61. Worried man blues

In which the long day comes to an end for some, and is prolonged for others.

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Julia

That evening, I decided to go over and make some dinner, enough for two in case Matt came back early enough to eat. I took a change of clothes, so I could stay the night and go to work from there the next day; while I was hanging them up, I noticed how many of my clothes were hanging in Matt’s wardrobe. I also had a collection of toiletries in his bathroom, books on the bedside table and underwear in the drawer. I had no idea if Matt was comfortable with it or not, and resolved to ask him when he got back. He didn’t have anywhere near as much of his stuff at my flat; we tended to stay at his rather than mine, as it was closer to work, and I loved the view from his window. His bed wasn’t as comfortable as mine, but it was a small price to pay for the cool, tasteful spaciousness of his place. This, with my things in his apartment, was the closest I had ever come to living with someone, and a small thrill raced through me as I realised this. I wondered if I could see myself ever living with him, and surprised myself by realising that I could, in time.

We suited each other well. Matt was clean and tidy, had great taste in décor and furnishings, and we didn’t fall out about who left the top off the toothpaste, although that was mainly because we used separate toothpaste. I needed to have my own space, but I could definitely see a time when I would need to see Matt every day more than I needed my own company. I wasn’t about to tell him this, or allude to it in any way, but held the knowledge inside me.

Dec

As we walked through the door, Iz came hurtling into the hall and hurled herself into my arms.

‘Hey sweetie.’

I gave her a big cuddle and carried her into the living room. She poked a plastic fairy under my nose.

‘Who’s this?’

/stinkerbell.

‘Stinkerbell?’

/cal say Stinkerbell.

‘Oh, well, he must be right then. Have you had a good day with Daddy?’

/daddy an me go park an play horsie.

‘Sounds great. Is he a good horsie?’

/he go neigh.

‘Sounds like he got it just right.’

/he go woof doggy.

‘Wow, what a repertoire.’

We walked through to the lounge and sat next to Jay.

łDec, don’t leave me on my own all day again. There’s only so many times I can neigh and bark and meow before I go mad.

/daddy woof.

łOK, one more, Iz, then that’s it. Woof.

Iz giggled in delight.

/gain.

łNo more.

/gain, pease.

She looked at him from underneath her long blonde eyelashes.

/pease Daddy.

łOh, bloody hell, you’re impossible to resist, Iz. OK, last one. Woof.

/gain.

łNo, Iz, I’ve got to … er … help Mummy with dinner.

‘That’d be a first. Let’s go see what’s happening in the kitchen, Iz.’

We wandered through and found Beth opening the trays of food and putting out plates. Matt was sampling each dish as it was opened.

‘Leave some for us. Hey, that’s a whole spring roll. Iz, I reckon Uncle Matty could use a cuddle.’

Iz, always one for an extra bit of male attention, held her arms out to Matt, who gave me a dirty look as I passed her over.

}Cheap trick, Summers. Hey, blondie, you’re looking rather glamorous today. Nice hair clips, interestingly positioned. Did Daddy put them in, perchance?

I left Matt discussing hairstyles with Iz and wandered back into the living room, where Jay was sprawled on one sofa. On the other one, Amy and Rose had found a magazine with celebrity wedding pictures, and were exclaiming over it. I pushed Jay’s feet off the sofa onto the floor and sat down. Jay ran his hands through his hair.

łShit, I’m bloody wiped out. How the fuck does Beth do it every day?

‘Energy reserves of a rhino, probably.’

łBetter not let her hear you comparing any part of her to a rhino, mate. How did it go today?

‘Oh, had its ups and downs. Short or long version?’

łDo you mind short for now? Lacking a bit of concentration. Beth can fill me in later.

‘OK then … short version … I dragged everyone here, there and everywhere looking for something I could have found here.’

I put my hand on the spot over my heart that Matt had touched earlier.

‘Did the memory bottle thing. Had a bit of a major moment, scared the shit out of everyone. Feel better.’

łMemory bottle?

‘Oh, yeah, it was going to be scattering rose petals on the waves, but I decided to put some pictures in a bottle with my letter and send it out to sea instead. Everyone else gave me something to put in the bottle too – I thought Beth told you.’

łOh, yeah, yeah she did, she did ask me about something she was writing, I did have some input, I’m just useless at details. Sounds very moving. What sort of major moment?

‘Lost it. Total blubfest.’

łShit. You OK now?

‘Yeah. Got a lot out of my system.

łBut apart from being a bloody headcase, good way to commemorate it?

‘Yeah.’

łI’m glad to hear it, mate.

Jay and I never needed to talk about anything in great detail. I knew he worried about me and cared about me, and there were plenty of other people to do the searching questions and the angst with. Our shorthand was reassuring.

Beth came out of the kitchen.

_Right, everyone, it’s all out on the counter in here, help yourselves. I’m not setting the table, have it on your knees. James can you call Cal?

łCAL!

_I mean go and get him.

Jay hauled himself off the sofa with a groan and stomped up the stairs.

Matt was still in the kitchen, and still encircled by Iz who wouldn’t let him put her down so he could load his plate. He was trying to do it one-handed and failing messily. I laughed, unsympathetically.

‘Oh, Uncle Matty, are you having trouble there?’

}Help me out, mate?

‘I’ll just do mine first, then one for Amy, then we’ll eat it, then I’ll possibly come back and help you out.’

Even Matt wouldn’t swear out loud with Iz actually in his arms, so he mouthed several choice words at me, put his spoon down and flipped the finger at me. Then he picked up his spoon and continued to drop rice on the floor. I took the two plates in and sat next to Amy, passing hers over. As we ate, I noticed how tired she looked.

‘OK, babe?’

She nodded.

)Wish I hadn’t fallen asleep in the car, I feel completely groggy now. I probably won’t sleep properly tonight.

‘Well that was never going to happen anyway, so just think of it as catching up on a bit of yesterday’s instead. How’s your chow mein?’

)Mm, lovely, I wouldn’t be surprised if this baby looks like a chicken.

‘Or a chocolate button, possibly.’

)Yeah, quite possibly – could it have something to do with all the chocolate sauce we – oh.

She stopped, blushing, realising Matt had come in. He was holding Iz close to him with one hand and balancing a piled plate in the other.

}Oh just stop it, don’t need to bloody well hear your perverted conception stories thanks.

Amy went a deeper shade of scarlet, and ignored Matt, who chuckled to himself at her discomfort, as she changed the subject.

)Dec, has it been OK, today? I’m just worried it didn’t turn out quite how you thought.

‘Yeah, babe, it’s been OK. It didn’t turn out how I thought, I guess, but I did it and shit happened. It was all good in the end. I was there, and you were all there with me, that’s the main thing.’

)Are you OK?

‘I’m OK.’

She reached up and pulled me down for a kiss. I brushed her hair back from her face, held her face in my hands and made the kiss a deep and lingering one.

‘Mm, chicken chow meiny. Love you, babe.’

)Love you too.

\gross

‘Oh, hey, Cal. Didn’t notice you sit down. We were otherwise occupied with some lovely snogging.’

Cal was concentrating hard on his plate.

\urgh, you put me off my dinner.

}Cal, you know that’s the chance you take when you sit too close to Dec and Amy. Snog fall-out can be a terrible thing. Personally I think those two should be banished to the conservatory while people are eating, just in case they can’t control themselves.

\it’s just gross.

Amy smiled over at him.

)You won’t always think so, Cal.

\i think I will, it’s gross now and it’ll be gross in a hundred years.

‘Well let’s agree to stop the snogging just for now so everyone can feel comfortable, but watch out after the washing up, Cal, anything could happen. And if you haven’t snogged someone in a hundred years time I’ll eat Matt’s hat.’

}You bloody won’t, it’s my best hat.

‘No, not that one, the woolly one with the red bobble.’

}I have not got a hat with a red bobble.

‘Well what am I supposed to eat in a hundred years time when Cal hasn’t snogged anyone?’

}Not my problem. Your bet, you supply the hat. And the cryogenic chamber to keep you alive until you’re a hundred and twenty three.

Normal service had been resumed. After the intensity of the day, it was good to relax, eat, talk and be silly, be with my family. Eventually, Amy started flagging beside me, and asked Matt to take us home. Rose got a lift too. Matt dropped us off and we made our way slowly up the steps to the flat.

Matt

Rose didn’t say much on the journey back to her flat, and I didn’t really think much of it, I suppose we were both lost in our own thoughts, until we were almost back at her place, sat at a red light.

‘Well, this has been a bit of a day, hasn’t it.’

‘Yeah. Not every day Dec buys everyone coffee.’

She smiled, indulging me.

‘You know what I mean, though, love. It feels a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it. I was worried there for a bit.’

I looked at her in surprise; Rose had seemed the epitome of cool, calm and collectedness. We had all looked to her to tell us what to do.

‘Really? You seemed to know what you were doing.’

The traffic light turned green and I pulled away.

‘I was just doing it automatically, I think. I remembered before, when he was in that state about those points – oh, you wouldn’t have been around, then, love, it was while he still lived here. Do you know the story?’

There wasn’t much of Dec’s story I didn’t know. He was pretty open about everything, didn’t seem to mind what I called Beth’s fussing, answered questions when asked, didn’t sulk about being asked if he was OK, generally behaved like a normal person rather than a thirty-four year old teenager.

‘Yeah, something about his passport, and Raiders getting docked points because of it, and he went all emo and shit.’

‘Well I don’t really know what emo means, love, but he was in a bad way. He went all quiet, and then me and Nico tried to get him to talk about it, and he just collapsed, a bit like today, poured it all out on my kitchen table. Nico and me were looking at each other, like we all were today. Nico wanted to call one of his doctor friends, get him some help. We didn’t want to leave him alone, we were that worried.’

‘Worried about – what, you thought he’d top himself?’

Rose nodded, looking down at her hands. I turned the car into the road where Rose’s building was.

‘Holy shit. Sorry.’

I didn’t usually apologise for swearing, but Rose never complained about it, so me being me, it seemed like the thing to do.

‘Yes, well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried it before, in a way.’

What?’

Just when you think you know someone. This had never got through the Scott family filter, and it shocked me. I pulled the car up outside the building, and we sat there, with the engine running. Rose didn’t take her seatbelt off.

‘Oh, not that he ever told me he tried, but, when I thought about it after, I just wondered … this would have been before you got to know him, as well, but when all that happened with him and Jay, when they told him they wanted him to stay away from them, and he got suspended from his rugby, he went on a hell of a bender. I cleared the empties up, and he’d drunk a lot. Too much. Mostly vodka. I don’t think he cared, really. He could have … I don’t like to think about it, what could have happened to him up there, all on his own.’

‘Shit, Rose. I had no idea. I knew he’d had a rough time, I even vaguely remember something about a lost few days, but I guess I only really heard Jay’s version. You really think he might have tried … on purpose?’

The thought of it did something weird to my brain. Dec was one of the cheeriest, most annoyingly bloody laid back people I knew, and imagining him feeling shit enough to want to end it all, only a few years ago, made me reassess a lot of things about him.

‘I think he was about as low as you can go. His flat was miserable – he was there all alone, no family, no friends, he’d sold all his stuff. I didn’t meet him for a while after he moved in, but his flat was right above mine. I could hear him, sometimes, crying. Terrible, it was. When those buggers from the paper started on him, though, I couldn’t just leave it. Well you know what I’m like, love. I let myself in and tried to look after him a bit. Not that he wanted me to, not at first.’

‘Sounds familiar.’

‘You and him have both got a stubborn streak that does you no favours, love.’

‘Maybe. He warmed up to you, eventually, though.’

‘He did. We’re a bit of an odd pair, aren’t we. When he started to tell me how things had been for him, all the things he’d let go, all the people he’d lost, well I was heartbroken for him. I thought about him living up there on his own, nothing to think about except who was dead or gone, and I just thought I’d try to cheer him up, help him out a bit. But on that night, after the points, I realised there wasn’t anything I could do. He’d seemed more cheerful, Nico had helped him pay back the money he owed people, everyone was being nicer to him, but at the back of it all was how he thought he’d messed it all up with your brother. It didn’t matter if he got his friends back, he’d lost Jay and Beth, and then he thought he’d lost his rugby, and it was too much. I think there was a bit of that feeling today, I know I felt the same … kind of helpless, like nothing I did would make any difference.’

‘But you were so bloody great, Rose. You said ‘hold him’, and we did, and it worked.’

‘Well it did, and I’m relieved. I’m not sure it was much to do with me, though, really. It’s good that he had us all.’

‘He’s told me before that he’s held on to you when he’s felt desperate, that you’ve pulled him out of some dark places.’

‘Really, love?’

‘Yeah, Rose. Give yourself credit. I didn’t know how bad things had been for him; I think he’s got a lot to thank you for.’

Rose waved this away.

‘Oh, it’s a two way thing. He’s given me so much, as well. I was a pretty lonely old biddy too before he came along.’

She reached over and undid her seatbelt. Then gave me a penetrating look.

‘Are you still thinking about what happened earlier? About whether it might happen to you?’

I shrugged. Dec might use Rose as a confessional, but I kept my thoughts to myself, on the whole. Who knows, maybe I’d be as cheery and annoyingly bloody laid back if I took a different approach, but the likelihood was slim.

Dec

‘Are you going straight to bed, babe? You look shattered.’

Amy nodded.

)I might get my PJs on and snuggle under the duvet, come and join me? Maybe there’s something on the telly I can doze off to.

‘OK. Fancy a hot chocolate or something?’

)You’re a mind reader. That would be completely awesome. Thanks hon.

I made Amy’s chocolate, and opened myself a beer. One of the advantages of the off season was that I didn’t have to be quite so careful what I ate and drank, so the odd takeaway and beer was alright. I couldn’t go overboard, though, and risk having to shed a lot of weight during pre-season training, which was starting the week after next. I still went to the gym most days, just to keep in shape.

I took the drinks into the bedroom, where Amy had changed into her night things and was sitting up under the duvet, with the TV showing one of the celebrity reality programmes she loved. I put one arm round her and got my phone out with the other hand. Sent a text to Rose, Matt and Beth.

Matt

As Rose put her fingers on the door handle, our phones both pinged with text messages. I knew mine was from Dec, as I recognised his tone. Rose fished in her bag while I clicked open the message.

Thx 4 coming 2day. I ❤ my awesome family. Xx

Rose read her screen.

‘Oh, it’s from Declan. Is yours the same?’

She showed me and I nodded.

‘Ah, he’s a good lad. I’ll wait to get inside to reply, I can’t get my fingers to work right sometimes. Thanks for the lift, love. Take care of yourself, now, won’t you.’

She gave me a light pat on the cheek and got out of the car.

As I drove off, I sagged in the seat. I hadn’t realised how much I was holding everything in, and how much I was looking forward to going home, opening a beer and just being on my own, letting it all out.

Dec

One immediate reply.

Beth: =Yr awesome family ❤ u2. Thx 4 asking me. Special day. xx

Rose took a little longer; she had never really got to grips with texting. Textspeak took her a while to translate sometimes, she could never find the punctuation and had to turn the predictive text off as it confused her too much.

Rose: =youre welcome see you soon

Matt didn’t reply, I wasn’t expecting him to.

Julia

When Matt finally came home from his outing, it was quite late. It was apparent he had forgotten I was going to be there, and wasn’t in a great mood, when he walked in and stopped in his tracks as he saw me sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of wine and reading a book.

Matt

As soon as I walked through the door, though, and saw the lights on, I remembered that Jules might be waiting for me. Shit. I don’t think I’d given Jules a thought all day, I’d been so caught up in everything that had happened. I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone, being with anyone. I just wanted to be on my own.

‘Oh, hi Jules. Shit, I forgot. Sorry.’

