can watch the rest tomorrow when you get up.’

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

‘I know, mate, you never do, but you like it once you get there. Have you still got your submarine? We could have a water battle.’

Bribery always went a long way towards persuading Cal, and now he was torn with indecision between battling bath time and battling me with water and submarines and various other toys. I won.

\kay. How long can I watch for?

‘Thirty minutes. We’re all watching the timer on the DVD.’

)Actually, Dec, if we’ve got half an hour, would you mind taking me home?

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

‘Cal, are you sure you still want me to stay tonight?’

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

‘OK, I’ll have to go and pick up my PJs then. I’ll try to be back before thirty minutes, OK, then we’ll have our water battle … er … bath.’

As I drove Amy back to her parents’ house, we passed the spot where I had crashed my car last summer. I drove past it nearly every day, but it still made my stomach churn and my heart beat faster. Amy noticed me looking, and she put her hand on my arm.

)Remember what Adam said – every time it gets a tiny bit easier. You only notice after lots of tiny bits.

‘I know. It’s true, looking back it’s easier now than the first time. Still makes me feel weird, though.’

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

)Well, today turned out a bit different to what we were expecting.

‘Thanks for helping out with Cal. He loves you.’

)He’s great. I really like being with him.

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

)Oh, she’s completely adorable. Have you ever held a baby before?

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

)Not bad, but I think you need lots more practice.

‘We’ll just have to volunteer for lots of babysitting then.’

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

I pulled up outside the house. It was hard to say goodbye, even overnight; Amy had been virtually living with me for the past few weeks. We’d spent some time early on at Amy’s house, but several calculated appearances at Amy’s bedroom door by her mum, interrupting various stages of undress, meant we spent most of our time at mine. Amy had a delightful chest, and I liked uncovering it and looking at it a lot, and Amy’s parents made it quite clear that this, and other related activities they had walked in on, were frowned on ‘under my roof’, so we moved it all to under my roof, where it definitely was not frowned on, and in fact was actively encouraged by both of us. Other than going to work, we’d been together the whole time; this would be our first night apart for a quite a while. We kissed long and lingeringly in the car.

)I’ll phone you later.

‘I’ll text you when I’ve finished Cal’s bath.’

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

)I’d better get out, you’ll be late back for Cal.

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

‘I just saw your dad look out of the window.’

)I’d better go then, see you tomorrow.

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

It was worse than the ‘you hang up’ ‘no you hang up’ game, as the kissing and close bodily contact were a big deterrent to moving. I hadn’t realised how long we’d lingered until my phone rang in my pocket. I fished it out. Matt.

‘Hey, Matt.’

}Where the fuck are you? This DVD has nearly finished, and it’s way past time for Cal’s bath. Do you want me to do it? Cal won’t go up until you geh back.

Amy opened the car door, stroked my cheek and got out. I looked longingly after her as she walked up the path to the front door, where she turned, waved and blew me a kiss before rearranging her dishevelled hair and disappearing inside.

‘Sorry, I got held up. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’

}Stop licking her tonsils and feeling her up for two seconds, deliver her back to the bosom of her family and get your overexcited arse back here. This is several levels of taking the pissery.

‘Sorry, be right with you. Starting the car now.’

I pulled my seatbelt on and drove off. As I pulled up outside the house, I realised I’d forgotten to fetch any washing stuff or clothes to sleep in; I’d just have to make do with what I could find. I opened the front door to the sounds of splashing and squeals from upstairs; Matt had obviously managed to persuade Cal into the bath and started the water battle. I ran up, rolled up my sleeves and joined in, and by the time we’d finished, the bathroom was dripping. I fetched a mop and bucket, and tried to pass it to Matt.

}Fuck off, you’re the one who was late back, you get to clear it up. I get to dry off, dry Cal’s hair, read him a story, nice and quiet and relaxed, in the dark, while you make sure all the water disappears before Jay gehs back.

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

Jay arrived back home as I was tipping the bucket down the sink. He looked tired, but also elated, proud and very pleased with himself.

łHey, Dec, didn’t expect you to still be here. Jesus, you’re soaking – what the hell have you been doing?

‘Er, just a bit of playtime to encourage Cal into the bath. He wants me to stay the night in the bottom bunk.’

łWell aren’t you a glutton for punishment. Thanks for helping out today, we really appreciate it. Where is Cal?

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

I towelled my hair dry, took one of Jay’s t-shirts from the laundry cupboard and sat on a towel on the sofa in my damp boxers, having put my jeans in the tumble dryer. I texted Amy, then flicked through the TV channels, listening to Jay, Matt and Cal’s voices upstairs. Matt came down a few minutes later, giving my boxers a sideways glance.

}Ugh. For fuck’s sake put ih away, Summers. Where are your trousers?

‘They got soaked. I put them in the dryer.’

}Well borrow some of mine, or Jay’s. I don’t really want to stare at that all night. Thinking about Amy by any chance?

He left the room, then came back and threw a pair of baggy sweatpants in my direction.

}Here, have Jay’s decorating sweaties. Haven’t seen active service for some years, and lots of handy splodges already, so one or two more won’t show if you really can’t control yourself.

I pulled them on and rearranged myself to be a little less obvious.

}That’s better. Bit of modesty goes a long way. Can’t you even manage one night without her?

I was actually missing Amy more than I’d thought I would; I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and whether her mum and dad would be giving her a hard time.

‘Piss off, I’m here, aren’t I? Is Cal settled yet?

}All sorted, although he’s currently putting in a request for a story from you as well, in a vain attempt to put off going to sleep even longer.

‘He’s the master.’

}He certainly is. Jay’s just about goh it covered. He’s telling him about his baby sister, good as any story.

‘She is pretty amazing.’

}Never thought you’d be that appreciative of babies.

‘Neither did I, but it feels different when it’s family.’

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

‘Ha ha, no. You did hear her say ‘maybe one day’, not ‘I need to make a baby with you, right here, right now’?’

}I suppose so. Tha could have been awkward. You’re being very chilled about the whole thing.

‘I just know, after all the effort of me and Amy getting together, nothing’s going to fuck it up. It took us long enough to get here, I’m happy to enjoy the ride, wherever it goes.’

}Fuck, yes, the longest will they, won’t they saga in the history of mankind.

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

}I goh the headlines, even if you yourself were strikingly reticent on the matter. Dec loves Amy, Amy loves Dec, what will it take to get them to say it? Worse than some bloody soap. I have to claim some credit, I must say, for my forthright words at the barbecue.

‘Piss off, I was going to say something anyway.’

}Yeah, like fuck you were. ‘Oh she’s just a mate’ you told me, as you pined away pathetically in a dark corner of the garden.

‘OK, maybe I did need a little nudge.’

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

}Bollocks would you, you’d still be pissing about now. Instead of hours of snogging and groping in the car jus now, you’d have been chastely dropping her off at home, promising to text her, staring miserably after her as she disappeared inside the forbidden fortress. And you’d have been back in time to give Cal his bath. I’ve given you all these extra weeks of bliss, as well as severely inconveniencing myself and getting half drowned into the bargain. I accept your grateful thahks.

I rolled my eyes. Decided to shift the focus of the conversation.

‘What about you, anyone worth looking twice at in the hiking group?’

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

}Well, there is this one girl, she’s a bit younger than me.

‘So not exactly a girl, but not in her sixties yet?’

}Fuck off you impudent urchin. We chatted quite a lot today. Seems really nice. Good arse. We got on pretty well. A few of us are going for a drink next week, she’ll be there. You can wipe that look off your face. I’m not looking for anything serious, I’m only jus getting better. I don’t know if getting involved with someone else with the bastard MS is the best idea. Actually, not sure ‘getting involved’ with someone is what I want at all. I just need to get my own bit of normal, start having some fun again.

łDid I hear someone mention fun? What’s the story?

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

}Piss off, Dec. No, just going out for a drink with some people next week. Goh to start somewhere.

łDrink sounds good – shall we have a practice now? I’ve got beers in. A toast to … oh, I don’t know, fatherhood? Family? Something less corny?

‘Love.’

łI said less corny, Dec. We all know you’re loved up, pretty hard to miss. Especially right this minute – Jesus, are they my sweatpants? Fuck, I may never be able to wear them again.

He went to get the beers. Came back looking thoughtful.

łYou know what, I am going to make a toast to love. Not just the full on snoggy type that Dec’s so fond of, but all of it. I feel pretty loved up myself today. I’ve got this fantastic daughter, courtesy of my incredible wife, I’ve spent time with my brilliant family and amazing friends and just watched my awesome son go to sleep. And you two are here helping me celebrate. Life just doesn’t get any better. To love.

We clinked our bottles together.

A few hours and many beers later I stumbled up the stairs, undressed quickly in the bathroom and climbed under the duvet in Cal’s bottom bunk as quietly as I could. I was asleep almost before I was lying down.

Dreaming. I am flying. High above the world. I can see it all, the people and patterns that make up my life. It is beautiful. It is amazing. It is awesome. It is love.

I woke up in the dark, disoriented. Someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

\you said a big swear. Can I come in with you?

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

I pulled the duvet back and he jumped in, immediately filling the available space while I shuffled back against the wall. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

Having a sister wasn’t that great, really, although everyone kept saying ‘Do you love your little sister?’ to me, and I had to say yes, because I didn’t think I would be allowed to say no. But she cried a lot, and woke me up at night sometimes, and Mum was busy feeding her and changing her nappies, although she sometimes let me help with the nappies so I could look at the poo. So I was quite glad when it was the start of school, and time to surprise Jake.

Not long after Isobel was born, everyone started calling her Iz. It was a lot easier to say, and it was like a nickname, so I liked it.

Matt

I couldn’t remember much about when Cal was born; I really wasn’t into babies back then, and I suppose you could say I wasn’t now, but having lived with Jay and Beth throughout the whole deal with cravings, hormonal rants, swelling belly, ooh feel it kicking no thanks I’d rather not, I felt a lot closer to this one.

When Cal had arrived, I didn’t rush down to see the new-born first born, and contented myself with emailed and texted pictures, which looked much like any other Churchill-a-like baby I’d ever seen. I visited with Mum several weeks later (it was her third visit) and dutifully held him and jiggled him a bit, but the amount of time I spent in a different room while Beth breastfed him hardly seemed worth the hassle. Not that Beth sent me out, you understand, but … well … you know, the whole boob thing. Yeah, I know, really not PC of me, really bad form, but that’s how it was. Didn’t want to see Beth’s boobs, really didn’t want to be thinking about them in any way either, so spent a lot of time in the kitchen honing my cooking skills and consequently getting brownie points from the new parents.

But this one was different. I felt like I knew this one a bit before it arrived. They didn’t want to know if it was a boy or a girl, they wanted it to be a surprise. I never understood why people did that, it’s not like it’s Secret Santa or something, it’s a baby, a tiny person, and surely if you can get to know it in any small way before it comes, that’s better than knowing jack-shit about it until it pops out. But hey, it wasn’t my baby, and it was up to them, so until Jay rang me I didn’t know if I had a niece or another nephew. And I’d been expecting to be a bit uninterested, like I had with Cal at first, until I’d got to know the little tyke in the last year or so, but as soon as I clapped eyes on Isobel Flora Scott, as soon as I held her, I was won. She had my heart. I mean, yeah, she looked as much like Winston as her brother had, but when I held her I actually cried, bloody huge tears and everything, she was so small and fragile, and I just wanted to protect her. Dec cried as well, we were still pretty much competing for the play-off position in the blub club league tables, but we both scarpered as soon as Beth started unbuttoning her top, and in the corridor we stayed until we managed to persuade Amy to go and get Cal so we could go home.

So Isobel, who pretty soon got shortened to Iz, would need a bedroom before too long. She was going in with Jay and Beth for a few months, and although there was talk of rejigging things and maybe using Jay’s office, I knew my days were numbered. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with the end of my stay chez Scott being nigh, because it meant I was getting better, and by the end of September, I’d got a reference from Eyeti, a pretty bloody good one, too, and had hawked my wares around a few different IT companies in the city.

I’d upped my game in other ways too. Remember Imogen, from the hiking group? Yeah, well, she helped me prove I still had it. Now, I’m not proud of this, not now, but at the time it was pretty major for me. Imogen and I got on well, the hiking group went out a couple of times and then I saw Imogen just the two of us once or twice. OK, twice. And she definitely had that look in her eye, and things were definitely happening for me that said ‘Thunderbirds are go’. And she was a bit of a safety net, because if things didn’t go quite right, she had the bastard MS too, and she’d understand. But things did go right, very right indeed, and it was a great relief to know that everything worked, and I think we both had a good time, I mean I know I did, and she seemed to, but there was no way I was getting into anything, not with the huge hole in my chest where Carrie had ripped my heart out, so it was with regret that I finished things with Imogen before they could develop, and she was upset, and so then I couldn’t go hiking with them anymore.

But that was OK too, because I joined a normal person’s hiking group, got lucky there too, with Alice and Maya, although not together, you understand, then left that group as well, then just went for a walk when I felt like it, on my own, without feeling the need to surround myself with people. So you can see how my career as an excellent no-strings lay was resurrected in this city. It didn’t take me long to begin it, and it was fun, and it was reassuring, and it laid down a wafer thin veneer over my fractured life, a veneer that got thicker with every woman, with every ego-boosting response to my moves.

Yeah, I used a lot of people to make me feel better, I was an arrogant bastard, and I regret it, now. But at the time I was hurting, I was angry and I needed reassurance that I could still do it, and that was my justification for a long time – not in those exact words of course; if I thought about it at all, I’d say I was looking for some fun after a shit year, and that seemed like vindication enough.

That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t as good at fooling myself as I’d like to think; a couple of times it all came crashing down on me, and the pit opened up invitingly beneath me as the cracks in the veneer opened a little and the pain seeped through. When Iz was tiny, I felt in the way and useless, and looking back maybe I was just being an attention-seeking git, but I succumbed to the dark once or twice. It was really unfair of me, but I just went to bed and lay there with the curtains closed until somebody noticed. Which didn’t take long, because new mother or not, Beth Scott never missed anything. She didn’t have the time or energy to devote to my misguided angst-ins, but Dec did, and he extricated his tongue from Amy’s mouth long enough to come round and sit with me, annoying me until I gave in. He even held my hand, which was above and beyond, and has never been mentioned by either of us until now. It wasn’t just support and being there that he offered, he was pretty forthright about how selfish I was being with a new baby in the house, and I came to my senses, such as they were, and shoved my self-pity as far down as it would go, which was pretty far, and filled the pit up with as much blonde tits action as I could muster.

I tore up the plans. No more plans for Matt, they’d got me precisely nowhere. Whereas I’d got into the way of having a plan a, b and c, now my only plan was plan d. D for debauchery.

43. Life gets better

In which the lovebirds fly home, before we get caught up with happenings and a baby arrives.

Matt

Cal had been pestering all of us to play football with him, but it was hot, and he wasn’t getting any takers. We’d sent him in to the kitchen to ask Dec, who’d stopped snogging Amy for long enough to say he’d be out soon, and after a wait that had Cal jiggling with impatience, they came out into the garden, holding hands, flushed, looking shell-shocked and blissed out. Jay followed them and came back to sit with Nico and me, where we proceeded to take the piss.

Cal

Dad was gone for a few minutes, and then Dec and Amy came out, and they were holding each other’s hands like they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They gave some cakes to Mum, and then started talking to her. I needed to get over there before anything else happened to stop me playing football.

‘Can you play football with me now?’

Dec

I hauled my attention to Cal.

‘Yeah, course. Why don’t you see if Matt wants to play too?’

\he said he wants to watch you.

‘Did he.’

I glanced over to where Matt was sitting, flanked by Nico and Jay. As I flicked a V at them above Cal’s head, they collapsed with laughter.

‘Just me and you then, mate. You’ve got the ball? I guess I’ll be in goal.’

Amy stayed with Beth; I could see the two of them cosying up in a couple of deckchairs for a girls’ gossip, as Lis made her way over to join in. I walked over to Cal’s inflatable goal and installed myself between the posts. My gaze wandered over to Amy …

Cal

Dec walked over to the goal, and shooed everyone out of the way so I could take penalties without them being in the way. I put the ball down on the spot and ran up, kicked it hard, and scored. I should have been pleased, but Dec wasn’t even looking at the ball, he was looking at Amy.

Dad, Nico and Uncle Matty all laughed again, and I realised they were laughing at Dec, but not quite why. It wasn’t funny – he needed to concentrate on what he was doing, or it would be too easy and he might as well not be in goal.

‘Come on then, Cal, try again.’

I lined up another shot, and scored again, but I shouldn’t have done because I didn’t kick the ball very hard, and it went almost straight at Dec. He wasn’t looking. Again. I was cross.

Dec

\dec, you’re not even watching.

‘No, sorry Cal. I’m watching now. Take another shot, give it a Theo Walcott smash.’

Cal

I put the ball on the spot again, and took a run up, making sure Dec was looking this time. It wasn’t a very good shot, and Dec only saved it because it hit his knee. I was cross again, but because I needed to try harder. Dec threw the ball back to me.

‘Here you are, have another kick.’

Dec threw me the ball, and I placed it on the spot, but as I kicked it, I noticed Dec was looking at Amy again, and it made me scuff the ball. It was another not very good kick, and the ball wobbled slowly up to Dec, and then past him into the goal while he was looking the other way. I felt like saying ‘honestly Dec’ like Mum would have done, because I wasn’t enjoying this at all.

Dec

As I threw the ball in Cal’s direction, my glance slid over once more to Amy, who was laughing at something Lis had said, and twirling a strand of her dark, wavy hair round her finger. The ball rolled slowly past my foot as I stared, spellbound.

\dec why do you keep looking at Amy? You’re not looking at the ball.

I didn’t need to look at Matt, Jay and Nico to know they had heard Cal’s question.

}Yeah, keep your eye on the ball, Dec.

łConcentrate, now.

>Hey guys, be fair, is hard for Declan to concentrate when his brain is full of kisses.

łIs that it, Dec, is it your brain that’s full of kisses? You seemed to have a lot of them on the tip of your tongue, among other things, a minute ago.

Matt

It was bloody hilarious watching Dec attempting to concentrate on being in goal for Cal, while every ten seconds or so, his eyes would sidle over to where Amy was sitting talking to Beth and Lis. Cal would score, which he usually enjoyed, but not if you were being too obvious about letting the ball in. Jay, Nico and I ribbed Dec mercilessly, until he gave up.

Cal

Dec looked at me, picked the ball out of the back of the net, threw it to me, and started to walk to where Dad was sitting with Nico and Uncle Matty.

‘Sorry, Cal, I think I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. I’m sure Uncle Matty will play with you, he seems full of himself today.’

Dec

‘Hilarious, guys. Matt, you’re up in goal.’

}Oh no, I’m sure that wouldn’t be good for me, you know, the stress of moving in, fucking cripple and all that. I definitely need to take ih easy. Jay?

łNo way.

>I go in goal for Cal. I don’t get distracted by beautiful womens.

łThat’ll be a first then.

>I overcome it for Cal.

Cal

I stood with the ball tucked under my arm, trying to look as cross as I could. I had been waiting all day for someone to play football with me, and it had lasted for four kicks, and it had been rubbish. Dec was talking to the others, and I thought they would just laugh and drink beer, but Nico got up and walked over, ruffled my hair and stood in the goal. I stood on the spot and looked at him, hardly able to believe that Nico was going to be my goalie.

‘Why you wait, Cal? I am ready to be your goal saver.’

‘It’s called the goalkeeper.’

‘Ha, I know this. You want to try a goal? Maybe I save, maybe I keep.’

I put the ball on the spot and kicked it. Nico dived, but couldn’t save my brilliant shot. That’s how it was supposed to work. I did lots more brilliant shots, and Nico hardly saved any, except some that hit him when he was diving the wrong way.

Dec

}Your talk with Amy went well then.

‘Didn’t do that much talking, actually.’

}So I gather. Feel better?

‘Feel fucking awesome.’

łSeriously, Dec, why did it take you so long?

‘I don’t know, now. Don’t know why I didn’t do it weeks ago.’

łNeither do I, would have saved us all a lot of sighing and mournful looks.

‘Piss off, I wasn’t that bad. It’s bloody terrifying if you think there’s half a chance she’ll say no.’

łI think you were the only one who thought there was any remote part of half a chance she was going to say no. The pair of you have been pretty bloody amusing, being all best-friendy with each other, but all the sidelong glances and, Jesus, talking about her all day long to anyone who would listen. I don’t suppose that’s going to stop anytime soon.

}I think it can only get worse now. We’ll just have to live with ih. Get our glazed expressions on. Going in goal for Cal seems quite an attractive proposition for the foreseeable when Dec’s around.

I locked eyes with Amy again across the garden and a big smile spread across my face. She walked over and sat next to me, nudging her way under my arm, and I pulled her close to me. She was soft and warm and lovely and my heart nearly stopped every time I looked at her.

Matt

Inevitably the eyes of the two young lovers locked while Dec was sitting with us, and Amy drifted over, sitting next to him and snuggling in under his arm. She looked completely comfortable there; Dec looked like the cat that got the cream.

Dec

)Hey you.

‘Hey you. Do you know Matt?’

)No. Hi Matt, it’s lovely to meet you at last. I’ve heard a lot about you.

}None of it puts me in a good ligh, I imagine.

)That’d be telling.

}Whereas I, on the other hand, have heard practically nothing about you from the horse’s mouth – the horse being Dec in this scenario – and have had to rely on gossip and hearsay for my information.

Amy looked up at me. I shrugged. I hadn’t told anyone how I felt about Amy, because there had been nothing to tell. Or, maybe I had been too scared to admit there was something. In any case, I hadn’t said anything to Matt, who hadn’t been around to ask awkward questions, and I had avoided any awkward questions from anyone who was around.

‘Not sure I can trust Matt with sensitive information. He’s a bit of a smart-arse.’

}Would have been nice to be trusted with any type of information. Still, I can see why you’d want to keep her to yourself.

)Am I sensitive information then, Dec?

‘Extremely sensitive. Handle with utmost care.’

Matt

He introduced Amy to me, and she seemed very nice, which I know is damning with faint praise, but that’s how she seemed, as she gazed, stupefied, into Dec’s equally infatuated face.

It was bound to happen sooner rather than later, and sure enough before more than a minute had passed, Dec stroked her cheek, looked at me defiantly, and bent down and kissed her.

‘For fuck’s sake, geh a room guys.’

It seemed like the thing to say.

Only not here. Definitely out of bounds.’

A worried look had crossed Jay’s face, as if he thought they might commandeer the master bedroom given half a chance.

Dec

I leaned down and whispered in her ear.

‘Not a bad idea? More privacy, less running commentary.’

I held her gaze as she looked up into my eyes, an impish glint in her expression and a fetching blush on her cheeks. She knew what I was suggesting, and she wanted it. A quick raise of the eyebrows, a slight nod. We stood up, grinning.

Matt

‘Where are yuh off to?’

‘Well it was your suggestion, you work it out. Just going to say goodbye to Beth.’

I almost applauded his fast work. Admittedly, it had taken six months of pining, but now he was off to get his end away in an afternoon.

‘Fuck me, you don’t hang about once you get your arse into gear, do you. Amy, I hope you know wha you’re doing, Dec isn’t usually this decisive. He’ll be another hour going ‘ooh, shall I put my coat on or just carry it’. Will almost definitely be blubbing before the end of the day, though.’

Dec

Yeah, Matt thought he knew me so well, he was such a … actually he was pretty spot on. I was useless at making my mind up, sometimes, and it wasn’t unheard of for me to have leaky eyes at times, mostly back around Christmas when it was all going on, but I wasn’t indecisive about this. This was a no-brainer. And it looked like Amy had my back anyway.

Matt

I expected Amy to blush and look embarrassed, but she looked me in the eye.

‘I completely know what I’m doing, thank you. In fact, given what I know about you, Matt, I think I could safely tell you to fuck off?’

Oh, she was going to be alright, this one. She was going to able to handle Dec with no problem.

‘Dec, I like her.’

‘You should feel honoured, Amy never swears.’

That surprised me, because it sounded like she was born to it, but I took him at his word and further upgraded my first impression of Amy.

‘Ah, Summers exerts his dastardly influence already. Fuck off too, the pair of you.’

Jay, conscious of Cal’s ears listening a short distance away and Beth’s disapproving glance from across the garden, had his head in his hands.

Guys, you’ll get me in serious shit with Beth.’

Even better, then. I still tried to corrupt Cal and annoy Beth at every opportunity.

I watched Dec and Amy hurry across the lawn, and suddenly remembered something from our Christmas ‘I wish I was normal’ conversations. Beer and sex. We’d both got the beer side of things well under control, and now it looked like at least one of us was going to be getting the sex part ticked off too.

‘Dec!’

He turned and I raised my beer bottle to him.

‘Here’s to normal.’

He knew exactly what I meant.

Dec

I laughed, remembering our ‘beer and sex’ definition of normal life, grabbed Amy’s hand and we ran giggling to her car.

)Your place or your place?

‘Ha ha. I suppose your parents are home?’

)Yeah.

‘My place it is.’

Amy put the key in the ignition.

