134. I’m on my way

In which facing a difficult truth results in a plan, and help is at hand for a friend in need.

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Cal

The weeks and months to come saw more of us coming to the same conclusion about Matty; that he was getting worse, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight off many more bouts of pneumonia. His MS never seemed to relent these days, and it took away more and more of his coordination and strength. He found it harder to use his computers, and even things like lifting a cup to drink coffee were hard sometimes.

There were lots of discussions about it, some including Matty, but most not, because he got so mad at us. So we talked to each other, none of us wanting to say the thing we were all dreading, that one day soon we were going to be without Matty. Then we all got a text from Lau.

Please be at Beth and Jay’s for six. Lau x

All of us who could be there, were, and Tom had set up Facetime for Iz, Gracie, Ella and Nico. I had no doubt I was one of the few who didn’t know what it was about, but I’d had to come straight from training, and hadn’t had a chance to ask anyone. I was the last to arrive, and everyone was sitting in Mum and Dad’s living room, looking like they weren’t having a fun time.

‘Hi Cal. Thanks for coming flower. Josh, budge up and let Cal sit down.’

‘It’s OK, Lau, I’m not a geriatric yet, I’ll go on the floor.’

I plopped down next to Chrissie, lifting Conor off her knee and giving him a big cuddle. Mum was holding Lily, who was asleep. Typical that the child who never slept was now sleeping like an angel.

‘That’s everyone, then, Laura. Tom, can everyone see everyone on the screen?’

‘Yeah, it’s all good. Whenever you’re ready, Lau.’

‘Thanks for doing that, flower. OK, well thanks all for coming. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and because of some of the things I’ve talked to some of you about, we’ve had this idea. Oh, it’s about Matt. It’s going to be hard for me to say, and I’ve left him on his own, so I’m just going to say it fast, and then I’m going to go home and let you all sort it out, I hope that’s OK.’

I didn’t have a clue what she was going to say, but it didn’t sound like anything good. I’d never seen Lau nervous; she was trembling, and Josh put a steadying hand on her arm as she spoke.

‘OK, here’s the thing. Matt’s slowly getting worse, and it’s getting to the point where we need to think about what we do, how we tell each other, when things get really bad. I don’t think I’m going to be able to call all of you and say it, I just don’t think I’ll be able to get the words out, when the time comes.’

‘Laura, you say as if Matty he is soon to be not with us?’

This was Nico, who hadn’t seen Matty face to face for a while, and who was Facetiming from Argentina. Lau turned and looked at the computer screen, which was split into three and showed Nico, Iz with Gracie, and Ella.

I glanced at Ella, who was looking scared, and at Iz, who had her arm round Gracie. Fuck, this was a hard conversation to be having. I looked around at everyone else. Dec looked like he wanted to be anywhere else, and Amy was holding his hand really tightly. Gran looked so, so sad. Mum was looking at Lau and I could almost feel the mental strength she was sending her. Dad was looking at his knees. Josh still had his hand on his mum’s arm and was nodding slightly. Charlie had actually put her phone away, and looked more thoughtful than was usual. Tom was fiddling with a computer lead, and Rosa looked like she might cry any minute. Chrissie put her hand on my shoulder and gripped it hard. Lau swallowed, and then answered Nico.

‘Well, I think it’s something we all need to think about. Every time he gets a cold, it’s really bad, and he gets weaker, and although we try really hard to keep him germ-free, we just never know. I’m sorry, Nico, we just don’t know how long he’s got. The stubborn git could go on for years, just to annoy me, but I think we need to be prepared.’

‘Laura, to hear this I am sorry.’

‘Thanks, flower, but I just need to get through this. We’ll talk later.’

Lau took a deep breath and carried on.

‘So anyway, this is hard enough, saying it now, but I want you all to know, to give you some warning, and Matt wants that too. He knows I’m here doing this, it was kind of his idea, well, ours. He’s called it The Chain. What it means is that when it’s obvious that he hasn’t … got much longer, only one person has to make one call to one person, who then calls another person, so none of us have to keep saying it. That’s part one, and then part two, when … it’s all over, the same thing. Oh God …’

Lau stopped and held her hand to her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut and breathing hard through her nose. Josh on one side of her and Dad on the other put their arms round her.

‘I’m OK. I’m just going to finish this then I’m going. I’m nearly done. So that’s it, two chains, two bits of information. I’d suggest the fewer words the better, I know some of you are going to find it hard to say anything at all.’

Lau looked at Dec as she said this.

‘So please, work out who calls who and what you say, so we all know where we are. Thanks for coming, you are all so good.’

She stood up, picked up her bag and left the room. Mum stood up, giving Lily back to Chrissie, and went to the door with her, but she came back after a moment and sat down. We all looked at her.

‘Why are you all looking at me?’

‘Because you’re usually the one who organises who does what, Mum. You’ve been text-bossing us all about when we go to see Matty, this is just a step up from that.’

‘Maybe one day, Iz, I’ll just stop organising you all and you’ll have to do it for yourselves.’

‘Maybe one day, Mum. But you’re so gonna do this.’

Mum sighed. ‘Oh I suppose so.’

While Iz and Mum were distracting themselves with their bickering, the rest of us were looking at each other, different expressions of discomfort reflected on our faces.

For Lau to have done this, got us all together and said what she did, things with Matty must be really serious. It was time to unbury our heads from the sand and take a good look at what we needed to do. It was so like both of them to do this, give us time to face it, make a plan, spell it out for us, rather than it being a shock at the last minute. However, it was still a shock. I could see it most on Dec’s face; his eyes were wide, he had gone pale and his chest was moving fast as his breathing became shallower. I held Conor tightly to me and waited for Mum.

Mum closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath and then looked around at us all, including the four people on the computer screen.

‘Well. I suppose it’s down to me, then. James, can you get me some paper and a pen?’

Dad looked up, as if he’d been in another world.

‘What?’

‘Paper and pen, please, so I can write down what we decide, and then send it out to everyone.’

‘Oh. Where’s the paper?’

Dad wasn’t just being his usual unhelpful self. He wasn’t as obvious about his emotions as Dec, but he looked like someone had just hit him with a hard object, and he was having trouble focussing.

‘Try your office? The printer?’

‘Oh. Yeah. OK.’

Dad hauled himself to his feet and walked out of the room. We could hear him cross the hall and open the door to his office, then the door closed. We all sat in silence, waiting. This was eerie. We were never quiet, there was always noise and fighting and kidding about, but usually Matty was at the centre of it. Now he was at the centre of this weird silence.

Mum waited impatiently, jiggling a foot and tutting every few seconds. Eventually she lost the ability to wait any longer.

‘Cal, can you go and see what he’s doing in there? I only want a sheet of paper.’

I didn’t see why I had to go, she was as capable of going as me, but Mum always liked to be the one dishing out the orders, and this didn’t seem like the time to be arguing. I stood up, deposited Conor on the closest unoccupied knee, which happened to be Josh’s, and went to fetch Dad.

I could hear him from the hall. He was crying. Shit. I hadn’t seen my dad cry for years, and then it was because of Matty, when he was so ill back in Stafford. I hesitated for a few moments, unsure whether I should go in, but if I didn’t, Mum would send someone else, or worse, come herself, and Dad didn’t need that.

I opened the door to the office and walked over to the printer, doing my best not to notice Dad, who had startled when I entered and tried to wipe his eyes. I grabbed a few sheets of paper, and a pen from the desk, put my hand briefly on Dad’s shoulder as I passed, then shut the door behind me as I left the room.

It shook me up, knowing Dad wasn’t handling it. Dad handled everything the same way – without any drama. He hardly seemed to take in a lot of what went on, and did as Mum told him with varying levels of irritability and bewilderment.

I needed a few deep breaths before I went back into the living room and handed the pen and paper to Mum.

‘Where’s your dad?’

‘Give him a moment. He’ll be back in a bit.’

I hoped Mum would be able to read between the lines and give Dad space without making a big deal of it. She didn’t look pleased, but didn’t say anything else, just took the things I gave her.

‘Right then, so we just need to decide who’s going to tell who, and what we’re going to say. Obviously Laura will be the first, so who is going to be the one she calls?’

None of us wanted to be that person, so we all looked at our shoes, until Josh spoke.

‘Me. If she calls anyone, it should be me, shouldn’t it.’

Josh was only twenty-one. He was handling this with a dignity I would have expected from a much older person. To be honest, I would have expected Mum to volunteer to be the first, the one who got it all going, but she hadn’t. Maybe she had her own thoughts on the matter and was just waiting for the right people to come to the right conclusions. She looked at Josh tenderly.

‘Josh, sweetheart, this is hard, I know, but yes, I think your mum would like you to be the one she tells.’

Josh nodded and squared his shoulders. Maybe his chin quivered a little, but no one mentioned it. I saw him look at Ella, who was looking back from the computer screen. Ella was always off somewhere – this country, other countries, frequently not contactable – so if Lau wanted one of her children to be top of the list of people who she told when Matty was in trouble, then Josh was right, it was going to have to be him.

‘And I’ll tell Ells, if she’s somewhere with a signal.’

‘I’m not leaving the country now, Joshy. You’ll be able to get hold of me.’

Josh nodded.

‘Maybe one of you would call me, or text me?’

Mum looked from Josh to Ella. This was obviously where she felt she fitted in.

‘I will, Beth. But Ells, you can call Nana April, yeah?’

April wasn’t there, I didn’t know why.

As Ella nodded at Josh, Dad walked back in and took his seat on the sofa. His eyes were red and the hair around his face was wet, as if he’d splashed his face. He locked eyes with Mum, and they had a momentary silent conversation which ended with him shaking his head very slightly.

‘James, we’ve just sorted the first bit out. Josh is going to call Ella and me. I’ll call you, you can call –’

‘No one.’

‘But you’ve got to –’

‘No, Beth. I can’t.’

‘James –’

‘No. I won’t physically be able to do it.’

They had a brief stare-off, which to my astonishment ended with Mum dropping her eyes and nodding at the sheet of paper in her lap.

‘Alright, then. I’ll call Dec. Dec, you can –’

‘I can’t either, Beth. Shit, do you have any idea how fucking hard it’s going to be to make that call? I won’t be able to get a single fucking word out.’

Mum’s lips went thin and tight, like they always did when she wasn’t getting her own way.

‘Yes, Dec, I do have an idea how hard it’s going to be. That’s why we’re doing this, so Laura doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone, so Josh doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone. We’re doing it for them, and to make it just a little easier for everyone.’

‘Hon, just call me. Or text me. We’ll think of one word. You’ll probably be with me anyway, then you won’t have to call anyone.’

Ever the peacekeeper, Amy was stroking the back of Dec’s neck and holding his hand tightly. Her softly spoken words seemed to soothe him, and he swallowed a couple of times, then nodded once.

The rest of the chain was decided, along with our code word, which was Tottenham. It made us smile to think of Matty having the last word in that way, and it was also a word that would be extremely unlikely to be said or texted, on its own, by mistake.

Usually when we all got together, there was food and laughter, but as soon as we’d sorted everything out, including the second chain, which included more people to tell and how to do it, we couldn’t stay there feeling miserable about Matty and we went home.

Chrissie put Lily to bed as soon as we got in, and I got Conor into his PJs and read him a story, waiting for Chrissie to come down so she could say goodnight to him.

‘Hey little man, you’re lovely and ready for bed tonight. Daddy’s done a great job with you.’

Conor lifted his arms to Chrissie and she hoisted him up, holding him close and looking at me over his shoulder.

‘Are you OK, Cal?’

I shrugged. It had been an emotional evening, and it was going to take a while to sort through it all.

‘Not sure. I’m not ready for Matty to be this close.’

‘We don’t really know how close he is.’

‘Pretty close, if Lau’s making arrangements.’

‘They’re just being organised.’

‘Yeah, maybe. I can’t imagine it, though … you know, after.’

‘We’ll all help each other. Wasn’t Josh amazing?’

‘Yeah, he’s pretty grown up. Must take after Lau, because Matty’s still seven years old at heart. That’s why he finds all this so hard, his body letting him down, not getting his own way any more’

‘Lau’s got a young soul too. You know what she told me? It must have only been a few months ago, Matt was having a good day, they locked the doors, turned off their phones –’

‘Let me stop you before you scar me for life – again – with the goings on at number forty seven. Jesus, ill or not, Matty’s fifty-six for fuck’s sake.’

‘So? That doesn’t mean anything. I hope we’re still going strong when we’re that age, and older. It was in the garden, by the way. On the swing chair. All the neighbours were out.’

‘Chrissie! Stop! Put Conor to bed or something.’

I put both my hands over my ears and started to ‘la la la’ loudly. Conor, who had been drowsing on Chrissie’s shoulder, roused briefly and looked at me with those solemn two-year-old eyes, as if to say ‘I’ll never understand grown ups’. Then he closed his eyes again, as Chrissie carried him up the stairs. I could hear her chuckling and humming to Conor as she put him into bed.

Later that night, although Chrissie had kidded me out of feeling low about Matty, I hadn’t been able to get Lau out of my mind. What she and Matty had done for us was pretty amazing, when I thought about it; to make sure we all knew exactly what to do when we needed to, no dithering, just all follow the plan, and to make us think about it, face what was going to happen sooner or later. It had taken a lot of courage.

I looked at the time. Late-ish, but Lau would still be up. No idea about Matty – he seemed to spend half his life asleep these days, but that often meant he kept weird hours.

Hi Lau. U OK?

So-so flower. Weird evening. Thx 4 asking.

Need 2 talk?

Not right now. Might call u tmrw. Matt says hi.

From that, I gathered that Lau could do with offloading to someone, but Matt was awake and in the vicinity. They talked to each other about pretty much anything, but I knew that Lau tried to be as upbeat and optimistic with Matty as she could. Matty still tended towards blaming himself for everything, and if Lau got upset, he’d feel guilty.

U no where I am.

Thx flower x

Laura

Matt had several run-ins with pneumonia. Each one weakened him, sapped his energy, took longer to recover from, stole a part of his soul. He lost so much weight, he was barely skin and bone, but he stayed with me, his humour and his love shining out of his big grey eyes. He had bad days, when it was too much and he could only cry and rage about it, but dark Matt never came back to stay.

It tore at me to see it eating away at him, reducing his physical being to a shell, so dependent, and so hating it. But he put up with it for me. When he was bad I sat and held his hand, and when he wasn’t quite so bad we’d do as much as we could together, whether it was a crossword or watching a TV show or sitting and commenting on the Sunday papers, or if it was a really good day, going out to the park and watching the dogs and making up stories about the people walking by and laughing, always laughing.

Cal

It wasn’t long after that horrible awkward evening where we all had to confront an approaching sadness we’d been trying to avoid thinking about, that I heard from Baggo. He’d been out of the country for a few months, of all things on a tour of Europe with his band. They’d had some minor success locally and picked up some interest from a management company, who had arranged a recording studio for an EP, and a twelve week tour of the less discerning clubs in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. I’d seen Baggo for a bit of a send-off before he went; he’d been full of it all, but underneath I could see he was torn about leaving Jen and Daisy. He’d taken unpaid leave from his job, and was keen to tell me it was worth it, because …

‘What if we hit the big time? What if I didn’t go, and they got another singer, and they hit the big time, and here am I, left behind, dead end job, while they get all the glory?’