I ran a hand through my hair while I tried to decide what to say.

Julia

He dragged a hand through his hair, making it stick out, as he often did when he was stressed.

‘Fuck it, I’ve been ages, I would have texted.’

‘It’s alright. I’ve been quite happy. Have you eaten?’

Matt

I could smell the pasta Jules had made; she’d probably done enough for me as well. Bollocks.

‘Yeah, we had takeaway at Jay and Beth’s.’

I took a breath and just decided to say it.

‘Look, I know you’ve been waiting for me for bloody ages, but … oh shit this is awkward. I’m not in the best mood, I’ve got stuff on my mind, I’m not sure I’m up to doing a sleepover.’

‘Oh.’

Jules looked a bit disappointed, and to be fair she had been waiting for me for hours, but she didn’t seem too troubled.

Julia

I was disappointed, having been waiting all evening for him, but it wasn’t insurmountable.

‘No problem. But I’ve had quite a few glasses of wine, I can’t drive home.’

‘Oh.’

Matt

Bollocks. More bloody faffing before I can just be on my own. I toyed with the idea of calling a taxi, but the thought of pissing her off and then having to wait for the taxi while she sat there being pissed off was more than I could cope with. So now I was going to have to take her home in her car and get a sodding cab back myself.

‘I’ll take you then. Are you ready to go now?’

Yeah it was rude, but I was almost beyond caring. Jules got up and picked up her things without saying anything. I guess I’d managed to piss her off anyway, might as well just have phoned the bloody taxi.

Julia

Feeling a little disgruntled at being hustled out so soon, I stood up and got my things together without saying anything. Matt had made no moves to kiss me or hug me; in fact, he had remained standing by the door, and as soon as I was ready to go, he held it open and followed me out, down the stairs and across the car park. He did at least offer to drive my back in my car so I could get to work in the morning – I nearly let him off, but he was being so cold and distant that at that moment I didn’t feel kindly towards him at all, and didn’t argue with him. Once in the car, though, I couldn’t stand the silence any longer.

Matt

We didn’t speak until I drove away, and I wouldn’t have said anything if she hadn’t started the conversation. I recognised that she was making an effort, but I was winding myself up for a good wallow, and I didn’t feel like making it easy for her.

‘How did it go today? Was Dec alright?’

‘Yes and no, he got pretty upset. But I think he’s OK now. He sent a text saying how much he loves us or some such shit.’

Julia

‘Are you alright?’

It was obvious he wasn’t, but it wasn’t obvious whether he wanted to talk about it.

Matt

‘No. But don’t really want to go there.’

‘How will you get home?’

‘Taxi. Walk. Whatever.’

‘You can’t walk, it’s late.’

‘Fucking taxi then. Jesus.’

I was seriously irritated now, with her, with having to come out again, with having to talk, all irrational and unfair, but, yeah, I took it out on her like the dick I am. I didn’t speak to her again, didn’t even say goodbye when I dropped her off, walking away as I called a cab without looking back.

Julia

And that was the end of the conversation. Matt dropped me and my car off outside my flat without another word, without even a kiss on the cheek, and left me rather bewildered. I nearly rang someone – Dec? Beth? – to see if they could enlighten me as to what had caused his mood, but knew that would really make him cross. I hoped he would feel better the next day, or talk to me about it; I felt out of sorts, and also realised with annoyance that I’d left my work clothes at Matt’s apartment. Sighing, I changed into my night things and got into bed.

Matt

Yeah, I felt guilty, I’d been an arse, but I’d achieved my objective, and I sank into my sofa, bottle of beer in hand, and tried to let it all drift away, to feel the tension leave me. But it didn’t, even aided by two more bottles of beer. I kept thinking in circles about how much undealt with shit I had brewing inside me, and how I didn’t ever want to let go of it in the way that Dec had, but how I didn’t want to address it in any way that involved me actually talking to anyone about it, because what did talking achieve? You just went over and over things and how could that make things better? I was screwing myself up inside.

I picked my phone up and saw the text Dec had sent. I realised it was late, I’d heard everything Beth said about how my shit was the last thing Dec needed on this night of all nights, but I tapped out a reply and sent it; I don’t know if I really thought about what I was doing. Maybe subconsciously. Maybe more consciously. I know he’d had a full on day, I know I should have thought about whether he might need a break from worrying about my shit, but there you have it. It was done now. It just remained to be seen whether he was a) still awake and b) perceptive enough.

A few moments later I found out that he was both a) and b), as my phone rang.

Dec

Eventually I dozed off in front of the TV, until my phone pinged and woke me up. Text.

Matt:=Bloody sentimental fucking nutter 😉 xx

I looked at the time. One thirty. Amy had curled up properly in the bed, while I had stayed sitting up, getting myself a sore neck into the bargain. I turned the TV and the light off. Thought about why Matt might have waited until one thirty to text me. Went into the living room. Called him.

}What the fuck?

‘What the fuck right back, you’re the one who just texted.’

}I was replying to you.

‘At one thirty in the morning. What’s up? Spill.’

}Oh bloody hell, Dec, do you always have to see right through me? It gets a bit tedious.

‘I don’t know why you can’t just ring someone for a chat like normal people.’

}Normal people aren’t usually up at the hours when I’d like a chat.

‘I’m up.’

}I refer you to my previous comment.

‘I think you actually like the games, seeing if people work it out. Are we as fucking clever as you, or something.’

}You could be right. It’s an open verdict so far.

‘So what’s bothering you? Bear in mind I’m going to be up with a puking Amy at three, so please excuse any tetchiness.’

}Well it’s nothing really, maybe you should go back to sleep.

‘Look Matt, you’ve woken me up at stupid o’clock to talk. Stop fannying about and just fucking talk.’

}Yep, there was a definite hint of tetchiness there. OK, OK, I’ll talk. I’m still … I guess … a bit freaked out about the stuff on the beach. I don’t know how you can be OK after all that, it was heavy duty. I thought we were going to be carting you off to the local asylum, straight-jacket, the lot. It went on for a bloody long time. Rose kept saying ‘hold him, just hold him’, but being so close to something so fucking intense was hard. It was bloody scary.

I paused for a moment. I hadn’t really thought about how it might have affected everyone else who was there, or how much they might have worried about me, even though Rose had mentioned something a bit earlier.

‘I’m sorry I scared you. I’m so sorry, Matt. It didn’t occur to me. I guess I knew I was going to come out of it. I knew how much shit there was. I didn’t think about it from your point of view, not having seen it all before, that you didn’t know that. Rose has been there with me through some tough times, she’s kind of an expert.

}I know we’ve always had this being there for each other thing going, but it just didn’t seem like it would be enough. Even Rose said she wasn’t sure, although, yeah, she seemed to know what she was doing at the time.

‘If it helps at all, having you all there holding me was exactly what I needed. Having all that shit pouring out of me needed some kind of containment, or maybe I would have been in trouble. I know you’re not great with touchy feely stuff, if I’d thought it was going to get like that I would have warned you.’

}Yeah, well, like I said this morning, the main reason I came was to try to protect you a bit from Rose and Beth going all weepy on you and making things worse, but as it turned out, it was me who unleashed the beast.

‘Matt, what you said, it really made a difference to me. It’s really helped. I feel better about my parents than I have for years. Yeah it blew it all wide open in a bit of a loud and messy way, but it made sense of the whole day. And you did help take the pressure off from the girls too. They get a bit emotional, and you’re good at turning it into laughter rather than tears.’

}Well, thanks, nice to know my arsing about has its uses. And I’m glad I didn’t completely fuck you up. But how do you know it won’t happen again, maybe when you don’t have four convenient family members ready to be showered with snot?

‘Well … I guess … it’s like a box. There’s this box and all the shit from over the years gets put in the box and if you never have a good clean up, eventually it starts to smell, and you keep smelling it and thinking, well that needs doing, but it’s not a very nice job, so you put it off. Eventually it’s full to bursting, and that’s what it does. Bursts. The box explodes, the shit gets blown away, it’s empty again.

}So I should think myself lucky it was only snot I was showered with?

‘What I mean is, as long as I’m a bit more aware of what’s bubbling in there, and make myself do something about it every so often, it’ll be OK. No more explosions. It’s another ten years before there’s another big anniversary, you’ve got plenty of notice.’

}OK, well, nice box-of-shit analogy, I’ll assume this has been thoroughly endorsed by your shrink, so how do I stop it happening to me? I’m terrified of something like that happening unannounced. What if my box is approaching dangerous shit levels?

‘Well, firstly, you’re not me, you haven’t had my experiences, we do things differently. So the chances of you reacting in the same way as me are remote, I would imagine. Secondly, use the people around you to talk to, offload some of it. I think the main reason I got myself in such a state today is because I find talking about Mum and Dad so hard. Every time I thought about them, it made me too sad, so I’d push it back down there. I blocked it out, didn’t deal with it, didn’t even think about it. If you can talk to people, deal with it, you clean it all out and it doesn’t build up. You know you can always talk to me, there are plenty of other people – talk to Jay and your mum about your dad, talk to your MS group if you still go, talk to Julia, just use people who are here, don’t shut us out. Rose always talks a lot of sense, too.’

}I know. I had a bit of a chat with Rose when I dropped her off earlier. She told me some hair raising stuff about when she first met you. I knew you had a tough time back then but, shit, I didn’t realise you were suicidal.

‘I’m not sure it ever got that bad, but I guess I was pretty low. Didn’t think I had much to live for, if that’s the same thing.’

}She mentioned something about ridiculous amounts of vodka and not really giving a fuck about what could have happened.

‘Yeah, well, it’s all a bit of a blur really. Feels like a long time ago. Rose was … well she saved me, really. Talked me down, if you like. Still is talking me down, I guess, in a way.’

}She really did haul you out of the shit by your bootlaces, didn’t she. Fuck, you were lucky to find her when you did.

‘Yeah. Wouldn’t be here now without her. But anyway. So, nice diversion, but back to you. There’s all of us. Use us. If you’re really that scared of losing control, you need to start making sure it doesn’t happen. Stop fucking about playing mind-games so much and talk properly.’

}You’re no fun. I will still text you in the middle of the night. It’s like our special signal. Thanks, Dec, you talk a lot of sense for a youngster.

‘Well, I’m sorry I freaked you out. Feeling any better?’

}Yeah, a bit. I’ll think about it. Talking about stuff not my most robust attribute. Might have to work on it.

‘Practice on me, sometime. Start small. Tell me about your day or something, without being a smart-arse or a sarcastic bastard.’

}OK, well today my day was mostly eclipsed by my mate having a psychiatric episode on a beach – oh fuck, that’s the sort of thing you mean isn’t it. I might need a lot of practice. Straight talking is fucking hard.

‘Everyone starts somewhere. I look forward to hearing about your day tomorrow, darling.’

}Fuck off. Thanks Dec. Go to sleep now.

‘Will do. I’ve got at least an hour before the vomming starts. Bye, Matt.’

I hung up and went back into the bedroom, feeling my way to the bed in the dark. I undressed, slipped under the duvet and cuddled up to Amy, trying not to wake her but unable to resist stroking her hair. She stirred. I felt guilty, and glad.

)Were you talking to someone?

‘Just Matt.’

)Is he OK?

‘He will be, he’s just overthinking stuff and undertalking stuff as usual. Ames, I’m sorry if I scared you this afternoon, all the big emotional drama and everything.’

She was quiet for a bit, and I thought she’d gone back to sleep.

)Well, it was a bit scary, I’ve never seen you that upset, and we were all looking at each other like ‘oh my God, what do we do if he doesn’t stop?’, and wondering if we needed to get some help or something. But Rose, she was just completely amazing. She knew just what to do. I know she’s seen you like that before, so maybe she was panicking a bit less, but she just made us all hold on to you and each other, and kept telling you it would be alright. I don’t know if you could hear her, you were making a bit of a racket.

‘I couldn’t hear anything, I was in a bit of a world of my own. Oh, babe, I’m so sorry. I just kind of came out of it and walked off like nothing had happened, didn’t I. I’ll have to talk to Beth tomorrow, I think she was as freaked out as Matt.’

)It’s OK, Dec. I think we can see you’re OK, it was just at the time it was so full on. I’m glad Rose was there.

‘Sorry you’re stuck with such a weirdo.’

)Ha ha, I’d choose your weirdness any time. Do you know the weirdest thing? When you were reading your letter, you had an Australian accent. Now that was completely bizarre.

‘No fucking way, I did not.’

)You did, hon, it was really strong, I was surprised Matt resisted saying something, he must have been on his best behaviour because he looked like he was completely busting a gut to chip in with something.

‘Fuck me. Must have been a bit of the old Charlie coming out.’

)It’s all in there somewhere, isn’t it. What time is it? Must be nearly time to get up and start puking.

‘We’ve got a while yet, just stay here and hold me. I need a gorgeous amazing woman in my arms right now. You’ll have to do though.’

)Watch it, or I might just have to miss the toilet next time you’re holding my hair. I’ve got quite good at aiming.

I put my arms round her and held her close, shut my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Dreaming. I am flying, high above the world. I collect all the people I love and store them in my heart. They help me fly higher and higher and I reach the stars.

Matt

I thought about what Dec had said. He was just about the only person I would allow to make suggestions about what I should do. That’s not to say I took any notice, most of the time, but he could get away with saying stuff nobody else could.

And something he said about talking to people struck a chord, and I thought of Jules, who would be asleep by now, and would probably have her phone off, but I could at least show willing and apologise to her for the way I’d been when I got home. I sent a text.

Not only did she reply, she agreed to FaceTime, which we hadn’t done for ages, seeing each other so often, and was more than I deserved following my rudeness earlier. I apologised, she agreed I’d been a bit of a git, I told her a bit about what had been going on, what had been bothering me, the things I worried about being buried in my box-of-shit, and then … then she blew my fucking mind. Right. Out. Of. The. Water.

44. Dance little sister

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

Matt

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

‘Hey. Any news?’

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

‘Woohoo.’

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

‘Is evhryone OK?’

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

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

‘Isobel Flora.’

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

‘See you soon, Matty.’

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

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

\dec forgot to ask her name.

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

\will she be able to play football with me?

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

Cal

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

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

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

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

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

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

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

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

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

Cal nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

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

Cal

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

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

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

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

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

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

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

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

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

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

_Would you like a cuddle?

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

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

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

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

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

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

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

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

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

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

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

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

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

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

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

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

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

)Maybe one day.

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

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

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

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

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

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

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

Cal

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

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

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

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

_She’s very good with children.

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

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

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

‘Really?’

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

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

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

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

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

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

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

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

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

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

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

Cal

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

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

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

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

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

\why?

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

‘Need some help?’

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

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

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

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

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

)Why couldn’t you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

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

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

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

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

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

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

\but Nico and Lis are still there

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

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

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

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

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

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

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

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

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

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

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

\kay. How long can I watch for?

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

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

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

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

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

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

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

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

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

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

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

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

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

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

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

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

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

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

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

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

)I’ll phone you later.

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

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

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

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

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

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

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

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

‘Hey, Matt.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

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

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

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

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

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘He’s the master.’

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

‘She is pretty amazing.’

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

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

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

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

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

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

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

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

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

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

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

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

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

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

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

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

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

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

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

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

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

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

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

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

‘Love.’

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

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

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

We clinked our bottles together.

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

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

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

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

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

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

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

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

42. You can’t hurry love

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘Heh Si, haven’t seen yuh fuh ages.’

He looked up, dark expression on his face.

‘No. Time I was going.’

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

‘Wha did she tell yuh?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

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

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

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

‘Maybe you didn’t deserve anyone.’

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

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

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

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

‘Wha the fuck? Tha’s bollocks.’

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

‘Yeah right. We all got your text.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Noh thanks.’

