38. Memories can’t wait

In which rugby is experienced, a girl is encountered and a memory is completed.

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Dec

As we drove up to the stadium, I started to get nervous. I was worried about how people might react to me. It was only a couple of weeks since the points deduction, and although Raiders had won both of their games since and started the long haul back up the table, it was likely I was still going to be the target for people who were holding a grudge. And at the back of my mind was the other man from my memories, the one I could half-remember but couldn’t identify. Would he be here? Jay noticed I had gone quiet.

łWhat’s up?

‘Just thinking. Not sure everyone’s going to be that pleased to see me.’

łYou’ll be OK. Don wouldn’t have agreed to it if he thought there was going to be any trouble. Nico says most people are OK with things, feel sorry for you after you were beaten up. I think he’s done a fair amount of PR work on your behalf, actually. He’s been looking out for you.

‘Really?’

łYeah. You know Nico and Lis have been looking out for you for us since we moved away? Not that we knew, at first, or would have been very happy about it. Lis knows Beth really well, though. She knew, I think, that things would get mended with us, and she and Nico wanted to make sure you were OK until that happened.

‘They’ve both been amazing.’

łThat’s what friends are for – hey, don’t you dare start blubbing, we’re just about to get out of the car.

I pulled myself together. Lifted my chin to face the world.

łI’ve just got to pick up the tickets and have a quick chat with someone. Can you take Cal to the club shop, get him a flag or something? I’ll meet you by the West Stand entrance. Won’t be long.

Cal

I had been to Raiders Stadium with Dad a few times, when he was at work, and to fetch things, and on the night when he found Dec in the car park, but I had never been on match day. When we turned into the road leading up the hill to the stadium, there were people everywhere, all wearing the black and blue of Raiders, all walking towards the ground. Some people had eye-patches and scarves round their heads like pirates. I couldn’t help staring; I’d never seen anything like it. Dad had taken me to see the local football team a few times, and there was a shelter for when it was raining, and a burger van, but here, there were loads of burger vans, and places selling magazines about the rugby game, which had Nico’s picture on the front, and it was bright and noisy and thrilling.

Dad had to go and talk to someone, and asked Dec to take me to the shop to get a flag. I liked the idea of a flag; I could see people carrying them, and they had a picture of a pirate sort of person on them, the same pirate sort of person who was on their shirts and hats. I’d seen it on Dad’s and Dec’s shirts when they came home from work. Dec said it was the Raiders badge, and there were lots of things in the shop that had the badge on too.

Dec

Cal’s eyes were wide at the noise and excitement that was building in the ground. There were people wearing hats and scarves, and some of the more ardent supporters were sporting bandanas and eye-patches Beth had always been adamant that Cal wasn’t allowed to watch live rugby on account of it being too aggressive, so he’d never experienced the atmosphere of match day. I wondered what he would make of the whole occasion.

Cal

As well as the flag, there was a teddy that had a Raiders shirt on, and I stood and looked at it for long enough that Dec realised I really wanted it, and he picked it up. He also picked up a shirt from a rail, but it was a small shirt, not Dec-size, but maybe more Cal-size, and I wondered if it was for me, but he didn’t make me try it on, so maybe it wasn’t.

Dec

The shop was full of customers. I had my new bank card, which had arrived at Rose’s while I was away and wanted to do something, however small, to begin to repay people.

Cal

While we were queueing up to pay, a boy came and asked Dec for his autograph. Like he was a footballer or someone from the television. Dec wrote his name on the boy’s programme, and I noticed that people were looking at Dec, and not just because he had bruises and lines on his face, but like he was someone they wished would give them his autograph too.

Dec

A boy, a couple of years older than Cal, was suddenly at my side. He held out a match day programme and a pen.

*Please can I have your autograph?

It was the first time I had ever been asked; I tried to hide my exhilaration, and appear cool. Cal’s eyes grew wide as I signed the programme.

*Thanks. Are you playing today?

‘No, not for a while. Got a broken arm.’

I held up my bandaged right arm.

‘Enjoy the game.’

The boy went back to his place in the queue, while I glowed in the recognition.

Cal

‘Dec, are you famous?’

The possibility had only just occurred to me. Sometimes people knew Dad when we went out to the shops or Pizza Place, and he wrote his name on things, and Mum said it was because Dad used to be famous when he was young. Dec was young, well, younger than Dad, so maybe he was

‘Ha ha, no Cal.’

‘But that boy had your autograph.’

‘I know. Some people know who I am, I guess they might have seen my picture in the papers in the last few weeks, but it’s really only here at Raiders.’

Oh, well, that was alright, then. If it was only these people, who wore things with the Raiders badge on, then I didn’t have to think differently about Dec, as if he was a famous person like Bob the Builder. As long as it was only these people, and Dec wasn’t going to get asked for his autograph when we were in Dinosaurland or something.

Dec

I paid for everything, gave Cal the flag and toy, and left with the shirt in a bag, heading over to the West Stand entrance, wondering how long we were going to have to wait for Jay.

\where’s Daddy?

‘I’m not sure. Shall we text him?’

\yes.

Me: =How long will u b? D & C.

He didn’t reply immediately, but a few minutes later:

Jay: =On my way.

I watched the crowd, not sure which direction Jay would be coming from. I was aware of lots of curious glances from people as we waited, but nobody spoke to me. It was a long time since I had watched a first team game from the stands, and I had forgotten how noisy it was, how much the atmosphere built up, how mad the supporters were.

)Dec?

I felt a hand on my arm and looked round. It was Amy, DivDav’s girlfriend.

‘Amy! Hi!’

She reached up, smiling, and hugged me, kissing me on the cheek.

)It’s great to see you. God, Dec, your face!

She briefly touched the scar running by my eye and it sent a tingling shiver right through me.

)How are you doing?

‘Much better than I was. Is Dav here?’

Her face clouded as she looked away.

)I’m … er … I don’t know. We broke up. He was let go by the club too. Didn’t you know?

‘No – oh, wait, maybe it’s ringing a bell. Sorry, my head’s been a bit mashed the last few weeks. Haven’t been keeping in touch with people. Shit, Amy, I’m really sorry to hear that. How are you?’

)Oh, you know, OK. Good to see you, though. I tried to ring you a couple of weeks ago, when I heard about what happened. David didn’t have anything to do with it, you know.

‘Yeah, I know. I feel fucking awful about telling the police I thought it was him. It … er … it was Big. He’s been arrested.

Amy’s eyes went wide and she put both of her hands to her mouth.

)Oh my God! Dec, that’s completely terrible. How could he do that? I can’t believe it.

‘I know. I’m still getting my head round it. I think they’ve cleared Dav though. I should contact him … I don’t suppose you know where he is do you?’

Amy shook her head and looked down.

)I haven’t seen him since we broke up. We’re not exactly still friends. He behaved really badly to you.

Something about the way she said it made me look at her sharply. She looked back, a frown above her big blue eyes.

‘What? You broke up because of me?’

)Well, partly. When all that macho nonsense was going on, I told him what I thought. He didn’t like it much, wasn’t very nice to me about it and just carried on doing it. When I heard what he’d done to your clothes, I realised I didn’t want to be with someone who could do that. We just weren’t really meant for each other.

‘Amy, fuck, I’m sorry. I feel really bad.’

)Oh no, don’t. It’s completely better to know sooner than later. So anyway, is there something wrong with your phone? I’ve tried to get hold of you a few times.

‘My old one, yeah, it got smashed up when all this –’ I gestured to my face ‘– happened.’

)That explains it. Have you got a new one yet?

‘Yeah, do you want my number?’

)Yes, please.

We got our phones out and traded numbers.

‘Where are you watching from?’

)East Stand.

‘I’m in West. Give you a wave!’

)See you Dec, take care.

Amy smiled and walked off, looking back at me over her shoulder. She was really pretty; I felt parts of me come awake that had been sleeping for several months. I’d liked her a lot before she started going out with DivDav, and I watched her walk away, my cheek still tingling where she’d touched me.

Cal

While we were still waiting, a lady came and talked to Dec, and she cuddled him, and while they were talking, Dec didn’t look at me once. I started to walk over to the burger van, to see if he’d stop me, but he didn’t, so I walked back, in case I got lost. He was talking and talking to the lady, and he didn’t notice me at all, until the lady went away. Even then, he stared after her. I tugged on his arm, and he looked down at me.

Dec

\who’s that lady?

I dragged my attention back to Cal, who could have flown to Timbuktu for all the notice I’d taken of him while I was talking to her.

‘Her name’s Amy.’

Cal

He didn’t tell me any more than that, because Dad came along with the tickets, and we could go in, and I had chips and shared a burger with Dec.

It was very noisy where our seats were. We were just behind a lot of people in eye-patches and scarves who were singing different songs about Raiders. They had some actions where they waved their arms about, and one of them had a drum.

The players were out on the pitch, but they weren’t playing, they were running up and down, and kicking and throwing balls. Dec said they were warming up, so they didn’t pull a muscle when they ran fast, but it was cold outside, and they weren’t wearing coats, so I wondered how they were being warm.

I saw Nico and I waved, but he didn’t see me or wave back. Dec said when the players were on the pitch, they couldn’t notice people they knew, because it would put them off. I wondered how they could not be put off by all the noisy people banging drums and singing, but Dec said they weren’t.

I looked at the pitch itself, and it looked almost like a football pitch, except that the goals didn’t have nets, the lines were different, and the goalposts stretched up really high, above the crossbar. It looked like a giant H. I wondered if the goalkeeper had to stand on the crossbar to stop a goal going in, but he would have to be very tall or jump very high, and he would have to be good at balancing.

I was just going to ask Dec about it, when there was a cheering contest. A man with a microphone was in the middle of the pitch, and there was a mascot with him, dressed as a giant Raider man, and the different sides of the ground had to shout louder than each other. I shouted as loud as I could, and the Raider mascot gave our side a thumbs up. I waved my flag as we all cheered.

Dec

They were good seats, along the side of the pitch. There were about fifteen minutes before the game started, so Jay got us some drinks from the bar. Cal was enjoying the atmosphere, waving his flag and joining in with the warm up entertainment. Lis arrived, saw us and hurried over, smiling widely. She gave Cal a big hug, then Jay, then me.

~Hi Dec, oh, great haircut, you’re looking so much better. How did it all go?

‘Good, really good. Thanks so much for taking me up there.’

~You got it all sorted, yeah?

She took a sidelong look at Jay, who rolled his eyes.

‘Yeah. Talked our arses off.’

~Glad to hear it. Sounds like it did you the world of good.

łDec is officially world blubbing champion, even worse than Matty.

~Don’t be so mean. Only real men cry.

łThen Dec is pretty damn real.

Lis laughed.

~Well it’s good to see you all. Nico wants to have a drink after, is that OK?

łFine by me.

‘Yeah, great.’

Lis took her seat a few rows away, sitting with other players’ wives and girlfriends. The match was minutes away from starting, and the excitement was reaching fever pitch. Raiders were playing the team in second place. If they won, and other results went their way, they could move up a couple of places in the table. I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. Text.

Matt

Jay, Dec and Cal drove off to Devon to watch Raiders play, leaving me with Beth and Mum. Jay was going to be back later, so there were no worries about who was going to get me in and out of bed if I needed it, but I felt great, better than I’d felt for a long, long time. I even sat out in the armchair all morning, only going back to bed after lunch. I dozed a bit, then realised it was almost three o’clock and time for the big kick off at Raiders Stadium. Part of me wanted to be there with them, despite the fact I had never watched a rugby match, well not since those ones back when I was at school, so I winged a text to Dec.

‘Go Raiders! Have a fucking awesome time.’

Cripples Corner was obviously still operating, even at a distance, as his reply came straight back.

‘Just abt 2 start so fuck off now.’

After that, I had to content myself with imagining what was going on, but I fell asleep, then Beth woke me up and asked if I wanted to get in my wheelchair and sit in the kitchen while she and Mum made tea, and I so did, hardly minding about being sat in the sodding machine because I was in the kitchen and I offered helpful advice about chopping onions …

Thank you Matty, I don’t know how I’ve ever managed to chop onions before without you being here.’

… and let them know when they had the temperature too high for the sauce ‘Well, dear, I know I’ve done this hundreds of times without burning it, but I bow to your obviously superior knowledge.’

… and sampled things and told them it needed more salt or suggested herbs to add …

‘Well you can help again, sweetheart, that tastes lovely now’

… and before long, with our combined efforts and my expertise, we had made a pasta bake beyond compare.

Dec

The players ran out onto the pitch to spine-tinglingly loud cheers and chanting from the home fans. It reverberated around the stadium. I looked at Cal; his eyes were wide, taking it all in, and his face was flushed with excitement. I turned to Jay, who was also watching Cal and smiling.

‘He hasn’t been to a game before, has he?’

łNot since he was really little, he probably doesn’t remember.

‘He’s really enjoying himself.’

łCertainly is. I’ll wean him off football if it’s the last thing I do. It’s bad enough Matty and his bloody Tottenham. Can’t have my son being taken by the dark side too, whatever Beth thinks about aggression.

The match got underway, a pulsating first half with some beautiful play from both sides. Raiders’ running style was exciting to watch; Warriors had a great defence and were slick and clinical. Nico nearly scored twice – once he was tackled just metres from the line, once he was taken out in the air near the corner flag as he caught the ball. The ref didn’t see it, and awarded a line out to the opposition, to a chorus of boos. As the half-time whistle sounded, Raiders had a narrow lead, twelve points to nine, all from penalties. The applause rang out for the exciting play.