‘Are you likely to hit the big time in Belgium?’

‘Who the fuck knows, Cal? Some people do. You know I’ve always wanted to sing.’

Well I knew he’d always sung. It wasn’t until the last few years, when he’d made a few quid here and there at gigs, that it had become a career ambition. Not that I was belittling it; I’d followed my dream and it had become a reality. Just because it took Baggo a bit longer to realise what he wanted to do with his life, well, fair enough. The trouble with having ambitions when you’ve got responsibilities is that they don’t always go hand in hand.

‘You’ve always had a great voice, Bags. What’s Jen going to do while you’re away?’

‘Do? Same as usual I suppose.’

‘What, look after Daisy on her own while you’re out gigging? Without having to put up with you coming home in the small hours and waking her up to tell her all about it, I suppose. I can see why she’d be supportive.’

‘Fuck off, you arse. I do my share. That’s why I do nights, so I can help with school runs and shit while she’s working. Her mum’s going to help out. Jesus Christ, Cal, it’s only for a few weeks, it’s not like I’m fucking off to the other side of the world for years.’

The fact that Baggo was getting so defensive told me I might have got closer to the truth than I’d intended, and I decided not to push it.

‘Fair enough. She can always call me or Chrissie if she needs anything while you’re gone. I bet Ayesh and Sam would help out too.’

Me, Chrissie, Ayesh, Sam, Baggo and Jen had formed a group of friends that I would never have predicted a few years ago. Chrissie had always got on with Baggo when we were at school, but admitted her surprise at finding him essentially unchanged when she came back to the city. She’d missed out on the drinking and womening years, and so when Bags calmed down after he met Jen, to all intents and purposes he became the Baggo she’d known back then. Ayesh had never really got Bags, because she had known the drinking and the women, more than she’d known the ‘before’, so when he calmed down after he met Jen, he became a lot more palatable. We met up together a few times, with our kids, and we all got on together, so we did it a few more times, until we were kind of a group.

‘Well I’ll mention it. Don’t want Ayesh getting a stick up her arse about me leaving them alone, though, so don’t say anything till I’ve gone.’

‘Ayesh wouldn’t have a stick up her arse. She’s cool.’

‘About being mates with her ex, maybe. I know it’s taken me a while to get in her good books though.’

‘Once you’re in her good books, it takes quite a lot to get you out again.’

‘What, like shagging another woman?’

‘Thanks for that, Bags.’

He never changed. If he thought it, he said it, whether it was appropriate or not. Usually it was not. Usually it was in front of someone who also thought it was not. I’d got used to it, and was never shocked by his lack of discretion, but he still made people gasp with his directness.

‘No, but I suppose you’re right. She’s still your mate, isn’t she. Not many exes you can say that about.’

‘No. But if you wouldn’t mind not being so … blunt about it when Chrissie and Ayesh are in the same room I’d appreciate it.’

Baggo frowned as if he didn’t know what I meant.

‘Ach, they’re both fine with it. Jen told me they were all talking about you the other day, comparing what you’re like now with Chrissie and what you were like with Ayesh. I have to say, mate, you are totally whipped these days.’

Baggo did an exaggerated whipping motion with added ‘ker chh’ sound effects.

‘I am not. You have to be more organised with kids. It’s teamwork.’

‘See what I mean? Fucking whipped.’

‘So Jen never gets you to do anything?’

‘Nothing I don’t want to do.’

‘You just said you do nights so you can help with the school run.’

‘Yeah, I want to do that.’

‘And you’d never, oh I don’t know, put all the money from your gigs into a savings account for Daisy, rather than going out on the piss?’

‘Yeah, I want to do that too.’

‘Hmm. And cleaning the bathroom every Saturday so Jen can have a lie-in, that would be –’

‘How the fuck do you know – I’ll fucking kill her. She’s destroying my street cred.’

Anyway, so Baggo had gone on his tour of the backwaters of Europe, and by way of keeping in touch, I’d got the odd fairly incomprehensible text:

They fucking love us gona b beruhmt.

Post gig parties rock n roll woohoo.

Shmsl u rnt hr not gd fr bak soon.

Lichtenstein is shit.

11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.

I’m pretty sure the last one wasn’t meant for me. Who knows, maybe none of them were, but anyway, apart from the texts, I didn’t hear from him while he was away, and Jen didn’t ask for help from us, or to my knowledge from Ayesh and Sam. Chrissie and I tried to contact Jen, but she didn’t reply to any of our calls or texts, and her phone always went to voicemail. We even went round once or twice, on the off-chance, with the kids, but she never answered the doorbell.

In the middle of one afternoon my phone rang with Baggo’s tone – a short clip of one of his band’s songs he’d insisted on putting on my phone as his ringtone. Most of my ringtones were put on by other people; I couldn’t be arsed to change the default.

‘Bags! Where are you?’

There was silence for a while, then some sounds I couldn’t decipher, then Baggo’s voice, coming as if from a long way away. Which it quite possibly was.

‘Cal?’

He sounded so … unsure. Baggo was big on self-confidence, and this small, tremulous voice, well I only recognised it because it was his ringtone and his picture on my screen.

‘Yeah. What’s up, mate?’

‘I’ve fucked up. Big time.’

I sighed, to myself. This felt like a conversation from a long time ago, even though I had no idea, as yet, in what way Bags might have fucked up.

‘How?’

‘Jen. She’s gone. Taken Daisy.’

‘Shit. Bags, where exactly are you?’

‘I’ve just got home. All their stuff, it’s gone. I didn’t think she meant it, I thought she was just trying to get me to change my mind, I can’t believe she’s really done it …’

Baggo’s voice trailed off. I knew what I had to do.

‘I’m coming over.’

‘No, mate, you don’t have –’

‘See you in fifteen.’

Baggo and Jen’s flat was across the city, on an ex-council estate. The neighbourhood was friendly, but rough and ready. I was conscious of people openly watching as I got out of my BMW four wheel drive; I convinced myself they were being neighbourly, and that I wouldn’t come back to find my wheels removed. It had never happened before, no reason apart from prejudice to think it might happen this time.

I rang Baggo’s doorbell, and waited for a long time. I rang it again, then again, then leaned on it for a long time, until I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. The lock went and the door opened, revealing a pale-faced, red-eyed Baggo who wouldn’t look at me.

‘Ah mate, I’ve brought beer.’

I lifted the six-pack I’d grabbed from the fridge so he could see it. Worryingly, this didn’t seem to perk Baggo up in the slightest; he just turned and walked up the stairs, leaving me to shut the door behind me.

I followed Baggo into the living room. Their flat was never tidy; having a young child in a small flat meant too much stuff and not enough space. But all the toys and piles of laundry had gone; there were no photos of Daisy, only squares of unfaded wall where they had been; the only coats on the hooks by the door were Baggo’s duffle coat (winter) and denim jacket (summer). It was like a different place, like some kind of personality had left it.

‘Baggo, what’s happened?’

‘They’ve gone.’

‘I can kind of see that. Shit. Here, have one of these.’

I held out the bottles to Bags, but he shook his head.

‘Mate, you’re fucking freaking me out. What’s happened? When did you get back?’

Judging by the huge rucksack and pile of various mic stands and leads, he hadn’t been back long.

‘About an hour ago. Here.’

He handed me a note, in Jen’s handwriting.

Jake

In case you haven’t noticed, and I wonder if you will, Daisy and I have gone. I don’t know if you will have any idea why, because you haven’t been listening to me for the last I don’t know how long, so I will say it clearly.

I begged you not to go to Europe. You ignored me. You said it would be good for us to do our own thing. What that meant was it would be good for you to do your own thing, and that you didn’t really care what I might think about being left on my own with our daughter to arrange childcare while I went out to work to make sure neither of us starved.

Well I hope you’ve had a wonderful time, and to show how much I think you should carry on doing your own thing, Daisy and me have gone. We’re going to be doing our own thing somewhere else, somewhere that isn’t this shit-hole where we have to stare at four crappy walls all day wondering when you’re going to remember us and care enough about us to ditch band practice, or pre-practice drinks, or post-practice drinks, or fucking tours of fucking European cities no-one has ever fucking heard of.

I told you I would leave if you went, I suppose you thought I was calling your bluff. Well it took me a couple of weeks, I wondered if I’d been unreasonable, but you hardly called us. Daisy asks where you are every day, wanting to know when you’re going to talk to her. You promised her, Jake. So, no, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I told you what would happen, and it’s happening.

Oh, and next time you’re lining up a post-gig shag, make sure you send the text to the right slut, and not your girlfriend.

I loved you, you tosser, and you’ve broken me. I want to spend the rest of my life a very, very long way away from you.

Jen

‘Oh Bags.’

I sat down on the sofa and re-read the letter. It didn’t get any better with a second look.

‘When did she go?’

Baggo sat next to me, put his face in his hands and spoke through his fingers.

‘I don’t know. There was a mountain of mail when I got back. Could be weeks.’

‘We’ve been trying to get in touch, she hasn’t answered. Where’s she gone?’

‘I don’t know.’

Baggo sounded distraught. The story in the note seemed like the Baggo of old, not the more responsible Baggo he’d become over the last few years, but I supposed no one ever really knows what goes on between two people.

‘Bags, is this all true?’

I held the note up.

‘Before you went, you said everything was fine, her mum was going to help out, I thought it was sorted.’

‘So did I. Maybe, though … maybe I just wanted to think it was, like, you know, bulldozed my way through it because I so wanted to go.’

‘Did she beg you not to go?’

‘She might have. I didn’t think she was serious.’

‘Did she say she’d leave if you went anyway?’

‘I might have ignored her because I didn’t want to hear it. I can do that sometimes.’

‘Yeah.’

It was actually the way Baggo always did things, but saying that right now wasn’t going to help matters.

‘What about the post-gig shag?’

‘No! That never happened. I didn’t go out there for women, I went for … to …’

His sat, shaking his head, as if he could no longer remember why he’d gone away.

‘Do you know what she’s talking about, though, this text you sent to the wrong person?’

‘Not a fucking clue. I sent thousands of texts while I was out there. I sent a ton to you.’

‘Yeah, and not all of them seemed as if you’d meant to send them to me. Have you checked your phone?’

He reached into a pocket and pulled out his phone, then started scrolling through it.

‘Oh fuck this, there’s fucking thousands, I’ll never find it.’

He threw the phone on the floor and slumped back into the sofa. I picked it up and had a look, finding his conversation with Jen and looking back to the last text she had replied to. The one after that seemed to be the culprit.

Hey babe, wants to meet up afterwards the gig?

and then one that seemed familiar

11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.

I got my phone out and scrolled back through Baggo’s random texts from the last few weeks. I had one exactly the same. Weird.

‘Baggo, what were you doing on the twelfth of September?’

‘How the fuck should I know?’

‘Try. Something seems a bit off. Now, don’t blow your top, but you’re positive you didn’t hook up with anyone after any of your gigs?’

Baggo looked at me for a few seconds, and I could see the anger rising in his face, but he took a few deep breaths and it drained away again. He shook his head.

‘It might be in the calendar, what we did on the twelfth of September. The manager put all our gigs and shit on Google calendar, with reminders, so we didn’t forget anything.’

I scrolled through the list of dates and names of cities and venues until I found the right one.

‘Does Rockhalcafe ring any bells? Luxembourg City?’

Baggo shook his head. I Googled it and found some pictures, which I showed him. Light dawned.

‘Oh yeah. That was a mega night. Really cool place. I mean, yeah, there were girls there, I’m not saying I couldn’t have if I wanted to, but I turned it all down, sat at the bar afterwards, watching the rest of the band chatting them up. You know what, Cal, I actually said no to three women. Me. I said ‘no’. I said ‘I’ve got a girlfriend, I’m texting her now’ and I did, I texted Jen right then and told her I missed her and Daisy. Got a bit pissed, actually, because I missed them. One of them wanted to see a picture, took my phone when I showed her, put her number in – oh fuck!’

The same thing occurred to Baggo that had occurred to me a short time ago. The way the first text was written, it didn’t sound like proper English. I mean, yeah, texting isn’t proper English, and some of Baggo’s texts didn’t even sound like proper human, especially when he was pissed, but this text sounded like someone trying to sound English. Someone had sent the texts to Jen on purpose. Why they’d sent one to me as well I wasn’t sure, but Jen’s last name was Sanderson, so it was pretty close to mine in Baggo’s contact list. I didn’t know enough about phones to understand it; I could ask Tom or Matty another time.

Meanwhile, Baggo’s face had lit up with hope.

‘So all we need to do is find her, find Jen, and tell her. Tell her they hacked my phone, and we can fix it.’

‘Whoa, hang on Bags, I think it might not be as simple as that. I mean, yeah, maybe this was the thing that made her snap, but what about all that stuff at the beginning of her note? How she didn’t want you to go, but you went anyway? I don’t think we’re going to find a quick fix for that, mate.’

Baggo’s face fell, as he thought about it.

‘Yeah, but maybe, maybe she was just so mad thinking I’d gone back to my old ways that it made her more mad than she should have been about the other shit.’

Baggo was never particularly realistic. He saw things one way, and could never quite understand why nobody else saw things the same way, so he just adjusted things in his mind until, to him, it appeared everyone was happy with the way things were.

‘Bags, listen.’

I held up Jen’s note.

‘This is a letter from a seriously pissed off woman who never wants to see you again. Not because someone sent her a text pretending to be you, but because she feels like you’ve abandoned her and your daughter so you can go off and have fun for three months. Maybe it’s possible to fix it, but I think you need to ask yourself, mate, if you’re willing to change the way you do things, if you think you can change. I’m not saying it’s a lost cause, I’m just asking you to be honest with yourself.’

He looked at me as if I’d just stamped on his Christmas presents.

‘But I love her. And Daisy. How can I live without them?’

I rolled my eyes and refrained from saying he should have thought of that before he buggered off to Europe for three months to live without them. Instead I tried to help him.

‘Bags, if you really want to try and find them, I’ll help you, I will, but only if you face facts, and the facts are she’s left because you’ve been a shit and only thought about yourself, and she might not want you back even if you apologise and offer her the moon to say sorry.’

It sounds harsh, I know, but with Baggo you had to be very, very clear about things, otherwise he just saw the tiniest loophole that meant he could do things his way.

‘Did she talk to Chrissie? Or Ayesh?’

‘No, well definitely not to Chrissie, and Ayesh hasn’t said anything. Could you try Jen’s mum?’

‘Great plan. Or, even better plan, you could. Say you’ve been worried about her because you haven’t heard from her. It’s the truth isn’t it?’

‘And how do I explain where I got her number from?’

‘Oh she won’t ask, will she. Go on, mate. If I ring her I won’t get anywhere. And no one knows I’m back yet. As soon as word gets round it’ll be too late. Please, mate?’

