46. She said

In which Dec finds himself in a sticky situation.

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Dec

I couldn’t see Amy’s car as I pulled into the parking bay. The flat was ominously quiet and dark as I opened the door.

‘Ames?’

No reply. Fuck. Why had I let myself get so caught up with Cal’s project? Thinking about Perth had brought back some great childhood memories, talking about my dog, my friends, places I used to go. Talking about it like it was part of Cal’s school work helped me to think about it without focussing on my parents and all the sadness that brought. I’d enjoyed myself so much, I’d lost track of time, and suddenly it was late. Too late. I saw a note on the coffee table.

Tired of waiting. It’s always something isn’t it. Gone to Jude’s. Don’t wait up, won’t be back. A

What the fuck did that mean? Was she … had she … how long was she going for? Beginning to panic, I tried calling her. Maybe I could fix some of this over the phone. It went straight to voicemail. I hated leaving messages, but made an attempt.

‘Ames, I’m so sorry. I know I keep fucking up. Please don’t stay out, please come back and talk to me. I can’t bear this, not talking, knowing I’ve upset you and not sorting it out. I feel so far away from you. Please come back. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. I love you. I love you so much.’

I hung up before I started to cry. It felt like things were broken between us, and I didn’t know how to mend it. Couldn’t bear to think about where it might end if I didn’t. The thought of losing her nearly sent me back to that dark place where I’d been when my parents died, and when I’d lost Jay and Beth. I was just about holding on. I sent Amy a text as well, then made myself a cup of tea and scooped some of the takeaway curry I’d brought home onto a plate. I sat staring at it all for a long time while it went cold, unable to decide if I should go to Jude’s to find Amy, or whether I’d just make things worse. If they could be any worse. My phone rang. For a second I thought it might be Amy, but it wasn’t her ringtone. The tone and the screen announced Beth.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, were you supposed to be spending time with Amy tonight?

‘Yeah.’

_Cal just told me, he said didn’t think you were going to stay as long as you did. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t realise. You should have said, I’d never have let him keep you here so long if I’d known. Is everything OK?

I took a deep breath, tried not to cry, failed.

_Oh Dec, what’s happened? Tell me, sweetheart.

‘She’s not here, she’s gone to Jude’s. I think I’ve fucked it all up. Shit, I’m so fucking stupid. She left this note saying she’s not coming back, I don’t know what she means, she’s not answering her phone, I don’t know what to do. I think she might have … left. I can’t lose her, I just can’t, I love her –’

_Dec, listen to me, you haven’t lost her, she’s just angry. James and I went through something similar when he was still playing. Rugby is a pretty full on career, it can swallow you, and there are always lots of lovely ladies who’d like to have a bit of your man, given half a chance. You both have to be pretty strong, in yourself and together.’

Beth’s reassuring words were helping to calm me down a bit, but I was still on the verge of panic.

‘You’ll get through this, I’m sure, you just need some time together, talk, tell each other how you’re feeling. It’ll be the end of the season soon, you’ll have the summer to wind down, get some normality back. Actually, thinking about it, James and I would have a blip of some sort at the end of every season, it’s all bound up with stress and expectations. It wasn’t until he stopped playing and started coaching that things changed. This is your first real season with all that pressure, isn’t it. It can be hard, you just have to work at it.

‘How did you fix it?’

_Well I think things tended to fix themselves, once the season was out of the way and we could spend time catching up with each other. Eventually I realised what was going on and just accepted it. We talked about it too, so we’d both recognise what was going on. That’s so important, sweetheart.

‘It’s a bit difficult when you’re not even in the same fucking building.’

_Yes, that is a bit of an added problem. Can I maybe suggest that the next time Cal asks you to do something when you’ve already got something important on, you just say no?

‘I can’t say no to Cal, I can’t let him down.’

_I know, sweetheart, you’re so lovely to him, but it’s OK sometimes. He’ll understand, he won’t stop asking. Make sure you talk to Amy, Dec. Even if you have to stay in for the next week to make sure you see her.

‘It’s hard –’

_I know. Do whatever it takes. She loves you. You both want it to work. So make it work. You just –

I didn’t hear the rest, as I heard a key in the door.

‘Ames?’

I rushed to the door, disconnecting from Beth as it opened, so relieved she’d come back. She looked at me with big, sad eyes, as I took in the large holdall she had with her.

‘Fucking hell, Amy, were you really moving out?’

)I don’t know. I’ve been completely miserable the last few days. I was going to stay the night at Jude’s and see how I felt.

My legs felt weak. I was terrified I was going to do or say something that would make her change her mind and leave again.

‘But you came back …’

)I got your voicemail and your text. It made a difference. Oh Dec, I don’t want to leave, but I can’t bear this uncertainty. I can’t bear it if every time you’re late or have to go somewhere last minute, or go out without telling me where you’re going, I think you’re with her.

‘Amy, what the fuck? I was with Cal. I know I was longer than I should have been, and I’m so sorry I asked you to be here and then I wasn’t, but who did you think I was with?’

Although I didn’t need to ask. She looked at me, pain in her eyes.

)God she’s a conniving cow, she’s got between us without even lifting a finger.

‘Shit, you thought I was with Becca fucking Davis? Fuck, Amy, you really thought I was with her?’

)I don’t know what to think. It all feels like it used to at school, all the mind games and then the inevitable conversation – ‘Sorry Amy, but Bec’s more fun than you. Let’s just be friends.’

I tried to hold on to what Beth had told me, that Amy was feeling insecure. It was hard. It hurt that she could believe I would cheat on her.

‘Do you think I’ve been lying to you?’

)No …

‘Well what then? It sounds like you think every time you don’t know where I am, I’m with Becca fucking Davis.’

)Dec, I’ve hardly seen you for weeks. I never know where you are these days. I thought when we moved in together we’d see each other all the time, but it’s not like that, it’s like we never bother making time for each other any more And you slept on the sofa again last night. It’s like you can’t bear to be with me, like you don’t want me any more She keeps texting me, telling me things you said or did, making it sound like you were with her. Now she’s on the scene, it feels like it’s only a matter of time and she’ll have you –

She started to cry and dropped her bag to put her hands over her face. We were still by the front door; she hadn’t even closed it behind her.

‘Oh Ames, this has just all got a bit out of control. Come here, babe.’

I pulled her into my arms and held her close, unable to stop my own tears. I couldn’t bear her being so sad. I couldn’t bear being so sad myself. After a while we both sniffed to a halt, stood back and looked at each other.

‘This is shit, Amy, how have we let this happen? We need to sort it out.’

She nodded. I pushed the front door shut, as if that would somehow keep her here, and took her by the hand to lead her into the living room. We sat together on the sofa.

‘OK, there’s lots I need to say, I’ve been a fucking thoughtless dickhead and taken you for granted and I need to apologise, but before any of that I just need to be absolutely sure that you know and believe that I love you, and only you, forever. Do you believe me?’

She looked up at me, nodded.

‘Do you love me?’

)Yes, of course. But that’s –

‘Hold on, there’s something else that goes with that, that I need to know you believe. I haven’t spent one second with Becca fucking Davis since she was in the bar after the game. She can throw herself at me all day long for all I care, I’ll never take any notice of her, she’ll make herself look like a fucking idiot for trying. I only want you, I’ve only ever wanted you, I’m not interested in anyone else, just you. I’m sure she would like you to believe something different. You can only believe one of us. If you believe her, she’s won, got what she wanted – I don’t mean me, she’ll never have me, I mean power. That’s what all this is about, she’s a bully and likes to take power away from people. Do you believe me?’

Another nod, less certain.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry I’ve caused all this. It’s just been so manic recently, I’ve stopped keeping in touch with you.’

I glanced at Amy’s note on the table: It’s always something isn’t it.

‘I know I’m always getting caught up, side-tracked, late back.’

)Well I am getting a bit fed up of hearing ‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time’. Dec, I really love that you’re always helping people out, I really love how sociable you are, but I’m here too, I need you too. Like, last Sunday after the under elevens game, you went off to cut Carol’s grass and you were gone all day because Matt came round while you were there and you ‘lost track of time’. I thought we were going to talk then, but we never got more than a few minutes, and it’s been days now. There’s only so often I’m willing to wait in all day on the off-chance you’re going to actually turn up when you say you will. It’s not fair.

I thought about it, how often that happened, how I just expected her to be here when I’d finished talking or helping out or having another beer. It happened a lot.

‘I’m so sorry, Ames. I’m treating you like shit, like you don’t matter. You matter the most to me in the world. You’d really think after everything that’s happened to me, I’d realise when I was taking the people I love for granted. You’re so precious to me, I should remember it every day. If I’d been in tune with you a bit more, I wouldn’t have even thought about giving Becca Davis your number, I’m such a fucking dick.’

)Why did you?

I hung my head, embarrassed.

‘This is pretty lame. It felt awkward not to, she was pretty insistent. I was saving my own face. I’m so sorry, babe. I honestly thought she was an old friend, or rather to be more honest, wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying, and chose to believe she was an old friend. I’m so sorry.’

Amy glanced at me, then looked down, shoulders hunched.