Cal

Rugby was quite different from football. It had some things the same, like the kit, the boots, and the ref, but most things were really different. You were allowed to pick the ball up, and people were allowed to run after you and pull you over. If you did that in football, you would get a red card and be sent off. Mostly the players threw the ball to each other, they hardly kicked it at all, and when they did, it was all high and loopy. And sometimes the player with the ball was pulled down and everyone piled on top of him, like it was a fight, but they were allowed to do it. And sometimes a player had the ball, and he ran really, really fast, faster than everyone else, and everyone shouted and cheered because he was about to score a goal. Nico ran faster than anyone else, and nearly got to the goal once, but was pulled down just before he could score.

Then the referee blew his whistle and it was half time, and I could talk to Dec and Dad about it, because it had been too noisy and too exciting to take my eyes off the pitch while the players were on it.

‘What did you think, Cal?’

‘I liked it when everybody shouted.’

‘It’s exciting, isn’t it?’

‘Why don’t they try to score in the goals?’

I hadn’t quite got why Nico hadn’t just kicked the ball through the posts when he was so close.

‘Well, this isn’t football, you can score anywhere over the white line. The posts are for kicking over, not scoring under.’

I didn’t quite get that either – if you could score anywhere over the white line, why didn’t they just kick the ball up the pitch as soon as they got it? That would be a goal straight away. Maybe they had to get it up high, like some of the players had done, when they’d kicked it through the posts on top of the goal. There wasn’t a goalie, but the players had to kick from quite far away, so maybe it was already difficult enough. And everyone had stopped while they did it, they hadn’t tried to tackle him or pull him down or anything. I didn’t think I would ever understand it all.

‘I like when they pick the ball up. In football that’s called a hand ball.’

That was the most thrilling thing, that the players could do things that you couldn’t in football, and it was all OK.

‘Yeah, but it’s allowed in rugby. You can also pull people down to the ground, which you can’t if you’re Theo Walcott.’

I didn’t like to think about Theo Walcott not being able to do something. I thought he was pretty perfect as a sporting hero. I wondered if he’d ever come to play at Raiders Stadium so I could see him.

‘Can Theo Walcott play rugby?’

‘Well, I guess he could, but I don’t think he’s tough enough to be much good.’

I certainly didn’t like to think of Theo Walcott not being tough enough. Did that mean that Dec and Dad and Nico were tougher than Theo? It was hard to believe. I thought about Arsenal, and how much I supported them, but also how much I’d been supporting Raiders for the first half of this game. I’d never felt anything like it, and I hadn’t realised that there would be shirts and flags and TV cameras.

‘Dec, can you support rugby teams like it’s football?’

‘Course you can, mate.’

‘Who do you support?’

I knew Dec didn’t have a football team. We cheered on Arsenal together, but Dec only liked football when I was watching it. I wanted to know if he had a rugby team like I had a football team. It had only just occurred to me that this might be possible. A world of sporting options opened up before my eyes.

‘Well, I guess Raiders are my team.’

‘I want to still support Arsenal.’

I didn’t know how to say that I was feeling like I was supporting Raiders as well. I didn’t know what ‘disloyal’ meant, but that’s how I felt.

‘Of course.’

‘But I want to support Raiders too.

‘Well, I’m not surprised, they are the best. It’s OK to support two teams, especially if they’re from different sports. Arsenal will never play Raiders, so you’ll never have to choose.’

Well that was alright then. If I could support one team from football and one from rugby, that was easy. I knew from football that you couldn’t support two different teams. I’d tried with Tottenham and Arsenal, because Uncle Matty supported Tottenham, and was always trying to get me to change from Arsenal, but it was too hard to do. But supporting a team from another sport felt OK. And of course, if you support a team, you need the proper kit, like my Arsenal shirt. I thought again about the small shirt that Dec picked up in the shop. I didn’t know if it was for me, but maybe I could ask in a roundabout way.

‘I’m going to support Raiders. Can I have a Raiders shirt for my birthday?’

‘Your birthday’s a long way off. How about you have one now?’

Dec gave me the bag with the shirt in it. Yes, it had worked. I took the shirt out and looked at it. It was missing something.

‘It hasn’t got a name on the back.’

‘Well, you have a think and decide whose name you want on the back. You can have your name if you like. It might take you a while to get to know the Raiders players and have a favourite. I can get it put on once you’ve chosen.’

Before I could think about whose name I wanted on the back, and whether I could have ‘WALCOTT’ to match my Arsenal shirt, Dad had a suggestion.

How about ‘SCOTT’? Has a nice ring to it on the back of a Raiders shirt again. Thanks, Dec, by the way.’

I didn’t want my name on my shirt, I wanted the best Raiders player on it, but I didn’t know who that was yet.

‘Daddy can I put my shirt on now?’

‘I think it’s a bit cold to be taking your shirt off out here.’

It was cold, and I had my hat and gloves and scarf on, and my nose was red, but I really wanted the shirt on.

‘Ohh but I want to.’

Sometimes a good wheedle worked, sometimes it didn’t. Today it worked.

How about you put it on over the top of your Arsenal shirt?’

‘Kay.’

I felt a bit bad about covering up my Arsenal shirt, but it was only for half of the game, so it would be alright.

Dec

Text:

Amy: =Spotted me yet?

I looked over to the crowd in the stand opposite, but everyone was so far away I couldn’t pick out faces. I couldn’t remember what Amy had been wearing. Suddenly spotted someone waving madly with both arms.

Me: =Gotcha.

I waved back, just as madly.

Cal

The teams soon came out for the second half, and the noise from the crowd got back up to loud. There was lots of throwing, lots of running, and lots of players bumped into each other. One player had a big cut over his eye, and had to come off the pitch with blood running right down the side of his face and dripping onto his shirt. I couldn’t stop looking.

‘Will he have sewing like you did?’

‘He might need a bit. He’ll be OK though, he’ll probably play again next week.’

There was more kicking through the posts, and then the most exciting thing happened. Nico got the ball and ran really, really fast. The crowd were noisier and louder than they had been so far, it was like a huge roar, as if they were trying to push Nico along with their voices. There were some players from the other team in front of him, but he somehow wiggled past them, and then pretended to throw the ball to someone, but kept it instead, and then ran even faster and jumped over the white line. So that was how you scored. You just had to put the ball down over the line.

The crowd cheered and roared like nothing I had ever heard. We were all standing on our feet and cheering, and Nico was cuddled by all Raiders players as if he’d scored a goal.

And then a bit later, he did it again. Two more players had scored, although not as excitingly as Nico, and then Nico caught the ball while two players from the other team were throwing it to each other. Nico had to run a really long way, but he was really fast, and no one could catch him, so he jumped over the line and scored again.

If it was possible, the crowd was even noisier, and Nico was cuddled even harder. I had found my favourite Raiders player. I was going to have ‘NICO’ on the back of my shirt. Or maybe Nico’s last name, if I asked Dec what it was.

Dec

Jay went off to ‘talk to someone’ straight after the final whistle, and we agreed to meet in the bar later.

‘OK, Cal, let’s go and get you a drink. Have you got everything there? Got your Raiders toy, your flag?’

Lis came over.

~Are you off to the bar, now? Nico won’t be out for a while, but come and talk to me, yeah? I hate waiting.

We walked to the Supporters Bar together, Cal talking excitedly about the game and Nico in particular. I wondered if Cal’s Raiders shirt was going to have ‘TIAGO’ on the back before too long. We found a table and Lis and Cal sat down while I went to the bar.

*Hey, Dec. Good to see you around again.

It was Holly, one of the bar managers, who served me.

‘Thanks. Good to be back.’

*Looks like you’ve been in the wars.

‘Yeah, a bit. Getting better though.’

*Take care of yourself.

Despite my worries, people had been nothing but pleasant so far. I took the drinks back to Lis and Cal. Cal was showing his Raider toy to Lis.

Cal

Lis saw my shirt, and I asked what Nico’s last name was so I could have it on my shirt. She said it was Tiago, but I didn’t know how to write that, so I didn’t say right away that’s what I would have.

Dec

~Cal tells me he can have a name on the back of his shirt.

‘Yeah, I think I can sort it.’

~He’s considering ‘NICO’.

‘What a surprise. Will we ever hear the end of it?’

~I doubt it. I’m sure Jay will be delighted as well.

‘Jay was making a bid for ‘SCOTT’ earlier, but I don’t think Cal was impressed.’

~How about ‘SUMMERS’?

‘I don’t think that even makes the top ten, I haven’t scored nearly enough amazing tries – even if it was, that’s not the best idea just at the moment.’

~So, Dec, tell me about Christmas. How was it?

‘Really great. We had a good time, didn’t we, Cal?’

~dec was in the underneath bed. He made noises and did big swears.

Lis looked at me questioningly. I laughed.

‘I was having some weird dreams. Got a telling off from Beth, I think Cal enjoyed the swears a bit too much. But Christmas was great.’

~I talked to Beth this morning. She loved having you there. She’s really going to miss you, yeah?

‘I know, it was weird, like – I don’t know – going back in time, to before everything. They were all exactly the same. Except for having Matt and Carol there, and obviously being in a different house, but everything else kind of felt the same as it did before. They’re just so far away now. I’m trying to get my head round it all.’

~Beth said you got on really well with Matt?

‘Yeah, I did. I hadn’t really spent much time with him before, but you know how sometimes you just click with someone?’

Lis nodded.

‘We just messed around, a lot of the time. I forgot how old he is.’

~Hey! He’s only a couple of years older than me, thank you very much.

Lis tried to look offended, then grinned.

~Although the way Matt behaves is closer to his shoe size than his age, so maybe I see your point. Sounds like you did him a lot of good, yeah?

‘Don’t know about that. He was looking pretty perky when I left. Hope it carries on for him. ‘

~Did you sort things out properly with Jay?

‘I think so. We had a really long talk. I tried to explain things, but it’s so muddled in my head, I don’t know if I was making any sense. He told me how it was for him, I know my shit was the last thing they needed, with Matt and everything. But, yeah, we sorted it out, we’re OK. They’ve both been so great. And Cal here had the biggest pile of Christmas presents I’ve ever seen in my life.’

~Really, Cal? What did Santa bring you?

Cal started to list all the presents he had received. It was a long list. Lis nodded and smiled, and questioned him about them. I had seen him open most of them, and drifted off a bit.

I became aware of someone hovering behind me, waiting to talk to me. I turned round and saw Lee Brady, one of the club doctors, looking in my direction. I beckoned him over.

÷Hi Dec, good to see you. You’re looking better than last time we met. Those scars are healing nicely, bruises on their way out too. How’s that arm?

‘Pretty good, thanks. Don said you might have a look at it tonight?’

÷Are you available now?

‘Well, I’m looking after Cal until Jay gets back, not sure how long he’s going to be.’

÷Cal can come too, if he wants to.

One look at Cal’s face, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say no. Cal wanted another look at my scars.

Cal

We followed the man downstairs and into a room, where Dec took his shirt off and the man, who was a doctor, took Dec’s bandages off and pressed Dec’s arm and made him move it up and down and round and round.

The doctor screwed up the bandages and put them in the bin, and told Dec he didn’t need them any more. Dec looked pleased. Then the doctor asked me if I wanted to see Dec’s X-rays, and turned his computer round so I could see. I’d never seen real X-rays before, not that weren’t in a film or a cartoon, and I liked seeing the inside of Dec’s arm. The doctor pointed to some of the bits and then to Dec’s arm to show where the pictures were of, and which bones had been broken. Then he clicked a button, and the pictures changed.

‘And these ones are after Dec’s operation, can you see the metal bits and the screws? They’re holding Dec’s bones together while they mend.’

I could see actual screws going into Dec’s bones. I couldn’t believe it – Dec had metal in his arm. How could we not hear it clanking like a robot?

‘Dec, have you got metal in your arms?’

‘Yeah, I can’t feel it though.’

He was being so unexcited. If I had metal in my arms, I’d tell everyone, and lift really heavy things all the time and be a superhero.

‘Are you like a Transformer?’

Dec laughed, although I didn’t know why. If I had metal in my arms I would totally change into something cool.

‘No, mate, I’m not going to change into a motorbike or anything. But I bet I set off a few alarms at the airport next time I fly anywhere.’

That sounded a bit boring, just setting of the alarms at the airport. Metal in your arms was obviously wasted on grown-ups. I could think of much more interesting things to do with it.

Dec

Cal and I wandered back up to the bar, making our way up the stairs. The quiet of the downstairs area, now the players had all gone, was soon replaced by the buzz of conversation to be heard from upstairs. We went through the door of the bar, the noise increasing as we did so. I scanned the room, to see if Jay had reappeared yet, and caught sight of him talking to someone on the other side of the room. A tall blond man who, with a jolt, I recognised.

It was Luke, from the gym where Nico had taken me that first time. It was Luke, who was the other man who had hit me with a bottle and punched and kicked me, and broken my bones, and slashed my face. It was Luke, who was the man with the brown boots. It was Luke, from my nightmares.

I reeled, stumbling into a table, knocking over some glasses.

*Hey, careful mate.

I stared uncomprehendingly at the table’s occupants. Jay saw me, patted Luke on the arm and walked over.

Cal

Dec was just staring across the room, as if there was something really scary, but I was too little to see what he was looking at; all I could see was people’s legs. Then I saw Dad coming towards us. He smiled at first, then frowned. By the time he reached us, he looked worried.

