40. Somewhere I belong

In which tables are turned, and chairs turned over.

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Matt

A bit later, having been sitting in the living room for the second consecutive evening, although without the beer I’d been able to wheedle out of Jay the night before, I decided to go to bed before I got too tired to manage it on my own. Beth being pregnant, and Mum’s arthritis, meant that having any help getting into bed was not an option and for once I was sensible about how much I could manage.

Dec

The doctor prodded and poked me much as Lee had; my arm had stiffened a lot, and the bruises on my back and side were extremely tender to touch. He spent a lot of time poking them; I tried to ignore the pain and tenderness.

*Did you receive any blows to the head, or hit your head at all?

‘No. I hit my chin on the ground.’

*Yes, that’s a nasty graze, we’ll clean it up, but it’ll be fine. Same for these abrasions on your forearm. I think you’re going to be OK, no sign of internal bleeding, ribs intact. I think you’ve been very lucky. These types of injuries often rupture internal organs. But your shoulder is a different matter. I think there might be some soft tissue damage – a tear or something to muscle or ligament, maybe your glenohumerals. You’re going to need a scan on it. I can refer, or, am I right in thinking you play for Raiders?

He indicated my training kit.

‘Yes.’

*Well, they may have faster access to scans than I do. Talk to them, see your GP if you need to.

He asked a nurse to clean the grazes, and said I could go back to the waiting room once that had been done. Then I’d have to wait for an X-ray to see if there was any damage to the pins and plates in my arm. I sat with my eyes closed while a nurse dabbed antiseptic on my arm and chin, which really stung, and then started picking out tiny bits of grit which had embedded themselves in my skin.

I felt really peculiar; not ill, or sick, but not really there, very distant from everything. My phone had pinged a few times, announcing texts, but I couldn’t be bothered to look at them. The nurse finally finished with me, and I went back to wait with Jay and Nico.

‘You really don’t both need to be here. I’ve got to wait for an X-ray now.’

łAlright, which one of us would you like to fuck off then?

‘Your choice.’

łOK, Nico, I think I’m going to stay here with Dec. What about you?

>I stay with Declan also. We must fight for it?

łNah, I don’t think he means it. Besides, if you go I won’t have anyone to talk to apart from Mr Chatty here. Bad luck, Dec, neither of us are fucking off anytime soon. Take a seat.

He patted the chair next to him. I sat down, unable to raise a smile at their banter.

łSo what did they say?

‘Need an X-ray.’

łI heard you say. What about the other stuff? Bruises, bleeding, what?

‘It’s OK, nothing to worry about. They got some grit out of my chin and my arm. Now I’ve just got to wait to see if everything’s as fucked up as it feels. I’ve really done my shoulder. Fuck it, I can’t deal with this. If my shoulder is gone, that’s it, I’m fucking screwed.’

łWhat exactly did he say?

‘Something about getting a scan through Raiders. Might have torn my … some fucking long word. I know I have, I felt it go. Fuck, shoulders take fucking ages, it might not ever be right. And if my arm’s gone too, I might as well give up now. It’s just too fucking hard.’

łI think you should wait until you’ve had the X-ray and the scan, so you know, rather than getting upset now, when you don’t know for sure.

‘What the fuck do you know? This ever happen to you, did it?’

All my rage suddenly came boiling up, misdirected at Jay.

łNo, mate. Calm down a bit, and keep your voice down, there’s other people here.

‘Fuck you. I’m not fucking calm. My whole life just got ripped apart. I might never play again. It’s not fucking fair.’

I stood up and kicked the chair, sending it skittering into the wall. I looked around for something to throw or punch, kicked the chair again. The receptionist looked over, picked up the telephone. Jay stood up, held out a placating hand to her, and then grabbed my upper arms, holding on tightly, forcing me to look at him. I tried to shrug him off, but he gripped harder, hurting my arm but holding me steady.

łDec, I know you’re angry. This is the last thing you need, you’ve had a bastard of a day, you’re upset and in pain and scared and fuck knows what else. You’re right, this never happened to me, but I’ve had my fair share of injuries, wondering if this is the one that finishes it all, and I had to give up in the end because of my knee. So I understand a bit. Kicking the shit out of the furniture isn’t going to help, unless you want to get us all thrown out of here. You need to wait for the X-ray and the scans, and take it from there, one bit at a time. OK?

I looked at him. The fury had subsided slightly, but was still bubbling.

‘I guess.’

Jay let go of me, looked over at the receptionist, who had replaced the phone, and nodded.

łSit down.

He gestured to the dislodged chair. I moved it back and sat.

>I need coffee. I go to find some – Declan, you want? Jaime?

I shook my head.

łIf you can find anything decent.

Nico headed off in search of caffeine.

łDec, I’m more than a little worried about you at the moment.

‘I’m fine.’

łYou definitely are not fine. Your head is all over the place. You spend half the night in some kind of daze, and then you chuck all your toys out of the pram at once and start mouthing off and throwing your weight around. I know you’ve had a major trauma, but it’s not like you. Talk to me?

‘Don’t know if I can.’

łTry. Start with what all that was about just now. Tell me.

‘Just … so fucking angry.’

łI get that. Tell me.

‘It just seems like … I just get some of my shit together and something happens that fucks it all up again.’

łOK. Except it wasn’t just something happening, it was Luke Woods, twice, making a serious effort to fuck it all up. It’s not just random, the whole world isn’t against you, just one seriously fucking screwed up waste of space.

‘But he’s done it, he’s got what he wanted. If I can’t play again, he’s won.’

łDec, he’s probably going to prison for what he did to you, that’s not winning. I think you need to focus on this X-ray and then getting a scan on your shoulder. It might not be as bad as you think. These things often feel worse, especially when you’re worried about it. Try not to think about the what-ifs. It can drive you mad. And you’re already a bloody nutter.

‘Agh, it’s doing my head in. I just keep thinking about him forcing me to go with him, I couldn’t stop it, it makes me feel … ashamed.’

łThen try not to think about it. Luke Woods is an ex-conditioning coach. He has some serious muscle. He could have got the better of you on a good day, let alone when you’re already shaken up and have a broken arm. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Like Nico said, he’s the one in the wrong, not you. Jesus, Dec, if you keep thinking about it like that you’re just letting him beat you up over and over again.

‘That’s what it feels like. I can’t get it out of my head. I keep seeing it, feeling it.’

łYou need some distraction. Ah, Nico, just in time. What can we do to amuse Dec and take his mind off his woes?

>Ha! We can tell stories of great tries of Nico Tiago.

łSeriously, mate, trying to cheer him up, not make him sick. Is that for me?

>All I could find, cappuccino from machine. Declan, I know you see my tries today, which is best?

‘Don’t know.’

>You must choose! Jaime, you say, I am sure.

łBoth bloody lucky in my opinion. Jesus, Nico, this coffee is awful. I hope you didn’t pay for it.

They bantered back and forth, it was fairly entertaining, but I still felt in a dark, cold, far away place inside. Eventually I was called for my X-ray. Jay insisted on coming with me, and for the chat afterwards with the doctor.

łYour head’s not on straight, I want to make sure someone remembers what they tell you.

The pictures showed my arm had suffered no further damage, although it felt to me like it had been squeezed in a vice and stamped on by elephants. The doctor said it had been put under severe pressure, but the pins, plates and more importantly bones had held firm. The residual pain and swelling was more to do with the damage to my shoulder.

łSo that’s good news, isn’t it.

I nodded. I had really expected the worst, more operations, irreparable injuries to the already broken arm. How much more would Raiders be prepared to invest in someone who was so damaged before they had even proven themselves? Or reached their twentieth birthday? It remained to be seen what would happen to my shoulder, and those questions could still be asked.

Jay took me back to Rose’s flat. It was getting late by now, but she was still up, seemingly waiting by her door, which she opened as soon as she heard us come in.

:Oh love, come here.

She folded me up in one of her enormous hugs, but I had no response for her.

‘I’m going to bed.’

She looked at me, then at Jay.

łDec, Rose has been worried sick about you, you wouldn’t let her come and see you, you could at least give her the time of day.

‘I just need to go to bed.’

:Alright, love, you know where I am.

I left my bedroom door open while I got undressed, and could hear them talking in the living room. Then I sat on the bed, in the dark, as their words drifted over me.

ł… really worried about his state of mind. There were a lot of tears back home, everything seemed to set him off. He’s been really strange tonight, first hardly speaking, then shouting and kicking stuff. He’s had nightmares every night he was with us, and two panic attacks today. He’s not himself. We saw some of the old Dec back home, it was really great to see him and Cal getting on like they always did, almost like nothing had happened, but he was … he just seems … quieter. More serious.

:Well I have seen him like this, uncommunicative, down, and I’ve often heard him crying, his flat is right above mine, I can hear everything. Oh love, you can’t expect him to just go right back to how he used to be with you. He’s happy to have you back, but he’s been so sad, he’s had so much to cope with, and tried to do it all on his own. He kind of goes into himself. You just have to stay with him, let him know you’re there, give him something to hold on to.

łFunny that, he gave me exactly the same advice when my brother was having a hard time. Jesus, Rose, this head stuff is all a bit beyond me. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to help him.

:He doesn’t need you to be qualified, love, just to be there. He’s been so lonely, had to fend for himself for so long, he feels more comfortable on his own. But it’s no way to be when you’re hurting, so we have to give him what he won’t ask for, even when he pushes us away.

łYeah, I kind of get that. It’s all this other stuff, these mood swings, nightmares, panic attacks, it’s pretty heavy duty.

:I don’t think you need to worry about it. Doesn’t his boss have some psychologist sorted out?

łYeah – whether it does any good or not …

:He’s the one who’s qualified. We just have to do our best with what we’re good at. Show him we love him and he’s not alone.

łI’m not really much good at the touchy feely stuff.

:You managed to sort things out between you over the last few days, though, didn’t you? Sounds like you did that fairly well, love.

łYeah, we did sort things. I did more serious talking than I’ve ever done in my life. I’m usually the first to arse about, avoid the issue, but there was stuff I needed to sort out in my head, things I needed to understand. We got there in the end, but I realised how messed up he’s been over the past few months, and why. I ended up making a big speech after Christmas dinner – I was a bit pissed, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

:What did you say, love?

łOh, how Dec’s part of my family, forever, whatever, all that.

:Oh, love, that sounds grand, just what he’s needed. He’s so missed his family, it’s so sad what happened to him, losing his parents when he was so young, then when he thought he’d lost you too, well that was really hard for him to deal with. Parents are what he’s needed.

łHm, not sure I feel like his parent … well, maybe when he first arrived, we had to be a bit firm with him. I’m not actually sure what I feel like. Kind of, like – yeah, a responsibility, but he’s also really good to have around, like a mate. Jesus, when I saw him lying on the ground out there today, I didn’t think he was breathing, he looked … I thought … oh Jesus … I’m sorry.

:Here you go love, don’t worry, I’ve had a little weep too, before you got here. It must have been terrible for you, finding him like that.

łIt felt like … almost as bad as when we woke up and Cal was gone, or when Mum called me about Matty. Same lurch in my gut, I just thought the worst.

:But he’s alright, love, he’s safe, maybe a bit more knocked about and none too happy at the moment, but he’s still here. He’s got you and your family, and he’s got me – he’ll get there. As long as he knows he’s got us, it doesn’t matter how it all works.

łIt is all a bit bloody complicated, when you think about it. I suppose I haven’t thought too much about exactly where he fits with us or we fit with him. I just know he fits.

:And he knows that?

łYeah. Well, he should do, I told him enough times the last few days.

:Then I think, love, you’ve already helped him more than any psychologist. For a long time, he really thought the things he’d done meant he was never going to see you again. He was very hurt, and very sad and ashamed, and very mixed up. He thought he’d done it all to himself, like he deserved it somehow. Making things right with you is very important to him, but it’s going to take time to sort through it all in his mind. He’s not going to be his old self overnight, he needs you to be patient with him.

łJesus, Rose, he just … if he’d only … Beth and I, we’re worried we made things worse for him. If we’d realised what a state he was in, how much he’d let go, what he’d lost, what he was going through, we would never … well, I don’t know. I was bloody angry … I hope that if we’d known, we might have done things a bit differently.

:From what I’ve seen, Declan’s pretty good at hiding when he needs help and making sure you don’t get close enough to find out. You’re not to blame, but neither is he. It’s all been one long, horrible mixed up time for you all, but it sounds like you’ve all made a start at putting things right. That’s the important thing.

łDo you think he’ll be OK?

:Yes, love, I think things are getting better for him –

Jay’s phone rang.

Matt

As I got into bed, I picked up my phone to call Jay. I wasn’t sure if he was still at the hospital, and just wanted to check how things were going. The atmosphere here had been subdued as Beth worried and Mum tried unsuccessfully to take her mind off it; neither of them seemed to have the energy to fuss over me as Beth wheeled me back to my room and said goodnight. As she closed the door, I dialled.

‘Hey mate, you OK? Thought you’d be asleep by now.’

‘Jus puh mysehf tuh behd, doin yuh ouh of a johb. Is Dec ohkay?’

‘Yeah, just brought him back, he’s gone to bed.’

‘Hoh is heh?’

‘Not great, a bit all over the place, taken it all a bit badly, not talking to anyone.’

‘Sohnds lihk heh nehds a kick up the ahrs. Cahn I cahl hihm?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Mehbe I shohd try the ‘not lehving yuh alohn wehn yuhr fehling this shih’ technihque on hihm.’

‘Not sure, worth a try, worked for you didn’t it.’

‘Gihv ih a goh. Try ih now.’

‘OK Matty, see you tomorrow.’

I pressed Dec’s name. No reply. Can’t say I was surprised. But he wasn’t getting away that lightly; he’d set the bar pretty high the night before last, and he only had himself to blame. I sent a text.

‘Just 2 remind u. Family. Connected. I’m a stubborner fucking bastard than u. Will call & txt u all night. Turn off phone, I’ll still do it. Talk 2 me. Matt.’

Dec

I put the phone on the bedside table. I doubted he would last all night, he’d be asleep before long. I glanced at the list of messages and missed calls from earlier. Lacked the energy to open most of them, but replied to Amy.

Me: =Tired n sore, going 2 bed. Spk soon. Dec

My phone pinged again.

Matt:=Here’s the first of many. Tell me how u doing. M

I ignored it. Another ping.

Amy: =Poor u. Hope u feel better soon. Amy xx

In the living room, Jay and Rose continued dissecting my life. I got under the duvet, leaving the door open, their words muffled by the bedclothes. I drifted in and out of sleep, unable to completely relax. My phone continued to ring, and ping with texts. I thought of Matt sitting up in bed, calling me when he should be sleeping, and I reached for the phone and turned it off. The silence made me feel more guilty than the ringtones.

Matt

I bombarded him with texts and calls, but then felt myself getting tired. Bugger, I was never going to win this if I fell asleep like a fucking cripple this early in the contest. So I set the alarm on my phone to screech at me every ten minutes. I may well doze off, but I could just damn well wake up again and send a text, or try ringing again. He might turn his phone off, that’s what I would do, but he’d have to turn it back on again sometime, and when he did, there would be a zillion messages from me, which would tell him something; hopefully something more than ‘you have a zillion messages from Matt’.

It’s not really that I wanted to win some kind of contest, although a competition does tend to focus the mind. I was imagining what was going on for Dec, how traumatic it must have been. Beth had given me more details, and it sounded like he’d been forced out into the car park with his broken arm twisted up behind his back, before being kicked while he was on the ground. Jay and Nico had interrupted the kicking, but Jay had thought Dec was dead when he got to him. I knew a bit about being almost dead. And now I knew a bit about having someone to hold on to when you tried to shut yourself away. So the least I could do was stay awake, just in case he answered, and it gave me something else to focus on apart from impotent rage.

Dec

I turned on to my side and pulled the duvet over my head. Felt rather than heard someone in my room. A hand on my shoulder, gentle, aware of the pain.

łDec.

I didn’t move or acknowledge Jay.

łI know you’re awake, you can’t have slept through all that racket from your phone. I’m going now, try to catch some sleep at Nico’s. We’re setting off early tomorrow, won’t see you again for a bit. I know you’re feeling sorry for yourself, be strong, stay positive, eh, mate?

I didn’t reply.

łOK. Take care of yourself. Call us soon.

He left the room, leaving the door open. A short time later, Rose came in.

:Anything you need, love?

No reply from me. A sigh from Rose.

:Well, you know where I am.

She left, shutting the door behind her, leaving the room in complete darkness. I felt the familiar misery welling up in me, and gave in to it, trying to cry without making any noise. It hurt my chest, and the tears ran down my nose, soaking my pillow. I’d thought I was past all this, the dark sadness bearing down on me. Getting Jay, Beth and Cal back, and keeping my job, had been major positives. This was about old losses and feeling scared, demoralised and powerless. I tried to cling on to the thread of family that had been given back to me, and was surprised to find that although it was tenuous, it was there, and it comforted me a little bit.

Matt

I don’t know how many times I’d done it, hauled myself out of sleep, sent a text, drifted away again. I lost count. It just felt like a rhythm I’d got into. Then I heard the phone trill, and I opened my eyes to send another text, but it wasn’t the alarm that had sounded, it was the text alert. He’d replied.

Dec

Thought again about Matt, wondered if he’d given up and gone to sleep yet. Turned my phone back on. Alerts from all the missed calls and texts arrived, the last one only five minutes ago. Somehow, Matt wasn’t asleep. I sent a text.

Me: =Stop it now. Made your point. Go to sleep.

Matt:=No.

Matt

He’d done it now, he’d replied, he’d broken the cycle. I was in. I called him. It went to voicemail. I sent another text.

‘Cripples Corner says fuck you. When we need help we’ll fucking ask for it. Unless we’re Declan Summers.’

‘Matt, please stop.’

‘No.’

Dec

I was getting a dose of my own medicine. It was irritating beyond belief, but I couldn’t deny that the thought of someone putting themselves out for me, not being prepared to leave me alone, was starting to work. It needed to stop, though. Matt needed it to stop. Dialled the number.

Matt

He was getting a dose of his own medicine, and I had to admit I was enjoying turning the tables. Then, my reward, as my phone rang.

‘Heh, Dec. Rohnd two to meh.’

Oh, yeah, I know I said it wasn’t a competition, but it so was.

‘Matt, please stop. It’s late.’

Yeah, I knew how late it was – too late for you, mate.

‘Thoht you’d have turned yuh phone off by now.’

‘I did. It doesn’t help. Please go to sleep.’

‘Noh.’

‘Please.’

‘Noh.’

I couldn’t stop myself smiling; I was having a great time. Not revelling in Dec’s distress, but now he was talking to me, now he was going to be OK, I was relishing the sweet taste of just desserts.

Dec

I could hear the grin in his voice; he was enjoying this.

‘You fucking bastard, I can’t believe you’re doing this.’

}Talk to meh then.

‘What about?’

}Whaever ih is tha’s making yuh fehl bad.

Matt

Just two nights ago, he hadn’t been able to stop me rambling on about my shit. His turn to share.

‘I can’t do this now.’

‘OK, yuhr choice. Member wha yuh said bout pushing pehpl away thogh. One day they wohn cohm back. Buh noh tonigh. Tonigh, I fehl an allnigher cohming on. Ihv had a greht day, fehl top of the world. Can outlast yuh no sweat.’

And I could. Provided my alarm kept going off.

Dec

‘Just fuck off, Matt.’

He laughed.

}This ihs poetic juhstice. Yohr saying everything I said. Difference is, weh both know Ihm right. Don’t rehly have tuh goh through ih all do weh?

I was silent.

}Noh gonna wohk. Spihl. I knoh yuh had another kicking. I knoh yuh hurt yuhr arm again. I ‘spect yuhr angry and scahed, I fucking would beh.

Matt

And that did it, broke the dam, a flash-flood of words tumbling over me as I tried to swim along and keep up.

‘I just fucking let him do it, alright? He just came along and grabbed me and I had no choice, I just went with him because he was fucking hurting me. I didn’t fight him, or shout, or do anything to stop him, I just fucking let him do it all again. If it hadn’t been for Jay and Nico, I was this close to another boot in the face. I think he was going to finish it this time. Shit, Matt, I’m just completely fucking useless.’

I paused briefly to make sure I’d got it all.

‘Well I guess I ahsked for tha. Hohly fuck, Dec. Where dohs all this shit of yuhrs come from? How dohs ohn fucking psycho bahstrd giving yuh a kicking become yuh being useless?’

‘I couldn’t stop him.’

So this was all mixed up with being hurt, with needing to seem tough, with being embarrassed about feeling weak. With hating being scared. I was going to need to persuade him that it wasn’t his fault.

‘Ih’m not suhprised. He’s a fucking psycho bahstrd. They’re usually faihly determined. Yuh were already frehked ouh, he fucking bent yuhr fucking broken arm, the fucking bahstrd. Yuhr the only ohn who blames yuh. Why do yuh think yuh have to do everything yuhself?’

‘Don’t know. Always have. Feels like failing to ask for help.’

‘Yuhr a bluhdy mad fucker aren’t yuh?’

Possibly a madder fucker than me, and that was saying something.

‘So I’m told.’

‘Sort ih ouh.’

‘OK.’

He’d given in much more easily than I had. Lightweight.

‘OK. Yuh can go now. I’ll stop stalking yuh.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Call me if yuh need anything.’

He was as likely to call me in times of need as I was to call him, but you have to offer, don’t you.

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Worth a shoht.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Wehcome. Bluhdy nutter.’

‘Fucking cripple.’

Dec

It had helped. Just saying it, letting out everything I’d been holding inside, felt better. I lay down again, and pulled the duvet over my head. Slept straight away. No dreams, no faceless men in brown boots, just deep, dark sleep.