‘Amy, wait.’

She turned her entrancing eyes on me.

‘Just wanted to do this.’

I leaned over and kissed her deeply.

)Mm. Is that a warm up?

‘You bet. There’s lots more where that came from. How fast can you drive?’

)Within the speed limit, mister.

‘Get moving then, woman, we’ve wasted enough time already.’

Amy started the car. We got moving. Hadn’t really stopped since.

Cal

After that day, I hardly saw Dec without Amy. I didn’t mind, because Amy was nice, and she played with me, she even went in goal sometimes, and it was almost as good as having two Decs. But for a while after that day, nobody saw Dec very much at all, and if anyone asked where he was, someone would say ‘Amy’, like that explained everything, but it wasn’t like before, when he went away and everyone was cross and no one talked about it, because I was allowed to phone him on Dad’s phone, and he came round for Sunday lunch. So everything was still alright.

Matt

Nobody saw much of Dec and Amy after that. They were inseparable, intertwined, as one. It lasted a long time, as long as I’ve lasted and will still be lasting after I’m out of the picture, which won’t be long now I suspect. Dec and Amy, romance of the century. They were meant to be, star-cross’d lovers, perfect partners, fated. Fuck, I was jealous.

Not that I wished him anything but happiness, it was good to see after all of his travails, Dec getting what he wanted, getting better, getting sorted, getting laid. But I was having my own crisis in the nether regions department; a crisis of self-belief and a crisis of confidence. Whether it was Carrie, or the bastard MS, or some twisted mixture of the two which had taken it all away, stolen my sexual mojo, I suppose I’ll never know, but it went away, and it was gone for a long time, with nary a twitch nor a tingle to let me know I was male after all, not some kind of unfortunate eunuch.

Dec

Remembering it now made me smile. I kissed the top of Amy’s head again, then turned onto my side, pulling her arm round me, feeling her soft body moulding itself to mine. Life was pretty good.

Jay, Beth and Cal had moved back to the city a couple of months ago when Jay took the job as Raiders’ assistant coach. It was something he had begun discussing the day we went to watch the Raiders game after Christmas.

Matt had moved down just before the barbecue – he’d been well enough to stay at the house in Stafford and oversee the move from that end. Carol had stayed in the Midlands, but was considering moving down too. Matt’s health had vastly improved. He had recovered almost completely from the pneumonia that had debilitated him so much and had not had a flare up of MS since. He was beginning to think about working again, and getting a place of his own in the city, although he was living with Jay and Beth at least for the next few months.

Looking back, I could hardly believe it was more than a year since it had all started with a skid and a swerve on the bypass. The months since Christmas had flown by – I had a small operation to repair the tear in a ligament in my shoulder –which had turned out not to be as bad as I had feared – and had then commenced my rehab with a vengeance. It was hard work, lots of repetitious movements and mind-numbingly boring gym stuff designed to strengthen everything around injured parts, and make me stronger and fitter than before I got injured. There were a few other players in rehab, and we worked together as team-mates to overcome the tedium. After a couple of months I was able to join in light training, which progressed to full training with both Raiders and Trojans, and at the end of April, almost four months after the assault, I was on the bench for Trojans, my first game in all that time. I came on for ten minutes; it was the most exhausting ten minutes of my life, I was shattered afterwards, but the glow from playing again more than made up for it, and I scored a try to put the icing on the cake. Jay and Cal had come down to watch, Cal wearing his Raiders shirt with ‘TIAGO’ on the back. He now worshipped Nico, as people tended to, and as well as showing an unhealthy interest in my bad language, he sometimes tried to copy Nico’s unique style of grammar. Beth despaired almost as much either way.

Luke Woods and Ben Hearne had gone to court charged with assaulting me and causing criminal damage to my property. They had been found guilty and were currently in prison for longer than I’d imagined. It was only because Raiders had shown me more generosity than anyone could have expected that his plan to destroy me hadn’t worked. His first aim was to break me financially, which he had nearly achieved. Then he wanted to ruin my reputation through revealing my use of an invalid passport and hiding the accident. Lastly, he expected all of the above to lose me my job, as payback for what he considered a personal slight against his former employers and the team he still supported. All he really achieved was Jay leaving, as well as getting himself and his nephew put in prison. I was still coming to terms with all of this, one of the many things Adam, my psychologist was helping me with.

Seeing Adam had been one of the best things I had ever done. He saw things very clearly, and didn’t let me give him any bullshit. I guess that’s his job. He told me I had been suffering from a post traumatic stress disorder following my accident, but that it was exacerbated by unresolved issues around the death of my parents. In plain English, my head was already messed up when I crashed my car, but the crash just made everything worse.

Adam’s forthright manner was just what I needed – he helped me to open up and tell him things I’d never told anyone, and am never likely to, about my experiences in care. He helped me work out what I really felt, and to start letting people into my life more. He also helped me prepare for playing again. He understood the psychology of sport, and knew how important it is to be mentally strong. I was still very much a work in progress, but I had progressed and was able to look back at how I was a year ago as if it was another life, another me, a different person.

Amy kissed my shoulder and tightened her arm around me, pulling me closer. I turned over towards her, took her face in my hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She kissed me back. Time stood still then, while we loved each other. Afterwards, breathless:

‘That has to be one of my favourite things to do, ever. You are fucking amazing, Ames.’

)Not as amazing as you.

‘Much more amazing than me. Hard to believe, I know. But there it is.’

)You could up your amazingness by giving me breakfast in bed.

‘What, you need more? Wasn’t that enough for you, babe?’

I kissed her, only half joking and more than willing to start again.

)Ha ha, I mean real food. Toast and jam, cup of coffee please thank you I completely love you please thank you.

‘So unfair, you know I can’t resist those eyes when they plead.’

)They do come in very useful.

‘Wait here then.’

)Not going anywhere, otherwise it wouldn’t be breakfast in bed.

I got out of bed, pulled my jeans on and headed down to the kitchen. I was living in lodgings provided by the club, a shared house for some of the younger Raiders players – Bonksy, Danno and Mikey all lived there too.

I had tried to move back to my flat a few weeks after Christmas, but it had been too much, the bareness of it just reminded me constantly of what had gone on up there, both with Luke and Big, and the state I had been in for most of the time I had spent there.

Rose had offered me her spare room on a more permanent basis, but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted. Nico and Lis offered too, but that didn’t feel right either. Jay and Beth were still living in Stafford, and hadn’t told anyone about Jay trying for the assistant coach job, but even if they had been in the city, I’m not sure it would have been right to move back in with them.

When Jay had suggested the shared house as somewhere I could have my independence and privacy but not be on my own, I had realised that it was what I wanted. I still saw Rose a lot – in fact she was unofficial second mum to all of us living there. She regularly brought cakes and provided a shoulder to cry on for anyone who wanted it.

Rose was thinking about taking in a lodger herself, maybe linking in with some of the fostering agencies in the city. I could foresee her future full of young lads with enough troubles to keep her happily mothering for the time being. I went to see her every few days, just to check her lodgers weren’t taking advantage, and to be plied with tea and cake. Everyone got together with Jay, Beth and Cal, Matt, and Nico and Lis for one of Beth’s special roasts, available most Sundays, and it seemed like the family was getting bigger and bigger. Not that Beth or Jay seemed to mind.

Matt

I won’t go into the sordid details of how I explored things to try and regain a tiny sense of something down there, but in the end, by the time I’d moved in with Jay and Beth in Devon, I’d felt stirrings with some relief. I was scared, though. Scared that it would never be the same, scared to even try. Not just of sex, but of something like Carrie happening to me again. I was scared that if I ever gave myself to someone in the same way, I was going to end up in the same deep well I’d spent the last fuck knows how long clawing my way out of.

Of course, I mentioned this to no one. It’s not the sort of thing you can bring up over dinner or text to your mate or even, really admit to yourself. So I went on with everything else. Plan A seemed to be going well, which was to live with Jay until I got well enough to a) get a job and b) find a place of my own. I knew that the bastard MS could, theoretically, come back anytime and fuck up the whole plan A, so plan B was that there would always be a place for me with Jay and Beth, but I was determined, so, so determined that I would never need it, that plan B would remain merely a plan.

The better I felt, the more I convinced myself that I was going to be one of those few lucky, lucky people for whom the bastard MS came and went and sodded so far off I never saw hide nor hair of it again. And if it did come back, it was going to be when I was an old man, and it wouldn’t matter. So I took it, the getting better, and enjoyed it, and started to live again.

I even found someone who could cut my hair like Becky from Classy Cuts. As soon as I could get out, I’d had Beth take me to the salon, ignoring all protests that she could do it and save me some time and money. Some things you just have to do a certain way, and this was one of my little obsessions. Moving down here, well, one of the things I was obsessing about in a slight way was who I would get to cut my hair. It was as if I was a girl or something, but you can’t help what keeps you awake at night. Not that it did, of course. Well not much.

Anyway, I asked Becky, the last time I went to Classy Cuts, if she knew anywhere nearby to Jay and Beth’s new-old house that she could recommend, and she amazed me by having a cousin who owned a salon in a town a few miles away from the city. It was perfect, I gave it a try, and if anything Becky’s cousin Janine cut my hair even better than Becky. And I will now stop sounding like an utter girly wanker about my hair, it’s just, some things are important, alright?

Beth bombarded me with information about local bastard MS groups and their activities. I really didn’t want to be part of a Sunshine Variety Coach crowd, all packed off to the panto in the fun bus, but there was a walking group that caught my eye. It wasn’t something I planned to be part of long term; once I really regained my strength and knew what I was capable of, I would be off on my own, but as a first time thing, going with a group of people who would be sensitive to sudden tiredness, and difficulty climbing over stiles, seemed like a good way to re-introduce myself to hiking with a bit of a safety net. So I packed a bag one morning, got picked up in the fun bus, and off we went.

Except, of course, this was the morning Beth decided to give birth. Oh I suppose she didn’t really choose to do it just to annoy me, but as soon as I saw the ‘missed call’ messages on my phone, it felt inevitable. I should have known. I’d agreed to look after Cal when it all happened. I was the obvious choice, I was always there, Cal and I got on great, I babysat all the time.

Dec

I was in the middle of buttering Amy’s toast when my phone rang in my pocket. Jay.

‘Hey.’

łDec, you’re needed as baby backup.

‘What?’

łBeth’s having the baby, Matty’s gone off on this hike thing, he won’t get back here in time. You said you’d do it if he couldn’t, come and stay with Cal?

‘Oh, right, fuck, didn’t know what you meant for a bit. Wow, Jay.’

Beth had been pregnant for what seemed like forever. I’d almost forgotten there would be a baby at the end of it.

‘Yeah, we’ll be right over. Five minutes, ten tops. It’s OK if Amy comes too, isn’t it?’

łWell as you’re a bit of a buy one get one free offer at the moment, I wouldn’t expect you to be able to come without her. Course, it’s fine, mate. Just hurry.

I left everything in the kitchen, ran up the stairs, burst into the room.

‘Get dressed, we’ve got to go.’

Amy sat up, alarmed.

)Why? What’s happened?

‘Beth’s having the baby, Matt’s gone out, we’ve got to go and stay with Cal.’

)Oh, that’s completely amazing. Can you throw me my top?

We dressed really quickly, no time for breakfast, showers or cleaning teeth. Rushed downstairs, got in my car and drove off.

Driving was another thing Adam had helped me with. I had managed to slowly face getting back behind the steering wheel with his help, and now could barely remember the terror I had felt last Christmas in Beth’s car.

After some pushing from Jay and Beth, who knew how much it meant to me, I had contacted the police about my car, and was surprised and delighted to find they still had it. It needed a lot of fixing up after all the time in the police yard, dented and crumpled from the crash and exposed to the elements, but this was the car I had bought with the small amount of money I had inherited from my parents on my eighteenth birthday. It meant a lot to get it back, and even more to get back behind the wheel without completely freaking out.

I drove quickly to Jay and Beth’s house, pulling up outside less than fifteen minutes after Jay’s call. They saw us arrive, and were outside and into their own car before we’d reached the front door. Jay wound down the window.

łCal’s in the garden, playing football. Help yourselves to anything. Thanks, guys.

_Thanks sweetheart, see you both later.

łWe’ll ring you. OK, let’s go have a baby!

Jay drove off, even faster than usual, tyres squealing as they raced away. We went through the house to the garden.

‘Hey, Cal, practising your dribbling?’

\yes but I need a goalie.

‘Will I do?’

\yes but I need someone to tackle me.

‘Well I can’t do both. Can Amy do it?’

Cal considered.

\girls aren’t very good at football.

)I’m pretty good, Cal. I’m not sure you’d be able to beat me. Give it a go?

This sparked Cal’s competitive streak, and he couldn’t resist showing Amy how good he was. A few minutes into our game, my phone rang. Matt.

‘Sorry, Cal, got to talk to Uncle Matty. Hey, Matt.’

I walked off into the house.

}I’ve been trying to call Jay and Beth, I missed a call, their phones are off.

‘They’ve gone to the hospital. The baby’s on it’s way.’

}Farty bumfucks. I knew this would happen when I’m in the middle of sodding nowhere. Arse.

‘Don’t stress, Amy and I are here with Cal. I don’t expect anything will happen for hours, from what I gather. Enjoy your walk.’

}I could try and geh one of the guys to bring me back.

‘It’s up to you, but I don’t think there’s any need. I’ll ring if there’s any news.’

}There might not be a signal. Shit, I don’t know what to do.

‘Well you could rush back, spoil your day and just be sat waiting for hours – days maybe. Why don’t you enjoy the walk like you planned? We might take Cal to the beach later. No point sitting around waiting.’

}I hate it when you’re right. I’m jus pissed off with myself, I promised them I’d be there for them and now I’m out here enjoying the scenery while you get dragged over there.

‘We’re more than happy to be here. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to babysit soon – two for the price of one, now.’

}You’re righ, I’m being a twat. Thanks Dec. Ring me if you hear anything.

‘No worries. See you later.’

Matt

Dec was so laid back about it all, and didn’t seem to mind having his day disrupted, although he was still spending it with Amy, so I guess he wasn’t missing much except a few more hours in bed. So I continued, feeling guilty, but not wanting to make someone else miss it by getting them to take me home.

Dec

I wandered back into the garden, where Cal had installed Amy in front of the small inflatable goal. I watched for a moment, loving how she was so willing to play with him.

‘Cal, Amy and I are going to have some breakfast. Have you had yours yet?’

\i had some Golden Crunch, but I’m hungry again.

‘What are you hungry for?’

\monster Munch.

‘OK, I’ll get your Monster Munch while I make us some breakfast. Would you like to go to the beach in a bit?’

My run and the gym were out the window now, but there was no reason at least one of my plans couldn’t still go ahead.

\can I take my kite?

‘That’s a great idea. We’ll take a picnic as well, and your football.’

)I’ll make some sandwiches.

‘Thanks, babe.’

I paused to kiss Amy. Couldn’t pause too long with Cal’s eyes on us.

‘OK, Cal, find your kite, I’m just going to do some toast and coffee for me and Amy.’

Cal ran out of the kitchen, and I grabbed Amy for a longer kiss. We weren’t quick enough to beat Cal, who came back with his kite in record time.

\dec why do you always kiss Amy?

‘Well, I really like her a lot, and she’s my girlfriend.’

\does it hurt?

‘No, Cal, it’s very nice.’

\i don’t want a girlfriend if I have to kiss her.

We both laughed.

)You’d be surprised, Cal. Just wait and see.

The disgusted look on his face showed how much he doubted this.

\when can we go?

‘After we’ve had breakfast. Here’s your Monster Munch, and some purple squash.’

Amy made the sandwiches and packed a bag with food and drink, while I made the breakfast. With Cal’s chivvying we ate quickly and were soon ready to set off.

Matt

The hike was great. It was more healing than anything else I had experienced over the past few months – the sun was out, I saw wildlife, and identified birds. I talked to lots of different people, from all walks of life, all of whom had one version or another of the bastard MS. I particularly chatted with Imogen, who was a little younger than me, had curly red hair and green eyes, and a mouth that turned up at the corners so it looked like she was always smiling. She had a great arse, too, which I noticed when I walked behind her. I definitely felt some stirrings down below, which further helped the healing process.

Imogen and I talked a bit about the bastard MS, shared stories, but talked mostly about nothing much, having a laugh with everyone, joining in the general chit chat and lighthearted banter. I hadn’t intended to join this group in any way, but they talked about all going out for a drink later in the week, and I missed it, being part of a ‘crowd’, and I thought it would be a no-pressure way to see Imogen again and continue exploring the stirrings, so I said I’d go too.

Dec

It was still fairly early and the beach wasn’t yet too full. We managed to fly Cal’s kite, paddle in the sea, collect shells, build sandcastles, race each other, play football, eat lunch, eat ice cream, build a trench to hold back the incoming tide and get loads of sand in our shorts before Cal’s energy wore us out. We headed back as the afternoon passed and the beach filled up.

\dec, will Mummy and Daddy be there when we get back?

‘No, Cal, they’re at the hospital. Mummy’s having the baby.’

\when will they be at home?

‘I don’t really know. It can take a long time to have a baby.’

\will I have to be in bed on my own?

‘No, mate, Amy and I will stay with you until your mum and dad or Uncle Matty come home. You won’t be on your own.’

\where is Uncle Matty?

‘He went out for a hike with his friends. He’ll be back later.’

\dec, can you stay with me tonight?

‘Uncle Matty will be there.’

\but can you stay as well? Underneath? Like at Christmas and your birthday?

Although I’d stayed with them loads of times since my birthday, I’d been in the spare room, just so I could get some sleep. Once I was back in training, I couldn’t cope with a full weekend of sleepless nights, much as I loved being with Cal. I looked over at Amy, checking with her.

)It’s OK, I should spend some time at home, I suppose. Been getting a bit of grief lately.

‘Alright then, if you really want me to, Cal, I guess I can this once. As long as you don’t wake me up in the middle of the night wanting to get in with me.’

\dec, do you still make noises and do bad swears in the night?

Amy laughed.

)I think I’ve spotted Cal’s hidden agenda. He’s missed your mad night noises.

‘Do I still have mad night noises?’

)Oh yes.

\dec goes ‘mm mm’ and ‘no’ and sometimes he says bad words beginning with ‘fuh’.

)I know he does, Cal. And sometimes he goes ‘mm yeah’ too. He’s pretty noisy to spend a night with. Are you sure he won’t keep you awake?

To my knowledge, I hadn’t had a nightmare since Luke and Big were found guilty. The faceless brown-booted man and the boot coming towards my face had disappeared as soon as I recognised Luke after the Raiders game, replaced with a few jumbled dreams where I was being chased, which left me disoriented and apprehensive afterwards. These also disappeared after the police caught the man with the scraggy beard who had been in the van that day.

He turned out to be Big’s other uncle. The whole thing had been thought up by Luke Woods, who had been present by chance at the inquest following my car crash, and had been the one who had recognised me. Luke had sensed an opportunity to profit from the information, and used his indignation as a former Raiders employee to justify his actions. He had enlisted his nephew, Big, and his brother, Paul, in his scheme.

Big had been ideally placed within the club to keep an eye on me and at the same time deflect any potential suspicion by pretending to be my friend; we had been friends before, but Big had not been able to get over the things I’d done and joined in willingly with Luke’s plans.

The police had routinely interviewed other members of Luke Woods’ family and had come across Paul, matching the description I had given them, and who didn’t give up much resistance in the end. After he had been dealt with, and the short-lived media frenzy surrounding it all had died away, my dreams settled down and I had thought I slept soundly. Now it was apparent that wasn’t the case.

‘I didn’t know. Sorry if I’ve kept you awake, babe.’

)No, silly, it’s cute. You don’t have nightmares any more though, do you?

‘No, not that I remember. There’s obviously something bizarre going on in here though.’

I tapped my head.

)Well, Cal, I think it’s only fair that if Dec keeps you awake with his mad dream noises, you can wake him up and get in with him.

‘Thanks a lot, there goes my night’s sleep.’

Amy laughed.

)Works for me.

She gave me a saucy look and changed the subject. I thought back to several very enjoyable middle-of-the-night encounters with Amy, and silently thanked my crazy brain.

We had been back a couple of hours, and had just started to think about what to do for dinner, when my phone rang. Jay.

‘Jay, any news?’

łYeah, mate, we’ve got a daughter. She’s fantastic.

‘Oh wow, congratulations. Everything OK, Beth alright?’

łEverything’s perfect. She’s perfect. Beth’s perfect. Can you bring Cal over?

‘Yeah, course. Now?’

łYeah.

‘Have you rung Matt?’

łNot yet, I’ll do it now.

42. You can’t hurry love

In which a move is proposed, agreed and undertaken, and love is requited.

Matt

It was April, I was getting out and about myself now, using buses and embracing the Stafford public transport system. Despite being constantly on the alert for glimpses of Carrie and Martin, I was feeling so much better that I had begun to overcome my apprehension. For a while it had taken me back to the time when Carrie was in the safe house and I’d seen Martin in every tall muscular man who rounded the corner, but I hadn’t had any near misses – real or imagined – since that time in the supermarket, and I gradually felt more confident about going out on my own. I’d even been thinking about going back to work, although how they’d feel about an employee who would be incapable of turning up until two in the afternoon, and would then only be able to do half an hour’s hard graft before collapsing on the desk in a stupor was anyone’s guess. I’d only been thinking about it. And my sick pay ran out soon; I’d have to start doing something to pay my way.

But anyway, Springtime in Stafford, birds are singing, daffs are blooming, sunshine and showers, all that shit. I’d got the bus into town after lunch, taking advantage of the good weather until, true to form, a sudden downpour had hit. I hadn’t taken a coat, and didn’t fancy a drenching, so I ducked into a Starbucks to wait it out. A coffee and a sit down, ace combination for waiting.

As I was walking to a vacant table with my full fat latte and chocolate muffin (hey, I’m the skinny one who’s trying to put on weight, it was medicinal), I caught sight of Simon, a mate of mine and Carrie’s, or maybe ex-mate, who was trying really hard to avoid eye contact. I hadn’t come across anyone from my former life in any of my previous sorties into civilisation, and I suddenly wanted some answers.

Ignoring his very loud body language, I plopped into the seat opposite him and played innocent for all I was worth.

‘Heh Si, haven’t seen yuh fuh ages.’

He looked up, dark expression on his face.

‘No. Time I was going.’

He stood up, but I grabbed his sleeve and didn’t let go.

‘Wha did she tell yuh?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

He tried to shake me off, but I’d anticipated that, and clung on. Unless he wanted to draw attention to himself, or take his jacket off and leave me holding it, he was staying for a little while at least.

‘She told yuh all some shih abou meh didn’t she. When she left, I tried tuh call yuh, all of yuh, an no one answered. I’ve behn rehly ill, I had no one.’

No one apart from my bloody awesome family, but that didn’t sound quite as dramatic, so I left that bit out.

‘Maybe you didn’t deserve anyone.’

‘Wha? She lef meh fuh her bastard ex, I had –’ I still couldn’t say it, ‘– I was rehly ill, an she lef meh.’

‘Maybe you should have thought of that before you messed around. Maybe if you’d been honest with us, we would have been more sympathetic.’

‘Wha? She told yuh I fucking messed around? I never did.’

‘Oh, so this illness you’ve had, it’s nothing to do with fucking around so much you managed to get HIV? Keeping something like that from your girlfriend is pretty shitty, Matt.’

‘Wha the fuck? Tha’s bollocks.’

I stared at him, not quite able to compute what he was telling me, how he could have got it so wrong, so turned on its head.

‘Yeah right. We all got your text.’

‘Yeh, saying she’d lef meh, asking yuh tuh hehp meh.’

Si shook his head, contempt writ large on his face.

‘The other text, after Carrie had told us all what was going on, saying it was true and – God, I can hardly believe you had the balls – asking to meet up so you could apologise.’

I let go of his sleeve in surprise. I had no idea what he was talking about, and then I remembered that Carrie had taken my phone from the flat. She must have sent them all a text from me – I started to explain, but I’d let go of Si, and he was away and out of the door in his haste to escape from me, the evil bastard who fucked about and put his girlfriend at risk of HIV.

I nearly followed him, but he’d gone, and lurching after him with my fucked up legs while shouting unintelligible bollocks really wasn’t going to help. Instead, I sat at the table, head in my hands, latte going cold, muffin untouched, thinking about what Si had told me. Carrie had left me, when I was just developing a fucking huge disease, then she had told our friends I’d left her, and then she’d told them I’d had a different fucking huge disease, but one that I’d caught by being so evil that no one would want to have anything to do with me.

Later, years later, I worked out why she’d done it, but at that moment, it just hurt, so overwhelmingly, that I couldn’t begin to think about it. I’d thought I’d put it all away somewhere it couldn’t touch me, but that ripped it all wide open again and poured salt all over it and it was bad.

A month or so before, it would have put me back in bed, curtains shut, Declan Summers going on at me from the loudspeaker until I caved, but not now. Now I took it and shoved it away, and it made me decide to sod the fucking lot of them. If they all really, truly believed that pile of shit, they had never really known me. If not even one of them had called me to check it, they weren’t worth me mourning them. I was worth more than that, I deserved better.

