44. Dance little sister

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

Matt

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

‘Hey. Any news?’

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

‘Woohoo.’

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

‘Is evhryone OK?’

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

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

‘Isobel Flora.’

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

‘See you soon, Matty.’

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

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

\dec forgot to ask her name.

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

\will she be able to play football with me?

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

Cal

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

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

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

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

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

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

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

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

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

Cal nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

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

Cal

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

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

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

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

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

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

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

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

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

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

_Would you like a cuddle?

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

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

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

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

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

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

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

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

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

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

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

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

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

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

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

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

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

)Maybe one day.

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

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

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

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

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

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

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

Cal

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

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

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

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

_She’s very good with children.

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

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

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

‘Really?’

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

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

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

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

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

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

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

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

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

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

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

Cal

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

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

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

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

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

\why?

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

‘Need some help?’

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

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

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

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

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

)Why couldn’t you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

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

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

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

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

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

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

\but Nico and Lis are still there

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

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

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

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

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

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

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

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

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

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

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

\kay. How long can I watch for?

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

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

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

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

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

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

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

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

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

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

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

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

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

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

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

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

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

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

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

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

)I’ll phone you later.

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

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

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

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

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

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

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

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

‘Hey, Matt.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

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

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

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

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

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘He’s the master.’

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

‘She is pretty amazing.’

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

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

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

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

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

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

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

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

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

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

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

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

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

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

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

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

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

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

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

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

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

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

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

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

‘Love.’

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

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

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

We clinked our bottles together.

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

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

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

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

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

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

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

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43. Life gets better

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

Matt

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

Cal

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

‘Can you play football with me now?’

Dec

I hauled my attention to Cal.

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

\he said he wants to watch you.

‘Did he.’

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

‘Come on then, Cal, try again.’

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

Dec

\dec, you’re not even watching.

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

Cal

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

‘Here you are, have another kick.’

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

łConcentrate, now.

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

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

Matt

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

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

łNo way.

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

łThat’ll be a first then.

>I overcome it for Cal.

Cal

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

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

‘It’s called the goalkeeper.’

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

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

Dec

}Your talk with Amy went well then.

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

}So I gather. Feel better?

‘Feel fucking awesome.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

Dec

)Hey you.

‘Hey you. Do you know Matt?’

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

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

)That’d be telling.

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

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

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

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

)Am I sensitive information then, Dec?

‘Extremely sensitive. Handle with utmost care.’

Matt

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

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

‘For fuck’s sake, geh a room guys.’

It seemed like the thing to say.

Only not here. Definitely out of bounds.’

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

Dec

I leaned down and whispered in her ear.

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

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

Matt

‘Where are yuh off to?’

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

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

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

Dec

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘Dec, I like her.’

‘You should feel honoured, Amy never swears.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dec!’

He turned and I raised my beer bottle to him.

‘Here’s to normal.’

He knew exactly what I meant.

Dec

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

)Your place or your place?

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

)Yeah.

‘My place it is.’

Amy put the key in the ignition.

‘Amy, wait.’

She turned her entrancing eyes on me.

‘Just wanted to do this.’

I leaned over and kissed her deeply.

)Mm. Is that a warm up?

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

)Within the speed limit, mister.

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

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

Cal

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

Matt

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

)Not as amazing as you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

)They do come in very useful.

‘Wait here then.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

‘Hey.’

łDec, you’re needed as baby backup.

‘What?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Get dressed, we’ve got to go.’

Amy sat up, alarmed.

)Why? What’s happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_Thanks sweetheart, see you both later.

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

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

‘Hey, Cal, practising your dribbling?’

\yes but I need a goalie.

‘Will I do?’

\yes but I need someone to tackle me.

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

Cal considered.

\girls aren’t very good at football.

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

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

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

I walked off into the house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No worries. See you later.’

Matt

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

Dec

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

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

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

‘What are you hungry for?’

\monster Munch.

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

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

\can I take my kite?

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

)I’ll make some sandwiches.

‘Thanks, babe.’

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

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

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

\dec why do you always kiss Amy?

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

\does it hurt?

‘No, Cal, it’s very nice.’

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

We both laughed.

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

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

\when can we go?

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

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

Matt

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

\when will they be at home?

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

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

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

\where is Uncle Matty?

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

\dec, can you stay with me tonight?

‘Uncle Matty will be there.’

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

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

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

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

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

Amy laughed.

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

‘Do I still have mad night noises?’

)Oh yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tapped my head.

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

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

Amy laughed.

)Works for me.

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

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

‘Jay, any news?’

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

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

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

‘Yeah, course. Now?’

łYeah.

‘Have you rung Matt?’

łNot yet, I’ll do it now.

42. You can’t hurry love

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘Heh Si, haven’t seen yuh fuh ages.’

He looked up, dark expression on his face.

‘No. Time I was going.’

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

‘Wha did she tell yuh?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

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

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

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

‘Maybe you didn’t deserve anyone.’

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

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

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

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

‘Wha the fuck? Tha’s bollocks.’

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

‘Yeah right. We all got your text.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Noh thanks.’

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

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

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

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

‘Noh I hahvnt.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I dohnt hahv any choice.’

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

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

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

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

‘That was one person, sweetheart.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeh?’

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

Beth broke into my escalating thoughts.

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

‘Ohkay.’

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

‘Ohkay.’

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

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

‘Ih’ll beh OK, I can lihv wih Mum.’

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

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

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

I waited for the but. And here it came.

‘But we think we might have a solution.’

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

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

‘Ruhning away?’

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

‘Yuh should goh, whatever.’

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

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

‘Cahn I think abouh ih?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fuck ohf, Jay.’

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

‘Doubt it, Beth.’

‘Noh.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just done some coffee if yuh fancy ih?’

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

I rolled my eyes at her martyred tone.

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

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

‘Cake?’

‘Beth’s?’

‘Lemohn drizzle.’

‘How can I resist?’

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

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

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

She affected a puzzled expression.

‘I came to see you, dear.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Why?’

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

‘I’m alright on my own, you know.’

‘Wha?’

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

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

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

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

‘Mum …’

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

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

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

‘Promihs.’

‘Thank you.’

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you think, mate?’

Finally one thing burst out.

‘But what about the parade?’

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

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

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

‘Where will Uncle Matty live?’

‘With us – he’s coming too.’

‘Will Granny live with us?’

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

‘Will Dec live with us?’

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

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

‘Will I go to my old school?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Can I have a Pokémon bedroom?’

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

Ben10 was for babies. I was six.

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

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

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

‘Is the baby going to have a room?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Can Percy come with us?’

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

‘Will Tabitha come too?’

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

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

Dec

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

‘OK, you’ve got my attention.’

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

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

Cal

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

Cal

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

Dec

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

Cal

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

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

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

Dec

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

‘Hey gorgeous.’

)Mm. Morning. What time is it?

‘Still early.’

)Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

Cal

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

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

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

‘Heh Cal, no takers fuh footy yet?’

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

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

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

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

He winked at me. Uncle Matty was cool.

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

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

‘Hey Cal.’

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

‘Dec, I got twenty three super Legos.’

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

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

‘No, it’s just for one player.’

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘That’s Amy. She’s just a mate.’

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

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

‘No.’

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

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

‘She’s a really good mate.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m not –’

He stopped himself. He so was. Pitiful.

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

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

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

‘Wha, now? Holy shit, Dec.’

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

Dec

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

‘Can I have a word?’

She looked up at me, frowning slightly.

)Are you OK?

‘Yeah. Come with me a minute.’

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

‘There’s something I want to say.’

)OK.

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

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

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

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

)About as long as I’ve wanted you to?

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

)Not in so many words.

‘Oh Amy, you’re so fucking amazing.’

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

łWell it’s about bloody time, you pair.

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

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

I reached for the sauce and handed it to him.

łThanks. As you were.

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

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

Matt

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

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

‘Happy ending, then?’

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

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

Nico seemed to be some kind of Latino hopeless romantic.

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

Cal

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

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

‘He said I could.’

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

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

‘Now, Cal.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I got to level fourteen.’

‘Whoa, you’re beating meh then.’

Uncle Matty turned to Nico.

‘Cal’s got sohm serious gaming fingers.’

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

‘Have you got Lego Star Wars?’

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

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

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

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

‘Can you play football with me now?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remembered what I was supposed to be doing there.

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

‘Sure, mate.’

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

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

‘Can you come and play football with me?’

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

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

‘What are you doing?’

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

‘They said ask you.’

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

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

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

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

‘Hey, mate.’

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

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

‘Yes. He’s doing kissing with her.’

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

łTake these out with you, then.

He handed me two plates of cupcakes.

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

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

_Oh, thanks you two.

She gave us a cheeky grin.

_Well done, I’m so pleased!

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

37. This is how it goes

In which goodbyes are said, tears are shed, and cheesy dinosaur biscuits are eaten.

Cal

I didn’t hear Dec come in later, but I did hear him in the middle of the night.

‘No … nnnh … no no no … mm … no … ‘

I heard Dec moving, and then I felt a bump from under me, as he sat up and banged his head on the underneath of my bed. I didn’t have to wait long

Dec

… woke up in a sweat, heart racing, breathing hard, disoriented. Tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle from above me. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

Cal

I’d known it would happen, and I liked knowing things and being right. Dec must have heard me, and his voice came from below.

‘Sorry, Cal.’

‘You sweared.

‘I know. I was half asleep. Sorry. Was I making noises?’

‘Yes you were going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and I waited for you to do a big swear and you did.’

‘I didn’t scare you – er – Optimus Prime, though?’

I hadn’t been scared, not even of the thought that Dec might scream really loudly.

‘No, he wasn’t scared. It’s only your dreams.’

‘Well that’s very brave of him.’

‘Dec can I come in with you?’

I thought I might have a chance, because it was Dec’s last night, and I might not see him again for days and days.

Dec

Oh what the hell, it was my last night.

‘Come on, then.’

Cal

It had worked. I climbed down the ladder and got under Dec’s duvet, and was asleep before I could think about it.

Dec

He hopped down the ladder and filled the bottom bunk with his sleepy body. Crammed up against the wall, I slept as well as I could, dreamless and happy.

When I woke up next morning, Cal was still asleep, looking innocent and peaceful. I could hear sounds from downstairs that suggested someone was up and in the kitchen, and my stomach rumbled. I didn’t know what the time was, couldn’t see a clock from my position under the top bunk. It was dark, but this time of year it didn’t get light till fairly late. I couldn’t bear to wake Cal, but I was really hungry so, moving slowly and carefully, I edged to the bottom of the bed, tucking the duvet back around him as I did so. Once there, I hopped off, pulled on some clothes and went downstairs. Jay was in the kitchen, making tea and toast.

łHey, mate. Bit early yet?

I looked at the kitchen clock. Just after six. Very early for me, pretty early for Jay as well. Having a pregnant wife must be overriding his natural laziness.

‘Oh well. Didn’t sleep too well.’

łMore bad dreams?

I nodded.

‘Cal got his wish for a big swear, too. Sorry. Didn’t know where I was for a minute.’

łCan’t be helped. Was he OK?

‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was what he’d been waiting for. He got in with me afterwards.’

łOh great, now he’s going to be trying to come in to us at all hours. We’d just got him to stop.

‘Sorry. It’s very hard to say no, especially in the middle of the night.’

łTell me about it, he knows all the tricks in the book. Breakfast? I’m just doing tea for Beth, then I’ll come back down and see if Matty’s awake.

‘I can check on Matt if you like.’

łCheers.

Jay went back upstairs. I made a pile of toast and two cups of tea, just in case Matt was awake, and went into his room with a tray. The room was dark, and I didn’t want to put the lamp on in case it woke him up.

‘Matt?’

No reply. I sat in the chair, ate toast and drank tea. Matt slept on. I finished my breakfast and stood up, picking up the tray from the table. Matt suddenly woke with a startled intake of breath.

}Fuck. Who’s tha?

‘Dec. Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Just brought you some breakfast if you want it.’

}Scared the bejehsus out of meh. Why dihnt yuh put the ligh on?

‘Didn’t want to wake you up.’

}Prefer to gihv meh a coronary?

‘Sorry. Tea and toast? Get it while it’s tepid.

}Mm, just how I lihk ih.

I turned on the table lamp and handed him his breakfast.

}Oh, Auhnty Dec yuh did a tray and ehvrything.

‘Well, last day and all, had to make it memorable.’

}Wha time issit?

‘Sometime after six.’

}Bluhdy hell, bih early ihnt ih?

‘I was awake, couldn’t sleep, hungry. Thought I might as well get up.’

}Well thahks foh sharing. Buhger off now, too early foh meh. Thahks foh tray, maybe laher …

His eyes closed and he went back to sleep. I picked the tray up and took it back into the kitchen. The house was silent again. I sat at the table, resting my chin on my hand, trying to soak up the atmosphere. I wanted to take in as much as possible of my time here, so I could take it back with me. Now that there wasn’t long to go before I left, I wanted to appreciate every minute. The inactivity did for me eventually, and I woke up, head resting on my arm on the table, when Beth came in.

_Oh! Were you asleep? What on earth are you doing down here?

‘Sorry, just dozed off. I’m up, honest. It was just really quiet. Doesn’t happen much round here.’

_I know. I love being first up, before everyone else. Don’t get to do it very often, especially at the moment, I’m sleeping so much. But I’m just as happy to have breakfast in bed. Even if James does go back to sleep more often than not. Have you seen Matty?

‘I did a while ago, he said it was a bit early for him.’

I glanced at the clock – it was now nearly eight – and stretched to work out some of the knots that sleeping with my head on the table had tied in my neck.

‘I can have another go if you like.’

_No it’s OK, James can see what he needs, he should be down in a minute. What time were you thinking of setting off?

‘I don’t know. Hadn’t really thought. Didn’t really want to think about it if I’m honest. I’ve had such a good time, Beth. I never thought I’d be part of this again. If nothing else in my life works out, this Christmas will make it alright.’

_Oh, Dec. We’ve loved having you here, with us. I know the past few months have been hard, for all of us. If I could pretend none of it had happened, I would. But I think we’ve managed to mend it pretty well – maybe we’re even stronger. We know a bit more about you, now, about how things have been for you. We all love you, you know that, don’t you? I think even Carol’s got a soft spot for you.

I nodded, speechless, throat closing familiarly, tears threatening.

Cal

When I woke up, Dec had got up, and I could hear voices in the kitchen. It sounded like Mum and Dec. I got up quietly, went downstairs quietly, and stood in the hall listening to what they were saying. They were talking, and although I couldn’t really hear, I think it was about Dec going home, and Dec cried. Dec had cried all the time since he’d got here, and it was a bit annoying, but I remembered Mum saying he was sad even though he didn’t look it, and we needed to give him loves, so I tried not to be annoyed.

‘Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum was trying to cheer Dec up.

‘You’ll be back up here in no time. And we’ll be down to see you – there’s always a reason to go back to Devon.’

Dec sniffed. ‘I’m not going to spend my last morning here being miserable. I’ve had a great time. I’ve got my family back. I’m going back to get fit and play rugby. Nothing to be miserable about at all.’

I remembered that Dec was in our family, and I felt happy, and went into the kitchen to be part of everyone feeling happy. Dec had stopped crying and was smiling. Mum was patting Dec on the shoulder.

‘That’s the spirit – oh here’s Cal. You’re up late, sweetheart.’

‘Dec keeped me awake with noises and a big swear.’

I wasn’t telling on Dec, I was just telling Mum what had happened, because she’d ask me later, and I’d have to tell her anyway.

‘Oh did he? Well Daddy told me you were quite keen for that to happen last night, so maybe you got your wish. Dec, I feel I have to be a bit annoyed about the big swear, just to keep up appearances.’

She pretended to frown at Dec, but he just grinned, like he always did when Mum told him off about swears.

‘Sorry, Beth, won’t happen again.’

‘Ha ha, if only I believed you.’

Dad came in, yawning.

Don’t believe him, whatever he said.’

I liked when Dad teased Dec, because he’d say something like he was telling Dec off, but he was being funny. I wanted to join in with that too.

‘Dec said he won’t do any big swears again.’

Is that so? Let’s see how long he lasts. My vote is for ten past eight. What’s the time now? Oh, maybe five past.’

‘Piss off.’

‘Four minutes past. I win.’

And there it was. I’d joined in, and Dad had carried on, and Dec had done a swear. It didn’t get much better, although Mum wasn’t as happy as I was about it.

‘Honestly, you two. I’m a bit worried about what Cal’s going to come back saying, especially if he’s going to be hanging around rugby players all afternoon. You will tone it down a bit, won’t you?’

We’ll be model citizens. He’ll come back talking like an angel. Right Cal?’

I wasn’t sure about that. I had no idea what angels talked like, and I wasn’t going to have much of a chance to learn.

‘How do angels talk, Daddy?’

A bit like this.’

Dad’s voice was all squeaky, like a lady’s. I really didn’t want to have to talk like a lady.

‘Why do I have to talk like that?’

‘Daddy’s being silly. He means that he and Dec will watch their language so you don’t start saying some of the bad words they do.’

Sometimes grown-ups said the stupidest things. I knew I couldn’t say swears, although sometimes I whispered them to myself just to feel them in my mouth. No, I knew the rules about saying swears out loud.

‘But I’m six, I can’t do bad swears.’

‘I’m glad at least one of you has got some sense.’

‘I can’t do bad swears until I’m seven. Jake telled me.’

Jake knew everything about things big boys could do, because he had two brothers who were big boys. One of them was so big, he was in the Army, and Jake had often told me things his brothers did and said that astonished me.

Mum put her hands in the air like she was surrendering. I liked when Dad and me did boy and man things together, and Mum had to give in because she was a lady, and there was only one of her.

‘I give up. Even Jake Bagwell is against me.’

After that, Dec was getting ready to go, and he was finding his socks and pants, and checking he hadn’t left anything, and he couldn’t play with me because he was busy. He helped me feed Percy, and helped Mum with the dishwasher, and helped Granny watch TV, and talked to Uncle Matty, but he didn’t really have time for a big play with me, so I played in Uncle Matty’s room.