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

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

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

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

‘Noh I hahvnt.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I dohnt hahv any choice.’

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

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

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

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

‘That was one person, sweetheart.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeh?’

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

Beth broke into my escalating thoughts.

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

‘Ohkay.’

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

‘Ohkay.’

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

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

‘Ih’ll beh OK, I can lihv wih Mum.’

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

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

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

I waited for the but. And here it came.

‘But we think we might have a solution.’

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

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

‘Ruhning away?’

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

‘Yuh should goh, whatever.’

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

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

‘Cahn I think abouh ih?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fuck ohf, Jay.’

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

‘Doubt it, Beth.’

‘Noh.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just done some coffee if yuh fancy ih?’

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

I rolled my eyes at her martyred tone.

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

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

‘Cake?’

‘Beth’s?’

‘Lemohn drizzle.’

‘How can I resist?’

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

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

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

She affected a puzzled expression.

‘I came to see you, dear.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Why?’

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

‘I’m alright on my own, you know.’

‘Wha?’

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

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

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

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

‘Mum …’

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

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

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

‘Promihs.’

‘Thank you.’

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you think, mate?’

Finally one thing burst out.

‘But what about the parade?’

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

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

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

‘Where will Uncle Matty live?’

‘With us – he’s coming too.’

‘Will Granny live with us?’

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

‘Will Dec live with us?’

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

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

‘Will I go to my old school?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Can I have a Pokémon bedroom?’

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

Ben10 was for babies. I was six.

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

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

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

‘Is the baby going to have a room?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Can Percy come with us?’

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

‘Will Tabitha come too?’

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

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

Dec

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

‘OK, you’ve got my attention.’

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

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

Cal

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

Cal

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

Dec

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

Cal

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

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

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

Dec

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

‘Hey gorgeous.’

)Mm. Morning. What time is it?

‘Still early.’

)Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

Cal

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

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

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

‘Heh Cal, no takers fuh footy yet?’

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

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

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

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

He winked at me. Uncle Matty was cool.

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

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

‘Hey Cal.’

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

‘Dec, I got twenty three super Legos.’

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

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

‘No, it’s just for one player.’

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘That’s Amy. She’s just a mate.’

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

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

‘No.’

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

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

‘She’s a really good mate.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m not –’

He stopped himself. He so was. Pitiful.

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

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

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

‘Wha, now? Holy shit, Dec.’

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

Dec

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

‘Can I have a word?’

She looked up at me, frowning slightly.

)Are you OK?

‘Yeah. Come with me a minute.’

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

‘There’s something I want to say.’

)OK.

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

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

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

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

)About as long as I’ve wanted you to?

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

)Not in so many words.

‘Oh Amy, you’re so fucking amazing.’

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

łWell it’s about bloody time, you pair.

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

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

I reached for the sauce and handed it to him.

łThanks. As you were.

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

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

Matt

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

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

‘Happy ending, then?’

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

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

Nico seemed to be some kind of Latino hopeless romantic.

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

Cal

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

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

‘He said I could.’

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

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

‘Now, Cal.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I got to level fourteen.’

‘Whoa, you’re beating meh then.’

Uncle Matty turned to Nico.

‘Cal’s got sohm serious gaming fingers.’

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

‘Have you got Lego Star Wars?’

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

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

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

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

‘Can you play football with me now?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remembered what I was supposed to be doing there.

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

‘Sure, mate.’

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

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

‘Can you come and play football with me?’

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

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

‘What are you doing?’

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

‘They said ask you.’

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

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

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

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

‘Hey, mate.’

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

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

‘Yes. He’s doing kissing with her.’

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

łTake these out with you, then.

He handed me two plates of cupcakes.

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

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

_Oh, thanks you two.

She gave us a cheeky grin.

_Well done, I’m so pleased!

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

38. Memories can’t wait

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

Dec

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

łWhat’s up?

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

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

‘Really?’

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

‘They’ve both been amazing.’

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

Cal

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

Dec

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

Cal

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

Dec

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

*Please can I have your autograph?

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

*Thanks. Are you playing today?

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

I held up my bandaged right arm.

‘Enjoy the game.’

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

Cal

‘Dec, are you famous?’

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

‘Ha ha, no Cal.’

‘But that boy had your autograph.’

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

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

Dec

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

\where’s Daddy?

‘I’m not sure. Shall we text him?’

\yes.

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

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

Jay: =On my way.

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

)Dec?

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

‘Amy! Hi!’

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

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

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

)How are you doing?

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

Her face clouded as she looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy shook her head and looked down.

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

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

‘What? You broke up because of me?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, do you want my number?’

)Yes, please.

We got our phones out and traded numbers.

‘Where are you watching from?’

)East Stand.

‘I’m in West. Give you a wave!’

)See you Dec, take care.

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

Cal

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

Dec

\who’s that lady?

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

‘Her name’s Amy.’

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

~You got it all sorted, yeah?

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

‘Yeah. Talked our arses off.’

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

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

~Don’t be so mean. Only real men cry.

łThen Dec is pretty damn real.

Lis laughed.

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

łFine by me.

‘Yeah, great.’

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

Matt

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

‘Go Raiders! Have a fucking awesome time.’

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

‘Just abt 2 start so fuck off now.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

‘He’s really enjoying himself.’

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

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

Cal

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

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

‘What did you think, Cal?’

‘I liked it when everybody shouted.’

‘It’s exciting, isn’t it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Can Theo Walcott play rugby?’

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

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

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

‘Course you can, mate.’

‘Who do you support?’

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

‘Well, I guess Raiders are my team.’

‘I want to still support Arsenal.’

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

‘Of course.’

‘But I want to support Raiders too.

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

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

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

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

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

‘It hasn’t got a name on the back.’

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

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

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

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

‘Daddy can I put my shirt on now?’

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

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

‘Ohh but I want to.’

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

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

‘Kay.’

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

Dec

Text:

Amy: =Spotted me yet?

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

Me: =Gotcha.

I waved back, just as madly.

Cal

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

‘Will he have sewing like you did?’

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

Lis came over.

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks. Good to be back.’

*Looks like you’ve been in the wars.

‘Yeah, a bit. Getting better though.’

*Take care of yourself.

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

Cal

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

Dec

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

‘Yeah, I think I can sort it.’

~He’s considering ‘NICO’.

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

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

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

~How about ‘SUMMERS’?

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

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

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

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

Lis looked at me questioningly. I laughed.

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

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

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

~Beth said you got on really well with Matt?

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

Lis nodded.

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

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

Lis tried to look offended, then grinned.

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

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

~Did you sort things out properly with Jay?

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

~Really, Cal? What did Santa bring you?

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

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

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

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

÷Are you available now?

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

÷Cal can come too, if he wants to.

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, I can’t feel it though.’

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

‘Are you like a Transformer?’

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

*Hey, careful mate.

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

Cal

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

Dec

łWhat?

‘Luke.’

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

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

‘It was him.’

łWhat do you mean?

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

łWhat? Jesus, Dec, are you sure?

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

I thought Lee must be the doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

What? He’s here? Dec’s seen him?’

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

‘I think so.’

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

‘Hey baby.’

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

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

‘Huh, really? Where is Declan now?’

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

‘Do they say who this is?’

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

I nodded.

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

‘I don’t know, Dec didn’t say it.’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes. Santa bringed me a Arsenal shirt.’

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

‘My Arsenal shirt is underneath, look.’

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

‘Ha, I like this, two shirts.’

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

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

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

‘Huh, so who is your favourite?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Uncle Matty likes Tottenham.’

‘Ah, I remember. So we blame Matty?’

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

Dec

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

łYou look bloody awful. What have you remembered?

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

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

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

‘No!’

łDec, you need someone to look at you.

‘Don’t leave me on my own. Please.’

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

łOK, let me call someone then.

He pulled out his phone, pressed the screen.

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

He put the phone back in his pocket.

łOK, Lee’s on his way.

I nodded.

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

‘I’m sure.’

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll try. Hello?’

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

‘Not sure. I’ll try.’

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

‘Sure, like before.’

ϙHow do you know him?

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

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

‘No.’

ϙDo you know where he lives?

‘No, I only met him that one time.’

ϙWhat’s the name of the gym?

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

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

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

÷Hey Dec, Jay, what’s the problem?

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

÷You have gone a bit of a funny colour.

He felt for my pulse.

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

I nodded.

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

‘Seeing someone I know.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

÷Really? What were the circumstances?

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

‘Can I come, Daddy?’

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

‘I will be quiet, I –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes. When Jaime gets back, we ask.’

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

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

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

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

‘He’s gone.’

‘Huh?’

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

‘What are you saying, Jay?’

Dad looked around the room.

‘Luke isn’t here. Hey Freddie.’

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

‘Have you seen Luke Woods?’

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

‘Yeah, after that.’

‘No, sorry mate.’

Someone Freddie was talking to shouted across.

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

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

Shit!

37. This is how it goes

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

Cal

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

‘No … nnnh … no no no … mm … no … ‘

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

Dec

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

‘Fuck.’

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

Cal

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

‘Sorry, Cal.’

‘You sweared.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well that’s very brave of him.’

‘Dec can I come in with you?’

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

Dec

Oh what the hell, it was my last night.

‘Come on, then.’

Cal

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

Dec

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

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

łHey, mate. Bit early yet?

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

‘Oh well. Didn’t sleep too well.’

łMore bad dreams?

I nodded.

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

łCan’t be helped. Was he OK?

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

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

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

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

‘I can check on Matt if you like.’

łCheers.

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

‘Matt?’

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

}Fuck. Who’s tha?

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

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

‘Didn’t want to wake you up.’

}Prefer to gihv meh a coronary?

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

}Mm, just how I lihk ih.

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

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

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

}Wha time issit?

‘Sometime after six.’

}Bluhdy hell, bih early ihnt ih?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I can have another go if you like.’

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

‘Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum was trying to cheer Dec up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sorry, Beth, won’t happen again.’

‘Ha ha, if only I believed you.’

Dad came in, yawning.

Don’t believe him, whatever he said.’

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

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

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

‘Piss off.’

‘Four minutes past. I win.’

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

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

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

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

‘How do angels talk, Daddy?’

A bit like this.’

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

‘Why do I have to talk like that?’

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

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

‘But I’m six, I can’t do bad swears.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

‘Dohs tha boy ehver shuh a dohr quiehly?’

‘I think he does sometimes.’

‘Not ohften.’

Dad came in after a while.

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

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

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

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

Dec

łDec? What’s going on?

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

łDec?

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

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

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

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

łCome on, mate. Back inside.

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

łHas that ever happened before?

‘No.’

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

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

łHas it stopped now?

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

łHow are you feeling?

‘A bit shaky. I’ll be OK.’

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

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

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

‘I wish I bloody knew.’

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

‘Thanks.’

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

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

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

łHere’s your water, mate.

‘Thanks.’

_Let me have a look at you.

Cal

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

łYeah. Sure you’re OK?

‘Yeah, sure.’

I breathed in deeply and pushed the panic away.

Cal

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

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

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

‘No, I’ll go now.’

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

Dec

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

‘Progress?’

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

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

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

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

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

}Wish I was coming wih yuh.

‘Next time, yeah?’

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

‘You too. Bloody cripple.’

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

łHave you seen Cal? Is he ready?

‘Don’t know, sorry.’

Cal

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

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

Cal?’

‘Right here, just having a discussion about how many dinosaurs he can take with him.’

One. OK Cal? Come on, let’s get moving.’

Which was really not fair, because Dad knew even less about my game than Mum, but he had his ‘no arguing’ voice on, and so I chose the stegosaurus. I would have to pretend all the other dinosaurs.

Dec

Carol came out of the kitchen.

#Are you off, now?

łSoon as Cal’s ready. OK Dec?

‘Yeah.’

It was all going a bit quickly, but couldn’t be helped.

#Goodbye, Declan, I hope I see you again soon.

‘Thanks Carol, me too.’

I kissed her on the cheek. Beth and Cal came downstairs, Beth carrying a bag and Cal’s coat, Cal carrying a large fluffy stegosaurus and wearing his Arsenal shirt.

łAre we all set? Let’s go, then. See you later Matty. Behave yourself. Sure you and Mum will be OK, Beth? Back about – oh I don’t bloody know. This evening, probably later on. I’ll ring you. OK, Dec? Come on then.

_Hug first. Come here, sweetheart.

Beth wrapped her arms round me and squeezed tightly.

_Oh I’m going to miss you. Ring me lots. Come back as soon as you can. Dec, promise me you’ll talk to us, call us, if you need anything, if anything happens. Call us all the time.

‘Promise.’

She let me go. She had tears in her eyes, so did I.

łOh for fuck’s sake, girls, don’t start each other off again.

_James!

łSorry. Sorry Cal. Right, off we go. Raiders here we come.

Jay, Cal and I got in the car. Beth and Carol waved us off, Beth had tears running down her face, and I had to wipe my eyes several times.

Cal

Mum and Granny waved from the door until we went round the corner and couldn’t see them any more, then Dad turned the radio on, and didn’t say anything about Dec wiping his eyes.

So, according to Rose you think I drive too fast.’

‘True.’

But you kinda like it.’

‘No comment.’

Off we go then!’

Dad did drive really fast, and we had fun singing with some of the songs on the radio – Dec and Dad did silly high shouty voices to the songs, which made me laugh, and we spotted Eddie Stobart lorries, and Dad shouted at other cars to get out of the way, and I didn’t have time to play a dinosaur game, because I fell asleep.

Dec

The time in the car passed really quickly, we sung along, badly, to the radio, helped Cal spot Eddie Stobart lorries, shouted at other drivers to get out of the way. Jay did drive fast, and Cal was asleep by the time we had got half way. As we got closer, I started to feel a return of some of the cloud I had been under for the past few months. It was distant, but it was there.

łYou’ve gone quiet.

‘Just thinking.’

łStop thinking and get singing. I bloody love this song.

He cranked up the stereo and I had no choice. Cal slept on, despite the raucous out of tune noise we were making. We finally pulled up outside the flats. It was about midday, still ages before the game, and I sat for a while, trying to get my thoughts together. Jay looked at me.

Cal

I woke up when the car stopped, but I didn’t open my eyes straight away. Dad and Dec were talking, and I wanted to hear what they were saying. Dad was trying to make Dec get out of the car.

Come on, what are you waiting for?’

‘This is it, back to reality. I’m freaking out a bit.’

Dad took a deep breath.

You know, you can always come back and live with us. We can make room. If all this is too hard, we can work something out.’

I nearly opened my eyes, because this was what I wanted, but Dad had said there wasn’t any room, and that Dec didn’t live with us any more, but now it seemed like there might be a chance … I almost stopped breathing waiting to hear what Dec would say.

‘Really?’

Really. Beth and I talked about asking you.’

Dec

I looked at him. At that moment, thinking about all the hard work, all the people and all the sorting out I was going to have to face, it was very tempting to leave it all behind and start again.

‘But we thought it would be selfish of us to ask – I mean, think about what you’d be letting go. You’ve got a second chance with Raiders, once you recover you’re not far away from the first team. Yeah, it’ll be hard work, and yeah it’s not the easy life. Rugby isn’t. You know that. And I think part of you belongs here, in this city. Think about Rose, too. She’d understand if you moved away, but I think you need her. She gets you, knows how to help you, knows how to make you accept the help.’

I shook my head, to clear it, not to disagree. Everything he said was absolutely right. Much as it would have meant to me to live with them all again, and much as it meant to me that they’d talked about it, and Jay had asked me, it wasn’t right just now, for any of us. Jay and Beth already had enough to cope with looking after Matt, they didn’t need the extra baggage of an unemployed hanger on. Regretfully, I pushed my apprehension aside.