I did, however, need to check whether the rumour had got as far as work. Some of my ex-friends had known people I worked with. I asked Beth for help. She was livid about what Carrie had done, and threatened all sorts of reprisals, including suing her for slander, but I was calm enough about it outwardly to convince her all I wanted was to check that people at work knew the truth.

I’d asked my managers to keep the bastard MS quiet, but now I guessed it wouldn’t hurt if more people knew the truth. Beth agreed to talk to Eyeti for me, as I didn’t think I could have the conversation myself where I said ‘you know the rumours going round about me that I’ve got HIV? Well …’. She called them, sorted it out, and went even further up in my estimation.

If you’d told me, a year ago, I’d be living in the same house with Beth without doing her a serious injury, I would have laughed in your face. Yeah she was bossy, yeah she always thought she knew best, yeah she went on and on sometimes. But she was also organised, she was kind, and when all’s said and done she was pregnant, and you can’t go around doing pregnant women serious injuries.

After that, going out seemed like a lottery. Was I going to see someone I knew, never mind Carrie, and was I going to react calmly and explain everything, or was I going to go completely over the top and look like a total mentalist? It started to get to me so much that I went out less. I didn’t know what to do. I was on the lookout every time I went into town, whether it was on my own or with Beth or Jay, and it was stressing me.

April came and went, and I was getting better, tons better, and feeling trapped in the house. I loved walking – hiking – but didn’t have the energy for a long walk yet, and wasn’t getting my hit of being outside, feeling the air and hearing nature.

I started to wonder if I should stay here, in Stafford, but where else was I going to go? Maybe in 6 months, a year or so, I might be able to get a place of my own, but I was still literally finding my feet – OK, not literally, you got me, I knew where my feet were all the time, at the bottom of my legs – finding how much I could do, and I still relied a lot on having Jay and Beth around. More than I cared to admit, really.

I was nowhere near fit enough to go back to work, but I started to wonder what would happen when I was, when I could do more for myself, live by myself, support myself. Would Jay and Beth vanish back from whence they came? Or was Stafford their home now? And if it was, how could I leave? It all kept spinning round my head, until the day Beth asked if I wanted to go to town with her and Cal after school.

‘Noh thanks.’

‘Come on Matty, you haven’t been out for ages. Cal would love it, he really likes being out with you.’

‘Maybe another tihm. Dohnt feel up tuh ih.’

Beth got that look on her face, that one that said ‘something’s up, Matty and I’m going to get to the bottom of it’. I braced myself.

‘Matty, you’ve been avoiding going out for a while. What’s it all about?’

‘Noh I hahvnt.’

‘When was the last time you came out with us, let alone went on your own?’

I couldn’t remember. I didn’t answer, but just shrugged, as if it wasn’t important. I should have known Beth wouldn’t be so easily put off.

‘Are you worried about running into someone you know?’

I shrugged again; she could read into it what she would.

‘You can’t live your life like that, Matty.’

‘I dohnt hahv any choice.’

‘Of course you do. I know it’s hard for you, but if you –’

‘Yuh hahv no idea wha ih’s like, knowing evryohn yuh know, maybe the whole fucking town, thinks I’m an evil bahstrd who’d slehp wih my girfriehnd when I thoht I had HIV.’

‘You can’t lock yourself away for ever. People will never know the truth if you do.’

‘Pehpl dohnt want tuh know the truth. Si showed meh tha.’

‘That was one person, sweetheart.’

‘An where are the rehst? They all think the sahm. I dohnt think I can stay hehr.’

I hadn’t meant to say it, but now it was out there, and I stared at Beth, guiltily.

‘Sohry. I dihnt mean tuh say tha. Where the fuck else am I gona goh?’

Beth was giving me a funny look, something I couldn’t interpret.

‘Well, maybe you’re right, though. Maybe a change of scene would be the best thing for you.’

‘Wha? Buh I cahnt, I cahnt goh anywhere.’

‘Leave it with me, Matty, just trust me for a bit. Come out with me and Cal, though, I’ll protect you from anyone who might give you grief. I’ve got support tights and I’m not afraid to use them.’

And so, intrigued and a little apprehensive, I went out with them, just to a coffee shop, where I knew no one but couldn’t help looking up every time someone came in the door.

Later that evening, once I’d loaded the dishwasher after dinner and made coffee for us all, because now I could totally nail difficult shit like that, a look was exchanged between Jay and Beth, and a subject was launched into.

‘Matty, what we were talking about this afternoon, about, er, staying here.’

‘Yeh?’

Oh fuck, they were going to kick me out and move away somewhere, now I was getting better. That was it, end of Jay’s grand gesture. I knew he’d been frustrated with the disjointed bits of work he’d managed to get up here, and it had crossed my mind that eventually he might want to do something more permanent. What was I going to do? I might have to go and live at Mum’s, but she couldn’t look after me if I got ill again –

Beth broke into my escalating thoughts.

‘We’ve got something we’d like to talk to you about.’

‘Ohkay.’

‘James has been talking to Raiders, about the possibility of going back there, when you’re feeling better.’

‘Ohkay.’

‘Yeah, mate, it’s only a possibility, and I’d never go if you needed me, or thought you might need me, I’ll always be here for you. You know that, don’t you?’

I nodded, unable to see past the fact that Jay wanted to move back down to Devon, and I was holding him back. I couldn’t hold him back, wouldn’t allow it to happen, he might not get another chance, having resigned from them once.

‘Ih’ll beh OK, I can lihv wih Mum.’

‘Oh don’t be so daft, mate, that’s not what I meant. Beth told me what she thought was going on with you, that you feel like everyone here thinks some kind of bullshit about you, and you’re not going out because of it.’

I looked from him to Beth, feeling a little betrayed by Beth, but I guess it wasn’t like I’d asked her to keep it to herself.

‘Matty, James and I, we’ll be here for you, forever if you need us. We’re not looking for a way to get out of that, we love being here with you.’

I waited for the but. And here it came.

‘But we think we might have a solution.’

I lifted my head at that. I’d been expecting ‘but this is important to James’, or ‘but you know how much rugby means to James’ or some such shit.

‘Yeah, mate, we wondered, and it’s totally up to you, you don’t have to say now, but think about it, but we wondered if … how you’d feel about moving back down to Devon with us? There’s plenty of space, you could have Dec’s old room, we could still keep an eye on you as long as you needed it, which won’t be for much longer. It might be a fresh start, somewhere you don’t keep bumping into your old life at every turn.’

‘Ruhning away?’

‘No, mate. Starting over. But I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to persuade you. If you’d rather stay here and give it a go, just say, and that’s what we’ll do.’

‘Yuh should goh, whatever.’

‘Not gonna happen, mate. Our priority is you. If you’d rather stay here, maybe start getting out and about again, we’ll stay together.’

I was touched beyond words. Obviously, there was no way on this earth I was going to let them stay here and pass up an opportunity like that, but Jay seemed totally genuine. I didn’t know what to say.

‘Cahn I think abouh ih?’

‘Of course, Matty. James doesn’t have to give them an answer right away, he’s been talking to them for a long time, they’ve been trying to persuade him to come back next season.’

‘Yuh guys … I dohnt knoh if I cahn ever say how much wha yuhv dohn mehns tuh meh.’

‘You don’t need to mate. I can see it in your eyes every time you look adoringly at me.’

‘Piss ohf, I dohnt fucking well adore yuh, never hahv.’

‘Your eyes tell me different. See, you’re doing it now.’

‘Fuck ohf, Jay.’

‘Oh you two, are you ever going to be able to say something nice to each other without spoiling it?’

‘Doubt it, Beth.’

‘Noh.’

And so I thought about it. And there were lots of objections, some of which had already been aired, and some of which were purely down to my pride, and some of which were Mum. Mum needed someone to keep an eye on her, more than ever. I was torn between staying and getting better so I could look after her if she needed it, staying and being a burden on her if I got worse again, and going and leaving her on her own.

Mum had friends, but they weren’t me, they weren’t family, and she’d got used to having Jay, Beth and Cal around. She’d miss them. I couldn’t decide.

Escaping to Devon, starting again, leaving all the shit behind that I’d found here, that really appealed. If there had been no other considerations, that would have been what I would have chosen. And if I stayed, then Jay was missing out on a job he loved, again, for me. Everywhere I looked, there where rocks and hard places.

Then Mum came to see me. Jay and Beth were out with Cal, and she knew it, and she turned up just as I was making myself a coffee.

‘Hey, Mum. Yuh must have heard the kehtle.’

‘Yes, dear, I have a sixth sense where cups of tea are concerned.’

‘Just done some coffee if yuh fancy ih?’

‘Oh well, if that’s what you’ve done, that will be fine.’

I rolled my eyes at her martyred tone.

‘Cup of tea it is then. One of these days I’ll geh you drinking espresso.’

‘Oh no, Matthew, it’s far too strong, gives me the heeby jeebies.’

‘Cake?’

‘Beth’s?’

‘Lemohn drizzle.’

‘How can I resist?’

So we sat in the kitchen, and chatted about this and that, and I wondered when she was going to get to the point, as there was so obviously a point.

‘… and apparently it’s not that much more expensive than the jumbo packs.’

‘Yeh. Fascinating, Mum. Why are yuh hehr?’

She affected a puzzled expression.

‘I came to see you, dear.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Why?’

She started to dissemble again, but realised she was onto a loser.

‘I’m alright on my own, you know.’

‘Wha?’

‘I don’t need you to be here to look after me.’

Oh. She knew about it all then, and she’d worked it out, and now she was being noble and self-sacrificing. Well that was my job, and no one was going to take it away from me.

‘Dohn knoh wha yuh mean. If I stay ih’ll beh because I wan tuh.’

‘Matthew, you are one of the most obstinate people I know, and also one of the people I know best. I know you think I need you, I know you’ve stayed here because of me, when you could have been off seeing the world, and I know that being here, now, is too hard for you. I’ve had a good think; you’ve been a good boy, and I don’t know what I would have done without you over the last few years. But now it’s time for you to do what’s right for you. Go with Jameson, and build another life for yourself. I’ve talked to them about it, about how I’ll manage without you all, and I think I’ll be alright. And who knows, maybe in the end I’ll come down to Devon too. I’d like to try it here on my own, though, first. Just to see if I can do it. I’ve got some good friends here, who I’d be reluctant to leave behind, I’ve got my book club and my gardening club, but with Beth having the baby, I might not be able to resist being close to you all. Please don’t stay here for me, Matthew. You’ve done it once, and now I think Stafford has had more than it deserves of you. If you want to go with Jameson, I will be fine, in fact I’ll be better knowing you’re somewhere you can put everything behind you. It will put my mind at rest.’

‘Mum …’

I honestly had no words. She even almost managed to make it sound like I was doing her a favour. She was right, though, that it felt like it would be too hard to stay. She was giving me a way out, one that hardly made me feel guilty, although she was my mum, so I did feel guilty.

‘Please, Matthew, promise me that if you stay, it will only be because you want to, for you.’

If I’d thought like that, I wouldn’t even be here now. I’d be in another country, having another life. But if I didn’t promise, it would be like admitting that I’d only be staying for her. And if I did promise, I’d have to stick to it. Bloody mothers, they always got you in the end.

‘Promihs.’

‘Thank you.’

So she had me. She knew I didn’t want to stay, so if I stayed it would only be for her, and I’d have lied to her and broken my promise. I was a big boy now, and more than capable of breaking a promise if I thought it was important enough, but Mum had got to me with her ‘giving it a go on my own’ speech, and had almost convinced me with her ‘who knows, maybe I’ll come too’ thing as well. I’d almost made my mind up.

What finally decided me was a phone call from Eyeti. I was still on the payroll, although, having been off sick for almost two thirds of the year, was no longer being paid anything. If I left, I’d have to hand in my notice, and that was a pretty huge thing for me. But I had a call from Frank, who was the CEO, which sounds very grand, but he was CEO of a fairly small company and he was very approachable. I thought he was going to want to talk about when, or if, I was coming back to work. I was so far away from being able to consider working, that the thought of that conversation almost ended it before it had begun, but he wanted to tell me something.

He’d been contacted by a friend who worked in a big Systems Analysis company, with branches in Singapore and Hong Kong, and they were looking to recruit staff. Frank’s friend had asked if he knew of anyone with suitable experience and qualifications, and Frank thought of me. Even though I was off sick, he still wanted to give me the opportunity to at least consider it. I considered it for all of a second and a half, as even remembering the lock code on my iPad was beyond me sometimes, and reluctantly turned it down, but something about the offer made me think that maybe I wasn’t all washed up, maybe there was more to life than shitty Stafford and what it had to offer.

Maybe if I went to Devon with Jay, I could get myself together and find something down there, where the air was clearer, the beach was only ten miles away, and I’d be with my family, who wanted me to be with them. I could come back and visit Mum, I could try my hardest to persuade her to move down too, everything could be new. People still wanted me, people on the other side of world. I could work towards it, one step at a time. It was a plan. I was always happier when I had a plan, and I hadn’t had one for a long time. Sold, to the man with the funny walk and the unintelligible bollocky words.

Cal

It was nearly the summer holidays, and Mum picked me up from school one day in the car, instead of walking. She said we were going to Pizza Place, and I asked if Owen Little could come, but she said no, just us, but when we got there, Dad was there too.

We had a pepperoni with pineapple and mushrooms, because I like pepperoni, Mum likes pineapple and Dad likes mushrooms, and Mum let me have a large coke and said I could have an ice cream bowl afterwards. It was like it was my birthday, but my birthday wasn’t until November, and it wasn’t Mum’s or Dad’s birthday either.

After we’d finished our pizza and ice cream, Dad kind of punched me on the shoulder; not hard, but like he was just pretending.

‘Cal, we’ve got something to tell you.’

I wondered if they were going to tell me if I was having a brother or a sister, but I kept quiet, because I didn’t want to guess the surprise.

‘Sweetheart, Daddy’s got a new job, back where we used to live, and we’re all going to go back there to our old house.’

I looked at them both, as I thought about what they’d said. We were moving away? Away from my school? Away from our house? Away from Granny? Away from Uncle Matty? Where would Uncle Matty live? A lot of questions fought to be asked, and I couldn’t think fast enough to ask them before the next question popped into my head.

‘What do you think, mate?’

Finally one thing burst out.

‘But what about the parade?’

At my school, there was going to be a parade at the end of term, and I was going to be an elf, because my class was being Lord of the Rings. Mum had made my costume, it had pointy ears and a bow and arrow, and I had been looking forward to it all term. If we went back to the city, I wouldn’t be able to do it, and someone else would get to be an elf, and Miss Bradshaw said I would be the best elf because of my blond hair, and it would be nice to finally have something good about my hair, even though Mum wanted to put plaits in it like Legolas.

‘You can still do the parade, sweetheart. We won’t be moving until the summer holidays.’

Oh. Well that was alright, then. When we moved before, it was on the day after Mum told me, and I didn’t have time to make sure all of my things were in my backpack, and I lost my Furby and some of my Lego.

‘Where will Uncle Matty live?’

‘With us – he’s coming too.’

‘Will Granny live with us?’

‘No, she’s staying here, so she can still see her friends and go to her gardening club.’

‘Will Dec live with us?’

‘No, Dec has got his own house to live in, but we’ll be able to see him a lot more often. That’ll be good, won’t it.’

It did sound good, at least being able to see more of Dec. But I was going to have to leave my school and my friends behind, and Owen Little had just let me join his Pokemon club, and Miss Bradshaw had just said I was good at being tidy. I hadn’t been good at being tidy at my other school, because Jake had always … Jake! I’d be able to see Jake again!

‘Will I go to my old school?’

‘Yes, mate, Mummy’s sorted it all out, you can go back after the summer holidays.’

‘Mummy, can you phone Jake’s mummy and tell her?’

Mum and Dad looked at each other, but didn’t look as happy as I was about seeing Jake again.

‘Let’s see, Cal. We could always leave it as a surprise.’

That did sound good, I would love to see Jake’s face when I walked in on the first day of school. Maybe a surprise would be alright. I didn’t agree or disagree, though, in case I changed my mind later.

For now, it was time to start thinking about what I could get out of it. I liked my dinosaur bedroom, but maybe a change would be good.

‘Can I have a Pokémon bedroom?’

‘I kept your Ben10 curtains, sweetheart. I thought we could put up some posters.’

Ben10 was for babies. I was six.

‘But Pokémon is cool. Jonny Basset has got a Pikachu duvet, and his aunty painted his walls, and he’s got cushions and baseball boots and –’

‘Cal, your mum’s got enough to worry about without thinking about painting Pokemons on your bedroom wall. We’ll make sure it looks nice, mate, but let’s just wait a bit, use your old curtains for now, or we can take your dinosaur ones with us. Then later in the year, maybe we can think about making your room look really good.’

Dad was using his ‘no arguing’ voice, and Mum patted his arm like she was agreeing with him, so it didn’t seem like I was going to have much of a choice. I decided a change of subject was needed. There were still lots of questions to be answered.

‘Is the baby going to have a room?’

I had counted the rooms in our old house, and when Dec lived there too, there were enough bedrooms for one each. If Dec wasn’t living there, but Uncle Matty was, that still meant one each, but if the baby needed a room too, I was worried I was going to have to share, like Daniel Glover did. His baby sister was always crying and keeping Daniel awake, and he wasn’t allowed to play in his room sometimes. I didn’t think I would like that.

‘Probably not at first, sweetheart. The baby will be very little to start with, and Daddy and I will have a cot in our room, like we did when you were a baby.’

‘But I’m big now, and I’ve got my own room.’

‘Yeah, mate, but it’ll be a while before your brother or sister is big enough to have a room of their own. You don’t need to worry.’

‘But where will they go? There aren’t any rooms left.’

‘Maybe we’ll put Uncle Matty out in the shed. He likes spiders.’

I wasn’t sure if Dad was joking. The shed was pretty cool, but there wasn’t much room because the lawnmower was in there and tins of paint and spades and bags of earth for the garden. If Uncle Matty went in there, he’d want it to look a bit more tidy.

‘Can Percy come with us?’

‘Yes of course, sweetheart. We wouldn’t dream of leaving Percy behind. He’ll like it in our old house, I’m sure.’

‘Will Tabitha come too?’

‘I don’t know, Cal. Tabitha is pretty comfortable with Nico and Lis, and she’s quite old. Maybe we should let her stay there.’

I couldn’t think of any more questions for the time being, so I got on with scraping the last little bit of ice cream from my bowl. It would be a bit annoying to leave my new school behind, because I’d just got used to the way everyone talked funny and said things like ‘he’s got a cob on’ instead of ‘he’s cross’, and how the dinner ladies called me a duck when they could see I was a boy, but mostly it would be awesome to go back to my old school and see all my old friends there.

Dec

łDec, I’ve got some news for you, before you see it in the papers.

‘OK, you’ve got my attention.’

łI’m coming back to Raiders. Assistant Coach. Start next season. We’re going to move back in a couple of months.

‘Holy shit! Jay, that’s fucking awesome!’

Cal

Because it was nearly the summer holidays, Dec had finished playing rugby until the autumn. He came up to see us sometimes, but even though he wasn’t doing rugby, he was busy doing other things, like going out and dancing. Then he had to do training so his legs were strong when he started playing rugby again, so he couldn’t come and see us much then either. I was glad we were going back to the city, so we could see Dec whenever we wanted to. I would be able to see Nico too, and most of all I would be able to play with Jake. The closer it got to us moving, the more excited I got about seeing Jake again. I didn’t know if I could wait until school started in September. I wanted Mum to take me to his house, so we could play on his brother’s X-box and swap Pokemon cards and listen outside his other brother’s door while he said swears on his phone.

Matt

So I said goodbye to Stafford. I literally said goodbye to it, did a tour of all the places that had meant something to me.

I went into Eyeti, once I’d given my notice, and took a huge tray of doughnuts, and told them what was wrong with me, although I used lots of ‘bastard’s and ‘fucking’s when I said it, and I got lots of sympathy, which was hard to take, and a couple of weeks later, Frank came round with a card and a present, which was a signed photo of the Tottenham team that his nephew had managed to get, and I was touched, and it was an ending.

I went to Stafford Rangers FC, where I had spent many a frozen Saturday afternoon watching some entertaining football – they weren’t Spurs by a mile, and it wasn’t the Premier League by much more than a mile, but they were my home team, and although I didn’t watch them play that time, I went to the social club and had a beer, and it was an ending.

I walked up to the highest point I could find and looked down on the town, and felt both big and small at the same time, and it was an ending.

I also did a tour of all the places that had meant something to Carrie and me, or at least to me. I’m not really sure why I did it, apart from needing some sort of ending to that, too. I went back to the Pizza Place where we’d met after she’d left the safe house; I sat outside our old flat, looking up at the window; I went to the pub where we’d seen the band, and wandered round the beer garden; I went to the castle; I went to the school on a Thursday night and sat in the car park; I went to the Lebanese café where I’d seen her crying.

I didn’t think why I was doing it at the time. Maybe I was trying to come across her, so I could have an ending that way. Maybe I was trying to prove that I could do it, that even if I found her there, in any of those places, I could cope, she no longer had any power over me. But she wasn’t there, in spirit or in reality. Other people were there, making their own memories, and that was a different kind of ending for me. It made me realise there was less than nothing in that town for me any longer and it made me glad, really glad I was going.

Dec

Beth: =Change of plan. Can u come up 2moro? James booked van for wrong day. Might as well go day early. Need yr muscles. Thx. Xx

Cal

Not long after the end of term, after the triumph that was the Lord of the Rings parade where everyone said what a good elf I had been, it was time to move out of our new house and back into our old one.

Mum’s tummy was really big, so she couldn’t move anything herself, but she did lots of telling, and Dad did lots of putting his hands in his hair, because sometimes Mum made him do something exactly the opposite of what he’d just done, like when he took all of the plates out of the cupboard and put them in a box, but then Mum said we’d need them for our tea, and why had Dad just put them in a box, and Dad said because you told me to.

I went to Granny’s a lot while Mum and Dad were packing things up, so I didn’t get packed in a box myself. Uncle Matty helped, because he was better enough, but he couldn’t lift heavy things, like Mum couldn’t, so Dec came and helped on the day we moved, even though the lorry had special men for lifting things. I wasn’t allowed to stay and watch the men put things in the lorry, because I might get in the way, but I watched the beginning, and then Dad came and got me from Granny’s when the lorry was ready to go, and we followed the lorry all the way to our old house, which was our new house.

Matt

Jay, Beth and Cal moved out at the beginning of June. Beth was seven months pregnant by then, and unable to do any of the lifting, although she was more than capable of telling everyone else what to lift and where to lift it to. I did what I could, but mainly stuck to my allotted task of making drinks for everyone and cleaning up after everyone had gone.

I stayed with Mum for a couple of weeks afterwards, partly out of guilt and partly because there were a few things Jay and Beth needed tying up which I could do for them. Dec had been up to lend his muscle for the moving vans, and thinking back to how he had been at Christmas, he was a different person. Apart from the scars on his face, which might never completely fade, he had recovered physically from his kickings, and he seemed more confident. Jay teased him mercilessly about some girl he was apparently hung up on, but when I asked him about her later, he was unforthcoming.

Dec

Beth: =Barbecue 18th 5pm. Bring anyone – Danno? Mikey? Amy?? 🙂 xx

Cal

Our new house, which was our old house, felt a bit strange at first, because I knew other people had lived there, and there was pen on the wall of my bedroom, and my bed was my bunk beds, which I hadn’t had before, but once Mum had put my dinosaur curtains up, and I’d got all my toys out, it felt like my room again.

Dec came to see us a lot, and sometimes he had his friend Amy with him. Amy wasn’t his girlfriend, because they didn’t kiss each other or hold hands, but they talked to each other about music and about things they did with other friends who I didn’t know. I liked Amy because she gave me a dinosaur badge and knew about cool trainers with flashing lights on the back.

I went to Dec’s new house too. He didn’t live at Rose’s house any more, and he didn’t live over Rose either. He lived in a house with some other big boys who all did rugby too, and he had his own room. I liked going there, because it was always noisy and messy, and there was a PlayStation and an X-box and a really, really big TV, and nobody put their clothes away.

Dec

I woke up slowly, the sun through the curtains alerting me to the promise of the day ahead. Lots to do – first, a run, then the gym, then I’d promised Amy we’d go to the beach. She stirred beside me, turned over and opened her big blue eyes.

‘Hey gorgeous.’

)Mm. Morning. What time is it?

‘Still early.’

)Good.

She moved in closer, into the crook of my arm, put one arm across me and closed her eyes, drifting back to sleep. I kissed the top of her head, breathing in the smell of her hair. This was all pretty new and amazing.

We had finally got together properly a few weeks ago, after months of being friends, good friends, great friends, more than friends, then both afraid to ruin it by saying what we felt. We had hung out together a lot, phoned and texted each other all the time. We talked to each other about almost everything, knew each other really well, we had just been reluctant to risk taking the next step.