)When she rang me, while I was out with Cara and everyone, I could hardly believe it. She was just the same as she was at school, I knew she was up to something. I’d seen her after Raiders games a few times, hadn’t spoken to her, didn’t know if she still recognised me, she obviously saw us together and decided to try her old tricks.

‘But all they are is tricks. If we’d been a bit more in touch with each other, it would never have gone so far. We’ve both been so busy, I think I need to let you know what’s going on with me more, maybe do a bit less, make sure I have time for us to be together. And once the season’s finished and your exam’s over, we’ll have lots more time. Oh Ames, I’ve missed you. I feel like there’s been more than distance between us sometimes. I’ve hated sleeping on the fucking sofa.’

)Why did you, then? I didn’t ask you to.

‘Well, actually, you did the first night, you might not remember, you were pretty wasted. Fair enough, you were bloody furious with me. But after that, it felt like we were kind of avoiding each other, and then we felt so far apart it was a bit weird to be in bed with you. I wanted you so much but, well, that wasn’t going to happen, so I just put myself out of harm’s way.’

)But I asked you not to last night.

‘I know babe, I wish I’d talked to you about it. I didn’t want to come back until we’d sorted things out. I wanted to talk, but I fell asleep before you got back. I didn’t hear you come in.’

)It just made me feel even more like you didn’t want me.

Amy looked so unhappy and I felt so bad. I tentatively put my arm round her shoulders, and felt her relax a little as she rested her head against me.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry. I just can’t move for fucking up at the moment. I want you. I need you. I love you. I love you so much. I should say it all the time, so you never feel like this again. I’ve taken you for granted, I’ve got previous, I should know by now that I have to work at things, talk about things, keep things out in the open. Me and you, we’re the most important things to each other. We can do without anything else, jobs, homes, cars, all that shit, but we can’t do without each other. We need to be strong together. We are still together, aren’t we? Are we OK?’

)If you’re sure you still want me –

How had I let things slip so far that she could doubt it?

‘Amy, I love you, I want you, I need you. I always will. We want each other, don’t we? I know I’ve already asked you this, but will you marry me?’

Amy choked back a sob with a half smile, and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes.

)Of course, hon. Oh Dec, I love you. I’ve been so unhappy, I think I convinced myself Becca would win, like she always did, and I couldn’t see any other end to it. You must think I don’t trust you. I do, it just all got tangled up with her. It’s what she does.

‘Maybe I need to have a bit of a word with her –’

)No, hon, just leave it, she feeds off it. Tell you what we can do though, next home game I’ll hang around afterwards, we can have the biggest snog the Raiders Bar has ever seen, tongues and everything. That might just do it.

And suddenly there it was, over. I sagged with relief as I felt Amy melt against me, and the tension between us evaporated.

‘I like the sound of that. Can I feel you up too?’

)Don’t push your luck.

I pulled her closer and folded her up in my arms, so glad we’d managed to sort things. I could see Amy’s holdall still in the hall, and it made my blood run cold to think how close I might have been to losing her.

)Oh, you know what, thinking about that weekend while I remember, I saw Mum and Dad a couple of days ago. They’re going on a cruise in a few weeks, three months round the world, it’s to celebrate Dad’s retirement.

‘Bloody hell, lucky them. That’s great.’

I genuinely meant this, as they would be out of the country and out of Amy’s business for a quarter of the year.

)It means they won’t be here for my birthday, so they want to have a special meal before they go. They want you to come too.

‘Really? They want me to come?’

)Well, OK, I said I wouldn’t go unless you were invited too. It’s almost the same. They’ve booked that fancy place near Cathedral Park, Fishers or whatever it’s called. It’s for a week on Saturday, I know you’ve got a game, I said it would have to be later so you have time to do all your post-match stuff, so they booked it for nine. Sorry, hon, I really want you to be there, hope you don’t mind.

I was more than happy to celebrate Amy’s birthday early with her parents if it meant that, firstly, they would be out of the country for three months, and, secondly, I wouldn’t have to invite them to her surprise party, so they wouldn’t be there all night disapproving of her having fun.

‘No worries. Sounds perfect. Now, did you mention some snogging? I think we need to get practising so we’re word perfect on the night. Come here, you gorgeous woman. I’ve fucking missed you. Let me show you how much.’

o0o

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

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Declan Summers @summs12 5 May

This is my last tweet. I have deleted the rest. Twitter didn’t amaze me, it saddened me. Deleting my account.

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o0o

Dec: =Good luck babe. U’ll smash it. See you l8r, tell me how gr8 u were. Luv u 2 bits xxx

Amy: =Thx hon, sooooooo nervous. Luv u 2 xxx

o0o

_Hi Dec, just ringing to see how Amy got on with her exam.

‘She’s not back yet, they all went out for a drink afterwards, I’m not expecting her until much later. She thinks it went OK though, sounded pretty confident actually.’

_Oh that’s great, I’m so pleased. So, if Amy’s not there, is it a good time to do some surprise party plotting?

‘Great idea. Over the phone, or do you want to come round?’

_Oh, I can’t, James is out, no babysitter. You could come to ours?

‘No, I’d better stay here in case Amy comes back early or needs me to give her a lift or something, she’s expecting me to be here.

_Sounds like someone’s learned a lesson or two.

‘Yeah, the hard way. As usual, it takes a fucking crisis, but I get there in the end. Phone it is then …

o0o

– … young player of the season is … Declan Summers. Well done, Declan, come and get your trophy – oh, er, when you’re ready. Declan? Well, it certainly looks like Declan’s young lady is eager to congratulate him on his award … er, right … ahem … ah, thank you, yes, here you are, congratulations. Phew, Declan, you’ve made me blush. That doesn’t happen very often. And now on to the award for …

o0o

Amy had gone home to change, ready to be picked up by her parents. I still had some photos with sponsors to finish up, some handshaking with various corporate people and a bit of mingling with any remaining supporters before I could get out of my Raiders suit, into my ‘dinner with Amy’s parents’ suit, and head off to the restaurant.

The whole day had been spectacular, starting with Raiders winning the semi-final of the play-offs, courtesy of a last minute try from one Declan Summers, followed by my award for young player of the season, and then by signing a new personal sponsorship deal that considerably increased my income for the next two years.

The well-rehearsed and very enjoyable kiss with Amy as my award was announced seemed to have seen off any lingering doubts in Becca Davis’ mind that her scheming was going to work, as she left the room with a face like thunder during the presentation.

I finally finished the photos and the handshakes and headed to the bar, where a few people were still listening to the band as it played its last couple of numbers. Jay and Nico were leaning on the bar, watching the sports channel on subtitles. I went over and stood next to them.

>Hey Declan, you want a beer?

‘No thanks, Nico, I’m off out soon.’

I nodded at the TV screen.

‘Did Arsenal win?’

>Yes, they win. Cal’s Theo Walcott score a goal, he is happy now. Both his teams win, but only one of his best players score. Your try must make up for this, is only second best. Tottenham, they lose. Matty is not happy, yes?

‘Probably not, he’ll get over it, I expect he’ll find some understanding woman to console him later.’

łHey, that’s my little brother you’re telling the truth about. You’ve escaped the media circus at last, then. Seeing spots before your eyes?

‘Ha ha, yeah a bit. That flash was really bright, and my jaw’s aching from all the fake smiling.’

łJust think of that lovely money, that’ll make it a real smile. Well done, mate, you’ve earned it.

‘Thanks. I think I might head off in a minute, can’t be late for Amy’s parents.’

łOh yeah, the dreaded meal. Just think of it as a free dinner followed by three whole months of not having to think about them. See – now that looks like a real smile, mate. Just a word of advice, though. Don’t try the snogging display on them. Might not go down well.

>Ha, yes, this is some kissing we are seeing. We think we watch movie awards, not rugby awards.

I grinned.

łDid it do the trick?

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

łNo, mate, course you don’t. Oh, did Brett find you?

‘Brett? Oh, Bonksy. No, was he looking for me?’

łYeah, just now, said he needed a favour. Dec, I’ve been meaning to ask for ages, why ‘Bonksy’? What does it actually mean?

‘Fucked if I can remember, it was so long ago, from Academy days. I was Captain Sensible for a while, that’s just fucking hilarious!’

łYou did have a bit of an earnest quality about you back then. Seem to have shaken it off pretty well now. Oh, here’s Brett, I’ll leave you to it. See you soon, mate, have a good evening if at all possible.

Jay clapped me on the shoulder and turned back to the TV as Bonksy approached.

]Hey Summs, I’m glad I caught you, I wondered if you could do me a favour?

‘If I can. I’m just on my way to dinner with Amy’s parents, big posh restaurant, I can’t be late.’

]Oh, nice one. Is it in town by any chance?

‘Er, yes, why?’

]Great, then it won’t take you any time at all, it’s on the way.

‘What exactly do you want me to do?’

]Well I’ve got myself in a bit of a bind, see there was this girl earlier, and I liked her and everything, and I kind of said I’d give her a lift home, but now I’ve been getting on really well with this other girl, and so giving the first one a lift home not really an option, but seems a bit rude to leave her in the lurch, and all the buses have gone now. She lives, oh I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly where, but it’s not far, practically on your way. Please, mate, you’d be doing me a real favour.