Matt

And that’s how it started, the ‘not leaving you alone when you’re feeling this shit’ business. To be honest, Dec did it to me more than I did it to him, because he started seeing a psychologist soon after that, and he learned more healthy ways of dealing with the mountains of crud clogging up his brain, although there were occasions not long after that Christmas when I was more perceptive than usual, and consequently was on the receiving end of some of the Summers bloody nutterness, as well as on the dishing out end of a listening ear and late night texting sessions.

Cal

I woke up when it was still dark. Dad had said my name and ruffled my hair and shaken my shoulder, and all of those things had gradually woken me up, until I opened my eyes to see him sitting on the edge of my bed, the light from the hallway shining into the room.

‘Hey mate, sorry it’s early, but we need to go home. Come on, get dressed and come downstairs for some breakfast, and then we’ll go.’

He put my trousers and sweatshirt on top of the bed, and my shoes on the floor. I didn’t move straight away, it felt like it was still night, and I couldn’t quite remember where I was.

‘Come on Cal. We’ve got to go back so I can help Uncle Matty get up.’

Oh, I was in Nico’s house. Then it all flooded back. We were here because Dec had been hurt by a bad man, and Dad had to be with him in the hospital.

‘Where’s Dec?’

‘He’s at Rose’s. He didn’t stay in the hospital.’

‘Did he have sewing?’

‘No, he didn’t need any. He’s OK – well, his arm’s a bit hurt, but it’s not like last time.’

‘Is he like a Frankystein?’

‘No mate, he’s fine. Come on, we need to get moving. You can talk to Dec on the phone later.’

It hit me, then, that I might not see Dec for a long time. His birthday was in a few weeks, which was ages, and I wasn’t ready to just go home. If Dec hadn’t been hurt by the bad man, I would have been able to say goodbye and check about our birthday plans.

‘Daddy, I think we need to go and see Dec, so he knows we are going home.’

‘No, Cal, it’s too early. Dec was pretty grumpy last night, and you know what he’s like with early mornings. He’ll just go ‘mmpf’ and roll over.’

I didn’t want to just go home, without seeing Dec for myself, to see if he had any more cuts or bruises. Maybe if I said the right things, he wouldn’t be grumpy. Maybe if I said the right things to Dad, he’d let us go and see him.

‘But Daddy, I didn’t say thank you to Dec for saying to Santa about Optimus Prime. And we should say goodbye.’

Mum was always saying it was important to say thank you, and to be polite. Dad sighed. He must have been thinking about what Mum would say too.

‘I’ll tell you what. We’ll go over there, see if Rose answers the door, and see if we can wake him up. We can’t stay, though, just tell him we’re going home and hope he’s feeling better soon. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

‘Right, get dressed, eat breakfast. That’s the list. Probably the shortest one ever. Got it?’

‘Yes. Get dressed, eat breakfast.’

I grinned at Dad and he handed me my clothes.

We hadn’t said goodbye to Nico and Lis, because they were still asleep, but Dad said we could talk to them on the phone later. As Dad drove through the dark, empty streets, I nearly fell asleep, but woke up when Dad parked the car and banged his door. He came round to my door, opened it and took the seat-belt off.

‘Are you sure Cal? It’s dark and cold, and Rose and Dec will still be asleep, and they won’t be too pleased to see us right now.’

‘I want to see Dec.’

‘Alright then. Hop out, mate.’

We walked to the front door and Dad pressed the button. We waited a long time, and I wanted Dad to press the button again, but he didn’t, and it was so long, I thought Rose or Dec might not answer it. Just as I thought Dad was going to go, the box with the buttons on it crackled with a voice.

‘Yes?’

‘Rose, I’m so sorry, it’s Jay and Cal. We wondered if we could come in and say goodbye to Dec.’

‘Oh, of course, love.’

Rose’s voice sounded funny coming out of the box. The door made a buzzing sound, and Dad pushed it open. We walked over to Rose’s door, and waited for her to open it.

‘Hello you two.’

‘Hi Rose. Sorry about this. Cal didn’t get to say goodbye, and we’re just heading off back for Matty.’

‘That’s OK, love, it’s nearly time to get up anyway.’

‘Ha ha, Rose, you’re priceless. It’s hours away from time to get up. Did you talk to him last night?’

‘No, he didn’t say a word to me. I heard him talking to someone, though, later on, on his phone.’

‘Oh well, he doesn’t have to say anything, just listen to us saying goodbye. Alright if we go in?’

Rose nodded, and Dad opened a door off the hallway. The room was dark, but the light went into the room from the door and shone on the bed. The top of Dec’s head was poking out of the duvet, and I went over to the bed and stood by what I could see of him, which was mainly hair.

Dec

\dec.

I pulled the duvet further over my head.

\dec, wake up.

A small hand tried to shake me.

Cal

I reached out and shook him, like Dad had done to me earlier. Dec seemed awake, or almost awake, because he’d moved. He just needed a bit of help, and he’d be properly awake.

Gently, Cal, Dec’s hurt his shoulder.’

‘But Daddy, he’s not waking up.’

Dad took over, using his ‘no arguing’ voice.

Dec.’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s arm, and Dec’s face peeked out of the duvet. His eyes were a bit open and he was awake. Dec rubbed a hand over his face and he made a groaning noise.

Dec

A firmer hand on my arm. My brain started to work. I opened my eyes. The door was open and the room was lit by the hall light. Cal was standing by the bed, Jay beside him. It was still dark outside. I rubbed my face, as all the pain from Luke’s brown boots woke up with me. Groaned. Sat up, slowly and sorely, and put the lamp on.

‘Hey Cal, what are you doing here?’

\me and Daddy are going home.

‘What time is it?’

łEarly. Don’t worry, you can go back to sleep after we’ve gone. Cal wanted to say goodbye. Well, we both did. Rose kindly answered her door at this ridiculous time of the morning.

\dec, when are you coming to play with me again?

Cal

I knew the answer to this, because we’d agreed yesterday, and made our plan.

‘I don’t know, Cal, soon I hope. Maybe for my birthday? We’ve had a good time this Christmas, haven’t we.’

‘Yes. Have you had more sewing?’

I think Cal may have had an ulterior motive for wanting to see you. He didn’t want to miss any new gore.’

Dec laughed. ‘No, Cal, no new sewing. Just a few extra bruises and a hurt shoulder. I hurt my chin too, look.’

Dec tipped his head back to show me a big patch of red, broken skin underneath his chin. It wasn’t quite as cool as sewing and lines, but it looked like it would hurt a lot.

‘Awesome.’

You seem chirpier this morning.’

‘Matt did some reverse psychology. He’s almost as stubbornly annoying as me.’

‘Ha ha, yep, that’s Matty alright. He told me he was going to give it a go. Glad it made a difference. How’s the shoulder?’

‘Still fu … very painful.’

Dec had nearly done a swear, but he hadn’t done it at the last minute. I was disappointed, because Dec could usually be relied on to do swears without even thinking about it.

Nice catch, mate, Beth will be proud. Get it checked out later, yeah? OK, Cal, we’d better get going so we can be home soon. Say goodbye to Dec.’

‘Bye, Dec.’

‘Bye Cal.’

Dec reached over and ruffled my hair.

‘See you soon.’

See you soon, mate, you’ll ring us won’t you?’

‘Yeah. Thanks for everything. I mean … everything.’

Just … don’t forget about us.’

Daddy and Dec shook hands, because I suppose it is difficult to cuddle someone who is in bed and who has a hurt shoulder.

‘Not likely. Piss off before you set me off again.’

Dad laughed and I smiled, because Dec had done a swear after all. Rose closed the door after us, and we drove back.

Dec

Jay laughed and walked out with Cal, shutting the door behind him. For the first time, I thought ‘my family‘, and I smiled to myself. I turned the light off and settled myself slowly back down under the duvet for a few more hours of sleep. Rose had other ideas. A knock on the door.

:Here, love, now you’re awake I brought you some tea.

I groaned inwardly, but sat back up, trying to ignore the protests from my bruises and scrapes. I had been unforgivably rude to Rose last night, and needed to apologise.

‘Morning, Rose. I missed your tea.’

:Did you, love?

‘Yeah. I missed you as well, nobody bossing me about or organising me, don’t know how I managed.’

:I’m sure you did just fine.

‘Sorry I went to bed when I got in yesterday, it was rude, I was being a twat.’

:It was understandable, love. You had a bit of a day of it by all accounts. How are you feeling now?

‘Well my shoulder is pretty bad. I need to go to the club and get them to look at it –’

:But in yourself, how are you? Jay was here for a long time last night talking about you.

‘I know, I heard you.’

:Sorry, love, I know that annoys you, but he needed to talk. He’s worried about how you’re coping with all this. He feels very far away. He said you cried a lot?

‘Yeah, well, I suppose I did. I felt – feel – really emotional. Everything seemed so normal, and that was huge for a start, that it wasn’t awkward at all. Then they’d say how glad they were to have me there or something and I’d realise how close I’d been to losing them and I’d just cry.

:And this latest upset, and getting angry at the hospital, then barely speaking when you got back yesterday?

‘I’m a bit better now. Yesterday just all got a bit much. I had a talk with Matt, Jay’s brother, yesterday …’

I told her about our conversation, and how I’d done a similar thing to him a few days before. Rose laughed.

:Sounds like you’re both as bad as each other. Or as good, not sure which. I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better. Don’t stop talking to us, love, whichever one of us is around.

‘I’ll try.’

:That’s all you can do. Are you getting up, or having a lie-in?

I lowered myself back onto the pillow.

‘Lie-in. Then I’ll call Don and sort out a scan for my shoulder. Thanks, Rose.’

I disappeared gratefully under the duvet again, resurfacing a few hours later.

Feeling in a much more positive mood, if still battered and the worse for wear, I caught the bus to the ground and saw Lee, who looked at my shoulder and referred me for a scan the next day. I caught up with the strength and conditioning guys, just to update them. It was another week before I was expected back anyway, so the scan would just help them re-jig my rehab to fit in with the extra shoulder damage. I felt a lot more optimistic than yesterday, but when I really thought about it, I’d pushed a lot of it down deep, where I pushed everything I couldn’t deal with right away. Maybe this wasn’t the best way to deal with my shit – perhaps the psychologist Don had sorted out would be a good thing.

However I came to terms with what had happened yesterday, for now I concluded it had been an extremely stressful day, and I needed to chill a bit today. I had a family, people who weren’t prepared to let me get on with things by myself, who wanted me to be part of their lives. But before I could get on with chilling, I had several calls to make.

‘Hi Amy.’

)Dec! How are you?

‘A bit battered. Bloody sore. Sorry I didn’t get back to you yesterday.’

)Oh, don’t be silly. I completely understand. It was late by the time you got home.

‘Yeah, and I was pretty wiped. Anyway, things feel better now, so just thought I’d say hi. It was good to see you yesterday.’

)Yeah, you too, great game.

‘Yeah, it was fucking amazing to be there again.’

)Hey, a bunch of us are going out later, just for a pizza. Do you fancy coming?

‘Er … who’s going?’

)Oh, usual crowd, um except Big, obviously. Or David. But everyone else.

‘I don’t know, Amy, it’s been a while. Don’t want to spoil everyone’s evening.’

)It’s only pizza! Oh, go on – you’ve got to start somewhere.

I was undecided for a few moments, then thought why the hell not?

‘Alright, you’re on. I’ll come.’

)Great!

She gave me the time and place, and I moved on to the next call. DI Johnson.

‘It’s Declan Summers’

ϙHello. Thank you for calling. How are you?

‘Sore. Thanks for asking.’

ϙWhat can I do for you?

‘I just thought I should stay in touch after yesterday. Is there any news?’

ϙWell, Ben Hearne and Luke Woods have been formally charged with grievous bodily harm and criminal damage. Luke Woods has two counts of GBH following yesterday’s assault. His DNA was also found in your flat, we’ve managed to positively identify his boot-print from the pictures your doctor took, and it turns out the anonymous texts we were looking into originated from his mobile phone. It’s likely, if they are found guilty, they face a prison sentence.

I was silent, absorbing it. Didn’t give a shit about Luke, but Big going to jail was overwhelming.

ϙDeclan?

‘Yeah, I’m here, sorry. Er, yesterday at the ground, there was another man, in the van, he got out and spoke to Luke Woods. He … did anyone see him?’

ϙWe weren’t aware of another man. Was he involved in the assault?

‘No, well, not directly, but he knew Luke Woods, and seemed to know me. He seemed to be trying to get Luke to stop.’

ϙDid you recognise him?

‘Well, I think so, he seemed familiar, but I can’t place him. Sorry, I know it’s not much information. I just wondered if anyone noticed him or – fuck! I know who he is.’

I had a sudden image of him, not from yesterday, but standing on Jay’s doorstep.

‘I don’t know his name or anything, but I know where I’ve seen him before.’

I immediately regretted saying anything, because I was more than aware that Raiders hadn’t gone to the police about my theft of the charity money.

ϙGo on.

‘He came to the house once, where I used to live, he – I don’t know how much you know about everything, it’s complicated. I crashed my car, someone died.’

ϙWe are aware of the incident.

‘This guy came round, pretended to be the man’s son, threatened me. Shit – this means it’s all connected.’

ϙWhen you say threatened, what exactly do you mean?

‘He just … got angry, asked for money, said he’d tell the club about my passport and stuff if I didn’t pay him.’

ϙDid you pay him?

‘Yes.’

ϙHow much?

I was silent for a while, considering.

‘A lot.’

It was DI Johnson’s turn to be silent – maybe he was writing down what I’d said, maybe he was wondering how much more information was waiting to be revealed. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know the whole story.

ϙI think we need to talk properly, Declan. Can you come in to the station?

‘Maybe later, there are some things I need to do first.’

I hung up and called Don to tell him what else might be about to hit the fan. I told him about my conversation with DI Johnson. Don sighed.

-You don’t make things easy, son. No, that’s not fair, I guess it’s not your fault. We just need to make sure this doesn’t get more complicated. I think I’ll have a chat with our lawyers and get them to ring you. Don’t go to the police before you’ve talked to them.

I hung up and texted Matt:

Me: =Hope Cripples Corner not missing its resident nutter.

Matt:=Much less crazy. Nobody doing bad swears except me. Might have 2 teach Cal.

Me: =Beware the wrath of Beth if u do.

Matt:=I can handle Beth. Just 2 keep me going: bloody shitty fucknogglets you arsebasket ;P

Call to Beth:

_Hi Dec, how are you, sweetheart?

‘Not too bad. Aching a bit. Got to have a scan on my shoulder tomorrow, see exactly what I’ve done to it.’

_I hope that goes alright, sweetheart. James says your arm is OK though, the pins and plates held OK?

‘Yeah, no more damage. Did they get back alright?’

_Yes, they set off so early, and you know how fast James drives anyway. They were here before Matty woke up – actually he was asleep for ages, I hear you had a late night conversation with him.

‘Yeah, we were trading stubborn points.’

_That must have been some contest.

‘Pretty spectacular. Is he OK?’

_Yes, he’s managed to sleep it off. I think he would have kept going all night. He set his alarm to go off every ten minutes so he could keep texting you.

‘Bloody hell, that is dedicated. I think he might even be worse than me. Don’t tell him, he might think he’s won.’

_Is there anything you boys won’t turn into a competition?

‘Probably not.’

She sighed.

_Do you want to talk to James?

‘Yeah, quick word.’

She went to find him. In the silence, I imagined their house, tried to feel part of it all. Nearly managed it.

łHey, mate, you alright?

‘Yeah, good, just been to see the docs, arranged a scan for tomorrow.’

łGood, I’m glad you can get cracking on that. How’ve you been today? Any more dreams last night?

‘No, I slept through. Until you woke me up at the crack of hours before dawn, that is.’

łBlame Cal, he was determined to say goodbye. I think he wanted you to swear, and have lots of stitches. You’re a big disappointment.

‘Story of my life. I’ve got to go to the police in a bit.’

I outlined the most recent part of the Declan Summers saga.

łJesus, Dec, you really are always in the thick of things. Good luck, mate. If you need someone to go with you, make sure you ask. Nico’ll be up for it, I’m sure.

‘I’ll be OK, Don’s got some lawyers on it, don’t think he wants more scandal if he can avoid it. Jay … I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused. I heard you and Rose talking last night, I’m just … my head’s all over the place and I get a bit up myself.’

łAh, mate, don’t worry about it. Rose, she’s amazing. She could set up her own advice line. OK, I guess I need to say this again. I can take any shit you dish out. Family, yeah? We might have words about it, we definitely won’t always agree, and if I think you’re being a prick I’ll let you know, but I’m here. We’re all here. You’ve even got Matty looking out for you. Now bugger off, you bloody head case.

‘Thanks.’

łYeah. Cheers, Dec, talk to you soon.

One last phone call, to Nico:

>Declan! Good to hear from you my friend. How life treats you today?

‘OK, thanks. Nico, I just wanted to say thanks for helping me out yesterday. Without you and Jay, things would have been a lot worse. Sorry I was a bit of a dick at the hospital.’

>Ha, yes you are, but we understand. You are hurt, you are sad, you are angry. Is OK. Lis say when you come over? Tonight?

‘I can’t tonight, I’m out, sorry.’

>Tomorrow then, I tell her.

‘OK, that would be great.’

>We miss hearing about Christmas with Jaime, we want details, yes?

‘I’ll probably send you to sleep, then, but OK. Thanks, Nico, see you tomorrow.’

One last text, to Rose:

Me: =Back later, out for tea. UR GR8. Dec.

Rose:=whats ur greight

Me: =It means you’re great.

Cal

So that is it, the story of that Christmas, when things were mended, and in a way better than mended, although it took me a long time to be able to see it like that, because I was six, and I just wanted things to be back the way they were.

39. Welcome to my nightmare

In which we experience a certain amount of deja vu.

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

|What’s this, Luke?

+This …

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

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

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

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

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

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

|What did you bring him out here for?

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

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

|Luke, what are you doing?

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

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

+Was it the beating?

More kicks to my back, pain bloomed and spots danced before my eyes.

+Did we not kick you fucking hard enough?

|Luke …

The other man seemed to be protesting, but not very loudly. I tried to look at him, to get him to help, but I lay powerless on the floor as Luke walked round me, aiming kicks with each step which crunched into my legs. I watched as his feet moved round to where I lay, my left arm trying to protect my head. Too much of me was exposed, I didn’t stand a chance. I looked on in horror as he came level with my face and drew his brown-booted foot back. This wasn’t a dream or a memory. It was happening again. I closed my eyes and whimpered. Heard a shout. Waited for the pain and longed for the darkness.

Cal

‘Shit. He would have seen Dec sitting there. I bet he’s done something, taken him somewhere or something.’

Lis frowned. ‘Really, Jay? Dec is pretty strong. You’d have to be fairly determined to get him to go somewhere he didn’t want to without a fuss.’

‘You didn’t see him, Lis. He was white as a sheet, he couldn’t stand up, he wasn’t thinking straight. And if he’d yelled, would anyone have heard him? It’s pretty loud in here.’

Jaime, you think this Luke take Declan somewhere?’

Dad nodded. ‘My guess is outside. I think we need to have a look.’

‘I’m going to call the police.’

Dad looked at Lis, and I thought he was going to tell her not to, but she spoke before he could say it.

‘If this bloke’s got Dec, he could be in for another kicking. It nearly ended badly for him last time, didn’t it. If we’re wrong, well, we get a telling off for wasting their time, but if we’re right, they need to be here, yeah?’

Dad nodded, and I stayed very quiet. I could hardly believe this was all going on around me, and they had forgotten I was there, so they hadn’t sent me somewhere else.

Lis picked her phone up and pressed numbers, holding it to her ear. As she started to talk, Dad and Nico ran out of the room, Nico pressing on his phone too.

I had never been with anyone while they called the police before. I’d been with Mum when she called the ambulance for Dec, before we knew it was Dec, but the police was different, it felt like it should be more exciting, although Lis used nearly the same words to start with.

‘Police … Raiders Stadium … Lisa Tiago … I think someone’s going to get beaten up … No, but I really think you need to get someone up here fast, and if you make me explain it all before you do, it could go very badly … OK … Someone’s on the way now? … OK then … Well, it’s Declan Summers, he was attacked a few weeks ago, here, and the person who did it, well we think he’s got him again … no, not for sure, but …’

Lis tried to explain to the police person, but it was taking a long time. While she was still talking, I heard the sound of sirens. One of the windows looked out onto the car park, and I got up and walked over. Lis came with me, still talking on the phone.

It was dark outside, but the car park was lit with bright lights. There were lots of cars, and I saw a police car with its lights flashing near the entrance to the car park. As I watched, I saw some people running, but I couldn’t see what happened, because they went behind some cars. More police cars came then, and people started to stand and watch whatever it was that was happening. It was very frustrating to be up here watching and not down there, really seeing.

Quite a few other people were looking out of the window, too, and some of them were asking Lis what was going on.

‘Hopefully the police are making an arrest.’

That was all she would say, and she looked at her phone and pressed it a lot so that people wouldn’t talk to her.

After a while, nobody was looking out of the window any more, because there wasn’t anything to see, and Lis and I sat down at the table again. We were nearly the only people left, and I think everyone else had gone outside to see for themselves. I wished we could go outside to see as well. I wanted to know where Dad and Nico and Dec were, and if the police had anything to do with them, and I was still hoping there might be robots attacking with guns.

Lis kept looking at her phone, like she wanted it to ring, and then she’d look at me and smile, but as soon as she stopped looking at me, she stopped smiling. Then her phone did a bell sound, and she sat up and looked at the screen, and then frowned.

‘Helpful, Nico.’