Dec

We decided to leave about ten o’clock. Jay reckoned he could do the journey in just over two hours, even though it had taken Lis over three and a half to do it before. That gave us plenty of time to drop my stuff off and say hello to Rose, get something to eat and head for the stadium. So I was left with a strange couple of hours of hanging around, waiting to leave, trying to find things to do, but not having time to really do very much.

I helped Cal feed his rabbit. I walked round the house again to check I hadn’t left anything behind. I emptied the dishwasher for Beth, I sat and watched a bit of a Sunday morning cookery programme with Carol. I scraped mud off my trainers. It felt like time was ticking away too fast.

I fetched my bags from upstairs, leaving them by the door. When I had arrived a few days ago, I hadn’t been able to carry anything. Now my left hand was so much better, I hardly remembered my little finger had been broken, although my right arm was still stiff, and the bandages served to remind me that I couldn’t push myself too far. Jay saw me bring my bags down.

łDo you want to put them in the car? While you’re out there you could move Beth’s car out of the way, it’s in front of the garage.

He tossed me the keys. I took my bags outside and left them by the garage door. I pointed the key at Beth’s car and pressed the button, opened the driver’s door, got in, shut the door and I was spinning, swerving across the road, unable to control the car. I was heading towards the ditch. A man appeared, lit by headlights. I frantically pulled on the steering wheel but he was too close and the car was too out of control. There was a bang, and my airbag inflated, pushing me backwards as the car lurched forwards into the ditch. I couldn’t move. The combination of my seatbelt, the airbag and the angle of the car pinned me to my seat, I couldn’t get out. Then I was spinning, swerving across the road, unable to control the car as it started again, replaying over and over on a loop in my head …

Cal

Uncle Matty was sitting in his chair, rather than his bed, and we heard Dad tell Dec to go and put his bag in Dad’s car, and to move Mum’s car out of the way, and we heard the front door slam as Dec went out.

‘Dohs tha boy ehver shuh a dohr quiehly?’

‘I think he does sometimes.’

‘Not ohften.’

Dad came in after a while.

‘Oh. I thought Dec must be in here. Where is he?’

‘Ouhside. Dihnt yuh fehl the trehmors wehn he shuh the dohr?’

‘But that was ages ago. He was only moving Beth’s car. Oh for God’s sake. He’d better not have bashed it.’

Dad stomped out and we heard the front door shut, almost as loudly as Dec had shut it.

Dec

łDec? What’s going on?

Jay’s voice brought me back to the present. I was gripping the steering wheel, my knuckles white, my breathing rapid and shallow, and I was sweating, trembling, staring straight ahead. Jay put his hand on my arm.

łDec?

I shook my head, trying to get the repeating images out of my mind.

‘Sorry. Fuck. I just had an action replay of crashing my car. Several action replays. Shit. I haven’t driven since. Didn’t think. Fuck.’

łJesus, Dec, how long have you been sat out here? You came out ages ago. You look terrible, you’re shaking. Come back inside, I think you need to calm down.

He took the keys out of my hand. I leaned forwards, resting my head on the steering wheel, eyes closed, trying to push it all down. Jay pulled on my arm.

łCome on, mate. Back inside.

I got out of the car and followed Jay indoors to the living room, where I sat down, leaned forwards and rubbed my face with my hands. Jay sat next to me, concern creasing his brow.

łHas that ever happened before?

‘No.’

łBut you’ve been in a car since, haven’t you? Course you have, I mean, Lis brought you up on Tuesday.

‘Only as a passenger. I think it was trying to drive, set something off. Fuck. That was intense. I couldn’t stop it. Just kept seeing it … feeling it … over and over.’

łHas it stopped now?

‘Yeah, as soon as you opened the door it stopped.’

łHow are you feeling?

‘A bit shaky. I’ll be OK.’

łIf you don’t want to go today, that’s fine.

‘No, no, I think I’ll be OK. You don’t want me to drive do you?’

łFuck no, I’m not letting you behind the wheel of my baby, even if you weren’t a bloody head case. Jesus, Dec, what the fuck’s going on in that tiny mind of yours?

‘I wish I bloody knew.’

łLet me get you a glass of water. If we weren’t about to set off I’d make it something stronger, but it’s not a good idea.

‘Thanks.’

I sat and took more ragged breaths while Jay got the water. The images were slowly fading and the panic was receding. I could hear Jay talking to Beth and Carol in the kitchen. He came back in, Beth in tow.

_Dec, what’s this James has been telling me? Some kind of panic attack?

‘I don’t know what you’d call it. I’m feeling better now, just shook me up a bit.’

łHere’s your water, mate.

‘Thanks.’

_Let me have a look at you.

Cal

The front door opened again after a few minutes, and we heard Dad and Dec go into the living room. Dad was talking like something had happened, and I tried really hard to listen, and Uncle Matty was listening too, but we couldn’t hear. Dad went and got Mum, and I drove one of my cars into the hall so I could hear a bit better.

Dec

Beth felt my forehead and checked my pulse while I gulped from the glass. She looked closely at my face.

_You look pale, your heart’s beating fast and you’re a bit clammy, but I think you’ll live. Has it happened before?

‘No – well, I suppose it feels like when I wake up after one of my dreams.’

_I wonder if it’s some kind of post traumatic thing?

‘Sorry, Beth, I just don’t know. Looks like another thing I need to sort out with Don’s shrink.’

_Poor you, things just pile up don’t they.

‘I’ll be OK. Really. Do we need to get going?’

łYeah. Sure you’re OK?

‘Yeah, sure.’

I breathed in deeply and pushed the panic away.

Cal

I didn’t understand everything they said, but they were talking about Dec’s dreams, and I think they said something about shrinking the postman, but that didn’t make any sense.

I couldn’t work out what had happened, but Dec was saying he was alright now, so it didn’t sound too bad. Maybe he’d banged his head on the garage door, or fallen over and banged his knee. I’d done that, and it had made me cry, but Mum had rubbed it and kissed it better, and after a while it didn’t hurt any more.

I’ll go and move Beth’s car, then. Have you said goodbye to Matty?’

‘No, I’ll go now.’

I ran up the stairs with my car so that Dad and Dec didn’t see I’d been listening, and I played up there for a while, until Mum came up and said it was nearly time to go, and to help me put things in my bag to take with me.

Dec

I crossed the hall into Matt’s room. I was surprised to see him sitting in the chair, iPad on his knee, rather than in bed.

‘Progress?’

}Yeh. Feel prehty good today. Fed up of being in behd. Might goh for a run laher. Or, yuh knoh, evehn walk tuh the lihving rohm on my ohn. Yuh going soon?

‘Yeah, Jay’s just swapping the cars around. Don’t run too far, maybe just 10k first time?’

}Noted, wihs spohts pehson. Yuh OK? Bih of a commohtion jus now.

‘Just more madness going on in my fucked up head. Had a bit of a weird moment in Beth’s car. I’m OK now, just about ready to go.’

I wasn’t sure quite how OK I really was, but the last thing I wanted to do was worry people. I could push it away and forget about it, I was sure.

}Wish I was coming wih yuh.

‘Next time, yeah?’

}Yeh. Ihs a date, Auhnty Dec. Take cahr of yuhsehf. Fucking nutter.

‘You too. Bloody cripple.’

He held his hand out, I clasped it tightly. Fist bumped. Left the room as Jay came in from outside.

łHave you seen Cal? Is he ready?

‘Don’t know, sorry.’

Cal

Mum put chocolate buttons in my bag, and a jumper, and some purple squash, and a hat and gloves because it was cold, and gave me three pound coins just in case. I didn’t know just in case of what, maybe she meant just in case I saw some sweets, and Dad didn’t have his money, and then three pound coins would be really helpful.

I wanted to take lots of dinosaurs with me, so I had something to make a game with in the car, but Mum said there wasn’t room in my bag for lots of dinosaurs. I needed at least four to make the game I’d thought of, but Mum said less than four, and so I chose three, which were my furry stegosaurus, my Lego tyrannosaurus rex and my pterodactyl puppet. They were the three biggest dinosaurs I had. Mum said they were all too big, and to choose smaller ones, because she didn’t know about the game I wanted to play, which needed them all. While Mum was telling me I couldn’t take all of them, Dad called up the stairs, and Mum answered him.

Cal?’

‘Right here, just having a discussion about how many dinosaurs he can take with him.’

One. OK Cal? Come on, let’s get moving.’

Which was really not fair, because Dad knew even less about my game than Mum, but he had his ‘no arguing’ voice on, and so I chose the stegosaurus. I would have to pretend all the other dinosaurs.

Dec

Carol came out of the kitchen.

#Are you off, now?

łSoon as Cal’s ready. OK Dec?

‘Yeah.’

It was all going a bit quickly, but couldn’t be helped.

#Goodbye, Declan, I hope I see you again soon.

‘Thanks Carol, me too.’

I kissed her on the cheek. Beth and Cal came downstairs, Beth carrying a bag and Cal’s coat, Cal carrying a large fluffy stegosaurus and wearing his Arsenal shirt.

łAre we all set? Let’s go, then. See you later Matty. Behave yourself. Sure you and Mum will be OK, Beth? Back about – oh I don’t bloody know. This evening, probably later on. I’ll ring you. OK, Dec? Come on then.

_Hug first. Come here, sweetheart.

Beth wrapped her arms round me and squeezed tightly.

_Oh I’m going to miss you. Ring me lots. Come back as soon as you can. Dec, promise me you’ll talk to us, call us, if you need anything, if anything happens. Call us all the time.

‘Promise.’

She let me go. She had tears in her eyes, so did I.

łOh for fuck’s sake, girls, don’t start each other off again.

_James!

łSorry. Sorry Cal. Right, off we go. Raiders here we come.

Jay, Cal and I got in the car. Beth and Carol waved us off, Beth had tears running down her face, and I had to wipe my eyes several times.

Cal

Mum and Granny waved from the door until we went round the corner and couldn’t see them any more, then Dad turned the radio on, and didn’t say anything about Dec wiping his eyes.

So, according to Rose you think I drive too fast.’

‘True.’

But you kinda like it.’

‘No comment.’

Off we go then!’

Dad did drive really fast, and we had fun singing with some of the songs on the radio – Dec and Dad did silly high shouty voices to the songs, which made me laugh, and we spotted Eddie Stobart lorries, and Dad shouted at other cars to get out of the way, and I didn’t have time to play a dinosaur game, because I fell asleep.

Dec

The time in the car passed really quickly, we sung along, badly, to the radio, helped Cal spot Eddie Stobart lorries, shouted at other drivers to get out of the way. Jay did drive fast, and Cal was asleep by the time we had got half way. As we got closer, I started to feel a return of some of the cloud I had been under for the past few months. It was distant, but it was there.

łYou’ve gone quiet.

‘Just thinking.’

łStop thinking and get singing. I bloody love this song.

He cranked up the stereo and I had no choice. Cal slept on, despite the raucous out of tune noise we were making. We finally pulled up outside the flats. It was about midday, still ages before the game, and I sat for a while, trying to get my thoughts together. Jay looked at me.

Cal

I woke up when the car stopped, but I didn’t open my eyes straight away. Dad and Dec were talking, and I wanted to hear what they were saying. Dad was trying to make Dec get out of the car.

Come on, what are you waiting for?’

‘This is it, back to reality. I’m freaking out a bit.’

Dad took a deep breath.

You know, you can always come back and live with us. We can make room. If all this is too hard, we can work something out.’

I nearly opened my eyes, because this was what I wanted, but Dad had said there wasn’t any room, and that Dec didn’t live with us any more, but now it seemed like there might be a chance … I almost stopped breathing waiting to hear what Dec would say.

‘Really?’

Really. Beth and I talked about asking you.’

Dec

I looked at him. At that moment, thinking about all the hard work, all the people and all the sorting out I was going to have to face, it was very tempting to leave it all behind and start again.

‘But we thought it would be selfish of us to ask – I mean, think about what you’d be letting go. You’ve got a second chance with Raiders, once you recover you’re not far away from the first team. Yeah, it’ll be hard work, and yeah it’s not the easy life. Rugby isn’t. You know that. And I think part of you belongs here, in this city. Think about Rose, too. She’d understand if you moved away, but I think you need her. She gets you, knows how to help you, knows how to make you accept the help.’

I shook my head, to clear it, not to disagree. Everything he said was absolutely right. Much as it would have meant to me to live with them all again, and much as it meant to me that they’d talked about it, and Jay had asked me, it wasn’t right just now, for any of us. Jay and Beth already had enough to cope with looking after Matt, they didn’t need the extra baggage of an unemployed hanger on. Regretfully, I pushed my apprehension aside.

Cal

It sounded like Dad was trying to get Dec to stay with Rose, and not live with us. I didn’t know much about all the reasons; I didn’t understand a lot of it. I just wanted Dec to live with us again.

‘No, you’re right, it’s just nerves. It means a lot to me that you offered, though. Let’s do this.’

Sure?’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s shoulder.

‘Sure.’

Thank fuck for that, no idea where we would have put you. Cubby hole by the washing machine, maybe, or a deck chair in the shed. Come on Cal, time to wake up.’

And that was the end of that.

Dec

Jay got out of the car and opened the back door so he could undo Cal’s seat belt. I got out and opened the boot to get my bag. I picked it up in my left hand, realising again with pleasure that I could carry it in that hand with no problems whatsoever. I waited with Cal while Jay picked up the other bag containing my new laptop and some food and drink Beth had insisted I brought back with me.

I fished the keys out of my pocket and, feeling really weird about it, opened the front door. It felt even more strange to be opening the door to Rose’s flat, as if I’d been away for months.

‘Only me.’

Rose rushed into the hall from the living room. As soon as I saw her, I realised how much I’d missed her, how big a part of my life she had become.

:Oh! You’re here! Let’s have a look at you. By, your face is looking better. You’ve had a haircut! There’s lovely now. Oh, and you’ve brought Jay and Calum with you. Hello young man. Would you like some orange squash?

\can I have purple?

‘I don’t think Rose does purple squash, Cal. Orange is OK isn’t it?

\kay.

:Tea for you two?

‘Great.’

She hurried off to the kitchen. We trooped after her, putting the bags down in the hall. After putting the kettle on and giving Cal his squash, Rose came over to me and gave me an enormous hug. I squeezed back and kissed her on the cheek, realising how much I’d missed her and recognising how much Rose had come to mean to me over the past weeks.

‘Good to see you.’

:You too love, it’s been quiet here without you.

‘You only got back yesterday, didn’t you?’

:Yes, love. Still missed you. I like having someone to make a fuss of.

Cal

Rose gave Dec a very big cuddle, it looked like she was going to squeeze him in half, but she didn’t, and then she went to make my squash. She talked to Dec the whole time, about how much she’d missed him, and because I was still trying to work out what she was to Dec, I just asked.

‘Dec, is Rose your mummy?’

Cal! Sorry, guys.’

I wasn’t sure what Dad was saying sorry for. He put his hand on my shoulder, to stop me saying anything else. I suppose I often got told off for asking things, but Granny always said ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’, although she sometimes told me off for asking things too, like about poo and wee when we were at Pizza Place and my voice was too loud.

Then Dec answered, and I knew I hadn’t said a wrong thing, because he wouldn’t have answered if I had.

‘She’s the nearest I’ve got to a mummy, yeah, Cal.’

I didn’t really know what that meant. Surely someone is either your mummy or they’re not? I tried to get him to explain.

Dec

Rose’s eyes filled up and she turned away to wipe them.

\does she make you tidy your room? And eat peas?

Cal’s definition of motherhood.

‘Well she hasn’t done either of those so far, but there’s plenty of time. Rose has looked after me while I’ve been sad and needed help, and I think she’s pretty great.’

Rose’s sniffles intensified.

Cal

I heard a sniff, and looked at Rose, who had her back to us. She might have been crying. There had been a lot of crying over the last few days, and I was starting to recognise the signs.

Bloody hell, Dec, way to go. Cal, stop asking awkward questions. Drink your squash, maybe Rose has got a biscuit or something?’

I didn’t know why Dad was cross with Dec and me, I’d only asked a question, and Dec had only answered it. But a biscuit sounded like a good idea. Rose got a tin out and opened the lid, then put some chocolate biscuits on a plate. I took one and munched on it while Dec, Rose and Dad talked some more.

Dec

Rose put some biscuits on a plate, turned round and put them on the table by Cal. Her eyes were still red, but there were no more tears.

‘Sorry, Rose, I didn’t mean to upset you.’

:Not upset, love, just emotional. Take no notice.

łDec’s done his fair share of blubbing over the last few days. Had to have serious words with him about it. Him and my brother make a right pair, anything sets them off.

:Did you have a good time, love?

‘Yeah, I had a great time. Just what I needed.’

łJust what we needed too. Like the old days. It was good to have him back, and he was a great help with Cal. Beyond the call of duty at times.

:Sounds grand, love. Did you sort things out between you?

łYeah, we had words, didn’t we Dec. All sorted now. Dec’s part of my family, end of, in a nutshell. Oh, and sort yourself out, you bloody headcase. I think he gets it.

‘I get it.’

:Oh that’s grand, just grand. Remember how heartbroken you were, love, all those weeks ago, when you thought you’d lost them. You’d never have believed you’d be standing here telling me about your Christmas with them, would you? You never know what’s round the corner.

\rose can I have another biscuit?

:Of course, love. Are you stopping for some lunch?

‘Hadn’t thought about lunch, but yeah, that would be great, then we can get over to the club?’

I looked at Jay for approval. He nodded. Rose had obviously given lunch some thought, although she tried to make it seem casual.

:I’ve got some cold bits and pieces in the fridge, wasn’t quite sure what Calum would like, so I made some cheesy dinosaur biscuits and some dip.

She started to take things out of the fridge, and the table was soon covered in plates of meat, bowls of crisps, bread, dip, cheese, olives.

łBloody hell, Rose, this is a feast. What if we’d already eaten?

‘Rose would have made us eat it anyway. Nothing goes to waste!’

\daddy can I have a grape?

łThere aren’t any grapes, mate – oh, you mean an olive. Well, you can, but they taste very different.