I hesitated, not wanting to complicate my evening by unnecessary Bonksy diversions. It didn’t sound like much, though, just taking someone somewhere I was already on the way to, maybe having to listen to her complaining about what a dick Bonksy was. I looked at my watch. Plenty of time to get changed, do Bonksy’s dirty work and still not be late for the restaurant. I sighed. Bonksy and I hadn’t seen much of each other since Amy and I moved in together; it felt kind of good to be helping him out of his scrapes again.

‘OK. As long as it’s on the way. You’ve told her you’re not taking her home, haven’t you?’

]Well, no, I was kind of hoping …

‘Oh fucking hell, Bonksy. Oh alright then. For old times’ sake.

]Thanks mate, I owe you one.

‘You owe me several actually, at the last count, not that I am of course.’

I was speaking to Bonksy’s disappearing back, but he turned at the door.

]Oh, she’s waiting out the front by the programme kiosk. Cheers mate.

He walked out before I could ask her name or what she looked like. I quickly changed into my posh suit. By the time I was ready, there was hardly anyone left in the club. I headed out to the front of the stadium, kit bag in one hand and Raiders suit in its cover over the other shoulder. It had started to rain. There was someone waiting by the programme kiosk, hunched against the increasingly heavy drizzle. She had her back to me.

‘Hey there, are you waiting for Brett – shit.’

As she turned round, I recognised her. Becca Davis. Fuck.

ϸYeah – oh, hi Declan. Did Brett get held up?

I was completely at a loss for a few seconds.

‘Er, yeah, actually, he’s, er, not going to be able to take you home. Says he’s sorry.’

ϸOh. Had a better offer did he?

Fuck it, I had no reason to spare her feelings.

‘Something like that.’

I turned round and started to walk towards my car, fuck whatever I’d promised Bonksy.

ϸWait, Declan, is there any way you can give me a lift? It’s pissing down now, I haven’t got my coat and there aren’t any more buses from here. I can’t walk far, I’ve got a bad ankle.

I shouted back, over my shoulder:

‘Phone a taxi.’

ϸI’ve got no cash. Please, Declan, it’ll only take you a few minutes.

I had absolutely no reason to do anything for her, apart from my inexplicable inability not to help people out. In the end my pathetically overactive conscience got the better of me.

‘I’m heading into town. I’ll drop you off somewhere if it’s on my way.’

ϸOh you’re a star. I’m just off the bypass.

She trotted over to the car in high heels, no apparent sign of any bad ankle. I got the first twinge of misgiving. I put my suit in the boot while she got in the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on, then I got in myself. I started driving, determined to get her out of the car as quickly and with as little conversation as possible.

‘Where am I dropping you?’

ϸYou look nice, going somewhere special?

I looked directly ahead and not at her, her too-short skirt and her too-tight shirt.

‘Yeah. So whereabouts am I dropping you?’

ϸOh it’s not far, just past the retail park. I’ll say when. Going out with Amy are you?

I didn’t answer; Amy was not the topic of any conversation I was going to have with this woman. It didn’t stop her for long.

ϸWhy did you close your Twitter account? It wasn’t because of me, was it?

I didn’t answer.

ϸShame, it was fun keeping in touch. Are you on Facebook?

‘No. Is it much further?’

ϸJust a bit, we haven’t gone past the retail park yet. Don’t be so keen to get rid of me.

She was silent for a while, but kept wriggling in her seat, her skirt creeping further up her thighs as she did so.

ϸThat was quite a performance you put on in the bar.

‘What?’

ϸYou and Amy. All the tongues and roving hands. Very impressive.

‘Piss off, Becca. You know nothing about me and Amy.’

I bit my lip, annoyed that she had riled me into responding.

ϸI know enough to see you were trying to impress someone – maybe hoping to show someone what you’re made of?

‘OK, that’s it, I’ve had enough of your tiresome bullshit. You can get out now. Fuck off.’

I stopped the car. She turned in her seat and faced me, leaning forwards.

ϸMake me.

I sat in silence, clenching the steering wheel as it dawned on me just how much trouble I might have got myself into. I watched the windscreen wipers clear the screen a couple of times. Got out of the car, into the rain, and called Amy.

)Hey hon, are you on your way?

‘Ames, I really can’t believe I’m about to say this. I’m so sorry, babe. I’m in a bit of a situation. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you, I need you to trust me.’

)OK … Are you –

Silence.

‘Amy?’

I looked at the screen. It had gone blank. I pressed the power button several times, but nothing happened. Out of charge or just given up the ghost, it didn’t really matter. It had sealed my fate.

‘Fuck it. Fucking useless piece of fucking junk.’

I shoved the redundant phone back in my pocket and got back in the car, out of the rain.

‘What exactly are you trying to achieve?’

Becca settled back in the seat, crossed her legs and ran her hands through her hair.

ϸKeeping dry for starters. Mm, comfy seats, nice and warm, ooh look, it reclines. Join me?

‘I’m just going to go where I was going, you can stay in the car or get out–’

ϸThink I’ll stay. I’d really like to see the look on Amy’s face when you get back to the car after your night out and I’m in the front seat, looking a bit rumpled and like I just might have had a fucking good time with the driver. I might even cry a bit – Oh Declan, you’ve been ages, I thought you weren’t coming back – oh … Amy’s with you …

She made her face crumple and a tear rolled down her cheek.

ϸI … I thought after what we did … you said she didn’t mean anything to you, how could you do this …

She sat back and looked me boldly in the eye. She was a bloody good actress, I had to give her that. I could imagine it working on Amy, after everything else that had worked. I thought of a few choice names to call her, but tried to keep a lid on my rising temper. I needed to concentrate if I was going to get out of this.

‘What do you want?’

ϸOh, nothing you’re likely to give me, you haven’t got the balls, much as you want it.

‘There’s absolutely nothing I want from you, apart from getting the fuck out of my car.’

ϸNo, I didn’t think you’d actually admit it. You can’t tell me wet fish Amy Wright is actually satisfying you, though?

As I ignored her attempt to diss Amy, Becca hitched her skirt up a bit higher, undid a button on her shirt and licked her lips. It was so obvious, it was almost funny. Maybe it might have worked on someone else, someone who was unhappy, or unsure, or just fancied what she was offering. It didn’t work on me.

‘What do you want, Becca? Maybe you think I can’t sit here all night fending off your pathetic shit, but I’ve had worse all nighters, and I’ve always won in the end.’

Perhaps she realised I was serious, as she seemed to sag a little bit, and dropped her head.

ϸOh alright, sod it, you’re really not worth all this. All I actually want is for you to take me home, right to my door, so I don’t have to walk there in the rain. And you can tell that cock Deressie from me, he’s a fucking wanker.

The fight seemed to have gone out of her. I could hardly believe I’d got off so lightly. I might not have needed to call Amy at all. I started the car.

‘Fine. Which way?’

ϸNext left.

She gave me some directions which seemed to lead into, then out of, the housing estate. After a while, I was totally turned around, had no idea where I was. It took me a while to realise we were heading out of the city, and then suddenly we were on a country road.

‘Where the fuck are we?’

I’d totally fallen for it. I’d just told myself what a good actress she was, and then I’d let her fool me into driving her all the way out here, some dark lane, in the middle of the countryside.

ϸOh, whoops, must have made a mistake. Are we lost?

The road was narrow and there wasn’t anywhere to turn round. I drove for some time, looking frantically for a gateway or something so I could head back the way I’d come. Finally, in the headlights up ahead, just as I was considering reversing all the way back down the road, I saw the entrance to a field where the road widened and I would have my chance. I pulled in, and the car stalled. I tried to start it again, but the engine just kept turning over without catching. I looked at the dashboard. The petrol gauge was blinking on empty, as it had been since yesterday, but I’d forgotten about it. I banged the steering wheel in frustration.

‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, a million fucking fucks.’

ϸIs that a request? Not sure I can manage a million, definitely one or two, three at a push, if you’re really good …

‘Just piss off.’

I took my phone out to dial before I remembered it had died too.

‘Shit.’

If I’d thought I was in trouble before, I’d had no idea how bad things could get. Becca stretched in the seat beside me and looked at me with wide, delighted eyes.

ϸOh Declan, it almost seems like you might have planned this. What kind of a girl do you take me for?

She took her seatbelt off. Then unbuttoned her shirt and took that off too. I stared at her for a second and then turned and faced resolutely forwards, thinking ‘shit shit shit’.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

ϸWell it seems a shame not to make the most of the situation. It’s going to be a while before anyone comes to help us down this road. We may as well enjoy the wait. I can make it very enjoyable, look …

She reached behind her, undid her bra and took that off too. I tried to ignore how naked she was, but was finding it a bit difficult.

‘Have you got a phone?’

ϸYes, but I’m not sure I’m ready to call for help just yet. Maybe in a little while I might need to …

She leaned over, stretched her hand out and started stroking my thigh. In spite of myself, and to my shame, I felt myself responding. I forced myself to think about Amy and not what was going on in my pants.

‘Becca, just stop there. I don’t know what you think I’m going to do with you out here in the rain in the middle of fuck knows where, but it is not going to happen. Not here, not anywhere.’

