30. Back to December

In which a deep and meaningful is endured, understandings are undertaken, and it is very nearly Christmas.

Advertisements

Dec

I listened to the sounds from upstairs; Cal seemed to be explaining something to Jay, who laughed. There was a bit more talk, then I heard Jay coming back downstairs. He came into the living room, sat on the other sofa and put a large box of tissues on the table.

łI dare you.

‘Can’t promise anything.’

łFuck, me neither, actually mate. I’m so bloody tired, this has been such a bloody long time coming. Anyway, here we are. I don’t really know where to start. I want … I need to … ah fuck it, I just want you to be honest. Really honest with me. I want to know what went wrong, I guess. I don’t know what order to do things in, I’m not very good at this heart-to-heart shit. Maybe –

He took a deep breath.

łJesus, I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, sitting with Matty, you’d think I’d have it all straight by now. OK, there’s one thing I keep thinking about, wondering about, I don’t know if you can explain it. What the fuck possessed you to give Raiders a dodgy passport when you first arrived?

I was silent for a while, thinking back, trying to get it straight in my mind.

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

łCome on, Dec, you must have known.

‘Maybe part of me did. It seems so long ago. I was Declan by then, so I used Declan’s passport.’

łWhat do you mean? You make it sound like you changed your identity or something.

I breathed in deeply. This was hard, visiting places I’d buried a long time ago.

‘I … kind of did. Shit, Jay. I’ve … I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone about this. I know you want me to be honest, I want to be, but all this shit from back then, I’m not sure if I can even say it. Bear with me, yeah?’

He nodded. I wanted him to say it was OK, I didn’t have to carry on, but he didn’t. He just sat, looking at me.

‘OK. Right.’

I ran my hands over my face. Another couple of deep breaths. Reached into that deep, dark place.

‘Declan Summers is the name I was given when I was born. Actually, Declan Charles Summers. My real name, if you like, if you go back far enough. I was born in England, to English parents, whoever the fuck they were, don’t know, don’t really care. I was adopted when I was a baby, by my Mum and Dad, who were Australian. Their last name was Collier. They took my middle name and called me Charlie.’

My voice broke as I said it. No one I loved had called me Charlie for a very long time. Memories and feelings crowded in, threatening to paralyse me. I stopped talking for a while, summoning the strength to carry on. Jay was still looking at me, frowning slightly.

‘Anyway, so I had an Australian passport that said I was Charlie Collier and a British passport that said I was Declan Summers. Don’t ask me how I wound up with two, I really don’t know; there are so many gaps I can’t fill in. All I know is, when I ended up on my own in this fucking country after Mum and Dad …’

This was the part that was hard, the part I had pushed away, hidden, tried not to think about. I took some more ragged breaths.

‘… I was thirteen. I was Charlie Collier. I didn’t want to be Charlie Collier, it was too fucking hard. Charlie Collier’s parents were dead. Charlie Collier was put into care because nobody wanted him. Charlie Collier was having a really shit time. So I went back to being Declan Summers. Changed foster homes, changed schools, changed names. It was easier. It was better. No one had seen Declan Summers’ name in the paper, no one felt sorry for Declan Summers, no one felt weird being with Declan Summers because his parents were dead. Declan Summers was a clean slate. I didn’t think about passports or legal stuff, I was only thirteen for fuck’s sake.’

łJesus, Dec. I had no idea. We didn’t know any of this. Only the bare bones, about your parents, being in care. We never asked because you never seemed to want to talk about it. Didn’t you have social workers or anything?

‘Yeah, when they could be bothered. I don’t think I was badly behaved enough, although I tried my hardest. I saw counsellors, on and off, but I moved around a lot, and it was easy just to miss appointments. No one could keep track of me. I was a bit wild, but I didn’t break the law or anything, maybe a few tellings off from the police for getting into fights, smashing stuff up, that kind of thing. Social Services pretty much let me get on with it, my foster families weren’t much better. I did whatever I wanted. Luckily, some of what I wanted was playing rugby. Dad got me into it, used to take me to watch before we moved over here …

The memory crept up on me and took me by surprise. It stopped me in my tracks, halting my breath, as a wave of loss and desolation crashed over me. I stared at the floor, trying to breathe, trying to bring myself back.

łDec?

‘Fuck, Jay. I … it’s … sorry. I haven’t thought about this shit for so long. It’s just too fucking hard.’

With an effort I pushed it away, hid the memories from myself. Thought about what Jay had asked me, and focussed on that.

‘Anyway, you asked about my passport. By the time I was scouted by Raiders, I was well and truly Declan. Nobody remembered I had been Charlie, I barely remembered myself. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t use Declan’s passport at Raiders – why would I have gone back to being Charlie? I really didn’t do it on purpose, I just never even thought about it.’

łSo why did you use your other passport when you crashed your car?

‘I don’t know. I’ve kept myself awake many nights thinking about that one. Well, I suppose the passport bit’s easy. When I was questioned by the police after the accident, I just gave my name as Charlie Collier. I have no idea why. I was kind of sleepwalking, on automatic pilot, it just came out. Once I’d told them that name, I couldn’t change it, too many explanations, and I had to give them all the right paperwork. Maybe I was having another go at the self-protection thing, you know, try being a different person, then maybe all this didn’t really happen to me. It worked before. Plus, I was terrified. That man had died. I think I just wanted to escape it all, not think about it. But it all got so complicated. When the inquest was reported in the paper, I realised what a mess I’d made of things. It dawned on me what I’d done, giving them the wrong name, the wrong passport, and then I finally realised that I might have got Raiders in trouble too. I should have come clean to the club, talked to you, something, tried to sort it out. But I was so deep in it all, I couldn’t see a way through it. I just buried it all again. Hoped it might go away if no one found out. I mean, maybe it was going to come out sooner or later, but later was fine by me, just then.’

łJesus, Dec. This all sounds seriously fucked up. Who the fuck are you? Do you even know?

I looked at him miserably, shook my head. I’d tried to be honest, tell him how things had been. Now I was scared I’d just made things more confusing, made myself look more of a liar, and taken several steps backwards in trying to mend things, pushed him further away.

‘It’s been hard. I … I’ve been in a weird place, done things that felt like … like someone else was doing them. I’m still me.’

łI know you are, mate, I don’t think you’ve changed, really, but what I mean is, it’s all jumbled up in your head. How have you managed to keep any of it straight? Without completely cracking up?

‘I’m not sure I have, really. Most of my fuck-ups over the last few months I can’t explain, even to myself. I’m pretty much an emotional wreck, just ask Rose, she’s had to pick me up more times than I can count.’

łMate, you’ve had a really tough time, done most of it on your own. You’ve had to be pretty strong, I think, to cope with everything. I wish we’d known more, I wish we’d been able to help you. Jesus, thinking of you on your own here, no parents, in care … was there really no one who you could have gone to?

‘I didn’t have any other family here. Nobody back in Australia who gave a shit. No other choice.’

łBut a thirteen year old kid, you shouldn’t have been on your own. It’s … fuck, I just can’t believe it was allowed to happen.

‘It was shit for a long time. Deep, dark, shit. I was pretty fucked up. Well, you know what I was like when I first arrived. But that’s when it started to change, when I got the Raiders scholarship and came to live with you and Beth. It just got better. Yeah, I had a lot of stuff in my head that I hadn’t sorted, wasn’t going to touch, but you gave me back some of what I’d lost. I don’t know if you realise how much you helped. I don’t know if I realised it until I lost it. You and Beth cared about me, you let me in, wanted me. Raiders wanted me. I hadn’t felt wanted for such a bloody long time –

My voice broke again. My emotions were threatening to overwhelm me, close up my throat and shut me down completely. Jay waited, looking sad and worried.

Matt

I slept on into the evening, waking up to find Mum and Beth reading magazines, looking for all the world like they were in a waiting room.

‘Nehxt.’

They both looked up together, both got the same relieved look on their faces at the same time, and it was so funny, but I remembered what laughing had done to me last time and satisfied myself with an inner chuckle.

‘Hi Matty. You’re back with us, then. Want something to eat, sweetheart?’

Not really, but I’d learned that unless I said yes, they’d just spend the next hour offering me all sorts of weird shit to try and tempt me. ‘Yeh.’

‘We’ve made some mince pies, dear.’

I loved Mum’s mince pies. And I loved Beth’s mince pies. The thought of them made my mouth water. Fancy that.

‘Fuck yeh.’

‘I think ‘yes please’ is the acceptable form of address, dear.’

‘Fuck yeh plehs.’

Beth rolled her eyes and left, hopefully to fetch some mince pies and not to teach me a lesson for swearing. She did know I totally owned Cripple’s Corner, right? Whether she realised this or not, she came back a minute or two later with two plates of mince pies.

‘One lot was made by me, and the other by Carol. Your challenge is to tell us which is which.’

‘Wha? Noh, I can’t choose.’

‘You don’t have to say whose is the best, just whose is whose.’

I could already tell. I’d know one of Mum’s mince pies anywhere. But I played along, eating one of each, then going back and having a bite out of both, which was the point really, that I ate something, and I knew it, and Beth and Mum knew it, but fuck it, if it was a game and not something they were bloody going on about, it was worth it.

‘Mum’s. Yours.’

I pointed to the appropriate plates. Beth clapped.

‘Well done. How could you tell?’

‘Cahnt divuhlge my sehcrets.’

‘Oh well. Cup of tea to wash it down? Or how about your build-up?’

‘Teh.’

‘Are you sure? You’ve only had –’

She was in danger of spoiling it, and I needed to be firm.

‘Teh. Plehs.’

She left again to make the tea, and Mum took my hand.

‘How are you feeling, dear?’

‘Tihred.’

‘Go back to sleep then.’

‘Yeh. Muhm?’

‘Yes, dear.’

‘Yuhrs ahr the behst.’

I closed my eyes as the smuggest smile I had ever seen crept over my mum’s face.

Dec

‘Sorry, all this is really hard to say. When … when I fucked it all up in the summer, crashed my car and the whole fucking mess that came out of that, I went back there to that deep, dark, shit place. Back to being on my own. It was what I deserved. I’d pissed away everything. I wasn’t worth anything to anyone. Everything else I did after that came from being there.’

łDec, this … I’m not sure I know what to say. It’s a lot to take in. But you never deserved to be on your own. You never deserved to think you’re not worth anything. No one deserves that. I wish … things had been different. I don’t know, you’d talked to us, or things had just happened differently. Jesus, all this is way beyond me. But it does help me to understand it a bit. You definitely are going to see Don’s psychologist?

‘Yeah.’

łWell that’s something. Jesus, everything else I was going to say seems a bit trivial after that. Look, Dec, we can leave this for now, if you want, or we can carry on, thrash out all the crap that’s been between us the last few months. We’ve got to do it sometime. You look a bit shaky, though. Your call.

I sat, head bowed, considering. It was so, so hard to talk about. I didn’t know if I had the mental strength for any of it, but more than anything, I really wanted things to be right with me and Jay.

‘No, carry on. I want to sort things out. I’m OK, I’ll be OK.’

łOK, if you’re sure.

I nodded. He ran a hand through his hair.

łYou know, Dec, when you first came to live with us, you were … how can I put it?

‘Bit of a nightmare?’

łYeah, maybe, for want of a better word. Don was asking for volunteers to give you a room for a few weeks, Beth persuaded me to give it a go. I thought I wouldn’t see much of you, except at work, and maybe you’d need a bit of an eye keeping on you to start with, but the club would find somewhere else for you before long, and you’d be gone.

He took a breath, looked down at his fingers.

łAnyway, more than a few weeks went by, you were still there, I saw more of you than I expected because you kept ditching school and bringing those bloody Goths home with you. I hassled Don to find you somewhere else, but it didn’t happen. Beth was determined to give you a go anyway, said she could see your potential – must have been buried bloody deep down.

I was quiet. This all seemed like it had happened so long ago; I was so different now.

łI was a bit worried about the effect you were having on Cal, but Beth kept saying how good you were with him, and when I thought about it, you were. Maybe not a particularly good role model, with the underage drinking, the dodgy mates, the bunking off school and the bad language, but you played with him, and talked to him, and took care of him, and generally seemed to like having him around. He can only have been – what – two when you first arrived?

‘Something like that I guess. It was like having a little brother.’

łYeah, I know. You both seemed to hit it off, from the start really. Anyway, as well as being great with Cal, gradually other things changed, you settled down, you just started doing what you were told. Ditched the attitude, ditched the Goths, knuckled down at school and in training, actually grew up quite a bit, got sensible even. After a while, I never thought any more about you moving on somewhere else, you just became part of us, part of the family.

Jay paused, shaking his head slightly as if confused about what came next.

łWhen we came back from Portugal, though, it was like you’d gone back to being that sixteen year old nightmare – staying in your room, going out without saying where, all that. We couldn’t work out what had happened. For a while we wondered if you were pissed off with us for something, leaving you on your own while we went on holiday maybe, but it felt bigger than being a bit pissed off. We felt out of our depth, wondered if we should have got more help with you when you first got here, found out a bit more about you, so we could talk to you about what went on when you were younger. Maybe if we had, it would have changed things. Too late by then, you were over eighteen.

By the time I was eighteen, I had stopped childishly hankering after the ‘real parents’ I’d wanted Jay and Beth to be. I was well on the road to independence, thought I was tough enough not to need anyone. My life seemed littered with if onlys …

łBeth had tried so hard with you when you first arrived, she’d just seemed to know what to do to help you calm down and relax with us. Even she was at a loss, though, nothing was getting through. Then you moved out, didn’t even say goodbye, hardly ever answered your phone, and you never returned calls. You barely spoke to me at the club, except when you had to. For me, I felt like you’d chucked everything back in our faces, it was a real kick in the teeth. The only thing that wasn’t affected was your playing and your training.

‘It was all I had, I just had to hang on to it. If I hadn’t had that – well I needed it, it got me through everything else. When I was suspended, couldn’t even go to the ground, everything just got so much worse.’

łI guess so, I’m still trying to piece it all together. So, that went on for a while, we felt like you’d cut us out of your life, doing whatever the fuck it was you were doing. Beth was really upset, I was just bloody angry. We thought you just didn’t want us any more Cal really missed you, he kept asking why you weren’t there, and we didn’t really have a good answer. I know you came round a couple of times to see him, I guess that made a difference, but it was tough on him.

I felt close to tears thinking about how much I’d upset Cal.

‘I feel terrible. In my head, I was doing the right thing.’

łWhich was what, exactly?

‘Keeping away. I was one enormous fuck-up. Everything I touched seemed to turn to shit, from the moment I crashed my car. Every time I tried to make things better, they just got worse. I wanted to keep everyone away from me, so no one got dragged into it. When that bloke turned up at the house, asking for money, he scared me. I thought he was genuine, didn’t I, and he was pretty full on, intimidating. I had to move out, I didn’t want him to come round when Beth or Cal were there, I was scared he might do something to them, frighten them or something, to get at me, but I couldn’t explain it without telling you what I’d done. I couldn’t tell you what I’d done because it was just too huge, too many consequences I wasn’t in control of. I couldn’t face it. The less I talked to you, the less likely I was to slip up and tell you. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.’

łJesus, Dec. What a mess, what a fucking screwed up mess. Makes sense? Fuck, no. None of this makes any fucking sense. It sounds like you didn’t want to lose it all, so you threw it all away instead – you really weren’t thinking straight, were you? Thing is, you’ve tried to carry all this alone. I guess maybe I can see why, now, if you felt like you’d gone back to a place where you had to just look out for yourself. But for us, when we came back from holiday in the summer, your car was gone, your bloody precious car, no explanation, and it was like you were gone too. You were like a different person. You wouldn’t talk to us, you stayed in your room, then a few weeks later you left with some bloody lame story about a college course. It was so obviously not true. We didn’t know what to think. We thought you’d met a girl or something – it felt like you were ditching us. Why didn’t you talk to us? Everything might have been different if you’d just said something.

‘I don’t know if I can explain it. I just shut down. After I crashed my car, I felt panicky the whole time you were away. I don’t know if it would have been different if you hadn’t been away when it happened, but by the time you came back I’d gone into a kind of … like a daze or fog or something. I was scared someone was going to find out, that man had died and, I dunno, I thought I might go to prison or something. I don’t know if I was … ashamed? Terrified? Both. Couldn’t deal with it, pushed it down with all the other shit. Then that bloke came round, saying he wanted paying for what I did to his dad, and it seemed like I could fix it, make things better. I thought if I gave him what he wanted, it would all go away. I know it sounds mad now, but that’s what I thought. But to do it I had to make sure nobody knew, so I just … let everything go. If I didn’t see people they wouldn’t ask questions. I really think I might have been a bit mad. It sounds crazy just saying it.’

łJesus, Dec. Don’s shrink is sounding more and more necessary. This is all way beyond me. Something Rose said, while you were in hospital – did you know we called her, talked to her for a long time when we got back home?

‘You said, she’s never mentioned it.’

łShe’s bloody great, you owe her a lot.

‘I know.’

łAnyway, she told us some of why she thought you’d done the things you did, she saw what we couldn’t I guess, that you were really mixed up. We just saw what you were doing, how it affected us; Rose could see a bit of why.’

I thought about why that might have been.

‘I told Rose everything, things I never told you or Beth.’

Jay nodded.

łMaybe that explains it. She said you’re a bit fragile where families are concerned. It never occurred to us that you’d lost two lots of parents before you came to us – you never really talked about it, we never realised there was this much going on in your head. But she wondered if you felt you needed to deal with stuff on your own, partly because that’s how you’d learned to do things when you were in trouble, and partly because you were scared you’d lose us if you involved us.

I thought about it, but couldn’t begin to unravel my motives.

‘Could be. Did the opposite, though, didn’t it. Pretty much wrecked everything with you and Beth.’

łMaybe for a while, but don’t forget what I said to you before. Family is family, and you’re part of ours, if you want it. Actually, no, whether you want it or not. That’s never going to change, whatever happens. I don’t know if you get that, or believe it. Jesus, Dec, I said some fucking awful things to you. I lose sleep over that time I yelled at you in the car park. I was just so angry with you, and upset about Matty, it all just came out. I won’t say I didn’t mean it, because on that day I really did, and for a while afterwards, but now when I think about it, Jesus, if I could take it back, not say it …

‘Nothing I didn’t deserve.’

łDec, I don’t get this ‘what I deserve’ bullshit. Where’s it coming from? You cocked things up big time, made some seriously fucking horrendous decisions, there were consequences. But deserve it? I don’t see it.

‘Worthless piece of shit.’

łWhat?

‘That’s what I am, why I deserve it all, everything that’s happened, everything you said to me, all of it. I’ve screwed so many things up – your job, Cal, Raiders’ chances of top four. Shit, Jay, I fucking killed someone –’

łJesus! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What the fuck are you talking about? Do you think I’d let a worthless piece of shit spend the day with my son? Or have a laugh with my brother? Or hug my wife? I’ve met some fucking worthless pieces of shit in my time, and believe me you are not one. Yeah, I know, someone died, that must be fucking terrible for you to have to live with, but it wasn’t your fault. It was a fucking awful accident. Jesus. Dec, you seriously, seriously need some help with all this.

Cal

I tried to go to sleep, I really did, but when it’s Christmas tomorrow, it’s very hard, because the excited feeling just bubbles up in your tummy and stops you.

I could hear Dad and Dec talking in the living room, which was below my room, although I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I lay in bed for a long time, hearing the voices in the room below, and then I thought that if I went and sat on the stairs, I might be able to hear more. Sometimes I did that to hear what Mum and Dad were saying, but they usually had the door open. The door was shut, though, and I couldn’t hear much more from half way up the stairs than I could from my bed. I stayed and listened to their voices, because I liked hearing Dad and Dec talking – I hadn’t heard it for a long time, and it made me feel happy.

Dec

I had no reply for him, finding it hard to meet his eyes, trying to blink away the tears in my own. Jay’s tone of voice and anger had taken me back to the day he got the letter about the inquest, and to him yelling at me in the car park. I felt like I was about to lose him all over again.

łYou’re going quiet on me, come on, we’re not finished yet.

‘I can’t handle it.’

łWhat?

‘If I lose you all again.’

łHave you not heard a word I’ve said? OK, words of one syllable. We. Love. You. Jesus, that’s not something you’re going to hear me say often. But that’s what you need to hear. You’re part of our family. That’s what it means. Part of us. Forever. Family. Jay, Beth, Cal and Dec. Nothing you can do, nothing I can do will change it. Beth told me what you said to Cal, about being cross with people but still loving them. It’s true – you can’t lose us, that’s just how it is. You haven’t fucked anything up with us, not deep down. It’s taken me a while to get there, to understand it – I guess it might take you a while too – but you’re family. I think that’s as important to you as it is to us. I hope we never have to go through anything like the last few months again to make us realise it.

It finally did get through. I couldn’t quite take it in. I’d spent so long convincing myself I’d lost it all, I hadn’t realised how hard it would be for me to see things differently. It needed time to sink in.

‘Fuck.’

I took a shaky breath, leaned forwards and rubbed my face with my hands, trying to grab hold of what Jay had just said. He nudged the tissue box towards me.

‘No, I’m OK.’

Although the tremble in my voice told a different story.

łDo you get it now?

‘I think so.’

It was actually starting to feel like something had set me free, something that had kept me chained up for months.

‘Jay, being here, it’s so huge for me. A few weeks ago, I thought I’d blown it, thought I’d never see any of you again. What I did, what you said – I thought that was it, finished. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my head round that, trying to accept it. It’s been hard. Being here with you all, thinking maybe I might not have fucked it all up, it’s taking some getting used to. It doesn’t feel real yet. I can hardly believe it.’

łIt feels pretty huge for us too, Dec. It’s been fairly fucking shitty, hasn’t it? Yeah, I know what you mean, getting our heads round it all might take a while. But I’m glad you’re here, it feels right. I didn’t know if it would be weird or awkward, but it hasn’t been, it’s almost like we’ve started where we left off, before we went on holiday. Yeah, everything’s been shit for all of us, but I think we can leave that behind, I hope we can. Especially if you’re going to get some help sorting out the large amount of crap that seems to be lodged in your head?

‘Yeah. I will – I am.’

łThank fuck for that. I need to ask you just one more thing, though, if you can hack it. About Cal asking about us being cross with him. That’s been an ongoing thing since he called you that time on my phone. What the fuck did you tell him?

I thought back. It seemed a long time ago, when I felt like I was somewhere else and someone else.

‘Well, a while ago, when you were still living in the city, me and Cal made a plan to go to Dinosaurland on his birthday. I’d forgotten, with everything that happened, but he hadn’t, of course. He’d decided you were going to bring him down, so we could still do it. I tried to put him off, told him I couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t do it, but he had an answer for everything. I had to tell him something, explain it somehow, without telling any more lies. The only way I could do that was to tell him the truth.’

łYour version of which being …?

‘That I was a thief and a liar, and you were cross with me about it and didn’t want to see me any more’

łJesus Christ, did you say it just like that?

‘I can’t remember exactly. Probably not far off. I know it was a bit blunt – I was panicking, I was really messed up, not thinking straight. It was so good to talk to him, I needed to tell him the truth, but I was about to break a promise to him, and it freaked me out. I’d told so many lies, I just couldn’t do it any more, especially to Cal.’

łWell that explains a lot. He had a really hard time getting to grips with that one. And that’s when you lost Beth, she was pretty upset with you. Cal kept on and on that day about why we were cross, were we cross with him. For a little while he couldn’t cope if we bickered with each other, and he really thought if he annoyed us at all we were going to kick him out, not speak to him. Beth was really angry – up till then she’d been trying to make excuses for you, tried to talk about you with Cal, but that tipped it for her. It just seemed like you didn’t even care about Cal any more, about how what you said might affect him. It wasn’t until he ran away that she’d even mention your name again. I guess that was only about a week later, wasn’t it, but it seemed longer. I couldn’t even think about you. Jesus, I’m getting pissed off just talking about it now.