And so I did it. I called Jen’s mum and lied through my teeth for my mate and felt like a creep for doing it, but got the information Baggo was looking for. She’d gone to London to stay with her sister while she decided what to do.

‘Well that’s encouraging, she still doesn’t know what she wants to do. Maybe she’s waiting for me to get back so we can sort things out.’

Baggo’s ability to hope reminded me of a puppy that kept trying to eat from the table no matter how many times it got its nose smacked with a newspaper.

‘You’ve got to phone her sister now. The number’s here, look.’

He held his phone out, but I pushed it away.

‘No, Bags, I’m not going to phone her sister. Phoning her mum was bad enough. You know where she is, it’s down to you now.’

‘But she won’t talk to me.’

‘You don’t know that.’

‘I can’t do it. What if she goes off somewhere else? What if she won’t let me see Daisy? Oh God, Cal, what if I never see Daisy again?’

Baggo was looking at me now with genuine fear. It had not occurred to him before that he risked losing his daughter. I tried to give him some hope without sending him sky-rocketing the other way.

‘Bags, you’ll always be Daisy’s dad. Jen knows that. Whatever happens, don’t you think she’ll want you to be a part of her life, in some way?’

‘Fuck it, Cal, I can’t deal with this. Please call her for me. I don’t think I can hear her say the words, I don’t think I can do it.’

I nearly weakened, but it really did seem like it would be best if Baggo called for himself. It was going to be obvious enough where I’d got her mum’s number from; I didn’t want to seem like I was stalking Jen.

‘You can, Bags. I’ll stay if you like, or I’ll give you some space and you can let me know how it goes –’

‘No, stay – oh, but maybe don’t listen. Shit, I don’t know. I’ll go in the bedroom. I don’t think I can fucking stand it if you hear her binning me.’

He stood up and walked to the bedroom, dialling the number as he went. I sat on the sofa, and heard Baggo talking. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the fact that the talking was going on for longer than it took to say ‘fuck off’, I took as an encouraging sign. I got my own phone out and texted Chrissie.

Found out where Jen is. Left him, gone to sister’s with Daisy.

OMG! Why? How do u know?

Later xx

A small evil part of me loved having gossip that I knew and no one else did. I was always the last to know things, largely because I took after my dad with not listening to anything anyone said and assuming that what people were talking about would be of no immediate relevance to me. Still, it felt a little bit good to know something before anyone else, even though it was at the expense of my best mate’s relationship.

Chrissie’s text tone started, and continued, to chirp ‘Arsenal Arsenal’ at me (some couples had romantic ‘our song’ tones – not us, this was much more meaningful), so I silenced it and sat back smugly while my phone vibrated against my hip.

After some time, Baggo emerged from his bedroom, stuffing his phone in his pocket and wiping his eyes. I sat up straighter and waited for him to tell me how it had gone.

He walked over to the small kitchenette and filled the kettle up, then got a mug out and put a teabag in it. When he opened the fridge and got the milk out, without even acknowledging me, I lost patience.

‘Baggo.’

He turned and looked at me, mild surprise on his face, as if he actually had forgotten I was there.

‘Sorry mate. I was in a world of my own.’

‘Hmm. So?’

‘So. I don’t know.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Well she hasn’t binned me, not exactly, not yet.’

‘What did she say?’

‘Not much. I grovelled like I’ve never grovelled before, said I was a dick, had been a dick for a while, how did she put up with me, I missed her and Daisy so much it was too hard to contact them much while I was away, I’m giving up music, gonna work hard, you know, all that shit I just said to you.’

He hadn’t said any of that to me, but sometimes Baggo didn’t realise he hadn’t said the things that were in his head, so I let it pass.

‘Is it just shit, then?’

‘No, I didn’t mean that, it’s not shit, I mean it. But she doesn’t really believe me. I guess I’ve got to prove it. Fucking hell, Cal, how am I going to prove it if she’s living in London?’

I thought about it for a moment.

‘Well, you could go and live in London. Be near them. Be around. Be responsible.’

Baggo stared at me.

‘What, leave here? What about my job? And there’s my mum … and …’

His protests faded away, and I didn’t need to say that his job was nothing special, nothing that couldn’t be replicated somewhere else, and his mum had his two brothers, or the most important thing: if he was serious about getting Jen and Daisy back, he had to show them that they were worth more than any of the rest of it. Bar none. Baggo wasn’t stupid; he was brainless and thoughtless a lot of the time, but when it came to thinking, he was actually very smart, and I could see all this going on while I looked at him.

‘No, you’re right.’

I hadn’t spoken, but it was as if I had. I guess when you’ve been mates all your lives, you know so well what each other is going to say, that it’s easier to assume it’s been said.

‘I am?’

‘Yeah. Bloody hell, though, mate. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a job in London, and it’s fucking expensive to live there.’

‘I might be able to help you out.’

I saw Baggo about to refuse, as he thought I was going to offer him money. I’d never insult him like that, although it’s true it was always my round in the pub, and we always took my car when we went anywhere, and I always brought a good bottle of scotch when I came over. It’s just the way things were.

‘I’ve got a mate who used to play for Warriors, he’s just moved to Birmingham to play for Chieftains. He doesn’t want to sell his flat, and he doesn’t want to rent it out because of the hassle. I can have a word, see what he thinks about letting you have it if you look after it for a bit? I mean, it would only be temporary, wouldn’t it, while you tried to convince Jen? Couple of months or so?’

Baggo nodded, seemingly unable to speak.

‘I’ll call him, then, give him your number. He’s called Angus.’

‘Good old rugger bugger name there.’

‘Yeah, please don’t say that to him, Bags, he could be saving your life, here.’

‘Yeah, I know. You know it’s what I do. It’s instead of saying thanks. OK then, what I should have said is thanks. Thanks, Cal. Yet again you have come to my fucking rescue when I’ve made a complete and utter dog’s fucking dinner of my fucking life.’

I knew what he wanted me to say; that he hadn’t made a dog’s dinner of anything, that everything would work out now he had this chance, and other such encouraging shit. Thing was, though, it felt like he needed a kick up the arse to stop him firstly taking it for granted that everything would now be alright, and secondly to prevent him doing it again when he forgot what he felt like right now. I seemed to be the only one in a prime arse-kicking position. And I was pretty good at kicking, it being my job and all. No choice then, really.

‘Baggo, you know I’m always here, anytime, same way you’ve been there for me when I’ve needed it. But for fuck’s sake, Bags, you nearly stuffed this up. You might still have stuffed it up. This is Jen and Daisy we’re talking about, not some random one-night-stand whose name you’ve forgotten and who left without giving you her number. You can’t be that old Baggo, you can’t go around thinking about just yourself any more If Jen says don’t do something because it will make things really difficult for us, if she says if you do it I’ll leave, then you have to fucking well listen. People don’t say things like that for the fun of it, just to test you, to see how stubborn you are. They mean it. You really have to decide, once and for all, what’s most important to you. If you had to choose one or the other, would it be Jen and Daisy, or singing in a band? I’m not saying one or other is the right thing, I’m just saying you need to be one hundred per cent certain that if you go after Jen and she’s not the most important thing, you’re going to fuck all of you up. You can’t mess with Daisy. She needs a dad who thinks she’s worth sticking around for. Just give it some thought.’

Baggo nodded. A few times he’d looked like he was about to interrupt, maybe to tell me how important his music was to him, maybe to tell me if he got Jen and Daisy back he’d never do anything to hurt them ever again, but he’d stopped himself, and I began to hope that he would indeed think about things, instead of just rushing headlong into the next Baggo drama.

I stayed for a while, drinking tea and offering variations on my ‘don’t fuck it up’ speech until the vibration in my pocket threatened to wear a hole in my jeans.

‘Sorry Bags, I’m going to have to get back. Chrissie’s on her own with the kids, and she’ll be getting their tea.’

‘What would you do?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘If it was, like, earlier, and you had to choose Chrissie and the kids or rugby?’

‘Jesus, Baggo. Well, I suppose when I was younger, I would have said rugby all the way, but I didn’t have Chrissie and the kids then, and now I do, well, rugby’s nearly over for me, so it’s not the same sort of choice. I honestly don’t know.’

‘I always look at you, you know, when I’m wondering if I’m doing the right thing about anything.’

‘Really? Fuck me, Baggo, I’m no bloody role model.’

‘You are to me. Your life seems just about fucking perfect to me.’

‘Yeah, well, maybe ask Chrissie some time how perfect we are. Don’t ask the day after she’s had to remind me to do the bins for the fiftieth time, or Lily’s been screaming since two in the morning, or we’ve had to turn round at the mini-roundabout for the third day in a row because Chrissie left her phone on the kitchen counter.’

‘You never fuck up, though, Cal. Not like this.’

I looked at Baggo, who truly seemed like he’d lost the spark of what made him Jake Bagwell.

‘Bags, we’re different, you and me. I could never in a million years have gone off to Europe to see if I could make it as a singer; not because of my family, although Chrissie would have had my balls, I admit, but I haven’t got the balls in the first place. I don’t take risks, I stick to what I know. If you want to talk about role models, or heroes, you’re kind of mine. You just go for it, whatever it is. You’re, I don’t know, passionate.’

‘Yeah, I suppose. Plus, you can’t sing for fucking toffee.’

I gave him a light punch on the arm, and then man-hugged him, with lots of back slapping, before heading home to Chrissie and the intense questioning session I deserved.

A few weeks later, having given Angus Baggo’s contact details and vouched for him as honestly as I could, I drove Baggo up to the flat in Shoreditch that was going to be his home for the next few months.

Jen had agreed to give him another chance; they were keeping the flat down here in case it worked out and they wanted to come back; they were giving it until after Christmas, because that’s when Daisy was due to start school, and she needed something settled and permanent, whether that was in London or in Devon.

I could only cross my fingers and hope Baggo knew for definite what he wanted. All the way to London he talked about Daisy, and how much she would have grown since he last saw her, all the new things she was saying to him on the phone, all the friends she told him about that he didn’t know. I saw something of the pride and infatuation I’d seen when she was first born, and I felt hopeful that he was putting her first.

Baggo had left the band. They were on the point of getting more prestigious gigs, being on the road a bit more, and he chose not to do it. I know it was hard for him, because in his heart of hearts he wanted to make a go of it, but he made that choice. He told me it was fine, there were plenty of karaoke bars in London where he could sing, and he had his guitar and Angus’s flat to rattle around in, so he could treat the neighbours to the odd spontaneous performance (he was grinning wickedly while he said this, knowing I would panic about Angus’s neighbours being pissed off with a noisy Baggo keeping them awake with his guitar at all hours). He told me it was enough, just singing for his own enjoyment, and I hoped it was.

133. Plans

In which the dearly departed are remembered, and plans for the future are made.

Cal

Knowing Mum was coming made me relax slightly. Mum always knew what to do, always took charge. And I had a job now. I dialled nine nine nine, but the ambulance people wouldn’t just take my word for it. They made me check she wasn’t breathing, they made me check for a pulse, they made me shake her shoulder and say her name, and it was all seriously freaky, and by the time Mum arrived, I was sitting on the hall floor trying to think of anything else but how I’d just been touching her, and …

‘Oh sweetheart. Is the ambulance on its way?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t expect they’ll hurry.’

I stood up and let Mum give me a hug. I clung on a bit tighter than I would normally, and felt tears well up in my eyes.

‘Dad’s in your car with Dec. I didn’t want to leave either of you alone, so I brought him along.’

‘I bet he’s loving that.’

‘He’ll get over it.’

‘Is she in here?’

Mum went into the living room, on her own because I couldn’t go in there again. She came out after a while, wiping her eyes, and looked at me. It was my turn to give the comforting hug; Mum cried more than I’d ever seen her cry before, and I just held her while she sniffed into my sweatshirt. Then she stopped, stood back and wiped her eyes with a tissue.

‘How did you know?’

‘She called me.’

‘You? What did she say?’

‘Nothing, at least nothing I could understand.’

Mum nodded and patted my cheek.

‘Let’s go and check on Dec. There’s nothing we can do here until the ambulance turns up.’

I followed Mum out to my car. Dad had turned the reading light on, and he and Dec were illuminated in the front seats. Dec was staring ahead and Dad looked like he was trying to talk to him, but not having much success in starting a conversation.

Mum tapped on the driver’s side window, and Dad rolled the window down.

‘Hey you two. Hi Dec.’

Dec didn’t answer, just carried on staring ahead.

‘James, has he said anything?’

‘No, he’s been like this since we got here. I’m a bit out of my depth, Beth. Maybe you should try.’

Mum nodded, and she and Dad swapped places. Dad and I stood away from the car a bit while Mum tried to – well I don’t know what she was trying to do, get Dec to talk to her, look at her, something.

I looked at Dad, who seemed about a thousand miles outside his comfort zone. He gave me a weak smile.

‘Sorry to disturb your sleep.’

‘Yeah, well, wouldn’t have been my choice of early morning entertainment, but I guess you haven’t been having much of a laugh, either.’

He nodded in the direction of Rose’s flat.

‘No. Ah shit, Dad, it was fucking awful. She was just sitting there, with this look on her face … you could just tell right away she was … wasn’t there, you know?’

Dad slung an arm round my shoulder, as an ambulance pulled up behind Dec’s car. I took a deep breath and went to meet it, glancing over at my car, where Mum was still talking to Dec. I was going to have to do this on my own, or with Dad, which was just about the same thing.

I led the paramedics into the flat and pointed out the living room. I didn’t go in at first, but they kept asking me questions, and it felt weird just shouting to them from the hall, so in the end I went in, but stood by the door, not looking in the direction of the chair. I was feeling seriously weirded out by the whole thing.

When my phone jangled with Chrissie’s text tone, I jumped a mile, but used it as an excuse to not be in the room where people were doing things to other people that I really didn’t want to see.

Where ru? Thought u were downstairs.

Chrissie had been asleep when I left, and I’d thought I’d be back before long. I hadn’t even thought about letting her know where I was. I had to think hard before knowing how to explain it in a text, then realised I wasn’t going to be able to. I called her instead.

‘Hey babe.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At Rose’s. I thought Dec might need a hand.’

‘What with?’

‘Well I didn’t know, but I just had a feeling.’

‘And you’re still there?’

‘Yeah. It was … er … she’s, er, died.’

‘Oh Cal. Did you find her?’

‘Dec did. He’s really freaked, gone all catatonic or something. Mum’s trying to get him to talk. The ambulance is here, taking Rose away. Shit, Chrissie, it’s fucking horrendous. I’ll be home as soon as I can.’

‘No, don’t worry, I just didn’t know where you were, and I thought if you were up with Conor I’d come and keep you company, then I couldn’t find you, so … but be there, if they need you.’

‘Thanks, babe. I expect Mum’s got it, but I don’t know how much longer things will go on here.’

‘I’ll see you when you get home.’

‘Yeah, I’m going to need a big smushy cuddle with you and Conor.’

‘On it. Cal, I’m really sorry about Rose.’