Cal

It sounded like Dad was trying to get Dec to stay with Rose, and not live with us. I didn’t know much about all the reasons; I didn’t understand a lot of it. I just wanted Dec to live with us again.

‘No, you’re right, it’s just nerves. It means a lot to me that you offered, though. Let’s do this.’

Sure?’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s shoulder.

‘Sure.’

Thank fuck for that, no idea where we would have put you. Cubby hole by the washing machine, maybe, or a deck chair in the shed. Come on Cal, time to wake up.’

And that was the end of that.

Dec

Jay got out of the car and opened the back door so he could undo Cal’s seat belt. I got out and opened the boot to get my bag. I picked it up in my left hand, realising again with pleasure that I could carry it in that hand with no problems whatsoever. I waited with Cal while Jay picked up the other bag containing my new laptop and some food and drink Beth had insisted I brought back with me.

I fished the keys out of my pocket and, feeling really weird about it, opened the front door. It felt even more strange to be opening the door to Rose’s flat, as if I’d been away for months.

‘Only me.’

Rose rushed into the hall from the living room. As soon as I saw her, I realised how much I’d missed her, how big a part of my life she had become.

:Oh! You’re here! Let’s have a look at you. By, your face is looking better. You’ve had a haircut! There’s lovely now. Oh, and you’ve brought Jay and Calum with you. Hello young man. Would you like some orange squash?

\can I have purple?

‘I don’t think Rose does purple squash, Cal. Orange is OK isn’t it?

\kay.

:Tea for you two?

‘Great.’

She hurried off to the kitchen. We trooped after her, putting the bags down in the hall. After putting the kettle on and giving Cal his squash, Rose came over to me and gave me an enormous hug. I squeezed back and kissed her on the cheek, realising how much I’d missed her and recognising how much Rose had come to mean to me over the past weeks.

‘Good to see you.’

:You too love, it’s been quiet here without you.

‘You only got back yesterday, didn’t you?’

:Yes, love. Still missed you. I like having someone to make a fuss of.

Cal

Rose gave Dec a very big cuddle, it looked like she was going to squeeze him in half, but she didn’t, and then she went to make my squash. She talked to Dec the whole time, about how much she’d missed him, and because I was still trying to work out what she was to Dec, I just asked.

‘Dec, is Rose your mummy?’

Cal! Sorry, guys.’

I wasn’t sure what Dad was saying sorry for. He put his hand on my shoulder, to stop me saying anything else. I suppose I often got told off for asking things, but Granny always said ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’, although she sometimes told me off for asking things too, like about poo and wee when we were at Pizza Place and my voice was too loud.

Then Dec answered, and I knew I hadn’t said a wrong thing, because he wouldn’t have answered if I had.

‘She’s the nearest I’ve got to a mummy, yeah, Cal.’

I didn’t really know what that meant. Surely someone is either your mummy or they’re not? I tried to get him to explain.

Dec

Rose’s eyes filled up and she turned away to wipe them.

\does she make you tidy your room? And eat peas?

Cal’s definition of motherhood.

‘Well she hasn’t done either of those so far, but there’s plenty of time. Rose has looked after me while I’ve been sad and needed help, and I think she’s pretty great.’

Rose’s sniffles intensified.

Cal

I heard a sniff, and looked at Rose, who had her back to us. She might have been crying. There had been a lot of crying over the last few days, and I was starting to recognise the signs.

Bloody hell, Dec, way to go. Cal, stop asking awkward questions. Drink your squash, maybe Rose has got a biscuit or something?’

I didn’t know why Dad was cross with Dec and me, I’d only asked a question, and Dec had only answered it. But a biscuit sounded like a good idea. Rose got a tin out and opened the lid, then put some chocolate biscuits on a plate. I took one and munched on it while Dec, Rose and Dad talked some more.

Dec

Rose put some biscuits on a plate, turned round and put them on the table by Cal. Her eyes were still red, but there were no more tears.

‘Sorry, Rose, I didn’t mean to upset you.’

:Not upset, love, just emotional. Take no notice.

łDec’s done his fair share of blubbing over the last few days. Had to have serious words with him about it. Him and my brother make a right pair, anything sets them off.

:Did you have a good time, love?

‘Yeah, I had a great time. Just what I needed.’

łJust what we needed too. Like the old days. It was good to have him back, and he was a great help with Cal. Beyond the call of duty at times.

:Sounds grand, love. Did you sort things out between you?

łYeah, we had words, didn’t we Dec. All sorted now. Dec’s part of my family, end of, in a nutshell. Oh, and sort yourself out, you bloody headcase. I think he gets it.

‘I get it.’

:Oh that’s grand, just grand. Remember how heartbroken you were, love, all those weeks ago, when you thought you’d lost them. You’d never have believed you’d be standing here telling me about your Christmas with them, would you? You never know what’s round the corner.

\rose can I have another biscuit?

:Of course, love. Are you stopping for some lunch?

‘Hadn’t thought about lunch, but yeah, that would be great, then we can get over to the club?’

I looked at Jay for approval. He nodded. Rose had obviously given lunch some thought, although she tried to make it seem casual.

:I’ve got some cold bits and pieces in the fridge, wasn’t quite sure what Calum would like, so I made some cheesy dinosaur biscuits and some dip.

She started to take things out of the fridge, and the table was soon covered in plates of meat, bowls of crisps, bread, dip, cheese, olives.

łBloody hell, Rose, this is a feast. What if we’d already eaten?

‘Rose would have made us eat it anyway. Nothing goes to waste!’

\daddy can I have a grape?

łThere aren’t any grapes, mate – oh, you mean an olive. Well, you can, but they taste very different.

Cal took a bite, and the look on his face was priceless. He chewed on, knowing he wasn’t allowed to spit it out. Jay and I laughed.

:You rotters. Poor Calum, have some more juice, love, get the taste out of your mouth.

Cal

Rose asked Dec about Christmas, and rather than saying what presents he’d got, Dec and Dad said about how they’d had a talk, and how Dec was in our family now. I wondered if that would upset Rose, as she was nearly Dec’s mummy, but it made her smile.

Then Rose asked if we were going to stay for lunch, and we did, and Rose had made me some biscuits made of cheese that looked like dinosaurs, and a bowl of stuff to dip them in, and they were very delicious, and I ate them all, but I also had a green round thing that looked like a grape, but tasted very not like a grape, and I nearly spat it out, but Dad would really have been cross, so I ate it all. It made Dec and Dad laugh, but Rose felt sorry for me and made me more squash, and gave me a chocolate biscuit when Dad wasn’t looking. I liked Rose.

Dec

We finished lunch and headed off. Jay said he wanted to swing by the old house, which was being rented out. I hadn’t realised their new house was also rented.

łWe weren’t sure what our plans were – a lot depends on Matty – it seemed like the easiest way to keep our options open. I’m just going to sort a couple of things out with the tenants. You OK staying with Cal in the car?

\i want to go with you, Daddy.

łNo, Cal, stay here with Dec. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.

Cal

It was still Mum and Dad’s house, and I didn’t really understand that, or why we couldn’t come back and live in it, but Dad had to go and talk to the people who lived there now, while Dec and I waited in the car.

I had lots of questions for Dec while we waited. The house looked the same but different: the grass looked long at the front, there was a car I didn’t know on the drive, there was a Christmas tree in the window with flashing lights, and there were toys and a bike on the grass. I hadn’t thought about our house since we went to live with Granny and then in our new house, but now I thought about all the things that were in this house when I lived there, and I wondered if they were still there, if my pictures were still on the fridge and Dad’s trophies were still in the living room.

‘Whose bike is that?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, maybe another little boy lives here now.

I couldn’t imagine another little boy sleeping in my bedroom, shutting my Ben10 curtains at night and being scared of the shadow the crack in the door made at night if it was left too wide open.

‘Which little boy?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, sorry. Ask your dad when he comes back.’

‘When am I going to live here again?’

‘Don’t know, Cal, ask your dad.’

Dec wasn’t being any help. He was saying ‘I don’t know’ to everything.

‘When are you going to live with us?’

‘Don’t kn … oh mate, no Cal, you live in Stafford now. I live down here. I’m not going to be living with you.’

I knew this was the answer, but I wanted to keep checking, because it just didn’t make sense. If I kept asking, I hoped that maybe someone would say ‘oh this is silly, Dec should be living with you, shouldn’t he’. Dec didn’t say that, so I tried to nudge him there.

Can you come and live with us?’

Dec

This was really hard. Cal saw things in such simple terms, and my situation felt so complicated, it was like negotiating a minefield trying to decide what to tell him and what not to.

‘I wish I could live a bit closer to you, but my job is down here, I have to live here so I can do my job.’

Cal

Well that was easy to change.

‘But Daddy got a new job, you can get a new job.’

‘No, Cal, it’s not as easy as that. I have to stay here. But I’ll come and see you as often as I can, and you can all come and see me.’

The more Dec said it, the more I was realising that it was true, that Dec wasn’t going to be living with us again. Maybe Dad and Dec weren’t the right people to talk to. I would ask Mum when I got back. She’d cried when Dec left this morning, so she must want him to live with us. But if Dec wasn’t going to live with us, and he didn’t live here in our old house, I wasn’t quite sure where he did live.

‘Where is your house?’

‘Well, you know Rose, where we just had lunch? My flat is upstairs, just above her flat.’

That made sense. I could see Dec living near Rose, so she could tell him to pick his pants up and when to go to bed.

‘Can I see your house?’

‘Maybe another day. We’re going to Raiders Stadium when Daddy’s finished here, to watch the rugby.’

I’d almost forgotten the reason for our trip. I’d never seen rugby, or football, that wasn’t on TV, and I wondered if I might be able to have a bit of both.

‘Are Arsenal playing?’

‘No, Cal, you know Arsenal play football. This is Raiders, my rugby team, and Daddy’s old team.’

‘Are you playing?’

‘No, I can’t play with my hurt arm. Nico’s playing, though, so you can cheer for him.’

‘Is Daddy playing?’

‘No, Daddy doesn’t play any more You, me and Daddy are all going to watch it together. We might see Lis there too, she’s going to watch Nico.’

This was all very confusing. I decided to just wait and see what happened when we got there, and for now, there was something else I could ask.

‘Can I have some chocolate?’

‘I think your mum put some in your bag. Wait till your dad gets back, though. He won’t be long.’

‘But I’m hungry.’

‘You can’t be hungry, you just ate a whole plate of cheesy dinosaur biscuits at Rose’s. You didn’t even let me have one, and they looked well tasty.’

Dec pretended to look sad, but I had seen him and Dad eat lots of other things, so I knew he wasn’t hungry. Luckily, I also had an answer for him.

‘I’m hungry for chocolate.’

‘You’re still going to have to wait.’

Although it didn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.

‘Ohh but how long is Daddy going to be?’

Maybe using whine-mode might work better.

‘I don’t know. Let’s play I-Spy shall we?’

I-Spy is a really boring game when you’re sitting in a car that isn’t moving outside a house, where all you can see is other houses. I played for two goes, and then I thought of another question.

‘Dec, for my next birthday, can you go to Dinosaurland with me?’

‘I think that’s a great idea, Cal, but it depends on lots of things.’

This was a bit less enthusiastic than I’d been hoping for.

‘What things?’

‘Well, things like whether you can get here, what I’m doing, what you’re doing – it’s nearly a year till your next birthday.’

A year was forever. And Dec sounded like he was making grown-up excuses not to come to Dinosaurland, so our plan was never going to happen.

Dec

I saw the disappointment on his face, remembered how much I’d let him down about his last birthday, and thought of a way to make it right.

‘I’m sure we’ll be able to sort something out though. Even if it’s not on your birthday, maybe near to it. We’ll talk to your mum and dad, yeah? Make some plans.’

\can we ask Daddy now?

Cal

This sounded more promising, and if I could get Dec to agree and tell Dad, then there was no getting out of it. Dad was walking up the drive, so I needed Dec to be quick.

‘Maybe wait a bit, I’ll give them a ring later.’

I didn’t understand that. Why not say yes now? Dad got in the car, and I decided to take my chance.

Everything OK in here?’

‘I’m going to Dinosaurland with Dec for my birthday.’

Oh really, you’ve been busy plotting while I’ve been out have you?’

‘Just a suggestion from Cal. I said we’d have to think about it. There’s plenty of time.’

Sounds good to me. Dinosaurland’s a lot of fun, eh Cal?’

I was delighted. Dad had said yes, so it was going to happen.

‘See, Dec, Daddy said yes.’

‘Hm, I’m not sure that’s exactly what he said.’

Dec still wasn’t saying we could. It was very annoying.

Why the hell not? Like you say, there’s plenty of time to sort it. Maybe not actually on your birthday, Cal, it might not be possible, but close to it. OK?’

Dec

Cal looked at me triumphantly, and decided to push his luck.

\daddy can Dec live with us? He can sleep under me.

It occurred to me that Cal had been really young when I moved in with them. I didn’t even know if he could remember a time, before recently, when I hadn’t been there, and these last few months must have been tough for him to get his head around.

‘Cal, we just talked about this. I’ve got to stay here and get better and play rugby.’

łYeah, and you know how messy Dec is. You’d lose all your Lego under piles of his dirty socks if he shared your room. I know you’ve liked having him around again, haven’t you. We’ll just have to get him back up for lots of visits, won’t we.

Cal

No, that wasn’t the same. I didn’t mind about Dec’s socks, even though they were very smelly. It just had to go back the way it used to be. I still didn’t understand why it couldn’t.

‘But Mummy said you aren’t cross with Dec any more and he’s been sad and needs us to give him loves to make him better, like Uncle Matty does. Why can’t he get better with us like Uncle Matty?’

Dec

I gasped at Cal’s matter-of-factness. Jay ran a hand through his hair and looked over at me with a sigh.

Cal

Dad pushed his hands through his hair, like he did when he was thinking. For a minute, I thought he was going to say OK, like with my birthday plan, but then I realised he was thinking about a way to say no.

‘Well, Cal, we’ve all missed Dec, and it’s been great having him with us for Christmas, hasn’t it. And yeah, Uncle Matty needs Mummy and me to look after him, but Dec needs people down here to make sure he gets better, people like the doctors at Raiders, and Rose, and Nico. Mummy and me couldn’t do it the same, and it’s too far away from where Dec plays rugby. Dec knows we don’t have to be near him to love him. Tell you what, though, it’s Dec’s birthday in a few weeks, why don’t we ask him if he wants to come back for a family party?’

I had to admit defeat. If Dec needed to be here to get better, and we had to be there to help Uncle Matty get better, I suppose there was nothing we could do. Maybe Dec coming back to see us on his birthday, when we could have fun and football and pizza, would be something to look forward to.

‘Dec, can you?’

‘That sounds great, mate. Maybe you can take me for an Ice Cream Factory? And I can stay in the bottom bunk again?’

Dec sounded excited about it, so maybe it was a good idea after all. And we could do a birthday plan for Dec, like we had a birthday plan for me, only this one would work.

‘Kay. Daddy, I think Dec will like to see the zoo and have Smarties on his birthday too.’

We’ll make some plans with Mummy, shall we? She loves a party. Sounds like you’ve got some great ideas already. Right. That’s the partying sorted. Let’s go watch some rugby.’

36. Running in the family

In which changes are afoot, games are played and farewells are begun

Dec

Beth and Carol looked at me. I looked back.

_What did you say to him last night?

‘Lots of things. I think we do needing help in a pretty similar way. Neither of us are very good at it. I’m just a little bit further down the line than he is.’

_Is he OK this morning?

‘Seems to be.’

_What you said to Jay, about not leaving him alone when he’s down. How did you know that?

‘It’s just what happened to me. The first few times Rose tried to help me I was really unpleasant to her – yelled at her, told her to fuck off, I think I nearly punched her once.’