Part of the hesitation, for me, had been DivDav. He wasn’t around any more; he’d moved to another club soon after Raiders told him they weren’t renewing his contract. I’d tried to contact him so I could apologise to him, but he never replied to any of my calls or messages and eventually I had to accept that there were some fuck-ups that just stayed fucked. Amy had broken things off with Dav partly because of me and I felt awkward bringing it up; I didn’t know if Amy felt the same, as it was one of the few things we never seemed to talk about.

Amy had been instrumental in helping me rebuild my friendships with some of my other mates, people like Danno, Mikey and Bonksy. She was relentless in persuading me to come along to meals, clubs, cinema trips, any event where everyone was together, and she overcame the remaining tension between us all. Eventually things just got better.

A few weeks after they moved back to the city, Jay and Beth had a house re-warming barbecue, and we both went. Matt caught me watching her as she helped Beth carry plates to the table, and followed my gaze.

Matt

So, PCC 1.2.4 having ended with complete system failure and irretrievable data, I moved down myself at the beginning of July, and once we’d all settled in, Beth threw a ‘welcome back’ barbecue. This was where I finally got to clap my eyes on Amy Wright, and see the effect she had had on Declan Summers.

Cal

It was a very hot day, and I was excited, because Nico was coming, and Dec was coming, and I wanted to play football with them in my new goal. Mum didn’t have time to play with me because she’d been cooking things for ever, and she made me put forks on the table, and then I had to wash my hands and change my shirt. I wanted to wear my Arsenal shirt, or my Raiders shirt, but Mum said that wasn’t smart enough, so I had to wear my school shirt, which was hot and itched, and I had to have sun cream on my face and arms which smelt funny.

People started ringing the doorbell at twelve o’clock, so I went into the garden with my football, hoping that someone would come soon who would go in goal. Mum had told me not to ask people, because they would want to eat burgers and hot dogs first, but I could ask later when everyone had eaten pudding. Pudding seemed like a long time away, so I had to make do with kicking the ball into the goal myself.

Uncle Matty was sitting on a bench in the shade, and he had a glass of beer. I went and sat next to him, because sometimes he would let me have a sip of beer if Mum wasn’t looking. It was my bad luck that Mum was out in the garden the whole time, and Uncle Matty didn’t have a chance to give me beer.

‘Heh Cal, no takers fuh footy yet?’

‘No, but I think Dec will be here soon.’

‘Let’s hohp so. I think yuhr pitch is gona be full of people sohn anyway.’

We looked over to my goal, and while I’d been away from it, lots of people had gone and stood there with drinks, talking to each other. I knew Mum wouldn’t like it if I asked them to move, so I stayed where I was. I wished Mum had asked some of my friends to this barbecue. She was still holding on to her ‘let’s surprise everyone at school’ thing, and hadn’t let me ask Jake over, or asked any of my friends’ mums to the barbecue. I was going to be really bored if all people did all afternoon was drink wine and beer and eat burgers. I looked at Uncle Matty, who was looking at me with one eyebrow up and one down, like I wished I could do.

‘My Playstahtion’s on. I wohnt tell if yuh don’t.’

He winked at me. Uncle Matty was cool.

I slipped inside while Mum was talking to another lady, and ran up the stairs. True to his word, Uncle Matty had left his PlayStation on, although he hadn’t put his war game on. He’d left it on Lego Star Wars, and the controller was sitting on his bed. I started playing.

Some time later, there was a tap on the door.

‘Hey Cal.’

I paused the game, looked up, saw Dec and smiled.

‘Dec, I got twenty three super Legos.’

‘Awesome, mate. Do you need a partner?’

Dec was useless at PlayStation Uncle Matty beat everyone, but Dec lost to everyone, even me, even Dad, who wasn’t very good either. If Dec was my partner, my high scores would take a bit of a bashing.

‘No, it’s just for one player.’

‘OK, cool. We’ll play football later, shall we? When it’s a bit cooler, and everyone’s sitting down?’

I nodded and turned back to the game as Dec left the room.

Matt

Beth, despite now being only a few weeks away from giving birth, had been working for days to prepare food and get the house and garden sorted out, so it was ready for all the people she had invited – half of the city, by the sounds of it, including Raiders players, friends of hers from her nursing days and various random other people I didn’t know.

I had been sitting on a wooden bench, drinking a beer, watching Dec watching a girl. I was talking to him, trying to get a conversation going, but every time he looked like he was listening to me, the girl would walk out of the kitchen door carrying a plate of burgers or a bottle of mayonnaise, and his attention would slide over to her. She was slender and pretty, with long dark hair and big blue eyes. Attractive enough, but she only looked about eighteen. I guess that was just the right age for Dec. The look in his eyes as he followed her every move was very entertaining, and although I’d pretended not to notice him looking, eventually I couldn’t resist it any longer.

‘Aha, a pretty lady. Someone special, by any chance?’

Jay had told me all about Dec’s crush. It had been going on for months, since just after Christmas. He’d spent over half the year pining over her, and although she seemed to reciprocate the pining, neither of them had seemed able to make the first move. He’d never mentioned her to me, other than in ‘oh a bunch of us went to the cinema’ type terms, and until I saw him this afternoon, I hadn’t realised just how bad he’d got it.

‘That’s Amy. She’s just a mate.’

‘Oh tha’s the mysterious Amy. Seeing someone, is she?’

Because really, Dec, it’s about time you made your move.

‘No.’

‘What in the name of fuck are you waiting for then? They don’t grow tha hot on trees, or wait around forever while you grow a pair.’

And if you don’t get on with it, some other bloke might start hanging round, and then you’d really have something to look all piney about.

‘She’s a really good mate.’

Ha ha. Here’s the other one, give it a jiggle and hear the tinkling.

‘Then tha’s a really good reason to tell her how you feel.’

‘Yeah? How exactly do I feel, if you’re so fucking smart?’

You’re really asking me? I’ve had more women than you’ve had hot dinners, and I know, yeah, as well as that, I know how it feels, so get ready for the plain truth, kid.

‘Oh, I don’t know, like she’s part of you, like she’s your reason for living, like she lights up your world. All those bloody awful clichés tha suddenly mean something when you’re in lurve.

And I knew what it looked like, too. And he was, I could see it.

‘I’m not –’

He stopped himself. He so was. Pitiful.

‘Yeah, you are. Well done, Summers, you worked it out. Plus it’s written all over your puppy dog eyes. Why don’t you fuck off and do something about it?’

He just needed a little nudge, that’s all. I was surprised Beth hadn’t done any nudging, it was what she excelled at, but maybe she had other things on her mind, or was taking a baby break from interfering. Dec suddenly took a deep breath and stood up, a determined look on his face.

‘Alright then, you know what, I bloody well will.’

‘Wha, now? Holy shit, Dec.’

Take a bow, Matthew Robert Scott, you have just single-handedly made sure the course of true love ever did run smooth. I know, misquote of the century, completely changing the meaning of the Bard’s poetry with a single absent ‘n’, but what the hell.

Dec

Before I could bottle it, I walked over to Amy, took the plates from her, put them down on the table.

‘Can I have a word?’

She looked up at me, frowning slightly.

)Are you OK?

‘Yeah. Come with me a minute.’

With my heart beating very fast, I took her hand and led her inside, to the kitchen.

‘There’s something I want to say.’

)OK.

She looked up at me with her big blue eyes. They made my heart beat even faster. Deep breath.

‘OK … right … er … you know how … um … when I … we … I mean … would you … oh fuck it, I’m really fucking this up. Why don’t I just show you?’

Without giving myself time to think about what I was doing, I took her face in my hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She didn’t respond immediately, and I started to draw back, mortified and embarrassed. Then she reached up and twined her fingers in my hair, pulled my face down to hers and started kissing me back. Relieved beyond belief, stomach doing flip-flops, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close as we lost ourselves in each other. After a long time, we stepped back, staring at each other in amazement.

‘Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to do that?’

)About as long as I’ve wanted you to?

‘Has anyone ever told you you’re fucking amazing?

)Not in so many words.

‘Oh Amy, you’re so fucking amazing.’

I leaned towards her, pulled her to me, and we started again.

łWell it’s about bloody time, you pair.

We sprang apart as if we’d been electrocuted. Jay stood in the doorway, carrying a tray of sausages, grinning widely.

łWe were all beginning to despair of you two ever getting your act together. Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. Just need to get some barbecue sauce for these. Behind you, Dec, if you wouldn’t mind.

I reached for the sauce and handed it to him.

łThanks. As you were.

Jay walked out, whistling, and we heard him announce:

łKitchen’s out of bounds, Dec and Amy having a snogfest.

Matt

Jay introduced me to Nico, and we all sat drinking beer in the sun, while Jay occasionally got up to flip burgers or do some other of Beth’s bidding. Once, he went inside for a bowl of barbecue sauce and came out with a huge grin on his face, announcing to the gathered crowd that Dec and Amy had been found in a compromising position in the kitchen.

There were cheers and wolf-whistles, the tale of unrequited love seeming to have reached a few people. Jay came and sat back down, shaking his head.

‘Happy ending, then?’

‘Dunno about happy, Matty, but if he puts his tongue any further down her throat he’ll be able to share her breakfast.’

Jaime, this is good. Declan loves Amy a long time.’

Nico seemed to be some kind of Latino hopeless romantic.

‘Yeah, Nico, I know. Not sure how hygienic it is to have it all happening in my kitchen, though.’

Cal

A while later, the door opened again. It was Mum, and she didn’t look happy.

‘Cal, you can’t just come in and play with Uncle Matty’s things.’

‘He said I could.’

‘Come outside, sweetheart. The burgers are ready.’

‘Oh, but I’ve nearly finished the level.’

‘Now, Cal.’

Mum’s no arguing voice was harder to ignore than Dad’s, and she used it a lot. I paused the game and turned the TV off, so it looked like I’d turned the game off but I might be able to go back to it later, then I followed Mum down the stairs. Mum took a long time going downstairs at the moment, because her tummy was very big, and she had to go slowly, and I wished she had let me go first so I could run down and get outside, but I had to wait behind her.

When we got out into the garden, there were still loads of people standing in front of my goal, so I went over to where Uncle Matty and Nico were sitting, to see if they were doing any swears, or talking about things I wasn’t supposed to hear.

‘Ha, is Cal, the best Raiders supporter.’

I smiled at Nico, still a bit star-struck.

‘How did yuh get on wih the Plahstation, mate?’

‘I got to level fourteen.’

‘Whoa, you’re beating meh then.’

Uncle Matty turned to Nico.

‘Cal’s got sohm serious gaming fingers.’

‘I like this, Cal. You must come to me and play me on my X-box.’

‘Have you got Lego Star Wars?’

‘No, I don’t have this, but I have some good games.’

Nico listed his games, most of which I knew from when I’d stayed with Nico and Lis before, and most of which Mum wouldn’t let me play if she knew.

‘When can I come and play on your X-box?’

‘Whenever you like, we make a day soon, huh?’

‘Can you play football with me now?’

‘I think we wait until there is room, huh? This is what your Mama say.’

Mum had obviously got to Nico, and probably Uncle Matty too.

‘Yuh should ask Dec. I bet he’d clear a space for you.’

‘This is a good thought, Matty. Yes, Cal, you must ask Declan.’

There was a look that passed between Nico and Uncle Matty that I didn’t understand, and they were smiling, almost laughing, as if it was a joke, but before I could ask what they meant, Mum called over to me.

‘Cal, sweetheart, can you go and ask Dec to bring some bread rolls for me? He’s in the kitchen, the rolls are in one of the cupboards.’

Nico and Uncle Matty thought this was funny, but I didn’t understand why, although it didn’t feel like they were laughing at me. They had been drinking beer, and Uncle Matty often thought things were funny when he’d drunk beer, so I didn’t say anything to them, just went inside and …

… stood in the doorway of the kitchen, watching Dec and Amy doing grown-up kissing, for a really, really long time. Like she was his girlfriend. They were all squished together, and their mouths were making sucky noises, and they didn’t notice I was there for ages. Then I saw Dec’s eyes flicker sideways, and he saw me, and he stepped back from Amy. They both had red faces, and Dec wiped his mouth with the back of his hand like Mum used to tell him off for.

I remembered what I was supposed to be doing there.

‘Mummy says can you bring more bread rolls. She says they’re in the cupboard.

‘Sure, mate.’

Dec reached up and took down a bag of rolls and gave it to me. I nearly told him that he was supposed to bring them out, but I didn’t think that would get me anywhere, as I didn’t have an excuse not to take them out myself.

Dec turned back to Amy, but I remembered I had something else to ask him.

‘Can you come and play football with me?’

‘In a bit, Cal, I’m busy at the moment.’

Dec didn’t even look at me while he was talking, he was looking at Amy, but he wasn’t busy, he wasn’t doing anything except twirling Amy’s hair on his finger.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Er, talking to Amy. Can’t Matt or Nico play with you?’

‘They said ask you.’

Dec said a swear beginning with ‘ba’ but really quietly so I could hardly hear it.

‘OK mate, I’ll be out in a minute. Go and give the rolls to Mummy and find your football.’

I ran outside, smiling, because Dec had promised, and now I was going to be able to play football like I’d been waiting to do all day. I gave the rolls to Mum, and then I waited, and waited. And waited. And waited and waited. I went back and asked Uncle Matty and Nico again, but they said they were waiting for Dec so they could watch him.

In the end, I went over to Dad, who was talking to some people, and tugged on his shirt.

‘Hey, mate.’

‘Daddy, Dec said he’d play football, but he’s not.’

‘Oh, I see. Is he still in the kitchen with Amy?’

‘Yes. He’s doing kissing with her.’

‘Jesus, how much of that did you see? Never mind, I don’t want to know. I’ll go and get him, shall I?’

This was very helpful, because Dec was more likely to listen to Dad than to me.

Dec

łCome on Dec, time to meet your public. Cal’s desperate for a game of football and we need our kitchen back. You’re seriously leading Amy astray in here.

)We should really go back outside. I said I’d help Beth, she’s been on her feet all day.

‘I guess she could do with taking the weight off.’

łTake these out with you, then.

He handed me two plates of cupcakes.

łGo on, get out of here. Spread the love.

Jay whacked my behind with a tea towel as Amy took one of the plates from me. Holding hands tightly, we walked together to the table where Beth was busy arranging desserts, looking hot and flustered and struggling to reach around her large stomach.

_Oh, thanks you two.

She gave us a cheeky grin.

_Well done, I’m so pleased!

Amy and I looked at each other, half embarrassed, half delighted. I felt lighter than air and couldn’t stop smiling. Couldn’t stop touching Amy – her soft hair, her beautiful face, my arm round her slender shoulders. She was staring into my eyes as if she might forget what I looked like, an expression of happy bewilderment on her face that I suspect was mirrored on mine. We were the same but everything was different.

39. Welcome to my nightmare

In which we experience a certain amount of deja vu.

Dec

As I sat outside the bar, eyes covered, I became aware of someone standing in front of me. I moved my hands away from my eyes to see a pair of brown boots on the floor in front of me. I’d seen them so often in my dreams, it took me a moment to take in that they were real, and here, which meant …

Startled, I looked up to see Luke Woods staring down at me. Fear instantly paralysed me. My heart pounded and I could hardly breathe.

+Did I not warn you? Stay away from Nico Tiago, I said. But you didn’t fucking well listen, and he stopped coming to the gym. Lost me a lot of business.

I felt my heart racing. I tried to get to my feet, but he pushed me back down in the chair. I glanced to my right, towards the door to the bar, and left, down the corridor, trying to work out the best direction to get away.

+Oh no you don’t. And try shouting if you like, they won’t hear you, it’s too noisy in there.

In a swift movement, he grabbed my right arm, twisting it to send a spike of pain from my broken wrist up to my broken collar bone. Using the pain, he forced me to stand, and twisted my arm behind my back. I could barely see, the pain was so intense. My legs were still shaking, and sweat ran down my face, stinging my eyes.

+Let’s go for a walk. There’s someone you should meet.

He pushed me down the corridor. I looked behind me to the door, desperate for Jay to come back. Luke pushed my arm up further. I gasped, could feel everything being stretched beyond its limits. Round and round in my head, Luke’s brown boots were kicking me in the face, stopping me thinking clearly. All I could think or feel was fear.

Luke seemed to know the back ways inside the club. The corridors we went down were dark and silent. He went nowhere near the treatment room or changing rooms, and after manhandling me down a couple of flights of stairs, we came to a fire door with a bar across it. He pushed me up against the door, pinning me with his body while he pressed the bar with his left hand.

The door opened and a blast of cold air hit me. It cleared my head momentarily, and I tried to kick backwards at him and wriggle out of his grip. He kicked the back of my knee, causing it to buckle and me to drop. My weight was taken by my twisted arm and I felt something tear in my shoulder. I cried out in agony. Luke hauled me back up and continued pushing me forwards until we emerged from behind some large wheeled bins into the car park.

By now, I could hardly focus on where I was or what was happening to me. The pain throbbing from my arm and shoulder was taking all my concentration; dark blobs were gathering at the edge of my vision, I felt dizzy and sick, and was close to passing out. I couldn’t pick my feet up properly, and every time I stumbled, Luke yanked on my arm, causing more needle stabs along my collar bone and then down my arm to my fingers.

We seemed to be heading for the far side of the car park, where it was darker and there were fewer cars, and a white Transit van was parked. As we approached the van, the door opened and a man got out. I barely glanced at him, other than to notice he was wearing a Raiders shirt.

|What’s this, Luke?

+This …

He shoved me forwards, and I fell onto my knees, gasping and panting. The relief of not having my arm bent up behind me stopped me from moving any further. I cradled my arm against me, trying hard not to sob with pain.

+… is our fucking problem. Remember Mr Declan fucking Summers? Also known as Charlie fucking Collier to the proper authorities. But not to Raiders, not until it was too fucking late.

I stayed on the ground, hunched over, holding my right arm close to my chest, trying to stop shaking, trying to catch my breath and organise my thoughts.

|I thought you were just going to talk to someone about Ben.

The man’s voice sounded familiar, but I was in no state to search my memory. I couldn’t even raise my head to look up at him.

+Yeah, well, turns out this piece of shit is hanging around today, all chummy with Jay Scott and his kid again.

|What did you bring him out here for?

+He hasn’t learned his lesson yet. Thought we could have another go at teaching him. Maybe you’ll be less of a fucking wimp about it than Ben.

He kicked me hard from behind and I sprawled forwards, banging my chin on the ground, scraping the skin off my left arm on the tarmac and landing on my right arm, which was curled up under me. I cried out with the pain that exploded from my shoulder.

|Luke, what are you doing?

+Which bit didn’t you fucking understand last time, Summers? Was it the warning?

He kicked me in the side, twice. Sharp pain bit me, my mouth filled with bile and I curled up, coughing and retching.

+Was it the beating?

More kicks to my back, pain bloomed and spots danced before my eyes.

+Did we not kick you fucking hard enough?

|Luke …

The other man seemed to be protesting, but not very loudly. I tried to look at him, to get him to help, but I lay powerless on the floor as Luke walked round me, aiming kicks with each step which crunched into my legs. I watched as his feet moved round to where I lay, my left arm trying to protect my head. Too much of me was exposed, I didn’t stand a chance. I looked on in horror as he came level with my face and drew his brown-booted foot back. This wasn’t a dream or a memory. It was happening again. I closed my eyes and whimpered. Heard a shout. Waited for the pain and longed for the darkness.

Cal

‘Shit. He would have seen Dec sitting there. I bet he’s done something, taken him somewhere or something.’

Lis frowned. ‘Really, Jay? Dec is pretty strong. You’d have to be fairly determined to get him to go somewhere he didn’t want to without a fuss.’

‘You didn’t see him, Lis. He was white as a sheet, he couldn’t stand up, he wasn’t thinking straight. And if he’d yelled, would anyone have heard him? It’s pretty loud in here.’

Jaime, you think this Luke take Declan somewhere?’

Dad nodded. ‘My guess is outside. I think we need to have a look.’

‘I’m going to call the police.’

Dad looked at Lis, and I thought he was going to tell her not to, but she spoke before he could say it.

‘If this bloke’s got Dec, he could be in for another kicking. It nearly ended badly for him last time, didn’t it. If we’re wrong, well, we get a telling off for wasting their time, but if we’re right, they need to be here, yeah?’

Dad nodded, and I stayed very quiet. I could hardly believe this was all going on around me, and they had forgotten I was there, so they hadn’t sent me somewhere else.

Lis picked her phone up and pressed numbers, holding it to her ear. As she started to talk, Dad and Nico ran out of the room, Nico pressing on his phone too.

I had never been with anyone while they called the police before. I’d been with Mum when she called the ambulance for Dec, before we knew it was Dec, but the police was different, it felt like it should be more exciting, although Lis used nearly the same words to start with.

‘Police … Raiders Stadium … Lisa Tiago … I think someone’s going to get beaten up … No, but I really think you need to get someone up here fast, and if you make me explain it all before you do, it could go very badly … OK … Someone’s on the way now? … OK then … Well, it’s Declan Summers, he was attacked a few weeks ago, here, and the person who did it, well we think he’s got him again … no, not for sure, but …’

Lis tried to explain to the police person, but it was taking a long time. While she was still talking, I heard the sound of sirens. One of the windows looked out onto the car park, and I got up and walked over. Lis came with me, still talking on the phone.

It was dark outside, but the car park was lit with bright lights. There were lots of cars, and I saw a police car with its lights flashing near the entrance to the car park. As I watched, I saw some people running, but I couldn’t see what happened, because they went behind some cars. More police cars came then, and people started to stand and watch whatever it was that was happening. It was very frustrating to be up here watching and not down there, really seeing.

Quite a few other people were looking out of the window, too, and some of them were asking Lis what was going on.

‘Hopefully the police are making an arrest.’

That was all she would say, and she looked at her phone and pressed it a lot so that people wouldn’t talk to her.

After a while, nobody was looking out of the window any more, because there wasn’t anything to see, and Lis and I sat down at the table again. We were nearly the only people left, and I think everyone else had gone outside to see for themselves. I wished we could go outside to see as well. I wanted to know where Dad and Nico and Dec were, and if the police had anything to do with them, and I was still hoping there might be robots attacking with guns.

Lis kept looking at her phone, like she wanted it to ring, and then she’d look at me and smile, but as soon as she stopped looking at me, she stopped smiling. Then her phone did a bell sound, and she sat up and looked at the screen, and then frowned.

‘Helpful, Nico.’

She tapped on the screen, like she was sending a text. Then she stared at the phone again, until it did another bell sound. She pressed the screen and looked at it.

‘Oh my God.’

There was more tapping and another bell sound. I wanted her to tell me what she was reading, but it was Lis’s private message, and Mum was always telling me that what people got in their private messages wasn’t for me to know unless they wanted to tell me. I wasn’t allowed to ask, and I wasn’t allowed to look at her or Dad’s phones when they got texts. But I really wanted to know what had happened to Dec, and if the bad man called Luke was still here somewhere, and where Dad and Nico were, and what all the policemen were doing.

I couldn’t ask, so I did the best I could, which was a really big huffy sigh. Lis looked up and noticed me, then put her head on one side.

‘Sorry Cal, this is all a bit of a nightmare. I should think you’re wondering what’s going on, yeah?’

At last, she’d realised. I nodded.

Dec

More shouts. Still no pain, no darkness. Running feet.

Opened my eyes. The brown boots had gone, running away, others were chasing them. There were flashing lights and sirens. Noise and light. I lay my head back down on the ground and shut my eyes again. I felt a rushing from in my head, and everything went very distant and indistinct. From what seemed like far, far away, more feet, running towards me. He was coming back. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even raise my head, paralysed by fear and flashbacks. So I took another route to protect myself; I pushed it away, closed my mind down, to avoid it all. A voice, from a great distance.

łDec! Dec! Oh Jesus, no, no, no. Dec!

It sounded like Jay. Running feet came closer, skidded to a stop. Thumped down beside me. Hands shook my shoulder, tapped my cheek.

łOh my God. Dec. Oh my God. Fuck. Fuck. Dec, can you hear me?

Still sounded like Jay. I was so far away I couldn’t be sure. With a struggle, I opened my eyes. Jay’s stricken face slowly came into focus, his expression changing to one of massive relief as I looked at him. He covered his nose and mouth with his hands, breathing heavily and deeply.

łOh my God, Jesus, Dec. Fuck. I thought … Jesus. Say something, can you speak?

‘Mm OK.’

łOh thank Christ. Can you move, sit up?

I tried, but everything was hurting, and my coordination and focus were shot. Jay put his arm underneath my shoulder and helped me push up from the ground.

‘Aaah.’

łWhat, what is it?

‘Shoulder. Tore it. Arm’s fucked.’

łJesus, are you trying for some kind of most injured Raider award, or something?

He tried to smile, but tears filled his eyes, and he pulled me into a bear hug.

łJesus, Dec, I thought you’d had it, seeing you lying there, you weren’t moving, you’re so pale, I thought I was going to have to give you fucking mouth to mouth. Jesus.

He exhaled loudly and shakily, and looked over to where the blue lights were flashing, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand.

łI think they’ve got him. Nico chased him, Jesus he can run fast, tackled him, sat on him, I think. There’s an ambulance on its way.

‘No ambulance.’

łDec, you need to get checked out.