ϸYour hard-on tells me different.

‘My hard-on tells you I’m thinking about Amy.’

It was mostly true, although I was finding the close proximity of Becca’s nipples shamefully distracting. I picked her hand up from my thigh and put it in her lap – I really needed to get out of there.

Becca suddenly leaned towards me, grabbed my head and kissed me, thrusting her tongue deep into my mouth and her naked breasts against me. Horrified, I pushed her away as hard as I could, and, wiping my mouth, tried to find the door handle.

‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. Do you think you’re sexy or appealing or something? You’re just sad and pathetic. I’m going to get back to the city so I can carry on with my evening.’

At last, I found the door handle and shoved the door open, almost falling out of the car in my haste to be gone, away from this terrifying crazy woman who was making me feel things I definitely did not want ever to be feeling.

ϸI’m sure Amy would appreciate a text from me telling her not to worry …

Becca’s voice followed me out of the car. I sighed as I stood up. I’d had enough. I was already in deep enough shit, I was going to have to tell Amy everything anyway, nothing Becca Davis could do now was going to make it any worse.

‘Do what the fuck you want. You’re just a silly girl who’s never grown up. You think you’re still at school. Welcome to the real world, where grown ups don’t get sucked in to your childish shit. I suggest you put your shirt on and call a taxi. Good luck with your sad little life, just stay the fuck out of mine.

I hunched my shoulders against the pouring rain, and started to walk back down the road, cursing myself the whole way for the fucking gullible idiot I was, ignoring Becca’s shouts to wait, come back, she’d phone for help, then her yells that she was texting Amy right now and telling her how hard she’d made me, finally some loud sobs mixed in with most of the names I’d already called myself since leaving the club earlier. As her voice faded behind me, I trudged on through the rain, feeling bleak and stupid.

The downpour was a very effective cold shower, but I still felt guilty about how I’d responded to Becca’s touch. It was purely physical, no reasoning or emotional part of me was even slightly attracted to her, but I’d surely blown it with Amy now.

We’d been in such a good place since we’d sorted everything out. We’d been to see Jay and Beth and talked to them for a long time about how they managed to make things work when Jay was playing. Since then, we’d worked hard on communicating with each other, but I knew Amy still felt insecure about the amount of female attention that often came my way, and now this farce with Becca was just going to blow it all wide open again. And in front of her parents, who didn’t like me anyway. I hoped against hope that Becca was bluffing about texting Amy, but it seemed like the sort of thing she would do, so I prepared myself to face the fallout from that too.

The lights of the city grew slowly closer as I carried on walking. I was soaked right through to my skin, my suit was ruined, and my shoes squelched. It felt like hours later when I eventually reached the outskirts of the city, and the first street lights.

A car came towards me, and I thought about flagging it down, but realised no one was going to give me a lift in this muddy, saturated state. It was probably a taxi for Becca anyway. The car stopped behind me. I ignored it and kept on walking. The car reversed and the window wound down.

}So do you want a lift, or shall I leave you to enjoy your stroll in the deluge?

I stopped and looked properly at the car. Blinked the rain out of my eyes and tried to make sense of it.

‘Matt? What the fuck are you doing here?’

}Do you want me to tell you before or after you get in out of the rain and start ruining my Italian leather seats?

I opened the door and got in. He turned the heater up full, but my teeth still chattered.

}Fuck me, you’re absolutely drenched. I should have brought a towel. Or a dehumidifier. Or one of those fucking industrial suction pumps. Shit, Dec, you’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ve been all over looking for you.

‘What? How did you know?’

}Well I don’t know much, I have to say. You can fill me in on the way. Amy rang me, all in a panic, said you were supposed to be at Fishers with her parents, but you’d rung her saying there was a problem, then got cut off.

‘My fucking phone died.’

}Ah. Anyway, I didn’t know where you were, but doing a bit of detective work via Jay, then your mate Brett, we worked out you may have got waylaid by the charming @bouncybec.

‘Shit, does Amy know?’

}Well, none of us know anything for definite. It was Becca, then?

‘Yeah. Fuck, I’m such a dick. I couldn’t have been more fucking stupid if I’d tried.’

}You took the words out of my mouth. Dec, what possessed you to give the woman a lift? I don’t even know her, and I’d avoid her like the plague, and you know I’m not that fussy.

‘Well I didn’t know it was her when Bonksy asked me to do him a favour. Then I felt sorry for her.’

Matt gaped at me.

}You felt sorry for her?

‘For about two seconds. The wrong two seconds. I’m just too much of a sucker for a fucking sob story. Before I had a chance to think about it, she was in the car and I was screwed. Almost literally. My car’s way back up that road, I ran out of petrol. The last I saw of Becca fucking Davis she was in the passenger seat with her tits out trying her hardest to get me to shag her.’

}Tempted?

Fuck off Matt! No! Shit, what the fuck do you think of me?’

}OK, OK, sorry, just asking the question that Amy will no doubt ask you. I hope you’re similarly vehement in your denial when she does.

‘What time is it?’

}Ten twenty six, according to the cunningly placed dashboard clock right in front of your eyes.

‘Shit. And thanks for the fucking sarcasm, just what I need. Is Amy still at Fishers?’

}She said she was going to stay there and have the meal with her parents, apparently they’re not particularly understanding of your foibles and didn’t look too kindly on having their celebrations interrupted with any concerns over your well-being. Do you want to go straight there, or go home and get dry?

I sighed. I was wet, and cold, and I really didn’t want to face Amy and have to explain everything that had happened, in front of her parents, but it was what I had to do.

‘Straight there, please. Thanks Matt. Thanks for coming to look for me. How the fuck did you know I’d be here?’

Matt put the car in gear and drove away while he started to explain.

}Apparently Becca lives around here somewhere. Amy gave me a rough idea of her address, we couldn’t think of anywhere else you might have been persuaded to take her. I just drove around in a widening circle, luckily I came across you before too many hours had passed.

‘Thanks, it means a lot.’

I was still soaking wet and cold when Matt pulled up outside the restaurant. With a heavy heart I got out and waved him off. He’d offered to wait, but I didn’t know how long I’d be or what was going to happen inside, so I said I’d get a taxi, and hoped they’d accept sodden banknotes, as well as sodden customers.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I walked in. The maître d’ looked me up and down and started to turn me away.

‘I’m with the Wright party. Sorry, got caught in the rain.’

*Oh, certainly sir, but I think they’ve just about finished.

‘That’s fine. Are they upstairs?’

*Yes sir.

I walked slowly up the stairs, very aware of the squelching from my shoes, the wet, muddy footprints I was leaving behind me and the water steadily dripping from my clothes.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Amy and her parents sitting at the only occupied table. There were coffee cups and wine glasses ready to be collected. It didn’t look like a particularly happy gathering. Amy looked up, saw me, got straight out of her seat, and came over to me. I saw her think about hugging me, and think better of it, but wasn’t sure if it was because I was so wet, or because she was upset. She gave me a big smile, which helped me be a bit more sure, and touched my cheek, which helped even more.

)Dec, you made it. Come and sit down.

This was so different from the reception I was expecting that it threw me, and I stayed where I was for a second or two. Then I walked over to the table.

‘Hi Mrs Wright, Mr Wright.’

Their reception was more predictable, and was silent and icy. They barely looked at me to acknowledge my presence. I decided to ignore them back and just spoke to Amy.

‘Ames, I don’t think I can sit down like this, I’m absolutely soaked, I’ll ruin the chair. I’ve had to ditch the car and walk for miles in the rain. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday meal.’

)Well, you did let me know you were going to be late, and you did ask me to trust you, so I did. Is everything OK?

I glanced at Amy’s parents, who were listening intently to our conversation, disapproval etched on their faces.

‘Apart from having to leave my car miles up a country lane with no petrol and a half naked fucking mad woman in it, and then being nearly drowned trying to get back here, yeah, I think everything’s OK. Have you had a good evening?’

)Apart from having to coordinate the rescue of my unbelievably naive fiancé from the clutches of a – half naked mad woman, you say? Yeah, it’s been good, thanks.

‘Are we OK?’

She looked at me, her big blue eyes shining. She didn’t look like she was pretending in front of her parents, and I began to hope that maybe things weren’t as screwed as I’d imagined.

)Yeah, hon. Thank God for Matt, but yeah. We’re OK.

She stood up and before I could stop her she put her arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

)You really are very, very wet.

‘I know.’

)So am I, now.

‘I know.’

)So are you going to put your arms round me or what?

‘I’m finding it hard to resist, but they are also very, very wet.’

)Just get on with it.

I did as I was told, put my arms round her, and buried my face in her hair for good measure, feeling happy and relieved.

)Mm, lovely, now I’m completely soaked too. I think I need to go home. Mum, Dad, thanks for a lovely meal, I’ve had a completely lovely time. Sorry I was on the phone so much. I think Dec and I are going to shoot off now, we both need to get out of these wet things, and we’ve got some catching up to do. Have a great trip, if I don’t see you before.

She kissed them both, I didn’t, and then we left.

37. This is how it goes

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

Cal

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

‘No … nnnh … no no no … mm … no … ‘

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

Dec

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

‘Fuck.’