_Dec!

Beth looked horrified, and Carol looked as if she was reassessing her ceasing of hostilities.

‘I was extremely hungover, probably still drunk, thinking about it. She took me by surprise, I know that’s no excuse. But she hung in there, didn’t let me go. She stayed up with me all night one time, when I was in a really bad way. She never gave up; she was just there. I kept telling her to go away, but she stayed. I wanted to show Matt that he can’t push people away, that there’s going to be someone there to hold on to when he needs it. I just think it’s what he needs.’

_But he gets so angry if you don’t leave him alone.

‘Yeah, he does, it works well, doesn’t it? Who wants to stay there with someone who’s so pissed off? You just have to ride it out and be stronger than him. It’s not easy. He won’t let it be easy.’

#It’s very hard to do the opposite of what someone is asking you to do.

‘Yeah, I know. I guess, if you think of what he’s really asking for, rather than the words he’s saying, it might be easier.’

They both looked at me, waiting for me to explain.

#What do you mean, dear?

‘He’s saying leave me alone. He’s actually asking you to show you care enough about him to not leave him alone through all his shit. Kind of like a test. If you leave him alone, he was right and he doesn’t deserve you.’

_Oh Dec. Is that really what it’s been like for you? Did we make you feel like that?

I shrugged. Didn’t want to make this about me.

‘I didn’t really think about it until yesterday. All afternoon I kept thinking about Matt on his own feeling like shit, and it just kind of occurred to me, we’ve both come close to losing everything in different ways. It affects you, makes you, I dunno, try to protect yourself. What I’ve done in the not so distant past, and what Matt does, is pretty similar. It’s all about willpower. I just decided I was more stubborn than he is. He ran me pretty close.’

#Well maybe there’s something in what you’re saying, Declan. Sometimes you can be too close to someone, and not see what they need because you need things too. Like being his mum means I feel I need to look after him, but he actually needs to do more for himself. I think you might have been able to see things more clearly because you’re a little further removed. Maybe we’ve been too busy taking care of him to help him get better?

_Oh Carol, that’s a really lovely way of putting it. Dec, if you’re right, you might have helped us to help him more, made a real difference. Thank you, sweetheart.

Beth got up and put her arms round me, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

łHey, unhand my wife. No time for that, we’re going on a family walk. Matty’s all ready, taken his meds and is now wearing about seventy layers of thick clothing. So before he faints from heat exhaustion, I suggest you get your coats and shoes and join us. Cal’s even got his coat and wellies on, so we haven’t got long before he gets bored and takes it all off again.

_Whose idea was that?

łMine. Why the hell not? We had a great time in the park yesterday, apart from all the mud, and nearly wrecking Dec. We need to do more of this stuff; sitting around snoozing in the house isn’t doing anything for the size of my arse. Come on, what are you waiting for?

We all did as we were told, finding coats, shoes and various other warm items. It didn’t take long to get ready, and we all left the house, Jay pushing Matt in his wheelchair.

\daddy how far are we going?

łDunno, Cal, could be a hundred miles.

\but I don’t want to walk a hundred miles.

łOh, OK, a bit less then. I’ll give you a piggy back if you get tired.

\can I have a piggy back now?

łNo, wait until you’re tired.

\i’m tired now.

Jay accepted defeat.

łDec, can you take over with Matty’s chair? OK with your arm?

‘No worries.’

He bent down and Cal jumped onto his back. Jay galloped up the road like a horse, to accompanying squeals from Cal. Beth and Carol followed, and I pushed Matt at a slower pace.

}Wha dih yuh say to them?

‘Not much. Told them to stop fussing over you. You’re going to have to ask for help a lot more now. Told them what it was like for me, too. Pretty much it. Oh, and next time you’re feeling miserable, don’t expect to be left alone.’

}Bolluhks, no mohr peace and quieht then.

‘Fraid not my friend.’

}Yuh are, ahrnt yuh.

‘What?’

}My friehd.

‘Yeah. Never in doubt.’

}Douhted ih lahs night. Thought you wehr jus being an annohying dick.

‘Well, I was that too. Call it a character flaw.’

} … Yuh knoh my girfriehnd lehf meh an took ahl my friehds?

‘Yeah, mate, Beth said something.’

}Havant had a friend since then. Jus fahmly, which is greht, thehr greht. But guhd tuh hahv someone who gets meh. Kehp in touch, yeh?

‘Yeah.’

}Hey, yuh gohn quieht.

He tilted his head backwards to look at me. It felt like a long time since someone had called me their friend, too. My leaky eyes let me down once more.

}Oh bluhdy hell, fucking hehd case blahrting again. Heh, lehs catch up wih Jay. Can yuh push fast?

I started running with the chair, bumping over the pavement, trying to avoid the potholes and the resulting jolts to Matt, as well as my arms.

}Heh Cal, race yuh.

Cal looked behind and saw us coming. Beth and Carol scrambled out of the way. Jay had been walking, but sped up when Cal told him we were coming. If the path hadn’t been going uphill, we would have overtaken them, but it was just too much for me to keep going. The strain on my arm started to tell, and my infrequently tested lungs started to protest. Jay slowed too, but he only had a six-year old on his back, whereas I was pushing a full-grown man wearing lots of clothes, in a metal wheelchair.

}Dohnt stop, yuh lohser.

‘Got to … gonna die.’

I slowed down and stopped, putting the brakes on the chair before I lay down on the path, panting.

}Fucking lighweigh.

‘Get out … and run yourself … next time you … want a fucking race.’

Cal had got down from Jay’s back and skipped back to us.

\we won, we won.

Jay followed more slowly, he looked nearly as tired as me, and bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

łOK Cal … your turn … to give me … a piggy back.

\daddy, I can’t, you’re too big.

łThen maybe Uncle Matty’s … going to have to get out … of his wheelchair … and push me home.

}Uncle Mahty’s staying righ hehr, thahks. Cahnt mohv in ahl thehs clohths anyway.

#Perhaps we just all need to go a little bit more slowly. We could get to the river and feed the ducks, it’s not far, is it?

\we need bread to feed the ducks, Granny.

#Then it’s a good thing I brought some, isn’t it? Come on, Calum, see if you can remember the way.

They walked off ahead, Cal carrying the bag of bread. Beth stood looking at Jay and me, hands on hips. I stood up, having regained my composure, but Jay was still breathing hard.

_The pair of you want your heads banging together.

}Heh, wha abouh meh? My idea.

_You too, then, Matty. All three of you need a slap.

łCome on, Beth, it was just a bit of fun. Where’s the harm?

_Boys! I’ll never understand you.

She walked off after Cal and Carol, shaking her head. We stood and looked at each other, nonplussed.

łNot sure what we did. Good laugh. Rematch on the way back?

‘What, down the hill? Great, I can just let go. Make sure you hold on tight, Matt.’

łYeah, maybe not. Perhaps I can see Beth’s point. Better get after them, those ducks aren’t going to feed themselves.

Jay and I pushed Matt’s wheelchair between us up the hill. Jay took over at the top, and I walked beside Matt.

łYou alright, Matty?

}Greht, guhd tuh be ouh. Two dahys in a roh. Woo hoo.

łWe should do it more often. Very often in fact. I’m taking Dec back tomorrow, but Monday let’s start something new. As long as the weather’s good, let’s go for a walk every day, I don’t know, feed those bloody ducks or something. Get us both out of the house. Maybe you’ll feel up to walking a bit of the way yourself – up that bloody hill for a start.

}Yeh. Greht. Plehs. Noh wahking up the bluhdy hill thogh.

łOr how about coming to watch me coaching sometime? You can hold the players’ handbags.

}Ha ha. Yeh.

łAnd maybe I could give you a list and you could do the weekly shop?

}Fuck ohf. Bluhdy haht shopping. Do ih online fuh yuh tho.

łWorth a try. Beth doesn’t approve of online shopping.

We walked on to the river and caught up with Cal, Beth and Carol, who had made the fat ducks even fatter by the time we got there.

\daddy a duck pecked my finger.

łReally mate? Probably thought it was a worm.

\no, he was getting bread from my hand. It tickled. They’re all gone now.

Cal looked wistfully up the river in the direction the ducks had gone.

łWell we can come back soon and give them some more bread. Uncle Matty’s going to come for lots more walks to feed the ducks.

Jay looked at Beth, who raised her eyebrows. He nodded back at her.

\uncle Matty, has a duck ever pecked you?

}Er, noh tha I member.

\dec, has a duck ever pecked you?

‘No, mate, never, you must be the only one of us a duck has ever pecked.’

Cal beamed with pride.

\daddy, can you give me a piggy back?

Jay sagged.

łOh come on, Cal, fair dos, I carried you most of the way here.

\i want to race Uncle Matty again.

_I don’t think we’ll have any more races, the last one just about did for Daddy and Dec.

}Why dohn yuh climb up hehr and Daddy can push us both bahk hohm?

Cal conceded that this was almost as good as a piggy back, although Jay’s face showed he wasn’t too thrilled about his increased load. Cal climbed onto Matt’s lap, where Matt put his arms round Cal protectively.

_James, please be careful, I don’t want anyone falling out of any wheelchairs. No running, promise me.

łYou’ll be lucky. Thanks a bunch, Matty.

}Jus being hehpful. Yuh nehd to geh fit if yuhr going tuh kehp up wih meh every day, new rehgime and all tha.

łHmm, I’m starting to wonder if it’s such a good idea. Come on, then, Cal, let’s get rolling. I wonder what Mummy’s got planned for lunch? I wonder if it’s … frogs and snails?

}Tha was lahs nigh.

łBloody cheek, that was my curry.

}Zahctly.

Jay headed off with Matt and Cal, still talking nonsense at the top of their voices. As I watched them go, Beth touched my arm.

_We’re going to miss you.

‘I’m going to miss this. A lot.’

_You’ll come back and see us soon?

‘When I can. I think it’s going to be tricky, I’m going to be busy once I start training again. And I’m coaching with the youth team, and once I start playing again I’ll be with Trojans, even further away. I’ll come back whenever I can, if it’s OK with you.’

_Oh Dec, come back and stay as long and as often as you like. I’d almost forgotten how much time rugby takes up – since we moved up here, I’ve seen so much more of James. You’ll keep in touch? There’s all sorts of things you can do on the computer, and now you’ve got your phone you can call us, or text.

‘Course I’ll keep in touch. Not so good with all the technology, maybe I need Matt to show me before I go.’

_Do that – he’s great with all that stuff, it’d help him to feel useful I’m sure. Are you sure you want to go tomorrow, sweetheart? You don’t have to be back in training until the sixth, do you? It seems like we’ve just got used to having you around again …

‘Ah, Beth, I’d really, really love to stay, but the longer I stay, the harder it’ll be to leave. You might never get rid of me. And I need to start working off some of your roast potatoes before I get into training. The conditioning team are going to be horrified at the state of me as it is.’

_Don’t let them bully you.

‘It’s what they’re good at. And what I need.’

_As long as you’re sure. Just want to hang onto you as long as I can now we’ve got you back.

I put my arm round her and pulled her close. What was this woman to me? Mother? Sister? Friend? A mixture of all and more. I loved her with all my heart.

‘A wise man once said to me, actually it was Matt the night before last, that families are connected wherever they are. We don’t have to be together to feel together. Or something like that. It helped me when I was feeling miserable about going home.’

_Oh Dec, that’s perfect. You and Matty have got on really well, haven’t you?

‘He’s great, I really like him. We’re kind of the same.’

_God help us. Come on, sweetheart, let’s go and see if it’s frogs and snails for lunch.

We caught up with Jay, who hadn’t managed to get very far with his unruly load. Cal was asking Jay to stop every time he saw a pine cone, so he could pick it up for Matt. Fir trees lined the road; there were a lot of pine cones.

łCome on Cal, you don’t need every single one.

\uncle Matty says every one’s different, and he needs them for his collection.

łHe no more collects pine cones than you collect pink dresses. Matty, please tell him.

}Thehr’s another ohn, Cal, it’s rehly big. Behst one yeht.

łMatty …

}Oh alright, I wahs jus waiting foh the lahdies to catch up.

\the ladies and Dec.

}Whaever yuh say, eh Auhnty Dec? Ohkay, enough pihn cohns, thahks Cal. Cahry on drihver.

łI swear, Matty, if you weren’t a bloody cripple …

_James, honestly!

łSorry. I swear, if you weren’t unable to defend yourself …

}Who sahys I cahnt? I’ve got my attack-Cal. Cal – pihn cohns launch!

Cal and Matt started pelting Jay over Matt’s shoulder. Cal was beside himself with glee and Matt cackled evilly. Jay stopped the wheelchair, put the brakes on and put his hands in the air.

łI surrender, give up, no more. Dec, please take over if your piss-poor arms can cope, and take this rabble home. I’m going to escort my lovely wife and charming mother in a more sedate fashion.

I took the brakes off, and started to push. Matt resumed holding on to Cal; the hilarity died down, but Matt and Cal continued to point out red cars and they excitedly spotted a squirrel in a tree. When we reached the house, Cal jumped off Matt’s knee and ran indoors, stripping off his coat as he went. Matt waited until Cal was out of earshot.

}Bolluhks, think I’ve wohn mysehf out. Cahn yuh hehp me?

‘Course, what do you need?’

}Clohths off, all thehs, into behd. Dohn thihk I cahn stahnd. Fuck.

I took Matt into his room and peeled off the top layers as he sat in the wheelchair. He had gone pale and was panting noisily.

‘OK, arm round my shoulder, can you help at all?’

}Prohbly noh. Gihv ih a try.

I stood up, lifting Matt up as well as I could. He had a little strength in his legs, but not much, and the effort made him breathe more raspingly. I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung him round to lie down. Pulled off the three pairs of trousers, leaving him in t-shirt and boxers.

‘Is that OK? Duvet over you?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

‘Need anything else?’

}Noh … th … muh … blr …

He fell asleep before my eyes, while he was still trying to speak. Jay, Beth and Carol came in through the front door, laughing. They stopped when they saw Matt was already in bed.

‘He said he was tired, asked me to get him into bed. Just fell straight to sleep.’

łBloody idiot overdid it. I thought he was getting a bit manic. He’s worse than Cal at admitting when he’s tired.

‘Will he be OK?’

łHopefully he’ll just sleep it off. Otherwise, fancy another sleepless night in the chair pissing him off?

Beth looked at me and realised I was feeling guilty.

_Don’t worry, Dec, it’s not your fault. Let’s make sure someone’s with him when he wakes up. Take it in turns. You first, James, I’ll bring some lunch in. New approach, remember?

łYeah, yeah.

Jay stomped off and sat in the chair by Matt’s bed, as the phone in my pocket started to ring. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Nico. I went into the living room to answer it.

‘Nico, hi!’

>Declan, is good to hear you. You come to watch me play tomorrow.

‘Well, not just you, the whole team, but yeah.’

>You stay afterwards?

‘Hadn’t really thought, but yeah, I should think so.’

>Good, you have a drink after the game with me and Lis. Lis come also to watch me play. You tell us how is your Christmas.

‘Yeah, sounds good.’

>You have good times?

‘Yeah it’s been really great. Lis told me you had a busy day.’

>Was busy, much noise and much love. We enjoy. Many people and many childrens. We still find sticky places everywhere.

‘Sounds like a lot of fun, apart from the clearing up.’

>Ha, I let Lis clear up. I tell her is good for her, she is better wife.

I heard Lisa’s voice in the background, and suspected Nico was going to be in trouble for that one.

>Lis say see you tomorrow. I must go – she give me a cloth. What I do with this, baby? Ow. Tomorrow, then, Declan. Be careful with yourself.

‘OK, look forward to it. Bye.’