‘No more fucking hospitals. Docs here can look.’

łI don’t think they’ve got the kit, mate.

Not getting in a fucking ambulance.’

łOK, take it easy. Your choice, alright?

The shock of it all suddenly caught up with me, the rushing strangeness threatened, and I started shaking again, teeth chattering, body shuddering. Jay took his hoody off and put it round my shoulders, leaving his arm round me. He got his phone out, dialled a number.

łHi Lee, it’s Jay again. Are you still at the club? Great. Can you come out into the car park? Dec needs checking out … no, not that – there’s been a bit of an incident. Thanks.

I carried on shivering, head down, eyes closed, Jay carried on sitting on the ground next to me, arm round my shoulder. I heard footsteps running towards us. Opened my eyes in a panic. Nico. He knelt beside me and looked into my face.

>Declan, you are alright?

I looked at him, unable to answer, unable to focus on anything.

łWe’re waiting for Lee to come and check him out. I don’t want to get him up in case it’s the wrong thing.

>But there is ambulances coming.

łI know. He doesn’t want to go to hospital.

>Declan, you have no choice. You look very bad. You bleed. We see him kick you.

It was all too much. I was tired, hurting, cold, scared and everyone wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do. I started to cry, small sniffs at first and quickly moved on to large, heaving sobs. Jay folded me up in another bear hug. Nico put his hand on my arm.

łIt’s OK, Dec, it’s all OK now. It’s all over. They got him. Come on, mate, ssh.

>Here is Lee.

÷What the fuck’s been going on out here?

łCan you have a look at Dec? He’s had another kicking.

÷What, since I left you upstairs? Bloody hell, Dec, I’m going to have to get you a loyalty card. Is that what the police are doing here?

łYeah, Nico caught the guy who did it.

÷What’s the damage, Dec?

I couldn’t stop shivering and sobbing to answer.

łCome on Dec, if you don’t give us something it’ll be in the ambulance with you.

÷Maybe inside would be better? We’re going to have the press over here if we’re not careful.

łI didn’t want to try moving him.

÷I think if he can sit up he’s OK to move. We can all help. Let’s try to get him to the treatment room.

Jay helped me up and I leaned on him and Nico as we made our way back across the car park. I was starting to stiffen up and was beginning to feel the blows to my side, back and legs, as well as my arm and shoulder. I had stopped crying, but was still shivering and everything felt unreal and distant.

We reached the treatment room. Lee asked me to sit on a treatment table, and shone a light in my eyes.

÷Any bangs to the head?

I shook my head.

÷What’s this blood round your mouth then?

‘Hit my chin on the ground.’

÷OK, that’s going to need cleaning up, it’s got half the car park in it. No kicks or blows to your head, though, and you didn’t bang it when you fell?

‘No.’

÷You’re holding that arm a bit awkwardly. Is that where you fell?

I shook my head.

÷What happened, then?

‘He twisted it behind me. Tore my shoulder, felt it go.’

÷What, here?

Lee touched the top of my shoulder, which made the pain intensify and zing along my arm. I flinched and cried out.

÷Hmm. What about the rest of your arm? Any problems with the op sites?

‘Just all fucking hurts.’

÷OK, lets see, try some of these movements. Might be a bit soon, it might need to settle down, but it’ll give us an idea.

I tried to do the movements, but it was just too painful. I couldn’t, daren’t, lift my arm very much at all. Lee bound it up in a makeshift sling and I tried not to wince when he touched it.

÷OK, what else have you got?

‘Kicked all over.’

÷OK, let’s see then, I’m just going to lift your shirt up.

He prodded various places on my back and side, and then I had to stand up and drop my trousers for him to look at my legs. I had to hold on to Jay, as I was wobbling a lot, but whether from shock or damage I wasn’t sure.

÷Okay, pretty bad bruising, and one looks a bit near your kidney. I know you don’t want to go to hospital, Dec, but you really need to get this checked out, I don’t want you with undetected internal injuries. You might have broken a rib, and you need an X-ray on that arm. I think your legs are badly bruised, but nothing more.

I was silent, just wanting it all to go away so I could be left alone.

>Declan I know you, when you are quiet it mean you will be stubborn. You must go. Is serious. I am serious.

I tried to consider it sensibly. It was the fussing that was doing my head in. What would cause least fuss?

‘I’m not staying in.’

I could feel their relief.

łNo, mate, no more hospital pyjamas for you. Just go and get checked out. I can take you, we can cancel the ambulance, if it’s not here already.

>I go see.

Nico jogged out. Lee looked at Jay.

÷So what’s the story? Who did this?

łDo you remember Luke Woods?

÷Er, conditioning coach a few years back?

łYeah. It was him. Fuck knows what the full story is. Nico thinks he’s related to Ben Hearne, uncle or something. It was both of them a couple of weeks ago, he came back to finish the job.

÷Shit. Can’t quite get my head round it all. This might sound a bit crazy, but do you remember those pictures we took of your hand, Dec?

I nodded.

÷Maybe the police might like to see them, match them up with his boots?

łWhat’s this?

Lee told Jay about taking shots of the boot print on my hand.

łLee, you’re a genius, I think they’d be very interested. Dec, we’ll have words later about why this hasn’t been mentioned before.

My phone pinged in my pocket. Somehow it had survived me landing on it, and looking at it gave me a way to avoid answering Jay.

Text:

Amy: =r u still around? Fancy a drink?

I didn’t have the energy to reply and explain it all. Put the phone back in my pocket and kept my head down so I didn’t have to look at anyone.

łYou’re looking a better colour, Dec. You were really pale before. You’ve stopped shaking too. Jesus, what a day you’ve had. Two panic attacks and a kicking. And the night is young.

It seemed I wasn’t going to have to explain myself immediately, so I gave Jay a weak smile. Everything still seemed to be going on around me without involving me much, which was fine by me, until Nico came back.

>Ambulance is cancelled, but the police they want to talk to us before we go. I say Declan he is not well, but they come now.

‘No …’

I put my head in my hands, couldn’t cope with more questions, more people, more talking.

łSorry, Dec, I don’t think we’ve got much choice. When this happened last time, I needed to get back for Matty, but they wouldn’t let me until I’d talked to them. They only waited to talk to you because you were out of it.

>Declan, we are here with you. Lee will stay. He will say if is too much.

÷Sure thing, mate. I’ll be here keeping an eye.

There was a knock on the door. DI Johnson walked in and sat down. He checked over details of the 999 call, then talked to Jay and Nico. I couldn’t focus on the conversation, and I was aware of Lee glancing at me from time to time as I sat on the treatment table, head bowed, staring at the floor. Jay reminded Lee about the pictures of my hand that were on his phone. DI Johnson was very interested in them, and asked Lee to send them to him.

ϙDeclan, can I ask you some questions? It won’t take long.

I raised my head with an effort. Nodded.

ϙI understand from your friends here that you have received further injuries. Can you confirm that the person you named in our earlier telephone conversation is the person who also assaulted you tonight?

‘Yeah. Luke Woods.’

ϙWas anyone else involved in the assault?

My head was full of Luke kicking me, over and over. It was threatening to overwhelm me, and talking about it made it worse. I took a shuddering breath.

‘No.’

ϙCan you tell me how you got from the upstairs bar to the car park?

‘He hurt me. Twisted my arm.’

ϙDid you try to resist?

‘No. Yeah. Once. It tore my shoulder.’

÷Declan has a broken arm and collarbone. I think his arm was twisted up behind his back. It would have been very painful.

ϙThank you, sir. Declan, were you forced into the car park against your will?

I thought about it. I couldn’t see how I could have avoided it, but I felt at fault. I should have been stronger, fought more. I felt tears fill my eyes and run down my face.

÷I think it’s fair to say that Dec didn’t go there willingly to be beaten up. Actually, I think that’s enough questions for now. He’s not feeling a hundred per cent, he’s had a big shock and he really needs to go to the hospital to get checked out.

ϙAlright. Declan, I’ll be in touch. Thank you for your time.

He stood up, closed his notebook and left the room.

>We take Declan now?

łYeah, I’ll just have to get my keys, Lis has got them – fuck it! Cal! How am I going to explain all this to him?

>I take Declan, you take care of Cal. He don’t need to know everything. Take him to ours, Lis feeds him, I let you know what happen.

łI need to call Beth, check if she’s OK with me being late. If Matty needs lifting, she … can’t do it. I’ll see what kind of a day he’s had.

Jay left the room to make the call. I could hear his voice from down the corridor. There was no way Jay could leave Beth to look after Matt on her own, and I wanted to tell him to go home, but he was walking away from me and I couldn’t find the strength to raise my voice.

>Come, Declan, my car is near. You can walk?

Nico was standing by the door, beckoning to me, and I didn’t have the focus or the energy to argue about it, so I slipped down from the treatment table and stood, swaying slightly. Tried a couple of steps.

‘Yeah. Might be a bit slow.’

>Ha, is OK. Lee and me, we catch you.

We made our way slowly out to the car park. A police car was still there, lights flashing, drawing a crowd. Nico’s car was near the door. He opened the passenger door for me and I got in, painfully and slowly. I couldn’t move my arm enough to reach the seatbelt, so Lee and Nico had to put it on for me. Lee put his hand on my shoulder.

÷Maybe you should come in tomorrow, get checked over? Tell me what they say?

‘OK.’

÷Good luck.

He shut the door, Nico started the engine and drove away. I rested my head against the window. I really couldn’t believe this was all happening again.

>Declan, you are OK?

‘No, I’m not fucking OK.’

>I know this, I mean, you don’t want me to stop?

‘No, just get there, get this over with.’

>OK. You look pale, don’t be sick.

‘I won’t be sick.’

Cal

‘Nico just texted, he’s down in the doctor’s room with Dec and your daddy. Dec has been hurt, and they’re getting him checked and talking to the police.’

‘Did the bad man hurt Dec?’

‘Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it’s as bad as last time.’

‘Will he have more sewing?’

‘Er … sewing?’

‘Yes, to keep his skin together.’

‘Oh … stitches. I don’t know, Cal. Nico didn’t say.’

Lis’s phone started singing, and she picked it up quickly and held it to her ear.

‘Nico, what’s going on? … OK … OK … OK … So not too bad then? … It’s just there are small ears listening, and I need to tell him something … OK … I’ll say that then. What’s Jay going to do? … OK … Oh … OK, yeah, that’s fine … No, we can go home, I’ll wait to hear from you or Jay. Shall I call Beth? … OK … OK … OK … Yeah, see you later. Be careful, Nico, no more bloody car park heroics, yeah? I was worried to death … Yeah, I love you too.’

Lis put the phone back on the table and looked at me.

‘Dec is going to the hospital, but he’s not badly hurt like last time. Nico is taking him, he’s not poorly enough to go in an ambulance. Your dad’s talking to your mum to sort out Matt, and you’re coming home with me.’

So that answered some of my questions, but there was something else I was getting more worried about.

‘Did the police catch the bad man?’

If the bad man was still around, maybe he would carry on trying to kick people, and if he knew I knew Dec, perhaps he would try to kick me. I didn’t want to have my bones broken, even if it meant I had metal in my arms and could be a Transformer.

‘Yeah, sweetie. Nico caught him in the car park and kept him there until the police got there. They’ve taken him away. You don’t need to worry, yeah?’

I felt very happy about that. I had been worried, without realising it. And now I could think about the other things that had happened.

‘I want to go to the hospital with Nico and Dec, I want to see him have sewing.’

I hadn’t really had a chance to look closely at it before, and the thought of sewing a person’s skin was fascinating. I hoped I would be able to see Dec soon, so I could see whether he looked like a Frankystein again.

‘Nico’s already gone, and your daddy wants you to come back with me.’

‘But I saw Dec before.’

I didn’t want them to think I was too little to see blood and sewing. I was six.

‘I know, sweetie, but this time, your daddy wants you to come back with me, yeah?’

I couldn’t argue with Lis like I did with Mum, because I didn’t know what she would say, so I had to do as I was told.

‘Am I sleeping in your house?’

‘I’m not sure yet, Cal, I’m waiting to hear from your dad, but if we go home, we can at least have some tea and see what happens.’

‘What is for tea?’

‘Ooh, what do you fancy? I do a mean fish finger. Or a bustin’ chicken nugget.’

I remembered Lis’s chicken nuggets from before, and she burnt them, even though it wasn’t her fault, it was Nico’s fault for talking to Mum and Dad in the kitchen. But best steer clear of the chicken nuggets.

‘I like fish fingers.’

‘Sorted then. Come on, grab your backpack, we’ll head off.’

Matt

Beth had expected Jay to set off for home shortly after the match finished, but he’d texted and said he was catching up with a few people, so she was waiting for a text to say he was on his way. She, Mum and I were in my room, drinking tea, when her phone rang.

‘Hello, are you on your – oh. Oh no. Oh James … but where is he now? … Who’s with him? … oh James … how bad is it? … but he wasn’t unconscious … oh James …’

If she said ‘oh James’ once more without telling Mum and me what in the name of fuckness was going on, we were going to manhandle the phone off her and ask ourselves. She looked at me, then at Mum.

‘I don’t know. I’ll ask. Matty, something terrible’s happened.’

Yeah kind of got that, just tell us. Who’s unconscious?

‘Dec’s been beaten up.’

Again? Holy shit, that boy just attracted disaster.

‘Fuck, Beth, is heh ohkay?’

‘It’s not as bad as last time, but Nico’s taken him to hospital. He might have damaged the broken arm.’

‘Fuck.’

‘James wants to know – he’s going to the hospital in a bit to check on him, he thinks he might have to stay while they check him out, and he wants to know if he needs to come home to do your bed bits.’

I thought about it. I felt ridiculously panicked at the thought of Jay not being there, despite all my whining about independence and not being treated like a child.

‘We could try the care agency, but it’s a bit short notice.’

Hearing the plea in Beth’s voice, the ‘please, not loads of hassle on top of this news’, I pushed past my panic and did a quick self-assessment.

‘Noh, Ihm guhd. Ih’ll duh ih mysehf.’

‘Really, sweetheart?’

‘Yeh. Hahv a pee, tahk ohf clohths, geh in behd. Ehsy.’

Beth gave me a look of deep gratitude.

‘Thank you. James, Matty thinks he can do it himself … yes, we’ve had a great day, he’s been up and about, helped cook tea, we’ll have him out pruning the apple tree tomorrow … yeah … oh James, give him my love … yeah, I might later … do they have any idea who … no! … not well, but I did meet him a few times … oh it’s so awful that Dec knows them … he’s going to be very shocked, be gentle with him … I just know what you’re like sometimes … OK, I’ll ring Lis and talk to Cal, see you tomorrow sometime. Love you.’

She disconnected and looked at us, eyes wide with shock.

‘I can’t believe that’s happened again. It was the same man who did it before, he used to work for Raiders, a conditioning trainer. He’s been arrested, apparently Nico rugby tackled him in the car park and sat on him. Thank goodness they were there. Cal’s gone to Nico and Lis’s, I think James is going to stay there, and they’ll come back early tomorrow. Matty, are you sure you can manage by yourself?’

‘Yeh, Beth. Today, goh tuh behd by mysehf, tomohrow pruhn the ahpl treh, next day hahf marathohn.’

Beth gave me a weak smile. Maybe I was being over-optimistic with my half-marathon timetable, and she didn’t want to burst my bubble.

‘It’s a worry for you dear, are you alright?’

‘Yes, thanks Carol. I am worried, but James said he thinks Dec will be OK. Oh, but he’s had such a day already, with his panic attack thing this morning, and going home, then his first rugby game for ages, and now this. I hope it doesn’t set him back. I’ll just give Lis a ring, check she’s alright with Cal, then I’ll see if I can get hold of Dec.’

Beth took her phone and walked off into the house. Mum picked up the mugs and stood up, looking at me.

‘That poor young man. He’s had a lot to contend with in the last few months.’

‘I thoht yuh said tha boy was a trohblmahker.’

‘I may have misjudged him. He’s a nice young man, and I’ve seen you two become friends. He can’t be all bad.’

‘Noh, not ahl bad.’

I listened to Beth talking to Lis and then Dec, unable to make out the words, but hearing the panic recede from her voice a little. As Beth calmed down, I slowly filled up with anger that some bastard had had a go at my already injured mate. I felt the need to do something, not that I had the physical capacity for grand gestures, but that didn’t stop the need. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table and sent a text. That would show them.

I hoped it struck the right note, told him I was thinking of him without being overly sympathetic. I didn’t get a reply.

Cal

I went with Lis in her car, which was awesome because it was red and only had two seats, and its roof was made of material instead of metal. Lis said the the roof folded down so the wind blew your hair about, but she didn’t fold the roof down because it was winter and it would be too cold, and I didn’t sit in my car seat, because Lis didn’t have one.

I had fish fingers, beans and chips for tea. I didn’t tell Lis I’d already had chips, because Mum didn’t let me have chips twice in one day. Then we played on Nico’s X-box, and then Lis talked to Dad on the phone, and then she talked to Mum on the phone, and I talked to Mum on the phone, and then we watched a bit of a DVD, and then I went to bed. I didn’t have any pyjamas, so Lis said it was OK to sleep in my pants and Arsenal shirt. I wanted to stay awake until Dad got back so I could ask about Dec and his sewing, but I fell asleep and he still wasn’t back.

Dec

I was just about holding it together. A loud scream seemed to be building somewhere inside me, threatening to overpower me. It was affecting my concentration and making me jumpy and irritable. I couldn’t offer Nico any conversation, although he tried. We got to the hospital, and Nico parked his car illegally in front of A&E, helped me out and we went in together. The hospital was expecting me, but said there was likely to be a wait. It was Saturday evening, they were busy.

I sat next to Nico on the uncomfortable plastic chairs, staring at the wall, feeling my shoulder and arm swell up and become more painful. It was joined by throbs and twinges from all the other places Luke had kicked me. I didn’t say anything for some time, and Nico sat with me, not saying much either.

>You must call Rose. She need to know.

‘She’s not expecting me till later, I’ll call when I know how bad it is. I don’t want her worrying, or rushing over here.’

>She might find out, there was TV cameras.

‘Fucking hell.’

>You want I phone her?

‘No, I’ll do it. It sounds more serious if someone else calls.’

I got my phone out, dialled the number, took a deep breath, put on a brave face.

:Hello, love, alright?

‘Hi Rose, no, not really. I’m at A&E.’

:What? Oh love, what’s happened?

‘Well, bit of a re-run of last time. Someone tried to kick my head in. But I’m OK. Nico’s with me, we’re just waiting to be seen.’

:Oh love, I’ll be right there.

‘No, Rose, please don’t come down. I’m not going to be staying in, it’s all OK.’

:But you said you got kicked – are you hurt?

‘Well, yeah, I’ve hurt my arm again, and there’s a few more bruises for my collection. But I’m OK. Please don’t come down, Rose. I’ll be back there soon, I promise.’

:Alright, love, if that’s what you want. Can I talk to Nico?

I handed the phone over. That short conversation had been pretty exhausting.

>Hi Rose … yes … yes, he is hurt, he is in a bit shock … I don’t think you need to if he don’t want it … yes, I call you later … be careful of yourself. Bye.

Nico gave the phone back. It rang almost immediately. Beth.

_Dec, oh, Dec, sweetheart. Are you OK?

‘No.’

_I can’t believe it’s happened again. Where are you?

‘In A&E.’

_Is someone with you?

‘Nico.’

_Oh Dec, you poor love. You must have been terrified. James says they got him though.

‘Apparently.’

I was finding it hard to string more than one word together and keep my eyes open at the same time. Out of energy, I handed Nico the phone.

>Hey, Beth, is Nico. Declan he is not with us really. I think he is OK, but he hurts pretty bad and he have a big shock. We wait for doctor … yes … no, he see Lee, the Raiders doctor, he want him to come here for X-ray and for looking at where they kick him. He think about internal injury … no … yes … oh, OK, I know he worry. Cal is OK with Lis. You are OK? … I know, is worry to be so far, but we look after him … OK, we call you later.

He gave me the phone back.

>Is there other people you want me to talk to?

‘No.’

>Maybe Don? He will know what happen.

I sighed. Couldn’t really hack all the fuss, and having to think was doing my head in.

‘OK. Don. Thanks.’

I handed him my phone.

>Is OK, I use mine.

As I was putting my phone back in my pocket, it pinged with a text.

Matt: =Fucking attention seeker.

It almost brought half a smile to my face although I didn’t send a reply. Another text, almost immediately afterwards.

Amy: =OMG just heard what happened. RU OK? 😦 xx

Me: =Not OK. In A&E. Spk soon.

Nico was still talking to Don, telling him the same things he had told Rose and Beth. He finished his conversation and put his phone away.

‘Nico, you don’t have to stay.’

>Ha, is true I don’t have to. I stay, though, because you are my friend and you are hurt and seem not right to me. I want you don’t be alone, and I want to see you are OK. Jaime he come soon. He leave Cal with Lis. He want also to see you are OK.

‘He can’t, he needs to get back home.’

>He sort with Beth, don’t worry about him.

I didn’t have the strength to argue any more. I felt drained, dull, lifeless. My arm and shoulder were throbbing and I could feel every bruise forming under my skin. I settled into a kind of lethargy, in a world of pain, where I couldn’t move or talk or think about anything beyond staring at the wall. Nico tried to talk to me, but eventually gave up when he got no answer. Jay arrived after a while, taking a seat next to me. Nico went to move his car, and then check how long it would be before I was seen.

łDec, the police have arrested Luke Woods. Him and Ben have been charged with assaulting you before, and he’s also been charged with assaulting you tonight.

‘What about the other one?’

łWhat other one?

‘There was someone else –’

Details came back to me.

‘– older, scraggy beard, Raiders shirt. He was in the van.’

łJesus. Why didn’t you say before? You told the police it was just Luke.

‘Forgot.’

łJesus, Dec. I suppose you’re not really thinking straight. Well, as soon as you’re up to it, you should contact them. How are you doing?

‘Everything fucking hurts. You should go home.’

łIt’s a bit late, now. Lis is putting Cal to bed. We’re going to set off first thing tomorrow. I needed to come and see you’re OK. Stop worrying. Beth says Matty had a really good day today, and he’s going to put himself to bed, so that’s great, isn’t it?

‘You should be there with him, instead of fucking about here with me.’

Jay sighed.

łI really thought you’d got it. Maybe this has messed your head up more than I realised. You’re my family. You need me here, I need to be here, to make sure you’re OK. I’ve checked with Beth, Matty doesn’t need me just at the moment, he’s fine. So I’m staying here, and you’re going to accept that I need to be here and you need me to be here. Jesus, Dec, how many more times do we have to have this conversation?

I stayed silent, continuing to feel guilty about Beth and Carol having to manage Matt on their own. Nico came back from the reception desk and sat down. His charm had apparently not managed to shift me up the waiting list, and they said it was going to be another hour at least. I continued to sit on the uncomfortable plastic chair, staring at the wall, feeling everything carry on stiffening up, feeling guilty, feeling separated from reality. Jay and Nico talked over my head. Jay patted my back and ruffled my hair every so often. Although it was comforting, I couldn’t respond.

łBloody good tackle, Nico. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself landing on the car park.

>Ha! I am not hurt, but he is hurt. He bang his head, and I think he break some fingers.

łGood. Fucking bastard, it’s the least he deserves.

>You are right. I feel horrible he know Declan by me.

łJesus, Nico, it’s not your fault. Sounds like he had a major grudge going before you ever took Dec to his gym.

>Maybe you are right. I think he hurt Declan before. I see bruises on his shoulder after we are at his gym. Declan tell me it happen when he is drunk, but now I wish I say more.

łWell, trying to get Dec to admit to anything has always been a bloody hard job, eh, Dec?

‘Huh?’

łNothing, go back to sleep.

‘Not asleep.’

łMight as well be. Nico, did you see anyone else? Dec says there was another man there, in the van.

>No, I don’t see. I am busy chasing … wait, maybe there is someone when we first see Declan … I don’t remember well.

‘How did you know?’

łKnow what?

‘Where he took me.’

Jay blew his cheeks out.

łBit of luck, really. Nico was with Lis and Cal when I went back. I told him about you spotting Luke, and remembering it was him before. We asked around, and someone had seen Luke going through the door to where you’d been sitting. We ran out there, but you were nowhere to be seen. Took a bit of a gamble that he would try to get you outside. Lis called the police, and Nico called while we tried to find you. We got out there as fast as we could; when we got to the top of the steps, we saw him over on the other side of the car park giving you another going over. I shouted, he ran. Nico chased him, I got to you as quickly as I could. Fuck knows how the cops got there as fast as they did.

>I think there is a car there always after a game, down the hill. I am glad, I don’t think I can sit on him much longer.

‘Thanks.’

łNo problem, mate. I would say ‘anytime’, but please, for fuck’s sake, don’t go getting yourself beaten up again.

‘Sorry.’

Jay rolled his eyes.

‘Couldn’t help it.’

łI know that, Dec.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

łI know.

‘Sorry.’

łIs that what’s bothering you?

‘Wasn’t strong enough.’

łJesus, Dec, he nearly pulled your fucking arm off. And you weren’t feeling too hot to start with. He’s a complete fucking nutcase.