She tapped on the screen, like she was sending a text. Then she stared at the phone again, until it did another bell sound. She pressed the screen and looked at it.

‘Oh my God.’

There was more tapping and another bell sound. I wanted her to tell me what she was reading, but it was Lis’s private message, and Mum was always telling me that what people got in their private messages wasn’t for me to know unless they wanted to tell me. I wasn’t allowed to ask, and I wasn’t allowed to look at her or Dad’s phones when they got texts. But I really wanted to know what had happened to Dec, and if the bad man called Luke was still here somewhere, and where Dad and Nico were, and what all the policemen were doing.

I couldn’t ask, so I did the best I could, which was a really big huffy sigh. Lis looked up and noticed me, then put her head on one side.

‘Sorry Cal, this is all a bit of a nightmare. I should think you’re wondering what’s going on, yeah?’

At last, she’d realised. I nodded.

Dec

More shouts. Still no pain, no darkness. Running feet.

Opened my eyes. The brown boots had gone, running away, others were chasing them. There were flashing lights and sirens. Noise and light. I lay my head back down on the ground and shut my eyes again. I felt a rushing from in my head, and everything went very distant and indistinct. From what seemed like far, far away, more feet, running towards me. He was coming back. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even raise my head, paralysed by fear and flashbacks. So I took another route to protect myself; I pushed it away, closed my mind down, to avoid it all. A voice, from a great distance.

łDec! Dec! Oh Jesus, no, no, no. Dec!

It sounded like Jay. Running feet came closer, skidded to a stop. Thumped down beside me. Hands shook my shoulder, tapped my cheek.

łOh my God. Dec. Oh my God. Fuck. Fuck. Dec, can you hear me?

Still sounded like Jay. I was so far away I couldn’t be sure. With a struggle, I opened my eyes. Jay’s stricken face slowly came into focus, his expression changing to one of massive relief as I looked at him. He covered his nose and mouth with his hands, breathing heavily and deeply.

łOh my God, Jesus, Dec. Fuck. I thought … Jesus. Say something, can you speak?

‘Mm OK.’

łOh thank Christ. Can you move, sit up?

I tried, but everything was hurting, and my coordination and focus were shot. Jay put his arm underneath my shoulder and helped me push up from the ground.

‘Aaah.’

łWhat, what is it?

‘Shoulder. Tore it. Arm’s fucked.’

łJesus, are you trying for some kind of most injured Raider award, or something?

He tried to smile, but tears filled his eyes, and he pulled me into a bear hug.

łJesus, Dec, I thought you’d had it, seeing you lying there, you weren’t moving, you’re so pale, I thought I was going to have to give you fucking mouth to mouth. Jesus.

He exhaled loudly and shakily, and looked over to where the blue lights were flashing, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand.

łI think they’ve got him. Nico chased him, Jesus he can run fast, tackled him, sat on him, I think. There’s an ambulance on its way.

‘No ambulance.’

łDec, you need to get checked out.

‘No more fucking hospitals. Docs here can look.’

łI don’t think they’ve got the kit, mate.

Not getting in a fucking ambulance.’

łOK, take it easy. Your choice, alright?

The shock of it all suddenly caught up with me, the rushing strangeness threatened, and I started shaking again, teeth chattering, body shuddering. Jay took his hoody off and put it round my shoulders, leaving his arm round me. He got his phone out, dialled a number.

łHi Lee, it’s Jay again. Are you still at the club? Great. Can you come out into the car park? Dec needs checking out … no, not that – there’s been a bit of an incident. Thanks.

I carried on shivering, head down, eyes closed, Jay carried on sitting on the ground next to me, arm round my shoulder. I heard footsteps running towards us. Opened my eyes in a panic. Nico. He knelt beside me and looked into my face.

>Declan, you are alright?

I looked at him, unable to answer, unable to focus on anything.

łWe’re waiting for Lee to come and check him out. I don’t want to get him up in case it’s the wrong thing.

>But there is ambulances coming.

łI know. He doesn’t want to go to hospital.

>Declan, you have no choice. You look very bad. You bleed. We see him kick you.

It was all too much. I was tired, hurting, cold, scared and everyone wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do. I started to cry, small sniffs at first and quickly moved on to large, heaving sobs. Jay folded me up in another bear hug. Nico put his hand on my arm.

łIt’s OK, Dec, it’s all OK now. It’s all over. They got him. Come on, mate, ssh.

>Here is Lee.

÷What the fuck’s been going on out here?

łCan you have a look at Dec? He’s had another kicking.

÷What, since I left you upstairs? Bloody hell, Dec, I’m going to have to get you a loyalty card. Is that what the police are doing here?

łYeah, Nico caught the guy who did it.

÷What’s the damage, Dec?

I couldn’t stop shivering and sobbing to answer.

łCome on Dec, if you don’t give us something it’ll be in the ambulance with you.

÷Maybe inside would be better? We’re going to have the press over here if we’re not careful.

łI didn’t want to try moving him.

÷I think if he can sit up he’s OK to move. We can all help. Let’s try to get him to the treatment room.

Jay helped me up and I leaned on him and Nico as we made our way back across the car park. I was starting to stiffen up and was beginning to feel the blows to my side, back and legs, as well as my arm and shoulder. I had stopped crying, but was still shivering and everything felt unreal and distant.

We reached the treatment room. Lee asked me to sit on a treatment table, and shone a light in my eyes.

÷Any bangs to the head?

I shook my head.

÷What’s this blood round your mouth then?

‘Hit my chin on the ground.’

÷OK, that’s going to need cleaning up, it’s got half the car park in it. No kicks or blows to your head, though, and you didn’t bang it when you fell?

‘No.’

÷You’re holding that arm a bit awkwardly. Is that where you fell?

I shook my head.

÷What happened, then?

‘He twisted it behind me. Tore my shoulder, felt it go.’

÷What, here?

Lee touched the top of my shoulder, which made the pain intensify and zing along my arm. I flinched and cried out.

÷Hmm. What about the rest of your arm? Any problems with the op sites?

‘Just all fucking hurts.’

÷OK, lets see, try some of these movements. Might be a bit soon, it might need to settle down, but it’ll give us an idea.

I tried to do the movements, but it was just too painful. I couldn’t, daren’t, lift my arm very much at all. Lee bound it up in a makeshift sling and I tried not to wince when he touched it.

÷OK, what else have you got?

‘Kicked all over.’

÷OK, let’s see then, I’m just going to lift your shirt up.

He prodded various places on my back and side, and then I had to stand up and drop my trousers for him to look at my legs. I had to hold on to Jay, as I was wobbling a lot, but whether from shock or damage I wasn’t sure.

÷Okay, pretty bad bruising, and one looks a bit near your kidney. I know you don’t want to go to hospital, Dec, but you really need to get this checked out, I don’t want you with undetected internal injuries. You might have broken a rib, and you need an X-ray on that arm. I think your legs are badly bruised, but nothing more.

I was silent, just wanting it all to go away so I could be left alone.

>Declan I know you, when you are quiet it mean you will be stubborn. You must go. Is serious. I am serious.

I tried to consider it sensibly. It was the fussing that was doing my head in. What would cause least fuss?

‘I’m not staying in.’

I could feel their relief.

łNo, mate, no more hospital pyjamas for you. Just go and get checked out. I can take you, we can cancel the ambulance, if it’s not here already.

>I go see.

Nico jogged out. Lee looked at Jay.

÷So what’s the story? Who did this?

łDo you remember Luke Woods?

÷Er, conditioning coach a few years back?

łYeah. It was him. Fuck knows what the full story is. Nico thinks he’s related to Ben Hearne, uncle or something. It was both of them a couple of weeks ago, he came back to finish the job.

÷Shit. Can’t quite get my head round it all. This might sound a bit crazy, but do you remember those pictures we took of your hand, Dec?

I nodded.

÷Maybe the police might like to see them, match them up with his boots?

łWhat’s this?

Lee told Jay about taking shots of the boot print on my hand.

łLee, you’re a genius, I think they’d be very interested. Dec, we’ll have words later about why this hasn’t been mentioned before.

My phone pinged in my pocket. Somehow it had survived me landing on it, and looking at it gave me a way to avoid answering Jay.

Text:

Amy: =r u still around? Fancy a drink?

I didn’t have the energy to reply and explain it all. Put the phone back in my pocket and kept my head down so I didn’t have to look at anyone.

łYou’re looking a better colour, Dec. You were really pale before. You’ve stopped shaking too. Jesus, what a day you’ve had. Two panic attacks and a kicking. And the night is young.

It seemed I wasn’t going to have to explain myself immediately, so I gave Jay a weak smile. Everything still seemed to be going on around me without involving me much, which was fine by me, until Nico came back.

>Ambulance is cancelled, but the police they want to talk to us before we go. I say Declan he is not well, but they come now.

‘No …’

I put my head in my hands, couldn’t cope with more questions, more people, more talking.

łSorry, Dec, I don’t think we’ve got much choice. When this happened last time, I needed to get back for Matty, but they wouldn’t let me until I’d talked to them. They only waited to talk to you because you were out of it.

>Declan, we are here with you. Lee will stay. He will say if is too much.

÷Sure thing, mate. I’ll be here keeping an eye.

There was a knock on the door. DI Johnson walked in and sat down. He checked over details of the 999 call, then talked to Jay and Nico. I couldn’t focus on the conversation, and I was aware of Lee glancing at me from time to time as I sat on the treatment table, head bowed, staring at the floor. Jay reminded Lee about the pictures of my hand that were on his phone. DI Johnson was very interested in them, and asked Lee to send them to him.

ϙDeclan, can I ask you some questions? It won’t take long.

I raised my head with an effort. Nodded.

ϙI understand from your friends here that you have received further injuries. Can you confirm that the person you named in our earlier telephone conversation is the person who also assaulted you tonight?

‘Yeah. Luke Woods.’

ϙWas anyone else involved in the assault?

My head was full of Luke kicking me, over and over. It was threatening to overwhelm me, and talking about it made it worse. I took a shuddering breath.

‘No.’

ϙCan you tell me how you got from the upstairs bar to the car park?

‘He hurt me. Twisted my arm.’

ϙDid you try to resist?

‘No. Yeah. Once. It tore my shoulder.’

÷Declan has a broken arm and collarbone. I think his arm was twisted up behind his back. It would have been very painful.

ϙThank you, sir. Declan, were you forced into the car park against your will?

I thought about it. I couldn’t see how I could have avoided it, but I felt at fault. I should have been stronger, fought more. I felt tears fill my eyes and run down my face.

÷I think it’s fair to say that Dec didn’t go there willingly to be beaten up. Actually, I think that’s enough questions for now. He’s not feeling a hundred per cent, he’s had a big shock and he really needs to go to the hospital to get checked out.

ϙAlright. Declan, I’ll be in touch. Thank you for your time.

He stood up, closed his notebook and left the room.

>We take Declan now?

łYeah, I’ll just have to get my keys, Lis has got them – fuck it! Cal! How am I going to explain all this to him?

>I take Declan, you take care of Cal. He don’t need to know everything. Take him to ours, Lis feeds him, I let you know what happen.

łI need to call Beth, check if she’s OK with me being late. If Matty needs lifting, she … can’t do it. I’ll see what kind of a day he’s had.

Jay left the room to make the call. I could hear his voice from down the corridor. There was no way Jay could leave Beth to look after Matt on her own, and I wanted to tell him to go home, but he was walking away from me and I couldn’t find the strength to raise my voice.

>Come, Declan, my car is near. You can walk?

Nico was standing by the door, beckoning to me, and I didn’t have the focus or the energy to argue about it, so I slipped down from the treatment table and stood, swaying slightly. Tried a couple of steps.

‘Yeah. Might be a bit slow.’

>Ha, is OK. Lee and me, we catch you.

We made our way slowly out to the car park. A police car was still there, lights flashing, drawing a crowd. Nico’s car was near the door. He opened the passenger door for me and I got in, painfully and slowly. I couldn’t move my arm enough to reach the seatbelt, so Lee and Nico had to put it on for me. Lee put his hand on my shoulder.

÷Maybe you should come in tomorrow, get checked over? Tell me what they say?

‘OK.’

÷Good luck.

He shut the door, Nico started the engine and drove away. I rested my head against the window. I really couldn’t believe this was all happening again.

>Declan, you are OK?

‘No, I’m not fucking OK.’

>I know this, I mean, you don’t want me to stop?

‘No, just get there, get this over with.’

>OK. You look pale, don’t be sick.

‘I won’t be sick.’

Cal

‘Nico just texted, he’s down in the doctor’s room with Dec and your daddy. Dec has been hurt, and they’re getting him checked and talking to the police.’

‘Did the bad man hurt Dec?’

‘Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it’s as bad as last time.’

‘Will he have more sewing?’

‘Er … sewing?’

‘Yes, to keep his skin together.’

‘Oh … stitches. I don’t know, Cal. Nico didn’t say.’

Lis’s phone started singing, and she picked it up quickly and held it to her ear.

‘Nico, what’s going on? … OK … OK … OK … So not too bad then? … It’s just there are small ears listening, and I need to tell him something … OK … I’ll say that then. What’s Jay going to do? … OK … Oh … OK, yeah, that’s fine … No, we can go home, I’ll wait to hear from you or Jay. Shall I call Beth? … OK … OK … OK … Yeah, see you later. Be careful, Nico, no more bloody car park heroics, yeah? I was worried to death … Yeah, I love you too.’

Lis put the phone back on the table and looked at me.

‘Dec is going to the hospital, but he’s not badly hurt like last time. Nico is taking him, he’s not poorly enough to go in an ambulance. Your dad’s talking to your mum to sort out Matt, and you’re coming home with me.’

So that answered some of my questions, but there was something else I was getting more worried about.

‘Did the police catch the bad man?’

If the bad man was still around, maybe he would carry on trying to kick people, and if he knew I knew Dec, perhaps he would try to kick me. I didn’t want to have my bones broken, even if it meant I had metal in my arms and could be a Transformer.

‘Yeah, sweetie. Nico caught him in the car park and kept him there until the police got there. They’ve taken him away. You don’t need to worry, yeah?’

I felt very happy about that. I had been worried, without realising it. And now I could think about the other things that had happened.

‘I want to go to the hospital with Nico and Dec, I want to see him have sewing.’

I hadn’t really had a chance to look closely at it before, and the thought of sewing a person’s skin was fascinating. I hoped I would be able to see Dec soon, so I could see whether he looked like a Frankystein again.

‘Nico’s already gone, and your daddy wants you to come back with me.’

‘But I saw Dec before.’

I didn’t want them to think I was too little to see blood and sewing. I was six.

‘I know, sweetie, but this time, your daddy wants you to come back with me, yeah?’

I couldn’t argue with Lis like I did with Mum, because I didn’t know what she would say, so I had to do as I was told.

‘Am I sleeping in your house?’

‘I’m not sure yet, Cal, I’m waiting to hear from your dad, but if we go home, we can at least have some tea and see what happens.’

‘What is for tea?’

‘Ooh, what do you fancy? I do a mean fish finger. Or a bustin’ chicken nugget.’

I remembered Lis’s chicken nuggets from before, and she burnt them, even though it wasn’t her fault, it was Nico’s fault for talking to Mum and Dad in the kitchen. But best steer clear of the chicken nuggets.

‘I like fish fingers.’

‘Sorted then. Come on, grab your backpack, we’ll head off.’

Matt

Beth had expected Jay to set off for home shortly after the match finished, but he’d texted and said he was catching up with a few people, so she was waiting for a text to say he was on his way. She, Mum and I were in my room, drinking tea, when her phone rang.

‘Hello, are you on your – oh. Oh no. Oh James … but where is he now? … Who’s with him? … oh James … how bad is it? … but he wasn’t unconscious … oh James …’

If she said ‘oh James’ once more without telling Mum and me what in the name of fuckness was going on, we were going to manhandle the phone off her and ask ourselves. She looked at me, then at Mum.

‘I don’t know. I’ll ask. Matty, something terrible’s happened.’

Yeah kind of got that, just tell us. Who’s unconscious?

‘Dec’s been beaten up.’

Again? Holy shit, that boy just attracted disaster.

‘Fuck, Beth, is heh ohkay?’

‘It’s not as bad as last time, but Nico’s taken him to hospital. He might have damaged the broken arm.’

‘Fuck.’

‘James wants to know – he’s going to the hospital in a bit to check on him, he thinks he might have to stay while they check him out, and he wants to know if he needs to come home to do your bed bits.’

I thought about it. I felt ridiculously panicked at the thought of Jay not being there, despite all my whining about independence and not being treated like a child.

‘We could try the care agency, but it’s a bit short notice.’

Hearing the plea in Beth’s voice, the ‘please, not loads of hassle on top of this news’, I pushed past my panic and did a quick self-assessment.

‘Noh, Ihm guhd. Ih’ll duh ih mysehf.’

‘Really, sweetheart?’

‘Yeh. Hahv a pee, tahk ohf clohths, geh in behd. Ehsy.’

Beth gave me a look of deep gratitude.

‘Thank you. James, Matty thinks he can do it himself … yes, we’ve had a great day, he’s been up and about, helped cook tea, we’ll have him out pruning the apple tree tomorrow … yeah … oh James, give him my love … yeah, I might later … do they have any idea who … no! … not well, but I did meet him a few times … oh it’s so awful that Dec knows them … he’s going to be very shocked, be gentle with him … I just know what you’re like sometimes … OK, I’ll ring Lis and talk to Cal, see you tomorrow sometime. Love you.’

She disconnected and looked at us, eyes wide with shock.

‘I can’t believe that’s happened again. It was the same man who did it before, he used to work for Raiders, a conditioning trainer. He’s been arrested, apparently Nico rugby tackled him in the car park and sat on him. Thank goodness they were there. Cal’s gone to Nico and Lis’s, I think James is going to stay there, and they’ll come back early tomorrow. Matty, are you sure you can manage by yourself?’

‘Yeh, Beth. Today, goh tuh behd by mysehf, tomohrow pruhn the ahpl treh, next day hahf marathohn.’

Beth gave me a weak smile. Maybe I was being over-optimistic with my half-marathon timetable, and she didn’t want to burst my bubble.

‘It’s a worry for you dear, are you alright?’

‘Yes, thanks Carol. I am worried, but James said he thinks Dec will be OK. Oh, but he’s had such a day already, with his panic attack thing this morning, and going home, then his first rugby game for ages, and now this. I hope it doesn’t set him back. I’ll just give Lis a ring, check she’s alright with Cal, then I’ll see if I can get hold of Dec.’

Beth took her phone and walked off into the house. Mum picked up the mugs and stood up, looking at me.

‘That poor young man. He’s had a lot to contend with in the last few months.’

‘I thoht yuh said tha boy was a trohblmahker.’

‘I may have misjudged him. He’s a nice young man, and I’ve seen you two become friends. He can’t be all bad.’

‘Noh, not ahl bad.’

I listened to Beth talking to Lis and then Dec, unable to make out the words, but hearing the panic recede from her voice a little. As Beth calmed down, I slowly filled up with anger that some bastard had had a go at my already injured mate. I felt the need to do something, not that I had the physical capacity for grand gestures, but that didn’t stop the need. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table and sent a text. That would show them.

I hoped it struck the right note, told him I was thinking of him without being overly sympathetic. I didn’t get a reply.

Cal

I went with Lis in her car, which was awesome because it was red and only had two seats, and its roof was made of material instead of metal. Lis said the the roof folded down so the wind blew your hair about, but she didn’t fold the roof down because it was winter and it would be too cold, and I didn’t sit in my car seat, because Lis didn’t have one.

I had fish fingers, beans and chips for tea. I didn’t tell Lis I’d already had chips, because Mum didn’t let me have chips twice in one day. Then we played on Nico’s X-box, and then Lis talked to Dad on the phone, and then she talked to Mum on the phone, and I talked to Mum on the phone, and then we watched a bit of a DVD, and then I went to bed. I didn’t have any pyjamas, so Lis said it was OK to sleep in my pants and Arsenal shirt. I wanted to stay awake until Dad got back so I could ask about Dec and his sewing, but I fell asleep and he still wasn’t back.

Dec

I was just about holding it together. A loud scream seemed to be building somewhere inside me, threatening to overpower me. It was affecting my concentration and making me jumpy and irritable. I couldn’t offer Nico any conversation, although he tried. We got to the hospital, and Nico parked his car illegally in front of A&E, helped me out and we went in together. The hospital was expecting me, but said there was likely to be a wait. It was Saturday evening, they were busy.

I sat next to Nico on the uncomfortable plastic chairs, staring at the wall, feeling my shoulder and arm swell up and become more painful. It was joined by throbs and twinges from all the other places Luke had kicked me. I didn’t say anything for some time, and Nico sat with me, not saying much either.

>You must call Rose. She need to know.

‘She’s not expecting me till later, I’ll call when I know how bad it is. I don’t want her worrying, or rushing over here.’

>She might find out, there was TV cameras.

‘Fucking hell.’

>You want I phone her?

‘No, I’ll do it. It sounds more serious if someone else calls.’

I got my phone out, dialled the number, took a deep breath, put on a brave face.

:Hello, love, alright?

‘Hi Rose, no, not really. I’m at A&E.’

:What? Oh love, what’s happened?

‘Well, bit of a re-run of last time. Someone tried to kick my head in. But I’m OK. Nico’s with me, we’re just waiting to be seen.’

:Oh love, I’ll be right there.

‘No, Rose, please don’t come down. I’m not going to be staying in, it’s all OK.’

:But you said you got kicked – are you hurt?

‘Well, yeah, I’ve hurt my arm again, and there’s a few more bruises for my collection. But I’m OK. Please don’t come down, Rose. I’ll be back there soon, I promise.’