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

Cal

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

‘Sorry, Cal.’

‘You sweared.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well that’s very brave of him.’

‘Dec can I come in with you?’

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

Dec

Oh what the hell, it was my last night.

‘Come on, then.’

Cal

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

Dec

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

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

łHey, mate. Bit early yet?

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

‘Oh well. Didn’t sleep too well.’

łMore bad dreams?

I nodded.

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

łCan’t be helped. Was he OK?

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

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

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

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

‘I can check on Matt if you like.’

łCheers.

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

‘Matt?’

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

}Fuck. Who’s tha?

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

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

‘Didn’t want to wake you up.’

}Prefer to gihv meh a coronary?

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

}Mm, just how I lihk ih.

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

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

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

}Wha time issit?

‘Sometime after six.’

}Bluhdy hell, bih early ihnt ih?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I can have another go if you like.’

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

‘Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum was trying to cheer Dec up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sorry, Beth, won’t happen again.’

‘Ha ha, if only I believed you.’

Dad came in, yawning.

Don’t believe him, whatever he said.’

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

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

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

‘Piss off.’

‘Four minutes past. I win.’

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

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

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

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

‘How do angels talk, Daddy?’

A bit like this.’

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

‘Why do I have to talk like that?’

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

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

‘But I’m six, I can’t do bad swears.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

‘Dohs tha boy ehver shuh a dohr quiehly?’

‘I think he does sometimes.’

‘Not ohften.’

Dad came in after a while.

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

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

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

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

Dec

łDec? What’s going on?

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

łDec?

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

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

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

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

łCome on, mate. Back inside.

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

łHas that ever happened before?

‘No.’

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

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

łHas it stopped now?

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

łHow are you feeling?

‘A bit shaky. I’ll be OK.’

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

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

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

‘I wish I bloody knew.’

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

‘Thanks.’

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

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

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

łHere’s your water, mate.

‘Thanks.’

_Let me have a look at you.

Cal

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

łYeah. Sure you’re OK?

‘Yeah, sure.’

I breathed in deeply and pushed the panic away.

Cal

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

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

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

‘No, I’ll go now.’

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

Dec

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

‘Progress?’

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

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

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

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

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

}Wish I was coming wih yuh.

‘Next time, yeah?’

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

‘You too. Bloody cripple.’

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

łHave you seen Cal? Is he ready?

‘Don’t know, sorry.’

Cal

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

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

Cal?’

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

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

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

Dec

Carol came out of the kitchen.

#Are you off, now?

łSoon as Cal’s ready. OK Dec?

‘Yeah.’

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

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

‘Thanks Carol, me too.’

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

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

_Hug first. Come here, sweetheart.

Beth wrapped her arms round me and squeezed tightly.

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

‘Promise.’

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

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

_James!

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

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

Cal

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

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

‘True.’

But you kinda like it.’

‘No comment.’

Off we go then!’

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

Dec

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

łYou’ve gone quiet.

‘Just thinking.’

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

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

Cal

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

Come on, what are you waiting for?’

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

Dad took a deep breath.

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

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

‘Really?’

Really. Beth and I talked about asking you.’

Dec

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

Sure?’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s shoulder.

‘Sure.’

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

And that was the end of that.

Dec

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

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

‘Only me.’

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

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

\can I have purple?

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

\kay.

:Tea for you two?

‘Great.’

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

‘Good to see you.’

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

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

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

Cal

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

‘Dec, is Rose your mummy?’

Cal! Sorry, guys.’

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

Cal’s definition of motherhood.

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

Rose’s sniffles intensified.

Cal

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

:Did you have a good time, love?

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

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

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

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

‘I get it.’

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

\rose can I have another biscuit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

\daddy can I have a grape?

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

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

\i want to go with you, Daddy.

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

Cal

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

I had lots of questions for Dec while we waited. The house looked the same but different: the grass looked long at the front, there was a car I didn’t know on the drive, there was a Christmas tree in the window with flashing lights, and there were toys and a bike on the grass. I hadn’t thought about our house since we went to live with Granny and then in our new house, but now I thought about all the things that were in this house when I lived there, and I wondered if they were still there, if my pictures were still on the fridge and Dad’s trophies were still in the living room.

‘Whose bike is that?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, maybe another little boy lives here now.

I couldn’t imagine another little boy sleeping in my bedroom, shutting my Ben10 curtains at night and being scared of the shadow the crack in the door made at night if it was left too wide open.

‘Which little boy?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, sorry. Ask your dad when he comes back.’

‘When am I going to live here again?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, ask your dad.’

Dec wasn’t being any help. He was saying ‘I don’t know’ to everything.

‘When are you going to live with us?’

‘Don’t kn … oh mate, no Cal, you live in Stafford now. I live down here. I’m not going to be living with you.’

I knew this was the answer, but I wanted to keep checking, because it just didn’t make sense. If I kept asking, I hoped that maybe someone would say ‘oh this is silly, Dec should be living with you, shouldn’t he’. Dec didn’t say that, so I tried to nudge him there.

Can you come and live with us?’

Dec

This was really hard. Cal saw things in such simple terms, and my situation felt so complicated, it was like negotiating a minefield trying to decide what to tell him and what not to.

‘I wish I could live a bit closer to you, but my job is down here, I have to live here so I can do my job.’

Cal

Well that was easy to change.

‘But Daddy got a new job, you can get a new job.’

‘No, Cal, it’s not as easy as that. I have to stay here. But I’ll come and see you as often as I can, and you can all come and see me.’

The more Dec said it, the more I was realising that it was true, that Dec wasn’t going to be living with us again. Maybe Dad and Dec weren’t the right people to talk to. I would ask Mum when I got back. She’d cried when Dec left this morning, so she must want him to live with us. But if Dec wasn’t going to live with us, and he didn’t live here in our old house, I wasn’t quite sure where he did live.

‘Where is your house?’

‘Well, you know Rose, where we just had lunch? My flat is upstairs, just above her flat.’

That made sense. I could see Dec living near Rose, so she could tell him to pick his pants up and when to go to bed.

‘Can I see your house?’

‘Maybe another day. We’re going to Raiders Stadium when Daddy’s finished here, to watch the rugby.’

I’d almost forgotten the reason for our trip. I’d never seen rugby, or football, that wasn’t on TV, and I wondered if I might be able to have a bit of both.

‘Are Arsenal playing?’

‘No, Cal, you know Arsenal play football. This is Raiders, my rugby team, and Daddy’s old team.’

‘Are you playing?’

‘No, I can’t play with my hurt arm. Nico’s playing, though, so you can cheer for him.’

‘Is Daddy playing?’

‘No, Daddy doesn’t play any more You, me and Daddy are all going to watch it together. We might see Lis there too, she’s going to watch Nico.’

This was all very confusing. I decided to just wait and see what happened when we got there, and for now, there was something else I could ask.

‘Can I have some chocolate?’

‘I think your mum put some in your bag. Wait till your dad gets back, though. He won’t be long.’

‘But I’m hungry.’

‘You can’t be hungry, you just ate a whole plate of cheesy dinosaur biscuits at Rose’s. You didn’t even let me have one, and they looked well tasty.’

Dec pretended to look sad, but I had seen him and Dad eat lots of other things, so I knew he wasn’t hungry. Luckily, I also had an answer for him.

‘I’m hungry for chocolate.’

‘You’re still going to have to wait.’

Although it didn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.

‘Ohh but how long is Daddy going to be?’

Maybe using whine-mode might work better.

‘I don’t know. Let’s play I-Spy shall we?’

I-Spy is a really boring game when you’re sitting in a car that isn’t moving outside a house, where all you can see is other houses. I played for two goes, and then I thought of another question.

‘Dec, for my next birthday, can you go to Dinosaurland with me?’

‘I think that’s a great idea, Cal, but it depends on lots of things.’

This was a bit less enthusiastic than I’d been hoping for.

‘What things?’

‘Well, things like whether you can get here, what I’m doing, what you’re doing – it’s nearly a year till your next birthday.’

A year was forever. And Dec sounded like he was making grown-up excuses not to come to Dinosaurland, so our plan was never going to happen.

Dec

I saw the disappointment on his face, remembered how much I’d let him down about his last birthday, and thought of a way to make it right.

‘I’m sure we’ll be able to sort something out though. Even if it’s not on your birthday, maybe near to it. We’ll talk to your mum and dad, yeah? Make some plans.’

\can we ask Daddy now?

Cal

This sounded more promising, and if I could get Dec to agree and tell Dad, then there was no getting out of it. Dad was walking up the drive, so I needed Dec to be quick.

‘Maybe wait a bit, I’ll give them a ring later.’

I didn’t understand that. Why not say yes now? Dad got in the car, and I decided to take my chance.

Everything OK in here?’

‘I’m going to Dinosaurland with Dec for my birthday.’

Oh really, you’ve been busy plotting while I’ve been out have you?’

‘Just a suggestion from Cal. I said we’d have to think about it. There’s plenty of time.’

Sounds good to me. Dinosaurland’s a lot of fun, eh Cal?’

I was delighted. Dad had said yes, so it was going to happen.