‘Just froze.’

łI’m not surprised. Jesus, you’ve been through enough, don’t start giving yourself grief about what he did to you. He’s the worthless piece of shit here.

I hung my head. Despite Jay’s words, I still felt guilty and ashamed about letting Luke dominate me.

>Declan, what he do to you is bad. Is his bad, not your bad. We hate him, not you.

łNicely put.

>Thank you.

I heard what they said, and most of me knew it was true, but somewhere inside I was cowering in a corner with my hands over my head, completely powerless to stop it all happening.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

Tears filled my eyes and I started to cry again.

łAh, Dec, come here.

Jay put his arm round me and pulled me towards him.

łDon’t let him get to you like this. He’s won, then, hasn’t he, eh? He didn’t win – here you are, large as life and twice as ugly. Possibly three times as ugly.

‘He nearly did. If you hadn’t been there –’

łYeah, could have been nasty. But we were there, we had your back. We always will, one way or another. You don’t have to be invincible, do everything on your own. I wish you’d bloody remember that once in a while, it would save me repeating it every five minutes.

I was silent, considering. Nico’s phone rang.

>Hello Rose … no we wait still … he is no worse … ha, yes, you would, I know this, but no, don’t come, they see him soon, I am sure. Jaime is here now. I call you as soon as I know.

As if Rose’s call had caused it, my name was called.

38. Memories can’t wait

In which rugby is experienced, a girl is encountered and a memory is completed.

Dec

As we drove up to the stadium, I started to get nervous. I was worried about how people might react to me. It was only a couple of weeks since the points deduction, and although Raiders had won both of their games since and started the long haul back up the table, it was likely I was still going to be the target for people who were holding a grudge. And at the back of my mind was the other man from my memories, the one I could half-remember but couldn’t identify. Would he be here? Jay noticed I had gone quiet.

łWhat’s up?

‘Just thinking. Not sure everyone’s going to be that pleased to see me.’

łYou’ll be OK. Don wouldn’t have agreed to it if he thought there was going to be any trouble. Nico says most people are OK with things, feel sorry for you after you were beaten up. I think he’s done a fair amount of PR work on your behalf, actually. He’s been looking out for you.

‘Really?’

łYeah. You know Nico and Lis have been looking out for you for us since we moved away? Not that we knew, at first, or would have been very happy about it. Lis knows Beth really well, though. She knew, I think, that things would get mended with us, and she and Nico wanted to make sure you were OK until that happened.

‘They’ve both been amazing.’

łThat’s what friends are for – hey, don’t you dare start blubbing, we’re just about to get out of the car.

I pulled myself together. Lifted my chin to face the world.

łI’ve just got to pick up the tickets and have a quick chat with someone. Can you take Cal to the club shop, get him a flag or something? I’ll meet you by the West Stand entrance. Won’t be long.

Cal

I had been to Raiders Stadium with Dad a few times, when he was at work, and to fetch things, and on the night when he found Dec in the car park, but I had never been on match day. When we turned into the road leading up the hill to the stadium, there were people everywhere, all wearing the black and blue of Raiders, all walking towards the ground. Some people had eye-patches and scarves round their heads like pirates. I couldn’t help staring; I’d never seen anything like it. Dad had taken me to see the local football team a few times, and there was a shelter for when it was raining, and a burger van, but here, there were loads of burger vans, and places selling magazines about the rugby game, which had Nico’s picture on the front, and it was bright and noisy and thrilling.

Dad had to go and talk to someone, and asked Dec to take me to the shop to get a flag. I liked the idea of a flag; I could see people carrying them, and they had a picture of a pirate sort of person on them, the same pirate sort of person who was on their shirts and hats. I’d seen it on Dad’s and Dec’s shirts when they came home from work. Dec said it was the Raiders badge, and there were lots of things in the shop that had the badge on too.

Dec

Cal’s eyes were wide at the noise and excitement that was building in the ground. There were people wearing hats and scarves, and some of the more ardent supporters were sporting bandanas and eye-patches Beth had always been adamant that Cal wasn’t allowed to watch live rugby on account of it being too aggressive, so he’d never experienced the atmosphere of match day. I wondered what he would make of the whole occasion.

Cal

As well as the flag, there was a teddy that had a Raiders shirt on, and I stood and looked at it for long enough that Dec realised I really wanted it, and he picked it up. He also picked up a shirt from a rail, but it was a small shirt, not Dec-size, but maybe more Cal-size, and I wondered if it was for me, but he didn’t make me try it on, so maybe it wasn’t.

Dec

The shop was full of customers. I had my new bank card, which had arrived at Rose’s while I was away and wanted to do something, however small, to begin to repay people.

Cal

While we were queueing up to pay, a boy came and asked Dec for his autograph. Like he was a footballer or someone from the television. Dec wrote his name on the boy’s programme, and I noticed that people were looking at Dec, and not just because he had bruises and lines on his face, but like he was someone they wished would give them his autograph too.

Dec

A boy, a couple of years older than Cal, was suddenly at my side. He held out a match day programme and a pen.

*Please can I have your autograph?

It was the first time I had ever been asked; I tried to hide my exhilaration, and appear cool. Cal’s eyes grew wide as I signed the programme.

*Thanks. Are you playing today?

‘No, not for a while. Got a broken arm.’

I held up my bandaged right arm.

‘Enjoy the game.’

The boy went back to his place in the queue, while I glowed in the recognition.

Cal

‘Dec, are you famous?’

The possibility had only just occurred to me. Sometimes people knew Dad when we went out to the shops or Pizza Place, and he wrote his name on things, and Mum said it was because Dad used to be famous when he was young. Dec was young, well, younger than Dad, so maybe he was

‘Ha ha, no Cal.’

‘But that boy had your autograph.’

‘I know. Some people know who I am, I guess they might have seen my picture in the papers in the last few weeks, but it’s really only here at Raiders.’

Oh, well, that was alright, then. If it was only these people, who wore things with the Raiders badge on, then I didn’t have to think differently about Dec, as if he was a famous person like Bob the Builder. As long as it was only these people, and Dec wasn’t going to get asked for his autograph when we were in Dinosaurland or something.

Dec

I paid for everything, gave Cal the flag and toy, and left with the shirt in a bag, heading over to the West Stand entrance, wondering how long we were going to have to wait for Jay.

\where’s Daddy?

‘I’m not sure. Shall we text him?’

\yes.

Me: =How long will u b? D & C.

He didn’t reply immediately, but a few minutes later:

Jay: =On my way.

I watched the crowd, not sure which direction Jay would be coming from. I was aware of lots of curious glances from people as we waited, but nobody spoke to me. It was a long time since I had watched a first team game from the stands, and I had forgotten how noisy it was, how much the atmosphere built up, how mad the supporters were.

)Dec?

I felt a hand on my arm and looked round. It was Amy, DivDav’s girlfriend.

‘Amy! Hi!’

She reached up, smiling, and hugged me, kissing me on the cheek.

)It’s great to see you. God, Dec, your face!

She briefly touched the scar running by my eye and it sent a tingling shiver right through me.

)How are you doing?

‘Much better than I was. Is Dav here?’

Her face clouded as she looked away.

)I’m … er … I don’t know. We broke up. He was let go by the club too. Didn’t you know?

‘No – oh, wait, maybe it’s ringing a bell. Sorry, my head’s been a bit mashed the last few weeks. Haven’t been keeping in touch with people. Shit, Amy, I’m really sorry to hear that. How are you?’

)Oh, you know, OK. Good to see you, though. I tried to ring you a couple of weeks ago, when I heard about what happened. David didn’t have anything to do with it, you know.

‘Yeah, I know. I feel fucking awful about telling the police I thought it was him. It … er … it was Big. He’s been arrested.

Amy’s eyes went wide and she put both of her hands to her mouth.

)Oh my God! Dec, that’s completely terrible. How could he do that? I can’t believe it.

‘I know. I’m still getting my head round it. I think they’ve cleared Dav though. I should contact him … I don’t suppose you know where he is do you?’

Amy shook her head and looked down.

)I haven’t seen him since we broke up. We’re not exactly still friends. He behaved really badly to you.

Something about the way she said it made me look at her sharply. She looked back, a frown above her big blue eyes.

‘What? You broke up because of me?’

)Well, partly. When all that macho nonsense was going on, I told him what I thought. He didn’t like it much, wasn’t very nice to me about it and just carried on doing it. When I heard what he’d done to your clothes, I realised I didn’t want to be with someone who could do that. We just weren’t really meant for each other.

‘Amy, fuck, I’m sorry. I feel really bad.’

)Oh no, don’t. It’s completely better to know sooner than later. So anyway, is there something wrong with your phone? I’ve tried to get hold of you a few times.

‘My old one, yeah, it got smashed up when all this –’ I gestured to my face ‘– happened.’

)That explains it. Have you got a new one yet?

‘Yeah, do you want my number?’

)Yes, please.

We got our phones out and traded numbers.

‘Where are you watching from?’

)East Stand.

‘I’m in West. Give you a wave!’

)See you Dec, take care.

Amy smiled and walked off, looking back at me over her shoulder. She was really pretty; I felt parts of me come awake that had been sleeping for several months. I’d liked her a lot before she started going out with DivDav, and I watched her walk away, my cheek still tingling where she’d touched me.

Cal

While we were still waiting, a lady came and talked to Dec, and she cuddled him, and while they were talking, Dec didn’t look at me once. I started to walk over to the burger van, to see if he’d stop me, but he didn’t, so I walked back, in case I got lost. He was talking and talking to the lady, and he didn’t notice me at all, until the lady went away. Even then, he stared after her. I tugged on his arm, and he looked down at me.

Dec

\who’s that lady?

I dragged my attention back to Cal, who could have flown to Timbuktu for all the notice I’d taken of him while I was talking to her.

‘Her name’s Amy.’

Cal

He didn’t tell me any more than that, because Dad came along with the tickets, and we could go in, and I had chips and shared a burger with Dec.

It was very noisy where our seats were. We were just behind a lot of people in eye-patches and scarves who were singing different songs about Raiders. They had some actions where they waved their arms about, and one of them had a drum.

The players were out on the pitch, but they weren’t playing, they were running up and down, and kicking and throwing balls. Dec said they were warming up, so they didn’t pull a muscle when they ran fast, but it was cold outside, and they weren’t wearing coats, so I wondered how they were being warm.

I saw Nico and I waved, but he didn’t see me or wave back. Dec said when the players were on the pitch, they couldn’t notice people they knew, because it would put them off. I wondered how they could not be put off by all the noisy people banging drums and singing, but Dec said they weren’t.

I looked at the pitch itself, and it looked almost like a football pitch, except that the goals didn’t have nets, the lines were different, and the goalposts stretched up really high, above the crossbar. It looked like a giant H. I wondered if the goalkeeper had to stand on the crossbar to stop a goal going in, but he would have to be very tall or jump very high, and he would have to be good at balancing.

I was just going to ask Dec about it, when there was a cheering contest. A man with a microphone was in the middle of the pitch, and there was a mascot with him, dressed as a giant Raider man, and the different sides of the ground had to shout louder than each other. I shouted as loud as I could, and the Raider mascot gave our side a thumbs up. I waved my flag as we all cheered.

Dec

They were good seats, along the side of the pitch. There were about fifteen minutes before the game started, so Jay got us some drinks from the bar. Cal was enjoying the atmosphere, waving his flag and joining in with the warm up entertainment. Lis arrived, saw us and hurried over, smiling widely. She gave Cal a big hug, then Jay, then me.

~Hi Dec, oh, great haircut, you’re looking so much better. How did it all go?

‘Good, really good. Thanks so much for taking me up there.’

~You got it all sorted, yeah?

She took a sidelong look at Jay, who rolled his eyes.

‘Yeah. Talked our arses off.’

~Glad to hear it. Sounds like it did you the world of good.

łDec is officially world blubbing champion, even worse than Matty.

~Don’t be so mean. Only real men cry.

łThen Dec is pretty damn real.

Lis laughed.

~Well it’s good to see you all. Nico wants to have a drink after, is that OK?

łFine by me.

‘Yeah, great.’

Lis took her seat a few rows away, sitting with other players’ wives and girlfriends. The match was minutes away from starting, and the excitement was reaching fever pitch. Raiders were playing the team in second place. If they won, and other results went their way, they could move up a couple of places in the table. I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. Text.

Matt

Jay, Dec and Cal drove off to Devon to watch Raiders play, leaving me with Beth and Mum. Jay was going to be back later, so there were no worries about who was going to get me in and out of bed if I needed it, but I felt great, better than I’d felt for a long, long time. I even sat out in the armchair all morning, only going back to bed after lunch. I dozed a bit, then realised it was almost three o’clock and time for the big kick off at Raiders Stadium. Part of me wanted to be there with them, despite the fact I had never watched a rugby match, well not since those ones back when I was at school, so I winged a text to Dec.

‘Go Raiders! Have a fucking awesome time.’

Cripples Corner was obviously still operating, even at a distance, as his reply came straight back.

‘Just abt 2 start so fuck off now.’

After that, I had to content myself with imagining what was going on, but I fell asleep, then Beth woke me up and asked if I wanted to get in my wheelchair and sit in the kitchen while she and Mum made tea, and I so did, hardly minding about being sat in the sodding machine because I was in the kitchen and I offered helpful advice about chopping onions …

Thank you Matty, I don’t know how I’ve ever managed to chop onions before without you being here.’

… and let them know when they had the temperature too high for the sauce ‘Well, dear, I know I’ve done this hundreds of times without burning it, but I bow to your obviously superior knowledge.’

… and sampled things and told them it needed more salt or suggested herbs to add …

‘Well you can help again, sweetheart, that tastes lovely now’

… and before long, with our combined efforts and my expertise, we had made a pasta bake beyond compare.

Dec

The players ran out onto the pitch to spine-tinglingly loud cheers and chanting from the home fans. It reverberated around the stadium. I looked at Cal; his eyes were wide, taking it all in, and his face was flushed with excitement. I turned to Jay, who was also watching Cal and smiling.

‘He hasn’t been to a game before, has he?’

łNot since he was really little, he probably doesn’t remember.

‘He’s really enjoying himself.’

łCertainly is. I’ll wean him off football if it’s the last thing I do. It’s bad enough Matty and his bloody Tottenham. Can’t have my son being taken by the dark side too, whatever Beth thinks about aggression.

The match got underway, a pulsating first half with some beautiful play from both sides. Raiders’ running style was exciting to watch; Warriors had a great defence and were slick and clinical. Nico nearly scored twice – once he was tackled just metres from the line, once he was taken out in the air near the corner flag as he caught the ball. The ref didn’t see it, and awarded a line out to the opposition, to a chorus of boos. As the half-time whistle sounded, Raiders had a narrow lead, twelve points to nine, all from penalties. The applause rang out for the exciting play.

Cal

Rugby was quite different from football. It had some things the same, like the kit, the boots, and the ref, but most things were really different. You were allowed to pick the ball up, and people were allowed to run after you and pull you over. If you did that in football, you would get a red card and be sent off. Mostly the players threw the ball to each other, they hardly kicked it at all, and when they did, it was all high and loopy. And sometimes the player with the ball was pulled down and everyone piled on top of him, like it was a fight, but they were allowed to do it. And sometimes a player had the ball, and he ran really, really fast, faster than everyone else, and everyone shouted and cheered because he was about to score a goal. Nico ran faster than anyone else, and nearly got to the goal once, but was pulled down just before he could score.

Then the referee blew his whistle and it was half time, and I could talk to Dec and Dad about it, because it had been too noisy and too exciting to take my eyes off the pitch while the players were on it.

‘What did you think, Cal?’

‘I liked it when everybody shouted.’

‘It’s exciting, isn’t it?’

‘Why don’t they try to score in the goals?’

I hadn’t quite got why Nico hadn’t just kicked the ball through the posts when he was so close.

‘Well, this isn’t football, you can score anywhere over the white line. The posts are for kicking over, not scoring under.’

I didn’t quite get that either – if you could score anywhere over the white line, why didn’t they just kick the ball up the pitch as soon as they got it? That would be a goal straight away. Maybe they had to get it up high, like some of the players had done, when they’d kicked it through the posts on top of the goal. There wasn’t a goalie, but the players had to kick from quite far away, so maybe it was already difficult enough. And everyone had stopped while they did it, they hadn’t tried to tackle him or pull him down or anything. I didn’t think I would ever understand it all.

‘I like when they pick the ball up. In football that’s called a hand ball.’

That was the most thrilling thing, that the players could do things that you couldn’t in football, and it was all OK.

‘Yeah, but it’s allowed in rugby. You can also pull people down to the ground, which you can’t if you’re Theo Walcott.’

I didn’t like to think about Theo Walcott not being able to do something. I thought he was pretty perfect as a sporting hero. I wondered if he’d ever come to play at Raiders Stadium so I could see him.

‘Can Theo Walcott play rugby?’

‘Well, I guess he could, but I don’t think he’s tough enough to be much good.’

I certainly didn’t like to think of Theo Walcott not being tough enough. Did that mean that Dec and Dad and Nico were tougher than Theo? It was hard to believe. I thought about Arsenal, and how much I supported them, but also how much I’d been supporting Raiders for the first half of this game. I’d never felt anything like it, and I hadn’t realised that there would be shirts and flags and TV cameras.

‘Dec, can you support rugby teams like it’s football?’

‘Course you can, mate.’

‘Who do you support?’

I knew Dec didn’t have a football team. We cheered on Arsenal together, but Dec only liked football when I was watching it. I wanted to know if he had a rugby team like I had a football team. It had only just occurred to me that this might be possible. A world of sporting options opened up before my eyes.

‘Well, I guess Raiders are my team.’

‘I want to still support Arsenal.’

I didn’t know how to say that I was feeling like I was supporting Raiders as well. I didn’t know what ‘disloyal’ meant, but that’s how I felt.

‘Of course.’

‘But I want to support Raiders too.

‘Well, I’m not surprised, they are the best. It’s OK to support two teams, especially if they’re from different sports. Arsenal will never play Raiders, so you’ll never have to choose.’

Well that was alright then. If I could support one team from football and one from rugby, that was easy. I knew from football that you couldn’t support two different teams. I’d tried with Tottenham and Arsenal, because Uncle Matty supported Tottenham, and was always trying to get me to change from Arsenal, but it was too hard to do. But supporting a team from another sport felt OK. And of course, if you support a team, you need the proper kit, like my Arsenal shirt. I thought again about the small shirt that Dec picked up in the shop. I didn’t know if it was for me, but maybe I could ask in a roundabout way.

‘I’m going to support Raiders. Can I have a Raiders shirt for my birthday?’

‘Your birthday’s a long way off. How about you have one now?’

Dec gave me the bag with the shirt in it. Yes, it had worked. I took the shirt out and looked at it. It was missing something.

‘It hasn’t got a name on the back.’

‘Well, you have a think and decide whose name you want on the back. You can have your name if you like. It might take you a while to get to know the Raiders players and have a favourite. I can get it put on once you’ve chosen.’

Before I could think about whose name I wanted on the back, and whether I could have ‘WALCOTT’ to match my Arsenal shirt, Dad had a suggestion.

How about ‘SCOTT’? Has a nice ring to it on the back of a Raiders shirt again. Thanks, Dec, by the way.’

I didn’t want my name on my shirt, I wanted the best Raiders player on it, but I didn’t know who that was yet.

‘Daddy can I put my shirt on now?’

‘I think it’s a bit cold to be taking your shirt off out here.’

It was cold, and I had my hat and gloves and scarf on, and my nose was red, but I really wanted the shirt on.

‘Ohh but I want to.’

Sometimes a good wheedle worked, sometimes it didn’t. Today it worked.

How about you put it on over the top of your Arsenal shirt?’

‘Kay.’

I felt a bit bad about covering up my Arsenal shirt, but it was only for half of the game, so it would be alright.

Dec

Text:

Amy: =Spotted me yet?

I looked over to the crowd in the stand opposite, but everyone was so far away I couldn’t pick out faces. I couldn’t remember what Amy had been wearing. Suddenly spotted someone waving madly with both arms.

Me: =Gotcha.

I waved back, just as madly.

Cal

The teams soon came out for the second half, and the noise from the crowd got back up to loud. There was lots of throwing, lots of running, and lots of players bumped into each other. One player had a big cut over his eye, and had to come off the pitch with blood running right down the side of his face and dripping onto his shirt. I couldn’t stop looking.

‘Will he have sewing like you did?’

‘He might need a bit. He’ll be OK though, he’ll probably play again next week.’

There was more kicking through the posts, and then the most exciting thing happened. Nico got the ball and ran really, really fast. The crowd were noisier and louder than they had been so far, it was like a huge roar, as if they were trying to push Nico along with their voices. There were some players from the other team in front of him, but he somehow wiggled past them, and then pretended to throw the ball to someone, but kept it instead, and then ran even faster and jumped over the white line. So that was how you scored. You just had to put the ball down over the line.

The crowd cheered and roared like nothing I had ever heard. We were all standing on our feet and cheering, and Nico was cuddled by all Raiders players as if he’d scored a goal.

And then a bit later, he did it again. Two more players had scored, although not as excitingly as Nico, and then Nico caught the ball while two players from the other team were throwing it to each other. Nico had to run a really long way, but he was really fast, and no one could catch him, so he jumped over the line and scored again.

If it was possible, the crowd was even noisier, and Nico was cuddled even harder. I had found my favourite Raiders player. I was going to have ‘NICO’ on the back of my shirt. Or maybe Nico’s last name, if I asked Dec what it was.

Dec

Jay went off to ‘talk to someone’ straight after the final whistle, and we agreed to meet in the bar later.

‘OK, Cal, let’s go and get you a drink. Have you got everything there? Got your Raiders toy, your flag?’

Lis came over.

~Are you off to the bar, now? Nico won’t be out for a while, but come and talk to me, yeah? I hate waiting.

We walked to the Supporters Bar together, Cal talking excitedly about the game and Nico in particular. I wondered if Cal’s Raiders shirt was going to have ‘TIAGO’ on the back before too long. We found a table and Lis and Cal sat down while I went to the bar.

*Hey, Dec. Good to see you around again.

It was Holly, one of the bar managers, who served me.

‘Thanks. Good to be back.’

*Looks like you’ve been in the wars.

‘Yeah, a bit. Getting better though.’

*Take care of yourself.

Despite my worries, people had been nothing but pleasant so far. I took the drinks back to Lis and Cal. Cal was showing his Raider toy to Lis.

Cal

Lis saw my shirt, and I asked what Nico’s last name was so I could have it on my shirt. She said it was Tiago, but I didn’t know how to write that, so I didn’t say right away that’s what I would have.

Dec

~Cal tells me he can have a name on the back of his shirt.

‘Yeah, I think I can sort it.’

~He’s considering ‘NICO’.

‘What a surprise. Will we ever hear the end of it?’

~I doubt it. I’m sure Jay will be delighted as well.

‘Jay was making a bid for ‘SCOTT’ earlier, but I don’t think Cal was impressed.’

~How about ‘SUMMERS’?

‘I don’t think that even makes the top ten, I haven’t scored nearly enough amazing tries – even if it was, that’s not the best idea just at the moment.’

~So, Dec, tell me about Christmas. How was it?

‘Really great. We had a good time, didn’t we, Cal?’

~dec was in the underneath bed. He made noises and did big swears.

Lis looked at me questioningly. I laughed.

‘I was having some weird dreams. Got a telling off from Beth, I think Cal enjoyed the swears a bit too much. But Christmas was great.’

~I talked to Beth this morning. She loved having you there. She’s really going to miss you, yeah?

‘I know, it was weird, like – I don’t know – going back in time, to before everything. They were all exactly the same. Except for having Matt and Carol there, and obviously being in a different house, but everything else kind of felt the same as it did before. They’re just so far away now. I’m trying to get my head round it all.’

~Beth said you got on really well with Matt?

‘Yeah, I did. I hadn’t really spent much time with him before, but you know how sometimes you just click with someone?’

Lis nodded.

‘We just messed around, a lot of the time. I forgot how old he is.’

~Hey! He’s only a couple of years older than me, thank you very much.

Lis tried to look offended, then grinned.

~Although the way Matt behaves is closer to his shoe size than his age, so maybe I see your point. Sounds like you did him a lot of good, yeah?

‘Don’t know about that. He was looking pretty perky when I left. Hope it carries on for him. ‘

~Did you sort things out properly with Jay?

‘I think so. We had a really long talk. I tried to explain things, but it’s so muddled in my head, I don’t know if I was making any sense. He told me how it was for him, I know my shit was the last thing they needed, with Matt and everything. But, yeah, we sorted it out, we’re OK. They’ve both been so great. And Cal here had the biggest pile of Christmas presents I’ve ever seen in my life.’

~Really, Cal? What did Santa bring you?

Cal started to list all the presents he had received. It was a long list. Lis nodded and smiled, and questioned him about them. I had seen him open most of them, and drifted off a bit.

I became aware of someone hovering behind me, waiting to talk to me. I turned round and saw Lee Brady, one of the club doctors, looking in my direction. I beckoned him over.