:Alright, love, if that’s what you want. Can I talk to Nico?

I handed the phone over. That short conversation had been pretty exhausting.

>Hi Rose … yes … yes, he is hurt, he is in a bit shock … I don’t think you need to if he don’t want it … yes, I call you later … be careful of yourself. Bye.

Nico gave the phone back. It rang almost immediately. Beth.

_Dec, oh, Dec, sweetheart. Are you OK?

‘No.’

_I can’t believe it’s happened again. Where are you?

‘In A&E.’

_Is someone with you?

‘Nico.’

_Oh Dec, you poor love. You must have been terrified. James says they got him though.

‘Apparently.’

I was finding it hard to string more than one word together and keep my eyes open at the same time. Out of energy, I handed Nico the phone.

>Hey, Beth, is Nico. Declan he is not with us really. I think he is OK, but he hurts pretty bad and he have a big shock. We wait for doctor … yes … no, he see Lee, the Raiders doctor, he want him to come here for X-ray and for looking at where they kick him. He think about internal injury … no … yes … oh, OK, I know he worry. Cal is OK with Lis. You are OK? … I know, is worry to be so far, but we look after him … OK, we call you later.

He gave me the phone back.

>Is there other people you want me to talk to?

‘No.’

>Maybe Don? He will know what happen.

I sighed. Couldn’t really hack all the fuss, and having to think was doing my head in.

‘OK. Don. Thanks.’

I handed him my phone.

>Is OK, I use mine.

As I was putting my phone back in my pocket, it pinged with a text.

Matt: =Fucking attention seeker.

It almost brought half a smile to my face although I didn’t send a reply. Another text, almost immediately afterwards.

Amy: =OMG just heard what happened. RU OK? 😦 xx

Me: =Not OK. In A&E. Spk soon.

Nico was still talking to Don, telling him the same things he had told Rose and Beth. He finished his conversation and put his phone away.

‘Nico, you don’t have to stay.’

>Ha, is true I don’t have to. I stay, though, because you are my friend and you are hurt and seem not right to me. I want you don’t be alone, and I want to see you are OK. Jaime he come soon. He leave Cal with Lis. He want also to see you are OK.

‘He can’t, he needs to get back home.’

>He sort with Beth, don’t worry about him.

I didn’t have the strength to argue any more. I felt drained, dull, lifeless. My arm and shoulder were throbbing and I could feel every bruise forming under my skin. I settled into a kind of lethargy, in a world of pain, where I couldn’t move or talk or think about anything beyond staring at the wall. Nico tried to talk to me, but eventually gave up when he got no answer. Jay arrived after a while, taking a seat next to me. Nico went to move his car, and then check how long it would be before I was seen.

łDec, the police have arrested Luke Woods. Him and Ben have been charged with assaulting you before, and he’s also been charged with assaulting you tonight.

‘What about the other one?’

łWhat other one?

‘There was someone else –’

Details came back to me.

‘– older, scraggy beard, Raiders shirt. He was in the van.’

łJesus. Why didn’t you say before? You told the police it was just Luke.

‘Forgot.’

łJesus, Dec. I suppose you’re not really thinking straight. Well, as soon as you’re up to it, you should contact them. How are you doing?

‘Everything fucking hurts. You should go home.’

łIt’s a bit late, now. Lis is putting Cal to bed. We’re going to set off first thing tomorrow. I needed to come and see you’re OK. Stop worrying. Beth says Matty had a really good day today, and he’s going to put himself to bed, so that’s great, isn’t it?

‘You should be there with him, instead of fucking about here with me.’

Jay sighed.

łI really thought you’d got it. Maybe this has messed your head up more than I realised. You’re my family. You need me here, I need to be here, to make sure you’re OK. I’ve checked with Beth, Matty doesn’t need me just at the moment, he’s fine. So I’m staying here, and you’re going to accept that I need to be here and you need me to be here. Jesus, Dec, how many more times do we have to have this conversation?

I stayed silent, continuing to feel guilty about Beth and Carol having to manage Matt on their own. Nico came back from the reception desk and sat down. His charm had apparently not managed to shift me up the waiting list, and they said it was going to be another hour at least. I continued to sit on the uncomfortable plastic chair, staring at the wall, feeling everything carry on stiffening up, feeling guilty, feeling separated from reality. Jay and Nico talked over my head. Jay patted my back and ruffled my hair every so often. Although it was comforting, I couldn’t respond.

łBloody good tackle, Nico. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself landing on the car park.

>Ha! I am not hurt, but he is hurt. He bang his head, and I think he break some fingers.

łGood. Fucking bastard, it’s the least he deserves.

>You are right. I feel horrible he know Declan by me.

łJesus, Nico, it’s not your fault. Sounds like he had a major grudge going before you ever took Dec to his gym.

>Maybe you are right. I think he hurt Declan before. I see bruises on his shoulder after we are at his gym. Declan tell me it happen when he is drunk, but now I wish I say more.

łWell, trying to get Dec to admit to anything has always been a bloody hard job, eh, Dec?

‘Huh?’

łNothing, go back to sleep.

‘Not asleep.’

łMight as well be. Nico, did you see anyone else? Dec says there was another man there, in the van.

>No, I don’t see. I am busy chasing … wait, maybe there is someone when we first see Declan … I don’t remember well.

‘How did you know?’

łKnow what?

‘Where he took me.’

Jay blew his cheeks out.

łBit of luck, really. Nico was with Lis and Cal when I went back. I told him about you spotting Luke, and remembering it was him before. We asked around, and someone had seen Luke going through the door to where you’d been sitting. We ran out there, but you were nowhere to be seen. Took a bit of a gamble that he would try to get you outside. Lis called the police, and Nico called while we tried to find you. We got out there as fast as we could; when we got to the top of the steps, we saw him over on the other side of the car park giving you another going over. I shouted, he ran. Nico chased him, I got to you as quickly as I could. Fuck knows how the cops got there as fast as they did.

>I think there is a car there always after a game, down the hill. I am glad, I don’t think I can sit on him much longer.

‘Thanks.’

łNo problem, mate. I would say ‘anytime’, but please, for fuck’s sake, don’t go getting yourself beaten up again.

‘Sorry.’

Jay rolled his eyes.

‘Couldn’t help it.’

łI know that, Dec.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

łI know.

‘Sorry.’

łIs that what’s bothering you?

‘Wasn’t strong enough.’

łJesus, Dec, he nearly pulled your fucking arm off. And you weren’t feeling too hot to start with. He’s a complete fucking nutcase.

‘Just froze.’

łI’m not surprised. Jesus, you’ve been through enough, don’t start giving yourself grief about what he did to you. He’s the worthless piece of shit here.

I hung my head. Despite Jay’s words, I still felt guilty and ashamed about letting Luke dominate me.

>Declan, what he do to you is bad. Is his bad, not your bad. We hate him, not you.

łNicely put.

>Thank you.

I heard what they said, and most of me knew it was true, but somewhere inside I was cowering in a corner with my hands over my head, completely powerless to stop it all happening.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

Tears filled my eyes and I started to cry again.

łAh, Dec, come here.

Jay put his arm round me and pulled me towards him.

łDon’t let him get to you like this. He’s won, then, hasn’t he, eh? He didn’t win – here you are, large as life and twice as ugly. Possibly three times as ugly.

‘He nearly did. If you hadn’t been there –’

łYeah, could have been nasty. But we were there, we had your back. We always will, one way or another. You don’t have to be invincible, do everything on your own. I wish you’d bloody remember that once in a while, it would save me repeating it every five minutes.

I was silent, considering. Nico’s phone rang.

>Hello Rose … no we wait still … he is no worse … ha, yes, you would, I know this, but no, don’t come, they see him soon, I am sure. Jaime is here now. I call you as soon as I know.

As if Rose’s call had caused it, my name was called.

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.

25. One step forward

In which disappointment is encountered.

It was dark when I woke up. I wasn’t sure what had woken me, or what the time was. There was a tap on the door.

:Are you decent, love? I’ve got a cup of tea and some toast for you. Have it in bed. It’s seven o’clock.

‘I’m decent.’

:Alright, I’m putting the light on.

Rose walked into the room with a mug and a plate, flicking the light switch with her thumb. The light dazzled me for a few seconds.

:By, you don’t like hanging things up, do you love?

She stepped over my pile of clothes in the middle of the floor, and looked at the other clothes strewn over a chair and a chest of drawers.

‘Sorry, not very tidy.’

:I can see that, love. Doesn’t worry me, just don’t you trip on anything. Here you go. Sit up now, don’t dawdle, you’ve got a lot to do before Nico gets here.

‘He’ll be late.’

:He said eight sharp.

‘He was joking. He’s always late. Always. At least half an hour.’

:Best be ready, just in case.

I sighed. I had, after all, asked not to be allowed to go back to sleep. Sat up and took the mug from Rose. Managed to hold it in my left hand, it ached but was strong enough. She put the plate well within reach on the bedside table.

:There’s some of your painkillers here, in case you need them, love. When will you be back, do you think?

‘Don’t know. This afternoon? Might have to wait for Nico to give me a lift back. Don’t think I’m up to the bus just yet.

:I’m at work all day, just wondering if you want me to pop back at lunchtime? Do you some lunch?

‘No, don’t do that. I’ll get myself something, somewhere, no worries. I’ll see you later. Maybe you could come upstairs with me?’

:If that’s what you want, love. Finish your breakfast, I’ll be back to bother you in a minute.

With Rose’s frequent bothering, I managed to be ready by eight o’clock. I was extra sure to do everything I needed to for myself, as I was a bit worried she was going to offer to come and wash me if I seemed like I couldn’t manage. I did it all well enough, though, then had to wait forty minutes for Nico to arrive. Rose was on tenterhooks the whole time.

‘If you need to go, just go, don’t be late for work. I said he’d be late.’

:Well I’ll have to go soon.

‘Go then, I can leave the building fine on my own, what are you waiting for?’

:What if he doesn’t come? I’ll have to take you.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, Rose, just go to work. Go on.’

Eventually she went, and two minutes later Nico arrived.

>Here I am, eight sharp like you say. This mean nearly nine, yes? Ha!

‘You’re going to get a bollocking from Rose. She’s not good with late.’

>You tell her I am always, don’t you?

‘Couldn’t quite get her head round it. She thought you must have stood me up or something.’

>Poor Rose. She learns the ways of Nico. Are you ready?

‘I’ve been ready since ‘eight sharp’, thanks.’

>Ha, then we go.

We got to the club about nine o’clock. I wasn’t quite sure who I needed to see – Don would be overseeing training, and at least one of the docs would be there too in case he was needed. I went to the main office.

I’d forgotten I looked such a sight. The swelling on my face was really going down, but the bruises were coming out in spectacular combinations of purple, yellow and green. The stitches gave my whole face the air of a slasher movie, and the nose cover completed the look. The girls in the office looked at me with open mouths when I walked in. I caused a bit of a stir while they recognised me and sympathised and finally told me to go to the treatment room. I made my escape, eager to get away from the excessive mothering, but happy that things seemed more normal with them all.

The treatment room was near the changing rooms, and although I hadn’t really thought about how I would react if I met anyone I knew, fortunately the players were all out on the training ground, and I didn’t run into anyone.

I tapped on the treatment room door and went in. Lee Brady, one of the club doctors, was in the room, writing at a table. He looked up, doing the by now familiar double-take as he saw my face then realised who I was.

÷Dec. Shit, you’ve seen better days, mate. Have a seat. Don’s out at training, but he wanted me to let him know when you’re here. I’ll just text him.

He pressed a few keys on a mobile phone then looked up at me.

÷We’ve asked the hospital to email over your X-rays so we can have a look at your arm and collar bone. Do you mind if I have a quick prod?

I shook my head. Lee lifted up my right arm, watching my face to see when it hurt. It hurt pretty much straight away.

÷Do you happen to know the specifics of your arm breaks? This plastering is pretty over the top unless there’s some fairly heavy-duty damage under there.

‘No, sorry.’

÷No problem, we can wait for the X-rays, I’m expecting them in the next few minutes. I’m hoping we might be able to get away without the plaster – immobilising your arm for several weeks will mean you have to work harder and longer to build your strength back up. Might need to fix that collar bone though. How’s everything else? Your left hand looks badly bruised.

He had a look, took the bandage and splint off the little finger, then moved the other fingers backwards and forwards, and asked me to move my fingers on my own. The swelling had gone down a lot, and this morning I noticed I could do more with my hand than yesterday.

÷Hm, could’ve been worse, lucky to get away with just the pinky broken. That’s quite a footprint. Have you taken a photo?

‘Er, no. Not something I particularly want to remember.’

÷Not for the family album, you plonker, but for identifying who did it.

It hadn’t occurred to me.

‘Genius.’

÷Use your phone.

‘Can’t, it was smashed.’

÷Oh, OK. I’ll do it now, then. If you need it, you know where I am.

He took a few shots of my hand and saved them on his phone. The laptop on the table bleeped.

÷Here are your X-rays. Let’s have a look, now.

The door opened and Don came in, slightly breathless.

-Hello Declan, thanks for coming. Any news, Lee?

÷The X-rays have just arrived, I’m having a look now. Looks like a simple humerus, plus ulna and radius near the wrist, a bit more complicated. I can understand why they plastered, but I think screw and plate would give more mobility – I was just explaining to Declan about losing muscle bulk if you’re kept immobile. We need to fix the collar bone too, the ends aren’t together, it’ll set wrong.

-Thanks, Lee, that’s what we talked about yesterday, isn’t it? Declan, what we’re suggesting is that you have an operation as soon as possible to try and fix your arm. We want to get the plaster off and get you moving as soon as we can, fix up your collar bone, and then you’ll be able to train. You’ll be out for much longer if you keep the plaster on, and the collar bone might not heal properly. Lee and I have checked with the local private hospital and the surgeon we’ve used before, and they could fit you in next Tuesday. I know it’s close to Christmas, but you’d be out the next day.

I was silent. The day after Tuesday was Christmas Eve. There was no way I’d be able to travel. It was a big blow, beyond disappointment. I couldn’t quite believe my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal was being taken away, almost as soon as it had been given to me. I didn’t know what to say. I understood everything they’d said, and realised the strings they would have had to pull to get such an early date, especially at this time of year. But Christmas with them all … it was more than a holiday, it was a chance to put it right, to try to make things good again. I’d said ‘yes’, and now I was going to have to say ‘thanks but no thanks’.

-Is everything alright, son? I know it’s a lot to spring on you, but we really don’t want to hang around with breaks, there can be all sorts of complications.

‘I understand that. It’s just, er, this sounds stupid I know, is there any way it could be after Christmas?’

Don shook his head.

-The surgeon is away for a month – that’s too long to wait. I know you probably had plans, but this is important.

If I didn’t say it, they wouldn’t know. It still might not make any difference. I felt selfish and mean-spirited. But just had to say it.

‘I was … Jay’s asked me to go up there for Christmas.’

Don sighed. He looked briefly at Lee and then back at me.

-I can understand this is a bit of a blow for you then. I’m sorry. You do understand this is really important to your rehab and will get you back to playing more quickly?

‘Yeah. I know. Sorry, just disappointed.’

-The other thing to bear in mind is that you will need looking after for at least twenty four hours after you get home. I don’t know if you’re still planning to stay with Rose, will she be able to look after you?

So I was going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas too. The worthless piece of shit – the gift that just kept on giving.

‘I can ask.’

-I’m really sorry, Declan, if there was another way – I know how important this must have been to you.

I shrugged.

There was a brief pause. Another look passed between Don and Lee.

÷Are we going to …

-May be best in the circumstances. Declan, I don’t know if you remember when you were in hospital, I mentioned the possibility of using a psychologist to help you talk through some of your, er, issues?

I nodded reluctantly, still not keen on delving into my confusion with someone I didn’t know. Or even with someone I did know, come to that.

-He’s called Adam Palmer. Lee and I have been in touch with him and told him some of your story, just background stuff and some of your recent troubles. He thinks you might have some kind of post traumatic stress relating to your accident. He is a bit of an expert, and we’d like you to meet him in the New Year. Can I give him Rose’s number so he can contact you?

‘Yeah.’

Although it would need a whole team of psychologists to get to the bottom of my mixed up brain.

I wanted to get out of there, to get my head round this latest bit of bad news, but Don wanted to give me details of hospital dates and times and what I needed to bring and remember and how I would get there. I found it hard to concentrate – all I could think of was having my Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal taken away so I could be in more pain and need more looking after. Don seemed to realise I was lacking some focus, and wrote it down for me.

-I’ll be in touch before Tuesday, but go home and rest up now. How are you getting home?

>Waiting for Nico.

-He might be some time, there’s a couple more hours of training to go yet.

I shrugged.

-Why don’t you wait in the corporate suite where you were on Saturday morning? It’s more comfortable than down here. We can get the TV put on, get you some coffee?

‘OK.’

I passed the time miserably. I was going to disappoint Cal yet again. He’d soon stop trusting me at all. I needed to contact Rose to ask if I could fuck up her plans too, and was keenly missing having a mobile phone.

I stood at the window and looked out. I could just about see the training pitch from the window; players were running about, throwing balls and practising moves. It reminded me how far away I was from spending time out there. Even when I was suspended I had spent time with everyone, but now I’d just be spending time in the gym, keeping fit, bulking up, working on weaknesses, with other injured players but not running with the ball, tackling, rucking – any of the stuff that made me feel alive.

By now all my aches, bruises and pains had begun to reassert themselves; I hadn’t brought my pain meds with me and I started to feel very sorry for myself.

One of the girls from the office brought me a coffee and some biscuits, dug out a paracetamol and stopped for a chat, but the time passed slowly. I had no idea when Nico would be able to take me home, and I began to wish I’d got the bus, or called a taxi, both of which would have been impossible as I would struggle to walk to the bus stop, and I had no cash.

I stared out of the window and wallowed a bit in self-pity. Eventually the door opened and Nico popped his head round.

>Hey, Declan, I go now. How are you? Don tell me about this operation. Is horrible timing.

I looked up at him, feeling wretched.

‘I promised Cal. I’ve got to tell him. Got to tell Rose too. She’s going to her sister’s.’

>Cal and Rose will understand. You visit Cal soon after Christmas, Rose she love looking after you, she don’t mind.

‘Cal’s six. All he knows is Christmas Day is the big one, and I wasn’t there on his birthday either. Fuck it, I’m a selfish bastard, after all this club has done for me, but I just got them all back and now it’s all fucked up again …’

>Come Declan, we go home. My home. Lis is there, she make us lunch, we talk, Lis she know what to say. Come.

He held his hand out and beckoned me out of the chair. I stood up and followed him out to his car, glad to put off telling everyone for a while longer.

I was silent on the journey to Nico’s house, wrapped up in my thoughts. For someone who hadn’t thought about Christmas a few days ago, I had pinned a lot of dreams on it this year. Nico didn’t talk either, I guess I was a bit of a dampener on conversation.

Lis was in the kitchen when we got there.

>Hey baby, I bring a guest. Put on a kettle, show him you make better tea than Rose.

~Dec? Wasn’t expecting you – oh you look good in those, like the cargos, much better than Nico’s trousers flapping round your knees. Hoody looks good too – what’s wrong?

>Don he say he want Dec to have operation on his arm on Tuesday. He can’t go to Jaime‘s for Christmas.

~Oh no, Dec, that’s terrible. Jay and Beth will be really disappointed. And Cal.

>Dec worry about Rose too, she go to Wales. Someone need to look after him when he come out afterwards. Maybe we can?

~Oh, yes, of course. What a great idea. There’s plenty of room here. That would solve one of your worries, yeah?

I was bowled over by their immediate kindness.

‘Are you sure?’

~Absolutely sure.

‘Thanks, that would be great.’

~And I’ll take you up to Stafford as soon as you’re fit after Christmas. They’ll understand, I know they will.

>He worry about Cal. He promise a – huh – what you call it? Optiprime? I write it somewhere …

‘Optimus Prime. It’s a toy. I promised Cal that Santa would bring him one on Christmas Day. I’ve broken so many promises to him, I really needed to keep this one.’

~Hm, well, I’m sure there’s something we can do. There’s plenty of time, we’ve still got over a week. Let’s have a coffee and a sandwich and sit down for now, yeah? Dec, I know this must be a huge disappointment, but I’m sure it’s for the best. Don does usually know what he’s doing when it comes to injuries. You’re upset now, but I bet in a couple of months, you’ll see it differently, especially if you’re playing again.

Lis was making complete sense, and some of it was getting through. Didn’t stop me feeling very sorry for myself though. Lis went to make coffee and Nico turned on the TV.

>Which DVD we watch? You like one with explodings?

‘Explodings sounds good.’

Some time later, having immersed myself in the action movie, I heard the phone ring. It was only on the edge of my consciousness, but Lisa came into the room with the handset.

~Sorry to interrupt you, but it’s Don for Dec. Turn the sound down, Nico.

She gave me the handset as Nico paused the film.

‘Hi. It’s Declan.’

-Hello there. I just wanted to check with you, I realised this morning what a setback the timing of this operation would be for you. There’s a possibility of an earlier time, there’s been a cancellation. Could you do it tomorrow afternoon?

‘Tomorrow? Yes. Yes, I can do that.’

My heart leapt with hope – after the disappointment of this morning, I could hardly believe it was being given back to me.

-It would make a big difference to you being able to travel sooner, would give you almost a week to recover, and we’d be able to get that arm fixed up all the more quickly. But for you I think the important thing is you should still be able to spend Christmas with Jay and his family.

‘Don, thank you. Really, thank you so much. You don’t know how much I appreciate it.’