‘Yeah, me too. See you later. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

As I disconnected, the paramedics emerged from the living room carrying a stretcher with a black body bag on it. Dad, who had retreated to the end of the hallway, was staring at it with wide eyes. I opened the front door for them, and followed them out. Dad came behind, and I shut the door behind him.

As they loaded the stretcher onto the ambulance, I glanced over to my car. Dec had turned his head to look, and Mum had put her hand on his arm. I saw him shake his head, and could see the word ‘no’ form on his mouth. Then the car door opened, and he ran along the pavement to the ambulance, just as they shut the back doors.

‘Let me in, I want to go with her.’

‘And you are?’

‘Her … she’s like my mum.’

Is she your mum?’

‘Not officially.’

‘Sorry, then, mate, you can follow us if you like, but, well, maybe you’d best leave it for now, eh?’

‘She shouldn’t be on her own in there.’

‘She won’t be, we’ll be with her.’

They weren’t kidding or being disrespectful, they were trying to reassure him. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they’d had to try to placate someone who had freaked out.

‘Dec …’

Mum had followed him out of the car, and now put her arm round his waist, drawing him away, talking quietly to him. I could hear snatches of what she was saying,

‘ … for the best … arrangements … tell Amy … come on sweetheart …’

and eventually Dec nodded and allowed himself to be pulled away, as Mum nodded at the paramedics, and they got in the front of the ambulance and drove away.

Dec stood, looking after the disappearing vehicle, eyes wide and haunted.

‘What am I going to do? Without her?’

‘Dec, we’re all here to help you through it.’

‘No … I can’t do this again … I just can’t …’

And while Mum desperately tried to cling on to him, Dec sank to his knees and started sobbing, the sounds echoing around the empty street. Mum crouched down next to him, and gestured to me and Dad to help her. Neither of us were sure what we were supposed to be doing, but Mum had put her arms round Dec, and I crouched by him and put a hand on his shoulder while Dad hovered behind, looking uncomfortable.

‘For God’s sake, James. He needs us to hold him.’

Dad reluctantly got to his knees and put his hand on a shoulder as well. None of it seemed to make a difference to Dec, who continued wailing.

After a few minutes, when a few lights went on in the nearby flats, and people started to look out of their windows, Mum decided a change of plan was necessary.

‘You two are going to have to get him in one of the cars. Maybe ours, James. Get him in the back, if you can. Dec, stand up for us sweetheart, we’re going to take you home.’

Dec didn’t move. Dad, seizing an opportunity to do something that didn’t involve having to talk or be emotional in any way, stood up, then bent down and hauled Dec to his feet by his armpits. Dec’s legs looked like they might give way, and he was still making the godawful racket, so I pitched in and supported him from one side, Dad going the other. We made our way to Dad’s car like this, dragging Dec with us. He wasn’t resisting, but he wasn’t actively moving either. Mum opened the back door, and Dad and I bundled him in, putting his seat belt on like he was five. Mum sat next to him in the back, and Dad got in the driver’s seat.

‘Cal, can you drive Dec’s car? We’ll bring you back afterwards.’

‘I need the keys.’

Mum patted Dec’s pockets and found the keys in his hoody. She gave them to me, and I followed them across the city to Dec and Amy’s house.

It was starting to get light by the time we got there, the dawn glow making everything seem even more surreal.

The porch light was on at Dec’s house, and I assumed Mum would have called Amy while we were on our way. As soon as we pulled up, the front door opened, and Amy came out, in her dressing gown.

Dec had quieted somewhat, but was still crying, and still shuddering with huge sobs. Amy came down the path as Dad and I were pulling Dec out of the car, and as he saw her, it was as if she was the first thing he’d truly noticed since the ambulance had driven away. He practically fell into her arms, and let her lead him into the house.

I looked at Mum, waiting to be told what to do. There didn’t seem any point going in; Amy was what Dec needed, not us fussing about him. Mum sometimes saw things differently, though, so I wasn’t going to do anything until I was told to.

‘Beth, just let them get on with it.’

‘I know, James. I just … after all this time, I thought he might be over it.’

‘I guess losing your parents isn’t something you get over.’

‘He’s had Rose longer than he ever had his mum and dad.’

‘Yeah, so it’s going to hurt even more. You know he’ll ask if he needs us.’

‘I know. I just want to fix it.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know. Are you OK Cal?’

‘No, I don’t think so. But I will be when I get home and give Conor a bloody good cuddle.’

‘Come here, sweetheart, give your mum a bloody good cuddle first.’

Mum held me tight and I felt her shudder. She was always this capable person who knew what to do in any crisis, but everyone often forgot that she felt things too, cared about everyone more than was strictly necessary.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. Come on, let’s get you back to your car.’

That night, and the weeks that followed, were hard for all of us. Dec was really cut up. In fact, cut up doesn’t even begin to describe it. He didn’t leave the house at all, until the day of Rose’s funeral. He wouldn’t see anyone, didn’t reply to texts or answer calls. Mum had long conversations with everyone about it, trying to decide the best thing to do. Matty wanted to do the ‘shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’ thing, but was talked out of it in the end by Amy, who felt it wasn’t the same, and that Dec needed time to do things his way. There was talk of doctors and mental health teams and psychologists, but Dec refused it all, and just sat staring at the TV all day.

Matty wasn’t up to much at the time, either, having had a serious chest infection and a flare-up of MS that had knocked him off his feet. With Matty out of action and Dec incommunicado, their business was suffering, and it was only because Tom knew about the techy side, and had his dad’s chilled manner with people, that the whole thing didn’t fold.

Rose’s funeral was sad, but it got Dec out of the house, and I think it started him on the road to being normal again. He was like a ghost in the crematorium – pale, lifeless, and he’d lost loads of weight. Amy and his children held him up, emotionally and physically, and the crem was full of people who Rose had meant a lot to. She was a friendly person who made connections and helped out a lot in this city, and Dec seemed surprised and gratified that so many had come to see her off.

Dec didn’t say much, to any of us, but he read a speech he’d written, talking about what she’d meant to him and his family, and how she’d always said she couldn’t replace his mum, but how she’d come to mean something else, something there are no words for, something as irreplaceable. He made it almost all the way through the speech, before just stopping in the middle of a sentence and looking out of the window. Amy had to finish it off for him, while Charlie and Tom helped Dec back to his seat.

I thought that might have sent Dec back to his morose introspection, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect, and at the wake, which Mum had naturally organised, it was good to see him talking to people, even smiling a couple of times, and looking like he was actually taking notice of things again.

After a while, things got better for Dec. I don’t know if he got some help from somewhere, he’d seen a psychologist in the past to help sort his life out, but whatever it was, he slowly got his spark back.

Laura

We had terrible days, like the day Rose died and Dec was inconsolable, and they nearly lost their business because Matt couldn’t get out to meet the clients and Dec was in no fit state to be meeting and greeting people. Tom came to our rescue that time, using his way with technology, his inside knowledge of the rugby world and his easy manner with people to smooth things over and persuade people to wait until Dec had recovered, and handling some of the simpler meetings himself.

All the children were growing up, moving away, or staying close by. Tom had a practical way with computers, and had become part of Dec and Matt’s business. Charlie had been away to Uni, given up her course in History, and come home to look for a career, which hadn’t been forthcoming and had led to lots of waitressing jobs. Gracie was half way through her Physiotherapy training in Manchester, where she shared a tiny flat with Iz, who was working for a language school, and Iz’s boyfriend Ben. Rosa had just left school and was working in a local jewellery shop while she got her own jewellery design business underway.

Amy and I often compared notes on the emptiness or otherwise of our houses; with Ella off on the other side of the world after finishing her Law degree, and Josh still living with us but usually at Raiders either training or attending a players’ function of some sort, I often felt like I had an empty nest. Although when Josh brought his mates back for a noisy session, it felt like the complete opposite.

Cal

We all missed Rose. She had been around almost as long as I could remember, and we all used to tease her about how much she talked, and how she and Mum had this, like, competition going to see who knew Dec the best, and who could feed us the best, almost as if they were trying to be the best mother figure. In truth, I don’t know that Dec really saw either of them as his mum. He often said Rose was like his mum, but I think that was only because he couldn’t find another word for it. He never made the same comparison with Mum, almost as if with his age and her age, he fell in the too-young-to-be-a-brother but too-old-to-be-a-son category, and it was just something else that was never defined.

I know Mum missed Rose, had missed for some time her being there and comparing notes about Dec and his family, having a gossip about the kids, tutting at the state of their house, all of that, because Rose hadn’t really been up to any of that for a good couple of years at least.

Rose had always tried her best to organise Dec, and Amy to some extent, but most of it had gone over his head. So she’d try with the rest of us, sometimes with some success. I remember visiting Gran, and interrupting one of their afternoon tea sessions. Lau’s mum, April, was there too, and I’d rocked up expecting to get going on taking some garden waste to the tip. I got distracted with tea and cake, and let the three witches brew their schemes as I munched and sipped. When I was little, I used to keep quiet in the hope that people would forget I was there and say something juicy. I used the same technique, and it worked for a while.

‘Isobel’s got into Manchester.’

This was Gran. She always used people’s full names.

‘Oh love, that’s so far away. Such a long journey, that is.’

This was Rose. Never really travelled, except to Wales to visit her sister and across the city to see Dec, Mum or Gran.

‘I lived in Manchester when I was younger. It’s a very cultured city.’

April had lived nearly everywhere. At least five different countries, and she knew someone in any city you talked about. I’m not quite sure how she’d crammed it all in, because Lau had always lived in the city and hardly left the county, so April must have travelled a lot before she had Lau.

‘I’ve got a friend who lives near the Arndale Centre. Maybe I could put them in touch.’

I smiled into my teacup at this (Gran always liked people to have proper cups and saucers, even though you didn’t get as much and the handles were fiddly). April was very religious, and her friends mostly seemed to be too. The thought of Iz scandalising April’s church mates with tales of her free-from-home exploits was quite amusing. Not that they wouldn’t get on – Iz got on with most people, of any age, any anything – and she might like knowing someone close to such a major shopping centre.

‘I’ll mention it to her, dear. Now Rose, tell me more about Charlie and her teacher. What exactly did she do to get detention?’

Charlie was the only person Gran called by her shortened name. Probably because although she was Charlotte, she had been Charlie since the minute she was born and the name had slipped under Gran’s radar.

‘Oh Carol, she was so cheeky. It’s been coming for a while with that one. Amy’s been to the school, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to do much good …’

Rose launched into a lengthy retelling of Charlie’s misbehaviour, with accompanying tuts from Gran and April. I drifted off a bit, having heard it all before from Mum, having discussed it with Iz (she and I being the oldest and therefore most sensible of the cousins, and also liking a good gossip) and knowing that Charlie Summers was always going to do exactly what she wanted regardless of detentions, tuts or anything anybody told her.

Half way through a second slice of Rose’s delicious ginger cake, I became aware that I was being discussed. Almost as if I wasn’t there.

‘… a good boy, always pops round and wheels the bin out. Although I think Ayesha wishes he’d do it for her a bit more often.’

‘Hey! Ayesh never has to wheel the bin out.’

‘No, love, because you always say you’re going to, and then it’s too late by the time she realises you haven’t and the bin lorry’s arrived, and she has to take the bags to the tip herself.’

I had no idea how Rose knew this. Oh alright, I had a very good idea. Ayesh would have told Mum, and word of this riveting bit of intel had been distributed far and wide. I was really going to have to have a word with Ayesh about what she told people. Or be more thoughtful in my chore-completion.

‘Oh great. Anything else I’m crap at?’

‘Well now you mention it, love, there’s the laundry, the washing up, the –’

‘OK, OK, I admit defeat. Gran, where are the garden bags?’

‘In the shed, dear.’

‘Right, I’d better go, before you think of anything else I should be better at. While I’m doing something nice for my Gran, if I can remind you.’

‘You’re a good boy, Calum.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Get back to your gossiping, ladies.’

Rose did love a good gossip, never seemed happier than when she was recounting something scandalous that a friend or neighbour had done or said, unless it was cuddling one of the children. But although she loved a good drama, she was kind and generous with her time, and often had wise words to say in the midst of her chatter.

When I was about fifteen, when all the stuff with Chrissie had gone on, when I was being the ‘Cob-on Kid’ on holiday, and everyone was taking the piss, she was the only one who didn’t act like it was some hilarious adolescent phase. I don’t know whether she knew exactly what was bothering me, but she stayed behind one day when everyone else had gone to the beach, leaving me to stew in my room.

When I heard everyone leave, and the silence of the villa settled on me like a cool shower in the wake of all the noise, I opened the door of my room and went into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I was starving, but there was no way I was going out there to be ripped to shreds by Matty’s smart mouth, Charlie’s annoying questions or one of Mum’s looks.

I got half way across the lounge when a movement made me jump almost out of my skin. Rose was sitting in a chair, reading a book, and she’d turned a page. No one had ever stayed behind when they all went to the beach, I’d always had the villa to myself at least until lunch time when they all piled back again and filled the place with talking, laughing, clattering plates, music and chaos. I just wanted some head-space to deal with everything, and being away from home was hard enough, let alone being expected to have a jolly time.

Seeing Rose sat there, not even looking at me, but just in my space and my time, really annoyed me. I ignored her, once I’d noticed her, and carried on into the kitchen, where I banged plates and scraped cutlery for all I was worth, to show how pissed off I was.

Rose didn’t look up, not once, didn’t say a word, not even good morning. Well, if she was trying to get me to talk to her by being all quiet and mysterious, she was going to have a long wait.

I filled a bowl with cereal, using up the last of the milk, and poured myself a glass of orange juice, then took it all back to my room, as there was no way I was going to sit at the breakfast bar while Rose watched me eat.

I stomped crossly back to my room, checking out of the corner of my eye for some sign that she’d noticed so I could ignore her more, but she kept her eyes on her book.

Back in my room, furious that I was imprisoned by her and unable to wander round the villa like I’d been used to, I ate my cereal and drank my juice. Then I took out my iPod, put the earphones in and tried to block everything out with some loud music.

It didn’t work. I lay on my bed not thinking of anything, but my empty thoughts kept reminding me that Rose was in the next room, just being there. I couldn’t relax into my sulk, not properly, because the reason I was sulking (sulking more should I say) was because she was out there, and why couldn’t she just leave me alone, why did she have to bug me? Everyone else pissed off and left me to my own devices all day, why did she have to just be sitting there, obviously wanting to disturb me and get in my way.

I was fifteen, I was a growing bag of hormones. Of course everything was about me. I see it now, but I didn’t see it then. Then, nothing was fair, everything was huge and dramatic and black or white. And right then, I just wanted her to go to the beach with everyone else so I could have my space back.

I took my headphones out and stood up, intending to go out and tell her to fuck off out with the rest of them. Then I found myself hesitating, unsure how to start, knowing if I was too rude I’d be in the shit with Mum, and kind of not caring but only in a theoretical way, not in any way that meant I would do it regardless.