I listened to all this, in growing misery. I’d been so happy today, spending time with Cal, feeling like I might be back in their family. If I’d damaged Cal in any way, I couldn’t bear it.

‘I had no idea, Jay, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what else to say at the time. I tried to talk to him yesterday, told him you can care about someone and be cross with them at the same time.’

łI know, mate, I know how much you love him. I think we’ve got him to see that we’d never do any of the things he was worried about. He’s OK now. Ignore me, I’m just letting off steam, I need to tell you how it was for us. I know you were having a hard time, we’ve talked to Rose a lot, and Nico and Lis. They’ve helped us to see, I think, that you haven’t really been yourself for quite a while. Nico was so worried about you the night after the points hearing, he came home and told us everything, even though we’d said we didn’t want to know anything about you. He says you were in a right state.

‘I guess I was. That was a tough night. I felt like I’d lost absolutely everything, couldn’t see how I was going to carry on. Rose and Nico were amazing.’

łDec, I have to say, again, I think it’s really important you spend time with Don’s psychologist bloke.

‘Yeah. Got an appointment in the New Year.’

łGood. You need to sort your head out.

‘I know. I’m a mess.’

łYeah, you’re a bloody head case, but you’ve had a lot to cope with. You just need some help to sort it out.

‘Jay…’

łDec.

‘Can I ask you something?’

łSeems fair, you’ve been pretty brutally fucking honest with me so far.

‘Did you leave Raiders because of me?’

łJesus. Jesus, Dec. Well, fair question I suppose. OK … maybe, thinking about it … I guess, in a way, yeah.

He saw the anguish on my face, and held a hand up to stop me.

łHold on, before you go off on another guilt trip, let me explain. That day, when the letter came about your accident, and everything went arse about face, was the worst possible day it could have come. I’d just had a call from Mum to say Matty was in hospital, and it wasn’t looking very good. Beth and I had been trying to decide whether we needed to come up here to help Mum out – Matty was diagnosed in the summer, shortly after you moved out, but he hadn’t been too bad, he was living with his girlfriend, still working, although he’d had to cut his hours down. Then he started to get worse, his girlfriend left him, it was pretty messy, he got this cold, or flu or whatever, and just went downhill.

I was still trying to get the sequence of events straight in my head. That time, back when everything crashed around me, was hazy, but now Jay was telling it in order, I could understand why he’d been so angry.

łAnyway, Mum had just rung, and I was trying to get organised to come up here, when I get this letter about you, saying did I know you’d killed a man and did I know who you really are. I think it’s a joke, or some nutter stirring it, until I show it to you and you crumple like you’ve been shot. And then Don says you’ve taken the charity money, and all the shit with your passport, and it just seems like you’ve been lying about everything. And I can’t believe it’s all fucking happening at once, and it makes me so mad, and I can’t even start to think about it or know what the fuck to do about it –

Jay’s voice broke, his face buckled, and tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

łBollocks, I can’t believe I caved first. It just brings it all back.

He half laughed, half sobbed, took a shuddering breath.

łSorry, anyway, so I want to get away, come up here to be with Matty in case … but now I’ve got to deal with you, and you’re being all uncommunicative, and I don’t have the patience, or the time. And everyone I talk to is telling me you owe them money, and I feel like I just don’t know who the fuck you are any more It’s like you’ve been pulling the wool over our eyes all this time. And maybe if you don’t want us, we don’t want you either.

This was hard to hear. At the time I hadn’t thought how it might look to Jay and Beth. I’d only thought of getting away to protect both myself and them. I had never not wanted them; being apart from them had been the hardest thing.

łSo I decided I’d just quit, there and then, come up here, so I didn’t have to piss about with you, or have you or anyone else stop me from looking after my brother. Don didn’t want me to go, he said I could have some personal leave, but I guess, to answer your question, I wanted to get away and not have to come back and face all your shit, so, yeah, if I’m honest I did leave because of you. But, Dec, it was my decision. And it was the right one, thinking about it. I don’t want anyone else looking after Matty. Me and Beth have got it covered. I’m glad I came up here, it’s where I should be. Mum needs it and Matty needs it.

I was silent for a moment as I tried to figure out what to say.

‘I wish there was a better word – I’m sorry.’

łDon’t make me sodding punch you. Listen to me. It’s not about sorry or blame, or at least it’s not now. I guess I did blame you at first. But, like I said when you were in hospital, well, something like that happens and you realise deep down what you really feel. Jesus, Dec, when they told me the bloke I’d found in the car park was you, I felt sick. There was so much blood, your face was so swollen and bloody it was unrecognisable. We went straight to the hospital when they told us, I sat with you most of the night. I had a lot of time to think about why I was doing that, if I was so glad to be shot of you and all your fucking shit. Beth had already started to – I dunno – forgive you?

Jay ran his hands through his hair as he tried to explain it all.

łAfter you found Cal that time, she couldn’t stay angry. I wasn’t so ready – when I saw you again, after you found him, it just brought back all that anger, I mean I was so fucking relieved he was OK, and grateful, but I didn’t want to be, it was all churning around, wishing it had been anyone else who’d found him. But after that, Beth made me talk about you, and I found I could bear to say your name. Actually, she got me thinking. She asked why I still had your number on my phone if I was done with you. If I’d deleted it, Cal wouldn’t have been able to ring you that time, and things might have been a lot different.

I had wondered the same thing myself – had expected him to have deleted all traces of me from his life, by the time I got Cal’s call.

łI didn’t have a good answer to that, apart from maybe I wasn’t as done as I thought. So, I sat there in the hospital looking at you with your broken bones and your stitches and your bruises and your unrecognisable beaten up fuck-ugly face, and it occurred to me that you don’t sit there all night waiting for someone to wake up, to know they’re alright, if you don’t care about them. I thought about what you’d done, and how it made me feel, and decided that whether you had reasons for it or not, it was just part of us. I stopped being angry. Stopped blaming you. Accepted it. You need to do the same. Do you remember Rose saying, when you were in hospital, something about you being sad because you’d lost us, lost your family?

‘Yeah.’

łWell, that was what finally sorted it for me. Whatever you had been thinking while you were away from us, it wasn’t that you wanted to ditch us. You still thought of us as your family, and had done all along, whatever else you’d been trying to prove along the way. It was really important for me and Beth to know that, that it wasn’t all one way from us, that you felt the same. Fuck me, Dec, this is hard. You know I don’t usually do all this emotional talking shit. And, there you go, here are the tissues, join me in the blub club.

My eyes were streaming tears. I was completely choked up. Telling Jay about the past had stirred up feelings I had buried deep down, and the reality of still being part of his family was breaking over me. I was close to losing control and I needed to push it back down before it took over and swamped me. I closed my eyes, took some deep breaths and focussed on what Jay was saying.

łSo, bottom line, you need to get your head sorted. No more of this ‘worthless’ crap. You’re worth a lot to us. Find out what’s going on in that skull. Stop saying sorry, start accepting help from people. You’re in this family, whether you like it or not. OK?

I took another deep, shuddery breath and pushed the past back as far as it would go. It would still be there waiting, another day. Opened my eyes and looked at him.

‘Jay, are we really OK now?’

łYes, Dec, we’re OK. I think in a way, we always were, although looking back maybe neither of us would have said so at the time. It might have taken us a while longer to get there; whoever smashed that bottle over your head did us all a huge favour. Don’t ever stop talking to me again, OK?

‘OK.’

A wave of relief swamped me. I started to cry again.

łYou know what, it’s fucking Christmas tomorrow. No blubbing allowed. Come here.

He stood up and pulled me to my feet, throwing his arms round me, slapping me noisily on the back. I sniffled on his shoulder.

łOK, that’s enough of that.

Although his eyes were wet too.

łI think we need beer. Fuck, should have thought of that before.

I wiped my eyes.

‘Er, not sure I’m allowed.’

łWhat? Says who?

‘Don, weeks ago.’

łWhy?

‘Well, after I was suspended I went on a bit of a major vodka bender. Lost two days. Missed an appointment with him. He was rather pissed off. Made a no alcohol rule.’

łTwo days? Impressive. Ohh … so that’s where you disappeared to. Absolutely fucking everyone was looking for you. He won’t have intended for it to cover Christmas, he probably hasn’t even thought about telling you it’s OK now. Come on, you can’t have Christmas Eve without beer!

Cal

The door opened, and it made me jump, and I should have run back to bed, but it was Dad going to the kitchen and he didn’t see me. I heard him talking to Mum. I went down the rest of the stairs and stood in the doorway to the living room.

Dec

There was a movement in the doorway – Cal stood there, blinking guiltily. I wondered if he’d been waiting on the stairs like he used to, trying to listen.

‘Dec, I’m not going to sleep.’

‘Why’s that, mate?’

Cal

‘It’s nearly Christmas.’

It was best not to tell him I’d been on the stairs trying to listen to what he’d been saying to Dad.

‘Are you excited?’

I nodded.

‘Come over here, let me tell you about the Christmas Mouse.’

This was a new story. Dec had never told me the Christmas Mouse before. We got into the reading position, and I warmed up a bit, because it had been cold sitting on the stairs in my pyjamas.

The Christmas Mouse story was about mouse children who wanted to see if Santa came to mice children, and how they saved a cat and …

Dec

It was a story Mum used to tell me when I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve. Cal found a place under my arm and snuggled in. When Jay came back with the beer, Cal was nearly asleep. A few more minutes, and he was completely out. Jay picked him up gently and carried him upstairs, while Beth came in and sat next to me on the sofa.

_I’m glad you’ve sorted stuff out with James. It’s been a completely horrible end to the year, he needed this. Are you alright, sweetheart? It sounds like you had quite an emotional conversation.

‘I’ll be OK. I told him a lot of stuff I haven’t thought about for a long time, things I’ve never told anyone before. I’m sure he’ll tell you. Need to put it away somewhere in my head for another day. Do I need to sort stuff out with you, too?’

My heart sank a bit at going over it all again with Beth, but if that’s what it took, I would. I’d do anything to make things right with these two people who meant more to me than I’d ever been willing to admit to myself.

_Not really, sweetheart. You found Cal when he ran away. That sorted me. You cared enough to go looking for him. You knew him well enough to know where he’d be. You found him and you told me and you loved us enough to walk away. I could see how hard that was for you. I’m so glad you’re here now.

‘I hate that I upset you, I hate that I upset Cal.’

_I know, Dec. I hate that we didn’t help you when you needed it. It’s done now. None of us can change what we did, although we can regret things and try not to do them again. Did you ever stop loving us?

‘No. I thought about you all the time.’

_Then that’s all I need to know. I was more upset that you didn’t talk to us than anything you might have done. I didn’t understand why you didn’t want us to help. You know me, I like to talk about things, and it hurt to be shut out. I thought we trusted each other.

‘Sorry. I’m sorry for everything, what I did, you know … ‘

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s finished now. I think you and James have just done more talking than either of you have ever done in your lives before. Don’t stop now, will you.

She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

_You know you never need to feel alone. You’ve always got us.

‘Thanks, Beth. It really means a lot. I guess, before, I just took it all for granted. I didn’t realise what I had with you all until I chucked it away.’

_Maybe sometimes you have to lose something before you realise how much it means to you. I didn’t know how much you were a part of our family until you’d gone and there was this big hole. I know I’m so pleased to have you back. Let’s talk more about things, out in the open, whatever’s bothering us.

‘I’ll try. Not my strong point.’

_Ha ha, don’t I know it. All any of us can do is try, sweetheart. God, I’m knackered. All evening talking to Carol is exhausting at the best of times. I’m going to bed. Remind James to put the presents under the tree, and some in Matty’s room, and do Cal’s stocking, would you?

‘Sure.’

_Dec …

‘Yeah?’

_One day, when you’re ready, I’d love to hear about your mum and dad.

My eyes filled with tears, which I blinked away.

‘OK.’

_Night, sweetheart.

‘See you tomorrow.’

I heard her go upstairs, and then heard her voice as she talked to Jay. A few minutes later, Jay came back into the living room, with a bottle opener.

łRight, let’s get these open and watch something Christmassy on the telly.

He opened the beers and handed one to me. And that was that, finished for now with the pain of explanations and remembering. Jay had switched back into normal life straight away. It took me longer to leave the darkness and come back to now.

The beer helped. It tasted really good, but went to my head pretty quickly. I hadn’t drunk anything alcoholic for quite a while now, and my system had adapted. When Jay got another a bit later, I took it a bit more slowly, but when I stood up to go to the loo, I swayed slightly.

łBloody hell, Dec, are you drunk? On two? You lightweight!

‘I’m not used to it. Need to build up my resistance again. Or something.’

łHave to see what we can do over the next couple of days, then.

‘Can’t go too mad, strict instructions from Steve.’

łBollocks to Steve, what does he know? He’s only got degrees in nutrition and stuff. I say fuck him, it’s Christmas.

I laughed. And burped.

‘OK, fuck him, it’s Christmas. Sounds good. Now I really need to pee.’

Some time later, Jay had had a couple more, I had managed one and was close to falling asleep. The TV was still on, but the programme had changed, and was now some Christmassy chat show. There was laughter, and music, and it felt happy and jolly, and finally, after months of unhappiness and uncertainty, I felt I could begin to relate to it. I sat and watched it, enjoyed the feelings that were starting to open up again inside me.

łCome on, Dec, you should go to bed. Early start with Cal tomorrow.

‘Yeah, but Beth said – oh what did she say, something to remind you – oh yeah. Presents under the tree, and in Matt’s room, and Cal’s stocking.’

łBollocks. Completely forgot. At least they’re all wrapped. Give me a hand, there’s bloody loads.

I followed Jay to a cupboard in the utility room. He was right, it was crammed with presents. He got a few black bin bags and shovelled them in.

‘Are you expecting a coach load tomorrow or something?’

łHa ha, no most of these are Cal’s. Spoilt or what? Beth’s family have gone overboard a bit, and I suppose we have, too. He’s only little once, isn’t he. Here, you take this bag and do Matty’s tree. Mum’s in there, she will have fallen asleep. Don’t know if Matty’s awake or not.

‘I’ll be quiet.’

łThanks, and then take this up with you when you go to bed, swap it over.

He held up a duplicate of Cal’s stocking, which was bulging with exciting looking shapes.

‘What do I do with the other one?’

łOh, I don’t know, Beth usually handles that. Er, hide it in your bag or something?

‘OK. Matt’s tree, Cal’s stocking, hide in bag. Got it.’

I headed over to Matt’s room, opened the door and crept in as quietly as I could. The room was lit only by the lights from the Christmas tree. Jay’s mum was asleep in the chair, Matt was breathing noisily, eyes closed. I started putting the presents under the tree, trying to make as little sound as possible.

Matt

The next time I woke, I heard a rustling and looked over to the Christmas tree where it had come from. Beth wasn’t there, and Mum was asleep, head back against the chair, mouth open. Dec appeared to be piling presents around the tree.

‘Sahnta?’

‘Ho ho ho.’

‘Ahnything fuh me?’

‘Have you been a good boy?’

‘Fuck noh.’

‘Then probably not. You know the rules. I expect you’re on the naughty list.’

Oh I loved it, that someone was willing to treat me as if I was a person who could possibly have had a past, and done things that deserved a slap, rather than a person with only a present who deserved relentless making of allowances and pitying looks. I was really warming to this disrespectfully amusing teenager.

Mum stirred in the chair and opened her eyes; we’d woken her up with our chattering. She looked over at me and stated the obvious.

‘You’re awake, dear. I must have dozed off.’

She leaned towards me and stroked my forehead. I put up with it because it was Mum, and it was what mums do. Then she looked over at Dec.

‘Hello Declan. What time is it?’

‘Gone eleven.’

‘Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

I knew she usually went to bed early, and was likely to be up at the crack of dawn basting turkey or some such shit.

‘No, I’m alright, dear, I can sleep here in the chair.’

And since when did I need a round the clock babysitter?

‘Noh need, got monitor. Dec’ll stay foh bit?’

I hoped he would pick up on my need to boot Mum out before she stayed in my room all night. He seemed to.

‘Sure, mate, if you want.’

‘Yeh. Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’

‘Alright, dear, if you’re sure. Goodnight.’

She stood up, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then left, closing the door behind her.

I looked gratefully at Dec.

‘Thahks. Everyone fuhsses. Bluhdy exhosting.’

‘Tell me about it, you spend more energy trying to stop them going on than you would if they just bloody well left you alone.’

It really sounded like he knew where I was coming from. I thought about what he’d been through the past few weeks and realised he probably did.

‘Heh, yuh geh ih.’

‘Been there myself, quite recently. Still there, a bit, to be honest. It’s hard to let them love you.’

‘Yeh.’

And he just kept hitting the nail on the head. My eyes filled with bastard unbidden tears.

‘Bolluhks. Sohry.’

‘No worries, I’m a fully paid up member of the blub club. Seem to spend half my life wiping my eyes and apologising at the moment.’

I wondered whether his conversation with my brother had happened yet. Beth had engineered a vacancy in the living room earlier, but I’d been asleep – oh, that was why she and Mum were both in here together with the magazines and the mince pies.

‘Yuh talked wih Jay?

‘Yeah. We sorted some stuff out. I feel a lot better, I think he does too.’

‘Guhd, he nehded tha.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Him and Beth ahr pretty greht.’

I felt like I needed to remind him how lucky he was that they cared this much about him, grown up that I was.

‘Yeah.’

Then Dec’s eyes filled up. Fuck, I’d made him cry. Nice one Matt, you bastard. He was quiet for a bit, wiping his eyes, then breathed in and straightened up.

‘Santa’s got more jobs to do before he can go to sleep, I’ve got to do Cal’s stocking without waking him up, then try and get a few hours sleep before the middle of the night when he’s going to wake up.’

‘Kay. Seh yuh tomohrow.’

‘Will you be OK?’

I thought of the list of night time tasks Jay usually did, but hadn’t because I was asleep. No way was I asking Dec to help me change into my night clothes, but maybe there were a few things he could do. I hummed and hawed to myself about just how much I could ask of this kid I barely knew … oh bollocks, I was going to have to ask him to take my piss bottle. I’d had it under the covers, full, with the lid on, since Mum and Beth were playing the mince pie game. If I didn’t get it emptied I wouldn’t be able to pee in the night if I needed to. Arsing fucknozzles.

‘Couhd yuh ehmpty thihs?’

I held out the plastic piss collector as if I gave teenagers containers full of the ex-contents of my bladder as a matter of course, no big deal, it’s what mature grown-ups do all the time.

To his enormous credit, Dec didn’t even blink before he took it and headed off … er out of the room?

‘Whehr yuh goin?’

He turned round in the doorway, making my piss slosh lustily in its plastic prison.

‘Kitchen sink?’

‘Ehr, why noh pouhr ih dohn the loo?’

The short pause and then the lights going on behind his eyes were almost worth the humiliation of having to ask.

‘Oh yeah. Dur. Like, as if anyone’s going to want to have a cup that’s been washed up in a sink full of your piss.’

‘Heh, my pihs is sought ahfter in sehventehn couhntries. Sehls fuh mihlions.’

‘Oh really? Remind me why I’m tipping it away then.’

‘Creahting a demahnd.’

‘Genius. Toilet it is then, much as it pains me to pour away millions of quids worth of golden liquid that, er, seventeen countries could otherwise fight over for the privilege of … er … what did you say they did with it?’

‘Duhno. Ohnce ih lehves the fahtory, ih’s noh my prohblem.’

‘Fair enough. Sound business sense. Right, here goes then.’

He went into the en-suite bathroom and I heard a splash as he emptied the bottle, then the tap running as he (presumably) rinsed it out and (hopefully) washed his hands.

‘Alright? Anything else you need?’

‘Thanks. Could yuh turn lights off and monitor on?’

Much as it pained me to point it out, I aimed a finger at the small plastic speaker on the table next to the bed. It was almost as humiliating as the piss bottle.

‘So Jay can hehr if I chohk to death.’

‘Oh, don’t do that mate. That would seriously dampen the festive mood. I might not be able to eat my Christmas dinner.’

And there it was again, the cheeky banter, black humour, just what I needed.

‘Fuck ohf. Oh shih, did yuh already tuhn it on?’

I’d started speaking just as he flipped the switch. Beth would have just got an earful upstairs. Dec shrugged, grinned, flicked the Christmas tree lights off and left the room with a youthful swagger. He was turning out to be surprisingly good to have around.

Dec

Jay was still in the living room, placing the last few presents on top of an enormous pile. He looked up at me when I came in, shaking his head.

łJesus, we’re going to be here all day tomorrow with this lot. I’m almost tempted to put some away for another day.

‘You can’t do that!’

łNo, suppose not. Matty alright? I heard Mum go up.

‘Yeah. Where’s the monitor linked to?’

łOur room – we’ve got one in here too, but it’s not always on. Why?

‘I think I might have made him tell Beth to fuck off via the intercom.’

I grinned. He looked at me and wagged his finger admonishingly.

łYou really are a bad influence, Declan Summers. Keep it up, you’re good for him. OK, that’s it. I am now officially bushed. It doesn’t feel right going to bed before midnight on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think I can last any longer. Here’s Cal’s stocking, make really sure he’s not awake when you do the switch. You going to bed now?

‘Yeah, need to get as much sleep as I can, it’ll soon be three o’clock.’

łIt certainly will, my friend. I look forward to the extra hours of sleep your presence has awarded us.

I followed Jay up the stairs, got undressed in the bathroom and crept into Cal’s room, using the landing light to see by. He was lying on his back, one arm flung over his head. His breathing was regular and his eyes were moving beneath his eyelids as if he was dreaming. As far as I could tell, he was asleep. I took the empty stocking off the post by his head, and hooked the full one on in its place. I stuffed the empty one deep in my bag, hoping I would remember to give it back before I left. Then I flicked off the landing light, climbed into bed and lay down.

I wanted to go to sleep, but after my conversation with Jay, there was too much swirling around for me to wind down. I hadn’t thought about Mum and Dad, or anything from back then, for a long time, not properly. I allowed myself to remember the last Christmas I’d had with them, at home, dinner, presents, everything. I could barely remember their faces. It made me sad. Conscious of Cal asleep above me, I pushed the memories away before they made me cry, as I didn’t think I’d be able to stop. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. I am flying around the world. First I visit Mum and Dad and younger me. It is Christmas Eve, and Mum is reading me the Christmas Mouse. I watch through the window as she closes the book, carries me to bed and tucks me in. Then I fly off, over the sea, chasing snowflakes and reindeer and twinkling stars until I reach Jay, Beth and Cal. Cal is opening presents on Christmas morning, Jay and Beth are watching. I fly in through the window and sit with them for a bit. Then I fly back up to the stars and watch the world shining. Someone is next to me. I look down and see brown boots. Look up and …

27. Who says you can’t go home?

In which there is an arrival, tears are shed, bonds are formed, and dinosaurs are encountered.

Dec

I opened the car door and got out.

~You go in, I’ll bring your bags, yeah?

I walked towards the front door, which suddenly opened and ejected a small heat-seeking missile, in the form of Calum James Scott.

\dec you’ve came it’s nearly dinner I’m having fish fingers you’re having spaghetti bognose you can see my rabbit he’s called Percy he’s in the garden.

He wrapped his arms round my legs. I had to stifle a sob and blink hard to stop tears running down my face.

‘Hey Cal, oh it’s great to see you, mate. Spaghetti bognose, eh? Sounds delicious. I’ll have to meet Percy a bit later.’

I ruffled his hair, took a deep breath to compose myself, then knelt down to give him a big hug. Cal wrapped his arms round my neck and dropped his voice to a whisper.

\did you say to Santa about Optimus Prime?

I whispered back. ‘It’s all sorted.’

Cal

I was so happy to see Dec that I grinned at him, and he grinned back, and everything that had seemed wrong suddenly seemed right. My world was alright again. Dec was here, he had talked to Santa, and it was Christmas Eve tomorrow.