-I think I’ve got an idea of what it means, to all of you. OK. You need to remember not to eat anything after midnight tonight. Get a good night’s rest, the surgery is scheduled for three. You need to be there by twelve so they can check you out, give you pre-meds – actually, given your recent ability to concentrate on information, could you pass me back to Lisa, I’ll ask her to write it down.

I handed the phone back to Lisa. She looked at me, puzzled at the big grin on my face, so I told her the latest news, then handed her the phone so she could take down the details.

Now my trip to Stafford was on again, there were some things I wanted to sort out – it suddenly felt like there was no time to lose. Nico was happy to search online for an Optimus Prime instead of watching the end of the film, and he persuaded me to let him drive me to the retail park on the way back to Rose’s so we could buy it.

I was elated now. I was finding it hard to control my moods, swinging from crashing through the floor to spiralling to the ceiling when I should have been able to deal with things better. In between times I was having difficulty concentrating. I tried to calm down, pushed thoughts of the operation right to the back of my mind and allowed myself a bit of happiness.

Lis had finished talking to Don, and had a list of things he wanted me to remember. She made me put it in my pocket to read later and show to Rose, and for once I wasn’t annoyed at the implication that I couldn’t look after myself. I was starting to realise that it could be a good thing when people wanted to help out. This was just as well, because Lis had more helping out lined up for me.

~Dec, please don’t think I’m interfering, but would you like me to get a present for you for Beth, or Jay?

‘Er … I hadn’t thought. Bollocks, I should really shouldn’t I?’

~Totally up to you, just wondered if you wanted any help. You blokes are rubbish at presents, on the whole.

>Is true, I still don’t shop yet. Poor Lis.

‘What should I get?’

I’d never really done a great deal for Christmas presents, but this year it felt different, like I wanted to make an effort. I was out of ideas, though.

~Well, why don’t you let me find something? I’ve got to go into town tomorrow, to buy my own Christmas present from Nico by the sounds of it. I’ll sort something. As long as you get Cal’s Transformer tonight, that’s the main thing.

I looked at Lisa gratefully and nodded my thanks.

>We must go back to Rose, she need to know about tomorrow. We ask if she is here for you when you go home on Thursday.

Nico was right. Having the operation tomorrow might mean I wasn’t going to fuck up Rose’s Christmas, but that depended on her plans.

‘Shit, didn’t think of that. Bloody hell, why is everything so fucking complicated?’

>Ha, is lucky we have Lis’s list to help us. We buy toys, then see Rose and drink more tea. Easy.

Rose had just got home when we got there, and was still taking her coat off.

:Hello, loves. Are you only just getting back now?

‘I went back to Nico’s this afternoon. Had a bit of a morning, to be honest.’

:Tell me about it while I put the kettle on. What did they say? How’s your arm?

I filled Rose in on the latest news about my operation, which surprised her but didn’t faze her at all, gave her the list of things Don wanted me to remember, and checked she would be alright about looking after me when I came back. Rose was working tomorrow, so Lis would take me in for the op, but there were things Rose wanted to sort immediately.

:You’ll need to pack a bag, won’t you?

‘Probably.’

:Pyjamas, toothbrush, that kind of thing?

‘Probably.’

Rose sighed and rolled her eyes in the face of my appalling lack of organisation.

:Alright, love, I’ll do your thinking for you, get your stuff together. Any news from the police on your bank card or any of the other business?

‘I haven’t been here all day, not unless they’ve left a message.’

:We’ll check the phone in a minute then. Do you still want to go upstairs, check your flat?

I’d put my flat to the back of my mind, but now Rose had mentioned it, I wanted to get it over with. If I was out of action from tomorrow, I wanted to go up there now to take stock. Didn’t want it hanging over me for another few days. I nodded.

:Coming, Nico?

>Huh, sure. Is clean now?

:Yes, love, they did it yesterday. Had to chuck most of it, I think it’s bare bones. Declan didn’t want to go up on his own.

>Huh, I understand. We go, then.

I followed Rose and Nico up the stairs and into my flat. It had only been a couple of days since I was last there, but it felt like a lifetime had passed. I let Rose open the door, and she and Nico walked in ahead of me. A bleachy waft floated up my nose.

:Hm, smells clean at any rate.

I hesitated in the doorway. This was harder than I’d expected. I looked past the door. The whole place was completely bare. The only furniture I’d had in the living room was the couch, the small table the television had been on and the phone table; they had all gone. The carpet had been taken up, leaving bare boards which looked like they’d been scrubbed or cleaned in some way. I hadn’t had any personal possessions to speak of, so I found it hard to say what I felt was missing, but something more than ‘stuff’ had gone. There was a small pile of mail on the floor by the door, and to shift the focus from the room, I sorted through it. Mostly junk, a couple of bills which I kept to pay later. I became aware that Rose and Nico were watching me.

‘What?’

:You alright, love? It’s a bit different, isn’t it.

‘Yeah, feels a bit weird, like it’s not my place. Better look in the other rooms I guess.’

I looked into the kitchen. The fridge and all the cupboards were open and completely empty.

‘What happened to all my food?’

:They smashed it all up, love, all your jars, tins opened and emptied, there was mess everywhere mixed with who knows what all over the place. Sorry love. It’s best not to know.

I wandered into the bedroom. Bed had been stripped, no mattress or carpet. Cupboards and drawers were open, nothing in them. It felt like I’d been burgled. For all I knew, I had. They had left me nothing in any case. I sat on the bare mattress, feeling shaken, until Rose and Nico came to find me. Nico sat next to me and put his arm round my shoulder.

>Declan, this is horrible. I think we go downstairs. Come back when there is carpet, you put things in your cupboards, and is yours again. There is no alma, no soul here, no Declan now. We bring your things when you are better, help then.

I nodded. I almost wished I hadn’t come up, but it was better to know, rather than keep wondering. I got up, and walked out, leaving Rose and Nico to follow and shut the door behind them.

Back in Rose’s flat, away from the reality of my own place and what had happened up there, who had done it, and what it meant, I managed to push it all down, away from me; far enough away that I couldn’t feel it any more I felt a bit better.

I focussed on what I needed to do for tomorrow. No food after midnight meant I had to eat well tonight, and make sure I drank enough to stay hydrated. Which meant water instead of tea, although Rose was going to take some persuading. I was looking forward to being able to shower, once the plaster was off and my arm worked a bit better. I felt very unclean, especially as I was a bit clumsy washing myself, and hadn’t done it properly for days; my hair felt greasy, as did the rest of me. Rose pottered about getting things together to put in a bag, in-between making a lasagne for tea. Nico chatted for a bit, then had to go.

>Lis, she see you tomorrow. Good luck, I call the hospital later to check all is good. I come to see you also.

I scrounged some wrapping paper from Rose and made a complete balls-up of trying to wrap Cal’s present. In the end, Rose took over and did it for me. It had taken a while, and a lot of people repeatedly telling me to stop being obstinate, but I was finally prepared to accept a little bit of help. I would have a lot of paying back to do when I could do more for myself.

Dinner eaten, bag packed, list of instructions gone over, Rose’s soaps watched, and a call made to Jay and Beth to tell them about my operation, I decided to go to bed and prepare for the next day by getting as much sleep as I could. I downed some painkillers, which I was pleased to note I hadn’t needed as much as the day before. Struggled out of my clothes and, for Rose’s sake, threw them on the chair instead of leaving them on the floor. Sat on the bed, turned the light off, manoeuvred myself under the duvet. I had only been with Rose for two nights, but it felt comfortable and familiar. Slept.

Dreaming. I am flying, soaring, feeling the best I have ever felt. I can go anywhere, see anyone I want, all over the world. I play rugby with the lads, I play football with Cal, I kiss girls, I swim, I laugh, I run, until a man in brown boots trips me up and I come tumbling down, head over heels, crashing all the way, ripping my face, breaking my arms. I lie helpless on the floor and see his boot coming towards me –

I woke in a cold sweat, disoriented, shaking, face and arms hurting. My nose was throbbing. I’d taken the nose-guard off yesterday after seeing Lee, and although the break wasn’t too bad, and had been reset, there was still a lot of swelling and bruising. I lay on my back, breathing heavily, trying to calm myself.

It was completely dark, very early in the morning. I heard a door open. There was a light tap on my door. Rose’s voice, barely above a whisper.

:You alright, love? Thought I heard a shout.

‘Had a dream. Come in.’

The door opened and Rose came in slowly.

:I won’t put the light on, but am I going to trip over anything?

‘No, nothing on the floor. You’re OK.’

She hesitated by the bed, then knelt down beside it.

:Worried about tomorrow?

‘Don’t think so, just had this dream, it was a really good one, flying, then it all went wrong and turned into someone kicking my face in.’

:Just a dream, love. Try to go back to sleep. It’s really early.

She pushed my hair back from my forehead, as she had done before, and again I was reminded of my mum. I calmed down a bit, my eyes started to droop, and I fell back to sleep while Rose was still kneeling by the bed. No more dreams, just floating in the black.

Rose woke me the next day, no tea and toast, just a glass of water. She sat on the edge of my bed while I drank, making sure I remembered the schedule for the day.

:I’ve put my mobile and work numbers in your bag. If anyone gets a chance to ring me after it’s all done, I’d be grateful. I’ll come and see you later, once I know you’re awake, although I’m getting a bit too used to visiting you in hospitals, love. Right, I need to get on, can’t be late.

She seemed reluctant to leave the room and spent a little time folding my clothes and straightening things up.

‘Thanks, Rose. Don’t be late for work.’

:No love, just fussing. I know you’ll be alright.

She gave me a weak smile and left the room. I wasn’t quite sure of the time, but Rose left for work at eight thirty, so I guessed at some time before eight. I didn’t want to fall back to sleep, so, sighing, I swung my legs over the side of the bed, ignoring the protests from various stabbing niggles, and sat up. I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, trying to gather my thoughts and pull together the energy to get washed and dressed.

I’d have to wait until Rose had finished in the bathroom, but chose some clothes from the pile Lis had bought. Decided to give jeans a go, I had enough time before I left to get the zip and buttons done up. Nice, easy, comfy t-shirt and hoody to go on top. Finally, Rose’s voice floated through the door.

:Bathroom’s free.

I stood up and started my day.

Rose seemed distracted. She told me the same things twice, she checked over and over again that I had her phone numbers. She kept finding things to do that delayed her leaving for work. In the end, I almost had to push her out of the door. She made a big deal of looking in her bag for her keys.

‘Rose, go to work, you’re already late. I’ll be fine, you’ve organised me thoroughly.’

:I know, love, I’m just a bit worried about you, that’s all.

‘Don’t worry, it’s routine, I’ll be back tomorrow, needing all sorts of TLC.’

:I know, love. Oh, look at me.

A few tears had started to leak out of her eyes. She dabbed them with a tissue. I gave her as good a hug as I could manage with my malfunctioning arms and kissed her on the cheek with my bruised lips.

‘Go on. Try not to think about it. Don’t get the sack because of me.’

:No, you’re right love.

She took a deep breath, put her tissue back in her pocket, patted me on the cheek and left.

That left the rest of the morning to keep myself occupied. I checked the list from Don, everything seemed taken care of. I flipped the TV on, but it was full of rubbish I didn’t want to watch. I really wasn’t very good at sitting still, despite having had enough practice in the past few days. I checked my bag again, even though I knew Rose had packed and re-packed it last night. I kept wandering into the kitchen in search of food, then remembering I couldn’t eat. I was getting pretty hungry, just needed to concentrate.

DI Johnson phoned. He had some news on my bank card, which had been found in a bin some miles away from the club. They had checked it, and it had been used to withdraw all the money from my account, which amounted to a few hundred pounds. He wondered how they had known my PIN number, but as this was on a piece of paper in my wallet it wouldn’t have required much of a criminal brain to work it out. There didn’t seem to be much news about DivDav, or at least nothing he would tell me.

ϙWe’re following up your information.

Was all he would say. So that was it. I officially had nothing. No stuff, no money, nothing to call my own. I started a small pity party in my honour, and then remembered that, actually, Nico and Lis had bought me a shitload of clothes to call my own, and yeah, maybe I didn’t have much in the way of possessions, but against all the odds, I had friends a kind of family and a job, and life was looking up. So I put away the ‘Poor Me’ balloons for another time.

A short time after my conversation with DI Johnson, the intercom buzzed. It was Lis.

~I know I’m early, thought you might want some company. Are you up and about?

It was good to see someone, and she had brought presents to wrap up for Jay, Beth and Rose. I hadn’t thought about Rose. Being a worthless piece of shit, I didn’t have much time to think about thanking the people who meant the most to me. I hadn’t even thought about Lis and Nico, and I tried to apologise for this, and for all the money Lis had spent on my behalf over the last few days. She silenced me with a look.

~Stop that. We’ve had this conversation. Now, here’s the paper, do you know where Rose keeps her scissors and sellotape?

We had a rummage in some drawers and managed to find both, then set about wrapping the presents. Lis had got some kind of posh bubble bath stuff for Beth and Rose, and a remote control car for Jay; they were in boxes, and would have been easy to wrap if I hadn’t had my own special wrapping in the shape of the cast. So, instead, my plaster cast acted as a sellotape dispenser, and I handed Lis the scissors when needed; that was as far as my contribution to this year’s Christmas presents went.

~OK, we’ll put these in your room ready to go on Tuesday. Leave Rose’s here on the table for when she gets back from work. Right, it’s still a bit early, but why don’t we get going? Might as well wait there as here.

It seemed reasonable, and I was starting to get nervous; doing something seemed better than not, for now. Lis picked up my bag and we went out to her car.

Once at the hospital, we found the department we needed and announced ourselves. Although we were a bit early, my room was apparently ready, and we were shown in. I had to get into a gown and into bed, which felt a bit weird, but there were lots of doctors who were going to come to see me, and things they needed to check and test, and premeds to administer in the next few hours, as well as having the plaster taken off my arm before the operation. Lis sat in a chair, flicking through a magazine; I was preoccupied, and couldn’t think of anything to say, and worried she would be bored sitting with me while I fidgeted.

‘You don’t have to stay. It’s going to be pretty boring.’

She looked at me.

~I don’t have to, but I’m going to. I’ve got plenty to do, I’ve brought my laptop, might do a bit of work if your conversation gets really dull. But I’m going to be here. Nico’s going to come later this afternoon, and he’ll be here when you wake up, yeah? Nobody’s going to leave you on your own.

I looked back at her, silently relieved.

‘Thanks. I don’t deserve what you and Nico have done for me.’

That got me another look, one I couldn’t hold. I turned my head away, towards the window, so I didn’t have to see her face as she spoke.

~All me and Nico have done is try to make sure you’re not alone. Everyone deserves that.

I couldn’t meet her gaze, and she changed the subject.

The afternoon passed with visits from the surgeon, the anaesthetist, nurses with meds, someone who took the plaster off my arm, and the tea trolley. It was a pretty spectacular tea trolley. By now I was really hungry, but had to pass it all up, although I saw Lis look longingly at the cakes.

‘Go on. Do it for me. I can’t.’

It was the least I could do after she had spent the afternoon with me; she didn’t take much persuading.

~Oh alright, if I’m doing it for you.

She chose a piece of chocolate fudge cake and ‘wow’ed her way through it.

~That was awesome. Please have lots more operations, Dec. I will gladly sit with you through all of them.

Just before three o’clock, I was asked to sign a consent form. Then I was asked to get on a trolley, ready to be wheeled down to the operating theatre. Lis took my hand, and kissed me on the cheek. I suddenly felt scared and alone, and tears pricked my eyes.

~You’ll be fine, Dec. Nico will be here when you wake up. In fact, he’ll probably wake you up early with his chattering. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine, yeah? You will.

She let go of my hand and the porter took the trolley away down the corridor. I watched the ceiling go past. Entered the theatre, a white room with a large operating table in the middle. Was moved from the trolley to the table. Covered with paper sheet. The surgeon and anaesthetist were both there, gowned up, only their eyes showing. The mask was put over my face, I counted backwards from a hundred, all the way down to ninety eight and knew no more.

Dreaming. Someone is shouting and punching me. I fall to the floor. Big is kicking my arm, hard. A brown boot hurtles towards my face.

24. Bruised but not broken

In which Dec gets used to a life where he needs help.

Dec

I woke up to the sound of a phone ringing. I couldn’t work out where I was for a moment, and the flying sensation from my dream lingered. It was not completely dark in the room, but still felt pretty early. Then the ringing stopped and Rose’s voice filtered through the remainder of my dream, as I remembered I was in Rose’s spare room.

:Hello? … speaking … who is this? … yes, we did … I’m sorry, I can’t say where he is at the moment. Would you like to leave a message, I’ll make sure he gets it.

Rose, my bouncer. I smiled, started to stretch, forgetting exactly what I was stretching until needles of pain ran up my arms, down my back and gathered in my collar bone. I yelped. Rose rushed in.

:What is it, love?

‘I’m OK. Forgot I had broken bones. Aah. Fuck. Sorry. Someone for me on the phone?’

:Your boss, that Mr Barker. As far as I could tell. He wants you to call him this morning. I’ve got to go to work now. I’ll ring you later. Don’t forget to ring him, and ring that policeman too. Promise me, love.

‘Promise.’

:I thought I’d let you sleep this morning – do you want some breakfast before I go?

‘No, thanks, I’ll be fine.

:Anything else you need?

I was finding it hard to ask, but swallowed my pride.

‘Could you get me some of my pills? Everything’s bloody hurting.’

:Alright, love.

Rose fetched the pills and a glass of water and waited while I took them.

:Anything else you need?

‘No thanks. Go to work. See you later.’

I settled back in the bed as she left the room, and heard the door shut behind her. I wasn’t an early morning person, but felt rested, despite having flown round the world in my dreams. Thought about getting up and facing the day. Fell asleep immediately.

Woken up by the intercom. Opened my eyes groggily. Fuck it, needed to get up to answer the door. Arms and legs wouldn’t coordinate, got tangled in the duvet. Nearly fell trying to stand up. All my aches and pains woke up together and held me up even more. The buzzer sounded again, more insistently. Deep breaths. They’d have to wait while I sorted myself out. Slowed down. Got organised. Stood up carefully. Made my way out of the room to the intercom, which was buzzing again.

‘Hello.’

~Dec, it’s Lis. The password is ‘underpants’.

‘What?’

~Sorry, just joking. You sound really sleepy. Have you just woken up?

‘Yeah.’

~Sorry to get you out of bed. It is quite late, though. Can I come in?

‘Yeah, course.’

I pushed the button to open the outside door, and went to open the front door. After some juggling between the fingers poking out of the plaster on my right hand, and my swollen left hand, I managed to get it open. Lis came in, carrying several shopping bags. She looked at my dishevelled appearance.

~I’m guessing you haven’t phoned any of the people you were supposed to phone this morning? Didn’t Nico ring to remind you? Honestly, he’s so brainless.

I tried to drag my own brain into some form of activity. Who was I supposed to phone?

‘Er …’

Lis tutted and rolled her eyes.

~I’ve been given strict instructions, from Rose, so you know I have to do as I’m told, that you should have phoned DI Johnson before eleven. Also, you’re supposed to ring Don this morning.

She looked at her watch.

~It is now eleven twelve.

I groaned.

‘Shit. I just went back to sleep. Shit.’

I stood in a stupor, not knowing which way to go first.

~OK, don’t panic, first thing to do is sit down before you collapse. Living room, yeah?

I followed her in.

~Right, now, you might have missed the police guy, or he might still be around. Are you up to trying right now? You still seem half asleep to me. I can ring and explain if you like? See if there’s another time later, yeah?

That sounded like a good plan, one that involved me doing no talking to any policeman, and got me off the hook for a short while.

‘Kay.’

Lis made the call. She spoke for a few minutes, then hung up.

~OK, you missed DI Johnson, he’s in a meeting till later, but his secretary said he wants to visit you this afternoon. OK?

‘Kay.’

~Right, next job on Rose’s list, make sure you’ve had some breakfast. Unless you ate in your sleep, I’m assuming that’s currently a no. Let’s go and see what’s in the kitchen, yeah?

I followed her out.

~Well let’s see if you know where things are. What are you having?

‘Toast, tea.’

~Off you go then, I’m sure you’re more than capable of boiling a kettle and burning some bread. Anything you can’t manage, let me know. Don’t get butter on your cast, yeah? I won’t stand here and watch, I’ll sort out the clothes I got, show them to you while you’re eating. I’m quite pleased with myself, I have to say. Nico’s pretty set in his ways as far as clothes are concerned, I enjoyed having a free hand.

From the amount of bags she’d brought in with her, Lisa had bought up the city centre. I tried not to think about what she might have bought, or how much she might have spent, and focussed on trying to get my faulty arms to make my breakfast.

I boiled the kettle with no problem – there was already enough water in it and I didn’t need to run the tap or lift the lid, or do anything else I would struggle with. Tea bag – easy. Pouring the kettle, however, took some coordination, and I slopped water over the counter.

‘Fuck.’

Teaspoon was a little more fiddly. Four pint cartons of milk also proved to be hard to handle with a damaged left hand, and a fair amount of milk joined the water on the counter and dripped down onto the floor.

‘Fuck.’

Squashed the bread a bit getting it into the toaster, and failed to butter it in any recognisable way.

‘Fuck it.’

I couldn’t hold the knife properly in my left hand, and my right arm being encased in plaster meant I couldn’t move it properly. It dawned on me that I was going to have to get used, for the time being, to asking for help. It also dawned on me that there were easier things to have for breakfast. Tomorrow I would try cereal.

‘Fuck it. Lis?’

~Yep.

‘Can you help me?’

She came into the kitchen, saw the mess I’d made of the counter and the toast, took the knife out of my hand and sorted it out.

~Hm, so that’s what all the ‘fuck‘s were about. Being on your own’s not going to be so easy, is it, as long as you’re plastered up. Not so annoyed to have visitors calling in now, yeah?