Cal took a bite, and the look on his face was priceless. He chewed on, knowing he wasn’t allowed to spit it out. Jay and I laughed.

:You rotters. Poor Calum, have some more juice, love, get the taste out of your mouth.

Cal

Rose asked Dec about Christmas, and rather than saying what presents he’d got, Dec and Dad said about how they’d had a talk, and how Dec was in our family now. I wondered if that would upset Rose, as she was nearly Dec’s mummy, but it made her smile.

Then Rose asked if we were going to stay for lunch, and we did, and Rose had made me some biscuits made of cheese that looked like dinosaurs, and a bowl of stuff to dip them in, and they were very delicious, and I ate them all, but I also had a green round thing that looked like a grape, but tasted very not like a grape, and I nearly spat it out, but Dad would really have been cross, so I ate it all. It made Dec and Dad laugh, but Rose felt sorry for me and made me more squash, and gave me a chocolate biscuit when Dad wasn’t looking. I liked Rose.

Dec

We finished lunch and headed off. Jay said he wanted to swing by the old house, which was being rented out. I hadn’t realised their new house was also rented.

łWe weren’t sure what our plans were – a lot depends on Matty – it seemed like the easiest way to keep our options open. I’m just going to sort a couple of things out with the tenants. You OK staying with Cal in the car?

\i want to go with you, Daddy.

łNo, Cal, stay here with Dec. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.

Cal

It was still Mum and Dad’s house, and I didn’t really understand that, or why we couldn’t come back and live in it, but Dad had to go and talk to the people who lived there now, while Dec and I waited in the car.

I had lots of questions for Dec while we waited. The house looked the same but different: the grass looked long at the front, there was a car I didn’t know on the drive, there was a Christmas tree in the window with flashing lights, and there were toys and a bike on the grass. I hadn’t thought about our house since we went to live with Granny and then in our new house, but now I thought about all the things that were in this house when I lived there, and I wondered if they were still there, if my pictures were still on the fridge and Dad’s trophies were still in the living room.

‘Whose bike is that?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, maybe another little boy lives here now.

I couldn’t imagine another little boy sleeping in my bedroom, shutting my Ben10 curtains at night and being scared of the shadow the crack in the door made at night if it was left too wide open.

‘Which little boy?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, sorry. Ask your dad when he comes back.’

‘When am I going to live here again?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, ask your dad.’

Dec wasn’t being any help. He was saying ‘I don’t know’ to everything.

‘When are you going to live with us?’

‘Don’t kn … oh mate, no Cal, you live in Stafford now. I live down here. I’m not going to be living with you.’

I knew this was the answer, but I wanted to keep checking, because it just didn’t make sense. If I kept asking, I hoped that maybe someone would say ‘oh this is silly, Dec should be living with you, shouldn’t he’. Dec didn’t say that, so I tried to nudge him there.

Can you come and live with us?’

Dec

This was really hard. Cal saw things in such simple terms, and my situation felt so complicated, it was like negotiating a minefield trying to decide what to tell him and what not to.

‘I wish I could live a bit closer to you, but my job is down here, I have to live here so I can do my job.’

Cal

Well that was easy to change.

‘But Daddy got a new job, you can get a new job.’

‘No, Cal, it’s not as easy as that. I have to stay here. But I’ll come and see you as often as I can, and you can all come and see me.’

The more Dec said it, the more I was realising that it was true, that Dec wasn’t going to be living with us again. Maybe Dad and Dec weren’t the right people to talk to. I would ask Mum when I got back. She’d cried when Dec left this morning, so she must want him to live with us. But if Dec wasn’t going to live with us, and he didn’t live here in our old house, I wasn’t quite sure where he did live.

‘Where is your house?’

‘Well, you know Rose, where we just had lunch? My flat is upstairs, just above her flat.’

That made sense. I could see Dec living near Rose, so she could tell him to pick his pants up and when to go to bed.

‘Can I see your house?’

‘Maybe another day. We’re going to Raiders Stadium when Daddy’s finished here, to watch the rugby.’

I’d almost forgotten the reason for our trip. I’d never seen rugby, or football, that wasn’t on TV, and I wondered if I might be able to have a bit of both.

‘Are Arsenal playing?’

‘No, Cal, you know Arsenal play football. This is Raiders, my rugby team, and Daddy’s old team.’

‘Are you playing?’

‘No, I can’t play with my hurt arm. Nico’s playing, though, so you can cheer for him.’

‘Is Daddy playing?’

‘No, Daddy doesn’t play any more You, me and Daddy are all going to watch it together. We might see Lis there too, she’s going to watch Nico.’

This was all very confusing. I decided to just wait and see what happened when we got there, and for now, there was something else I could ask.

‘Can I have some chocolate?’

‘I think your mum put some in your bag. Wait till your dad gets back, though. He won’t be long.’

‘But I’m hungry.’

‘You can’t be hungry, you just ate a whole plate of cheesy dinosaur biscuits at Rose’s. You didn’t even let me have one, and they looked well tasty.’

Dec pretended to look sad, but I had seen him and Dad eat lots of other things, so I knew he wasn’t hungry. Luckily, I also had an answer for him.

‘I’m hungry for chocolate.’

‘You’re still going to have to wait.’

Although it didn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.

‘Ohh but how long is Daddy going to be?’

Maybe using whine-mode might work better.

‘I don’t know. Let’s play I-Spy shall we?’

I-Spy is a really boring game when you’re sitting in a car that isn’t moving outside a house, where all you can see is other houses. I played for two goes, and then I thought of another question.

‘Dec, for my next birthday, can you go to Dinosaurland with me?’

‘I think that’s a great idea, Cal, but it depends on lots of things.’

This was a bit less enthusiastic than I’d been hoping for.

‘What things?’

‘Well, things like whether you can get here, what I’m doing, what you’re doing – it’s nearly a year till your next birthday.’

A year was forever. And Dec sounded like he was making grown-up excuses not to come to Dinosaurland, so our plan was never going to happen.

Dec

I saw the disappointment on his face, remembered how much I’d let him down about his last birthday, and thought of a way to make it right.

‘I’m sure we’ll be able to sort something out though. Even if it’s not on your birthday, maybe near to it. We’ll talk to your mum and dad, yeah? Make some plans.’

\can we ask Daddy now?

Cal

This sounded more promising, and if I could get Dec to agree and tell Dad, then there was no getting out of it. Dad was walking up the drive, so I needed Dec to be quick.

‘Maybe wait a bit, I’ll give them a ring later.’

I didn’t understand that. Why not say yes now? Dad got in the car, and I decided to take my chance.

Everything OK in here?’

‘I’m going to Dinosaurland with Dec for my birthday.’

Oh really, you’ve been busy plotting while I’ve been out have you?’

‘Just a suggestion from Cal. I said we’d have to think about it. There’s plenty of time.’

Sounds good to me. Dinosaurland’s a lot of fun, eh Cal?’

I was delighted. Dad had said yes, so it was going to happen.

‘See, Dec, Daddy said yes.’

‘Hm, I’m not sure that’s exactly what he said.’

Dec still wasn’t saying we could. It was very annoying.

Why the hell not? Like you say, there’s plenty of time to sort it. Maybe not actually on your birthday, Cal, it might not be possible, but close to it. OK?’

Dec

Cal looked at me triumphantly, and decided to push his luck.

\daddy can Dec live with us? He can sleep under me.

It occurred to me that Cal had been really young when I moved in with them. I didn’t even know if he could remember a time, before recently, when I hadn’t been there, and these last few months must have been tough for him to get his head around.

‘Cal, we just talked about this. I’ve got to stay here and get better and play rugby.’

łYeah, and you know how messy Dec is. You’d lose all your Lego under piles of his dirty socks if he shared your room. I know you’ve liked having him around again, haven’t you. We’ll just have to get him back up for lots of visits, won’t we.

Cal

No, that wasn’t the same. I didn’t mind about Dec’s socks, even though they were very smelly. It just had to go back the way it used to be. I still didn’t understand why it couldn’t.

‘But Mummy said you aren’t cross with Dec any more and he’s been sad and needs us to give him loves to make him better, like Uncle Matty does. Why can’t he get better with us like Uncle Matty?’

Dec

I gasped at Cal’s matter-of-factness. Jay ran a hand through his hair and looked over at me with a sigh.

Cal

Dad pushed his hands through his hair, like he did when he was thinking. For a minute, I thought he was going to say OK, like with my birthday plan, but then I realised he was thinking about a way to say no.

‘Well, Cal, we’ve all missed Dec, and it’s been great having him with us for Christmas, hasn’t it. And yeah, Uncle Matty needs Mummy and me to look after him, but Dec needs people down here to make sure he gets better, people like the doctors at Raiders, and Rose, and Nico. Mummy and me couldn’t do it the same, and it’s too far away from where Dec plays rugby. Dec knows we don’t have to be near him to love him. Tell you what, though, it’s Dec’s birthday in a few weeks, why don’t we ask him if he wants to come back for a family party?’

I had to admit defeat. If Dec needed to be here to get better, and we had to be there to help Uncle Matty get better, I suppose there was nothing we could do. Maybe Dec coming back to see us on his birthday, when we could have fun and football and pizza, would be something to look forward to.

‘Dec, can you?’

‘That sounds great, mate. Maybe you can take me for an Ice Cream Factory? And I can stay in the bottom bunk again?’

Dec sounded excited about it, so maybe it was a good idea after all. And we could do a birthday plan for Dec, like we had a birthday plan for me, only this one would work.

‘Kay. Daddy, I think Dec will like to see the zoo and have Smarties on his birthday too.’

We’ll make some plans with Mummy, shall we? She loves a party. Sounds like you’ve got some great ideas already. Right. That’s the partying sorted. Let’s go watch some rugby.’

36. Running in the family

In which changes are afoot, games are played and farewells are begun

Dec

Beth and Carol looked at me. I looked back.

_What did you say to him last night?

‘Lots of things. I think we do needing help in a pretty similar way. Neither of us are very good at it. I’m just a little bit further down the line than he is.’

_Is he OK this morning?

‘Seems to be.’

_What you said to Jay, about not leaving him alone when he’s down. How did you know that?

‘It’s just what happened to me. The first few times Rose tried to help me I was really unpleasant to her – yelled at her, told her to fuck off, I think I nearly punched her once.’

_Dec!

Beth looked horrified, and Carol looked as if she was reassessing her ceasing of hostilities.

‘I was extremely hungover, probably still drunk, thinking about it. She took me by surprise, I know that’s no excuse. But she hung in there, didn’t let me go. She stayed up with me all night one time, when I was in a really bad way. She never gave up; she was just there. I kept telling her to go away, but she stayed. I wanted to show Matt that he can’t push people away, that there’s going to be someone there to hold on to when he needs it. I just think it’s what he needs.’

_But he gets so angry if you don’t leave him alone.

‘Yeah, he does, it works well, doesn’t it? Who wants to stay there with someone who’s so pissed off? You just have to ride it out and be stronger than him. It’s not easy. He won’t let it be easy.’

#It’s very hard to do the opposite of what someone is asking you to do.

‘Yeah, I know. I guess, if you think of what he’s really asking for, rather than the words he’s saying, it might be easier.’

They both looked at me, waiting for me to explain.

#What do you mean, dear?

‘He’s saying leave me alone. He’s actually asking you to show you care enough about him to not leave him alone through all his shit. Kind of like a test. If you leave him alone, he was right and he doesn’t deserve you.’

_Oh Dec. Is that really what it’s been like for you? Did we make you feel like that?

I shrugged. Didn’t want to make this about me.

‘I didn’t really think about it until yesterday. All afternoon I kept thinking about Matt on his own feeling like shit, and it just kind of occurred to me, we’ve both come close to losing everything in different ways. It affects you, makes you, I dunno, try to protect yourself. What I’ve done in the not so distant past, and what Matt does, is pretty similar. It’s all about willpower. I just decided I was more stubborn than he is. He ran me pretty close.’

#Well maybe there’s something in what you’re saying, Declan. Sometimes you can be too close to someone, and not see what they need because you need things too. Like being his mum means I feel I need to look after him, but he actually needs to do more for himself. I think you might have been able to see things more clearly because you’re a little further removed. Maybe we’ve been too busy taking care of him to help him get better?

_Oh Carol, that’s a really lovely way of putting it. Dec, if you’re right, you might have helped us to help him more, made a real difference. Thank you, sweetheart.

Beth got up and put her arms round me, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

łHey, unhand my wife. No time for that, we’re going on a family walk. Matty’s all ready, taken his meds and is now wearing about seventy layers of thick clothing. So before he faints from heat exhaustion, I suggest you get your coats and shoes and join us. Cal’s even got his coat and wellies on, so we haven’t got long before he gets bored and takes it all off again.

_Whose idea was that?

łMine. Why the hell not? We had a great time in the park yesterday, apart from all the mud, and nearly wrecking Dec. We need to do more of this stuff; sitting around snoozing in the house isn’t doing anything for the size of my arse. Come on, what are you waiting for?

We all did as we were told, finding coats, shoes and various other warm items. It didn’t take long to get ready, and we all left the house, Jay pushing Matt in his wheelchair.

\daddy how far are we going?

łDunno, Cal, could be a hundred miles.

\but I don’t want to walk a hundred miles.

łOh, OK, a bit less then. I’ll give you a piggy back if you get tired.

\can I have a piggy back now?

łNo, wait until you’re tired.

\i’m tired now.

Jay accepted defeat.

łDec, can you take over with Matty’s chair? OK with your arm?

‘No worries.’

He bent down and Cal jumped onto his back. Jay galloped up the road like a horse, to accompanying squeals from Cal. Beth and Carol followed, and I pushed Matt at a slower pace.

}Wha dih yuh say to them?

‘Not much. Told them to stop fussing over you. You’re going to have to ask for help a lot more now. Told them what it was like for me, too. Pretty much it. Oh, and next time you’re feeling miserable, don’t expect to be left alone.’

}Bolluhks, no mohr peace and quieht then.

‘Fraid not my friend.’

}Yuh are, ahrnt yuh.

‘What?’

}My friehd.

‘Yeah. Never in doubt.’

}Douhted ih lahs night. Thought you wehr jus being an annohying dick.

‘Well, I was that too. Call it a character flaw.’

} … Yuh knoh my girfriehnd lehf meh an took ahl my friehds?

‘Yeah, mate, Beth said something.’

}Havant had a friend since then. Jus fahmly, which is greht, thehr greht. But guhd tuh hahv someone who gets meh. Kehp in touch, yeh?

‘Yeah.’

}Hey, yuh gohn quieht.

He tilted his head backwards to look at me. It felt like a long time since someone had called me their friend, too. My leaky eyes let me down once more.

}Oh bluhdy hell, fucking hehd case blahrting again. Heh, lehs catch up wih Jay. Can yuh push fast?

I started running with the chair, bumping over the pavement, trying to avoid the potholes and the resulting jolts to Matt, as well as my arms.

}Heh Cal, race yuh.

Cal looked behind and saw us coming. Beth and Carol scrambled out of the way. Jay had been walking, but sped up when Cal told him we were coming. If the path hadn’t been going uphill, we would have overtaken them, but it was just too much for me to keep going. The strain on my arm started to tell, and my infrequently tested lungs started to protest. Jay slowed too, but he only had a six-year old on his back, whereas I was pushing a full-grown man wearing lots of clothes, in a metal wheelchair.

}Dohnt stop, yuh lohser.

‘Got to … gonna die.’

I slowed down and stopped, putting the brakes on the chair before I lay down on the path, panting.

}Fucking lighweigh.

‘Get out … and run yourself … next time you … want a fucking race.’

Cal had got down from Jay’s back and skipped back to us.

\we won, we won.

Jay followed more slowly, he looked nearly as tired as me, and bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

łOK Cal … your turn … to give me … a piggy back.

\daddy, I can’t, you’re too big.

łThen maybe Uncle Matty’s … going to have to get out … of his wheelchair … and push me home.

}Uncle Mahty’s staying righ hehr, thahks. Cahnt mohv in ahl thehs clohths anyway.

#Perhaps we just all need to go a little bit more slowly. We could get to the river and feed the ducks, it’s not far, is it?

\we need bread to feed the ducks, Granny.

#Then it’s a good thing I brought some, isn’t it? Come on, Calum, see if you can remember the way.

They walked off ahead, Cal carrying the bag of bread. Beth stood looking at Jay and me, hands on hips. I stood up, having regained my composure, but Jay was still breathing hard.

_The pair of you want your heads banging together.

}Heh, wha abouh meh? My idea.

_You too, then, Matty. All three of you need a slap.

łCome on, Beth, it was just a bit of fun. Where’s the harm?

_Boys! I’ll never understand you.

She walked off after Cal and Carol, shaking her head. We stood and looked at each other, nonplussed.

łNot sure what we did. Good laugh. Rematch on the way back?

‘What, down the hill? Great, I can just let go. Make sure you hold on tight, Matt.’

łYeah, maybe not. Perhaps I can see Beth’s point. Better get after them, those ducks aren’t going to feed themselves.

Jay and I pushed Matt’s wheelchair between us up the hill. Jay took over at the top, and I walked beside Matt.

łYou alright, Matty?

}Greht, guhd tuh be ouh. Two dahys in a roh. Woo hoo.

łWe should do it more often. Very often in fact. I’m taking Dec back tomorrow, but Monday let’s start something new. As long as the weather’s good, let’s go for a walk every day, I don’t know, feed those bloody ducks or something. Get us both out of the house. Maybe you’ll feel up to walking a bit of the way yourself – up that bloody hill for a start.

}Yeh. Greht. Plehs. Noh wahking up the bluhdy hill thogh.

łOr how about coming to watch me coaching sometime? You can hold the players’ handbags.

}Ha ha. Yeh.

łAnd maybe I could give you a list and you could do the weekly shop?

}Fuck ohf. Bluhdy haht shopping. Do ih online fuh yuh tho.

łWorth a try. Beth doesn’t approve of online shopping.

We walked on to the river and caught up with Cal, Beth and Carol, who had made the fat ducks even fatter by the time we got there.

\daddy a duck pecked my finger.