‘See, Dec, Daddy said yes.’

‘Hm, I’m not sure that’s exactly what he said.’

Dec still wasn’t saying we could. It was very annoying.

Why the hell not? Like you say, there’s plenty of time to sort it. Maybe not actually on your birthday, Cal, it might not be possible, but close to it. OK?’

Dec

Cal looked at me triumphantly, and decided to push his luck.

\daddy can Dec live with us? He can sleep under me.

It occurred to me that Cal had been really young when I moved in with them. I didn’t even know if he could remember a time, before recently, when I hadn’t been there, and these last few months must have been tough for him to get his head around.

‘Cal, we just talked about this. I’ve got to stay here and get better and play rugby.’

łYeah, and you know how messy Dec is. You’d lose all your Lego under piles of his dirty socks if he shared your room. I know you’ve liked having him around again, haven’t you. We’ll just have to get him back up for lots of visits, won’t we.

Cal

No, that wasn’t the same. I didn’t mind about Dec’s socks, even though they were very smelly. It just had to go back the way it used to be. I still didn’t understand why it couldn’t.

‘But Mummy said you aren’t cross with Dec any more and he’s been sad and needs us to give him loves to make him better, like Uncle Matty does. Why can’t he get better with us like Uncle Matty?’

Dec

I gasped at Cal’s matter-of-factness. Jay ran a hand through his hair and looked over at me with a sigh.

Cal

Dad pushed his hands through his hair, like he did when he was thinking. For a minute, I thought he was going to say OK, like with my birthday plan, but then I realised he was thinking about a way to say no.

‘Well, Cal, we’ve all missed Dec, and it’s been great having him with us for Christmas, hasn’t it. And yeah, Uncle Matty needs Mummy and me to look after him, but Dec needs people down here to make sure he gets better, people like the doctors at Raiders, and Rose, and Nico. Mummy and me couldn’t do it the same, and it’s too far away from where Dec plays rugby. Dec knows we don’t have to be near him to love him. Tell you what, though, it’s Dec’s birthday in a few weeks, why don’t we ask him if he wants to come back for a family party?’

I had to admit defeat. If Dec needed to be here to get better, and we had to be there to help Uncle Matty get better, I suppose there was nothing we could do. Maybe Dec coming back to see us on his birthday, when we could have fun and football and pizza, would be something to look forward to.

‘Dec, can you?’

‘That sounds great, mate. Maybe you can take me for an Ice Cream Factory? And I can stay in the bottom bunk again?’

Dec sounded excited about it, so maybe it was a good idea after all. And we could do a birthday plan for Dec, like we had a birthday plan for me, only this one would work.

‘Kay. Daddy, I think Dec will like to see the zoo and have Smarties on his birthday too.’

We’ll make some plans with Mummy, shall we? She loves a party. Sounds like you’ve got some great ideas already. Right. That’s the partying sorted. Let’s go watch some rugby.’

28. Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

In which ordinary things bring tears for Dec and delight for Cal; hair is cut; things are said and not said.

Cal

Dec came into the living room with Dad and me, so I could show him the Christmas tree. There were some presents under it, even though Santa hadn’t been yet, because they were for Mum and Dad from Nana Jane and Dada Rich, and Santa didn’t bring all the presents for grown-ups, they had to buy them for themselves sometimes. The day after tomorrow, there were going to be heaps and heaps of presents because Santa would have been. I couldn’t wait.

‘Great tree.’

I knew Dec would like it. He always helped to decorate the tree in our other house.

‘Look Dec, this is the snowman you made.’

I pointed to the decoration I’d chosen to hang on one of the lower branches.

‘Oh yeah, we made him last year, didn’t we? I didn’t think he made the grade though, last Christmas – and he’s lost his nose.’

‘Mummy said it’s a family tree, and I choosed it to go on for you because you made it.’

‘Thanks mate, it’s perfect.’

Dec looked like he was trying not to cry again, and it was getting silly. He’d nearly cried at least twice and actually cried twice too, and I didn’t understand it.

Dec

I was choking up again, the good memories from the past rearing up and ambushing me.

‘Oh sh – eep shoes.’

\why do you keep crying?

‘Sorry, Cal, I don’t really know. I’ve missed you all a lot and I’m happy to be here.’

\but people cry when they’re sad.

łDec’s keeping in touch with his feminine side. We’ll lock him up with Uncle Matty all day tomorrow, they’re as bad as each other.

Cal

It was true that Uncle Matty cried quite a lot as well, but I wasn’t sure that locking him up with Dec was going to help. It would just make them both cry all day instead.

Mum came in with some biscuits and told Dad it was alright to cry even if you are a boy, or a man, and Dad looked sorry but didn’t say he was. But it had made me think about why both Dec and Uncle Matty were crying all the time now, when they didn’t used to.

‘Do people cry when they’re cripples?’

‘Cal! That’s a horrible word, where did you hear that?’

Uh-oh. I hadn’t expected that. I had no idea it was on the list of bad words. But it wasn’t my fault, and I needed to point this out to Mum.

‘Daddy said it. He said Uncle Matty’s room is Cripples Corner.’

‘James! Honestly. Look what you’ve done now. Cal, it’s a not very nice word for people who can’t do things as well as other people. Daddy was only joking, but it wasn’t very funny.’

That was just like Mum, to say something wasn’t funny when everyone thought it was, and stop the funny thing from happening. I really didn’t want to be in trouble this close to bedtime, and decided to lay the blame on Dad.

‘He said grown-ups can swear in Cr … Uncle Matty’s room. Uncle Matty said a big swear before he went to sleep. Dec said a swear too.’

I was just trying to point out that worse words had been said, so that no one got in trouble for saying Cripples Corner.

‘James, honestly. When Cal grows up with the foulest mouth at school, I’ll know who to blame.’

Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.’

‘OK Cal, time for a bath and bed I think.’

Would I ever learn? This always happened when Dad did something silly – I got sent to bed early.

‘Ohh, but I want to have a story.’

‘You can have a story, sweetheart. Dec, how about it? Cal’s missed your bedtime stories.’

That was alright then; if I was going to get a story from Dec, the first one in about a million million years, I could make this last a very long time. I was really good at making going to bed last for ages, and I was even better when I had a story.

‘Oh, I’d love to. Bath first, Cal, then choose a book, yeah?’

Well, yes, but only after I’d tried for something else.

‘But can’t I watch some Harry Potter first?’

‘No, sweetheart, we can watch DVDs tomorrow. Bath now.’

‘Oh but can’t I –’

‘No. Bath. Now.’

Mum had her ‘no arguing’ voice on, and I knew there was no point carrying on, although I was as slow as I could be going out of the room.

Dec

Cal eventually dragged himself out of the room, as slowly as he could. The phone rang as Beth and Cal were making their way up the stairs. Jay reached over for a handset that was on the coffee table and had a conversation with his mum, which seemed to be about arrangements for her visiting tomorrow. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows, shaking his head. The conversation carried on, it seemed pretty standard mum stuff.

ł… no, he’s asleep, pretty wiped out … not bad today … we’re doing fine … Mum, don’t worry, we can manage, it’s no problem … nobody’s expecting you to do it, we want to … stop it now, we’ve talked about this … you’re coming tomorrow, you come over all the time … don’t start this again … oh Mum, don’t … you’ll be here tomorrow, see us all then. Or come tonight if you want to … yeah, that’s what I thought … go and enjoy yourself … OK … OK … see you tomorrow … bye.

He pressed the button and tossed the phone back onto the table.

łJesus, she’s hard work at the moment. Sorry, Dec, she goes on a bit. Guilty about us looking after Matty, but she can’t do it, she’s got arthritis. We don’t mind, we want to do it, but she can’t let it go. Sorry, not your problem. But I guess you might hear us discussing it more than once in the next few days.

‘Sounds really difficult.’

łYeah. We’re all still getting used to how things are. Anyway, what’s this I hear from Nico about you remembering being beaten up?

‘Oh. Yeah. I forgot I can’t scratch my arse without you all telling each other about it these days. It was weird, I had this kind of dream after my operation. When I woke up, it was clear as anything, I could just remember. I know, don’t look at me like that, everyone’s asked, I just know I’ve remembered.’

The images started crowding in again, and with an effort I pushed them away.

łSo you’re sure, it was Ben Hearne?

‘Yeah, and someone else. I can’t place him, but I think I know him.’

łJesus, Dec, that’s tough, wasn’t he your mate?

‘Yeah. It’s weird. And hard. But it felt the same when I thought it was DivDav. I should probably apologise to Dav, he will have had the police visit him and all sorts.’

łFrom what I hear he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory before.

‘No, but we made up, he apologised, I apologised. I will have fucked all that up again now.’

łCan’t be helped. If he’s a good mate he’ll understand and you can mend it. If not, well, you’re probably better off.

We both backed away from that statement, as it hit a bit closer to home than either of us were comfortable with. From upstairs we could hear squeals and splashes.

‘Sounds like he’s overcome his reluctance.’

łYou know what he’s like. Loves a bath, hates being made to have one. Pretty good at procrastinating. Potent combination as far as getting him to bed is concerned.

‘He’s really growing up, he’s changed loads.’