She rubbed my shoulder and smiled.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

I smiled back.

~Okay, eat your breakfast, I’ll talk you through the Declan Summers winter collection. Ooh, I like that, the Summers Winter Collection. Maybe you should take up modelling – um, once your face is a bit more presentable.

I sat at the kitchen table, dropping bits of toast and spilling my tea with my left hand, while Lis wiped up my spills and then brought my clothes in.

She had gone completely over the top. I could have done with one pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts, one hoody, a few pairs of pants and socks. That’s what washing machines were for. Lisa had bought jeans, chinos, cargo pants, T-shirts, shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, sweaters, a coat, countless pairs of pants and socks and a pair of trainers, although I didn’t remember telling her my size. She’d even got some pyjama bottoms.

‘What have you done? This is way too much.’

~Don’t worry, I wanted to give you a choice, I can take things back if they don’t fit. Do you like it?

‘It looks great, I can’t try it all on though.’

I gestured to my plaster cast.

~Hm, hadn’t thought of that. Don’t want to rip anything. Tell you what, keep it all, try it on whenever, if it’s not right then, we’ll try to take it back, yeah?

‘It must have cost you a fortune.’

~Oh, don’t worry, I got it on Nico’s credit card. He won’t mind.

‘You already lent me all that money, I haven’t even started to pay it back yet. It’s way too much.’

Lis sighed and rolled her eyes.

~You know what, Dec, it actually isn’t. You have no clothes. You sold almost everything you own to pay back the charities, you owed your soul to your friends and the rest of the world, and then some bastards came and took everything else you had in the most offensive way I can imagine. You actually deserve to have some nice things. We can afford it. Let us do this, yeah?

I sat looking at the table. Humbled, undeserving. Worthless piece of shit. A few tears welled up, spilled over, plopped on my plate. I really needed to stop doing this. Lis knelt beside me and put her hand over mine.

~Look, Dec, it’s all very well you being this big independent I-don’t-need-help kind of guy. Very macho. Man points galore. Extra testosterone and everything. But you actually do need help, just at the moment. It’s OK to ask. It’s OK to take it when it’s offered. It’s … just OK, yeah? We help because we care about you. I hope you care enough about us to let us.

She ruffled my hair and stood up.

~OK, lecture over. Right, what else did Rose tell me I had to do? Oh yes, make sure you call Don. This morning. Well, you’ve got about five minutes left before it’s officially afternoon, yeah? You’d better get on it. Can I leave you to it? You won’t go back to bed?

I sniffed and wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘No, I’m OK. I’ll get the phone – oh bollocks, I haven’t got any numbers.’

~Rose said the number is by the phone, she left you a note, and there’s also a list of other numbers – me, Nico, her, Jay and Beth, Don, DI Johnson.

‘Thanks.’

Lis brought the phone and the note into the kitchen.

~Off you go, then, before you get into trouble. Are you OK for something for lunch? I think Rose might have left you a sandwich – oh yeah, in the fridge here. Looks tasty. Nico’s going to call in after training, whenever that may be, once he first remembers and, second, stops chatting for thirty seconds. Later this afternoon I would guess. Call me if you need me, yeah? Anything else you need before I go?

‘No, thanks. Really, thanks, Lis.’

~No trouble, see you soon. Don’t get that plaster wet – no washing up.

‘Not likely.’

~No showers.

‘Sadly, also not likely.’

She walked out, closing the front door behind her.

I looked at the phone and the list of numbers. Dialled Don. He wanted me to go in to see the club medics that afternoon, but I didn’t know what time the police were coming so he asked me to go in first thing in the morning. I’d have to swallow a bit more of my pride and ask Rose or Nico for a lift. Another thing occurred to me, and I filled him in briefly – apart from what I was wearing on Saturday, my spare training kit had been in my flat, along with my studs, club hoodies, everything I was supposed to wear to official events, all ruined. Don was silent for quite a while.

-I’m sorry to hear that, son. That really is out of order. Are you alright? Is there anything I can do?

‘I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Just haven’t got any official gear.’

-Well that’s easily sorted. Come tomorrow in your civvies and we’ll get you another load to take away. The basics at least … Declan, you do know I’m here for anything you need, to talk, any kind of help. I’m starting to realise just how tough a time you’ve had lately. Please let me know if you’re finding things difficult. I’d like to help if I can – it’s not just about rugby.

I didn’t know who Don had been talking to – Nico, Jay, even Rose for all I knew, but someone must have been filling in the blanks about my recent history. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it; I liked my privacy and my independence. Yeah, and look where they’d got me.

‘Thanks very much. See you tomorrow?’

-Sure. Oh, one more thing, I tried to contact you on your mobile, but there was some problem with it. Have you got it turned on?

‘Er, no, it’s with the police. It was trashed on Saturday. Don’t think it’ll be working anytime soon. Ever again, actually, looking at it.

-Oh, I didn’t realise. You’ve been through a lot one way and another, haven’t you. OK, is it alright to contact you on this number then?

‘Yeah, sure.’

-Great. Tomorrow, then.

I was feeling drained, and contemplated going back to bed, but knew that would be frowned on by several people. I also didn’t want to have to rush for the door when DI Johnson arrived, so on balance decided to stay awake.

I looked at the clothes Lisa had bought. It was all really good stuff, she had been very good at choosing. Clean clothes appealed just then, and I wanted to put some on, although without having a shower I wasn’t going to do them justice. How long would it be until I could get clean? Decided that was a thought for another time. I’d have to stink for now, and hope none of the clothes needed returning. I chose a baggy t-shirt and zip-up hoody, some tie-waist cargo pants and some necessary underwear, took them into the bedroom and struggled into it all.

The right sleeve of the hoody was rather tight over the cast, and getting the cargos on was difficult – pulling trousers up one-handed with hardly any working fingers was really tricky. But each time I did it, it got easier. That was something I wasn’t about to ask for help with, however many lectures I got.

Despite only just having had my breakfast, I was hungry by the time I got dressed. I took the sandwich from the fridge, not egg thankfully, but a very satisfying beef and salad on a half-baguette. Rose obviously knew me better now, and it was just what I wanted.

Now I was dressed and had some underpants on, for the first time in what felt like ages, I started to feel a bit more normal. I went into the living room and flicked the TV on. There really wasn’t much on in the middle of the day, and Rose only had basic channels. I settled for a quiz show and let it wash over me.

Being there was going to take a bit of getting used to. My flat upstairs wasn’t the most homely of places, but I had got used to its bareness and its smell. This place was very definitely Rose’s, with her ornaments, cushions, slightly twee pictures and penchant for pine air freshener. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel I belonged either. I was almost tempted to go upstairs, just to have a look at exactly what kind of a state it was all in, but knew I wouldn’t handle it very well. Best wait until it was all cleaned up; I’d go up then.

The quiz show became a chat show became an antiques show. I got bored and turned it off. I made another attempt at a cup of tea – more difficult this time, as I had to put water in the kettle. I couldn’t hold it under the tap at all, and was very pleased with myself for finding a bottle of water in the fridge which I managed to pour into the kettle using both hands. I’d have to make sure I asked someone to fill the bottle up for tomorrow, and get some milk put in a smaller jug. Or stick to glasses of water.

I heard some footsteps, voices and banging from overhead, and remembered the cleaners were there dealing with my flat. I hadn’t realised how much could be heard from down here, some of the noises seemed to be in the same room. What had Rose heard from down here? I hadn’t had a music system or a TV up there, and I’d pretty much kept to myself, but I’d been miserable a lot of the time, spent more than a few nights crying myself to sleep when I was really low. She’d never said anything, but maybe I was beginning to understand why Rose was looking out for me.

To take my mind off it all, I tried to work out what the cleaners were doing: hoovering was easy, but some of the other noises sounded like full on DIY rather than any cleaning I’d ever done.

Once the noises from overhead had stopped, I found myself sitting staring into space. I finally had room in my head to drift – there were no demands on me, nobody talking to me, and nothing I had to think about.

The intercom shattered the quiet that had settled on the flat. My heart rate rose slightly – I had downgraded my personal security alert status a little, but I was still half-expecting ‘someone’ to have found out where I was staying. I picked up the handset, slightly nervous.

‘Hello.’

>Declan, let me in. Is Nico.

Unless it was a really good impersonator, I recognised Nico’s voice, so I pressed the button, and went to open the front door. Still tricky turning the lock, but managed it after some fiddling.

‘Hey.’

>Ha, you have been dressed by Lis. Very nice. She try to dress me, but I say no. She tell me she buy many clothes on my card. Is OK. She enjoy shopping always. You are OK today?

‘Getting there.’

>Ha, you say this to us all. How you really feel?

I sighed. People were starting to get to know me too well, and my usual strategies were failing.

‘Hurting everywhere, fed up with not being able to use my hands, fed up with people telling me what to do, tired, pissed off, a bit scared. Satisfied?’

>Much better. I want that you say this, is not good to not say. I am sorry you feel this. I am happy I am here to help.

Nico waved a DVD in the air.

>We watch me! I find more DVDs – Rose has DVD player?

‘I guess so, it might be a bit ancient, is that it there?’

Nico bent down to the TV stand and put the disc in a slot while I turned the TV back on. It took some time to find the DVD channel, but we got there in the end, and the game started playing.

>We need beer. Rose she has beer?

‘Er, no, and I’m on strong pain meds, so no go, and also Don said not, plus it’s the middle of the afternoon. We’ll have to do without.’

>Ha, but Rose has tea, I know this. I make tea. I am not English, but I learn things about tea. You will like.

Nico was lifting my spirits – I guess this was on his list from Rose. He was very good at it. While he was in the kitchen, the intercom buzzed again. I answered it.

‘Hello.’

ϙMr Summers?

I didn’t recognise the voice, and my heart lurched. Had he found me?

‘Who is this?’

ϙDI Johnson, are you expecting me?

‘Oh, yeah, OK.’

Trying to get myself under control, I pressed the button and struggled with the lock again.

>I make tea for the policeman. They always drink tea.

DI Johnson stepped inside, looking slightly ill-at-ease. I showed him into the living room, where he perched on the edge of Rose’s comfy armchair. Nico came in and handed us a mug of tea each, and turned off the DVD.

ϙOh, ah, thank you. I’m DI Johnson, and you are?

>Nico Tiago.

ϙAh, yes, good, good, I was hoping to speak to you anyway, are you able to stay?

>Yes, I stay with Declan.

He sat at the other end of the sofa.

ϙGood, thank you. OK, Declan, firstly I wanted to verify some information we received from Mr Tiago yesterday regarding a wallet and a name he gave us.

‘OK. I’m pretty sure my wallet was in my bag at the club with the keys to my flat. I obviously wasn’t the one who looked through my bag, Nico did that. He didn’t find my wallet.’

ϙCan you confirm that Mr Tiago?

>Yes, I look in Declan’s bag, I look in his pockets, take everything out. Is all covered in piss and shit. His keys and his wallet are not in there. I look well.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Nico had had to trawl through filth to search for my keys. Another debt of gratitude owed.

ϙWhat happened to the bag?

>I throw it away.

ϙHm that’s unfortunate. There could have been fingerprints.

>Huh, I don’t think of this. It smelled bad, I wanted it to be gone.

ϙWell not to worry, maybe we can retrieve it. Declan, can you think of anywhere else you may have left your keys or wallet?

‘Sorry, it’s all still really difficult to remember, Saturday afternoon is all jumbled up. I can remember getting changed in the office, but I can’t specifically remember putting my keys and wallet in the bag. But I would have done, because that’s what I always do, in my jeans pocket.’

ϙOK. Thank you. Now, the name that you have given, David Allsop, where does this come from?

>It come from him being the one who do this to Declan.

DI Johnson looked at me, ignoring Nico.

‘It … seems … possible’

ϙDeclan, you seem less sure than Mr Tiago?

‘He’s a mate. I can’t quite believe it.’

>He do it before. Declan, be honest about this, or I will say.

‘OK, alright.’

I looked down at my hands. Thought about what he had taken away from me, how he had made me feel.

‘Several weeks ago, he was part of a group of players who gave me a hard time in training. Really hard, physical stuff. He also pissed on my clothes twice, in the changing room. But we made it up, shook hands. We were going for a drink after the Chieftains game –’

ϙWait, you had arranged to meet Mr Allsop on Saturday evening?

I had to rewind what I’d said in my head, it had just come out of my mouth without me thinking about it.

‘… yeah … I’d forgotten till just now. He texted me on Saturday afternoon.’

ϙWhere were you going to meet?

‘In the car park … shit.’

I started to shake. It suddenly seemed so obvious.

‘He wanted to meet by his car. He always parks over the other side, out of the way. Fuck, I was so stupid. I just totally believed him. He even came to see me in hospital – yesterday morning. He apologised for how he’d been, it was – I just – believed him.’

I thought about it all, how he’d fooled me, even coming to the hospital to – what? – check out what I remembered? Had I missed something important when we’d talked earlier? I looked at Nico. He was looking back at me with some concern.

>Declan, you look not well. You are temblando.

He looked at the policeman.

>We must do this now? Declan he only come from hospital yesterday.

ϙI can see it’s upsetting to you. You’re being very helpful. If you feel we could continue, I won’t be much longer.

I felt sick, a bit light-headed. But this needed doing. I nodded.

ϙIn fact, we have managed to piece together some of the data from your phone. It’s not complete, as the phone was pretty well destroyed, but there are some records we could retrieve. You did receive texts from Mr Allsop on Saturday afternoon, but the content was irretrievable. We were able to retrieve more messages from longer ago, and will be able to get more, with your permission, from your service provider. We were particularly interested in a couple which were anonymous, and seemed a little threatening.

That didn’t surprise me. I hadn’t read everything that had been sent my way in the last few months, but a lot of it had been from people who weren’t my biggest admirers.

‘I’ve had a lot of texts from people who don’t like me much. Pissed off nearly everybody over the past few months.’

ϙI understand that. These two were ‘caller withheld’, and seemed more directly threatening than the others – we have been through them in some detail. One said ‘Payback’, and the other began ‘Watch your back …’ The first one was sent on the same day that, I believe, your suspension by your club made the news. The second was sent on the day of the points hearing, after the announcement. We have software that might be able to decrypt the senders’ numbers, but we are having some trouble with it. Do you remember either of these messages, or have any idea who they were from?

‘No, sorry. I’ve had hundreds of texts that I deleted before I even read them. Not happy reading.’

ϙWell, no problem, we’ll keep going with the software. You understand that while we will investigate your allegations about Mr Allsop, there were no witnesses to your assault, the alleged theft of the keys and wallet or the events perpetrated in your flat. If you remember anything else that could help, please contact me. I think I’ll leave it there. I’ll be in touch.

He stood up, held his hand out, realised I couldn’t shake it properly and patted me on the shoulder instead. Nico showed him out, then came back into the living room.

>Well done. Very well done. Is not easy to say about a friend. You still look horrible. You don’t drink your tea. Neither does the policeman. I make some more.

‘I can’t believe I forgot he texted me. It’s so clear now.’

>You remember more things?

‘No, not really. I’ve been trying so hard to, but that just popped in when he asked me about it.’

>Huh. Maybe this is the answer, not to try.

‘Yeah, maybe. Bloody hell, Nico, you went through my bag!’

>Sorry, my friend. Rose, she want your keys. I try to help.

‘No, I mean … that must have been … I can’t believe you would do that for me.’

>Ha, is not problem. I wash hands good. Now, we think of something other. Tea and DVD? Maybe you remember again how great I play?

Nico was great at changing the mood, taking the stress out of it all, and I gladly took his bait.

‘Maybe I’ll remember again how modest you are.’

>This also.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Nico’s DVD, eating Rose’s biscuits and messing about. He managed to completely take my mind off everything that was worrying me, and I felt a small part of myself start to relax. The afternoon wore on, and Nico looked at his watch.

>Huh. I must go home to my beautiful wife. She miss me. Rose will be home soon. Is there something you need?

I remembered my conversation with Don about getting to the stadium early tomorrow morning, and my lecture from Lisa this morning about asking for help.

‘Actually, a favour?’

>Ha! I think this never happen before. Please ask, my friend.

‘Well, how early are you going to be at the club tomorrow?’

>I am there to train at eight thirty.

‘Could you pick me up? Don wants me to get there early to see the docs.’

>Is not too early for you? You are very late today – Lis, she tell me, no secrets!

‘I’ll make sure I’m ready. Rose will make sure I’m ready.’

>Then I am here. Eight sharp. Ha, you know I am late.

‘Can I ask something else? Another favour.’

>Ha, two in one day, increible! You have big bang on the head.

‘Cal’s asked for an Optimus Prime for Christmas. No way I can get one.’

>What is Opti – what is this?

‘It’s a toy, a Transformer. Long story, I promised it a long time ago.’

>Huh, OK, I write it, Lis, she help. Is done.

I spelt the words, and Nico wrote them down.

‘Thanks Nico.’

>Is pleasure. Be careful of yourself, my friend. See you tomorrow. No, don’t come to door, I let myself out.

He waved and walked out. As the front door opened, I heard Rose’s voice.

:Oh hello, love. Just off are you? Not staying for a cuppa?

>Oh, Rose, I am sad to miss your wonderful tea, but I must go home to kiss my wife. I am here tomorrow morning to fetch Declan – he need to wake early, you can help?

:Of course, love. What time?

>I am here eight sharp. I never late. Right, Declan?

‘Hardly ever.’

:I’ll make sure he’s ready. Bye then, love, see you tomorrow.

I heard the front door close, and Rose came into the living room.

:How are you, love?

‘Getting there.’

Rose gave me a look, and I knew I was going to have to change my stock phrase, as it had definitely been rumbled.

:I know that, love, but how’s your day been? Did you manage to phone everyone?

I told Rose about the visit from DI Johnson, my phone call with Don, and Lisa and Nico’s visits. It had been a pretty busy day, once I’d got out of bed.

‘And I think the cleaners have been upstairs, I could hear them moving around. You can hear pretty much everything that goes on up there, can’t you?’

:You can, love. Just remember that, next time you have a wild party.

‘Doubt that’ll be for a while.’

:And of course you’d invite me anyway. Right, what shall we have for tea?

The rest of the evening passed pleasantly with eating, TV, showing Rose my new clothes and a phone call from Beth, asking how I was and discussing dates and times for my visit. Tony the landlord also called round to say the cleaners had finished, and that my flat was clean once again, although there were no carpets. These would be replaced in the next few weeks.

:You’ll just have to stay here till they’re done, love.

I could have gone straight up to have a look, but I decided not to right away, feeling weird about seeing the flat again. However, I didn’t have a toothbrush or any washing stuff, and didn’t know what had been kept and what had been thrown away.

:You should have said, love. I forgot you can’t shower with your cast. Washing’s going to be a bit tricky too, isn’t it. Have you managed to wipe your bum alright?

‘Fuck, Rose! Yes I have thanks, just about. Not that it’s any of your bloody business.’

:Sorry, love, but if you don’t ask you don’t know. If you want a wash, I’ve got a flannel and soap you can use, you’ll just have to try your best with that. I might have a new toothbrush somewhere too, let’s have a look.

She managed to find everything in a cupboard in the bathroom. I’d need to be up fairly early tomorrow to make myself even slightly presentable.

‘What time do you get up?’

:Usually about seven, love. Do you want me to wake you up?

‘Yeah. Thanks. Might need a few goes.’

:Hm, you don’t like waking up much do you? Don’t worry, I won’t let you sleep in. Off to bed now are you?

‘Yeah.’

:Need some of your pills, do you?

‘Yeah, thanks.’

Rose helped me with my painkillers, before I went into my room and struggled out of my clothes. I couldn’t be bothered to struggle into pyjama bottoms, so just wore my boxers. Easier all round, less to struggle out of all over again tomorrow. Reaching for the bedside lamp was difficult, so I turned it off before I got into bed, and climbed under the duvet in the dark. I slept almost immediately.

Dreaming. I am being chased by faceless men in brown boots. I find a safe place on a hill, but they surround me and are closing in. I can’t fly, something is stopping me, but everyone who loves me can, and they swoop down from the sky to stand around me, holding hands in a circle, making sure the men in brown boots can’t reach me.

11. Pieces of the night

In which Matty continues to teeter perilously between one world and the next, and Dec continues to encounter setbacks.

Dec

Woke with a start. Daylight. Thumping head. Dry furry mouth. Body aching all over. Still wearing training kit. Still stinking. Still a worthless piece of shit. Stomach growled. I was hungry. Really hungry. Well, I could do something about that.

Sat up carefully and swung leaden, aching legs over the edge of the bed. Dizzy. Stood up. Wobbled to the kitchen. Found biscuits. Ate. Crumbs stuck to the inside of my mouth. Drank water. Lots of water. Hands shaking so much I nearly dropped the glass. Leaned against the sink, tap running fast, panting noisily. Life one piece at a time.

:Alright, love?

Startled, my whole body jolted. Wheeled round to face her, heart pounding.

‘What the fuck.

:Sorry, love, didn’t mean to make you jump. I did knock. Heard you moving about from downstairs. I still had your key. Just wanted to see how you are.

‘Give me the sodding key. Leave me the fuck alone.’

I was almost growling, but she handed me the key and patted me on the shoulder.

:Whatever it is, love, I’m sure it’ll be alright.

Anger welled up, rage from a thousand places.

‘What the fuck do you know? Who the fuck are you anyway? Get the fuck out. Just fuck off.

Moved towards her, fist raised, a reflex. She put her hands up defensively and backed away.

:Alright, I’m going. Sorry to have disturbed you, I’m sure.