‘Come on in Cal, you haven’t got your coat on, and neither has Dec.’

Mum called from the doorway. I didn’t have any shoes on either, but she didn’t mention that, and I followed Dec up the path and into the house.

Dec

Beth was standing in the doorway. I unpeeled Cal and walked up to her. She opened her arms and folded me in a huge hug. This time I couldn’t stop the tears, and we both cried. Maybe it wasn’t just ‘welcome’ – could I dare to believe it might be ‘welcome home’?

Cal

Dec gave Mum a big cuddle, and he cried, and so did Mum. I’d never seen Dec cry before, except in hospital when he was feeling hurt, and I remembered Mum saying Dec was sad, so I didn’t look too much, at least not at Dec crying. Dec’s face was very interesting, though, as it still had bruises on it, his nose looked bent in the middle, and some red lines with cuts in them down each side where the train tracks had been before.

Dec

_It’s great to see you, Dec. You’re looking so much better, now those stitches are out. I’m so glad you could make it up here. Oh, Lis, let James get that, is there any more stuff from the car?

Jay appeared at the door.

łHey mate, great to see you. You’re looking better.

Another big hug, I tried manfully not to shed any more tears, but failed. Despite all the crying, it was starting to feel like it might be alright.

łWe’ll catch up in a minute, Dec, let me just help Lis with your bags. I’m assuming you’re using your piss-poor arms as an excuse to leave the heavy lifting to a girl.

I shrugged, grinning, trying to wipe my eyes.

łYeah, yeah, go and wait in the kitchen, Beth’s got the kettle on.

It was so strange going through the front door. It was their home and not mine. This moment made me realise how much a part of their family I had become when I lived with them. Feeling a little detached, I followed Cal into the kitchen, where Beth and Lis were in full flow.

_ … welcome to stay tonight, James’s mum isn’t coming till tomorrow.

~Oh, I’d really love to, but Nico’s invited half the squad for Christmas dinner. I’m going to need all of tomorrow to get myself sorted. I’ll stay for something to eat, though. And I want the grand tour, your kitchen is lovely …

Cal

I followed Dec, Mum and Lis into the kitchen, where Mum made a cup of tea and put the spaghetti and my fish fingers on for dinner. I had another good look at Dec’s face. He looked more like Dec and less like a monster than the last time I’d seen him. In fact, I couldn’t exactly remember what he’d looked like then, but now I had loads of questions to ask him. Mum and Lis were talking about the kitchen, and Dec didn’t look at me, so I couldn’t ask straight away.

Matt

So he was here, at last. Not that I’d been particularly anticipating it, but the rest of the household seemed to have been abuzz for days, with lots of hoovering, discussions about meals and last minute phone calls to be had, arranging final details and gradually getting more hyperactive.

Apparently some sort of operation had nearly fucked up the whole plan, and someone had broken into Dec’s flat while he was in hospital (that felt familiar) but it was all sorted now, and a few minutes ago I’d heard Cal shouting ‘he’s here Mummy, he’s here’, and the front door opened, and there were excited voices, and a few silences where there could have been tears, but who was I to judge – the salty bastards seemed to leak out of my eyes every five minutes too. Then the voices went away, and I could hear them indistinctly from the kitchen. I strained my ears, but could hear no more than the faint murmur of voices. No one thought to come and tell me how it was going, but then my lot in life as a fucking cripple was to lie still and wait to be told what was happening.

Cal

I got bored listening to them talking about the kitchen, and if I looked at Dec’s face much longer I would ask him something, and Mum would be cross because I was supposed to remember about Dec being sad. So I went into Uncle Matty’s room, where I had a road set up for my cars. Uncle Matty was awake, and sitting up in his bed which could sit him up or lie him down using electric buttons. He smiled at me as I sat on the floor and started driving the cars and lorries around.

Matt

Cal surprised me by coming in after a little while and resuming the game he’d been playing on the floor with his cars.

‘Dec’s hehr, thehn.’

‘Yes.’

‘Guhd tuh seh hihm?’

‘Yes but he’s talking to Mummy and Lis about the kitchen.’

I smiled. I’d rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. Now I knew what was going on, I didn’t feel so left out. Dec could keep his cosy chat about the (for all I knew) solid oak cupboards and (did I give a shit as I’d never seen them) granite worktops as far as I was concerned.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled again, looking as if he knew what I meant, and would rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. He watched me for a little while, then asked if he could join in. I sometimes let Uncle Matty join in by suggesting where my cars could go. As long as he understood what the game was, he was usually pretty good at suggesting, and didn’t mind if I did something different instead. Sometimes I used Uncle Matty’s bed as a ski-jump, and he would hold his duvet up so the cars could roll down it and fly off the end of his bed. But I wasn’t playing ski-jumps today.

‘Kay. This game is about roadworks. The green lorry is doing traffic lights, and the yellow car is the men with the drill, and all these cars are going to be in a traffic jam.’

‘Goht ih. Is thehr a skycohpter?’

‘There could be, in case it gets on the news.’

Uncle Matty understood the importance of helicopters, and always tried his best to get them into my games.

‘Coohl.’

Dec

I sat at the kitchen table and let their chatter wash over me. Cal had disappeared, my novelty value being short-lived. Beth put a mug of tea in front of me and ruffled my hair. I looked up at her and smiled.

_Your hair’s got really long.

‘I know, it feels a bit of a mess.’

_Do you want me to sort it out?

‘Oh, that would be great. You are pretty handy with a pair of scissors, aren’t you.’

_We’ll do it later.

‘It doesn’t feel real.’

_What, your hair?

‘No, being here. Can’t quite believe it.’

Beth sat down next to me and took my hand.

_It’s been a bit of a time for all of us, hasn’t it. The last few months have been … eventful I suppose we could call it … but I’m so glad you here, sweetheart. I wondered how it would be, but … it feels right. Are you OK?

I’d welled up again. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘Sorry, keep doing this. Just ignore me.’

~It’s true, he’s a pretty big wooss these days.

Lis grinned and winked at me. Jay came in with a bag of presents he’d brought in from the car, checking Cal wasn’t in the room.

łDidn’t know what to do with these, I presume they’re from Santa? Where’s the stash, Beth?

_I’ll take them.

Jay looked over at me.

łBloody hell, are you off again? Come on, let’s go and say hi to Matty, you and him will make a right pair.

He gestured to me to follow him and led me across the hall to a downstairs room. Cal was in there, floor covered in Lego and Transformer toys. There was a Christmas tree in the corner, and some coloured paper chains at Cal’s height across the wall. A door was half open, through which I could see the edge of a toilet and the corner of a shower. By the window, in a hospital-type bed, Matt was half sat up, thin and pale. He looked terrible; I hardly recognised him.

Matt

A short while later, I heard Jay’s voice, and footsteps crossed the hall. Jay came in, followed by a long-haired lanky man who I wouldn’t have recognised as Dec if I hadn’t had a big clue, he being the only person who wasn’t Jay or Cal or me in the room. His face was discoloured with just-beginning-to-fade bruises of varying spectacular colours; there were two red scars running down either side of his face, raised and angry looking, one of which tracked a line perilously close to his eye; his nose looked as if it had been on a journey to the other side of his face when the wind changed; and his hair – this boy needed a hair cut. Some of it had been cut or shaved away where one of the scars ran up into his hairline, and the rest of it was overgrown and a complete mess. His lower face was covered in unshaven stubble as well. Injuries aside, I wouldn’t have known him. I knew how important it could be not to instantly comment on how terrible someone looks, so I just held out my hand.

Cal

We played for a bit, then Uncle Matty got quiet, which meant he had gone to sleep and left me to play on my own. After a while, I heard Dad and Dec coming into the room. I looked up, and Uncle Matty was awake again. He lifted his hand and held it out to Dec.

I decided to stay as quiet as possible, in case anyone said anything interesting before they remembered I was there. It was also highly likely, with Dad, Dec and Uncle Matty in the same room, that I would hear some swears, possibly bad ones.

Matt

‘Heh Dec.’

‘Hey, sorry to see you so poorly.’

He obviously had no such compunction, the rude, thoughtless little git, although he clasped my hand warmly and gave me a smile that wasn’t full of pity or sympathy, so he got some points there.

‘Fehl mush behter, shuhldv sehn meh befohr.’

Dec

I suddenly realised where Cal had got his translation skills from when I was in hospital; Matt was having difficulty speaking clearly.

Cal

I looked up, because Dec needed to understand what Uncle Matty meant. Uncle Matty could talk a lot better than before, but he sometimes didn’t explain things very well.

‘Uncle Matty looked like a skellington, but now he’s like a vampire but not with sharp teeth.’

Matt

I hadn’t been aware I was being assessed using the Supernatural Being scale of symptoms, but his report was accurate.

‘Struh. Aihming fuh zombeh.’

This made everyone smile, which was always good, smiling was always good, it fended off the fussing for another few minutes. Supernatural Assessor Cal hadn’t quite finished giving his report, though.

‘Uncle Matty, you can’t be a zombie, because their arms fall off. You could be a werewolf because they are people half the time –’

And obviously, I was people at least half the time these days.

‘– or you could be … Daddy, what’s next after a werewolf?’

You’ve got me there, Cal, you’re the expert in the undead. I’m sure you’ll think of something for Uncle Matty to aspire to.’

Dec

Matt’s breathing was terrible. Laboured and rasping, he found it hard to get the breath to speak, and his words had a tendency to die away on a gasp. I tried to remember what Jay had said was wrong with him, and couldn’t. Whatever it was, it put my self-absorbed woes into perspective.

Matt

And then my body’s battery chose that moment to start blinking the red ‘recharge now’ light, and my eyes started to droop. Jay noticed; he always noticed.

Cal

Dad looked at Uncle Matty, then frowned. Uncle Matty’s eyes were starting to close. Sometimes he was only awake for a really short time.

Come on Cal, pack up your toys in the box, Uncle Matty’s getting tired.’

Uncle Matty opened his eyes a little bit.

Matt

I never wanted to send Cal away, because then I’d be all alone in the dark, so I roused myself.

‘No, sohkay, Cal can stahy.’

OK then, ten more minutes, Cal, then it’s time for dinner. Dec, I’ve put your stuff up in Cal’s room, you’re on the bottom bunk.’

Cal had a working hypothesis on this too.

Cal

I wanted Dec to know why he was in my room and not in Dad’s office. I was sure he’d agree it was the best way.

‘Sleeping underneath is best for people who can’t move properly. I’m on the top, because I can climb the ladder. Why can’t you climb the ladder?’

‘Well, I hadn’t thought about ladders, but you’re right, my arms hurt and pulling myself up a ladder might be difficult. Good thinking, Batman.’

I knew he’d think so, and he called me Batman, like he used to when I’d had a good idea, and it made me smile. I’d spent a lot of time considering whether Dec should go on the top or bottom bed, and although the top bed was the best, and it was where I slept, I was also being kind to Dec and his hurting arms.

Matt

Cal and Dec grinned goofily at each other, as if this was some kind of secret code, and Jay started to leave the room, indicating that Dec should follow him.

‘Yeah, and it’s just in case you feel the need to reach out for some chocolate in the night. Top bunk’s a bit far to fall for someone in your state. Come on, I’ll show you. You staying with Uncle Matty, then, Cal?’

Oh, the chocolate thing. It was something to do with the teenager reaching for some of the brown stuff when he was in hospital and falling out of bed as a consequence, the ninny. Cal nodded, although he didn’t seem to know what Jay was talking about, and returned to his cars. As Jay and Dec left to go upstairs, I could hear Dec talk to Jay.

‘Shit, Jay, he looks awful. I can’t remember what you said was wrong with him.’

Well, talk to him about it while you’re here, but …’

And I slept, before I got to hear what Jay was telling people was ‘wrong with him’.

Cal

I turned back to my road. Uncle Matty’s eyes were closed, so I played on my own; Mum and Lis were upstairs, talking about curtains or duvets, and I wouldn’t be able to talk to Dec about dinosaurs until later.

Dec

łHe’s got multiple sclerosis. It affects your nerves so you lose coordination and strength in your muscles. But the reason he looks so awful is he’s had pneumonia. He was in hospital for quite a while, only been out a few weeks. It was less than fifty fifty for him at one point. Much less, actually. If Mum hadn’t found him … Cal’s right, he looked like a skeleton. He’s got a long way to go yet. MS is a funny one, comes and goes, leaves you worse than you were, but no one can predict it. Pneumonia is pretty common and can be … well, really serious.

‘Fuck, I’m sorry. He’s a good bloke.’

łYeah. Anyway, before you initiate me into your blub club, I’ll show you Cal’s room and you can decide whether the dinosaur wallpaper is going to give you nightmares, or whether you’d rather have a camp bed in my office. Although I should warn you that Cal has been looking forward to you sleeping in the bottom bunk for days.

Beth and Lis were also upstairs, Lis exclaiming over various items of furniture and décor. We met up in Cal’s room, which seemed to be a mini version of Dinosaurland. Wallpaper, bedding, models on the shelves, he had the lot.

‘Whoa.’

_Think you can sleep in here, sweetheart?

‘Only in the bottom bunk. Nice and dark, can’t see all the teeth.’

łLucky you’ve got piss-poor arms, then. No ladders for you.

~Oh, Beth, that reminds me, Dec’s dressings need changing tomorrow. Rose sent along all the stuff and some instructions, can I show you? Is it in your bag, here, Dec?

‘I think so. Rose packed it all.’

~Let’s have a look, shall I show you downstairs?

Lis left with Beth. There was a pause.

łSo how is your arm now?

‘Getting there.’

Jay gave me a look, and I gave in, realising that sometimes I had to give more than the basic amount of information.

‘No, I mean it. After the operation it was so much better. My collar bone was really hurting before, the plaster kept dragging on it, and I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t move my arm or my fingers. It bloody hurts now, but I can bend my elbow and hold things. I can feel it getting better. Slow progress though, frustrating. I just want to get back to training again.’

łGlad to hear it. When will that be? You must have seen Pete and Steve by now. And I’m sure Don has his opinions.

‘Yeah, they want me to go in on the sixth.’

łThat’s great. You’ll really start to feel a difference once they get their hands on you. Stay positive, mate.

‘Yeah.’

łHey, sounds like dinner might be ready. Let’s go get spaghetti bognose.

Cal

Before long, dinner was ready. The grown-ups were having spaghetti bognose (it was what I called it once, and after that, it was spaghetti bognose forever), and I was having fish fingers, which was my current favourite dinner of all time.

I sat next to Dec, and felt happy that we were all there again, at the table, like we used to be. I looked at Dec a lot, because although I was happy he was there, and everything felt right again, his face looked wrong, with all the bruises and cuts, and I couldn’t help being interested, even though Mum was trying to tell me to stop looking without saying it. In the end, I had to say something.

‘Dec …’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘You know your skins were held together with sewing when you looked like a Frankystein?’

I’d seen pictures in my Mega Monsters book, and Dec’s train tracks had looked just like Frankenstein’s monster. Mum started to say shh, but I knew Dec would answer me, because he always answered me, even when I asked him about poo.

‘It’s OK. Yes, I remember.’

‘But the sewing isn’t there now, so how are your skins still together? Will they come unstuck when you eat something big?’

Mum had explained it back when Dec was first in hospital, but I couldn’t quite believe that Dec had let a doctor do sewing on his face. Needles were sharp, Mum was always telling me to mind out when she sewed buttons on my school shirt, and surely it would hurt more to have your face sewed than to have a cut on it.

‘I hope not! My skin has grown back together now, so the doctor took the stitches out and it will stay together all by itself.’

It was a shame that I wasn’t going to see Dec’s face split open when he ate a big mouthful of bognose, but I still had more questions.

‘But how did your skins come apart?’

Dec

Fuck, how do you explain a glassing to a six year old? I looked at Beth and Jay. Jay shrugged, a look of amusement on his face. Beth looked on warily. They had always let me explain myself to Cal – there had been a fair amount of explaining at times, things like hangovers, girlfriends, speeding tickets – but Beth always kept an eye and rescued me if I was struggling too much.

‘Well, you remember when I was in hospital and I had bruises and cuts and things?’

\yes, some bad men hit you.

I silently thanked whoever had explained things so simply to Cal.

‘Well, when they hit me, my face got cut and the doctor had to sew me up so my dinner wouldn’t come out of my cheeks. That would have been a bit of a pain.

\it would be awesome.

‘Not if you’re trying to drink a slushie, you’d dribble quite a lot, most of it would fall out.’

He considered this, nodding.

\did it hurt?

‘What, the cuts or the stitches?’

\when they sewed you.

‘Well, I was asleep when they did it, so it didn’t hurt me at the time. But it was sore afterwards.

\do your lines hurt?

‘My lines?’

łHe means your scars. They are still quite impressively sore looking.

‘Oh.’

I ran my finger along the line running down the side of my face, which made it tingle and sting.

‘Well, maybe a bit when I touch them. It hurts when I use my razor.’

Cal

Dec had a lot of whiskers on his face, and it looked like he hadn’t used his razor for a long time. Dad thought so too.

‘So that’s the reason for the designer stubble. Thought you were trying a new look, to combat the girly hair.’

Dec had really long hair now, and it did look like a girl’s hair. He could probably even put it in a pony tail, like Jake’s brother did, but I was glad he didn’t.

‘OK, Cal, let Dec eat the rest of his dinner now, before his cheek falls open and his bognose falls on your plate.’

Dad was teasing. I knew now that there was, sadly, no chance of Dec’s cheek coming apart either now, or at future dinners.

Dec

_Well done, Dec, I’d forgotten how good you are at answering Cal’s questions.

It was Cal who was making it all normal. He was chatting to me like he always had, asking me the same searching questions, treating me like I was just Dec who’d been away for a bit, but was back now, rather than Dec who’d fucked everything up and nearly lost it all. Beth was threatening more tears, especially when Lis gave her hand a squeeze. Jay saved the day with:

łMore vomit cheese anyone? Parmesan to the uninitiated. Cal, more vomit on your fish fingers?

_James!

łHey, if it gets him eating it I’ll call it anything. I’ll call it a pile of sh … er … sheep sh…oes, eh Cal?

\daddy, you nearly sweared.

łNo I didn’t, sheep shoes is nowhere near a swear. You’ll have to keep an eye on Dec, though, he could swear at any moment. More sheep shoes anyone?

Beth’s teary moment passed, and chaotic order was restored to the dinner table.

Cal

Dad made a joke about the cheese being vomit cheese, which meant it smelt like sick, because it did, and then he pretended to do a swear, but turned it from a word beginning with ‘sh’ into ‘sheep shoes’ and he made me laugh, and Dec was smiling, and everything felt like it was alright, even though Mum had nearly cried and Lis had to hold her hand.

I really hoped people were going to stop crying or nearly crying soon, because everything stopped while they were doing it or nearly doing it, and I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, or get down from the table.

Dec

Lis left soon after dinner, facing a long drive back home. She asked when I wanted picking up. It wasn’t something I’d thought about, as I had been focussed entirely on getting here.

łIt’s OK, Lis, I’ll bring him back. We can take our time here, see how it goes, how long it takes Dec to get bored of us, and you don’t have to drive all that way again.

‘I can get a train, or a bus.’

łYeah, OK, Dec, we’ll drop you off at the nearest bus stop with that heavy bag you can’t carry, and you can make your own way back. Sorted, Lis, OK?

‘Just trying to be helpful.’

I grinned at Jay, enjoying the amicable bickering.

łNoted. I’m taking you back, end of.

Cal

Lis went home, and Dec came into Uncle Matty’s room to help me play with Lego, although he couldn’t do fiddly bits because of his fingers being hurt.

Uncle Matty was asleep, so I had Dec all to myself, like I used to, and Dec was as good as he used to be at playing with Lego, although after a while he said he was getting sore on the floor and was going to talk to Uncle Matty. I nearly said Uncle Matty was asleep, but I looked up, and he wasn’t, he was looking at us, so I stayed quiet.

I listened while Dec and Uncle Matty talked, although it wasn’t very interesting, but you never knew when grown-ups were going to forget you were there and say something, especially Dec, who wasn’t really a grown-up, and Uncle Matty, who was a grown-up because he was very old like Dad, but said a lot of things that made Mum go ‘Matty, honestly’.

Matt

I woke up a bit later, to find Cal and Dec playing with the cars on the floor of my room. I watched, undetected, for a while, part of me marvelling at how unselfconscious Dec was, kneeling on the floor, making ‘neenaa’ noises and handing Cal various bits of Lego, just being in Cal’s imaginary world. Another part of me was envious of the ease with which he was able, even with an apparently broken arm and some serious lacerations, to move around on the floor. I wouldn’t even be able to get onto the floor unless I rolled off the bed and fell on my arse, and I wished I had some of Dec’s apparent power for fast healing. Dec turned round after a while, and saw me watching.

‘Know what, Cal, I’m getting a bit sore kneeling down here on the floor, I’m going to sit in this chair for a bit and talk to Matt. Let me know if you want me to find anything else.’

He stood up, stretched and plonked himself in the armchair by my bed, looking at me for a while as if unsure where to start. Then, like everyone did, he started with me being ill.

Dec

I didn’t know Matt that well, and all I could really think of to talk about was his health. Not inspiring, but everyone has to start somewhere.

‘Sorry you’ve been so poorly. Not much fun.’

Matt

I suppose it was as good a place as any when it was all you really knew about someone, but part of me wanted to shout ‘I’ve had a fucking life, a fucking job, a fucking flat of my own, I love hiking, and Spurs, and reading books about maths, and there’s more to me than being fucking ill’ but I didn’t, mostly because it would have taken me about an hour and I would have fallen asleep before I got to the end.

‘Noh. Better than I wahs tho.’

In the end, I took Dec’s conversation starter for what it was. I hadn’t had anyone new to talk to since Sally, and even if I had to talk about being ill, I might be able to do it in a different way.

‘Jay said you had it really bad a while ago.’

‘I knoh they all thoht I wouldn’t mahk it. Dohnt member much. How bouh yuh?’

Dec having problems of his own gave me something to reflect back, someone else’s story to find out, and I thought I’d have a go at delving a bit into the recent travails of the adolescent. Except I realised with a sudden shift in my perception that he wasn’t anymore. He was nineteen, and he was different. The last time I’d seen him, he had been open and talkative, and that was still there, but there was a reserve. He was quieter, more subdued. He seemed older than nineteen. Maybe with everything that had happened to him in the last few months, he needed someone to talk to as much as I needed not to talk about me?

‘Getting there. It’s been a shit year – sorry Cal, pretend you didn’t hear that. But now I feel like things are getting better.’

He even noticed when he swore these days. Didn’t seem stop him, but at least he noticed.

‘Good for yuh. Yuhr face sahys dihfrent tho. Yuhv had a hard tihm, Jay said.’

I hated people talking about me behind my back, but I wanted Dec to know that I had heard a lot of his story.

‘I’ve got good friends, they’ve helped me a lot.’

A pang of envy shot through me, and I covered it up with a truism.

‘Simpohtant to hahv pehpl yuh lohv and lohv yuh.’

‘Very true.’

Jay came in with two cups of coffee. One of them was in the plastic beaker, and I cringed inwardly at what it would look like to Dec when Jay had to help me drink.

Good to see some bonding going on in Cripples Corner. Here you go, freshly made. Can you hold that OK Dec?’

So it wasn’t just me who was being fussed over. Interesting. Dec didn’t seem to mind, and just smiled at Jay as he carefully took the hot mug.

‘There’s a mat here on the table. Matty, here’s yours, do you want to sit up a bit?’

Well I was going to find it hard to drink lying down, wasn’t I.

‘Yeh.’

Jay pressed a button on the remote control that moved the bed into a sitting position. Dec sat in the chair, sipping coffee, pretending not to watch while Jay held my cup for me. Jay seemed to become aware of the awkwardness and thought of something to say.

‘Lis says hi, and it’s a shame you were too busy snoring to appreciate having a hot girl in your bedroom.’