÷Hi Dec, good to see you. You’re looking better than last time we met. Those scars are healing nicely, bruises on their way out too. How’s that arm?

‘Pretty good, thanks. Don said you might have a look at it tonight?’

÷Are you available now?

‘Well, I’m looking after Cal until Jay gets back, not sure how long he’s going to be.’

÷Cal can come too, if he wants to.

One look at Cal’s face, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say no. Cal wanted another look at my scars.

Cal

We followed the man downstairs and into a room, where Dec took his shirt off and the man, who was a doctor, took Dec’s bandages off and pressed Dec’s arm and made him move it up and down and round and round.

The doctor screwed up the bandages and put them in the bin, and told Dec he didn’t need them any more. Dec looked pleased. Then the doctor asked me if I wanted to see Dec’s X-rays, and turned his computer round so I could see. I’d never seen real X-rays before, not that weren’t in a film or a cartoon, and I liked seeing the inside of Dec’s arm. The doctor pointed to some of the bits and then to Dec’s arm to show where the pictures were of, and which bones had been broken. Then he clicked a button, and the pictures changed.

‘And these ones are after Dec’s operation, can you see the metal bits and the screws? They’re holding Dec’s bones together while they mend.’

I could see actual screws going into Dec’s bones. I couldn’t believe it – Dec had metal in his arm. How could we not hear it clanking like a robot?

‘Dec, have you got metal in your arms?’

‘Yeah, I can’t feel it though.’

He was being so unexcited. If I had metal in my arms, I’d tell everyone, and lift really heavy things all the time and be a superhero.

‘Are you like a Transformer?’

Dec laughed, although I didn’t know why. If I had metal in my arms I would totally change into something cool.

‘No, mate, I’m not going to change into a motorbike or anything. But I bet I set off a few alarms at the airport next time I fly anywhere.’

That sounded a bit boring, just setting of the alarms at the airport. Metal in your arms was obviously wasted on grown-ups. I could think of much more interesting things to do with it.

Dec

Cal and I wandered back up to the bar, making our way up the stairs. The quiet of the downstairs area, now the players had all gone, was soon replaced by the buzz of conversation to be heard from upstairs. We went through the door of the bar, the noise increasing as we did so. I scanned the room, to see if Jay had reappeared yet, and caught sight of him talking to someone on the other side of the room. A tall blond man who, with a jolt, I recognised.

It was Luke, from the gym where Nico had taken me that first time. It was Luke, who was the other man who had hit me with a bottle and punched and kicked me, and broken my bones, and slashed my face. It was Luke, who was the man with the brown boots. It was Luke, from my nightmares.

I reeled, stumbling into a table, knocking over some glasses.

*Hey, careful mate.

I stared uncomprehendingly at the table’s occupants. Jay saw me, patted Luke on the arm and walked over.

Cal

Dec was just staring across the room, as if there was something really scary, but I was too little to see what he was looking at; all I could see was people’s legs. Then I saw Dad coming towards us. He smiled at first, then frowned. By the time he reached us, he looked worried.

Dec

łWhat?

‘Luke.’

Jay looked behind him to where he had been standing. Luke had gone. Confused, Jay looked back at me.

łEr, yeah, he used to be a trainer here. Just catching up.

‘It was him.’

łWhat do you mean?

‘The other man, with Big, from when … he kicked me in the face.’

łWhat? Jesus, Dec, are you sure?

He glanced at the people sitting at the table, who were watching and listening with interest.

Cal

I looked around then, trying to see someone who looked like they might have kicked Dec in the face. Surely if Dec had metal in his arms, he could fight them, he’d win every time. But then I remembered that Dec had metal in his arms because the man had kicked him in the arm and broken it, which is why he needed the metal.

I looked up at Dad and Dec, a bit worried about having a man in the room who had kicked Dec so much he had broken his arm. Dad looked down at me as if he had just remembered I was there.

Hold on a minute. Cal, mate, can you take my keys over to Lis and sit with her? She’s just at that table, look. I’ll be over in a bit.’

This always happened; whenever anything interesting was happening, or people were saying anything I wanted to listen to, they would find something for me to do that meant I had to go somewhere else and not find out what was going on. I took Dad’s keys and went and sat with Lis.

‘Hey Cal. How did Dec get on with Lee?’

I thought Lee must be the doctor.

‘He showed me Dec’s bones on his computer. Dec’s got metal in his arms, like a Transformer.’

‘Wow, really? That sounds pretty cool. Where is Dec?’

‘Dec and Daddy were talking about a man, they’re over there – oh.’

I turned round to point, but Dec and Dad weren’t there. I turned back to Lis – maybe she would know something and would tell me things without making me go somewhere else.

‘Dec was saying about the man who kicked him. He saw him. His name is Luke.’

What? He’s here? Dec’s seen him?’

I shrugged. No one ever told me anything directly, I had to guess about things from what people said to each other.

‘I think so.’

Lis looked worried now, and looked around her. Her gaze fixed on someone across the room, and for a moment I thought she had seen the man, but I looked where she was looking, and it was Nico, who came over to us, smiling.

‘Hey baby.’

He kissed Lis, then sat on a chair at our table.

‘Hey you. Cal thinks Dec’s seen the man who kicked him, here.’

‘Huh, really? Where is Declan now?’

‘He must have gone somewhere with Jay, maybe to find him or something.’

‘Do they say who this is?’

‘Cal said he was called Luke, yeah, Cal?’

I nodded.

‘Huh, Luke. Cal, this man, he has another name?’

‘I don’t know, Dec didn’t say it.’

‘Huh. Maybe I find Jaime and Declan and see if they need help.’

‘We don’t know where they went, Nico, they could be anywhere. I don’t think we should talk about this any more, yeah?’

Lis looked at me, which I knew meant they thought I was too little to hear about what they wanted to say.

‘Huh. OK. Cal, is good to see you. Hey, you have a good Christmas?’

‘Yes. Santa bringed me a Arsenal shirt.’

‘Oh, is good, you like Arsenal. But you don’t wear the shirt, you wear the Raiders shirt, huh?’

‘My Arsenal shirt is underneath, look.’

I lifted up my Raiders shirt so the red of Arsenal showed.

‘Ha, I like this, two shirts.’

‘Cal’s trying to decide whose name to have on the back of his Raiders shirt.’

‘Oh, is good to have a name. You will have ‘SCOTT’, like you and your Dada, yes?’

‘I don’t think Cal was planning on it being a family shirt, more like a favourite player shirt.’

‘Huh, so who is your favourite?’

I felt shy saying it, so I just shrugged, and looked at Lis, hoping she might help me out. I’d known Nico for a long time, and I’d always liked him, he was funny, but I’d never cheered him on a pitch till my throat was sore before, and I was now completely in the grip of hero worship.

‘Well, he’s probably a bit embarrassed to say, it is rather embarrassing having Nico Tiago as your favourite player.’

‘Ha! I am your favourite? This is good, Cal, I like this. You can have my name on your shirt for sure. You like my tries today?’

I thought Nico had tried very hard, so I nodded.

‘I could hear Cal cheering from where I was sitting. It sounded like you enjoyed yourself, yeah?’

‘I liked when we cheered. It isn’t like football, though.’

‘Ha, no, is better, much better. Maybe Raiders is better than Arsenal?’

That didn’t sound right. Nothing was better than Arsenal, I wasn’t going to start saying any different, hero worship or no hero worship. I loved football, and I was going to be a footballer when I grew up. I didn’t nod, I just looked at Nico.

‘Well I think you might just have gone down in someone’s estimation there, Nico.’

‘Ha, sorry Cal. I forget you love football so much. How does this happen, with your Dada and Declan with you?’

‘Uncle Matty likes Tottenham.’

‘Ah, I remember. So we blame Matty?’

‘Oh give over Nico. People are allowed to prefer another sport to the one you play. Nico’s just joking, Cal. You can like football better if you want to, it’s up to you – oh, here’s Jay.’

Dec

Jay took me by the arm and pulled me through the doorway I’d just come through, out of the room and into the corridor where it was quieter.

łYou look bloody awful. What have you remembered?

‘Just that it’s him. It’s the last piece. Just seeing him, made it all fit. I’ve been trying to remember him all this time. It’s him. Fuck, fucking hell.’

I felt sick, sweaty, trembling all over, breathing hard, heart racing; all the fun of the panic attack. Jay grabbed a chair.

łHere, sit down. I’ll go and find one of the medics.

‘No!’

łDec, you need someone to look at you.

‘Don’t leave me on my own. Please.’

It came out as a wail. Jay looked at my face and sighed.

łOK, let me call someone then.

He pulled out his phone, pressed the screen.

łLee? It’s Jay Scott … yeah, I’m upstairs outside the Raiders Bar … no, no, just visiting. Listen, can you come up? Dec’s here, he’s a bit unwell … oh did you? … no, it’s not his arm. Could you come up and take a look? … Cheers.

He put the phone back in his pocket.

łOK, Lee’s on his way.

I nodded.

łDo you think you need to call the police? You’re absolutely sure it was Luke?

‘I’m sure.’

łJesus. I can’t believe it. He used to work here. Have you got that policeman’s number?

‘No.’

łDidn’t he call you the other day? It’ll still be on your phone somewhere. Let me have a look.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket and handed it to Jay. He scrolled through my call history and found the number.

łShall I call? You don’t look like you’re capable at the moment.

I nodded, gratefully, my head still spinning and the sick feeling swirling in my stomach. Jay pressed the screen.

łHello, my name is Jay Scott, I’m calling on behalf of Declan Summers … yes, that’s right … er, Dec has just recognised the other man who attacked him. We’ve got a name … yes … yes, he’s sure. No, it’s been a bit of a shock for him, he’s not feeling very well at the moment … yes, Luke Woods … I don’t know … well you can try. Dec, any chance you can talk to this guy?

I looked back at Jay and tried to push my nausea down and calm my breathing. A bit unsteadily, I held out my hand for the phone.

‘I’ll try. Hello?’

ϙHello Declan. Thank you for contacting us. Are you able to answer some questions?

‘Not sure. I’ll try.’

ϙHow sure are you the other man was this, er, Luke Woods?

‘Sure, like before.’

ϙHow do you know him?

‘He’s a trainer at a gym I went to – I only went once. He told me not to come back.’

ϙSo he’s not a friend, or a colleague?

‘No.’

ϙDo you know where he lives?

‘No, I only met him that one time.’

ϙWhat’s the name of the gym?

‘I can’t remember. It’s on Bridge Street.

ϙOK, Declan, thank you for talking to me. We’ll look into this and keep you informed.

I looked up at Jay and put my phone in my pocket, taking a shaky breath. Lee appeared moments later.

÷Hey Dec, Jay, what’s the problem?

łDec’s feeling a bit unwell. He’s had a shock, and, well you can see the results.

÷You have gone a bit of a funny colour.

He felt for my pulse.

÷Heart rate’s up quite a bit. You’re breathing fast too. Feeling sick?

I nodded.

÷I think you need to get some fresh air, deep breaths, calm down away from all the noise. Looks like a panic attack to me. What brought it on?

‘Seeing someone I know.’

He gave me a bemused look, but I couldn’t begin to explain right then.

÷OK … Jay, can you take him outside or something?

łYeah, sure. I’ll just let Lis know what’s going on, she’s looking after Cal.

He headed back into the bar, the sound of voices intensifying briefly as he opened the door.

÷I think you’ll be fine, Dec. Has this happened before?

‘Only since I was beaten up. Although, actually, something like it happened this morning.’

÷Really? What were the circumstances?

‘I got in a car to drive it. First time since I crashed.’

÷So both times set off by a bit of a shock. That’s not surprising. Get Jay to take you outside. Deep breaths in the fresh air. Keep an eye on it, come and see me if it happens again, or if you don’t feel better in a little while.

Before I could stop him, he turned and headed back down the corridor. I sat alone in the chair, unable to face going back into the bar. It was too noisy, I felt too shaky. I leaned forwards, my face in my hands.

Cal

Dad was walking towards the table, but Dec wasn’t with him. We all looked at him as he came over. He still looked worried.

‘Hey Jaime. Cal say Declan see someone he know?’

‘Yeah. You remember Luke Woods? Oh, he might have been before your time. He was an S and C trainer here a few years back. Dec’s just seen him, recognised him as as the other bastard who put him in hospital. He’s a bit wobbly, very wobbly actually, he’s having some kind of panic attack. I’m going to take him outside, see if some fresh air helps. Are you OK with Cal for a bit?’

A panic attack sounded exciting, like it might be lots of bad robots shooting guns or something. It sounded like something I’d like to see. Maybe the bad man would be beaten by the robots and I could stop feeling scared about him.

‘Can I come, Daddy?’

‘No, Cal. Dec’s not feeling very well, he needs some peace and quiet.’

‘I will be quiet, I –’

‘No Cal. Just wait here with Nico and Lis. I’ll go and get you another Coke.’

Dad went to get my drink, and I didn’t argue any more. That was three Cokes I’d had today, and usually Mum didn’t let me have one every week. Sitting with Nico and drinking sweet brown fizziness was probably better than attacking robots, which were bound to be more disappointing than they sounded.

Nico and Lis were trying to talk to each other without saying anything and without me hearing, but they couldn’t understand each other, so in the end they had to just talk properly, and not by wiggling their eyebrows.

‘Are you going to try to find this Luke bloke, then?’

‘I don’t know, baby. If Jaime wants me to. I know him, he is trainer at the gym I go to before.’

‘What, the one you left because of that – oh. God, Nico. Someone needs to find him before he …’

‘Yes. When Jaime gets back, we ask.’

It wasn’t long before Dad put my Coke down on the table, and then Nico could ask his question.

Jaime, you want I look for this Luke Woods? Declan he tell the police?’

‘We’ve called the police, told them his name. He was just here, the bastard. I was talking to him, he was asking about Dec, I never bloody realised. He was over there, but I can’t see him now. You can look for him if you like, he’s tall, taller than me, blond hair. Maybe grab someone who was here when he was – Freddie was around, give him a shout. I’d better get back out to Dec, he was feeling pretty ropey. See you in a bit, Cal.’

Dad walked away, and Nico stood up, looking around him. He didn’t get far, as Dad came back through the door and over to the table.

‘He’s gone.’

‘Huh?’

‘Dec. He’s gone. I left him on a chair just outside the door, but he’s not there. I don’t think he would have gone off on his own, he was all shaky and shit.’

‘What are you saying, Jay?’

Dad looked around the room.

‘Luke isn’t here. Hey Freddie.’

He called over to a man who was standing talking to other men. The man he called Freddie looked up and smiled.

‘Have you seen Luke Woods?’

‘You were just talking to him, weren’t you?’

‘Yeah, after that.’

‘No, sorry mate.’

Someone Freddie was talking to shouted across.

‘He just went through there, a few minutes ago.’

The man pointed to the door Dad had just come through. Dad’s eyes went all wide, and he looked at Nico.

Shit!

34. One is the loneliest number

In which Dec decides Matty shouldn’t be alone.

Cal

Then Dad nearly broke Dec. We were throwing the rugby ball to each other, even though I didn’t like throwing it that much because it was a funny shape. After a lot of throws, Dad threw the ball to Dec, who held on to it and started to run down the pitch. Dad started to run after him and then, to my astonishment, jumped at Dec, and pulled him down on to the ground. Dec shouted really loud, like Dad had really hurt him. I stood where I was, wondering what was going to happen. I’d never seen Dad hurt anyone before, and I wondered if it was because he was cross with Dec.

‘Aah. Fuck. Fucking hell, Jay. Aagh. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck it.’

This was a lot of swears, even for Dec, so it must have hurt him quite a bit. Dad didn’t look cross, he looked worried.

Jesus, Dec, I’m so sorry, I got carried away.’

So he hadn’t meant to hurt Dec. Why had he pulled him over then? Dad knelt next to Dec while I stood behind him, trying to see where Dec was hurt, in case there was any blood.

Dec

I lay on the ground, breathing hard, holding my arm, trying to assess the damage. Jay knelt beside me, concern on his face. Cal hovered just behind his shoulder, eyes wide.

łStay there for a minute, see what still hurts in a bit. Fuck it, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot about your arm.

I lay on the ground for a few more seconds, getting my breath back, but it was uncomfortably damp and I sat up.

‘It’s wet down here.’

łShit, course, sorry. Stand up then, carefully. Can you put any weight through it?

‘Don’t think I’m going to try. Help me up?’

I held out my left hand, and Jay gripped it and pulled. I pulled back, and he toppled over, landing face first. He sat up, spitting grass and mud, wiping his face.

łYou bastard. It’s not that bad, then?

‘Just tingling a bit now. I don’t think it’s serious.’

łJesus, Dec, you absolute bastard. I thought I’d broken you again. I was imagining having to call Don and tell him. You bloody bastard.

‘What were you thinking? You could have done me some serious damage.’

łI know, mate, I got carried away. You sprinting off, set off a reflex. I really miss playing sometimes. Didn’t think. Sorry.

Cal

I was really confused. Dec didn’t seem like he was hurting now, although he had to start with, and now Dad seemed annoyed and not sorry.

‘Daddy did you hurt Dec?’

‘He didn’t really hurt me, Cal, I was just pretending. In the end. I’m OK. Look.’

Dec waggled his arm and fingers at me, and I knew he wasn’t hurting, so that was all clear. But there was still more I wanted to understand.

‘Why did you fight Dec, Daddy?’

I wasn’t fighting, we were playing rugby. You’ve seen rugby on telly, haven’t you. I was tackling Dec, trying to get the ball off him.’

Oh. I often forgot that Dec played rugby and Dad was a rugby coach and used to play rugby. I didn’t really pay much attention to it, because football was so much better. But they used some of the same words for different things, and it was confusing sometimes.

‘It’s not a tackle. A tackle is when you bang your legs with the other man, and you kick the ball away.’

‘That’s in football, Cal. A rugby tackle is different – you’re allowed to pull someone onto the ground if they’ve got the ball.’

‘I think football tackles are best. You would get very muddy if you did tackles from rugby, Mummy would be cross.’

Well that’s told me, might explain a lot. OK, I think we’ve finished here for today, how about going home for some lunch?’

Dec

On the way home, I talked to Jay about where he was working now. I had spent a lot of time wondering what he had left Raiders for. Now I knew it was to look after Matt, but he must be doing something to earn a living.

łI’m doing some coaching for a local team, nothing formal, just on a sessional basis. They’re a National League Two side, mid-table. Also doing a bit of consultancy stuff, and, you’ll laugh at this, I’ve been asked to write a column in The Rugby Paper.

‘No way! Scotty’s Gritty Gossip?’

łI don’t think so, I’m too far removed from the top end of things at the moment for that. No, it’s opinion stuff. Beth’s going to help with my grammar.

‘Bloody hell, people paying good money to read your half-arsed opinions. Who’d have thought?’

łPiss off. It’s a living. Other possibilities in the pipeline, but nothing definite.

‘Do you miss it?’

łWhat?

‘Raiders.’

Jay ran a hand through his hair.

łYeah, if I’m honest. This was totally the right thing to do, I wouldn’t be anywhere else than with Matty right now. But yeah, I do wake up sometimes and wish I was out on a rainy training pitch yelling at some academy lout who needs his arse kicked. I played for Raiders for seven years, and I coached for three, so it’s a big chunk of my life. Just takes a bit of getting used to.

‘When I thought I’d lost all that, it was the hardest, really bad time. I can’t imagine life without them. That place just gets inside you. It’s like it’s alive.’

łIt is tough, and even tougher to leave the place you started out, but sometimes you just have to move on. Who knows what your future might bring? You’ve got dual reg with Trojans now, haven’t you? They’ve got a great set up, and if you recover well and get some game time with them, you’ll really benefit. Don’t put all your hopes and dreams in one place, Dec. Stay open to different things.

\daddy race you home.

Jay sped off with Cal, leaving me to walk the rest of the way with my thoughts for company. The phone in my pocket started to ring. I’d forgotten it was still there, and I was lucky it hadn’t got broken when Jay tackled me. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Lis.

‘Hi Lis.’

~Dec, how are you?

‘Good, thanks. Really good.’

We compared Christmas Days and I told her the plan to go and watch Raiders.

~Well, maybe see you Sunday? I’ll be there too.

‘Great.’

~Dec, you sound like you’re having a good time up there. I’m so pleased.

‘Thanks, Lis, couldn’t have done it without you. Oh, and thanks so much to you and Nico for the computer. At the risk of getting a telling off –’

~Don’t even go there Declan Summers. You’re welcome. It was totally selfish – I just want someone to play Words with Friends with. Nico’s useless, although he tells me he’s amazing in Spanish.

‘Am I at least allowed to say thanks very very much?’

~Course you are. See you soon, yeah?

‘Bye.’

Cal

Dad and Dec talked on the way back, until I got bored and asked Dad to race me home. When we got there, Mum stopped us before we even got through the door and told us to take our muddy things off. She said ‘honestly James’ a lot, but because of the mud, not because of the swears, because Dad didn’t tell her about those. He didn’t tell her about nearly breaking Dec, either, but Dec did when he got back.

Dec

I put the phone back in my pocket just as I reached the front door. There was a pile of muddy shoes and boots just inside, so I took mine off and slung them on top. I took off my coat, wondering where to put it as it was also covered in mud. As were my jeans. Beth opened the hall door.

_I had a feeling you’d be in the same state. Give me your coat, sweetheart, I’ll hang it up to dry, we can brush most of it off later. Ugh, your trousers are nearly as bad as James’s. Take them off.

‘What, here?’

_I don’t want you trailing mud through the house. I’ll go and fetch you some more. What on earth were you thinking?

‘I was just running, Jay decided to tackle me. I thought he’d broken my arm again for a minute.’

_God, that man.

She smiled fondly.

_He’s so competitive, he probably couldn’t bear to see you go past him. You’re not hurt though?

‘No, but no thanks to Jay. He’s still surprisingly quick.’

_Don’t tell him that, we’d never hear the last of it. Trousers, please.

As Beth went off to fetch my spare jeans, I took the muddy ones off, managing to smear mud up my legs, and stood self-consciously in the hall. Beth reappeared a few minutes later with a clean pair, checked the pockets of the dirty pair and handed me my phone. I put the clean jeans on and padded through to the utility room, where Beth was loading the washing machine.

‘Beth, I could really use a shower. I’m covered in mud, it’s all in my hair. Do you think there’s any way I can have one, with my dressings?’

She thought about it for a moment.

_Do you know what, everything looked so close to being healed last time, I think you could take the dressings off, have the shower, let it all dry and put more on. We didn’t use all the stuff up before, did we?

‘Should all be in the bag.’

_OK, give me a minute, I just need to sort out all these muddy things, and I’ll be with you. Living room OK?

‘Thanks, that’d be great.’

I sat and waited in the living room. My duvet and pillow had been cleared away. There were still piles of toys waiting for Cal to bring them to life with his imagination, but with the wrapping paper gone, the room looked less bright in its post-Christmas state.

I could hear Carol talking in Matt’s room, and Cal’s car noises told me he was there too. From upstairs I could hear the faint hiss of the water from Jay’s shower. I’d missed this – having a house full of people, whose noises filled your days and helped you make sense of who you were and where you belonged. I’d been on my own too long.

Before I could ponder too much, Beth came in, holding the bag containing the equipment for my dressings.

_OK, lets see what we’ve got here. Take your hoody off, and your shirt actually, I forgot about your collar bone.

She undid the bandages and peeled back the dressings. The stitches had almost disappeared. The scars were pink, but not swollen or weeping. Beth prodded each scar – there was one on my collar bone, one on my forearm, and one on my upper arm.

_Tell me if it hurts.

‘No, it’s tender, but nothing bad.’

_Can you bend your arm, twist it, wiggle your fingers, whole range of movement stuff?

I did as I was asked. There were a few twinges, but it was feeling OK.

_That looks great, Dec. I’m no expert, but it’s looking really good. I think you’re good to go with the shower. Your last few stitches might not last, but we’ll do you back up afterwards, and you’ll be good as new. I think Jay’s up there at the moment, but he’ll be out soon.

‘Thanks, Beth. I haven’t had a shower since before I was in hospital. I must stink.’

_We’d been wondering what it was. Thought it was the drains.

She flashed me a smile, picked up the old bandages and dressings and took them out of the room with her. I put my t-shirt back on, leaving my forearms bare – it felt good to have the air on them. A few moments later, Jay wandered in, hair damp and tousled, and plonked himself down on the sofa.

łHey, look at you all unwrapped. Did Beth just do that?

‘Yeah, I really need a shower, thanks to you. She had a look and thought it’d be OK.’

łAre you sure your arm’s OK now?

‘Yeah, it’s fine, I just jarred it when I landed on it.’

Jay had a closer look at the scars from the operation.

łLooks neat. The bruising’s really going down too, and from your face as well. You’re almost back to normal, apart from those tramlines. Every time I look at those, it makes me shudder. You were pretty close to losing an eye.

‘I know.’

łStill, interesting story for the ladies. They like a bit of a scar here and there.

‘That’s what Rose said. Don’t see it myself.’

łMate, you’ve got a lot to learn. Bit of vulnerability goes a long way. Use it to your advantage.

‘I’ll bear it in mind.’