łReally mate? Probably thought it was a worm.

\no, he was getting bread from my hand. It tickled. They’re all gone now.

Cal looked wistfully up the river in the direction the ducks had gone.

łWell we can come back soon and give them some more bread. Uncle Matty’s going to come for lots more walks to feed the ducks.

Jay looked at Beth, who raised her eyebrows. He nodded back at her.

\uncle Matty, has a duck ever pecked you?

}Er, noh tha I member.

\dec, has a duck ever pecked you?

‘No, mate, never, you must be the only one of us a duck has ever pecked.’

Cal beamed with pride.

\daddy, can you give me a piggy back?

Jay sagged.

łOh come on, Cal, fair dos, I carried you most of the way here.

\i want to race Uncle Matty again.

_I don’t think we’ll have any more races, the last one just about did for Daddy and Dec.

}Why dohn yuh climb up hehr and Daddy can push us both bahk hohm?

Cal conceded that this was almost as good as a piggy back, although Jay’s face showed he wasn’t too thrilled about his increased load. Cal climbed onto Matt’s lap, where Matt put his arms round Cal protectively.

_James, please be careful, I don’t want anyone falling out of any wheelchairs. No running, promise me.

łYou’ll be lucky. Thanks a bunch, Matty.

}Jus being hehpful. Yuh nehd to geh fit if yuhr going tuh kehp up wih meh every day, new rehgime and all tha.

łHmm, I’m starting to wonder if it’s such a good idea. Come on, then, Cal, let’s get rolling. I wonder what Mummy’s got planned for lunch? I wonder if it’s … frogs and snails?

}Tha was lahs nigh.

łBloody cheek, that was my curry.

}Zahctly.

Jay headed off with Matt and Cal, still talking nonsense at the top of their voices. As I watched them go, Beth touched my arm.

_We’re going to miss you.

‘I’m going to miss this. A lot.’

_You’ll come back and see us soon?

‘When I can. I think it’s going to be tricky, I’m going to be busy once I start training again. And I’m coaching with the youth team, and once I start playing again I’ll be with Trojans, even further away. I’ll come back whenever I can, if it’s OK with you.’

_Oh Dec, come back and stay as long and as often as you like. I’d almost forgotten how much time rugby takes up – since we moved up here, I’ve seen so much more of James. You’ll keep in touch? There’s all sorts of things you can do on the computer, and now you’ve got your phone you can call us, or text.

‘Course I’ll keep in touch. Not so good with all the technology, maybe I need Matt to show me before I go.’

_Do that – he’s great with all that stuff, it’d help him to feel useful I’m sure. Are you sure you want to go tomorrow, sweetheart? You don’t have to be back in training until the sixth, do you? It seems like we’ve just got used to having you around again …

‘Ah, Beth, I’d really, really love to stay, but the longer I stay, the harder it’ll be to leave. You might never get rid of me. And I need to start working off some of your roast potatoes before I get into training. The conditioning team are going to be horrified at the state of me as it is.’

_Don’t let them bully you.

‘It’s what they’re good at. And what I need.’

_As long as you’re sure. Just want to hang onto you as long as I can now we’ve got you back.

I put my arm round her and pulled her close. What was this woman to me? Mother? Sister? Friend? A mixture of all and more. I loved her with all my heart.

‘A wise man once said to me, actually it was Matt the night before last, that families are connected wherever they are. We don’t have to be together to feel together. Or something like that. It helped me when I was feeling miserable about going home.’

_Oh Dec, that’s perfect. You and Matty have got on really well, haven’t you?

‘He’s great, I really like him. We’re kind of the same.’

_God help us. Come on, sweetheart, let’s go and see if it’s frogs and snails for lunch.

We caught up with Jay, who hadn’t managed to get very far with his unruly load. Cal was asking Jay to stop every time he saw a pine cone, so he could pick it up for Matt. Fir trees lined the road; there were a lot of pine cones.

łCome on Cal, you don’t need every single one.

\uncle Matty says every one’s different, and he needs them for his collection.

łHe no more collects pine cones than you collect pink dresses. Matty, please tell him.

}Thehr’s another ohn, Cal, it’s rehly big. Behst one yeht.

łMatty …

}Oh alright, I wahs jus waiting foh the lahdies to catch up.

\the ladies and Dec.

}Whaever yuh say, eh Auhnty Dec? Ohkay, enough pihn cohns, thahks Cal. Cahry on drihver.

łI swear, Matty, if you weren’t a bloody cripple …

_James, honestly!

łSorry. I swear, if you weren’t unable to defend yourself …

}Who sahys I cahnt? I’ve got my attack-Cal. Cal – pihn cohns launch!

Cal and Matt started pelting Jay over Matt’s shoulder. Cal was beside himself with glee and Matt cackled evilly. Jay stopped the wheelchair, put the brakes on and put his hands in the air.

łI surrender, give up, no more. Dec, please take over if your piss-poor arms can cope, and take this rabble home. I’m going to escort my lovely wife and charming mother in a more sedate fashion.

I took the brakes off, and started to push. Matt resumed holding on to Cal; the hilarity died down, but Matt and Cal continued to point out red cars and they excitedly spotted a squirrel in a tree. When we reached the house, Cal jumped off Matt’s knee and ran indoors, stripping off his coat as he went. Matt waited until Cal was out of earshot.

}Bolluhks, think I’ve wohn mysehf out. Cahn yuh hehp me?

‘Course, what do you need?’

}Clohths off, all thehs, into behd. Dohn thihk I cahn stahnd. Fuck.

I took Matt into his room and peeled off the top layers as he sat in the wheelchair. He had gone pale and was panting noisily.

‘OK, arm round my shoulder, can you help at all?’

}Prohbly noh. Gihv ih a try.

I stood up, lifting Matt up as well as I could. He had a little strength in his legs, but not much, and the effort made him breathe more raspingly. I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung him round to lie down. Pulled off the three pairs of trousers, leaving him in t-shirt and boxers.

‘Is that OK? Duvet over you?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

‘Need anything else?’

}Noh … th … muh … blr …

He fell asleep before my eyes, while he was still trying to speak. Jay, Beth and Carol came in through the front door, laughing. They stopped when they saw Matt was already in bed.

‘He said he was tired, asked me to get him into bed. Just fell straight to sleep.’

łBloody idiot overdid it. I thought he was getting a bit manic. He’s worse than Cal at admitting when he’s tired.

‘Will he be OK?’

łHopefully he’ll just sleep it off. Otherwise, fancy another sleepless night in the chair pissing him off?

Beth looked at me and realised I was feeling guilty.

_Don’t worry, Dec, it’s not your fault. Let’s make sure someone’s with him when he wakes up. Take it in turns. You first, James, I’ll bring some lunch in. New approach, remember?

łYeah, yeah.

Jay stomped off and sat in the chair by Matt’s bed, as the phone in my pocket started to ring. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Nico. I went into the living room to answer it.

‘Nico, hi!’

>Declan, is good to hear you. You come to watch me play tomorrow.

‘Well, not just you, the whole team, but yeah.’

>You stay afterwards?

‘Hadn’t really thought, but yeah, I should think so.’

>Good, you have a drink after the game with me and Lis. Lis come also to watch me play. You tell us how is your Christmas.

‘Yeah, sounds good.’

>You have good times?

‘Yeah it’s been really great. Lis told me you had a busy day.’

>Was busy, much noise and much love. We enjoy. Many people and many childrens. We still find sticky places everywhere.

‘Sounds like a lot of fun, apart from the clearing up.’

>Ha, I let Lis clear up. I tell her is good for her, she is better wife.

I heard Lisa’s voice in the background, and suspected Nico was going to be in trouble for that one.

>Lis say see you tomorrow. I must go – she give me a cloth. What I do with this, baby? Ow. Tomorrow, then, Declan. Be careful with yourself.

‘OK, look forward to it. Bye.’

It occurred to me that I hadn’t checked with Jay that he had been able to get tickets for the game. I walked into Matt’s room, where Jay sat flicking through a magazine.

‘Sorry, I feel a bit responsible.’

łDon’t do that, Dec. Matty wants more control, more independence, more going out, he needs to know the consequences. We’re all still learning here. I guess he’s not going to get better unless he learns how far he can push himself. Sometimes it’s going to be too far. I think he’ll be OK.

Matt continued to sleep, breathing raggedly.

‘He’s out for the count.’

łYeah, well, I think he had a pretty good morning. Maybe it was worth it. We’ll see when he wakes up.

‘Would you rather not take me back tomorrow?’

łWhat? Where did that come from?

‘Just in case …’

łNo, it’ll be fine. I sorted us out seats for the game. Don wants to talk to you about it. Ring him. I think we put his number on your phone.

‘I’ll do it now.’

Cal

I enjoyed myself on our walk so much, and so did everyone else, that I still wondered why Dec wasn’t staying, because everything seemed better since he came. Mum and Dad and Granny laughed, and Uncle Matty had been out twice and had sat at the table, and nobody was cross with anyone. I just didn’t get it. It was better with Dec there, and I wanted him to stay, but I didn’t know how to say it.

When we got back, I did some drawing with Granny. I liked Granny’s drawings, because she was good at cartoons, and could draw Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu.

Dec

I headed into the living room, stood looking out of the window, and called Don’s number. It went to voicemail. I left a message and hung up. The phone rang almost immediately. I was expecting it to be Don, but the screen just showed a number, not a name.

‘Hello?’

ϙHello, Declan Summers?

‘Yeah.’

ϙIt’s DI Johnson.

‘Oh. Hi.’

ϙDeclan we have some news regarding our investigations into the assault on you and the subsequent incident in your flat.

‘OK.’

ϙWe’ve checked out the two names you gave us, David Allsop and Ben Hearne, and been able to match the DNA from samples taken from your flat to Ben Hearne, but not David Allsop. Mr Allsop has an alibi for the time of your assault. Mr Hearne does not, and he was seen following you out of the bar just prior to the assault. We also found his fingerprints on some of the glass from the bottle you were hit with. We have arrested Mr Hearne and are currently questioning him.

My legs buckled, and I sat down heavily on the sofa.

ϙDeclan, are you still there?

‘Yeah … I … fuck.’

ϙAre you alright? Is someone there with you?

‘Yeah … I’m OK.’

Although I felt far from it. Thinking it might be Big was one thing, having it confirmed was another. Deep down I’d been hoping I was wrong, that my dream was just a dream, that Big couldn’t possibly have done it. But it was him. Big, who had been my mate … it brought the whole episode into sharp focus, intruding into my time here with Jay’s family, making me too aware of what I was facing when I went home.

ϙI’ll keep you up to date with things. Thank you for the information you have already given us. Please let me know if you remember anything else.

‘OK.’

He rang off. I sat, immobile, on the sofa, staring at the ‘call ended’ screen on the phone. Beth called from the kitchen.

_Dec, is soup OK for you?

I didn’t answer. Hardly heard her. That was officially the end of it with me and Big; I couldn’t take it in.

_Dec? James, where’s – oh, there you are. Is soup – what’s the matter?

She came in and sat next to me, looked closely at my face.

_You’re white as a sheet.

‘Yeah … er … just had a call. Police. They’ve arrested Big. Er, Ben Hearne.

_Oh, sweetheart. What a shock for you.

‘Yeah.’

_You did think it was him, though, didn’t you?

‘Yeah. I kept hoping I was wrong. He was my mate, he was the only one who talked to me when things were tough. He was just a fucking liar. I don’t fucking get it.’

_Oh sweetheart …

Beth put her arm round my shoulders. I put my face in my hands and cried, for lost friendship, lost trust, lost pride.

_Oh Dec, don’t. He’s not worth it.

‘I know he’s fucking not. I was such an idiot. So desperate to get my friends back, I let him fool me.’

_Don’t be so hard on yourself. It sounds like he fooled a lot of people. How were you to know? They’ve got him now. He wasn’t so smart, really.

‘Not smart enough not to piss on my stuff, I guess.’

_What?

‘DNA from my flat.’

_Well, that just shows who’s the idiot then.

łWhat’s going on?

Jay stood in the doorway as I wiped my eyes.

łDec, seriously, we’re running out of tissues.

_He’s just had a bit of a shock. They’ve arrested Ben Hearne.

łJesus, no way. Ah, Dec, sorry, mate. That is a bit of a shocker. You were right, then?

‘Yeah.’

I sniffed and took a deep breath.

‘Yeah, I was, I’m OK. Like you say, it’s just a bit of a shock. Brings it all home, churns it all up again. Fuck, I am a head case, aren’t I.’

łBeen trying to tell you that since you got here. Bloody nutter.

He sat down on the other side of me and put his arm round the other shoulder. Having these two people at my side made me feel safer and less out of control than I had for a long time.

łBut you’re our bloody nutter. Wouldn’t have you any other way. You going to be OK?

‘Yeah. Fuck. Sorry. I’ll be OK now. Really.’

I took several deep breaths, tried to rearrange the information in my head in a way which made sense. My phone rang, making me jump, and I nearly dropped it. Looked at the screen. Don.

łYou’d better get that, mate.

He stood up and left the room. Beth squeezed my shoulder and did the same.

‘Hi Don.’

-Declan, I got your message. Jay tells me you’re coming to tomorrow’s game?

‘Yeah, he said he squared it with you?’

-Yes, that’s fine. Just a couple of things I wanted to go over with you. I’d appreciate you wearing your training kit, just so people know you’re representing us.

‘Sure, no worries.’

I wondered if he knew about Big.

-Good. Will you have a chance for the medics to look you over after the game? I’d like them to get a look at how you’re healing, see how much we can do in your initial training sessions.

‘Yeah, no problem. I was going to ask if someone could check me out while I’m there.’

-Perfect. How are you doing?

‘Things seem to be going pretty well, I’ve almost got full movement back in my right arm, bruises have gone down a lot, stitches going nicely, don’t look quite as much like Frankenstein as I did.’

-That’s good news. I’m glad to hear it, son.

‘Don, er, did you know, the police – er – they just called me, they’ve arrested Ben Hearne.’

Don was silent for a long time.

-I was aware they were investigating Ben, and David Allsop. I didn’t know they had arrested anyone.

‘They said they didn’t think it was DivDav – er, David. But they found DNA from Ben in my flat, and on the bottle I was hit with.’

-Declan, I’m very sorry to hear that, I know he was your friend. Thank you for telling me. I suspect I’ll need to talk to Adrian now about media coverage. It might put a different complexion on your attendance tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

He hung up abruptly. Beth, who must have been waiting in the hallway, came back in to the room.

_OK?

‘Think so. I think I heard the sound of shit hitting the fan. Fuck, what a fucking mess. Sorry. Sorry, Beth, it just comes out. Too much time on my own, no one to tell me to mind my language.’

Beth rolled her eyes and ruffled my hair.

_I don’t remember it being much different when there was someone around to tell you. It’s part of your charm. When Cal’s expelled, I’ll send you the bill for a private school.

‘Ha ha, deal.’

_Oh, what a way to spend your last afternoon with us, Matty out cold, upsetting phone calls, what can we do to make it better?

I had a memory, and a thought.

‘How about … a game of charades?’

_Oh that’s brilliant! I’d forgotten about Christmas charades. Let’s do it in Matty’s room, we can all join in then. I’ll do some lunch, then we’ll get charading. Well remembered.

Beth busied herself with lunch. Carol and Cal were drawing pictures at the kitchen table. Jay was with Matt. I sat and caught my breath. The latest news from DI Johnson had knocked me, but at least I wasn’t going to bump into Big at the game tomorrow. I wondered what Don was going to do about it – he might even say I shouldn’t go. I decided that if that was the case I would try to stay here for a few more days.

After lunch, we all went into Matt’s room. Jay and I brought in extra chairs. Matt was still fast asleep. The game of charades brought back so many good memories for me from past Christmases. Cal understood the point of the game much better now he was older, but he hadn’t always, and I clearly remembered him repeating out loud the title Beth had just whispered to him, and then beaming when we all laughed, thinking he’d won. How old had he been then? Three? Four? He seemed so much older now, he had grown so fast.

We had an uproarious time. Jay opened a bottle of wine, to help us feel less self-conscious, and we threw ourselves into the game. Matt slept on, oblivious. I glanced at him from time to time to see if a loud shout or laugh had disturbed him, but he didn’t seem to stir.

After we had wrung the last bit of amusement out of charades, we moved on to some of Cal’s board games. Jay moved the table away from the side of Matt’s bed, and we all sat round it. With a bit of creative scoring, Cal won everything. Just as we were finishing, Matt woke up. He looked dazed and bleary eyed.

}Kehp the noihs dohn, crihpls trying tuh slehp hehr.

\mummy –

_Yes, Cal, I know. Uncle Matty doesn’t like doing as he’s told, and he’s too big for the naughty step.

I saw a relieved glance pass between Jay and Beth. Matt seemed to be feeling OK so far.

}Yuh behn playing wihouh meh?

łNot technically, you were here in the room. Can’t be helped if you were too lazy to wake up.

}Leh yuh ohf. Cal, who won Huhngry Hihpos?

\me!

}Wha ehls yuh play?

\pop-Up Pirate and Operation. And the game where you guess if it’s films or books and the answer’s Bob the Builder.

}Who wohn thohs?

\me!

}Wehl dohn. Glahd yuhr on my team. Especiahly if I mihsed bluhdy charahds.

łHang on a minute, you can’t just claim a victory like that, you were asleep.

}Yeh, buh Cal’s ahlways on my tehm, dohn matter if I’m awahk or noh. I win. Rohnd one tuh meh.

_Stop it you two, it’s only a game, doesn’t matter who wins.

}Lohng as ih’s meh.

_Well, Matty, you don’t seem to have suffered any ill effects from your morning’s efforts. Are you hungry?

}Stahving. Wha time issit?

_Nearly tea time. You slept right through.

}Shih, haht doin tha.

_Matty, honestly …

}Wha? Blahm Dec foh any inadvehtent swehrs.

‘Hey! I’m getting a bit pissed off with – oh shit, sorry – fu – dammit. I’ll shut up, shall I?’

I looked sheepishly at Beth who raised an eyebrow and didn’t need to say any more. I was all for trying, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to rein in my bad language.