I liked Lis, a lot. She was straight up, no nonsense, dirty laugh, heart of gold. And hot, she wasn’t wrong about that. She’d driven Dec up this afternoon, and I’d been asleep when she left. I was sorry to have missed her.

‘She’ll lihv.’

As witty comebacks go, it wasn’t top notch, but I was getting tired.

Dec been entertaining you with his exploits?’

Jay seemed to find it a lot easier talking about Dec’s troubles than he did mine. Maybe they were both part of that world, the physical world, the rugby world, where having your face smashed up was all in a day’s work, and you just got to your feet and carried on. I wanted him to acknowledge that I was trying to get to my feet, it was just taking a bit longer.

‘Exchange war stohries.’

You’ve both got plenty of those.’

Cal, who had seemed absorbed in his game, but always had his ears open, especially when you forgot about him, joined in.

Cal

I’d liked the sound of Cripples Corner when Dad said it, and couldn’t wait to say it out loud; it would sound funny. Until I got the chance, I was listening out for when I could join in with what they were saying.

‘Dec sweared.’

Matt

At that moment I loved the little six-year-old listening device, who had just dropped Dec right in it, even though he’d dropped him on the wrong person.

‘Oh, cheers Cal, I thought you were on my side.’

I tried for a bit of solidarity.

‘Swehrs allohed in Crihpls Cohner.’

Jay seemed agreeable.

Fair enough, no argument from me.’

Cal

This was going well. It felt like we were all boys together, and I wanted to be the same as them all.

‘Can I do a swear?’

It was worth a try, but Dad wasn’t falling for it.

Matt

Jay belatedly realised that he should perhaps have taken a different tack and tried to backpedal.

No. Just grown-ups. And just sometimes, when we can’t help it. Do you want any more of this, Matty?’

I decided to used the new loophole. Wait till Beth heard about it, she was going to go ape-shit. And then I could tell her she’d gone ape-shit and there was nothing she could do about it, because I totally owned Cripples Corner.

‘Noh thahks. Toh fucking tihred.’

I grinned at Cal, who was looking at me with something approaching awe, which made me grin even more, because we both knew I was about to embark on a major campaign of flouting of the ‘no swearing in the house’ rule.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled at me. He was still hard to understand sometimes, especially when he was tired, but we could always understand his swears. I looked at him in awe. If Mum heard him he would be in lots of trouble, even though he was poorly.

Matt

Jay tried some damage limitation.

You’re taking advantage now. OK, let’s leave you to it. Come on Cal, pack your stuff away, do you want to put Uncle Matty’s bed down?’

‘Yes.’

Cal

Dad tried to be strict, but he was nowhere near as good as Mum. He tried to frown, but couldn’t help smiling at the corners of his mouth, because he thought it was funny too. And he wasn’t really cross, because he asked if I wanted to put Uncle Matty’s bed down. I loved putting Uncle Matty’s bed down. In fact, I loved moving the bed all over the place. It went up and down so it could be high or low, and it bent in the middle so it could make Uncle Matty sit up, and a bit at the end bent so that his legs went up. I played with it a lot, and Uncle Matty let me put him in any way I could think of, although I hadn’t managed to make it roll him onto the floor yet.

Matt

Cal always wanted to put my bed down, it was all anyone could do to stop him playing with the controls while I was lying in the damn thing. Sometimes I let him, to see what weird and wonderful positions he could make me lie, sit and almost stand in. Jay handed Cal the remote and he lowered the bed to almost flat, judging it correctly almost to within a degree, so my chest was tilted enough to drain, but I was still in a good position to sleep. He’d had a lot of practice and was a quick learner.

Turn the lamp off as well. Good boy. Night Matty.’

Jay flicked the monitor on without comment and walked out, after brushing a hand over my forehead. Sometimes the smallest of gestures affected me the most deeply, and I hoped the darkness hid the tears starting to run from the corners of my eyes.

‘Night Matt. See you tomorrow.’

Then Dec was gone too, as was I shortly afterwards, dragged off to the land of nod by the sleep elves.

20. Hope in front of me

In which Dec and Cal find out what happens when you bounce on the bed, and explanations are attempted.

Dec

Noises, voices, pain, blurred, sleep, jumbled dreams. Dreamt Jay and Beth and Cal had been here.

Woke up suddenly. Sound of running water. Couldn’t open my eyes. Back hurt. Head hurt. Arms hurt. Legs hurt. Shifted position to continue inventory. Agony. May have screamed, or it may have been in my head. This was the worst fucking hangover I’d ever had. I thought I wasn’t supposed to drink? Why had I been drinking? Don was going to be so pissed off. I tried to open my eyes and look at where the sound of water was coming from, but my head started pounding and I groaned.

¬Oh hello. You’re back with us then. Just in time. I’m going to bathe your eyelids. Get some of this crusty stuff off. Might help you open your eyes. Lovely sunny day out there, shame for you to miss it.

Tried speaking, to whoever it was. She sounded friendly enough.

‘Phlwuthchst.’

Shit, what the fuck was wrong with my mouth? I could hardly speak, and when I tried, it hurt like a bitch.

¬I think you’ll need me to bathe your mouth too. Then you can tell us what you really think.

Whoever this was had the right idea. I needed to start talking, so I could ask some questions. If only I could think what the questions should be. Felt something warm and wet dabbing at my eyes. Stung like crazy. Whoa, this was the weirdest hangover ever. Winced. That hurt even more. What the fuck was happening to me? I tried to move my head away, felt a hand on my cheek, steadying me.

¬Sorry m’dear, won’t take long. Keep still.

Did as I was told, hoping things would become clearer in time. Images from before began to flutter into my head. Sounds, voices – Cal. Jay. Had I dreamed it? Or had Jay, Beth and Cal really all been here, with me?

‘Cckchll’

¬Wait a bit, m’dear, not quite there yet.

‘Vthhh’

¬I see we’re going to have some trouble with you. Bit of patience please.

‘Zshhay’

¬I know, I know, I’m going as fast as I can. OK, that’s your eyes done, have a bit of a go opening them. Slowly, it might hurt.

Again, did as I was told. Through a small opening, beyond the blur of my eyelashes, I saw a blonde woman peering into my face. She was wearing a white tunic. She was pretty. Her name was Michelle, and she was a nurse. It said so on her name badge. Jay’s voice drifted across my memory …

łAh mate, you’re in hospital.

Tried to remember more, but everything was jumbled up and confused. I was in hospital? Bit more than a hanger, then? Tried to remember what I’d been doing to end up here, but it was a blank. Wait, I saw Don yesterday, he told me I’ve still got my job – started to smile at that, but it hurt so much I stopped moving my mouth. The nurse was still looking at me.

¬Hello! Very good m’dear. Your eyes are still very swollen, so it’ll be a while before you can open them the whole way. But not bad for a first try. It should get a bit easier now we’ve got all the gunk off.

She smiled and turned back to a bowl on a trolley.

¬OK then, mouth next.

She dipped some cotton wool into water in the bowl and dabbed it across my lips. She was gentle, but it still stung a lot. What had happened to my mouth? And my eyes? Why did I need a nurse? I was still fuzzy, couldn’t work it out, I tried to think about it, but the stinging from whatever was on the cotton wool was too distracting. Some of the liquid dribbled between my lips. It tasted vile and it stung to buggery. The cotton wool came away red. The nurse discarded it and got another bit.

¬Alright there?

Couldn’t speak, so nodded as much as I could, which wasn’t much.

¬Goodo, let’s keep going then. Nearly finished.

Three more bits of cotton wool later, and she was done.

¬OK, that’s that. Have a bit of a move of your lips if you can, see how it feels. Couldn’t do it before we got rid of the crusty stuff, in case it split again.

Did as I was told. I was getting good at it. Tongue felt huge and furry. Lips very painful, bruised, split and swollen. It all felt very disconnected from my face.

¬Like a drink?

Fuck, yes! I was parched. A drink suddenly seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had.

‘Mm.’

¬Ok, then, let’s sit you up.

She pressed some button somewhere that made the bed sit up underneath me.

¬Start with water. Here you are.

She held out a plastic tumbler, with a straw in it.

¬Small sips, please.

Even though it hurt to suck, it was the most delicious drink ever. Felt it running across my swollen tongue and down my throat. Sipped and sipped until the glass was empty. She took it away from my mouth.

¬Try now – would you like to say a few words?

From between my filmy eyelids I saw her hold an invisible microphone up to my mouth. All my questions fought briefly for dominance, but it seemed I needed above all to know if what I remembered from last night was real. Had they all really been here or was it some kind of dream torture? Nothing was clear in my head, it was all scrambled. How the fuck was I going to ask?

‘Hee …’

Stopped in frustration. My mouth wasn’t making the right shapes to say the word.

¬No rush, take your time.

‘Hhshay.’

Bloody hell this was difficult.

‘Ghshay.’

Shook my head. Tried again.

‘Gshay.’

Better.

‘Shay.’

Best I was going to do.

‘Shay. Mm. Shay.’

After all that, she looked puzzled.

¬Alright, might take a bit of guess work, I’ll give it a go. Want me to say something? No. Ask me about something?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. Where am I, what am I doing here, isn’t that what they do in the films?

No response from me. I did want to know what I was doing here, but there was something more important I needed to know.

¬Sorry, flippant. OK, have another go.

It was worse than frustrating. Tried another tack.

‘Vsstrrs’

¬Ooh, visitors?

At last.

‘Mm.’

¬Well I’m glad we sorted that one out. You’ve had quite a few visitors since you came in yesterday. Want to know about that?

Sagged with relief. Now I was getting somewhere.

‘Mm.’

¬OK, let’s see, I wasn’t on when you were admitted, but when I got here you had a family with you.

That was it. Surely it must be them? Hope and caution battled in me. Don’t get carried away, it can’t be possible.

‘Mm. Mm.’

¬Hey, we got there, that didn’t take long. The mum and little boy left earlier on, but the dad stayed until we moved you in here, a couple of hours ago. What else did you want to know?

Tried to say where are they, but only ended up blowing bad breath over the bedclothes.

¬Wondering when they’re coming back?

Or if. But when would be better.

‘Mm.’

¬I’ll see if I can find out. Might be something on your file. Depends if they talked to the charge nurse before they left. Won’t be a tick.

She walked briskly out of the room. Left to myself, I sank into the pillow. Looked up through the gap in my eyelids to the ceiling. Couldn’t face thinking about whether they had really been here, or what it might mean if they had.

Started to catalogue the pain, trying to work out what the fuck had happened to me. I hurt pretty much everywhere. Face felt giant, and there seemed to be something stuck to my nose. Scalp hurt. Back shrieked. Couldn’t move my right arm. Glanced down. Plaster from knuckles to shoulder, sleeve cut off. Left arm, blackened hand peeking out of long sleeved pyjama top, sore and swollen. Metal splint on little finger. Tube from a drip on a stand by the side of the bed disappeared up my left sleeve. Tried to bend at the elbow. Stopped trying pretty quickly. Looked down at feet, humps under the bedclothes. Terrified I wouldn’t be able to move them. Tried an experimental toe-wiggle. Pain shot up my shins as I saw movement under the blankets. Moaned in pain and relief.

Checklist of body parts taken, but really none the wiser as to how I got here in this state, I looked beyond the bed. I was in a room on my own, bed, two chairs, a bedside cupboard with a vase of flowers. A card with a stegosaurus on it that said Hope Your Recovery is Dinomite. It was the sort of thing Cal might have chosen, but I couldn’t reach it to see who it was from. Painting of a tree screwed to the wall. A small window looking onto the side of a building. A patch of blue sky. In the corridor outside the door, footsteps, voices.

¬…that’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.

I looked at the door through the rapidly expanding slit in my vision, heart beating fast with expectancy. Thought my heart might burst with relief and joy when Cal ran into the room, followed by Beth and then Jay. Tried a smile, no idea what shape my lips made.

Cal

Because we were in a rush, we went out without me having my juice, and I asked a few times on the way if I could have a drink. Maybe I asked a lot of times. So when we got to the hospital and passed the shop near the door, Mum went in and got some purple squash that we could fill up with Dec’s water, and she picked up some pyjamas on the way to the till to pay. I hoped they weren’t for Dec, because it wasn’t a very exciting present, and I told Mum that Dec might like a Mars bar instead, so he could share it with me, but Mum said no. So I thought of something else.

‘I think Dec would like a magazine, Mummy.’

‘Oh, really, Cal? Any magazine in particular?’

‘This dinosaur one has got a toy of the front.’

‘Yes, I can see. How about you give Dec the magazine, but keep the toy?’

I could hardly believe my luck. I hadn’t even had to be that sneaky. And Dec would like the magazine; he talked to me about dinosaurs all the time. If I was really lucky, he’d say I could keep the magazine as well.

We walked along the corridors and up the stairs; there were loads of interesting things to see, like a lady on a big bed with wheels who had a plastic mask over her face, some people wearing all green running and shouting ‘get out of the way’, and someone in a wheelchair with a big bag on a pole like Dec had, only it was being wheeled along by the side of the chair. I didn’t have time to ask about one thing before I saw the next – it was a lot more exciting than Uncle Matty’s hospital.

And then we got to the place where Dec had been last night, but Dad took us round the corner, saying that Dec had gone into his own room early this morning, just before Dad had come back to go to sleep. We saw a nurse come out of a room, and Dad stopped her.

‘We’ve come to see Declan Summers. It’s not too early is it?’

The nurse looked at Dad with her head on one side.

‘Are you family?’

‘Ye … es.’

‘Oh, you were here last night, weren’t you. OK, that’s fine, then. He hasn’t been awake long, but I’ve just bathed his eyes and his mouth, he might even be able to talk to you.’

‘How is he?’

‘He was a bit disoriented, which is to be expected, and very battered and bruised, as I’m sure you know, but his CT scan showed nothing to worry about, and with a bit of luck he’ll be able to get back to normal.’

‘Oh James, that sounds great, doesn’t it. We’ve brought him his own pyjamas, I hope that’s OK.’

The nurse stepped towards the door she had just come out of, and opened it.

‘That’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.’

I ran in the room, wanting to see what Dec looked like this morning, and keen to show him the dinosaur magazine. Dec was sitting up in his bed, and although his eyes were swollen almost shut with bruises, they were open, and he was looking at me. His mouth moved, and I thought he might be trying to smile.

‘You’re in a different room please can I have some purple squash?’

‘Cal! Sorry Dec, he’s been saying he’s thirsty all the way here. We got you some blackcurrant squash, by the way, hope you don’t mind sharing. And some pyjamas. You don’t have to share those.’

Mum bent down and kissed Dec on the cheek while I stood at the side of the bed and looked at him. Then Mum made me a purple squash and I sat on the chair and drank it all in one go, waiting to see what would happen next.

Dec

Beth bent down and kissed me on the cheek. Bloody hell it hurt, but no way was I going to show it. Would have hugged her if either of my arms could have moved. She opened the bottle, poured some into a glass, filled it with water from a jug on the top of the cupboard, and handed it to Cal. He drank in big, noisy gulps, and started to wipe his mouth on the back of his hand when he’d finished, before he caught Beth’s eye and took the tissue she held out to him, as she looked at me and spoke.

_The nurse said you were talking.

‘Mm.’

_Although not long speeches yet I see.

She was being bright and breezy, but her eyes were wary. Jay was hanging back, looking tired, a guarded look in his eyes, tense and ill-at-ease. But it was so, so unbelievably good to see them. I felt like they could be dream people, about to disappear in insubstantial wisps. Still no idea what had happened to make them be here.

‘Gutuhsyu.’

A pause while Beth tried to translate.

_Sorry, Dec, you’re going to have to try again. Haven’t got my ‘I’ve been hit by a truck’ head on yet.

Had I been hit by a truck? The state of my body said yes. Memories from yesterday were vague and fragmented. No idea how I’d ended up here in this state, and as my brain started to wake up a bit, I was starting to worry.

Cal

I wasn’t sure why Mum thought Dec had been hit by a truck, when even I remembered he’d been hit by a bad man, but I was as good at understanding Dec as I was at understanding Uncle Matty, so I told her what he had said.

‘He said, ‘good to see you’. I heared him.’

Mum looked at Dec as if she didn’t think I could possibly have got it right, but Dec confirmed it.

‘Mm.’

Just to make it clear that I knew what I was talking about, I told them what that meant, as well.

‘That means yes.’

Dec

_It’s good to see you too, Dec. But not like this, so…

She waved her hand vaguely over the bed, and with horror I saw tears fill her eyes. Jay came over and put his arm round her protectively.

Cal, saviour of us all:

\do you like your dinosaur card?

‘Mm. Fm yu?’

\of course it’s from me. Stegosauruses are the best ones. I choosed it from the shop downstairs. It says ‘Dinomite’ but it’s spelled wrong on purpose so it looks like dinosaur. Mummy buyed it. And a Mars bar but I ate it. And some flowers, the nurse put them in a pot. We got you some squash today because I was thirsty. And a dinosaur magazine. Do you want to see it?

‘Mm. Luvtuh.’

\you can’t have the toy on the front, but you can see the picture of the triceratops in the middle, it’s awwwwesome.

Without warning, he launched himself onto the end of the bed, bouncing the mattress. There was such a protest of pain from every part of my body I couldn’t help myself shouting out:

Fuck!

Cal

I stopped dead, mid-crawl. Dec was not allowed to swear when I was nearby, and he had just shouted the baddest word I knew, very loud. He didn’t even look sorry, he just looked like he was breathing fast, and trying not to say it again. Mum didn’t even tell him off.

‘That was a very big swear.’

I wasn’t sure why no one had said anything; this should have earned Dec at least an ‘honestly Dec’, but Mum didn’t even look cross.

‘Yes, sweetheart, I understood that one. I think Dec means that he would like you to get off his bed and stop bouncing.

‘Mm.’

It seemed that Dec being hit by bad men changed quite a lot of things.

‘Let’s pull this chair next to the bed, you can sit here and show him your magazine. OK Dec?’

‘Grut.’

‘That means great.

‘Yes, Cal.’

I sat on the chair and held the magazine up so Dec could see. I couldn’t really tell if he was looking, because his eyes were nearly shut, but his head was pointed towards the pages and he did little nods every now and then as I turned over the pages. It wasn’t quite the same, because usually Dec would have been talking to me, and telling me stories about the pictures, making up names like ‘Terence the Pterodactyl’ and ‘Howard the Hadrosaur’ to make me laugh, but this time I did all the talking, because it hurt Dec to speak.

Dec

He flicked over a few pages, explaining what all the pictures were of, just like he would have done all those months ago when everything was normal and they still cared and I wasn’t in a hospital bed hardly able to move.

I was still trying to work it all out, looking from Cal to Beth to Jay, when I heard voices outside, one raised in protest, one stating intent.

¬You can’t go in, he’s already got three visitors, you’ll have to wait for someone to come out. There’s a chair here, look. I’m sure they won’t be long.

:Look, love, I’ve come all the way from across town, on my day off, on the bus, and you’re not stopping me. I’ll sort it out in there, you don’t have to worry.

‘Rz.’

Cal looked up at me, puzzled. The door opened.

¬You can’t just –

But she could, and she did. The nurse hovered at the door, looking at me. I tried to nod that it was OK, as Rose bustled forwards. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, and for the second time that day I saw eyes fill with tears. No more crying over me, please. Couldn’t take it.

:Oh love, look at you.

She came over to hug me. Didn’t think I would survive one of Rose’s envelopings.

‘Nnuh.’

Cal

As Mum stepped forwards, hands out ready to stop her, I realised why Dec didn’t want the cuddle. He didn’t want to do a big swear to this lady.

‘That means no.’

The lady stepped back, and looked at me, Mum and Dad.

‘Rz. Hh.’

Rose looked at Dec again, her mouth open a little bit.

‘Sry. Hrts.’

I thought she might not know what Dec was saying, so I told her what he meant.

‘Dec can’t talk properly. He said he’s sorry it hurts. He means if you cuddle him he might cry, or say a big swear. I jumped on his bed and he said a very big swear.’

The lady looked at me and smiled.

‘Well thank you young man, I see you speak Declanese. He says a lot of big swears, he seems to quite enjoy it. It might not have been your fault, love.’

I grinned at the lady. I liked that she called Dec’s way of talking ‘Declanese’.

Dec

‘Rz. Shay. Vth.’

I tried to direct her gaze with my eyes, but she probably couldn’t see much of them underneath my swollen eyelids. She looked at Cal, already trusting him to know what I was saying.

\I don’t know what Rz means. Jay is my Daddy and Beth is my Mummy.

Light dawned in Rose’s eyes and she glanced quickly at both of them, then back at Cal.

:I can help you there. I think Rz must be me. I’m Rose.

She looked at me, eyes shining; she looked as happy as I felt.

:Oh Declan, they’re here, love.

She turned to face Jay and Beth.

:You’re Declan’s family, aren’t you. I didn’t know you’d … you must have … didn’t know you were here. Oh, there’s grand now. He’s told me lots about you all.

\what did he tell you about me?

Rose turned back to Cal.

:Well, let’s see now. You must be Calum. Declan says you really like dinosaurs. You’re very good at football and your team is … er … Arsenal?

\who’s my favourite player?

Cal was relishing his role as official examiner.

:Oh, er …

Seeing mild panic behind Rose’s eyes, I ventured

‘Thuh Wct.’

:No chance, love, but thanks for trying. Sorry, love, I expect he told me, but I’m not much good at footballers.

\what did he say about Mummy and Daddy?

łThat’s enough, Cal.

It was the first time Jay had spoken since he came into the room. Rose spoke to Cal, but directed her words at Jay.

:He’s alright, love. I’ll tell you, shall I? Declan told me your mam and dad were like the best family he could ever have wanted. He told me he did some wrong things, and wishes he hadn’t because losing his family has made him so sad and it’s made a lot of trouble for everyone, and meant he couldn’t see you and your mam and dad any more. He also told me that your mam makes really good roast potatoes, better than mine he says, although I find that hard to believe, and your dad drives too fast, which I think Declan quite likes.

Cal

Dec really had told Rose everything about us. Dad really did drive fast, and Mum really did cook roast potatoes. I didn’t even know who Rose was, I’d never seen her before, but I wondered if Rose was Dec’s mum, although I thought he didn’t have a mum. Before I could ask, Rose started talking again. She talked a lot. She wanted to know what had happened to Dec, but Mum wasn’t just going to tell her without permission from Dec.

‘If that’s OK with Dec.’

Mum looked at Dec, checking. I don’t think she knew who Rose was either.

‘Mm. Rzs gd frnd’

‘He said Rose is a good friend.’

‘Thank you sweetheart, I think Dec’s getting a bit easier to understand. OK, well, lovely to meet you Rose. Actually, Nico told us a lot about you, how you’ve looked after Dec. Thanks for what you said. It means a lot to James and me.’

So she did know who Rose was. I would have to ask later if she was Dec’s mum.

‘As for what’s happened, well, Cal, why don’t we go and get you a slushie, and Rose and Daddy and Dec can have a talk?’

I was torn between wanting a slushie, and maybe other things if I asked enough times, and wanting to stay and find out what Dad said to Rose.

‘But they won’t understand Dec if I’m not here.’

‘I think they’ll be OK. Green or blue slushie?’

Dec

He skipped out of the room with Beth.

\green. And can I have Monster Munch…

Cal’s list of requests faded into the distance. Jay and Rose talked while I lay back and let them. I didn’t know how I had ended up here, most of it was very hazy, a lot of it was missing. Now I’d had a chance to think, I could remember everything up to leaving the little office to go to the press conference, then there were fragments, shards I didn’t really want to explore as they mostly held pain.

A sudden recollection of lying helplessly on the ground watching a boot approach my face. Maybe not a truck then.

I tried to focus while Jay told Rose about finding me in the car park at Raiders Stadium, half underneath a car. He had only called at the club to drop off some paperwork on his way back up the motorway, and had nearly tripped over me. He hadn’t recognised me, so bloody and battered was my face. He had to talk to the police before they would let him drive back, and it wasn’t until they asked him if he knew me, that he realised. They had come to the hospital straight away, Jay had sat with me all night, Beth and Cal staying with Nico and Lisa.