Dec

łWhat?

‘Luke.’

Jay looked behind him to where he had been standing. Luke had gone. Confused, Jay looked back at me.

łEr, yeah, he used to be a trainer here. Just catching up.

‘It was him.’

łWhat do you mean?

‘The other man, with Big, from when … he kicked me in the face.’

łWhat? Jesus, Dec, are you sure?

He glanced at the people sitting at the table, who were watching and listening with interest.

Cal

I looked around then, trying to see someone who looked like they might have kicked Dec in the face. Surely if Dec had metal in his arms, he could fight them, he’d win every time. But then I remembered that Dec had metal in his arms because the man had kicked him in the arm and broken it, which is why he needed the metal.

I looked up at Dad and Dec, a bit worried about having a man in the room who had kicked Dec so much he had broken his arm. Dad looked down at me as if he had just remembered I was there.

Hold on a minute. Cal, mate, can you take my keys over to Lis and sit with her? She’s just at that table, look. I’ll be over in a bit.’

This always happened; whenever anything interesting was happening, or people were saying anything I wanted to listen to, they would find something for me to do that meant I had to go somewhere else and not find out what was going on. I took Dad’s keys and went and sat with Lis.

‘Hey Cal. How did Dec get on with Lee?’

I thought Lee must be the doctor.

‘He showed me Dec’s bones on his computer. Dec’s got metal in his arms, like a Transformer.’

‘Wow, really? That sounds pretty cool. Where is Dec?’

‘Dec and Daddy were talking about a man, they’re over there – oh.’

I turned round to point, but Dec and Dad weren’t there. I turned back to Lis – maybe she would know something and would tell me things without making me go somewhere else.

‘Dec was saying about the man who kicked him. He saw him. His name is Luke.’

What? He’s here? Dec’s seen him?’

I shrugged. No one ever told me anything directly, I had to guess about things from what people said to each other.

‘I think so.’

Lis looked worried now, and looked around her. Her gaze fixed on someone across the room, and for a moment I thought she had seen the man, but I looked where she was looking, and it was Nico, who came over to us, smiling.

‘Hey baby.’

He kissed Lis, then sat on a chair at our table.

‘Hey you. Cal thinks Dec’s seen the man who kicked him, here.’

‘Huh, really? Where is Declan now?’

‘He must have gone somewhere with Jay, maybe to find him or something.’

‘Do they say who this is?’

‘Cal said he was called Luke, yeah, Cal?’

I nodded.

‘Huh, Luke. Cal, this man, he has another name?’

‘I don’t know, Dec didn’t say it.’

‘Huh. Maybe I find Jaime and Declan and see if they need help.’

‘We don’t know where they went, Nico, they could be anywhere. I don’t think we should talk about this any more, yeah?’

Lis looked at me, which I knew meant they thought I was too little to hear about what they wanted to say.

‘Huh. OK. Cal, is good to see you. Hey, you have a good Christmas?’

‘Yes. Santa bringed me a Arsenal shirt.’

‘Oh, is good, you like Arsenal. But you don’t wear the shirt, you wear the Raiders shirt, huh?’

‘My Arsenal shirt is underneath, look.’

I lifted up my Raiders shirt so the red of Arsenal showed.

‘Ha, I like this, two shirts.’

‘Cal’s trying to decide whose name to have on the back of his Raiders shirt.’

‘Oh, is good to have a name. You will have ‘SCOTT’, like you and your Dada, yes?’

‘I don’t think Cal was planning on it being a family shirt, more like a favourite player shirt.’

‘Huh, so who is your favourite?’

I felt shy saying it, so I just shrugged, and looked at Lis, hoping she might help me out. I’d known Nico for a long time, and I’d always liked him, he was funny, but I’d never cheered him on a pitch till my throat was sore before, and I was now completely in the grip of hero worship.

‘Well, he’s probably a bit embarrassed to say, it is rather embarrassing having Nico Tiago as your favourite player.’

‘Ha! I am your favourite? This is good, Cal, I like this. You can have my name on your shirt for sure. You like my tries today?’

I thought Nico had tried very hard, so I nodded.

‘I could hear Cal cheering from where I was sitting. It sounded like you enjoyed yourself, yeah?’

‘I liked when we cheered. It isn’t like football, though.’

‘Ha, no, is better, much better. Maybe Raiders is better than Arsenal?’

That didn’t sound right. Nothing was better than Arsenal, I wasn’t going to start saying any different, hero worship or no hero worship. I loved football, and I was going to be a footballer when I grew up. I didn’t nod, I just looked at Nico.

‘Well I think you might just have gone down in someone’s estimation there, Nico.’

‘Ha, sorry Cal. I forget you love football so much. How does this happen, with your Dada and Declan with you?’

‘Uncle Matty likes Tottenham.’

‘Ah, I remember. So we blame Matty?’

‘Oh give over Nico. People are allowed to prefer another sport to the one you play. Nico’s just joking, Cal. You can like football better if you want to, it’s up to you – oh, here’s Jay.’

Dec

Jay took me by the arm and pulled me through the doorway I’d just come through, out of the room and into the corridor where it was quieter.

łYou look bloody awful. What have you remembered?

‘Just that it’s him. It’s the last piece. Just seeing him, made it all fit. I’ve been trying to remember him all this time. It’s him. Fuck, fucking hell.’

I felt sick, sweaty, trembling all over, breathing hard, heart racing; all the fun of the panic attack. Jay grabbed a chair.

łHere, sit down. I’ll go and find one of the medics.

‘No!’

łDec, you need someone to look at you.

‘Don’t leave me on my own. Please.’

It came out as a wail. Jay looked at my face and sighed.

łOK, let me call someone then.

He pulled out his phone, pressed the screen.

łLee? It’s Jay Scott … yeah, I’m upstairs outside the Raiders Bar … no, no, just visiting. Listen, can you come up? Dec’s here, he’s a bit unwell … oh did you? … no, it’s not his arm. Could you come up and take a look? … Cheers.

He put the phone back in his pocket.

łOK, Lee’s on his way.

I nodded.

łDo you think you need to call the police? You’re absolutely sure it was Luke?

‘I’m sure.’

łJesus. I can’t believe it. He used to work here. Have you got that policeman’s number?

‘No.’

łDidn’t he call you the other day? It’ll still be on your phone somewhere. Let me have a look.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket and handed it to Jay. He scrolled through my call history and found the number.

łShall I call? You don’t look like you’re capable at the moment.

I nodded, gratefully, my head still spinning and the sick feeling swirling in my stomach. Jay pressed the screen.

łHello, my name is Jay Scott, I’m calling on behalf of Declan Summers … yes, that’s right … er, Dec has just recognised the other man who attacked him. We’ve got a name … yes … yes, he’s sure. No, it’s been a bit of a shock for him, he’s not feeling very well at the moment … yes, Luke Woods … I don’t know … well you can try. Dec, any chance you can talk to this guy?

I looked back at Jay and tried to push my nausea down and calm my breathing. A bit unsteadily, I held out my hand for the phone.

‘I’ll try. Hello?’

ϙHello Declan. Thank you for contacting us. Are you able to answer some questions?

‘Not sure. I’ll try.’

ϙHow sure are you the other man was this, er, Luke Woods?

‘Sure, like before.’

ϙHow do you know him?

‘He’s a trainer at a gym I went to – I only went once. He told me not to come back.’

ϙSo he’s not a friend, or a colleague?

‘No.’

ϙDo you know where he lives?

‘No, I only met him that one time.’

ϙWhat’s the name of the gym?

‘I can’t remember. It’s on Bridge Street.

ϙOK, Declan, thank you for talking to me. We’ll look into this and keep you informed.

I looked up at Jay and put my phone in my pocket, taking a shaky breath. Lee appeared moments later.

÷Hey Dec, Jay, what’s the problem?

łDec’s feeling a bit unwell. He’s had a shock, and, well you can see the results.

÷You have gone a bit of a funny colour.

He felt for my pulse.

÷Heart rate’s up quite a bit. You’re breathing fast too. Feeling sick?

I nodded.

÷I think you need to get some fresh air, deep breaths, calm down away from all the noise. Looks like a panic attack to me. What brought it on?

‘Seeing someone I know.’

He gave me a bemused look, but I couldn’t begin to explain right then.

÷OK … Jay, can you take him outside or something?

łYeah, sure. I’ll just let Lis know what’s going on, she’s looking after Cal.

He headed back into the bar, the sound of voices intensifying briefly as he opened the door.

÷I think you’ll be fine, Dec. Has this happened before?

‘Only since I was beaten up. Although, actually, something like it happened this morning.’

÷Really? What were the circumstances?

‘I got in a car to drive it. First time since I crashed.’

÷So both times set off by a bit of a shock. That’s not surprising. Get Jay to take you outside. Deep breaths in the fresh air. Keep an eye on it, come and see me if it happens again, or if you don’t feel better in a little while.

Before I could stop him, he turned and headed back down the corridor. I sat alone in the chair, unable to face going back into the bar. It was too noisy, I felt too shaky. I leaned forwards, my face in my hands.

Cal

Dad was walking towards the table, but Dec wasn’t with him. We all looked at him as he came over. He still looked worried.

‘Hey Jaime. Cal say Declan see someone he know?’

‘Yeah. You remember Luke Woods? Oh, he might have been before your time. He was an S and C trainer here a few years back. Dec’s just seen him, recognised him as as the other bastard who put him in hospital. He’s a bit wobbly, very wobbly actually, he’s having some kind of panic attack. I’m going to take him outside, see if some fresh air helps. Are you OK with Cal for a bit?’

A panic attack sounded exciting, like it might be lots of bad robots shooting guns or something. It sounded like something I’d like to see. Maybe the bad man would be beaten by the robots and I could stop feeling scared about him.

‘Can I come, Daddy?’

‘No, Cal. Dec’s not feeling very well, he needs some peace and quiet.’

‘I will be quiet, I –’

‘No Cal. Just wait here with Nico and Lis. I’ll go and get you another Coke.’

Dad went to get my drink, and I didn’t argue any more. That was three Cokes I’d had today, and usually Mum didn’t let me have one every week. Sitting with Nico and drinking sweet brown fizziness was probably better than attacking robots, which were bound to be more disappointing than they sounded.

Nico and Lis were trying to talk to each other without saying anything and without me hearing, but they couldn’t understand each other, so in the end they had to just talk properly, and not by wiggling their eyebrows.

‘Are you going to try to find this Luke bloke, then?’

‘I don’t know, baby. If Jaime wants me to. I know him, he is trainer at the gym I go to before.’

‘What, the one you left because of that – oh. God, Nico. Someone needs to find him before he …’

‘Yes. When Jaime gets back, we ask.’

It wasn’t long before Dad put my Coke down on the table, and then Nico could ask his question.

Jaime, you want I look for this Luke Woods? Declan he tell the police?’

‘We’ve called the police, told them his name. He was just here, the bastard. I was talking to him, he was asking about Dec, I never bloody realised. He was over there, but I can’t see him now. You can look for him if you like, he’s tall, taller than me, blond hair. Maybe grab someone who was here when he was – Freddie was around, give him a shout. I’d better get back out to Dec, he was feeling pretty ropey. See you in a bit, Cal.’

Dad walked away, and Nico stood up, looking around him. He didn’t get far, as Dad came back through the door and over to the table.

‘He’s gone.’

‘Huh?’

‘Dec. He’s gone. I left him on a chair just outside the door, but he’s not there. I don’t think he would have gone off on his own, he was all shaky and shit.’

‘What are you saying, Jay?’

Dad looked around the room.

‘Luke isn’t here. Hey Freddie.’

He called over to a man who was standing talking to other men. The man he called Freddie looked up and smiled.

‘Have you seen Luke Woods?’

‘You were just talking to him, weren’t you?’

‘Yeah, after that.’

‘No, sorry mate.’

Someone Freddie was talking to shouted across.

‘He just went through there, a few minutes ago.’

The man pointed to the door Dad had just come through. Dad’s eyes went all wide, and he looked at Nico.

Shit!

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 …

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.

33. Walking on a dream

In which Matty takes literal and symbolic strides, and Dec comes a cropper.

Matt

Christmas Night, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring … I know, wrong night, but whatever. I thought everyone had gone to bed. Jay had been in, sorted me out, monitor was on, lights were off, footsteps had trundled up the stairs. Usually I’d be out cold by now, but I felt pretty well rested, and was just enjoying lying down without actually being asleep. Then I heard something. I was pretty good at using my ears to work out what was going on in the rest of the house; it was one of the consequences of spending a lot of time on my own wondering who was where and what they were doing.

So I heard something. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, just a little noise. Then I heard it again – a sniff. My heart almost stopped as I wondered if someone had broken in. If someone came in here, there’s no way I could fight them off, I’d have to hope Jay would hear the struggle on the monitor and … there it was again. A kind of choked sniffy sob. Someone was crying, downstairs somewhere. Not a burglar then, unless it was one who was really regretful about breaking and entering. I was full of adrenaline, from imagining having to fend off an intruder, and for some fuckwitted reason, I decided to investigate.

I hadn’t walked anywhere on my own since I’d come out of hospital, so why I decided now, in the middle of the night, with no one around, was a good time to start, fuck only knows. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. So far, so good. I tottered over to the wall and used it to lean on so that I could make my way to the door, which I did without incident and found myself in the hall. Now I could clearly hear the sounds of crying, which were coming from the living room.