łWell, bathroom’s free, if you want it.

I stood under the hot running water, luxuriating in the sensation. I could feel myself relaxing, and the mud ran off me. I used the shower gel Rose had given me, soaped my hair and watched the water run first brown and then clear. I scrubbed the mud off my legs, and soaped myself all over, feeling the shower refresh me. Eventually I felt clean and relaxed enough, so I turned the water off and wrapped myself in Rose’s huge towel. I sat on the edge of the bath, wrapped in the fluffy warm cosiness, enjoying being properly clean for the first time in ages and looked at my arm. It didn’t seem to have suffered any ill-effects, no extra redness, the remaining stitches were still mostly intact. I dried myself, pulled some clean clothes on and went in search of Beth, to re-apply the dressings.

Matt

Later on, having rested but not slept, which was pretty major, Beth was in my room, drinking coffee with me. Cal was playing on the floor. I was holding my coffee myself and not spilling any. I was Mr Incredible.

Dec wandered in, hair damp, cheeks rosy, looking scrubbed, and Beth looked at him enquiringly.

‘Good shower?’

‘Great shower.’

‘Did your arm stand up to it OK?’

‘As far as I can tell.’

‘Let’s have a look. Sit on the edge of the bed. OK to slip your shirt off?’

Hey, this was still my room, not some examination clinic.

‘Stehdy on, pehpl trying tuh not vohmit.’

‘Sorry, mate, nurse’s orders. If you think you might faint at the sight of my muscular torso, close your eyes.’

‘Ha ha, mohr lihkly die laughing.’

As Dec took his shirt off, I goggled at all the bruises and scarring. The scars from the operation on his arm were neat and short, but the other ones, especially on his back, were long and jagged and had been done by someone who really didn’t like him very much. I had seen my fair share of faces bruised and battered from fights in various nightclubs, but the sheer scale of the damage inflicted on Dec’s body – someone had meant him serious harm. Had caused it, actually. When Beth went to get some bandages, I commented.

‘Yuh goh done ohver prehty good.’

‘They used a bottle, as well as fists and feet. Nice people.’

Holy shit. I hadn’t realised.

‘Fuck. Dihnt noh. Bahstrds.’

‘Yeah.’

Beth came back swinging a bag in her hand.

‘Here we are, then, Dec. Let’s get you all bandaged up. I expect the docs at the club will just take this lot off again when you see them.’

Dec put his shirt back on, covering up the evidence of his recent hard times.

‘That’s not till the sixth. I can’t wait that long to have another shower!’

‘Won’t you be able to see them on Sunday? They’ll probably just say take it all off. ‘

‘Suhndy?’

Well they were talking about it in my room, I felt it was my place to join in.

‘Yeah, going home.’

Cal

I hadn’t thought about Dec going home. Once he had got here, I’d thought he would just be here like he always had been. I didn’t like to think about him going away again, and then it going back to how it was before he came for Christmas. I think Uncle Matty might have felt the same, because when he found out, he went all quiet and sad like he did sometimes, and Mum made us all go out of the room, and shut the door, and Uncle Matty didn’t even want the speaker on so we could hear if he was coughing or poorly.

Matt

I’d forgotten last night’s crying episode and the reason for it, and suddenly realised that I was going to be losing an ally.

‘Oh yeh. Fohgot.’

And he was going back to his normal life, now he was getting better. It would be full of normal things like walking, running, talking, drinking. I bet he had girls coming out of his ears too. How long was it going to be before I had any of that? Any of it?

I felt myself plummet into a deep pit of hopelessness. I’d been here before. It was where I reminded myself of everything I’d had but didn’t have any longer. It was where I reminded myself of what my future looked like, despite the positive spin I put on ridiculous achievements like standing up by myself and drinking a cup of tea out of a child’s cup without spilling any. It was where Carrie waited for me.

‘We’re going to the Raiders game, I guess I could see some of the medical staff, could have a chat.’

Dec was talking to me but I no longer had any interest in why he was going home, or what he might do when he was there.

‘Mm.’

Dec

Matt’s mood had seemed to suddenly change.

‘Alright, mate?’

Matt

‘Jus fuck ohf hohm.’

I wanted to make it about me. I was going nowhere, didn’t even have a home to go to if I could get further than across the hallway under my own steam. Didn’t see why other people should get to go home, get on with their lives.

Dec

As usual, Beth seemed to understand what was going on, even though I was confused about what Matt meant.

_Oh Matty, you won’t be stuck here forever.

Matt

Really Beth? Try seeing what it looks like from my side of things.

‘Mm.’

She tried the chivvying thing, but I was a master at this.

‘Look how much you’ve done in the last few days, you’re so much better. You played football today.’

Oh just fuck off with your cripple-patronising.

‘Mm.’

I turned my face away from both of them and looked out of the window. Dec took his lead from Beth and tried his own brand of cheeriness.

Dec

Beth’s brightness didn’t seem to be getting through to Matt. He turned away from us, refusing to talk or even look in our direction.

‘This time next year mate, best seats in the house for my full debut and first try in the Christmas game.’

Matt

‘Yeh, whaever.’

Why should I care about his bloody rugby? I’d never even seen Jay play, why should I care about some little upstart who thought he knew what would cheer me up?

Dec

I wasn’t having much luck either. Maybe if I reminded him of something we’d talked about?

‘Don’t forget, choose your battles, one day at a time.’

Matt

It was time to get rid of them, so I could just sink down into it, let it fold me up, let me just be there, in the darkness, where I belonged.

‘Mm. ‘Nough pep tahk, thahks.’

Beth finally got it, that she wasn’t going to win.

‘You look tired, sweetheart. Shall we leave you to it?’

‘Mm.’

Fuck off the lot of you. Couldn’t raise the energy to say it.

Dec

Matt stared blankly out of the window, his jaw clenched.

_Come on Cal, you can set your road up in the living room.

\oh, but I want to –

_Cal, do it now.

Matt

Cal looked at me, as I was usually the one who said ‘oh let him stay’, but although I hated myself, I ignored him. I didn’t want Cal there, I didn’t want anyone there. Just wanted to be left the fuck alone.

‘Do you want the door open?’

‘Noh.’

Beth moved towards the monitor.

‘Noh, lehv ih.’

If I was going to die, so be it. If I was going to cry, I didn’t want the whole lot of them hearing me. Where I was going, I could easily do one or the other or both, and I wanted to be there completely on my own. When I’d done, if I was ever done, I was going to have to put up with Beth trying to persuade me, once again, to talk to a doctor about being depressed. But for now I was sinking into the dark fog, letting it swallow me.

Dec

Beth sighed and continued into the kitchen. I followed her. Cal took his toys into the living room, where the TV was on and Jay and Carol were sitting watching it.

Matt

I lay there, in my black pit of misery, for a long time. I cried a bit. I raged a bit, although it was fairly impotent raging as I couldn’t exactly throw stuff, and if I shouted they’d all hear me. I examined every single aspect of the waste of space that was Matt Scott.

What had I achieved in my thirty years? I’d got a degree. I’d wasted it by working in Stafford for the last eight years. Eight years I’d lived in this dump, when I could have got out. Oh, but no, I couldn’t, because of Mum. I was never going to escape. Strike one.

I’d had a lot of women. Yeah, that was pretty empty too, because really, what I’d really been looking for was that one woman, and I’d found her, and where had that got me? Heart pulverised, all my stuff gone, hatred. Jagged, raw, red hatred, where there had been love. Strike two.

What else? Oh yeah, needed more help with eating, walking, washing and wiping my arse than a two year old. Strike three, and I’m out.

This was how it went, round and round my head, wishing things were different but knowing nothing was going to change.

I lay there for a long time, watching the light fade outside, feeling the darkness gather inside me. I could hear the TV on in the living room, the occasional snatch of conversation, but I tried to ignore it. It wasn’t part of the black landscape I was painting for myself.

I settled down for a long stint of being on my own, because I always managed to chase them away. They wouldn’t be back tonight, I might have to do some more sullen fending off tomorrow morning, then I might get the rest of tomorrow to myself too.

Dec

‘What was that all about?’

_He gets like this sometimes, especially when he’s tired. I can understand it. He feels like life is passing him by. It’s very frustrating for him.

‘But he had a great time this morning.’

_Sometimes that just makes it worse. He sees a glimpse of normality, then pays for it by being wiped out. I was half expecting it to be honest.

‘Shouldn’t he have someone with him?’

_He doesn’t want anyone, just wants to be left alone. You won’t get anything out of him for the rest of the day, he won’t even want Cal in with him. He won’t eat anything. It might last a couple of days – it happened a couple of times when he was in hospital and soon after he got here.

‘Sounds pretty miserable.’

_He’s feeling pretty miserable. Most of the time, actually. Most of his bluster is just an act. As well as everything else, he’s still getting over Carrie – did you know Carrie?

‘I can’t remember, might have met her once.’

_She visited us a couple of times with Matty. Anyway, they’d been living together for a few months when he was diagnosed with MS. She left him for an ex-boyfriend just when things started to get really hard for him. He was absolutely devastated. He got pneumonia not long after. She hasn’t been in touch, although we tried to let her know how poorly he was. She cleaned out their flat while he was in hospital, took the computer, his phone, TV, all the CDs, all the furniture worth taking. None of their friends have been in touch with him, we don’t know what she’s told them, but it’s pretty heartbreaking. Matty’s best friend from school, who he’s known for years and used to talk to about everything, moved abroad with his family. He emails occasionally, but apart from that he’s only got us.

‘Fucking hell, Beth. That’s terrible. I had no idea.’

_He doesn’t really talk about it, even to us. So on top of MS and recovering from pneumonia, he’s depressed. He won’t see the doctor about it, so we just have to cope with it the best we can. Letting him stew isn’t ideal, but he won’t talk while he’s like this. Leaving him on his own, when he asks for it, is about as much as we can do. Anyway, I’m going to do some lunch. Turkey sandwiches?

I helped Beth with the sandwiches, having worked out that mayonnaise was easier than butter. It felt good to be properly helpful, after being pretty useless for so long. We piled the sandwiches high and took them into the living room.

łAh, turkey butties, the best part of Boxing Day. Thanks, Beth.

_It was a joint effort, Dec buttered the bread. Or rather, mayoed it.

łAnd the bread survived it, good job. Have you taken some in to Matty?

_No, he’s gone into one of his moods, wants the door shut, probably best to leave him for a bit.

łWhat set that off?

_I don’t know, he probably overdid it a bit this morning.

łDamn, he’s been on really good form the last few days. When he came out this morning, I thought he’d really turned a corner.

‘Sometimes things ambush you just when you start feeling better. Hits you twice as hard.’

Beth gave me a penetrating look.

_That sounds like the voice of experience.

I shrugged and ate another sandwich.

We spent the afternoon watching and not watching the Sound of Music on TV. I didn’t manage to stay awake for all of it, and played with Cal and his cars for a bit while it was on, but it was a really long film, the sort of thing nobody really had to concentrate on if they had other things to do like dozing, playing with Christmas presents or chatting. Beth, Jay, Carol and I all fell asleep for various lengths of time at various intervals. It eventually grew dark, and Jay put the lights on.

łWhat’s for tea?

_Don’t know James, what do you fancy making?

łCome on, Beth, you’ve always got a plan.

_My plan today is letting you come up with something.

łDon’t do this to me, I have no cooking skills whatsoever, you know that.

_How about your world famous Christmas leftover curry?

łYeah, well, OK, apart from that. Damn, I forgot. I do make a good one, don’t I.

_You do. Come on, James, so I can put my feet up?

Jay slumped, defeated.

łOK, you win. You can only use this baby thing for nine more months, though. Eight if I’m lucky. Then I go back to being grouchy lazy husband.

_Oh, had you stopped? I hadn’t noticed.

łCareful, lady, or no curry for you.

Jay ambled off to the kitchen, where he could be heard banging cupboard doors and crashing saucepans.

\mummy I don’t want leftover curry.

_No, sweetheart, I didn’t think you would. Daddy will do you something else. Do you want chicken nuggets?

\yes.

_Go and ask him, then.

Cal wandered off with his order. I thought about offering to help Jay, but decided he could cope without me. I was feeling bad for Matt, and kept thinking about him lying on his own being miserable, by now in the dark. Thought about how we’d both lost a lot, how it had felt for me, what I’d wanted, what I’d needed, what I’d asked for and what had helped.

When Jay announced that dinner was ready, I followed Beth, Cal and Carol into the kitchen. I put some on a plate for me, then loaded another plate and started to leave the kitchen.

łWhere are you going with that?

‘Just thought I’d see if Matt fancies some.’

łLeave it, Dec, he won’t want any, not when he’s like this.

‘He can tell me if he’s not hungry.’

łHe will, in no uncertain terms.

‘No worries. Smells delicious, by the way.’

Matt

I couldn’t believe it when the door opened, and the bloody teenager came in. He was carrying two plates of curry, which he put down on the table by the bed, before he turned a lamp on. What did he think he was he doing? Surely Beth had explained to him what happened when I got like this?

‘Brought you some dinner. Jay’s legendary Christmas curry. If it tastes as good as I remember, you’re in for a treat. I think there are extra sprouts in yours.’

No, I wasn’t doing the banter thing. I was doing the pit of darkness thing.

‘Pihs ohf, Dec. Wana beh on my ohn.’

‘Well that’s your bad luck, really, because I want to eat my dinner in here. Yours is on the table there, I’m happy to help if needed, but there is a fork for your use should you require it.’

What was he up to? I wanted him to go.

‘Pihs ohf.’

‘No.’

What? It wasn’t a request.

Dec

I started eating the curry, which was extremely tasty. Jay had mixed up all the left over vegetables, turkey and stuffing and combined them with a curry sauce. He did it every year, and it was always worth the wait.

Matt carried on looking at the ceiling.

‘Good view up there, is it?’

No reply. I ate, wishing I’d brought a drink in, because the curry was quite hot, and it was making me thirsty.

Cal

Once Dec had gone in to Uncle Matty’s room, he didn’t come out, and Mum, Dad and Granny talked about what might be happening.

‘You don’t think they’re talking, do you?’

‘Unlikely, Beth. You know how he gets. Dec can be as stubborn, though, so they’re probably having a silence-off.’

‘Do you think it’s good for him, dear? Don’t you think we should just give him the peace and quiet he’s asked for?’

‘I don’t know, Mum. Let’s just see what happens.’

Matt

I resumed my contemplation of the ceiling. Maybe if I just ignored him he’d get the message. If I ignored him, I could get on with what I was doing, and he’d get bored and go away.

‘This is really good. You should try it before it gets cold.’

Ignoring you, you dick. Fuck off .

Dec

I finished eating and put my plate on the table. Sat down. Took my phone out, texted Nico and Rose. Got up, looked at the books on the shelf by Matt’s bed. There were several story books, a dinosaur book, a bird spotting guide and a few crime novels. Not the widest choice, but it would keep me going for now. I plumped for the dinosaur book; it never hurt to be clued up on dinosaurs with Cal around. I sat down and started flicking through the book.

Matt

My ignoring strategy didn’t seem to be having the desired results, as he was apparently trying the same method. Maybe if I found out what he was playing at, I could convince him none of it would work, and that I really just wanted him to leave me the fuck alone.

‘Wha ahr yuh trying tuh achieve?’

‘Nothing. Just sitting here reading a book.’

It was time for some directness.

‘Dohn wan yuh hehr.’

‘I know. Not your choice, unless you feel up to wrestling for it.’

It bloody well was my choice. Who did he think he was, coming in my room and just sitting there, making disparaging remarks about my ability to wrestle?

‘Fuck yuh. Lehv meh alohn.’

‘No.’

Then at least tell me what you’re fucking well doing.

‘Why?’

‘Because when you’re feeling as shit as you are, you shouldn’t be on your own, whether you want to be or not.’

What was that supposed to mean? He had no idea how shit I was feeling, what I wanted, or what I needed.

Dec carried on leafing through the book.

Maybe if I asked nicely.

‘Plehs jus pihs ohf.’

Or half nicely.

‘No.’

‘Plehs.’

There, I’d asked completely nicely.

‘No.’

This was beyond frustrating. What was I going to have to do to make him fuck off? I couldn’t fight him, although if I’d had any strength I would have added to his bruises. No, no, don’t fucking cry Matt, oh for fuck’s sake. I tried to sniff back the tears. Dec looked up from the book.

‘Want a tissue?’

Oh you bastard.

‘Noh. Wahn yuh tuh fuck ohf.’

‘No.’

He put the box of tissues within my reach, although surely he realised there was no way I was going to touch them, and he went back to the book.

Hard as I tried to get back into my black sea of despair and misery, I couldn’t while he was sitting here with the light on, as the tantalising smell of curry drifted over from the plate on the table. Without meaning to, I turned my head and looked at it.

‘Hungry?’

Shit. I turned my head back so I was looking at the ceiling again, but I was hungry. And now I couldn’t think about anything but eating that sodding curry.

‘Yeh. Fuck yuh.’

‘It’ll be cold by now. I’ll go and microwave it.’

He picked up the plate and took it out. Brainwave. Get him to do stuff for me, that got me some time to myself. I moved the bed into a sitting position and waited for him to come back. Maybe eating something would get me enough brownie points to be left to my own devices.

Dec

I picked up the plate and took it into the kitchen, where Beth and Carol were still sitting at the table.

_You’ve been in there a long time.

‘Yeah, we’ve been having a cosy little chat.’

_Really?

‘No.’

I carried on microwaving the curry.

#How is he?

‘Pretty pissed off with me.’

#Maybe you should leave him be, dear?

‘He shouldn’t be alone when he’s like this, it just makes it all worse. He said he was hungry though, I’m heating this up for him.’

I grabbed the plate when the microwave beeped, as Jay, Beth and Carol all looked at each other, surprised. I took the curry back to Matt, who had moved the bed into a sitting position, and handed him the plate and the fork.

Matt

Let’s test out my theory.

‘If I eaht this, wihl yuh fuck ohf?’

‘No.’

I snorted with exasperation, but started eating the curry. It was bloody tasty, and I managed about half of it, then put the fork down and sank back against my pillows. I deliberately left the plate on the side of the bed, against my leg, and then moved so it started to slide off the duvet, hopefully spilling curry and rice onto the bed and the floor, so Dec would have to clear it up, and get an ear-bashing from Beth at the same time. Dec almost didn’t notice, but at the last minute, he jumped up and grabbed the plate as the fork clattered to the floor.

‘Thanks for that. I’ll just put the plate on the table in case you want the rest later, shall I? And just so you know, if that had splattered on the floor, it wouldn’t be me that was clearing it up. I’m staying put.’

Fuck it, he’d sussed that one out too. I took the remote control for the bed and lowered myself back into a semi-lying position, from where I continued to stare at the ceiling.

Dec put the dinosaur book down, and made a start on a novel, rhythmically turning the pages over. The steady rustling was lulling me to sleep. I didn’t want to sleep, I wanted to rage in the darkness, but it was no good, I was on the slide down, and then my eyes closed, and that was it.

Dec

Matt’s eyelids started to droop, and the next time I looked up from the book, his eyes were closed. I looked at the time on my phone; seven forty. I turned it to silent.

Beth came in with a cup of tea for both of us. She fussed around a bit, tidying up, pulling the curtains.

_How long are you planning to stay in here?

‘No idea.’

_James is making you a bed up in his office, he’s put your bag in there, hope that’s OK?

‘Yeah, course. Thanks.’

_He’s asleep now, Dec, why don’t you come out for a bit?

‘No.’

I wasn’t sure Matt was really asleep, and if he wasn’t I wanted him to know I wasn’t going anywhere.

Matt

I woke up a couple of times, when people came in. Beth tried to persuade Dec to come out, as I was asleep.

‘Cal wants his bedtime story.’

‘I can do that in here.’

Oh, why not just invite the whole street in, it’s not like it’s my bedroom or anything.

‘You’re very stubborn.’

‘I know.’

Yeah, well, we’ll see who wins Stubbornfest, shall we?

_Hope you know what you’re doing, sweetheart.

‘So do I.’

Oh great, so he really didn’t have any idea. I was getting seriously pissed off with him.

Dec

At the very least I hoped I was annoying Matt enough that he stopped focussing on his misery. I was running the risk of pissing him off so much he’d be glad to see the back of me when I left, and that would be something else I’d managed to fuck up, but I hoped that something would get through to him.

Cal came in a short while later. I got him to choose one of the story books from the shelf, and I read him a couple of stories. He sat on my lap and looked at the pictures while I read.

Matt

Cal sat on Dec’s lap while he had his bedtime story. Despite myself, I was impressed at how well they got on together, and how Dec didn’t just read a story, but involved Cal in thinking about the pictures, possible plot developments and how characters might be feeling. But I wasn’t supposed to be being impressed, I was supposed to be wallowing, and asleep.

Dec

‘OK, Cal, time for bed now.’

\can I say goodnight to Uncle Matty?

‘Course you can, but he’s asleep, he might not hear you.’

\’night Uncle Matty.

Before I could stop him, he climbed onto the bed and gave Matt a hug, then jumped off and ran out of the room.

Matt

Because I was prepared for him, I managed not to open my eyes when Cal climbed onto the bed and gave me a hug, then jumped off and ran out of the room.

Dec

I couldn’t work out if Matt had woken up or not. His eyes were still closed, and his noisy breathing was still regular.

Cal

Because Mum let me go and have my story with Dec, in Uncle Matty’s room, I got to see what was going on, which wasn’t much. Uncle Matty looked asleep, and Dec was sitting in the chair. After Dec read me some stories from the books in Uncle Matty’s room, I went upstairs with Mum.

Mum wanted to talk to me.

‘Cal, you know you asked me about Daddy and me being cross with Dec?’

I did remember. It seemed like a long time ago now, before Dec came back.

‘Yes.’

‘Do you still want to talk about it?’

I nodded.

‘OK. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, ever since Dec got here – well, before that too. Daddy and I aren’t cross with Dec, not any more He did some things which made us cross at the time, but there were other things we didn’t know about, and if we had, we would have helped him, rather than being cross with him.’

‘What things?’

‘Oh, well, some of them are from a long time ago. Dec’s Mummy and Daddy died when he was a boy, so he hasn’t had a Mummy or a Daddy for a long time. And that’s made him sad, sadder than we knew about. And when we were in Portugal, Dec crashed his car, and it worried him so much that he wasn’t thinking properly about things. That’s when he stole the money he told you about, and lied to us about lots of things. Dec’s not a bad man, he’s a good man who did some bad things that he didn’t really mean to do. He’s paid the money back now, and we’re trying to help him not to feel so sad.’

‘But he doesn’t look sad.’

‘No, I know, sweetheart. Sometimes people don’t look how they’re feeling. And I think being here with us has made him feel a lot happier. We’ve decided he is part of our family.’

‘So he is my brother.’

‘Well, I don’t know if we’d call him that, we’re a bit young to be his Mummy and Daddy, he’s just part of the family. We hope it will help him not to feel so sad.’

‘But will I still have a brother?’

‘Or a sister. I hope so. I’m having a baby, Cal, it’s growing in my tummy.’

Well that was news to me. Daniel Glover had got it all wrong.

‘How did it get there?’

And Mum, who has always been the plain talking nurse, told me how babies came to be, and it was astounding, and I had lots of questions, not just then, but later, at all sorts of times, that she always answered.

But the main thing was that they weren’t cross with Dec any more, and Dec wasn’t a bad man, and he was part of our family, like he always had been, so it was OK for me to love him.

Dec

I tried some more of the novel, but it was hard going, and I felt myself doze off a couple of times. Nico and Rose replied to my texts. Jay came in later with more tea.

łWe’re off to bed soon, are you planning to stay here all night?

‘Don’t know.’

łWhat exactly are you doing?

‘Being here.’

Matt

Oh, so that was the big plan? Being here? I bet I could be here longer than he could. He was going home the day after tomorrow. I was still going to be here. I win then, day after tomorrow.

OK, if you say so. Head case. ‘Night then. ‘Night Matty.’

I wasn’t prepared this time, and when Jay brushed my forehead with his hand, I almost opened my eyes. Dec slurped his tea noisily.

‘There’s a cuppa here for you if you want it. Whether you want it or not, actually. I’m really thirsty after that curry.’

Yeah, I was really thirsty too, but I wasn’t letting him trick me again like he had with the curry. No more eating, no more drinking, just lying here either staring at the ceiling or eyes closed. It would send him away eventually, like it sent them all away.

Dec

No reply. I wasn’t sure what I was doing was going to work, but I knew that when I had been feeling like the world was ending, having Rose and Nico there helped. So I was going to be there for Matt until I knew I didn’t have to be any more I felt my eyes start to close. I rested my head against the back of the chair, and fell asleep.

Dreaming. I am chasing the faceless man with brown boots. He has something of mine and I want it back, but he is always ahead of me and I can never fly fast enough to catch him. He runs through crowded streets. I fly up so I can see him from the air, but I lose him. I fly back down and run along the pavement, trying to find some trace of him. I turn into an alley, knowing he has come this way. Suddenly, he is behind me and there is no way out. He knocks me to the floor and stands over me. I am helpless. He draws back his leg, and I see his boot hurtle towards my face.