As I wavered by my bed, I heard footsteps coming my way, and a tap on the door. I stood, frozen, as if caught in the middle of something I shouldn’t have been doing.

‘I’m just making a cuppa, love. Anything you want?’

Rose drank tea all day. Even in Spain, where sangria was easier to come by, and relaxed you a lot more.

Shit, though. Now she’d acknowledged me, spoken to me, I had to either reply to get her off my back, or not reply, which would make her tap harder on the door, maybe even come in. I didn’t want to talk to her, because then I wouldn’t be ignoring her any more, but I didn’t want her to come in, either, because it would be much harder to ignore her.

‘Calum?’

I thought, seriously, about saying ‘fuck off’ but in the end I just couldn’t do it. I could have said it to almost anyone else who was there, except possibly Gran, and it would have made me feel more powerful, but with Rose, although she was well used to bad language, and said the odd word that raised Mum’s eyebrows from time to time, it just didn’t feel right. Rose was about the same age as Gran, and she was kind of like a gran, and you just didn’t do that to your gran, unless she really really annoyed you. And all she’d done was ask if I wanted a cup of tea. It shouldn’t have tied me in as many knots as it seemed to have done. I tried the best compromise I could think of.

‘No, I’m fine.’

See? No ‘thank you’. That was a bit rude, but not offensive, and curt enough to get my message across, I felt.

‘Are you, though, love?’

Oh now she wanted to talk about whether I was fine or not. Well if she tried anything more than offering tea, she was going to get told to fuck off. Her look out. I didn’t answer, and sat down on the bed, getting my earphones ready to put in.

‘Alright then, I’ll be here if you feel like a chat, or if you want some pancakes.’

Oh the evil old witch. She’d mentioned pancakes. Now I could think of nothing but pancakes, the thick ones with syrup, the ones that Rose made that were de-fucking-licious. But no, I had to be firm. She wasn’t going to win me over.

I was starting to get hungry again, though. A bowl of cereal and a glass of juice doesn’t go far for a growing lad. I usually had half a loaf of toast smothered in marmalade too, but Rose being there had stopped my breakfasting.

I carried on with my music, forcing myself to stop thinking about pancakes, or syrup, or food of any sort. But it was like telling someone not to think about red balloons. I couldn’t help it. And to make it worse, I thought I could smell pancakes cooking. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks, but I could smell the batter as it hit the frying pan, and then I could imagine the batter turning brown, being flipped over, steam and oily smoke rising, a stack of thick pancakes dripping with maple syrup …

I was out of my bedroom before I realised what I was doing. I hadn’t imagined the smell of cooking; Rose was in the kitchen, frying pan in one hand, spatula in the other, a small pile of pancakes on a plate by the side of her. She looked round when she heard me coming out of my room, and smiled, but turned back without saying anything.

I stopped in the doorway of my bedroom, wanting to go back in, unwilling to give up the pancakes. The eternal teenager dilemma: food or funk. Food won. Food always won with me. If Mum had only realised this, she would have won a lot more arguments.

I ambled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, like I was just looking for something to drink. I even got a bottle of water out, and stood looking at it, as if it was hugely interesting.

Rose still didn’t speak, just carried on making more pancakes. The stack was getting taller, and was crying out for something gooey to be oozing down its sides. She had butter and syrup standing by, but there were more pancakes on the go, so she was waiting.

‘I think I might have made too many, love. Fancy giving me a hand?’

Yeah, it was pretty lame, and I didn’t believe her for a minute – Rose hardly ever ate the things she cooked herself. But it did the trick, got me off the hook of having to ask for myself, and enabled me to shrug a reply.

‘Here, then, there’s tidy. Put half of them on a plate. There’s maple syrup, butter, and I think there’s some lemon juice and sugar if you want to be traditional.’

Rose split the pile and put half on the plate that I’d got from the cupboard. I poured maple syrup over my half and stood in the kitchen, eating greedily, stickiness running down my chin while I shovelled hot pancakes in my mouth as fast as I could. Rose watched, but didn’t eat.

As I finished the last mouthful, and wiped my chin on the back of my hand, Rose rolled her eyes at my rudeness and then gestured to her plateful.

‘I’m not as hungry as I thought. Can you eat this lot as well?’

I shrugged again and held my hand out. You know, anything I can do to help, I like to be useful. As I had my mouth full of hot battery sugary goodness, Rose decided this was the time to talk to me.

‘I expect you’re wondering where I got the milk from to make these?’

I had wondered no such thing, not really knowing or caring about ingredients so much as the end result. I frowned a response and offered another shrug.

‘I mean, on account of you using the last of the milk for your cereal and putting the bottle back empty in the fridge.’

Oh she was not serious. Having a go at me when my mouth was too full to defend myself was unfair.

‘None left for my cuppa, was there.’

I had a pang of guilt. I hadn’t thought about how Rose was going to manage her eighty million cups of tea without milk, and I’d have liked to have said I didn’t care, but it turns out I wasn’t quite as hard as I’d have liked to be.

‘Good job I’ve got my own little fridge in my room, for when I need tea in the night.’

Oh well that was alright. What was she complaining about?

‘Except there’s no milk there, now, either.’

Just pile it on, Rose, why don’t you.

‘I reckon you and me should take a little stroll to the shops, get some supplies. What do you think?’

Well I’d been absolutely stuffed, hadn’t I, and not just with pancakes. She must have been planning it since I got up, maybe before. I had managed the whole of this holiday so far by staying in my room, not going out into the bright Spanish sunshine, it was a bit of a thing. This was going to be the holiday Cal didn’t leave his room. And now she’d tricked me. I’d used the last of the milk, and made her use hers to do something nice for me, and now I had no choice but to do what she asked. OK, maybe I did, because if I’d truly been the sulky teen I liked to think I was, I would have said ‘screw you’ and slammed my bedroom door again.

But I suppose I wasn’t that kid, I was the one whose mum had given a huge sense of right and wrong to from an early age, and leaving Rose without tea all day was not something I could do.

My answer was, you’ve probably guessed, a shrug. I’d managed the morning so far by saying three words to Rose, and that was pretty good going. I hoped I would be able to stand as firm on the short walk to the nearest shop.

Turned out I didn’t need to stand firm at all, at least not at first. Rose talked all the way there and all the way back, about all sorts of things, ranging from her nephew, who was about Dec’s age, and his wife and children, to her landlord’s plans to put new carpet in, to Charlie’s first day at school, Rosa’s first tooth, in fact she went through practically every member of the family, talking about her worries and hopes for them all, and then she ended up with me. By the time she got there, I’d forgotten about being uncommunicative, and was craving a chance to say something, anything, to stop the flow of words coming from Rose.

‘I hope this girl’s worth it, love.’

‘What?’

‘I hope she’s worth you missing having the time of your life with your family. You won’t get it back, you know.’

‘What would you know?’

‘I’ve had my fair share of romances gone wrong. I wasn’t always an old bird, you know.’

Why did adults always say that, as if they had any idea what it was like?

‘They all miss you, being with them.’

‘Yeah right.’

‘That’s why they’re being so annoying, Matt and Declan trying everything to cheer you up and get you out of your room. It’s not the same without you there. Your mam misses you the most.’

I knew that, really. I knew deep down I was spoiling things in some way, for everyone, but I just didn’t have it in me right then to be that happy chappy they all wanted me to be.

‘I can’t, Rose, I just can’t.’

‘They worry, you know. We all do, love.’

‘I can’t help it. It’s like …’

I tried to find words to say how big a hole Chrissie had left in my life.

‘… whenever I feel happy, it doesn’t last long, because I think about her, and everything goes a bit dark, because I want to tell her how I’m feeling, but I can’t. I can’t ever. And don’t tell me I’m too young, Mum said I’m too fucking young to feel like this, so that’s why I don’t talk to her, she’ll never understand.’

‘Oh love, I’d never say you’re too young. Love can hit you hard any time, young or old, and I’m sorry you’re feeling like this. Maybe, though, you might need to think about trying to pull yourself out of it. I don’t mean right now, you sound like you do need some time to yourself, but don’t let it go on too long. It can be hard to shake it off.’

I looked at Rose. The way she spoke, it sounded like she did understand how I was feeling, almost as if she’d felt it too. She was looking back at me.

‘Yes, love, I do know how it is. I was fifteen once, too. Same thing, loved a boy, he left, I was heartbroken. Cried my eyes out for weeks, I did. Then I decided I wasn’t going to let a boy, who wasn’t there any more, rule my life, and I stopped crying and started smiling. If you smile enough, you can convince yourself you’re happy sometimes.’

It sounded like a load of bullshit to me, but it was true that Rose did seem happy a lot of the time. It wasn’t going to work for me, though, not yet, although maybe some of what she said made sense.

‘I’m not going to smile, not right now. I need to be on my own.’

‘Fair enough, love. Just promise me you won’t let it rule your life.’

‘OK.’

‘I can have a word, if you like, get them to leave you alone a bit?’

‘No, it’s OK, don’t say anything. There’s only a couple of days before we go home, I don’t want the ten thousand questions.’

‘Alright, love.’

We got back with the milk, and to my knowledge Rose never told anyone about our conversation – to all intents and purposes, nothing had happened that morning. I stayed in my room for the rest of the holiday, dinner aside, and thought about Chrissie and what she’d meant to me and what she meant to me now.

When I got home, I realised that what Rose had said had stuck, and I started smiling more. It did make a difference, even outwardly – the way people reacted to me was different if I was smiling than if I was being a miserable git, and that made me feel different. I didn’t miss Chrissie any less, but I started to do things that made me forget, and in time it stopped hurting so much.

Rose often had wise words to say, and she was often surprisingly discreet. She loved a good gossip, talking about who was moving in with who in her flats, how terrible it was that the postman had run off with the woman who ran the convenience store, but when she had her chats with you, she didn’t tell anyone, she just talked and you generally just listened because you couldn’t get a word in, but she let you make your own mind up if you took her advice. Never came back and said ‘didn’t I tell you to …’ or ‘why didn’t you do what I said’.

When Chrissie came back and there was all the awfulness that went on with Ayesh, and it felt like everyone hated me for breaking up with her, Rose was the first one to say ‘I knew you and Chrissie should be together’, and she gave me a look like she remembered that morning in Spain, when I’d told her things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and I’ll always love her for that.

o0o

It wasn’t long after Rose’s funeral, in fact it was a few days after Conor’s first birthday, that we found out Lily was on the way. Not that we knew it was Lily, obviously, and it was a bit of a deviation from our plan as she was due in February, instead of the summer holidays. Babies – you just can’t trust them to get anything right.

From the start, she caused no end of trouble, and I expect she’ll go on causing it, like all the women in our family seem destined to do. Firstly, she was a bit of an accident – not in any way unwanted, Lily my lovely girl, we always wanted you, so much, still do, even when you’re screaming the place down because you wanted a green lolly and Mummy got you a red one. But anyway, there was a contraception mishap (hey Lau, I said it again), and before we knew it, Chrissie was having morning, noon and night sickness. She vomited at the slightest hint of food, almost literally anything would set her off, and she lost about a stone, instead of gaining weight, in the first couple of months after we knew.

Chrissie and the doctors finally got the puking under control, only for her blood pressure to spike, resulting in her being on bed rest for the last two months of the pregnancy, and the last month actually in hospital, because she just would not do as she was told.

That meant a month of me and Conor fending for ourselves, although to be honest we’d been doing that beforehand anyway, trying to keep Chrissie out of action.

And then when the time came for Lily to arrive, we nearly lost them both when there was some bleeding that wouldn’t stop, and I was shoved unceremoniously out of the room to pace in the corridor, sick with worry and angry at the lack of information.

It was very different from Conor’s birth, and it took us some time to stop feeling traumatised and begin life as a family of four. Chrissie was unwell for quite a while afterwards, and it was only because of a massive rally round by the rest of the family that we didn’t go under.

It was approaching the end of what I didn’t realise at the time was my last full season as a regular Raiders player. I’d felt for a while that I was maybe a metre off the pace, couldn’t get across the pitch as fast as I used to any more, missed a few important tackles. In the summer after that season, Raiders brought in the young TomCats and England winger who was hitting the headlines, and my regular playing days came to an end. I was destined to stay with Raiders until I called it a day – I couldn’t leave now, I wouldn’t know how to start again somewhere else – but it was with a game here and there in less important cup competitions, and a role in coaching, which I really didn’t enjoy.

Having a young family to support helped me to focus my attention on what I was going to actually do to support them once I stopped earning a living by playing rugby. I’d had my head in the sand about it for so long, and then suddenly, it hit me slap in the face.

While Lily was so little and Chrissie was so poorly, I had no choice but to carry on playing, when I was picked, helping out with the corporate and media stuff when asked to, and trying not to mourn my fading fitness or the lack of match appearance or win bonuses which decreased our income somewhat.

I felt it deeply, it affected my sense of who I was. I was a rugby player, had been since I was a teenager. It was a constant in my life, and losing that with possibly two thirds of my life left – well, I found it hard to accept. Until I talked to Matty, that is.

Matty had more bad days than good. He was regularly in hospital with pneumonia; he was more often than not either confined to his bed or his recliner chair; when he was up and about, he usually needed wheeling from place to place. He hated every second that he wasn’t what he considered normal, so he spent a lot of his life hating what he was. He could have become bitter and angry, but somehow he kept his sense of humour and his love of a good natter about nothing.

We could have just left him alone, God knows he told us to often enough, but his and Dec’s ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you feel this shit’ mantra had filtered down to us all, and when he was feeling down, that’s when we stepped up the visits, calls, texts and Facetimes.

Mum was coordinating the current campaign, and she’d text someone every day to suggest they might give Matty a ring, or call in to see if Lau needed anything from the shop. It was my turn, and I stopped off on the way home.

‘Hi Cal. How lovely to see you.’

‘Hey Lau. Just on my way home, wondered if there’s anything you need?’

‘Oh, no, thanks flower. Josh popped to the shop for me this morning. Come and have a coffee, though. I’ve got some chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, too.’

‘Great. Is Matty about?’

I always asked this, even though Matty had no choice but to be ‘about’. It just continued the illusion, for him and for me, that there was a possibility he could be off on one of his hikes, or out checking the internet connection at Raiders.

‘Yeah, he’s had a snooze, just woken up.’

‘Lazy bastard.’

‘Matt’s always loved his sleep. He’s in the lounge, go through, I’ll be there in a minute.’

Lau headed off to the kitchen, and I walked through to the living room, where Matty was sitting in the large recliner chair they’d bought so he could sleep there in the day if he wanted to, without having the hassle of going back to bed.

These days, Matty was stick thin. He’d never had much body fat, but he was positively gaunt now. As I saw him, I had a sudden flashback to how he looked when he first came home from hospital up in Stafford, all those years ago, when I thought he looked like a ‘skellington’. He wasn’t that far off now, and I saw it with a lurch to my heart, how small his reserve of energy must be, and how exhausting every day must be for him. Before he could see me feeling sorry for him, I gave him a grin and plonked myself in the chair next to him.

‘About time you woke up, old man.’