Using the wall as my crutch, I slowly put one foot in front of the other, wondering more and more as I progressed what in the kingdom of fuck I thought I was doing. Why hadn’t I just said ‘someone’s crying’ into the monitor? Jay would have been down like a shot, and I wouldn’t be here, half way across the hall, legs trembling like I’d run a marathon. But I was investigating. Not just curious about who was crying, because there honestly weren’t that many people it could be considering Mum, Cal, Jay and Beth had all gone to bed, but also about how far I could get.

Yeah, it was stupid, but there was someone in the living room who would surely hear if I needed them and, oh, here I was in the doorway now. Fuck, that had taken it out of me. I leaned against the door frame, panting, and looked at the shape lying curled up on the couch.

‘Dec?’

His whole body jolted as he heard my voice.

‘Fuck! You scared the shit out of me. What are you doing out of bed? How did you get here?’

All very good questions, but not the most important thing right now. I was going to fall over if I didn’t get some help pretty soon.

‘Cahn yuh hehp meh sit dohn?’

Dec jumped up and took my arm, supporting me to the nearest sofa.

‘Thahks.’

I was breathing hard, but sitting down was better.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I’d lost sight of that a little bit in the last couple of minutes of trying to remain upright, but thought back to what had brought me out into the big wide world in the first place.

‘Hehrd someohn crying. Investigahting. Whasup?’

‘Just feeling sorry for myself, completely unjustifiably. I didn’t realise you could get about by yourself.’

‘Meh neihther. Gahv ih a try. Diddit. Fehls guhd. Fucking knahkered now.’

‘You look it. Do you want me to get Jay?’

No no no, then there would be questions and fussing and ‘oh Matty’ and exasperated looks.

‘Fuck noh. Ih’ll be okay in a bih.’

Oh, and nice try at distracting me Dec.

‘Why yuh crying?

‘Not really important.’

It was bloody important enough for me to do this, like, hundred mile walk from my bed to here.

‘Huhmour meh, Ihm a crihpl.’

‘OK then. Jay wants to take me home on Sunday. It made me realise I’m never going to live with them again. I’m a fucking selfish bastard who doesn’t appreciate what I’ve got, what I nearly lost, and what I’ve been given back with bells on. Boo hoo, poor me. Humorous enough?’

Right, well, he had spilt. Now I had to do something about it.

‘Bluhdy hilarious. Dihd yuh think yuhd lihv wih them here fuhever now?’

I didn’t know if this was on the cards, whether it had been discussed, even.

‘No, I guess not.’

‘Dohn’t yuh have some bihg fuck off ruhgby carehr to get bahk tuh?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so.’

‘Think of ih lihk lehving hohm, then. Hahs to happen sohm tihm. Yuh dohnt always chuhs when. Things hahpen, things chahnge. Noh one lihvs wih thehr fahmly foh ahlways. Member wha Jay said at dinner? Declan Suhmers in my fahmly fuhever. Tha mehns wherever yuh are. Connehcted. No nehd to beh hehr.’

I don’t know where the words were coming from, they just occurred to me and ended up coming out of my mouth. That was quite a lot of talking for me, and I started panting again. Dec looked like he was thinking about it, looking at his hands, then raising his eyes to stare at me.

‘Bloody hell, Matt.’

‘Mahk sehns?’

I bloody hoped so, because I was fast running out of energy for any more speeches.

‘Lots. How the fuck did you get so wise?’

‘Too much tihm tuh think, noht enough fucking vodka to forgeh ih all.’

‘I wouldn’t actually recommend the vodka method of forgetting, it has its drawbacks.’

Well that sounded interesting, hadn’t heard any hints of that one.

‘Souhds lihk a stohry. Mehbe tomohrow. Fuck, Ihm frehzing. Can yuh fetch whelchair? Noh suhr cahn walk back. Fuck.’

The cold had crept up on me unnoticed as I sat there thinking about my breathing. I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and had nothing on my feet, which were now so cold they were almost numb. Much as I hated the infernal wheeled machine, I wasn’t going to make it back to bed on my own.

Dec hurried to fetch the chair, helped me get into it and wheeled me back to my room. I leaned on him to help me out and back into bed, remembering his arms weren’t exactly in prime condition and so using my remaining strength to hoist myself onto the mattress. Now I needed to get warm, and I wasn’t going to have to be too finicky about asking for help. Come on, Matt, you asked him to tip your piss into the toilet yesterday. This is nothing.

‘Chehrs. Ohn mohr favohr? Hoht drink?’

‘Sure. Any requests?’

‘Dohn ‘spec I’ll geh whisky tohdy?’

Oh how I would have loved a whisky toddy, burny and soothing, to caress me down into unconsciousness. Never gonna happen.

‘Not even if I knew how to make one.’

‘Bahstrd. Tea then. Onna trahy lihk this mohning, ahl fahncy, mihk inna jug, sugar inna bohl, lacy doihly.’

‘How about in your cup, milk, two sugars, bit of a stir, lid on tightly if I’m feeling generous?’

Oh well, downgrade your whisky toddy dreams to warmish tea from a baby cup, then Matt.

‘Noh the sahm.’

‘All you’re bloody getting this time of night.’

Dec

As I headed towards the kitchen, I met Jay at the bottom of the stairs.

łWhat’s going on down here?

‘Just getting Matt a drink.’

łYou do know you’re both broadcasting over the monitor? Turn it off if you’re going to chat. Not really interested in your sordid late night tales.

‘Oops, sorry. Forgot about that. I think we were only talking about tea, though. Nothing particularly sordid.’

łThe night is young. Don’t forget to turn it off. And put it back on when you go to bed.

Matt

I vaguely heard voices as Dec left the room. Jay seemed to be complaining about something, and I hoped Dec wasn’t telling him I had just done the cripple equivalent of a trek up Kilimanjaro.

By the time Dec got back, turning off the monitor as he came in, I had started to shiver, and I couldn’t stop. Being under the duvet wasn’t noticeably warming me up. I was going to have to ask for more help. It doesn’t sound like much, but every time I had to ask for something it shaved a slice of self-respect from my soul.

‘Sohry, got really cohd. Cahn yuh plug lehtric blanket in?’

‘Sure, er, where is it?’

‘Lohng plug at the end, this sihd. Yeh, thas it. Thahks. Sohry tuh ahsk, cahn yuh hehp wih drink? Hohd ih foh meh? Hahnds shaking.’

Dec pulled the chair closer to the bed and held the cup for me to drink. I was shaking so much, the spout was getting nowhere near my mouth.

‘Should I get Jay?’

Dec looked worried, and maybe it wasn’t fair to put all this on him, but I knew I’d be OK and I really, really didn’t want Jay getting up to help and being all mardy and paternal on my arse.

‘Noh I’ll be OK once I wahm up. Feet lihk ice. Cahn yuh geh socks? Top drawhr.’

As Dec put the socks on my feet, I could feel the electric blanket starting to warm up, but I was still shivering.

‘You need to get this tea in you. Let’s have another try.’

I managed to get the spout in my mouth, and held on for dear life as I sucked the warm drink. Dec made it hotter than anyone else, obviously caring less about whether I scalded myself, the inconsiderate bastard, and it was what I needed. I finished the cup.

‘Another one?’

‘Yeh, might hehp get warm. Thahks, Dec.’

He made another drink and brought it in.

‘Still want me to hold the cup?’

‘Yeh, fuck the mahn poihts.’

Man points, that fantasy league where doing arbitrarily manly or unmanly things gains or loses you points. I was currently languishing at the bottom of the relegation zone with zero points and a goal difference of minus three thousand.

‘This one’s got half a bottle of imaginary vodka in it. Should help you sleep.’

‘Chehrs then. Bohtoms up.’

I drank, trying my hardest to think of it as vodka.

‘Nehd a bluhdy guhd maginahtion for tha.’

‘Best I could do.’

‘God I mihs gehting rat-ahsed.’

The glass of wine at dinner earlier was the first taste of alcohol I’d had for more than two months. Beer, I so wanted beer. I had nowhere to escape to, and enough beer would easily lead me down the path to the secret tunnel, then under the fence to temporary freedom. Or a glass of scotch. Oh how I hankered for the days when I would get home after a hard day, pour myself a glass of the good stuff, golden and welcoming, and take the load off. It seemed light years away, and I had to make do with a tiny sip of red wine, which I didn’t even like, and didn’t even get me to the gate at the entrance of the path to the secret tunnel.

‘I bet.’

It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and reassure the kid.

‘Fehl behter. Wahmer. Thahks.’

‘Least I could do, following your rescue act earlier. Cripples Corner code of conduct.’

‘All fuh ohn?’

Or some such Musketeery shit.

‘Something like that.’

I could feel myself warming up, and as I did so my eyes started to close and I slept.

So there you go, we shared, we bonded, he went home – oh really? The whole nine yards? Slave driver

Dec

As Matt warmed up and he stopped shivering, his eyes drooped and closed. I wasn’t happy leaving him just yet, I was a bit worried he might have got too cold, so I moved the chair back and settled down, pulling my phone out of my pocket for another look. I found the contacts list and read through the familiar names that had been programmed in, presumably by Jay or Beth. I felt incredibly fortunate to have such a group of people to call on, people who looked out for me, who wanted me in their lives. My misery from before receded.

Matt’s advice had been spot on and had really helped me; I’d never had brothers or sisters, or even aunts, uncles or grandparents, and had never left home in the usual way, so never had that sense of connection across distance that families developed. Thinking of ‘family’ in those terms helped me see the bigger picture. Beth said I had grown up, but I probably needed to do a bit more growing and be a bit less self-obsessed.

I must have fallen asleep in the chair thinking about it all, as I woke up with a crick in my neck, when the phone clunked to the floor. I checked Matt hadn’t woken, and that his breathing was steady, then I turned on the monitor and crept upstairs.

My phone told me it was two thirty. I undressed in the bathroom and trod as gently as I could into Cal’s room and into bed. I slept almost immediately.

Dreaming. The faceless man with the brown boots has carried Cal away and is threatening to drop him off a cliff. Every time I approach, the brown-booted man dangles a screaming Cal further over the edge. I am powerless to rescue him. Finally, the brown-booted man looks away and I launch myself at him, flying faster than I ever have before. I grab Cal and throw him to Jay, who is waiting. The brown-booted man catches me by the arm and throws me off the cliff. I fall, spinning and tumbling, ripping my face, snapping my arms, and land at the bottom, broken, helpless. I watch as the brown boots land by my head. One of the boots pulls back and then speeds towards my face …

Cal

I fell asleep really quickly once I was in bed, but was woken up again by Dec’s dream voice.

‘Unh … no … mm … no, no, no … aah … AAAAAAHHH … AAAAAAAAH!’

The loud scream scared me a lot. It was too near, and too loud, and I wanted to get away from it, and I nearly fell down the ladder trying to get away from Dec, and the loud noise he was making. I ran across my room, and backed up against my cupboard, as Dec carried on making noises. I didn’t want to hear him do another scream, and I was nearly crying because I was scared, but the noises got louder, and Dec screamed again.

This time, he sat up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.

‘Fuck.’

I didn’t giggle, because I was frightened, although if he’d said a swear, he might be awake. I thought I’d try to find out, and if he was still making monster sounds, I would run out of the room and get Dad.

‘Dec?’

Dec

A very small voice. Shit. Cal. Pulled myself together.

‘Sorry, Cal, I’m OK. Did I scare you?’

\yes.

The light went on and Jay came in. Cal was standing on the other side of the room, backed up against his toy cupboard, eyes wide.

Cal

I heard the door open, and the light went on, and Dad came in. I had to screw my eyes up because of the light, and I felt Dad pick me up and cuddle me, smoothing my hair. It made me feel better, that it was light, and my dad was holding me tight, and I stopped feeling so scared.

Dec

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Looked at Jay, who was looking back at me as he rubbed Cal’s back.

‘Sorry. Sorry Cal. I think I’ll go and sleep on the couch.’

I grabbed the duvet and a pillow and went downstairs to the living room, where the Christmas tree looked sad, trying to sparkle in the dark. I wrapped myself up in the duvet and tried to get comfortable. The dream was still floating around my head, and I felt terrible about the fright I’d given Cal.

Cal

Dad kissed my head and leaned back so he could look at me.

‘Are you OK, Cal?’

‘Yes. I was scared when Dec screamed.’

‘I know. He made a bit of a racket, didn’t he. He was probably having a bad dream. Are you going to be alright to go back to sleep?’

I nodded, and Dad took me over to my bed and tucked the duvet round me, telling me I was a big brave boy. He turned the light off, but stayed by the bed, stroking my hair and looking at me. Every so often I felt my breath shudder, but then my eyes closed, and I was asleep.

Dec

After a while, the door to the lounge opened and Jay came in. He sat on the end of the sofa, in the dark, and ran his hands through his hair.

łJesus, Dec. You scared the shit out of him. And me. What the fuck were you dreaming about?

‘This man with brown boots. I get flashbacks to getting kicked in the face. It really happened, I can remember the boots. Every dream ends with it, but what happens before changes. I can feel it all again as if it’s really happening. I can’t do anything about it. I’m so sorry I scared Cal.’

Jay shrugged, but whether that meant it didn’t matter, or that Cal was OK, or that he just didn’t know what to do about it, wasn’t clear.

łSo who’s the man in brown boots? Is he the other guy you can’t remember?