łI know, it goes so fast, I’m scared I’m going to miss something. He’s so excited about Christmas – you know he thinks you’ve got some kind of connection with Santa?

‘How do you know I haven’t?’

łFair point. Does that mean if I ask you, you can sort me a Lamborghini?

‘Nah mate, left it too late. All the Lambos are spoken for. Could sort a Skoda.’

łHm, might leave it then –

The phone rang again, this time it was Rose. Jay gave me the handset.

‘Rose, hi, you got there OK?’

:Yes, love, just thought I’d check how you’re doing.

‘Good thanks.’

:How’s everyone?

‘Great, it’s great to see them. How about your sister and nephew?’

:Well I haven’t seen Gethin yet, he’s out with his friends, but I’ve had a grand catch up with Bron. Lots to do tomorrow, all the family are coming round.

‘Sounds great, have a good time.’

:You too, love. Just a quick one, got to go and do a last minute supermarket shop. Don’t forget to change your dressing tomorrow.

‘It’s all sorted. Thanks for organising me.’

:You’re welcome, love, see you in a few days, I’ll ring again. Tara.

‘Bye Rose.’

Unbelievably, she’d set me off again, and I tried to wipe my eyes surreptitiously. Without me even realising it, I’d been letting Rose organise me, care for me, and I hardly protested any more. With things getting better between me and Jay and Beth, it was starting to feel like I wasn’t so alone, and it touched me somewhere deep.

łBloody hell, Dec, you seriously need to sort your tear ducts, they’re having a major malfunction today.

‘Sorry. I’m trying. Being here is pretty huge.’

łI know, mate. Don’t worry about it. Rose is a bit of a find. How exactly did you drag her into all this?

‘I didn’t do any dragging. She kind of was just, suddenly, there. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. She lives downstairs from me. I’ve only known her a few weeks. Feels like a lifetime.’

łShe’s really got your back, mate, you’ve made an impression.

‘I know. She’s amazing. I seriously don’t know what the fuck I’d have done without her.’

From upstairs, we heard a thump and then small feet thundering down the stairs.

łUh-oh, sounds like story time has arrived. Ready?

I grinned, wiped my eyes.

‘Ready.’

Cal burst into the room carrying a large book. He jumped onto the sofa next to me, bumping the book into my right arm and making me wince. He didn’t notice but Jay did.

łHey, well done Dec, no big swears.

\what, Daddy?

łNothing, Cal, just be careful of Dec’s arm, it’s still sore.

\dec, I’ve brought my dinosaur book. I can’t find about the porridge.

łAh, Dec, maybe you can clear this up. Ever since Cal, er, went to Dinosaurland on his own, he’s talked about this porridge stuff. He said you told him. We have no clue.

Cal

Although I’d mostly known Dec was making it up about the porridge at Dinosaurland when we were waiting for Mum and Dad to come in the car, I wanted to make sure, and I wanted to have that feeling where I was almost sure Dec was teasing me but not quite.

‘Oh, well, Cal, you won’t find it in your book, because the porridge is only for Dinosaurland dinosaurs. It’s only for dinosaurs that meet the public. These ones in your book lived a long time ago, and never met people. They would have eaten us all if they had. So the Dinosaurland dinosaurs have special porridge for breakfast to fill them up, so they don’t want to eat people in the day.’

And there it was, that feeling. Dec was joining in, and rather than saying he made it up, he was saying more things to make it sound like it was true. I loved it, I loved arguing with Dec, because we both knew what was true and what wasn’t, and we were just being silly. I felt like I hadn’t been silly with Dec for a long, long time.

‘But the Dinosaurland dinosaurs aren’t real, they’re just pretend. Some of them are made of plastic.’

Dec

Cal said this patiently as if trying to explain something very simple to a very stupid person who might possibly believe the dinosaurs at Dinosaurland were real. Jay had been looking impressed at my bullshit, but laughed at this deflating comment from the small genius.

‘You’re right, and I guess the porridge is kind of pretend as well, but just in case, you can never be too careful, it’s best to make sure they don’t feel peckish just as a boy, say one called Calum who is six years old, is about to visit their park.’

Cal looked dubious, but let it pass.

\i don’t want a story.

I was gutted, I had been looking forward to this since Beth had suggested it.

‘Oh, OK. No worries.’

\i want you to read this book.

‘Oh.’

Immediate happiness.

‘What, the whole book?’

Cal’s face lit up.

Cal

Dec was joking again. He knew I’d never be allowed the whole book, because it would take hours and hours to read it all, and I would be really late to bed. But I thought I’d go for it anyway.

‘Can I?’

Dec might have said yes, but Dad wasn’t about to. He never let me stay up longer.

No, Cal, it’s too long. Choose one chapter. Dec needs to get to bed sometime tonight.’

‘OK, which chapter?’

Then Dec whispered in my ear:

‘Which one’s the longest?’

I looked up at Dec, and knew he’d remembered how I liked to take a really long time going to bed.

I whispered back:

‘The one with Tyrannosaurus Rex.’

Dec sat back and said, louder:

‘You know what, I fancy reading about Tyrannosaurus Rex. OK, reading position please.’

This was the best bit. Dec held his arm out and I snuggled under it, while Dec put his arm round me, just like he had in the shelter at Dinosaurland, just like he always used to. He had the book on his knee, so I could see it and turn the pages.

Dec read the words, and I told him when he’d missed things out and got things wrong, so we did it together. We spent a long time looking at pictures and talking about the different things in the chapter. It was just like it used to be; Dec always used to read my story before I went to bed. When he didn’t live with us any more, it was sometimes hard to go to sleep without my story from Dec. Now it was right again.

Dec

Beth came in half way through, and sat next to Jay, who put his arm round her. She looked tired, but smiled over at Cal and me. I carried on reading, keeping my voice low so Cal would relax before bed time. I’d done this routine so many times before; I’d nearly always read to Cal if I was in when he went to bed. Doing it again felt so normal and so completely amazing. We got to the end of the chapter, and I turned over the page and quickly started reading the next one. Cal looked up at me, and I winked back at him. He nestled in closer, smiling to himself. Half way through the chapter, Jay realised.

łHang on, this isn’t about Tyrannosaurus Rex any more

‘Oh, I must have turned over the page by mistake. Might as well carry on now, it’s nearly the end of the chapter.’

Cal giggled.

łHm. We’ll let it slide this once. You’re a terrible pair.

I high-fived Cal and continued reading. This time at the end of the chapter I closed the book.

‘Come on, Cal let’s get you to bed.’

Cal

I nearly argued, but I’d done quite a lot of arguing, and Dec had gone past the end of the chapter for me once, so I sat up.

‘Can you tuck me in?’

‘Course.’

‘Can you carry me upstairs?’

‘Ah, no, I’m sorry Cal, my arms aren’t strong enough yet. You’re getting really big. If you want a carry, Daddy can do it.’

I’d forgotten about Dec’s hurt arms, but the way Dec said it made me feel like it wasn’t my fault I’d forgotten, and that it was because I was a big boy now.

‘Am I too strong for your arms?’

‘Yeah, mate. Much too big and strong. Race you upstairs though. Say goodnight to Mummy and Daddy first.’

I kissed Mum and Dad goodnight as quickly as I could, then ran up the stairs, so I could beat Dec. I beat him easily, because I was really fast, and maybe a little bit because he had hurt arms and legs. I went up the ladder quickly, and by the time Dec got into the room, I was under the duvet. I really, really wanted it to be time for Dec to go to bed, so he could be underneath, and maybe we could talk and tell jokes.

Dec

\are you coming to bed now?

‘Not just yet, but I won’t be long. I’ll try not to wake you up. I might snore though. My nose is a bit sore and it might make some noises.’

\daddy snores, I can hear him.

‘Well, if you hear me you can wake me up and tell me to stop. OK?’

Cal

I’d thought of lots of questions to ask Dec, some of them were ones I really wanted to know the answer to, and some of them were so I could stay up for longer. And some of them were both.

‘Kay. Dec, when you came to Dinosaurland, why did you run away?’

Dec

Fuck, that one took me by surprise. No Jay or Beth to rescue me now, either.

‘Oh, well, er, it was when Mummy and Daddy were cross with me, do you remember?’

Cal

I nodded. Of course I remembered, it wasn’t very long ago.

‘And, er, it made me sad to see them, so, er, I just ran away instead of talking to them. Not very brave, was it.’

‘But are they still cross with you?’

Mum had explained it a bit, but had mainly said to wait until Dec was here so we knew how we all felt. Now Dec was here, I wanted to know.

Dec

Shit, this was a minefield.

‘I’m not sure I can answer that, Cal, I think you’ll have to ask Mummy and Daddy. But I think sometimes being cross isn’t as important as caring about someone.’

Cal

‘Sometimes Mummy is cross with me. She shouts.’

And I knew she got cross with Dec sometimes, before, when he didn’t take his plate to the dishwasher, or put his pants on the floor instead of in the washing basket, but when they’d been really cross with him, I hadn’t heard any shouting at all, and it confused me.

‘I know, Cal, but she always loves you even when she’s cross. Always. She never stops. You need to go to sleep now, and stop asking awkward questions.’