‘Pihs ohf. I desehv my rehst.’

‘Yeah, I can see how a long day of sitting watching Countdown would tire someone out.’

‘Sihting watchihg Dec ruihn my businehs mohr lihk.’

Matty gestured to the laptop that was on a small table by his chair. He still spent a lot of time doing the IT side of their business, Linebreak, while Dec visited various locations and fed back via email and text.

‘Why, what’s he done now?’

‘Triehd tuh tehl Trohjans’ IT guy hoh tuh fihx thehr dahtabahs.’

‘Bugger. I take it he doesn’t know how to fix Trojans’ database?’

Matty looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘Cahl, yuh knoh he’s shih at compuhters. He cahnt evehn sahv a fihl, an now heh’s fucked ih up evehn mohr. Said he wahted tuh sahv meh a johb. Dickhehd. Cauhsed meh mohr wohk.’

‘Well that’s your afternoon sorted, then. I’ll leave you to it, shall I?’

‘Noh, dohnt goh, or Ih’ll hahve tuh sit an look at Lau ahl aftehnohn. Oh, heh Lau.’

Matty managed a cheeky grin as Lau came in with the coffee and cookies she’d promised.

‘Watch it, buster, I’m carrying a tray of hot drinks and it would be really unfortunate if one of them ended up in your lap, wouldn’t it.’

‘Lau, yuh wouhn’t, not my tahkle, wha wouhd yuh do wihout ih?’

‘Hmm maybe. Just watch your step then. Have a cookie and tell me how delicious it is, to make up for it.’

Lau was always trying to tempt Matty to eat, but Matty rarely had an appetite. He’d force enough down to keep him alive, but it was sad to see how little he cared about food any more. He’d always loved to cook, messing about with ingredients, making sauces for pasta, creating weird and wonderful sandwich fillings, doing amazing breakfasts for everyone, but now he hardly seemed to notice he was hungry.

‘I cahn smehl ih’s dehliciohs frohm hehr.’

‘Smelling’s not tasting, Matt. Here, Cal, show him what he’s missing.’

I dutifully ate a cookie. As I’d expected, it was really tasty. Chocolate chip cookies were Lau’s speciality.

‘Yeah, Matty, as good as ever. Possibly the best batch I’ve ever tasted.’

‘There you go, flower. How can you miss the chance to taste possibly my best batch ever?’

‘Goh on thehn, hahf a ohn.’

Lau smiled triumphantly and broke a cookie in half, handing it to Matty on a plate. She watched eagerly as he ate half of it, then put the plate down; Matty looked at her apologetically.

‘Dehd tahsty, Lau. Not huhgry tho.’

‘Never mind, flower. Here’s your coffee.’

She put Matty’s on the table by his laptop, then gave mine to me before picking up a mug of tea that Matty hadn’t drunk, and heading back to the kitchen. Matty’s coffee also remained untouched.

‘Hoh’s Chrihsie?’

‘Much better than she was, thanks. She’s been out a few times this week, taken Lily to appointments, came to the park with us yesterday.’

‘Greht. Lihly doing wehl?’

‘Yeah, growing every day. Conor’s got a cold, so he’s a grumpy little git. I would have brought him round at the weekend, but I didn’t want you to catch it.’

Matty rolled his eyes, as if catching a cold made no difference to him, when in reality it would have had him on a drip within twenty-four hours.

‘I saw Raihders sihgned Joss Tenk.’

Joss Tenk was the whizz-kid England winger who was set to replace me.

‘Yeah, great signing for us.’

‘Yuh OK wih ih?’

I looked at Matty, who knew as well as anyone what it meant for me, in all likelihood, unless I managed to find some previously undiscovered reserve of speed, fitness and (let’s face it) youth over the pre-season. I could have bullshitted him, but he would have seen through me in a second.

‘I haven’t got a choice, Matty. I’m not going to last forever, am I? I’m off my pace, and he’s a great signing. Raiders can’t afford to be sentimental. I’ll just have to try my best over the off season, see if I can’t show them there’s life in the old dog yet.’

‘Wha yuh gona duh?’

‘Well, work hard, train hard –’

‘Noh, wih yuhr lihf.’

It was a while since anyone had been this blunt with me. I’d avoided that question so well and for so long, that people had given up asking. I always hinted at some vague plan without actually expanding on it, and had become expert in avoiding being specific. Even Chrissie, who had begun to seriously question what I was going to do when I stopped playing, had been too poorly since Lily was born to be persistent, and I’d gone back to ignoring it all.

‘Oh I don’t know. Something will turn up.’

‘Yeh, yuhr righ, cos wehl paid johbs jus fahl in yuhr lap wehn yuhv got noh qualificahtions or expehriehce.’

‘I’ve got my coaching badges.’

‘Oh yeh. Weh ahl knoh hoh much yuh lohv cohching.’

‘Back the fuck off, Matty.’

I was getting defensive. I’d called round to see Matty and maybe have a bit of a chat about the weather and the kids, and instead I was getting the third degree about my career prospects.

‘Noh, Cahl, I dohnt thihk I wihl. Thihs fucking bahstrd’s gona geh meh ohn day, an I wana say shih befohr ih does.’

‘Matty …’

I hated it when Matty talked as if it was inevitable he wasn’t going to last much longer. However bad he got, he had so much guts and determination, he loved Lau and his kids so much, he always battled back. This was just another setback, I was sure, and I didn’t want to think about it being anything else.

‘Noh, Cahl. I wana say thihs. If yuhd behn shih at rugby, wha wouhd yuh hahv dohn?’

His question sparked a memory, of lying face down on the physio table at Raiders, talking to Kieran about what he was doing with his life because he knew he wasn’t going to be a professional sportsperson. Being a Physio wasn’t a substitute, it was completely different, and I wouldn’t say it was something that had ever occurred to me, except in a ‘bloody hell that’s too difficult’ kind of way. But I had always been fascinated with how the body healed itself and how it could be helped along. I had a sudden image of me being part of a different sort of team; one that looked at how to get the most out of arms and legs, how to help muscles repair, when to exercise and when to rest. It was just the seed of an ambition, but it took root in my head as I shrugged and answered Matty.

‘Dunno. Something physical, something not academic.’

I hardly had any GCSEs, not because I couldn’t have got some if I’d applied myself, but because I had other priorities at the time. Raiders Academy had always been hot on studying, but my focus had never been on schoolwork, it had always been on the outdoors, running about, throwing a ball, being buried under a pile of blokes, instead of under a pile of books.

‘Yuh couhd, tho. Duh the acadehmic thihg.’

‘Nah, I’m too old.’

‘Fuck ohf wih yuhr ‘tuh ohld’. Cahl, yuhv got a fahmly. They’ll lohv yuh whaever, buh yuhv got the braihs tuh beh amahzing. Duh ih while yuh can. Duh sohmthing tha hehps yuh look ahfter them. Yuhr gona nehd tuh suppoht them. Yuh nehd tuh duh the behst thihg yuh cahn. Migh tahk sohm hahd wohk.’

‘But I …’

My protests died away as Matty ignored me and took a big, noisy slurp of his coffee. He had decided the conversation was over, and when he’d finished swallowing his mouthful, he turned the topic to football, and we argued Tottenham versus Arsenal for a good half an hour before I had to go home.

Later that evening, my head still whirring with the possibilities Matty had made me think about, I pulled Chrissie against me on the sofa, after Conor and Lily were in bed.

‘Matty thinks I should go back to school.’

‘Oh does he? To do what?’

‘Get a career.’

‘Mm hmm. Did he give you any other careers advice?’

‘What, apart from never managing Spurs because they wouldn’t want someone who obviously knows nothing about football as evidenced by my poor taste in teams?’

‘Not that you’d take the job if they offered you a million a year.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Yeah, apart from that, then.’

‘Well, no, he didn’t come up with anything, but … I did have a thought.’

Chrissie twisted in my arms and looked up at my face, an eyebrow raised quizzically at me. She knew I never talked about this, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing talking about it myself, but something from this afternoon had got under my skin, and I needed to think out loud about it.

‘Well go on, then, share please.’

‘Alright then. I know it’s not the most original thing, but I was wondering about training to be a Physio.’

‘What, like Gracie?’

‘Yeah. Well, maybe more along the lines of Sports Physio than helping old ladies with their hip replacements, but it’s all the same training.’

‘That’s a lot of Uni, Cal.’

I looked down at Chrissie. She wasn’t suggesting I couldn’t do it, I knew she’d support me whatever I did, the same way I’d support her, we’d find a way to do whatever we all needed to do to be a family. She was wondering if I’d thought of all the implications and consequences, and fair enough, thinking things through wasn’t my strong point, and I had only just begun to think about this, I hadn’t thought any of it through at all. She also knew I was a lazy bastard at heart, and training aside, did as little as I could to get by.

‘Yeah, I know, I don’t know if I could do it, I mean, fuck, I’d have to do a shitload of exams just to get on the course. I honestly don’t know if I could actually stand it, but I think I want to find out.’

‘That sounds like a good place to start. Find out what you’d have to do. You should ask Gracie.’

‘I guess I could start with her, but she’s such a brainbox, she had all her exams sorted before she went, knew what grades she needed, passed everything with an A star. And she’s young. You know, old dog, new tricks and all.’

‘Yeah, but Cal, you haven’t really got a choice but to learn new tricks, have you?’

Trust my Chrissie to just say it how it was. She didn’t go on at me, usually said her piece once and then let it stew until I made my mind up, but once we were talking, she just said what she thought. And she was right. I didn’t have long before any decisions about my future were out of my hands, and I would be without a playing contract or, indeed, a job of any sort. It was like a light going on – I had to start doing something about it; should have been doing something about it for a long time.

‘Shit, Chrissie, you’re right. God, I need to do something, don’t I? I’ll call Gracie tomorrow, have a chat. Maybe talk to the guys at Raiders too.’

‘Yeah, sounds like a plan. Hey, who’d have thought, eh? Cal Scott has a plan.’

‘I know. Well weird. I think I need to lie down.’

‘You practically are lying down.’

‘Oh yeah. Well that’s alright then, no need to move at all.’

We sat together in comfortable silence for a bit.

‘How is Matty?’

‘He was out of bed, which is good, but still talking this shit about wanting to say everything while he’s got the chance.’

‘It sounds sensible to me. Do what you need to while you’ve got the energy.’

I didn’t respond immediately. It was too hard to think about Matty wanting to set his affairs in order, because I’d have to think about why he’d need to do that.

‘You know what, though, he’s a bit of an inspiration. He’s never let anything stop him doing what he wanted, or maybe what he needed to do. I mean, he can’t get around without help, and his speech has gone to shit, but he’s still working, still sorting out people’s IT stuff. He made it happen with Dec, and he’s training up Tom so when he –’

I stopped, as it was too hard to say what I’d almost said, that he was training up Tom to take over from him when he wasn’t around any more Matty was making sure everything was in place, that it was all sorted. I knew he’d made Lau some kind of partner in the business so she’d be financially OK, and it seemed he was working his way through the whole family, trying to make things as right as he could. Thinking back, I knew he’d talked to Iz about marrying Ben (fat chance, Matty, but nice try), he’d talked to Mum about ways to manage her business so she could step back a bit (Mum was rather taken aback at being told what to do for a change), he’d told Dad to retire and go travelling before he was too old (that went down well); I couldn’t think of any of us he hadn’t tried to sort out one way and another. He’d made some waves, thinking about it, but it hadn’t stopped him.

‘He is pretty inspiring, Cal. Nothing seems to stop him. He just fights all the time.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. He wants his family to be OK, and he’s just going for it. I should be doing the same, whatever it takes. If I have to do some studying, take some exams, get off my arse a bit, I bloody well should, to make sure you’re all OK and we don’t have to worry.’

‘We’ll be OK, whatever.’

‘Yeah, and I know it’s not just up to me, but I think now playing isn’t so certain any more, I need to man up, be part of Team Scott. Unless you think thirty-one is a bit young to be manning up?’

I looked at Chrissie hopefully, but she just cuffed me on the arm and shook her head.

45. Love shoulda brought you home

In which there may be trouble in paradise.

Cal

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

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

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

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you having a party?’

‘Yes, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

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

‘Who’s going?’

‘Billy, Artie, Rhys and Joe.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cal!’

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

‘Are you back for good?’

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

Cal

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

Dec

SIX MONTHS AFTER IZ IS BORN

>Hey Declan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

Cal

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

Matt

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

Cal

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

Dec

The Rugby Paper

Quick’s Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

JQ: Such as?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JQ: Who are your rugby heroes?

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

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

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

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

DS: Thanks.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Rugby Paper.

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

Dec

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Declan Summers renews contract

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘What train?’

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

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

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

‘Why the fuck were you going to Stafford?’

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

‘Why did you get kicked off the train?’

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

A silence. A sigh.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Brissle. Man said. Jus tol you.’

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

‘Wha the fuck? Dunno.’

‘Are there any signs anywhere?’

‘Wha? Wha signs?’

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

‘Dunno. Everthin’s fuckin blurry.’

Another sigh, longer and louder.

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

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

‘Yeah, yeah. Just stay put.’

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

Dec

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

1 0 2

TWEETS FOLLOWING FOLLOWERS

Tweets

Declan Summers @summs12 1 Apr

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

#whichbuttonsdoipressagain

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 1 Apr

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

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 1 Apr

About bleeding time. Follow me. #notneedy #maybealittlebit

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Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

‘What? No! It’s not for ages yet.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

Dec

RE: Booking enquiry

THE ORCHARD orchard@webserver.com

To: Declan Summers

Hi Declan

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

Regards

Sean

SEAN TIBBS

Reservations Manager

o0o

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

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

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

‘First weekend in August, preferably the Saturday.’

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

‘No, that’s OK. Thanks anyway.’

*… sorry, no vacancies …

*… full on that date …

*… no availability …

*… full …

*… sorry …

*… fully booked …

Matt

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

Dec

Matt: =Have u checked ur Twitter account lately?

Dec: =No. Don’t use much. Why?

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

Dec: =Don’t think so.

Matt: =Might b nothing. Keep an i.

Matt

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

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

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

Dec

Declan Summers @summs12 15 Apr

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

as usual. #idratherbearaiderthanapuss

Reply to @summs12

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 great game today Declan #nothingwrongwithpusses 😉

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_____________________________________________________________________

Declan Summers @summs12 19 Apr

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

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 Mmm bath sounds nice. #wishiwasabarofsoap

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 20 Apr

@summs12 Had that bath yet? #imagining

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 21 Apr

@summs12 make sure you scrub behind your ears.

#getridofunwantedgrime

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Matt

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

Dec

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

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

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

)Oh.

‘She said you were at school together.’

)Yes, we were.

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

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

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Player of the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

o0o

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

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

o0o

_So what do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_Vol au vents?

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

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

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

_Oh. Everything OK, sweetheart?

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

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

A silence.

_Dec?

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

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

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

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

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

_Oh, Dec.

‘It gets worse.’

_Oh sweetheart …

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

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

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

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

‘Like what?’