‘Fuck knows. Could be. I just wish it would stop. I’ll sleep down here till I go back.’

łJust tonight, yeah? We can make you up a bed in my office tomorrow. Sorry, mate, Cal was really freaked out.

‘Is he OK now?’

łYeah, I think so, he’s gone back to sleep. Don’t really want it to happen again though.

‘I know, it’s fine. I’ll be OK down here.’

łSleep well, then mate. Seriously.

‘I’ll try.’

I turned over as he left the room and shut my eyes. I couldn’t sleep, though; there was too much adrenaline pumping through me. I dozed on and off, until I finally slept, some time after six according to the clock on the DVD player.

Cal

While I was having my Weeties the next morning, Dad said we were going to go to the park and play football once Dec was awake. Dec had slept in the living room, and the door was still shut, and Dad said I couldn’t go in until he was awake. But I didn’t know if he was awake unless I went in. I opened the door a little bit and peeked round a few times, but Dec always had his eyes shut. Then, finally, I looked in and his eyes were open.

Dec

It was light when I woke up again. The DVD clock said nine thirty. I sat up, stretched, feeling the pull on my right arm and noticing it was moving much more freely. The bruising on my left hand had faded considerably – it wasn’t obviously a footprint any more – and my little finger seemed to be almost back to normal size. On the minus side, my back was aching from my half a night on the sofa. The door opened slowly and Cal peeked round.

\he’s awake I can go in now.

He dashed in and jumped on top of me. I lifted my arms out of harm’s way and got a knee in the stomach for my trouble.

‘Gently, mate, I’ve only just woken up. How are you this morning?’

\when can we go and play football? Daddy said when you wake up. You’re awake now, can we go? You’ve been asleep for hours. Did you do any more screams?

‘I don’t think so. Sorry I scared you last night Cal.’

\i wasn’t scared.

‘Oh, OK, well sorry I woke you up, then, was it a bit loud?’

\yes, it was. I think Optimus Prime was scared.

Cal looked at me with big, serious eyes, and I realised I needed to play along with his pretence.

Cal

Dad had said I was a big brave boy, and now that it was light, Dec’s screams didn’t seem so bad, and the scared feeling was difficult to remember. I’d gone to sleep with Optimus Prime beside my pillow, and Dec’s screams would have made him a little bit afraid.

‘I’m sure you looked after him, though. So, football, eh? Are you going in goal?’

‘No, I’m too little. I score goals, like Theo Walcott.’

It had been a while since I’d played football with Dec, but surely he hadn’t forgotten that I was always Theo Walcott, who was the striker and not the goalie?

‘Of course. Well, let me have some breakfast and get dressed, and see if Daddy’s ready, then we can go.’

Oh no, not more waiting. I was always waiting for people to finish doing boring things so I could do something exciting, and people never hurried.

‘Why can’t we go now?’

Dec

‘Well, because I’m not dressed yet for a start.’

And I’d left my clothes upstairs, with Jay’s mum only a few steps away from another gaping boxers incident.

‘And I need some breakfast. Have you had yours?’

\yes, I had Coco Pops.

‘Well I haven’t had mine. I bet you wouldn’t play football without having your Coco Pops first.’

He thought about this, unwilling to concede anything.

\but you’ll be hours.

‘I won’t, promise. Especially if you run upstairs and bring down my jeans and my t-shirt so I can get dressed.’

He ran out of the room and I could hear him run upstairs, then thunder down again. He gave me my clothes, and I slipped into them under the duvet, unwilling to even risk giving Carol another unwanted flash of my boxers and beyond.

‘OK, now breakfast.’

Cal stuck to me like glue, apparently not trusting I wasn’t going to backtrack on my promise to be quick. Jay, Beth and Carol were in the kitchen, sitting at the table, Jay and Beth still in dressing gowns.

_Hi Dec. How are you this morning?

‘Good thanks. I was just thinking how much better my arm feels. And look at my hand, the bruises have almost gone.’

I showed her.

_It is looking better. Any more dreams?

‘No. Sorry if I woke you up.’

_I think you woke us all up. You were having quite a rough time by the sounds of it.

‘Sorry.’

#What were you dreaming about, dear?

‘It’s kind of this recurring thing, flashbacks to being kicked in the face, and other stuff. And there’s this man wearing brown boots. I’ve been dreaming about him since I got beaten up. It’s been worse since I had my op and remembered who one of them was. I think this other man must be on my mind somehow.

#That’s understandable, dear. It must be terrifying to keep reliving it. You shouldn’t worry about waking us up, we can go back to sleep easily enough. Are you getting any help for it?

Carol’s sympathy and understanding were touching, and a bit of a turnaround from the reception she’d given me a couple of days ago.

‘Hopefully, seeing a psychologist soon.’

#That’s something, then.

Beside me, there was a big sigh from Cal, who was losing patience with the big amount of talk and the small amount of breakfast that was going on.

\dec, are you going to have your Coco Pops?

‘Maybe I won’t have Coco Pops, I think I’ll have some toast and a cup of tea, leave you some Coco Pops for tomorrow. I’ll be as quick as I can. It doesn’t look like Daddy’s quite ready yet.’

I raised my eyebrows at Jay.

łWaiting for you, mate. No point rushing around getting ready for footy if the goalie lets us down.

‘I’m not going in goal.’

łLast up gets no choice.

‘If I land on my arm and knacker it, Don’ll have your guts.’

łOh fu … lip you’re right. No goalie then.

‘You could always do it.’

łDon’t think so.

\daddy come on. Get dressed so we can play football.

łAlright, Cal. Why don’t you go and play with your cars while you’re waiting? Uncle Matty’s awake, he could do with some company.

Cal left the room with a scowl.

łDo us another cup of tea, Beth?

_You could always get it yourself.

łWouldn’t taste as good as yours.

_Jameson Lucas Scott you are a terrible man. Dec, cup of tea? Carol?

I made some toast while Beth boiled the kettle.

_I’ve done one for Matty. Do you want to take it in, Dec? Here’s the tray, just like he likes it. I couldn’t find any doilies, hope he’s not too disappointed.

‘Ha ha, sorry if we woke you up last night. I keep forgetting about the monitor.’

I put my tea and toast on the tray and took it in to Matt’s room, where Cal was already absorbed in his cars and roads.

‘Tea up.’

}Ih’s the maid. Luhvly.

‘How are you this morning?’

}Good. Tohstie. Blanket on ahl night. Noh hypothehmia. Yuh dihnt tell Jay?

‘No. Did you?’

}Noh. Cal sahys yuhr plahying football?

‘Soon as Jay gets dressed.’

}Tahk me?

‘Sure, if you think you’re up to it. Jay might make you go in goal, though.’

}Juhs wanna geh ouh. Stand up foh meh?

‘Sure thing. CC’s code of conduct’

}Wha?

I glanced at Cal.

‘Orders from Beth. No more inappropriate words for people who … er … have trouble getting around, at least in presence of … er … minors.’

Matt processed that for a moment.

}Oh. She got yuh under the thumb.

‘Pretty much do what I’m told where Beth’s concerned.’

}Wihs man. I wouhd tuh if I wahnt a crihpl.

I rolled my eyes and took a sip of my tea.

‘Want help with yours?’

Matt shook his head.

}Gihv a try on my ohn.

I handed him the cup. He held it with two hands and sipped the tea from the spout.

}Wha I wouhnt gihv to hahv a nohmal cup.

‘Doesn’t seem much to ask.’

}Toh mahny spihls. Toh much lectric. Mahks meh fehl lihk a bahby tho.

‘Something to work towards then.’

}Chuhs my bahtles?

‘Something like that. When I was having a hard time, not so long ago, it really helped to not look too far ahead. One day at a time, one hour, one minute, however much I could cope with. One second sometimes. Stopped me going completely mad.’

}Mm, only pahtially succehsful Ih’d say.

Jay came in holding his coat.

łOK Cal, I’m ready to go. Pack your road up.

\oh daddy, can’t I leave it up?

łNo, mate it’s in the way if Uncle Matty needs the loo while we’re out.

Matt was looking at me intently, and I got the message.

‘Can Matt come with us for a bit of footie?’

łYeah, good one mate.

‘No, really, just so he can get out for a bit?’

Jay was silent for a moment, looking at Matt, considering.

}Going mad stuhk in hehr. Fehl rehly good today.

łI dunno, Matty, it’s cold out.

}Plehs, Jay, gimme a brehk.

‘Warm clothes, gloves, scarf, flask of coffee?’

}Plehs?

Jay was torn. Then he made a decision.

łOK, we’ll wrap you up like a Michelin man. But one shiver or cough and you’re straight back, and no more trips out till summer. And it might not get past Mum and Beth before we even get there.

Matt smiled widely and did a fist pump.

łOK. Cal, you need to clear your road up super-fast – we need to get Uncle Matty’s wheelchair out. Dec, you find as many layers as you can, top and bottom, thick socks, start piling them on. In the drawer there, and here in the cupboard. I’ll make up a flask and explain to the ladies. If I don’t come back, you’ll know it hasn’t gone well – start planning my funeral. And yours, Dec, for suggesting it. Matty, you’re sure you’re up to it?

}Suhr. Thahks.

łGreat job, Cal. When you’ve finished, go and find your football, and the little rugby ball, and get your coat, shoes, scarf and hat. Dec, when you’ve finished with Matty, make sure Cal’s got all his gear on.

I knew this side of Jay from when he coached at Raiders. He would have a plan, and then he would start issuing instructions to get it accomplished. He was efficient and organised. It was like working with him again, and very different from domestic Jay, who was haphazard and a bit lazy.

I pulled t-shirts, hoodies and jumpers out of the drawers, and found a pair of thermal longjohns, some jeans and some baggy tracksuit bottoms in the cupboard. I held up the longjohns, grinning.

‘Nice. Planning on going to the Arctic?’

}Noh, just tuh the fucking pahk. Dohnt nehd all this.

‘I disagree. You nearly got hypothermia last night just coming to the living room.’

} … fair poiht. OK, pihl ih on.

Matt took off his t-shirt and held his hand out for the first layer. As he put it on I couldn’t help noticing how thin he was; his ribs were showing through his skin, and I could see his collar bones, which stood out prominently. It occurred to me why he’d got so cold last night; he had no energy reserves in his body. It would explain why he got so tired as well.

Matt covered himself up with a long sleeved tight fitting top, and then put on another t-shirt, a thin zip-up hoody, a thicker hoody and a woollen jumper. The trousers were a bit more problematic. Matt could stand, but had difficulty bending down to pull anything up. He looked at me with a resigned expression.

}Jus fucking do ih. Goh minus ten thouhsand mahn poihts anyway.

I pulled up the longjohns, jeans and finally the tracksuit bottoms.

‘Shall I tuck the bottom shirt in somewhere? Don’t want a draught.’

}Yeh, muhm.

‘Piss off, just remember who got you this gig in the first place.’

}My etehnal gratituhd.

‘I should think so.’

I tucked as many of the top layers as I could in the tracksuit bottoms, remembering how it had felt for me not so long ago to not be able to dress myself, trying not to think about how embarrassed Matt might be.

‘Right, socks and shoes. Where are they?’

}Socks top drawhr. Shohs – dohno. Hahnt wohn any since I goh hehr.

‘OK, I’ll have a look around. Cal, well done clearing up your road. Go and find your coat and stuff now, yeah?’

\is Uncle Matty coming with us?

‘Yeah. Good, eh?’

\yes but can we go soon?

‘Yeah, go and get your coat and stuff – er – shoes, hat, gloves, scarf. Oh and Daddy said get a football and a rugby ball?’

\kay.

He toddled off, but I had no idea if he was going where he was supposed to. Jay came back in.

łI think I convinced them. Not that happy about it though. They’re going to come along so they can fuss over you.

Matt pulled a face.

}Greht.

łDon’t worry, I’ll put Mum in goal and Beth can ref. That’ll keep them out of trouble.

}Ha ha.

łYou look about ready – what are you looking for, Dec?

‘Shoes.’

łUse my hiking boots, in the porch. Matty’s same size as me. Right, we need your coat, and I’ll get you a scarf, gloves, hat. Back in a minute.

I went and fetched the hiking boots from the hall, and put them on over the thick socks from the drawer. Matt was sitting on the edge of the bed.

‘Do you want to get in your chair?’

}Wait foh coht. Only hahv to stand up agahn.

‘Good point. Is this all really worth it?’

}Yeh. Nehd to goh ouh. Chohs bahtle.

‘Fair enough.’

Jay came back with a coat, scarf, gloves and hat.

łDec, you’ve got nothing on your feet, and you need more than a t-shirt. I’ll do this, you go and sort yourself out. Where’s Cal?

‘Getting his stuff together.’

łCan you check on him?

‘No worries.’

I ran upstairs to Cal’s room, grabbed my trainers and socks. Cal wasn’t up there. I put my socks and trainers on and went to the pegs in the hall to get my coat. Cal’s coat was still hanging up, along with his scarf and hat, so I grabbed them and went in search of him. He was in the living room, having been sidetracked by a dinosaur game.

‘Cal! I thought you wanted to go out. Here’s your coat. Put it on.

I helped him into it, and the scarf and hat.

‘Where are your shoes?’

\don’t know.

I went back to the hallway, found a pair of wellies with a pair of socks screwed up in them. Took them back to Cal.

‘Where’s your football?’

\don’t know.