It occurred to me that I hadn’t checked with Jay that he had been able to get tickets for the game. I walked into Matt’s room, where Jay sat flicking through a magazine.

‘Sorry, I feel a bit responsible.’

łDon’t do that, Dec. Matty wants more control, more independence, more going out, he needs to know the consequences. We’re all still learning here. I guess he’s not going to get better unless he learns how far he can push himself. Sometimes it’s going to be too far. I think he’ll be OK.

Matt continued to sleep, breathing raggedly.

‘He’s out for the count.’

łYeah, well, I think he had a pretty good morning. Maybe it was worth it. We’ll see when he wakes up.

‘Would you rather not take me back tomorrow?’

łWhat? Where did that come from?

‘Just in case …’

łNo, it’ll be fine. I sorted us out seats for the game. Don wants to talk to you about it. Ring him. I think we put his number on your phone.

‘I’ll do it now.’

Cal

I enjoyed myself on our walk so much, and so did everyone else, that I still wondered why Dec wasn’t staying, because everything seemed better since he came. Mum and Dad and Granny laughed, and Uncle Matty had been out twice and had sat at the table, and nobody was cross with anyone. I just didn’t get it. It was better with Dec there, and I wanted him to stay, but I didn’t know how to say it.

When we got back, I did some drawing with Granny. I liked Granny’s drawings, because she was good at cartoons, and could draw Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu.

Dec

I headed into the living room, stood looking out of the window, and called Don’s number. It went to voicemail. I left a message and hung up. The phone rang almost immediately. I was expecting it to be Don, but the screen just showed a number, not a name.

‘Hello?’

ϙHello, Declan Summers?

‘Yeah.’

ϙIt’s DI Johnson.

‘Oh. Hi.’

ϙDeclan we have some news regarding our investigations into the assault on you and the subsequent incident in your flat.

‘OK.’

ϙWe’ve checked out the two names you gave us, David Allsop and Ben Hearne, and been able to match the DNA from samples taken from your flat to Ben Hearne, but not David Allsop. Mr Allsop has an alibi for the time of your assault. Mr Hearne does not, and he was seen following you out of the bar just prior to the assault. We also found his fingerprints on some of the glass from the bottle you were hit with. We have arrested Mr Hearne and are currently questioning him.

My legs buckled, and I sat down heavily on the sofa.

ϙDeclan, are you still there?

‘Yeah … I … fuck.’

ϙAre you alright? Is someone there with you?

‘Yeah … I’m OK.’

Although I felt far from it. Thinking it might be Big was one thing, having it confirmed was another. Deep down I’d been hoping I was wrong, that my dream was just a dream, that Big couldn’t possibly have done it. But it was him. Big, who had been my mate … it brought the whole episode into sharp focus, intruding into my time here with Jay’s family, making me too aware of what I was facing when I went home.

ϙI’ll keep you up to date with things. Thank you for the information you have already given us. Please let me know if you remember anything else.

‘OK.’

He rang off. I sat, immobile, on the sofa, staring at the ‘call ended’ screen on the phone. Beth called from the kitchen.

_Dec, is soup OK for you?

I didn’t answer. Hardly heard her. That was officially the end of it with me and Big; I couldn’t take it in.

_Dec? James, where’s – oh, there you are. Is soup – what’s the matter?

She came in and sat next to me, looked closely at my face.

_You’re white as a sheet.

‘Yeah … er … just had a call. Police. They’ve arrested Big. Er, Ben Hearne.

_Oh, sweetheart. What a shock for you.

‘Yeah.’

_You did think it was him, though, didn’t you?

‘Yeah. I kept hoping I was wrong. He was my mate, he was the only one who talked to me when things were tough. He was just a fucking liar. I don’t fucking get it.’

_Oh sweetheart …

Beth put her arm round my shoulders. I put my face in my hands and cried, for lost friendship, lost trust, lost pride.

_Oh Dec, don’t. He’s not worth it.

‘I know he’s fucking not. I was such an idiot. So desperate to get my friends back, I let him fool me.’

_Don’t be so hard on yourself. It sounds like he fooled a lot of people. How were you to know? They’ve got him now. He wasn’t so smart, really.

‘Not smart enough not to piss on my stuff, I guess.’

_What?

‘DNA from my flat.’

_Well, that just shows who’s the idiot then.

łWhat’s going on?

Jay stood in the doorway as I wiped my eyes.

łDec, seriously, we’re running out of tissues.

_He’s just had a bit of a shock. They’ve arrested Ben Hearne.

łJesus, no way. Ah, Dec, sorry, mate. That is a bit of a shocker. You were right, then?

‘Yeah.’

I sniffed and took a deep breath.

‘Yeah, I was, I’m OK. Like you say, it’s just a bit of a shock. Brings it all home, churns it all up again. Fuck, I am a head case, aren’t I.’

łBeen trying to tell you that since you got here. Bloody nutter.

He sat down on the other side of me and put his arm round the other shoulder. Having these two people at my side made me feel safer and less out of control than I had for a long time.

łBut you’re our bloody nutter. Wouldn’t have you any other way. You going to be OK?

‘Yeah. Fuck. Sorry. I’ll be OK now. Really.’

I took several deep breaths, tried to rearrange the information in my head in a way which made sense. My phone rang, making me jump, and I nearly dropped it. Looked at the screen. Don.

łYou’d better get that, mate.

He stood up and left the room. Beth squeezed my shoulder and did the same.

‘Hi Don.’

-Declan, I got your message. Jay tells me you’re coming to tomorrow’s game?

‘Yeah, he said he squared it with you?’

-Yes, that’s fine. Just a couple of things I wanted to go over with you. I’d appreciate you wearing your training kit, just so people know you’re representing us.

‘Sure, no worries.’

I wondered if he knew about Big.

-Good. Will you have a chance for the medics to look you over after the game? I’d like them to get a look at how you’re healing, see how much we can do in your initial training sessions.

‘Yeah, no problem. I was going to ask if someone could check me out while I’m there.’

-Perfect. How are you doing?

‘Things seem to be going pretty well, I’ve almost got full movement back in my right arm, bruises have gone down a lot, stitches going nicely, don’t look quite as much like Frankenstein as I did.’

-That’s good news. I’m glad to hear it, son.

‘Don, er, did you know, the police – er – they just called me, they’ve arrested Ben Hearne.’

Don was silent for a long time.

-I was aware they were investigating Ben, and David Allsop. I didn’t know they had arrested anyone.

‘They said they didn’t think it was DivDav – er, David. But they found DNA from Ben in my flat, and on the bottle I was hit with.’

-Declan, I’m very sorry to hear that, I know he was your friend. Thank you for telling me. I suspect I’ll need to talk to Adrian now about media coverage. It might put a different complexion on your attendance tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

He hung up abruptly. Beth, who must have been waiting in the hallway, came back in to the room.

_OK?

‘Think so. I think I heard the sound of shit hitting the fan. Fuck, what a fucking mess. Sorry. Sorry, Beth, it just comes out. Too much time on my own, no one to tell me to mind my language.’

Beth rolled her eyes and ruffled my hair.

_I don’t remember it being much different when there was someone around to tell you. It’s part of your charm. When Cal’s expelled, I’ll send you the bill for a private school.

‘Ha ha, deal.’

_Oh, what a way to spend your last afternoon with us, Matty out cold, upsetting phone calls, what can we do to make it better?

I had a memory, and a thought.

‘How about … a game of charades?’

_Oh that’s brilliant! I’d forgotten about Christmas charades. Let’s do it in Matty’s room, we can all join in then. I’ll do some lunch, then we’ll get charading. Well remembered.

Beth busied herself with lunch. Carol and Cal were drawing pictures at the kitchen table. Jay was with Matt. I sat and caught my breath. The latest news from DI Johnson had knocked me, but at least I wasn’t going to bump into Big at the game tomorrow. I wondered what Don was going to do about it – he might even say I shouldn’t go. I decided that if that was the case I would try to stay here for a few more days.

After lunch, we all went into Matt’s room. Jay and I brought in extra chairs. Matt was still fast asleep. The game of charades brought back so many good memories for me from past Christmases. Cal understood the point of the game much better now he was older, but he hadn’t always, and I clearly remembered him repeating out loud the title Beth had just whispered to him, and then beaming when we all laughed, thinking he’d won. How old had he been then? Three? Four? He seemed so much older now, he had grown so fast.

We had an uproarious time. Jay opened a bottle of wine, to help us feel less self-conscious, and we threw ourselves into the game. Matt slept on, oblivious. I glanced at him from time to time to see if a loud shout or laugh had disturbed him, but he didn’t seem to stir.

After we had wrung the last bit of amusement out of charades, we moved on to some of Cal’s board games. Jay moved the table away from the side of Matt’s bed, and we all sat round it. With a bit of creative scoring, Cal won everything. Just as we were finishing, Matt woke up. He looked dazed and bleary eyed.

}Kehp the noihs dohn, crihpls trying tuh slehp hehr.

\mummy –

_Yes, Cal, I know. Uncle Matty doesn’t like doing as he’s told, and he’s too big for the naughty step.

I saw a relieved glance pass between Jay and Beth. Matt seemed to be feeling OK so far.

}Yuh behn playing wihouh meh?

łNot technically, you were here in the room. Can’t be helped if you were too lazy to wake up.

}Leh yuh ohf. Cal, who won Huhngry Hihpos?

\me!

}Wha ehls yuh play?

\pop-Up Pirate and Operation. And the game where you guess if it’s films or books and the answer’s Bob the Builder.

}Who wohn thohs?

\me!

}Wehl dohn. Glahd yuhr on my team. Especiahly if I mihsed bluhdy charahds.

łHang on a minute, you can’t just claim a victory like that, you were asleep.

}Yeh, buh Cal’s ahlways on my tehm, dohn matter if I’m awahk or noh. I win. Rohnd one tuh meh.

_Stop it you two, it’s only a game, doesn’t matter who wins.

}Lohng as ih’s meh.

_Well, Matty, you don’t seem to have suffered any ill effects from your morning’s efforts. Are you hungry?

}Stahving. Wha time issit?

_Nearly tea time. You slept right through.

}Shih, haht doin tha.

_Matty, honestly …

}Wha? Blahm Dec foh any inadvehtent swehrs.

‘Hey! I’m getting a bit pissed off with – oh shit, sorry – fu – dammit. I’ll shut up, shall I?’

I looked sheepishly at Beth who raised an eyebrow and didn’t need to say any more. I was all for trying, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to rein in my bad language.

#Well you seem awake enough now, Matthew. I’ll do some tea, dear, you’ve got that mince, Beth dear, shall I do a shepherd’s pie?

_Oh Carol that would be wonderful. I’ll come and put the kettle on, get us all a drink.

And so my final evening with them, for now, had begun. I tried not to let it bother me, just relax and enjoy it, but I couldn’t help thinking about leaving tomorrow, and how hard it would be. To take my mind off it, I asked Matt to show me how to use my phone and laptop to use Skype and FaceTime. He didn’t seem to be suffering any further ill effects from his walk, and was very willing to show me what he knew.

}Bluhdy hell, Dec, I thought ehvryohn yuhr age knew this stuhf?

‘Never been great with technology. I can just about text and phone, use the internet if there’s free Wi-Fi. I only ever used my laptop for surfing the net and storing music. Oh, and eBay, but that tested my abilities. Haven’t had one for so long now, I’m kind of out of practice.’

}Did yuh rehly sell all yuhr stuhf?

‘Yeah. Necessary at the time.’

}And had yuhr phohn smashed and yuhr flat trashed and yuhr bank accohnt emptied?

‘Yeah.’

}Fucking hehl, Dec. Hahrsh.

‘No more harsh than what happened to you.’

}Ghess noht. Lehs staht League of Losers, incohporating bluhb cluhb and Crihpls Cohner.

‘I like it.’

}Am I ihn yuhr cohtacts?

‘No. I didn’t think you had a phone.’

}Only goh basic ohn, Cahrie took my iPhone. Buh can tex. And now hahv iPad, can mehsage an FaceTime if yuh hahv Wi-Fi.

‘I haven’t got internet at home, nor has Rose.’

}Bluhdy hell, it’s lihk the dahk ages. Yuhr phohn’s goh a contraht wih 3G. Or if yuhv got noh signhal, goh tuh Stahbucks or sohmthing. Or geh Wi-Fi. Or a dongle.

‘If I knew what the fuck one of those was, I’m sure I would. I should do something, though, otherwise this laptop’s not going to be much good.’

}Geh yuhsehf sohted. Nehd tuh kehp in touch.

‘Yeah. I really do, don’t I.’

I had a real sense of having made a friend. Previously, friendships had come easily, had been part of school, or Raiders, just people who were there who I had a laugh with, who were the same age as me. Matt and I had made a connection somehow, and it was another good thing I could take away from this Christmas.

I had a phone call later from Don, confirming that Jay and I could use the tickets for the part of the stand reserved for family of team members. He wanted to remind me that I wasn’t to talk to reporters, or anyone who I thought might be a reporter, and to refer them to him, or remind them about the press conference at the end of the game. He didn’t want me to attend it, and said it was fine to go to the bar afterwards and circulate. I assumed he had a plan, as he had the last time he suggested it.

I called Rose and told her I was coming back the next day. She sounded really pleased, full of plans for meals and what she needed to do to get the place ready. I told her we were going to watch the game, and although we’d call in and see her to drop off my bags beforehand, I might not be back till later on.

Business concluded, I could relax, and concentrate on enjoying the evening. I read Cal a story before he went to bed, or rather read him a long complicated chapter of a book about the history of flight.

łCal, do you spend all your time finding the longest chapters in all your books so you can avoid going to bed?

\no Daddy. This is my bedtime story. I like Concorde.

łWhatever you say, mate.

Cal

For my last bedtime story before Dec went home, I found the longest chapter in any of my books, which was about Concorde in my History of Flight book. It lasted a long time, but in the end we had to finish reading, and Dad put me to bed.

‘Daddy, why does Dec have to go home tomorrow?’

‘Well, I suppose he doesn’t have to, it’s just convenient.’

‘What’s caveenion?’

I liked knowing new words and what they meant. Caveenion sounded like an exciting sort of cave where onions grew.

‘It means it’s easy and it makes sense. There’s a rugby match on in the city, and me and Dec are going to watch it, and I’m going to talk to some of the people at Raiders, so it makes sense to take Dec home at the same time. Do you want to come, so you can say goodbye, and watch the rugby?’

‘But I like football.’

‘I know, mate. How about giving it a try?’

‘Can I wear my Arsenal shirt?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But why does Dec have to go away?’

‘Mate, he doesn’t live here.’

‘But why?’

‘Cal, this was never Dec’s home, not like before. There’s no room for him, now Granny stays over so much. It doesn’t mean we don’t like him the same as we ever did. Come on mate, go to sleep.’

‘Kay Daddy.’

Dad left the door open a crack because of the monsters, and went back downstairs. I knew Dec wasn’t going to be sleeping underneath me; he had an airbed in Dad’s office, because of his screams. He hadn’t slept in my room last night when he was being with Uncle Matty, and I hadn’t liked it, and now it was his last night, and I wanted him near while I was asleep. I tried to get to sleep, but I couldn’t, and I could hear the TV and talking downstairs.

After a while, I decided to risk going downstairs. I sometimes got in trouble for going downstairs after I’d gone to bed, but it depended on what the reason was. Dad didn’t get as cross as Mum, so I hoped that Mum would be asleep or in the kitchen.

Dec

After Cal had gone to bed, I helped Beth unload and load the dishwasher, and packed my belongings, which had got scattered around the house. I found the duplicate Christmas stocking stuffed in my bag, and left it in the cupboard in the utility room, then I went back to the living room and joined Jay and Carol in front of the TV, while Beth was fiddling with laundry in the kitchen.