#Well you seem awake enough now, Matthew. I’ll do some tea, dear, you’ve got that mince, Beth dear, shall I do a shepherd’s pie?

_Oh Carol that would be wonderful. I’ll come and put the kettle on, get us all a drink.

And so my final evening with them, for now, had begun. I tried not to let it bother me, just relax and enjoy it, but I couldn’t help thinking about leaving tomorrow, and how hard it would be. To take my mind off it, I asked Matt to show me how to use my phone and laptop to use Skype and FaceTime. He didn’t seem to be suffering any further ill effects from his walk, and was very willing to show me what he knew.

}Bluhdy hell, Dec, I thought ehvryohn yuhr age knew this stuhf?

‘Never been great with technology. I can just about text and phone, use the internet if there’s free Wi-Fi. I only ever used my laptop for surfing the net and storing music. Oh, and eBay, but that tested my abilities. Haven’t had one for so long now, I’m kind of out of practice.’

}Did yuh rehly sell all yuhr stuhf?

‘Yeah. Necessary at the time.’

}And had yuhr phohn smashed and yuhr flat trashed and yuhr bank accohnt emptied?

‘Yeah.’

}Fucking hehl, Dec. Hahrsh.

‘No more harsh than what happened to you.’

}Ghess noht. Lehs staht League of Losers, incohporating bluhb cluhb and Crihpls Cohner.

‘I like it.’

}Am I ihn yuhr cohtacts?

‘No. I didn’t think you had a phone.’

}Only goh basic ohn, Cahrie took my iPhone. Buh can tex. And now hahv iPad, can mehsage an FaceTime if yuh hahv Wi-Fi.

‘I haven’t got internet at home, nor has Rose.’

}Bluhdy hell, it’s lihk the dahk ages. Yuhr phohn’s goh a contraht wih 3G. Or if yuhv got noh signhal, goh tuh Stahbucks or sohmthing. Or geh Wi-Fi. Or a dongle.

‘If I knew what the fuck one of those was, I’m sure I would. I should do something, though, otherwise this laptop’s not going to be much good.’

}Geh yuhsehf sohted. Nehd tuh kehp in touch.

‘Yeah. I really do, don’t I.’

I had a real sense of having made a friend. Previously, friendships had come easily, had been part of school, or Raiders, just people who were there who I had a laugh with, who were the same age as me. Matt and I had made a connection somehow, and it was another good thing I could take away from this Christmas.

I had a phone call later from Don, confirming that Jay and I could use the tickets for the part of the stand reserved for family of team members. He wanted to remind me that I wasn’t to talk to reporters, or anyone who I thought might be a reporter, and to refer them to him, or remind them about the press conference at the end of the game. He didn’t want me to attend it, and said it was fine to go to the bar afterwards and circulate. I assumed he had a plan, as he had the last time he suggested it.

I called Rose and told her I was coming back the next day. She sounded really pleased, full of plans for meals and what she needed to do to get the place ready. I told her we were going to watch the game, and although we’d call in and see her to drop off my bags beforehand, I might not be back till later on.

Business concluded, I could relax, and concentrate on enjoying the evening. I read Cal a story before he went to bed, or rather read him a long complicated chapter of a book about the history of flight.

łCal, do you spend all your time finding the longest chapters in all your books so you can avoid going to bed?

\no Daddy. This is my bedtime story. I like Concorde.

łWhatever you say, mate.

Cal

For my last bedtime story before Dec went home, I found the longest chapter in any of my books, which was about Concorde in my History of Flight book. It lasted a long time, but in the end we had to finish reading, and Dad put me to bed.

‘Daddy, why does Dec have to go home tomorrow?’

‘Well, I suppose he doesn’t have to, it’s just convenient.’

‘What’s caveenion?’

I liked knowing new words and what they meant. Caveenion sounded like an exciting sort of cave where onions grew.

‘It means it’s easy and it makes sense. There’s a rugby match on in the city, and me and Dec are going to watch it, and I’m going to talk to some of the people at Raiders, so it makes sense to take Dec home at the same time. Do you want to come, so you can say goodbye, and watch the rugby?’

‘But I like football.’

‘I know, mate. How about giving it a try?’

‘Can I wear my Arsenal shirt?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But why does Dec have to go away?’

‘Mate, he doesn’t live here.’

‘But why?’

‘Cal, this was never Dec’s home, not like before. There’s no room for him, now Granny stays over so much. It doesn’t mean we don’t like him the same as we ever did. Come on mate, go to sleep.’

‘Kay Daddy.’

Dad left the door open a crack because of the monsters, and went back downstairs. I knew Dec wasn’t going to be sleeping underneath me; he had an airbed in Dad’s office, because of his screams. He hadn’t slept in my room last night when he was being with Uncle Matty, and I hadn’t liked it, and now it was his last night, and I wanted him near while I was asleep. I tried to get to sleep, but I couldn’t, and I could hear the TV and talking downstairs.

After a while, I decided to risk going downstairs. I sometimes got in trouble for going downstairs after I’d gone to bed, but it depended on what the reason was. Dad didn’t get as cross as Mum, so I hoped that Mum would be asleep or in the kitchen.

Dec

After Cal had gone to bed, I helped Beth unload and load the dishwasher, and packed my belongings, which had got scattered around the house. I found the duplicate Christmas stocking stuffed in my bag, and left it in the cupboard in the utility room, then I went back to the living room and joined Jay and Carol in front of the TV, while Beth was fiddling with laundry in the kitchen.

Cal

I walked quietly down the stairs and listened at the bottom, to see if I could find out who was in the living room. I could only hear the TV, but the light was on in the kitchen, and I could hear somebody doing something in there – it must be Mum, because Dad hardly ever did things on his own in the kitchen.

I went and stood at the living room door.

‘Daddy …’

Cal, why are you out of bed?’

‘I can’t sleep.’

Come here, mate.’

I went to Dad, and he scooped me on to his lap and kissed me on the top of my head. It was going well so far.

Why can’t you sleep?’

‘I want Dec to sleep under me.’

Dad looked at Dec, who was on the other sofa.

But Dec has bad dreams and scares you.’

‘I won’t be scared. It’s only his dreams. I like when Dec does bad swears at night.’

I see.’

Dad liked doing bad swears too, and I thought this might help to explain it. He looked at Dec again. Dec grinned at me and shrugged at Dad.

‘Thanks, Cal. Yeah, I think I might’ve a couple of times – sat up and banged my head. Just came out. Sorry.’

Hmm. Well, Cal, I think we’ve got quite a long journey tomorrow, and we all need to get a good night’s sleep. So maybe Dec would be better off on the air bed in my office.’

That didn’t sound good, it sounded like the sensible thing to do. I needed something more than sensible, something that Dec could help with.

‘But Daddy, Optimus Prime is scared without Dec.’

Is he now? I thought he was king of the Transformers or something.’

‘Yes, but he likes having Dec sleeping under him too.’

Dec wasn’t there last night, he sat up with Uncle Matty’

Oh yeah. It felt like I was losing this one, but I had one last go.

‘Yes but Optimus Prime woke up and it was all quiet, and Dec wasn’t going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and he didn’t like it.’

This was true, if you pretended that I was Optimus Prime. I hadn’t liked waking up in the dark and not hearing Dec breathing below me.

Dad looked at Dec again.

What have you done to him? He can’t sleep without your mad noises. OK, Cal, let’s ask Dec. Dec, how would you feel about sleeping in the bottom bunk for one last night?’

Dec looked really pleased.

‘I’d love it.’

Will you promise faithfully not to do any big swears?’

‘I promise to try, but I can’t really control what goes on while I’m asleep.’

It was a great thing to promise, because it meant I still might hear some loud swears, but if I did, Dec wouldn’t be in trouble about it. Dad sighed.

I suppose that’s good enough. OK Cal, you wheedled your way into that one. Go to bed now, Dec will be up later.’

I smiled at Dad and then Dec, and the ran back upstairs and got into bed.

Dec

łSure that’s OK?

‘If you’re sure, I did scare the living shit out of him last time.’

łHe seems to have taken it in his stride. Do you know what, I’m going to see if Matty wants to join us in here. There’s really no reason he has to stay in that room all on his own if he’s starting to feel more sociable. I’ll go and find out.

Jay left, returning a short while later with Matt in his wheelchair, wrapped up in a thick jumper and with a blanket over his knees.

łDon’t know why I didn’t bloody think of this before. Here you go, let’s just get you out onto this end of the sofa. Are you warm enough?

}Tohstie. Duh I hahv to hahv the blahnket? Its tartan foh fuck’s sahk.

łYeah, you have to have the old man blanket. We need something to take the piss out of. Anyone want a drink? Mum, glass of wine?

#That would be lovely, dear.

łDec, beer?

‘Great.’

łGrandpa Matty?

‘Behr. Oh, and fuck ohf ‘

łThink again.

}Oh, OK. Er … stihl behr.

łFuck it, you know what, I don’t think one beer is going to hurt. I’m not even going to ask Beth.

}Bluhdy hell, who ahr yuh and wha hahv yuh dohn wih my noh-fun bruhther?

łHa ha. Less of your lip, tartan boy, I still control the bottle opener.

Jay went to organise the drinks. He came back with three bottles of beer and a glass of wine.

łCheers, everyone. Here comes Beth, with her glass of delicious water. Matty, I’d advise you to get drinking before she realises what you’ve got there. Need help?

}Noh, not having hehp wih fucking behr.

łFair enough. Dec, small sips, don’t want you passing out on me, you lightweight. Mum, don’t slurp.

#Jameson, are you really sure Matthew should –

łYes, Mum, I’m sure. Got to try sometime. It’s only beer.

}Oh my Gohd, ih’s fucking awsohm. Mohr plehs.

łNo way. Make that one last, no more for you.

}Yuh jus said sohnly behr.

łHm, so I did. Well we’ll see how that one goes then, but treat it as if it is the only one you’re having. Dec was pissed on two the other night.

}Ihm betteh at hohding my drihnk.

łYou’re both completely out of practice. I’d drink you under the table in five minutes.

_If you were having a competition, which of course you won’t be, will you?

}Noh point, Muhm wouhd win hahns down.

The rest of the evening passed quickly as we relaxed in each other’s company. Matt managed to wheedle another beer out of Jay, much to Beth’s disgust.

}Cohm on Beth, ih hahdly touched the sihds. Nehd another threh or fohr to mahk a dent.

_You’re certainly not getting another three or four.

}Soh unfahr.

_Just remember, Matty, you’re on your own with me and your mum tomorrow. You’re at our mercy. We could easily make you eat sprout sandwiches and drink carrot juice if you don’t behave yourself tonight.

}Dec, stahy, dohnt lehv meh wih them.

‘You’re on your own, mate, no way I’m eating sprout sandwiches.’

}Bahstrd.

The conversation and banter was batted to and fro, and we all stayed up later than we had planned to. Matt suddenly drooped, eyes closing. His head kept dropping forwards as he struggled to stay awake.

łOK Matty, time for bed.

}Oh, buh I was jus stahting tuh enjoy mysehf.

łYou sound just like Cal – oh but! You’re falling asleep. You won’t miss anything, I think we’ll all be in bed soon. Me and Dec have got a long drive tomorrow, and Beth and Mum have got their work cut out trying to keep you away from the cooking sherry. Come on, hop in your chair, I can’t lift you if you’re asleep, you’re too bloody heavy.

Matt got in his wheelchair grumpily, and Jay took him back to his room. I sat where I was, not wanting to make a move. If I went to bed, that was it, evening over, end of my stay. Beth and Carol cleared up glasses around me and took them to the kitchen. Jay came back into the room.

łSays he wants you to tuck him in. Better be quick, he’s going to be asleep in a minute.

I hurried into Matt’s room. He looked asleep already.

‘Matt?’

His eyes flickered open.

}Auhnty Dec. Jus wahted to say thahks.

‘What for?’

}Whaever yuh said tuh Jay an Beth, it feels dihferent now. Migh even let meh get pihsed if Ihm lucky.

‘I wouldn’t count on it.’

}Sohmthing tuh aim fuh. Anyway, thahks.

‘No worries. Well at least that’s the beer sorted …’

}Wha?

‘Just the sex to go now, and you’re back to normal.’

}Ha ha, look fohward tuh reaching tha mihlstone in the nehr fuhture.

He held his hand out and I clasped it. His grip loosened, and he was asleep.

I wandered back into the living room. Jay was finishing off his beer, watching the end of a sit com.

łWell, that’s me done for tonight. Beth and Mum have already gone up. You going to be long?

‘I think I’ll stay down here for a bit.’

łNo moping, now.

‘I’m not moping, just thinking. Had a huge few days. Sorting through it. Trying to get my head round it.’

łJesus, with the state of your head, should we be afraid?

‘Ha ha. See you tomorrow.’

Jay went to bed, and I was alone with my reflections. In a way, the last few days seemed to have lasted forever. I felt like I had slotted back in to the way things used to be; Jay, Beth and Cal were exactly the same, it all felt exactly the same, even though the location was different. It had felt so natural, it was hard to remember what it had been like when I thought I’d lost them for good, when Jay told me ‘we’re done’ and Beth told me not to call them again. If ever I’d had blessings to count, these people, my family, were at the top of the list. It was going to be hard to leave them tomorrow.

My thoughts meandered on to tomorrow’s game and the challenges that it might bring. I would see people I hadn’t seen since I was beaten up – the bruises and scars still showed on my face. There were plenty of people who still held a grudge against me because of the points I’d cost Raiders; people I had withdrawn from and alienated; people who simply didn’t like what I’d done and how I’d behaved. I’d have to face them all, not just tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future. It was the legacy of my recent actions. But now I had Jay, Beth and Cal back, it seemed easier to face, gave me strength.

Eventually, despite my contemplations, I started to fall asleep. The house was quiet. I took a deep breath and headed up the stairs, undressed in the bathroom and slid into the bottom bunk. I lay awake for some time, the sleepiness that had overcome me downstairs having disappeared. I listened to Cal breathing, and the odd noises that the house made as its occupants slept.

I thought about being back in my flat, on my own. Not something I was looking forward to, but something I was going to have to do sooner rather than later, or I might never do it. Having family around me, people I trusted and loved, made me realise what I had been missing for months, and how much I needed it.

I thought about watching the game tomorrow. That was something I was looking forward to, despite having anxieties about who I might run into. I hadn’t seen a live Raiders game for months, and I was going to be with Jay and Cal. I wasn’t sure if Cal had ever seen a live game before, and I was going to enjoy being there with him for the experience.

Little by little drowsiness overtook me and I slept.

Dreaming. I am flying above the pitch, watching the game. Raiders are playing well, but can’t score. I can see what needs to be done. Don calls me over and sends me on as a replacement. They pass me the ball, I fly over the line and touch the ball down. As I land on the ground, a pair of brown boots appears by my head. I see one of the boots heading straight for my face …

35. In repair

In which the ‘shouldn’t be alone’ concept is explained, proposed and trialled.

Matt

And then, there they were again, those sounds, tormented. I couldn’t help turning to look at Dec, sitting in the chair, whole body moving from side to side, mouth contorted.

‘Ungh … mm … no, no … wai … no … mm … mm … no … can’t … ungh … no … NO!

Dec’s eyes snapped wide open, but he wasn’t seeing anything for a few seconds, at least not anything that was really there. His breathing was rapid, and there was a sheen of sweat on his face.

He deserved better than this, but …

‘Shuh the fuck uhp.’

Dec

I woke up in the familiar sweat, heart pounding, breathing hard. I remembered not to sit up, so I wouldn’t bang my head. Realised I was already sitting up. I wasn’t in Cal’s room, I was in the chair in Matt’s room.

I looked up. Matt was looking back at me.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Hope I wasn’t screaming.’

}Noh, moahns and nohs …

Matt

I was going to have to be nice to the little bastard, wasn’t I. I sighed.

‘ … yuh OK?’

‘Yeah, I’ll calm down in a minute. You OK?’

I had to think about this. I hadn’t been, I had been in a pit of despair, on my own, having a good wallow, drowning in the inky blackness. But now, maybe …

‘Duhno. Yuhr a fucking bahstrd.’

‘I know.’

‘Goh tuh behd.’

Maybe now he’d been asleep and had his nightmare, he’d see sense.

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’m staying here.’

Yeah, I get that, you keep saying.

‘Why?’

‘Well, I did say before, you shouldn’t be on your own when you’re feeling this shit. You might think it’s what you want, but what you really want is to push away anyone who might show they care about you.’

Well that was a bloody annoying assessment, being as it was very nearly spot on. Who did he think he was?

‘Wha the fuck do yuh knoh? Yuhr not meh.’

‘I know, mate, I’m not saying I am. But I think we’re pretty similar when it comes to needing help.’

Ah, needing help. That old chestnut. Yeah, not very good at that. How did this kid know all about this shit? Oh, and here were the bloody tears again, welling in my eyes, I was going to have to do some fast talking to stop them overflowing. I tipped my head back to try and make them drain away. But Dec had come close to the truth and deserved an answer.

‘Haht hahving tuh ahsk. Fucking haht ih. Fucking haht all this.’

‘I know that. Everyone knows that. It’s why they all fuss around all the time, asking if you want this or that, are you OK, too hot, too cold, all so you don’t have to fucking ask for yourself.’

What the ..? It bloody well made sense.

‘Hahnt thoht of ih lihk tha.’

Dec

‘I know it’s bloody infuriating when they fuss, you feel powerless, or something. It’s easier on your own, you think, only me to worry about, you’re in control, not them. So you scare people off when you’re feeling shit, so they leave you alone and you don’t have to worry about them. Believe me, I’ve done it – I came this close to making sure Jay and Beth never wanted to see me again. And you’re on your way to it working with them too. I saw how quickly Beth shooed us all out when you turned on the silent treatment. And they both told me to leave you alone when you’re ‘like this’. Before long you’ll be ‘like this’ more and more of the time, and they’ll leave you alone more and more. They won’t want Cal to play in here, either. Happy days, you’ll have got your wish and you’ll be completely on your own. Maybe you should think carefully about whether it really is what you want.’