łThey moved him to this room late last night, or more like early this morning – only a couple of hours ago, actually. Apparently the police thought it might be a good idea. Think it might be some kind of payback for the – I don’t know how much you know –

He looked over at me.

‘Rz kns vrythng.’

łOK then, payback for the points Raiders lost because of the passport thing. Lots of angry people, but nobody knows who did it.

:Well I’m glad you were here, love, I’d have hated to think of him being alone.

łI think Dec’s had quite a few visitors, not that he’d remember many of them, he’s been pretty much out of it since he came in. Massive dose of painkillers, as well as the bangs to the head. The doctor said he might not remember much about any of it. He woke up for a short time last night, but they whacked more meds in and he was out for the count again. Not surprised he’s been lazing around half the morning.

:He is a bit of a lazy sod.

‘Pss ff’

:Well that came out loud and clear, love. So, what’s the damage? I can obviously see his face, don’t know if you’ve seen yourself yet, love, you’re a bit of a sight. Plenty of time for that, now. And a broken arm. Anything more serious?

łI don’t know if I can remember the full list. He seems to have been hit over the head with a bottle, they had to pick glass out of his cuts before they stitched them. He was unconscious for a while, but they didn’t think any permanent damage, though how would they ever tell, eh Dec? Some of the cuts were fairly deep, looks like a glassing, but nothing major severed. And nothing internal that they could find. But they’re being careful. He’s been punched and kicked, probably while on the ground. Lots of bruises, lots of stitches, you can see all that. Broken collar bone – might need an operation on that. Thought he might have a broken jaw, but just badly bruised. Broken nose – that can only improve his looks. Can’t look at his eyes properly yet, but they think just bruising and swelling. Broken little finger, looks like someone stamped on his hand, you can see the footprint, look…

They both inspected the damage. I could only concentrate on two pieces of information. I had been beaten up, or kicked, or something. And Jay, Beth and Cal were here. They were all here, and talking to me and looking like they cared about me and might not want me to fuck off and die. It felt fragile, though, as if it might shatter any second and leave me back where I’d been.

ł… kind of tube in for his pee at the moment – he’s been pretty heavily medicated and they couldn’t get him to the loo. Bit undignified, eh, Dec?

So that was what that weird sensation had been. Hadn’t been able to explore due to two non-functioning hands.

łHe’s been pretty lucky. Could have been a lot worse.

Not sure my pains agreed with him.

:Especially if you hadn’t found him. Oh, love. Who did this to you?

She shuffled her chair closer to the bed and tried to find a part of me to touch that wouldn’t hurt. She failed, but it was OK. I had no answer to her question.

:I don’t know what to say, love. After everything that’s happened to you. It’s so unfair.

łBloody good job he plays rugby. He’s fit and strong. He’ll heal quickly. Seen worse than this after a collision with a loose-head, eh Dec? He’ll be back in training in a few weeks.

Rose laughed.

łI’m serious! He won’t be allowed to sit around feeling sorry for himself. He’ll be back in training soon as his breaks have healed. Maybe before.

Rose harrumphed a bit and the set of her jaw told me what she thought of that.

:Well we’ll see now, I s’pose, won’t we.

There was a brief pause. Rose looked determinedly at Jay, who looked back with an amused expression on his face. Rose changed tack.

:Now, look here. Declan knows I’m an interfering old busybody –

‘Struh.’

:No, don’t you try and deny it, love. Anyway, what I want to know is, you being here with your family, is everything put right now with the two of you?

There was a weighty silence. I hardly dared breathe, although I continued to do so noisily through my swollen nose. Jay looked down at his hands. Then at Rose. Then at me. I shut my eyes completely. Would have shut my ears if I could have. Really didn’t know if I could take his answer. He took a deep breath. Blew it out. I felt like everything was balancing on what Jay said now.

łAlright then. I don’t know if this is the right time or place, Dec, but I think I need to say this. You really messed up. You pissed all over me and Beth, you pissed all over Raiders. We couldn’t understand it. Still don’t think I really get it. I thought we were finished, you and me. Well, you know, I said it all before.

The searing pain of being dismissed by Jay in the car park cut through me again. I almost gasped at the memory.

łCouldn’t even say your name, didn’t talk about it, I was so angry about everything, what you’d done, what you’d lied about. When Cal rang you that time, I was so mad at him, he stopped asking me about you too. God knows what that did to the poor little sod. Jesus, what a mess. Anyway, then you found Cal when he ran away, and, I dunno, it changed something. Started talking to Beth, we started talking about you, still thoroughly pissed off, but wondering why you’d done it all … thinking up reasons, maybe it was this, maybe that, maybe if we’d said … whatever. Then Friday we came to stay with Nico and Lis, and Nico came back and told us what a state you were in; he thought you were close to doing something daft to yourself.

Had I been? Friday night was a bit of a blur. I’d been in a state, no doubt about that, but the details weren’t easy to grasp onto.

łHe rang some psychiatrist he knows to talk about you, I think he nearly got someone to come and have a look at you. I was worried about you, for the first time in a long time. It felt weird. Beth and I talked all night, trying to decide how we were feeling. Didn’t reach any conclusions. Then something like this happens, and, shit, I dunno … turns out, we still care after all. Can’t ignore that. You’ve been a prick. But there it is. I think family stays family, in the end. Or something like that.

Wait, was Jay saying, actually saying out loud, that I was part of his family? It had never been actually said before, hadn’t needed to be before everything went tits up.

łWhat Rose just said about you telling her we’re your family, and you thought you’d lost us, that’s helped. We felt like you’d thrown all that back in our faces, didn’t want us or need us any more, so knowing you think of us as family too is really important. Dec, I really don’t understand what’s been going on with you the last few months. But I think I want to, need to. Probably need some kind of bloody deep and meaningful as soon as I can understand what the fuck you’re saying, mate.

Couldn’t speak. Even if my mouth had been working, my throat had closed with emotion. Tears leaked excruciatingly out of my eyes and stung various parts of my face on their way down. Rose patted my arm gently. The balance had tipped; it felt like things with Jay might be starting to be OK.

:I’m very glad to hear it, love. Now, what I want to know-

Cal

Mum held her hand out, and the slushie won.

‘Green. And can I have Monster Munch and another Mars Bar? And can we see if they’ve got a Lego magazine?’

Mum laughed. ‘Slow down, Cal. We’ll get the slushie first, shall we, and see how it goes.’

All the way to the shop, I asked Mum questions about Dec. Now it was OK to talk about him, there was a lot I wanted to say.

‘Why can’t Dec talk properly?’

‘You saw his mouth, sweetheart, it’s very swollen and it must hurt a lot. Remember when you shut your finger in the door and it swelled up and wouldn’t bend?’

I nodded. My finger had gone purple and blue and doubled in size. And it had hurt. A lot.

‘That’s what’s happened with Dec’s mouth. It will get better, he’ll get more used to speaking with swollen lips, and the swelling will go down.’

‘Is the bag with water in it for Dec to drink through his arm?’

‘That’s right, clever boy, do you remember from the one Uncle Matty had? Dec hasn’t been able to drink for himself, or have anything to eat, so they put special water in the bag so he doesn’t get hungry or thirsty. There’s a bag under the covers to take Dec’s wee away too, so he doesn’t have to get up to go to the loo.’

I remembered Uncle Matty’s wee bag; I had been very interested in that as well. Why didn’t everyone have one? It would save all sorts of complications. I was so interested that I asked more questions, even though I knew the answers.

‘Does his wee bag come out of his arm?’

‘No, there’s a tube coming out of his willy.’

Oh. Suddenly I remembered why everyone didn’t have one. Time for another question.

‘Mummy are we cross with Dec?’

‘Oh Cal. I know this is confusing for you. Alright, let’s see if I can explain. Dec did some things that made me and Daddy cross and disappointed. We’re still trying to understand why he did them, but I think Daddy and me feel more like helping Dec than being cross with him at the moment. He looks like he could do with some help, doesn’t he?’

‘Will he have to share my room?’

‘What?’

‘When he lives in our house.’

Mum walked on for a bit, not saying anything.

‘Let’s just wait for him to get better first, Cal. Look, there’s the shop. Go and ask for your slushie.’

I ran over to the counter and asked. Mum paid, and then thought it might be good to get some snacks for the journey home. I, of course, had lots of helpful suggestions, and Mum soon had a full basket.

I had been sipping my slushie through the straw while I waited for Mum to pay, and the ice had numbed my lips. I thought about when my finger hurt, and then about Dec’s mouth, and it made me wonder …

‘Mummy, does Dec’s mouth hurt?’

‘I expect so, sweetheart.’

‘If he had some slushie, would it make it stop hurting?’

Mum stopped and looked at me.

‘What a brilliant idea! Would you like to share your slushie with him?’

I’d been thinking more along the lines of getting him his own, but Mum was big on sharing, and I nodded my reluctant agreement.

‘Can we go and give it to him?’

‘Just let me finish paying, sweetheart, then we’ll hurry back.’

I had a few slurps of slushie before leaving the shop, just in case Dec drank the lot, and then we started back to Dec’s room, me holding the cardboard cup with one hand and Mum’s hand with the other.

Dec

What Rose wanted to know was interrupted by the door opening and Nico striding in, closely followed by Nurse Michelle and Lisa.

>Ha, you see, you say four people, but only there is two. And one of them is Rose, she is very small and quiet, she is no trouble. I am trouble if I don’t get in this room – but, ha, I am in. Thank you Michelle, you are very helping.

Lisa was watching from the rear, with a half resigned, half amused look on her face.

~I’m so sorry, he’s always like this. We’ll be quick, and quiet, promise.

Michelle gave Nico a look that was a mixture of scowl and flirty smile.

¬Well alright then, but really quick, the police want to see him, and then I think he needs some peace and quiet.

>Thank you. You are beautiful.

He blew her a kiss. The force of nature that was Nico Tiago. Michelle raised her eyebrows at Lisa and shut the door on her way out. Nico turned to his audience and bowed. Jay gave him a slow handclap, Rose sat and looked at him, mouth slightly agape, until he gave her a huge hug.

>Ah Rose, I am so happy you are here, you get my message. I worry you not know about Declan. This is Lis, my beautiful wife, I tell her all about you. I think you like her.

Lisa and Rose smiled at each other. I was keeping a low profile, trying to get my emotions under control, not succeeding. Nico turned to me, and the fun went out of his face. Lisa was looking at me with horror, a hand over her mouth. I looked away to avoid the inevitable eyes filling with tears. Nico put an arm round her.

>OK baby? I tell you he look bad. Declan, how are you? You look not so horrible as last night, but horrible still. Who did this?

‘Ownno.’

łDec’s needing translations from Cal at the moment, Nico. But I don’t think he knows who did it.

Jay raised his eyebrows at me.

‘Mm.’

łWe can work out the yeses. So I guess we can talk by process of elimination. Oh, and he can say ‘fuck’ and ‘piss off’ pretty clearly. Funny that. And other things are getting clearer slowly, but it’s still a fairly limited vocabulary.

On cue, my mini-interpreter burst into the room, carrying a large cardboard cup with a straw.

Cal

As we got close to Dec’s room, I started to run, eager to see Dec again and make him talk better. I ignored Mum telling me to walk, or failing that to hold on tight to the cup, and pushed the door to the room open.

‘Dec, drink some slushie. It’s icy. Your voice will come back. Will it go green in your wee? Can I see your wee bag?’

‘Cal! Dec’s wee is private. Sorry, Dec, he’s just so curious about everything.’

Disappointingly, this meant I wouldn’t get to see Dec’s wee bag, or any green slushie wee, so I took the cup to him and put the straw in his mouth. Mum fussed about a bit, and then everyone decided that Dec needed a spoon instead of a straw, but in the end Dec got mouthfuls of slushie, and managed to talk better, although I was right and he had the whole cup to himself.

Dec

Cal shoved the drink under my nose, the straw sticking painfully into a sore area above my lip.

_Careful Cal, look, hold the straw like this so Dec can sip. Sorry, Dec, we had this idea that the ice would soothe your throat and might make it easier for you to talk. You don’t have to.

‘Sskay.’

>I think it work already, Declan talk!

Cal noticed Nico for the first time.

\nico, Dec can talk but only I can understand him.

>I know this, Cal. But I like your way to help Declan to talk.

\i already helped him once. I jumped on the bed and made him say a really bad swear.

>Ha! I would like to try this. You show me how, maybe later. I am bigger than you, maybe he say even badder swears.

While Cal’s eyes grew round at the thought of badder swears than ‘fuck’, Beth had positioned the straw so I could sip the slushie. Although sucking hurt the muscles in my face and pulled painfully on my lips, it was worth it for the combined pleasure and relief of fluorescent green ice slipping over my tongue and down my throat. I could feel it taming the fire in my throat, most of which was thirst. I closed my eyes and moaned with relief.

~Dec, would a spoon be easier? You’ll get more in that way, yeah?

Brilliant idea. I looked gratefully at Lisa.

‘Mmmm.’

:I’ll go and sort it out.

Rose hurried off to commandeer a spoon. I could already feel the small amount of ice I had swallowed trickling soothingly down my throat.

‘Thks Chll.’

\dec said thanks Cal.

He informed his watching public.

>Cal you are small genius. You do very well for Declan.

Rose soon returned with a spoon to try.

:I thought a metal one might hurt your mouth love, so they found this plastic one, it’s not that big though. You don’t look like you can feed yourself with that arm and that hand. Can you put up with me feeding you?

Of all the recent indignities, this one was pretty easy to bear.

‘Mm.’

Rose sat by the bed and spooned the ice into me. I was very conscious of everyone watching, but the eyes on me were the ones I loved best in the world, so it was OK. The slushie was like magic. The pain and swelling in my throat reduced considerably. There was a similar effect on my lips too.

:How’s that now, love?

‘Mm … muhch bhetter’

Not bad for a first post-ice attempt. It still hurt to talk, and I wasn’t going to be making any speeches anytime soon, but it was a great start.

‘Thuhnks. Luv yuh uhll.’

A bit briefer and more sentimental than it would have been had I had my voice back properly, but the message was there. Rose, Beth and Lisa all teared up again, I really was going to have to have words about that, when I had access to more of them.

łI think it’s fair to say we all feel the same way, Dec. Fuck knows what you’ve done to deserve it. Sorry Cal. Dec’s a bad influence on me.

Jay ruffled Cal’s hair, pulled him in closer and kissed him on the top of his head.

łDec, I’m really sorry, we’re going to have to go. I … don’t know if you know … Matty’s really poorly. He’s got multiple sclerosis and pneumonia, and he’s … he nearly … he’s had a really bad time over the last couple of months.

Matt was Jay’s brother. He lived in the Midlands, near Jay’s mum.

‘Nah way. Suhry.’

łHe’s one of the main reasons I left Raiders. I need to look after him. I … I was …

Jay started to choke up. Beth held his hand.

_Dec, we’ve both said some things to you we regret. We were very angry and upset, and it was a bad time for us. I think that’s behind us now. James has been struggling with what to do for a while, since before things … well … changed between us. We felt it would be difficult to be with Matty while we still felt responsible for you. When everything happened with you, it seemed to make the decision easier. We didn’t realise how much you’d been struggling too, until Nico and Lis told us, and I’m so sorry if some of that was down to us, sweetheart.

Beth came over and kissed me on the forehead. I was almost speechless but just managed a lame

‘S’okay.’

_But we’ve got to get back home. James’s mum’s been with Matty since Friday afternoon, and we should’ve been back last night, so we’ve got to get going. So sorry, Dec, we’ll be back to see you soon. Take care, sweetheart.

Jay gave me a very gentle punch on the shoulder.

łI’ll be in touch for that deep and meaningful. We’ll sort things out properly, yeah? Be strong, stay positive. Cal, say goodbye to Dec.

Cal came to the side of the bed. He looked at me for a while, considering.

\you can have my dinosaur magazine, and you can have the toy on the front.

‘Thnks uh lo. Read ih layher.’

And then, having hugged Nico, Lisa and Rose, they were gone.

Cal

It was so fast, I’d only just got used to being there, and I hadn’t even told him about my fire engine or asked when we could go to Dinosaurland. But now we were allowed to talk about Dec, I hoped I would be able to do both of those soon.

In the car on the way home, Mum and Dad were quiet, to start with. Dad started to say something a few times, and then Mum would shake her head, Dad would look in the mirror and see me, and stop talking. So I thought if I closed my eyes they would think I was asleep, and say interesting things, probably about Dec. And it worked.

‘What did you say while we were in the shop?’

‘How do you know I said anything?’

‘Everything was different when we got back. It felt like you’d cleared the air.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure the air’s completely clear, just yet. I told him we need a bloody good talk, soon as. But I said how it had been, and how it changed after yesterday, or after Friday, actually. You know what, I think we might get there. Jesus, Beth, how did that happen?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m glad, though. After everything Nico said, and all the talking we did on Friday night, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get past everything else, but this has just … oh …’

There were a few sniffles, and it sounded like Mum was crying.

‘Oh James, I was so scared last night. I’ve been so angry with him, but I never wanted anything to happen to him.’

‘I know. That’s kind of what I told him, that it doesn’t matter any more what he did, because we’re family.’

‘Oh James, really?’

‘It’s true, isn’t it? I didn’t realise until yesterday, when I thought he might … When you think you might lose someone, you find out what’s important. How did the little bastard get himself in here?’

I opened one eye a crack, wondering where Dad meant, and if Dec had got in the car somehow, but I saw Dad put his hand on his chest, so he meant in his heart.

‘I don’t know, but I feel the same. We’re going to have to keep in touch with him. Oh! I didn’t get Rose’s number. I was going to call her later.’

‘Nico’ll have it. She’s something else, isn’t she?’

‘She seems to care a lot about him. I’m glad he’s had someone to look out for him. God, when I think about how lonely he must have been …’

‘Yeah, well, he brought a lot of it on himself.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘I’m just being honest. He fucked up, Beth. We’ve got a way to go yet before I’m Mr Forgiveness.’

‘But you just said –’

‘I said he was family and what he did doesn’t matter. I know. But before I can just forget it, I need to understand it. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll call him tomorrow, or as soon as we can, start talking to him.’

‘Cal was happy to see him.’

‘Yeah, they’ve always been great mates.’

‘He asked when Dec was going to live with us.’

‘Shit.’

One of the good things about pretending to be asleep was that Dad was allowed to do swears and I could hear him.

‘We should make sure they talk too. Cal’s really missed him.’

‘Yeah. Oh it’s all such a bloody mess, isn’t it.’

‘Maybe, maybe not any more – James could you slow down a bit? I’m feeling a bit icky.’

‘Still? That’s all weekend, Beth. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?’

‘No.’

‘No what?’

‘No, I’m not sure I’m not coming down with something.’

‘Huh?’

‘It’s not just this weekend. I’ve been feeling sick all week, especially around coffee.’

‘Really? Coffee used to make you sick when … oh holy shit.’

‘I know. I’m going to get a test tomorrow.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. That would be fantastic.’

‘Well, let’s not count our chickens, or any other baby animals, it could still be a bug or something.’

‘Yeah, yeah, course. Holy shit.

I hadn’t understood much of what Mum and Dad had been talking about, although I wondered if we might be getting a chicken to lay eggs and keep Percy company, but the amount of bad swears that Dad didn’t get told off about forced my eyes open in surprise, and Dad saw me in the mirror. This stopped the conversation, and Mum turned music on for the rest of the way home.

19. Bless the broken road

In which a huge event has lasting ramifications for Dec, Cal is excited by all the blue lights, and Matty has a disappointment.

Cal

The next day, Dad had to go to work, Nico had to go to rugby, and I had to go shopping with Mum and Lis, and then Mum, Dad and me were going home.

I was glad when the shopping was over, and we could go back to Lis and Nico’s and have some pizza before we got in the car. Looking out for Dec had made me tired, and I hadn’t seen him anywhere. Mum had bought me a big fire engine that had blue flashing lights and real siren noises, and the ladder and the hose really worked, and I was looking forward to getting home so I could show Uncle Matty and play with it properly.

Dec

I stood smiling at the view from the window, soaking it all up. This place, this beautiful place, felt more like my home than anywhere. And I still belonged. I hadn’t really appreciated how much I had missed being a proper part of it, or how much I had been dreading being separated from it.

I was now full of energy and hopped from foot to foot. Remembered some of what Don had said about eating and drinking – there was a vending machine in the corridor so I bought a sports drink and a grain bar. Tried not to drop crumbs on the swanky chairs.

My phone buzzed in my pocket; it had been on silent.

Nico: =We are called in for special meeting before the game. Any news?

Me: =Don’t know abt meeting, but I’m staying. NOT SACKED!

Nico: =Great news 🙂

I needed to phone Rose. She would be worrying all day if I didn’t let her know. I was just scrolling through my contacts when there was a knock at the door. Stuart came in, smiled. I hurriedly put my phone back in my pocket.

^How are you feeling now?

‘Much better. Sorry, I was a bit out of it earlier.’

^We could see that. I’m sorry this has been such a stressful time for you. Hopefully things will get better for you now. Are you up to this meeting?

‘I’ll give it a go. Am I going to have to say much?’

^Adrian and Don are the ones to ask about that. You know where the media room is?

I nodded.

^OK, best get going.

‘Stuart, I can’t remember much of what I said before. Probably most of it didn’t make much sense. But thank you for this. I can’t believe it.’

^You played a huge part in this decision. It wasn’t taken lightly. Lots of people had lots of opinions, but your actions spoke very well for you. Be proud of yourself. Go on, get to your meeting.

The meeting about the press conference mainly focussed on what information Don wanted to give out and what he wanted to avoid giving out. Don wanted it to be clear that although I was remaining at the club, I was still being sanctioned by way of suspension for the part I had played in Raiders being docked ten points.

-People need someone to blame, someone to be getting punished. Declan, you’re our fall guy. We need to highlight how unhappy we are with how you handled things, so people don’t complain about you getting off lightly. I want you to be contrite and apologetic.

Adrian nodded in agreement.

.They’ll try and get an emotional reaction out of you, they might have some personal information, or use something from the past they’ve dug up, so be prepared for some questions maybe about your car accident, or maybe about how you presented yourself to the press when they took that photo of you that got in the Herald.

‘OK.’

Don didn’t want to discuss in detail the terms of my suspension, or how individual team members had reacted to the yesterday’s events. He wanted to highlight any positive consequences, like coaching the youth team and linking with Trojans, who were a Championship side in the next county. We discussed ways of deflecting unwanted questions and answering them with something we wanted to say. We went over and over the strategies. This was just as well, as I needed to focus. My mood had flipped from devastation to delight in a very short space of time, and everything felt scrambled. Adrian typed up a list for me, so I could review it while the game was on.

I was going to have to sit it out until after the match in an unused office. It was nowhere near as plush as the hospitality suite, and had no windows, but there was a TV where I could watch the game. It would be the first time I had watched any rugby for weeks – I hadn’t been able to face it on TV, and had not been allowed at the ground on match days. I hadn’t even been keeping up with scores and league positions until the last couple of days, when I needed to know how the points deductions were going to affect everything. Now I had been let back in, I was really excited to be a part of it all again.

Don wrapped up our meeting.

-OK, then, I’ve got the pre-match to attend to now. Declan, make yourself scarce. Change into your kit before the press conference. We’ll come and get you. It’ll be shortly after the game finishes. See you then.

I sat in the office for a long time waiting for the game to start. The catering staff had provided lunch, the same as the players were having together pre-match. Full of protein and energy. I was really hungry and ate it all. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had much of an appetite. Couldn’t believe how much difference this morning had made to how I felt. I had been under this cloud for weeks and now it was suddenly lifted. I felt lighter, straighter, less substantial, as if I could float away.