Cal

I walked quietly down the stairs and listened at the bottom, to see if I could find out who was in the living room. I could only hear the TV, but the light was on in the kitchen, and I could hear somebody doing something in there – it must be Mum, because Dad hardly ever did things on his own in the kitchen.

I went and stood at the living room door.

‘Daddy …’

Cal, why are you out of bed?’

‘I can’t sleep.’

Come here, mate.’

I went to Dad, and he scooped me on to his lap and kissed me on the top of my head. It was going well so far.

Why can’t you sleep?’

‘I want Dec to sleep under me.’

Dad looked at Dec, who was on the other sofa.

But Dec has bad dreams and scares you.’

‘I won’t be scared. It’s only his dreams. I like when Dec does bad swears at night.’

I see.’

Dad liked doing bad swears too, and I thought this might help to explain it. He looked at Dec again. Dec grinned at me and shrugged at Dad.

‘Thanks, Cal. Yeah, I think I might’ve a couple of times – sat up and banged my head. Just came out. Sorry.’

Hmm. Well, Cal, I think we’ve got quite a long journey tomorrow, and we all need to get a good night’s sleep. So maybe Dec would be better off on the air bed in my office.’

That didn’t sound good, it sounded like the sensible thing to do. I needed something more than sensible, something that Dec could help with.

‘But Daddy, Optimus Prime is scared without Dec.’

Is he now? I thought he was king of the Transformers or something.’

‘Yes, but he likes having Dec sleeping under him too.’

Dec wasn’t there last night, he sat up with Uncle Matty’

Oh yeah. It felt like I was losing this one, but I had one last go.

‘Yes but Optimus Prime woke up and it was all quiet, and Dec wasn’t going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and he didn’t like it.’

This was true, if you pretended that I was Optimus Prime. I hadn’t liked waking up in the dark and not hearing Dec breathing below me.

Dad looked at Dec again.

What have you done to him? He can’t sleep without your mad noises. OK, Cal, let’s ask Dec. Dec, how would you feel about sleeping in the bottom bunk for one last night?’

Dec looked really pleased.

‘I’d love it.’

Will you promise faithfully not to do any big swears?’

‘I promise to try, but I can’t really control what goes on while I’m asleep.’

It was a great thing to promise, because it meant I still might hear some loud swears, but if I did, Dec wouldn’t be in trouble about it. Dad sighed.

I suppose that’s good enough. OK Cal, you wheedled your way into that one. Go to bed now, Dec will be up later.’

I smiled at Dad and then Dec, and the ran back upstairs and got into bed.

Dec

łSure that’s OK?

‘If you’re sure, I did scare the living shit out of him last time.’

łHe seems to have taken it in his stride. Do you know what, I’m going to see if Matty wants to join us in here. There’s really no reason he has to stay in that room all on his own if he’s starting to feel more sociable. I’ll go and find out.

Jay left, returning a short while later with Matt in his wheelchair, wrapped up in a thick jumper and with a blanket over his knees.

łDon’t know why I didn’t bloody think of this before. Here you go, let’s just get you out onto this end of the sofa. Are you warm enough?

}Tohstie. Duh I hahv to hahv the blahnket? Its tartan foh fuck’s sahk.

łYeah, you have to have the old man blanket. We need something to take the piss out of. Anyone want a drink? Mum, glass of wine?

#That would be lovely, dear.

łDec, beer?

‘Great.’

łGrandpa Matty?

‘Behr. Oh, and fuck ohf ‘

łThink again.

}Oh, OK. Er … stihl behr.

łFuck it, you know what, I don’t think one beer is going to hurt. I’m not even going to ask Beth.

}Bluhdy hell, who ahr yuh and wha hahv yuh dohn wih my noh-fun bruhther?

łHa ha. Less of your lip, tartan boy, I still control the bottle opener.

Jay went to organise the drinks. He came back with three bottles of beer and a glass of wine.

łCheers, everyone. Here comes Beth, with her glass of delicious water. Matty, I’d advise you to get drinking before she realises what you’ve got there. Need help?

}Noh, not having hehp wih fucking behr.

łFair enough. Dec, small sips, don’t want you passing out on me, you lightweight. Mum, don’t slurp.

#Jameson, are you really sure Matthew should –

łYes, Mum, I’m sure. Got to try sometime. It’s only beer.

}Oh my Gohd, ih’s fucking awsohm. Mohr plehs.

łNo way. Make that one last, no more for you.

}Yuh jus said sohnly behr.

łHm, so I did. Well we’ll see how that one goes then, but treat it as if it is the only one you’re having. Dec was pissed on two the other night.

}Ihm betteh at hohding my drihnk.

łYou’re both completely out of practice. I’d drink you under the table in five minutes.

_If you were having a competition, which of course you won’t be, will you?

}Noh point, Muhm wouhd win hahns down.

The rest of the evening passed quickly as we relaxed in each other’s company. Matt managed to wheedle another beer out of Jay, much to Beth’s disgust.

}Cohm on Beth, ih hahdly touched the sihds. Nehd another threh or fohr to mahk a dent.

_You’re certainly not getting another three or four.

}Soh unfahr.

_Just remember, Matty, you’re on your own with me and your mum tomorrow. You’re at our mercy. We could easily make you eat sprout sandwiches and drink carrot juice if you don’t behave yourself tonight.

}Dec, stahy, dohnt lehv meh wih them.

‘You’re on your own, mate, no way I’m eating sprout sandwiches.’

}Bahstrd.

The conversation and banter was batted to and fro, and we all stayed up later than we had planned to. Matt suddenly drooped, eyes closing. His head kept dropping forwards as he struggled to stay awake.

łOK Matty, time for bed.

}Oh, buh I was jus stahting tuh enjoy mysehf.

łYou sound just like Cal – oh but! You’re falling asleep. You won’t miss anything, I think we’ll all be in bed soon. Me and Dec have got a long drive tomorrow, and Beth and Mum have got their work cut out trying to keep you away from the cooking sherry. Come on, hop in your chair, I can’t lift you if you’re asleep, you’re too bloody heavy.

Matt got in his wheelchair grumpily, and Jay took him back to his room. I sat where I was, not wanting to make a move. If I went to bed, that was it, evening over, end of my stay. Beth and Carol cleared up glasses around me and took them to the kitchen. Jay came back into the room.

łSays he wants you to tuck him in. Better be quick, he’s going to be asleep in a minute.

I hurried into Matt’s room. He looked asleep already.

‘Matt?’

His eyes flickered open.

}Auhnty Dec. Jus wahted to say thahks.

‘What for?’

}Whaever yuh said tuh Jay an Beth, it feels dihferent now. Migh even let meh get pihsed if Ihm lucky.

‘I wouldn’t count on it.’

}Sohmthing tuh aim fuh. Anyway, thahks.

‘No worries. Well at least that’s the beer sorted …’

}Wha?

‘Just the sex to go now, and you’re back to normal.’

}Ha ha, look fohward tuh reaching tha mihlstone in the nehr fuhture.

He held his hand out and I clasped it. His grip loosened, and he was asleep.

I wandered back into the living room. Jay was finishing off his beer, watching the end of a sit com.

łWell, that’s me done for tonight. Beth and Mum have already gone up. You going to be long?

‘I think I’ll stay down here for a bit.’

łNo moping, now.

‘I’m not moping, just thinking. Had a huge few days. Sorting through it. Trying to get my head round it.’

łJesus, with the state of your head, should we be afraid?

‘Ha ha. See you tomorrow.’

Jay went to bed, and I was alone with my reflections. In a way, the last few days seemed to have lasted forever. I felt like I had slotted back in to the way things used to be; Jay, Beth and Cal were exactly the same, it all felt exactly the same, even though the location was different. It had felt so natural, it was hard to remember what it had been like when I thought I’d lost them for good, when Jay told me ‘we’re done’ and Beth told me not to call them again. If ever I’d had blessings to count, these people, my family, were at the top of the list. It was going to be hard to leave them tomorrow.

My thoughts meandered on to tomorrow’s game and the challenges that it might bring. I would see people I hadn’t seen since I was beaten up – the bruises and scars still showed on my face. There were plenty of people who still held a grudge against me because of the points I’d cost Raiders; people I had withdrawn from and alienated; people who simply didn’t like what I’d done and how I’d behaved. I’d have to face them all, not just tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future. It was the legacy of my recent actions. But now I had Jay, Beth and Cal back, it seemed easier to face, gave me strength.

Eventually, despite my contemplations, I started to fall asleep. The house was quiet. I took a deep breath and headed up the stairs, undressed in the bathroom and slid into the bottom bunk. I lay awake for some time, the sleepiness that had overcome me downstairs having disappeared. I listened to Cal breathing, and the odd noises that the house made as its occupants slept.

I thought about being back in my flat, on my own. Not something I was looking forward to, but something I was going to have to do sooner rather than later, or I might never do it. Having family around me, people I trusted and loved, made me realise what I had been missing for months, and how much I needed it.

I thought about watching the game tomorrow. That was something I was looking forward to, despite having anxieties about who I might run into. I hadn’t seen a live Raiders game for months, and I was going to be with Jay and Cal. I wasn’t sure if Cal had ever seen a live game before, and I was going to enjoy being there with him for the experience.

Little by little drowsiness overtook me and I slept.

Dreaming. I am flying above the pitch, watching the game. Raiders are playing well, but can’t score. I can see what needs to be done. Don calls me over and sends me on as a replacement. They pass me the ball, I fly over the line and touch the ball down. As I land on the ground, a pair of brown boots appears by my head. I see one of the boots heading straight for my face …

35. In repair

In which the ‘shouldn’t be alone’ concept is explained, proposed and trialled.

Matt

And then, there they were again, those sounds, tormented. I couldn’t help turning to look at Dec, sitting in the chair, whole body moving from side to side, mouth contorted.

‘Ungh … mm … no, no … wai … no … mm … mm … no … can’t … ungh … no … NO!

Dec’s eyes snapped wide open, but he wasn’t seeing anything for a few seconds, at least not anything that was really there. His breathing was rapid, and there was a sheen of sweat on his face.

He deserved better than this, but …

‘Shuh the fuck uhp.’

Dec

I woke up in the familiar sweat, heart pounding, breathing hard. I remembered not to sit up, so I wouldn’t bang my head. Realised I was already sitting up. I wasn’t in Cal’s room, I was in the chair in Matt’s room.

I looked up. Matt was looking back at me.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Hope I wasn’t screaming.’

}Noh, moahns and nohs …

Matt

I was going to have to be nice to the little bastard, wasn’t I. I sighed.

‘ … yuh OK?’

‘Yeah, I’ll calm down in a minute. You OK?’

I had to think about this. I hadn’t been, I had been in a pit of despair, on my own, having a good wallow, drowning in the inky blackness. But now, maybe …

‘Duhno. Yuhr a fucking bahstrd.’

‘I know.’

‘Goh tuh behd.’

Maybe now he’d been asleep and had his nightmare, he’d see sense.

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’m staying here.’

Yeah, I get that, you keep saying.

‘Why?’

‘Well, I did say before, you shouldn’t be on your own when you’re feeling this shit. You might think it’s what you want, but what you really want is to push away anyone who might show they care about you.’

Well that was a bloody annoying assessment, being as it was very nearly spot on. Who did he think he was?

‘Wha the fuck do yuh knoh? Yuhr not meh.’

‘I know, mate, I’m not saying I am. But I think we’re pretty similar when it comes to needing help.’

Ah, needing help. That old chestnut. Yeah, not very good at that. How did this kid know all about this shit? Oh, and here were the bloody tears again, welling in my eyes, I was going to have to do some fast talking to stop them overflowing. I tipped my head back to try and make them drain away. But Dec had come close to the truth and deserved an answer.

‘Haht hahving tuh ahsk. Fucking haht ih. Fucking haht all this.’

‘I know that. Everyone knows that. It’s why they all fuss around all the time, asking if you want this or that, are you OK, too hot, too cold, all so you don’t have to fucking ask for yourself.’

What the ..? It bloody well made sense.

‘Hahnt thoht of ih lihk tha.’

Dec

‘I know it’s bloody infuriating when they fuss, you feel powerless, or something. It’s easier on your own, you think, only me to worry about, you’re in control, not them. So you scare people off when you’re feeling shit, so they leave you alone and you don’t have to worry about them. Believe me, I’ve done it – I came this close to making sure Jay and Beth never wanted to see me again. And you’re on your way to it working with them too. I saw how quickly Beth shooed us all out when you turned on the silent treatment. And they both told me to leave you alone when you’re ‘like this’. Before long you’ll be ‘like this’ more and more of the time, and they’ll leave you alone more and more. They won’t want Cal to play in here, either. Happy days, you’ll have got your wish and you’ll be completely on your own. Maybe you should think carefully about whether it really is what you want.’

I sounded more confident about my theory than I felt; everything I had just said had only occurred to me that afternoon, as I considered Matt’s self-imposed solitary confinement. It made sense to me, but from Matt there was more lengthy silence. Then an intake of breath.

Matt

Fucking hell. He was bloody right. Not that I was going to just come out and say that.

‘Mehbe.’

I took a deep, ragged breath and ran a hand over my face. I didn’t know how he’d done it, but he had me talking now.

‘Gohd, it’s soh fucking hard.’

‘Well, you can have a good wallow in self-pity. But it gets harder to drag yourself up from your wallowing, and sometimes it just feels easier to stay down there. So that’s why I’m staying here with you. I was in a bad place not so long ago, and if I hadn’t had someone to hold on to while I was there, I might never have got out. I’m here so you’ve got something to hold on to, if you want it.’

How did he know this shit? It was like he was inside my head. I thought about him staying with me all evening, sitting in the armchair, being here, giving me something to hold on to. And it had worked. I hadn’t been able to get as far into the black hole as I wanted to, because he’d been there, dangling that bloody rope, making me hold on to it. I turned my head to look at him.

‘Who did yuh hahv?’

‘Rose.’

Ah, that would be one of the many girls, then.

‘Girfriehd?’

‘Fuck no!’

He sounded so horrified, it was almost amusing.

‘She’s this woman, lives downstairs. Decided she was going to look after me, I had no choice one way or the other. I’d be in the shit well and truly now if it wasn’t for her. I should send her up here, she’d soon sort you out.’

Dec’s lady friends notwithstanding, there was other stuff on my mind.

‘Yohr going bahk on Suhndy.’

Dec

I looked at Matt. His face was a picture of hopelessness and desolation, and I had a feeling this was at the heart of everything for him at the moment. Thought about why that might be. It wasn’t me he was sad about, it was what I was going back to.

Matt

As I said it, I realised that it was this that had set me off. Not only was I jealous of his return to his life, to his resumption of normality, but I was going to bloody well miss him. How had that happened? He was Jay’s family, not mine. He was only nineteen, I was thirty. We shouldn’t have anything in common, should we? He was just this moody teenager, wasn’t he? No bond of friendship should have developed, should it? But it had, maybe because I’d lost all my friends and was a bit needy when someone talked to me like I was a normal person, but it was there, this thing, and I felt hopeless and desolate at the thought of being without it.

‘Yeah, all good things come to an end.’

He was being flippant about it, but I hadn’t done wallowing, not quite yet.

‘Ihm going nohwehr.’

‘You’re getting there, just slowly. Take it easy mate, what’s the rush?’

I wanted him to know, how he’d affected me.

‘Ihv sehn yuh, yuhv got behter since yuhv behn hehr. Yuhr face looks behter, yuhr hahpy. Jus in a few days. I wan tha. Jus wan my lihf bahk.’

I wanted to say it again, ‘it’s not fair’, but I was in danger of forgetting which of us was the teenager here, so I didn’t.