I ran upstairs to his bedroom, and after a brief search found the football and rugby ball nestling together under the bed. Came back downstairs, just as Jay was wheeling Matt out of his bedroom. I could hardly see him under all the layers, but his eyes were shining.

łWhere’s Beth and Mum?

_We’re here, just need to get my coat – Matty, is that you under all that? No danger of frostbite then.

}Bluhdy douht ih, hard to geh frohsbite and heatstrohk ah sahm tihm. Ihm bluhdy boihling.

_Where’s Cal?

‘In the living room putting his wellies on.’

Beth went to fetch him, while Carol got her coat. Finally, we were all ready to go out. I handed Cal the football, and held onto the small rugby ball. Span it all the way to the park, enjoying being able to use both hands without too much discomfort.

Cal

And so I had to wait and wait while Dec got dressed, then had breakfast, then talked to Uncle Matty, then Uncle Matty wanted to come and play football, so he had to get dressed as well, and then Mum and Granny wouldn’t let Uncle Matty come unless they came with a flask of coffee, and then Dec had to find my wellies and coat and hat and scarf and a football and a rugby ball, and then at last we were ready to go.

Uncle Matty was in his wheelchair, which Dad pushed. He was wearing lots and lots of clothes, because Dad was worried about how cold it was, and Uncle Matty hadn’t been outside since before it was winter, and he had been very poorly. Uncle Matty counted, and he had three pairs of trousers, five jumpers, a coat, gloves, a woolly hat and a scarf on. He grumbled a lot about having to wear it all, but he was smiling, and he looked happy to be going to the park.

Matt

So, thanks to some fancy talking from the kid and some pleading from me, I actually left the house. They were all going to sod off to the park and leave me with Mum, but I wasn’t having that. Last night I walked across the bloody hall to the living room, even if they didn’t know it because neither Dec nor I had told them, and if they were going out, this newly expanded family I seemed to be part of, I was going too.

Dec

The park wasn’t far, just beyond the garden centre. There were a few other people there, but nobody using the football pitch. Cal threw the ball on to the pitch and ran after it, dribbling it up to the goal and scoring.

\can someone go in goal?

Jay looked at me. I held up my bandaged arm and shook my head. He admitted defeat and trudged off to stand between the posts.

\dec will you be on my team?

‘Course. Team Cal, yeah?’

\Mummy and Granny can be on the other team and Uncle Matty is referee.

_I don’t think Granny or me are actually going to be playing, Cal. We’ll just watch, and drink some of this coffee.

Beth held up the flask and started to open it while Cal reassessed his options.

\dec you can be the other team and try to score past Daddy. I will tackle you.

‘OK.’

I knew how this worked: I had to let Cal get the ball off me so he could have a shot at goal. Jay was supposed to let it in, but he was so competitive he couldn’t always bring himself to. I dribbled the ball up to the six yard box, and slowed as Cal ran up to me, letting him kick the ball away from my feet.

\and Walcott steals the ball from Dec, he shoots –

Cal kicked the ball hard but not very accurately at the goal. Jay graciously dived over the top of it and let it in.

\walcott scores. The goalie had no chance. One nil to Arsenal.

We carried on like this for some time, sometimes Jay would let the ball in, mostly he would save it, and he got pretty muddy from diving around in the goalmouth. Beth, Carol and Matt cheered every goal. After Cal had scored a lot of goals, and Jay had saved a few more, Beth shouted over to us.

_Matty wants a go, take a penalty.

\for my team?

_If you want.

\yes. Here’s the spot, Uncle Matty.

Beth wheeled Matt over to the penalty spot. I expected him to kick it from his chair, but he stood up, shakily, and beckoned me over.

}Need yuh tuh lean on. Stahd still.

Cal placed the ball on the penalty spot. Matt stood with one arm across my shoulders and swung back with his right leg, connecting well with the ball. It headed for the bottom corner of the goal, but at the last second Jay just got a hand to it.

}Bahstrd

łNo favours, mate. Better luck next time.

As Matt sat back down in the wheelchair, he was panting.

}Noh hohding bahk nex tihm. Yuhr tohst.

He had a huge smile on his face.

}Thihk I shouhd goh back now.

‘OK, let’s go.’

}Noh, s’okay. Mum and Beth can do it. Stay wih Cal. Thahks, Dec. Fucking awesohm.

Beth wheeled Matt away, with Carol in attendance.

Matt

We cheered Cal scoring goals, which he did through a combination of luck and generosity on the part of Dec and Jay. I even stood up and took a penalty myself, although my bastard goalie brother couldn’t bring himself to let me actually score. I was astounded at my physical prowess.

I got a bit tired, alright I was completely wiped, and my feet were bloody freezing, so I decided to go back before I was dragged back.,

Dec

Jay picked up the ball and walked over, trying in vain to wipe some of the mud from his clothes. He was pretty much covered from head to foot.

łLast time I’m ever being goalie. Hey, Cal, what about a bit of throwing?

He picked up the rugby ball and tossed it to me. It was much smaller than I was used to, but it was Cal sized. We threw the ball between us for a bit, and it felt great, even with the small ball and on the muddy park pitch. I had really missed being outside with a ball, being physical.

I could feel how far my fitness had slipped in the time – was it less than two weeks? – since I had ended up in hospital, and now I was moving about again, I really wanted to get back to training.

I threw the ball to Cal, who threw it back. As I caught it, I had an urge to go on a run with it, so I tucked the ball into my arm and set off down the field, intent on crossing the goal line as if I was scoring a try under the posts. It felt really good to stretch my legs, as unused muscles in my calves and thighs came back to life.

I heard Jay pounding after me, didn’t think he’d be able to catch me, or even that he’d be trying, so it came as a huge shock when I felt him grab my waist and pull me down. I fell awkwardly, onto my right shoulder, and everything in my right arm protested.

32. You can’t always get what you want

In which Dec has dreams and nightmares, Matty has dinner and gets brave, and Cal finds his favourite joke.

Iz

At this point, it is worth mentioning that I realise Christmas is being related in a lot of detail. The thing is that all three versions of that Christmas – Dec’s, Matty’s and Cal’s – give pretty much chapter and verse of what happened over those few days, and it’s because that Christmas was so important. Cal says he can remember so much of it, even though he was only six, and Dec goes all misty eyed when you mention it. I expect if you quizzed them really hard, neither of them would actually admit to being able to remember the specific conversations, and Lau is pretty sure Matty used a fair amount of artistic license in his retelling. But Cal and Dec both say they can remember how it felt, how it was the sense of everything coming back together that made it special, and maybe beyond that, of our family becoming something more than the sum of its parts. So please bear with this retelling.

Dec

Cal went back into Matt’s room and played with some of his toys in there, while I sat and watched from the chair next to the bed. Matt was still asleep. My disturbed night and early morning started to catch up with me, and I found myself dozing too.

Dreaming. I am running, trying to fly but can’t get off the ground. The man in brown boots is chasing me, and I keep looking behind me, trying to see his face, but I can’t quite make it out. He is gaining on me. Just as I manage to launch myself upwards into the air, he catches my ankle and sends me spinning to the ground. Blows from fists and feet hit me, and I lie helplessly as his brown boot moves in slow motion towards my face …

Cal

So, all the presents were opened, and Mum and Granny were making dinner, Dad was watching TV and drinking beer, and Dec and I were in Uncle Matty’s room. I was playing on the floor, and Dec had started off watching me from the chair, but then had fallen asleep. Suddenly, he made a noise.

‘Unh’

Matt

The next thing I know I’m pulled out of my comfy darkness.

‘Mm … ungh … no … no …’

I opened my eyes to see Dec sitting in the chair, apparently asleep but looking like it wasn’t a pleasant experience. He was twitching and murmuring. Cal had looked up from his toys, and wandered over to stand next to me, looking interestedly at Dec. He glanced at me.

‘Dec does mms and nos when he’s asleep. Sometimes he does a big swear.’

I wasn’t sure what to do. Wasn’t there something bad about waking people up from nightmares? Maybe Cal shouldn’t be in here. I was caught in indecision as Dec’s murmurings got louder, and he kicked out with a foot.

‘No … no … wana … ungh … aah … no … NO!’

And with that, my dilemma was solved, as Dec’s eyes opened. He looked dazedly at us for a moment, then collected himself, gripped the arms of the chair, levered himself upright.

Cal

I went to stand in front of Dec, interested to see what he looked like when he was having a bad dream. When he did it in the night, it was dark, and I couldn’t see his face. Dec’s eyes opened, and he looked like he thought he was somewhere else, then looked at me and Uncle Matty. I didn’t know if he knew if he’d been talking. I was disappointed he didn’t do any swears.

‘You shouted.’

‘Yuh ohkay? Mahking noises.’

‘Oh God.’

Dec rubbed his face with his hands.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to doze off. I was dreaming.’

What’s going on in here?’

Dad must have heard Dec shout. I hadn’t said anything about Dec’s bad dreams, because once it was the daytime, I’d forgotten about them.

‘Dec was dreaming. He makes noises.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had some weird dreams. Not sure it’s good for Cal, I’ve woken him up a couple of times’

Dreams about what?’

‘Oh –’

Dec looked at me, and I knew I wasn’t going to get to hear what the bad dreams were about.

‘– people chasing me, flashbacks to … recent events.’

Jesus. How long for?’

‘Pretty much since it happened, it’s been worse since the op. Don’t know if the anaesthetic messed me up a bit. First time it’s happened during the day, though. Sorry, Matt, did I wake you up?’

Matt

I made as light of it as I could, just in case Jay felt like using the fact I’d had a somniloquist to contend with against my ability to eat dinner at the table with the normal people.

‘Noh, was entertaihing. Meh and Cal enjohyed the shoh.’

It had certainly been true of Cal, who had watched with unconcealed captivation.

Cal

Uncle Matty didn’t seem to mind; he seemed as interested as I was.

‘Maybe I should sleep on the sofa tonight.’

I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Let’s see how it goes. Cal, were you scared when Dec shouted?’

I wouldn’t have said yes, even if I had been, because I didn’t want Dec to sleep on the sofa instead of underneath me.

‘No, he makes lots of noises. I waked him up, he said I could.’

There you go, then, mate. Seems OK for the time being. Bloody head-case. OK, guys, I think lunch is nearly ready. Matty, are you still up for joining us?’

Uncle Matty was going to sit at the table with us for Christmas dinner. It would be the first time he had been out of bed to anywhere else in the house apart from his room, and I could tell he was excited about it. He was smiling, and his eyes were wide and sparkly.

Dec

As we crossed the hall, the smell of dinner wafted out of the kitchen, and I remembered Beth had asked me to set the table.

‘I’ll be right there, Cal, just need to talk to Mummy.’

I popped my head round the kitchen door. The table was already set. Beth and Jay’s mum were busy with steaming pans and pouring things and sizzling things.

‘Sorry, Beth, I fell asleep. This all smells amazing.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s all done now.

‘Anything I can do?’

_Has James checked with Matty about dinner?

‘Yeah, they’re getting sorted now.’

_Oh good. See, Carol? James wouldn’t let him if he didn’t think he was up to it. We’ll keep an eye on him. OK, Dec, no I don’t think there’s anything. Maybe keep Cal occupied while we’re waiting?

‘On it’.

Cal and I played for a while. The clattering continued in the kitchen, and then the door opened and Beth called out

_Dinner’s ready.

‘Come on, Cal, let’s go and get some Christmas dinner.

\can I take Optimus Prime?

‘I guess so.’

\and my stegosaurus book?

‘I think just one thing.’

He chose the Transformer and we went into the kitchen. The table was magnificent, a huge turkey in the middle and bowls of hot vegetables and roast potatoes, jugs of gravy, stuff I didn’t recognise, all around it.

‘Wow. Good work, Beth, Mrs Scott.’

#Thank you Declan. You know, why don’t you call me Carol?

‘OK, thanks.’

I looked at her, surprised, and she gave me half a smile. Cal climbed into his seat and plonked Optimus Prime onto the table. He had a sideways glance at Beth to check it was OK. She raised her eyebrows at him, but didn’t say anything.

\dec can you sit next to me?

I looked at Beth.

‘Don’t know, mate, we’d better see what your mum wants to do.’

_Well there’s a space for Matty here, everywhere else is up for grabs.

\next to me, next to me. Granny, can you sit the other side? You can play with Optimus Prime.

#Thank you, Calum. I’m honoured.

As we both sat down in our appointed places, the door opened and Matt and Jay came in. Matt was in a wheelchair, which Jay pushed up to the space at the table. Matt was smiling broadly.

}Whoa, awsohm.

_Glad you could join us, sweetheart. James, sit next to Matty so you can help him.

}Noh, gihv a try mysehf.

Beth bent down and kissed his cheek. Carol was looking at him, close to tears. Jay was opening a bottle of wine.

łAnyone for a drop of red?

}Yeh. Lahge glahs.

łNo booze with your meds, mate.

}Ohn glahs? It’s Chrihsmus.

Jay looked at Beth.

łOne glass?

She considered it.

_Maybe one, but a small one, and with dinner, don’t slurp it all at once.

}Cohm on, gahging! Lahge glahs eahsier tuh hohd.

Beth rolled her eyes.

_OK, large glass with a small amount in it. On a full stomach only, and a glass of water for your raging thirst. That’s the rule.

}Ohkay nuhrsy.

łAnyone else? Mum?

#Lovely, dear, yes please.

łDec?

‘OK.’