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

o0o

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

D XXX

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

TOMORROW IT IS. D X

PS TAKEAWAY THEN?

o0o

\dec, Mum says you’re from Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

\Was he a dingo?

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

\where did you live?

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

\if I write about Perth will you help me?

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

\tomorrow.

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

o0o

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

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

26. Get ready for this

In which Dec encounters recovery and remembering, and anticipates reunions.

Dec

Silence. Darkness. Faded to grey, sounds reappeared. Voices. Made no sense at first. Pains in both my arms. Mixed up with my dream. Someone was kicking me. I wasn’t sure where I was.

‘Fuck off, Big.’

>Hey Declan, you live. Stop moving, the lovely Suzanne try to take your blood pressure.

I opened my eyes. Two faces bent over me. Nico and a nurse. My brain attempted to make sense of it, but failed.

‘What?’

*Hello Declan. Just need to take your blood pressure. Both your arms are pretty knocked about, but I’m using your left so we can leave the operation site alone. Does it hurt?

‘Mm. Where’s Big?’

>What is big?

‘He was just here.’

>Only just me and Suzanne. You wake up from operation on your arm. You are confusing.

*I’ll give you some oxygen, that’ll help you think better.

The nurse put a mask over my face, and I felt a cold gas enter my lungs. A few breaths later, and things were a lot less foggy.

*That looks better, more colour in your cheeks. Blood pressure’s fine. Stay here for a bit, then we can take you back to your room. You’ll feel tired and want to sleep for a while, but try to get moving as soon as you can. Eat something too, and have a drink.

I felt the mattress move underneath me as the bed sat me up.

*Is your arm hurting? Do you need painkillers?

‘Mm, please.’

*Here you go, then, some meds for the pain and some water. Can you hold the cup?

My right arm was in a sling, so I tried to take it with my left hand, hooked my fingers in the handle, did my best, but spilt a lot, so the nurse got a straw and I managed to swallow the tablets.

I looked at Nico.

‘Thanks for coming.’

>Is no problem for me. I talk to the beautiful Suzanne while you sleep. She tell me your operation go very well, and now your arm is very good. I must call Rose and Lis to say you are awake. Suzanne, I use my phone?

*Not in here, sorry. Best go outside.

>OK. Declan, I must do this, I am not long.

‘No worries. Say hi.’

My throat was dry and I was really thirsty, and I managed to drink two mugs of water. This reawakened my appetite – it was getting on for a whole day since I last ate anything. My stomach growled.

*Hungry, are you?

I nodded.

*You can go back to your room when your friend gets back, they’ll bring you some dinner. You must be ravenous.

‘Starving.’

*The food in here is great, you’ll have a feast. Just need to take your temperature – pop the thermometer in your mouth for me.

Just as she took the thermometer out, Nico came back.

>Rose, she is very relieved. I think she worry all day. She want to visit, I say is OK.

‘Course.’

*You can take Declan to his room now, if you’re OK with the wheelchair. You’ll be able to use your mobile there if you want to.

>Thank you, Suzanne. Declan, I have to ring Don and Jaime to say you are OK, we can wait until we are in your room. Maybe you talk to them?

‘Sure.’

Once back in my room, Nico phoned Don and Jay and told them everything had gone well. I spoke briefly to both, but was still groggy and knew less than Nico, so didn’t have that much to say.

Just as I rang off from Jay, my dinner arrived. As Suzanne had predicted, it was a feast, and I ate the lot.

>You are hungry, my friend. Is good I have big lunch.

‘Sorry, I was starving. Nothing since midnight.’

>Ha, I know this.

Nico’s phone pinged. He looked at the screen.

>Ha, Lis say you must stand up, get blood to move. She boss you from my phone. You stand up now.

‘What?’

>You remember your list from Don, this is one thing. Suzanne she say also. You move to keep blood going, OK?

I grumbled a bit, as my large meal had made me feel sleepy, but swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. It was so much easier without the cast getting in the way, and without the constant pain of the broken collar bone. Even though my arm hurt, and was stiff and sore, and the scars themselves covered in dressings, I managed so much better, and it lifted my spirits.

‘How far should I go?’

>Ha, you ask me? OK … there is drink machine in the corridor, go there, get me coffee!

‘OK then.’

I set off out of the door, looked left, saw the coffee machine at the end of the corridor. Got all the way there, realised I had no money. Walked back. Nico was waiting with a huge grin on his face.

>Your head still not work right. You have no coins, eh?

‘Yeah, very funny. You can get your own fucking coffee.

:Well this must be Declan’s room, I can hear the language from the corridor.

‘Rose!’

:Hello, love, it’s good to see you up and about. Come here.

She folded me up in one of her huge hugs, being very careful of my right arm.

:Oh, love, that’s better. I’ve been so worried all day, soft aren’t I?

‘It’s nice to be worried about.’

As I said it, I realised how good it felt that someone was thinking about me, and how much pressure it took off me.

:I suppose so, love.

>Rose you have a chair. I go to get coffee from machine, as Declan fail. You want?

:Tea if they’ve got it, ta, love.

I sat on the edge of the bed and swung my legs back in.

:That looks so much better, love. That big cast just got in your way. Is it sore?

‘Lots of painkillers. Will be sore tomorrow.’

I could feel my energy slipping away; I was finding it hard to speak.

:Not long and you can have a shower, I imagine you’ll have to be careful of those dressings for a while. Maybe you can stick your arm out the shower curtain or something?

‘Mm.’

I was feeling very sleepy, couldn’t keep my eyes open. Tried to listen to Rose, but everything faded.

: … sure he’s going to be alright?

> … fine, is normal to sleep …

: … how long I should stay …

> … go home soon, he look out for the night …

: … night Nico, love. No, I won’t stay much longer …

: … night Declan, love, I’m going home, I’ll see you in the morning …

Woke up with a start a lot later. It was dark in the room, there was no sign of Rose or Nico. I assumed they had gone home. I had had more strange half-dreams about Big and someone else, wearing brown boots, who was stamping on my phone. I kept trying to make the other person become DivDav, but his face wouldn’t stay there. I seemed to wake up regularly, in a panic, then drop off to sleep only for the same thing to happen again.

By the time morning came, I was shattered, and my arm was starting to throb. A nurse came in before long and gave me some painkillers, which calmed my arm a bit.

I managed to doze without dreaming for a while before the doctor came to check on me, shone a light in my eyes, signed a form and said I could go home in the afternoon. I also had an early morning visit from Don, Pete the physio and one of the conditioning coaches. They wanted to check my arm and make some plans for my restart in the New Year. I hoped they didn’t expect me to remember any of the conversation, which mostly carried on over my head, and was a detailed discussion about muscle fibres and recovery rates. I think it was decided that my arm might need a week or two before the stitches were out, and then I would be back on the treadmill, getting fit again. That was fine by me; a large part of me couldn’t wait to get back to training and feel a proper part of Raiders once more.

-See you on the sixth, then, Declan.

‘Sixth. Right.’

£You might need to write it down, Don. He’s not going to remember his own name for a while. Better still, tell someone else.

‘Tell Rose.’

-Right you are. You’re doing well, son. Have a good Christmas.

‘Thanks. You too.’

I slept again, after a good breakfast, until Rose appeared.

:Alright, love? I’m glad you’re awake, hardly saw you yesterday before you were out of it. Had to go back home in the end. How did you sleep?

‘Not too good. Weird dreams, kept waking up.’

:So you’ve been knocked out on the table but kept awake half the night after, you poor love. How are you now?

‘Still tired.’

:Have a snooze then. I won’t tell. I brought some magazines, look. I’ll be here when you wake up.

So I did. My eyelids were drooping anyway, and I drifted off quickly.

Dreaming. Although it feels real. I was in the car park at Raiders, had my phone out to call Rose. It was dark, my head was down, looking at the screen on the phone, and I was heading over towards where DivDav’s car should have been, although neither he nor his car were anywhere to be seen.

I heard footsteps behind me. Turned, half expecting it to be DivDav. Caught sight of movement, then something hit the back of my head. Heard it smash. Glass cascaded around me. I staggered, stunned. Dropped my phone.

Felt blows, slashes, to my face. Bent forwards, hands over my head, trying to protect myself. More blows hit my body, and I fell to the ground. Feet all round me, kicking me, grinding bits of glass through my clothes and into my skin, stamping on my phone, stamping on my arm, sharp peaks of agony overtaking all my senses. Looked up, tried to see who it was.

Blond hair, tall … familiar. And then brown hair, tall, stocky, Big. They redoubled their efforts to kick the shit out of me. By looking up I’d left my face vulnerable, and I lay there helplessly as a brown boot headed towards my face, crashing into my nose with a blast of pain. Seeing stars didn’t begin to describe it, whole universes flashed in my head. I tried to cover my face again, but I was nearly unconscious and I couldn’t move my arms. More blasts of pain burst over me and I fell into the black.

:Declan. It’s alright, love, you’re dreaming. Come on, wake up, now. You’re OK, I’m here. Shush now.

Someone’s hand smoothing the hair away from my forehead. For a confused second, my heart soared.

‘Mum?’

:Oh love, it’s Rose. You’re OK, you were having a dream. Calling out, fighting you were. It’s alright now. You remember where you are?

I opened my eyes groggily as I crashed back to earth. The sun had made its way into my room and was shining on the floor. I tried to get my thoughts working. My heart was pounding, and I was panting like I’d been for a run. I pushed away the brief instant when I’d thought Mum was here, and made myself focus on what I’d been dreaming – no, not dreaming. Remembering. It was big. It was …

‘Big.’

:What’s that, love?

‘Not DivDav.’

:Sorry, you’ve lost me.

‘Not a dream. I remember. Being kicked. Not DivDav. It was Big and someone else, I knew him, but it wasn’t Dav. They hit me with a bottle.’

It started to bring it all back again, felt like I was there again. I closed my eyes.

‘Shit. Big. No way.’

:What do you mean, love? A big bottle?

Exasperated that I would have to explain myself, I sighed and tried to gather my thoughts into something comprehensible.

‘Big’s … he was my mate. It’s a nickname. His name’s Ben.’

I waited for the penny to drop.

:Ah, I see. And so this friend of yours has been hitting you with bottles in your dreams?

‘No, I told you, it wasn’t a dream. I remember it.

:Are you sure, love? You’re pretty dosed up at the moment, your mind can play all sort of tricks. You and Nico were certain it was this Dav fellow the other day.

‘It was real. Memory, not a dream. Can’t explain – I know the difference.’

:Well if you’re really convinced, we need to contact the police, but we’re not going to do it now, it can wait till you get home. Any idea when they’re letting you out?

‘This afternoon. You don’t have to wait.’

:Course I don’t love, but I’m going to, I hardly saw you yesterday before you dozed off again. You’ve gone a very funny colour, I think I’ll get a nurse.

‘No –’

But she had bustled off in search of someone. I tried not to go over my newly uncovered memories, but my brain was on a single track. Once again I was hit by the bottle, once again I saw my phone smashed, once again I looked up and saw Big and … who the fuck was it? I knew him … and once again the brown boot smashed into my face. In my head I lay on the ground in the car park, powerless to do anything about it.

Big. He’d been the only one who’d been nice to me, had gone out of his way to talk to me, been for a drink with me. What had that been all about? Surely he wasn’t the one who trashed my flat? He did know where I lived though, and as far as I knew, DivDav didn’t. He’d come to see me in hospital, twice. As I remembered this, and Big standing over me looking stunned when I’d fallen out of bed, I also remembered something he said when he visited with DivDav:

°Probably have to wait till his phone’s back in commission.

How had he known about my phone, unless he’d been there when it was broken? Hardly anyone knew. With a sinking heart, I started to put some of it together. His friendliness seemed the biggest sham now, designed to – what? – get information out of me? Keep me on the back foot? And once the outcome of the points deduction was known, that was it, payback. I remembered DI Johnson’s question about the ‘Payback’ text. Rose was right, I was going to have to contact the police as soon as I felt a bit more alert.

Rose returned with a nurse in tow.

:He’s just had a bit of a shock, that’s all, he lost his memory when he was attacked, and it’s all come back while he was asleep.

*Well let’s have a look then. Are you in any pain, Declan?

‘Bit of a headache, arm’s a bit sore.’

*Alright, then, let’s see what we can do.

She took my temperature, pulse and blood pressure. Offered me some more tablets.

‘I don’t want to go to sleep again.’

*Well, I can understand that, but these will make you a bit drowsy. You’ll doze on and off for a while. You are going to have someone with you when you go home, aren’t you?

:He’s staying at mine.

*Oh good, nice to have your mum looking after you, eh?

Neither of us contradicted her.

The rest of the morning and afternoon passed slowly, me trying and failing not to fall asleep, waking with a start every time my head dropped forwards, and Rose checking her watch every five minutes. I had another great meal at lunchtime, but shared it with Rose, who wasn’t included in the free fabulous food offer at the private hospital. I told her it wasn’t a patch on her cooking, but we both knew I wasn’t being completely honest.

I was finally given the all clear to leave, and we made our way to the car park, where Rose had parked as close to the main entrance as she could. My legs wobbled alarmingly, but I made it to the car. I was panting a bit by the time I got there, and I considered ruefully how much conditioning work I was going to have to do just to regain my fitness, let alone get back to a state in which I could play a game of rugby. Big and his mate had certainly had some payback in the form of the amount of my life they had taken from me.

Rose settled me in her comfy armchair, then left me in front of the TV while she made some tea. She shouted through from the kitchen.

:Nico’s going to ring later. He said he won’t visit as you’ll be tired, but he’ll come and see you tomorrow morning. Beth rang this morning, she’s going to call you later, I had a chat with little Calum too. He told me you’ve spoken to Santa about an – oh what was it – Optimax something –

‘Optimus Prime. It’s all sorted. Me and Santa know what we’re doing.’

:Oh that’s good, then, love. Wouldn’t do to disappoint him, he seems very keen.

‘Yeah. I know. Need to keep my promises. Can’t wait to see him, though.’

:I think he feels the same, from the amount of questions he asked about you. He’s very interested in your operation scars.

‘He loves gore. The bloodier the better.’

:Oh, typical six year old then.

Rose came in with two mugs of tea, gave me one and settled down on the sofa. We passed the evening companionably, although she did keep making me move around and do the exercises the hospital had suggested to avoid blood clots.

I went to bed early, finding it much easier to undress without the plaster cast and painful collar bone, although as the operation sites had begun to throb, I took some painkillers just before I settled down. I fell asleep really quickly, but was woken up a couple of times by the phone ringing in the hallway. From the muffled conversations I overheard, it was firstly Nico and then Beth. Rose told them both I had gone to bed, but would ring them tomorrow, and I slept on again.

Dreaming. I am flying, with Mum. She wants to show me things, tell me the names of things, talk to me, but I want to see everything, and fly on ahead. I turn round and she has gone. I fly everywhere, but I can’t find her.