There wasn’t much to do in the office, and I should have been bored to tears, but I still had a lot of information and emotion to process. While I tried to get my head around things, I turned the TV on, flicking through the channels, looking for the sports channel where the Raiders game was being shown. There was a rugby preview programme on, so I stopped to watch that for a bit. They mentioned today’s game, the points deduction and how it affected league positions. Yesterday, I wouldn’t have been able to watch it; today, I sat through it. Uncomfortable viewing but bearable. I was amazed at the change in me.

I took my phone out – I needed to tell Rose. I had turned the ringer off by mistake when I put it back in my pocket and I had missed a couple of calls from her. Listened to the voice-mails:

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just seeing if there’s any news yet. Don’t worry about ringing back, unless you want to.

and

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just checking up on you. I’ve got to go to work this afternoon, but I’ll call you again when I get home. I’ll be out later, have my phone off I expect. Hope everything’s alright, love.

No point calling her now, she’d be at work. I’d do it later.

The afternoon’s build up to the game passed slowly. I imagined the gradually increasing crowd – people who liked to get there early, have a few beers, chat with their mates, get their favourite spot on the terraces, people who maybe had seated tickets who didn’t need to get there so early, all the kids getting excited, Raiders shirts, Raiders hats, Raiders flags, noise, activity, excitement.

Being stuck down here was weird; I could sense the atmosphere that would be mounting beyond the room I was in. The team would already be there, having a final team talk and any last minute physio or other treatment. They would be able to hear the crowd from the changing rooms, gradually getting louder until just before kick-off when it would reach a crescendo and the stadium announcer would whip them all up with a cheering contest. They were the best supporters, made a lot of noise, followed the team around all over the country and all over Europe. I had really let them down. It was time I repaid them however I could.

Finally it was kick-off time. I had sat through almost an hour of speculation pre-match on the sports channel, realising how little the pundits actually knew, and how much they could spin out the smallest piece of incorrect information. According to them, I was born in Australia, moved to England to join Raiders and had played for Australia under sixteens. They also said the discrepancy in my passport had been found in a routine check. They’d either got their facts completely wrong, or made it up, or it was misinformation given out by Raiders’ media office.

And then it was game time. I muted the sound on the TV for a few moments, and could hear the crowd beyond the room. It sent a tingle down my spine. They seemed to be getting behind the team even more following yesterday’s setback. I settled down to watch the team – my team.

Raiders won convincingly. Nico scored two tries. They played superbly – moves flowing, passes connecting, running, rucking, scrumming, tackling, everything was clicking. It was just the response Don would have wanted. Now the game was over, it was time for a few interviews with key players and the coaches, and then it would be the press conference.

My phone buzzed. A text

DivDav: =Good news 4 u mate. Fancy beer later?

Me: =Wld b gr8. r u @ club?

DivDav: =No but cld pick u up. Car park, 7? Usual spot.

DivDav liked to pretend he had a personal parking spot for his old Fiat. In reality it was the furthest reaches of the car park, where there was always a space.

Me: =OK, gr8.

I was more than a little touched. DivDav had given me a hard time when I was first suspended. But since paying him back the money I had borrowed, he had been more friendly. I hoped this might be another step towards healing my broken friendships.

I had just changed into my Raiders gear when a knock on the door signalled my call to the press conference. My heart beat faster as I made my way to the media room, which had been set up with microphones on a table in front of some chairs where the journalists were already sitting. More journalists than I had imagined; it was a bit intimidating.

Don led the way to the table and we both sat down behind the mics. Adrian stood, directing which journalists should ask a question. They started with the match, and Don answered the questions with his usual steady diplomacy, praising the team and the result and complimenting the opposition. They quickly moved on to the points deduction, and Don fielded all their questions with ease. He was very used to this. They addressed me a few times, asking about my suspension and how I felt about yesterday’s decision. I followed the strategy we had worked out, and seemed to get away with it. Don made a big deal out of me coaching the youth team and registering with Trojans. That seemed to go down well. There were some more testing questions.

“Has the club taken into account the death of a man in a car accident involving Mr Summers?

Don took that one.

-That is not a club matter, and has been dealt with through the proper channels.

“Declan have you any comment to make about this local newspaper report?

I was shown the back page headline from several weeks ago with my unflattering picture and description of my unkempt, drunken state.

‘I’m not proud of my actions then. It didn’t reflect well on me or Raiders, and I have given the club an assurance that it won’t happen again. The reputation of Raiders is very important to me, and I will do everything I can to ensure I don’t tarnish it again.’

“How do you feel about being responsible for Jay Scott leaving Raiders and quitting rugby?

This one threw me – I sat with my mouth open. Quitting rugby? I had not heard that version. Don took one look at my shocked expression and jumped in.

-Jay Scott’s decision to leave Raiders was a personal one, and not something Declan is qualified or permitted to discuss. I don’t know where you guys get your information from, but Jay has not ‘quit rugby’ to my knowledge.

“But he has left Raiders and not gone to a position with another club?

-That is something you would need to discuss with Jay.

A few more questions around changed priorities for the season, what might happen with my contract beyond the end of the season, all deflected. It seemed to be a big game to all of them.

And finally it was over.

-Well done, Declan. Thank you for that, I’m glad to see you’ve regained your powers of concentration. Why don’t you go and join the players in the bar?

‘Really?’

-Your suspension only covers playing; everything else is back on. Go and enjoy it. Just remember what we’ve said here this afternoon.

Almost on a cloud, I walked to the main bar, where players met with supporters and sometimes opposing players after the game. I could not have imagined this outcome to the day while I was preparing for it this morning. It was difficult to even remember clearly how I had felt when I woke up that morning – it seemed like a different life, or a long time ago. I had been in a dark place, and now it seemed like I’d been given a light.

Despite my happiness, I was apprehensive about going into the bar; Nico and Big aside, I hadn’t socialised with anyone for a long time. There would be loads of people there, whose reactions I couldn’t predict, and it could be uncomfortable. I also hadn’t drunk any alcohol since my vodka bender. Might be better to give the beer a miss tonight, especially as Don hadn’t said it was OK.

I slipped through the door into the bar. I felt like there was a bright spotlight shining on me, but in reality I was just another bloke walking into a bar. No one noticed. I was immediately aware of the less than celebratory mood, despite the win, and had to adjust mine to compensate. No one was going to be cheering my news, and I needed to show everyone I knew what I had cost Raiders. I realised with renewed respect for his people management why Don had suggested I come here.

>Declan!

Nico’s greeting ensured everyone in the bar now knew I was there. Many eyes turned towards me. Nico strode over and shook my hand warmly.

>Great news that you stay with us.

In a quieter voice:

>You are OK? I am very worried about you last night.

‘I’m good. Great, actually. Yesterday seems a bit unreal. Actually, today seems a bit unreal.’

>You look better. We talk later, OK? Come, have a drink.

He led me over to the bar, where there was a group of players and supporters watching a replay of the afternoon’s game on a large TV screen. It appeared to be about half way through the second half. Nico didn’t make a big fuss, just handed me a bottle of water.

>For clear head, yes?

I nodded and leaned on the bar watching the screen. I was getting some sidelong glances which I tried to return with a smile.

The replay of the match over, the pundits returned to the theme of the points deduction and what it would mean for Raiders. More glances slid my way. I started to feel very uncomfortable, but didn’t know what to do; whether to say something now, or wait to be confronted.

I was saved by the press conference. They showed some of it on the programme, some clips of me being apologetic and contrite, and some bits of Don outlining how I was going to help Raiders out while I remained suspended. When the programme had finished, the man standing next to me, a supporter, turned to me and said:

*Fair play to you son, you’ve owned up to it and taken the punishment. Losing so many points is a bit of a bugger, but not much anyone can do about it now. Just have to get on with it. Best of luck.

He held out his hand, and I shook it gratefully. A few people seemed to relax at this. Not everyone was so generous. I noticed several people directing dark looks at me, although Big came over, gave my shoulder a squeeze.

°Great to have you back, Captain. Fancy going out later?

‘Oh mate, that would be great, but Dav is picking me up. Do you know where he is?’

I looked around, expecting to see Dav somewhere around.

°I expect he’s off drowning his sorrows somewhere.

‘Sorrows?’

°Yeah, he didn’t get his contract extended. Found out yesterday. And Amy dumped him last week. He’s being a bit of a dick about it. Still, maybe he’s feeling better. Get together later this week then?

‘Love to.’

Cal

We got in the car to go back, and then Dad remembered he had to go to his old work to pick something up, so we stopped off at Raiders Stadium. I’d been here lots of times to Dad’s work, where he had an office that smelt like sweaty people, but I had never seen a rugby game. I liked football, and although Dad and I watched rugby on TV sometimes, I didn’t understand the rules at all, and it just seemed silly to pick the ball up and run, rather than kicking it to each other.

Dec

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Glanced at the screen. Rose. Shit. I was going to have to ring her, she’d be worried out of her mind. Couldn’t do it here though. Looked at the time. Nearly seven. Time to go and meet DivDav. I’d ring Rose back when I got outside.

I walked out into the dark car park, looking for DivDav. I couldn’t see his car over the far side, but began to walk over that way as I got my phone out to call Rose.

Dreaming. Not flying. Playing. Running on the pitch, muscles stretching, catching, tackle after tackle, passing, scoring, happy.

Cal

Dad stopped the car in the car park, and I looked up at the bright lights, shining in rooms a few floors up, lighting up people who were sitting at tables and standing talking to each other.

‘Can I come with you Daddy?’

‘No, Cal, I won’t be a minute, I’m not stopping.

‘Stay here with me, Cal, we can have some of these Maltesers.’

Mum and I watched Dad walk towards the building.

Dec

Then afterwards with Jay, Beth and Cal. Laughing, talking, arguing, playing, happy. Jay is talking.

łWhat the fuck … hey, mate, you OK?

Must still be dreaming. Why is my bed so hard? Why does everything hurt so much? Why is Jay shouting?

łJesus. Shit. Jesus.

Cal

Then, just as I was about to remind Mum about the Maltesers, we saw Dad bend down and look back at us, waving frantically. Mum wound the window down; Dad was shouting.

‘Call an ambulance.’

Mum got out of the car, phone in hand, to try to see what Dad was looking at.

‘What is it, James?’

‘Dial 999. There’s a bloke here. He’s covered in blood. He’s in a bad way.’

I tried to get out of the car, being quite interested in lots of blood, but Mum stopped me, standing in front of the door so I couldn’t see. I heard her talking to her phone.

‘Ambulance … Raiders Stadium car park … my husband has just found a man covered in blood lying on the ground … I don’t know, I’ll ask.’

She shouted to Dad.

‘James, is he breathing?’

Dec

Not dreaming, then. Lots of pain. Loads of it, crashing around, banging into every bit of me. Vaguely remembered a lot of banging and crashing. Tried to stop remembering and carry on dreaming. Jay carried on shouting.

Cal

Dad shouted back.

Yeah, he’s breathing. Almost unconscious though. His eyes are fluttering and he’s mumbling.’

Mum told the person on the phone what Dad said, then Dad shouted back to her.

‘How long will they be? Jesus, there’s blood everywhere.’

Mum folded her phone up and called to Dad.

‘They said five minutes. I’m coming over, James, I can do something to help –’

Mum knew about putting plasters on and wiping cuts with TCP. She would be good with a man with blood on him, and I would be able to go with her and see it too.

‘No Beth, stay with Cal – he can’t see this.’

Dec

Beth and Cal were here? Tried to open my eyes. Wanted to see them. Hurt.

łStay still, mate, the ambulance is coming.

Drifted off somewhere quiet and soft.

Cal

Mum knew that if she went over to where Dad was, I’d follow her, so she was stuck at the car with me while Dad waited for the ambulance. We both looked out of the window at Dad as he knelt down, although we couldn’t see the man. Mum kept tutting and looking at her watch, and I watched the entrance into the car park to see the blue lights when the ambulance came. It came very quickly, and we watched as the ambulance people put the man on a stretcher and then into the back of the ambulance. I couldn’t really see the man, because it was dark, and he was wrapped up in a blanket, which was disappointing, but I hoped Dad would tell us all about it.

Some police cars had come too, and policemen were talking to Dad. I saw him running his hand through his hair a few times, and shaking his head, then looking up at the lit up rooms and nodding. Then, finally, he came back to the car so we could find out what had happened.

‘Well?’

Mum got out of the car to meet Dad as he walked back to us.

‘We’ve got to stay, the police want to talk to me.’

‘But we can’t, we’ve got to get back for Matty.’

‘I know, I said that, but they want me to give a statement, as I was the only one who found him, and you’ve got to stay because you called the ambulance.’

‘Oh this is ridiculous. Who did you talk to?’

Dad pointed to one of the policemen, and Mum walked quickly over to him. Dad opened the back door of the car for me and I got out, and we stood and looked at Mum arguing with the policeman. Mum was good at arguing, and usually won, like in cafes when the cake was dry, or taking clothes back to shops, but she didn’t win against the policeman, although she seemed to be trying her very best. She walked slowly back to us, looking really cross.

‘No luck?’

‘No, I can’t believe it, they honestly didn’t care that your disabled mother is going to have to get your disabled brother in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, undressed, dressed in pyjamas and settled for the night. We’ve got to wait here.’

‘I’ll call the agency, see if they’ve got anyone short notice. You’re right, Mum can’t do it, but they might have someone. Come on, we can wait inside, they’ve taken over one of the corporate suites as an incident room.’

Dad got his phone out and started talking about Uncle Matty as we walked across the car park and into the Stadium. We went up some stairs, and then found ourselves in a room with a window overlooking the pitch, although I couldn’t see much because the floodlights weren’t on. There were two policemen, who were using computers, but they didn’t take much notice of us, even though Mum said who we were.

We sat on a sofa, and Dad went to get us drinks and crisps from the bar. He was gone a long time, and Mum looked at her watch a few more times. She got her phone out and talked to Granny, but didn’t say anything different from the things Dad had said to her when he told her about the person who was coming to put Uncle Matty to bed.

Dad came back after a while and gave me a can of Fanta, and Mum a glass of wine.

‘Sorry, I got held up in the bar, everyone wanted to talk to me, I was trying not to make a drama of it. Do we know when they’re going to talk to us here?’

‘No, I don’t know what’s taking so long.’

We waited for a long time; I’d finished my Fanta and the crisps that Dad had brought, and Mum was trying to play some games with me, but she wasn’t concentrating very well because of waiting for the policeman to talk to her.

Finally, one of the policeman looked up from his computer and came over to us.

‘Mr Scott?’

‘Yes. This is my wife, Beth.’

‘Mrs Scott. Thank you for staying. We just want to ask a few questions, as you found the victim. I’m Detective Constable Simmonds.’

‘Are you going to take long? We need to get back home, and we’ve got a long drive.’

‘We’ll be as quick as we can, sir. Is your little boy alright here with us? Detective Peterson could look after him …’

‘No, you’ll be fine, won’t you sweetheart.’

I nodded, hardly able to believe I was going to be allowed to stay while the policeman talked to Mum and Dad.

‘Alright then. First, can we just check some of the details you gave us when you called us, Mrs Scott …’

There was a lot of talking about all the things I already knew, about how Dad found the man, and Mum called the ambulance, and why we were in the car park, and lots of things that weren’t very interesting. I started to feel sleepy, and snuggled in to Mum, who put her arm round me.

I was half asleep, not really listening to the grown up voices talking, but in that weird half-dreaming way, I seemed to suddenly be listening, as if part of me knew that I needed to be paying attention before I knew what was being said.

‘… long have you know the victim?’

‘What? I don’t know him.’

‘Oh, maybe I’ve misunderstood, sir. I thought you were a coach here?’

‘Was. I left a couple of months ago.’

‘But am I right in thinking Mr Summers has been here for several years?’

‘… er … what?’

‘My apologies, I thought you had been made aware, the victim is Mr Declan Summers. I believe he is a Raiders player.’

There was a long silence. I sat up and looked at Dad, who was looking at the policeman, with his mouth open. I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought the policeman was saying that Dec was the person who Dad had found on the ground in the car park. But surely Dad would have known it was Dec? He was only not talking to him, he wasn’t not seeing him.

‘Mummy, is Dec –’

‘Shh Cal. James – was that Dec? Could it have been?’

‘Shit. I don’t know, he was, his face was – bloody hell Beth, no one could have recognised him.’

Dad turned to the policeman.

‘Are you for real? That bloke, the one with his face mashed in, was Declan Summers?’

‘I’m sorry sir, but yes. Can you tell me how long you’ve known him?’

Mum and Dad sat very still. Mum’s arm was round me, but I saw her other hand holding Dad’s hand tightly. They didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then Mum kind of shook herself.

‘Just over three years. But we haven’t really seen him, not properly, for a few months.’

‘Do you know … have you heard … how is he?’

‘We haven’t got any news from the hospital. You’re not family? Because someone suggested there was a family connection.’

Mum let out a deep sigh.

‘Dec lived with us, like part of our family. He doesn’t have anyone else. I suppose you could say we’re the only family he’s got. James, we need to go and see him.’

She looked at the policeman.

‘Will they let us see him?’

‘They usually say family only.’

‘He doesn’t have family, not blood relatives. His parents died when he was thirteen, he was in care before he came to us. He’s going to be there on his own.’

‘You make a good case, Mrs Scott, but you’re better off talking to the hospital. I think we’re finished here, you can go now, see if they’ll let you in.’

‘Is he … how bad is he?’

‘I’m really, sorry, I don’t know. I’d suggest going to the hospital to see what you can find out.’

‘Yeah, come on Beth. You must know someone up there who can smuggle us in.’

Mum looked at Dad, and gave him half a smile, but also looked like she was going to cry.

‘Really? You don’t mind going?’

‘That bloody boy is going to be the death of me, but no, I think we both need to be there, don’t we?’

‘I can call Lis, see if Cal can go back there –’

‘I want to see Dec.’

A long look passed between Mum and Dad.

‘Sweetheart, Dec has been badly hurt. We don’t know how he is, yet. I don’t know if you can see him.’

‘I want to. I don’t mind his blood. I’ve seen Dec’s blood before, when he chopped his thumb.’

‘This is a bit different, mate.’

‘But I want to see him.’

‘Maybe it would be easier for now if he just comes with us, James. I’ll find out what’s what and we can take it from there.’

And so I was allowed to go with them to the hospital. I had to wait for a long time with Dad while Mum talked to people about how Dec was and whether we could see him. I wasn’t sure how to feel, because it sounded like Dec was more hurt than just needing a plaster, and I couldn’t imagine what that really meant. But I just felt that now, all of a sudden, the thing that had been there that had made Dad get that cross, tight look on his face had gone – in fact it had been gone since this morning, and I wanted to see Dec and talk to him. And I was a bit fascinated with the promise of all the blood as well.

After sitting on plastic chairs for ages and ages, Mum came back and sat next to Dad. I thought if I looked sleepy and leaned against Dad, they would be more likely to say things than if I looked interested, so that’s what I did, and that’s what happened.

‘So …?’

‘He’s alive.’

Dad let out a huge breath, as if it had been possible that Dec hadn’t been alive.

‘Jesus. How bad is it, then?’

‘Bad enough. Multiple fractures, he’s having a CT scan to check his brain.’

‘Shit. Shit.’

‘James.’

I suspected a look came my way, but I’d closed my eyes, so I could hear better.

‘Can we see him?’

‘After his scan. They’re admitting him, but he’ll be sedated, he’ll be out of it for several hours. They don’t expect him to wake up until tomorrow.’

‘I want to stay.’

‘I know. I had a look to see who’s on the ward he’s going to, and I know the Nurse in Charge. I’m pretty sure I can talk us in there, but maybe I should take Cal to Lis’s first.’

I opened my eyes quickly and sat up, because at this point being asleep would only get me carried out to the car.

‘I want to see Dec.’

They both looked quickly down at me, as if they’d forgotten I was there for a moment. Dad shrugged at Mum, and I held my breath, hoping they wouldn’t say no.

‘If one of us takes him back to Nico’s, and Dec wakes up, we’ll be sorry we missed it.’

‘I know, but I’m not sure Cal should be seeing … whatever he might see.’

‘I shouldn’t think it’ll be any worse than imagining it. I know I’m imagining some pretty horrific things, and I saw him at the time. He’ll have been cleaned up, won’t he?’

‘Yes, but still … oh I suppose you’re right. OK, Cal, you can stay with us for a little while, but you have to promise to be quiet and still, and when we say it’s time to go, no arguing. Otherwise I’ll take you straight back to Lis and she’ll put you to bed.’

‘Kay Mummy.’

I started practising being quiet and still right away, so they could see how good I was at it, and didn’t feel the need to take me back to Nico’s house. Another benefit of this was they forgot to talk quietly, and I found out more things, like that Dec had been hit by someone, with a bottle, and he had got glass in his cuts, and then he had fallen on the ground, and someone had kicked him. It hurts when someone kicks you, because Jake and me kicked each other once at break-time, just to see, and we both got bruises. I wondered if Dec would have bruises on his shins, like me and Jake.

After a while, Mum decided that we might be more comfortable waiting in the family room, near where Dec was going to be taken, so we went up some stairs, then Mum talked to a nurse, who showed us to a small room with some chairs and a table in it. There were toys in the corner, so I played with them while Mum and Dad sat together, not saying much, although Dad talked on his phone to Nico and some other people.

A little while later, a nurse came to get us, and said that Dec was in a bed, and that we could sit with him if we wanted to. Mum stood up and said she would go and have a look, and decide if I could go too. I went and sat next to Dad, who put his arm round me.

‘I want to see Dec, Daddy.’

‘I know, mate. But he might be a bit too gruesome just now, maybe a bit too poorly. Mummy will know if it’s OK.’

‘Will he be scary like in Monsters Inc?’

‘Ha, could be even worse, Cal. We don’t know yet. He wasn’t too pretty when I found him.’

‘But Dec isn’t pretty, he’s a boy.’

‘Yeah I know, mate. There are a few girls who might disagree with you as far as Dec’s concerned, but I know what you mean. I meant that … Cal, Dec’s not just had an accident, he’s … he’s been hit, by a bad man who wanted to hurt him, and did a good job of it.’

‘What bad man?’

‘We don’t know. The police are trying to find out.’

‘Is it because Dec did stealing and lying?’

‘Er … Jesus, Cal. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see what Dec remembers if … er … when he wakes up.’

‘Can I tell him about my fire engine?’

‘Yeah, course you can, mate, tell him anything you like. But he’ll be asleep, he might not remember what you tell him.’

I was quiet for a while, trying to remember all the things I’d wanted to tell Dec but couldn’t before, like my new school, my rabbit and the gap where my tooth came out. Then Mum came back and stood in the doorway. Dad looked up.

‘Well?’

‘He’s asleep, or unconscious, he’s had a load of meds to knock him out. He’s due some more in an hour or so, there’s a small chance he might wake up then.’

‘Really? That’s great. What’s the … er … damage?’

Dad waved his hand around his face.

‘Oh James, his face is one huge bruise, and he’s got stitches all over the place, one lot is really close to his eye. If I didn’t know it was Dec, I wouldn’t have recognised him.’

Mum looked like she might cry, and Dad stood up and cuddled her.

‘Hey, hey, shh, it’s OK, we’re here now. What about Cal? He’s really keen to see him. I’ve told him Dec’s been hit by a bad man. He asked if he looks like something out of Monsters Inc.’

Mum looked over at me and smiled.

‘Well, he’s a little bit like a monster, sweetheart, but not as bad as Henry J. Waternoose.’

Dad looked confused; he never paid attention to people’s names in films.

‘So, are we all going then?’

‘Yeah, I think so. Cal, remember, quiet and still. Dec’s not the only poorly person here. And we’re not going to stay long.’

‘I’m staying until I know he’s OK.’

‘Alright, James, but me and Cal will have to go home and get some sleep soon.’

‘Let’s see how it goes.’

‘OK.’