I sounded more confident about my theory than I felt; everything I had just said had only occurred to me that afternoon, as I considered Matt’s self-imposed solitary confinement. It made sense to me, but from Matt there was more lengthy silence. Then an intake of breath.

Matt

Fucking hell. He was bloody right. Not that I was going to just come out and say that.

‘Mehbe.’

I took a deep, ragged breath and ran a hand over my face. I didn’t know how he’d done it, but he had me talking now.

‘Gohd, it’s soh fucking hard.’

‘Well, you can have a good wallow in self-pity. But it gets harder to drag yourself up from your wallowing, and sometimes it just feels easier to stay down there. So that’s why I’m staying here with you. I was in a bad place not so long ago, and if I hadn’t had someone to hold on to while I was there, I might never have got out. I’m here so you’ve got something to hold on to, if you want it.’

How did he know this shit? It was like he was inside my head. I thought about him staying with me all evening, sitting in the armchair, being here, giving me something to hold on to. And it had worked. I hadn’t been able to get as far into the black hole as I wanted to, because he’d been there, dangling that bloody rope, making me hold on to it. I turned my head to look at him.

‘Who did yuh hahv?’

‘Rose.’

Ah, that would be one of the many girls, then.

‘Girfriehd?’

‘Fuck no!’

He sounded so horrified, it was almost amusing.

‘She’s this woman, lives downstairs. Decided she was going to look after me, I had no choice one way or the other. I’d be in the shit well and truly now if it wasn’t for her. I should send her up here, she’d soon sort you out.’

Dec’s lady friends notwithstanding, there was other stuff on my mind.

‘Yohr going bahk on Suhndy.’

Dec

I looked at Matt. His face was a picture of hopelessness and desolation, and I had a feeling this was at the heart of everything for him at the moment. Thought about why that might be. It wasn’t me he was sad about, it was what I was going back to.

Matt

As I said it, I realised that it was this that had set me off. Not only was I jealous of his return to his life, to his resumption of normality, but I was going to bloody well miss him. How had that happened? He was Jay’s family, not mine. He was only nineteen, I was thirty. We shouldn’t have anything in common, should we? He was just this moody teenager, wasn’t he? No bond of friendship should have developed, should it? But it had, maybe because I’d lost all my friends and was a bit needy when someone talked to me like I was a normal person, but it was there, this thing, and I felt hopeless and desolate at the thought of being without it.

‘Yeah, all good things come to an end.’

He was being flippant about it, but I hadn’t done wallowing, not quite yet.

‘Ihm going nohwehr.’

‘You’re getting there, just slowly. Take it easy mate, what’s the rush?’

I wanted him to know, how he’d affected me.

‘Ihv sehn yuh, yuhv got behter since yuhv behn hehr. Yuhr face looks behter, yuhr hahpy. Jus in a few days. I wan tha. Jus wan my lihf bahk.’

I wanted to say it again, ‘it’s not fair’, but I was in danger of forgetting which of us was the teenager here, so I didn’t.

‘You’ll get it. It doesn’t seem like something you’re going to be able to rush, but it’ll come.’

He seemed to have all the answers, everything made sense.

‘Wha if ih duhnt? Cahnt spehd the rest of my days hahving my ahrs wiped by my brohther.’

‘Matt, I know, believe me, that pride is important. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. But speaking as someone who might just be peeking out of the end of a tunnel of dark shit, pride is pretty useless if you’re stuck on your own in that dark shit without a helping hand to pull you out. Let them help. It’s much less exhausting than fighting it all the time.’

That was rich, coming from him. In the short time I’d known him, I’d found out that half of his problems had come from not asking for help. We were more alike than either of us would admit.

‘Tha’s wha yuh duh, issit?’

‘Fuck no, I spend all my energy trying to do things on my own, then when someone finally insists on helping, I spend more energy fighting them off, but then I am a head case.’

At least he was self-aware.

‘And bluhdy hypocriht.’

‘Pretty much. Just giving you the benefit of my vast experience of fending off people who care too fucking much for their own good.’

He’d opened up the floodgates, and talking felt good, now, so I carried on.

‘Cahnt face being lihk this fuhever, nehding soh much hehp.’

‘Who says it’s forever? You’re getting better, aren’t you?’

‘Fehls soh slow. Bahstrd MS might cohm back any tihm, then Ihm rehly screwed.’

‘Mate, you’ve got to stay positive. Think about what you’ve achieved – like going out today.’

I snorted. People went out every day without getting a ‘You Have Been Amazing!‘ medal, sponsored by Patronised-Cripples-R-Us.

‘Yeh, big fucking dehl, Ih wahs allohed ouh wih twenty layers of clohths. Hahd to fucking beg to get ih. Cuhdn’t even puhl my fucking trohsers up mysehf. And I stohd up tuh kick a bahl. Woofuckinghoo.’

‘When was the last time you went out?’

‘Cahnt member. Noh since hospital.’

‘So, isn’t that a big achievement? I mean, it might not get you signed for Man United –

No, no, wasn’t having that.

‘Spuhrs.’

‘What?’

‘My tehm. Spuhrs. Wouhnt play foh fucking Man U if yuh paihd meh.’

‘OK, my apologies, well, assuming that the Tottenham scouts were down the park this morning, they just possibly might not have been impressed enough with your penalty effort to sign you up immediately, but it’s huge for you where you are at the moment. I think you might be looking too big, too soon.’

That was part of it, but not all.

‘Dohn nehd big, jus nehd nohmal. Sohmtimes fehl threh years old, noh allohed ouh, noh allohed tuh drink, noh allohed tuh fucking move, fucking bahby monitor foh fuck’s sahk.’

He’d been the only one who asked if I wanted help, if I wanted this or that, as if I had a choice in the matter. I wondered if he knew what a difference it made.

‘They worry about you. They feel as out of control as you do. I don’t think they realise how you feel. You should tell them.’

No, no, not going there. There will be no telling Jay or Beth how I’m feeling about shit.

‘Cahnt. They gahv up evrything foh meh. Jus wish ih was diffreht.’

‘It won’t change unless you do something about it.’

So I went on the attack again, because doing something about it was hard, and making Dec feel guilty and distracting him was easy.

‘Why duh yuh care? Yuhr going back tuh yuhr nohmal lihf, behr an sehx, all tha, big rugby carehr, fucking golden boy.’

‘It’s not quite as simple as that, and I’m a long way from being anyone’s fucking golden boy, but yeah, with a lot of work, I hope I’ll get some of it back. Why do I care? Well, didn’t Jay say I was part of his family? Doesn’t that include you? Didn’t you call me aunty or something? And quite a big part of me would swap everything back there to stay here with them.’

That hadn’t worked quite as well as I’d hoped. There was still a way to put him off, though.

‘Yuh dohn need to care bouh me, yuh hahdly knoh meh.’

Dec

I recognised this tactic, the one where he tried to push me away, stop me caring about him, so he could go back to feeling sorry for himself, wrapping himself up in a cocoon of self-pity.

‘Don’t try that shit on me, mate, I know all the tricks. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people I’ve had to fob off, push away, let down, and generally piss right off to get my lonely quiet life – I’m a bit of an expert. You don’t get rid of me that easily. In fact you don’t really get rid of me at all. And you’ve only got yourself to blame.’

Matt

Now I was confused. He was leaving soon. Then I’d get rid of him, like it or not.

‘Wha yuh mean?’

‘Well, last night, when, by the way, you struggled into the living room and nearly froze your balls off just because I was having a hard time, anyway, you said to me that I’m connected to this family even if I’m not here. It made a bit of an impact, both what you said and you coming all that way to say it. And I’m throwing it back at you. Even when I’m not here, you’re not going to be able to get rid of me. That connection is going to be there. If you’re having a bad day, I’ll be here; if you do something amazing, like wipe your own arse, I’ll be here. I might not hear about it till afterwards, but it doesn’t stop the connection. As if there’s a webcam in your head or something.’

Holy shit. My ‘family always connected’ speech coming back to bite me. Or make perfect sense, one or the other.

‘Fuck, thas a scahry thoht. Speciahly if Ihm wihping my ahrs.’

‘Yeah, maybe an image too far.’

OK, and now I got it. It had taken nearly all night, but he’d done it. I bowed to his superior obstinacy in the face of a serious challenger.

‘I geh the point. Fucking bahstrd. Shih, yuh can tahk fuh bluhdy England. Got a fucking ahnswer foh ehvrything. Ihm fucking exhosted. Goh tuh behd.’

‘No.’

Not this again. Didn’t he get it? He’d won, he’d pulled me out of the pit, I was going to be OK.

‘Shih, Dec, yuh cahnt stay hehr all night.’

‘Watch me.’

‘Yuh rehly ahr an infuhriatingly stuhborn fucking bahstrd.’

‘Yeah.’

Well alright then, to the victor the prize.

‘ … Thahks tho. Mehns a loh, ahtually.’

And it did. It meant a lot that not only had he stayed with me in the face of some pretty hard core rudeness, he’d seen how things were with me, known how to fix them, and done it. He hadn’t had to, he could have just gone to bed and had his nightmares in Jay’s office and not given me a thought, but he’d cared enough that, when he thought he could make a difference, he’d tried. And that really did mean a lot.

‘No worries.’

‘Remihn meh how ohl yuh ahr?’

‘Nineteen. Nearly twenty. Why?’

‘Fuck meh. Bluhdy bossy fuh tehnager. Yuh knoh Ihv got more than ten yehrs on yuh? Shouhnt beh taking this shih. Bluhdy upstaht.’

The little sod didn’t even talk like a bloody teenager. It was if something had sucked all the ‘like’, ‘totally’ and ‘random’ out of him, and it made him seem more like an equal. Not that he wasn’t my equal, more than my equal with me being a fucking cripple and us both being human in any case. Being a bit older gave me no rights to claim superiority of any kind. Maybe I mean he seemed … more adult? Older? Oh I don’t fucking know, he was just easy to bloody well talk to, alright?

Dec didn’t answer, and in the silence I nearly fell asleep. I wanted to keep things going for a bit, and thought I was up for more conversation now.

‘Heh, fahncy cuhp o teh?’

‘Yeah, you making?’

‘Noh. Crihpl, ‘member?’

‘Any bloody excuse. My turn again, then, is it?’

‘Thahks Auhnty Dec. Jus ahsking foh hehp lihk a guhd boy. Mehbe yuh couhd empty my pihs bohtle too, knoh hoh much yuh lohv hehping.’

Dec

I came back with the tea, and Matt wordlessly handed me the plastic bottle filled with golden liquid. His was smiling challengingly, but I took the bottle without comment and went into the bathroom to deal with it like before. It was a very small thing to do for someone, but I recognised that for Matt is was a big ask, and thought of a way of joking with him about it to make it feel better, while I was washing it out. When I got back into the room, though, Matt was fast asleep his cup of tea going cold, the third undrunk cup he’d been given that night. I sat in the chair sipping mine and thought over everything we’d said, about what made life normal for me, and what might make it normal for Matt. Beer and sex, all that. It had been a long time for me too, and last night’s beers with Jay had shown me I wasn’t quite up to speed yet. It would have been a long time for Matt as well – little things that added up to feeling normal. I eventually fell into a dreamless sleep.

Matt

And that really is it. Oh, well, there was more bonding, and he talked to Jay, Beth and Mum and told them not to let me get away with the ‘I vont to be alone’ shit, that I was fed up being treated like a child, and that they needed to wait until I asked for help before barging in and giving it, and things were different. But that’s how it all began.

Dec

When I woke up next morning, the sun was trying to shine through the curtains, and my back was protesting a night spent sitting in a chair. Matt was still asleep. I could hear voices from the direction of the kitchen. I got up, picked up the plates and cups from last night, and headed towards the voices. Jay and Cal were there, Jay was making tea and Cal was eating cereal.

‘Stick another teabag in?’

łHey Dec, how did it go last night?

‘OK.’

łHow’s Matty?

‘OK I think. He’s still asleep, but he seemed better last night. We had a talk.’

łReally? I’d love to know how you pulled that one off.

‘I was just there. It’s what he needs – someone more determined than him to be there, to keep him going.’

łHow come you know this and we don’t?

‘Well, I’ve been there, where he is, lost it all, no hope. You push people away, don’t think you deserve it. Becomes true if you let it go too far.’

Jay stared at me.

łBloody hell, Dec. I never thought. Jesus. He’s always so adamant, leave me alone and all that.

‘You have to ignore him. He won’t like it, but you have to want it more. Battle of wills.’

łIt really worked?

‘In the end. Told him a few home truths, his and mine. He didn’t like it, he was pretty pissed off, but I wore him down eventually. I can be pretty persistent.’

I stretched, trying to get the kinks out of my spine.

łYou didn’t sit in that chair all night, did you?

‘Yeah, my back’s killing me.’

łJesus, Dec, you really are a headcase. Go and get some proper sleep.

‘No, I’ll be OK. Just need to move around a bit.’

Jay handed me a cup of tea.

‘Thanks. Could you do one for Matt, too? In a proper mug?

He looked at me, eyebrows raised.

‘You need to stop babying him, it makes him feel even more crap.’

łJesus, Dec. You’re full of advice this morning. When did you stop being a teenager and start being an agony aunt?

‘Just think about it.’

łOK. Here’s his tea. Proper mug as requested. You’ll presumably be washing the duvet and fixing the bloody expensive electric bed if he spills it.

I walked back into Matt’s room with both cups of tea. He was still asleep, or seemed to be.

Cal

The next day, Uncle Matty’s door was open, and Uncle Matty wasn’t quiet and sad any more, so I went in and played. It was Dec’s last day before he went back, and I still couldn’t understand why he wasn’t going to stay with us. He could sleep underneath me, I wouldn’t mind if he screamed every night. I just didn’t want him to go.

Dec

\dec can you help me build a road?

‘Course, mate. What are we going to use?’

\these black Legos are the sides, and these green ones are trees.

I knelt down on the floor, and started to sort out the blocks.

}Heh, it’s Auhnty Dec.

I looked up to see Matt looking back.

‘I fear I may have started a nickname I would rather not have.’

}Thas poiht of nicknahms. Cup oh teh? Er, plehs?

‘That’s yours on the table.’

He looked over at it.

}Wha noh spouht?

I stood up and handed it to him.

‘Give it a try. But if you spill it, I’m in the shit with Jay.’

}Might hahv tuh spihl a lihtl bit, jus tuh see tha.

He held the mug in both hands and took a couple of gulps.

}Mm, tahsts behter in prohpr cup.

He drank the rest and put the mug on the table.

}Thahks, Dec.

‘Thanks for not spilling, much appreciated.’

}Thahks fuh las nigh. Mehnt a loh.

‘Any time, mate.’

\dec, are you going to help me?

‘Course, Cal, what was I doing? Oh yeah, black bits.’

I knelt back down to the Lego and engrossed myself in Cal’s game. Beth and Carol came in to say good morning to Matt, but Jay remained absent. Beyond the room, after a while, I could hear them talking, the sound of plates and cups being loaded into the dishwasher, music from the radio.

Cal’s road soon stretched from one end of the room to the other, and branched off towards the door. He filled it with vehicles of all descriptions, including a spaceship and a giant tortoise on wheels. This was apparently a police car. Cal’s other toys populated the streets and committed crimes that allowed the tortoise police car to race around arresting them. Optimus Prime was the chief of police who decided whether they merited jail, freedom or Transformer justice in the form of a laser blast. Most of my characters were laser blasted.

}Dec.

I looked up.

‘Yeah.’

}Jay hahnt behn in this mohning. Nehd a … er .. the loo.

I felt a pang of guilt, and wondered if Jay had taken what I had said this morning the wrong way.

‘Do you want me to get him?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

Cal

I knew Uncle Matty wanted to do a poo because he could wee in a bottle that he had in bed with him. I wasn’t allowed to ask about it, because Uncle Matty didn’t like talking about it, but sometimes I saw the lump under the duvet where the bottle was, and knew Uncle Matty was doing a wee.

Dec

I wandered out to the kitchen, where I could hear Jay’s voice. As I opened the kitchen door, he stopped talking. Beth and Carol were sat at the table as well, and they looked liked they had been having an intense discussion.

‘Matt’s wondering if you could help him with the loo?’

łI was just on my way. We’ve been talking about it, actually.

‘Really?’

łWell, no, not specifically the loo, more what you said about not babying him. You think we should let him do more for himself?

I was uncomfortable in the role of ‘expert on Matt’, and frowned as I tried to put into words what I thought Matt needed from them.

‘Well, that was what I meant, but it’s not really my place to say. You guys are the ones who look after him, I’m sure it’s not easy, I wasn’t criticising. It was just something he said, how he feels like a child. I was thinking how it feels to need help to eat and drink, and have people decide everything for you, like when I was in hospital, and afterwards. You feel helpless, stupid almost. I can see from your side how you want to make sure he’s OK, so you do things for him. Maybe just remember he can ask if he needs help?

łBut isn’t that the opposite of what you’ve just said about ignoring him when he tells us to leave him alone?

I thought about it, the contradictions of those in need.

‘I’m not an expert, I only know how it feels for me. Something huge like feeling hopeless, I guess you step in, but feeling normal, it’s about little things, like which cup you use. He can say if he’s feeling wobbly and needs a cup with a spout. If he doesn’t say and he spills it, it’s his responsibility. When his tea is always in his plastic cup, it says you expect him to not be able to do it. Put it in a normal cup, and the message is he’s normal. At least when it comes to drinking tea. He did ask if you would help him now, though.’

łOK then, let’s see how this works. Matty has to ask for help, should be interesting. Brave new world.

He left the kitchen and headed for Matt’s room.

Cal

After Dad had been in and helped Uncle Matty in the bathroom, he looked out of the window.

‘Know what, Matty, the sun’s shining, we should get you out again. Fancy it?’

‘Fuck yeh.’

‘Right, let’s get your layers on then. Cal, go and get your coat and your wellies.’

When I came back with my things, Dad had started putting all Uncle Matty’s clothes on again, and he helped me with my wellies while Uncle Matty put his jumpers on.