‘You’ll get it. It doesn’t seem like something you’re going to be able to rush, but it’ll come.’

He seemed to have all the answers, everything made sense.

‘Wha if ih duhnt? Cahnt spehd the rest of my days hahving my ahrs wiped by my brohther.’

‘Matt, I know, believe me, that pride is important. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. But speaking as someone who might just be peeking out of the end of a tunnel of dark shit, pride is pretty useless if you’re stuck on your own in that dark shit without a helping hand to pull you out. Let them help. It’s much less exhausting than fighting it all the time.’

That was rich, coming from him. In the short time I’d known him, I’d found out that half of his problems had come from not asking for help. We were more alike than either of us would admit.

‘Tha’s wha yuh duh, issit?’

‘Fuck no, I spend all my energy trying to do things on my own, then when someone finally insists on helping, I spend more energy fighting them off, but then I am a head case.’

At least he was self-aware.

‘And bluhdy hypocriht.’

‘Pretty much. Just giving you the benefit of my vast experience of fending off people who care too fucking much for their own good.’

He’d opened up the floodgates, and talking felt good, now, so I carried on.

‘Cahnt face being lihk this fuhever, nehding soh much hehp.’

‘Who says it’s forever? You’re getting better, aren’t you?’

‘Fehls soh slow. Bahstrd MS might cohm back any tihm, then Ihm rehly screwed.’

‘Mate, you’ve got to stay positive. Think about what you’ve achieved – like going out today.’

I snorted. People went out every day without getting a ‘You Have Been Amazing!‘ medal, sponsored by Patronised-Cripples-R-Us.

‘Yeh, big fucking dehl, Ih wahs allohed ouh wih twenty layers of clohths. Hahd to fucking beg to get ih. Cuhdn’t even puhl my fucking trohsers up mysehf. And I stohd up tuh kick a bahl. Woofuckinghoo.’

‘When was the last time you went out?’

‘Cahnt member. Noh since hospital.’

‘So, isn’t that a big achievement? I mean, it might not get you signed for Man United –

No, no, wasn’t having that.

‘Spuhrs.’

‘What?’

‘My tehm. Spuhrs. Wouhnt play foh fucking Man U if yuh paihd meh.’

‘OK, my apologies, well, assuming that the Tottenham scouts were down the park this morning, they just possibly might not have been impressed enough with your penalty effort to sign you up immediately, but it’s huge for you where you are at the moment. I think you might be looking too big, too soon.’

That was part of it, but not all.

‘Dohn nehd big, jus nehd nohmal. Sohmtimes fehl threh years old, noh allohed ouh, noh allohed tuh drink, noh allohed tuh fucking move, fucking bahby monitor foh fuck’s sahk.’

He’d been the only one who asked if I wanted help, if I wanted this or that, as if I had a choice in the matter. I wondered if he knew what a difference it made.

‘They worry about you. They feel as out of control as you do. I don’t think they realise how you feel. You should tell them.’

No, no, not going there. There will be no telling Jay or Beth how I’m feeling about shit.

‘Cahnt. They gahv up evrything foh meh. Jus wish ih was diffreht.’

‘It won’t change unless you do something about it.’

So I went on the attack again, because doing something about it was hard, and making Dec feel guilty and distracting him was easy.

‘Why duh yuh care? Yuhr going back tuh yuhr nohmal lihf, behr an sehx, all tha, big rugby carehr, fucking golden boy.’

‘It’s not quite as simple as that, and I’m a long way from being anyone’s fucking golden boy, but yeah, with a lot of work, I hope I’ll get some of it back. Why do I care? Well, didn’t Jay say I was part of his family? Doesn’t that include you? Didn’t you call me aunty or something? And quite a big part of me would swap everything back there to stay here with them.’

That hadn’t worked quite as well as I’d hoped. There was still a way to put him off, though.

‘Yuh dohn need to care bouh me, yuh hahdly knoh meh.’

Dec

I recognised this tactic, the one where he tried to push me away, stop me caring about him, so he could go back to feeling sorry for himself, wrapping himself up in a cocoon of self-pity.

‘Don’t try that shit on me, mate, I know all the tricks. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people I’ve had to fob off, push away, let down, and generally piss right off to get my lonely quiet life – I’m a bit of an expert. You don’t get rid of me that easily. In fact you don’t really get rid of me at all. And you’ve only got yourself to blame.’

Matt

Now I was confused. He was leaving soon. Then I’d get rid of him, like it or not.

‘Wha yuh mean?’

‘Well, last night, when, by the way, you struggled into the living room and nearly froze your balls off just because I was having a hard time, anyway, you said to me that I’m connected to this family even if I’m not here. It made a bit of an impact, both what you said and you coming all that way to say it. And I’m throwing it back at you. Even when I’m not here, you’re not going to be able to get rid of me. That connection is going to be there. If you’re having a bad day, I’ll be here; if you do something amazing, like wipe your own arse, I’ll be here. I might not hear about it till afterwards, but it doesn’t stop the connection. As if there’s a webcam in your head or something.’

Holy shit. My ‘family always connected’ speech coming back to bite me. Or make perfect sense, one or the other.

‘Fuck, thas a scahry thoht. Speciahly if Ihm wihping my ahrs.’

‘Yeah, maybe an image too far.’

OK, and now I got it. It had taken nearly all night, but he’d done it. I bowed to his superior obstinacy in the face of a serious challenger.

‘I geh the point. Fucking bahstrd. Shih, yuh can tahk fuh bluhdy England. Got a fucking ahnswer foh ehvrything. Ihm fucking exhosted. Goh tuh behd.’

‘No.’

Not this again. Didn’t he get it? He’d won, he’d pulled me out of the pit, I was going to be OK.

‘Shih, Dec, yuh cahnt stay hehr all night.’

‘Watch me.’

‘Yuh rehly ahr an infuhriatingly stuhborn fucking bahstrd.’

‘Yeah.’

Well alright then, to the victor the prize.

‘ … Thahks tho. Mehns a loh, ahtually.’

And it did. It meant a lot that not only had he stayed with me in the face of some pretty hard core rudeness, he’d seen how things were with me, known how to fix them, and done it. He hadn’t had to, he could have just gone to bed and had his nightmares in Jay’s office and not given me a thought, but he’d cared enough that, when he thought he could make a difference, he’d tried. And that really did mean a lot.

‘No worries.’

‘Remihn meh how ohl yuh ahr?’

‘Nineteen. Nearly twenty. Why?’

‘Fuck meh. Bluhdy bossy fuh tehnager. Yuh knoh Ihv got more than ten yehrs on yuh? Shouhnt beh taking this shih. Bluhdy upstaht.’

The little sod didn’t even talk like a bloody teenager. It was if something had sucked all the ‘like’, ‘totally’ and ‘random’ out of him, and it made him seem more like an equal. Not that he wasn’t my equal, more than my equal with me being a fucking cripple and us both being human in any case. Being a bit older gave me no rights to claim superiority of any kind. Maybe I mean he seemed … more adult? Older? Oh I don’t fucking know, he was just easy to bloody well talk to, alright?

Dec didn’t answer, and in the silence I nearly fell asleep. I wanted to keep things going for a bit, and thought I was up for more conversation now.

‘Heh, fahncy cuhp o teh?’

‘Yeah, you making?’

‘Noh. Crihpl, ‘member?’

‘Any bloody excuse. My turn again, then, is it?’

‘Thahks Auhnty Dec. Jus ahsking foh hehp lihk a guhd boy. Mehbe yuh couhd empty my pihs bohtle too, knoh hoh much yuh lohv hehping.’

Dec

I came back with the tea, and Matt wordlessly handed me the plastic bottle filled with golden liquid. His was smiling challengingly, but I took the bottle without comment and went into the bathroom to deal with it like before. It was a very small thing to do for someone, but I recognised that for Matt is was a big ask, and thought of a way of joking with him about it to make it feel better, while I was washing it out. When I got back into the room, though, Matt was fast asleep his cup of tea going cold, the third undrunk cup he’d been given that night. I sat in the chair sipping mine and thought over everything we’d said, about what made life normal for me, and what might make it normal for Matt. Beer and sex, all that. It had been a long time for me too, and last night’s beers with Jay had shown me I wasn’t quite up to speed yet. It would have been a long time for Matt as well – little things that added up to feeling normal. I eventually fell into a dreamless sleep.

Matt

And that really is it. Oh, well, there was more bonding, and he talked to Jay, Beth and Mum and told them not to let me get away with the ‘I vont to be alone’ shit, that I was fed up being treated like a child, and that they needed to wait until I asked for help before barging in and giving it, and things were different. But that’s how it all began.

Dec

When I woke up next morning, the sun was trying to shine through the curtains, and my back was protesting a night spent sitting in a chair. Matt was still asleep. I could hear voices from the direction of the kitchen. I got up, picked up the plates and cups from last night, and headed towards the voices. Jay and Cal were there, Jay was making tea and Cal was eating cereal.

‘Stick another teabag in?’

łHey Dec, how did it go last night?

‘OK.’

łHow’s Matty?

‘OK I think. He’s still asleep, but he seemed better last night. We had a talk.’

łReally? I’d love to know how you pulled that one off.

‘I was just there. It’s what he needs – someone more determined than him to be there, to keep him going.’

łHow come you know this and we don’t?

‘Well, I’ve been there, where he is, lost it all, no hope. You push people away, don’t think you deserve it. Becomes true if you let it go too far.’

Jay stared at me.

łBloody hell, Dec. I never thought. Jesus. He’s always so adamant, leave me alone and all that.

‘You have to ignore him. He won’t like it, but you have to want it more. Battle of wills.’

łIt really worked?

‘In the end. Told him a few home truths, his and mine. He didn’t like it, he was pretty pissed off, but I wore him down eventually. I can be pretty persistent.’

I stretched, trying to get the kinks out of my spine.

łYou didn’t sit in that chair all night, did you?

‘Yeah, my back’s killing me.’

łJesus, Dec, you really are a headcase. Go and get some proper sleep.

‘No, I’ll be OK. Just need to move around a bit.’

Jay handed me a cup of tea.

‘Thanks. Could you do one for Matt, too? In a proper mug?

He looked at me, eyebrows raised.

‘You need to stop babying him, it makes him feel even more crap.’

łJesus, Dec. You’re full of advice this morning. When did you stop being a teenager and start being an agony aunt?

‘Just think about it.’

łOK. Here’s his tea. Proper mug as requested. You’ll presumably be washing the duvet and fixing the bloody expensive electric bed if he spills it.

I walked back into Matt’s room with both cups of tea. He was still asleep, or seemed to be.

Cal

The next day, Uncle Matty’s door was open, and Uncle Matty wasn’t quiet and sad any more, so I went in and played. It was Dec’s last day before he went back, and I still couldn’t understand why he wasn’t going to stay with us. He could sleep underneath me, I wouldn’t mind if he screamed every night. I just didn’t want him to go.

Dec

\dec can you help me build a road?

‘Course, mate. What are we going to use?’

\these black Legos are the sides, and these green ones are trees.

I knelt down on the floor, and started to sort out the blocks.

}Heh, it’s Auhnty Dec.

I looked up to see Matt looking back.

‘I fear I may have started a nickname I would rather not have.’

}Thas poiht of nicknahms. Cup oh teh? Er, plehs?

‘That’s yours on the table.’

He looked over at it.

}Wha noh spouht?

I stood up and handed it to him.

‘Give it a try. But if you spill it, I’m in the shit with Jay.’

}Might hahv tuh spihl a lihtl bit, jus tuh see tha.

He held the mug in both hands and took a couple of gulps.

}Mm, tahsts behter in prohpr cup.

He drank the rest and put the mug on the table.

}Thahks, Dec.

‘Thanks for not spilling, much appreciated.’

}Thahks fuh las nigh. Mehnt a loh.

‘Any time, mate.’

\dec, are you going to help me?

‘Course, Cal, what was I doing? Oh yeah, black bits.’

I knelt back down to the Lego and engrossed myself in Cal’s game. Beth and Carol came in to say good morning to Matt, but Jay remained absent. Beyond the room, after a while, I could hear them talking, the sound of plates and cups being loaded into the dishwasher, music from the radio.

Cal’s road soon stretched from one end of the room to the other, and branched off towards the door. He filled it with vehicles of all descriptions, including a spaceship and a giant tortoise on wheels. This was apparently a police car. Cal’s other toys populated the streets and committed crimes that allowed the tortoise police car to race around arresting them. Optimus Prime was the chief of police who decided whether they merited jail, freedom or Transformer justice in the form of a laser blast. Most of my characters were laser blasted.

}Dec.

I looked up.

‘Yeah.’

}Jay hahnt behn in this mohning. Nehd a … er .. the loo.

I felt a pang of guilt, and wondered if Jay had taken what I had said this morning the wrong way.

‘Do you want me to get him?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

Cal

I knew Uncle Matty wanted to do a poo because he could wee in a bottle that he had in bed with him. I wasn’t allowed to ask about it, because Uncle Matty didn’t like talking about it, but sometimes I saw the lump under the duvet where the bottle was, and knew Uncle Matty was doing a wee.

Dec

I wandered out to the kitchen, where I could hear Jay’s voice. As I opened the kitchen door, he stopped talking. Beth and Carol were sat at the table as well, and they looked liked they had been having an intense discussion.

‘Matt’s wondering if you could help him with the loo?’

łI was just on my way. We’ve been talking about it, actually.

‘Really?’

łWell, no, not specifically the loo, more what you said about not babying him. You think we should let him do more for himself?

I was uncomfortable in the role of ‘expert on Matt’, and frowned as I tried to put into words what I thought Matt needed from them.

‘Well, that was what I meant, but it’s not really my place to say. You guys are the ones who look after him, I’m sure it’s not easy, I wasn’t criticising. It was just something he said, how he feels like a child. I was thinking how it feels to need help to eat and drink, and have people decide everything for you, like when I was in hospital, and afterwards. You feel helpless, stupid almost. I can see from your side how you want to make sure he’s OK, so you do things for him. Maybe just remember he can ask if he needs help?

łBut isn’t that the opposite of what you’ve just said about ignoring him when he tells us to leave him alone?

I thought about it, the contradictions of those in need.

‘I’m not an expert, I only know how it feels for me. Something huge like feeling hopeless, I guess you step in, but feeling normal, it’s about little things, like which cup you use. He can say if he’s feeling wobbly and needs a cup with a spout. If he doesn’t say and he spills it, it’s his responsibility. When his tea is always in his plastic cup, it says you expect him to not be able to do it. Put it in a normal cup, and the message is he’s normal. At least when it comes to drinking tea. He did ask if you would help him now, though.’

łOK then, let’s see how this works. Matty has to ask for help, should be interesting. Brave new world.

He left the kitchen and headed for Matt’s room.

Cal

After Dad had been in and helped Uncle Matty in the bathroom, he looked out of the window.

‘Know what, Matty, the sun’s shining, we should get you out again. Fancy it?’

‘Fuck yeh.’

‘Right, let’s get your layers on then. Cal, go and get your coat and your wellies.’

When I came back with my things, Dad had started putting all Uncle Matty’s clothes on again, and he helped me with my wellies while Uncle Matty put his jumpers on.

Matt

Jay came in that very morning, after his little chat with the kid, and just sat there, while I struggled through getting myself up, determined I wasn’t going to ask unless I fell forwards into a sink full of water. And I did it, and it felt great. We were both so excited afterwards that we decided to go out again, and Jay helped me pile on the contents of my wardrobe, and later on decided it would be a regular occurrence. My head was almost spinning with the speed of it; after months of torpor, I could feel things moving, shifting, getting better, and that Christmas was the turning point. I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to show Dec what it had meant to me.

I didn’t have to wait long, as it turned out. But, shh, spoilers.