Mum held her hand out to me, and I jumped off the chair and over to her. We walked along a corridor, and then through a door, where there were lots of curtains in the middle of the room, like there had been in the hospital where Uncle Matty was.

‘Jesus, if I never see the inside of one of these places again it’ll be too bloody soon.’

Mum led us over to one of the curtains and pulled it aside. There was a bed and two chairs and a table with a jug of water on it. In the bed was a man. Well, in the bed was Dec, but he didn’t look like Dec, at least not at first, or even second, glance. I had to go up really close to him to find anything that let me know he really was Dec.

He was lying very still, on his back, and he had a big cast on one of his arms from his shoulder to his fingers. I knew it was a cast because Sophie Evans had one last year when she fell out of the tree, but it wasn’t as big as this cast. His other arm had bandages on it. There was also a big thing on his nose that covered a lot of his face. The rest of him, or what I could see, was coloured black and purple, and was either swollen or had lines of what looked like tiny railway track along it. I wanted to ask what it was, but I had to be quiet and still, so I just looked. His eyes were puffed shut, and his mouth looked too big for his face.

He still didn’t look like Dec, and I wondered how they knew it was, so I turned and looked at Mum and Dad to see how they knew, but Dad was staring with a kind of surprised and scared look on his face, and Mum looked like she was trying not to cry again, and I knew that it was Dec, because they knew it was.

Mum and Dad sat in the chairs, and I sat on Mum’s lap and looked at Dec, in awe of all the bruises and swelling. I had expected there to be lots of blood, but there wasn’t any, which was a bit disappointing, although there were lots of other things to see – too many things, in fact, and eventually I couldn’t stay quiet any longer; I had to ask something.

‘What are those?’

I pointed at the train tracks.

‘They’re stitches, sweetheart.’

‘What are they for?’

‘Well, when people have bad cuts, sometimes it tears their skin apart, and the doctors have to sew it back together.’

‘Dec’s been sewed?’

‘Yes, sweetheart.’

‘With a needle?’

‘Yes. And special cotton.’

‘Will he have holes in his face forever?’

‘No, his skin will grow back together, the stitches just hold everything in place while it’s growing. Are you OK, sweetheart, looking at Dec?’

I nodded. I still couldn’t quite see Dec in the battered features of the man on the bed, but I didn’t feel sad or scared or any of the things Mum seemed to think I was going to feel.

There were lots of things to look at, all over the place; on the way in, I had seen other people’s beds with cards all round them, and some people with TVs. Dec didn’t have a TV, or any cards, although he did have a tall pole with a bag of water on it that seemed to go into his arm. I supposed that if he was asleep, he couldn’t drink water, but it would have made more sense for the water to go into his mouth rather than his arm. Then I remembered Uncle Matty having a bag like this when he was first in hospital, before he woke up, and Mum telling me it was a way to give people food and medicine if they were too asleep to eat or take tablets.

After the initial thrill, it got a bit boring sitting and watching Dec sleep, and I wanted to do something. I thought about the cards I’d seen round the other people’s beds.

‘Mummy can I make Dec a card to say get well?’

‘Of course, sweetheart. As soon as we get home, we’ll find your pens and you can draw something great for Dec.’

‘No, I mean now. Then he can see it when he wakes up.’

‘Oh Cal, there isn’t any paper here or anything. It’s a lovely idea though.’

‘I bet there’s a shop downstairs, Beth. They’re bound to sell cards. Fancy a little walk?’

‘Not particularly, why, do you?’

‘Could use a coffee, or I’ll fall asleep if I’m not careful.’

‘And your legs have dropped off, have they?’

‘No, I just thought –’

‘Yeah, the same as you always think. Oh alright. I’ll go and see what they’ve got. Would you like something to drink, Cal?’

‘Yes please Mummy.’

Mum was gone for a long time, and Dad closed his eyes and then fell asleep in the chair. I wasn’t tired, not even a bit, and now Dad was asleep, I knew I was the one who had to watch out for Dec waking up. I stared hard at him, and watched for signs of movement.

Dec

Woke up somewhere noisy and full of pain. Couldn’t open my eyes. Hurt. Everything hurt. Groaned.

\daddy.

The little boy’s voice sounded just like Cal.

łMmph.

The little boy was more insistent.

\daddy! Wake up.

Just like Cal.

łWha … shit … sorry Cal, nodded off.

Head felt fuzzy, but that sounded like Jay. Must still be dreaming.

\dec went ‘nnn’ and he moved. Daddy, you sweared.

The scrape of a chair. A hand on my arm. Felt real. Real enough to bloody hurt.

łDec, it’s Jay.

What? How? Where? Too many thoughts. Tried a smile. Bad idea. Mouth too big. Lips stuck together. Pain. Groaned. Tried to open my eyes. Eyelids too big. Stuck together. Pain. Brief tiny glimpse of the ceiling. Shouldn’t I be worried about all this? Too much to think about, let it go. Groaned.

\you’ve got a big swelled up face. It’s all purple. It looks funny.

He was close to me, I could feel his breath on my cheek. I tried to turn towards him, to see if it really was Cal. No good. Groaned.

łCal! Come here. What did we say? You can stay if you’re quiet and still. Otherwise Mummy will take you back to Lis’s. Dec, can you hear me?

I could, but saying so was proving difficult. In the end, managed

‘Mm.’

It was them, I was sure. How were they here? How the glorious fuck were they here? I didn’t even know where here was.

łAh mate, you’re in hospital. How are you feeling? Sorry, bloody stupid question, considering the state of you. Do you know what happened?

Had no idea. Couldn’t get a single thought together, apart from ‘Jay and Cal are here’. The slightest shake of my head.

łYou’ve had a bit of a bashing. We found you in the car park, blood and glass everywhere. The police want to talk to you – can you manage that?

Another small head shake. All this moving and thinking was exhausting.

łOK no problem. They can wait. Just take it easy for now.

\does it hurt?

łCal, ssh.

‘Mm.’

\dec said mm. That’s yes. He heared me.

Wanted to keep him talking, but my mouth wouldn’t work properly.

‘Mm.’

He was delighted.

\he did it again!

łOK, Cal, that’s enough. When Mummy gets back you’re off to Lis’s.

\but I want to stay. I want to tell Dec –

_Cal. Sit down here – look I got you a slushie. It’s got a bendy straw.

Beth was here too. They were all here. Couldn’t smile, mouth wouldn’t work, but felt a huge smile spreading somewhere inside me.

łHe’s awake. Not very talkative. No change there.

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart …

Felt a hand on my cheek. Tried not to wince. Tried not to groan. Tried not to cry. Failed. Started to drift in and out. Things put in my mouth. Things wiped on my face. Things poked here and there. People said my name, lots of people.

_Dec, I’m going to go now, Cal needs …

>Declan … mierda, Jaime, he look horrible …

łDec, the nurse is just …

-Declan? No, looks like he’s still out …

łDec, sorry, need to go, I’ll be back …

Matt

When I woke up it was dark, and I could hear Mum talking. Jay and Beth must have come back while I was asleep; it was only a matter of time before Jay came in and the humiliations could start again. I was going to ask him if I could have Sally instead, at least in the mornings. It would be a relief to both of us.

Sure enough, the door opened and light from the hall crept into the room along with – oh – Mum. She put the lamp on by the bed and sat in the chair, looking serious.

‘Matthew, that was Jameson on the phone.’

On the phone? Where was he then? Oh fuck, they hadn’t been in an accident had they? A sudden unwanted image of twisted metal and spatters of blood forced its way into my head, because ever since I got a cold and nearly died, I had a tendency to over-dramatise.

‘They’re going to have to stay down in Devon overnight. There’s been a … well, that boy Declan’s got himself put in hospital, some sort of fight, he’s in a bad way, and Jameson says he needs to stay there until he wakes up. He’s arranged another carer for tonight, and said he’ll be here in plenty of time for you tomorrow.’

Sorry as I was to hear Dec had been in some kind of bust-up where he’d come off worst, I was massively relieved that nothing had happened to Jay, Beth or Cal, and smiled to myself at the thought of Sally coming back later.

‘Ohkay.’

Mum seemed to breathe her own sigh of relief, happy I wasn’t kicking up a stink, as was my wont now I was feeling brighter and getting more bolshy about things.

‘Thoht he wahn’t tahking tuh Dec.’

‘So did I. It seems this altercation, whatever it was, has made him think again.’

‘Guhd thehn.’

‘Hm.’

Mum didn’t seem so sure.

‘How are you, dear?’

‘Shih.’

Troubled teenagers or not, I had still had the remains of my life torn apart by Carrie.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. You were asleep when I made dinner. Are you hungry at all?’

‘Noh.’

‘You didn’t eat lunch.’

‘Soh?’

‘So you should try to eat something.’

‘Wha fuh? Soh I dohnt geh ill? Toh laht.’

‘Matthew, don’t, please.’

I tried to spare her this, I really did, the times when it just all seemed too much and I felt like it wasn’t worth it any more, but sometimes she just went on too much, they all did, telling me what I should do for the good of my health, fussing over me. None of it mattered, none of it, in the end, if someone you love can rip your heart out and give it to the bastard you hate, then go and take everything you own while you’re dying across the other side of town.

‘Lehv meh alohn, Muhm.’

‘Don’t you want –’

‘Plehs.’

‘Matthew, if you –’

‘Pihs ohf Muhm.’

I never swore at Mum. I swore near her a lot, but never at her. It had the desired effect, as she got up without another word and walked to the door. Then she turned in the doorway.

‘Apparently the agency chap will be here at nine thirty.’

‘Chahp?’

‘Yes, Jameson thought you’d be more comfortable with a man, so he’s booked this chap Ian tonight.’

I sulked my way through efficient Ian’s clammy hands and non-existent banter. He tried talking about the weather, the traffic and the plans for the new leisure centre, but as all of these things were happening outside of my life and were being talked about by him, I had no interest. His fascinating topics of conversation dried up in the face of my lack of replying and he just got on with his job, only checking with me occasionally about which pyjamas I wore and where I wanted my drink left. I just about deigned to answer him, then closed my eyes as soon as he put me back into bed. He could assume I was asleep if he wanted to. I soon drifted off anyway, and didn’t hear him leave.

Cal

Dec didn’t say any more, even ‘nnn’, and nurses started coming over and we kept having to go back to the family room while the nurses did things. Mum showed me two cards she’d bought, one with a dinosaur on it, and one with a flower on it. Of course I chose the dinosaur, and wrote in it with my best writing. She’d also bought a Mars Bar, which I ate, and some flowers for Dec, although I thought he’d probably rather have the Mars Bar. But I wasn’t going to say so. After two times of going backwards and forwards between Dec’s bed and the family room, Mum decided she was going to take me back to go to sleep while Dad stayed.

‘I think he’s going to be OK, James, at least, you know, in general. You don’t need to stay.’

‘I’m staying until I know for sure.’

‘OK.’

‘I can’t leave him like this.’

‘It’s OK. I know. Come back for a bit of sleep, though?’

‘Yeah.’

Mum went and told Dec we were going, even though he was asleep and couldn’t hear her, then we went back to Nico’s. I don’t remember anything until the next morning, so I suppose I must have fallen asleep in the car, and Mum must have carried me out and put me to bed.

I woke up in my room in Nico’s house, when Mum came in.

‘Wake up, sleepyhead.’

I remembered why I was there, and not at home in my dinosaur room.

‘Are we going to see Dec again?’

‘We’re just going to pop in, and then we’re going home. Hurry up and get dressed, sweetheart.’

I hurried up and got dressed, eager to see if Dec’s face still looked purple and big, but Dad still wasn’t ready when Mum had finished clearing my breakfast things away. Nico and Lis were still in bed too, and I expected Dad to be in trouble for dawdling like he usually was, but when he came into the kitchen, yawning, Mum just smiled at him and gave him a cup of coffee.

‘Thanks, Beth, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘There’s plenty more where that came from. You’re going to need it if you’re going to insist on driving back on two hours’ sleep.’

‘Less than two, I don’t think I shut my eyes for more than five minutes.’

‘Oh James. Why don’t you go back to bed? Cal and I can check on Dec and pick you up in a bit.’

‘No, I want to see him.’

‘But you know he’s going to be OK.’

‘Yeah, I know what they told me last night, but it’s more than that. If he’s awake at all, I … I just want to see how he is. Not how he is like his bangs and scrapes; how he is with us.’

Mum tutted and rolled her eyes.

‘Only a rugby player would call that face bangs and scrapes, but I know what you mean. Things have changed quite a bit since Friday, haven’t they.’

I listened to all this without understanding much of it. I thought, maybe, from how they were talking about Dec, that they might have stopped being cross about him stealing and lying. But you could never tell with grown-ups; sometimes they seemed one way, and just changed their minds. So I thought I’d wait, rather than asking right away, because I didn’t want to do anything to stop them taking me to see Dec.

16. Everything is broken

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

‘Jay?’

A short silence. A child’s voice.

Cal

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

‘Hello?’

‘Cal?’

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

‘I want to talk to Dec.’

Dec

Head spinning, heart pounding

‘It is me, Cal. Er …’

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

Cal

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

‘You sound funny.’

‘Do I? Is this better?’

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

Dec

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

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

‘Granted.’

Changed to normal voice.

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

Cal

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

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

‘Who’s looking after you?’

‘Granny. She’s asleep.’

Dec

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

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

Cal

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

‘It’s my birthday tomorrow.’

Dec

‘Shit.’

How could I have forgotten?

‘Sorry, Cal. Shouldn’t swear.’

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

Silence. Then, in a very small voice:

Cal

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

‘Why?’

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

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

‘I know that.’

Dec

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

\daddy can bring me in his car.

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

He lowered his voice to a whisper.

\i know a bad word that starts with fuh …

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

‘No, mate. I did worse things.’

Cal

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

I heard Dec take a deep breath before he spoke.

Dec

‘I stole. And I lied.’

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

Cal

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

‘Did you steal and lie at me?’

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

Dec

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

In the background:

#Calum, who are you talking to?

The line went dead.

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Jameson left his phone behind.’

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

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

‘It’s fine.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mum gave me a hard look.

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

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

‘Last number dialled.’

‘Oh no. Cal, did you call Dec?’

I managed the slightest nod.

What?

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

‘You phoned Dec?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘He’s got to learn, Beth.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

Cal

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

‘He didn’t have to do that.’

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

‘James, honestly.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh alright. You ring him, then.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

‘Hey.’

_What did you say to Cal?

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

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

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

_You what?

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

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

‘But –’

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

Cal

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

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

‘What were you dreaming, sweetheart?’

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

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

Dec

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

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

‘No.’

:What’s up? Do you want to let me in?

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

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

‘No.’

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

:What is it love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

:That must have been hard.

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

:Don’t ever say that.

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

‘Oh Cal, honestly.’

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

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

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

‘Cal? What’s the matter?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Jesus, what’s happened here?’

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

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

‘James, the cloth.’

‘Alright Beth. Jesus.’

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

‘Cal?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘No, I know, sweetheart.’

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

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

‘Don’t be cross, Mummy’

‘I’m not cross, it was an accident.’

‘You said we’ll be late.’

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

‘Is Daddy cross?’

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

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

‘Oh Cal. Come here, sweetheart.’

Mum pulled me towards her and cuddled me.

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

I was silent.

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

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

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

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

‘Here.’

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

‘Well you can see where the mess is.’

‘What, you want me to clear it up?’

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

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

‘What’s the matter with Cal?’

‘He’s just upset.’

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

‘James, just … don’t push it.’

‘What?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you cross with me?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Are you cross with Daddy?’

‘No, Cal.’

‘Are you cross with Dec?’

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

‘I phoned him.’

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

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

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

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

‘Are you feeling alright, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

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

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

‘But they’re bad for me.’

‘Since when did that bother you, Cal?’

‘I’m being good.’

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

‘I don’t want you to be cross.’

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

‘Has he not texted, dear?’

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

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

‘Where have you been?’

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

‘Did you remember we’re going out?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t mind.’

They both looked at me.

‘What’s that, sweetheart?’

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

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

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

‘James, you don’t have time …’

Kidding, Beth. Jesus.’

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

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

‘NO!’

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

‘Hey, mate, what’s this all about?’

‘Don’t … be … cross … with Mummy.’

‘I’m not, mate. Beth?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sat next to Mum and ruffled my hair.

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

‘OK. Are you ready, Carol?’

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

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

Dad looked at me as he talked to Granny.

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

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

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

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

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

And then I got my chance.

15. More than one way home

In which Dec swallows a bit of pride and takes some advice, Matty goes home and Cal carries on with the intros.

Dec

Waking up from that dream of togetherness was hard. A fog of sadness settled over me as I got ready to go to training. Knowing you’ve stuffed up your friendships fairly irretrievably is one thing. Facing up to it and carrying on, seeing the same people every day who used to be your mates, is another. I wasn’t sure how I was going to carry on without them all. I guess it was part of my ‘best shot’ to give it a try. Took some deep breaths, left the flat.

The morning was a continuation of the day before. I hadn’t really expected anything else. Stuart’s words seemed to have made little difference. The only real change was we were practising plays, kicks and set pieces rather than rucks and mauls. The tackles came in as hard, there were as many digs and gouges, although they were more careful not to make them obvious to the coaches. At the end of it all I was exhausted, both from the strength of the punishment I had been receiving and from the effort of keeping a lid on my temper. As we walked off the field, Big walked beside me and briefly put his arm round my shoulder.

°Chin up.

He walked off ahead. I felt another hand on my shoulder. Looked behind me. Nico.

>OK?

I nodded. He looked at me, shook his head and trotted in front. I dragged my aching body into the changing room, the last to return. Arriving at my peg, I discovered my towel, clothes and trainers were wet. It wasn’t water. There seemed little point in showering.

I wasn’t officially supposed to wear my Raiders training kit outside of the training ground, so I turned my sweaty shirt and shorts inside out to hide the logo, and stuffed the rest in my bag, not oblivious to sniggers from various parts of the room, and resigned myself to a smelly journey home.

When I arrived in the lobby, I could hear sounds coming from Rose’s flat, but I couldn’t stop until I’d sorted out my clothes and myself. I dumped the lot in the bath and showered, hoping the water would get rid of the worst of it before I put it in the machine. New bruises and scrapes had appeared on top of yesterday’s; I also had a black eye and one of my fingers was swelling from being bent backwards. Much as I was determined to ride it out, I wasn’t sure how long my body would last.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage at the gym on my non-training days. I would have to rely on Becky to help me through it. I slumped against the wall and turned the spray on me. When the water ran cold, I climbed over the side of the bath, squeezed out my clothes and towel and bundled them into the washing machine. I was so tired, my body ached so much, I lay face down on the bed and slept.

When I woke up, it was starting to get dark. The wintry kind of ‘hasn’t really been light all day and now it’s getting gloomy’ twilight. I didn’t seem to have changed position all afternoon – checking my phone I saw I had been asleep for nearly two hours. I had a huge crick in my neck. My back, legs and arms protested every movement. I ignored my body, got off the bed and ran a bath. Sitting in the warm water soothed the aches a little.

I was aware of the daily likelihood of time passing, me doing nothing but training and recovering. This was my foreseeable future. More than a little daunting. No complaints, really.

Feeling somewhat more mobile, I went downstairs and tried Rose again. I could hear her TV through the door, but she didn’t answer my knock. I called through the letterbox.

‘Rose, it’s Declan. Are you in? Put the kettle on.’

The TV went off. There was silence for what felt like a long time. At last, I heard the chain slip back, and the door opened.

:Hello, love. Alright?

‘Not so bad. Few aches and bumps, from training. Could do with a cup of tea and a chat if there’s any going.’

Rose hesitated, seeming reluctant to let me past the front door.

:I don’t know if that’s a good idea, really.

I was taken aback. Belatedly, I wondered if she had company – just because I was a Billy-no-mates didn’t mean Rose never spoke to anyone else. Or maybe she wasn’t feeling well?

‘Oh. Are you OK?’

:I’m fine, love. It’s just, after what you said the other day, I think I should keep out of your business and let you get on with things like you asked.

Oh, no no no, she’d misunderstood something I’d said and thought I didn’t want to talk to her. I frantically searched my memory for exactly what I had said when I last spoke to Rose. I thought it had gone so well, I’d even congratulated myself on being diplomatic and calm and saying what I thought without upsetting her. How had I managed to fuck this up too? I was horrified.

‘Rose, no, fuck, no, whatever you thought I was saying, I wasn’t saying that. I was pissed off with you for talking to Nico, because I felt, feel, ashamed of the mess I’ve got myself into. Nico has been so good to me, I was embarrassed. Maybe it came out the wrong way. No way did I want to upset you or want you to stay away. I thought you were OK with it. I’m so sorry. Shit, I’m such a fucking dick.’

Rose looked at me for a few seconds.

:Well maybe I’m just a silly old woman too sensitive for my own good. Perhaps we do need a cuppa, sort it all out?

‘That would be great. I’m so sorry …’

She stood aside to let me in, and I apologised all the way down the hallway. Rose had been one of the few bright spots in the past couple of weeks; I couldn’t bear the thought of adding her to the list of people who didn’t want anything to do with me.

:Right then, let’s get the kettle on. First off, love, stop saying sorry, it’s getting a bit annoying. Shall we agree we’re both sorry and leave it at that?

‘Agreed.’

I smiled with relief and sat down at the table.

:Second off, well, I’m not very good at criticism, I suppose. I can dish it out, but it’s hard to hear. Took it a bit personal, what you said. You were right, I can be interfering, and I don’t always know when to stop yapping. I’ll remember in future. Don’t want to feel like I have for the last few days, like I’d messed it all up for you.

‘Rose, you haven’t messed anything up for me. OK, then, my turn, third off, I’m a stubborn bastard and I’m not very good at accepting help. I’ll remember that people like helping and maybe swallow my pride a bit, yeah? And, obviously, I’ll remember not to criticise you at all, ever again, about anything.’

:Sarky so and so. You, stubborn? Never. Here’s your tea.

‘Hm. Could do with more milk, and maybe leave the teabag in longer next time.’

Rose cuffed me lightly on the back of the head.

:Get away with you. I think, as a fourth off, I’m going to ask you to tell me if I cross the line again. I might not like it, but it won’t hurt me to hear it, and I’ll try not to let it upset me.

‘Alright then. And fifthly and lastly because I’ll lose count, give me a slap immediately, if I upset you at all. I’d rather that and know what I’ve done, than find out like this.’

:Done. Oh love, I’m glad we’ve sorted that out. I’ve been miserable, wondering what you’ve been up to. How’s it all been going? Have you been back to your club? What’s happened to your face?

I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

‘Fuck, Rose, I thought I’d cocked it all up with you too.’

I told Rose the story of the last couple of days, the pain and humiliation of training, the glimmers of light with Big and Amy, the meal with Nico, and his offer. Rose’s face lit up when I mentioned that, but she managed to rearrange the smug look into a neutral smile.

‘I haven’t decided about it yet. It’s a shitload of money to lend someone you don’t know very well. I don’t think I can accept it. I shouldn’t have people making it easy for me, I should be doing it the hard way.’

:Oh love, that’s just nonsense. Why don’t you think you deserve help? You’ve got yourself in a right state by not asking for help, it’s about time some things went right for you, isn’t it?

‘Lisa said something similar last night. But Rose, I’ve ruined so many things, so many friendships. It’s like I shouldn’t be allowed to start again with new people, when I haven’t mended things with everyone else yet.’

:Don’t be so hard on yourself, love. Friendships don’t often break, just get bent out of shape a bit. Ones that don’t last probably wouldn’t have anyway.

I thought about Jay and Beth and seriously doubted her.

:Can I give you some advice? Just this once, then never again. Well, alright, until something else occurs to me that I can’t help saying.

I nodded.

:Take this money from your friend. For two reasons: people like to help. Turning him down will make him feel bad. Plus, being able to pay all your friends the money you’ve borrowed will make them think a lot better of you. It’ll make your life a lot easier, you can start thinking about other things, get on with it a bit.