So it seemed that no one was going to tell me if Mum and Dad were still cross with Dec. If Mum and Dad didn’t know, and Dec didn’t know, I wasn’t quite sure who did. I was going to ask Mum again tomorrow. Thinking about it made me remember that I wanted to know about Dec stealing and lying.

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Why were Mummy and Daddy cross with you?’

Dec

So this was still on his mind. I was going to have to tread carefully – when I’d told him before, it had caused all sorts of problems.

‘I think I told you that.’

Cal

‘I’ve forgotten.’

It was a long time ago that Dec told me. I could have forgotten. I had forgotten a little bit, I was sure.

‘Cal, it’s not something … oh I suppose … OK, last time I told you, you got upset, and that made your mum and dad even crosser. You know I’m always straight with you don’t you?’

It was true. Dec always told me the truth, and didn’t tell me what only little boys should know. I nodded.

Dec

I was always up front with Cal. I tried not to mislead him, but this was hard. I tried to figure it out as I went along.

‘I took some money that didn’t belong to me, and did a lot of other things that I didn’t tell anyone about for a long time, so that when they found out, it was the same as if I’d lied about it.’

I searched Cal’s face for any signs of being upset, but he just looked at me as he asked his next question.

\were you sorry?’

Cal sounded so grown-up. I could hear Beth’s influence in his question – Beth was big on sorry, and she was turning Cal into a mini-me from the sounds of it.

‘Yes I was, I am, really sorry.’

\did you say sorry to the people?’

This was something else from Beth. It wasn’t enough to be sorry, you had to say it too.

‘I’ve said sorry to everyone I can think of. And I gave the money back.’

Cal

I didn’t think Dec could have done much more – he had done everything Mum would have told him to do. And now he had been poorly and couldn’t use his arms properly, so it would be wrong to be cross with him. Mum was always saying we should be nice to people who didn’t have as much as us, or were poorly, but I didn’t know how to say this to Dec, as it didn’t seem polite. I decided to talk about something else.

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Is it Christmas Eve tomorrow?’

I knew it was. It was one of the questions to make going to bed last longer.

‘Yeah.’

‘Is Granny coming?’

And so was that.

‘I think so.’

‘Are you having a stocking from Santa?’

Yep, that too. I asked too many questions, and Dec worked it out.

‘I think you need to go to sleep and stop using delaying tactics. I’m turning the light off now. ‘Night.’

He ruffled my hair and turned the light off, and walked out of the room, leaving the door open a crack how I liked it, so the monsters didn’t come in.

Dec

I went back downstairs, thinking I should talk to Jay and Beth about Cal’s understanding of how things had been with us for the last few months, but they were asleep on the couch, heads resting against each other. I couldn’t disturb them, so went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of coffee. There was a small TV in there, which I flicked on and sifted through the channels. I stopped at a repeat of a rugby game from the weekend which I put on, just as background, but found myself absorbed in it.

Apart from the Raiders game I’d watched at the club the day of the press conference, I hadn’t watched TV rugby for a long time. I really enjoyed watching this repeat, and got carried away disagreeing with one of the pundits who seemed a bit up himself. I told him so in a loud voice, then remembered where I was as I heard movement from the living room. Voices. Beth came into the kitchen, looking bleary and carrying dirty cups.

_Dec, what are you doing in here?

‘Didn’t want to disturb you.’

_Sorry we fell asleep, we’re such lightweights these days. Thanks for putting Cal to bed. Was he OK?

‘Yeah … although he was asking some difficult questions, about how things have been. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, I didn’t know what you’d told him. He asked if you’re still cross with me.’

_Oh.

‘And he said you’re cross with him sometimes. I don’t know if he thinks it’s the same thing.

_Oh. He’s trying to make sense of it all. It’s all a bit complicated, isn’t it. What did you say?

‘Not much. I didn’t think it was up to me to say whether you’re still cross with me. I said you always love him, even when you’re cross with him. He … er … he asked about what I did, as well. You know, with the money and everything.’

Beth’s expression became wary.

_Oh? What did you tell him?’

‘That I’d told him before, but he said he’d forgotten, so I said I took some money, but gave it back, and did some things I didn’t tell anyone about which was like lying.’

This was hard to say. It was, in short, everything that had come between us for the last few months. Beth nodded, still apprehensive.

_Did he say anything?’

‘He asked if I said sorry.’

Beth smiled, then.

_He’s a good boy. Anything else I need to know about?

‘No, he changed the subject.’

_Oh Dec, you’re great with him. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, try to explain things a bit. You and James need to talk, too, about loving people you’re cross with. Not tonight though. But soon. Shall I trim your hair quickly before we go to bed?

Beth rummaged in a drawer and held up a pair of scissors.

_Put this round your shoulders.

She tucked a towel into my shirt and ran her fingers through my hair. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had it cut – hadn’t really thought about it at all, could hardly remember looking at myself in a mirror over the last few months.

_How short do you want it? I’m going to have to be careful where this scar goes into your scalp. Oh, sweetheart, when I think what they did to you … it makes me shudder.

There was a silence. She was standing behind me, and I felt her touch the tender bit on my scalp where the hair had been shaved away and the stitches had been.

_This bit’s a lot shorter. Anyway, I’ll be careful, so how short?

‘Er, don’t really know, whatever you think.’

_How about that spiky Brad Pitt thing you had going on last summer?

‘If you like, sounds great. Never hurts to look like Brad Pitt, I suppose.’

_Ha ha, well your hair can lead the way at least, it’s the same colour. I’m not sure he’s ever quite matched the way your face looks at the moment, though, so maybe you’ve got one up on him. When did we last do this? Feels like ages.

‘Must’ve been before you went to Portugal.’

_Have you not had it cut since then? No wonder it’s got so long.

‘Haven’t really thought much about my hair.’

_I suppose not. We’ve all had a lot on our minds I guess.

There was so much we weren’t saying. Beth looked tired, and I didn’t think I could face confronting everything that needed it just now, only a few hours after I’d arrived. I was enjoying the closeness and sense of normality that being here had brought. I didn’t want to spoil it so soon by picking apart everything that had happened in the last few months, but until I did, things were going to feel a bit superficial. I sat, cowardly, and felt Beth cut my hair.

_ Right, that’s the hatchet job finished. What do you think?

She held up a mirror. I had to admit that it made a difference – I’d ignored my hair for months, and its messy state had become another part of me. Now, despite the ruins of my face, I looked half way to normal. There was a big pile of hair on the floor around my feet to prove just how much crap I needed to cut away to make things right.

‘That’s great, thanks Beth. Feels a zillion times better. A weight off my mind.’

_Ha ha. It looks better though, sweetheart, more like you.

She ruffled my new hair cut, then swept up hair clippings into the bin.

_Right, I think we’re off to bed. I know it’s still early, but we’re done in. You’ll be OK with Cal tonight?

‘Yeah, looking forward to dreaming of dinosaurs.’

_See you tomorrow, sweetheart.

I heard her talk to Jay, then heard them both go upstairs. I stayed watching TV for a while, feeling a little bit like an intruder in the otherwise silent house. Finally my eyes started to droop and I made my way up to Cal’s room, turning lights off as I went. I undressed in the bathroom, made my way to the bottom bunk by feel in the darkness, climbed in and slept.

Dreaming. Jumbled images of brown boots, being chased, fighting, struggling.

Cal

I thought I would be awake until Dec came to bed, and then we could whisper jokes to each other, but I didn’t hear him come to bed, and I woke with a jump when I heard noises coming from under me. It was somebody talking, but not saying words.

‘Mm … nnn … no … no … mm …’

I remembered Dec was sleeping in the bottom bed, and I climbed down the ladder to stand next to him, listening, in case he woke up and said something I understood. I bent over so I was right next to Dec’s face, and he suddenly woke up and sat up. Except he was in the underneath bed, so he banged his head on the bottom of my bed.

Dec

I woke with a start, dark and disoriented, someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up and banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

Cal

I giggled, because Dec had done a bad swear, and Mum wasn’t here to say, ‘Dec, honestly’.

Dec

A giggle, next to my head. I remembered where I was. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

‘Cal, why aren’t you in bed?’

\you were making noises. You said I could wake you up.

‘Oh. Sorry. Was I snoring?’

\no, you were going ‘mm mm’ and ‘no’.

‘I was probably dreaming.’

Cal

‘What did you dream?’

It hadn’t sounded like a happy dream, and if there were scary things I’d quite like to know what they were. I only didn’t like my own bad dreams; other people’s made good stories.

‘I can’t remember.’

Which was disappointing, but now I was down here, I might as well get what I could out of it.

‘I can’t sleep.’

‘What time is it?’

‘I don’t know. Daddy and Mummy let me get in their bed when I can’t sleep.’

Well they certainly used to, before they began locking the door at night and not letting me in.

Dec

I was fairly certain there had been a ‘sleep all night in your own bed’ rule, but that was before, and things could have changed.

‘Oh, OK. Do you want to hop in with me then?

I held the duvet open and he climbed in, immediately taking up most of the available space and pushing me up against the wall. He fell asleep straight away, and I dozed uncomfortably until it started to get light through the stegosaurus curtains.

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.