Although I thought I might have to take it slowly, after my reaction to the beer last night.

łCal?

\daddy! I don’t have wine. I’ve got juice, look.

łSorry, my mistake. Jay? Yes please, big glass, don’t mind if I do. Merry Christmas everyone. Here’s to family.

He raised his glass.

}Behth? Yuh fuhgot hehr.

_Oh, no, it’s OK, Matty, I’ll just have water for now. Family.

She raised her glass and we all did the same. Magical moment for me. Laid to rest a lot of ghosts. Beyond my self-absorbed happiness, I became aware of glances going on round the table.

}Spihl, Behth. Wahter foh Chrihsmus dinner? Buhlshih. Oops, sohry.

_Honestly, Matty, I’m going to ban Dec from your room.

‘Why am I getting the blame?’

_Well it’s only since you arrived that the swear count has increased. Last night I had it loud and clear over the monitor thank you very much.

Matt and I exchanged a look, part guilt, part amusement.

}Behside the poihn. Wahter?

Beth rolled her eyes, looked at Jay and took his hand. Carol had a sharp intake of breath and put her hand over her mouth, eyes shining.

}Say ih, befohr Mum blohs a gahsket.

_OK, well, as you seem to have guessed, we’re having another baby. Early days, long way to go, not due until the summer. But yes, that’s why I’m drinking water.

Jay put his arm round her and kissed her on the forehead, then smiled back at us all.

}Greht news.

#Oh Beth, I’m so pleased for you.

Suddenly realised I had to pretend I didn’t already know.

‘Congratulations.’

_We were going to tell you today anyway. Cal found out, and he’s not good with secrets, so sooner rather than later seemed best.

#You must be thrilled, after all this time.

_Pretty thrilled, yeah. Tired though.

#Oh, and you’ve just done all this.

She gestured to the table.

#I wish I’d known.

_Carol, I’m fine, just tired. You know what it’s like. Dec’s been a great help, spending so much time with Cal. Thanks for my lie-in this morning, sweetheart, it was a life-saver.

‘Glad to help.’

}Ahny chahce of eahting behfor next Chrihsmus?

_Sorry, Matty, let’s get stuck in. But it was you who wanted to stop and chat about why I’m drinking water.

The meal was amazing. Everyone was in high spirits. Jay and Carol were fuelled by wine, Cal was fuelled by Christmas, Beth was fuelled by some kind of inner fire, Matt and I were fuelled, for different reasons, just by being there. We all sat for a long time afterwards, telling awful cracker jokes, wearing silly hats, talking. Cal got bored with the grown-up chat, and had disappeared to play some more.

łOK, another toast. Fill your glasses.

Matt pushed his forwards.

łYou’ve had your quota. Water or juice now, mate.

}Fucking spoihlsport.

#Matthew. Really. I’m beginning to think Beth was right.

}Sohry Muhm. Dec’s rehlehsed my ihner swehrer.

#I don’t think it needed much releasing, dear.

łDec?

‘No more for me, I’ll be asleep.’

łHere you go then, Mum, finish it up. Anyway. Now I’m a bit pissed, there’s something I want to say, just so it’s said and everyone knows and there are no more misunderstandings. We had a toast to family before. I just want you all to know that my family includes Declan Summers. And all who sail in her. Forever. Whatever he gets up to, whether I like it or not. Just so it’s official. Right, Dec? Oh bloody hell, pass him the bloody tissues, he’s bloody off again.

I looked at Beth through my tears, and she smiled back at me. This felt very close to the ‘real parents’ thing I’d wanted when I was much younger. When I was in foster care I’d had ridiculous dreams about a ‘forever family’, but Jay had just given me that, almost ceremonially, despite the large quantity of wine he’d drunk, and my heart was bursting.

Matt reached across the table and clasped my hand.

}Wehcom bro, or cuz, or auhnty, or whaever.

Carol didn’t quite know what to do with the information, and just patted me on the shoulder.

}Jay, sohry, thihnk Ih behter go back to bed. Toh much good nehws. Noht enough wihn.

łOK, mate, let’s go.

Jay wheeled Matt out of the kitchen.

Matt

And so I’d made it to Christmas dinner and beyond. In my wheelchair, admittedly, in case Jay needed to whisk me back for some emergency fussing in the middle of pouring the brandy butter, but I was there. I got to see parts of the house I had only previously visited in my wildest dreams, starting with a trek across the hallway, taking in a glimpse of the living room on the way, and then the whole huge family kitchen complete with fuck-off ebloodynormous table laden with enough festive fare to feed a moderately sized army. I even fed myself, although I had to insist on that. I lasted for all of it and more, to the crap cracker jokes, the paper hats slipping forgotten to the floor, the slightly drunken laughter (although that was really just Jay and Mum).

I had been ‘allowed’ one small glass of wine, despite my loud protests and well-reasoned arguments. Dec didn’t seem to be drinking much, and Beth – well Beth was on the water on account of being pregnant.

Whoa. Hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d known they’d wanted another kid from hints dropped by Mum, but Cal was six, and it seemed to be taking long enough that who knew if it was going to happen. Mum nearly burst with happiness, right there at the table. Not only was she going to be a granny again, but her little boy had made it to dinner. I’d like to think it was the latter that made her happiest, but who am I kidding, grandchildren win hands down every time. I could have single-handedly flown to Mars and come back with proof of life up there, and Jay and Beth would still have trumped me with the ‘having a baby’ card. Not bitter. Not really. Just how it was.

Oh, and apparently, as if a baby wasn’t enough, we had another new member of the Scott family to welcome. Jay had made a pissed toast, after Cal had left the table to play with more toys, saying that Dec was now officially part of his family, forever, and although Jay kind of looked defiantly at me and Mum while he said it as if he expected us to argue with him, really it wasn’t a problem. I don’t know why they hadn’t just adopted him when he was young enough, to be honest, but this seemed like the same kind of thing, although less official, and I was cool with it, not that I had any say. I looked at Mum, who had been less than happy at having to share Christmas with ‘that boy’, as she’d called him, just to me, but she was patting his shoulder and smiling, so it looked like he’d won her over as well.

And that was kind of it for Christmas. Dec stayed a couple more days, then he went back to Devon and that was that. What? Oh, you don’t really want to know about all that shit with the ‘leave me alone’ and the bonding do you? Oh for fuck’s sake, alright, if it will shut you up.

Cal

So Mum and Dad told everyone the secret, and it wasn’t that Dec was going to be my brother. They were going to get a baby, but not until the summer, which was ages away, and they didn’t know if it would be a brother or a sister. But everyone was happy and drank wine, and pulled crackers and wore the hats and gave me all the toys out of the crackers, then told each other the jokes from the crackers, and there were some really funny ones, like ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick.’ That’s funny because you think the answer is going to be something like Marmite, or poo, which are brown and sticky. But it means something that is stick-y, which is what a stick is. It was my favourite joke for ages. My second favourite joke was ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they aargh.’ That’s funny because aargh is what pirates say, but it sounds like you’ve said ‘because they are’ only in a pirate way.

I got bored after a while, because everyone was talking about boring things like how to make gravy, and I was allowed to get down to play, although Mum said I couldn’t eat any chocolate until later.

I heard them all still talking and laughing in the kitchen, and I felt happy inside. When Uncle Matty was in hospital and we came to live with Granny, there was a lot of talking but not much laughing, and the talking was all serious and I couldn’t join in. Then Uncle Matty woke up, and Dad smiled like he hadn’t done for ages, and things got brighter, and then Uncle Matty came out of hospital, and there were still serious talks, but it seemed better, apart from not being able to talk about Dec.

Now, things seemed better than back to normal. Dec was here, and Uncle Matty was here, and everyone in the house was happy. It felt like a long time since everyone in the house was happy.

Dec

#Well, what a lovely meal, dear. It all went very well, I think. I’m so pleased Matthew stayed for so long and did so much for himself. He’ll be tired now, I should think.

I had managed to wipe my eyes.

‘Best. Roasties. Ever.’

_Don’t let Rose hear you say that.

‘Oh, she knows!’

_Have you spoken to her today?

‘No, I was going to try my phone out, haven’t had a chance.’

_Don’t leave it too long.

‘I’ll do it this afternoon.’

#Beth, dear, why don’t you go and have a sit down? Declan and I will clear the table and make a start on the washing up, won’t we Declan?

‘Yeah, no worries. Go and put your feet up.’

_Oh you angels, thank you.

And then it was just me and Carol. I didn’t know her that well; although she had visited Jay and Beth plenty of times when I had lived with them, I had tended to keep out of the way, be polite if we came across each other (gaping boxers incident aside) and do my own thing. She stood up and started collecting plates into a pile. I noticed that she struggled to lift more than a couple at a time, and remembered Jay saying she had arthritis.

‘Here, let me do that.’

I piled all the plates on top of each other, then realised that I was going to find it a bit hard to lift them too, with a bruised hand and healing arm. I looked at her.

‘Bitten off more than I can chew, I think. Sorry, trying to be chivalrous.’

#It’s very sweet of you, dear. We’re a couple of old crocks, really, aren’t we. Maybe you should initiate me into your Cripples Corner.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

‘I’m not sure you’d appreciate the bad language, it’s a bit of a rule.’

#I don’t really mind the language, dear, I’ve got used to it over the years with Jameson and Matthew. You need to be careful with young Calum though, he idolises his dad and his uncle – and you. He’ll do what you do.

‘I know, I’m trying. Matt and Jay are wicked though.’

#Tell me something I don’t know, dear. Right, how are we going to do this? One plate at a time?

It was slow progress, but we managed to cram most of it into the dishwasher. There were a few pans we optimistically decided to leave for Jay, as I didn’t want to get my dressings wet in the washing up bowl, and Carol thought they’d be too heavy for her. And we thought he deserved it. She may have been disinhibited by quite a large amount of wine, but Carol was OK.

#I think that’s enough for now. I’m going to put my feet up with Beth.

‘Fancy some coffee?’

#That sounds lovely, dear. I’ll leave that with you.

I boiled the kettle, found a cafetière and some fresh coffee and made a pot. Put it all on a tray with cream and sugar and even put some mince pies on a plate. Felt very pleased with myself. I took the tray into the living room, where Beth and Carol were both asleep in front of the TV. I moved on to Matt’s room, where Cal was building a road for his cars out of Lego blocks. Matt was asleep in bed, and Jay was asleep in the chair. Christmas afternoons everywhere always seemed to turn out the same – only the kids awake. A bit deflated, I took the tray back into the living room, poured myself a cup of coffee and took it back into Matt’s room.

‘Need any help, Cal?’

\no, I don’t need help, but you can play with my cars.

‘That’d be great. Which ones can I have?’

I knelt down and engrossed myself in the tiny world Cal had created. He had a huge imagination and was fully absorbed in his game. The room grew dark, and I put the lamp on so we could see what we were doing. Jay woke with a groan and a stretch.

łWhat time is it? Jesus, it’s dark already. How long have I been asleep?

‘Several weeks have passed.’

łHa ha. Have I missed the washing up?

‘You know you have, you planned it that way.’

łVery true, just checking I don’t need to doze off again. Where is everyone?

‘Well four of us are in here. Your mum and Beth were asleep in the living room last time I checked.’

łBetter go and see if there’s anything I need to be doing.

He ran his hands through his hair.

łDamn, I was going to get us out for a walk this afternoon. Bit dark now.

‘We can do it tomorrow. How about a game of football – is there a park?’

łGreat idea. How about it Cal? You and me versus Dec and Granny?

\i don’t think Dec will win if Granny’s on his side.

łI don’t think Granny will win if Dec’s on her side. Especially if she leaves the free kicks to him. I’d better go and see what Beth is up to with Mum, could have all sorts of plans involving me doing stuff I’d rather not do, if I’m not careful.

‘There’s some pans soaking in the kitchen could do with washing up.’

łYeah, right.

Jay shot me a look and padded out of the room, shaking his head.

I carried on playing with Cal and his cars for a while. I became aware of a ringing sound, quite faint.

‘Is that a phone? Can you hear it Cal?’

\it’s from there.

He pointed to the corner of the room where I’d been sitting that morning. There was the box with my new phone in it. It was ringing. I leapt over to the box and tried to open it, unearthing packaging, small plastic bags, earphones, and a charger before the phone finally tumbled into my hand. It had stopped ringing. I looked at the screen: Missed Call. Rose. Fuck. I’d forgotten about calling her.

‘Cal, I need to phone Rose. Back in a minute.’

I went into the kitchen, which seemed to be the only downstairs room not full of sleeping people. I looked at the phone, trying to work out how to dial a number or access the address book. It was different from my last phone and a much more recent model. While I was in the middle of pushing buttons and scrolling through menus, the screen flashed up with Rose’s name, and an option to answer or decline. I pressed answer.

‘Hi Rose! Sorry, I didn’t get to the phone in time just now. Happy Christmas. How are you?’

:Hello, love, oh it’s grand to talk to you. I’m grand. Just thought I’d ring on your new phone. Was it a nice surprise?

‘Yeah. A bit overwhelmed, to tell you the truth.’

:Well, Happy Christmas, love. Have you had a good day?

‘I’ve had the best day. It’s been amazing. Started a bit early, with Cal waking up before three, but it’s been pretty special. Thanks for the present, by the way, it’ll be great in a few days when I get these dressings off.’

:Oh, you’re welcome love, and thank you for the smellies, dead posh they are. I think you might have had a bit of help choosing?