Matt

Jay came in that very morning, after his little chat with the kid, and just sat there, while I struggled through getting myself up, determined I wasn’t going to ask unless I fell forwards into a sink full of water. And I did it, and it felt great. We were both so excited afterwards that we decided to go out again, and Jay helped me pile on the contents of my wardrobe, and later on decided it would be a regular occurrence. My head was almost spinning with the speed of it; after months of torpor, I could feel things moving, shifting, getting better, and that Christmas was the turning point. I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to show Dec what it had meant to me.

I didn’t have to wait long, as it turned out. But, shh, spoilers.

34. One is the loneliest number

In which Dec decides Matty shouldn’t be alone.

Cal

Then Dad nearly broke Dec. We were throwing the rugby ball to each other, even though I didn’t like throwing it that much because it was a funny shape. After a lot of throws, Dad threw the ball to Dec, who held on to it and started to run down the pitch. Dad started to run after him and then, to my astonishment, jumped at Dec, and pulled him down on to the ground. Dec shouted really loud, like Dad had really hurt him. I stood where I was, wondering what was going to happen. I’d never seen Dad hurt anyone before, and I wondered if it was because he was cross with Dec.

‘Aah. Fuck. Fucking hell, Jay. Aagh. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck it.’

This was a lot of swears, even for Dec, so it must have hurt him quite a bit. Dad didn’t look cross, he looked worried.

Jesus, Dec, I’m so sorry, I got carried away.’

So he hadn’t meant to hurt Dec. Why had he pulled him over then? Dad knelt next to Dec while I stood behind him, trying to see where Dec was hurt, in case there was any blood.

Dec

I lay on the ground, breathing hard, holding my arm, trying to assess the damage. Jay knelt beside me, concern on his face. Cal hovered just behind his shoulder, eyes wide.

łStay there for a minute, see what still hurts in a bit. Fuck it, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot about your arm.

I lay on the ground for a few more seconds, getting my breath back, but it was uncomfortably damp and I sat up.

‘It’s wet down here.’

łShit, course, sorry. Stand up then, carefully. Can you put any weight through it?

‘Don’t think I’m going to try. Help me up?’

I held out my left hand, and Jay gripped it and pulled. I pulled back, and he toppled over, landing face first. He sat up, spitting grass and mud, wiping his face.

łYou bastard. It’s not that bad, then?

‘Just tingling a bit now. I don’t think it’s serious.’

łJesus, Dec, you absolute bastard. I thought I’d broken you again. I was imagining having to call Don and tell him. You bloody bastard.

‘What were you thinking? You could have done me some serious damage.’

łI know, mate, I got carried away. You sprinting off, set off a reflex. I really miss playing sometimes. Didn’t think. Sorry.

Cal

I was really confused. Dec didn’t seem like he was hurting now, although he had to start with, and now Dad seemed annoyed and not sorry.

‘Daddy did you hurt Dec?’

‘He didn’t really hurt me, Cal, I was just pretending. In the end. I’m OK. Look.’

Dec waggled his arm and fingers at me, and I knew he wasn’t hurting, so that was all clear. But there was still more I wanted to understand.

‘Why did you fight Dec, Daddy?’

I wasn’t fighting, we were playing rugby. You’ve seen rugby on telly, haven’t you. I was tackling Dec, trying to get the ball off him.’

Oh. I often forgot that Dec played rugby and Dad was a rugby coach and used to play rugby. I didn’t really pay much attention to it, because football was so much better. But they used some of the same words for different things, and it was confusing sometimes.

‘It’s not a tackle. A tackle is when you bang your legs with the other man, and you kick the ball away.’

‘That’s in football, Cal. A rugby tackle is different – you’re allowed to pull someone onto the ground if they’ve got the ball.’

‘I think football tackles are best. You would get very muddy if you did tackles from rugby, Mummy would be cross.’

Well that’s told me, might explain a lot. OK, I think we’ve finished here for today, how about going home for some lunch?’

Dec

On the way home, I talked to Jay about where he was working now. I had spent a lot of time wondering what he had left Raiders for. Now I knew it was to look after Matt, but he must be doing something to earn a living.

łI’m doing some coaching for a local team, nothing formal, just on a sessional basis. They’re a National League Two side, mid-table. Also doing a bit of consultancy stuff, and, you’ll laugh at this, I’ve been asked to write a column in The Rugby Paper.

‘No way! Scotty’s Gritty Gossip?’

łI don’t think so, I’m too far removed from the top end of things at the moment for that. No, it’s opinion stuff. Beth’s going to help with my grammar.

‘Bloody hell, people paying good money to read your half-arsed opinions. Who’d have thought?’

łPiss off. It’s a living. Other possibilities in the pipeline, but nothing definite.

‘Do you miss it?’

łWhat?

‘Raiders.’

Jay ran a hand through his hair.

łYeah, if I’m honest. This was totally the right thing to do, I wouldn’t be anywhere else than with Matty right now. But yeah, I do wake up sometimes and wish I was out on a rainy training pitch yelling at some academy lout who needs his arse kicked. I played for Raiders for seven years, and I coached for three, so it’s a big chunk of my life. Just takes a bit of getting used to.

‘When I thought I’d lost all that, it was the hardest, really bad time. I can’t imagine life without them. That place just gets inside you. It’s like it’s alive.’

łIt is tough, and even tougher to leave the place you started out, but sometimes you just have to move on. Who knows what your future might bring? You’ve got dual reg with Trojans now, haven’t you? They’ve got a great set up, and if you recover well and get some game time with them, you’ll really benefit. Don’t put all your hopes and dreams in one place, Dec. Stay open to different things.

\daddy race you home.

Jay sped off with Cal, leaving me to walk the rest of the way with my thoughts for company. The phone in my pocket started to ring. I’d forgotten it was still there, and I was lucky it hadn’t got broken when Jay tackled me. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Lis.

‘Hi Lis.’

~Dec, how are you?

‘Good, thanks. Really good.’

We compared Christmas Days and I told her the plan to go and watch Raiders.

~Well, maybe see you Sunday? I’ll be there too.

‘Great.’

~Dec, you sound like you’re having a good time up there. I’m so pleased.

‘Thanks, Lis, couldn’t have done it without you. Oh, and thanks so much to you and Nico for the computer. At the risk of getting a telling off –’

~Don’t even go there Declan Summers. You’re welcome. It was totally selfish – I just want someone to play Words with Friends with. Nico’s useless, although he tells me he’s amazing in Spanish.

‘Am I at least allowed to say thanks very very much?’

~Course you are. See you soon, yeah?

‘Bye.’

Cal

Dad and Dec talked on the way back, until I got bored and asked Dad to race me home. When we got there, Mum stopped us before we even got through the door and told us to take our muddy things off. She said ‘honestly James’ a lot, but because of the mud, not because of the swears, because Dad didn’t tell her about those. He didn’t tell her about nearly breaking Dec, either, but Dec did when he got back.

Dec

I put the phone back in my pocket just as I reached the front door. There was a pile of muddy shoes and boots just inside, so I took mine off and slung them on top. I took off my coat, wondering where to put it as it was also covered in mud. As were my jeans. Beth opened the hall door.

_I had a feeling you’d be in the same state. Give me your coat, sweetheart, I’ll hang it up to dry, we can brush most of it off later. Ugh, your trousers are nearly as bad as James’s. Take them off.

‘What, here?’

_I don’t want you trailing mud through the house. I’ll go and fetch you some more. What on earth were you thinking?

‘I was just running, Jay decided to tackle me. I thought he’d broken my arm again for a minute.’

_God, that man.

She smiled fondly.

_He’s so competitive, he probably couldn’t bear to see you go past him. You’re not hurt though?

‘No, but no thanks to Jay. He’s still surprisingly quick.’

_Don’t tell him that, we’d never hear the last of it. Trousers, please.

As Beth went off to fetch my spare jeans, I took the muddy ones off, managing to smear mud up my legs, and stood self-consciously in the hall. Beth reappeared a few minutes later with a clean pair, checked the pockets of the dirty pair and handed me my phone. I put the clean jeans on and padded through to the utility room, where Beth was loading the washing machine.

‘Beth, I could really use a shower. I’m covered in mud, it’s all in my hair. Do you think there’s any way I can have one, with my dressings?’

She thought about it for a moment.

_Do you know what, everything looked so close to being healed last time, I think you could take the dressings off, have the shower, let it all dry and put more on. We didn’t use all the stuff up before, did we?

‘Should all be in the bag.’

_OK, give me a minute, I just need to sort out all these muddy things, and I’ll be with you. Living room OK?

‘Thanks, that’d be great.’

I sat and waited in the living room. My duvet and pillow had been cleared away. There were still piles of toys waiting for Cal to bring them to life with his imagination, but with the wrapping paper gone, the room looked less bright in its post-Christmas state.

I could hear Carol talking in Matt’s room, and Cal’s car noises told me he was there too. From upstairs I could hear the faint hiss of the water from Jay’s shower. I’d missed this – having a house full of people, whose noises filled your days and helped you make sense of who you were and where you belonged. I’d been on my own too long.

Before I could ponder too much, Beth came in, holding the bag containing the equipment for my dressings.

_OK, lets see what we’ve got here. Take your hoody off, and your shirt actually, I forgot about your collar bone.

She undid the bandages and peeled back the dressings. The stitches had almost disappeared. The scars were pink, but not swollen or weeping. Beth prodded each scar – there was one on my collar bone, one on my forearm, and one on my upper arm.

_Tell me if it hurts.

‘No, it’s tender, but nothing bad.’

_Can you bend your arm, twist it, wiggle your fingers, whole range of movement stuff?

I did as I was asked. There were a few twinges, but it was feeling OK.

_That looks great, Dec. I’m no expert, but it’s looking really good. I think you’re good to go with the shower. Your last few stitches might not last, but we’ll do you back up afterwards, and you’ll be good as new. I think Jay’s up there at the moment, but he’ll be out soon.

‘Thanks, Beth. I haven’t had a shower since before I was in hospital. I must stink.’

_We’d been wondering what it was. Thought it was the drains.

She flashed me a smile, picked up the old bandages and dressings and took them out of the room with her. I put my t-shirt back on, leaving my forearms bare – it felt good to have the air on them. A few moments later, Jay wandered in, hair damp and tousled, and plonked himself down on the sofa.

łHey, look at you all unwrapped. Did Beth just do that?

‘Yeah, I really need a shower, thanks to you. She had a look and thought it’d be OK.’

łAre you sure your arm’s OK now?

‘Yeah, it’s fine, I just jarred it when I landed on it.’

Jay had a closer look at the scars from the operation.

łLooks neat. The bruising’s really going down too, and from your face as well. You’re almost back to normal, apart from those tramlines. Every time I look at those, it makes me shudder. You were pretty close to losing an eye.

‘I know.’

łStill, interesting story for the ladies. They like a bit of a scar here and there.

‘That’s what Rose said. Don’t see it myself.’

łMate, you’ve got a lot to learn. Bit of vulnerability goes a long way. Use it to your advantage.

‘I’ll bear it in mind.’

łWell, bathroom’s free, if you want it.

I stood under the hot running water, luxuriating in the sensation. I could feel myself relaxing, and the mud ran off me. I used the shower gel Rose had given me, soaped my hair and watched the water run first brown and then clear. I scrubbed the mud off my legs, and soaped myself all over, feeling the shower refresh me. Eventually I felt clean and relaxed enough, so I turned the water off and wrapped myself in Rose’s huge towel. I sat on the edge of the bath, wrapped in the fluffy warm cosiness, enjoying being properly clean for the first time in ages and looked at my arm. It didn’t seem to have suffered any ill-effects, no extra redness, the remaining stitches were still mostly intact. I dried myself, pulled some clean clothes on and went in search of Beth, to re-apply the dressings.

Matt

Later on, having rested but not slept, which was pretty major, Beth was in my room, drinking coffee with me. Cal was playing on the floor. I was holding my coffee myself and not spilling any. I was Mr Incredible.

Dec wandered in, hair damp, cheeks rosy, looking scrubbed, and Beth looked at him enquiringly.

‘Good shower?’

‘Great shower.’

‘Did your arm stand up to it OK?’

‘As far as I can tell.’

‘Let’s have a look. Sit on the edge of the bed. OK to slip your shirt off?’

Hey, this was still my room, not some examination clinic.

‘Stehdy on, pehpl trying tuh not vohmit.’

‘Sorry, mate, nurse’s orders. If you think you might faint at the sight of my muscular torso, close your eyes.’

‘Ha ha, mohr lihkly die laughing.’

As Dec took his shirt off, I goggled at all the bruises and scarring. The scars from the operation on his arm were neat and short, but the other ones, especially on his back, were long and jagged and had been done by someone who really didn’t like him very much. I had seen my fair share of faces bruised and battered from fights in various nightclubs, but the sheer scale of the damage inflicted on Dec’s body – someone had meant him serious harm. Had caused it, actually. When Beth went to get some bandages, I commented.

‘Yuh goh done ohver prehty good.’

‘They used a bottle, as well as fists and feet. Nice people.’

Holy shit. I hadn’t realised.

‘Fuck. Dihnt noh. Bahstrds.’

‘Yeah.’

Beth came back swinging a bag in her hand.

‘Here we are, then, Dec. Let’s get you all bandaged up. I expect the docs at the club will just take this lot off again when you see them.’

Dec put his shirt back on, covering up the evidence of his recent hard times.

‘That’s not till the sixth. I can’t wait that long to have another shower!’

‘Won’t you be able to see them on Sunday? They’ll probably just say take it all off. ‘

‘Suhndy?’

Well they were talking about it in my room, I felt it was my place to join in.

‘Yeah, going home.’

Cal

I hadn’t thought about Dec going home. Once he had got here, I’d thought he would just be here like he always had been. I didn’t like to think about him going away again, and then it going back to how it was before he came for Christmas. I think Uncle Matty might have felt the same, because when he found out, he went all quiet and sad like he did sometimes, and Mum made us all go out of the room, and shut the door, and Uncle Matty didn’t even want the speaker on so we could hear if he was coughing or poorly.

Matt

I’d forgotten last night’s crying episode and the reason for it, and suddenly realised that I was going to be losing an ally.

‘Oh yeh. Fohgot.’

And he was going back to his normal life, now he was getting better. It would be full of normal things like walking, running, talking, drinking. I bet he had girls coming out of his ears too. How long was it going to be before I had any of that? Any of it?

I felt myself plummet into a deep pit of hopelessness. I’d been here before. It was where I reminded myself of everything I’d had but didn’t have any longer. It was where I reminded myself of what my future looked like, despite the positive spin I put on ridiculous achievements like standing up by myself and drinking a cup of tea out of a child’s cup without spilling any. It was where Carrie waited for me.

‘We’re going to the Raiders game, I guess I could see some of the medical staff, could have a chat.’

Dec was talking to me but I no longer had any interest in why he was going home, or what he might do when he was there.

‘Mm.’

Dec

Matt’s mood had seemed to suddenly change.

‘Alright, mate?’

Matt

‘Jus fuck ohf hohm.’

I wanted to make it about me. I was going nowhere, didn’t even have a home to go to if I could get further than across the hallway under my own steam. Didn’t see why other people should get to go home, get on with their lives.

Dec

As usual, Beth seemed to understand what was going on, even though I was confused about what Matt meant.

_Oh Matty, you won’t be stuck here forever.

Matt

Really Beth? Try seeing what it looks like from my side of things.

‘Mm.’

She tried the chivvying thing, but I was a master at this.

‘Look how much you’ve done in the last few days, you’re so much better. You played football today.’

Oh just fuck off with your cripple-patronising.

‘Mm.’

I turned my face away from both of them and looked out of the window. Dec took his lead from Beth and tried his own brand of cheeriness.

Dec

Beth’s brightness didn’t seem to be getting through to Matt. He turned away from us, refusing to talk or even look in our direction.

‘This time next year mate, best seats in the house for my full debut and first try in the Christmas game.’

Matt

‘Yeh, whaever.’

Why should I care about his bloody rugby? I’d never even seen Jay play, why should I care about some little upstart who thought he knew what would cheer me up?

Dec

I wasn’t having much luck either. Maybe if I reminded him of something we’d talked about?

‘Don’t forget, choose your battles, one day at a time.’

Matt

It was time to get rid of them, so I could just sink down into it, let it fold me up, let me just be there, in the darkness, where I belonged.

‘Mm. ‘Nough pep tahk, thahks.’

Beth finally got it, that she wasn’t going to win.

‘You look tired, sweetheart. Shall we leave you to it?’

‘Mm.’

Fuck off the lot of you. Couldn’t raise the energy to say it.

Dec

Matt stared blankly out of the window, his jaw clenched.

_Come on Cal, you can set your road up in the living room.

\oh, but I want to –

_Cal, do it now.

Matt

Cal looked at me, as I was usually the one who said ‘oh let him stay’, but although I hated myself, I ignored him. I didn’t want Cal there, I didn’t want anyone there. Just wanted to be left the fuck alone.

‘Do you want the door open?’

‘Noh.’

Beth moved towards the monitor.

‘Noh, lehv ih.’

If I was going to die, so be it. If I was going to cry, I didn’t want the whole lot of them hearing me. Where I was going, I could easily do one or the other or both, and I wanted to be there completely on my own. When I’d done, if I was ever done, I was going to have to put up with Beth trying to persuade me, once again, to talk to a doctor about being depressed. But for now I was sinking into the dark fog, letting it swallow me.

Dec

Beth sighed and continued into the kitchen. I followed her. Cal took his toys into the living room, where the TV was on and Jay and Carol were sitting watching it.

Matt

I lay there, in my black pit of misery, for a long time. I cried a bit. I raged a bit, although it was fairly impotent raging as I couldn’t exactly throw stuff, and if I shouted they’d all hear me. I examined every single aspect of the waste of space that was Matt Scott.

What had I achieved in my thirty years? I’d got a degree. I’d wasted it by working in Stafford for the last eight years. Eight years I’d lived in this dump, when I could have got out. Oh, but no, I couldn’t, because of Mum. I was never going to escape. Strike one.