She made total sense but I was struggling with doing anything to make my life easier. Wading through contempt, pain and humiliation seemed a suitable punishment for the mess I’d made of everything. I remembered my deal with Rose, though, and thought about how I might go about swallowing my pride. It wouldn’t be easy.

‘It’s just hard. I’ve done everything on my own since the accident, for months now. Feels like forever. I’m not used to people helping me. Letting people in is difficult. Scary, I guess.’

:I know, love. But letting people in is the only way out sometimes.

Rose could be many things: interfering, talkative, annoying. Today she was wise.

‘But it’s not just that. It feels like I’m giving up on them, like I should stick with everyone and how it is now, because that’s how it is, what I’ve chosen. If I let other people help, start again, I’m leaving them behind – oh I don’t know, I’m not explaining it very well.

:It’s alright, love, I get the drift. I want to make one thing very clear to you. Yes, you have done some things you’re not proud of, and hate yourself for it. But you’re getting punished enough. Look at you, black and blue, miserable, feeling like you’ve lost all your friends, don’t own anything worth spitting on. I don’t really understand why you wouldn’t want to change that for the better, and hearing you say you don’t deserve it breaks my heart, it does. You’re a good lad, you care about people and you try to do the right thing. What you deserve is a reward for that, not this punishment that never seems to end.

It was hard to hear, harder to believe. I was silent.

:Come on, now, love, drink up, I’ll put the kettle on again.

Tea – Rose’s answer to all of life’s awkward silences. I smiled and handed her my mug.

‘Rose, can I tell you everything?’

:What do you mean, love?

‘Well, you know a lot of it, but kind of in bits and pieces. I’ve had a go at you for speaking out of turn, but maybe if I’d told you everything in the right order, without crying or puking or swearing at you or whatever, things might have been different.

Rose tried to hide her eagerness and failed spectacularly.

:If you’d like to, love.

‘OK then.’

While Rose made more tea, I started with my adoption as a baby by Australian parents. I had never known my birth parents, or known anything about them, or wanted to, apart from the facts that they were English, and they hadn’t left me because they’d died. It was enough that they hadn’t wanted me, I didn’t need to know the reasons. The couple who adopted me had always been Mum and Dad to me. We emigrated to England when I was nine, Dad having got a job over here.

As Rose and I drank, I told her about when I was thirteen, and my parents were killed in a car accident. I had no family in this country, and Mum and Dad’s family in Australia were too old or uninterested to look after me. I was put into foster care while they tried to figure out what to do with me. Three years later I was still in care when I was offered the scholarship to Raiders. I had gone pretty wild and learned to fend for myself.

I told Rose how moving in with Jay and Beth had eventually settled me – didn’t go into details, she already knew a lot of that anyway, what they’d meant to me.

Moved on to my more recent history: the accident, inquest, passport, demand for money, stealing the charity money, borrowing from everyone, Jay’s reaction when he found it all out. It was a grim little tale.

Rose listened almost without comment, the occasional:

:Oh, love.

When I had finished she sat back in her chair and looked at me.

:Oh, love, listening to all that just breaks my heart. You’ve had a lot to cope with, and you’re so young. A lot of second chances that haven’t worked out. You’ve lost three families. I can see why you think you have to do everything on your own, feeling out of control is scary, but just remember: there’s no limit to second chances. You don’t have a quota, you just have to take them when you get them.

She looked at me assessingly.

:You know, love, I think we could help each other out. I don’t think I’ve told you this, but I couldn’t have kids. It was one of the reasons I split up with my husband. As well as him being a two-timing bastard, of course. Anyway, one of the ways I deal with not having children of my own is mothering other people. Also known as interfering, or taking care of people if you’re being kind. I’m thinking you need a bit of mothering at the moment, someone to take care of you, look out for you. I like doing it, makes me feel needed. How about it? You come to me when you need a mam, a bit of support, a chat. I’ll cook you soup, kick you up the backside if needed, or make myself scarce, whichever seems best.

I looked over at her. I had only known Rose for a short while, but she had barged her way into my life and found a place in my heart I hadn’t known was there.

‘Do you know what, Rose, you’re fucking amazing.’ I managed eventually.

:It’s a deal, then?

‘Deal.’

I stood up and gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Rose had managed to make me feel better about myself than I had in many weeks. I owed her a lot.

A couple of cups of tea later, I was starting to flag. I was aware of tomorrow’s training session approaching, and needed to get some restorative sleep. I said goodbye to Rose and made my way upstairs.

Nico: =I just find out what they do. I don’t like. I talk to Stuey tomorrow. Tell me you OK.

Me: =I’m OK. Thanks.

Quick meal, showered, collapsed into bed.

Dreaming. I am flying, with Mum. She holds my hand and leads me across the sky, telling me the names of the stars.

Matt

And so, one day, they brought me home. There was a long debate about an ambulance, but they’d bought me a wheelchair, and I’d had a few goes in it, being pushed up and down the corridors like a sodding old man, and I thought I could manage the journey to their house, which was all of ten minutes away, so it was left to Jay and Beth. Mum was thankfully absent, as I think her twittering, on top of Beth’s fussing, would have literally driven me over the edge into true insanity, and I don’t use the word literally lightly. As it was I had to rely on Jay more than I’d thought I would, and by the time we got to the new house, he had to lift me bodily out of the car and into the accursed wheelchair, then again into the brand new state of the art up and down electric bed they’d put in the downstairs room that was to be my home for the foreseeable.

I lay in my new room, exhausted, looking out of the window into the garden. There was a rabbit hutch and a bird feeder, and a big swing, and it seemed I would finally have something to look at again.

Cal

So, just carrying on my intros, but maybe a bit out of sequence: My sister, Iz, came along when I was six, and turned my world upside down. I think I expected her to be an instant playmate, and didn’t realise she was going to need to bulk up a bit before she could stand in goal for my penalty shoot-outs, so after all the build up waiting for her to arrive, she was a bit of a loud, smelly anti-climax. Sorry, Iz, love you heaps, but you didn’t half have stinky shit when you were a baby.

Iz and I have the same hair. It’s yellow and very curly. I mean, blond ringlets, who gives that to a boy? I bloody hate my bloody hair, but on Iz, well, if ever hair was meant to be on a girl, it is this hair. I keep mine so short, you can hardly ever tell it’s curly, and I’ve managed to destroy nearly all of the photos Mum has of me when she cruelly made me grow it, but Iz has cultivated this mane of blonde curliness that has men falling at her feet. Even when she was little, or rather especially when she was little, everyone wanted to touch her hair, and old ladies would give her sweets (it nearly persuaded me to grow mine, but not quite). Iz would always make a bee-line for the men, who couldn’t resist picking her up and cuddling her, giving her all the attention, and she loved it, lapped it up, got away with murder and late bedtimes by looking up from underneath her eyelashes and tossing her curls. If only I could say it made her a spoilt brat, and maybe it did a bit back then, but Iz is the best sister, the kindest woman, the most beautiful person, now. Back then, I gave her a thoroughly deserved hard time, and teased her as much as the League of Older Brothers expects, naturally.

Dec

Day dawned and with it a hefty dose of reality. Still sore from yesterday, and sad from dreaming about Mum, I had to kick-start myself into some semblance of liveliness.

I was very glad it was the last Raiders session of the week. Tomorrow I would be able to relax in the civility of the gym. Today, I remembered to pack spare clothes that I intended to leave in the car park. Tried not to drag my feet from the bus stop to the stadium, but it was hard to hurry towards what was waiting for me.

It was more of the same. Bruises on bruises, bone-crunching tackles, stamps, prods, I sucked it all up. At the end of the session, I lay on the turf, eyes closed, panting, head spinning, unable to move. I felt something wet hit my chest. Looked down, a gobbet of phlegm nestled in the middle of my shirt. Looked up, DivDav jogging away.

>Hey! David Allsop! Come here.

Struggling, I sat up.

‘No, Nico.’

DivDav sauntered back to where Nico stood.

>I see what you do. You don’t do again.

DivDav shrugged.

%Whatever.

>I mean it. You lay off Declan, or it is trouble for you.

DivDav shrugged again and walked away. Nico crouched down to where I sat, panting.

>Declan, this cannot be. You must speak to Stuey, or Don or someone.

‘No.’

He stood up and held out a hand. I took it and pulled myself to my feet, then bent over with my hands on my knees and puked up some bile onto the grass.

>Declan, I really worry.

‘It’ll be OK. It’s not that bad.’

>Huh. I don’t believe you. You can’t take this every day, is too much.

‘I’ll be OK, you go.’

He stood by me for a couple of minutes, then walked off with an exasperated sigh. I stayed bent over for a few more minutes while I got my breath back, then slowly made my way to the changing rooms, where someone with a huge imagination had pissed on my clothes again. I bundled them up and went out into the car park where I had stowed my bag behind a wall.

Checking there was no one around, I quickly slipped my shorts off and trousers on, and put a hoody on over my shirt. Making my way across the car park, I heard my name shouted behind me. Recognising DivDav’s voice, I kept on walking. He didn’t pursue me, but shouted out:

%Fuck off Summers. Don’t go running to your new sugar daddy every time it gets rough. Take it like a man, if you can remember how.

I kept my head down and walked away, hard as it was to do. I longed to confront him, but apart from being in no physical state to do so, I didn’t think the club would look sympathetically on it; it was also probably just what he wanted.

I was waiting at the bus stop, having just missed a bus, when Nico’s red Honda pulled up. He leaned over and opened the passenger door.

>Get in. I take you home.

I was actually relieved. I hadn’t been looking forward to standing at the bus stop in the cold for another twenty minutes, and then the bumpy bus journey back, stiffening up all the way. I got in.

‘Thanks, appreciate it.’

>Ha, I expect you to argue. You must feel very bad.

‘Bad enough, I guess.’

>I talk to Stuey. He will talk to people again. I talk to David also. Tell him what I think. He is coward.

‘Bet that went down well.’

>Declan, he piss on your things.

‘Oh. Mystery pisser solved, then.’

>He think is funny. I tell him grow up.

‘Cheers, Nico, probably just made things a zillion times worse, but thanks for trying.’

>How can it be worse? You are beaten up every day, they ruin your clothes, spit on you … and you take it. You don’t get angry. You don’t fight. You don’t stand up for yourself. You let them. I don’t understand.

‘They deserve to have their say however they want.’

>No. Not like this. Is not right. You need to take my money. You pay people back, this stops.

I was silent for a short while. It really would make things a lot easier, take away some of the worries that kept me awake at night. I fought an internal battle with myself, feeling ashamed that I needed to accept help but relieved that help had been offered. Weeks of punishing training sessions stretched out in front of me, with no let up and everybody hating me. Hating myself instead, I took the easy way.

‘OK.’

A pause. Nico slowed the car and looked over at me.

>You say OK?

‘I said OK.’

>Ha! I think I have to beat you up myself to make you say yes. Good for you, Declan. Is great. This make it better for you.

‘I had a long chat with Rose last night. She gave me some good advice. I would be very grateful to take you up on your offer.’

>Ha, Rose, she is something, huh? I hope you are nice to her.

‘I try my best. But I will pay you back, and I will pay you back quickly.’

Nico dropped me off outside the flats, and I slowly made my way up to mine. I ran a bath, undressed, inspected the damage and eased myself into the hot water. Cuts stung, muscles stiffened, bruises developed, I drifted in an unthinking sea of exhaustion and pain.

I must have fallen asleep, as I woke with a start in cold dirty water, to the sound of the door entry buzzer. Thrashing around, I slipped trying to get out of the bath and banged my elbow on the tap.

‘Shit shit shit.’

I grabbed a towel and headed for the intercom. It buzzed again. I picked up.

>Hey, is Nico.

‘Oh, OK, come on in. It’s up the stairs, number six.’

Pressed the button to open the front door, surprised. Realised I had no clothes on. Quickly dried myself and pulled on some vaguely clean clothes, just as Nico rang my doorbell.

‘Hi, er, come in.’

>I come to find out your bank numbers. You tell me, I do this quick.

He held up his phone.

‘Er, OK, bloody hell, Nico. You didn’t have to come by specially.’

>But now I am here. Lis, she say do it, go, Declan he will pretend to forget. Do it before Declan change his mind. She very bossy.

He looked around, frowning.

>You don’t have much things.

‘Sold most of my stuff.’

>Huh. You sure do. Come, where is your numbers?

I rummaged in the pile of bills and junk mail collecting in a drawer in the kitchen, and found a bank statement. I handed it over to Nico and he called his bank while I looked out of the window as if I wasn’t listening. He transferred a large sum of money into my bank account, as if it was it was every day that he gave thousands of pounds to someone who had recently stolen a similar amount from a charity. It made me feel ashamed, that he could have so much faith in me.

When he was done, and had disconnected from the call, I turned to thank him.

>Now you pay back everyone, is finished. Good, huh?

‘I guess I’ll have to wait a few days while it goes through, but yes, good. Thanks so much. I really don’t know what to say. Say thanks to Lisa.’

>You thank her yourself. She say come to dinner again. Ha, I think she want to watch my try, you are excuse.

‘I want to set up some kind of repayment.’

>Is no hurry.

‘I’ll pay you back every month, is a cheque OK?’

>However you like. Is no problem.

‘For fuck’s sake, Nico, I want to do this properly. I need to pay you back the same way I wanted to pay everyone else back.’

>OK, Declan, I see this bother you. We talk about it tonight.

Cal

Uncle Matty got better enough to come home, but only after more days and days of sitting watching him, though he was a bit more interesting now, because he’d talk, even if he was hard to understand. I knew what he was saying better than anyone else, and I could tell people what he’d said.

So when Uncle Matty was better enough to get out of bed and be pushed in his wheelchair, he came to live with us in our new house. He had his own room downstairs, with his own shower and toilet too, and I was allowed to play in his room, and talk loudly if I wanted to, unless Uncle Matty was having a bad day, which meant when he was feeling too sad to play with me and so no one talked to him, and he just wanted the door shut all the time.

But mostly, I played in his room, and he was either asleep, which was a lot, or he talked to me and asked me about my games, and about Mum and Dad and Granny.

It was weird at first, spending so much time with Uncle Matty, because I’d only really seen him a few times before he came to live with us. He had come to visit us with a lady a couple of times; I remember him giving me some Jurassic Park toys – I think that was the same time I walked in on them early in the morning. Whoops. I said no porn, and I meant it, but whoa, Matty, way to nearly blind a small child.

But anyhow, Uncle Matty living with us meant I got to know him, and as he got better, and he could play with me and go out with me, I got to like him a lot. He never treated me like I was a kid, even though, obviously, I was. If I asked him a question, he’d think about it seriously and then tell me the truth in a way that made me trust him not to hide things from me, but I knew he didn’t always tell Mum and Dad everything I said. I suppose a lot of that was because he hated everyone knowing everything about him. And he knew loads about space and dinosaurs and trains, and when he read me things from my books, he always added things that he knew about, like wondering how big a Tyrannosaurus Rex was if it was stood next to our house, or whether Thomas the Tank Engine would beat the train from Stafford to Stoke, or if the moon would be bright enough to sail a boat by.

Matt

For a while, the transition tired me out so much that I slept far, far more than I woke, but I soon got into a pattern, where Jay would come in first thing in the morning and put me on the toilet. I mean physically put me there. I could no more walk than I could fly, at first, and he had to manhandle me out of bed and into the wheelchair, push me to the small en-suite bathroom and then manhandle me onto the pan. The first couple of days, he carried me from the bed. It was beyond humiliating. And before you ask, no I couldn’t wipe my own arse, not to begin with, so yeah, he had to do that too. But he always tried to take my mind off it by talking about something completely a propos of nothing while he was doing it, and although I expect it was the least favourite time of the day, for either of us, he helped me through it. He always told me to ‘be strong and stay positive’, it was like Jay’s thing to say when he ran out of idle chatter (which happened frequently) and he wanted to appear supportive and inspirational. I tried, but being strong is hard at times when opening your eyes feels like you’ve lifted a tonne, and staying positive presumes at least a measure of being positive already.

I was thin, so thin. I’d always been a skinny runt, but I could feel my ribs, see them when they changed my shirt, and could feel the very sockets of my hip bones. It was hardly surprising Jay had been able to carry me; the few times I looked in the mirror, I saw a skull looking out at me. Cal thought I looked like a ‘skellington’, and also thought this was really cool, but I saw the worry in everyone’s eyes when I didn’t finish my meals, and tried as hard as I could to fatten myself up. It didn’t have a noticeable effect; I’d always been able to eat vast amounts of food and not put weight on, and so now I had no appetite, I obviously wasn’t putting enough fuel into my greedy metabolism, and apart from anything else it meant I was always cold. So I had to drink build-up drinks, which looked foul and tasted worse. But I tried to do it without complaining, because it made them feel better, and took some of the terror away from behind their eyes.

Cal

We moved back to Devon not long after Uncle Matty was really better, but he came with us, and I guess that was the start of this big family thing we’ve got going on. It was more complicated than that, because a lot of it was to do with Dec, but although Matty being ill was terrible, and him nearly dying was more terrible, I think if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be this remarkable group of people who are The Scotts, even though half of us aren’t even called Scott.

I’m realising that telling you about each person at a time is going to get confusing, because I can’t talk about Matty back then without talking about Mum and Dad, or Dec, and I’ll end up repeating myself. So I think that’s how I’m going to do this. I’m going to do a bit of When Cal Was Little with all the main people in my story (except, obviously, the people I didn’t know back then), and then I’m going to bundle it all together and tell it like it was with everyone. Maybe I’ll change my mind half way through, I’m told that’s what I do, so don’t hold me to anything.

I’m going to tell you about Dec next. I was really little when Dec came to live with us, and I don’t remember it. I remember him, because it’s difficult not to remember a lanky, loud-mouthed, rude, sulky big boy, who should have scared me to death, and who should have considered himself far too cool to hang out with a two year old, but didn’t.

I remember Dec reading me bedtime stories, playing football with me, walking me to school, sitting on the edge of my bed when I was poorly, playing with my cars and my models, picking me up and carrying me on his shoulders; all the things you could wish a big brother would do. I also remember him with some very scary friends, who all wore black and had funny coloured hair, and I remember him swearing a lot. Not that it’s hard to remember the swearing, because he still does that, so it’s a constant reminder.

Dec and Matty, they are both responsible for my occasional lapses when it comes to the odd f-word, and I blame them all the time. Much good it does me.

So, Dec was there from the beginning, or that’s how it felt, and we were mates, or brothers, or something, it’s getting complicated again, because it’s not something that has a name. He was only supposed to be with us a short while, Dad says a few weeks, Mum says longer, but Dad never pays attention properly, so I’m more of a mind to believe Mum. But anyway, he lived with us for three years, and I never thought much about it, it was just normal. Of course, there aren’t many families that have random teenagers who appear and stay, without some sort of formalities, but that’s what happened with Dec. I think Mum and Dad thought about, I don’t know, fostering or adopting or something, but in the end time went on, and Dec was eighteen, and it was too late.

And maybe if they had, maybe all the rest wouldn’t have happened, maybe Dec would have felt more secure or something, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. I was only five at the time, so I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, but Dec was just, all of a sudden, different; he stayed in his room and didn’t play with me or read me stories, and then he left. He put all his things in bin bags and took them away, and didn’t say goodbye, so I didn’t know if he was coming back or not, and Mum and Dad wouldn’t answer when I asked where he was, at least not any answer that meant anything, even though I asked a lot, and then we moved up to Stafford, and Dec wasn’t there any more, and it all felt weird.

I think I’m going to tell you more about all that later, so that’s enough of Dec for now.

Granny always seemed to be around in those early days, despite the fact that she lived up there and we lived down here. We never saw much of Matty, even though they both lived in Stafford, but Granny was always visiting. She’d bring chocolate, which so wasn’t the only reason I looked forward to her coming (oh it so was), and she’d talk to me about little boy things like Lego and dinosaurs really seriously, as if she cared about them as much as I did. She gave the best granny cuddles too, and most importantly would sometimes stick up for me against Mum if I wanted to watch cartoons.

Dec

The next couple of weeks saw a big decrease in the amount of damage I was taking in training. I paid back all my friends, their friends and the acquaintances I had borrowed from, and this immediately changed the atmosphere on my part. People talked to me, involved me in their conversations, Big even came out for a drink with me. That was a great night. Nothing crazy, I didn’t even have a beer, but just chatting with a mate about football, films, girls, nothing serious, it was almost therapeutic.

I made an agreement with Nico and Lisa to pay them as much as I could afford every month. It wouldn’t leave me with much, but they didn’t know that, and the quicker I paid it back, the better I would feel. It was going to take me a long time, I’d still be paying them this time next year. I was even more grateful to them, realising this, as it would have taken me an equally long time to pay back everyone I had borrowed from, and they wouldn’t have been so understanding.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. There were still people waiting on the result of the visa and passport episode who were less than charitable towards me. At best they ignored me, at worst they still gave me physical reminders of their annoyance at every opportunity. There was no more pissing on my clothes. DivDav seemed surprised and pleased when I paid him back the money I owed him, and shook my hand.

%No hard feelings, mate.

We hadn’t spoken much since, and I hadn’t hung out with them all, but there was a little progress. Nico and Rose had been right, paying back the money had made a big difference.

Now I wasn’t taking so much physicality, I was feeling the benefit of training. Checking in with Stuart every week, he said he was pleased with my fitness and willingness.

Although Raiders’ legal people had sorted my passport and visa – I now officially had dual nationality, wasn’t going to be deported, and didn’t need a work permit to continue playing – the hearing about it all was coming up. It would all be over one way or the other pretty soon.

I was going to the gym on most of the days when I wasn’t training, and also doing a lot of walking, out in the fresh air, trying to clear my head. Lots of time to think, trying to make sense of how I’d got here, trying to put it all somewhere it didn’t hurt me as much. Still a worthless piece of shit, really.

I was missing playing a lot. I had played regularly for the reserves, and although we never got a huge crowd, being part of that experience was what it was all about for me. Now I wasn’t even allowed to go the stadium to watch games, and felt disconnected from it all.

I missed Jay, Beth and Cal so much, I knew there would always be a huge hole in my life where they had been. Beat myself up about them every single day.

Rose helped, a lot. She chatted when I needed chat, listened when I talked, gave advice whether I wanted it or not, and seemed to know when to leave me alone. Nico continued to look out for me, I went to dinner with him and Lisa a couple of times. I had a lot to be thankful for.

Cal

And Baggo. I’ve already mentioned him, but Baggo was my mate from the instant we met, in the playground, on the first day of school. He knocked me over as he was running away from Maisie Cunningham, who was trying to kiss him, and he gave me a Pokemon card to say sorry, and I gave him a plastic triceratops to say thanks, and there we were, mates, united against unwanted kissing from girls. Which is ironic, as later we were united for the very much wanted kissing from girls. Any girls.

Baggo and me have played together, worked together, prowled together, hurt together, laughed together and cried together, although it’s doubtful that either of us would admit to the crying. He was always the confident, naughty one, and I like to think I was a steadying influence on him, although to be honest if my mum had been anyone other than Beth Scott, things could have turned out very differently. When we suddenly left to go to Stafford, Baggo was the one I missed the most; when we returned, seeing him again was my most anticipated event.

Is that enough scene-setting? There are other people in my story, but they come in later, and I’d like to get on with this, see if I can do it in a way that makes sense.

So, I’ve kind of made a start, I’ve explained a bit about Dec and a bit about Matty, or what I can remember or have been told from when I was young.

The Dec/Matty thing is kind of tied together, because it all happened at the same time, and although I know it was all hugely upsetting for everyone at the time, I think things would have been very different for us all now if it hadn’t happened.

I suppose, in my six-year-old world, I was oblivious to a lot of it, because I think you just accept more when you’re younger, but maybe the major stuff stuck.

Dec

I had just got back from the gym one Sunday night when my mobile buzzed in my pocket. Reached for it, glanced at the name on the screen. A lurch beneath my ribs. Jay Scott.