‘Yeah, Lisa did it all really. Otherwise you’d have had an old potato, wrapped in a bit of cling film. I might have washed the potato first – you deserve the best.’

:Oh love, you sound really happy. I don’t think I’ve heard you happy before, not properly. It’s doing you good being there.

‘It really is, I can’t quite believe it still. I feel a bit all over the place. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.’

:When’s that love?

‘Not sure, Jay’s going to bring me back, don’t know when yet. I’ll let you know.’

:Alright, love. See you soon then. Love to Jay and Beth and little Calum.

‘Cheers Rose, bye.’

I pressed ‘end call’ and put the phone in my pocket as Cal wandered into the kitchen.

\can you help me make a Dalek?

‘I’ll have a go. Have you got instructions, or is this just kind of free-hand?

\it’s in the box.

‘OK, bring it in, we can do it on the table here.

Cal skipped off to get the box as the phone in my pocket pinged. I pulled it out. Text.

Nico: =I just check you still alive. Happy Christmas 🙂 from Nico & Lis x

Me: =Just abt 2 build Dalek. Very much alive. Thanks v much 4 laptop 🙂 talk ltr. Dec.

I did feel back in the land of the living, amazing what a difference a phone made. I had felt completely out of touch for the last couple of weeks. Cal returned with a large box full of complicated small pieces and a very detailed several-page booklet of instructions. We emptied the pieces onto the table and sorted them into piles, then started making the model. Cal lost focus easily, but I needed him to manage the fiddly bits, my fingers still tripping over themselves at times.

‘Why don’t you go and get a book or something so you’ve got something to do while I’m working out what goes where?’

\i want to help you.

‘OK, it’s up to you, but this might take a long time. There might be some boring bits for you.’

Some time later we had finally finished. Cal just about kept his concentration, although he was fidgeting a lot by the time we put the finishing touches to the model. The rest of the house was still quiet, and I could feel myself drooping a bit too.

‘Why don’t we go and show your dad?’

\kay. Then what can we do?

‘Well …’

I looked at the clock in the kitchen. Well past time for people to be awake and helping me entertain Cal.

‘Let’s go and see if Daddy wants to play a game with you.’

I followed Cal into the living room, where Carol, Jay and Beth were all asleep on the sofas. I mean, seriously? I know we’d all been up early, I knew that better than any of them, but this was verging on the ridiculous. I looked on as Cal launched himself onto Jay’s lap.

\daddy, what can I do now? We made a Dalek, look. Can we play my football game?

Jay’s eyes had snapped open as soon as Cal kneed him in the balls, and he tried hard to focus on the model Cal was holding in front of his face.

łAh, Jesus. Sorry, Cal, agh, what? Uh. Great, er, Dalek. Jesus, mind what you’re doing there. Jesus.

Beth stirred beside him.

_Was I asleep? What time is it?

She looked at the clock.

_God, it’s really late. I should get some tea or something.

She got up and headed for the kitchen.

\daddy, what can I do?

Jay was still trying to get his breath back. He caught my eye.

łI don’t suppose ..?

Nope, wasn’t having that, however grateful I was to be part of the family.

‘I’ve been the only one awake with Cal all afternoon.’

łFair enough. OK, Cal, let’s see what we can do. Fancy helping Mummy get some tea?

\no, I want to play a game.

I laughed.

‘Suck it up, Daddy. No getting out of it.’

Jay glanced over at Carol, who was still asleep. No assistance there, either.

łI guess all that wine is taking its toll. OK, Cal, let’s have a look then …

I left the room to avoid being sucked into Cal’s game. Much as I had enjoyed being with him, he was a tiring bundle of energy, I’d got out of the habit of being with him, and I felt drained. I went into the kitchen, where Beth was starting to wash up the pans Carol and I had left.

‘Oh, we left those for Jay.’

_You’d have been waiting a long time, then! It’s OK, there’s not much. Thanks for doing the rest, great help.

‘No worries. Anything else I can do?’

_No, sweetheart, I’m just going to finish this and put some tea on the table, people can help themselves. Won’t take a minute. Thanks for being with Cal this afternoon. You must be exhausted.

‘Yeah, a bit. He kept me busy. Loved it, though.’

_You’ve always been so good with him, the two of you with your heads together, cooking up some mischief or other. He’s missed you. We all have.

‘Same here. Don’t start me off again.’

_Thanks for coming up, Dec, it’s been like old times. Well, not that old I suppose. Feels like a long time ago though. You’ve grown up a lot – I keep forgetting how young you are.

I felt slightly miffed at being considered young. I was in my last few weeks of being a teenager.

‘Twenty next month.’

_Sorry, sweetheart, twenty sounds really young to me! You’ve had a lot to cope with in the past few months, when you add it all up. James told me a lot of what you told him last night. I’m sorry we weren’t there for you.

‘Fuck, Beth, you’ve got nothing to apologise for. You and Jay had your own shit going on. I did some appallingly stupid things and made some bloody mind-blowing decisions, I just made it harder for you. Looking back, I can’t quite understand myself. I made myself a really deep hole, and I’d still be in it if it hadn’t been for Rose. And Nico.’

_Rose is so lovely. She really cares about you.

‘I know.’

_Nico and Lis care about you too. I’m glad you’ve got them all.

‘Yeah, me too.’

_I’m glad you’ve got us as well.

‘Thanks, Beth. I feel very lucky.’

_You’re not the only one. We were all pretty close to losing each other, weren’t we? Come here.

She held her arms open, and hugged me. Predictably, tears were shed on both sides. She patted my back and let go.

_Well I’ve got my hormones as an excuse. What’s yours?

‘Bloody head case, according to Jay.’

_You’re seeing someone though, aren’t you, sweetheart?

‘Got an appointment in the New Year.’

_I think it might help, don’t you? Just sorting through stuff in general, let alone all the recent stuff. You’ve had quite a tough start in life.

‘I’ll give it a go. Don’s orders anyway, so not much choice.’

_He usually knows what he’s doing.

‘Yeah. Anyway, I might go and check on Matt.’

_Is that code for taking a nap? It’s nice and quiet in there, I can keep Cal in the living room.

I grinned at her.

‘I’ll see how it goes.’

Matt’s room was completely dark. I switched on the Christmas tree lights, and looked over at Matt. His eyes were closed and his breathing regular. I sat in the chair by his bed and took the phone out of my pocket, thinking I would try to get to grips with it. The first thing I pressed caused a loud trilling. Matt stirred and opened his eyes.

‘Shit, sorry, mate, didn’t mean to wake you up.’

}Dark.

‘Happens at night.’

}Whas tihm?

‘About six thirty.’

}Bolluhks. Haht bluhdy slehping soh much.

‘No different from everyone else today. Me and Cal have been holding the fort since after lunch, everyone else crashed. Came in here for a bit of peace and quiet. So stop your bloody chatter.’

}Pihs off. How’s yuh phone?

‘I’m just trying it out. It’s different from my old one, trying to work out where everything is.’

}Hahv a lohk?

I handed it to him.

}Had ohn lihk this. Prehty easy. Hehr’s yuh contahts, yuh cahl or text from hehr. This foh intehnet. Sehtings foh Wi-Fi – uhs Jay’s while yuhr hehr, I’ll lohg yuh on. Thehr yuh goh. Easy.

He handed it back.

‘Well I know where to come for a quick tutorial. Thanks.’

}Hahv my uhses.

‘Everyone’s good at something.’

Carol appeared in the doorway.

#I think Beth’s put some tea on the table. Do either of you want anything?

}Noh Ihm stuhfed. Cup of teh tho?

#Right you are, dear. Declan?

‘Cup of tea sounds great. No food just yet, though, thanks. I’m stuffed too.’

Carol left to fill our order.

}Muhm’s wahmed up tuh yuh a bih.

‘Yeah, seems to have. I can understand why she was a bit off to start with, me walking in looking like a I’d lost a cage fight, having caused Jay and Beth no end of grief.’

}Yuh must hahv chahmed her.

‘I think several large glasses of wine helped, then we bonded over the dishwasher.’

}Bluhdy ahrslicker.

‘She’s alright, your mum.’

}I knoh. Juhs jeluhs couhnt hehp wash uhp.

‘Really?’

}Fuck noh. Only rehson Ihm in behd, tuh avoid the dishes.

‘Ha ha, seems to be working. Keep it up.’

Carol came back in with two mugs of tea, one in Matt’s spouted cup.

#Are you alright with this dear? Do you want me or Declan to help you?

}Yuh, Muhm. Sohry Dec, mahn poihts.

‘Understood. I’ll leave you to it.’

I stood up.

‘Oh, by the way, your mum’s the newest member of Cripple’s Corner. She’s up for the dirty songs and the swearing.’

Matt spluttered into his tea as I left the room.

The rest of the evening passed in a lazy, dozy haze. Cal, who had effectively been awake since three o’clock that morning, went to bed at seven with hardly any protest. I read him a really short story and Beth tucked him in, still wearing his Arsenal shirt, which he refused to take off. He apparently fell asleep while Beth was still talking to him.

The TV was on, taking away the need for conversation, and my mind drifted contentedly. Carol was still sitting in with Matt, Jay and Beth were cosied up on one sofa, I was stretched out on the other. The phone rang, shattering the peace. Jay had a brief conversation with Beth’s mum, then handed the phone over to Beth, mouthing ‘tell her’. Beth rolled her eyes and nodded, taking the phone into the kitchen.

Jay picked up the TV remote and managed to find a repeat of a rugby international on a sports channel. We watched it for a while, occasionally commenting on some aspect of the play, or a refereeing decision. Jay suddenly sat up and looked at me.

łI’ve just had a bloody brilliant idea.

‘OK.’

łAren’t Raiders at home on Sunday?

I thought about it, a bit surprised that Raiders had been so far from my mind. If these people were my family, then Raiders were my home, and I’d just recently been granted access back there too. Before my mind could go wandering down too many guilty paths, I answered Jay.

‘Yeah. Against Warriors.’

łWhy don’t we go? I can take you home – we could bring Cal, that’d give Beth a break, he’d love it. Three birds with one stone.

I hadn’t thought about going back. I had settled back into life with Jay and Beth so quickly that, for the moment, it hadn’t occurred to me it wasn’t going to last. I felt like someone had poured cold water on me.

‘Isn’t it a sell out?’

łI reckon I could swing some tickets. I’ll talk to Don, I need to ring him anyway. What do you think?

‘Yeah, great.’

He looked so excited by his plan that I joined in, even though I felt rather churned up about it.

łI’ll talk to Beth once she’s off the phone. I can get Matty up in the morning, she should be alright for a day, I can come back after so I’m not away overnight. I’ll ring Don first thing.

‘It’s Boxing Day.’

łIt’s the Friday before a Sunday game, they’ll be training. It’s only ex-players like me and injured nancies like you that get Boxing Day off.

‘Oh yeah.’

łAre you OK? You’re a bit quiet. Is it a bad idea?

‘No, it’s a great idea. I’d love to watch Raiders with you and Cal. Just hadn’t given going home much thought. Been in a bit of a bubble since I got here, and I think it just popped.’

łJesus, sorry, mate. Maybe it was a bit insensitive of me. We can leave it if you want. Stay a bit longer?

I thought about it, but in the end, whether I went back in a few days or a few weeks, it was going to feel the same.

‘No, it sounds good if you can swing it. I haven’t seen a home game for a long time. Should get back to Rose, I guess, or even go back to my flat.’

I wasn’t relishing that one, but it would have to happen eventually – I couldn’t impose on Rose for much longer, now I was getting fitter.

łOK, if you’re sure. You know you can stay as long as you like, come back whenever you like, don’t you?

‘Thanks.’

Jay settled back down to watch the game, a satisfied look on his face, although I could no longer concentrate on the TV now as thoughts from pre-Christmas crept in.

I wondered if I would see DivDav or Big at the game. Needed to think about how I would handle that. I had no idea if the police had approached either of them about my allegations. Fuck, fuck, fuck, all the complications I had managed to forget over the last forty-eight hours came crashing back and I started to feel really gloomy.

The game finished and Beth came back in to say she was going to bed.

łIs your Mum excited?

_You bet. I talked to both my sisters too. Rachel’s already planning what to knit. Lou wants to visit for New Year. I tried to put her off, don’t know if it worked.

łBugger. Oh well, can’t be helped. You’d like to see her, wouldn’t you.

_Course.

łI’ll manage then. If I get pissed enough she might not annoy me at all. I’ll be up after I’ve sorted Matty – me and Dec have had an idea about Sunday …

They waved goodnight, then I heard Beth go upstairs while Jay went in to Matt to check he was alright for the night. I stayed on the sofa, still feeling sorry for myself. The sports channel was now showing football, previewing the Boxing Day games. I turned the sound down and let it drift over me.

I tried to be positive. I’d had a great couple of days, and I was here for another two. Jay, Beth and Cal had welcomed me back into their family with open arms, permanently and unreservedly. Despite everything I’d done, the mess I’d made of everything over the last few months, I hadn’t lost them. It was more than I deserved. And yet, it wasn’t ever going to be the same as it had been. It was going to be visits and weekends, and once I was playing again, I would hardly see them during the season.

This seemed like another loss on top of everything. It welled up in me, starting somewhere below my ribs and then spreading up into my throat. I curled on the sofa and cried, trying to be as quiet as possible. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, but couldn’t stop the tears, giving myself over to a good dose of self-pity.