I woke the next morning, with tears on my face and a heavy sadness in my chest. I didn’t think about Mum very often, it was too painful. I’d only been thirteen when she’d died with Dad in the accident, and my subsequent experiences in various foster homes hadn’t lent themselves to introspection or dealing in any helpful way with grief. It had been more about survival, which didn’t include any kind of a softer side. By the time I’d got to Jay and Beth, I had shut Mum and Dad away somewhere virtually inaccessible. If I didn’t think about them, I didn’t have to deal with the loss of them. I’d dreamed about Mum a few times in the past few weeks, and it had unlocked that place. I tried now to push my sorrow back there, but it wouldn’t quite fit, leaving a part of me feeling exposed and vulnerable.

It took me a while to get out of bed that day, feeling down physically and emotionally. Rose spent a lot of time trying to gee me up, but she was working really hard for little reward. Nico and Beth phoned back, but I couldn’t find the energy for long conversations. Rose asked if I wanted to phone DI Johnson, but that felt a long way from possible.

I also had a phone call from Adam, the psychologist Don wanted me to see in the New Year. I made an appointment, he said he would send a letter confirming it, and that was another thing sorted, but another reminder of how much I had to do to get better.

After nearly a day of trying to get a response out of me, Rose had had enough, and took matters into her own hands. She called Nico and asked him to come over.

:I think he needs some cheering up, hardly had a word out of him all day.

Nico arrived half an hour later, full of chatter and charm, and raised my spirits a bit. He told a funny story about trying to buy a present for Lis in town that morning, he teased Rose mercilessly about her need for tea, he made fun of the TV programmes that were on in the background, and it was impossible not to be a bit swept up in his performance. I caught myself smiling, despite myself, and Nico noticed too.

>Ha, this is better. You seem very sad today, Rose tell me.

‘Had stuff on my mind.’

>You must say this stuff, or we cannot help.

I was silent. They couldn’t have helped, whatever I said, and I wasn’t going to tell them what was on my mind. I could barely acknowledge it myself, and talking about it would release a whole lot of shit I wasn’t ready to face.

>Huh, you are stubborn. OK, is up to you.

:Are you worried about this business with your friend, love?

I shook my head, frowned at her, didn’t want both of them going on at me.

>What business?

Rose ignored my scowl.

:Declan thinks he’s remembered the assault. He thinks it was someone different to that Dav fellow you told the police about. I think he should call DI Johnson, but he’s not felt up to it today.

>Declan, you remember?

I was trying not to, but thinking about it now brought the flashbacks into my head; kicks and punches and slashes. I groaned and covered my face with my hands. Too much I was trying not to think about.

‘I remember being punched and kicked, glass smashing on my head. It was Big. Ben Hearne. And someone else – I think I know him, but it wasn’t DivDav.’

>Declan, you must tell the police.

‘Rose thinks it was a dream.’

:Well it did happen while you were asleep, love.

‘I know the difference.’

>OK, is importante. If you are sure, we tell the police the wrong name before. We must tell them.

‘I’m sure I remember.’

>Then I call, like last time.

Nico made the call, I was relieved to have it taken out of my hands. It was a short conversation.

>He say he come this evening to talk to you. I say yes. I stay or go, which you want.

‘Stay, please. When’s he coming?’

>Ha, I forget to ask. Rose, I am here all evening, feed me please!

:You’ve got a cheek on you. Alright, I’ll get cracking on tea.

>I call Lis to say I stay longer.

DI Johnson eventually arrived about eight thirty. He asked me to go over what I remembered, and was particularly interested in how I knew it was Big, and what I could recall of the other man. I described what I could remember: blond hair, brown boots, nondescript clothing. I couldn’t see how any of it could help, it was all too vague. He asked the question I had been expecting.

ϙWhat made you remember?

‘I woke up after a dream, and I just remembered.’

ϙHow can you be sure it wasn’t part of the dream?

‘Because it’s a memory. I can’t explain it any better. It’s like when I remembered Dav texting me on Saturday. I just know. I’ve remembered something else though, not something from my sleep. When I was in hospital the first time, Big and Dav came to see me. Big said something about my phone being out of commission. I don’t know how he would have known that unless he’d had something to do with smashing it.’

ϙInteresting. When you gave us David Allsop’s name we did some checking on his phone records, and he tried to contact you by text and phone on three occasions between twenty and thirty minutes after your phone was destroyed. Although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that he would have done this if he had known your phone was broken. You’re sure this other man wasn’t David Allsop?

‘I’m sure. Dav’s got dark brown hair, this man was blond, and could have been taller. I’m sure I know him from somewhere.’

>Do you know yet the anonymous numbers?

ϙWe’re still working on it. Lots of red tape. Thank you very much, Declan. We’ll be in touch. Can we get hold of you here over Christmas?

‘No, I’m away.’

I smiled to myself as I thought about going up to Jay and Beth’s.

‘Rose, have you got Jay’s number?’

Rose wrote out a number for DI Johnson, then showed him out.

>Huh. Ben Hearne. You are sure?

‘I’m sure.’

>Are you OK? He is your friend, he never hurt you in training, he seem OK.

‘I know. No, I’m not OK really. He’s kind of fucked up my life for the next few months. I thought he was a good mate, we went out for a drink when no one else would talk to me. Don’t know what to think about that now. Don’t feel like I can trust anyone.

>You know you can trust me and Rose and Jaime. Start with us. We look after you now. We are Three Musketeers. Four if you count Lis. No, six with Beth and Cal. We are Six Musketeers. Were there six? There should be six, what good is three?

:You do talk some nonsense, lad.

>Ha, I say what is in my head. Sometimes is much nonsense, sometimes is much clever. Is luck which one. I go now, Lis she make special dinner.

:But you’ve had your dinner.

>She don’t know this.

He winked at Rose and stood up to go.

>Declan, I hope you OK, I try to cheer you up, you are sad still, yes?

‘A bit, I’ll be OK. Thanks for coming.’

He left and it was just Rose and me again.

Matt

And so the days ticked on to Christmas. I was more aware of it than I might have been because Cal was so excited – he had an advent calendar in my room, as well as one elsewhere in the house, and he came in every morning to open the cardboard door and eat the chocolate and tell me how many sleeps until Santa.

He told me earnestly how he’d asked Dec about some Transformer toy, and how Dec was going to talk to Santa about it. I hoped Dec wasn’t just bullshitting, and wasn’t going to let Cal down. I tried to talk to Beth about getting some presents for Cal, but she just waved me away and said that Santa was bringing enough more than enough, and there wouldn’t be any names on anything, and to save my strength. I wasn’t quite sure what I was saving it for, as there didn’t seem to be a marathon or even a walk to the toilet in my immediate future, but it was the end of the subject.

I was, however, slowly, infinitesimally, feeling things get better. There were days when I could sit in the chair in my room for a few minutes – not many days, but it happened, and it was something I used to chart my progress. I could sometimes even get myself out of bed and into the chair myself, although these occasions were few and far between, and I couldn’t get myself back again.

There were also days when my lungs decided they were going to try to expel all the foul deposits left in their depths, and I would cough uncontrollably, and Jay and Beth would sit with me trying to help me get it under control as I choked, their fingers poised on the nine on the phone. Those days left me weak and feeble for a long time, exhausted with the effort and sore from the overused chest muscles. I tried not to notice the fear in their eyes when it happened, but it was hard not to, and I knew I wasn’t truly out of it yet, it could still take me. The upshot of all the coughing was that I was the proud recipient of a baby monitor. It was switched on whenever there was no one in the room with me, so at the slightest sign of dying, someone could be with me in an instant to stop me. Bastards. I hated the fucker, it just made me feel more like an infant. But it was another thing I put up with because, at the end of the day, they were terrified and they had given up everything so I could be here and not in some shitty care home.

Cal

I only had a few more days of school, and then it was the Christmas holidays. I couldn’t remember ever being more excited than I was that year. I spent a lot of time in Uncle Matty’s room, playing with my toys and talking to Uncle Matty, who seemed to be able to talk and play for longer, and slept less, than when he first came to live with us. Sometimes all four of us would be in there, and we’d watch Uncle Matty’s TV, and Mum, Dad and Uncle Matty would talk, or maybe Uncle Matty would be asleep, but we’d all still be there.

Like any good six-year-old, I was counting the days to Christmas, but I was also counting the days until Dec arrived, which was going to be two days before Christmas.

I had talked to Dec on the phone a lot, although Dec didn’t talk for long, and we didn’t make any plans about what we were going to do while he was here.

Mum said that we needed to see how Dec felt, and not try to make him do a lot of playing and games, but me and Dec had always done a lot of playing and games, and I wasn’t sure what Dec would do if we weren’t doing that. Mum said Dec had been sad, and hurt from his cuts and broken arm, and that we needed to give him loves like we did to Uncle Matty, but Dec wasn’t going to be asleep in his bed all day like Uncle Matty, and I was pretty sure he’d want to play football, or cars, or Jenga, or any of the things that we always did.

Dec

I spent the weekend focussing on doing the physio exercises Pete had given me, determined I was going to be as fit as I could when I returned to the club in January. I needed less and less help generally from Rose as my arm got used to its new operational status. My mood lifted as I did more for myself, I tried to concentrate on being busy rather than thinking, using Rose’s ‘don’t prod it’ theory, and managed to push things down far enough that I couldn’t feel them.

Lis visited a couple of times, Nico had an away Raiders game on Saturday, so I didn’t see much of him. Beth rang, I spoke to her and Jay and confirmed arrangements for Tuesday. That helped to cheer me up as much as anything. I was really looking forward to going up there, although Matt, Jay’s brother, was now living with them and very poorly, and Jay’s mum was going to be staying at the same time as me, and I was nervous about how everything was going to work out with us all. Couldn’t wait to see them all though, see them properly without being on medication, or in huge amounts of pain, or unable to talk without a six year old translator. Really needed to see how it was all going to work out.

On Monday, after a trip to my GP to have various stitches removed and to be told I no longer needed the sling, which I hadn’t been wearing much anyway, I borrowed a holdall from Rose, packed it with all the clothes Lisa had bought me, and put the presents I was taking up into another bag.

Now the stitches were out from my face and scalp, I could wash my hair. I still couldn’t have a shower, though, and had to ask Rose to help me using her shower hose over the bath so I could avoid soaking the dressings on my arm. It was such a relief to have clean hair, I almost didn’t mind Rose having to do it for me. It must have been washed when I was first admitted to hospital, to get the blood out, but I hadn’t been able to wash it since. It felt like another step towards recovering, getting back on my feet.

I hadn’t looked in the mirror much since I’d been out of hospital; seeing myself in the mirror on the ward had shaken me, and the odd glimpse out of the corner of my eye was all I’d been able to cope with. However, now the stitches were out, I risked an in-depth study, keeping it exploratory and fact-finding, and not thinking about how all the marks actually found their way onto my skin in the first place.

The bruises were still there, beginning to fade but still very noticeable, in every shade from deep green through canary yellow to dark browny purple; the stitches had been replaced by raised red lines which bracketed my face. I could still barely recognise myself.

I wondered how long the scars would last – I’d asked at the surgery when I had the stitches out, but they were non-committal, which I took to mean ‘a long time’. I really didn’t want to think of men in brown boots kicking me every time I looked at myself, so I was going to have to start covering all of those thoughts over with something else soon.

Matt

Two days before Christmas was the day set for Advent. Not the coming of the baby Jesus, but the coming of the juvenile rugby player. Dec was arriving that evening, and Cal rushed about excitedly all day, tidying his room up, drawing pictures, cleaning out his rabbit, so that everything would be ready. Because obviously the teenager wouldn’t have set foot through the door if the straw in the rabbit hutch wasn’t clean enough to see your face in. Fucksake.

Since they came back from Devon, Cal had talked a lot about Dec and his scars and bruises, seeming to find it all fascinating rather than horrifying, and I was looking forward to having a look for myself, nosy parker that I was. I knew Beth and Jay were nervous about him coming.

Jay felt that things hadn’t been properly sorted, and wanted to get to the bottom of everything. He wasn’t a fan of long conversations, but he seemed to have resigned himself to this particular one.

Beth just wanted everything to be lovely again. She’d been hurt more by Dec shutting himself off and not telling them about some pretty huge shit than she had about the actual huge shit, and wondered if things could ever be back the way they’d been.

It could be pretty handy, being a useless lump in a bed, who couldn’t talk much. People opened up, told you stuff. Of course, sometimes it meant you had to lie there while they fussed and went on at you as well, but the payoff was you sometimes got to hear the good shit, always provided you could a) remember it and b) not fall asleep at a crucial point.

Then Dec was here for Christmas. He was here for four days, and by the time he left, he’d changed things for me, and he was my mate, and part of my family. The End. What, you want details? My version of events? Blow-by-blow account? Oh alright then, if you insist.

Cal

So after what felt like years, it was at last the day that Dec was coming. I had tidied my room so that you could see the carpet and all my toys had been put away to leave room for Dec’s clothes and trainers and pants. I so wanted Dec to see my dinosaur bedroom; my old bedroom had Ben 10 curtains and blue walls, but my dinosaur bedroom was cool, and it was a big boy’s bedroom. And Dec hadn’t seen Percy, my rabbit, yet. Mum had never let me have a pet, because Tabitha, our cat wouldn’t like it. But Tabitha lived with Nico and Lis now, and I had Percy. Dec would love him.

Mum had a text from Lis to say that they were driving in Lis’s car, and that they should be at our house in a few hours. Mum had made some dinner, but we weren’t going to have it until Dec got here.

Dec

It was finally Tuesday, the day I was going to see Jay, Beth and Cal; the day, if it all went right, I was going to get my family back. Rose left in the morning, torn between wanting to be on her way to her sister’s and staying to fuss over me, but finally leaving me to it along with a long list of things I had to do and say, pots of jam to give to Beth, and a couple of her speciality huge hugs.

I wandered around restlessly, waiting for Lis to pick me up in the afternoon. I did some exercises, watched some of a Christmas film on TV, ate lunch, paced some more. Lis, of course, showed up dead on time.

The car journey was nearly as tortuous as the waiting had been. It should have taken about two and a half hours, but loads of other drivers seemed to be making an early Christmas getaway and the motorways were pretty busy. Being stuck in several traffic jams did nothing for my nerves. We got there in just over three and a half hours.

Cal

It got dark, and although I kept looking out of the window, I couldn’t see anything. Lots of cars went by, but I could only see their headlights, and none of them stopped. I took up a permanent position at the hall window, and pressed my face to the glass.

Finally, a car stopped outside, under the street-light, and a light went on inside the car. I saw Dec in the passenger seat, but he didn’t get out straight away. I jumped off the chair I’d been standing on and ran into the kitchen.

‘He’s here, Mummy, he’s here.’

Dec

It was early evening, dark and cold as Lis pulled up outside the house, following my directions via a map on her phone. I had managed to get us lost once, but we had found our way again and now we were here. My pulse rate rose with anticipation. I was finally here, I would find out if it really was all OK, if we could be together again, if things could be mended, or … not. I was excited and terrified.

~Ready?

Deep breath. I looked at Lisa, who gave me a reassuring smile.

‘… Ready.’c

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.