I’d had a lot of women. Yeah, that was pretty empty too, because really, what I’d really been looking for was that one woman, and I’d found her, and where had that got me? Heart pulverised, all my stuff gone, hatred. Jagged, raw, red hatred, where there had been love. Strike two.

What else? Oh yeah, needed more help with eating, walking, washing and wiping my arse than a two year old. Strike three, and I’m out.

This was how it went, round and round my head, wishing things were different but knowing nothing was going to change.

I lay there for a long time, watching the light fade outside, feeling the darkness gather inside me. I could hear the TV on in the living room, the occasional snatch of conversation, but I tried to ignore it. It wasn’t part of the black landscape I was painting for myself.

I settled down for a long stint of being on my own, because I always managed to chase them away. They wouldn’t be back tonight, I might have to do some more sullen fending off tomorrow morning, then I might get the rest of tomorrow to myself too.

Dec

‘What was that all about?’

_He gets like this sometimes, especially when he’s tired. I can understand it. He feels like life is passing him by. It’s very frustrating for him.

‘But he had a great time this morning.’

_Sometimes that just makes it worse. He sees a glimpse of normality, then pays for it by being wiped out. I was half expecting it to be honest.

‘Shouldn’t he have someone with him?’

_He doesn’t want anyone, just wants to be left alone. You won’t get anything out of him for the rest of the day, he won’t even want Cal in with him. He won’t eat anything. It might last a couple of days – it happened a couple of times when he was in hospital and soon after he got here.

‘Sounds pretty miserable.’

_He’s feeling pretty miserable. Most of the time, actually. Most of his bluster is just an act. As well as everything else, he’s still getting over Carrie – did you know Carrie?

‘I can’t remember, might have met her once.’

_She visited us a couple of times with Matty. Anyway, they’d been living together for a few months when he was diagnosed with MS. She left him for an ex-boyfriend just when things started to get really hard for him. He was absolutely devastated. He got pneumonia not long after. She hasn’t been in touch, although we tried to let her know how poorly he was. She cleaned out their flat while he was in hospital, took the computer, his phone, TV, all the CDs, all the furniture worth taking. None of their friends have been in touch with him, we don’t know what she’s told them, but it’s pretty heartbreaking. Matty’s best friend from school, who he’s known for years and used to talk to about everything, moved abroad with his family. He emails occasionally, but apart from that he’s only got us.

‘Fucking hell, Beth. That’s terrible. I had no idea.’

_He doesn’t really talk about it, even to us. So on top of MS and recovering from pneumonia, he’s depressed. He won’t see the doctor about it, so we just have to cope with it the best we can. Letting him stew isn’t ideal, but he won’t talk while he’s like this. Leaving him on his own, when he asks for it, is about as much as we can do. Anyway, I’m going to do some lunch. Turkey sandwiches?

I helped Beth with the sandwiches, having worked out that mayonnaise was easier than butter. It felt good to be properly helpful, after being pretty useless for so long. We piled the sandwiches high and took them into the living room.

łAh, turkey butties, the best part of Boxing Day. Thanks, Beth.

_It was a joint effort, Dec buttered the bread. Or rather, mayoed it.

łAnd the bread survived it, good job. Have you taken some in to Matty?

_No, he’s gone into one of his moods, wants the door shut, probably best to leave him for a bit.

łWhat set that off?

_I don’t know, he probably overdid it a bit this morning.

łDamn, he’s been on really good form the last few days. When he came out this morning, I thought he’d really turned a corner.

‘Sometimes things ambush you just when you start feeling better. Hits you twice as hard.’

Beth gave me a penetrating look.

_That sounds like the voice of experience.

I shrugged and ate another sandwich.

We spent the afternoon watching and not watching the Sound of Music on TV. I didn’t manage to stay awake for all of it, and played with Cal and his cars for a bit while it was on, but it was a really long film, the sort of thing nobody really had to concentrate on if they had other things to do like dozing, playing with Christmas presents or chatting. Beth, Jay, Carol and I all fell asleep for various lengths of time at various intervals. It eventually grew dark, and Jay put the lights on.

łWhat’s for tea?

_Don’t know James, what do you fancy making?

łCome on, Beth, you’ve always got a plan.

_My plan today is letting you come up with something.

łDon’t do this to me, I have no cooking skills whatsoever, you know that.

_How about your world famous Christmas leftover curry?

łYeah, well, OK, apart from that. Damn, I forgot. I do make a good one, don’t I.

_You do. Come on, James, so I can put my feet up?

Jay slumped, defeated.

łOK, you win. You can only use this baby thing for nine more months, though. Eight if I’m lucky. Then I go back to being grouchy lazy husband.

_Oh, had you stopped? I hadn’t noticed.

łCareful, lady, or no curry for you.

Jay ambled off to the kitchen, where he could be heard banging cupboard doors and crashing saucepans.

\mummy I don’t want leftover curry.

_No, sweetheart, I didn’t think you would. Daddy will do you something else. Do you want chicken nuggets?

\yes.

_Go and ask him, then.

Cal wandered off with his order. I thought about offering to help Jay, but decided he could cope without me. I was feeling bad for Matt, and kept thinking about him lying on his own being miserable, by now in the dark. Thought about how we’d both lost a lot, how it had felt for me, what I’d wanted, what I’d needed, what I’d asked for and what had helped.

When Jay announced that dinner was ready, I followed Beth, Cal and Carol into the kitchen. I put some on a plate for me, then loaded another plate and started to leave the kitchen.

łWhere are you going with that?

‘Just thought I’d see if Matt fancies some.’

łLeave it, Dec, he won’t want any, not when he’s like this.

‘He can tell me if he’s not hungry.’

łHe will, in no uncertain terms.

‘No worries. Smells delicious, by the way.’

Matt

I couldn’t believe it when the door opened, and the bloody teenager came in. He was carrying two plates of curry, which he put down on the table by the bed, before he turned a lamp on. What did he think he was he doing? Surely Beth had explained to him what happened when I got like this?

‘Brought you some dinner. Jay’s legendary Christmas curry. If it tastes as good as I remember, you’re in for a treat. I think there are extra sprouts in yours.’

No, I wasn’t doing the banter thing. I was doing the pit of darkness thing.

‘Pihs ohf, Dec. Wana beh on my ohn.’

‘Well that’s your bad luck, really, because I want to eat my dinner in here. Yours is on the table there, I’m happy to help if needed, but there is a fork for your use should you require it.’

What was he up to? I wanted him to go.

‘Pihs ohf.’

‘No.’

What? It wasn’t a request.

Dec

I started eating the curry, which was extremely tasty. Jay had mixed up all the left over vegetables, turkey and stuffing and combined them with a curry sauce. He did it every year, and it was always worth the wait.

Matt carried on looking at the ceiling.

‘Good view up there, is it?’

No reply. I ate, wishing I’d brought a drink in, because the curry was quite hot, and it was making me thirsty.

Cal

Once Dec had gone in to Uncle Matty’s room, he didn’t come out, and Mum, Dad and Granny talked about what might be happening.

‘You don’t think they’re talking, do you?’

‘Unlikely, Beth. You know how he gets. Dec can be as stubborn, though, so they’re probably having a silence-off.’

‘Do you think it’s good for him, dear? Don’t you think we should just give him the peace and quiet he’s asked for?’

‘I don’t know, Mum. Let’s just see what happens.’

Matt

I resumed my contemplation of the ceiling. Maybe if I just ignored him he’d get the message. If I ignored him, I could get on with what I was doing, and he’d get bored and go away.

‘This is really good. You should try it before it gets cold.’

Ignoring you, you dick. Fuck off .

Dec

I finished eating and put my plate on the table. Sat down. Took my phone out, texted Nico and Rose. Got up, looked at the books on the shelf by Matt’s bed. There were several story books, a dinosaur book, a bird spotting guide and a few crime novels. Not the widest choice, but it would keep me going for now. I plumped for the dinosaur book; it never hurt to be clued up on dinosaurs with Cal around. I sat down and started flicking through the book.

Matt

My ignoring strategy didn’t seem to be having the desired results, as he was apparently trying the same method. Maybe if I found out what he was playing at, I could convince him none of it would work, and that I really just wanted him to leave me the fuck alone.

‘Wha ahr yuh trying tuh achieve?’

‘Nothing. Just sitting here reading a book.’

It was time for some directness.

‘Dohn wan yuh hehr.’

‘I know. Not your choice, unless you feel up to wrestling for it.’

It bloody well was my choice. Who did he think he was, coming in my room and just sitting there, making disparaging remarks about my ability to wrestle?

‘Fuck yuh. Lehv meh alohn.’

‘No.’

Then at least tell me what you’re fucking well doing.

‘Why?’

‘Because when you’re feeling as shit as you are, you shouldn’t be on your own, whether you want to be or not.’

What was that supposed to mean? He had no idea how shit I was feeling, what I wanted, or what I needed.

Dec carried on leafing through the book.

Maybe if I asked nicely.

‘Plehs jus pihs ohf.’

Or half nicely.

‘No.’

‘Plehs.’

There, I’d asked completely nicely.

‘No.’

This was beyond frustrating. What was I going to have to do to make him fuck off? I couldn’t fight him, although if I’d had any strength I would have added to his bruises. No, no, don’t fucking cry Matt, oh for fuck’s sake. I tried to sniff back the tears. Dec looked up from the book.

‘Want a tissue?’

Oh you bastard.

‘Noh. Wahn yuh tuh fuck ohf.’

‘No.’

He put the box of tissues within my reach, although surely he realised there was no way I was going to touch them, and he went back to the book.

Hard as I tried to get back into my black sea of despair and misery, I couldn’t while he was sitting here with the light on, as the tantalising smell of curry drifted over from the plate on the table. Without meaning to, I turned my head and looked at it.

‘Hungry?’

Shit. I turned my head back so I was looking at the ceiling again, but I was hungry. And now I couldn’t think about anything but eating that sodding curry.

‘Yeh. Fuck yuh.’

‘It’ll be cold by now. I’ll go and microwave it.’

He picked up the plate and took it out. Brainwave. Get him to do stuff for me, that got me some time to myself. I moved the bed into a sitting position and waited for him to come back. Maybe eating something would get me enough brownie points to be left to my own devices.

Dec

I picked up the plate and took it into the kitchen, where Beth and Carol were still sitting at the table.

_You’ve been in there a long time.

‘Yeah, we’ve been having a cosy little chat.’

_Really?

‘No.’

I carried on microwaving the curry.

#How is he?

‘Pretty pissed off with me.’

#Maybe you should leave him be, dear?

‘He shouldn’t be alone when he’s like this, it just makes it all worse. He said he was hungry though, I’m heating this up for him.’

I grabbed the plate when the microwave beeped, as Jay, Beth and Carol all looked at each other, surprised. I took the curry back to Matt, who had moved the bed into a sitting position, and handed him the plate and the fork.

Matt

Let’s test out my theory.

‘If I eaht this, wihl yuh fuck ohf?’

‘No.’

I snorted with exasperation, but started eating the curry. It was bloody tasty, and I managed about half of it, then put the fork down and sank back against my pillows. I deliberately left the plate on the side of the bed, against my leg, and then moved so it started to slide off the duvet, hopefully spilling curry and rice onto the bed and the floor, so Dec would have to clear it up, and get an ear-bashing from Beth at the same time. Dec almost didn’t notice, but at the last minute, he jumped up and grabbed the plate as the fork clattered to the floor.

‘Thanks for that. I’ll just put the plate on the table in case you want the rest later, shall I? And just so you know, if that had splattered on the floor, it wouldn’t be me that was clearing it up. I’m staying put.’

Fuck it, he’d sussed that one out too. I took the remote control for the bed and lowered myself back into a semi-lying position, from where I continued to stare at the ceiling.

Dec put the dinosaur book down, and made a start on a novel, rhythmically turning the pages over. The steady rustling was lulling me to sleep. I didn’t want to sleep, I wanted to rage in the darkness, but it was no good, I was on the slide down, and then my eyes closed, and that was it.

Dec

Matt’s eyelids started to droop, and the next time I looked up from the book, his eyes were closed. I looked at the time on my phone; seven forty. I turned it to silent.

Beth came in with a cup of tea for both of us. She fussed around a bit, tidying up, pulling the curtains.

_How long are you planning to stay in here?

‘No idea.’

_James is making you a bed up in his office, he’s put your bag in there, hope that’s OK?

‘Yeah, course. Thanks.’

_He’s asleep now, Dec, why don’t you come out for a bit?

‘No.’

I wasn’t sure Matt was really asleep, and if he wasn’t I wanted him to know I wasn’t going anywhere.

Matt

I woke up a couple of times, when people came in. Beth tried to persuade Dec to come out, as I was asleep.

‘Cal wants his bedtime story.’

‘I can do that in here.’

Oh, why not just invite the whole street in, it’s not like it’s my bedroom or anything.

‘You’re very stubborn.’

‘I know.’

Yeah, well, we’ll see who wins Stubbornfest, shall we?

_Hope you know what you’re doing, sweetheart.

‘So do I.’

Oh great, so he really didn’t have any idea. I was getting seriously pissed off with him.

Dec

At the very least I hoped I was annoying Matt enough that he stopped focussing on his misery. I was running the risk of pissing him off so much he’d be glad to see the back of me when I left, and that would be something else I’d managed to fuck up, but I hoped that something would get through to him.

Cal came in a short while later. I got him to choose one of the story books from the shelf, and I read him a couple of stories. He sat on my lap and looked at the pictures while I read.

Matt

Cal sat on Dec’s lap while he had his bedtime story. Despite myself, I was impressed at how well they got on together, and how Dec didn’t just read a story, but involved Cal in thinking about the pictures, possible plot developments and how characters might be feeling. But I wasn’t supposed to be being impressed, I was supposed to be wallowing, and asleep.

Dec

‘OK, Cal, time for bed now.’

\can I say goodnight to Uncle Matty?

‘Course you can, but he’s asleep, he might not hear you.’

\’night Uncle Matty.

Before I could stop him, he climbed onto the bed and gave Matt a hug, then jumped off and ran out of the room.

Matt

Because I was prepared for him, I managed not to open my eyes when Cal climbed onto the bed and gave me a hug, then jumped off and ran out of the room.

Dec

I couldn’t work out if Matt had woken up or not. His eyes were still closed, and his noisy breathing was still regular.

Cal

Because Mum let me go and have my story with Dec, in Uncle Matty’s room, I got to see what was going on, which wasn’t much. Uncle Matty looked asleep, and Dec was sitting in the chair. After Dec read me some stories from the books in Uncle Matty’s room, I went upstairs with Mum.

Mum wanted to talk to me.

‘Cal, you know you asked me about Daddy and me being cross with Dec?’

I did remember. It seemed like a long time ago now, before Dec came back.

‘Yes.’

‘Do you still want to talk about it?’

I nodded.

‘OK. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, ever since Dec got here – well, before that too. Daddy and I aren’t cross with Dec, not any more He did some things which made us cross at the time, but there were other things we didn’t know about, and if we had, we would have helped him, rather than being cross with him.’

‘What things?’

‘Oh, well, some of them are from a long time ago. Dec’s Mummy and Daddy died when he was a boy, so he hasn’t had a Mummy or a Daddy for a long time. And that’s made him sad, sadder than we knew about. And when we were in Portugal, Dec crashed his car, and it worried him so much that he wasn’t thinking properly about things. That’s when he stole the money he told you about, and lied to us about lots of things. Dec’s not a bad man, he’s a good man who did some bad things that he didn’t really mean to do. He’s paid the money back now, and we’re trying to help him not to feel so sad.’

‘But he doesn’t look sad.’

‘No, I know, sweetheart. Sometimes people don’t look how they’re feeling. And I think being here with us has made him feel a lot happier. We’ve decided he is part of our family.’

‘So he is my brother.’

‘Well, I don’t know if we’d call him that, we’re a bit young to be his Mummy and Daddy, he’s just part of the family. We hope it will help him not to feel so sad.’

‘But will I still have a brother?’

‘Or a sister. I hope so. I’m having a baby, Cal, it’s growing in my tummy.’

Well that was news to me. Daniel Glover had got it all wrong.

‘How did it get there?’

And Mum, who has always been the plain talking nurse, told me how babies came to be, and it was astounding, and I had lots of questions, not just then, but later, at all sorts of times, that she always answered.

But the main thing was that they weren’t cross with Dec any more, and Dec wasn’t a bad man, and he was part of our family, like he always had been, so it was OK for me to love him.

Dec

I tried some more of the novel, but it was hard going, and I felt myself doze off a couple of times. Nico and Rose replied to my texts. Jay came in later with more tea.

łWe’re off to bed soon, are you planning to stay here all night?

‘Don’t know.’

łWhat exactly are you doing?

‘Being here.’

Matt

Oh, so that was the big plan? Being here? I bet I could be here longer than he could. He was going home the day after tomorrow. I was still going to be here. I win then, day after tomorrow.

OK, if you say so. Head case. ‘Night then. ‘Night Matty.’

I wasn’t prepared this time, and when Jay brushed my forehead with his hand, I almost opened my eyes. Dec slurped his tea noisily.

‘There’s a cuppa here for you if you want it. Whether you want it or not, actually. I’m really thirsty after that curry.’

Yeah, I was really thirsty too, but I wasn’t letting him trick me again like he had with the curry. No more eating, no more drinking, just lying here either staring at the ceiling or eyes closed. It would send him away eventually, like it sent them all away.

Dec

No reply. I wasn’t sure what I was doing was going to work, but I knew that when I had been feeling like the world was ending, having Rose and Nico there helped. So I was going to be there for Matt until I knew I didn’t have to be any more I felt my eyes start to close. I rested my head against the back of the chair, and fell asleep.

Dreaming. I am chasing the faceless man with brown boots. He has something of mine and I want it back, but he is always ahead of me and I can never fly fast enough to catch him. He runs through crowded streets. I fly up so I can see him from the air, but I lose him. I fly back down and run along the pavement, trying to find some trace of him. I turn into an alley, knowing he has come this way. Suddenly, he is behind me and there is no way out. He knocks me to the floor and stands over me. I am helpless. He draws back his leg, and I see his boot hurtle towards my face.