Turned back to lean against the sink. Heard the door shut as she left. Eyes screwed shut against the light from the window. Stomach still growling with hunger. Turned round to the fridge. A sandwich, on a plate, covered with cling film. A handwritten note on the top: Protein is good for hangovers. Protein meant meat right? Mouth filled with saliva. So hungry, didn’t even wonder where the magic sandwich had come from. Tore the cling-film off. Smell of egg hit me like a punch. Bile rose into my mouth. Ran to the bathroom. Puked up digestives and water. Flashbacks. Recent memories of puking here, in the lounge, in the kitchen sink. Fun times. But … no memories of clearing up. Surely she hadn’t …

Rested my head on the toilet bowl, unable to think with the renewed pounding in my head blotting out everything. Mouth felt disgusting, bits of vomit clinging to my lips, regurgitated biscuit on my chin, mucus hanging from my nose, tears of humiliation running down my cheeks.

Stood up unsteadily. Turned on the tap. Drank. Rinsed my face. Without lifting my head too far, loaded my toothbrush. Got rid of the worst. Rinsed and spat. Flushed toilet. Again thinking – surely she hadn’t …

Leaned forwards, breathing hard, hands on knees. Stench of me, puke and piss and cheap vodka, no longer bearable. Stood upright slowly. Pulled off shirt, smearing old vomit over my face and through my hair. Pushed down tracksuit bottoms and boxers. Stickiness and smell confirmed I had pissed myself at some stage. From low to lowest. Stepped out of clothes. God Almighty I still had my studs on. Ruined now, covered in filth. Slipped boots and socks off. Turned on shower. Climbed slowly over the side of the bath. Stood under the hot cleansing stream. Remembered what I’d lost.

Wept.

I stood under the shower for a long time. The water had long ago removed at least the physical evidence of my self-induced coma. Thoughts and feelings were becoming a bit clearer. I considered getting more vodka, because forgetting had its upsides. But also its humiliating downsides. I was hollowed out, as if something had scoured away everything I had ever been.

I didn’t know who I was. Everything I had dreamed of, worked for, hoped for, asked for, was gone. I had tossed it away. The steam filled the bathroom, and I began to feel even more light headed. My stomach growled again. I needed to eat.

Finally leaving the limbo of the hot shower, I climbed out of the bath and wrapped a towel round my waist. Walked through the lounge. Able to take in more, it seemed clean and tidy. It was never clean and tidy. Where had all the bottles gone? When I woke up, there were bottles. A lot of bottles.

A sour smell. The couch. It smelt like I had smelt before my shower, would have been soaked with the same fluids. Couldn’t think about it. Went into the kitchen. Avoided the fridge and the egg sandwich which I had thrust back inside. Cupboards provided little beyond a sprouting potato and more digestives. I’d really seen enough of digestives, one way and another. I was going to have to go out. I hadn’t eaten since – what day was it today? I could not compute how long I had wallowed.

From the kitchen I spotted a newspaper sticking out of the letterbox. I walked over and pulled it out. It was the local paper, dated Thursday. Thursday? Surely yesterday was … Monday? Began to realise how much I must have drunk. And why I felt so wobbly. I hadn’t eaten for several days.

As I put the paper down, the back page headline screamed out “Summers Storm Rocks Raiders”. There was a picture of me, in my puke-stained training shirt, with two days growth on my chin, snarling at the camera. Lowest? Nowhere near yet.

Almost immobilised again, but my increasingly insistent hunger was taking priority. I threw the paper to the floor. Moving dazedly to the bedroom (which offered a similar fragrance to the couch) I pulled on some clothes and shoes.

Couldn’t find my wallet. Fumbled around in trouser pockets and found some loose change. Hopefully enough for a Pot Noodle or something. Keys, keys. Couldn’t find my keys. Keys, keys, come on where the fuck are you? Sorted through the rancid pile of clothes I’d left on the bathroom floor. Not there. In the bed? Not there. Down the back of the couch? Not there. Any more stinking shit-holes to search? Could I leave my door open while I went out? Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to get back in the main door. Nobody lets you in if they don’t know you.

Maybe that old lady from downstairs … oh fuck. I remembered swearing at her, I remembered … Jesus, did I raise my fist at her? Then I remembered hearing the hoover, and the clink of glass, and looked again at the tidy flat. Shit, must I screw up everything? Still, I was getting desperate now. Maybe she’d help me if I apologised. Didn’t she say something about having a key? No – she gave me the key. What did I do with it? Where was I when she gave it to me? Kitchen! And there it was by the sink. I held the key up like a trophy.

I left the flat as quickly as my unsteady legs would take me, feeling queasy with hunger and still fighting the hangover from a two day binge. As I reached the ground floor, a door opened. The woman from earlier came out, with a coat on. When she saw me she put her head down and began to walk past.

‘No wait, please, er, sorry don’t know your name.’

She stopped with her hand on the outside door handle. Looked at me. Assessed.

:Rose.

‘Hi. Um, I just, fuck, can I just ask, sorry, I was in a bit of a state before. Did you clean up my flat?’

I was trying my hardest to sound coherent, but it was a struggle.

:I did.

Her lips were pressed tightly together and disapproval knitted her brows in a furrow.

‘Well … thanks. I don’t know what to say. Sorry, I guess, that I shouted at you, and everything.

:You weren’t very pleasant.

‘Sorry. I’ve, er, been, er, not very well.’

:Yes I could see that

She continued to level her gaze at me. I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach made a loud gurgling noise.

‘I need to get some food.’

:I left you a sandwich.

‘Yeah, I know. Thanks. But it, er, made me sick. The smell. Anyway, I need something to eat so …’

I gestured at the door, which she was blocking. When I glanced back to her, she was looking horrified, holding her hand to her mouth.

:Oh love, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think. I always have an egg sandwich when I’ve had one too many, does the trick lovely.

Welsh. That was her accent – it was the ‘lovely’ that did it. Rose was very Welsh.

‘Yeah, well, I had more than one too many.’

:Yes you did, love. From the look of all the bottles, you’re lucky you didn’t give yourself alcohol poisoning. Or choke to death.

‘Or unlucky.’

I muttered it under my breath. Maybe that would have solved everything. Rose had heard me, though, and she focussed sharply on my face.

:What’s that, love?

Shook my head and looked away.

:Hmm. Well I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to make you feel worse.

‘Yeah, well, anyway I need to get to the shop, so …’

I waggled my hand at the door again.

:Look, why don’t I do you some soup?

‘What?’

:Well you’re hungry, my flat is just by here, I have a tin of cream of chicken and some crusty bread. Two ticks, that’s all it’d take.

My mouth filled with spit just hearing about it, and my stomach contracted shamelessly. But talking with a stranger not really on my agenda.

‘Oh no, you’re OK, I need to get, um, other stuff.’

:Oh come on with you.

And for a second time she took my arm and led me away.

:I see you’ve cleaned yourself up a bit. By, you were a sight. And a smell. You might have to throw that sofa away, love, if we can’t get everything out of it. Maybe your carpet too. Did you see the air freshener I left? Anti-bacterial. Should help with some of it. I used it when next door’s cat got shut in while I was work – now there’s a smell you don’t want hanging around: rampant tom cat. I had some words to say about that, I can tell you …

I realised I might not have to do much talking.

Sitting at her kitchen table, chatter floated over me. Didn’t need to reply very often; single words were, thankfully, enough.

:So, how old are you love?

‘Nineteen.’

:Oh, same as my sister’s boy. They’re up in Pontypool. South Wales. Don’t see him much, he’s that age, aunties aren’t very cool are they? From round here are you?

‘No.’

:I’ve lived here fifteen years next February. Came down with my job and my husband. Worked for the gas company. In sales. He left and I stayed. Feels like home now. Like it here do you?

‘S’ok.’

And so she talked on as she heated the soup and cut the bread. Couldn’t focus on her words, the smell of the food was all I could think about, nausea and hunger battling for dominance. Finally it was ready and she placed the bowl in front of me, a spoon into my hand.

:Eat slow now, love. Small spoonfuls. No repeat performances, please.

I nodded. It was hard to go slowly, I was so hungry. The hot liquid slid down my throat and lined my stomach. The bread (:chew it all, love, you’ll choke) was crusty and soft and filling. She tidied and washed up while I ate, talking the whole time. No idea what she said. I finished the bowlful and sat up. Started to feel – what? Normal? Very, very far from normal. But my stomach was full, the waves of nausea were receding and my head throbbed a little less.

‘Thanks, er, Rose.’

:Hit the spot did it?

‘Yeah, very good.’

Really hoped she wasn’t expecting me to stay. I had reached the limits of small talk tolerance. But really didn’t want to offend her again.

:Tidy. Now, I want you to make a list of things I can get you from the shop.

‘What? No, honestly, this was fine. Great. Thanks. I’ll sort something out.’

Wasn’t sure why she was bothering, I’d been pretty awful to her. The soup had been great, I was starting to feel much better, and really just wanted to be left alone now.

:No arguments, love. You need supplies. You’re not in a state to go out. And those noisy buggers from yesterday might still be hanging about.

Hadn’t occurred to me, but I remembered the headline and photo in this morning’s paper.

‘I think they got what they wanted.’

:Hmm. Still, I want you to let me do this for you. It’s no trouble, I’m going for myself anyway.

‘Can’t find my wallet. This is all I’ve got.’

I held out the handful of coins I’d found earlier.

:Oh, that’s in a drawer, love, with your keys and your mobile phone. I found them on the floor last night. Put them away safe.

Sensed defeat. Didn’t have the energy to fight her right now.

‘I’ll go and get you some money then.’

:No rush, love. When I get back is fine. I know where you live.

She settled at the table, satisfied that she’d won the argument.

:Now, I think more soup and bread, easy and hearty, and fruit, keep up your vitamin C. Something for the microwave?

‘Haven’t got one.’

:No microwave?

Jay and Beth had bought me a microwave when I moved out, but I’d needed the money more.

‘Sold it.’

:Oh, alright then, love. Hmm, jacket potatoes then, nice and easy, just stick them in the oven. Bit of butter …

Automatic: ‘I can’t have butter.’

:Oh, you allergic?

‘No, I’m not allowed –’

Sudden realisation that no one would care any more if my highly formulated diet plan was ignored. New loss. Every situation, every conversation, mined with reminders. All started to crowd in on me again. Still couldn’t face the specifics, but lying on top of it all was a silent scream – it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone.

Rose carried on obliviously, organising a shopping list, filling in the gaps my silence created. A hand on my shoulder brought me back to now.

:Come on love, back to your own place. I won’t be long. And I’ll make sure I ring the bell this time.

She steered me through her front door to the stairs.

Back in my flat, tiredness overtook me again. Rose’s continual talking had propped me up, but with nothing to focus on, a full stomach and the continued, if muted, nausea and headache, I felt heavy and lethargic. Still didn’t want to think. Too much I didn’t want to think about. Sleep was appealing. Ignoring the sour odour from my bed, I lay down.

Dreaming. Flying over houses. Seeing Jay’s house, I fly down and in through a window. I watch us all making Sunday lunch. I’m teasing Cal, Jay is teasing us both and Beth is laughing. We eat together and play football in the garden afterwards. I fly down and help Cal score a goal. We go inside and sit down just as the doorbell…

Matt

It is dark. I can hear voices, but I cannot see anything. Mum seems to be talking to Beth. I do not know where I am, whether I am standing or lying, asleep or awake, alive or dead, and I fall …

Dec

…rang. I tried to cling on to the wisps of the dream, but it was gone. All of it. As if it had died. I curled up on the bed, wrapped in misery. Bell rang again. And again. Scythed through my insides.

Fuck. Off.’

Letterbox pushed open.

:Only me love. I’ve got your bits and pieces. I can just leave the bag here, but there’s things need to go in the fridge. Don’t leave it too long, it’ll go off.

Shit. I owed her money.

‘Wait’.

And I’d told her to fuck off. Again.

‘Sorry.’

Jumped off the bed, ignoring protesting head and aching limbs. Tripped over pile of clothes. Stumbled to the door and flung it open. She was just disappearing round the corner on the stairs.

‘Wait!’

Footsteps returned upwards and then she appeared round the corner.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. I was asleep. I’m so sorry.’

:Don’t worry, love. I didn’t take it personally. You still look asleep, if I’m honest. Anything else I can do?’

She reached the door, picked up the bag of shopping and gave it to me.

‘No, no, this is great. Lifesaver. Really.’

The gratitude was wearing me out.

:You know, love, I’m a bit of an interfering old bat, but you don’t seem right to me. Been on a hell of a bender, you’re all over the place, shouting and cursing, bunch of hooligans hanging around till all hours. None of my business I know. But do you need any help? Is there anything I can do? Tell me to wind my neck in if you like, and I will. Just asking because, well, you have to ask don’t you.

Still a worthless piece of shit. Didn’t deserve this. Tried to say ‘I’m fine’. Choked on the words. Lips trembled. Tears welled.

:Oh love, come on now. Why don’t you just tell me? I know I yap on a bit, but I stop and listen sometimes. Might do you good to talk about it.

Say it and it’s real. No way. Suddenly her attention was elsewhere.

:Hold on, is that you?

She bent down and picked up the paper I had thrown down earlier.

:This is you! Oh! You’re that lad from the rugby club aren’t you … oh! You poor love …

She stepped over to me and put her arms round me. I stiffened. Then felt myself crumple. Dropped the bag of shopping. She was short and stout, much shorter than me, but she somehow enfolded me. It seemed so long since anyone had cared how I felt. Beyond my control now to prevent it pouring out. Heaving sobs. Streams of hot tears. Choked incoherent half-words. Leaned on her and wept it all. Emptied myself. She talked the whole time

:There love. It’s alright. Shush now. You poor love. It’s alright. Shush now. There now. There now.

Weeping petered out into shudders. Stood back from her, head in hands. Embarrassed. Wiped face on sleeve. She patted my arm.

:Alright now, love. It’s alright.

I looked at her. Her face was wet too, and she fished in a pocket for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes

:By, you needed that didn’t you, love?

A shrug. A deep breath. A nod.

:Is your mam nearby?

Shook my head.

:Can you ring her?

Old, old sadness. Pushed it back down where it came from, with an effort, so I could say it without feeling it.

‘No … she’s dead.’

:Oh love, I’m so sorry. How about your dad.

‘Same.’

Her eyes filled up again.

:Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?

Made a quick mental list of people I had alienated deliberately and incidentally over the past days, weeks and months.

‘No.’

:Oh love, you must be so lonely. Now look, you can’t go on like this. You don’t look well. Your flat stinks, to be frank, and, well, you haven’t got much stuff have you? Haven’t most of you lads got playstations and computers and the like? You haven’t even got a telly.

‘Sold it.’

:Alright … whatever you say … but you can’t stay here on your own with no one to talk to. This trouble you’re in with the rugby club – I honestly can’t say I know much about it, just saw a bit on the local news when I was waiting for my programme. Isn’t there anyone there?

Felt rather than remembered Don’s words hitting me like a hammer. Remembered Jay’s we’re done.

‘Doubt it.’

Needed not to follow this line of conversation. Not ready to explore reality yet.

‘I can’t talk about it. Please don’t ask.’

:Alright love. But at least let’s make your flat a bit more liveable. Where’s that air freshener?

And she bustled off, spraying pine freshness over the couch, putting the shopping away in the kitchen, calling me into the bedroom to make me strip the bed and put my clothes in the washing machine, tidying and cleaning as she went. There wasn’t much to clean, most it of had gone to eBay, before I sold my laptop.

As Rose made a start on scrubbing the oven, I noticed a pile of mail on the table by the front door. Mostly junk mail, but one white envelope with a Raiders logo in the corner was hard to miss. I opened it slowly and read the contents

‘No, no, no, fuck no.’

:Everything alright love?

‘Today’s Thursday, right?’

:All day, love.

‘Shit. Fuck.’

:You do like a good swear don’t you. What’s the matter, love?

‘I should have been at the club yesterday. Meeting with the coach.’

:Well there’s not much you can do about missing it. Phone and explain. They’ll understand I’m sure.

‘Rose, I really am in a shitload of trouble. I can’t just not turn up when they tell me to. Especially if it’s because I was wasted.’

:Well it’s happened now. The longer you leave it, the worse it’ll be. Just ring. What have you got to lose?

She had a point.

‘Have you moved my phone?

:It’s in the drawer, with your keys, love.

I retrieved my mobile from the drawer where Rose had put it. There wasn’t much charge left. I ignored the alerts to a whole stack of missed calls and texts.

‘Thanks, but I actually meant the land-line Should be on the table here.’

Rose pointed at the wall next to the kitchen door, where there was a large dent, and scratches in the plaster.

:See that hole?

‘Yeah.’

:What was left of your telephone was in little bits underneath that hole, along with your answering machine. I threw it away. Don’t know if you threw it, kicked it, stamped on it or what, but there wasn’t enough left of it to do you much good.

Didn’t know what to say to that. No memory of it. So that left my mobile, and the hope that neither the battery nor the credit ran out before I’d finished the call.

The phone call was painful for all concerned. I knew the girls in the office pretty well, had tried my chat-up techniques out on a couple of them a few times, sometimes dropped in close to coffee time for a freebie. They obviously knew all about me, and were distant and professional. It hurt. I was put on hold while my message was relayed to Don.

*Mr Barker would like you to come in this afternoon.

‘Yeah, what time?’

*Four o’clock would suit him.

‘I’ll be there.’

It was early afternoon now. The buses to that side of town were sporadic and I’d have to walk the last bit along the dual carriageway. I needed to make myself presentable quite quickly.

:Well done love, see that was easier than you thought.

‘They were polite.’

:Well that’s good, isn’t it?

‘We used to have a laugh.’

:Oh, well, not so good then. You need a shave. And another shower wouldn’t go amiss. Have you got clean clothes?

And so Rose carried on organising me. Still a worthless piece of shit. But it seemed like someone might be willing to help me clean the pan when I’d flushed it all away.

I sat on the bus and tried not to think. This would be the ceremonial end of my Raiders career, which had been put out of its misery yesterday. I shied away from it. I dreaded and welcomed it. I didn’t deserve to keep it. And there was my passport and visa not to think about too. Don’s words, ‘implications for remaining in this country’, had shocked me at the time, but with everything else that had been said on Monday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend them, or even give them much attention until now. I couldn’t deal with it.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

I walked along the dual carriageway in a kind of trance. Up the hill to the club car park.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

Started to cross the car park to the players entrance. Became aware of someone walking across from me. It was Jay. The bombardment of questions from outside my front door last night surfaced, with “Anything to say about Jay Scott’s resignation? stopping my footsteps.

If Jay saw me, he ignored me and carried on walking towards his car. I called out to him. He didn’t look up. I ran towards him, needed to talk to him.

‘Jay. Please. I didn’t know – I found out – you’re not really going?’

He got into his car as if he hadn’t heard me, not even glancing in my direction.

‘I’m so sorry. I can’t believe how much I’ve fucked everything up.’

He shut the door, started the engine, put on his seat belt and drove away, all with a determinedly grim expression on his face. As I watched the car, the brake lights went on and then the reversing lights. The car came back towards me. When it drew level, the front window came down. Jay glanced at me, then turned to face forwards. He took a deep breath and began to speak, his voice getting louder as he became more angry.

łYou really are a fucking self-centred little prick. I don’t give a shit about you or your fucking miserable apologies. Not everything is about you. The world doesn’t fucking revolve around you. People don’t live or die because of you. Oh no, sorry, sometimes people do die because of you don’t they. Fuck you. The sun doesn’t shine out of your fucking arse any more. No one gives a shit about you, no one here, no one anywhere. Just fuck off Declan. Or Charlie. Or whatever fucking lying bastard name you’ve chosen today. You make me sick. Just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t talk to us, don’t call us. Go on, fuck off. Fuck off and die for all I care.

He revved the engine and the car roared away.

His words froze me. Could hardly breathe. We really were done. Slumped to the ground and leaned against a car. Completely numb. No thoughts. No tears. Not even any feelings. It all crashed around me.

>Please I need to get to my car.

Looked up, tried to focus. Nico Tiago. With an effort, pushed myself to my feet. Moved aside. He glanced at me before opening the driver’s door. Recognition. A closer look.

>Declan. You look like you see a ghost. Many ghosts. You are alright?

Nodded. He waited.

‘Appointment with Don.’

>Huh. OK. Good luck.

I started to walk across the car park. Feet of lead. From behind me:

>Wait. Don’t go in players’ entrance. There are reporters. They annoy everyone. We all use delivery door.

Changed direction. Got to Don’s office without meeting anyone else. Knocked.

-Yep.

Opened the door.

-Declan. Come on in. Take a seat.

Closed the door and sat down. Waited. Head still full of the bite of Jay’s words. Don breathed in deeply.

-We’ve been trying to get hold of you since Tuesday morning.

Forced myself back to now.

‘I know. Sorry. I’ve been, er, ill.’

Don glanced at something on his desk, and then looked back to me.

-Declan, we’re aware that this must all be very difficult for you. But we need to figure out a lot of things. We need to stay in contact with you. You need to answer your phone when we call you.

Flashback image of hurling my ringing phone across the lounge; stamping on it until the noise stopped. Memory returned, at least of that particular event.

‘My land-line’s broken.’

-Then you need to keep your mobile with you. OK?

My mobile had been in my pocket all the time, but I hadn’t been in any fit state to answer it. Now wasn’t the time to say that.

‘OK. Sorry.’

-Alright. In any case, you’re here now. I just wanted to talk to you about what’s been happening. We need to keep communicating. Don’t go out of contact again.

I nodded.

-Declan, when we spoke on Monday, it was quite an emotional time for us all. I want to update you on some things. It’s not all bad news. But it’s not all good, either. Firstly, I want to talk about the Community Project money. You said you were almost able to pay back the money you took. Can you explain?

‘I’ve been saving up, wages, sold my stuff, borrowed, anything. It’s taken longer than I thought. I’ve got most of it. About a thousand short. It’s in a bank account.’

The full extent of the amount I’d borrowed, who I’d borrowed it from and how long it was going to take me to pay it all back made my blood run cold, but that was for another day.

-I’ve been asking around. Over the past couple of months, you haven’t made yourself very popular here, you’ve borrowed a lot of money. Frankly, with the potential consequences of your passport, you’re even less popular right now. But nonetheless, we have decided that if you hand over the money you have, to the charities it was destined for, we won’t press charges. To be honest, I thought your borrowing was to add to what you took, not to try to replace it, and it makes a difference, knowing your motives. To my knowledge, your actions in this respect have not reached the press, so we should be able to keep it as an internal matter. This club prides itself on its community and charity links, and if this becomes general knowledge, it will damage our reputation. It is only for this reason we are not taking the matter further; if it becomes public, we may have to rethink.

I gaped. I had not expected anything other than a visit from the police. It was more, much more than I deserved.

‘That’s … I … thank you.’

-This isn’t a let off. Your conduct has been gravely unprofessional and risked the reputation of Raiders. But we felt we had to take into account your conduct prior to this incident, and your attempts to make good. Another development of this particular saga is that we have done some investigating and it appears that the man who died in your accident didn’t have any children.

‘Whoa – what?’

My jaw dropped and I just stared at Don with my mouth open.

-Did you actually check any of his story before handing over the money?

My brain was rapidly scrambling.

‘I … no. I … just … he seemed to know all about it. I was … fuck … I’m a fucking idiot.’

I carried on berating myself silently. Don had a grim look on his face.

-Well I think your chances of recovering any money from him are non-existent, so in effect you have given away ten thousand pounds of your own money to a complete stranger.

Fucking, fucking idiot.

To say I hope you’ve learned your lesson would be very much an understatement. As a club we are going to draw a line under this, but obviously you still have some way to go to make things right. However, the other issues we discussed when we last met continue to be concerning. Concealing criminal proceedings, giving us an invalid passport, and taking the money in the first place are matters of grave concern to me. You have made some serious errors of judgement and have not used the support network available to you through the club to communicate with us about what’s been going on with you. I’m afraid we are not looking very favourably at this. Missing your appointment yesterday was an extra consideration.

Don glanced to his desk again. Following his glance this time I saw the local paper folded on his desk, ‘Summers Storm Rocks Raiders’ headline uppermost. Hidden underneath, the telling photo of me in all my glory. Don was well aware of why I had been out of contact.

-I think it may be difficult, for Raiders and for you, for us to work together in the future. You have severely damaged your relationship with the club. You should know that we are considering terminating your contract. For the time being you will remain suspended, for the time being on full pay, but will meet regularly with Stuart Clarke, who is taking over as backs coach. You are aware that Jay is leaving us?

A miserable nod. Thought again about Jay venting his disgust at me from his car.

-I think you should be aware that if Jay were staying, you would not be returning in any capacity. Stuart is going out on a limb to make sure we all have the chance to make something work with you. We will see how things have progressed in a few weeks and review it then. We want to try to re-establish some kind of trust in you; you are a promising young player and until recent events we had been very happy with your progress. But we are not willing to risk the wider club for your sake. So you have a lot of hard work to do, and I think it will be an uphill struggle. You have alienated a great many of the players, coaching staff and people working throughout the club, and it may not be possible to get to a point where we think it will work. A lot of it depends on your attitude and the amount of work you put in. But it will ultimately be a club decision. In the meantime, you need to keep fit. The conditioning team have drawn up a training programme for you. You will not be able to use the club gym, or any of your club memberships to affiliated facilities. In fact all your privileges as a Raiders player are suspended. You will not come to Raiders premises unless specifically invited by me or Stuart.

Another glance at the newspaper. He picked it up and turned the back page to face me.

-This type of image is not acceptable in a Raiders shirt. It is not acceptable from a Raiders player. I want you to lay off the alcohol. Completely. Do you understand all this?

‘I think so. I mean, yeah. I understand. I’m sorry.’

My head was spinning. I had thought everyone would feel the same as Jay, had truly expected to be dismissed. It wasn’t far from it, maybe only a few more weeks until it happened, but there was a tiny glimmer of hope. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Wasn’t sure I could even remember it all.

-It’s a lot to take in, I know. I will get a letter sent to you outlining the main points of our discussion today, and a copy of your training schedule. I also want to talk through your visa situation. We have looked into your passports. It appears that you would qualify for dual nationality, but that your British passport was not correctly registered. It still means that Raiders are likely to be punished for having you on our books as a British citizen, especially having played in that game last season. But I think it can be sorted out so you don’t need a visa. You just need to sign some forms and give us both your passports. Our legal guys are doing the rest. Declan, you were this close to potentially being deported. I hope you appreciate how serious this is.

I nodded. I had never really paid much attention to my passports, or the legal significance of which one I used. I thought of myself as Australian. I knew there were complicated rules about foreign players, but it never occurred to me that any of them applied to me. I had been extremely naïve, and very lucky. It made me feel sick to think how close I may have come to being sent back to Australia, where I knew nobody.

‘Thank you. I … I know I’ve caused a huge amount of trouble. It’s generous of the club to help me out. It’s more than I deserve.’

Don nodded.

-There is just one other thing.

He leaned back and steepled his hands under his chin.

-Jay is aware we are meeting today, and has asked me to pass on to you a request that you do not try to see him or contact him or his family.

His words stung me. The realisation that I had lost, no, thrown away what Jay and his family had given me caused me physical pain. If he didn’t want me to contact them, I wouldn’t. But I could hardly believe I wasn’t going to be able to see them or talk to them again. It wasn’t just Jay, but Beth, and Cal … it was unbearable. Don was still speaking, and I dragged my attention back to him with an effort.

-Jay’s last day with us is tomorrow. Declan, of all the outcomes of your actions, the rift you have caused between you and Jay is the one I think you will regret the most. I personally feel that the amount of trouble you find yourself in stems from not going to Jay, or someone else from the club, from the start. This might all be behind you by now if you had. You would both have had the support you need. And we may still have had our backs coach. You have burned many bridges in the last few months. I hope this isn’t the one that proves most catastrophic.

He took a deep breath and sat up.

-OK. I think that’s enough for now. Go home and sort yourself out. Turn your phone on.

He stood up and indicated the door.

It was getting dark by the time I crossed the car park. There were a few cars left, but most people would be gone by now. As I passed a red Honda, a window wound down.

>Hey, Declan.

It was Nico Tiago. I stopped, surprised.

>I wait for you. I worry. You look horrible before.

‘I’m OK.’

>You look horrible still.

‘Hangover.’

>Ha! I understand. Meeting Don with hangover is never good. I do this before. He always know!

I smiled grimly, pretty sure that none of Nico Tiago’s hangovers had been plastered over the back pages of the local paper.

>You want a lift home?

‘Oh, no, you’re OK, I’m getting the bus.’

>I am quicker. Get in.

‘But –’

He opened the passenger door and gestured me round the car.

‘OK, thanks’.

Something else a worthless piece of shit like me didn’t deserve. Added it to the tab. As we pulled away, he asked

>How was the meeting?

I thought back over the twists and turns. It had been a bit of a roller coaster. Hadn’t sorted through it all properly yet.

‘Had its moments. Not all bad. Not much good.’

>You stay here?

‘Suspended. On some kind of probation.’

>Probation?

‘Er, have to behave myself, work hard, still might have fucked it all up in the end.’

>Huh. There is hope for you then.

‘I guess. I’m pretty lucky to still have my job, for now, and not be on the next plane to the other side of the world.’

>Don send you away?

‘You know I fucked up my passport? It’s complicated. I could have been deported, let alone all the grief I’ve caused Raiders.’

It started to dawn on me how close I had been. I couldn’t think about it. Pushed it away.

>Declan, this sound bad. Is OK now? I know passport is important, rules for playing are hard to understand.

‘I think it’s sorted.’

>Good. Where you live?

I gave him directions.

>Oh is near my gym. I do extra training in the week, they have a great trainer there, he used to work for Raiders. Do you go there?

‘No. But I … guess I might have to.’

I told him about the fitness conditions of my suspension.

>I take you sometime. You come as my guest, I introduce to you Luke.

His offer was unbelievably kind. I struggled to accept it. I didn’t deserve anyone’s help. I deserved to fuck off and die.

‘Thanks’ was all I could manage.

>Great. I let you know. I turn off here?

The rest of the journey was taken up with lefts and rights and mini-roundabouts. As we pulled up outside:

>See you soon.

As I opened the passenger door:

>Hey Declan, be careful of yourself.

I nodded and walked to the front door as he drove away. Paused before putting the key in the lock. Turned and walked down the road to the park.

Sat on a bench in the dark, allowing myself to think. The aches, pains and fog from the vodka were fading, and I could feel some coherence returning. I felt anonymous in the dark. It was good to disappear.

Seeing Jay, feeling the full force of his anger, had brought home to me just how much I had thrown away. I’d cost him his job, one way or another, and I had to accept it was over with me and his family. They were gone, I had no one again. I had done it to myself.

I had thought everything else would be gone by now, but there was just that tiny bit of hope. I was still clinging on to being part of Raiders, just barely. I could feel a cliff-side facing me. I would have to swallow a lot of pride and face a lot of scorn if I was going to climb it. And I still might get thrown from the top, even if I made it up there. I sat for a while longer. Then I went home to start climbing.

Back in my flat, I plugged my mobile into the charger (also in the drawer, put there by Rose). Avoided all the messages for now, but would have to go through them eventually to clear some space. Sat on the couch – there was a lingering hint of the excesses of the past few days, but Rose must have emptied about five cans of air freshener onto it, as it predominantly smelt strongly of pine.

The doorbell went. Through the letterbox:

:It’s Rose. I heard you come in. How did it go?

‘Do you want to come in?’

:Ooh I would, love, but not if you’re busy.

I opened the door. She bustled into the room, looking about her, probably trying to find things to tidy up. She sat on the sofa. It was a bit cosy for two relative strangers, so I sat on the floor.

:Cuppa wouldn’t go amiss, mind.

‘Yeah, sure, coming up.’

I got up off the floor, noting as I did so how much easier moving around had become in the last couple of hours. The pounding headache had reduced to a dull throb that mingled with the shame, guilt and misery. I pushed it all down and tried not to feel any of it.

Rose chatted away as I made the tea, telling me about some run in with a neighbour, filling the spaces with fluff and meaninglessness and wonderful irrelevance. I felt my mood lifting a little bit. It was almost imperceptible, but I had spent so long on my own, having to keep my thoughts to myself, looking after myself, overthinking everything, that having Rose’s talk as a buffer sheltered me from the intensity of it all. I handed her the tea.

:So how did it go, then? I hope you don’t mind, I read that bit in the paper about you. Not a good photo, love, and you don’t really come off that well in the rest of it I must say. Don’t put much store by everything I read in the papers, but you really do seem to be in a heap of it.

And easy as that it was several steps backwards. Mood crashed. Climbing the cliff was going to be a slow process.

‘I haven’t read the paper, but I should think most of it was true.’

:By, you must have been through it in the past few months then, love.

‘All my own fault really.’

:Was there nobody who could help you?

‘My mates all play for Raiders. I couldn’t tell them, the club would have found out.’

:What about one of the older ones? I always used to tell my nephew to tell a teacher if he was in trouble.

‘Same thing. I had to keep it to myself.’

:I’m sure you had your reasons. Seems a shame, though, young lad like you with all this on your shoulders. No family around?

‘Not really, not now.’

Jay, Beth and Cal had become my family, and I’d blown that one out of the water. My eyes suddenly stung with tears. I hadn’t seen Cal for weeks. He was like a little brother, annoying, cheeky, wisdom of a five year old, we had fun times. After today with Jay, I knew it was unlikely I would ever see him again.

:What is it love?

I wiped my eyes.

‘Sorry Rose, I can’t keep crying all over you. Not good for my man points.’

:Don’t you worry about that, got broad shoulders I have. Want to tell me, love?

And, surprising myself, I did. I told her about how I’d arrived in the city three years ago, on a rugby scholarship. I was sixteen then, so one of the conditions was that I lived with a family to start with. Jay had volunteered; as new backs coach, he had told me he felt he was well placed to oversee the development of a potential Raiders centre.

It had been a rocky start. I wasn’t used to doing as I was told, having been in and out of different foster homes after my parents died when I was thirteen. I was pretty awful to begin with, if I’m honest; bad language, outbursts, hanging out with all sorts of weird people to get a reaction, wagging school on a regular basis. Jay and Beth were solid, though, always seemed to know how to handle my moods, tempers and rudeness. They seemed to understand me, and treated me as part of their family. I should have moved on after a few weeks, found something more permanent, but I liked it there, I liked them, and it just never happened.

As we trusted each other more, I calmed down a bit and began to enjoy being part of all that. Calum – Cal – was two when I arrived, now five, and he felt like the little brother I’d never had. Jay and I messed about like mates sometimes, but I knew where I stood with him, and he didn’t take any shit from me. Beth kept me in line with the odd word or disappointed look if I was getting out of hand, but she was great to talk to, for advice, chats, gossip about the rest of the team. I think I was a bit of a project for her; she liked a challenge.

Jay gave me no preferential treatment at the club, never gave my mates reason to shout ‘unfair’, never treated me any differently at work from anyone else. Same bollockings when I’d messed up, same praise when I’d done well. He was Scotty at work and Jay at home.

I became pretty settled. I’d progressed through the scholarship to the academy and was possibly on the verge of breaking into the first team. Life had been good.

‘And then I fucked it all up. Sorry. I know I swear a lot. Just comes out.’

:Don’t worry love, a good swear can help sometimes.

Rose had listened without interrupting through the story, which was a minor miracle. She had obviously been bursting with questions though.

:But where did it, I mean how … it sounds like such a lovely home … what did you –

‘Are you trying to ask exactly how I fucked it all up?’

:Yes, love, I suppose I am. But if it’s hard for you to talk about, you don’t have to.

I thought about it. Found a way.

‘OK, I’ll give you the short version, but I don’t think I can do details, it’s too hard.’

:Alright love, no nosy questions, I promise.

‘OK … I had a car accident. A man died. There was an inquest. Couldn’t tell anyone. Used the wrong passport as ID, which will affect Raiders, and could have got me kicked out of the country. Stole money to help the son – no – the person I thought was the son of the man who died. Couldn’t tell anyone. Moved out so I didn’t have to face telling Jay and Beth. Avoided everyone I know by telling them I’m doing a college course that keeps me busy. Told so many lies to so many people. I saw Jay today. He told me to fuck off and die. He’s leaving Raiders because of me, I don’t know where he’s going. I’ll probably never see them again.’

I pushed it down far enough that I managed to say it without getting emotional, but it still hurt pretty badly.

:Oh, love.

A silence. Rose had promised not to ask questions, but was likely to have hundreds.

:You know, I don’t even know your real name. The paper said you’re Declan, but also Charlie. Which one are you?

‘Well, I’ve been Declan for a while now. I was Charlie before. It’s what my parents called me. That’s why the passport stuff is so bloody complicated. Don’t really know who the fuck I am now.

:What does everyone call you?

‘Bloody troublemaker probably. Declan is fine.’

:Alright, then, love. So, Declan, I want to know how your meeting with your boss went today.

‘Oh … so-so. Not lost my job yet, but likely will in a few weeks. Suspended, got to work hard on trying to get them to trust me again to have a chance.’

:Well, to me that says it’s not all doom and gloom then, if they didn’t give you your marching orders this afternoon.

‘No. I was expecting them to, really, but they’ve been pretty fair. Amazingly fair. Really helpful with sorting out my passport. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.’

:Well I think that’s encouraging. Having a reasonable boss is important – I remember when I worked in Ponty for a solicitors, ooh now there was a boss you wouldn’t want. He had me working all hours …

And she was off again. Rose seemed to have a knack for sensing when I had reached my limits in a conversation, and could immediately launch into a lengthy story behind which I could hide and drift away. She didn’t seem to expect me to contribute to this, just to appear to be listening politely, for which I was very grateful. I hid and drifted.

: … so anyway, eventually I told him where to stick his plastic yucca plant, and walked out. Can you imagine?

‘Yes, Rose, I can imagine.’

:Now, I’ve bent your ear long enough, love. I’ll wash this cup up and be out of your hair.

‘No need, I can wash it up. I’m really feeling a lot better.’

I took the cup from her and took it into the kitchen. She was by the front door when I came out. I needed to say it.

‘Rose, before you go, can I just say, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’ve been great and I am very grateful. I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused you the last couple of days, how rude I was to you, I don’t know why you’ve helped me, I don’t deserve it.’

:Oh love, don’t ever say that. We should all help each other, it’s not about deserving. But you’re welcome. I like looking after people, I’m good at it. Which reminds me, I’m bringing you a telly tomorrow.

‘What?’

:Well I can’t have you sitting here staring at that big dent in the wall all day. You need something to look at, even if it’s only Countdown. I’ve got a spare in my guest room. You can borrow that.

I laughed – first time I had done that for a while.

‘Go home Rose. You’re fucking amazing.’

I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and shut the door behind her.

As I was closing the door, my phone beeped. It reminded me of all the texts and messages I needed to sort through. Not a prospect I relished. But the longer I left it the worse it would be – that cliff I’d imagined rose up above me, getting taller all the time, and the only way to make it look any less intimidating was to climb up it.

Steeling myself, also realising I couldn’t miss any more calls from Raiders, I unplugged the phone from the charger and took it to the sofa. Started with the texts. I had too many to deal with one by one, so I deleted all the spam and numbers only, then checked the names on the rest. Many from mates from the club. Many of them people I owed money to. Checked a couple. Not complimentary.

Big: =Thanks 4 losing Scotty 4 us. Twat.

Mikey: =Wot u finking? Cheers 4 pts deduction.

DivDav: =Fuck off, wanker. Don’t call me.

Danno: =Where’s my £500? U said this week.

Hurtful. Not unexpected. The younger players at the club were a tight knit group, with girlfriends included. There were messages from some of the girls too, which seemed to be fishing for more information in the guise of sympathy.

Cara: =Hope u ok. Wanna talk?

Sarah: =RUOK? Call me 2 chat.

Katie: =UOK hun? Need my money back soon. Txt me.

After scanning a few and sensing a theme I deleted all of those ones. I had borrowed money from most of my mates, and could understand how they must be feeling. Just didn’t want to read it all.

There were some texts from senior players who had my number, most asking me to get in touch with Don. There had obviously been a concerted effort to contact me. Some of them had added their thoughts on my actions. Not pleasant reading. Read it all anyway. One text from an anonymous number caught my eye before I deleted it.

No number: =Payback.

After the texts, I went through my voice-mails A few from some of my mates on Monday evening, trying to find me, after seeing me having my heart-to-heart in the changing room with Jay earlier in the day. A few from them all again, early on Tuesday morning having found out what had been going on and having a go at me. Easy to delete, but not before their anger and hurt filtered through. Several messages on Tuesday morning from various Admin staff, then more senior office staff and eventually Don sounding extremely angry and telling me to:

-Get your arse to the club right now.

Don rarely (for an ex-rugby player) swore, and even more rarely lost his temper. I realised anew how lucky I had been to keep my job. I went through the messages and texts systematically, trying to distance myself from the anger in them all.

Saved one of them till last. Voicemail from Monday afternoon. From Beth. Hardly dared play it. Finger hovered over the delete button for a long time. She deserved her say. Pressed play.

From long ago and far away:

_Dec, please can you ring me? I can’t get hold of James. He’s left me a message, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he sounds really upset. I’m worried. I think he said something about you, but I couldn’t really hear him. I’m really worried. Please ring me, sweetheart. Do you know where he is? What’s happened? I’m so worried. Please ring me and let me know you’re both alright.

Took a long time to process that one. It was from a time before she knew I’d fucked it all up, when she still cared. Played it again, to hear her voice, talking to me as if I was only across town and not across a chasm. Played it again. And again. And cried. And listened again. So, so wanted to call her, both of them. I missed them, so much. Worthless, worthless piece of shit.

There’s only so long you can huddle in the dark on a couch that stinks of pine, feeling sorry for yourself, before it occurs to you that you’d be better off in bed.

Hauled myself off the sofa and into the bedroom, stripped my clothes off and got under the duvet. Sleep didn’t come. Too many swirls and tangents inhabiting my mind. Things I should and shouldn’t have said or done. Damning myself for every one of the mistakes I had made that had led me here. Imagining, torturing myself with ways it could have been different.

Underneath it all, Beth’s voice from last night:

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

And Jay’s:

łFuck off and die for all I care.

Curled myself into a ball and sobbed my wretchedness into the pillow. Must have fallen asleep eventually.

Dreaming. I am flying. Flying over a beach in Australia. There is a family on a picnic rug. Mum, Dad and me. I wave at my smaller self, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly off over the sea. Fly and fly, high as the wind. After a long time, another beach, another country. Another picnic rug. Jay, Beth and Cal. I wave at Cal, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly down onto the beach to join them. We all build sandcastles with Cal, then lie down on the rug, looking up at the sky. The sun gets in my eyes and…

Matt

I am running. Running across fields, running along beaches, running up hills, running through streets. Ahead is a cliff, but I do not stop running, I run towards it, to the edge, where I jump high in the air, and I fall …

Dec

…woke me up. I hadn’t pulled the curtains last night, and the sun was shining on my pillow. Shut my eyes again, hoping to find traces of the dream behind my eyelids. It was long gone, leaving me bare and raw The desolation settled somewhere under my ribcage.